Monday, February 29, 2016

Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua to Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica

2 to 3- Febrero-2016

In a race with a Papagayo Wind

I previously mentioned the Tehuantepec winds we were crossing in southern Mexico. These winds, the Tehuantepec, the Papagayo and the Panama Gulf winds are all gap winds. They blow through areas of Mexico and Central America where the land is less mountainous. With a high pressure region on the Caribbean side and a low pressure on the Pacific side, these winds start funnelling across, accelerating as they reach the Pacific coast. We were fortunate with the Tehuantepec, we were late in the season and the isthmus is relatively narrow with no place you want to stop. Just a forty-eight hour non-stop crossing with good forecasting.

Contrarily, the Papagayos cover a much wider coastal area and affect many of the places one wants to see. The northern extremity is Golfo Fonseca, shared by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. We were fortunate that it was calm when we sailed past and we were able to make several stops in Honduras. Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua is in a very small pocket of less wind activity and it was from there we were departing for our transit of the central Papagayo area.

This was the first time that I have felt the need to set-up a table with our possible departure times tracked against where we would be relative to the weather prediction models available. I have been using the because of the localized detail they give and as a second check. Both are based on NOAA gfs models and review the same sources of data. Our data gave us about a four hour departure window that if we did not go too fast and catch weather before it dissipated or go too slow and get caught by new systems forming we should have a good sail. With a 9:00 am departure we anticipated a 24 hour sail with light winds for the start building to 20 knots for the final eight to ten hours.

South of the Port of Sandino, as it was getting dark we ran into several waves of twenty-five to thirty-five fishing boats with nets out. Fortunately many of them were well lit and we were able to avoid those but some had no lights and would suddenly wave flashlights at us. Because we could not see any net floats we would just slow down and try to determine where they had their net. A little shouting, a little maneuvering, a bit of high anxiety  and by about 03:00 am we had made it through the fleet of approximately 100 boats and had no nets towing behind.

The good feeling soon evaporated when Genesis III radioed their engine was dying. We had had a long period of wild seas on the nose so fuel filters were the probable culprit. Fortunately by 4:00 am, with new filters installed, we were again on our way.

By early morning we were off San Juan del Sur, southern Nicaragua, with winds gusting to the mid to high thirties, seventy plus kilometers per hour, we could not have entered the Bay if we had wanted.  Our slower pace had let the next weather system catch us. We crossed two more large bays trying to follow the coastline as much as possible to reduce the fetch of the waves and finally turned into the protection of Bahia Santa Elena.

Bahia Santa Elena

Bahia Santa Elena is a well-protected bay on the north coast of one of Costa Rica’s larger National Parks, Santa Rosa. The park is noteworthy as one of the last large tropical dry forests in all of Central America. Although it may sound like an oxymoron, the area is semiarid with no rain for about six months of the year with many trees losing their leaves and the underbrush being parched brown. Cactus are evident but it is very different than Mexico’s Baja. The other six months are defined by heavy, torrential rainfall and lightning storms. The vegetation revitalizes and it becomes jungle like. It is home to five species of wild cats, jaguars and pumas being the largest, coyotes, three species of monkeys, endless other land animals, nesting turtles and innumerable bird species.
We could hear the monkeys but did not see them here.

Cruisers avoid the rainy season because the lightning can destroy all electronics but this does put us in the heaviest months of the Papagayo winds. Legally, we cannot stop anywhere in Costa Rica until you have cleared into the country, Port Captain, Immigration and Customs. All of which are south of Bahia Santa Elena separated by a Peninsula and Point also called Santa Elena. The Point is a place of trepidation because the Papagayo winds can be double the speed of the preceding coastline. Those thirty-five knot winds we were getting could be gusting to seventy knots, one hundred and forty kilometers per hour at the point.

Although the hills surrounding the bay keep the waves from building, the wind still funnels through the valleys and over the ridges down into the bay. For the first two days the gusts remained in the mid-thirties but we were able to get to shore and find some trails to hike. We also managed some snorkeling with some good tropical fish and a small octopus is a sheltered part of the bay. There are no services or people living in the park and we only saw three vehicles on our hikes. We could hear squirrel monkeys but did not see them. On the third day, the winds picked up and the gusts were regularly forty plus knots, hitting us every five to ten minutes, day and night for ten more days. Twice, the three quarter inch snubber line for the anchor snapped after severe gusts dipped our cap rail and sent us racing perpendicular to the wind until the anchor line stopped us much like the cracking of a whip. Fortunately we had material to make new snubber lines and had the spares prepared before the others broke so putting the line on and adding scope was quickly done with no damage to the windlass.

