Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pacific Panamá – Las Perlas – March 15–20, 2017

First, A Clarification:

Some e-mails about our immediately prior post alerted us that we could have done a better job explaining where our engine failure and too-near encounter with the Johannes Maersk took place. It was not within the Panama Canal itself; it was within the shipping lane that large ships are required to use to enter, cross and exit the Gulf of Panama. The Gulf must be crossed before a northbound ship reaches the Port of Panama or, beyond that, the first Pacific-side lock of the Canal (correspondingly a southbound ship will enter the Gulf upon exiting the Canal and, after transiting the shipping lane, will proceed to Pacific destinations). 

This shipping lane is identified only by red (eastern side) lighted buoys and green (western side) lighted buoys or by dashed lines on the chart -- no locks or walls. Near Panama City it is also flanked on each side by large ships at anchor. At the point we lost engine power - some 45+/- nautical miles away from Panama City, there was only water on each side of the channel -- our sole traffic was within the seven nautical mile-wide channel.

So – while Abracadabra was in danger, we fortunately weren’t in danger while trapped inside a canal lock or wandering through the large ship anchorage!

Abracadabra's Canal News:

Abracadabra remains on the Pacific side of Panamá awaiting a Canal transit which has recently been scheduled for: April 24! Whoop whoop! Happily for us our friend Bob Romano is coming all the way from Washington State, USA to help us out. 

Now on to more of our How We Got Here story:

Islas de las Perlas - What To Look For On The Internet:

After Bryce replaced the raw water pump we sailed to the nearest anchorage in the Las Perlas (the Pearls) archipelago and used our newly revived engine to anchor. Now, this is the point where we usually include our personal, highly selective and often poorly researched take on the history and current social situation of our location. In a departure from our usual custom, in this post we will refer you to the Internet for the following and skip on to the personal experience portion of our narrative:

Yatistas: The cruising guides and several sailing blogs explain the geography of the archipelago and recite some of the history of the Pearl Islands including stories of the enslavement and abuse of indigenous pearl divers by the Spanish and the story of the most famous locally sourced pearl which was once owned by the English Queen Mary Tudor (got the pearl, lost the Spaniard) and much later by Elizabeth Taylor. These sources also identify the island used as a location for the “reality” television program Survivor.

Travelers and Tourists: Tourist websites offer some of the above and sell day trip packages from Panama City to Isla Contadora which has hotels and restaurants and jet skis. High end tourist sites offer exotic getaways at resorts on other, “uninhabited” islands (uninhabited except for the resort). Even higher-end sites offer private islands for sale.

Random Info: We recently stumbled across a story about the U.S. military's use of Isla San José as a weapons testing site. The toxic waste clean-up negotiations between the U.S. and Panamá have apparently stalled out.

Isla San José – March 15 - 17

Our anchorage was at one of the southern islands, Isla San José, where we saw only two other sailboats – each at a distance -- and otherwise enjoyed the beautiful and relatively calm anchorage by ourselves.

Approaching Isla San José On a Grey Day
The Chart Identifies The Three Little Islets On The Right As The
"Three Pillars of Rice". No, Not Salt. Rice.

Isla San José Anchorage
Less Grey, But Life Was Still A Bit Rocky

During our two night stay we rested from our recent travails and hatched a plan to:
  • make more haste than previously planned toward Panama City to order a new raw water pump and check out a concerning low-ish oil pressure problem that had developed during Our Travails (in short: some other fluid – we took it to be diesel – had entered the engine’s oil delivery system - to non diesel engine folks: this is not good);
  • sail as much of the 60+/- nautical mile distance as possible to reduce the negative impact of traveling at lower than normal oil pressure; and
  • enjoy our short time in the Perlas.
In execution of this plan, we departed Isla San José and sailed the 15+/- nautical miles north to Isla Viveros.

