Notes from Guna Yala

It’s a daily topic around here: which is better, Bahamas or Guna Yala? Impossible question, but we surely do love this area.

I was really nervous about navigating in Guna Yala. We’d heard reports from people who’ve struggled; we’ve heard from everyone that all of the electronic charts are wrong; we’ve heard about the holy importance of good light. We knew we’d be relying on paper charts from Eric Bauhaus’ famous book–one guy who has accurately sounded out most of the waters surrounding Panama, and a few of the rivers, to boot–and that’s not how we’re used to proceeding. In reality, we’ve found navigation here easier than in the Bahamas; in any kind of decent light, the contrasts between the deep channels and shallow reefs is very clear, and Bauhaus has so far been right on the money. The electronic charts we use mostly for comic relief.

There are people here who have been tooling around on cruising boats for over a decade. Some of them fly home for the rainy season to see grandkids; some of them are just here full-time. It’s a magnetic place.

In contrast to the Bahamas, we’ve found local Guna people on most of the islands near our anchorages. They come out to our boat to sell us fruit, veggies, lobster, and beautiful embroidered molas; they ask us to charge their cell phones in exchange for a few avocados; they want to know if we have any cold soda. Many of the small islands are set up for tourists to come for the night, or to set up tents and camp; large pangas with powerful outboards run pale visitors from Porvenir to the outer islands. When the Guna ask if we are tourists, we say yes, of course, there is our boat; they shake their heads, no, you are not tourists, you are sailors.

We run our solar oven every day–to keep from heating up the boat, to save our precious fuel, and because we can. It’s so hot, we might not even need direct sun, but we’ve had plenty of it anyway. Excellent success with baking our regular sandwich bread (although it’s coming out round–very French, c’est un boule); two failures with rice, somehow. It’s always a bit unknown how things will turn out when we lift the lid, but it takes a while for the heat to build up in the oven, so we don’t peek and hope it works out. There’s always couscous if the rice fails.

The water is clear, and around 85 degrees. We can swim from the boat to the reefs, towing the paddleboard in case the kids get tired. Amazing soft corals, worlds if fish.

Our new shade for the cockpit is outstanding, although we don’t have good protection in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low and creeps in from the side. Our windscoop is seeing good use up in the bow; the v-berth is the most comfortable spot on the boat, and where I’m typing right now.

We’ve found a couple of kid boats–an even split between cruising families and charter folks. We’d expected to have two or three weeks traveling with a lovely Aussie family, but their transit date got moved up and they had to scramble back to Colon. Best games for not sharing a language: Uno, Tenzi (dice game), Crazy Eights. Do not attempt Exploding Kittens unless everyone is a native English speaker.

There’s very little cell reception out here; we’ve been leaning on the sat phone to message family, and learning how to use the clunky email program. Unfortunately, many of the messages bounce back as spam. It’s a weird address, I know. I don’t blame you, Gmail spam filter. Still. Michu’s name is right there at the beginning…

In a couple of days, we’ll head to Nargana to resupply. Not are what we’ll find; we hear rumors of a library, bank, bakery, laundromat, WiFi. Either way, we need to fill up on water; the port tank is almost empty, and we’re not skilled at collecting rainwater. Groceries will be a priority, as well; apparently, my provisioning skills are dulled, and we are almost out of flour. Crisis! And seven eggs is not enough (insets “un oeuf” joke here).

Eventually, we’ll be heading back to Colon to be measured, and schedule our own transit date for going through the canal. In the high heat of the day, I sometimes have marina fantasies about air-conditioned lounges, high-speed internet and unlimited showers. Then I take a deep breath; I remember how much we wished we’d spent more time in the Bahamas; I look at the beauty around us; and I jump into the sea.

Shade: the categorical imperative

I know I’ve mentioned our love of our bimini, decrepit as it is, way back when we were motoring around in the Erie Canal. Now that we’re in the tropical sun, shade has become an even more pressing issue for us. Mid-day on our passage to Panama was not relaxing–we were all huddled under the sliver of shade from the bimini, with the rest of the cockpit abandoned to the blazing heat. No longer.DSCF1789

We’ve spent a few extra days in Portobelo, getting some work done on our canvas. Thanks to Ray at Casa Vela, we’re better set for the upcoming San Blas islands. Huge upgrade.

The cell data situation here in Panama is, shall we say, less than optimal; you might not be hearing from us for a bit. Expect great things in a few weeks.

Panama Canal

Locking through the Panama Canal feels like a big deal.

