Captain’s Log April 14 to May 12, 2011
The Great Mango Run –
Pacific Panama, the Canal Transit, the San Blas Islands, run to Jamaica
April 14: We left Golfito, Costa Rica at 5:30 AM and cruised for about 10 hours down the coast to Isla Parida, Panama, located in the Golf of Chiriquí. The island is about 250 miles north of the Panama Canal. We stayed here for two nights, then moved about 20 miles south to the next island. The sea was calm and the sky clear and we made Isla Parida at 4:30 in the afternoon. The island has several good anchorages, and we chose one on the southwest coast. The approach was a little intimidating as it took Odyssey through an entrance bordered by shoals. However, we proceeded thinking the charts were accurate and as we got closer we saw a sailboat in the bay, indicating that the entrance was deep enough for our draft. (We talked with the owner of the sailboat who told us he came into the bay from a different approach: So much for assumptions!) Once inside it was like a picture out of Robinson Crusoe: the little bay was surrounded on all sides by small islands, the beaches were beautiful black sand. The water was beautifully green and clear.
We decided to stay aboard the first evening and lower the dingy in the morning. Rebecca and I went to the flybridge to enjoy the sunset with a nice bottle of Pinot Noir and a good Cuban cigar. As the sun set, the sky turned peach and the sounds of an unspoiled forest became audible. Roosting sea birds were settling down for the night and making a heck of a sound. As the sun sank lower in the sky, their sounds quieted and the sounds of frogs and insects began to rise. Their cacophony was primeval, as was the sight of tiny cooking fires in the forest. It was a magical night, all that a person seeking adventure could dream about.
April 15: We slept in and after a wonderful vegan pancake breakfast we lowered the tender and explored the area. We put plenty of pictures on the web (www.tischtravels.com), but the highlight was our swimming stop on a desolate beach not too far from where Odyssey was anchored. As we approached, a family appeared and let us know it was OK to come ashore. They invited us to their little home, and showed us their meager belongings and their water well. Rebecca gave the little girl a coloring book and crayons, and three ice cream treats for the family, which they seemed to appreciate, although they wouldn’t eat them until we left. Realizing this, we took our leave and went for a delightful swim in the 85 degree ocean water. After an hour or so we followed a brick path through the tropical forest about a quarter of a mile to a clearing that overlooked the ocean. Here were built several primitive, open cabins that overlooked the ocean and had their own beach. At the end of the trail was a community kitchen and bar, completely stocked. Apparently a company or individual owns the island and has a lodge here. It was really nice and very rustic too.
On the way back to Odyssey the Yamaha engine on the tender started failing again. This time we found a little water in the fuel filter, and Buddy and I installed a large 5 micron filter that I hope will make this engine reliable. Anyway, to install that filter assembly, we put the tender back on deck, secured it and were ready to leave in the morning for the next island. Next it was time for a little refreshment and viewing of the sunset.
April16: We left our anchorage about 9 AM after completing some maintenance items. The track out of the bay needed to be carefully negotiated because it was low tide and we were surrounded by shoals. It was a 3 hour cruise to Isla Secas, a small island that has a tent resort on it. The tent lodges rent for $600/night. (Rebecca and I stayed in a similar luxury tent resort while we were in India. It was Valentine’s Day: they had sprinkled rose pedals around the room and on the bed and filled the tent with candles. It was very romantic. That was quit a trip.)
As the cruise was pleasant and smooth, we decided to keep going another 3 hours to Isla Coiba, the largest and most pristine of the Panamanian Pacific Islands. Just past Isla Secas I spotted several groups of jumping fish in different quadrants around Odyssey. Birds were attracted to the churning waters and I thought that maybe some pelagic activity might be in the area. I put out the fishing gear and hoped for the best. About a half hour later we caught a nice Mahi-mahi. It is one of the most exotic and beautiful fish in the ocean. It has an extremely high brow making the head look almost square, and the colors on the fish are amazing: yellow, olive, blue-green, spots that flash when it is excited. It was a thrill to catch it!
Isla Coiba was once a penal colony, so it has never been developed and was made part of the park system when the penal colony was closed. It has 133 species of birds inhabiting it, along with two types of monkeys and a variety of other creatures. We anchored in a bay that is said to be their best one, but it is very exposed and shallow. We were basically anchored in the shore of the ocean. Dinner was Mahi-mahi of course, and it was delicious. The next day we explored the island and did some snorkeling.
