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Melissa & Dave - Adventures at Sea

Once again MacGyver saves the day

March 20, 2014

We departed Tuesday at 4:00 pm.  It was a relatively calm evening.  Since Joyce and Bob didn’t yet know how to operate the boat we agreed that Dave would work the night shift and Melissa would relieve him in the morning.  Joyce and Bob would try to take a shift the following night after they have the chance to get some training tomorrow.  Its super critical this trip that we get Dave some rest because we have a tricky bar crossing in El Salvador at the end of this two night journey and we need him at his best for that.

The plan went awry at 4:30am when Dave heard a whump-whump-whump sound.  He thought at first something had hit the hull.  But then he noticed the temperature on the engine had risen from its normal 142 degrees to 150, and the battery light was on.  He put the engine in idle and ran down to look in the engine compartment.  He realized within a few seconds that the fan belt had come off.  He ran back to the cockpit and shut the engine down.  By this time Melissa was awake and asking what was up.  Fan belt Dave tells her.  She says, “do we have a spare of that?”.  Dave says, “I hope so”.  Dave and Melissa start unpacking the crates that store the spare parts.  This is that moment when we are super glad we took out the washer/dryer unit to make room for all the spare parts inside the cabin.  Otherwise, we would have to harness up in order to retrieve the spare parts boxes from where they were stored underneath the swim platform in the back.  A few minutes of digging through the crates, and Ah Ha! There is the spare belt.  Takes Dave 10 minutes to put the new belt on and verify the engine is again operating normally.  A delay of 20 minutes total.  All Melissa can think is, “thank god Dave was on watch when it happened, because who knows whether any of the rest of us would have spotted the problem before the engine overheated and seized up”.  What might have been a disabling problem didn’t even wake all the crew.  Uncle Bob’s comment the next morning was “there wasn’t even a swear word”.

Here is Uncle Bob chillin'.

Melissa was awake at that point and volunteered to take over the shift.  But Dave had enough of a dose of adrenalin that he was wired awake.  So Melissa went back to sleep till Dave awakened her at 6:30 am when he could no longer keep his eyes open.  Joyce was already awake.  At not a few minutes later, a big pod of dolphins swam up and Melissa showed Joyce the fun of sitting on the bow watching them watch you as they play in the bow wave.  Uncle Bob showed up and joined the fun on the bow.  When we climbed back into the cockpit, Uncle Bob says, “Hey – shouldn’t we put out the jib and catch some of this wind?”  Well, Melissa explains she’s never actually deployed a sail before.  But hey, she’s watched Dave enough that we ought to be able to do it.  So after a bit of thinking about which line to pull which way, whoosh – the jib sail opens up and we could actually pull the engine back to half.  At 7:30 Melissa set both the lure on the fishing rod and the meat line in the water.  Not 30 minutes later we went through a huge school of fish that were just roiling on the surface of the water and there were birds everywhere.  No sooner do we turn and look, and we can see that the lure on the rod has been snapped clean off.  Ok, that’s like the third time that has happened.  Apparently 30 lb test line is not sufficient.  So we look at the meat line, and sure enough, we’ve caught something big.  Melissa goes back and reels it in.  A Tuna!!!  

So she’s been on watch less than two hours, and we’ve already played with the dolphins, put up a sail for the first time, and caught our first tuna.  Busy morning!

Much puzzling and looking through the fish identification guide, and we aren’t 100% sure, but closest we can tell looks like maybe a yellow tail tuna.  We managed to land it, kill it with vodka in the gills, and get the hook out.  Odd that Dave doesn’t wake up as we no doubt sound like an army brigade tromping around on the deck directly above his bunk.  We go to start to clean off the deck, and managed to squirt him with the hose square in the face through the rear hatch.  Ooops.  He’s awake now after getting less than two hours sleep.  Dang it.  Uncle Bob guts the guy on the swim platform.  We attached the knife to his wrist with a string so it wouldn’t go overboard, and tied a lie to the Tuna’s tail so he wouldn’t go overboard either.  We weren’t too worried about Uncle Bob and Joyce though – they can swim.  After Uncle Bob gets the filets off, Melissa finishes up by pulling all the rib bones with the needle nose pliers.  And Voila – 3 ½ lbs of fresh tuna meat!

