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Florida to San Francisco

Frank Robben - December 1995
Dixon, California

We left the port of Cape Canaveral, Florida (the home of the Kennedy Space Center) at daylight on Tuesday the 10th of January. Away from Cape Marina, near the lock where the barges with the spent boosters of the shuttle enter the Banana river, past the scallop boats and processing plants, past the cruise ship dock for Carnival Lines, past the little city of Cape Canaveral, finally past the city cruise ship docks and on out into the Atlantic. Behind were left some new and interesting friends, memories of Christmas celebration, and the attachments coming from 5 months in a hospitable place. It was clear, cool, and no wind. We motored at only 5 knots due to the accumulation of weeds and barnacles on the hull of Kialoa.

By hugging the coast of Florida and staying inside the northbound current of the Gulf Stream we had the help of a countercurrent which increased our speed to more than 6 knots. Past Ft. Lauderdale, where we had purchased supplies and had the mainsail repaired, past Miami at night, where Cynthia stood for hours in a long line at immigration, and then along the coast of the Florida Keys the next day and night. We were sailing nicely now, running before a pleasant northeasterly and glad to be free of the noise of the diesel. And pleased to have the temperature climb as we worked our way South. Nowhere along the Keys could we put in to any of the ports, all are too shallow for Kialoa's 12 foot draft. Early Thursday morning we could see the loom of the lights of Key West, the southernmost city in the continental US, and by 10:00 we had anchored in the western part of the harbor among a group of other yachts.

We were 4 on board, Cynthia, 7 year old Maria, and Marcus, a most compatible 24 year old who was a friend of old friends and had joined us only a few days earlier. He came because he wanted a sea adventure and some time away from school. We enjoyed him greatly and by the time we reached San Francisco he had learned to make repairs to Kialoa as well as the elements of sailing and navigation.

Key West turned out to be a very pleasant port and city, perhaps not surprisingly since Hemingway loved it and wrote a number of his novels while there, and Harry Truman had made it his Presidential retreat. Cynthia especially found the pleasant streets, stores (or boutiques, mostly) and picturesque homes very attractive. It is a little hard to believe that the early prosperity of this city depended on the number of shipwrecks on the nearby reefs.

We had planned on stopping at the Dry Tortugas next, but the weather and currents, and the schedule for a friend who joined us in Key West, did not permit that. After a night in rougher conditions where we made no progress, Kialoa slowly sailed close along the coast of Cuba as we tried to stay out of the strong opposing current of the Gulf Stream. Almost 4 days after leaving we landed at the Mexican resort island of Cozumel. Pleasant and interesting, like many places we have been, but not exceptional. We joined the tourists along the coast for snorkeling, but in a short time it is hard to find a really good place, and perhaps I am spoiled.

We left planning to put in along the coast of Mexico, but a strong easterly made that inadvisable and we proceeded to Belize and its capital Belize City, towing our new dinghy. Luckily I have learned not to worry too much about such things, and it did not turn over nor get caught under the stern of Kialoa in the large swell. Belize is a very interesting country - I am glad it has not been taken over by Guatemala. The barrier reef has been considerably publicized, but the inside portion north of Belize City is rather murky with not much marine life. Apparently there is better diving is in the northern part, too shallow for Kialoa, and along the coast of the offshore islands and reefs. We spent a couple of weeks in Belize, traveled inland, and saw some Mayan ruins.

We left Belize February 11, spent one day offshore at Long Cay, and proceeded to the Colombian island of Santa Catalina, anchoring in the harbor of Providencia. A very pleasant place, not yet built up as a tourist attraction, and we greatly enjoyed our 6 days there. Our next stop was Puerto Cristobal, the entrance to the Panama Canal. There we were joined by my friends the Naylors and Bill Myers, so we had 6 on board for the transit of the Panama Canal, no need to find the necessary line handlers.

The Panama Canal is interesting but not difficult for either large or small ships to transit. They had us anchor overnight at Gamba, near the Pacific side locks, but we could have completed it in one day. In Panama City, on the Pacific side, we (and particularly me) were a bit careless one evening in town and I had my wallet taken from my front pocket. But Marcus ran down the thieves and miraculously I recovered it intact.

We left Panama City 7 March and soon were out of the cold water of the Gulf of Panama and back into nice warm tropical water - I have become spoiled with warm water for swimming and snorkeling. The islands off the west coast of Panama are beautiful, seemingly unspoiled, lush and tropical. We spent a couple of nights anchored in idyllic settings, and then arrived at the port of Golfito, Costa Rica.

Polly Ann Naylor flew back from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, Jim Naylor rejoined us along the coast at Bahia Herradura, and Adriaan Van de Haar joined us at Bahia del Coco, where we departed from Costa Rica. And not without some clearance paperwork difficulties, as I had not done all the things quite properly (for a reason, of course). But no major problem, Costa Rica is a pleasant place. However, I thought Panama with its lush tropical islands was most inviting. And we did not find so many time and paperwork consuming regulations as in Costa Rica.

Our longest passage on this trip was from B. Coco to Acapulco, almost 8 days. We passed the feared Gulf of Tehauntapec well offshore, maybe 150 miles, and experienced no heavy weather. Generally it was upwind sailing, close hauled, in light to medium winds. We went slowly but almost entirely under sail and it was a pleasant passage with very compatible crew - we had a good time. A couple of fish, good food (by Cynthia), and shared work. I was pleasantly surprised by Acapulco, the old town was reasonably charming and hospitable, the yacht club was very hospitable, and the older tourist area near the yacht club now caters primarily to Mexican nationals - which for me made it more interesting.

