[060307; 1356 UTC,Isla San Jose, Perlas Islands, Gulf of Panama
N 08 degrees 14.90' / W 079 degrees 05.99'
When we last wrote, we were sailing slowly towards Ensenada de Muerto on the mainland coast of western Panama. This cove, only one mile deep and half a mile wide afforded us perfect protection from the then forecasted strong northerly winds. The only evidence of other human activity was a dilapidated palm frond shack on shore and the occasional fishing boat passing the mouth of the cove. Our peaceful existence was dominated by the sounds of dozens of birds and insects we couldn't identify and the roar of howler monkeys. On the third day however, a lancha came into the cove with 5 men aboard; three men were dropped off on the long red clay beach south of us and then the boat motored over to Carina. The three men on shore were surveyors working for a man from the States who owns the land around the cove. The lancha driver told us there were plans for a hotel, condos, restaurant, etc., etc. After our visitors left we lamented the probable loss of another pristine tropical paradise!
After the strong winds subsided we poked our bow out of the bay and made our way to the large, protected Bahia Honda, motoring on glassy seas with no wind. As we approached from the north, our guidebook described a deep water channel between the mainland and an island called Canales de Tierra that would save us many miles on the passage to Bahia Honda. The chart and a sketch drawing showed a prominent rock mid channel that we would need to keep to port with a narrow but deep channel south. Entering the wide mouth of the channel, we immediately began to notice that our GPS waypoints, generated using electronic charts and plotted on our paper charts, were erroneous. This didn't create a big problem as it was a bright clear day and we were easily able to navigate visually. Approaching the nexus in the channel, Philip perched on the bow as "rock watch" and we tried to slow the boat speed. Unfortunately, a strong current pushed us as we shot through the very, very narrow slot, nervously watching the water for signs of hazards. We had no problems making this passage but decided that, given the circumstances, we would not take this route again since we considered the stress of the passage more arduous than the added miles of the longer route around the island.
Bahia Honda is an enormous, nearly land-locked deep bay with scattered areas of shoal and lurking rocks awash. There is a large island east of center on which there is a small town, called "el pueblo" by the locals. Here there is a small, poorly stocked tienda, an oficina de policia nacional, a church, school and many casitas (small homes). This area of Panama is isolated from the rest of the country; the only land connection is via horse trails that wind over the mountainous terrain, and through fincas (farms) that produce bananas, pineapples and mangos, etc.
We anchored in front of two substantial looking homes reportedly owned by "Daniel", a wealthy Norte Americano who owns 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of land around the bay. John and Barbara, aboard the sailboat, Songline insisted that Daniel was a "front man"; the property actually being owned by Mick Jagger. A local told another cruiser that Daniel was related to the Bush family. We probably will never know the truth.
Locals here (Mick Jagger aside) appear to be warm, friendly, honest and anxious to visit and trade for items that are difficult to grow or obtain - matches, soap, batteries, school supplies, powdered milk, candy or cookies. It's almost exhausting to be anchored in the bay as you receive and talk (in Spanish, solamente!) with a steady stream of visitors. But we loved it! This was the first opportunity we had had to be the sole yate anchored in a bay in rural Panama where there was an active village. (Other anchorages had been filled with yachts, were uninhabited or were island anchorages dominated by mansions owned by Norte Americanos.)
Our first visitor was Edwin, a compact, young, fit man with a warm, chiseled face. Edwin came in a long narrow and leaky dugout (called a bote in Panama) as an envoy for his father-in-law, Domingo, whose name we had read in materials we'd received from other vessels who'd visited previously. Edwin, the son of a finca owner from the pueblo, sipped on his te frio (iced tea) and explained that he works when he can on local construction projects (primarily for European or Americans who own palatial homes nearby), or in Santiago, the distant provincial capital. The purpose of Edwin's visit was to determine what we might need for provisions and to arrange to obtain these from Domingo's finca or from the tienda in the pueblo (owned by his tia or aunt). Edwin departed for the pueblo with a zip lock bag of coins totaling roughly six and a half Balboas. (You may dig out a dollar bill out of your wallet and see George Washington's portrait on it but, in Panama, they call that same dollar bill a Balboa). Edwin returned later with six onions, ten eggs and change. We gave him a propina (tip), a toy for his baby, a Carina t-shirt (to replace his ragged one), AA batteries and some powdered milk.
