After over five months at sea together, it’s over. Just like that…snap of the fingers, blink of an eye…they’re gone. Jakob and Daniel traded sandals for riding boots and took off for Colorado. A month of horseback riding through the mountainous backcountry awaits them, while my job is to get Patience back up to El Salvador, and have some guests onboard for a wave-smorgasbord along the way.
First and foremost, however, my job is to figure out how to do with two hands what we previously did with six onboard. The three of us became so dialed in and efficient over our 3,500 miles together that hours would pass underway, with numerous sailing maneuvers, and not much more than a muffled grunt or two to coordinate things. No doubt this would have been hilarious and rather strange to observe objectively. Perhaps like several Neanderthals coordinating an ambush on some large furry mammal in the days before language had fully developed. Now, I’m sure I’ll be spouting off instructions as fast as my vocal chords will allow to whatever hapless soul decides to crew with me.
I had my first shot playing captain just several days after the boys’ departure. It seemed an ideal opportunity: Dana was familiar with Patience after almost three weeks aboard, and Frank, a friend of a friend, had hopped on and represented an enthusiastic third pair of hands, ripe for line tending and winch cranking. With some swell running, the three of us planned a short jaunt to Pilon, the lefthand pointbreak just north of Pavones, to get some waves and enjoy the sailing en route. A nice, easy transition to sailing without my mates…or so I thought.
We took off early from Golfito and raised sails in good winds. We left the motor running in neutral to charge the batteries and run the water-maker. With a 10 knot wind off the stern quarter, Patience hummed along in ideal sailing conditions. If we could just get some respite from that pesky diesel engine grinding away in the background… and just a minute later…aaah, silence. Wait, not good, I didn’t kill the motor. Hmm, we haven’t had engine problems in since southern Mexico.
Even all these months deep, I still get the rock-in-your-gut feeling when the motor dies. A brief moment of near-panic strikes before I remember the wise words of a mechanic we had onboard, who, when queried about what to do first when the engine quits at sea, answered that…”well, she is a sailboat you know”. True indeed. So with a little more zen in my thoughts I began trouble-shooting as we zipped towards Pilon under sail, picking up speed in an increasing wind. 20 minutes later, half covered in diesel and oil, I fired her up. Turns out the fuel filter was shot. Got off easy this time.
The coast at Pilon grew on the horizon and lines of whitewater came into view. Waves, woo! But sadly, upon closer inspection, the 10-15 knot winds that whisked us down so easily had torn the waves to shreds. Howling onshores and nothing rideable in sight, just a messy bubbling spitting cauldron of a lineup. Beautiful in its own ragged way, but no smooth wave-face canvases upon which to capriciously lay down brush-stroke turns. With the winds still on the rise, I called the party over – back to Golfito.
We had dropped sails to approach the anchorage, but when we turned into the wind to leave, our speed dropped to half a knot. Some wind I thought….this may take a while. A minute or two later, with the surf lineup seeming closer than before I started to get just a hair nervous. Optical illusion? After all, we’re clocking half a knot. Hmm.. Uh oh…lightbulb. And not the good kind. I hopped below and peeked at the GPS and sure enough, our half knot speed was back towards the breaking waves. The motor just wasn’t cutting it against the headwind and tidal currents, and if something didn’t change…and pronto…we’d end up surfing a 34’ board with sails right onto the rock-strewn beach. A game over situation.
Now this is one of those moments, rare but memorable, where I start lamenting the fact that I’m a surfer AND a sailor. One or the other would be just fine. If I was a surfer, no doubt I would have approached via land, seen the blown out, unsurfable conditions, shrugged and headed to the cantina. Or was I a sailor, I would have steered quite clear of any shore side…especially one with big ol lines of whitewater rumbling towards it, and an onshore wind bullying any vessel towards the destructive mayhem. But no, here I am, reaping the hostile sprouts of surfing seeds sewn in a sailing soil. (try saying that 3x fast). Back to the present: howling winds in my face and crashing waves to my back. What were those words of wisdom again…she is a sailboat after all. Yes that’s it! I jump for the jib halyard and notice by their facial expressions that Frank and Dana are beginning to realize the gravity of our situation. Up goes the jib, cracking and snapping, then turning concave and holding the wind as we fall off to starboard. In a few seconds our speed jumps to 5 knots…and in a direction much more suited to the longevity of our floating home. Disaster averted.
With a direct headwind, though, the trip back was no gimme. We spent the next 2 hours tacking back and forth, trying to make progress towards Golfito. It soon became clear daylight would run out long before we made it, but that a tight starboard tack would have us across the bay and in Matapalo in no time. Oh oh, and there will be howling offshores and a swell running too thought the surfer within me, who had been relegated to time-out since that little stunt at Pilon a few hours previous.
Approaching Matapalo, the sun sank low and flung a vibrant pastel palette across the wispy, high altitude clouds. Several whales paid us a visit, breaching nearby, welcoming and no doubt congratulating us on finally making the right call. I had no idea the species, instantly missing the expertise of Daniel, the onboard biologist. Thumbing through the field guide was a poor substitute and ultimately proved fruitless. Closer now and the familiar floral scent of the rain forest wafted out to meet us, carried by a now dying afternoon breeze. Anchor down as macaws screech and whine overhead, the usual group of three spinning wild acrobatics in an avian love-triangle pursuit.
Ready to call it a day in the already waning light, Dana and Frank urge me to have a surf. A new wave has appeared in the adjacent bay, overhead glassy rights having sprung to life through the cooperation of the new swell and a low tide. I make the paddle over to a small and thinning crowd of all ticos, luck into a couple speedy set waves and paddle back out to find I’m alone. A lull between sets gives me the pause to take it all in…warm water waves breaking on rainforest coast thousands of miles from where we started. The lights turn on in Patience in the distance, anchored safely in the now calm conditions. This is all the reminder I need of the beauty of this sailing / surfing odd couple. They may bicker at times, but when they’re on good terms, and you have your home pulled up to an exotic, foreign surf break, it all makes sense.
A last wave to cap the session as night falls, then a long slow paddle back to the boat in the dark. A freshwater rinse, delicious curry dinner Dana has prepared and conversation with friends before turning in for the night. This rocking, sea-top bed has never felt so comfortable.