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Western Caribbean Cruising, Part 4:  Providencia, Colombia to Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Rose of Sharon Anchored in Panama.by Sharon Kratz, s/v Rose of Sharon 

We utilized charts DMA 2006 and DMA 28041, Reed’s Nautical Almanac and Cruising Ports: Florida to California via Panama for information regarding anchorages on the Islands of Providencia and San Andres, Columbia; Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

The passage from Providencia to San Andres, Columbia is about 63 miles, including the channel leading from the first sea buoy to the anchorage, which is five miles.

We continued to buddy-boat with S/V Wayward Wind of New Orleans, a 41′ Oceanis 440, owned by a couple we’d met at Isla Mujeres, Mexico, in 2005. Rose of Sharon is a 35′ Westerly Corsair with a modified fin keel but even with all her sails out and under engine power, Wayward Wind was usually ahead of us by 2-3 hours. We would switch from VHF to SSB and check-in with each other every two hours.

We said this several times as we prepared to depart Providencia, Columbia: “How can San Andres be nicer?” We’d heard San Andres, Columbia had more services (including functional ATM machines), but we were captured by the charm of  Providencia and its kind, welcoming people.

We weighed anchor at 5:40 a.m. but Wayward Wind left the anchorage before daylight and they are a much faster boat than we are, so I was concerned about our arrival time. I am always concerned about any passage that might put us into port at night, and this one was no exception. We raised both sails and turned on the engine. It would be approximately 63 miles to San Andres. I kept doing the math: average speed, 5 knots would be 12 hours. Close.

We consistently maintained 6.3 knots, and with occasional wind pushes we approached the anchorage at San Andres by 5:00 p.m. I still say planning for worst-case scenario is the way to plan passages, but it’s such a relief when I am wrong, which is often the case. Except one time, when I had figured we had to maintain 5 knots on an overnighter to arrive at San Pedro, Belize in the morning:  At some point during the night, we caught up with another sailboat. The next thing I knew, we were heeled, hair on fire, doing over 7 knots and Joe had a maniacal grin on his face. “What are you doing?” I demanded. “Are you actually trying to race that other boat?!”

“I’m not racing!” Joe exclaimed. “I’m winning!”

I pointed out that our current rate of speed put us near the entrance to San Pedro at 3:00 a.m. and sunrise would be at least two more hours. Doing wheelies for two hours near a reef-protected anchorage is kind of like circling an airport for two hours. It’s no fun and it might be dangerous. Joe sighed as the other sailboat passed us. It’s a guy thing.

Approaching San AndrasPassage making for two months had not prepared me for the appearance of high-rise hotels and big-city skyline. San Andres looked like civilization! No, it looked better than civilization – it looked like a fabulous place to be.

The only way to enter the anchorage at San Andres is from the south end. You have to pass the island, then turn to the west and then back to the north to get past the reef. When we turned into the wind and dropped the sails, it was a bit rough but when we had to turn broadside to the swells to ease past the reef, I truly thought we might suffer a knock-down from the waves. We rolled dramatically from starboard to port in 9′ swells and I held on for dear life. The television, which had hit the floor at least three times since 2004, was double-tied and strained at its harness.

Once inside the reef, it was dead calm, my favorite sailing situation. I was excited to be in the middle of such bustling water traffic. A huge imitation pirate ship loaded with tourists passed us going out to the Caribbean, everyone waving and cheering, and I could almost smell the rum punch as they motored along. A coast guard vessel zoomed by and the officers, all smiles, raised their hands to us in greeting.

Art of Wayward Wind had relayed something about dropping anchor to his port side but I confused the information and Joe didn’t think there was enough room in the crowded anchorage anywhere. We wove in and out of approximately 15 anchored cruising and working vessels, dropped anchor in 20 feet of water close to a shoal and coral bed, then backed up and the boat was in six feet of water. We were in-between two shrimp boats, behind a sailboat and near what appeared to be an abandoned boat.

Joe and I toasted each other with rum and warm Kool-Aid® (it’s not as bad as it sounds), ate a quick supper and hurried to our bunk, where we enjoyed a comfortable breeze that whispered through the boat all night in the quiet anchorage at San Andres, Columbia.

