Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Thoughts on the first leg of our journey

Tomorrow we are due to go through the Panama Canal, so this seems a good time to reflect on the journey so far.  We have come 1525 nautical miles since Antigua, with 15 friends and one stowaway, without arguments and with immense pleasure in their company and our surroundings.  If I (Nicky) had to pick a favourite place, it might be Klein Curacao after the tourist boats had departed and we had the island pretty much to ourselves (we had to share it with a very excitable dog).

Panama has been a mixed bag.  Although the San Blas islands were stunning, once you went ashore it was distressing how much plastic had been washed up and how little effort was being made to clear it away – some financial incentive is needed, I suspect. Cartagena is another strong contender for favourite place. I wish I could communicate better in Spanish, not just to be able to order meals or ask the way, but to hold proper conversations with locals. 

At Villa Tavida, the wonderful, isolated lodge inland from Penonome where we spent two days last weekend, lovely Maria Beatrix told us about the petroglyphs and gave us an insight into local life, while Julio took us on a great hike up to the ridge, where we could see the watershed – one side, the rivers run to the Atlantic, while the other side they end up in the Pacific Ocean.  We swam in the pool under the waterfall, visible and audible at all times from the hotel, and had a hot mud massage, which left our skin fantastically soft.  Driving to Tavida was a challenge.  We had been warned, but it was still extraordinary to witness drivers doing U turns on a dual carriageway! 

We are looking forward to seeing Panama City on the Pacific side; Colon, the nearest city to Shelter Bay marina where we’ve spent the past ten days, is horrible.  We have spent more time in Colon than we’d have chosen to, and definitely more time in a Panamanian provincial hospital, because Charlie, who was our skipper on Calliope in summer 2016 and brought her across the Atlantic, before he moved onto Miss Tiggy, another Oyster 575, has been critically ill there, with blood clots in his leg and lung.  Don’t take out medical travel insurance with Bishops Skinner – they have been awful!  We hope that following his operation yesterday, he will make a speedy recovery. 

Shelter Bay marina is very friendly – there’s yoga in the mornings, aqua aerobics in the afternoons and social activities galore.  Oyster organised a great party at Fort Lorenzo, just up the road, where Spanish conquistadores stored gold and silver before it was shipped to Europe.  There wasn’t room for the silver inside the fort, so apparently it lay in heaps outside.  Charles mended a davit cable and, mindful of an incident in Greece, was very careful not to drop the weight into the water.  However, a spanner went overboard and Charles dived in the dark marina water to find it.

We will go through the Canal over the course of two days – the timing is out of our hands, as each boat is assigned a Transit Advisor.  We will probably be rafted up as a ‘nest’ of three yachts, but even so, we will be tiny compared to the huge container and cruise ships which take up a whole lock on their own.  Look out for us on the Panama Canal webcam:  - though when we tried recently, one of the cameras was out of action. On Thursday we’ll go up 26 metres in three locks, and that night we’ll moor in Gatun Lake.  We can’t drop our anchor, as we’re told it might get caught in the branches of the trees which were submerged when the Chagres River was dammed to create the lake.  Neither can we swim – there are apparently lots of crocodiles.  Then on Friday, we’ll motor the length of the lake, before going down the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks and under the Bridge of the Americas, out into the Pacific!  We have some new acquaintances on board to help with the transit, Sue, Spiro and Neil, but from there on, Charles and I are on our own to the Galapagos, about 1,000 miles, which I’m really looking forward to, though I’m a bit apprehensive about the night watches.  In Panama City we will do major provisioning as there’s not much shopping between there and Tahiti, two months’ sailing away.  Those who know my love of lists won’t be surprised that I’ve been having fun, working out food and other requirements for 60 days.

I think of home a lot.  There are lots of items aboard which remind me of people – the Cretan lemon squeezer from my parents, the bread bag from Richard and Ishbel, the chess set Maarten and Hein brought, Lucky the Pakeman teddy with his lifejacket, even (thank you Caroline) the dustbin bags which fit our odd-shaped bin so perfectly.  When I wake up in the middle of the night and our natural air conditioning (aka the wind) is blowing too strongly for me to get back to sleep, I miss Switzerland, my parents, log fires and skiing.  It’s hard to realise the routines at home go on without us; I wish I could pop back for Book Club and Orangetheory Gym, and to see Pakeman children and staff.  Most of all, I miss our children and hope they won’t mind when I smother them in hugs when they join us – Alex and Pippa in Galapagos in 24 days (yes, I’m counting!) and Michael in July in Tahiti.  It’s good to hear that daffodils and blossom are out in England.  Keep the news coming!

