Panama Caribbean Coast 2009

N 08° 56' W 79° 33'

Starting a new blog (but more to be added here)

February 01, 2010

You may have noticed that the title to this blog has changed…just as our plans did for last year.  Since we did not make it to Costa Rica I decided to make the title a bit more accurate.  I’ve started a new blog “Panama Pacific Coast 2010” (not anticipating too far ahead this time!)  Please have a look at that blog and request new email updates for it if you are interested in those.

I will gradually finish this blog (mostly adding photos but also expanding some of the text from our trip to the San Blas) but I also need to get caught up with the new blog  so please be patient as I try to get everything up-to-date.

See you on the Pacific side!

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N 08° 56' W 79° 33'

A fantastic Canal transit

January 28, 2010

More details later but we had a marvelous transit through the Panama Canal and we are now moored at the Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City. 

In the middle of Tuesday morning, Randall received the news that we were to go a day earlier than expected.  I was stocking up at the grocery store all morning oblivious of the change until I got back to the boat at noon.  By 3 pm we pulled out of Shelter Bay Marina with ourselves, Connie and Steve from Better Days (who could luckily adjust to the new schedule and who brought lots of wonderful food), and two young men from France, Olivier and Frank-Olivier, who by chance were at the Marina looking for an opportunity to be line-handlers. (Volkmer the Austrian with whom we had originally made arrangements was not able to get to us in time.)

We picked up our first Advisor, Francisco, around 5:30pm and went up through the three Gatun Locks around 8 pm, in the dark (there are huge floodlights) and in some heavy rain showers.  We were behind a huge container ship that had only 6 inches of room on either side and created a very turbulent wake when it pulled forward but we were held by our four robust lines in the middle of the lock without having to tie up to any other boats.  Around 9:30 pm, Francisco helped us tie up with another sailboat to a huge mooring in the lake before he was picked up to go home for the night.

At 6:30 am on Wednesday our new Advisor, Elvir (or Mac), arrived and we set off across Gatun Lake enjoying the sunny weather and even using the jib to assist the motor some of the time.  We descended through the Pedro Migel Lock around noon and the two Miraflores locks about an hour later.  Elvir left us as we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and our wonderful agent, Victor, had managed to get us a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club where he joined us for lunch and a celebration to have made it through safely.

Everything went very smoothly and we had great fun with our American and French crew.  The two advisors were very professional, helpful, and interesting, so it was a pleasure to have them aboard.  Overall it was a much easier and more enjoyable experience than we had imagined and we are very excited to be on the “Pacific side”. 

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N 09° 21' W 79° 56'

Crossing a day earlier than expected

January 26, 2010

I thought that I would have a relaxed evening getting the blog up to date but we just found out a few hours ago that we are to go through the Panama Canal a day early…so updates will have to wait until the other side. 

It should be fun!

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N 09° 21' W 79° 56'

Starting the Canal Transit paper shuffle

January 18, 2010

Due to higher seas and stronger winds, we left Bocas del Toro a day later than originally planned on Thursday January 14th.  We had an excellent run to begin with, using the jib, motor, and current to push us along at 8 knots (over ground) and with the swell and wind chop at a reasonably comfortable angle.  By early morning the wind had come around and the waves were much more sloppy so for the last few hours we motored in rather lumpy and rolly conditions.  We entered Colon Harbor around 4 am and slowly approached Shelter Bay Marina in the NW corner of the bay.  After making a couple of circles in the marina basin, we saw someone on the dock with a flashlight ready to take our lines but the dock was not very well lit so we decided to wait until daylight.  We motored in slow circles in the channel leading to the marina, briefly attracting the attention of the Canal Security boat.

Since then, our activities have been a whirlwind of cleaning, storing, and fixing things on the boat (thanks to the glorious sunny and breezy weather which is helping to blow away the musty smells) and working with our agent, Victor, to initiate the process of making a transit through the Panama Canal.  Victor took us to the Canal Office in Colon on Friday afternoon to get things going and on Saturday an officer came out to measure the exact boat length and width (they take your word on the draft or depth).  Alex was very friendly and helpful and completed numerous forms, having ascertained important details such as the availability of a bathroom, of drinking water, and meals for the Canal Advisor who will accompany us on the 2-day transit.  Today we take the papers to a bank in Colon where we deposit our fees ($609) and security deposit ($891).  Victor will drive us into Colon to do this as it is not a safe town to be wandering around with any money, much less this amount of cash needed for the permit and deposit.  On Friday, Victor drove us through the downtown area and talked about living in Colon with its terrible crime rate.  He also took us to one of the “safe” supermarkets where we got a few supplies and learned where the marina bus will drop us off and pick us up.

