February 27, 2010
When there are only two washing machines to accommodate the laundry needs of at least 30 cruising boats and goodness knows how many residents of the condos upstairs, it can feel very satisfying and relaxing early on a Saturday morning (Feb 27th) to have both of the machines to one’s self and one’s four large loads of laundry accumulated from three weeks at sea on short-, fresh-water rations. Having got the first two loads in the driers and the second two into the washers, and with Randall busy on Tregoning starting to replace the much-missed anchor windlass, it was time to flip open the HP Notebook and, finally, resume writing entries for the blog. It was good to be alone with the whole day stretching before me with nothing planned but sanitizing our rather unsavory clothes, towels, and linens, and some uninterrupted writing. So when the VHF radio spluttered into life with someone using the words “earthquake” and “tsunami”, it was difficult not to take the matter personally.
The massive 8.8 earthquake that hit Chile at 1:34 am (Panama time) had devastating consequences for inhabitants of the surrounding towns and shorelines, although in a country fairly well equipped for such events, the impact was mercifully much less disastrous than the recent ‘quake in Haiti. But vivid memories of horrifying scenes around the Indian Ocean that resulted from the tsunami caused by the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake in late 2004 were foremost in the thoughts of many people on the Pacific Rim as news spread out, ahead of the racing maritime ripples.
I’m not quite sure how the first news of the potential tsunami reached the cruisers in Panamá City, either by the internet, or more likely, a friend on land watching the TV news phoning the warning to someone but by 8:20 am I was hearing talk of a tsunami potentially reaching us within 30 minutes. With Tregoning on a mooring near the shore at the head of a shallow bay that was full of anchored and moored vessels, the idea of a potentially disruptive tidal surge was very disturbing. So having gathered up the Notebook and abandoned the laundry, I scurried back to towards the dinghy dock planning to hail Randall when there was a break in the VHF chatter to find out what we should do. Then Randall’s voice joined the VHF discussion with an update from the NOAA website which had just issued a tsunami warning for the Pacific Rim including Panama. This information indicated that the tsunami was not due to reach us until 9:50 am but no local wave heights were predicted.
In deep water tsunamis travel at speeds of 300-600 mph but cause a hardly noticeable bump in the water surface. As their movement is recorded by monitoring devices around the world, predictions of when they will arrive should be quite accurate. Once they reach shallower water they slow down to only tens of mph but can form large destructive waves which may be preceded by a retreat of the water level at the shore. There may be several waves as the effects of the earthquake ripple out and the first wave may not be the largest. The local effects of tsunami waves will vary based on numerous characteristics, such as the dominant direction of the earthquake, deflection of the waves around land masses, and bottom shape and depths near the shoreline. Thus, although NOAA provides prediction for times of tsunami arrival, they leave specific warnings about wave height and recommended actions to local governments.
Given that we had 90 minutes until anything was likely to reach us and the largest tidal surge so far had been 7 ft on the coast of Chile, we decided that there was no need to panic but that we would leave the mooring for a few hours and cruise around in deeper water. By the time I got back to the laundry room, the last loads of washing were done and the items in the driers were mostly ready. So I piled the bags of wet and dry loads into the rickety shopping cart and rattled my way as fast as possible back across the huge parking lot to the dinghy dock where Randall met me.
On our way back to Tregoning, we stopped to tell Mike and Dede on Joss and Olivier on Aida, none of whom had been listening to the VHF radio. Olivier, who had been sound asleep when we arrived, used our phone to call the owners of Aida who told him to let out the lines to the mooring but otherwise leave the boat (the engine of which was not working) and stay on shore if anything seemed likely to happen. Olivier then went to warn others on moorings who might not have heard the news. Someone called on the VHF asking to borrow five gallons of diesel before they could pull anchor and an immediate reply came that another cruiser was on their way over with the fuel. Meanwhile, we tied a buoy with “Tregoning” written on it to the mooring lines (both to help us pick them up again and to let others know that the mooring was taken) and slowly started to motor out of the bay.
It was a curious sight to see so many sailing boats pulling up their anchors and slowly head out to sea. The chatter on the VHF was serious but not panicky and there were many questions about the latest tsunami reports. Of course, most people were losing internet access as they left the anchorages so we became reliant on the few who had satellite-phone links or had someone on shore calling with updates.
We happened to leave just behind Joss and we went out to where the water was at least 40 ft deep. It was odd to see so many, well dispersed, small boats milling around amongst the large ships waiting at anchor to go through the Canal. The fact that none of the larger boats were moving seemed to be a good sign but Randall and I talked through what one would do if a rougue wave or large surge appeared (head the boat directly into it and hang on). We even put on life-jackets just to be sure. We phoned a few people to let them know (or mostly left messages) that we were all right and taking action (lest anyone hear the news and worry that we were unaware of impending disaster).
It was sunny with a little wind so I was kept busy hanging the wet laundry along the life-lines where it dried fairly quickly. The sea was very calm with just the slightest swell so we were sure that we would see any unusual change. The predicted time for a tsunami to reach Panama came and went with no sign of anything out of the ordinary but all the warnings suggest that evasive action be continued until two hours after the predicted time or the last activity so we swung in gentle circles drying clothes and running the water-maker. Just as we started to head back Joss called to say that they had two whale sharks feeding next to them and we should come over and look.
This was amazing news and we could see Mike and Dede on their bow taking photos and video clips of interesting swirls in the water close to them. With binoculars I could see the large rounded snout of one whale shark cruising along at the water surface with occasional appearances of the dorsal fin or tail, a long way behind. Just as we were getting close enough to consider turning off the motor there was a report on the VHF that someone had heard by SSB radio from a friend in Contadora that they had just seen a 7 ft wave which would be heading our way. There was much discussion about how long such a wave would take to cross the 30 miles of Panama Bay to the City but the general conclusion was not to take a chance and to head back out to deeper water. In reality, such a wave would likely have passed us before, or soon after, the report was made, but we decided to continue to be cautious and reluctantly left the whale sharks to head back to deeper water.
