Copyright 2017 - Woods Designs, Foss Quay, Millbrook, Torpoint, Cornwall, PL10 1EN, UK
  • home built Flica 37

  • plywood Romany 34

  • lightweight 14ft Zeta mainhull

  • Strike 15 trimaran at speed

  • 28ft Skoota in British Columbia

  • 10ft 2 sheet ply Duo dinghy

  • 24ft Strider sailing fast

  • 36ft Mirage open deck catamaran

Before we get to the drama, here is a brief précis of the sailing we did from November 2005 to January 2006.

We had left Eclipse in a Panamanian marina in March and gone home to work for a few months. Then in early July we flew to Alaska and joined a 38ft monohull!?, and for 2 months cruised south though the Pacific NW to Reedport, Oregon.

In mid October we flew back to Eclipse and after a couple of weeks sorting out the boat we sailed once more to the beautiful San Blas islands. However it was now the rainy season. Although that meant much lighter winds than we had experienced in the spring, instead of prevailing NE trades, the winds came from every direction, but most often from the SW.

This meant that many of our favourite anchorages were now inhospitable lee shores. Furthermore, there were frequent heavy rains and occasionally scary thunderstorms. Indeed during one of these 6 of the 12 boats in our anchorage were hit by lightning and suffered major electronics damage. Fortunately we were not hit, maybe because lightning doesn’t strike twice, maybe because we had the shortest mast, or maybe because we were the only boat with a proper lightning protection system.

As a result we didn’t sail much. Instead we spent 3 weeks in the “Swimming Pool”, the longest we had stayed at anchor in one place in three years of cruising.

We had now finally decided to go through the Panama Canal into the Pacific. So in late November we headed back west. We spent a very bumpy, wet week in Portobelo, which was still living up to its reputation as the wettest place in N America, before sailing on to Colon and the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal.

We decided to stay in Panama Canal Yacht Club marina, mainly because we thought it would be just for a few days. This was the first time we had been tied to the shore for a year, and it sure was civilized to be able to just walk ashore. Unfortunately, Colon was as scary as ever, even though we took taxis everywhere. The marina is quite strange. There are the people, like us, who are in the "Path between the Seas" going from ocean to ocean. Then there are the run down derelicts who will never leave. Their boats don't look too good either. The yacht club and marina also tend to fall into the latter category. There are lots of buildings, a slipway, restaurant and bar, but all have seen better days.

After a couple of canceled attempts (due to a shortage of pilots) we were at last given the go ahead and left the PCYC marina at 4pm on December 9th. Apart from Winni, one of my builders who lives in Panama, we had an Austrian couple as line handlers. That is because every yacht going through the canal needs four line-handlers, plus a pilot/advisor and helmsman.

Our pilot came on board at 5pm and we motored to Gatun locks. Eclipse has never been so heavy, 1/4 ton of extra people, full water and fuel tanks plus 8 large car tyres as fenders and 4 x 150 ft warps. We passed through the first 3 locks as darkness fell, behind a large cargo ship. We were only a few feet from its stern so when it motored forward the propeller wash made us struggle to hold Eclipse in place. Then onto a mooring in Lake Gatun where we spent a restless night tied to a large barge.

At 6.30 am our pilot rejoined us and we had a 5 hour motor to the Pacific side locks. The Panama Canal have web cams on their web site. So, if by chance you were looking at the site between 11 and 12 local time, you would have watched our progress through the Miraflores locks.

As we went through the locks we had the web cam operator zoom onto Eclipse, so I hope somebody saw us. Had you done so you would have seen that we were the only vessel in the lock. No ship or other yacht. It sure made it all very easy.

Finally, on Dec 10th, at 1300 local time, (1800 GMT, 1000 Pacific time) we dropped off the pilot and Eclipse motored under the Bridge of Americas and into the Pacific Ocean. A mile past the bridge is the Balboa yacht club dock. The Austrians left and we topped up our fuel tanks. Although we had only used 4 gallons to get through the canal we knew that the winds are much lighter on the Pacific coast and so we’d need all the fuel we could carry. The canal transit is stressful, so we anchored off Flamingo island to recover and next day headed off towards Costa Rica.

