Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Friendly Isla Contadora Cruiser Competition - Beach Bocce Ball

All too often we don’t know a soul in our anchorage and that’s if we’re not the only boat anchored.   While we love the solitude, sometimes it gets kinda lonely and we crave some good social connection. 
We’re anchored a stone’s throw from this beautiful
Isla Contadora beach, surrounded by the clearest
 water we’ve seen since Florida’s Dry Tortugas.
Thus, we were tickled when the friendly folks Jody & Stephen from Blue Pelican, another Pearson, sailed into “our” Ilsa Contadora anchorage. 
Jody first rescued us when we were desperate for an internet-based weather report in Panama’s Shelter Bay marina.  We’d arrived just after the office closed, which meant no local Wi-Fi password for internet.  Jody kindly let us log onto her system in the marina library to check the forecast.  We had little time to get to know each other, as Jody and Stephen were a day away from passing through Panama Canal – about a week before we planned to. 

Bocce ball explanation begins….
Players, left to right, Stephen of Blue Pelican,
Randy and his wife Dawn of Nirvana Now,
Jody of Blue Pelican, and my hubby, Wayne
(and me, not pictured because as usual, I’m taking the photo).

Yet I was so sure we’d meet again, I loaned Jody our treasured copy of “The Curve of Time” a true story of a single mother who cruised in the Pacific Northwest with her five children on a small sailboat back in the late 1920s.  It’s an area we cruised and plan to return to, and the book was given to us by an Ellen Anderson, a friend we cruised with there.

Indeed, not long after we completed our Panama Canal Caribbean to Pacific transit, and anchored in Panama City’s La Playita, Jody and Stephen dinghied up to welcome us with a flask of ready-made G&T to drink.  We drank to that!  We also appreciated their excellent Panama City provisioning and transportation advice.  They tipped us off to Fred, the cruiser-friendly English-speaking taxi driver, who we found tremendously helpful in our resupplying efforts.

At Las Perlas’ Ilsa Contadora, Jody & Stephen instigated a game of Bocce Ball and sundowners on the beach, inviting their frequent buddy boaters, Dawn and Randy of Nirvana Now and us.  “Bring something to drink,” Jody suggested.  “Curry afterward, at Blue Pelican.”

Impressive array of bocce balls, considering the one  we were
 aiming for was pinned below the pink and green pair at the top. 
Alas, our team was the green team.
As the sun dipped down, we gathered on the beach and got the (bocce) balls rollin’.  It was a good spirited game, and we enjoyed ourselves even if we lost, 3-0.  Bocce is the perfect cruiser past-time.  The game’s simple, it’s hard to be too competitive playing a game most of us never or rarely played before, and all it takes is a little space. Thanks to a barnacle cut on my right index fingertip from cleaning our hull, I even tossed left-handed no more poorly than I would’ve with my dominant hand.

Dawn’s toss is so lighting fast, she’s a blur of motion.  Or so it seems.


Jody’s impressive and stylish bocce ball form. 
She was one of the better shots.  Really.  Usually, anyway.
Funniest shot of the day….
Jody’s ball ricocheted from a ball, to the
 tree branch, nestling in a driftwood trunk. 
She was, justifiably, quite proud of it!
Randy and Stephen look on, studiously, whilst someone else winds up for their lob. 
Jody’s curry was fantastic but yummy as it was, it placed a distant second to great conversations and the forging of new friendships.  We’re typically not good social initiators; as a result we’re especially grateful when another cruiser takes the lead and welcomes us into the fold.
Blue Pelican and Nirvana Now are leaving around when we are, though their plan is to bypass the Galapagos and head straight for the Marquesas.  We hope to catch up with them again when we get to the Marquesas.

Location Location

We loved our Las Perlas anchorage (N08.37.393 W79.01.870) off Isla Contadora and its idyllic beach. Thankfully, we were able to get our v-drive to cooperate and, as of March 2nd, we were humming along at 6+ knots to the Galapagos.  NO7.19.703.  W79.22.200.  We estimate it will take us about 10 - 14 days, sailing 1,000 miles 24/7.  Today, March 4th, we entered Lat N04 - Galapagos is @ the equator (0).

