We shoved off the dock at Falmouth Harbor, Antigua at high noon on Tuesday, and headed out into the deep blue Caribbean Sea, headed for Colon, Panama with our crew of 4 ready and excited for what King Neptune might have in store for us. The day was a beauty; winds were northeast at about 12 knots and blowing right down the rhumb line to Panama. The main sail was hoisted and the screecher unfurled on our bowsprit and soon we were humming along at 9 knots.
We set off on port tack to keep Montserrat to leeward, as sailing in her lee can cover one’s boat with all kinds of sulfurous ash and turn the whitest sails a putrid shade of yellow brown, like the Los Angeles skyline in summer. Just off the flank of the volcano, where the land drops quickly into an abyss 3 miles deep we hooked into the first fish of our trip, right when some dolphins showed up to surf our wakes. It fought hard and turned out to be an Atlantic Barracuda. Unlike the Pacific variety the Atlantic is inedible and typically contains a type of toxin, Ciguatera that can take down the strongest man. We successfully unhooked the 3-foot long, toothy friend and cast him back from where he came. Kahlil said this was good form, as its Maori tradition to throw the first fish you catch back, out of respect for the ocean. This worked because we soon landed a robust Skip Jack (type of tuna) and devoured him raw and all of 20 minutes out of the water. What a treat, the meat was firm, deep red and a little oilier than the rest of the tuna that were soon to inundate us.
The forecast the whole way was for 12 to 18 knot winds and some sections off the coast of Colombia to get into the 20 to 25 knot range. This never happened. The winds were consistently 8 to 12 knots, lighter than forecast the whole way and we were able to safely fly the screecher at angles most days and nights.
The watches went smoothly as everyone understood their roles and was game to help pull their weight. Two on two off with a change every 1.5 hours was the rotation schedule, with Kahlil and myself the stronger sailors never on watch together. Alarms were set and most times everyone was up and ready to take their turn without having to be woken up.
What a contrast from our first couple offshore passages, where we were waking each other up to constantly reef down the sails in the face of increasing breeze. We never once had to reef the main or jib and what ever sail we started the night out with, was still flying in the morning. With the exception of the big black spinnaker we dubbed “Vader”, as the Natty M resembles a Storm Trooper from Star Wars.
The second day out found us setting the spinnaker “Vader” to try to sail a little deeper than we could with the screecher. I have to say it worked quite well, we were able to put out the pole, keeping the sail out of the lee of our massive main and put multiple guys on both the clue and tack to keep it super stable and not collapsing too much. The winds were quite light, 10 knots or so and we flew Vader well into the night, relaxing all day on the trampolines in the deep shade of the big black sail. I have to say, the black color might not be as pretty and colorful as it could be, but it provided the deepest shade possible as no light could penetrate and it shielded the whole boat from the intense tropical sun.
The next couple of days were spent lazily sailing the boat on port tack, headed approximately for Bonaire well above rhumb line for Panama. We were reading books, fishing, working on our tans, watching dolphins play with our boat, talking shit and doing some minor boat work. The weather was fabulous, dinners were gourmet, with the best Sweet, Sour and Spicy pork I have ever made and an interesting spaghetti casserole made in the Pressure Cooker. Which worked out quite well as everything just went into one pot and was ready in all of 10 minutes. I could see how in rough sees the pressure cooker could be a lifesaver.
We jibed off the coast of Curacao and headed out on Starboard tack for the first time. Just as we blasted by Aruba we got our first of many Yellow Fin Tuna hookups. We landed a couple that first day and were in the money, with our sushi grade deep red fish. I made a sushi dinner that night, complete with spicy tuna roles and a couple gourmet roles of my own creation. It helps to keep your boat stocked with sushi rice, wassabi, ginger and nori, so you’re prepared when you do land da kind fish. I made a comment to Ben that night that we were doing good as we hadn’t “farmed” a fish yet. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut or at least knocked on wood.
The next day we were jibing 80 miles off the coast of Colombia playing the shifts as Panama was still DDW and had our three lines out. We only have one fishing pole, but two hand lines out and again started to have multiple hookups with, fish on both the pole and hand lines. Then it happened the reel started paying out line with its clicker set alerting us to the fish on. When I grabbed the pole and took my fighting position I immediately knew I had a big one. Kahlil furled the screecher and oversheated the main to slow down as much as possible, approx. 3 knots, but the fish just kept taking out line and more line. I was increasing the drag as much as I dared, but soon was just out of line. Increasing the drag with just a few more turns of line around the spool resulted in the line finally breaking leaving me with an empty reel and out of breath.
