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Passage to Cartagena Portobelo

Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon ... stranded in Portobelo

Passage – Basically, a voyage from point A to point B, interrupted by unexpected landfalls or stopovers at point K, point Q, and point Z. – Sailing, a Sailor’s Dictionary

Our precious family returned to Colorado after a fun-filled visit to Panama.  It’s always so great to see our world through others’ eyes.  Joe and I then prepared to go a-cruising once again.  Destination: Cartagena, Colombia.  I over-provisioned, happily stocking enough food for an around-the-world cruise.

We needed a new anchor chain, so we went to Panama City, where Joe said we could easily find exactly what he wanted at a place some guy told him about a “couple of months ago.”

Captain Mitch Witt, a Texas boater and surveyor, sent an FYI (For Your Information) to me. He said:

Be aware that there are a number of different link dimensions for the same size chain.  When shopping, better take a few old links that you know will fit your chain gypsy along.  For instance, 5/16" G3 and G4 chain manufactured to ISO standards has at least two link ‘lengths,’ as I discovered when purchasing chain in San Juan.  If you don’t match the chain link size to the gypsy, it won’t work right and at the very least will wear down your chain gypsy.

It’s good to have friends in knowledgeable places.

The Great Chain Chase was unbelievable, as we tore Panama City apart looking for anchor chain.  Panama City is a major hub for shipping and boats, and you’d think anchor chain would be easy.  It wasn’t.

One time, Joe’s mother was looking for apple cider vinegar, and in the store, when I brought her a bottle, she said, “No, that’s not the right kind.  It's not EXPENSIVE enough!”  The apple did not fall far from the tree.

Everywhere we went, even if Joe could find the chain size he needed, when he would ask the price and they told him, he would turn to me and say, “It's not the right kind. It's not EXPENSIVE enough.”

Our driver was looking frazzled, and at the 5th or sixth stop, we hit pay dirt.  Joe had to up-size our chain, but he was reassured the chain was expensive enough and  “American.”  He told the seller, “I can't trust our lives to Chinese quality control...unless it’s my Chinese granddaughters.”  At ages 12 and 10, the girls aren’t into manufacturing just yet.

We checked out of Colón (the port captain will come to cruisers at Shelter Bay Marina) and Immigration stamped our passports (again, this service is free at Shelter Bay), and we left the dock November 15, 2010.

It was a rough motor sailing passage, but a very short one, only four hours.  At one point, Joe decided to raise the mainsail just a bit for balance.  Of course, it was during torrential rain and wind and waves, but he refused the offshore jacket I offered him as he wove his way to the bow to help work the sail slides up the track while I fed out the line.  When we are raising the mainsail, he always tells me to aim the boat into the wind, but in rough seas, that is not always easy.  This time, we’d lurch in one direction, I’d eyeball the compass and make an adjustment, then we’d lurch in another direction, and it was always bad.  Finally I yelled up to him, “Just get the (expletive deleted) sail up and get back in here!  This is crazy!”

So he did.  As he eased back toward the cockpit, we took a huge roll, and Joe was hanging on to secure stays and shrouds, swaying out to sea and back again.  I shook my head in exasperation, but he was hanging on okay, I thought.  As he re-entered the cockpit, the boat took a lurch in the opposite direction.  He was, at that point, hanging on to two bimini braces.  He fell forward, violently, onto the bimini and it ripped almost completely apart at a seam.

Our Front Yard in Portobelo
The Caribbean beaconed daily.
Sharon was not happy to be “stuck” in the Portobelo anchorage for over a month; the Caribbean in her “front yard” beckoned her daily.
We carefully eased into Portobelo Bay, eager to drop anchor and seek the dry coziness of the cabin below.  I’m not saying it was my fault, but instead of watching where Joe was going, I was chatting on the cellphone with Daughter #2 when we hit a log.

