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.”
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.