Passage notes: Santa Catalina to Puerto Mutis, Panama

Passage notes: Santa Catalina to Puerto Mutis, Panama

Bashing upwind is terrible. I forget how much I dislike sailing upwind until we're heeled over, bouncing around, making barely any headway, my insides getting all sideways and confused. Those brilliant days of downwind sailing, or even calm upwind sailing cast a haze on all those crappy passages. It's like Pacific Northwestern winters. Spring and summer lull you into forgetting that winter is filled with dark, grey clouds of misery (for some of us). But just when you think you've had enough drizzle to last a lifetime those sweet little daffodils and crocuses pop out and you think, gosh this is nice and you put winter behind you to worry about another day. Sailing upwind is our winter.

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March 2014: month in review

March 2014: month in review

March was one of the most social months we've had. The cruising "pack" finally started to catch up with us. We met several new cruising couples in Boca Chica and said farewell to others as they make their way up the coast or across the ocean to Ecuador and the South Pacific. We also made several more friends in and around Boca Chica. After receiving our new, shiny propeller in the mail Jeff and I went out to Isla Gamez for a week to do the install and enjoy the clear, warm water. The install was a success and we're grateful to have our motor back online, though we still intend to sail as much as possible. On our third night at Gamez our friends Dave and Leiann rolled into town and we spent two nights hanging out together and swapping stories over a beach bonfire and some freshly grilled lobster. Just as we were preparing to make our way back to Boca Chica we heard our friends John and Leah from SV Brio were on their way. We postponed our return to Boca Chica to enjoy a night out at the island with them. Though we hadn't yet met John and Leah in person, knowing them only via email and through the radio, it was like we'd been friends for ages. They're another young, newly married cruising couple and we enjoyed reflecting on and processing our cruising experiences with them. During that week alone we had dinner gatherings on 5 out of 7 nights, which is some kind of record for us.

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Passage notes: Isla Parida to Santa Catalina, Panama

Passage notes: Isla Parida to Santa Catalina, Panama

A full day at Isla Parida followed by a night full of sailing. On our last trip to Isla Gamez we met a super friendly family from Isla Parida who brought us some fresh fruit as un regalo, a gift: bananas, oranges and the most delicious mangos I have ever tasted. In exchange we offered them some milk, one of my sweaters (for those "cold" Panama nights), and some fresh baked chocolate cake. Rosa, the matriarch, asked if we had any spare sunglasses onboard. Unfortunately we didn't at the time, but I told her we'd pick some up in the city. Seriously can't imagine a life on the water without sunglasses.

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Passage notes: Boca Chica to Isla Parida, Panama

Passage notes: Boca Chica to Isla Parida, Panama

Low-key, easy and slow sail. We originally planned to leave on Thursday at high tide, but at some point in the late morning the wind started swooping down from the NE like angry, invisible birds. We clocked wind speeds of up 50 knots, but there were likely a couple gusts that topped 50. It was crazy windy and we didn't really feel like a crazy windy day of sailing. So we spent most of the day hanging out inside, remarking on how crazy the wind was and then every once in awhile popping our heads out just to gauge the actual craziness. Other cruisers out at the islands told us that they were experiencing light wind conditions leading us to believe that this wind was highly localized.

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Passage notes: Isla Gamez to Boca Chica, Panama

Passage notes: Isla Gamez to Boca Chica, Panama

Following a late night with Brio we had a late, lazy morning - coffee, computer games, morning radio net, dish washing, a visit from some local friends who brought fresh mangos from their heavily laden tree (yum), chill time on the beach, a visit with our neighbor from SV Best Day Ever. At about noon we were wading in the water on the beach, keeping cool as best as we can, inspecting strange floating creatures in the water when our friend Carlos from Isla Parida dropped by in his kayak. After a short exchange we offered to give him a ride over to Boca Chica - he just had to deposit his kayak back on Parida and pick up some things for a weekend in David with his wife and son.

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Passage notes: field trip to Islas Bolaños, Panama!

Passage notes: field trip to Islas Bolaños, Panama!

