domingo, 28 de junio de 2009

Panama City Interlude

For cruisers Panama City marks a return to the conveniences of modern civilization and big city life. Supermarkets are abundant and filled with American products. Shopping malls are air conditioned, internet cafes are cheap and prevalent, movie theaters play Hollywood movies in English (with Spanish subtitles), a bank occupies every street corner. In short, whatever you’ve been missing and craving in your months cruising through the less-developed cities and countries of Central America you will find in Panama City. This extends to boat parts as well, making the former Canal Zone a prime place for cruisers to undertake various boat projects which have been put off consistently over the weeks and months of cruising. Many boaters find themselves lulled into the rut of routine, capping off days of maintenance and repair work with drinks in a bar ashore and meals at their favorite restaurants nearby, repeating the process day after day and soon finding themselves in the area far longer than they had intended. I planned to sail to a boatyard in Ecuador from here, so for me boatwork would be confined to a minimum amount of maintenance in preparation for the next sail. This left ample time for sightseeing and tourism.
The Canal Zone serves as a meeting place for boaters worldwide headed in every direction imaginable, and forms a bitchin microcosm of the worldwide cruising community. When we arrived at the Balboa Yacht Club I could already make out the familiar forms of two boats I had traveled south with from El Salvador, and many more were on their way. Added to these were boats newly arrived from the Atlantic, bound for ports both north and south. The flags of some ten different countries could be seen waving over the transom of the cruising fleet, and in the restaurants and bars ashore the hum of conversation was invariably filled with foreign accents and languages.
Neither of my cousins had been to Panama before, and with John set to fly out in a week we were determined to pack as much tourism as possible into his remaining days. But first there came the matter of officially checking into Panama. At first glance it looked as though this would be a breeze. Upon first taking the launch ashore I asked the launch driver how I went about checking in and he walked away, returning moments later with a big, overweight black lady who introduced herself as Itya from the immigration department. She told me the papers I’d need so I retrieved them from the boat and returned ashore. The launch driver first directed me to the Yacht Club’s office to check in with them, and by the time I returned to the pier Itya was nowhere to be seen. I asked a security guard where she was and was informed she’d gone home for the day. I was told she’d return in the morning, but quickly learned she keeps no regular office hours (despite what others may tell you), and is never on time for any set meeting.
Despite the frustration of not being able to check in to the country on our first day in port I passed an enjoyable evening on the Amador Causeway. The Causeway was built during the construction of the Canal using dredged materials, and forms a long isthmus leading out to Isla Flamenco, once home to a heavy American fortification to protect the Canal, and now home to numerous shops and restaurants. John and I walked the length of the causeway watching the endless stream of big ships enter and leave the canal. The lights of the city danced off the flat waters of the bay to our left and the Bridge of the Americas was illuminated behind us to our right. Ryan stopped part way out the causeway at a payphone and wasn’t to be found the rest of the night. John and I enjoyed the cool night air and fresh breeze, and stopped for dinner at Mi Ranchita, the first restaurant we came to situated under a palapa part way out the causeway. The food was tasty and the atmosphere great. A local band played Latin music and the restaurant was full of locals enjoying their meals. On the return to Avventura I dreaded the day that I knew lay in store for me on the morrow—a day of jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
My hoop jumping started at eight o’clock when I headed ashore to meet Itya. Office hours started at eight; she did not. I waited till 10:30, reading a book, before returning to Avventura, retrieving my computer, and heading ashore again with my two cousins. At the base of the pier we split ways. John was off to visit the tourist sights of Panama Viejo, Ryan set out to find a phone to call home, and I sat at the yacht club’s restaurant waiting for Itya. It was two o’clock in the afternoon before she finally arrived, and fifteen minutes later our passports were stamped and she directed me to the Port Captain’s office.
A short taxi ride brought me into the container ship terminal and inside a small office building I sat waiting for the Port Captain. When I showed an official my various papers and explained where I’d come from I was given a strange look and asked where a certain for was. I said they were looking at everything I had, and the Port Captain asked severely: “Who searched your boat?”
“Nobody. When I finished with immigration the lady told me to come here”
“Well we can’t search your boat here. Your boat must be searched. Can you move it to the container terminal?”
“Is there any other way?”
A pregnant pause. I dreaded the move and entering a large shipping terminal bustling with activity. Then the reply, “You wait for an inspector.”
Apparently the inspector was out on an inspection, because it was over a half hour before he arrived. A short visit with the Port Captain and Roberto, the inspector, told me to follow him back out the office. We loaded into his car and zipped through town back to the Balboa Yacht Club. It soon became quite apparent the inspector was nearing the end of his work day and was in a hurry to finish his day’s work. Standing on the boardwalk overlooking the moorings of the Balboa Yacht Club, he asked me which boat was mine. Pointing, I declared: “The black one.”
He saw it, nodded his head, and with that his search was complete. He turned and headed for the club’s restaurant, and I took a seat beside him at a small table. An awkward silence reigned as I wondered what the inspector’s motives were. He was first to speak: “If anybody asks I searched your boat.”
“Of course.”
With that Roberto began filling out a form and asking me a few simple questions at random. “Do you have any guns on board?”
More form writing, referring from time to time to my folder of documents. “Any drugs on board?”
His pen came to the bottom of the form, scratched out a signature, and he said it was time to return to the Port Captain’s office. Roberto offered me a ride in his car and I accepted, a bad feeling brewing inside me that this was a corrupt official and trouble lay in the offing. My fears turned out to be unfounded. Upon arriving at the Port Captain’s there was no request for money made on the part of the inspector. We hurried inside where Roberto walked me through the process. In one door where a secretary filled out my Panamanian cruising permit, then down the hall where I paid $29 for all the paperwork. By 3:30 P.M. Avventura was officially checked into Panama. I shook Roberto’s hand and thanked him for his assistance; a knowing smile crept across his face.
From the Port Captain’s office I walked through the quiet town of Balboa, past the familiar Mas x Menos Supermarket, the house of the local Mormon missionaries, the _________ monument, and the former YMCA building. Then it was on down the Amador Causeway, under the on-ramp to the Bridge of the Americas, and past the TGI Fridays restaurant to the Yacht Club. After John cooked up a spaghetti dinner aboard Avventura the three man crew of Avventura returned ashore and split ways once more. Ryan entered the TGI Fridays to watch a college football game while John and I caught a cab and found our way to a couple bars in the city for a taste of the “nightlife.”

Bureaucratic bullshit complete, Friday became a day of tourism in the Canal Zone. From the town of Balboa John, Ryan and I caught a bus to the Cinco de Mayo district where we changed busses and boarded one for Gamboa. A half hour later we left the bus at the entrance road to the Miraflores Locks. From the bus stop it was a short walk up past the hyro-electric plant and the Miraflores dam till we arrived at the newly-constructed visitors center at the locks themselves. The five-story building charges $8 for admittance, and I felt like an old man remembering the good-old-days when you could visit the locks for free.
For eight dollars we had access to the museum, a disappointing video on the Panama Canal (not as informative or well-constructed as the one I’d seen on my previous visit three years earlier), and both the upper and lower viewing areas of the locks. By the time we found our way through the museum and stepped out onto the exposed upper viewing balcony a squall had moved in and a gentle rain began to fall. Within minutes of our first glimpse of a cluster of small boats up-locking the first rumblings of thunder were heard and the rain became a steady downpour. Ryan sought shelter in the comforts of the museum, but John and I stayed behind—the only people left on the observation deck, thrilling in the cold rain and wild conditions right up until a bolt of lightning struck too close for comfort. The clap of thunder seemed to reverberate through the building, chasing John and I back inside and down to the covered viewing area below.
After the small cluster of boats made their way across the Miraflores Lake a container ship entered the first lock and began its ascent. Watching the engineering marvel in action is a breathtaking sight, and one cannot help but stand in awe at the brilliant minds that dreamed the Canal into existence and the hordes of workers who did the actual digging, many giving their lives in the early stages to the ravages of mosquito-born disease. The names of a few key figures in the Canal’s history ran through my mind: Ferdinand de Lesseps (builder of the Suez Canal and the leader of the failed French attempt at Panama; but which got the ball rolling towards an trans-Isthmian canal), Dr. William Gorgas (the man who rid the Canal Zone of the yellow fever-carrying Stegomyia fasciata mosquito, and thus rid the region of a brutal and deadly epidemic; without Gorgas’s spectacular work it is doubtful the Canal would have successfully been built, and is certain many tens of thousands of more workers would have lost their lives in the process), and finally George W. Goethals (the man who oversaw the completion and opening of the canal and whose indomitable spirit and capacity for hard work got the job done). These men were true heroes. Everyone was essential to the enterprise of building the Canal, and yet few are known to the public today.
Once the container ship exited the second lock and entered the Miraflores Lake I returned to the visitors center and perused the various displays. I was stunned to learn the average cost of a transit was now $60,000, and that container ships were charged $49 per container! By my rough calculations the container relatively small ship we had just watched up-lock was carrying some 1500 containers. That would mean a fee of some $73,500 for their half day transit. While watching a second video presentation at the visitors center I learned that the Panama Canal is expected to be operating at full capacity within five years. Its locks are already too small to accommodate the world’s largest ships (after all it was only designed to fit the largest ships at the time of its creation some hundred years ago), so the Panamanian government was seeking to expand the canal by building a third, and much larger, set of locks. The multi-billon dollar proposal was to be voted on by the Panamanians on Sunday, October 22. As for my part I am a firm believer that private corporations could do a far better job than a government-financed endeavor, and believe that if the Panamanians fail in their endeavor or continue to let the current canal decay through poor maintenance, that a conglomerate of shipping companies will undertake the project of building a new canal elsewhere in Central America. In the end, taking into account the massive fees they would no longer be paying for transit, it would likely save them a great deal of money and hassle in no time.
After spending a long while at the visitors center we caught a bus back to the Cinco de Mayo district where Ryan took another bus back to Balboa while John and I set off on foot through the bustling shopping district. Street vendors line the roads hawking everything from fruit and vegetables to cell phone accessories and clothing. Hordes of Panamanians wander the streets, and everything is dirt cheap. At one point when the crowd closed in around us I felt a tug at my backpack. When I turned around a teenage boy was bolting away from me and I saw my backpack was partially unzipped. Luckily I was made aware of his presence before he could take anything, and for the remainder of my time in Panama I walked around with my backpack in front of me, always on guard.
Wandering through the Cinco de Mayo district, we found our way down to a “walking tour” of the Casco Viejo district described in John’s Lonely Planet guidebook. After admiring the beauty and architecture of a couple pre-Canal churches we decided to head for the Plaza Frances, the memorial to the French attempt at building a canal. Apparently we took a right turn not suggested by the guidebook, for as soon as we stepped off the main street and onto one filled with rundown apartment buildings an old man and his wife stopped us before we’d passed the first building. The man warned us that we needed to turn around, we were entering a bad area that no tourists should enter. He said if we continued down the street we would most certainly not return with our cameras and backpacks. He advised us to turn around, find a taxi, and get out of the area altogether; but we said we wanted to visit the Plaza Frances. With that he turned us around, directed us further down the main road, and explained a safer route. While thanking the man for his kindness, I cursed the evil side of Panama. Within an hour I had nearly been robbed and had been warned about being robbed or worse by an elderly man with no reason to lie. Panama City is one of haves and have nots; and the have nots were all I could seem ton find.
