Passage Note #58: Sailing from Ecuador to Panama
Leaving Bahia de Caráquez
It was time to leave Ecuador. Our visas were about to expire and we needed to haul Jacaranda out of the water to paint her bottom and had decided to do that more conveniently at the facilities in Panama City, where we would spend the winter. Besides, the rainy season should be over there which meant the dreaded lightning would not be a threat (more on that later). We were sad to say goodbye to Ecuador, even knowing that we would be returning next summer, but were looking forward to experiencing another new country. We had skipped Panama on the trip down to Ecuador from Costa Rica last June.
On Thursday November 7th we were up early for our 7 a.m. appointment with Pedro, the port pilot. Pedro was an essential player in our departure from Bahia Caraquez since the exit/entrance is shallow with numerous sand bars that shift from time to time. Just as he had escorted us in last June, we needed him to show us the path out. And critically, it had to be done at high tide.
Pedro arrived on time but the escort panga was an hour late, causing some anxiety since the tide was nearing its peak. Pedro led us and our friends on SV Windarra on a zigzag course through the shallows; we said goodbye to him when we were a mile offshore and clear of any dangers. SV Windarra turned left to go south to Peru and Southern Chile while we turned right to go north towards Panama City.
Within 30 minutes we had wind and were on a fine broad reach, sailing nicely using the wind vane to steer. The vane was especially important as we had lost our autopilot compass after departing Golfito, Costa Rica last June (possibly due to a lightning side-strike since we were moored next to a boat which took a direct hit); the repaired compass was ready for us to pick up over Thanksgiving at Linda’s sister’s house in NY. Hand steering for a day sail is enjoyable but hand steering for 560 miles 24/7 quickly becomes tedious and tiring.
The following are some notes during our 5+ day passage north to Panama:
Day 3 - November 9
We have been sailing ever since we left Bahia, averaging 5+ knots. It’s been a good trip so far. Wind is on the beam or aft of the beam from 12-20kts. Seas are a bit lumpy requiring us to hang on and we’ll probably both be showing some black and blue marks. The good news is we have not had to hand steer - the wind vane is doing a great job. It uses only the wind and no electricity; it’s a marvelous invention and we can spend hours staring at it and smiling at its efficiency.
The air and water temperatures are getting much warmer now as we move away from the cold Humboldt Current that comes up to Ecuador from the chilly Southern Ocean. We still have the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone) to cross tomorrow and the weather reports say it is active, meaning we may get some heavy rain and gusty conditions.
Fishing report: A nice albacore tuna which we released after realizing there was no room for it in our little fridge. Damn!
Day 4 - November 10
Just after sunrise, on her watch, Linda saw a large Thresher shark jump out of the water 3 times.
In the past 24 hours we have sailed 95 miles. With 230 miles to go we are more than halfway there! The wind has been getting lighter. The forecast, which we get through Grib Files on our computer via the radio, shows it going even lighter as we move up the track. The wind vane continues to do its job - no hand steering has been necessary. Still no rain as of this morning but we are coming into heavy cloud cover.
Heavy rain showers began intermittently at sunset.
Late this afternoon, a tiny swallow flew onboard and landed on Chuck’s shoulder. It hopped from place to place and seemed happy to perch on our hands. We are 200 miles off of the Columbian coast so our feathered friend must have been tired; unlike Jack Sparrow (PN #54), he belongs near the coast, not out at sea. But how did he get here? We figure he must have accidentally hitched a ride with a freighter that brought him out so far and then jumped ship prematurely. As it got dark, Linda fashioned a nest out of a basket for him to sleep in as he kept trying to go below where he would not have been safe from our movements. If Sammy Swallow can just hang on one more day or two we will introduce him to Panama with its nice mangroves and profusion of insects.
Day 5 - November 11
Here’s the morning report: We are slowly and steadily moving along with 125 miles to go. The light wind forecast by the Grib Files has been stronger than predicted which is good for us. We have been averaging 4 1/2 - 5 knots all night with occasional 6's. We should arrive tomorrow if we continue to have good breeze.
