080403; 1415 UTC,
Balboa, Republic of Panama
N 08 degrees 56’ / W 079 degrees 33’
Hello from the big city of Panamá. When we last wrote we were basking in cruising heaven with lots of neat anchorages and interesting folks to meet. We miss that idyllic existence. Actually we wrote as we were waiting out a " norther" with gusts exceeding 40 knots in a bay on Isla Cébaco where the sand was, if not talc- soft, it was close enough. We motored out of this bay on a bright and sunny January 6th, 2008 a few hours after a handful of other boats, all heading in the same general direction. Leslie had had a premonition about leaving Cébaco but she could not exactly explain why she felt that way. The weather, while not really a ¨window¨ (meaning calm winds), looked at least moderate and we were hoping for a passage under sail. We projected that after a full day of sailing we would be passing Morro de Puercos a place of confused waves and currents. We would then round Punta Mala before darkness fell. From Punta Mala, we planned to point our bow northeast to the Islas Las Perlas which are southeast of and within a day's sail of Panamá City.
We picked up a 10 knot breeze abeam shortly after leaving the anchorage and unfurled our sails, happy to be back at sea and sailing. The wind died in the late afternoon and we resigned ourselves to firing up the engine and motoring for awhile. But it was not to be. Shortly after starting, the engine began to act strangely, alternating between racing and nearly stalling until it finally stalled for good and refused to restart in spite of Philip's efforts. Out went the genoa and Leslie began to gently steer Carina southeast in the light winds. Luckily, we had current in our favor.
Off came the engine cover and after a close inspection, nothing was obvious. With darkness falling, we unloaded the port side lazarette, piling everything around the cockpit. Philip crawled inside the lazarette and opened the panel revealing the back of the engine. Here he discovered that a transmission bolt had backed out and was interfering with the shifting cable. Not a good thing but probably not the source of the engine refusing to start. Probably 95% of all diesel engine problems are fuel-related and Philip was able to determine that fuel was being delivered to the engine's injectors, so theoretically the engine should start. We apparently had a bigger problem. Our options were to return to rural western Panamá and its isolated anchorages or to push onto the city where we would have access to skilled mechanics and replacement engine parts. A classic no-brainer for us; we would sail to Panamá City. We have acquired reasonable skills at engine maintenance but felt we weren't skilled enough to tackle a catastrophic failure. A bit later we talked with friends via our marine SSB radio who were a few hours ahead of us. They agreed to stay with us until we reached port. Others in our community offered advice and verbal assistance, though most were sure our problem was with dirty fuel. (It wasn't.) Many wonderful people tried to help us, organizing and manning evening check-ins and running and calling around the city in an attempt to help us.
We had to hand steer that first night since the wind was too light to allow our windvane (a mechanical steer device) to steer. When the wind picked up at about six a.m. the following morning, we attempted to engage the windvane and discovered the device had lost a cotter pin and a critical part of the windvane was about to fall off ! We hove to (a way to "park" your boat with all sails still flying) and Philip safety-clipped onto the boat with his PFD/harness and climbed over the stern rail and onto the windvane to fix the problem. Sitting on the windvane while holding on with his left hand, Philip was able to realign the windvane's paddle and insert a new cotter pin with his right hand while Carina's stern rose and fell in the waves. He scampered back aboard and we able to set the windvane; now we wouldn't have to hand steer. All that morning winds were fluky and briefly died, resulting in a drift towards the SW - not the direction we wanted to go. After organizing with our friends for a tow and immediately after getting it organized, winds began once again in earnest and we were underway under sail. Unfortunately, a strong southbound current and north winds, combined to confound our efforts to sail north, or even at times, east. Losing latitude was intensely discouraging and compounded our stress. Winds continued to build and seas steepen as we bashed forward, continuously pushing Carina to point higher into the wind so as not to lose any further latitude. On the second morning our friends decided they wouldn't after all stay by us, finally motoring away over the horizon at mid-afternoon during a period of calm. A short time later a military helicopter with no markings flew up to Carina and circled her a number of times at low elevation while a soldier, dressed in military fatigues, inexplicably snapped photos of us from the cargo door. Neither we nor the helicopter initiated radio contact and eventually the aircraft flew off. We assumed the helicopter was engaged in drug interdiction off the Colombia coast.
