Loathing Lightning in Beautiful Costa Rica

When I left El Salvador, Panache was ready for a 30+ day crossing to the Marquesas. After getting 20 miles offshore, I decided to change course towards Costa Rica for three reasons:

1. My Nikon point-and-shoot I left on Bella Star was being held hostage in Costa Rica, waiting for me.
2. Costa Ricans take incredible pride in preserving the natural world around them – a practice El Salvador seems to ignore. Loving nature, it seemed like a reasonable stop.
3. Why not! A boat gives you the freedom to change up your plans on a whim! I almost felt obligated to go based on this reason alone. Why not.

Sailing to Costa Rica meant several things if I was still interested in crossing the Pacific. Instead of staying in the Northern Hemisphere for the majority of the crossing, (most puddle jumpers typically ride the NE trade winds to about 130 degrees longitude and then cross into the Southern Hemisphere), I would instead cut through the doldrums and start my crossing in the Southern Hemisphere from the Galapagos. This put me in prime position to check out Isla del Coco, a famed diving spot, and make a quick stop in the Galapagos for food and fuel and most importantly rest. My new plans were looking better and better the more I thought about it.

All this future talk was nice, but my current wind direction was looking pretty rotten. Upwind sailing. Woof. Motoring. Double woof. I motor-sailed for most of the trip to Costa Rica. I made a couple big tacks to get some hot angles, but for the most part the sail down was boring. My second day out I was greeted by a big pack of dolphins and decided to take a swim with them. Panache was under self-steering, and I tied two lines to myself and dragged in the water on the port bow. Not the safest maneuver, but it was pretty cool to be next to a whole bunch of dolphins playing in my bow wake. They were initially a little confused by my presence, but then decided I was of little threat, half-drowning in the wake of my own boat.

By the time I dried off the chuga chuga chuga of my engine dried up my happiness. Religious people have told me that Hell is literally a big circular freeway with bumper to bumper traffic, but upwind motor-sailing has to be some layer of Hell. Substitute water for magma, and wind for farts and that would truly be hellish. It was so frustrating to not be able to sail directly towards my destination. That probably sounds a little bitchy, but for most of my trip I have had decent wind (when I had it), and now I was faced with a crappy headwind. I am happy to report that most nights I had the wind at my back, but the daylight hours were filled with nothing but headwind! Not only is a headwind hard on Panache, but it makes for a very uncomfortable ride – I almost exclusively get seasick when faced with a headwind. Add the doldrums to the equation, and you can get some pretty frightening gales, too.

I had my first really big gale that 2nd night out. Just thinking about it gives me the chills. This wasn't like anything I had experienced before. I have been in storms where it builds to a thunderous crescendo, but gales have a cat-like way of sneaking up on you. I was in the cabin taking a brief nap when I registered the swift sound of water gliding by the boat at an alarming speed. Slightly groggy, I came on deck and found Panache making 6.5 knots. I looked behind me and saw nothing but black with a bone-chilling wind continually amplifying in intensity. You couldn't even see the horizon the sky was so black. By the time I turned around, Panache was making 7 knots, and I knew I had to cut sail area fast. With a snap the wind shot up to 25 knots, and Panache started to steer slightly to starboard. I had the headsail down but by that point the wind speed was at its zenith, and Panache was starting to broach. Harnessed into the jack lines I started to scramble back to the tiller to right the boat, and at that crucial moment my harness got caught up on one of the sheets. I unclipped and literally dove into the cockpit to manhandle the tiller back to center. Panache again was righted. I tied off the tiller with just enough time to release the mainsheet. At this point the wind had company: swell, rain and lightning. The whole party arrived slightly before I got back in the cockpit. I was so turned around that I didn't know what direction I was looking. Just a moment ago I had enough ambient light from the moon and starts to see the horizon and vague outline of clouds, but now all I saw was black in every direction. Pitch black. It was disorienting and more than anything it was frightening. Where did this come from!

