Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Trip to Chiqui's

I had stopped at the shabby old store-and-warf across the river from where we are staying to talk with our canvas shop about material choices. The canvas guys are located behind the store, so we use the store warf to tie up the dinghy when we go to talk with them. The store has a faded painted sign saying “Tienda Reed” but everyone calls it “Chiqui’s”.  The store has been here since the dawn of time and was the original-and-only source of supplies on the river back in the day.  Nowadays it sits in the shadow and truck noise of the new 100ft-high concrete bridge that crosses the river here. It was hot, so I grabbed a real Coke (in glass, with real sugar; the kind of authentically nice food product that is common outside the US) from the cooler, paid my 3.5Q, and went around to meet with the canvas guys.  It was a quick chat, took me only two minutes to decide on the material for our next project, so I still had a lot of the Coke left as I wandered back through the old store on my way back to the dinghy.  I was wandering the store working on my Coke, looking through their assortment of hardware (the kind of things that are utterly critical to keeping a house and boat going here in the mangroves and you just never know when you will run across that one bit that you didn’t know you needed) when an older river gent (no other word for his appearance) sitting on the store bench chuckled and said something about my Coke being very refreshing. [Note – from here forward this was all in Spanish so I probably have some of the facts wrong] I replied with yes, Coke was the best of all drinks.  Which he also laughed at and asked if I knew why it was so popular in the Rio.  I drifted over to his bench saying “no, I didn’t”, and sat down as he started to tell me the story in the way of old men who know people and the world. 

It turns out that there was nothing at what is now the bustling port of Puerto Barrios, just forest and water.  The United Fruit Company, now basically Chiquita, wanted to build up the port because the existing port at Livingston was essentially inaccessible to rail.  So they brought in large numbers of workers, housed them at Livingston, and ferried them to Puerto Barrios daily.  With the food tax situation, where there were large sales taxes on food, United Fruit was paying their people with food since they had an “in” with the government that allowed them to not pay the tax. They also were importing Cokes from the US, which was so popular that the workers would wait for hours for the boat that brought it to Livingston.  With the supply of food and Cokes, United Fruit had a locked-in workforce. I pointed out that Cokes of the day were loaded with cocaine instead of today’s caffeine, making them that much more popular, which he smiled and nodded at, saying that was exactly the point.  We then talked at length about the days following United Fruit, the end of the dictator era with the passing of Jorge Ubico in the 1944 revolution (we had arrived on the federal holiday of Revolution Day and there was a huge celebration going on all weekend), the communist/leftist guerilla wars, it was a bad time for everyone, how Cuba is still stuck there eating their idealisms, .. .  

We got to a break in the chat and I asked him his name. He said something complicated that I didn’t quite catch, but that everyone just called him Chiqui. 

Royce Johnson

OCT 2018

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Going with the Flow

OK, we are off the boat for the summer and I can take a moment (or 20) to build a summary of all that we did this past cruising season.  We set off from Florida last January with the intent to just go with the flow.  Which was a good thing, since Plan A only survived about three days out from Key West.
But to start from the starting point..  Cerca Trova as you may recall spent the summer of 2017 in Ft. Pierce (Hurricane Irma went up the west coast and mostly missed us) and the fall in Stuart, Florida (where we saw temperatures 1 degree above freezing the week after the holidays).  One thing kinda led to another such that we did a family trip with most of our kids for Thanksgiving and since it was only another two weeks later, we then went to Salt Lake and Austin for the Christmas/New Years holidays too.
Thanksgiving in Jamaica with the kids and partners

Jamaica Thanksgiving beaching

Tour of rum distillery dating from late 1700's

At our cruising friends' Nancy and Burger for a mini-getaway

Burger and his uber-traditional gluhwein maker on a frosty night.
Christmas aboard with our folding German tree

Christmas aboard with presents!
And Christmas at Gramm's in Salt Lake City

Frigid night at the Zoo Lights in Salt Lake
A last chance in Stuart to visit with Mike and Cheryl of the Manta "Happy Times" before we set off 

