Category Archives: 2023 Voyages & Sundry

Shirley’s farewell post: My Central American land & sea adventures

In the previous Ariose Note, I shared how my intended sailing adventure off the coast of Central America was superseded by a different sort of life voyage, my mother’s passing. And then, less than 2 months later, I found myself travelling from Canada once again, on a deja-vu flight, this time to Honduras’ Bay of Islands. I was resuming my stint crewing with Mary, a solo sailor who was moving her boat to Guatemala.

I stepped off the plane into the thickness of the hot, humid Roatan air, made my way through customs’ photo and fingerprinting, and had a cab deliver me to the yacht club. I arrived just in time to be greeted by an open-armed captain as she climbed the stairs from the dock. After a poolside cool-down and relaxing catch-up, we headed out to Glass Slipper waiting at anchor a short dinghy row away.

[as usual, just click on thumbnail images if you’d like to view the larger photos]

OK, I said as I pulled myself up on the deck, Let’s try this again.

I settled back aboard Glass Slipper, and the next morning, we motored around a peninsula, escaping the fishing trawlers and inevitable debris from the town, to anchor where we could swim. How lovely to be back in warm salt water. Armed with scrubby pads and metal scrapers, we tackled the bottom which was starting to grow a living carpet, and pried off the barnacles that had decided to call the propeller home.

Mary’s intent to stretch out our anticipated one-week sail into several weeks, had evaporated. We had talked about staying a few days at each stop along the way, to have a leisurely time with lots of snorkelling and shore exploration en route to the Rio Dulce, our destination. We would leave the motor off and sail even if the winds were light as we wouldn’t be in a hurry. But Mary had been underway for 1/2 a year, and was feeling exhausted. The image of gentle sails and a tranquil life aboard is a false one for the majority of time cruising, and especially when solo. Mary felt she would only be able to relax once Glass Slipper was secure in a safe harbour where it would remain for the nearing hurricane season.

So we did move on each day, and if conditions weren’t ideal, we relied on the “iron sail” (i.e. the motor) to propel us. It was still a very pleasant week. A pleasant, albeit scorching, week.

It was so hot. Most days reached a humid mid-40s. It was the kind of heat that the relief of a “cooling” dip in the luke-warm sea was forgotten by the time I climbed back into the cockpit. It was the kind of heat that transfers litres of consumed water to a steady drip of sweat from chin and nose-tip … a very attractive look! It was the kind of heat that blocks solid sleep, but propping a fan a foot away from my face allowed catnaps. We rose before dawn every day to weigh anchor and get underway before the sun began to bake us again.

We made our way to Roatan’s West End, and the incredible reef that is its claim to fame in the diving world. The 3 main Bay Islands, a few smaller islands and over 50 cays form an archipelago along our earth’s 2nd largest barrier reef. I had sailed and snorkelled the largest, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, nearly 40 years ago, and still easily summon up those feelings of awe. It’s been 6 years since I’ve been in tropical waters, when Tim and I snorkelled almost daily during our 4 months in the Bahamas. I was so excited to be about to immerse myself in that magical underworld again. We slipped through the narrow marked channel and took a mooring ball. Less than a 10 minute swim, towing Mary’s kayak to be sure we were visible to the boats zipping around, brought us to an underwater wonderland.

There was gorgeous vibrant coral in blues, greens, a touch of reds and purples too – and sadly, much dead coral as well. Plentiful and varied fish ignored us as they went about their business. Once back aboard, a quick google refreshed my memory as what we had seen: lots of sargeant majors, varied parrotfish, butterflyfish, groupers, and comical trumpetfish, standing on their heads. Marvellous memories from past snorkelling merged with these new ones, clouded by the sombre recognition of what’s been lost. I don’t think its a matter of memory enhancement; this underwater world and the one I experienced in the Bahamas, although incredible, do not come close to the vibrancy, variety and density of life that I got to witness decades ago. The oceans are dying. Even so, I could have just hovered above the show forever. Mary agreed to delay the next morning’s departure so that I could visit one more time.

From there we headed to Utila, another of Hondura’s Bay Islands, where we strolled the main street and grabbed food at a roadside stand. We easily found immigration and adjacent, the conveniently located harbour master, and joined the queue of cruisers also checking out of the country. It’s always interesting to chat and hear about others’ journeys and plans. Lots of interesting folks out here.

Mary’s excitement to be on this, the final sail of the season, was palpable. Once we checked into Guatemala, we would be motoring up river. She had had enough of sailing. Now, the “can’t wait for this to be over” narrative was replaced by an non-stop Ed Sheeran playlist with the captain showing off her dance moves at the helm! 😉

An uneventful overnight sail (and that’s good!) sharing 3-ish hour shifts, brought us into Guatemalan waters. I’ve shared before the magic of being at sea in the inky-black night, infinite stars overhead. So sacred. My mother’s spirit felt close. The next day, we made our way along the coast in, according to Mary, the best sailing conditions she had had since first weighing anchor in Panama 6 months previously. A lovely day.