We have been in cloudy conditions with numerous rain bands sweeping across our track since yesterday evening. When we get a rain cell passing over us the wind usually increases, changes direction up to 180 degrees, and often goes very light as it moves away. So we have been busy the past 24 hours with sail adjustments, constantly trying to maintain boat speed and the correct course.
Temperatures have risen sharply and it’s a hot welcome back to the tropics!
Sadly our little hitchhiker bird, Sammy Swallow, did not make it through the night and we gave him a burial at sea at daybreak.
Fishing report: 1 Bonita (released).
Here’s the afternoon and evening report: Well our nice little sail to Panama came to a halt this afternoon when the wind went very light and we started to motor about 1 p.m. As the afternoon progressed the rain squalls continued to build and by dark it was a full thunder and lightning show with downpours. Bolts were crashing down around us and we quickly put all our computers and the electronics we could unplug in the metal oven which acts like a Faraday Cage and provides some protection. These conditions continued most of the night with the wind up and down, mostly on the nose.
So, on this our final day, we did get our dose of hand steering after all - with heavy rain into sloppy confused seas at 1-2 knots boat speed. Our slower than average boat speed was due to wind on the nose, strong current against us and a less than clean propeller (our Bahia bottom cleaner didn’t do such a good job). You walk your dog faster than we were traveling!
Oh yes, and in addition, we now have big time traffic with the big boys!! Having entered the Gulf of Panama, we are definitely in freighter territory this close to the Panama Canal. The ships that steam by us in this rainy pitch black night come as close as 1/3 of a mile doing 20 knots. Thank goodness for our AIS (Automated Identification System) which, in conjunction with our radar, helps us to steer clear of them all. We love our AIS!! The AIS signals we receive contain vessel name, location, heading, boat speed, vessel type, rudder angle and tell us information about the point of closest approach (the point at which we would cross tracks). Right now we see 170 vessels showing up on our screen!! As a two way system, we also transmit a VHF signal back to those big boys letting them know we are here - a little sailboat in need of some space! It sure worked great as we constantly saw huge 600-foot ships changing course to avoid us.....like watching the waters part to let us through!
Day 6 - November 12
Lightning still continued as dawn broke to overcast cloudy conditions. The one bright spot out of this gloomy morning is that the wind, on the nose, continued to be less than 15 knots (not very strong). Uncomfortable but not unbearable - but it still made for a very long night indeed. By mid morning, we were approaching Isla Otoque, a small island on the western side of the Gulf with a protected anchorage. We decided to stop and move the last 20 miles (about 4 hours) to Panama City the next morning.
Our Total Passage time: 5 days 4 hours. Sea Miles: 540
Isla Otoque offered just the right combination of good holding for our anchor, calm conditions for a restful overnight and clean warm water for a good swim. Jumping overboard sure felt great after 5 months of not being able to swim from the boat in Ecuador (being in the River Chone in Bahia).
The next morning (November 13) we made our way to Panama City, threading our way through the crowded freighter parking maze outside and getting our first glimpse of the skyscraper skyline. The white towers looked like a ghostly mirage of the “Emerald City” arising from dark turquoise waters
On the way in we caught a nice sierra for our Welcome-to-Panama dinner!
Las Brisas Anchorage
We turned the corner around Flamenco Island and arrived in the Las Brisas anchorage about 2 p.m. We just got the anchor down amidst all the other sailboats when a huge squall swept through with lightning, thunder and about 4 inches of rain. We were able to fill our water tanks in 20 minutes! The skyline and everything around us disappeared as if we were out at sea again. When it cleared we were excited to recognize some of the boats we had known in Mexico like SV Grace, SV TICA and especially our friends Ethan, Nancy, and Zada on SV Eyoni who we had just missed seeing in Costa Rica last May.
So we guess Panama’s rainy season is still not quite over yet! Afternoon downpours were the norm for the first month we were there. We had some trepidation about this. Panama is called the Lightning Capital of the World for good reason which is why we wanted to avoid the summer/rainy season here. We continue to meet vessels that have been struck by lightning: since arriving in El Salvador last May our count is up to 25. This is often devastatingly expensive and time consuming and there seems to be no preventative solution. In some cases it has caused $30,000 damage, frying every piece of electrical gear and melting all the wiring. Boats that have spent $10,000 on expensive lightning protection have been struck as well. Even boats that do not receive a direct hit fall victim to side strikes when they are near one that is hit. We think that was what happened to our autopilot compass while on a mooring in Golfito, Costa Rica. Many friends have been working for the past year trying to sort out all the electrical damage, some of it taking months and months to appear.
