|Logbook||Entry 5 - 2006|
Date First Posted:
Log Entry Start Date - January 29, 2006
Log Entry End Date - February 15, 2006
Location(s) Covered - Bonaire to Panama
Present Location: Panama Canal Yacht Club, Colon, Panama
Latitude: 9 20.7 N Longitude: 79 54.5 W
Weather: High 80's, partly cloudy with frequent showers
Distance covered since last entry: 677 nautical miles
Total distance traveled since departure from Antigua: 1144 nautical miles
Bonaire to San Blas, Panama
After waiting several days for the winds north of Columbia to settle, we finally left Bonaire about 3 PM on January 30th. We still expected a region of strong winds and seas, but they were forecast to be the best we might expect for some time. Because of the time we spent in Bonaire, we decided against visiting Aruba and Curacao.
We had relatively moderate conditions the first night, passing Curacao just after dark and Aruba just after dawn. After we reached a point northwest of Aruba, we began to feel the effect of the prolonged higher winds and sea swells, and we were going straight downwind with our main and a poled out yankee. The apparent wind was light on this point of sail, so our boat speed was limited, but we had a strong current that kept our pace up. Our goal was to reach the San Blas before dark on February 3rd, and we were slightly behind this pace.
On the 31st we were visited by a group of dolphins that swam alongside us for a half hour or so. This is always exciting as they cruise just next to our bow and then cross under and back and forth. Jennifer took lots of pictures and short videos. Click here to view the "short" video (3 MB), and here to view the "longer" video (9.5 MB)
By late on the 1st, we were approaching the area just north of the northernmost peninsula on the border between Columbia and Venezuela. This is where the trade winds get compressed by the coast and further inland, the Andes, and seas begin to reach their peak. Sure enough, our wind went up to 25 to 30 knots, and the sea swells got higher. We were down to just a single reefed main, and making great time, but with a lot of rolling. Our ETA in the San Blas was projected as early as 10:30 AM on the 3rd if we kept up this speed.
During these longer passages, Jennifer stays busy keeping up her journal and studies, while Nancy has started her routine of baking bread every few days.
The morning of the 2nd brought continued strong winds and swells that were now up to 10 feet, and sometimes higher. We had passed through the center of the convergence area north of Columbia and expected the winds and seas to drop. In fact, we talked with Chris Parker of the Caribbean Weather Net on our SSB radio, and he confirmed that just as soon as we came even with Cartegena that the wind would die down. We pointed out to Chris that our wind and waves the night before were a bit higher than his forecast of 20-25 knots and 8 foot swells.
Even though these size seas are sometimes uncomfortable, it does make for fast and exciting passages, especially as we surf along generating huge wakes. On Encore I, we would be flying, but even more uncomfortable, while on Encore II, we seem to take most of these conditions in stride.
By 4 PM, the wind had dropped to 14 knots, which meant our apparent wind was only about 7 knots going straight downwind, as we did 7 knots of boat speed. The problem was that now we were in a counter current, and our speed over ground was too low for us to reach the San Blas before dark the next day, so we added the boost of our “iron jib”, the engine. Just before dark, we tried pulling out our genoa, and sailing on a broad angle just to keep up our speed, but our ETA was looking more like Saturday or Sunday. Once again, we had a beautiful sunset.
We motored through the night, and the left over large swells and light air caused our mainsail to slat back and forth. We should have put in some reefs to reduce this slatting, but were hoping to get a little more boost from the wind. As a result the slatting caused the lower 4 sail slides (plastic pieces that attach the mainsail to the mast) to break. Luckily we have enough spares, but replacing them will take a lot of time as they are sewed on through very heavy canvas straps that are sewed on to the sail.
We ultimately adjusted our motoring speed so we can be assured of reaching the San Blas before dark. The area has many reefs, and you want to have good light as you enter an anchorage. We also decided to stop at the Holland Cays, about 15 miles east of our original goal of the island of Porvenir. This would save us a couple of hours. As we approached them, Jennifer took this picture with a picturesque blue sky.
