Costa Rica’s Little Gem Isle de Cocos

On our second trip across the Pacific, we stopped at different places. Join us on Costa Rica’s Little Gem Isle de Cocos.

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With nothing more to worry about than craving succulent roast chicken and gooey ice cream, we sliced through the ocean, enjoying the stuff dreams are made of. The concerns of motoring much of the way temporarily held at bay. Leaving Acapulco, Mexico for Isle de Cocos we were blessed with perfect sailing for four whole days.

The thirty knot easterly had been concealed from forecasts. Ignoring our plaintiff cries of “that’s not fair”, the wind inevitably clocked around to the south. Pounding into building seas, the tension caused some serious vertical creases to drop down from my eyebrows.

The unwelcomed southerly meant a possible run to Marquesas or back to Mexico, neither appealing at this stage. For two days we allowed the wind to carry us wherever it pleased while we weighed up the pros and cons of altering course to the Marquesas some 3,000 nautical miles away. Eventually, the wind backed slightly, pointing us toward the Galapagos group of Islands, which was a definite improvement. We debated stopping there.

Noel was keen; I wasn’t ready to revisit the islands – not yet. My heart was firmly set on Cocos. Basically, we flapped and farted about for a good few days before agreeing, at 3 am between shifts, to motor to Cocos Island. Necessary repairs were now a major factor in our decision.

Costa Rica's Little Gem Isle de Cocos
Costa Rica’s Little Gem Isle de Cocos

The northeast and southeast trade winds meet around five degrees north and south of the equator, respectively. Pyewacket II joined their gathering and we had a brief taste of the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone*). Squalls loomed on the horizon large and lively. Lightning burst from the sky playing games with my unruly imagination.

Cocos Island

Two days from Cocos blue sky pushed back the ballooning black and molten clouds, the winds eased and the ruffled sea became as sleek and shiny as a new coin. The ocean beneath was the colour of indigo as Isle De Cocos loomed out of the white haze of mist. Racing the approaching night our eyes strained to locate the mooring buoy; the exquisite surrounds lost on the practicality of safety and sleep.

As darkness swept over the island, our radio continued to stay silent upon requests for permission to enter the bay and to gain advice on mooring.

A concert of tides and rapid currents synchronised nicely with hauling up the mooring. A battle ensued with boat, buoy and brute strength. I lost, gifting a boat hook to Neptune. Swapping roles, Noel took on the heavy heaving and with much effort he folded lines into quick knots on our bow that held us fast.

Fending off fatigue we covered sails, furled lines and organised Pyewacket II into apple-pie order. Before we could indulge in the delicious satisfaction of a successful voyage, the Park Ranger puttered over. We had to move, we had picked up a mooring that was not in service.

Not one sliver of light broke through the tangible black that night, not one star blinked. With the knowledge of rather hard and invisible rocks nearby, we followed the Ranger’s swaying spot light deeper into the small black bay to pick up the new mooring. Calmer currents allowed us to tie up in just a few moments. With a cool chardonnay, icy beer and crunchy chips, we dined on deck in awe of our surroundings that we couldn’t see, too lazy to switch the empty gas bottle and cook a meal. Amid yawns, relief and excitement, sound and smell were heightened. Silence sat on the blackness, tranquillity washing over us. Carried along the night was the smell of green, wet and lush.

The scene craved a dinosaur

Nestled in the small Bay de Wafer, were six boats now. Three Ranger boats, a tourist dive boat, a local fishing boat and Pyewacket II. The rolling anchorage deterred decent sleep, which allowed me to watch dawn push through the black, revealing a striking spectacular. The green smell transformed into a visual of lush of growth cascading down the sheer rock face. Waterfalls tumbled between the leafy vegetation to the craggy shoreline. Hundreds of frigates swirled overhead, singing the song of freedom. Above the birds, great clouds rolled off the tips of the small cliffs. The scene simply craved a roaring dinosaur to crash through the carpet of jungle. With intrigue tugging, I could hardly wait to explore and search for treasure. According to legend, in the 19th century, pirates used Cocos to bury their plunder within the remote hills. Dying first from disease, execution or battles, the pirates never returned to collect. I didn’t like my chances though, over the years numerous expeditions, armed with treasure maps, had left the island empty-handed. Through the centuries, since its discovery in the sixteen hundreds, the “Island of Coconuts” has been a resting and replenishing point for ships, whalers and a temporary home to pirates and exploration parties.

Anchored at Costa Rica's Little Gem Isle de Cocos
Anchored at Costa Rica’s Little Gem Isle de Cocos

Back to the present, with our homemade courtesy flag and yellow Q customs flag idly flapping in the breeze we welcomed the Park Rangers onboard with cold coke and biscuits. Our Spanish was still shamefully scant, so we were grateful for a translator. The two Rangers sat in our cockpit and played ‘good cop – bad cop’. The good guy translated, while the other acted austere and exacting. The usual paperwork was required and studied, plus proof of our marine qualifications. Fortunately, we are both commercial skippers and marine Engine Drivers, we always carry our licences..

Repairs and budget breaking costs

Our request for refuge to fashion repairs was met with an intense frown. Our main sail needed some stitching and our furler was jammed. Negotiations ensued; the cost of our stay was a budget-breaking $US85 (POUNDS??) a day, whether venturing ashore or staying onboard. The tightening of worry lines and jerking down of mouths became an Oscar winning performance for Noel and I. But we were not partaking in amateur dramatics; we had had a difficult journey and now needed to repair imperative equipment. Only after we proved, beyond any doubt that we had bona fide repairs did the rangers eventually agree to a little leeway. They explained that many sailboats seek sanctuary, claiming false problems. The Rangers inspected our awaiting repairs and actually watched us make these repairs, puttering past several times to ensure no theatrics.

