First Contact

April 20 – 28, 2021

Escudo de Veraguas.

A possible translation error?  Early misspelling?  My own theory…

Potentially, at some point, an original name of Escudo de Verde Aguas or Escudo Verde Aguas was misunderstood or transcribed incorrectly.  The water just outside the reefs on the north side of the island is an incredible deep blue.  On the south side, especially under a bright sun, the shallow water is a distinctly different and striking shade of green.  A literal translation of Shield of Green Water or Green Water Shield seems quite logical.  Unless the name Veraguas is a family name, or actually does translate to something… which means I’m totally full of shit, as is often the case [Authors note: shortly after writing this, I learned that there is an entire area on the mainland called Varaguas…so, full of shit it is then. Go figure. Another brief moment of enlightenment dashed by reality].

For twelve months we had been looking at a couple of stunning aerial photos of Escudo de Veraguas printed in a Panama chart book we often drooled over during the Covid lockdown.  These and trusty Google Maps satellite photos had left the unshakable impression that this was an island not to be missed.

Thirty five miles beyond the two islands Zapatillas, previously at the very edge of our lockdown world, it had always been just beyond our grasp. 

Six months ago, our one attempt to venture in that direction had been shut down before we even got outside of the Zapatillas by west winds upwards of fifteen knots that would have made anchoring at Veraguas rather ugly and untenable.  

It was highly unlikely that we could have the luxury of winds that would be both favorable to sailing instead of motoring and comfortable to anchor in.  More than likely we would get one or the other.

As it turned out, we got mostly a whole lot of neither.

The Three Strike Rule —- in this case: unexpected salt water in the bilge coming from our “dripless” (not so much at that moment) prop seal, a burst water heater hose, and an outboard engine we couldn’t remove from the dinghy which together constituted an ominous run of bad luck that, for us, would justify aborting whatever was in the works —- nearly prevented us from departing Bocas entirely.

It turned out the outboard was, by far the most serious… and the most embarrassing. Somehow, it had failed to occur to us that during the past thirteen months we had never removed the engine from the dinghy, resulting in the two quick-release mounting screws having completely seized up. Fuck!

Fortunately, we had made the discovery the evening before our planned departure. Twelve hours after spraying a shit-ton of PB Blaster (supercharged WD-40) to help free up the set screws, we barely managed to break the hold of the corroded metals before breaking the plastic handles themselves. Dodged a bullet on that one.

Eventually we were off.

Exit on the move… after thirteen months

Thirty five nautical miles from Zapatillas to Escudo de Veraguas. Six hours and forty five minutes of motoring.  I don’t think we ever saw over five knots of wind… until we reached Veraguas. 

It’s exposed location offers little protection from hostile weather.  Crashing surf and reefs on both the island’s north and east sides make anchoring there out of the question; and even the SW corner is susceptible to the NE swell which somehow manages to wrap entirely around the island.  Mild conditions and minimal wind from the north or east can make for a very settled stop at Veraguas; otherwise, things can stack up pretty quickly.

Zero wind makes for calm anchoring

When we arrived, we were the only sailboat there.  As far as we could tell, we were the only sailboat at the island.  After anchoring at the southwest corner, we both saw what we were certain was a shark fin within a hundred feet or so of our boat, which broke the surface half a dozen times before disappearing.  We took it as a good omen.

We celebrated our first time anchoring outside of the Bocas region in over a year with our last Perfect Storm cocktail. The final drop Kraken rum aboard had disappeared during our 10,000 nautical miles travelled toast less than two months earlier, but we still had a small amount of Black Magic rum (our number two alternative) and one final can of Gosling ginger beer. Cheers!

The last ginger beer…

In actuality, maybe we should have considered the waterspout we saw descending at the opposite end of the island during a passing squall not long after our arrival as a less good omen.

The local fishermen passing by in small motorized pangas or, more likely, paddling smaller dugout cayucas merely waved.  Only one stopped by.  Apparently local stockpiles on the island are good in regards to everything but whiskey…

At sunrise the next morning, we learned just how quickly the swell could build with passing squalls and storms. We were glad we weren’t any closer to shore or any shallower.

Swell quickly transitioning to breaking surf

Gradually, the “light and variable” winds which had forced us to motor all the way from the Zapatillas became less variable… definitively north (???).  And less light… consistently breaking ten knots.  Eventually we found ourselves, for the first time in thirteen months, rolling back and forth in swell… ten degrees to one side, then back, then over ten degrees to the other side, then back, relentlessly.  All night long.

S/V Exit doing its impression of a metronome

By the third day things were becoming obnoxious. Though the sun was now shining, the swell was still unrelenting. We moved a mile, just around the point to the west side, and found things noticeably better.  These were the only two anchorages identified in our trusty Bauhaus charts.