We quickly got the lay of the land from friends. La Brisas anchorage is a beautiful place to be when the wind is from the south. The problem is the makeshift and dangerous “dinghy dock” means taking your life in your hands; no one seems to maintain it or know how it got put there. After tying up your inflatable dingy to the “dock”, you must get into the orange plastic dinghy which our friend Ethan named the “slippety ship” and pull yourself with a line attached to a pulley, through the floating garbage, to the concrete steps on shore. The steps are as slippery as ice. Rumors of people breaking arms and legs were easily believed. It could ruin your whole cruising season for sure.
Needing to take care of business, our first foray into Panama City was to Albrook Mall to buy a phone chip, internet dongle, and a pre-paid bus card. We quickly succumbed to re-entry shock - it was pre-Christmas and the giant shopping center was overrun with hordes of people, music and activity which taxed our low-key sensibilities.
Our intent was to put Jacaranda on a mooring while we returned to Philadelphia for our annual family Thanksgiving on November 23 (we don’t leave the boat at anchor when we are away). We had three options: Flamenco Marina (ridiculously expensive - about $1600 month for Jacaranda), Tabago Island (the moorings were full), and Balboa Yacht Club (often full and hard to get, even at $.70/foot/day). Our friends Debi and Victor on SV Serenity, arriving earlier from Bahia, helped us sort out issues and we had been assured a BYC mooring would be available from Rick on SV Inshallah.
Balboa Yacht Club
Balboa Yacht Club has an exciting location almost underneath the Bridge of the Americas at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and gives you a front row seat from which to watch the huge ships entering or exiting. These big boys pass as close as 50 yards from the moorings and never stop 24/7. It’s really awesome being able to sit in the cockpit and watch these behemoths steam by! Like a stage set of ever changing configurations and color moving past you day and night.
Thanksgiving in the States
We traveled back to NYC and Philadelphia for our annual Thanksgiving trip. As always, it was great to see the family and we stayed a few extra days in Philly at The Farm when everyone went home in order to visit more with Linda's aunt and her cousins. Linda and her sister were thrilled to go into NYC and get a tour of niece Erin’s workplace at Jigsaw Productions, producers of award-winning documentary films under the brilliant Alex Gibney.
We offloaded two full suitcases of “stuff” from Jacaranda and returned with only one filled with our autopilot and various other boat parts. There was no need to bring back any gourmet food items because the provisioning in Panama City is like being in the U.S. The Riba Smith supermarket, besides having such goodies as greek yogurt, exotic teas, pretzels, our favorite array of crackers and cookies, gourmet cheeses and kosher hotdogs, even carried the specialty line of sauces that Linda usually carries with her from the States.
On our return on Dec. 7 via Miami, Florida we had a special treat. A 5 hour layover serendipitously coincided with Art Basel, a prestigious art fair where Linda’s friend Carrie Ann Baade had a booth. Carrie Ann, a talented painter with an international CV and fame in the world of surrealism, is a professor of art at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She and Linda met in Italy at the Florence Academy of Art in 1995 and had not seen each other for 15 years. It was a joyful reunion and exciting to see Carrie Ann’s paintings in person rather than on her website.
Back on Jacaranda, we spent a few weeks getting ready to haul out and have the bottom painted. We were scheduled for January 6 at Balboa Yacht Club’s rail facility (the first time Jacaranda was ever hauled on a rail). We hired a Panamanian named Sandino who was very competent, knowledgable and a good friend to us. With one helper and Chuck working with Sandino, the haulout on the larger of the two rails went very smoothly, the painting was completed quickly, and we splashed 4 days later, just in time to get off the rail with a favorable tide. With that behind us, we were ready to provision and cruise the Pearl Islands (Las Perlas) south east of Panama City.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #58