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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Invasion of the Microorganisms

We have successfully arrived in the Bay Islands of Honduras. Phew! And only 3 weeks behind schedule. We've spent the last couple of nights anchored off of the east end of Guanaja which is the eastern most of the 3 main islands in the chain. The island is tall and green and lush with buildings reminiscent of the Virgin Islands. Originally settled by the British, the island is home to a delightful combination of people descending from pirates, freed slaves, and European colonists. Enchanting! The language is primarily English (Island English) although the schooling instruction is all in Spanish since the islands were given back to Honduras by England in the mid 1800's.

The snorkeling on the reefs around the island is magnificent! There was a dolphin cruising around our anchorage this morning. The kids jumped in and tried to play with her. She wasn't interested. And I just heard hollering from the for deck that there is a nurse shark under our boat. (The friendliest of sharks - not to worry, Mom.)

We'll be leaving the Bay Islands on Friday morning (March 30) and heading for the Rio Dulce of Guatemala (24 hour crossing - downwind). Our crew is holding up fairly well although we have recently been invaded by microorganisms. Fungus, Viruses and Amoebas are staking claim in all the nooks and crannies of our boat and crew. I won't go into all the gory details, but, let's just say, I've never been so fond of bleach. Love that stuff. I may start brushing my teeth with it.

 Carver, making friends with the locals. 

Evie and Mama up with the sunrise for an early morning watch off of Albuquerque Cays. 

In front of our new genoa. 

 Is it lobster season? As far as we know it's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Season. 

A mahi-mahi that Evie reeled in. The ceviche was delicious and so were the fish tacos the next night.

One of the two Columbian islands making up Albuquerque Cays.

The kids were happy to be ashore for an ice cream on the Columbian island of San Andres (off of Nicaragua). 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Balance Weight Loss Program

We left Bocas del Toro at noon on March 17 (Saturday) at which point 7 out of 10 of us started the Balance Weight Loss Program. It’s a simple method really. Just head out into the open ocean with “6-8” foot seas (we all agree they were more like 10-12 feet), barf intermittently for the next 50 hours, and voila! A new thinner you. I’ve never been so glad to see land. Oh my heck. Whose idea was this?
participant of the Balance Weight Loss Program (actually Cole, Dave & Courtney were the only 3 non barfers on the crossing)

So after our 50 hour orientation course on “Open Ocean Crossings with Kids” we spent two heavenly days recovering at the Albuquerque Cays; two tiny little Columbian islands off of the coast of Nicaragua (far off the coast, btw). One is a Columbian marine outpost of sorts with about 6 Columbian boys playing in the water and “checking us in” on the VHF radio. The other is home to a little “village” of fishermen who by day take their skiffs and fish the deep water off the island and then return to sleep in little lean-to’s made of cardboard and fishing net. The snorkeling off the islands was excellent and absolutely perfect for the kids. Tons of beautiful live coral and lots of gorgeous fish. We speared the biggest lobster I’ve ever seen and enjoyed him thoroughly along with the tuna we had caught on our crossing, and Captain Dave’s conch fritters. Yum. The next day we spent some time dressing our boat’s wounds (both trampolines and the main sail had blow outs on the crossing) and cleaning puke out of cracks and crevices. Then we made hey for the beach. There is nothing more satisfying than feeling sand between your toes after having been sequestered on a boat with 6 barfing kids for 72 hours. Ahhhh. The adults walked the entirety of the island while the kids snorkeled in the super warm, shallow waters off the most quintessential white sand Caribbean beach. They were happy for hours chasing rays and making pets of the baby octopi that they found in empty conch shells. That evening, the hunting faction of our tribe went on a dinner expedition and came home with more lobster and conch. We hated to leave. 
But leave we did. And after a pleasing, “puke-free”, 6 hour crossing we arrived at the Columbian island of San Andres (no, not really near Columbia). To us, it seems like a metropolis of sorts with high rise hotels and honking cars. We docked the boat at Nene’s Marina and took the kids on a walking tour of the water front, stopping at the first pizza place we found. Oh heavenly pizza. And then we had ice cream. 
We aren’t staying long as we are on a time line to get to Guatemala for Semana Santa in Antigua. So we’ll leave later today or tomorrow and head down wind (thank heavens!) to Cayos Vivarillios. Then on to the Bay Islands of Honduras arriving at the Rio Dulce of Guatemala by the end of the month. We have quite a few miles to cover between here and the next time we’ll have internet (Bay Islands) so keep us in your thoughts (puke free, strong boat thoughts, if you please). 
Fair Winds,
The Skinny Crew of Balance

Monday, March 12, 2012

Stranded in Paradise

After two weeks at the Bocas are the developments:

Our friends, the Culbecks, have arrived, and although there are now 10 people on board Balance, it's awesome to have the extra help with boat maintenance and kid management.

