Looking back on 'Rhapsody to Central America'


As I look back over the last eighteen months, seeing again the photographs taken and all the webpages, I am flooded with so many good memories of this trip. In the course of the journey, I have been changed by my experiences. In some ways that I expected, and in many ways that I didn't, becoming a sailor and cruiser has changed my life forever. Unlike many of the cruisers I've met, I did not come to this as a lifelong dream, nurtured over many years. Instead, I more or less stumbled upon sailing, first as a hobby, and then only later, and relatively recently, did I come to think of sailing and cruising as a potential alternative lifestyle.

It seems like so long ago that I took the first baby steps, sailing Hobie Cats on vacations and in San Diego, taking my ASA 101, 103, & 104 sailing lessons and getting my first boat, MANDALA, and then sailing her up and down the California coast. Then the huge decision to try full-time cruising, purchasing RHAPSODY and getting her ready to sail, selling cars and most of my possessions, renting the house out, and, in general giving up nearly everything I had ever known before. Finally, casting off the lines from San Diego, now in retrospect, seems as if I was, to some degree or another, destined to become a cruiser. As natural as it seems now, though, it certainly didn't seem that way at the time.

Officially, on October 31, 2007, I became a full-time cruiser. I'll never forget as the Baja-Ha-Ha 2007 kicked off, with my friend Steve Whittlesey aboard, when we put RHAPSODY over onto the starboard tack to begin our sail southward, racing with the 140 other boats leaving that day, their sails dotting the horizon around us. We started off with three full glorious days of sailing, making the 350 nm to Bahia Tortuga at an average speed of 6.8 knots, never even once turning the engine on! It was a marvelous beginning.

From there, you may have read much of our story already. After Tortuga Bay, we made a brief stop in Bahia Santa Maria, before heading down to Cabo San Lucas. That's where Pat Kingsland joined up, and together we sailed up to La Paz, then, stopping at Isla Espirtu Santos, we crossed the Sea of Cortez to the mainland at Altata. PK left the boat in Mazatlan, and I spent the next 4-5 months sailing down the Gold Coast of Mexico, with stops at Isla Isabela, San Blas, Chacala, and a month in La Cruz and Puerto Vallarta. There was the lovely bay at Tenacatita, the lagoon at Barra de Navidad, and the sister towns of Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, and the leg down to Acapulco. Finally, spending almost a month in Huatulco, including a week travelling inland to Oaxaca City, before finally leaving Mexico in April 2008.

By that time, I was already becoming a serious cruiser. I learned, more than once, that cruising is defined as "Fixing Your Boat in Exotic Places", as I had to replace the Starter Motor in Bahia Tortuga, get the Heat Exchanger and Exhaust Elbow welded in La Cruz, and refabricate the Windlass Gears in Acapulco, among the countless other smaller boat tasks that had to be undertaken along the way. I learned more about the weather than I ever had before, becoming a crack amateur meteorologist in the process. I became adept at reading isobar charts and satellite images and interpreting GRIB files. I gained the habit of scanning NOAA and NASA websites for information about fronts moving across from Africa, and so that I could watch the Intertropical Convergence Zone, suspiciously, lest it surprise me with unsettled conditions.

I learned the basics of deep sea fishing, catching much of my food from the ocean I travelled through. I'll never forget that first Ahi Tuna caught, or the many Skipjacks thrown back, the elusive search for the first Mahi Mahi, and how they became my favorite eating fish, a staple, as I learned to efficiently catch and clean them. Hearing about Wahoos, and then landing three of them in 15 minutes the first time I ever saw one, those three fish provided 20-30lbs of meat that lasted nearly two months! I got good at provisioning in each little town visited, became adept at taking local buses as needed and for the adventure they provided. I learned how to speak enough Spanish so that I could learn more about the cultures visited, and interacted with the people along the way, as well as, perhaps more importantly, learning how to deal with the customs, immigration, and port captains offices in each town, along with shopkeepers, repairmen, laundry ladies, and the like.

I learned a lot about myself too. Learning to trust RHAPSODY, on the first, and then many more, solo night watches. It's hard to describe to a landlubber, but I had to overcome the fears that every sailor has on a cloudy, dark, rainy night alone on the ocean in a small boat. Or just as poignant, getting to experience first hand a clear, full moon lit night on the ocean, billions of stars, incredible bioluminescent "seasparkle", breaching whales, and profound silences and space. The kind of beauty that can never really be fully described by words.

I met dozens, if not hundreds, of interesting and new people along the way. Like Lopus, the artist in Mazatlan, or Dudley the woodcarver in La Cruz, or the the many, many cruisers that I shared drinks and stories with along the way; I have met more interesting people on our voyage than I ever could possibly have by living in the suburbs of San Diego. Also notable, has been the musical experience, in that, along the way, I've gotten to have some great jams with some great musicians. With Philo, Hock, and Nick in La Cruz, Bill and Frosty in Barra, George in Barillas, Frank and Joe in Panama City, Breeze in the San Blas, and most recently, with Andy here in Bocas Del Toro, I've had a wonderful diversity of musical experiences in the last 18 months.

