To Zapatillas and Cayo Agua

It's been just about a month since we last took RHAPSODY out of the slip. Most of April was dedicated to boat related tasks, mostly minor electrical and plumbing issues, and doing our taxes. I also continued gigging with Andy and sitting in with other musicians, like Cheto, during the month, and spent a week or so taking care of a fellow cruiser's dog while he was out of the country. Mostly, the experience has been one of living in the marina, which, although it gives us shore power (air conditioning) and other amenities, like a restaraunt, is somewhat limiting. The water around the marina is no good for swimming (refuse & sewerage from town), and we tend to see the same few people every day.

So, itching to get out of the marina, we decided to go to the Zapatillas Cays. These marine national park islands are technically on the "outside", that is, they are in the Caribbean Sea rather than inside of Bahia Almirante. As such, they benefit from being bathed in the refreshing outer waters and are reported to have some of the best coral reefs, for snorkeling, in the entire area. On the downside, because they are more exposed, the anchorage is reported to be very rolly, and most cruisers we've talked to say they did not enjoy their stay there because of the difficulty sleeping at nights on a rolling boat.

Consequently, we've waited for the seas to flatten out before we ventured to Zapatillas. At this time, they're calling for 1-3' seas on the outside, which is small by any measure, so this may be the best time to visit these reportedly beautiful islands. So, on Saturday, May 2, 2009, we untied the dock lines and got under way.

Getting out of the slip proved to be a challenge. Since we were last out, a new boat has moved into the slip next door. It's a big boat (56') and it juts out into the fairway. When we pull RHAPSODY out, there's only a few feet in front and back in which to turn. After trying to turn the boat using the prop-wash, in frustration, I finally reach out and grab the bow of the boat behind me and just turn RHAPSODY in the fairway by manual brute force. When she's finally pointed sort of towards the channel, we are able to use the motor to get a little steerage way until she responds to the helm. Then we are in the channel and motoring away from Bocas Del Toro.

After motoring at medium RPMS for about an hour, all of a sudden the GPS stops working, going on and off intermittently. Then the rest of the instruments (depth sounder, wind direction, etc), all fail. Yikes! I jump downstairs and see on the volt meter that the voltage in our system is fluctuating wildy, jumping up to 15 volts and then dropping to 12 every few seconds. Poking my head in the engine compartment I see that one of the regulators is cycling in time to the voltage fluctuations, so at that point we realized we had a problem with the regulator, or perhaps one of the alternators. After a quick pow-wow, we decided to head back to the anchorage at the marina and sort the problem out there.

So we spent our first night out at anchor about 100 yards from the marina! I disassembled the kitchen-island to get to the motor, and I ran a series of diagnostics on the regulators and alternators. After a while, I determined that one of the adjustable potentiometers on one of the regulators was corroded, like a sticky volumne knob on a stereo. After spraying a little WD40 on it and working it back and forth, the problem seemed to disappear, so I re-attached everything, we put the galley together, and spent the rest of the afternoon just hanging in the anchorage, having cocktails and dinner under starry skies.

The next morning, on Sunday, we started out again, this time with no problems, and made it to Crawl Key in about two and a half hours. We decided to stop here because we have been here before and know the anchorage. We'll set out tomorrow morning for Zapatillas, which will allow us plenty of time to come back if it turns out the anchorage there is too rough. For now, though, Crawl Key is pretty nice, so we spend the afternoon swimming and snorkeling around the boat. I decide to clean the propeller, which is covered with barnacles, and which takes me about 12 dives and 1/2 hour or so. In general, we have a nice time at Crawl Key.

The next morning, on Monday, we motored out the narrow channel from Crawl Key, out into the Caribbean Sea and on to Zapatillas Cayo Numero Uno. It isn't as rolly as we had feared but we still spend about an hour selecting the place we want to anchor. When we finally drop the hook, around 10:00 am, we are immediatly struck by thee beauty of the place. It's been a long time since we've been to a white sand beach, palm-covered island, and the waters are so clear here that we see the anchor, and the bottom, easily in 25' of water.

The first thing we do is take the dinghy to shore for a quick exploration. The island is just as beautiful in person as it is from a distance. The white sand is powder soft underfoot, the waters are warm and clear, and the palms are swaying gently in the breeze. Truly this place is a nine on the paradise scale, maybe a nine point two!