Comfortably at anchor now on the west side of Escudo de Veragauas

On the fourth day we braved a dinghy excursion inside the reef around the north side of the island.  Big chop in places kept us from getting too far around but it gave us a taste of the north side’s rough hewn features:  big swell, crashing waves, dozens of small islands, rock pillars and columns jutting up from the chop, separated by reef strewn channels and bays.  A very exhilarating and overdue day out after a pent up stretch on an uncomfortably rolling boat.

North side of Escudo de Veraguas

When we came back around the northwest point and Exit came into view, there was a what the fuck moment of seeing three masts.  Exit’s, which we expected; plus another boat anchored RIGHT behind us —- Okay.  It wasn’t as close as one of the boats in the stinking south anchorage outside Bocastown… [yes, we’re still a bit sensitive] but REALLY?  So much space to choose from.  We were the only other boat at anchor on the island.   Actually, not correct, now.  The third mast.  Another wtf?  There was a second boat that had also just arrived currently trying to anchor in the spot we had anchored at three days before.  

Eventually, they realized the area we were currently in had less swell and moved.  Fortunately, they also realized they didn’t have to sit right on top of us, unlike Captain Douchbag on our other side.


EXPERIMENTS GONE AWRY

After three years aboard Exit, we had still never deployed our stern anchor.  A bit embarrassing, I suppose.  We had just never tried.  

The winds, currently from the north east, had us sitting beam on to a swell that was wrapping around the entire island.  It was less pronounced than before, but still rather obnoxious.  We decided what better time than the present to bust out that stern anchor and figure shit out?

Sooooo… after figuring out the logistics of loading the forty or so pound Brittany (apparently?) anchor and one hundred feet of chain into the dinghy, we motored the dinghy out about seventy feet and chucked it all overboard.  Nothing punctured the dinghy and I managed to not get the chain wrapped around my ankle before throwing it over.  All good.  We returned to Exit, hoisted about twenty five feet of chain with the electric stern windlass we are not allowed to talk about (only the most unsalty wannabes would have not one, but two electric windlasses), and… VIOLA!  Exit movedslowly to starboard until she sat at about a forty five degree angle to the wind, bow pointing into to the swell.  Perfect!  Well comfortable.  Why hadn’t we sorted this out long ago?

That question was answered at precisely midnight.

With a ten knot maximum NE wind and NW swell we were oriented so that our stern anchor was about fifty feet to the right of our stern.  As the evening progressed, the wind shifted from NE to NW, but we didn’t feel anything because we were still facing into the swell.  The stern anchor would have been directly beneath our transom at this point.

As midnight approached, the wind continued backing.  By the time it got to west, Exit had swung around so that our stern anchor was now on our port side, almost exactly opposite what it had been.  Possibly the building west wind was creating waves that made the angle we were now sitting to the swell less noticeable.  

It wasn’t until midnight, when the wind suddenly began climbing upwards of sixteen knots and took an additional shift, backing even further to SW, that the shit really started to hit the fan.

At this point, Exit was doing all she could to right her position up into the wind and thereby reduce the massive windage strain she was suddenly feeling.  However, the location of our earlier deployed stern anchor was completely out of whack relative to the current wind direction.  The 3/8” chain leading up from what was obviously a well holding anchor must have now been at least fifty feet too short, because there was a shitload of tension being exerted with Exit being held in her current position.

The now howling wind, heeling boat, as well as confused and angry waves slapping loudly against the hull and underside of the transom all contributed to the overall chaos of the moment.

It was a scary enough situation that I didn’t want to get my fingers near any points of contact.

It was a scary enough reality that we knew doing nothing was not an option.

The two options were let out more stern chain and hope the wind didn’t shift further, or haul the whole thing in.

The overall stern anchor layout is quite solid and well designed, though not foolproof, as we were quickly learning.

Coming off of the stern windlass at deck level, the anchor chain drops from a roller at deck level to a second roller where it feeds off the back of the transom.  The roller is completely enclosed as long as a steel pin at the top is secure, preventing the chain from jumping off the roller under any circumstances.  The ten foot long, three-strand nylon snubber attached to a cleat on the transom, was run over the lower roller and secured to the chain with running half hitches. 

The wind and waves now created a huge sideways tension on the snubber right at the roller and the snubber was all but unreachable off the corner of the transom, which was already being washed over by incoming chop.  Nothing could be done regarding the chain with the snubber still attached, but the half hitches securing the snubber wouldn’t pass between the roller and the steel pin.  

The instant I released the roller’s retaining pin, trying to get the snubber to a position where I could untie it, I realized I had made a huge mistake.  If the chain jumped off of the roller, which was now a serious threat, the links would start chewing and sawing into the side of Exit, making everything exponentially more dire and dangerous.

