'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness' - Mark Twain
Logbook: Panama - February to May 2010
After spending over three months in the boatyard in Cartagena, Colombia, working on a major facelift for Slip Away, we were ready to get back to our cruising life. We had big plans for 2010 - sailing to the South Pacific - and the first step toward that goal was returning to Panama. There, we would finish up final details on some of our boat projects, transit the Panama Canal back to the Pacific and then prepare for this significant voyage. In early February, we sailed out of Cartagena Bay and pointed our bow toward the San Blas Islands of Panama.
Passage from Cartagena, Colombia, to Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands), Panama (February 7-9, 197 nm, 45 hours). The passage from Colombia to Panama can be a rough one, especially in the winter when the winds often howl along the Colombian Coast. We watched carefully for a good weather window, and when it arrived, we headed out. We would be covering just under 200 miles on this passage, and we definitely wanted to arrive at our destination in daylight because of the reefs and sandbars surrounding these islands. Winds were forecasted to be fairly light - 10-15 knots, so we estimated our speed at 5 knots, and expected to be underway about 40 hours. We left Colombia in the afternoon anticipating two nights at sea and a morning arrival in the San Blas. As we exited the Bay of Cartagena, winds were stronger than forecast - more like 20-22 knots - and we went through a few sail changes, first raising the main, then reefing the main, then deciding to douse the main and sail jib and jigger (headsail and mizzen). This ended up to be the perfect sail combination for these conditions, which settled into 15-20 knots of wind on our beam. The seas were a bit rolly, but we were flying along at 6.5 to 7 knots. The next day, the winds settled down to 10-15 knots, but even though we continued on with reduced sail, we were still moving faster than anticipated, and our ETA into the anchorage was the middle of the night - not good!. Our choices were to try and enter an anchorage in the dark, slow down significantly or stop the boat for a few hours. We decided it was time to practice the heaving-to maneuver, which involves back-winding the headsail and locking the rudder in place such that the boat stops progress and just drifts slowly. About 30 miles out of the San Blas Islands, we hove-to for 8 hours. The maneuver worked beautifully, and we drifted less than 2 miles in those 8 hours. We stood our watches just as we would when underway. We hove-to at 4 p.m., got underway again about midnight, and arrived at Green Island at 10:30 the next morning in good light.
Green Island (February 9-16). Green Island was one of our favorite anchorages when we were in Kuna Yala the previous summer. The anchorage is well protected and there's excellent snorkeling. We thought this would be a good place to work on our boat projects before continuing on to the Panama Canal. We spent a week here and got some work done - Rich installed two new solar panels on our bimini roof, and in spite of some rainy days, Jan managed to get the caprail varnished. We also found time to visit a couple of our favorite snorkel spots.
A highlight of our week in Green Island was spending time with our friends Ralph & Cheryl on Fortuitous, which is a sister-ship of Slip Away. We first met Ralph & Cheryl on the outside of the Baja California Peninsula in 2004 and shared a number of anchorages with them in Pacific Mexico during our first couple years of cruising. We sailed off in separate directions in 2006 but always kept in touch via email. Fortuitous recently transited the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean, and it was great to be reunited with them. Their son Greg was traveling with them for a bit and we enjoyed meeting him. Ralph & Cheryl were quite impressed with Slip Away's facelift and took photos and copious notes on the projects we completed. A few months later, they sailed to Cartagena and hired Flavit to do a similar facelift on Fortuitous.
West Lemmons (February 16-18). After a week in Green Island, we headed to the West Lemmons. We had a great sail - a close reach with 10-12 knots of wind and flat seas since we were behind the barrier reef (19½ nm, 4½ hours). Here, we caught up with our friend Sonny on Valentina. Over the next couple of days, we shared some meals with Sonny and continued to work on our "to-do" list. We were very sad to miss Kay who was back in the States visiting family.
