Rio Chagres, Panama

Exit at anchor on Rio Chagres, Panama

April 29 – May 5, 2021

Crocodiles!  Woohoo!

We had been growing more and more skeptical that we would see any.  During our previous thirteen months in Bocas del Toro, we had spotted one actual crocodile.  It had disappeared quietly beneath the surface at Big Bight shortly after we jumped in the dinghy and we never saw it again.

Now, on our third day here at Rio Chagres, a crocodile was slowly swimming along the shoreline less than two hundred feet from where we stood on deck of Exit.  We could clearly see its  head and massive scutes lining the top of its tail above the surface.  A big crocodile.  We snapped some photos from on deck and hopped in the dinghy.  By the time we approached, the croc had disappeared under the murky water.  It appeared to have ducked into a small cove.  Ever so slowly, we paddled into what seemed like a very enclosed area.  Too enclosed.  

Excited and super creeped out, we backed right the fuck out and returned to Exit after making a quick comparison of the length of the croc relative to the size of the bushes it was in front of when the photo was taken.

We estimated ten to twelve feet.  Holy shit!

10-12 foot croc on Rio Chagres

Later in the day we saw one more five to six footer in exactly the same spot.  The following day, a small one to two foot baby up a small creek we were exploring in the dinghy.  Kris saw a three footer the day after that while she was paddling on her SUP. 

My own SUP paddles up small creeks no more than twenty feet wide and five feet deep revealed no lurking reptiles; but I do know an Autralian with a healthy respect for crocs who thought I was one hombre muy estupido. Small rubber inflatable craft… crocodile teeth… remote and restricted area… fair enough. What the fuck was I thinking?

One hundred percent crocodile redemption in Panama!

Sunrise just outside the Rio Chagres entrance

Gatun Lake was formed in 1910 after a dam was built seven miles upriver from the mouth the Rio Chagres as part of the Panama Canal construction. Water from the lake is used in the process of raising and lowering the levels inside the system of locks inside the Canal. Vessels transiting the Panama Canal from the Caribbean side cross Gatun Lake after passing through the locks on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

Though the dam itself has made it impossible to access the Rio Chagres from Gatun Lake, this seven mile stretch of pure jungle is still accessible to sailboats who venture through the hundred foot wide mouth where the Rio Chagres feeds into the ocean.

Entrance to the Rio Chagres

For seven miles, the lazy river winds back and forth, cutting a track through a stunning swath of primitive Panama jungle. A number of smaller rivers and endless tiny creeks can be seen emerging from the trees and shoreline mangroves.

Any expectations that Rio Charges would be quite similar to the freshwater river Rio Dulce in Guatemala turned out only partially true.

The incredible density and diversity of intertwining trees, vines, plants, and foliage making up the lush green jungles surrounding both Rio Dulce and Rio Chagres is very comparable. Simply amazing.

While the Rio Dulce does have breathtakingly dramatic cliffs and elevations, it is primarily a brief transit between the town of Livingston at the river’s mouth and Lake Golfete. What I found much more memorable about the Chagres was that the river itself is the destination. We could drop anchor anywhere along the way and sit for as long as we like.

Another distinction was the difference in traffic. Compared to Rio Dulce’s constant stream of motored boat traffic as well as dozens of local dugout cayucas fishing around every corner, Rio Chagres was unbelievably devoid of people.

Not a single house (the entire river is inside a national park). No water taxis. Not really any tour boats. Maybe a couple of gringos in power boats a week. A half dozen or ten small local fishing boats or skiffs a day (maybe going both ways) would be an exceptionally busy day.

Everybody waves; Nobody stops.

Day after day, it was just us.

Yet, despite human traffic on Rio Chagres being very sparse, animal life in the area is abundant.

Howler and capuchin monkeys live all along the river, roaming constantly through the jungle’s canopy. Both are amazing to watch. Troops of six to a dozen monkeys, oftentimes seen with tiny, spindly babies gymnastically shadowing alongside or on top of their mother, venture right to the river’s edge.

The raucous vocalizations of the howler monkeys echoing across the jungle (announcing sunrise, sundown, approaching rain, or simply voicing an opinion it seems) are a stark contrast to the silence of the capuchins, whose presence may sometimes be revealed only by the swaying and crashing branches upon which they are moving.

Howler monkeys live up to their name
Steve attempting monkey-speak

Multiple species of toucans are numerous in the area. Despite their extremely unique profile and vivid colors, it is phenomenally difficult to spot these birds in the trees until they move. On the other hand, when in flight, the outline of their characteristic bill makes them instantly recognizable.

Also colorful parrots (squeak-beaks as we call them), almost always traveling in pairs, continually announce their presence as they noisily pass by overhead.

Every clear evening, the jungle would undergo an audible transformation from day to night. Birds, insects, frogs, and who knows exactly what else, all creating layer upon layer of a vast soundscape, filling the air with strange and overwhelming sounds that build and fade in volume as all of the participants compete to be heard.

In the morning, another stunning sunrise transforms the river’s banks back to amazing shades of green.

Sunrise on the Rio Chagres
A new day’s transformation from 6am to 7am

Aside from ourselves and the occasional passing boat, the only human sound we heard was a sort of thrumming hum that was generated by all of the activity, traffic, and machinery generated at the Panama Canal only a few miles away. The background noise came and went, seemingly dependent more on the wind direction than anything else, and was never obnoxious… only noticeable.

That, and air traffic. Planes passing a mile or more overhead… only noticeable. A helicopter traveling at high speed, following along the line of the river below mast height… not so cool. Military patrol? Drug runners? Tourists? Not sure, but we heard the Shelter Bay Marina owner likes to come and go via helicopter. Regardless, definitely not the bird you want your mast to be buzzed by.

On a less dramatic note, one of the really unique things we found about the Rio Chagres were the subtle, though strange, currents.

Over the course of the day we would experience an exceptionally gentle current flowing towards the ocean slow to a complete stop and eventually turn in the other direction, now moving “upstream” towards the dam.

If the lake is essentially at sea level, then I suppose the eighteen inch tide change could be enough to change the direction of the river’s flow.  Furthermore, that direction shift must become very convoluted when stretched over the seven mile distance of the river.  

We found ourselves very disoriented a number of times while sitting at anchor.   In the rather narrow and symmetrical looking corridor of a river, after the current would reverse direction, we would spin around 180 degrees and be facing the opposite direction, all without us noticing!

Also, each time I tasted the water it was more salty than merely brackish. Not really even a fresh water river.

Nevertheless, Kris found it to be another perfect environment for a paddle on the SUP.

Rain or shine…

During our week on the Chagres, we saw only two other sailboats the entire time. One arrived a couple of days ahead of us and was farther upriver. We saw them only passing in the dinghy and spoke for thirty seconds as they motored past us on their way out. The second sailboat arrived a couple of days after we did, anchored one night in view on the same section of river, then picked up in a day and we only saw them again and spoke for thirty seconds as they motored past us on their way out. During more than half our stay, it appeared Exit was the only sailboat on the entire seven mile stretch of Rio Chagres.

Nice.


Firefly Rescue Unit

Having spent most of our lives in places devoid of fireflies, we always find rare and random encounters with the creatures to be welcome and somewhat mystical events. The strange floating light produced when their butt transforms into a lantern always seems like a bit of magic. However, on the Rio Chagres, we encountered a completely new species of firefly.

We had seen them from a distance a number of evenings before and they seemed particularly bright, but we had not yet been close to any. On this evening, we watched as a firefly lit up and emerged from the dark shadows of the evening jungle. It flew out over the water, not a hundred feet from us.

The small, yet intense light meandered back and forth in a seemingly random manner until, at one point, it clearly hit the water and stopped dead. We watched for a few minutes as the light sat there and then began to flicker and slowly fade.

With very little background in the behavioral psychology of fireflies, it was hard to be sure; but it appeared to us that we were watching the aftermath of an air traffic accident.

I hopped into the dinghy, which was fortunately still in the water, went over and scooped up the firefly out of the water into my drink glass and returned to Exit.

The strange creature slowly crawled out of the glass and sat on the cockpit table, cleaning itself. Two small but very bright dots were continually illuminated on its back. Every now and then, its rear end would light up, like a more traditional firefly. Eventually, it seemed quite content simply walking around, exploring our arms and hands.

After a bit, we hopped back into the dinghy with our new friend and went over to the shore depositing it on one of the leaves of a tree branch hanging out over the river.

We’ll never know for sure, but the anthropomorphic conclusion to the story rests upon whether fireflies actually can or cannot swim.

If not, I can only imagine the following day the story started something like… so, after a near fatal crash on the water I was unbelievably rescued, resuscitated, and returned by some strange guardian angel on the river…

If, in fact, fireflies can swim the story may instead have sounded more like… you’re never gonna believe this, but after performing a textbook water landing I was abducted by aliens and temporarily taken aboard their ship for observation

Author’s note: Subsequent research revealed that the insect we encountered was not a firefly. Rather, it was a type of click beetle, aptly called a headlight beetle (for the two distinct lights illuminated on its back).

This totally changes everything. Obviously, the story must have went: I can’t believe those stupid humans. Bad enough that they accost mebut to mistake me for a fucking fly... how indignant!


Twelve Hour Karma

Late in the afternoon on our seventh and final day, we received our only visitors during our stay on the Rio Chagres. Three local fishermen passing by in a small boat motoring “downstream” stopped at Exit. All three smiled, though only one spoke.

Not a word of English.

We tried to communicate with our limited Spanish, yet sometimes anything but the absolute most basic sentence can be misunderstood when spoken by someone with a limited grasp of the language.

POINT OF DISTRACTION: I recall once trying to ask a local fisherman in Spanish if he was having luck catching fish. He misunderstood me, thinking I was asking if he caught fish because they brought him good luck. With a very confused look on his face he replied, “No, the fish are to eat.” True story.