We were down to our core crew of 4 for the next stop, Zihuatanejo. This pleasant and charming place, called Z-town according to Richard of Latitude 38, had quite a few US yachts at anchor. From here we made a trip inland (by rented car) to Paraiso - another world from the coastal tourist cities. Although a reasonably large place, way up in the mountains, there were ruts in the streets in which you could almost lose a car, and my efforts to stay there ended when the available room at the only hotel in town (almost indescribably bad) had cockroaches crawling around the bathroom. Cynthia refused to stay in such a place and we instead drove back the way we came, went to Acapulco, and by 10:00 PM found a very reasonable and pleasant local hotel.

We anchored off the Las Hadas hotel complex in Manzanillo on 6 April and were joined there by Marcus' mother Diane and Alan Knotts. On the way to Puerto Vallarta we spent a day exploring Bahia Navidad and another couple at Bahia de Chamela. We tried to go in to Bahia de Careyito, where there is a Club Med, but the area was too tight for a yacht of Kialoa's size and draft.

We arrived at Puerto Vallarta just before Good Friday and amiably enjoyed the Easter weekend docked at the pleasant but rather pricey Marina Vallarta. Technically I completed my circumnavigation here, kind of interesting. Diane and Alan departed and we spent the last night very uncomfortably anchored just outside the harbor, in rolly seas, to avoid my paying another day's marina fees. Not a good choice. From there it was a close-hauled upwind course to the tip of the Baja California peninsula. As we approached land, after 2 days, the wind increased to 30+ knots apparent and we were about 10 miles downwind of the protected anchorage at Los Frailles. We were tired, hungry, and it was getting dark. So I took the easier way, dropped the sails and motored the remaining 10 miles. Not any faster than sailing, but it pleased the cook and avoided double reefing the main and changing the jib to the #4.

Now I was back in very familiar territory and it was interesting to see the changes in the last 8 years. On the way to La Paz we spent a day off the south end of Isla Cerralvo, a desolate and stark desert island. Our few hours hike inland showed another kind of beauty from the tropical islands with which I have become familiar, the various kinds of cacti and other desert plants, the small animals, soaring frigates overhead, and the erosion of the infrequent heavy rains. Very nice, and although Baja was the first really foreign place I visited with Kialoa, it still remains a very beautiful and hospitable country.

La Paz was a real throwback for me, many memories of interesting, intense, and somewhat difficult times all experienced with the ever present and dominating presence of Kialoa. And now with another chapter opened. Sometimes almost dreamlike, almost as if I only read of what had actually happened. My friends the Carlsons joined us for a bit more than a week, followed by my daughter Pippi and the Prices (who had originally planned to join us at Panama). We spent a few days enjoying Baja Race Week at the beautiful cove between Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida, even entering one of the races (and falling from the leading yacht to the last yacht as the wind died - even a spinnaker did not help us that much).

In Cabo San Lucas we were joined by Heike Meissner, a most pleasant German girl I had met years before in Apia, Western Samoa and had persuaded to accompany me and Ali on our passage to Tonga. With the Prices, the 6 of us worked our way pleasantly up the Baja coast, sailing most of the time in moderate headwinds and stopping frequently at several of the interesting and well known anchorages. Kialoa spent 17 days on this leg, it was a pleasure not to rush and somewhat more casually enjoy both the places we stopped and the passages at sea.

We visited Isla Guadalupe, and although we were not supposed to land we were shown some of the southern part of the island by the Mexican Navy personnel stationed there. Unknown to us, Guadalupe is one of the few places where the magnificent albatross nest and raise their hatchlings. The baby albatross were right at the Navy base and were proudly shown to us by the officer who toured us around. They are large, can only walk awkwardly, are unafraid of humans and of course extremely vulnerable to predators such as us. I had never seen them before and it was an unusual and unexpected meeting. I have watched the albatross at sea, mainly in the North Pacific, effortlessly soaring and searching for food. Their wingspan is, I believe, in excess of 8 feet even though they are a relatively small bird. To see the chicks in a basically wild setting was a special experience.

The scenic beauty of the cliffs where we anchored was almost indescribable. Marcus, with the aid of the local fishermen, finally managed to get some of the abalone he had promised and proudly treated us to a special feast. We also visited the northern anchorage where there had previously been a military base as well as various commercial operations. Strong winds swept over the steep mountains into the narrow anchorage along the indented coast, and a 40 + knot beam gust flipped our dinghy (and 25 HP outboard!) while I was searching for the best location. But no real problems. Landing on the beach there amongst the hundreds of ponderous sea lions was an interesting experience. Between the flying sand whipped up by the strong wind and the barking sea lions Maria retreated in fright to the dinghy and could hardly be persuaded to cross the beach.

We spent a few pleasant days anchored in Ensenada, and then finally reentered the USA in San Diego on 30 May. Two pleasant weeks passed there, some enjoying the hospitality of the San Diego Yacht Club, the rest at a couple of anchorages. Cynthia, Marcus and I gave Kialoa another coat of varnish and made some repairs in anticipation of a rough and wet trip up the coast to San Francisco. Next was Newport Beach where we took advantage of an offer by a fellow sailor we met in Ensenada to park Kialoa at his house at Bay Island. A very exclusive address, and a pleasant place to visit. But in Newport Beach I also got a ticket in for operating the dinghy without registration or life jackets. Return to the Land of Regulations!

The resort island of Catalina and City of Avalon beckoned and we visited there with a number of friends. Next stop was the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. The weather was a bit dull and overcast, there was no wind forecast around feared Pt. Conception, and we had finally become anxious to "get home". I took advantage of an easy passage and we wound up motoring most of the way to San Francisco in almost dead calm conditions. We stopped at Morro Bay, then at Monterey where we visited the Prices, and finally crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge on the first of July and went to one of my old slips at the Berkeley Marina. So we were home, a chapter closed and another opened.

Copyright 1996 by Frank Robben