Our return to the East Lemmons was good. The reunion with friends was really fun, and we also enjoyed some good snorkeling and checked off a few more items from our to-do list. We had no storms and Slip Away stayed away from the shallow spots.
Isla Linton (February 22, 47 nm, 7 hours). After those fun days in the East Lemmons, we had a good weather window and the timing was right for us to start making our way toward the Panama Canal. From the San Blas Islands, we would head to Isla Linton to spend one night and then continue on the next day to Colon. We weighed anchor early the morning of our departure and motored out of the East Lemmons anchorage, passing close by Fortuitous and waving good-bye (but having no doubt that our paths would eventually cross again.) Effie left the East Lemmons the previous day to take a friend to the airport in El Porvenir a short distance away, but they were also headed to Isla Linton, where they would be leaving their boat in a small marina while they made a trip back to the U.S. Effie arrived in Isla Linton shortly after us, and we had one last get-together with Mac & Alan that evening. It was a nice bonus to have had that time with just the four of us.
Shelter Bay Marina, Fort Sherman, Panama (February 23 - March 5). The next morning, we continued on our way to Colon, at the entrance to the Panama Canal (28 nm, 4½ hours). We had previously made a reservation at Shelter Bay Marina, where we would prepare for our transit of the Canal. Panama is often referred to as the cross-roads of the world, a description we find to be very appropriate. After tying up to our dock, we looked around and were amazed at how many boats we recognized - ones we had met all over in our travels. It's also quite an international crowd here, with boats flying flags and displaying hailing ports from all over the world.
We had some tasks to complete with the authorities here, and at the recommendation of friends, we hired an agent named Tito, who guided us through officialdom and kept us safe and secure in Colon, which has a horrible reputation for crime. Tito's driver spent a couple of days running us around to the port captain, immigration, canal office and bank, and as an added bonus, he would make a stop at a grocery store on the way back to the marina. Tito also rented us the requisite 150' lines for tying up in the locks and sold us sufficient tires to serve as fenders and protect our new hull as we transited the Canal.
Shortly after arriving in Shelter Bay, we met George & Claudia, a Swiss couple on Dreamtime, who asked us to line handle for them when they transited the Canal. We were happy to do that for them, and they offered to return the favor and line-handle for our transit. Dreamtime's canal transit went well. It started off on the right foot when their Canal Advisor, Guillermo, came on board and we recognized him as one from our transit three years ago. We up-locked in the afternoon, tied to a mooring in Lake Gatun about an hour before sunset, took a refreshing swim/bath in the fresh-water lake, ate some dinner and hit the sack. The next morning, Fernando, the advisor for the second half of our transit, arrived just before dawn. We motored across Lake Gatun, down-locked smoothly, and Dreamtime's good luck continued when they secured a mooring at the "always full" Balboa Yacht Club.
Panama Canal Transit (March 5-6). A few days later, it was Slip Away's turn to transit the Canal. (We found it ironic that we transited the Canal three years ago on March 4-5, and our transit dates this year were March 5-6.) Claudia & George from Dreamtime, as well as our friend Andrew from Mariposa joined us on Slip Away as line handlers. We had an international crew with Claudia and George from Switzerland and Andrew who was born in Great Britain but lived most of his life in South Africa. In the early afternoon, we motored out of Shelter Bay Marina to the Flats Anchorage and picked up our Advisor Edwin. We were a little disappointed that Guillermo wasn't on board Slip Away again, but Edwin did a great job, and Guillermo was present as the advisor on the work boat to which we tied for up-locking.
