Guna Yala (The San Blas Islands)

June 26 – August 23; November 10 – December 26, 2021

At last, after completing our haul out, we were freed from Shelter Bay Marina.

We shot the gauntlet of ships entering and exiting the Panama Canal and headed out beyond the breakwater.

Over the course of the next six months, more than half of the time was spent exploring and enjoying the remote and entirely unique Panamanian archipelago of San Blas, or Guna Yala if you use the traditional indigenous name.

It fit well.  It seemed long overdue.

When we set sail from Grand Cayman on Friday the thirteenth all the way back in March 2020, San Blas was our destination.  It had taken four hundred sixty nine days, but we had finally arrived.

Sailors will tell you its bad luck to depart on a Friday. Friday the thirteenth? Duh. It’s also said to be bad luck to have women as well as bananas aboard your boat. I recall joking that by this end of this voyage we’d either be quite cavalier or pretty fucking superstitious.

Fifteen months later, in a Twilight Zone-esque blend of circumstances, some of which were completely outside of our control and some the result of very deliberate decisions, we found ourselves still living at anchor in Panama.  

It had taken us over thirteen months just to venture outside of Bocas del Toro.  Free to move about Panama, but still wary of changing policies based upon constantly evolving COVID updates globally, we really needed a change of scenery without committing to a change of country.

People had been in and out of San Blas since we had arrived in Panama but officially it never had re-opened.  No access to towns and stores.  We had heard the only resources for supplies were occasional random veggie boats or local fisherman.  It would be a bit of an experiment, but a month or two without provisioning would be no problem.  We had essentially been isolating since our arrival in Panama.  After all this time, we decided to give it a go.

******

Overcast arrival at Cayos Chichime

Of the over three hundred islands that comprise the Guna Yala territory, most are uninhabited.  Those that are occupied often have no more than one or two families and a handful of structures.

Many islands are small enough that it was not uncommon to have already sailed passed the island before deciphering the correct pronunciation for its traditional name.

The tiny islands, almost all with tongue-twisting names such as Waisaladup or Ukupsuit or Ogoppukibdup were in some ways quite similar to each other; but in even more ways they were each very unique places.

During our explorations of San Blas, we moved around three dozen times between a dozen or so different anchorages; really, a surprisingly small area of the overall territory.  But, as is often the case, once we locate a spot we really like, we find it easy to return… or sometimes even easier to just stay.

The Kuna people…

Slight of build and mostly dark skinned with dark hair. Quiet, polite, friendly, peaceful, traditional, hard working. Our exchanges revealed some of the most pleasant people we have visited in all our travels.

That having been said, all of our interactions with the indigenous people of Guna Yala, who call themselves Kuna, were limited to the people that visited our boat. We never went ashore on any inhabited islands. It was benign; simply much less complicated that way… COVID times. 

Apart from a couple more “modern” towns and communities packed within the confines of islands right against the coast, none of the people living on Guna Yala islands off the mainland have access to any outside power or water. Everything has to come by boat. The final specks of earth above water before open ocean.

The main towns were still officially closed to outsiders, as far as we were aware. We carried on at anchor, still effectively isolated — waves and smiles, intermittent conversations, occasional transactions with locals passing by in their cayucas.

In six months, only two local people actually came aboard Exit.

Apio (one of the rougher around the edges supply guys who stopped by Exit every now and then to see if we needed anything) once opted for a nap in our cockpit waiting out a squall…

The other was an older guy who lived on Orduptarboat, one of the two tiny islands making up the west side of Cocos Bandero Cays (and our pick for healthiest reef in all of San Blas). While fishing in his cayuca near Exit one day, he randomly asked for a jewelers screwdriver to try to repair his wrist watch. Incidentally, after his unsuccessful attempt to fix it, he proceeded to ask for a hammer which he then used to smash the already broken watch to pieces… quite an odd situation. He ended up paddling away with one of our ziplock bags, which held the pulverized remains of his watch and one of my spare sets of reading glasses he rather fancied during his earlier repair/demolition demonstration. Very friendly… certainly one of the stranger encounters.

For a time, while we were anchored just off of the uninhabited island next to Orduptarboat, the same guy’s son would paddle up to Exit nearly every day and ask us to charge his phone while he was out fishing. On the first day, he brought a big reef crab in exchange… wow! That certainly had to qualify for one of my top three favorable transactions of all time. After that, the barter became fresh reef fish. Eventually, with a smile I told him not to bother; no payment was necessary. He sure still liked getting that phone charged though.

On the other hand, exchanges with mola makers who occasionally stopped by were always bound to be lengthy and animated visits. The hand stitching and design intricacy of each mola varied considerably and the mola maker would inevitably want to show you every one of the molas that had been brought with them… often numbering in the hundreds.  You’ll want to check each one twice, for sure.

Venancio – Third Generation Master Mola Maker

Incredibly colorful, intricate hand stitching. Each image and pattern highlights extraordinary creativity and attention to detail. Combined with the matching very colorful personalities of the artists, we found it hard to resist buying far too many. It was good to support local artists; still, it was also good they generally only stopped by when you first arrived.

And once the display process started, you were hooked. What are you gonna do after fifteen minutes of being shown hundreds of molas… say you’ll think about it? You now find you have a tiny boat of people tied up to your home quietly waiting for you to finish thinking about it… awkward.


While some of the small local boats are made of fiberglass and are equipped with outboard engines, the more typical modes of transport seen, usually with one or two Kunas paddling, are the traditional hand crafted dugout cayucas – simple but amazingly functional.

The rigging systems set up on some of the cayucas allow an impressive range of sailing options, especially considering the very limited available materials and lack of a keel on the boats. They use their paddle as a rudder and are able to both set up and break down the whole system in a few seconds, depending on changing conditions.

We watched Kuna fishermen paddling and sailing in conditions we would not want to take the dinghy out in. 

Fishing techniques varied from one guy alone with a hand line (the most common method we NEVER saw bring up a fish); to a couple of guys free diving with masks, fins, and either a snare for catching live lobster and crab or spear for fishing; to a group of half dozen guys fishing the surface with a larger net.  Never a fishing pole.  No scuba gear.

Mito, Antoni, Amil – Local Fishermen:

Mito under sail

OTHER KUNA SAILORS:

COVID restrictions still prevent outsiders from going to any of the towns for supplies, but that’s not to say that supplies aren’t available.

Local Kuna fishermen are always nearby with fresh fish, live lobster and crab. In spite of the ridiculous amount of work required to eat, crabs of the Caribbean go down in my book as number one on the menu!

Yes, fish are our friends… but sometimes shit happens.

With a heavy heart of shame for my personal selfish indulgence, I name the following photo collage…

Git’N M’Belly

For some of the biggest crab claws, I had to give up on fancy and sophisticated crab and lobster shell cracking tools and bring out the big guns… twelve inch channel lock pliers.


