Our Trip To, Not Through, The Panama Canal

Jumping back several months, to catch you up on our canal adventure:

Our cruising plans do not include transiting the Panama Canal. It’s a substantial cost, and I have no interest in crossing the Pacific (after our passage to Puerto Rico, neither does Scott). However, being one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and Panama’s biggest tourist attraction, we were very interested to see the canal. Since our route from Bocas del Toro to the San Blas islands took us within a few hours of the canal’s visitor center, it seemed a shame not to visit.

But first, here’s some interesting history of the Panama Canal, and it’s construction (with some cool visual aides):

The idea of creating a water passage across the isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans dates back to the 1500s, when Spain surveyed a possible route across Panama’s Chagres River. The idea seemed impossible at the time, but remained intriguing a potential shortcut from Europe to Eastern Asia.

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France was first to attempt the daunting task. They planned a sea-level canal, with Count Ferdinand de Lessep (builder of the Suez Canal in Egypt) in charge of the project. After breaking ground in 1880, the construction team soon realized the monumental challenge ahead of them.

They were plagued by yellow fever and malaria, and incessant rains caused heavy landslides. De Leeps realized that a sea-level canal was too difficult, and shifted his plan to a lock canal. However, it was too late; funding was pulled from the project in 1888, after nine years and a loss of approximately 20,000 lives.

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With a push from President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. purchased the French assets in the canal zone for $40 million in 1902. After a proposed treaty over rights to build in Panama was rejected (at the time, it was a Colombian controlled territory), the U.S. threw its military weight behind Panama’s fight for independence from Colombia.

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In November of 1903, the U.S. negotiated a deal with the newly declared Republic of Panama, that gave them rights to the canal zone. In exchange for the ten mile stretch of land, the U.S made a one-time, $10 million dollar payment, annual payments of $250,000 and agreed to guarantee the independence of Panama.

The U.S. also had plans for a sea-level canal, but much of the French equipment was in need of repair, and the threat of malaria and yellow fever was frightening off the workforce.

A railroad specialist took over on July of 1905, and immediately recruited West Indian laborers to solve the workforce issues. He ordered new equipment, and came up with more efficient ways to speed up the work. In addition, he realized the difficulties that landslides posed, and convinced President Roosevelt that a lock canal would be best for the area’s terrain.

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Image result for photos of west indian workers panama canal construction

Image result for photos of west indian workers panama canal construction

What helped the project immensely was the chief sanitary officer’s belief that mosquitoes carried the deadly diseases plaguing the area (who knew they had a chief  sanitary officer??). On a mission to wipe out the pesky mosquitoes, his team diligently fumigated homes, and cleansed pools of water. The last reported case of yellow fever in Panama was in 1905, and malaria cases dropped sharply over the following decade.

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Image result for fumigating homes during the construction of the panama canal

In 1906, a new chief engineer took over, and he focused efforts on the Culebra Cut,  a nine mile stretch of mountain range along the canal route. Clearing this area became a 24-7 operation, with more than 6,000 men contributing at any one time. Despite the attention paid to this section of the project, the Culebra Cut was a notorious danger zone. There were many, many casualties from unpredictable landslides and dynamite explosions (Good grief, its a wonder this thing ever got built!).

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Construction of the locks began in August 1909. Built in pairs, each lock chamber leveraged gravity to raise and lower water levels (there were/are no pumps used). Ultimately, the three locks along the canal route lifted ships 85 feet above sea level, to the man-made Gatun lock in the middle. The entire operation was powered by electricity, and run through a control board.

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Image result for photos of panama canal locks construction

The gates separating the chambers in each set of locks hold back a considerable weight of water, and had to be made both reliable and strong enough to withstand accidents, as their failure could unleash a catastrophic flood of water downstream (bad for business) .

Ranging in size from 47 to 82 ft high, depending on position,the gates are enormous, and are 7 ft thick; the hinges alone each weigh almost 17 tons! They can be opened during the operating cycle only when the water level on both sides is equal.

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The original gates are still in use, but their mechanisms were replaced with hydraulic struts in January 1998, after 84 years of service. Much like the hull of a ship, the lock gates are hollow and buoyant. They are so well balanced that two 25 hp motors are enough to move each leaf. If one motor fails, the other can still operate the gate at reduced speed.

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Image result for photos of panama canal construction

In October of 1913, President Roosevelt operated a telegraph at the White House that triggered an explosion of Gamboa dike, flooding the final stretch of dry passageway at Culebra Cut.

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The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15, 1914, but a grand ceremony was downgraded, due to the start of WWI. The canal was completed at a cost of more than $350 million, and was the most expensive construction project in U.S. history at the time.

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Image result for photos of the opening of the panama canal

The canal was a vital part of expanding global trade routes in the 20th century. Transition of overseeing the canal, from the U.S. to Panama, began in 1977, with a treaty signed by President Carter, and the Panama Canal Authority assumed full control on December 31, 1999. In September 2010, the canal hosted its 1 millionth passing ship, and in 2016 a massive canal expansion opened, doubling the waterway’s capacity.

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Image result for photos of the panama canal expansion

Here endeth the lesson.

After our short stay in Portobelo, we headed to nearby Linton Bay, which is just over an hour car ride to the visitor’s center at the canal’s Mira Flores Locks. It was also a short ride to a grocery store for provisioning, and an easy jump off point to head for the San Blas. We decided to leave the boat at Linton Bay Marina. From there we could visit the canal, spend the night in Panama City and return the next morning, with Howard and Sea Life tucked into a slip for safe keeping.

We arranged for a cab to take us from the marina to the Miraflores Locks, traveling winding, hilly roads along the way, and arrived at the visitor’s center an hour or so later. The ticket office was not yet open, but there were already many people waiting to get in. We took our place in line, just beating a huge tour bus full of people..whew!

After purchasing our tickets and heading inside, we were told to make our way up to viewing area on the fourth floor, as there were ships entering the locks. Once off the elevator, we managed to get a front row spot on the rail, and settled in to watch the large ships “lock through.”

As ships approach from the Pacific side, two locks at the Mira Flores Locks raise them up into Mira Flores Lake. At the other end of the lake, a single lock at Pedro Miguel Lock raises them again, into Gatun Lake and then a triple set of locks at Gatun Locks lower the ships back down to sea level in the Caribbean sea.

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Image result for aerial view of the panama canal

Though the channels in the locks seem large enough for ships to pass in both directions at the same time, the Culebra Cut makes this impossible. The area is far too narrow for the large ships to pass each other, so two “lanes” transit traffic from the Caribbean to the Pacific in the morning, and then the direction shifts, for those transiting from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

We were watching ships pass from north to south. They had transited from the Caribbean, and entered the locks from the Mira Flores lake. There were no private/pleasure boats coming through when we visited, only large ships and smaller commercial vessels.

Pleasure boats and small fishing boats usually transit very early in the morning, or after dark. They are tied together, or to a canal tug, as they move through. We have several friends who’ve transited the canal, and all have stories of things not going exactly as planned. Here are some photos. They also have great blogs!

s/v Prism (Jon & Shannon)

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Pull faster Shannon!! AH

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s/v Morpheous of London (Richard & Jan)

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Mini towing locomotives, called mules, are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks (Forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship’s engines). The mules  run on “rack tracks,” to which they are geared, and their traction is electric, supplied through a third rail that is laid below surface level on the land side of the channels.

Large ships have two mules on each side at the bow, and two each side at the stern—eight in total, allowing for precise control of the ship. Each mule has a powerful winch, operated by the driver; these are used to take two cables in and out as needed, in order to keep the ship centered in the lock while moving it from chamber to chamber. With the larger ships having very little clearance, the mule operators have to be pretty good at what they do!

All ship captains are required to yield control to a canal pilot while transiting, who are specially trained to guide vessels of all sizes safely through the locks. Some ships are so wide that they clear the concrete walls by mere inches. A lock master is in position on either side of the lock, and is in constant communication with the pilots and the control tower during the entire process.

An announcer narrates details about each ship passing through the two lanes, providing the country of origin, what type of cargo is on board and other details. Relayed in both Spanish and English, the information was both interesting and helpful as we watched the huge ships pass by us.

We saw some amusing sights as the ships passed by: a basketball court on the deck of a ship, crew members enjoying the ride in a shady spot and the amount of radar waves that we were exposed to at the observation deck level!