Monday, March 2, 2015

Galapagos Bound? No News = Good News

Weather report from
Weather or not to jump to Galapagos today?

We're delaying a day.  At least, that's the current plan.

On the one hand, we're all-too-conscious of the days ticking by, and there's many miles to go before we arrive in distant New Zealand by November's cyclone season.  We've remained anchored at Ilsa Contadora, our one and only stop in the 200 island chain of Panama's Las Perlas.  

We are also concerned about an engine part, our v-drive, a common "weak link" class issue that we rebuilt between cruising seasons and is vibrating a bit too much for our comfort (more on that in a future post).  It may be fine; Wayne contacted the manufacturer, tinkered with it and it appears to be working.  Or, in  a worst case scenario, it could require returning to Panama City, sending a 50 pound, large part back to the United States for a manufacturer fix, then waiting for its return and reinstalling before we leave.  We won't know if it's good enough until we test it.  Testing it requires using some fuel we're not willing to burn unless it's on our way.

On the other hand, while we're concerned about not enough wind as we cross the doldrums into Galapagos.  Yet, for the next day or so, before we get to the doldrums, there's winds at 25 knots, a bit higher than we'd like to tackle, given the option. We've sailed through higher winds when we haven't had the option; it's hard on us, and hard on our boat.  This time, we have the option.  

While sometimes we've kicked ourselves for missing an ideal sailing weather window, more often, we've kicked ourselves for not waiting just one more day.  Sometimes we've gotten pounded (like this time when we got spanked, or this time when we paid the price for our impatience), when the next day would've been perfectly fine sailing or motoring weather.  Other times, we motored when the following day, after we arrived, was an excellent sailing day.

So this time, we're waiting, along with several other cruisers in the same anchorage, who are skipping the Galapagos and headed direct to the Marquesas, though following a similar track through the same high wind area that's got us concerned.

Waiting's not so bad.  

One more day on what's become one of our favorite beaches.  Taking the extra time we didn't yesterday to fumigate our boat, hopefully in sufficient compliance with the Galapagos' requirements.   One more chance to connect with our newfound cruising friends before we meet again in the Marquesas, in a month or so. A more concerted effort at getting a good night sleep before we tackle sailing ~1,000 miles of open ocean, 24/7, which of late is taking most cruisers about 10 days.  

Crap! We just saw all the other boats in the anchorage leaving.  "Two days of kinda strong wind we can skirt sounds better than no wind in 4 days," said Stephen of Blue Pelican.

We're going!  Wish us luck!

Location Location
Currently, we're anchored off the Panama Las Perlas island of Contadora (N08.37.393 W79.01.870).  We will be out of internet range for up to 2 weeks, that is, no news, will be good news.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

GF Gorilla Provisioning in Panama

Skinny aisles in Panama City, Panama's Fruiteria Asian Market.
Great place for certain cheap gluten-free ingredients.
Provisioning for 8 months of food is sometimes a bit staggering, especially for a gluten-free (GF) diet.  With a population of over a million, Panama City was our last affordable, cosmopolitan stop for most provisioning until we get to New Zealand, where much of our food is likely to be confiscated anyway.

Our boat storage space is limited.  Only a few perishables are ok.  Our fridge is smaller than many ice chests, and our freezer space is smaller than most toasters.  That kind of kills nice healthy options like Paleo diets, rife with lots of fresh veggies and an ample meat larder.

Add to those, these Panama City provisioning challenges 

  • no car of our own
  • Panama City, Panama a very spread out spread out
  • Spanish as the primary language
  • no clue where to go or even what's available GF

We miss the easy days when bread was a viable food option.
But that was before Wayne's celiac diagnosis.

We crave "hand food" - the kind of stuff that requires little preparation and can be eaten in rolly seas, one-handed, no utensils and when Wayne has his way, no plate or bowl, either.  