This was a painful decision because neither Randall nor I had seen one of these creatures before, despite the fact that 20 years ago I had been on a week-long, live-aboard diving trip to Belize where I paid extra for the high expectation of seeing them. But the idea of getting caught in a breaking wave or tidal surge was not attractive. Needless to say, the Contadora observation was a false alarm (perhaps a visitor noticed one wave reach a bit higher up the shallow, sandy beach than the others and reported 7 ft of extra horizontal movement as a 7ft wave).
Fortunately, Mike and Dede had observed that the whale sharks seemed to be feeding along a visible drift line parallel to the shore (a line at the water surface with a slightly different appearance where some floating debris accumulates). So as we returned to the shallower water we studied the drift line with binoculars. Sure enough, we saw some suspicious swirls and watched some terns taking off and soon we could see the rounded snout and occasional fins. We slowly motored towards the whale shark and then drifted along completely mesmerized by the huge, graceful creature that was so clearly un-bothered by our presence.
Between 15 and 20 ft long, this was not a particularly large specimen (they can apparently be up to 60 ft) but at almost half the length of Tregoning it was impressive enough. Like the basking sharks we had seen on our way to Nova Scotia, whale sharks are filter feeders that strain small crustaceans and fish out of water that passes into their huge mouths. This animal was lazily cruising along the drift line sometimes fully submersed and sometimes with its wide snout breaking the water surface and providing a perfect view of the white, checkerboard pattern of lines and spots on its otherwise dark grey skin.
Even though this is the largest species of fish in the world and an accidental slap from its large, lunate tail could be pretty unpleasant, it took some restraint to resist the temptation to don a mask and jump into the water with it. But after about 20 minutes in which the shark cruised around and ahead of Tregoning we decided to leave it in peace and headed back to our mooring thankful that we had been able to spend so much time on our own with such a magnificent creature.
On returning to the bay at Las Brisas de Amador, the only apparent difference was that the normal tide had risen since we left and Olivier reported that there had been no sign of any wave or tidal ripple in the bay to indicate anything out of the ordinary. We subsequently learned that massive evacuations of coastal areas had occurred around the Pacific Rim and 4 to 5 ft waves were reported in parts of Hawaii and Japan. But, thankfully, the global loss of life due to tsunami effects had been low and we hoped that future warnings would be heeded with similar diligence. We also wondered what would have been the likelihood of hearing any warning in sufficient time to take action if this had all occurred in the middle of the night…
Whether the Panamanian government had correctly concluded that the threat was insufficient to justify issuing any tsunami warnings by siren or on the VHF radio (we were scanning the most likely channels and heard nothing) or whether they just do not have a plan for such action we did not know. But few of the cruisers who heard the news seemed to want to take the risk that there could be disruption in the crowded anchorages if a significant tidal surge occurred. Most people regarded the morning’s activities as a good emergency drill and a chance to use their water-makers in a cleaner area. For four us, however, it was also the most fabulous opportunity to marvel at one of nature’s most beautiful and graceful giants with the unlikely backdrop of the high-rise buildings of Panamá City.
February 26, 2010
After an excellent couple of weeks enjoying the islands of Las Perlas and the rivers of the Darién, we returned to Panamá City ready to restock the coolers and set to work fixing the windlass. It was absolutely glassy calm on Tuesday (Feb 23rd) as we motored north and nothing could be persuaded to bite any of our fishing lures. Despite the bad experience that Miss Kathleen had at the Balboa Yacht Club fuel dock, we had intended to fill up there with diesel and water and hoped to beg a mooring from them, a necessity for replacing the windlass. Unfortunately, as we approached we heard on the VHF that they were out of fuel and when we called on the phone they had no moorings available. So instead we went to the east side of the causeway, past the expensive Flamenco marina, and into the anchorage and small mooring field of Las Brisas de Amador.
Although somewhat exposed to chop generated by the dry-season northerly winds, Mike and Dede on Joss had recommended this area and had provided us with the phone number of Alex who managed the few moorings there. After a bit of confusion on the phone we picked up an empty mooring and paddled the dinghy to the dock to meet Alex. We had to move to an adjacent mooring but otherwise everything was fine for us to stay for at least a week…more than enough time, surely to get the windlass replaced (ha, ha). When Joss arrived a couple of days later and had to anchor we felt a bit guilty about beating them to the mooring but they were very good sports about it. It also did not take us long to discover that Olivier, who had come through the Canal with us, was staying on the sailboat Aida on a neighboring mooring. It is a small world.
Las Brisas de Amador is intended to be a huge marina, condo, and retail complex, of which three blocks of condos, a huge parking lot, a small floating dock, and the retail outlets are complete. Of the marina, there is no sign. The moorings at the head of the small bay are $500 a month which includes free use of the dinghy dock, water, and access to a coin laundry. Anchored boats pay $5 a day for the dock and water. On the afternoon of our arrival, we wandered around the shops and restaurants and with great relish availed ourselves of the excellent ice-cream shop that Mike and Dede had recommended. We made up for our missed desserts of the previous evening with gusto.
With great restraint (or was it relief?) Randall resisted the temptation to immediately set to work on the windlass deciding to enjoy the rest of our vacation with Mike so on Wednesday morning we took a taxi into Casco Viejo. Being a repeat visit for Mike and me, we provided Randall with something of a guided tour of the highlights. Unlike the hot Saturday afternoon of our previous visit when the old town was almost deserted, it was alive with government workers, residents, and tourists which gave it a much more vibrant feel. Somebody important was escorted into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by several car-loads of highly armed guards as we walked passed and we watched several official-looking cars being checked-in to the Palacio Presidencial as we took photos there.
The area is an interesting mixture of nicely gentrified public buildings, restaurants, small hotels, and apartments with some very old and run-down establishments serving all the same functions. There are fine views of the bay and several attractive plazas, including the large one containing the French Embassy and commemorating the French contributions to the Panama Canal. There are several beautiful churches, numerous statues, and many interesting historical sites being preserved such as the church ruins with the famous 45-ft-long, unsupported flat arch made entirely of bricks and mortar that was cited during the debate as to whether to site the Canal in Panama or Nicaragua as evidence that Panama never had earthquakes. Many of the buildings were familiar to us from having read McCollough’s “The Path Between the Seas”, especially the Museo de Canal Interoceánico which had formerly been the Grand Hotel and Ferdinand Lessep’s headquarters. Mike and I had looked around this comprehensive museum on our previous visit but it closely follows the details of McCollough’s book and almost everything is only in Spanish so Randall decided to take our word for how impressive it was inside.