Since there are quite a few cruising boats transiting the Canal at this time of year, the Canal Authority usually arranges to tie two or three of the cruising boats together in a "nest" as they lock through. Transiting that way generally works out fine, but stress levels are often pretty high as the coordination and teamwork doesn't always go smoothly. It's especially nerve-wracking during the up-locking process when the waters are extremely turbulent and there's a risk of crashing into the wall of the lock. (That's a rare occurrence, but it has happened.) Needless to say, with Slip Away's new paint and gelcoat, we were a bit on edge. However, we got VERY lucky and were not assigned to a nest. We side-tied to a work boat (like a small tug), which tied up against the Canal wall. We pulled into the first lock, tied to the work boat, and stayed tied to this boat through the three Gatun locks until we reached the lake. The crew on the work boat handled the lines attached to the Canal walls, and our line handlers just had to make sure we were securely tied to the work boat. Up-locking went well, and we again made it to a mooring in Lake Gatun about an hour before sunset. We skipped the swim this time because the weather was cool and breezy, and we all retired shortly after dinner because we knew it would be an early start the next morning.
Shortly after dawn the next morning, the pilot boat dropped off Max, our advisor for the second half of our transit. We untied from the mooring and started our 26-mile motor trip across Gatun Lake and through the Gaillard Cut to the Pedro Miguel locks. Shortly after we got underway, Max asked if he could drive Slip Away. He told us he likes driving boats, and we were happy to turn the wheel over to him. While crossing the lake, Max pointed out the Guyayacán or "gold trees," which were in bloom in bright yellow. They were beautiful, and they were all over. These trees had just blossomed in the past couple of days because they were not out when we transited the canal on Dreamtime just four days before. When we arrived at the Pedro Miguel lock, Max turned the helm back over to Rich and let us know that we would side-tie to the tour boat Islamorada to down-lock. This again made it easy for us because all we had to do was tie up to the tour boat, and they would handle the lines that were attached to the walls of the lock. As we approached the tour boat, we recognized it as the same one to which we side-tied three years ago when we transited these locks. How ironic! Once tied up and as we descended, we chatted with the tourists aboard Islamorada, who were extremely curious about us and asked lots of questions. We separated from Islamorada after each lock, and then retied once they were secured against the wall of the next lock. It all went smoothly, and our line handlers had another easy day - especially since Max was out on deck helping to tie us to the tour boat.
After the final down-lock, we untied from Islamorada and motored away happy with our smooth and successful Canal transit. Max telephoned the Balboa Yacht Club and confirmed that they had a mooring for us (thanks to our friend Debi on Serenity who helped make that happen!). When the pilot boat came to pickup Max, the transfer went smoothly, and the two of us breathed a sigh of relief since three years ago, our encounter with the pilot boat put a crack in our caprail. We all bid a fond farewell to Max. He was the best. We had very good experiences with all of our Canal advisors, but Max went above and beyond the call of duty. His enthusiasm for his job was heartwarming. He keeps a log of all the boats for which he has served as an advisor, and he asked us to sign it. We were happy to add our glowing comments to the ones already there from the others he advised before us.
When we arrived at the Balboa Yacht Club, there was a party in progress. Latitude 38 Magazine was sponsoring a "Pacific Puddle Jump" party, which was being held at the Yacht Club's restaurant. They had guest speakers, door prizes and some free drinks. We arrived at the party just as the Tahiti Tourism Board representative finished her presentation, so we missed most of it, but we did manage to get a free beer. It was also a good opportunity to meet some of the other folks heading out across the Pacific. And it was here that we bid farewell to our friends on Dreamtime, Attitude and Boree, who were all leaving the next day for the Galapagos. They had a good weather window for the passage, so they were off. We would have loved to join them, but we still had some things to do to get ready.
Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City (March 6 to April 24). Our first few days in Panama City found Rich continuing to work on the "to-do" list, while Jan shopped for provisions. Grocery prices in the South Pacific and especially French Polynesia are extremely high, so everyone heading in that direction stocks up as much as possible in Panama, where availability is good and prices are reasonable. We spent hundreds of dollars on each trip to the store and walked out with a carts piled high with canned goods, paper goods, cooking oils, pastas, baking needs, cereals, snacks, chocolates, meats, cheeses, rum, beer, wine, etc.