Anyway… after a bit of back and forth, I got hung up on a word I couldn’t identify. It sounded something like meshis.

Something about fuego meshis… fire something….

Finally, I realized it was not Spanish. He was trying for English. Duh.

Meshis… matches.

Feeling stupid, I disappeared down the companionway, reappearing moments later with two books of matches. I handed them to the guy.

He smiled and said gracias. They disappeared around the bend and the sound of the boat engine slowly faded away.

A bit out of the ordinary, to be sure. But… really, just another strange moment in a rather ongoing sequence of the surreal.

The following morning, both Kris and I were jolted awake at 6am by what sounded like a tapping on the hull. Wtf?

Hola”… came a voice along with another rap on the side of Exit.

Hola. Buen dia… ” I replied as I stumbled into my boardies and climbed, bleary eyed, up into the cockpit.

I was greeted by what had to be nearly a ten pound red snapper! Dead – no doubt about that – but still staring me right in the face. Holding out the magnificent fish was none other than the guy I had given two matchbooks to the day before.

The same three fishermen in the same boat were now alongside Exit facing the opposite direction as yesterday, coming back from a night of fishing. I’m not sure how far they had travelled, maybe all the way outside to the reef, but it was obviously a very successful night. One of the three guys, sporting an ear to ear grin, lifted the lid of a huge plastic cooler that sat in the center of the small boat, revealing a stunning assortment of fish that filled the container clear to the top.

It appeared we were being offered the prime catch of the night, an incredibly generous gesture in return for us giving them some matches.

Wow.

Even after a exhausting night of work, they made a point of stopping as they passed. They were definitely proud. They were definitely grateful.

Rarely am I early to wake. Yet today, for the first time ever at 6am, Kris brought me a knife and cutting board and I cleaned fresh snapper… on the transom of Exit… in a jungle shrouded with the morning’s low clouds… in Panama.

Go figure.

Departing Rio Chagres

First Contact

April 20 – 28, 2021

Escudo de Veraguas.

A possible translation error?  Early misspelling?  My own theory…

Potentially, at some point, an original name of Escudo de Verde Aguas or Escudo Verde Aguas was misunderstood or transcribed incorrectly.  The water just outside the reefs on the north side of the island is an incredible deep blue.  On the south side, especially under a bright sun, the shallow water is a distinctly different and striking shade of green.  A literal translation of Shield of Green Water or Green Water Shield seems quite logical.  Unless the name Veraguas is a family name, or actually does translate to something… which means I’m totally full of shit, as is often the case [Authors note: shortly after writing this, I learned that there is an entire area on the mainland called Varaguas…so, full of shit it is then. Go figure. Another brief moment of enlightenment dashed by reality].

For twelve months we had been looking at a couple of stunning aerial photos of Escudo de Veraguas printed in a Panama chart book we often drooled over during the Covid lockdown.  These and trusty Google Maps satellite photos had left the unshakable impression that this was an island not to be missed.

Thirty five miles beyond the two islands Zapatillas, previously at the very edge of our lockdown world, it had always been just beyond our grasp. 

Six months ago, our one attempt to venture in that direction had been shut down before we even got outside of the Zapatillas by west winds upwards of fifteen knots that would have made anchoring at Veraguas rather ugly and untenable.  

It was highly unlikely that we could have the luxury of winds that would be both favorable to sailing instead of motoring and comfortable to anchor in.  More than likely we would get one or the other.

As it turned out, we got mostly a whole lot of neither.

The Three Strike Rule —- in this case: unexpected salt water in the bilge coming from our “dripless” (not so much at that moment) prop seal, a burst water heater hose, and an outboard engine we couldn’t remove from the dinghy which together constituted an ominous run of bad luck that, for us, would justify aborting whatever was in the works —- nearly prevented us from departing Bocas entirely.

It turned out the outboard was, by far the most serious… and the most embarrassing. Somehow, it had failed to occur to us that during the past thirteen months we had never removed the engine from the dinghy, resulting in the two quick-release mounting screws having completely seized up. Fuck!

Fortunately, we had made the discovery the evening before our planned departure. Twelve hours after spraying a shit-ton of PB Blaster (supercharged WD-40) to help free up the set screws, we barely managed to break the hold of the corroded metals before breaking the plastic handles themselves. Dodged a bullet on that one.

Eventually we were off.

Exit on the move… after thirteen months

Thirty five nautical miles from Zapatillas to Escudo de Veraguas. Six hours and forty five minutes of motoring.  I don’t think we ever saw over five knots of wind… until we reached Veraguas. 

It’s exposed location offers little protection from hostile weather.  Crashing surf and reefs on both the island’s north and east sides make anchoring there out of the question; and even the SW corner is susceptible to the NE swell which somehow manages to wrap entirely around the island.  Mild conditions and minimal wind from the north or east can make for a very settled stop at Veraguas; otherwise, things can stack up pretty quickly.

Zero wind makes for calm anchoring

When we arrived, we were the only sailboat there.  As far as we could tell, we were the only sailboat at the island.  After anchoring at the southwest corner, we both saw what we were certain was a shark fin within a hundred feet or so of our boat, which broke the surface half a dozen times before disappearing.  We took it as a good omen.

We celebrated our first time anchoring outside of the Bocas region in over a year with our last Perfect Storm cocktail. The final drop Kraken rum aboard had disappeared during our 10,000 nautical miles travelled toast less than two months earlier, but we still had a small amount of Black Magic rum (our number two alternative) and one final can of Gosling ginger beer. Cheers!

The last ginger beer…

In actuality, maybe we should have considered the waterspout we saw descending at the opposite end of the island during a passing squall not long after our arrival as a less good omen.

The local fishermen passing by in small motorized pangas or, more likely, paddling smaller dugout cayucas merely waved.  Only one stopped by.  Apparently local stockpiles on the island are good in regards to everything but whiskey…

At sunrise the next morning, we learned just how quickly the swell could build with passing squalls and storms. We were glad we weren’t any closer to shore or any shallower.

Swell quickly transitioning to breaking surf

Gradually, the “light and variable” winds which had forced us to motor all the way from the Zapatillas became less variable… definitively north (???).  And less light… consistently breaking ten knots.  Eventually we found ourselves, for the first time in thirteen months, rolling back and forth in swell… ten degrees to one side, then back, then over ten degrees to the other side, then back, relentlessly.  All night long.

S/V Exit doing its impression of a metronome

By the third day things were becoming obnoxious. Though the sun was now shining, the swell was still unrelenting. We moved a mile, just around the point to the west side, and found things noticeably better.  These were the only two anchorages identified in our trusty Bauhaus charts.

Comfortably at anchor now on the west side of Escudo de Veragauas

On the fourth day we braved a dinghy excursion inside the reef around the north side of the island.  Big chop in places kept us from getting too far around but it gave us a taste of the north side’s rough hewn features:  big swell, crashing waves, dozens of small islands, rock pillars and columns jutting up from the chop, separated by reef strewn channels and bays.  A very exhilarating and overdue day out after a pent up stretch on an uncomfortably rolling boat.

North side of Escudo de Veraguas

When we came back around the northwest point and Exit came into view, there was a what the fuck moment of seeing three masts.  Exit’s, which we expected; plus another boat anchored RIGHT behind us —- Okay.  It wasn’t as close as one of the boats in the stinking south anchorage outside Bocastown… [yes, we’re still a bit sensitive] but REALLY?  So much space to choose from.  We were the only other boat at anchor on the island.   Actually, not correct, now.  The third mast.  Another wtf?  There was a second boat that had also just arrived currently trying to anchor in the spot we had anchored at three days before.  

Eventually, they realized the area we were currently in had less swell and moved.  Fortunately, they also realized they didn’t have to sit right on top of us, unlike Captain Douchbag on our other side.


EXPERIMENTS GONE AWRY

After three years aboard Exit, we had still never deployed our stern anchor.  A bit embarrassing, I suppose.  We had just never tried.  

The winds, currently from the north east, had us sitting beam on to a swell that was wrapping around the entire island.  It was less pronounced than before, but still rather obnoxious.  We decided what better time than the present to bust out that stern anchor and figure shit out?

Sooooo… after figuring out the logistics of loading the forty or so pound Brittany (apparently?) anchor and one hundred feet of chain into the dinghy, we motored the dinghy out about seventy feet and chucked it all overboard.  Nothing punctured the dinghy and I managed to not get the chain wrapped around my ankle before throwing it over.  All good.  We returned to Exit, hoisted about twenty five feet of chain with the electric stern windlass we are not allowed to talk about (only the most unsalty wannabes would have not one, but two electric windlasses), and… VIOLA!  Exit movedslowly to starboard until she sat at about a forty five degree angle to the wind, bow pointing into to the swell.  Perfect!  Well comfortable.  Why hadn’t we sorted this out long ago?

That question was answered at precisely midnight.

With a ten knot maximum NE wind and NW swell we were oriented so that our stern anchor was about fifty feet to the right of our stern.  As the evening progressed, the wind shifted from NE to NW, but we didn’t feel anything because we were still facing into the swell.  The stern anchor would have been directly beneath our transom at this point.

As midnight approached, the wind continued backing.  By the time it got to west, Exit had swung around so that our stern anchor was now on our port side, almost exactly opposite what it had been.  Possibly the building west wind was creating waves that made the angle we were now sitting to the swell less noticeable.  

It wasn’t until midnight, when the wind suddenly began climbing upwards of sixteen knots and took an additional shift, backing even further to SW, that the shit really started to hit the fan.

At this point, Exit was doing all she could to right her position up into the wind and thereby reduce the massive windage strain she was suddenly feeling.  However, the location of our earlier deployed stern anchor was completely out of whack relative to the current wind direction.  The 3/8” chain leading up from what was obviously a well holding anchor must have now been at least fifty feet too short, because there was a shitload of tension being exerted with Exit being held in her current position.