We are now anchored between the islands of Banedup and Tiadup in the eastern Holland Cays. With the exception of Tiadup, there are no people living in this part of the San Blas, and when we arrived there were about a dozen sailboats north of Banedup, but only one in the bay where we were. We took a dinghy ride to an unnamed island on the edge of the reef, where a small sheltered area of water is called the swimming pool. It was amazing with perfectly clear water even warmer than the 84 degrees on average in the area.
The island itself was beautiful, full of palm trees and coconuts on the ground, perfect sand beaches, little crabs scurrying around and birds on the shore and in the trees. An area was cleared with some benches and tables set up, as this is where the cruising boats all come on Monday nights for a potluck dinner. We tend to prefer a bit more isolation, and by Monday morning, another twenty boats had arrived in the area, and our nearly deserted bay had boats all around us.
One of the boats that anchored next to us was a couple with three "active" young sons. They seemed to be having a great time in spite of the fact that on the way here, they were dismasted. They said they weren't in especially bad conditions, and about 3 in the morning, the mast just came down. They were able to cut it away, and were just continuing their cruise as a "motor boat" until they arrived somewhere they could get a new mast shipped and installed.
Just as a reminder that careful navigation is important, we saw a boat that went aground on the reef next to our anchorage. It happened several years ago, and everything had been stripped off that had any value or utility.
We didn't learn the details of this shipwreck, but did notice that the current official US chart of this area was in error by about 2/10ths of mile east to west, and a 1/10th of a mile north to south. Our guide book warned us of this, but without the warning, using the most accurate GPS around, would put a boat on this reef if you weren't in good light conditions.
Jen enjoying a seat on the beach.
Nancy and Paul at the "swimming pool"
Walking around one of the unnamed islands in the San Blas
People visit the San Blas not only for the beautiful islands and anchorages, but to visit the Kuna Indians that live here. They are part of the indigenous people going back 10,000 years or more, and they are very protective of their culture. They have gained a sort of independence and have self rule over this region of Panama. Just as soon as we arrived, “Ricardo” and his son paddled up to us in their dugout canoe and asked if we had paid our $5 cruising fee to the Kunas. We hadn’t, but he said that he wouldn’t collect it, because he didn’t have any more receipts to give out. He welcomed us, and pointed out the huts on the island of Tiadup, and he said that they were the “embassy”.
A little later, two young girls visited in their canoe to show us the colorful “molas” they had made. “Molas” are pieces of clothing with designs and animals sewed on in intricate patterns. We paid $5 for a small square of cloth that took up to a month to sew.
Later on, Ricardo returned and asked if we had a watermaker onboard. Although Tiadup means “island with well”, it has been dry and the families on the island were low on drinking water. We filled up a jerry can for him and gave him a package of frozen ground beef as well. Jennifer asked to take his picture, which he agreed to, but then he asked to have a copy mailed to him, via his father-in-law who lives in a village on the mainland.
Yesterday (the 4th) brought constant rains until late in the afternoon. It was the first rain in several days, and helped wash the salt off the boat. Harry didn’t appreciate it so much, as he was tightening up bolts on our autopilot in the aft lazarette and he was soaked in spite of the awning we put up over him. After it cleared, we dinghied over to Tiadup to tour the Kuna village. We were told there were four families and about 20 people that lived there. Most of the Kunas only speak their language, although some speak some Spanish. When we landed, a young man came out of the nearest hut and offered us some small bread rolls, ten cents each. He gave us permission to walk around the island.
The Kunas live in small huts made out of sticks and palm fronds. Some of the huts had sections or roofs made from corrugated metal, and perhaps some plastic sheeting. The huts were about 10-15 feet long and 8-10 feet wide and perhaps 6 feet high. Kuna’s are very short people, with the girls and women only about 4 feet tall, and many of the men at most 5 feet tall. Inside the huts we saw dirt floors, and hammocks. The huts couldn’t have been very waterproof, although they are built under palm trees that would block much of the rain. The open weave construction at least allows air flow.
It appeared that there may have been one motorized boat for this village to take people back and forth to the mainland. Otherwise, dugout canoes are the only means of transportation. When the wind is right, they raise a mast with two small sails made out of what looks like a quilt of old sheets.
