Still March 18, 2020
Part Five in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:
The concept of motor sailing had been given up on hours ago. Wind direction, which had been almost directly behind us, became irrelevant once it was only occasional gusts to five which offset the threes or maybe fours we were seeing on the wind speed display. We had sailed as long as we could; then motorsailed until our forward speed exceeded the wind speed, causing the sails to actually start backing in an apparent reverse wind, at which point we dropped the sails, and tried to stop watching the speed and the clock.
With less than four hours until sunset, we had not only stopped gaining on M/V Sprezzatura, we had been steadily losing ground. We were now closer to seven miles behind them and still had over thirty miles to get to the channel entrance.
Even at seven knots of speed, we’d fall short.
Despite having a large pod of dolphins visit us to ride our bow wake —- an event we would normally consider a very non-committal half-superstitious potentially good omen —- on two separate occasions even, we were not going to make the channel before dark… not even close.
Eric and Katy would make it. At least we’d get advance notice of anything critical, not to mention some real time intelligence from someone who had just dropped the hook with the benefit of light; and knowledge. Eric had been here before.
The most recent email Kris had just gotten access to, from Fabian, the manager of Bocas Marina provided the most promising news we’d heard in quite some time. Fabian, who would prove to be absolutely superhuman in the amount of effort he put forth on our behalf over the week to come, had been unable to absolutely confirm what would happen to us upon our arrival. Now he said that he had been told directly by the port authorities that we would be granted access to the anchorage. A two to three week quarantine remaining isolated on the boat would be a precursor for any further consideration.
A bit ambiguous… but, hey… at this point we were looking for a safe anchorage…sanctuary.
The only note I made in the log book, from the time we entered the channel until after our anchor was set and we had downed our second drink was… fucking dark.
Navionics was a blessing… perfectly accurate Eric had relayed. Just follow the depths.
Not untrue at all. The channel was quite wide and deep. No problem really, except the “flying by instruments alone” sense. The dark changed everything.
In other circumstances, we might have tried to drop anchor somewhere outside the channel and wait until morning. But our moment of greatest “risk of refusal” came upon our approach to a port, before we had gotten the anchor dropped. Things were changing too quickly. Tomorrow they may have a new policy announcement. A dark arrival meant a stealth arrival… we already knew we’d be okay for a night’s sleep.
Emergency situation… therefore, the “No first time arrivals after dark” rule was officially being temporarily rescinded.
There was enough water vapor in the air that the huge torch I held aloft at the bow reflected an almost fog-like mist that further encroached upon the already non-existent visibility. I couldn’t tell what was what in the distance… only lights. No lit navigational markers where they were indicated to be on the chart.
Forty feet back, Kris stood at the helm.
The realtime self-tracking Navionics chart on the iPad provided her one hundred percent of the intel she was navigating with, outside of the cockpit displays of current depth and speed, and the reports I made walking back and forth.
The realtime light emitted by the Navionics chart on the iPad also killed one hundred percent of her night vision. Outside of the cockpit, it was black except for a glow coming from the bow… a glow which further reduced her visibility more than illuminated anything she could see.
Forty feet apart, the engine noise overwhelmed any conversational capabilities.
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 for nearly twelve hours, would now provide us, at last, with enough calm to drift into a more content sleep.
We had traveled seven hundred fifty five nautical miles in just under five and a half days – one hundred hours of that under power of sails alone.
Finally… at least for now… we had found sanctuary in the Mouth of the Bull.
Tomorrow… we would see.
As for unfamiliar night approaches…
The “No first time arrivals after dark” rule was officially being reinstated.