Welcome to the Caribbean Mon

They say the grass is always greener on the other side but so far the grass is just as green and the water is bluer on this side. We’re referring, of course, to life on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal versus life on the Pacific side.

Don’t get me wrong, we loved Mexico and had a wonderful time in Costa Rica and on the Pacific side of Panama but, with the exception of the Sea of Cortez and a few anchorages along the way, we haven’t really had that crystal blue water experience that we anticipated. You know the one in the postcards where you see the starfish under your boat and you’re surrounded by palm covered islands.

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It’s only been six weeks since we transited the canal (on March 24) so we can’t rush to judgment, but we’ve already found crystal clear water and uninhabited cays in the San Blas Islands and, with that, our early impressions of the Caribbean side have surpassed our experiences in Costa Rica and Pacific Panama.

The San Blas Archipelago is a chain of islands just 70 miles or so from the canal. Sounds simple and we’d normally cover that distance in a day (a long one). But, now that we’re on the Caribbean side where the prevailing north east winds (which are very strong) along with the waves (which can be very big) and the current (which coincides with the wind and waves) are all against us, making passages is much more challenging as we have to wait for “weather windows” then hop to the next spot before the window closes. With this in mind, along with the fact that we have no schedule and want to see anchorages along the way, we took almost two weeks to travel those 70 miles.

First, we hung out in Shelter Bay marina with our intrepid crew of line handlers (John and Lynda Kooymans and Paul and Jean Swenson) before their departures back to Toronto and Los Angeles. John and Lynda had to leave relatively soon but Paul and Jean had a few extra days so we did a quick trip to Isla Naranja, where we swam, bought fresh lobster from a couple of fishermen and Jean gave Audrey a haircut. We also tore the top loop on our headsail but we knew that Shelter Bay had a good sail-maker so we were happy that it happened there and not in the middle of a crossing or somewhere that we couldn’t get it repaired.

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After our wonderful but short stop at Naranja we headed back to Shelter Bay where we said goodbye to Paul and Jean, got our sail repaired, stocked up on supplies (there are no grocery stores in the San Blas Islands), then bashed east toward the San Blas Islands. Our first stop was back at Naranja, since we knew the way and that it was a well protected anchorage but we just stayed one night since we were anxious to keep moving.

The next stop was Portobello, a small town in a well protected harbor that was once a Spanish outpost for galleons taking ill-gotten booty back to Spain. The village was surrounded by what was left of battalion walls and had a small fort on the east side, where we anchored. We’d heard a lot about Portobello from fellow cruisers and figured we’d stay a few days but Mother Nature was not on our side as the wind was “blowing like stink” so we ended up staying for a week while waiting for a window. This turned out fine though because, once we got to know our way around, we found a few charming restaurants, four little tiendas (known as 1,2,3 and 4) where you could pick-up most staples, and we got back to our routine of me kayaking in the mornings while Audrey turned the salon into her mini gym. Funny enough, we actually got to “unwind” from what was a very busy time for us since, along with the transit and our crack crew of linehandlers visiting, our friends Sharon and Graeme from Toronto had also spent two weeks with us in Panama City.

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After a week of howling winds in Portobello, Mother Nature gave us a weather window so we headed to Isla Linton, a short hop just 20 miles away but even with the window it was an upwind bash that took 5 hours.  Needless to say, it was a welcome respite. It’s a resort area where Panamanians spend vacations and not only was it a well protected anchorage with normal beach stuff but the island had a gaggle of monkeys and one of the small resorts on the mainland had a compound with emus and horses just off the beach. They were also building a new marina which should be completed this year (they already had some boats on docks but no power or water).

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We could have stayed longer at Isla Linton but we were getting really anxious to get to San Blas and the next stop was supposed to be an anchorage just 10-12 miles away. Yes, I said “supposed to be” because after bashing upwind we got to the so-called anchorage at Turtle Cay (where there is also supposed to be a marina) and the only thing we saw were huge rolling waves heading into the bay that our guide book says is a “good all-weather anchorage”. I won’t tell you the words that were coming out of Audrey’s mouth (we’re PG) but we were not happy as our choices were to turn around and go back or sail through the night to San Blas.

Fortunately for us, there was another sailor looking at the same anchorage and he appeared to know the area. He just charged into the waves then, after a while, miraculously disappeared into what we finally saw (with binoculars) was the very small channel into the marina that was hidden amongst the trees. So, we figured, if he could do it we could do it. We did but there were a few nervous moments because there were huge breaking waves on both sides of the bay and the waves didn’t abate until you got really close to the marina entrance. Eventually, we did get into the marina and by that time it was like an oasis in the desert. We just tied the boat to a dock then broke out the happy hour drinks. The other plus is it was inexpensive – just $20/night – so we stayed an extra night, enjoyed lunch at the little restaurant on the beach, watched movies on our big TV (we normally watch on the computer to save energy) and even did a little laundry.

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The next morning the winds subsided and we motored out of the marina to relatively calm waters that were not even comparable to what we experienced while entering. We motor-sailed for a while then actually sailed most of the 33 miles from Turtle Cay to Porvenir, the first (westerly) island in the San Blas Islands, where we dropped the hook in beautiful blue water and spent a couple of days getting oriented.

By the way, the San Blas Islands are technically part of Panama but they are governed by the Kuna Indians who have lived on the islands since before the Spanish conquered Panama.  They are a maternal society that still lives simply, making their livelihood fishing from dugout canoes, making and selling molas (ornate handmade fabrics with hand stitched designs) and selling fruits and vegetables to boaters.