We miss Wayne's pre-celiac diagnosis days of PBJ (peanut butter and jelly) sandwiches as our go-to easy passage food.  Those days are gone.  Good as it is, there is simply no room for any loaves of GF Udi bread in our freezer.  So is Top Ramen, though rice noodles and bean thread noodles are a good abet more expensive, less available and less convenient alternative.   I have yet to make a good GF pizza crust, though I have yet to try the yeast-based one in my America's Test Kitchen How Can It Be Gluten Free cookbook.

I'm still learning what works for us, aboard our boat, though I now have a year of gluten-free trial and error under my belt.

The good news.  In regular grocery stores (note - some in Colon), we found

  • decent gluten-free pancake mix (used to make my pancakes from scratch but haven't yet nailed a GF scratch recipe yet)
  • brownie mix (wayyy expensive - passed)
  • Blue Diamond GF rice crackers
  • GF pasta - we bought a BUNCH in Colon
  • Rice flour was easy to find, though I stocked well on that before leaving the States and haven't baked that much yet this cruising season

Panama Grocery Stores didn't carry

  • Fritos in large bags (Pringles, Syders tortilla chips, however were ubiquitous as were plantain and cassava chips; Wayne did find some Fritos in small bags)
  • Asian Rice crackers
  • Grits
  • Tapioca flour
  • Potato flour
  • Gluten-free granola or muesli
  • Tamari (GF soy sauce)
In the States, well stocked Asian sections of groceries and Asian grocery stores were my go-to source for cheap gluten-free foods.  Since I'd struck out on several items in the grocery stores, we were on the hunt for Asian grocers.

Fruteria in Panama City Panama.  Yes, their produce selection
was excellent, too!  And the guy at the register learned
impeccable English as a gamer.
As our usual impeccably bad timing would have it, we did our downtown Panama City walkabout on a Shreve Tuesday (Carnival) holiday; most stores were closed.  However, we did find one Asian grocer, Fruteria,  open.  


We picked up not only tapioca and potato flour and gluten-free tamari, we also bought a bunch of dried cooking mushrooms - all at prices I'd happily pay in the U.S.

No Asian rice crackers though.  Those, ironically, we bought a few days later at Super Kosher, a few blocks from Fruteria.  Super Kosher caters to a wide range of special diets, especially if price is no object.

No grits, though, anywhere.  It's ok, we know oatmeal, fine for a gluten free diet, is readily available, and soon it's time to whip up another yummy batch of home-made gluten-free granola.

If you're curious about prices, I still have my Panama grocery receipts (for now).  And if you have any questions or tips on provisioning for a gluten free diet at sea, please drop me a line!

KFC delivery vehicle in Panama City, Panama.  Also not on
Wayne's gluten free diet, though we were impressed
by the the delivery mode.

Location Location
Our Panama provisioning was done in Colon when we were at Shelter Bay marina  (N09.22.033 W79.57.097) taking their bus in to Rey's Market, and when we were anchored off Club Nautico (N09.21.885 W79.53.563) at Super 99.  The rest of our Panama provisioning was done in Panama City, where we anchored off La Playita (N08.54.519 W79.31.497) and cabbed in.  In most places we'd rent a car or take public transit; we just chose not to in Panama.   Currently, we're anchored off the Panama Las Perlas island of Contadora (N08.37.393 W79.01.870), getting ready to set sail for the Galapagos next, as long as our vdrive cooperates.  If the weather window is right, we'll leave tomorrow, March 2nd.  It will likely take us 1-2 weeks to sail the ~1,000 miles, through the doldrums to get there.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What a Gas!

cruising planning cruising life
Panagas propane refill site, about halfway between
PanamaCity and Colon.  
“Propane?  Oh, that’s about a half hour’s drive, between Panama City and Colon.”

We couldn’t believe it – a city of 1.3 million or thereabouts residents who actively use propane and yet the fill facility is a long haul away.