The next morning we plunged into a frenzy of activity. Art and Darlene, our buddy-boating amigos, never let the grass grow under their feet and usually they have completed check-in and made at least one initial land tour before we’ve finished our first cups of coffee. But the sight of this dynamic island and its treasure trove of tourist traps motivated us! Visions of sugarplums and restaurants danced in my head.

Med Moor MarinaThere is one marina at San Andres, and that is Nene’s. (There is also a private yacht club, but I believe it has mooring balls and dinghy dockage only.) We wanted electricity, water, internet and fuel, not necessarily in that order. I was suffering from internet withdrawal but had adopted an “it will happen when it happens” attitude that comes naturally to cruising. As it turned out, it didn’t happen in San Andres. Nene’s Marina said it had wifi but it didn’t work. They were waiting for a repairman and kept pointing to their roof as they explained it and I nodded and smiled as if I understood them, but I really didn’t.

The handsome man who was managing the marina was a very nice guy who said he wasn’t the “real” manager. He wore a skimpy bikini and not much else, which I appreciated, and his management style was much looser than his bathing suit. This is to say he didn’t really manage anything. He handled the paperwork and cold beers, took our money and whenever a problem was presented to him, he said he had a good plan to handle it but we discovered his plan was to disappear.

Once again, an agent is necessary to check-in at San Andres. Since we were not sure how long we were going to visit, we decided to check in and out all in the same day. But first we had to dock at Nene’s.

I take pride in being the “take her in and out” driver of our boat. Joe does the hard stuff, like monotonous autopilot steering, following seas steering, and too-rough-to-handle steering. I take the boat in and out of dockages. I love the challenge of not hitting (or hitting) the dock, the way her bow turns sharply to port if I slam her into reverse, her quick response to the turn of the wheel . . . it’s my favorite part of boating. Joe is a control freak, no doubt about it, and it took almost ten years for him to acknowledge that I might be good at this one thing.

Not anymore. It may be another ten years before I get behind the wheel again, after our experience at Nene’s marina. I had two chances to get it right – arrival and departure – and I messed up big time both times.

Here is information from http://www.sailonline.com/, written by Michael Benarrosh of The Moorings Company®, and I wish I’d read it before I tried to Med Moor at Nene’s Marina.  Here was the situation:  Wayward Wind and Rose of Sharon made reservations to Med Moor at Nene’s Marina. Just before Wayward Wind pulled in, a boater from Florida whipped in and took a spot on the far left side of the dock, putting out one anchor line. Wayward Wind worked its way as far to the right side of the dock as she could and put out two mooring lines. That left the middle of the dock and what seemed to me to be a confusing network of other boats’ lines to navigate.

When Med Mooring . . . Make sure everyone knows that you are the boss. Avoid screaming at your crew.

That didn’t happen. While I was backing our boat toward the dock, Joe screamed at me, Art and at one point Darlene on Wayward Wind screamed at me, the sailor from Florida screamed at me and a wiry little man named “Arnoldo” who dinghied out and then later dove our lines screamed at me too.

Before you enter the harbor, you might want to call the Harbor Master on your VHF and ask if there are some specific instructions you might need. He might also assign you to a particular transient area (like dock B, south of the harbor.)

Nene’s Marina had a VHF radio but did not respond to it.

You also want to know which way your boat backs up, if you have never tried this before. Sailboats, when backed up, have a strong tendency to veer to one side or the other, depending on the propeller rotation.

Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I would have insisted on practicing backing the boat up in the anchorage. On the other hand, there wasn’t much room to maneuver in the anchorage and I thought I knew everything there was to know about steering my boat.

Gear and things to have on the ready:

  • Stern lines coiled and ready to deploy freely.
  • The anchor person has to make sure the anchor chain is going to deploy freely, without snags. Not a good time to have one of those!
  • All fenders tied to the side and 1 or 2 at the stern. Also a good idea to have a crew with a free fender ready to fend off anywhere necessary.
  • Binoculars.
  • Hand-held VHF if the harbor Master will communicate with you.

As much as possible, you want to choose a spot lying in the same direction as the wind, since it is much trickier to do this with the wind on your beam. The harbor Master in Gustavia, St. Barts, FWI, for example, does not allow bareboat charterers to med-moor in the harbor when it is too windy.

