Monday, April 11, 2016

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach
After spending 4 nights in Shelter Bay Marina, we were ready to move on to bigger and better things. We sadly said our goodbyes to Mom and Dad and made plans to head to Bocas del Toro, a place we'd been dreaming of since Mexico.  

Cayo Zapatilla

We caught our first Caribbean Mahi Mahi shortly after leaving Shelter Bay.  We were having a bit of a dry spell when it came to fishing, so this was quite the treat.  

After an uneventful overnight passage making progress towards Bocas del Toro, we made a spontaneous decision to stop at Cayo Zapatilla.  The pictures in the cruising guide were amazing, white sand beaches and crystal clear water.  Upon arrival, we found just that.  The next day was a different story.  The calm waters of the bay turned into a rolly mess as the growing seas outside the island reef began to pick up.  To make matters worse, there was not a lot of wind, so we weren't necessarily pointed into the swell at all times.  This made for a very uncomfortable rocking cradle effect.  We would have picked up anchor and moved on, however, we had already paid our fees to the park ranger to be there so we thought we'd make the best of it.  Zia and I kayaked to the beach with the girls and explored what would, in calm conditions, be the perfect relaxing and snorkeling beach.  

We set off to Bocas del Toro in the same rolly seas that were making the anchorage uncomfortable.  We decided to take the outside route and head in through the main channel to the Bocas Town anchorage.  Boy were we in for a surprise when we got around the reef surrounding Cayo Zapatilla.  We were greeted with HUGE rolling seas and no wind.  The seas were a good 10-12 feet.  They would come up from our stern quarter, give us a good lift, and drop us back into the trough.  These are not our preferred motoring conditions, there was not a breath of wind to be found.  We managed to find our entrance okay, even without the channel markers that were so clearly marked on our Garmin GPS.  Apparently, they don't exist anymore.  

Welcome to Bocas del Toro!

Looking at the main town from the anchorage.

Bocas Town anchorage

We spent 4 weeks in Bocas del Toro.  Most of the time was spent anchored in the shallow waters off the main town.  We were quickly sucked in to the many different restaurants and markets in town.  Our favorite was the Raw Bar, featuring daily happy hour with $5 tempura rolls and $1 beer.  Oh, how I miss that place.  We also spent some time catching up with Don on S/V Permanently Temporary at the Red Frog Marina.  And tied up to a dock for some marina sitting at a place in the middle of the mangroves.  It was nice having the dock and unlimited water as well as such a quiet setting, however, the no-see-ums were absolutely vicious.

We met some new friends Lynn and Russell on S/V Blue Highway.  We quickly became buddy boats and good friends in our future passages.

Red Frog Beach

Fresh caught lobster dinner!

The Blue Coconut Bar
You can snorkel off their platform or just lounge in the hammocks over the water.

A calm night tied up in the mangroves.

There is definitely a lot of character in Bocas.
The scenery surrounding the archipelago of Bocas del Toro was quite breathtaking.  It reminded us of the San Juan Islands with so many different islands and anchorages to explore.  The snorkeling was fantastic.  We saw many different species of fish, coral, rays, and dolphins.  There is definitely a downside to Bocas del Toro though.  We had daily rain showers that are normally a welcome treat, however, the humidity was stifling.  The no-see-ums were enough to drive me crazy.  They attacked every square inch of my body and the itching was enough to make happy hour not so happy.   Even the cancer causing bug coils that would never be sold in the US couldn't keep them away.   I originally thought Bocas would be a place where we could hang out for months, but I just don't think I could do it again.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Panama City & The Panama Canal

The Panama City skyline lured us in after sailing (actually motoring) through the night from Playa Benao.   Thanks to Captian Jake we had an uneventful trip.  In typical Panama fashion the wind did pick up right on the nose as we approached within 10 miles of the canal zone.  We were on high alert as we tried to decipher if the giant tankers and cargo ships surrounding us were actually underway or anchored.   Most were anchored awaiting their pilots to transit the canal.  It’s still an uneasy feeling motoring by knowing how small we are in comparison.  Would they even see us or feel the impact when they smooshed us like a gnat?  I doubt it.

