The Voyage


Andy and Melissa are sailing around the world on their 48-foot sailboat, Spectacle.

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Bali, Indonesia

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The Voyage of Spectacle

Archive for the ‘Colombia’ Category

So Far, So Good

Posted by: melissa

Planning and packing to leave the country for 10 months is no easy feat.  Trying to anticipate every need and desire regarding not only personal effects but also possible boat parts and accessories is nerve-racking.  We did the best we could and set off yesterday for a very long travel day … LAX to Houston, Houston to Panama City, and Panama City to Cartagena.  We arrived back at Club Nautico Marina well after midnight.  At first glance, the boat seemed to be intact, so we crashed out without even bothering to make the bed.

We both had some trepidation in leaving the boat, which is now more like our home than anyplace else, for an extended period of time.  Luckily, as a matter of convenience, price and quality of service, Cartagena is a pretty terrific place to store a boat long term.  On the recommendation of marina manager John Halley, we hired a boat sitter named Alberto who was responsible for watching the lines, airing out the boat on a regular basis to minimize mold and rot, scrubbing the bottom to keep nasty barnacles away, and generally acting as project manager for a list of repairs about 50 items long.

After a long sleep, we awoke to find the boat in encouragingly good shape.  We have yet to go through our to-do list one by one with Alberto the boat sitter, but I’m fairly confident that the conversation will go well.  Unfortunately, the one problem that we’ve discovered since our return involves a stowaway of sorts.  Yes, sadly, Spectacle has acquired a minor roach problem.  We don’t seem to be full-fledged infested and the critters are both small and scarce, but it is nonetheless more than a little unnerving.

Club Nautico is just as we remember, and there’s quite a buzz around here as many boats prepare to head toward the Panama Canal and begin the Pacific Ocean crossing.  When we left Cartagena last summer, it was the rainy season – blisteringly hot and intensely humid, interrupted by frequent downpours.  Having returned in the dry season, the days are temperate, breezy, and dry (comparatively speaking).  As I sit here writing this post, I’m looking out on the marina and beyond … it’s a sunny and beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky.  The clubhouse is full of boaters from all over the world … drinking Aguila or Club Colombia beers, playing dominoes and Scrabble, and passing time in anticipation of the passage to Panama.

Upon Further Review … The Play Stands

Posted by: melissa

After closer investigation, the boat seems to be in surprisingly good shape.  We went over our list with the boat sitter and the marina manager item by item, and what they have not already completed, they have detailed suggestions for.  Today and tomorrow will be packed with repairs, maintenance, cleaning, sanding, and oiling.

Emigdio, the electronics guy, is checking out the single side band (SSB) and VHF (very high frequency) antennas.  Although I’m no SSB expert, I have never been able to pick up anything resembling communication on any channel, and the VHF has been spotty at best.  Antenna problems are fairly common, so hopefully Emigdio can save the day.  Although we have two backup, handheld, battery-operated radios, the boat unit is quite convenient (and powerful) to use underway.

In matters less important but highly irritating, the light on the cockpit chartplotter (manufactured by our good friends at Raymarine) has burned out.  We have called the Raymarine reseller in Panama City, who happened to have the guy from Raymarine standing next to him at the time of his call.  Andy said that we needed a new lightbulb for a Raymarine RC520.  The reseller relayed the message to the Raymarine guy, whose laughter was audible in the background.  Apparently, this is viewed as a nearly prehistoric unit.  This “ancient” equipment was new on this boat in 2001 and spare parts now basically can’t be had.  Have we mentioned how much we love Raymarine?

We aren’t buying a whole new chartplotter just for a light bulb, so it looks like nighttime navigation checks will involve either a flashlight or a trip down to the navigation station belowdecks.