We ate well!

By late afternoon on the 2nd day, good depths and no reefs meant we could to stay close to the coastline. Such lush vegetation. The vastness of the ocean is magnificent, but I do prefer the closer vantage of coastal cruising.

Sunset, at anchor on the Rio Dulce

For me, one of the life lessons that sailing has reinforced on every voyage is that change is the only constant. Out near-perfect leg of this passage tended on the east side of Amatique Bay, Guatemala, with a tense after-dark anchoring. Our only chart was an electronic version on Mary’s phone. That phone was thought to be charging (but wasn’t). It died at the most inopportune time as dark descended and we were heading toward shore to drop hook. Stressful, but we did manage to securely anchor, and then, to decompress.

The next day, a short motor to the other side of the bay, narrowly making it across the shallow bar at the river mouth, brought us to Livingston, where we checked in. Then, we motored up the aptly-named Rio Dulce. The “sweet river” winds through a spectacular canyon with jungle-lined limestone walls, then past thatch homes and villages along the less steep parts of the river and lake widenings. What an ideal inland shelter from hurricanes that may assault the coast.

During the week’s voyage to get here, we had a few adrenaline moments: A dose of panic triggered by a reaction to an unidentified insect, confusion interpreting the direction of a freighter, and a jib furler sticking just as winds were building and we needed to reduce sail. We also narrowly avoided grounding when the fogginess of a sun-damaged depth sounder hid a crucial decimal point. The captain thought we had 35 feet under the keel, when it was actually 3 point 5 feet of water. This is all the stuff of sailing. With Tim and I getting ourselves into so many tricky situations, I realize I have become good at remaining calm, and find the demands of quick problem solving rewarding. Mary has far more training and live-aboard experience than I do, but spent long periods stationary, and usually only moves on in ideal conditions. That’s wise, especially considering her daughter was with her for many of those years. It has also meant fewer “learning” opportunities for dealing with those more tense situations.

Hitch-hikers onboard!

Two days after entering the Rio Dulce, we pulled into Catamaran Island Marina, Glass Slipper’s home for the next 5 months. Mary was delighted to arrive. I kept my disappointment that this sailing adventure was over so quickly to myself. The marina, tucked into mangroves with gorgeous landscaped grounds housing cabins, pool, restaurant, and free lanchas shuttling patrons across the water to Rio Dulce, the town… it was perfect. I stayed a few days, lending a hand with boat tasks, and enjoying the camaraderie of the community of cruisers there.

One morning, Steve, dockmaster and full-time Good Samaritan, initiated a work party. I was happy to join, lending my newly acquired carpentry skills to refurbishing desks for a local school. It was a fun time, working alongside other cruisers in a productive assembly line. We cut plywood into desk tops, seats, and backs, then rounded, routered, sanded, and varnished them. The next week, Steve would deliver it all to the school, where the kids would assemble them on newly painted metal frames. The heat wasn’t even an issue. After a cold northern Ontario winter constructing my little cabin, I discovered that I actually prefer +37 to -37 degrees Celcius for that kind of work. 

A few days later, Mary and I said our goodbyes. We had different personalities, some different approaches , and different priorities, but I so appreciated this opportunity she gifted me, and I hope I eased the stress she felt in moving her vessel. Would I crew on another’s boat again? Most certainly!

Yes, I would certainly “hop” on a sailboat again.

I decided to continue my Guatemalan adventure. I’ve long wanted to improve my patchy Spanish. My mother’s first language was Spanish, and I had mentioned this possibility to her prior to her death. She was so excited at the prospect of being able to chat in Spanish on our daily calls. Sadly, we won’t have that opportunity. The Lago Atitlan region in central Guatemala has developed a tourism niche offering classes, so I enrolled for a week with the Orbita school in San Pedro La Laguna. I set off on the 10-hour drive into the mountains in the heart of the country. Higher elevation = cooler temps. Mid 20s, and short bursts of daily rain were invigorating. So refreshing! I had energy once again.

This volcano-lined lake hosts about a dozen unique Mayan towns. What colour! The dress, the street art, the markets: Uplifting! Just wandering these streets brings on a smile. The gatos and perros, however, seemed unimpressed.

The Indigenous people have maintained their vibrant culture in this area despite not only centuries of colonization, but attempts at genocide (known as the Silent Holocaust) by successive US-backed Guatemalan governments between the 1960s and 90s. A horrific history.

Each morning, I hunkered down to one-to-one tutoring. The effort was eased slightly by being in an open-air classroom with the most spectacular view. Que hermosa!

I was shocked at how difficult it was to retain what I was taught. I wanted to explain to Fabiola, my patient maestra, as I asked her to repeat that verb conjugation for the 4th time, that really, I was a relatively bright person. Unfortunately, my limited vocabulary didn’t permit me to rescue my ego. I could feel my cerebral matter straining. Maybe the heat had melted some circuits? Or maybe menopause is to blame? By the end of most mornings, I’m not sure I could have even summoned up my name if asked. I longed for my younger brain that could cram for an exam and spit out rote learning with ease.

