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Stories about Living / Cruising on a Boat

Exploring the Atlantic Coast of Panama, Part 2

Funny gecko tales, the Black Christ, mola makers, cruiser's visa problems and more make up this part of Rose of Sharon's journey.

Boat molaby Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon

He was now convinced that the most valuable
sail on board was the diesel.
-- Ray Kauffman

We were anchored at 09º33.57´N,  079º39.98´W in a secure bay off the town of Portobelo, Panama. There was just enough  breeze to make for good sleeping weather most nights; other nights, I would toss and turn while spraying myself with water and sleeping directly under a fan. Joe would sleep in the salon with two fans aimed at him.

We had acquired three geckos along the way. Geckos are supposed to be good luck and they are welcome additions to a cruising family because they eat bugs. Our geckos came out at sunset, scampered around for our amusement and one became so thirsty for the splash of wine on the bottom of my wine glass that I had to fight him for it. They liked wine and fruit juice.

Our pet geckoOne of our cockpit geckos went renegade and somehow got into the master berth. I was sleeping alone and felt something scurry across my FACE. I slowly sat up and turned on the light, turned the direction it was going, looked at the gecko, he looked at me, and we both silently studied each other for awhile. I touched him with my finger and he disappeared, so I turned out the light. Later that night, he ran up my legs and I reached down and knocked him on the floor, hard. The next morning, Joe saw him climbing on the sheets, so I spent several minutes trying to catch him. I actually had him pinned the first time I tried but he was half under and half out of the cup I was trying to catch him with and it was either divide him or release him. I chased him all over the bed but there was no catching him after that. Joe suggested I put out a cap of wine as bait, but I wasn’t sure this particular gecko was the lush.

The day after our arrival in Portobelo, we had a problem. The engine would start, but it was not charging the batteries. It took Joe three days to fix the problem and he still isn’t sure what he did right. He was tracing down wiring, cleaning and dusting tiny parts of the engine and the alternator, and then it was fixed. I’m pretty sure the next person who owns this sweet boat will need to have a background in electrical engineering and diesel engine repair. She is, like me, a solid old woman who needs occasional maintenance.

Portobelo, Panama was ¨discovered¨ in 1502 by Columbus. By 1586 it had become a major port for the shipment of New World gold to Seville, Spain. Between 1574 and 1702 there were more than 40 fleets operating back and forth between Portobelo and Spain, taking gold, silver, tobacco and chocolate to Europe but returning, bringing wine, oils, iron and furniture to Portobelo.

As your boat sits in the comfortable anchorage, you can see remnants of the forts surrounding the Portobelo Bay. Portobelo was another site that was attacked several times by pirate Henry Morgan. Sir Francis Drake was considered by Spain to be a pirate too, and he died from yellow fever at Portobelo. Sir Francis hated the Spaniards and tried repeatedly to conquer this area of Panama for the British. He is supposedly buried somewhere in Portobelo, but no one knows where.

Portobello’s Black Jesus (El Christo Negro) is world-famous and surrounded by just enough mystery and miracles to make it a must-see for visitors from all over the world seeking this statue to study and worship. Every year on October 21, tens of thousands of pilgrims walk to Portobelo, dropping to their knees as they near the San Felipe church, home to the statue.

The Black Christ appeared in Portobelo about 1658 and there are several stories explaining its origin.

Many stories surround the Black Christ statue’s arrival in this unlikely place. All agree that it was carved in Spain, arrived on a ship and was washed ashore at Portobelo. The rest is shrouded in the mists of time and myth..

One story holds that the ship carrying the heavy statue in a wooden crate met a terrible storm that drove it back into the harbor. The ship attempted to leave five times, but every time a sudden and unexpected storm endangered the ship and everyone aboard. On the final attempt, the crew jettisoned the crated Black Christ to lessen the weight and save their lives.

Fishermen, amazed by the lack of respect shown by the sailors, carried the Black Christ to their church and gave it a place of honor.

Another myth is that the figure Jesus of Nazareth was destined for the island of Taboga, off the Panamanian coast, but the Spanish shipper incorrectly labeled the shipment. Many attempts were made to send the statue to Taboga, but all attempts to remove it from Portobelo failed. The people of Portobelo, who suspected the figure had magical powers, said it wished to remain with them.

