Monday, October 29, 2012

On Hurricane Sandy...and Risk

As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is devastating the Eastern seaboard of the United States. 

Hurricane Sandy

News is also breaking that the HMS Bounty, a replica of the original ship which was used in the 1950's film starring Marlon Brando, has sunk in the storm. 

The HMS Bounty in happier times

 Halloween Party for The Bounty crew, only a few days ago

The Coast Guard states that most of the 14 crew members have been rescued, but there are two sailors missing at sea.

Unbelievably, the captain made the decision to head to sea for the voyage from Connecticut to Florida when Hurricane Sandy was in full bloom and heading up the Eastern Seaboard.

              The letter "A" in the image was the HMS Bounty's location as it headed to sea,
                planning to sail south to Florida. The plan was to "bypass" Hurricane Sandy,
                                            shown in the bottom half of the image.

      The Captain stated in a facebook post meant to explain the controversial decision to head to sea: "Sometimes a ship is safer at sea than in port."   Yes, that's often true...except...when it's NOT. Except when things go wrong, which is what happened on The Bounty. And what about the risk to human lives?

       The issue of risk -- and risks taken at sea -- is one that we ponder every day aboard Espiritu.  As I write this, it is one year since Chris and I threw off the dock lines and sailed south from Southern California. Now that we have these 12 months under our belts, it's as good a time as any to ask the question:

 How safe IS cruising?

 During our year sailing Mexico and Central America, we've met and sailed with dozens and dozens of sailboats.  100-200, if I had to come up with a number.

And out of those, in the past year:

1 had their dinghy eaten by a shark;
4 were boarded and/or broken into, with resulting damage and theft;
3 had their dinghy's stolen;
5 of us were struck by lightning;
1 broke from it's mooring and was dragged onto the beach;
2 were hit by a whale;
1 of us drove our boat over a floating tree;
4 of us dragged anchor and/or the mooring in a severe storm and smashed up against each other;
1 of us dragged anchor in a storm and smashed the boat onto a concrete dock;
2 of us lost our masts;

and finally, if you believe the lore, one of us was murdered and thrown overboard by his crewmember, who then changed the name of the boat and assumed ownership for himself (unsubstantiated).

That's quite a list.

So why would we do it? Why don't we all just pack it in and head to the safety of our homes on terra firma?

Which leads me back to Hurricane Sandy.

Countless millions of homes and business are sadly being flooded by storm surge in several states. These people thought they would be safe in their homes and businesses, but they are not.

                                       McDonalds in Virginia Beach last night

        The problem with evaluating risk is she is a slithery little bugger. She's constantly morphing and jumping around and changing shape. She's tough to get ahold of.

    But who would have thought that I would be safer aboard my sailboat in Panama than a family ordering Chicken McNuggets in Virginia Beach?

     It all boils down to that little thing called the "Risk-Reward Ratio." This is simply the question we ask before we perform any mildly risky task: "Is the reward worth the risk I'm taking?"  Obviously the skipper of the HMS Bounty didn't spend much time pondering the Risk-Reward Ratio before sailing into the path of a freaking hurricane with a crew of 14 aboard!

    You can bet that if I were a crew member aboard the Bounty when the skipper decided to sail into the path of a hurricane, there would have been one very loud, very agitated mutiny on The Bounty!

    Anyway -- if you've been following my blog, then you know the countless, priceless rewards we have gained during our travels. And yes, there is always risk, which we must constantly take the time and trouble to calculate and recalculate as the situation changes.

    All I know is, Espiritu is sailing on. We feel that after a year at sea, we're finally figuring out how to DO this thing. Yes, it takes that long.

   So say a prayer for the millions in the path of Hurricane Sandy.

   And as for the rest of us? Where will we go today? What adventure will we undertake? Let the Risk-Reward Ratio be your guide...  


Friday, October 26, 2012

Persistent anxiety in Colon...yet life goes on...

                                      Yesterday in Colon, Panama

       Chris and I remain here in Shelter Bay in Colon, Panama, where riots, violence and shootouts have been ongoing for almost a week now. 48 hours ago the President stated his intent to overturn the new land law which was the cause of the uprising.

         But the protestors have stated that they will not rest until the President actually overturns the law. As of this writing he has only stated his intent to do so. Our understanding is that the insurgents plan to increase their activity today with more rioting, blocking of roads and commerce, etc., until the law is actually overturned.