When the canal opened, a set of guidelines were put in place for the maximum requirements of ships transiting across. “Panamax” includes the width and length of the available lock chambers, the depth of water in the canal and the height of the bridges that span the it. A new set of locks opened in June of 2016, allowing larger, “New Panamax” ships to transit back and forth. From our spot on the viewing deck, we could see ships transiting those lanes as well.

There was so much see; we stayed on the viewing deck for hours, taking it all in. When all the ships has locked through, we headed downstairs to check out the rest of the visitors center. There was a short film on the history of the canal, and many rooms of exhibits, containing information about the canal’s construction. We ended our visit with a spin through the gift shop, and then went outside to catch a cab to our hotel, stopping on the way at McDonald’s, for Scott to get a fast food fix!

At the recommendation of one of our friends at Red Frog marina, in Bocas del Toro, I’d booked a room at the Comfort Inn and Suites, which sits right on the canal route. The balcony rooms look over the Balboa Yacht Club’s many boats at anchor, and ships on their way to and from the locks.

Scott kept watch online, in live time, to see when a ship was coming our way. We’d take a break from the air conditioning, and watching English television channels, to go out and watch them pass by (our balcony was in full sun until dusk, so small bursts of outside time were all we could handle).

Our water view all but disappeared during a late afternoon downpour, as the streets below quickly flooded.

Now you see it…

Now you don’t…

We ate a room service steak dinners on our king-size bed, enjoyed long, “roomy” showers, and kept a “ship watch” out the window until well after dark, and again at first light the next morning.

It was a great Christmas treat to ourselves! Here are many more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Snug Harbor And Our Last Days In The San Blas Islands

We waived a final goodbye to the swimming pool anchorage, and traveled six hours east to Snug Harbor, one of many anchorages, islands and villages farther east in the San Blas. The quiet anchorage was beautiful, surrounded by small islands made up of palms and mangroves, and again set against the lush mainland mountains.

The three of us spent the evening out in the cockpit, enjoying the scenery (us) and smells (Howard).

After parting ways in the Robisons, our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) caught up with us in Snug Harbor. The four of us made our way into the nearby village of Playon Chico, connected to the mainland by a long bridge.

We were in search of the usual…veggies, eggs, Coke and Guna bread. As we wandered the quiet streets, a man offered to help us locate a woman who sold bread. We purchased the most delicious rolls from her, still warm from the oven. The man then led us along a narrow path that wove it’s way tightly between some of the village houses; I didn’t dare take a photo at the most narrow spots, as we were practically inside of peoples’ homes!

The labyrinth-like path ended at the village docks, where two supply boats were tied. We were able to buy eggs, beer, sodas and a few veggies right off of the boat.

After we’d returned to the boat, and put away our things, Scott and I took a happy hour ride around the anchorage, exploring our surroundings.

As usual, Scott wanted to get his hiking fix in. He’d heard there was a waterfall in the area so he set out the next day with Ted and Barbara to search it out. The threesome made their way to shore, and into the woods.

They passed by several fincas, or farms, where villagers grow vegetables. One farmer offered to lead the three of them to the waterfall. Having local knowledge is always helpful, and it’s also a nice to learn about plants and such along the way. Ted is fluent in Spanish, and could easily translate information, so they accepted the farmer’s offer and continued on with the now guided tour; one of his helpers tagged along as well.

They learned that dark, dirt-like edges around the garden areas was actually made up of ant nests taken from higher elevations. Cutter ants can tear plants to shreds, but it seems the cutter ants down near the fincas don’t like the smell of the “higher” ants, and therefore keep out of the gardens (not sure if this works for other critters as well).

Water is carried from the falls back down to the village through a  pipe system that follows the trail. In most places, the pipe is raised off the ground in an attempt to keep it as straight as possible, and out of the water, using branches and wires.

The guide pointed out a tree whose fruit is used for containers, when dried.

Voila! Guna tupperware!

We have noticed many of the Guna people with red paint-type stuff on their faces. The guide informed Scott, Ted and Barbara that it is actually a type of sunscreen that comes from the berries on this tree. We’d assumed it the red faces had some kind of traditional meaning…sunscreen, go figure.

They continued on through the woods, making their way higher and higher, with the water line leading the way.

The guide stopped to show the three an ant nest, used to create barriers around gardens in the fincas below.

 

After walking approximately four miles, they arrived at the waterfall. It was time for a lunch break…and a swim!

Fed, rested and cooled off, the group began to make their way back. As they walked, Scott noticed a big line of carpenter ants carrying leaves of a tree, along the top of a water pipe. We’re always amazed at what they can carry, and how quickly they can tear something apart.

Nearing the end of the hike, the guide stopped to pick coconuts, so the three could enjoy some fresh coconut water. Thankfully, Scott has not yet attempted to harvest a coconut himself (Kevin Stotz, if you were here, he’d most likely make you do it!), but I’m afraid that day is coming.

Once they were back down among the fincas, the three were met by other little helpers, who were finishing their day’s work on the farms. They happily posed for a photo.

After only a few days at anchor in Snug Harbor, Scott noticed a good weather window for us to get to Cartagena. Not knowing how long we’d have to wait for another, with early spring weather being unpredictable (scratch that, with all weather being unpredictable), we decided to forgo visiting any more of the eastern islands, and make the jump. It would be goodbye to the San Blas, and sadly, to Panama. Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Our Last Weeks In The San Blas Islands

Our last few weeks in the San Blas were spent revisiting several anchorages and saying final goodbyes. I had spread the word for cruisers in the area to gather for a Mardi Gras celebration on Barbecue Island, located at the head of the swimming pool anchorage. We had a terrific turnout, with nearly 40 people arriving by dingy. It was a fun and festive evening!

 

Our friends Tate and Dani (s/v Sundowner) were entertaining their friend, Michele, who was visiting from New Orleans, so several of us gathered at our usual beach spot for afternoon drinks, bobbing and of course some trash burning.

Scott and I brought Micah along, who was aboard Dauntless, our fellow Krogen, and we were all thrilled to have Debbie and Reg join us, from s/v Runner. They have been living at anchor in the swimming pool for almost ten years!  Everyone enjoyed time in the water, and the fun lasted until after sunset.

The forecast called for winds to increase in the coming days, so the following morning we headed just around the corner to the hot tub anchorage, which usually offers a bit more protection from winds and the current that comes with it. For this go-round however, the hot tub was still considerably wind-chopped. In addition, the sun decided to take a break, and windy, cloudy conditions lasted for nearly ten days.

We had sizable neighbors just outside the anchorage, in the form of several large charter yachts. I named this one “Little Titanic.” It was a beautiful yacht from the 1920s, completely refitted in 2003, at what I’m sure had to be an astronomical cost. Speaking of astronomical, $500,000.00 (yes, half a million U.S. Dollars) will buy you a week-long charter….for eight guests. I was happy just to enjoy the view.

Several of our cruising friends waited out the windy weather with us in the hot tub as well. We passed time visiting each other by dinghy, and dealing with the ongoing internet challenge. Our friend Jon spent much time at what we called s/v Prism’s “internet cafe.”

There were several boccie matches on the large beach of a nearby island, an afternoon trash burn at the nearby lazy river beach (you can ride the current, just floating along, around the end of the island) and Sea Life hosted our friends in the anchorage one evening, with Scott making his now-famous quesadillas.

The winds began to die just in time for us to head back to the Robison Islands. A regatta was being held, made up of local Gunas in their sailing ulus. Our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) were also in the Robisons, with things for us from Panama City (yes, you always take advantage of having things brought from the city!).

On our way, we decided to make a stop at the Carti Islands, to shop the tienda there. Many friends frequently mentioned it as one of the best locations for produce in the San Blas. We anchored right off of the island, which was crammed with houses and other buildings. Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to locate the ice machine we were told to look for, which marked the pier leading to the tienda.

As we approached, I thought we must have been coming up on the wrong location. Surely this store wasn’t going to have much, other than junk.

Inside, we were impressed with the variety and amount of produce jammed into the small store with dirt floors. There were large bags and boxes full of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots and cabbage, as well as apples, bananas and papaya. A large cooler contained plenty of parsley, celery and culantro, and an abundance of pineapples and netted sleeves of garlic hung from the ceiling beams.

The small store also carried a decent supply of canned food, rice, sodas, cleaning supplies and similar shelved items. We arrived at Carti, shopped and were back on board raising anchor within two hours, and then continued on to the Robisons.

Unfortunately, we decided not to fight winds in the open water, to arrive in time for the regatta. Many cruisers who were already on the Robisons’ side of the archipelago, with a more protected course, had come for the event as well. Most arrived the day before the regatta, and the anchorage was much more crowded than in our previous visit.

