Changes in Latitudes

It has been a few years since we first set sail on La Roja and a lot has changed since then; but my suspicion is that if one’s sense of adventure and determination to overcome whatever obstacles get in the way are in tack, much of what I wrote in an article published in the popular sailing rag, “Lattitude 38, Changes in Latitudes” in October of 2000 will still ring true. The following is an excerpt from my E-Book: Dolphins Forever On Her Bow:

Article published in popular sailing rag, “Latitude 38, Changes in Latitudes” October 2000:

La Roja – Roberts 44

Bob and Marjorie Lambert

“We left our homeport of Anacapa Island Marina in Channel Islands Harbor in April of last year and have slowly been making our way south. We arrived in beautiful Costa Rica in June and plan on hanging out here through the end of hurricane season. As with most every other cruiser we’ve been privileged to meet, getting a copy of ‘Latitude 38’ ‘out here‘ is a real treat. And it’s even more fun to read now because so many of the contributors are folks we’ve met along the way. Anyway, we thought it was time for La Roja to add her tales.

Sea of Cortez

Sea of Cortez

Our agenda for the last 18 months has been to take it real slow and enjoy each place as we go. This has proven to be a magical formula. We spent last summer in the Sea of Cortez. The abundance of sea life along with the beauty and tranquility of the area was awesome. Almost every night we fed ourselves as though dining at a smorgasbord of the sea. We often had choices: triggerfish, grouper, mullet, yellowtail, Dorado, sierra, as well as many varieties of rock scallops. We often would discuss what we wanted for dinner before heading out so we could be selective in our kill, and we almost never came back empty handed.

We sailed – yes, sailed, which is what we try to do at every opportunity – as far north as Refugio above Bahia de Los Angeles. All along the way we enjoyed the friendliness and hospitality of the people. In Aqua Verde, we were invited to a ‘Quinceañera,’ which is a party for someone turning fifteen years old. In Santa Rosalia, we sat in the street watching the De La Hoya/Montoyo title fight on a television propped up on a fence. In Bahia de Los Angeles, we attended a pig roast. At Lemona we swam with whale sharks. At Refugio, we delighted in the sights and sounds of huge numbers of sea lions. And throughout the Sea we often sat mesmerized by the beautiful sunsets as manta rays and pelicans played in the background. We reluctantly took our leave in September, promising the locals – and ourselves – that we would return the next summer.

La Roja at anchor

La Roja at anchor

Once we made the crossing to the mainland, however, we found more magic! We spent the next seven months enjoying the beauty of mainland Mexico and the warmth of her people. We stopped at isolated anchorages where we were the only boat, and we also stayed at luxurious marinas where we were totally pampered. When we travelled by bus, we often found ourselves sitting next to chickens or buckets of fish while being serenaded by a guitar-playing singer. We attended many a street party, and marveled at the colorful parades with many simple but well-decorated floats depicting the Christ child – while the masked demons danced alongside. We were invited to local houses for meals, and marveled at the generosity of our hosts. We dined at wonderful restaurants, but also had food from street vendors that was equally delicious. At one cockfight we were the only gringos, and learned how to bet on the different games. We rode a Panga (a “Panga” is a type of modest-sized, open, outboard-powered, fishing boat) through the jungle to a crocodile farm; took local children and their parents sailing; rode in the back of pickup trucks; and laughed and danced at many a fiesta until the early hours of the morning. We were awakened by the music of bands playing on the beaches in small towns, practicing for yet another fiesta. We sat atop fences enjoying rodeos and cheered at many a local soccer game. When we finally left Mexico – after making our way through the dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec (an area prone to heavy weather; hurricanes often form there) unscathed – we were filled with wonderful memories of incredible people and places – and again vowed to return soon.

When we lowered the Mexican flag and raised the Guatemalan flag, it was almost a year to the day that we had left the United States. Some of the boats leaving Mexican waters elected to head straight for Costa Rica and bypass the “forgotten middle.” In retrospect, we’re so glad that we decided to continue trekking slowly and thus stop at Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. They are not to be missed. In Guatemala, we took the bus from Bahia Naval to Guatemala City, which while very busy, has a number of historical buildings and museums. Our next stop was Antigua, which was like stepping back in time. We stayed there for three days and will visit again from the Caribbean side.

