For many reasons we had a sad farewell from Ecuador, heading for Las Perlas. On the way we suffered equipment failure and galeforce winds, which meant we turned our bows elsewhere and explored a new destination. Come with us and visit Las Perals with us onboard our sailboat and en route we’ll reveal Panama’s Secrets.
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Visit Las Perlas with us onboard our sailboat
Chatting to my dad on Skype, he in England me in Ecuador, I told him how we planned to sail to Panama to collect our new sails. “You talk about it as though you are popping off to Supermarket” he laughed. With only 560 nautical miles to traverse, we thought the journey a breeze. But the trip grew to epic proportions, even before we started.
Farewells are a continuous part of the cruising life that can pitch and roll the equilibrium that sailing bestows. After seven months anchored in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador, we had collected many friends; most we would never see again. But tipping the scales into a whole new level of sadness was the news that a local lady, new cruiser and my friend, unexpectedly died. Margareta had fallen in love with an American sailor and over the years they planned numerous adventures, starting in the Perlas Islands, leaving Bahia just two weeks before us. It was here she swam around the boat and suddenly, without obvious reason or sound, expired. The news reached us the day before we left Bahia, we felt hollow. The autopsy revealed a cerebral aneurism. Our tearful goodbyes in this small, close-knit town, left us red-eyed and exhausted.
The next challenge
For three days, full billowing canvas drove Pyewacket, slicing through the water, like a fine Arab, her neck stretched. We slept well, which was lucky as we were about to meet our next challenge. As we entered the Gulf of Panama the traffic thickened to an extent that we felt as though we were playing space invaders at night; with just 50 nautical miles to Las Perlas one of the great procession of squalls did not dissipate, instead it folded itself into a full blown gale. Consistent 35 knot winds raised a heavy sea that beat us back. Squalls still persisted amid the gale and reconfirmed our contempt for the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone), that separates the north and south hemisphere trade winds. This area is shadowed by determined and eternally infuriating squalls; constant armies of clouds march across the sky, accompanied by rain so heavy I thought a 747 must be landing on our decks. Visibility often became zero and within the busy highway of vessels arriving to and departing from the Panama Canal, it was a tense time and compounded our dislike of this area and passion for radar!
Blending into our frustration of being so close to our destination, maddening weather, and emotional exhaustion, was our lifeline to the outside world suddenly deciding to lock itself into an unusable state. Our SSB aka our HF Long range radio on which we speak to friends, partake in nets/scheds and receive weather, had started to flash UNLOCK on its screen. Of a vintage similar to me we were quietly satisfied with the SEA222 unit, it had worked just fine until now. Both manuals for the Radio gave no clue as to its choice of words on the screen. We could not receive or transmit. For the first time ever we had no access to weather while underway and were slamming about in a gale-force winds, wondering what would happen next.
A mid-ocean meeting ensued and with all considered we both favoured a safe haven. Quickly we scanned charts and pilot books locating exceptionally safe and easy anchorage sites in western Panama. We turned Pyewacket’s bows west and endured twenty-four hours of boisterous, beam-on sailing. At midnight we eased behind the headland and could not decide whether the wind had suddenly died because of the protection or it just happened to blow itself out at that point. We didn’t care, we were safe. The sea smoothed, instead of heaving decks and great fountains of surf from our stem, the bow wave now chuckled contentedly. The 12 knot winds blew us silently into what felt like heaven. At 3 am we puttered into an anchorage, the radar picking up tiny fishing buoys that flashed a welcome. Exhaustion engulfed and after the traditional ‘safe harbour’ bear, at 5 am we slipped into blissful slumber.
Much more to Panama
Six years previously we had traversed the Panama Canal on our last boat Mariah II. At that time we had given no thought to the Perlas Archipelago or other areas of mainland Panama, our sights were firmly fixed on the Pacific Islands. Onboard Pyewacket II, in April 2010, we had sailed right past from Acapulco to Isle de Cocos and then Ecuador, to avoid the impending hurricane season. By Mother Nature’s hand we were now in a place we had never considered cruising.
Despite frantic button pushing, knob twiddling and a mixed bag of kind then nasty words, the SSB radio stayed resolutely locked. We were in the protection of western Panama we had no means of communication and no idea whether the gale was persisting or had died out. That led us to meandering around islands and up rivers for four blissful, silent days. At times we thought the world must have ended – we did not spy another living soul; not even bugs or garbage; only a party of the most enormous dolphins we have ever seen, twisting in our gurgling bow wave. Surrounded by mangroves, at night we slept in the cockpit watching Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross carve arcs in the heavens, while the soft breeze stroked our skin. The quiet pressed on our ears, causing us to whisper. Clothes were unnecessary and even further up the river, the water remained clear. It was balm to our battle-weary souls, both mentally and physically.