Shelter Bay marina is full and is expecting 20 + plus more boats in the next day or so as a rally of cruisers sailing around the world stops in.  We are very glad that we made our reservation during our unexpected visit back in November.  We are getting to meet some new people but it is particularly good to see Connie and Steve again on “Better Days”.  We originally met them in Jamaica.  From there they went to Cartagena and the San Blas where they were frustratingly struck by lightning.  So they have been in Shelter Bay since November getting all their electrical equipment replaced and repaired.  They have already been line-handlers on a boat making the Canal transit and have kindly agreed to help us.  The prospect of the transit is exciting but also a bit nerve-wracking so it will be much more enjoyable with experienced friends aboard.

While in Shelter Bay Marina, we are trying to get some boat work arranged (having an insurance survey, fixing the auto-helm, replacing our outboard, etc) so we may request our transit for around Jan 27th rather than immediately.  Hopefully, I will have time to reorganize this blog and catch up on my emails before then…

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N 09° 19' W 82° 14'

Back on Tregoning again

January 10, 2010

Happy New Year! 

We hope that 2010 starts as well for you as it has for us.  Finishing 2009, we had an excellent dinner party at a restaurant in Spokane to celebrate the engagement of our daughter Shev to Matt.  Joined by Randall’s sister, Martha, we then had a wonderful Christmas, spent with our extended family in Spokane, Washington.  It was particularly splendid to see Heather with our grandchildren, Kaeden (6) and Atleigh (5), who have inevitably grown up a lot but who are still thrilled by all the Christmas activities.  Of course, the rest of us enjoyed the friendship, food, gift-giving, etc, too!  We also had the treat of looking after our lovely dog, Roxy (13), for a few days thanks to Shev and Matt having driven from Duluth to Spokane with the dogs.  Everyone (people and dogs) seemed to be in good health which was especially good.

We had a great time around the New Year visiting various friends and relations in Bellingham, Seattle, Bainbridge Island, and Olympia before we loaded our hideously large amount of luggage for the return trip to Panama.  We had bought many thing for us and the boat during our trip and were only just able to pack the large suitcases (that we had bought at a charity store in Seattle) in such a way that we did not incur any fees for excess baggage.  Even more amazingly, all our luggage arrvied on time, intact, and with no customs fees assessed (even though we noted on our customs form that we had things to declare, being over the $2,000 limit)…did they recognize us as boaters-in-transit or did the x-rays of our chaotic luggage look too daunting?

After leaving Seattle on the evening of Jan 5th we arrived back in Bocas on Jan 9th after spending a couple of nights in Panama City and one in David, where we changed buses.  Tregoning was waiting for us patiently at Red Frog Marina and other than a light coating of mildew over many surfaces and a few ants (hopefully this will not become a bigger problem), she looked good.  The charge on the house battery bank was a bit lower that we had hoped it would be (we had left the fridge running on low with one solar panel generating power).  It may not have been as sunny as we expected it to be so we hope that the batteries will be all right once we have given them a good charge up from the engine and/or from shore power.

After thanking the cruisers who had kept an eye on Tregoning while we were away, we left Red Frog Marina this morning to anchor off Bocas town.  After getting some fresh food supplies and filling up with diesel, we plan to start making our way east tomorrow as we aim for Shelter Bay Marina in Colon where we will arranage our transit through the Panama Canal.  Initially we may only make it as far as Laguna de Bluefields(about 20 nm away) because a cold front from Canada is predicted to reach all the way down here during this week bringing 30 knot winds and large waves.  It should only take us about 24 hours to reach Colon if conditions are better than that so we do not mind waiting until the front has passed.

Once in Shelter Bay we will be kept busy: arranging our transit of the Panama Canal, trying to get our dinghy fixed or replaced, looking for a replacement outboard, getting the auto-helm repaired, and numerous other things that benefit from being in a marina and near a big city.  I will also try to finish this blog, start a new one for 2010, and reply to all the unanswered emails waiting in my inbox…please be patient! 

We had a wonderful time during our visit to the USA but we are now glad to be back on Tregoning.  Despite realizing that we have a lot of work to do during the next month, we are excited about the prospect of heading towards the Pacific.  We will have another vacation from boat tasks when my brother Mike joins us in February…so (all being well) life is not going to be too taxing for us for too long!

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N 09° 19' W 82° 14'

Holiday fun in the Pacific Northwest

December 21, 2009

Tregoning is enjoying a well deserved rest at Red Frog Marina near Bocas Del Toro while we are romping around in the Pacific Northwest of the USA.  The day before we left, we met Anna and Ian from Gecko for a trip to the beach at Red Frog.  We enjoyed body surfing in the clear waves and luxuriated in the warmth and sunshine, knowing that conditions over the next few weeks would be far from tropical.

The water taxi that was expected to take us from Red Frog to the Bocas on the morning of Tuesday (Dec 8) was late and then had motor problems so we started to get a bit anxious about missing our flight to Panama City.  Luckily another taxi that had arrived to drop someone off at Red Frog was able to rescue us.  We enjoyed an afternoon exploring parts of Panama City and we were carried around the city by Benito, a very helpful taxi driver who had been recommended to us by fellow cruisers at Red Frog. 

