Ithaka

Landfall Colombia!

By Bernadette Bernon
May 10, 2002
Providencia, Colombia
13° 22.785' N 81° 22.502' W

The people, the terrain, the atmosphere, the music — everything feels so different here in Isla de Providencia, than it did in Honduras. This tiny Columbian island is 125 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, and Ithaka is anchored in the glorious mud of Catalina Harbor, in the lee of volcanic mountains behind which the pirate Captain Morgan also used to anchor after his frequent plundering of the Spanish fleets. Morgan was such a popular fellow here that one of the mountains, if you squint your eyes really tightly, and imagine even harder, is said to resemble his profile, and is named in his honor. Ashore, the town of Isabella is bright-colored and tidy, a little sleepy, except for the salsa music pouring out of so many windows. A single road runs round the island; every few miles is a little outcrop of houses, a school, a small tienda. Only 4,000 people live here, and except for the occasional cruising boat passing through now and again, there are almost no tourists. It's a real place, and it's very beautiful.

Photo of the Providencia coastline
Providencia's coast is beautiful, unspoiled, and usually yours will be the only footprints you find in the sand.

Our passage from the Vivorillos was somewhat disjointed. We grabbed a break in the 20-knot easterly trade winds, and headed out with our friends on Sand Dollar and Filia into a fresh north wind. Our next stop, we hoped, would be Providencia, but the winds died before dark, leaving us wallowing over the shallower banks far to the east of Cabo Gracios a Dios. We reluctantly decided to spend that night anchored at Cayos Media Luna, a remote offshore reef system made infamous several years ago when the van Tuijls, a Dutch cruising family, were attacked there. Local wisdom is that Colombian drug traffickers occasionally offload goods at Media Luna, and one is wise to give it a big miss. But without wind we would either have had to drift on the banks (not a good idea), motor through a reef system at night (no thanks), or anchor in a convoy of three boats and take our chances. We stopped. Next morning Douglas was glad to go spear fishing, and when we weighed anchor in the afternoon, our fridge was full of hogfish and ocean trigger fillets.

Photo of the painted houses of Providencia Gaily-painted houses of Providencia overlook the sea.

With the return of a brisk northeasterly, we flew to Providencia far faster than we anticipated. Traveling at six, seven, and the last few hours at eight knots, rather than the more conservative five knots we'd used to calculate our arrival, we got to the sea buoy at 0230 instead of at sunup. We'd never entered a foreign harbor at night, and in these parts of the world charted buoys are often missing, moved, or unlighted, so we were nervous as hens. But our friends on Rotuma had been anchored in Providencia for a few days already, and Derek offered to set his alarm for 0100 in case we made good time, keep his VHF turned up, and await our arrival so he could "lead in the parade." That's exactly what he did. It's a good friend who sets an alarm for the dark hours.

From the sea buoy we set our course at 143 degrees and headed down the entry channel, which, compared to other places we've sailed in the past two years, seemed lit up like a runway at JFK. At the last pair of buoys, we turned northeast in the darkness, and Derek in his dinghy roared up alongside.

Photo of boobie birds Boobies of Vivorillos.

"Follow me!" he said. "I'll lead you past the shoal, and show you the best place to anchor." And he did. We dropped the hook in 12 feet, Derek hopped aboard, the three of us caught up, then I crashed to the sounds of the two guys, laughing away. They kept each other company till daylight, finishing a bottle of Flora de Cana Oro Honduran rum and solving the problems of the universe.

Now we've been here a few days, cleaned up the boat, set up the awnings, gotten our laundry done ($3 a load), filled up with cistern water, poked around town, and settled in for a while. Elena at the panadería knows our names now, as we're spending a good bit of time drinking her rich coffee, and eating her homemade cakes; and so does Conrad at the internet café, the tall thin Rasta who wears a necklace with both a gold anchor and a large Star of David, as we've spent plenty of time already planted in front of his computers, checking our e-mails, and filing our stories and photos to you.

We've been out of touch for over a month now, and our e-mail in boxes were a mile long. Douglas and I were happy to see that we'd received lots of e-mails from readers of our Logs — muchas gracias! — and we thought now would be a perfect time, before we embark on Logs about a whole new country and culture, to answer a few of your questions.

Photo of masked booby bird A masked booby at the Vivorillos.

Cobi and Winsal

Many of you have asked us if we know what ended up happening to Cobi and Winsal, the two stranded fishermen we wrote about in our last Log, who were rescued from the Vivorillos Cays by the Lindblad Explorer cruise ship Sea Voyager?