We add our voices to the cruiser chorus praising the loveliness of Barillas Marina in El Salvador, and the generosity of its owner, Juan Wright. There is only one word to describe our experience there: “Wow!” From even before we arrived, we were treated with love and respect. Somehow word had reached them that that we were experiencing engine trouble, so Ameritas, one of Juan Wright’s employees who speaks fluent English, worked on her day off just to be able to assist us! She did not relax until we were safely tied to one of their moorings. When we rode the dinghy over to meet her, she tearfully welcomed us. I know this will sound overly dramatic, but I feel that Ameritas exemplifies what all of humanity should strive for: unconditional love. She treats each and every cruiser that comes through with the same level of love, concern and graciousness. And she is just one of Juan Wright’s many employees who share that attitude.

Juan Wright's beautiful crater-lake home in El Salvador

Juan Wright’s beautiful crater-lake home in El Salvador

Our stay at Barillas Marina lasted a month. We were flown back and forth, along with Jeff and Ann from High Drama, to the capital of San Salvador in Juan Wright’s personal plane; stayed at his condo and were treated to an incredible dinner with five waiters anxiously waiting to fill every cup and plate; and were assigned a personal driver to chauffeur us around town. The driver, Hector, then took us to Juan’s beautiful crater-lake home high in the mountains, where we spent a week. We felt like royalty but protested to Hector that we couldn’t continue to accept all Juan’s generosity. “Do you want me to lose my job?” he responded.  So we sat back and enjoyed ourselves, as to do anything else would have been insulting. We later rode in a caravan through the jungle to watch a man call monkeys out of the trees; we attended a native’s 100th birthday party and were honored to be one of the first Americans the townspeople had ever seen. We also rode in a high speed Panga to a beautiful white sand island, where we basked in the sun and we were also thrilled to meet the President of El Salvador!

When we were finally able to pull ourselves away, we decided to bypass Nicaragua and head straight for Costa Rica. As we set out under perfect sailing conditions, we jokingly asked each other: ‘Wonder what the traffic is like on the 405 today?‘ Within hours the sailing conditions took a turn for the worse, as we had strong wind and current on the nose with occasional squalls. At times we were down to two knots and less. Two days of battling these conditions wore us out, so we consulted our charts and decided to pull into the “No Name” (that is the name assigned to it on the chart) anchorage in Nicaragua. We hadn’t heard great things about the anchorage, but figured it would at least give us a break. As luck would have it, adverse winds and current were so strong it took us nine hours of tacking to make the final 20 miles! By that time we both agreed that the 405 would have been preferable that day. We finally made it into “No Name” – and were delighted to find a calm and pristine anchorage. We sat on deck that night watching the thunder and lightning in the distance, sipping our boat drinks and repeating over and over again: “Aren’t we lucky not to be out there!” We ended up staying at “No Name” anchorage for three days. There were a few locals fishing, and they were very pleasant. Two teenage boys showed us how to hunt octopus, then gave us one; along with detailed instructions on how to prepare it for dinner.

San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua

After heading back out, we decided to stop at San Juan del Sur, the last anchorage in Nicaragua. It was a 20-mile sail to get there, and we had one of our most exhilarating sails to date! With 20-knot winds forward of the port beam and flat seas, we occasionally hit 8.5 knots. Along the way we played tag with the Passage 52 “High Drama,” (another cruising boat) and marveled at the beautiful coastline. We dropped anchor in San Juan del Sur in less than three hours.

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Port Captain turned out to be most helpful. He told us that if we stayed right in town, he would sign our Zarpes (A Zarpe is what the Spanish-speaking countries call an outbound clearance document, obtained from customs/immigration officials when you depart from a country or in some cases, from any port within a country) from El Salvador as a stopover, and not make us go through the entire check-in process. While the town of San Juan del Sur was charming with colonial architecture and very clean; the water was very rough out on the bay and lots of boats were on questionable moorings. In fact, we watched one sink. So we left after two nights. But we promised that we’d return – by land- as it’s easily accessible from Costa Rica.

We left Nicaragua on May 31, and while having a beautiful wing-on-wing sail, entered Costa Rica. What a jewel! We stayed in Bahia Elena for a week, enjoying the sounds of monkeys and parrots, and swimming in the beautiful water. Some fishermen came up to the boat and gave us eight lobster tails. When we asked them what they wanted in return, they said a jug of water. When we threw in some baseball caps, their smiles of delight lit up the anchorage – and our hearts. We were hooked!

