Travels from Jan. 10 to Feb. 2, 2002:
This edition spotlights the transit from Panama City/Balboa to Ecuador, across the Equator into the southern hemisphere, virtually into the South Pacific. But first I must touch on the stay in the Panama City area.
We remained at the northeastern side of the causeway to Isla Flamenco during our 3-week stay at the Canal Zone. At this time of the year, the winds tend to blow through this anchorage from the north or northeast. When it is the latter, the anchorage can become very exposed to waves reaching 4 - 5 feet, making the anchorage uncomfortable if not dangerous. But the holding for the anchor was excellent for us and we chose to stay there to take advantage of the easier dinghy landing and stowage, and the proximity to cruising friends. The alternative was to go to the other side of the causeway where the causeway blocked the waves, but was exposed to the monster wakes of ships entering/departing the Panama Canal, as well as having no place to beach a dink, let alone leave it. Boats that drug their anchors in our anchorage, or couldn't handle rough waters, moved to the sheltered side.
The view of Panama City was unhindered from our anchorage. During the day the skyline of high-rise buildings reminded us of large Californian ports. At night, the lights in the high-rises made it even more spectacular. Frequently, fireworks would erupt over the city to cap off a wedding celebration or other private festivity. We never tired of the view.
A bus would pass our anchorage every hour (mas o menos), going to Balboa (25˘) or ending in Cinco de Mayo section of Panama City (40˘). In Balboa there is a Laundromat that actually uses hot water to wash clothes, an Internet café ($1.50/hr), a small tienda and a copy shop (charts $1.80 each). The larger supermarkets were quite far away, requiring taxis or several hours on buses. The taxis cost from $1.50 to $3.50 depending where we caught it. Once we paid $5 because we had 4 passengers and a trunk-load of groceries. A smaller supermarket was close to Cinco de Mayo and we went there often.
Also in the Cinco de Mayo area was a walking-mall several blocks long. There you could purchase ladies' swimsuits for $1, jeans for $5 and shoes of all sorts at very low prices. Here we found Sunbrella marine fabrics, electronic-parts stores, the black-market for purchasing tobacco products and other such things, bakeries and another Internet café.
There are many luxurious malls in various parts of Panama City. There are many excellent restaurants as well. We went to one Chinese restaurant that made us Szechwan beef even though it wasn't on the menu, although they recommended against Mushu pork because the cooks didn't like to make it . . . but they would have made it if we asked. At another restaurant that our friend Ramon treated us to, we had the finest seafood soup and entrees we have had in a long time; the quality would have given San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf major competition. This food had to have been prepared by a highly trained chef.
The most comprehensive West-Marine-like marine store offered complimentary coffee or sodas. We received good service from every establishment. When we bought bottom paint for Nanjo, we were quoted a price much higher than we had been quoted in David. When I expressed my displeasure with the quoted price, the salesman did some quick tapping on his computer keyboard and showed me a price almost 40% lower, slightly below my David-quote. When I purchased new batteries, I asked for and received a discount. However, the produce prices are slightly higher in Panama City than they were in David. Not that I will get any sympathy from you, since instead of getting two bananas for 5˘, we had to pay 10˘. But we were directed to a bulk produce market to provision for our voyage south. There Nancy split an entire stock of bananas with another boat, over 150 bananas for $3, a bag of 100 oranges for $3, a flat of tomatoes for $3, and etc.
We missed a group trip to a Costco-like store and another supermarket, where the stores' owner provided a free bus for the cruisers and had to bring in an additional truck to carry back all the purchases for the 30 - 40 people who went. I orchestrated a propane run, using a truck-taxi to carry 9 bottles to a propane farm. All the cruisers chipped in for the taxi fare and left some of their change behind, sufficient that my gas was free.
So, you can purchase just about anything in Panama City. It just takes a little more travel to be successful.
The main reason we had come to Panama City was to send our primary GPS back to The States for repair and receive it back thru Pedro Miguel Boat Club, a cruiser-friendly marina inside The Canal, just past the Mira Flores locks. Actually, we ended up using the Panamanian mail system to send it to the U.S. and Pedro Miguel's forwarder in Miami to get it back. Believe it or not, the roundtrip shipment took just 2 weeks, repair included, over the Martin Luther King holiday. The day after receiving our GPS and confirming that it was functioning just as good as new, we did our last provisioning and last emailing in preparation for our 600-plus-mile voyage. Once we knew we were going to be ready to depart, we had a neighboring cruiser radio to the sailboat we wanted to buddy-boat with, Poet's Place anchored in the Perlas islands, that we would depart Sunday morning.