From Bernadette: Cobi and Winsal are fine. They made it safely home to Guanaja. The morning after the Sea Voyager got underway, Cade and Lisa on Sand Dollar talked on the SSB net to Paul and Nancy on X-tacy, who were still in Guanaja. They asked Paul to watch out for the ship, and when it arrived in Guanaja to please see if Cobi and Winsal were cleared in and OK. Paul called us all back on the net a couple of days later, said the Sea Voyager had arrived, and that when he'd called the captain to inquire about 16-year-old Cobi Jackson, he was told that "Mr. Jackson is unavailable at the moment, but we'll take a message and ask him to get in touch when he returns." That cracked us up! Paul found out later that Cobi was in town with all the Sea Voyager guests, dressed in crew whites, giving them a walking tour of the cay. We'd armed Cobi with instructions on how to find Jack and Elizabeth at Lighthouse on Guanaja. When we'd told these friends the story of the castaways, they'd offered to help them in any way they could. When and if Cobi and Winsal ever need to get in touch with them, they'll find open arms.

Photo of a fluffy baby booby bird Fluffy baby boobies must shed their white feathers before they can fly.

SSB Nets

Three readers have asked us about the various single-sideband nets we like listening to out here. "Is there any way that those of us at home can listen in?" asked Peter L., of Seattle, Washington. "Do I need a special ham radio and license?"

From Douglas: You don't need a ham radio or any kind of license to listen in on the various nets or to any conversation which is taking place over the high-frequency radio bands. Licenses are required only for talking.

With an inexpensive short-wave radio you can listen at home to various cruiser nets (some of which are listed below, along with their broadcast times and frequencies); to the Marine Mobil Services Net, which is a ham net that's on 24 hours a day at 14300 kHz Upper Side Band. During the hurricane season there is also a ham net for hurricane information at 14325 kHz. The 14300 kHz net is often full of action, solving problems for boats at sea, relaying emergency and medical information. It's the net that coordinated information and resources and helped save the life of Willem van Tuijl, the Dutch teenager who was shot at Media Luna.

If you're interested in how various cruisers make their routing decisions, how they're faring under way, and how the inimitable Herb Hildenberg — a famous weather guru who offers cruisers first-rate, custom-tailored, weather-routing advice free of charge 365 days a year — tune in on 12359 kHz at 2000 UTC. His conversations with dozens of boats can go on a couple of hours and are a wonderful education about weather, cruising, and decision-making.

Photo of an orchid
Photo: Dave Waltz
The warm, moist climate of Central America is perfect for orchids, which grow wild in many places.

How well you can hear the various cruiser nets will depend a great deal on where you're located and how good the propagation is on that particular day. Signals that are perfectly clear one day can be mud another, so it takes some perseverance.

The Waterway Net for the American East Coast Intracoastal Waterway is on 7268 kHz at 1245 UTC. A Cruiseheimer's Net, which covers much of the southeast United States and often the Bahamas is at 8152 kHz and begins at 1330 UTC. The Northwest Carribean Net is at 8188 kHz (plus or minus 3 kHz, depending on propagation and interference) and begins each morning at 1400 UTC. The Panama Connection, which covers boats on both sides of the Canal is at 8107 kHz (or 8167 kHz depending on interference) and comes on every morning at 1330 UTC. Because there are different volunteer net controllers every day, you can get a real sense of the personalities involved, and quickly decide who you'd want to break bread with and who you wouldn't! There are nets everywhere there are cruisers, but these are the only ones we've known so far.

Photo of Douglas in a fishing boat Douglas in a snazzy lancha belonging to some fishermen from Roatán.

Over the past two days, we've heard on 14300 kHz a doctor in the United States helping a cruiser in the Bahamas who'd swallowed bleach figure out what to do next. Then, the other morning, the American cruising sailboat Serenity came on the morning Northwest Caribbean net to say that they'd been transiting between San Andres and Guanaja (basically, the reciprocal voyage we'd just taken around Cabo Gracios a Dios) when, in the middle of the night they tracked an unlit vessel on radar that was trailing them and approaching quickly. Serenity hailed them on the VHF. When the dark vessel got closer, it identified itself as "a U.S. warship with a representative of the Coast Guard aboard" and told Serenity to prepare to be boarded. Uniformed American soldiers came aboard, and "for four hours they tore our boat apart, looking for drugs." Nothing was found. The officials "swiped" the boat—a procedure to detect drugs, then left. After Serenity was reorganized again, they were rehailed, reboarded, and everything taken apart yet again for another search. Again, there was nothing to be found, and the soldiers departed, having broken the boat's dodger when one of the officials fell on top of it, and leaving Serenity in disarray. I shudder to imagine this happening at sea, at night, but appreciated getting the warning of the extensive security, and what's going on in this area.

