Out Of The Fire, Into The Frying Pan

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Cheers from Bocas del Toro!

April 2 – 12, 2020

“I have some very bad news…”

Noooooooooo!  As the fading echoes of a silent scream still rattled around in my head, the man behind the desk in the Port Captain’s office looked back at his phone and continued.

“… I don’t know how to say this…”

I was now certain we were being thrown out of Panama.  But… what the fuck had just happened?  Things seemed to be going so well up to that point.

*****

Rewind twenty four hours:

Free at last… free at last.  

We could almost taste the freedom.  It was the morning of April 2nd and our fourteen day quarantine was complete.

An official boat, rather beat up on the sides but identified with “POLICE” in big letters on top of its canopy, pulled up slowly alongside us.  It was right on schedule based upon what the Port Captain had told us on the VHF radio the day before.

Two health workers in crisp hospital scrubs and masks, plus one captain in a faded t-shirt… no mask, but a baseball cap.

They asked, had we experienced any symptoms over the past two weeks?

No.

Coughing?

No.

Any fever?

No (we indicated we have a thermometer and had been checking regularly).

They confirmed our temperature by pressing a device of their own against each of our foreheads.  Any potential facial expressions were hidden behind their surgical masks; however, both numbers that popped up on their thermometer display appeared to elicit a nod… a good sign, we thought.

After a few more questions, both health workers seemed satisfied that everything was in order.  The boat captain seemed content… a good sign, we thought.

They indicated that the Immigration Officer would be out in about half an hour.

*****

A different boat pulled up slowly alongside us.  It was right on schedule based upon what the health officials had told us thirty minutes ago.

Three immigration officials in crisp uniforms and masks; one captain in a faded t-shirt… no mask, same baseball cap.

Very polite individuals.

A whole new approach these days.  Apparently a kinder, gentler nation.

One, who appeared most senior in both age and rank, spoke very good English.  A downright chatty guy.  He thumbed through our passports.

The second guy had an automatic weapon.  But this time, he seemed more like a color guard for show, rather than muscle to flex.  Not a bit chatty.

The third guy – tall, skinny, features hidden behind a surgical mask.  His job:  go belowdecks and take a look around… inspect the fruit… ask about the contents of the fridge and freezer… peek into the head…

“Todo bien,” he says.  All good.

A short time later, we are handed back our passports, stamped with fresh Panamanian ink indicating we’re legal here for six months.  Nice… a good sign, we thought.

We are then politely informed that we owe one hundred dollars, and given instructions to take our dinghy to the Port Captain’s office to receive our cruising permit.

Huh?… the Port Captain’s office?  [fade in ominous soundtrack]

*****

An hour later, we pulled up to a rickety wooden dock in our dinghy, next to the massive cement ferry dock, right beside the Port Captain’s office.

Eric, owner and captain of M/V Sprezzatura, along with Katie, his crew, had tied off his dinghy just moments before our arrival.  We had engaged in endless conversations over the past two weeks, yet, we had never physically been in the same place.

And, though our recently shared harrowing experiences would previously have warranted handshakes and hugs — now, we breached social distancing protocol only far enough to exchange elbow bumps.

A whole new approach these days.

The woman sitting at the Port Captain’s desk was polite, but stern.  Not a word of English.

Possibly the angry woman behind the surgical mask in the Navy boat fourteen days earlier…?

…hard to tell.

Probably best not to ask.

Polite, but stern.  Quite alright.

After a large number of questions… clarifications… forms completed, signed, and stamped… the Port Captain appeared satisfied with everything, and informed us that our cruising permit would be available the following morning.  A good sign, we thought.

The following morning we returned to the same rickety wooden dock.  I entered the Port Captain’s front office, eager to make the final exchange:  a final two hundred  dollar payment for a piece of paper stating S/V Exit could legally remain in Panamanian waters for one year.  Meanwhile, Kris did a bit of a reconnaissance around the area.

Inside, Morgan was an exceptionally friendly guy at the desk just outside a glass office cubicle.  No mask.  He wrote down his name and number on a piece of a paper and said to call if we needed anything.  He apologized for all the earlier drama.  Wow.

Inside the glass office cubicle, the process was painfully slow.  Certainly, not just picking up a completed document.  The guy inside had a mask on.  I had to come in to provide some information, then step back outside the door.

He was friendly enough.  It just took forever for him to work through the triplicate form he slowly pecked away at on none other than — I shit you not — an antiquated Brother typewriter!

Bocas Port Captain Office

He seemed to be distracted by his phone, constantly referring back to it, engaging in some sort of back and forth texting.

Eventually, he motioned for me to come back in.

I stood in front of his desk.  He looked up from his phone.

“I have some very bad news…”

Noooooooooo!  As the fading echoes of a silent scream still rattled around in my head, the man behind the desk in the Port Captain’s office looked back at his phone and continued.

“… I don’t know how to say this…”

I was now certain we were being thrown out of Panama.  But… what the fuck had just happened?  Things seemed to be going so well up to that point.

His gaze returned to me.  It was unnerving to have his expression completely hidden behind the surgical mask… like The Executioner.

“… the Minister of Health…”

Shit.  Here it comes…

“…has just informed me…”

All this time we spent… fuck.

“…that you will not be allowed to move from where you are anchored.”

Huh?  Processing… processing… wheels spinning…

Finally, words sputtered out of my mouth.  “But… our cruising permit is okay?”

“Yes,” he said. “The Minister of Health has just said that nobody can move from where they currently are anchored.  Is that okay?”

It’s not like there were many options to choose between…

I decided against telling him that was unacceptable and that we would be leaving immediately.

“Of course,” is what came out of my mouth, realizing that I was now the only person among more than fifty boats at anchor who absolutely would not be able to say, “I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to move… oops.”