How I felt by the end of each days’ lesson!

After one week, I was just beginning to feel like I was making some progress – or rather, wasn’t fully burnt-out by the end of our 4 hours, so I extended by another week.

I lodged for those 2 weeks, along with 4-5 other housemates from around the world, with a family that provided room and board to students. I really enjoyed staying with “my” 3-generation Mayan family.

Their first language is Tz’utujil, one of the 20+ indigenous languages in the area. Spanish was learned in school, so with their relatively clear and slow 2nd-language speech, we were able to manage some conversation at mealtimes. For the most part, we could figure out what we were trying to share, although we were often forced to invite google to join, and at times, just threw up our hands and laughed together at the ridiculous communication break-downs.

For those 2 weeks in San Pedro la Laguna, I was immersed in a social circle of mainly 20-to-30 year old backpackers. Attending festivals, taking a Mayan cooking class, pre-dawn summiting an extinct volcano (by the light of our phones!) to catch a breath-taking sunrise … I had a great time.

I’ve heard that hanging out with people younger than oneself can help you stay youthful. Heading out for a beer together after attending a soccer game, with my beer acually being tea, and still, by 8:30, finding myself abandoning the others at the bar to flag down a Tuk-tuk to scoot me home for 9 pm bedtime because there were classes the next day… well… youthful is not how I felt!! Nevertheless, I had fun.

Then, it was off to Antigua, for a bit of touristing. It’s a remarkable city. Once the Spanish colonized these lands, they made it the capital of Guatemala (1500s to 1700s). Multiple earthquakes lead to the decision to move the political and economic centre to more stable ground, at the present location of Guatemala City.

I enjoyed hours wandering the cobblestone streets, getting lost, then suddenly turning a corner to find myself in a familiar park or at a building I recognized. Found! I – someone with no sense of rhythm – was talked into stepping out of my comfort zone to take a salsa dance class. Annette, one of my San Pedro house-mates who was also in Antigua did the convincing. Uno-dos-tres, shuffle-stumble-recover! By the end of the evening, if I was paired with the instructor who was able to puppet-master coordinate me, I felt like I got it!

The most memorable highlight for me of my few days in Antigua was a guided summit of Pacaya, an active volcano. As we climbed, we had a view of a neighbouring peak, Fuego, which sent out the poofs of small eruptions every 15 minutes or so. Near the peak, we paused to take in the lava fields which had transformed the surroundings. Awesome is such an over-used word, but I have no other to describe the sight. And as if we needed further testimony to nature’s force, the guides cleared a shallow hole in the hot rock. Roasted marshmallows for all!

After having been away for a little over a month, a month of such varied and rich experiences, I felt well nourished. I was ready to head back home. Back to real life.

So what does that look like?

Real life has been working with my brothers in dealing with the final details of my mother’s estate. It’s been a fabulous week-long canoe trip with dear friends.

It’s been getting back to the finishing touches in my tiny cabin’s construction (and healing from an unfortunate finger-chopsaw encounter). And for Tim and me, it’s also been planning our individual lives’ next chapters.

Life does bring strange twists. Years ago, I introduced Tim to sailing, to the possibilities of live-aboard, long-term cruising. Tim introduced me to the possibilities of a kinder-to-the-planet, off-grid land living.

Now, the tables are turned.

I look forward to settling into life in my new home. I’m considering building something larger in the future – maybe as grand as 4 or 5 times the size of my current 80 square foot space! 😉 I’d love to take on the challenge of creating a home using natural materials, making it as healthy and sustainable as possible. Or maybe other opportunities will present, and I’ll seize them. We’ll see.

The thought of stepping into a void without a solid plan, not knowing what shape the future might take, used to terrify me. I’ve since realized I never knew what lay ahead; it was an illusion. For the short term, though, I’m looking forward to a winter of rejuvenating hibernation.

And Tim? He has just reunited with Ariose near Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. He is going to try out solo sailing. As mentioned in previous Ariose Notes, if all goes well, he will assume ownership of Ariose, and consider sailing to more distant horizons. I am confident they will take good care of each other.

It won’t be easy to part with Ariose. I never thought I could feel such attachment to something inanimate. Ariose has been much more than a boat. For Tim and me, our beloved Alberg 30 has been a central part of our lives for much of the past decade. This boat was the focus of a great deal of thinking and learning and consumed heaps of hours’ labour (not to mention making a significant dent in my savings). Who knew that the mental health program manager had it in her to become moderately proficient at fibreglass work, cabin carpentry, sewing canvas, boat painting, and so much more. And through our many miles at sea, and some rather hard lessons, our sailing-related skills matured. Ariose was our transportation and home from which we adventured. Ariose allowed us to realize life-long dreams and sparked new ones. I have memories to treasure. I’m so grateful.

Everything ends – from adventures to the lives of people we care about. As this chapter closes for me, I look forward to whatever is next.