The sick, the troubled and the needy pray before the ornately robed statue of the Black Christ for the miracles they hope to receive, but it is said that if a promise is made and not kept there will be severe retribution. One story is of a man who prayed he would win the country’s top weekly lottery prize ($2,000) and promised that if he did he would paint the outside of the church.

Sure enough, he won the lottery, but he did not paint the church. He even told friends he did not intend to carry out his promise. Unable to resist what he saw as a good thing, he was back to visit the Black Christ the next year with the same request and promise. Lottery tickets are sold everywhere in Panama where people are, and many sellers are outside the church. He bought his ticket before setting off for home. On the way, he was killed in a traffic accident. In his pocket was the winning ticket.

“¡El Cristo Negro cobra!” believers warn. The Black Christ calls in the markers!


Today, cruisers enjoy the calm anchorage of Portobelo as a base for reprovisioning and catching a breath before continuing to the Panama Canal or to the San Blas Islands. The fort-surrounded bay is an unbelievable view and we visited several of the ruins. The old Customs House hosts a museum and historical artifacts.

The day they returned from an overnighter to Panama City to deal with some legal issues, Paul and Mary Margaret returned to a battery-dead boat. S/V AngelHeart needed two new batteries, but where to find them was a small problem. Paul did find them, but the batteries were in Colón, and Colón is a place cruisers avoid. The crime there is no laughing matter, and cruisers staying at Shelter Bay Marina are transported into the town in private shuttles or with registered taxi drivers who go inside the stores with them for protection. It’s that bad. Paul hired a private car to take him into Colón.

The day he left, Joe and I decided to do our last provisioning at Rye’s Supermarket in Sabanitas, a chicken bus ride away. These buses were decorated and screamed Hispanic music and were cleaner than most. I enjoyed the bus ride to Rey´s. When we got there, Joe decided to go into Colón for filters. I begged him to put his money in his underwear. He wouldn’t. I begged him to take the pepper spray. He said okay. I tried to coach him about what kind of taxi to get and to pay the driver to wait.  He got impatient, so I finally said, ¨Fine. If you are robbed and don’t get killed, I’m going to be really mad.¨

I have to admit, when he appeared in the supermarket’s produce aisle after buying his filters, I rushed to him and gave him a hug. I truly was nervous about his trip to Colón.

We met two transplanted Texas in the Bay of Portobello; veteran cruisers Dennis and Deb aboard their beautiful vessel, The W.C. Fields, home port Boston. In fact, we are practically next-door neighbors at the League City UPS Store. They are proven cruisers but they might want to be considered the epicurean owners of the Best Cruiser Recipes Ever. Deb made conch fritters one night. Curry quesadillas another night. But the best, absolute best recipe was called 321. Three parts soy sauce, two parts oyster cream and one part sesame seed oil – very small units of measures to yield a light coating as opposed to a swimming-in-salad dressing effect. Tossed with Chinese noodles and whatever meat or veggie combinations you have onboard yields a light and delicious entrée.

San Blas cruisers are eager to share information. But The W.C.  Fields had some information we really didn’t want to hear.

The San Blas cruising area is almost crime-free. Cruisers sleep with hatches open and screened/netted. And all of us sleep with flashlights, pepper spray, handheld radios . . . just in case. W.C. Fields is a fabulous Morgan Out Island 49. The boat’s v-berth is larger than my master berth, and that was where they were sleeping when their boat was boarded by two men.

The intruders came down the companionway and rushed to the boat’s bow, past the laptop, past the galley, past the nav station, past the spacious salon area and ran right into the v-berth. Deborah began screaming while Dennis fumbled in the darkness for the pepper spray, turned the nozzle in what he hoped was the right direction, covered his eyes in case he didn’t have the nozzle aimed in the right direction, then opened a pepper-spray fire.

The two men did not appear to have any weapons at all, and the pepper spray barrage sent them back through the boat and up on the deck, scrambling to get away in their cayuco. However, they had tied their cayuco very securely to one of The W.C. Fields stanchions and were unable, with watery eyes and shaking hands, to get their cayuco untied. Dennis and Deborah followed them out of the boat and literally held the intruders captive while Deb took pictures! This is a woman after my own heart.