“Why don’t you offer some of the other cruisers a refill when you get yours done?” "our" taxi driver Fred suggested.  “Split the cost.”

panama city panama cruising destination
Fred, trying to figure out the charges
from Panagas.
After our offer on the net, we found ourselves with 9 propane tanks to fill, coming from two anchorages, La Playita, where we were, and Las Brisas, the other side of the peninsula.  Right after our offer, a local business got on the net announcing laundry service and propane pickup and refills.  It was a little awkward that we happened to be at the dock the same time the service was, which ran $25 for the service plus the cost of the actual refill.  Our cost would be Fred's fare, split among us cruisers getting refills, plus the cost of the propane fill.

cruising humor, cruising life
Caged!  This was as far as the Panagas
folks let Wayne go. 
Fred, the cruiser-oriented taxi driver cheerfully helped us round up and load all the tanks, and away we went to take care of the propane, and several other errands along the way.  It was a hoof, though a pretty drive through the jungle.  Fred had to stop off and pick up long pants from one of his relatives as Panagas requires their customers wear closed shoes and long pants on their site.  Not counting the stops, Panagas was about a half hour drive, one way.

Upon arrival, "Half an hour," we were told the tanks would be ready for pickup.  

road food cruising activities
Locals line up for awesome BBQ stand a block from Panagas,
off the old highway between Panama City and Colon.
We took a little road trip to kill time, returning 45 minutes later.  We still had another 20 or so minutes to wait.

I ventured off to the BBQ place a block back down the road.  It looked tantalizing when we passed it and its smoky scent made my mouth water and my nostrils tingle.  There was a lineup of locals, a sure sign of seriously good cheap eats.  A quarter of a chicken was $4; I passed on the sides, though they looked pretty good, too.

road food cruising activities
BBQ scent? Moutwatering. Taste? Divine.
"That was good!  Where did that come from?" Fred asked as he sampled a hunk, devouring it rapidly.  I'm betting his future Panagas trips will include a stop at the stand.

cruising planning
Round 1 of Panama propane tank refills.
There was no per-tank breakout from Panagas, so we were in a bit of a conundrum on what to charge. Total cost was roughly divvied out per tanks, with more for the larger tanks and less for the smaller tanks, and as well we divvied up the cost to pay Fred for his time.

By early afternoon, everyone had their tanks back, including a few we delivered directly to their boats.

The next morning on the net, one of the cruisers complained about the cost of his refill. 

las brisas marina panama city panama
Wayne discussing reimbursement cost for the propane run
with the Panama City cruisers whose tanks we picked up,
got filled and returned.
Wayne explained how he calculated the cost, noting it cost no more than if he filled his tank himself in the states.  Allen of Nauti Nauti quickly chimed in and thanked Wayne for providing the service.  I won't deny I wish the complaining cruiser paid $25 plus the cost of his refill, or made that trek with 8 tanks besides his own.  Guess that goes into the category of no good deed goes unpunished.

Nevertheless, I'm betting there were 7 happy cruisers and I got some really excellent BBQ out of the deal.  And Fred was pleased with several cruisers asking for his assistance.

Ironically, the next day we saw a panga leave our anchorage in Taboga with about 30 propane tanks!  We couldn't help but wonder if that might've been easier.

cruising destinations
Journey awaiting diesel outside Flamingo Marina;
Panama City in the background.  
Location Location
This blog was written anchored off Isla Contadora, Las Perlas PANAMA (N08.37.393 W79.01.870) though our propane hunt occurred when we anchored in Panama City's La Playita (N08.54.519 W79.31.497). After Las Perlas, we're off to the Galapagos!  Cross your fingers for us our gear box doesn't prompt us to return to Panama City first.

Monday, February 23, 2015

More Misadventures - Panama's Big Tides

calamaties, cruiser humor, tides
"You could just say, ' the tide went out'" quipped Gunnel,
with her penchant for simple understatement.
"I'd feel much more comfortable if we tied off to a tree," Wayne conjectured as we dragged our dinghy a long ways up the beach at Las Perlas' Ilsa Contadora, Panama.  

We've seen our dinghy "float" away before without us (click here to read about that misadventure). 

We've learned the hard way about 15 foot tidal swings here in Panama (click here for that misadventure) and about being cautious taking tides into account while anchoring (click here for yet another learning experience at our expense).  

