Updated on July 12, 2017
A little bit of civilization, a little bit not
It’s the Big Pause for our family, as we slow ourselves down to wait out the hurricane season. Safety for the boat means we need to keep south of essentially Nicaragua until more or less November. Who wouldn’t want to spend from now until Halloween in Costa Rica? Well, their government, for one…we can only get three months in that country without doing a financially complicated bonding maneuver for the boat. Us, for two; we hear Costa Rica is as expensive as it gets for Latin America. So we’re taking our time on the Pacific coast of Panama.
We spent a couple of nights anchored off the island of Taboga, within sight of the Canal entrance, and then headed over to Las Perlas, a beautiful archipelago only 30 miles away from the hustle of Panama City.
In two weeks, we just scratched the surface of these islands. Weekends, we were surrounded by elaborate mega-yachts, up from Flamenco Marina; during the week, we found ourselves alone, or with one other boat. The snorkeling was not great, but at low tide we swam around some rocks and saw huge fish, in much greater quantities than the fished-out waters of Guna Yala.
We’re slowly adjusting ourselves to the idea of 20-foot tides. It affects our decisions about navigation—going in to an anchorage at low tide means visually situating yourself to entire islands that are lost when the tide is high, but might make a bay too shallow for us to clear a sandbar. If affects our anchoring, sometimes tripling the amount of scope we’d normally let out for our initial depth. It also affects our land expeditions; often, huge beaches and trails into oceanside cliffs are completely submerged at high tide. We’re starting to work it out, and have been generally anchoring the dinghy and swimming back to it instead of trying to drag it 200 feet up a beach.
The other thing we’re trying to work out over here is the weather. Our old friend, Predict Wind—so brilliantly convenient for us on the Iridium GO!—is struggling with the weather patterns of the ITCZ. Much of our daily weather is heat-driven, with rain clouds building up throughout the day and pulling very local winds in their wake. A tropical wave here, a monsoon trough there, and we’re dealing with completely different weather systems than we’re used to. The one constant: rain. In torrents. Every day. We’d hoped the Pacific side would be drier than the Caribbean side of the Isthmus, and it might be—but it’s still pretty darn wet. Boat laundry doesn’t have a chance to dry; cloudy skies mean no more of those stunning blues of the ocean; hatches shut against the rain mean stuffiness down below. And only five more months of the rainy season to go!
Despite all the free sky water, our tanks ran dry sooner than expected, and we headed back from the Perlas to Panama City to restock, do some laundry, and hang out with people not in our immediate family. The water issue clarified itself the night of our return: the foot pump for the sink in the head was breaking, leaking precious fresh water into the bilge, and it finally let go entirely. Not reparable, but easily replaceable, it turned out; we found a reasonable facsimile at the marina in La Palyita, with a 20% cruiser discount, and had it sorted in less than 24 hours (always remarkable when a significant repair takes less than a day).
Las Brisas has come up in the world since our last visit to Panama City. The fire at Balboa Yacht Club led to an immediate shutdown of the fuel supply to the fuel dock; when they attempted to turn it on the next day, some kind of regulatory commission found them out of compliance. We hear their dock continues to be shut down, three weeks later. As a result, the Taboga ferry and various Canal work boats have moved their location over to Las Brisas, and a new dock was put into operation. This is huge news for cruisers in Panama City. Before, the only real options for cruisers were to stay in La Playita, which catches every passing freighter wake, has poor holding, and is insanely rolly during the rainy season, and then pay $50 a week to the marina for the privilege of using the dinghy dock; spend $30/night for a mooring at Balboa, with the same rolly, rolly, sleepless night (albeit with ratty showers and dubious laundry); pay shocking money to get a spot at the pier in La Flamenco or La Playita marina; or anchor in Las Brisas, sleep well, and either risk life, limb and dinghy to use the decrepit excuse for an old dinghy dock or pay $20 a day for use of the dinghy dock in La Flamenco. It’s a lengthy explanation of the limited options, but the long and short is: we are sleeping well, anchored for free in a calm spot, with access to a free, secure dinghy dock, and it is awesome.
So awesome, in fact, that we expect Panama City to become even more sticky than it already is. We’ve met quite a few cruisers who’ve come through with intentions to stay a week, but seen their time stretch—in some cases, to years. We’re certainly not immune to the cheap living and convenient access to creature comforts, and the wood-fired oven pizza on Thursday nights it top-notch. Fortunately, we have family to meet in Costa Rica in September, so we will at some point be forced to pry ourselves away from the complacent life of Las Brisas. But not this week.