A blurred moment later, we had somehow managed to get the windlass to haul in another foot of chain allowing the snubber knot to pass over the roller, the steel retaining pin had been locked back in place, and no fingers were missing.  Whew.

With the snubber now untied and free, we could excruciatingly slowly bring up the chain.  Link by link, it came up.  Fortunately, the forces already at play helped to break free the anchor as we came over the top of it; and, immediately Exit swung around almost ninety degrees while the anchor still dangled at the end of the chain just over the bottom, twenty five feet below us.  

We hauled in the last bit of chain and brought the anchor onto the stern.  Breathe.

Regardless of the fact that outside conditions all around us remained exactly the same —- we were exposed from the southwest in fifteen to twenty knots of wind —- there was an unmistakable calming happening aboard Exit.  

Now facing bow into the wind, the boat quickly settled in her movements.  Much more slowly, our heart rates began to settle down, eventually reaching a near normal level.

Moments later, after all that had played out, the boat that had anchored next to us picked up and moved to the other side of us, just as close as before.

Go figure.

And though we were, once again, just as irked about some idiot —- the same idiot —- anchoring too close, there was undoubtedly for us, what might be best described as an overnight increase in tolerance regarding rolling aboard Exit, when it came to swell.  

Now, that one I can understand.

*****

Day five:  bouncing, and rolling, and being rained on.  

We were okay with the rolling.

Day six:  bouncing, and rolling, and being rained on.  

Gray boat; gray skies; dark water.  For us, what we call camo days… gray on gray.   Good camouflage.  

Capt. Douchbag picked up anchor and left today.  Good riddance.  The only time we talked with him was just after he dropped anchor; he said he was headed to San Blas.  Of course.  Might follow us to Shelter Bay if we’re leaving.  We didn’t talk to him again.  Knob.

We’re holding out.  After all this we’ve gotta see a break in the weather.  

Late in the afternoon things did indeed settle down substantially.  We took the dinghy all the way around the south side of Veraguas around the eastern tip.  

Wow.

Beautiful, lush jungle towering over the shore line interspersed with sheer walls and cliff faces.  In some areas, waves crashed right up against the time worn vertical rock.  Other bays had bare tracks of fine, brown sand angling steeply down, separating a bright green tree line from the swell which relentlessly rolled in and broke onto the beach.

Cautiously, we beached the dinghy in one such small cove.  An amazing and natural crescent shaped amphitheater was created by the rock wall that towered around us.    

Cove on the SE side of Escudo de Veraguas

Approaching the southeast point, we found almost no swell in the outer bay.   Though there were intermittent dark patches of rock and reef, it appeared to be a very viable place to anchor Exit.

Coming around the point, a number of shallow chutes and channels brought us into a large sheltered bay on the NE side with absolutely gin clear water and beautiful, big coral bommies and patches of pristine reef.  This was no place to anchor, but a perfect spot to return to with at least fins and masks, maybe even dive gear.

The following day, our seventh day at Escudo Veraguas, we moved Exit over to the area we had sussed out the day before.  As we were picking up anchor, we could barely see a sailboat approaching from the west.  We were three again.  Perfect time to move off the chart.

A brief break in the seamlessly gray sky above temporarily gave us the perfect overhead sunlight we needed to help us literally feel our way in past a number of reefs, to a depth of twenty five feet where we dropped anchor in a field of bare, rippled sand.  

In regards to other boats, snugglers we are not. Space is what we seek and, here, we had plenty of it. We refer to it as anchoring in Zanzibar.

Anchoring in “Zanzibar” at Veraguas… now that’s breathing space!

Finally, Kris was able to get down the SUP and go for a paddle.  She was back in paradise.

Later in the afternoon we held our collective breath as we saw the other sailboat that had already been at anchor pick up and head in our direction.  They wouldn’t follow us and move over here, would they?

Holding breath.  Sailboat approaching.

Holding breath.  Sailboat just opposite us.

Holding breath.  Sailboat passing.  Breathe out.  They kept right on going.


The common theme of our visit… GRAY… returned the following day.  Rainy, crappy weather.  Pretty comfortable at anchor, but sloppy weather to be out in.  We thought about lifting anchor and heading out.  West wind still at ten knots.  That which had become our bane since our arrival a week ago would actually be the wind that would allow us to sail all the way to Rio Chagres.

And yet, we really wanted to get back to the bay around the corner with at least snorkeling gear.  Even a small weather window the following day would give us that opportunity.  We had waited it out this long.

The following day was even snottier.

A continual parade of squalls

Okay.  Time to rethink.  We just needed to get moving to Rio Chagres, enjoy it for a short time, and get on with the damn haul-out.  At some point, if we got a chance to return and the weather cooperates, then fantastic.  We now knew exactly where we needed to come back to.