So now, I’m disembarking from Ariose Notes, “our” blog. I’ve enjoyed sharing, and the connections forged with those of you who have been aboard virtually have been special. Ariose Notes will now transition to “Tim’s” blog, a record of adventures from his unique perspective.

Tim – I wish you fair winds and favourable conditions, at sea, and in life.

This is a Legit Ariose Note (finally!): PASSAGE

Apologies for the recent spam posts. Ariose Notes seems to have been boarded by pirates, many Russian ones apparently. We’ve been assured that other than the annoyance factor, there has been no risk to subscribers. Hackers, here be the plank for ye to walk!  

In this Ariose Note, I share a very different passage. It’s been an emotionally wrenching and healing voyage these last 3 months, but not of the sailing sort. Well, that’s not quite true. Sailing has played a part, but not the lead role.  In April, for instance, I sailed for an afternoon along Panama’s lush Caribbean coastline. I don’t remember many details.  My heart and mind were elsewhere. 

So, if you follow Ariose Notes as an Alberg fan, or for the sea adventures (& mis-adventures), this may not be the post for you. If you have other motivations for following, do read on. 

Panamanian sunshine in the form of tropical flowers.

As you may recall from the last post (Winter Update), I was invited to be one of two crew, helping a single-hander move her boat from Panama to Guatemala, to safely wait out hurricane season.  I’ve long wanted to sail the western Caribbean. Mary, a qualified captain and instructor, has lived aboard for most of the last 15 years.  There was so much I might learn from her. And as I consider the possibilities of giving up Ariose but still sailing, I could test out if joining others’ boats might be something I would enjoy.  What an opportunity!

I chose the cover photo of this Ariose Note, a rainbow captured mid-flight – it seemed the perfect illustration of the good fortune and positive energy I anticipated the adventure ahead. 

The day before leaving, I was walking along the road bordering our property. Tim and I are so fortunate to have this land, a diverse piece of northern Ontario woods. I love it all, but in particular, am drawn to 2 ancient white pines that soar above their neighbours. They survived storms and disease, and were probably just a bit young to be taken when the mass logging of white pine for tall ship masts and new cities’ construction decimated Ontario’s forests. I looked up to take in the silhouette of the one with asymmetrical swooping limbs, the one that I think of as the dancer. It wasn’t there! I made my way in to verify what I already knew must be true. It had come down. As I looked at the rotted hollow core, I, too, felt gutted.  Even the seemingly immortal, aren’t. All that lives, dies. 

The next day, I was off to Panama for a month or two of sailing, but that’s not how it turned out. Life doesn’t necessarily follow the plan. 

Descending into Panama City afforded a good view of Panama’s claim to fame, the canal. Dozens of freighters looking like no more than toy boats, were anchored awaiting their turn to take the Pacific-Atlantic short-cut. Upon landing, I was hit by a wall of heat. From sub-zero snowy surrounds to 38 degree humid heat. This was going to take a bit to acclimatize. 

I stayed a few days in Casco Antiguo, the historic part of the city, also known as Casco Viejo. A near-ideal B&B had a collection of bins out its front door… which resulted in some interesting neighbours.

It’s a fascinating neighbourhood. This barrio has been revitalized, and deserves its UNESCO designation.

On my second solo day there, I ventured out, to a less fascinating destination:  the MultiPlex. It’s one of the largest malls in Central America. Shopping, especially in malls, is one of my least favourite activities. But there were a few items needed for the boat and crew, so off I went.

Mary had suggested I take an Uber, but the prospect of stretching my legs after the previous day and a half of travel, and taking public transit to soak up the flavour of “real” Panama City en route, was more appealing. 

A walk to the Mercado Marisco, a fish market and major bus stop, then a short ride, and I was there. Navigating in the shopping centre, I must say, was more challenging. As is typical for Shirley-in-malls, I got immediately disoriented. Before I left the wifi of my B&B, I took note of the stores I needed, but unable to find a map once there, asked employees.  Each provided directions with confidence. Most, however, contradicted each other. This wasn’t a language barrier issue. Izquierda/derecha, arriba/abajo … these are words I know, and the emphatic arm gestures made their directions exceedingly clear. They were just wrong. Is it a cultural thing that Panamanians don’t just fess up and say “no se”? Or maybe a mall employee cultural thing?  And so I went, round and round in capitalism’s purgatory, albeit a comfortably air conditioned one. Hours later, I finally found what I needed, backpack full, and was pleased, mission accomplished, to head back to my B&B.

Not so quickly! A bus pulled up indicating it was going to Panama Viejo. Sounds like Casco Viejo, I thought, so as I hopped on, I asked, Va a Casco Viejo? Driver nodded. Mercado Marisco?, I pressed on, trying to confirm. Another nod. 

