One of the craziest damn terrestrial animals on our planet.
If there is a Creator, sloths have to be a testimony to an Ultimate sense of humor.
They are a true exception to any stretch of a Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest.
Not only do they seem incapable of outrunning any potential predator, they seem damn near incapable of catching much prey… and they are vegetarian!
Somehow, sloths manage to maintain a look that successfully sits atop the razor line between an irresistibly endearing smile and an absolutely indifferent look of complete stupidity.
We’d seen them at a distance on Bastimentos, but never face to face like here in the mangroves right next to Isla Joya.
You just can’t possibly do anything other than smile back.
And… a sloth with a baby? Get the fuck outta here…
Kris, who to be fair, does hold the title of longest data collector in the ongoing anthropological-sociological-psychological study of Steve, insists that sloths may be the first mammal she has encountered that is actually SLOWER than Steve.
Why would six gringos, four adults and two four year olds, one with a broken arm in a cast no less, be wandering around unaccompanied in the Panama jungle? On the surface, as well as both above and below the surface, this seemed like far more than a rather reasonable question.
The plan was a leisurely jaunt over the mainland from a dock just across the cove from Isla Joya (the same dock leading to Wild Bill’s infamous and now abandoned Jolly Roger Social Club) over to Green Acres chocolate farm. It was only about one mile directly across from our cove to Dolphin Bay and not more than twice that diagonally to Green Acres… what had been described to Sharon by a local as “a twenty minute walk on a path.”
Ninety minutes into the jaunt, Sharon decreed, “I have no idea where we are.”
I realized there had been much more confidence in her voice earlier, back at the dock when Bev had made a passing reference to a guide. I thought the answer at the time had been, “I know exactly where we’re going. We’re just following a path…”
After two hours, we had not seen a single person since being dropped off at the dock.
We had three phones with occasional momentary reception, but only enough to get a GPS update on our current location on Google Maps —- invariably it was not far from where the last point had been. Or to send a text —- Bev, we might be lost.
Sharon handed me the machete.
What had started off as a very discernible path leading from the dock into the dense jungle seemed to keep branching and branching. The general strategy had been to keep angling in the correct direction but also try to keep to the more established, current, and traffic-worn trail. Some trails eventually dwindled away to nothing, forcing us to backtrack. Others split off continuously.
Essen, the fourth adult in our party, reminded me of a rubber band as she stretched back and forth, shooting between her two four year old twins, who were themselves ricocheting in every direction through the jungle. Dylan and Melody, who was currently sporting a bright green cast on her broken right arm from a climbing mishap five weeks earlier, were still remarkably upbeat considering the terrain we were trudging through.
On an interesting side note, I did learn that, in Turkish, the word “stop” apparently means “just continue right on doing what you were doing”… hmmmm.
The distinction between a looking at a Google map satellite photo with a straight red line from point to point and actually physically walking between those two points with your own two feet never became more apparent.
By the time Sharon’s foresight to bring a machete was realized, it became all too obvious that we were ill prepared in almost every other way —- a hand held radio would have made sense… a reasonable supply of drinking water certainly wouldn’t have been ridiculed… I did have on a pair of running shoes but knee high boots now seemed like a smarter choice; by this point Kris had reverted to full scale primitive, opting to carry her Crocs and go barefoot… it was undoubtably a questionable environment for two four year olds with compliance issues, especially when one had an arm cast that needed to stay clean and dry…
Ultimately, a guide was the one thing we sorely lacked. It would have made everything else irrelevant because we would have only been on a twenty minute walk on a path!
Finally, I began to get a feel for clearing a path with the machete.
Only thirty minutes ago, I had taken point. As I recalled watching many movies featuring jungle-hacking trailblazers deftly cutting a swath back and forth through hostile vines and plants, I confidently swung the machete in front of me for the first time.
Nothing had prepared me for the violent shudder I felt through my right arm and dull clang I heard as the machete bounced harmlessly bounced off a tiny vine no more than an eighth of an inch wide.
What the fuck?
I looked at the vine. It was tiny. It did not appear to be made out of some alien alloy.
I looked at the machete. It was metal. It appeared to be newly sharpened.
I looked at Sharon. She was trying to suppress a laugh. “You have to cut diagonally.”
The second swing went through a one inch thick plant stem like butter. I smiled. This could be fun.
Three hours into the adventure, we had lost the path entirely. After a painstakingly slow descent down a slope far too dense and steep to be carrying a sharp object, we reached somewhat level ground. I had spent most of the time envisioning a sudden slip, only to see a machete sticking out of my belly upon standing. Fortunately, that did not happen.
Subsequently, we had decided to follow a small creek that —- in movies, at least —- always leads to a village. However, an enormous fallen tree now blocked our path, forcing us to divert back into the thick and relentless jungle.
We were getting no where, very slowly.
By this time, multiple texts had been sent to and received from Green Acres. Thankfully, their local employee Ocias (ironically pronounced Oh-see-us), whom we first met back in June, had already been deployed from the chocolate farm to retrieve us.
We kept pressing forward as best we could, but any semblance or sign of human life had been absent for quite some time. The direction we kept trying to go constantly seemed to be the densest wall of follage and growth.
Fortunately, any potentially dangerous critters, and I’m sure there were many that we never saw —- fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes (both can be aggressive and fatal), scorpions, spiders —- all seemed to be more determined to get the hell out of the way of the thundering herd of pale outsiders than to defend their home.
Even the mosquitos appeared to have sympathy for the dumb gringos, leaving us unmolested.
Had the skies unleashed rain upon us, it would have been absolutely miserable. All things considered, everyone was still in good spirits and this still qualified as an adventure.
Eventually more than one person began to intermittently ask if anyone else had heard someone’s voice calling out.
