March 19 – September 21, 2020
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.
…like when we run out of Kraken rum.