Costa CangregjoWe’re now in Playa Panama, Bahia Culebra, anchored off of Hiram and China’s (Her family nicknamed her China because she looks Chinese. She does not know what her given name is!) “Costa Cangrejo” restaurant. Hiram and China operate a poor man’s version of Juan Wright’s Barillas Marina in El Salvador. Not only do they offer wonderful hospitality and fantastic food, but they also arrange different activities, such as horseback riding, trips to the river with catered food, canopy rides and so forth. They also make diesel and gas runs, and have water, showers and laundry facilities. The anchorage is so calm and protected that locals bring their boats here for shelter during “Papagayos.” (The Papagayo wind is a north to northeasterly extremely strong wind and can last up to several days.)  Each morning we’ve been entertained by dolphins, and dorado literally swim around our boats. We haven’t figured out how to catch them yet, but we will! It rains about 40 inches a year here, which is about a fifth as much as it does further south. China gives the cruisers Spanish lessons on Friday mornings for the price of “desayuno” (breakfast) and salsa lessons at night. They also have cable TV, so we get our news fix. There just doesn’t seem to be any reason to hurry along!

As they say in Costa Rica: Pura Vida! (Pure life.) Thank you for letting us share La Roja’s story.”

Bob on deck

Buying La Roja (Our Sailboat)

Buying the boat to go cruising in is the most important  investment. It is also the most nerve wracking as it has to be sea worthy but it also must be something you can afford. After much searching for just the right boat at the right price, here is an excerpt from Dolphins Forever On Her Bow describing our purchase :


I cannot believe it was just a year ago that we bought La Roja. We looked for several months, up and down the coast, trying to find a blue water cruising boat within our budget. We had made a pact that if the dream of sailing away was going to work we would have to leave on our journey debt free. Always the ones we would fall love with were way out of our price range and the ones we could afford were junk.

I will never forget the day Bob called me at work and excitedly told me:  “Babe, I found our boat!” I can still feel the thrill I felt when he said those words. I had begun to feel that our dream was always going to stay a dream. How could we possibly afford to buy a cruising boat, give up jobs, property, possessions, and sail away?

The moment Bob said that he had found our boat, I mean the very instant he said the words, I knew we were going to somehow reach our goal. He went on to describe her, telling me how seaworthy and perfect she was. It was when he got to the part about how one needed “vision” to be able to realize her worth, I became nervous. “What do you mean, vision?” I asked. “Well,” he explained, “she’s been neglected for several years. She’s owner built and not quite finished. There’s no holding tank, electricity, instruments, refrigeration, etc. But her hull is hand laid fiberglass, bullet proof. The inside is all mahogany; standup engine room with a Westerbeke 4-108 diesel, a good engine. She’s a Bruce Roberts’ design offshore 45′ cutter, with a beam of 13’3″ and a flush deck. She was built in Santa Cruz, California, and designed for heavy weather sailing. All her standing and running rigging was designed for heavy weather sailing. She has all self-tailing wenches and is rigged to be easily handled by one or two people. I think with a little work she will be not only a beauty, but definitely seaworthy as well. She has been sitting for quite awhile and the salesman seems to think the owner is anxious He’s asking $49,950, but I think we can come in much lower. Do you want to see her?

Of course I wanted to see her! We made arrangements to meet with a yacht broker the following day. Much to Bob’s surprise, I loved her at first sight. Frank, our broker, smilingly told me that there had been a couple of men interested in the boat in the past, but when the “other-half” was brought onboard it was always the same ending, a resounding “NO!”  “One lady,” Frank laughed, “had screamed at her husband for wasting her time and threatened divorce should he make an offer.” 

AlbionWe were sailing aboard Bob’s 33′ Hunter sailboat, Albion, with some friends when the cell phone rang. Bob went below to take the call. Since we had only met three months earlier and Bob was still finishing up a very messy divorce, we had agreed previously to keep our plans secret. When he came topsides he said not a word about the phone call. It was not until our friends had their backs to us that he whispered: “We just bought a boat. A big-ass boat!” My breath was taken away yet it was hard not to shout “Oh My God!” out loud. I had told myself that our low offer would never be accepted. All day we would look at each other when no one was looking and fight back laugher as Bob would mouth: “We just bought a boat! A big-ass boat!” Amazing.