Over the past month, as we've journeyed farther and farther away from the cozy campfire of the NW Caribbean Net, we've been also picking up the Panama Connection Net. It's funny to be leaving familiar people, such as Dave, who does the weather, and the net controllers, whose idiosyncrasies we've come to enjoy, and to be moving into an area of the Caribbean where we don't know anyone. The other day, when we checked into the Panama net, Bernadette asked a question about places on the Panama coast that were safe to leave Ithaka if we wanted to fly home to the States this summer. Debbie, on Cabu, answered with all kinds of information, and they chatted about how gorgeous the Panama coast is, and with that we began to feel connected to a new place and new people. We'll still miss Dave, though!

Photo of children in the Quince parade
Photo: Dave Waltz
Children stroll along the beach for the Quince Parade in Roatán.

Keeping In Touch and The Internet

Over the past year, many readers have asked how we stay in touch with home, and how easy it is to find internet cafés in Central America.

From Bernadette: This question comes up a lot, and it's also the subject of much discussion out here in the cruising world. First of all, good internet connections are not all that easy to find outside the major tourist centers. As we've traveled farther south, internet connections also are much slower. In the Bay Islands of Honduras, on Roatán for example, there was an internet café at the French Harbor Yacht Club, one in Coxen Hole, another at the town of Oak Ridge; in Guanaja there were two. (Keep in mind that the word "café" is a broad exaggeration.) In all cases they were excruciatingly slow — not at all what one is used to or hopes for.

Just getting logged on down here sometimes can take 10 or 20 minutes; one day it took Douglas four hours to e-mail eight highly compressed digital photographs to Cruising World for our Log! Once we get a decent connection, wild horses can't pull us away from the computer terminal, and we regularly curse ourselves for not getting ham licenses, which allow for free and easy e-mail access on your boat anytime day or night! (Although you can't send JPEG photo files through the SSB.)

The biggest hassle with slow internet e-mail is having to contend sometimes with hundreds of junk e-mails (much of it advertisements for pornography) which further slows down the system. Douglas says, "I never knew so many people and organizations cared so profoundly about the size, well-being, and satisfaction of my organ, and I'm deeply touched."

Photo of a monkey The mainland coast of Central America gives way to thick jungles full of wildlife.

Then, usually, just as we get our in boxes cleaned out, the system crashes and we're told to come back "annudder day." We come back a couple of days later, get back online (again, 20-some minutes to get an AOL connection), as quickly as possible try to download the e-mails from people we know, and get offline before it crashes again. It can take between three and five minutes to download just one e-mail, and twice that long to send an e-mail with an attachment. By the time we download all the e-mails (usually 2-3 hours), we're beat. We take the precious disk of news back to Ithaka, read the e-mails from friends, and figure we'll answer them at the next place we find an e-mail "café." Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn't happen for three weeks or a month, and then the whole rigmarole starts again. Staying in touch can be a challenge if you only rely on these internet connections.

I have an AOL account; Douglas has a Hotmail account. We've found that one or the other works better, depending on which country you're in. Before you go cruising, do yourself a favor, and get your ham license; then all your emails will be free, and there's no limit on the amount of e-mail you can send a day. (SailMail is another good alternative, and you don't need the ham license.)

We have INMARSAT-C on which we send e-mails and our Logs when we're away from internet access. So far, it's 100-percent dependable and fast, but it is somewhat expensive and can only take text—no photos.

Cruisers talk together quite a bit about communicating with home. It's an issue. Down here, it can be difficult to find phones that work. Many times the phone systems are down for a day or so at a time, just the day you happen to need to use it. On many of the islands you visit, there's no phone. This can get frustrating, especially if you need to talk to your family or deal with any business or financial issues. We'd been hearing several cruisers talking about getting satellite phones, which have become much more affordable. For several months, we had a Globalstar phone (given to us by the company), which worked beautifully while we were in Mexico and Belize. Unfortunately, we could never get a satellite connection in Guatemala or Honduras. Finally, because of a family situation, we felt we needed to be in touch with home on a regular basis, especially as we're headed to the remote San Blas islands off the coast of Panama. So we did some homework and decided to bite the bullet and buy an Iridium satellite phone form Preferred Communications (PO Box 829, Creedmoor, North Carolina 27522; phone 800-300-6020; international 919-528-9330; email george.sloan@satstar.com). We shopped around; this company had the best deal for the phone, and for purchasing bulk minutes of air time in advance at a discount. In addition, I very much liked George Sloan, who understood what we needed, why, and was able to send us the phone and deal with shipping to Honduras, all within a few days. The guy's efficient, quick, and a real pro, and we're happy to recommend him and his services.

