Panama Haul Out 2021 – Shelter Bay Marina

May 7 – June 23, 2021

After essentially being all by ourselves for more than two weeks both at Escudo de Veraguas and Rio Chagres, our arrival at the breakwater just outside the entrance to the Panama Canal was, to say the least, quite a shock to the system.

From peace, quiet, and isolation…

… to a convoy of cargo ships.

Once inside the breakwater, we dropped the hook at the edge of all the hustle and bustle, just outside Shelter Bay Marina, and made the final preparations for our imminent haul out.

Passing the breakwater just outside the Panama Canal

Out of the water and onto the hard…

The actual process of getting a forty two thousand pound boat from a position of floating on the water to balancing on stands in a gravel lot is, fortunately, turned over to professionals.

In some cases, professional means impeccably qualified and experienced. In other cases, it simply means the guy who does it.

Stories were still resonating through the cruising world about a recent mishap with a catamaran being hauled out at a marina on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. The crane lifting the cat out of the water failed, causing the boat to come crashing down with the boom arm on top of it. S/V Ginger Cat, a boat we had dinghied past dozens of times while in Bocas del Toro, was written off as a complete loss.

Even though this would be only the fourth time we had seen Exit precariously hanging in the slings of a huge travel lift, I thought we deserved rather high marks for concealing the inevitable breath-holding and sphincter-tightening that seems to accompany such situations.

On the other hand, this was the first time we had seen a transfer occur from travel lift to trailer. The gravel track leading into the boatyard was too narrow to accommodate the travel lift, so the move had to be done on a trailer that was literally bolted to a forklift.

We were grateful that the crew knew what they were doing.

With Exit finally in place, an array of stick-like and completely inadequate looking metal stands are set into place around the hull, supplementing what can only be described as a pair of stacked oversized Jenga towers, which support most of the weight 0f the boat… yowsa!

An extension ladder now provides the means by which we get access onto and off of the boat. Every… single… time…


The task at hand…

The list was made, and it was long.

The obvious priority was to address anything below the waterline while we were on the hard and dry. We already knew our most pressing issue was getting more anti-fouling paint on the bottom, clearly indicated by places where the paint had worn completely off, exposing the barrier coat of epoxy underneath. Maintenance on the MaxProp and replacing the protective underwater zincs could be done anytime, but being out of the water certainly made things far easier.

However, any painting would be contingent upon a thorough inspection for any suspected points of corrosion, a shitload of scraping and sanding, as well as some cooperative weather.

If we were lucky, spots that still had good bottom paint could be lightly sanded and painted over. Any points where corrosion was even suspected would be taken all the way down to shiny bare aluminium, and recoated with multiple barrier coats of epoxy before being painted.

Knowing we would have very little access to equipment and tools in the Shelter Bay Marina boatyard, an electric grinder was one of the things we purchased before leaving Bocas del Toro. This would make quick work of the sanding, but the fact that we had no vacuum system to contain the dust meant it would be incredibly messy (most likely to the chagrin of any neighbors) and it would take off far more paint than we wanted (after all, the goal was keeping as much paint ON the boat as possible). So we opted to use the grinder only when we needed to get all the way down to bare metal.

Clean-er… but, by no means clean.

A number of things occurred to me during this process…

#1- I should be able to swim for quite some time without having any algae growing on me.

#2- After fourteen months of global Covid pandemic, the mask actually seemed much more normal than I expected.

#3- Even with a palm tree in the background, this did not feel like paradise!

During this time, Kris was locked in mortal combat with the dinghy, cleaning both it and the protective chaps we were so happy to have gotten while we were at the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

Fortunately, though almost every task was within the realm of possibility for us to undertake ourselves, the marina had a sail loft with a very capable canvas worker who was able to sort out some minor repairs on our dinghy chaps, mainsail cover, staysail, and Isenglass window (which had taken on more of the transparency properties of a wall than a window and the water resistant properties of an open door).