Our only interaction with anyone that day was a visit from a boat that more resembled a twenty foot Aeronaval boat than a local fisherman or visiting tour boat.  One of the five guys aboard, who were all sporting an official looking logo on their clothes, indicated they were with the National Park Service.  Between our broken Spanish and his broken English, we determined that these exceptionally polite and equally persistent men were here to collect a thirty dollar donation to assist with upkeep of the park and the building of a staff dormitory.  

We explained that we had already given twenty dollars to an “official” who visited us on the other side of the island five days ago (that is true… though she had no logo on her clothes, she did carry an official looking ID card). 

They replied that was different.  She was from the village.  That twenty dollars was for beach access and visits to the island.  This thirty dollars is for the national park.

We opted to not mention the guy who asked us about whiskey.  He never really represented himself as an official charging a whiskey toll.  He just wanted to know if we had any.  Instead, we explained to the parks guy that we were leaving tomorrow.

In a voice that sounded remarkably like Cheech he said, hey man, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.   The guys on the boat all started laughing…

Okay.  No.  That is not true at all.  Pure bullshit embellishment.  But I couldn’t resist.  

They actually said, that’s no problem.  

… which was not really what we were getting at… but…

Polite.  Persistent.

We paid.

We left Escudo de Veraguas the following day.  There was absolutely no wind.  We ended up motoring for eighteen hours in confused seas, all the way to the Rio Chagres.

It’s always about the timing…

…and it’s all about the perspective

A Plan or Plan A

April 19, 2021

Any further thoughts of getting through the Panama Canal before summer are one hundred percent in the crapper.

The Pacific Ocean is still our goal… it’s just gonna have to wait a bit.

Covid uncertainties have taken the South Pacific off the table for us long ago.  Even the Pacific coast is up in the air.   Costa Rica just opened back up to outsiders with stringent requirements.  Mexico never shut down, but we still have serious concerns about potential fallout from the US causing an impact that could effect our ability to get to, clear into, or stay in the Sea of Cortez – our only other real option for long term occupancy on that side within any reachable proximity.  If that’s where we really need to be going, we should have left long ago.

Constantly changing immigration and travel policies of various individual countries, as well as our own hesitations have drastically limited our options. 

The one certainty —- a haul-out is mandatory in our very near future.

What a fucking dreaded combination of words… haul-out.

Exactly the opposite from our tried and true philosophy of staying away from hard things, haul-outs require us to actually pay money to have someone pluck Exit out of the water and balance her precariously on stands in essentially a boat parking lot.  Eew.

But… unfortunately, a necessary evil.  Only so much underside inspecting and maintenance can be done with Exit in the water.  And we certainly have more than a tide cycle worth of work, so beaching her for a few hours on a low tide (which she is fully capable of doing —- one of many advantages to her lifting centerboard design) is not really helpful in this case.  At over two hundred dollars a gallon, we can barely afford the copper-free ablative anti-fouling paint (very few options on an aluminum boat) as it is.  A dreaming boat owner’s wishful thinking of any in-water application option being offered on bottom paint would instantly be dashed by the pricing that would inevitably be attached to such a technological convenience.

… which leaves hauling out.

On aluminum boats, corrosion protection involves inspecting the bottom, sanding any suspect spots down to bare metal, brushing on multiple coats of epoxy to act as a protective barrier coat between the boat and water, followed by the application of numerous coats of anti-fouling paint using rollers.

Exit was on the hard when we bought her.  The haul-out was already started.  The new bottom paint that we put on before launching lasted about a year.  One year later we returned to the same boat yard.  Like a seasonal migration.  Familiar territory.  Only, the second time we adopted the strategy to lengthen the time period before a third haul-out would be needed.  We were learning quickly.  This time we put on eight gallons of Interlux Trilux33 paint; it was all we could afford. 

Now, after nearly thirty months, there are sections along Exit’s waterline that have no bottom paint left and are down to the epoxy barrier coat.  Without the anti-fouling paint, a green beard of algae grows chronically, requiring aggressive scrubbing, further exacerbating the problem by removing even more paint along the edges of the bare spots.  A cascading sequence.

So, the inevitable haul-out.  

Ultimately, it’s no different from the proposition behind any other maintenance inconvenience.  Today’s pain in the ass hopefully prevents tomorrow’s even bigger repair nightmare.

Three obvious options, given our current location.  As many opinions as people you ask, and even more opinions from those you don’t ask.  Option one: Bocas Marina Boatyard in Almirante nearby.  The closest and the cheapest, but it seems we’re a bit big for them and the bugs are apparently brutal.  Not conducive to living aboard during the work.   Option two:  Shelter Bay (a hundred miles to the east).  Apparently a nicer facility to be at but also more expensive.  Option three:  a bit farther to Linton Bay. 