Isla Viveros (Nurseries Island) – March 17 – 19

Not Yet Fully Developed Isla Viveros

At this little island we had neighbors of the local variety. Their fishing net deployments offered documentary film level entertainment. One misty morning their rain gear offered a Project Runway moment.

Sparkling Fishing Nets and Black Plastic Bags -
Watch For Them Next Year in Milan

We took the dinghy to one of the lovely little islets surrounding the anchorage and went for a walk and wade (the water was too cold for a swim). Very Robinson Crusoe feeling – and then we realized we were having our first walk on land in a week!

Enthused by our wonderful though short walk – it was only an islet -- we took the dinghy to a longer beach on the main island where we took a longer walk and found lots of sea shells. Plus a large amount of plastic trash and a few old tires. The ocean will deliver whatever it holds to the beaches in its path. Garbage in ocean = garbage on beach.

Isla Contadora – March 19 – 20

Our next 15+/- nautical mile trip was north to Isla Contadora. Contadora is the most developed of the islands which makes for a rather challenging anchorage – not much room and a lot of boats. We found good holding and spent the afternoon watching planes land and take off from the island's airstrip right next to the anchorage. During dinner we listened to the dance music pumped out by the island's restaurants.


In the morning, we decided it was time to sail the next 30+/- nautical miles and make our approach to Panama City where we could address our pump and oil pressure issues. Well, that and we had run out of wine.

Welcome To The Big City, Yokels!

Yeow. It’s big. And glitzy. There’s even a Trump Tower – a true sign that this is a town that worships Glitz.

Big City Sights

We entered through the big ship anchorage – passing ships waiting for pilots to approach the container port or enter the Canal.

The Carnation Ace At Anchor
A Car Carrier - Get It? 

A Different Type of Reefer

We traveled outside of the eastern lane of the shipping channel, past one of the two small vessel anchorages (the La Playita anchorage) and the Isla Flamenco control station:

Where A Lot Of The Other Kids Hang Out

A Shipping Channel Marker

The Flamenco Station Control Tower

We took a mooring ball at the grandly named Balboa Yacht Club.

The "Yacht Club" Mooring Field
Below The Bridge Of The Americas

The “Yacht Club” is entertaining but not at all “yacht club” like. There are moorings (snug up those lines - neighbors are near); a water taxi system (dinghies are not allowed at the dock); free potable water from industrial-looking hoses your mother would want you to avoid; three rusty and decrepit but inexpensive washers and driers; weak Wi-Fi on random occasions; and a restaurant/bar with a limited menu. [Price for Abracadabra: $26 and change a day.]

There is a nice walking/bicycling path along the Amador Causeway to the right of the restaurant and office. Past the restaurant on the Causeway are stops for the city’s clean and air-conditioned public bus system which for 25 cents will take patient riders to most of the places a yatista needs to go (groceries, hardware stores, etc.) and to many places tourists want to go (e.g., the Miraflores locks).

Because we share the mooring field with some of the boats that deliver pilots and advisers to the big ship anchorage, and they are boats on a mission, we are often the victims of their very substantial wakes. Important rules aboard: don't leave the knife lying on the cutting board and hold on to your coffee cup!  

Despite the less than "yacht club" environment and wake issues, we have stayed here for the entertainment (and not the Saturday night music at the restaurant!): 

  • We are moored right in front of The Bridge of the Americas – the point beyond which ships and smaller vessels cannot go without a pilot or adviser -- and we have a front row seat to the traffic (which, granted, can negatively impact our air quality) going under the bridge.

Carnation Ace! Didn't We Just Pass You?

  • The dock here is also entertaining because it is where a ferry to nearby Isla Taboga picks up and discharges passengers and their stuff, and many provisioning boats load and unload. An observation: provisioning a large ship for a long voyage is a lot like provisioning Abracadabra for a short voyage -- except we will buy a half-kilo of carrots whereas they buy a ton! 
  • This mooring field is often the first stop for sailboats completing a Canal transit from the Caribbean side so we get to watch advisers and line handlers load and unload and crews celebrate their (literal) rite of passage. 