After Edwin, we received, invited aboard and offered refreshments to a pair of handsome young men, named Enrique and Noel. They also paddled up in a bote propelled by hand-carved paddles, similar to canoe paddles. Enrique was anxious to speak in English that he had begun to learn while working on the mansion of an Italian on a nearby island. He had muscular arms liberally decorated with elaborate tattoos and was anxious to discuss fishing in the bay and nearby islands, and to learn the workings of the boat, how we navigate, where we had been and where we were going, etc. Noel, a shy joven with shaggy hair that kept falling in his eyes, simply stood by and let his more outgoing friend speak. Our talk must have been hilarious as English and Spanish were mixed by everyone during our lively discussion. Soon we were interrupted by the arrival of Domingo, whose personality dominated the boat, prompting our young friends to say gracias y adios.
Domingo arrived in a large leaky bote filled with red and green bananas, pineapple, papaya and a selection of hot and sweet peppers. At first we didn't know who our visitor was until he said clearly and in English "I am Domingo". He then pointed to his ball cap that bore the words MV Cabaret, a boat that had visited previously, smiled conspiratorially and said, "Susie!". (Everyone in the cruising fleet knows the colorful, vivacious and somewhat ribald Susie of Cabaret!) Domingo is a treat to talk to. A tall man with dark skin, dark eyes, six or seven teeth and enormous, callused bare feet, he speaks no English but clearly understands some. As a village elder and patriarch of his family, he facilitates distribution of donations of school supplies made by cruisers directly to children, explaining that the maestros (teachers) would sell such supplies if they were given directly. He also volunteers to bring cruisers to an indigenous village far up river in the estuary, solely for the purpose of bringing donations and promoting trading and sale of native crafts by poor villagers who otherwise have few opportunities to distribute their artwork. A man of enormous generosity, many talents and an equal or greater number of opinions, Domingo is a staunch promoter of his dominion who shuns alcohol and smoking and promotes natural products and herbal remedies from the plants that he grows on his finca or collects in the jungle. Domingo's warm and gregarious presence has allowed him to make friends with nearly all who visit this paradise. One of his (of seemingly thousands) stories involved an excursion on a friend's large catamaran. Domingo explained how when they motored, the effect was harsh and difficult but as soon as the sails were put up the boat was transformed into "una mariposa" (butterfly). As he said this, he smiled, his eyes twinkled and he opened his hands in a gesture to suggest the spreading of wings.
Space does not allow us to describe all of the wee visitors we enjoyed while in Bahia Honda but it was clear that word traveled fast through the pueblo which is filled with beautiful children. Three sisters in two tiny botes brought us two eggs and six limons (limes), a papaya and stayed and stayed and stayed, asking for ropa (clothing), candy, books, pencils, batteries, milk, etc. We tried to engage them in conversation, such as to learn why they had an iguana on a leash with them, but they were seriously earnest and all business. (And no, we didn't take their iguana in trade). We gave generously what we could to all who arrived, finally exhausting many of our supplies of goodies.
From Bahia Honda, we sailed west again to Parque Nacional Isla Coiba. Up until three years ago, Coiba also housed a penal colony, which had concerned us. Our Panama cruising guide, written before the removal of the prisoners, warned vessels operating in the area not to "rescue" men who might be floating on makeshift rafts in the water near the islands as they were likely to be escaped prisoners. According to Domingo, the much anticipated removal of the prisoners was prompted by the murder of a Canadian cruiser by an escaping prisoner. We were assured that the park was now tranquilo and we would have to agree.
Isla Coiba is considered by many (especially divers) to be the crown jewel of the western Panama islands. The island is approximately 40 miles long and 15 miles wide and houses a ranger/research station and some abandoned prison buildings and not much else. A helicopter off Beauport, the 170' former Canadian Coast Guard motor vessel, flew over one day during our five day visit (as they approached the island) and a couple on board informed us later that, at the time, Carina and an isolated fishing boat at the south end were the only vessels at Coiba outside of those at the ranger station!
All boats visiting Isla Coiba are required to anchor off the ranger station and dinghy to shore to register. The cost is $10/person for an unlimited stay. When we went to launch our dinghy we were dismayed to find that the dinghy had split along its keel, leaving a ten inch open crack in the floor. When we radioed the ranger station that we had a problem and would have to repair the damage before coming ashore, John and Barbara, two friends sailing on Songline, radioed us and asked us if we needed help. We had materials to affect the repair but they offered fiberglass mat and a quantity of the same epoxy we'd used in the construction. Next day we had, once again, a serviceable dinghy with a strong but ugly patch on the bottom.