Door closed, and the bus lurched forward. After a bit, I realized we weren’t just heading in the wrong direction in order to turn around in these one-ways, the bus was heading in the wrong direction, period. It would likely turn back shortly, wouldn’t it? At least it would get to the end of its route, eventually, and then return, wouldn’t it?  Through the ultra-modern downtown, then to the increasingly deteriorating, some would say seedy, neighbourhoods. I saw desperation but resilience, in the lives of the people who called this Casco home. No other outsiders on the bus, heat climbing to high 30s, and I felt like I was melting.  Guide-book precautions came to mind, about areas of the city where tourists should not go, or if they do, should not stand out. Gulp. I was rather conspicuous with my pasty Canadian winter skin and traveller backpack and nervous aura.  

Finally, I was the last person on. Soon, certainly, it would loop back, and return me to the mall. Nope. No, senora, the bus driver said, you must get off, or something like that, and he waved over to the next block, where a line of buses waited. There, though, taffeta’s are needed, but not sold. Everyone, magically, seemed to possess a pass. I was regretting not following Mary’s advice and grabbing an Uber. 

A helpful transit security senora motioned for me to jump the turnstile. I pushed aside memories from years ago, of scolding one of my kids for pulling this very same manoeuvre, and climbed over, glancing back to offer a muchas gracias. I hoped being in the system, ticket-less, would not come back to bite.  She then shouted to the waiting crowd, asking who was going to the fish market. An older fellow, hand up, was instructed to make sure I got there. He seemed nonplussed to be assigned me as his charge, and took the responsibility seriously. Some time later, after another interesting drive-by tour of parts of Panama City, we arrived. When I began to head toward my B&B, not the market, he was somewhat distressed and insisted I go the way he was pointing. I relented, walked to the market, snapped a photo of the fish. Their expressions likely resembled mine from earlier that day.

Having satisfied my guardian, I turned and headed home

Gina, the 2nd crew person, arrived, and we jumped into an accelerated getting to know each other process. We had much in common, and much to share: recent relationship endings, caregiving aging parents, future dreams, recent retirement (Gina from a fascinating career as a military lawyer/teacher), and more. It had been years since I talked so much – a little overwhelming! I wondered how I would do with TWO other people in the confines of a small boat. 

One of the highlights of our few days in Panama, the Canal Museo,  was just a block from our B&B. Gina and I visited, and I appreciated the added perspective she was able to offer from her career. It was so well curated, a moving presentation of engineering success at horrifying costs. The drive to connect the Pacific and Atlantic, avoiding the perilous shipping route around the tip of South America, would certainly mean world domination for the country that achieved it. For over a century, money, power, and ego fuelled proposals. Then, in the late 1800s, a French entrepreneur, who was behind the construction of the Suez Canal, whipped up investors and began.   

The local Indigenous people (wisely) were not interested in the work “opportunities”, so labourers were recruited internationally. Many blacks from Caribbean islands, less than a generation out of slavery, were hired, and joined others from around the globe, at reduced wages and harsher conditions, though. Accidents took their toll – impossible to know how many gave their lives – but the majority of deaths were due to disease. Malaria and yellow fever, whose transmission was not understood until years later, devastated.   There were many hypothesized causes: diseased “putrid” air, living an ungodly life, associating with “whores”, and more. A remarkably  progressive hospital was built, but ants were pervasive. To ward them off, all the palm trees in the beautifully manicured courtyards were encircled by pots of water, and in the wards, bed-legs also sat in bowls of water. Stagnant water. Mosquito breeding pools of water. If patients didn’t arrive already infected with the dreaded diseases, they contracted them while there. Most people hospitalized, regardless of the reason for admission, did not survive.

Eventually, in a story full of drama, conspiracy, and greed, control moved from the French consortium to the US government, who oversaw the canal’s completion and maintained authority over it and all within a strip on either side. It wasn’t until 1999 that the canal and the 10 Kim wide Canal Zone, an unincorporated territory of the US, was handed back to Panama.

Here’s a few more images before we leave Casco Viejo.

Then, Saturday morning arrived.  Mary had hired a driver for Gina and me, and we were picked us up and whisked us across the isthmus to the Caribbean side of the country. From major freeway to 2 lane high-way to narrow paved road hugging the scenic coastline, to a dirt track, and we arrived at Panamarina. This small boatyard/marina, is tucked in the mangroves, just down road from the fishing village of Cacique.

It was great to meet Mary, and settle in to life aboard Glass Slipper. She provided a thorough orientation, and we enjoyed a few days acclimatizing to the heat, the boat routines, and each other. Glass Slipper is a 31 foot Allmand, with shoal draft keel so able to get into skinnier water than Ariose. With an extra foot length, and an 11’4” beam (compared to our Alberg 30’s 8’8” beam), GS had a remarkably spacious, and well layed-out  interior.  

Every aspect of boat design is always a compromise. This shape that allows a comfortable home reduces sea-kindliness. A couple months later, I got to experience how challenged GS was sailing into the wind. If we were not on a beam reach or the wind further aft, the motor’s help was needed to make headway. But GS is first and foremost a home, and as such, offered much more comfort than Ariose.