We learned gasoline, diesel, or water can be arranged to be delivered by jug for those desperately in need. And being in the right place when a veggie boat passes by always signals a streak of good fortune. Sometimes what was available could be quite meager; but more often it was a floating jackpot of fresh vegetables, fruit, even eggs, chicken, wine, beer, and milk.  More expensive, absolutely; but delivered to your boat.  Limited supplies, sure.  Yet ironically easy for provisioning a boat in such a remote location.

Once, when we didn’t have the exact amount of money for a lobster, we received our change the following day in the form of a giant bundle of bananas… just how many can be eaten in a day coincides largely with how ripe they are.

A two or three day window for potassium overdose

It took the furler for our genoa sail seizing up for us to finally get out our solent sail and use it after four years of sitting in a locker. Turns out we should have tried it a long, long time ago… go figure. Also turns out, a furler is a massive ball ache to repair… but that’s a different story.

WIDE RANGE OF APPEAL:

Different islands and anchorages held different appeals.  Sometimes the obvious beauty of a location brings with it the high price of popularity.  But out of the way, less conspicuous, and largely unknown spots can reveal their own treasures… especially with a bit of exploration.

Amongst the easternmost group of islands on Cayos Cocos Bandero was the first place we spent a significant amount of time upon our arrival in San Blas.  The cover photo for Eric Bauhaus’ Panama cruisers book (by far the most popular Panama boater reference book) is an aerial shot that shows three boats at anchor in a beautiful spot that seemed tight for one boat when we actually tried to anchor there.  Fortunately, once we got set, there were only a few wind directions that really caused us to hold our breath.  It was as photogenic a setting as you could ask for.

Different time of day, different mood

While visiting Guna Yala, we always looked forward to purchasing fresh bread.  Some tasted quite like it came from a regular bakery; but some local Kuna bread traditionally baked on a fire is a truly unique flavor of Guna Yala.  Undoubtedly the best Kuna bread we experienced was at Cocos Bandero. The fabulously pungent smokiness lingered in the cabin long after the bread was sealed up in ziplock bags. Both the smell and taste, were absolutely unmatched. A bit greasy; somewhere between a donut and roll. Eight of ’em…? Two bucks. Didn’t even need anything on them. But with a bit of precious Nutella spread on top… get the fuck outta here!

When we returned to San Blas months later, it was clear tourism had begun to open back up in the area. Good for the local economy. The sense of isolated privacy that COVID had brought to anchorages had, in places, begun to give way to both an uptick in day traffic as well as more visiting boats sitting at anchor.

One of the most popular anchorages proved to us too popular to stay.  When the day charters started tying up stern to the shore right next to us —- dangerous for us in the event of any shift of wind which, of course, we had to deal with — it was time to move on. 

Assholes with attitudes

…which saddened us a bit. Not only was the location beautiful, we had also discovered a family of eagle rays would come to visit us every night, swimming back and forth in the channel around Exit.  One of those “holy shit” moments. Amazing.

Nightly visit from our friends
Eagle ray fly by

After the sport fishing boat incident, we never went back to the eastern islands of Cocos Bandero.  I still miss that bread… and our friends.

Less than five miles away, the westernmost two islands of Cayos Cocos Bandero (where the guy who smashed his watch lived) proved to offer a more spacious and isolated anchorage.

Green Island, also less than five miles away, is one of the larger islands and can be one of the more populated anchorages, but we generally lucked out.  

On the other hand, Waisaladup is such a small island that it occupies less space than the three hundred sixty degree diameter of Exit’s anchor swing.  It always amazed us when five or six boats would try to cram in around it.  We counted ourselves lucky to not be among them. If it was quiet, it was phenomenal.

Even on a short five mile hop between islands, dolphins may stop by for a brief visit to ride the bow wake. They quickly get bored with slow sailboats but the encounters are always magical.

Anchored alone in another perfectly protected bay next to an uninhabited island called Esnasdup, while on a SUP excursion Kris discovered a shallow area between the mangroves at the shoreline and the open water where baby sharks were congregating. 

It probably occurred only rarely, but she happened to be there at the perfect moment to catch it.  They look like juvenile black tips, but we concluded they must be baby nurse sharks (which we commonly see when snorkeling the reefs)… quite special.  We found the name “Baby Shark Bay” seemed to roll off the tongue much easier than Esnasdup.

It appeared that they hung out in the mangroves on one side of the island, venturing out to the sandy shallows, reef, and eventually deeper water as both their size, curiosity, and boldness increased.


Mother Nature must have a vacation home in San Blas, because she obviously spends a lot of extra time here.

Stunning sunsets can be awe inspiring anywhere.  Here, there seems to be a picturesque tropical island silhouetted in front of almost every one of them. 

Yet, the other side of the swinging pendulum when it comes to San Blas skies are what seem like an ever present threat of nuclear scale thunder storms and squalls.  When ominous dark bands of really angry looking clouds start stacking up on the horizon, one has to take notice.  Sometimes they loom for hours in the distance; sometimes they give little warning.  They may be short lived when they strike, but they can be vicious as well.  A twenty to forty knot change of wind direction does not bode well for the ill-prepared or unaware.  

Not to mention the shit ton of rain that gets dumped down as well.  You’d better be collecting rainwater, or you may just get depressed.

A waterspout… always an attention getting moment.

Awesome to see, never far enough away to be comfortable

San Blas lightning is the stuff of legends.  Intense.  Loud.  If you’re tucked next to trees or other boats, it’s scary.  Exposed in the open, it can be TERRIFYING.  Supposedly, Exit’s aluminum hull creates a natural faraday cage of protection inside the entire boat, but that would not the case on deck.  Ultimately, we don’t want to directly test any electrical strike theories or hypotheses.  Nearby lightning strikes may have fried electronic chips in our wind speed indicator (located at the top of the mast) as well as a chip in the autopilot at one point, but we can’t be sure.  Fortunately, so far we seem to have dodged any direct hits (knock on aluminum).

Turns out, we later met a couple that had been in San Blas at nearly the same time and had also lost their own autopilot and wind speed indicator under the exact same circumstances… go figure. Also turns out, an autopilot is a massive ball ache to troubleshoot… but that’s a different story.

The following images, actually from Portobelo and outside Shelter Bay Marina during our vaccination adventure between two of our visits to San Blas, were the only times we captured anything even close to representative. They were the best we could get. To be fair, no one was willing to go on deck when things got really shitty.

It’s impossible to adequately express the intensity from inside the cockpit.

