Friday, May 30, 2008

Welcome To Columbia

The Columbian Navy and "Dos Milfords" Welcome the 4Wheelers to Columbia.

We left Bocas del Toro, Panama on Sunday morning May 25 at 5:00 a.m. We anticipated a 30 hour crossing to Cayos de Albuquerque (no we are not in New Mexico) but calm conditions allowed us to make the crossing in just less than 27 hours. The seas were flat, which is a blessing, but we had very little wind, forcing us to motor almost the entire way and unfortunately we caught no fish on this crossing.

Cayos de Albuquerque consists of two small islands surrounded by coral reefs in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean directly East off the coast of Nicaragua. One of the islands is used by fishermen and the other is home to a Columbian Navy outpost. These two beautiful islands were a welcome sight, and aside from a complicated entrance that weaves you through coral reefs starting 4 miles from the islands, the trip was very uneventful.

The morning after our arrival I radioed the Naval Station and requested permission to come ashore. We were greeted by a dozen young Columbian naval personnel all eager to practice their Spanish and help bring the dinghy ashore. They introduced us to Julio the commanding officer. Julio walked us around the island on perfectly groomed sand paths all lined with conch shells and although Julio speaks no English we were able to communicate fairly well.

Julio is 23 years old and has been in the navy since he was 16. He oversees the base and the 12 men serving with him. They maintain the lighthouse and serve as a maritime police force yet they have no boat on the island. It seems odd to be in the navy but with no boat. They serve on the island for 30 days and rarely get visitors, then rotate back to San Andres for 60 days. They are all from mainland Columbia and this is a 1 year tour for them. Julio is a bright,attractive and delightful young man mature beyond his years. This turned out to be a big day for them because their tour was up and replacements were arriving soon. We were invited to stay and meet the new crew. We all helped unload supplies and then took a couple of the guys out with us in the dingy to do a little spear-fishing.

En route my rpm gauge had stopped working. In order to see if I could find the problem before leaving I attempted to start the motor to trouble shoot, but it would not start. I spent the rest of the day and the next doing everything I know to find the electrical problem. A number of boats from Belize to Panama provided assistance over the SSB radio but nothing helped. If you are saying to yourself,"that is no big deal it is a sailboat after all" you are right, with two little exceptions. First, I am anchored in the middle of a coral reef system that required five different GPS waypoints and directional changes over 4 miles through the coral to get where I am anchored. Second, and perhaps more important, we are expecting a tropical wave to hit within 48 hours, predicted to contain squalls with winds in excess of 50 knots. That, by the way, is well beyond a tropical breeze and we wanted to be in San Andres battened down prior to the "wave" hitting.

We had no choice but to get ready for the tropical wave here and trust our ground tackle (anchors). When it comes to getting blown on to a reef I do not trust much so I set our second anchor, let out extra rode,thought through different scenarios over and over and then prayed. Maybe I did that all in the wrong order. Then we went snorkeling again. The reefs here see very little pressure and this may be the very best coral we have snorkeled yet. The only thing limiting our time in the water was sustained winds of 20-25 knots and the resulting waves which make it rough to swim in.

While we were setting our second anchor the previous day one of the fishing boats stopped by to see what we were doing and offered assistance and to say hi. We had the privilege of meeting a father/son team named Milford and Milford, which Susan now fondly refers to as "dos Milfords". We told them about the upcoming wind and not having an engine and setting another anchor, asking if we needed any additional help we said no thanks and they left to fish. Later that evening we were pleased when they stopped by to check in on weather and give us 2 fish. We gave them some homemade banana bread and a ginger ale and I sat for a while in their fishing boat getting acquainted.

The wind picked up overnight and we saw sustained wind in excess of 20 knots with gusts of over 25 knots that continued most of the next day. The irony of our situation set in while I was checking the anchor for the 537th time. As I looked around I realized that we were in the most beautiful water we have yet seen. Every possible shade and nuance of blue and turquoise exists within 500 yards of Mima. The clouds had cleared overnight and we enjoyed our nicest day yet. Sure the wind was blowing but the beauty of the water and islands was astounding. Once again Sue and Amy went snorkeling while I watched the boat.

Early evening the winds died a little and we began to make plans on how we could leave for San Andres to get our starter fixed. We know how to tie the dinghy up along-side Mima and use the dinghy motor for propulsion while steering with Mima, but we were concerned about getting both anchors up without using Mima's engine to pull forward and "unhook" them. We would wait and see what the wind was like the next morning.