Our flights to Miami and Dallas were uneventful but we had a very short lay-over before our flight to Seattle.  We breathlessly arrived at the departure gate after running from the terminal’s train just as they were giving our seats to some stand-by passengers. They may have been disappointed to see us but we were very thankful to make the last connection of a long day.  We arrived in Seattle on the first of three days that saw record low temperatures for those dates (down to 17F, -8C) but it was sunny and clear so we had some glorious views of Mount Rainer and the mountains on the Olympic Peninsula.

We spent our first two nights in a hotel in Seattle and after picking up three large suitcases from Goodwill (a charity store to which people donate items) we proceeded to fill them with Christmas gifts for the family and stuff for the boat.  We had a long shopping list of things that were difficult to get in Panama and we have generally been successful in finding everything on the list.  On Friday we drove south to Olympia to stay for eight nights with (brother-in-law) Michael and Jan.  We had a splendid time there including wine-tasting, cutting down a Christmas tree at the end of a horse-drawn trolley ride, decorating the tree while the snow was falling outside (it melted the next day), getting our H1N1 ‘flu shots (at a supermarket), more shopping, picking up Randall’s sister, Martha, who had flown in from San Jose, and sending Christmas cards and e-cards.  We spent a lot of time talking about our cruising experiences and equipment, and visited Michael and Jan’s boat Touch Rain, which they are equipping in preparation for a year of cruising to start this summer…or maybe the following one…we know how flexible plans need to be.

 On Sunday (Dec 20) we drove from Seattle to Spokane where we are staying in a hotel for a week while visiting various friends and relatives.  There was snow on the ground at the pass over the Cascade Mountains but the road was clear.  It was too foggy to enjoy the views as we drove into Spokane, where it was drizzling and the only snow was in muddy piles by the roads.  However, everything seemed brighter that evening when we met Heather and the grandchildren, Kaeden (6) and Atleigh (5) at the Spokane airport.  It had been 21 months since we last saw them so the children have grown so tall and seem much more grown-up.  Today we saw (sister-in-law) Yvonne and Jay and two of their three daughters and we look forward to the arrival of Shevaun, Matt and the dogs (Roxy and Indy) tomorrow.  We will see more friends and relations as the week progresses. It may be drizzly rather than snowy here but as the family gathers…it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

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N 09° 19' W 82° 14'

Holidays and hotels

December 03, 2009

Thanksgiving lunch at the Calypso Cantina was a treat!  The marina provided the turkeys which were beautifully moist and tasty and the Cantina and cruisers provided all the trimmings, vegetables, and desserts.  With about 40 people attending there were lots of choices so following the great American tradition, we fed well and were pretty much useless for the rest of the day.  And it was beautiful and sunny, as have been the last couple of days, lulling us into wondering whether the rainy season was ending early.  However, after a couple of clear nights with glorious views of the full moon, this morning has been overcast and wet again but thankfully we have not seen any lightning for a while (famous last words…) so that is an improvement.  When it is cloudy and breezy, it actually feels a little cooler but when the sun is out, there is still no doubt about the tropical heat.

We managed to watch the University of Florida Gators versus Florida State University football game (a long-standing, in-state rivalry) on the Sky TV at the Cantina on Saturday (Nov 28th).  Apart from the joys of watching the Gators win decisively and seeing our star quarterback, Tim Tebow’s, last home game, it was a pleasure to see pictures of Gainesville on a cool but sunny afternoon.  It made me quite miss the place and all our friends…

Otherwise we have been very busy filing our insurance claim for the dinghy and outboard, ordering things to pick-up in the USA, and generally getting ready for our month-long trip.  This included booking hotel rooms in David and Panamá City, the plan begin to take the local bus from Almirante to David and then a national bus from David to Panamá City.  Because of the rainy season and the risk that the road to David might close if conditions were bad (it has been closed for a few days already this year) we had decided to leave Bocas a few days before our flight to Seattle which, all being well, would also allow us a couple of days to look around in Panamá City.  Such a simple plan…

Never make travel plans without checking on all the local holidays first.  After we called five hotels in Panamá City to be told that they were fully booked (in some cases for the whole month of December) we started to get a bit panicky.  So we went to the Mexican Madness dinner at the Cantina to ask around for other hotel suggestions and then learned the magnitude of our problem.  Our Seattle flight is early on Dec 9th but the day before is Mother’s Day, the biggest holiday in Panama and a time during which many, many people get pay bonuses and head into the cities to do their shopping.  So not only were all the reasonably priced hotels in Panamá City  likely to be booked but David would be packed and the buses would probably be very crowded, none of which seemed to be good for us.  So we had to start reconsidering our plans.

