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Monday, December 22, 2008

Panama City

21 December 2008

We've been anchored at La Playita in front of the Amador causeway for a week now. This is the largest city we've ever visited in Nakia, and we've had some growing pains in getting to know it. First let me say that being anchored right next to the ship channel is a thrilling experience. We have a ringside seat at one of the biggest crossroads of world commerce with ships passing us going to and from the Canal 24/7. They are a fascinating sight which for some reason I find very moving.

I mean that seriously but it's also an unfortunate pun. Between the ships, the pilot boats, the admeasurer's boats, the tour boats, the Canal Authority boats, and all the other misc. boats going by the Playita anchorage, we are in an almost constant state of motion. Periodically we are rocked by an especially large wake which knocks over cups, slides things around, and makes us lose our balance if we're not holding on to something. So far the only minor casualty is a broken chair arm when a bad wake caught John just as he was sitting down in one of our plastic cockpit chairs. People dislike the anchorage for this reason but there are currently 30 boats here as opposed to eight just across the causeway at La Flamenco. The problem with the Flamenco anchorage is a nasty swell or wind chop which is bad when the wind is out of the north, as it will be for most of the dry season. But that's a good anchorage during the rainy summer.

In both cases this is a difficult place to get anything done. The Amador Causeway is a tourist/weekender oriented strip loaded with steak and seafood restaurants and not much else. There's no Wifi to the anchorage, no laundry, no grocery store, and no showers, despite a $5/day charge to use the dinghy dock (which is accessible to the public and therefore not technically secure). The closest Wifi is at Bennigan's restaurant which is a dinghy ride to the La Playita dock and then a 15 minute walk around the causeway to the Flamenco Marina office where we end up looking straight back out at Nakia in Playita. The more direct route would be to land the dinghy on the causeway itself but that is forbidden and the fine is $500.

We wouldn't be bothered by any of this if there was a dependable bus service to get us off the causeway into town. But the fact that the local cruiser's guide lists 14 taxi drivers must be indicative of something. We had three bad bus days in a row when we first arrived. We waited three different times for at least an hour before giving up and catching a cab. One day we traveled extensively around the city and paid $27 for a total of three cab rides. But our last two bus days turned out better as we figured out that it's wiser to go out before 9 AM and come back in the late afternoon. All the restaurant workers use the collectivos (.25/ride) so they seem to run more frequently at peak staff turnover times. Because of the size of the city many cruisers have given up on taking buses, preferring to hire taxi's at $8-10/hour to take them around on their errands. This is so counter to our do-it-ourselves philosophy that we are determined to figure out the bus system. I simply cannot bear the thought of taking a taxi back and forth just to do my laundry!

We've checked out three of the recommended grocery store chains and basically this is like living in the States. We've seen items that have been missing from our lives for four years, but at Stateside prices (we imagine) we'll go on doing without them. Where we've seriously gone off the cruiser budget wagon this week is eating out. We celebrated our arrival with a delicious Italian meal at Alberto's with Sarana; ate lunches out during shopping days; splurged big time on beers and burgers at a Bennigan's Wifi fix; had a disappointing post-laundry ordeal meal at Mi Ranchito's (which is always mystifyingly packed considering the ho-hum food there); indulged in high end Indian food at Masala (no lunch buffet here!); and I'm working my way through all the flavors of ice cream at Gelarti (not really gelato, but good ice cream).

I'm enjoying all that life in the big city has to offer but John is pining for the slower pace (and calmer anchorages) of the Las Perlas islands. Our new oil sender should arrive before Christmas, and we'll attend a potluck dinner on the 25th with 30 other cruisers at the Balboa Yacht Club. We should be back out in the islands for a quiet NY's eve.

Linda and John

Friday, December 19, 2008

Isla Mogo Mogo to Panama City

17 December 2008

The evening before leaving the "Survivor" islands we were bathing off the boat and watching two of the tent campers preparing to swim the channel from Mogo Mogo back to their camp on Chapera. The current was running swiftly and it would be dark soon. Even though they wore fins and masks we were a little concerned about their safety. Also I happened to be in the water without a swim suit and hoped they would pass Nakia quickly so I could get out and rinse off.