We had soy sauce marinated tuna steaks coated in sesame seeds and pineapple for lunch.  And tuna cooked in parchment with onions, peppers, and tomatoes for dinner.

During the day the dolphins came to play a number of times, and we ran into another pod of giant turtles.

After Dinner Dave went to sleep and Melissa, Uncle Bob and Joyce stayed on deck.  Joyce, who has great eyesight, was in charge of watching for traffic.  Uncle Bob was watching the gauges (we are all a bit paranoid about watching the engine temperature today) and watching the navigation systems.  Melissa was answering all sorts of questions as they came up.

As the moon was rising, it came up over a cloud bank and made it look like we were headed straight into a squall.  The clouds were an ominous looking black.  So Melissa turns on the radar to take a look.  The radar shows no storm cells.  Hmmm. But is that because Melissa doesn’t know how to use the radar right or because there really is nothing.  Several times over the course of the next couple of hours she checks the radar.  She even considered waking Dave up.  But decided to trust that the radar was working right.  And indeed we never did hit any squalls.  (Dave told us the next day that he had seen the same weird inky black clouds when the moon came up the night before, and gone through the same routine of checking the radar – albeit without the worry that he might be using the radar wrong.)

At about 9:30pm Uncle Bob noticed that another boat going to El Salvador that has been nearby the whole trip looked like it was on a collision course with a freighter.  Melissa tells him it should be fine because Pegasus (the power boat) has an AIS transmitter and surely they will be watching their AIS receiver for traffic and spot the potential collision which is about an hour away.  So they have plenty of time to make a course correction.  None the less, she tries to hail Pegasus on VHF channel 16 to say Hi and just check they are aware of the traffic.  There is no response.  An hour later neither Pegasus nor the freighter have changed course and the freighter is now bearing down on Pegasus and they are less than 2 miles apart.  Which means a potential collision is less than 7 minutes away.  Melissa tries to hail Pegasus again with no luck.  So she tries to hail the freighter.  No answer.  But a few seconds after she hailed the freighter we saw Pegasus make a huge course correction to starboard to avoid the collision.  Whew.  (Pegasus later told us they were monitoring the freighter and it wasn’t as close a call as we had fretted it was.)

About 11pm Joyce spots a red light directly off our port side.  It’s very weird.  Blinking.  At first we think maybe it’s a boat going the opposite direction and we are passing port to port and we are seeing their red light.  But a while later it’s clear that the lights aren’t moving relative to shore.  We are 10 to 12 miles offshore – so for us to be able to see much on shore is kind of odd.  We speculate what it might be.  Then we realize it isn’t a single red light, but there are a number of red lights all blinking in sequence.  Even weirder.  Melissa’s best guess is that maybe there are a number of communication towers lit up on the hill.  (The next morning when we asked Dave about it he says - without hesitating - that it was probably a wind farm.  That is a bunch of windmills generating electricity off the high winds that come across Central America where the land between the Atlantic and Pacific are narrow.  He checks the map and says,  yep – that would be an ideal spot for one.)

Then about 11:30 Joyce spots a light on the horizon. It’s very weird looking – red.  Melissa says maybe it’s a channel marker for Port Quetzal which we were passing by.  We all continue to stare into the distance.  The light changes colors.  Ok, that’s even weirder.  It’s a big light too.  We speculate some more.  The light appears and disappears - typical in ocean swell as we go up and down and lights on the horizon appear and disappear.  We continue staring into the distance.  Melissa yells, “Hey – its fireworks on shore!”  And sure enough, turns out the town must have been celebrating something because they were putting on a big fireworks show.

