Mahina Expeditions offers offshore sail-training expeditions, offshore sailing seminars and boat purchase consultation.
That night off the coast of Columbia we watched lights of what we assumed was a slow-moving fishing boat. We changed course so as not to pass astern and be endangered by their fishing gear. As we got to within a mile, they must have spotted us as they changed course and through our Fujinon stabilized binoculars we could see it was a funny old freighter that was barely making way into the large seas.
Yesterday morning we dropped the main so Amanda and crew could restitch a seam by hand near the head of the main. Under the poled-out 130% genoa I was surprised that we still sailed along nicely at 6-7 knots. The repair took about 40 minutes after which, with some pressure on the reef lines, our crew managed to rehoist the main without ever taking down the pole or coming into the wind.
AIS has proven very useful and interesting again. This coast of Columbia is a busy area with freighters and oil tankers passing in many directions, some headed to Europe from the Canal, some heading from South America to the Caribbean, and even more ships passing us enroute to the Canal. It’s sure interesting to note their specifics. On arrival in Antigua at the end of the last leg the AIS started flipping the orientation of the ships from their radar target then quit altogether. After pushing all the standard features and reloading the program I was totally at loss as to what to do. Thankfully I came across a Raymarine installer who was outfitting a new Horizon Yacht Charter boat in the marina and with a few minutes of going through the setup he quickly discovered that the NMEA port setting needed to be reset to AIS 38400 mode. Geez, it sure would have been a bummer not to have the AIS working for the high traffic area on either side of the Canal. We now ask expedition members to be very cautious of pushing buttons when adjusting the radar…
With 200 miles and 24 hours to go until dawn in the San Blas Islands, we have been trying to keep the boat speed down as we must ensure a daylight arrival. Several of our Leg 8 crew had mentioned that heavy weather downwind experience was one of their reasons for selecting this leg, and I know they have enjoyed this great sailing, as Mahina Tiare has occasionally touched 11 knots! Having a nearly full moon every night of the passage has been a huge bonus as there is nothing like racing down silver-colored waves on a warm, tropical night!
December 17, 2008, 1930 hrs, 09.35 N, 078.40 W, Log: 124,255 miles
We had a picture-perfect landfall, great visibility, lots of wind, breakers on either side and we were able to sail right to the entrance of Holandes Cay anchorages. We saw several boats spread out in distant anchorages, but chose to drop anchor in a well-protected spot to leeward of a reef. Within minutes everyone had dove in the bathtub-warm water and the rest of the day was a quiet one, with only Paul and Clive up for a dinghy trip and walk on tiny, uninhabited, palm tree covered islet. After a special dinner and some chocolate cake nearly everyone ended up in the cockpit watching the moonrise over the sparkling, silver lagoon.
This morning Euginio a tiny Kuna Indian guy who lives alone on a small nearby island came by dugout canoe to see if we would be interested in seeing some molas his wife, who lives 20 miles away on another island, had made. Several crew bought some very colorful and creative molas and Drew found an exceptional appliquéd t-shirt for his wife.
Knowing that once we anchor off villages it will be non-stop visits from Kuna with molas to show us, we are concentrating on getting ahead with our teaching schedule, having covered electrical power systems earlier, Amanda is now just completing three-strand line splicing.
Our last crew were full of colorful stories, but this group are non-stop jokers – what a great time they are having! Talk of disastrous economic times, politics, flights home are ancient history – these guys are enjoying every moment to the max and are actually very interested in learning everything possible about ocean cruising.
Here they are!
Paul Coleman, 32
I was born in Bermuda where we lived on a small island in the lagoon and grew up sailing, even on occasion sailing my dinghy to school. Although we recently lived aboard a SoPac 42 sloop in Seattle, I now live in Bermuda with my wife and two kids. Heidi and I are avid tennis players with dreams of taking a mid-career interlude and sailing the South Pacific – playing tennis on as many remote islands as possible.
Greg Barnett, 50
I am a law enforcement officer from Southern California and my interest in sailing began as a young boy when I read a series of books about young boys sailing adventures in the South Pacific. Later, as a teenager, I crewed for my gather on his Ericson 29 in Hawaii, and I was hooked! I joined this expediting to see if full time cruising sis something I want to do in retirement. This trip had been EVERYTING I hoped it would be!