The old gentleman’s directions took us down through Independence Plaza to the waterfront where we turned in the direction of the canal and passed along a neat little boardwalk before arriving at the big gouge in the land which served as the lone reminder on the Pacific side of the French canal attempt. Beside the inlet in the Gulf of Panama a set of stairs led down into the Plaza Frances where a semi-circle of statues stood depicting the major men of importance during the French attempt, with Ferdinand de Lesseps in the center (“Born in Versailles, France, on November 19, 1805; French Consul in Egypt in 1833; French Ambassador in Spain in 1848; Creator of the Suez Canal 1855–1869; Inciter of the Panama Canal; President Director of the Company Universal of the Interocean Canal of Panama in 1861; Member of the French Academny; Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor; Died in La Chesnaye, France, on December 7, 1894”). At his sides stood the busts of Leon Boyer (“Author of the Garabit Viaduct; Director of the Work of the French Canal; Died in Panama in 1886”), Pedro J. Sosa (“Civil Engineer; Promoter of the interocean canal; 1851–1898”), Lucien Bonaparte Wise (“Deputy of the Navy; Promoter of the interocean canal; 1844–1909”), and Armand Reclus (“Deputy of the Navy; Promoter of the interocean canal; 1843–1927”). Also in the Plaza, a monument tucked into the side of the wall backing the French statues was dedicated to Carlos J. Finlay, discoverer of the means of transmission of Yellow Fever in 1881. The plaque beneath his likeness proclaimed in Spanish, “No single mark in the scientific history of the world has had more special significance to Panama [than his discovery]. Without this discovery which made possible the sanitization of the tropical zones, the great work of the Panama Canal could not have been done without enormous sacrifice of life.” A fitting tribute to a man of great importance to the region, whose discovery Dr. Gorgas applied to the Canal Zone in sanitizing the area.
Fleeing the French Plaza, we found our way down the coast to the waterfront home of the Panamanian president (Panama’s version of the White House). Armed guards kept us from entering the city block which contained the house, so after snapping off a picture we followed the guidebook’s map back to the Cinco de Mayo district and boarded a bus to Calle 50. Disembarking the crowded bus, we found our way to a small hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, La Mexicanita. The name alone was enticement enough to have a meal there, and the food was quite good and certainly cheap. Returning by cab to the Balboa Yacht Club, we spent the evening at the Club’s restaurant listening to a band play and drinking beers. Unwinding from a long day of tourism, we watched the Panamanians let loose on the dance floor. Meanwhile the endless stream of freighters entered and left the Canal. The Bridge of the Americas was colorfully lit up, serving as a sort of gateway to the Atlantic from where I sat.
On the morning of September 30 it came time to visit the Gatun locks and the Caribbean coast of Panama. John and I (Ryan opted to stay behind) boarded a nice, air conditioned bus at the Albrook bus terminal and arrived in the dregs of Colon an hour later. An elderly gentleman guided us to a bus bound for “Costa Abajo,” and we took the hot, dirty former school bus on a bumpy twenty minute ride disembarking just before the bus passed across the bridge at the Gatun Locks. As we headed towards the visitors center a Panamax container ship was just entering the final eastern Gatun lock while a Panamax oil tanker was entering the first eastern lock and a second Panamax container ship was approaching the first western set of locks furthest from the visitors center.
I’d never visited the Gatun locks visitors center before and was pleasantly surprised. There was no big museum detailing the history of the canal, no diagram of the canal route, and no hordes of tourists beholding the action. There were just different viewing areas, all build right atop the lock walls so that you were looking straight out at the top of the lock chambers. At one point I was so close to the action that I reached out and touched one of the locomotives used to center big ships in the locks as it pulled the oil tanker from the first to the second lock on its way down to the Atlantic. We lingered at the Gatun locks till the oil tanker near us and container ship on the far side had taken off into the Atlantic, and continued to sit on a metal bench speechless. Being so close to the action, and witnessing such massive vessels make their transits, one couldn’t help but stand breathless at the awesome technology being put on display before his very eyes. If ever you doubt the engineering marvel that the Panama Canal is, just pay a visit to the Gatun locks and all will be made perfectly clear to you once more.
From the Gatun locks we caught a bus back to the Colon bus terminal, transferred to a second bus, and made our way towards the old pirate town of Portobello. The bus headed inland for the first half hour, and just as I began to fear we had boarded the wrong one the shimmering blue waters of the Caribbean Sea came into view and we emerged on the shoreline in the coastal settlement of Maria Chiquita. The remainder of the trip passed by the scantily settled coastline. Narrow beaches and periods of mangroves lined the road, with always snatches of blue in the offing. The Caribbean was flat, and not a wave washed her shores. There was no wind to speak of but a slight bump on the waters offshore showed the recent departure of the trades.
Our bus rumbled into Colon at 5:15 P.M., and with the last bus for Colon leaving in just forty-five minutes we struck off to cram as much of the sights as we could into our short visit. We took a brief tour of the old Customs House and snapped photos of the nearby forts of San Jeronimo and the more intact Santiago. Below Fuerte Santiago a short dock extended into the bay where two dozen sailboats lay at anchor. A group of brown-skinned local kids were laughing and horsing around on the dock, pushing each other in and diving of their own free will. Seizing the opportunity to say we’d swum in another ocean, John and I ran down the dock, parted the horde of giggling locals, and leapt into the bay of Portobello. The heat of the day was washed away and I floated on my back, looking up at the locals whose play had stopped and who were staring at us. Moments later they were all leaping into the water, climbing out and repeating the process. Emerging from the water, I did a flip off the dock one more time, and the kids all attempted to follow suit. Some of their attempts looked quite painful, and as I emerged from the water I questioned my new suggestion of fun as one kid hit the water on the flat of his back.
Still dripping wet as the clock struck six, we donned our T-shirts and I was a bit surprised when the bus driver allowed us aboard with a knowing smile. The bus ride back to Colon seemed to take an extra hour, and by the time we arrived in the dirty city night had fallen. John and I found our way to the bus to Panama City, but when we realized we had a few minutes before it left we decided to run across the street to a store to buy a snack and a couple beers for the ride back. As we stepped into the gutters a man working for the bus company yelled and stopped us. Turning around, he warned us not to leave the bus terminal—Colon was a dangerous place. I told him I knew, I’d been here before and was just crossing the street to go to the store. The man offered to buy me whatever I needed and begged for me not to leave the terminal; but I persisted, in the end leaving John behind to guard my backpack and buying a six pack of Cerveza Balboas and a bag of chips for the ride home.
Sitting in the back of the big air conditioned bus, the lights of Colon fell away and we climbed over the isthmus towards Panama City. Our appreciation of the wonder of the Panama Canal grew as the bus climbed higher. All the while we sat gazing out the windows, savoring our cold beers and rehashing an eventful day. A two hour bus ride brought us back to the Albrook bus terminal from where it was another fifteen minutes to Balboa, followed by a fifteen minute walk back to the yacht club. By the time we reached the club it was 10:30 P.M. and our full day of tourism had come to an end.

For John’s last day in Panama we decided to cross the Bridge of the Americas and seek out what the internet described as a great tourist beach in the town of Veracruz. Thus on the first day of October we found the appropriate bus and rumbled across the famous bridge, snatching glimpses of the canal below and the locks upstream at Pedro Miguel where a big car carrier was beginning her transit of the isthmus. As the bus bounded onward I saw no particularly spectacular beach, and in the end failed to disembark before reaching the city itself. Thus we rode through the streets of Veracruz dropping off everybody on the bus before coming to the end of the route. Here we disembarked and took a different bus back towards Panama City, this time stopping at a sign for “Playa Bonita” with a dozen locals, also out for a day at the beach.
Playa Bonita was indeed a pretty stretch of coarse white sand lapped by the blue water of the Gulf of Panama. Isla Taboga stood guard offshore, and the fleet of ships at anchor could be seen stretching out from her. The coastline leaving the beach was wild and free from habitation, and though just a half hour from Panama City the beach was a world apart. One day after our swim in the Caribbean we were floating around in the Pacific and enjoying the cool waters. After swimming the length of the beach, we left the water and walked on the sand to dry. As the sun worked its magic we made our way out to a rocky point where a couple Panamanians were fishing and watched the action at the beach.
A bus load of yamaka-toting Jewish men rushed out onto the sand, stripped out of their nice clothes, and cautiously entered the water in suits that were far too small. They all seemed scared of the water and none ventured in past his waist, but in minutes they were all splashing water at each other yelling at the top of their lungs. When water was no longer enough pieces of clothing could be seen coursing through the air and I knew it was time to leave. Disgusted at the display, the Jews had ruined the beach for us and we retreated to a restaurant out of their view and sat down for lunch.
The thatched roof of the restaurant ruffled in the light breeze, the sand of the floor squished beneath my toes, and I was transported back to a better world. Still the image of the Jews haunted my thoughts and my mind wandered back over the years to my previous visit to Panama City. On my first visit to the Cinco de Mayo district I’d been approached by a wiry old black man who spoke perfect English and went by the name of Conrad. He was able to con myself and my traveling companion Bo into giving us a walking tour of the area. It was on this walking tour that he taught me a great deal about the situation in Panama in a short while. He spoke of how he used to work in the Canal Zone literally shining the boots of the soldiers and had made a better living (and been happier) doing that than any of his friends were able to eke out since the Americans had left the region. He also mentioned the day the Americans stormed into the city to oust Noriega from power, saying his beloved wife had died in the crossfire. In spite of this he didn’t seem angry at the fact, and held no resentment towards Americans. Then he got to talking of the nature of Panama City as it was now constituted. His remarks at first stunned me. I appreciated his blunt honesty:
“Ninety percent of all these stores you see are owned by Jews. They run the whole city. They sell their stuff dirt cheap, pay the Panamanian workers nothin’, and make millions.” We came to the waterfront and Conrad broke his quick stride, paused for a moment, and waved his arm in the direction of the skyscrapers downtown. “That’s where all these Jews live. They own the banks and the shops and the nightclubs and use the Canal to pass their drugs through and the shops and banks to launder the money. Then they go over to Colombia and snatch up some beautiful Colombian women to fill their nightclubs with as their slaves.”
Nothing of what he said came as a shock to me, but Conrad gave me a sort of proof of what he was saying. “I’m tellin’ the truth. They’ve laundered so much money that you’ll be lucky to find a Panamanian dollar bill any more. All we got is coins now. Used to be we had paper money just like your dollars. They’ve taken them all out of circulation. If you find a bill hang on to it; it’s worth more than it says.” Though I couldn’t follow how this fit in throughout the course of my three visits to Panama I’ve yet to acquire a Panamanian bill.
My memories faded as a waitress brought us a couple cold beers and took our orders. I passed on the turtle eggs this time (this was the scene of the crime of my tasting a surprisingly tasty turtle egg on my first visit aboard the Atair), instead opting for a couple fish tacos and a tasty order of ceviche de corvina. After enjoying our meal we flagged down a taxi and started the return towards Panama City. Along the way we had our driver stop at various points opposite the canal from Balboa so we could take pictures of the different views of the Bridge of the Americas and the yacht club across the canal. Our driver was very accommodating, and dropped us off in the center of Balboa where John went souvenir shopping for a bit before we returned to Avventura.