Charles: in terms of sailing we have done 1525 on the log since Antigua, but we have had strong current behind us from Grenada to Cartagena, so total miles higher.  We have used 55 engine hours and 45 on the generator, so the winds have been kind and favourable!  Nothing major has gone wrong, and we have done maintenance jobs here in Shelter Bay, oil changes and general checks.  We have started up the freezer and Nicky is filling it with meals for the Pacific.  The coast of Colombia was kind to us for the three night passage we sailed with Nick and Alexia rarely getting over 25 knots.  From Cartagena to San Blas we did have 33 knots and 25-30 for about 7 hours with Ben, Sara and Annemie.  Calliope coped with it all very well, and the autopilot was a great help!

Monday, 13 March 2017

Guest Blog - Ben Stocks writes

Cartagena to Panama City.  Feb 26 to Mar 6
Annemie van Berckel, Sara and Ben Stocks crewing

Six weeks into their adventure, Charles and Nicky were well when we met them. Both were nut brown and glowing with health, with Charles's strappy sandals revealing a new relaxed outlook on life.

Cartagena is cool.  Built inside a fort, the old city has small streets lined with balconies and bouganvillea.  At night it is packed with bars, clubs and youth.  By day it is mostly cafes and street vendors.  Sara quickly scored the tourist trifecta of Panama hat, 100% genuine Raybans, and a colourful woven bag, leaving time for a quick debrief with Nick and Alexia Bell who were leaving Calliope after a wonderful passage from Bonaire,  Their reports were of blue water sailing, yellowfin tuna sashimi, and the AIS switched off for fear of Venezuelan pirates.

Leaving Cartagena after a long and liquid lunch, we had a short shake-down sails to Islas Rosario, anchoring there for the night before the 160NM passage to San Blas.  This turned out to be an uncomfortable 24 hours of 3 metre seas, and winds gusting to 33 knots.  The crew did little actual crewing, but Charles and Nicky were unperturbed,  Indeed Charles found time to practise his navigation with his sextant placing us, somewhat disconcertingly, 3 degrees south of the equator, when the GPS had us 10 degrees north.  Long discomfort was rewarded with dolphins off the bow at dawn and picture book islands by breakfast:

The San Blas are spectacular.  We island-hopped: Coco Banderos, Holandes Cays, Lemmon Cays, Sugardup and Isla Linton.  All were beautiful: palm trees, white sand, turquoise sea and the distant boom of surf on the reef.  A few are inhabited, most are not.  The Guna Yala people do not allow fishing or the harvesting of coconuts, but will sell lobsters, fish or embroidered molas.  We dined on red snapper, watched eagle rays gliding in the shallows and snorkelled.  Between islands trade winds made for excellent sailing and cool nights on board.  Entirely delightful.

Some things didn't go as planned.  Doc van B was called back into Lemmon Cays to stitch an Aussie Oyster foot.  Ordered into the water to scrub the antifouling, some of the crew (Annemie & Ben) were more diligent than others (Sara).  The ice-maker broke, and we ran out of wine.  Every morning Annemie studied the books, guides and charts to announce a plan which Charles would quietly ignore.  There was much laughter and never a cross word.

The final passage into Shelter Bay at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal was one of lumpy seas and a 25kn following wind.  Shipping lanes are clearly marked but the size, number and speed of the container vessels at the entrance to the canal breakwater is impressive.  We left the Oyster fleet preparing to be measured and fitted out with new warps before crossing the continent.  Calliope heads to the Pacific with a clean bottom; Charles and Nicky head off for some R&R in the Panama rainforest and this happy crew heads home.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Cartagena de Indias

Courtyard in Cartagena

We left Bonaire and sailed to Klein Curacao, a sandy island with a shipwrecked freighter from 100 years ago, a lighthouse and little else save a few day trippers who left and then the island was ours. Hein saw a shark under the boat when snorkelling, Nick and hitchhiker Laurens went kite-surfing and the sun went down with a hint of a green flash.

Curacao has the oldest synagogue in South America and lovely old architecture. Spanish Harbour is a fantastic natural harbour.  Our enjoyment of the island only marred by inefficient and duplicative bureaucracy with customs and immigration in different places.

So we left on Sunday morning to round the fearsome Colombian headland.  A bright and breezy sail between Aruba and Venezuela had its excitement when the mainsheet block snapped leaving us with a sail thrashing around dangerously.  Good teamwork by Nicky and Nick tamed the beast, and on we went for 3 days and 3 nights.  We ended up going only 30NM off the point and the highest wind we saw was high Force 6, gusting light Force 7 which from the stern was not a problem.

