[060529; 2229 UTC,
[Bahía de Caráquez, Manabí, Ecuador
S 00 degrees 36.61 / W 080 degrees 25.26’]
Greetings from South America! Shortly after we sent our last update, we departed Panamá City to begin our journey to Ecuador. Optimal winds had disappeared with the end of dry season and we were faced with an uphill battle against winds and adverse currents. Though we enjoyed our stay in Panamá City, we anticipated but were a wee bit anxious about going to sea once again (an emotion we are told is shared by even the most seasoned sailors). Digging deep into our provisions, we fortunately found a small vial of patience tucked away, popped the cork and settled into exploring the islands adjacent to Panamá City (Taboga and Otoque) as we waited for at least some wind to drive us out of the Gulf and into the Pacific once more.
Isla Taboga was settled shortly after Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean; missionaries and Europeans began arriving here in the early 16th century, even before Panamá City was founded. Taboga sits only eight miles from Balboa with a broad anchorage that stretches across a mile or more to Isla Taboguilla, site of oil storage tanks. Within this wide bay sit deep draft vessels awaiting canal transit and a few derelict boats that appear to be anchored here permanently.
A small, lush, flowering island with a tiny community snuggled into a steep hillside, the island also served as the site of a sanitorium for yellow fever and malaria in the early days of construction of the Panamá Canal. Today, the tiny and neat concrete homes, each with their own porches, line narrow ways that can hardly be called roads. We saw only two miniature flatbed trucks on the island which were being used to deliver supplies such as propane that arrive via ferry from the mainland. Primarily a weekend getaway for city dwellers, the town was quiet when we visited. The only establishments we found open were a tienda/panaderia in two rooms of a narrow, deep and dark home and convenience store/Chinese restaurant.
The following day we pushed on further south enjoying a day of light wind sailing and arrived by mid afternoon at Otoque Occidente, the village and small indent on the northwestern corner of tiny, hilly Isla Otoque. Our first night there (with friend Bruce from 5th Element) we noticed a klatch of elderly men sitting on the old pier. There appeared to be little other activity on the island. The next morning the three of us powered Bruce’s dinghy around this pier at mid-tide and pulled it up onto the tiny rocky beach which was surrounded by concrete bulkheads.
Here we were greeted by a man named Pliñio. A bowlegged retired shrimper with thick grey hair, glasses, dark skin and a quiet manner, Pliñio, chose or was appointed by his peers, to be our guide. Taking us along the paths throughout the village of mostly empty homes, he brought us to the top of the hill and proudly showed us the Casa de Cultura (Bailar) or House of Culture (Dance), an open sided structure with a smooth tile floor which he said was used for fiestas. When we asked about a school, he explained the school was closed for lack of a maestro; the health department was also boarded up. When we pressed him for information as to whether there was a road or path to the village (Oriente) on the other side of the island, he stalled a bit then took off up the hill and bid us to follow.
A rough footpath ascended into the jungle, followed a swampy area set in the saddle of the small mountain and eventually descended into Otoque Oriente. Along the route, Maximo, a muscular young man with a pug nose, floppy hat and a machete fell in behind. Chatting with us about the island and its people, Maximo and Pliñio were happy to satisfy our curiosities with information and trivia. At one point, Leslie asked about a small red fruit seen along the trail; soon we found ourselves sampling a local plum and later received a gift of a bag full as we departed. Oriente was settling into a Fiesta de Fatima which meant vendors of beer were busy (though it was still morning) and the fishermen were imbibing or frolicking with their children in the tiny bay. A quick tour of town brought many curious villagers to the porches of their immaculate, though simple and tiny, homes. We were the only non-villagers on the island and were somewhat of a curiosity. After a quick trip to the local tienda for pop (and a few essentials like eggs) our group was brought back around the island by a panga for a toll of $5 plus a gallon of gasoline (that they needed to get them to the mainland in order to buy more). Upon parting from Pliñio, we thanked him for his warm hospitality with a small tip and gifts of clothing and returned to our boats.
