Posted on May 31, 2017
“Well, I absolutely cannot get up that river—I draw almost eight feet!”
We heard so many reports from people adamant about the dangers of crossing into the Chagres River—that only catamarans can go, that the bar at the mouth of the river is only six feet—that we’d decided to skip it. The entrance is fringed by reefs, and can be turbulent; to run aground there might really put the boat in peril. The morning of our departure from Shelter Bay, we planned to head to Portobelo—until we talked to the catamaran at the end of E dock. They were just there, and never saw below twelve feet; they were planning to return that afternoon; would we like to follow them in? That gave us just the confidence we needed. We followed our friends’ advice about the entrance, and stuck religiously to the charts in our essential Bauhaus guide. We never saw less than fourteen feet.
The Chagres is the biggest river in the Panama Canal watershed, and is dammed twice to form Gatun Lake and Lake Alajuela. The water from these lakes powers the Canal itself. The river, over here on the Caribbean side, is entirely surrounded by protected, dense tropical rainforest. As for depth in the river—we’ve not seen less than 25 feet, and it’s generally been more like 40.
Our friends from E dock found us right around the first bend in the river, and our kids got to spend a few days playing with their kids and attempting to understand a bit of Norwegian. It is difficult to describe the dissonance of singing along to an acoustic version of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK as performed by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, projected on the screen in the cockpit of a large catamaran—accompanied by toucans and surrounded by dense tropical rainforest…
We’ve seen monkeys. We’ve seen coatis. We’ve seen a northern tamandua. 75% of us are 98% sure we’ve seen a crocodile; the other 25% has only seen stick-o-diles. We’ve seen toucans (keel-billed and choco, including one that landed on our boat), parrots, harriers, herons, kingfishers, egrets, and macaws. Princeton’s Birds of Mexico and Central America is always out, the binoculars always at hand. Still hoping to see a Harpey Eagle and a sloth…. The best move, I’ve found, is to sit quietly in the cockpit with a book until you catch, out of the corner of your eye, movement in the branches where there is no wind. Most likely a monkey, spider or howler, contorting itself to grab some fruit.
Somewhere in this wild jungle, there is an observation tower (really a giant crane) that’s maintained by the Smithsonian as part of their tropical research station. Despite having the latitude and longitude, we couldn’t find it; after several hours of tramping through mud and scrambling over deadfall, being attacked by ants and narrowly avoiding a hive of mud wasps and at least one spider the size of my open hand, we gave up. You’d think it’d be impossible to miss a 50-meter crane in the wilderness, but you would be very wrong.
Places where we can’t take the big boat, we’ve taken the dinghy—up to the dam that makes Lake Gatun; up tributary rivers and streams, alternating between using the outboard and paddling silently (more or less) to try and sneak up on unsuspecting megafauna. By the time this missive hits the airwaves, we’ll be back in civilization, getting ready for our transit; but for now, we’re marveling in this immense wilderness, so outside our regular experience. The Wisconsin River, this ain’t.
Posted on May 23, 2017
We used up some phone minutes in the past few days, calling friends back in Madison. They were really enthusiastic about our “huge adventure,” and wanted to know all the details of whatever exciting thing we’d done that day. At that particular moment, the answer was “grocery shopping.”
So, I feel bad. After all of those pics of idyllic life in Guna Yala, while the northern US is struggling through Mud Season, I’m thinking some of you might be feeling a bit jealous of our current situation. Sailing blogs and cruising magazines rarely show the down sides of this lifestyle. This is to ease your pain:
- We are often all very greasy. We’re a budget boat, folks, and we don’t have the luxury of unlimited water and pressure water systems. We don’t even have a water heater. For everyday clean-up, we use our solar shower off the stern steps. Occasionally, we heat up some water on the stove and do a bucket bath sitting on the floor of the cockpit. We ladies generally wash our hair in the sink. We are fine with all of this, but it’s not as simple as jumping in the shower every morning.
We are always together. Always. Tonight, after dinner, I told Michu to “suck it.” I wasn’t pissed, it totally fell under the category of playful banter, but it’s the kind of phrase I would never have used in front of my kids in my past life. The problem here is, there is no place that’s not in front of my kids. They even go to bed later, and we go to bed earlier, so there’s only about an hour every day when I can tell Michu to “suck it” without them hearing. That’s clearly just not enough.
- Our social life is really, really weird. Sometimes, we’re in a place where it’s easy to meet like-minded cruisers and families; sometimes, we even get a bit close with locals. But sometimes, we’re in a place where people just don’t hang out with each other. Being a family boat in an area of retirees doesn’t always work out—we’re often invited for boat drinks right when I need to be starting something for dinner. Mornings usually need to be school, or we’ll fall really behind. Our kids will generally start to get pissy hanging out on a stranger’s boat past eight. Even when we find simpatico boats, we know from the start that our time together is limited. Guna Yala has been short on family boats—most folks are already through the Canal and off to the Pacific by now—and we’re anticipating a drought until we reach Mexico.