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Porvenir is the “busiest” island in the archipelago as it has a small airport with customs and immigration along with a small hotel/restaurant. It’s also dinghy distance from the Kuna island of Wichubhuala that has a small tienda for basic supplies.

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But, we didn’t come to San Blas for the airport or store. We came to spend time swimming, snorkeling and kayaking in the crystal clear waters so we pulled up anchor and spent time in the Holandes Cays, Coco Banderas Cays, and the Lemmon Cays. I won’t even try to describe the water or the spectacular scenery. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves and even they probably don’t do justice. All we can say is that the San Blas Islands surpassed our expectations and we understand why some boaters spend months or years cruising these waters.  It’s certainly in our top 5 places to sail and we hope to return one day.

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As you can tell from these pics, we wanted to spend a long time in San Blas before heading east to Colombia but, as I mentioned, our route goes against the prevailing conditions and we needed to take weather windows when we get them. Of course, we happened to get one less than two weeks after arriving. And, since our next stop was Cartagena, 180-miles away and an overnight sail into the prevailing winds, we had to take it. So, with deep regret we left the beautiful San Blas Islands in very calm conditions and motor-sailed the entire distance to Cartagena, where we are now anchored walking distance from the spectacular walled city of this UNESCO World Heritage site.

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We’ll say more about Cartagena in our next post but I should let you know that Mother Nature didn’t completely smile on us during the trip. As I said, we motor-sailed the entire overnight trip under calm seas but when we were approximately 30 miles from the harbor entrance we got hit by a blinding squall that packed 45-knot winds. It only lasted about an hour but it seemed much longer and by the time it was over, it tore our mainsail (which we had just gotten repaired in Panama City) and damaged our windlass , which we didn’t discover until we were anchoring in Cartagena. Still, we made it to Cartagena safely and the sail and, hopefully, windlass are being repaired as we go to press. Stay tuned…

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The Deets on Our Panama Canal Transit

OK – those of you who are really, really interested in the details on our Panama Canal transit stay tuned. If you’re not, you should go to our previous post (Our Panama Canal Transit) as it’s much more fun…

We’ll start with the basics. The Panama Canal is a 100+ year old, 50-mile long canal with 6 locks that links the Pacific to the Caribbean/Atlantic. It’s virtually the only way for a large boat to get from one ocean to the other – unless you are a real die-hard and want to sail thousands of miles around Cape Horn (South America) or, even more challenging, sail through the Northwest Passage (which is extremely rare and an incredible achievement for those that have done it). Needless to say, since we prefer tropical climates and fair-weather (most of the time), we didn’t even consider the alternatives in our plan to get to the Caribbean.

Canal Map1

The canal is owned and administered by the government of Panama and with over 14,000 ships transiting per year it’s one of the country’s primary sources of income (it was actually built and administered by the US, after a failed attempt by France, but returned to Panama in 1999. If you’re interested in the history of the canal, check out The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough). The majority of those ships are container ships that pay approximately $100,000 to transit (the cheapest transit was completed by Richard Halliburton, who swam the canal in 1928 and paid a fee of just 36 cents based on his body weight).

Canal Lock View

Since it is a commercial enterprise, there are significant fees to be paid, paperwork to be completed, and criteria to be met before transiting – even for a little boat like ours. This can be handled the easy way, which is where you pay a Canal Agent anywhere from $400-$700 plus the canal fees to do all the administration and paperwork for you. Or you can do it the hard way, which is what we did and, quite frankly, didn’t turn out to be all that hard.

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The first step is to arrange to have your boat measured (the official term is Admeasurement) so they can determine how much you are going to pay. To do this we jumped on a 25-cent Panama city bus and went to the Admeasurer’s Office where we received all the information we needed to do the transit (they provide a 5-page summary), and completed a form with our boat and contact details to make an appointment for the Admeasurer to come to our boat (while it was at anchor i.e. we didn’t have to pay to go in a marina) the following Monday.  So far so good!!!

The following Monday the Admeasurer showed up, explained the process then measured the boat from bow to stern using a regular tape measure and me as his assistant. The best part of this, from our perspective, is that the lower threshold for the fee schedule was up to 50-feet length overall, including davits, solar panels, dinghies, anchors, sprits or any other stuff that makes your boat longer than its official document states.  In our case, Celebration is officially 47-feet and with our davits, anchors, etc. it still measured just under 50-feet, which saved us almost $500.

RJ Admeasure

The total up-front cost for Celebration including transit, admeasurement, buffer fees and damage deposit (of which $871 is returned if you do not cause any delays or damage) was just under $2,000 that had to be PAID IN CASH at the Citibank located across from the Admeasurer’s office. So, after a few trips to the ATM, we jumped back on the 25-cent city bus and paid our fees. Once this was done, we had to wait 24-hours for the bank to confirm payment with the Transit Authority after which we were able to call the Master Scheduler directly by phone to schedule our transit.

Per our previous post, Audrey’s brother John and sister-in-law Lynda from Canada, and our friends Paul and Jean Swenson from California were flying in to be “line handlers” so we called the Master Scheduler asap to see if we could schedule our preferred date and it was no problem. He didn’t give us any details. He just said, “You’re all set” then hung up.

