080807; 1617 UTC,
Isla Contadora, Republic of Panama
N 08 degrees 37.5’ / W 079 degrees 01.8’
When we last wrote our engine had been rebuilt and we thought all was mechanically fine, possibly almost as good as new and we would be departing for more pristine locales soon. As it turned out, the ¨professional¨ mechanic we hired didn’t quite do things right and this added months to our stay as we had to shop for a new mechanic and methodically analyze and fix the problems. Meanwhile, the finest diesel mechanic minds in the cruising fleet then in Panamá City scratched their heads and pondered the mysterious gremlins that caused our engine to start just fine but not accelerate in gear (though not always).
During this time, swinging from a mooring at the entrance to the Panamá Canal, we often had bags and containers of parts and fittings strewn about the saloon which we stepped over and tried not to step on; our disassembled transmission lived a week under our galley table while we awaited delivery of parts from the US. Rain brought a scramble as we tried to find room elsewhere for the entire contents of one lazarette which lay in the cockpit. We had emptied the lazarette to allow access to the back of the engine. The big unwieldy engine cover, part of the cabinetry in the galley, this cabinet’s contents and sometimes boards from the cabin sole, crowded the cabin as we tried to work.
Days were hot and humid and during the second rebuild, Philip and the mechanic, Kenny (a former cruiser) were lying on the galley sole, rivulets of sweat rolling down their flushed faces, trying to install piston rings while the engine hung from a 2 x 6 in the companionway and Carina rolled and lurched under 3’ swells. We acquired quite a few tools (some new swear words) and even more diesel engine and transmission knowledge than we thought possible but so far (touch wood) our power and reliability issues seem to be behind us, at least for now anyway. Even though we had Kenny’s help, we actually performed a good share of the work, so we learned a lot.
Since we’ve been out cruising, we have rarely, if ever, stayed put for so long but we tried to keep ourselves sane by tackling lots of other little projects. We had a little fun too. We enjoyed an outing to Casco Viejo, the Spanish era historic center of Panamá City, which is undergoing a slow revitalization; million dollar asking prices for homes in shambles that are adjacent to rough neighborhoods but coincidentally, nearby to the Panamanian presidential palace. We attended at the Museo de Canal Interoceanic on the Plaza de Independencia, an exhibit of Rembrandt etchings which was upstairs from the (Spanish only) museum chronicling the entire history of the canal and canal zone life.
We were invited to a few social gatherings such as a birthday for Frank on Windsong which was held at the historic canal zone building apartment of Paul, an American entomologist who came to Panamá to work on the highly successful hookworm project and who has retired here. Amongst the guests were Maricena, Paul´s Chiricano friend, and Sara and Dan, of the yacht Navigator, she from Mexico and he from the USA, also living in Panamá. A Fourth of July celebration under the new, enormous open palm bohio at the Balboa Yacht Club brought hundreds of locals who munched on BBQ and drank toasts to America’s birthday. An incredible fireworks display lit up the Amador just about the time the serious partiers arrived (we were home by then watching from our bow).
When Frank and Ellen of SV Hot Ice arrived in the city en route back to their boat in American Samoa, we made time to visit with them at a Chinese restaurant at a weekly dim sum breakfast attended by locals and ex-pats alike. We also spent quite a bit of time sharing taxi rides around Panamá City with a young couple from the sailboat, Santa Magdalena, a Baba 35. Casey and Jamie thought they would begin their passage to Chile in January but that was before they discovered many of their boat systems in need of repair or replacement —life raft, standing rigging, SSB and radar to name a few. They had planned to hire out a bunch of canvas work but we convinced them that the cost of a good quality zigzag machine would pay for itself before their project list was complete, so they made the plunge and took up the challenge. This prompted sojourns into the bowels of Panamá in search of marine canvas and shade material, UVR polyester thread, snaps, webbing, zippers and such. Yes, we consider this fun!
Also, as it turned out, staying in Panamá for so long was advantageous, allowing us to finalize Philip´s pensionado visa which will allow us to reside in Panamá should we so choose.