Overnight that night, convection brought gusting north winds and a bit of an uncomfortable night at anchor prompting 5th Element to begin his passage to Ecuador at five am the next morning. We weren’t convinced that reliable winds had yet arrived. We also wanted to stay another day to repair the zipper on our staysail bag as it had disintegrated in the sun. Fortunately for Bruce, but unfortunately for us, north/northwest winds continued throughout the day. This wind eventually drove us to move around the island to the south anchorage, called Ensenada de Pata. Wide and open and surrounded by steep hills, this rocky anchorage offers excellent protection from north winds but suffers from influx of southerly swell. Most of our stay was comfortable with winds keeping us pointed north and allowing us to take long rolling swell astern. However at about 0100 the next morning, winds diminished and allowed the incoming tide to set Carina beam to the swell, making sleeping difficult. With weather predictions looking favorable the next morning we decided to pull anchor and head for Ecuador, riding the current and light northerly winds southwest towards Punta Mala (literally, “bad point”). Beam reaching in the dark past Punta Mala in 10 – 12 knots of wind and a following current early the next morning did not prepare us for the difficult passage that was to follow.
We had studied pilot chart data and talked with many who’d made this same passage so we knew it was imperative we gain some westing before turning south and east towards Ecuador. Early invierno (winter or rainy season here in the tropics) winds we encountered about twenty miles SW of Punta Mala were directly in our path and built, bringing with them current-confused seas of nine feet or more. After two days of squally conditions and rough seas and unable to go where we intended, we hove-to one night to rest and consider our options. (Heaving-to is the maneuver of back-winding your sails while lashing the ship’s wheel to weather—essentially “parking” the boat in one spot).
Even hove to, we still kept watches but saw little during the black, starless night as we drifted backwards amongst pounding waves, losing about 28 miles due to the current that was running against us. The morning dawned clear and the seas seemed a bit more behaved, so we decided to continue on beating our way southwest towards a goal of a waypoint just west of Isla Malpelo, home to a Colombian military base. After a couple more days of tacking, during which we hardly made fifty miles a day towards our goal and being short of our Isla Malpelo waypoint by about twenty miles, we turned southeast and headed for Ecuador,. After a total of ten days of mostly difficult sailing (beating into the wind in adverse current and confused seas), we finally arrived at the boca (mouth) of the Rio Chone at Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador on a cloudy, cool Wednesday May 24, 2006. We had sailed nearly 800 miles for a rhumb line trip of approximately 600 miles! As we look back on the passage, we realize how much we learned about driving Carina to weather under conditions we’d never encountered before and that has made us appreciate the valuable lessons it taught us and the confidence it has engendered.
Friends in the Bahía and at Puerto Amistad, a local cruiser club and restaurant, coordinated the services of a pilot from the oficina de Capitanía de Puerto. Manuel arrived just after noon, and came aboard fragrant with aftershave and smartly dressed in khaki and black street shoes. He was a competent and confident pilot who spoke in rapid fire Spanish but was reassuring in his mannerisms. The estuary bar was easier than others we’ve crossed but it is convoluted and we quickly understood why use of a pilot is compulsory. Anchored a half an hour later in the estuary, we were visited by a uniformed representative of the port captain’s office. Señor Ruiz was efficient and thorough, inspecting our documents, passports, immunization records, boat’s bilge, safety equipment, etc. (For some reason we couldn’t fathom, he chose to sniff our flares.) Soon we were welcomed to the country and asked to take down our yellow “Q” , or quarantine flag, and to visit the oficina de Capitanía “mañana a la mañana” (tomorrow in the morning) to finalize our check-in.
Bahía, as it is known locally, sits on a north-jutting sandy spit at the base of sandy bluffs. The residents are extremely poor but the town hosts modern towers of weekend condominium getaways for the elite of Quito, Ecuador’s capital. A self-proclaimed eco-town, the immaculately maintained though potholed streets are filled with bicycles and also pedi-cabs that charge 50 cents for a ride anywhere in town. Downtown buildings still show damage from a devastating earthquake that compounded El Niño rains in the late 1990s and resulted in many deaths. A public market assembles twice per week offering a wide selection of farm fresh vegetables and, seemingly incongruous, gorgeous bouquets of flowers. The estuary and its boca are extremely rich in fish and shrimp and scores of lanchas ply its muddy waters. The tidal range and shallowness of the river result in a sobering current that combined with a soft muddy bottom challenges even the best anchoring technique.
Puerto Amistad, run by Tripp and his Colombian wife Maye, offers cruisers a dinghy dock, propane, laundry, fuel, bottom cleaning and other essential services (like HOT showers), in addition to a beautiful club house facility and restaurant. This will be our home base as we explore South America in the upcoming months.
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip and Leslie with el gato hermoso, Jake