Line Handlers1

Technically, this was the end of the administration process – at least until transit – but we knew from experience (Audrey had already helped our friends on Manaia transit) that you are supposed to call the Master Scheduler the day before your scheduled transit to ensure it hasn’t been changed, and for them to let you know what time the Transit Advisor (who is like a pilot and required to be onboard by the Canal Authority) will be at your boat. Still, so far, so good!!!

Besides fees and paperwork, the other requirements are you have to have 4 strong lines (ropes) that are at least 125-feet long and at least 6 very durable fenders (to prevent boat damage), and your boat must be able to motor at least 5 knots (this allows a small boat to transit in 2 days but if you can motor faster you may be able to do it in one). We didn’t have 125-foot lines so we arranged to rent lines and tires (to supplement our fenders) for $60 from “Tito”. He’s based in Colon and delivers to Panama City but we were able to get his tires and lines from a boat that had just transited southbound from the Caribbean and was in the same anchorage as us. All I had to do was dinghy over and pile all the stuff in.

RJ Tires Lines

OK, so we’ve been measured, we paid our fees, we have a scheduled date, and we have lines, tires and line handlers (John, Lynda, Paul and Jean). Is this was people are paying $400-$700 for? Did we miss something?

The day before our transit, we called the Master Scheduler and he confirmed that we were still on and that our Transit Advisor was scheduled to arrive at 7:00 am. He also said we should call Flamenco Signal Station on the VHF in the morning to ensure there were no changes. The next morning we all woke “raring to go” and though our Transit Advisor Freddie was postponed until 8:00 am, we were under way by 8:30 am and passing under the Bridge of the Americas by 9:00 am. I guess we didn’t miss anything and we saved quite a lot of money with DIY.

Auds Control Bridge of Americas2

Now, in defense of Agents, if you are on a schedule and need to transit quickly it is best to use an agent because DIY does take time AND, we are told, agents are familiar with the schedulers and administrators and more likely to get your preferred date. They also assist with Customs and Immigration, locating line handlers, and getting lines and tires. It’s also a matter of your own “comfort zone” with foreign officials and whether you speak a little Spanish. Our advice is if you have the time and are comfortable with following “official” procedures, which you almost have to be with this lifestyle (e.g. customs, immigration, port captains, etc), do it yourself. It was relatively easy, the Canal officials were very nice and all of them spoke some English. Plus, of course, the savings can buy a lot of boat goodies…

So, we now have Freddie and The Linehandlers (it’s a new band) onboard and we’re motoring to the Miraflores locks, the first 3 of 6 in the Panama Canal system. At this point, Freddie tells us that we are going in the locks with a cruise ship (a small one) and a 62-foot catamaran that we are going to raft (tie-up) against.  He also tells us that if we can get through the Miraflores locks then get through the canal and Gatun Lake and be at Gatun locks by 5:00 pm we should be able to complete our transit in one day (most small boat transits take 2-days, especially those heading southbound), which is good news.

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The other good news is the owner/captain of the 62-foot catamaran is none other than Eric Bauhaus, author of The Panama Cruising Guide, which is the best boating guide on Panama and the one we use. And, since we are rafted together and he has the larger boat, he is in control of the raft and has to drive during lock entry, operation and exit. This makes our locking a lot easier as we are happy to know that our partner has transited many times and knows what he’s doing, and that all we need to do is handle our lines in the locks, stay alert at all times, and keep our engine running in neutral – just in case.

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Still, there were a couple of tense moments at the beginning. First, we had to tie the two boats together to form the raft just before entering the lock, which requires a great deal of coordination with boats of difference size, wind and current in the canal, and two different crews who all have different experiences rafting. But, after some maneuvering we managed to form a raft and were prepared to be “buddy boats” for the day.

Raft2

Then, we had to quickly master the infamous Panama Canal Monkey Fists. These are long lines with a weighted ball (Monkey Fist) on the end that the lock employees throw from the wall to your boat  in order to transfer the 125-foot lines from our boat to the lock wall. You catch the line/ball (before it can hit you in the head or worse your solar panels) then tie it around the loop in your 125-foot line so they can pull it up to secure it to the bollards/cleats on the wall. Once they are secured and the lock is operating the line handlers either release the slack or take up the slack depending upon whether you are locking up (as we did in on the Pacific side) or down (as we did on the Caribbean side). It sounds easy but there is so much turbulence in the lock that you and the other boat(s) on the raft have to work together to ensure the whole raft stays in the center. If you don’t something very ugly could happen, hence the tires strapped to the side of our boat.

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With that, we started our trip through one of mankind’s great marvels of engineering. Our raft entered the Miraflores locks around 10:00 am and, with an audience of snap-happy tourists at the visitor’s center, we waved goodbye to the Pacific Ocean as the gigantic lock gates closed. Two and a half hours later with our stress level considerably lower, we were through the first three locks and 100 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

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Then, with smiles on our faces, we carefully untied the raft and began our 27-mile motor through the scenic canal and Gatun Lake. This, of course, was the easiest and most enjoyable part of the transit. We started with a wonderful lunch then all took turns driving (staying on our side of the marked channel to avoid the huge tankers and container ships coming the other way) while the rest of the crew took pictures, rested, sunbathed, or napped.

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As planned, we arrived at the Gatun locks at 4:30 pm and even managed to tie onto one of the canal mooring balls to relax for a while before our locking time, which had been pushed back to 5:30 pm. But, as our appointment time approached, there was a hubbub between the two advisors (ours and the one on the catamaran) and the Cristobal Control Station because Control wanted a third boat to join our raft but our advisors said it would make the raft too wide and we’d end up on the wall, which we definitely did not want. Eventually they agreed that the third boat would go solo along the wall then our raft would go in behind them and we would be followed by a commercial vessel.