On a bit of a whim, we stopped for a late lunch at a tapas restaurant, Manolo Caracol, that my friend Kaoru had recommended. There was no menu just a series of small dishes delivered sequentially to the table as they were freshly made. We sat down not being quite sure what to expect and having failed to ask the price. The food was excellent, coming in nine servings mostly with a seafood theme. There was Sierra mackerel sushi, octopus, shrimp-stuffed peppers, delicately cooked dorado, poached chicken, beef kebabs, vegetables, and coconut rice, closing with a delicious ginger ice-cream. Having convinced ourselves that we must have picked the most expensive place in town based on the quality of the repast, it came as some relief to find that it was only $20 a person…and worth every cent. Thanks, Kaoru!
We also had Kaoru to thank for the suggestion that we followed the next day. After walking north along the causeway for about half a mile we visited the Smithsonian marine park on Isla Culebra. The place was packed with children which made it seem all the more exciting and we enjoyed the video, posters, and display tanks with various fish, sharks, rays, and turtles. We bought a fish identification CD-ROM and chart to identify local mammals and as we were walking out we were treated to a fantastic, close-up view of a two-toed sloth as it nonchalantly climbed along a fence wire eating leaves and flowers off a vine.
That made a good final sight for Mike who left for the airport later that afternoon. As we took him to shore to meet Alberto’s taxi we all noted the dark clouds amassing over the City and Randall comment that the beauty of the dry season was not having to worry about rain every time you saw such sights. And Alberto assured us that to his recollection it had never rained in Panamá City in February. Having puzzled Mike by insisting that we shut all the hatches and portlights whenever we left Tregoning for more than a few minutes, even when the sky was almost cloudless, for some reason we did not close them this time…thinking that we would be able to return immediately should rain threaten. Such thinking was only flawed by not anticipating that after Mike left us we would stop to have another yummy ice-cream while admiring the views in the opposite direction from the City.
It did not get too wet in the boat during the time it took us to run from the ice-cream shop to the dinghy and ride back to Tregoning but as we tried not to slip on the rain-slicked dock ramp, it did seem suspiciously like Nature was toying with us.
Friday saw us getting back into a busier mode of operation. We went to the Port Captain’s Office to renew our cruising permit (to be told we had to return instead on Monday), picked up the cleaned and fixed windlass (with the new solenoid that Shev had ordered and had shipped from the USA to Protecsa), restocked with groceries, and dropped off the malfunctioning DVD player that we had bought in Colón. We had a enjoyed a marvelous three week visit from Mike and our vacation to Las Perlas and the Darién was just what we needed to get us ready for the serious work of the boat-projects that would start on Saturday…or so we thought.
February 22, 2010
Although there seemed to be still more beaches, rivers, and reefs to explore near Isla Espiritu Santo, we wanted to make at least one more stop at another Las Perlas island before returning to the City. So with Mike and Dede on Joss watching (with some fascination) our, now fairly efficient, anchor-raising procedure, we set off northwards on Saturday morning (Feb 20th). We had originally planned to visit both Islas Casaya and Contadora but once we were underway the idea of pulling anchor on three consecutive mornings seemed excessive so we decided to go straight to Contadora and spend two nights there.
The wind was insufficient for sailing so we motored out to deeper water with our hopes high that we might catch another fish. For the previous couple of days we had been watching numerous places where fish were “boiling” and jumping at the water surface and seabirds were diving with great enthusiasm. The pattern was repeated all around us that morning but we found that aiming directly for fish and bird activity did not seem to improve our chances of catching anything. Instead, when the sea was quiet and just as optimism was starting to fade, we hooked a good-sized fish which even obliged by jumping clear of the water several times while Randall slowly hauled it in. To everyone’s delight it was another mahi mahi, even bigger than the last (about 3.5 lb of fillets) and so ended the fishing for the day.
As we approached the southern anchorage at Contadora we counted the number of boats. There are a mass of mooring balls just off the beach and four large power boats were attached to them, three of them with groups of young adults clearly having a good time. Beyond were five sailboats and after some exploration of the area we finally anchored near them. By evening there was only one large motor yacht and 12 sailboats, the weekend visitors from the City having returned home and the cruisers arriving after the weekend rush.
We briefly explored the west end of the island by dinghy and had a quick snorkel that afternoon. As we were returning to Tregoning we stopped by to say ‘Hello’ to Larry and Julie who had just arrived on Miss Kathleen. We had first met them in the Kuna Yala and then we saw Larry when we were in Shelter Bay in November and again in Balboa Yacht Club. They were thankful to have finally left Balboa and were stopping for a few nights to catch their breath before making the eight day crossing to the Galapagos. Their departure had been slightly delayed by an accident at the Balboa Yacht Club when they were filling with diesel. Something in the Canal created a huge wake which lifted them above the floating dock for a moment and then dumped them back on the edge, smashing part of their wood and metal rub-rail. Luckily the hull and stanchions were not damaged but they were very upset that the dock crew, who had quickly released their dock lines on seeing the wave approach, had not warned them what to do in such an event. But after a good night’s sleep they were feeling better, happy to be away from Panamá City, and they joined us the next day for a wander around Isla Contadora.
This island is quite unlike any of the other Las Perlas being more reminiscent of Palm Beach Island (in its early days of development) than anything else we had seen since we left Florida. A lot of money has been, and is being, spent on Contadora, not so much on the roads (although they were mostly hard-topped) but certainly on the many, diverse, and large private houses. There is a small airport (sailboats anchoring too close to the end of the runway are requested to move) and several hotels. We bought a few items at a couple of the small stores but generally the merchandise is aimed at tourists not residents. We found a cove on the east end of the island were two large developments seemed to have stopped in mid-building. With a large ferry run aground at the far end of the beach it all appeared a little desolate but there seemed to be plenty of prosperity on the rest of the island. Despite being the height of the tourist season, the hotels seemed to be sparsely populated and we saw few of the richer residents.