     We remain protected by the military here in the marina, and we have not actually seen any of the violence here in the aptly named Shelter Bay. And -- life goes on.

    Several of us took a trip into Colon proper yesterday to provision at a grocery store there. We had a Panamanian driver with us in case we should run into any trouble on the way.

                                      Armed military police guard the grocery store in Colon

    We were happy to see the shelves were well stocked at the supermarket, which was up and running, no doubt thanks to the large military protection force there. Several other stores next to the market were closed, however, as was the bank, which was out of money and shut down until further notice.

   So, we've been doing our best coming up with ideas to keep our minds and spirits occupied with positive thoughts...

                                                                   How about a tea party!

           The tea party was the brainchild of 7 year old Ella of "Rivers2Seas," who also invited her dolls to participate (Notice the coffee mugs, which would have to do, as no-one has fine china teacups aboard their sailboats).  I participated eagerly as, in this time of unrest, keeping the children distracted and occupied is a top priority.

    When the uprising began last week we were in nearby Portobelo, where we participated in the annual Black Christ Festival.

                           Thousands of pilgrims from around the world come to the sleepy city
                of Portobelo once a year to visit the famous carving, which is hundreds of years old.

                                                   A powerful sight

          Worshippers crawl on their hands and knees during their journey to the Black Christ.
     Many wear purple adornments that are similar to the vestment that the Black Christ wears.

                 Some drip hot wax onto their backs as they crawl in an act of self-flaggelation

                     As interesting and at times emotionally powerful this was to watch,
                               there were some bizarre and amusing moments as well.

               At times I felt like I was at a flamboyant parade in West Hollywood. For example:

                              This fellow was quite proud of his ruffly Black Christ vestment...

                                                      ...and that of his chihuahua...   :-)

                                                                     Mixed messages

         At the Black Christ festival I found a couple more additions to my occasional series:
    "Latinos unknowingly wearing mildly-to-wildly inappropriate donated American t-shirts."

     This very sweet, very devout and sincere Panamanian woman bearing a purple candle during her pilgrimage most certainly has no idea what her donated American t-shirt says -- and I didn't have the heart to tell her.

 Portobelo has 5 tiendas, all owned and operated by Chinese immigrants who speak fluent Spanish and Chinese, and absolutely no English.

                                              One of the Chinese owned tiendas in Portobelo

           Keep in mind that this sweet Chinese tienda owner speaks NO English.  Sigh. Then there is the obvious irony that since she owns and runs a successful retail outlet, and OK, let's face it, she IS Asian -- I'm certain that she is very good at math and appreciates it's importance in society. LOL...

      Anyway, we are expecting our new battery to arrive from Panama City today. But that is a big "IF," as many of the roads remain blocked by insurgents. But IF the battery arrives, and Chris is able to quickly install it, then this afternoon we will throw off the dock lines and make the two night passage to  Providencia, about 260 miles to the north. We will be buddy boating with "Rivers2Seas" and "Tension Reliever."

    So, that is our plan. More to follow. Onward!   :-)

    UPDATE: Due to the roads being blocked, our battery never arrived this morning, so "Tension Reliever" went on to Providencia without us. We should be here in Shelter Bay for another week at least while we wait for the battery and a battery charger as well. No worries!   :-)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Panama uprising: "Chaos in Colon"

  "Chaos in Colon." Those are the words of the local Panamanian TV news to describe the violent uprising that has been happening here in the second largest city in Panama for 4 days now. Streets are blocked. Businesses shut down.

 While technically Chris and I are in the city of Colon, we're on the far edges of it -- in the Shelter Bay Marina. The good news is, the marina is protected by the Panamanian military, with armed guards. So we are safe here.

             What could be a problem for us in the short term, though, is the fact that the protesters are blocking roads. As of last night, the main road from Panama City to Colon was blocked. And with Colon in it's current state of chaos, we will not be heading to the grocery stores there for any happy little gringo shopping trips anytime soon.

          The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens regarding Panama

         Unfortunately, this uprising may get worse -- far worse, according to my Panamanian friends. And it has the potential to spread throughout the country.  As best as I can understand it, the cause of the uprising is the President's decision to sell off giant chunks of land in Colon to corporate interests that are currently rented to local citizens. This impending sale will have a massive effect on jobs for the poor and middle class of Colon.

      There have been violent shootouts between police and protesters which have resulted in the deaths of many -- including, unfortunately, one young child. Another child, a 6 year old girl, was shot and critically wounded yesterday. Obviously these tragic events only add the metaphorical fuel to the fire.