At 12:30 Dave pops up into the cockpit.  Before retiring to bed Melissa tells him that he missed all the excitement again while he was asleep we watched a near miss with a freighter and watched a fireworks show.  The next morning Dave reported that nothing happened the rest of the night.  Why is it that Melissa, Joyce, and Uncle Bob seem to be having all the fun?

In the morning Melissa woke early as it was too hot to sleep.  So she got to watch her first sunrise with Dave.  Quite lovely.  She tells Dave that, ok, maybe, just maybe, he is right.  He’s been telling her for ages that she knows more about the boat than she gives herself credit for.  (It’s tough when her only benchmark is MacGyver.)  Yesterday and last night when Dave was asleep, she found herself teaching Bob and Joyce a bit about the boat, and discovered she could answer most of their questions.  So ok, maybe she has learned a few things about sailing over the years.

Then it was fresh orange and cranberry scones and scrambled eggs for breakfast when the rest of the crew woke up.  Uncle Bob deployed the meat line again, and sure enough we caught another skip jack.  Bleck, we tossed him back.

The winds picked up in the afternoon.  Probably a local effect from the Papagyos winds south of here.  But this started to make Melissa nervous.  She’s been fretting about the infamous El Salvador bar crossing for quite some time.  And with the winds picking up, this means that the swell will get bigger and that means the waves cresting over the bar will be larger and potentially more dangerous.  Fret.  Worry.  Fret.  Fret some more.  Melissa that is.  Dave was cool as a cucumber.

We arrived at the entrance to the El Salvador bar crossing at about 2:30pm.  High tide (optimum crossing) is at 5:10pm.  So we had to anchor and hang out for a bit.  Anchoring outside the bar meant anchoring in 4 foot waves.  Melissa put out all 200 foot of chain, so that we were (for only the second time aboard Apsaras) anchoring with a bit of rope out as we’ve passed by the last of the chain.  Dave tells Melissa to cleat the rope off in the anchor locker.  Huh?  Do what?  Melissa only knows how to secure anchor chain using the strain relief.  She doesn’t know how to do the moral equivalent with the rode.  So Dave comes forward and shows her how to cleat the rope off to take the load off the windlass (electronic anchor winch).  Ok, maybe she doesn’t know everything.  Yet.

So we hang out for a few hours and the wind starts to die.  Melissa is like, “whoo hoo! This will make the bar crossing easier!”.  Till Dave points out that when the wind dies the boat will start to turn sideways to the ocean waves – thereby rocking us side to side.  Ug.  None the less, Melissa tells Dave she will take a couple of hours of rockin’ and rollin’ at anchor if it means the bar crossing will be safer.

The time arrives to lock down the boat for the bar crossing.  We inspect the exterior and interior several times to insure there is nothing losing that might go flying if we end up taking a bad roll in the surf.  We pull out the life jackets and make everyone put one on.  Yes, this is a bit paranoid.  But only the paranoid survive.  Finally the pilot boat calls on the radio that it’s time for all three boats waiting to cross the bar to pull up anchor and move to the staging area.  Melissa goes forward and with Dave’s help over her shoulder manages to undo all the rope cleating Dave did to secure the anchor.  Several times the winch binds and has trouble pulling up the anchor because it had dug in so hard in the wind and waves.  Finally the anchor comes loose and we are off.

We are the #2 boat in line to cross the bar when the pilot boat comes out.  The first boat – a catamaran – we watch her cross with no issues.  Dave tells us that from this point inbound we can talk amongst ourselves, but he will no longer answer any questions that are not immediate safety related so that he can focus on driving the boat.  We agree that if the boat gets in trouble the three crew will go below so that we aren’t tossed around the cockpit and get injured adding to Dave’s potential stress – so that no matter what happens he can concentrate on getting us safely through the bar.

For the bar crossing its critical to follow the instructions of the pilot boat.  This is because the channel across the bar moves every year as the sands shift.  Boats get in to trouble when they decide they know better than the pilot boat and don’t follow instructions.  This type of trust is hard for captains who are used to making their own judgment calls.  But critical to safety where local knowledge is needed.