When Randall, Mike, and I made a circumnavigation in the dinghy that afternoon, finding even larger waterfront houses on the north side, we also realized that like Palm Beach Island, most of the yard-, building-, and house-workers we had seen on Contadora probably did not live on that island. We watched many water taxis and supply boats from Contadora arrive at the village on the neighboring Isla Saboga. We also surmised that the well disguised power generation site on Saboga provided power via underwater cable to Contadora so that the latter residents did not have to listen to the generators.
Contadora was quite a culture shock after visiting the privately owned San José, the tiny fishing village at Esmeralda, the uninhabited Islas Cañas and Espiritu Santo, and the remote rivers in the Darién, but we did not let that dissuade us from enjoying dinner that night at the hotel by the anchorage. At least we enjoyed most of it. But just as we were finishing our main course and debating which ice-cream dessert we would try, some ghastly fumes started wafting across the dining deck. It was apparently not just one bad flush but a more serious, systematic problem and much to the waitress’s despair, we and most of the other diners were compelled to leave. As if this was not disappointing enough, we returned to find that the dinghy which we had left at the water’s edge to rise with the tide (Randall’s suggestion as it was very heavy to drag up to the high water line) was half full of water and sand. There had been very little wave action when we left it but this had increased during our absence and had sloshed over the transom. We had to push the dinghy out into thigh deep water to get in and push it off the beach but a concerted effort with the bailing bucket soon removed most of the unwanted contents.
Prior to our dinner expedition, Larry and Julie had come over Tregoning to join Randall for a jam session. Larry is a good singer, guitar player, and songwriter who had kindly given us a copy of his CD “Broad Reaching” which includes a track that was #1 in the South African pop music charts. We enjoyed listening to him sing some of his songs and we belted out a few of our favorites, all of us that is except Mike who hid in his cabin reading. He reappeared when he heard the guitar cases snapping shut and we were a little surprised that there was no applause from the other boats when we finished (for finally being finished).
It was our impression that many of the boats in the anchorage, like Miss Kathleen, were heading to the Galapagos and South Pacific. So it was with a twinge of sadness and envy that we wished them well for their voyage towards new adventures knowing that we would be a year or two behind them.
February 20, 2010
Other than feeling rather out-of-place having arrived late to the Carnaval celebrations in La Palma and having to dodge the occasional navigation hazard that did not appear on our chart plotter, our stay in the Darién was very uneventful. We were especially surprised and pleased that we had not seen a single mosquito and there had been very few other pestiferous insects. We debated about going further up the Río Sabana to visit the native Wounaan village of Boca de Lara but on Thursday (Feb 18th) we decided instead to return to Las Perlas for a few days before taking Mike back to catch his flight from Panamá City.
As much as we usually enjoy exploring areas away from crowds of other cruising boats, the fact that we had not seen any other cruisers since we left Espiritu Santo was making some of us a little uneasy. Not only is there some security in knowing that other cruisers are around to help if necessary but their complete absence from an attractive place that is so well described in the cruising guide makes one wonder if others are avoiding the area for some good reason. It was at times like this that we were reminded of how lucky we were when we had Sea Star and Wind Song with us and did not have to worry about being on our own. And, ironically it was only as we had been leaving Las Perlas that Mike mentioned that he had read in our Jimmy Cornell World Cruising Guide that two cruising boats had been subject to armed robbery in Las Perlas and cruisers were advised not to anchor there alone, as we had done. We agreed that this must have been fairly old news (the book was published in 2001) as there had been no such concerned raised by cruisers with whom we had talked. Still, we realized that Mike must really be wondering what sort of places we had landed him in.
These Darién rivers are certainly a bit off the beaten path for cruisers who mostly visit Las Perlas as a break from Panamá City or on their way south towards the Galapagos. Combined with the rather dodgy reputation of the Darién area in general and the lack of significant provisioning opportunities, we concluded that most cruisers just decide not to bother. After three peaceful nights, we rode the ebb tide back out to the Bay of Panama and wondered whether we should have stayed to see more or whether we were lucky that everything went well. Interestingly, when we got back to the City, our taxi-driver friend, Alberto, scolded us for taking such a risk. He said that drug-runners and other villains watch boats from the hill-tops in the Darién hoping to kidnap the occupants for ransom. He seemed certain that we (and the Australians that we had met at Isla Cañas) were incredibly lucky not to have been captured as such incidents had occurred even when there were two boats together. It seems a bit unlikely that anything so dramatic would not be noted in the cruising guides or be common topics of discussion among cruisers in the area. So we have concluded that Alberto’s stories are either from some time ago or some other area. But they do make you wonder about whether to go back again.
The weather had been cloudier during our stay in the Darién than at any other time since we had arrived on the Pacific side perhaps due to the influence of the adjacent mountains. As we left the Río Sabana there was even a minute or so of very light drizzle which is apparently very unusual in February. We could have used a good rainfall to clean the desks and to collect some water but it was not to be. Power generation does not appear to be an issue for us during the dry season with the fairly constant NE trade-winds and sunny skies but we missed not being able to collect rainwater to drink. We prefer to be in reasonably clean water to use the water-maker so we waited until we had left the muddy waters of Golfo de San Miguel before starting it.
About that time, we set the sails and also flung out the fishing lines and about half way across to Las Perlas one of the reels started screaming. We had thoroughly enjoyed eating Mike’s Sierra mackerel as well as the bigeye tuna so we all had our fingers crossed that it would be something other than the less popular black skipjack. And so it was. Randall hauled in a beautiful mahi mahi (a.k.a. dolphinfish or, in the Pacific, dorado) which made us all very happy, especially when we had it blackened for dinner that night.
The wind picked up steadily all day so we eventually had to add a reef to the mainsail and furl in the jib as the wind reached 20 – 25 knots. We were close-hauled on a starboard tack which brought us just south of Isla Cañas by mid-afternoon. We tried pinching-up as much as we could on the port tack but finally decided that it would take us a while to tack north to Espiritu Santo and so gave in and started the motor. Even this made for a rather bumpy ride as we rounded Isla Cañas with the wind on the nose opposing the current. So we were happy to get into the lee of Espiritu Santo and reset our anchor in exactly the same place we had been a few days before. In fact the only change in the anchorage was the addition of Joss whom we had last seen at San José. We enjoyed the company of Mike and Dede (whom it turned out I had met once in Bocas del Toro) during our three night stay at Espiritu Santo.
