Westward Ho’Okele: Dispatch Six
Panama City to Golfito, Costa Rica
By Peter Swanson
GULF OF PANAMA, December 21, 2002-As Ho’Okele rounded the Marina Flamenco breakwater and steamed into the Gulf of Panama, I communed with the headless shade of Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Outstpread before us-Chef Charles and I were perched in the flybridge-was a wine-dark sea of glass.
In 1613, Balboa became the first European to cross Panama’s highlands and gaze on this ocean. Surely, it was lying down like today, I thought, because Vasco named it the Pacific Ocean. As we all know, the Pacific is about as pacific as Greenland is green, but those conqueror types all had a bit of the overreaching real estate speculator in them, which may explain why Balboa’s boss had him beheaded a few years after his great “discovery.”
We had said goodbye to Mark Heilbron, Ho’Okele’s owner at the dock. The day before we took a little half day fishing trip into the same waters, and Heilbron demonstrated just how Ho’Okele would earn her keep in Honolulu by hauling in two Mahi Mahi and three small tunafish in the just a couple hours-and with just a couple of handlines.
Heilbron had insisted on this flybridge. Not the traditional flybridge that was designed to complement the Great Harbour N37’s “retro” look, but an aft enclosure to allow the skipper to monitor the hugely expensive gear with which he intended to sate Hawaii’s appetite for sushi-grade fish. He sought out Mirage because he wanted stability without external stabilizers to foul his gear, plus the fact that active stabilizers only work while under way, not driftfishing.
(Ho’Okele was Navigator No. 3, though it shares the same hull as the popular Great Harbour 37 liveaboard trawler.)
High atop Heilbron’s flybridge, Chef Charles and I skated past the big island, Isla Toboga, and others of the many verdant isles that dot the chart. We passed patches of roiling waters, disturbed by baitfish under attack by pelagic predators. Panama, as it turns out, is Indian for place of many fish.
Eventually the seas acted up, but not enough to mind. And our two-night passage to Golfito, Costa Rica was pretty much perfect. It ended even better than it had begun.
Some things are better slow. Going into Golfito’s harbor for the first time deserves to be on that list. We throttled back to savor the experience at 4 knots. The view was gorgeous and seductive, especially to a couple of New England boys.
This old Banana town sits beneath a mountain, on a pocket bay that would be hurricane hole, if a hurricane ever ventured this far south. We entered with a palm-lined beach to starboard and dramatic jungle hillside to port. Ahead was the gaily painted, shopworn little village of 13,000 people, descendants of exiled convicts, failed revolutionaries and banana workers. All around us cute little gillnetting boats came and went.
Ho’Okele went where word of mouth told us to take her-to Bruce Blevins’ Banana Bay Marina. This enclave of Yankee efficiency caters to the sportfish crowd and cruising sailors, not to mention the ex-pats who frequent its fine open air restaurant…like the refugee from Indiana via the Marine Corps, who raised his family in the jungle here, kayaking and catching crocodiles.
Pat O’Connell, a dead-ringer for Mickey Rooney, proudly tells about how his daughter’s kayaking developed into a killer jab in the boxing ring. As a girl she once captured seven live crocs in a single day; recently she weighed in with rolls of nickels in her pockets so she could pummel a girl in the next higher weight class. “There was no one worth fighting in her own class,” he said with a Mickey Rooney grin.
I also had thought that Banana Bay might be a place to fix a problem that had cropped up during our Canal Transit, which I blame on being rafted to a bad-luck ship in Colon. As you may recall, we were rafted up against a ship of jerks whose engineer was baffled by mysterious and damaging electrical problems.
Ho’Okele caught the bug somehow and our AC system was acting up. The generator was running and the inverter was inverting but the generator wasn’t charging, even though the inverter, which was working, was also a charger. To run the AC system, we had to recharge the house bank by running one or both engines, then let the inverter do its job. Banana Bay, believe it or not, was the first marina we visited since Isla Mujeres with actual shore power.
Fine, I thought, at least there we’ll keep the AC fridge cold with shore power. Except when we plugged in, nothing was getting power and, for good measure, the inverter quit. Now I was as baffled as the engineer on Jerky ship. Blevins said he could have his electronics man take a look at the problem. Had we been cruising, I would have accepted his offer.
(Had it been a normal shakedown, Mirage rigger Russell Sills would have been driving down Interstate 95 to meet us in Fort Pierce or some other Florida port.)
But I decline Blevin’s offer because I’m certain some new part will be required, and we are on a delivery schedule. Sitting for 10 days while a new charter/inverter, for example, winds its way through the Costa Rican customs bureaucracy was not something we could afford.
(We knew parts were a problem because our Panama agent, Peter Stevens, actually receives parts for Banana Bay in Panama then waits for a boat going to Golfito to carry them the rest of the way. I know this because Ho’Okele brought in six boxes of parts for a sportfish boat. It’s comforting to know there are still places in the world in which a full-displacement trawler is faster than FedEx.)
What the heck, I said to Chef Charles, we sailed for 20 years with only an icebox; since when did a fridge and a microwave become mission-critical? Our factory riggers could sort out the AC in Ensenada, just a short hop from San Diego.
Meanwhile Chef Charles and I traded our frozen stores for some styrofoam coolers (goodbye frozen pizza, goodbye ice cream sandwiches), and put our fridge fodder on ice. We spent the rest of the day checking out Golfito. When I mentioned that I might be writing about it, Blevins warned me that the harbor suffered from a black reputation. As the Costa Ricans say, as quoted by Mickey Rooney, “If Costa Rica were a cow, Golfito would be its (butt).”
A small band of strong swimmers called the Pig Boys had specialized in stealing dinghies and other valuables from cruisers at anchor; the local police had no stomach for a fight, and the victimized cruisers were unwilling to stick around long enough to see justice done. Finally Blevins hired boatmen to patrol the anchorage after dark and saw to it that the perpetrators were taught an unspecified lesson. He said the problem has abated, but feared that it would take years for Golfito to live down its bad rep.
I promised to relay his message from Golfito to the California border.
Starting tomorrow, Christmas Day in The Year of Our Lord 2002, when Ho’Okele heads for Marina Flamingo on the northwestern shore of Costa Rica.
’Til next time.