Good news! The prop is INSTALLED (one blade becomes two)! But before we declared victory, we needed to take the new prop out for a spin (get it?) We were originally planning to just head back into Boca Chica, but upon discovering that our friends on SV Brio were only 20-25 miles away, inbound for Gamez, we decided to stick around for one more night. In the meantime we had an afternoon wide open and a gleaming new prop just begging for some action, so we decided to take a little day trip over to Islas Bolaños, a mere 4 miles east. The engine got warmed up while Jeff hauled anchor. Once we were hot and free, I kicked the engine into gear and we moved forward, which is always a good sign.

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Beach clean-up at Isla Gamez

Beach clean-up at Isla Gamez

When Jeff and I rolled into Boca Chica we turned the corner at Carlos' marina and were immediately drawn to another little boat with faded red topsides, an almost comical skull and crossbones painted on its hull and a url marching from for to aft: There is no shortage of abandoned boats out here, but very few of them have a means to probe their past. To sate our curiosity about this vessel we pulled up the website as soon as we had internet. That's some effective advertising right there.

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Passage notes: Boca Chica to Isla Gamez, Panama

Passage notes: Boca Chica to Isla Gamez, Panama

We stayed up a bit too late on Saturday night hanging out at the Seagull Cove tiki bar, followed by late night libations and musings with our friends on SV Margarita (Jeff apparently remembers a more responsible version where we went to bed early). Despite our relatively slow start, we were eager to make our way to the clear(er) and clean(er) waters at nearby Isla Gamez. We've come to refer to the anchorage in Boca Chica as the toilet bowl since we're sitting in an eddy that tends to collect and circulate some unpleasantries. It's not THAT dirty, but we much prefer the water out at the islands. Gamez is ideal spot for getting ourselves and our boat clean as well as installing the new propeller (which arrived SO quickly!). In the event that we drop something during the installation process, it's much easier to recover it in the shallow, translucent waters at Gamez versus the murky whirlpool in Boca Chica.

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Babies on boats

Babies on boats

While we're on the topic of babies...

Within the past year and a half of cruising I've started reading other blogs, gravitating towards those that chronicle the journey of other young couples on boats. Jeff was more tapped into the "cruising blog" world in the lead up to our departure. It's a relatively new fixation for me. In this same timespan many of the cruising couples in our age range have either had children or recently announced a pregnancy. 

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To all you sweet suckers out there . . .

We love you very much.

April Fools’ Day (sometimes called All Fools’ Day) is an informal holiday celebrated every year on April 1. Popular since medieval times, the day is not a national holiday in any country, but it is widely recognized throughout European cultures and celebrated as a day when people play practical jokes and hoaxes on each other, called April fools.[1] Hoax stories are also often found in the press and media on this day.

It was a rude, rude trick and Harmony made me do it.

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Three becomes four

Three becomes four

As it is told, first came a plant. It is never discussed what kind of plant, but no doubt it was something resilient and low-maintenance. When the plant lived, fish came next. Fish are a bit trickier to keep alive -- there are hidden signs you have to find -- but they, too, failed to die. A leap forward was made, and a dog was brought into the house. The dog bonded to them, made its needs known, and was satisfied. They had passed the test and could now fulfill the apex of the caregiving pyramid. My sister was the result. A few years later they refined their process, and there I was. At least that's how the story goes.

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Two becomes three

Two becomes three
Let's continue this little numbers game and turn the focus now to the question of time. We had a plan initially: spend from the savings pot for two years of comfortable minimalism and sail an unspecified loop through the great unknown. The thing about the unknown though is once you know it, your perspective changes.Read More

In the misty mountains: Boquete, Panama

February 2014: month in review

Jeff, Jesse and Colin at Santa Catalina

February was full of beautiful places and friendly faces, but it was not without its challenges. The lowest point was discovering that we were short one prop blade, leaving us engine-less. Rather than snorkeling, hiking and relaxing (all of the things I was doing) during the first two weeks of February, Jeff spent much of his spare time trying to figure out a makeshift solution to the prop situation. He fashioned three spare props out of materials at hand, but each creation had a small shortcoming. I have no doubt, however, that if we had more fiberglass and epoxy on this boat, solution #4 would have been a resounding success.