It seemed that one of the biggest challenges we faced was not the ability to do things; but rather, the ability to get things done. The forecasts we looked to in attempting to plan our daily agenda were schizophrenic, conflicting, and inaccurate. Depending on who you talk to (and what island you are next to), Panama seems to have rainy seasons throughout the year. Of course, June was supposed to be entering “the rainy season”.

Hearing that Bocas had been getting non-stop rain for quite some time, we were grateful to be where we currently were. Still, nearly every day seemed to either flirt with the threat of rain…

… or simply deliver on that threat.

Even if you can’t make water, sometimes you can still catch it

Slowly, steadily… progress continued.

On the hull, questionable spots were sanded down to bare metal for inspection.

Eventually, the areas that had been sanded to bare metal were all covered with multiple coats of epoxy, the masking was complete, and bottom paint began to be applied. Seven coats at the waterline was the goal.

Busy times. It was eight days before we took our first official break and visited the pool. But, even at the pool, one only had to look over their shoulder to be instantly reminded that a shitload of work remained.

So, with a relentless laser focus, we pressed forward. By the end of two weeks, everything (with the exception of the centerboard and under the stands) had at least one coat of Trilux 33 anti-fouling paint.

Exactly seven days later, we put on the final coat of bottom paint.

That morning, for the first time in the three weeks since our arrival, we were greeted in the cockpit by a visitor who had never before ventured up the ladder leading precariously up onto our transom. We called our new friend Morris, though it turned out he was actually a she. It was as though Morris was telling us, “You realize what today is, don’t you?”

It was final coat of paint day!

With the last coat of paint applied, MaxProp serviced, and new hull zincs installed, everything we could do below the waterline was done until we were back in the travel lift slings again.

To be sure, revealing that clean, crisp line along the edge of brand new bottom paint as you carefully peel back the blue masking tape certainly generates an immensely satisfying feeling.


Extracurricular Activities

Though much of our attention was dedicated towards work below the waterline, we managed to successfully juggle a number of other tasks simultaneously.

Not so much distractions.

More like side projects.

An unanticipated survey had to be done as a requirement to renew our insurance. However, no drama ensued and we actually found the Panamanian surveyer to be well more thorough and personable than the surveyer we had hired in Maryland when we first bought Exit.

After our harrowing night time drama with the stern anchor at Escudo de Veraguas, the thought of deploying our stern anchor again was not an appealing prospect. However, if it came time to use it again, we realized that the rust buildup on the chain was becoming very problematic.

In fact, the rusty ball of corroded metal near the bitter end of the chain could easily jam up and completely destroy our windlass. We weren’t ready to replace the chain at this point; so… the next best thing was to lower the whole mess down onto the gravel, grab a hammer, beat the shit out of the chain and knock the rust clean off. A temporary fix as well as good cathartic therapy. The ball of rust that comprised the last three feet of chain just had to be hacksawed off.

When we purchased Exit in 2017, one of the appliances already aboard was a washing machine. While this seemed like a great commodity at that time, in reality the thing was dead weight.

It hadn’t been run in over a decade. We learned it would consume a ridiculous amount of precious water, if it even ran. And, though the washing machine took up a massive amount of space, its actual capacity was minuscule.

A bucket with soap and water had been more than adequate for the past nearly four years now.

So, in an inspired moment of ambitious insight and energy, I decided it was right now that this fucking thing was going away.

Relative to most washing machines it was tiny. Still, it was one heavy and bulky son of a bitch. The limited space to work made it a challenge, to say the least. And the eight foot drop off the transom made it even harder. But as is always the case when you’re living on a boat, in the end, persistence and sheer tenacity won out.

It was a good decision.

Once back in the water, we never would have gotten it into the dinghy. And we would never have been callous enough to simply throw it overboard.

Bye, bye. And good riddance.