Instead the two guys headed straight for us to stop and ask if they could hitch a ride to Panama City with us. We had spoken to Anton on the beach earlier in the day and mentioned that we were heading there on Sunday. Oddly enough John later asked me how I would feel about offering them a lift. We discussed all the cons of having very little fresh food left; what if they're late; they and all their gear would be covered in sand and salt; four extra people is a lot for Nakia to handle (our cockpit is made for two), etc. But I agreed with John that it would be a wild and crazy thing to do, so when they showed up to ask us we were already prepared to say yes.

As soon as it was light enough Sunday morning John launched the dinghy and made two trips to get the four people and all their gear. Sure enough they brought half the beach with them. We stow our inflatable right side up on the foredeck so it was easy enough to fit their big backpacks and dive gear in the dink when we brought it up on deck. After we got underway John put them to work washing the sand off the side decks with sea water so we wouldn't track sand into the cockpit and down into the cabin. I heated water for coffee, tea and hot chocolate, and we sailed out of the islands with a light breeze.

The three guys were in their second year of medical school in Montreal and Emily (Lionel's girl friend) was about to begin a Master's program. They were on a camping/spear fishing school break and were headed to the Caribbean side of Panama next. They were covered in bites from no-see-ums which they said had flown right through the no-see-um netting of their tents. We offered them showers down below and Lionel went first. Emily followed him but by that time we were motoring through sloppy tidal chop and it was a bouncy ride, especially for someone shut in a tiny bathroom at the bow of the boat. Poor Emily finally made it back up on deck where she promptly threw up over the side. She was a trooper though and after some time in the sun and fresh air she felt much better.

We had just enough bread left to make sandwiches with lunch meat, cheese and one big tomato sliced six ways, and a packet of cookies each for dessert. After subsisting on nothing but fish and rice for the previous couple of days our new crew was most appreciative of our simple fare. After our early lunch Lionel and Anton played chess while Emily and Mahmoud snoozed on deck until the wind really picked up at 1 PM. For the next two hours we blasted along at six and seven knots, catching three big crevalle before John declared fishing season closed. The crew were all excited about the fish but we don't keep crevalle and we were heeling and sailing so fast that we didn't want anyone getting hurt trying to land a fish.

We sailed through all the huge anchored ships up to the La Playita anchorage surprising our friends with our mystery crew. After two trips to the dinghy dock and many thanks we got everyone unloaded. We then picked up Sarana to go ashore where our crew treated us to beers and sodas. The day was a success and we were happy to have saved the four hitch hikers from the expense of paying a panga to take them to Contadora and then a flight from there to Panama City. They brightened our day and broke the monotony of getting from one place to the next.

Linda and John


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Las Perlas islands

We are currently located in the famed Las Perlas islands of Panama. We spent Monday and Tuesday nights in the flat calm but trash laden inlet between Islas Cana and del Rey. We were stunned by the amount and variety of plastics covering the high tide line on the beaches and floating by the boat at each tidal change. It was so bad that we had to keep an eye out for waves of stuff coming by when we bathed off the boat. And snorkeling or swimming were out of the question because it was too creepy.

This continued as we passed Espiritu Santo, where there's a calm anchorage in a larger pass between islands, and on into the hook at Punta Matadero on Isla del Rey where we spent Wednesday night. We saw all shapes and sizes of plastic buckets, jugs, containers, baskets, toys, shoes, and furniture. It was a shocking sight which we did our best to ignore as we took beach walks with Sarana in the afternoons. The islands are incredibly beautiful and each one is unique. Some rocky islets remind us of the Pacific Northwest and other islands are studded with white sand (coral) beaches, looking like everyone's version of a tropical paradise. There are all kinds of interesting rock formations in beautiful colors, and the look of each place changes with the tides as beaches and rocks appear and disappear.

On Thursday we continued north to Isla Contadora where wealthy Panamanians own vacation homes; there are expensive resorts; and most importantly they sell beer, and a modest and dearly priced selection of groceries. Best of all the supply barge had arrived that very day with fresh fruits and veggies, so we bought tomatoes and a delicious pineapple to last us until Panama City. The beer drinking was cut short when the sky turned black and white caps began forming in the anchorage. Of course we'd left all the hatches wide open so we raced back to the boats (four total because we'd met up with old friends from Honduras and Mexico) to raise anchor and move around the corner to a more protected side of the island.