While shaking out the reef and re-flaking our mainsail on Thursday evening, I found a foot-long tear in the mainsail next to the seam on the leech just below the top sail batten. For a sail that is only 18 months old this was rather annoying but we suspect it is where the leech and topping lift may sometimes rub. So much Friday was spent with the mainsail draped over the bimini and deck while I patched the rip and Randall replaced a couple of broken slugs (which attach the mainsail to the mast). Dede kindly lend me her quick-stitch awl which was much better than hand sewing with just a needle but when we get a suitable sewing machine it will be good to reinforce the stitching on the two layers of sail tape.
Saturday was a bit more enjoyable as we found some of the best snorkeling yet (for the Pacific) off the north end of Isla Espiritu Santo. Not only was there a good variety of fish but the water was a bit clearer and we found several types of coral. We also explored a deserted beach where Randall used rocks to open a coconut, Mike took lots of photos, and I re-lived my childhood joys of exploring rock pools and damming small streams over the sand. Returning to Tregoning via a circumnavigation of the island in the dinghy and finally recognizing the call and sight of some of the less common, yellow-crowned Amazon parrots, completed a very relaxing day.
February 17, 2010
We left the Río Congo at the end of the ebb tide late on Tuesday morning (Feb 16th). The raucous cries of parrots and the very distant rumble of troops of howler monkeys had greeted us with the sunrise but we did not see any mammals in the surrounding mangrove trees. Large mud flats with numerous wading birds were exposed during the low tide at the mouth of the Río Congo and we had been told that during very low tides oysters are collected in the area. We passed several small fishing boats in the bay but no one was looking for oysters that day.
Back in the Golfo de San Miguel we turned east and then let the flood tide assist us as we entered the large Río Tuira on our way to visit La Palma, the largest town in the Darién (pop. 5200) and the provincial administrative center. As we had previously noted, the electronic charts for this area were very crude and on at least one occasion we had to take evasive action to avoid a shallow area that was only evident on the Bauhaus charts and as an unusual swirl on the surface of the muddy water. The Bauhaus Guide noted that the Boca Chica channel, which cut-off a significantly large bend in the river, was narrow but clear of obstructions so with the following current, Randall steered us through at 7 knots. (Let the record reflect that I hit 9.9 knots speed over ground on our return passage.)
As we headed upriver, La Palma appeared on the right river bank and it was soon apparent that Carnaval (Mardi Gras) was in full swing. As we slowly cruised past we saw, and heard, the residents having a good time at the waterfront bars (at this point of the rising tide they were quite high above us), on the narrow main street, and at the basketball pavilion where the marching bands and other parade participants were congregating. The river current was strong off La Palma so we anchored a little further upstream at La Puntita and took the dinghy back to the main town. Unfortunately, we arrived just after the parade had finished and we felt very much as if we had gate-crashed late into a wild party. Young men were having a good time flinging scoops of water over young women as they walked past and there was plenty of loud music and beer.
At first we were ostensibly ignored but after we had walked down the main street to the basketball court and then started to buy a few groceries at the small shops, we found people started to be a bit more friendly. We were able to find most of the fresh food items that we needed (some fruit, vegetables, bread, etc.) but it soon became obvious that it would not be as easy to fill Tregoning’s water tanks as the cruising guide had suggested. It would only be possible to bring her up to the public dock at high tide and, as we saw the next day, at that time the dock is crowded with local boats.
We were sorry that we had missed the parade as we think that La Palma would have felt more welcoming at that time but we now felt a bit as though we were intruding on the local party. So we pulled the anchor (for the second time that day – remember, no windlass) and made the two mile crossing of the Río Tuira to the mouth of the Río Sabana. It was getting late in the afternoon and we wanted to anchor before dark. Luckily, the rising tide helped us reach our target anchorage at the head of a small creek, Estero Nopo, safely and before sunset.
This creek was very peaceful and it felt much more like being on the Río Chagres than the wide Río Congo had seemed. On Wednesday afternoon we explored two of the three short river branches upstream of the anchorage by dinghy. We saw only one local fisherman in a small motor boat during our visit. We saw and heard many birds, mostly red-lored Amazon parrots, egrets, and herons in the early mornings and evenings and saw, but could not identify, many interesting small birds during our dinghy trip. We did managed to identify a bare-throated tiger-heron, a mangrove black hawk, some American oystercatchers, and three raccoons that were hanging very lazily high in a tree above the creek. We wondered if the latter were in fact white-nosed coatis but when we got a mammal identification chart later, we decided that with their distinct tail-rings and black mask they were very laid-back crab-eating raccoons.
Perhaps the most surprising and delightful sights in Estero Nopo came after dark. At first, Mike thought that he was seeing distant lamps of people coming through the forest but we soon realized that there were numerous fireflies dancing and flashing along the shore. With no moon and trees on either side it was dark enough for the fireflies’ glow to be very vivid. Dipping a bucket in the river then precipitated an explosion of lights in the water with the bright, yellow-green bioluminescence. We had noticed this also in Las Perlas but it was particularly bright, and somewhat surprising, this far up a muddy river. For two nights we slept soundly in our undisturbed anchorage surrounded by small glowing creatures.
February 15, 2010
We set off to visit the Darién early on Monday morning (Feb 15th) with a certain sense of adventure. This trip to the forested rivers of eastern mainland Panama seemed like a good break from Las Perlas that would add some variety to Mike’s visit. The four Australians we had talked with had described it with mixed enthusiasm, some thrilled by the wildlife and remote areas, others depressed by the signs of agricultural deforestation and the expanses of mud at low tide. They had also gently run aground a couple of times (amazingly they did not have exceptionally good charts in the Bauhaus Guide) but did not report any concerns about their security.
The Darién name seems to elicit quite diverse responses both from visitors and from Panamanians. Usually people will think of the Darién Gap which is the border area between Panama and Colombia which is often described as a lawless area under the control of drug traffickers and guerillas. The Transamerican Highway peters out in this province so there are large areas without any roads which presumably benefit the wildlife in the Parque Nacional Darién but this inaccessibility adds to the general risks of people who wish to visit. There are many birds in the area found nowhere else in Panama but birdwatchers are strongly advised to join well organized and experienced tour-groups.