Although I wanted to raise the sails immediately after raising the anchor, on Sunday morning, Nancy motored for over a 1/2 hour while I cleaned off the sticky, clay-like mud that stuck to the anchor. Even dragging it in the water washed none of it off. I had to do it with a brush, and then I had to dig the mud out of it before I could use it again. But finally we raised the sails and worked our way through the many anchored cargo ships, all of them waiting to pass through The Canal or offload in Balboa.
For the first 9 hours, Nanjo averaged just under 4 knots of boat speed with the aid of the current. We knew that Poet's Place was enjoying better winds, since they departed from the Perlas islands where the wind was not impeded by the costal mountains affecting us. However, by 1600 we cleared the coastal mountains and the wind speed climbed steadily. Our speed climbed impressively. But as the wind speed increased, so did the sea state. Soon 6 - 8 foot swells were adding to our speed as well as the effort to steer. The wind and seas were directly behind us, as was the current; we were on a "dead downwind" run. We furled up the jib and only sailed with our main sail, "prevented" with our boom vang. Nanjo's speed over-the-ground was between 9 and 10 knots.
Soon Nancy looked over at me and accused me of having a "doggie face". "Excuse me. What are you talking about," I responded. She smiled and pointed out, "You know, like the doggies sitting in the back of a pickup, looking around the edge of the cab with their tongues hanging out, with a big smile on their face. That is you at this moment." . . . My pleasure for the sailing conditions was obviously showing and I tried not to drool.
At 1915, Poet's Place reported their position on a special SSB frequency to several cruisers in Panama City (which they knew Nanjo would hear also). They had been flying ever since leaving the Perlas and were over 40 miles ahead of us and were already rounding Punta Mala. They expected us to catch them, but we never expected that they would get that far out front. Since they were sailing at 6.5 - 7 knots, we knew that we had to keep Nanjo well above that speed to even begin to reduce the gap.
Since Steve (steering vane) isn't able to handle steering when Nanjo is surfing, Nancy and I had to manually steer. This is work! The slightest loss of concentration or hesitation in a turn of the rudder caused Nanjo to slew 30-60° off course. Nancy and I both stayed up until we got around Punta Mala. You see, besides the wind and seas, we had to be vigilant of freighters. Punta Mala is like a funnel for all shipping arriving or departing the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. We had set our waypoint 20 miles off Punta Mala to reduce if not eliminate this hazard. However, just an hour before arriving at the waypoint, a freighter rounding the point didn't take the usual route toward Balboa and headed in our direction. Nancy went below and radioed the freighter. It was good that she did, because he admitted that he didn't know we were there until he looked a little more closely at his radar after her call. He asked what we wanted him to do. Since I could see by his lights that he would pass safely, although within 200 yards of Nanjo, we told him not to change course or speed until past us on our port side.
As we rounded Punta Mala at 2330, we changed course toward the next waypoint (a point far enough to the west that the ocean currents wouldn't force us into the Columbian coast, making us tack and loose time and distance). Now Nanjo wasn't dead downwind, but on a broad reach. We decided to furl out the jib to a "reefed" size about 20% of its full size, and double-reef the main. First we did the jib, but when we went to reef the main, the sail slides jammed in the track and I couldn't reef it OR raise it back to its original height. This made the main much too full and caused Nanjo to be even more difficult to handle. But we could do nothing else until I went up the mast to fix the problem, and that wasn't going to be at night and in these sea conditions.
Nancy and I were spelling each other every 30 minutes to keep our muscles from getting strained. I already was nursing a sprained wrist and a cramped thigh. In addition, neither Nancy or I had slept but we knew we had to. So at around 0200, we began dozing while we weren't at the helm. This was the first time that Nancy had handled these difficult conditions. In the past, since they lasted for just a few hours, I would do all the steering in these challenging conditions. In the beginning, frequently she couldn't keep Nanjo from veering severely. But soon she was able to stay within 10°. Just for reference, the conditions reminded me of rounding Point Conception in California. During the early morning hours the wind gauge indicated that the wind got as high as 35 knots. Our GPS showed our boat speed as high as 15 knots when we surfed!
