January 3rd, 2018 at 9:30am, marked the beginning of our trip that we thought would take us from Miami, Florida directly to Colon, Panama. In a previous blog titled “the crew“, I mentioned (5) crew members that helped crew the boat at various stages along the way, but what I didn’t mention in that blog were two other crew members (John and Andrew) who had also joined us, somewhat last minute, from the beginning of our trip in Florida. They both had grown up with Jake (the Captain) and were experienced sailors. Because Chismosa was a new and an unproven boat for me, I welcomed any help we could get. I figured the more hands to help out if a serious problem arose the better.
When we left Florida, the crew consisted of five people; Jake, Danny, John, Andrew and I. I had only met these individuals 3 days prior to our departure. Looking back on it, other than my experience in the military, I cannot recall a time in which I was put into a situation of completing a task (i.e., sailing the boat to California) with a group of people that I knew so little about and for such a short period of time. I was also the least experienced and therefore the least knowledgeable out of the group in terms of sailing. On a personal level, I tend to be the quiet (or reserved) person in a group setting therefore this entire situation ended up being quite the experience for me. The first leg of this trip proved to be extremely beneficial for me personally in that I was completely taken out of my comfort zone on so many levels. I had to get to know the group and the group dynamics, individually and collectively, I had to learn from each of them as much as I could about sailing and of course we all had to learn to work together in what would later prove to be some challenging moments.
We left the Waterways Marina (Aventura) and headed north on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), grabbed some fuel, navigated through 4 draw bridges and made our way into the open ocean from Port Everglades, Florida. As we headed out into the open water, the winds steadily picked up and were blowing between 30-35 knots. The swells grew, the rain went from being intermittent to steady and the group began to settle in for the long haul. We had the mizzen and staysail fully up with no reefs [reefing is basically a way to shorten the sail area to slow the boat down and is typically used in conditions of high wind] and was making 8 knots in no time. The first issue that befell us was as we raised the mizzen, one of the wenches that we used to hoist the sail flew off its mount under a moderate load. As the wench came off, it struck one of the crew members and promptly fell overboard. I watched as that first equipment failure occurred and prayed that the structure of the boat was more sound, then that wench had been. No one was injured from that incident, but it gave all of us something to laugh about for awhile. We were all in great spirits, the boat was now moving along at a steady speed of nearly 10 knots and the winds had increased with gusts in the low to mid-forties. No sail change was needed, she handled the wind and waves perfectly and felt really solid.
During the first 24 hours at sea, there were times where the ride down below was a bit rough and each of us were reminded by the heeling of the boat to always maintain a hand for the boat. For those of us who forgot that, myself and Andrew in particular, we managed to make our way from the starboard side of the boat to the port side of the boat rather quickly breaking the table in the process. Again no one was hurt, but it made for a funny story later. Having five people on board meant that there were five people to help out with watches, cooking, cleaning and other tasks that needed to be completed. When the boat was underway, we always had someone up (24/7) to watch for debris or other boats that might be in front of us, sudden changes in the weather, which might require sail changes and to ensure we remained on course. We had a brand new auto pilot system installed on the boat, so unless the sea state was really agitated which creates some stress on the system, we did not have to manually steer the boat.
By January 4th, the wind had subsided a bit and so did our boat speed. We were now traveling at 7 knots and had just cleared the Florida Keys to our north with Cuba directly south of us. The unfortunate part of this trip was timing. Many of us were taking time off work to do this and the basic premise of the trip was to get the boat to California so there was not much time built into the plan to travel to exotic destinations like Cuba, Belize or Costa Rica. That proved to be tough on each of us as we looked at the chart plotter and saw all these places within reach. I was quietly hoping that an excuse would pop up that would force us to make an unplanned visit to Havana. With thoughts of old cars, Mojitos and cigars on the brain, I found myself spending the first couple of days thinking of ways to make landfall, but I knew we had to keep going.