While watching a movie that afternoon we were again visited by dos Milfords and another gift of a bonito (which became a sushi dinner that night). We all sat and talked and we learned they were heading back to San Andres tomorrow. We discussed the possibility of using their boat, Miss Gabriella, and her twin 40 h.p. outboards,to help pull the anchors and power us out of the reef the next morning. They eagerly agreed to help and seemed as intrigued by the adventure as I was. We awoke early, before 5 a.m., in anticipation of all the work to be done, and maybe due to a little nervousness as well.

It was a lot to ask, but we needed very little wind to pull the anchors and then safely navigate out of the reef system and then a good breeze to sail to San Andres 25 miles away and hopefully arrive during daylight. Even though we had been assured by people that the entrance channel to San Andres is well marked and lighted and with GPS waypoints in hand we still did not want to enter a new harbor at night with no engine if possible. Dos Milfords arrived at 7:00 a.m. and after coffee and some fresh banana bread tied up Miss Gabriella next to Mima and we went to work getting the anchors up.

With our first anchor nearly on board I saw a squall approaching. As we continued to work the heavens opened up, visibility was reduced to 50 feet and the squall hit full force. To be continued next time.

Susan, Amy, Marshall and Mark Wheeler s/v Mima

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Saying Goodbye

Saying Goodbye

May 20, 2008

"Dad, this is the best and worst part about cruising. Just when we really get to know someone new, which is the best part, it seems like we have to say goodbye, which is the worst part." Amy hit the nail on the head as she correctly identified one of the inevitabilities of the cruising lifestyle. Almost by definition the very nature of what we are doing, cruising in a sailboat, requires that we continue to follow the wind as it moves from place to place. As we leap frog from destination to destination it is possible we will see friends again but there is certainly no guarantee. The result is frequent hellos and goodbyes.

So it is once again that we prepare to not only say goodbye to some new lifelong friends but also a country and its' people. After 4 ½ months in Panama we are just days away from heading out to sea, but this time landfall will be 175 miles offshore on the Columbian island on San Andres. Panama has been a wonderful country to visit and a great place to get our start cruising. The natural beauty and diversity of the geography is breathtaking and the people are kind, engaging, and beautiful both inside and out. We feel blessed to have spent so much time in this wonderful country.

Amy's prior comment points to one of the biggest lessons I think we are all learning aboard Mima. Life is about relationships! This past week has been a particularly frustrating one for us as we try to wrap up a few boat issues before heading out. I am eager to get under way and with the current good weather window I would like to be sailing not stuck at a marina fixing things. One of the struggles we faced this week was making sure we took care of the relationships on board Mima. We have been so busy taking care of mechanical problems and things that have to be done in everyday life that we did not nurture our relationships within our family very well.

Then, once again, relationship happened last night as we had the joy of welcoming new friends on board Mima to share a meal and to more importantly share relationship. Bruno and Sophie, along with their daughter's Estelle and Marjorie, have been cruising as a family for the last 2 years aboard s/v Sashay. The kids met at the marina and quickly became friends. Estelle and Marjorie have been enrolled in school here in Bocas Del Toro for the last 6 months. Amy joined Estelle one day last week for school and enjoyed observing the differences between school in Idaho and school in Panama. It was a great day for Amy as she misses the social life of school.

Bruno is a chef and also makes gourmet items for the local upscale grocery store and a few of the nicer restaurants. Those of you who know Susan will appreciate the fact that they were both soon swapping culinary secrets while Sophie and I discussed the finer points of diesel mechanics and needlepoint. Bruno brought homemade bread and smoked pork pate as an appetizer and the evening was quickly off to a good start. Susan finished the meal off with pasta topped with a tomato, kalamata olive and fresh basil brochetta, but I digress.

Two hours later as we helped them back into their dingy I was struck once again by my profound need for and the privilege that it is to have relationships. Seemingly contrary perhaps to the previous paragraph, the majority of the evening was spent talking about our lives and learning about each other. We shared sailing stories, motorcycle stories, parenting challenges as well as hopes and dreams, triumphs and failures. The end result was that by the evening's close new friends had become lifelong friends.