We didn’t see that many people on the island. We know that some men, like Ricardo, go to the mainland to work on farms, or around the islands to fish. At one group of huts an older woman came out to greet us. There were two younger girls and an infant in the compound, and they spread out their molas on the ground to show us. Kunas live in a matriarchal society, so this older women was probably the head of the family. We had taken a box of milk with us, and gave it as a gift for the baby. On the other side of the island, we met a very small man wearing Chicago Cubs sunglasses that seemed twice the size of his head. He offered us a small round orange fruit, which was delicious, even though we had no idea what it was. He also gave us a small bunch of bananas, while we gave him a box of orange juice. Sadly, some of their beaches showed the trash that floats up on shore from passing boats. We must have counted a dozen sets of rubber flip flop sandals.
Needless to say, there is no electricity or running water on these islands. The islanders live off the fruit and fish they gather, sell coconuts to buy staples like flour and rice, and perhaps work on the mainland to supplement the money they get from selling the molas made by the women and girls. It seems that they are perfectly aware of all the aspects of more urban and modern society, but are happy with their lifestyle. They are always smiling, if not grinning, and friendly.
We all agreed that they were living in paradise, especially after seeing another tropical sunset.
On the 7th, we motor sailed to Porvenir, the official port of entry for Panama in the San Blas. Translated as “for coming”, Porvenir has a small airstrip, hotel/bar/restaurant, and the national museum, in addition to the building housing customs and immigration. Given that picture, it is about 50 acres in total, has no inhabitants, the hotel had no guests, and the national museum was a single room about 10 by 20 feet. We couldn’t finish our immigration paperwork because they had run out of forms.
The “bar” at the hotel did have a handful of local Kunas from a nearby island, primarily women selling their molas, and we were able to get two beers, two rum and cokes, and a coke for $9 total. There was a single American couple in the lounge chairs, and we wondered what they were doing at this pretty rustic location. They told us that they were on a boat waiting to transit the canal from the Pacific, and were tired of waiting in Panama City, so they signed up for an excursion to a local “resort”. It was on a nearby island, and they had taken a panga (small motor boat) to Porvenir to “sightsee”. We later ran into them at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. The owner of their yacht had paid a special fee of over $2000 to get their transit expedited.
Unlike the islands by the Holland Cays, the nearby islands to Porvenir do have large populations, with huts nearly covering every bit of land, and a handful of “resorts”, which maybe have a dozen rooms or so. Because of the airport, Porvenir does have electricity (solar powered), although we didn’t see anyone working at the airport (a one room building).
After leaving Porvenir, we continued on to an anchorage between Isla Grande on the way to the canal. This is no longer part of the Kuna region, and appears more modern, with lights on shore at night, many concrete buildings, and apparently shops and small restaurants and resorts. The landscape is quite a bit different than in the San Blas, as the mountains are coming closer to the coast, and the offshore islands are taller and rockier, appearing to be volcanic in nature versus coral.
The next day, February 9th, we continued on to Portobelo. This is where all the boats from the Blue Water Rally are waiting prior to going through the canal, and we’re looking forward to catching up with some of our new friends.
We knew hardly anything about Portobelo before we arrived. To our surprise, this was one of the most significant ports in the Caribbean during the early days of the Spanish exploration as it became the staging area for nearly all the shipments of gold from the New World back to Spain, with up to 1/3 of all the known gold in the world passing through.
Paul, Nancy, Harry and Hilary touring one of the forts in Portobelo. Harry and Hilary live near Portobello, only their Portobello is in Scotland.
The harbor is very well protected geographically and had 5 different forts built by the Spanish at various times to protect it against the likes of Henry Morgan and the British. Sir Francis Drake died during a passage near here, and was allegedly buried on a nearby island (Isla Drake). Many of the building blocks of the forts were used during the construction of the Panama Canal, so only low ruins remain. The building in the background of this photo was the "accounting office" for the gold shipments.
Other than the forts, one of the main attractions in the town is a famous church which has a large ornate carving of “Jesus of Nazarene”, a black figure. This draws up to 10,000 pilgrims every year.
Not to be overlooked, are the custom painted buses that we first saw in Portobelo and that are everywhere in Colon. These are old school buses from the USA that have been refurbished, painted white, and then decorated with many colors and airbrush paintings. We were told that the artists get paid several thousand dollars for their work.