We had just come full circle: from being told we did not have permission to stay and had to move Exit immediately to being told we did have permission to stay and could not move Exit indefinitely… strange times.

Out of the quarantine and into the curfew.

Or… out of the fire (potential ejection from Panama) and into the frying pan (literally, the deck of our aluminum boat is one hundred twenty five degrees in the sun).

One hour allowed in town, with thirty minutes on either side to get to and from your home.  My time 9am on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  Kris’ time 10am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  No excursions together, at least for now.  

Complicated.  

Sometimes, however, after twenty three hours in tight quarters lockdown, that hour needed to be fully utilized, whether shopping was needed or not.

The country-wide prohibition on alcohol sales was being taken very seriously by grocery stores.  In Bocas Town, any attempt to purchase beer, booze, or wine (ignoring the multiple signs prohibiting the sale of liquor) was met with a shaking head.  No dice…

However, one grocery store on the small island of Cayo Carenero, right next to us, was a bit more understanding of the situation.  Bottles of booze, cans of beer, or boxes of wine discreetly brought to the counter in a shopping bag were quietly rung through the cash register.  My surgical mask doubled as both a preventative health tool as well as a cloak and dagger prop…

Still, we had already learned that it was best to stay off the radar.  Minimizing transgressions that could land a person in the spotlight seemed rather prudent, given the circumstances.

Despite that, I managed to gain the attention and ire of the patrolling police boat on Easter afternoon.  I was treading water, no more than fifty feet in front of our boat (in what I would consider the front yard), actually checking our anchor ten feet below me.

As the police boat slowed to within thirty feet of me, the officer at the bow snapped a  look at me that left no question as to his degree of seriousness, and snapped a finger at Exit that left no question as to where he expected me to be.

Not a word.  It wasn’t necessary.

It was Sunday.  Twenty four hour curfew for everyone.

Busted.

A week in the life:

Quarantine… A Two Week Passage At Anchor

April 1, 2020

For a change, it seems that we are actually in front of the pack.

We officially entered into quarantine status here at Bocas del Toro late afternoon of March 19, 2020, effectively being granted at least a temporary sanctuary.  It is now April.  The last time we were ashore was March 13, when we picked up our spear guns and duty-free alcohol just before departing Grand Cayman.  For the past fourteen days, we have not been outside a two hundred fifty foot diameter circle… the total scope of our swing here at anchor in the North Anchorage of Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Fourteen days composed of minor variations within a static picture.

Different time of day… same view.

Same view… different time of day.

What had started off as only two boats in quarantine, S/V Exit and M/V Sprezzatura — only recently acquainted by voice over the VHF as the result of being in the same bizarre circumstance, had now evolved into an entire anchorage and community, actually an entire globe, essentially in the same quarantine situation.

Over the course of two weeks, it has been staggering to witness how the coronavirus has influenced the quickly shifting policies and perspectives, both globally as well as locally, here in Bocas del Toro.

*****

It’s hard to describe the feelings and emotions you experience when you are absolutely uncertain whether your current sense of security is nothing more than a fleeting moment.

Sure, things can go to shit at any time for anyone (the cliche strike from either a lightning bolt or passing bus)… but a general assumption that everything will remain at least somewhat consistent for the immediate future is pretty much a requirement for anyone  even attempting to cope with the actual uncertainties of the world… if that makes sense.

When that security is merely a moment to moment reality, rather than a foregone conclusion, it changes everything.

We spent two days hoping we were actually in “official quarantine status”, which was what we had been told.  In actuality, we genuinely expected the Navy boat to roll up again, at any moment, with angry people holding guns.

The morning after our return to the anchorage, the Navy boat did actually show up at M/V Sprezzatura, asking what they were doing back again… a moment of high tension…

It turned out the Navy’s morning shift hadn’t been briefed regarding all that had transpired the previous afternoon, and were lacking the current intel that we were on an “authorized to anchor” status.

For fuck’s sake…

The prudent approach:  hope for the best, prepare for the worst.  At this point, the hoping for the best part was gaining much more attention than the prepare for the worst part.

Keeping track of weather, monitoring the border situations in other countries (not just nearby countries that might offer alternative destinations, but also a more global awareness of what trends were taking place that could change existing policies), trying to sort out our transmission issue and making sure everything else mechanical was in good maintenance standing, looking at our existing provisions and inventories aboard from a longer term perspective of resupply uncertainties…  all things currently in the mix.  If we found ourselves being forced to keep moving, these factors would all come into play.

Not to mention trying to keep up with other peoples’ stories… family, friends, other people dealing with the same situation… not so different.

With each new day came international news updates.  More and more countries were closing their borders.  Some, like Galapagos and French Polynesia, were not only denying entry to boats, they were kicking people out who were not citizens or residents.  If you had just arrived, after weeks at sea, you were allowed only to top up your fuel, water, and food; you then had to continue on.  If you were already there, leave on the boat or leave the boat.

The possibility seemed very real to us that, during fourteen days (quarantined or not), a country may very well change its policies regarding outsiders.  Even after completing our two week isolation at anchor, after confirming no health issues exist, we could easily be told our cruising permit was being denied.  In that case, we would have to leave.

On our third day at anchor, when the Navy boat bombed up alongside us late in the afternoon, our initial reaction was… oh, shit.  When they asked if all was okay… were we good?  That seemed like a shift of the tides.

The following morning an announcement was made, on the net, that a 9pm-9am curfew was in effect for all of Panama.  People were being told everywhere on the planet to stay home… isolate.

A day or two later, the curfew was changed… 5pm-5am.