After a rather short night (waking up early worrying about whether we could sleep in the bus stations or airport), we took the marina manager’s advice and asked Elizabeth, the very competent marina office manager if she could help us.  She was said to have friends in various hotels in both cities and might have better luck at finding a room than when bumbling Gringos like us phoned.  In the meantime, we went to the airport with great relief were able to book ourselves on the morning flight from Bocas to Panamá City on Dec 8th.  This would cost more than the bus and shorten our visit to the city but it would reduce the total hotel bills and avoid having to worry about the possible closure of the road to David.  On our return in January, we could take the bus and see a bit more of the Panamanian countryside, when the timing was less critical, the weather was drier, and the cities should be less crowded. 

Finally, we discovered that the faith that been recommended in Elizabeth was well founded and by some method she had got us a room in Panamá City for Dec 8th at a reasonable cost.  Thank you, Elizabeth!  In retrospect, it does not sound like a big deal but there are not many ways to get to Panamá City from Bocas and we are anxious not to miss our flight to Seattle.  Had we realized the date and significance of Mother’s Day when we booked our flights several months ago, we might have picked another date or made hotel reservations much earlier.  I have checked to find that there is another national holiday a few days after we return from the USA but we should be back on the boat by then.  The appearance of unexpected complications to things that should be so simple seems to be an occupational hazard of our chosen life-style but this how we learn about other cultures and how to ask for help!

Tomorrow we move over to Red Frog Marina where we are leaving Tregoning during our trip to the USA.  There is no internet access there so we may be out of blog and email touch until we are in Seattle.  I hope to post a few photos on the blog this afternoon and then at some point when I have time and a good online connection I plan to reorganize the recent posts (adding more sites and photos and reorganizing but not making many additions to the text…yeah, right).  I will also change the title of this blog to The Caribbean Coast of Panama so that I can start a new one for the Pacific coast in the New Year.  So there may be many changes over the coming weeks but not all will add new text.

We are thoroughly excited about staying with generous friends and family in Seattle, Olympia, and Spokane and seeing many family members over the holidays.  It will be a bit of a climate shock but Randall is really looking forward to the cold and even I admit that it will be a nice change to cuddle-up for warmth rather than hear the tropical cruiser’s plaintive nighttime cry of “It’s too hot and part of you is touching me!”

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N 09° 19' W 82° 14'

Of drums, draggers, and drama

November 26, 2009

To our USA readers, Happy Thanksgiving!  And to everyone else, Happy Preparations for the December Holidays!   We are still in Bocas and looking forward to a Thanksgiving luncheon hosted at the Calypso Cantina, to which we are contributing the famous Stocker “Sweet potatoes and peaches” and some homemade brownies.  Yes, thanks to Randall’s perseverance in searching the two Bocas hardware stores, he managed to find all the pieces to replace the low pressure valve that was leaking in our propane system so we can use our stove again.  Hurray!    

Overall, the last 10 days have been very wet but it looks as though today may be a bit brighter so that will be good.  It is tricky to take food to shore in the pouring rain. Actually the rain has generally been fairly cooperative for us, for which we are grateful.  We have kept our water tanks full and been able to wash and rinse various things that do not fit in a washing machine or sink, such as the cockpit cushions.  On the other hand, the  highlights of the period, the day of the Bocas del Toro parade, the day we went to Changuinola, and the day during which we cruised around in the Policia National launch, were dry and in the latter case, positively sunny.  But more of that interesting experience later…

Monday (Nov 16) was Bocas del Toro Day, a holiday within the province and the day of a huge parade in Bocas.  The President of Panama was due to open the festivities and a suitably grand viewing stand had been erected on the main street but he was not well that day and some other official, appropriately resplendent in his military uniform, received the bows and honors from the paraders.  Unlike the final of the softball tournament in the Kuna Yala which was held earlier than reported, the parade started about 90 minutes later than the intended 10 as commencement.  This gave us plenty of time to enjoy watching the marching bands congregate and practice all around town including along the parade route.  In fact, it was not obvious to us how they would all get started and going fast enough without getting in each others’ way but we were foolishly thinking in terms of the rousing pace a which parades are held in the USA instead of considering the positively languid shuffle of the Junkanoo we had seen in the Bahamas.

The first part of the parade was mostly non-musical participants such as representatives of all the emergency services and military groups (including an armed, uniformed, and helmeted squad doing a goose-step march which appeared exhausting and rather ominous), and a variety of cheerful workers from assorted government services.  They were followed by marching bands from (we presume) every secondary school in the province, interspersed with a few gymnastics teams who had plenty of time to run around in intricate patterns, form human-pyramids, and flip-flap around in suitably exhausting exercises.  There must have been about 30 bands which principally consisted of numerous drums of all sizes most of which were played with enthusiastic vigor.  Most bands had a few tall girls playing xylophones and a few larger schools also had groups of bugles but the overwhelming influence was the loud and skillful rhythms of the drums.  There were typically various girls twirling batons or carrying the larger drum-majors’ batons and like the musicians they were clad in smart uniforms.  Whoever sells women’s boots in Panama must have a nice business because all the marching girls had knee-length boots, typically white with sturdy heels and a slight impression that they used to belong to go-go dancers!  In addition, each school had students carrying their banner, one or two girls in traditional Panamanian costume (lacy white blouses and huge, twirled skirts), and several teachers (we presume) marching along in smart, matching outfits. 