We only half joke that we need to complete the haul-out more to have people stop asking why we are hauling out at a chosen location than to actually get any work done.

Shelter Bay is the decision.  Until it is done, it’s going to be questioned.  

Regardless, it’ll be our first haul-out in a new location.  Panama, no less.  An adventure, no doubt.

A kicker in the decision came after we learned about a couple we met in Bocas around six months ago currently at Shelter Bay Marina.  After deciding to sell their sailboat, they are wrapping up their haul-out and preparing to fly out of Panama.  For us, the kicker was not based upon any facility updates or haul-out information they provided.  Rather, it was the fact that they are trying to sell the brand new dive compressor they currently have on their boat… Oooooooooooo!!!  

We just have to arrive in Shelter Bay with $3000 before they fly out.

Anchor up!


Thankfully, one of the upsides of our extended stint in Bocas del Toro was the fairly major list of boat upgrades and replacements we did manage to accomplish while waiting for pandemic lockdowns and uncertainties to play out.  Costly, to be sure.  But, at least now they would not be looming over our heads as we approached this haul-out.

New windlass, anchor, three hundred fifty feet of chain, wind speed transducer (at the top of the mast), engine raw water pump, leaking transmission seal replaced… all in the done column.

On the other side of the pendulum swing, we are still reeling from the devastating loss of our Fischer Panda generator (at this point it appears the white smoke I released could potentially cost $5000 to repair which won’t happen), as well as the literal disintegration of two separate air dump valves on both our Scuba Pro BCDs on the same day (Kris’ may be salvageable with a bit of Frankenstein triage field surgery, but mine is finished).  After surviving on an island in Borneo for years, the plastic just fell apart into tiny pieces sitting in the closet on the boat.

No generator… no backup battery charging.  No BCDs… no diving.  Shit.

A dizzying list of other ambitious projects fill page after page of our notebook —- not so much mandates to complete before we re-launch Exit, as options while we are hauled out.

Some, like our bimini and dodger covers which are filthy and have very little waterproof qualities remaining, are prime candidates for any leftover time we have.  Extra space to work, extra water for cleaning.

Replacing all the underwater zincs and yearly maintenance on the Maxprop can be done while Exit is wet; but being out of the water sure simplifies things.

Unlimited shore power will give us the ability to decisively establish if our only two and a half year old batteries are actually starting to fail.  We are struggling to understand the electric voodoo which seems to have seized control of our house battery bank since we arrived in Panama —- a problem which has been compounded by the loss of our generator.  Even with solid charges during the day, we find ourselves challenged to maintain reasonable battery voltage levels overnight even with only modest loads. Shore power access will be invaluable in narrowing down the source.  If we are lucky, sulfating damage from what may be chronic undercharging of the batteries in constant use can be reversed and we can salvage the entire battery bank.  That would be sweet.  More likely, at least one or two of the batteries are causing problems with the whole system.  If we are really unlucky, the entire bank may need replacing… six AGM batteries… gulp.  That’s about two grand. 

Projects on the list like “reorganizing belowdecks lockers” offer rainy day fallbacks to keep busy, as well as small scale victories without potential two thousand dollar price tags attached to the resolution.

Ambitious boundary testing tasks will likely be determined by the progress rate of other more pressing things.

Preventive maintenance carries a lot of weight.  I’m one of its biggest advocates.  Still, there is something to be said for not fucking around with things that aren’t broken… or touching Pandora’s Box… or removing the cork for the Genie’s wine bottle… or whatever the saying is.  There’s always a shit-ton of ways to say things when things are important to remember.   Prime example of this dilemma is whether to open the inspection hatches on our two one hundred gallon water tanks.  Hasn’t been done since we bought the boat.  In theory, a good idea… probably.  In theory, maybe a bad idea… possibly.  No issues, but is it better to try to see a potential developing problem than wait to taste a actual problem…?  Hmmmm.  Last time a tank hatch was opened, it took months to sort out resulting the diesel leak.  I can see why this one has remained on the to-do list.  Time will tell.

In some instances, success fosters bravery and further ambition. Other times, it inspires a quick cash-out while one is ahead.

Certain tasks will inevitably not make the cut, when we simply decide enough is enough.  They don’t get crossed off; they don’t go away, they just remain on the to-do list.  The list is never-ending… by design.  That’s why it’s called a list.  Lots of shit always on it.  Another battle for another day.


Getting to Shelter Bay

One of Shelter Bay’s biggest draws for us was the fact that it is not located in Bocas del Toro.  

Make no mistake, we were eternally grateful to have been able to shelter in the Bocas archipelago at the outset of the pandemic.  However, we were also psychologically exhausted from the thirteen month duration.

Some kind of change of scenery was long overdue and a couple of places were on our radar between Bocas and Shelter Bay.

