Latin Lover

Cruising Central and South America is a passion with highs and lows.

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For me, a true adventure is something that cannot be planned-and this is especially true when cruising the world's oceans. Countless factors, including weather, politics, boat repair and maintenance-not to mention crew morale-can wreak havoc on the most carefully laid cruising plans. Oftentimes, the best idea is simply to go with the flow.

It had been raining for days. And so, Phantom, my 90- foot custom steel explorer, and her crew left drizzly Shelter Bay, Panama, for her next adventure in the sunnier reaches of the southern Caribbean. On a nautical chart, the San Blas islands look like coconuts scattered across the shallow waters off Panama's Caribbean coast. Coming upon these islands by sea is always something of a dream to me. As we approach their coordinates on the chart, the water changes from the deep hues of open sea to the dreamy shades of teal and aquamarine. Dozens of idyllic, palm-covered islands begin to appear across the horizon and it seems as if the boat is riding on air, until, suddenly, the crystal-clear waters reveal an expanse of luxuriant coral reef beneath us.

We anchor off and prepare to welcome a host of officials and native Kuna women in dugout canoes bearing handcrafted molas for sale. Alas, even paradise comes with a price tag. After an abnormally high-priced entrance and anchorage fee, we buy some of the offered molas in exchange for photos. Several wonderful weeks later, after hopping from one anchorage to the next, snorkeling, exploring, and photographing, it was time to go. The Kuna officials and saleswomen were pressing us to spend more and more, yet the freedom of the open seas beckoned. With a final farewell to new friends, we continued on our way to Colombia.

We arrived after a long but thankfully uneventful voyage. Exhausted but excited about the possibilities of our new locale, we set anchor at Isla de Rosario as night fell and drifted off to dreams of great diving in this place that was so off the beaten path.

The next morning, though, our quick exploration of the waters surrounding the small island didn't look promising. Instead of the teal-blue perfection of a typical Caribbean dive site, the water was murky and pockmarked by floating garbage. Looking towards shore, the island looked like a ritzy getaway for rich domestic tourists, complete with nets marking the confines of swimming areas for resorts with fancy-looking façades. A trip ashore revealed more than the usual disparity between rich and poor-not unusual in South America, but we made the decision to move on to the mainland.

Once settled in Cartagena, we played tourists and explored this famed city of adventurers and pirates. We met many wonderful people in the streets, and I attempted to converse in my limited Spanish. This resulted in more than a few misunderstandings and unintentional guided tours, but we also came into some great photo opportunities.

Fellow cruisers we had met rhapsodized on the virtues of the Islas Roques and Islas Aves, two island chains off the coast of Venezuela. Apparently, firstrate diving and fishing were to be had there and, looking at the charts, we saw it wasn't too far from the safety of the usual cruising routes. We decided to detour and make it our next destination.

After a moderately rough passage, we anchored and opted to make a cruise around the Islas Aves in our dinghy. The waters surrounding the islands sparkled like (undiscovered!) jewels. Only a few boats bobbed in the local anchorages, above an extensive reef strewn with sponges and gorgonian corals. The landscape itself, however, was rocky and foreboding, and didn't invite a casual exploration by foot.

As with the wanderers we'd met in San Blas, a good percentage of the cruisers here had stayed at least a few months, living off what they could catch on the reefs, supplemented by their own dwindling provisions. I'm a big believer in local knowledge, so we traded news from the outside world for the cruisers' scoop on the best spots to explore.

We spent the rest of the day diving and snorkeling, and were exhausted by the early part of the evening. Not long after we returned to Phantom, I noticed a small dinghy motoring over, loaded down by two guys and an assortment of plastic containers. As they came closer, I recognized the fishermen from the next bay over.

Though we'd been warned by officials and cruisers alike about attacks from banditos aboard fishing boats, a Spanish-speaking crewmember said they wanted some fresh water and rum in exchange for justcaught lobster. We dined that night on delicious fresh seafood.

The next day, while snorkeling without another soul in sight, we found tasty queen conch in a secluded 40-foot "blue hole." Returning to the boat with our new catch, we invited some of the neighboring cruisers to join us for a small celebration and to swap cruising tales. As if on cue, a familiar small dinghy came into sight. This time the request was for more rum. With a sinking sensation, I realized that the fishermen might be trying to scope out our boat. Maybe they were harmless, but my gut told me not to linger too long in the Islas Aves.

We had researched Guyana and it seemed to be just what we were looking for-off the beaten path and a great place to get lost in exploration. So, we decided to head to Trinidad, where we would stop to refuel and reprovision, before spending the next few months exploring the Essequibo River.

As every experienced sailor knows, a good watch at the helm will eliminate almost all danger of collision or serious mechanical issues. A flash on the horizon, ominous clouds, or just a change in the familiar vibrations of your boat underway can be the warning sign your automated gauges and high-tech radar will miss. Now, instinct told me there was something wrong. The seas were building and Phantom was not taking it well. The bow got buried and the wipers went flying off. The stabilizers were next to go and oil went spilling out all over the engineroom.

Grenada, which was only a little way off our current heading and likely into calmer seas, was clearly a better destination, all things considered. I opted to take the quickest way out, much to the relief of my grateful crew and Phantom herself.

After what seemed like days underway, but was actually less than 24 hours, we pulled up to the dock at the Grenada Yacht Club- exhausted physically, mentally, and spiritually. But Grenada turned out to be a haven for weary cruisers, with good boatyards and plenty of possibilities for pampering. Before long, body and soul were replenished and we were off on our next adventure.

For information on chartering Phantom, call (760) 333-7022 or e-mail Susanscheer@mac.com_._