A brief jaunt ashore for dinner interrupted an evening of making C.D.s of all the pictures that had been taken aboard while John was around. This was followed by a handful of beers enjoyed in the cockpit beneath a star-filled sky. All the while the steady stream of freighters swept past on their way between the oceans. The Bridge of the Americas lit up the northern sky and the bustle of traffic across it could be heard over the stillness of the night.
John’s morning flight required us to be heading ashore by 7:30 A.M. We were already too late to take a bus to the airport, so we caught a taxi and made the long drive through and around Panama City to the opposite outskirts where the airport lay. Here I helped John through the check-in before leaving him with a hug and returning to the heat of the Panamanian day. We were bound for different worlds: he for the comforts and conveniences of California and me for the continuing variety and spice of life offered by Central American living. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As soon as my cousin John flew out of Panama City I was transformed from a tourist to a cruiser once more. I had seen the sights and now it was time to attack some boat work and begin making my preparations for the long sail down to Ecuador. On the way back to Balboa I took a bus first to the main terminal in Albrook where, while waiting for my next bus I penned a journal entry and confided that while I had a lot of fun while John was on board I was glad to have found some solitude at last and excited to be back down to just two people aboard Avventura. Three people who are completely different in most every way on a small boat is a lot to ask for, and when I did make it back to Avventura she seemed much larger to me.
On the day after John’s departure, October 2, I did little boat work beyond flush the watermaker with freshwater as a rain squall passed through the area. I spent the remainder of the day answering a series of questions a reporter for a small newspaper in my hometown had sent me via e-mail in preparation for an article he planned to write on my voyage and my book, The Voyage of the Atair. By nightfall I had finished the writing and headed ashore. To change my state of mind after a long day of writing I went for a jog down the Amador Causeway. A steady stream of people were out enjoying the night. Groups of friends were bound for the causeway’s clubs, couple walked hand-in-hand for the nice restaurants at Flamenco Island, and other joggers were out getting their daily dose of exercise. Meanwhile the lights of the skyline dominated to my left and the steady stream of traffic continued in the canal on my right.
After purchasing a phone card at Flamenco Island I jogged back to the yacht club where I called home. During the phone call I announced the good news that I’d be home for Thanksgiving. Puerto Lucia Yacht Club in Ecuador had confirmed that they would be able to hoist Avventura out of the water in early November, and I would soon buy my plane ticket home from Guayaquil for the holidays. The news excited my family as much as myself, though I now knew what sort of timetable I had to work with and that there was much to be done in the interim.
Two days later I listened to the morning “VHF cruisers net” for the first time since arriving in the Canal Zone, and wasn’t really glad I did. The news broke on the net that a mysterious disease was sweeping through Panama City and had already killed 39 people, though it was still not identified. Furthermore nobody was sure as to the means of transmission yet, but it was said to be either through the feet (walking around barefoot or in sandals was out) or through eating in local restaurants (luckily the boat was stocked with food). The CDC (Center for Disease Control, located in the United States) had dispatched a team to assist in this “epidemic.” (It would be another few days before word arrived that the “disease epidemic” was in fact the “side effects” of a tainted batch of blood pressure “medication” and that nearly all of its victims were the elderly. Thus the cruising community had helped spread panic for nothing.)
An array of boat chores filled my days. There was engine maintenance to be done, electronics to be repaired, cleaning chores to be carried out, provisions to be bought, and propane, water and fuel tanks to be filled. All required bus and taxi trips to various parts of town, some in conjunction with other cruisers bound for the same area. All took longer than expected, cost more than anticipated, and left me feeling drained and exhausted.
On October 4, after I finished stowing away $600 worth of provisions from Price Smart (a wholesale store similar to Costco) Ryan said, “I need to talk to you.” By his somber tone and the pained look on his face I knew what was coming. Bracing myself, I stayed seated at the nav station and asked him what was up.
“I don’t know how to tell you this. I know it’s going to make you mad and you’ll hate me for it…”
I cut him off mid-sentence. I knew what came next and hated to see him toil with his prepared speech. “You’re not coming to the South Pacific.”
“I can’t. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I came back to Costa Rica from my trip home, and yesterday I had a long talk with my mommy and she said something that made me realize I can’t go.”
No, I can’t promise those were his exact words, and yes I’m probably making him sound more effete in that moment than he was, but that’s how it sounded to me. All I could hear was a kid abandoning a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a part of the world most people only dream of visiting, and most do indeed dream of it. I had anticipated this, and had indeed been considering whether or not I would want him sailing across the Pacific with me at all, so in a weird way Ryan was giving me the easy way out. Still I sat silent for a while, playing out my options in my head.
Ryan broke the silence. “What are you thinking?”
The question bounced off the walls of my brain like a ping-pong ball mid-volley. This question always struck a nerve, ever since the days following my brother’s death when the well-meaning hordes of people plied me with these very same words, beseeching me to put in words the inexpressible grief I felt and the hollowness that overcame me.
My face tensed. I took a deep breath, held the exhale a bit longer than usual, and turned to Ryan. “Well I can’t say I wasn’t expecting this, but it does leave me in a bit of a lurch,” I returned. “But at least you told me before I return to San Diego so I can find somebody to sail with me.” Ryan seemed surprised by the fact that I wasn’t stunned by the news of his coming departure; but it didn’t take a genius to realize he was out of his element, plagued by perpetual homesickness, and built from a far different mold than myself. Over time these things wear on you, and living with somebody who is your complete opposite on a small boat becomes well-nigh impossible. The split was inevitable, and at the time I felt was truly for the best. But first I made it clear to Ryan that I needed him till Ecuador, to which he readily replied that he knew as much and planned to buy a ticket home from there.
After this conversation there was some diesel to be acquired and loaded into Avventura’s tanks, and with this done Ryan headed ashore and I relished the solitude it left me with. I cracked open a beer and washed my troubles away. Sitting in the cockpit, I stared at nothing in particular and became lost in deep thought. When the noisy yacht club launch jolted me back to consciousness and Ryan stepped aboard I stepped into the same launch, if only to extend my solitude a bit longer. I spent the evening wandering the Amador Causeway, and by the end of the night my spirits were soaring. I’d have a new crew for the Pacific crossing and the possibilities were endless.

My remaining days in Panama City passed in a sea of routine. Boat chores, errands, and time spent wandering around the city. At night I had a couple beers among friends in the cruising community, and on October 6th I was delighted by the arrival of Celtic Dancer and Velella in the Canal Zone. Four days later Avventura was loaded with provisions and ready for sea. We were officially checked out of Panama, and just after six thirty in the early morning light of October 10 I let slip the mooring ball and waited for a Panamax container ship and a small dry goods carrier to steam by before nudging into the main channel where Avventura fled the Panama Canal, Pacific-bound once more.
The plan was to spend a few days in the Pearl Islands of the Gulf of Panama before returning to Santa Catalina for a couple days of surfing prior to our departure direct for Ecuador. But as any sailor well knows, best laid plans rarely come off without a hitch. As the morning wore on a squall began chasing us down, and we spent the bulk of the short crossing to Isla Contadora motorsailing on its leading edge. By the middle of the afternoon Avventura nestled into the lee of Isla Contadora and dropped the hook off the north end of the island. As Avventura settled into her new anchorage I relished the ability to dive in and go for a swim for the first time in weeks. The water was clear and warm and soothed my soul and I relished the solitude of the beautiful island. Seeking to unwind from the hustle and bustle of the big city life Panama City represented, I passed the afternoon relaxing and reading on board, taking brief swims when the heat became too much and as the sun slipped into the sea (or rather behind a neighboring island) enjoying a cold beer before settling in for the night.
Isla Contadora was once a place of refuge for the wealthy from Panama City and indeed much of Central America. Its large hotel was once considered among the nicest in the region, but the island had fallen on hard times of late and the hotel has been allowed to deteriorate—perhaps in part due to the new and exclusive Hacienda del Mar Resort on the private Isla San Jose of the same archipelago. The private homes on the island remain pristine and beautiful, but tourists and few and far between, granting myself free reign on the small island. I passed from beach to beach enjoying the solitude each provided, went for long swims, snorkeled, and walked around the island all in a single day; and with that had seen just about all Isla Contadora had to offer.
While anchored off Isla Contadora I relished the ability to relax and do very little boat tasks. I read voluminously and was thrilled to finally finish David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas. The tome on the creation of the Panama Canal left me even more in awe over the technological achievement of the canal. The book left me with a tremendous amount of respect for the men behind the enterprise. First there was Ferdinand de Lesseps who had the gall to attempt and begin construction on a canal at Panama. Unfortunately his enterprise was brought down by an undermining of his financial backers, and his work languished for years before the Americans took over the enterprise. Then there was Gorgas who made the Canal Zone safe for the continued construction of the Canal by eradicating yellow fever and greatly reducing the incidence of malaria. And finally there was George Washingotn Goethals, just the stubborn strong personality needed to see the massive project through to its completion. And in the interim there were innumerable minor heroes in the endeavors down to the nameless souls driving the big digging machines, all minor cogs in the big wheel that produced one of the great wonders of man.
The island and its environs, drenched in sunshine and bathed in a perpetual calm, was the home to many a visiting humpback whale. Their spouts could oft be seen out in the channel between islands, and from time to time a fluke pierced the surface as the behemoths dove for the depths. One morning I awoke to a distant, but loud slapping on the surface of the water. Coming on deck, I scanned the horizon and spotted a whale a mile away slapping his side flipper on the surface of the sea causing the ruckus. A few others could be spotted rising full bore out of the water and falling again with a vicious splash. The majestic animals were spectacular to watch from afar, but I was all to glad to view them from a distance, fearing the destruction they could wreak on a such a small thing as a sailboat.
A handful of inactive days off Contadora was plenty for me, and on the fifteenth of the month we took our leave, planning to stop for the night at Isla Bayonetta a mere daysail away. After weaving our way through the cluster of island we emerged into clear waters where the wind began to fill in from the south. Before long it was blowing a steady twenty knots, and by the time we passed the latitude of Isla Bayonetta I feared the anchorage would be unsafe and decided the time was ripe to head for Santa Catalina. Thus we began sailing on-the-wind into a steep, building sea making slow and uncomfortable headway. The bashing continued through the setting of the sun and before long I was feeling seasick for the first time in months. A little rain squall came to further dampen my spirits, and just after seven o’clock my spirits were broken altogether as our autopilot ceased working.
Frustrated and furious, I refused to even look at the autopilot, let alone attempt to diagnose the problem. Instead I bore off the wind and sounded the retreat. Through the evening and into the black of night we sailed on, the motion improving all the time as we ran with the building swells. Just after two o’clock in the morning we entered the familiar anchorage off Isla Taboga and dropped the hook in the placid anchorage. An occasional gust of wind swept in over the top of the island, but there was little evidence of the near gale blowing in the Gulf. I was thrilled to be at anchor once more, but saddened by the fact that a return to Santa Catalina just wasn’t in the cards for me. Instead, come daylight Avventura retreated to the Canal Zone, anchoring out this time off the breakwater of the Flamenco Marina.