A Big Upgrade

In October I had upgraded our solar panel system to nearly double the original to allow the boat to run almost entirely on solar power.  The biggest pull is from our fridge/freezer and the original system just could not keep up, especially in the winter with its short, cloudy days.  For these holiday trips, we left the boat, though, with the fridge./freezer running, an acid test for the adequacy of the new system, everything worked fine with no spoiled food to greet us on our return.
Working South
Once back from land travels, we set out to get south.  We agreed that our situation and the weather patterns looked favorable for wrapping around the south coast of Cuba and then shooting due south the link up with our friends on s/v Water Lilly and s/v Rollick with whom we had cruised the Jumentoes the prior winter.  And near-freezing weather on a boat with no heating system is pretty miserable.  So we picked up our skirts and scooted down to Marathon where there is one of our favorite cruising communities, Boot Key Harbor, to stage for crossing to the west end of Cuba.  
On our way in to Boot Key, we noticed the fridge/freezer not chilling well and explored that as soon as we got to a mooring there.  Yup, sure enough, the compressor was not making the circuit cold.  We called in a pro service who recharged the circuit and proposed replacing the evaporator plate as a permanent fix.  We also talked with our friend Chris Stanley in the Rio Dulce (we were generally aiming for the Rio at the time) who is a pro A/C guy and he recommended replacing the plate too.  His price to do so was 1/3 the price of the US guy.  We thought we could make it down to the Rio with the current one if I kept a stock of refrigerant and, with the hose set I had acquired and tested the prior summer with Mark Cole, I would just top up the circuit if as we went.  Oh, and the oil leak in the pan gasket on the starboard engine had reasserted itself and was worse than ever despite being replaced in Ft. Pierce.  So we had that re-done at the Marathon Boat Yard using some goop that accommodates for the warping inevitable in old oil pans, after some agonizing about delaying our departure to get a new pan.  (That repair, now 6 months later, has held up well.)
In Boot Key we linked up with a boat, s/v First Light, also headed towards Cuba and the Yucatan on nearly exactly the same time frame, so we set off immediately after the pan gasket re-repair and rendezvoused with them at Key West.  At which point Jennifer came down with an infection on the night before our weather window for the two-day crossing to the west end of Cuba.

Staging at Boot Key Harbor

Sunset at Key West

Going Across and Other Challenges
The crossing went well, we picked up some very high winds from astern after we had crossed the Gulf Stream that put us ahead of schedule.  Then conditions calmed down and we arrived at Cabo San Antonio in the afternoon with plenty of time for anchoring.  First Light kept going for Isla Mujeres, where we caught up with them later.

Night watch across the Stream

Day watch near west end of Cuba

The next day we discovered our main battery charger/inverter had died.  That is the device that keeps our main batteries charged and, in reverse, powers our AC-power outlets for plug-in devices like phone chargers and appliances by pulling current from the battery bank.  We had hoped to wrap around the south side of Cuba and head for the Caymans, but that was now not feasible since the boat is wholly powered on the main battery bank.  What to do?  If we went back to Florida for repairs that would be like abandoning our cruising season.  If went else where that meant abandoning our original plans.  Either way, plans were going to be replaced.  In the end, we up-anchored and headed for Isla Mujeres ourselves.  Much easier to get there than to turn around and fight our way upwind back to Florida. What had taken 45 hrs to do downwind would have been at least three days going back.  And we love Isla Mujeres, where we knew we could get a replacement charger/inverter.  The size of the thing (50lbs and fills a 22in roll-aboard) only turned into a problem after we had arrived in Isla.  But it also meant our cruising plan had to change – we would now use the season to get out to the outer atolls of Belize which we had had to skip on our last pass through the Yucatan coast in in 2016.

A Cuban beach

An Unexpected Beach Break
We got to Isla Mujeres four days behind First Light.  Isla is a great place largely unaffected by the Gringos-gone-crazy situation in Cancun.  The Isleros are kind but savy people who have welcomed ex-pats who want to sustain and evolve the island community without the pursuit of big-money greed, ie. All-inclusive mega-resorts.  So the island is largely quiet, there are no cruise ships that can access it directly due to shallow waters around it, the beaches are very fine without being over-developed, and all the visiting tourists go home by about 6pm since that’s when the ferry service to Cancun ratchets down.  So we stayed in the anchorage as temporary Isleros and roamed around the island.  Lots of beach time, lots of work on the boat, logistical snafu’s with shipping such a large part to us via friends bringing it to us in a spare suitcase when they came down for a wedding.   
Our friends said ‘yes’ when we asked them to bring it, we thought it would be faster and more reliable than having it shipped by DHL, and did warn them it was pretty big.  They sure, send it to us, which we did, feeling pleased would have power problems solved in a day or two.  Hah!  The first thing to go wrong was Southwest refusing to allow them to bring it on as baggage and forcing our friends to leave it behind at their departure airport.  So our critical part was sitting at an airport desk and the only people who we could ask for help were on the plane to Cancun.  So, phone calls, probing TSA for rules w.r.t. chargers, etc.  we got a really great guy in Southwest baggage services to chase the part down to re-load it on another flight.  Which got delayed, so that bag got rerouted and that flight got cancelled, etc etc etc.  In the end the bag arrived at Cancun on the last day of our friends’ trip, at night and in the middle of a reception dinner, but we couldn’t go get the bag ourselves because it had only our friends’ names on it.  They graciously broke out of their dinner, went to the Cancun airport, chased down the missing bag where it had been retained by Customs seeking import taxes etc, paid those taxes, and returned to their hotel with our part-in-the-bag to finish their dinner.  The next day we took the fast ferry to their hotel, picked up our part, reimbursed the friends for the customs charges, and haven’t heard much from them since.  Can’t say as I blame them.  
Phew.. all fixed, part worked great, and the next day we were happily making water, charging batteries, doing laundry (remember, we couldn’t run an appliance until the part was replaced) when I heard a “bang!” and a hissing sound.  Quick search revealed that the watermaker had cracked and was spraying seawater all over the equipment compartment.  Argghh…. Shut down the watermaker, called our watermaker guru, he was at a boatshow that day but said he had the part and would get it shipped next day if we would forward the shipping info to catch up with him at his office in the morning.  All that worked slick as greased glass and three days later we went back by fast ferry to pick up our part in Cancun.  The part went in smoothly and we were back in business.  That failure only cost us 5 days.  And we handled it with aplomb if I do say so myself.  Maybe we are getting better at this game ..

