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Stories about Living / Cruising on a Boat

Exploring the Atlantic Coast of Panama, Part 1

Joe & Sharon begin their voyage to the San Blas Islands.  Provisioning, overnighters,  Sharon jumps overboard & more make up this part of the tale. 

Sharon Kratz, S/V Rose of Sharonby Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon

Land was created to provide a place for boats to visit.
--- Brooks Atkinson

S/V Rose of Sharon was docked at the popular Bocas Del Toro Yacht Club off the coast of Panama. We had visitors aboard and the day before they were to return to their respective homes, we were contacted by our friends Paul and Mary Margaret on S/V AngelHeart: “There’s a perfect weather window for the weekend. Let’s shoot down to the San Blas Islands!”

No sooner did we wave goodbye to our guests than we set about provisioning for the only major passage we’d planned for 2009.

ProvisioningI had lists, Joe had lists, and we rushed through the town of Bocas Del Toro, stocking up on at least one month’s provisions plus enough water for three weeks. Even though we don’t eat peanut butter, I bought our first jar since 2007. I figure if you have enough peanut butter and drinking water, the rest is luxury.

The San Blas Islands’ relative isolation and lack of modern conveniences (electricity, for example) is well known among cruisers, which is part of the reason we want to go there. In addition to provisioning, Joe withdrew from two ATM accounts every day, right up until D-Day (Departure Day) so we would have at least $1,000 cash. Panama uses U.S. currency, which makes it even more cruiser-friendly for us than most Central American countries.

I was especially excited about meeting and learning more about the indigenous Kuna Indians of the San Blas. Originally the Kunas lived on Panama’s mainland, but slowly migrated to the nearby islands, which proved to offer a better quality of life, weather-wise and bug-wise. As was the case throughout Central America, the 16th Century Spaniard privateers and pirates began to colonize  and ¨civilize this tribe. The Kuna Indians were somewhat complacent until 1750, when they began to revolt violently against their foreign aggressors. A treaty was signed by the Spaniards of Colombia and the high chief of the Kunas and they were liberated. They lived and prospered by exporting coconuts. Later, a Panamanian dictator began a takeover of the independent islands, but the Kunas remained loyal to Colombia and fiercely fought the Panamanians. In 1925, the Kuna Yala territory became officially part of Panama, with special exceptions offering respect for their unique culture and tribal laws.

We had heard the Kuna Indians’ culture is primarily a matriarchal society and that Kunas are not allowed to marry non-Kunas. According to The Panama Cruising Guide, “This has led to a kind of genetical insulation and there are many albinos. These albinos, fair-skinned, blond, and with sensitive eyes really stand out between their dark brothers.”

We left Bocas Del Toro Yacht Club (as usual, getting away from the dock is the most difficult part of any passage, and we said goodbye to air conditioning, wi-fi, ice, easy shopping, and Joe’s personal favorite – chicken fried chicken night at the marina’s onsite restaurant). I put on our theme song for passage departure, “Back in the Saddle Again” by Gene Autry. And we were underway . . . where we sleep out every night and the only law is Right.

The beautiful Caribbean welcomed us with rolly seas of 3-5´, winds 4-6 knots and sunny skies. We had secured the cabin appropriately but it’s amazing what you forget. We were bouncing along and I just happened to glance behind us. I saw what looked like a marker or small buoy of some kind. Joe turned his head and shouted, “Hey! That’s our fender!” We had one, yes just ONE fender left out of our original collection, and it appeared to be on the move without us. Joe swung the boat around and I took the wheel. “Just get close and I’ll get it with the boat hook,” he said.

That’s when we discovered our boat hook was gone, too. Instead of putting it in its usual spot behind the helm, Joe had put it and the dip net on deck. I imagine the boat hook shot off the deck like an arrow the first time we lunged to starboard.