For a week the gale raged on out of the southwest. The usual anchorage on the west side of the Amador Causeway beside the entrance to the Canal was turned into a vicious lee shore with four foot waves sweeping through and crashing up onto the causeway itself. But the anchorage east of the Causeway remained a sheet of glass, and Avventura slipped right in between Velella And Celtic Dancer, reunited with old friends for one last hurrah (both were bound through the canal for the Caribbean).
As for the autopilot, as soon as we came to anchor beside Celtic Dancer Derek, the Godfather of cruising, came over in his dinghy, picked up the mechanism before I’d even looked at it, and found the problem in less than a minute. A cotter pin had broken, and once replaced we’d be good as new. Rather than curse the simple fix I was glad for the chance to be able to spend a bit more time amongst friends, and relished the relaxation that came with having no boat work to do, no sights to see, and no cares in the world.
Since Avventura and her crew were already officially checked out of the country we spent the week maintaining a low profile. We kept radio silence, and I never ventured far from the ship. One last 2-for-1 pizza night at the cruiser hangout on Isla Flamenco was in store for us, as was one last visit to the bar of the Balboa Yacht Club, and a couple more trips to the internet café; but for the most part our week back in Panama City was spent in exile aboard Avventura, reading and planning for our upcoming departure for Ecuador directly.

Ch 16—Long Hard Road to the Canal Zone

Rounding Punta Mala and sailing north to the Panama Canal is rarely a simple and pleasant endeavor. People often opt for the sail to the Islas Perlas in the midst of the Gulf of Panama, as they are easier to reach on one tack with the persistent northerly winds. But John was set to fly out of Panama City soon, and Ryan was anxious to return to “civilization,” so we decided to leave las Perlas for later and head directly for the realm of the canal and Isla Taboga—in hindsight a mistake.
All started out beautifully. We picked up anchor and departed Ensenada Benao at 0830. The skies were sunny and clear, the morning air already full of tropical heat, and the morning’s weather faxes called for light southwest winds in the Gulf of Panama. Conditions seemed perfect as we picked up anchor and motored out of the cove. Within an hour the wind began to fill in from off the land, and with little thought of the wind being contrary to the forecast I set the sails and killed the motor. We were scooting along with a nice breeze, the low, rugged green land close aboard, and the water full of life. Dolphins danced beneath our bow and bodysurfed our wake and the fish began to strike. Bonita, Spanish Mackerel, Dorado—we had our pick of the litter. In the end we kept the Bonita and Dorado, throwing then in the fridge for later. Our nice day of sailing lasted right up until we reached the desolate form of Punta Mala. Here our troubles began.
When we rounded the point the wind was coming from the exact direction we needed to sail. As the day wore on it became shifty and gusty and continued from the worst possible direction. Meanwhile Avventura was plowing into short, choppy swells drummed up by the gusty winds. What’s more, the current flowing out of the Gulf of Panama slowed us further, bringing our progress to a near standstill. We spent the entire afternoon making very little headway against the wind, swell and current so by nightfall I decided to close with the land and fall off into Bahia Parita in the hopes of finding diminished swells inside. Unfortunately my plan didn’t work quite as I’d hoped. As we entered Bahia Parita the wind picked up to over twenty knots and we sailed slowly hard on-the-wind, spending a miserably slow night at sea in hellacious conditions. Flashes of heat lightning lit the sky all around us, and the small flickering of the lights of local fishing boats dotted the surface of the sea. Ryan snored the night away in the comfort of the cabin. John dozed off in the cockpit opposite me. I tended to Avventura and guided us safely through the night.
Finally at 0345 Ryan began to stir below, stepped up into the cockpit, and I asked him if he’d stand watch for a couple hours. He agreed and I was able to get an hour of sleep sitting at the navigation table despite the horrid motion. At 0545 I was back on watch. I told Ryan he could go back to sleep, and the wind took this as her cue to go haywire. I spent the next hour shuffling about on deck, reefing and un-reefing the main, furling and unfurling the jib as the wind gusted from 10 to 25 knots, then back down to 10. At one point I put out the fishing line, and as I right was tying it off a Bonita hit. Another wind gust required my attention as Avventura’s rail buried beneath the sea, and it was fifteen minutes before I could pull in and release the fish. A cluster of small fishing boats came into view, and we passed too close for comfort to each one, but there was nothing I could do in the fickle, gusty winds. Luckily we managed to avoid their long lines and Avventura plowed onwards. At 0730 the wind plummeted from 20 to 10 knots, then down to five and it was time to start the motor. Finally at 0930 we were able to tack out of Bahia Parita and head towards Isla Otoque, our new destination. After tacking, I headed below and sat at the nav station calculating the distance remaining to Otoque. I knew our chances of reaching the island in daylight were grim, but I was determined not to spend another night at sea. While below I switched on the Single Side Band radio and listened in to the Pan Pacific Net which was already in progress. Disgusted by my slow progress through the night I neglected to check in. As it turns out the weather in the Gulf of Panama had been so bad in the night that a boat named Triple Dolphin at Isla Taboga, who had heard me check into the net the previous morning, asked if anybody had heard from Avventura. Further embarrassed, I checked in and thanked them for their concern. Apparently it had been the worst night of wind and weather in weeks, and I just happened to pick that day to round Punta Mala! So much for NOAA’s weather faxes for the area and their light southwest winds!
As we left Bahia Parita the contrary current finally began to subside, the swells came from a more favorable direction, and a slight breeze returned allowing us to make over four knots motorsailing (we had averaged just two and a half knots since Ensenada Benao). My spirits soared as the prospect of reaching an anchorage for the night grew, and sure enough as the sun began to dip low in the west we arrived at Isla Otoque. Coming to anchor off the rocky south shore of the island wasn’t the easiest task in the world. The water was over forty feet deep and the seafloor strewn with rocks. In the low light of the late afternoon we couldn’t spot the rocks from above and had to drop the hook three times before finding a clear area. When the chain stretched out before us and held against the thrust of Avventura’s motor I settled in for a night of much rest but little sleep at the exposed and unsettling anchorage.
As the sun rose on a new day and the morning swept on we took our leave of the rugged and inaccessible Isla Otoque and made our way to Isla Taboga. It was a relief to motor over placid seas without any wind, and when the chain rumbled out beneath my feet in the early afternoon and Avventura came to rest once more the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. A long, rough passage was behind me and I knew it’d be over three weeks before I’d spend another night at sea.
Isla Taboga sits just a few miles from the mouth of the Panama Canal, but feels a world away. The hustle and bustle of big city life is foreign to the island and the quaint colorful town tucked in its steep hillsides. Discovered by Balboa, Taboga was first settled in the early 1500s. Perhaps the island’s biggest claim to fame is its church which dates back to 1524, making it the second oldest in the western hemisphere. Anchored off a small beach on the northeast side of the island, a swath of massive freighters could be seen offshore, anchored and waiting for their time to transit the canal. From Avventura’s decks the island rose bold and colorful from the blue waters lapping her shores into the azure sky. The tight clustering of pastel homes at the foot of the steep hillsides reminded me of Cinque Terre, Italy and I thought for a moment that Taboga would be a nice place to settle down and do some writing.
The afternoon sun beat down with a vengeance, so to seek refuge I leaped into the water, swam down and touched the seafloor. Surfacing with a big gasp for air, I sslowly stroked for shore, landing in the middle of the sand spit isthmus which led out to the bulbous rocky point on the northeast tip of the island. There was nobody around and I laid on my back in the warm sand drinking in the afternoon sun and relishing the ability to relax once more. The passage between Ensenada Benao and Islat Otoque had been filled with stress, and I’d been unable to catch a good night’s sleep since leaving Santa Catalina, so my entire body was tired and crying out for sleep, but the brutal heat ensured I would get none till well after sunset.
Returning to Avventura, music was pouring out from he speakers, and as I climbed on deck John threw me a beer. Though it was a bit early to be drinking, we had reached the realm of the Canal and a little celebration was in order. I felt the stress wash away from my body as the first beer coursed through me. A second followed fast on her heels, and a third attended the sunset. With the setting sun, Ryan sat down to type an e-mail and I asked him to fill out a position report while he was at it. When he got to the comments section he asked, “What should I put for comments?”
“Anchored of Isla Taboga is fine,” I replied.
He typed something, then turned to the cockpit and read, “Anchored off Isla Taboga with a couple of drunks.”
“If you’re going to put something like that at least make it entertaining,” I returned.
“You should say, ‘We’re here to get druunnnkk,” John chimed in. A few beers aided my momentary lapse in judgment and for all eternity that position report hangs in the wind. But for the night ahead it set the tone, and before long I was feeling no pain and not the slightest stress as my blood turned to alcohol. By the time I retired to my bunk I was so far gone that I passed out immediately, and had finally found a way to sleep soundly through the night. Looking back, the entire night was one big lapse in judgment that relieved me of the previous two days of stress and tension for a brief period of drunken stupor.
Come dawn nature made sure she taught me a lesson. I woke still feeling tipsy, and before long the raging hangover set in. Anyone who’s tried knows there’s no worse feeling than a hangover in the tropics. Head pounding, alcohol-ridden sweat beading off my body, and an intense stomachache, I was determined not to waste the beautiful day. Just before noon I gathered all our cameras into my dry bag, threw in a couple T-shirts and some money for good measure, and we swam ashore for a day of exploration.
Walking through town in the bright and brutal sunlight, I was struck by its cleanliness and the atmosphere it exuded. Again my thoughts turned to Cinque Terre and Italy’s Isle of Capri—Taboga would feel much more at home in Italy than off the dirty, ugly metropolis of Panama City. Passing the old church, we came to the remnants of a hospital where workers on the building of the Panama Canal were sent when they acquired Yellow Fever or some like sickness. Among its one-time residents was Paul Gaugin, who’d stopped in Panama to make some money working on the Canal before continuing on to the Marquesas where he continued his illustrious painting career.
Leaving the small town behind, we walked up into the hillsides bound for a mirador, or lookout. Somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn and ended up heading towards the island’s garbage dump when a flatbed truck with a handful of locals in it stopped us and said the lookout was up the other way. They offered us a ride so we climbed into the bed of the truck, standing behind the cab and holding on with a death-grip to a steel bar. Thus situated we were taken up the bumpy road to the top of the island in the back of their truck, dodging low-lying tree branches overhanging the road the entire time.
Atop the island they dropped us off and turned around. We climbed up to an abandoned military bunker and were rewarded with spectacular views down over the anchorage below and off across Isla Taboquilla and the 30 big freighters anchored nearby awaiting their canal transit to the skyline of Panama City lurking in the haze. Over on the southern horizon, across an unbroken expanse of blue sea, lurked the low forms of the Islas Perlas twenty-five miles away. Off to the southwest, around the backside of the island, sat our refuge of the night before, Isla Otoque. As my eyes scanned the blue sea stretching between the islands a whale spout broke the blue expanse. The white plume lingered in the still air for a minute before dissipating. It took a few minutes for another puff to be seen. Hordes of brown pelicans circled above the slopes of Taboga’s southwest shore. The island is a wildlife refuge and the pelicans have found a sliver of paradise on the inaccessible steep slopes. The cacophony of bird sounds is overwhelming at times, and I found myself longing for the freedom and fun of the birds lulling around in the forest-clad slopes of the island between fishing trips to the offshore hunting grounds for the day’s meal. The water below was crystal clear and dark blue, a sharp and brilliant contrast to the bright green of the island itself. After taking an obscene amount of pictures from the bunker we walked across the top of the island to a small power plant and climbed out on a big metal screen of a roof for an even better view than before.