As a park, animals are protected from hunting here; this includes sea life. Consequently, underwater life is varied, abundant and less timid than we've experienced elsewhere. Our first anchorage (after the ranger station) was at a tiny rocky island called Granito de Oro (which we translated to "little grain of gold"). The island is so tiny that a leisurely snorkel around it may take a couple of hours. Here in the crystal clear water of <10 feet deep, we saw healthy coral of bizarre shapes (one reminded Leslie of huge popovers), dozens of varieties of fish, a rare tiger reef eel, and - what we'd hoped to see - white tipped sharks. These guys were four to five feet in length and shy, most often simply resting idly near the bottom, only a few feet below us.
After five days at Coiba, we began to feel a need to push on, so we sailed away from Coiba one day when fine weather and light winds were predicted. As often is the case during these periods, thermally driven winds begin to dominate the weather pattern. In this case, onshore winds were westerlies that continued to build as the afternoon wore on. Flying downwind and turning northeast towards our selected anchorage, we realized that the fetch from these winds (that we thought so wonderful) would make our chosen anchorage untenable. Changing course to run back a couple of miles seeking better protection, we bashed into our lovely westerlies until we reached the protection of a truly isolated spot, called Puerto Escondido in our guidebook. Here we tucked in behind two small round rocky islets and into a sandy bay, ringed by rocky shores. At the head of the bay were a few palm or tin roofed shelters that we presumed served a finca whose crops we could see dotting the mountains behind. Through our binoculars we could see a rough dirt path that wound down the hill and disappeared into the valley below. No one we knew (other than the authors of the guidebook) had visited this spot and we were surprised, as it seemed so perfectly protected and picturesque. Darkness soon fell along with the screeching westerlies and we passed a peaceful night. There were absolutely no lights or sounds of human activity on shore.
In the morning, anxious to learn if there were trading opportunities, we launched our dinghy and rowed to shore. We'd seen an older man walking on the playa (beach) earlier but after spotting a dog, we were reluctant to climb the hill into the finca without permission from the owners. Walking the dinghy through shallow water, we walked westward along the beach looking up to try to spot the man we'd seen earlier from the boat. Casually, Philip mentioned that there was a two foot long white tipped shark following him through the shallows. After a hundred yards or so, we suddenly saw a large, blunt bowed lancha round the point and come into the bay from the south. The lancha veered off its course and began heading for Carina, so we yelled and waved and quickly began to launch our dinghy to intercept the visitor. Short but steep waves were forming at the beach so, as is our practice, Leslie stood in shallow water and held the dinghy steady while Philip assumed the rowing position so that we could dash out between waves. As Philip began to sit, Leslie suddenly spotted one of the little sharks close by to her legs, which made her scream and make her way to the stern to climb aboard. What she didn't see in her haste was the oar in her path, which tripped her up and made her fall to her knees in the shallow water. Meanwhile Philip burst into uncontrolled laughter - not the best response at the time! (It looks like it will be necessary for Philip to take remedial classes at "husband school".)
Our visitor, a smartly dressed young policeman, met us half way to the beach. At first he asked us if we could give him some gasoline for his 5 hp outboard engine. His old aluminum lancha contained only a tiny tank but he had a small 1 gallon plastic bottle that he was hoping we'd fill. Seeing he only had one hand-carved paddle as backup propulsion, we quickly agreed and began to row towards Carina while our visitor struggled to re-start his finicky outboard. Inviting him aboard into the sombra (shade) of our bimini, our visitor, Commander Rogar Peńabla of the Policia Nacional, looked around, spread his arms, smiled and said, "muy elegante"! Charming as well as handsome, with brilliant grey eyes and warm coffee-colored skin, our educated visitor chatted freely in Spanish and sipped his te frio. He explained that he had two comrades who were walking the hills and fincas between Cativon (two miles south by sea) and this bay, (correcting our guidebook and calling it Cativito or, little Cativo) where he would meet them later.