However, the Darién Province is large and the area visited by cruisers, the rivers around the large Golfo de San Miguel, is quite distant from the infamous Gap and according to the Bauhaus Guide is safe and interesting to explore by boat. We had previously heard some cruisers wax lyrical about the unspoilt beauty of the rivers and others moan about how overly generous cruisers had encouraged begging and made the locals too demanding. With such mixed reports we decide to take a look for ourselves.
Our crossing to the mainland was on a southeast course and we anticipated a beautiful sail with the prevailing NW to NE winds. Instead, it was flat calm and we had to motor the whole 35 miles thankful for the air movement generated by our forward motion. But any disappointment with the absence of wind was quickly forgotten when the first fish hit a lure around 8:30 am. Joy of joy it was not another black skipjack but a beautiful bigeye tuna that provided about 4 lbs of glorious fresh meat. We had seen the fast tuna-fishing boats with their small search helicopters on the top deck at Balboa and Mike and Randall had observed two yellowfin tuna near Tregoning when our last skipjack was landed so our hopes had been high that we would eventually land a tuna. And what a wonderful specimen it was. By lunchtime we were soon agreeing that this was the best and freshest tuna sushi any of us had ever had and the discussion quickly concluded that if we caught any more black skipjack they would be released. Instead, Mike hauled in a nice Sierra mackerel and at that point we pulled the lines in for the day.
The muddy waters from the rivers feeding into Golfo de San Miguel extend a long way out from the mouth of the bay and we were thankful that the Bauhaus charts guided us around some shallow areas that were not identified on our rather vague electronic charts. More by good luck than long-term planning, we were arriving on a rising tide so that once we rounded Isla Iguana a steady current helped carry us up the Río Congo to our intended anchorage. We identified suitable waypoints from the Bauhaus charts to guide us through the deeper channels and having passed by the small fishing village of Río Congo we arrived in the river without incident. A mile wide in places, the river is lined by huge mangrove trees and the only signs of human activity were a few scattered shelters on the riverbank at the head of the navigable channel and three small boats with friendly occupants that passed by during our stay.
With the engine on low power, the rising tide carried us up the river at 7 knots and we anchored in 30 ft of water where the west branch of the river narrowed. It was very calm and peaceful so we enjoyed a very relaxing evening eating more sushi and seared tuna while watching egrets, ibis, herons, pelicans, waders, and the occasional osprey.
February 14, 2010
The anchorage between Islas Espiritu Santo and del Rey is a very attractive site with a fairly constant south-bound current that allows anchored boats to line up off the southwest shore of Espiritu Santo with reasonable shelter from wind and waves. There were three other boats there when we arrived on Sunday afternoon (Feb 14th), some of which we gather live, more or less, full-time in the area.
Swimming from Tregoning, we snorkeled around the south end of Espiritu Santo and after examining some interesting fish including a flag carbrilla, some three-banded butterflyfish, and a barberfish, we enjoyed exploring a beautiful sandy beach and its adjacent rock pools. On returning to Tregoning, I spent some time in the water scrubbing the algae off the waterline and a few barnacles off the hull, but having to fight an increasingly strong current I was soon worn out.
We were confident that we would enjoy spending several days at Espiritu Santo but having been inspired by the Australians who had just returned from the Darién, we decided that we would go there next and return to this little haven later, on our way back to Panamá City.
The following is Randall’s perspective of the last few days. The Islas Perlas (Pearl Islands) 30 miles off the coast of Panama don’t get a huge amount of publicity among sailors, but they are beautiful islands with lots of topography and white sandy beaches. At the moment, at least, the Pacific side does not have the clear water of the Caribbean, and snorkeling isn’t what we had on the Atlantic side. There are a lot of fish, but visibility of only 5-10 feet. The local fishing communities are very friendly, with kids crowding around us as we wander through the tiny towns. It always makes a hit with the kids when we want to see the school. They don’t have the vaguest notion of why anyone would want to see the school, but it’s one thing they can take us to that doesn’t intrude on their own privacy. The boys in their fishing canoe assured us that the store in town had “everything”, so Mike got to see what “everything” is when you live your life on a small island with very little contact with the outside world. Coffee, yes, bread, no, onions, yes, tomatoes, no, Canada Dry ginger ale, yes (go figure…), fruit juice, no. We did get 18 eggs, carefully placed between corrugated egg-holder layers, and taped so eggs wouldn’t fall out. They know all about transporting things in small boats, and they’ve got the egg-carrier figured out. We met two couples on a boat from Australia yesterday evening, so we got updated on some cool places to visit in the Darien. OK, this is one of the places that we should have tried to get more folks to come visit, busy though their lives are. Not many places left with pristine beaches, local culture displayed by friendly people, and uncrowded anchorages.
February 13, 2010
Our trip to Las Perlas was not thoroughly planned. The two places that we knew we wanted to visit, San José and Isla Espiritu Santo had been recommended by our British friends on Blue Sky. They had visited just a few weeks ahead of us and had sent us an email from Golfito in Costa Rica, their last stop before heading to the Galapagos and south. Other stops we selected based on the Bauhaus Guide or other cruisers’ suggestions.
Our least favorite anchorage was a bay on the southwest side of Isla Cañas. The passage there on Saturday (Feb 13th) from Río Cacique was pleasant enough, motoring into a headwind between Isla del Rey and Isla San Telmo. The tide was low enough that we saw the tiny, steel submarine that is washed up on the north side of San Telmo (Bauhaus suggests it is nearly 100 years old, others suggest WWII vintage) and we enjoyed the full benefit of the current flowing north in the narrow channel.
There was a strong wind from the NW but we were well protected and anchorage itself was attractive with several rivers nearby that could have been explored. We even traded stories with some friendly Australians who were anchored in the next bay and stopped by in their dinghy to ask us where the nearest town was and tell us about their recent trip to the Darién. It seemed like an ideal place except that, according to the changing positions on our chart plotter, our anchor slightly dragged in the stiff winds that afternoon and night.
The anchor seemed to set well and any movement that we made was towards deeper, hazard-free water but even the suspicion that it is dragging is enough to ensure a poor night’s sleep (peeking out of the portlight every time you wake up) and a sense of distrust that will overshadow a trip away from Tregoning in anything but the lightest of winds. Others may anchor happily in this bay and we may have missed some really interesting local sights but with Espiritu Santo just around the corner, we decided that one restless night was enough.