By the time we anchored, the main dock on the largest village was crowded with dinghies and ulus, as everyone gathered for an awards celebration. When the party broke up, I was able to get many photos of the colorful ulus sailing away from the village.

Ted and Barbara came over to deliver our requested items from Panama City. We thanked them for their efforts with dinner aboard, and were treated to another full rainbow over the anchorage.

The next morning, we made the 90 minute trip back to Porvenier, with fingers crossed to get ourselves cleared out of Panama. Several dolphins joined us along the way, and they caught our eye as looking a bit different from others we’d seen. They had white speckled bodies, and after some checking, we discovered that they were spotted dolphins.  One of them was completely content to swim upside-down for an extended time alongside the boat. Dolphins….always amusing.

Inside the office, it took some doing to get our exit stamps. The officer was concerned about our paperwork. We had recent exit and re-entry stamps (from my adventure to Panama City with Howard), but our customs form had us checked out three months prior to those dates. Scott explained that the discrepancy wasn’t Panama’s concern, as we weren’t coming back to the country; it was an issue for the agent in Colombia to deal with. He finally got the message through, and the officer stamped us out of the country, but not before confirming one more time that we would not be coming back to Panama anytime soon.

From Porvenier, we began a San Blas farewell tour. Our friends Dani and Tate were anchored in the eastern Lemmon Cays. They had recently decided to sell their sailboat, Sundowner (setting their sights on a larger cruising boat), and the Lemmons anchorage provided a short sail to the mainland for meeting potential buyers. It would be our last chance to see them, and since the anchorage was just 90 minutes from Porvenier,  we headed their way.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the Lemmon Cays without some time in open water between reefs. Scott decided that since  it was only a short stretch, we could forego putting the paravane birds in the water. He quickly regretted the decision, becoming seasick in the rolling swells. Not wanting to lose speed or time by stopping to put the birds in, Scott instead chose to battle his stomach for the 30 minute open water ride.

I still had some ground beef stashed in the freezer, from Bocas del Toro, so we invited Dani and Tate over for a burgers. The two of them were some of the first cruising friends we met in the San Blas, and we were going to really miss seeing them regularly.

The next morning, our friends Chris and Anne (s/v Mr. Mac) hailed us on the vhf. They had just arrived in the Lemmons, and were anchored right near us, stopping on their way back to Bocas. Mr. Mac would be stored for the summer at Red Frog Marina, while Chris and Anne headed back to North Carolina.

A plan was made to meet at the small restaurant nearby for happy hour drinks, and then back to Mr. Mac for dinner. The four of us met during our stay at Red Frog, and immediately hit it off. It was a treat to have them in the San Blas for much of our stay, and we’ll definitely miss our time together.

From the Lemmons, we made our way to anchor in the swimming pool one last time. Several of our friends were there, giving us the chance for more goodbyes. Another large gathering was planned for Barbeque Island, to celebrate all cruisers with March birthdays. This included several of our friends, so we made our way ashore for one last potluck happy hour.

 

We spent a few more days at anchor in the pool, managing to squeeze in a final trash-burn gathering on one of the local beaches (cocktails included of course), before saying final goodbyes to the people we’d become close with.

Our friends Julie and Tom (s/v Gris Gris) have spent many years cruising the area, and were immediately welcoming when we arrived. They shared their extensive knowledge of the Guna people, and helped with many San Blas cruising details during our stay.

Our beautiful, Trinidad-born friend, Sharda, had worked many years in bakeries, much like myself. We hit it off, trading recipes and tips, with our husbands reaping (or should I say eating) the benefits of our friendship.

With the farewell tour complete, it was time to make our way further east. We would head for some of the more remote anchorages and villages in the eastern San Blas, while waiting on favorable weather to head for Cartagna. It was definitely hard to leave this beautiful place, and all of the great friends we’d met during our stay.

Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

A Fellow Krogen Comes To The San Blas

Scott regularly follows cruising and trawler websites, as well as several blogs. During our refit, and over the last 18 months or so of actively cruising, the various sites and forums have been useful sources of information and first hand knowledge. One of the more interesting blogs is that of Duantless, another 42′ Kadey Krogen trawler.

Richard Bost began cruising with Dauntless in the Bahamas, and then traveled back up the east coast to New York. After his “shakedown” cruise, he headed for Nova Scotia, and then crossed the Atlantic (traveling alone from the Azures to Ireland). Richard wintered in Ireland, and then spent time extensively cruising areas throughout the North and Baltic Seas.

Dauntless returned to Ireland for maintenance and repairs, and then continued on, making stops in France, Portugal, Gibraltar, Morocco and the Canary Islands before crossing back over the Atlantic, and into the Caribbean. After spending time in Martinique to rest and refuel, Richard planned to head for the Panama Canal, stopping in Cartagena along the way.

Scott and Richard had been communicating through Trawler Forum for about a year, trading information back and forth. When logistics for stopping in Cartagena became an issue, Scott convinced Richard to make a detour, and come to the San Blas for a visit.

As Dauntless approached the San Blas, we kept an eye on Richard’s progress through the Delorme link on his blog. We noticed him stopped in Nargana, and realizing that he’d been informed we were there, Scott contacted Richard to let him know that we were now in the Eastern Holandes. It wasn’t long before we spotted Dauntless making her way into the swimming pool anchorage.

Once they were anchored, Scott went over to officially welcome Richard and his nephew Micah to the pool. They had traveled straight through from Aruba, so we made a plan to meet aboard Sea Life for brunch the next morning, giving the two a chance to rest up.

In the morning, rested and refreshed, Richard and Micha joined us for brunch. With full bellies, the inspection of Sea Life began.

 

Then it was back over to Dauntless, where Richard and Scott compare boats and notes.

 

The two enjoyed exchanging information, learning much about how each boat was outfitted. Unfortunately, Richard was on a tight schedule to make his Panama Canal date, so it was a short San Blas visit, but we enjoyed meeting him, and Micah, after following Dauntless’ adventure for the last several years. It was also nice to have another trawler in the anchorage, among all the sailboats!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

Dinner And Drama

We enjoyed getting to know Michele, who was visiting our friends Dani and Tate (s/v Sundowner), so before she left to go home, Scott and I wanted to have the three of them aboard Sea Life for dinner. Unfortunately, when date night came around, Dani wasn’t feeling well, so Tate and Michele joined us as a twosome.

The four of us enjoyed dinner, and Howard amused us all with his usual antics. He tends to burn off his evening energy by racing around the decks like a maniac, before jumping from the cockpit, to the rail, onto the grill, and then launching up to the flybridge. Because we had guests on board, he was extra wound up, and had too much momentum going from the rail to the grill. Instead of landing on it, he sailed past….and into the water.

Luckily, Scott and Tate were outside, and realized that Howard had gone overboard. They began to try and locate him in the water, while I yelled to them to get a towel (A cat can grab the towel with his claws, and hang onto it as you pull him in. We used this tactic on one of the three times Howard went into the Baltimore harbor).

Scott and Tate spotted Howard swimming off of our port side. On top of it being 10pm and dark (why do things like this always happen in the dark?!?), there was a bit of current running through the anchorage. With the Bengal breed being part of his make-up, Howard is a good swimmer, but Scott was concerned that the current would be an issue. As I was still yelling to get a towel, he thrust his hand into the water, hoping to pull Howard back on board.

As Scott reached toward him, Howard bit right into the last two fingers of his right hand, puncturing the pinky, and tearing through the ring finger. With his bloody finger, Scott was still trying to help Howard, who was now attempting to get hold of our inflatable dinghy. Realizing that his finger needed immediate attention, Tate took Scott inside to help wrap the wound.

By now, I was out on the swim platform, and Howard had made his way around to the back of the boat. As he bit at one of our fenders hanging in the water (we later realized that he popped it; jaws of steel), I realized that Howard had not intentionally bitten Scott. He was just desperately trying to grab hold of anything he could with his teeth, to get out of the water as he swam. Howard grabbed right onto the towel that I threw in the water, and I was able to pull him up onto the swim platform and into my lap.

Michele tossed me another towel, and Howard stayed in my lap as I began to dry him off. Once he’d caught his breath, we moved inside, and I went over his fur with “kitty wipes,” so he wouldn’t ingest too much salt as he continued to dry himself off.