Voodoo electricity…

Our house battery bank had been giving us grief for nearly a year. What appeared to be a continuing decline of capacity plagued us to the point where, despite receiving a solid battery charge during the day, we were facing critical charge levels by the next morning even if we turned off the fridge overnight.

It wasn’t a matter of lack of attention or concern.

Rather, we thinks… a combination of consistent cloudy stretches normal to Panama which affected our solar charging, a lack of moving about which would normally help with some engine charge, the death of our generator (whose sole purpose was battery charging), the added power draw of using the water maker, as well as (probably more than anything else) an ongoing struggle to understand both the fundamentals and subtleties of the mystic and elusive voodoo known as electricity.

A seemingly never-ending process of research and troubleshooting preceded our arrival at Shelter Bay. Confusing. Frustrating. Concerning. Our dear friends on both S/V Avigna and S/V Cetacea deserve big shout outs for providing repeated guidance, reassurance, inspiration, and therapy.

Ultimately, we suspected that both misinterpreted information and flawed charging strategies had led to us inadvertently killing the six batteries we had purchased less than three years ago. Our current luxury of unlimited shore power gave us the possibility of finally answering that question.

Converting our salon into a temporary laboratory, six separate battery capacity tests revealed an even more dire situation than we had thought. One of the six batteries was operating at only twenty four percent capacity… and that was the best one. The worst performer came in at only an astonishing nine percent!

The cable connecting us to shore power was truly acting as life support for our house battery bank.

The next day we ordered six new Lifeline AGM batteries from the same guys we got our windlass, chain, and anchor through while we were in Bocas.

Cha-ching!


Houston, we are go for launch

T-minus thirty six hours…

Twenty three days into our haul out we were finally ready to go back into the slings. We arranged to be lifted at the end of the day on Saturday, which gave us until Monday to get our centerboard and areas we hadn’t been able to get to because of the stands sanded and painted.

Getting a forty two thousand pound boat from the water onto stands is a task that is best not observed by the faint of heart. Getting a forty two thousand pound boat from stands onto a trailer is a task best not observed by anyone who owns the boat being moved.

This sphincter clenching process first involves taking the stands, which already seem completely inadequate in structure, and inverting them from a position in which the three legs are equally supported by a welded triangular base into a position where each stand is tilted and ridiculously balanced on one edge of that triangle.

The result is threefold.

Number one, it creates barely enough space for the trailer to be slid in between the stands and the blocks underneath Exit.

Number two, it creates a brief period where the entire weight of our boat is resting solely upon the two oversized wooden block Jenga towers; the metal stands appear to be doing little more than trying to keep Exit from toppling sideways.

Number three, it creates a perfect opportunity for a grown adult to justifiably shit themselves repeatedly.

Zero margin for error

To the yard workers’ credit, they managed to thread the needle and everything went off without a hitch. Fortunately, rather than the trailer knocking Exit off its stands, it was the staff who kicked over the tower of blocks after the trailer had lifted Exit. Whew!

For an encore, the yard workers backed Exit, perched atop the trailer, on a narrow and uneven temporary gravel road the entire way to the travel lift, which was too wide to fit on the road. Bravo performance!

It looks like either Exit is growing or Steve is shrinking

Eventually, Exit was sitting in the travel lift slings right next to the haul out bay. We were so close to the water, but not quite read to splash.

So close…

Now, twelve feet from the ground to the deck, it was twice as intimidating being on the ladder, and twice as much of a pain in the ass getting on and off the boat. Not to mention the hundred yard walk to the bathrooms.

We rigged up a lift to make the challenge of getting stuff up and down a bit easier.

The remaining work to do on the centerboard and spots that were concealed by stands turned out a bit more extensive than we anticipated but nothing that threatened to derail our launch.

Fair to say that, despite seeing plenty of storm clouds and rain during the previous three weeks, the weather gods were by and large rather kind to us.

