March 18, 2020 – March 17, 2022
Seven hundred twenty nine days. We were counting.
It seemed impossible to really wrap our heads around…except for the fact that we had just lived it.
After arriving in Bocas Del Toro, Panama literally the night before the entire country locked down in reaction to a terrifying new phenomena that was sending shock waves around the globe and causing an identical worldwide reaction – Covid – we had no idea how things would unfold.
Days of uncertainty turned into weeks. Weeks became months. After a year we were moving about on Exit but still trapped in Bocas Del Toro. After eighteen months we had explored a large part of Panama’s Atlantic coast but it took twenty one months before we finally cleared the final lock of the Panama Canal and found ourselves in the Pacific Ocean.
Still in Panama.
We were counting down the days that would mark our two year anniversary in the country.
Now it looked as though we might actually get out of Panama before that day arrived. Unless, of course, we didn’t.
With our new alternator installed, Exit could once again charge her batteries while underway. We were back in business.
Departing Santa Catalina, we made for Bahia Honda which was less than twenty five miles away. For a couple of days the huge bay provided a protected and calm anchorage for us to relax in…mostly. But it had been a compromise.
Isla Coiba had been our first choice. Coiba and its neighboring islands had a reputation as being the premier go-to location on the Pacific side of Panama for scuba diving, whale sharks and whale watching.
However, a number of factors came into play which altered that trajectory. The alternator had been the first. Had it not gone tits up, we probably would have made straight for Coiba after waking up at Bahia Arenas following our overnight passage from Las Perlas. Now, once the alternator was up and running again, we would be backtracking to get to Coiba.
The second factor turned out to be a high likelihood that we would pay out the ass for access to the islands. A ranger station on the north side of Coiba oversaw the national park and charged a fee for any boats anchoring within the park. As divers and conservationists, we appreciated the effort Panama was making to preserve and protect the area. However, we were having trouble swallowing the amount they were collecting on that behalf. Sixty dollars for the boat plus twenty more per person… one hundred dollars PER DAY! It occurred to us that the area was too big to realistically be patrolled by one boat and it was probably possible to sneak in at the southern most island of Jicaron, over thirty miles from the ranger station. Yet we couldn’t get past both the ensuing guilt that would accompany that infraction as well as the fallout and cost if we were discovered.
Over the past four years, we had learned diving from Exit without any outside support was not a simple undertaking. Arriving in the Pacific Ocean, we found this became even more complicated due to the extreme tidal changes. Since transiting the Panama Canal, we had suddenly found ourselves having to deal with ten to fifteen foot tidal swings twice a day, creating both depth and current challenges that had to factored.
Conditions at Coiba could be very sketchy for attempting scuba dives. We might not even be able to dive at all.
As for the whales, it was possible we could see some, but it was out of season. As for whale sharks, we had already cashed in a huge dividend at Isla San Jose in Las Perlas and it seemed unlikely to us that we would hit the jackpot again. Odds were against us.
At potentially one hundred dollars a day, the gamble seemed like too much of a long shot. We would pass on Coiba.
As we set out for Bahia Honda, we were a bit dejected we would miss out on Coiba but ultimately felt certain we had made the right choice. Three hours later that certainty was reinforced.
A lack of wind meant we had been forced to motor sail part of the way. The upside of that was, with our alternator fully functional, not only were we able to charge our battery bank but also make water without having to worry about the power draw.
After two hours of making water with the engine running the wind finally picked up. Not only were we able to sail, we decided the batteries were sufficiently charged that we could run the water maker for another hour to try to top off our water tanks. Thirty minutes later, the peace and quiet of our engine-free sail was shattered by a bang. It sounded a bit like a distant gunshot except that it came from inside Exit.
I hustled down the companionway and started looking around. When I removed the floorboard directly below the water maker I was shocked to see water draining into the bilge. And it was coming at quite a fast rate.