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Of course, by the time this was all arranged the “little” cruise ship that we had transited the first three locks with had already gone and we ended up with a massive Panamax oil tanker that looked to us like it was going to crush us. It had what appeared to be inches of clearance on each side and ended up stopping just 30 feet or so behind us (each lock is 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long). This may sound like lots of room but when they are that big they can’t stop on a dime. Fortunately, the canal uses “mules” (small locomotives) to control these behemoths while they are in the locks and, once we knew we could all fit, the three consecutive locks down from Gatun Lake to the Caribbean went without a hitch and we were motoring our way to “The Flats” anchorage in Colon by 8:00 pm.

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Needless to say, we were a very happy crew when we finally dropped the hook and popped the champagne. We had successfully transited the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean in one day and aside from an “incident” with our cleat we did it uneventfully, which is just what we hoped for.

The “incident” occurred when we had to re-form the raft before Gatun locks and the port stern cleat on Celebration appeared to bend or flex under the load after we were hit by a wave from a container ship, which definitely isn’t supposed to happen. In fact, it flexed so much that it cracked our wooden toerail and we ended up securing the raft to one of our primary winches — just in case (maybe a new backing plate! Oh well, another “fix-it” project to add to our to-do list).

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Transiting the Panama Canal on our own boat was most likely (never say never) a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us and definitely an item that we can cross of our Bucket List. Besides the overall experience, which will stay with all of us forever, highlights included seeing the construction of the new canal lanes (bigger, wider, longer, more fees) that are being built; motoring past General Noriega’s prison; the girl in the bikini on the 62-foot catamaran that caused the lock worker to completely miss our boat when throwing the monkey fist (not that any of us guys noticed her…); motoring across Gatun Lake with the wind howling at 25-30 knots; being amazed by the sheer magnitude of the canal system and all its logistics involved (including tugs, ports, maintenance) as well as the fact that it was built over 100 years ago; and being able to share this amazing experience with John, Lynda, Paul, Jean and, through this blog, with all of our family and friends.

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Transiting the Panama Cana may not be for everyone but if you are at all interested, we highly recommend a cruise, a local (Panama) tour or, better yet, volunteer to be a “line handler” on someone else’s boat – it’s much cheaper than taking your own..:-)

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Our Panama Canal Transit

There’s no doubt that every Panama Canal transit – especially for a small boat like ours – is unique. Each transit depends upon the type and speed of the boat, the Transit Advisor (who is required and provided by the Canal Authority), the driver and crew of line handlers, your position in the lock (center tie or side tie), the boat you are rafted to (sailboat, powerboat, tug, etc.), the boat or ship that you are in the lock with (probably a large commercial vessel), the Canal staff that are on duty at the time, and weather conditions, among many other things.

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In other words, everyone we spoke to in advance about transiting the canal had a different experience – some good and some not so good – including one boat that we will not name that had to do a 360-degree turn in a lock while it was operating! With this in mind, this post is specific to OUR Panama Canal transit and not meant to be a guide on how to take your boat through this marvel of engineering (how’s that for a PR guy’s disclaimer???).

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Now, for those of you who aren’t interested in the details (I’ll provide them in another post later), the short version is we (our crack crew included Audrey’s brother and sister-in-law, John and Lynda Kooymans, and our good friends from California, Paul and Jean Swenson) transited the canal northbound (yes, it’s strange that it wasn’t eastbound) from the Pacific to the Caribbean on Tuesday, March 24. Our Transit Advisor, Freddie, jumped onboard around 8:00 am and by 9:00 am we were passing under the majestic Bridge of the Americas on our way to the Miraflores locks where we were scheduled to enter with another sailboat and a cruise ship at 10:00 am.

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Prior to entering the lock, the two sailboats rafted together and, as luck would have it, the owner of the other sailboat was none other than Eric Bauhaus, the author of The Panama Cruisers Guide – the best guide for sailing and cruising in Panama and, of course, the one we happened to be using. Needless to say we were very happy to know that our “partner” knew exactly what he was doing. We were even more ecstatic to learn that the one with the biggest boat (his boat was a beautiful 62-foot long Sunseeker catamaran) takes the lead and actually does the “driving” for both boats when entering, locking and exiting. In other words, all we had to do was tie to his boat then handle the lines from our boat to the lock wall while keeping our engine running in neutral and staying alert to what he’s doing – just in case.

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So, as you can imagine our transit was relatively uneventful, which is exactly what we wanted. The most challenging part was handling our 125-foot lines that had to be transferred from our boat to the lock wall employees using a “Monkey Fist”, which is a long line with a weighted ball on the end that they throw from the wall to your boat. You catch the line/ball (before it can hit you in the head or worse your solar panels) then tie it around the loop in your 125-foot line so they can pull it up to secure it to the bollards/cleats on the wall. Once they are secured and the lock is operating the line handlers either release the slack or take up the slack depending upon whether you are locking up (as we did in on the Pacific side) or down (as we did on the Caribbean side). It sounds easy but there is so much turbulence in the lock that you and the other boat(s) on the raft have to work together to ensure the whole raft stayed in the center. If you don’t something very ugly could happen, hence the tires strapped to the side of our boat.