By the time Ie left Mexico, I was were already well on the way to being changed. Braving the crossings of the dreaded Gulfs of Tehuantepec and the Papagayos, with their associated 'named' winds, making the 450nm, 3 night journey to Barillas in El Salvador, the other longish leg down to Puesta Del Sol, Nicaragua, and from there the first stops in Costa Rica: Bahia Saint Elena, Cocos, and the Bat Islands, it was in these places that I started to develop deeper relationships with other cruising couples and their boats. GALLIVANT, KETCHING UP, WAHOO, and DELFIN SOLO, became neighbors and best friends as we worked our way, more or less together, down the Costa Rican Coast, stopping, variously in places like Bahia Ballena, Isla Cedros, Bahia Los Suenos, Puntarenas, and Golfito.

So, by the time I got to Panama, the first stops being Isla Gamez, and a wonderful time making Panamanian friends at Isla Ventana, who helped me check into the country in the city of David, I was getting pretty good at being a cruiser. Suddenly, for the first time on the trip, I found myself in true tropical paradises. I'll never forget the first time dropping anchor at the palm covered, sandy Isla Gamez.

Our buddy boats joined us for the remainder of the journey through Panama. Like the week when all five boats caught Mahi Mahi IN THE ANCHORAGE at Isla Secas. That was something! Or island hopping, in search of fuel and provisions, to Bahia Honda, then Isla Catalina, and Cebaco. We all worked together when the weather turned bad after leaving Bahia Naranjo, and WAHOO led the way for us into Playa Benao. Then everyone kicked in and helped when KETCHING UP's propeller shaft broke on their way to Las Perlas Islands. We all got together in Panama City for dinner to celebrate KU's safe arrival there.

Then we kind of split up, WAHOO jetting through the Panama Canal and back before returning to California. KETCHING UP, having plans to cruise the Eastern Caribbean, was the 2nd boat thru The Canal & is now home in South Carolina, and DELFIN SOLO ended up, like RHAPSODY, hanging around the region. They're now in Cartegena, Colombia, and I hope to see them again. From Panama City, I spent about a month in the Perlas Islands, then came back to Panama City. There I said goodbye to GALLIVANT, who were waiting to cross the Pacific.

Once back in Panama City, it was time to cross over to the "other side". As an experience within an experience, it was quite something when Frank, Joe, and the two Eds helped me take RHAPSODY through the famous Panama Canal to the Caribbean Sea!

After getting the bottom painted in Shelter Bay, RHAPSODY sailed east to historic Portobelo and then spent 6 weeks in the incredible San Blas Islands. Another life-changing experience, as I not only got to see many of the hundreds of beautiful tropical islands to be found in the San Blas, but also got to meet and interact with the indigenous Kuna Yala people - another thing that I will not soon forget. I left the San Blas in December of 2008, and after a short stop at Isla Veraguas, arrived in Bocas Del Toro, Panama just before Christmas of 2008, where I'm now writing this.

Up until that point, I had done a pretty good job of sticking to the plan and itinerary that I had drawn up before leaving San Diego. Remarkable, considering that the plan was developed based on things I read in books and on the internet, all done in the comfort of my suburban home. The original plan, if you'll remember, was to spend a few months in Bocas, and then go north to Belize, Yucatan Mexico, and eventually, back to the USA, to Houston or New Orleans.

In the end, though, perhaps the greatest measure of how much I have changed, is that here in Bocas Del Toro, I have decided not to go back to the USA right away. One thing I did not fully account for, sitting in that suburban home, when I first drew up the plan for the trip, is something that I've already alluded to: the weather. The initial plan of going to the USA would have put RHAPSODY in the Gulf of Mexico during Hurricane Season (June through November). Now, from the few experiences of bad weather that I've had, I'm not willing to take the risk of having RHAPSODY encounter such a ferocious storm as a hurricane, so have decided to spend the season here, becoming comfortable with the idea of basing out of Bocas Del Toro for the forseeable future, with return trips to the San Blas Islands and perhaps a visit to Cartegena, Colombia on the drawing boards. I'll probably stay here for the better part of the year before reconsidering moving north to Belize or perhaps trying to get to the northwestern Caribbean at a later time.

So, oddly, here in Bocas Del Toro, in a sense, the adventure that I call "RHAPSODY to Central America" seems to be coming to an end. After five months in Bocas, it is clear that a qualitative change has occured. I am no longer going to a new town, port, or anchorage every week or two. I am no longer a novice sailor, for whom every raising of the sail or dropping of the anchor is a special event. Cruising is now my life, and these are things I do as naturally as a regular land-based person goes to the grocery store, or mows their lawn. And it is most likely that, henceforth, for at least the short term, I will be re-visiting places where we have already been.

Is it the end, is the middle, or is it just the beginning? It may be a little of all three. It is the end of the beginning, in that I am no longer are following the plan that I started off with. And it seems to portend the possibility of a new beginning as I ponder what my next moves will be. But for now, I am just hanging around Bocas Del Toro, somewhere in the middle. Yes, I will continue cruising, but when and where I cannot at this time say.

So, in summary then, for all the people that have been following the exploits on these webpages, I want to thank you for sharing the voyage with me vicariously. I hope that you too have been changed, in some small way, by reading about my experiences. Perhaps the seed has been planted, and I'll hear from you as you undertake your own journey of adventure. Could you? Are you brave enough?

The answer is Yes.

Love to Everybody,
Pat Horton
Bocas Del Toro, Panama
May 2009