Goat

Alex and I are just getting ready to dinghy to shore when we see a powerboat approaching. Four guys are packed in the small yellow craft which is followed closely by an outrigger canoe with an outboard engine strapped to the back. We’re anchored outside the 200 person town of Hapatoni on the island of Tahuata in the Marquesan island chain of French Polynesia. The men are local Marqueseans and when they see us, one of them raises a plastic wrapped package into the air as they all join together in a loud cry. We would learn later that this is their battle cry. We would also learn that the package contained a rifle. Even if we had known these things, and even knowing that the last reported case of cannibalism on these islands against a foreigner was in 2010 we wouldn’t be afraid, because we recognize the man with the gun. It’s Heikua, our Marquesan friend.

We had met Heikua two days earlier while wandering aimlessly around the village. A voice called to us from behind some hibiscus bushes, and Heikua came out to greet us. His thick hair is cropped close, like most men here, and his unshaven beard grows only as a mustache and a bit on the chin. His arms are covered in tattoos given to him by a friend, and he had his name tattooed in Polynesian on his neck, so he can just point to it with his left thumb when someone asks him his name. He’s stocky but strong, always wears the same red tee with the arms torn off, chain smokes thin hand rolled cigarettes, and cradles a coffee can filled with marijuana wherever he goes. Heikua invites us to his backyard, where he makes carvings to sell in Tahiti. We’ve met a lot of artisans in the Marquesas, but Heikua is a little different. He makes all his carvings out of bone. He shows off some of his work: a jewelry box made of a cow femur, an incredible jewel inlaid necklace made of dog bones, and a three foot long rosewood topped scimitar made from a marlin’s spear.

Problem is, we’re not particularly interested in jewelry. After 23 days crossing the Pacific, and a week since we made landfall, we still hadn’t seen an open store or restaurant. Our food supply was dwindling, and “What should we have for dinner?” was becoming a running joke. We didn’t want jewelry, we wanted fresh produce, and told as much to Heikua. A trade was agreed upon; in exchange for the produce, Heikua asked that we bring him some thin cord and “medicinal” rum.

The following day, Heikua was waiting for us at the dock with two stalks of bananas. We hopped in his truck, not knowing that the rest of the day would be spent foraging. After brief stop at his house and the pig sty for feeding time, Heikua and his cousin Nicholas show us how to knock pommecythere from the trees by throwing rocks. Next to the sty, Heikua hacks a step into a banana tree and then passes the machete to Alex, who is instructed to climb the tree and chop it down about 10 feet from the ground. The fruit goes in the bed of the truck, and the leaves are fed to the pigs. Now we’ve got 3 banana stalks and a bucket filled with weird apples.

I’m curious about a squash-like vine on the ground and ask Heikua what it is. “Ahh, it’s a pumpkin. They’re very good. We use them in stews. You like pumpkin?”

“You like pumpkin?”, and “Would you like a pumpkin?” seem to have the same meaning. Having expressed that I do in fact enjoy pumpkins, we start the 30 minute drive to find one. Alex is in the bed of the truck with Nicholas, and I’m in the cab, beginning to get nervous because Heikua is trying to roll a cigarette while driving and the road is getting steep, beginning to switchback, and falling apart.

“You drive, yes? In America?”

He seems to mistake my hesitation for an inability to drive. In actuality I’m just nervous about where this line of questioning is going.

“You have a car?”

“Yeah sure, I know how to drive”

And so I reach over with both hands and drive us through the jungle while Heikua, having renewed confidence in me, doesn’t even bother to look at the road.

Just about the time the cigarette is rolled, it starts to rain. Seconds later, it’s pouring. It’s incredible how quickly things change. One minute we’re cruising down a dry dirt road, the next, every pothole is filled with water, streams cross the road every 50 feet, and Alex and Nicholas are soaked to the bone in the bed of the truck. The road pitches upward and we rise higher and higher. The view is incredible; the sun is setting below the rainclouds which have just begun to pour on us, and everything is covered in shadow and pastel sunset light at the same time.

Suddenly Heikua is shouting explatives.

“Putain Beoff! Ahh putain!”

He explains that while he owns 3 of the 7 cattle on the island, the other 4 are owned by a guy in the other village who lets his cattle wander down the road. They’ve eaten all the pumpkins.

Stopping at one of the switchbacks, we all hop out in the rain. Alex looks like he just came out of a swimming pool. The gravel road is etched into the side of the steep mountain, with cliffs rising above and falling below. The pumpkins usually grow right on the edge of the road, and you can see where the plants have been nibbled away to nothing.

Suddenly Heikua points out a grayish blob on a little ledge of rock 20 feet downhill. He motions for me to go get it. Go slowly he says.

I scramble down the hill, taking care to avoid any loose boulders. When I reach the pumpkin, I toss it up to Nicholas who is waiting, laughing.

On the scramble back up the ledge, a large rock detaches from the wall and goes tumbling down the hill behind me. Close call.

Back on the fairly solid road, the rain picks up again, and Heikua motions for me to follow him to the cab, while Alex and Nicholas search for more pumpkins. The idea is clear, Heikua and I are dry, let the wet ones stand in the rain.

When their pumpkin search turns up nothing, we make the half hour ride back to town in the dark. The rain has stopped when they drop us off back at the dinghy, and we thank them profusely for the 3 stalks (about 150 individual bananas), 30+ pommecythere, and the pumpkin.

After the fruit gathering adventure, we consider Heikua and Nicholas to be good friends, so when they showed up at the boat, toting a gun, and yelling battle cries, we weren’t alarmed. Their reason for meeting us at the boat was unclear however, until Nicholas pulled alongside Saltbreaker in the outrigger and passed a dead goat up to me by the hind leg.

“We were coming back from Vaitahu (The next town to the North), when we shot this goat from the boat, but we don’t have a knife… Do you have a knife?”

I start sharpening one of our longer knives, while Heikua strings the goat up by it’s hind legs from our sun shade. When everything is positioned, he reaches into his bag and passes out a round of still cold Tahiti brewed Hinanao Beer, and we settle in to watch the butchering. The powerboat driver takes the knife and quickly and expertly gets to work. Slicing from anus to head, he cuts the throat and lets it bleed out for a while, then scrapes off the skin. This isn’t his first goat butchering. I have Alex ask if they use the goat skin for anything, and minutes later, we’ve got a goat pelt drying on the bow of the boat. I have no idea what we’re going to do with it.

