The Right Tool

February 22, 2022

To-day… Tue-sday… month zero-tw0, day two-two, year two-zero-two-two. Right day, wrong to-ol. Might as well be two-twenty-two in the afternoon.

Okay. That’s it. Enough of the tooooos.

Second repair in a row. An impact wrench is now officially on the list.

The impact wrench wouldn’t have sorted everything with the furler repair that we completed just before our Panama Canal transit, but it sure as hell would have helped.

This time it made all the difference.


We departed from Las Perlas cautiously optimistic. Erratic weather forecasts left us completely guessing on what we would encounter once underway. Leaving early in the afternoon provided us with an option to bail out the following morning just after clearing Punta Mala (Bad Point…great name) if things were going against us, or continue if things were looking good.

After threading our way through an endless convoy of ships approaching and departing the Panama Canal, we had nothing but open ocean to let Exit run. Only the occasional fishing boat crossed our path, surprisingly small for how far away we were from anywhere.

The Predict Wind calculation of ten hours to get around Punta Mala seemed more than optimistic. It was the best of four forecast calculations ranging from ten to seventeen hours. Amazingly, it actually took us only nine hours [yes…for dirt dwellers doing the calculation, that averaged a snail’s pace of slightly more than twice walking speed, or not even that if you are a fast walker].

During the day we were treated to a visit by a pod of enthusiastic dolphins, quite different from those we had seen in the Atlantic.

For us, it was an epic, exhilarating sail from Las Perlas to Punta Mala, during which we averaged a screaming pace of over eight knots for the entire nine hours. Even once the darkness of night had set in, an incredible full moon illuminated the watery path before us. Eventually, after passing Punta Mala, we found ourselves having to finally turn on our engine when the wind completely died.

Despite our own reluctance to run the engine, our battery bank would be much more appreciative of the gesture.

Yet to our dismay, even with the Perkins diesel engine churning away, the number on the ammeter remained negative and the charge deficit continued to grow.

The alternator wasn’t charging at all.

Shit.

By sunrise, the charge deficit showing on the digital display was the highest it had been since we had replaced the entire house battery bank at the end of our haul out in June. At least now, as the sun climbed higher and higher, our solar panels were being fed and the batteries would begin to recover.

Twenty one hours and one hundred fifty nautical miles after departing Isla San Jose in Las Perlas, we set the hook in the expansive though calm bay of Bahia Arenas and immediately chose sleep over troubleshooting.

By sundown a number of tests had confirmed what we already suspected. The alternator was dead. No output at all.

It was, by no means, an immediate emergency.

The house batteries were only six months old and were getting nearly fully charged every day just with solar collection. Currently, Panama was in its dry season. We hadn’t collected a drop of rain catch since before Christmas.

Still, our location pretty much qualified as middle of no where and we really needed our alternator running.

Unfortunately, diagnosing the exact problem inside the alternator was a bit academic since we had no spare parts aboard that would facilitate a repair.

Fortunately, during our recent visit to the States, Kris managed to convince me that the overall benefits of having a spare alternator aboard Exit far outweighed the overall pain in the ass of carrying that alternator back to Exit.

No parts… but we actually had the entire brand new alternator. Sweet. The only problem was we only had one pulley. On the broken alternator. And it was not going to budge.

Hours became days.

I tried everything except the one thing I knew would work but didn’t have… an impact wench.

Half inch drive socket wrench.

Half inch drive socket wrench with a breaker bar.

Half inch drive socket wrench with an even bigger breaker bar.

The leverage didn’t matter because the damn pulley kept spinning.

Holding it with a towel didn’t help.

Wrapping a belt around the pulley slipped.

An oil filter wrench didn’t work.

Channel locks couldn’t stop the pulley.

The nut was too tight; the pulley wouldn’t stop turning; the alternator itself couldn’t be secured well enough.

It became an exercise in frustration.

Eventually, desperate and somewhat delirious, I concocted what I deemed would be a victorious apparatus of MacGyver proportions to get that damned pulley off — a V-belt with the teeth wrapped around the alternator fan to grip, twisted into a tourniquet and held by the handle of a hammer, supplemented with a pair of channel locks holding the pulley which had been wrapped with electrical tape for protection, all wedged against a deck cleat and held in place by one person while a second got on the 22mm nut with a socket attached to a two foot breaker bar.

Confident that this would be our moment of glory, I held tight and Kris leaned into the breaker bar.

It slipped immediately.

Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh.

Cursing my lack of an impact wrench for the thousandth time, I crawled back into the engine compartment and completely reattached the damn alternator and tightened the belt.

Why? To remove it, of course.

The final option.

The thinking was: the alternator would be bolted to the engine block to keep it secure from movement; the belt would be tensioned back up as tight as possible to keep it gripping the pulley; the engine compression would hold it all in place against the torque. Why hadn’t we tried it earlier? Because it was a giant pain to reattach something that had to come right back off again.

Plus, it didn’t do shit. After all that, the pulley rotated backwards with almost no effort applied.

Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh.

Like Charlie Brown and that damn football.

The alternator got pulled out once again.

Fuck.

We concluded that Santa Catalina, a bit less than forty miles away, was the only possibility for the near future. If we hoped to either get the broken alternator repaired or, at the least, have the pulley removed so the new alternator could be used, we’d need to get to a town of some sort.

Consequently, we enjoyed five hours of brilliant sailing followed by two solid hours of smashing headlong into three to five foot waves directly on our bow in winds surpassing thirty knots at times. Oh, the constantly swinging pendulum.

Varying conditions come with the territory, sure. But thirty degree wind shifts accompanied by nearly instantaneous fifteen knot increases in wind speed make for some pretty interesting moments.

With the anchor finally set outside a tiny town known more by surfers than typical tourists, we waited another thirty six hours for the wind to die down enough for us to brave a beach landing in our dinghy.

Sailboat repair, even in a local fishing village, would be a long shot. But car repairs would not. And our alternator was no different from a car alternator. As luck would have it, Santa Catalina appeared to have more cars than anyplace we had been since Panama City.

Kris had learned of a possible source of help from a couple on another boat at anchor who had already been ashore. A guy by the name of Senior Roberto who owned the first restaurant on the right.

When we got there, the restaurant was closed. A guy sitting at one of the outside tables informed us Senior Roberto was gone until afternoon. He tried to call but no one picked up.

As best we could, we tried to communicate our situation and need for a mechanic, machine shop, or car repair shop. We pulled the alternator out of the backpack to help clarify.

While the guy was looking through the contact list on his phone, trying to figure who he knew that could possibly help us, another man walked past the restaurant in the middle of the road. He looked over, saw the alternator, and asked, “Mechanico?”

Si,” we nodded.

He smiled and tilted his head slightly, indicating further up the road, then gestured with his hand for us to follow.

A short walk brought us to a driveway that had a half dozen or so guys standing around watching two other guys work on the lower unit of an outboard engine.

They all seemed genuinely friendly and interested. After a bit of circuitous back and forth [saying something is broken is pretty straightforward, however, explaining what you need is not], we were told to come back with the other alternator as well. The guy was confident he could get us sorted out.

Back to the dinghy, which was now sitting on a sprawling beach about fifty yards from the water, thanks to a twelve foot lowering tide. This was one time we especially heralded the joy of having purchased a used $350 set of dinghy wheels for $40 in Bocas Del Toro over a year ago, anticipating this very need once we reached the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Back across a treacherous stretch of water rife with numerous dinghy puncturing rocks lurking just under the water’s surface. Back to Exit. Pick up the second alternator. Back in the dinghy. Back across the treacherous stretch of water rife with numerous dinghy puncturing rocks lurking just under the water’s surface. Another beach landing. Since the tide would be rising soon and we didn’t know how long we’d be, we had to haul the dinghy back to almost the same spot we had left it the first time. Back up the road, past the restaurant, to the driveway with the half dozen or so guys still working on the outboard bottom unit.

Whew.

It took him about two seconds.

The impact wrench was so fast he was able to hold the pulley with his bare hand.

Damn.

Without parts, the actual repair of our old alternator would have to wait. But the new one could now be installed.

It all went back together without a hitch. And just like that, once again, we had an alternator that could charge batteries.

VICTOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRRRRRYYYYYYYYYYYY!

An impact wrench is now officially at the top of my priority list for acquisition… before something else breaks.

Like pissing into the wind or taking a dump upside-down, using the wrong tool may ultimately get the job done, but its gonna make things a lot more complicated than necessary, a lot more messy than necessary, and inevitably come with unforeseen consequences.

So let that be a lesson to you kids – always use the right tool for the joband only take care of business right side up with your back to the wind.

