Now we are in jungle territory, we have a few visitors……Peter found this chap (he was actually as big as Peter's hand) trying to hitch a ride out of Golfito at O’dark 30! We had to get rid of him quickly in-case he wanted to go below. Now that would give us a bit of a fright!!!
When we bought the boat in Mexico in 2009, Panama was always our destination, even though we really had little idea of its amazing the cruising grounds. Not only are there many islands in West Panama (coast runs more east-west now, with the canal running north/south), there is also the beautiful Las Perlas islands directly south of Panama City. Of course there is also the canal!!!
El Salvador to Panama is 1012nm which we did in 33 days. Most of this was day sailing. We have now done 4000nm puddling around the Pacific coast of Central America. The next 4000nm will be done mainly on passage between Panama, Galapagos and the Marquesas in 2 months!
We are in Panama with a few Australian boats that are also crossing the Pacific this year. We will leave in loose company with John and Leanne on Red Sky, a beautiful Moody 54, and we have met friends of theirs, Shweetie, with Nicholas and Lyn who also come from sunny Queensland. They buy boats and bring them back to Australia, with this being their 3rd crossing. There are also a few Kiwi boats here; good to be among the western Pacific sailors! The subject of the Pacific crossing, being all about the journey or destination has arisen…with all the blokes agreeing that it is the destination for sure! Not one of them enjoys the passages!!! We have mentally prepared ourselves for the 3 week passage to Marquesas from Galapagos and it certainly will be a time to brush up on our French! Marquesas is half way to New Zealand, so by mid-April we will be half way there!
We have had to jump through many hoops to get into French Polynesia, thanks to all the boats that have done the wrong thing going through there. Apart from having to prove health insurance, a neat $500 (we don’t even carry this in Australia!), we have to sign up with the ‘Pacific Puddle Jump’ to get a bond exemption. The alternative is to have an airfare out of Tahiti. However, the costs of the Puddle Jump are offset by the fact that we do get duty free fuel from Marquesas to Bora Bora, which will be our exit point. Of course the health insurance and bond exemption only applies to non EU passport holders, so in our case it only applies to me.
Our fuel pump issue that started out of El Salvador continued to plague us until Panama! The last 12 miles into Panama, through the ship anchorage, the electric pump gave up! The solution was for Peter to bail out the diesel from the middle tank inside the boat and poor it directly into the racor filter. He did this for two hours whilst I bought the boat into the anchorage. It was hot and the smell below with the fumes was not nice!
A few ships started their engines and I was doing a lot of the positive thinking stuff that they would not up anchor and move! Peter stuck his head out quickly at one stage and looked up at the bow of one ship as we were passing by! When I found our anchoring spot, Peter rushed up on deck (in his jocks) and let go the anchor. The engine will idle, so we had enough revs to stretch out the chain and back down on the anchor! Thank goodness for a good muddy bottom!
Peter also discovered that the Kycera solar panel we purchased in Mexico did not have a good seal in the junction box. As we left the panels in a vertical position in our absence, the box filled up with water!!! Peter spent considerable time over the last month cleaning up the terminals inside. He was missing 10 of the 19 volts the panel should be putting out. After much pondering, he found them! Peter is not quite sure how he got it to work, but is happy with the result.
A really well publicised anchorage in West Panama is Bahia Honda. A much protected bay with an elderly gentleman, Domingo, who welcomes yachties.
He owns most of the land around the bay. Domingo and another family next door trade fruit and vegetables for whatever services we provide or items to trade.
Peter helped Kennedy fix his outboard. Cookies are a much welcomed item for trade as are batteries and torches. There is no road access to the nearby village, so everything comes in by boat.
An Italian has built a magnificent house on the island on the way into the bay, where the rich and famous often come to chill. He has built a railroad to get up to the house and also re-built a small airstrip on the mainland.
Domingo took us up the mangroves to a large cluster of properties that has a satellite phone box. Cabelleros (cowboys) are the go here as the men ride up to the main road then get a bus into the nearest town.
Every village has their church. Its remoteness and village life reminded us so much of Indonesia.
The area has no road access so every thing comes in by boat. Domingo was telling us that in the main village in the bay, there are many young boys, 18-20 years old who have become a problem as they sit around and drink too much. Sounds familiar. In general, people out here are happy as they do not like the way in which Panama has changed and become too expensive for them. The tranquility of Bahia Honda was indeed a welcomed stop.