Our anchorage of choice was La Playita.  We threw the hook down in a spot on the outside of the anchorage with a view of the Bridge of Americas.  It was the perfect viewing spot to watch the traffic coming and going from the canal.  On the other side of the anchorage, we could see the magnificent skyline.  We paid the La Playita Marina a $57 weekly fee to use their dinghy dock.  By the way, that’s $57 for the week whether you actually use it for 7 days or 3 days, you pay for the whole week.  They give out different colored wrist bands each week and they watch you like a hawk to make sure everyone in the dinghy has one.  From the dinghy dock, we had easy access to the causeway, taxis, and the bus route.  After a few days, the novelty of the view did wear off as we rock and rolled from the wakes of the passing ships. 

We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and quickly began our orientation of the city.  We had our friend, Zia, flying in on Friday and my parents coming the following Tuesday.  The goal was to get through the canal with everyone on board before their vacations ended.  Ideally we wanted to be transiting the canal the following Friday which gave us 9 days to check into Panama (yes, we were in Panama for a month without checking into the country) and go through the canal procedures in order to be scheduled to transit.  We were immediately informed by other cruises that we were very “ambitious” and that it can’t be done that quickly.  Rule #1, never tell Jake and Danielle that it can’t be done.  

Ships at anchor, waiting to transit the canal.

I should write an e-book titled How to Transit the Panama Canal Without an Agent and charge people for the information that I’m about the disclose.  I would say that a very high percentage (maybe 85%) of cruising boats use an agent to transit the canal.  They pay anywhere from $300-$600 to hire an agent that will check them into the country and do all of the necessary paperwork and communications with the canal authority for the canal transit.  When I first heard about the agent thing, I immediately questioned it.  Why do I need to pay someone to run to a few offices for me and make 2 phone calls? Am I required to have an agent?  No.  Then I guess I’m going to keep my money, thank you. 

So here is what we did: The day after we arrived in Panama City, we bypassed checking into Panama and went directly to the canal office instead.  There was a cab waiting in the marina parking lot.  We told him what we needed to do and he knew right where to take us.  The cab driver walked us into the canal office and waited as we spoke to the gentleman at the desk.  He spoke perfect English as we filled out one single form that included our boat name, length, speed, etc. (Step One) We handed the form over to the gentleman at the desk.  He asked when we wanted to transit.  We told him ASAP.  He scheduled us for admeasurement the next day.  Easy cheesy.  The form we filled out can also be downloaded and emailed to the canal office.  We felt that the in person contact helped speed up the process though. 

Step two is the admeasurement appointment.  We were given a window between 10am-12pm for the admeasurement guy to come out to Ohana.  You are required to have 4 - 125’ lines and 8 fenders onboard for the admeasurement.  We rented some for $100 from the taxi driver that took us to the canal office the day before.  We did have friends that did not have their lines and fenders for their admeasurement appointment and they were just fine.  The admeasurement guy was dropped off at our boat at 10 am.  He spent approximately 40 minutes on board asking questions and filling out paperwork.  He verified that we had lines, but did not measure them.  He measured the length of the boat and went over some basic information about the transit.  Other than that he didn’t seem to know much.  He did love our cat though and took pictures of her.  Weird.

Step three is to pay for your canal transit.  Our admeasurement appointment was on a Friday and banks are closed over the weekend so we decided to wait till Monday to pay.  For boats under 50’ the upfront transit fee is $1875 in cash only.  That’s a lot of atm withdrawals when your limit is $300/day.  From the $1875, you get $891 back as long as you don’t damage anything or delay the canal operations.  Therefore, our total fee after the deposit refund was $984.  We went on Monday to the Citi Bank with a form that the admeasurement guy had given us and handed over a wad of cash.  The bank then emails the canal office letting them know that we have paid. The $891 was deposited via direct deposit into our checking account less than 2 weeks after our transit.