A long look from a very curious pelican

Exit’s Pacific Ocean Baptism – Archipielago De Las Perlas, Panama (Part Three)

January 20 – February 15, 2022

First Day Bay (Ensenada Playa Grande on Isla San Jose) had indeed given us an epic first day.

Ohhhhhhh ya… I do sense another movie coming on…

Over the course of the week, we went out on the water again and again, both in the dinghy and on the SUP.  The show never stopped.  At times during the changing tides, traffic would seem to slow down, and then another group of rays would surface somewhere else in the bay.  Fortunately, one of the busier times seemed to be just before sunset, which provided a daily ritual of happy hours in the dinghy floating amongst schools of crazed devil rays and feeding whale sharks. 

More whale shark footage at Isla San Jose

Unbelievable.

First Day Bay.

During one trip to the beach looking for Macaws, which we saw only a few brief glimpses of, we found evidence that we were on the front doorstep of a crocodile’s abode.  The tracks left in the sand by its feet and tail were a dead giveaway.  Given the fact that this was just entering the beginning of their nesting season, we opted to not go wandering around the shoreline, barefoot and all.  Probably smart.

When we did eventually leave Isla San Jose and First Day Bay, it was not due to boredom.  We were running desperately low on fruits, veggies, and beverages; and it would take a trip to Isla Del Rey or even possibly farther to Isla Contadora to sort ourselves out.

Departing Isla San Jose for Isla Del Rey
Isla Del Rey

On the southern side of Isla Del Rey we anchored just off of Rio Cacique.  It was our first stop and introduced us to the brutal and relentless roll the swell from the south that would hound us on that island.  

Rio Cacique turned out to be a beautiful dinghy excursion up another one of the mangrove rivers which had become so familiar throughout Panama.  For us, the real uniqueness of this river was its entrance.  During low tide, the mouth of Rio Cacique was completely choked off by a sand bar.  Once the incoming tide rose high enough, the river was re-connected with the ocean, causing a messy and wave sticker point of contact.  Slack high tide was the only feasible time to enter the river.  Too long before or after resulted in a maelstrom of surf and three knot currents that surely would capsize the dinghy.  

This left a small one or two hour window during which the tide was high enough for the dinghy to not run aground and the surf was controlled enough to not be outright dangerous, where we could explore the river as it wound back and forth, continually growing narrower until we could barely even turn the dingy around.  Long before we had the opportunity to really check out many of the areas as the river branches or proceed too far inland, we had to remind ourselves to turn around and head back in time to get back outside the sand bar before all hell broke loose again.

Dinghy excursion up Rio Cicaque

We had read that coming around the southeast side of Isla el Rey, on tiny Isla San Telmo, one could find the wreck of a small submarine, which would reveal itself along the shoreline as the tide dropped.  The sub, apparently one of the earliest technologies of its kind which had been used for pearling, had mysteriously shown up over a hundred years ago.   We were able to locate it, and it actually was larger and more intact than I expected.  Cool, and worth a stop; but we moved on shortly afterward.


AN ABUNDANCE OF CAUTION OR JUST A BUNCH OF DICKS

SÉCURITÉSÉCURITÉ… Attention all boats on the east side of Las Perlas.  Our sailboat was boarded and robbed yesterday.  Be sure you take appropriate precautions.

The announcement over the VHF radio stunned us as it was repeated.  The caller hadn’t identified themselves.

We were on the east side of Las Perlas.  More specifically, the east side of Isla Del Rey… almost as east as you could get in the archipelago.

Exactly where the voice on the radio had been talking about

Immediately after the announcement, a boat identifying itself as S/V Papillon replied asking for more information as they were also currently in the area.  Papillon’s herald went unanswered.  That was all we heard from either person.

Not just strange.  Bizarre.

A Sécurité announcement generally implies a warning or maritime safety situation.  Urgent but not an immediate life threatening emergency.  We had heard them issued over the radio before for things like large logs, or unattended vessels that had broken free of moorings, floating about freely which posed a risk of collision; or a disabled boat entering a high traffic channel asking for space to maneuver.  

Not a Mayday call.  

Which would be appropriate in the context of being boarded and robbed.

But yesterday?

Our radio had been on the day before.  We had heard nothing.

Not just strange.  Bizarre.

We had already planned to move to a different anchorage, still on Isla Del Rey.  Without more information, we saw no reason to alter that.   The night before had been miserable thanks to a wicked swell that had us rolling all night long.

We picked up anchor and worked our way north along Isla Del Rey’s eastern coast.  Our first option looked just as exposed to the swell as the anchorage we had just left, so we continued on.

The second option didn’t have any swell, but also didn’t jump out at us.  One sailboat was already there; the first one we had seen on this side of the island.  There was a guy on deck hanging laundry…obviously, not someone recovering from a robbery.

Again, we continued on.  We ended up anchoring in a bit of a channel between Isla Del Rey and an island called Isla Espiritu Santo. 

Shortly after we had set anchor, as Kris paddled away on her SUP, a catamaran sailed into the channel and anchored near us.  

About a half hour later, a small panga motored up to Exit with three local teens inside. 

After a few niceties, one of them lifted a jug sitting on the floor of their boat and said something I couldn’t make out.  I asked if it was water they wanted.  They said gasoline.  I said I had no extra.  They asked if I had chocolate.  I laughed and said all I had to offer was water.  

They decided that was better than nothing, so I handed over a few bottles of water we had left over from our Panama Canal transit, during which we were required to provide bottled water for the advisor and line handlers, and threw in a small pack of cookies for good measure.  They seemed to appreciate the cookies more than the water, offered what I thought was a sincere thank you, and motored away.

I watched as they headed toward the cat.  

Three people from the cat had headed to the nearby beach right after setting anchor, one on a SUP and two swimmers.  Now the guy on the SUP was paddling straight past the three teens in the panga, making fast for his cat.  The teens appeared to be speaking with the other two, who eventually swam back to the cat as well.  Then in an odd display, the teenagers buzzed a couple of circles around the cat and sped off.

Not long after that, Kris arrived back at Exit.  She had watched the last exchange play out with the people on the cat as well, and I relayed to her what had happened when the kids stopped at our boat.

Less than ten minutes later, we heard the rattling of chain and watched as the cat picked up anchor.  They slowed as they passed right up next to us.  According to the guy at the helm, the guy I had seen on the SUP, they had spoken with the person we had heard earlier on the radio with the Securite announcement.  He said it was the boat in the previous anchorage we had seen putting out laundry.  

Weird.

Also weird was the fact they seemed to have little more information than we did already.  

The boat had been boarded and robbed.  That was it.  It was incredibly lacking in specifics.

And now they just had what they described as a questionable encounter with very aggressive locals in the boat.  Very aggressive?  Really?

The guy said they were “quite nervous given the earlier robbery, and after asking what the kids wanted, had tried to establish that they were not people to be messed with.”   After that, the guys in the boat had “aggressively raced around them.”   So, “out of an abundance of caution”, they were now leaving for an undisclosed location.

And off they went.  Last we saw, the cat was still motoring off into what appeared to be who knows where.

We were unsettled.  But it also seemed largely like a crock of shit.

To me “boarded and robbed” were trigger words.  High octane vocabulary.  In my eyes, it implied an occupied boat being assaulted by armed assailants.  

The boat we saw earlier didn’t try to hail us directly on the radio as we passed; they hadn’t even left the anchorage; they were doing laundry!  It did not appear by any stretch of the imagination that they feared for their imminent safety or security.  All speculation without good information.

A situation in which someone had taken an unlocked jug of petrol off an unoccupied boat – technically still “boarded and robbed” – seemed much more likely, and a scenario I could live with.  Not cool, but digestible.

As for the cat’s “abundance of caution”, I was even more inclined to call bullshit.  I had just had an exchange of my own with the guys.  They were asking for petrol, but certainly not demanding it.  They left Exit with smiles on their faces after being offered water and cookies.  It sounded to me like the aggressive party was the group on the cat – paranoid about thieves, they postured as badasses not to be trifled with and were looked at by these kids who live here as a group of foreign assholes.

We ended up moving out of the channel we were anchored in, which served as the main thoroughfare for any passing boat traffic, and re-anchored less than a mile away, in the corner of a small bay, choosing to spend the night dark.  Nothing happened at all.  We’ll call it just to be on the safe side, because from here on I will associate the phrase abundance of caution as a term potentially to be used by a bunch of dicks.