The now howling wind, heeling boat, as well as confused and angry waves slapping loudly against the hull and underside of the transom all contributed to the overall chaos of the moment.

It was a scary enough situation that I didn’t want to get my fingers near any points of contact.

It was a scary enough reality that we knew doing nothing was not an option.

The two options were let out more stern chain and hope the wind didn’t shift further, or haul the whole thing in.

The overall stern anchor layout is quite solid and well designed, though not foolproof, as we were quickly learning.

Coming off of the stern windlass at deck level, the anchor chain drops from a roller at deck level to a second roller where it feeds off the back of the transom.  The roller is completely enclosed as long as a steel pin at the top is secure, preventing the chain from jumping off the roller under any circumstances.  The ten foot long, three-strand nylon snubber attached to a cleat on the transom, was run over the lower roller and secured to the chain with running half hitches. 

The wind and waves now created a huge sideways tension on the snubber right at the roller and the snubber was all but unreachable off the corner of the transom, which was already being washed over by incoming chop.  Nothing could be done regarding the chain with the snubber still attached, but the half hitches securing the snubber wouldn’t pass between the roller and the steel pin.  

The instant I released the roller’s retaining pin, trying to get the snubber to a position where I could untie it, I realized I had made a huge mistake.  If the chain jumped off of the roller, which was now a serious threat, the links would start chewing and sawing into the side of Exit, making everything exponentially more dire and dangerous.

A blurred moment later, we had somehow managed to get the windlass to haul in another foot of chain allowing the snubber knot to pass over the roller, the steel retaining pin had been locked back in place, and no fingers were missing.  Whew.

With the snubber now untied and free, we could excruciatingly slowly bring up the chain.  Link by link, it came up.  Fortunately, the forces already at play helped to break free the anchor as we came over the top of it; and, immediately Exit swung around almost ninety degrees while the anchor still dangled at the end of the chain just over the bottom, twenty five feet below us.  

We hauled in the last bit of chain and brought the anchor onto the stern.  Breathe.

Regardless of the fact that outside conditions all around us remained exactly the same —- we were exposed from the southwest in fifteen to twenty knots of wind —- there was an unmistakable calming happening aboard Exit.  

Now facing bow into the wind, the boat quickly settled in her movements.  Much more slowly, our heart rates began to settle down, eventually reaching a near normal level.

Moments later, after all that had played out, the boat that had anchored next to us picked up and moved to the other side of us, just as close as before.

Go figure.

And though we were, once again, just as irked about some idiot —- the same idiot —- anchoring too close, there was undoubtedly for us, what might be best described as an overnight increase in tolerance regarding rolling aboard Exit, when it came to swell.  

Now, that one I can understand.

*****

Day five:  bouncing, and rolling, and being rained on.  

We were okay with the rolling.

Day six:  bouncing, and rolling, and being rained on.  

Gray boat; gray skies; dark water.  For us, what we call camo days… gray on gray.   Good camouflage.  

Capt. Douchbag picked up anchor and left today.  Good riddance.  The only time we talked with him was just after he dropped anchor; he said he was headed to San Blas.  Of course.  Might follow us to Shelter Bay if we’re leaving.  We didn’t talk to him again.  Knob.

We’re holding out.  After all this we’ve gotta see a break in the weather.  

Late in the afternoon things did indeed settle down substantially.  We took the dinghy all the way around the south side of Veraguas around the eastern tip.  

Wow.

Beautiful, lush jungle towering over the shore line interspersed with sheer walls and cliff faces.  In some areas, waves crashed right up against the time worn vertical rock.  Other bays had bare tracks of fine, brown sand angling steeply down, separating a bright green tree line from the swell which relentlessly rolled in and broke onto the beach.

Cautiously, we beached the dinghy in one such small cove.  An amazing and natural crescent shaped amphitheater was created by the rock wall that towered around us.    

Cove on the SE side of Escudo de Veraguas

Approaching the southeast point, we found almost no swell in the outer bay.   Though there were intermittent dark patches of rock and reef, it appeared to be a very viable place to anchor Exit.

Coming around the point, a number of shallow chutes and channels brought us into a large sheltered bay on the NE side with absolutely gin clear water and beautiful, big coral bommies and patches of pristine reef.  This was no place to anchor, but a perfect spot to return to with at least fins and masks, maybe even dive gear.

The following day, our seventh day at Escudo Veraguas, we moved Exit over to the area we had sussed out the day before.  As we were picking up anchor, we could barely see a sailboat approaching from the west.  We were three again.  Perfect time to move off the chart.

A brief break in the seamlessly gray sky above temporarily gave us the perfect overhead sunlight we needed to help us literally feel our way in past a number of reefs, to a depth of twenty five feet where we dropped anchor in a field of bare, rippled sand.  

In regards to other boats, snugglers we are not. Space is what we seek and, here, we had plenty of it. We refer to it as anchoring in Zanzibar.

Anchoring in “Zanzibar” at Veraguas… now that’s breathing space!

Finally, Kris was able to get down the SUP and go for a paddle.  She was back in paradise.

Later in the afternoon we held our collective breath as we saw the other sailboat that had already been at anchor pick up and head in our direction.  They wouldn’t follow us and move over here, would they?

Holding breath.  Sailboat approaching.

Holding breath.  Sailboat just opposite us.

Holding breath.  Sailboat passing.  Breathe out.  They kept right on going.


The common theme of our visit… GRAY… returned the following day.  Rainy, crappy weather.  Pretty comfortable at anchor, but sloppy weather to be out in.  We thought about lifting anchor and heading out.  West wind still at ten knots.  That which had become our bane since our arrival a week ago would actually be the wind that would allow us to sail all the way to Rio Chagres.

And yet, we really wanted to get back to the bay around the corner with at least snorkeling gear.  Even a small weather window the following day would give us that opportunity.  We had waited it out this long.

The following day was even snottier.

A continual parade of squalls

Okay.  Time to rethink.  We just needed to get moving to Rio Chagres, enjoy it for a short time, and get on with the damn haul-out.  At some point, if we got a chance to return and the weather cooperates, then fantastic.  We now knew exactly where we needed to come back to.

Our only interaction with anyone that day was a visit from a boat that more resembled a twenty foot Aeronaval boat than a local fisherman or visiting tour boat.  One of the five guys aboard, who were all sporting an official looking logo on their clothes, indicated they were with the National Park Service.  Between our broken Spanish and his broken English, we determined that these exceptionally polite and equally persistent men were here to collect a thirty dollar donation to assist with upkeep of the park and the building of a staff dormitory.  

We explained that we had already given twenty dollars to an “official” who visited us on the other side of the island five days ago (that is true… though she had no logo on her clothes, she did carry an official looking ID card). 

They replied that was different.  She was from the village.  That twenty dollars was for beach access and visits to the island.  This thirty dollars is for the national park.

We opted to not mention the guy who asked us about whiskey.  He never really represented himself as an official charging a whiskey toll.  He just wanted to know if we had any.  Instead, we explained to the parks guy that we were leaving tomorrow.

In a voice that sounded remarkably like Cheech he said, hey man, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.   The guys on the boat all started laughing…

Okay.  No.  That is not true at all.  Pure bullshit embellishment.  But I couldn’t resist.  

They actually said, that’s no problem.  

… which was not really what we were getting at… but…

Polite.  Persistent.

We paid.

We left Escudo de Veraguas the following day.  There was absolutely no wind.  We ended up motoring for eighteen hours in confused seas, all the way to the Rio Chagres.

It’s always about the timing…

…and it’s all about the perspective

A Plan or Plan A

April 19, 2021

Any further thoughts of getting through the Panama Canal before summer are one hundred percent in the crapper.

The Pacific Ocean is still our goal… it’s just gonna have to wait a bit.

Covid uncertainties have taken the South Pacific off the table for us long ago.  Even the Pacific coast is up in the air.   Costa Rica just opened back up to outsiders with stringent requirements.  Mexico never shut down, but we still have serious concerns about potential fallout from the US causing an impact that could effect our ability to get to, clear into, or stay in the Sea of Cortez – our only other real option for long term occupancy on that side within any reachable proximity.  If that’s where we really need to be going, we should have left long ago.

Constantly changing immigration and travel policies of various individual countries, as well as our own hesitations have drastically limited our options. 

The one certainty —- a haul-out is mandatory in our very near future.

What a fucking dreaded combination of words… haul-out.

Exactly the opposite from our tried and true philosophy of staying away from hard things, haul-outs require us to actually pay money to have someone pluck Exit out of the water and balance her precariously on stands in essentially a boat parking lot.  Eew.

But… unfortunately, a necessary evil.  Only so much underside inspecting and maintenance can be done with Exit in the water.  And we certainly have more than a tide cycle worth of work, so beaching her for a few hours on a low tide (which she is fully capable of doing —- one of many advantages to her lifting centerboard design) is not really helpful in this case.  At over two hundred dollars a gallon, we can barely afford the copper-free ablative anti-fouling paint (very few options on an aluminum boat) as it is.  A dreaming boat owner’s wishful thinking of any in-water application option being offered on bottom paint would instantly be dashed by the pricing that would inevitably be attached to such a technological convenience.

… which leaves hauling out.

On aluminum boats, corrosion protection involves inspecting the bottom, sanding any suspect spots down to bare metal, brushing on multiple coats of epoxy to act as a protective barrier coat between the boat and water, followed by the application of numerous coats of anti-fouling paint using rollers.

Exit was on the hard when we bought her.  The haul-out was already started.  The new bottom paint that we put on before launching lasted about a year.  One year later we returned to the same boat yard.  Like a seasonal migration.  Familiar territory.  Only, the second time we adopted the strategy to lengthen the time period before a third haul-out would be needed.  We were learning quickly.  This time we put on eight gallons of Interlux Trilux33 paint; it was all we could afford. 