We didn't let the lack of a prop slow us down one bit (well, figuratively speaking...we actually slowed down a lot since we had to wait for wind). Cruising around with our friends Colin and Jesse on SV Vagabundo and Ron on SV Mar de Luz was an absolute highlight. When Jeff did manage to tear himself away from working on the prop, fixing our outboard and helping our friend Colin troubleshoot a few engine troubles (he's always working on something), we enjoyed sailing, playing in the surf, hiking up dry river beds and on meandering footpaths, meeting new cruisers, rounding up people to play games on the beach, drinking at the local cantinas, telling stories around bonfires, hosting and attending dinner "parties" (party being an overstatement...they were more like mellow gatherings). At the end of February we said goodbye to friends and headed back to Boca Chica to procure and secure a new prop.

Here's the quick recap!

257.1 ... number of miles traveled

... mpg, fuel economy

3 ... nights at sea

25 ... nights at anchor

0 ... nights on an anchor

0 ... nights at a marina

2 ... number of blades on our folding prop

1 ... number of blades we lost on our folding prop

3 ... replacement props that Jeff attempted to fashion out of PVC, fiberglass and epoxy

$300 ... cost of a new two blade fixed prop (in US dollars)

$80 ... shipping costs to send the new blade from Ft. Lauderdale, FL to David, Panama (in US dollars)

$60 ... amount paid to customs for our package from Florida, which also included a cutlass bearing and some extra tabs to keep the prop on our shaft

14/14 ... the specs (diameter/pitch) of our old folding prop

15/10 ... the specs (diameter/pitch) of our new folding prop, which is much closer to what it should be

7 ... ports in Western Panama visited with our buddy boat SV Vagabundo

9 ... ports entered/exited under sail alone, including up and down the San Pedro River

7.6 ... knots, fastest speed clocked, coming down the river out of Puerto Mutis

-0.2 ... knots, slowest speed clocked when we were becalmed off of Isla Coiba and drifting backwards

38 ... highest windspeed encountered during our romp in the islands

22 ... hours that we were totally becalmed on our way back to Boca Chica

10 ... games of Kubb played on the beach (with our local friends on Isla Parida and new friends from Sweden and England/Wales who we met on our friend Geoff's charter boat - Pajaro Loco!)

1 ... crocodiles seen from a restaurant in Puerto Mutis

15 ... vultures that held their ground when threatened by the crocodile (the leader of the pack raised up it's wings as if to say "come on, bring it.")

2 ... the number of times we dragged anchor at Puerto Mutis

1 ... the number of times our buddy boat dragged anchor at Puerto Mutis

$12.50 ... cost of clearing out of Puerto Mutis (national zarpe)

$10 ... cost for 5 loads of laundry in Santiago (cheapest laundry we've encountered to date)

12:00pm ... time in the afternoon that the water in Puerto Mutis is turned off during dry season

17 ... max number of visitors in a day who came by in dugout canoes or pangas in Bahia Honda to say hello, ask a favor or trade some goodies

6 ... beers bought for Jeff and I by a friendly local guy at Bar Bahia Honda in Santiago while we were waiting for our friend Colin to swing by

3 ... fish caught and consumed (bonito, sierra, barracuda)

$3 ... cost of a warm beer on the "mothership" at Isla Cebaco 

4 ... glasses of cold, good wine we were offered by a very friendly group of sports fishermen staying on the mothership at Isla Cebaco (so generous! so grateful!)

5 ... sunrises captured on camera

20 ... sunsets captured on camera

20-22 ... meters above the high tide line vagabonds like us are allowed by Panamanian law (thank goodness the beaches are public!)

60-66 … feet above high tide line for those of you that don’t think in meters : ) - you’re welcome

$600 … the apparent cost per night of the yurts on Islas Secas before it was closed for renovation - who knows how expensive it will be after the renovations

$12 ... cost per night per person to sleep in a tent on the beach at the surf camp in Santa Catalina (cheaper...but still too expensive)

480 ... rivers in Panama

1518 ... islands near the shores of Panama

Lost in translation

Landfall in Panama!

One of my favorite things about traveling is learning and practicing another language. Though there are definitely some days when my brain gets tired and I wish I could just stick a babel fish in my ear.

Learning a new language is all about small victories. For me I think my initial break through moment in Spanish occurred when I was chatting with several guys at Marina Palmira in Topolobampo about our recurring dreams and then we took turns trying to interpret each other's dreams. Not only was I able to understand their dreams and weigh in on the meaning, but I recounted my very strange and very vivid childhood dream. I didn't know I had the vocabulary to describe it until I opened my mouth and the words just started pouring out.

