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 EverythingThere 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!”
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.
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 – 7As 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.
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 – 9The 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 – 12Our 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 12-13Our 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.
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 13-15We 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.