On our first night here we had dinner at the Balboa Yacht Club Restaurant and who should be sitting at a nearby table but a yatista we had shared a dock with in El Salvador over two years ago! In true cruiser fashion we couldn't remember his name, but we knew the name of his boat and his dog (Gitana and Sachi, respectively). After we exchanged names (Josh) we updated our sailing resumes (Josh had been to Florida and was heading back to California) and got a lot of good information about the Canal transit process. 

All of these entertainment features have made us decide that, despite the inelegant surroundings, occasional wake surfing event and frequent whiffs of diesel perfume, this is where we will remain while we are in Panama City.

Next post: Adventures in the city!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Pacific Panamá –- Adventures at Anchor and Otherwise –– March 2–15, 2017

The first portion of this post answers a question sometimes put to us by friends and family: Have you ever been really scared?: Well – yes; recently as a matter of fact.

Timing Really IS Everything

There probably isn’t a good time for a boat’s engine to fail . . .  but trust us that a really bad time for an engine to fail is while the boat is crossing the 7-mile wide approach channel to the Panama Canal at 02.00 (2 a.m.). That’s a Really Bad Time.

The canal operates 24/7 and even at 02.00 there is a steady stream of huge boats entering and departing the Gulf of Panama. At 02.00 the traffic is as busy as at any other time of day. Oh, except it’s also dark. A Really Bad Time.

Fortunately Abracadabra is equipped with the Automatic Identification System (AIS) as is every ship over 20 meters in length (65 feet) that transits the canal. With the help of AIS, when we shut the engine down in the middle of the shipping channel (more on why later) we knew that the Johannes Maersk (a Danish-registered container ship) wouldn’t collide with us for . . . forty-five minutes. 

[Side note: AIS is an electronic collision avoidance system which identifies AIS-equipped boats by number, compass heading and speed. It also shows the “closest point of approach” (aka collision point) and time thereof between AIS-equipped boats.]

Immediately after we shut down the engine, before we even put out any sails, we hailed the Johannes Maersk on the radio, identified Abracadabra, reported that we had lost power and received confirmation that the behemoth could pass Abracadabra so as to allow us to sail behind it. It did. We did. And everybody lived to tell this tale. Though we have since wondered if those on the bridge of the Johannes Maersk that morning now have a running gag that goes something like: “Oh, quit complaining. Now if you were a little sailboat stalled out in front of a container ship -- that would be worth complaining about!”

Ha. Ha. 

Now you may be wondering a few things, such as:

What happened next? We completed our crossing of the north-bound lane of the channel under sail and continued to sail toward our destination, the islands of the Las Perlas archipelago. At daylight we hove to out of any known boat traffic and away from any scary shores and Bryce made the necessary repairs. [Non-Sailor Note: “Heaving to” is a sail trim and rudder-placement maneuver which neutralizes the forward motion effect of the wind and allows a sailboat to “sit still” (ish). Pretty cool, actually.] 

Wait, did you say you shut off the motor? Yes, we intentionally shut if off – but not voluntarily. The engine overheated and we had to shut it down to avoid sure and horrible engine death. The next morning Bryce was able to confirm our suspicion that the overheating had been caused by a leaking raw water pump which had become a completely dysfunctional / dead raw water pump. [Non Marine Diesel Engine Folks: A diesel engine that isn’t cooled by circulating seawater will fairly quickly get very, very hot and become a worthless, fused bunch of metal bits. This is to be avoided.]

OMG you were motoring with a leaking raw water pump? Yep. Usually a leak means bailing, which isn’t good but can be better than the alternative. Our alternative included:
  • replacing the leaking raw water pump with an old, re-built raw water pump while at anchor in a rock-n-roll anchorage (Benao);
  • missing a short (24-hour) weather window which offered the possibility of a relatively low-wind environment for rounding Punta Mala (Eng.: Bad Point) – the western entry to the Gulf of Panama; and
  • hanging out in rock-n-rolly Benao for at least a week, possibly more, waiting for whenever the next low-wind moment for rounding Punta Mala might appear.    
Now, of course, we have learned that a leaking raw water pump doesn't just keep leaking a little. Sometimes it just . . . quits.