Yesterday morning we dinghied out to Isla Bartolome for some snorkeling on the low tide. It was a bit of a rough ride in the wind and current chop, but it was well worth the effort. The snorkeling was really just above average but it seemed stupendous to me after such a long dry spell. And the island itself is a small gem with white beaches and exposed rock ledges at low tide. We made a quick circumnavigation of it on shore, and it's worth a return trip with a picnic lunch next time. We've seen little to no garbage on the beaches up in this area which is a huge relief.

This morning we sailed an hour to anchor between Islas Chapera and Mogo Mogo where a season of "Survivor" was filmed. After snorkeling off of Mogo Mogo we walked a bit on Chapera where there were two obviously cleared areas. Although we searched the woods/jungle we found no other "Survivor" relics, but there were three young guys tent camping and spear fishing on the island, living their own survivor reality vacation.

This is paradise. There are more boats than we've seen in a month but it's fun watching them come and go. There are so many islands and anchorages to choose from that it's easy to imagine spending a year here (except for the dreaded rainy season). We still have to get to Panama City tomorrow for engine parts and food but we hope to be back out in the islands by Christmas.

Linda and John


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Punta Garachine to Isla Cana, Las Perlas

8 December 2008

Today was a relatively short day of only 34 nm in eight hours. We tried to give the engine a vacation by sailing as much as possible but the winds were mostly light so we just kept the RPMs low while motoring. John played around with the oil pressure sensor and he's convinced that it's bad, but we still need to address the issue of fuel leaking into the oil.

Oh, and we don't feel so guilty now about dragging Sarana away from their Darien trip. After we left this morning they called and told us their desperately dying batteries were giving the alternator fits and they couldn't run anything like navigation lights. They needed to wait until after sunrise to follow us. Their new batteries are waiting for them in Panama City so they're just as anxious as we are to get their problem solved. John keeps joking that between us we might have one good cruising boat.

The nice thing about traveling slowly on calm seas is the number of cool things you're able to see, like: 3-4 big carp-like fish hanging out under a floating log; a flying fish that kept flying until it was out of sight; big sea birds roosting on big logs and little birds on little logs; the flash of blue and gold as a dorado swam underwater past the boat; a brilliant emerald green dragonfly taking a breather on the lifelines; a sea tern hitching a ride on our solar panel for an hour (yes, nature girl got to clean the poop up afterwards); dolphins riding our bow wake; a whale's back before it disappears from sight; and finally, absolutely amazingly, a dorado flashing blue and silver in mid-air while in hot pursuit of a flying fish out in front of it. That is definitely one of the most memorable sights we've seen in over four years of cruising.

Linda and John


Bahia Pina to Punta Garachine, Golfo de San Miguel

7 December 2008

After agreeing with Sarana that if we woke to rain we'd postpone the day's passage, we departed under a mostly starry sky. It was amazing to pick out constellations again (John spotted Polaris for the first time in probably seven months) and to see starlight reflected in calm seas. I enjoyed three idyllic hours watching the sky for satellites, planes, shooting stars, and flashbulbs of lightning behind clouds on the southern and eastern horizons.

Pause for the errrkk of a phonograph needle scratching across a record album or the screeching sound of a car hitting the brakes...

At 6 AM someone flipped a switch and we literally went from la-di-dah bliss to 18 knots of north wind and its friend, 3' wind chop. Did I mention we were motoring north? An hour later whoever was controlling the switch turned it off and we were bouncing around in no wind trying to sail. Forty minutes later the wind was back. This went on for another couple of hours with all the accompanying jib in, jib out, reef the main, take the reef out, engine on, engine off, etc.

The reason we were trying to sail is because of a problem with the engine oil pressure. That first time we tried to motor into the north wind and waves John revved it up to 2000 RPM, our normal cruising speed when we don't have the benefit of current behind us. The engine overheated and we lost oil pressure (according to the gauge). Until John could troubleshoot the problem we needed to sail as much as possible to our destination. To get the most out of the variable wind strength John hand steered most of the way. By early afternoon we were entering the gulf and were feeling the adverse affects of all those Darien Province rivers ebbing against us. Plus the wind had died to almost nothing again.

But this gave us perfect conditions for John to do an oil change. We've had a problem with the engine "making oil" (fuel leaking into the oil) and an oil change would at least eliminate that issue for a little while. John quickly dispatched the sweaty job and we consulted Sarana about diverting to a closer anchorage than we had planned on. They agreed it was useless fighting the ebb and that's how we ended up in this relatively exposed location.

