CHAPTER 2 - PANAMA
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
20 CHAPTERS FROM VICKI'S CRUISING NOTES - 5 1/2 YEARS AND 40,000 MILES OF BLUE WATER CRUISING IN SOME OF THE MOST REMOTE ISLANDS OF THE WORLD
Blogging as we know it today did not really begin until 2003, when WordPress was developed. Much of what will be appearing in my blogs was written outside the blogosphere, since we had no access to the internet during our voyage. You will see ‘hiccups’ (~~~~) appearing, which indicate a subsequent “posting”, actually a new entry in my diary or my Cruising Notes.
PANAMA - August 14 – October 30, 2002 - 11 weeks
Passage from USVI to San Blas, Panama (Five days/980 nm.)
We had done some planning on our route around the world, but the first step was to get to the Pacific by transiting the Panama Canal. Jim and I had already spent several decades exploring the Caribbean by boat, so we sailed directly from the Virgin Islands to Panama. Our friend, Frank Hobble, and his son, Eric, joined us for the passage.
Our passage of five days was fast and furious. Some days there was not enough wind. Other days there was too much wind (25-35 knots with gusts to 40 knots), and large seas (15 -18 feet). Lots of sunshine and Firebird was flying, covering over 200 miles a day.
We had stepped into a world completely unknown to us, and to most of the world. We cleared with Customs and Immigration on a little island called Porvenir, with only the customs house, an airstrip and the El Porvenir Hotel.
After clearing in, we dinghied over to densely populated Wichub-Wala Island, which is about the size of two football fields. The streets are narrow paths of sand and the homes are made of bamboo with thatch roofs. The floors are dirt and the furniture is mostly hammocks and plastic chairs. We wandered around, looking for the single telephone, only to discover that it was constantly ringing with calls for the villagers.
About the San Blas Islands and the Kuna Indians
East of the entrance to the Panama Canal, perched on the northern shore of Panama’s gooseneck, lies the isolated archipelago of The Conmarca (province) de San Blas. There is no road access to this region, and no roads within it. Many tiny islands seem to float just off the coastline, where the mountains nearly meet the sea.
All of the Kuna women wear traditional dress. They go barefoot and wrap long strings of beads around their arms and legs, creating intricately patterned ‘sleeves’. Traditional red and yellow scarves cover their heads and gold rings pierce their noses. A typical outfit consists of a piece of fabric wrapped around the waist as a skirt, and a blouse of modest design, with puffed sleeves and trimmed with rickrack. A “mola” has been stitched onto both the front and the back of the blouse. The two are not identical but are made at the same time and have the same motif.
At first glance molas resemble what we call appliqué, but these are made by first sewing together many layers of cloth, then cutting through the layers to expose the colors beneath, and using tiny, evenly spaced stitches to form the design. These more intricate designs are, of course, more expensive.
One day a canoe came up to our boat and there were five local ladies in it, all wanting me to buy their molas. They do not speak any English and know only numbers in Spanish and "dolar." It was overwhelming, as they each had dozens for me to choose from. I bought many beautiful pieces and have sent most of them away as gifts. I wish I had bought many more.
The Kuna have a high incidence of albinos. These children are treasured, having the specific duty of defending the moon during a lunar eclipse. They believe the shadow passing over the moon is a dragon that is trying to eat it.
Today is such a spectacular day. We are anchored in the eastern Hollandes Islands. I just counted eight little islands surrounding us, with more off in the distance. The other day we explored the nearest one, Ogup Piriadup, which is uninhabited. It is about 500 yards long and 200 yards wide, with a narrow sandy beach the whole way around. The foliage is very dense, and the island is covered in coconut palms. I cut a few palm fronds and, using a palm basket from St. Lucia as a pattern, I succeeded in making a passable copy, though I haven’t quite got the bottom figured out. Mine turned out a bit unstable.
The guys have been trying to catch some fish, both with fishing poles and with spears. No luck so far. One day Dylan spent the morning with the local fishermen, free diving for fish. He had a great time. Both Dylan and Eric go off in the kayaks every day to explore the local area. They found a very shallow reef to the north where they can surf the waves in the kayaks.
The local people fish every day and often come by with something to sell us. Usually the ulus (canoes carved from a tree trunk and powered with paddles and sails) have only the men aboard, and they want to sell their catch, which includes lobster, purple coconut crabs, red snapper, octopus, conch, parrot fish and others that I could not identify. One day, they even had several iguanas caught and killed by their dog. They ask for coffee, tea, sugar, cigarettes, water, gasoline, even magazines, but only as a last resort or as a hand-out, as they prefer cash.