The ongoing saga of the boat’s teak trim continues as well.  The former owner of this boat prided himself on the flawless varnish job on the toe rail.  Maintaining a perfect varnish job, however, has proven to be far more effort than we are willing to put into an essentially cosmetic project.  As such, we decided to let the wood go natural.  I sanded all the varnish off of the wood and treated it with teak oil.  As it turns out, maintaining even the natural wood has also proved to be a lot of effort, especially in equatorial heat.  But we think it looks even better than the varnish and it’s not quite as much work.

When we arrive at places where people need work and labor is cheap, we’ve been hiring people to sand and treat the rail, which is what we did last summer here in Cartagena.  Another boat in the marina recommended a kid named Carlos.  They said he did great work for them, and he’s learning English at night while manually laboring during the day to support his wife and young son.  After striking a deal with the eager young Carlos, we were informed by the marina manager that we had committed an infraction of sorts regarding the workmen’s pecking order.  There are guys who work here at the marina on a regular basis taking on any project available … no matter how difficult or unglamorous.  In their view, Carlos is inconsistent … highly visible and very charming when a lot of cushy jobs are available and disappearing when the hard work starts.

Evidently, Carlos pulled another disappearing act right after we prepaid him and left the country last August.  Now, on our return, Carlos is back but continues to be in especially poor favor with the regular workmen for a variety of reasons:  1) for skipping out on our project, and 2) taking off to Panama for a month and returning with T-shirts and souvenirs and stories of fun and adventure.  And of course, Carlos is in pretty poor favor with us since it’s clear he failed to complete the work for which he was commissioned.  But our boat sitter, Alberto, is holding Carlos’ feet to the fire, and a couple of days ago, Carlos returned to our doorstep with hat in hand.  After some negotiation, we struck a compromise and agreed that Carlos owes two days of work.  Because of his extended “vacation,” he pleaded for more work, but at that point, we didn’t really have any more work for him or any real desire to fork over any more cash to him.  In any event, we felt a bit bad that we had contributed drama to internal marina politics.

Back in Cartagena, we have been excited to revisit some of our favorite hotspots, especially the fantastic El Santisimo.  Additionally, a new French bistro – “Oh-La-La” — has recently been opened by a French husband/Colombian wife team, and its pretty impressive value for money — delicious French specialties made with a nod to local Colombian ingredients and flare.  Three courses plus wine ended up under $50 for the two of us the other night, and everything but the wine was pretty darn good.

Although we are quite sad to leave beautiful Cartagena, I am really excited to get this show on the road.  We should pull out of here on March 5 and be in Colon, Panama, about two days later.

The War on Terror

Posted by: melissa

So Huge and Quite CloseOur 47-hour passage from Cartagena to Colon, Panama, was totally uneventful, unlike our last attempt.  The wind was  very low and we were forced to motor about two-thirds of the time.

On our approach, we marveled at the 30 or so tankers and freighters anchored outside of the entrance of the Panama Canal waiting for passage.  We passed through the “goalposts” (that’s kind of what they looked like) indicating the opening of the canal breakwater, and then took a right turn into Shelter Bay The Entrance to the Breakwater is Really Well MarkedMarina.

The assault on Spectacle’s roach problem (now referred to as the War on Terror) is coming along nicely as well.  Due to our unusually conscientious/formalistic (depending on your view) regulatory framework, the United States is missing out on all kinds of extremely effective, and equally frightening, insect extermination systems.  I purchased an aerosol spray that is an absolute killing machine … one quick blast will instantly drop a roach in full stride.  Andy zapped a fly the other day and the thing was dead well before it hit the ground.  We no longer use this (nicknamed “Napalm”) without ample ventilation and immediate hand-washing.

Central America’s Lower Large Intestine

Posted by: melissa

Colon, Panama, the city associated with the mouth of the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side, was originally called Aspinwall by gringos.  The name, Colon (in honor of Columbus), ultimately prevailed when Panamanian postmen finally refused to continue delivering mail addressed to Aspinwall.  Colon is also widely known as one of the worst places on earth, and actually has been since its inception in 1850 when established at the Atlantic terminus of the Panama Transcontinental Railroad.  Indeed, Ulysses S. Grant said in 1852, “I wondered how any person could live many months in Aspinwall, and wondered still more why any one tried.”

