The DMA pilot charts of the Pacific, adjacent Central America, suggested that the voyage's next and final leg were unlikely to be much of a picnic. The winds and current would probably be contrary. As mentioned, however, our being here at this time of the year was not happenstance. I intended plying the hypothetical window between the termination of the north-east Pacific's hurricane season and the onset of the strong north-westerlies that typically blanket the northern half of the Mexican Pacific coast. As such, my intent was to depart Costa Rica heading north in early November, and then to cover as much distance as quickly as possible.
Departing Balboa bound for Taboga Island. The Bridge of the Americas in the background.
Zoom out to see where we are, or click on logo.
From the Balboa Yacht Club, we rose at dawn and motor-sailed in light airs ten miles to Taboga Island, where we then laid anchor near the village pier. Jenny and Debborah spent hours scrubbing the tenacious Cristobal crude oil from Suka's hull, while I addressed the engine compartment, trying my latest ideas toward mitigating the overheating problem.
Within a few hours the tide had dropped much farther than anticipated, requiring that we re-anchor farther out to avoid a nasty patch of rocks rising to meet Suka's fiberglass hull. The Pacific's 12-1/2 foot tides contrast markedly with the 10-inch ones of the Caribbean, so our having re-entered this part of the world was calling for some mental reprogramming.
We went ashore and enjoyed a relaxing stroll through the village, where at the post office I mailed to my parents a card that farcically arrived at their mailbox not until a year and a half later.
Crossing to Punta Mala
The next morning we set sail in a 12 knot westerly, and lay a course south-west across the Gulf of Panama for the distant headland with the woeful name of Punta Mala.
If the indifferent winds here did not provide the world's greatest sailing, the waters certainly did offer some of the best fishing we had seen anywhere. A medium sized sailfish was the first to attack our trolling lure. As the fish leapt into the air, and as our motorcycle inner-tube shock absorber stretched to double its length, the 100-pound-test braided nylon line parted with a resounding twang. Excitedly, we re-rigged for another try. This was our method: I made the line's business end fast to one end of a sturdy swivel. Through the swivel's other end I passed an end of a six-foot length of wire trace, then I swaged a bight in the trace, using a small copper ferule and a pair of vice grips. The working end of this wire trace I passed through one of those orange, rubbery lures resembling a long, narrow grass skirt, and which are unimaginatively dubbed "feathers." I then roved this same end of the trace through a hollow lead weight, and swaged on two hooks, back-to-back.
After paying out 150 feet of line, in a few minutes the lure attracted the attention of another sailfish. This one, however, merely nibbled. With each of its cautious bites, the inner-tube, (draped over a winch) would grab slack and stretch torturously, only to relax. In the next 20 minutes the fish enacted this routine time after time. Once, thinking to snag the beast I held onto the line, ready to give it a hearty yank. This was a mistake. Even though I wore thick leather gloves, when the big fish struck, the strain was so immense that it felt it could have torn my fingers out by the roots. Soon afterward we landed a measly little mackerel, weighty enough, however, to feed us for the ensuing two days. This brought an end to our fishing endeavors for that period of time, which seemed as well, as we could not possibly have eaten all the meat of a big sailfish.
In calm airs we motored into the afternoon and night, taking the brunt of a few electrical storms of staggering proportions, when the decks would course with rain, and our ears would ring from the exploding crashes of nearby thunderbolts. Perkins was running so hot that at the farthest I could nudge the throttle without boiling the engine coolant, Suka plodded along at a mere 3-1/2 knots. This was not the most appropriate rate of travel with which to cover the 4,000 mile length of the Central American coastline, but we could only reason that although Suka was slow, the earth was, for the moment, patient. Without wind to steady her, Suka's motion was severe, even though she flew a taut sheeted, reefed mainsail in order to help dampen the rolling. As along we gallumphed, the watchkeeper sat in the cockpit dressed in shorts and a rain jacket, and armed with an umbrella, while the others rested belowdecks.
At one point I opened the hatch to check on Debborah, and she directed my attention aloft. In the otherwise coal-black night the solitary masthead light was careening about the sky like some overgrown Fourth of July sparkler being waived about by a child. Attracted by its light, scores of small, swallow-like birds wheeled and whirred around, randomly and at dizzying speeds. (The following morning we were saddened to find a few dead birds lying about the topsides; no doubt they had collided with the mast or rigging.)
Map: Punta Mala.
Zoom out to see where we are, or click on logo.
In the wee hours of a night of Stygian, impenetrable darkness we passed within a few miles of Punta Mala, and here the scene became somewhat tense, largely due to our unknown position. I could navigate only by observing the big ships passing us by. A bearing to the solitary lighthouse gave a line of position, but I had no way of knowing our distance off-shore. The depth sounder ran continuously, and indicated no bottom, but a shoreline can shoal too steeply for the sounder to give much warning. I reasoned, though, that if we held seaward of the occasional passing freighter, then indeed, deep water was assured. In the process, if we traveled miles farther off-shore than we would have done in broad daylight, at least we did so in safety.