Stationed out of Bahia Honda, these men live away from their families in Santiago and are responsible for peace amongst the campesinos who live primitively in the hills above. He said his job could be dangerous as they traveled between ports in their small lancha in all kinds of weather and many times have to deal with armed and drunken men. While visiting with him, a bote with a man and his wife approached Carina and the man asked if we had any fishing lures. We had stocked up on fish hooks and offered our new visitors these while asking whether they had fruits or vegetables to trade. Either they didn't understand us or didn't care, but Rogar did. He arranged for them to go back to their finca with a promise to return at 2 o'clock with fresh items for trade. After a nice visit of an hour or so, and more tea, we took photos together, gave Rogar some drawing supplies for his young children and an English language western that he said he would love to have to read in company of his English dictionary. (We'd been laughing with him about our struggles and desire to learn more Spanish.)
What surprised us was that, promptly at 2, the police lancha returned filled with fresh food, two men and two boys. Negotiations began with Rogar intervening when the campesinos didn't understand us or we them. We lost count of what we gave them for our food, though it doesn't really matter because we had a great time meeting and interacting with these locals. The boys went away with the last of our matchbox cars and their fathers acquired matches, milk, canned goods, fish hooks, fishing lures and even the last of our small denomination Balboas. Leslie pulled out the camera and started to take a picture at which time Rogar shook his finger and said por favor no photos with the campesinos trading out of the police lancha! Clearly he was doing us a big favor by facilitating this trading. One of the last packages to come aboard contained eggs and guayaba, a gift to us (and especially to Leslie) from Rogar himself, he noted with a smile.
As they departed, we handed Rogar prints of the photos taken earlier. Thrilled with these, he asked if he could come back mas tarde for more photos, this time with his comrades. The men did return as the sun set and we fed them olives and corn chips and more te frio as we printed the photos we'd just taken. Proud and seemingly content, these men were warm and teasing. When Leslie emerged apologizing from the galley (where she was cooking a potato-like root called otoe we'd acquired earlier by trading) saying she was cooking; the quick retort was tenemos hambre (we are hungry!). Just before dusk we sent them on their way (without a light!) and with a promise that if we returned to Bahia Honda, we'd visit their office.
Early the next morning, we departed bound for Isla Cébaco with a warm remembrance of this little anchorage we never expected to find. At Cébaco, a lightly inhabited isla, we anticipated visiting the beginnings of a marine business which is in the form of a beefy but elegant steel "mothership" called the Cébaco Bay. This business is owned by a man named Jim Wiese, the commodore of the Balboa Yacht Club. Here we expected to find diesel fuel and perhaps other essentials (like rum).
After a close hauled sail, we rounded the reef- strewn southwest end of the island and turned directly into 20 knots of NE headwinds as we made our way into the bay. Motoring slowly just outside of the mooring buoys we looked for the best place to anchor and, while doing so, were approached by a lancha that had just been racing about towing a water skier. Philip, on the bow, turned to talk with the men in the lancha ; Leslie slowed Carina further and attempted to stop by using reverse. At precisely that moment, the transmission began to groan loudly; she hastily put the engine back in neutral as we both knew we had a problem. Philip deployed the anchor and, safely at rest, we discussed what might have happened. (In cruising, it's not IF something will go wrong but WHEN it will happen). We pulled up the floorboards and were dismayed to see that our bilge had the bright sheen of transmission fluid floating on top. Not being sure of where the leak was and thinking it may have been just a slow leak around the oil seal, we began to try to refill the transmission only to see that oil poured out through the shaft seal as quickly as we poured it in.
Knowing we had a serious problem we notified friends via email and those who installed the engine in Port Townsend via a ham radio phone patch. Meanwhile, the Cébaco Bay sent over a mechanic named Juan who was on Cebaco Bay to repair a generator. Juan spoke no English and was not a marine diesel engine expert but he could quickly see that the shaft moved fore and aft an inch or so, and this was an important determination. Philip studied the shop manual and became convinced the output shaft flange nut had come loose, allowing the propeller shaft to shift aft away from the transmission oil seal. He emailed this information late in the evening to our friend Jay of the vessel Alkahest. The following morning we received no email back but as the morning SSB net began and priority traffic was called, we were hailed by Alkahest who said they were pulling anchor to join us and help us and needed to confirm our coordinates. These wonderful, generous people motored almost sixty miles that day, arriving at our anchorage as darkness fell.
The following day, Jay and Philip took the transmission off, pulled it apart and inspected it. Believing that the nut in question was the culprit and that no damage appeared to have been done to the gear assembly, they re-assembled, re-installed and filled the transmission with oil. No one wanted to breathe as we started the engine and put it in gear. It worked! The conclusion was that the nut was probably never correctly torqued and peened and the nut slowly worked itself loose over the last two and a half years since the engine was installed.