Meanwhile, Tate had helped Scott wrap his finger, and was now attacking drops of blood on the saloon rug with hydrogen peroxide (It took the spots right out, along with those on Scott’s shirt; a nice little trick to remember). He suggested that Scott immediately start taking an antibiotic, so I unearthed a bottle of Cipro from our stash of drugs.

Not fifteen minutes after coming out of the water, Howard was crying for food. He wolfed it down, followed by some water (Maybe he was trying to get the taste of salt water out of his mouth?). Once things had settled down, Tate and Michele headed back to Sundowner. Tate was a huge help, and Michele went home with quite a story!

The next morning, being concerned about a cat bite in salt water, I suggested that we try and raise our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) on the vhf. They are both doctors, and I wanted to make sure that we treated Scott’s wound correctly.

We were able to reach Ted and Barbara, but because they were several islands away, and our vhf antenna is not nearly as high in the air as that of a sailboat, it was a very, very hard to hear them through the static. Fortunately, our friend Judy was anchored nearby (s/v Chinook). She heard our struggling conversation, and stepped in to relay the conversation for us through her vhf radio; this was a huge help.

Both Barbara and Ted asked Scott several questions, gathering information about the wound. They instructed Scott to add 1500 milligrams of Amoxicillin per day, to the 500 miligrams of Cipro that he was already taking. The two drugs together helped fight any possible infection in a more broad spectrum. In addition, Scott was told to soak the finger twice a day with a diluted iodine solution, and to not fully close the finger up for several days. This would allow the iodine soak to really clean out the wound.

Barbara and Ted suggested that Scott may need a few stitches to close the wound on day three or four. This posed several questions: Do we make the costly trek to a hospital in Panama City, head back to Nargana, and have it stitched at the clinic there or take our friend Chris (s/v Mr. Mac) up on his offer to close the wound (Between our two boats, we had everything needed for this.)? Of course, Scott was voting for option three. Chris had only stitched up lab animals, but skin was skin….right??

Thankfully, we didn’t need to put any of the options in play. Judy came over to take a photo of Scott’s finger on day three (which I had still not looked at…gross). When she sent it to Barbara and Ted, they said that the finger looked great, and instead of stitches, Scott could get just use a sterile-strip to close the wound (thank you to our friend Maria, who is a nurse, and stocked us up on many emergency items before we left home!).

Of course this meant Scott was out of the water for at least two weeks, something he was not happy about. However, during his entire “sentence,” the winds picked up and it was mostly cloudy, which somewhat softened the blow. Scott’s finger healed beautifully, and he and Howard are still friends…for now.

Nargana, Our Visit To The “Big City”

After our friend Karen headed back home, Scott and I decided to head over to the “big city” of Nargana. On the morning net, we regularly hear cruisers mention stopping at the larger, more populated island for fresh produce, water and other items. At only an hour or so from our anchorage in the Coco Bandero Cays, we thought it was time to check out Nargana for ourselves.

One of several larger and more populated islands in the San Blas archipelago, Nargana is joined to the neighboring island of Corazon de Jesus by a covered, concrete bridge. Here’s an overhead view.

Being a “big city,” we were greeted by a sizable cell phone tower, but unfortunately I still struggled with a decent signal (what are these stupid towers made of??)

Not long after we had anchored, a local man stopped by in his ulu. Frederico lives on the island, and offered his help with anything we may need during our stay. His primary income comes from offering laundry service, but thankfully we have a machine here on board. After chatting with Scott a bit, Frederico told Scott where to land the dinghy when we went in for groceries, and then made his way back to shore.

Never meeting a river he didn’t like to explore, Scott took off the next morning to see what the nearby Rio Diablo river had in store (I stayed behind, to fight with the maddening, in-explainable internet service). He found the usual thick jungle-lined shorelines, but also discovered several graveyards through the trees.

Toward the end of his exploration, the sun came out brightly, casting beautifully clear reflections in the water.

That afternoon, we headed into town in search of fresh produce and bread (Guna bread is made with coconut water, and it’s the best!). As we approached the dock, there was Frederico, waiting for us to land. His house is located on the the outer edge of the island, with a view of the anchorage. He’d seen the dinghy heading into town, and came to offer us a tour. Having no idea where to go in search of produce and bread, we thought, why not, and accepted his offer.

Frederico walked us down one of the island’s main streets, passing a heated volleyball game and many gardens.

We ended up at the water’s edge, where there were several graves. Frederico explained that the raised burial sites were important people, but we didn’t quite get the who and why.

He showed us a beach where many turtles come to nest and hatch each year, and then we made our way back to town, walking an old airstrip that used to service the island.

Our quest for bread and produce was lengthy. We’d had no success on Nargana, so it was across the bridge, to try our luck in Corazon de Jesus.

The bread wasn’t too difficult to locate on Corazon de Jesus, although we’d never have found it on our own. Many of the bakeries and tiendas are run out of, or blend right in with homes on the island.

Finding produce was not as easy, or productive. We’d seen several supply boats in town as we came in, but there was nothing to be found but some beat up cabbage, carrots and potatoes. There’s always talk of fresh stuff disappearing the day after it arrives here, and apparently this was true.

After walking both islands in the midday heat, we enjoyed a beer in the shade with Frederico before he walked us back to our dinghy. He raises funds to aide the handicapped people on both islands, and we were happy to donate to his efforts as a thank you for his help in town. I snapped a photo of our friendly guide with Scott, who is a giant in the San Blas; for that matter, in all of Mexico and Latin America.

Our last quest was for gasoline, and we’d been told that Paco’s was the only game in town. Frederico hopped into the dingy to help us locate the pier (again, we’d have never found it on our own). It was quite the place, definitely not your usual gas station. While gasoline was siphoning out of a barrel and into our jerry cans, Frederico grabbed a seat.

With two out of three things checked off our list, we headed back to Sea Life. Off of our bow was the crowded Nargana shoreline, but behind us were beautiful views of scenic islands in front of the mainland mountains.

Before leaving the next morning, I sent Scott back into town to get some more guna bread, so we could stock the freezer. Again, Frederico was there at the dock to greet him, and it was a good thing. They visited seven places, before finding bread. Apparently, it’s not usually ready until early afternoon; very different from the bakeries in other countries, where fresh loaves are available first thing in the morning.

With the big city visit complete, we headed back to the swimming pool anchorage. Our friends Dani and Tate (s/v Sundowner) were expecting a guest with provisions in tow, and some of the loot was for us. On the way, Scott decided to put his fishing rods out, to see what might happen.

As luck would have it, he snagged a little tunny tuna. The poor thing threw up some icky liquid, as I performed my designated “documentation-of-fish-catch” photos. Knowing that Dani and Tate are fans of sushimi, we decided that the fish would make a nice welcome dinner for their guest.

We arrived just in time for Michele’s arrival to Sundowner by panga, and headed over to collect our goodies. It took a little leg work and a bit of water travel, but we had quite a productive and satisfying 48 hours: bread and gasoline in the big city (along with some river exploration), and now butter, pretzels and bacon! Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Our Passage From Cartagena To Puerto Rico

There are still several posts to come, about the end of our time in the San Blas and our stay in Cartagena. I try to be detailed in my writing, as well as in editing and labeling the many photos related to each post. It’s frustrating to be so far behind, but all of this takes time…and internet.

I keep our blog in the most chronological order possible, as it is first and foremost a detailed journal of this big, crazy adventure that we can look back on in the future. Having an accurate timeline also seems much easier for readers to follow. That said, we’ve just completed a big milestone, after arriving in Puerto Rico from Cartagena, and I think it worthy of  “jumping to the front of the line” on the blog, so I’m going to take a moment to skip ahead…settle in, this one will take awhile.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we’re heading to the Eastern Caribbean next, and getting there from anywhere west is challenging. Scott’s plan was to head immediately north out of Cartagena, getting as much distance from the Colombian coast as possible, before turning east in a tight reach run toward Puerto Rico.

With this passage being our longest and most challenging, Scott decided to defer to a professional, and pay for weather routing. The plan came back for us to follow the Colombian coast, keeping out of some current, and then turn north. Scott wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but he resisted the urge to argue.

Taking into account the oncoming wind and waves, and constant use of the paravanes, we hoped for a speed of six knots, worse case five. When we received the route, it had us arriving a day earlier than Scott’s calculations, so there was some back and forth to confirm how fast our boat would be able to travel.

With a weather window that wouldn’t get any better in the near future, we cast off lines, and headed east. Our destination was Ponce, located on Puerto Rico’s south central coast. There were other options, but Ponce was farther east, and had many stores in the area for us to shop (Walmart Supercenter, Home Depot, Ace Hardware, auto parts stores, PetSmart, and….fast foodl!).

