In the covered wagon days, if a baby was born in Texarkana while the family was crossing into the Lone Star State, by the time they reached El Paso, the baby would be in the third grade.
- Texas Author Wallace O Chariton
Panama is in the same time zone as Texas, but our daughters were on Mountain and Eastern. Our last reason to call or visit Indiana was a move to Texas in August! Joni’s husband is unemployed and she was one of the hundreds of educators who were laid off this year in the state of Indiana – so many teachers were laid off, the state could not keep up with the unprecedented unemployment high. Joni had anticipated the situation and had already applied to Houston Independent School District. After several interviews, she was hired! It turns out the school was about to implement a reading program in which she had specialized. She called us and said, “I need help! We’ve got to move FAST!”
Joe and I flew to Panama City and booked our flight to Denver. As new Panama pensionado visa holders, we got a substantial discount from the airline. Once in Denver, we grabbed our RV and drove I-70 east to Indianapolis, picked up our Hoosier grandchildren, and drove to Texas.
Joe’s sister opened her home and her heart to our daughter’s family; they lived with her a month before finding a home in the north part of Houston. During one phone conversation, Joe’s sister said, “I cannot tell you how important it is for Joni to get her classroom set up before school starts!” and it turns out she was quite right. Let’s just say I had no idea what teachers do – if I’d known, they would have gotten much nicer Christmas gifts from my kids.
We were frantically busy but managed one outing to Galveston Beach (“You live in the Caribbean but you still get excited about Galveston beach?” asked a friend. Yes, I really do love Galveston beaches and that Mississippi mud salt water!) We also visited with an ex-crew member on our ill-fated Veracruz Regatta of 2004, only to discover he too was laid off.
We returned to Panama and our boat less than one month later. I’ve mentioned an entrepreneurial Kuna native named Alberto – he sells beer and wine from his palapa, offers internet hookup and installed a big screen television. Well, Alberto had authorized a German master diver and cruiser to install mooring balls, and sure enough, once the mooring balls were in place, he began charging a daily, weekly, and monthly rate. Alberto is the Michael Dell of the San Blas islands!
We snagged a mooring ball and left our home unprotected for the first time ever. When our daughter complained that we were not in Texas long enough, I said, “You don’t understand. When we come to the States, we leave our boat in a marina. We left our boat – our home – on a mooring ball in the middle of nowhere and gave the key to a German guy we just met! We have to get back!”
The boat had been closed up fewer than 30 days and in my 10+ liveaboard years, I have never encountered the amount of mold and mildew growing in the boat like we discovered when we returned. It was stunning, and it took a week to get the boat’s vinyl lining, teak and any un-bagged clothing under control. I was already discovering that anything that can rust will in Panama, but things that aren’t supposed to rust, like our silverware and stainless steel, were rusting.
While in the U.S., we did manage to retrieve two important items we’d ordered online: a new Texas flag and a new figurehead. The Texas flag I bought is huge and almost as big as our U.S. flag. Yes, we fly it higher than the U.S. flag because we can. Our figurehead, Maggie the Mariner, had survived a crash into the seawall at Morgan City, Louisiana that sent her spinning off her perch and onto the deck, but she didn’t make it in August when we made a tough jibe and the sail slammed her into the Caribbean.
May she rust in peace.
I’m a superstitious sailor so I told Joe he could pick out the new figurehead, and that we couldn’t make a passage until he had mounted the new Maggie. He liked the phrase “mounting Maggie” (I can’t imagine why.), and he ordered the new figurehead promptly. But unlike our chaste, serene first Maggie, this Maggie had a wanton look to her. I call her Maggie the Slutty Mariner.
Another one of Joe’s purchases that I thought was useless turned out to be a wonderful buy: a custom-made sunshade. It cost almost a thousand dollars and I couldn’t for the life of me justify such an extravagant purchase until we were anchored – moored, actually – for three months in the San Blas. Our sunshade gave the boat a little-boat-on-the-prairie cum Conestoga wagon look to her, which I liked, but the amount of shade and cool breeze funneling she provided more than paid for itself.