From close… to closer… to right above us… and damn near ground zero…


Underwater, San Blas represents the best we have seen in Panama.  While overfishing is always the inevitable black stain (there are never many big fish anywhere anymore), the health of some of the reefs we visited in San Blas were phenomenal.  Varieties, coverage, and maturity of hard and soft corals, sponges, etc. could be really impressive.  Seeing large animals like dolphins, nurse sharks, eagle rays and stingrays, and barracuda is always a good sign.  



One of San Blas’ biggest problems may not exist underwater but, rather, above water.  With the rate of global oceans rising, there may be very little time before the islands of Guna Yala disappear entirely.  It seemed rare to have more than a foot of dry land above the shoreline.


RANDOM MOMENTS:

At some point during our earlier haul out at Shelter Bay Marina we had a visitor arrive on Exit; our first resident gekko lizard. We adopted the name Lizzy… obvious, if not very creative. Every now and then we would see Lizzy out and about, stalking insects here or there, and then she’d go dark again. Eventually we didn’t see Lizzy for quite some time. And then we saw a Gekko that looked kind of like Lizzy but we couldn’t be sure… hence the new name Issy (as in is he Lizzy or not). Eventually Izzy was discovered in a not so alive state. Then, to our delight, a new tiny gekko showed up shortly afterward. As this little guy was so small, and we now seemed to be much leaner in the insect department, we dubbed the wee lad Busy, because he would have to stay busy hunting constantly just to avoid starving. Alas, it has been weeks since Busy was last seen…

Lizzy
Issy

Our final destination in San Blas became Cayos Holandes.  It was nice, but the actual appearance was night and day different from what we expected, given the exotic looking aerial footage in the Bauhaus book.  We found some places to explore, and even got to spend time with our friend Craig (before on S/V Samba Pa Ti  and now the proud owner and captain of S/V Russula).  After first meeting Craig in Guanaja of the Bay Islands, Honduras, we got to celebrate his birthday with him in Rio Dulce , Guatemala in 2019 and now strangely enough another birthday reunion two years later in Panama!

Our last week in San Blas, including Christmas, was spent at anchor in an isolated area in the center of Cayos Holandes known as Los Bajos Lagoon.

Stunning would be an understatement.

Except to those with local knowledge, the area was no man’s land until it was actually charted by Eric Bauhaus for his book fairly recently. Surrounded by reefs, rocks and shoals, the interior area of Los Bajos Lagoon is accessible to sailboats through only two channels (one which is still unmarked on charts). Once through the cut, a labyrinth of more rocks, reefs, and shoals hide numerous spots where it is possible to anchor. Good light, minimal winds, and a bit of a swagger are required to venture inside.

On the Navionics chart, the beige areas are land above water, or the nearest islands. Everything in green is charted as rock, reef, or shoaling or not charted at all and the darker blue is too shallow to go into. That leaves the white bits as deepest depths and lighter blue in between… and watch out for uncharted random rocks and reefs that can be interspersed in there as well.

A literal hazardous maze of rock to navigate through, almost no cell reception, no dry sandy beaches to lay on — not the easiest sell for families, buddy boats, and snugglers… perfect.

On the far end we eventually found an unbelievable patch of white sand that created surreal shades of blue water, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the Bahamas, or Cayman Islands, or French Polynesia… we had found our anchorage.

Happy hour vista

SPACE X-IT

Trapped somewhere between the concepts of having an exceptionally hard time saying no to a sure bet fun time and the odd decision that, at the end of our Shelter Bay haul out in June we somehow had not been hemorrhaging quite enough money, we came to the conclusion that it was time to start up a space program aboard Exit… ok, more of a sky program.  Currently the SPACE X-IT fleet consists of a single Mavik 2 drone.

It had been at Cayos Cocos Banderos that we first got to really try out the drone. 

There is so much to keep track of, initially it’s all about sorting out the basic controls.

Esnasdup, or “Baby Shark Bay” to us, provided the second opportunity for launching the drone. Kris has proven to be the much quicker learner when it comes to piloting the drone… surprise, huh? As the controls become more familiar, stretching out to focus on images becomes more feasible.

However, it was launching and landing the drone from the deck of Exit while we swung at anchor in Los Bajos Lagoon that instantly raised the bar for excitement… as well as risk, I suppose.  Good thing we are able to equip the drone with foam tubes that act as landing gear in the case of an accidental water landing… yikes!  

We learned quickly that safely landing the drone on the deck of Exit provided numerous extra challenges. These included the boat’s rigging, extending up sixty two feet above the waterline, that the drone’s proximity sensors did not particularly like; as well as the fact that Exit, actually moving in the water while swinging at anchor, provided a rather small and unstable landing platform.

Erratic alarms and alerts also seemed to indicate that the drone’s GPS systems were particularly unhappy that the ‘Return Home’ coordinates continually changed even while the drone sat at rest on the swinging boat. It occurred to us that we didn’t want the drone attempting to execute an automated landing to a ‘home coordinate’ that Exit’s deck no longer occupied.

The solution required an unanticipated bit of improvised team technique to complete a successful landing — namely, having Kris steady the drone in a hover position directly in front of me while I stood on deck, allowing me to grab it hopefully without falling into the water. Lucky for us, we mastered the technique on the first try.

Space X-IT deck launch

In retrospect, a high velocity wind alarm that had sounded earlier on the controller while the drone was two hundred feet in the air turned out to be much more stress inducing than the air grab landing maneuver.

Ultimately, we discovered what unique perspectives photo and video from two or three hundred feet in the air can provide; like another visual dimension.  It certainly helps one to truly appreciate how spectacular the area of Guna Yala really is.  

Los Bajos Lagoon went from stunning to otherworldly.

Aerial view of S/V Exit in Los Bajos Lagoon from Space X-IT

Having a blue Christmas is not necessarily a bad thing.

And while a holiday spent in the tropics may not prove to be very conducive for Christmas trees, it can be exactly the right place to enjoy Christmas tree worms…

As often seems to be the case for us, the realization that it is past time to move on can be a feeling that sets in very slowly. Sometimes slowly enough that it’s almost impossible to recognize it is even there. But eventually we do.

Christmas sunset at Los Bajos Lagoon

We lifted anchor at dawn, the morning after Christmas, making for Shelter Bay knowing that we had visited a truly magical place.

Sunrise in the San Blas

As we prepared to raise the sails, in the distance you could see a boat of local fishermen arguing with a squadron of pelicans over who had first rights of fish ownership.


It would be easy to get stuck here for indefinite periods that never seem to reach an end.  However, we aren’t prepared to stop moving… yet.

And being at the doorstep of the Panama Canal means we are literally one and a half days from passing through the doorstep to a different world… the Pacific Ocean.

