March 15 – 17, 2020
Part Three in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:
The Tom Petty lyrics haven’t resonated so much since playing the song with my band mates forty years ago.
After our near miss incident with potential pirates… or, more optimistically, after we saw an innocuous fishing boat in the same area as us that scared the shit out of us, we remained at DEFCON1 alert for quite some time. That night we maintained our running “dark” status, though we saw no other vessels until the following day, and those were big cargo ships.
The following morning, after motor sailing in nearly non-existent winds for over twelve hours, simply trying to get the hell out of the “danger zone”, once again we began to see an uptick in the numbers on our wind speed indicator. We were grateful to be far enough south of the shoals that comprise the Nicaraguan Rise that we could begin to breathe easily regarding security matters. As well, we were ecstatic that we now had enough breeze to shut off the engine and enjoy the more natural and hypnotic sounds of Exit under sail rather than the industrial (not to mention expensive) sounds of our infernal combustion engine (as two of our best sailing compatriots would describe their diesel engine).
We chose, shortly after departing Grand Cayman, to change our initial destination to Providencia – the first of three small groups of islands about one hundred seventy five nautical miles southwest of our current location but still one hundred twenty five miles off the coast. Though physically closest to Nicaragua, the islands (Providencia, San Andreas, and Albuquerque Cay) are under the control of Columbia.
We had heard that those passing by who opted to make the small detour, diverting from a direct line to Panama, would be rewarded with beautiful scenery, fabulous scuba diving, and a completely chilled and relaxing atmosphere. Quite an easy sell.
Fourteen to sixteen knot winds and very comfortable seas allowed us to coax seven to eight and a half knots of speed from Exit. Once again… sailing bliss. Every minute of latitude further to the south that we passed was a minute further south than we had ever sailed.
Another twenty four hours later, we were still making great progress under sails alone. We had completed three days at sea, and all three of us (myself, Kris, and Exit) had found our rhythm. The only exception came when, during the middle of the afternoon, we motorsailed for a few hours, repositioning ourselves to avoid upcoming shoals as well as setting up our angle of approach which would hopefully allow us to sail overnight and straight to Providencia itself.
Passing squalls that night made for some sporty conditions and challenging sailing when the winds seemed to constantly shift. Once again, we were grateful for our self-induced policy to keep our mainsail reefed every night, preventing the unpleasant waking of the person off watch when whoever was in the cockpit had to go on deck at night. Furthermore, keeping the staysail flying constantly helped us to make stellar time. We could reduce the amount of genoa sail when winds picked up without compromising our speed, instead of hesitating until after it should have already been done.
Everything seemed to be falling into place… not quite five hundred fifty nautical miles travelled…
… and then, at 4:20am of course, came the hail on the VHF radio.
It was the Providencia Port Authorities. Presumably, they had picked us up on AIS (Automatic Identification System), which we had turned back on after concluding we were well out of any area potentially dangerous for pirate encounters (see previous post). After all, we were entering one of the highest traffic shipping areas in the world, the area in proximity to the Panama Canal; now we wanted to be seen.
Currently, we were about ten miles outside Providencia and making straight for the island. We answered the hail and were asked in very broken English what our intentions were.
We replied that, with their permission, we were hoping to enter Providencia and clear in.
The voice returned over the airwaves. “We are so, so sorry. By order of the Colombian Authorities, no boat will be allowed to enter Providencia. Please continue to your next port of call.”
Shit. This was not good at all.
We asked, “Is it possible for us to enter the harbour and anchor overnight without coming ashore, just to rest?”
“No. I’m very sorry. You cannot enter. You must continue on,” was the reply.
Our next question was a stupid one. “Is this because of the coronavirus?”
The follow up question was less stupid, but we thought we already knew the answer. “Can we clear in at San Andreas?”
A few moments later he replied. “I don’t know.”
San Andreas was approximately fifty nautical miles further to the south. Regardless of what they would say, it was the direction we were heading, anyway.
Eight hours later we were ten miles outside of San Andreas, just beginning day five of our passage when we received the hail from the San Andreas Port Authorities…
Same conversation. Same outcome.
Effectively… We’re closed. Keep going. Be someone else’s problem.
We could see the trend. It wasn’t promising. In fact, it was getting downright scary.
Bocas del Toro was the nearest Panamanian port that we could even potentially clear into, and that was still over two hundred miles away.
Could we make it before Panama closed their borders as well?
The race was on…