Monday, July 23, 2007
Arriving at Puesto Del Sol, Nicaragua
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Well, we made it so far!! Safe and sound in Marina Puesta Del Sol and not a single crew member lost overboard, captured by pirates or tempted away by the song of the sirens, although Jeff did disappear for several weeks in Cartagena, but he came back eventually, only to leave us once we'd made it through the Panama Canal and up to Golfito. It was still a great adventure and we mostly had fun, and when we didn't, it made for great stories later on.
This leg has been relatively easy, compared to the previous ones. Of course, that doesn't really include the fact that I had to fight off several mutinies, a Nicaraguan Gun Boat, and the combined forces of the Costa Rican Customs and Immigration Services, but that was nothing compared to the long days at sea, the hardships of a high fat/strong rum diet and the complete lack of any really decent cigarettes anywhere in the tropics.
For the most part the trip along the coast was uneventful, although both Jacob and Roxanne weren't feeling that well. We mostly motored, catching a little wind on our beam for a bit as we neared a harbor entrance just south of the marina. Anchored about a mile or so West of the harbor entrance was one of the U.S. Mercy Ships. If you've never seen one before, its a massive Panamax ships that has been converted into a giant floating hospital, with several hundred beds, many operating theaters and a significant amount of support services for things like eye care, dentistry, medical checkups, etc.. Its still part of our tax dollars, and run by the good folks of the US Military (smile when you say that, boy) and travels around the world providing medical care for the citizens of poor or impoverished countries who couldn't otherwise get access to decent doctors. It is really quite an impressive boat, with helicopter pads, yacht launches, marine escorts and such.
We didn't pay it much attention to it as we cruised, it was anchored far outside of the harbor entrance, at least a mile off shore, and our vessel was maybe only a hundred yards from the coast line as we motored along past it. Our course would bring us in between the harbor entrance and the ship, but we were no where near it and didn't think much about it until a Nicaraguan Coast Guard Gunboat came racing up along our port side. There were six very, very, very young crew members, one of which was manning a very large cannon at the front of the boat. The others were all holding automatic weapons of one flavor or another, and all of them were looking directly at us and gesturing. Now, I've been in a few odd situations before, and have had various loaded weapons pointed at me, but nothing quite compares with sight of looking down the barrel a large bore cannon. You suddenly become very attentive. They pulled up along our port side and began hailing us in Spanish on the VHF radio. I immediately cut the engines and yelled to Robinson, asking him to get on the radio and see if he could figure out what they wanted and what we should do next. As we drifted to a halt they positioned themselves just a few feet away and a bit behind us, with their weapons ready. It was clear that they were not at all happy.
Here is a bit of nautical advice that I've picked up along the way, and will pass along to all you folks for free: If the crew of a well armed gunboat are not happy, and they are very close by, then no one else near them will be happy. This is actually one of the few nautical sayings that turns out to be true in all cases. There was this very tense moment while Robinson tried to figure out what they were saying as they came along side us. Suddenly they stopped communicating on the radio. None of us knew what to do, but that didn't seem like a good thing.
About that time we noticed that the Mercy Ship had dispatched a large, high speed inflatable with two U.S. marines on board. They were headed directly for the Nicaraguan gunboat and pulled up along side them, leaving us on the far side. As they got closer to us we realized that the Nicaraguans stance completely changed. They lowered the weapons, turned their backs on us and walked over to the other side of their boat to talk to the marines. Whatever threat we might have been, we were longer any concern of theirs. It was then that I remembered to breath again.
The Nicaraguan Coasties conferred with the marines, and with much smiling and waving they motored off. Then the marines came up along side us. I asked them if they wanted to board us, but they just shook their heads and said that we were too close to their ship and to stay further away. It wasn't clear just exactly how far off we needed to be, since the shore was about 100 yards to our right, but since we needed to head north, and they were due west, we just smiled and thanked them for the heads up, then continued on our way. Apparently the U.S. military is getting very touchy about keeping a secure perimeter around their assets, and the Nicaraguan Coast Guard was an active part of that effort as well. No harm, no foul, but it was the first time in my entire life I was ever glad to see an American military vessel coming at me at high speed.
Not long after that we rounded the shallow point just South of Marine Puesta Del Sol. We could see a giant triangular palapa from miles off shore, jutting out from behind the tree line, so we knew we were close, but the harbor entrance wasn't obvious. Their website gives pretty detailed instructions for entering the channel, but it doesn't mention the fact that the channel entrance isn't visible from the South until you are almost completely past it, and that there is a reef extending out quite a ways and you need to go pretty far off to the West before rounding the corner and heading in. As we motored up we noticed the depth gauge warning us of a shallow bottom, and we could see some very large breakers almost dead ahead. We changed course a bit, headed out into deeper water and after going much further than we thought we needed to, spotted the marker leading into the harbor. We made a sharp right towards the channels and heading in.