We’ll just hang onto the flag. Who knows? We may be back…

Guna Yala flag

POST SCRIPT: Upon leaving San Blas we discovered we had stowaways. Exit scooting along at over seven knots in confused and messy following seas had created quite a lot of seawater water washing up on the transom. This, in turn, had created a tidal pool of sorts, in one of the corners. A dozen or so very small fish had either surfed up onto the transom or been washed up there. Now they were caught in a virtual washing machine – an unbelievably agile and synchronized group of hitchhikers swimming as one, in what appeared a very risky endeavor…

Persistence In The Pface Of Pfrustration – Part Two

Persistence In The Pface Of Pfrustration – Part Two Shot Two

August 6 – September 7, 2021

The guideline for a second Pfizer vaccination dose, as set by the manufacturer, was clearly three weeks. While the scientific community continued to analyze incoming data regarding mixing and matching of vaccines and the effectiveness of different time frames between shots, this had a lot to do with overall vaccine availability, or a lack thereof in almost every country outside of the U.S. or Europe.

We planned to return to the peaceful, chilled out beauty of San Blas to pass the three weeks between shots, and then come back to Portobelo to repeat the now familiar routine.

Logistically… not simple. It’s a damn boat. But a simple plan.

After nineteen days at San Blas, we picked up anchor. The plan was to get as far as Linton Bay on the first day, which would allow us an early enough arrival the following day at Portobelo to suss out things a day in advance again.

We made it to Portobelo without any problems.

Unfortunately, the vaccines did not.

For whatever reason, we learned at the clinic that the program had been discontinued in Portobelo. We would have to go to Colon.

Shit.

second attempt:

When it comes to tapping the virtual world for information, Kris is some kind of surreal internet bloodhound. I look to the web for answers and, more often than not, seem to locate either idiots with an opinion or assholes with a pitch. Kris has an uncanny way of mining relevant information much more efficiently… emphasis especially on the words relevant and efficiently.

She eventually uncovered a rumor that vaccines were available in Colon.

Back to the anchorage outside Shelter Bay Marina. The marina manager, Juan Jo, whom we had gotten to know quite well during Exit’s haul out, generously allowed us to dock our dinghy and use the marina facilities while we were still anchored outside.

A day or two later we utilized the marina’s free shuttle service into Colon. Ranger, the driver, assured us he knew where vaccinations were currently being offered and took us directly to the hospital where we found a long, long line of people. The line stretched from the entrance of a parking lot across the street from the hospital down the sidewalk, eventually disappearing around the corner. Inside the parking lot itself, which was surrounded by chain link fencing, a makeshift area of tables and sun covers had been set up.

Ranger told us to walk straight to the front of the line, and show the policeman both our U.S. passports and Panama vaccine cards… one of the rare cases when initiating a conversation with a cop seemed like a better idea than going to the back of the line.

The guy politely listened to us, and then called over someone we surmised was a hospital staff supervisor.

We handed her the official Panamanian vaccine cards we had received with our first Pfizer shots – printed card stock with handwritten entries for our first jab, which she casually looked at.

She then explained that second shots were available only after a minimum of thirty days following the first shot. Other locations may be different, but they could not give us the second shot there.

Shit.

We had heard of others receiving a second shot in Panama City after three weeks without a problem, so we concluded this must be a local decision, not a national policy.

third attempt:

Kris’ additional bloodhound research uncovered that vaccinations were currently being administered at the Colon airfield, which had never opened back up for air traffic after the initial COVID lockdowns. Drive through, get the jab, done.

It was about an hour from Shelter Bay Marina to the airport. Half the distance it would be all the way to Panama City, so it made more sense. Romero, an Uber driver who had been our go-to driver when provisioning requirements had taken us beyond the capabilities of the complimentary marina shuttle, picked us up around 9am. It was raining, which seemed to be a requirement for vaccine excursions.

We had no idea where we were going but our trusty and faithful driver Romero did.

We were confident. We were stoked. This was going to be the day.

As we approached the air strip we smiled. Banners confirmed that all of Kris’ research was spot on. This was the place. The long line of cars in front of us, as well as those pulling up behind us, added extra layers of confidence.

Ever so slowly, we moved forward. Waiting… waiting… waiting… move a little… more waiting. We couldn’t see the vaccination area yet. It was still around at least one more bend in the road.

Every now and then a car ahead of us jockeyed out of the line, turned around, and drove away in the opposite direction. We had been there nearly an hour; maybe other people had run out of time to wait…?

The every now and then slowly increased in frequency until it became a steady stream of cars mimicking the multi-point turnaround and departure. Eventually Romero stopped one of the cars. He was told they had run out of vaccines. Damn! We hadn’t gotten there early enough. It had started at seven a.m.

Dejected with the realization that we had come so close, we returned to Shelter Bay determined to try again the following day. Only this time we’d be getting up at 4:30am. Pickup time was five o’clock sharp, rain or shine.

fourth attempt:

We knew it was happening. We knew where to go. We knew what time. It was deja vu from the day before.

It was raining… of course. It had to be.

It was also still dark when we climbed into our dinghy and motored into the marina a little before 5am. Shutting off the outboard, we drifted silently for the final twenty yards to the dock, trying not to wake the occupants of the boats we were tying up next to.

We arrived at the airport just like the day before, only four hours earlier. This time there were only twenty or so cars ahead of us. We were already close enough to see the vaccination staging area. Though I was still half asleep, the math was pretty easy. They had to have brought more than a hundred doses of the vaccine. Hell… there couldn’t be that many people in front of us if every car was filled to capacity. We would definitely make it under the wire today.

Inching slowly forward, we watched two staff standing at the front of the line of cars. They were alternating from car to car, screening the passengers.

Four cars in front of us… three cars… then two… finally the car in front of was talking to one of the screening women. Then we rolled down our windows and the other staff spoke briefly with Romero.

We handed her our Panamanian vaccination cards.

She looked at them far too long. Then she started looking up at her eyebrows, lips slowly moving, while raising her fingers one at a time… counting to herself.

She fired off a high velocity round of words in Spanish I could only catch tidbits of. Fortunately, Romero was not only a great driver, but had a great Google translator app. Unfortunately, today Romero was also the bearer of much more definitive bad news.

Though Pfizer recommended three weeks between the first and second vaccine shots, reality forced Panama to consider different options. Obviously, a shortage of vaccines available to the country was forcing difficult decisions to be made – adhere to Pfizer’s “three weeks between shots” recommendation or get more people with at least one jab and delay the second shots.

Panama’s health minister had implemented a national policy to wait one calendar month between shots. The woman indicated that Panama’s digital vaccination registration system wouldn’t even allow health care workers access into the system to register a person for a second shot until at least that much time had passed.

Our first jab happened twenty one days ago.

It hadn’t been lost on us that, back in March 2020, we were extremely lucky to have been permitted to remain in Panama once the COVID-19 lockdowns cascaded. Many countries had banned and/or kicked out foreigners. Fast forward to August 2021, we were again lucky Panama was even willing to share their very limited number of vaccines with us.