The Sail Doctor gave us the sad prognosis that our wild black jib has to be put down. Although somewhat rowdy and unruly, he flew true and stout and carried us safely across many an ocean passage. It's sad to see the day that a sail comes to the end of its flying career. May he rest in peace in the sail locker.

We were lucky enough to find a used jib here in Bocas. She's an older genoa but still has lots of life. She's a lovely shade of white, makes a pleasing little nicker when luffing, is slightly larger than our last but gentle and friendly. Great with kids. We're lucky to have her.

The local diesel doctor has been working on our port engine for the better part of a week and with the critical components sent by the Miami Grandparents, he was successful in getting it running!! Yeah! So yesterday we pulled off the dock to stretch our sea legs for the first time since arriving two weeks ago. It was exhilarating! The kids were ecstatic to be "under way", jumping up and down on the bow with the waves and "catching air" like in an elevator. We tacked our way out of the Bocas cut, then turned around and, with the wind on our stern, jibed our way back towards the dock. About halfway back we lost power on the starboard engine. Bummer. So for the second time in the same number of weeks, we limped back to the Bocas Marina on one engine. We're hoping it's something simple, and that we'll be able to fix it easily.

Our weather window for heading north (initially to La Isla de San Andres and then on to Honduras, Guatemala, and the Yucatan) is looking like late this weekend. This is perfect as it will give us ample time for additional "shakedown-breakdown" day sails around the excellent cruising grounds surrounding Bocas.

Courtney and I took the kids to La Finca de los Monos Botanical Garden. It was an adventure. The perfect opportunity to get off the boat and check out the local flora and fauna. Highlights were the wax ginger flowers and the howler monkeys that we got to see up close. Fantastic!!

Being stuck in Bocas del Toro has it's perks. Namely, the surf, which is some of the best in all of Central America. Our surfers have been enjoying it. 

Here are some pics for your viewing enjoyment.

 The whole scurvy crew waking up slowly whilst listening to the Bocas net. 

 Give this mama another pina colada! 

 Make it two. Soli slipped on a rock and sliced her leg on a crustacean. Ouch. 

 The kids have been having a blast fishing with little hand lines off the dock. This is one of Emerson's catches. This fellow made it back to the bay after his photo shoot.

Bocas has several well established surf breaks with consistent waves for all levels. Happy surfers when they're able to tear themselves away from boat work. 

 Wax Ginger at the botanical gardens. Exquisite. 

 The CUTEST baby pineapple ever. Seen hear next to Soli's little hand.

A Mama Howler and her Baby. I love how she's keeping her eye on me. And I love my camera. This was difficult lighting and I didn't have my telephoto lens. In the original shot you can't see the baby at all. But when I cropped, this fabulousness appeared. 
 Out for our first sail. "Why did I just lose power on starboard?"

 "I content myself with a humble (floating) cottage and a simple kitchen garden." This is my favorite quote.  And you can imagine I was over the moon to find aloe and an orchid at the botanical gardens. Then right here in Bocas I was lucky enough to find herb seedlings: basil, mint, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and peppermint. Ahhh. Happiness. 

More happiness. Soli was so excited to be "sailing down da waves". 

Thanks for checking in, 
Heather and the Stranded Crew of Balance

Friday, March 02, 2012

Three Hour Tour

First of all, last week, while we were working on the boat, we had the good fortune of being able to stay at Mark's jungle house in Cauchero. And, although we were entirely consumed with boat work, being at Mark's house was pretty amazing. Now that I have a little more internet and a lot more patience I'd like to tell you all about it.

The house sits a short (and steep!) jungle ride up the hill from the bay where the boat was moored. It has some of the most amazing views I’ve seen. His house is the only thing around, surrounded by miles of rain forest and ocean in every direction (almost creepy, it’s so isolated). The house is completely off the grid (of course there are no services in the middle of the rain forest) so all of the water is collected rainwater and the house runs on solar power. In the evening these cool little solar lights come on inside and you feel like you’re camping. We became accustomed to rising with the sun and retiring for the night shortly after dark. The howler monkeys would wake at sunrise, too, and make a cacophonous morning raucous. After breakfast the parrots and toucans would fill the trees just beyond the wrap around, tree top porch. It was a  sight. And there were fire flies! (Did you know that I thought fire flies only existed at Disney Land until I was 19 and saw them in Costa Rica for the first time?) I love fire flies. They are so magical. It was exciting for the kids to see them for the first time. 