Since it was getting on towards quiting time, we tried raising the marina on the VHF, and managed to get a few brief comments through, but they were having radio problems. Apparently their power goes out regularly and their VHF radio wasn't charged enough to broadcast. We would hear the first few words, then a blaring sound. We at least got enough information threw to let them know that we'd be arriving momentarily. The channel is quite well marked, surrounded on each side with lush vegetation, but snakes around a bit, and unless you stay directly inside it, you can easily end up aground. After a few minutes we pulled up to the marina docks and set foot in Nicaraguan soil.
The marina itself is brand new, with room for about fifty boats, plus a gas dock, swimming pool, restaurant, and a very classy hotel. It is surrounded by jungle on three sides, and ocean on the fourth. Not ten seconds after we pulled up a few of the resident cruisers came up to greet us and offered to show us around. Not long after that the harbor manager arrived and got us situated, plugged into shore power and water, and pointed at the restuarant. Everyone was warm, gracious and very helpful, what a change from some of our previous marinas. Within minutes we were all sitting on a beautiful deck overlooking the harbor and sipping drinks with umbrellas in them. Life was good, and everyone was happy to be here. We ordered dinner, but Roxanne still wasn't feeling well, and Jacob became very sick. That night he seemed to be better, but Rox was getting worse, vomitting most of the night. By morning she looked terrible, was clearly dehydrated and miserable. Her concern was that their flight was leaving in a day, and they were worried that they might be too sick to make it. It didn't take much to convince her that she go into the local town and see a medic. We packed her and Jacob up into a cab and they went off, returning several hours later. The nurse pumped her up with saline, gave her some antibiotics and sent her home. When she returned she looked one hundred percent better and was clearly on the mend. We longed around the pool for a bit, and had one last meal together, but this time on dry land!
Well, not the most spectacular of endings, but everyone arrived in one piece, and packed up to leave for the airport the next day, leaving me on my own for the next few days. I spent a day or two just relaxing, making friends with the other cruisers, especially Ron & Di from "Batwing" and getting to know some of the other folks in the marina, then started packing up Triton. We made one excursion off to a local "restaurant" that consisted of an open sided brick hut, but the food was delicious and cheap.
Eventually it was my time to leave, and I arranged for a taxi ride to the airport. The road out of the airport is pretty bad in sections, and the ride takes about two hours and costs around $110US. It should have cost a few bucks less, but I didn't realize I needed to book this way in advance, so by the time we'd figured it out, we were being charged "premium" prices. About half way there the cab driver stopped for gas and demanded I give him $30.00 to pay for it. I didn't understand him at first, and he became quite belligerent and agitated as I tried to make sense of what he was saying. I think he thought I wasn't willing to pay him at all. I gave him the money, and we got back in the car and headed off, but a few minutes later he quickly pulled off to the side of the road, got out, and pee'ed on the side of the road. It's still better than the Trinidad Cab Ride From Hell, but certainly more surreal.
The trip threw Managua itself was a bit shocking. Nicaragua is poor. Very poor. But the capital is a pit. A really scary, dirty, ugly pit. There were sections that looked worse than any ghettos I'd seen in Panama, or for that matter, Harlem during the '70s. I was glad once we'd made it across town and had arrived at the airport. I was three hours early, and there was no one at the counter yet, the airport was almost deserted except for one other man, and the automatic check in machine didn't seem to be working, so I asked him if there were any restaurants nearby. "Oh, no, don't leave just yet!" he said, "Stand in this line until they open the counters. In about twenty minutes there will be about a hundred people here, and it pays to be first in line if you want to get a seat." He was absolutely right. In just a few moments there was a queue behind me that stretched out the door. Eventually I checked in, got my ticket and we both grabbed a bite to eat.
He turned out to be a missionary, working in Nicaragua. Apparently you can't swing a cat without hitting a Christian Fundamentalist in this country. The airport was swarming with teams of youths wearing identical shirts with logos that said things like "Walk for Jesus" or "Youth Prayer Council". Several different people waved hello to him as we sat there talking, and I counted at least twenty different denominations proudly displayed on various luggage throughout the airport. Apparently, Nicaragua imports missionaries, and they are doing a booming business.
Eventually my flight boarded, and I winged my way back to the lovely S.F. Bay Area, where the lovely AnnMarie was waiting at the gate. It was good to be home, and I think I spent the next two days just sitting quietly and staring at the wall. I'm only back for a few weeks, just enough time to attend this year's Burning Man Arts Festival, go to my good friends Ted & Suzanne's wedding, and drive up to a fabulous camp out called "Fortuna" in Willits. Then I'm headed back to Nicaragua to sail Triton onward and upward.
In the meantime, we will be rounding up crew for the next leg, which will be Nicaragua to San Francisco, California, via Alcapulco, Cabo San Lucas, San Diego, and probably a few other points in between, at the very end of October (most likely the first week in November) so if you know anyone interested, send us a post at the email address listed up at the very top of this page in red & orange font. In the meantime I wish you all well, and hope your days are filled with adventure and your evenings with passion.
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