Transiting the Trench
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Suka and her crew were departing on a carefully calculated itinerary, one I had designed toward the easiest and safest passage to California, coastwise along Southwestern Central America. The Caribbean's cyclone season had nearly finished, and en route to Panama we would be generally skirting the cyclone belt to its south. My timing called for us to enter the Pacific in mid October. The hurricane season for the Northern Pacific waters adjacent Latin America generally finishes by the first of November, and often there is a few week's gap after the cyclone season, and before the onset of the strong north-westerlies. This gap was my intended window, and our plan was to depart Costa Rica heading north in early November, then to cover as much distance as quickly as possible.
As such, we weighed, that 25th day of September, 1985, and pointing Suka's bow west, filled away.
Passage from Bonaire to Panama
Driven in a 15 knot south-easterly, Suka slid past Klein Bonaire, and sailed to within sight of the island Curaçao before nightfall. Ironically, I was the first one to see the island, even though I had been napping below while Jenny and Debborah sat at watch in the cockpit. Rising, I stepped out the companionway to find the girls engaged in idle conversation. "Excuse me," I interrupted, "We're heading straight for Curaçao." I could only assume that had I continued napping, eventually they would have realized that the vessel's heading was in need of the minor adjustment, to spare us smashing full tilt into Curaçao's reefs.
Back down below in my bunk, I pondered a poem my grandmother had taught me in my youth. It was Eugene Field's "Winken, Blynken, and Nod" who one night:
“Sailed off in a wooden shoe,
sailed on a river of crystal light,
into a sea of dew...
The old moon laughed and sang a song
As they rocked in the wooden shoe:
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew...”
“Green water poured below and struck me full force - not with a casual splash, but in bulk: two or three bathtubs-full it seemed.”
Some 20 miles farther on, in the wee hours of the night Suka sped past the island of Aruba. The wind was blowing 25 knots and the seas were lumpy. And here a strange event occurred. Jenny was standing watch at the time; rather, she was reclining within her sleeping bag while braced in the cockpit. Debborah lay sprawled asleep in the lee bunk to starboard, and I slept on the port settee. The hatch, the skylight, and some of the ports stood open to admit the needed ventilation. Suddenly, a rogue wave smacked Suka beam on. Green water poured below and struck me full force - not with a casual splash, but in bulk: two or three bathtubs-full it seemed. Awakened, I lay wallowing for a few seconds in a stupor, trying to make sense of the water swashing from side to side on the cabin sole. The invading saline had shorted a pocket tape player's power switch, and the devise was struggling weakly to play music; and its squeaky sound only added to the moment's drama. I had been reasonably certain of our sea room, yet my first rational response was to rush topsides and determine if perhaps we were about to collect some uncharted reef. I saw no land, and noticed that the depth sounder was indicating no bottom. The exigencies addressed, I turned my attention to Jenny, who appeared to have crawled out of a swimming pool, sleeping bag and all. Understandably, she was not pleased, and less so when she learned that the inundation had somehow missed Debborah altogether.
I pumped the bilge in fifty strokes, at nearly a gallon per stroke, then we began assessing the water damage belowdecks, which was not much.
The Mineral Hoboken on a collision course.
By the following day the seas were easing, the wind slackening, and Suka gurgled along at a cheery 5-1/2 knots under her working sails: the mainsail and jib. The cabin was beginning to dry, and the voyage was approximating another of those poetic dream-like voyages conjured by some uninformed poet (ruffled the waves of dew, indeed) - when we sighted a ship headed our way. A big ship. A check with the hand-held compass indicated that, indeed, the vessel was headed on a collision course. When Jenny issued a call on the VHF, the captain replied that he was "passing well in front of us sir...ah... Ma'am." We waited, watching, expecting that at any moment the mammoth freighter would begin the necessary course change on our behalf, so as not to run us down. When finally we could wait no longer, I asked Jenny to inform the skipper that we were instigating a course change to port. I then swung the rudder hard over, and hove to. "Roger, roger," came the reply in broken English. "You are altering to port, and we are continuing on our present heading." This they did, indeed, and soon we were watching the Mineral Hoboken plow through the place we would have been, had we not altered course. Soon we were bounding frightfully in the ship's colossal bow wave, which shook our little brig like a mouse in a cat's jowls. Letting draw and gathering way, we resumed our heading and watched the ship steam over the horizon in the direction of Belgium. And for the third time during our voyage I pondered the stunning realization that had we been sleeping belowdecks, Suka would probably have collided with a ship on an otherwise vacant sea.
In the days to come, the wind slackened further, and as we rounded the northern terminus of Columbia and bore south-east toward Panama, we seemed to have left the region of those remarkably steady trade winds. The wind here became variable, first blowing from one direction then shifting altogether and necessitating a sail change, then a few hours later dying - leaving the ketch bobbing in situ until I reluctantly started the engine. These calms and variables persisted the next several days, but at least the seas were flattening, and providing a comfortable ride.
Hauling in a fish.
Fresh fish for dinner.
During the passage we hauled aboard a couple of sizable dorado, that is once we abandoned the expensive, rubber squid-like lure in favor of an ordinary red feather. With fresh fish, the girls prepared a variety of tasty and nourishing dishes: sashimi, ceviche, sumptuous fish cakes with garlic, spices and potatoes, dorado fillets fried in butter and garlic, dorado salad on toasted bread, and fresh dorado pan-fried in a beer batter.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,"
Said Wynken, Blynken, And Nod.”