Portobelo is located on the Caribbean coast halfway between the Panama Canal and the San Blas archipelago.  Founded in 1597, it was a once major port in the Caribbean and its ownership bounced between Spain and Great Britain for hundreds of years.  Today, Portobelo’s claim to fame is its Christo Negro (Black Christ) shrine and several moderately-preserved  Spanish colonial forts.  In 1596, Sir Francis Drake was buried in a lead coffin in Portobelo Bay but he’s probably deep under a lot of cans and plastic wrappers by now.

The Portobelo, Panama anchorage is one about which I have often complained loud and long.  It’s filthy.  If I ever fell overboard, I’d bathe in bleach and gargle with rubbing alcohol.  Okay, I’m exaggerating again, but not by much.  I really don’t like the Portobelo anchorage and don’t think much about the town itself.  As we navigated the floating trash and usual debris floating in the Portobelo Bay, we hit the log, which rolled under the hull and shot out under the back of the boat.  The sound of the engine changed immediately.  The prop acted a bit funny after that.  I know the prop was acting funny because I’m the driver when we drop anchor, and the response was somewhat off as we set the anchor.  Our prop already looks like a prisoner of war; one blade is seriously dinged and the others are just plain tired.  But, like the Beach Boys said, “She still gets us where we wanna go.”

When the boat was secure, I poured two shot glasses of tequila and we held our traditional toast:  “No loss of life, no – well, a little – property damage.  It was a GOOD SAIL.”  Then I sniffed the air in the salon.  “Do you smell that?” I said to Joe.  “It smells, like, oil, kind of like burny oil.”  That’s about as technical as I get, but it doesn’t take much more to communicate to Joe that there might be a problem.

Joe removed the side door to the engine room and the smell grew stronger.  Yep, we had a problem.  Hot water and hot diesel fuel were pooled on the floor.  He leaned in closer for inspection and saw the little screw that holds the cam in the raw water pump had come loose and was also on the floor.  He saw diesel fuel around the fuel pump and wondered if the fuel pump had a problem or if we had a leaky hose.

Problema!  Feed Pumps & circulation pumps oh my.
The feed pump for fuel and the circulation pump for the water needed replacement before Rose of Sharon could continue passage making to Cartagena, Colombia. Joe had his work cut out for himself.
After the engine cooled, Joe took the raw water pump apart and found that, like Van Gogh, an ear was missing from the impeller.  Joe had a spare impeller, but he needed to look for the broken ear piece, because wherever it was, the tiny plastic piece might be blocking something.  He took several hoses apart and decided the piece may have already made its way to the heat exchanger.  At that point, he was not willing to take apart the heat exchanger.  (Later, that’s exactly where he found the errant piece – working its way into the heat exchanger.)  He put a new impeller and a new gasket on the raw water pump and re-installed it.  He checked for water leaks and told me to start the engine.

The engine started, there was no water leak and the raw water was pumping and discharging properly.  But we still had a fuel leak.

Joe cleaned all the water and diesel fuel out of the engine room (It’s good to save 1- and 2-liter empty water bottles for this kind of mess).  He told me to start the engine again and watched carefully, seeing the fuel was leaking at the fuel feed pump.  Problem.

We did not have a spare fuel feed pump, but he thought might be fixable.  It wasn’t.  Our engine is a 1987 Volvo, and the pump is obsolete.  Volvo had a new one ($180) that would fit, but we had to buy a new hose ($50).  I didn’t understand why we couldn’t order directly from Volvo, but that’s how it works.  He ordered a new pump and hose from Marine Parts Express in Michigan.  Volvo would ship to Marine Parts Express and they would ship to us.  The bad news was, it was so near Thanksgiving that the shipping timeframe was unpredictable.  The good news was, Panama City has a UPS Store.

And there we sat, on the hook in Portobelo, Panama, not one of my favorite anchorages.