DSCF1700When we traveled through the locks in the Erie Canal, we were exclusively among tourists. The lock operators knew we were novices at line handling, and were patient and clear with instructions. In Panama, most of the canal traffic is commercial. Getting through the locks is a professional process, and big bucks. They don’t have time to explain things when you get there. That’s why it’s hugely helpful to travel through the locks at least once before you go through on your own boat.

Crew, peeping through the hatch

Crew, peeping through the hatch

Fortunately, there are a lot of boats looking for help. To go through the Canal, each boat must have a captain to dive the boat; four adults to act as line handlers; and a canal advisor, hired thought the Canal Authority. As most boats are only traveling with two adults, there’s a huge market for line handlers. Locking through with Sapphires did both of us a favor, and our German backpacker friend Patrizia rounded out the crew.

Heading to the first lock

Heading to the first lock

Rental tires for fenders, and rental lines to keep the boat centered

Rental tires for fenders, and rental lines to keep the boat centered

Before entering the Canal proper, private boats need to leave the marina and anchor in “the Flats”, where a pilot boat will meet you with your advisor. We’d heard that pilots are generally not dropped off until around 4, but were told to be at the Flats by 2; our pilot came out to us almost immediately. We weren’t ready! We still had to cover our solar panels with seat cushions so they wouldn’t be damaged by messenger lines flying down from above, and secure the many tires that would act as fenders around the boat. Fortunately, we had plenty of waiting-around time in front of the first lock, as the freighter in front of us lumbered into position. The advisor let us know as soon as he came aboard that we’d be locking through with only the freighter—no other boats would be rafting to us, so the fenders could actually wait.

Our lock buddy, being pulled into the next lock by electric trains called "mules"

Our lock buddy, being pulled into the next lock by electric trains called “mules”

Actual, working monkey fist knot--not just a party trick

Actual, working monkey fist knot–not just a party trick

Hauling in the lines

Hauling in the lines

We slowly motored into the huge lock, with Michu and Patrizia on the bow cleats and Glen and I on the stern, Alison driving, and the kids on photo duty. Crew on both sides of the canal threw down messenger lines with monkey fists to us, towards the bow to avoid the rigging; we tied off to our rented lines and fed them out as the workers hauled them up. As the locks filled, our job as line handlers was to pull the slack out of the lines and keep the boat centered in the locks. Mission accomplished—we came smoothly through the first three locks, all in series, and motored out into Lake Gatun to spend the night.DSC_2111

Gotta' keep the crew fed! Glen making popcorn underway

Gotta’ keep the crew fed! Glen making popcorn underway

We tied up to a huge buoy, and our advisor hopped off onto another pilot boat. Pasta and wine followed, although everyone was too exhausted from the excitement of the day and last-minute prep to make much of a night of it.

Morning sleepyheads

Morning sleepyheads

This is another tricky part for smaller boats transiting the Canal: when you travel from the Caribbean to the Pacific, you generally overnight in the lake, and have to find a place for everyone on the boat to sleep! No worries for a big catamaran like Sapphire; the girls all slept in the tramps up in the bows, and Michu and I took the spare bedroom. Not sure where we’ll be sleeping everyone on our boat! Someone will have to take the cockpit…hope the bugs aren’t too bad.

Lines need to be cast off at the same time, working off a sound signal. Alison blew a conch when we were ready to go

Lines need to be cast off at the same time, working off a sound signal. Alison blew a conch when we were ready to go

A new advisor came by the next morning at 8, with the bad news that we weren’t expected to enter the last set of locks until 3:30 that afternoon. Fortunately, he had skills, and managed to finagle us into an earlier lock alongside a ferry. Rafting meant easier work for the line handlers—we just had to tie up to the ferry with a bow and stern line, and we were done; but it was tricky maneuvering for Glen to come alongside safely, without bashing into the steel boat. We also found ourselves in a kind of reverse-zoo situation, with the tourists on the ferry leaning across their railings to ask us questions about our transit. We got some cold drinks handed to us, and ended up on a lot of folks’ home movies.

Reverse zoo

Reverse zoo

The end of our practice transit came in a rush—exiting the Miraflores Locks, packing up our bags (forgot the dob kit!), managing the launch from the Balboa Yacht Club with Sapphire’s agent, offloading the rented lines and tires, and saying good-bye to our friends. They’re off to Costa Rica; from there, they’ll head to Galapagos, Marquesas, and French Polynesia before putting their boat on the market in Hawaii in November. (Anyone in the market for an Outremer 55?)