Next comes the gut sack, which the butcher has left intact. Heikua asks for a plate, and takes the liver and heart out before the rest of the viscera are dropped into the ocean. Under Heikua’s supervision, Alex slices up half the liver and fries it up in a pan. While this is happening, he explains to me that they eat the liver raw. I sense a dare coming. Taking the knife, he slices several thin pieces of liver and motions that if I eat some, he’ll eat some. Shit. While deciding whether or not to go through with it, Heikua reaches down, grabs a piece, and makes a loud slurping noise as he sucks the liver into his mouth. He winces a bit as he chews, finally swallows, and lets out a loud, “Ahh..”. I’m impressed. Then I realize that I never actually saw the liver sliver he took, just his hands. There seems to be the same amount of liver on the plate as there was minutes ago.

“I think this guy is trying to trick me into eating raw liver”

Not willing to be fooled, I tell Heikua that we have to do it at the same time, as I crouch down next to the plate. We both grab a slice, and stare each other directly in the eyes as we drop the pieces onto our tongues and start chewing, scanning each other for any sign of displeasure or weakness. The liver is mushy, but surprisingly tasty. After a few seconds of chewing, we’ve both swallowed and the dare is complete. Satisfied by my performance, Heikua explains that only true Marquesans eat raw goat liver, and forces Nicholas to eat it as well so as not to be shown up by a foreigner.

Heikua tries to get Dave Green to try next. “Just pretend it’s octopus shit. If you think of raw goat liver, it doesn’t sound so good, so just pretend it’s the shit of an octopus, and it tastes O.K.” He’s 100% serious. Some things just don’t translate across cultures. Nevertheless, Dave gives it a try, and Alex comes out of the cabin with cooked liver, only to be forced to eat it raw. When all the raw liver is gone, Heikua finally admits he’s never had raw liver before.

With Alex as translator, Heikua tells of a time that he and his friends took an outrigger canoe from one side of the island to the other. Halfway through, they decided to cut the engine and float in the ocean for a while. With their shirts over their heads to protect themselves from the sun, they floated aimlessly in the outrigger drinking beers.

“It’s like being here on your boat eating raw goat liver with Americans. Every once and a while you’ve got to do something different, you know? It keeps life interesting.”

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Landfall

We arrive outside of Fatu Hiva, the eastern-most island of Polynesia in the early morning of our twenty-third day at sea. It is still dark out when I wake up for my shift, but you can just make out the outline of the island in the black sky. I keep smiling at it and kind of bounce all over the boat with energy, making dolphin sounds back at a group of dolphins that was giving us an early morning welcome call

“Eee Eee Eee!” (Come here dolphins, I wanna pet you)

“EEE EEE!” (It’lllll be fuuuun…)

But the dolphins aren’t having it. Maybe they speak MarquesanEEEs.

Then the sun starts rising behind the island and I run out of things to say. I can’t stop staring at it. The color fades in with the sunrise, deep lush green covering the craggy outcroppings. Thick clouds resting above, obscuring the peaks. There’s a feeling of mystery in the island’s presence that I can’t quite describe.

We set foot on the island later that day, longing for a celebratory meal (or any meal that wasn’t cooked by us, or really anything besides rice and beans). Past the small soccer field and down the thin road and already my legs are tired. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, smiles at us from a poster, as if to remind us we’re technically in France. Weird. Nick and Alex start picking fresh limes but there’s no restaurant to be found.

We head back to the main drag and plop down on a stoop while to wait for the store to open. We’re all just sitting, not really talking, just looking around, and that’s when it really hits me. You can walk around without bracing yourself against something, hear the world without the constant sound of waves and wind, focus your eyes on a point without everything around it moving, sit somewhere and just be totally still.

I think that’s what hit me hardest, just how great it is to be still and quiet and calm. I’ll hold onto that thought for a long time.

-Dave

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The crossing

Each day of the crossing we sent out a location update along with a brief daily update. Heres the full set of updates:

April 17th, 2012: 0 45’S 90 18’W

Arrived in Galapagos on Saturday. Equator crossing was a success, pulled up alongside it and dove across. Drank champagne, ate bread shaped like King Neptune, lit off some fireworks (and got reasonably lit ourselves).

Galapagos has been a bit of a whirlwind. Managed to see a few enormous turtles, but the majority of our time was spent dealing with the port captain (which included being quarantined to the boat for a day) and repairing the diesel (which is now operational).

I hear Phil Collins playing now, in 5 minutes we raise anchor and in 18 miles we’ll watch our trip odometer click to 5,000nm. By the end of this passage it should read 8,000!

Day 2: 2 16’S 91 49’W

Trip odometer now reads 5,115nm which means not only did we break 5k but we also covered 130nm yesterday! Pretty sure thats a boat record. After a couple weeks in the doldrums, a full day going this fast feels like lightspeed. To add to our productive day, we managed to catch ourselves a nice looking dorado, first one since Mexico, and peeled a squid and 3 flying fish off the deck this morning.

Currently heading south to make sure we work our way well into the trades, then when the forecast looks good we’ll take a right turn, trim the sails and cleat them off for 3 weeks.

Day 3: 3 05’S 93 56’W

Just turned west, from now on it should be downwind all the way to marquesas.

Day 4: 3 13’S 96 01’W

Hitching a ride on the southern equatorial current that appears to be somewhere between 1.5-2 kts! That combined with strong (and a bit squally) wind means we’re flying. Yesterday (6am – 6am) was a 145nm day.

Day 5: 3 13’S 98 19’W

Saw a glow on the horizon NW of us last night which quickly fizzled away. In case it was a flare went a few hours off course to check it out. No other signs. If it wasn’t a flare, what was it?? Meteorite? North Korean missile failure? [Turns out it was almost certainly Venus glowing orange as it set! Oops!]

Day 6: 3 38’S 100 44’W

I think we’ll forever be spoiled by the view of the stars from sea. On a clear night you can spend your entire three hour watch staring at them. The lyrid meteor shower was last night (and tonight?) and between clouds we were able to catch a few long fiery streaks.

Day 7: 4 05’S 102 41’W

Yesterday was shower day. Set up a curtain on the bow and showered with buckets of saltwater and a fresh water rinse. I think its safe to say we’re the cleanest people in miles!