It is what it is.

We resigned ourselves to the fact that, once again, we could do little more than roll with the punches. Instead of sitting at anchor depressed, watching cargo ships pass between the breakwater and the Panama Canal, or paying for a slip at Shelter Bay Marina, we opted to return to the enchanting Rio Chagres to try to make the most of the calendar countdown.

fifth attempt:

It had not been three weeks since our first jab. It had not been four weeks. It had been one calendar month… exactly. We were in Panama. We followed Panama’s policy.

Now we were back in business.

We knew the procedure. We knew where to go. We knew what time to be there. We knew this time we would not be turned away for being too early. Deja vu. Like fucking Groundhog Day.

It was raining… of course. It had to be.

We had faced countless frustrations, but had persisted.

Four-thirty wake up again. Five o’clock pickup by Romero. Six o’clock arrival at the airport.

Still dark. Like last time.

We appeared to be one of the first cars there. Impressive.

Except… there were no banners to be seen.

Another curious detail that immediately stood out… there didn’t appear to be any medical personnel visible.

We slowly pulled up to the main building. There was a single security guard standing inside the glass door. As we stopped alongside the curb, he stepped out, casually holding an assault rifle.

The conversation, very brief in rapid Spanish, between the guard and Romero was translated. The first part confirmed what was already pretty obvious… there were no vaccinations happening here today. The second part renewed our hopes… according to the guy with the gun, a tiny school somewhere in the middle of Colon was supposed to be where vaccinations were taking place. Yes, he thought it was happening now.

sixth, seventh, and eighth ATtempt:

Outside the school, it sure as hell didn’t look to have the hustle and bustle of a pop-up vaccination site. It didn’t even look to have the hustle and bustle of a school. It looked all closed up. It was all closed up. Fuck. We pulled away.

Back to the hospital with the chain link fence outside… the one that surrounded the parking lot with the makeshift clinic… the one that we had first gone to when we returned to Shelter Bay. Only one person in the parking lot now. The guy who worked there parking cars. Fuck. We pulled away.

We stopped at one more clinic entrance to ask about any available vaccination information. Nothing. This was getting no where.

Back to the marina. Failure.

ninth attempt:

We were close to giving up… again.

The options were dwindling for further delays of any flight back to the States. We had shuffled flights already but that could only happen so many times. Maybe running the gauntlet to get the easy jab once back in Washington was the best bet…

Most indications to us were that the Panamanian government was now largely analyzing what had worked and not worked during its first vaccine rollout to reassess how and where to continue. Announcements regarding future vaccine schedules were expected shortly…

Not promising.

In our eyes, we had only one option left.

An even longer drive by car.

Panama City seemed to be the only place with any vaccination activity still happening. Ironically enough, it was not at a hospital but, rather, a shopping mall.

Okay. It’s really all been too strange for that to truly seem odd but… kinda strange.

Anyway…

Kris tenaciously Googled the specifics of the location.

A number of text exchanges verified that, not only was our invaluable driver Romero willing to transport us the extra distance, he was also available the following day.

An actual phone call to a clinic just outside the shopping mall provided the best confirmation we could hope for. No, the person speaking on the phone was not physically at the site; however, it was their staff which had been giving the shots in the mall. Yes, it was happening. Yes, it was Pfizer. Yes, second shots were available. Yes, it was available to anyone. Yes, it would still be happening tomorrow. Yes, they were pretty sure it would be raining. We knew this was it.

Another pre-dawn start.

All the way to Panama City. Almost two hours. Without doubt, Romero was having a good month. We joked that he was Panama’s most knowledgeable Uber driving COVID-19 vaccine specialist. 

As we pulled into the shopping mall parking lot things looked pretty bleak. The lot was nearly empty of cars. But most businesses must still be hours away from opening, so there was hope. After parking, we approached the mall entry doors, walking passed a single file row of plastic chairs conspicuously spaced six feet apart from each other. 

Every chair was empty.

Errrrrrrr.

We walked through the large glass doors that separated the parking lot from the shopping mall, and entered a rather empty atrium.

Errrrrrrr.

I was beginning to wince as Romero, who strode boldly in front of us, approached a security guard inside. Romero spoke rapidly. Instead of shaking his head, the guard nodded.

What?

Huh?

The vaccinations were indeed taking place. We simply needed to return to the line of chairs we had just walked by and await his return.

Great googly moogly! It was happening!

We returned to the parkade and excitedly took our places in chairs number one and number two, conspicuously spaced six feet apart alongside the cement wall. A few minutes later someone else came and sat down behind me in chair number three.

I couldn’t see the smile behind the mask, but the wrinkles around his eyes gave it away. I wondered how far he had traveled… how many attempts it had taken… had he commuted by boat… by bus… by car… by foot…like us? The guy said “hola.” 

I never asked further. Didn’t want to ruin the moment. He probably literally just stepped away from the Starbucks counter next door during his work break. The good news was that he was there also — rarely when a local was in line with us were we doing something really stupid.

After only a couple of minutes, we were signaled by the security guy to come back inside. He led us to a person in a medical smock standing in front of a doorway.

We handed her our passports and vaccine cards.

Then… she asked if we were residents.

Suddenly, nothing could be heard above the screeching sounds of steel wheels braking on the tracks as the vaccination train seemed poised to inevitably fly off the rails and over the cliff. We had heard a few rumors that only residents may be eligible for vaccines.

Accordingly, we answered we were living aboard our sailboat at the nearby marina.

Silence.

She seemed satisfied and subsequently led us into what looked more like a conference room than a clinic. A few rows of chairs, conspicuously spaced six feet apart, were occupied by other people. 

At the far side of the room hung a banner that read ‘BIENVENIDOS CENTRO DE VACUNACION COVID19’; behind the counter was a person writing down information; standing off to the side in blue hospital scrubs was another woman who looked to be preparing syringes; in the back corner of the room stood a very official looking crash cart. Everything seemed reassuring… maybe less the crash cart.

Once again, we were only seated for a short time before being called to the front counter. I handed over my vaccination document and held my breath. The moment of truth…

A quick glance was all it took…

“Vacunacion numero dos?” The woman shifted her gaze from the vaccine card to me.

In answer, I may have posed the word yes as a question… “Si?”

The pause was excruciating.

Her nod was subtle, but it held enough juice that, for just a moment, I was flying… Elon fucking Musk riding atop a Space X giant penis rocket through the sky… Houston, we are a go!

I had to quickly return to Earth when my name was called for the actual shot. The woman in blue scrubs, eye to eye with me while I was seated, gave me the jab. My manta got a freebie.

For ten minutes afterwards we sat in quiet bliss, confirming we wouldn’t be needing the electric paddles, heart monitor, or any other toys on the crash cart while another masked person sitting next to the front desk uploaded all of our information into Panama’s official vaccination database. 

By the time we stood up to depart, we could already see our updated vaccination status online and had loaded a scannable QR code onto Kris’ iPhone.

And just like that… it was done.

The final document looked ridiculously anticlimactic. 

Altered so that some unscrupulous prick doesn’t try to use for a forgery vaccination card…

The ride back to Shelter Bay marina was surprisingly quiet.  Romero genuinely seemed as excited as we were.  His family was due for their second shot in two weeks.  He would have no problem sorting this out.

It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes after we returned to Exit, still processing the fact that we had finally achieved the both mundane and monumental success of receiving our second COVID-19 vaccine, that huge and dark and ominous clouds started materializing above us.

Never fails…

it’s Panama.

The forecast is always the same…

threats of unpredictable drama with intermittent rainbows.

Sometimes it’s all about turning your head 180 degrees and looking from the other direction…

Persistence In The Pface Of Pfrustration – Part One

Persistence In The Pface Of Pfrustration – Part One Shot One

August 5, 2021

Why not just wait until you are back in the U.S. and get vaccinated there?


After more than fifteen months in Panama, it seemed that our patience might finally pay off. But it had not been a walk in the park…

COVID-19 vaccines, now easy to come by in the States, had only begun to trickle into Central America. Operation Warp Speed created a stockpile of vaccines for Americans who were largely moving at one quarter impulse power, at best. As a result, the rest of the planet, who desperately wanted and needed the shots, simply had to wait.

Sailing from Bocas Del Toro in April, we had all but given up on the premise that COVID vaccines would be available in Panama anytime soon. The health authorities in Bocas had begun making lists of names to be contacted when the vaccines became available but there was no idea when that would be.

Yet, at what seemed like an excruciatingly slow pace, we began to hear of people receiving their first shot at sporadic locations throughout Panama.  Schedules were tentative; supplies were sketchy; information was not only sparse but also slow getting around and oftentimes completely contradictory.  

In remote San Blas, rumors had circulated that vaccines would be offered at a local clinic in November, but that was forever and a day away. Not to mention the conflicting feelings we were experiencing regarding the idea of jumping in line for very limited numbers of vaccines being distributed for a very vulnerable and high risk group of indigenous people.

As it began to appear more and more that the inevitable outcome was going to be not being able to get vaccinated until we got back to the States, we read and watched endless news updates indicating an out of control situation, both regarding COVID outbreaks and people’s behavior.

For us, the idea of having to return to the U.S. unvaccinated in order to get vaccinated carried the equivalent logic of… the equivalent logic of… fuck, I don’t even know. Maybe walking into a burning building to get access to fire extinguishers? It’s hard to find an analogy that seemed as ludicrous.

We were going to return to the States to visit family and friends. Still, we had unequivocally decided that, if we could get both our vaccinations before departing Panama, we would be far, far better off than any alternative option, even if that meant delaying our departure, changing flights, or even cancelling shit.

And then came word of the Delta variant.

Kris went on a relentless quest for information.  She tapped into internet forums, government websites, CDC and WHO updates, as well as endless texting and messaging between various friends, acquaintances, and people in the know.  Not only vaccination options and possibilities, but also constant updates of always changing travel guidelines, restrictions, and requirements.

Without all of Kris’ information reconnaissance, we would have been hopelessly screwed.

A friend of ours, currently on his boat at Shelter Bay Marina, confirmed firsthand that he had received his first vaccine shot in Panama City.  No hassles; no issues.  

It was reported there were a number of locations offering vaccinations throughout August, but only on Thursdays and Fridays. This became even more confusing and uncertain when subsequent posts by a person who had gone to one of the locations, Portobelo, indicated no vaccinations were not available on the first Thursday, but then were on the following day.

Then we heard San Blas could start to see vaccines in September.  Even if that turned out true, we were hard pressed to get in line for a very limited number of available vaccinations ahead of a population which had already been ninety percent decimated by selfish gringos over the past five centuries. Nor could we simply keep waiting. We had already changed our flights back to the States numerous times. We needed something more concrete.

Finally, the misty haze of a possible plan began to materialize.

August 1 – Not sure if the 40 knot squall we sat through was an omen or not…

August 2 – We depart Green Island bound for Cayos Chichime sixteen nautical miles to the west, at the edge of San Blas to use as a final staging for the jump to civilization and hopefully a vaccine.

August 3 – We depart San Blas making for Portobelo.  Our goal was to get to Portobelo in time to do a reconnaissance into town and visit the clinic a day in advance, trying to confirm that there would actually be shots available.

Turtle Cay Marina. Forty five miles to the west of San Blas. Twenty miles closer than Portobelo. After six and a half hours of solid motoring into shitty waves and more than twenty knots of wind on the nose, we realized there was no way we’d make Portobelo before nightfall. The community near Turtle Cay Marina was one of those rumored to be administering Pfizer vaccines on Thursday and Friday; however, we had never been able to confirm this was actually happening. We anchored outside the marina in a miserable and unforgiving swell.

With conditions too sketchy to leave the boat at anchor and even shittier to remain aboard, we recognized the futility of the situation. It was a long shot that the vaccinations would actually materialize here. If they didn’t, we will have burned valuable time which, in the end, could also derail the more likely Portobelo option.

So, on to Portobelo first thing in the morning. The safer bet.

It had been a long, long time since we had suffered through as uncomfortable a swell as that night. Damn western wind. But we felt that were in too tight to try any fancy swell bridles or stern anchoring for the short duration. All part of the cover charge for the party.

We were gone at first light.

In Portobelo, Google Maps on Kris’ iPhone lead us directly to the clinic, more or less. A policeman standing guard at the door attracted the attention of one of the doctors exiting the clinic who informed us that Pfizer vaccines were, in fact, being administered the following day here at the clinic… sweet! Show time: seven a.m.; best to be here at six.

As the sun set, we could see ominous black clouds approaching. That night, we were absolutely smashed by a howling storm that brought both buckets of rain and surreal amounts of lightning.

At 6am the following morning, as we climbed into the dinghy still bleary eyed from the sleep deprivation which often accompanies sitting at anchor overnight through a storm, thankfully all that remained of Mother Nature’s spectacle was a dreary grey sky and slow, intermittent drizzle.

We arrived at the clinic a good half hour ahead of the seven o’clock startup we had been informed of the day before, joining a group of about thirty locals standing casually on either side of street, presumably also there for COVID vaccinations.

Eventually, a staff member came outside leading a small entourage of people and began a long, long explanation which included who, what, where, how, and when… we assumed. It was entirely in Spanish, and she spoke freakishly fast. We digested about ten percent of what was said. I concluded we were either getting shot number one this morning or they were about to turn the gringos away.

