The first three weeks in Panama were an assortment of enriching experiences and breathtaking scenery. From remote sandy beaches to call our own, to banana stalks delivered to our boat in exchange for gasoline, 17 ft tidal shifts, lightning strikes a bit too close for comfort, unexpected stops along the way (cuz where’s the fun in sticking to a plan?), mechanical uncertainties that saved themselves up for the most remote locations, and crossing our southernmost latitude – this leg of the trip packed a punch!
We left the land of Pura Vida with friends from S/V Kyrie and anticipated a month of life at anchor in various locations along the Pacific coast of northern Panama. What I did not anticipate was how picturesque and diverse the scenery would be. From gorgeous sandy beaches shaded by palm trees, to tidepools within the lava rock teaming with life, to waterfalls in some of the most unexpected places, to rolling hills covered with greenery – northern Panama is incredible! Making our way along this remote coastline in the early part of rainy season meant we needed to get moving, but safely, and hopefully with some enjoyment of our incredible surroundings. We planned to day-hop to avoid hitting logs or large debris, common sightings in these waters. Our goal was to get to safer waters before the height of rainy (…let’s just call it “lightning”) season. I say this like there are some coveted waters where your boat will be safe, but I’m quickly realizing there is no sacred location. Unplug electronics and pray….a lot. We had just short of 400 nm to cover and the weather and sea state reminds us it is time to settle in for the season.
On the contrary, rainy season doesn’t mean constant rain, just prepare for it every day – typically in the afternoon. Rain jackets and umbrellas are now included in every off boat adventure, the rain water collection system is easily accessible, the generator is running more often as the solar panels are not taking in as much juice, and we’re getting quite efficient at quickly closing up the boat once a squall rolls in. I even made a rain playlist to entertain the crew as we close up the boat – “It’s Raining Men”, “Rain is a Good Thing”, “Here Comes the Rain Again” – all great music….the first 3 times. I now realize my stupidity in celebrating what would soon become a daily occurrence, and when the “Thundah…Thu Thu Thundah *** Lightning and the Thundah”, accompany said rain, it can be down right terrifying! Should’ve made a sunny skies playlist. At any rate, this early in the season, we were afforded some beautiful sunny mornings to explore the islands of Gamez, Parida and Cavada before the afternoon downpours. We also had some prudently timed barbques on the Green Egg for Father’s Day and Independence Day – sometimes with a weather delay, but that’s the beauty of cruising. My calendar is dictated more by weather and season rather than actual dates.
The mainland had its own unique charm. Boca Chica offered some tranquil waters with a great restaurant on Isla Boca Brava with a lovely panoramic view. Bahia Honda also offered respite from swell and wind as well as pigs roaming the beach! It was the first place we were not asked for money, but rather supplies to trade for fresh fruit and vegetables. Despite being on mainland, the people here are isolated from routine supplies and the state of the world has only seemed to worsen their situation. We happily found items to hopefully fulfill their requests and in turn, thoroughly enjoyed receiving fresh bananas and pineapples delivered right to our boat. We waited out some stormy weather, then proceeded towards the dreaded Punta Mala (bad point) to time our passage for an optimal sea state. Enroute we stopped at Bahia Arenas and Punta Guanico, enjoying our last moments of relaxation before the final push. As we rounded Punta Mariato, we reach our southern most latitude of N 7° 11 and realize we’re now 25° south of our departure point in San Diego 2 1/2 years ago. From here on out it’s north and eastward bound.
Shortly after departing Costa Rica, we recognized the need for some critical, yet non-emergent engine maintenance, and therefore made the decision to head up to Marina Vista Mar vice heading straight to Panama City or the beautiful Perlas Islands. For our final leg of this journey, we set out for the legendary Punta Mala at slack tide as recommended, early in the morning with potential plans to anchor at Isla Iguana or to push through into the night and arrive well after dark at Marina Vista Mar.
We rounded Punta Mala with no problems, but the “mala” came much later. Wherever we turned the wind was on our nose with swell increasing as we proceeded north (east). Potential anchorages enroute are limited and when tested, were untenable. It was time to grit our teeth and press on for this last leg – a night run it is! As the sun set, we were also reminded that the humpback whale breeding season had begun. Unlike the ones we were used to seeing during winters in California and Mexico, these beautiful behemoths travel from the southern latitudes and make their way to Panama starting in June. Thankfully the breaches and spouts were far enough out to be enjoyable instead of stressful. This was our first night run in a while and to be honest, I kind of missed the routine of a night passage. We typically make a nice dinner and all crowd in the cockpit for dinner just before the sun sets and I rest up for midnight watch. This time however, something is different. The sun is setting over the land and not out to sea as I’ve grown accustomed to. I can’t tell you how unsettling that was! Recalibration will take some time.
Beyond my internal compass being amiss, this particular night passage was NOT my usual slice of serenity. The “mala” continued until the finale with Chad and I both in the cockpit trying to discern the origins of lights as we approached the coastline – fishing nets, navigational buoys, pangas or distant lights on shore – it’s not as straightforward as one might think. Finally, we dropped anchor in a makeshift anchorage right outside the marina (our choice, as pulling into a strange slip just before 0200 just didn’t appeal to us). After a long and spirited run, you know we enjoyed our anchoring beers that evening…morning actually. We sat outside the cockpit taking in our new surroundings for a moment as we glided over the huge ocean rollers just outside the surf line. No worries – we were in the home stretch and could rest in the marina tomorrow, knowing we were free of the perils of mechanical woes (for a bit at least). The next morning, we pulled into the surgiest surge of a marina, guided in by the kind marina staff and into the largest fairway I’ve ever seen! Not unlike Marina Chahue in Huatulco, Mexico, along with the constant surge (… lost fenders, chafed lines, and lost sleep) comes beautiful surroundings and reunions with fellow cruisers. Like everything out here, the pleasures are burdened with sacrifice and strife. It’s what keeps things interesting and makes the celebrations that much merrier! There’s no perfect anchorage or marina, but I’ll keep looking!
The two weeks that the HelmsMistress writes about in this story was much more challenging than she let on….I’ll write about it in more detail in future stories, but it’s all about the season. We came through this stretch of the trip too late and it became early rainy season, which isn’t benign weather past Mexico. Rainy season and summer in Central America mean rain, squalls and more uncertain weather conditions than the dry season. Had we known the level of uncertain weather earlier, we would have pushed harder to get through to Panama in the dry season. Rainy season here isn’t just rain….it’s larger swells, wind, wind waves, squalls and humidity.
We’re finally at a marina where we can get our urgent engine work done, get hauled out for new bottom paint and take a chance to relax a bit. This means the chance to work on content for this site and answer all of the comments and questions that have piled up since we were last on reliable wifi. I promise I’m working on answering everything in the order we received it.