Panama Pacific Coast 2010

N 07° 45' W 81° 32'

Finding tranquility

May 12, 2010

During our first night at Isla Goberadora, we learned that when the wind picks up from a direction that opposes the channel’s current (flowing east or west depending on the state of the tide) some steep little waves are generated that kept Tregoning gently moving.  We stayed onboard for all of Sunday (May 9th) and as the day progressed, the wind strengthened form the NE and the chop became more pronounced.  By the time we went to bed, with the boat being continuously slapped, rolled, and bounced, we agreed that we needed to find a really calm anchorage for a few nights.

So on Monday morning (May 10th) with a stiff breeze blowing from the NE we sailed of our anchor to head to Bahía Honda.  It was not our smoothest departure because before we lifted the anchor we had fully raised the mainsail but not the jib.  The breeze was strong enough that Tregoning kept trying to sail forward over the anchor.  Even once we had released the boom far enough to reduce this effect, when the anchor left the bottom we were rather clumsily heading downwind towards the shallower water and so had to turn up into the wind and stall to give us time to get the jib up which allowed us to go in the direction we wanted, away from the shore and tacking into the wind.  Still, we sorted ourselves out and proceeded to enjoy a good series of tacks as we made our way around the northeast corner of the island.

The rest of the day we had a marvelous sail along the mainland coast in a northwesterly direction.  Most of the time we had the wind on the beam (at right angles to us) or just behind that position, both efficient and relaxing points of sail.  Just before lunch the wind picked up to 20 knots which blew us along very nicely and would have encouraged us to reef the mainsail if it had increased any more.  Instead, the wind suddenly died leaving us drifting in the current, which was luckily taking us in the right direction.  It is not unusual for the wind to increase very suddenly (as we had seen at Isla Pedro Gonzales) but usually there are some warning signs (clouds changes, sea appearance, air temperature, etc) with we had never seen the wind completely disappear so dramatically.

When the wind did resume after an hour’s rest, it had changed direction by 180 degrees so we now had to tack into it.  We could only assume that on a very small scale we had been through the “eye” of a little local depression.  Anyway, we tacked towards our target for a few hours but by 5 pm we gave up and started to the motor to make our final approach into Bahía Honda.  This is a very sheltered bay that the folk on both Joss and Slip Away had highly recommended.  Little of the southern swell gets passed the relatively narrow entrance and with high hills all around, the winds do not generate much chop.   As we entered the protected waters, as if to emphasize the calm and productivity of the area we noticed large flocks of birds fluttering just above the water surface feeding on small fish.  These were the black terns we had seen on several previous occasions but for the first time we observed several individuals in their distinctive and handsome grey and black breeding plumage.

There is a small village on the main island in the bay (variously named on our charts as Isla Bahía Honda, Isla Talon, and Isla de Managua) but there appeared to be little to recommend stopping there so we aimed for Playa del Sol, one of the three anchorages described in our cruising guides.  As we circled around to look for a suitable place away from the three small, moored motor boats, I noticed a cayuco being paddled very purposefully towards us from the adjacent cove.  When we tried to set the anchor it did not grab into the bottom right away and before we had time to try again our visitor had arrived and was encouraging us to try a nearby anchorage next to his finca (farm).  We soon learned that our visitor was el señor Domingo of whom we had heard glowing accounts from our friends, so we welcomed him aboard, pulled up the anchor, and towing his cayuco he guided us back around the small, bird-covered Isla Lerin to a beautiful cove in the northwest of the bay, close to his house.

 Señor Domingo knew a few important English words but he patiently talked to us in Spanish, frequently repeating his comments until we understood (or, at least, appeared to).  What he did not seem able to do was to slow his speech down very much, especially when he was telling a funny story, as he frequently did.   But as long as we laughed along with him, it did not seem very important whether we really understood what was so funny and he was the sort of person who immediately made one feel welcome.   Since it was getting dark, he did not linger long but assured us that he would see us the next day with some fruit.  We gave him some fillets of the crevalle jack and, at his request, a packet of cookies.

Not much later, another cayuco pulled up and Kennedy introduced himself.  He was Domingo’s son and lived in the adjacent house with his wife and two children.  He spoke very clear Spanish and deliberately talked slowly so that we could follow along.  He too was very welcoming and commented that there were far fewer cruising boats visiting their bay this year.  We enjoyed talking to him and gradually various stories started to unfold that led to modest requests.  Did we have any spare fishing lures or reels, for example?  A hammer-head shark had destroyed his.  He had an outboard motor that was similar to ours; did we have a spare spark-plug?  Tired from the long day of sailing, Randall suggested that he look for these things in the morning and Kennedy was pleased to suggest that we meet again the next afternoon.

The next morning, señor Domingo paddled out to see us with a cayuco full for assorted fruits and eggs.  Since we were getting low on fresh fruit we happily selected some bananas (including a sweet, red-skinned variety), plantains, avocados, pineapples, and lemons in addition to the dozen fresh eggs.  Señor Domingo did not seem to know what to suggest when we asked him how much we should pay him for what we had chosen but it was clear that $4 was not quite enough and $6 was better.  It was still a bargain as far as we were concerned.  He told us that he had something electrical that needed fixing so we agreed to have a look when we came ashore in the afternoon.

Soon after he left, Kennedy’s boat arrived and his wife Olivia introduced herself and asked if we had any clothes that we wanted washed.  I had been washing various shirts and underwear as we went along but I was very grateful to let her take our sheets and towels since these are rather awkward to wash in our small sinks and used a lot of freshwater.   She was sure that they would be ready for us later in the afternoon.

When we eventually pulled the dinghy up on the brown, pebbly beach we were very impressed with the wonderful location of the Domingo houses and their glorious views of the bay.  There were many chickens and several dogs (skinny but tall beagle-like hounds) wandering around and a couple of tethered pigs.  A long PVC pipe brought freshwater down from the adjacent hill to the houses both of which were relatively new, one-story, concrete buildings with large front porches, on which we were invited to sit. 

At el señor Domingo’s house we were introduced to his wife and two grandchildren and soon after we arrived, his daughter, Rosalinda, was dropped off from her work at “the company” office from a high-speed motor boat.  Señor Domingo’s electrical project was to fix a wire that had broken loose on a solar-powered yard light (just like some of the ones we used in Gainesville).  Randall thought that he could help back on Tregoning with his soldering iron only to discover that he had run-out of, or given away, his roll of solder so that would have to wait for a return visit. 

We visited Kennedy’s house to pick up and pay for the clean laundry, to drop off a couple of spare spark-plugs that we did not need, and for Randall to show Kennedy pictures of fishing lures so that he could understand which type he needed (rapalas).  In addition to their two children we were also introduced to their tame parrots (raised from chicks and with their flight feathers clipped) a yellow-crowned Amazon parrot and a pair of orange-chinned parakeets.  The birds appeared well looked after and seemed to enjoy the attention when they were picked up from the shrub on which they were perched but I still feel sorry for “captive” birds.  Kennedy and Olivia loaded us up with a selection of fruit from their land including plantains, star fruit, citrusella (or some similar name), and some noni.  We had never eaten the latter but had seen them in several places since our introduction to the trees in San Andres.  Olivia told us to let them ripen a bit more and then eat them in a puree or mush.  We were not sure if sugar or anything else should be added but we were assured that they were good for back aches.  Our suspicions that anything that is recommended because it eases ailments rather than because it tastes good is a bit of a gamble.  After a few days (we perhaps let them get too hot in the cockpit) they started to smell of smoked cheese and after Randall tried a couple of tentative bites the rest went overboard.  We probably need better instruction on when and how to prepare noni before we try them again.