Needless to say we celebrated our good fortune (and great friends) while spending a few days exploring this beautiful bay and its wide soft sand beach. Sadly, this bay is also designated for development into an enormous marina complex that will encompass nearly its whole width. A seawall will replace much of the beach. We lamented this fact as we swam to shore, strolled the beach and played bocce ball on the deserted strand.
Parting with hugs, Alkahest sailed west from Cébaco back to Coiba to explore further the islands of western Panama while we departed with newly arrived friends on Mira, Paradiso and Alaskason to begin our journey to Panama City via Punta Mala ("bad point").
Punta Mala, Panama is one of those prominences that generate legends and tall tales. Here currents that have passed eastern Panama northbound and have been accelerated by sweeping the north shore of the Gulf of Panama emerge traveling southbound to collide with the substantial southbound current. These conditions of colliding currents, if combined with strong northerly winds, create conditions that sober even the most overconfident sailors.
We were anchored about 75 miles west of Punta Mala at Ensenada Naranjo on the Azuero Peninsula in SW Panama when we learned from multiple sources of an anticipated weather window at Punta Mala. Seeing this as a rare opportunity, we got underway at first light bound for Isla San Jose in the Perlas Islands. Our anticipated strategy was to stay close to shore until reaching Morro de Puercos ("headland of pigs"), a prominence roughly fifty miles west/southwest of Punta Mala. Here we would begin to diverge with the coast, setting a course that would keep us at least 15 miles off Punta Mala. This strategy served us well with one exception; at Morro de Puercos we experienced the collision of currents and winds generally experienced at Punta Mala. Here, very suddenly, head winds accelerated to 20 knots and seas built to 6-8 feet with waves that were coming at us less than one boat length apart. We liken the conditions as those that one might experience being locked inside a washing machine. Thankfully we only suffered from these conditions for a matter of hours before the seas and winds moderated to a manageable degree. Winds slowly diminished as we motor-sailed overnight directly into headwinds just slightly off the bow. By mid-day the following day, we were motoring against a 2-3 knot current on glassy seas with only a whisper of wind. We hated to motor but we also were reluctant to extend our passage by tacking in very light winds and ending up at sea when our short weather window might suddenly close. Friends on Paradiso and Mira who made the same passage roughly 24 hours later were not so fortunate, though they arrived safe and sound if not bruised and exhausted.
Our arrival at Isla San Jose in the dark was slow and methodical using radar, moonlight and a bow watch. Just as we approached our anchorage, Philip suddenly shouted "STOP, put it in reverse!" We were just about to run over, and ensnare, our propeller in a fishing net that stretched into the darkness off either side of Carina. Retreating to deeper water, we anchored, made supper and collapsed into bed, exhausted by the nearly two day trip. At 0500 local time the following morning our anchor drag alarm on our GPS went off and woke us to the sound of rushing water and a thumping sound against the hull. Investigating, we discovered a drift net had wrapped itself like a glove around Carina; its floats were whooshing in the wind and striking Carina's hull. Out of the dark one hundred feet upwind of Carina appeared a fishing boat drifting down on us with four slumbering fishermen aboard. We woke them up and they groggily cursed amongst themselves before beginning to unravel their net from Carina. Meanwhile, Carina's anchor held the whole disaster (fishing boat and an unbelievably long drift net) as we nervously watched our navigational instruments for any sign we may be dragging backwards onto the rocks behind us.
That morning marked the beginning of strong northerly winds in the Gulf of Panama that have kept us holed up at Isla San Jose now for three days with no promise of abatement for at least another two days. This is the season when strong high pressure systems entering the Gulf of Mexico accelerate winds crossing the Isthmus of Panama and spill strong northerlies into the Gulf of Panama. (This is the same phenomenon that creates Papagayo winds.) For three days our winds in the anchorage have rarely dropped below 20 knots and have frequently topped 30 knots. This spacious anchorage, however, affords us good protection from all points north, preventing waves from building up. Our provisions may be getting low but we are using our forced respite to tackle boat projects, read and catch up on correspondence. From here it's on to Isla Contadora for supplies and then to Balboa at the mouth of the Panama Canal (but no, we are not planning on transiting the canal).
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip and Leslie with el gato hermoso, Jake