We were fortunate to have calm conditions for one night here but we knew we couldn't count on it to stay that way for long. The original plan was to buddy boat a couple of the Darien rivers with Sarana but with our engine problem appearing to worsen we feel the prudent choice is to press on to Panama City to effect repairs.

Linda and John


Monday, December 08, 2008

Bahia Solano, Colombia to Bahia Pina, Panama

6 December 2008

We made great time during our overnight passage from Colombia here to Panama. We did quite a bit of motoring but with a 1-2 knot current in our favor we kept the engine at a low 1500-1600 RPM. And the best part was that we only had half an hour of hard rain even though we saw lightning to the south all night.

We anchored at 10:30 this morning, had a bite to eat, and picked Sarana up to see about going for a walk across the peninsula to Playa Blanca. The lobe of Bahia Pina in which we're anchored is owned by the Tropic Star Lodge but the guide books say that the resort usually gives permission to walk their beach and cross their property to the white sand beaches. A very nice man waved us in to their fuel dock and called the office after we explained what we wanted to do. We waited a few minutes before Kristi arrived to ask us our boat names as she consulted a laminated list. We assured her we were not on her list of member boats. She was very friendly and politely explained to us that they were in the midst of bringing a large private group in that day and we would not be allowed to mingle amongst the guests, not even on the beach right in front of the resort. She offered us the use of their moorings for $25/night, but I'm not sure that included shore privileges. (TSL monitors VHF channel 84 and you can make a fuel dock reservation to purchase diesel at $4.50/gallon.)

Disappointed but determined to make the most of it, we dinghied around a point to the much larger (brown sand) beach in front of the village of Bahia Pina where many of the TSL employees live. Even though it was low tide we made it over a shallow bar into a river, avoiding a surf landing on the main beach. The indigenous village children were riding their child size wooden dugout canoes through the surf having a great time. They approached our boats this morning after anchoring, but not until some sport fishers came in later did I realize they were waiting for us to give them candy.

Groggy from our night passage we had a quick dinner and went to bed early for an 0300 departure to the Darien Province the next day. Bahia Pina was a comfortable place to stop and rest, but with no access (other than by a long rough dinghy ride) to the nicer beaches we opted to press on.

Linda and John


Friday, December 05, 2008

Bahia de Solano, Colombia

I'm afraid our fast sailing passages may have come to an end. We raised anchor in Utria at 7 AM on Monday and motored the 40 nm to Solano accompanied by Sarana. The wind was too light to try to do any sailing in the lumpy seas coming from all directions (both Sherrell and I were a bit sea sick at first), and it poured down rain until we began our entrance to Solano in the mid-afternoon. We don't have a cockpit cover with standing headroom, and we needed to keep a good lookout for the many floating logs and tree trunks floating close to the coast. John volunteered to get soaked while I stayed dry down below. He wore deck shoes, swim trunks, T-shirt, wet suit jacket, light rain jacket, and a ball cap, and managed to stay warm except for his feet.
We anchored in deep water off the Guarda Costa station and municipal pier at Solano where we watched a small cargo/passenger ferry being loaded with lumber and other goods. The next morning the military guys came by in their boat to get our boat name and general info (where have you come from, where are you going, how long are you staying, how many persons on board, etc.). They were very nice and polite and even offered us a ride to shore. Since it wasn't even 7 AM yet we declined and waited until after the morning Panama-Pacific HF radio net to go ashore. We locked the dinghy to one of the concrete pillars of the small black wood building and set off on the very wet and muddy road, happy we had chosen to wear Teva style sandals instead of flip flops (which would have left us with muddy stripes up the backs of our legs).
It's only a 15 minute walk from the pier to town and we went directly to TransBahia to meet with Juan Carlos, our ship's agent for Solano. For only $50 (compared to the $120 in Tumaco) he is taking care of helping us with the paperwork for the Port Captain and Migracion. We will be getting our international zarpe and officially exiting Colombia for Panama from here on Friday. We then explored town to find the one bank (with ATM) and several small tiendas (no super mercado here), none of which had any vegetables other than some tired potatoes, onions, and garlic. The town has been waiting for a cargo ferry to arrive from Buenaventura with a load of supplies but no one knows when it might arrive. We are in desperate need of some fresh veggies (Sarana even more so since they are vegans), but it's not looking good for the supply boat to arrive before we leave. We did manage to have a 30 lb tank of propane delivered to the pier and John spent the rest of the day transferring gas from it to our tanks (one 10 lb and two 5 lb tanks). Since we had to pay for the whole thing anyway we donated the rest of the tank to the lady at the snack shack where we lock the dinghy.
It rained hard Tuesday night and most of Wednesday but on Thursday the sun is managed to shine through a mostly overcast sky. After checking prices to have laundry done at one of the hotels (there is a new lavanderia being established but it isn't quite open yet) we opted to do some hand washing since rain water has been so plentiful. We're anchored between two waterfalls on shore and the snack shack even installed a fresh water spigot on the beach during our stay. John filled our water jugs from that but he had to filter it through a pump and we'll use it for washing only.
On Thursday we ate almuerzo at "Gloria's" (no sign outside; it's just a couple of doors from the Artesania place as you come off the road which leads to the pier) which was very good. While we waited for our agent today we had juice drinks at Cabalonga, a charming restuarant with an actual menu. Too bad we didn't discover it earlier in the week because it looked very good. Everything is priced higher here than we're used to with almuerzo running about USD$5 a person, but it's mostly very good. After our lunch on Thursday we hiked to a waterfall up the river which runs through town. The last 20 minutes were spent wading up the stream itself which was easier than clambering up the banks to smidgens of trails which didn't go far. The water flows quickly and the rocks were not slippery. It was pretty, but too misty to take the camera out.
As I write this we're waiting for our agent to arrive with the Port Captain so that we can complete our check-out and be on our way to Panama. We were hoping to depart by 2 PM, but of course now (at 1 PM) it's pouring down rain. It doesn't sound like there's any wind blowing on the coast so it could be another sloppy motor trip overnight to Bahia Pina.
Linda and John

