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 Our refugee status had been rescinded.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…