Dennis said they finally had no choice except to release the men. They did report the incident and offered the photos to officials.

The important point Dennis made is that cruisers need to be able, in the confusion of an unwanted boarding, to find their pepper spray quickly in the darkness and know how to use it amid chaos. I spent several nights, practicing in the dark but I knew it would be difficult to find and point my pepper spray at The Bad Guys in the middle of pandemonium. I also removed Joe’s K-Bar knife from its place near the main hatch and it’s now under a pillow. We are also now locking our main hatch.

We were reunited with friends Mike and Susan of S/V Infini. Infini is a 1979 Westsail 43 homeported in Tampa, Florida. Mike and Susan have cruised for several years and are SSCA (Seven Seas Cruising Association) Commodores. As soon as I return to the States I plan to buy a copy of Mike’s book, Your Offshore Doctor, a Manual of Medical Self-Sufficiency at Sea published by Sheridan House. It sounds like a book every cruiser needs. While Rose of Sharon was in Portobelo, readying to make passage to the San Blas, Infini was returning to Shelter Bay marina and then the States for graduations and grandkids.

It’s so much a part of the joy of cruising to make new friends and cross passage paths with cruisers you’ve known for several years! AngelHeart had decided to stay in Portobelo for awhile, so Joe and I left the lovely anchorage to the joyous sounds of a conch shell chorus performed by the cruising vessels Infini and The W.C. Fields. The singular sound of a conch shell farewell speaks volumes: Be safe, Godspeed, Protect your Ocean Neighbors and We Will Meet Again. It’s the music of an ending, a continuation, and new beginnings.

Our passage to Isla Linton was a quick jump, but the 5-foot seas had an occasional high roller. Imagine looking toward the bow of your boat and seeing a wave just like one of the waves from the movie The Perfect Storm. It looms like a watery skyscraper and then your trusty vessel goes up, up, nose to the sky, poises for just a second and then surfs down the wave. It was actually fun, but Joe had to reassure me that we wouldn’t flip over backwards. And I was just grateful that the motion of the ocean was gentle and we weren’t crashing down with those alarming slams that always make me afraid to be down below ¨if she starts to break up.¨

We dropped anchor at 09º36.77´N, 079º35.30´W and I jumped overboard for my swim in what turned out to be a very rolly anchorage.

As I splashed around the very dirty hull of our boat I recalled how a nice young man would visit us at the Waterford Yacht Club dock every three or four months and scrub and wax our hull to a terrific shine. He charged $300 in 2003, and I wondered what he would charge now. The hull looked stained and shabby.

The next day was a hard travel day to the Chichime Islands. When we began this passage to the San Blas, we lost a fender and our boat hook the first day. We recovered the fender. We lost one flip flop and the dip net en route to Portobelo. On this day sail, our life ring flew into the air, hovered a bit while we continued on, then fell down into our wake and was out of reach in seconds.

Chichime anchorageBut it was a glorious day for sailing and we made good time, averaging 6 knots per hour. We dropped anchor at 09º35.21´N, 078º52.89´W. Once again, the alternator acted up so the next day Joe spent an hour working with wires that had copper sticks inside, cutting, fusing, and wrapping them.

I don’t ask, but sometimes I wonder how much of our boat is held together by electrical tape and duct tape. And while I’m on the subject, in addition to reviving our alternator, Joe completely repaired our generator and rebuilt our head in one month. He reads boat equipment manuals the way some people read the Sunday paper. It’s his idea of a good time. Am I a lucky Admiral or what?

At the isolated anchorage of Chichime, I felt the freedom to skinny dip and Joe and I enjoyed our time alone together, sans other people. For about ten minutes. When our anchor was secure and before I could even climb out of the water and back into the cockpit, cayucos converged on our boat, all of them bearing one or two women and two or three of the most adorable toddlers we’d ever seen. These were the mola salespeople.

Molas have become a highly collectible form of textile art, shown in museums and private collections internationally. The average mola takes more than 100 hours to complete.

Molas are hand made using a reverse appliqué technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different-coloured cloth (usually cotton) are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting parts of each layer away. The edges of the layers are then sewn down; the finest molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles.