Immediately, we shut down the water maker and closed the seacock which fed sea water to it. The flow rapidly slowed to a trickle. A further inspection of the membrane and pump assembly, located in a locker underneath the bed of the aft berth where the water maker was located, revealed that the source of the sound we had heard and ensuing flood of raw water had been triggered by a high pressure fitting which had blown off.
Fortunately, the seacock was shut off before the water level became a problem. Also fortunate was the fact that we had gotten a rather extensive supply of spare parts for the Spectra water maker shipped to us while we were hauled out at Shelter Bay Marina in June. The specialized hose and high pressure fittings were among those parts… hallelujah. It turned out we needed them.
We arrived at Bahia Honda late in the afternoon and decided to tackle the water maker the following day.
After wrestling with the Spectra for most of the following day, it seemed like everything was once again good to go. We spent one more day in Bahia Honda and then continued on to Islas Secas, a small group of islands just outside the park boundaries of Isla Coiba.
It wasn’t Coiba, but it was near enough we hoped to get some of the same bang without the hundred bucks a day.
We found the furthest southwest island of Islas Secas, both unnamed and uninhabited, to be a stunning anchorage. Incredible shades of blue both above and below the water, an easily accessible and beautiful beach, great holding for the anchor and fair protection from the southern swell.
As had been the case in Las Perlas, there were almost no other sailboats in the area. Both fishing boats as well as boats bringing day trippers made for a lot more traffic at Islas Secas. However, generally we had the anchorage to ourselves by late afternoon.
We also got in our first dive since crossing the Panama Canal. We joked that we would have been unhappy paying a hundred and fifty dollars for a dive company to have taken us, but it was good to be blowing bubbles again. The coral was quite impressive in places, and the abundance of fish and marine critters surpassed anything we had seen for a long, long time.
Even a mediocre dive is better than a great day’s work.
The most frustrating thing we had encountered recently seemed to be our inability to access any kind of weather report we could rely on. The forecasts were available. They were just highly variable, even contradictory. And more often than not, most all of them were flat out wrong. Throwing chicken bones and reading tea leaves probably would have provided an improvement in accuracy. We were lucky that, with the current dry season, weather was almost entirely benign. Blue skies and very little wind over ten knots. The seemingly schizophrenic wind shifts turned out to be largely cyclical after a few days of observation – east in the morning, south during the day, clocking to west by sundown and north into the night. Not a problem for most of the week we spent there.
If things kicked up from the north we could always move to Isla Cavada nearby.
After ten days at Islas Secas we decided it was time to get motivated and keep moving. Boca Chica, twenty miles away on the mainland was our destination, not for its scenic beauty but, rather, a final provisioning excursion prior to clearing out of Panama.
While we were able to get fuel at a marina in Boca Chica, it became necessary to sort out transportation inland to David, Panama’s second largest city, for additional supplies. Fortunately, we were able to arrange a reliable driver that our friend Sharon, from Isla Joya back in Bocas Del Toro, used regularly. His English was impeccable and he was a lifelong resident of David, making it easy to locate the best places to find particular things.
Not only were we able to bring back an entire car load of food, supplies, and alcohol; he also helped us track down more elusive things. Club soda and tonic water were among those, as was a precious impact wrench which had elevated to the top position on my most needed tools list following my recent battles with both our furler and alternator. Ironically, finally being in possession of an impact wrench all but assured that we would never have use for one again.
We even managed to obtain Covid booster shots at a pop-up clinic in a public park. First try and it took no more than fifteen minutes. Quite a different story from our previous shot which had taken more like ten tries over the course of days in multiple cities.
After stowing away all of the goodies we had procured in David and sorting the final logistical details of our impending departure, we even treated ourselves to our first fancy sit down dinner of 2022.
Our final task in Panama was the process of clearing out, for which we needed to go to Armuelles, the last port of call before Costa Rica. Six hours of motoring. At least we could make water along the way.