Day 8: 5 04’S 104 39’W

Wind changes pushed us a bit further south and kicked up some large but gentle 10-12 foot seas last night, resulting in a larger than average harvest of flying fish on deck. Troubles with our autopilot prompted a midnight rebuild by Alex, but all’s well now. Coffee and hashbrowns for breakfast.

Day 9: 5 18’S 106 33’W
Becalmed for quite a bit of yesterday but picked up the trades again last night. Saw a large boat on the horizon last night (first sign of other people in over a week!) which ended up passing about 3 miles of our stern. Small world.

Yesterday was filled with milestones. We broke 6,000nm for the trip, 1,000 for this passage and have now officially been at sea longer than any of our other passages.

Day 10: 5 01’S 108 44’W
Riding the fringes of the convergence zone which is making for some rainy weather. Wind picked up and we’re surfing down some of the larger waves!

Day 11: 5 01’S 112 20’W
Turns out the flying fish are pretty tasty, though unless you get a large one they don’t really have all that much meat. Trick is finding them before they dry themselves to the deck. Rain seems to have past and has been replaced by sun and nice steady wind, haven’t touched the sails all day.

Day 12: 5 26’S 114 42’W

Today we crossed an imaginary line that placed us somewhere around 1,500 miles from any land. That also means we’re just about halfway! When we left San Francisco our cousin Pat gifted us a bottle of Orange Cream Soda that we drank in celebration.

We’d been hearing a creaking noise originating from the top of the mast lately and decided it was time to investigate. Put on a climbing harness and made a trip to the top, an activity that bears similarities with rock climbing in an earthquake. Nothing suspicious so we emptied the better part of a can of WD-40 on anything up there that moves. So far no more creaking … but only time will tell.

Day 13: 6 08’S 117 09’W

Here is a list of today’s accomplishments:

Alex woke up this morning when an onion fell on his head. He now worries that another may be on the horizon.

Nick fixed our windvane, causing us to wonder if his name should be changed from [expletive deleted]-wad to something less demeaning. (The Windvane, not Nick. We’ll still call Nick [expletive deleted]-wad.)

Yesterday Nick made some chocolate banana cranberry cake-bread. We ate some today, but there’s still some left. Stay tuned for further updates.

We saw a tanker! What are you doing out here, tanker?

This afternoon saw us enjoying a few lovely rounds of Monopoly Cards. As Saltbreaker rolled gently side to side in the warm sun and fair winds I thought, “Don’t you DARE try to steal my Park Place! This is ridiculous! I’m never playing with you guys again!” The good thing about Monopoly cards is there’s no board to flip.

On our daily SSB radio meetup we guessed Usutpu’s Hangman Challenge: Rotten Bananas

Day 14: 6 05’S 119 21’W

Winds shifted a bit north forcing us to jibe, after nearly two weeks with everything constantly slanted to the right its now slanted left. Feels really strange.

Tomorrow if the weather is good we’re going to host a theme party, everyones invited.

Day 15: 5 59’S 121 45’W

May Day!

No we’re NOT in trouble, simply celebrating the first day of May. We’d been planning on throwing a party of sorts marking one month since leaving mainland America. That combined with the fact that this holidays name sounds an awful lot like a distress call (M’aidez M’aidez!) gave us inspiration for a party theme. It started by sounding an alarm at which point we abandoned the cabin for the foredeck (where the party was hosted). We gave ourselves two minutes to gather any possessions and camped out for a few hours, enjoying a different perspective, eating cookies, drinking (cold) beer, and watching sunset.

All is well.

Day 16: 6 25’S 124 04’W

No news is good news. Most exciting thing that happened to us today was when a rather large flying fish managed to fly through one of our portholes and into the head. Estimating about a week till landfall.

Day 17: 6 51′ 125 41′.

Been catching lots of Dorado. Each has been a slightly different color, some have a bright green body with pastel blue dorsal fins others are almost entirely golden. Trying to get creative with how we cook them, last night was new england mahi-mahi chowder in sourdough bread bowls, tonight it’ll be blackened.

Tonight after the moon sets we’re hoping to catch another meteor shower.

Day 18: 7 33’S 127 53’W

This morning we woke up to a surprise, another sailboat on the horizon! After trying to hail them over radio we decided to change course to go say hello.

The boat was about the same size as Saltbreaker, though a bit worse for wear. It was sailing significantly slower than us (only using one sail) and at first we didn’t see anyone aboard. As we got closer a man stepped out into the cockpit. Now aware of our presence we struck up a radio conversation.

The french man (Jean) was in the middle of his second solo circumnavigation. He had left Galapagos a month ago and was also (slowly) making his way to the Marquesas. With land as far away as Denver is from Chicago (800nm) its absolutely incredible that we crossed paths. Seeing another human after 17 days was pretty shocking for us and we’ve been able to talk amongst ourselves. I can only imagine how mind blowing our encounter must have been for him!

Day 19: 8 12’S 129 19’W

Slow going last night. Winds essentially died for about 18 hours. Thankfully back on pace again.

Today’s location update is actually only an approximate one. We turned off all our GPS units in order to give celestial navigation a shot, using the sextant and dead reckoning to determine our lat/lon.

Day 20: 8 42’S 131 47’W

Saw another sailboat today! They passed to the north of us. We made brief radio contact, they could hear us but their radio must not be as strong since we couldn’t quite hear them.

At this point, we’re pretty much out of veggies (other than potatoes, onions and garlic). Todays lunch was hard tack (biscuits) and salt pork (gravy).

Day 21: 9 12’S 133 48’W

For almost a week we’ve been telling ourselves we have six days left. By over-estimating we’ve been hoping to not get too anxious for landfall. The truth is though, we’re getting really REALLY close. Just a couple more days and we’ll be scanning the horizon.

This is now our actual position, but after several days practice we were getting pretty comfortable with celestial navigation. This afternoons fix (a combination of several sextant sights and dead reckoning) got us within 5nm.

Day 22: 9 57’S 135 58’W

The past few nights the weather has been like clockwork, 6pm cumulus start forming, 8pm winds get a little gusty, 9pm squall, 11pm clear.

Last night Helmer decided he wasn’t a fan of the 9pm squall and ground his (last set of) gears. Looks like we’ll be purchasing some new parts. The windvane (mechanical auto-pilot) has been treating us well though so it hasn’t been a major inconvenience.