It took a couple of stops with everybody standing still, listening, before we all agreed someone was yelling for us nearby.
Our salvation! We would not become food for the jungle today.
Ocias emerged from the jungle slightly to one side of us with a big grin on his face. He was wearing rubber boots and carrying a radio… smart guy. As we converged, everyone let out a big cheer.
Immediately, I noticed we were already on a path. Where the fuck had that come from?
During the long trudge that remained to Green Acres, Ocias kept taking photos with his phone… photos of things he saw along the way… photos of the ridiculous gringos he had pulled out of the jungle.
For the most part, he seemed rather amused by it all. And, though some particulars may have been lost in translation, at one point Ocias appeared to express concern for our being in the jungle alone, especially had night set in. Something about… the jungle is not for people at night… and something else about… jaguars y tigres.
Unbelievably, it seemed we purposefully strode for another thirty minutes —- up hills, through pastures, across mud bogs —- still always on a path, before finally reaching Green Acres… this time with someone who knew where they were going. In the end, it appeared that after three and a half hours of walking, we had actually ended up ten minutes farther away from Green Acres than we were when we started walking. Our first wrong turn must have occurred at the first branch in the trail…
Eventually we arrived at Green Acres. Four hours had passed since Bev dropped us off at the dock.
Still, during that four hours we had seen incredible untouched scenery, surreal looking trees and flowers, bizarre mushrooms, bats, lizards… truly primitive Panama jungle.
At the chocolate farm, we were surprised to learn from Carlos and Gary that Ocias had initially been unable to find us. After searching unsuccessfully he had returned to Green Acres empty handed and spoken to an older Panamanian guy who was on the property cutting wood. It turned out the guy was an ex-police officer who told Ocias that while on the force they had been trained to use a tried and true, surefire method for search and rescue.
Lick your finger and hold it up in front of you. The side of your finger that dries will face the direction in which you will locate the people you are searching for.
I asked for clarification. Had I heard that correctly?
Yes. Apparently, I had. That was how Ocias had located us.
I stood there frozen with what must have been more than a bit of a dumb look on my face…
Now, I had heard a similar method to determine the direction wind was coming from… but… for locating lost people? Really?
My jaw began to drop. But before the words are you kidding… or that’s ridiculous… ever got a chance to tumble out of my mouth, something occurred to me.
What the fuck did I know? I was one of the idiots who was lost! He found us.
“Ahhhh… yes,” I said instead. “Thank goodness for the old Spit Finger Search and Rescue Method.
After our visit at Green Acres, suffice to say there was no drama on the way back to Isla Joya…
After our new ground tackle had been installed, the first thing we did upon arriving back at the Red Frog anchorage was to drop anchor in thirty feet of water (almost the same spot we had dragged to over three months prior) and put out one hundred fifty feet of chain —- ten feet more than had ever even been an option before.
Big squalls? No worries…
Croc sightings? No worries…
About a size seven, I’d guess.
The second thing we did was lower Kris’ new SUP into the water! She had been trying for the better part of six months to acquire the perfect third option between swimming or using the dinghy to get off the boat. Up to now she had been relegated as an observer of other peoples’ freedom. Now she was finally the one wearing the shit eating grin.
Two days later we departed the Red Frog anchorage and arrived at Crawl Cay after having confidently navigated The Cut using the Navionics track we had saved from our previous trip in the opposite direction. We chucked out two hundred feet of chain, just because we could… and then laughed as we realized that, even so, we still had more chain remaining in the locker than we used to have available in total.
Crawl Cay represented the furthest we had ventured since arriving in Bocas del Toro. During the past six months, we had remained inside a ten mile perimeter from Bocastown. Now, for the first time, we were fifteen miles away.
After two nights there, we decided that the anchorage was a bit too exposed for the schizophrenic shifts in wind direction we currently were experiencing. So we very carefully inched our way from Crawl Cay through bays, around islands and between mangroves in water that ranged under us from six to sixty feet deep.
We had manually laid a course into our Navionics software, but much of the area had no depth soundings to go by. Many of the twists and turns we had plotted had been determined by studying corresponding charts in the well-known Bauhaus Panama cruisers guide which were created by superimposing recorded depth soundings he took over the top of satellite photos of the areas.
Despite being very helpful in setting a tentative course, in the end, every time we approached a questionable area or the depth gauge started shallowing up quickly, someone stood at the bow to act as spotter. Three hours and fourteen miles later, numerous anxious moments had resulted in only one actual emergency full stop and zero touches. Our Navionics course had proven true.
We were slowly becoming more confident in our ability to feel our way around, carefully picking and choosing a way though mangrove passages and mazes. With good light, minimal wind, patience and slow speed, we found ourselves willing to probe into uncharted areas we would not have felt very comfortable in a short time ago. If our draft was much deeper, a lot of places wouldn’t even be an option. Shallow draft… deep commitment. Whoop, whoop!
Our friend Bev was currently caretaking a house on a small private island for a few days as well as looking after the three resident dogs —- Quila, Spock, and Bug —- on behalf of the owners, two Canadian expats named Sharon and Roy who had purchased the island less than two years ago. Sharon needed to visit the nearby city of David for a short time. Roy, on the other hand, had been stuck in Canada for the past six months on what was supposed to be a short visit after Panama’s international borders shut down in response to the coronavirus.
Our destination, named Isla Joya, is a tiny island 0.8 acre in size, which pokes out of the water at the very back of the massive Chiraqui Lagoon. We tucked into a spot behind Isla Joya and its larger neighbor Isla Mono, in a relatively small but long cove with nearly three hundred sixty degrees of protection, where we knew we would find S/V Aseka already anchored.