Initially, Isla Contadora held little appeal for us. The most populated town and a lot of moored boats in the bay. We skipped past it the first time, but were actually happy when we later returned and went ashore for some provisioning and a bit of a wander around. The town ended up being quite pleasant to visit, and provided our first restaurant in nearly a month, since we had left Shelter Bay Marina.

Isla Contadora, Las Perlas

It had been a week since we departed Isla San Jose. Having both exhausted all the stops in Las Perlas that we had hoped for and adequately restocked our fruit, veggie, and beverage supplies, we returned to Isla San Jose one last time as a staging point for our departure to start heading in the direction of Sea of Cortez, our ultimate destination before summer arrived to Central America.  We hoped for one last finale at First Day Bay.

Between Isla Contadora and Isla San Jose, it appeared our mojo was still working.  We were approached by a family of what we initially thought were pilot whales.  There were more than a half dozen, both adults and calves.  Over the course of nearly half an hour, we watched with fascination.  Initially, they seemed very curious.  A couple of the adults came right up to Exit and gave us a rather intimate inspection.  Eventually, they continued about their business, allowing us the gift of a slightly more distant though still extraordinary encounter.  Later, a bit of research lead us to the conclusion that we had not been visited by pilot whales, but rather either false killer whales or melon headed whales – a detail which surprised us but made the whole experience no less stunning.

False Killer Whales while Exit is underway

As we approached Isla San Jose for the second time, at nearly the same location we had previously seen our first whale shark two weeks prior, a large dorado (or mahi mahi) leapt out of the water.  A brilliant green and blue color, it was the first we had ever seen.  Again, our mojo seemed to be operating at full tilt boogie for our return to First Day Bay.

Alas, it was not to be.  Not entirely surprisingly, but sadly, no one was there.  First Day Bay seemed all but empty.  Our marine friends had left.  The devil rays and whale sharks had moved on with the food supply.   Ultimately, it made the entire experience even more special.   We had lucked out completely; our previous visit had perfectly coincided with the arrival of krill and small organisms – a smorgasbord for the filter feeding devil rays and whale sharks who had so amazed and entertained us.  Though fleeting, for us Isla San Jose will always be thought of as the island of whale sharks and leaping devil rays.

All that remained were the cows that had come to the beach nearly every day.  

Beach cows. 

First Day Bay.


After nearly a month at Las Perlas, we sensed the time to move on was upon us.

Our stay had been brilliant.

Though we had not done any diving during our visit, the snorkeling had revealed just a smidge of the potential the Pacific Ocean held for us.  Stunning colors and clear water, healthy reefs, and far more fish than most everywhere we had been in the Caribbean.

Over time, it became apparent to us that Las Perlas is not considered nearly as much of a destination as other places in Panama such as Bocas Del Toro or San Blas.  The number of other boats we encountered there was surprisingly small.   Obviously, boats in the area are either headed for the Panama Canal or have just transited it, and Las Perlas is viewed as a brief stopover, if it even makes the cut.

During our visit, one of the few things even more scarce than other boats was rain –  none since our arrival to the Pacific Ocean.  We had not seen a drop since we entered the Canal in mid-January; even then, it was only a brief sprinkle just outside Shelter Bay.   Strangley, the last day we had actually collected any rain catch was the day after Christmas in San Blas.  In fact, it would be March before any rain would land on the deck of Exit.  Here on the Pacific side of Panama, when they say dry season, they mean it.  On the Atlantic side, the term seemed much less definitive, apparently applying sometimes to certain months on certain islands.  Go figure.

Regardless, it was time to put Las Perlas in our rear view mirror and press on. There was still twelve hundred miles between Exit and the Sea of Cortez; we needed to get moving.

Archipielago De Las Perlas…the perfect name. Archipelago Of The Pearls.

Exit’s Pacific Ocean Baptism – Archipielago De Las Perlas, Panama (Part Two)

January 20 – February 15, 2022
Isla San Jose

Twenty years of scuba diving at some of the most exotic locations on the planet and thousands of dives each.  Never had we seen a whale shark.

It had become a running joke – unicorns and whale sharks… both creatures of fable.

Now we were coming around Punta Cruz, the point jutting a mile out from Isla San Jose, southwestern most island of Las Perlas.  That made it less than two miles from Ensenada Playa Grande (Big Beach Cove) where we planned to anchor.  Less than half a mile from the shore in one hundred feet of water, just as we started to make a gentle turn towards the bay, we saw something dark cutting through the surface, not more than a couple hundred feet forward and starboard.

A fin.

A big fin.

A big fin with spots.

Holy shit!

We took Exit out of gear and let her drift.  Lo and behold, what should swim straight out of the pages of a fable and alongside us?

That’s right.  A fucking whale shark!

And a big one at that.  Though over thirty feet long is possible, ten to twenty feet is more typical when you hear of whale shark encounters with people.  This one was over twenty.  Right about half as long as our boat.  Wow!

Not a snorkeling experience paid for by a tourist – an incredibly rare treat.  Not a scuba diving encounter – even more rare to occur.  Rather, a visit of its own choosing while we are underway on our sailboat.

Incredibly large for a fish, yet absolute in its grace and gentle demeanor.  

What a magical creature.  Now we believe.  As though a whale shark actually came out of a fable.

For fifteen minutes, time seemed to distort in opposite directions, elongating into something with an elasticity resembling the arms of an old childhood Stretch Armstrong toy while it simultaneously blinked past at the speed of a camera lens shutter.  

And then it was gone.  With both the incontrovertible absoluteness and longterm fragility of a snap shot, our first encounter with a whale shark became a memory.

Whale sharks actually do exist!!!!!!

And, as it turned out, it also was a preview of coming attractions.  Our encounter as we arrived would become the embodiment of our our entire experience there. Within days, Ensenada Playa Grande would come to be known to us as First Day Bay. First day to have seen that…

Just minutes after anchoring, we had our second whale shark encounter.  A different whale shark, this one not much over ten feet long, swam right up to Exit and slowly passed by.  Amazing. 

Second whale shark encounter; first one to visit us at anchor.

First Day Bay.

First whale shark at anchor

Moments later, another show commenced that would continue almost uninterrupted throughout our stay.  The Rays Craze.

For a week straight, we watched and heard a non-stop performance from what had to be thousands of mobular rays, devil rays to be specific.  Countless groups, each in the hundreds or more, moved about the bay constantly churning up a froth of water with their movement that looked and sounded like boiling water.  Randomly, individual rays or entire groups started leaping out of the water, typically landing with a slapping bellyflop but sometimes in a fit of acrobatic flips (we referred to them as floppers or flippers).  The scene was ridiculously amusing to watch.  A group would disappear below the surface, only to return in a churning cauldron moments later.  Sometimes the leaps were individual rays repeatedly bouncing across the water like a skipping rock.  Other times dozens would erupt from the surface nearly simultaneously, comically reminding me of carefree and overly energetic children jumping on a trampoline or, even more, popping popcorn.  

Pelagic Popcorn

What those crazy rays were doing is anybody’s guess.  Communicating with each other?  Cleaning themselves of parasites?  Just having a blast?  Who knows…but it sure was an endless source of both smiles and laughter for us.

The morning after we arrived, Kris went for a paddle on her SUP.  On the beach, she found fresh tracks from a turtle who had come ashore the previous night attempting to lay eggs.

But the real entertainment was in the water.  Even though Kris had already enjoyed incredible encounters with schools of cow nose rays while we were in Bocas Del Toro, these were devil rays and the leaping was unique to them. 

And never had a creature twice as long as the SUP swam within ten feet of her…yep, another whale shark. 

First Day Bay.

One would think that would be a mic drop and walk offstage moment.  Day finished.  Might as well go to bed.

Not quite.

What could possibly upstage that surreal instant with another, all before lunch?  

How about Space X-it drone footage of a whale shark swimming with a school of hundreds of leaping devil rays… BOOM!

First Day Bay.

Space X-it drone footage of whale shark and rays

So now what?  It’s still morning.  Fuck ya, let’s take the dinghy out.  And so we did.  Before we knew it, we were amongst the group of rays we had just flown the drone over.  The whale shark was still there as well, and proceeded to swim right alongside the dinghy.  Eventually it disappeared into deeper water, but the rays just kept circling about.  We seized the moment and jumped into the water, snorkeling in a surreal and unforgettable devil ray soup.

Mind-blowing.

First Day Bay.

Later, when we looked closer at the video footage, we actually saw a single cow-nose ray infiltrator hiding amongst the massive population of devil rays.

Cheeky.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART THREE…

Exit’s Pacific Ocean Baptism – Archipelago De Las Perlas, Panama (Part One)

January 20 – February 15, 2022

The relief we felt was palpable.

