Hilary Thomson and her partner Liam go in search of the ideal surfing spot while sailing Costa Rica, cruising down the country's Pacific coast
Reflecting back on our three months sailing Costa Rica – months that were by turns mellow, adventurous and frustrating, but most definitely worthwhile – it would be easy to forget that we had never actually planned to go there at all, writes Hilary Thomson.
My partner Liam and I had our sights firmly set on the South Pacific when we began our cruise from Canada’s west coast in 2019.
In the spring of 2020 we were in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, mere weeks away from making the leap into the big blue.
Wild Rye, our Wauquiez Centurion 32, was packed to the gunwales with spare parts and provisions.
That, of course, is when the COVID-19 pandemic rearranged our priorities and thoroughly scrambled our tight three-year-circumnavigation itinerary.
After spending the remainder of 2020 back home in Canada while Wild Rye waited patiently on the hard in Mexico, we knew we had to get back on the water or risk letting our dreams of travel slip away.
By the spring of 2021, our options were still limited.
The majority of countries in the South Pacific were closed to travel due to the ongoing pandemic.
The hurricane season from June to November affected the Pacific coast from Mexico to Central America. We decided on Costa Rica: it was relatively close, had minimal hurricane risk, and its borders were open. We scrounged some charts and headed south.
After a slow passage, we arrived in Costa Rica in early June, at the start of the rainy season.
Living with the swell
One of the only things we knew about sailing Costa Rica was that the country is famed for its surf.
Liam was eager to visit world-class destinations such as Ollie’s Point, of Endless Summer II surf film fame, and Pavones, which has one of the longest lefts in the world.
I was interested in Tamarindo, Nosara, and Dominical, which all have consistent beach breaks with waves for all levels.
The summer is the best time of year for surfing in Costa Rica.
Big, consistent swell pumps northward from winter storms in the southern hemisphere, and Costa Rica’s coastline is perfectly oriented to catch that swell and transform it into surfable waves.
Liam was in heaven.
I was learning that the price for eventually becoming a salty, competent surfer was a complete relinquishment of my personal dignity, as well as a ferocious sinus rinse several times daily.
Unfortunately, in our visions of surfing our way down the coast, we had overlooked one crucial fact: on its way to the beach, the aforementioned swell rolled right through the middle of many of our anchorages.
I began taking Gravol on the hook to combat the nausea; Liam began sleeping on the floor, where there was the least sense of motion.
Most of the time, neither of us slept well. The surf affected our trips to shore as well as our time on the hook.
After nights spent rolling uncomfortably, there was nothing I craved more than to get off the boat and get my bearings on solid land.
The numerous gorgeous beaches – dark sand fringed by dense jungle, with the rambunctious chatter of parrots and the intense roar of howler monkeys echoing from the trees – looked serene and appealing from Wild Rye’s rolling decks.
However, between us and paradise lay a dinghy ride that ended, more often than not, in breaking waves.
A wild ride
Liam explained the general principle of surf landings prior to my first encounter in Playa del Coco.
The concept is simple: get in close to shore, pick a nice small wave, and row or motor in on the backside of it.
I was, at first, deceived into thinking that the manoeuvre would be as simple as the description.
On that first attempt I rowed too close to shore, resulting in the dinghy surfing in at high speed on the front of a wave, before said wave broke directly on top of us, filling the dinghy and soaking Liam to the skin.
The locals looked distinctly unimpressed. Liam looked mutinous.
Subsequent attempts tended to end in a similar fashion; the most progress I ever made was realising that I should just row in to shore in a bathing suit, so that when I inevitably got drenched, at least I wouldn’t ruin my town clothes.
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The combination of rolly anchorages, stressful rides to shore, and getting completely thrashed by the ocean on our surf outings had me wishing, more often than I would like to admit, for the flat calm waters of our home port in the Pacific Northwest.
It was all worth it, though, because after nearly three months of searching we found the surf spot of our dreams at a break called Pan Dulce.
Tucked just inside Cabo Matapalo, on the south end of the Osa Peninsula, it’s a gently peeling point break that can run for up to 300m.
To all appearances it looked like a completely exposed roadstead anchorage, but for a few days the wind and swell lined up perfectly to keep Wild Rye’s motion to a minimal, gentle pitching.