We ended up spending 4 nights at the Zapatillas, snorkeling and hiking on the beach every day. We're anchored about 1/4 mile off shore. One time we snorkeled from the boat to shore. Another time we took the dinghy out to one of the reefs breaking off the nearest point of the island and snorkeled. But the best snorkeling we encountered was when we took the dinghy around the north point of the island, landed on the beach, and then snorkeled out from the beach. There were massive coral heads, 20-30 feet high, some a hundred feet or more long, teeming with wildlife. Much nicer than the flatter coral at Crawl Cay, which just covers the bottom pretty much uniformly, the coral here had canyons and walls that made for great panoramic views while under water. In addition to snorkeling for fun, I also took the opportunity on these days to clean the barnacles off the sonar sensors and change the zincs next to the keel.

The weather remained very nice the whole 4 days we were there, with one exception, and the anchorage, although sometimes a bit rolly, was never untenable. About the only other thing of note that occurred during our stay at the Zapatillas was that it rained really hard one night, perhaps 6-8 inches in as many hours, accompanied by some pretty fierce winds (30-35 kts) and 1-3' wind waves driving through the anchorage. It was hard to sleep as much from the noise as the rolling, but we were dismayed when we woke up and saw that during the night the dinghy (floating chained onto the swimsteps) had flipped upside down!!

I guess the corner of the dinghy had somehow got caught under the rear quarter of RHAPSODY and when the big boat came down from a wave it must have flipped the dinghy over. What was dismaying was that (a) the motor was underwater, and (b) the anchor and hand pump we store in the dinghy were probably lost on the bottom of the ocean at this point. Sheesh!

The first thing I did was to quickly rig a weighted buoy and throw it in the water where the dinghy was to mark the location for our later search for the missing hand-pump and anchor, since the boat changes locations with the wind. With a bit of a struggle, we managed to turn the dinghy over. Then we brought the outboard into RHAPSODY's cockpit where I disassembled it. Taking the spark plug out, I was less than completely pleased as about 2 cups of seawater came out of the cylinder! After changing the oil and drying everything off, though, she started right up! Noting that there was still a lot of water in the engine oil, I changed it two more times until it started coming out as "mostly oil".

Pleased that we were able to resurrect the outboard motor, I then donned snorkel gear and attempted to find the missing hand-pump and anchor. The water clarity had suffered from the rain-driven waves, and it was cloudy out, so I thought it was going to be really hard to find them. It was a good thing that I had thrown the marker buoy out, because by this time RHAPSODY was a good 50 yards from where she had been when we woke up. In the water, I quickly swam over to the marker bouy, and lo and behold, there was the hand pump on the bottom right next to the buoy weight! Yoo hoo! I dove the 22' to the bottom, got the pump, and swam it back to RHAPSODY, optimistic that I would quickly find the dinghy anchor as well.

It didn't work out that way. I looked for perhaps 45 minutes and then went back to the boat when I started getting cold (you can get cold even in 80 degree water!). Finally, after several more tries, later in the afternoon, I decided to try one more time. After looking for 45 minutes or so, I was just about to give up, when there, right below me, I saw the silver color of the anchor. A quick dive to the bottom and swim back to the boat later, I felt pretty good about things. Apart from changing the oil in the dinghy, overall there were no ill effects from the dinghy turning over!

We spent that last night at Zapatillas, making a 10pm, full-moon dinghy ride to the outer beach searching for the Leatherback Turtles that are nesting these days, but none were seen. The next morning we crossed over to Caya Agua, where a friend of ours, Daniel, is building some bungalows on his land. Daniel wasn't there that day, but we did meet one of his workers, an indigenas Ngobe-Bugle man named Zachariah, who came by RHAPSODY to say hi and have a few beers and a chat. One cayuca fisherman sold us 4 lobsters for $10 for our dinner, but after one night at Caya Agua we decided to head back to the marina.

We left Caya Agua at about 9:00 am on Saturday, and by 12:00 we were pulling into the marina. Having some concerns about getting back into the slip, I got on the VHF and had several people waiting to help us. Mike from JOSS came out in his dinghy, which was really nice. But, as it turned out, getting in was easy. I looked like a pro as I pulled forward then put RHAPSODY in reverse to back her into the slip. The stern swung over just right, she picked up steerage way in reverse, and slipped easily into the slip and the waiting hands of several folks who grabbed lines and tied her off.

Altogether, a successful outing!

the Zapatillos
Snorkeling Pics