The backstory of Isla Joya had all the makings of a farfetched blockbuster Hollywood movie except it was non-fiction. An American white supremacist calling himself Wild Bill managed to swindle money from someone by selling them property he didn’t own, and then fleeing the U.S., murdered a man in Costa Rica who had boasted to him about sneaking a briefcase of cash into the country. Once in Bocas del Toro, Panama, he embarked on a scheme to acquire properties. Posing as a potential buyer, Wild Bill would set up a meeting with the owner requesting they bring the property deed (in Panama, possession of the deed represents ownership of the property), then subsequently execute them and dispose of the body, or bodies.
Located just across the cove we were currently anchored in, on one of those very properties, Wild Bill had a bar called the Jolly Roger Social Club, which reportedly gained quite a reputation as a party location for years. The previous owner of Isla Joya was his final known victim. Her murder, and eventually the whole plot, was uncovered largely because the ex-boyfriend refused to accept Wild Bill’s story of the woman’s disappearance and continued to press the authorities.
Despite the dark outcome which culminated in numerous victims eventually being dug up on Wild Bill’s property, the silver lining was not only the fact that Wild Bill still resides in a Panama prison serving forty years for murder, but also the alignment of stars which, years later, allowed Sharon and Roy to accidentally stumble across a now languishing and well overgrown island while searching for property to buy. Eventually they were able to wade through all the confusion, ultimately purchase the island, and move in while they continue to repair and renovate the existing buildings.
We met Sharon once she had returned from David. Day after day for weeks, she continually offered her island paradise and endless hospitality to us. Her generosity was amazing, especially considering she had just met us.
Playing with the dogs — Quila, a nine month old Rottweiler; Spock, a four year old Papillon; and tiny Bug, a somewhat brain damaged, eternally suspicious and always yappy though oddly adorable something or another — became a source of daily entertainment… and inevitably raised voices.
In these Covid times of social distancing, hyper-diligence, and unprecedented isolation (not only from each other, but from what we are confident may or may not be the truth), it is encouraging… no, it is invigorating to know that strangers in completely different orbits can still become lifelong friends having to do little more than reach out.
Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to great places! You’re off and away!
So begins the first page of the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”. As I try to wrap my head fully around the swirling ironies before me, I turn the page and think back.
Exactly thirty eight years ago today, that day arrived for both Kris and I when we went on our first date… October 2, 1982.
Two high school students, headstrong with the typically firm conviction they already had a grasp of how everything important in the world works, plowed forward with the same awkward certainty shared by millions of other teenagers. Of course, the sky was the limit…
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
Fast forward ten years or so to the Nineties. As the infernal reality for a young married couple of having to work in order to pay for the cost of living continues to dictate most of our day to day activities, a hunger to travel has already set in. A need to experience slowly begins to dictate our long term goals. Our mindset was changing from holiday tourists to traveling scuba vagabonds, but it would take over a decade for that evolution to fully take place.
It’s opener there in the wide open air.
I’m not sure when we first came across the Dr. Seuss book. It obviously wasn’t a memorable enough moment to stand out in either of our minds. However, the book itself was quite memorable.
Fast forward to October 2, 2008. Twenty six years after our first date. We have consciously chosen this date… the culmination of a five year plan to sell everything and leave the United States.
In so many ways it seemed like the final step of a long process. In reality, it was actually another beginning.
Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
For nine years —- as we travelled to incredible places, met unfathomably deep people, and soaked up life altering experiences —- we were simultaneously feeding two seemingly contradictory realities. We were changing while, at the same time, we were reinforcing that which we had always been.
Thousands of dives, amazing cultures, lifelong friends we were making from all over the planet, endlessly looking at things in new ways. How could we have waited so long?
At some point during those nine years, we stumbled across that Dr. Seuss book again on a store shelf, in SE Asia of all places… we bought it.
Yet, even when you are forging completely new ground half a world away from where you grew up, you can still find yourself coming full circle… the exact same situation in a totally different scene.
So be sure when you step. Step with great care and tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Even paradise has its darkness. Rarely are things exactly what they seem. Everything is fleeting. Nothing is set in stone.
Eventually the new becomes comfortable… too comfortable. It becomes time to… possibly move on?
Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker upper to make up his mind.
Somehow or another, despite all the piles of dive gear and the mementos we had to pack up when we eventually left SE Asia, that crazy Dr. Seuss book managed to find its way into our bags.
The previous decade had proven to us that, given a chance, outside possibilities have a real chance to become inside realities… even potentially something as outside as buying a sailboat to live aboard full time, despite having absolutely zero sailing experience.
Yet, the previous decade had also proven to us that the only prerequisite for gaining experience is actually doing something. Trial and error; research and discussion; in some cases sheer repetition (i.e. visual navigation or anchoring) and in others strategic avoidance (say, hurricanes or collisions). And living aboard a boat 24/7, three hundred sixty five days a year undoubtedly allows substantial opportunity for all of those things.
With time, the sheer novelty of everything accompanied by a terror of the unknown began to slowly give way to a sense of confidence and occasional understanding accompanied by a healthy respect for the unknown (with the occasional small poo in the boardies).
Exit… Sovereign Nation… Off The Grid. Much more than simply names of sailboats. They reflect particular mindsets… unique ways of thinking… complete changes in thought processing.
With time, we began to sense that shift of perspective. With time, we began to realize that, once again, we were controlling the direction of our lives.
Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.
Somehow or another, that crazy book had once again made the cut of what was deemed precious enough to bring along when we moved aboard our floating home, S/V Exit.
And it echoed the reality that, even aboard our own floating empire, we were still subject to outside influences and the inevitable ups and downs of life.
Nearly three years and nine thousand nautical miles later, as we sailed Exit from Grand Cayman on Friday the 13th, March 2020, we had no concept of how the following six months would unfold.