April 17: Have you ever seen a butterfly migration? When we awoke this morning Buddy stepped outside with his tea and called for us all to come out and see the butterflies. From the direction of the sea, thousands if not millions of butterflies –black, with a green and yellow markings – were making their way into the island. What an amazing sight. It must have been mating season.
We lowered the tender and went off to find the remains of the penal colony and investigate the abandon sailboat that apparently washed ashore some time ago. The beaches here are sand with coconut palms and a dense forest inland. White faced monkeys swung from the palms and announced our arrival to their comrades as we landed. The beaches here are thoroughly littered with plastic bottles, chairs, oil containers, shoes, everything that our modern society makes from plastic. In fact the Pacific Ocean here has a lot of flotsam, more that we have seen anywhere on our travels. The beaches are great for swimming, and the water temperature is over 80 degrees. As the tide came in, we decided to return to Odyssey as getting to the dingy in deeper, swell driven water would become uncomfortable. Once back by the boat, we swam for about an hour around Odyssey in 60 feet of water. It was fantastic.
That afternoon we started having generator problems. It turns out we had two problems: the generator was overheating because the impeller was worn out, so we replaced it. We carry a lot of spare parts, and so far we have everything we need to keep things running. The second issue was load management. After we fixed the generator, it still kept stopping as though it still had an overheating problem. It turned out that the inverter was charging the batteries from the generator and it was drawing 6 amps. Normally it gets its power from the alternators on the main engines while we are running. Since the generator produces 20 KW max, that invertor load plus a clothes dryer (5KW), and oven (5kw) plus 4 air conditioners (3kw each) overloaded the genset and it shut down. Once we reduced the load, it worked fine. We couldn’t shut down the oven right away because Rebecca was making a peach pie for dinner (fish tacos too!). Anyway, we managed.
April 18: Today we started off with hot coffee, fresh banana bread with chocolate and nuts, and a broken down AC unit in the salon. I didn’t know which to work on first, so I led with the banana bread. That was a good choice: next the AC unit. Buddy went below and cleaned the sea strainer for the AC units. It was clogged, and cleaning it fixed the AC system. Lucky us! Then we pulled the pick and off we went for another anchorage, this one featuring some of the best snorkeling in the region. The anchorage we chose was a few hundred yards from a beautiful, small island with golden sand and a few palm trees. The water around the island was a spectrum of aqua colors: clear, then turquoise blue, then emerald, then deep blue. It was spectacular. On the island was a colony of tiny hermit crabs running around looking for shells to make a new home. Offshore was a small coral reef home to hundreds of colorful tropical fish. Sea turtles swam in and out of the little bay. We were swimming about for a few hours when a park ranger appeared. In Spanish they asked us to come to ranger station a few miles away. There we learned the daily fee for our boat was $180, so we pulled the anchor and moved to Naranjo Bay, about 50 miles southwest of Isla Coiba. We left about 3:30 PM for a seven hour cruise. That evening, a moon rose and cast the largest silver illumination of the water we have ever seen. It was so brilliant we couldn’t see our spot light when I turned it on. Late that evening, Rebecca and I were sitting on the fly bridge taking it all in and thinking: each day is filled with wonders. Who could ask for more? There isn’t more. How lucky are we?
April 19: We spent the day resting for our overnight passage to Isla Bona and Otoque, which lies about 20 miles from the canal (150 mile run from our anchorage). We decided to make the trip at night because of the ferocious winds that can blow off Punta Mala. I guess the name says it all. We departed our anchorage at 1630. Odyssey was light on fuel as I wanted to fuel up in Panama, since their fuel prices are about $.50/gal less than Costa Rica’s. The first part of our passage was terrific. The moon rose as a red/orange ball out of the ocean. It was breathtaking. My watch was from 2000 to 0100. About 2200 our speed dropped by 3 knots to around 4 knots, a speed I normally associate with walking. We had expected to run into the coastal current that flows southwest along the coast, and here it was. I moved our course about 7 miles toward the shore in the hope of getting out of it or better yet, finding an eddy running northeast. When Buddy relieved me at 0100 we were calm seas and making 6 + knots. After about two hours, the wind built as we rounded Punta Mala and Odyssey pitched in the choppy sea to the point of nearly throwing Rebecca and me out of bed. This ordeal lasted for the next 8 hours. Not much sleep to be had on this passage. The rough seas may have been due to a northeast wing confronting an incoming tide in the Gulf of Panama. By 1100 things had calmed down and the last several hours of the cruise were relatively pleasant.