Then it’s our turn.  Gulp.  The pilot boat returns to lead us in.  They tell us what heading to turn to.  We settle in on the right heading and then they tell us “full speed ahead”.  Melissa starts to shake.  Well, ok, maybe more accurately, she starts to shake a bit harder than she already was.  We can see the surf breaking on the bar off to our right.  The pilot boat tells us to turn towards them (i.e. go left).  But Dave thought he heard them say turn your stern towards us – and hence begins to turn right towards the surf.  The pilot boat again asks us to correct and this time Dave hears them correctly and turns to the left away from the surf.  A minute later the pilot boat says, “Welcome to El Salvador, you are now across the bar”.  Well jeez.  We rocked and rolled more at anchor than on the bar crossing.  Guess that’s how it’s supposed to go.

Up ahead we see what looks like more surf.  The waves are roiling on the surface.  It appears there is only a very narrow channel ahead where the waves are breaking on the beaches on either side of us.  Melissa starts fretting again about whether we will get caught in the surf that is so close by.  Then the light dawns on her.  This is an estuary.  That means there is a river flowing out from here.  So those waves are just big current waves not breaking beach waves. When was the last time we saw that type of wave?!  Not since we left Seattle.  Ok, well, then that’s another kettle of fish entirely.  Just a ripple on the surface due to current?!  Heck!  That’s nothing!

Happy campers after the bar crossing:

Dave asks Melissa to rig the boat for a port side docking.  So Melissa and Uncle Bob hop to rigging the boat.  We see the marina up ahead around the corner of the estuary.  There are tons of people from the rally waiting to welcome us.  They holler over to ask us how many people are aboard and whether we all drink alcohol.  Melissa tells them there are 4 aboard and copious amounts of alcohol would be just great after the bar crossing.  We dock the boat on the port side, but before we even got tied down they tell us we have to move to another slip with a starboard side tie.  That’s ok, because Dave says we would rather back in anyway so we can enter and exit off the stern steps.  But a back in docking maneuver was going to be tricky in the wind.  First try the bow blows off.  Dave says he will try it one more time but if that doesn’t work we will have to switch all the ropes to starboard and go in forward.  He plans to try to back in faster this time so that the bow doesn’t have time to blow off in the wind.  We got it in but not without a bit of fending off with the boat hook to ensure we didn’t blow into the boat in the slip next to us.  And the lines weren’t the right lengths for the location of the dock cleats so getting tied down was a bit more of a hassle than typical.  Dave would probably preferred to have less “help” than he was getting with the lines from all the people on the dock but you can’t very well tell that to all the greeters bringing us drinks.

As soon as we had the chance to look around, we realized that we really have reached another part of the world.  We were sort of expecting El Salvador to look mostly like Mexico.  But that's just not true.  The estuary here is unique with palapas all along the river.

Then it’s off to the immigration office to get checked in.  They tell us that only the captain needs to stay to do the paperwork.  Uncle Bob decides to hang with Dave and see the process.  Melissa and Joyce head to the bar for some wine.  All the cruisers from the rally are at the bar doing a wine tasting.  How convenient!  And they are (as usual) all super friendly so we immediately start yacking with everyone.  Dave and Uncle Bob finally finish the paperwork and show up in the bar.  We are all starved since we haven’t eaten since breakfast.  The wine event was combined with an Italian buffet that was pretty good.  We learn that apparently the local food here isn’t hot and spicy the way it is in most tropical locations so we are curious to see what kinds of local foods there are here over the next few weeks.

Then we were all ready to crash and get a good night’s sleep!

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Beautiful photos, great adventures and the food sounds wonderful. I'm impressed with all you know to be doing what you are doing!
Joyce's friend Mary Alice

Thanks for taking my Dad and Joyce on a trip I'm sure they'll never forget. I told Dad he was in for an adventure. He said "Well, I've been sailing before". I said, basically, "Not like this". Then I repeated, "You are really in for an adventure Dad". Thanks again - I know they had/are having a good time.



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