The Pacific!

The Pacific!

For us, the transit felt momentous and ordinary at the same time. The Panama Canal is one of the wonders of the world, and to go from one ocean to another on a sailboat is an incredible thing. On the other hand, locking through is a regimented, industrial process, with a great deal of waiting around followed by the unavoidably normal activity of pulling on a rope. It’s amazing, and it’s tedious, all at the same time. Either way, we are better prepared as a family, and know what to expect when we bring through our own boat in a couple of months.

Panama!

We have a map of North and Central America taped to the bulkhead in the saloon, and every day, I look at it and can’t believe how far we’ve sailed.DSC_2087

We are in Panama, and we are loving it.

DSC_2126Leaving Jamaica, we’d planned to head to Bocas del Toro and work our way west along the north coast of Panama. Once we were heading south, though, we decided we’d really like to meet up with our friends on Sapphire, a fantastic kid boat we hadn’t seen since the Bahamas. If we sailed to Colon, they’d plan on meeting us at Shelter Bay Marina. Their date to transit the Panama Canal was coming up, so we may have needed to park the boat and meet them in Panama City, but either way, we decided it would be good for the kids to have a chance to hang out.

En route, we texted with them via sat phone and discovered that their transit date had been pushed back to the 6th, and they were waiting in Portobelo. Perfect! We nudged the bow a bit closer to the wind, and turned up towards the lovely town of Portobelo.

The bay at Portobelo

The bay at Portobelo

We managed to get our anchor down minutes before a torrential downpour, parking right behind our friends’ catamaran. A little over an hour later, we were at their boat, catching up in the most loud and intense way possible. This is a family who we met in the Exumas; we spent only about a month sailing together. But the nature of cruising friendships is intense. Boat people already have a great deal in common—besides the culture of sailing and the sea, we were spending every day with these folks, experiencing amazing things together. We commiserated on boat schooling challenges, shared creative ways to use cabbage, celebrated Christmas together; we snorkeled incredible reefs and grilled lobster (none for you, Alison!). We went on hikes and went for sails and picked our way through tricky passes. One of the great boons of cruising is the fast, fierce friendships; the flip side: how quickly we often need to say goodbye. So being able to see our friends again in a setting as sweet as Panama was fantastic.

Tropical groundcover

Tropical groundcover

They showed us around town, and gave us the dirt on where to park the dinghy, how to offload the garbage, where the best grocery stores were located and how to cage free internet. We went to dinner and made mighty plans for the week. Some of our plans fell through; we did not end up renting cars with them and heading to Panama City to do some sightseeing (we were pretty wiped out from the crossing, and it took us a while to actually check in to the country). Some of our plans seem to be holding, though; after a few days in Portobelo, we’ve moved over to the Shelter Bay Marina and will act as line handlers for their Canal transit on Thursday.

Holding on to the grass to keep from sliding down the muddy hill

Holding on to the grass to keep from sliding down the muddy hill

Between our arrival in Portobelo and our arrival in Colon, we did a great deal of sleeping, a little bit of shopping, and a fair amount of relaxing over internet and beer. We commissioned some canvas work—a connector between our bimini and our dodger, to try and keep the sunstroke at bay when we’re underway. We explored an old Spanish fort guarding the entrance to the bay—one of three, but we went for the most remote one with three levels to hike up. We did a little cooking and a little cleaning. Mostly, we recovered.

Spanish fort. Ruined.

Spanish fort. Ruined.

DSC_2063

This is Patrizia, a German backpacker we picked up in Portobelo. She was looking for a ride to Colon, and ended up transiting with us on Sapphire. Backpackers can make good line handlers!

This is Patrizia, a German backpacker we picked up in Portobelo. She was looking for a ride to Colon, and ended up transiting with us on Sapphire. Backpackers can make good line handlers!

So far, what we’ve seen of Panama is a huge contrast to our previous couple of countries. We’ve been among a big expat community—backpackers in hostels, globe-trotting cruisers, foreigners who’ve relocated to Panama—so we’re maybe not experiencing the real country; but when we do walk the streets, no one hassles us, or tries to sell us anything, or offers us a room. It’s all very chill. It’s also very cheap—groceries here are costing us a fraction of what we saw in Jamaica, and there’s certainly no fee to anchor anywhere. Even the extra-fancy Shelter Bay Marina has pretty reasonable rates—we’re paying $44/night to have a safe place to leave the boat as we transit with our friends.