But we can’t sail with our sunshade up.
Now, Panama doesn’t have hurricanes, so it’s the perfect year-round site where many cruisers simply stop cruising and live. What I didn’t know was that hurricanes do impact our weather. I’d already resolved never to spend another rainy season in Panama (We’re talking lots and lots of rain.), but hurricane season is not that great either. Hurricane Matthew got himself organized and spun northward, sending high winds and waves and rain our way. We were due to depart our rented mooring ball September 29 and for over a week prior to that, we had thanked God almost every day that we were secure in an anchorage because the Caribbean weather was bad, bad, bad. At one point, Joe had taken the dinghy ashore to patch a leak, so the next day we swam from the boat to the island to retrieve her. It was a very short swim, but the waves were so fitful and the current so strong that I had to stop at another boat and hang onto its ladder to rest a bit. Joe had not left the engine on the dinghy, and we had to paddle as hard as we could to get from the island to our boat. One of our oars broke under duress. In the few seconds it took for us to make an adjustment and shorten the oars, we drifted a sizeable distance from where we’d been and had to paddle even more furiously. A German cruiser saw us foundering and rushed out in his dinghy and towed us to our boat.
On September 29, the sun was shining but the wind was still gusting to 20 knots. We were going to make the short hop from Archipelago San Blas to Isla Grande after clearing out with the port captain in Porvenir, but we had to take down the sunshade.
“You’re going to have to help,” said Joe. “The winds are too wild.”
“I want to help,” I said. Famous last words, because at one point, I was almost propelled into the air and off the boat while clutching the sunshade to my breast. I avoided being dumped into the rough ocean waters by wrapping myself inside the sunshade material, cocoon-fashion, and hanging on to a shroud. It took us almost 45 minutes to get the sunshade down and I collapsed, exhausted, in the cockpit afterwards. “You know, I lost all that weight, and I’m grateful, but there are times when a little weight helps hold you down,” I said to Joe.
The next day we left the anchorage for Isla Grande and there wasn’t a whisper of air. The seas were flat enough you could jump overboard for swim in the ocean, which I did. “I’ve never seen it like this!” Joe exclaimed. “We could’ve taken the sunshade down in 5 minutes this morning!” “What, and give up parasailing?” I replied.
We anchored at 09º33.528´N, 078º57.03´W. In my book, Isla Grande is grand. The tiny tropical resort wasn’t exactly a Four Seasons site but I loved it. There was a tiny grocery store with mystery meat and chicken, restaurants featuring fried chicken and cold beer, one small beach crammed shore-to-shore with Panamanians, and Caribbean blue water.
The island’s name doesn’t exactly reflect its size; you can walk from one end to the other in less than an hour. But it is a popular tourist site because of its beauty and seclusion. The snorkeling wasn’t that great, as far as I could tell, and I did not swim from the boat to the beach because the waters were too rough and busy with water taxis and drunks on wave runners.
Joe and I were lazing in the cockpit one afternoon, reading, and heard a thump on the hull. We looked behind the boat and discovered a young man had swum out from the island. He might’ve been a bit tipsy, and said he did it for training; he was a marine in Panama and showed me his dog tags. He was short of breath and requested a glass of water, so I urged the young man to let Joe take him back to the beach in the dinghy because the waters were so turbulent. He agreed almost instantly.
The locals of Isla Grande are primarily Afro-Colonial (sometimes called Afro-Caribes, whose ancestors can be traced to a time of forced migrations from Guinea and the Congo. Some of them believe in magic and practice a rhythmic dance with a provocative and hypnotic drums accompaniment. Joe and I heard the drums on a Saturday night as they performed on another nearby island, and the sounds in the darkness reminded me of one of my favorite bands, a Brazilian performance and cultural activism group called Olodum.
Most tourists drive to the town of La Guaira, then take a water taxi to Isla Grande, The ride takes no more than 10 minutes. On the west side of the island is a tiny beach, filled to capacity almost every weekend. On the east side of the island is a lighthouse, built by the French in the 1800s when they were undertaking the construction of the Panama Canal. The lighthouse’s original light was designed by Gustav Eiffel but was removed and put in the Panama Canal Museum.