Over the course of our stay in Panama, our water maker acquired the name Larry. During water making sessions, Kris would ask how the Spectra was doing, and I would answer ‘seems happy as Larry.’ The name stuck.
It had been three weeks since the high pressure line had blown out. Happy as Larry for the past twenty five operating hours of water making. I had become complacent. I should have known better.
Kris asked how Larry was. Flippantly, I replied, happy as… I would guess. The floorboards aren’t floating.
Kris didn’t smile. Immediately, I realized the error of my ways. It was too late. The words had already tumbled out of my mouth. I didn’t even need to look. As I went below, I could hear an alarm on the Spectra, buzzing at a volume slightly less than audible from the cockpit with the engine running.
It had shut itself down. The bilge was filling with water. The high pressure fitting had blown out again. Fuck. Served me right. It hadn’t been fixed correctly. Larry had done left the house, and Jessie had just arrived [an inside joke best left inside].
This was going to require some serious attention, but our water tanks were almost full. It could wait.
Armuelles was the place to clear out of Panama; not to sort out more repair issues.
Despite having heard some nightmare stories about attempted dinghy beach landings in sketchy conditions at Armuelles, we experienced no drama. The clearing out process was easy enough. A man by the name of Omar from the port captain’s office met us on the beach and took us back to his office, completed a bundle of paperwork, and then walked us from office to office getting the appropriate stamps and signatures while seeming to berate each office for their inefficiency and slow responses.
With all of our paperwork in order, we were officially cleared out of Panama. Barring a beach ambush by a rabid pack of wild dogs upon returning to our dinghy, it seemed nothing could stop us from setting sail for Costa Rica the following day…
No. No rabid pack of dogs. Only a lone shade seeker.
We had a celebratory mix of Perfect Storm drinks that evening in the cockpit. The toast was to Panama. Panama had provided comfort, safety, and exploration. We couldn’t have asked for more. Now it was finally time to go.
Almost two years…but not quite. Seven hundred twenty nine days in Panama. Well over ten thousand hours on the water. Three hundred sixty five of those hours with the anchor up. Approximately nineteen hundred nautical miles traveled aboard Exit since our arrival in Panama.
And yet possibly the most ironic and surprising number? After all that, despite the fact we were now in a different ocean — as the crow flies, we ended up clearing out of Panama only seventy five miles away from the location where we had cleared in.
But who’s counting?
We raised anchor and departed Armuelles at sunrise the next morning.
For the second day in a row, our wind indicator provided digitally displayed confirmation of the depressing reality that we would be burning diesel to get anywhere.
The rising sun slowly burned away the morning mist, revealing a shadowy outline of Volcan Baru in the distance behind us. The active volcano’s ten thousand foot peak represents Panama’s highest point.
As we approached the southern tip of Burica Peninsula, looking through binoculars the beach we were seeing was Panama. However, just behind the line of trees was Costa Rica!
Nine hours and fifty or so nautical miles later we were almost there.
Ten or so miles outside Golfito, the first port of call in Costa Rica, the alarm for our autopilot sounded. The same autopilot we had brought back from the States and installed less than six months ago. Fuck. Another battle to be waged when we had mistakenly assumed the war was over. It would have to get in line.
You’d think the elation of arriving at a new country after all this time would be at the front and center of attention.
To the contrary, I was pretty bummed. In twenty four hours we had killed the water maker, nearly fifteen gallons of diesel, and now our auto pilot.
Welcome to Costa Rica.
Still, the moment turned when a panga full of tourists overtook us in the entrance channel. As the boat carrying a dozen or so pasty white passengers passed by us, a random guy wearing a straw hat held up his fist and yelled something at us that I couldn’t quite make out.
Kris said he obviously had seen the “Pullman, WA” on our transom.
Occasionally it prompts the question, “Are you guys from Western Australia?”
Other times, like this, it prompts the response, “Go Cougs!”
I had to smile. We hadn’t cleared into Costa Rica yet, but I was already starting to feel at home.