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!

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