Panama’s most revered Cristo Negro (Black Christ) statue is in Portobelo but Isla Grande has one too. I believe at one time it was on land, but erosion and high tides caused it to be located a short swim away from Isla Grande’s one footpath across the island.
Joe didn’t like the rolly anchorage, but I was happy to be in a place that had blue waters and chicken. He said we had to move to Linton, an anchorage that is much more protected, but also much more crowded with cruisers who haven’t actually cruised in a long time. Some of their boats are shabby and run-down, and the water there is not clean enough for swimming. Some of them haven’t moved in years and others don’t even have dinghies; they have locally-made kayaks, and no, it’s not because they want to exercise. Still, it’s near the mainland and a road, and I figured we could catch a ride to the large grocery store in Sabanitas. Joe wanted to buy some diesel fuel too.
The “passage” took about 20 minutes, but finding a parking place took an hour. We entered from the opposite direction and I thought Joe had some kind of plotting or something on the GPS, but I don’t think he did. He says he did, and I saw the line on the GPS that we follow, but usually he knows where it’s deep and where it’s shallow.
I went up to the bow of the boat to help guide him, and decided that the water was deeper on the starboard side near a small island, so I pointed him in that direction. Within seconds, I saw the bottom rising and yelled, “Back up! Reverse!” and Joe responded quickly. We avoided a runaground. A local in an ulu saw us heading that way and paddled quickly out to our boat. He motioned for us to go the other way, away from the island and closer to the middle of the anchorage. I thanked him profusely and he paddled away. As we approached more anchored boats, a woman single-hander rushed outside her boat and yelled at me, “See that white stick? Keep to its starboard!”
“We should put the stick on our starboard?” I yelled back.
“No! No! Keep the stick on your PORT!” she returned.
Joe had heard the woman and he yelled up to me. “Okay, so we go around the left side of stick!”
“No! No!” I yelled back to the cockpit. Keep the stick on YOUR left side!”
So much for navigational technology.
We dropped anchor at 09º36.821´N, 079º34.954´W. The next day, Hurricane Otto was born, and the weather deteriorated rapidly as Otto headed north. In fact, our “protected” anchorage was just as rolly as our previous anchorage. “It would be worse if we’d stayed at Isla Grande,” Joe said. We jumped in the dinghy to make our trip to the mainland and towed one of the cruisers in his non-motorized kayak to shore. I don’t know how the guy made it back to his boat in the washing-machine waves, but he did. We tied up our dinghy at Hans’ Restaurant, a place where cruisers can get a good meal and cold beer. The restaurant is very clean, but the shoreline is filthy and to get from your dinghy to the concrete, you have to hold on to a rope and carefully walk up a slippery, algae-coated step. One time, I lost my footing and did wheelies with my body, hanging onto the rope until another cruiser rescued me and pulled me to safety.
The diesel delivery turned out to be a woman and her two daughters in an old car who were willing to drive us to Portobelo, where we could catch the chicken bus to Sabanitas. I told Joe to give them $10 for the ride, and he did. But the woman gave him $7 change. That doesn’t happen very often! The bus was crowded with school children and the fare was $1 per person. Once in Sabanitas, we went directly to the Pio Pio where I can get my favorite fried . . . chicken.
We shopped ‘til I dropped and we hired a taxi to take us back to Linton for $20, a great way to return when you have a trunk-full of groceries and a case of wine and beer. Joe was excited because we had hamburger meat and Berard’s sausages. Berard’s is a meat market in Panama City, and their 4 sausage brands are Spanish, French, Honey, and Italian. I try not to think about the ingredients, but Joe loves them, especially the Spanish sausages, which turn boiling water an iridescent shade of red.
By the time we made it back to the boat, we were tired, grubby, and hungry. We washed the street dirt off our feet in the cockpit, something we hadn’t done since Guatemala, then rushed to shower.