Punta Gallinas and Bahia Honda were deserted miles of beaches and sand dunes and vast bays and inland lagoons.  We tried to put the anchor down unsuccessfully onto a rocky bottom and so sailed on to Cabo de la Vela, catching 2 Spanish mackerel on the way, where we finally saw some people, a mix of local fishermen and kite surfers including the local kids who were doing the most amazing jumps.  Nick had a good kite, Nicky and Alexia bought brightly coloured bags and friendship bracelets from the local Guajira people, and we left after dinner for a second night.  Winds began to drop and the following day we flew the asymmetric, saw two pilot whales followed by the most enormous number of birds, and five minutes later caught a yellow fin tuna.  All fish expertly cleaned and filleted by Nick. Amazing views of the 18000 feet snow capped Sierra Nevada di Santa Marta. 
Cartagena door knocker

STOP PRESS - NICKY ATE THE SASHIMI AND WENT BACK FOR MORE. She has also eaten Octopus in a restaurant in Cartagena.

We thought we would try to find a bay in the national park near Santa Marta, and pushed the VW engine hard to try to get us there in the dying of the light.  However, heading into a poorly charted set of bays after the sun had gone down seemed a bad idea, so off we were again for the 3rd night.  Crossing the mouth of Rio Magdalena and sailing down to Cartagena max wind again was 25 knots, so we managed our passage successfully without the 35 knots and big seas others had experienced 10 days earlier.  So Alexia, after months of worry about "some of the worst weather in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world", and all of us sailed over 500NM in 3 days in what felt very much like an offshore passage away from it all, well looked after by Calliope.  We are getting the feel of the boat, Nicky is so observant of anything round her and jumps to.  We have now sailed over 1100 NM and have only used 40 hours of engine and the same of generator.

Cartagena is a jewel.  The walled old city is at the head of a ten mile bay, has narrow streets and shady courtyards.  Buildings have the feel of Moroccan riads, excellent restaurants, boutique hotels and trendy bars abound.  But all this is in a city where you are surrounded by locals, kids going to school, so it is not a tourist ghetto.  The smallest yellow cabs get you anywhere for $2. For excellent sailing the first mate has acquired a stunning emerald necklace and earrings.  The Museo del Oro gives a sense of the civilisations that have lived here for over 2000 years; no one speaks English, but are all amazingly friendly.   Put Colombia on the list, and we have only seen a tiny corner of this beautiful country.  Off to the San Blas islands this week.

I think I have understood Lightroom to get small photos onto this blog, but please follow manbyc or nickymanby on Instagram, or Facebook to see more.

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Juan del Mar restaurant with Nick and Alexia

