While planning my Pacific crossing from a comfortable bar stool in El Salvador, I was continually flooded with an itchy anxiety that could only be satisfied by leaving. Or maybe my anxiety was due to the wobbly table I was working on. Either way, I needed to make a move. Taking that first step is never easy, and I had no shortage of worst case scenarios swirling in my head to keep me hugging the earth, but strangely enough my personal psychosis about the trip was not what made my departure difficult. In a strange way it was like the world wasn't letting me take that first step.
The first time I tried to leave El Salvador, it was alongside Bella Star. Hotel California was playing in the port captain’s office during check out, and right then it became my anthem: “You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!” The lyrics were true. Sure enough, the next morning the sand bar we had to cross was closed due to huge swell. It was either too dangerous or the bar pilot wanted a full weekend; either way, Bella Star and I weren't going anywhere. Part of me was relieved that I could enjoy one more delicious hamburger, but the other part of me was disappointed. It took a lot of mental fortitude to jazz myself up to leave, and that motivation was all for naught.
Two days later the bar was back to its normal self, and Bella Star and I had our second shot. Rushing to put everything in its proper spot before getting underway is always stressful. I perpetually have the feeling like I am leaving something behind, that something important isn’t on the boat. This is a ridiculous feeling because my whole life is on Panache, and it has been that way for the better part of a year now. But this time the feeling was legitimate – my camera was missing. I tore the boat apart for an hour with no success. I was sure I’d left it on Bella Star, but Nicole strip searched her boat and came up empty handed. This little loss was a huge monkey wrench in my plan. I can’t go to the South Pacific without an underwater camera! I continued searching as the departure time crept closer. One important thing about leaving this particular estuary is that you need to leave on slack high tide. Outside that window the smallest swell can be dangerous for boats entering or exiting the estuary. All my searching caused me to miss my departure. I waved goodbye to Bella Star in a distracted fury that was the epitome of unsatisfying. I felt bad for leaving our long-standing relationship on a sour note. But I couldn't help it. It felt like my trip was over.
I sulked around Bahia del Sol that evening having to explain to everyone in the El Salvador Rally why I was still at the dock. All it felt like was a bad excuse. I originally wanted to leave April 30 but was now 30 days late and apparently too chicken shit to make a jump I so brazenly declared a week prior. I felt like I broke a promise with everyone I told, but more importantly, I broke a promise with myself. Even Knee Deep, the last bit of family I had in El Salvador, was flying back to the States that evening. I remember when Knee Deep told me they were going to stay for another month before heading back to the States, and I thought to myself that that was totally bonkers! I mean, Bahia del Sol was nice, but come on... a cruiser can only drink so many dollar beers. My mind was attacking itself silently while I sat in the open bar with Knee Deep and Naomi from Medusa, a Columbia 23. I was stewing.
Naomi ended my self-deprecating spell once she realized I was starting to grow devil horns. “No worries. Tomorrow we can go into San Salvador, get you a new camera and then you can be on your way. No big deal.” Hmmmm, I guess it was that simple. It’s interesting how quickly you can snap out of a bad mood, all you need is the right buffer, and Naomi was it. Naomi, a quintessential surfer girl from New Zealand, sailed her trailerable boat from the northern tip of the Sea of Cortez all the way to El Salvador. She wanted to make it to Costa Rica but ran into the same bar crossing issue I did and then had trouble finding adequate crew. She was now stuck in El Salvador. She was probably as frustrated as I was but obviously handling it much better. These setbacks are just part of the lifestyle, and they ultimately open other doors. Naomi was now essentially alone in El Salvador, roughly my age, and had a similar sense of humor. We made good company for each other.
With a new camera and an unplanned purchase of 12 coconuts, I was once again ready to depart El Salvador. Wearing a smile, I said goodbye to the remaining rally participants soaking in the pool and slowly pulled Panache away from the dock. A little too slowly. I let the motor warm up for a bit then gave her full throttle. I couldn't breach 2 knots. Something was wrong. A quick glance behind Panache revealed black sludge burping into the estuary. For whatever reason, the engine was working overtime. Whether it was barnacles up the ying-yang or a rope wrapped around the prop, I was once again going nowhere. I immediately throttled back and stood clenching my jaw. Turning 180 degrees stung my pride. The camera and sea state were out of my control, but this failure was my fault. I should have cleaned the bottom before I left. Zack 0, El Salvador 3. The scoreboard was looking grim.
I hastily dropped the anchor and immediately dove into the dirty estuary with the little remaining sunlight still illuminating the brackish water. My prop had a basketball-sized clump of weeds choking it from spinning freely. Barnacles also accompanied this rat’s nest. No wonder I couldn't go more than 2 knots. The good news was that this was a simple fix, no terrible mechanical issues, but the bad news was that I was still in El Salvador. This particular estuary stretches for miles and miles through snaking mangroves and villages. The current is incredibly strong and sometimes carries entire palm trees with it. I fell victim to some huge clump of Dyneema-strength weeds. I explained my new excuse to everyone. At this point my leaving El Salvador was like a running joke. I refrained from telling people when I was leaving because I didn’t want to lie, I honestly didn’t know when El Salvador would let me leave. The bar pilot told me in two days we could try again, try being the operative word.