For those who remember what the Balboa Yacht Club was after the fire destroyed the historic clubhouse, you’ll be happy to know the new club is taking shape. A second story open air bar/restaurant (tile roof, canvas awnings, chairs that aren’t falling apart) with a lovely view down the muelle to the moored boats and the canal has been operational since October 2007 and is supported by a large professional kitchen. A function room has already hosted ham radio exams, private parties and now a movie night. Adjacent is an enormous palm bohio (called a palapa in Mexico) which is taking shape into a full service restaurant. The boatyard/rail remains the same rustic facility which is almost constantly in use under the watchful eye of Tito, a fifty-plus year BYC employee. The only problem with the newly minted BYC is its popularity which means that Saturday karaoke night would often run until after 2 am, allowing some of Panama’s – and possibly the world’s - worst singers access to microphones hooked up to powerful speakers; the “music” loud enough to disrupt sleep in the mooring field hundreds of yards away.
BYC nowadays is an interesting place to watch people. Closure of a work dock in Diablo brought a work boat fleet and their barge to the north end of the mooring field. This means that the fuel dock is now almost constantly occupied by hard-used work boats picking up or disgorging merchant marines along with crates, barrels, gas bottles, and every other possible supply for the fleet of deep draft vessels at anchor within miles. Military “warships” also operate in the region and one day a sinister looking 30’ US military inflatable with six military men zoomed in to buy fuel at the fuel dock (they paid cash). These serious men and their vessel were armed with a .50 caliber automatic rifle on the stern, a .30 caliber automatic on the bow, M-16s and 9mm semiautomatic side arms. They were young, 20-ish and decked out in camouflaged fatigues, military boots and the obligatory baseball caps worn backwards.
It was a long, expensive sometimes frustrating stay in Panamá City but finally just over a month ago we cast off our mooring lines and made tracks for Islas Las Perlas, a group of beautiful islands south of Panama City.
The waters around these islands are now protected but we believe all are privately owned so there is no national park here. They are scattered around an area roughly 27 miles long and perhaps 10 wide. Most are quite rural with no roads or streets except for (famous) Isla Contadora (accountant island), the site of many diplomatic and political meetings, and now Isla Viveros (possibly Nursery Island) which is dotted with mansions supported by a golf course. The few other villages are tiny and have no industry, though it is said that Isla Pedro Gonzales (our first stop) is famous for its "herb" plantations, though we didn’t see any growing or have anyone offer to sell us “herbs”. Large 30+ foot pangas move people and goods around at high speed, darting amongst the rocks and reefs. It's truly muy tranquilo here, except of course when we get whopped with squalls during rainy season (now), or screaming northers during dry season.
At our first anchorage nearby to Isla Don Bernardo and Isla Pedro Gonzales, we became acquainted with a wiry old Panamanian named Leonides, who at 87 is spry and active, though his eyes were quite grayed from cataracts. Leonides waved as we anchored in front of his two story casita made of vertically placed small logs; the second story porch was decorated with Christian slogans and set in a tiny garden near a small lagoon. When we dinghied to the beach the following morning he offered us four avocados. We later returned chocolate and coffee and a few other goodies, but what he really wanted were cigarettes or…marijuana! Leonides, who walks the beach almost every day followed closely by his tiny perky puppy, told us he had lots of money, he owned this waterfront finca all the way to the beach on the other side of the island and had two houses in the city, one with his 76 year old wife and the other with his 47 year old wife! He has 17 kids and 72 grandkids, which might be the reason he chooses to live on the beach by himself! Leonides was born there at Isla Pedro Gonzales and no doubt many of his family live in the tiny village as he had visitors arriving by pangas every day.
We liked Isla Pedro Gonzales so much we stayed two weeks. The bay was calm and clear, parrots, oyster catchers and many unidentified birds filled the morning air with lovely sounds, dorado and Mexican needlefish hunted flying fish in our bay; we could sit in our cockpit and watch the chase as the 3’ fish leaped repeatedly in pursuit of their prey. Humpback whales leisurely romped down the North Passage towards the Bahia Del Rey. Our first morning we trolled in our dinghy around the point of Don Bernardo into the channel (a kind of “race point”) and inside of a couple of minutes boated a red snapper. Encouraged by this we fished the same area the following day and caught an inedible 3’ jack crevalle that dragged us around for an hour and a half (and far from home) before we were able to bring it close enough to set it loose.