Given the heat, the longevity of the parade, the vitality of most participants, and their light-weight but often dark-colored uniforms, there were numerous assistants running around with bottles of water and Gatorade.  The crowd (including us) was also taking advantage of numerous feeding and drinking opportunities around the parade route and as the day wore on the majority of viewers switched from one side of the street to the other to stay in the shade.  The parade moved so slowly that it was easy to cross between bands and we took advantage of this to explore various perspectives on the event although we declined the offer to share a roof-top with Dillon and Darion (from the Cantina) on the grounds that the nearby collapsed section of roof did not inspire overwhelming confidence.

We saw the modest display of fireworks, which we gather from the subsequent cessation of the sound of drumming, was at the end of the parade…at 7 pm!  Thus, some of the poor students had been waiting around and marching for over 8 hours.  We could not boast of such stamina and had returned to the boat in mid-afternoon having seen the passing of the particular band that we had watched warming-up by the café where we seated during the long wait for the parade to start.  The atmosphere for Bocas Day was happy and busy with many vendors taking advantage of the assembled crowds, and there were extra ferries running back and forth to the mainland for several days to get everyone home.  The town had been spruced up for the expected visit of the President, the parade, and the beginning of the main tourist season (December-May) so everything seemed a bit smarter and more lively than when we left in September.

The following day, we were supposed to go to Changuinola to get the monthly signature on our visas but we had been told that the Immigration Office would be closed for “Changuinola Day” so we postponed the trip until Wednesday.  We were grateful for the excuse as there was torrential rain most of Tuesday and strong winds that night. Consequently, our ferry ride to Almirante was rough as some 2 – 3 ft waves had been kicked up but we were lucky enough to get some of the more stable seats in the back of the 20ft long launch.  Even though we were a day late, our visas were renewed without question by the friendly and cheerful officials and we picked up some useful grocery supplies in the large supermarkets before returning to Bocas.  The only slight cause for concern of the trip was being told by another cruiser that on his way to catch the Almirante ferry, he had seen a 41 ft Morgan that had dragged anchor all the way across the channel from our anchorage.  We had not been aware of another boat like ours there so we hastily and nervously asked what color it was.  Luckily for us it was blue and white and another cruiser said it had been next to his boat at the other end of the anchorage from us.  Still, it was a relief to see Tregoning exactly where we had left her when we got back.

Interestingly, the other Morgan was now anchored just upwind of us (which did not bode well if they dragged again) so as we returned to Tregoning, we stopped to introduce ourselves.  They were a friendly trio (parents and adult son) who had slept through the night and been very surprised to wake up a couple of miles away from where they had gone to sleep.  After we talked to them, they went to the marina to refuel and we then watched them re-anchor, thankfully downwind of us this time.  They had told us that they too were planning to go through the Canal and eventually around the world but we suspect that they still had much to learn about anchoring.  Their anchor looked small for the boat, they only appeared to let out enough chain to reach the bottom (ideally one has a 7:1 scope where one lets out a length of rode – chain and rope – that is seven times the water depth), and they did not set the anchor (where one reverses the boat hard while looking and feeling to see that the anchor has dug into the bottom.  Sure enough, the next morning we awoke to see their boat several 100yd away from where they had started (luckily no one else was in the way) having dragged again.  They repositioned again before most other people were awake and left later that morning so we hope that they get the anchoring figured out.    As someone else pointed out, we all drag at some point and there are only three kinds of cruisers: those who have dragged and admit it; those who have yet to drag (being beginners); and those who lie about it.  (Of course, running aground and other embarrassing but almost inevitable things can be substituted for dragging in that expression.) But the technique and record of this particular boat was not encouraging so we hope that they do not come to, or cause, harm elsewhere.

From Thursday to Tuesday we kept ourselves busy with boat chores, internet matters, and getting ready for our trip to the USA in December (involving numerous lists, things to order, arrangements to make, etc.)  And other than the Thanksgiving break we were quite happy to keep other excitements to a minimum while we continued with such activities until our departure for Panamá City around December 6th.

But yesterday (Wednesday) turned out to be a dramatic variation from that reassuring routine and was a classic lesson that “complacency is the patron of dishonesty” (I just made that up but I’m sure someone famous has previously expressed it more profoundly).  At 6 am, after lying in bed for a few minutes discussing the day’s plans, I was sickened to hear Randall shout from the cockpit that the dinghy was missing.  It had been an exceptionally quiet night and it did not take long to establish that the dinghy had been stolen (it was clearly unclipped and untied) rather than having broken loose.  Yes, after nearly four months in Bocas we had grown complacent and no longer locked the dinghy to Tregoning or raised it out of the water on the spare halyard.  Since we sleep in the stern cabin right next to where the dinghy is tied up we usually hear the waves slapping against it or would expect to hear anyone messing with it.  But on this calm night some professional thieves must have come in and silently extracted it while we slept.