Why were you crossing this busy shipping channel in a tiny little sailboat at all? Like The Chicken, we were heading for The Other Side. Panama City is on the northern shore of the Gulf of Panama. The prevailing current in the Gulf enters the eastern side, arcs along the northern shore and then sweeps down the western side. Those sailing/motoring north on the eastern side get a current push and those going north on the western side must compensate for a strong negative current. When motoring at five or six knots, a two knot negative current can be a very big deal. Like being on a treadmill - going and going and being tugged backward.

Add to this that our “weather window” turned out to be not all that. The predicted 11 knot winds (which we knew enough to read: “anticipate 22 knot winds”) turned out to be in the high 20’s to mid 30’s – on the nose. When combined with a 2-knot negative push = not only slow going, but exceptionally uncomfortable going. Think: A tiny little toy in a washing machine on the agitation cycle. For hours.

Okay, but why didn’t you wait for the ship to pass before you started into the shipping lane? See above re: how busy the shipping lane is even at two in the morning – there really isn’t a traffic-free time. The shipping lane is about seven nautical miles wide: a two mile wide corridor for southbound ships, a three mile “median” area and a two mile wide corridor for northbound ships. Think crossing freeway traffic on a bicycle – it’s an exercise in calculated risk. AIS showed gaps in the traffic which we calculated would give us more than two hours before reaching a “closest point of approach” with any south-bound traffic and then, several nautical miles later, more than an hour to cross in front of the Johannes Maersk. Of course that was when we were rocketing along at 5 knots -- before we were just bobbing around without an engine, trying to put up our sails. 

Morals of this story: (A) Sometimes raw water pumps don’t just leak and make a mess, they leak so much they fail to perform their engine-cooling function. (B) Sometimes leaving a rock-n-roll anchorage and sailing back to a prior, calm anchorage to effect a repair may not actually be a step backward. And (C): Now that we fully appreciate (A) we may do (B) the next time we are faced with this particular decision tree.

Now that we have assured you we and Abracadabra are well, here’s how we escaped Boca Chica and made it just in time to talk to the nice guys on the bridge of the Johannes Maersk:

Leaving Boca Chica – March 2 – 7

As mentioned in our prior post we got our anchor chain snagged in Boca Chica (the anchorage is actually in the channel between Isla Boca Brava and the mainland coast of Panamá near the village of Boca Chica) and then experienced a couple of days of high winds. The bad news: we were snagged. The good news: we weren’t worried that we’d drag in the high winds!

It Had Gotten Crowded At Boca Chica

Once the winds abated we tried driving the chain off of the unidentifiable snag and at one point enough chain came up to fool us into thinking we were snag-free. Suckers. We got up the next day, ready to depart and found that we were still attached to . . . something down there that wasn't the anchor.

That morning we even had assistance from an international group of sailing compadres [gracias, Kahia (UK) and Santana (Netherlands)] to no avail. Our consultations with neighboring sailors didn’t help much either. Everyone had a "we got snagged" story that eventually including something like “. . . and then we dove the chain / hired a diver to dive the chain and found out what the problem was . . . “.

Okay, okay. We hired two local divers to see what the problem was.

Our Rescuers

When the divers came up they were giving us thumbs up and laughing! Apparently the anchor chain had wrapped around a tree stump five times in the tidal reverses of the Boca Chica channel, but they had been able to swim the chain from around the stump! Yes: $100 well spent (and a $20 tip that startled them)! [Call Carlos - even if he's not available, he'll make it happen.]