Now, after nearly thirty months, there are sections along Exit’s waterline that have no bottom paint left and are down to the epoxy barrier coat.  Without the anti-fouling paint, a green beard of algae grows chronically, requiring aggressive scrubbing, further exacerbating the problem by removing even more paint along the edges of the bare spots.  A cascading sequence.

So, the inevitable haul-out.  

Ultimately, it’s no different from the proposition behind any other maintenance inconvenience.  Today’s pain in the ass hopefully prevents tomorrow’s even bigger repair nightmare.

Three obvious options, given our current location.  As many opinions as people you ask, and even more opinions from those you don’t ask.  Option one: Bocas Marina Boatyard in Almirante nearby.  The closest and the cheapest, but it seems we’re a bit big for them and the bugs are apparently brutal.  Not conducive to living aboard during the work.   Option two:  Shelter Bay (a hundred miles to the east).  Apparently a nicer facility to be at but also more expensive.  Option three:  a bit farther to Linton Bay. 

We only half joke that we need to complete the haul-out more to have people stop asking why we are hauling out at a chosen location than to actually get any work done.

Shelter Bay is the decision.  Until it is done, it’s going to be questioned.  

Regardless, it’ll be our first haul-out in a new location.  Panama, no less.  An adventure, no doubt.

A kicker in the decision came after we learned about a couple we met in Bocas around six months ago currently at Shelter Bay Marina.  After deciding to sell their sailboat, they are wrapping up their haul-out and preparing to fly out of Panama.  For us, the kicker was not based upon any facility updates or haul-out information they provided.  Rather, it was the fact that they are trying to sell the brand new dive compressor they currently have on their boat… Oooooooooooo!!!  

We just have to arrive in Shelter Bay with $3000 before they fly out.

Anchor up!


Thankfully, one of the upsides of our extended stint in Bocas del Toro was the fairly major list of boat upgrades and replacements we did manage to accomplish while waiting for pandemic lockdowns and uncertainties to play out.  Costly, to be sure.  But, at least now they would not be looming over our heads as we approached this haul-out.

New windlass, anchor, three hundred fifty feet of chain, wind speed transducer (at the top of the mast), engine raw water pump, leaking transmission seal replaced… all in the done column.

On the other side of the pendulum swing, we are still reeling from the devastating loss of our Fischer Panda generator (at this point it appears the white smoke I released could potentially cost $5000 to repair which won’t happen), as well as the literal disintegration of two separate air dump valves on both our Scuba Pro BCDs on the same day (Kris’ may be salvageable with a bit of Frankenstein triage field surgery, but mine is finished).  After surviving on an island in Borneo for years, the plastic just fell apart into tiny pieces sitting in the closet on the boat.

No generator… no backup battery charging.  No BCDs… no diving.  Shit.

A dizzying list of other ambitious projects fill page after page of our notebook —- not so much mandates to complete before we re-launch Exit, as options while we are hauled out.

Some, like our bimini and dodger covers which are filthy and have very little waterproof qualities remaining, are prime candidates for any leftover time we have.  Extra space to work, extra water for cleaning.

Replacing all the underwater zincs and yearly maintenance on the Maxprop can be done while Exit is wet; but being out of the water sure simplifies things.

Unlimited shore power will give us the ability to decisively establish if our only two and a half year old batteries are actually starting to fail.  We are struggling to understand the electric voodoo which seems to have seized control of our house battery bank since we arrived in Panama —- a problem which has been compounded by the loss of our generator.  Even with solid charges during the day, we find ourselves challenged to maintain reasonable battery voltage levels overnight even with only modest loads. Shore power access will be invaluable in narrowing down the source.  If we are lucky, sulfating damage from what may be chronic undercharging of the batteries in constant use can be reversed and we can salvage the entire battery bank.  That would be sweet.  More likely, at least one or two of the batteries are causing problems with the whole system.  If we are really unlucky, the entire bank may need replacing… six AGM batteries… gulp.  That’s about two grand. 

Projects on the list like “reorganizing belowdecks lockers” offer rainy day fallbacks to keep busy, as well as small scale victories without potential two thousand dollar price tags attached to the resolution.

Ambitious boundary testing tasks will likely be determined by the progress rate of other more pressing things.

Preventive maintenance carries a lot of weight.  I’m one of its biggest advocates.  Still, there is something to be said for not fucking around with things that aren’t broken… or touching Pandora’s Box… or removing the cork for the Genie’s wine bottle… or whatever the saying is.  There’s always a shit-ton of ways to say things when things are important to remember.   Prime example of this dilemma is whether to open the inspection hatches on our two one hundred gallon water tanks.  Hasn’t been done since we bought the boat.  In theory, a good idea… probably.  In theory, maybe a bad idea… possibly.  No issues, but is it better to try to see a potential developing problem than wait to taste a actual problem…?  Hmmmm.  Last time a tank hatch was opened, it took months to sort out resulting the diesel leak.  I can see why this one has remained on the to-do list.  Time will tell.

In some instances, success fosters bravery and further ambition. Other times, it inspires a quick cash-out while one is ahead.

Certain tasks will inevitably not make the cut, when we simply decide enough is enough.  They don’t get crossed off; they don’t go away, they just remain on the to-do list.  The list is never-ending… by design.  That’s why it’s called a list.  Lots of shit always on it.  Another battle for another day.


Getting to Shelter Bay

One of Shelter Bay’s biggest draws for us was the fact that it is not located in Bocas del Toro.  

Make no mistake, we were eternally grateful to have been able to shelter in the Bocas archipelago at the outset of the pandemic.  However, we were also psychologically exhausted from the thirteen month duration.

Some kind of change of scenery was long overdue and a couple of places were on our radar between Bocas and Shelter Bay.

Escudo de Veraguas had been teasing us since our arrival.  Tantalizing drone photos in one of our chart books and Google Maps satellite photos revealed a dense green island with luscious shades of blue surrounding sandy, palm tree lined shores interspersed with craggy, rocky violent surf.  This isolated and barely inhabited island thirty five miles east of Bocas enticed us for what seemed like a perfect stop over.  However, the exposed nature of both the island and its couple of anchorages meant that weather conditions would have to cooperate.

A hundred miles further, along the coast of Panama just outside Shelter Bay, lies Rio Chagres.  The river is fed by the same lake that supplies water to the Panama Canal locks.  A dam prevents access all the way to the lake; but the Chagres River itself is reported to be an extremely isolated slice of unspoiled jungle, potentially populated more by crocodiles than people.  Intriguing enough to warrant a visit.

So… the immediate plan: after picking up a few packages in Bocastown (a mishmash of stuff we’ve ordered from the US) and topping off our provisions and fuel, we leave Bocas del Toro via the Zapatillas, head for Escudo de Veraguas, followed by the Rio Chagres, followed by a haul out at Shelter Bay Marina outside Colon for the shortest duration possible.  After that, we have to play it by ear.  

Panama’s San Blas islands are at the top of our short list.  When we departed Grand Cayman on Friday the 13th, March 2020, we were headed for San Blas.  Twenty-four hours into that passage we learned Panama had just declared San Blas closed.  Still, despite months of cruisers posting they’ve just come from, are currently at, or headed to San Blas, the islands are still closed and always have been closed to outsiders since that initial lockdown.

Our second choice at the time became the Columbian island Providencia (about a four hundred mile sail from the Cayman Islands and nearly along our initial course), which it turned out had closed by the time we reached it.  Turned away over the VHF radio twenty miles offshore.  Not only that, later in the year a hurricane would knock Providencia flat.  They are still trying to rebuild the damage.  In retrospect, it is good we didn’t stop there in March 2020.  We may not have gotten out. Still not really an option.

San Andres, our third option fifty miles further to the south, became the third destination… and the third location we were unable to enter.  Turned away over the VHF radio twenty miles offshore… again.  Refugee status was becoming a real concern. 

Fast forward to the present. Now, after almost fourteen months, in a bit of a Twilight Zone / deja vu moment, San Andres may be the go to place after completing our haul-out.  Close.  Easy.  

Still near, but very importantly, not actually in Bocas del Toro.  We can return to Bocas for the height of the hurricane season.

It means we would already be in place for a potential Panama Canal crossing in November.  

In addition, it’s looking more possible that sorting out Covid vaccines by the end of the year in Panama may be an easier prospect than going all the way back to the US, meaning we don’t have to travel by air, much less through Texas or Florida, before getting vaccinated.

Hmmmm…

A plan.  Really, it’s the only plan.  Which is tricksy.  There always needs to be a Plan B.  Because Plan A never survives first contact.

Especially a plan scheduled to commence on 4/20.

Additional Bocas Bits And Bobs

April 19, 2021

Some additional thoughts and images from our final thirty days in Bocas del Toro, Panama:

A one of a kind original painting on a serving platter, depicting S/V Exit sitting at anchor just off of Isla Joya in 2020.  Artist: Sharon at Isla Joya. So cool!

For us, Bocas del Toro will always carry the unique and ironic distinction of a location which provided both a sense of security while simultaneously the feeling we were being swallowed whole and would never get out again.

Kris captured a perfect image along the downtown streets of Bocastown. I’m not sure what I like best… the perfect representation of Mother Nature’s relentless ability to eventually reclaim everything (especially in the jungles of Panama), or the “I ❤️ Bocas” sticker?

We never returned to the North Anchorage after we finally received permission to move from the port captain. I suspect not being allowed to move for our first thirty days in Bocas created an association with that anchorage we never quite got over. This meant, shy of a five mile dinghy ride, trips to Bocastown required us to brave the South Anchorage which seemed to inevitably mean exposure to too many boats and some random direction squall.

Exit must be in the South Anchorage. Another squall from the exposed southwest

The nearest alternative and polar opposite of the South Anchorage, Big Bight, turned out to be one of our absolute favorite anchorages. Always empty. Therapeutic.