A few days after that it became twenty two hour lockdown.  Based upon the last digit of your passport number corresponding to a specific time on the clock, everyone (citizens and visitors alike), had one hour to be out and about with thirty minutes on either side to commute.  Other than that… social isolation.  Everything was closed except for critical businesses and agencies.

Nobody out after dark.

And then they stopped selling liquor.

Then individuals were limited one hour out, still corresponding to your passport number, but only three days a week – Monday, Wednesday, Friday for women; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday for men.  On Sunday, nobody was to be out.

The Panama Canal stopped allowing boats less than sixty five feet in length to transit the canal. 

Over a dozen cruise ships were currently stranded at sea with passengers aboard, looking for ports that would accept them.

The entire world was entering into quarantine… it seemed ours had just started a bit earlier.  For once, we were ahead of the world; and you don’t hear that very often at all, on a sailboat.

Still, the true precariousness of our situation was very sobering. 

If we were told we couldn’t remain here, our options were extremely limited.  Nicaragua, Mexico, and the U.S. may be the only countries along the entire east coast of North, Central, or South America as well as most of the Caribbean allowing boats into their waters… today, that is.

This didn’t even address the possibility that those countries still currently allowing outsiders to enter could very well be a future coronavirus hotspot.

Over the course of our fourteen day quarantine, we were quite surprised to see three other boats arrive with yellow “Q” flags hoisted.

With each new arrival, we found ourselves experiencing very mixed emotions.  On one hand, it was relief and happiness.  We too, knew what it felt like to arrive and not know if you were going to be allowed to stay.  We wouldn’t want to wish anyone the misfortune of being refused entry to safe harbour.  At the same time, what did this say about our future?  Would we ALL be processed after the quarantine?  Would we slip under the gate, while the other boats found themselves with only temporary refuge?  Or, the worst possibility… were we ALL gonna get tossed out after our two week isolation period.

Globally, things looked like they were getting more and more uncertain.

During the month of March, the number of confirmed coronavirus in the U.S. alone had swelled from eighty eight to over one hundred seventy thousand.

The U.S. had just publicly estimated “best case” estimated fatalities in the 100,000-250,000 range.  Though China and Italy looked as though they could be on the descending part of the curve, over the next two weeks, things were going to get much worse before getting better for a large part of the planet.

Sure… assholes like Rush Limbaugh were still spewing bullshit conspiracy theories that the Democrats and Communists were behind the entire situation.  But, most people, at least those who weren’t making a shit ton of money or had at least some sensibility, saw this for what it was – a serious health threat.  Not a hoax.  Not a political maneuver.  Not a business opportunity.

We fully realized that, if Panama locked things down any tighter, we’d be fucked for sure.  But, given the situation, we also couldn’t ask for a much better location to let things play out.

For now, it was the same for everyone.  Wait and see… 

*****

Then… on what we calculated as the thirteenth day of our quarantine, two rather unbelievable things happened.

First, we had a conversation from deck to deck with the captain of a sailboat that had been towed into the anchorage the night before.  They were flying a “Q” flag.  Apparently, this was the mystery “third boat” from the 19th of March. 

Thirteen days ago, they were entering the channel just as Exit and Sprezzatura were lifting anchor (after having been delivered a 10 minute countdown and told to leave the country).  We hadn’t noticed them just in front of us before we altered course away from the channel as we tried to sneak away into the bay, awaiting further news from Fabian.

Now, from the deck on S/V Manna, the captain yelled over that they too had been denied entry right after seeing us turn but, instead of following us, they had turned about and headed back out of the channel.  We never knew they were there.  Three hundred miles later, as they tried to make for Florida, their transmission died.  With no motor, they turned back, with the wind, toward Panama, and headed south until the wind eventually died.  Finally, thirty miles outside Bocas del Toro for the second time, it took twenty four hours before the port captain granted permission for them to enter!  Once again, it was the amazing Fabian whose negotiating prowess had moved both earth and sky to secure this.  They were now apparently being granted permission anchorage for only long enough to secure repairs on their transmission.

We learned they had left Jamaica on Friday, March 13… the same day we had left Grand Cayman.  Neither of us had been ashore since that day.  At least we had been at anchor for the last thirteen days and not out at sea.  Holy crap!

The second unbelievable thing… we actually received a call on the VHF during the afternoon from the port captain. Amid a long string of incomprehensible sentences spoken in Spanish at light speed, we gathered that their math had, indeed, agreed with ours.  As far as we could tell, a doctor/health official was to visit both Exit and Sprezzatura sometime in the morning to assess our health.  If we pass the test, we believe they will tell us:  “now fuck off, and get out of Panama…”

No… we hope that is not the case.  We shall see what unfolds exactly as it unfolds.  No previews here. 

Anyway, it looks like we made it to the next elimination round, whatever that means.

****

It has occurred to me just how ironic it is when, in many ways, our quarantine status could be described as, essentially, an additional two week passage at anchor.

Living aboard Exit full time, our life already more or less follows (or at least parallels) a permanently self-imposed semi-quarantine status.  As far as reliance on the world of dirt, we already strive to be as completely off the grid and self-sufficient as possible — a daily way of life, rather than a temporary inconvenience.

Involving the outside world, or venturing into the outside world, often creates a complicated sequence requiring much more time and logistical navigating than ever before.  Furthermore, just needing something does not guarantee access or availability.

In a way… welcome to our everyday world.

The ability to go a month without having to set foot ashore is something we aspire to.

That having been said, it is nice to at least have the option to at least get off the boat…

*****

How does one occupy time during a fourteen day quarantine at anchor?

Tasks and chores:

New crops and new endeavors:

Keeping the brain stimulated:

Getting exercise:

Food experiments:

Killing time in quarantine
Skillet pizza…

Snowball fights:

IMG_3771
WTF?