Other boats came and went: Tropical Dance with Rey and Dan spent a few nights, followed by Chogolisa (sp?) with Emmanuelle and Jean Luc, and Tam-Tam, a French catamaran that sustained lightning damage while anchored right next to us (they left soon after so we didn’t meet them). A fishing tournament brought a fleet of sport fishers over a weekend, crowding us a bit. During our stay we were joined by friend Joe of yacht Panacea so we had a partner in fun activities like fishing and snorkeling and games of Scrabble or chess.
Joe was preparing for a passage to Peru and began to get anxious to set sail, so our second Sunday in the islands we moved both boats to the furthest south anchorage in Islas Las Perlas at Punta Cocos on Isla Del Rey (Coconut Point on King’s Island). There was little wind the day we made the 18 mile passage but 10’ swell from storms in the SE Pacific made every shoal a serious hazard and we gave them a wide berth. Rocks listed as “reported” in our guidebook had huge breaking waves engulfing them, one right at the entrance to our anchorage! After we got our anchor down amongst the swell that was wrapping around the point, we were visited by kids from nearby Esmeraldas, looking simply to chat. We sent them away after a time with chocolate nuggets that quickly disappeared into smiling faces.
One (calmer) day, we launched Bacio, our dinghy, and rowed ashore during low tide and explored the abandoned wreck of the Autoridad Maritimo building where bats shusshed quietly from room to room near the ceiling. Nearby was a gravel airstrip that sported fresh airplane tire tracks. A relic of an airplane wing was nearly buried in the sandy intertidal zone. Philip left to explore the airstrip which was reached by an overgrown path. On the return trip, a snake slithered off the trail and Philip was glad Leslie wasn’t around to share the experience. Though he wasn’t able to identify the snake, relatively aggressive fer de lance snakes abound in Panama’s jungles. Locals call them “three-steppers” since that is the number of steps you reportedly take before succumbing to a bite.
Mangos and coconuts along the shore eluded the best attempts by Joe and Philip to bring them down though later (after Joe departed with the first hint of north wind) we had the opportunity to buy mangos from these same trees collected by “Jimmy” and his team from the nearby village of Esmeraldas. The next day brought Manuel calling at 0630, hoping to sell us any of the lobsters he was planning to collect in the waters nearby. We were planning to be underway this morning, so we declined the offer but shared our tea and some chat with our visitor as Philip repaired Manuel’s cracked swim fin with duct tape and then dug through our snorkeling supplies for a gift: Philip’s retired swim mask.
From Punta Cocos we motored on a windless day (note the pattern here) up the eastern shore of Isla Del Rey and then tucked behind a natural breakwater on the south end of Isla Espiritu Santo (Holy Spirit Island) and dropped our anchor. This anchorage is protected from all directions but has a “window” in the island that allowed us to see the outer reefs. During our passage we had to divert course around a humpback whale that waved its enormous pectoral fin back and forth and occasionally breached. We were a bit disappointed in Espiritu Santo; we were only able to catch Mexican needlefish (too ugly and big) or triggerfish (too cute), so we stopped fishing after a while; a promised fresh water from a stream was inaccessible due to rocks and heavy swell at the stream mouth and the water seemed more murky than other places we’d been.
The weather has certainly been a focal point during our adventure. One afternoon while at Espiritu Santo, a cool, almost cold, wind began to blow from the SW over Isla Del Rey. The day had been hot and sticky and suddenly the jungle of Isla Del Rey began to look as if it were on fire, as gray, smoke-like water vapor rose rapidly, swirling and forming squally clouds directly above our heads. Unsure whether we were seeing the genesis of a severe squall or worse yet, a tornado, we took down our sun canvas as quickly as we could and literally battened down the hatches (and portlights). In fact, when we finally decided to leave Espiritu Santo and move to another anchorage, we were enveloped by a violent squall that formed over Isla Del Rey. Under a charcoal gray sky we witnessed the formation of five or six water spouts. These are tornados that form over water which can rotate in either direction and move unpredictably. Like a tornado, they form a funnel shape and at the apex of the funnel, the water roils and is thrown hundreds of feet into the air. Unfortunately, the only photo we were able to take was rather blurry but we will soon post it and other storm photos that might give a sense of the weather. Thankfully none of these tornados approached us.