I quickly respooled the reel with as much line as it could hold and just before dark it happened again. Another monster fish, just stripping line at a ridiculous pace until none was left. What could I do, but increase the drag until the line snapped with about 5 turns left on the spool. I guess we need to get some bigger tackle.
P Kiddy loves the fish, maybe a little too much as he finds the flying fish and brings them inside the boat now to add some fish stains to his already pee stained couch. I spent a little bit of time cleaning his couch from his various forms of destruction, but what can I say…..I love the little furball. But, what thanks and all this after he has been eating better than any cat on the planet right now, just ocean fresh tuna sashimi for da P.
Then it was just more smooth sailing as we sailed away from the South American Coast and headed for the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. Where the depths were absurd, 16,000 ft. deep and the fish non-existent. But replacing the tuna were some of the most striking creatures I have ever seen. Giant Portuguese Man O War dotted the waters here and there as we silently ghosted by them. Unbelievable creatures, with a bubble that is as big as a football, with a stegosaurus type ridge on its back and so brightly colored it seems to defy nature. The outside is the brightest translucent purple you have ever seen and then as if they were airbrushed, the purple fades to the brightest bubblegum pink imaginable in the center, and you can stare down and see 10 feet of tentacles trailing down into the abyss below. They just look unnatural and their color conspicuously advertises their deadly nature.
A couple days to go and we found our freshwater system would not work any more. The pumps would not suck up any more water out of the tanks and we were sure the impeller had burned out. But, a little trouble shooting in the morning showed us the culprit was a hose had come undone at the outside shower and filled our engine compartment up with water. Kahlil spotted the bilge pump working in the engine room alerting us of where the problem was and with some elbow grease the problem was soon fixed and our waterless crises was soon a thing of the past.
A couple more days of smooth sailing, a book or two more read and we were off the coast of Panama with the depths giving way to the continental shelf of Central America.
The engines were finally started with about 40 miles to go and we powered the last bit to ensure a daylight arrival, as the winds were still dead aft and light as we entered the ITCZ (inter tropical convection zone), where the trade winds give way to the light and variable winds of the low latitudes.
Soon we sighted land and a big whoop and cheer went up across the boat carrying downwind on the breeze to a land we had yet to step foot on. Then soon, the sight of land was replaced with the sight of giant tankers, freighters and car carriers, anchored just outside of the canal breakwater. We all showered and put on some non-rank clothes in anticipation of landfall and just as we were a couple miles out with new clean clothes on it struck. A tuna of perfect proportion, maybe 25 pounds, it took line for a while, but soon I was gaining on it and with a swipe of the gaff it was landed. The biggest tuna of the trip and I was once again covered in blood and fish guts as I filleted it on the aft deck. What a haul, giant beautiful filets, another shower to de fishAfie and we were ready to set foot on land.
Its hard to imagine the port of Colon, with fires smoldering her and there, 50 giant ships at anchor and loading and unloading of cargo going on everywhere. We went into the Colon yacht harbor and were unimpressed to say the least. There were not so much docks, as just posts with planks between them and yachts tied up in the most unruly fashion. No room for us there, so we decided to anchor in the flats to clear customs, but with a mud bottom the holding was bad and I made the call to go the relatively new, upscale, more expensive and thankfully remote Shelter Bay Marina.
That was the best decision I ever made. We pulled up, were given the best berth in the harbor, away from everyone else with the best access to the prevailing breeze and immigration and customs, which normally takes half a day, was done for us, for $60. What a bargain, no traveling to multiple offices and filling out multiple forms in quadruplicate. Shelter bay was the place to be, a friendly safe atmosphere and in a beautiful setting, on the grounds of abandoned Fort Sherman, surrounded by National Park jungle, where howler monkeys howled in the trees, giant blue morpho and electric green swallowtail butterflies floated by, crazy deadly spiders lurked and even a giant ant eater prowled the shores.
We made it. The passage of a lifetime, smooth sailing the whole way, good fishing, great food, only minor breakages that were soon fixed, fun times and great vivid memories that will last a lifetime. The Caribbean Sea had treated us well, we sailed the waters and rode the wind that creates the waves we will soon be surfing, with the utmost respect for the sea and her creatures. What an awesome time and a unique glimpse into our planet and everything she has to offer. 1220 nautical miles, 8 days later and Panama is ours to explore. Cheers – Kyber