Alright.  That one does deserve an explanation.  On only day three of our quarantine, I was already starting to show possible signs of mental instability and/or resourceful creativity.  Just a hair north of nine degrees of Latitude, snowballs only come from… defrosting the refrigerator.

Spit Out Of The Mouth Of The Bull

March 19, 2020

Part Six in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

After a number of, what we thought were, well-deserved cockpit cocktails and a solid eight hours of sleep, we awoke with a much more optimistic vigor than we had fallen asleep with.

Fabian’s last correspondence had indicated that we would be expected to undergo a two to three week quarantine time spent isolated within the anchorage —- our own federally mandated social distancing —- after which a visit by health officials would open the door for final approval of a cruising permit.

We had heard reports that some people had been waiting as long as six weeks for the processing of a cruising permit to pan out here (this was before the shit hit the fan).  Still, for us, the important thing was that we had a place to stay.  We had plenty of provisions for whatever quarantine time was required, could make our own water and power, and sit tight for as long as it took.

Frankly, there were not many other options outside of Panama.  Any farther south was land.  To the west, was Costa Rica with no Caribbean side options at all.  To the north, the pirate risks of the Nicaraguan Banks.  To the east, Columbia and it’s relentless forty to fifty knot winds.

Motoring into the wind, all the way back to the Caymans?  Argh.

The Panama Canal was still allowing small vessel transits, at last report… but borders were closing everywhere.  We knew, first hand, how countries or even ports could shift from allowing vessels access to being in complete lockdown while you were in transit to them.

But we now had sanctuary.  

Our information was being passed on to the Port Captain by Fabian…

It took a number of hails before we recognized that the barrage of Spanish being fired across the VHF around 9am or so was actually the Port Captain.  The machine gun rate of delivery made it impossible to decipher anything…

Finally, we realized that ‘ex-a-tay’  was us!

Rough start, right out of the gates…

Fabian had warned us that this guy was a real asshole.

After a series of painfully difficult to understand and translate questions and answers, the Port Captain had apparently heard enough.

We were told that we were not allowed to remain in Bocas del Toro, and we must leave Panama waters immediately.

We asked for permission to remain at anchor, without coming ashore, for twenty four hours.

No.

Simultaneously, we were texting and speaking on the phone with both Eric and Fabian.

Fabian was corresponding with the Port Captain.

There was a lot of back and forth communications in every direction.  Should we go public with this over an anchorage-wide VHF channel?  Do we let things play out behind the scenes and hope for the best?

A twenty to twenty five foot fiberglass boat with dual two hundred horsepower engines, a menacing looking rail over the helm, scuffed grey paint, and four men in camouflage fatigues holding automatic weapons —- the Panamanian Navy —- pulled up alongside us.

Mostly it was Spanish.  One of the guys spoke a little English.

Essentially… You can’t stay here.  You must leave immediately.

After trying to communicate to them that we were, at that moment, speaking with both the Bocas Marina manager and the Port Captain, as well as trying to relay that we needed additional time to address a transmission fluid leak that had developed underway, the men on the Navy boat seemed a bit uncertain how to proceed.

Apparently, it was adequate for them to have made a physical presence and reiterate the original message that we were not welcome here.  They told us to, “just stay here,” in English while making what we interpreted as the universal hand gesture of patting the air in front, hands down.  

Okay.  Exactly what we wanted to do, anyway.

Enter: siesta time. And everything seems to grind to a complete halt…

…fast forward to the middle of the afternoon.

We had grown accustomed to having a quick glance around anytime we heard an outboard engine running nearby.  A whole lot of water taxis… dinghies… local boats.  

This time it was the roar of dual 200hp engines… the navy boat.  Shit.

Still grey… still with military guys in camouflage fatigues holding guns… still menacing… plus a woman in civilian clothes wearing a face mask.

She didn’t speak any English.  Didn’t really have to.  She was pissed off.  

One of the guys in fatigues clarified this… either merely echoing her sentiments or translating verbatim.

“What were we still doing here?  We had been told hours ago to leave and we acknowledged that order, so why hadn’t we left?  Why hadn’t we mentioned engine trouble to the Port Captain this morning?  Everybody uses that excuse…”

We were not going to get anywhere here.  This quickly became obvious.  We tried to explain that when we asked for twenty four hours at anchor, no one was interested in even discussing why… we tried to explain that the Navy boat had clearly instructed us to stay where we were five hours ago… 

Not interested… yelling… yelling… yelling.  

“You have food?  Yes. You have water?  Yes. Then pick up your anchor and go.”

All we could do was apologize, make subordinate gestures, and say okay… we understood.

We called Sprezzatura to give them a heads up that the navy boat was coming.  We mutually decided that the time had come to to go public with the conversation over the VHF.

Immediately we were hailed by one of the long time ex-pats who wanted to know details.

As we were trying to reply, the Port Captain broke into the conversation clarifying that we had just been given ten minutes to depart.

Someone asked if we’d tried to contact the U.S. Embassy… someone recommended we head for Mexico as they hadn’t closed their borders… someone told us not to lift anchor; we should just stay put… immediately someone else said that was bad advice and we needed to comply with the Port Captain’s order.

Again, the voice of the Port Captain… “What was eight minutes is now seven.”

We were informed by another voice that International Maritime Law dictated that we be allowed 14 days once we have set anchor at a given location.  I replied that, while I certainly appreciated that interpretation, the guys with automatic weapons were telling us otherwise.

‘You now have five minutes.”

I announced into the mic that we were out of time, and had no choice but to pick up anchor.  All we could do was monitor the channel for additional information or advice while we slowly motored towards the channel, just behind Sprezzatura.

Refused at Bocas del Toro
Refused entry at Bocas del Toro.  Heading back towards the channel following Sprezzatura.

