Monday, December 20, 2010

The Forbidden Island and on to Panama

It's been a long time since my last report from Georgetown as I've spent quite a long time away from access to internet. I'll try and fill you in on what's happened since.

After a few days in Georgetown I headed south again, this my next planned stop being Great Inagua island 250 or so miles to the Southeast. My plan was to go through a small cut between Little Exuma Island and Hog Cay, where I could find my way through the reefs and thus avoid an extra 150 miles of upwind sailing to get around the shallows.

I anchored at right at the cut, waited for high tide and made my way through and then on along the shallows for the next 20 miles. Throughout my time sailing in the Bahamas, I could never get used to the shallow water, sometimes only having a foot or so under the keel. That and the upwind sailing made for quite a trip. I later learned that most boats avoid going that way through the Bahamas this time of year due to the wind and that this year was exceptionally bad. One friend in Georgetown told me that this weather was worse than some of the tropical storms he had waited out before!

Finally, the wind came around and I was able to sail much more comfortably, if a bit slow, toward Inagua. When I got there, after three days at sea, I found the anchorage to be no good with the Northerly winds and regrettably had to sail on. It was a bit of a shame because I had heard that the Island had thousands of Flamingos which I would have loved to see and I always like exploring remote islands.

I sailed past the Island and set course for Santiago de Cuba. The windvane had lost a nut which was important to keep it together and the pulpit had pulled out of it's base so I had to stop somewhere to make repairs. Besides, it was a good excuse to explore Cuba, a place I had always wanted to visit.

It was a nice two day trip and before I knew it I was entering Santiago Bay. On the way I sailed way to close to Guantanamo Bay and had a US military plane sweep low over me five times or so. No doubt they were keeping a close eye on me on their radar screens, but fortunately I wasn't boarded. It seems I cannot sail out of Port Angeles harbor without the border patrol searching my boat and yet I sailed right past Guantanamo Bay without being stopped!

I sailed past the fort at the entrance to Santiago Bay and made my way toward the marina. Just then, the outboard motor, which had been working beautifully on the whole trip so far decided to quit. I was forced to sail into an unknown harbor with no charts and a light wind directly against me. It took me ages to get in (with all the yachties in the marina watching) and then I had to deal with the entry procedures, which took several hours.

I had learned that funding had been cut for prosecuting Americans who visit Cuba and that Cubans were actually quite welcoming for Americans. In any case I had to stop for repairs and there were few options between myself and Panama. In the end I am quite glad I made the decision to stop in Cuba, as there were no problems with me being an American.

Cuba is a country that is somehow both incredibly poor and prosperous at the same time. In Cuba I saw shiny new European cars pass goat herders on the side of the road. I met people who had no money for food or shelter or education, but could somehow find enough for a crazy party at the club in the city. Cuba was a whirlwind of activity, a beautiful and tragic country whose people are incredibly kind.

The other sailors at the marina from Finland and Germany and Spain were all very nice. My friend Jukka on the Finish boat bought me fresh fruit and gave me a big bag of Cuban biscuit that looks and tastes much like hardtack. It was good because my cooking skills are very limited, and the boat's provisions consisted of mainly four things: pasta, oatmeal, spinach and small cans of mackerel in tomato paste. On the next leg of the journey a wave was to ruin most of my other provisions and I had no money to buy more save for a bottle of good, cheap Cuban rum which you can get for about $3 a bottle.

My main problem in Cuba was that I couldn't get my Bahamian money exchanged and American credit cards don't work but I had to somehow pay the marina. I didn't have to worry about starving because my new friends fed me in their homes, usually rice and fish or plantains. In the end, my parents were able to wire some money through, not an easy thing to do and it took a lot of work on their part, of which I am very grateful. I liked Cuba, but didn't relish the thought of being stuck there forever.

After five days I had made the repairs and had paid the marina. It was time to continue on toward Panama. I had hoped to make the passage in 6 days or so, but the weather had other plans. At first I was becalmed in light winds and when the wind did come, there was too much of it. We were hit by a 30 knot front, which isn't so bad except the waves were coming from two directions and created an messy sea which threw the boat about as if in a washing machine.

At one point we were caught broadside by a wave and we had a partial knockdown. Everything in the cabin went flying and a huge amount of sea water poured into the cabin, soaking everything. It took ages to get the boat under control, pump out the bilges, and clean up the cabin again which looked like a bomb had gone off. Then it took a few days of good weather to dry everything out. It was quite annoying because the wind was only 30 knots, but the seas got pretty confused. They seemed to think that there was a lot more wind!

After that blew through we had more light winds and lots of slow sailing. I was quite glad we had the AIS aboard as there were ships all over the place and I had to sleep sometime, if only in 15 minute intervals. The AIS would tell ships my location and alerted me when ships were nearby, a great help to the solo sailor.

Entering Colon at night was a total nightmare. I knew it is usually unwise to enter an unusual port at night, especially when the port is one of the most busy in the world, but I thought it would be even more dangerous to spend the night drifting around when there were dozens of ships about in every direction. In the end I found the anchorage and in the morning moved over to the marina. Now I'm getting ready for the trip through the canal...

Fair Winds,



  1. Great to hear how you're doing, Ryan. Sounds like your time in Cuba was a mixture of frustration and interesting times.

    Your partial knockdown on the way across to Panama sounds a little scary. I made that run a few years ago, in the company of another boat, and they had a knockdown. It was scary for me just to be nearby and waiting to see if they would be okay. They eventually were, but it took days to clean up their boat.

    I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to see the San Blas Islands before you got into Colon. Those hundreds of islands, on the Caribbean coast of Panama in the direction of Colombia, are the most amazing and beautiful places one could possibly imagine. Palm trees, sandy beaches, and the most incredible views when snorkeling.

    Anyway, good luck with your Canal transit. That's an adventure in itself! I'll be eagerly awaiting your next post.


  2. Ryan,
    Sounds like you're on a grand adventure! I must say, your writing is excellent. I kind of fell behind, so it's been enjoyable to catch up. In Colon 5 days before Christmas, hope you've transited by now, and you're headed north!

    Looking forward to hearing about the crossing.
    Merry Christmas!
    Tray M.

  3. Hey Ryan - long time,

    Was asking a neighbor a few days back what I did last winter to occupy my time as I was apparently feeling a bit bored. He said I was always talking about the girl sailors. That's right! I was and what a fun time a year ago to be engaged in the adventures of Jessica & Abby. Which reminded me of you and lo & behold here you are still kickin, still sailing and still planning a circumnavigation! Cool site by the way.

    Your entering Colon reminded me of reading Stephen Ladd's "Three years in a 12-foot boat", where he talked of his own difficulties getting through Colon. His boat didn't have a motor an therefore had to go through the canal as cargo on another ship.

    Good luck Ryan and it's nice to be on-board with you again (mate).