Thanksgiving was fun.  There is a new hostel/restaurant called Captain Jack’s, which offers high-speed internet and good food at reasonable prices.  There were over 50 cruisers, locals and backpackers gathered together that day for grilled turkey and ham.  The cruisers brought side dishes.  One European woman asked why the next day is called “Black Friday.”

“I understand it’s the biggest shopping day in the U.S., but why is it called ‘black’?  She asked.

A U.S. cruiser explained, “After operating in the red all year, this is the first day some businesses will (hopefully) be able to use black ink in the accounting books.”  I really didn’t know that.

Potobelo Monkey
The town of Portobelo, Panama is truly picturesque, but if it’s not where you want to be when you’re cruising, it’s a detour.
Meanwhile, the one dump truck for the town of Portobelo broke down and the repair would be more than the city could handle, about $700.  Dennis, the manager of Captain Jack’s organized a cruisers’ contribution campaign:  cruisers who donated money would get pictures of their boats painted on trash barrels, which would then be distributed throughout the town.  He would also go to the schools and try to educate the children about how bad littering is for their community.  (Where is Lady Bird when we need her the most?)  All the proceeds would go toward repairing Portobelo’s dump truck.

Well, after all my complaining, shame on me if I didn’t do something positive to help the problem, so we “bought” half a trash can.  Maybe someday you’ll sail to Portobelo and see the Rose of Sharon full of candy wrappers and beer cans.

Our package arrived in Panama City December 3 and Joe made the day trip to the big city to retrieve it.

From Portobelo, road travel is easily accessible, and the way to travel is by chicken bus.  It’s a dollar per person, but it is not the “express” Panama bus, which means it has very few frills and stops along the way many times, loading and offloading schoolchildren and local workers.  Every chicken bus is unique, in that the amazing decorations on the outside of the bus and in the driver’s area offer sensory overload:  lots of garish graffiti and art on the chassis and interior walls.  This one had magenta boa feathers and other sparkly and shiny things lining the large front window.  There are always two very big speakers perched in the back of the bus, with one control setting:  loud.  The throbbing percussion bass rhythm actually adds vibration to what is already a very rickety ride.

It takes an hour to get from Portobelo to Sabanitas, where Joe exited the bus and made his way to the busy 4-lane highway where he then caught the super-duper air conditioned “express” bus from Colon to Panama City.  That particular bus is usually full  – and they never have a quota for how many people they can cram into a bus – so Joe stood in the aisle for the one-hour ride to Panama City.  His travel expenses were now $2.00.  A taxi from Portobelo to Panama City would have been $80 one way.  Believe me, some days, it’s almost worth it.

The shipping charge from the U.S. was $70.  But he paid an additional $55 at the Panama City UPS Store to retrieve the package.  He didn’t know why and he didn’t ask because it doesn’t matter.  (Order what you want, take what they give you and pay what they say.  This rule applies to restaurants and most Central American businesses.  Arguing is pointless.)

Joe the Repair Man installed the part and the engine was purring by the next afternoon.  The weather, which had been too volatile for travel anyway, worsened.  Every day, we checked with the Chris Parker marine weather forecast, and every day, it was rough out there no matter which direction you wanted to go.

We planned to be in Portobelo just long enough to get our part and buy more provisions – fresh meat and vegetables.  You can get the basic staples in Portobelo, but have to journey to Sabanitas for provisioning.  We shopped at the Rey’s grocery store chain so often, I finally got a Rey’s card and if I got a gazillion points, would get a free crockpot or something.

I sent an email about our plans to sail to Colombia to others, and one cruiser replied that if we cruised near the coast, we’d probably be boarded by Colombian Coast Guard.  My first thought was, “I need to bake some cookies to have on hand if we get boarded!”

Another cruiser told me the human cookie idea was good, but also recommended her doggy cookie recipe for the drug-sniffing dogs.  (If you want the recipe, just send me an email.)