After twenty two months, we were still in Panama. Nevertheless, the forty mile journey just completed aboard Exit had delivered us through the doorway to a new world.

The Pacific Ocean.

Yet who stops at the doorway?

The appeal of seeing Panama City represented more of a visual (or visceral) confirmation of what we perceived as our incredibly massive accomplishment of transiting the Canal rather than the actual appeal of visiting the sprawling metropolis of Panama City.

Panama City

We weren’t sure if we’d do some more provisioning once we reached Panama City, but we had stocked up adequately enough before our Canal transit to make it unnecessary.

Freshly baptized in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, Exit needed to keep going. Why lose momentum?

We were all too happy to trade the moving steel islands of commerce surrounding Panama City…

…for more natural tropical islands of solitude.

We had spent fourteen months in Bocas Del Toro. We had spent six months in San Blas. We had a friend say he grew tired of looking at tropical islands of sand and coconut trees.

We, apparently, had not.

Less than forty miles south of Panama City are a small group of islands. Still within the Gulf of Panama but far enough that they reside right at the edge of the Abyss…

La Archipielago De Las Perlas – The Pearl Islands of Panama.

Isla Pacheca

The first island we arrived at; privately owned though we saw no one there while we were at anchor. Technically, we could go ashore, but only as far as the high tide level on the beach.

Beautiful and unoccupied except for the population of birds.

An unbelievable number of birds. Frigates; boobies; pelicans; cormorants. Who knows how many. I have tried to count swimming fish during Reef Check surveys… a very scientifically subjective number. Flying birds? I’d guess a gazillion.

Sunset on Isla Pacheca

Our first stop at Isla Pacheca, the northernmost island of Las Perlas, turned out just what the doctor ordered.

Yet, despite the solitude and space, somehow we managed to be on the receiving end of our first hit and sit collision, when a local fishing boat at anchor up current from us dragged down onto us in the middle of the night.

As if our late night collision with the fishing boat didn’t give us enough of an adrenaline shot to tide us over for quite some time, the following day we upped the ante even further with an entire bottle of adrenaline and came very close to losing our drone Space X-it.

We had already launched the drone successfully from the deck of Exit oncewhile we were in San Blas so, in theory, it was not an outrageous endeavor.  However, this time things went far from smoothly. As we proceeded with the liftoff, for some reason the drone immediately begin backing just as it rose off the deck. It barely cleared the edge of the dodger, but the landing gear, equipped with floats, clipped the corner of the bimini sending the drone careening out of control backwards until it hung up on the solar panel structure attached to our arch. The rotors, still spinning wildly, began grinding against the edge of the panels, making a sickening noise as the drone got hung up underneath.

In a moment of pure panic, I put down the GoPro camera I had been taking video footage with, and darted to the other side. There were only seconds before the drone would cascade off the edge of the bimini and into the sea, where it would certainly suffer an instantaneous death.

Not even thinking, I reached up and grabbed the drone, fully aware that the horrible thwacking and whining sound meant the rotors were still trying to turn at full speed. Instantly free of the structure of the boat, they started spinning again; however, now against my fingers.

Somehow, I managed to keep ahold until Kris was able to shut Space X-it down. Miraculously, the drone was safe. Also miraculously, all my fingers were still attached, though bloodied and sore.

Taking one for the team.

It was no NASA accident, but I envisioned a CNN breaking story that seemed the equivalent.

Space X-it — Failure to launch

Later we learned of an airstrip in the area. We may have breached some sort of proximity protocol for flying the drone and ended up with signal interference that caused the malfunction.

Oops.

Isla Bartolome

On the charts Isla Bartolome appeared as an insignificant speck. Barely above water. More of a hazard than a destination. Certainly no indication of an anchorage.

It would have been easy to pass by without a second glance.

Fortunately, we stopped.

Though we were hardly the first people to anchor at Bartolome, it felt like our own private discovery. With the exception of a few pangas arriving during the day for brief visits with day trippers, we had the entire island and bay to ourselves.

Ooolala… a Pacific Mermaid!
A stunning variety of landscape

The lowest tides revealed a staggering range of formations and landscapes that seemed completely random and utterly unique from one another. Such a strange combination of long term geological events must have played out to result in so much variety in shapes and materials. It seemed even more unusual given the tiny size of Isla Bartolome.

What could be globally separated and unrelated examples from a geology text book actually reflect one location’s infinite possible outcomes when the unrelenting forces of an ocean are pitted against stone, given a billion years or so. Mo’ Nat’s artwork.

Despite its small size, Isla Bartolome ended up being our second favorite place to anchor in all of Las Perlas.

However, we may have done a triple take when we saw a small fishing boat anchor just up current from us – a boat looking remarkably like the one that had recently dragged down on top of us at Isla Pacheca.

Hmmm.

Other Islands

Isla Mogo Mogo; Isla Bayoneta; Isla Pedro Gonzalez – all stops along the way as we meandered throughout the archipelago.

Dinghy explorations; paddling on the SUP; relaxing.

And always birds; more birds. It became apparent to us that we were witnessing some sort of migration process unfolding. The numbers of birds were astounding. And they just continued to grow.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO…

Hit & Sit Accident

January 22, 2022

Hit & run… okay.  Someone runs into something, panics, and flees the scene.

But when someone runs into something, parks right back where they were, and goes back to sleep — there’s gotta be a name for that…Hit & Sit? Mark & Park?


Having just completed our first, and probably our only, Panama Canal crossing, we were seriously motivated to do something other than pay to sit on a mooring ball at the edge of the Canal channel.

We could also spend more money in Panama City but we had already done a fair amount of provisioning before leaving Shelter Bay, so we really just needed to move.

Less than forty miles south of Panama City, the Archipelago of Las Perlas had caught our attention.

After arriving at Isla Pacheca, the the larger of the two northern most islands in Las Perlas, we had sat contently at anchor all by ourselves for two days.

The island, inhabited by zero people and thousands of frigates, pelicans, boobies, and cormorants, provided a stunning introduction to the west coast of the Americas.  Rocky bluffs, white sandy beaches, ripping current with a bit of swell, and twelve foot tidal exchanges were all part of the new norm.

Confused, choppy and rolling swell interspersed with completely benign conditions shifted back and forth every six hours or so, depending upon the interaction of tides and wind.

A number of local pangas, sport fishing boats, small ferries, and even a mega-twat or two had approached Pacheca, but only following the charted ferry path around nearby shoals.  They motored right past, rarely even coming close.  Two larger shrimp boats had anchored off the smaller island Pachequilla but that was nearly a mile away.

Late during the second afternoon we had our first neighbor – a steel boat that looked like some sort of small ferry – smaller than the shrimp boats but much bigger than the pangas; bigger than us.  It tied up to the only mooring float in view; just upwind from us.

A short time later Kris and I were sitting in the dinghy, which was currently sitting at anchor between Exit and the shore, enjoying happy hour.  We had strategically placed ourselves there to be in the middle of what we hoped would be a repeating sunset show — the day before we had seen numerous mobular rays leaping spectacularly out of the water.

As we sipped our gin and tonics, patiently waiting for the rays to reappear, a much smaller, more traditional wooden fishing boat, maybe thirty feet long with a half dozen locals aboard chugged by, a short distance away.  The guys on deck offered friendly waves as they passed.

Just as the sun was setting, the boat went by once again, passing between us and the sun in dramatic fashion, eventually stopping upwind of us, a thousand feet or so in front of Exit.  They looked to be pretty much right next to the larger ferry tied to the mooring.

Sharing the sunset

Largely unsuccessful in our attempt to crash the leaping ray sunset show, which turned out not to be the regularly scheduled event we had hoped for, we eventually returned to Exit.

Hours later, though the sun had set long ago, the night’s darkness was still being kept at bay both by the illumination from a near full moon overhead as well as two piercing floodlights facing astern on the deck of the larger ferry boat sitting on the mooring in front of us.

There wasn’t more than ten knots of wind.  However, during the period of highest tidal exchange, we could see anywhere from one to two knots of current.

At 10pm, Kris was sound asleep and I was sitting at the laptop.  A particularly quiet night.  The only sound at all was a dull whir from the fan on the wall… specifically switched to the low setting to try to keep from waking up Kris.  With all the recent activities and drama, a sound night’s sleep had been hard to come by.  It seemed overdue.

No din of noise from a nearby city.  

No whining outboard engines from passing boat traffic.

No whistling wind whipping through the rigging.

No waves or swell slapping against the hull.

Just the constant whir of a small fan inside and steady hypnotic rhythmic background rumble of distant surf.