Little did we know that we were headed for…
The Waiting Place…
Briefly, we were caught in the wake of the ripple effect involving the first Covid-19 lockdowns. Providencia and San Andreas, Colombia turned us away while we were twenty miles away. Bocas del Toro locked everything down the morning after our arrival. And, for a time, we were fearful we would once again be cast out as refugees.
But, eventually, we were granted visas and allowed to join the rest of Panama… and, for that matter, the rest of the globe, in the process of doing nothing…
Everyone is just waiting.
A perpetual planetary time out for almost our entire species. Pandemic.
A month… then a month becomes sixty days… then sixty days turns into three months… which quickly exceeds a hundred days… suddenly four months have passed… then five.
Then… finally… after six months, it seemed as though the global haze could actually be slowly lifting.
A hesitant easing of Covid lockdown restrictions in Bocas del Toro—- coinciding with what looked to be our final struggles to rectify a complicated windlass, chain, and anchor issue which had, in and of itself, brought us to a virtual standstill for months —- allowed us to start moving the mothership about more freely once again.
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying.
Which brings us full circle to October 2, 2020. Thirty eight years after that first date. Twelve years after our exodus from the United States.
Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way!
Maybe not our mountain… but very possibly our ocean.
OH, THE PLACES WE’LL GO! It’s just what the Doctor ordered, ya know…
Now, to be fair, I have always been a Dr. Seuss fan. A fierce independence seems to course through the characters who pass on lessons and ideas from within unlimited and imaginative worlds via incredibly creative poetry, language, and storylines. Still, teaching children the confidence to resist being persuaded to eat questionable foods like green eggs rings a bit more common-sensible…
On the other hand, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” seems to resonate like the bizarre combined poetic interpretations of Mr. Rogers, Dr. Phil, and Rick Steves… all wrapped up with an even stranger personal resonance of some Nostradamus-type-deja-vu-familiarity. More like a mushroom induced overnight contemplation than a bedtime story… certainly far deeper shit than ever came out of the mouth of any purple dinosaur!
In the interest of full disclosure (just in case someone failed to realize), all above italicized, center spaced text stanzas are excerpts from “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” written by Dr. Seuss. Without having gained the expressed permission to reproduce these excerpts, I am counting on the Doctor’s unmistakable sense of cool to look beyond any thought of legal action. Barney can fuck off.
September 21 – 30, 2020: South Anchorage outside Bocastown
After three months of sitting, we were finally on the move again. Our ship had literally just come in and the shit we needed had just been offloaded.
In a nutshell:
Our windlass needed to be replaced and there was no way around it. The 1/2” chain was fine, but well over-sized for our boat (every other boat we met carried 3/8”) and the 150 feet we had was only half of what we wanted/needed. Our Rocna 25kg anchor was okay, but on the small side for our boat…
Panama shipping issues meant we couldn’t guarantee the arrival of equipment shipping from Europe, even though this more than doubled the prices, and we were severely limited with who we could even get products delivered from.
After literally months of wrestling with options —- logistical feasibility, safety considerations, cost, availability, endless combinations…
In the end, the winning combination turned out to be a new Lofrans Tigres windlass with three hundred fifty feet of new (downsized) 3/8” G40 chain attached to a new (upsized) Rocna 33kg anchor.
Because we were able to secure everything through a company that shipped directly to Bocas Marina as a marine retail supplier, we avoided having to use the area’s regular shipping outlet which routed every package through a Miami address, circumventing all additional customs fees and delays that seem to plague every other shipping company. But at a fee of six dollars per pound, that would have added about four thousand dollars to the bill!
I may (or may not) have been able to sort out the necessary rewiring if that’s all that would be involved. However, while it was clear that the footprint of the new windlass was far closer than anything else to the windlass currently bolted to the deck, it was still going to require some modifications and/or aluminum fabrication to properly mount to the current deck plate.
Re-enter stage left: Martin, the South African mechanic extraordinaire.
Thirty dollars an hour transferred the burden of success from me to him. Instead of insurmountable problems, we were now paying for Martin to navigate through curious challenges.
Relatively cheap insurance.
And, as before, there was no fucking about.
We returned to Bocastown the morning after hearing the shipment had arrived at Bocas Marina. We had no sooner dropped anchor in the South anchorage when Martin appeared alongside in his dinghy, ready to dig in.
I still hadn’t fully wrapped my head around how this was all going to play out. We had to switch windlasses, which would NOT be as simple as unbolting the old one and bolting the new one into the existing holes… some kind of adaptor (presumably an aluminum plate) would need to be designed, fabricated, and fitted to the original deck plate… but the ground tackle we were currently sitting on would require the old windlass to be brought up… nearly a thousand pounds of gear had to get from Bocas Marina onto Exit… the new 3/8” chain and anchor would need to be deployed while the old 1/2” chain and anchor still had to come up…
Oh ya… and our generator, the only option for AC power aboard the boat (that would likely be needed for power tools) had given up the ghost in a gigantic puff of definitive white smoke back in August.
Oh ya… and we couldn’t forget about the boats anchored around us.
The initial hope of pulling this all off without having to tie up in the marina now appeared farther and farther fetched as we recognized endless questions that seemed, at best, to generate ambiguous possibilities rather than clear answers.
How could we possibly switch out everything while we were at anchor?
To me, we obviously still needed to think this through a bit more…
Martin then proceeded to unbolt the old windlass and pulled it off the deck.
The “boom…done” part of no fucking about.
It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. We won’t know what that is until we get into it…
The bold can-do attitude of a man who will only charge thirty dollars an hour while he’s fixing something.
Measurements were taken. Discussions were had.
The small discrepancy between the new and old windlass’ bolt patterns created a far more complicated situation than we had hoped for. With the hawspipe (the chain’s entry point through the deck) dictating the overall windlass alignment, we discovered the two front windlass bolts were exactly aligned with a thick aluminum cross-brace under the deck… shit.