Oh, how stupid and frustrated we felt having been so careful about keeping our companionway latched at night after the attack on Navy Blue but having been lulled into thinking that Bocas was currently immune from crime targeted at cruisers.  Anyway, we typed up a page with all the details about the dinghy and motor, put out an alert on the VHF radio, and telephoned the local branch of the Policia National.  They asked us to come in to make a report so we phoned for a water taxi and thus began our 8 hours of interaction with the police.  When we arrived at the police station Corporal Sanchez was ready to help us.  He is the local Policia de Turismo, one of a group of specific officers throughout Panama who wear identifying arm-bands and who speak good English.  After providing him with an initial report and showing pictures of the dinghy and motor from the West Marine catalog, the officers took us out in their launch to see Tregoning and to look around the nearby Bocas and Carenero (adjacent island) shores.  We were then driven over to the police office near the airport where the investigators took more detailed, sworn, reports.  We also reported the theft on the morning VHF network and a couple of people kindly offered to loan us dinghies.  We were also told that in 99% of such cases the motor was never seen again (quickly taken to the mainland, repainted, and sold cheap) but the dinghy usually showed up as they are too easily identified as a gringo boat and are more conspicuous to move around.

At the investigators’ office we were initially left with a man who did not speak much English and we did our best to explain the details in our poor Spanish but soon Senor Fernando Hooker arrived and he very helpfully provided the translations for us.  He was from the District Attorney’s office representing Bocas del Toro and another province but fortunately for us he was in his office in Bocas that day.  I gave a supporting report to an office assistant who actually spoke quite good English and with a bit of help I was able to read the Spanish report much better than I could follow what was spoken.  It is a little odd to not understand all the office discussion around you but Fernando was quite entertaining and we were happy with the reports.  We were eventually told to return to Tregoning to wait until the investigators could come by in the afternoon to take photos. 

We took a water taxi back from near the police station and our driver started telling us in Spanish that he had found a “gringo dinghy” floating around near the anchorage last night on his return from a late game of dominoes.  He pointed to another inflatable by the shore to explain what he meant and our hopes soared.  We asked him to show it to us and he took us to a primitive, water-side house at the head of the small bay next to the marina.  Sure enough, it was our dinghy without the motor or anything else and with one of the three main tube sections deflated.   The children at the house had to retrieve the toys that they had already put into their new plaything and reluctantly handed a line to the taxi driver who then towed it back to the marina for us.  We got his name, thanked him heartily, and provided a very generous tip.

The deflated tube had been badly slashed, including cutting partly into one of the handles so it is not obvious that it can be repaired and, curiously, there were two large smears of blood on the floor.  Based on other stories from the marina staff, we speculate that after removing the motor and other items, the thieves tried to sink the dinghy but someone cut themselves when the knife slashed into the handle and they gave up the effort in disgust to leaving the dinghy floating in the bay.  We wonder if the police will check-up on anyone who went to the hospital with a knife wound that morning or if anything more sinister happened during the heist.

Anyway, we called the police again and they soon came out in the launch to look at the dinghy (and express much interest in the blood) and take us back to the investigators’ office to file an additional report.  We then accompanied the two investigators in the police launch to talk to the native Indian woman at the house were our dinghy was found.  We have no idea how that discussion went, she did not seem happy about the questions and we doubt that standard Spanish was used much of the time.  They also took photos of Tregoning and the dinghy and kept a bit of old duct tape (for possible fingerprints) that someone (probably at the house) had tried to put over the slash in the tube.  All in all we were impressed with the friendly attitude and helpful efforts of the police but realize that it is very unlikely that we will see our motor or other items (gas tank, oars, life-jackets, etc) again.  Chatting with folk at the marina we understand that local residents do not usually get as much help from the police with domestic burglaries so we appreciate that our experience is not necessarily typical.