    To make matters worse, the President has left the country. Panamanians are hoping that he overturns the decree to quell the violence, but the fact that he and his entourage and family have flown to Japan is certainly not a good sign (although the trip was a pre-planned diplomatic visit).

   Unfortunately for Espiritu, our alternator and battery charger failed on our short trip sailing to Colon from Portobelo.  So until they are repaired, we're tethered to the dock here in Colon.

 If the roads in and out of Colon and Panama City remain blocked, our biggest problem other than the alternator and battery charger may be dwindling supplies of fresh food. The goal of the protesters is to stop commerce, and this is definitely happening.

While we have enough canned food, rice, etc., aboard Espiritu to feed us for weeks and weeks, as a precaution I bought as much fresh food as our little fridge can hold from the tiny marina store. Who knows when they will be able to restock their shelves.

 Same goes for the marina restaurant!  So Chris and I enjoyed a hearty meal there last evening, because they may not receive new food for awhile either.

"Make hay while the sun shines" as the saying goes.   :-)

 So please don't be too worried about Chris and I.  The marina here feels very safe.  The protestors have no issue with us, and we're fine as long as we lie low, which we will certainly do.

 I'm more concerned with our local Panamanian friends. There are several employees of the marina whose neighborhoods in Colon are engulfed in a cacophany of AK-47 fire. So if you pray for anyone, pray for our Panamanian friends Maurice, Alex and Corinna.

UPDATE: The little girl who was shot by the police yesterday died overnight.

LATEST (October 24, 2012): Good news! President Martinelli had announced that he will retract the law to sell off the Colon land. This is a great source of relief for the crew of Espiritu and our Panamanian friends. :-) 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Photos: San Blas Adventure

                                            Some call a stay in the San Blas "a sigh of relief."


        The San Blas Islands, off the coast of Caribbean Panama, are a world class cruising destination for sailors from all points of the globe. Some cruisers never leave.  Chris and I were fortunate to spend 2 weeks here dodging lightning, snorkeling, swimming, visiting with the native Kuna peoples and surviving a 35 knot blow.

   Oh yeah, and we experienced one more thing: full frontal nudity.   But I'm getting ahead of myself.

                                                           A Kuna hut in the Lemon Cayes

                 First stop: The West Lemon Cayes. Negotiating the reefs was a new and slightly harrowing experience for Chris and I. But we made it through the two weeks without hitting anything, which is always one of the goals of any cruise! :-)

                                                                             Espiritu at rest

          We spent hours swimming in and snorkeling in the pristine reefs at West Lemon Cayes.

                                   A spotted eagle ray sighting was a real treat

                                             The reefs of San Blas boast 50+ foot visibility

                                  So quiet you can hear your blood pressure drop

       We had our first encounter with the local Kuna tribes here in the Lemons. The Kunas have inhabited the San Blas for generations and have maintained their traditional way of life even into the 21st century.

               We encountered four very young Kuna children playing in a dugout canoe

                How cute are they? Fortunately for me, the Kuna language has been
               slowly dying out in recent years, and they now speak primarily Spanish.

                                     The Kuna children swim and play in their Underoos

                                   What a privilege it was to visit with these cuties.
                                 We gave them some candies and were on our way.

         Later some young Kunas paddled up to Espiritu in their dugout canoe and sold us 6 small, freshly caught lobster tails for $10.  We used all of our butter stores and indulged in a feast to remember with the table up in the cockpit. As the sun slowly set behind us, the breeze rustled the coconut palms and Espiritu gently bobbed in the water, we counted our blessings as the lobster melted in our mouths.

     The next morning, we explored the tiny islands of the Lemon Cayes.

              In accordance with their surroundings, the palms seem to hula to the left and the right


             There is a tiny bar run by the Kunas here in the Lemons, with an eensy-weensy
                      book exchange and VEEEEEEEEEERY slow dial up internet.

         The Kunas call themselves warriors, but they seem very peaceful and friendly to me.
 History does show that the Kunas put up a good fight against the Spanish conquistadors, however.
                                           Nobody likes their home threatened and invaded.

                 Perhaps this Kuna palm totem gives a clue to the warrior side of their culture

                        Wait -- did I hear you say "book exchange?"     (My two favorite words)

                                              Next stop: The Hollandaise Cayes

          We were excited to visit an area called "The Swimming Pool" in the Hollandaise Cayes. We sailed there but left the catamarans to anchor in the middle of the very shallow "swimming pool," and we anchored in deeper water at the entrance to the reef.

