S P E C I A L F E A T U R E S
The Eternal Traveller - Sailing in Costa Rica
by Jenny Paton
'Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life that you imagined'.
I found this quote (apparently by Thoreau) several years ago now, on an arty greeting card and decided to adopt it as my motto.
As a dive instructor you have the opportunity to live and work in some interesting countries and have many amazing experiences. The funny thing is, that after a stint of travelling, adventuring and exploring, you settle down in one place for work, and remember the nomadic lifestyle as carefree and one big adventure. Well it certainly is the latter as the dream becomes the reality.
So on November 2nd, here I was, sat on a plane heading leaving friends behind again, off on another adventure. A sailing adventure this time. Sailing and diving for fun, not work. I could hardly disguise the excitement of the anticipation of the big unknown. I couldn't stop grinning at everyone and anyone who happened to look my way. My motto swirling around my head....Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. I was certainly following mine, and felt happy.
After working in the beautiful British Virgin Islands for over 12 months, I decided it was time to move on and get back to basics. Central America had been on the cards for a while and beckoned.
I had developed a passion for sailing over the years after dabbling in it a couple of times and had participated in RYA Dinghy course(non keel, no motor, small sail boats like Wayfarers, Picos and Lasers....not a grey rib inflatable...) and a RYA Day Skipper course, non tidal, visual navigation only ie. an introduction to the responsibilities of skippering your own boat.
With this in mind I had been monitoring some sailing websites and was delighted when the opportunity came up from a Captain looking for a small mixed crew to sail around Central America. Perfect! A chance to explore the area I wanted to...by boat and get some more experience and sea miles.
After several emails, I found out that the Captain was Austrian, but could speak excellent English, owned a 45ft steel Colin Fletcher ketch and had sailed it with various crew members from San Francisco to Costa Rica. He had allocated approximately 6 months to get the boat through the Panama Canal and onto the Caribbean side to leave it again either in Trinidad or St Lucia, exploring various countries along the way.
He had already found 2 other crew members - a fellow Austrian who was an experienced yacht captain who owned his own charter company in the Mediterranean and a Dutch girl who was not a sailor but interested to learn and a keen diver. They were all around my age, early to late 30's and all scuba divers! The Captain had a dive compressor on board and several tanks!! Again....perfect!!! After exchanging information over several weeks, the Captain, invited me to join the team and gave me their departure date of Nov 2nd 2006. I was to meet them in Golfito, Costa Rica.
Before I confirmed myself, I asked for the email address of the other female. I wanted to make sure she didn't have two heads and would be a suitable female ally. I didn't want to be stuck on a boat in a situation I wasn't comfortable with.
After initial enquires, we realised that she had visited the British virgin Islands to visit her friend, which happened to be my old flat mate and work colleague. She had slept in my bed! Small world! So after getting the opinions of people around me who had actually met her, I felt comfortable to 'live for the moment' and commit to my next adventure.
So, I said goodbye to my work colleagues and booked my flights from the British Virgin Islands to San Jose, Costa Rica, via Miami. How exciting!!!
However, as most travelling tales go, all did not go to plan.
A few days before departure, I got a forlorn email from the Captain indicating that he had been on the boat several weeks getting it ready for departure and had a boat builder on board to do a final check on the structural integrity of the boat since it had not been sailing for 9 months. Not good news.
The wooden mast was rotten in a couple of places and would have to be removed, fully assessed and repaired before it would be safe to sail. This would take a maximum of 2 weeks he'd been assured by the German boat builder. He apologised but said safety first and there was not too much he could do about it.
After absorbing this information, with only a few days to go before my flight departed, I sent a cheery email back saying 'No Worries' , it was better to have these things sorted now rather than discover problems later.
I would be arriving in Costa Rica anyway and these 2 weeks would give me an opportunity to explore Costa Rica first before setting sail. You have to be flexible when travelling and things usually happen for a reason and usually work out for the better in the end anyway.
Prior to my departure, I had been chatting with my flat mate who had been to Costa Rica as a young student and attended a Spanish Immersion course for 6 wks. She raved about it and seemed, to my untrained ear, to be fluent in Spanish. She couldn't say enough about how it helped her understand the cuture living with a local Tico family and what a great introduction it was to Costa Rica.
With suddenly having 2 weeks spare to do whatever I wanted, and having dive gear to lug around, I thought it sounded like the perfect opportunity to learn a language which would be useful for the whole of Central America. Plus, I'd have somewhere safe and secure to stay and store my dive equipment, since I was not travelling light as I was originally assuming I would be going straight to a boat.