Ever since our first correspondence with Fabian the day before, he had been working tirelessly behind the scenes to get our entry to Bocas del Toro secured.  We weren’t his customers; weren’t staying at the marina… still, he had been amazing.  

Now, he called us on the phone and recommended that we quietly divert to an isolated anchorage on the far side of the bay, miles away.  He, as well as a delegation of cruisers and ex-pats, were immediately going to the Port Captain’s office to try to get a face to face meeting.

Despite not holding out much hope for a reprieve —- not to mention the fact that we were absolutely terrified of having our change in direction being spotted by the Navy, who could very well be watching our departure through binoculars —- we changed course, motored along, and waited… either for a call from Fabian… or until we saw the Navy boat torpedoing towards us.  Non-compliance was always viewed by authorities as an international invitation for an escalation of force.

It had been around an hour since we had lifted anchor; probably forty minutes since we had made the course change CLEARLY signaling to any observer that we were obviously not departing Bocas del Toro.  We had travelled about five miles and were going to have to make a decision pretty soon.

We had already discussed options with Sprezzatura.  

Nobody was considering motoring back into the wind all the way to the Caymans… yet.  

If we stayed here overnight, we would be in a SERIOUSLY bad way if we were discovered by the authorities; and there had been no word from Fabian.  We were an hour into serious fugitive refugee status with not more than a couple of hours of daylight remaining.

If we left Bocas del Toro, our best bet was an overnight journey to a place called Shelter Bay.  Eric had been there.  They were extraordinarily isolated, which would help our quarantine status request.  The guy at the marina there was very cruiser-friendly and had an immense amount of local pull.  We wouldn’t be dealing with this Port Captain.  Last update indicated Shelter Bay was still allowing arrivals for quarantine status. 

A long list in the plus category in favor of going.  But, first, we’d have to get there to find out if we could get in, and it looked like another razor thin margin to even make a daylight arrival… shit.

Tick… tock.  Tick… tock.

We were only using the phone now, not wanting to be heard over the radio.

A text came in… from Eric.  

Fabian had just confirmed that, after meeting with the delegation, the Port Captain had reconsidered his previous decision.  We were now being granted permission to return to the North Anchorage of Bocas Town to anchor and begin a fourteen day quarantine aboard our vessel.

Fabian had pulled a miracle rabbit out of the hat (his efforts deserve far more praise and recognition than we can ever offer; truly a good person going above and beyond the call of duty in difficult times).  Thank you  Fabian!  

And, though we later would learn that there existed voices within the delegation who vehemently argued for us to be kicked out of Panama, a number of cruisers and long-term ex-pats who remain anonymous to us also deserve huge thanks for going to bat for us. 

Despite everything that’s just happened and the uncertainty of everything that’s unfolding… 

6:00pm – S/V Exit and M/V Sprezzatura are officially under quarantine at anchor in the North Anchorage just off Bocas Town.  Sundowners in the cockpit.  A toast with Sprezzatura… from four hundred feet away.  Social distancing, ya know.

(Author’s note: The next morning Shelter Bay announced it was no longer allowing vessels to enter.  We would still have been twelve hours away when that policy went into effect.)

Sanctuary In The Mouth Of The Bull

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Still optimistic…

Still March 18, 2020

Part Five in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

The concept of motor sailing had been given up on hours ago.  Wind direction, which had been almost directly behind us, became irrelevant once it was only occasional gusts to five which offset the threes or maybe fours we were seeing on the wind speed display.  We had sailed as long as we could; then motorsailed until our forward speed exceeded the wind speed, causing the sails to actually start backing in an apparent reverse wind, at which point we dropped the sails, and tried to stop watching the speed and the clock.

With less than four hours until sunset, we had not only stopped gaining on M/V Sprezzatura, we had been steadily losing ground.  We were now closer to seven miles behind them and still had over thirty miles to get to the channel entrance.  

Even at seven knots of speed, we’d fall short.

Despite having a large pod of dolphins visit us to ride our bow wake —- an event we would normally consider a very non-committal half-superstitious potentially good omen —- on two separate occasions even, we were not going to make the channel before dark… not even close.

Eric and Katy would make it.  At least we’d get advance notice of anything critical, not to mention some real time intelligence from someone who had just dropped the hook with the benefit of light; and knowledge.  Eric had been here before.

The most recent email Kris had just gotten access to, from Fabian, the manager of Bocas Marina provided the most promising news we’d heard in quite some time.  Fabian, who would prove to be absolutely superhuman in the amount of effort he put forth on our behalf over the week to come, had been unable to absolutely confirm what would happen to us upon our arrival.  Now he said that he had been told directly by the port authorities that we would be granted access to the anchorage.  A two to three week quarantine remaining isolated on the boat would be a precursor for any further consideration.  

A bit ambiguous… but, hey… at this point we were looking for a safe anchorage…sanctuary.

The only note I made in the log book, from the time we entered the channel until after our anchor was set and we had downed our second drink was… fucking dark.

Navionics was a blessing… perfectly accurate Eric had relayed.  Just follow the depths.

Not untrue at all.  The channel was quite wide and deep.  No problem really, except the “flying by instruments alone” sense.  The dark changed everything.

In other circumstances, we might have tried to drop anchor somewhere outside the channel and wait until morning.  But our moment of greatest “risk of refusal” came upon our approach to a port, before we had gotten the anchor dropped.  Things were changing too quickly.  Tomorrow they may have a new policy announcement.  A dark arrival meant a stealth arrival… we already knew we’d be okay for a night’s sleep.

Emergency situation… therefore, the “No first time arrivals after dark” rule was officially being temporarily rescinded.