A view of Big Bight from the top of the mast:

At Big Bight, however, you don’t have to go to the top of the mast for a stunning view

And at sea level, you might even get a visit from dolphins.


Ironically, it turned out we actually sailed more during our last thirty days in Bocas Del Toro than we did during our first twelve months. Nothing exciting; just nice to get those big white flappy things up every now and then.


March 18, 2020. Our arrival in Bocas Del Toro marked the beginning of a surreal global saga we found ourselves caught up in, lasting far longer than anyone ever initially thought possible.

Fear. Uncertainty. Conflicting information. Isolation. Time.

Ingredients which, individually, can be problematic enough; together they have the potential to form a very potent and dangerous cocktail.

March 18, 2021. One year later in Kris’ Cove (named for Kris’ favorite location to see her friends the sloths and rays) at Dolphin Bay… less than five miles away from the very spot S/V Exit occupied one year ago today. Geographically close, and yet a world away in terms of one’s state of mind… muy tranquilo.

The Waiting Place

March 18, 2020 – April 18, 2021

Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Ironically, the 20/20 hindsight that became 2020’s hindsight seemed to offer little clarity. More of a foggy memory filled with a year’s uncertainties and lunacy.

Nearly four hundred days here…

Our arrival at Bocas del Toro had coincided with the near overnight explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic. Globally, things were unfolding at a dizzying pace. Had we chosen to wait a few more days rather than departing Grand Cayman on Friday the 13th as we did, we may not have gotten out of the Cayman Islands at all. And had we arrived in Panama one day later than we did, we wouldn’t have gotten in.

A razor’s edge.

The drama of our first twenty four hours here still makes an occasional ripple during some introductions.

“… Exit…? We heard about you… the ones that the port captain gave a ten minute countdown to leave Panama over the VHF radio after you were visited by navy guys with guns…”

You heard correctly. Thankfully, they changed their mind.

*****

Two weeks of quarantine aboard the boat turned into a month sitting in one place in the North Anchorage. But we didn’t care, because we had sanctuary. Our refugee status had been rescinded.

Looking back, being stuck at anchor for one month unable to move seemed minor… certainly compared to the prospect of being stuck at sea for one month unable to stop.

As hurricane season approached, the weather stability we were blessed with in the area gave us a peace of mind that could have only been matched in the Rio Dulce. Though rain and especially lightning are on the list of concerns, having any risk of hurricanes effectively off the table removes a great deal of potential stress.

As it turned out, a hurricane season so active that the weather service ran out of letters to use in naming the hurricanes came and went. So did the occasional lightning storms which rarely seemed to trigger the sheer terror level we had been warned of.

Fortunately, the hurricanes themselves never came here… unfortunately, we never got to leave here.

June became July, and then August passed by. We quietly celebrated our three year anniversary having moved aboard Exit.

No regrets.

Not even the record 89 days we spent sitting in one spot at the Red Frog Anchorage trying to sort out our windlass issues during which we dragged a thousand feet in one of the impeccably timed poo inducing 4am lightning storms… or even the thirty three knot squall we experienced while anchored in the crowded South Anchorage having just removed our old windlass but not yet having installed the new one. Eek! Ok… not regret, but both those pretty much sucked.

33 knots at anchor with no windlass

The benefits of “being stuck in Bocas” always outweighed the downsides (the archipelago, that is — not the South Anchorage). We just had to get out and about to discover some of the hidden pleasures.

Ok… there was definitely a bit of regret when we ran to of Kraken rum!

Always strange and fascinating creatures and plants:

Occasional walks to the Red Frog Beach:

Red Frog Beach after a few days of stormy weather
Maybe just a dinghy excursion…

And no matter how much Kris hates cooking, I am truly privileged to have such a crafty and imaginative chef aboard… even if an involuntary one.

Inevitably, living on a boat means that regardless of whether or not you are moving, you are always sitting on top of projects that need attention. Daily boat keeping, maintenance, repairs, and the eternal quest for improvement seem to constantly occupy one’s free time…and being it’s on a boat, it’ll take five times as long to do it, whatever “it” is.

Despite the varying degrees of full or semi-lockdown status we have seen here in Panama during the pandemic, during much of the time we have had the luxury of being able to move Exit around freely within about a twenty nautical mile circle.

Thirteen months of bouncing around Bocas

Even so, we only ventured to the edge of “the other side” by boat a couple of times. Once to Cayos Zapatilla aboard Exit for a few days:

and once to Swan Island on a day trip aboard our friend Bev’s boat S/V Aseka:

Our ability to move around and drop the hook, not just within specific anchorages, but among endless mangroves, islands, and bays in the archipelago as well as endless options for various day trips, adventures, and excursions have made this area as good as any we could have hoped for.

All the while, a balance of forces.

It is what it is…

And learning the schedule of our friends aboard the local Veggie Boat was instrumental in helping to determine what anchorage to be in on a given day if you wanted freshly delivered fruits and veggies…

However, if fresh empanadas is what you crave, then you can’t stray far from the shores near Red Frog, because Archimedes has very limited delivery range in his dugout cayuca!

Hot, fresh chicken empanadas

Months of patience and perseverance paid off when Kris finally acquired a stand up paddleboard, officially placing her in a state of SUP-bliss (and arguably making her one of the catalysts for what had to become Bluefin SUP’s biggest Panama sales to date based upon the number of other boatpeople that followed her lead).

Test paddling potential options prior to the big purchase
Inflating the new SUP for it’s baptism…

A daily visit on the SUP to see Kris’ friends… always good for a smile.

Kris… the Sloth Whisperer
A school of cow nose rays…
… daily visitors in the neighborhood

Ironically, two of the things we have best access to aboard Exit have nearly fallen off the radar since our arrival in Bocas… diving and sailing.

At anchor Starfish Beach November 2020… dead calm.

Long, long ago it seems, when we sailed the five day 750nm voyage from Grand Cayman to Bocas Del Toro, we travelled solely under power of sails for one hundred hours. Over three hundred days later, we were still in the archipelago and had only raised the sails twice since arriving… a bit embarrassing.

A Bocas rarity

However, February 6, 2021 was a landmark day. Not only was it the second time we had moved over twenty miles in a day; it was the third time we sailed in Bocas. We were adamant that we were going to be under sail when we raised our glasses in a toast celebrating 10,000 nautical miles traveled on S/V Exit!

10,000 nautical miles on S/V Exit

A salty feeling moment after a very un-salty feeling year.

*****

A Few of the 10,000 Numbers:

  • Nautical miles travelled: 10,000
    • 20+ miles offshore distance: 5955nm
    • Inland/coastal distance: 4045nm
  • Total hours spent underway: 2016
  • Total hours spent under sail: 1330
  • Days since we moved aboard S/V Exit: 1266
  • Nights spent aboard S/V Exit: 1184
  • Longest offshore passage: 823nm (6d 5h)
  • Furthest distance offshore: 200nm
  • Number of anchorages visited: 247
  • Longest number of days without lifting the anchor: 89 (Red Frog Anchorage, Bocas Del Toro, June – Sept. 2020)
  • Nights underway: 46
  • Solar power generated: 1,400,000 watts
  • Fresh water made: 2400 gallons
  • Rain water caught: 1200 gallons
  • Diesel used: 1000 gallons
  • Petrol used: 170 gallons
  • Propane used: 60 gallons
  • States visited: 11
  • Countries visited: 7
  • Regrets: 0

*****

In another go figure moment of irony, it turned out that, after literally hiding for a year from the coronavirus, it was actually the shingles virus that would catch me and beat the shit out of me. Fortunately, I was apparently subjected to only a rather mild case thanks, at least in part, to: 1) an early diagnosis (internet research typically resulting in me swearing at the laptop Google actually yielded immediate results typing the words “rash feels like pulled muscle”); 2) diagnostic confirmation and a prescription via cell phone provided by a Turkish doctor living aboard another boat; and 3) immediate access at the pharmacy in town for the necessary creme (the Panamanian woman behind the counter turned more than one head when, in broken English, she loudly stated… “it’s for the Herpes).

The doctor is off duty

March 18, 2021 brought us yet another first. We had been here in one place aboard Exit for an entire fucking year. At that very moment we were only seven and a half miles away from the very spot we dropped anchor after arriving the night of March 18, 2020… holy shit. We had actually travelled a total of three hundred ninety nine miles around the archipelago yet we were still within ten miles of our starting point.

Moments of contemplation

It suddenly drove home the point that many of the people we see here on a daily basis paddling around in tiny dugout caucus, even the most innovative and ambitious sailors, probably travel less than ten miles from home during their entire lives.

It’s all about perspectives

Everyone just trying to get by…

A rare Bocas at night photo… actual people and open businesses
The Corona Bucket – a bartender’s covid humor… disinfectant, paper towels and a mask.

The psychological toll of Covid-19 can’t be understated. As a planet, we have tried to wrap our heads around this for over a year now. Real health risks weighed against personal needs all tainted by petty politics and bickering. As time wears on, it becomes impossible to avoid the self pity and sense of personal impatience that inevitably creeps in. It becomes impossible to fully appreciate how well boat life has actually equipped us to navigate through all the uncertainty of the pandemic. It becomes impossible to avoid the sense of guilt for recognizing how much of a luxury that really is.

Maybe what we really need to acknowledge is the cold truth that the waiting isn’t the hardest part… it’s the dying. Which makes the waiting not nearly so hard.

And yet, even many not directly affected by the coronavirus itself, have been devastated. Jobs lost. Families impacted. Dreams smashed. Hope overshadowed by fear. Uncertainty.

Many people no longer have their boats.

Many people no longer have each other.

In the end, Kris and I have each other and we are still aboard Exit. For us, that’s what counts.

And that’s what keeps us going, even when we’re waiting.

Sometimes calm is the best thing to hope for

What gets us going is patience, persistence, and a plan…

Slower Than Steve

October 20, 2020

Sloths.