Escudo de Veraguas had been teasing us since our arrival.  Tantalizing drone photos in one of our chart books and Google Maps satellite photos revealed a dense green island with luscious shades of blue surrounding sandy, palm tree lined shores interspersed with craggy, rocky violent surf.  This isolated and barely inhabited island thirty five miles east of Bocas enticed us for what seemed like a perfect stop over.  However, the exposed nature of both the island and its couple of anchorages meant that weather conditions would have to cooperate.

A hundred miles further, along the coast of Panama just outside Shelter Bay, lies Rio Chagres.  The river is fed by the same lake that supplies water to the Panama Canal locks.  A dam prevents access all the way to the lake; but the Chagres River itself is reported to be an extremely isolated slice of unspoiled jungle, potentially populated more by crocodiles than people.  Intriguing enough to warrant a visit.

So… the immediate plan: after picking up a few packages in Bocastown (a mishmash of stuff we’ve ordered from the US) and topping off our provisions and fuel, we leave Bocas del Toro via the Zapatillas, head for Escudo de Veraguas, followed by the Rio Chagres, followed by a haul out at Shelter Bay Marina outside Colon for the shortest duration possible.  After that, we have to play it by ear.  

Panama’s San Blas islands are at the top of our short list.  When we departed Grand Cayman on Friday the 13th, March 2020, we were headed for San Blas.  Twenty-four hours into that passage we learned Panama had just declared San Blas closed.  Still, despite months of cruisers posting they’ve just come from, are currently at, or headed to San Blas, the islands are still closed and always have been closed to outsiders since that initial lockdown.

Our second choice at the time became the Columbian island Providencia (about a four hundred mile sail from the Cayman Islands and nearly along our initial course), which it turned out had closed by the time we reached it.  Turned away over the VHF radio twenty miles offshore.  Not only that, later in the year a hurricane would knock Providencia flat.  They are still trying to rebuild the damage.  In retrospect, it is good we didn’t stop there in March 2020.  We may not have gotten out. Still not really an option.

San Andres, our third option fifty miles further to the south, became the third destination… and the third location we were unable to enter.  Turned away over the VHF radio twenty miles offshore… again.  Refugee status was becoming a real concern. 

Fast forward to the present. Now, after almost fourteen months, in a bit of a Twilight Zone / deja vu moment, San Andres may be the go to place after completing our haul-out.  Close.  Easy.  

Still near, but very importantly, not actually in Bocas del Toro.  We can return to Bocas for the height of the hurricane season.

It means we would already be in place for a potential Panama Canal crossing in November.  

In addition, it’s looking more possible that sorting out Covid vaccines by the end of the year in Panama may be an easier prospect than going all the way back to the US, meaning we don’t have to travel by air, much less through Texas or Florida, before getting vaccinated.

Hmmmm…

A plan.  Really, it’s the only plan.  Which is tricksy.  There always needs to be a Plan B.  Because Plan A never survives first contact.

Especially a plan scheduled to commence on 4/20.

Additional Bocas Bits And Bobs

April 19, 2021

Some additional thoughts and images from our final thirty days in Bocas del Toro, Panama:

A one of a kind original painting on a serving platter, depicting S/V Exit sitting at anchor just off of Isla Joya in 2020.  Artist: Sharon at Isla Joya. So cool!

For us, Bocas del Toro will always carry the unique and ironic distinction of a location which provided both a sense of security while simultaneously the feeling we were being swallowed whole and would never get out again.

Kris captured a perfect image along the downtown streets of Bocastown. I’m not sure what I like best… the perfect representation of Mother Nature’s relentless ability to eventually reclaim everything (especially in the jungles of Panama), or the “I ❤️ Bocas” sticker?

We never returned to the North Anchorage after we finally received permission to move from the port captain. I suspect not being allowed to move for our first thirty days in Bocas created an association with that anchorage we never quite got over. This meant, shy of a five mile dinghy ride, trips to Bocastown required us to brave the South Anchorage which seemed to inevitably mean exposure to too many boats and some random direction squall.

Exit must be in the South Anchorage. Another squall from the exposed southwest

The nearest alternative and polar opposite of the South Anchorage, Big Bight, turned out to be one of our absolute favorite anchorages. Always empty. Therapeutic.

A view of Big Bight from the top of the mast:

At Big Bight, however, you don’t have to go to the top of the mast for a stunning view

And at sea level, you might even get a visit from dolphins.


Ironically, it turned out we actually sailed more during our last thirty days in Bocas Del Toro than we did during our first twelve months. Nothing exciting; just nice to get those big white flappy things up every now and then.


March 18, 2020. Our arrival in Bocas Del Toro marked the beginning of a surreal global saga we found ourselves caught up in, lasting far longer than anyone ever initially thought possible.