There was enough water vapor in the air that the huge torch I held aloft at the bow reflected an almost fog-like mist that further encroached upon the already non-existent visibility.  I couldn’t tell what was what in the distance… only lights.  No lit navigational markers where they were indicated to be on the chart.

Forty feet back, Kris stood at the helm.  

The realtime self-tracking Navionics chart on the iPad provided her one hundred percent of the intel she was navigating with, outside of the cockpit displays of current depth and speed, and the reports I made walking back and forth.

The realtime light emitted by the Navionics chart on the iPad also killed one hundred percent of her night vision.  Outside of the cockpit, it was black except for a glow coming from the bow… a glow which further reduced her visibility more than illuminated anything she could see.

Forty feet apart, the engine noise overwhelmed any conversational capabilities.  

Nerve racking.

We crept slowly along, through a three and a half mile gauntlet of darkness… occasional boats passing from all directions (some with nav lights, some without)… towards the mast lights that began to differentiate themselves from the lights scattered across the shore… around the unlit steel buoy Eric had warned us about… 

Trying to eyeball space in the dark while approaching other boats at anchor… both difficult and daunting.  Occasional exchanges on the handheld radio between us and Sprezzatura, sitting safely at anchor nearby.

After a number of conversations between Kris and myself, which can only be described in the sense that the tension was both appreciable and understandable, a spot was agreed upon.

Now… 

…our limited experience has shown that different bottom compositions produce different sensations, vibrations, and results on deck.  

Deep sand may have a spongy feel that slows the boat gently before the anchor fully digs in.  Heavy mud may snap the vessel to an instant, dead stop.  Marl can cause vibration in the chain as well as a grinding and scraping sound.  Turtle grass often vibrates as well, but one or the other (given any number of other circumstances) can result in more or less “hiccups”, where the anchor momentarily grabs hold onto something but can’t quite get dug in.

During our first two attempts to set anchor, I felt none of these sensations, vibrations, or results on deck.

It felt like we were dragging our trusty Rocna25 over a fucking sunken cement parking lot.  We would have backed all the way down onto a a two foot shoal had Kris been less vigilant.  Not even a hint of the anchor catching…

We were mentally exhausted, frustrated as hell, and nearing a mutual meltdown.  Finally, after repeated relocations and attempts, it was on our fourth try that the anchor finally set adequately enough for us to sleep that night.

The bay we were in offered essentially complete protection.  Furthermore, the three to five knot winds, which had been our bane for nearly twelve hours, would now provide us, at last, with enough calm to drift into a more content sleep.

We had traveled seven hundred fifty five nautical miles in just under five and a half days – one hundred hours of that under power of sails alone.  

Finally… at least for now… we had found sanctuary in the Mouth of the Bull.  

Tomorrow… we would see.

As for unfamiliar night approaches…

…fuck those.

The “No first time arrivals after dark” rule was officially being reinstated.

Like A Greyhound On The Run

March 18, 2020

Part Four in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

Fast forward six hours…

Kris had been sporadically corresponding with a number of cruisers and marinas in Panama.  Information was valid for literally only the moment it was passed on, as policies and procedures were as fluid and volatile as the seas we were sailing on.  The satellite connection was in and out.  Reports we were getting about Panama were mixed and conflicting —- breakwaters into some harbors like Colon were being patrolled by armed navy boats that were turning people away… no, some were being let through; the Panama Canal had stopped allowing small private vessels to transit… no, some small vessels were still being allowed to transit.  

It was very possible that all the information was correct when it was posted.  However, things were changing at a dizzying and breakneck speed.

It was now sundown and we still had at least one hundred seventy five nautical miles to go before reaching the entrance channel to Bocas del Toro (even if we could keep an “as the crow flies” line).  Our best distance covered in twenty four hours to date so far had been abut one fifty nautical miles, and that was with the Gulf Stream currents in our favor.

We had never sailed this far south so, obviously, we had never been in the harbour of Bocas del Toro.  We had always abided by the rule that we would never enter an unfamiliar harbour for the first time after dark.  

Despite the fact that our electronic Navionics charts had never failed us… missing or changing navigational markers, confusion generated from shore lights, unseen boats either underway or at anchor, shifts in shoaling areas, and a host of other possible hazards had always been too daunting to risk a nighttime approach.

Previously, we had always waited until sunlight could provide a safer approach.  But suddenly everything was not so clear cut.  Things were changing not only from day to day, but from hour to hour.  At this moment, time was not on our side.

Fast forward another eight hours…

4:20am… exactly twenty four hours after we had been turned away from Providencia.  Exit had been like a greyhound on the run.  During that time we had been flying along at between six and eight knots of speed… thirteen to fifteen knot winds on a beam reach… five to six foot seas… pitch blackness all around us… no other boats.  

In some uncanny way, it’s almost as though Exit understood what was at stake, and she was giving everything she had.

Kris had a different theory.  During her watch, between 11pm and 3am, she had watched our depth gauge flash momentary depth readings of between fifty and sixty feet consistently.  The water we were sailing in was three to ten thousand feet deep.  She had heard a big thump against the hull at one point.  Possibly we were being tracked and stalked by a Kraken and Exit is running for her life!!!!

At 4:30, I heard a thump also.  But it was a large flying fish that had, in a moment of stupidity or bad luck, leaped out of the water at the very moment we were passing by.  Bouncing off the inside pontoon of our dinghy, which hung against the stern arch, the flying fish landed on the deck and flopped about desperately, tying to return to the relative safety of the water, thereby avoiding having committed an unintended suicide.  

Or… it too, was trying to escape the savage jaws of the Kraken that potentially hunted us.

I grabbed the wet, slippery fish and quickly tossed it back into the sea.  We’ll never know whether I saved it’s life, or condemned it to death as an appetizer for a black eyed Kraken…

As the dawn arrived, though I can’t speak as to the outcome for the flying fish, we were still sailing like a hellhound (or a Kraken) was hot on our trail.