It was at points like this that we really appreciated Martin’s approach. While uncompromising in what needed to be done from the perspective of structure and safety as well as aesthetics, he recognized when enough was enough. On more than one occasion, he pointed out when he thought the end result of something would be hard pressed to justify the cost involved.
Compromise, as is always the case on a boat, was inevitable.
Solution: the new windlass bolted securely to a thick aluminum plate which is itself, in turn, bolted securely through the deck to the existing plate already welded to the deck.
For the aluminum plate, Martin reached out to a bloke named Kiwi Dave.
Day 1: Dave is meeting someone else that day and can’t fit us in. Day 2: Dave discovers he’s mistaken. He doesn’t have the aluminum plating after all. Not even enough to weld multiple pieces together. Delivery from Costa Rica could take six weeks (I was quickly regretting having pulled the other windlass). We went to town desperately, though ultimately unsuccessfully, seeking an alternative. Day 3: Another call to Dave clarifies that he, in fact, DOES have the materials needed to fabricate our plate. It will take twenty four hours and cost $80. Day 4: Dave has no power. Day 5: Sunday. Lockdown. Nobody goin’ no where… Day 6: Kiwi Dave delivers. One ten millimeter thick aluminum plate welded, ground, and polished, in hand.
Of course, for the past week we have been in the south anchorage, far too close to other boats for our liking, still sitting on our old chain and anchor, with a very prominent empty space where our windlass should be.
Of course, for the past week it has also been volatile as hell for weather. It is enlightening to learn that the transitional months between Panama’s typical wet and dry seasons, apparently September and October this year, can become very unpredictable with shifting winds, abrupt squalls, and intense lightning storms… fucking perfect.
This week the shit had been hitting the fan almost every night.
Fortunately, multiple anxious night time moments never further elevated into situations or incidents.
And the days were more cooperative in allowing no fucking about progress to forge steadily on.
At least with overcast days we avoided the 140 degree temperatures the bare metal deck reached in direct sunlight!
The old wiring came out… the hard way. The new solenoid and circuit breaker were installed. The aluminum adaptor plate was now in hand. The plate was fitted and trimmed, and all holes drilled or cut. The new wiring went in. The new windlass control connector was installed in the deck.
The aluminum plate was secured and the windlass was bolted down… Ooooooweee, did that motherfucker look pretty!
Finally, the up button on the controller was pressed – the windlass gypsy sprang to life in one direction. The down button yielded the same result in the opposite direction… Ooooooweee, did it run quietly!
We brought the dinghy to shore at Bocas Marina, remembered to mark the chain lengths (a much easier task to do before the chain goes in the bow locker rather than after), hoisted the new chain by hand into the dinghy and then fed it straight through Exit’s bow roller and into the locker with new windlass… Ooooooweee, did that come out of the dinghy easier than it went in!
The new Rocna 33 already sat on deck. It gleamed brilliant silver in the fierce sunlight, like some fit Hollywood hero awaiting a grand entry just off-camera. The new anchor was shackled to the new chain and reinforced with wire to guarantee the shackle pin couldn’t back out accidentally.
The moment of truth…
Now, remind me, how exactly are we going to…?
Huh? What just happened?
Ah, yes. More of the no fucking about.
I almost missed it, and I was there. Let me rewind and replay in slo-mo.
Engine on, Kris at the helm, me and Martin at the bow. The new Rocna 33, with the new 3/8” chain attached, gets lowered ten feet (half way to the bottom) by the new windlass whereupon the chain is snubbed off, moved off the roller and set alongside over the toe rail… (watch fingers!) Then, while Kris slowly motors forward, the 1/2” chain is heaved up manually by Martin & myself, which is actually do-able with two people (watch fingers!), and snubbed off when we reach the anchor. Kris pulls forward a bit more to break the anchor loose, and we finish hauling up the old chain and anchor (watch fingers!), letting Exit drift backwards on the mild breeze until we are happy with the spot. The old anchor is lifted off the bow roller and moved out of the way, making room to move the new chain and anchor, which had been hanging off the toe rail nearby, back onto the bow roller (watch fingers!). New anchor and chain down. Out. And set. Wham… bam… thank you ma’am! Old anchor and chain on deck. Exit sitting comfortably on new 3/8” chain and new Rocna 33 anchor… and don’t forget that new Lofrans Tigres windlass on deck. Ooooooweee… does that new gear shine!
All ten fingers still attached. Muy bueno.
We had managed to successfully switch out our windlass, chain, and anchor, while at anchor. And by “we”, of course I mean “we paid less than five hundred dollars so that we could largely watch Martin turn insurmountable problems into curious challenges,” proving that shit can, in fact, get done provided you don’t overthink that which keeps you grounded.
That evening, as we toasted a pair of gin and tonics with extra ice and discussed picking up our new anchor and chain the next day to head somewhere new because… well, because we could… the wind started kicking up quite a stink. For the first time, in a very long time, that really didn’t matter.
Sunset. Fade to black. And with that, the curtain closes on the final scene of our “Windlass-less Saga” drama… hopefully.
Getting our passports stamped and cruising papers signed in Panama represented the most solid security we could hope for. Six months for us and twelve months for the boat represented about the longest stay we could hope to be granted anywhere. If things didn’t improve soon, this gave us the best option for longer term security, even from the perspective of potential weather. Almost anywhere else would have a hurricane season attached at some point during the year.
In April, who realized that the ripple effect of this pandemic would cause us to still be struggling with international lockdown restrictions and very limited domestic travel more than six months later? Six months from now, will we modifying that perspective once again —- still surprised after a year…? Or two?