February 12, 2010
There was a bit of a temptation to never leave the San José anchorage. The shelter was good, the beaches and surrounding cliffs and vegetation were beautiful, the neighbors (Panamanian fishermen and Mike and Dede on Joss) were friendly, and, perhaps most significantly, without the windlass (left for repair and cleaning with Protecsa) moving meant having to manually haul up a 66 lb anchor and 150 ft of heavy chain. Luckily, there were three of us to share the load.
Our technique involved using two of the winches on the mast on each of which were hauled lines with chain-grabber hooks on their ends. I attached Mike’s hook to the chain at the bow and he winched it up to the mast (a distance of about 15 ft). I then hooked Randall’s line to the chain on the bow and he hauled it up while Mike’s hook was released and let out to re-hook at the bow when Randall was finished, etc. I also had to feed the slack chain down into the anchor well, look for signs that the anchor was free of the bottom, and keep the lines, chain, and towel (that was protecting the hatch-cover over which everything had to be dragged) from getting tangled up. It was certainly quite a complex operation that required some significant winching effort but we became fairly good at it (even in conditions where I had to take the helm as soon as the anchor was free from the bottom) and this opened the possibility to venturing to several sites before we returned to Panamá City.
Although we had enjoyed the fruits of our earlier fishing successes for a while, it turned out that four black skipjack was perhaps one too many. After eating fish in some form for lunch and dinner every day, it was decided not to put out the lines when we crossed from San José to Isla del Rey. A fresh breeze made for an enjoyable sail to Punta Cocos but we had to fire up the engine when the wind dropped off the point and subsequently resumed straight on the bow as we headed north to the anchorage at Río Cacique. On the way we circled Tregoning twice to look at Esmeralda Village, where a lad paddled out in his cayuco to sell us some papaya. These subsequently turned out to be a sad disappointment compared to the luscious piece that we had got from the Reba Smith supermarket so we concluded that the commercial varieties of papaya that the supermarkets sold were probably quite different from the wild plants that grow as weeds in disturbed areas.
The murky water conditions did not look conducive for snorkeling at this anchorage but the bay was very sheltered and the main attractions were visiting the river and village by dinghy. However, the next morning we witnessed another treat. Sitting in the cockpit soon after sunrise, Randall noticed a few butterflies flitting across from the east to the west side of the bay. They all seemed to be one species of black and green swallow-tail butterflies and their path was perpendicular to the wind rather than with it. The numbers steadily increased until it was apparent that over the whole bay thousands of butterflies were making this migration. We never knew whether it was part of a large scale migration or a local phenomenon perhaps related to a large, synchronous hatching (metamorphosis). We saw a few of the same butterflies later and further north on Isla del Rey but nothing like the huge numbers that passed for hours that morning at Río Cacique.
The wonderful Bauhaus Panama Cruising Guide (our local bible – do not cruise Panama without it) suggested that one could ride the rising tide into the small Río Cacique without needing to use the dinghy motor. We started a bit too early and had to paddle over some shallow sand bars at the beginning but by a couple of hours before high tide the flooding current was sufficient to carry us upstream with only occasional paddling needed to keep us in the deeper water. The shallows were full of bullseye puffer fish which were aptly named for the striking bullseye pattern of concentric circles on their back and we saw a few herons, egrets, and unidentified shore birds. But in the heat of midday (when the tide was appropriate) the mangrove covered shores of the 1 to 1.5 mile long river were surprisingly devoid of other wildlife. Even the crabs that one could hear scurrying along the mangrove roots were surprisingly difficult to see.
Still, it was very relaxing to drift along and eventually, after reaching the overgrown limits of the upstream exploration suitable for our dinghy, the tide turned and drifted us most of the way back (until we decided to motor the last part while it was still deep enough). We were glad to have made the expedition but are sure that during an early morning or late afternoon high tide, there would be even more interesting wildlife to see and hear.
Our exploration of the river benefited from not having the need to use the outboard much because it was still not running very smoothly. However, on Friday we decided to give it a chance to prove itself more reliable by making the 2 mile trip south to Esmeralda Village. One is advised to run gasoline with twice the usual amount of oil in it (a 25:1 ratio) for the first tank, so we were quite keen to use up this fuel as we suspected that this was part of the problem. So with some trepidation we set off downwind. Somewhat surprisingly, given that there were three of us aboard, we found that we could get the dinghy to run on a plane (when much of the hull lifts out of the water) as we approached full throttle for the first time, and the outboard made clear its preference for running at full speed.
Esmeralda is a fishing village only accessible by boat so by the time we pulled the dinghy ashore we were met by a crowd of children, one of whom proudly greeted us in excellent English. The schools in Panama have a long vacation in January and February so we made an entertaining change from football on the beach and fishing…at least for a short while. Part of the reason for our visit was to buy a few supplies, most urgently more coffee, as Randall had severely underestimated Mike’s capacity for coffee consumption and there was a tangible risk that we would have to board another cruising boat and demand a share of their supplies if we could not buy some soon. In enthusiastic Spanglish and sign-language the boys (girls only joined us as we walked between the houses) assured us that the super-marcado would satisfy all our needs and our crowd walked up the beach to show us their grand store.
With neat concrete pathways between the cheerfully painted concrete block houses, Esmeralda was very reminiscent of the village on Little Corn Island. The locals were equally friendly but there were no hotels or signs of other visitors. We arrived en masse at the little tienda where the fine lady behind the counter could help us with coffee (thankfully), eggs, and onions but not with bread, tomatoes, or fresh fruit. Someone else in town may have had these but they were not essential and after we had distributed cookies to what seemed like an ever-expanding group of escorts, we suddenly found ourselves with only two young companions.
For a half a can of soda each, they seemed willing to show us their school at the top of the village so we followed them along the paths to the small health clinic and school which commanded a fine view of the bay. On our return to the dinghy, we made a mental note of the outboard repairs being performed at one house, subsequently thankful that we did not need their services to get back to Tregoning. Just as we were about to launch the dinghy into the waves a young man asked us if we wanted to buy any pearls. He shook two out of a small envelope, one small white one and a larger grey one. He had collected them locally and it was tempting to buy a pearl from Las Perlas but we declined, foolishly failing to establish what he would have charged for them. According to Eric Bauhaus the islands were so named because after stealing a huge number of pearls, Spanish conquistadores defeated the native king in 1515 and enslaved his skilled pearl divers.