We had every spare line on the deck, Joe was at the anchor, and we had two used-to-be fenders ready (When other people see our fenders, they ask what happened to flatten them so badly.). We had 10 knots of wind on the beam.

Now round up the boat. When you do this, beware of other boats' anchor rodes, as some can lie pretty far up their bow. Start backing up in the direction of the spot. You will need to get some steerage speed when doing this. Drop your anchor when your stern is roughly at the bow of the neighbor boat. If there is enough room in the harbor, I like to drop my anchor even further than that. The anchor crew lets the chain run.

About 5 feet from the wall, instruct the anchor crew to snub the anchor, usually by braking the windlass. Hopefully, the anchor will dig at this point. Keep backing up hard until you are about 2 feet off the dock. Usually, at this point, you can throw your lines to one of the spectators on the dock — you know, those guys watching and waiting for you to screw up. If nobody is ashore, a crewmember will have to climb up the dock somewhat, to tie the lines through dock cleats or bollards. One of the techniques I like is to pass the lines around the cleats ashore and return them to the boat. This allows adjusting the lines from the boat and a fast release when casting off, without help from someone on the dock.

Once the stern lines are properly secure, take up on the anchor rode and adjust your position to the dock so that your transom is not going to bump into it but is yet close enough to allow your crew to board and leave the boat.

As best I can recall from my nightmares afterward, I was doing well, easing our boat backwards and straight into the spot I was supposed to aim for. Arnoldo was in a dinghy near our boat and he was yelling incomprehensible instructions and sometimes he would speed into my line of vision, making violent circular gestures with his arms. He either wanted me to turn the wheel or spin myself around in the cockpit. What I also did not understand was that Joe was on the bow of the boat and had dropped the anchor. See, no one explained that part to me and I didn’t know that he’d dropped anchor because I was looking the other way, behind the boat, as I backed up.

Everything was going fine, the boat was easing very slowly and carefully, then our starboard stern swung directly toward Wayward Wind’s port bow. I looked down and saw a line with an empty milk jug floating directly behind my prop. I slipped into neutral and tried to follow the cacophony of directions: “You’re doing fine! You’re okay!” from Art. “Put it into reverse!” from Joe. Then, “Neutral! Neutral!” from Joe when, at the same time I shouted, “I’m in neutral! Neutral!”

“Reverse!” Joe replied, but all I could see was that line sliding slowly under the rear of the boat and Darlene, poised and ready to push us off her boat, and Art running up and down his starboard deck and Arnoldo zipping around in his dinghy and the entire situation seemed to be fraught with danger.

I panicked and slammed the throttle forward, away from Wayward Wind and the ominous milk-jug line, not caring if I ran over the annoying Arnoldo.

The engine stopped. I leapt to the key and turned it on, jumped back behind the wheel, again put the throttle in forward and ignored the waving arms and shouts from everyone except the guy from Florida, who was now standing on the dock, watching but no longer concerned because it was apparent I was only going to wreck my boat, not his.

Then the boat stopped again and everyone became quiet. I stood in the cockpit, completely at a loss as to what to do next.

“She’s wrapped the line around the prop,” Art said to Joe. He didn’t have to shout because only one flat fender separated our boats.

“I don’t want to be a sailor anymore,” I said to Art. From the look on his face, I suspect he didn’t think I was much of one to begin with.

Arnoldo stripped off his shirt and jumped into the water with a knife. Within minutes he had cut the line and we were able to work the boat backward into our spot. Arnoldo took the four lines Joe handed him and strung them from the boat to the dock. We still had the anchor set in front of us.

I could not remember the last time I’d cried, but I cried now, small tears trickling down my cheeks and snuffly drips falling from my nose. I’d made such a mess of everything! But I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself because the agent appeared with forms to fill out and the Immigrations man needed our passports, and as usual, we didn’t have enough pesos to cover our exit fee even though I still had 2,000 lempiras from Honduras that no one would take.

As it turned out, the entry by boat into San Andres, Columbia has no fee and the exit was $50 USD, less than the agent at Providencia had charged. The Port Captain, Immigration officer and our agent enjoyed Aguila beers on the marina’s patio in-between processing documents.