Having visited the Port Captain’s office to clear in, we were one of only two boats that been told directly by the Port Captain that we were not allowed to pick up anchor from where we currently sat. We mumbled and groaned every time we saw one of the other boats moving. However, we were the new kids on the block, and the last thing we were about to do was hail someone to announce the perceived injustice over the very public radio. We already considered our position delicate enough that there was no way we’d be the ones to inform the rest of the fleet of a policy they may or may not be aware of. No official announcement had ever been made. Best for us just to sit there and shut up.
For two additional weeks, after having cleared in with both Immigration and Customs following our two week quarantine in the north anchorage, we sat in exactly the same place.
We could go into Bocastown only during allocated times —- women Monday, Wednesday, Friday and men Tuesday and Thursday, during a one hour window corresponding to your passport number with a half hour granted for movement to and from home on either side. Masks required. Complete lockdown during weekends. Not more than a few hours off the boat a week and never together… not ideal.
But pretty damn safe.
Finally… after a month… we returned to the Port Captain requesting permission to pick up anchor and move approximately five miles away to be in proximity of the closest marina with diesel. The marina was currently under lockdown but we could anchor outside, have access to the fuel dock, and presumably get on a waiting list to enter the marina.
We had no intention of staying at a marina; but we were happy to use any excuse that would help allow us to get the hell out of the north anchorage. We carefully posed our request to allow us movement without clarifying any expected time frame of our return. To our delight, permission was granted.
Our anchor hadn’t been lifted in exactly one month.
April 17 – May 1: Red Frog Anchorage
Five miles and a world away.
Granted, our experience so far at Bocastown had been nearer to visiting a ghost town than the reputed location of booming 4am bar music (in fact, the loudest and rowdiest nighttime venue right next to us turned out, of all surprises, to currently be the local Jewish synagogue).
Still, sitting in the tight proximity of other boats, buildings, and speeding pangas for a month had made any alternative location appear attractive.
And really, this was not a bad alternative at all…
The Red Frog Marina was in full lockdown so any shore access to get to the beach on the other side of the island was currently not on the table. And yet, at least we had gotten away from the north anchorage. To us, that was worth gold.
Occasionally, reports circulated regarding other cruisers who had already begun to question some of the restrictions; flaunt their movements rather boldly; do things not because they were allowed but because they could get away with it; disregard health recommendations. Or, even more bizarre to us, questioning the entire quarantine process having just arrived from who knows where. We couldn’t wrap our heads around that mindset.
Disrespect was not our intent. Exactly the opposite; avoid situations that offered even a potential for misinterpretation. We were very cognitive of the optics of two gringos moving about freely on their sailboat while the locals were struggling to survive without the economy of a functioning tourist industry.
Largely, we were practicing 24/7 social distancing already. And, while Panama was in full lockdown, actual Covid-19 cases in the Bocas del Toro archipelago remained very isolated with no positive tests in the area immediately around us. We were yet to hear of any cruisers having contracted the virus
After two weeks of enjoying the comparative quiet of our new environment, we decided to fuel up and try moving away from the Red Frog anchorage. Moving discreetly, we maintained a low-profile and off-the-radar approach, and quietly relocated to a number of different anchorages throughout the month of May, all within less than a ten mile radius of Bocastown.
May 1 – May 5: Starfish Beach
The makeshift shacks and palapas scattered along the beach, just back from the waterline, attest to the potential of both an impressive local income as well as an impressive level of noise generated by throngs of visitors who simply aren’t present right now. Everything is deserted. Nobody is there. Covid.
It’s so strange. We have no other reference of this place.
May 5 – May 6: Conch Point
The first place we have been to that seems completely unaffected by the coronavirus.
That’s because there is absolutely nothing here. And that’s largely in a good way.
A small inlet (surprisingly similar to a side creek we stumbled upon in the Rio Dulce), without a single building or person along the banks near us. Even local cayucas paddling past us while we are at anchor are far and few in between.
Our only visitors were the bugs. It’s the only reason we didn’t spend longer here.
We had heard of a twelve foot crocodile being spotted outside Bocastown recently. We saw photos of swimming boa constrictors at the Red Frog anchorage a short time ago.
The water here is quite murky… swimming is not on the itinerary.
May 6 – May 12: Big Bight
Another isolated spot. More of a small bay with three hundred sixty degree protection. No houses along the shore. A small amount of cayuca traffic.
During one afternoon, while we were both sitting in the cockpit reading, Kris noticed a rather odd cayuca at the other side of the bay —- odd from the standpoint that typically these incredibly unstable tiny dugout canoes are deftly and expertly handled by skilled locals ranging in age from six to sixty. Yet, this cayuca was not only quite large… it was meandering all over the place, like the person paddling was either smashed or incompetent.
It turned out to be a bit of both.
Tyler, a young American who was with two other friends, zig-zagged his way across the bay, eventually paddling up alongside Exit to introduce themselves. The three worked for a resort that was currently shut down. Tyler confessed they had been watching our anchor light at night in the distance for the last week. In his words, it had been their beacon of hope. They had literally snuck away from lockdown during the afternoon with a cayuca and a bottle of rum to check us out.
Later, Tyler would make good on a promise by hand delivering an amazing array of complimentary produce from their organic garden, after catching up with us a few days later once we had moved anchorages. What a rock star!!! Wisely, this time he was on a larger panga with an outboard.
For the next three weeks, Exit bounced between anchorages. A small taste of freedom on a low profile…
Back to Starfish Beach.
However, by the end of May, our windlass began coughing and wheezing again. The previous September when we had windlass problems, we had found a guy in Roatan, Honduras who had been able to revive the motor in three hours for only one hundred dollars. I was not confident we would get off so lucky a second time.
At Starfish Beach, the windlass died completely. This was the first time I had to bring up the half inch chain and anchor entirely by hand… not fun. In a blow, it would be impossible.