Another point of distraction: Uncertain of the proper terminology “by and large” or “by in large”, Google informed me that the term “by and large” has a nautical origin. Apparently, the “by” referring to being closed hauled (or sailing as close into the wind as possible) versus “large” which referred to sailing aft of the beam (or just slightly downwind) — the wide range of sailing points carrying over into the “in general” or “on the whole” sense of the term (source: marriam-webster.com).

I guess you’re never too old to get a little less dumb or a little more salty.

Anyway… by and large, while we experienced near daily rain showers, there were only a few instances during the haul out where an entire day was lost to shitty weather. We seemed to be particularly fortunate on days where timing was critical. And when you’re painting, the nervous tension of the threat of rain is always better than actually feeling the rain drops.

With the final drops of paint transferred from the bottom of the paint can to the bottom of Exit, we were able to enjoy a well deserved quiet moment of victorious celebration. The beer was no different from the cans of local Balboa we had become accustomed to over the past fourteen months… and, yet, these particular beers seemed profoundly cold and exceptionally tasty.

Salud!

The following day dark clouds lurked ominously above us from horizon to horizon. But it didn’t matter, cause we were gonna get wet anyway.

Launch time

We hadn’t escaped the clutches of the marina yet. But alas, Exit was finally back where she belonged… in the water. A handful of things needed to get done while we awaited the arrival of our new batteries and at least now we didn’t have to climb down a ladder and walk fifty yards just to pee.

The laundry water was a testimony to our previous three weeks of hard work. Finally, our clothes were far dirtier than anything else on the boat…

And it turned out we apparently had a new crew member. After discovering our stowaway, Lizzy was gladly welcomed aboard as Ambassador of Goodwill and Mosquito Consumption.

Moments of gastronomical bliss

Sometimes guilty pleasures (very different from politician Matt Gaetz’s self-described naughty favors) simply must be indulged.

While making only our second run into Colon to shop since arriving at Shelter Bay, we found ourselves with an extra fifteen minutes before the van was scheduled to leave returning to the marina.

What better way to kill that time than with a DQ Blizzard?

An hour later, while we were still unpacking bags back on the boat, we heard a rap on the hull outside. It was our neighbor two slips down, who explained he was preparing to haul out his boat for long term storage and had some perfectly good unused food he had provisioned while in Puerto Rico that needed to be gotten rid of.

Enthusiastically, we accepted the offer. Looking inside the bag, we were stunned. Pure gold had just materialized before our eyes…

The following day was my birthday. I had won the trifecta of gastronomical bliss.

The breakfast that Kris made was a decadent home run… she had undoubtably knocked it clean outta the park. Thanks for that, my love!

Oh ya… and how can I forget. Our celebration dinner a week earlier, the day after launching Exit back into the water. Cheese fondue… epic!


The weather, which had been quite cooperative with us while we were trying to paint, seemed to take a definitively more humid turn. Ultimately, we didn’t care that much because we were back in the water, even though we still longed to be out of the marina.

The alternative to rain seemed to be an intense bones-to-dust heat that was brutal to endure. Exposure to only a few afternoons like that quickly clarify how the concept of siestas may have evolved. Hotter than inside the Devil’s ball sack may very well be a phrase I coined, but I’m not sure how quickly it will catch on…

Nevertheless, we continued to press forward, diligently ticking off task after task.

A hatch whose hinge had seized up and hadn’t been open for a year managed to get sorted out.

Our Bimini cover came back from the sail loft with a brand new Isenglass window. The next time we raised our sails, it would actually be possible to see our wind indicator at the top of the mast. Woohoo!

Moments of clarity

A truly sobering moment was the prospect of drilling holes below the waterline of our dinghy in order to install the mounts for launching wheels. We had obtained them while we were in Bocas from a couple we met, also from Washington state. They had been sailing for decades and now, one in the sixties and one in the eighties, stilled live aboard their sailboat. Cudos!

After purchasing the wheels for a mere forty dollars, we learned that the Danard brand was considered the Rolls Royce of dinghy wheels, retailing for three hundred bucks brand new. Score!