If the wind keeps up we should just barely see land tomorrow at sunset! Regardless we should be pulling into Baie des Vierges on Fatu Hiva sometime on the 10th.

… looks like the winds are getting gusty.

Day 23: 10 05’S 138 10’W

Well, we’ve been scanning the horizon but haven’t seen land quite yet! Fatu Hiva reaches ~900m and we’re 40 miles away so we should be able to see it, but theres a pretty solid haze on the horizon. I suppose our first view of land will be under moon light.

At our current speed we’ll be pulling in around 2 am. Not wanting to try entering under nightfall we’ll heave-to (putting the boat in park) and wait on the leeward side for sunrise.

Tomorrow we’ll set foot on land. Weird.

Arrival: 10 27.8’S 138 40.0’W

We made it! Our first sign of land came last night in the form of a dark raincloud that never seemed to disperse. We slowed ourselves down and pulled into Baie des Vierges a few hours after sunrise. The storm clouds obscured a clear view of Fatu Hiva till we were only a couple miles from shore, making for an incredibly dramatic entrance as we passed through the gate of a triple rainbow to find the awe inspiring backlit volcanic pillars which surround the town of Hanavave. The island itself is really quite small, only a handful of miles wide, and yet it rises to an elevation of 5,000 feet. From the boat we can hear goats bleating as they navigate the large volcanic pillars surrounding us.

We dropped anchor at 9am, promptly took naps and rowed to shore where we set foot on solid earth for the first time in 23 days.

End result: we covered 3,100 miles in 23 days, making for an average speed of 5.6 knots, which is pretty impressive (we think) considering the theoretical max speed of this boat is somewhere around 5.8 knots.

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We could all together go out on the ocean

A spot location!  A small bit of excitement comes over me as I find time to check my personal email during an otherwise mundane yet stressful work day.  I enter their coordinates.  Yes Google Maps, I do want this location, and no I am not searching for pizza nearby even your algorithm can’t conceive this.  I scroll out, and out, and out.  The map scales from 2000 ft, to 1 mi, to 2mi, and on and on.  500 mi scale, nearing the capacity of the mapping system and I can finally begin to have a relative sense of where this small, overly equipped vessel and its fairly large, overly prepared crew presses on across the southern Pacific.  Their brief update provides a surprisingly deep insight into their daily routine causing my mind to escape and drift off into my memories aboard Saltbreaker.

It has now been two months since I found myself lounging on the bow of Saltbreaker absorbing the last couple minutes of sunlight just before darkness sets in.  Alex disrupts my concentration as he pops out of the cabin for an opportunity to get a rare glimpse of the green “flash” sometimes scene immediately after sunset.  We intensely stare at the horizon for a few minutes but no luck this evening; we will have to settle for the almost perfect sunset over the calm Pacific waters.  We were well into the second leg of our travels down the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, this evening we will round the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula and find anchorage in Bahia Ballena in the morning.  After the sun disappears over the horizon the darkness sets in quickly.  Only a week into our trip and I already feel a sense of anticipation when night falls.  The sights over the water change dramatically as the stars grow brighter and the water begins to shimmer.   An overwhelming sense of calm comes over me as I lie back against the stowed dingy and I begin to feel a sense of freedom that is almost inexplicable. For now there are no obligations, no deadlines, and no expectations.   I begin to lightly laugh to myself thinking of our arrival aboard Saltbreaker.

Derek and I arrived in Tamarindo and embarked on a short yet successful journey searching for the crew of Saltbreaker.   After an ill communication at our rendezvous point, our instincts drew us towards an unassuming snack shop up the dirt road in search for two tall “Argentinos” (their Spanish must be better and they must be tanner than we thought).   A short distance up the road and a few crow calls later we meet the Kleemans.  Their presence is so familiar it almost feels as if we are meeting for dinner back home instead of this coastal surfing town in Central America.  We grab a quick bite and a few long overdue beers before setting off on what we presumed would be a short and easy dingy ride.  Alex comes out of the bathroom in a swim suit, I ask “should I change?”.  “Eh, it depends” he replies so overly nonchalant that I am convinced I don’t.  We fight an almost hysterical battle with the breakers and are soaked to the bone and wading in nearly a foot of water inside the dingy.  Alex and Nick express their little worn enthusiasm and begin pointing out observations that should have all but come the norm for them.  Nick, “We’re kicking up a little efflorescence”; the water sparkles as if small fireworks are igniting from under the dingy.  Alex, “You can see the Southern Cross”; he points towards the horizon over the lightless beach we just departed from.  The storied constellation shines brightly as we both quietly begin to sing “when you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand why now you came this way…” I find myself in utter awe and my completely soaked clothing now feels appropriate and almost essential for the setting.  Approaching Saltbreaker we can now hear the music playing aboard.

Finally Aboard

It’s late and we have been traveling for just under eighteen hours yet I find myself far from exhaustion.  After a clumsy climb aboard we crack open a few cold beers and begin to pass what will be the first of many bottles of rum.  We stay up late into the evening, far later than we will for the next two weeks, and discuss the happenings of life back in Chicago.

I break from my thoughts as dinner preparations begin.  I climb back towards the cockpit and discussions of how incredible tonight’s featured film will be are already underway.  A short time later a gourmet pasta dinner is served and we begin to watch the soon to be classic, Machete.  I can’t wait for my midnight watch.

Back in the office, the phone rings almost continuously as I find myself once again surfing through the photos of my experiences aboard Saltbreaker.   I find a single photo of the boat itself.  I stare, and stare, and stare.   I begin to feel remarkably close to this ship and its crew despite their isolated location in the center of the vast southern Pacific.  I can almost feel I’m still with them.

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Meet Helmer

There’s something we have to tell you. All this time you’ve thought there were just the three of us aboard Saltbreaker, but the truth is: there’s a fourth.

I think its about time you meet Helmer our auto-helm (or auto-pilot).

Before this trip we hardly knew Helmer, and weren’t even sure we’d need him along with us. “Pirates didn’t have autopilots”. But it wasn’t long into the trip before Helmer became our new best friend. Right from the beginning Helmer set out to make it known then he is clearly the hardest working of the four of us. Like any true friend hes always there when you need a hand and his generosity is truly amazing. “Hey, you think you could hold this course for a couple weeks while we read some books and take some naps?”. “Beep!” he replies (his manual loosely translates this as: “it would be my pleasure”).