Rich's surgery (March 18). Before heading out across the Pacific, Rich needed to see a doctor. He was pretty sure he had a hernia, which had manifested itself during our final weeks in Cartagena. It wasn't painful or terribly bothersome, but we thought it would be best to have it checked out before sailing off. Rich met first with a general practitioner (Dr. Joaquin Vallarino), who referred him to a surgeon (Dr. Pablo Duran). Both doctors spoke fluent English. Dr. Duran did an ultrasound and confirmed that he did have a hernia, in fact a double hernia. He told Rich that it posed no immediate threat, so there was no great rush, and he could schedule surgery whenever it was convenient. When we shared with him our travel plans, he had Rich on the surgery schedule in less than 48 hours. Rich's initial consultation with Dr. Duran was on a Tuesday evening, and he went into surgery at noon the following Thursday.
Dr. Duran advised us that Rich would be well enough for us to travel in a couple of weeks; however, other doctor friends (fellow cruisers) recommended a recovery period of six weeks. Given that our sailing plans would have us thousands of mile away from medical help, we decided to take the more conservative recommendation and wait six weeks.
Final days in Panama City (April 13 to 24). When Jan returned to Panama, the plan was to finish provisioning, run a few other errands and get on our way. Our friend Debi on Serenity (who has a car) and our favorite taxi driver Rogelio helped us complete these final tasks. One of our more interesting errands involved a visit to the U.S. Embassy. The pages of Jan's passport were chock full of stamps, so she needed to have some pages added to it. Ironically, it was more of a hassle to get the pages added in the States than at the Embassy in Panama, where the process took about 20 minutes (no appointment needed!) It was our first visit to an American Embassy, and this one is quite a large compound. Security was high, but the folks who worked there were pleasant and efficient.
Before leaving, we also needed to make sure we said some last good-byes to friends. We splurged for lunch at a very nice Peruvian restaurant (Segundo Muelle) with our friend Debi on Serenity and her boyfriend Victor (one of the lancha drivers at Balboa Yacht Club) before casting off. We attended the weekly cruiser gatherings - dim sum brunch at Lung Fung's and pizza night at La Eskinita. We were close to departing Panama City when some unexpected visitors showed up - Tom & Kathy from Jumbie with Pam from Tisha Baby and then Ralph & Cheryl from Fortuitous. We put off our departure for a couple of days so we could enjoy a couple of final get-togethers. We were starting to think we might never leave Panama City when the credit card machine at Balboa Yacht Club quit working the day we wanted to check out! But with that problem resolved in short order, we filled our diesel and water tanks, paid our bill and waved good-bye.
Our primary boat chore here was cleaning up Slip Away. Two months in the Balboa Yacht Club left her terribly dirty, and Rich scrubbed down her outside while Jan worked on the interior. After the weekend, we moved over to the north-side anchorage, which was now empty since all the locals were back at work. We anticipated enjoying a nice quiet night here, but just at sunset a big fishing boat came in and anchored right next to us, with their generators running and music playing loudly. They anchored so close that we were afraid they were going to swing into us, and we ended up pulling in some of our anchor chain to get a bit further away from them. The next morning, we decided to seek refuge further from the city.
Isla Pedro Gonzalez (April 28 to May 4). When we left Isla Taboga, our destination was Isla Pedro Gonzalez in Panama's Archipelago de las Perlas, which are sparsely inhabited islands in the Bay of Panama. We had visited a few of these islands three years ago when we traveled through this area, but we had not yet been to this one, which was recommended by our friends Tom & Lilianna on Gloria Maris. Isla Pedro Gonzalez appeared to be an ideal location to hang out for a few days and stage for our next passage to the Galapagos Islands. Strong southerly winds were forecast for the next few days, and we wanted to wait for those to abate before taking off on this voyage. Isla Pedro Gonzalez is a large island, and our cruising guide showed two anchorages on the north side and one on the east side, so we could find good protection from these conditions. We had light winds on our passage from Taboga, so we ended up motoring the distance (39 nm, 7 hours). The skies were squally as we pointed toward Isla Pedro Gonzalez, so we sailed south a bit until the squalls cleared out and then turned east toward the island. We were transitioning into the rainy season here, and rain and squalls were becoming more frequent.