Later, Art apologized, saying some of his instructions could have been confusing for me and he understood how, if I felt we were in a dangerous situation, it was logical to try to pull out and try again. That was nice. Joe apologized, saying he realized he should have put the anchor out very taut, stopped to explain what was going on, then played the anchor line out until we reached the dock. That was nice too. I still felt like a doofus, but figured when I safely got the boat away from the dock and out into the ocean I would redeem myself, even if only in my mind.

DockedWhen Art whipped out a stainless steel collapsible ladder that reached from his stern to his dock, Joe recalled the wonderful ladder Roger Goodfellow of the Waterford Yacht Club had built for us. It was a wonder in design and workmanship because it broke down into pieces so that we could mount them, then secure four jerry cans to the boards on each side of the boat. When needed, it could be converted into a ladder using small planks and bolts we had stored below. Roger had marked the boards and the small planks so that it would assemble correctly. All you had to do was match A to A, B to B, and so on.

Following our med mooring experience, Joe knocked back two warm beers, bummed a cold beer from Art and set to work putting the ladder together while I tidied up the boat below stairs . Art and Darlene secured their boat then waited patiently for us to go ashore.

Joe put the ladder together carefully and slowly and then discovered he’d lined up A with D, C with B . . . making attaching the last board impossible, so he undid some of the steps and reattached them to their necessary specifications.

By then it was nearing late afternoon and all of us had to be at the marina when our agent returned with the paperwork. Art and Darlene stayed on their boat while Joe and I made a quick trip to an ATM machine. It took our ATM card, and we didn’t have to use our credit card, so things were looking up!

We returned to the marina in time to complete the paperwork with the agent, pay him for his services and buy him a beer. We were officially in – and out – of San Andres, Columbia. It was time to explore!

San Andres is the largest island in the archipelago of the Seaflower Marine Biosphere Reserve. It is surrounded by a broken reef system, but the barrier reef – the one cruisers are most concerned with – is unbroken and runs about nine miles from the island’s north and south ends and at its widest point is .049 mile.

San Andres, Columbia would have been our vacation site for many years, if I had only known about it. The island is surrounded by the clean, blue Caribbean waters and its white sandy beaches are often deserted, despite the fact that over 61,000 people live and work there. Columbus discovered San Andres on his fourth voyage to the “New World.” Spanish and English are spoken there because even though the Spaniards first settled the area in 1510, they couldn’t hang onto it once the English Puritans elbowed in, later bringing Jamaican slaves. The island’s beauty is unmatched, but its diversity of ethnicity is what makes San Andres so wonderful!

Several of the upscale hotels are all-inclusive, with room rates ranging from $50 - $200/night. Most of the restaurants reflect their Spanish, English or Jamaican owners’ heritage and several have four-star presentations and well-prepared cuisine. Our first dining experience was at Sailor’s Bar and Restaurant, a popular and large restaurant situated at the end of a delightfully decorated walkway and overlooking the anchorage. I’d like to say the food and service was excellent, but it was mediocre. I’d go back in a heartbeat, though, because I really liked the landscaping!

Shopping in San Andres can take you to another level of ecstasy because in addition to the small vendor stalls (where the prices are unbelievably low!) located on and off the main road, there is an outdoor shopping mall with several upscale department stores, boutiques, specialty shops, and souvenir shops.

The shopping mall was blocked off to vehicular traffic and its design was contemporary concrete and designer brick. In most Central American streets, if you drop your trash on the ground no one notices. In this pristine outdoor shopping mall, I had a feeling that a litterbug would get squashed by the locals. “This is ‘first world,’ ” said Darlene. “Totally ‘first world!’ ”

We walked and shopped ‘til I dropped on one of the concrete benches and declared a time-out. I needed an ice cream cone to renew my energy.

The next day we rented a golf cart and with Art driving, we tore around the island as fast as our little cart would take us. Joe is terrified of mototaxis and golf carts on busy roadways and this one was no exception. Art skillfully dodged tanker trucks and speeding cars while Joe kept up a running commentary about what kind of vehicle was barreling down on us from the rear, because we had no rear-view mirrors. “Bus! Big bus!” he would shout as a local bus pulled up so close behind us I could have reached up and touched its windshield wipers. Occasionally Joe would scream in terror and his knuckles turned white from hanging onto the golf cart, but none of us paid him any mind.