When the weather broke, we sailed to Isla Naranjo Abajo. I wanted to spend the night there for a scouting expedition. My daughter, her partner and our three grandchildren were flying into Panama City and I wanted to find an easy sail from the marina to an island with a beach so they could experience a brief sail and enjoy a day on the beach.
We pulled into the anchorage about noon and slowly motored past garbage and floating debris. The water was filthy. It did not clear up as we approached the island, either. Then we ran aground. Joe says we did not run aground, we merely “bumped the bottom,” but we were stuck for a minute or so as he navigated us out of it
“Go that way,” I instructed and pointed.
“That looks like where we were,” he replied, but he turned the wheel and we “bumped the bottom” again. Let’s just say I am directionally challenged, so why the man ever listens to my directions is surprising.
“This place is a cesspool,” I declared. Not only can we not bring the kids here, I don’t even want to spend the night here. “Let’s go on to Shelter Bay Marina.”
Joe turned the boat around and we went back into the ocean. Then the storm hit. It was a small squall, as they go, but visibility decreased dramatically and the rain was heavy. The Panama Canal ship channel was very busy and we turned off and circled, waiting for a tanker to head out to sea. Another tanker was re-anchoring, a crew boat was zipping in our direction. “I still get nervous in the Land of the Giants,” I said.
But despite the historical enormity of the Panama Canal ship channel, is nothing, I mean does not even come close to the busy Houston Ship Channel. You’ve got a lot more space and water to work with near the Panama Canal. But I breathed a sigh of relief once we were across the channel and inside the breakwater that leads to the Canal and Shelter Bay Marina,
Shelter Bay, known for its high office worker turnover, had lost a terrific office manager recently. And the marina manager was retired. And the dockmaster was no longer the dockmaster. I had a hard time getting anyone to respond to the radio and tell me which slip would be mine. “I’m not going in if we don’t know where we’re going,” said Joe.
I protested. “Just get in and tie up at the fuel dock!”
We don’t even know if the fuel dock is still there,” he returned.
“Well, just get in and we’ll tie up somewhere and ask directions!” I laughed, doing a Captain Ron imitation.
Finally the new dock master, Frank hailed us on VHF 72. Or 74; they kept switching back and forth and I got confused. He told us which dock, which slip, and we eased into the marina. He was waiting at our slip to help us in. “Slow down, slow down,” Joe said, and Frank made slow-down motions with his hand. I don’t know why everyone thinks I come in too hot, but I hit the dock locker a couple of times at Kemah Boardwalk Marina, so maybe they’re right. I like parking and backing out. I don’t like the monotony of driving boats or cars, though.
It seemed like the men were jumpy about my speed so I put the boat in reverse, saying to Joe, “You know, when I do this, the stern is going to swing out to the right, so be sure the middle cleat is secure.” Then I slammed the throttle in reverse and Joe flung the line to Frank, hitting him in the head and knocking off his glasses.
And the stern swung toward the big-o powerboat on my starboard side. Frank strained to rein us in, Joe jumped to the dock, and we stopped. I killed the engine but had stopped so short that the dockmaster motioned me to move up a bit.
“We’ll WALK IT,” Joe said, as I began to start the engine. He and Frank pulled Rose of Sharon to her proper position in the slip and Joe tied her off. The rain stopped, the sun came out, and Maggie the Slutty Mariner gleamed in the daylight.
“You scared that poor man to death,” Joe said when he re-entered the cockpit.
“I don’t know what the big deal was,” I replied. “I was doing fine. I only reversed fast because you guys were so nervous.” Joe just shook his head.
The Kuna Yala natives are naturally curious people, and it’s nothing to see a man’s face in a porthole, looking inside the boat. When one native, Ruben, cleans our hull, his two small sons sneak on the bow of the boat and then peek into the galley until their father sees them and tells them to get back in the ulu. One time I went up topside to give them some treats and they scampered away, thinking they were in trouble.
In Archipelago San Blas, I have gone as long as three months without wearing shoes or undergarments, but I have to wear something all the time because you never know who will appear at a window. So now we are in civilization, and I can walk inside the boat naked, but I can’t leave the boat without shoes or lingerie. I’d rather be barefoot.