 The largest pattern is typically cut from the top layer, and progressively smaller patterns from each subsequent layer, thus revealing the colours beneath in successive layers. This basic scheme can be varied by cutting through multiple layers at once, hence varying the sequence of colours; some molas also incorporate patches of contrasting colours, included in the design at certain points to introduce additional variations of colour.

-- How Molas are Made, Sherry Thorup

The Kuna people themselves are gentle and hard-working, but they are fiercely protective of their ancient customs, language and mores; they became extremely resistant to Panama’s attempt to govern their society and after several intense battles, in 1925 Panama conceded the right of the Kunas to be a part of Panama . . . but to govern their own territory autonomously.

Not only is Kuna Yala a matriarchal society, the people do not have the sexual standards that continue to cause confusion in the western world. Some of their males are homosexual by choice and some boys are raised from birth to be females. Some of the homosexual men are transvestites. On the other hand, this can cause its own level of confusion for cruisers. For example, Master Mola Maker Lisa, who can be seen in Fodor’s and other reputable tour guidebooks, visited our boat, but although the woman looked like the famous Lisa, this woman really looked like a woman. I thought she was a Lisa imposter. Later I was told that she was indeed the artiste Lisa.

Venancio, Master Mola MakerI started out strong, saying no to the mola saleswomen and giving candy to the kids. But before we knew it, we were admiring the handiwork of the molas, and then we bought one . . . then another . . . then a third . . . and we weren’t going to buy anymore until a transvestite man appeared at our boat and announced he was the ¨Mola Maestro.¨ Obviously we needed to buy a signed mola from the lovely Prado.

Then, two days later, an attractive lancha with a large outboard arrived, driven by two men who were obviously servants to one of the Kuna Royal Family of Mola Makers, Venancio Restrepo. Venancio handed us an expensive business card and began grandly displaying his molas on our lifelines. And they were exceptional! We had been paying $5-$10 for our molas, but I could tell Venancio´s molas were the Picassos of mola art.

Joe and I examined one mola in particular that was a tropical scene viewed from windowpanes. We had not seen anything like it. Venancio priced it at $80, no discussion. I am sure it was worth that and more, but it was not within our budget.

After we purchased our Venancio mola, we were no longer interested in seeing more. We’d seen the best. The mola-selling Kuna natives disappeared, replaced by beggars. Did we have any sugar? Water? Magazines? Makeup? And while Joe slaved below, working on the alternator, I took a cellphone from two women who requested we charge it. We couldn’t charge our own cellphone at that point, but I said, sure, we’d try. And we did. However, our policy has always been, ¨No trabajan, no dinero,¨ meaning, ¨You don’t work, you don’t get money.¨  So we are not good targets for beggars, but we did charge a few cellphones.

The next day five other boats sailed into the tiny anchorage, but all of us pretended no one else was there. I paid no attention to the nude man showering on his swim platform to my left and I am assuming our neighbors pretended not to see my brown and white body splashing around our boat, naked.

PARADISEWe spent a week, snorkeling and exploring the tiny islands. Chichime is what armchair sailors dream about and cruisers seek.

April 2009 we checked out of Bocas Del Toro, Panama, and our check-in site was Porvenir, Panama, so we went to the Customs and Immigration office at Porvenir.

The passage took about an hour, and I expected . . . well, some sign of civilization, but no, the entire island of Porvenir is a tiny hotel, the port Captain and Immigration office plus the Kuna Yala permit office. You pay about twenty dollars to cruise among certain Kuna islands in addition to paying your Panamanian cruising permit fee (ours was about to expire, so we needed renewal). I gave the Immigration officer a homemade cupcake with strawberry jam filling, but he still would not renew our 90-day tourist visa nor discuss the ever-debatable Mariner’s Visa.

As in many Central America countries, full-time travelers once were able to apply for a one-time extension to their tourist visas, allowing them to stay in the country for 180 days total. Then they had to visit another country. Cruisers in Panama could apply for and receive a Mariner’s Visa which was an extended visa for cruisers. Cruisers´ boats were able to stay in the country for 6 months. When we arrived in February 2009, it was already difficult to obtain the Mariner’s Visa and by April 2009, it was almost impossible. Some cruisers said you could still get one . . . somewhere.