Of course nobody is perfect and Helmer is no exception. Sometimes when the waves start pushing us around or the wind gets gusty we’ll hear him grunt “Uuuugh” and we’ll know Helmer is getting frustrated. This is a problem, because if Helmer’s frustrated, everyone is frustrated. Remedial action is immediately necessary which typically starts by offering words of encouragement. “Come on Helmer, cheer up” we’ll tell him. If this doesn’t work we have to move on to consolation. “I know, I know its near impossible to hold a course with these waves but give it your best shot”. But when that fails we have to start talking some sense into him, “Dude relax or you’ll grind your gears!”

Last night Helmer ground his gears.

It started with his usual grunting (belt losing tension). We offered encouragement. Helmer started screaming (belt slipping). We tried talked some sense into him, even helped him relax (loosened the tension). When this still didn’t work we started getting frustrated (“what WE have to steer??”) at which point the profanities came out.
“Hey $@# #@! Helmer” I said.

Helmer paused, carefully choosing his next words, “khkhkhkhkhkh”. You could hear the gear teeth crunching.

“Sorry! I didn’t mean it!” But it was too late, the gear box bit the dust. Up-side: we’d had the forethought to purchase a spare gear box before leaving. Down-side: we’d already used it in Mexico. Thankfully all 9 gears in the box are the same size, so mixing and matching between the two provided just enough to reconstruct a full working gear box.

From now on we’ll be more careful about what we say to Helmer.

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Manuel Antonio Costa Rica, an Introduction.

This gallery contains 26 photos.

Travel Day After watching the boys set sail from San Francisco, and all the associated feelings that went along with that – (See Nick’s blog entry to name a few – http://www.saltbreaker.com/blog/sendoff/ ) I was not at all sure I … Continue reading

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Sightings

The sun had just risen and was struggling to force its way through the patchwork of fair-weather cumulus that had been following us through the convergence zone. Ahead of us one cloud looked out of place. It was darker than the rest and lower on the horizon. Then it hit me.

“Land HO!”, Everyone was a sleep, so I had to whisper it, which felt about as ineffective as whispering an exclamation like “DUCK!”. After five days at sea there’s a strange elation that comes with seeing land (I imagine it’ll be far more intense after 3+ weeks). Before GPS sighting land must have been a huge relief, proof that your celestial navigation skills were up to snuff. Nowadays its just proof that your electronics work, but its certainly still satisfying.

About 15 hours later we pulled into Chatham Bay on Isla del Coco and grabbed one of the ranger supplied moorings. Like our produce we were getting a bit ripe, so without hesitation we jumped in to swim (read: to bathe). The water around the island was the clearest, bluest water we’d seen yet. We floated around, drifting towards Ustupu until we noticed park rangers in an inflatable coming by to collect our entry fees.

As we swam back towards the boat, they approached Nique and I (Dave Green was closer to Ustupu). “Cuidado, el tiburon tigre anda por aqui” they said over the sound of their outboard as they motioned towards the water.

We turned to each other, “Did they say ‘tiburon’?”. “Como?”

“Tiburon Tigre. Aqui.”, then they motored away.

This time we got it. Tiger Sharks. Below us.

We picked up the pace and both agreed, “Don’t tell Dave Green”. Its better to know these things when safely out of the water. After all, if we were actually in danger wouldn’t they have given us a lift instead of leaving us to swim back to the boat?

Of course, everyone made it back in one piece and soon the rangers came by our boat to collect our park entry fee (rather expensive but worth every penny). The island is known for two things its marine life (in particular schools of hammer heads) and buried treasure (a few caches have been found … but the big ones still out there). Its only real visitors are divers and park rangers with the occasional sailboat crossing from Costa Rica to Ecuador (apparently only 20 sailboats a year).

We spent our two days snorkeling around a nearby mini-island hoping to catch a sighting of Isla del Coco’s famous hammerheads. Sure enough we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a lone one (though not lucky enough to see a full circling school of them). Along with the hammerhead there were reef sharks (white-tipped, black-tipped), galapagos sharks, unidentified sharks, sea turtles, lobster and thousands of brightly colored fish. Very much like swimming around an aquarium. In the afternoons we went for hikes around the island, first to the ranger camp which felt eerily like something form the set of Lost, then to one of the islands impressive waterfalls (its the only cloud-forest island in the eastern pacific).

By the end we all agreed, Isla del Coco was on the top of our list. True paradise.

Now on to the Galapagos for a brief provisioning stop.

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Island Bound

After our first provisioning run, we returned to the boat, dug deep into lockers we never touch, and pulled every scrap of food we own outside into the cockpit. Each item was added it to an inventory list, grouped with similar items and densely repacked. Tearing everything out of the boat like that is a lot of work, but can also be fun; a lot like reaching into a winter jacket in the fall and finding a $20 bill from the previous spring. Among our rediscovered spoils were a bag of Trader Joe’s chili spiced mangoes, a Saltbreaker favorite.

At the store, we had bought 6 kilos of rice assuming we were running low, but after pulling everything out of our dry goods storage I found another 2 kilos. In the compartment behind the stove was another bag. Then, hidden above a panel in the quarterberth, out came a gallon mason jar filled with the stuff.

“I think we have too much rice…”, I muttered every time we found another hidden reserve. I said that a lot. When the cataloguing was complete, we were flush with empty calories, certainly enough for the passage… or is it?

Looking for reassurance that we were massively overstocked, I opened up the appropriately named book “The Care and Feeding of Sailing Crew”. Flipping to the section on provisioning, I quickly learned that not only did we not have enough rice, we didn’t have enough of anything.

Here are just a few of the recommended quantities they suggest we stock up on before we cross:

(based on 3 people for 30 days)

105 onions
90 potatoes
75 carrots
75 tomatoes
75 apples
75 oranges
9 watermelons
15 lbs of beans
120 eggs
60 lbs of flour
24 lbs of pasta
24 lbs of rice

60 lbs of flour! What is this, The Oregon Trail?! After spending $200 at the produce market, we now feel comfortable that we’ll be eating like kings for the next month.

So now it’s time to say goodbye to the American continent, and continents in general. From now till November, we’ll see nothing but islands as we hop our way to New Zealand.