Fear. Uncertainty. Conflicting information. Isolation. Time.

Ingredients which, individually, can be problematic enough; together they have the potential to form a very potent and dangerous cocktail.

March 18, 2021. One year later in Kris’ Cove (named for Kris’ favorite location to see her friends the sloths and rays) at Dolphin Bay… less than five miles away from the very spot S/V Exit occupied one year ago today. Geographically close, and yet a world away in terms of one’s state of mind… muy tranquilo.

The Waiting Place

March 18, 2020 – April 18, 2021

Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Ironically, the 20/20 hindsight that became 2020’s hindsight seemed to offer little clarity. More of a foggy memory filled with a year’s uncertainties and lunacy.

Nearly four hundred days here…

Our arrival at Bocas del Toro had coincided with the near overnight explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic. Globally, things were unfolding at a dizzying pace. Had we chosen to wait a few more days rather than departing Grand Cayman on Friday the 13th as we did, we may not have gotten out of the Cayman Islands at all. And had we arrived in Panama one day later than we did, we wouldn’t have gotten in.

A razor’s edge.

The drama of our first twenty four hours here still makes an occasional ripple during some introductions.

“… Exit…? We heard about you… the ones that the port captain gave a ten minute countdown to leave Panama over the VHF radio after you were visited by navy guys with guns…”

You heard correctly. Thankfully, they changed their mind.

*****

Two weeks of quarantine aboard the boat turned into a month sitting in one place in the North Anchorage. But we didn’t care, because we had sanctuary. Our refugee status had been rescinded.

Looking back, being stuck at anchor for one month unable to move seemed minor… certainly compared to the prospect of being stuck at sea for one month unable to stop.

As hurricane season approached, the weather stability we were blessed with in the area gave us a peace of mind that could have only been matched in the Rio Dulce. Though rain and especially lightning are on the list of concerns, having any risk of hurricanes effectively off the table removes a great deal of potential stress.

As it turned out, a hurricane season so active that the weather service ran out of letters to use in naming the hurricanes came and went. So did the occasional lightning storms which rarely seemed to trigger the sheer terror level we had been warned of.

Fortunately, the hurricanes themselves never came here… unfortunately, we never got to leave here.

June became July, and then August passed by. We quietly celebrated our three year anniversary having moved aboard Exit.

No regrets.

Not even the record 89 days we spent sitting in one spot at the Red Frog Anchorage trying to sort out our windlass issues during which we dragged a thousand feet in one of the impeccably timed poo inducing 4am lightning storms… or even the thirty three knot squall we experienced while anchored in the crowded South Anchorage having just removed our old windlass but not yet having installed the new one. Eek! Ok… not regret, but both those pretty much sucked.

33 knots at anchor with no windlass

The benefits of “being stuck in Bocas” always outweighed the downsides (the archipelago, that is — not the South Anchorage). We just had to get out and about to discover some of the hidden pleasures.

Ok… there was definitely a bit of regret when we ran to of Kraken rum!

Always strange and fascinating creatures and plants:

Occasional walks to the Red Frog Beach:

Red Frog Beach after a few days of stormy weather
Maybe just a dinghy excursion…

And no matter how much Kris hates cooking, I am truly privileged to have such a crafty and imaginative chef aboard… even if an involuntary one.

Inevitably, living on a boat means that regardless of whether or not you are moving, you are always sitting on top of projects that need attention. Daily boat keeping, maintenance, repairs, and the eternal quest for improvement seem to constantly occupy one’s free time…and being it’s on a boat, it’ll take five times as long to do it, whatever “it” is.

Despite the varying degrees of full or semi-lockdown status we have seen here in Panama during the pandemic, during much of the time we have had the luxury of being able to move Exit around freely within about a twenty nautical mile circle.

Thirteen months of bouncing around Bocas

Even so, we only ventured to the edge of “the other side” by boat a couple of times. Once to Cayos Zapatilla aboard Exit for a few days:

and once to Swan Island on a day trip aboard our friend Bev’s boat S/V Aseka:

Our ability to move around and drop the hook, not just within specific anchorages, but among endless mangroves, islands, and bays in the archipelago as well as endless options for various day trips, adventures, and excursions have made this area as good as any we could have hoped for.

All the while, a balance of forces.

It is what it is…

And learning the schedule of our friends aboard the local Veggie Boat was instrumental in helping to determine what anchorage to be in on a given day if you wanted freshly delivered fruits and veggies…

However, if fresh empanadas is what you crave, then you can’t stray far from the shores near Red Frog, because Archimedes has very limited delivery range in his dugout cayuca!

