It was midnight before we finished stowing foodstuffs purchased during our provisioning binge, and the three of us had hardly closed our eyes when alarms began to ting. Three o’clock had come quickly, and putting coffee to steep was the first order of business.
We’d avoided entering Golfito after dark, but having seen the channel in daylight, we dared to depart with the wee-hour ebbing tide. Two-knot propulsion from the strong tidal shift would accelerate our pace toward the open sea, some 20 miles south. Lori and I stood watch at the bow with the handheld VHF radio and spotlight, scanning the debris-ridden bay for flotsam, jetsam, and buoys. A chilly breeze skidded down shadows of the mountains that guard the bay, sending shivers racing down our bare arms, as we crept toward the long, black tongue of Golfo Dulce. Lori was about to meet the Pacific for the first time aboard a sailboat. We were well-caffeinated and more than a little excited.The sky was embroidered with thousands of sparkling stars and the sliver of a waning moon. Sunrise was a sultry peach, and as the day awakened, we saw the outline of an enormous ship etched against the hazy outline of Costa Rica’s southern mountains. Tenacious, a 213-foot long, 3-masted tall ship proceeded elegantly northward. We hailed the Captain to express our admiration for the vessel and learned that not only is the British-flagged vessel, Jubilee Trust, one of only a few such ships in service, but its objective is to provide sailing opportunities for individuals with physical disabilities.Panama! Panama!
By 7 am, the spinnaker had us gliding through Costa Rica’s southernmost waters, like an oversized kite towing a child across a summer green. By early afternoon, Punta Burica—the headland that divides Costa Rica and Panama was visible on the horizon. When winds eased, we bobbed until a light northerly lifted the air once again. The breeze hastened as we rounded Punta Burica and crossed into Panamanian waters; we doused the spinnaker and unfurled the genoa.We decided to rest for the night at Punta Balsa, an indent on the eastern shore of Punta Burica, a few nautical miles from the promontory. However, attempts to set our anchor failed. We dropped the hook several times in 25 feet of water, and by the time I’d paid out enough scope to set it, we were in well over 150 feet! The bottom was an irregular confusion of knolls and chasms. Our electronic charts illustrated the unusual composition in rows of blue and green scallops in overlapping rows. Daylight was fading quickly, and the evening was awash with grays that mirrored our frustration. We motored along the coastline and must have looked rather helpless, as two men aboard a sport fishing boat pointed us toward a nearby mooring ball. Hallelujah!
A not-so-restful stop
The night brought a series of rather rude awakenings, as we were flung from port-to-starboard and starboard-to-port in our berths. At one point, our 30,000-pound boat was tossed to port with such brute force that all three of us sprung from our bunks, stumbling bleary-eyed into the main cabin, practically running into one another in the blackness, sure that some poorly stowed “somethings” had been catapulted across the cabin! So much for a restful night of sleep! These are the types of moments that are hard to fathom if you have not experienced them – imagine being flung from your bed when your house/condo/apartment rocked sideways. Gah!By dawn the seas were still. Unfortunately, the forecasted breeze was not in our favor, so we stayed put. Neil serviced one of our winches and eye-spliced our new spinnaker halyard, Lori read and journaled, and I attempted rather unsuccessfully to focus my attention on completing some work (I was still employed on a contract). All the while we crossed our fingers that we would not experience a sequel of the prior night’s horrendous conditions.We were in store for yet another idyllic day of sailing when we departed Punta Balsa on February 8th. After experiencing difficulty starting our engine yet again, which we attributed to our batteries getting a bit too low overnight, we motored a while to give them a good charge. An hour later, our sails were up. Late morning, we hoisted the spinnaker and continued sailing when the breeze hushed to whisper. As the breeze stiffened, we switched again to our main and genoa, caught and released a jurel, and roared toward Isla Parida. Picturesque Parida
Dozens of rocky islets with bright green mop-tops fringe Isla Parida, like adorable munchkin chums. As we sped into the lee of the island, the wind dissipated and with it, down came our sails. Perfection. A single sailboat, Appleseeds, rested at anchor. Neil rowed over to introduce himself, while Lori and I made drinks, dinner, and the acquaintance of two adolescent island boys who paddled by asking for sugar (of course, we obliged). Neil made friends with our new neighbors and rowed back wishing their plans did not have them sailing north the next morning. Such is the cruising life – hellos, goodbyes, and hope-to-see-you-agains. Sail la vie.