By January 5th, with currents and winds in our favor, we were making 11 knots (velocity made good- VMG). This speed was incredible and it felt like we were screaming along, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem like my InReach device captured those incredible speeds. In addition to my Iridium Go (satellite hotspot for phone calls and to check weather) I also had an InReach device on board. It’s also a satellite-based system that can send an SOS signal if needed, it tracks your location and (with the right plan) allows for an unlimited number of text messages to be sent and received. I had a pre-paid data plan for the Iridium Go so it really didn’t get used much. The InReach proved to be worth it’s weight in gold because it was an inexpensive way for people to follow our progress, it allowed for me to stay in touch with family and friends, and there was a record of where we had been along with data about our speed, date and time, that was helpful for looking back on trip details. If you have not seen the trip map yet, follow this link and it will take you there (https://share.garmin.com/mathews).
Other than a few minor issues, the trip had been amazing so far and we were making great time. This would all change though in the early morning hours of January 5th. At approximately 2am, Danny was on watch and had just relieved Jake. Myself and the rest of the crew were asleep when I awoke to uneasy feeling that something was wrong. I could hear Danny and Jake changing sails and discussing the boat, but something was different this time. It was raining outside, the winds were in the high 20’s and the sea state was agitated. The waves were approximately 2 meters high and choppy. I put on my foul weather gear and went on deck to see what was going on. Danny explained that the steering was becoming less responsive and it was becoming very difficult to control the boat in the current conditions. The boat had dealt with much worse conditions than what we were experiencing at this moment so it was clear something was wrong with our hydraulic steering system. We turned on the motor and Jake and I brought down the rest of the sails that had been up. He and I inspected the hydraulic lines and learned that several of the hose fittings were leaking. They were relatively slow leaks, but with several of the fittings leaking simultaneously the loss of fluid added up quickly. Jake, Danny and I were discussing ways to fix the leak, but even if we tightened the fittings, we did not have any hydraulic fluid on board. In the time it took to get the fittings tightened, Danny noticed that we were down to nearly 20 percent steering ability and with the combination of wind and waves maintaining control of the boat was becoming extremely difficult.
We were more than a 2-day sail (or motor) away from the nearest land which was the northwestern coast line of Cuba. Had my dream come true? Did a need to make landfall in Cuba arise? Well…yes and no. There really wasn’t a good place, at that point, to land in Cuba without turning around. We really did not want to do that; however, if we could not fix the steering issue, we were most likely going to have to do it. Because of the seriousness of the situation, the remaining crew members were told to get up and dawn life jackets. The emergency tiller was pulled from its storage locker and tested to make sure it was working properly. I should mention that the emergency tiller was fully checked out at the dock in Florida prior to leaving, but we checked it again because we did not want any unpleasant surprises should we lose all steering at the helm. With the entire crew up and ready, the emergency tiller ready and the hydraulic fittings tightened, Jake came up with the brilliant idea of using grape seed oil, which we grabbed during our provisioning for cooking, and proceeded to fill the hydraulic reservoir with as much of the oil as he could. This was a 2 person job and a messy one at that. With the boat bouncing around from the wind and waves and us having to use a flexible cutting board rolled up like a funnel (because there were no funnels on board) we managed to get a lot of grape seed oil in the reservoir and everywhere else. Once the reservoir was full, steering returned to about 80% of normal. This was a welcome relief to the crew and we no longer needed to consider turning around and stopping in Cuba. We did however, need to make landfall in Mexico because we were not confident this patch job would hold. At this point the crew returned to their bunks and life returned to normal. We continued to monitor the steering and added oil occasionally.