Completed in 1855, the first-ever transcontinental railroad was created to transit gold speculators from east to west since it was much easier and safer to travel by sea than through the rugged terrain of the middle United States.  Gold Rush traffic provided Colon with enormous prosperity as hundreds of thousands of transients paid outrageously inflated prices for essential goods and services.

The transient nature of those passing through Colon, and the isthmus in general, lent to a Wild West culture throughout Panama.  While some Forty-niners were pioneering and adventurous hard-workers by nature, others were highly unsavory characters:  Gold Rush-obsessed, desperate, excessively and even homicidally greedy, and swindling and thieving with nothing to lose.  As the railroad backed up and transit wait times increased, Colon bottlenecked and travelers combated boredom by drinking heavily, oftentimes while armed.  The associated violence and riots and crime are notorious stories to this day.

Even with the Wild West stories and the ultimate bust of the Gold Rush, the importance of the Panama Railroad should not be underestimated.  The need, convenience, and benefit of a transit option that eliminated the need to sail around Cape Horn had been long known.  Many different projects and speculators tried and failed to accomplish this goal.  At $8 million (in 1850’s dollars) for 47.5 miles, it remains the most expensive-per-mile railway ever built, requiring five years and taking 12,000 lives.  At the height of the railroad’s prosperity, many world and political circumstances rather suddenly changed, including heavy taxation by Gran Colombia and the 1869 completion of the Union Pacific Railroad across the United States, both of which permanently undermined the railroad’s importance.

Ironically, the construction of the Panama Canal undermined the prosperity of the city of Colon.  The city and its residents, particularly in the last 50 years, have not benefitted from the billions of dollars continuously flowing through Panama.  The country as a whole reports a GDP of over $26 billion (in 2006), and a 7.2% unemployment rate (granted with an oversupply of unskilled labor, and an undersupply of skilled labor).  The most recent information that I can locate specifically about Colon is from November of 2002 shortly after several days of riots and looting in the city’s center.  That source claims a 40% unemployment rate in Colon, and more current estimates place unemployment as high as 75%.  Additionally, Colon has some 52 murders per year … a shockingly high rate for a city of only 200,000 people and a far cry from the urban, thriving, and sophisticated Panama City just 50 miles away.

Many different reasons and rationalizations exist for this tremendous disparity.  First, immigrant entrepreneurs dominate the skilled, and sometimes even the unskilled, labor force.  Massive foreign investment brings its own prejudices.  Rumor has it that the outsourcing of major Canal operations to the Chinese has absolutely clobbered the unskilled labor force in Colon.  The Chinese companies brought in their own workers for nearly every job function … even for prostitution I’m told.

From some sources, my own experience, and anecdotal evidence, racism plays a fairly serious factor.  Colon’s current population is largely descended from black people who came to Panama from the West Indies (some by choice, some by trickery, some by force) to work on the Canal.  As such, many would argue that Colon’s economic state of affairs is basically ignored by the Panamanian government which provides incentives for foreign investors without labor stipulations, and creates stimulus packages for other Panamanian communities.

Additionally, in reading several sources, my opinion is that many government officials shirk responsibility and solidly place blame on the city’s residents as lacking initiative and dignity.  I personally find this to be pretty unfair.  When people have no work, no money, no education, no hope, and no opportunity, they steal and take drugs.  No different in Colon than anywhere else.

We had heard the rumors about Colon and wondered how bad it could actually be.  Everybody’s got a story and it usually involves larceny on the lower end, and severe violence on the upper end.  Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s bad … very bad.  We had to head into town to pay the generator repairman for services rendered, and it was very bad.  From what I saw, not a single building stands sturdy and maintained … literally everything is dilapidated and deteriorating.  Seemingly every block has at least one huge brick of rotting garbage as tall as a two story building.  Groups of likely unemployed people mill about and congregate under the occasional shady stoop just passing idle time.  Children without shirts or shoes play amongst gutters and garbage.  Every single business has pad locks and chain link fences and barbed wire and bars on the windows and security.  It’s positively tragic.  I did not find the Free Zone to be much better.