Anyway, soon after we returned to Tregoning laden with fruit Kennedy stopped by, while he was fishing with a hand-line, to give us four beautiful avocados and to see if we had any spare hats of or D-size batteries for his flashlight.  We did not have any spare hats but could provide a couple of batteries.  Randall did not have spare fishing lures of the type Kennedy mentioned but we assured him that we would look for some in Golfito and we would visit on our return journey in a month’s time.

Although there seemed to be a steady stream of requests for things, the asking was gentle and the returned generosity with fruit and hospitality was effortless.  This contrasted with some of the places where we had been on the Caribbean coast where the lists of requests for cookies, hats, clothes, pens and paper, fishing lures, etc, seemed relentless and were expected to be unreciprocated.   With only one road inland from the northeast corner of Bahía Honda, the island village and all the small fincas around the bay are connected only by boat so shopping trips for fishing supplies and hardware cannot be very frequent.  Cruisers have probably been enjoying this sheltered bay for many years and Señor Domingo and his family have undoubtedly learned very quickly what types of things are likely to be available on a cruising boat for gifts or trade.  We genuinely plan to return with some of the things that they could use.

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N 07° 33' W 81° 11'

Hopping westward

May 08, 2010

Even though we did not go ashore at Ensenada Naranjo, we were well aware of some of the fauna of the area.  At sunset and sunrise we were treated to a chorus of howler monkeys in the forests on the steep hills at the southern edge of the cove.  We had not heard such distinct and near calls since the Río Chagres and although we did not see the troops, it was very good to know that there were monkeys nearby.  As darkness descended, we saw and heard several bats zooming by, possibly attracted by the many insects that were flying around the anchor light at the top of the mast.  And once it was fully dark we were surrounded by large fire-flies which neither of us has ever seen so far away from the shore.  It was an enchanting evening that was followed by a morning spectacle of a pair of turtles lolling around at the water surface just to seaward of us and as we slowly motored out of the cove (there was just not enough wind to move us away under sail) we were briefly greeted by a small pod of dolphins.

We had seen several groups of dolphins over recent days and had decided that the few larger ones were probably bottlenose dolphins but were a little less sure about the smaller ones that seemed to be quite dark with some spots on their sides.  They move so fast and did not stay with us for long so identification was not easy but I was gradually coming to the conclusion that they might be spinner dolphins.  This was finally confirmed (I think) by seeing one at some distance away leaping into the air and executing a vertical spin (like a figure ice-skater) rather than just the usual forward roll at the water’s surface to breath.  It is always a joy to see these lively animals and, at least so far, the cry “Dolphins sighted” still gives us a thrill and sends us excitedly scurrying to the bow to see if they will play in our bow wave.

As if to confirm the abundance of life in the area, within an hour of leaving the Naranjo anchorage, Randall had hooked a large fish.  It took him more than 45 minutes of hard and patient work to haul in the large amount of fishing line that had been pulled off the reel and we had to work together with me periodically putting the engine in and out of gear to ensure that the fish did not wrap the line around the rudder.  When we could finally see the fish we found that it was another big-eyed tuna, larger than any we had caught before but it was foul hooked on the gill cover which made it feel even heavier on the line.  Sadly, as with the foul-hooked mahi mahi of a few days previously, despite our best efforts, the fish escaped from the hook just as we tried to get it on the boat.  It swam away rapidly so of the two protagonists in the battle, it may have ended up as the less exhausted one.

Another Mexican tunny was caught and released (these were our least favorite to eat) but in the late afternoon, as we neared our destination, Randall caught and kept a large crevalle jack.  With this sudden abundance of fish to eat, I am trying new sauces and marinades for them.  That evening we enjoyed an apricot, pineapple, and chipotle sauce (a variation on a mango-apricot chutney recipe) with our tuna and crevalle that would probably make any fish seem wonderful.

Our route that day had been about 25 nm northwest from Naranjo to go around the western end of Isla Cebaco.  It was again sunny and we had to motor into a very light wind with almost glassy seas and a gentle swell.  On the way we passed several flagged floats that we assumed marked fishing nets or traps and saw several trawlers, the first we had seen since we had been in the eastern Islas Las Perlas.  Compared to those islands, the bird life was a little different.  While we still saw plenty of magnificent frigate birds and pelicans, we were seeing fewer brown and blue-footed boobies and more brown noddies and petrels.  I was not certain about the latter species but least storm-petrels seemed the most likely based on their dark coloration and fluttery flight.  Another common species that also had a “walking-on-water” behavior was the black tern which we saw in various states of grey and white plumage other than the distinctive black and grey colors of the breeding adults (apparently an uncommon stage in Panama).

Most of the birds kept a wary distance from us although a couple of times one brown booby flew so close around our stern that we worried that it would get caught in the trailing fishing lines as had happened to the unfortunate immature blue-footed booby that we had to shake loose of the line near Isla Pacheca.  The other hazard for curious birds at the stern of the boat is the wind generator, a.k.a. Wendy.  When the blades are whizzing around they are not easy to see and could deliver quite an unpleasant blow to an unsuspecting bird.  During our last departure from Las Brisas a mangrove swallow had kept flying around the boat.  They had got used to resting on the boat when it was moored and occasionally we saw them perching on the wind vane at the back of the wind generator when it was still.  This swallow seemed to think that it should be able to land on Tregoning even while we were underway and kept flying alarmingly close to Wendy’s whirling blades.

As we watched in disbelief we commented on how risky this behavior seemed to be and that we feared that contact with Wendy might result in a sudden puff of feathers reminiscent of the impact of a branch of the Whomping Tree was to a blue-bird in the third (I think) Harry Potter film.  No sooner had this concern been expressed than the swallow took one pass too close and with a “whomp” it was hit by Wendy’s blades.  Sure enough, there was a puff of a few downy feathers but we were startled, and very relieved, to see the chastened swallow fly away on a rather low, wobbly course towards the nearest anchored ship where Randall saw it disappear over the stern rail.  We hope that it landed on the deck to recover rather than expire but we shall never know.  Next time we notice that a bird gets too close we will turn the wind generator off.  The impact cannot do the bird much good and it is probably is not ideal for Wendy’s blades.  Fortunately for us, and unlike a few of the huge land-based wind-generators that are sometimes accidentally slay huge numbers of migrating birds, this has not been a common problem so we hope to be able to keep generating electricity from the wind without further injuries.

Our destination on Saturday afternoon was an “anchorage” that the Bauhaus guide mentions on the south side of Isla Gobernadora where we hoped to be out of the swell and protected from the forecast northerly winds.  The anchor-holding seemed to be good but it did not feel very sheltered as one had to anchor quite a distance from the shore (for suitable depth) which made it feel quite exposed in the channel between this island and Isla Cebaco to the south. Still, as predicted, there was hardly any swell and with winds from northwest to northeast we were finally not on a lee-shore.

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N 07° 16' W 80° 55'

Anchored near surfers

May 07, 2010

Ensenada (cove) Benao has one of Panama’s premier surfing beaches and when we arrived on Thursday morning (May 6th) there were half a dozen surfers enjoying the Pacific swells and off-shore breeze.  From our anchorage to their east and seaward of them, we could not see how well they rode the waves in but for both of us (Randall a keen high-school and college surfer, me surrounded by surfing friends while growing up in Cornwall) the vans parked on the shore, the boards being carried down the beach, and the figures patiently waiting to catch their waves were very evocative of happy times.

Of course, close to a prime surfing beach may seem like an odd place to be anchored but where we were behind an island, the swell’s motion was not too bad and we had no need to try to land the dinghy ashore.  Benao is the closest anchorage to Punta Mala so part of the reason we had wanted to visit it was to see what it was like in case we ever had to stay there waiting for suitable weather to go around the “bad point”.