Without any warning, a thunderous, resounding BANG rang out.  It was not just nearby.  It was resonating through the hull of Exit.  We felt it almost as much as we heard it.

A fucking impact.  We had just hit something… hard

Kris bolted upright like a catapult, instantly awake and yelled out, “What the fuck?”

I scrambled from the settee reaching for our big torch, not so much answering her question as echoing the same three words, “What the fuck?”

Had we run aground?  It sure as hell sounded and felt like it.

The next few moments became mostly a blur.

Clamoring up into the cockpit, I looked to the left and saw what appeared to be a wooden boat alongside of us facing the same direction as us, but moving backwards.  

“What the fuck?”  I continued to asked frantically, trying to put the pieces together. 

Only a few feet away, I could make out more and more details as the boat alongside us slid further and further astern, almost sheering off the solar panel which extended horizontally from our stern railing as it drifted backwards.  I could only imagine what I was hearing from the other boat was the Spanish equivalent of “What the fuck?”

It quickly became apparent that my initial fear that we had either dragged or swung erratically into the nearby rocks was not quite accurate.

There had most certainly been an impact; only something had hit us.  

The other boat’s engine fired up with a cough, and its reverse momentum slowly stopped.   As it began to pull forward, about twenty feet off our starboard side, loud conversation continued among the crew.

I went forward to the bow and tried to make a quick damage assessment.  We still had absolutely no idea where we had been struck, exactly what had happened, or if we were damaged. 

As much as I looked, all I could see was what appeared to be a small scuff, not longer than six inches, approximately halfway between the bow roller and waterline, just slightly to starboard from dead on to our bow.  In fact, it looked more like a tiny spot where paint had been deposited on our aluminum hull rather than a scratch that actually took something off.

The boat next to us seemed to be the same smaller wooden fishing boat that had anchored in front of us earlier.  The faces aboard appeared just as startled, confused , and sleepy as ours.

There didn’t appear to be any sense of malice or anger.  Just an equal lack of comprehension. 

I still couldn’t locate any point on our boat that matched the intensity of the collision sound we heard inside Exit.  Even with a wooden boat on the other end, it would seem we should have more visible evidence of the impact we experienced. 

Certainly more than what amounted to a paint scuff.

Best I could guess at that point was that the brunt of the impact from the fishing boat must have been taken on our anchor chain hanging down, right under the bow roller.  It would help to explain why we could only find a tiny scuff on our hull.  Yet, my recollection was the sound of them hitting us seemed well more solid and resonated far more deeply than one would expect from an impact with our anchor chain.

Slowly, the wooden fishing boat crept forward, its outboard chugging away as it angled around in front of our bow.

Only one floodlight was now illuminated on the steel ferry still tied off to the mooring, but it was enough to confirm the boat lit up between us was definitely the same boat that had anchored a thousand feet in front of us just before sunset. 

The same flood light we could see them with should have made us easily visible to anyone else, as well.  That, and our mast light… and lights on inside the salon.  Unless they hadn’t been looking.  Which would be the case if they were all asleep.

Eventually it became apparent that the wooden fishing boat which had just collided with us was resetting their anchor in just about the same spot it had been before.  Pretty soon it shut off its engine and all was quiet again.

Whatever damage they had incurred, they didn’t seem to be sinking.

As far as we could tell, we were just the victims of a Hit and Sit accident [rim shot here].

With our heart rates eventually slowing and our adrenaline levels beginning to drop, amazingly after some time we were finally able to drift back to sleep.

By first light the steel ferry was gone.   The wooden fishing boat was gone as well.   They must have left just before sunrise.

The light of a new day allowed us a closer inspection of Exit, which revealed a previously unseen second point of impact on our hull – at the top edge of the toe rail, directly above the first mark we found.  However, it too was nothing more than a paint scuff.

Ultimately, we pieced together a storyline which seemed to represent the most likely sequence of events that took place the previous night.

During the wee hours of the morning with everyone on the wooden fishing boat sound asleep, a ripping current brought on by the changing tide probably caused them to start dragging, which nobody realized.  They would have drifted straight down onto us, more than likely broadside in the current.  Based upon the height and color of the scuffs on Exit, it must have been the prow of their boat that struck us, causing their boat to spin around and drift backward alongside us.  

The impact they felt on their boat must have been even more jarring than what we experienced.  What only later occurred to us, was that their perspective, as they first looked out still half asleep, would have been of us alongside them appearing to move forward instead of them drifting backwards.  They would have initially thought they were still stationary at anchor and had just been sideswiped by a moving boat – us.   After they had started their engine and were moving, the discussion we heard must actually have been them sorting that fact out amongst themselves.

It could have gone much worse.

In retrospect, the initial confusion on both sides may actually have helped to freeze the moment with mutual indecision, effectively defusing a situation that could have become quite volatile.

In the end, there appeared to be more confusion than damage.

No blood, no foul.

The guy in charge of setting the anchor on the fishing boat would probably be getting shit for quite some time.

Big noise.  No damage.

Aluminum boat (aluminium… sorry).

Thanks Garcia.

Panama Canal Transit – Day Two

January 19, 2022

Following a fitful and rather unsettled night’s sleep tied up to one of the big mooring balls in Gatun Lake, we were ready to depart as soon as Victor and the other boats’ advisors arrived on the pilot boat.

Not only had we been tied alongside the mooring instead of swinging from a line attached to it, we had also shared the ball with the catamaran S/V Second Set.  For some reason, the combination had resulted in us orienting beam on to the upwind side and being pushed against the mooring ball all night while chop generated from the wind slapped loudly against the side of the hull.  Not very conducive to a good night sleep.

After sorting through the near disaster of losing half our required line handlers only hours before our scheduled commencement of the crossing, day one of our Panama Canal transit had gone without a hitch once we were actually out of Shelter Bay Marina.  Gatun Lake was only ten miles into the forty four mile journey, less than a quarter of the total distance we had to travel to reach the Pacific Ocean, but we now had the experience and understood the process of rafting up the boats together as well as the procedures for actually going through the locks.

Today would bring us all the way to the other side of the continent and the shores of a new ocean.

Our first time in the Pacific aboard Exit.  Her first time in the Pacific, ever.

The three chambers of Gatun Locks which we had passed through on day one had raised the boats eighty four feet from the elevation of the Atlantic to Gatun Lake.  The lake, created during the Panama Canal’s original construction by damming the Chagres River, is huge, although only a thousand foot wide marked channel cutting through it is used by all the vessels transiting the Canal. 

The schedule on day two required motoring four to five hours to reach the other locks.  The expanse of Gatun Lake would slowly begin to constrict until both directions of boat traffic would be passing through a section of the Canal not more than six to seven hundred feet wide.

Technically, the passage is still part of the Rio Chagres,  In places along the Canal, the banks look similar to the same uninhabited and pristine river we had anchored in previously.  Other areas along the way look more like the shore of an industrial canal you would expect.

Upon reaching Pedro Miguel Lock, we would once again have to raft up with the other two sailboats and proceed through the single lock.  However, on this side, we would be positioned in front of the cargo ship sharing the chamber with us which made it imperative that we arrive ahead of the cargo ship… they would not wait.  Once through the lock, the three boats would remain rafted together during the one mile stretch separating Pedro Miguel Lock from the two chambers of Miraflores Locks, which lower the boats back down to sea level.  

Once through the final pair of locks at Miraflores, only a couple of miles remain before passing under the Bridge of the Americas, a suspension bridge which, for us, will serve as an impressive landmark heralding the prodigious achievement of having arrived at the Pacific Ocean. 


Strangely, a quite different achievement of note occurred right at the onset of our second day in the Panama Canal. It came and went completely unnoticed… eleven thousand nautical miles travelled aboard S/V Exit.

With so much going on just before we left Shelter Bay Marina, especially the chaos on the morning of our departure, I had failed to notice we were starting our transit only seventeen miles shy of the 11K milestone.

The morning sun was just starting to peak over the trees as we got underway shortly after 6am on day two.  We were motoring at about 500 rpms higher than we typically run our Perkins engine.  With around thirty miles to Pedro Miguel Lock, we needed to make good time to assure we arrived well before the ship that would be directly behind us inside the lock.  Once we got there, we would need enough time to get the three sailboats rafted together again as well.

We had the benefit of one knot of current in our favor, so after an hour we were happy to have made good on over seven miles.  All was good.  The engine temperature gauge was indicating we were running just a little bit hot, but everything seemed fine.

Breakfast for seven, Kris’ favorite morning

Though it didn’t register at the time, it must have been almost that exact moment that we surpassed eleven thousand nautical miles.