Thus we dragged our dinghy a good ways up the beach, threw down an anchor in the sand and added a rock atop for extra assurance. 

cruising life
An all-too-familiar view for us on Journey this year.  
Every time I get in it I wonder if it will be yet another "Oh s---" ride.
Previously, we'd delayed our trip ashore for a bit as we forgot to grab our dinghy anchor and extra line for it.  We compounded our error by stalling out our outboard motor just short of the boat, while the current swept us past the boat.  We had to row back to the boat, not easy to do anytime, less so when there's four of us in on 10'3" dinghy. 

Wayne then sussed out what the problem was this time with the motor, which happily(?) was as simple as knocking the kill switch off.  Much quicker to "fix" than the ethanol ("Deathanol" - click here on what not to do with your outboard motor) which we, ummm, errr, forgot and put in our outboard again this year.  Arg!

Back to the beach....

hiking cruising destination ilsa contadora las perlas panama
Along came a spider... We came across
this cool specimen on our Ilsa Contadora
walkabout.  It was BIG!
We "anchored" our dinghy in the sand, and headed out for a wander about Contadora.  I chose Contadora because of the glowing Cruising World report... lovely beaches, caves, etc.  I was on the hunt for the caves* as it piqued my interest enough to recommend Contadora over the other 200  Las Perlas islands to choose from.  Wayne's folks wanted to inquire about the ferry, which departed from Contadora and was their ticket back to Panama City.

*It is a stretch to call what exists at Contadora a "cave."  Apparently the interpretation is much broader when seen from the perspective of a three-year-old cruiser than a more jaded adult.
cruising life, cruiser activities, clothing optional beaches
No swimsuit.  No problem.  Playa Suecas nude beach on
Panama's Las Perlas Ilsa Contadora.
As we headed down to the shoreline near our boat, we noticed a nude beach sign, "Playa Suecas, Nude Beach.  No Voyuers."   In fact, we did see some swimsuit-less folks on the beach when we came in.  It's why we opted to beach where we did, to protect their "privacy."  

Meanwhile, Wayne and I were hot, sweaty and didn't have a swimsuit on us as we were prepared for walkies, not a swim.  We looked longingly at the beach.

A mere 2 hours or so later we arrived back at the beach where we'd left our dinghy and to our dismay, the "far enough away from the water" view was replaced by a moonscape of jagged rocks between our dinghy and the water.  At that, it was a substantial distance before the water was sufficiently deep the rock-strewn and live coral-laden bottom was safe to bring out dinghy over, much less drop the motor down and run the engine.
 playa suecas ilsa contadora las perlas panama
Wayne, Gunnel and Phil hanging out in the shade
on Contadora while deciding what to do next.

We embraced the adage "a rising tide floats all boats" -- especially after we saw a 10 foot tide difference resurgence in the two hours we waited to gas up outside Flamingo Marina in nearby Panama City.

Wayne's Dad Phil and his wife Gunnel opted to use the time to grab some lunch.  

Wayne and I were unable to resist the lure of a cool dip in Ilsa Contadora's waters.  It would be an understatement to say we were not at all bothered by a lack of a swimsuit.  
ilsa contadora las perlas panama
These Contadora beach rocks were a striking mix
of pastel mint green and orange.

We were however, thirsty, and as always, I was hungry.  

Luckily, there was an au natural couple headed back to their boat in their dinghy.  I flagged them down.  Turns out, we'd met in Shelter Bay Marina and traveled Panama Canal together.  I thought they were "our kind of people" when we met; little did I know (note - not sure if they are "out" about their nudity so boat and cruiser names are omitted).  With a laugh, they gave me a ride back to our boat.  

I tossed down my trusty kayak, paddle and loaded up a cooler with cold drinks and nibblies, sunscreen, a sheet to use as our beach blanket, my underwater goggles and a swimsuit and wrap for when we needed to rejoin Wayne's folks (C'mon, even if your parents know you're a nudist and lord knows they've seen us nude from the day one, how many of you would want to hang out with them nude?  Forget about even asking if they want to or not!).