Sunday – Day One: We made our way out of Cartagena’s harbor through the north cut. It was shorter than the south route we followed into Cartagena, by more than two hours, but challenging to navigate.

There is an old submerged wall at the north cut, put in place to be a harbor defense. Ships would run aground on the wall, tearing their bottom out. This forced them to use the deeper south entrance, which is visible from forts in the area and more easily defended.

A section of the submerged wall has been removed for boats to pass through, but we were unsure of it’s depth. After inquiring online, a local expat informed us that we had eight feet to work with; more than enough, as we only needed five. We made our way easily through the cut, and out into the Caribbean Sea.

As predicted, our passage began with unusually calm conditions, considering Colombia’s coast is the most challenging Caribbean location to “escape” from. Even with virtually non-existent wind, the swells were very sizable. Luckily, they were far enough apart, so even in a head sea we traveled over them comfortably.

As is usual for this area, the winds picked up considerably as evening approached. We spent the entire night traveling right into 20 knot winds, which was a bit lumpy. I was so grateful for our bow height! Even at nine feet above the waterline, we were getting covered in heavy spray. The pilot house was also worth it’s weight in gold at this point, provding the opportunity to be inside!

Howard did not enjoy the increase in wind and swells. I managed to get food into him in the afternoon, and we made two successful trips to the litter box. I helped brace him as he did both numbers one and two (it was clear by the look on his face that he was mortified by this), and was satisfied that basic needs were being met.

However, later attempts to get food into him resulted in two vomiting episodes, and a generally miserable feline. I tucked him in tight with pillows to keep his movement to a minimum and covered him in cold towels to help keep him cool, which seemed to help.

We began the passage with the saloon doors open and the screen pulled across for fresh air. After dark, the sounds of flying fish landing and flopping in the cockpit was too distracting for seasick Howard. It wasn’t worth risking more vomit, so we closed the doors.

I have a hard time sleeping while on passage, only getting an hour or so at a time, and this time was no different.  It’s hard for me to block out movement of the boat and noise of the motor. On this passage, I was also trying to block out noise of the wind and waves, which was almost impossible.

As a result, I took watch as much as possible, and let Scott store up on sleep. He’d begin the day at dawn, while I rested on the couch and did a few chores. At about 10-11am, I’d come back up to the pilothouse until 5pm, and Scott would come on until I started my night watch, which usually ran from 10pm until 5am.

As usual, I sang my way through eight hours of night watch, while keeping an eye on the instruments and radar. Our Delorme satellite tracker is invaluable when we’re underway. I am able to text with others cruisers, and friends at home, until they go to bed. Then I switch over to friends in the UK as they wake up…awesome!

Monday – Day Two: When I woke Scott at dawn, the winds were back down to ten knots. We opened the saloon doors and the smell of dead flying fish hit us in the face. Scott collected thirty, from both the cockpit and side decks.

Later in the day, he went up onto the flybridge, to investigate an unnerving noise (Many sounds occur in big seas, from unexpected items rolling around. Some are never identified, and remain maddening), and found a dead flying fish up there as well!

Even though the winds had subsided, it took hours for the swells to follow suit, but by late morning we were back in easily tolerable head seas. I took the calmer conditions as a chance for Howard to lap up some chicken broth, and he was able to get some actual rest, wedged in between the legs of whomever was sleeping on the couch.

Again, the winds increased in the evening. Scott was concerned that we were now near the Colombia/Venezuelan border, and asked me to be extra diligent as I kept an eye on the radar screen that night. There haven’t been any recent reports of issues with boats in the area, but it never hurts to be more aware. I saw two or three large ships on the screen, more than twelve miles out; aside from that, we were alone.

Tuesday – Day Three: I’d spent the night hearing almost constant thuds outside from fish impact, and in the light of day I could see why. The dead carcasses were everywhere, and their odor came right through the closed doors. Our saloon smelled like a fish cannery, and Scott’s morning carcass count came to a whopping 130!

Fish aside, by now, I could no longer stand the smell of myself. At night, the saloon and pilothouse doors were closed, to keep flying fish out. This stems from one managing to make it’s way through a window that was barely cracked open on a previous passage. It landed on Scott’s face as he slept on the saloon couch, so now….doors closed at dark!

As a result, the boat gets quite toasty inside at night. We keep fans pointed at us, but it’s still pretty darned warm. The need for a shower was now interfering with what little sleep I manage to get, so I decided that come hell, big wind or swells, I was bathing today! It went better than expected, with the molded shower seat coming in handy, and I emerged a new, non-smelly person.

By late afternoon, the winds ramped up with a vengeance. I spent the night watching winds stay at 20+ knots, almost squarely on our nose. We now had white caps and sizable waves along with the huge swells. At one point, I looked out, and saw the churning sea below us. We were perched up on a big-mamma wave, before sliding down it’s side. I was glad that it would soon be dark, hiding my view of the chaotic water coming at us.

Frequently, as we were coming down a wave, another would hit with us from underneath, and the sound of impact was loud, jarring and scary. Sea Life handled the conditions like a champ; the crew, not so much. Howard threw up again, and Scott went to sleep with the assistance of a Valium.

Wednesday – Day Four: Since we were virtually alone, and there was just the occasional ship passing 12 or 16 miles away, I’d spent the night watching movies. Our friends aboard s/v Prism were also underway, heading from the San Blas to the Cayman Islands. We each have a Delorme, so Shannon and I spent time each evening chatting  back and forth. At dawn, I came off watch and woke Scott. Our morning fish carcass count was only 30. I think we were too much of a moving target, for them to intersect with.

Howard was becoming more tolerant of the conditions underway. He kept down some broth and canned chicken, and made another successful visit to the litter box with help from me for stabilization. I considered it progress.

The stupid, big winds lasted for 18 nerve-wracking hours, before dropping back down to 12 or so knots mid-morning. It’s amazing how quiet and calm 12 knots is, after living with winds in the 20s for so long. The strong winds along with current in the area kept pushing us west during the night but Scott was now able to change our course a bit, putting us more on track for Puerto Rico. We are finally crossed the halfway point, but three more days of this seems like forever!

Thursday – Day Five: Overnight conditions remained the same as the previous night. Winds increased, and we lumbered through the waves and swells. While on watch, I suddenly heard a strange thud in front of me, inside the pilothouse, and knew exactly what had happened….fish breach.

I mentioned Scott being hit in the face as he slept, when a fish came through a cracked window. This time, one managed to travel under the solar panels (which are mounted above the pilothouse, and sit only six inches above the pilothouse roof) and down through one of the small hatches in ceiling! We keep these hatches open, unless the air conditioning is running. With the solar panels mounted just above them, we can get air into the pilothouse without worrying about rain or the sun’s heat coming in, but obviously fish are a concern.

As the smelly fish flopped around on the chart table, I stayed put on the bench and yelled out, “SCOTT!!!!…..FISH!!!…SCOTT??!?!?…FISH INSIDE!!! Scott woke immediately from his sleep, and quickly appeared with paper towel in hand. In the dim light, he located and grabbed the icky, flopping fish and chucked it out of the pilothouse door. Scott then attempted to wipe up the mess left behind; slim, scales and whatever those things throw up when they’re under stress. As you can imagine, the pilothouse now smelled wonderful. Aside from the drama of a fish breach, the rest of my night watch was uneventful. I saw one or two ships on the radar the entire time, none closer than 12 miles.

Day five brought several variables converging at once, making for a stressful day of calculations, schedule change and worry.

After learning that Colombia only sells bio-diesel fuel, we did not take on fuel in Cartagena, A mix of diesel and vegetable oil, it’s make-up “cleans” the build up inside fuel tanks, resulting in clogged filters and the need to change them more frequently to avoid motor issues. Scott stocks spares (of everything), but did not want to make a passage of this distance not knowing how the bio-diesel would react, and not wanting to be in the engine room changing filters throughout the trip.

Scott keeps records of our fuel usage, and accurately knows how much we use, depending on travel speed. What he needed to know, was how much fuel remained in our tanks as we prepared to leave Cartagena . Getting a somewhat accurate read on our fuel levels was challenging, as the tanks are oddly shaped, versus a clean rectangle or square.

There are sight lines marked on the tanks, but Scott was unsure as to their accuracy. After discussions with fellow Krogen owners, who have boats of similar age and cruising distance as Sea Life, Scott calculated, and calculated and calculated some more….and after more calculations was comfortable that we had enough fuel to get us from Cartagena to Puerto Rico, with 100 or so gallons to spare..great!