April 20: We made our way to Isla Otoque, about 20 miles southwest of the canal’s entrance. We anchored in about 50 feet of water off a shore having both a sand beach and rocky out cropping. The water was full of sea life, including sharks, so we decided against swimming. Surprisingly, the island was covered by a dry forest, just like northern Costa Rica rather than the dense jungle that we had seen on other islands. We needed a rest, so we took the rest of the day to read and watch another episode of Dexter after cleaning the main engine’s sea strainers and replacing the impeller on the port engine. We have found that Odyssey takes an hour or two of maintenance each day.
April 21: It was a beautiful day and we were excited to get underway and make Flamenco Marina at the Panama Canal. Rebecca had made some California Sunshine Bread for breakfast, so the day was off to a promising start. The trip into the Balboa and Flamenco Marina took about 3 1/2 hours. The sight of 100 or more ships at anchor was amazing. None of us had ever seen anything like it. Panama City was also a sight to see from the sea: it looks something like Manhattan, with brand new skyscrapers of architectural interest dominating the horizon. April 21 was a Thursday, and as it turns out, the beginning of a four day national holiday on Easter weekend. Everything shut down, so we were not able to get provisioned or buy boat supplies until Monday.
We pulled into Flamenco Marina and went immediately to the fuel dock. We took on 1920 gallons at $3.92/gal. Not bad, considering it was $5/gal in Costa Rica. After fueling, we moved to our dock, about ¼ mile out on one of the finger docks and waited for the parade of government officials to come aboard. First came agriculture (plant, Pets, ports of call, etc.) and a $46 fee; then came health department and more questions, many of them the same as the agricultural inspector asked and more examination of papers– $100 for the fumigation fee. Here they spray the exterior scuppers and drains with insecticide to control malaria and yellow fever. Then came the port captain with the same questions, fees, and more examination of the same papers. Lastly came our agent who took our passports for immigration and customs. We were told by our agent that we were facing a 14-16 day wait for transit, so perhaps we would want to go back out to the islands and putts around.
April 22: The good news today was that a Canal Agent showed up first thing to measure the boat, but before doing so he too filled out the same papers as the others had done. Odyssey could not be put on a transit schedule until its length was measured and registered with the authorities. Fuel on board as well as estimated consumption while in the canal, engine type and size, safety equipment, and electronics are also reviewed and inspected by the authorities.
Our agent told us boats measuring 65 feet or more are permitted to transit within a few days. The Canal Agent, Jesus (it was Easter weekend and his name must have been a good omen), handed me the end of the tape and positioned me on the dock near the anchor. When he turned and walked down the dock I moved a foot or so ahead of the anchor to do all that I could to stretch the thing to 65 feet. He went to the other end and measured Odyssey at 63.45 feet. I guess I didn’t stretch it enough. Our papers say she is 58.2 feet. He asked for a second measurement, so I moved about a foot more in front of the anchor and, yes, he measured 65.4 feet. I could hardly keep from laughing. But Jesus was unsatisfied with the variance, so he measured the yacht by taking sequential inside dimensions and came up with 63.45 feet a second time. Imagine my surprise, but still 1 ½ feet short of our goal. He said he couldn’t fudge things and we all agreed this was God’s will. He departed with handshakes all-around, and later that afternoon we checked with our agent Tina, and she said we had been scheduled for Thursday, just four days away. Now we had to hurry and see Panama!
That afternoon we arranged for a tour of the Canal Zone. It clearly looks like a military style installation, but it still is beautiful although abandoned in many places. Some of the former administration buildings are being used by the government; others have been turned into schools and colleges. We saw the canal admin building with the monument to General Goethals who was the chief engineer for many years and is credited with completing the canal, and the French Cemetery. We finished our tour that day at the zoo. Pictures are on the www.tischtravels.com.
April 23: There is no access to the internet in the harbor except at a few restaurants located around the perimeter. Bennigan’s is the closest to us, dirty though it is. I started at 0830 to update the website for the Costa Rica passage and attend to internet business. I finished about 1930, as it takes a long time to upload pictures. After about 8 hours there, I doubt I will ever be able to look an ice tea in the face again.