North Beach at Isla

Cancun is all those tall buildings on the horizon
Street art

El Senor
La Senora
The watermaker part that went "bang"

The best food in Isla, La Lomita's black been soup.

For the Atolls
With a nice weather window coming up, we cleared ourselves out of Mexico with the Isla authorities and blew down the Yucatan coast in 48 hrs of pushing into a heavy current, to arrive at our cruising goal for the season, the atolls of Belize.  
Arriving at Turnefe Atol
The three atolls are Turnefe, Lighthouse, and Glovers.  We made it to Turnefe and Lighthouse, in fact we ended up staying at Lighthouse for weeks, ran into Placencia for supplies and to clear in, and went right back out to Lighthouse.  Amazing place.  The marine preserve there has been in place and aggressively enforced for 30 years and the difference between the protected environment and the unprotected environment is dramatically awful.  The unprotected reefs are nearly dead.  Yes, the coral is alive, and yes there are some fish, but nothing like what’s been saved within the protected zone.  Diving in the preserve is like the diving in the ‘80’s in Haiti.  There are troops of grouper who follow you around for hand-outs. Eels, squid, octopi, flourishing corals, huge (5-10ft high) sponges.  It is absolutely pristine.  But just 200 yards outside the boundary, there is no edible fish bigger than 6 inches.  The corals are pale imitations of their happier cousins in the preserve, and at Turnefe we even saw fly-fishermen walking on the reefs to get to where they could cast for bone fish in the sand flats inside the reef barrier.  You can’t eat bone fish, they are too boney 😊 , so they are still there and attract a lot of fishermen.  And Turnefe is a “reserve”, not a full “preserve” so it’s technically legal to do this. But to walk on the reef is just wanton destruction of a habitat that is already nearly destroyed.  Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Turnefe fisherman on his way back to his fish camp
Lobster cleaning with fisherman from Turnefe who showed a great time while we were there

In the Turnefe lagoon

The famous nesting boobies and a frigate bird in the preserve at Half Moon Cay

After two weeks out on Lighthouse, we had to go in for official clearance.  We headed out, with a one-night stop at South Water Cay, to Placencia where we could re-provision and do our clearing-in.  This went well, and we turned around and went right back to Lighthouse via South Water Cay and Turnefe.  It took us two stints of 5 hours of sailing to go downwind from Lighthouse to Placencia, and nearly a  week to get back upwind.  This is because the travel upwind is rough and slow, and nice weather windows only last a day or two so you have to hole-up somewhere to wait for the next window of tolerable conditions. 
So back to Lighthouse and we had a great time.  Snorkeling all over the anchorage at Long Cay is actually pretty nice.  We had another front come in but folks we met showed us how to get around to the backside of Long Cay to hide from the worst of it, so we all did, trooping along in a line and anchored in a string along the backside.  The front turned out to be a ho-hum non-event, so two days later we all trooped back around to the main anchorage but kept going our to the heart of the preserve, HZalf Moon Cay.  Half Moon Cay is an Audobon site and is spectacular nesting grounds of blue-footed boobies and frigate birds.  Lots of noise, lots of chicks, lots of “bird by-products”.  We snorkeled a bit there too but found it to be a lot less impressive than the diving.
To the Rio
We stayed at Lighthouse for the rest of the cruising season right up to the end of March.  We had already signed up for two weeks of language school in Antigua Guatemala in the middle of April and our Belizean cruising permit was running out, so last weekend in March we up-anchored for Placencia again, this time to clear out.  A nice stop at South Water Cay (it really is lovely place and has some eco-resorts on it so you can go and stay for vacations) and on to Placencia again.  One more ride on their “Hokey Pokey” water taxi to the village with the officials, resolved a few wrinkles in our clear-out, and we set out for Guatemala’s Rio Dulce.
Up the Rio
We arrived at Livingston Guatemala early in the day with plenty of time to clear in to Guatemala and still get up the river to see our friends in the lovely Cayo Quemado.  We had a really nice visit with them at their new lagoon-side cabin they are building, caught up with all their local projects, went to dinner at Texas’ Mike’s for one of his awesome chicken-fries, went to a birthday party for one of the other long-time ex-pat guys nearby, powered up Cerca Trova the next morning, and continued on up the Rio to the charmingly grubby town of Fronteras.  Our cruising buddies on sv Water Lilly and sv Rolick were already there, we had missed connecting with them all season, and there were lots of squeals of delight on the radio and as we finally arrived.  
We settled in at Monkey Bay Marina, our home away from home up the Rio, with the dear folks Jim and Kitty who now run the marina.  It was so nice to see them again, make friends with cruisers there we didn’t know, and re-meet other cruiser folks who have stayed there for the years since we were out cruising.  Then we dove in to the scramble to try to choose contractors to replace our sail covers, do our gel coat rework in the fall, before we were due in Antigua Guatemala for Spanish school!  Two weeks and lots of skilled people to interview.  We settled on the canvas vendor, got them started, winnowed the fiberglass guys down to two possibilities, and set off for Antigua.
Sunday roast at our home in the Rio, Monkey Bay