My favorite part was when we chugged, slowly up a steep hill to see the Baptist church I insisted that we visit (because I love church architecture and this one was in the guidebooks). We were in a bad neighborhood, to put it lightly, and the people on their front porches stared at us in surprise. We could tell that not many old white people in golf carts visited their neighborhood. When we waved, they didn’t always wave back.

Baptist ChurchAt the church, Art and I jumped out, took the necessary photos then we wove our way back to the golf cart around a man who did not smell very good, had tangled, matted hair, and looked a bit stoned. He followed us, asking us for smokes. At this point, Joe was not concerned (the golf cart wasn’t moving) but I think Art was. He jumped behind the wheel and took off with a lurch, making a u-turn in the street and rushing back down the hill we’d just struggled up.

We sped down that hill like white lightning. I could see a blur of people, houses, trees, dogs . . . And Art’s screams of “My foot’s off the gas! My foot’s off the gas!” could not drown out our combined voices shrieking, “Slow down! Look out! Wh-o-o-o-a-h!”

We drove around the entire island in a few hours, making occasional beer stops, food stops, and photo stops. A man on a motorcycle followed us much of the way. He was driving while chewing on a sugar cane stalk like a starving man, and eventually his determination to stay with us made us nervous. Art had read somewhere that tourists who wandered off to remote areas of the island were sometimes the victims of robbery and I wished he’d told us that before I left my pepper spray on the boat.

You tend to feel very safe in places like San Andres, but it’s not a good idea to get complacent about personal safety in Central America. Heck, personal safety is up for grabs in many parts of North America! But we roamed free, unmolested, all over the beautiful island of San Andres, Columbia, and it is top of my list of places to revisit.

At Nene’s Marina, the boater from Florida had approached Joe several times, telling Joe that Art’s two mooring lines and our one anchor line were on top of his anchor line. He was very rude about it. Joe responded that we had put our respective lines down where the marina man (Arnoldo) had told us to put them, so it was up to the marina to help him out. Art made an effort to discuss the situation with the Florida boater but was put off by his aggressive and hostile attitude. Then, Joe and I went to the marina manager and told him there was a problem with the three boats’ lines being tangled and the marina manager said he had a plan for how to straighten out the lines. The morning the Florida boater departed, the marina manager disappeared, which was his plan.

As the Florida boater eased away from the dock, Joe and Art went to the bows of our boats and tried to play out the lines, helping the other boater to safely retrieve his anchor. I’m not sure where it went bad, but the next thing I knew, the red-faced cruiser from Florida was screaming and waving his fists at Joe and Art. He pulled up our anchor chain, Art’s mooring lines and was still in a tangled mess.

“I told you THREE TIMES to straighten out your lines!” he screamed at Joe.

“Hey, we’re out here trying to help you, trying to give you slack, you little (expletive deleted)!” Art replied.

Joe has a slow response time. It was two days later when he decided what he should have said to the volatile boater. But Art was gunning for bear, so when the Florida boater unleashed another torrent of accusations, including declaring Art’s and Joe’s birth statuses to be illegitimate, Art invited the cruiser to “Come over here and say that!” which certainly would have been worth the price of admission because Art and Joe are both six-plus-foot guys and the cruiser was not, but the cruiser angrily and quickly motored out of the anchorage. I kind of hoped he’d hit the reef, then I quickly tried to take it back because I had messed with my karma and you shouldn’t wish disaster on anyone.

“If he’d put his anchor straight out in front of his boat like it was supposed to be, it wouldn’t have been a problem anyway,” Joe said later.

Here’s what Michael Benarrosh says about Med Mooring departure:  Leaving your spot is simple. Release your stern lines first and bring them on board. The anchor crew hauls up the anchor while the helmsman slowly moves the boat forward. Now, when I was cruising in Turkey, because the harbors were very small, invariably, some cruisers casting off at 0600 would bring up a couple of other anchors when weighing theirs. Then the screaming and insults concert started... So, if this happens to you, make sure you are not leaving other boats without telling them about it...