That was the first clear water we've seen this year cruising since Florida's Dry Tortugas, unless you count the water in Muriel Hemingway Marina outside Havana Cuba.  And we'd yet to take any kick-back-on-the-beach time yet this year.  We were told by a local resort employee the waters had just finally cleared from the plankton that muddied its clarity.

Wayne's folks returned from their lunch.  The water rose enough to dinghy back.  Wayne ferried his folks to some private time for themselves on the boat whilst we worked on eradicating a few tan lines while we swam.
 playa suecas evil tree thorns ilsa contadora las perlas panama
Spikes like the set that embedded itself into
my scalp at clothing optional  Playa Suecas Beach,
Isla Contadora, Las Perlas Panama.

Meanwhile, in heading back to our shady beach "blanket" I managed to thunk my head, HARD on the tree branch that shaded our blanket. It HURT.  Bad.  So I reached my hand atop my head and felt the top woody edge of a 2-pronged thorn.  I tore it out and my hand filled with blood, which also began running down my face.  For those of you who've never experienced minor head wounds or been around someone who has, the cuts just bleed a lot.  They may smart, but they look much worse than they are.

However the blood caught the eye of some other nudists, who promptly showed up with some disinfectant, which staunched the bleeding fairly quickly, while sterilizing the wound.  I was grateful as warm seawater offer the perfect petrie dish for bacteria.  Used antibiotic ointment after to promote healing and prevent infection.
clothing optional playa suecas ilsa contadora las perlas panama
Our now properly parked dinghy at Contadora's Playa Suecas beach.

The rest of our stay on Playa Suecas beach was so blissfully uneventful we decided to spend another afternoon there before we begin the 1,000 mile grind of 24/7 passage through the doldrums to Galapagos.  We realized that despite beginning our cruising in early December this "year" that in the over 2 1/2 months, we'd yet until that day, kicked back and enjoyed some relaxing beach time, with our without our swimsuits.

PS We returned to Playa Suecas beach today and were surprised by a film crew.  They were filming a French "Survivor" segment at the beach and were apparently unaware it was a nude beach.  Didn't prevent us from having a great time anyway. 

Location Location
We're anchored off the clothing optional beach of Playa Suecas, Ilsa Contadora of the Las Perlas chain of islands of Panama (N08.37.393 W79.01.870).  All too soon, we'll be headed off to the Galapagos, and beyond.  The state of our worrisome gearbox will likely be the biggest determining factor, though at the moment, we're pleased to be "stuck" here.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Panama’s BIG Tide Surprise = Serendipitous Stop

cruising life
This photo’s for Jodi of Blue Pelican.  Snapped him when
I was kayaking too close to his Panama City roost.
“All that’s left is refilling our diesel and water tank.  As long as we leave by noon no problem making it Las Perlas.” 

Famous last words.

When Panama City’s La Playita Marina informed us we couldn’t come in until 1 pm as the tide was too low (plus $30 extra for the pleasure of pulling up to their dock to fill), it didn’t occur to us to ask Flamingo Marina if the same was true for them.  I new sailed to Flamingo Marina until someone waved us down in a panga, turning us back by telling us “The dock’s depth at low tide is 2 feet.”  It was low tide.

cruising destinations
Taboga… a pastel-box pretty village
a mere 7 ½ miles from Panama City.
Amazingly, just two hours later, the dock was already back up at 12 feet.  In the interim we lunched and kayaked.  It was a lovely afternoon on the water, albeit not what we’d planned.

taboga panama between panama city and las perlas
Wayne's dad Phil, me, Wayne, and
Phil's wife Gunnel, 
enjoying our supper
at Taboga’s Calaloo restaurant.
Filtering our diesel as we fill is a slow process.  It was too late for Las Perlas that day.  Las Perlas islands were over 30 miles away.  We were ready to blow the large popsicle (shaved ice – more about that in a future post) stand known as Panama City.  “It’s not too late for Taboga,” Wayne countered.  Taboga we went; it was about 7-8 miles from Flamingo Marina.

taboga panama between panama city and las perlas
Corvina cooked in an outstandingly garlicky
sauce served on the side with a delicate
coconut-milk rice and a banana waldorf salad,
sans celery, shredded carrot and walnuts.
Thanks for dinner, Phil & Gunnel!
Two hours later we dropped anchor.  After a little kickback time while we waited for the ferry to leave where we planned to adopt as our dinghy dock.

