Posted on August 18, 2017
Boca Chica is not what we expected.
Right near Panama’s second-largest city of David, Boca Chica has a rep for being a sport fishing center for this side of Panama. As such, we expected to find pretty substantial boating infrastructure. We did find more tourist-orientated facilities than anywhere outside of Panama City on the Pacific side, but the town itself is still one gas station and a couple of tiny tiendas. Most of the visitors stay in the resorts, which range from extra-fancy to scrappy surf hostels.
After filling up on diesel via two jerry-jug relays from the rickety marina, and a big provision to David, we were eager to head out to Isla Parida and spend a few days relaxing before pushing on to Costa Rica. Instead: our old friend, Pacific Swell, chased us down.
Unable to find a comfortable anchorage anywhere on the island, we beat a hasty retreat to the protected lagoon of Boca Chica. Even our well-protected anchorage was pretty rolly, and we found ourselves spending extra time on shore, sipping in-house juices and indulging in french fries for the first time in two months. Most of our schoolwork was cafe-based. We splurged on fluff-and-fold laundry, figuring it had to be cheaper than Costa Rica, and stymied in our bucket-laundry attempts by the rain.
Steps up to our favorite cafe…and the view from the top.
The final check-out place in Panama is in Puerto Armuelles, which is sadly open to all these big Pacific waves. Pedregal, just outside of David, is an ok spot to check out, but we can’t get our boat there–it takes two days of timing the tides to wind your way up the shallow, twisting river to the port. As we were a bit stuck in Boca Chica, we decided to head to Pedregal over land and try to check out at the Port Capatin’s office. This mostly worked; we had to pay an additional fee to have customs and immigration travel to Boca Chica, although they didn’t bother to come aboard our boat. For an extra $25, we can skip Puerto and head directly to Costa Rica, regardless of the wave situation.
By the time we exit, we will have spent over four and a half months in Panama. That’s an entire semester of study-abroad! Of course, we’ve spent more time snorkeling and whale-watching than studying Panama’s political system or doing daily Spanish grammar, but I think we’ve gotten a pretty good sense of the country. Time to move on to the next one.
Posted on August 16, 2017
…we caught this. Using this:
Yeah, that’s a lure fashioned from a Lay’s potato chip bag. Thanks to my friend Martin Johnson on Pau Hana for the inspiration!
Posted on August 10, 2017
I open my eyes. It’s about 7:20 in the morning, and nothing is stirring. This anchorage is as peaceful as being tied up to a pier, which is a blessing after several rolly bays that had us heading out before breakfast. I can hear the kids moving around in the back of the boat, and do an elaborate roll-out, flinging my legs over Michu’s head to try and exit the v-berth without waking him up. It doesn’t really work, but my husband is a huge fan of sleeping in, so he rolls over and spreads out in the suddenly spacious v-berth.
First things first. I head to the nav station and check our state of charge—91%, pretty darn good for running three fans all night. The water tanks are showing 3/4 full on the starboard tank, full on port—which in reality means we have about 65 gallons, not the 88 or so that we’d have if the gauge was perfectly accurate. Still, not bad. Bilge pump count zero—we aren’t sinking, always reassuring. I open up the sat phone and start downloading the weather; it hasn’t been too accurate in the ITCZ, but we check it anyway—at least it gets the waves more or less right. I poke my head outside to check our position in the bay, and make sure no big charter catamaran has anchored too close to us (unlikely; we have only seen one other sailboat in the last week and a half, and they were pretty far offshore, heading towards the Perlas. No one charters sailboats around here, either). We are alone in this beautiful bay, and I sit on the coaming and soak it all in for a bit. Between us and the mainland, I can see a humpback whale swim by.
Last night, we were too wiped out after a long day of travel to wash up after dinner, so the galley is a wreck. I put the kettle on for coffee and grind the beans by hand, then attack the dish situation. By the time the last of the hot water is poured over the freshly-ground beans, the dishes are cleaned—in cold water, which is actually more like 80-degree water, reflecting the water temp outside. Of course, the dishes are now stacked all over the lid of the fridge, so I need to dry them off and put them away to begin the breakfast process.
By 8:30, things are looking promising. I’ve decided to invent French Toast Pancakes, to use up the leftover pancakes from the other day in a way that doesn’t involve using the oven or steaming them soggy. It works, more or less. I try to persuade the kids to use up the weirdo cherry pie filling that we picked up in Jamaica, but they’re not having it, and opt for cinnamon sugar instead; we’ve been without maple syrup for months.
9:15, and T is plowing through his Rosetta Stone Spanish lesson. He has a love/hate relationship with the software; he loves getting the work done and checking it off his list, but the computer frequently fails to understand him, and he ends up yelling random Spanish phrases with increasing frustration. F is paging through a book by Steve Sheinkin about the American Revolution, but it’s really a stalling tactic; she needs to start her report on the Panama Canal today—almost two months after transiting—and she’s not into it.