One of the craziest damn terrestrial animals on our planet.

If there is a Creator, sloths have to be a testimony to an Ultimate sense of humor.

They are a true exception to any stretch of a Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest.  

Not only do they seem incapable of outrunning any potential predator, they seem damn near incapable of catching much prey… and they are vegetarian!

Somehow, sloths manage to maintain a look that successfully sits atop the razor line between an irresistibly endearing smile and an absolutely indifferent look of complete stupidity.  

We’d seen them at a distance on Bastimentos, but never face to face like here in the mangroves right next to Isla Joya.

You just can’t possibly do anything other than smile back.

And… a sloth with a baby?  Get the fuck outta here…

Kris, who to be fair, does hold the title of longest data collector in the ongoing anthropological-sociological-psychological study of Steve, insists that sloths may be the first mammal she has encountered that is actually SLOWER than Steve.

Hmmmm…

Ocias, Oh See Us (The Legend Of The Spit Finger Search And Rescue)

The best laid plans…

October 15, 2020

Why would six gringos, four adults and two four year olds, one with a broken arm in a cast no less, be wandering around unaccompanied in the Panama jungle?  On the surface, as well as both above and below the surface, this seemed like far more than a rather reasonable question. 

The plan was a leisurely jaunt over the mainland from a dock just across the cove from Isla Joya (the same dock leading to Wild Bill’s infamous and now abandoned Jolly Roger Social Club) over to Green Acres chocolate farm.  It was only about one mile directly across from our cove to Dolphin Bay and not more than twice that diagonally to Green Acres… what had been described to Sharon by a local as “a twenty minute walk on a path.”

Bev and Malcom dropping us off

Ninety minutes into the jaunt, Sharon decreed, “I have no idea where we are.”  

I realized there had been much more confidence in her voice earlier, back at the dock when Bev had made a passing reference to a guide.  I thought the answer at the time had been, “I know exactly where we’re going.  We’re just following a path…”

After two hours, we had not seen a single person since being dropped off at the dock.   

We had three phones with occasional momentary reception, but only enough to get a GPS update on our current location on Google Maps —- invariably it was not far from where the last point had been.  Or to send a text —- Bev, we might be lost. 

Sharon handed me the machete. 

What had started off as a very discernible path leading from the dock into the dense jungle seemed to keep branching and branching.  The general strategy had been to keep angling in the correct direction but also try to keep to the more established, current, and traffic-worn trail.  Some trails eventually dwindled away to nothing, forcing us to backtrack.  Others split off continuously.  

Essen, the fourth adult in our party, reminded me of a rubber band as she stretched back and forth, shooting between her two four year old twins, who were themselves ricocheting in every direction through the jungle.  Dylan and Melody, who was currently sporting a bright green cast on her broken right arm from a climbing mishap five weeks earlier, were still remarkably upbeat considering the terrain we were trudging through.

On an interesting side note, I did learn that, in Turkish, the word “stop” apparently means “just continue right on doing what you were doing”… hmmmm.

The distinction between a looking at a Google map satellite photo with a straight red line from point to point and actually physically walking between those two points with your own two feet never became more apparent. 

By the time Sharon’s foresight to bring a machete was realized, it became all too obvious that we were ill prepared in almost every other way —- a hand held radio would have made sense… a reasonable supply of drinking water certainly wouldn’t have been ridiculed… I did have on a pair of running shoes but knee high boots now seemed like a smarter choice; by this point Kris had reverted to full scale primitive, opting to carry her Crocs and go barefoot… it was undoubtably a questionable environment for two four year olds with compliance issues, especially when one had an arm cast that needed to stay clean and dry…

Ultimately, a guide was the one thing we sorely lacked.  It would have made everything else irrelevant because we would have only been on a twenty minute walk on a path!

*****

Forging a trail

Finally, I began to get a feel for clearing a path with the machete.  

Only thirty minutes ago, I had taken point.  As I recalled watching many movies featuring jungle-hacking trailblazers deftly cutting a swath back and forth through hostile vines and plants, I confidently swung the machete in front of me for the first time.

Nothing had prepared me for the violent shudder I felt through my right arm and dull clang I heard as the machete bounced harmlessly bounced off a tiny vine no more than an eighth of an inch wide.  

What the fuck?  

I looked at the vine.  It was tiny.  It did not appear to be made out of some alien alloy.  

I looked at the machete.  It was metal.  It appeared to be newly sharpened.  

I looked at Sharon.  She was trying to suppress a laugh.  “You have to cut diagonally.”

Ahhhh…

The second swing went through a one inch thick plant stem like butter.   I smiled.  This could be fun.

Three hours into the adventure, we had lost the path entirely.  After a painstakingly slow descent down a slope far too dense and steep to be carrying a sharp object, we reached somewhat level ground.  I had spent most of the time envisioning a sudden slip, only to see a machete sticking out of my belly upon standing.  Fortunately, that did not happen.  

Subsequently, we had decided to follow a small creek that —- in movies, at least —- always leads to a village.  However, an enormous fallen tree now blocked our path, forcing us to divert back into the thick and relentless jungle.  

We were getting no where, very slowly.  

By this time, multiple texts had been sent to and received from Green Acres.  Thankfully, their local employee Ocias (ironically pronounced Oh-see-us), whom we first met back in June, had already been deployed from the chocolate farm to retrieve us.  

We kept pressing forward as best we could, but any semblance or sign of human life had been absent for quite some time.  The direction we kept trying to go constantly seemed to be the densest wall of follage and growth.  

This spot looks familiar…

Fortunately, any potentially dangerous critters, and I’m sure there were many that we never saw —- fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes (both can be aggressive and fatal), scorpions, spiders —- all seemed to be more determined to get the hell out of the way of the thundering herd of pale outsiders than to defend their home.

Even the mosquitos appeared to have sympathy for the dumb gringos, leaving us unmolested.

Had the skies unleashed rain upon us, it would have been absolutely miserable.  All things considered, everyone was still in good spirits and this still qualified as an adventure.

Eventually more than one person began to intermittently ask if anyone else had heard someone’s voice calling out.

It took a couple of stops with everybody standing still, listening, before we all agreed someone was yelling for us nearby.

Our salvation!  We would not become food for the jungle today.   

Ocias emerged from the jungle slightly to one side of us with a big grin on his face.  He was wearing rubber boots and carrying a radio… smart guy.  As we converged, everyone let out a big cheer.   

Ocias – The Dude

Immediately, I noticed we were already on a path.  Where the fuck had that come from?

During the long trudge that remained to Green Acres, Ocias kept taking photos with his phone… photos of things he saw along the way… photos of the ridiculous gringos he had pulled out of the jungle.

For the most part, he seemed rather amused by it all.  And, though some particulars may have been lost in translation, at one point Ocias appeared to express concern for our being in the jungle alone, especially had night set in.  Something about… the jungle is not for people at night… and something else about… jaguars y tigres.

Fair point.

Unbelievably, it seemed we purposefully strode for another thirty minutes —- up hills, through pastures, across mud bogs —- still always on a path, before finally reaching Green Acres… this time with someone who knew where they were going.  In the end, it appeared that after three and a half hours of walking, we had actually ended up ten minutes farther away from Green Acres than we were when we started walking.  Our first wrong turn must have occurred at the first branch in the  trail… 

Eventually we arrived at Green Acres. Four hours had passed since Bev dropped us off at the dock. 

Holy shit. 

Still, during that four hours we had seen incredible untouched scenery, surreal looking trees and flowers, bizarre mushrooms, bats, lizards… truly primitive Panama jungle.

At the chocolate farm, we were surprised to learn from Carlos and Gary that Ocias had initially been unable to find us. After searching unsuccessfully he had returned to Green Acres empty handed and spoken to an older Panamanian guy who was on the property cutting wood. It turned out the guy was an ex-police officer who told Ocias that while on the force they had been trained to use a tried and true, surefire method for search and rescue.

Lick your finger and hold it up in front of you. The side of your finger that dries will face the direction in which you will locate the people you are searching for.

Huh?

I asked for clarification. Had I heard that correctly?

Yes. Apparently, I had. That was how Ocias had located us.

I stood there frozen with what must have been more than a bit of a dumb look on my face…

Now, I had heard a similar method to determine the direction wind was coming from… but… for locating lost people? Really?

My jaw began to drop. But before the words are you kidding… or that’s ridiculous… ever got a chance to tumble out of my mouth, something occurred to me.

What the fuck did I know? I was one of the idiots who was lost! He found us.

“Ahhhh… yes,” I said instead. “Thank goodness for the old Spit Finger Search and Rescue Method.

After our visit at Green Acres, suffice to say there was no drama on the way back to Isla Joya…

…we got a ride home by boat.

The easy way back…
Passing Exit, Samba, and Aseka approaching Isla Joya

Isla Joya

Isla Joya, Bocas del Toro

October 1 – 30, 2020

After our new ground tackle had been installed, the first thing we did upon arriving back at the Red Frog anchorage was to drop anchor in thirty feet of water (almost the same spot we had dragged to over three months prior) and put out one hundred fifty feet of chain —- ten feet more than had ever even been an option before.

Big squalls? No worries…

Brief time lapse

Croc sightings? No worries…

How big?

About a size seven, I’d guess.

Hey… comedy is not pretty.

The second thing we did was lower Kris’ new SUP into the water!  She had been trying for the better part of six months to acquire the perfect third option between swimming or using the dinghy to get off the boat.  Up to now she had been relegated as an observer of other peoples’ freedom.  Now she was finally the one wearing the shit eating grin.

Two days later we departed the Red Frog anchorage and arrived at Crawl Cay after having confidently navigated The Cut using the Navionics track we had saved from our previous trip in the opposite direction.  We chucked out two hundred feet of chain, just because we could… and then laughed as we realized that, even so, we still had more chain remaining in the locker than we used to have available in total. 

