November 02, 2010
We had become so used to being anchored in such a relaxed and interesting place (by the islands at the end of the Amador causeway) that I sometimes had to remind myself that we were staying in a bustling capital city. Many people drive, bike, or walk out along the causeway at the weekends to enjoy the various restaurants, gift shops, and views of the canal traffic and all the anchored boats. With our morning VHF network and Tuesday night gatherings of cruisers at the pizza restaurant, it was easy to get a rather inflated view of the significance of our little cruising community. But every so often the city reminded us that we are just a few visiting boats occupied by the tiniest minority of people.
Next to the dinghy dock at Las Brisas de Amador there was a large barn-like building with fabric roof and sides. Since we had been here we had seen a couple of parties hosted there but mostly it sat open and was used as a shelter for the occasional repair boats or cars. We all watched with great interest one week as the place became a hive of activity with a stage and various other mysterious structures being erected. Rumor had it that there was going to be a massive Gay-Pride Halloween party. This sounded as though it would be a good spectacle and reminded us of the excellent Halloween parade Randall and I had seen two years previously in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Huge posters were hoisted announcing the American Fest Party Disco Scene (or something along those lines) and large inflatable beer bottles and assorted tents, tables, and fences were positioned around the building. The next thing we heard was that this was going to be a regular weekend disco with a $20 cover charge and all-you-can-drink all night long. That Thursday night (Oct 28th) a search-light swept high into the clouds from the parking-lot, we saw colored lights over the disco, and heard the music from about 9 pm until sometime in the wee hours. Friday night was much the same with the additional treat that I was briefly awoken by fireworks just after midnight. On Saturday night we passed by at 10 pm and saw that very few patrons had arrived yet but this time the music was still going strong when we got up and did not stop until 7 am on Sunday. As in Jamaica, it seemed that the music was deliberately aimed over the anchorage but in this case it was more likely that it was non-directional and just carried further over the water. Suddenly, despite the longer dinghy-rides to the dock, our strategy of anchoring at the outer edges of the anchorage was vindicated. While many people anchored closer to the disco were kept awake by it, we hardly heard it on Tregoning and certainly not below-decks when the hatches were closed because of rain.
The other reason why we tended to anchor further from the dinghy-dock at the head of the bay was to avoid the more crowded anchoring conditions there and reduce the risk of being hit if another boat dragged its anchor…or have less chance of collision if our anchor should drag. When we returned from Las Perlas we learned that another of the moorings near the dinghy dock had broken and a large, new catamaran island-ferry had drifted a considerable distance through the anchored boats and out towards Panama City where it was rescued before sustaining any damage. How it had not (that we knew of) rammed an anchored boat during its wanderings was almost incomprehensible.
Curiously, in two brief blows during a subsequent week, the two boats that ended up dragging their anchors were both out on the edge of the anchorage near us. In the first case, there were strong winds while many of us were ashore for cruisers’ Pizza Night. After a phone call was made to the restaurant saying that it looked as though a boat was dragging, someone from each crew went to the dock and peered out into the dark anchorage to see if they could identify their boats. Everyone (including Randall) came back satisfied that their boat was as they had left it and we enjoyed the rest of the evening waiting for the wind to subside. Eventually, Randal and I returned to Tregoning at the same time that Greg (Sweet Dreams) and Bill (Some Day) decided to leave. As we walked down to the dinghy dock the security guard told us in Spanish that a boat had moved and we soon realized that he was naming Bill’s boat. We sped out in our three dinghies and sure enough, Some Day had gone.
It must be the most sickening feeling and I had to admire Bill for how calm he managed to appear. The problem was that even though he had a flashing light on the boat (a surprising number of people in a busy anchorage do not use any anchoring lights) it was impossible to see his light against the backdrop of the nighttime city skyline. So while Randall and I returned to the security guard to ask for more details, Bill frantically looked around and Greg went and got a VHF radio to ask if anyone had seen the boat. After being told by the guard that the boat was safe but had gone a long way, we eventually found it just beyond the furthest anchored yachts. We later heard that a couple of cruisers who had been on their boats when Some Day drifted by (probably quite close to Tregoning) had gone aboard and let out more anchor chain which had stopped its dragging. In this case the wind was blowing away from the rocks of the causeway and Some Day could have gone a lot further before reaching shallow water in front of the city but it was still an understandably alarming experience for Bill. We were somewhat surprised when the next day he went back and anchored in exactly the same place from which he had dragged. We would have had to try somewhere different but his boat firmly stayed-put until he left for Costa Rica.