April 24: On Easter Sunday we all went to the Mirafloras Locks for an afternoon buffet at the restaurant and to watch the giant ocean freighters pass through. The food was great and watching the process was very interesting. If you are ever at the Canal, you should certainly visit this spot. I have posted pictures on www.tischtravels.com.
April 25: Today we toured Panama City. We began with the old French Quarter. It looked very much like the French Quarter of New Orleans. Panama City is in serious decline, but the U.N. has declared it a World Heritage site and there is evidence of a nascent renaissance. In this general area is the city square bounded by the American Hotel (now being rebuilt) made famous during the period of canal building, City Hall, and the Main Cathedral. Within an easy walk is the Presidential Residence (painted white for purity and honesty like our presidential residence), The Bolivar Palace is now used as the foreign affairs office, and the National Theater. A few blocks away is the imposing New City District with its hundreds of sky-scraper condo and hotel buildings. The buildings are densely packed, virtually touching each other. They are serviced by two lane surface streets. I have no idea how the hundreds of condos per mile can possibly be serviced by this infrastructure. Cabs are a problem: we have been told not to take one as the drivers are untrustworthy. Also, I have no idea why anyone would buy a condo here: there are no beaches close at hand, the heat is stifling, it rains much of the year, crime and the potential for disease are serious concerns, poverty is apparent, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do. Despite all of these potential hindrances, there has apparently been no downturn in real estate construction nor have they experienced a banking crisis like the rest of the world. Knowledgeable local people that I have talked to tell me it is most likely drug money being laundered.
We moved along to San Francisco, a predominately residential district. Here we saw more high rise condos situated next to fancy high priced homes, including the abandoned home of General Manual Noriega, the former President of Panama ousted by George H.W. Bush in 1989. All-in-all it is a very impressive city in many ways, but it doesn’t seem to have the material infrastructure or people skills to justify such a vast expansion of developed real estate. Six years of school is compulsory, the lowest among the countries we visited. Tuition for extra schooling is at least $100 per month, which is a lot for most Panamanians. There is a shortage of skilled-trades. At night the skyline is dark. Few of the tall buildings have many lights. No one appears to be home except in the barrios and lower class apartments. There may be wealthy people from Venezuela and other countries that are moving their wealth here. Panama enjoys military protection under the U.S. umbrella, and they use the dollar as their currency.
April 26: We bid good-bye to Kathleen and Buddy Dore, who have been such good company and friends on our long passage. They flew back to Washington State, and will start the charter season in Alaska in June. We prepared for Reid to arrive for a one week visit and to help us handle lines during our transit of the canal.
April 27: Our agent delivered our 150 foot lines to be used to keep Odyssey centered in the locks, and a dozen used tires wrapped in tape to act as fenders. We were required to have four line handlers (Rebecca, Anna, Reid, and Roberto, a captain and professional line handler from Panama) and a captain (me) to work with the advisor who would direct us on the transit.
Anna joined us that evening. She is hitchhiking her way around the world on boats. We met her in Costa Rica although we met her friend Ingrid on the dock in Hutalco, MX. I was standing in the cockpit looking at the boats in the harbor when I saw very pretty young women emerge from the sailboat behind us. She was blond, wearing a bikini, and very attractive. She walked to the end of the dock nearest our boat and started to take a shower and shave her legs. Sailboats often have minimal facilities. All the men on the dock were watching.
Anna was travelling on the same boat at that time. She is Spanish and Swedish, was born in Majorca and grew up in the Canary Islands, speaks several languages, and will travel with us from Panama to Florida. She is an experienced sailor, so she can stand watch, cook, clean and in general help out.
April 28: We were scheduled to transit the canal, but things were delayed until Saturday AM. This gave Reid a chance to rest and do some business on the Internet; is what I spent most of the day doing in addition to visiting with Captain George aboard Sweet Hope to get his ideas about our build out of N6823.
April 29: Today we decided to take Reid out for a little fun on the water. We cast off for Tabago, a small weekend vacation resort on an island about 7 miles out in the harbor. We put our lines out and tried to catch something, but to no avail. We tied to a tug buoy in the little harbor at 1300 and lowered the dingy for a trip ashore. The little town was very colorful, with pastel colored homes and boutique hotels rising from the beach up the hillside. We spotted a very attractive white Spanish style building appointed with bougainvillea. We had lunch there on a terrace overlooking the bay. It was lovely.
That afternoon we learned that we were scheduled to transit the following morning beginning at 0700.