In this recurring dream a monster would emerge from the toilet, chase me all through town up to the top of a building with a glass roof where I would then break through the glass and fall into a pool several floors below. On the bottom of the pool were gold coins which momentarily distracted me from the toilet monster peering at me from above. By the time I looked up, the toilet monster had plummeted from the roof and wedged itself in the pool, blocking my exit, trapping me in darkness. That was usually my cue to wake up. I wasn't expecting these guys to take such an interest in this obscure dream, but they listened with rapt attention and then, without hesitation, told me (unequivocally) that if you dream about anything emerging from the toilet it means you've got good things coming your way (namely money...though I'm still waiting on that part to come to fruition). Small victories.

Despite the fact that, between us, Jeff and I have over 8 years of Spanish lessons, we still encounter our fair share of flub ups. Our accents are much better than our grammar or vocabulary, leading most locals to think our Spanish is much better than it actually is. At a little soda (eatery) in Quepos, Costa Rica that specializes in Chinese food (comida china) the server asked us if we were from Spain. We both laughed and asked if he was serious (en serio?). Turns out he was totally serious, he thought our Spanish was passable as...well...Spanish Spanish. Our little gaffes help keep us humble.

In La Paz, I thought I was asking to see the menu (la carta), instead I asked for something a bit more valuable.

Por favor, puedo tener su cartera?

Can I please have your wallet?

At least I was polite!

In response to the question, "how are you doing?" from a friendly guy in Topolobampo, Mexico I thought I said that I was very tired (muy cansada), but instead I was explaining how very unavailable I am.

Estoy muy casada. Y ud?

I am very married. And you?

At least I was speaking the truth. He didn't offer a verbal response to my question...just a cocked eyebrow.

I meant to ask the fruit vender in Tapachula if the oranges she was selling were good for juicing (bueno para hacer jugo).

Las naranjas, son buenas para comer o jugar?

The oranges, are they good for eating or playing with?

She paused, looked at me like I was a crazy person and responded - "you eat them." Check. 

A gentleman in the mountains of Chiapas asked what we thought of his homeland. I meant to remark on how very green or verdant it is (muy verde).

Las montanas son lindas y es muy verdura aqui.

The mountains are beautiful and it's very vegetable here.

In response to a comment about how strong my arms look from a friendly group of Mexican tourists in Manzanillo who invited us over for a beer, I thought I was explaining that I have the ropes (cuerdas or sogas) on the boat to thank for my toned arms.

Paso mucho tiempo tirando en ropas.

I spend a lot of time pulling on clothes.

A little rascal in Bahia Honda took one of our lures without asking, I decided they needed a bit of a talking to. I had come to think, for one odd reason or another, that the word barba meant hook or lure.

Alguien toca nuestra barba* sin permiso y no esta bien. Si lo toca, retornarlo por favor.

Someone took our beard without permission and that's not okay. If you took our beard, please return it.

*According to my dictionary barba also signifies a player who takes old men’s parts??? I’m not even gonna ask.

I thought i was offering some fresh baked chocolate cake (pronounced cah-kay) to a local family that paid us a visit near Isla Parida, but they weren't interested in what I actually offered.

Si les gustaria, tengo caca de chocolate que yo acabo de hacer.

If you would like, I have poop chocolate that I just made.

Ummmm...I would pass on that one as well.

When interacting with local policemen in Panama to recover a camera that had gone missing, Jeff thought he was informing them that we were just going to over to the bench to sit down (sentar).

Vamos alla para sentir.

We're going over there to feel.

And feel we did. They also *amazingly* recovered our camera and told us assertively "you have a friend in the police in Panama." Glad we understood that one.

Care to share any of your linguistic slip ups? I can always use a good laugh.

Isla Coiba National Park: by sea

One becomes two

One becomes two

After the third failed attempt at fabrication of a new propeller from available materials, I relented on my self-sufficiency fantasies. We opted instead to pull the rip cord and deploy a strategy called Phone the Land of Internet Searchable Plenty.