The January/February online issue of Ocean Navigator explains the situation better than I, and while we were in the U.S. during 2008, Chuck, at Bocas Del Toro Yacht Club handled our boat papers for us. This is where Rose of Sharon will return in July/August.  Now I’m no longer sure what he can or cannot do, with regards to the boats at that marina; another cruiser received an email from his boat’s marina in Panama City telling him that he might have to take his boat out of country and soon.

It’s confusing, but on May 5, 2009, our boat’s cruising permit was renewed so the boat was covered for 90 more days.

WichubwalaAcross from Porvenir is a tiny island called Wichubwala. Joe and I dinghied over to see if we could get fresh fruits or vegetables. There was a nice little tienda with bad vegetables, but I managed to find one good tomato, three potatoes, and a cucumber. That’s an entrée and a salad, right there. The unpaved streets were clean and the palapas snuggled together in what appeared to be sleeping palapas and cooking palapas. It was exciting for us to see this modern-day Kunas village.

We left Porvenir for the Lemmon Cayes, dropping anchor at 09°32.87'N, 078°53.84'W. This place was full of cruisers and now I know why!

Happy Hour West LemmonsAt 5:00 p.m. every day, one of the locals serves cold beer and cold Coca Cola to cruisers for $1 each. Cruisers dinghy to the clean beach and sit in chairs around a log that serves as a table. We wiggle our toes in the white sand and sip our beer and wine, except for one woman who makes herself an elaborate martini with so many olives and capers it looks like a salad.

There is a vegetable man who visits the Lemmon Islands once a week with fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, and sometimes fresh meat. There is another local who will make the day trip to the mainland to purchase such delicacies as tortillas and cheese for cruisers.

Our second day there, we snorkeled two different sites and one of them was a sunken ship. It was an incredible adventure and one of the best snorkels ever! Our granddaughter, Hannah, would visit us in June and already I could see that snorkeling this area was a high priority.

The other cruisers would laugh at me when I said, ¨I can’t imagine why anyone would ever LEAVE this anchorage!¨

¨It’s just as nice. . .  even better . . . at some of the other islands,¨ they would say. ¨You have to keep exploring!¨

When Paul of S/V AngelHeart surfaced from one snorkel, spewing water and holding a huge shell in his hand, then showed me the fussy hermit crab inside the shell, I said, ¨Tell me again why we are going to leave this place?¨

¨We have to go to The Swimming Pool,¨ he said. ¨Everybody who cruises to the San Blas goes to The Swimming Pool.¨

Well, okay. That made sense. Can’t take a chance on missing anything.

Unfortunately, Joe and I would expire, tourism-wise, May 18, 2009. I guess we examined every possible scenario for how to get our passports stamped for another 90 days for the least amount of trouble and using the least amount of energy and money. We asked other cruisers. Some people spoke knowledgeably and with authority but no one said the same thing twice. Most people said it could be this way, it might be that way, they knew for a fact that it used to be this way but now . . .

Our friends agreed to babysit our boat for one week. We’d never done this before but desperate times call for desperate measures. Joe and I took a high-speed panga (a small, wooden boat) to the town of Cartí, then hired a driver with a 4-wheeler to roar through the jungles and slide all over mud roads of rural Panama, crossing one brown river in the process ( I rolled my window down when we crossed the river just in case we had to swim for it), and once in Panama City I became maniacal about planes, trains and automobiles, including buses.

I called the manager of the Bocas Del Toro Yacht Club at an ungodly hour one morning, still trying to find an all-knowing person who could explain tourism in Panama. I called the Panama City immigration office – twice – and got hung up on both times. It didn’t help that this was days after a national election. Panama had a new president, a new regime, and I imagine most of the government workers were too busy finishing up so they could leave their jobs or scrambling to keep their jobs. It’s a lot like the U.S., especially when they put you on hold, repeatedly, transferring you to the person who knows the answer to your question. My Answer People just hung up on me, which can be interpreted as one kind of answer for sure.

Spirit Air has excellent fares to and from Panama City and Ft. Lauderdale. But not the day before you want to fly out. Taca and Copa airlines offer some reasonable fares and fly all over Central America, but if you want to save money, you plan ahead. Having gone along with Joe’s ¨Don’t worry, be happy¨ project management style, I was now very worried and real unhappy. Hopalong and I had to get out of Dodge before our passports expired.

continue on ... Part 3


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