Another worthwhile stop was Cebaco Island, in the south bay. Tim, a Kiwi runs the Cebaco Bay fuel ship, where diesel is $6.25/gal. It’s a bit like the cost of water in a desert! Its also a sportsfisher camp and there are many moorings in the corner of the bay which is the best anchorage. We were anchored among the moorings, which was no problem but got moved over as more motor boats came in. There is a beautiful fresh water stream in the far corner of the bay and according to Red Sky, a great reef to snorkel on that is as good as the Barrier Reef in Queensland!
Tim gave us a weather forecast and the option was slugging it out or waiting for 4 days. We figured that Punta Mala was always going to be tough with the northerlies at this time of the year, so at 0300, we set forth!
We had actually had some good sailing over the past few days. Our course was mainly along the coast until Punta Mala, some 100 miles south of Panama. Heading east along the coast, there was some low cloud over the mountain….we thought wind, but although reefed down to #2 reef, we blew out our mainsail! Should have eased the main! Great!
The wind only stayed with us for half an hour, so we used the time to get what we needed off the old mainsail, put it away and haul out the trisail be bought in La Paz. Not good for a long beat!!
Another 150 miles to go! Punta Mala, by the way translates into 'bad point' and everyone we met, local or yahctie had a tale to tell, with the exception of Sam and Nancy on Windfall, who cam around in calm water and no wind in September.
Having current with us most of the way and relatively flat water until Punta Mala, the worst was yet to come! For some bizarre reason, we thought a night rounding of Punta Mala would be better. So with the flood tide, all was well until we came to the south end of the point. Up came the short, sharp seas and the wind to 30/35 knots, apparent. We decided to head off on a tight reach to Las Perlas islands, some 80 miles away. Needless to say we spent the night in beam seas that constantly washed over us, crossing a shipping lane with the engine occasionally stopping! The ships were kind to us, changing course as we were so slow. AIS is certainly good and having spent time crossing the shipping lanes around Singapore and the Malaccan Straits, it was a doddle. Having said that, we did not sleep due to the cross seas resulting in a cork screw motion. The boat handled it beautifully, more so than us! At one stage I nearly fell down the companion way, with Peter grabbing me to save the night!
The next morning we were in calmer water in the lee of the Las Perlas Islands, the sun came up and all was forgiven! Once around the corner of San Hose, into calm water and a beautiful anchorage, we fell into a wonderful sleep!
Our second anchorage in the north of the island chain was at Contadora; another beautiful island with quite a history. Today it’s a little run down but with lots of magnificent villas and beach restaurants. There were only two other boats anchored when we arrived, but by sunset there were another 12 that came into the anchorage. We will spend the night there on our departure.
We had quite a list of jobs to get done before Ann and Terry arrived. We took out the HF again and Peter found a loose wire! That was easy. Our 2 year old Icom VHF had to be replaced as it has burnt out. It has not worked properly for some time. The Icom dealer here said the M304 was a bad radio from the start and will not stock them. Provisioning and parts was the name of the game! Multi Plaza is the place if you want a real western fix with all the top designer stores in THE world located there...and some great coffee stops! Having broken a life line in El Salvador, we decided to get them re-placed in Panama. Best not to fall over the side! A kiwi couple who do deliveries were telling us that on one such delivery, they were leaning on the lifelines watching the dolphins on passage and the lifelines snapped. Not a good look when you are over the side and the boat sailing off over the horizon!
The most convenient way of getting around Panama is by taxi, which is relatively cheap, unless you have time to work out the busses. Our anchorage in La Playita in the northerly winds was sheltered from the wind, but a little rolly at times with the ferry drivers zooming in and out of La Playita Marina, going at high speed through the anchorage! I loathe provisioning, having done some in El Salvador and the rest here. We are almost done, having spent around $1500. All the advice is that Tahiti is just so incredibly expensive, so get all of our provisions here. With just wine to get aboard, I think Peter will be on rations! We bought a soda stream so we don't have to buy cans of soda. Expensive, but saves a lot of weight! Being a little slack, I do not keep a record of where I put stuff. We try to keep it consistent with our last boat but we have already forgotten where some items are stashed!
Balboa Yacht club is quite legendary and if you can get a mooring, (no anchoring allowed) it would be a great place to park as you could spend a lot of time watching the shipping traffic coming in and out of the canal. Sitting just west of the Bridge of the Americas just adds to the interest of the location.