Descending from the peak of the island, we found a trail leading up a steep grass-covered hillside on its southwest point to a white cross at the top, placed there by the Spaniards hundreds of years ago. Standing at the base of the massive cross we soaked in one final amazing view of the town tucked into the green hillsides lurking above the deep blue of the Gulf of Panama. Avventura could be seen anchored far below, and the Panamanian mainland stretched off in the distance.
Descending into town at a near sprint, we stopped at a little tienda for some much needed water and a tasty ice cream cone. Cutting back through town, we spent an hour at the beach in the waning light of the late afternoon, swimming to rinse the sweat and grime off our bodies, and relaxing in the warm sand.
As the sun dipped behind the island we returned to town and found a place to eat at the Hotel Vereda Tropical. Clinging to the hillsides, the hotel looks out over a few rooftops to the anchorage below with Isla Taboquilla off in the distance and the Panama Skyline to its left. We sat on the patio, had the restaurant to ourselves, and enjoyed an okay meal with an unbeatable atmosphere. A light northerly breeze kept us cool and the scattered cumulus clouds were ignited by the setting sun. As night fell the color drained from the clouds and we sat there absorbing the beauty of the scene; a beauty I find hard to put in words for it stems more from a feeling than a sight. Theß combination of the splendid view, the coming darkness, the northerly breeze wafting through the palm trees, the perfect temperature of no temperature, the sound of birds chirping, and a million other things that went unnoticed but felt combined to give the restaurant its splendid charm. When we were finally ready to leave the restaurant we swam back to Avventura in the dark of night with the lights of the town shimmering off the water and guiding us along.
Back aboard my home, I sat atop the cabin and soaked in the scene. Stretching off towards the mainland sat the maze of lights of the freighters awaiting their transits. A beautiful blue-hulled tuna seiner pulled up to Taboga and came to anchor northwest of us with a great deal of clanking and commotion. Ashore, the lights of the town clung to the hills of the formidable hulk of Taboga. High above a thin sliver of a crescent moon dipped slowly towards the island’s peak, weaving its way in and out of the puffs of cumulus. Patches of stars filled the obstructed sky. The far off glow of Panama City ignited the horizon. A light north wind caressed my face and kept the courtesy flag beneath our starboard spreader slapping constantly. All else was quiet.
With dawn came yet another splendid sunny day and I asked myself where the rainy season was; because it sure wasn’t in the Gulf of Panama. Up well before my cousins, as usual, I climbed up in to the cockpit with my journal and captured the events of the previous couple days. By the time I finished the entry it was time to listen to the Pan Pacific radio net, and by the time that was over my cousins were awake and we took our leave of Taboga Island. Watching the town fall away astern, I thought the island in many ways idyllic, and imagined myself happily spending a month living in a small house overlooking the sea and writing and reading the days away.
Back to the task at hand, I guided Avventura through the maze of ships awaiting their transit of the canal, marveling at the many different types. Everything from Panamax container ships and car carriers to dry goods carriers and oil tankers lay at anchor offshore, all awaiting their turn to lock through the isthmus to the Atlantic. Entering the first set of canal channel markers off Isla Flamenco, I steered towards the Bridge of the Americas emerging from a light low haze. As the bridge grew before us we caught glimpses of the Panama City skyline peeking over the Amador Causeway to our right. The accumulation of skyscrapers put my hometown of San Diego to shame, and my cousins were dumbfounded at the looks of high civilization Panama City displayed for the world to see. Soon they would learn how these looks can be deceiving. As we approached the distinct form of the Bridge of the Americas Avventura veered off to starboard and we entered the moorings of the Balboa Yacht Club. One of the club’s launches directed us to an open buoy and we came to rest in the midst of the mass of cruising boats. Panama City at last.

viernes, 26 de junio de 2009

Ch. 15—Panamanian Exploration, Part II

My heart skipped a beat, then my pulse quickened. My mind played devil’s advocate. The voyage I had worked so hard to bring about, that I had dreamed into existence since I was a young boy, that I had served a three-year apprenticeship at the feet of great seamen to bring to fruition had come to a screeching halt. All was lost. Now I’d have to find a way to get back to San Diego, tail between my legs having failed on my great quest for the South Pacific. Time stood still. I felt like I was trapped in a B-movie where the great climactic moment developed in slow motion. Looking back I realize it all happened in a blink of an eye; but in that blink I saw my dreams come crashing down.
As soon as Avventura hit the reef I put the engine back in neutral, then into forward gear. Three distinct grinding sounds and three jolts could be felt. Then silence and a return to fluid motion. The reef fell away astern to port and we glided out into clear waters. I cursed for Ryan to get out of the cabin and stand on the bow. John followed him forward, and I ordered them to make sure clear waters lay ahead. Ryan mumbled something incoherent. He’s just not the type of person who performs under pressure. His mind simply isn’t built that way. Frustrated, I cursed at nobody in particular. My cousins got the point the John said, “Just keep going straight. You’re okay.”
“Thank you!” The depth gauge began a steep ascent as the sea floor fell away once more. In five minutes we were heading back the way we’d come in water over a hundred feet deep. It was time to survey the damage. The bilge pump had yet to come on, so I knew my initial fears were unfounded. The voyage would go on. I would reach the South Pacific. But did we need to sail straight for Panama City to make repairs? Could I effect a temporary patch? Or by some miracle (and I’m not sure this thought even crossed my mind before entering the water) was the damage merely superficial and nothing to worry about till I hauled the boat out in Ecuador a couple months down the line?
With the engine idling in neutral I donned my mask and snorkel and slipped into the deep blue of the open ocean. Fingers of light penetrated into the depths and disappeared out of sight. The red of Avventura’s hull was a sharp, spectacular contrast to the blue of the sea. I took a big gulp of air and dove. A quick scan of the base of the hull. Could it be true? No gaping hole? No long seam cut into the fiberglass? No way; I must have missed it. I dove again. A ten inch section at the base of the hull just forward of the rudder was missing its bottom paint. That reef may have gotten me; but Avventura fought back and killed a good portion of it with her bottom paint. I ran my fingers along the section. Scratches in the fiberglass, but very shallow cuts. Nothing requiring my immediate attention. I surfaced, yanked off my mask, and a shallow hoot escaped my lips. My cousins could sense my relief. The show would go on.
Before you have run aground or hit a reef you are never as vigilant as you should be when sailing close to land. No matter how often and vigorously you are warned, it seems impossible to truly heed the warnings. Only firsthand experience teaches you once-and-for-all this lesson. Never let your guard down at sea. Complacency kills. It kills dreams; it kills boats; and in extreme circumstances it can kill you. I learned my lesson well, and by erring on the side of caution in all future endeavors managed to pass the rest of the voyage keeping Avventura in waters deep enough to keep her floating. But mentally I wouldn’t be the same, as I’d soon find out.
Giving Isla Rancheria an unnecessarily wide berth, we circled around the south side of the island and approached Punta Machete with an abundance of caution. We dinghied ashore, checked in with the Park Rangers, paid to be in the park for a handful of days, returned to Avventura, picked up anchor, and moved to the cove on the south side of Isla Rancheria. Here my mind began playing tricks on me. In the low afternoon light I thought I saw the shape of the reef lurking beneath the surface and was unwilling to penetrate further into the bay. Thus we set the hook in unnecessarily deep water, and an often pleasant anchorage became quite rolly and uncomfortable.
With the hook set a great weight was lifted off my shoulders and I cracked open a beer and sought to forget about the entire days. With my first long sip I felt my body begin to relax. My heart was still beating hard and my mind replayed the incident over and over, but my body began to relax a bit more with each sip of beer, and before I knew it night was upon us and I was slipping into bed. Sleep was hard to come by. Every unusual sound my mind saw as us dragging anchor and running aground; every change in motion was the effect of the reef on Avventura’s hull. When my eyes finally did shut it was a measly two hours before the first nightmare came. I was at the helm guiding Avventura into the beautiful cove we were currently anchored in when a reef started extending out from every direction and squeezing in around us. We were being forced into it from every direction, and I awoke right as we ran aground.
The remainder of the night I was too scared to shut my eyes. I sat for a time on the foredeck beneath a star-filled sky rehashing the day’s events, thinking of the lessons I had learned, and cursing the men aboard the Mar Viva boat for telling me to go directly to the Ranger Station. Avventura kissing the reef was far from their fault; but then again, if not for them I had planned on going straight from Isla de Canal de Afuera to the anchorage at Isla Rancheria and not visiting the Ranger Station till the following day. Had the boat not spotted us who knows what would have happened and how the trip might have played out differently. But alas, what’s done was done, I said, and it was time to get on with the voyage at hand. There were still a lot of anchorages between now and Panama City, and many a hidden reef lying in wait to claim her next victim. Prudence would be the order of the trip was here on out, and when in doubt I’d stay out of the area.
With the dawn of the new day I pondered a new course for Avventura. My night of nightmares and little sleep brought me to realize I needed to find a good, safe anchorage where my crew and I would be happy to remain for a few days. The coral studded coast encircling Isla Coiba had lost its appeal, and despite the great natural beauty I knew the island possessed, I asked my cousins if they’d have a problem with heading straight for Santa Catalina. Their responses came without hesitation: we understand why you don’t want to hang around Isla Coiba; lets go surfing.
Santa Catalina was the one place in Panama I knew I would find good waves. Crazy Ray had told us so back in Bahia Herradura, and Cameron off Velella had been told so by another Panama-experienced cruiser. The prospect of finding waves made leaving behind the gorgeous white sand beaches and crystal clear waters of Coiba bearable, and as the sun claimed her dominance over the sky Avventura slid out of the cove on Isla Rancheria and set a course for Isla Santa Catalina some twenty-five miles away.
Isla Santa Catalina sits less than a mile off Panama’s mainland, a small chunk of land providing just enough protection from the south and west to make for a comfortable anchorage in its lee. A current sweeps through the anchorage at the change of the tides and you often lie nose into the current, so at times the anchorage becomes rolly as windchop hits you beam on. Nevertheless the anchorage is quite secure off the small beach on the north side of the island. On the mainland opposite sits the town of Santa Catalina, a surfer’s paradise tucked along the cliffs of the coast. The main wave in the area is a long righthander breaking just around Punta de Manzanillo, a short dinghy ride northeast of the anchorage. The wave is often likened to Hawaii’s Sunset Beach, and having surfed both places I can see the resemblance.
As we settled in at the anchorage a thunderstorm started to rumble inland. The big black mass of clouds overtook the sun as they approached the island and pummeled us with rain and wind. Bolts of lightning pierced the sky. The way things were going, it’d be a perfect time to be struck. I cracked open a beer earlier than usual and sat in the cockpit. The rain poured down and rolled off my exposed upper body. A slight shiver shot through me, but I threw my head back, opened my mouth, and drank in the elements. To hell with custom and comfort and decorum! Let Mother Nature purge my soul and clear my mind. She alone could put me back on the right track to a fruitful and fun voyage. My cousins sat in the cabin, out of the rain and protected from the elements. A look of disbelief etched across Ryan’s face. Five months with me and he still hadn’t learned how to be at one with what is. Some people just don’t get it, I said to myself as I stood and walked up to the foredeck. Solitude surrounded me and I exulted in the cold rain and bolts of frightening lightning.