As the sky lightened and the sun rose, the wind and seas settled down. Nancy was getting so skilled at steering in the quartering swells, that she could keep Nanjo straight and true. At 0700, our position proved that we had traveled 170 miles in 24 hours, farther than we have ever traveled in a day. We averaged 7 knots of boat speed, and since we were under 4 knots for the first 9 hours, that meant we averaged 9 knots for the next 15 hours. At 0800, Poet's Place checked in and gave their position as 6 miles north of us, but parallel. We had caught them in 13 hours.
The winds slacked off but were still sufficient to give us good speed. One day, in a rainstorm, we were becalmed for an hour. Otherwise, we made good speed until the last night.
During our travels with Poet's Place, we determined that their VHF radio wasn't able to transmit farther than 4 or 5 miles, while ours was good at 4 to 5 times that. So we would hail them on our VHF and tell them to come up on SSB. They would talk on SSB and we would respond on VHF. While it was easier to talk to them if we stayed close, Nanjo would soon speed out of range with Steve steering.
One morning, after hearing their position and determining that they were about 15 miles behind us, we had a decision to make. If we kept going, and maintained the same speed, we could make Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador in the afternoon. However, that would mean leaving Poet's Place by herself through the day and evening. We decided that buddy boating meant that you stay together until the end, so we turned around and headed back to meet up with them.
During the hour that followed, we passed a fishing net, pangas and a large fishing boat (probably a "mother ship"). This was about 200 miles off the coast of Columbia, but near the Ecuadorian border. As a gentle rain lowered visibility to just a mile or so, I was concerned that we might not see Poet's Place and sail by them. So I radioed them on VHF. The skipper responded and stated that a panga with five men in it was along side Poet's Place, aggressively demanding food, cigarettes and fuel. Just as I was talking to him, one of the men tried to board Poet's Place. However, the panga's outboard got tangled in Poet's Place's towed fishing line jamming their propeller and stalling the motor. That terminated the confrontation and the boarding. Poet's Place disappeared into the mist and we came within view about 15 minutes later. We stayed within eyesight of each other during the rest of the voyage.
The day we crossed the Equator, the sun shone brightly and the wind was gentle. As we approached the transition from northern to southern hemispheres, from being a lowly polliwog to becoming an honorable shellback, the two boats sailed close to each other and took digital photos to record the event.
That night the wind dropped and the rain began. We encountered frequent shipping traffic and fishing boats, so we finally decided to use our engines. We arrived offshore Bahia de Caraquez about 0730 Saturday morning, exactly 6 days after departing Balboa, 690 miles at an average speed of 5 knots.
Before we could get below to take naps, several pangas came along side and conversed with Nancy. First, they asked for some drinking water. Since we had collected a lot of rain that was no problem. They gave Nancy a small lobster as a gift for her kindness. Then they wanted to trade some shrimp. First Nancy joked about giving them some more water and held a bucket up to the sky beckoning for more rain. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. Then she brought out two baseball caps for them to choose between. Next she tried to get 6 tiger prawns and 6 medium shrimp for the hat. She dickered for a few minutes, but El Jefe only wanted to give her 4 tigers. She adjusted the cap's band to fit his head size, stood back and said, "Guapo!", which means handsome. Everyone laughed and just before the boat pulled away, El Jefe tossed two more tiger prawns into the cockpit. She had made friends.
The Port Captain would not let us enter without using a pilot, so near high tide, just after sunset, the pilot and two naval officers boarded Nanjo to take us in. Nanjo was selected because we had a wheel and Poet's Place had a tiller. I have to admit, I would have never attempted to take us in where the pilot chose. We were told to anchor near three other cruising boats, just off the sea wall in front of the Port Captain's office, in about 15' of water at high tide. Shallow but secure. We gave the pilot, officers and their panga driver little gifts of chocolate. (They have gone out of their way to help us ever since.)
It was after 8pm when we relaxed and enjoyed bar-b-q lobster and shrimp for our first dinner in Ecuador; a wonderful beginning to an anticipated stay of 6 months or more.
Crew of Nanjo