Crawl Cay represented the furthest we had ventured since arriving in Bocas del Toro.  During the past six months, we had remained inside a ten mile perimeter from Bocastown.   Now, for the first time, we were fifteen miles away.   

After two nights there, we decided that the anchorage was a bit too exposed for the schizophrenic shifts in wind direction we currently were experiencing.  So we very carefully inched our way from Crawl Cay through bays, around islands and between mangroves in water that ranged under us from six to sixty feet deep.  

We had manually laid a course into our Navionics software, but much of the area had no depth soundings to go by.  Many of the twists and turns we had plotted had been determined by studying corresponding charts in the well-known Bauhaus Panama cruisers guide which were created by superimposing recorded depth soundings he took over the top of satellite photos of the areas. 

Despite being very helpful in setting a tentative course, in the end, every time we approached a questionable area or the depth gauge started shallowing up quickly, someone stood at the bow to act as spotter.  Three hours and fourteen miles later, numerous anxious moments had resulted in only one actual emergency full stop and zero touches.  Our Navionics course had proven true.  

Passing Loma Partida on the way to Isla Joya

We were slowly becoming more confident in our ability to feel our way around, carefully picking and choosing a way though mangrove passages and mazes.  With good light, minimal wind, patience and slow speed, we found ourselves willing to probe into uncharted areas we would not have felt very comfortable in a short time ago.  If our draft was much deeper, a lot of places wouldn’t even be an option.  Shallow draft… deep commitment. Whoop, whoop!

Our friend Bev was currently caretaking a house on a small private island for a few days as well as looking after the three resident dogs —- Quila, Spock, and Bug —- on behalf of the owners, two Canadian expats named Sharon and Roy who had purchased the island less than two years ago.  Sharon needed to visit the nearby city of David for a short time.  Roy, on the other hand, had been stuck in Canada for the past six months on what was supposed to be a short visit after Panama’s international borders shut down in response to the coronavirus.

Our destination, named Isla Joya, is a tiny island 0.8 acre in size, which pokes out of the water at the very back of the massive Chiraqui Lagoon.  We tucked into a spot behind Isla Joya and its larger neighbor Isla Mono, in a relatively small but long cove with nearly three hundred sixty degrees of protection, where we knew we would find S/V Aseka already anchored.

Isla Joya with S/V Aseka and S/V Exit at anchor

The backstory of Isla Joya had all the makings of a farfetched blockbuster Hollywood movie except it was non-fiction.  An American white supremacist calling himself Wild Bill managed to swindle money from someone by selling them property he didn’t own, and then fleeing the U.S., murdered a man in Costa Rica who had boasted to him about sneaking a briefcase of cash into the country.  Once in Bocas del Toro, Panama, he embarked on a scheme to acquire properties.  Posing as a potential buyer, Wild Bill would set up a meeting with the owner requesting they bring the property deed (in Panama, possession of the deed represents ownership of the property), then subsequently execute them and dispose of the body, or bodies.  

Located just across the cove we were currently anchored in, on one of those very properties, Wild Bill had a bar called the Jolly Roger Social Club, which reportedly gained quite a reputation as a party location for years.  The previous owner of Isla Joya was his final known victim.  Her murder, and eventually the whole plot, was uncovered largely because the ex-boyfriend refused to accept Wild Bill’s story of the woman’s disappearance and continued to press the authorities.  

Despite the dark outcome which culminated in numerous victims eventually being dug up on Wild Bill’s property, the silver lining was not only the fact that Wild Bill still resides in a Panama prison serving forty years for murder, but also the alignment of stars which, years later, allowed Sharon and Roy to accidentally stumble across a now languishing and well overgrown island while searching for property to buy.  Eventually they were able to wade through all the confusion, ultimately purchase the island, and move in while they continue to repair and renovate the existing buildings.

We met Sharon once she had returned from David.  Day after day for weeks, she continually offered her island paradise and endless hospitality to us.  Her generosity was amazing, especially considering she had just met us. 

Playing with the dogs — Quila, a nine month old Rottweiler; Spock, a four year old Papillon; and tiny Bug, a somewhat brain damaged, eternally suspicious and always yappy though oddly adorable something or another — became a source of daily entertainment… and inevitably raised voices.  

In these Covid times of social distancing, hyper-diligence, and unprecedented isolation (not only from each other, but from what we are confident may or may not be the truth), it is encouraging… no, it is invigorating to know that strangers in completely different orbits can still become lifelong friends having to do little more than reach out.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Thirty eight years of wisdom…

October 2, 2020

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to great places!
You’re off and away!

So begins the first page of the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”.  As I try to wrap my head fully around the swirling ironies before me, I turn the page and think back.

Exactly thirty eight years ago today, that day arrived for both Kris and I when we went on our first date… October 2, 1982.

Two high school students, headstrong with the typically firm conviction they already had a grasp of how everything important in the world works, plowed forward with the same awkward certainty shared by millions of other teenagers.  Of course, the sky was the limit…

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.

Fast forward ten years or so to the Nineties.  As the infernal reality for a young married couple of having to work in order to pay for the cost of living continues to dictate most of our day to day activities, a hunger to travel has already set in.  A need to experience slowly begins to dictate our long term goals.  Our mindset was changing from holiday tourists to traveling scuba vagabonds, but it would take over a decade for that evolution to fully take place.

It’s opener there
in the wide open air.

I’m not sure when we first came across the Dr. Seuss book.  It obviously wasn’t a memorable enough moment to stand out in either of our minds.  However, the book itself was quite memorable.  

Fast forward to October 2, 2008.  Twenty six years after our first date.  We have consciously chosen this date… the culmination of a five year plan to sell everything and leave the United States.

In so many ways it seemed like the final step of a long process.  In reality, it was actually another beginning.

Oh, the places you’ll go!
There is fun to be done!

For nine years —- as we travelled to incredible places, met unfathomably deep people, and soaked up life altering experiences —- we were simultaneously feeding two seemingly contradictory realities.  We were changing while, at the same time, we were reinforcing that which we had always been.

Thousands of dives, amazing cultures, lifelong friends we were making from all over the planet, endlessly looking at things in new ways.  How could we have waited so long?

At some point during those nine years, we stumbled across that Dr. Seuss book again on a store shelf, in SE Asia of all places…  we bought it. 

Yet, even when you are forging completely new ground half a world away from where you grew up, you can still find yourself coming full circle… the exact same situation in a totally different scene.

So be sure when you step.
Step with great care and tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.

Even paradise has its darkness.  Rarely are things exactly what they seem.  Everything is fleeting.  Nothing is set in stone.  

Eventually the new becomes comfortable… too comfortable.  It becomes time to… possibly move on?

Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker upper to make up his mind.

Somehow or another, despite all the piles of dive gear and the mementos we had to pack up when we eventually left SE Asia, that crazy Dr. Seuss book managed to find its way into our bags.

The previous decade had proven to us that, given a chance, outside possibilities have a real chance to become inside realities… even potentially something as outside as buying a sailboat to live aboard full time, despite having absolutely zero sailing experience. 

Yet, the previous decade had also proven to us that the only prerequisite for gaining experience is actually doing something.  Trial and error; research and discussion; in some cases sheer repetition (i.e. visual navigation or anchoring) and in others strategic avoidance (say, hurricanes or collisions).  And living aboard a boat 24/7, three hundred sixty five days a year undoubtedly allows substantial opportunity for all of those things.

With time, the sheer novelty of everything accompanied by a terror of the unknown began to slowly give way to a sense of confidence and occasional understanding accompanied by a healthy respect for the unknown (with the occasional small poo in the boardies).  

Exit… Sovereign Nation… Off The Grid.  Much more than simply names of sailboats.   They reflect particular mindsets… unique ways of thinking… complete changes in thought processing.

With time, we began to sense that shift of perspective.  With time, we began to realize that, once again, we were controlling the direction of our lives.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.

Somehow or another, that crazy book had once again made the cut of what was deemed precious enough to bring along when we moved aboard our floating home, S/V Exit.

And it echoed the reality that, even aboard our own floating empire, we were still subject to outside influences and the inevitable ups and downs of life.

Nearly three years and nine thousand nautical miles later, as we sailed Exit from Grand Cayman on Friday the 13th, March 2020, we had no concept of how the following six months would unfold. 

Little did we know that we were headed for…

The Waiting Place…

Briefly, we were caught in the wake of the ripple effect involving the first Covid-19 lockdowns.  Providencia and San Andreas, Colombia turned us away while we were twenty miles away.  Bocas del Toro locked everything down the morning after our arrival.  And, for a time, we were fearful we would once again be cast out as refugees.

But, eventually, we were granted visas and allowed to join the rest of Panama… and, for that matter, the rest of the globe, in the process of doing nothing…

Everyone is just waiting.

A perpetual planetary time out for almost our entire species.  Pandemic.

A month… then a month becomes sixty days… then sixty days turns into three months… which quickly exceeds a hundred days… suddenly four months have passed… then five. 

Then… finally… after six months, it seemed as though the global haze could actually be slowly lifting.

A hesitant easing of Covid lockdown restrictions in Bocas del Toro—- coinciding with what looked to be our final struggles to rectify a complicated windlass, chain, and anchor issue which had, in and of itself, brought us to a virtual standstill for months —- allowed us to start moving the mothership about more freely once again.

Somehow you’ll escape
all that waiting and staying.

Which brings us full circle to October 2, 2020.  Thirty eight years after that first date.  Twelve years after our exodus from the United States.  

Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So… get on your way!

Maybe not our mountain… but very possibly our ocean. 