The next day it was my turn. We planned an early departure from Nene’s Marina for our overnighter to Bocas Del Toro, Panama. This time, Joe sat down and explained The Plan. He told me that all I had to do was put it in forward and drive straight out, away from the dock. That sounded easy enough.

I stood in position in the cockpit, hand on the wheel, made sure my wheel was straight, and when Joe told me “Forward!” I pushed the throttle forward. In my mind, everything went crazy all at once. Our boat blew into Wayward Wind, Joe was on the bow screaming something, Art was screaming something, Arnoldo was on the dock, waving his arms in wide circles, and since it appeared that we were going to hit Wayward Wind, I backed off the throttle so we would do less damage when we crashed into them.

Joe says that was the problem. He says I “hesitated” and wasn’t going fast enough to control the boat. All I know is that I tangled the prop in that cursed line with the milk jug again. AGAIN.

So there we were, stopped, blocking Wayward Wind from their exit but at least not at risk for crashing, and the anchor was still down, which confused me. I mean, how was I supposed to go flying away from the dock when our anchor was still set? Joe said that I was supposed to get far enough away from the dock and Wayward Wind so that he could complete weighing anchor. I still don’t get it.

This time Arnoldo said it wasn’t his job to untangle the line from the prop. But he would do it for $100. We didn’t have one-hundred dollars. We had planned to put our marina bill on our Visa credit card, but the marina’s Visa machine was out of paper so Joe had to give them all his pesos plus borrow $50 in pesos from Art to pay the bill in full because the marina wouldn’t take my lempiras.

At this point, I didn’t even care that we were being extorted $100 to untangle a line. I was even wondering if this was what Arnoldo did for a living – make sure stupid cruisers got tangled up, then charge them money to dive their props. We simply did not have the money.

As he circled our boat in his dinghy, I explained to him repeatedly that we had no pesos; no U.S. dollars. Then I said, “I have lempiras,” but like everyone else, Arnoldo did not want my lempiras. When I said, “Can you take a check?” he realized that the Honduran money was the best I could do. Grudgingly, he jumped in, unwrapped the milk-jug line and accepted my handful of lempiras while I thanked him, profusely, for shaking us down.

It was 8:20 a.m. as we departed the anchorage for our Bocas Del Toro passage, which would be 199 nautical miles (about 230 miles). We continued to check in with Wayward Wind on the SSB radio, and at 11:07 a.m. he radioed that they’d just passed a whale! “He appears to be sleeping,” said Art. They saw the whale spout a burst of water, too. Two hours later, as we neared the spot where they’d seen the whale, I turned on the radar. I could see Wayward Wind ahead of us, but nothing else. We wanted to see the whale, which would be very exciting, but we did not want to hit the whale, which would also be exciting, in a very different way./p>

This sail was very calm, almost dead calm. It certainly made for a comfortable passage, but we had to turn on the engine and with both sails up, maintained 6.2 knots. Joe usually reefs the mainsail and drops the jib at nightfall but this time we kept both of them full out and we never had a problem.

Because San Andres offered so many shopping conveniences, I had been able to provision better than usual. I made Joe three ham sandwiches, bought three deli pigs-in-a-blanket sandwiches, had white moon pies, chocolate moon pies, lime cookies, canned spaghetti, crackers . . . and he ate all of it with astounding speed. It was truly amazing, and I could not help but give Darlene and Art a consumables report at every radio check-in. “He’s eaten every one of the ham sandwiches!” I reported at noon. “He’s eaten all the white moon pies!” I reported at midnight. The next day when I wanted to fix him some kind of lunch, I discovered the canned spaghetti and meatballs were gone, all the cheese was gone, most of the crackers had been eaten and there were only wrappers left behind in memory of the deli sandwiches. I opened a warm Coca-Cola and handed him four lime cookies. “Here’s your lunch,” I said.

It was a quiet, uneventful passage and those are the best. Where we had once dreaded “overnighters,” we now felt that we were getting good at them. Not good enough to want to do a two-overnighter passage, but better.

Still, after two months at anchor, we were ready for a few luxuries, like unlimited water, electricity, and (for me), wireless internet. Panama’s Bocas Del Toro Marina offered all that. I had noticed in my communications with the marina manager (Chuck) and our friends who had gone before us (Paul and Mary Margaret of S/V AngelHeart), they did not respond to my references to a swimming pool. That’s because the marina did not have a swimming pool, and I like to be in the water – any water – almost every day. This would be a problem, because the water in the Bocas Del Toro area is too brackish for swimming.