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But, as I said, our transit was relatively uneventful. We entered the Miraflores locks around 10:00 am and were through these three locks on the Pacific side by 12:30 pm. We then untied the raft and hauled ass 27-miles through the scenic canal and Gatun Lake to get to the locks on the Caribbean side before 5:00 pm when we were schedule to lock down to the Caribbean.

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As you can imagine, with all the variables I mentioned earlier, timing was everything but we made it in time to enter the Gatun locks with a gigantic Panamax oil tanker on our butt just before dark. And, by 8:00 pm we had passed through all three locks on the Caribbean side and were safely motoring to an area called The Flats where a Canal Authority boat came and picked up Freddie, our Advisor. After which, we anchored, drank champagne (and a few other beverages), had dinner and celebrated to the wee hour of “Cruiser’s Midnight”.

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That’s the short version. We’ll do another post soon with details on things like what I meant by “relatively uneventful”, logistics and administration (including Agents, Admeasurement, scheduling and renting lines and tires), and some of the details of what we saw/experienced while in the canal and locks. For now, all we can say is “welcome to the Caribbean mon!”.

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Panama City – Gateway to the Caribbean

They say time flies when you’re having fun. Well, we must be having too much fun because it’s been a blur since we left Costa Rica.

Our Costa Rica to Panama City adventure started with a boisterous 80-mile sail from Golfito to Isla Parida, our first stop in Panama, where we rested for the night before heading further southeast to the beautiful Islas Secas. This small group of islands had sandy beaches; crystal clear water, which we hadn’t seen for a while; and no restaurants, internet or cell connections. It was an idyllic place to hang out for a few days and, in hindsight, we should have stayed longer. But, we had peeps from Canada flying into Panama City, and had promised our sailing friends on Manaia that we would be linehandlers for their canal transit so we raised the anchors and kept moving.

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The next stop was Bahia Honda, one of the most protected bays in the country and, from a cultural perspective, one of the most unique experiences we had on this trip. Nothing earth-shattering, just that it’s so remote the locals are accustomed to trading with sailors for goods and supplies, and the fact that they are not shy about it. I mean we barely had our anchor down before local boats came over to see if we had anything they needed – ranging from clothes to batteries to chocolate and school supplies for the kids. One guy even wanted the top that Audrey was wearing (not sure it if was for his wife or the thrill…). Needless to say, we weren’t quite prepared for this but we took it in stride and after a few days in which we gave away everything we could, we left Bahia Honda feeling like we helped someone and needed to go shopping.

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The next few stops – Isla de Cebaco, Bahia Naranja and Ensenada Benao – were short hops where we didn’t stay long but we did have a few adventures. First, Audrey caught a big Spanish Mackerel that was enough for fishcakes, fillets and sharing with fellow boaters. Second, we got stuck in Isla de Cabaco for a few extra days due to gale force winds in the Gulf of Panama.

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Third, we met new friends, CB and Tawn, from the sailboat Pallarin in Ensenada Benao and when we invited them for drinks later that day Tawn showed up with 19 stiches on her head from a surfing accident. I don’t know about you but if I’d been hit in the head with a surfboard and got that many stitches, I’d be in my bunk hugging the pillow. Tawn is one tough sailing and surfer chick.

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Finally, we got boarded by the Panamanian Coast Guard in Isla de Cebaco when we weren’t even on the boat! Turns out they were doing a routine check but we were walking on the island at the time and, from shore, it looked like thieves were on our boat because theirs was jet black and they were there for so long. We eventually got back and they cleared up the mystery but I thought Audrey was going to have a heart attack for a while. They were very professional and super nice considering we hadn’t officially checked into the country yet. They just instructed us to check-in at an official port of entry asap and said to enjoy their country.

For those of you who have been following our adventures, we’ve talked about Gap Winds, which are very strong winds caused by their funneling from the Caribbean through mountains on the relatively narrow Isthmus to the Pacific. They occur in three areas along the coast – the Gulf of Tehuantepec in Mexico, the Papagayos from Guatamala to Costa Rica, and the Gulf of Panama. Well, we’d already done two of the three and it was time for our final push into the Gulf of Panama.

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We left Ensenada Benao at 7:00 am with fair winds for sailing past infamous Punta Mala (Bad Point?) then another 70+ miles to the Las Perlas Island. It was a perfect morning and the boat was doing 7-8 knots which meant we should get there before nightfall. But, they don’t call it Punta Mala for no reason and the Gulf of Panama isn’t one of the Gaps by accident and soon enough we went from good wind to no wind to battling strong currents and strong winds on the nose slowing the boat to 3-4 knots. In short, it went from a perfect morning to arriving at our anchorage on San Jose Island just after midnight. But, from what we’ve read and heard from other boaters, it could have been a lot worse (our friends on Pallarin arrived the next morning at 9:30 am) so we celebrated with a shot of Mexican Tequila then hit the sack in preparation for our final push to Panama City.

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The next day we motor-sailed in very strong winds 30 miles to Isla Contadora, a popular vacation destination in the Las Perlas islands, where stayed for one night (and would return), then had an awesome sail to Panama City – one of our major milestones as it’s the entrance to the Panama Canal and, of course, the gateway to our ultimate destination, the Caribbean just 50 miles away.

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It was a major accomplishment. We’d spent a year lollygagging in Mexico then hauled ass past Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua before a relatively short stop in Costa Rica and finally made it to Panama City. But, as my old bosses at GM used to say we had to “Celebrate on the Run” because our friends Sharon and Graeme from Toronto were arriving in less than a week and staying for two weeks, and we had to check into the country (which took 2 days and is a long story), clean the boat, do laundry, re-provision, do some repairs, get a phone and internet, as well as a million other little things before they got here.