The View from the Shelter Bay BoatyardLuckily, Shelter Bay Marina is a little oasis.  The internet connection is fairly reliable, the electricity is compatible (i.e. the boat plugs into shore power just fine), the Balboa beer is cold, and the food is pretty darn good.

Wait … did I say oasis?  I meant to say prison.  If they had decent food, cold beer and internet access in prison, prison would be a lot like Shelter Bay.  Located on the grounds of an abandoned U.S. military base (the former Fort Sherman), the marina is 30+ minutes from anything else and you really aren’t free to leave in any true sense of the word.  And the staff (prison guards?) know this, pretty much setting world records for indifferent service (Bruce at the boat yard being an exception so notable as to require mentioning).

Shelter Bay Marina is not in Colon proper, but I think that some of those transient, Wild West tendencies are still at work here.  Right now, the Canal is horribly backed up, wait times are preposterous, and the transients are drinking a lot.  Like the old days, they are heavily armed, albeit only with hair-trigger tempers, crabbiness and know-it-all attitudes instead of rifles.  I can’t say that I blame anyone too much — the Canal authority has rather blatantly shown their antipathy towards private yacht traffic by allowing passage for only 3-5 boats every other day (there is absolutely no justification for this), and most everyone at Shelter Bay is anxious to start a new and exciting portion of their journey … not to sit and roast, basting themselves with beer, in Central America’s lower large intestine.  Basically, Shelter Bay Marina is a place where pissed-off people are incarcerated on a U.S. military base that’s intentionally highly isolated from the society that surrounds it – sort of like a certain place in southeastern Cuba, but minus the torture.

Nonetheless, we have met some very fun people and continue to check some action items off of our list.  I enlisted the help of John and Shirlee on S/V Solstice to sort out the remaining details of the single sideband radio and our SailMail account which is a very welcome development before we embark into the great wide open.  We also hauled the boat out of the water and had the bottom painted.  After 6 months in the, ahem, “nitrogen-rich” Bahia de Cartagena, this massive and heart-stoppingly expensive job was necessary.

Off to Scuba Dive the Galapagos Via Quito, Ecuador

Posted by: melissa

Live-aboard scuba diving trips in the Galapagos are extremely exclusive, and becoming even more so.  It appears that the Ecuadorian government struggles with the delicate balance between conservation, a thriving tourism industry, increased outside investment in the tourism industry, and financial quality of life for local Galapaguenos (is that a word?).  I would like to think that all aspects of the Galapagos’ well-being are strategic and defensible, but some areas felt pretty arbitrary (more on this later).  Even as I was trying to book this gig in September of 2007, several dive boats (and cruise ships) had not yet received their commercial clearance to operate in 2008.  Others who were confident of their upcoming clearance indicated that they had been booked for 18 months at least.

I finally found an opening where a single female passenger travelling alone needed a roommate, and a single male passenger travelling alone needed a roommate.  What are the odds?  We totally lucked out.  When the dust settled and the government doled out operator’s licenses, the boat I booked (Sky Dancer) was not only approved but was the only boat approved for the remote islands of Wolf and Darwin.  Total score.

Our plan all along was to sail to the Galapagos, anchor the boat, find a boat-sitter and head out on the live-aboard.  Because of the battery mishap, this was no longer in the cards, and, honestly, I was a bit relieved.  First, we weren’t familiar with the anchorages, and I anticipated the nightmares of Spectacle crashing against the rocks as we swam with dolphins.  Second, I kind of liked the idea of having the same experience as any other traveler.  And so, I booked our flights from Panama City, Panama knowing that Spectacle was safe and sound in the Flamenco Marina with Ian.

