May 11th 2011
This twenty-four hour ship’s log begins with the crack of lightning. We were anchored off Punta Mango, on the El Savadorian coast. Patience had been rolling and bobbing energetically on her anchor chain all night, but the full on thunderstorm just engulfed us minutes ago. The boom of thunder and flash of lightning shook me from sleep, but it was the fat rain drops pelting my face as I lay up on deck that got me up and moving. Hello rainy season. The three of us snapped on our lightning ground cables to the shrouds, then paused to enjoy the energy in the air as cool, gusty winds whipped about. Down below a minute later, we all drifted off to sleep again. Could have all been a dream, hard to say…
Sprawled out on the cabin floor, my eyes opened just as Jakob scampered past me to the cockpit. He mumbled something, and all I caught was “waves” and “offshore” before I heard a splash. I jumped up and looked around through bleary eyes: Daniel still asleep in the V-berth and an empty bowl of cereal and a half drunken coffee mug on the table. I hopped through the companionway and up on deck to greet the morning. The storm from a few hours ago had passed, leaving a cool tranquility in its wake. The jungle-covered mountains on shore were bathed in a light mist, stillness everywhere…well except for the groomed lines of swell standing up one by one over the cobblestone bottom about a hundred yards from Patience. Before the image faded from my retinas, I was down below again racing around. A slice of cantaloupe, a slather of sunscreen…breakfast of champions. Quasi-deja vu as I scampered past Daniel, who was just opening his eyes and would no doubt be only minutes behind me. A quick dive off our front stoop and I was stroking for the lineup, happy to be alive.
An hour into our surf found us scattered around the lineup. Daniel and Mark, our now good friend from the Blue Goose, chatted with the four others we were surfing with. Vibes were friendly, with enough waves for everyone. We traded set waves with two middle aged Hawaiian surfers here on vacation, and two Brits who were on a road trip from Vancouver to Panama and back. They were camped out by their land rover just on shore. Jakob paddled back out after having taken a long one down the point. I sprinted up a few yards to meet a new set, turned, paddled, dropped and pumped down the line. A couple quick banks off the top and though I had some speed, it wasn’t enough. As the chocolate-colored wall stood up in front me, sure to block my progress, I pulled hard up the face and ejected out the back just in time, landing amidst the offshore rain coming down off the lip. Paddling back out, I was afforded a front row seat to Mark on set wave two and Daniel on the third. The waves were bountiful this morning, and getting our fill affords the soul a satisfaction much like the stomach sees after a delicious feast. The ingredients must be right, preparation is crucial, but the real key is sharing the experience with friends. As we paddled back to boat with weary arms, minds sated with watery memories, we knew that the hunger would return soon, and we would have to keep going to find our next meal.
Daniel cooked up some delicious French toast, and we mulled over having another surf here over breakfast. With the tide working against us and crowds increasing, we decided against it and prepared to pull anchor. Our next 80-mile leg would take us across the gulf of Fonseca, a bay shared by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, and down to Corinto, our first Nicaraguan port of call. We conservatively planned on 24 hours for the passage. Off we go..
The sun rose and commenced its brutal daily UV assault. We sweated and panted and waited in muggy air with no wind. Last night’s good rest felt a lifetime ago, and 80 miles all of the sudden seemed a lot longer. We prayed for winds to move us and cool us and breath energy into our sluggish bones.
I holed up in the cabin to work on a short video update of our trip. Jakob turned over the helm to Daniel while I waged a tough, sweaty battle with seasickness. Still no winds. The heat of the motor and the diesel whine only added to our predicament.
Winds came up! Cut the engine…ah…silence. Set the wind vane…respite from grueling shifts at the helm! The boat heeled and the sails grew fat and happy. The seas remained calm and we clocked near hull speed at 5-6.5 knots. We all sat in the shade of the sails, the breeze drying off our sweaty bodies, thinking how amazing it is that such a small change in weather conditions will turn a boat from a hellacious oven prison cell with a good view into a ticket-to-anywhere luxury freedom vessel. Alas, I digress. We tossed in our fishing lure and watched the miles begin to tick off towards our destination.
We lost our fancy Rapala fishing lure. After thinking we had left our bad fishing luck in Mexico, after several delicious Sierras off the coast of Guatemala and El Salvador, our trusty lure was history. Some equally unlucky gilled creature would be sporting an extravagant looking lip piercing for the foreseeable future. Lose-lose situation. We’re bummed. But Daniel finds motivation in our mourning and begins construction on a prototype franken-lure using…well, trash. And his old laminated fork-lift operator’s license. It turns out surprisingly impressive. Crafty man. He drops it overboard and we push on.