Even though we were not going to try to find our own pearls, we did try some snorkeling later that afternoon. The first site we picked was too murky to be much fun and although the second site was only marginally better, we did explore an interesting beach nearby. About half the beach had a thin, surface layer of black, volcanic sand which, as one would expect, was noticeably hotter than the white sand. There was also a definite tide-line of shells with numerous tiny hermit crabs scurrying around and a surprisingly large number of empty cowries which we had only seen infrequently elsewhere. Even Mike (who is not a great collector) was inspired to select a couple to take home as a memento.
That evening our brief moratorium on meals of fish ended as we dined on some excellent Colorado and rose spotted snappers that we had bought that morning from some young fishermen who visited Tregoning. They had spent much of the day in the bay, occasionally stopping by for drinks of water or requests for cookies, but appeared to have limited success with the net that they set up in the morning and pulled in that afternoon. Their land hunting skills seemed to be better, however, because after selling us the snappers they went ashore, ran around shouting for a few minutes, and then returned offering to sell us an iguana. The poor creature was well trussed-up so I could not tell if it was still alive but regardless we declined that offer and assumed that they, or someone else, would enjoy it later. Having collectively regained our appetites for fish we looked forward to fishing again ourselves soon.
February 09, 2010
Randall is from the Pacific coast of the USA and I am from an island in the North Atlantic. Thus, throughout our cruising experiences in the Atlantic and Caribbean Seas, especially when conditions have been somewhat less than perfect, I have had to endure his monolog about the relative merits of the Pacific. Once we arrived at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, he did not hesitate to comment on the dry, sunny weather and calmness of the water (other than frequent ship wakes). Pointing out that our arrival had coincided with Panama’s dry season and that we were moored in the lee of a large land mass did nothing to dampen Randall’s enthusiasm for his home ocean.
The opportunity to really start evaluating the “Peaceful Ocean” came before dawn on Sunday (Feb 7th) as we left the shelter of the Balboa Yacht Club motored down, the last section of The Canal, and plotted our course for the 45 nm run to Isla San José at the southwest corner of Las Perlas. We almost had to turn round immediately as Randall noticed water leaking from the engine exhaust hose. The exhaust fumes mix with the sea-water that is being discarded after it has helped to cool the engine so the motor itself was not threatened by this leak. However, we did not have any spare hose and if the leak increased, a steady and large volume of sea-water would be pumped into the bilges. Luckily, a judicious application of the near-miraculous, fix-all-problems product, duct tape, stopped the leak and we continued our escape into the Bay of Panama.
By mid-morning the off-shore wind had picked up enough to warrant hoisting the sails and a pod of dolphins briefly tested our bow wave. There was a very slight swell and minimal chop so it really was an excellent broad-reach sail under sunny skies that bode well for our future Pacific cruising experiences. Even better, not long after two fishing lines were trailed off the stern, one reel started screaming and with great enthusiasm the first of four fish for the day was landed. All four were respectably sized (about 1 lb of fillets each) black skipjack (a.k.a. Mexican little tunny), whose edibility was described in our fish ID book as “good”. We feasted on a little sushi and seared fillets that night after we had anchored at Ensenada Playa Grande at the south end of Isla San José, and we greeted the local fishermen there with our heads held high.
So far, the promise of the beautiful and bountiful Pacific had held up. We were thrilled to be in a calm, quiet, and clean anchorage so we stayed there for three nights with the arrival of Mike and Dede on Joss on the third afternoon being our only other cruiser company. The island is privately owned so we had no particular desire to roam far afield on it but we did want to enjoy the snorkeling and sandy beaches which necessitated use of the dinghy. This proved to require a bit more effort than we had anticipated since the brand new outboard did not want to start or idle reliably. This limited our explorations as we did not want to have to paddle too far back to Tregoning, although twice when we appeared stranded, the kind Panamanian fishermen were very quick to offer us a tow. We were sorry not to be able to explore the cave that we passed coming into the bay, above which the island’s owners have build a cabin so that they can hang a fishing line down into the cave’s mouth, but we were confident that the snorkeling would be just as good on the rocky outcrops nearer Tregoning.
Alas, in this critical criterion, this part of the Pacific (at least, at this time of year) came up short. The water was a few degrees colder than the Caribbean which threatened to cut short my underwater expeditions but wearing my wet-skin (very thin wet-suit) the temperature was certainly tolerable. The disappointing aspect of the snorkeling was the lousy visibility. No doubt the wave action on the adjacent sandy beaches and the water movements related to the much wider tidal range on this side of Panama contributed to this problem but we also may have fallen victim to the effect of the Humbolt upwelling. When the trade-winds are blowing off-shore during the dry season, this pushes the warmer surface water out to sea which is replaced by colder water brought up from the deeper ocean. This water tends to be nutrient-rich which ultimately explains the high biological productivity and, hence, good fishing in the area but also means that the water is murky with phyto- and zoo-plankton.
Having been spoiled by excellent water clarity in the Bahamas, the outer Kuna Yala, and especially the remote Colombian islands of the western Caribbean, Randall and I had forgotten that such snorkeling conditions were not typical of all off-shore islands. The absence of coral suggested that, at least in this bay, turbid water was probably not unusual and with, at best, 5 to 10 ft of visibility our first, rather gloomy, impressions of the sterile-looking rocks were not encouraging. But at least we were swimming in water that was cleaner than any around Panamá City, Mike was less biased by recent snorkeling experiences, and soon we started to see fish.
First, came the ubiquitous sergeant majors with their bright yellow and black stripes. These were easy to see and recognize but were disappointingly familiar, and then the new species started to appear. Struggling to commit the novel shapes and colors to memory in a way that might have some use when I returned to Tregoning and could study the fish guide, the disappointment at the poor visibility diminished with each Pacific species that I had never seen before. Giant damselfish, bluechin parrotfish, Panamic fanged blennies, gafftopsail pompano, king angelfish, and Cortez angelfish soon had me enthralled and the enjoyable challenge of learning the names of the Pacific reef fish began.