- We worry about money every day. Maybe “worry” isn’t the right word, and I know there are plenty of people in the world much more worried about money than we are, but the fact remains that we are always calculating costs, always weighing our budget options, in ways we didn’t back in our “before” lives. We’re still solidly within our two-year financial plan, but money is never far from our minds. We also worry about the boat hitting stuff, things breaking in a catastrophic manner, theft, chikununya, unexpected weather, and a whole world of things that are not on your land-based radar.
- School is frequently the worst. Sometimes, I think we would have done best to just have purchased a school-in-a-box curriculum like Calvert. Expectations would be really clear, and our kids both enjoy getting stuff done and checking off the respective boxes; the responsibility for deciding what needs to be done every day would be out of our hands. Of course, we’ve seen the Calvert curriculum, and it is deadly dull. We are super-happy with our math program, and we’re working well through spelling, grammar and Spanish; but getting my kids to do any kind of writing is like a cage match—painful for everyone.
- Normal daily chores frequently take all day. There is no dishwasher. There is no microwave. There is no pizza delivery—pretty much all our food is cooked right here on the boat. Getting groceries requires a dinghy, backpacks and a long walk; once back at the boat, there remains the challenge of repackaging into bug- and moisture-proof storage, finding a home for stuff, and off-loading extra packaging. The laundry situation is…grim, involving either a couple buckets of water in the cockpit, or a dinghy ride and walk to the laundromat; in practical terms, when traveling to remote spots like Guna Yala, that means bucket-washing all the underwear and a couple of additional key items maybe three times over a month, and then arriving in port needing to wash everything. Laundry that’s been sitting at the bottom of the bag for a month does not smell good.
- Not putting things away properly has really painful consequences. I know, if your kid leaves their bike in the driveway, it’ll get rained on or run over when you back out in the morning. Consequences, right. But here, not putting things away results in: ruination by rain or saltwater; theft in the night; injury to someone tripping over stuff; or hideous breakage, as whatever it is flies across the room after an unexpected wind shift or powerboat wake. Much of our gear cannot easily be replaced, so the death of a Kindle will probably mean no Kindle for a couple of months.
- It is the rainy season in a tropical country. Hey, we knew what we were getting into, and there will be no crisp, fall days in our near future; but that doesn’t make things easier. The humidity in our boat is so high at the moment, it might actually rain in there. The windscoop works great at anchor, but we’re at a marina—not only is being protected from the wind an advertised benefit of marinas, we’re generally facing the wrong way for the windscoop to work in the first place. Open a hatch, and it rains. The fans are running 24/7, but they’re really just pushing around a hot cloud. The laptop is threatening a literal meltdown.
We will not discuss: the smells emanating from the head; the challenges of finding things in the small, top-loading fridge; slow, always wet dinghy rides; mosquitos and no-see-ums; sunburn; and boat projects that remain unfinished. Still, all in all: worth it. The cruising life is often not what you’re thinking…but sometimes, it is.
Posted on May 17, 2017
We’re back to the land of internet, hanging out at Shelter Bay Marina while we clean up, restock, and get organized for our Canal transit. We hope to not go through the Canal for a bit–there’s still some exploring we want to do on this side of the Americas–but in the meantime, enjoy the views of a month in Guna Yala.
Posted on May 10, 2017
Welcome to Latin America, my friends, where the living is cheap! We’ve spoken to other cruisers who find Panama on the expensive side, especially in comparison to Mexico. We have no complaints on our end.
Our numbers for April:
Boat Parts: $110.97
Fuel: $67.80 diesel; $49.73 stove fuel; $10 dinghy gas
Services, including boat work: $220
Grand Total: $2090.47
Notes on the above:
- We spent some extra money trying to set up our phone for Digicel; I kept thinking I was doing it wrong, when we just didn’t have enough signal to pick up data. We also paid an extra $10 for a week of internet access at the marina, and our usual $125 to Iridium is still there. Our sat phone service plan can be dialed back at any point for no additional charge, but we use the heck out of that little Iridium Go.
- Customs and Immigration includes $180 for a cruising permit, plus the $5 “tip” that the guy included for himself; we’ve also paid various permits to the Guna for anchoring in their beautiful islands.
- The cost of the new cockpit shade is split between Ray’s excellent work ($220) and the cost of materials ($70) that we picked up ourselves in Panama City.
- We keep spending a ton on stove fuel, because we keep trying new types of fuel, and then finding something better. Hopefully, we’ve now found a product that works.
Sorry for all the typos, failure to respond to comments, and general slackness over here at the blog. I typed our last post entirely on my phone; connectivity has been an issue for all of Panama. Small sacrifices. Hopefully, the next post will be the wall of photos you’ve been waiting for.