The first stop will be in Isla Del Coco, a Costa Rican island 300 miles offshore, followed by a brief stop in the Galapagos before the 3-4 week passage to Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia. 2 weeks into the crossing, Saltbreaker will be just about as far from land as she can get, an island of dry surrounded in every direction by at least 1500 miles of ocean.

Not only does crossing the Pacific represent one of the biggest accomplishments a sailor can make, it also marks the true beginning of the biggest achievement of all; assuming we decide to continue all the way around, we’ll eventually pass through the Panama Canal and celebrate our circumnavigation here in Golfito a few years from now.

I imagine we’ll have a hard time finding internet, but fear not, we’ll be able to update the blog with text only posts via our SSB radio.

So farewell Americas, you’ve been great. Farewell also to tacos, casados, Pacifico, and Imperial. From here on out it’s coral atolls, coconuts, and kava as we explore corners of the globe only reachable by boat.

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Our Last Days in Costa Rica with Saltbreaker

Approaching Isla Tortuga

After a calm 6 hour sail from Tambor which included a textbook spinnaker run, we found ourselves at Isla Tortuga. After about another hour of nervously watching the depth finder we were able to firmly anchor off of Alcatraz, a smaller island adjacent to Isla Tortuga.

Isla Tortuga is an odd place. The island is clearly a tropical paradise, but one of the beaches is set up as a commercial resort that tourists boat in and out of each day from nearby towns. The gift shop and beach chairs seemed out of place, but we were glad to find that cold beers were available. Our afternoon on Isla Tortuga was relaxing, and once again we were joined by Ustupu. Since we had caught a Sierra mackerel earlier that day and had quite a bit meat left, the only logical thing to do was to bring the fish, some rum, and guitars to a secluded beach on the uninhabited island of Alcatraz and have another fire with the Ustupu crew. Once we landed the dinghy I was immediately struck with vertigo; it appeared the entire beach was moving. This actually turned out to be not far from the truth, and we realized that the beach was covered with thousands of hermit crabs. I always foolishly assumed hermit crabs were solitary creatures, but this beach blew that notion out of the water. Once again, we had a great time eating fresh fish on the beach. Nick and Alex, guitars ready, sat on logs late into the night asking for song requests. Even though I remember them pretty much shooting down everything that was suggested, I also remember that somehow quite a few songs were played. After heading back to the boat we were treated to a difficult night of sleeping on rough seas, with Alex up most of the night to make sure the anchor didn’t slip.

The next day we decided to go snorkeling at a few other very small islands nearby. I am terrified of snorkeling, so I stayed on the dinghy to really focus on the sunburn that was quickly forming on my back. As a bonus, Nick and Alex were able to spear us several sea bass and hawk fish for lunch. After making sure that the sunburn had really taken hold, we returned to Saltbreaker and raised anchor, anxious to avoid another night of getting tossed around by the waves. We quickly sailed over to the nearby bay at Curu, a monkey sanctuary. In retrospect, we were probably better off staying where we were.

Nick shopping for lunch

The next morning we were all well rested and set off in the dinghy for shore, fortified with the tequila we had drank the night before in celebration of the absent Dosh’s birthday. After safely stowing the dinghy above high tide, we headed down the beach toward the monkey sanctuary. I am almost positive that, had we listened closely and not been distracted by the soft-shell crabs scurrying about on the beach, we would have heard the ominous music playing in the background. At the sanctuary we encountered a family that had wisely chosen to hire a guide to take them on a tour. To our shock a spider monkey, which it was later explained was a rescue monkey that was very personable, walked out of the shadows and literally took a small child by the hand and walked him over to a building to point out an interesting sight. By this juncture of the trip my tropical survival instincts had developed to a razor sharp edge, and I immediately thought that the monkey was stealing the child. Thankfully I was wrong, but we would later find out that I was justified in not trusting these evil, evil monkeys.

We were disappointed to find that the monkey sanctuary did not sell cold beer, but still decided to check out the trails. We opted for the “Monkey Trail.” After this mile or so hike we all agreed that this trail was named this way as a warning, in the sense that the monkeys own the trail and do not appreciate you walking on it. Ignorant of this at the time, however, we happily set out, foolishly eager to see monkeys. Halfway or so through the trail we were discussing how it does not appear that there are any monkeys at all on the monkey trail when, out of the blue, a dozen or so white-headed capuchin (probably latin for man-eater) monkeys crossed in front of us. Through the trees, on the ground, through the canopy above; there were monkeys everywhere you looked. We eagerly ran around the upcoming bend to watch them for a little longer. At the exact same instant, way out of left field, another group of these monsters decided to cross the path in the exact spot we were now occupying. Chaos ensued.

Note the cold, calculating eyes

While we stood there, more monkeys than I thought existed were flying above, below, and through our group. One lost its grip and slipped to a lower branch. Then a baby monkey-cretin, who must have been startled by our presence, fell to the ground mid-leap from about 15 feet up. Don’t worry, he was unfortunately unharmed. At the same time, much to our amazement and dismay, the first group of monkeys started making unfriendly sounding noised and doubled back towards us. What I believe to be the alpha monkey and a few of his lackeys stopped about 3’ from us and decided, by way of greeting, to bear their razor sharp teeth and start growling (or whatever you call that terrifying sound monkeys make). The monkeys were able to very effectively make it crystal clear that we were not welcome. At this point I was, like an idiot, not yet scared out of my mind. I nervously laughed and turned back to Alex, Michael, and Nick. Alex and Nick were both armed with sticks at this point, and Alex was hunching up his shoulders, trying to look gigantic. Michael and I were relieved to see that the Kleemans found weapons until Nick quietly explained under his breath that it was just for show and lightly hit the stick against a tree, shattering it into a million pieces and somehow causing dozens of fire ants to cover his forearm. At this point, hoping desperately that the monkeys did not just see that, I was officially scared.