I felt a little unsettled being on an unfamiliar boat. I hadn’t realized what confidence came with knowing Ariose so intimately. In worst-case scenarios, I could reach into lockers, in the dark, and lay my hands on whatever was needed. I felt vulnerable being dependant on another person’s maintenance and on their direction where to find things, what to do. I may have pushed Mary’s patience a little when, with still vivid memories of water rising above Ariose’s floorboards (last fall, as hurricane Fiona approached), I asked her for the 3rd time to walk me through the locations of all the thru-hulls.

We rented kayaks one day, and spent a glorious afternoon paddling through (and taking a cooling dip in ) the mangroves, with howler monkeys growling their calls from the treetops above. Magical.

Tuesday, our day to set sail, arrived. I turn devices off at night to conserve electricity, so upon awakening, I powered up my phone. Ping. Messages came through, all from my brother, sent through the night. Ping! Shirl, call me. Ping! Shirl, when you get this message, call. Ping! Mom’s had a stroke. She’s in hospital. A major stroke.  Call me. 

The next 3 days are a blur. 

My grandmother lived with us though much of my teen years. A series of strokes had robbed this fiercely independent woman of her ability to care for herself.  My mother had shared that such a fate would be her nightmare. She was consistent over the years – should she experience a debilitating illness, she would not want to live. When my father requested medical assistance to die as he neared his life’s end last year, my mother made sure all were aware that in such a situation, she would make that choice, too.  I appreciated Mary and Gina’s hugs and efforts to be supportive. My mother may recover, they offered. I knew she would not. I needed to get back to be with her before she died. Now. 

We did sail that day to our intended first anchorage, the lovely little town of Portobelo. Not only was it a good place for Mary and GIna to provision (they would continue on), but it was a better point for me to secure transportation back to Panama City and the airport. 

 It was a blue sky day, with perfect wind and sea conditions, along a lush green coastline. I knew in other circumstances, I would be appreciating the sail, but I wasn’t able to focus. I didn’t feel safe at the helm. I handed it over. My mind was thousands of miles away, in an intensive care unit. There was some solace in knowing that one of my kids was on their way to be with my Mom, my nephew was also on his way, and my brother would be arriving the next day. She would not be alone.

Gina had kindly offered to find a flight home for me. As I was about to pay for the one she recommended, I noticed a much better option, so booked that instead. I noticed a bit of a puzzled look on Gina’s face, a bit of a why-hadn’t-I-noticed-that-flight look, but paid without questioning, and moved on with getting Mary’s help booking a driver to get me to the airport early the next day. W head into town for pizza an a stroll.  Then I packed. And slept. Sort of.

We were up early, to allow plenty of time to get to shore to meet my 7am ride with Christian, the same driver who only a few days ago, had brought us to this side of the country.

  There had been an incident a few weeks previously where a pair armed with knives had swam out and boarded/robbed a boat in this very bay.   Just to be safe, we anchored well beyond swim-distance, so had a longish row to shore. As I pulled at the oars, Mary read aloud that morning’s messages from Christian.  There was only one road between Portobelo and the major (only) highway to Panama City – and – it was blocked! A protest was underway, a common means in Panama of people making their needs known. As much as I respect those trying to better the world, did they have to do so today?? He assured us it seemed peaceful, but there was no way through. My already heavy heart got heavier. He agreed to wait at the blockade. 

We wandered the streets of Portobelo, and soon found a cab, whose driver wandered out from the shop where he was enjoying a morning coffee. Initially, he refused to take me. Why would he be interested in taking a frazzled grey-haired gringo chick to a protest? We were able to connect him with Christian, and although most of the conversation was well above my Spanish comprehension, I did hear several reassurances of No violencia, muy pacifico.  Reluctantly, he agreed. Upon our arrival, Christian crossed the blockade, grabbed my pack, and I stuck close to him as we made a bee-line through the protesters and police to his waiting car. It looked like we would still make it the pre-flight deadline. And we did. Relief.

That relief was short-lived. I easily located the check-in counter, the one that, at 2 hours pre-departure, should have had a long queue. No one there. No passengers, no airline employees, no one who could help other than a cleaning staff who advised me of the obvious. No hay nadie aqui, she said. 

I logged on to the 30 minute free wifi to contact the airline, and once I got through the mandatory questions and Expedia’s well-hidden support channels, the allotted time was up. I would have to wait  24 hours for the next 30 minutes. No problem, I thought, I’ll buy a SIM card. Alas, none would work in my phone. I had been certain it was unlocked, but perhaps it wasn’t.  I watched the clock. Less than one hour to departure, and I wasn’t checked in let alone through security. Yikes. 

After repeatedly pestering the SIM card senora, she finally demanded my phone, extracted a promise that I would need no more than one hour of wifi, and turned her back as she tapped away.  I assume she entered her own wifi code . She handed the phone back to me. Gracias!  I’m not sure who was more relieved – me that I could deal with this situation, or she, that she was now rid of me!