The nearer we drew to Panama the more diminished was the wind, and the flatter the seas. The trades had given way, and the water's color had relinquished its usual aquamarine, fathomless blue, and now bore an opaque, turf-colored brine, studded with an endless variety of floating tree branches, banana fronds, and discarded bits of plastic in all shapes and sizes. Motoring endlessly across those oily seas, one had the distinct impression of nearing the ocean's end. Although the horizon was empty, with no land in sight, we hardly needed a chart to inform us that land barred the way ahead. I imagined that those early navigators, exploring these regions without accurate charts, would have experienced much the same sensation.
Frigate bird toys with our mast-head ribbon wind-direction indicator.
I wondered what it must have been like probing these uncharted regions for the first time. At least the early explorers did not have to deal with the profusion of shipboard conveniences we contemporary sailors cannot live without, yet which seem to have a working lifetimes measured in months. Take our ship's head, for example. Every few years its neoprene waste-pipe contracted an acute case of arteriosclerosis. A mineral-like deposit formed on the hose's inner walls, due presumably to a chemical reaction between the waste effluent and the salt water, and this deposit thickened a fraction each day until eventually it had rendered the head unworkable. And of course the ultimate and sudden failure would occur at the worst moment. At such times there was nothing for it but to make for the after-rail, and soon afterward to disassemble the connections, to convey the hose outside, and, while being careful not to drop the horribly stinky yet irreplaceable hose into Davey Jone's locker, hang it overboard and pound it unmercifully with a hammer to dislodge its tenacious deposits.
We stop the boat mid-ocean for a refreshing swim.
Preparing dinner in the galley.
“You can fix anything, can't you?"
"Just about," I replied, shaking the flashlight vigorously.”
Also, Columbus never had the watchkeeper jump down the hatch in the middle of the night and wake him with urgent cries that there was something dreadfully the matter with the engine. Columbus had no engine. But we did, and unfortunately at the moment, indeed, there was definitely something wrong with it. Its shut-off lever was located inside the engine room, now filled with steam, and here I realized the infeasibility of shutting down Perkins had the pall been fire-smoke instead of merely steam. The vessel had originally been fitted with a remote controlled solenoid, such that in the event of fire one could have shut down the engine from the cockpit. But one night the switch itself had nearly caught fire, as I mentioned in our Polynesian sagas, so I had dispensed with it. Curiously, this sequence seems typical of the fate of modern conveniences aboard ship. Out here in the real world, gradually and piece at a time, the gear breaks down, leaving the cruising yacht increasingly stripped to the basics. My engine shut-off, for example, was now a piece of string. At any rate, the engine was at the moment massively spewing steam and hissing like a locomotive. I reached in and pulled the string. This shut the motor off, and by the time I had found a flashlight that worked, the hissing had quit and the fog was lifting. It was Jenny who first discovered a pin-sized hole in the lower inspection plate of the coolant reservoir. With a spanner I slackened the circle of bolts, removed this plate, and found it pitted and eaten away on the inner surface like a miniature lunar landscape. Electrolysis. After sanding the plate, like a dentist I gouged out the little pits with a knife blade. Then I degreased the plate with acetone and an old toothbrush before smearing on a paste of Marine-Tex. Meanwhile, Jenny had cut a new gasket from a sheet of cork. Watching in awe, Debborah said to me incredulously, "You can fix anything, can't you?"
"Just about," I replied, shaking the flashlight vigorously.
In a few hours the Marine-Tex had hardened, being accelerated by the engine's heat. I re-affixed the plate, filled the reservoir with fresh coolant, and soon had Perkins purring along faithfully, and once again sending its reassuring rumblings through the ship.
One morning before sunrise we sighted land. An hour later, while the autopilot acted as helmsman, and while the captain and first mate slept belowdecks, Debborah sat absorbing the beauty and serenity of the early morning. Suddenly a strike came at her trolling line, and she hauled in a young thresher shark. Awaking to the commotion, Jenny and I rushed to her side. We all agreed that the prospect of battling the brute aboard ship was not appealing, so I reached over the rail with a pair of pliers, and with a mighty yank removed the hook from the shark's jaw, setting it free to bite again.
All that day we traveled along the Panama coast, admiring the splendid landscapes of mountains rising abruptly behind tropically vegetated coastal flats. Occasionally the view allowed a glimpse of a grass-thatched roof or two, set back into some serene bay and hunkered right down at the water's edge.
We found our first favorable wind in days, and at 2:30 p.m, in the wake of a titanic ship we sailed into the wide entrance of the breakwater fronting the Port of Cristobal and the city of Colon in Panama.
Approaching Port Cristobal.
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Harbor control radioed us to anchor in "The Flats," but at that moment we were pressed beneath a heinously black cloud that had us wondering whether we would reach the anchorage before the deluge struck. We did not. The wind went suddenly frigid, and a tremendous downpour fell upon the face of earth with such vehemence that it erased any and all views, save for that of a solitary channel buoy that happened to be close by. There was nothing for it but to putter slowly around the buoy, which provided our only reference. Occasionally the cloudburst eased, albeit slightly, to reveal a ghostly and nearby ship, or even perhaps a building ashore. But then the clouds would spew forth their fury once again, blanking out the known world. Fearfully deafening bolts of lightning rent the air, as around and around the buoy we slowly motored.
Never mind the squall, no amount of rain could dampen our delight of having reached Panama, and the entrance to the Canal. Happy and undaunted, we had reached yet another milestone in our journey.
After an hour of enduring the unlit liquid falling by the bucketfuls, visibility was restored, so we putted into the midst of an assortment of eight or ten cruising yachts. And there we set the bower. Constrained aboard prior to receiving entry clearance, we enjoyed a quiet, relaxing evening in the cockpit, sipping sundowners, listening to music on a local FM radio station, and watching the big ships moving directly past the glaring lights of the busy port. The date was October 2nd, 1985 our third anniversary of cruising. The passage from Bonaire had taken seven days, and the ship's trip log read 777 miles.