We had a relaxing day, resting from our overnight passage and watching the activities on the long beach.  The sand was brown rather than yellow or white, which gives it a slightly less inviting appearance but there were a few modest-looking hotels and houses and several people clearly enjoying their vacations.  Around low tide, in the early afternoon, a 15 knot breeze picked up from the southwest which swung us around closer to the shallow water and breakers on the beach (which thus became a lee-shore) and the idea of surfing ashore on Tregoning did not seem too appealing.  But our anchor seemed to be well dug in and the wind and waves had calmed down by the time we went to bed so we decided to stay the night.

We left at 4 am on Friday morning as we wanted to arrive at our next possible anchorage, about 53 miles away, well before dark.  We motor-sailed (jib only) at first and by 8 am Randall had already caught two respectable fish.  The first was a big-eyed tuna (the kind we so much enjoyed when Mike was with us) which we kept and the second was a Mexican tunny (black skipjack) which we released.  By 10 am we were under full sail and Randall hauled in another big-eyed tuna.  At that point, the fishing was done for the day and we enjoyed wonderful, fresh sushi tuna for lunch and teriyaki-marinaded, pan-seared tuna for dinner.

By the afternoon the wind was lighter and had veered around to be dead on our nose so we dropped the sails and motored the rest of the way around Punta Mariato on the southwest corner of the Azuero Peninsula.  It was a glorious sunny day and the beautiful hills descending steeply down to the shore provide a spectacular foreground to the 3000 ft (1000 m) mountains further inland.  According to our Pat Rains guidebook (Cruising Ports: the Central American Route), this Peninsula “was explored and colonized at the beginning of the Spanish occupation, so its many small hamlets still resemble medieval Spain.  Unfortunately, the Azuero is also mostly devoid of forests for that same reason.”  At least that was probably the case further inland and near roads.  The southwest corner that we were passing has no roads and while we could see some areas that were recovering from past deforestation, the overall appearance here was wild and remote.

Once we had passed Punta Mariato it was only five miles to our destination at Ensenada Naranjo.  We entered the cove after passing between a particularly scenic stretch of forest on the mainland and the small rocky island of Roncador.  While this cove is protected from the south (so a little less exposed to the Pacific swell) is it wide open to the west and northwest, so we anchored near the beaches in the southeast corner of the cove hoping that, as predicted, the west winds would not pick up until the next day.

As we had seen at Benao, the sand on the three small beaches in Ensenada Naranjo looked a muddy brown and the water was fairly murky but the anchor holding was good and the swell was not too noticeable.  Even though there are no roads within 25 miles, there were several houses near the beach and as we arrived a small group of people carrying baskets and machetes were walking along the main beach to the houses, perhaps at the end of their workday.   Since we were only intending to stay for one night, we did not launch the dinghy to go ashore but we exchanged friendly waves when some of the locals passed by in their small fishing boat.  As with Benao, we did not stay in Ensenada Naranjo for long but in anything but a directly onshore wind we felt assured that this would be a safe anchorage if we ever had to wait for better weather to go around the Azuero Peninsula.

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N 07° 25' W 80° 11'

Lee shores and glassy seas

May 06, 2010

As many novice captains or confused boat passengers can testify, there is a huge vocabulary associated with sailing that initially seems to make the onboard environment particularly mystifying.  With experience, most of the terms become familiar and the need for them apparent.  Some simply have to be memorized such as the differences between shroud and stay (respectively, wires or rods that provide lateral support for the mast and forward or backward support for the mast) or luff and leech (respectively, forward edge of the sail attached to the mast or fore-stay and the back edge of the sail).  But a few terms can be a bit confusing. 

Fans of crossword puzzles, books about old sailing ships, or films such as “Master and Commander” may wonder what the command “Hard a Larboard!” is about.  Right and left on a ship used to be “starboard” and “larboard” which seemed particularly prone to misunderstandings that could have dire consequences.  The current terms of starboard and port seem much more distinct and sensible.  Describing an anchorage as a “lee-shore” is another expression that is ripe for confusion.   Describing something as being in the “lee” usually suggests sheltered from the wind, as the opposite term “to windward” is quite self-explanatory.  So the lee side of an island would be the side away from the wind (which is hitting the windward side).  But when the perspective is from a boat, the terms lee and windward would refer to the side of a bay or anchorage so a “lee-shore” is the side of the bay to which a boat would be blown and the “windward shore” is protected from the wind by the land.  Thus, rather counter-intuitively, while one would seek out an anchorage on the lee side of an island (away from the wind) one would not want to be anchored too close to a lee-shore because that is the side of a bay (or ocean) onto which an uncontrolled boat would be blown.

Why this long assessment of nautical semantics?  Well, it relates to the anchorage that we shared with Slip Away and a couple of other boats.  It was a beautiful little bay that was protected by Isla Pedro Gonzales to the south and west and by a couple of tiny islets to the east, leaving our only exposure to the wind to be from the north.  Most of the time we were there, the winds were blowing (gently) from the south so that we were sheltered by the main island and we had no lee-shore.   Since the forecasts for our stay were for south winds possibly heading around to the west, it was the perfect place to wait until more northerly winds arrived to push us around Punta Mala and Slip Away towards the Galapagos.  But Jan and Rich were already behind schedule and were anxious to get going so they decided to leave around 5 pm on Monday (May 3rd) when the westerly winds would allow them to start heading south.

During Monday we went ashore together and visited an archeological site by the beach.  We had not realized that the collection of sun shades and tables was more than a beach cabaña until the four people from one of the other sailboats stopped by in their dinghy to tell us about it.  It turned out that the two of cruisers had left their boat on the Caribbean coast and were visiting their friends who were showing them Las Perlas.  These visitors were Mike and his wife from ‘Respite’ and were the couple who had greeted us in the Western Hollandes Cays in the Kuna Yala after we returned in the middle of the night from a slight mis-adventure anchoring in the Middle Hollandes.  It was impressive that they remembered our boat six months later

The archeological site had been studied for three to four years by members of the Smithsonian Institute and the archeologist with whom we spoke was a very friendly woman from Nicaragua.  The site was thought to be 6000 years old and primarily consisted of excavations down through shell and bone middens (essentially, rubbish mounds).  The site was found when a large number of stone chips were observed on the ground and some associated stone tools and simple necklaces with sharks’ teeth had been uncovered.  There were several excavation pits at various elevations above the beach but the main one was deep enough that it was flooding at high tides and work had to be limited until they could get a water-pump to the site. 

After peering into the main pit and noticing, with new understanding and some excitement, all of the stone chips scattered around, we walked up a dirt road to the top of the hill overlooking the anchorage.   Although we missed seeing the excavation site we were told was up there, we thoroughly enjoyed the exercise and views.  By the time we returned to our boats, the other two had left and while Jan and Rich prepared for departure, Randall and I anticipated a night alone in the bay.

As 5 pm, just after we had hauled our dinghy on deck, we were all keeping a wary eye on a very threatening, dark band of clouds and rain to our north.  The squall line looked suspiciously as though it was creeping closer but we were still enjoying a light breeze from the south and were even watching a rain shower approach from the southeast across Bahia Del Rey.  Not wanting to start their Galapagos passage with such ominous weather around, Jan and Rich prudently decided to wait before setting sail.

At about 5:45 pm the black clouds were almost upon us and a freshening and cold wind had sprung up from the north.  Within just a few minutes the wind had leapt up from less than 5 knots from the south, to 25 to 35 knots from the north accompanied by driving rain.  We had watched the squall approach for long enough to tie-down and close-up everything that need to be protected from the wind and rain so we sat in the cockpit watching the wind-meter and our position relative to the shore.  And now with the sudden change of wind direction, we were anchored on a lee-shore, fully exposed to the north and only a few hundred yards from the beach.  We were thankful that it was still daylight so that we could see the shore and take visual bearings on various landmarks around the bay. 