The predicted winds leaving the Panama Canal in December are strong N winds for 90% of the time. Our sail started off well enough, a light north wind for 4 hours as we ran downwind to the first headland 90miles away. Unfortunately, the wind disappeared and we motored for a few hours until a strong S wind arrived which lasted until we reached the headland and turned to the west. Then we got a west wind. The next afternoon we hove to for 3 hours in a thunderstorm, all electrics off, engine disconnected, lightning earth cable over the side etc. Torrential rain of course. At dusk we felt it safe enough to carry on. At the next headland we turned to sail north for the first time in 3 years. So the wind went north. We gave up and went into Bahia Honda, which was a very nice, safe anchorage.

Here we found a small fishing village, 20 miles from the nearest road, which reminded us of Tobobe in NW Panama, which we had visited almost a year ago. The kids were all over the boat, as always, Jetti handing out sweets, balloons, etc as if Christmas was coming. A nice afternoon, spoilt by another massive thunderstorm that night. We bought more fuel and next morning motored off into a calm sea and west towards Costa Rica.

By midday a light west wind had got up and we motorsailed to the next waypoint. Here we turned NW, so the wind went NW. I guess by now you know the rest. We turned N, so did the wind. But at 9am Thursday we anchored in Golfito, Costa Rica. Once again we had had a windward sail. We looked at our log and realised that we haven't had an offshore downwind passage since Cuba, 2 years ago!

Jetti stayed on board while Winni and I went to the port captain, who told us to go to a photocopy shop to get 4 copies of all our papers, then it was back to the port captain, then customs (oops wrong order), agriculture building (oops wrong building), so back to next door to the port captain and the correct agriculture building.

We paid 30US for a meaningless piece of paper. We walked to immigration, then walked back to customs. Finally got a taxi back to the boat. 3 hours in the heat, but at least we were cleared in and we only got ripped off by one of our 5 different taxi drivers (we suspect he's the port captains brother)

On Saturday we beached the boat to antifoul it for the first time in 2 years. Winni left to go back to Panama by bus on Sunday. He was very useful as a third watchman but even so I only had 6 hours sleep in 3 days. In Central America you never know what a town will be like, its usually worse than you expect. But Golfito is a pleasant surprise.

We are now on a mooring, 5USD a night with free cable TV (but with no programs worth watching), internet (too slow and it crashes frequently) etc. There are, however, lots of air-conditioned bars and restaurants. I write this on the boat. I wonder where Jetti is? It seems strange that this is midwinter, yet only 400 miles south of here is the equator and south of that its mid summer.

We are tired of the heat and humidity and want to get north as soon as we can. And in particular we hate the lightning storms. Its not something I thought about before leaving the UK. But lightning strikes so many boats that its the most scary part of tropical sailing.

After a few days recovering from the ordeal of antifouling in the tropical heat we began heading north again. Christmas was spent anchored off a beach in N Costa Rica together with a couple of other cruising boats (one was English!). We had all chosen this spot because the beach hotel (above) allowed cruisers to use their facilities. So we did!

Then it was on to the northern tip of Costa Rica and certainly the only part that is interesting for cruisers. Here we spent New Year and then on the 2nd we sailed the 140 miles north to the only marina in Nicaragua.

The following paragraphs are part of the last newsletter I wrote from Eclipse.

As you can see from the photo below, Puesta del Sol is an up-market marina and hotel complex. Yet there are only 3 visiting yachts and no hotel guests. It's all very odd. The owner has obviously spent a fortune building the resort from scratch, but he's never going to make any money from it. In part that's because the hotel is a 2 hour drive down a very rough road from the nearest town. Furthermore, there is no beach or anything to do except sit by the pool and eat in the expensive restaurant. The marina itself is not cheap (well it is relative to UK or US marinas), so many cruisers prefer to go to the El Salvador marinas, just 80 miles NW of here where the prices are less than half Puesta del Sol. But never mind, that's not our problem, we are just making the most of all the facilities on offer!

It's a safe place to leave the boat and so we have been able to travel inland in Nicaragua. We spent 4 days in buses going first to the old Spanish colonial town of Granada. Something like a bigger version of Antigua in Guatemala, which we visited a couple of years ago. We found that the west coast of Nicaragua is flat with occasional dormant volcanoes

.