We returned to Big Bight. For us, the isolation and protection offered a much better comfort level than the south anchorage. It was five miles from Bocastown… not ideal but doable in the dinghy. It allowed me to take the windlass motor into town while Kris stayed to look after Exit.
Enter Martin, a thirty something South African living aboard his boat in the south anchorage who cut his teeth as a mechanic in the mines. He was a man of few words and even less bullshit. Get in, do the job, and get out… no fucking about. Thirty bucks an hour; and that was only if something was actually being fixed.
He was rock solid. Unfortunately our windlass motor was not.
Twenty eight years is apparently pretty close to the life span of a Goiot windlass. It could be resuscitated once again… but there were not many “downs” and probably even fewer “ups” to be expected from the old codger.
And, despite earning bonus points for coming up with a McGyver repair that met Martins’s engineering approval, modifying the locally available though inadequate replacement brushes, it was understood that every time we put out or brought up the chain, it could be the last time for that motor. All we could do was hope; and start coming up with a plan.
The silver lining? Fortunately, we DID get lucky again. Round two of the windlass repair… ninety bucks!
June 5 – June 17: Dolphin Bay
June brought a slight uptick in confidence regarding our ability to move the boat about. We had experienced no fallout so far, nor had anyone else that we were aware of. We opted to head for Dolphin Bay where we met up with S/V Aseka, S/V Shearwater, and S/V Bisou, all whom we had gotten to know recently.
Eric, who arrived at Bocas del Toro aboard M/V Sprezatura the same day we did back in March, had just boldly left for Shelter Bay with the intention of storing his boat on the hard so he could return to the U.S. for some time. We winced every time we read or heard about the States. For us, it was like a plane crash happening in slow motion you couldn’t take your eyes off. There was no way we were even considering going back, especially right now.
In a different direction than we had set out before, but still within ten miles of Bocastown, we headed to Dolphin Bay and anchored right around the corner from a small village, with only a few houses overlooking the quiet bay we were in.
A short time later we met Gary and Carlos, two California ex-pats and owners of the immaculately landscaped property we were anchored just off of (we also met their employee Ocias, ironically pronounced Oh-see-us, who would later play a prominent role in our not potentially becoming headlines in a Tourists Lost in Panama Jungle story).
In addition to being an absolutely beautiful home, Green Acres (named after the original owner, not the tv show) is also a chocolate farm. Gotta like dat…
As an added bonus, Green Acres’ dock provided an ideal setting to usher in my fifty fourth birthday, complete with impromptu jam session. Gotta like dat, too.
After a week or so, we picked up anchor and moved to a different area of Dolphin Bay for a few days.
At Palos Lagoon, the frustration following three unsuccessful attempts to get our normally trusty Rocna to take hold in what appeared to be exceptionally thick turtle grass led us to the rash decision of dropping anchor in nearly fifty feet of water trying to avoid the turtle grass altogether. Looking back, we would question this decision more than once.
Our more immediate focus, however, was upon the bliss of our first visit to a restaurant since Grand Cayman (Burger King, if that counts), exactly three months prior. Damn coronavirus. Our presence at the restaurant, aptly named Clandestino, technically pre-dated the official Panama mandates. Then again, it was technically a private party.
I wouldn’t have wanted to pay in jail time, but it was a damn fine meal worth every penny.
A higher price was paid a couple of days later when we went to raise anchor.
Even without any wind to deal with, the depth we were anchored in proved nearly fatal for our poor windlass. The fifty feet of half inch chain hanging off the bow roller, especially once an additional fifty-five pounds of anchor was added to the end, created enough weight and drag that the windlass barely got everything up to the deck.
A visible wisp of pungent smoke coming off the cabling from the solenoids testified just how close we came to melting the cable insulation completely enough to seriously risk a direct electrical short… not good at all. It was some time later before Kris got full disclosure on that one.
It was time to head back to civilization and rethink things. Now it most certainly needed to be sooner rather than later.
In addition, word was starting to circulate that Bocas Del Toro was retightening lockdown restrictions in response to increases in Covid-19 cases. We were no longer going to be able to move freely about between anchorages and, not knowing how long that would last, it probably behooved us to get a bit closer to civilization.
We tempted fate once more, stopping along the way to get a final isolation fix at the edge of Porras Lagoon, in essentially a number of small channels and bays amongst numerous mangrove mounds, after locating a spot where we could drop anchor in no more than ten feet (a depth at which we could pick up anchor by hand if need be).
Thankfully, it didn’t need be…
Exactly two months after first departing Bocastown bound for the Red Frog anchorage, we departed Porras Lagoon bound for the Red Frog anchorage once again, this time via a narrow stretch of passages through mangroves islands called The Gap. Though our Navionics electronic charts had been quite accurate in this area, a lot of spots had no depth information which could prove thoroughly nerve-racking. We were more than happy to follow S/V Aseka, who had already saved a track on her own chart plotter after following someone else her first time through.
Even behind Bev, we ended up executing emergency evasive maneuvers at one point when I apparently cut a turn a bit short and we nearly touched bottom. Eeek!
June 17 – Sept 21: Red Frog Anchorage
Arriving back at the Red Frog anchorage without any bottom paint missing, we dropped anchor in eight feet of water. Swinging in one direction we had only six inches of water under us; in the other direction twenty nine feet of water under us… a better situation for us than having the anchor sitting at thirty feet.
The plan was to determine if a replacement motor could be found to resuscitate our windlass. If not, what was it going to take to replace the whole thing?
Red Frog anchorage gave us access to a store, good cell reception for Internet research and contacts, not to mention more peace of mind from a weather perspective (better holding, less exposure, fewer boats). And it was simply a nicer place to be.
Plus… we now had access to the beach and small restaurant on the other side of the island, even if it did mean having to navigate a treacherous stretch of rotten dock for a period of time.