In a couple of days, it was all arranged by email and I was on a bus to Quepos near Manuel Antonio National Park. It was excellent. I met lots of fun fellow students, enjoyed living with my Tico family and saw 2 and 3 toed sloths, white faced monkeys, howler monkeys, iguanas, practiced salsa, learnt merginue dancing and basically got the experience I wanted and a basic understanding of Espanol. Perfecto!!! ( See March issue)
After 2 weeks, I liased with the boat crew who were all getting along well and helping get the boat ready. I almost felt a twinge of jealousy that I had opted to exclude myself out of these pre sail preparations and wondered if I should have spent my time helping them and learning more about the boat rather than trying to learn Spanish formally. I was eager to join them.
So, I said Adios to my new friends in Quepos and headed for Golfito. Although, like Quepos, Golfito is also on the Pacific side, it is a little harder to get too than I originally thought. In high season I could have opted for a small 'Turismo' mini bus which was around $30 USD and could have given a safe and secure door to door service.
However, early November is not high season and the minimum numbers were not met. So...public bus for me, which are actually quite good in Costa Rica. It is well organised in that you usually purchase a ticket in advance for around $3 and are given a seat number. The buses are usually very punctual, and although not air conditioned they have plenty of windows and breeze. They stop every couple of hours for the restroom and food stops. A good cheap way to travel, if a little long and tiring.
I couldn't get there in one day because of the connections so I had to stay in Uvita. What a beautiful stop over that ended up being. Uvita itself is a very small town, (or more like a collection of houses and a couple of restaurants), 30 mins south of Dominical which is a trendy, surfy destination.
However, Uvita is a 40 minute walk from the beach and National Park. It has an unusual feature of a sand spit you can walk along at low tide to a rugged rocky strip and for the adventureous, you can snorkel amongst the waves and enjoy coral and fish. From the air, it looks like a dolphins tale, the narrow sand developing into a wide coral tale. At high tide you have the unusual sight of the waves comming from opposite directions, clashing in the middle over the covered sandy spit and smashing high up into the air. Quite a sight!
I got to Uvita at 2 pm and headed straight for the ocean. The walk was pleasant enough, no signs of course but I had good directions from the hotel I was staying at and I arrived at the beach. Most of the sand in Costa Rica is browny black and as the Pacific ocean is always active it gives the beaches a salty mist along the shore line.
Untamed, natural beaches, with logs and drift wood scattered around. Occasional fresh water streams run out from the dense green rainforest which meets the beach in a dramatic compliment of natural beauty. The rainforest often has fluffy clouds forming around the canopy peaks, sometimes threatening to rain and maintain the lushness of the rainforest.
It didn't rain this day and I happily strolled along the beach, admiring the typical Costa Rican scenary as I watched various Tico families do the same. Before I got the the forementioned Dolphins tale, I came upon a fresh water river. A young couple were crouched down in the middle of the stream and seemed happy enough but I was not so sure. 6 years in Australia taught me that fresh rivers joining the ocean, meant murky water and .....crocodiles. I had heard someone mention crocodiles but now, when it seemed so important, I couldn't quite remember if there were in this particular river or not. I knew they were in Costa Rica. mmmmmm
My 2 week Spanish Course hadn't covered the vocabulary for ' Are there crocodiles in this river' or 'How deep is this river' but my dive instructing experience had given me the ability to perform some dramatic hand signals and the lovers in the river smiled and nodded that I could safely cross. mmmmm. Of coure I could. They wouldn't be in there if there were crocodiles...surely.
I paced the sides looking for the shortest and shallowest part to cross. It was approximately 30 feet wide. Some fishermen on the otherside were watching me with interest. Throwing there bycatch and fish guts back into the water....which I was not happy about as I thought crocodiles might be drawn to that...not that there were any.
Slowly, I started to wade over, hoping that it was only a sandy bottom as I knew if I touched a log or rock with my toes I would probably end up running on top of the water and make an awful commosion in the process.
The couple watched me.
The fisherman watched me, I wasn't sure why.
I hoped they weren't thinking why I am about to wade in crocodile infested water. I could see the headlines now.
The water slowly got deeper. My shuffle across seemed to take forever.
Time...and my heart beat...stopped.