Friday, 17 February 2017

Leaving the windward islands–new destinations

Where did we leave you?  Laluna – Indigo Villa – in Grenada overlooking Morne Rouge Bay gave us 5 days of luxury living in John and Tim’s beautiful and tasteful villa with delicious meals at Laluna restaurant in the laid back and very cool hotel.  We had meant to explore more of Grenada but relaxation got the better of us and so we topped up the tan, swam across the bay, and did a little bit of boat maintenance and cleaning, aided or not by Curtis who thought that by taking all morning to wash one side of the boat, he would get another day’s work.
Maarten and Hein joined us, and after an aborted attempt to sail back to Carriacou – gentlemen don’t sail to windward – we spent the night on the south side of
Grenada and left for Bonaire at 9am on Saturday.  400NM and we arrived at lunchtime on Monday.  The first 24 hours was breezy at times, mainly Force 5, on a broad reach heading 285 so a little north of course, but speedy in 3-4m seas. The second 24 hours we poled out the genoa and headed directly downwind to reach the north side of Bonaire.  A good knot of current helping us on our way.
Sleep?  Not for the first night as rolly on the reach, with 3m seas which every so often gave a big lurch.  Lee cloths are tied to the ceiling in the cabins to give you a nautical equivalent of the Pine Board that you remember from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Maarten and Hein took 7-10pm and 1-4am, and Nicky and I were on for 10-1 and 4-7.   NIcky had cooked a lasagne (and three fruit cakes) at Indigo so we had a delicious supper eaten out of the dog bowls which kept the food safely.  The second day the wind faded on us a little to F4, the seas flattened and the poled-out rig meant Calliope sailed herself with Mr Auto for 24 hours.  Good teamwork and pleasant companionship.
It was a full moon and clear skies.  Venus ahead of us, Jupiter and his companion star Spica astern.  So much moon you could almost see the horizon all night, Orion above the mainsail.  In the morning four flying fish on deck.  I read Nicholas Nickleby on the passage, which took two days and made me think of “Dickens-in-a-week” for the English undergraduate at Oxford.  We sailed with AIS on silent and no nav lights on in case of Venezuelan pirates, saw one fishing boat and three freighters near Bonaire. Otherwise the sea was ours.  The second night we had all acclimatised and slept well in flatter seas.
So to Bonaire - a curate’s egg in my view; fabulous diving with amazing coral and crystal clear water.  I had one compulsory practice dive and two more, plus I tried out our mini scuba kit, while Nicky and others snorkelled.  Nicky said she spent the first half keeping an eye on the big “scuba fish”, and then the second half observing little fish once the big one had come up for air. A well organised marine environment with no anchoring allowed.  Salt pans cover the southern end of the island where Cargill extracts vast quantites of bright white salt from vast pink lakes. Flamingos fly across your path, which is distracting when you’re driving a motorbike.  A national park in the north with cactus and scrub that looks like Mexico.   We ate very well in a number of restaurants, and provisioned in van der Tweel, which is the Dutch Waitrose.  But Bonaire has no strategy as to what it wants to be. Planning rules seem non-existent with too much random building of industrial units and low grade tourist housing,  One or two cruise ships a day disgorge 3000 large passengers to be served by a host of vendors who sell T-shirts, Harley-Davidson bike tours, or just food.  It is an artificial imported environment and the mostly pleasant and friendly locals have been tempted into becoming too much “Mzungu” hunters to borrow a phrase from Alex. An under-managed marina and noisy neighbouring boats which ran their generators all night: their Colombian owners knew nothing of marina etiquette, and the harbour master was surprised we were complaining.  Dalliance, SunSuSea and Meteorite as fellow OWR participants made for jolly company.  We are rather the fleet back markers.
Nick and Alexia joined us and we picked up a hitchhiker, Laurens, a kite-surfing instructor and are now sailing towards Curacao.  Nick arrived with two Chelsea FC caps which have been banned in the forward cabin and which I plan to serve as fish food.  We plan to spend a day in Curacao, then move on past Aruba towards Colombia where the weather round the dreaded point looks as though it may be most gentle on Monday and Tuesday.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Retracing our steps from St Lucia to Grenada

Higbbury Terrace at sea.  Some things are different: the scenery, the colour of the water, the temperature.  Other things are similar: the quantity of white wine consumed, the snoozing by the gentlemen from number 9 and 10, accompanied by the occasional sussuration; the golf shots that are so nearly there and accompanied by an intake of breath as though surprise the ball is actually not on the green is an accurate reaction.  We played St Lucia which was very good fun – Bazza won by keeping it low and short – and then the extraordinary course of Canouan where you play nine holes through palm-fringed fairways alongside white sand beaches, and then climb maybe 150m up a hill to play a series of undulating, nay precipitous, holes.  Very good fun and I am glad to say the skipper came out on top.

Eating (and drinking) has been an important feature.  Cap Maison, on St Lucia, the Fig Tree and the Auberge on Bequia, the Cotton House on Mustique and an excellent BBQ of lobster and mahi mahi on Tobago Cays.  Lunch out has seemed best with delicious dinners aboard.  Bazza’s hand on the pepper sauce seems to be a bit shaky these days, so wehad very hot chicken.   John and Margaret are coming along very well as competent crew.

We cruised this way before en famille and have enjoyed some of the same and some new places.  Excellent anchorage between the Pitons with great snorkelling.  We didn’t anchor at Bat Cave Bay where the children spent hours on the stern line.  We tried unsuccessfully to make an afternoon visit to the waterfalls in St Vincent.  Margaret and I had two excellent dives in Bequia which remains the right mix of laid-back bustle and commercial opportunities.  Mustique is an airbrushed – beautifully so – bubble, Canouan’s resort well done but too juxtaposed with the village next door.  Now clearing customs in Union where the reef I “touched” those years ago is very visible.  

Boat boys in general seem to have got the message that aggressive sales techniques backfire, and polite asking with a smile wins, so in the last 24 hours we have bought the lobster BBQ on the beach, accompanied by rum punch, baguettes, T-shirts a-plenty.  So we have helped the local economy, particularly when John-tipper-Skerritt is in charge of the purser’s wallet.

In Bequia, Nicky found out without really asking that there is a volunteer reading programme for the local kids, so she, Sue, and Margaret all joined in reading, and Lucky the Pakeman bear was able to say hello and explain that some things are the same here as in London.

Sailing has been very good, F4/5 gusting 9 from the east, so fast reaching with some beating up to the islands east. Ms Too-Tippee being well behaved.