We met a guy who was in the process of getting permission to build a new (cheaper) marina and haul out on the other side of the canal entry. Now that would be good!
Off with the old and on with the new. We had our new mainsial delivered which fit perfectly (of course!) and had our new dinghy delivered. (Now we don't get so wet but we have to lock it up!) We managed to give away our old mainsail, sell our dinghy for the bargain price of $50 and also sell all our charts and guide books from Panama to Mexico. We need as mutch of our waterline as we can get!
We took 2 tours with Ann and Terry, which was good for us as well as it was our first day of kicking back and actually seeing something of Panama. The first tour was of the Embera Village, in the back waters of Lake Gatun (of canal fame) that is only accessible by water. This was Ann and Terry's first ride in a dugout, which was made from a single tree.
Using Trip Adviser, we just happened upon a company called Rudy's Tours, run by a Panamanian husband and wife. As it turned out they were excellent. Rudy obviously has a good relationship with the Embera people, which really added to the enjoyable day.
Panama traditionally consisted of 7 Indian tribes. The Embera, who live in the Darien, East Panama, by the Columbian (Pacific) border are characteristically a gentle people. Spending a good part of the day with one village and no other tourists, was a delight and an absolute treat. They wore their ceremonial dress for us, to cover up as they wear only a lap cover in their village. There are 5 Embera villages who moved here, away from the Columbian border when there were problems with the Columbian drug lords, some 20 years ago. They bought the land off the government and look after it with great pride. Their environment is pristine and well managed.
Each village has a chief and people are free to come and go. If someone causes serious trouble they are banished forever from their clan and not accepted anywhere else. As family is important, this is enough of a deterrent to keep the peace. The village medicine man took us for a walk and explained their bush medicine, which of course is remarkable.
On our way to the village we stopped to visit some Spider Monkeys. Very cute! This is a female who always wants to come in the boat. Apparently they will hug you and wrap their long limbs harmlessly around you, but its a bit of a trial getting them off. Pouring water over them (and I guess you) is the only way to separate them. She took one lunge between trees and Terry and I thought she was going to land in the boat!
We took some reading glasses and Peter's old distance glasses that we had bought with us from Australia. One chap was so pleased as he could now see properly and another lady who was so excited that she could now weave so much easier. She worked the whole time we were there.
They are very healthy people and live to around 80 to 90 years of age. We had the traditional dance ceremony but it was brief and not over the top. This ceremony is conducted on special occasions. They appear to have a sound balance between accepting the western influences and maintaining their heritage. People are free to leave the village and go to Panama to work, but not many choose this option.
The second tour we took, was of course the Canal Transit - or half of the canal, from the Pacific to the edge of Gatun Lake. 14000 ships transit the canal every year and they all have to pay cash. It costs around $350K/ship for a transit.
Our first lock was the Miraflores Lock, where there are two locks close together. Of course it is not so scary when you are on your own in a big boat in the lock, compared to being in a yacht.
Line Handlers expertly throw small lines then haul up your 100 foot lines, of which any vessel must have 4 of. Ships have a tug that goes through with them to keep them steady.
One more lock and we were at the height of Lake Gatun. Another 3 at the other end and you are done! It must be tough on yachts going through at this time of the year from the Pacific with both wind and current against you.
After the third lock, San Miguel, 'The Cut' is quite narrow and joins the locks with the Lake Gatun waterway. We did not see ships passing in this section, so maybe the traffic is controlled so it does not pass here?
The canal has been closed 3 times in its life. Last summer it was closed for 16 hours when they had so much rain that the Chagris River, which was made to feed the lake, was flowing so fast that it created a cross current. The change of colour where fresh meets salt water is evident.
There are new, larger locks currently being built and due to finish in 2014. It is costing 5.2 Billion dollars and Panama is paying that in cash! I guess that is what you call a cashed up economy!
Now that we have spent all this time making our way east, we now have all those degrees to make west to ge tto Galapagos. A little over 900 miles, it should take us around 6 days, with at least half sailing! We are still waiting for our new lifelines and are planning to be out of Panama by the 16th, which gives us 1 night in the Las Perlas islands before we set forth. Ann and Terry, at the moment are looking forward to their first ocean passage. We hope its a good one!
We anticipate our departure from Galapagos to be around the 23rd March! Peter will have his birthday there!