But there were other amenities to consider. We discovered the cost for electricity was almost half what we’d paid on the Rio Dulce. I had bought some bridal net at Wal-Mart my last trip to the states, and in a moment of whimsy I chose the tackiest shade of blue they had. “It isn’t tacky blue, it’s BOAT blue!” said my friend Darlene when she saw it, but believe me, no bride would wear this shade of blue net. I had sewn the bridal net over our hatch screens because the bugs were supposed to be very bad at Bocas Del Toro. As it turned out, we ran our air conditioning almost non-stop, so I rarely used my bridal net-covered screens anyway.

We arrived at the marina at 4:00 p.m., Tuesday, February 5, 2008. First, we’d been told we could not come into the marina until we cleared Customs and Immigration. But it was a holiday (the last day of Mardi Gras for Bocas Del Toro), so all the government offices were closed. We were told we should plan for one night at the anchorage then check-in the next day. In hindsight, this is what we probably should have done, but when we received word that the officials would come to the marina to check us in, we were happy that we’d be at a dock for the night.

Marina harborThe approach to Bocas Del Toro is clearly marked with buoys, but it gets confusing when you make the right-hand turn toward the marina. Our friend Paul had told us to radio him upon entering the channel to Bocas Del Toro. He dinghied out to our boat and we were grateful that he led us in.

What you need to know is that you don’t approach the marina head-on. You have to motor toward the marina and at a small marker, make a sharp turn to starboard and motor toward the town’s shoreline. Once near the shoreline you make another turn to port and then go straight into a channel that leads to each row of marina docks. There was a big-o powerboat at the end of one of the docks and we had to motor very, very close to the powerboat on our port side because some small poles sticking out of the water near our starboard side marked a shallow area.

As we neared the dock where our boat would reside for the next none months, I turned toward Joe. “Don’t you want me to take her in?”

He said no. My feelings were hurt, but I understood. I was 0-2 for dockings.

He eased the boat into our slip, which had a half-finger pier on our starboard side. We’d no sooner tied up than a delegation of officials appeared on the dock, four women and one man. The man was dressed like an official and he carried paperwork. Only one of the women looked “official,” in a navy blue skirt, white blouse, and pumps. The two other women looked very UN-official and I saw Joe make one of his faces, when the largest woman declared she had to inspect the boat.

I’m no lightweight myself, but this woman’s hips were straining against her flowery stretch pant’s seams and as she grabbed our lifelines to try to hoist herself up, I feared for the lifelines. Someone produced a plastic milk carton case and she tried to mount our boat again.

“Joe!” I motioned him to come closer to the woman. “Give her a shove if she needs it!” He glanced at me for a moment and in that glance I saw that he had no intention of laying hands on any part of that woman’s flower-patterned rear-end.

The man was already in the cockpit and immediately declared he needed something to “write on.” I scrambled to lower the cockpit table which is kind-of too long for the cockpit space it’s in and later was extremely difficult for the woman to get past. He settled in and began writing. Apparently he was with Immigration, because he referred to our passports as he wrote.

Boat inspectionThe large woman struggled into the cockpit and crammed herself down on the seat, perspiring and breathing quite heavily. She had a visible ring of dirt around her neck. When she motioned to me that she needed to inspect the inside of the boat, I quickly told her to go right ahead, apologizing because my boat was such a mess. We had dirty dishes in the sink and the usual stuff on the floor that falls to the floor when we are underway, plus my 5-gallon water bottle had slid to a place where it blocked the path to the back of the boat and the head stunk . . . and then I thought, What the heck are you worried about? You are apologizing about your boat being a mess to a woman who apparently has not washed her neck in days!

She lowered herself down the companionway stairs and I watched as she opened cabinets and closets and peered into the v-berth. “Um . . . I have one onion and an apple,” I offered, assuming that she was looking for produce. She nodded and continued to look around the boat, momentarily glancing down the hallway toward our main berth but deciding not to try to navigate herself past the stuff that had fallen off the sea berth onto the floor of the hallway leading to our berth. I couldn’t figure out what exactly she was supposed to be doing down there. Later, I told Darlene that I thought she was looking for stowaways.