It is 6:00 a.m. and I just got off the phone with my best friend Kelly back in Idaho. The timing of his call could not have been any better. He was calling to check on my progress with boat challenges and to encourage me. His call and the priceless value of his friendship puts a timely finish to this article. Another good friend in Idaho Ray, always reminds me that relationship is about being not doing. I hope that each of us has the opportunity within the next week to build upon an old relationship and invest in making a new relationship. I am treasuring the new relationships we are making at sea and realize more each day that I do not possess the ability to express the value of the relationships we currently hold. Our prayer for all of us this week is that we will live well and love well by investing in relationships. Thanks for following along with us in our journey.

Farewell from Panama and Blessings, The 4Wheelers

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Mima Meets the United States Finest and a Fellow Idahoan

"Mima Meets the United States' Finest and a Fellow Idahoan"

"United States Coast Guard cutter Thetis, United States Coast Guard cutter Thetis, this is the sailing vessel Mima, over". "Sailing vessel Mima, United States Coast Guard cutter Thetis, over". "Coast Guard cutter Thetis, this is Mark Wheeler aboard Mima, we are anchored across the bay at your seven o'clock, over". "Sailing vessel Mima, this is Coast Guard cutter Thetis, looks like you have a nice spot over there captain how may we help you,over?" Thus began a very memorable day aboard for the 4Wheelers.

The April 6th addition of Parade magazine,recently brought to us by Grandma and Grandpa Rainguet, Susan's parents, tells the story of Randy Pausch and his inspiring last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University. Randy is dying of pancreatic cancer and one of the lessons he hopes his children will remember when he passes away is to ask for what you want. With this as inspiration I mustered up the courage to radio the Coast Guard cutter that two days prior had dramatically steamed into the bay and anchored near us in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Marshall had an upcoming birthday and we thought a visit aboard would be a great early surprise birthday present. We also figured it was a good homeschooling field trip, and we simply wanted to see the cutter. After confirming schedules we were graciously invited aboard. All4Wheelers and Grandma and Grandpa loaded into the dingy and headed to Thetis. Welcomed by Ensign Tina Hendersin the next hour aboard was a fascinating glimpse into life aboard a Coast Guard vessel.

Commissioned in 1988, the medium endurance cutter Thetis combines the graceful lines of a lady with a "built for purpose" attitude that demands attention and respect. When this 270 foot long lady steams into harbor everyone takes note, especially Marshall wondering about the cannon on her foredeck. Stationed out of Key West, Thetis serves a dual mission, protect U.S. coastal waters and her interests and provide aid to vessels in distress.

We were also welcomed by Commander Tom Crabbs who spoke with us at length and was a delight to meet. When Commander Crabbs learned we were living aboard our sailboat,homeschooling, and from Idaho, he quickly summoned two men to the flight deck for us to meet. One an officer who had lived aboard a sailboat as a kid and was home schooled, the other was Kuna,Idaho native Seaman Morgan Custer.

Standing on the flight deck with the beautiful coast guard helicopter as a backdrop it was wonderful for the kids and us to talk about our shared experiences and to meet fellow Idahoan, Morgan Custer. Morgan would make any parent or Idahoan proud. He was polite, articulate and possessed a wholesome characteristic valued so highly by those of us fortunate to live in Idaho. Morgan represents Idaho well and we are sure his family and friends are very proud of him.

Our visit aboard was culminated by Commander Crabbs presenting to Marshall and Amy the ships coin. The coins are being framed along with a picture from our time aboard Thetis and will have a permanent place aboard Mima. Marshall writes, "Thanks for letting our family aboard and for the coin.I really like the helicopter and the cannon. This was a great birthday present and thanks for the protection". Amy wrote in her thank you letter, "Thank you for the tour of your vessel and the coin. It was fun to see what the bedrooms were like and I am glad that you have good food on board. My dad wanted one of your electronic devices for our boat and it is really cool that you have someone on board from Idaho (our home state)."

Three days after Thetis left we listened to our SSB radio as a different Coast Guard cutter responded to a fellow cruiser with a medical emergency aboard. Our recent experience aboard Thetis gave us a renewed and more accurate perception of the fine individuals who serve each of us in the United States Coast Guard. Thanks Commander Crabbs, Ensign Hendersin, Seaman Custer and crew of Thetis for a memorable experience and the fine example you set as truly being America's finest. Our thoughts and prayers are with you Thetis.

The 4Wheelers

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