We fell into our dinghy and headed into town.  “Fell” because there was some stiff chop.  Our dinghy bounced up and down; entering and exiting it was all about timing.  Yee-hah!  Ride ‘em cowboy, bouncy.  Add to that a little extra “Whoa!” excitement when the bench sit I was sitting on collapsed beneath my butt.

Fortunately, our timing was good.  No cruisers were damaged in transit.

taboga panama between panama city and las perlas
Note the small kayuka at the side
of the panga?  It’s the Tobago way to
dinghy out to the fishing boats tied off
to small mooring balls in the bay.
Taboga is a pretty little town.  Looks like someone used bright pastels to color the quaint stucco homes accented with designerly wrought iron balconies.  Bright yellow stucco walkways with white balustrades lined the waterfront, the soccer court and some parkway squares.  The streets were clean and a lovely jasmine fragrance perfumed the air.  The brisk chop misted the walls as it slammed against them.

Alas, it appeared the sidewalks rolled up along with the ferry’s departure.  After a bit of a walkabout, and a chat with a B&B proprieter who apologized that it was her chef’s night off, we planed ourselves at the one restaurant that was open, Calaloo, as the viewpoint Vereda Tropical restaurant didn’t open until 6:30 and the prospect of a rough dinghy ride back in the darkness was not appealing.

taboga panama between panama city and las perlas
Tobago fisherman opens the floating live bait well
before heading out for bigger fish to fry.
We toasted over a tasty Spanish sangria, and enjoyed a delicious meal at the festively appointed Calaloo restaurant and made it back to our boat before dark. 

With full and satisfied bellies, we watched the depth drop below our boat, from over 21 feet when we anchored, to 12 feet, and we know it was not yet low tide.  Despite the darkness, we opted to re-anchor; we’re glad we did.  By morning, we were sure we’d have grounded at our first anchorage point, and been stuck there waiting for a rising tide to float our boat.

pelicans near taboga beach
This beach dramatically shrinks and expands
with the tides.  The pelicans couldn't care less.
Instead, we enjoyed a glorious orange dawn, the prettiest we’ve yet since in Panama – and perfectly dinghy-able beaches appear that prior we under a swirl of turbulent water.

We lazily watched the fishermen paddle their kayukas out to their pangas, load up for fishing from their live well buoys and begin their day.

And then we set off at last for Las Perlas, grateful for the happy accident that landed us, totally unplanned on Taboga.  For cruisers looking for a peaceful place to hang out close enough to Panama City for parts and provisioning runs, check out Taboga!  There’s a ferry that runs between Taboga and Panama City several times a day, for $25 round trip.

taboga panama between panama city and las perlas
Sunrise in “our” Taboga anchorage.
Location Location
Taboga (N08.47.733 W79.31.497 – before we re-anchored to not bottom out at low tide) PANAMA, just 7.5 miles from Panama City’s La Playita anchorage and  Flamingo Marina. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Panama's Truth Or Consequences

Universal political statement.... The three
hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, say-no-evil monkeys as seen in Panama City.
Sailing to Panama is one thing.  Checking into and out of it is another.  Even in a 1977 boat, we find the latter -- customs, immigration, cruising permits, VISAs is expensive, time consuming, confusing and frustrating.  Comparatively, getting through the intimidating Panama Canal is a cinch.

Why the confusion?


We're not sure how much is due to the recent government change, accompanied by an accompanying major turnover in staff, change and opacity as a norm, and our ignorance on not knowing when to push back and how.  We hear a wide range of experiences from other cruisers and from locals....

When we arrived in Panama, tired out after our overnight passage in, our first stop was at Bocas del Toro Marina, to top off our fuel tanks.  Seeing our dutifully flown yellow quarantine flag, the marina folks let us know they were unable to serve us until we checked in, and directed us to the local Port Captain to do so.