This was all well and good until day three of our passage, when we began to fight a strong, unexpected oncoming current, which slowed our speed considerably. Scott estimated our speed to average at near 5.5 knots, allowing for slowing from paravane use, increased wind and a running in and out of some current. Unfortunately, we hadn’t been able to shake the current, and winds were also stronger than predicted. These variables had us traveling at an average closer to 4 knots (much of the time, in the high 3 knot range).

At this much slower speed, it seemed our arrival time may be delayed by a day, maybe two. This brought concern as to whether there was enough fuel to continue for that amount of time. We discussed alternate locations (Dominican Republic and Jamaica), but weren’t sure they were viable options for saving fuel. Scott checked the levels again, which was challenging with the movement of being underway. We had fuel left in both tanks, and Scott planned to run one dry, giving him an idea of how much we’d have left in the remaining tank to use.

Meanwhile, I was wrapping my brain around the possibility that we had more days ahead of us than originally planned. My threshold for passages is three days, after that, I’m done; done with wind, boat movement, motor noise, shifts, odd sleep patterns…just done. Our longest trip so far has been almost four full days, and that was more than enough for me. I was already dreading the fact that we had to endure six days to get to Puerto Rico. My passage frustration peaked on day four, and the idea of more travel time made me insane.

Friday – Day Six: During my overnight shift, our speed suffered, averaging  2.9-3.5 knots. We just couldn’t escape the strong, oncoming current, and it was maddening. After awhile, I just stopped looking at the speed. I’d already stopped looking at the weather station, as our wind speed never went below 20. Passages suck.

The only ship that we were able to visibly see (not just on radar) passed by off to our starboard side in the morning. It detoured around us, saving an uncomfortable course change. This photo doesn’t look across the water at the ship. You’re looking at a wall of water.

At roughly 3pm, the winds increased to 30 knots. Our speed, which had gone back up closer to 4 knots, was now back at 2.9-3….terrific.These conditions were insanely unnerving. We were seeing more sky than water out of the front windows, as the boat launched up huge waves. The noise of the wind, and the sound of the motor as the boat battled it’s way up and down the waves was terrifying at times.

When we began cruising, the sight of larger waves and water coming at us scared me to death. It’s one of the main reasons that I choose to do the all-night watch, so I cannot see the big water. I have made great strides along the way, realizing that Sea Life can handle this stuff, and have become much better at looking out the windows. I was very proud of myself on this passage, being able to stare out at a sea in 20+ knots of wind and not flinch….up until now.

At 30 knots, the seas were huge and angry looking, so I did the last of my afternoon watch focusing on the radar, or the computer screen, and not outside. Downstairs on a break before my night shift, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go back up to the pilothouse; I was terrified. However, by 10pm, after seven hours of 30 knots and huge seas, I was numb to it, and handled my night shift just fine.

Oddly, as outside conditions worsened, Howard transitioned, and became much more tolerant of all the movement and noise. It was as if he thought this was his new life, and he may as well adjust to the situation. Wind or no wind, wave jolts aside, motor noise be damned, he was gonna eat and sleep as usual.

He began to demand food, jumping from the end table up to the raised galley counter, where he could lay supported by the surrounding fiddles (raised wood trim). I hesitantly fed him, and he demanded more, so I gave him seconds. Later in the day, I noticed that he’d made a successful trip to the litter box on his own. Howard was becoming a champion passage cat!

Scott continued to keep a close eye on our fuel consumption. We were still drawing from the tank that he planned to run dry,  so it seemed that we’d make Ponce without having to paddle….fingers crossed.

By 3am, the winds eased a bit, and were back down to just over 20 knots, but it was still an unnerving go. Shortly after, I noticed a band of rain heading for us. I woke Scott, just to be sure it wasn’t something to be concerned about. After checking the radar screen, he informed me that it would most likely miss us. It did not miss us, and the winds quickly ramped up to 37 knots, with higher gusts….yay for us.

Saturday – Day Seven:  We’d expected to arrive in Ponce Puerto Rico sometime after dawn this morning, but were now just hoping to make it by dark. The good news was that Scott was now completely confident that we had the fuel to get there.

I came downstairs after my night watch to wake Scott, and found Howard laying on the floor outside the galley, waiting for food. He seemed oblivious to the fact that he was sliding back and forth with the movement of the boat. I fed him a normal amount of his usual food, and he scarfed it up. At least someone was tolerating this stuff.

Moving around the boat had been challenging since the beginning. We have grab rails in place, allowing something to hold on to while coming out of the pilothouse and down to the galley, and also going down below to the head.

Getting to and from the couch in the saloon to sleep, was a different matter. Scott is tall enough to reach the grab rail along the ceiling, but it’s a reach for me when we’re not moving, and became impossible during our lumpy ride. I would swing myself toward the couch, using the pole in the galley counter, landing in a flop. Getting off of the couch was more difficult. With nothing to pull myself up, I’d end up launching forward as I rose, going into an immediate crab walk to keep from falling over.

As conditions worsened, it became increasingly hard to move around. Simple things became challenging, and sometimes dangerous. When getting something out of the refrigerator, you had to keep hold of the door with one hand, to keep it from banging into you. Going up and down to the pilot house was hard, even with the grab rails. I chose to almost crawl, keeping a low center of gravity, and my crab walk had become more of a caveman-like stomp.

I was dying for another shower, but it was just too stinkin’ rough to chance it. Instead, I settled for attempting freshness with baby wipes, deodorant and fresh clothes.

In Howard’s efforts to adjust to his “new life,” he attempted sleeping in his usual spots. I discovered him trying to sleep on top of the cabinet below our tv. Again, he was sliding back and forth with the boat’s movement, so I wedged a towel on one side of him for support.  Next, he attempted to sleep in his “taco,” which is attached atop a scratching post, Worried it would topple over, with his weight to one side of it, I took him out and laid the thing down on it’s side. He promptly straddled it, to stretch and scratch. If only I could adjust half this well.

The rain squalls moved over us until late morning. I laid on the couch, listening to the winds howl, and bracing myself against the boat’s movement, having another bought with terror. After some time, I again realized the boat could handle it, but was beyond done with wind, waves and current. With Scott being well rested, he offered to hunker down and keep watch for the final leg, God love him. Not that there was much to watch…winds still mid to upper 20s, with occasional stretches of 30, current still against us and seas still angry.

Scott settled into an iPod trance in the pilothouse, I continued my marathon re-watching of the tv show LOST in the saloon and Howard became an eating machine, making up for lost time earlier in the week;  we were all just trying to get through it.

I’d occasionally check on Scott, and find the winds, current and sea state just as I’d left them. By mid afternoon our speed was thankfully back up to 4 knots, and we were on track to arrive in Ponce at approximately 6pm! Scott was now counting down time to our arrival at the channel’s entrance. From there, it would be less than an hour to the marina.

Soon, Puerto Rico finally came into view! As the coast of Ponce got closer, we kept our eyes glued to the horizon, for a first glimpse of the red and green channel markers.

Just before 6pm, we entered the Holy Land….Ponce channel! As we approached the marina, Scott brought the boat to idle, so he could pull the birds in, raise the paravanes and get our fenders down from the flybridge for docking. We had our slip assignment at Ponce Yacht & Fishing Club, but weren’t up for trying to find it in the dark.  Since the tanks had to be filled at some point, we chose to tie to the fuel dock for the night, allowing us to get that job out of the way first thing in the morning.

At 6:30pm on April 29th, we turned off the motor, which had run for six and a half days. Considering our struggles along the way, we could live with arriving twelve hours past our original target time. Sea Life had handled the passage like a champ. We were reconfirmed of our decision to purchase a Krogen, with it’s incredibly seaworthy, full displacement hull. She was a tank in the heavy winds and huge seas, not slamming up and down, but firmly launching up one side of a wave, before sliding down the other side like a beach ball.

We were completely exhausted, but thrilled to be over this huge hurdle, and safely in the Eastern Caribbean! As we tied up to the dock, and opened the doors, Howard was happy as a clam to breath in the new smells, and scope out his land surroundings.

Once we were safely tied to the dock, Scott ran the generator so we could sleep in the air conditioning. Now, first and foremost….showers, showers SHOWERS!! We enjoyed some well deserved celebratory cocktails with a frozen pizza dinner, and then the crew of Sea Life, Howard included, collapsed into post-passage comas.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

On To Puerto Rico!