Joe grabbed the dip net and as I circled, he tried several times to retrieve the errant fender. Finally, I told him we ’d never get the fender back unless I jumped in the water to retrieve. We didn’t exactly plan this fix, we just did it. Joe circled closer to fender, I jumped overboard, grabbed the fender, then began trying to swim back to the boat. Well, seas 3-5 and rolly are not conducive to easy swimming and I yelled at Joe I wouldn’t be able to make it to the boat. He attached a line to a cleat and turned toward me as I bobbed around in Caribbean with my prized fender. You cannot imagine what it feels like to have a big-o sailboat barreling down on you, knowing that if he misjudged, I’d be fish food in no time. But he didn’t misjudge and swooped past me, tossing a line into the water. I grabbed the line and then he hauled me and the fender to the boat, where he helped me up the ladder.

I would not recommend anyone try this in the ocean unless conditions are dead calm, the swimmer is younger than a 56-year old woman, or for any swimmer who has more life insurance than the driver of the boat.

Our first anchorage would be at Bluefield Lagoon. Joe set his GPS waypoints to match AngelHeart’s anchorage waypoints, but shortly after entering the cove, I pointed to an area where another boat was anchored. “Let’s go over there!” I exclaimed. “No sense in going so far into the lagoon if we don’t have to.”

Joe agreed so we eased the boat toward the island’s shore and dropped anchor in 24´of water. We were located at 09º09.53´N,  081º54.17´W. I swam four times that day; each time I’d swear it would be my last, then I’d find myself jumping overboard again.

About 20 cayucos visited our boat at that anchorage, begging for clothing, food or soda pop. We no longer keep soda pop on board, I had thrown away some older clothing and was now sorry I’d done it, and because there were so many native visitors I was afraid to give anything to anyone for fear we’d be swamped. Mary Margaret on AngelHeart was handing out pencils and pencil sharpeners, but for once I stood fast. Until, that is, a lone cayuco with a mom and one little girl, about 8 or 9 years old, arrived with the usual pleas. They reminded me of us – okay if it works out, ok if it doesn’t – and did not seem to have that sense of urgency about begging, it was simply what they did when the big boats dropped anchor.

The little girl was snaggle-toothed as children that age often are, bright-eyed, and clearly a happy child. She was also chewing on the stick of a long-gone lollipop. ¨¿Le gusta dulce?¨ I asked her and she nodded vigorously. I went to my gifting stash in the v-berth and retrieved a lollipop and at the last minute, grabbed one of the numerous pair of rainbow-striped children’s sunglasses I’d purchased from Oriental Trading Co. I handed her the lollipop and she was very pleased, but when I showed her the sunglasses she gasped and said, ¨¿Para MI?¨

I said yes, those sunglasses were definitely for her and then told her not to tell anyone because I didn’t have many to give away. She nodded sagely and clutched the sunglasses to her chest as her mom began paddling away.

That night as I prepared to send up a Winlink position report and short email to friends and family, the ignition was dead. As I stomped and fretted all over the boat, Joe ignored me and replied that the ignition would work in the morning.

I refused to get out of bed the next morning until I heard the engine roar to life. We’d dropped anchor in a part of Bluefield Lagoon named Punta Allegre, and when I snorkeled the site I never could see where our anchor was set. But I could see that our anchorage was very close to a big wall that became 4 feet of water maximum depth. I had pointed the area to Joe, and told him I couldn’t find our anchor.

The Panama Cruising Guide says of this anchorage, ¨Further north towards the mangroves it shoals abruptly from 25 feet to 4 feet.¨ We read that piece of information about an hour after we spent 45 minutes trying to get our anchor back aboard. We nudged into the shallows several times, so Joe had to interrupt his anchor retrieval to get us off the bottom. AngelHeart has an electric winch; Joe tells everyone our anchor is an Armstrong. It takes a strong arm to get it back from a good set.

We departed the anchorage at 0735, bound for our next stop, Escudo de Veraguas, which I never was able to pronounce properly every time we checked in with the Southwest Caribbean Net (6.209 Upper Sideband, 8:15 a.m. every morning, Texas time).