Meanwhile, it’s been three weeks since we’ve seen a laundromat, and the old E-scow jib bag in the saloon is starting to ferment. We’re long on fresh water at the moment, and the sun is shining, so I haul the bag up to the cockpit and sort Essential from Non-essential clothing. Towels and sheets will wait for civilization; we should be in Boca Chica in three days, and Golfito in little over a week—the heavy duty laundry can be done there. For now, I plunge the most important clothing into a half-filled four-gallon bucket with a little castille soap, swish it around by hand for a few minutes, and let it soak.
10:45, and Michu has a simultaneous math situation going on downstairs. F is working on probability; T is doing some kind of crazy skip-counting. Both kids are doing math that is frankly beyond me; I’m sure I could work it out by reviewing their entire chapter in math, but fortunately Michu majored in math, so he’s all over it (you should have seen his enthusiasm for base two last week with T). They’ve already put away their Spanish, grammar, and spelling, and have gotten a good jump on their Panama Canal reports; math is the last thing on their list for today, although F will probably bust out the violin towards the evening.
Outside, the sun is high, and we can see the reefs on the edge of this small bay. It’s low tide, and we’re anchored in about 20 feet of water, but we can see the bottom clearly. There’s a very fancy-looking boutique resort in this bay, and I’m sure they’re all enjoying the view of our undies drying on the lifelines—although from the looks of the lights on shore last night, not many people are staying here at the moment.
12:30. The kids are enjoying some post-school video game time. A sea turtle swims by as we launch the dinghy. Breakfast dishes are done and put away, and the cast-iron pan is heating dry in the sun under the dodger. No one is wearing any clothing beyond underwear. I really want to dump out our compost, but the tide’s coming in, and I don’t want our onion peels to end up on the resort beach; I’ll wait until after dinner.
We have what could charitably be called a banana problem. We purchased a stalk of red bananas from a passing panga in Isla del Rey; the guy claimed they’d be ripe in four days, more or less. By the time they were actually ripe—a week and a half later—we were in Bahia Honda, and our friend Domingo was piling ripe bananas into our hands. Day two of peanut butter and banana sandwiches is not making a dent, and after lots of badgering, no one will voluntarily reach for a banana as a snack anymore. I resolve to make banana bread with the half bag of chocolate chips hidden at the bottom of the fridge, and pull out half a pound of butter to warm. Despite having two laptops plugged in for most of the morning, plus the running of four fans and a laboring fridge, our state of charge for the boat is 100%. The family hoovers an entire pineapple in about five minutes.
1:15: everyone in the water! After some shuffling for wetsuits, sunscreen, goggles and gear, we head out in the dinghy towards some promising-looking rocks. The water turns silted closer to shore, and we don’t see much for wildlife—some disarmingly small fish (everyone), and one banded sea snake (Michu). We hike up a very short trail in our tender bare feet to the top of a small cliff and survey the realm. On our way to the main resort beach, we run out of gas, as expected; we wanted to use up the older fuel in the engine tank. We bust out some paddles and schlep to the beach, where we practice our Spanish with a friendly construction worker. There are no guests at the resort at the moment; everything’s under construction for the next five months. No gin and tonics at the bar! We paddle back.
It’s 3:20, and we’re all a bit sun-frazzled. The heat has been cooking up some thunderstorms on the mainland, so we pull in the dry laundry before any rain has a chance to work it’s way to us. Everyone rinses off in the solar shower, hangs their soggy swimsuits on the lifelines, and retires below for reading and cookies. F listens to a Dear Hank and John podcast downloaded months ago at Shelter Bay; T embarks on an epic LEGO project. Michu has fallen down a hole in his Kindle, and can’t look up from his terrible Jack Reacher novel.
By 5:30, the boat interior is getting hot—the banana bread has been in the oven for an hour, and has used half of our precious stock of fresh eggs. Smells pretty good, though. Fortunately, the Islas Secas are living up to their name; the storms have stayed on the mainland, and all our hatches are open to let the heat escape. I’m pulling together dinner with diminished food stores—pasta with a lemony cream sauce, tuna, maybe some capers. We have one wedge of cabbage left that will go into a pork fried rice tomorrow, and that’ll be it for fresh veggies, with the exception of the stalwart onions, garlic, and potatoes. Generally, we don’t go too nuts with fresh fruit and veg when we provision; our fridge is small, things rot quickly in the heat of the tropics if not kept cold, and we can usually find basics in towns along the way. During our travels, we’ve had dozens of pangas sell us carrots, pineapples, cucumbers, potatoes and onions; no one has ever had mozzarella. So, we tend to fill our cold storage with cheese, butter, and meat. On this trip, we’ve struck out for veggies…yet somehow, the kids soldier on.
7:25, dinner is over and we’re finishing up an episode of the West Wing. We don’t really use regular textbooks for civics around here, but we’ve been working our way through the West Wing as a way to understand US politics and government, and as a vehicle for discussing current affairs. Tonight we talked about the FEC and election reform. It’s sprinkling outside, so we’ve got the hatches closed, and it’s hot. On the plus side, dinner was delicious, and breakfast is all set for tomorrow—banana bread. T’s doing logic problems, F’s reading in her room, and I’m about to dig into some new books I’ve just put on my Kindle. Michu hoists the dinghy out of the water; we have zero expectations of theft in this bay, but we’re trying to instill best practices by stowing everything, every night, so we don’t run into trouble in theft-prone areas.