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We won’t bore you with details but we got it done, they arrived a few hours late, and we all enjoyed an awesome vacation (yes, we get vacations when friends come on vacation). First of all, Sharon, Graeme and Audrey spent 2 days going through the Panama Canal as linehandlers on Manaia (while I did boat projects). Then we spent a week in the beautiful Las Perlas Islands where our experiences ranged from an awesome sail to Isla Contadora to a swimming rescue in a Kayak to nearly grounding Celebration due to the extreme tides (20+ feet). Finally, we returned to Panama City where we spoiled ourselves in a marina and enjoyed some spectacular sightseeing and great meals in a charming, wonderful city.

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Seals, Sloths and Sodas

OK, where did we leave off? Oh yeah, three weeks in beautiful Bahia Culebra, going to rainforests (or cloud forests?) and enjoying zip-lining, horseback-riding, mud-baths, cool beaches, bars and restaurants in the area.  Well, all good things come to an end and after our friends, Matt and Madalin, returned to the hinterland and we enjoyed a wonderful Christmas dinner with boating friends at Marina Papagayo, it was time to start heading south.

CR Christmas Dinner

As always, before we left I did a quick maintenance check on the boat and sadly found a constant stream of water coming in from our “dripless shaft seal”, which is the seal that prevents water coming into the boat where the propshaft enters the boat to attach to the transmission. It wasn’t fatal but it did mean we had to initially bail a couple of buckets of water a day out of the boat and that we had to get it repaired quickly.

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To make matters worse, replacing the seal required the boat to be hauled out of the water, which couldn’t be done at Marina Papagayo because they didn’t have the facilities. After checking our guide books and talking to the marina manager, we determined that the best place to get the work done was in Quepos, approximately 160 nautical miles south of Papagayo.  Of course, we discovered the problem over the Christmas holidays which meant the marina’s yard was closed so after we got no responses to our emails we decided the best thing to do was just start making our way south and hope they could fit us in as soon as possible.

Fortunately, I’d been able to “McGyver” a temporary fix by hose clamping the seal when we were at anchor which meant water was only coming in while we were underway (yeah…). With this, the problem wasn’t critical but it did mean we couldn’t leisurely make our way south as we had planned. We made quick stops in Tamarindo (for dinner with our new UK friends, Danny, Lisa and Jenny); Bahia Ballena (for New Year’s Eve with our friends Rosetta and Tomaso on Manaia); Isla Tortugas (where we anchored off a gorgeous Windjammer-like cruise ship); and Bahia Herradura (where the marina apparently charges $50 a day to land your dinghy…no way!). But, our focus was on getting to Quepos asap so they were essentially one night stops.

CR Celebration Windjammer

Good news was when we got to Quepos, we connected to wi-fi and got an email from Scott Carter, Marina Pez Vela’s awesome Yard Manager, saying that they could accommodate Celebration and that we should go and see him asap. Long story short, they were able to get the part from Miami and repair the boat. Plus, since the boat was coming out of the water anyway, we decided to have the bottom painted (which prevents barnacles and other growth) as we were supposed to have it done in Mexico.

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The bad news, for our budget, was we were not allowed the stay on the boat while it was “on the hard” so we had to check-in to the Best Western Kamuk, a quaint little hotel in downtown Quepos that was walking distance to the marina and close to all the stores and restaurants as well as a short bus ride away from the famous Manuel Antonio Park.

Of course, we made the best of it and had a great time enjoying another vacation from our sabbatical. One of the many little discoveries we did make was “Sodas”. These are tiny cafes that offer very affordable, good food where all the Ticos (Costa Ricans) eat. We found one on the main street that served a meal of fish (or chicken or beef), rice with black beans, salad, and plantain for only $4. In fact, the portions were so large and the food so good that we ate there 4 or 5 times in the six days we were in Quepos. By the time we left, we just referred to it as “our soda” or “the soda” since we stopped considering eating at any other soda.

CR Dinner w Manaia

The other discovery was Manuel Antonio. Not only the famous park but the little town and the beach, which were a 60 cent bus ride from Quepos. First of all, the park is Costa Rica’s most famous biological reserve. It’s relatively small but its hiking trails through the jungles reveal the habitats of sloths, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, iguanas, exotic birds and tons of butterflies, insects, trees and flowers. We spent a day hiking through this beautiful park and though we spotted a few sloths, monkeys and raccoons, we were unable to locate the elusive Toucan so we made a few of our own.

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Second, the town, which we didn’t even know existed, has lots of shops, restaurants and hotels that range from cheap and cheerful backpacker hostels to 5-star resorts and luxury villa rentals. Finally, the beach is one of the prettiest ones in the country. We actually spent a full day at this beach, which is the first time we had spent a day at the beach on this entire sabbatical!!!

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As you can tell, aside from the hit to our budget we had a great time in Quepos. The marina even hosted a little champagne “celebration” for us because we were their 100th haulout. But, once the work was done and Celebration was splashed back into the water, it was time to move on to Golfito, our final stop in Costa Rica before crossing into Panama. This relatively short journey of 130 miles had one stop in Bahia Drake, where we experienced our first rainstorm in months, then an early morning departure for the 60-mile motor- sail to Golfito.