Somewhat discouraged and thoroughly soaked, Carina having been dashed around for hours, we retreated back to Isla Espritu Santo and tried to dry out. That night we were woken by a sound we couldn’t identify and which scared Jake so much that he was still shaking hours later. Philip’s quick walk around the boat revealed nothing amiss, so he returned to bed. The following morning we discovered that one of our (storm soaked) PFDs (inflatable harness/lifejackets) which was hanging out to dry, had inflated. The rapid inflation had apparently pushed a throw cushion across the cockpit which is what caused the odd noise.
We were happy to wait yet another day, a bright sunny one, to make the 12 mile passage again. Our next anchorage is called Isla Ampon and it is like lagoon set between a group of islands, large and small, and tucked between a long expanse of rocks and reefs. The entrance is narrow and many hazards exist, so we were happy we had a sunny day which made “rock watch” easier. At night the lack of sound in this anchorage was amazing; an almost “white noise” type of silence. We slept well knowing our anchor was set well and we had such good protection.
Our second morning we launched the dinghy to visit the village at Isla Casayita in search of basic supplies (like veggies and fruit). The village sits on a narrow, boulder-strewn end of an island with a lagoon to one side and a broad passage between the Islas Las Perlas to the north. Houses were Panama-island-small, meaning of block construction, with windows (no glass or screens) only of patterned block, corrugated roofs and small porches. Each house had nearby 55 gallon blue plastic barrels for collecting rainwater (and presumably mosquito larva) and often the family’s outboard motor. The houses lined a narrow path along the spine of the island which led away from the tiny beach, with a few scattered homes in a second row behind. There was a small, neat open church, its entrances barricaded against wandering dogs and chickens with unpainted plywood. We saw only a few people, perhaps fewer than ten and only a few children, most of whom were younger than school age. Presumably children are schooled elsewhere as the one room Escuela Isla Casaya was locked.
We asked about a tienda (store) and were directed to the casa amarilla (yellow house). Once there we were greeted by a hunched elderly and friendly woman who stood at her door (her little counter window was boarded up). She repeated "no hay” (there isn't any), with a smile or a laugh, to everything on our list except cerveza (beer), and that only in bottles.
Sunday arrived and the tide was high early in the day, so once again we up-anchored and headed out. We intended to go to Isla Chapera / Isla Mogo Mogo (the anchorage is between the two islands) but a steady stream of tourists (or surviving members of the “reality” show Survivors?) were being shuffled towards shore in pangas; this convinced us to push on to Isla Contadora where we sit as we write.
We’ve been in this exact spot before and it’s truly lovely. The water is a shimmering, clear and green/blue and we have spotted eagle rays and king angelfish swimming idly by —and just at this moment humpback whales about 100 feet away! The beach to our north is the so-called nude beach of Contadora where at lower tides hulking slab shaped rocks pop out and add texture and color to the scene. A tilting but pleasant looking hut sits perched 50’ above the beach on a rocky outcropping midway along the beach. We land our dinghy to its south and climb a set of disintegrating stairs, and follow down a narrow path to join a dirt track that eventually takes us to the back of the Isla Contadora resort, through it and up to and around the end of small airstrip to what passes for Contadora town. The tiny inter-island airplanes sit right next to the street disgorging passengers practically right onto the sidewalk. Two tiny stores supply basic goods, there is a restaurant or two overlooking the sea to the north, dive shops advertise trips and a few shops offer souvenirs and beach ware. Golf carts are for rent but with the island only about a mile long and less than half that wide, walking isn’t as issue. In fact walking is very pleasant since cars are rare and golf carts move slowly.
Probably by Saturday we’ll have munched down the last of the veggies we found here and head back to Panamá City. There we´ll start on our newly updated project list which includes engine mounts, a project we´d hoped to avoid. We received a sobering email from friends who have the same mounts (which have a bad reputation) which described their experience when the mounts failed while they were on passage; the results weren’t pretty. Ah, back to boat maintenance reality again! That being said, we have never regretted pushing off to go cruising to distant shores while still young and want to leave you with this quote we found recently:
Why do you weep for your gold that is gone,
But not your days that depart one by one!
Your gold goes not with you beyond the bourne,
And the days that depart will never return.
Isaac Bashevis Singer – The Family Moskat
Abrazos y amor,
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip, Leslie & el gato supremo, Jake
Isla Contadora, Panamá