Clive Duncan, 63
I am an orthopaedic surgeon and university professor originally from Dublin, Ireland but now enjoying living in Vancouver, BC. I have been sailing the magical coastline of British Columbia and in many other parts of the world for 30 years on a succession of boats, the latest a Sceptre 43. Since my teens it has been my dream to cross oceans and experience other cultures at a level I have only read of, up tto now or heard described by offshore yacthies. This opportunity to be introduced to this very special way of seeing our world has been given to me in abundance by the unique talents of John & Amanda and by our adventure-packed two weeks. I will now proceed with my dream although I have so much more (and John may think I should swallow the anchor).
Drew Lambert, 58
I sail a Hunter 340 out of the Puget Sound and San Juan Island area. Offshore sailing and cruising to distant lands has long been an interest, as has been continuously increasing seamanship knowledge and skills. Drew is a radiologist for a health care cooperative.
Chris Cowman, 8 4/7 dog years
I retired at 50 after 30 years of being a CEO of a wholesale distribution corp. Travel, golf, skiing racing sailboats an cruising my power boat have kept me busy. Needing a challenge, I worked as a shipwright restoring classic wooden yachts for 2.5 years before finding a new opportunity with Walker Bay Boats (www.walkerbay.com) in 2003. I started Alki Beach Boats selling inflatable dinghies and kayaks. I have long raced sailboats and have dreamed of going offshore. I’ve owned and lived aboard a 42’ single screw trawler for 22 years.
Ron Cantu, 61
My wife and I live near Seattle where we’ve owned a variety of sailboats and most recently a small powerboat. I am a general dentist passion for visiting interesting locations, especially by sail. This expedition offers excellent preparation for a unique approach to traveling and an opportunity to meet people from all walks of life.
On December 18th, following Euginio’s visit and class crew set about sorting eye glasses while it was still quiet. We’d planned an action packed day visiting Kuna so Paul, navigator for the day, had done his work the night before with assistance from Drew. This entails laying out the courses on the paper charts, programming the waypoints into the cockpit GPS and reading off the coordinates to me to speed up their input into the Nobeltec VNS software that runs on the chart table laptop as a backup. Navigational chart coverage for the San Blas Islands (both paper and electronic) is far from accurate or detailed, but we had some moderate detail from Eric Bauhaus’ excellent Panama Cruising Guide.
After a quick lunch we soon had the anchor up and two appointed spotters aloft on the mast pulpits. With a following wind we unrolled the genoa and set sail between the coral reefs aiming towards Paul’s first waypoint.
As we got to the narrowest spot we encountered coral heads in three directions. I noticed that the course Paul was taking us on was actually into a small shallow inlet where two boats were anchored with a 2.7 meter depth at the far end. We had passed this entry the previous day and briefly considered anchoring here, as there was less wind, but then rejected it as our overnight anchorage due to the shallow depth. Unfortunately we were also now heading almost directly into the sun, with poor visibility for coral piloting.
I pointed this out to Paul but our crew aloft said, “the reef is just to starboard!” Thinking that we would just have room to turn to deeper water, I got Paul to steer quickly to port. But not quickly enough! At that instant the wind gusted up to 12 knots, and with a mighty thud, Mahina Tiare hit the reef and heeled to starboard!
OH, NOT THIS AGAIN was my internal dialog. Our crew acted like a well-meshed team. Someone instantly let the genoa sheet fly while some furled the sail – I never saw whom. Everyone was fine, Mahina Tiare was bouncing slightly though not banging at all. Paul said the wheel felt like rudder was free and had not hit the coral. Within seconds Amanda came bounding up the companion way with Seal mask in hand. She ran forward and assessed the shallow coral along the entire starboard side. Donning her mask and red swim cap she dove in and swam the length of MT underwater checking the keel before and popping up at the bow saying “It’s all a big blue sandy cloud down here”. Crew eagerly offered to help Amanda but she felt confident enough in her diving ability and didn’t think there was a need to have more people in the water.