We will leave the dinghy at the marina while we are in the USA and will ask a resident cruiser who is supposedly skilled at such work (but who is currently away) to try to repair it.  In the meantime, our insurance agent was very helpful on the phone so we will at least file a claim for the motor and other items.  A fellow cruiser, Stig, very generously has loaned us his small dinghy and outboard which will certainly make life much easier (and cheaper) than having to rely on water taxis.  Last night, in a state of high paranoia we raised his dinghy out of the on the spare halyard, locked the motor, and swathed them both, and the toe-rail on Tregoning, in chain so that we should hear if anyone disturbed the dinghy or motor.  Stig’s generosity is very helpful as we will probably wait to get a new outboard when we have taken Tregoning to Panamá City. We will just have to resolve to be as conscientious about security each night when we have our own dinghy and outboard again.  Oh, the joys and perils of traveling… 

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N 09° 19' W 82° 14'

Returning to Bocas…"Take 2"

November 14, 2009

We enjoyed several good meals at the restaurant while at Shelter Bay Marina because we were trying to conserve our tiny residue of propane (the result of the still unidentified leak) and were getting rather tired of cole slaw and cereal.  We saw Sea Star waiting patiently for Dan and Kathy to return from their brief trip to the USA.  It was actually a bit sad to see their boat and miss them but we left them a note as a little surprise for their return.  We did, however, find two people that we knew, Larry from Miss Kathleen (we had met at the Eastern Hollandes) and Brian from ‘Uhane whom we had first seen in Providencia but had got to know in Bocas.  The cruising world can be a small one.  We were sorry to miss their wives (both visiting family in the USA) but we enjoyed swapping stories and learning more about Shelter Bay, Colón, and canal transits from them.

Wednesday was a wet day with thunder and lightning during the early morning so there was some doubt as to when we could refuel, especially as there were due to be several large power boats ahead of us.  But by mid-morning the lightning had gone, the rain was light enough to allow refueling under umbrellas, and when the second boat in line failed to show up on time the dock-master allowed us to jump the queue.  We were thankful as the diesel was pumped out of a barge in the marina and we had been a bit concerned that the bigger boats might take most of the supply (as had happened when we could not get diesel at the marina in Georgetown, The Bahamas).  The refueling process was quite efficient and we congratulated one of the two attendants on his excellent taste in hats…he was wearing a baseball cap with a Florida Gator logo on it.  He did not seem to know it was related to the University of Florida and we have seen several of these caps around (such as at a bus stop in Boquete) so the alligator logo without any words seems to be popular in Panama, the land of crocodiles.

By the time we had finished refueling and eaten lunch it was not difficult to persuade ourselves to stay a second night and hope for clearer weather in the morning.  We left at 6 am on Thursday turning away from a very dark line of rain clouds that were east of Colón.  Our progress that day and night was good although the headwind and current limited us to using the motor.  During the afternoon, a barn swallow starting circling the boat and attempted several times to land on the life-lines but the boat was bouncing a bit too much into the waves.  Finally it came into the cockpit and landed on Randall’s big toe as he was sitting back reading.  Oh, to have had the camera handy but I was sure that getting up to get it would disturb our visitor.  Instead, it then decided to look around inside the cabin and disappeared from sight.  We had heard several people talk about small birds making such explorations so we were not entirely surprised by this turn of events.  In boats that have cats aboard, the outcome is not always good.  I put a saucer of sugar-water out on the counter and the swallow flew in and out a couple of times.  At one point I saw it chirping away on the top of the wall-mounted TV/DVD player but by nightfall we were pretty sure it was in the forward cabin but decided not to disturb it.

During my watch from 10 pm to 1 am the sky was actually clear.  It was good to see the myriad stars and we felt confident that we would complete the 140 nm passage from Colón to Bocas by mid-morning on Friday.  But during Randall’s watch the headwind increased and storm cells that he was watching on the radar seemed determined to find us, darkening the sky and by dawn dumping yet more rain on us.  As the winds increased to 20 – 25 knots with gusts to 30 knots, the waves built up to 6 – 8 ft with a very short interval so we were crashing through them without much rest.  The current against us was back to 2 – 3 knots such that even at increased engine speed we were down to about 2 knots of forward speed over ground.  Depressingly, our estimated time of arrival in Bocas receded from noon to midnight and there was no indication that trying to motor-sail on tight tacks into the wind would help.

Luckily, there was no lightning, we had a full tank of fuel, and the conditions were not scary in any way but without the aid of the auto-pilot it was tiring to hand-steer and we were thoroughly fed-up with this frustrating passage to Bocas.  We had not been able to get a local weather forecast the day we left Colón so the last report we had heard was for winds to be “light and variable” which these conditions were conspicuously not.  We kept hoping it was a large squall that would soon pass but nothing changed and we feared that it might even get worse.  We considered the option of tucking in to Laguna de Bluefield (28 nm east of Bocas) for the night and then trying the inside passage, out of the pounding waves, the following day.  But the wind direction might have made the anchorage uncomfortable and the shallow reefs of the unfamiliar inside passage need calm waters and sunlight to be negotiated safely.  So with Randall nobly taking longer day-time watches, we slogged on directly to Bocas.  By late afternoon the current and winds slowed down just enough for us to manage to 3 – 4 knots of speed over ground and we thankfully entered the Bocas del Toro channel in the dusk at 6 pm.