During a morning shore venture, we met two of the three brothers who care for the southern portion of Isla Parida and Paridita, the sister islet across the small bay. Frederico, the quieter of the two, befriended us and spent a couple hours knocking down coconuts for us from the towering trees along the beach and tolerating our befuddled Spanish. Grateful, we promised him a loaf of homemade bread the next morning in thanks. Pint-size Panamanian playmates
Having delivered bread to Frederico, as promised, we ventured to a neighboring cove, where a thatched-roof hut stood as a charming focal piece above a long-sloping sandy beach. A handful of children spilled from the jungle, scampering down the beach to greet us. Opportunities to meet local folks is a gift of this mode of travel. Unconstrained by a hotel perimeter or tourism district, we explore nooks and crannies that would otherwise be overlooked and to meet people whose faces we’d otherwise never see. Upon reaching the palapa hut, we met Marlena, the children’s mother. She couldn’t possibly have been more than a few years older than me, but she had seven babies, ranging in age from 17 years to just a few months; we spent the day with five of them. They were a striking family; high cheekbones and expressive, dark chocolate eyes.From bashful to boisterous, the children were an absolute delight. They were easily entertained by the simplicity of our activities, which struck us as very different than kids in the US today, whose preference for electronic play (e.g., television, video games) is almost ubiquitous. Together, we beachcombed for shells, drank coconuts, played with puppies, and flew our drone for the first time.
Early in the day, Marlena motioned for me to follow her into the forest, offering yucca. With one hand, she held the hand of her youngest daughter; with the other, a machete. I’d never seen yucca before and felt surprised when she uprooted several thin “trees” that stood taller than either of us. She shook them vigorously to dislodge the soil and then with a well-practiced maneuver, swiftly hacked the branches from the sweet potato-looking root. It felt like the hands of time had been reversed in that sweet little bay. Freshwater is piped to a spot near the beach, but there were otherwise no modern amenities. No television, no car; just dirt floors and thatched roofs. And yet Marlena insisted on gifting us vegetables from her garden. It seems it is nearly always those who have the least who are the quickest to give the most.Timing is everything
Lori and I ventured ashore to say a final goodbye the following morning. In tow, we brought, a loaf of fresh bread, a big bottle of juice, a storybook, and a bundle of pencils and notepads. Only days later, Marlena and the kids would return to a mountain village on the mainland, where they lived near extended family and the kids attended school. Her husband (one of the three brothers) would remain on Parida to work.
We had the luck of timing to arrive when we did; had we arrived just days later, we would never have enjoyed the pleasure of their company. Timing really is everything, I thought, as we weighed anchor, embarking on a short sail toward the Islas Secas. Little did we know that within minutes, the topic of timing would be revisited…and our course would be altered dramatically.Cruising commentary
Despite encouraging remarks in our trusty Sarana Guide (“…a surprisingly calm anchorage”), Punta Balsa was one of the most atrociously rolly places we’ve ever stopped! If your aim in stopping is to sleep, you’d be better off heaving-to out to sea than stopping here, unless conditions are absolutely optimal! Isla Parida, on the other hand, should not be missed! Although we can only speak of the southeastern anchorage, Ensenada del Varedero, we found Parida to be delightful! The few individuals who reside there are kind and generous, and the beaches are wonderful. The jejenes (no-see-ums) were hellacious, and we were disappointed that the water was too murky to enjoy a good snorkel (potentially due to churned-up seas from several weeks of hard papagayo winds), but those drawbacks should not deter you from enjoying a few days in this little slice of paradise.
Punta Balsa buoy waypoint: 08°06’.800N 082°51’.990W
Isla Parida (Ensenada del Varedero) anchorage waypoint: 08°05’.593N 082°20’.291WPassage perks
Point of departure: Golfito, Costa Rica – 02/06/16
Point of arrival: Isla Parida, Panama – 02/08/16 (includes 2-night stop at Punta Balsa)
Distance traveled: 105 nautical miles
Total time: 25 hours
Engine roaring: 7 hours
Sails soaring: 18 hours
Average speed: 4.2 knots
Jessie’s musings: The highlight of this stretch of sailing was LORI! She spiced the boat up with an exuberance that was contagious, and I thoroughly enjoyed having her aboard from the get-go. In fact, we have her to thank for the ingenious idea to use of one of our Raymarine gauge covers as a cookie cutter for empanada dough (brilliant, right?!). As for memories, the afternoon with Marlena and her children was the most special for me. It is always (well, almost always) a treat to spend time around kids, especially kids who are excitable, polite, and eager to engage. Watching them marvel at seashells and sprint unabashedly down the sand warmed my heart and made me wish we could linger longer.
Neil’s reflections: After an epic day of spinnaker sailing, we almost hooked a tuna as we rounded Punta Burica, though we were trying a new lure that unfortunately didn’t produce (i.e., single hook, rather our usual double hook). That night, we were treated to our most horrific sleep we’ve had at any point in our voyage. Parida, on the other hand, was an absolute delight (besides the mosquitos that came out at night) and offered a remarkably calm anchorage with stunningly gorgeous beaches.