In Company at Christmas
We had left Bahia the same time as SV Dana, Lena and Henrique hail from Denmark and had quickly become people we enjoy spending time with. We had VHF Radio contact for the first day and luckily the SSB had locked while we were still in VHF range, so we could let them know we’d be out of touch on the SSB. They too were heading for the Perlas and we planned to spend Christmas together, greedily anticipating a Danish Christmas on the 24th December, our traditional Christmas on the 25th; wrapped around this was Noel’s birthday on the 21st December and mine (heralding a new decade) on the 26th December.
After four blissful days of tangible silence, broken only by the odd, hidden keening of birds and no weather report, we left western Panama, bound east for the Perlas and then Balboa. Northerlies do build in the Gulf of Panama this time of year gaining strength as December matures. Often we saw patches of meringue tipped water as it jumped vertically when swirling currents opposed the wind.
In the lee of the land of western Panama for the first twelve hours, we enjoyed riding on currents, 15 knot breeze and a whopping 8 and 9 knots speed over the ground. During the moonlit night the wind eased and we motored, fearful of being caught in the Gulf again. In the final twelve hours of the thirty-six hour journey we encountered NE head winds, but with a feeble fight of just 10 knots. We persisted with the motor, with hunched shoulders ever watchful of the wind speed.
What should have been four easy days to Las Perlas, had been fraught with emotions and delays. Ten days after departing Ecuador we finally made destination. SV Dana was not at our agreed meeting anchorage, we had no idea what their tactics had been, did they hove to?, run with the gale as we did?, seek shelter on eastern Panama? or head back to Bahia? Periodically we tried our VHF to locate Dana. An American registered sailboat called Free Range Chicken had puttered into the anchorage on the southern part of Isle De Rey at the same time as us. They had kindly called the Pan Pacific net to let them know where we were as we had spoken to the net once on the first day out, and hopefully Dana would catch our message.
Location, location, location
After a refreshing swim, and a decent night’s rest, we decided to up anchor and find more protection. Whilst not untenable, there was a slight roll in this anchorage and we really wanted complete protection and therefore complete rest. As we discussed the following day’s activities, which was Noel’s birthday, Lena’s voice came barrelling through the radio. What a welcome and what joy to hear our friends were safe, around the corner in a tranquil anchorage. Spurred on by the thought of a voyage debrief over chilled wine, good food and kindred folk, we upped anchor to move 15 nautical miles to the east side of the Isle de Ray. Here we shared tactics, Dana had hoved to, but had been pushed many miles back south east, arriving at the Perlas just two days before us. The gale had persisted for four days, giving us relief of our decision to head so far west and hide out for a few days.
A different kind of secret
Sparkling water, all round protection, sandy beaches; only the odd squawk from wildlife, athletic fish and the muffled rumble of distant surf broke the hush. Freshwater trickling down ancient rocks created mini pools at low tide, granting us a serene, shaded setting to catch up on laundry. But what the books, and other cruisers did not mention about Las Perlas was the bugs. Small mosquitoes and noseeems would squeeze through gaps in the nets on board. The next line of defence was mozzie coils, they slowed down the critters a little. Spraying the nets with repellent eased their feast for a few hours. But I am convinced they shut their eyes and noses to fly through the smoke. Announcing their arrival by dive bombing uncovered skin; it turned me into some sort of self-slapping lunatic. One still night I was bitten so much I could have arranged several join the dots competitions on my legs. Waking during fitful nights to find I had torn at my legs until they bled kind of took the polish off the place. Admittedly, other, more open anchorages had fewer bugs.
The other eye-opener not mentioned in discussions or prose, is the rubbish. In the immediate vicinity of the popular anchorages locals clean up disregarded plastic into piles to bury under leaves, leaving the 360 view at anchor almost pristine. However, hop in the dinghy and undertake a little adventure to windward beaches and the piles of garbage are stunning. We could only assume that the currents create eddies that suck in the garbage from the eastern pacific and the string of islands act as a sieve, collecting great chunks of one of humanities great embarrassments, of which we are all to blame.
Always a compromise
In sailing, living onboard and visiting ‘ideal’ destinations there is always a compromise. We enjoyed the Perlas for protected anchorages, fascinating wildlife and a tranquil rest. The tenacious bugs were like nothing we had ever experienced before; the amount of garbage not witnessed since the South China Sea.
The Danish Christmas onboard SV Dana was delicious, fun and excruciatingly hot, not a breath of breeze eased the pain. My birthday, at a more exposed, but suitably protected anchorage was in 25 knots of wind and driving rain, making dinner a task to get over with, before arranging anchor watch for the night. Still, much laughter was carried off into the squalls.
This is the reality of cruising. We are truly blessed with a life full of adventure, fun and love. With all aspects of sailing and escapade, both joy and fear live in the same neighbourhood.
Reality is the result. Just like witnessing fascinating wildlife means enduring hungry bugs.
The loss of someone that was becoming a good friend exchanged depressing thoughts of farewelling my thirties, to a joy of being alive and able to experience places others cannot.
Soon we will return to Balboa, scene of our successful Canal passage on board Mariah II with Noel’s brother Col and my Dad Roy. We made lifelong friends there. We wonder what is in store for us this time.