Several hours later, the Port Captain, his new supervisor, plus someone from immigration, agriculture and garbage.  All told, including Wayne and me, that totaled 7 people on our tiny boat, each requesting paperwork, duplicate copies and money.  This in 100 degree heat, high humidity and a narrow ~150 square feet area, while we were sleep deprived.  

Fred, 'splaining.  His Panama City-based taxi service caters
to cruisers.  We wish we'd tapped him sooner.
We were surprised the price tag, including "service charges" set us back $513; the most expensive, paper-intensive and time consuming check in of the 15 countries we've visited so far cruising.*  An understatement:  It was not a pleasant experience.  

*None of this includes the canal charges, which once reimbursed for our deposit, will run us about $1200 including ~$100 rental of specially required ropes and fenders. It did, however, include our cruising permit.

When the time came to move from Bocas toward Colon, the feedback was mixed on whether or not we needed to formally check out with Bocas' Port Captain.  It was a weekend, and the cruisers on the local VHF net figured if we did, there might be an extra weekend charge.  We opted to ask forgiveness rather than permission, given the lack of clarity and our prior experience with Port Captain.

As we prepared to leave Panama City, our last Panamanian port, we knew we needed to check out formally.  Whatever the next country we would visit would require that, our "Zarpe."  

Our anchorage neighbors, Jodi and Stephen of Blue Pelican raised their eyebrows when we said we didn't officially check out of Bocas or Colon.  Another cruiser, they warned, had to go all the way back to Colon to fill in their missing paperwork when they tried to check out.

We checked in with the Panama City Port Captain in Flamingo Marina, nervously, amid many questions.  Fortuitously, we'd opted to pay Fred, a cruiser-friendly taxi driver to assist us on our exit prep.  Fred used to manage the La Playita marina, and it just so happens was on very good terms with the local Port Captain.  We wondered how many laws we'd unwittingly broken, and felt grateful in the sense we dodged a potentially expensive paperwork nightmare.  An hour later we left, papers in hand.

Later that day, chatting with fellow cruiser Allen of Nauti Nauti, he said he too got dinged on "service charges" entering Bocas.  He heard others who insisted on going to the port rather than complying with the Port Captain coming to them, avoided those service charges.  Allen also declared that he discovered the check in-and-out at Panamanian ports between your entrance and exit is not required.  "You have to know that, and push back authoritatively," he explained.  Often it seems the Port Captains and other officials do not know, and it requires demanding them to verify the current process to clarify what is -- and isn't -- required.

Common  Panama City commercial delivery vehicle; this one's
at Alderbrook Canal Mall Casa Baterias.
Along the way, we discovered from Fred we could've purchased the two batteries ordered via Shelter Bay's chandlery (which Fred punningly referred to as "Shelter Pay") for at least $50 less each than we paid in Panama City at Casa Baterias.  Further the old battery cores the chandlery associate told Wayne, "Oh, you don't need to worry about those -- I will take care of them for you," were likely worth about $75!

How much could we have saved?  We're not exactly sure.  Adding it up would be painful.

We're not proud of our ignorance, though hope other cruisers can benefit by learning from our mistakes. 

Recently, Nicaragua began making noises about offering a competing canal solution.  Who knows if or when that will happen. Nonetheless, we sure like the idea of some potential competitive alternatives to Panama's lock on a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  

Another pleasant Panama City
 La Playita sunset.
Location Location
Tomorrow we leave Panama City's La Playita anchorage (N08.54.519 W79.31.497) for the islands of Las Perlas, rough 30-35 miles away and a half-day's sail.  Las Perlas will be our last stop in Panama before we make our longest passage to date, to the Galapagos.  That's about 1,000 miles and likely will take us a week and a half.  After that, we're looking at over 3,000 miles, nearly a month's 24/7 open ocean sailing, to get to French Polynesia.  We are enjoying the drier Pacific side weather, with lower humidity, and pleasantly cool mornings and eves.