OH, THE PLACES WE’LL GO!  It’s just what the Doctor ordered, ya know…

Timeless…

Author’s Note:

Now, to be fair, I have always been a Dr. Seuss fan.  A fierce independence seems to course through the characters who pass on lessons and ideas from within unlimited and imaginative worlds via incredibly creative poetry, language, and storylines.  Still, teaching children the confidence to resist being persuaded to eat questionable foods like green eggs rings a bit more common-sensible…

On the other hand, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” seems to resonate like the bizarre combined poetic interpretations of Mr. Rogers, Dr. Phil, and Rick Steves… all wrapped up with an even stranger personal resonance of some Nostradamus-type-deja-vu-familiarity.  More like a mushroom induced overnight contemplation than a bedtime story… certainly far deeper shit than ever came out of the mouth of any purple dinosaur!

In the interest of full disclosure (just in case someone failed to realize), all above italicized, center spaced text stanzas are excerpts from “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” written by Dr. Seuss.  Without having gained the expressed permission to reproduce these excerpts, I am counting on the Doctor’s unmistakable sense of cool to look beyond any thought of legal action.  Barney can fuck off.

Don’t Overthink That Which Keeps You Grounded

Jumping ahead to the last page…

September 21 – 30, 2020:   South Anchorage outside Bocastown

After three months of sitting, we were finally on the move again.  Our ship had literally just come in and the shit we needed had just been offloaded.

In a nutshell:

Our old 1992 Goiot windlass

Our windlass needed to be replaced and there was no way around it.  The 1/2” chain was fine, but well over-sized for our boat (every other boat we met carried 3/8”) and the 150 feet we had was only half of what we wanted/needed.  Our Rocna 25kg anchor was okay, but on the small side for our boat…

Panama shipping issues meant we couldn’t guarantee the arrival of equipment shipping from Europe, even though this more than doubled the prices, and we were severely limited with who we could even get products delivered from.

After literally months of wrestling with options —- logistical feasibility, safety considerations, cost, availability, endless combinations…

In the end, the winning combination turned out to be a new Lofrans Tigres windlass with three hundred fifty feet of new (downsized) 3/8” G40 chain attached to a new (upsized) Rocna 33kg anchor.

Because we were able to secure everything through a company that shipped directly to Bocas Marina as a marine retail supplier, we avoided having to use the area’s regular shipping outlet which routed every package through a Miami address, circumventing all additional customs fees and delays that seem to plague every other shipping company.  But at a fee of six dollars per pound, that would have added about four thousand dollars to the bill!

I may (or may not) have been able to sort out the necessary rewiring if that’s all that would be involved.   However, while it was clear that the footprint of the new windlass was far closer than anything else to the windlass currently bolted to the deck, it was still going to require some modifications and/or aluminum fabrication to properly mount to the current deck plate.

Re-enter stage left:  Martin, the South African mechanic extraordinaire. 

Thirty dollars an hour transferred the burden of success from me to him.  Instead of insurmountable problems, we were now paying for Martin to navigate through curious challenges. 

Relatively cheap insurance.

And, as before, there was no fucking about.

*****

We returned to Bocastown the morning after hearing the shipment had arrived at Bocas Marina.  We had no sooner dropped anchor in the South anchorage when Martin appeared alongside in his dinghy, ready to dig in.   

I still hadn’t fully wrapped my head around how this was all going to play out.  We had to switch windlasses, which would NOT be as simple as unbolting the old one and bolting the new one into the existing holes… some kind of adaptor (presumably an aluminum plate) would need to be designed, fabricated, and fitted to the original deck plate… but the ground tackle we were currently sitting on would require the old windlass to be brought up… nearly a thousand pounds of gear had to get from Bocas Marina onto Exit… the new 3/8” chain and anchor would need to be deployed while the old 1/2” chain and anchor still had to come up…

Oh ya… and our generator, the only option for AC power aboard the boat (that would likely be needed for power tools) had given up the ghost in a gigantic puff of definitive white smoke back in August. 

Oh ya… and we couldn’t forget about the boats anchored around us. 

Stop. 

Breathe.

The initial hope of pulling this all off without having to tie up in the marina now appeared farther and farther fetched as we recognized endless questions that seemed, at best, to generate ambiguous possibilities rather than clear answers.

How could we possibly switch out everything while we were at anchor?

To me, we obviously still needed to think this through a bit more…

Martin then proceeded to unbolt the old windlass and pulled it off the deck.

The “boom…done” part of no fucking about.

It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.  We won’t know what that is until we get into it…  

The bold can-do attitude of a man who will only charge thirty dollars an hour while he’s fixing something.

Measurements were taken.  Discussions were had.  

The small discrepancy between the new and old windlass’ bolt patterns created a far more complicated situation than we had hoped for.   With the hawspipe (the chain’s entry point through the deck) dictating the overall windlass alignment, we discovered the two front windlass bolts were exactly aligned with a thick aluminum cross-brace under the deck… shit.

It was at points like this that we really appreciated Martin’s approach.  While uncompromising in what needed to be done from the perspective of structure and safety as well as aesthetics, he recognized when enough was enough.  On more than one occasion, he pointed out when he thought the end result of something would be hard pressed to justify the cost involved.

Compromise, as is always the case on a boat, was inevitable.  

Solution:  the new windlass bolted securely to a thick aluminum plate which is itself, in turn, bolted securely through the deck to the existing plate already welded to the deck.

For the aluminum plate, Martin reached out to a bloke named Kiwi Dave.

Day 1:  Dave is meeting someone else that day and can’t fit us in.
Day 2:  Dave discovers he’s mistaken.  He doesn’t have the aluminum plating after all.  Not even enough to weld multiple pieces together.  Delivery from Costa Rica could take six weeks (I was quickly regretting having pulled the other windlass).  We went to town desperately, though ultimately unsuccessfully, seeking an alternative.
Day 3:  Another call to Dave clarifies that he, in fact, DOES have the materials needed to fabricate our plate.  It will take twenty four hours and cost $80.
Day 4:  Dave has no power.
Day 5:  Sunday.  Lockdown.  Nobody goin’ no where…
Day 6:  Kiwi Dave delivers.  One ten millimeter thick aluminum plate welded, ground, and polished, in hand.

Of course, for the past week we have been in the south anchorage, far too close to other boats for our liking, still sitting on our old chain and anchor, with a very prominent empty space where our windlass should be.

Of course, for the past week it has also been volatile as hell for weather.  It is enlightening to learn that the transitional months between Panama’s typical wet and dry seasons, apparently September and October this year, can become very unpredictable with shifting winds, abrupt squalls, and intense lightning storms… fucking perfect.

From still to 30+ knots in minutes

This week the shit had been hitting the fan almost every night.

Fortunately, multiple anxious night time moments never further elevated into situations or incidents. 

And the days were more cooperative in allowing no fucking about progress to forge steadily on.

At least with overcast days we avoided the 140 degree temperatures the bare metal deck reached in direct sunlight!

The old wiring came out… the hard way.  The new solenoid and circuit breaker were installed.  The aluminum adaptor plate was now in hand.  The plate was fitted and trimmed, and all holes drilled or cut.  The new wiring went in.  The new windlass control connector was installed in the deck.  

The aluminum plate was secured and the windlass was bolted down… Ooooooweee, did that motherfucker look pretty!

Finally, the up button on the controller was pressed – the windlass gypsy sprang to life in one direction.  The down button yielded the same result in the opposite direction… Ooooooweee, did it run quietly!

We brought the dinghy to shore at Bocas Marina, remembered to mark the chain lengths (a much easier task to do before the chain goes in the bow locker rather than after), hoisted the new chain by hand into the dinghy and then fed it straight through Exit’s bow roller and into the locker with new windlass… Ooooooweee, did that come out of the dinghy easier than it went in!

The new Rocna 33 already sat on deck.  It gleamed brilliant silver in the fierce sunlight, like some fit Hollywood hero awaiting a grand entry just off-camera.  The new anchor was shackled to the new chain and reinforced with wire to guarantee the shackle pin couldn’t back out accidentally.

And…

The moment of truth…

Now, remind me, how exactly are we going to…?

Boom… done!  

Huh?  What just happened?

Ah, yes.  More of the no fucking about.

I almost missed it, and I was there.  Let me rewind and replay in slo-mo.

Engine on, Kris at the helm, me and Martin at the bow.  The new Rocna 33, with the new 3/8” chain attached, gets lowered ten feet (half way to the bottom) by the new windlass whereupon the chain is  snubbed off, moved off the roller and set alongside over the toe rail… (watch fingers!)  Then, while Kris slowly motors forward, the 1/2” chain is heaved up manually by Martin & myself, which is actually do-able with two people (watch fingers!), and snubbed off when we reach the anchor.  Kris pulls forward a bit more to break the anchor loose, and we finish hauling up the old chain and anchor (watch fingers!), letting Exit drift backwards on the mild breeze until we are happy with the spot.  The old anchor is lifted off the bow roller and moved out of the way, making room to move the new chain and anchor, which had been hanging off the toe rail nearby, back onto the bow roller (watch fingers!).  New anchor and chain down.  Out.  And set.  Wham… bam… thank you ma’am!  Old anchor and chain on deck.  Exit sitting comfortably on new 3/8” chain and new Rocna 33 anchor… and don’t forget that new Lofrans Tigres windlass on deck.  Ooooooweee… does that new gear shine!  

All ten fingers still attached.  Muy bueno.

We had managed to successfully switch out our windlass, chain, and anchor, while at anchor.  And by “we”, of course I mean “we paid less than five hundred dollars so that we could largely watch Martin turn insurmountable problems into curious challenges,” proving that shit can, in fact, get done provided you don’t overthink that which keeps you grounded.  

That evening, as we toasted a pair of gin and tonics with extra ice and discussed picking up our new anchor and chain the next day to head somewhere new because… well, because we could… the wind started kicking up quite a stink.  For the first time, in a very long time, that really didn’t matter.

Sunset.  Fade to black.  And with that, the curtain closes on the final scene of our “Windlass-less Saga” drama… hopefully.