However, no bells and party whistles sounded to commemorate the event.  

Instead, it was the grating and panic inducing sound of a harsh, loud buzzer.  It pierced through the droning noise of the diesel engine, causing everyone to freeze and look questioningly at the helms person… me.

Fuck.

An alarm.

One of the alarms on the Perkins instrument panel.

Fuck.

Kris looked at the panel and indicated it was the oil pressure alarm.

Fuck.

As Kris scrambled behind the wheel, I climbed below and removed the companionway steps, exposing the engine.  We shut the engine off to make sure it didn’t burn up completely if there was, in fact, no oil pressure.  A cursory inspection revealed that no engine oil appeared to be leaking and the level on the dipstick read full.  

Good, but confusing.

We didn’t even have a spare oil pump aboard – which on one hand made sense because that would be a pretty unlikely part to fail; yet, on the other hand, made me nervous because it seems to almost always be the part you don’t have a spare for that does fail.

Regardless, something needed to be done now.

We were still barely drifting forward under momentum; any slower and we would lose steering control.  We were also still in the channel.  There were not a lot of options.

Panama Canal Authority regulations absolutely prohibit using sails while underway, under threat of heavy fines.  Given an emergency situation, that might be arguable.  However, it was a moot point since, at the moment, there was no wind at all.  

We needed to get to the nearest marker buoy, which we could temporarily tie up to, so a next step could be determined.  It was less than a thousand feet away, but we would never coast that far and the current which had previously assisted us now appeared to be gone as well.  Getting the dinghy down off the davit to help tow us would take too long.

There seemed like only one option.

I started the Perkins.  The oil pressure light lit up and the alarm buzzer immediately began whining.

Kris carefully eased Exit into gear and started us moving forward at just over idle speed.  We arrived at the marker buoy in less than two minutes and shut down the engine as soon as we were tied on.  The damn alarm buzzer went silent with the turn of the key.

Where we sat now, the outlook was grim.

If we could not get underway, the entire rest of the crossing would be cancelled and we’d be screwed.  The advisor and line handlers would be picked up by a pilot boat, probably at no small expense.  Exit would have to be towed out, probably at no small expense.  And we wouldn’t be towed the remaining thirty miles to the Pacific side of the Canal; it would be the shorter route back to Colon, right where we started.  There could be fines imposed for our infractions.  We’d have to start the whole transit process over.  Certainly another two grand.  Not to mention, back in the marina… again.  Sorting another repair.

Fuck.

A total calamity.

After about ten minutes, I still couldn’t find anything out of sorts anywhere on the engine.  The temperature gauge was reading hot by about twenty degrees Fahrenheit and the expansion tank for the coolant was full but that was it.  Nothing at all that I could see would be triggering an oil pressure alarm.  I had also noticed that, even after we restarted the engine and motored for the short period, there were no noises coming from the engine that would hint at any lubrication problems.   Nothing at all.

Even with my limited diesel mechanic experience, I felt certain the alarm had been sounding long enough that, had there truly been no oil pressure, I would have noticed some kind of change in sound with the engine running.  I couldn’t be sure, but it started to feel more like a sensor issue to me, possibly triggered by the higher operating temperature.

If we stopped here and it turned out only to be a bad sensor, it will have cost us thousands of dollars.  If I was wrong and we kept going, the engine would burn up and eventually seize completely, end of story.  Add at least ten thousand dollars more onto the previous equation.

Victor heard me out and then politely reminded me of the distinction in title between “Captain”versus “Advisor”. 

Your boat, your decision.

I took a deep breath, clenched my teeth, turned the key and pushed the start button.  The Perkins fired right up.  

The oil pressure buzzer was silent.

The oil pressure light remained off.

The temperature gauge indicated a drop of ten degrees.

I monitored the engine for a few minutes more and nothing changed.  The temperature was returning to normal.  Everything was running just fine.  Five more minutes and I started to feel more confident.  

We untied from the marker buoy, and started moving again.  Towards the Pacific.

Ten minutes later it was as though the alarm had never triggered at all.  We maintained five knots while running the engine at no higher than two thousand rpms, just to be sure.  During the rest of our transit, thankfully the Perkins ran perfectly. 

This was now our second near emergency barely avoided in Gatun Lake in only twenty four hours… holy shit.

As we continued our forward progress and persisting thoughts of recurring Perkins problems slowly drifted further and further into the back recesses of my mind, the expanse of Gatun Lake gradually gave way to scattered mangrove islets which slowly closed in around us.  Eventually the network of mangroves surrounding the channel gave way to more solid land.   The green and red marker buoys, which to this point had appeared to plot a rather arbitrary route through an open waterway with a fairly consistent thousand foot width, now bottlenecked into a channel only five hundred to seven hundred feet wide.  

On more than one occasion we had to stop and wait for a mega-sized super ship to pass in the opposite direction because it needed the entire width of the channel to navigate around a bend.  

Looking beyond the banks on either side of the channel we were in, I was perplexed at times by what I saw.  I had expected it to be a very gritty looking variation on a typical port construction of concrete and steel.  Noisy and busy.  While our surroundings varied considerably, often they were a landscape indistinguishable from some of the more remote and isolated rivers we’ve been on.  Most of the developed areas occupied by buildings of any sort looked more like small communities, certainly not the global hub of shipping traffic.  Only the locks themselves had any real industrial flavor. 

It often made the gargantuan cargo ships and tankers seem entirely out of place… surreal.


We had been motoring nearly five hours when we saw the Centennial Bridge appear on the horizon, signaling the approach of San Pedro Lock just beyond  The Perkins engine soldiered on indifferently, seeming to have long forgotten about any previous oil pressure alarms, once again happy to spin the propeller indefinitely, as long as it was being fed copious amounts of diesel.

Centennial Bridge

As we prepared to pass under the Centennial Bridge, we noticed a large crocodile sunning itself on a big rock along the nearby shore.  It didn’t move the entire time we were  passing by.  More than once, we had been told crocodiles are the only ones that don’t have to pay to use the Panama Canal.  Apparently they are also the only ones not on a tight schedule going through the Canal.

With the Centennial Bridge behind us, Exit, Second Set, and Swiss Lady all slowed and converged to repeat the complex sequence of choreographed maneuvers required to perform the intricate, and intimate, rafting dance we had learned the day before.  

A bit of wind again.  A bit of current again.  Nothing obnoxious.  

Most importantly, twenty one people on all three boats all paying attention and all helping to do what was needed.  

While an uncontrollable mishap inside the locks, like the nightmare situation our advisor had witnessed one week earlier, certainly had the potential to be the most cataclysmic in scope, the rafting process again appeared to me to be one of the most risky aspects of the transit for a potential calamity of epic proportions.  

Fortunately, the three boat dance resulted in no stepped on toes nor crushed hulls and, in short order, we were once again rafted together with all lines secured motoring into the entrance of San Pedro Lock.

Less than ten years ago, the Canal Authority completed construction on a bigger set of locks that was added to accommodate the newer generation of cargo ships so large they couldn’t physically fit into the original locks. The new locks require so much water, they had to engineer a recycling method for the water used into the design. Only the largest of the biggest ships are allowed to even use those locks.

For everyone else, there are two locks side by side that operate independently of each other, separated by a very narrow wall. Obviously, it is of the utmost importance that boats enter the correct lock.

With the volume of shipping traffic and the size of the ships involved, it would be natural to assume there must be a relatively failsafe system in place to assure that vessels actually get into the correct lock they have been assigned.

Natural to assume… but incorrect.

Don’t use the wrong entrance… whatever you do

For us, it was the source of quite an extended laugh. We joked that it looked more like a cardboard cutout pointing to a garage sale. At night, lit up, probably more likely to remind you of something to be found alongside a dark highway directing drivers to a cheap motel or greasy diner.

Fortunately, we opted for the correct lock entrance. Our temporarily tri-masted raft of sailboats carefully proceeded down the corridor and entered Pedro Miguel Lock.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1161.JPG

Just like the day before, lock workers cast lines tied off with hefty monkey fists over to the boats which, in turn, were tied to our own lines and then hauled back to the lock walls. After being “walked” by the lock workers into position inside the lock chamber the lines were secured.

The one hundred ten foot wide by a thousand foot long chamber still had a lot of space in it… for now.

Almost everything went exactly as it did before, procedurally. Like a well-oiled hundred year old machine. Except today we were first in the chamber with the ship behind us. I never got a clarification why, but assumed it had something to do with the difference of going up versus down in the lock and how that tied in with safety.