Quepos 100

Sadly, Golfito has been hit by an extended economic decline that began years ago when the banana company that founded the town closed operations. Since then they have tried different ways to revive the town (e.g. a duty free shopping “mall”) but it is a challenge. It’s still the main port of entry in southern Costa Rica and conveniently has Customs, Immigration and a Port Captain so we pulled up to a mooring at Land-Sea where owner Tim gave us the rundown on the town, his quaint cruisers clubhouse, and our country check-out procedures.

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Relative to how much time we spent in Mexico, six weeks in Costa Rica seemed short but we’ll never forget the seal (dripless shaft seal), sloths and sodas. I wonder if they have sodas in Panama?

Pura Vida in Bahia Culebra

Pura Vida literally means “pure life” but in Costa Rica it means “The Good Life” and it’s everywhere from billboards to T-shirts. It’s even a greeting when you run into a Tico (i.e. a Costa Rican). But, no matter where you see or hear it, it’s very symbolic of life in Costa Rica and from everything we’ve seen so far, it’s all true.
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We arrived here in early December after a very boisterous 500 mile sail from Mexico. Our first stop was Bahia Santa Elena, a well protected anchorage with 360 degree protection from the howling Papagayo winds, where we rested for 3-days recovering from our “harrowing experience” and prepared for the arrival of our friends Matt and Madalin from Toronto who would be spending the next 2 weeks with us.
Nicaragua Sunset

After resting in Bahia Santa Elena and waiting for the winds to subside, we “scooted” 50-miles south to Playa del Coco where we did our official check-in to Costa Rica with the Port Captain, Immigration and Customs (which is a whole blog post unto itself but we’ll save it for another time) then were free to hit the stores, bars and restaurants of the quaint but rapidly expanding beach town. The town is great for landlubbers but the anchorage is very busy and very rolly so we hit the grocery stores and a few restaurants, spent one night rolling then moved to Bahia Culebra (Snake Bay), where we basically became citizens for the next few weeks.
Auds Coco

Now Bahia Culebra is one of the largest and most protected bays in Costa Rica so it wasn’t really a hardship. It has 7 or 8 well protected anchorages, some very swanky resorts, including the Four Seasons, and Marina Papagayo, a very upscale marina with great facilities including a pool, lounge, fitness center, restaurant/bar and concierge. Needless to say, when I say we became citizens, we spent the next few weeks mainly sailing from the marina to the beach at the Four Seasons to Playa Panama, where the beautiful Mangrove Resort is located, to the more remote beach anchorage at Playa Iguanita.
CR Marina Papagayo

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CR Mangrove

We also ventured out a few times. First, we booked a land-based adventure trip with Tico Adventure Tours that included horseback riding up a volcano to ride zip lines in the forest. This was followed by an amazing Costa Rica luncheon at Borinquen Resort, one of the most spectacular mountain resorts in the country. Then, once we were completely stuffed, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of natural saunas, hot springs, mud-baths and lounging by the pool. Then, to top it all off, our tour guide took us to the grocery store on the way back to the marina to stock up on all the beer, booze and wine we’d need to survive Matt and Madalin’s vacation.
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Our next venture out of Bahia Culebra was a 30-mile sail south to Tamarindo, a very popular beach and surf town which is supposed to have great bars, restaurants and live music. And, for those that were paying attention to our last post, a Spanish language school. Now surf locations and sail boats are generally not a good match since the surf causes anchorages to roll but our cruising guide showed that there was an anchorage there so we thought we’d give it a shot. Well, the former is still true and the anchorage rolled like crazy and the surf prevented us from even landing the dinghy. But, by the time we’d gotten there it was too late to go anywhere else so we enjoyed the night onboard with a gourmet meal prepared by Chef Audrey.
Chef Audrey

The next morning we picked up the hook and sailed north to Bahia Potrero, where we were able to land the dinghy in an abandoned marina (that nobody wanted to talk about), take a nice beach walk, enjoy lunch at “The Beach Bar” and spend a comfortable night in a flat anchorage. Then, with Tamarindo and Portrero behind us, we enjoyed a rollicking upwind sail back to the beach at the Four Seasons, one of our many “home ports” in Bahia Culebra.
Playa Panama

CR Beach Bar

Our final venture out of Bahia Culebra, before leaving permanently, was another land-based Tico Adventure Tour. This time it was horseback riding and hiking to spectacular waterfalls. At one waterfall we saw a very large family of Howler Monkeys and at the other Matt bravely jumped from a very high platform into the frigid water below. Then we enjoyed a very traditional Costa Rican lunch in a mountain restaurant that was raising a flock of peacocks. This was followed by a tour of an active volcano in Miravalles where we walked amongst the smoldering lava and once again enjoyed hot saunas and mud baths except this time the source was directly below us – very eerie. And, yes the tour operator did take us back to the store to get more beer, booze and wine but it was all Matt and Madalin’s fault as they forced us to partake in their vacation rituals – which we never normally enjoy..:-)
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Howler Monkey 1

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Sadly, not only was this our final venture out of Bahia Culebra but it was also the end of Matt and Madalin’s vacation and time for them to head back to the Great White North for the holiday season. It was great having them onboard for 2-weeks. We not only enjoyed the trips outside Bahia Culebra but spent the rest of the time sailing and motoring up and down and side to side to every anchorage in the Bahia. For us, it was a great way to be introduced to the wonders of Costa Rica – not only on the water but also on land.
CR Bahia Culebra Track