View from s/v Rose of Sharon
View from s/v Rose of Sharon
Portobelo is a historic site and the bay has old Spanish fortifications located strategically in the anchorage.
I re-provisioned, again, and because the weather was so rainy and the boat was closed up, I dealt with an unprecedented mold and mildew situation in the boat.  Joe thought the sometimes 60° weather was terrific, but I was cold.  It hardly matters, in the usual heat, whether or not we have hot water because then you want a cold shower, but I wanted a hot shower now.  And despite running the engine every day, we didn’t have hot water.

When the engine is running, the fresh water circulates through the hot water tank, so Joe checked out the problem and saw a small water drip from the bottom of the engine.  He thought a hose or gasket fitting might have a small leak; something fixable.  He removed the fresh water circulation pump and inspected all the hoses and clamps; they were fine.  He dismantled the fresh water pump and the 23-year-old interior workings were quite worn.  The water pump had served our vessel well, but had retired.

Back to Marine Parts Express.

You know what BOAT means; Break Out Another Thousand.  Well, this part was $800, but hey, we got free shipping.

Even though the rainy season had ended, the rains increased in frequency and in copious amounts.  As the weather deteriorated, we realized we were definitely “stuck” in Portobelo, waiting for a part and waiting for a weather window.

I was beginning to think Cartagena might not happen in 2010.

Just as I was thinking about copping an attitude, God reminded me how wonderful my life – and your life too – can be, no matter where you are.

One morning, our VHF Portobelo Net opened with the oldies song, “Rhythm of the Rain,” and the net controller lifted our rain-soaked spirits by announcing there would be a Mexican Train domino game, pizza delivered, and other cruiser social options at Captain Jack’s despite the soggy weather.  She was cheerful, and the weather reporter for that day reported, “It’s raining.”  You had to laugh.  That, or up your antidepressant dosage.  He then followed with the marine forecast.  People traveling to Honduras:  it’s not good.  People traveling to Cartagena:  it’s not good.  Five-day outlook:  more of the same.  Joe and I returned to our onboard Skip-Bo tournament, in which I had taken a surprising lead.

We've Got Crabs
We've got crabs aboard s/v Rose of Sharon
This little fellow fought his way up from the sea into and through Rose of Sharon’s plumbing system only to meet an untimely death at the hands of Sharon and a liquid bathroom cleaner.
Being boat-bound by weather did have its moments of excitement, though.  Joe called me into the main head to show me that a crab had somehow fought its way into the drain and our sink.  We laughed, admired the tenacious little crustacean, and it was my job to capture it and toss it overboard.  I’m not afraid of snakes or most insects and figured this would be an easy capture.  I tried to pick it up to throw it overboard with a pair of tongs but it leaped and scrambled up into the air, I screamed, threw myself against the bathroom door and ran through the boat, shrieking and having spasms.  Joe laughed himself silly, but then it was his turn.  He went in to catch the beast and it slithered back down the drain.  I returned to the head, turned on the water in the sink, and then – it was like a knee-jerk reaction – poured bathroom cleaner down the drain.  A large bubble appeared and popped.  So I killed it and I feel kind of bad about that.  The following week, I nervously kept the stopper in the drain.

S/V Andante is home ported out of Sandusky, Ohio, but like Joe and I, Cindy and Bryce they are homeless people from Texas.  I even wrote a little song for cruisers like us, and you’ll recognize the tune:

All my taxes file in Texas,
Texas is the place I ought to be.
But all my taxes file in Texas,
While I make my home in the sunny Caribbe.

But we hadn’t seen the sun for almost a month.  Andante was on the other side of the bay, the south side, closest to the city.  Cindy offered an “Attention the Fleet” on VHF 72 and announced there appeared to have been been a mudslide in Portobelo.  She and Bryce would investigate and report back.