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The long way home

So, what's your plan? This is our most frequently asked question these days, from strangers, other cruisers, friends, siblings and parents (of course). I don't know that we've ever really had a plan aside from cruise until the money runs out - or - until we stop having a good time - or - until we start getting antsy to resume careers and start a family - or - until we just can't bear to be away from home any longer (oh, and don't sink the boat, that's always been part of the plan). Each one of those has gnawed at us for various reasons and durations at different times during this trip. There have been numerous occasions where we turn to each other and say, "screw it, let's just sell the boat" or "let's put her on the next ship home." These exchanges usually come on the heels of mechanical or emotional setbacks (the two being very much interconnected).

At one point we did look into the cost of shipping Serenity home. To put her on a barge from anywhere in Central America or Mexico and ship her up to Vancouver BC, would cost us $13,000. To sail her up to Northern Mexico and put her on a truck it would run anywhere from $9,000 to $11,000. When you think about those figures in terms of time, that's half a year or more of relative freedom (freedom being a funny word, because we are forever tied to the needs of our boat and the constraints of weather). We manage to live on about $1,300 to $1,500 per month...and $13,000 translates to 8-10 more months of cruising. It's hard, if not impossible, to part with that kind of money. Maybe if our boat was worth a lot more...but she ain't.

We also entertained selling Serenity, either down here in Panama or up in Mexico. It still appears to be a buyer's market, however. Boats are cheap right now and Serenity is more valuable to us as a home (for both monetary and sentimental reasons). Selling our boat in a foreign country may also result in all sorts of logistical complications (at least that's what we tell ourselves). Plus, we both have an overriding desire to bring Serenity back to the Pacific Northwest where she was lovingly crafted. Back to her native waters. So that settles that, we're not shipping her and we're not selling her...we've decided to take the long way home. This leaves us with a number of potential options that we discuss and debate constantly (almost daily). Remember what I said about life being like a choose your own adventure? I'll get to those options in a moment, first I must tell you a little about the weather. We need to find a path that threads through different geographies during the safest cruising seasons.

Rainy season in Central America begins in May (sometimes kicking off as early as April in Panama), bringing thunderheads, gusty squalls and lightning storms to the coast. Some people cruise throughout Central America during rainy season, some people just stay put and grow roots, some people put their boat on a dock or on a mooring and go home to wait it out. Our last experience during rainy season left an indelible mark...but we weren't scarred deeply enough to totally rule out cruising during rainy season (we'll chalk it up to brazen youth...or sheer stupidity...which may be one and the same thing).

Hurricane season officially begins on May 15 in Southern Mexico, meaning that if we decide to head North we should be past Acapulco by mid-May. We're not interested in lurking around in hurricane alley while the hot seas are stewing.

The best time to make our way up to Oregon along the US Pacific Coast is between July and September, though the wind and the waves would likely be against us for most of the passage. The common strategy is to wait for calm weather and motor. Not our idea of a good time now that we've become more accustomed to sailing.

That being are the options currently on the table:

#1...Panama-Mexico-US Pacific Coast-Home in 2014. As soon as Serenity is ready (i.e. all immediate large problems fixed...namely the prop), head north either by way of the Central American coast or head 100 miles out and turn right on something similar to the Clipperton route. We would need to leave Western Panama by April 15 at the very very latest and watch the weather closely. This option would have us heading up the outside of Baja in early June, hanging out in California until July and heading back to Oregon in August. It would be a lot of travel and we would likely spend the majority of the time motoring (especially given the weather and time constraints), unless we got supremely lucky.

#2...Panama-Mexico for Summer and Winter-US Pacific Coast or Hawaii-Home by 2015. Similar to Option 1, we would leave Panama no later than April 15 and make our way up the Sea of Cortez to hide out for hurricane season. This would allow us a full year in Mexico but we would have less time in Central America. From Mexico we would decide whether to head home via the US Pacific coast or via Hawaii in 2015.

#3...Panama/Nicaragua for Summer-Mexico for Winter-US Pacific Coast or Hawaii-Home by 2015. Rather than holing up in Mexico for hurricane season, we would find a "home base" for rainy season in Central America (Panama, Nicaragua?) from which to do some exploring and maybe some volunteering? This option would also give us another cruising season in Mexico and we would head home via the coast or Hawaii in 2015.

#4...Panama-South Pacific for Summer-Hawaii for Winter-Home by 2015. Head to the South Pacific as soon as our boat is ready for a 4,000+ mile passage (ha!), hang out in the South Pacific islands from May to October then make the passage to Hawaii before hurricane season starts in the South Pacific (November). Hang out in Hawaii until the following July and head home.