Quito, Ecuador was our jumping off point to get to the Galapagos.  The flight from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos is only about 90 minutes, but the flights are structured so an overnight in either Quito or Guayaquil is mandatory on both the front-end and back-end of the trip.  This may have something to do with the scheduling of the inevitable international flights, but I doubt it.

The approach to the Quito was fairly hair-raising. At 9,350 feet, Quito is surrounded by (active and inactive) volcanoes and mountainous peaks, some of which seemed to be right outside the plane window.  With a population of 1.5 million, many of these peaks are covered with urban sprawl that soars to heights of 13,000 feet.  The first thing I did after retrieving the luggage was scrounge through my suitcase to find the only warm clothing item I packed.  I had figured, hey, it’s Ecuador, as in the Equator, right?  But, it was quite cold with a fairly constant drizzly rain.

The View From Our Hotel in QuitoWe got to the hotel with minimal problems, but it was a Sunday and, true to our experience in most Latin American countries, the streets were deserted.  That left the inevitable hustle and bustle of this city to our imaginations.  It is very urban, but in a squatty boxy kind of way.  The architecture left quite a bit to be desired … cement-block, totally symmetrical, short storied, flat roofs, very Soviet in a way, but with some pastel-colored paint every once in a while, and lacking ornamentation of any kind (no patios, no windowsills, no roof overhangs, no awnings, no stoops, no pillars, no nothing).

The hotel was quite nice, with professional English-speaking staff.  Unfortunately, we went up to the room to find it a) not exactly what brochure purported, and b) full of someone else’s luggage.  Alas another “Wolf” registered at the hotel!  Mistake corrected, we were very happy to find our room in the recently refurbished wing of the hotel which was a lot nicer than the other “Wolf” room.  The view was pretty bleak … lots of urban sprawl and most of it just teetering on the edge of disrepair.

By this time, it was about 3:00 p.m. and we were hungry so we ventured out.  We walked around several blocks just meandering, but it was Sunday so we decided to just park it in the first place we found open.  We sat down at a little restaurant that was serving local food, found a table on their small patio, and ordered up a couple of Ecuadorian beers and (after stumbling through some Spanish) several Ecuadorian culinary specialties.  The one good thing I can say about Pilsener is that it’s large, and it’s better served very very cold, which it rarely is much to our chagrin.  The food was pretty interesting — lots of it, extremely fried, cheap, and served with pride and enthusiasm … what’s better than that?Uribe Graffitti in Quito

While walking around, we noticed a lot of anti-Uribe graffiti.  The Colombia military recently crossed the border into Ecuador to assassinate a known ranking FARC officer.  While Ecuador was pretty vocal in objecting to the infraction, I got the sense that most found Uribe’s actions to be impolite rather than anything more menacing than that.  But, as usual throughout the world, any associations with George W. Bush are poorly received.  For those of you not well versed en Espanol, “perro” means “dog” and “de” means “of.”

After lunch, we headed out to see the sights.  Basilica del Voto Nacional, consecrated in 1892, is renown for its grotesques.  We peeked in on a lovely wedding in progress, and then sat in the park gazing at seemingly endless hillsides of urban sprawl.  From the park, we caught a glance of ‘La Virgen de Quito,’ a statue of the Madonna on top of a globe and stepping on a snake.  The historic center of town is one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sights (along with Krakow, Poland), so named in 1978.  We saw some nice streets with nice buildings, interspersed with establishments such as “Texas Chicken.”  Independence Plaza is a two acre, pedestrian-only park surrounded by cafes, statues, fountains, and government buildings, including the presidential palace.  We didn’t see too many tourists, but we did chat with several friendly passers-by who seemed happy to see Americans.

After this whirlwind tour of Quito, we headed back to the hotel and watched Anthony Bourdain on The Travel Channel (yes, we miss television, withhold judgment please) who was covering a timely subject … the Marquesas and the Tuamotus.  Next we watched the NCAA Final Four and chuckled at UCLA’s defeat.