When our names were called from a list we had been added to upon our arrival, we approached a folding table occupied by a woman in white wearing a blue hospital mask. She was filling out paperwork. This is where things always get dicey.

A foreign land. Very limited language. Trying to keep it simple, but having to go through the complicated motions of government and/or medical forms. Name, nationality, and passport info… easy. The word “sailboat” in any language exponentially complicates the ‘where do you live’ question.

On top of that, add the uncertainties of the whole COVID vaccine situation from the perspective of logistical procedures, local and world supplies, multiple vaccines, national political and health policies, international political and health policies, time frame between shots, records and registration, our status as foreigners… this was messy already.

The entire daunting vaccination process, which had seemed to be picking up momentum, suddenly came to a screeching halt.

We had feared that we could be turned away as foreigners or even non-residents of the immediate area. Despite having heard stories from friends who are not American citizens getting vaccination shots while traveling in the States, we realized our situation in a Central American country was a much different situation.

Americans?

The obvious question, why aren’t you just getting the vaccine at home?

This was either just going to work, or it wasn’t.

The coin was still rolling on the table. It could fall either way.

The women asking the questions in Spanish called out to a second person, a supervisor we assumed. We politely and pleadingly tried to reiterate that we were not residents of Panama but, rather, visitors living aboard our sailboat who had found ourselves trapped in Panama after arriving literally the day COVID lockdowns were implemented. Eighteen months later, we were still trying to get vaccinated like everyone else and get on with our lives… but all in Spanish… yah, sure.

An excruciating tension filled the air, and time almost seemed to stop. You could almost see the wheels spinning inside her head as she tried to process what we were desperately attempting to explain in a vaguely recognizable and mangled version of her Mother-tongue. Finally, she turned to the woman filling out the paperwork… and gave a nod.

Hallelujah! It was like a sandbag was instantly lifted off my chest. Whatever reservations, administrative protocols, politics, and/or linguistic confusion had been stirred into the mix of uncertainty, the ultimate decision by the one gatekeeper who controlled our immediate destiny was apparently, and thankfully, guided by humanitarian considerations — get as many people jabbed as is humanly possible.

It could have gone either way. We were lucky.

Thirty minutes later we were nearly levitating back to our dinghy. The tiny bandage on our upper arm and small card in our possession, filled out by hand with the day’s date and a Pfizer vaccine lot number, were the only proof of the incredible success we had.

Nevertheless, we knew. Shot one was done.

Little did we know, that would be the easy bit.

While we were in Portobelo we visited the church Iglesia San Felipa which is home to the venerated wooden statue Cristo Negro (Black Christ), as well as the ruins of Fuerte Santiago, which dates back to Portobelo’s days as the greatest Spanish port city in Latin America.

Panama Haul Out 2021 – Shelter Bay Marina

May 7 – June 23, 2021

After essentially being all by ourselves for more than two weeks both at Escudo de Veraguas and Rio Chagres, our arrival at the breakwater just outside the entrance to the Panama Canal was, to say the least, quite a shock to the system.

From peace, quiet, and isolation…

… to a convoy of cargo ships.

Once inside the breakwater, we dropped the hook at the edge of all the hustle and bustle, just outside Shelter Bay Marina, and made the final preparations for our imminent haul out.

Passing the breakwater just outside the Panama Canal

Out of the water and onto the hard…

The actual process of getting a forty two thousand pound boat from a position of floating on the water to balancing on stands in a gravel lot is, fortunately, turned over to professionals.

In some cases, professional means impeccably qualified and experienced. In other cases, it simply means the guy who does it.

Stories were still resonating through the cruising world about a recent mishap with a catamaran being hauled out at a marina on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. The crane lifting the cat out of the water failed, causing the boat to come crashing down with the boom arm on top of it. S/V Ginger Cat, a boat we had dinghied past dozens of times while in Bocas del Toro, was written off as a complete loss.

Even though this would be only the fourth time we had seen Exit precariously hanging in the slings of a huge travel lift, I thought we deserved rather high marks for concealing the inevitable breath-holding and sphincter-tightening that seems to accompany such situations.

On the other hand, this was the first time we had seen a transfer occur from travel lift to trailer. The gravel track leading into the boatyard was too narrow to accommodate the travel lift, so the move had to be done on a trailer that was literally bolted to a forklift.

We were grateful that the crew knew what they were doing.

With Exit finally in place, an array of stick-like and completely inadequate looking metal stands are set into place around the hull, supplementing what can only be described as a pair of stacked oversized Jenga towers, which support most of the weight 0f the boat… yowsa!

An extension ladder now provides the means by which we get access onto and off of the boat. Every… single… time…


The task at hand…

The list was made, and it was long.

The obvious priority was to address anything below the waterline while we were on the hard and dry. We already knew our most pressing issue was getting more anti-fouling paint on the bottom, clearly indicated by places where the paint had worn completely off, exposing the barrier coat of epoxy underneath. Maintenance on the MaxProp and replacing the protective underwater zincs could be done anytime, but being out of the water certainly made things far easier.

However, any painting would be contingent upon a thorough inspection for any suspected points of corrosion, a shitload of scraping and sanding, as well as some cooperative weather.

If we were lucky, spots that still had good bottom paint could be lightly sanded and painted over. Any points where corrosion was even suspected would be taken all the way down to shiny bare aluminium, and recoated with multiple barrier coats of epoxy before being painted.

Knowing we would have very little access to equipment and tools in the Shelter Bay Marina boatyard, an electric grinder was one of the things we purchased before leaving Bocas del Toro. This would make quick work of the sanding, but the fact that we had no vacuum system to contain the dust meant it would be incredibly messy (most likely to the chagrin of any neighbors) and it would take off far more paint than we wanted (after all, the goal was keeping as much paint ON the boat as possible). So we opted to use the grinder only when we needed to get all the way down to bare metal.

Clean-er… but, by no means clean.

A number of things occurred to me during this process…

#1- I should be able to swim for quite some time without having any algae growing on me.

#2- After fourteen months of global Covid pandemic, the mask actually seemed much more normal than I expected.

#3- Even with a palm tree in the background, this did not feel like paradise!

During this time, Kris was locked in mortal combat with the dinghy, cleaning both it and the protective chaps we were so happy to have gotten while we were at the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

Fortunately, though almost every task was within the realm of possibility for us to undertake ourselves, the marina had a sail loft with a very capable canvas worker who was able to sort out some minor repairs on our dinghy chaps, mainsail cover, staysail, and Isenglass window (which had taken on more of the transparency properties of a wall than a window and the water resistant properties of an open door).