The following morning the girls related that while I was sleeping they had seen two large whales. Steering by autopilot, Suka had come close to the motionless creatures, which appeared to be sleeping. I contemplated the dreadful consequences of colliding with one of these massive beasts in the night. At least, I reasoned, we were not moving too fast.
With the advent of daylight, we angled back towards land, and continued motoring slowly along the coastline, holding shore a few miles abeam. Then late that afternoon we closed the coast and found secure anchorage north of Punta Naranja. Again, I exerted my deductive reasoning with the out-of-kilter power plant, but without results.
Decamping at first light the following day, we sailed until later in the morning when the breeze headed us. We caught a bonito and a nice dorado, and the girls fixed sushimi for breakfast, ceviche for lunch, and batter-fried fish for supper.
Isla Medidor and her surrounding sister islands were on the horizon, but we often lost sight of them as squalls rolling off the nearby mainland beleaguered us with dark, rumbling cumulo-nimbus clouds that blocked the sun's light, and with rain coming down in sheets and driven sideways by the blasts of wind. Without a doubt this was the rainy season in Central America. When the squalls hit, they reduced our visibility so severely that we could only keep a strained lookout and pray that the currents were not playing games with us. Ray stood watch at the helm while Debborah and I took turns sitting outside with him and maintaining vigilance. Down below we brewed cups of tea, and hung our wet clothes to dry by the warm engine.
The latest downpour slackened, and the surrounding gloom had begun to lift when the form of Isla Medidor appeared less than a mile ahead. With relief we studied the land, took compass bearings, then motored around to the entrance of a bight, just as the rain ceased and the spent clouds began drifting seaward. Inside the small bay the water was thickly silt laden. On the water's quiet surface floated leaves, twigs, and other debris washed from the island. We eased our way slowly toward the head of the bay, Ray at the helm, Debborah on the bowsprit, and I reading the depth sounder and calling the numbers to the helmsman. Then I climbed outside to help Debborah lower the anchor. When it rest on the seabed Ray backed down, to set it. I looked around and noticed that we were land-locked; we seemed to have stepped suddenly from a dreary, cold world into a vibrant green one full of smells and sounds of the wet and teeming jungle. The three of us took turns gazing at the surroundings through the binoculars, until at dusk a drizzle chased us belowdecks.
The next morning we unshipped and inflated the dinghy, and with camera and insect repellent went ashore to explore this uninhabited island. We wanted to hike to its highest point for a view, and in the process we hoped to see some parrots or other tropical birds. Also, I wanted to collect a sprouted coconut to take back to the boat as a galley treat. We landed on a short strip of sandy beach, and tied the dinghy to a coconut palm. The air was fragrant, and the inland soil was saturated. Shrubs and ferns sparkled with rain droplets, and new growth sprouted almost everywhere. Bromeliads clung to tree trunks, while philodendrons and other vines twisted and stretched upward toward the sunlight.
Ambling along the edge of a cleared hillside that appeared to have been cultivated at one time, we followed a narrow path continuing up a ridge. I stopped to have a look back across the small valley, and could see our footpath winding through the green carpet of grass. In the basin far below, Suka looked like a toy ship on a pond. From a high vantage we could see a mainland peninsula, and to the south a cluster of nearby islands. These were soft greens against a grey background of sea and clouds. A giant butterfly flitted by in iridescent blues and greens. A Morphos, it measured some 10 inches across. We returned to the valley floor, tromping through tangles of vines, avoiding mud holes, and stepping over rotting logs moiling with large ants. As we inspected budding orchids, and admired the plethora of tropical plants, we talked about how valuable some of them would be back home.
We paddled along the shoreline, dodging submerged rocks, and circumventing fallen trees, and found a freshwater stream cascading between tree trunks and tumbling over smooth rocks into a pool near the high water mark. Here we could have bathed or laundered clothes, but the rain had left us with no inclination to do either. So we paddled back to our floating home.
The rest of the day we attended to Perkins; Debborah and I assisted Ray as he adjusted the valves, checked the torque of the head bolts, and generally inspected the motor's external working parts. I climbed outside for a breath of fresh air while Ray worked the torque wrench, and saw three dug-out boats turn into the bay. Dark-skinned Panamanians motored by, disregarding our presence, and after landing ashore they tethered their boats and headed into the bush. An hour later they reappeared shouting and driving a couple dozen cows. Medidor was inhabited after all, with cows. Standing in the water, three men and a boy wrestled one thrashing, protesting beasts into a dug-out. And when finally they departed with their cargo, peace returned to the bay.
We were looking forward to reaching Costa Rica the next day, God willing. This small country had a certain appeal, not only because of its unique political situation, but also because we expected to see diverse and abundant flora and fauna in this "Garden of the Americas." Costa Rica: the name had an enticing ring.
We weighed at first light and motored away from Isla Medidor with a magnificent orchid draped over the steering pedestal. What pleasing memories of the place we were carrying away, and oh, how those memories were to sour. Unknowingly, I was also leaving with a mosquito-borne souvenir in my bloodstream that was to make me regret having gone anywhere near Isla Medidor. I didn't know it yet, but I had contracted malaria.