The squall passed in due time and left behind a stable gray sky that blanketed the region in dreary misery. All nature’s colors appeared dull and forlorn. Rolling green hillsides looked ominous and unapproachable; beaches looked brown, cold and forlorn; even the ocean appeared menacing and unfriendly. My cousins joined me in the cockpit and I threw down another beer. I could feel the weight of stress release from my shoulders as the alcohol worked its magic. After a couple beers my surroundings started to match my mental state. The skies began to clear and a few stars graced the skies. Specks of phosphorescence ignited the sea around us. A light breeze ruffled through the coco palms of the island nearby. All was well with my world again.

Six days of rest and recuperation for my scarred sailing soul lay in store at Santa Catalina. Six days without a thought of reefs or anchorages or boat work or repairs. Six days of surfing and swimming, immersing myself in nature and allowing her to cleanse my mind and carry me back to the joys I’d experienced before running aground. And for a surfer there’s no better place to spend six days in Panama than at Santa Catalina.
On our first full day at Santa Catalina I determined to get the full lay of the land. We started off the day with a quick trip by dinghy over to the main break, anchoring in the channel beside the righthander and paddling out to join the dozen other surfers. The waves were fun as can be: steep drops followed by long walls leading in towards a shallow inside tube section before you had to kick out to avoid the exposed reef on the inside. The wave was best on a high tide, and at low tide became all but unsurfable due to the shallow reef and indeed a few exposed sections; but when the tide was right the rides were beautiful. When the tide began dropping the crowd dispersed leaving my cousins and I out alone for a handful of waves before it became too shallow to be safe.
From the main wave we zipped north around Punta de Manzanillo, anchored the dinghy off a long stretch of sand beside a couple pangas, and paddled ashore. We walked inland up the main road (which leads inland for miles all the way to and past the town of Sona) till we reached a dirt road paralleling the shoreline a few hundred yards inland. This we followed through town (or rather behind the bulk of the town), winding our way through clear pastureland with dirt roads cutting the scene and leading back towards the coast. Just as the heat of the day was beginning to wear me down we arrived atop a bluff overlooking Playa Esterillos, a long swath of powdery sand with gentle waves rolling ashore. The beach serves as the beginner’s surf spot, and my cousins and I passed another couple hours surfing and bodysurfing the small closeouts, laughing and having a good time.
When we emerged from the water we walked the length of the beautiful beach and continued along the rocky stretch of coast to the southeast a bit before realizing there were no other surfbreaks in reach and turning back towards town. A local lunch of Panamanian cuisine left us far from impressed, and I was all too glad to return to Avventura in the late afternoon for a night of relaxation.
Day two at Santa Catalina saw the swell increase. We started the day with a long surf session at the main break. As I later recorded in my journal: “Me second wave found me in the perfect spot for one of the best set waves of the day. I dropped in, made a big bottom turn, and then pulled in under the lip, got a little cover-up, and had a fast, fun ride from there.” The crowd was an unusual blend of dark-skinned Panamanian locals and pale white tourists from all over the world. A couple of the Panamanians really knew how to ride the wave, and most were friendly and welcoming provided you stayed out of there way and off of the waves they were riding. The foreign crowd consisted of two young kids from Maui who made the pilgrimage every summer, a handful of Brazilians, and a boogie-boarder turned surfer from the coast of Wales who was thrilled by the warm waters and perfect waves without any wind.
When the tide forced everyone from the water Avventura’s crew returned to the boat, dropped off their surfboards, grabbed T-shirts and a couple empty fuel jerry cans, and made for the beach. I unloaded my cousins on the sand, anchored the dinghy offshore once more, and swam in to join them. We caught the 2:30 P.M. bus to Sona and off we went through the Panamanian interior.
I expected the bus ride to be a thirty minute jaunt to the nearby city where we could provision and return in just a couple hours. Boy was I ever wrong! For ninety minutes we followed the winding road through endless expanses of cleared fields where cows roamed free grazing at will and being fattened for the slaughter (the main source of income for this region of Panama). Few houses and less people were seen, and the bus didn’t stop for the first hour. Then a few pockets of homes began lining the road and their inhabitants boarded and disembarked from the bus as we continued on towards the big city. When we finally arrived in town I learned Sona was far from the big city I was somehow expecting to find. A single strip of drab businesses was the bulk of downtown; but the bus stop was right beside a nice supermarket, a gas station was right down the street, and a small produce stand was just up the street in the opposite direction. Everything we needed was within a few hundred yards of each other.
Halfway through our travels in Panama’s Western Isles our food stores had dwindled dangerously low, so restocking was a major endeavor. We loaded a shopping cart to the brim with all the necessities ranging from chips and salsa to tuna and canned beans to beer and juice. As we began the checkout process the loud pitter-patter of rain on the corrugated iron roof began. By the time we emerged outside it was coming down in torrents. I left my cousins beneath the dry awning of the supermercado, and dashed down the street with the pair of jerry cans. Once they were filled I returned them to the supermarket, and struck off in the opposite direction to restock our supply of fresh produce. I returned to the bus stop thoroughly soaked with fifteen minutes to spare before the last bus left for Santa Catalina.
The only other people waiting at the bus stop were a Panamanian mother and her ten-year-old daughter. The daughter wore a long skirt and a pink shirt with a ballet slipper on the front. Her hair hung long and straight and she had the cutest smile permanently etched on her face. When we decided to get an ice cream while we waited I asked her mother if it was okay if we bought her one and the little girl begged her mother till she said yes. The girl entered the supermarket and approached the ice cream counter and I immediately saw what was meant by the expression, “like a kid in a candy store.” Her smile was so big it threatened to rip her face apart and she couldn’t suppress her excitement. She looked at me as if to ask what she should get, and I told her as best I could to get whatever she wanted. She ordered two scoops with a wry smile, as if she had gotten away with breaking a lamp in the living room, and waited anxiously for it to be delivered.
Ice creams in hand, we emerged outside where the rain continued to pour down in hilarious torrents. It seemed impossible for the sky to hold so much water. All I could do was laugh at the sight of the river forming in the street and wonder how we’d make it back to the boat safely.
The little girl wasted no time in devouring her ice cream. As only a kid can, she wound up with it all over her face—there was even a dot on the tip of her nose—and spots on her clothes. As her mother called her over and wiped off her face I apologized, but she was quick to thank me in return.
Boarding the bus, my cousins and I took seats near the back and mixed up a drink to pass the time a bit faster. The little girl’s mother sat a few rows in front of us beside a couple other Panamanian women, and as the girl took her seat she pointed at us and waved. As we pulled away from the supermarket the wheels of the bus sprayed water off in all directions. With the windows closed it soon turned into the world’s worst smelling sauna, and the long ride home began. Before five minutes had elapsed the little girl was standing on her seat, her eyes just peeking over the back of it and looking at me. I turned as if to hide my face and she giggled. When I turned my head back and looked at her she pulled her head down quickly and disappeared. A minute later she was back and looking at me again. I stuck my tongue out ad made a weird face. She erupted in laughter and her mother turned first to her, then to me. I returned my face to normal and waved innocently at the mother. All of a sudden I was ten again, goofing off in the back of a van on the ride home from Disneyland. After five minutes of exchanging weird faces my cousins, myself, and the little girl were laughing hysterically. The bus driver looked up at us in the rearview mirror from time to time and a smile crept over his face. The Panamanian women in the front of the bus stole inconspicuous glances back at us and their stern faces broke out in smiles. All was childish fun and games.
Fifteen minutes into the ride the mother had grown tired of her daughter’s laughter and let her move back a couple seats to the aisle across from me. The bizarre faces had worn out their welcome and it was time to move on to other kid games. She motioned for me to put my hands up and started playing some typical little girl game, slapping hands in turn and making different gestures. I couldn’t understand the words she sang, and every time I messed up the motions her sweet laugh returned. Before I knew it an hour had passed and her mother called her up as the bus came to a stop and they disembarked at a small shack beside the desolate road. The rain continued to fall outside, but the little girl stood at her mother’s side, waving as we drove away. I returned the wave and smiled. I knew I would never again see that little girl, and here we were two complete strangers who had brightened up each other’s day. Throughout my travels I’ve found that I get along much better with young people than with grown-ups. Fun is easier to come by with them and they are content to laugh and love life. It seems the grown-ups lose something in the journey through life which makes them forget the fun and joys they experienced in youth and grow calloused to the world. Throughout the world it is the same—the grown-ups are weighed down with the cares of the modern world and the desire to get ahead; while the kids are about living life and loving life. I for one find myself far more at home with the children than the cold-hearted realists of the grown-ups.
By the time we disembarked beside the beach at Santa Catalina night had fallen and all was dark. The rain had ceased, but a thick cloudcover kept the night sky black overhead and visibility next to nothing. Standing on the beach, I strained my eyes into the black, but couldn’t make out the form of the dinghy anywhere. Lining up with where I thought it should be, I swam out a hundred yards, but still saw nothing. I moved a hundred yards down the beach and swam out again. Nothing! Frustrated, hungry, and tired, I returned to the beach, moved our groceries beneath the corrugated iron roof of a covered patio, and my cousins and I struck off in search of the local pizzeria. By the time we found our way along the pitch black roads the pizzeria was closed. We found a lone open restaurant and had some delicious chicken tacos washed down by a pair of beers. Then came the long walk back to the beach and the horrible prospect of having to spend the night on the beach.
Back at the beach, John and I waded into the water as far apart as we could be to still see each other clearly. We swam out together, scanning the black expanse between and beside us calling out to each other from time to time. When I could no longer see the beach I was sure we should have spotted the dinghy by now and was ready to turn back when John exclaimed, “There! I think there’s something out there further. Let’s just keep going.” I reluctantly swam on, and sure enough the dinghy rose up on a swell and came into sight. Relieved, we let out loud hoots as we climbed aboard and laid on the pontoons, exhausted from a long day.
It took two trips to get the groceries, fuel and people out to Avventura, and each time I looked in awe at the luminous green wake of phosphorescence we churned up. It was midnight by the time we were all back on Avventura. The skies had cleared and the stars shone in all their glory. The moon was not to be seen, and flecks of green ignited the waters around us. Curious, I dove over the side and opened my eyes to see streaks of green shooting away from me. I surfaced and watched the sea come to life as I circled my arms and legs. I felt like a magician turning the lifeless black depths into a brilliant array of life, or a painter transforming a blank canvas with strokes of bright green into a lively picture. John joined me and we circled Avventura, thrilling in the rare phenomena. It was well after one o’clock before my head hit a pillow.

Daylight saw the swell pick up at Santa Catalina, and by the time I reached the lineup a little after ten o’clock the sets were over ten feet. It was the biggest it had been since June according to the locals. On my first wave I went to stand up and my leash was caught under my front foot. I tried to lift my foot and fell as the lip crashed down on my head. From then on I surfed better, and fit right into the rotation of the locals, catching wave after long wave, riding it through to the channel where a couple pangas sat watching. In one panga a little local boy surveyed the scene, and every time he thought he saw a set coming he’d yell out “Afuera!” Only problem was he was right about half the time. Before long the locals that knew him were yelling for him to quit; but the boy wasn’t what you’d call a quick study.