The other boat was less fortunate in its wayward course and during a brief squall that blew winds of more than 25 knots from the northeast during one Saturday morning, a large (> 60 ft) and elegant Panamanian ketch (supposedly built in the Darien) dragged onto the causeway rocks. At the time, we were aboard Tregoning keeping a wary eye on another boat that had been towed and anchored rather close to us (after dragging slightly elsewhere and lacking a functioning motor) but we heard a call of warning on the VHF radio and then saw the Darian boat near the rocks. After calling for other dinghies to help, Randall set off in the strong winds and nasty chop in our dinghy which had by this time sprung a leak from another seam and so was partly deflated. I stayed on Tregoning to make sure that neither we nor our neighbor moved while a flotilla of dinghies raced to the causeway. In the squall conditions, I half expected that Randall would need to be towed back to Tregoning when he tried to return upwind in our pathetic dinghy that had become essentially an inflatable surf-board but he kept going all right, albeit rather wetly.
Although the dinghies were able to keep its bow off the rocks, the stern of the Panamanian boat settled on the boulders as the tide went down. The waves were not big enough to move the large boat so when the owner (or captain) arrived, he asked everyone to leave it alone as it was more likely to be damaged by any attempt to grind it over the rocks. Instead he waited until the tide returned to the same stage (about six hours later) and they floated off without any obvious damage. When the tide was low, the boat did lean at a rather rakish angle towards the shore and a few cars stopped on the causeway to look at the rather sad spectacle. But the relaxed attitude of the owner and crew (who had been ashore when the anchor dragged and then nonchalantly cleaned the hull while it was exposed) suggested that this was not the first time that something like this had happened. I think that I would be pretty frantic if Tregoning ended up sitting on rocks like that but perhaps this is a good lesson in the value of staying calm and patient.
After Randall managed to get back to Tregoning without the need for assistance, yet another round of dinghy patching was initiated. During this time, there was one further boat incident that influenced the anchorage. We did not see the pivotal event but one day we noticed a large hull (maybe 150 ft long) floating upside-down near the ramp at Las Brisas. It turned out that a small cargo ship that delivered goods to Las Perlas had been poorly loaded with something very top-heavy. The excessive cargo had not been centered properly and as soon as the boat was untied from the dock it rolled over towards the over-weighted side and subsequently became fully inverted.
It is a sad sight to see any capsized boat and it took a major effort with several large cables, chains, and tractors to scrape it up the boat ramp and get it out of the water. But the worst effect for the rest of us was that enough diesel fuel leaked out to create a smelly, ugly, and unhealthy sheen on the water in the anchorage for several days. During that time, on incoming tides we noticed the pelicans and terns frantically feeding just ahead of the next wash of fuel, presumably where small fish had been driven by the incoming slick of tainted water. We even saw dolphins feeding throughout the anchorage (not an uncommon sight) and hoped that none of these predators would be sickened by the leaking fuel. By the time the fuel had been removed from the hull, we never saw any distressed birds or sea mammals but we were certainly tired of the fumes on our boats.
Other than the disco, the celebration of Halloween was not very evident in our part of Panama City. Randall and I joined Margaret and Mo on Saturday evening (Oct 30th) for a bus ride and walk into Casco Viejo (trusting in Margaret’s excellent navigation skills in the dark to keep us out of the dodgy areas nearby) to see the “Annual Zombie Walk”. We somewhat underestimated how long this parade would take to get from its starting point (allegedly leaving at 7 pm) to the heart of the old town where we were waiting. But more patient minds than mine prevailed in our group and after two and a half hours of wandering around the historic area, having cocktails, and enjoyable conversation we were rewarded by the arrival of a motely procession of about 100, student-looking “zombies” who appeared to be wending their way under some supervision from one bar to another. A few of the costumes were quite clever while others had the minimalist approach of just white face make-up with blackened eyes but they seemed to be having fun. We had perhaps expected a more diverse and traditional parade with music and banners and there was some muttering from the very few local spectators that they were just a bunch of spoiled, rich-kids who were being given a police escort and were allowed to disrupt traffic in the narrow streets. But it seemed fairly harmless to us and they all appeared good natured and to be having fun so it will be interesting to learn over the long-term whether this event (only in its fourth year) becomes more established or fizzles out.
On Halloween afternoon we were visited briefly for “Tricks-or-Treats” by costumed Brady, Troy and the girls (Samantha, Ashley, and Emily) as they rode their dinghy ashore to meet friends for the evening. Otherwise, we were ourselves condemned to eat the rest of Halloween candy we had bought. I saved a little for Randall’s birthday a couple of days later, incorporating it into a rhyming scavenger-hunt for little presents (or promises of presents) around the boat. Being on a Tuesday, his birthday was further feted by a rendition of “Happy Birthday” when he hosted the morning VHF radio net and at cruisers’ Pizza Night, for which I had made a large chocolate and cherry cake for all to share. Being the night before the holiday for Panamanian Independence Day, the restaurant was mysteriously banned from selling alcohol but everyone still managed to have a good party despite the unexpected absence of beer. Apparently it is all right for Panamanians to get intoxicated on the national holidays (there are a bewildering number of holidays during November) but they should start out sober and so not alcohol can be sold or served the day before. An interesting strategy…