My brother John, a published author and English teacher, is my “go-to” guy when I need to buy a new stack of excellent literature. After hearing that I was suffering through Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” he gave me a list of books that would be a bit lighter and certainly more enjoyable.

Weed Man

One of the books was about a Bahamian kid who discovers a bale of weed while jogging on the beach. I found the subsequent adventure with its colorful Bahamian characters to be highly entertaining. While waiting in the endless customs/immigration line in El Salvador, I had the thought to take out my book. As I was reading, I started having this uneasy feeling that I was garnering the attention of people around me. In fact, it seemed like people in line were moving away from me. Hmmm? How odd.

While surrounded by humorless and heavily armed customs officials and their pet German Shepherds, it began to dawn on my that I was reading a book with kelly green leaves adorning the cover with the title “Weed Man.”  With sweat pouring down my face, I decided to carefully put my book back in my bag.  Welcome to El Salvador senor…indeed!

Rainy Season??

Midnight Voyageur - Rainy Season
After being away from Shannon for three weeks, it was a pleasure to be back on board with my crew: Ron, Greg and Sarah. We departed El Salvador for Costa Rica under partly cloudy skies. Our fellow cruisers warned us that “Rainy Season” had come early and we may encounter a little weather. The “Rainy Season” sounds so benign that it would lead one to believe that an afternoon shower might be possible from time to time…wrong! The first night out was uneventful, but ominous just the same. With every mile south, the humidity seemed to be building. Something had to break.

The following two nights were nothing short of terrifying. As captain, I drew on my logic to explain to the crew that boats are rarely hit by lightning and that it’s almost unheard of that anyone has ever been injured as a result. Unfortunately, as I was explaining this fact, the highly charged sky behind me was betraying my words with constant flashes and crackling sounds.

At first, we tried to evade the huge black blobs that appeared on the radar, but to no avail. These squalls move at upwards of 50 mph while we putt along at 6 mph. By our second night of lightning, my crew had become somewhat hardened and we began to notice a pattern: stifling humidity and thunderhead plumes build during day, electricity in the air by dusk, followed by almost constant lightning, a torrential downpour, and finally, peace a few hours before daybreak.

It was on the night before we made landfall in Costa Rica that I will never forget. Around 3AM, Greg and I were on watch and feeling optimistic that we had made it through the worst of the lightning while enjoying the cool rain when we were momentarily blinded by a strike half a mile off our starboard beam. What I will remember most is the ear-shattering sizzle, “kkkkkkkkkkrrrrrraaaacccckkkkkBOOOOM!” Afterwards, we sat in silence for a time – there’s just not that much to say. As we sat there in the darkness with buckets of water falling on our heads, it occurred to me that what was terror the first night was now familiar and awesome. I’m still trying to understand why I felt like laughing in that moment. Was it the ions in the atmosphere? The fact that I was still alive? The self-evident fact that I am an inconsequential speck relative to the creation? The fact that I was sitting comfortably in a torrential downpour sixty miles from shore? All of the above? I don’t know. I just know I felt happy and grateful.

After an endless night of lightning, the hearty crew (Ron, Sarah, and Greg) celebrate daybreak over coffee!

After three days at sea, we arrived in a Jaco, Costa Rica at Los Suenos, a five star resort and marina. Going from the third world poverty of El Salvador to a place that has all the trappings of American wealth 2500 miles from San Diego was truly a shock to us all. Of course, it didn’t take long for us to make the adjustment and take advantage of all the amenities – what a treat!

Golfito Angel

In Jaco, we bid adieu to Ron and Greg and welcomed Leela and Marshall. After a fairly uneventful cruise down the coast of Costa Rica we arrived in Golfito at Land Sea Marina, a cozy sanctuary for sailors. Tim Leachman and Katie Duncan run Land Sea and couldn’t have been more helpful. Between the wonderful hospitality and Katie’s ability to work miracles in getting us clearance through customs on a holiday weekend, we felt very grateful for our time with these fine people. As recompense for the inconvenience, Katie insisted that I accompany her to “ladies night out” while we waited for our final clearance documents. The colorful tales of Golfito past and present made for another magical evening. A place I will most certainly visit again!

While in Golfito we also picked up our next two crew members, Steve and Casey from Santa Barbara, California. After a few engine repairs with much help from Marshall and Steve, we were off to our next adventure in Panama. Unfortunately, we weren’t quite done with our stormy nights. In fact, we encountered one last tropical butt-kicking (46 knots on the nose) as we rounded the southern tip of Panama. However, by morning there was nothing but rainbows, sunshine, dolphins, and smiles as we set a course north for the first time in 3000 miles! We celebrated with a pancake brunch lovingly prepared by Sarah and Leela.