Step four is to call the canal scheduling office after 6:30 pm on the day that you pay to be scheduled.  Jake called Monday night.  They asked when we wanted to go.  He said Friday.  They said okay you can go at 8 am and told him to call again the night before to confirm.  And that’s how it’s done!

Anyone that found this information useful please feel free to deposit a “thank you” fee into our boat donation fund.

When transiting the canal you are required to have 4 line handlers onboard in addition to the captain.  Zia and myself were line handlers on the bow and Katelyn and my dad where handlers at the stern.  Mom and Hannah were in charge of photography and keeping the crew fed and hydrated.  An adviser from the canal also comes on board to babysit everybody and make sure that we don’t screw anything up.  You are required to feed the advisor a “hot” meal and have bottled water for him.

We were center locked the entire transit.  At first, this was intimidating to us.  Being center locked means that all four line handlers are working and you have two lines on port side and two lines on starboard side connected to the canal walls.  Everyone has to be on their toes so that we don’t accidentally run into the walls and damage our boat.  Sometimes the current in the locks can be so strong it flips the boat around backwards.  All in all we did just fine.  The bow team found it more difficult to down lock then up lock.  We had to keep the bow centered at all times which involved constant communication between Zia and I.  A lot of sailboats are tug tied when they go through.  This means that they tie up to a tug boat that is tied to the walls.  When you are tug tied the line handlers don’t really do anything.   When all was said and done, we were happy to be active during our transit.  We were also very proud of Katelyn for being so excited to take on the responsibility of being a line handler.  She did an awesome job!

The "crew" of Ohana - Dad, Mom, Zia, Hannah, Katelyn, Danielle, Jake

Mom and Dad going through the Panama Canal.  Bucket list - check, check

Captain Jake and the stern line handlers - Kate and Dad

Going into the Miraflores Locks.  We had a container ship in front and a tug with a sailboat tied to it behind them.
Motoring towards the Centennial Bridge
We arrived in Lake Gatun around 5pm and tied up to this mooring buoy for the night.

The next day we had time to kill before the 2nd adviser showed up
so we took advantage of some fresh water showers.

Ships in Lake Gatun waiting to transit the locks to the Atlantic,

Day 2 waiting to down lock in the Gatun Locks

Gates opening in the first set of Gatun Locks

Holding on to the lines as Jake motors and the canal guys walk our lines into position

Huge freighter behind us in the Gatun Locks

Bow line handlers working hard

Almost there!  One more lock till Ohana is in the Caribbean!

Here is our timeline of our Panama Canal transit:

2/24/16 - Arrived in Panama City
2/25/16 - filled out initial form at canal office to start the process
2/26/16 - admeasurement appointment
2/29/16 - made payment to Citi Bank for canal fees
3/04/16 - transited the first 3 set of locks (Miraflores & San Pedro)
3/05/16 - transited the last 3 set of locks (Gatun Locks) and entered the Caribbean

Here is a cool video from the webcam in Miraflores Locks showing Ohana going through.  We are the teenie, tiny sailboat at the end.

Upon exiting the canal, we dropped off our adviser and headed to Shelter Bay Marina for a few nights before heading to Bocas del Toro.

A note on checking into Panama:  We found Panama to be one of the most expensive countries so far to check into.  As an American citizen you can fly in or bus in to Panama and receive a 90 day visa for free.  Because we came in on our "yacht" we had to pay for Mariner's Visas - $105 per person (ouch).  Hannah was free thank goodness.  We also had to purchase a cruising permit for the boat, another $120.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Isla Cebaco & Playa Benao

We left Bahia Honda for Isla Catalina and ended up at Isla Cebaco instead.  Once again, the wind piped up preventing us from heading northbound to Isla Catalina.  We decided not to fight it and headed to Isla Cebaco.  I'm glad we did because we ran into a great family on SV Windrose that we had met last cruising season.  There is not much to Isla Cebaco.  There is no civilization on land, but there is a barge that offers ice, beer, soda, wifi, and diesel.  It's not exactly cheap, but in the middle of nowhere an ice cold Coke is pretty amazing.  We waited here for a few days until we had a good weather window to head to Bahia Benao, then on to the notorious Punta Mala.,,