Monday, December 01, 2008

Utria, Colombia

We left Gorgona and after 36 hours of mostly sailing we diverted to Coqui to drop anchor and call it a day. We were soon visited by Paulo and Fidel in their pangas. They are not fishermen and seemed like enterprising people who were ready to ferry us to shore and bring us anything we needed from the small tienda in Jovi, the town we were anchored off of. Paulo went so far as to exchange cell phone numbers with us, but all the curiosity and questions made us a little nervous. We bought a papaya from him at an inflated price and he went on his way.

We spent a quiet night and were up before dawn to motor on to Ensenada Utria. Why on earth did we stay so long at Isla Gorgona?! Although it's deep all the way up to shore (we dropped anchor in 50'), it's flat calm in here. We are anchored directly off of the new park building because there is a struggling coral "reef" off of the south facing beach. Daniel and Ericson came out in the park panga to lead us in.

On arrival we were told we needed to pay an additional park entry fee of USD$12.50 per person and nothing was said about an anchoring fee (in fact I'm sure we asked and were told there was no charge to anchor). Unfortunately we made the mistake of complaining about how expensive Gorgona was and yesterday a modest anchoring fee (COL$7,000 per night; about USD$3) was requested as well. Interestingly enough we were only given a receipt for the park entry fee while none was issued for the anchoring fee. This is a dead giveaway that it's not a posted price.

There appear to be two hiking options here, both requiring a guide. There's a 2-3 hour (one way) hike to the small town of El Valle or a 30 minute hike across the peninsula to a snorkeling beach. Abaslan, a guide, quoted us USD$30 for our group of four to do the latter. We talked him down to a still pricey $20, but since it's been pouring down rain all day we ended up canceling. We did a short low tide walk through the mangroves with Ericson yesterday and snorkeled a wreck and the coral "reef." The wreck is marked by a buoy here near where we're anchored and wasn't visible in the murky water without free diving down to it. The coral was disappointing with very few fish, but both the walk and the two swims provided some needed diversion.

That afternoon one of the marine guards asked John if we could charge his cellular phone for him, and the next thing we knew John had a bag full of seven dead cell phones and their respective AC charge cords. He plugged them all into the inverter and while they were charging the guys came out with a load of husked coconuts, papayas, chili peppers, and plantains for us to share with Sarana. It was very thoughtful of them and we sent a few magazines back with the phones so they could at least flip through the pictures.

We are out of propane and down to the last of our fresh provisions and are weary of haggling over fees, so we leave for Bahia Solano Monday morning where we hope to check out of Colombia for Panama. I say hope because at this point we expect nothing to go smoothly or cheaply in Colombia.

Linda and John