News of Alex completing his walk the length of Rwanda made us feel proud and glad that his feet has recovered to let him complete the last 83km out of 400km in 24 hours.  He is now in Malawi – follow amanby on tumblr for his entertaining blog.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Doing the admin in St Lucia

So we waved goodbye to the Admiral Grogs and Commodore Keith,  Boat is shiny clean, and we have been trying to fix things like the anchor shackle pin that sticks sometimes on the stemhead, and then gives a bish to the bow.

I have been fighting Microsoft and Adobe.  Tim Ashley persuaded me to try Lightroom and to buy a Sony camera, which is very nice but my version of Lightroom doesn't read the Sony RAW files.  It worked fine on the JPEGs.  So I try to update LR which seems to work ok but takes an hour on the slow wifi in the marina.  Then when I open LR it won't because there is a file missing.  Can I get it to load that - of course not.  So then I decide to buy Adobe Creative Cloud which is a subscription of course.  But you can't buy that in St Lucia!!

So I can get the Sony pictures on to Photos by Microsoft if I shoot JPEGs which was the whole thing Tim wanted me not to do.  But I can't get back to my previous version of LR which did work for JPEGs!

And the only reason we have a PC is because Inmarsat won't talk to Apple.  Inmarsat charges you $600 per month for 25MB!

So it may well be that the best method for photos is Instagram uploaded when we get to land.  And then I can edit a year's supply of photos on the Sony and Olympus when I get back!

Quick swim this morning off Pigeon island and then a shop for a birthday pair of shorts - I now have 2 as I left most of them at home!

And just to show it can be done, here is a photo of Nicky with post-swim hair as she says.

Thanks for birthday wishes.

Dominica, dolphins and dough

The saloon is filled with the wonderful aroma of freshly-baked bread.  Charles made bread a couple of days ago with an old packet of yeast and the result, while delicious, was a little…flat.  Today’s two loaves have risen beautifully.  Guadeloupe had proper French baguettes, and I’m sure that if we went ashore in Martinique we’d find the same; but Dominica’s bread was woefully white, soft and sweetish - too much British influence.  Otherwise, Dominica was a delight, though the town of Portsmouth is very unprepossessing.  We arranged a minibus and driver, Shadow, who was very proud and knowledgeable about his island and its plants and birds.  Hiking with him, we identified cinnamon, grapefruits, nutmeg, ginger root, coffee, taro (with which they make a kind of porridge) and picked basil to go in our tomato salad.  We heard, but didn’t see, the parrots which are their national symbol and feature on the flag.  When the island was devastated by Hurricane David in 1979, almost all the trees were knocked down and the parrots killed.  People responded to an appeal and released their pet parrots into the wild, where, thanks to strict controls, they now thrive.  We did see diminutive hummingbirds and a 500 year old tree.  Dominica is English-speaking but the local patois is French-based, so the tree names were fun: chatayn ti foy = chataigne avec petites feuilles, while one plant with long, split leaves was called zaile mouch = ailes de mouche.  We scrambled over rocks and across a stream (several times), finally reaching a tall, narrow waterfall with a chilly pool beneath it, where we all swam and cooled down.  We sucked on pieces of sugar cane on our way back.  A gentle sail - curiously this was on a beat even though heading south - brought us to Roseau, further down the Dominica coast, accompanied much of the way by four very playful dolphins. This is not meant to anthropomorphise them, but they did seem, when they rolled over and rubbed their bellies against our hull, to be saying “look at me!”   Keith took some great videos (rather a lot of them – editing will be needed!).  Sadly no whale sightings, though Nicky is researching them by reading Leviathan by Philip Gould (Moby-Dick next).  No luck with the fishing line either; Charles has just finished Kon-Tiki and reports they did better.
Other wildlife sightings: a barracuda, frightened by our dinghy, leaping from the sea and running, vertical, across the bay; a petrel (possibly; our bird identification skills are poor) skimming low alongside us this morning, scooping up flying fish, of which there were hundreds; and a lone, white, almost translucent-winged bird with a slender, elongated tail, which hung above our mast, checked us out, then disappeared.
We left at first light this morning and had a cracking passage under full sail including staysail at 9 knots of speed with wind at 90 degrees apparent at 12-16 knots.  Now motoring alongside Martinique.  Next stop will be Rodney Bay, Saint Lucia, this evening – unless we make a brief stop to swim and have lunch – and a last supper with this great crew who have made the start of the Oyster World Rally such fun.  On Tuesday, the O’Briens and Skerritts will join us, bringing post from Highbury Terrace and various items unavailable in the Caribbean.