March 18, 2020
Part Four in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:
Fast forward six hours…
Kris had been sporadically corresponding with a number of cruisers and marinas in Panama. Information was valid for literally only the moment it was passed on, as policies and procedures were as fluid and volatile as the seas we were sailing on. The satellite connection was in and out. Reports we were getting about Panama were mixed and conflicting —- breakwaters into some harbors like Colon were being patrolled by armed navy boats that were turning people away… no, some were being let through; the Panama Canal had stopped allowing small private vessels to transit… no, some small vessels were still being allowed to transit.
It was very possible that all the information was correct when it was posted. However, things were changing at a dizzying and breakneck speed.
It was now sundown and we still had at least one hundred seventy five nautical miles to go before reaching the entrance channel to Bocas del Toro (even if we could keep an “as the crow flies” line). Our best distance covered in twenty four hours to date so far had been abut one fifty nautical miles, and that was with the Gulf Stream currents in our favor.
We had never sailed this far south so, obviously, we had never been in the harbour of Bocas del Toro. We had always abided by the rule that we would never enter an unfamiliar harbour for the first time after dark.
Despite the fact that our electronic Navionics charts had never failed us… missing or changing navigational markers, confusion generated from shore lights, unseen boats either underway or at anchor, shifts in shoaling areas, and a host of other possible hazards had always been too daunting to risk a nighttime approach.
Previously, we had always waited until sunlight could provide a safer approach. But suddenly everything was not so clear cut. Things were changing not only from day to day, but from hour to hour. At this moment, time was not on our side.
Fast forward another eight hours…
4:20am… exactly twenty four hours after we had been turned away from Providencia. Exit had been like a greyhound on the run. During that time we had been flying along at between six and eight knots of speed… thirteen to fifteen knot winds on a beam reach… five to six foot seas… pitch blackness all around us… no other boats.
In some uncanny way, it’s almost as though Exit understood what was at stake, and she was giving everything she had.
Kris had a different theory. During her watch, between 11pm and 3am, she had watched our depth gauge flash momentary depth readings of between fifty and sixty feet consistently. The water we were sailing in was three to ten thousand feet deep. She had heard a big thump against the hull at one point. Possibly we were being tracked and stalked by a Kraken and Exit is running for her life!!!!
At 4:30, I heard a thump also. But it was a large flying fish that had, in a moment of stupidity or bad luck, leaped out of the water at the very moment we were passing by. Bouncing off the inside pontoon of our dinghy, which hung against the stern arch, the flying fish landed on the deck and flopped about desperately, tying to return to the relative safety of the water, thereby avoiding having committed an unintended suicide.
Or… it too, was trying to escape the savage jaws of the Kraken that potentially hunted us.
I grabbed the wet, slippery fish and quickly tossed it back into the sea. We’ll never know whether I saved it’s life, or condemned it to death as an appetizer for a black eyed Kraken…
As the dawn arrived, though I can’t speak as to the outcome for the flying fish, we were still sailing like a hellhound (or a Kraken) was hot on our trail.
Though the wind had picked up to a steady sixteen knots and the seas were reaching six to eight feet, our sailing angle was very forgiving of the conditions, and we were comfortably hauling ass at seven to eight knots of speed. We had actually made good on one hundred seventy nautical miles of distance… a new record for us, and the exact pace we needed to get to Bocas del Toro before sundown.
Two hours later, the seas had actually built up to the point we were seeing waves of between eight and ten feet —- tall, but with a fair interval between them. At least we were still sailing on an angle of about one hundred twenty degrees, with the waves at just about the same angle. We were surfing a bit, and had lowered the daggerboard (a fin set just in front of the rudder, liftable from the cockpit —- not unlike the fin on a surfboard) completely.
As long as there was adequate (but not too much) wind, things remained… uhm… sporty.
…the damn wind begin to die.
Fourteeen… then steady at twelve…
It was at about this same time that we received the only boat to boat communications we had experienced thus far during our five day passage.
They identified themselves as Sprezzatura. During a back and forth radio conversation, we learned that they were one of the boats sharing Governor’s Harbour with us during the last week or so of our stay at Grand Cayman. They had actually departed a day after us, but had apparently passed us when we diverted towards Providencia.
Eric, owner and captain of his motor trawler Sprezzatura, with crew mate Katy aboard, indicated he had seen us twenty miles back last night but we had closed the gap to a few miles.
Though we both had AIS, it seemed to cut in and out (possibly the result of AIS being dependent upon close enough proximity of the transponders found on large ships, something that had been strangely far and few in between…blah…blah…blah).
We did remember them from Governor’s Harbour, though we had never met or talked to them. They were headed for Bocas del Toro as well. Basically the exact same situation. It was good to have comrades in arms… mates in the same boat… partners in crime… fellow floating refugees…
Only time would tell.
By 10am, the winds had dropped below double digits. At that point I became a firm believer that, as a rule —-and if the rule doesn’t exist, it should —- it is generally a bad thing to be in situations where wave heights exceed wind speeds.
… let me think about that for a moment… Okay, yes… I do stand by that statement.
After running the math, as best we could calculate considering the infinite number of variables, our only chance of reaching the entrance channel to Bocas del Toro (still sixty miles away) before dark was in motoring. Nothing less than six knots of speed; and that would get us only to the entrance of the channel.
We met a guy on a sailboat during our first time in the Bahamas who… ya… boasted that he always fired up his engine if he couldn’t maintain a minimum six knots of speed. We thought the guy was a complete and utter dickhead.
If a Higher Power exists, whom was actually paying attention, there had to be a smile on at least one of the three faces at the very moment we fired up the Perkins and put it into gear. Ironic… I know.