March 19, 2020
Part Six in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:
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 English while 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 you Fabian!
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.)