Meanwhile, all the fresh provisions were starting to go bad. A carton of 20 eggs turned out to be a breeding ground for thousands of maggots; a wonderful smell and an even more wonderful cleanup. My cabbages were molding faster than I could eat them, and most other fresh things were starting to become anything but. What a waste. I was able to salvage most items, but I ended up throwing a bunch of it out. I hate wasting food and try my hardest to eat everything before it goes bad. I guess that’s why people call me “the goat.” Simultaneously I was doing my best to not eat it all because these were my fresh provisions for the crossing. It was a conflicting problem for a goat.
Getting exceptionally drunk with Naomi out of circumstantial frustration proved to be extremely fun. We bartered with the bartender for a bottle of rum, soda, and a bag of ice. We played cards under lamp light late into the night and did our best to ignore the huge thunder storm crashing right outside Panache. We both woke up with raging hangovers and a big project on our plate; get Naomi’s boat on the hard. A couple days prior we de-stepped her mast in preparation for today. Naomi was heading to California for a wedding and was leaving her boat in a local’s yard to weather out the rainy season. Even with my slowed state I was able to help. We plopped Medusa on a pile of tires and called it good. Breakfast was fortifying but hard to swallow. After a long nap it was time to get my prop back to working order. I didn't feel good about swimming in the water, but I didn't have a choice. It was really dirty. The kind of dirty you can smell. I was convinced I would contract some sort of STD from simply touching the water. I would've worn protection, but I had none. The prop had an inch-thick coating of barnacles that made it easy to snag passing debris – no wonder I had such a rat’s nest attached to it! With no other serious projects on the boat, I headed into Bahia del Sol for some internets.
I was ignoring Facebook and my email because I didn't want to have to explain why I hadn't left El Salvador. It was just too long of a story for a simple Facebook update, and to avoid questions I could only peek. No posting anything. No “liking” anything. And no signing into the chat function. It was a one-way media blackout. When I logged into my email I was pleased to find numerous messages from Bella Star, who by that point had made it to Costa Rica and were enjoying a postcard-perfect anchorage all to themselves, right across the Nicaraguan border. Oh, and some bad/good news...
Hey there. Nicole here. So guess what? If you can believe it, we found your camera last night... Yep, that's right. You want to know where? Under the settee (where you always lounge) nestled amongst the canned goods. Seriously! I've got the seat propped up, and I'm digging around for something for dinner when Aaron says, calmly, "There's Zack's camera." I'm like, yeah right. But there it was, sitting on top of a can of enchilada sauce, leaning up against a container of mayo. WTF!!
On a can of enchilada sauce! I KNEW IT! It was all part of a fucked up plan to get me to come south. I thought the Canadians were sneaky, but this was some real 007 shit Bella Star pulled. No worries. I now had a new camera, so did I really want to go way out of my way to pick it up? I wrestled with this for a long time but was undecided. It would be nice to have a backup point-and-shoot camera, but was it worth getting sidetracked for possibly weeks? I didn't even know anything about Costa Rica. I dropped the waypoints in my chartplotter and decided I would see how I felt once I got back on the water. The reality is that any plan CAN change, but cruising plans certainly WILL change. Someone once told me that cruising plans are written in the sand at low tide. They are easily washed away. I guess it’s a great lesson in being flexible.
I settled in that night getting the last bit of Panache ready for her fourth planned departure. Dinner was some tuna casserole I found stuffed in the corner of my fridge. It was old, but it passed the smell test. Anyway, I am a goat and can’t throw anything away. It needed to be eaten. I burned the hell out of it and added a gallon of hot sauce and called it good. It was a simple meal that my stomach accepted. Two hours later I paid the ultimate price. The only good thing about food poisoning is that when you are sitting on the toilet chugging a bottle of Pepto-Bismol you know this discomfort will eventually end. Fourteen hours later it did, but I missed the slack tide once more and looked like a complete ass. This fail was absolutely my fault. I don't think I will be able to eat tuna anything for a long time. Just writing the words “tuna casserole” produces a gag reflex. That night I ate a packaged meal of top ramen and two liters of Gatorade. It wasn't nutritious, but it also wasn't cram packed with vomit-inducing bacteria. Everyone was happy.
The next day was vomit free and it seemed like everything was finally in place. The bar crossing took a long time but was a non-issue. I had no breaking waves to overcome and my prop was propelling me at a constant 4.5 knots. I thanked Bill and the bar pilot and gave some final goodbyes to everyone over the VHF. El Salvador was fading into the distance as a solid 10 knots blew across my port beam. It felt amazing to be back on the water. I had finally escaped the gravity of El Salvador; it only took 5 tries. It was decision time: Do I head to Costa Rica or high tail it to the Marquesas? I was provisioned for either trip. The plan I had so deliberately outlined in the sand over the last month was gone with high tide, and it looked like Costa Rica was the appropriate next stop. I changed course by 60 degrees and started beating into the wind towards Bahia Santa Elena. Crossing the Pacific wasn't excluded from my new plan, in fact, heading to Costa Rica just put me that much closer to the Equator, that much closer to the trade winds. Being in Costa Rica also put me in a prime position to visit Isla del Coco, a small island said to have some of the best diving in the world. The more I read about Costa Rica the more comfortable I was with my decision. Well, as comfortable as you can be while beating into the wind.