We were in a bit of a quandary. Going forward wasn’t an option and the wind and small waves were pushing us further up on the reef. There now looked to be less than 2’ of depth along the entire starboard side. Dead astern of us was still clear but I was concerned about the rudder being damaged if the wind pushed us more to leeward. A call came from Amanda to try putting the engine in reverse. Paul did an amazing job on the helm, calm and collected, acting on Amanda’s advice that was relayed by crew. He alternated the throttle in and out of reverse while I asked him to let me know the second he felt any backlash on the wheel from the rudder contacting any coral. He didn’t but that was not surprising as MT wasn’t moving.
“Hey! Try the bow thruster to port!” shouted an excited Amanda from the water. That was the trick! A couple of five second blasts of 10hp sideways on the bow and we were moving. I yelled for crew keep check on Amanda as she dove up and down checking the keel. I needn’t have asked that of crew. Chris had his eyes glued to her, concerned about the force of the bow thruster, and Greg was relaying her instructions. Slowly MT backed up and spun. Seconds after MT was free Amanda popped up and said “The keel looks great, just the usual coral scratches. Let’s boogie!”
There were at least 20 cruising boats (15 more than we’d ever seen before in the area) anchored around the Hollandes Keys and although I didn’t hear the call over the VHF, one of our crew heard someone announce on Ch 16 that there was a boat on the reef. Four dinghies were now speeding our way. As the first inflatable neared our stern Amanda leaped aboard, hauled up the stern ladder and yelled “We’re fine! Thanks for coming to help, but we’re OK!”
It was all over in perhaps a couple minutes. With that, we retraced our original entrance track on the Nobeltec (sounds like Spitsbergen, last summer, doesn’t it!) to deeper water. Crew heard the VHF crackle and a voice state that the yacht on the reef was free but they didn’t know who it was as they unable to read the yachts name. Whew, we’d escaped with our reputation intact! Once in deep water we set sail in nice flat trade winds for the distant mountains on the mainland. Our schedule today involved Lifesling Overboard training and a stop at Rio Sidra Island to deliver dental, school supplies and eyeglasses before heading to a safe but somewhat challenging mainland mangrove-lined anchorage called Gaigar.
Now having lost some time on the reef (and had ourselves enough excitement) we decided to visit Rio Sidra tomorrow and wait for clear water for Lifesling training. Knowing that it’s best to check with a village as to convenient visiting hours we thought it best to inform Mormake Tapu, a tiny island that we have been most involved with our eyeglass/school book project, that we’d like to visit tomorrow. In the strong afternoon trades gusting to 22 kts we carefully tried to find some protection in the lee of Mormake Tapu but the winds were shifty and there was no clear water visibility to discern the coral from sand patches or ascertain where the large reefs on all sides actually were. After some very cautious maneuverings we managed to get anchored safely.
Within minutes three dugout canoes had been launched and were paddling our way.
Venancio Restrapo, our Kuna Indian artist friend waved wildly from his pitching canoe, after recognizing Mahina Tiare. He was glad to see us, but bore the sad news that his father, also an artist, had recently passed away. I told Venancio that we planned to anchor two miles away at Gaigar and asked if he would introduce us to the sila (chief) in the morning as we planned to visit the school and village. He agreed to meet us at 8 am and said he would tell all the artists our crew would be coming to see the village and look at their molas in the morning.
Venancio arrived at MT before 8am with a great pile of molas the following morning but after we bought a collection of molas he had little interest in introducing us to the sila claiming that he had to go to another anchorage to sell molas. Instead his younger brother Ildefonzo agreed to accompany us to the island. Soon after we anchored Idefonzo whisked us into the congresso (village meeting house) so we could ask the sila for permission to walk through the village. The new sila was young, maybe 40 or so, and was appreciative when it was explained we were again bringing school supplies, toothbrushes and eyeglasses. We paid the $5 anchoring fee, each shook hands with the sila, and then headed to the school to deliver supplies.
Greg had worked closely with his Rancho San Diego Kiwanis club and had packed a very valuable bag of school supplies. Ed Makauskas from Leg 1 2008 had given a generous donation which we added to so we ended up with a substantial array of school supplies which we give to the school headmaster. Ron had also bought toothbrushes and he gave an entertaining and informative teeth brushing lesson.
Our next excursion was a walk a visit to the Restrepo house and after paying our respects to the family and acknowledging the passing of their father we were taken tour around the village. Mormake Tapu is one of the smaller and more traditional villages. The women all wear traditional clothing and knowing we were coming they had dressed smartly for our visit. Displays of their best molas, winis (beaded wrist and anklets) and carvings were pinned on the sides of their bamboo houses. Many remembered us from previous visits and the older women were very keen to try out new reading glasses.