With our mess making largely complete and our access to unlimited water nearing an end, an onslaught of cleaning ensued. The cockpit looked cleaner than it had for a long time. The deck was largely free of bird shit and Panama dirt which had being accumulating. The dodger and Bimini were as clean as they were ever going to get and had multiple new coats of waterproofing (we had given up on small, expensive aerosol cans and graduated to gallons of siliconized sealer made for concrete, brick, and tile that had to be literally painted on with a roller or brush).

At long last, the moment arrived. Our six new Lifeline AGM batteries and a Honda EU2200 generator showed up on the dock.

$3500 with a view

Aside from a final provisioning run, this was all that was holding us here at the marina. Get the batteries installed… get some food and fuel… get the fuck outta here.

When Kris posted the above photo on Facebook, a number of friends thought we had purchased $3500 worth of wine. Alas…most of the wine we brought aboard was boxed wine rather than boxes of wine. The truth is, our wine provisions rang in at more like thirty five bucks instead of thirty five hundred.

At $3.50 per liter… IT MAY NOT BE GOOD WINE, BUT IT’S CLOS(E)!

Comedy is not pretty.

Jose, one of the marina employees, had been the most outwardly friendly, smiling, and engaging of all the non-management staff we interacted with while we were hauled out. When he learned we were getting new batteries, he perked up and got even friendlier. I imagine the potential income from recycling the lead inside the old batteries offered him a significant supplement to a barely adequate salary.

For us, the hassle and cost of taking them twenty miles to a retail store that would give us a hundred dollars for the lot was not very appetizing. On the other hand, paying forward good karma was.

In the end, Christmas came early for Jose. Good people deserve good things.

Feliz Navidad Jose

We had learned many expensive lessons with our previous battery bank and hoped to not repeat this whole replacement process for quite some time.

The new generator was an imperfect solution to our dead Fischer Panda generator, which had been on Exit when we purchased her. At $15,000 new, the old generator was ridiculous overkill for the sole purpose of backup battery charger. Even the part we suspected we needed for the repair was $5000. We had decided, if we could ever resuscitate the thing, we would just get rid of it.

The only other possible use we could have had for the Panda was as a 220 volt source of power for a potential dive compressor… but it turned out even that was not necessary.


Confessions

Okay.

The real reason we came to Shelter Bay Marina… not really, but it sure made the rest of the process more bearable.

A dive compressor, with only three hours of use, and a couple of extra scuba tanks became available from a friend we met in Bocas now selling his boat at Shelter Bay. In the end, despite the fact that we were already hemorrhaging money just being in the marina, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally become completely scuba self-sufficient. Sweeeeet!

Our transom has a locker that was built specifically to house the life raft. Smart design, conveniently accessible, and excellent protection from the environment.

Exit’s dedicated life raft locker

As it turns out, the dive compressor is almost exactly the same dimensions as the life raft. We already considered the transom our dive platform. What better location to fill tanks?

Come on… really.

Abandoning ship is soooooo overrated.

A perfect fit

Just to clarify: washing machine… gone. Life raft… simply moved to a secure, undisclosed location. Questionable priorities? Maybe… but we’re not idiots.

Rio Chagres, Panama

Exit at anchor on Rio Chagres, Panama

April 29 – May 5, 2021

Crocodiles!  Woohoo!

We had been growing more and more skeptical that we would see any.  During our previous thirteen months in Bocas del Toro, we had spotted one actual crocodile.  It had disappeared quietly beneath the surface at Big Bight shortly after we jumped in the dinghy and we never saw it again.

Now, on our third day here at Rio Chagres, a crocodile was slowly swimming along the shoreline less than two hundred feet from where we stood on deck of Exit.  We could clearly see its  head and massive scutes lining the top of its tail above the surface.  A big crocodile.  We snapped some photos from on deck and hopped in the dinghy.  By the time we approached, the croc had disappeared under the murky water.  It appeared to have ducked into a small cove.  Ever so slowly, we paddled into what seemed like a very enclosed area.  Too enclosed.  