From Portobelo to Colon, the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal, is only about 20 miles, and we had a quick motor sail with strong tail winds. The harbor of Cristobol (where Colon is actually located) is huge, providing areas for dozens of ships to anchor as well as load or unload cargo before or after transiting the canal. Although it isn’t very scenic, it is fascinating watching the ships coming and going. Since we arrived, the wind has gotten even stronger, so we were lucky to arrive when we did. We're getting tired of winds of 25 knots all the time.
The Panama Canal Yacht Club is located next to the port area, and provides dockage, fuel, and restaurant facilities for visiting boats. The club has probably seen better days back when the canal was managed by the USA, but is still the only choice while we wait for our date to transit the canal. The docks are filled, especially as many of the Blue Water Rally boats arrived ahead of us, so we are anchored about ½ mile away in an area called the “flats”. At least another 30 boats are anchored near us; most are also waiting for their transit.
We have decided to hire Stanley, an agent, to help us with our paperwork. Stanley has been doing this for many years, after having worked for the Americans at the Canal before. When we were in Portobello, we were told the wait for a transit date was over 3 weeks, but Stanley has now gotten us a date (the 16th), which is less than a week after we arrived. He seems pretty busy helping other boaters, but has done a great job getting us scheduled to be measured by the Canal authority, helping us fill out the endless forms, and even driving us back and forth into the city for the new procedure where we have to get fingerprinted. He supplies the extra long lines and tires used as bumpers for the transit, and generally ferries us around as needed, all for only $300. The actual fee for our boat going through the Canal is $850. It seems like a lot until you learn that cruise ships pay over $30,000 each time they go through the Canal.
We’ve been eating out at the Yacht Club most nights as the food is really pretty good, and a great bargain. Dinner for the five of us on Encore and two new friends came to only $54 which included several steak entrees and two bottles of wine. It has been fun seeing our friends from the Rally before they go on ahead of us, and we hope we’ll catch up with some of them in the future. At the same time, we are making other friends with boaters that will also be headed across the Pacific this year. One couple, Annie and Gary, from Australia has a boat (Anthem) just a bit larger than ours, and we may sail together down to Ecuador and over to the Galapagos. It is really a small world when we learned that they bought their boat from the same broker that we used in Ft. Lauderdale, and that David, one of their crew members was a good friend of boaters we met going up the Red Sea in 1998. The picture above has their crew Kate and David with Nancy and Annie (on the right). Gary was busy on the boat at the time.
While we are waiting at anchor, we are whittling down our job list (now only a handful of tasks), doing laundry, getting more provisions, and constantly opening and closing port holes and hatches as it seems to rain hard several times a day. We asked Stanley to drive us to the first set of locks (Gatun Locks) to watch some freighters go through. Even though we had gone through the Canal in 1997 on Encore I, watching from the top of the canal was fascinating.
For boats our size, we have long lines attached to the sides of each lock, and we manually adjust the length of the lines as we go up or down. For ships, there are several huge tractors on a railway line on either side of the canal that keep the ships centered in the locks and help move the ships through. They have a tough job when the ships are the maximum size allowed (“Panamax ships”), as the clearance on each side is only two feet, and the ship is around 1000 feet long.
We have now made reservations at the marina at the Miramar Inter-Continental Hotel in Panama City for after we transit the Canal. We stayed there with the Expo ’98 rally and were guests of their grand opening ceremonies in February 1997. They had fireworks, bands, banquets, and even a visit of the President of Panama. We don’t expect a repeat of the celebration, but are looking forward to a modern marina, their swimming pool, restaurants, and hopefully wi-fi to let us update the website. We’ll spend a few days finishing our provisioning and shopping for a replacement backup computer, then head to Ecuador. Assuming the weather is favorable, we may stop at the Perlas islands just south of Panama City, another favorite cruising ground for boats starting their Pacific voyaging. Meanwhile, at the Panama Canal Yacht Club, we were finally able to get on one of the two computers in their office in order to retrieve email.
Our next stop will be a marina in La Libertad, a town near Guayaquil in Ecuador, or maybe the Salinas Yacht Club, another spot we visited before. From here to Tahiti, our crew will just be Paul, Nancy and Jennifer as our friends, Harry and Hilary return to Scotland. We’ll miss their company and all their help on board Encore II for the past 6 weeks or so.
This site was last updated 02/19/06