Scared at Sea (passage from El Salvador to Costa Rica)

We left El Salvador on Wednesday, with almost no wind… the forecast when we left was great, very light winds, flat seas, a perfect time to cross the notorious Gulf of Papagayo (off the coast of Nicaragua).

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning looked pretty much like this…

Flat seas off Nicaragua

We were loving life! The forecast was still good Friday morning…

“Light winds through Sunday”
– Mr. Weatherman

So we kept going. And then it hit the fan. Steady 20-25, gusts to 30. Seas of 6-8′, breaking continuously around us.

Night time winds

The thought train as I woke up and went on watch:

Oh the sun is up, we can see. OHMYGOD. It was better in the dark. What happened out here? Wow the water is clear, I can see through that wave. That giant towering breaking wave that’s looming this way…


It’s salty. Yuck! I hate salt water. Ironic. Holy smokes these waves are enormous. Jon looks worried. He’s got that side-temple-vein thing going on. I’m going to take a picture, even though pictures never do waves justice:

Waves never look big

How are we doing 6+ knots with only a little piece of headsail? I wonder how that little piece of genoa is holding up? What if it explodes? What if the whole rig falls down*? What if the deck separates from the hull and…


That’s it, isn’t it? That’s how it’ll happen, we’ll hit a whale off the friggin Nicaraguan coast and then what? I wonder where the EPIRB is. I wonder how bad this would be in a liferaft. Oh good, Jon’s checking the EPIRB. We really are on the same wavelength. How long is it until our next month anniversary? 9 days? I wonder where we’ll be in 9 days? I wonder what it costs to ship your boat from Nicaragua to Maine. I wonder if anybody knows how bad this is**. I hate the weatherman. I wish the windvane was set up. I’m so glad I ate that peanut butter and jelly sandwich Jon made me at 3:00 AM — I didn’t really want it, but it might be the only thing I eat today. Storms might be a good diet.


Whatever, this is fine. Just think about the guys in the book, in the Panama Canal book — they were out there chopping the Culebra Cut, dying of disease and heat. They had it way worse than this. This is an adventure. We chose to be out here. This is okay. Holy crap this is overwhelming. No, no, can’t think like that — it’s an adventure. Brave face.


Really though, this sucks. Fear: Fun factor is bad. Like 100:1. Maybe we just need a bigger boat. A 50 footer. What would this be like in a 50 footer? How’d Darrell and Darleen ever do this in their 24′ boat? I think I’m getting a sunburn. Is salt sunscreen? I’m definitely getting wrinkles. My toenails really need painting. WHOA that was a big wave. How was this not forecast AT ALL? What if our steering goes? What if this kills the autopilot? I’m glad we bought the extended warranty. Maybe I’ll hand steer for a while. Is it getting better? OH GEEZ NOOOOO we were just in the valley between two huge waves. The inclinometer is interesting. Apparently at 45 degrees the whole winch is underwater.


I wish we bought an inclinometer that didn’t bottom out at 45 degrees, I feel like we might be pushing further than that sometimes. How could I explain what a heel of 45 degrees feels like to a non-sailor? I hate this. I hate the weatherman. I like that part in Captain Ron when they’re in a storm and he says he knows they’re almost at the port cuz they had just enough diesel to make it to the port and “we. are. out. of. fuel!”. Then the Cubans go nuts. We should watch that movie again, when this passage is over. If this passage is ever going to be over. What if we’re just out here in this forever? How far out would we get pushed? This is scary. Brave face. I wonder what an RV costs. I could really go for a land-based adventure right now. Or maybe just a little less adventure all around. Maybe a nice 9-5 job. I wish we’d installed the second bilge pump. I wish these waves would die down. I hate the weatherman. I’m scared. Brave face.

I wrote this a few hours after the worst of it had died down. We finished with the winds and waves and then got hit with 2 knots of counter-current. Fought the current for 5 hours, making 1.5-2 knots, and then the lightning started. At this point I think we were both pretty much ready to give up on life. We were doing 2 hour watches, neither of us really sleeping on our off-watch, but slowly making progress out of the worst of it. By 3 am we’d found an anchorage that was close, that we could creep in to. We hove-to, and ohhhh… the motion was so much better. Suddenly everything was quiet, and still, and we could sleep on our off-watches again. At 6:00 am (sunrise) we motored into the quiet little Bahia Samara, in Costa Rica. 383 miles, 4 days, 4 nights. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, we discovered the really truly scary part:

*That rigging failure I’d been fearing? It was real:

Backstay tensioner failureThat crack you see is not supposed to be there. It’s part of our backstay, the piece of wire that holds the mast in place, and it’s cracked 3/4 of the way around, up to 1/4″ deep in some places. Bad, bad, bad news. How this didn’t just break and drop our mast I have no idea. We are so lucky.

We are also still trying to figure out how best to fix this — in the middle of nowhere Costa Rica. The plan we’ve pieced together so far is to jury rig a backup and sail carefully down to Panama City, where we hope we can buy some rigging parts and replace the entire tensioner.