Both boats had been floating facing south on the north sides of their anchors so in the first few minutes it felt as though we were moving quite rapidly towards the shore as the boat and anchor-chain swung to the south side of the anchor, so we were now facing north.   Slip Away was now upwind of us and we were thankful that our neighbor was someone we knew and trusted and we periodically conversed on the VHF radio to confirm that all was well.  In both boats we had started our engines, in anticipation of any problem that might force us to move away from each other or shore quickly and we had our chart-plotters set to show if our anchors dragged at all.  

The winds kept howling for an hour with at least three gusts that went over 45 knots and inevitably this resulted in steep, rapidly passing waves that were up to 4 or 5 ft tall (1.3 – 1.7 m).   Both boats were prancing in the waves but the long anchor-rodes (we were both about 150 ft of chain – 45 m) helped to absorb most of the energy of the tremendous tugs on the anchors and boats’ bows.  The boats slowly swung in an arc downwind of the anchor such that for brief periods the waves caused a bit of sideways rolling but up in our center cockpits it was not too uncomfortable.  We were very pleased that our dinghy was safe on deck and not being bounced around behind us.

After an hour the winds dropped to around 20 knots and the rain got heavier.  There was some lightning in the distance but it was mostly cloud to cloud so it did not seem particularly threatening but it is hard to break the habit of counting after every flash to see how long the thunder takes to arrive.  By 8 pm the system had passed, the skies started to clear, and the wind resumed its gentle southerly breeze as if nothing had happened.  Of course, it took a little longer for the waves to settle down but it turned into a surprisingly calm night.

In our first year of cruising, such a squall close to a lee-shore with another boat just upwind would have seemed much more terrifying and stomach-churning to me.  What has changed?  Mostly my faith in our anchor, our increased experience of how to best use our equipment to assure us that we are not dragging, and our improved ability to plan what action to take if something went wrong.  The incident got our full attention and had it arrived suddenly in the middle of the night or if our neighbors had been dragging towards us, it would seemed much more disturbing but as it was, it was another experience that helps build confidence in our equipment and our ability to cope.

Understandably, Jan and Rich decided to let the squall line get well ahead of them and opted to delay leaving until the next morning.  We waved them off at 8 am and by 10 am we were settling down to our morning activities when we noticed a grey wall of rain moving across the islands to our north.  The clouds were not as dark as on the previous evening but within a few minutes the wind picked up from the northeast and we found ourselves going through a slightly subdued version of the previous evening’s activities.  This time, the winds only topped 30 knots, the rain was lighter, there was no lightning, and it was all over within an hour so the waves were never quite as big.  Knowing how well the anchor was set, we were positively relaxed about this squall but the engine and chart-plotter were on, just in case.

Once the squall had passed, the day was sunny and calm and over the surrounding Las Perlas islands, we had the clearest views yet of the mountains on the mainland coast of Panama to our north and east.   We hoped that Slip Away had been able to use the brief NE wind to make some significant sailing progress without being too battered.  That evening another boat joined us in the anchorage but they too had their dinghy on their deck so we did not meet them.  When we both left in the morning they headed in a more southerly direction, perhaps following Slip Away to the Galapagos.

We motor-sailed southwest from Pedro Gonzales towards Punta Mala (the southwest corner of the huge Bay of Panama) but by midday the wind was so weak that the sails just flopped about as we rolled over the gentle swells from the south.  So we dropped the sails and slowly motored as the seas got calmer and calmer.  Having all day and night to make the 125 nautical mile passage round Punta Mala and get to our first potential destination we were in no hurry so we kept the engine at fairly low speed (1300 RPM) and enjoyed a leisurely ride.  We saw some dolphins and Randall hooked a decent-sized mahi mahi that had us very excited but it was foul-hooked (caught through its skin on the side not hooked in the mouth) so when he tried to land it on the boat it managed to get away.

By the afternoon the sea was glassy with just a long, gentle swell and the only breeze being provided by our forward motion.  The night sky was magnificent with a fabulous display of stars that were only slightly dimmed by the midnight appearance of the half moon.  I learned to identify several more constellations around the Southern Cross including Centaurus, Corvus, Libra, Scorpius, and Sagittarius and we both saw several shooting stars. The only clouds were over the mainland far to the east of us and although we could see distant lightning in their towering masses the thunder could not reach us.

Punta Mala has a reputation that deserves respect because there are significant currents flowing westwards (from the Bay of Panama towards Costa Rica), there are often strong “cape-effect” winds, and most of the ships coming and going to The Panama Canal will pass fairly close to the headland.  We had the current in our favor and virtually no wind so our main preoccupation was with the ships.  As before, our AIS (automatic identification system) was invaluable in showing us how close ships would pass to us and at what time.  Also as before, it seemed that Randall handed to watch over to me just as we were about to make the most critical pass across the busy shipping lanes and I arrived on deck at 10 pm for my four hour watch (we were trying a new overnight watch system) with three ships side-by-side bearing down on us.  An hour later when they passed us, one crossed ahead of us within 2 nm, while one passed behind within 3 nm.  At the same time, the third and slowest, the Island Princess cruise ship, lit up with a millions lights was still six nm away but aiming directly for us (I could just make out both port and starboard navigation lights).  Although I was pretty sure that she would pass behind us, I speeded up and turned slightly to starboard to be sure that we stayed out of her way.  She passed about 1 nm astern of us which seemed close enough but after that most of the lights we saw were onshore marking the southeast edge of the Azuero Peninsula.

By 6 am when my next watch started, we were well passed Punta Mala and in the early morning light cast beautiful shadows on the hills dipping down to the ocean.  Most of the shoreline west of Punta Mala was rocky with periodic white plumes leaping up from where the swells crashed ashore but there were also a few small beaches.  We arrived at the first beach that is in a significant cove at Benao at 8 am and following the directions in the cruising guide dropped our anchor in the east end of the bay, on the north side of a steep-sided island.  Although there was still little wind, the swells curved around the island giving us some constant motion in the anchorage so we decided to see how the day went and either move on in the evening if it was too rolly to be comfortable or wait until the next morning.  With only a little off-shore wind, at least we were not on a lee shore…

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N 08° 23' W 79° 04'

Breaking the anchor free

May 03, 2010

Finally, late on Saturday morning (May 1st) after two weeks in the same place we broke the anchor free of its robust hold on the trustworthy sand bottom and sailed north out of the cozy anchorage of Espiritu Santo.  Due to the murky water conditions we had not done as much snorkeling as usual but at low tides we had enjoyed exploring the many surrounding beaches.  We had cleaned, painted, glued, sewed, rewired, and baked our way through numerous useful boat projects and on the wettest of several cloudy days had even collected 15 gallons of rain water to add to our tanks.  This was just a foretaste of the deluges that the rainy season would probably bring but it was amazing how quickly we noticed more flowers and new green leaves on many of the parched trees around us.

The rain also increased the number of logs floating through the anchorage and to be avoided on our departing passage.  Some were almost as long as Tregoning and we were thankful that even at our fairly slow speeds, none had collided with us (at anchor) or us with them (when sailing).  The amount of rain we saw did not seem to justify so many large logs but we later gathered that there had been much longer, torrential downpours on the other side of Isla del Rey.  Also the spring tides accompanying the full moon tended to refloat logs and other debris that had been stranded high on the shorelines so for several days we saw more plastic and other long-lasting junk floating by than usual.  This phenomenon, combined with the early dawn chorus of fish slapping against the hull puts some cruisers off this anchorage but not us, we still love it.  We felt a bit guilty that we could not do something about the stranded or floating plastic trash but it would soon fill the boat if we tried to collect it.  Plastics can really be a problem at sea and we rinse and store our own debris until we arrive at a mainland town that looks as though it has landfill or incineration capacity (although this is not always very obvious).  We try to be very careful about not contributing to the plastic problem in the water but over the last couple of years we have accidentally lost one plastic clothes pin, one small zip-loc bag, and a thin, plastic chopping sheet overboard, so we cannot claim to be totally blameless.