April 30: At 0600 Roberto came aboard to help us with our lines and fenders during the crossing. We are required to have a crew of 5, 4 line handlers and 1 captain. We rented 12 fenders from the agent, which consisted of old tires wrapped in garbage bags, and 4-150 foot heavy lines that are required by the transit authority. Roberto got everything in order over the next hour. I called Flamenco Control on Ch. 12 and told them that we were ready to get underway. They told me to report to buoy 6 at 0745, and standby. At 0815 the transit advisor (Astro) came aboard and we immediately got underway. We soon passed by the Balboa terminal, a place where container vessels too large for the canal off load containers, which are then sent by rail to Colon on the Atlantic side, and reloaded on identical container ships to complete delivery of the cargo. Then we passed under the American Bridge and the entry to the locks.
We proceeded up the canal entry to the first Mirafloras Lock while Asto talked constantly on the radio to the other advisors and lock management to lay out a strategy for our passage through the first three locks. The strategy was no sooner articulated then it changed. Finally it was decided that we would enter the lock behind Atlas III, a medium size training and tour vessel and tied up on her port side. Pictures of this are posted on www.tischtravels.com. Everything went as planned. The huge ship in front of use rose to the level of the second lock; it moved forward into the second lock, gates closed, water in the first lock was pumped out, and then the lower doors opened. All of this took about 30 minutes as we danced around in the current waiting to enter the lower lock. Atlas III moved forward, pushed side to side by the current. We followed a few minutes later, bearing in mind Atlas’s struggle. The locks are narrow with walls about 30 feet high. We approached Atlas very slowly and tied off to her after placing fenders everywhere possible. Other boats followed us into the locks and either centered or wall tied depending on the type of boat. The gates closed and the water started to rise. It was very brown and billowed up from the bottom in great clouds. About ten minutes later were up to the level of the next lock. The doors swung open, we untied, dropped back to allow Atlas to move forward, and then repeated the process in the next two locks. During our lock ups, Reid manned the forward lines and did a sterling job. Roberto manned the stern, and Anna and Rebecca acted as emergency fender placers.
We crossed Lake Mirafloras to the Pedro Miguel Lock, the last before we reached the level of Chagres River and Lake Gatun. The little Mirafloras Lake is about a mile long and our entry into the lock and tying up to Atlas was the same as in the other two locks. Our problem started as we began to exit the canal. Astro told me to bring up engine power and move through the current. As I did, the current grabbed the bow of Odyssey and swung her toward the starboard lock gate. It looked as though we were going to hit it, then I swung the wheel, and put the starboard engine full ahead and the port engine full astern. Odyssey pulled out of its turn to starboard and moved quickly to center, then passed center and now headed to the port gate. The boat tipped from one side to the other and I was turning the wheel frantically. I reversed the engines, looked back to see if I was going to hit Atlas, which was behind us. At that moment I envisioned hitting the starboard gate, ricocheting off it to the port gate and then backing into Atlas. A grand slam! But as things worked out, I got control of Odyssey and moved out of the lock without a scratch, although my heart rate was about 300 bpm.
After exiting the Pedro Miguel Lock, we proceeded to Lake Gatun via the Gaillard or Culebra Cut. This is the area of construction of the canal that was the most challenging as 7.4 nm of mountain top had to be excavated and moved to another location. There is a wonderful book on the history of the canal, Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough.
Our trip to the Gatun Locks is about 25 miles from the Pedro Miguel Lock. As we cruised through the cut we could appreciate the herculean task of digging the canal. It is a marvel of engineering and construction. As we passed the mouth of the Chagres River, we recalled the difficulties of managing the huge water flows during the rainy season that baffled the French and was partially the reason for their failure to complete the canal. Part of the effectiveness of the American approach was to use the river to create a fresh water lake, Lake Gatun, which acts as a high altitude water bridge across the isthmus. The transit through the cut was interesting: it is narrow and a little intimidating as huge ships pass within a few feet of us. The water is brown, the walls of the cut are scarred from excavation, and there isn’t much of interest to see other than the large ships. Farther along, we passed into Lake Gatun, which was bisected by the wide canal marked by buoys. The lake is bounded by low hills covered in jungle vegetation.