Once the women lose their ability to sew, they can’t help support their families so reading glasses are means of survival. One woman was so shy that I had to pass different strength reading glasses though her high bamboo fence. Another showed up wearing glasses we had given her two years earlier; string on one side where the arm was missing. The kuna women kept darting in and out chatting wildly and occasionally I would step on them or run into their houses and they hustled past. After we made the village rounds, with all crew buying very interesting and exquisite molas and carvings, the sila called us back and gave our crew gifts of molas and carvings from the school as a thank you for our gifts.
After fond farewells we motored a couple miles through the reefs to anchor off Rio Sidra, the nearby much larger village where we had previously delivered medical and school supplies. Ron Cantu, our dentist from Seattle delivered a large number of toothbrushes, dental tray and fluoride treatments courtesy of Washington Dental Services to the clinic. We also tracked down the school headmaster and delivered another set of school supplies. We found a little store whose owner used to cook for one of the US bases and bought a cake and hot Kuna bread sticks before setting sail for Yansadar, a distant, difficult but very special anchorage.
We had an excellent reach and managed to arrive with good bright overhead light at the narrow entrance to Yansadar - one of our most favorite anchorages anywhere. After weaving our way though the reef to a cool clear perfect anchorage, a family group of young girls visited from the tiny islet bringing some gorgeous molas and winis. When we had last visited, two years earlier, another family had just established an island home on the nearby reef. They’d hauled rocks, sand, thatch, timber and bamboo in their dugout sailing canoe many miles to create their own island as they were tired of living so close to everyone in their village. This time instead of showcasing the usual molas they arrived with a couple of exquisite beaded glass bracelets and left with a promise to make two more that evening.
Early the next morning we set sail for Colon, Panama and by the time we were in clear water past Chichime the Christmas trades were cranking. Mahina Tiare boiled along like a race horse with solid 8+ knots as we sailed down the ragged coast twice passing small islands of land floating freely. All day long the strong and favorable sailing winds held and by 1400 things really started happening as we approached and sailed through the main Caribbean entrance for the Panama Canal. There were ships everywhere, launches and tugs coming and going, and lots of wind! We shot through the entrance a zoomed along the northern breakwater to the new Shelter Bay Marina, part of a former US military base. As we entered the marina Jesus, the marina manager pointed out a slip and gave us a hand with lines.
We had only heard about Shelter Bay Marina, as it wasn't officially open the last time we came through Panama. Previously we had spent Christmas and the following week at Panama Canal Yacht Club on the other side of the bay, in Colon, and it was a little grim. The rubbish dump upwind burned continuously and by the end of our stay the boat and sun awning were coated in soot. Security in the yacht club was fine but we were warned about our personal safety if we were to step outside the gates. The yacht club taxi driver escorted us around the grocery store and we did wonder about our safety as the store guards all held automatic weapons.
Shelter Bay was the opposite, kind of a cruiser's paradise. It is located on a former US (and now Panamanian) military base 25 minutes from Colon, and surrounded by a huge national park. There are no security issues and prices are reasonable. A main bonus is an excellent 75 ton Travelift and dry storage room for hundreds of boats. Other amenities include a new swimming pool and hot tub overlooking the marina, a very reasonable restaurant, storage lockers, wi-fi, and even apartments for rent for those working on their boats ashore. The marina runs a free 20-passenger bus to a safe new shopping center at 8 am daily, returning at noon.
It didn't take our crew long to find the free showers, excellent laundry facilities ($2 ea. wash and dry in huge commercial machines) and veranda bar and restaurant.
Chris and Clive spent part of Saturday afternoon test paddling the newly designed Walker Bay inflatable tandem kayak which Chris had just brought from Walker Bay for us to test and review. They claimed it is awesome boat. We can’t wait to spend some serious paddling time in it.
Before we knew it Leg 8 was over, and we said goodbyes to our incredible crew Sunday noon.
We enjoyed meeting Bruce, the liveaboard marina manager, and Amanda especially enjoyed getting to know Pippin, their orphaned pet three-toed sloth.
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