As previously noted Boca Chica isn’t a bad place to be snagged on a tree stump. Sometimes there’s even free entertainment:

One Hotel Flies Guests In --
Note That A Crowded Anchorage Can Make For a Short Runway!

Islas Secas – March 7 – 9

The day after we escaped The Evil Stump we sailed and motored (about 50/50) to Isla Cavado, an island in the Islas Secas chain. The Secas are known for being a great diving and snorkeling destination and the water off Cavado was spectacularly clear.

Ahhhhh . . . 

When we first arrived we thought we might be there for several days (we seem to recall Molly announcing she might never leave . . . ) but on our second night the anchorage turned really rolly (that’s the way with nature . . . ). That and we experienced an equipment tragedy (that’s the way with equipment):

The super-clear water at Cavado had inspired us to unearth and inflate our kayak. We had a lovely paddle around the little bay, pulled the kayak up on a beautiful golden sand beach and went for a swim. Sadly, when we returned to the beautiful golden sand beach after our swim we found the kayak was literally . . . coming apart at the seams. Ugh. Apparently the glue that holds inflatable kayaks together does not weather warm weather storage well.

We put on our life jackets, hopped in (on) the rapidly shriveling kayak and paddled back to Abracadabra. And here’s what we found:


Sigh. We decided to push on.

Captain Weighing Anchor

Bahía Honda – March 9 – 12

Our next anchorage was like glass, which was great for sleeping and switching out the jib (we switched to the small jib in anticipation of high winds that often blow around Punta Mala).

Down With The Big Sail . . . 

We also found that “Domingo’s Anchorage” as the anchorage is identified in the Sarana guide is truly that; it is right in front of a three-home compound occupied by Domingo (“just like Sunday!”), his daughters and their families.

Domingo and Family's Compound

Domingo and a grandson were at our starboard side before the anchor was set, offering greetings and asking if we wanted fruit. Shortly thereafter Domingo’s son, Kennedy, was at our port side also offering fruit and some appreciated yatista services: laundry and water delivery. 

FYI, neither Domingo or Kennedy set prices for goods or services. Our reading about Bahía Honda had suggested that this isolated area (there are no roads to the bay) primarily functioned on a barter economy. However, when Domingo and Kennedy offered fruit “out of friendship” and we responded by asking if there was anything they needed that we might have (our understanding of steps one and two of a polite barter) they each expressed an interest in cash.

So okay, fine – but how much cash? We paid a few dollars for the fruit and Domingo seemed happy. He even brought us some more fruit the next day to thank us for paying him for the fruit he had delivered the prior day. Now that's customer service!

Kennedy had a different negotiating technique, which we came to think of as the “hard done by” approach. He offered up fruit and services and then began to tell us of his poverty. He told us more than we wanted to know about his estrangement from his father and sisters and his one rich brother-in-law (the operator of a tourist panga). Hmmm. Were we being asked to pay for bananas and laundry service or to his hard lot in life? Ugh.

We chose to treat our interactions with Kennedy as business transactions and did our best to pay a fair price for the fruit, the laundry and the water. If you stop there, let your conscience be your guide. [Just FYI: For laundry we provided the soap and paid $4 a kilo, using a quote we had received in Boca Chica. For water we paid based on a tortured calculation that included: the cost of delivery (3 short trips x the isolated village’s inflated cost of gasoline – $8 a gallon) + a generous (we thought) hourly rate for Kennedy’s time + a small cost for the water (which came from a spring which Kennedy’s family had tapped into for decades). We provided our own purifying bleach.]