Michael, always the good friend, suggested that I just run past the clearly homicidal, in no way cute and innocent, 15 pound bully of a monkey blocking the trail ahead of us. Not wanting to be the hero, I instead graciously suggested that Michael perhaps take the honor of leading us past this all too real display of wildlife. He declined. Instead, we came up with the bright idea of running away and started to survey our surroundings. To our right was a river, which to my now terrified mind clearly contained crocodiles, so that was out. To our left was a hill with thick jungle full of several other monkeys watching us in a way that reminds me of the scene at the local deli during the lunch rush, so that route was also out. Turning around, we discovered that behind us was, of course, all of sudden also blocked by several more of these menacing monkeys who were busy striking all sorts of gladiator-esque poses.  I all of a sudden missed my couch back home very, very much. With no options and pretty much in a blind panic we all simultaneously decided to run ahead, trying to keep as wide of a path between us and the monkeys as was possible, which felt like being in a pinball machine. Luckily the monkeys did not foresee this cowardly tactic, and we safely made it through unscathed. We quickly took the next turn off the path and covered quite a bit of distance very quickly before stopping to look back. What we saw when we looked back was clearly some sort of monkey fight between the 2 groups. They were probably each angrily blaming the other for letting us get away. We covered the last half of the trail quickly. Extremely quickly once we heard the howler monkeys start screaming.

Upon returning to the base of the sanctuary, we all sat down to process what just happened. Except we sat down across from the previously mentioned rescued spider monkey, who was cuddling up with a sleeping teenager on a bench. I can’t speak for everyone, but all I could think of was this monkey suddenly turning on that poor boy, which in my mind was inevitable. This marked the second time in a matter of about an hour I fled from a monkey in fright.

 

This entire scene made our earlier decision to each jump 35’ off of the main shroud spreaders into the ocean seem perfectly reasonable and sane.

Not as easy as it looks

The rest of the trip proceeded at a much calmer pace. The next day we gathered what little courage we had left and set sail for Playa Herradura. We soon discovered a stow-away on our sail across the Gulf of Nicoya, however. It seems a dedicated hermit crab had crawled into one of our bags on the beach, I am guessing to get away from all the other socialite crabs, and was happily cruising around on the floor under deck. With lightning-fast reflexes Nick was able to capture the stow-away and made a little home for the crab, which we now called Hermie (proving once and for all that we are very creative with names). Hermie had already made his escape skills apparent just by showing up on the boat, and was able to quickly escape from the drinking glass Nick tried to keep him in. And that is how we had a fifth sailor on board during the half day trek to Playa Herradura, happily hanging out in the cockpit without a care in the world, letting the wind blow through its claws. After anchoring in Playa Herradura we were able to set Hermie free on the beach to enjoy his newfound solitude. We also made sure to release a Chinese lantern in celebration of Saltbreaker sailing 4000 miles since they left San Francisco.

With Playa Herradura as our base camp, we spent the next few days bussing back and forth between the harbor and the town of Jaco. Most of the time spent in Jaco was occupied with surfing and drinking pina coladas. This was a relaxing and welcome way to spend the last few days in Costa Rica, which went by way too fast.

All packed up, it was soon time to return home. After 150 miles and 2 weeks and with what seemed like a lifetime of adventure behind us, I was not even remotely ready to head home.  But our flight tickets said otherwise. This really had turned into an amazing trip. As I wrote these memories up, I often was unable to find the words to really illustrate how great this trip was. Everyone will just have to take my word for it that this truly was the trip of a lifetime.

I was not happy to have to go back home

After our reluctant goodbyes to our good friends, we boarded the bus to San Jose and Alex and Nick went back to Saltbreaker to continue the adventure. They were headed to Manuel Antonio to meet some of their family and start preparing the boat for the long Pacific Ocean crossing.

For me, after reliving the trip here, one thing is painfully clear: I will be joining Saltbreaker again. Once they get safely out of monkey country.

 

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Tamarindo to Tambor

After the eventful first evening we all woke up refreshed early on the first morning. After a quick breakfast and thorough bailing of water out of the dinghy we set off for shore.

Tamarindo is a small surf town that consists mostly of surf shops and people trying to sell you drugs. Our first order of business was to rent surfboards and see who would end up in the hospital first. Alex and Nick, born and raised in the Midwest, were surprisingly capable surfers, so I, like an idiot, thought it was easy. After about an hour of falling down and getting smacked on the head by the surfboard, I enjoyed an afternoon of floating around watching 8 year old kids surf like it was their job to be awesome at it. Michael kept at it and ended up doing not too bad. We were also joined by the crew of Ustupu, Dan and Sylvie, 2 Canadian sailors who will be crossing the Pacific at the same time as Saltbreaker. While Dan and Sylvie were a great time to hang out with, somehow they were unaware of how awesome the Canadian super-band trio Rush is. Don’t worry, Ustupu, the first thing I did when I got home was send a letter to the prime minister to alert him of this, and I am confident he has already dispatched Rush’s entire discography to your next port so you can join the rest of Canada in support of its greatest national treasure.

After a few days of hanging out in Tamarindo we decided to head further south. Ustupu graciously invited us over to their boat for dinner and fireworks on the last night. I was at this time and many times later amazed how these sailors can put together such great meals on their boats. After dinner and a few strong rum drinks Dan pulled out some Mexican fireworks. As always, safety was our primary concern and Dan had come up with a fool-proof plan on how to safely set these fireworks off. We used a sling shot. After some trial and error, we were able to nearly master this approach to fireworks. The only near incident was when we made the poor choice of lighting what appeared to be a quarter stick of dynamite, dropping it in a coke can, and throwing it overboard. It turns out that particular firework had a really short fuse, but everyone walked away with all of their fingers. All in all, a very successful night.

 

Leaving Tamarindo

 

By about 5:30 the next morning Saltbreaker was underway to the soundtrack of Phil Collins. Why they did not chose Christopher Cross is beyond me. Regardless, any doubts I had about the crew’s sailing abilities were quickly put to rest. We immediately encountered steady 35 knot winds and the Saltbreaker crew was able to competently raise and trim all the sails and we cruised at a comfortable 6-7 knots. The winds were gusting upwards of 45 knots, which is the strongest wind I have ever encountered. Sailing Lake Michigan in 30 knots of wind is a big deal, so naturally we were having the times or our lives. Then several things happened in quick succession that blew my mind. First, Alex casually pointed into the water where I saw at least a dozen dolphins surfing the wake of the boat. Then a sea turtle swam by, steadily heading south. Then we got consecutive hits on the fishing lines that were out, which resulted in some fresh fish for lunch. A little bit later we watched several stingrays jumping easily 4’ out of the water and doing what appeared to be perfect backflips. Then I saw what I thought was flying fish, but Nick believed to be just terrified fish running for their lives. I had a hard time processing everything that was happening, and was glad to see that Nick and Kleeman both shared the same look of awe that Michael and I had. It really is incredible on this boat, words just can’t describe it.