The supply barge

Playa Benao

We did an overnight sail to Bahia Benao to wait for a good weather window around Punta Mala and into Panama City.  By now, we expected to get our butts kicked every time we pulled anchor and set sail to a new destination.  The kicking continued as we encountered inconsistent gusting winds coming from exactly where we needed to go.  Sailing the Pacific Panama coast proved to be very challenging.

As we arrived at Bahia Benao we were faced with a decision to rush and leave the next day for a mediocre weather window around Punta Mala or wait another 7 days for a potentially better window. We decided to wait.  This allowed us to re-provision in Pedasi, a cute town a 20 mile bus ride away. We also toured a tuna research center, surfed, and had too many happy hours and pizzas.  

The wind does howl through the anchorage, however, there is little chop and it is very comfortable. The dinghy landing on the beach looks intimidating, but it is very doable on the east end of the beach.

Playa Benao is an up and coming surfer town with a lot of potential.  We truly enjoyed our time there and can see it developing even more as a major tourist destination.  

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bahia Honda, Panama

The nice thing about the Pacific Coast of Panama is that you don't have to go too far for a change of scenery.  For the most part the next anchorage is just a day sail away - no overnights.  We had a beautiful sail from the Isla Cavada to Bahia Honda, that is until the wind picked up.  We began to notice a trend at this point.  Anytime we were ready to head north into an anchorage, the wind would fill in from the north at 20-25 knots making it very challenging to sail into an anchorage.  With the help of the engine, we made it in just fine and anchored near the "town" of Bahia Honda.  At this point, it had been a good 2 weeks since having a meal off the boat and our provisions and water were running low.  We quickly launched the dinghy in search of a cheeseburger.  I felt bad for the local kids who surrounded the boat in their dugout canoes, we were not in the mood for chit-chat.  We filled the dinghy with our water jerry jugs and headed to the dock.  

Once on land, we were greeted by Moses who spoke pretty decent English.  We explained to him that we needed water for our boat.  He quickly led us past several water spickets and to a teacher's home for a key.  We didn't quite understand the process, but went along for the walk.  The teacher then led us up a hill and unlocked the gate to the school property where he began filling our water jugs from a spicket near the basketball court.  After filling all five containers we began our journey down the hill to the dock.  Along the way, the teacher and Moses stopped male passerby's to carry jugs for Katelyn and I.  We would later find out that the island is divided into two sections, each section had running water every other day, the section we were in did not have running water that day (except for the emergency school spicket).  Did they tell us to come back tomorrow for water?  No, they just wanted to help.  

Our quest to find a cheeseburger was unsuccessful.  We settled for an ice cold Balboa at one of the three local bars.  By bar, I mean a concrete structure with six stools and possibly a small table that serves Balboa or rum only - no food.  We found that the locals didn't have much to do and spent a lot of time in the "bar."

We did find a tienda on the island.  It was more like a concession stand counter where you place an order from a window.   Options for groceries included eggs, pork & beans, spam, ramen, chips, and Gatorade.  I may have had a discussion with the captain about not stopping in Boca Chica for provisions...

Kennedy and his family paid a visit to the boat.  Kennedy is the son of Domingo who is referenced in the cruising guide books.  We traded a few items for bananas, pipas, papaya, and pineapple.  He wanted to make sure that we share with other boaters to stop and anchor near his home (shown in the guidebooks) for trading.  He needs batteries, gas, flashlights, fishing hooks, and backpacks.  He is not interested in money, just wants to trade.  Super nice family!

The island school is at the top left corner of the picture.  They have a magnificent view of the bay. 

I dug out extra school supplies that we were not using to donate to the school.  They have 130 students on a tiny island!  And that is just primary grades, secondary school is on the mainland.