Once Joe solved the starter problems, we were free birds and enjoying the short hop from one island to the next, but AngelHeart was having major problems. Water was in their fuel, causing them to have to stop, siphon off the water that was in the filter, and continue. This happened two or three times and I could hear the frustration in their voices every time we checked in with each other on the VHF radio. We matched our pace with theirs, which was easy: we had rolly, immeasurable seas and winds about 2 knots out of the northeast.  Joe and I read our respective books most of the way.

The Perfect AnchorageAs we approached the anchorage off Escudo de Veraguas, all we could say was, ¨WOW!¨ Mary Margaret and I spoke on the radio and agreed if we were looking for the perfect anchorage and the perfect beach and perfect seawater for swimming and snorkeling, we’d found it! We dropped anchor at 09º05.68´N,  081º34.42´W.

I paddled around the boat several times, shampooing my hair, floating in my tube, going in the water dry, coming out of the water sloppily dripping all over the deck and cockpit, and just when things got dry again, jumping overboard again. Joe is used to this, and very good natured about the numerous times I refuse his offer of a towel so I can air-dry. I tried to remember to put sunscreen on my face but my skin was already a very satisfying nut brown color.

Seafood salesmanA cayuco with three men approached and asked us if we wanted to buy some lobster. Yes! We tried to appear cool but my planned meal of cabbage and corned beef quickly sailed out the window. They wanted two dollars per lobster. I only wanted two lobsters and protested that their lobsters were very small and offered $3 for two lobsters.

They agreed, so I went down below to retrieve the cash and remembered I had purchased several adult comic books that looked to be too violent and maybe even too sexy for children. Each comic book starred a Charles Atlas-like man and all the women had disproportionately huge bosoms. The women only wore bathing suits, so the stories had to be loosely-based on swimming. I grabbed one with a snorkel-geared Charles Atlas on the cover, and took that up to the cayuco with the money. One look at the comic book, and the men were profuse in their thanks and gave us all three lobsters.

That night, Paul and Mary Margaret joined us for supper (Mmmm, grilled lobster and salad) and told us they would not be continuing to the San Blas; they’d had enough trouble with the fuel and they were concerned about the next leg of the journey. We could travel 10-12 hours and stop at an anchorage that would be rolly at its best and dangerous at its worst. Or, we could travel about 20 hours to the Rio Chagres, an overnighter that none of us wanted. Paul said if he could find his fuel polisher, he might be able to solve the problem. We discussed whether the problem was symptomatic of Gemini catamarans, having met another cruising couple with the same water-in-the-fuel line difficulty. Then we decided to sit a day while Paul worked on the situation and decide the next evening how we would proceed.

The next day Joe and I swam, and read, and tidied up the boat for the next passage (futile, because everything on the sea berth always winds up on the floor). Paul lowered his dinghy and we explored the beach. There was no sign of the friendly Ngobe Indian natives who once lived on Escudo de Veraguas Island. The local divers would freedive and bring their lobster catch back to the island in the evenings then camp in the abandoned huts near the water’s edge.

That evening, Paul declared he thought the fuel problems were fixed, so we were a go for the next morning.

We departed Escudo de Veraguas at 0600 and AngelHeart almost immediately lost power because of a fuel problem. They contacted us on the radio and said they had decided to return to Bluefield Lagoon and then back to Bocas Del Toro. We agreed to accompany them to the safety of Bluefield Lagoon (a much better anchorage), but then Rose of Sharon would proceed on to the San Blas.

We eased the boats into the opposite direction and got hit by a squall, winds 20 knots almost on the nose, and seas 6-8´. It was so uncomfortable, the four of us returned to Escudo de Veraguas and anchored on the south side of the island, this time at 09º05.28´N,  081º33.90´W.

Our weather window was pretty-much shot at this point, so we waited while Paul worked on his problem and were relieved when he radioed that the difficulties were due to operator error. He’d forgotten to twist his valves in the correct order for fuel delivery.