Hot, fresh chicken empanadas

Months of patience and perseverance paid off when Kris finally acquired a stand up paddleboard, officially placing her in a state of SUP-bliss (and arguably making her one of the catalysts for what had to become Bluefin SUP’s biggest Panama sales to date based upon the number of other boatpeople that followed her lead).

Test paddling potential options prior to the big purchase
Inflating the new SUP for it’s baptism…

A daily visit on the SUP to see Kris’ friends… always good for a smile.

Kris… the Sloth Whisperer
A school of cow nose rays…
… daily visitors in the neighborhood

Ironically, two of the things we have best access to aboard Exit have nearly fallen off the radar since our arrival in Bocas… diving and sailing.

At anchor Starfish Beach November 2020… dead calm.

Long, long ago it seems, when we sailed the five day 750nm voyage from Grand Cayman to Bocas Del Toro, we travelled solely under power of sails for one hundred hours. Over three hundred days later, we were still in the archipelago and had only raised the sails twice since arriving… a bit embarrassing.

A Bocas rarity

However, February 6, 2021 was a landmark day. Not only was it the second time we had moved over twenty miles in a day; it was the third time we sailed in Bocas. We were adamant that we were going to be under sail when we raised our glasses in a toast celebrating 10,000 nautical miles traveled on S/V Exit!

10,000 nautical miles on S/V Exit

A salty feeling moment after a very un-salty feeling year.

*****

A Few of the 10,000 Numbers:

  • Nautical miles travelled: 10,000
    • 20+ miles offshore distance: 5955nm
    • Inland/coastal distance: 4045nm
  • Total hours spent underway: 2016
  • Total hours spent under sail: 1330
  • Days since we moved aboard S/V Exit: 1266
  • Nights spent aboard S/V Exit: 1184
  • Longest offshore passage: 823nm (6d 5h)
  • Furthest distance offshore: 200nm
  • Number of anchorages visited: 247
  • Longest number of days without lifting the anchor: 89 (Red Frog Anchorage, Bocas Del Toro, June – Sept. 2020)
  • Nights underway: 46
  • Solar power generated: 1,400,000 watts
  • Fresh water made: 2400 gallons
  • Rain water caught: 1200 gallons
  • Diesel used: 1000 gallons
  • Petrol used: 170 gallons
  • Propane used: 60 gallons
  • States visited: 11
  • Countries visited: 7
  • Regrets: 0

*****

In another go figure moment of irony, it turned out that, after literally hiding for a year from the coronavirus, it was actually the shingles virus that would catch me and beat the shit out of me. Fortunately, I was apparently subjected to only a rather mild case thanks, at least in part, to: 1) an early diagnosis (internet research typically resulting in me swearing at the laptop Google actually yielded immediate results typing the words “rash feels like pulled muscle”); 2) diagnostic confirmation and a prescription via cell phone provided by a Turkish doctor living aboard another boat; and 3) immediate access at the pharmacy in town for the necessary creme (the Panamanian woman behind the counter turned more than one head when, in broken English, she loudly stated… “it’s for the Herpes).

The doctor is off duty

March 18, 2021 brought us yet another first. We had been here in one place aboard Exit for an entire fucking year. At that very moment we were only seven and a half miles away from the very spot we dropped anchor after arriving the night of March 18, 2020… holy shit. We had actually travelled a total of three hundred ninety nine miles around the archipelago yet we were still within ten miles of our starting point.

Moments of contemplation

It suddenly drove home the point that many of the people we see here on a daily basis paddling around in tiny dugout caucus, even the most innovative and ambitious sailors, probably travel less than ten miles from home during their entire lives.

It’s all about perspectives

Everyone just trying to get by…

A rare Bocas at night photo… actual people and open businesses
The Corona Bucket – a bartender’s covid humor… disinfectant, paper towels and a mask.

The psychological toll of Covid-19 can’t be understated. As a planet, we have tried to wrap our heads around this for over a year now. Real health risks weighed against personal needs all tainted by petty politics and bickering. As time wears on, it becomes impossible to avoid the self pity and sense of personal impatience that inevitably creeps in. It becomes impossible to fully appreciate how well boat life has actually equipped us to navigate through all the uncertainty of the pandemic. It becomes impossible to avoid the sense of guilt for recognizing how much of a luxury that really is.

Maybe what we really need to acknowledge is the cold truth that the waiting isn’t the hardest part… it’s the dying. Which makes the waiting not nearly so hard.

And yet, even many not directly affected by the coronavirus itself, have been devastated. Jobs lost. Families impacted. Dreams smashed. Hope overshadowed by fear. Uncertainty.

Many people no longer have their boats.

Many people no longer have each other.

In the end, Kris and I have each other and we are still aboard Exit. For us, that’s what counts.

And that’s what keeps us going, even when we’re waiting.

Sometimes calm is the best thing to hope for

What gets us going is patience, persistence, and a plan…