A minor detail as far as front or back position. However, also a very intimidating detail. Pulling up behind a six hundred foot tanker which looms over you is menacing enough. Watching one pull up behind you can be absolutely terrifying.

In position and secure, we awaited the arrival of the ship that would consume the entire rest of the chamber. Watching it approach, a number of things occurred to me.

It’s hard to capture just how small and insignificant we seemed compared to the massive ship creeping up behind us. It’s even harder to capture how small and insignificant that ship seemed compared to the even bigger one in the lock so close beside us.

Seeing the ships actually under the control of the small railcars was in some ways reassuring while simultaneously being more than a bit disconcerting.

A more detailed view of the railcars

Before long, the ship behind us was in place and our attention shifted from behind us to all around us.

As the water inside the lock is released and the lock level begins to drop, it is critical for the line handlers aboard the boats to monitor and adjust the tension on the lines. Not enough tension and the boats can drift into the cement walls. Even worse, if the line tension is not released, the raft of boats starts listing from the hung up line which then has to be cut. Ugly. Dangerous.

Surprisingly easy to have happen I would suspect, given how difficult it is to perceive the changing water level. If you actually watch the waterline, you can follow the vertical movement along the surface of the lock walls. If you get distracted, it doesn’t take long to be startled by how tall the walls have gotten.

Ever so slowly, the water level continued to drop, until eventually it stopped. Only slightly more perceivable, the lock’s enormous gate, which our position the day before had only allowed us to view closing, began to open in front of us.

A tiny gap in the center grew wider and wider, until eventually the two halves split completely apart and stopped flush into recessed spaces on opposite walls.

Revealed on the other side was Miraflores Lake, a small body of water separating the single lock of Pedro Miguel from the two final locks at Miraflores.

The Pedro Miguel Lock gate opens

Panama Canal Authority time lapse camera footage at Pedro Manuel Lock:

Given how much effort is involved in rafting the three sailboats together, it made sense that we would not separate to travel the one mile distance between Pedro Miguel Lock and Miraflores Locks.

Approaching Miraflores Locks, the corridor looked almost identical.

The line handlers on the lock walls went through exactly same process as each lock before.

We crept forward until the gates were directly before us. With the lock full of water, we could barely peer over the top. Only a glimpse of the world that awaited just beyond.

To the right was a large white building with the words Miraflores Locks painted on the outside. Possibly a control station. The building to the left initially appeared more like a car parking structure; eventually I realized I must be looking at a tourist center of some sort.

What gave it away most were probably all the tourists.

By the look of the large crowd, there was going to be an epic show of some sort.

Apparently, us.

Center stage.

After a brief chance for the crowd to properly idolize and offer adulation to those taking the stage (or maybe it was just awaiting the ship behind us getting into position), it was showtime.

In an epic finale of dramatic flourish, our Panama Canal transit reached its stupendous climax in front of throngs of onlookers. With a feeling of electricity in the air and a sea of expectant faces watching from above – someone in an unseen room threw a switch.

And nothing happened.

Except somewhere below us, water began to slowly drain from lock, and at a nearly imperceivable rate we were lowered.

We were expecting it. We already knew how it would play out. After all, we had done this before. Experienced salts, eh?

For those in the nose bleed section above, probably more used to watching reality tv show dramas unfold, one can only imagine it would have held all the interest of watching paint dry.

Panama Canal Authority time lapse camera footage at Miraflores Locks:

For us, it was incredibly exciting.

Due to the extreme tidal variations of the Pacific Ocean (twelve feet at Panama City compared to one foot at Colon on the Atlantic side), the gates of the Miraflores Lock are the Canal’s tallest and the lower chamber is the highest in the system.

Once the double gates opened fully, we were looking into the final lock separating us from the Pacific.

We entered the last lock.

Inside the lock, it was one last case of deja vu.

With the second lock at Miraflores having completed its task of lowering us to sea level, we watched once again as the colossal gate silently and slowly opened.

However, this time looking out, we were looking at the West Coast of the Americas.

The scope of everything was still sinking in.

Emerging from the final lock of the Panama Canal, the three sailboats slowed, stopped, and separated from each other.

Freed from the cumbersome and awkward raft of other boats, Exit once again could begin making forward progress.

The homestretch.

Only two nautical miles remain before we reach the long awaited landmark that heralds our arrival to the Pacific Ocean – the Bridge of the Americas.

Approaching the bridge, there is plenty of time to smile; but it will take far longer for everything to fully sink in.

Jorge & Julia, to whom we are massively grateful

Moments later the Bridge of the Americas passes a thousand feet above our heads.

Considering the natural high of the moment, I found myself floating enough I might have needed to duck my head had the bridge been any lower.

Immediately beyond the bridge, just outside the Canal markers, lies the mooring field for the Balboa Yacht Club, where we dropped off Victor, our most competent and laid back advisor as well our outstanding line handlers Mario, Jamir, Jorge, and Julia.

We stayed on the mooring for a night.

The following morning we woke up on the Pacific Ocean.

Panama Canal Transit – Day 2

Panama Canal Transit – Day 2

Panama Canal Transit – Day One

January 18, 2022

…three cleats were torn out of the boat and one of the lines actually snapped. The monohull was slammed into the cement wall of the Canal lock after careening off the catamaran it was rafted up with.

Not the kind of story you want to hear just before commencing on your first Panama Canal transit aboard your own sailboat.

I remember in elementary school, just prior to walking onstage with the rest of my class to sing in our dreaded Christmas concert, being warned by the teacher not to lock your knees while you stand on the bleachers as it can cause you to pass out. At the time, this seemed like the words of a wise and concerned person. Throughout the concert I consciously reminded myself to keep my knees slightly bent.

I also remember, later in high school, just prior to giving a speech in front of all my classmates, being warned by a classmate that it was possible to become so nervous that you could actually puke right in front of everyone, mid sentence. At the time, this seemed like the words of a complete asshole. Throughout the speech I subconsciously reminded myself I might throw up at any moment.

Now, as I walk down E Dock of the well familiar Shelter Bay Marina towards slip number forty-eight in which Exit sits quietly, I struggle to decide two things: 1] whether or not to pass on to Kris the ridiculous story I have just been told and, 2] whether or not the person I just spoke with qualifies more as wise and concerned or a complete asshole.

We are only days away from our own first transit of the Panama Canal and one of the other people on E Dock has just stopped me and asked if I heard about the accident concerning two boats transiting the Canal? No.

A Shelter Bay staff had just relayed a story to him concerning two sailboats which had departed from Shelter Bay Marina a week ago transiting the Panama Canal, one a catamaran and one a monohull. The two sailboats were rafted together inside one of the Canal locks with lines running up to the top of the lock walls, when apparently the massive cargo ship just in front of them gunned its engines too hard as it began to move forward out of the lock, sending a fifteen knot wave of prop wash into the tiny sailboats. The resulting maelstrom actually snapped one of the four lines and ripped three cleats completely out of one of the boats, sending the monohull careening first into the catamaran and then ultimately smashing it up against the cement wall of the lock.

Thanks for that… good to know.


The Panama Canal had become somewhat of a nemesis for us. It was the last thing still separating Exit from an entirely new world, and seemingly endless possibilities… the Pacific Ocean.

We had been in the Canal’s proximity approaching two years now, yet we hadn’t been able to utilize the forty five mile passage connecting the two oceans.

Pandemic…

Repairs…

Parts…

Weather…

There always seemed to be something standing between us and a clear passage.

Not to mention the ever-present population of massive cargo ships and intimidating lock systems occupying the Canal itself… factors that would typically warrant our absolute avoidance.

Looking down from the Atlantic Bridge. Gatun Locks are in the distance.

Now, after all of the experiences aboard Exit – nearly five years and eleven thousand nautical miles – we finally found ourselves poised to transit the Panama Canal and reach the Pacific Ocean.

Having committed to the final process of physically measuring the boat and being assessed by the Panama Canal Authority, as well as having paid over two thousand dollars in fees, we were given a sixty day authorization to schedule the actual transit date.

Still, the one absolute nearly five years and eleven thousand miles aboard Exit had taught us was that schedules set in stone are the most fragile.

Despite our deadline, we had decided we were not willing to cross to the Pacific without our genoa furler in working order, and that ended up taking longer than two months to sort out. Fortunately, we didn’t incur extra costs (or get bumped altogether) when we exceeded the sixty day limit set forth by the Canal Authority policy.

Finally, the stars aligned and the date was set. January 17 departing Shelter Bay Marina; arriving in Panama City January 18. The transit would last two days.

The Process…

The Panama Canal is blah…blah…blah. Way too much to go into. For background…

Google? Alexa? Hit it.