As an aside, I had met Dave Carroll a few months previously. He’s a Canadian east coast artist whose whose poor customer service with this very same airline lead to him penning United Breaks Guitars. The song’s video rocketed him to fame. His tune played in my head as I waded through United’s support line, finally reaching a real human. Not only did she solve the mystery, but I now understood why Gina had not seen this “better” flight.  As I stood in Panama’s international airport, I was informed that I had booked a flight from Panama City, FLORIDA. Unbelievable! Well, with the shock and worry, maybe not so inconceivable that I’d make such a mistake.

I rebooked for early the next day, thanked the agent for correcting my error without charge (You sound like you’ve had a difficult morning, ma’am) and thanked Dave for whatever role his shaming had played in improving United’s customer service. I then found a cheap and unexpectedly charming hotel close to the airport. I tried to relax for the evening. There was nothing more I could do.

I flew home the following day, stopped briefly to pick up clothes, and drove a further 2 hours to my mother’s bedside in intensive care.  For a few precious days, she remained conscious. As the days passed, it became increasingly clear that recovery was not going to happen. It was obvious to her medical team and obvious to family, that is. Not to her.

Unable to swallow, efforts to get sips of liquid or the tiniest spoon-tip of medication-laced applesauce triggered bouts of choking. One incident in particular remains with me. After several minutes of coughing subsided – the kind of wracking cough that seemingly threatened to end her life – my Mom’s head sunk into her pillow. She looked fully spent. 

Shirley, she slurred from her half-paralyzed mouth. I expected her to tell that it was time to die. Instead, she whispered, I’m so lucky this stroke isn’t much of anything. Some people are really affected.  I laughed and cried, and held her close as she drifted off again. 

Was it her lifelong optimism, and ability to will herself out of depression by just not thinking about things that made her sad, that had kicked into high gear? Or was it anosognosia, the fancy medical term for not being able to perceive the realities of a situation, likely related to the stroke’s brain damage? Whatever the reason, my mother, who was fully orientated to where she was and why, to the date, to the whereabouts of her widely spread grandkids, and more, had no awareness of the impact of the stroke she had suffered. 

Her physician talked with her about speeding up the inevitable. What irony. My mother pre-stroke would have gratefully accepted medical assistance to end her life easily and with dignity. My mother post-stroke did not understand why it was even being offered. All she needed, after all, was her hiking poles so that she could head right home. It was only one kilometre, and she had done so almost daily for the 40 years she volunteered at this very hospital.

Instead of walking home with my mother, we moved down the hall into a comfortable palliative care suite, rearranging the furniture so she could watch the birds on the feeder outside her window. We brightened the room with flowers and cards from well-wishers, and art from her great-grandkids. So began a 24-7 vigil, shared with my brother. For 2 long but cherished weeks, we witnessed and hopefully offered comfort to my mother on her final passage. Her spirit slowly withdrew, and eventually, her body realized it was no longer needed. She was just shy of reaching her 90th birthday, an ancient dancing white pine of the human sort. I’m grateful for her well-lived, long life, and for all she has given me and my children. As with my father last year, it has been such a privilege to have been at her side on her end-of-life voyage.

The strain of those weeks was eased by the warm embraces that were the many kindnesses of friends and family, of my parents’ neighbours who have now become friends, and of the many others who cared. My kids came from across the country to join me for a bit. Such precious time together.

After a few days’ break, I launched into the physically and emotionally demanding work of emptying my mother’s 1970’s shag-carpeted home of a lifetime’s worth of memories. Incredible how many memento-filled shoeboxes one person could tuck away into the back corners of every closet.

Some examples? Scrapbooks of the 59 “trips” taken over the course of her life, a ticket stub from 70 years ago – the first date with my father, tailored jacket sewn for my brother with its drawn pattern in her hand, report cards, correspondence, fancy clothing finely crafted for her by her mother, the receipt for my oldest brother’s crib, every wedding invitation ever received, magazines and of course photos. So many photos. There was a shockingly thick stack of newspaper clippings, obituaries of those she had known and loved who had preceded her. On top of that stack was my father’s; there were no further additions to the collection. Maybe this record no longer mattered. It was heartbreaking to have so many of the things my Mom had saved for decades now fill recycling dumpsters.

In the midst of this turmoil, I received a message from Mary. Glass Slipper had made it to Honduras, but with many bureaucratic and weather delays, her crew needed to jump ship. Gina’s 2 months were up and she needed to head home. 

Would I consider returning? The timing seemed terrible. Or was it? I chatted with my brother, and he firmly directed me to “GO!” . He was happy to pick up the executor baton and complete the process of preparing my mother’s house for sale. I always listen to my big brother, or at least, to advice I agree with, so “go” I did. Three days later, I closed the door to a nearly bare house, and 2 days after that, found myself at the airport. It was a strangely deja vu trip, flying off to Central America for another take at this sailing adventure. 

As I held my mother’s hand through her final days and nights, I had much time to reflect. I’m grateful that she passed on her curiosity to me, and it pains me that in looking back on her life, she had regrets. Beginnings & endings … she encouraged me to take opportunities to embrace the life in between. 