After a month that flew by in Cartagena, we are on the move again!

We want to head for the Eastern Caribbean, but there is no good way to travel east. The trade winds run from east to west, which means traveling into the wind. A head sea is no one’s favorite, whether you’re sailing, or motoring.

Getting out of Cartagena, or should I say away from Colombia, is especially challenging. There is an almost constant low pressure down here, which causes the wind to howl, especially at night. Sustained thirty knot winds are a regular occurrence; not good when you prefer a threshold of fifteen.

The most obvious route is to travel off the coast of Colombia, round a “bump-out” of land near the Venezuelan border, and head for the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao). Winds are most vicious off of the bump-out, and we’re leery to travel anywhere near Venezuela. Six days of a full-on head sea is also a negative.

So after much consideration, we’ve decided to do more of a “tight reach,” to use a sailing term, or head in a diagonal direction up to Puerto Rico. This plan keeps us from traveling in a full-on head sea the entire way, and fingers crossed, gives us a better ride.

After watching and waiting for good weather, winds are predicted to calm over the next few days, giving us the best conditions we’re going to get for the next 14 – 21 days. Our plan is to follow the coast for a bit, to stay out of a current, before turning toward Puerto Rico.

This will by no means be a calm trip, even though the winds are down. Our first and last 24 hours are expected to be  uncomfortable, but we’re hoping that the middle will be better.

The run to Puerto Rico will be our longest to date, and should take six days; I hope we’re all up for this. We have several friends who are currently crossing the Pacific, so it could be worse for me (and Howard).

Follow our progress on the link of the Where Are We Now page, and I’ll check in when we arrive (also feel free to email us underway through that link). I will eventually catch you up on our time in Cartagena, but have been busy enjoying this city, in between battling internet and never-ending computer issues. Thanks so much for your patience….Puerto Rico here we come!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

Our First Visitor!!

Not long after we began our journey, and were spending the month of December in Key West, Florida, several friends visited us during our stay; a quick, easy trip, no customs and warm weather.

Of course, we had a great time with everyone who came to Key West, but we’ve been anxious to have visitors during our travels through Mexico and Central America. While these locations aren’t as developed with resorts, or easy to get to as more familiar locations in the Eastern Caribbean, the towns and anchorages we’ve been to, and their gorgeous surroundings are not to be missed.

We also looked forward to having friends on board, so they could experience a bit of our life at anchor. To date, we’ve been alone on our journey aboard Sea Life, but that was finally about to change!

Our friend Karen contacted us, wanting to visit in February, and I excitedly pitched her the idea of meeting us here in the San Blas. Aside from my sister, Sally (who has traveled on her own to many far-reaching locations, including New Zealand, Thailand, and most recently Antarctica), Karen is one of the most adventurous people we know, so I was sure she’d be up for the adventure. As expected, she jumped right on board with the idea, and would be our first “official” visitor!

Karen’s journey began with a flight to Panama City, where she took a day to explore a bit. Our friend and provisioning master, Emilio, arranged for Karen to see some historic sites of Panama City, as well as a visit to the Miraflores Locks at the Panama canal.

The next morning, Emilo arrived at Karen’s hotel with a carload of provisions for us. Karen had arrived with two bags in tow, completely filled with items we’d requested and ordered from home, carrying  just a backpack of things for herself (and a pair of flippers). Her bags were loaded in with our provisions, and she and Emilio were off to meet Nacho, who would then drive Karen across the mountains to the Carti docks.

During the drive, Karen re-channeled her high school Spanish, and with a bit of Google Translate help, she and Nacho chatted (he remembered driving me…”Oh, the cat!). Along the way, they stopped for a priest and a young man who were walking on the side of the road, hoping for a ride. Nacho turned to Karen and said, “Miss Karen??” It was Karen’s paid ride, so it was her decision whether or not to let them in the car. Not wanting to say no to a priest, Karen gave her ok, and the two additional passengers hopped in.

Once at the dock, Nacho helped Karen find her panga, which we had pre arranged. There was some initial confusion as to which boat was hers, but finally all bags and provisions were loaded aboard one of the waiting boats. Karen would be brought out to us in the Robisons. It meant a short panga ride (20-30 minutes), and a chance to see the rural Guna villages.

We’d been in touch with Karen since she arrived in Panama City, and also along her journey over the mountains, so as the approximate arrival time for the panga drew near, we kept our eyes peeled.

The expected time passed, and then some more time passed…and then some more time. Eventually, our cell phone rang, and it was Karen (we were shocked to have enough signal to receive the call!). She informed us that the panga couldn’t find our boat among the others, and the men wanted to take her back to the dock…what?!?

Clearly, the panga was in the wrong location, as we were one of only five boats in the huge anchorage, and the only one that wasn’t a sailboat! Scott quickly began listing off the islands near us (using both “English” and Guna names for them), and also nearby rivers, hoping that the men on the panga would realize where they needed to go.

When that didn’t work, he went into navigational/survivalist mode, asking Karen questions, trying to find out where she was…”When you left the dock, did you head right or left?”…”From which side of the boat were the waves coming at you”… “What side of your face was the sun on?” This proved challenging for all involved. Karen now had us on speaker phone, and we could hear the men yelling back and forth at each other in frustration.

After talk of leaving her on the island where they currently were (wherever that was), we were finally able to communicate our location using Bradeo’s name (Scott’s village tour guide). We hoped that there was only one Bradeo (and that it wasn’t a name like “Joe”), and Karen would be headed in the right direction.

It wasn’t long before we spotted what had to be her panga on the horizon, and were soon unloading Karen, her bags and all of our provisions; her 20-30 minute ride had taken almost 90 minutes. After a bathroom break, and a cold beer, we took some time to relax before our friend Ted (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) came over in his dinghy to take us over for a walk through the largest village near us.

We were not permitted to take photos in the village, but enjoyed walking among the houses and saying hello to some of the Gunas. Our long day ended with dinner on board and an early night. Things were so crazy, I failed to get any photos of Karen’s arrival.

Bright and early the next morning, we headed back to the Holandes. The wind forecast was predicted to be perfect for Karen’s stay, so we were headed for the swimming pool anchorage. Unfortunately, during our short passage between the reefs, in open ocean swells, Karen became sea sick while trying to check emails (the price for working during vacation!). After emptying her stomach over board, she retired to the guest stateroom, to sleep it off.

We arrived to a fully cloudy, rainy afternoon in the swimming pool, which never happens! However, Scott spotted a Triggerfish under the boat, and decided on an alternate form of entertainment for amusing Karen. While she kept an eye on the fish, Scott set up one of my frozen lobster tails in the water for bait (great). He speared the large Trigger from our swim platform…dinner and a show!

The rains finally ended, and we were treated to an amazing, full rainbow over the anchorage, that faded and then brightened again for quite a long time…welcome to the San Blas, Karen.

Keeping the underwater show going, Scott next lowered the Triggerfish carcass into the water, to see what it might attract. Karen and I were relaxing up on the flybridge, when I noticed Howard in front of me, leaning over so far that he was practically hanging by his toes. I went to grab him, and realized that we had company in the water below.

Two blacktip reef sharks had turned up to sniff out our offering. Howard moved downstairs, and out onto the swim platform for a better look. We quickly squashed his fun, not wanting him to be the second course!

The sharks were sizeable, approximately six feet in length. They would bite at the carcass, but were easily scared off by seeing us above.

By dusk, a third shark had joined in, and we enjoyed a shark-filled sunset.

Check out our “friends” at the bottom of the photo.

Just before the sun set, one of the sharks finally mustered up enough courage to snatch the prize, and just as quickly as they came, they were gone.

The next morning was sunny and bright, and the swimming pool was living up to it’s name; the visibility was insanely clear. We were anchored in ten feet of water, and I could easily see right over the side of the boat, down to the sea floor below, which was littered with sand dollars, conch shells and other interesting stuff.

Karen joined us in the dinghy, as I passed out baked treats to our friends in the anchorage, who we hadn’t seen for awhile. By the time we were through, Venancio, the master mola maker was coming through in a panga. He came aboard, and Karen took time to choose some of his work to take home. Much to Scott’s chagrin, I bought another beautiful mola for myself.

It was now time for water play! Scott took Karen snorkeling on the reef behind our boat. He’d find interesting things to show her along the way, and also snagged some trinkets from to floor below us.

Next, Scott took Karen to the outer reef, for a change of scene.