Overnighters are no funThe overnighter none of us wanted was now our best option, so we departed the anchorage at 1400. It was a typical night passage, winds were supposed to be 6-10 so they were actually 15-18 out of the west, seas were supposed to be about 3´so they were actually 5´, and when the moon peaked out from behind a heavy cloud cover, it was as if she was shining headlights on our boat. We had three rain showers, which meant Captain Joe and Captain Mary Margaret, who did most of the helmsmanship, got soaked three times. It actually felt a bit chilly, and Joe thought we were running with some kind of norther.

Paul napped much of the time on his boat, but I spent my time playing handheld games, feeding my captain, and getting tossed around inside the boat. As usual, I was slammed into walls, rails, and began numbering my bruises for Joe. ¨Got the first one!¨ I shouted as I made peanut butter sandwiches. The stove top guard rail has yielded some interesting bruises, usually abdominal. This one would be on my right arm. ¨Got the second one!¨ I called out to Joe when a particularly violent roll sent me flying across the boat and sideways into the mast support in the salon. Number two bruise would be higher on the right arm.

As buddy boaters, we checked in with each other on VHF every two hours. ¨This is my LAST overnighter,¨ Mary Margaret radioed to me.

¨That´s what I said the last time we did an overnighter,¨ I replied. But that last overnighter was February of 2008. Now it was April 2009 and like childbirth, you tend to forget the pain. It was a typical passage, no danger, no mechanical problems, and the radar picked up only AngelHeart and some rain showers the entire night. That makes it an excellent overnighter.

The entrance to the Rio Chagres is quite tricky, so don’t attempt it without using tried and true waypoints. As you approach, you will see the ruins of a Spanish fort on a hill, and you aim for the fort then turn right, then turn right again to enter the river. I sighed. No rolls. Not much wind, which would mean uncomfortable sleeping, but sleep was just a few minutes away! We dropped anchor by 10:00 a.m. at 09º19.04´N,  080º00.049´W.

Joe had a shower, I had a shower, we toasted our overnighter-passage toast together with tequila and limes (¨No property damage, no loss of life, it was a good sail!¨).

Then we went to sleep. We awoke about 1700, I cooked cabbage and corned beef which Joe relished and I refused to eat because the meat looked like dog food, then we returned to bed and slept peacefully, soundly until the next morning.

We spent the day relaxing and trying to get a good feed on the weather. According to Paul, our next good weather window would be in 5 more days. And this is another side of the cruising life. Sitting still in a good anchorage. But you tend to forget what day it is, and eventually you forget what MONTH it is.

Conversation heard on the SSB radio:

¨Is this Easter weekend? "
"It´s Good Friday?¨
¨Damn, I’ve got a lot of praying to do!¨

Another voice came over the radio and said, ¨When anyone asks me what time it is, I tell them 2009. Lost track of everything else.¨

We puttered about the boat, tidying up, enjoying not rocking and rolling. There were crocodiles in the river, according to both books and several sources, so swimming was not an option. The howler monkeys kept up an all-day, all-night shouting match between clumps of trees. I noticed when we got together with AngelHeart and another anchored boat, S/V Attitude of Fort Lauderdale, if the six of us broke into loud laughter, the monkeys would set up an even louder ruckus, perhaps scolding us for disturbing them.

Easter BrunchEaster Sunday we gathered on Attitude for brunch. Kathy had made Easter baskets and I had decorated Easter eggs with magic markers and highlighter pens. It was quite a feast, and our first toast was ¨To the Grandchildren.¨ None of us could stop ourselves from telling grandchildren stories and couldn’t imagine why we should. The brunch lasted until 4:00 p.m.