#5...Figure it out as we go. Find work that's either seasonal or let's us work remotely and get our boat back home in shorter hops when we have the time and the money. We could return home for visits as money allows.

Now we just need to (ultimately) choose between time and money (adventure and security). If we want more time out here, we're going to come home with less money and with less of a buffer for figuring out family and careers and all that stuff. It will make our re-entry much more...interesting. But, we are here, it took us a long time to get here, and we feel like we would benefit from having more time to sink into this life (metaphorically speaking). So...stay tuned for Indecision 2014!

Isla Coiba National Park: by land

Passage notes: Isla Cebaco to Boca Chica, Panama

Log book

  • Port of departure: Isla Cebaco, Panama
  • Departure date and time: Friday, February 21, 2014 11:00am
  • Port of arrival: Boca Chica, Panama
  • Arrival date and time: Monday, February 24, 2014 1:00pm
  • Total travel time: 50 hours
  • Miles traveled: 79.5 nm
  • Engine hours: 1216.9 begin - 1216.9 end - 0.0 hours
  • Fuel consumption: 32.6 begin - 32.6 end - 0.0 gallons used
  • Fuel economy: ∞ mpg
  • Average speed: 1.59 mph
  • Tides and currents: We left on an outgoing tide from Isla Cebaco. Any effects from currents weren’t discernible on this passage, with the exception of our entrance into Boca Chica. High tide on Monday was at 10:45 am, which we missed it by about an hour or so. We were fighting a weak ebb as we entered Boca Chica.
  • Weather: Light and variable!

So long buddy boat! After nearly a month of tripping around with our friend Colin (and his crew mate Jesse) aboard SV Vagabundo it was time to part ways. He was headed for Panama City for his big city fix (and to get his Carnaval on) and we were headed back to Boca Chica to try to settle this prop issue once and for all. Boca Chica is a known quantity for us - it's calm, it's safe, it's relatively easy to navigate, it's cheap. We aren't ready for big city living yet.

I'm not going to bore you with details because, to be honest, this was one heck of a boring passage. It took us 50 hours (over 2 DAYS!) to go nearly 80 miles. Yeah, that's less than 2 miles per hour. People laugh when we tell them they could walk faster than we sail...but it's true. If you started walking on the same day we started sailing in 2012, you'd probably be to Patagonia already.

Here's the quick recap. We sailed off the anchor out of Isla Cebaco with about 5-7 knots out of the NE. The wind was light and blew from the SW (stern quarter) most of the day once we got out of the bay. It died that night and we were becalmed for over 12 hours (in that 12 hour period we moved forward 2.5 miles and backwards 0.5 miles) - fortunately the seas were calm and the conditions were actually quite comfortable. The wind picked up again the next morning at around 11am, blowing from the SW again at 8-10 knots. We made the most progress during the afternoon, getting up to 4 knots at times. In reality we should have been flying our Spinnaker but...we didn't. Becalmed again after sunset, we made very little progress at night.

Day 3 we had wind from the W/SW again, this time 10-13 knots, meaning we were moving along at a nice clip (finally!) High tide was at 10:45 and we were hoping to ride the tide into Boca Chica, which was looking unlikely given the miles we still had to cover and our current speed. Plan B was to anchor behind Punta Bejuco and wait until the next day...not our preferred plan. I curled up in the V-Berth to catch up on sleep (instead I got what was akin to 3 hours of fever dreams, it was so hot in our cabin) and woke up in a zombie-like state to the sound of chain on deck. Were we at anchor?

I popped out of the hatch and there's my man, full sails up, wing on wing, ear buds pouring music into his head, tapping his feet, bopping around on deck, getting the anchor ready should we need it, going downwind against the current into Boca Chica and I couldn't help but smile at it all.

"What time is it?"

"Noon. We missed high tide, but with the wind at our back we're still making 3 knots, so I figured we should try for it. Worst case scenario we drop anchor and wait."

"Sweet deal."

Jeff plugged in some Builders and the Butchers and cranked it up. He deftly sailed past any potential hazards, wove through the boats at anchor in the bay and yelled for me to drop our anchor in almost exactly the same spot we'd anchored before. Happy to be back!