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

One thought on “First Contact”

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