Excited and super creeped out, we backed right the fuck out and returned to Exit after making a quick comparison of the length of the croc relative to the size of the bushes it was in front of when the photo was taken.

We estimated ten to twelve feet.  Holy shit!

10-12 foot croc on Rio Chagres

Later in the day we saw one more five to six footer in exactly the same spot.  The following day, a small one to two foot baby up a small creek we were exploring in the dinghy.  Kris saw a three footer the day after that while she was paddling on her SUP. 

My own SUP paddles up small creeks no more than twenty feet wide and five feet deep revealed no lurking reptiles; but I do know an Autralian with a healthy respect for crocs who thought I was one hombre muy estupido. Small rubber inflatable craft… crocodile teeth… remote and restricted area… fair enough. What the fuck was I thinking?

One hundred percent crocodile redemption in Panama!

Sunrise just outside the Rio Chagres entrance

Gatun Lake was formed in 1910 after a dam was built seven miles upriver from the mouth the Rio Chagres as part of the Panama Canal construction. Water from the lake is used in the process of raising and lowering the levels inside the system of locks inside the Canal. Vessels transiting the Panama Canal from the Caribbean side cross Gatun Lake after passing through the locks on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

Though the dam itself has made it impossible to access the Rio Chagres from Gatun Lake, this seven mile stretch of pure jungle is still accessible to sailboats who venture through the hundred foot wide mouth where the Rio Chagres feeds into the ocean.

Entrance to the Rio Chagres

For seven miles, the lazy river winds back and forth, cutting a track through a stunning swath of primitive Panama jungle. A number of smaller rivers and endless tiny creeks can be seen emerging from the trees and shoreline mangroves.

Any expectations that Rio Charges would be quite similar to the freshwater river Rio Dulce in Guatemala turned out only partially true.

The incredible density and diversity of intertwining trees, vines, plants, and foliage making up the lush green jungles surrounding both Rio Dulce and Rio Chagres is very comparable. Simply amazing.

While the Rio Dulce does have breathtakingly dramatic cliffs and elevations, it is primarily a brief transit between the town of Livingston at the river’s mouth and Lake Golfete. What I found much more memorable about the Chagres was that the river itself is the destination. We could drop anchor anywhere along the way and sit for as long as we like.

Another distinction was the difference in traffic. Compared to Rio Dulce’s constant stream of motored boat traffic as well as dozens of local dugout cayucas fishing around every corner, Rio Chagres was unbelievably devoid of people.

Not a single house (the entire river is inside a national park). No water taxis. Not really any tour boats. Maybe a couple of gringos in power boats a week. A half dozen or ten small local fishing boats or skiffs a day (maybe going both ways) would be an exceptionally busy day.

Everybody waves; Nobody stops.

Day after day, it was just us.

Yet, despite human traffic on Rio Chagres being very sparse, animal life in the area is abundant.

Howler and capuchin monkeys live all along the river, roaming constantly through the jungle’s canopy. Both are amazing to watch. Troops of six to a dozen monkeys, oftentimes seen with tiny, spindly babies gymnastically shadowing alongside or on top of their mother, venture right to the river’s edge.

The raucous vocalizations of the howler monkeys echoing across the jungle (announcing sunrise, sundown, approaching rain, or simply voicing an opinion it seems) are a stark contrast to the silence of the capuchins, whose presence may sometimes be revealed only by the swaying and crashing branches upon which they are moving.

Howler monkeys live up to their name
Steve attempting monkey-speak

Multiple species of toucans are numerous in the area. Despite their extremely unique profile and vivid colors, it is phenomenally difficult to spot these birds in the trees until they move. On the other hand, when in flight, the outline of their characteristic bill makes them instantly recognizable.

Also colorful parrots (squeak-beaks as we call them), almost always traveling in pairs, continually announce their presence as they noisily pass by overhead.