I’ll get another post out within a week or so to share my Honduran-Guatemalan adventures (spoiler alert: fui una experientia muy rica!)  Tim and I would also like to let you know what’s up with us, with Ariose, and Ariose Notes. Until then…

Winter Report

April 1st has come and gone, and this cover image is no April Fool’s prank. The snow IS still blanketing us here in northern Ontario. There’s no shortage of available berths at North Bay’s marina!

Despite winter lingering, the months have passed quickly since Tim and I left Ariose near Lunenberg  Nova Scotia. Instead of transporting our beloved Alberg 30 home, Tim and I towed the weight of uncertainty with us. We weren’t sure what was next in our lives.  We’ve spent the past few months figuring it out and making things happen.

First, though, our boat. How is Ariose faring? Very well. 

Early February and Ariose waits patiently. photo credit: George R.

It has been strange to not have Ariose tucked within view, in its boat shed on our property. Actually, though, there’s been a bit of relief. With nearly 2000 km separating boat from labourers, there is no pressure to tackle the never-ending list of boat-work, which is good as we have had plenty of land-based work to complete. We assume Ariose is a happy vessel, having experienced a less extreme, maritime climate this winter.  It’s been reassuring to have our friend George keeping a watchful eye and sending updates. 

And how are Tim and I doing? We’re doing well, too.

We’re both appreciating solo life. Living apart suits us, but we are taking a unique approach to this separation thing. We both love our land, and are grateful to have 130 forested acres of it. Certainly there’s plenty to share. We have no plans to give it up. We’ll continue our co-ownership and for both of us, this will remain our terrestrial home base.

Tim burrowed back into the straw-bale garage/cabin, and has focused on a few interests and projects since our return. Some of these have been his own, and some helping me… more on that in a moment.

Grateful for this bunkie’s respite.

When we got back, I moved into a friend`s bunkie for a bit of recovery and reflection time. (Thanks, F.) It was much like boat living, off-grid and compact, but without worry of dragging anchor. It was nearly perfect, but as autumn ended,  I missed being home.

Serene view from bunkie’s front porch… but I still missed “home”.

I was inspired to build my own tiny space on our property. Tim offered to help. I had over a month before deep cold set in, and expected that would be enough time to construct such a small structure, a mere 8’x12′, or at least, to get it to the point of being inhabitable.   

Balsam en route to new life as a rafter.

Late November, with Tim’s help, I chose a lovely site tucked in our woods near the lake. We took down a reluctant leaning balsam, which became the first roof rafter of my small off-grid abode. And thus commenced THE build.  Four months later, it’s still far from complete, but I have moved in. It’s been quite the learning curve. And quite the effort. My casual “this can’t possibly take long” assessment was way off. It has been a challenging winter build, especially for a novice. Dragging materials through the snow, scraping ice off the previous day’s work, working with frozen tools and frozen toes. Tim contributed his brains and brawn as needed.  A friend and neighbour helped out with his workshop tools and his expertise. (Thank you J.) Another generous neighbour let me stay in his summer house just a short walk down the road.  (And thank you S.) Luxurious warm baths at the end of the day sustained me. 

Similar to our sailing experiences, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the degree of difficulty and the ultimate satisfaction. Let me just say that the satisfaction is high. Very high.

Once the cabin was enclosed, and my mini-woodstove installed, the icy discomfort was left behind. I felt a bit of a proud swagger in my gait as I wandered over to start each day’s work, circular saw in one hand, lumber on the other shoulder. 

Tim did a great job designing, sourcing, and instalIing a solar electrical system. There’ll be no need to ration power… this cabin’s loaded. For water, I’ll bucket it from a nearby spring.

Off grid power dude.

I’m wrapping up the interior’s finishing touches and later this year, I’ll complete the exterior and the landscaping.

It’s especially gratifying that most lumber has been harvested from our land and prepared on our mill, and other materials, like roofing, windows, and siding, we salvaged from demolitions thus rescuing them from a landfill fate. A few items, I did need to purchase new. I now have my own home base, a very simple, very light footprint nest to nourish my spirit

Tim and I will trial this new configuration of living apart but sharing our land. Maybe building a `real`home will be in my future – but definitely not in winter!

And what’s next?

Tim and I both have some sailing adventures ahead in 2023.  Tim is planning to return to Ariose this summer. He’ll test the waters – literally –  getting some solo sailing experience along Nova Scotia’s coast. If all goes well, he’ll assume ownership of the boat and consider voyaging further.

I’m leaving next week to join 2 other women sailing from Panama to Guatemala. Am I excited? Yes! We’re planning a couple leisurely months, enjoying several island groups along the way, and also will have some longer passages as we give the Honduran and Nicaraguan coast a wide berth for safety. 

So, that’s what we’ve been up to this winter, and what we have ahead. I’ll wrap up with one final (I hope!) image of this morning’s roadside icy wonderland. Happy spring to all!