Big hit on young franken-lure! The high pitch whine of the reel running had us salivating like pavlovian dogs. Whatever we’d hooked dove deep. We tacked, hove to and prepared for a fight. Our attempts to maneuver the boat only hopelessly tangled the line around the rudder and keel. Trying to avert another heart breaking loss of fresh dinner, I grabbed a mask, and a tow line and jumped overboard to untangle it. As I pulled the line from around the rudder, a green flash shoots across my peripheral vision. Could it be?! I surfaced just in time for the animal to jump. Dorado! Mahi-mahi! Dolphin! A fish so delicious it gets three names. It’s our first, and a beautiful one. Daniel and Jakob swiftly reeled it in, expressed gratitude for its gift of life and turned it into two large, fresh fillets.
The sun finally released its tyrant grip on the day and sunk low. Temps dropped and life was comfortable again. The sailing was still good…better than anticipated, which meant if it held we would arrive in Corinto around 4 AM and have to wait offshore until first light to enter the harbor mouth.
A storm brewed on the horizon. The beauty and magnificence and humbling scale of the thing put a weird feeling in our guts. Bellowing layers of gray and purple lit up intermittently by lightning deep in its belly. It spanned horizon to horizon and we all knew we would be prisoner to the whims of this meteorilogocal behemouth. We considered hanking on our storm sail, and, for some reason, didn’t.
Our first taste of squall. 40+ knots of wind and sideways rain hit Patience like a ton of bricks. Lightning ripped the sky to illuminated shreds all around us. We raced around on deck to drop our sails as rain drops assaulted any bit of exposed skin. As soon as possible we wrapped up our chaotic scramble on deck and hid out in the cabin, submitting to the storm and letting Patience drift. With lightning blots striking the ocean around us, none of us relished the idea of standing watch at the helm as a human lightning rod. So down below we stayed, while the sky spit and frothed and threw a watery tantrum. If we were religious folk, it would have been a good time to pray. Instead we twiddled our thumbs and watched the GPS screen intently to see which way we were drifting. Sans sails, we were sliding along at 5 knots…a good clip under full sail. Problem was we weren’t steering, the storm was. With 5 miles separating us from the rocky shore, we could be washed up in one short hour. It was a surreal nail biter watching our fate manifest as a little green line drawn on an electronic GPS screen as the tempest roared outside. Luckily for us, as the minutes passed, it became evident that the storm was pushing us straight back where we came from, sideshore. Instead of mercilessly throwing us to the rocks, it was just bullying us around in open water. We all breathed a sigh of tentative relief, for we were still rolling the lightning-strike dice at a rate of several per minute. Each lightning strike was creepily foretold by a high pitched static coming across the VHF radio. Each time we heard the white noise pick up we cringed and hoped for the best. Many uncomfortable and damp minutes would follow…
My shift was up. Rain was still pounding, but the winds and lightning had backed off enough to man the helm safely. At least we assumed as much. After being blown backwards 4 miles, we once again made headway towards Corinto at 3 knots under motor.
My shift ended uneventfully. I woke Daniel up and crawled down below like a wet, dirty dog with his tail between his legs. Time to get some rest finally.
We were on short shifts and after a nap that felt more like a quick blink of the eyes, my shift was up again, 6 miles outside Corinto. The sky had cleared and a light wind came up. The storm was over, finally over. I fumbled with the wind vane, fighting the deep exhaustion that robbed me of the basic dexterity we normally take for granted. With it finally set, I had a chance to relax and wait for the coming sun to light the horizon. I watched for the Corinto approach buoy with a mixed up cocktail of emotions in my gut. The night’s storm was our most intense by a long shot, and the implications of the experience started to settle in. Relief, first and foremost, to not have minute-by-minute survival be a concern. With that mental space freed up, I began to think about our actions and responses to the conditions. Did we play it right? Was dropping sails the right move? Should we have tried to sail through it fully reefed instead? We got lucky this time with the wind direction, next time may be different… Slightly haunted by these questions we headed into Corinto. We would hear later that our friends on the Blue Goose had tried to sail through the squall, only to have their headsail shredded by the winds. This was both validation for our strategy of dropping sail, and yet another reminder that when we head out to sea we are putting ourselves into mother nature’s hands…and she’s not always so motherly. In 24 hours the ocean showed us such a spectrum of moods. From playful and organized Punta Mango, to a wild and even violent squall. It seems to be a package deal, this sailing life. We signed up for an intimate relationship with the ocean, and have to negotiate whatever comes our way…and so far so good, is about as good as we can do.