Every clear evening, the jungle would undergo an audible transformation from day to night. Birds, insects, frogs, and who knows exactly what else, all creating layer upon layer of a vast soundscape, filling the air with strange and overwhelming sounds that build and fade in volume as all of the participants compete to be heard.

In the morning, another stunning sunrise transforms the river’s banks back to amazing shades of green.

Sunrise on the Rio Chagres
A new day’s transformation from 6am to 7am

Aside from ourselves and the occasional passing boat, the only human sound we heard was a sort of thrumming hum that was generated by all of the activity, traffic, and machinery generated at the Panama Canal only a few miles away. The background noise came and went, seemingly dependent more on the wind direction than anything else, and was never obnoxious… only noticeable.

That, and air traffic. Planes passing a mile or more overhead… only noticeable. A helicopter traveling at high speed, following along the line of the river below mast height… not so cool. Military patrol? Drug runners? Tourists? Not sure, but we heard the Shelter Bay Marina owner likes to come and go via helicopter. Regardless, definitely not the bird you want your mast to be buzzed by.

On a less dramatic note, one of the really unique things we found about the Rio Chagres were the subtle, though strange, currents.

Over the course of the day we would experience an exceptionally gentle current flowing towards the ocean slow to a complete stop and eventually turn in the other direction, now moving “upstream” towards the dam.

If the lake is essentially at sea level, then I suppose the eighteen inch tide change could be enough to change the direction of the river’s flow.  Furthermore, that direction shift must become very convoluted when stretched over the seven mile distance of the river.  

We found ourselves very disoriented a number of times while sitting at anchor.   In the rather narrow and symmetrical looking corridor of a river, after the current would reverse direction, we would spin around 180 degrees and be facing the opposite direction, all without us noticing!

Also, each time I tasted the water it was more salty than merely brackish. Not really even a fresh water river.

Nevertheless, Kris found it to be another perfect environment for a paddle on the SUP.

Rain or shine…

During our week on the Chagres, we saw only two other sailboats the entire time. One arrived a couple of days ahead of us and was farther upriver. We saw them only passing in the dinghy and spoke for thirty seconds as they motored past us on their way out. The second sailboat arrived a couple of days after we did, anchored one night in view on the same section of river, then picked up in a day and we only saw them again and spoke for thirty seconds as they motored past us on their way out. During more than half our stay, it appeared Exit was the only sailboat on the entire seven mile stretch of Rio Chagres.

Nice.


Firefly Rescue Unit

Having spent most of our lives in places devoid of fireflies, we always find rare and random encounters with the creatures to be welcome and somewhat mystical events. The strange floating light produced when their butt transforms into a lantern always seems like a bit of magic. However, on the Rio Chagres, we encountered a completely new species of firefly.

We had seen them from a distance a number of evenings before and they seemed particularly bright, but we had not yet been close to any. On this evening, we watched as a firefly lit up and emerged from the dark shadows of the evening jungle. It flew out over the water, not a hundred feet from us.

The small, yet intense light meandered back and forth in a seemingly random manner until, at one point, it clearly hit the water and stopped dead. We watched for a few minutes as the light sat there and then began to flicker and slowly fade.

With very little background in the behavioral psychology of fireflies, it was hard to be sure; but it appeared to us that we were watching the aftermath of an air traffic accident.

I hopped into the dinghy, which was fortunately still in the water, went over and scooped up the firefly out of the water into my drink glass and returned to Exit.

The strange creature slowly crawled out of the glass and sat on the cockpit table, cleaning itself. Two small but very bright dots were continually illuminated on its back. Every now and then, its rear end would light up, like a more traditional firefly. Eventually, it seemed quite content simply walking around, exploring our arms and hands.

After a bit, we hopped back into the dinghy with our new friend and went over to the shore depositing it on one of the leaves of a tree branch hanging out over the river.

We’ll never know for sure, but the anthropomorphic conclusion to the story rests upon whether fireflies actually can or cannot swim.