After about an hour cruising along the cut, our advisor told us that we had to make the next lock by 1445, or we would be forced to anchor overnight in Lake Gatun. We did the math and it didn’t look like we could make it, but Astro said he knew a short cut, which along with an increase in speed might get us there within a time frame that would permit a continuation of our transit. We cranked up our speed to 9.5kts. It was the first time I had heard our turbos whining for such a long period of time. We never run the engines this hard as it is very inefficient from a fuel perspective. We kept this up for about 90 minutes while Astro talked with canal management. We got to the lock at 1530. Astro was told that we would transit in a few minutes. We approached the locks and then got the news that we were cancelled and would have to anchor in the lake that night because a ship’s captain wouldn’t wait as directed and proceeded to enter the lock anyway. In Gatun, we are supposed to enter the lock before a large ship, but that ship’s captain lack of patients cost us a 24 hour delay.
That night we tied to a buoy, a type I hadn’t seen before. It was a large red disk about 6 feet in diameter with a ship size cleat in the center. As I found out that evening, it is intended to accommodate two boats tied in parallel and then allow several others to raft from the original two. That happened to us about 2200 when about 8 sail boats showed up and wanted to raft off. I wasn’t expecting that, so I was a little distraught about the risk of damage to Odyssey. After a few minutes everyone was tied up and I began to look around. On the little sailboats people scurried around with flashlights and miner’s head lights, some people were taking their evening bath (many sailboats do not have comfortable showers) in the lake without regard for the potential for crocodiles. Meanwhile we are watching Dexter in the lap of luxury.
May 1: It rained hard last night, washing some of the dirt from the Gatun lock expansion project off our decks. They’re building a new set of locks in the Canal Zone to accommodate the largest ships in the world. At the present time they accommodate about thirty-five to forty ships a day. In the future, instead of 3 locks up and 3 locks down, the largest ships will have just 1 lock up and one down. Meanwhile we are waiting for our advisor and the opportunity to complete our transit.
At noon Franklin showed up and we began the Gatun down lockage at about 1 PM. The process was the same, except that a huge bulk carrier followed us into the locks and we tied to its forward tug in all three locks. Controlling Odyssey was a little difficult and stressful, as its deep draft was moved around a good deal by the water flow in the locks and the prop wash of the tug; but we had a great crew handling the lines and the fenders, and having an experienced, professional line handler to coordinate things made all the difference. The result: not a nick or a scratch.
We finished the locks at about 1530 and proceeded to Shelter Bay Marina in Lemon Bay, across from Colon. While underway, a pilot boat came by and picked up Franklin. We tied up in the marina about 1640 and prepared for our next leg, a passage to the San Blas Islands.
May 2: We left Shelter Bay Marina at 0600 and proceed out to the Caribbean and turned East up the coast to the San Blas Island, about 80 miles away. We experienced 20 knot winds on our nose, making for a bumpy ride. Although the water was a beautiful azure blue, all of us were a little tired out after the stress of the canal transit and the sea conditions didn’t help much. Rebecca and Anna crashed, but Reid and I carried on. It took us about 9 hours to get there, and when we did, we were not disappointed. The trade winds were blowing about 15 knots by that time, and we anchored at Isla Provenier. This tiny island has a runway and daily air service to Panama City. Reid was scheduled to leave at 0635 the next morning. These islands are very primitive and inhabited by the Kuna Indians. That afternoon they came out to Odyssey in dugout canoes, dressed in their native garb and ready to sell their famous handcrafts. Kuna are very attractive and welcoming people. After buying a few carefully selected items, we went for a swim off the swim platform. The water was about 85 degrees; it was splendid. That evening some of the crew enjoyed a perfectly prepared filet mignon while others had a delicious garden burger; following dinner, a movie.
May 3: The next day we were up early and took Reid to the island airport for his morning flight. After bidding him a truly fond farewell, we headed out to Cays Coco Banderas, about 3 hours west of here. When we arrived, I wasn’t sure we were there; it was just a reef with a few sand bars on which coconut trees sprout. I was a little intimidated by the idea of anchoring in what looked like the open ocean, save for a coral reef and sand bars, both anathema to a boat. So I found another island, Green Island, not too far away and worked our way through the underwater obstacles and found a perfect anchorage. That afternoon we swam in 85 degree water on bleached white coral sand and walked the coconut palm beaches. It was a vision out of a dream.