Anchored at Costa Rica's Little Gem Isle de Cocos
Anchored at Costa Rica’s Little Gem Isle de Cocos

Our bodies were still in the rhythm of the ‘shift’ sleep pattern and refused to let us rest well. For the first day we sewed sails, freed the furler, baked bread and made yogurt. On the second day we explored. Having used much of our diesel punching into headwinds for many days, we were also keen to replenish. Our prior internet research revealed that diesel was available here. However, things had changed. Going green meant the Island now used the power of water to generate electricity, and this meant no diesel onshore. Discovering that the large tourist dive boat had spare fuel filled us with hope. They would sell us some if the Rangers gave permission for the transaction to go ahead. As we explored the island, the Rangers and the tour boat skipper sought permission from their supervisors.

Sharks and exploration

The pumping Pacific swell wraps around the island and rolls into the bay, making landfall an interesting prospect. Weaving in our trickling wake a dozen or so small sharks followed our progress. As the beach loomed we steadied our rowing dinghy, waiting for calm amid the circling sharks. With a practiced eye, collectively we knew when the time was right. Noel propelled the oars into action atop the flat water. With the fear of a roller taking us for a sandy ride I hopped out of the dinghy too early, hoping my inelegant gait scared off anything lurking below with sharp teeth. Without thought or care, I was soaked to the thigh, a mere trifle and often soggy occurrence in our watery way of life.

Onshore, diesel may not have been available but the internet was. Modern computers and radios adorned the offices. With regular staff changes, the island’s keepers have everything they need; magazines, books and culinary treats are no longer a useful bargaining chip for cruisers.

The base: Anchored at Costa Rica's Little Gem Isle de Cocos
The base: Anchored at Costa Rica’s Little Gem Isle de Cocos

Around the base there was an unexpected hive of activity of about a dozen people. Volunteers are scattered between partially constructed wooden huts. The Coast Guard has a presence here as well. Amid the work, one guy snoozes in a rocking hammock another is doing his laundry. The Rangers multi-task; they protect their island from fishing; they fix, repair and maintain the site. Their most dangerous activity is fighting off the Japanese in their cruel catching of sharks, slicing off fins, to then throw them back. They work eight weeks on four weeks off, which allows time for maritime study back on Costa Rica’s mainland.

The tiny community feels purposeful in a peaceful way within ideal surroundings; waves crunch onto the beach, frigates call from above and coconuts and limes plop onto the compacted sand. Hidden beside the main base are mountains of, not bullion, but confiscated fishing gear. Piles of snap connectors, plastic buoys, hooks, miles of line and heavy rope lay in neat, abandoned heaps. Even buoys with high-tech radio signalling equipment are scattered amid the debris.

After a brief escort around the functioning part of the island we are pointed in the direction of a swimming hole, about an hour’s walk away. With sweat coursing through our salty skin and wobbly sea legs trying to balance on tilting terra firma, we trek through the verdant jungle. Deer and boar apparently roam the island, too shy to reveal themselves. A dinosaur has yet to be sighted! Mosquitoes are not a problem, there are too few bodies for feasting.

Our hike took us over an extraordinary home-made bridge, fashioned from confiscated fishing gear. Gingerly stepping on the swaying structure, the bridge jingles, bobs and emits a little groan. It is a unique and oddly fitting structure, linking two pretty paths. After the bridge we climbed for what felt like a fortnight until we came across a dam of fresh water and gratefully peeled off our constraints. The cool water almost set our hot bodies hissing steam as we dipped into salubrious relief.

Diesel supply

On return to the base, treasure-less, the diesel situation had not moved on. Radio calls finally revealed that a letter should be composed from us to the Rangers, seeking permission for fuel. Within ten minutes we were armed with appropriate prose. Still we waited. Finally as it started to rain we were granted permission to purchase the fuel from the tourist boat. With two 20-litre jerry cans Noel stoically rowed back and forth five times; the rain cooling and the relief of replenishment calming.

The officials at Costa Rica's Little Gem Isle de Cocos
The officials at Costa Rica’s Little Gem Isle de Cocos

Although the clouds persistently hang around the peaks, it actually didn’t rain much where we were moored. Happy to be there, our three days encompassed repairs, rest, exploration and re-fuelling. As we departed from the secret island that we would never see again, we peeked around the corner to the other anchoring location, Chatham Bay. There sat another sailboat, we had no idea they were there and would have enjoyed kindred spirit company. But it was time to go; hurricane season was almost upon us. With renewed enthusiasm we set our course for Ecuador and further traversing of the Intertropical Convergence Zone. As we approached the ITCZ, it greeted us with a bewildering array of layered greys, cracking winds and streaking lightning.

*The Intertropical Convergence Zone, ITCZ for short is also known to sailors as the doldrums.

From about 5° north and 5° south (depending on land temperature) the northeast trade winds and southeast trade winds converge in a low pressure system, this is the ITCZ. In this region, solar heating forces the air to rise (convection), causing plenty of rain and lack of horizontal movement of air (wind). Thunderstorms are prevalent in this area, they are normally short-lived, but plentiful.

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