 Our offer to buy the boat was contingent upon the results of a haul out inspection and survey. The surveyor was Hans J. Andersen in Lompoc, California, who had a reputation of being fairly tough and much respected. His inspection report was pages long, and began:

 “The vessel, OWO, is a home built vessel constructed to the design of Bruce Roberts. She was constructed on a batten mold using C-Flex fiberglass and hand laminated fiberglass built up on heavy scantlings. The vessel hull is heavily constructed and is framed with internal stringers, floors and bulkheads. The keel is fitted with four columns of steel shot for ballast and additional trim ballast is noted within the bilge. The deck is well secured and is found to be in good condition. The superstructure consists of a wooden cabin trunk which is in good condition. Bulkheads are well secured by secondary bonding of fiberglass and the job was done in a better fashion than most production builders. The finish of the vessel is in poor condition with the vessel needing to be cleaned and painted. Below decks the vessel is approximately 85% complete.”

Rotted floorThat wasn’t so bad, so far. But then the report went on to say: “There is a significant amount of rust and corrosion noted on the engine and its accessories. The heat exchanger appears to be corroded and in need of repair or replacement. The exhaust piping from the manifold to the aqua lift muffler is in poor condition and needs to be replaced.” The report continued on listing defect after defect, everything from needing to replace all the hoses, pipes, valves, to replacing all the electrical circuits and wiring. It ended with nineteen Primary Recommendations for Immediate Compliance; eleven Secondary Recommendations for Routine Maintenance, and six Tertiary Recommendations for Regulatory Compliance.”

I was dumbfounded, but Bob was not concerned with the report. In fact, he was pretty pleased. He said the report more or less confirmed what he had originally said, that she was basically very seaworthy, but needed a lot of work.

I was still a little shaken and very much unconvinced. We were having a cup of coffee in a corner of the marina still going over the report when Mr. Anderson found us. I looked on in amazement as he shook Bob’s hand and more or less reinforced Bob’s feelings by confiding to us verbally that even though the boat was not the prettiest boat he had ever seen, her construction was some of the best he ever surveyed and she was built to go anywhere, safely. I was astonished

The really good part about the report was that we were able to reduce our initial offer by $2,000 successfully.

Cover for Cruising BookFrom: Dolphins Forever On Her Bow

How Did We Afford to Sail Away?

La RojaWe lived aboard our sailboat and sailed from Santa Barbara, California, to Panama. We lived the cruising life for over five years before selling our sailboat in Costa Rica and returning to the United States. People frequently make the comment to us that they would love to sail away for a few years, but could not afford it. How did we do it?

The most expensive part about the “cruising” life is the boat and outfitting it before you take off.  With due diligence though, and perseverance, one can find an affordable used blue water cruising boat. (Important tip: A good refrigeration system is a must. Got to be able to make ice!)

Once you actually begin your journey, the expenses tend to be fuel (yes, sometimes you have to turn the engine on), food, alcohol, boat repairs and maintenance. Surprisingly, food was not that big a cost. We got very good at fishing, not only with lines but spear fishing. 1D027847The sea is bountiful. Between spear fishing, line fishing, and clamming, we had a smorgasbord of seafood. Every little village had fresh fruit and vegetables. If you learn to eat where the locals eat and avoid the tourist spots, eating out is even cheap. The most expensive part of our food bill was the alcohol. But with a little ingenuity, we solved that problem. In Mexico we bought a case of bottled beer, for which they charge a deposit fee. Once that fee is paid, the beer is extremely inexpensive. The downside is that we had to lug the beer bottles from the boat to the beer store to trade them in. Some of the cruisers got tired of doing that; but Bob and I bought a little pull wagon which made it a lot easier. Before we left Mexico, we traded them back in and got our money back from the original deposit.

Being self-sufficient is one of the most important assets in the cruising lifestyle. Part of being self-sufficient, is at least being somewhat mechanical. If you are not mechanical, living aboard a sailboat is not something you should consider. There is always something that needs fixing, no matter how fancy and expensive your sailboat is. Before we took off, we had completely remodeled our boat, changing out all the electrical and plumbing. By the time we were finished, we knew every part of her. Bob is extremely handy (retired firefighters are often jack of all trades!) and did most all of the maintenance and repairs that came up. But even so, parts cost money. Bottom paint and varnish cost money, both items you need to keep up on a boat.

Bob and I became very proficient at not spending money. In fact, we went one whole month one time without spending a dime. That being said, we met cruisers who headed out thinking that they would live off the land and did not have any monthly money or savings to cover the cost of living and had to turn back. The moral of this story is that one can live very economically living on a sailboat, but you do need enough money to cover normal expenses, plus an emergency fund.