Not that having freshly made empanadas or Johnny cakes hand delivered in the anchorage by kids in cayucas doesn’t have it’s appeal… or a weekly veggie boat that ties up alongside you. Still, sometimes it’s just nice to get off the boat.
Always lots of strange and interesting critters to watch and interact with…
Even red frogs…
Our understanding was that Bocas del Toro could see its heaviest rain months in July and August. This implied storms and squalls with volatile winds, that could cause us to drag.
Less than a week later, at 3am (because that’s when these things always happen on a boat), blinding strobe flashes of lightning lit up the sky above us. Bone-jarring cracks of thunder detonated simultaneously with the bursts of light, clearly indicating the action was all around us.
As the display on our wind speed indicator reached thirty three knots, we could feel Exit lurching to one side; the anchor had started slipping and the wind was pulling us broadside. Lightning was exploding all around us, drowning out even the howling wind and pummeling rain.
After weighing the risk of electrocution from a lightning storm while standing on the deck of a floating metal boat in a downpour under a sixty two foot mast (read “lightning rod”) against the risk of Exit potentially bumping into a mangrove…
We held our collective breath belowdeck as we watched the little digital black boat icon, which represented Exit on our chart plotter, slowly leave a thin red line trailing away from the red semi circle which, moments ago, had represented the track of our arcing swing at anchor. We were dragging.
Each thought of going up on deck was immediately squashed by a flash of lightning and a simultaneous crack of thunder. Plus, there was plenty of mostly open space all around us.
It turned out being about two thousand feet before the line on the chart plotter stopped moving sideways. The little black boat icon on the chart plotter began leaving a new red arcing semi-circle. Our anchor had finally grabbed and seemed to now be holding.
Could have been much worse.
The following morning, our windlass seemed happy as Larry to lift the chain and anchor from the thirty foot hole we had eventually settled in. We moved back onto the shallow mound again, determined to sit there until we had a solution for our windlass situation.
Thankfully, Exit didn’t move again until we had that answer…
Unfortunately, that took three months.
June becomes July… July becomes August… August becomes September.
It took nearly a month to determine that there was no viable option to merely replace the windlass motor.
The windlass manufacturer Goiot was in France, and had long ago ceased offering any parts or support.
Ultimately, we decided $500-1000 was too much to spend shipping in an alternate motor that may or may not be compatible, and we wouldn’t know for sure until after it had arrived. But having to replace all of our ground tackle in addition to the windlass had the potential to add another zero to that initial figure.
It took nearly another month to determine what combination of windlass, chain, and anchor would be required and who we could reliably get that from while in Panama during a pandemic.
Finally, it took yet another month to physically get everything to us in Panama and install it on Exit.
During this entire time the world Covid drama continues to unfold. Panama slowly begins lifting movement restrictions during the day, though weekend lockdowns and evening curfews continue. Many “non-essential” businesses are still closed and international flights have been put off until October.
While we see very little enforcement or patrol presence on the water, the authorities are obviously very serious. Even as restrictions continue towards relaxing and easing up, thirty one people were arrested and fined for partying on a boat they had chartered for a birthday party.
By late September, the rest of Panama actually has opened up weekends. Word has it that Bocas del Toro is keeping the weekend curfew and beach restrictions as an attempt to minimize weekend party and holiday traffic from the mainland that would help re-establish the economy but also put the area at serious risk of becoming a Covid-19 hotspot.
Cases in the immediate area are very isolated so far. As far as we are aware, all of the cases have been locals. The closest incident was an employee at the Red Frog Marina store we shop at once or twice a week. The store was shut down for two weeks. No further drama ensued.
It appears boats are rather free to move about between anchorages in the area; although some of the outer regions remain off limits and spaces designated as national or marine parks remain closed.
Outside of the pandemic itself, the United States simply seems to be imploding. The fact that a 17 year old carrying an automatic weapon is less suspicious to authorities than an unarmed protester with a BLM sign; the never ending barrage of uncovered political corruption, poor decisions, and downright stupidity; the mental angst of the upcoming election… fires… hurricanes… it’s hard to stay focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and continuing to live life.
For us, the relentless uncertainty accompanied by the six month lockdown have certainly taken a toll on our psyches, but Panama continues to be a “safe” place to be “trapped”. We have good anchorage without real weather risks even over the long term, fair access to reasonable supplies, as good of social isolation as most could ask for and a solid home to protect us… a far better situation than many. Things look like they may start opening up more for movement by the end of the month and incoming commercial international flights are scheduled in a month. We’ll have to see. For now, we’ll take a “symptom” like stir crazy over an actual “problem”. And relentless uncertainty seems a much safer bet than reckless certainty.
We’re not going anywhere for now. Hopes to get back to the States before the end of the year do not look promising. Right now, we couldn’t get back into Panama if we left the boat here to fly anywhere and shit is a mess right now is the US.
In this daily internet barrage of information, and mis-information, and distractions, and reminders, and accusations, and excuses… sometimes the big picture becomes irrelevant and it’s really the smaller details that make the difference.
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 (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!
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.
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.
A week in the life:
Choppy & crowded
Ranch dressing… magical
Kris’ quinoa invention
Boxed wine in the cockpit
Tearing apart the bed to repair a hot water tank leak
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.
Afternoon current… bow facing south
Morning current… stern to the south
Same view… different time of day.
Bocas Town day
Bocas Town evening
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 prowesshad 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:
Re-varnishing hatch frames
New crops and new endeavors:
Keeping the brain stimulated:
Hey… is that allowed?
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.
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.
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 Englishwhile 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.
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 youFabian!
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.)
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.
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.
…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 fornearly 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…
The “No first time arrivals after dark” rule was officially being reinstated.