Photo of palm frond Ferns, palms, and mangroves grow everywhere in the lush environment of the islands.

Conch

"We've never had conch," said Laura T. of Moscow, Idaho, "but we've seen them when we've chartered in the Bahamas. Your repeated references make us want to try it next time we charter. Could you tell us a little more about how you catch them, clean , and cook them?"

From Douglas: Bernadette maintains that if I don't kill something pretty regularly I get grumpy, and while I consider this to be cruel hyperbole, I admit I've come to love hunting with a spear gun, which I never would've imagined. But when my aim is off or the fish are sparse, it seems there's always conch. Throughout the Western Caribbean, it's been nigh on impossible to anchor anywhere without snagging the hook on a conch the size of a Christmas goose. It makes you think the herd (if that's what you call a silent scattering of these guys) is just begging to be thinned out, and we've been doing our best to accomplish that. We've been eating fried conch, conch fritters, conch frittatas, grilled conch, conch fajitas, conch ceviche, conch stew, conch omelets, conch fried rice, and, when we're feeling extravagant, a curried garlic coconut conch flambé.

Photo of Benadette with conch shell Bernadette returns to Ithaka from a swim with dinner — a beautiful conch.

Conch (the singular and plural are the same, like deer) live in houses that as a kid you'd hold up to your ear, hoping to hear the ocean. They're part of the snail family (phylum Mollusca, class Gastropoda), and hang out in water as shallow as three feet and goodness knows how deep, but the big guys have always been 20 or more feet down. Regardless of their depth, appropriately enough, they move at a snail's pace, and when frightened they pull in their leathery foot and just sit there, either wishing they were invisible or just hoping you'll lose interest and go away. So once you've spotted one, assuming you can hold your breath long enough to get to him, pretty much he's yours. Conch-hunting, Bernadette says, might better be termed conch-harvesting, because plucking an essentially inert object off the ocean floor doesn't make you much of a "hunter."

Photo of a tenderizing mallet The tools of the conch trade: a hammer, and tenderizing mallet.

Often the hardest part of the whole deal is deciding how many you want. Two big queen conchs (shells that are 10-14 inches) make us days worth of meals, and the parts you cut away become trolling bait. While finding and retrieving conch is kid's play, evicting and cleaning them is the rub. It's the perfect kitchen task for guys, because you get to smash and stab stuff. Ideally equipped conch annihilators use a small prospector's pick (although a steel chisel and hammer will do just fine, meaning you can register for kitchen gifts at your local hardware store instead of Williams-Sonoma).

First, deliver a quick blow to the third nodule in on the cone-shaped shell, slip a knife in the new opening, sever the muscle that's holding it in, and with your free hand, grab the operculum, the hard brown disk that covers the foot. Then pull the conch out of the shell. It takes some practice to avoid making a colossal mess of smashed shell all over the foredeck, and for quite some time Bernadette insisted I perform the operation ashore or in the dinghy, but definitely out of sight. The key is to kill the conch and get it out quickly, because if you don't, it'll release a gloppy slime that sticks to your skin and everything else, this being an example in nature when pissed off means pissed on — a symbolic final revenge.

Photo of a conch shell wall On Providencia, this house by the sea has outside walls completely covered in conch shells.

Once extracted from the shell, you need a sharp knife to cut off various appendages. Then you peel away the thick brown epidermis so you can slice and dice. This may seem like a bunch of work, but it's not like you really have all that much else to do all day. And in the end it's worth it because you have a tasty white meat, even if it is as tender as tractor tires. So no matter how you choose to prepare the meal, some more smashing with a mallet is in order, just to loosen the fiber and tenderize the meat.

For soups, stews, conch fried rice and ceviche we cut the tenderized meat into small pieces; for broiled, fried and fajitas, hammered flattened fillets, cut into strips will do fine. For fritters, chop the conch even finer or grind it. Then make a beer batter from chopped onion, chopped celery, a little Worcester sauce, some Tabasco, a cup of flour, a spoon of baking powder, an egg, and a little water or beer. Combine until you get a semi-stiff batter, spoon balls of the batter into hot oil and fry it till it's browned thoroughly. Serve with some haberno-based hot sauce and it's a bit of heaven. (Another favorite recipe is below. See sidebar.)