     We immediately jumped in the dinghy and flew over to explore Turtle Island and "The Swimming Pool."

                 The shallow, crystal clear water of "The Swimming Pool" beckons

                                                        Bobbing in "The Swimming Pool"

                                    Chris has a go. We spent more than an hour laughing,
                                      talking and playing in the water, just the two of us.

                                                     Volleyball, anyone?

                                          The other end of "The Swimming Pool"

              A reminder that the Kunas are not the only inhabitants of these islands

            A Kuna hut enjoys prime waterfront property before a crystalline reef

                                  We snorkelled with two pairs of Caribbean reef squids

    Alas, we are still in the rainy season here in Panama. And soon enough, the afternoon storm clouds began to gather and thunder and lightning sent us scampering back to the cozy comfort of Espiritu.

                                       And just like that, a 35 knot blow was upon us.

      We've learned that when these storms blow through and we're at anchor, we turn on the motor as an extra safety measure during the worst of it, in case we drag. Lightning crashed around us, and the wave of sound literally shivers the timbers of Espiritu.

   By the way, another sailboat, "Eyes of the World,"  has been struck by lightning here in Panama. They were anchored in the exact same place we experienced a nerve-shattering lightning storm over in the Las Perlas Islands.

 A local told me that last year he saw a sailboat struck by lightning. The keelbolts went to the bottom, and the sailboat sank in minutes.     Beautiful...   :-/

             Needless to say, we're counting down the days to the end of the bloody rainy season!

              After the worst of the squall blew through, a solid rain settled in for the afternoon.
                We set up the rain catch and Captain Chris played a jolly tune on the fiddle.   :-)

           That evening, we distracted ourselves from the weather by watching "Romancing the Stone." We are, by the way, only about 100 miles from the Columbian border. We've admitted that there have been times on this trip where we have felt more than a bit like Jack and Joan Wilder! :-)

                     The anchor held, the wind and lightning passed, and Espiritu
                        pulled anchor for the final stop in our San Blas adventure...

                                                             ...Chichime Islands

                This place is so shockingly beautiful that I actually had a moment of mild panic:
                how can we ever expect to top this when we get to the "Real" Carribean islands?

       The Kunas have their own religious practice and tradition. Their name for God is "Erragon." Christian evangelism has met pretty persistent resistance with the Kunas. The health of the Kunas is very, very good. They have a very low average blood pressure, and lifestyle diseases like heart disease and cancer are quite rare.

       One effect the missionaries did have is getting the Kuna to wear clothes. They used to be mostly naked except for body painting. But now they wear their famous embroidered molas as an adornment. Speaking of body paint:

                                                               War paint

   The other downside to the San Blas during rainy season (#1 is the lightning and wind) is the bugs. "No see-ums," sand flies, you name 'em -- they've all got a taste for me. It's war. And it's brutal.

  Calamine lotion wasn't working. Benadryl wasn't working. For fear of getting malaria or full blown sepsis from an infected bite, I finally started applying rubbing alcohol directly onto the bites with a q-tip.  And guess what: it works wonders. The itching stops nearly immediately and the drying and healing begins.

                       And speaking of nudity, looks like some of the Kunas have gone back
                                                      to their old ways, clothing wise.

                                                                 Hey there, sailor!

                         Well, what the heck. When you live here, who needs clothes?

     One of the things about cruising that I really love is the process of living on less and less. I love prioritizing and figuring out what simple meals to make based on the few fresh foods I still have left in the coffers. Here in the San Blas, by the time we arrived at Chichime we were down to canned foods and rice...

            you can imagine our excitement when a Kuna fruit and veggie boat
                                            arrived from the mainland! Life is GOOD!    :-)

                                            Now that we've replenished our produce supply,
                                          that means we can stay here a few days longer, right?

                                                Captain Chris: "OK, you twisted my arm..."

                                 You'd have low blood pressure too, if you lived here...

       ...and more thunderclouds roll in to send out another perfect day in the San Blas...

    As I write this, we're back in the coastal town of Portobelo, Panama. We'll spend a few days here, then head back to Shelter Bay Marina in Colon to prepare for the big trip north.

   So, what's up with YOU? What's new? Please let us know at! Nothing makes me happier than dispatches from home...    XOXO Liz and Chris