For the first time we were comfortable enough to enjoy the place for its special, quiet beauty as well as its waves.
Sea turtles poked their inquisitive heads up in the lineup, humpback whales surfaced just offshore, and pairs of scarlet macaws nested in the nearby trees. It was utterly magical and surreal.
In search of water
Although we continued to get a regular soaking on our trips to shore for the duration of our time sailing Costa Rica, on the bright side, we were not getting rained on nearly as much as we had expected.
Costa Rica’s rainy season runs from June to November, and we had been expecting torrential daily downpours.
When we cleared into the country in June, our conversation with the manager at Marina Papagayo, the northernmost port of entry, seemed to confirm our worry that we were in for a soggy summer.
When we mentioned that we only planned to spend one night at the marina before heading further south, his response was: ‘You want to go further south? At this time of year?’
When we couldn’t be swayed, he waved us off with some dubious parting words: ‘If you get tired of being wet, come on back up here.’
We consoled ourselves with the thought that at least while we were getting wet, we would be able to collect a lot of rainwater.
I looked forward to long daily showers, ample water for doing laundry and consistently full tanks. simple daily rhythm
After our ominous conversation at Marina Papagayo, we naively blew through our water like cash in a casino, assuming that one good downpour would be enough to top the tanks right back up.
After two weeks, we’d hardly had a drop of rain and we were down to ten gallons. Then five.
We enacted extreme rationing measures (only one pot of coffee per day) and gazed with disenchantment at the wispy white clouds that stubbornly refused to develop into thunderheads.
For the entirety of our stay in Costa Rica we found thundershowers to be less plentiful and disruptive than expected.
When it did rain, rather than dampening our spirits, the showers provided a rhythm that had been lacking in hot, dry Mexico.
We loved watching the towering thunderheads build as heat rose off the land every morning, and relished the cool, refreshing effect of clouds and showers that pulled the overpowering tropical heat out of our skin.
The acute feeling of relief we experienced every time the rain came was equalled only by our relief when the hot sun arrived the following morning to dry out our damp stuff.
The cycle of dry and wet, hot and cool, became an enjoyable aspect of our time in the tropics. going with the flow
Our three months sailing Costa Rica taught us that you don’t know how something will turn out until you try it.
Every new experience comes with its share of unforeseen challenges; on the flip side, many of the things we worry about never cause us any trouble.
Our plans change so often that we wonder why we bother making them at all.
Every time we relearn this valuable lesson, we inch a little bit closer to what Liam calls our ‘Zen cruising state of mind’: a state in which we worry less and just let events unfold.
We are almost always pleasantly surprised.
Tips for sailing Costa Rica
Be prepared for rolly anchorages, especially in the summer months when the southwest swell is at its largest. While most anchorages have good holding, they can be uncomfortable.
Budget for some extra time in marinas, or escape the swell by tucking up into either the Gulf of Nicoya or Golfo Dulce, which are sheltered by Costa Rica’s two large peninsulas.
From November to late April, strong Papagayo winds affect northern and central Costa Rica.
The Papagayos are strong, intermittent northerly winds that occur when cold high-pressure systems from the North American winter meet warm, humid air in the Caribbean and funnel southwest through the Cordillera pass in Nicaragua.
They frequently reach speeds of 30 to 40 knots, and can be accelerated by the shape of the land; watch out for this phenomenon in Bahía Santa Elena, Cabo Santa Elena, and Golfo Papagayo.
During the rainy season, from June to the end of November, winds will typically be light, so prepare to motor a lot, have your light air sails ready, and be patient. If you want to sail rather than motor, plan to make short hops and make use of the afternoon onshore breeze.
Rain squalls can bring short periods of stronger wind, as well as rain heavy enough to impair visibility; they generally occur in the late afternoon or early evening. With the rainy season comes an increased risk of lightning.
There are many techniques that aim to minimise damage in the case of a lightning strike – mostly involving grounding the metal components of your boat to the keel – and it pays to do some research.
Useful guides and publications for sailing Costa Rica
Cruising guides for Costa Rica are limited.
Explore Central America Part 2 by Eric Baicy and Sherrell Watson is excellent. It is available online in PDF format, $23, (www.svsarana.com)
Charlie’s Charts Cruising Guide – Costa Rica by Margo Wood, 3rd edition (Paradise Cay Publications, £45)
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