That night conditions again deteriorated and we spent an uncomfortable third night at sea, beating into steep seas. Luckily for us, the wind direction had shifted somewhat. The wind shift, combined with the fact we were beginning to free ourselves of the southbound current, allowed us to point north of northeast and travel directly towards our destination Our track was the only pleasant thing about that night during which we dodged a large South America-bound tanker who refused to answer our radio call as he bore down upon us. Just as he was passing and while still getting organized from tacking to avoid him, Leslie witnessed a green flare and asked Philip what such a flare could signify. "A submarine maneuvering on the surface" was NOT the information she wanted to hear! Yikes, we thought, how much sea is out here anyway?
Favorable winds and clear skies continued throughout the following day as we sailed northeast dodging fishing nets, finally sailing into Islas Las Perlas nearby to the Gulfo of San Miguel at the entrance to the Darien province. Almost the moment we passed into Las Perlas, the wind died and we quickly found ourselves being pushed towards a rocky pinnacle. Unfortunately this pinnacle comes up suddenly from the Gulf, so an anchor wasn't going to help us avoid hitting it. The only thing that would help and with which, after several hours, we were finally blessed, was wind. It was just a whisper but it was enough so that the wonderful little Carina could sail away from this danger. About midnight that night, concerned we were approaching off-lying reefs of Isla Del Rey , we tacked once again NE to put some water between us and the hazards. This turned out to be smart, because as soon as the sun rose the following morning, the wind stopped and Carina was once again floating where ever the current dictated.
The weather forecast was not encouraging; winds would not blow in the foreseeable future. Zippo. We were roughly 20 miles from Isla Contadora and at least 50 miles from the city and somewhat stuck as we drifted and baked. A discussion on the morning Panamá Pacific (SSB) radio net, yielded a generous offer from a Seattle boat named The Last Resort, who offered to up-anchor at Contadora and to tow us back there. Tiny Isla Contadora is blessed with a safe anchorage, cell phone coverage and even internet, and had been our goal once we were disabled. From here we could freely contact sources of help in the city, and utilize intelligence from a cruising couple from the vessel, Ørnen, who have a home on the island. As dusk enveloped us that evening, we were dropping our tow and letting go our anchor and finally stopped! We slept like mummies. The following day we tackled again the question of "bad fuel", exhausting all attempts to start our engine by feeding fuel into various orifices. Bad fuel our problem definitely was not. That determined, we knew we needed a mechanic and one wasn't to be had on Isla Contadora. A tow by a private company was either not available or - as one company quoted a friend - $120,000! Meanwhile, while we were determining our next move, we replaced Last Resort's diesel, baked them bread and shuttled over a (rare) glass bottle of wine. (Later Philip volunteered to help them on their canal transit.) To the rescue came a big Catana 47 catamaran, La Graciosa, whose generous owners offered to tow us all the way to Balboa. It was a wild ride as our speed topped 8 knots! As we approached Balboa, friends who'd supported us from RDreamz, Freezing Rain, Windsong and Kuay came out in dinghies. Ed of Kuay (who you may remember from our Puerto Lucia boatyard stories) tied alongside Carina's quarter and with the help of Frank of Windsong, shuttled Carina to a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club, where we remain today.
The precise nature of our engine's woes still remain a mystery, but it's had a complete upper end rebuild and is now running fine. In the interim, we've had the chance to visit with friends, make some new friends, attend the opera (Rigoletto!), buy and install a new radar, fix our depth sounder, install a backup depth sounder and about a thousand other little things, like helping friends with sail and canvas repair. We've also had wonderful visits from both of our families (Philip's brother and sister-in-law and Leslie's Mom and Dad), so things haven't been all work. Despite fun and friends, city bustle and dirt has made us anxious for the island life, so once we wrap up a few loose ends and Philip gets healthy from a bout with antibiotic resistant Steptococcus pnuemoniae, we´ll be sailing away. Which direction we'll go is anyone's guess!
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Leslie, Philip and el gato guapisimo, Jake