Fort San LorenzoOur last day at anchor in the Rio Chagres, we dinghied up to the Fort San Lorenzo. The fort was built by the Spaniards in 1597 and suffered from pirate attacks and was rebuilt by the Spaniards until Panama declared independence from Spain in 1821. During World War II, the U.S. installed a defense system at the fort site, but since that time it has been abandoned. One tree was full of melodious birds and odd, hanging nests. The birds were Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, also known as Chacareros because their nests look like women’s purses. Their charming music filled the air and was a testament o the here and now, just as the old fort was a reminder of yesteryear.

The next day we set sail for Portobelo, a very historical city for Panama. For this passage, we would have to cross the ship channel leading to the Panama Canal, and when I saw the 20-plus tankers in the distance, I was truly frightened. This was like the Houston Ship Channel times ten! As we neared the big boats, I was relieved to see that most of them were anchored. ¨Should I turn on the radar?¨ I asked Joe. ¨Maybe I can figure out who’s moving and which way they’re going.¨

¨No, we’re fine,¨ said Joe, but I noticed he did not read his book or take his eyes off the crowded waterway.

¨How do we get to Shelter Bay Marina?¨ I asked, for it was one of our options for a much-needed haul-out.

¨We have to go up the Panama Canal ship channel,¨ Joe replied. I grimaced. The good news is, all the tankers and big-o boats transiting the Panama Canal to or from the Atlantic are moving quite slowly and most of them aren’t moving at all.

We had our first official married cruisers´ disagreement of 2009 when dropping anchor in the Bay of Portobelo. Joe had selected a spot and I was easing toward the spot when our friends on AngelHeart whipped past us and turned into the spot. Since we move so slowly, and take so long to drop and raise the anchor, I could understand why they would not want to wait for us to pussyfoot around the anchorage. No worries, I figured, we’ll just drop anchor right here behind them. There was plenty of space in the crowded anchorage for one more sailboat. Joe didn’t see it that way.

¨Turn left,¨ he directed from the bow.

¨Why?¨ I asked. ¨We can just drop – ¨

¨Just DO WHAT I TELL YOU,¨ he yelled. Then, he reverted to trying to look like a Professional Cruiser, whatever that is. He motioned me to turn the wheel right. Then left. I was starting a slow burn when he made a wild circular motion with his hand.

¨What exactly does that mean?!¨ I shouted.

He frowned at me and made another obscure circular motion so I whipped the wheel around to the right and we did the first of several u-turns while he refused to speak and I refused to stop arguing. ¨I want to go THERE!¨ I shouted as I pointed to what appeared to me to be a big hole in-between the other boats and behind AngelHeart.

He motioned me to proceed toward the shoreline, where the ruins of a fort was banked adjacent to some private homes, and these private homes were not situated in one of the better neighborhoods. In other words, the Dinghy Bandits probably lived there, and I have a long-standing issue with the Dinghy Bandits, none of whom have ever appeared anywhere near our boat but I fuss a lot about them on account of you never know.

I hesitated, and once again he made furious motions toward the shoreline. I gunned the engine and when he motioned me to stop, I stopped, he dropped the anchor and when he motioned me to reverse I reversed and I did all of it with Attitude. We were far away from all the other boats, like a bastard at a family reunion, and I stomped downstairs and took to my bunk in anger, reading my paperback book with a religious fervor. I overheard him on the radio and asked who was calling. ¨Oh, AngelHeart,¨ he replied, ¨They were concerned we thought they took our spot.¨

I quickly snapped, ¨Well, they probably wanted to drop anchor SOMETIME THIS YEAR, and knew if they waited for us they’d not be anchored before dark, but I’m glad they can reach us on VHF radio because we are NO WHERE NEAR THE ANCHORAGE!¨

I think he knew I was a bit upset.

An hour later, he did the same thing he did when we had a bitter quarrel over anchoring in Tarpon Springs, Florida. He reverted a metal salad bowl on his head so he would look like a British WWII soldier, entered the master berth and said, ¨I say, Martha, I believe the Germans are bombing. Would you care to retire to the bunker?

continue on ... Part 2


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