May 4: We were all tired and slept in until about 0730. Rebecca made vegan pancakes, rated a 10 by most people. After breakfast we put the storm plates on the large salon windows. The starboard side is no trouble, but the port side is a lot of work given we are at anchor and we had to do it by standing on the tender. As we were right in the middle of this project, the first of three fishermen pulled up in his canoes and offered us lobster. In all we bought 16 lobster and 2 very large crabs.
We pulled anchor around 1330 and headed for Lemon Cay to meet up with a sailboat that Anna had been on. She wanted to celebrate the captain’s birthday. Underway we cleaned the crab and lobster and arrived at the cay about 1600. The first attempted anchorage was a fabulously beautiful place tucked in behind an island not much bigger than Odyssey. It had two grass huts on it and a few Kuna out fishing in their dugout canoes. A reef wrapped around the west side of the island, the water was about 70 feet deep until we reached a ledge, then it quickly climbed to about 10 feet or less. When the sun is out you can see the depth gradations easily and they are beautiful. After a few minutes we decided to move behind another island a mile or so away where a lot of sailboats were anchored. Getting into that anchorage was tricky and the sun was starting to set so seeing reefs and rocky patches was getting difficult. I was very nervous, but we passed through the tiny channel in the reef and eventually anchored in 30 feet with a sand bottom. After a few minutes to be sure Odyssey was anchored securely, we got in the tender and explored the islands. On one of them we saw about 10 other tenders pulled up on the beach, and then we saw the reason for all the sailboats. On the beach behind the palm trees was a tiny bar with a flat screen TV and sat dish. It was 1700, and all the boaters were in for an afternoon cocktail. We stopped in for a beer and talked with a couple of people, and returned to Odyssey for a dinner of fresh lobster and Chardonnay!
May 5 -8: We pulled the anchor around 1230 and headed for Holandes Cay, about 2 hours east. Like the other islands it is a series of sand bars with coconut trees surrounded by turquois blue waters and beautiful reefs. Holandes has a “hot tub”, in fact several hot tubs, which are sand bars about 2-10 feet deep and very warm. The two we investigated with our snorkel gear have coral reefs around them, so we spent an hour or so in the “Japanese Tea Garden” as one boater called it–lots of lovely and colorful tropical fish with the ocean about 85 degrees. When we got back to the boat, I called Bob Jones our meteorologist who advised us to stay a day or two more in order to get satisfactory sea conditions for our crossing of the Caribbean.
The temperature is hot here, and what’s even more interesting is the humidity: when you walk outside it is really like a steam bath. Wow! It just smacks you in the face. The morning isn’t bad, and the breeze of the trade winds is great, but the afternoon is best used for a nap or snorkeling a reef, which is how we spent the last few days.
One afternoon we stopped by a few other boats anchored in the vicinity. One couple from Washington State had been here for two years. That gives new meaning to getting away from it all. I have no idea what they do with their time. The admiral seems to sunbake in the same position each afternoon for an hour or two in her bikini. Other than snorkeling and trying to stay comfortable, there really isn’t anything to do except to enjoy the beauty of the islands.
May 8-12: Sunday we decided to leave the San Blas Islands. We pulled the pick at 1330 and headed out into 10 foot ground waves, which lasted about ten miles or an hour and a half. That was miserable. We were advised that we would have a difficult run up to the 15 degree longitude. That was about 240 miles from the San Blas. Once past the ten footers, the waves subsided to 6-8 footers, then gradually over the next day down to 4-6, and after 15 degrees things became acceptable. Life on a boat in rough seas is a test of patience and endurance. Sleeping can be a real problem as many people cannot sleep while being bounced around. Food preparation is also a challenge. All of us were a little sea sick as we started off, but after medication we were all tolerating the conditions. Rebecca doesn’t sleep well in rough weather, but I tend to fall asleep as the boat’s motion acts like a rocking chair.
On a long, unpleasant voyage the ocean starts to look like a relentless, interminable, desolation…not the azure plane of wonder that it can be on a beautiful day. Anyway, after 3 days we saw the coast of Jamaica on Wednesday morning. It was a beautiful calm day. We were very excited knowing we were close. We washed the boat, prematurely as it turned out. As we made the south western point, the winds began to blow. Soon we were in 30 MPH winds, the waves built to 6-8 footers again, and the anchor pulpit was buried in the waves as we rolled and heaved into the oncoming brine. It was miserable and we couldn’t wait to reach Montego Bay. We were patient, but tired. At 1800 we dropped anchor in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Not a minute too soon!