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.