Otherwise read on. [And now, back to our pre-recorded show…]


It was now only days before our scheduled departure.

Exit was ready. She was fully provisioned. Diesel tanks full. Petrol tanks full. Propane tanks full. Water tanks full. We had just learned we were scheduled to transit with another monohull currently in the marina – S/V Swiss Lady. We hadn’t met them.

Despite everything being in place, we couldn’t escape the anxiety. Excitement and fear… an old friendship.

Kris’ stress levels were also through the roof regarding our culinary requirements. Never before had we even had five other people aboard Exit at once, much less had to feed them. During a passage. Through the Panama Canal. Amongst gigantic cargo ships. What’s to stress about?

Now, as I’m walking along the dock back to the boat, one of the other boat owners has stopped me and told me this crazy story of mayhem and chaos in the Canal. No advice, like you would expect from a wise or concerned person. Just stirring things up… like you might expect from more of an asshole.

Perhaps foolishly, I choose to tell Kris the story. She’s not impressed.

At least we know our cleats won’t pull out.

Of the four line handlers required to be aboard during our transit through the Canal, two are being provided by the agent we have been using to arrange all the transit logistics. We are providing the other two.

Juan, a Colombian we had befriended living on his own sailboat in the marina back in June, had already offered to assist us. He had experience transiting many times so we took him up on his offer. When we decided to get a fourth outside line handler to further take some of the workload off us, instead of me filling that role, Juan recommended one of his friends who also had experience.

Three days before our scheduled transit date, Juan indicated casually that his stomach was bothering him a bit.

A day later, he indicated he had started taking some pills.

On the day before we were to depart, we saw him outside his boat. He said he was starting to feel much better… no problem.

Everything was a go.

We couldn’t have been more nervous.

Then, a message from the agent.

The Panama Canal Authority has just informed us that the time of your scheduled transit has been changed. Due to a shortage of Canal Advisors, your transit is being delayed by one day.

Now not only a Tuesday departure; also the two monohulls, Exit and Swiss Lady were being teamed up with the catamaran – Second Set. We had only briefly met the couple aboard Swiss Lady. We already knew Second Set well. This would definitely simplify things for us. A cat between the two “leaners” would make maneuvering much easier… though Second Set might have other thoughts on the matter. Their job just got much more difficult.

Regarding the one day delay… come on… of course. It’s a boat. Really, there is no such thing as a delay of one day. In the rare event things actually go according to schedule, it should be referred to as ahead of schedule by at least a day.

As it turned out, the delay was a blessing in disguise. What were becoming debilitating knots in our stomachs now had a twenty four hour opportunity to unwind. The last few things we didn’t get around to could now be sorted out the following day. We could actually enjoy a pool day with some relaxing beverages.

We didn’t see Juan at all during the course of the entire day.

Unfortunately, as we felt the knots in our stomachs loosening, Juan was feeling his tighten.

By Tuesday morning, January 18, we were rearing to get moving. Now, any extra time would only make for antsy jitters and unproductive nervousness.

However, during a walk down the dock, Kris spotted Juan in the distance leaning up against a wall, appearing as though he was about to keel over. When we both returned, Juan was emerging from his boat, barely able to stand. He looked to be in excruciating pain.

Clutching his stomach, he said through a grimace he had to get to a hospital. His friend said he needed to go along but he’d be back. One of the marina staff took Juan by the arm and nearly carried him to one of the parked cars.

We felt horrible for Juan. He looked absolutely miserable. He was not going to be doing anything anytime soon. We certainly couldn’t blame Juan’s friend for accompanying him to the hospital. However, we also couldn’t count on his return before noon.

Suddenly, just like that, with less than three hours remaining before we needed to cast off the dock lines and depart the marina in order to follow a tight schedule dictated by the Panama Canal authorities, we were short two line handlers.

Technically, we were only short one. I could fill one of the roles. But one person short was enough to derail everything. To be permitted to transit, each of the three vessels was required to have an outside advisor, full time helms person, and four line handlers. Without those, we would not be allowed to proceed. There was no negotiating.

A quick text message exchange determined that it was too late for our agent to secure any additional line handlers…he said we were shit out of luck.

A frantic trip to the marina office attracted the attention of the marina manager, Juan Jo, who immediately sent out word via Facebook, Messenger, and VHF. He started making phone calls.

Then, projecting all the theatric flourish of a magician performing his final trick, Juan Jo pulled two rabbits out of a Panama hat. With less than two hours remaining until our deadline, on what seemed like a whim, he walked us from his office to the end of D Dock and knocked on the hull of a sailboat tied off to the “T” on the end of the dock. After a short pause, a deck hatch towards the bow lifted and two bleary eyed people poked their heads out.

Jorge, originally from Chile, and Julia, originally from Poland, had just arrived on Jorge’s father’s sailboat from an offshore passage the day before and were still quite disoriented. We had obviously just woken them up.

Juan Jo quickly explained the situation to them in rapid fire Spanish.

Amazingly, they asked for ten minutes to talk it over.

We returned to Exit still dazed and confused. This seemed like a long shot. There was no way they’d want to leap headlong into this with such short notice. Too much going on…

After ten minutes they walked up to Exit.

They had planned to transit the Canal themselves in short order. This would be a great experience. They loved the idea of spending time aboard a Garcia sailboat. They wanted to help out. They could be ready and aboard in one hour.

Huh?

Suddenly, just like that, with the clock ticking down to its final moments, we were back in business.

Kris had painstakingly and brilliantly researched, stocked, and sorted all of the complicated and logistically difficult food requirements for our transit. The morning crisis had all but imploded many of her final food preparations; but, hey… at least we still needed the food. No choice. We’d simply have to roll with it.

There were only minutes remaining before we cast off our lines when learned that Juan was currently in emergency surgery.

His appendix.

Shit.

Had we actually left on schedule the day before, we would have ended up with a potentially life threatening medical emergency aboard Exit while on Gatun Lake mid-transit through the Panama Canal. An emergency evacuation would have been an absolute nightmare. The whole situation unfolding in that semi-remote location overnight would have been unimaginably fucked up and stressful.

Shit.

Most of the time I find Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. This was one of those instances when things really seemed to happen for a reason.

Call it luck or fate… sometimes you simply have to smile when it goes your way.

In this instance, the Canal Authority’s scheduling delay was the best thing that could have happened to us. Knowing a bad situation could have been far worse, all we could do now was hope Juan’s surgery went well.


Shortly past noon, with five people standing on deck in addition to the two marina staff standing on the dock, Exit backed out of the slip, reversing her direction one hundred eighty degrees in a spring line maneuver that we had performed flawlessly six months prior with only one person on deck and two on the dock.

This time… we can only hope the clusterfuck that ensued was not caught on video. We eventually ended up in the right direction where we needed to be; but by no means was it textbook, or even slightly pretty. With five more knots of wind, it could have been a catastrophic disaster.

Yikes. A bit of an embarrassing start. Unforced errors would not bode well inside the Canal.

Moments later we had set our anchor just outside Shelter Bay Marina in an area known as The Flats. Shortly after that, a pilot boat raced toward us, carrying our advisor. With brutally intimidating aggression and flawless precision, the pilot boat captain roared in, briefly stopped less than a foot from our boat in quite choppy seas, allowing the advisor to deftly step from the bow of the pilot boat onto our deck, then backed quickly away, before I could fully process how disastrous, that too, could have been with less skilled people.

We currently had more people on Exit than had ever been since we first climbed aboard. The official Panama Canal Authority advisor, Victor (a required presence responsible only for giving advice – not piloting the vessel); the two line handlers provided by the agent, Mario and Jamir; the two volunteers who had saved our asses, Jorge and Julia; as well as Kris and myself.

Our initial task was getting under the Atlantic Bridge as expeditiously as possible so all three boats could rendezvous just before the first set of locks. The clouds above threatened to unleash a deluge which would have made keeping seven people dry an impossible task. Thankfully, the threats never amounted to more than a few brief sprinkles.

Successfully under another bridge!

At this point we were only an hour into the adventure and already we would have to accomplish what would seem to us to be the most complicated, stressful, and risky undertaking of the entire transit. It was the task we, on one hand, had the most control over and yet, at the same time, relied the most on everyone aboard all three boats to coordinate as an overall effort without fucking anything up. If there was an issue, it would not be because of a cargo ship or a lock worker.

While still freely adrift in the channel, all three boats had to raft up together, securely enough to be able to move as a single unit into and out of each of the locks.

With a bit of discussion and practice, it seemed possible to coordinate the procedures, communications, and assignments necessary to try to attempt this without a high risk of causing d