070312; 1337 UTC,
Isla Canales de Afuera, Republic of Panamá
N 07 degrees 41.75' / W 081 degrees 37.82’
Our stay in Panamá City was busy as we tried to wrap up our buying and our project list and get back out of town before our last Balboas* disappeared. During our stay, persuasive friends aboard Alkahest convinced us, along with David and Mollie of Tumbleweed, to help them transit the Panamá Canal. With our gregarious crew, the transit was fun and offered us no unusual challenges. We arrived at Colon just after dark and spent our last night together celebrating David and Mollie's 25th wedding anniversary and our last night together. Jay and Danica of Alkahest are moving to the Chesapeake for a couple of years and David and Mollie of Tumbleweed are returning to Sausalito, CA.
We slipped our moorage at the Balboa Yacht Club at 0535 Sunday morning March 4, 2007 and motored slowly to the fuel dock where Victor, a lancha driver who was working alone this day, caught our lines and helped us to dock in the strong current. Under the watchful eyes of six or seven men waiting to be picked up to start their workday aboard canal work boats, we quickly began to fill our water tanks and wash Carina. The dry season brings north winds to Panamá City and with these winds particulate pollutants from the city, diesel grime from the canal and large sticky ash from the burning of fields far inland settle on everything. The water ran grey off Carina's filthy decks, dodger and sails! Soon a yacht from the anchorage (La Playita) was anxiously coveting our spot on the dock and we were under pressure to finish our chores and be on our way. After saying goodbyes to Victor, one of our favorites of the ever-fabulous lancha drivers at BYC, we once again cast off our lines just as dawn broke, radioed Flamenco Signal Station (canal vessel control) of our intentions and motored slowly into the Panamá Canal, riding a swift current out. Just east of Isla Taboguilla, we picked up a brisk NW wind and set our sails. Our intended destination was Isla Otoque only 12 miles further south, where an open anchorage on the south end would protect us from northerly winds. The weather report on the morning's SSB net, the Panamá Pacific Net, indicated that in approximately 24 hours, Punta Mala (90 miles to our south) would begin to blow and become difficult and that this blow was expected to last a number of days. The weather also indicated that west of Punta Mala in southwest Panamá (where we'd planned to spend some time) winds would be light. Given this, we decided to push on, hoping to slip around Punta Mala before the blow rather than waiting at Otoque.
We had a fast trip to Punta Mala with following winds and a push from the current and we rounded the point before dawn the following day. We continued westward, with winds gusting and then shifting to a pleasant SW onshore flow. This day's weather forecast offered a slightly different story; the strong high in the Gulf of Mexico was stronger than expected and our area would indeed be affected. Forty miles further along as we began to approach the broad Bahía Montijo, the strong NW winds found us and began to accelerate to 25-35 knots, generating steep, short duration seas. Our intended anchorage, Ensenada Naranja would prove marginal in these winds so we pushed on seeking cover at Isla Cébaco, 20 miles NW. This last leg of our passage proved difficult as we had a 25-30 degree set to leeward and were forced to motor sail (with staysail and trysail) almost directly into the waves which were steep and powerful enough to sometimes stop us dead in the water. About 7-8 miles from our destination we finally began to enjoy a bit of protection from Isla Cébaco and slowly, ever so slowly began to pick up speed. We approached and anchored by radar and moonlight and were finally at rest at 2300 local time (11:00 pm), for a passage of 197 miles in 41 hours, not a bad average considering our last seven hours of slow, pounding passage-making.
Inside the bay, exhausted as we were, with the wind still blowing over our heads but with the water flat, the feeling of calm was overwhelming. Even silly little Jake could sense it as he popped his head up through the companionway and was soon rolling on his back asking for a belly rub. Almost in slow motion we stabilized our gear and fell into a deep sleep. The following morning, while Philip was bagging our staysail, he discovered that our staysail pennant, a small stainless steel multi-strand cable, was nearly broken through. The pennant secures the tack of the sail, attaching it to the deck. We shuddered to think what would have happened had it failed during our passage while our staysail was working so hard. That day we constructed a new pennant tack by hand sewing a sandwich of Spectra and Dacron tubular webbing (very, very strong but susceptible to UV degradation) over which we hand-sewed black seatbelt webbing for sun protection . This solution should outlast the staysail itself.