It took a lot of strength and internal talking to myself, to calmly take off my backpack and hold it above my head when the water rose to just below my chest. I was half way so I thought I might as well continue. My body filled with endorphins when the water got lower, the sand got higher and I reached the other side safely.
Yipeeee. I was alive.
I was kind of proud of myself for doing it yet wasn't sure if I had been stupid, lucky, silly, over dramatic or just imaginative. Anyway, I was back walking along the beach, waves on one side, stepping over drift wood and admiring the rainforest on my right.
Life was good. Soon I was would be sailing on the ocean seeing this scenery from another perspective. I had been told that there was another entrance or exit somewhere, but after 1 1/2 hrs walking I was beginning to think I had been misinformed. (I have learnt since this happens an awful lot....). I was just beginning to wonder if I should turn back, but the thought of crossing that river again put me off. I wasn't sure I could do it twice.
Then, after 2 hours walking, to my horror, I saw my worse fear materialise......another river...deeper, wider, murkier.
Decision made. Walking back down to way I came, the 2 hours back luckily didn't seem as long. I was tired though. Walking in the heat and humidity even late in the afternoon was tiring. I started to notice that I could see more of the Dolphin tail so the tide must be going out. So....the river should be shallower. Much to my relief, it was and I could easily wade through with the water no deeper than my calves.
No place for a crocodile to hide. I was a happy little adventurer again and slept very well that night, proud I had seen such beautiful scenery and still had both my legs!
I left Uvita the next day and headed to Golfito, in torrential rain. When it rains, it really rains. I and all my stuff got wet as I waited at the side of the road for a bus to pick me up.
I went via Rio Claro and in 2 1/2 hours I was heading towards Golfito, home of The Emerald Lady, the yacht I would be sailing on, my new home, with my new sailing friends. 2 weeks late but now I could hablo Espanol un poco and felt accustomed to Costa Rica.
One of the guys was going to meet me off the bus, which is interesting when you don't know what time you are arriving, where exactly you are getting off and don't know what your greeter looks like. Anyway, it all worked out surprisingly and and he was there, looking very European and chilled out and I was happy to report he did not have 2 heads.
He helped me with my baggage, check into my hotel and gave me a quick update over a coffee. I had so many questions and so much to say....how was it all going, sorry I missed out in the preparations, where are the other crew members, can I see the boat...etc etc. I was given a sympathetic look and then quizzed re whether I had worked or sailed on any "older" boats before.
I realised I hadn't but I was keen to learn and enjoy all experiences. He then smiled and walked me to where the boat was kept, giving me an update on the various activities they had completed over the last 2 weeks. It all sounded very busy but should be completed in a few days so I would still be able to contribute. Yey!
As we walked, I was absorbing Golfito. Very different to the protected national park areas I had been. Definitely industrial, several hardwares shops, small fishing processing factories and generally a bit tired looking, yet it all felt real and authentic. Not dressed up for tourists and as always, the locals were friendly.
I passed through a workshop, given curious looks from the local workmen and was led along an old wooden pier to see the boat which was going to be my new home, my new sailing adventure and meet my new crew.
She was topless. Mastless. Naked. Yet there was clutter everywhere. The green hull was rusty in places, and the bow of top deck had been painted partly in white, making the original paint look positively dirty creamy grey. Tools, paint cans, plastic sheets, boxes, empty water bottles and cigarette butts everywhere.
The Emerald Lady was not looking very lady-like. I smiled blankly as my new friend looked anxiously in my face and he called out to the Captain and crew who were apparently working inside. Although I wasn't sure where they were going to appear from, as there were no steps down into the saloon from the cockpit.
Soon enough, a bespectacled, bearded and also topless and almost bottomless (more about that later) slim man popped his head out of the engine room hatch and gave me a friendly smile. Closely followed by the other girl who was also cheery...and also filthy with paint, grease and sweat. They had both clearly been working for a while yet the boat did not seem even close to be setting sail.
Sailing in Costa Rica.....the reality versus the dream. I was about to have a new learning experience with boats...it just wasn't quite the experience I was expecting.....
Born in Brisbane, Australia, Jenny was brought up in England with the rest of her family in Yorkshire. She visited Australia for her 18th birthday and decided to emirgrate to sun after graduating from Universty. After working in the corporate world for 6 years in Sydney in Sales & Marketing, she got itchy feet around her 30th birthday and decided to have a career break and 'live for the moment' . The plan was to travel around the world as a dive instructor. That was 5 years ago... Jenny's latest adventures in the Caribbean and Central America are documented here as they happen.