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Sailing in the time of COVID-19

By on June 22, 2020 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Chuck and Sharon Podlich sail downwind on the Top Cider with the main sail out and the red spinnaker fully flying.

Editor’s note: In the March 2018 issue, Sharon Podlich wrote about how she and her husband, Chuck, retired from growing apples in Orondo, bought a 44-foot sailboat they named Top Cider, and went on a sailing adventure off of Baja, Mexico. They have continued sailing the past two winters.

By Sharon Podlich

Our 2019-2020 sailing season definitely ended much differently than we anticipated at our fall start.

Last October, we arrived in Chiapas, Mexico, excited to travel the coast of Central America, arrive in Panama in the spring and leave our boat there for the summer. We would return next fall and traverse the Panama Canal to start exploring the Caribbean. 

The first portion of our travels went as predicted. We enjoyed stops in Bahia del Sol, El Salvador, and Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua. We had a great inland tour of El Salvador and Guatemala. We arrived in Costa Rica and spent time in the northern region until returning to our home in Orondo for the holidays. 

We returned to our 44-foot sailboat, Top Cider, in late January and began our journey southward. By early February we realized we were not enjoying our travels. We recognized that something was just not right. 

But what? 

Several cockpit discussions later, we realized the goal we had been espousing for the last three years — crossing through the Panama Canal — was not really what we wanted to do. Somehow, this item on our bucket list was not really ours. 

As we continued exploring the Costa Rican coast, we wrestled with our feelings about changing our stated goal. Eventually, we created a plan of how far south we would go and where we really wanted to end our season — back in Mexico.

We contacted friends who were scheduled to join us on the sail to Panama and informed them we would be heading north instead. They were game. 

They came aboard in Quepos, Costa Rica and 12 days later they got off at Playas del Coco, Costa Rica. In between we day sailed to anchorages, hiked to freshwater falls, visited small towns, saw monkeys, breaching whales and met some friendly, interesting Ticos (friendly slang for Costa Ricans).

Meanwhile, back in the US and countries around the world COVID-19 was starting to make its presence and potential devastation known. 

With our Costa Rica visa ending we needed to exit. There was no COVID in Central America at that point. We decided to return to Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua and spend a few days at this small, charming marina in an estuary. 

That also allowed us to reconnect with our friend, Laurin Dodd the captain of Second Wind, who had been there for over a month, working on getting a sail repaired and awaiting parts for necessary engine maintenance. 

We joined him for a tour of some inland sights. And what are the odds, but we ended up at a BnB on an island in Lake Nicaragua with an owner who had just returned from visiting family in Italy. COVID was getting closer.

By the time we returned to the marina, Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador had closed and Costa Rica was threatening to. 

Communication with the marina in Chiapas, Mexico indicated they would welcome us with open arms. We decided to go for it and arrived three days and two nights later. 

Worldwide things were worsening, and Washington was a hotspot. A round of phone calls with our daughters resulted with the consensus we were better to stay aboard our boat and not fly home through Seattle at that time. We would wait a month or so and assess the situation then. 

So, should we stay in hot Chiapas for the next month and leave the boat there for the summer as originally planned? Or sail 1,500 miles north into the Sea of Cortez where we could optimistically start a great adventure in the 2020-2021 season? 

Well, we are a sailboat — so off we went. 

Sharon and Chuck had plans of traversing the Panama Canal (lower right), but decided instead to sail north from Costa Rica, and after stops along the way, eventually reached the tip of Baja California.

Once there, we stayed in a couple of anchorages, but people who went into the marina learned the government had sent a notice stating if a boat goes into a marina they would not be allowed to leave. Confusion ran rampant on the various Facebook pages for cruisers in Mexico. 

Nobody, foreigner or national, was supposed to be out recreational boating. Beaches were closed and patrolled by armed guards. Restaurants closed, though some offered take out. 

All this started just before the Easter week, one of Mexico’s biggest tourist seasons of the year, when most of the population crowds the beaches. It was eerie to see places that had been filled with swimmers, sunbathers and happy sounds at this time last year now empty, with only rows of fishing boats in the sand.

Remote villages in the northern portions of the Sea of Cortez asked that cruisers not come this year fearing that, as often the last in the supply chain, they would not have enough to provide for their citizens and share with visitors. 

We made it to Acapulco where we went ashore to Walmart. We wore the masks I made from a pillowcase and scraps of upholstery fabric, sewn with red thread. It is what I had on board. Thankfully, I had brought a sewing machine this season. 

We walked there but took a taxi back. We declined several taxis that already had one or two people in them. 

Our next boating stop was Zihuantanejo where we waited almost two weeks for some southerly winds or at least light winds from the north, so we did not have to bash through the waves to our next destination. 

In Ziahua, we ordered parts for our water maker and received them — in 50 hours from San Diego. Here they only allowed one person per boat ashore and only one in a taxi at a time.

On the way to Banderas Bay (Puerto Vallarta), we ordered parts for our dinghy motor to be delivered to the sail maker, who also agreed to repair our sail while we were there. 

We left Banderas Bay on a straight course to Puerto Escondido, on the Baja Sur. That allowed us one anchorage stop at Isla Isabel. The rest of the way we were far from shore and continued non-stop for 72 hours. We only raised the sails for 12 of those hours, the rest we motored. We never had the right winds for our repaired sail.

We dropped anchor in a neighboring bay in the moonlight at 2:30 a.m. When we woke up, there was the email informing us our May 9 flight back to Washington was canceled. 

Luck was with us and we were able to arrange a flight out of Cabo San Lucas also on May 9. The wife of the fellow caretaking our boat drove us the six hours south to the airport. Our flight had only 30 people, one dog and our cat aboard.

We are glad to be home, near our daughters’ families and look forward to sharing more time with them as we maneuver the stay at home-social distancing experience on land.

Things we reflect on about this season are how far we traveled — over 2,500 miles — how many more overnight sails we did as a twosome than previously and how long we were onboard without going ashore. 

Overall being socially distant or self-isolated on a sailboat was not too difficult for us. 

We are incredibly grateful that we could jump off our boat to swim or kayak in an anchorage and that we were able to get provisions. 

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