One of which was our next destination, on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. But I think I'd better let Jetti tell the story:

"For New Year's Eve, we were anchored off Playa de Cocos, Costa Rica. We went to bed early (8pm) then got woken up by the midnight fireworks display, since the five resorts around the bay were competing for loudest, brightest, longest lasting. Then we went back to sleep.

But we get our excitement in other ways. For instance, during the overnight passage from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, dolphins were swimming our bows in the phosphorescence. I've not seen anything like it! Certainly worth the three hour watches. And at dawn, just as we sailed under Volcan San Cristobal, a whale breeched not 50 yards from the boat. I can tell you, that's a bigger rush than grading 110 Animal Farm essays.

Of course, it's not all fun and games. Well, actually, it is. Even when we're trying to cross a sand bar to enter a harbor and the current is running 4 knots - against us - and we can only do 5 knots under power. After about 10 minutes, with no noticeable forward progress, we gave up and drifted back and anchored.

Of course, checking the chart book, it clearly stated that it was important not to try to enter the lagoon during an ebb tide. Should have said mandatory or something a little stronger than important, and then maybe Richard wouldn't have responded with "Oh, they always say that!" and we wouldn't have needed a tow in to the marina. But, now we know that leaving will definitely be coordinated with the tide.

We're not stupid.

Well, actually, we can be. For instance, we're on a trip inland right now. Caught buses from Assedores to Chinandega to Managua to Granada, changing bus stations at each city. They don't believe in one bus terminal per city down here. Something to do with the taxis getting their share of the pie transporting people from terminal to terminal. Well, we didn't allow for this in our ETA and spent something like 11 hours to go a total distance of 150 miles.

And this is riding in retired American school buses. They don't even bother to repaint them, and they sure don't change the seating. Amazing how many adults you can fit on a seat designed for two six year olds.

Next day we got on a "ferry" headed for Isla Imetepe out in the middle of Lago Nicaragua. We had 10 foot waves every 3 seconds, which meant the decks were awash for the entire hour it took to cross. But that was a good thing, because half the passengers were throwing up on their shoes, and the bucket boy (not kidding) would not have been able to keep up.

We weren't too worried, because we're used to rough seas, but when the first mate climbed out of the engine room and started furiously pumping the bilge, Richard raised his eyebrows. For a Brit, that's a bit of an exclamation.

But since all good things must come to an end, we landed. And got on yet another bus to go around the island. Potholes here are immense, but not usually avoided (not macho). On the other hand, drivers are very careful to avoid livestock, since they have to pay for any that they kill. Pedestrians just have to take care of themselves. Our destination, Altagracias, was less than we expected. After a stroll around the central park we realized that we had done the town.

The only other thing going on was a Pentecostal revival (with tambourines, horn and several drums) but we weren't feeling the spirit. Instead, we watched Donna Summer and Lionel Ritchie videos in the communal TV room of our backpacker hostel. And I don't even want to go into that one.

Should be back to the Eclipse by tomorrow sundown if all goes well. But what are the chances of that?"

Of course Jetti was right to be worried. The trip back didn't go entirely to plan. The buses all connected well and we got from Granada to Chinandega in 4 hours - other cruisers have taken two days. We had lunch, did some shopping and decided to splash out on a taxi for the 2 hour drive back to Eclipse.

Problem was we only had 15USD. The first taxi said he'd do it for 12USD, but wouldn't wait while we had lunch. The second driver said, "Well, OK, I'll do it for 15." But then half way there he said, "I've been thinking I can't do it for 15USD. I want 20."

We said --no, I won't say what we said. But then we said, "We told you we only have 15." He agreed to find another taxi who would do it for the agreed amount. But then of course he wanted to be paid for the distance he'd already driven. We got it all sorted in the end and got back to the boat OK, but it was stress we could have done without after 7 hours on the road

We have decided to miss out El Salvador unless bad weather forces us into port. Instead we will sail direct to Huatulco in southern Mexico, about 300 miles east of Acapulco. To do this we have to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec. This is renowned as one of the windiest places in the east Pacific. Indeed gales blow here 140 days a year. It's blowing hard there now, but it looks like by Monday the wind will have eased. It's a two day sail (300 miles) to get to Tehuantepec, so we plan to leave on Saturday. Fortunately, even if it is bad weather it is possible to anchor off the beach, while as the wind is blowing off the land the seas will be smooth. So our next message should be from Mexico.

But of course it wasn't.