During our six days at Isla Pedro Gonzalez, we checked out all three anchorages. We had the first one to ourselves and spent a couple of days there, swimming, exploring in the dinghy and of course working on a few boat chores. Our first night in that anchorage we had one of those rainstorms for which Panama is famous - it poured and poured for hours. If we were really motivated, we could have taken advantage of all that fresh water and gone out to scrub down Slip Away's decks, but that didn't sound so appealing at 2 am. The next evening, we saw a small power boat with six or seven people in it puttering around and exploring. We waved to them and they stopped by to say hello. They told us they were on a boat which was anchored in one of the other anchorages - close by but out of sight. The next morning, the small power boat returned with a couple (Ted & Aleja) in it, and they invited us to dinner that evening. We happily accepted the invitation and moved Slip Away over to their anchorage so we wouldn't have far to travel home after dinner. As we approached the anchorage, we were somewhat surprised to see that these folks were on a HUGE boat - maybe 150 feet long.
We dressed in our best clothes (thankfully, Jan had done some shopping in Cincinnati!) and headed to dinner that night on "Pacific Provider." We had a delightful time meeting and spending time with Ted & Aleja (shareholders in the boat), the boat captain Rich, and the rest of the crew. Before dinner, we drank champagne and munched on delicious appetizers - from chips and freshly made pico de gallo to lightly breaded fish fingers made with their catch of the day. Captain Rich then gave us a tour of the boat, which is a former Alaskan crab fishing boat that was refit as a luxury motor yacht and marketed under a "shared ownership" program. It was gorgeous. After the tour, the crew served an exceptional dinner - the most tender steak we've had in a long time, delicious salads and a dessert of chocolate mousse. To top it off, they sent us home with a big bag of freshly baked oatmeal raisin cookies. We enjoyed this evening of luxury, and there was no stuffiness in this group. Everyone - from the shareholders to the captain and crew - was down to earth and friendly, and conversations flowed easily with all. When we woke up the next morning, "Pacific Provider" was gone, having departed in the night on their way to transit the Panama Canal.
We spent our final few days at Isla Pedro Gonzalez in the east-side anchorage, and this one was the prettiest, with a white sand beach that stretched for about a mile. We met up with another cruising couple - Randall & Alison on Tregoning - whom we met in Panama City a couple of weeks before. We had immediately hit it off with Randall & Alison and were looking forward to spending some time with them. Over the next few days, we shared meals, our life stories and cruising tales. One morning, we went ashore and found an archeologist working on a dig which was funded by the Smithsonian Institute. After checking out the dig, we went for a short hike, which was both fun and educational since Randall & Alison are both botanists.
While we were enjoying our time in Isla Pedro Gonzalez, the weather was improving for our passage to the Galapagos. We finished up preparations for the passage and intended to leave on an afternoon during which north winds were forecast. As our planned departure time approached, we noticed the skies to the north of us were very black. We're big chickens when it comes to heading out in storms, so we decided to wait until the bad weather passed. Just before sunset, we were hit with a storm that brought heavy rains and winds that blew 30-40 knots (highest gust 45). During the storm, we questioned our decision to stay put because we were anchored on a lee shore, but both Slip Away and Tregoning's anchors held despite the strong winds and 3- to 4-foot seas that blew up. (To give our anchor some extra assistance, we started the engine and idled forward to reduce the pressure.) After the storm passed, the winds and seas went completely calm, but after that adrenaline rush, we decided we'd enjoy this calm anchorage for another night, get a good sleep and leave the next morning.