Bolts of lightning were enough to outline the horizon, but only for a moment, and then my eyes had several seconds of blindness. Lightning and thunder, simply put, are godlike. I hadn't been so close to lightning before, and now I was in the middle of nowhere. Alone. I guess I wasn't all alone, Panache was with me and keeping me safe deep within her hull. It was useless to try and do anything; all my sail area was taken down, and Panache was just rocking in the waves, rain and wind. I have seen some bad weather over the 2000 miles I have covered, but this was the first time I was afraid. Not afraid in a nebulous sense, but for my life. I had never felt so vulnerable. I eventually wriggled out of the cabin, and braced myself to wait out the gale by motoring directly into the wind.

I was making maybe 1.5 knots, rocking violently in the rain, and pleading with Science or God or Neptune or whatever was the higher power to not get struck by lightning. Eventually I ended up outlasting the gale, but I was not the same. As I continued to motor through the rain, I felt resigned from the trip. I felt like I was done. I didn't want to go through that again. As time passed, and I got closer to Costa Rica, these feelings came into focus and I was back to my normal self, but it was a stressful experience that made a lasting impression. When I finally crossed into Costa Rican waters it was getting dark. A thunderstorm in the distance was making a spectacular show and kept me on the edge of my seat. Is it coming this way? It never did.

As I approached the anchorage, I could tell I was in a new place. My bow was stirring up all sorts of life in the water, and the smell of plumeria filled the air. It was exotic, and the air was warm and humid like a greenhouse. The anchorage was exactly how Bella Star described it: solitary and gorgeous. Green hills surrounded a perfectly calm bay. You could swim in the water without fearing some kind of infection, and I would wake up to the sound of parrots chirping and fall asleep to the croaking of howler monkeys. I liked Costa Rica immediately.

Panache resting in Bahia Santa Elena

Dinghy landing Bahia Santa Elena.

Bushwhacking machete style.

Extreme jump + Machete = Extreme Machete Jump.

Found this little turtle while poking around Bahia Santa Elena. It was barley the size of a half dollar.

A Crested Guan. These turkey like birds are apparently pretty rare. They were all over Bahia Santa Elena.

This monstrous rattlesnake was sitting right in the middle of the trail. Shocking.

With the crew reunited I got my camera back and was once again being fed reasonable meals. We all went on numerous hikes within the bay and generally relaxed. Aaron was in love with the place, and I don't blame him. He would say “We are living a Cruising World article!” Yup, we were. As Bella Star’s water supply started to dwindle, we started to think about where to head next. Forty miles away was Coco beach, a popular anchorage with lots of infrastructure for cruisers and tourists alike. This stop would also allow us to legally check into the country.

The sail back into the Pacific was speedy, thanks to a solid 9 knots at our backs. However, after that, we were subjected to the same headwinds I battled all the way to Costa Rica. This made a short passage long, but we arrived before dark in the swell-plagued northern part of the anchorage. We were all itching for a burger and a beer so after a short swim, I slipped into a clean shirt and was whisked away to the center of town via Bella Star’s dinghy.

Leaving Bahia Santa Elena.

Right as we pulled the dinghy onto the beach, rain started to thump against the ground. It got stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and we sought shelter under the first restaurant we came to. A quick glance at the menu offered a choice of six different hamburgers, so we grabbed a table to wait out the rain. The exchange rate was a little hard to grasp at first. It was roughly 520 colones to one American dollar. After fiddling with the math for my bison burger I decided the energy wasn't worth expending because at that moment I would pay anything for that burger.

This guy is leading some kind of tequila revolution.

As lightning started to develop, I started to count after each strike to see how far away it was, but after a while there was no delay. It was right on top of us. I thought the lightning was close during the squall I recently experienced, but this sound was practically making my ears bleed, and it’s a lot enjoyable to be in the middle of when you are safely grounded on land. The rain passed, and we explored the town a little more and eventually realized we were all too tired from the burgers to do anything other than sleep.

Motoring back to the boats we had a little difficulty finding where we’d anchored. Like misplacing your car in a huge parking lot, this anchorage was stacked full of boats from all over the world. We eventually made it back to the far end of the anchorage, and Nicole was a little frustrated that she forgot to turn on Bella Star’s anchor light. Or did she? We all forget. I hopped off the boat and settled in for the night. Maybe 15 minutes later I started to drift into a book before bed. This was interrupted by the sound of someone rowing up to my boat. “Hello?” I yelled, almost annoyed. It was Nicole. “Hey.” I could tell just from the way she said it that something was wrong, and in a matter-of-fact tone she revealed, “We got struck by lightning.” Adrenalin shot through my tired body. “Are you fucking kidding me!?” She wasn't. She wasn't happy. I was in shock.