So, with Matt and Madalin gone it was back to our normal quiet life right? We thought so too but it was holiday season so after one quiet night at Playa Iguanita, we had drinks the next night with new Canadian friends onboard Moxie. The next night we had Christmas dinner with fellow cruisers at Marina Papagayo. Then, the next night, we enjoyed our own Christmas dinner onboard Celebration.
Celebration Playa Panama

Our last blast in Bahia Culebra was meeting with my brother’s friends Danny, Lisa and Jenny from England who happened to be in Costa Rica on vacation. We’d never met them before but any friend of Terry’s is a friend of mine so we offered to take them sailing, sight unseen, and we had a fantastic time. First of all they showed up with so many bags of food and drinks we thought they were staying for a week. But, more importantly, they were great guests and now friends who we really bonded with and we all had a great time. In fact, we think Lisa is shopping for a sailboat now..:-)
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In all, December was a busy month in Bahia Culebra but as the Tico’s say it was Pura Vida and we enjoyed every minute of it.
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A Year Already???

It’s been over a year since we arrived in Mexico and as of this writing we have left the country and made our way to Costa Rica. However, after spending that much time in Mexico it will always have a place in our hearts. We would say it feels like our second home but, since we also lived in Sydney, Australia for a year, Miami for 4 years, L.A. for 4 years, and spent a 1-year sabbatical in the Bahamas, that may be stretching it. But, no matter where we’ve lived or end up living, we’ll always treasure the time we spent there.
Auds and Richard at Bahia San Francisco

Our previous posts are wonderful snapshots of the year we spent lollygagging like a couple of beach bums in Mexico but since leaving La Paz and the Sea of Cortez on October 20, we have been hauling ass to get to Costa Rica. We’ve essentially been doing a “delivery” and though it’s been a great experience, it’s also been a lot less fun with a lot less Happy Hours and more overnight sails than we’ve ever done in our lives.
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Here’s the rundown of what we’ve been doing for the last 6 weeks:
La Paz to Muertos – 60 nautical miles (nm) – 1 day
Muertos to Mazatlan – 190 nm – 2 days/1 overnight
Mazatlan to La Cruz/Puerto Vallarta – 180 nm – 2 days/1 overnight
Puerto Vallarta to Barra de Navidad – 150 nm – 2 days/1 overnight
Barra de Navidad to Manzanillo – 25 nm – 1 day
Manzanillo to Zehuatanejo – 190 nm – 2 days/1 overnight
Zehuatanejo to Papanoa – 37 nm – 1 day
Papanoa to Acapulco – 77 nm – 1 day
Acapulco to Puerto Angel – 212 nm – 2 days/1 overnight
Puerto Angel to Huatulco – 25 nm – 1 day
Huatulco to Chiapas (our last port in Mexico) – 250 nm – 3 days/2 overnights
Chiapas, Mexico to Bahia Santa Elena, Costa Rica – 475 nm – 4 days/3 overnights

Keep in mind that these are nautical miles (nm), which are 1.15 statute miles, and that we are travelling by sailboat which means we have to “sail” off the wind, when there is any, and that we are moving at approximately 6 nm per hour. However, if we have good winds we can travel faster. We even hit 9.4 knots on our approach to Bahia Santa Elena!! In short, we’ve travelled approximately 1,900 nm in 25 days including 10 overnights with only 17 rest days.

The rest stops were as follows:
– Puerto Vallarta, where we spoiled ourselves at beautiful Paradise Village Marina and Resort – mainly because they still had their summer rate, which was half the regular rate.
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– Barra de Navidad, where we spent a night at the spectacular Grand Bay Resort and Marina, and had dinner with our friend Steve from Starfishette, who we met on the Baja-Ha-Ha.
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– Zehuatanejo, where we spent 3 nights at anchor off this eclectic little resort village. We wish we could have stayed there longer but the weather was cooperating so we had to move on.
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– Acapulco, where we stayed at Marina Acapulco because there was nowhere to anchor safely in this very crowded, very deep and very busy port. Plus, we wanted to be able to see the city and the cliff divers without the hassle of trying to find a place to safely land and lock the dinghy.
Acapulco Divers
Auds Acapulco Cab

– Huatulco, where we spent 2 nights at anchor then went to Marina Chahue while waiting for a window to cross the infamous Gulf of Tehuantepec.
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– Chiapas, our last stop in Mexico, where we spent a couple of nights at Marina Chiapas before leaving on the long, non-stop 475-mile “travel odyssea” to Costa Rica. By the way, for you sailors that are planning to depart Mexico, we highly recommend this marina and the dockmaster, Guillermo aka Memo, as a great place for clearing out of the country. It was not only a new marina with first class facilities and wonderful bathrooms (very important to cruisers), but Memo also acted as an agent taking us to the Port Captain, Immigration and Customs to clear out at no charge.
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OK, OK, we do have one last issue before we officially say goodbye to Mexico. I know I said that we wouldn’t be leaving Mexico until I could speak Spanish and half-joked that we may have to become citizens because it could take so long. Well, my Spanish has improved (Audrey’s is much better) but nowhere near what it should be. Not that we haven’t tried but the reality is that we spent most of our time with fellow sailors/cruisers who are all “gringos” and the time we spent with locals tended to be in restaurants, bars and stores where it’s difficult to befriend someone with a conversation that starts with “Tiene Vodka?”.
Happy Hour

So, we’ve now gone to Plan B which is taking Spanish lessons in Costa Rica where we hope to further improve and make friends with people who speak Spanish or want to improve theirs to more than “dos mas cervezas por favor”…
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