The one big drawback: Van Halen, on a constant loop in our heads.

 

Crossing the sea

I admit it: I was a little nervous about our crossing from Jamaica to Panama. It was the longest passage we’ve done, and it just seemed so exposed—miles from help, if we needed it. By the time we left, though, I was ready. Here’s why:

  • Multiple disaster stories. Counterintuitive, right? But we heard second-hand accounts of piracy off the coast of Nicaragua from more than one cruiser, which made us feel pretty confident of the general area to be avoided (nowhere near our intended route). We have friends who were dismasted on the way north from Panama, and comfortably made it to Providencia, so we learned that there are safe places to stop along the way. Listening to some of the problems of others made us feel like we could make appropriate plans.
  • Weather patience. Once again, we waited for good weather. And waited, and waited some more. Shout out to Predict Wind, and their awesome weather modeling; we got almost exactly the winds and swell that we expected.
  • The wait itself. We spent way more time in Montego Bay than we would have liked, so by the time we felt good about departure, we were READY. Food was all prepped for the entire passage, tanks topped off, bureaucratic loose ends tied up, everyone well-rested.

We set off in a pretty stiff breeze from the northeast, which sped us down the coast of Jamaica and around the western side; by the evening, the wind had died, and we were motoring. Right on cue, the wind filled in the next day in the evening, and we spent almost the entire passage on a broad-to-beam reach in 10-12 knots with flat seas. Perfect!

Cool kid on passage. Headphones are plugged into the iPad for podcasts.

Cool kid on passage. Headphones are plugged into the iPad for podcasts.

The only really heart-stopping moment came on the morning of the second day. We were just switching watches, around 6am, and I was down below making some coffee when we heard a huge cruuunch—like we’d just run into some bizarre coral head in the middle of the ocean. It turns out that there’s quite a bit of fishing on the Pedro Banks, just south of Jamaica, and we’d run directly over a fishing float. What are the chances? Amazingly, we didn’t wrap anything around the prop. The float was a huge wooden spear contraption, and we were able to push it down and clear the rudder. Terrible luck to have hit it, but amazing luck to get it off so easily. (And no real need for the coffee, after that.)

Not everything went exactly swimmingly. The fridge, for example, decided to kick into hyperdrive (as is often the case), and froze most of its contents; this did not improve the texture of the pasta. The sun was brutally hot, inspiring us to get a bit of canvas work done here in Panama to mitigate the effects of el sol underway. But mostly, we are really bad at sleeping.

What happens is this: Michu and I both try too hard to take care of each other. Instead of having rigid watch schedules—four hours on, four hours off—or just setting the AIS alarm and both going to bed (yes, we know people who do this), we are always trying to let the other person get some extra sleep. So maybe Michu gets six or seven hours in a row one night; but the next day, Deb is ruined. Then Michu tries to help Deb out by powering through an eight-hour watch, but is destroyed himself the next day. And repeat.

Being desperately tired is not so terrible for a two-day passage, but for five days, it was not great. I was so exhausted on the third night, my little squirrel brain could not settle down to sleep, and I became irrationally terrified that the boat was overpowered and out of control. Actually, the boat was doing great—reaching along in about 15 knots of wind, and surfing a bit down the back of the waves; in my weird, exhausted hysteria, I made us shorten sail, which made the motion of the boat through the waves much less comfortable. After that, I got some sleep; but my dear husband kept the helm for a heroic stretch, on top of being a bit seasick from the new motion, and was completely broken the next day.

The moral of our terrible sleep habits is twofold for us, I think: follow an actual watch schedule, and consider taking on extra crew for longer passages. Not that we expect to have any longer passages—our hop across the Caribbean confirmed that ocean crossings are not on the table in our near future—but having an additional body at the helm to get us through the night would have meant a well-rested crew all around.

At anchor in Portobelo. Our boat is the one with the blue canvas.

At anchor in Portobelo. Our boat is the one with the blue canvas.

And many things about our passage were lovely. We saw a group of whales, although they were too far away for us to identify the species. We had dolphins alongside the boat at night, darting in and out of the phosphorescence. Our only breakdown was the loss of a shackle pin on a spare jib halyard, which we later found on deck. The boat sailed beautifully. And we reached a point where we were no longer attempting to estimate our arrival—we were just carried along by the wind and the waves, knowing that we’d get there eventually.

View of the dinghy dock at Casa Vela. Just a little bit of rain...

View of the dinghy dock at Casa Vela. Just a little bit of rain…