As potentially hazardous and annoying as logs and plastic can be, we were glad not to have seen something worse floating by.  When Lumme and we were the last boats left in the anchorage, we stopped by to introduce ourselves to Wolfgang who told us that his wife, Olma, and their poodle, Lucy, were ashore.  Several days later, Wolfgang kindly gave us a couple of the Sierra mackerel that he had caught from his dinghy and in return we delivered some brownies the next day, while their boat was up on the beach where they had cleaned the bottom.  Lumme is a monohull but with twin keels she sits happily upright on the sand and they had done a fine job sanding the propeller and bottom in preparation for being hauled-out at Balboa Yacht Club to repaint the hull.

As we stood on the beach looking up at them perched high in their cockpit, they told us that they had been living in this bit of paradise for several years now with occasional trips to Panamá City (where they had been on our previous visit when the anchorage was deserted).  Most of the time they had the place to themselves and they had cultivated small garden plots and some fruit trees ashore on a couple of the islands.  They told us that there were trails to several marijuana plantations from the bay and the police boat visited every month (as we had seen previously) to look for drug dealers who sometimes do business just offshore.  And it was probably related to this that they had (some time ago) made their least pleasant flotsam observation, having seen a dead body drift by.

Based on these revelations we could see why Lucy was such a useful asset on Lumme as she barked anytime a boat went past.  It was probably just a coincidence but the next day after Lumme had left for Panamá City several small pangas with fishermen stopped by to talk to us and get drinks of water.  They were all very friendly but interestingly none of these locals had stopped to talk when Lucy was greeting all visitors to the bay.  Later that afternoon another cruising boat anchored nearby so even without Lucy on watch we slept soundly in their company.

When we left Espiritu Santo on Saturday we first sailed north in a light southerly wind using just the jib. After raising the mainsail, with some trepidation Randall then tried using his bamboo whisker pole to hold the jib out to keep wind in it even though it was somewhat sheltered by the mainsail.  This not only worked very well but was accomplished without any damage to the precious pole.  It had been curing for a year since we collected it in Jamaica and Randall had coated it with varnish so he would have been very disappointed if we had repeated Eddy’s experience of having the pole break during its first serious usage.

Our target for this passage was Isla Pedro Gonzales which is on the east side of Isla del Rey (just north of Isla San José) and an island we had not visited before.  To get there we went around the north end of Isla del Rey and took a narrow, and in places shallow, channel between Islas Viveros and La Mina.  Isla Viveros is in the early stages of being developed with large houses in an attempt to emulate Contadora but we did not see many completed houses so the economic downturn has perhaps stalled those plans.  In contrast, we could see several small but neatly constructed huts on La Mina with large signs next to them.  The signs were covered in text with a large official-looking logo at the bottom.  They were impossible to read from the water but it looked as though the huts might be part of some educational or historical project.

We successfully used waypoints that we made from the detailed charts in the Bauhaus Guide to find a path through the channel and only in one place did we have to turn away from this route to avoid a shallow area and some looming, underwater rocks.   Once in the open water of Bahia del Rey we tacked and then motored into the SW wind towards our destination, an anchorage on the east side of Punta Zaccadilla on Isla Pedro Gonzales.  When we arrived, being a Saturday, there were several large powerboats visiting from the city but they had all left by the late afternoon so that on Sunday there was just us and four other sailboats.

To us, the most important of these was Slip Away, the beautiful boat of Jan and Rich, whom we had met when we breakfasted on dim sum in Panamá City.  It is quite unusual for us to have met the owners before seeing the boat and we were impressed with how their 1978 vessel gleamed.  It turned out that they had had the hull and decks completely resurfaced and painted in Cartagena over Christmas so they were very pleased to hear us rave about how good it looked.

Randall had caught a good-sized Sierra mackerel during our passage so we invited Jan and Rich over for dinner that night and we visited them for lunch the next day.  Just as we had found when we compared our USA/Canada east-coast experiences over dim sum, we had a lot in common with Jan and Rich and thoroughly enjoyed their company.  We were only sorry that once the winds start to come from the west and north (as predicted for tonight) Slip Away will set sail for the Galapagos and tomorrow we will aim southwest to round Punta Mala as we finally restart our journey towards Costa Rica.  But once there we look forward to catching up again with Mike and Dede on Joss.

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N 08° 25' W 78° 51'

An absence of deadlines

April 23, 2010

I am the sort of procrastinator who can get fun, easy things done in an organized relaxed fashion but for whom a deadline is necessary to concentrate the mind on anything that actually requires much mental effort.  With a penchant for making “to-do” lists that never stop growing, I can sometimes be my own worst enemy when my striving for super-efficiently translates into self-imposed stresses.  So even in the absence of externally driven, professional deadlines there usually seems to be something else that I should be doing.

Now, this is not to say that I have not been enjoying plenty of reading, doing puzzles, and playing games with Randall (to Uno, pinochle, dominoes, and backgammon we have recently added a game of dice called Zilch…thank you very much, Martha, it is great).  But it was only after we arrived in Espiritu Santo on Saturday afternoon that I really felt myself relax and look forward to a couple of months without deadlines.  Sure, we eventually have to visit Costa Rica and return to Taboga by early July and, yes, there are plenty of boat projects to keep adding to the “to-do” list but as we enjoy this sheltered and beautiful anchorage and pick just a few tasks to accomplish each day the relentless feeling that “this must be done soon to allow that” slips away and we feel completely in control of our own destiny for a few weeks.  Of course, we would love to see Rich and Jan on Slip Away before they leave for the Galapagos, and Mike and Dede on Joss before they fly back to the USA but right now, in our little slice of paradise, it is OK to just see what happens and sumptuously wallow in the absence of deadlines.  The sensation is quite enlightening…

The contrast is particularly stark given that during our last few days in Panamá City we experienced a classic mixture of pleasure and frustration.  There was the delicious Dim Sum breakfast (where we met Rich and Jan); the internet access that was not; the beautiful Thursday evening in Casco Viejo as part of Randall’s mystery date; the hour spent at the Port Captain’s office where they were insistent that everyone pay the $3 a day anchoring fee ( they calculated we owed $199 but there had been no warning about this when we arrived) and were going to ignore our mooring receipts from Las Brisas until they thought that I had gone outside to phone the Minister of Tourism (actually I was calling Chuy to ask if we could get our zarpe in Taboga) and suddenly our receipts were good enough and we did not have to pay…all very confusing; the fabulous dinner at Manolo Caracol, even better than the lunch we had there with Mike and only $25 for numerous exquisite dishes (even a timid eater like me can handle not knowing what is coming next when the food is so good); and the heart-stopping moment in the Migración Office when the officer had to call to check that we could get the exit stamps in our passports (needed to enter Costa Rica) even though such a stamp was missing from when we flew to the USA in December.

We motored out of Las Brisas in flat calm conditions on Friday morning but a good NW breeze picked up in the afternoon so that we could sail with just the jib to within a few miles of Las Perlas.  As we furled the jib, I briefly saw a whale surfacing in the same area where we had seen them last time.  Randall landed two, good-sized Mexican tunnies during the passage.  We threw the second one back but enjoyed the first one for dinner with a tasty jam and soy sauce.  Having had my internet access cut short on Saturday morning, we were rewarded by seeing a large spotted eagle ray and then, most surprisingly, saw a whale swimming east, passing by all the boats anchored south of Contadora. 

