Dockwise to Panama and Through the CanalPosted: February 1, 2005
We were home for three weeks and then off to Golfito to take the boat off the ship the end of February. It was hard to come from Maine in the winter to a very hot and rainy Golfito, but we did find some great jungle hiking in the park on the Ossa Peninsula -- several types of monkeys, Tapirs, innumerable birds, snakes, and very lush jungle flora. After unloading we pulled into the King and Bartlett Marina owned by sport fishermen from Maine. We quickly put CHEWINK together and cleaned her up from any leftover dirt from the exhaust of the ship. Luckily, the trip from New Zealand is upwind (major reason for shipping) making it much cleaner. I understand a downwind trip can often be quite dirty. Golfito being almost on the border of Panama, we were in Panama after a long day and spent a couple of days amongst the islands of NW Panama. Still rainy and hot we moved quickly to Coiba, an old penal colony, now turned into a national park. This is a wonderful place for birders, divers, and sportfishermen. We were the first to see Tito, a large Crocodile, when he returned after a six month absence -- makes you think twice about diving? We moved along after three days and headed for colder water in the Gulf of Panama and get in line for the transit. We had no wind so we motored for 24 hours fighting a good current after rounding Punta Mala. We spent five days in the Perlas Islands with the fleet getting ready to kick off for the Galapagos and Marquesas. Watching them gear up for their departures, we started to feel as if we should be going with them.
We had an unpleasant surprise queuing up for the canal. We had expected possibly a week's wait to transit, but were told it would be three weeks. The Pedro Miguel Yacht Club in Mira Flores Lake is being closed down by the Canal Authority making it hard to enjoy Panama. The facilities in Balboa continue to be marginal and inconvenient, but we managed to find a mooring and headed to the highlands of Boquete. We love most of Panama, but the Canal Authority has made it their mission to make it unpleasant for yachts with policies which seem to change every day. The people who work in the canal are all pleasant, but the directives from the top are pretty counterproductive for efficient transit of small boats. However, there are plans in the air for better transit methods and our friends Russ Goedjen and David Wilson are helping to get a new marina started in Ft Sherman on the north side of Cristobal. This is going to be a great addition to Panama.
We transitted the canal April 1st with some good friends who must have had hundreds of transits between them. Panama has a great group of ex-pats whom we have gotten to know and enjoy being with. It is always fun to be back seeing them and they make great "line handlers". Transitting the canal is still an adventure (our fourth time) and we still really enjoy it. We had particularly good luck on this transit by being able to side-tie to a tug. A much safer and easier method rather than tying "center channel". The key to the canal is to stay in Contadora in the Perlas, or Porto Bello, on the Caribbean side and make arrangements to have the boat inspected, fees paid, and your name put on the list. After arriving in the canal zone and being inspected it is relatively easy to go back out to another anchorage like the Chagres river, Porto Bello, or Taboga, and the Perlas Islands on the Pacific side. Avon now has great blow up fenders that are easy to carry -- they are ideal for the canal as well as everywhere else you may tie up that is dirty or a swell is running. They eliminate the need for tires we have used in the past.
Everything is available in Panama -- great supermarkets on both ends of the canal and stores all over Panama City with most of what you need. It can be trying to find the shops, but taxis are cheap and knowledgeable. Panama City is a modern and fun city with some great restaurants, museums, shops, etc.
Since we'd now been in Panama for over three weeks and Colon continues to be a dangerous place for "Gringos", we only stayed one night after the transit and headed off to Porto Bello and then the San Blas with our friends, Sarah Terry and Craig Owings, on POGO. We finally felt like we were cruising again.
The San Blas are still beautiful, but there are a lot of cruisers there now who have made it their home. A fairly inactive group who are mostly interested in the next beach party, but a good retirement place with very few hassles, no government, and no real fees. However, they tend to stay in just a few places leaving the rest of the anchorages and rivers still relatively free.
Since we were behind schedule with the wait in Balboa, we took a straight shot up to Guanaja, the eastern most island in the Bay Islands of Honduras, passing two good islands, Providencia and San Andres. This was an easy four day trip with very light winds. In fact, we went through the next month with hardly a rain cloud and very light winds.
Now that we were in the Caribbean, we expected to see a lot of boats compared to the Pacific. The San Blas and Panama now have a sizeable cruising fleet so we were surprised to find Guanaja with only a half dozen boats spread out over a couple of anchorages. In fact, the entire Bay Islands are not very crowded.
Guanaja is a great place to clear into the country. Everyone lives on a picturesque, overcrowded, out island despite plenty of space on the main island because of sand flies and mosquitoes. Sand flies are the number one problem in the Bay Islands -- similar to the Marquesas. Guanaja is a bustling town fueled by the shrimp boats of which there are hundreds stored here in the off-season.
We moved to an out island on the reef called Graham's Place This is the nicest place in the Bay Islands for yachts. He caters to cruisers with free moorings, a great bar, a funky restaurant, laundry, fresh water, and rides to town. All the other resorts have closed down in Guanaja (except for a couple of old hotels in the middle of town) making this the center of any activity which wasn't a lot. In other words, a quiet place.
Roatan is a much larger island with harbor after harbor that all rate as the best in the Caribbean. No trouble finding a hurricane hole here. Some very good diving and good hiking. There are some theft problems in the anchorages near the town, but we had no troubles. We spent a week diving on the West End of the island, a place that reminded me of Key West 30 years ago -- pretty funky place that caters to divers -- like a big factory.
We stopped in Utila to dive with the whale sharks, but never saw one. This island is really a dive factory with the cheapest diving in the world. You get what you pay for here and we were unimpressed. There is the suspicion that some of the bars are working with thieves so as you come ashore they go out to the boats. We had no problems, but moved on pretty quickly. However, it is a pretty town with funky houses and very few cars. Some cruisers like this island best of all.
The diving in these islands is terrific with very clear water undoubtedly the clearest water we have see in the last five years. The anchorages are all close to the reef and the dive operations have all set up buoys at the better spots making it incredibly easy to reach from the anchorages. Since the commercial dive operations all operate in specific areas, they leave a lot of unused territory for us to explore. We have had better diving in the Pacific, but this is so convenient and clear, it comes close.
Where to now?Previous Log Entry: Getting Kicked Out of New Zealand
Next Log Entry: Up the Rio Dulce and down the Colorado River
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What is Cabot's Log?
The following log and pictures are from Cabot and Heidi aboard CHEWINK, their Lyman-Morse Seguin 49 which Cabot built in 1987 and has sailed more than 62,000 miles. The log follows them as they began their second circumnavigation in 2000 through their current adventures in the Caribbean.