The kids will turn in around eight, and Michu and I will be in bed by around ten. Tomorrow, we might move the big boat around to the other side of this island—we hear there are manta rays over there—or we might just explore the other side of the bay, where the construction guy thought we might find lobster. Then it’s off to Boca Chica, for a little time back in civilization.
Posted on August 7, 2017
How’d you pick up fuel this week? Did you drive a car to the gas station? Maybe you’re like us, on a boat, and you pulled up to the dock to take on some diesel? Nice! Convenient, easy…and not our life at the moment.
Before we left Shelter Bay, we picked up a few extra jerry jugs for schlepping diesel. We were warned of long stretches of motoring, and our fuel tanks just don’t hold that much. We already had one jerry can for diesel, for the days when we can’t just pull our boat up to a pier; sometimes, we’ve had to fill our five gallons and dinghy it back to the boat—either there is no pier, or there’s not enough water depth for us. And sometimes, it’s a bit more involved.
Today, for example. We were running a bit shy on diesel. If we could be certain of good sailing for at least half of the trip to Boca Chica, we’d be fine; but Panama in the rainy season is not renowned for it’s consistent winds. We knew of one possible place to purchase fuel, from a barrel on a moored boat inside a bay that was exposed to not-insignificant swell—less than ideal, and with a big dollar premium to be paid as well. Checking our resident bible—Eric Bauhaus’ Panama Cruising Guide—we found one other spot a few miles away from our island anchorage that looked promising. Active Captain seemed to confirm reports of diesel at the “medium-sized village” of Hicaco, so we decided to check it out.
There were two spots near some buildings that looked like they would be ok places to beach and leave the dinghy, but as we approached, we asked two local panga drivers to confirm that there was, in fact, diesel to be had; they both directed us around a nearby point to a beach a bit further south. Approaching the beach, we saw two things: a complete absence of buildings that looked like they might sell anything (one vacant-looking house was the sole structure), and a pretty good breaking wave that would make landing dodgy, not to mention the challenge of an exit in a boat weighted down with four people and fifteen gallons of diesel.
We considered our options, and decided to beach the dinghy on a small beach on the north side of the point and explore. Hiking up the steep, muddy embankment above the beach put us right in several backyards. This is the point where we had to be a bit shameless: being as polite as possible, with fairly hideous Spanish, we asked the group of locals relaxing in the privacy of their yards where we might be able to find some diesel. Fortunately, no one seemed to mind the gringo family popping up from the bay, and one very kind man offered to walk us over to the “store.” Of course, it was the abandoned-looking building; after much yelling on the part of our new friend, the owner came out with two small blue barrels of diesel, which we siphoned into our jerry jugs.
In the end, it all worked out great. The diesel looked really clean—we could see it pouring into the jugs—and was cheaper than we were paying in Panama City. We got to meet some local folks and practice our Spanish, as well as getting a glimpse of the village as we trekked through people’s yards. And we even got back to the boat before it rained.
Posted on August 4, 2017
Well! That was a longer-than-expected departure from the blog!
Our family headed back to Las Perlas on the third week of July, and promptly dropped off the map with a fair lack of cell coverage. We have been, in a word, remote. One beautiful anchorage after another, but with not so much as a tienda in sight, never mind a cell tower. Even the military base we passed, on the south tip of Isla del Rey, failed to connect us with the wider world.
We’ve spent out time avoiding whales—in some cases, literally stopping the boat to keep from hitting them; hanging out with a cherished few other kid boats for a couple of nights; working our way around the southern peninsula of Panama; and learning about swell.
Persistent swell from far-flung ocean storms has been on our radar since we underestimated the impact of waves on our Beaufort-Charleston run. We get pretty accurate wave info from Predict Wind, and we pay attention to both the wave height and the distance between waves. But waves in the Pacific are different from Atlantic waves, and we’ve found ourselves caught out by building swell that makes awesome surfing conditions, but poor anchoring.
On our run from Isla del Rey past Punto Malo, we had such great breeze and current in our favor that we thought we might get around the entire peninsula in one long overnight trip; but we soon ran into strong headwinds and waves that had us ducking behind Punto Guanico around 3:30 in the morning. The next day, after a leisurely pancake brunch, we pulled up the anchor to try and get a little more protection from the swell closer to the point. Instead, we were confronted with two huge sets of waves rolling towards us! Fortunately, the anchor was already up, and we beat a hasty path out of there.
Our quick exit meant pushing on through the continuing headwinds and waves of the previous night, to finally anchor in the rolly little bay at Ensenada Naranjo around midnight. One more push to find a calm anchorage the next day, on the north side of Isla Cebaco, and we could finally recover.
The stretch of Pacifc coast of Panama that we’ve been traversing is incredibly beautiful. We’re reminded of Hawaii, with steep, verdant mountains rising sharply up from the ocean, and huge waves rolling along rocky shores. We’re not the only ones monitoring the waves; this area of Panama is filled with surfers. We’ll continue on along the more protected bays and islands, avoiding the spots where the waves stack up, on our way to the menagerie of Costa Rica.