Even the our pelican wanted to hide from the gusts!
A brief note to cruisers interested in storm anchoring. The interesting aspect to these winds was that they would die to less than five knots between gusts so the boat would travel on the slackened rode towards the anchor. When the next gust hit, and they often came from a different direction by up to ninety degrees, the bow would respond by shearing away from the wind. Kanilela has a high freeboard and a modified full keel so she would start sailing on a tether until she reached the end. I was using twenty-five to thirty foot single snubbers, the first two had heavy rubber shock absorbers at the chain hook end. The lines both parted at the double bow roller when the boat was ninety degrees to the rode even though both had been protected by fabric fire hose jacketing the snubber at the bow roller. The lines were not new and although, when I used a double bridle snubber in the past and was not happy with the action of the boat, I do think a double bridle may have helped to bring the bow into the wind faster. I did have a stern anchor out the first day but the varying wind direction often left us laying over perpendicular to the wind so that would not have been an improvement. I would probably try varying the rode length to see if there was an ideal length to minimize the swing. We were in twenty-five feet of water with one hundred thirty-five feet of rode in the beginning. By the end I had let out about two hundred feet and I suspect the swing was worsened. As a final note, I had put the forty-four pound Rocna down and was prepared to change to the sixty-five pound CQR if we dragged. The anchor held like magic but I think we will pick-up a fifty-five pound Rocna in Panama and keep the forty-four as the spare. Anyone need a sixty-five pound CQR? The unique part of all of this was having so much wind with very little seas.
A view of a good section of road. This was after about 8.5 km from the trail head, 1 km to the
park gate where the guard told me 8 km more to a store, 10 km to wifi! Who said travelling
was easy? 
Finally, on the ninth day we had enough of a reprieve in the morning I had Paul from Genesis III run me and my folding bike to the closest point of land and I rode trails then the dirt road to the closest village for wifi, beer, etc.  We had read that it was six to seven miles away. After almost ten kilometers I reached the park gate only to be told the closest store was eight more kilometers and the bar with wifi was ten kilometers. As I was cresting one of the hills riding into the wind, I was brought to a near standstill by the gusting Papagayo. It was a 4x4 road with parts partially washed out by the previous rainy season but I saw a coyote, white faced capuchin monkeys and lots of green parrots. Sitting in the restaurant/bar watching a big screen TV, sending emails to those who worry when we fall off the grid, eating lunch and drinking cold beer, it felt like I had performed a dimension shift from the howling winds of Bahia Santa Elena. I felt pretty guilty that Mags was not there but knew she would never have wanted to ride that road. The locals were amazed the folding bike had made it that far.
Lots of white caps still but time to go!

On the afternoon of the twelfth day the winds dropped considerably and the following morning we left for Punto Santa Elena and Playa del Coco to finally check in to the country. Rounding out of Bahia Santa Elena we had strong winds and following seas pushing us to the point where we had to turn back almost 180 degrees to cross the Golf of Papagayo to Playa del Cocos. We managed a mix of sailing and motor sailing as winds became noserlies and we wanted to make a daylight anchorage.

Playa del Coco

Playa del Coco has no marina but is a tourist mecca with a large tour boat panga fleet on mooring balls close to the shore. Because there is no space close, transient cruisers must anchor well out from the beach that has a reputation for humiliating people attempting dinghy landings. The Port Captain and Immigration are both located in Cocos so you must make an appearance. We were fortunate that the swell was down and our arrival provided no entertainment for the tourists in the beach bars.

After seeing the Port Captain and then up the street to Immigration, we boarded a local bus, 45 min ride for $1.80, to the turnoff for the airport near Liberia to complete our entry with the customs people. All went well and there was no charge but it took most of the day and lots of walking. The following day we returned to the Port Captain to get a domestic zarpe that permitted us to go to Marina Papagayo, about four miles to the north and to anchor at intermediate points until we get to Puntarenas in the Golf of Nicoya.

Cocos is a tourist town, generally an older group than the Guatemalan back packers and the travelling surfers are out in the cheaper beach camps close to the breaks. It was convenient for provisioning and getting sim cards for Costa Rica with lots of restaurants to choose from.

Marina Papagayo

Although we prefer to anchor, a forecast return of the Papagayo winds and the desire to have fresh water to wash the salt off the boat sent us to the north end of Bahia Culebra to check into the somewhat exclusive Marina Papagayo. The docks and amenities, washrooms, showers, restaurant and bar, coin laundry are extremely well done. The moorage is $2 per foot per day which was comparable to a lot of California and the facilities were much better. One month and one year rates were much cheaper. The marine store was surprisingly well stocked so I was able to replace all of my nylon dock lines and snubbers with new material. The staff, from Dan the General Manager to every person we met, were friendly and helpful.

Papagayo Marina, Hokale'a in left foreground
The restaurant/bar had excellent daily half price specials and $2 beers so the six cruising sailboat crews attended every happy hour. It was there we met Kate and Mike from Magna Jean, Jake and Jackie from Hokule’a, Steve and Sandra from Yonder and Nancy and Sven from Senta II along with our cruising companions, Paul and Mary from Genesis III. It was particularly good to meet Kate, as she is one of the controllers for the Pan Pacific Net we have been listening to since El Salvador.
A mother Capuchin with a tiny, tiny baby on her back

We saw both howler monkeys and white faced Capuchin monkeys close to the marina entrance and the howlers could be heard regularly. Five days went quickly cleaning and repairing the boat until another weather window opened for us to say hasta luego to the northbound boats and for us to head south.
A big black howler monkey not too impressed with my interest


It was only a short twenty mile sail from the marina past Playa Cocos down to Brasilito, a small village we were hoping to visit and try the restaurants. The bay faces west and is open to some swells. The holding was good and Genesis III and Kanilela were the only boats at anchor. Unfortunately the swell was up the afternoon we anchored and our weather window did not let us stay for another day to get another chance to go to shore.
On to Samara.....

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