We arrived to Isla Mujeres, Mexico (a small island off the coast of Cancun) in the early morning hours on January 7th. We were in need of hydraulic fluid and fuel, but we couldn’t do anything until we had checked in with immigration and with the Port Captain. In fact, its illegal to leave the marina or to make any purchases prior to completing the in-processing at immigration. When we arrived, we stopped at the fuel dock located just inside the entrance to the island on the north side. We were told by the fuel dock staff that we needed to walk to the Port Captain’s office which is in violation of the very rules they had just explained to us. So with a basic understanding of where the Port Captain’s office was and our paperwork in hand, we headed off on foot. Once there, my inability to speak fluent Spanish became an issue and the Port Captain didn’t know English, but of course he isn’t expected to; after all we were in his country. A friend of his, Julio Leon, was an employee at the El Milagros Beach Hotel and Marina down the street. We went there and Julio was a huge help. Not only did he speak some English, but for a small fee of $75 (US) he had all of the various departments (i.e, Port Captain, Immigration, and the Agricultural Department) come to the El Milagros Marina and do the paperwork there. Although this should have been a simple and straight forward process. It wasn’t and it took two days and nearly $700 to to complete. The first complication came when they asked for a “Zarpe”. I had never heard of this document before, but in Mexico, Central and South American countries I am told they all require this form. When you travel by boat, this form is used to document your moments around a particular country or from country to country. For example, to travel from Isla Mujeres to Colon, Panama we needed a Zarpe from the Mexican government. Of course there is a small fee for this but its cheap. The problem for us was that we didn’t have one showing us leaving from the United States to Mexico. The U.S. does not issue Zarpe’s although there is a form that U.S. Customs can give you, but you must ask for it and you have to know the form number when you ask. Most Americans traveling by boat on the west coast stop in Tijuana, Mexico and the immigration officials from Mexico are so used to Americans coming through without one that it’s never an issue.
My inability to speak Spanish became a problem again when speaking with immigration which almost led to me getting arrested. The immigration official had asked me where I had come from prior to my arrival in Mexico and I thought he wanted to know where we were going to so I kept talking about Panama. Because I did not have a Zarpe from Panama he did not believe my story. At one point he was getting mad and told me, “If your lying to me. I will arrest you.” When the immigration official arrived earlier that day it was on a Vespa, he had been wearing an oversized helmet and his uniform pants were 3 inches shorter than they should have been, which exposed the white socks he had underneath. Needless to say, I was not impressed by his level of command presence, but up until the point where he threatened to arrest me, I thought he was nice guy. I can honestly say that when I heard him say he would arrest me, I immediately thought to myself, ‘Arrest? What is happening? Okay, if I see him reach for his handcuffs I am going to foot bail. I don’t have time for this nonsense’. Of course that would have been a horrific decision on my part because I am not accustomed to running from authority figures and I am sure I would have done something really intelligent like leave my passport behind on the counter. He didn’t reach for his handcuffs so I ended up sticking around and Julio eventually asked if I had a receipt for a fuel purchase in Florida to use as proof that I came from the U.S. and I DID!!! I just happened to still have that receipt in my wallet and it showed the date, time and location on it, which proved my story. That worked out perfectly and kept me out of jail, but now I was told I needed to write an apology letter to the Mexican Government for arriving without a Zarpe. I reminded Julio that our arrival to Mexico was completely unplanned because of mechanical issues. He said it doesn’t matter, but he wrote it for me in Spanish as part of the fee he charged.
After dealing with those issues for two days, we searched around for a mechanic that looked over our hydraulic system, made some repairs and completely flushed the system. We also purchased extra hydraulic fluid and a new set of house batteries for the boat. We stayed in Isla Mujeres for a total of 4 days before moving on; however, this delay created an issued for John and Andrew because they did not have time to continue on to Panama. They ended up flying home from Cancun and Jake, Danny and I left Cancun for Panama.
We arrived to the Shelter Bay Marina in Colon, Panama on January 14th. The rest of the way from Mexico to Panama was uneventful. Light winds and several days of motoring left me wanting a break from the boat so our arrival to Shelter Bay Marina was a welcome site for me. It was followed up by a prompt visit to the bar where I sucked down about three Balboa’s (a local Panamanian beer) before I even thought of dealing with immigration.
For the next blog, I will go into our experience in Panama, transiting the canal and the trip to Chiapas, Mexico where the boat is currently located.