Cowboy parade and rodeo in the Rio town of Fronteras

Mountains north of the Rio

Fisherman and his buddy right off the docks at Monkey Bay

The oldest city in Guatemala is gorgeous.  It looks like the pictures you see of low stone houses and volcanoes looming in the background.  There is a MacDonalds but it’s hidden away inside a court-yard house off the central square.  There were 27 churches there when Vulcan Aqua blew up and buried the city in 1773.  Eight of them have been restored and four are fully functioning.  Our language school was daily classes for four hours with class activities most days after class.  We learned massive amounts and can now semi-sort-of get around in Spanish.  The home-stay was not so nice, basically a cheap student rooming house with, for example, instant coffee in Antigua the epicenter of fine Central American coffee.  But we met some really cool students, one who does a fascinating blog The Gallavanting Grasshopper .  And we got to work on our Spanish with the house-keeper who was very sweet ad obviously used to stumbling and mumbling Americanos.  And the family of sv Water Lilly came through as we were finishing up so we got to show them some of the amazingly complex dual-culture history of the city.  We would love to go back, to see the city more in depth, shop the cooperative farm store, study more Spanish, see friends we made there.  If Vulcan Fuego hasn’t blown up again.
Vulcan Agua
Street scene

Restored mission

Restored mission gardens

Vulcan Agua and an unrestored church 50 yds from our guest house

Vulcan Agua from our guest house street

Parked parade floats for the procession on Semana Santa

Restored church, awesome acoustics

Sanctuary in progress

Grounds of the above church

From a restored mission which is now part of a grand hotel

Local jungle orchid, cultivated as a popular and showy house plant

Vulcan Fuego. The one that blew up two months later.

Yes, there are Mormons everywhere

View port

Gardens of the restored mission/hotel
Gardens of same restored mission/hotel
Botanical garden and cooperative organic farm

Strange tropical fruit at the organic farm

Lunch of "comida tipica" at the co-op/farm

Out walking after class

Regional cemetery
The whole valley, Vulcan Agua to the left 

One memorial of note

A last lovely dinner out as the sun sets over a ruin
So, once more back on a bus to the Rio Dulce (1 hr to the central bus station in Guatemala City and nearly 7 hrs from there to the Rio Dulce).  And final projects to prep CT to leave her for five months.  Our plan was to leave her with our friends Chris and Kelli who have an in-water storage marina in Texan Bay halfway back to Livingston.  Remember Livingston?  Which turned out to be fortuitous because our fridge/freezer finally died (remember we have been struggling with it all year?) and Chris is the regional guru/fix-it guy for marine AC/Refers.  We had some last fresh foods in it that we moved over to an ice box for our last five days aboard.  And high-tailed it from Monkey Bay out to Chris and Kelly’s.  If you check our website locator map before about 15 OCT you will see CT there .  We packed up all our stuff for 6 six weeks of travel in Europe, tidied up the boat, and turned her over to Chris as he then ran us back to town in his super-speedy launcha (30kts+) in time to catch our bus back again to Guat City and the airport.  

Cayo Quemado

CT Tucked away at Crows Nest Marina
Phew, one very long cruising year done.  Next up: the summer travelogue ..