For all our discomfort about our interactions with Kennedy, we highly recommend that sailors take the chance to purchase or trade for their delicious fruit offered. Both men had some knobby looking toranjas (grapefruit) which made wonderful juice; Domingo’s white and Kennedy’s red. Domingo had delicious red-skinned bananas which we had never tried before -- and both men delivered bananas on the stock, which have us an opportunity for one of those "must have" tropical sailing shots:

Molly Goin' Troppo

One day we made a dinghy trip into Bahía Honda village, located on an island in the bay. As we approached we realized we were watching men carrying a casket down the beach, to put on a large panga. Dozens of villagers were loading into a group of three large pangas – some of them were dressed in black. We circled around and let the funeral party leave for the mainland; there must be a cemetery somewhere in the hills. We learned from Kennedy that a relatively young man in the village had died of a heart attack.

When we landed at the village’s rickety and odoriferous fishing dock we found the town to be relatively empty, though the one store and bar were open for business. We were stunned at how easy it was to purchase beer – there were stacks of cans in the back of the store -- and how difficult it was to purchase . . . well, almost anything else. We bought two mini-cartons of milk, an onion, a small bag of chips and a can of tuna at the store and six beers at the bar. Suggestion: Do not count on Bahía Honda as a provisioning stop unless beer is all you need!

Bahía Naranjo, Isla Cébaco – March 12-13

Our next stop was an equally tranquil anchorage at Bahía Naranjo (sometimes called Bahía Cébaco). This anchorage also proved to be less than prime-time for provisioning. This little bay is home to an odd “fuel ship” that we had read about, but on first sight took to be a naval vessel. We realized it must be the fuel ship that we had read about once we saw it being approached by the bay's fleet of small sport fishing boats.

Navy Surplus

The bay is also home to Journey Bay a former Louisiana oil rig utility boat that has been converted into a "mothership" for a sports fishing operation. 

Even A Back Patio For BBQ and Fish Stories

We didn’t purchase any fuel or any of the snacks we had read might be for sale from Journey Bay because no one answered our calls on the radio to tell us what, if anything, might be available. During our stay we saw two large sport-fishing boats tied to the mothership in the evening and heard a lot of Americans from the Southeast talking fishing talk. We figured our calls had been ignored because the mothership had all the business the staff could handle. Besides – we had purchased beer in Bahía Honda.

Morro de Puercos / Benao / Punta Mala – March 13-15

We left the calm anchorage at Bahía Naranjo/Bahía Cébaco the next day in the late afternoon. Our plan was to round a point called Morro de Puercos [hmmm – Moorish pig? -- that can’t be a compliment] overnight because our experience had been that the wind is often lower at night along this coast. That would put us in a good position to arrive at the Benao anchorage in the morning, spend the night there and, the next afternoon, leave to round the dread Punta Mala.

Side note: Punta Mala is the "big deal cape" of Central America. Much like Cabo Corrientes in Mexico or Point Conception in California it is a frequent subject of conversation among yatistas, known for having difficult winds and currents. See above re: the currents that arch around the Gulf of Panama and gather force as they pass the eastern side of Punta Mala.  

Well, we got to Benao in the morning after a relatively uneventful overnight sail/motor (about 50/50) around the Moorish Pig. But we were not happy with Benao. We knew it was a popular surfing destination, which gave us a hint that it might not be a perfectly calm anchorage – but many of the cruising guides refer to it as a good place to wait for a “weather window” for rounding Punta Mala. Well, the weather around Punta Mala would have to be pretty unpleasant to make Benao a “good” anchorage. In particular we were struck by how difficult it would be to land a dinghy there, which would make it a very difficult place to spend any time. But if one can get ashore there are lots of little surf camps and hotels on the beach that might be fun to visit.

We anchored, leery of the nearby reefs, transferred some fuel from the jerry jugs to the fuel tank, made a meal and thought about a nap. Then we checked the weather and found that now was our time for Punta Mala. Now or some time more than a week in the future.

And that’s how we came to round Punta Mala where we found winds in the high 20’s and mid 30’s and some really nasty, thrashy little waves. 

Punta Mala Light In The Distance
Nasty, Choppy Little Waves On The Nose

Several hours later we started across the shipping channel. See above.

Next: Las Perlas, Where Abracadabra and Her Crew Were Much Happier.