Though the wind had picked up to a steady sixteen knots and the seas were reaching six to eight feet, our sailing angle was very forgiving of the conditions, and we were comfortably hauling ass at seven to eight knots of speed.  We had actually made good on one hundred seventy nautical miles of distance… a new record for us, and the exact pace we needed to get to Bocas del Toro before sundown.

Two hours later, the seas had actually built up to the point we were seeing waves of between eight and ten feet —- tall, but with a fair interval between them.  At least we were still sailing on an angle of about one hundred twenty degrees, with the waves at just about the same angle.  We were surfing a bit, and had lowered the daggerboard (a fin set just in front of the rudder, liftable from the cockpit —-  not unlike the fin on a surfboard) completely.

As long as there was adequate (but not too much) wind, things remained… uhm… sporty.

And then…

…the damn wind begin to die.  

Fourteeen… then steady at twelve…

It was at about this same time that we received the only boat to boat communications we had experienced thus far during our five day passage.

They identified themselves as Sprezzatura.  During a back and forth radio conversation, we learned that they were one of the boats sharing Governor’s Harbour with us during the last week or so of our stay at Grand Cayman.  They had actually departed a day after us, but had apparently passed us when we diverted towards Providencia. 

Eric, owner and captain of his motor trawler Sprezzatura, with crew mate Katy aboard, indicated he had seen us twenty miles back last night but we had closed the gap to a few miles.

Though we both had AIS, it seemed to cut in and out (possibly the result of AIS being dependent upon close enough proximity of the transponders found on large ships, something that had been strangely far and few in between…blah…blah…blah).

We did remember them from Governor’s Harbour, though we had never met or talked to them.  They were headed for Bocas del Toro as well.  Basically the exact same situation.  It was good to have comrades in arms… mates in the same boat… partners in crime… fellow floating refugees… 

Only time would tell.

By 10am, the winds had dropped below double digits.  At that point I became a firm believer that, as a rule —-and if the rule doesn’t exist, it should —- it is generally a bad thing to be in situations where wave heights exceed wind speeds.

… let me think about that for a moment… Okay, yes… I do stand by that statement.

After running the math, as best we could calculate considering the infinite number of variables, our only chance of reaching the entrance channel to Bocas del Toro (still sixty miles away) before dark was in motoring.  Nothing less than six knots of speed; and that would get us only to the entrance of the channel.

We met a guy on a sailboat during our first time in the Bahamas who… ya… boasted that he always fired up his engine if he couldn’t maintain a minimum six knots of speed.  We thought the guy was a complete and utter  dickhead.

If a Higher Power exists, whom was actually paying attention, there had to be a smile on at least one of the three faces at the very moment we fired up the Perkins and put it into gear.  Ironic… I know.

It’s Okay To Live Like A Refugee

March 15 – 17, 2020

Part Three in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

The Tom Petty lyrics haven’t resonated so much since playing the song with my band mates forty years ago.

*****

After our near miss incident with potential pirates… or, more optimistically, after we saw an innocuous fishing boat in the same area as us that scared the shit out of us, we remained at DEFCON1 alert for quite some time.  That night we maintained our running “dark” status, though we saw no other vessels until the following  day, and those were big cargo ships.

15MAR20
Offshore Post-Pirate Sunrise – Caymans to Panama

The following morning, after motor sailing in nearly non-existent winds for over twelve hours, simply trying to get the hell out of the “danger zone”, once again we began to see an uptick in the numbers on our wind speed indicator.  We were grateful to be far enough south of the shoals that comprise the Nicaraguan Rise that we could begin to breathe easily regarding security matters.  As well, we were ecstatic that we now had enough breeze to shut off the engine and enjoy the more natural and hypnotic sounds of Exit under sail rather than the industrial (not to mention expensive) sounds of our infernal combustion engine (as two of our best sailing compatriots would describe their diesel engine).

We chose, shortly after departing Grand Cayman, to change our initial destination to Providencia – the first of three small groups of islands about one hundred seventy five nautical miles southwest of our current location but still one hundred twenty five miles off the coast.  Though physically closest to Nicaragua, the islands (Providencia, San Andreas, and Albuquerque Cay) are under the control of Columbia.

We had heard that those passing by who opted to make the small detour, diverting from a direct line to Panama, would be rewarded with beautiful scenery, fabulous scuba diving, and a completely chilled and relaxing atmosphere.  Quite an easy sell.

Fourteen to sixteen knot winds and very comfortable seas allowed us to coax seven to eight and a half knots of speed from Exit.  Once again… sailing bliss.  Every minute of latitude further to the south that we passed was a minute further south than we had ever sailed.   

Another twenty four hours later, we were still making great progress under sails alone.  We had completed three days at sea, and all three of us (myself, Kris, and Exit) had found our rhythm.  The only exception came when, during the middle of the afternoon, we motorsailed for a few hours, repositioning ourselves to avoid upcoming shoals as well as setting up our angle of approach which would hopefully allow us to sail overnight and straight to Providencia itself.

Passing squalls that night made for some sporty conditions and challenging sailing when the winds seemed to constantly shift.  Once again, we were grateful for our self-induced policy to keep our mainsail reefed every night, preventing the unpleasant waking of the person off watch when whoever was in the cockpit had to go on deck at night.  Furthermore, keeping the staysail flying constantly helped us to make stellar time.  We could reduce the amount of genoa sail when winds picked up without compromising our speed, instead of hesitating until after it should have already been done.

Everything seemed to be falling into place… not quite five hundred fifty nautical miles travelled…

… and then, at 4:20am of course, came the hail on the VHF radio.