I am now the weather person on the two local radio nets each morning. One is Ham and the other is SSB. I have requested extra airtime from the radio MBO (mailbox operator) so that I can download about thirty minutes of weather. Unfortunately, the MBO asked me not to use the local time of 5 am to 8 am, so I have been getting up between 3 and 4 to get the download started.
Yesterday some of the children from the island paddled out and shouted “Pasqual, Pasqual.” Don’t have any idea what that means, but I had given them Oreos the other day. Well, I am out of Oreos and the other sweets are running low, so I made some microwave popcorn for them. I could not tell if it was something new to them, but they grabbed it and took off. Kuna Indians are not in the habit of saying thank you.
I am growing basil that was given to me by a fellow cruiser. It is doing well. I have not succeeded yet in making yogurt, but my bread making is going well, though I am about to run out of flour, and last night we made our first ever pizza. It turned out great. I have started growing more sprouts also, but so far, I am the only fan.
Visit to Mamitupu
We had met Robbin and Warren weeks earlier. They are also from the Virgin Islands. They had suggested that we come to visit them in their favorite place further east, so we headed to Mamitupu, a very small island with a large village of Kunas. Unfortunately, our paper charts and our chart plotter lacked any detail, so Dylan and I stood at the bow, scanning the water. Dylan is well-schooled in reading the depths and gave hand signals to Captain Jim to weave our way to the island. I was an acolyte, learning more lessons on safe navigation.
Robbin and Warren are artists, making spoons, very classy spoons, from mangrove roots and coconut shells. The name of their boat is Cuchara, which means spoon in Spanish. They work in a symbiotic way with the villagers, who gather the roots from the mangrove swamps, and at various stages of the process do the intricate fine sanding. Several times a year Robbin and Warren take their spoons to juried fine art shows in the states to show and sell.
During our stay here, Mother Nature seemed to challenge us. On occasion the rain would come down with such intensity that the noise drowned out our voices. Then the wind would come at us, first from the east, then swirling around so we had circled the compass. If it was not raining, hundreds of small birds would make themselves at home, lining up, wing to wing, on our upper shrouds. We tried to frighten them away. Dylan took some balloons up to the top in the bosun’s chair, but this did not deter them. If we twanged the lower shrouds, they would leave, but in a few seconds they were back.
We met many interesting cruisers, in particular a family who had been cruising for over 15 years. Pnina and Joav, from Israel. Their two daughters, Barr and Netta, were now in their late teens, smart, well-educated (home-schooled) and moxie. (Netta would eventually join us for our passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas.) The family relied on the sea for their main food source. Every day, Joav would go out spearfishing. One day he came upon a huge grouper, obviously many years old. Perhaps no one had taken it yet because of respect for the old guy, but Joav killed it. It was so big, all the cruisers congregated on one of the catamarans to feast on it, and there was plenty to give to the local village.
The country of Panama contains the narrow isthmus which separates the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean. After its discovery by the Spanish in the early 1500’s, it served as a trading link. The canal was completed in 1914. The US controlled the Canal Zone until 1979, and in 1999 it was incorporated fully into Panama.
Transit of the Canal
We arrived in Colon on the Caribbean side of the canal on October 1. What a dreary place, with dreary weather as well. We had a nasty surprise when we checked in. We learned that citizens of South Africa are only allowed to stay in the country for 48 hours, and that Dylan had been in the country illegally since we arrived. The authorities who checked us in in the San Blas Islands had no right to enter him. The customs officer in Colon was conniving. He confiscated Dylan’s passport and told him that he must not come ashore until departure. And he wanted to charge Dylan $100 for holding his passport. However, he refused to prepare a receipt from the Customs Office, saying that he would give him a personal receipt. The next day Dylan had the officer call his supervisor in Panama City and eventually they worked out a plan. Dylan would pay the local officer $20, and then go by bus to the main office in Panama City. There he was able to get a 30-day visa.
Frank Hobble arrived on October 4, and we began our transit on October 5. The transit cost over $1000 US. It took several days to make all the necessary and required arrangements, including the renting of a dozen tires to use as extra fenders, and hiring two line-handlers.
Our transit took us from the Caribbean side of Panama, starting at Colon, to the Pacific side near Balboa, about 50 miles. What is very strange about the canal is that it runs from northwest to southeast (Atlantic to Pacific), rather than east to west, because of the crookedness of the neck. But the common terms used are Southbound or Northbound. Every vessel is required to have a canal advisor on board throughout the transit.
We went through the locks with a Norwegian vehicle carrier called the Terrier, 638 feet long and 105 feet wide. Vehicle carriers are like huge floating boxes and have been specifically designed to transit the canal. They can carry as many as 6000 vehicles. We had asked for center lock, meaning that we would have two bow lines and two stern lines to the sides of the locks, but we ended up tying alongside the tug that was accompanying the Terrier. It was much easier, as we had only to raft up with them in each lock. They had lines to the sides of the lock that they could winch in electronically as we rose or let off as we descended. The locks took us up three times and down three times. The weather was rather rainy, and it was an exceptionally long day. We did not reach Balboa until dusk and ended up picking up a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club for the night.