By paddling out so late in the morning we had missed the peak high tide and the best waves of the day, but the advantage was the crowd was thinning out all the time. After a couple hours it was just my cousins and a local transplant originally from the Basque region of Spain. We traded fun drops, but the tide prevented us from riding the waves very far in. When the reef inside looked too ominous John and I decided to try and get a wave in. I watched him paddle for a set wave, and noticed it begin to double-up and steepen. In a moment right out of the movie North Shore I was transformed from yelling for him to go to saying, “No! No!” But alas it was too late. He was locked in and I watched him stand up and miraculously make the drop before turning to position myself for the next wave. When I caught it I saw John on the inside, holding up the back half of my board and pointing for the rocks. My heart sank. The dreaded moment I knew was a long time coming had come, and the three men of Avventura were now down to just two surfboards.
I retrieved the front half of my favorite board from the rocks, and as we loaded in the dinghy asked John what had happened. “I saw you make the drop, and was amazed.”
“I know. It was one of the best drops of my life.”
“So what happened?”
“The wave just caught up with me. Lip came right down on top of me. I got worked.” I immediately realized the wave must have crashed down right on the weakest point in the board, where two dings had allowed water to seep in and weaken the foam and stringer for months. The worst part was we were now one board shy and John would be at Ryan’s mercy for when he could surf with me again.
After an afternoon spent basking in the sun and reading aboard Avventura (and yes, there were a few boat chores accomplished as well) we headed ashore as the sun sank behind the island. To prevent a repeat of the previous night’s dinghy search we landed up a small river towards the north end of the beach. Despite having to drag the dinghy over the shallow bar it was well worth the hassle to know we could find it come nightfall.
A big beer at a run-down bar near the beach where we landed the dinghy started the night off, and after John and I ordered another for the road we struck off in the direction of the pizzeria. The Pizzeria Jamming is the local hotspot at Santa Catalina, and everybody who was in the water in the morning had gathered for a beer, a bite to eat, and to watch the video and pictures captured of the morning’s surf. A local photographer and videographer hooked their computers up to a television screen and the crowd ogled the images, oohing and ahhing and pointing at the surfer captured. The pizza was tasty as well. It was a perfect way to end a nice day of surfing, and after sharing a beer with everyone in town it was much easier to get along with them in the water the next day.
Determined to catch all of what was left of the swell, I was back in the water before eight the next morning. The tide was still filling in, and the sets were still in the eight foot range. The two pangas remained in the channel and the photographers were back once more to capture the scene. I caught a dozen beautiful rights, picking off the rare set wave that would swing wide of the peak and staying out of the way of the locals. Meanwhile Ryan sat on his board in the channel, never even attempting to catch a wave but refusing to let John. John thus treaded water in the channel with a small waterproof camera taking a few pictures and still by all appearances having a good time.
Fleeing the surf, I dropped Ryan off ashore and returned to the boat with John. Within minutes a light rain began to fall and the clouds forming over the land were dark and menacing. I took shelter beneath the spray dodger and watched as the slow drizzle gathered steam until it was all-out pouring. After a couple minutes admiring nature’s fury I realized this was the perfect opportunity to shower, so I retrieved my shampoo and soap, headed for the foredeck, and lathered up. Within minutes I felt fresh and clean, and the rain continued to pour down. Finally at 4:30 the rain began to abate and John and I headed for shore. We landed the dinghy up the river and headed for the internet café where Ryan had spent the entire afternoon. John headed in to join him while I sat outside reading.
From the internet café we set about a repeat of the previous night’s activities. A return to the bar, followed by the long walk over the slick, muddy roads to Pizzeria Jamming where I was thrilled to see the photographer had snapped a couple good shots of me. I inquired about how much he was selling them for, selected the ones I wanted, and said I’d return the following night with the money.
One last day at Santa Catalina saw us back in the water early in the morning. The surf had dropped dramatically and was the smallest it had been since we arrived. What’s more, the crowd was out in full force and was as aggressive as they had ever been. Ryan again refused to let John ride his board, though he again never paddled for a wave, and I cursed his chintziness and for the umpteenth time realized there was no way I could sail through the South Pacific with him. It was a good thing I had decided to pull Avventura out of the water in Ecuador because this would allow me to return to San Diego for the holidays and find a new crew. On my final wave of the day I pulled into a tube on the inside, and the wave shut down on me, knocking me off my board and tumbling me underwater. In the process my knee hit the solid lava reef, and when I came up seeing blood I knew it was time to call it quits.
Our morning surf session was followed by a brief pit stop on the boat before we headed ashore. We walked through town, headed for Playa Esterillos, but halfway there Ryan dropped off, saying he was too tired and wanted to get something to eat. Toe ach his own; the beach was calling. John and I bodysurfed the beachbreak, enjoying the small surf and hot sunshine. Afterwards we stood by one of the many surf resorts and chatted with a guy who was from Cleveland. Turns out he had driven all the way down here, and was in the process of moving to Panama City. We exchanged tales of our adventures, shook hands, and parted ways—never to see each other again.
The remainder of the day was spent like all others in Santa Catalina: swims at the beach, brief stop at the internet café, trip to the store for some produce, drinks at the bar, and dinner at the pizzeria. I purchased my pictures, said good-bye to the locals and foreigners alike I’d met over the past few days, and returned to Avventura. The phosphorescence was back in full force, so one final midnight swim was in order. Floating on my back in the warm Panamanian water, I looked over at John and started to chuckle. Perhaps running aground was just nature’s way of ensuring we caught the swell at Santa Catalina. Our stay had been almost too perfect (broken board notwithstanding), and all we could do was laugh at our good fortune. Here we were with no surf forecasting materials on board and we just happened to stumble upon Panama’s best wave for the best swell in three months. Sometimes the elements flow together and life serves up a grandiose string of days. The laughter was contagious, and before I knew it I was laughing so hard I could barely stay afloat. Ryan emerged from Avventura’s cabin to see what was going on, only to see we were safe and return below. The adventurous spirit didn’t reside in his belly; his soul never caught fire from the elements; he never thrilled at the simple things in life. My laughter reached another level as he disappeared. I splashed John full in the face, and his competitive spirit cut the laughter short and an all-out waterfight began. Life was good. Santa Catalina was great.

When first I laid eyes on Isla Cébaco I knew I would someday return. Her beauty and isolation captivated my soul, and the vast stretch of empty beach in Ensenada Naranjo called to me like the Sirens called to Odysseus. The star-filled nights and tradewind swept anchorage of my first visit only heightened Ensenada del Naranjo’s allure in my eyes, and upon leaving Santa Catalina there was no doubt about our destination.
(Is all of what follows in the paragraph needed? Likely NOT.???)xxx???) Awake before my cousins yet again, I penned a journal entry in the cockpit before getting ready to head ashore one final time at Santa Catalina. Ryan began to stir below so I told him I wanted to leave the anchorage soon, but first had to head ashore for a few last minute provisions. Once I’d procured the eggs, butter and milk I returned to Avventura where Ryan was below watching a DVD. Nothing aboard was ready for our departure. I put the groceries away and went about readying the ship. Sailcover off, swim ladder raised and secured, dinghy motor off, dinghy secured astern ready to be towed, and everything loose on deck secured or placed below. Ryan continued watching his DVD. John slept. I fired up the engine, weighed anchor, and motored back around the north end of Isla Santa Catalina the way we’d come. Ryan watched his DVD; John began to stir below. I set the autopilot and started the watermaker. Ryan, realizing he was in my way, moved from his berth to the quarterberth, his eyes never leaving his precious DVD. John was up and in the cockpit—somebody had to keep an eye out. I cursed the laziness of my cousins beneath my breath, and wished they cared a bit more about my boat and my voyage and took more initiative to lend a hand.
With the watermaker purring like a kitten a gentle breeze bid us nice sailing for the short leg out to the island. The gentle broad reach urged us across the deep blue water channel in two hours and by one thirty we were entering the lee of Isla Cébaco and the sails had to come down. The drone of the engine returned as we motored around the island’s rocky west end and the beautiful deep gouge of Ensenada del Naranjo came into view. Rounding Punta Tintorera, I thrilled to the sight of the empty bay and was quick to realize time had done little to change the place I recalled so fondly.
Upon closer examination much has changed, beginning with the cluster of mooring buoys (actually old car tires on the surface) installed by the Balboa Yacht Club for the use of cruisers. Seeing the bay was empty, we selected a buoy at random from the mass and tied off to it. Then, using the dinghy, we tied our stern to a second buoy to act as a stern anchor. All was calm and quiet. Blue skies were the order of the day and the waters of the bay matched the blue of the sky. The dark sand beach reached across the base of the bay, closely guarded by dense rainforest. The hills were filled with green vegetation and not a sign of dry grass was to be seen. Ah, the splendor of the rainy season. All was lush and vital as a rainforest should be. Waves rolling up the gentle slope of the beach broke the silence. Birds called ashore. Nature reigned supreme.

Three days were devoted to relaxation and exploration at Isla Cébaco. Thoughts of surfing receded in my mind amidst the beautiful snorkeling and lush forest. We swam in the calm waters of the bay, bodysurfed miniscule waves at the beach, threw a football around in the surfline, and hiked a long ways up a small stream which bisected the beach. The last time I had visited the bay the stream was nothing but a dry riverbed infested with insects. The insects remained, but water filled much of the riverbed. After hiking in the water for a time we spotted a trail off to the side and paralleled the stream under the cover of thick vegetation. Big termite nests clung to the braches of trees adorned with nasty thorns, butterflies and birds zipped through the air, lizards dashed across the path; little was said.
A half hour into the walk Ryan was ready to turn back. Our trail appeared to lead to nowhere, and Ryan couldn’t grasp the idea that this might just be the whole point. Sometimes the glory and beauty is found in the path, not the destination. For me this was what the “cruising” life meant. Sure the South Pacific was the destination; but the real voyage encompassed everything along the way from long passages at sea to surfing big waves at famous breaks to meeting new people and becoming acquainted with different cultures. The words of Sterling Hayden coursed through my head, though I couldn’t reconcile them to the situation: “To the hunted; not to the hunter. To the passage; not to the path.” I was trudging onward regardless, after all it was still early in the day and the path was leading us deeper into the rainforest.
Fifteen minutes later the gentle trickle of water in the stream grew more intense and my heartbeat quickened. The air became damp and cool and, coming to the end of the trail we entered the stream once more. Turning round one final bend, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was revealed in a roaring cascade of a waterfall (or at least a miniature version thereof).The heat of the day was quenched by wading in the small pool at the base of the falls, and for a long time I leaned back into the falling waters and let them massage my shoulders. The cold waters felt wonderfully out of place in the tropics; and after fifteen minutes in the falls my body was covered in goosebumps and I was shivering uncontrollably. I found a dry rock on the edge of the stream and sat down staring at the cascade. I could feel my eyes recede deep into my head and became lost in thought and dreams. Nature had me in her grips and I thrilled at the roar of the waterfall, the chill of the damp air, and the heat of the rock beneath me. A light breeze rustled through the trees, the hum of insects faint in the background; a pair of birds chased each other through the sky chirping as they went.