If not, I can only imagine the following day the story started something like… so, after a near fatal crash on the water I was unbelievably rescued, resuscitated, and returned by some strange guardian angel on the river…

If, in fact, fireflies can swim the story may instead have sounded more like… you’re never gonna believe this, but after performing a textbook water landing I was abducted by aliens and temporarily taken aboard their ship for observation

Author’s note: Subsequent research revealed that the insect we encountered was not a firefly. Rather, it was a type of click beetle, aptly called a headlight beetle (for the two distinct lights illuminated on its back).

This totally changes everything. Obviously, the story must have went: I can’t believe those stupid humans. Bad enough that they accost mebut to mistake me for a fucking fly... how indignant!


Twelve Hour Karma

Late in the afternoon on our seventh and final day, we received our only visitors during our stay on the Rio Chagres. Three local fishermen passing by in a small boat motoring “downstream” stopped at Exit. All three smiled, though only one spoke.

Not a word of English.

We tried to communicate with our limited Spanish, yet sometimes anything but the absolute most basic sentence can be misunderstood when spoken by someone with a limited grasp of the language.

POINT OF DISTRACTION: I recall once trying to ask a local fisherman in Spanish if he was having luck catching fish. He misunderstood me, thinking I was asking if he caught fish because they brought him good luck. With a very confused look on his face he replied, “No, the fish are to eat.” True story.

Anyway… after a bit of back and forth, I got hung up on a word I couldn’t identify. It sounded something like meshis.

Something about fuego meshis… fire something….

Finally, I realized it was not Spanish. He was trying for English. Duh.

Meshis… matches.

Feeling stupid, I disappeared down the companionway, reappearing moments later with two books of matches. I handed them to the guy.

He smiled and said gracias. They disappeared around the bend and the sound of the boat engine slowly faded away.

A bit out of the ordinary, to be sure. But… really, just another strange moment in a rather ongoing sequence of the surreal.

The following morning, both Kris and I were jolted awake at 6am by what sounded like a tapping on the hull. Wtf?

Hola”… came a voice along with another rap on the side of Exit.

Hola. Buen dia… ” I replied as I stumbled into my boardies and climbed, bleary eyed, up into the cockpit.

I was greeted by what had to be nearly a ten pound red snapper! Dead – no doubt about that – but still staring me right in the face. Holding out the magnificent fish was none other than the guy I had given two matchbooks to the day before.

The same three fishermen in the same boat were now alongside Exit facing the opposite direction as yesterday, coming back from a night of fishing. I’m not sure how far they had travelled, maybe all the way outside to the reef, but it was obviously a very successful night. One of the three guys, sporting an ear to ear grin, lifted the lid of a huge plastic cooler that sat in the center of the small boat, revealing a stunning assortment of fish that filled the container clear to the top.

It appeared we were being offered the prime catch of the night, an incredibly generous gesture in return for us giving them some matches.

Wow.

Even after a exhausting night of work, they made a point of stopping as they passed. They were definitely proud. They were definitely grateful.

Rarely am I early to wake. Yet today, for the first time ever at 6am, Kris brought me a knife and cutting board and I cleaned fresh snapper… on the transom of Exit… in a jungle shrouded with the morning’s low clouds… in Panama.

Go figure.

Departing Rio Chagres

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…

Slower Than Steve

October 20, 2020

Sloths.

One of the craziest damn terrestrial animals on our planet.

If there is a Creator, sloths have to be a testimony to an Ultimate sense of humor.

They are a true exception to any stretch of a Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest.  

Not only do they seem incapable of outrunning any potential predator, they seem damn near incapable of catching much prey… and they are vegetarian!

Somehow, sloths manage to maintain a look that successfully sits atop the razor line between an irresistibly endearing smile and an absolutely indifferent look of complete stupidity.  

We’d seen them at a distance on Bastimentos, but never face to face like here in the mangroves right next to Isla Joya.