Catching Rain

"Recently you wrote about changes you made in your rain-catching system," wrote Alex B. of Charleston, North Carolina. "You said that you're using sink and drain parts? Can you describe it?"

From Douglas: We always have the Bimini up over the cockpit to keep the sun out, and formerly there were two five-inch-diameter openings in the canvas, underneath which there were funnel-shaped canvas "udders" that made up a rain-catching system. At the bottom of the udders were male hose fittings that we could connect to standard garden hoses and from there snake them to jerry cans or the water tanks. However, this system had several flaws. First, the openings were not set in the lowest places, so the rain water didn't always go to there; second, when not in use, when it rained, the udders leaked onto our heads — not ideal.

Photo of water-catching system Ithaka's simple water-catching system, made with sink-drain parts.

We examined every boat we saw that had water-catchers and saw some pretty nifty stuff, ranging from home-made copper gutters that ran along solar panel edges to PVC tubes that snaked through portholes. For a variety of reasons, on Ithaka, it made some sense to install the "sink-drain system."

So one day we took off the Bimini, cut off the canvas udders, sewed Sunbrella patches over the openings, and started over. Once the Bimini was back up, we poured buckets full of water on it to find the two lowest spots where water puddled. Then we splurged on $8.45 worth of sink-drains parts. If you look at your kitchen or bathroom sink, you'll see the drain opening in the bottom has a stainless steel or plastic piece with lots of holes through which the water flows. Chances are it's screwed onto a piece under the sink that keeps it firmly in place and leads to the pipes. Same idea for us. We cut two half-dollar sized holes in the Bimini (slightly smaller than the drain holes, so the fit would be tight), put the metal piece on top, bedded it with silicone, screwed it into the fitting underneath the Bimini, fitted some PVC piping and a garden hose, used electrical cable ties to attach it all to the boom gallows posts and now its always in place, ready to go, and it works well.

We've gotten our rain-catching system ready none too soon; the season is changing as we write. After a dramatic winter of almost one cold front a week, we're watching the first high-pressure system of the season bringing its large, tall and puffy clouds and rain squalls into our region. I remember last year at this time, the rains started — pounding, dramatic rains that scoured our decks, and pricked our skin, and then were gone. It's wonderful to recognize the telltale clouds and have an idea of what to expect as we go into another cycle. It's nice, finally, to feel that we're part of the pattern. To imagine the rains coming as we explore a new country, to imagine our tanks full all the time, to be moving forward. It's all still very exciting to us, and we're glad you're aboard with us for the ride!

Garlic Thai Conch Flambé

Photo of Paul making a pizza Our friend Paul came to visit in Belize, and cooked up a storm. Here, he displays his conch and lobster pesto pizza.

A version of this recipe, using lobster, came originally from our friends Karen and Horst on Flow. We've altered it somewhat, made it on Ithaka a few times, most notably with our friend Paul, a very snazzy cook himself. If you don't have any conch at hand, lobster makes a dramatic main ingredient. Here we go:

Sauté coarsely chopped onion (1/4 cup per serving) in a mixture of butter and olive oil with a minimum of 4 cloves of garlic per person.

Add two teaspoons of a mild, yellow Thai curry paste, and an equal amount of Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce sometimes called Nam Pla. (We've heard you can now order the marinized version through the Boat U.S. catalogue, but don't quote us.)

Cook this over a low heat for a few minutes, stirring it often enough to remove any bubbles.

Then, when its good and creamy, add rehydrated shitake mushrooms and 1/2 cup of their juice. (Every well-founded yacht should have a quantity of shitake in the larder; in fact, we keep an emergency zip lock bag in our ditch kit along with the EPIRB.)

Stir everything over a low heat for a minute or two. Then turn up the gas. When you start to get a little bubbling going on, add two-to-three pounds of nugget sized pieces of conch and toss them in the sauce until they are well coated and cooked through (just a couple of minutes.)

Add some fresh pepper; really turn up the heat and scoot the ingredients to the outer edges of the pan.

Once you're there, get ready for the show: add a half cup of brandy, carefully climb out the companionway, and light it like a torch when your guests least expect it. The alcohol will burn off quickly, and it's quite dramatic.

Finally, add eight or so ounces of fresh coconut water or half that much canned coconut milk (milk is preferred). Stir everything together and serve it over rice. Or, if you want to get really fancy, serve it over a risotto that you've cooked in a fresh fish stock. (The base we use for risotto is butter, olive oil, garlic, fresh fish stock, and extra juice from dehydrating the shitakes.)

As they say in these parts, buen provecho from Ithaka!

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