The cold water shower was of the open air variety (read: out door) and situated on the north facing porch. That took a bit of getting used to for our modest and spoiled-by-unlimited-hot-water, kids. But, for me, the view and the cold water were invigorating! I loved it. 

As beautiful as it was, there were a few difficulties to being at Mark's tree top jungle abode. 

First, it was so isolated there was no where to go to get a burger and a beer after a hard day working on the boat. We were limited to eating whatever we could put together out of Mark’s pantry. And, he’s a bachelor who lives in the jungle, so options were limited. We ate a lot of pasta and rice. And canned mushrooms. But, I tell you. It was refreshing to see our kids eat EVERYTHING that was put in front of them with nary an "I don't like that" and then ask for seconds. With all of the snacking that we do at home, our kids seem to think that meals are optional and are served with a side of fussing. At Marks they discovered a new found appreciation for food. Hallelujah. I hope that lasts. 

Another difficulty was that there was relatively no internet, aside from Dave's iWife, of course, for which he's paying a small fortune for an international data plan (and thank goodness for that). So researching boat issues and how to fix them was tedious. We've become so dependent on the internet and the information that is so readily available to us. Sigh. 

For me, as much as I love the idea of being off the grid, the laundry situation proved rather challenging. Dave and I pretty much wore the same work clothes the whole week (clean sleeping clothes, of course) and the kids wore bathing suits so it wasn't our laundry that needed doing. It was boat laundry. All the towels, all the sheets, all the cushion covers (the ones that were salvageable) all the rags, all the foul weather gear. Everything. I was lucky that Mark has a mini washing machine. But with water and electricity being in short supply and everything having to be hung dry it wasn't easy. Especially with the ocean breeze running up the hill and the rain forest fog blowing down the hill, linens on the clothes line never really dry completely. They're always a bit damp. Then you put them on your bed and they still feel a bit damp. Even the toilet paper feels damp. Very unsatisfying. Anyway, I have a heightened appreciation for my mega load washing machine and my fossil-fuel-burning-dryer at home.  

Lastly, being so isolated in Cauchero was no good for getting supplies and tools to fix the boat. So after we had done all we could with duck tape, bleach, and a leatherman we decided to limp to the nearest "big" town, 20 miles away, on one engine and tattered rigging. We made up the bunks with damp sheets, stole the remainder of rice and canned mushrooms from Mark's pantry, and loaded our crew onto Balance for the three hour tour. 

It should have been smooth sailing and, at first, it was. We hoisted our black sail and were making pretty good time with our one engine. The skies were blue and there was just the nicest little breeze coming over our port bow. The seas were calm being that we were on the inside of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. I made myself busy organizing the galley while Jack Johnson strummed his six string in the salon. It was lovely. And we were so happy to be sailing somewhere. Anywhere. Then Dave poked his head down into the salon and said, "Rain coming. You might wanna close up." 

"How many minutes?" I asked, reaching for a stray measuring cup deep in the galley locker. 

He glanced up, calculating the distance between our bow and the gray squall brewing near the cut where we were headed.

"About three."

I hopped up and started making the rounds; stowing stray gear and closing hatches. A few wayward rain drops slipped through the windows as I closed them up tight. 

Approximately three minutes later all hell broke loose. 

I had just finished closing up the boat and stepped out of the salon into the cockpit when I noticed that the rain was starting to fall in ernest. Then I saw our nine year old perched like a bowsprit on the starboard bow seat, in front of the open jib sail. The sail began to flap and flutter as the erratic winds of the squall were upon us. 

"Time to furl the jib, boys." Dave says. (This means roll it up. Not good to have a big sail up in a squall.)
No sooner had they released the jib sheets and starting cranking on the wench that rolls up the sail than a huge gust of wind slapped us across the starboard beam. The sail snapped angrily across the bow, the metal  grommet crashing loudly into every piece of standing rigging it could reach. At that moment, Evie, sensing impending danger, decided it was high time to make her way back to the cockpit. She narrowly escaped a concussion as she ducked and dodged her way past the deadly black sail as it bucked and spit like a wild bronc. My screams for her to "STOP!" and "LAY DOWN!" were reduced to silence by the howling wind, pounding rain, and thrashing sail. Thank God she made it back to the cockpit safely where she quickly grabbed her sister's hand and could be heard saying, "Come on, Soli. We're outta here," as the two of them retreated to the safety of their bunk to put on their pajamas. 

Meanwhile, back on the bow, the jib struggled wildly to free itself from the confines of the slapping lines. But the ropes held firm in an effort to break the enraged beast. The boys were no match for the snarling sail, and Dave's single motor, even at full throttle, was useless in holding us to weather. The wind pushed us off course and downwind, further enraging our sail. In no time our lines were a tangled mess, fruitlessly whipping at wind and sky with the terrifying crack of broken sound barrier. 