In the meantime, I’m drowning my sorrows in brownies 🙂


**And it turned out, somebody was watching. My family had been carefully watching the online forecasts, and they knew what was happening. They didn’t know where we were, but they were praying we’d arrive somewhere safely, and I am so thankful that they were!



Scared at Sea (passage from El Salvador to Costa Rica) — 19 Comments

  1. i got scared just reading it.
    waiting now for update with repairs done.

    you are my hero. stay brave and stay safe.


    • Maureen you’re too sweet — thank you for the kind words 🙂 And ps — I’ve been loving your travel photos lately!!

  2. Yep Leah , my gorgeous and intrepid ami ,and past companion in maritime adventures , the thought ‘what on earth am I doing out here ?’ arises now and then , always at moments when you can’t do anything about it other than coping! Seems like you and Jon and Brio can cope with just about anything .
    Congratulations . Luv Peter

    • Thanks Peter! You know I tell your stories quite often out here… always starting with “I have this amazing friend named Peter…” Big hugs your way 🙂

  3. Talk about success! You two keep on doing it – succeeding where others would have packed it in and bought the RV! Hope you find the fittings you need sooner than later. Be safe!
    Love ya

    • Thanks Ms. Yogi!! I think about you every time I contemplate doing a hand-stand 😉 Haven’t succeeded yet, mind you 😛

  4. Been there, done that! Which is probably one reason why we have that mountaintop cabin/RV in the desert lifestyle in our old age now. Our worst storm was just 3 weeks out, off Baha Cal. 36 hrs at the helm in winds 50-60 knts & gusts to 80 – strange Mr. Weatherman didn’t predict that either!!! I was remembering all those very same thoughts going through my mind quite vividly! But you are an “olde salt” even at your young age. I can remember being impressed at your taking watches at the helm when your autopilot went out on a crossing I think to Fiji, you had to be only about 10-12 then! One of my favorite memories is you & Jess dingying over to all the boats in the anchorage off the Maldives delivering fresh baked cookies on Valentines Day. This nightmare will fade & you’ll have so much good to remember! Makes for a good story too!! Quite frankly, I’d be back on the old TinCan in a heartbeat!! Glad you two are safe. Fair winds & following seas – from now on!

    • Sharon it is so cool to hear from you guys — I had no idea you were reading our little stories!!! I don’t think we’re jumping on the RV just yet, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be in our future at some point 🙂 Sounds like you guys have the perfect balance these days — are you land-travelling much? And I’d forgotten that Valentine’s story, so fun to remember now!!

  5. Does not sound like fun. We sold our boat. Long story. Didn’t know you were blogging. Take care. John/Paula

    • Hey John! I wasn’t sure if you had the boat still or not… will have to hear the whole story over coffee one of these days!!

    • Me too Janet!! We were just telling new friends about your wonderful place in Alamos… we try to send folks your way every chance we get! A slice of heaven on earth 🙂

  6. I remember those same types of thought trains! The two of you are not only smart but you have common sense to boot…a combination that got your through something this and will serve you many times in the future. Hope you’ve had a chance to rest up. Hugs to you both – Bonnie

    • Thanks so much Bonnie! Can be a little frightening when those trains get runnin’… but a couple days in a nice anchorage sure does a good job of soothing the soul!!

  7. Wow, you guys really dodged a bullet with that backstay! Here’s to finding a good fix soon. Punta Arenas had pretty good supplies, if that helps. Copernicus might know more about that.

    Leah, that is such an excellent description what those moments, hours, sometimes days feel like! I’ve had all of those thoughts!

    • Thanks for the tips Briana 🙂 And the show of support! Haha I think hearing other people say “I’ve been there too” is one of the *best* ways to get a little perspective again…

  8. I had to check out your location on a map. Still seems to be quite a way to Panama City. Can you gunk-hole it (stop somewhere every night or two) or do you need to do one long sail? Not sure if there are any marinas between Samara and Panama City. Try to stay your positive self! At least you’re not freezing in Canada or Maine AND you’re together, right? Be safe

  9. I just read this fabulous entry again. We ran into this years’ Papagayos for weeks as we tried clawing our way down from Bahia Fonseca, anchorage by anchorage. I linked to your description on G+ and in our blog too because it is such a great read. Nancy kept laughing and saying “exactly !” as she read it.

    What I’m wondering is what your track was ? Were you off-shore all the way from El Salvador !?!

    We ended up stuck in Puesta del Sol, then Del Gigante, then San Juan del Sur, then Bahia Santa Elena with up to 60 knot gusts for 10 days just in Elena.

    We didn’t suffer your rigging issues but thought our canvas was going to get shredded.

    Your write-up is perfect !!


    • Oh man Sven, that sounds just awful!! We don’t have wind instruments so I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think we had anything close to 60 knot gusts… just “really really windy” 😉

      And yep, we were offshore the whole way… we’d had such calm, benign conditions that we were sailing along at 2-4 knots, 50 miles offshore (!!!). A very bad decision in hindsight, but that’s what hindsight is always about!!

      Thanks for sharing the feelings. Funny how cruising is always depicted as martinis in a flat calm anchorage, right??

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