Back at the beach, we chopped down a pair of tiny coco palms and extracted the heart of palm. Captain Klutz had taught me how on my previous visit to the bay, and I saved the ritual for this island alone. Its seclusion and ample supply of small palms made for the perfect spot for a sumptuous meal many never know the likes of. The heart of palm secured, we opened coconuts to quench our thirst, bodysurfed to wash ourselves clean, and laid prone in the dry sand to warm up and refill our stores with the energy of the tropic sun. Days were filled with sunshine, afternoons with rainshowers, even with flashes of lightning, and nights were filled with stars. Nature showed all her colors, and made sure Isla Cébaco retained a special place in my heart.
It was with a hint of sadness that we left behind the comforts of Isla Cébaco’s Ensenada del Naranjo and headed for her mainland counterpart of the same name. But alas, the voyage must go on, and I knew there were many more beautiful anchorages to be explored and countless waterfalls to be discovered. Surely the best still lay ahead.
The short hop from Isla Cébaco back to the mainland and Ensenada Naranjo was easy and dull. We caught no fish and saw no other boats. A sloppy, choppy sea was running, and knocked us all over the place. Traces of seasickness crept over me as I began the process of making water in Avventura’s cabin. Luckily the crossing was a short one, and by noon we were anchored in the open bay of Ensenad Naranjo. The hillsides rolling inland had been cleared and cattle dotted the scene, munching on the expanse of grass at will. Clumps of forest trees broke the monotony and spiced up the landscape. The shores of the cove were lined by three separate beaches divided by stubby rock outcroppings. We anchored in the southeast corner of the cove and were soon ready to flee Avventura.
I led the way as we leaped into the water and made the short swim for the cove’s biggest beach, to east of us. I bodysurfed a wave ashore and stepped off onto the nearly black sand beach. The feel of the sand underfoot was perfect—coarse but not rocky, the sort of sand that sticks to your skin in big clumps but wipes off with the gentle brush of the hand. We walked north over the hot sand and collapsed towards the end of the beach. Lying flat on my back, I was too tired to move and simply drank in the tropic sun. Nothing was said. The only sound was the roar of the shorebreak rushing ashore.
For an hour I remained motionless, recovering my strength and enjoying the feel of the hot sand on my bare back and the intense sun beating down on my face. Ryan became restless and swam back to the boat. Re-energized, I leapt into the sea and bodysurfed a few small waves. Then, emerging from the water, I followed an inlet back to a small lagoon, and walked along its placid shores a while. The farmhouse for the cattle was tucked back in a cluster of trees and a few locals milled around outside. I waved and they returned the gesture, big smiles etched across their faces. Returning to the beach, John and I slowly walked the length of it, seeming to savor each and every step. When the rocky point halted our tracks we took to the sea and made the long swim back home.
I passed the afternoon shaving off a month’s worth of facial hair and emerged feeling like a new and better man. I read a bit from David McCulough’s The Path Between the Seas (a fantastic biography, if you will, of the Panama Canal), took a short nap (my nights had been filled with tortured sleep and vivid nightmares ever since kissing the reef off Coiba), and prepared a chili dinner as the sun dipped low in the sky. We ate in the cockpit in silence as the sun disappeared in her usual tropical splendor and a light rain began to fall. I finished my dinner, washed the dishes, and was quick to slip into bed. Sleep was impossible for me, and as I lay in bed thoughts raced through my head a mile a minute. I thought of my life, what lay in the immediate future, what work needed to be accomplished in Panama City, and what I would do with myself in the long-term. No matter how often I pondered this last point my mind drew a blank. I had no idea what I wished to do with my life; only that I wished to live it in such a way as to be remembered and to simultaneously ensure the lasting memory of my late brother and best friend, Lance. What the path was that would lead me there I hadn’t a clue. When my eyes did finally slam shut it was for but a brief while. I slept off and on for a handful of hours, passing more time awake than asleep, and finally resolved to stay awake as the clock struck five.
September 20 held a full day of motoring for us. With little to be seen or done in Ensenada Naranjo the time had come to press on towards the canal, and as the first traces of daylight formed in the east beneath a sliver of crescent moon I weighed anchor and directed Avventura out of the cove, cautiously passing between the mainland and the off-lying rocks of Islote Roncador. Rounding Punta Naranjas, open seas lay ahead, and the day was spend slowly rounding the big peninsula of southwest Panama. By eight o’clock the inconspicuous point of Punta Mariato slipped past and all on board reached their furthest point south in their lives. From here the land fell away northeast. John slept below, a pair of headphones drowning out the hum of the motor. Ryan was lying on the bunk opposite, portable DVD player in hands, oblivious to the scene. I marked the milestone in the logbook and returned to the cockpit to begin turning northeast.
A faint seabreeze shut down the engine in the early afternoon, but as we rounded Punta Moler and our anchorage at Punta Guanico came into sight the wind began to fade and the motor resumed her drone. We rounded Punta Guanico, and dropped anchor in the open roadstead to the north in twenty-five feet of water. A small town tucked into the corner at the base of the point on its south side, terminating at the mouth of a river a couple hundred yards to the north.
Before I could enjoy my new surroundings a pressing boat chore had to be performed. My single-aside-band radio antenna tuner had stopped working during the passage, and I needed to figure out why. This meant emptying out the quarterberth which served as a sort of garage for me and was filled with spare parts and assorted junk. That done, climbed into the sauna better known as the lazarette and unscrewed the cover to the tuner. Thankfully the fuse inside had blown, and after replacing it all was well again. I screwed the cover back on, took advantage of the empty quarterberth to tighten the packing gland a bit, re-filled my garage, and sent out a position report letting the world (and my family) know I had arrived safely once more. By the time my work was finished it was after six and my cousins were hovering around me waiting for dinner to be cooked. I took my sweet time, but prepared an easy meal which we enjoyed under the darkening night sky in the cockpit. Stars filled the sky, and the beautiful clear night foreshadowed a sunny and hot tropical morning.
Sure enough, dawn revealed clear blue skies and I passed the morning writing in my journal and reading till my cousins awoke. Then came time to explore our new surroundings. First order of business—finding somewhere to surf. On approach it appeared there was a series of beachbreaks lining a long stretch of beach stretching west behind on the south side of Punta Guanico opposite the anchorage, so John and I loaded in the dinghy with the two remaining surfboards and zipped around the point (Ryan said he didn’t want to come). Hovering offshore, there were but few waves coming through and it was clear there wasn’t much swell in the water. Thus we zipped back around the point, past the small town to the rivermouth where a small wave broke offshore. The water was shallow a good distance out, and the wave broke knee high a couple hundred yards offshore. The right had perfect form, and we spent a couple hours trading off tiny waves in the clear blue water. We had fun, true honest fun, despite the small waves. We hooted and laughed, quoted lines from North Shore, and reveled in the sunshine and tropical setting.
There was only so much small surf I could take, however, so after a couple hours we returned to the dinghy, dropped the boards off aboard Avventura, and asked Ryan if he wanted to come check out the river with us. Ryan declined. John and I zipped back past the town, through the line of surf, and entered the rivermouth over the shallow bar. Just inside the entrance a solid line showed where the ocean ended and the river water began. The water turned from blue to a murky dark greenish-brown color that made it look like you’d expect from a tropical river. As the water color changed we began fighting s slow current upstream and the wide rivermouth closed in on us in mangrove-lined banks. The cry of birds and hum of insects grew loud and all signs of human life disappeared as we snaked our way up the 75 yard wide river for a couple miles, enjoying the scenery and wondering where it might lead. I found myself looking down at the murky waters, wondering what god-awful forms of life lurked beneath, but none were to be seen. After a couple miles the mangroves parted and a vast tract of open land took their place with a small empty dock and a sign ashore. I read what I could, but we were going too fast for me to get further than “Private Property.” A couple hundred yards later a second sign came into view. The setting had the clandestine look you’d expect from a drug dealers compound and farm. A couple jokes were made about the insanity of the idea when I stopped to read the second sign. My literal translation came to: “Private Property Secured by a Private Navy.” The phrase private Armada hung over the scene like the sword of Damocles, and John and I turned to each other. What the hell had we stumbled upon? Nothing but cleared fields could be seen; but why the threat of a private navy to protect empty grazing land? More worried than curious, we turned the dinghy about and zipped away downstream, letting the engine run full throttle and skipping across the surface, scaring small fish out of our path.
An afternoon of relaxation and reading ensued as we enjoyed the second straight rainless day of the rainy season. The drought ended shortly after six the following morning with the arrival of a squall. The wind piped up and the rumble of thunder broke the morning silence. The squall lingered till half past nine, leaving a light north breeze in its wake. I decided to take advantage of the wind, so we weighed anchor without the engine and sailed away from Punta Guanico. Not an hour later the wind disappeared and the familiar drone of the motor pierced the quiet. In the early afternoon we entered the wide mouth of Ensenada Benao, slipped in close to the islet protecting its east end, and anchored in thirty feet of water just a stone’s throw from where I had anchored in the Atair a few years previous.
Nowhere else is the dramatic difference between the wet and dry seasons more evident than at Ensenada Benao. In the dry season the wind constantly blows hard offshore, sweeping massive rooster tails off the backs of the waves crashing ashore and sending ripples of whitecaps out through the anchorage. The hillsides surrounding the anchorage are brown and bring to mind the wheat fields of America’s heartland, at least to my un-knowing imagination. The cattle travel in clusters, forced to eat the dry grass, which helps explain why they all look so emaciated. In the wet season the winds are light and variable and frequent squalls roll off the land, sweeping the anchorage with rain and lightning. The hillsides are dark green and the grass grows tall. The cattle happily munch wherever they please and are spread out across the scene.
The only thing that remains the same at Ensenada Benao is the surf. Year-round it pounds ashore, among the most consistent places in the world I’d imagine. With the hook firmly set we paddled ashore, walked along the beach to the center of the cove, and launched off into the surf. The waves were only chest high, and as the tide filled in they began backing off, but there were still some fun sets coming through. A handful of people were out, all staying at the small campground ashore, and all friendly and welcoming. Ryan returned to the boat first, taking his boogie-board with him and only after he left did I realize I’d forgotten to put down the swim ladder. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I watched his numerous attempts to climb over the rail. Finally the right set of circumstances came together and he got a firm hold on a stanchion and with the help of a roll of the ship he climbed aboard.
After surfing I sat silent on the beach. Drained of all energy from three straight lousy nights of sleep, I stared out past the surf into oblivion. Out in the bay I saw the outline of Avventura three years previous and recalled my thoughts of abandoning ship right here, if only to be able to bodysurf the six foot waves that rolled through that day. In hindsight abandoning ship here would have saved me much derision from Klaus, but I doubt I’d have encountered this same bay again had I know remained steadfast and lasted till Germany, gaining an ocean’s worth of experience in the meantime. John stepped in front of me and broke me from my trance. He laid in the sand beside me and we cherished the warmth of the beach, and the tropical look and feel to the place. Nothing was said for a long while; then, at the same time, we rose to return to Avventura with a hint of sadness and regret. Our days exploring western Panama were drawing to a close. In a couple days we’d be in the islands surrounding the Canal Zone, packed with people and boats and the dregs of civilization. Between now and then lay what forecasts predicted would be a long, calm motorboat ride, with the possibility of some southwest winds to help us along. With a good forecast and dropping swell, there was no time like the present to take our departure.