I rowed back over to Bella Star with Nicole to chat the two of them up. I knew this was probably not the best time, but I felt I needed to try and defuse a seemingly hopeless situation with my outside perspective. I wanted to try and break the mood. We talked it out, what was broken and what needed to be done, and I really tried to emphasize what really was lost. Everyone was ok, Bella Star was still floating and could still sail, and the damage was covered by their insurance. So what did they lose? The answer was time. In a matter of months at most, Bella Star would be sailing again with a totally re-outfitted electronics system. Maybe I am simplifying a terrible event and ignoring the emotional complexities, but that’s the way I saw it.

I find it interesting how a terrible thing can re-direct life events for the better. The good old “close a door, open a window” cliché. You ride out a bad thing long enough and something good will eventually come of it. As a kid, my mother would always tell me “Success is moving from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” I wish I remembered this that night but I didn't, so I used a similar line from Batman: “Why do we fall? So we can get back up again.” I find both quotes to be profound and true. You will eventually fail/fall, it’s just part of life. We are measured on how we mitigate those failures. By the time I left Bella Star it seemed like they were shaken, but ready to rebuild. Pretty amazing turnaround.

Bella Star relocated to the nearby marina to start the rebuilding process. The marina was expensive, but insurance would cover the cost. I, however, was not willing to pay the $2.60 a foot, so I anchored next to the marina. Amazingly enough I was able to get the marina’s wi-fi connection. For a couple of days I was even able to use the fancy facilities and check in as a Bella Star double agent. The 30%-capacity marina eventually caught on and the ruse was up, but those hot showers were amazing while they lasted. Whatever, I was still mooching their internet. 🙂

Anchored alone in Golfo de Papagayo.

Golfo de Papagayo.

Golfo de Papagayo is jam packed with great anchorages, but none of them are really advertised or marked. This must have something to do with the whole peninsula being owned by the Four Seasons. Legally nobody owns any of the beaches in Costa Rica, but when you own the land that leads to the beaches, it is kind of like owning the beaches too. I found the most perfect anchorage with a white sand beach that was meticulously manicured for Four Seasons patrons. It had a mini-market, showers, bus service and monkeys!

White-Nosed Coati saying hi to civilization.

White-Nosed Coati hugging tree.

I am usually afraid of any kind of primate, not including humanoids, but especially chimpanzees. This fear started when I read about a particular chimp attack where a woman's face was ripped off. I was happy to see these Costa Rica primates were friendly in that they didn't want to have anything to do with me. I will keep my face, thank you very much.

Howler monkey.

The snorkeling in the gulf was also pretty spectacular. Not nearly as picked over as Mexican waters. The highlighted fish was some type of file fish (similar to a trigger fish) that had a unicorn-like horn on its head. The fish was primarily brown with blue spots and very flat. They would drift over the reef and their coloring was surprisingly great camouflage. You could be feet away from one and not notice until it moved slightly. Another great find was a friendly, fragile nudibranch, a type of sea slug that is brightly colored. I have been searching for these things ever since I started cruising and came across my first while snorkeling in Golfo de Papagayo. The little guys are small, slightly longer than an inch, but their impressive color scheme and shape make up for their modest size. I really don't know too much about them as a species other than there are numerous varieties in all shapes and colors. They are truly alien.

Nudibranch in a shot glass.

My favorite thing to do in the entire world is catch Guineafowl puffers. Sooooo squishy.


Papagayo was opened to us because of the lightning strike. Bella Star made their claim and the compensation was in the works, but it would be several weeks before they could even start ordering new items. What to do with all this time. I was in no hurry to leave and wanted to explore the interior a bit. The marina only offered so much, but a car rental would open up the whole country. After stripping out all the fried electronics, Bella Star was also interested in some inland travel via car. And so we all found the window that was opened after the door was closed. Sometimes you live the relaxing Cruising World article, and sometimes you live the “I got struck by lightning” Cruising World article. Either way, you roll with the punches and move on with life, and Bella Star was doing just that. I was happy to tag along.

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