"Dammit." Dave cursed as he realized one engine is NOT as good as two. "I need to go on the bow and untangle those lines."

I looked up at our infuriated sail and the hissing mess of husband-damaging metal parts and whipping lines that were attached to it. I sent a silent plea to the wind gods to be gentle with him. 

"Emerson, take the helm. Heath, haul in on the port sheet. Cole, crank in the slack when you can," he ordered as he stepped into the ring to wrestle the writhing beast. It was terrifying to watch him up on the bow tacking and jibing to avoid the sail as it tried to buck him off the boat. But, the wild black jib was no match for my man, and he quickly wrangled the lines into submission. Cole and I took in the slack to keep the lines from tangling again while Emerson spun the helm to no avail, as the boat continued to be pushed downwind by the storm. Back in the cockpit Dave cranked on the wench handle and furled the broke beast onto the headstay.

Unable to make headway with one engine, we threw the hook and rode out the remainder of the storm in the salon. It was all over in 10 minutes. On the other side were promises of blue skies and internet. We happily arrived in Bocas del Toro at sun down where we have been enjoying the good life at Bocas Marina ever since. Unlimited water, electricity, internet, laundry, a restaurant (which we have shamelessly been frequenting 3 times a day for the better part of 5 days), and hot water showers...with doors. And, it's a darn good thing we're happy here because it may be a while before we can leave. 

Here's the good news and the bad news on the boat:

The bad news: The port engine needs the top end rebuilt.

The more bad news: You can't get those parts in these parts.

The good news: For a small fortune the Miami Grandparents are sending a small package worth another small fortune to Mail Boxes Etc. here in Bocas. Should be here in 7-10 business days. Thank you, Miami Grandparents for running around the greater Miami area on our behalf. I guess there were a few more things we forgot to buy. You two are life-boat savers.

The bad news: The majority of the sheets (ropes) on the boat are brittle and frayed.

The good news: Another cruiser here in Bocas just happened to offer a boat load (literally) of brand new lines. We bought them all for a small fortune.

The bad news: We were supposed to leave Panama a week ago to head north in time to pick up our friends in Honduras on March 5. Rule number one of cruising: NEVER make plans involving firm dates. We should have known better.

The good news: Those friends are spending a small fortune and flying here instead. Phew.

The good news: Dave borrowed a prop puller and was able to muscle off the half eaten props.

The bad news: The bolts are bent and so even though we have two replacement props (a small miracle, btw) we can't install them.

The more bad news: Of course they don't sell those particular hex bolts anywhere besides the Volvo Penta Marine Diesel Dealership in Virginia.

The good news: We paid a small fortune to have them overnighted to the Miami grandparents who included them in our care package. Should arrive in 7-10 days.

The bad news: The inverter seems to be dead and is not charging our house batteries. So even though we are on the dock and have unlimited 110V electricity we still have to run our engine and charge our batteries in order to be able to use our 12V systems (like the fridge, lights, and fans).

The good news: For a small fortune, Mark is picking up a new inverter in David, Panama. In the meantime, we borrowed a battery charger from a neighbor here on the dock so we have unlimited 12V.

The bad news: The windows and hatches still leak sumpin' fierce.*

The good news: It rains enough inside our boat for me to collect all of the water I need to do dishes for a whole day. 

*Since I typed this up Dave has sealed the windows by caulking the insides (caulking the outside wasn't enough).

This picture makes me laugh right out loud. It was taken overlooking the Mira Flores Locks of the Panama Canal. We had about 25 minutes before we had to be at the airport for our puddle jumper to Bocas del Toro. You know that scene in Vacation where Chevy Chase stands with his family overlooking the Grand Canyon, bobs his head for 3 seconds, and says, "Ok. Let's go!" That was us at the Panama Canal. We ran up the stairs to the overlook, had someone snap this pic, watched a big ship move halfway through the locks and then ran back down the stairs to our waiting taxi. Panama Canal: check.

On our way to Cauchero with our friend, Mark. Crazy as ever!

A darling family in Loma Partida. Look at that sparkling white laundry! (I wonder is she gets hers to dry.)

Dave trying to hear the weather report on the SSB overlooking the bay where Balance is moored. How 'bout them views...

Our first day of home school on the boat. No. It's not as much fun as it looks. At least not so far. 

Now this is as much fun as it looks. The kids have discovered the bosin chairs. They spend several hours a day swinging from the rigging like monkeys and throwing poop at the neighbors. 

A typical scene on our boat...

Need I say more?