It was the Providencia Port Authorities.  Presumably, they had picked us up on AIS (Automatic Identification System), which we had turned back on after concluding we were well out of any area potentially dangerous for pirate encounters (see previous post).  After all, we were entering one of the highest traffic shipping areas in the world, the area in proximity to the Panama Canal; now we wanted to be seen.

Currently, we were about ten miles outside Providencia and making straight for the island.  We answered the hail and were asked in very broken English what our intentions were.  

We replied that, with their permission, we were hoping to enter Providencia and clear in.

The voice returned over the airwaves.  “We are so, so sorry.  By order of the Colombian Authorities, no boat will be allowed to enter Providencia.  Please continue to your next port of call.”

Shit.  This was not good at all.

We asked, “Is it possible for us to enter the harbour and anchor overnight without coming ashore, just to rest?”

“No.  I’m very sorry.  You cannot enter.  You must continue on,” was the reply.

Our next question was a stupid one.  “Is this because of the coronavirus?”

“Yes.”

The follow up question was less stupid, but we thought we already knew the answer.  “Can we clear in at San Andreas?”

A few moments later he replied.  “I don’t know.”

DCIM100GOPROGOPR5284.JPG
Sunrise just off Providencia – denied entry.

San Andreas was approximately fifty nautical miles further to the south.  Regardless of what they would say, it  was the direction we were heading, anyway.

Eight hours later we were ten miles outside of San Andreas, just beginning day five of our passage when we  received the hail from the San Andreas Port Authorities…

17MAR20.JPG
17MAR20… As close as we would get to San Andreas

Deja vu.

Same conversation.  Same outcome.

Effectively… We’re closed.  Keep going.  Be someone else’s problem.

We could see the trend.  It wasn’t promising.  In fact, it was getting downright scary.

Bocas del Toro was the nearest Panamanian port that we could even potentially clear into, and that was still over two hundred miles away. 

Could we make it before Panama closed their borders as well?

The race was on…

Close Call… Or Nothing At All

March 14, 2020

Part Two in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

Offshore passage from Cayman Islands to Panama.  Seventeen hours underway.

Position:  17º 1.320’ N, 80º 0.246’W (approximately 225nm off shore from Nicaragua, east of the Nicaraguan Rise)

Time: 16:45

The only boat traffic that we had observed since departing Grand Cayman thirty hours prior had been a few cargo ships which had all been between two to five miles closer towards the coast than we were.  We were aware of previous piracy incidents by fishing boats in the area and were maintaining a course outside of waypoints we had been given as well outside the coordinates of any earlier problems.  We had already made the difficult decision to run completely dark – AIS  (Automatic Identification System, which allows us to send and receive vessel position and information for ourselves and other vessels equipped with the technology) turned off and no navigation lights at night, knowing full well that this actually made us a risk to all other vessels in the area.  

The due diligence of uninterrupted watches from the cockpit round the clock was our responsibility entirely.  It certainly was not lost on us how ironic it would be to collide with another sailboat also running dark while trying to avoid pirates that may or may not even be in the vicinity.

At the time, most of my focus was split between monitoring a 200 meter container ship which had just overtaken and passed us about two miles off our starboard side, as well as trying to maintain even a mere three knots of speed under sails alone, in less than six knots of wind.

It should have been visible earlier, but I first noticed the vessel no more than a couple miles away (approximately forty five degrees abaft of our port beam – right in my most blind spot).  It looked to be a fishing boat traveling on a course that would both overtake and converge with us.  Apart from the cargo ship, it was the only vessel that could be seen from horizon to horizon for 360 degrees.

Monitoring the boat, it appeared to maintain course and speed, eventually coming to a position forward of us while still closing the distance between us.

We fired up our engine (normally I feel guilty about burning fossil fuels every time we run the engine, but immediate personal survival always trumps long term species survival) and made an immediate sixty degree turn to port, placing us on a course that took us directly behind the boat.  We were now moving at more than twice our earlier speed.  As we passed behind the boat, maybe a quarter of a mile back, we could see no one on deck and the boat seemed oblivious to us.

For the next half hour, we watched the fishing boat as well as tracked it on our radar.  It never appeared to alter course or speed, just disappeared over the horizon, headed towards the Nicaraguan coast.  Eventually, we lost radar contact and never saw it again.

Slowly, our heart rates began returning to normal.

Optimistically, we may have just been on a random crossing course with a vessel minding its own business, no different from the cargo ship that had passed us just prior.  However… unless this boat was fishing the open ocean in three to six thousand feet of water, it had to be coming from either Pedro Bank 60nm farther out, or it was actually from Jamaica (which at 120nm away, was well closer than Nicaragua).  

It seems impossible that we were being tracked by anyone.  Our AIS had been off since departing Grand Cayman; we had been running without navigation lights at night where we could have been seen from much further away; and, even during the day, the boat would have had to have been within a few miles to possibly see us.  Even radar would have difficulty seeing a target a small as us at any substantial distance.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR5265.JPG
Night sailing off the Nicaraguan Banks

The alternative is that we barely dodged a bullet… we may have been seen at some point and followed discreetly.  We had turned on our AIS a handful of times to check for shipping traffic and/or to identify our presence to the few cargo ships that we had seen up to that point, as they approached us.  If we had been noticed then, our course could have been projected with a fair degree of accuracy.

Or possibly it was a combination of both —- a random encounter on the open ocean with a fishing vessel that was there to catch fish but smelled an easier alternative.  The fact that we were able to start our engine and motor away quickly established that we were not a disabled vessel ripe for the picking by potential pirates of opportunity.

No harm, no foul.  We’ll remain cautiously realistic optimists at this point… as long as we’re still… on a boat, mother fucker.  No, not just any boat.  Only S/V Exit.