An hour later, she was back on the radio, breathless and upset.  “It’s horrible, horrible,” she said.  Apparently there had been two mudslides, blocking the road.  Telephone lines were down, live electrical wires were on the ground, but the worst information we received was that there was taxi overturned and filled with mud.  The driver was trapped.  In addition to the taxi’s occupant, there were additional injured and three people were dead; others were missing.

A Canadian cruising couple’s oldest son was working at Captain Jack’s, which is located on a very high hill in Portobelo.  Her husband had already gone into the town to help, but his wife couldn’t reach him.  The boy’s mother was frantic and begged any cruiser going in to “Please get Brett out of there.”  I could hear the emotion in her voice.

Two other cruisers went to town but it was chaos and there was no way to understand how to help if you didn’t have a shovel.  None of us had shovels.  Brett was safely brought down the hill and dinghied to his grateful mom.  When the cruisers returned to their boats they said the situation was chaotic and heartbreaking but there was no one person to coordinate disaster relief.  It was better for us to stay in our boats and stay out the way.

Water, Water Everywhere
Water, water everywhere.
The first bail-out was fun. The second bail-out was funny.  By the time she bailed out a third dinghy-full of rain water in 24 hours, Sharon was singing, “Rain, Rain Go Away!”
The rains continued, unabated.  In twenty-four hours, our dinghy completely filled with rain water and I climbed out of the boat and into the dinghy to bail three times.  Two dinghies and two cruising boats drifted.  One unattended cruising boat had enough of a leak that it filled with water and sunk.

It was several days before we truly understood the severity of the situation.  Ten people were dead total, 8 in Portobelo.  The Panama Canal shut down for the first time in its history, due to weather.  A portion of the Centennial Bridge, one of two bridges along the Panama Canal route, had collapsed.

Panama City –  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli confirmed the deaths of eight people resulting from days of heavy rains, raising to 10 the number of fatalities from a storm that has forced authorities to temporarily close the Panama Canal.

A mudslide in the Caribbean coastal town of Portobelo killed eight people and left the community of 3,000 inhabitants cut off from the rest of the country, Martinelli told a press conference at the Emergency Operations Center in Panama City.

Two children also drowned on Tuesday in the waters of the Bayano River, and a woman who was traveling with them in a small boat that capsized is missing.

The temporary closure was decided upon because of the excess volume of water flowing in the Chagres River, which causes currents that put ships traversing the Canal at risk, said Canal officials.

In addition, authorities ordered the preventive evacuation of the towns located on the banks of the Canal and along the lakes that supply water to its locks.

The Bayano dam, located 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the capital, has continued to drain the excess water at a high rate, which has added to the already-elevated Bayano river level that has resulted in the flooding of thousands of hectares (acres) downstream.

A hectare is equal to about 2.5 acres.

The president said that the government "didn't have any helicopters" to handle the emergency and had to rent them from companies and use one belonging to Martinelli to evacuate people whose homes had been flooded.

The highways linking Panama City to Colon have also been closed by mudslides and the one leading to Puente Centenario, which crosses the Canal, is partially closed because the road surface cracked and became unstable due to the heavy rains.  (Fox News Latino)

Homes & Families Disappeared
Damage from mudslides in Portobelo, Colombia.
Eight persons, including a child were killed when the intense rainfall caused two mudslides in the town of Portobelo, Panama. Cruisers there struggled with how to help the crippled community.
We were in Guatemala during much worse mudslides where entire villages were buried.  The government provided minimal assistance.  But the Panamanian government responded as quickly as possible, sending in trucks of supplies, potable water and mattresses.  Many families had moved in with other families and mattresses were needed in most Portobelo homes.  The road was opened in three days but the recovery continued throughout December.

Suddenly, the importance of our holiday cruising plans paled in comparison to the tragedy around us.  Joe and I might or might not make it to Cartagena for our 40th wedding anniversary and Christmas together.  Whatever should happen, would happen.  With our priorities once again redefined by our gratitude, we stayed safely, patiently on our boat in the Portobelo anchorage.

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