It was particularly good to see familiar landmarks and to turn away from the wind and waves.  Although it was almost dark by the time we arrived at the anchorage off the Bocas Yacht Club and Marina there were fewer boats than when we had left in September and we were able to anchor where there was good holding and we had plenty of space.  Even though we had looked forward all day to dining ashore, by the time we finally arrived we could not muster the energy to put the dinghy in the water and instead used a little of our precious remaining propane to cook some instant noodles.  That night we went to bed really early and slept soundly for almost 12 hours.

On Saturday morning we reacquainted ourselves with the staff at the marina office, met Dillon and Darion from the Cantina, and realized that there were only a few other people around that we knew.  But it still felt as though we were “back home” in Bocas and that was good.  We heard that the weather that we had contended with the day before was the remains of a continental cold front that had unexpectedly swept down into the tropics, several hundred miles further south than predicted. We suspect that our barn swallow may have been a migrant heading south that was caught in the front.  Although those winds might have helped to blow it southward it was probably worn out by the time it visited us because we eventually found it, wings peacefully folded, behind some books in the forward cabin.  We were sorry not to have been able to provide it with a temporary respite from the storm but felt that it had found a secure “cave” in which to collapse, exhausted.  Rather dwelling on our overnight companion’s demise, however, we marveled at how any such light-weight and fragile creatures can survive their long migrations and we greeted the mid-morning arrival of some mangrove swallows, cheery inhabitants of this anchorage, a little more heartily.

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N 09° 21' W 79° 56'

Frustratingly behind schedule

November 10, 2009

Despite the cloudy weather, we left Linton in high spirits at 5:45 am on Sunday morning (Nov 8th).   There was quite a bit of rain when we were north of the entrance to Colón harbor so we did not see all the ships at anchor waiting to go through The Canal. 

After another day and a night of motoring into the light headwind, we were only 45 nm from the entrance to Bocas del Toro by 7 am on Monday and we were confident about arriving at the anchorage before dark.  But just as we were switching from my watch to Randall’s the engine suddenly stopped.  No coughing or long slow-down, the revs just dropped and the engine ceased.  The water temperature was fine so we got out the dip-stick to measure the fuel level and to our great surprise found that it was down to 1 inch depth of diesel whereas by my calculations we had expected 6 or 7 inches (a full tank is 36 inches) and hence there should have been enough fuel (just) to finish the journey.  During the night it had been necessary to increase the engine RPMs as we were fighting a 2 – 3 knot head current but there was no good explanation as to why the fuel consumption rate had been so unexpectedly and unusually high.

Anyway, solving that problem would have to wait as the immediate concern was making it to our destination before we started to drift back too far.  We had 5 gallons of diesel in our jerry can but we realized that it would not be enough to get us to the entrance at Bocas against the current and leave us some fuel to get to the anchorage (especially if the fuel consumption rate continued to be high).  So we raised the sails and started to tack into the wind.  This would have been a fine plan had there been more wind or less current but after five hours we had sailed a long way north and south but were two miles further away from our destination.  So we evaluated the options of continuing to tack back and forth or finding somewhere to anchor along the coast and hoping that the wind would pick up or change to a more favorable direction.  But without an accurate weather forecast for the area we decided that this plan was too uncertain so we turned Tregoning downwind and sailed towards Colón to fill-up with diesel at Shelter Bay marina.

We should have been able to make it comfortably to Colón (95 nm) by the next morning but the weather did not cooperate.  First, at 1am we had to endure a very nasty thunderstorm that we watched approaching on the radar but could not avoid.  The wind was not too fierce (we had one reef in the mainsail) but there was torrential rain and a horrible amount of close lightning.  One cloud to cloud flash above us changed the scale on the radar as Randall was watching it which was rather spooky and another cloud to sea strike was close enough that the thunder was only one second behind the flash.  We were convinced that we would be struck before we could get away from the storm but somehow we were lucky and although storm cells moved around us all morning at least the lightning subsided.  By mid-morning Tuesday the wind was dropping and our speed under sail kept decreasing such that it would be dark before we could make it to the Río Chagres or Colón.  So we fired up the engine and hoped that my conservative estimation of how long our five gallons would last us would be correct.  We phoned Shelter Bay marina to find out that their fuel service was closed that day because it was the Patriots’ Day holiday in Panama but they did have a slip available for the night.  We could have anchored in the Río Chagres for free but at that point a quiet night in the marina seemed rather attractive, especially as we would not have to worry about whether we had enough fuel to get in and out of the river and into the marina. 

When we were within 10 nm of the harbor entrance we called Cristóbal Control to ask permission to enter the busy Colón harbor and they told us to check back when we were within a mile of the breakwater.  As we approached we watched a US Navy warship come in to anchor near the breakwater and noted the intervals between several ships leaving the harbor after transiting The Canal.  We were given permission to enter as long as we did not interfere with shipping and with great relief we pulled into a slip at the marina at 3pm, just an hour before the office closed for the holiday.  Thankfully, their restaurant was open and after 57 hours of hand-steering with no hot food we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and a good night’s sleep.

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