Haul-out at Flamenco Marina
We got the boat hauled out without any major problems. While Firebird was out of the water, we had the propeller cleaned and polished, we installed a new depth transducer, and had the bottom cleaned and applied two coats of anti-fouling paint.
After we got the boat back in the water, we had to wait around to get the fuel delivered, and then it took forever to pump it aboard. We finally got out of the marina/boat yard and back to anchor. Felt much better, though we had a couple of nights of bumpy water, making it difficult to sleep.
We spent three days taking care of last-minute projects. W we had to go to several different offices to get our Zarpe, which clears the boat out of Panama (though we are still going to be in Panama when we reach the Las Perlas Islands), and getting our passports stamped. We had to take the exhaust elbow for the small generator to be welded twice, since the first one did not correct the leak, and finally, we had to provision. THAT was an adventure.
We are working on our plans for French Polynesia. The officials there used to give you a 3-month visa when you entered and then it was easy to get a 3-month extension. For some unknown reason they have stopped giving extensions. We want to apply for long-stay visas, but we don't think it is going to work applying here in Panama. The guy at the consulate says that they send off the applications to Tahiti and never hear back, and the Tahiti office won't answer e-mails requesting their status.
Regardless, we prepared all paper work, copies and photos for our visa applications for French Polynesia, as well as a letter that Jim wrote explaining who we are and why we want to spend eight months there, which I then sent through my translating program, and then had to correct the parts that did not get translated correctly (that part was fun!).
Las Perlas Archipelago
These islands (Isla Contadora, Isla Espiritu Santo, Isla San Jose) lie in the Gulf of Panama, about 40 miles south of Panama City. We were happy to leave the city lights behind—we were anchored right off Panama City, which has its share of skyscrapers and smog. We arrived in Las Perlas Islands after a 4-hour voyage. There are very few tourists here. Nothing except water, shorelines, beaches, trees, birds, fish, and dolphins. We did see a fishing boat, and went for a long dinghy ride and saw a man working his field on an uninhabited island, and then actually located a village of local people, with a few houses, laundry drying, a fire burning, children playing with toy boats, We located a waterfall that spills into the surf; not very high, perhaps twenty feet, but we arrived when the light was perfect, so we have some really good photos.
We have been catching fish while trawling underway. Jim caught a large mahi-mahi; he says 20 pounds but I think it was more like 25. Dylan has been doing the cleaning of the fish, something that I am not ready for yet. We will grill some fillets tonight, unless Jim decides that we are going to do a passage through the night, then we will grill tomorrow night.
Isla de Coiba National Park
Our passage of 24 hours went well. We were really looking forward to our visit here, but the rain kept us from enjoying the snorkeling and diving. However, we visited the ranger station ashore and had a great time, receiving a guided tour around the area, and making friends with the rangers.
We have seen dolphins everywhere we have been, except for inside the Canal. They always come in groups and enjoy riding along side of our bow, sometimes staying as long as 15 minutes. We have a GM 871 diesel engine to propel us through the water, and they blithely shoot along with us with no apparent effort. Sunsets are always a treat, but we were really spoiled in the San Blas Islands. Six weeks with an unbelievable sunset every night.
Our stay in Panama lasted eleven weeks – about two and a half months. We still have no visas to enter French Polynesia. Our next destination is Costa Rica.
Passage to Costa Rica
This was a short passage—only 19 hours and 125 nm., which we did as an overnight passage in order to arrive in the daylight.
Next Chapter coming soon!
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Firebird Logbook 2002
Passage Virgin Islands to Panama - August 9 – 14
San Blas Islands - August 14 – September 30
(The islands we visited in the San Blas Group: Porvenir, Whichub-wala, Ogup Piriadup, Swimming Pool, Coco Banderos, Green Island, Nargana, Corozon de Jesus, Niadup, Ticantiqui, El Tigre, Ratones, Mamitupu, East Hollandes, Chichime, Isla Grande.)
Panama Canal Transit and Panama City - October 1 – 17
Las Perlas Islands -----
Isla Contadora – October 17
Isla Espiritu Santo – October 18
Ensenada Playa Grande, Isla San Jose – October 21
Passage to Isla Jicanita – October 22/23 –24 hours/190 nm.
Isla de Coiba National Park -----
Isla Jicanita – October 23
Isla Rancheria – October 24
Passage to Costa Rica - October 28/29 - 19 hours/125 nm.
NEXT CHAPTER - COSTA RICA