The water clarity was the best we had ever seen at Contadora with the bottom clearly visible at 25 ft depth.  So at midday we snorkeled around the bay just east of the southern end of the runway.  The visibility had been terrible during our previous visit with Mike but this time it was wonderful and we could follow the coral around the headland.  On the way we found the best area of coral head with huge schools of fish that we have yet seen in the Pacific.  We dallied for ages following the fish and edge of the reef and, finally, this was really starting to feel like a vacation.

In search of a calmer anchorage, on Saturday afternoon we motor-sailed 15 miles SE to Espiritu Santo which was not deserted as it had been on our last visit.  There were five other boats but we were able to tuck-in at exactly the same spot we had enjoyed previously and all but one of the other boats has subsequently left (of course, the remaining one is the one we anchored closest to).  During the last five days we have been cleaning the hull which is an operation for us that requires repeated snorkeling efforts but we watched with envy as the crews of two catamarans landed their boats on the beach at the morning high tide, cleaned the hulls, and then refloated them at the high tide 13 hours later.  Such careening for a fixed-keel monohull like Tregoning would result in her lying at a very awkward angle on the beach so we get our exercise in the water.  The other major project has been to re-fix the patch in the dinghy floor where a year earlier an unhappy fish punctured one of the high-pressure floor panels after Randall had speared the fish at Samana Cay in the southern Bahamas.  It took a couple of attempts but so far, so good.

There have been many other little tasks to do but we have also done plenty of relaxing.  And this is the place to do it.  On the boat the views are beautiful and the water is calm even when the breezes are blowing.  The water visibility has deteriorated since we were at Contadora but it is marvelous to just wander on the beaches looking for shells and seeds and studying the myriad footprint trails of iguanas, birds, and crabs.   Yesterday afternoon when the sun had perfectly painted the shallow water, reefs, and exposed rocks at low tide, while Randall cracked coconuts, I built little dams on the salt-water streams trickling back to the ocean, and hermit crabs scuttled around on the smooth wet sand like handfuls of carelessly tossed pebbles, there was no better place on earth to be.

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N 08° 37' W 79° 02'

Island hopping to Costa Rica

April 17, 2010

Sometimes getting internet access can be quite a challenge.  With a pile of emails to which to respond, online searches to make, and with photos and text to post on the blog, we found that for two days we were unable to access the wireless internet at Las Brisas.  I do not really understand (and would love illumination) why if the WiFi  signal strength and speed are shown to be excellent there can be a message of “Limited or No Connectivity” which prevents access to the internet.   Anyway, that was the message we kept getting so we decided to get out of town and use the excellent WiFi at the resort on Contadora.  For $5 it could be used all day in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the beach and this seemed a good alternative.

But this morning when I arrived at the resort they told me that they no longer allow outsiders to use their WiFi (even with payment) and instead I am in a small, dark room at a Contadora supermarcado using a nice fast desktop computer for $2 an hour but unable to access the text in Word on my flash drive…oh, well.

I’ll try to post  more by SSB but it may be a while until we have full internet and email access again.  We left Panama City yesterday (Friday) after a bit of a hassle getting our zarpe (yes, they did want to charge us $3 a day for anchoring…a whole other story).  But now we can do what we like and we plan to island-hop through western Panama and into Costa Rica.  We will turn around in June and aim to be back in Panama to leave Tregoning on a mooring at Taboga island (7 miles from the entrance to the Panama Canal) while we fly to the USA for the APMS 50th Annual meeting (Aquatic Plant Management Society of which we are both Past Presidents) and, most importantly, Shev’s wedding.  We also look forward to seeing many friends in Florida…so when we can get back on email you may find us inviting ourselves to visit.  Be warned!

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N 08° 55' W 79° 31'

Island mystery date

April 15, 2010

It had been a while since we went on a “mystery date” so while Randall was slogging away at filing our 2009 USA taxes online on Friday (April 9th), I made a few arrangements for one.  Mystery dates can be as simple as dinner and a movie or can be as complex as a whole vacation, the common feature is that one person organizes everything and the other person just shows up.  The “datee” is told when and where to be ready, what to wear, and is usually given an approximate time of return.  And whatever happens, the datee is bound to have a good time because they do not have to make any decisions or arrangements.  Although the “dater” has to do all the work, they can make all the choices, often getting away with including some activities that the datee might not have thought were worthwhile if planned together in advance.  Plus, they can have fun trying to throw the datee off track as they try to guess what is going to happen as the date unfolds.  Of course, the idea is to provide reciprocal dates so that each person gets to be the leader and the lead.

One of our most eclectic mystery dates included a visit to Ocala taking in the Jai Alai (an indoor sport with players flinging a hard ball very fast off walls at each other and spectators betting on the outcome), a brief tour of the Appleton Art Museum, and an excellent dinner at an Indian restaurant.  The arrangements for this Panamanian date were a bit simpler, requiring just a phone call and purchase of some tickets.

So on Saturday morning we walked over to La Playita dock and waited.  The surprise element would have been better if we had just walked onto the ferry boat to Taboga Island but when I saw that the ship’s manifest required passport numbers and I had not brought ours, I had to tell Randall what we were doing and jog and dinghy back to Tregoning to get the passports.  Of course, we did not need them after that but I was afraid that they might be checked somewhere on the journey and felt better having them.  It was one of the calmest mornings we have seen here with only a slight swell rolling the ferry (carrying about 70 people) as we crossed the shipping lane on the hour long ride (about 7 miles) to the island of Taboga.  This is a popular beach destination from Panamá City and it was not difficult to see why.  The village is attractive, the water is relatively clear, and good beaches are right next to the ferry dock

Unlike most other passengers, our interest was not in the beaches but meeting with Chuy and Susan who were waiting for us at the dock with their two lovely dogs.  We had not met before but they had given us helpful information by phone about our brief trip to Costa Rica and they own and manage several moorings at Taboga.  They were a very friendly couple and not only took us out to see the moorings, explaining how carefully they were constructed and maintained but they also showed us their beautiful house which has a wonderful view of the moorings in the bay.  Many of the old houses in Taboga are being gentrified by affluent people from Panama but it is hard to image that many have been as elegantly decorated as this one, which was a showcase for all sorts of interesting art objects that Chuy and Susan have collected during their cruising years.

By the time we left them, we were thoroughly convinced that Tregoning would be very safe on one of their moorings while we went to the USA in July and August.  Their rates were reasonable at $9 a day and we knew that they would watch our boat and take any actions that were needed.  We paid a deposit and were very relieved to have this part of our future planned, celebrating the accomplishment with a delicious lunch at a restaurant that they recommended. 

On the walk to their house, Chuy and Susan showed us some of Taboga’s sights which included the second oldest church in the New World. The island was inhabited by the Spanish in 1515 (before Panamá City) and Francisco Pizarro used it as the home-port for his fleet of conquest over South America.  During construction of the Panama Canal, the island housed the hospital and sanatorium for workers with yellow fever and malaria.  The French Impressionist, Paul Gauguin, had recovered there when he had been working for $5 a day in the Culebra Cut and there was a monument to record this.  There was also a painting on the wall of an adjacent building that was in his style but we assume was not actually painted by him because the building did not look old enough and it is hard to imagine one of his works of art would be left so exposed.

Although small (2 miles long and 1 mile wide) Taboga is quite hilly and I had thought we might walk to the main summit (just over 1,000 ft  or 300 m) to enjoy the view of Panamá City.  However, we did not have time after our lovely tour and lunch and anyway it was a very hot day.  Susan mentioned that April 14 and 15 are supposed to be the hottest days in Panama when the sun passes directly overhead (being overhead at the tropic of Cancer which is north of us at the northern summer solstice in June).  So we took a leisurely stroll to the beaches and then back to wait in the shade for the return ferry.   Randall was very happy with is mystery date and we both looked forward to exploring more of Taboga when we return in July. 

From Sunday to Thursday we were busy preparing for our foray west, with the intention of leaving on Friday and either stopping at Las Perlas before rounding Punta Mala or making a two-night run directly around this notorious headland.  Actually the point is probably not particularly bad but there are shipping lanes, currents, and unsettled waters close to shore so it needs to be treated with due respect.  Preparations for a couple of months’ cruising without being sure when and where we can get to a town include: getting propane tanks filled; filling-up with gasoline for the dinghy and diesel for Tregoning; filling the water tanks; laundry (spread over two days as the water supply was cut off after I had started the first load); provisioning (we spent $400 at two grocery stores on Monday afternoon and that is without much booze or meat); disposing of all garbage (including much of the packaging from the groceries); getting blog, emails, bill-payment, etc, up-to-date; getting zarpe (exit papers from the Port Captain); and getting exit stamps in our passports.  Our taxi-driver friend Alberto has been invaluable in helping us get many of these tasks accomplished.

Before leaving the big city and starting to eat our way through our provisions, we enjoyed a couple of treats starting with a Dim Sum breakfast on Wednesday where we met eight other cruisers who meet once a week to enjoy a selection of Dim sum at an excellent Chinese restaurant.  We had heard about this place from Dana, a friend at Bocas del Toro, and we sampled a good variety for just over $5 per person.  For the other treat Randall has planned a mystery date for Thursday evening so what that will be, remains to be seen. 

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N 08° 55' W 79° 31'

Auto-pilot: to be or not to be?

April 08, 2010

The rest of our brief visit to Costa Rica and our return journey to Panamá City went astonishingly smoothly.  On Monday morning (April 5th) we took a local bus for the 25 mile ride to Golfito.  Golfito is a small town on a very sheltered bay that has a narrow opening into the (mostly) well protected Golfo Dulce.  Thus, Golfito is doubly protected from the ocean swell and storm waves.  The town is a narrow strip wedged between steep, forest-covered hills (conserved as the Refugio Nacional de Fauna Silvestre Golfito) and the sea, with a commercial pier, small container port, and tax free zone at the far (north) end.

Golfito formerly was one of the main Costa Rican ports for the export of bananas but now fruit and palm oil exports are not quite so dominant.  The only tax-free port in the country, Golfito attracts shoppers from all over Costa Rica and billboards advertizing all manner of home appliances and luxury goods lined the road from the Pan-American Highway.  For us the attraction was that we would almost certainly visit the town in Tregoning, since it is the first Costa Rican port of entry after leaving Panama and has a good anchorage.

We enjoyed wandering along the waterfront and visited a couple of the marinas, most significantly learning about the limits to cruising in Costa Rica.  The main issue is that to avoid paying a substantial importation/customs fee, foreign boats can only spend three months in Costa Rica and then cannot return for another three months.  The exception is if the boat is left at a marina and is bonded (which means someone takes control of your boat for you) which can quickly become very expensive.  One useful thing that we learned was that if you can get a temporary closure to your customs file (rather than a permanent one) it is possible to leave the country and stop-the-clock on the three months which can be finished on another visit.  The “if” apparently depends upon getting a customs official who knows about this option but we got the impression that this could be arranged in Golfito.  This is very useful information for us because we would like to spend three months in Costa Rica but would like to divide it into two periods, a month or two between now and July and the remainder after August.  This is because we have concluded that we should leave Tregoning in Panama while we fly back to the USA for Shev’s wedding (and other activities in July and August) rather than lose half of our Costa Rican three months while we are away in the USA.  Ah, the juggling of immigration, customs, and cruising permit requirements is quite a challenge.

During our return to Cuidad Neily we were befriended by Nelson, a young man on his way to his classes on how to be a tour-guide.  He had grown up in Golfito and his English was excellent so he was very helpful in answering our questions about the area, especially pointing out some palm oil, banana, and coffee plantations.  We look forward to returning to Golfito by boat when we will visit the beaches and local nature reserves and use our knowledge of the buses to explore inland a bit especially towards the mountains.  A travel guide that my brother Mike left with us has already proven very helpful for such expeditions.

Randall managed to stay up for the final match of the US men’s college basketball championship but I must confess that I dozed off during the second half and was only aroused to watch the closing minute of a close-fought game that Duke won over Bulter by a single point.  Actually, since we were on the equivalent of Mountain Time in the USA (Costa Rica is 6 hours behind GMT rather than the 5 hours difference in Panama but in neither country do they change their clocks for summertime) the game did not end particularly late so on Tuesday morning we were up and out of the hotel by 5:40 am.  We caught the 6 am local bus to Paso Canoas and arrived to find a line of about 60 people ahead of us waiting to get their exit stamp at the Costa Rican immigration office.  It looked even worse as there was a long line of people waiting to check-in as well but after an hour of standing we finally made it to the head of the line and got the precious exit stamp in our passports.

We walked over to the Panama side expecting to see the same 60 people ahead of us but with more than one window open they had processed people much more efficiently and it only took about 30 minutes for the 20 people ahead of us to be admitted.  Signs indicated that it is necessary to have at least $150 in cash (to show ability to support oneself – we had been told by friends to have $500 each) and a return ticket to show how you would leave Panama.  Some people were clearly being requested to produce such evidence but even though we had our cruising permits, mooring receipts, and other boat documentation ready, nothing was asked of us.  It may have helped that our officer was trying to talk on his cellphone as he stamped our passports.

While we were waiting in line, Randall talked to the conductor on one of the international Tica buses that had arrived just ahead of us.  Somewhat to our surprise and much to our relief, he agreed to wait for us and sell us two tickets to Panamá City.  This was fabulous as it would be an express trip and our alternative plan was a local bus to David and another bus from there to Panamá City, a trip that was bound to take 10 hours or so.  Even though we left the immigration desk long after the rest of the Tica bus passengers, we were somehow diverted from having to join them in the customs inspection (the conductor put our bag in the bus and took our customs form away) so we got on our seats at the back of the bus ahead of everyone else who had ridden all night from San José.  The journey took less than seven hours, there were movies (with Spanish subtitles and little sound), and we were served a breakfast snack and lunch so we were very pleased that our lucky timing had allowed us to catch the Tica bus at the border.

We did not have to wait long at the dock for someone to give us a dinghy ride back to Tregoning where everything was in good order (other than a lot of ash in the cockpit and protected places on the deck). We heard from Protecsa that our auto-pilot part had arrived so we arranged with Alberto to pick it up the next day.  After exchanging $865 for the long-awaited part, we spent a productive morning with Alberto shopping for some fabric, various hardware items, and groceries and then returned to Tregoning so that Randall could install the new auto-pilot computer.  By late afternoon, he had swapped out the computers and performed the “dockside calibration test” which looked more promising than it had the last time.  Everything seemed to be going so well.  How long could this last?

 Thursday morning was relatively calm so bright and early we tied the dinghy to our mooring ball and motored out of Las Brisa bay to an open area where we could cruise around in large circles.  The “rudder and straight-line calibrations” seemed to be OK so now it was time for the crucial “circle calibration” which would show us whether the computer was getting the necessary data from the fluxgate compass (which we had replaced earlier but which failed to fix the problem).  As we started the circle the occasional “Err.” message did not look encouraging but it was only after we had gone through 540 degrees that we reluctantly had to conclude that the problem had not been fixed.  The auto-pilot still did not know where it was pointing, a rather critical faculty if it is to be able to steer a course.  Randall tried switching some sub-units and reconnected the old fluxgate compass and I let him take over the helm as the frown on his face deepened.  Know better than to offer sympathy or speculate on our alternative options at such a disappointing moment, I buried myself in my reading book while the frustrated mutterings rumbled on in the background.  Since Randall was not confident that we could find anyone to help us fix this in Panama, I started to wonder whether we would have to buy a whole new system, struggle to get Tregoning back to the USA this summer, or even offer to fly Pat (who had installed parts of our navigation system) down from Florida.  Nothing sounded quick or cheap, especially given how long we had already waited and that we had now spent $1,200 on parts that did not help.

As resignation to our failure set in, Randall started talking through what he had thought was going on.  I tried to assist in this process by flinging out questions or suggestions as they seemed appropriate although in truth I had very little comprehension of the whole system.  Although probably none of my suggestions made any logical sense in relation to the symptoms we were seeing, in my ignorance I did manage to mention power supply and data transfer wiring, neither of which was directly relevant but the comments did ignite a spark of recognition in Randall.  He restudied the operation manual, reset the calibration parameters, and set Tregoning off in yet another circle.

We had been circling so much that a boat from the Panama Canal Authority came over to see who we were and what we were doing.  Presumably someone had seen this strange activity on the radar and even though we were well away from the canal had decided we should be investigated.  They took one look at our sailboat and at us studying the instruction manuals and motored on by giving us a cheery wave (and a rolling wake).

As Randall continued to push buttons and we spun again I resumed reading my book, bracing for the next wave of despondency but the ensuing silence finally encouraged me to look up into a beaming face.  His casual “Everything seems to be fine!” were joyous words indeed and a huge wave of relief swept over both of us.  Apparently something I had said made Randall wonder about one of the calibration parameters and sure enough when he reset it to expect a different wiring configuration everything started to work properly.  The computer had needed replacing but we might still think that the system was broken if he had not realized that this one parameter needed changing in the calibration set-up.  It turned out that the old fluxgate compass was fine but we decided to keep the new one anyway as they tend to have a limited lifetime and who knows where we might be stuck waiting for a replacement.

How much better everything looked now!  Before we returned to the mooring, we finished all the auto-pilot calibrations and re-tested the cockpit compass which Randall had adjusted since we had tested it on the way to Contadora.  Instead of having up to 15 degrees of error, the largest error now was just 3 degrees which is quite acceptable, especially as most readings were accurate to within just 1 or 2 degrees.  Finally, all our navigation and anchoring tools are working as they should.  We noted this day, cognizant that such periods of full equipment functionality may not last long.

After five months of hand-steering, Randall was just thrilled to let the auto-pilot guide us back into the bay.  Now it appears that we can indeed begin our trip to western Panama and Costa Rica next week and we can look forward to an overnight passage from Las Perlas around Punta Mala with the luxury of not having to hand-steer all the way.  Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make us very happy.  Hurrah!

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N 08° 38' W 82° 56'

Banished to movies and air conditioning

April 04, 2010

Immigration requirements can be quite mystifying.  It is not obvious to us what the benefit is to the government of Panama that we leave for 72 hours after a three month stay but that is the rule.  At least it was having arrived by airplane in Panamá City on January 6th 2010, whereas when we arrived by boat in Bocas del Toro in 2009 we could stay for six months (as long as we took a bus to Changuinola to check-in every month).

By April 2nd, since our auto-pilot part had still not arrived (we were not even certain that it had been shipped yet) we decided to leave Tregoning on the new mooring at Las Brisas and take a bus to Costa Rica.  Normally we would have tried to make arrangements for such a trip in advance but this time we had to trust that despite it being the Easter weekend we would be able to find suitable buses and hotel rooms as we traveled.  So having locked the dinghy and outboard on deck and prepared Tregoning for a few days without us, we sat in the cockpit around 9:30 am on Good Friday looking for a ride to shore.  We had to wait a little while before a dinghy went past close enough for us to hail but it turned out that the helpful neighbor had made this same trip a couple of times.  Traveling with a small child, he said that they just got the night bus to the border and then spent the time in a hotel in Cuidad Neily only too glad to return to Panama as soon as possible.

As we waited for a taxi to take us to the bus station we discussed how such an unadventurous trip might be necessary when traveling with a child but we might use our visit to see San José, stay on the coast in Golfito, or hike in a national park (hence we packed a pair of binoculars and our large bird identification book).  There was little traffic on this holy holiday so we were glad to get a taxi fairly quickly. The taxi driver said that the bus station had been packed the previous day but, like us, he was unsure how many buses would be running this day.  We saw some buses as we approached the large, Albrook bus terminal and a few people but it was clearly not busy and the adjacent shopping mall looked very quiet.

After learning that the Tica bus ticket office would not open until 11 am we had an early lunch (Randall panicked in case we had to get on a bus immediately) and waited.  By 11:30 am someone suggested that the Tica office was not going to open until the next day and that the only bus to Costa Rica would be the ExpresoPanama overnight one, the office for which should open at noon.  Randall sensibly insisted on staying at the office window to be the first in line when it opened while I wandered around exploring the huge bus terminal.  It turned out that his instinct was good.  When the ticket-person arrived he looked a bit uncertain when we said that we hoped to leave today but he got us seats number 1 and 2.  A girl behind us in line was surprised that we got tickets as she had been told none would be available until Monday but it appeared that she was not as lucky.   We were relieved not only to get tickets but also that we had not known about the uncertainty of any being available for several days.

With 10 hours to kill until we had to get ready to board the bus we walked over to the mall finding that the only open entrance was next to the movie theater.  There were many security guards making sure that nobody strayed in to the rest of the mall where all the stores were closed.  With only the cinema and two small fast-food restaurants open next door there was a surprising number of people milling around.  Still it was air-conditioned, safe, and pleasant so we read, played cards, enjoyed two movies (being careful to select those with subtitles and not dubbed – The Soloist and The Rebound), and ate dinner before finally returning to the waiting area at the bus station.

The bus stopped a few times on the 6.5 hour journey and in some places the road was pretty bumpy but we seemed to fly along and both of us slept surprisingly well until we were aroused at 5:45 am at the border at Paso Canoas.  We had spent $30 each on one-way tickets but did not actually know where in Costa Rica the bus was going to leave us so we had decided to just follow everyone else and see what happened.  The first line was to get an exit stamp on the Panama side of the border.  The next was to get an entry stamp after walking over to the Costa Rica side, and the last one was for the customs inspection (where there was no interest in looking in our bags).  We finally learned from a veteran of this bus trip that we had bought a ticket all the way to San José but that was another 200 miles and hotels there would be more expensive so we decided to get off at Cuidad Neily, just 10 miles away.

So we left the bus at 7 am (Costa Rica is an hour behind Panama) and wandered up the quiet main street of the small agricultural town.  We were looking for the bus station with the intention of catching a bus to Golfito on the coast but by the time we approached it we were not only charmed by Neily but had found a hotel that looked very pleasant.  We had obviously not slept as soundly on the bus as we had thought because the idea of just checking-in to a room and not having to go any further suddenly seemed tremendously appealing.  A room with air-conditioning, wireless internet, and cable TV for $37 (20,000 colones) a night was too tempting and all our ambitious travel plans faded away.

So we have taken several good walks around town and we plan to make a day-trip to Golfito on Monday but otherwise we are having a surprisingly good time just hanging out in our cool room, using the internet, watching movies on cable TV, and joy of joys, it is coincidentally the Final Four weekend for Men’s college basketball.  So Randall enjoyed the two semi-final games on Saturday evening and gets to watch the final on Monday.  After so much sports deprivation he is ecstatic!   Sometimes it doesn’t take much to entertain us.

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