Karen and I enjoyed some time “bobbing” on our water loungers, and watched a large yacht at the back of the anchorage lower one of their several tenders down into the water. If only the Aluminum Princess had it so smooth and easy going up and down!

I’d rallied a gathering for cocktails and sunset on one of the nearby island beaches, and we headed over to our waiting friends.

Our friends were very welcoming to Karen, as cruisers are, and we all enjoyed a great evening.

Another beautiful sunrise over the anchorage brought a plan to change location.

With the calm wind forecast, we decided show Karen the Coco Bandero Cays, it’s beautiful island views and my favorite beach. Before leaving, we were lucky enough to catch a veggie boat coming into the anchorage..who came to us first!!! We hadn’t seem them before, but were glad for the chance to stock up before leaving. Their daughter swam around the panga while we shopped, and then practiced her motor-starting skills.

With fresh produce on board, we left the anchorage, bound for the Cocos. Just around the corner, our friends Jon and Shannon (s/v Prism) came into view, on their way back to the pool. We waved and snapped photos of each other as our boats crossed paths.

Karen stayed off of the internet, escaped sea sickness and we  enjoyed the scenic ride to the Coco Bandero Cays.

The next day, Karen and I spent the afternoon on my favorite beach, while Scott went out to hunt the reef. We had the beautiful little island all to ourselves.

There were more snorkeling outings, and we also took a dinghy ride around the area, passing over some massive coral. Aside from that, our last day together was spent walking the islands’ beaches and bobbing in the water. We also introduced Karen to the official cruisers’ game of Mexican Train dominoes!

After the crazy panga ride to the Robisons, we arranged Karen’s return pick up through Nacho, thinking that using a Guna driver to set up a Guna panga would work better. We also assumed that Nacho would keep things on time, to avoid waiting at the docks for Karen.

Nacho informed us that a panga would be at the boat to pick Karen up, in the Cocos, at 6am on Sunday morning. Scott thought this suspect, as the sun doesn’t even come up until 6:30am, and the area is much too full of coral for a panga to come out any earlier, even for locals. We expected to see the ride arrive closer to 7:00.

Seven am came and went, so Scott and Karen made their way in the dinghy to the beach behind us, for a cell signal to contact Nacho (Seriously, on board…no signal at all…just behind us on the beach…terrific. The only thing in between us and the tower?…a spindly island. Scott’s convinced that the palm trees here must be lead-lined).

As soon as they left, our friend Ted (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) hailed us on the vhf radio. There was a panga alongside his boat, and he was fairly sure they were looking for Sea Life, and Karen. I was afraid to ask where Ted was anchored, fearing that it was hours away, but he replied that they were in the nearby Western Cocos…whew!

I relayed to Ted where we were, and thanked him for sending the panga in the right direction. Hearing all of this on the portable vhf, Scott and Karen were already headed back to the boat. Ten minutes later, she boarded her ride for the mainland.

In just over an hour, the appropriate time for a ride from the Cocos, Karen was back at the Carti dock with no issues, and on her way over the mountains with Nacho. Aside from having to stop and wait for Nacho to get his breakfast, her trip went smoothly, and she arrived at the airport in plenty of time for the flight home.

The crew on board Sea Life, including Howard, spent the rest of the day relaxing, and enjoyed another beautiful sunset.

So, I think all of the San Blas experience boxes were checked during Karen’s stay: seeing a Guna village; getting sea sick (could’ve skipped that); spearing fish; seeing sharks; eating fresh-caught lobster, fish and crab; snorkeling, hanging with cruisers at a beach gathering; bobbing; having a private beach day;  seeing a long-lasting, full rainbow on the water; purchasing molas, playing Mexican Train dominoes, buying food from a veggie boat and taking in lots of gorgeous views!

Karen quickly adapted to life at anchor with us during her visit, learning where things were, dealing with generator day, helping with laundry, tolerating Scott’s yes’s and no’s on board the boat (yes, you can take all the time you want choosing a beverage from the Engel cooler, but shut the refrigerator door immediately!), helping us prepare to get underway and  personally dealing with the Congresso, when they came for their monthly anchoring fee!

It was so great to see our friend, and have a “piece of home” on board for a bit. We greatly appreciate that Karen rose to the challenge of visiting us in such a remote location, and hope she survived to visit us again! Here are a few more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

 

Scott’s Trip To An Inland Guna Village

Guna villages have not always been located on the islands of the San Blas archipelago. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the small coral and mangrove estuaries of the San Blas were ideal for trade activities of the numerous pirates and traders operating in the region.

By the end of the 18th century when the days of piracy had passed, the Guna people slowly began to move from the protective cover of the jungle to the coastline, and by the middle of the 19th century, they started transferring their villages to the islands offshore.

The Guna Yala forest property extends for more than 1,250 square miles along the northeast corner of Panama’s Caribbean coast. There are still a few villages that exist in the jungles of the mainland forest, and near its rivers.

Gangandi, one of these villages, is relatively isolated, and one of Guna Yala’s poorest communities. It was not far from our anchorage in the Robison Islands, so Scott joined our friends Barbara and Ted (s/v Rosa dos Ventos), and two other cruisers for a tour. They were led by Bradeo, a local Guna who spent many years living in Panama City, before choosing to come back home to settle in the Robinsons.

Bradeo (with two “assistants” in tow) arrived to pick up everyone at their respective boats in an ulu, outfitted with loose boards across it to serve as bench seats. The group balanced on the unattached, wobbly boards as the ulu made a 45 minute ride through open water chop of the Bay of San Blas, then 25 minutes  up a canal once used  by the United Fruit Company to transport bananas, before finally going ashore.

The next leg of their journey involved a 3-4 mile hike to the village. Not long after going ashore, the group walked an old air strip, also used by the United Fruit Company. Previously paved in tar, the runway was large enough to accommodate jets and Scott has since spotted it on Google Earth.

They crossed a stream, noticing two small rails paralleling the wooden bridge across it; the remains of the United Fruit Company’s railroad tracks. The Gunas used these rails to transport  wheeled vehicles across the river, their tires rolling between the beams. Panama eventually built a bridge, to more easily transport construction materials for a new school.

The group continued on, following the wide dirt road through the jungle, eventually reaching the edge of the village.

They first came to the area where a new school was being built. Panama requires the schools to be built with cinder block and concrete.

Scott wasn’t sure it was worth the time, as the current school didn’t appear to be getting much use.

The group walked through the village, passing many homes, several small tiendas (stores) and the congreso building.

Men gather nightly in the congreso, to discuss local events and problems, make decisions on pressing matters and listen to the advice of the saila (Chief).

The saila sings the history, legends and laws of the Guna, and also sees over the day-to-day political and social affairs of the village. The songs are sung in a “higher” language, with specialized words, and are followed by an interpretation from one of the voceros (interpreters and counselors), in”everyday” Guna language..

The group was allowed inside the congreso building, to speak to the saila. Two other chiefs from nearby villages were visiting; a big event. The sailas were all laying in hammocks, and stayed put while talking to the group (occasionally leaning over to spit on the floor), while the voceros sat on surrounding wooden benches.

After their chat with the sailas, the group continue to walk the village. Photos were allowed, as long as the villagers were not in them. Of course, Scott found his way around the rule, and managed to stealthily take some photos, camera down at his side. His results were pretty good, capturing women hanging laundry, children at play and some “lazy” villagers napping in the sun.

On the far side of the village, the group made their way down a hill, to the Gangandi River. Ahead of them, scenic, mountain views; behind them, the village, all but hidden from view by the jungle trees.

Originally located along the banks of the river, the Gangandi village began to experience life-threatening floods during the rainy season, with waters rising to extreme record levels.

In 2010, the elders finally decided to make a move. They suspended hunting and gathering, and tending to their crops, to concentrate all efforts on the monumental task of moving their village from the low-lying river bank, to more steeply elevated land. Teams of men, women and children managed to complete the move within four months, but suspending their food-providing tasks took much longer to recover from.

Today, women and children gather at the river’s edge to collect gravel, which is used to make concrete for construction of the new school.

The gravel is bagged, then hauled (on their backs) to various area in the village, where it is spread out to dry.

The women are paid roughly a whopping $1.50 for every 50 pounds of gravel, with the money going to the village.

After returning from the river, and through the village, the group made their way back to the canal. Bradeo carried bananas and yucca with him for his family, back on the island village.

The group boarded their waiting ulu, and headed back to the Robinson anchorage. It had been a long, but very interesting day.

Here are more photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”