About 10 hours later we arrived at Garza, a very small beach town with a relatively well protected anchorage. We spent a few days here, enjoying the fresh coconuts, casados, cold beer, and snorkeling. More importantly, Garza was where we met Coco and Potato Chip. It seems that in Costa Rica people who own dogs let them run pretty much wild. This is a great thing, since this allowed us to meet and name these 2 dogs, who joined us for lunch at a soda on the beach. Coco was some sort of a black terrier and was about the friendliest and dirtiest looking dog I have ever seen. Also, Coco had an unreasonable love for coconuts. We fed that dog more coconut than I have ever seen in my life, and she still appeared to want more. After lunch, both Coco and Potato Chip joined us for a couple of mile walk up and down the beach. While Potato Chip was searching for the crabs that burrowed into the sand, Coco kept a watchful eye on the coconut that Nick was carrying with him. When our walk was finished we decided to pick up some fresh vegetables and chicken and have a bonfire on the beach. Nick made the poor choice of setting the coconut on the ground outside of the store while we were shopping. This was the last time we ever saw Coco or the coconut again.

Michael, Nick, Alex, Coco, and Potato Chip

Potato Chip, however, was in it for the long haul. She patiently followed us all day and well into the night, occasionally eating the potato chips we were offering her. While Potato Chip took a nap we collected drift wood and started building a fire at a secluded spot on the beach. After quite a struggle, we finally got a pretty good fire going as well as a smaller cooking fire, all under the watchful eyes of our new friend Potato Chip. Potato Chip also proved to be an excellent watch dog for us when she growled at anyone (actually, she growled at us) who left the fire and tried to come back. As soon as we said her newly given name aloud and she presumably recognized us she would let us come back, but I would not have tried to cross her otherwise.  We stayed at the fire long into the night, eating an excellent meal of vegetables and grilled chicken, which we shared with Potato Chip. I don’t think she tasted anything she ate; she just quickly swallowed everything, bones and all. Finally, it was time for us to go back to the boat and Potato Chip was not excited about this. She followed us as we carried the dinghy to the water and sat patiently just above the tide and watched as we motored back to Saltbreaker. I am not sure how long she waited, but she was nowhere to be seen the next morning when we raised the anchor, turned up Phil, and set off for Tambor. Our guess was that she probably had some indigestion problems, otherwise she surely would have been there to see us off.

The voyage to Tambor took over 24 hours with very inconsistent wind. We caught plenty of fish for food and, when the wind completely died, enjoyed a movie night aboard Saltbreaker while we drifted aimlessly in the Pacific Ocean. After the movie, the remainder of the overnight portion of the sail was divided into 3 hour shifts, and I was lucky enough to get the sunrise shift. When I woke up at around 3 or 4 in the morning the boat was rocking heavily and Alex, safely strapped into a safety harness and wearing a life vest, was tacking back and forth at the mouth of the Gulf of Nicoya, fighting strong currents and winds. Soon Alex was able to round the point into the gulf, and the weather abruptly grew calm. Alex, exhausted, went below to get some well-deserved rest, leaving me alone at the helm of Saltbreaker. Night quickly turned to morning and I was able to enjoy a beautiful sunrise over the Pacific, which was interrupted when both fishing poles were hit at the same time. After pulling one fish in after another Nick joined me for a few minutes, then Michael. We landed 5 or 6 fish in a matter of 10 minutes. Then, with nothing but the sound of the water and sails, I sat in the cockpit enjoying the view of Costa Rica’s coast line and the islands that dotted its shore. I am at a loss of how to put these experiences into words. You will just have to trust me that it was quite an experience.

Several hours later we arrived in Tambor, a small fishing village, and went immediately to find cold beers. To my extreme delight, the bar also had a shower, which I used. Actually, I took 3 showers, each time wanting to take another one after I finished the previous because they were so refreshing. When I was done with my series of showers, I was disappointed to see that my tan was in fact several layers of sunblock and sand that I was able to wash off. I believe I was actually less tan than I was when we arrived. Anyway, while we were enjoying cold beers we were glad to see Ustupu pull into the bay and set anchor. That night we were to celebrate Dan’s birthday on the beach. The party was great and included a piñata, a delicious pie, fresh red snapper, and another slightly too big bonfire that lasted well into the night.

The next night (or maybe the previous night, it is a little fuzzy) Dan and Silvie joined us as we set off by bus to Montezuma, a small town slightly to the southwest of Tambor. The bus ride, which was as far as I could tell straight down the face of a cliff, was thankfully uneventful. Once in Montezuma we promptly purchased some tuna and tortillas for lunch and set off to hike to a freshwater waterfall. The waterfall was easily 60’ tall, and we all had a fun afternoon eating lunch on the rocks and diving off the cliffs into the fresh water pools.

Dan and Silvie left to return to their boat after the waterfall hike, but we decided to stay behind and remain in town for the night. Our search for a hotel was short, and I am glad that I did not leave it up to the Kleemans. Their choice of hostels surely would have resulted in one of us getting stabbed, so I suggested we find a place that does not smell like death and has not so obviously stained sheets. Once we found a less terrifying place to sleep, we were off to hit the town, both blocks of it. After a short walk around we found ourselves on the beach sharing a bottle of rum and some juice when we noticed a large group of people about half a mile further down the beach. Suspecting it might be a wedding and that they perhaps lost our invitation, we promptly headed over to join the party. Once we arrived we realized, much to our disappointment, that it was not a wedding. It was not a total loss, however, as it was a local sea turtle hatchery releasing baby turtles into the ocean. The turtles were maybe 2”-3” in diameter, and we watched what clearly turned into a numbers game play out. Of the 40 or so turtles, I would say about 25 made it to the water. The others just walked in circles while the volunteers tried to show them the way. I was of the opinion that if the turtle cannot see the giant ocean 20’ feet away from him, maybe he doesn’t quite have what it takes to survive in the giant ocean. After watching for a while we returned to town and enjoyed some cold beers and rum. I went to bed early, but from what I heard it was a typical party town later at night.

The next day or maybe the next next day we returned to Tambor, raised anchor, and set off for Isla Tortuga, a short 6 hour sail further into the gulf. This proved to be a very eventful anchorage and I can think of 2 ways right off the top of my head that someone could have easily ended up in the hospital. Don’t worry, everyone survived, and I will tell you all about it on my next post.

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