It seemed that one of the biggest challenges we faced was not the ability to do things; but rather, the ability to get things done. The forecasts we looked to in attempting to plan our daily agenda were schizophrenic, conflicting, and inaccurate. Depending on who you talk to (and what island you are next to), Panama seems to have rainy seasons throughout the year. Of course, June was supposed to be entering “the rainy season”.

Hearing that Bocas had been getting non-stop rain for quite some time, we were grateful to be where we currently were. Still, nearly every day seemed to either flirt with the threat of rain…

… or simply deliver on that threat.

Even if you can’t make water, sometimes you can still catch it

Slowly, steadily… progress continued.

On the hull, questionable spots were sanded down to bare metal for inspection.

Eventually, the areas that had been sanded to bare metal were all covered with multiple coats of epoxy, the masking was complete, and bottom paint began to be applied. Seven coats at the waterline was the goal.

Busy times. It was eight days before we took our first official break and visited the pool. But, even at the pool, one only had to look over their shoulder to be instantly reminded that a shitload of work remained.

So, with a relentless laser focus, we pressed forward. By the end of two weeks, everything (with the exception of the centerboard and under the stands) had at least one coat of Trilux 33 anti-fouling paint.

Exactly seven days later, we put on the final coat of bottom paint.

That morning, for the first time in the three weeks since our arrival, we were greeted in the cockpit by a visitor who had never before ventured up the ladder leading precariously up onto our transom. We called our new friend Morris, though it turned out he was actually a she. It was as though Morris was telling us, “You realize what today is, don’t you?”

It was final coat of paint day!

With the last coat of paint applied, MaxProp serviced, and new hull zincs installed, everything we could do below the waterline was done until we were back in the travel lift slings again.

To be sure, revealing that clean, crisp line along the edge of brand new bottom paint as you carefully peel back the blue masking tape certainly generates an immensely satisfying feeling.


Extracurricular Activities

Though much of our attention was dedicated towards work below the waterline, we managed to successfully juggle a number of other tasks simultaneously.

Not so much distractions.

More like side projects.

An unanticipated survey had to be done as a requirement to renew our insurance. However, no drama ensued and we actually found the Panamanian surveyer to be well more thorough and personable than the surveyer we had hired in Maryland when we first bought Exit.

After our harrowing night time drama with the stern anchor at Escudo de Veraguas, the thought of deploying our stern anchor again was not an appealing prospect. However, if it came time to use it again, we realized that the rust buildup on the chain was becoming very problematic.

In fact, the rusty ball of corroded metal near the bitter end of the chain could easily jam up and completely destroy our windlass. We weren’t ready to replace the chain at this point; so… the next best thing was to lower the whole mess down onto the gravel, grab a hammer, beat the shit out of the chain and knock the rust clean off. A temporary fix as well as good cathartic therapy. The ball of rust that comprised the last three feet of chain just had to be hacksawed off.

When we purchased Exit in 2017, one of the appliances already aboard was a washing machine. While this seemed like a great commodity at that time, in reality the thing was dead weight.

It hadn’t been run in over a decade. We learned it would consume a ridiculous amount of precious water, if it even ran. And, though the washing machine took up a massive amount of space, its actual capacity was minuscule.

A bucket with soap and water had been more than adequate for the past nearly four years now.

So, in an inspired moment of ambitious insight and energy, I decided it was right now that this fucking thing was going away.

Relative to most washing machines it was tiny. Still, it was one heavy and bulky son of a bitch. The limited space to work made it a challenge, to say the least. And the eight foot drop off the transom made it even harder. But as is always the case when you’re living on a boat, in the end, persistence and sheer tenacity won out.

It was a good decision.

Once back in the water, we never would have gotten it into the dinghy. And we would never have been callous enough to simply throw it overboard.

Bye, bye. And good riddance.

Voodoo electricity…

Our house battery bank had been giving us grief for nearly a year. What appeared to be a continuing decline of capacity plagued us to the point where, despite receiving a solid battery charge during the day, we were facing critical charge levels by the next morning even if we turned off the fridge overnight.

It wasn’t a matter of lack of attention or concern.

Rather, we thinks… a combination of consistent cloudy stretches normal to Panama which affected our solar charging, a lack of moving about which would normally help with some engine charge, the death of our generator (whose sole purpose was battery charging), the added power draw of using the water maker, as well as (probably more than anything else) an ongoing struggle to understand both the fundamentals and subtleties of the mystic and elusive voodoo known as electricity.

A seemingly never-ending process of research and troubleshooting preceded our arrival at Shelter Bay. Confusing. Frustrating. Concerning. Our dear friends on both S/V Avigna and S/V Cetacea deserve big shout outs for providing repeated guidance, reassurance, inspiration, and therapy.

Ultimately, we suspected that both misinterpreted information and flawed charging strategies had led to us inadvertently killing the six batteries we had purchased less than three years ago. Our current luxury of unlimited shore power gave us the possibility of finally answering that question.

Converting our salon into a temporary laboratory, six separate battery capacity tests revealed an even more dire situation than we had thought. One of the six batteries was operating at only twenty four percent capacity… and that was the best one. The worst performer came in at only an astonishing nine percent!

The cable connecting us to shore power was truly acting as life support for our house battery bank.

The next day we ordered six new Lifeline AGM batteries from the same guys we got our windlass, chain, and anchor through while we were in Bocas.

Cha-ching!


Houston, we are go for launch

T-minus thirty six hours…

Twenty three days into our haul out we were finally ready to go back into the slings. We arranged to be lifted at the end of the day on Saturday, which gave us until Monday to get our centerboard and areas we hadn’t been able to get to because of the stands sanded and painted.

Getting a forty two thousand pound boat from the water onto stands is a task that is best not observed by the faint of heart. Getting a forty two thousand pound boat from stands onto a trailer is a task best not observed by anyone who owns the boat being moved.

This sphincter clenching process first involves taking the stands, which already seem completely inadequate in structure, and inverting them from a position in which the three legs are equally supported by a welded triangular base into a position where each stand is tilted and ridiculously balanced on one edge of that triangle.

The result is threefold.

Number one, it creates barely enough space for the trailer to be slid in between the stands and the blocks underneath Exit.

Number two, it creates a brief period where the entire weight of our boat is resting solely upon the two oversized wooden block Jenga towers; the metal stands appear to be doing little more than trying to keep Exit from toppling sideways.

Number three, it creates a perfect opportunity for a grown adult to justifiably shit themselves repeatedly.

Zero margin for error

To the yard workers’ credit, they managed to thread the needle and everything went off without a hitch. Fortunately, rather than the trailer knocking Exit off its stands, it was the staff who kicked over the tower of blocks after the trailer had lifted Exit. Whew!

For an encore, the yard workers backed Exit, perched atop the trailer, on a narrow and uneven temporary gravel road the entire way to the travel lift, which was too wide to fit on the road. Bravo performance!