We discovered a second serious problem on our second night at Isla Cébaco. Philip woke in the middle of the night to see a light shining in our bow locker. Knowing we had not turned the light switch on, we suspected a short circuit and, not wanting to deal with it in the middle of the night, we shut off the circuit breaker that controls all cabin lights. In the morning we turned on the circuit breaker as a test and the wiring began to smoke. Again, we shut down power then removed the light fixture for inspection. We found that sea water taken over the bow during our rough passage had migrated down through an anchor hawse opening, drenching the light fixture which destroyed the light switch and shorted out the light. We removed the fixture and caulked off the ends of the wiring so electrical contact could no longer occur. We had some sobering thoughts as we contemplated what would have happened had we not been aboard when the wiring began to burn. A fiberglass sailboat burns very well once it gets started and is very difficult to put out, IF you are on board to fight it. We feel fortunate we were able to avoid the consequences of both problems.
After a few days at Isla Cébaco, resting, reading, working on projects and catching up on correspondence, we decided to push on farther north and west to beautiful Isla Coiba (a national park) and the islands that surround it. We eventually picked Isla Canales de Afuera (Channels of the Outside), a small uninhabited island northeast of Coiba and one we had never visited. (The anchorage is exposed to the north and with light winds forecasted for the foreseeable future, we decided to explore it.) The water surrounding these islands is a blue-tinted emerald color and very clear. Motoring along in the dinghy is like motoring in a swimming pool; it is very difficult to judge how far below our keel the coral lies. The north side of the island is deep right up to extensive shallows of coral. We avoided anchoring in coral and searched around for quite awhile before finding a sandy bottom in 35-50 feet of depth. Even at this depth, we can clearly see the bottom below and our anchor chain resting on the bottom looks like just so much string snaking across the sand. At night, the sun sets like a fiery red disk between the island and an off-lying sea stack to our west. No other boats are anchored here and we see only the occasional fishing boat passing the island by. In the mornings, unseen monkeys and parrots call from amongst the sweet smelling deciduous trees, ficus, palms and bamboo on the island. A nearby stream provides us with fresh water for drinking and bathing. Given enough patience (a rare commodity on Carina) wary triggerfish and filefish in the gin-clear ocean can be speared for our supper and Jake's sushi.
Tomorrow we hope to head to Isla Coiba, the very large and very beautiful island park 15 miles south of us. Our guide books report that Isla Coiba was inhabited as early as 500 BC and in later years served as a pirate haven. Panamá established penal colonies on Coiba in 1919. Reportedly, at night the guards would lock THEMSELVES in as dangerous prisoners roamed the island. The penal colonies were shut down and prisoners moved elsewhere in 1991 and, though the buildings still stand, the island is now safe to hike.
On Coiba, we're thinking of visiting again Ensenada Santa Cruz which we visited last year and that is protected by off-lying reefs and a small island. If the weather holds, perhaps we'll try north exposed Playa Rosario. Both Isla Coiba and Isla Jicaron (the next island on our list) teem with wildlife both above and below the water. We ourselves have observed and swum with six foot white-tipped sharks passively resting in shallow water during our last visit to Coiba. Two species of monkeys, black howler and white-faced, also inhabit these islands along with black and green iguanas and various snakes and over 133 different species of birds. Friends on the sailboats Tricia Jean and Gia have reported seeing crocodile tracks in the sand on Isla Jicaron that measured 84 inches from front to rear claws so we're going to keep a sharp eye out should we venture ashore.
All-in-all, things are pretty fine on the good ship Carina as we watch the weather and hope for winds to propel us south to Ecuador. Unfortunately no significant wind is expected in the immediate future, so we'll just have to wait since we don't carry enough fuel - or possess the desire - to motor there.
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Leslie, Philip and el gato supremo, Jake
Isla Canales de Afuera, Republic of Panamá
* Panamá uses the USD but refers to them as Balboas. Coinage (moneda in Spanish) is Panamanian, though US coins and Panamanian coins are both accepted universally.