If you've looked at the map, you'll have seen that we did indeed make it to Panama a few days ago and are not still battling our way through the Caribbean Sea. Apologies for not writing sooner. We've been busy... surfing, eating, and catching up on sleep. The trip down was not the easy one we'd anticipated.
We'd hoped to leave Charleston and sail straight for the Windward Passage, between Cuba and Haiti, but the wind wasn't in our favor so we continued south along the coast instead. We stopped in Florida, home of a 600-ton sand Christmas tree and some of the nation's most bizarre news stories, where we were able to catch up with a few friends who'd coincidentally flown in the same day. With north winds opposing the northbound Gulf Stream, conditions were less than ideal for crossing so we waited almost a week before we could continue east toward the Bahamas. On the upside, we actually got quite a bit done while we were stuck there. If there's anywhere you'd want to be stuck on Florida's Atlantic coast it's West Palm Beach, if only for the fantastic farmer's market they hold each Saturday. And a week is just about enough there. Any longer and we'd have traded the boat in for a condo on a golf course and bought each other Botox injections and teeth whitening for Christmas... Florida is a strange place.
Finally the weather was perfect for crossing the gulf stream and the forecast looked good for the next stretch, too, with the wind just aft of the beam almost the whole way to Panama. However, it ended up being a bit of a bumpy ride through the Northwest Providence Channel and around the northeast tip of Eleuthera. And suprisingly cool at night. The Bahamas are where I first did any sailing outside of Narragansett Bay, my first overnight passages, my first time living on a sailboat. Even though we didn't get very close to land at all it was all very familiar. The deep clear blue sea; the flying fish that occasionally fling themselves on deck; Exuma Sound feeling like a corridor, though you can't see anything but ocean, but know there are islands and cays on either side; the brilliantly lit and monstrously sized cruise ships passing one by one like gaudy gems on a conveyor belt; the millions of stars at night and those that race toward the horizon falling from the sky... These things aren't special to the Bahamas, but it's the first place I experienced them. It was sort of bittersweet to be able to experience them there again, but unable to stop and revisit the places I got to know 15 years ago.
By the third day, when we turned south and sailed between Cat Island and Long Island, the seas were calmer and smoother. We were finally able to get the boat a bit tidier and spend a bit of time in the galley. We crossed over Tartar Bank, hoping for a tuna or at least a mahi mahi but all we got was a barracuda. It didn't matter; we ended that day with proper showers, which had become a bit of a luxury at that point, and a fresh meal.
As we approached the Windward Passage, we knew the seas would build and the wind would become fluky. Even so, the weather report we'd downloaded showed only 5-10 knots going through the passage and 17 knots from the NE once through - perfect for a straight course to Bocas del Toro. But when I came on watch that night, just in sight of Cuba's easternmost point, it was to 12 foot swell and 25-30 knot winds. This continued for three days. The boat bounced along, surfing down waves, and heeling way over with the wind. We ate instant ramen and Doritos. We didn't sleep well. On the second day, in the lee of Haiti, the wind dropped right off as lightning storms passed overhead and freighters glided past, unfazed. Squalls began to roll through, and Matt spent his watch trying to avoid the worst of them but as they were line squalls there wasn't much he could do. By daylight, rain that flattened the surface of the sea fell and the wind continued to gust stronger and stronger, making the ocean look like a series of blue ridgelines, windswept and endless.
It got so bad later that night that we had to heave to while the squall passed overhead. The boat was going 12 knots at one point with a triple reefed main and only a teeny bit of jib out. Even with the jib furled we were still pushing 10 knots. Finally, unable to see past the end of the bow because of rain, Matt decided to stop the boat. Luckily, that was the worst of it.
In general it wasn't so bad - we were never too concerned - just uncomfortable and tiring for only two people. In a way we were quite lucky; the direction of the wind put us perfectly on course and the strength meant we were making really good time. We also got to know how the boat responded to rough weather (very well) and noted what we needed to improve. All good things to discover on a short passage before the Pacific Ocean crossing. It was also kind of cool to be so close to the water and so exposed to the wind and rain, though not necessarily enjoyable. On the big boats we used to work on, weather like this was still uncomfortable but you didn't really have to deal with the elements. It just meant you couldn't work on your tan or do Insanity workouts on the aft deck. On Tamata, we're feet from the waves, and walls of water rise up behind us, towering over the stern until the boat is pushed forward and races down the frontside. When it's gentle it's almost like a lull, the smooth, metered rising and falling predictable. When it's rough, the boat is jerked forward, pulled from one side to another, and the affronts seem to come from all directions. I remember crossing paths with a small sailboat of the coast of Gibraltar when we were taking a 120-ft sailboat across the Atlantic. We were still 100nm offshore and sailing downwind through some pretty large seas. The little boat was beating into it, climbing each wave's peak and crashing down the backside, rocking like one of those crazy horses on springs at the playground. I remember thinking how unpleasant it looked and feeling thankful that I was on such a large boat, and then, in the same moment, realized that that would be Tamata in the near future. Now that we're doing it, being on the big boat seems like a bit of a detached way to sail. For us, everything is immediate and our movements feel like an extension of the weather itself. I'm just thankful we were sailing downwind on this trip...
We were pretty exhausted by the 8th day, when the sun finally came out. The seas were still over 12 feet, but the winds were much more steady and the sailing smoother. Things continued to die down until we could finally see land. Without any breeze, we had to motor the last day, which was fine since we'd used so little fuel. As we approached Bocas del Toro the haze of brown-green land became more defined and more vividly green until we were close enough to hear reggae echoing out from a shack on a small bay and smell smoke from a nearby fire. We anchored the night off the point of Bastimentos and, after grilling a huge steak, finally caught up on sleep.
We've been here only four nights but the contrast is stark. Now we wake to the sounds of jungle birds calling, the buzz of water taxis zipping between islands, and the daily outbound morning flight passing low overhead. We've been eating tons of ceviche, enjoying simple, local meals, and lots of fresh fruit. Beer is cheap. The surf is good... As Matt says, it's a dog's life.