“Nah,” said Darlene. “She was looking for drugs.”

“Well, she didn’t look very hard; I mean, I could have had drugs all over the boat and she wouldn’t have found them by just standing there and looking!”

“She didn’t really care if we had drugs,” Darlene patiently explained. “She just gets paid to say she inspected the boats.”
Oh.  I’m not sure what Joe was doing, but the woman who looked like an official said she could not board our boat because of her shoes, so she was writing on some papers and she and Joe were talking on the dock.

The boat inspector-woman was still below and she looked up at me and made flurried, worried motions and said something about being very hot. “Would you like a Coke?” I asked her, and she said yes. Since her big body was blocking the stairs and there was no way I wanted to haul my big body down below with her and her dirty neck, I motioned to the refrigerator. “Lift that up,” I said. “The Cokes are in the bottom.” She reached down into the innards of our refrigerator, grabbed the plastic ring that held my four last, cold, Coca-Colas and brought them and herself up the stairs.

I don’t want to get into the love affair I have with Coca-Cola, but my mother put the stuff in my baby bottles and I am 55 years old and seldom, ever, without at least one Coca-Cola in my possession. I never drink more than one per day but get nervous when I run out.

She plopped down in the seat and when she popped the top on the soda, the man looked up from his writing. “Would you like a Coke?” I asked, and he said yes. As I handed him one, the woman with the neck ring held up the plastic holder with my last two Cokes and offered them to the two women on the dock, who said, sure, they wanted some Cokes, and Joe had to half-climb on the boat to reach them and hand them to the women on the dock.

My Cokes were gone. This was a bad thing.

After she sucked down her soft drink, the woman in the flowery stretch pants worked herself out of the cockpit and was helped off the boat. The man completed his writing, put away his pen and gathered his papers while I lowered the cockpit table, then he left. I looked on the dock and watched all of them, Joe in tow, walking away to I-didn’t-know-where and realized I didn’t care. Hope he makes it back, I thought.

Joe’s group dispersed and he was instructed to go to the Port Captain’s office but he needed money. So the dirty-necked woman in the flowery stretch pants accompanied him to the bank and waited while he withdrew $400 USD. Because of withdrawal limits, he hit one account for $200 and another account for $200.

Now, since that time I have hauled my plus-size body all over Bocas Del Toro, and yes, it’s hot and you get dusty and sweaty, but there’s no reason not to walk. The woman in the flowered pants told Joe she needed a taxi. She said her feet were swollen from dancing at Mardi Gras. They could not grab a taxi but managed to snag a collectivo van for sixty-cents apiece (which Joe had to pay).

By the time he returned to the boat he was exhausted and said our total check-in was $250 USD. It seems we paid extra because it was a holiday and after-hours, so I have no idea what the typical check-in fees are at Bocas Del Toro. But I know we’d heard there was much controversy surrounding boat check-ins at Bocas Del Toro, Panama, and we had stated several times that we didn’t care; it is what it is.

When we got together with Wayward Wind, their boat check-in cost less because they were only charged for “holiday,” not overtime. “But they drank every single cold bottle of water I had!” Darlene complained.

Darlene and Art keep their boat immaculately clean – if something falls onto the floor while they are underway, somebody picks it up and puts it back, which Joe and I consider to be wasted energy because it will probably fall down again – so the grubby woman with the neck ring roaming around inside their boat was particularly offensive to them, and like me, they thought when they offered her a cold bottle of water it didn’t mean they would become water dispensers for a dockload of people. And at one point, they handed a handful of bills to one of the officials and watched, dumbfounded, as the money was handed out to we-don’t-know-who. Twenty dollars here, twenty dollars, there . . . none of us are too sure what we paid for. But our paperwork is good, and that’s what matters, right?

We are cleared into Panama! Bocas Del Toro has lots of shops including a gourmet shop, pizza places, and the currency is U.S. dollars! No more Colombian pesos, Guatemalan quetzals, Honduran lempiras! We’re dealing with money we understand.

It’s good to be home.

Read Part 5:  Panama




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