Survivor: The Turkish Edition
After all our hard work, we had a few extra days to relax and we decided to take the time to explore the beautiful Perlas (Pearl) Islands just south of Panama City. “Surreal” doesn’t even come close to describing the experience as we entered this archipelago: sunshine, aqua water, white sandy beaches, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, resorts, mansions, restaurants, wi-fi, pool, showers, and a veranda overlooking Shannon at anchor. Needless to say, the crew was eager to stay as long as possible.

After two days, we were scheduled to leave the following morning when fate interrupted our plans. While I waited in the dinghy to shuttle people back to Shannon, Marshall was engrossed in a conversation with a Turkish guy on shore. The next thing I know, I’m being summoned to join the discussion. Shortly thereafter, I’m across the table in a negotiation with the executive producer of Survivor: Turkey. Hmmm?

Apparently, they had been filming in the islands for a month. After eating snakes, snails, and berries, the final four contestants were going to be rewarded with a gourmet meal. The producer thought it would make for a good backdrop to have the meal served aboard Shannon while under sail. In retrospect, I would have negotiated a bit harder had I time to absorb the situation. In the end, I agreed to a five star dinner for the eight of us in Panama City. Of course, it’s also hard to have leverage in a negotiation when your crew (Sarah) is jumping up and down and squealing, “Ahhh! Oh my God! 30 million viewers! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! My friends and family are going to flip! We have to do this!”

The next day, the camera crew arrived followed by the contestants. We decided that we were just going to be ourselves and let the cards fall where they may. Despite the language barrier, it appeared that the contestants enjoyed the crew immensely as evidenced by lots of laughter, dancing, swimming and hugs – it definitely made for good TV.

Flipped Around in the Panama Canal – Yep, You Read it Right!

From my previous blog, this is no BS. The scene: nine souls aboard – me, seven crew and a canal pilot. We were all very excited as we embarked on our momentous transit and entered the first lock shortly after 9AM. The canal advisors had us positioned directly behind an ocean freighter and rafted to a steel sailboat and tug to our starboard. As we tied off our lines and positioned the fenders, the canal workers closed the massive steel doors in front of the freighter and behind us. It felt like a giant tub with everything being made of steel and concrete; except for Shannon, she’s made of fiberglass.

Once the doors closed, thousands of gallons flooded the lock and all the vessels rose effortlessly. Upon reaching the next elevation, the forward doors opened for us all to vacate the chamber. Unfortunately, one of the pilots on one of the other boats called for the release of my bowline prematurely. At that precise moment the freighter turned his massive propeller sending thousands of gallons of turbulant water right at us. In a flash Shannon’s bow was caught by the wave and she spun 180 degrees, narrowly missing the opposite wall. We now faced the massive steel doors in the back of the chamber while being jammed up stern-to-stern with the steel sailboat, the situation was indeed dire.

With a little luck and reverse propulsion from Shannon, we were able to free our stern line from our steel prison. From all these years on Shannon, I know that she is an amazingly maneuverable boat, even in tight quarters with heavy current, she just has to be completely untethered. Once free we were able to maneuver in reverse to the opposite wall, tie off, and wait for the steel behemoths to leave. Finally alone in the lock, we released our lines and did the ultimate “K” turn, spinning our bow forward. As we departed, the crew received an ovation from the Panamanian canal workers on the wall who watched in astonishment as we avoided disaster by inches.

As best as I can piece together, the pilot on one of the other boats assumed the mules (small locomotives) would pull the freighter out without making a wake. Apparently, one of the mule lines snapped and the freighter captain decided to crank his massive propeller just as one of the pilots gave the command to release my bowline – perfect! Next time, I go around Cape Horn, it has to be easier! 🙂

Smiles all around as we enter the beautiful Caribbean Sea!

Midnight Voyageur - Smiles

Thankfully, the rest of the transit through the canal was uneventful. We spent the night on Gatun Lake, a 28 mile long, crocodile infested body of water that separates the locks. As we settled down for dinner adjacent to the jungle, we heard these wild shrieks from howler monkeys. These little monkeys are capable of making this hellacious howl that you might expect from some bad “B” horror movie, “Saw 4, Monkey Mania.” Needless to say, the crew was thrilled as we ate dinner while being serenaded by these little monsters. In fact, I was very happy to see how nicely my diverse crew got on: Dr. Mike kept us entertained by narrating Panamanian historical facts, Leela kept everyone happy with amazing meals, Steve fixed everything, pretty boy Gabe kept everyone laughing, Sarah worked non-stop and sang, Marshall played guitar, Casey checked on everyone’s well-being and I…  I went to bed early, happy and exhausted, crocodiles and howler monkeys be damned.