A large squall dumped rain for an hour last night. Rumor has it this was thanks to the hammock wind-sock I put up to funnel air into our cabin.
Today was mostly about getting ready for the evening dining excursion with our friends. By four PM, we were champing at the bit for adventure.
Three yellow Hilux pickups transported our group of ten people down the coast road to the far end of Isla Colon. I’m so glad we went there, since I finally got a look at some of the surf reefs and surf resorts the island is famous for. Bosco, our driver, said that this is low season at the moment, but com January, the waves get huge and people arrive from all around the world to surf these breaks. Our journey to the restaurant was an adventure in itself. Once we left the asphalt, we bounced along a pot-holed track, negotiating deep puddles, overflowing streams, and ocean-eroded road shoulders.
We intentionally arrived early to for our reservation to have time to walk down the beach. The surf may be smaller than usual, but the way it crushes so close to shore reminds me of the intimidating waves we saw on the beaches of Big Sur, California. Once again, nature reminds us not to take its power for granted.
Evidently there are many sea turtle nests on these beaches, carefully monitored by the Sea Turtle Conservancy. According to our hosts, the conservationists make no effort to share the location or number of turtle nests, however, in order to minimize turtle/human interaction. Even so, the word is that Spring and Summer are hatching season, so we missed out.
HOWEVER - As has been typical for any information we receive in Panama about “this is the way things are”: Evidently a nest of 101 turtlings hatched last week (out of season), so maybe their calendar is slightly more flexible than it was presented?
The meal at The View was delightful. The ambiance was a big part of what made it lovely - an upper deck with ocean breeze…a stylish, custom wood furnished, energy self-sufficient restaurant…live music from a beast of a guitarist…a surprisingly popular gathering place for other culinary pilgrims as the evening progressed….what’s not to love?
Once I met the restaurant’s British owners, there was no doubt I was going to order fish and chips. It turned out to be an excellent decision because the fish was transcendent. Dad got a steak (which was good), Sarah and Mom ordered Thai Shrimp (a disappointment, especially contrasted against the other food on the menu), and Zoe and Joss split a fish and chips (which they inhaled). For the first time, the girls also used cash to purchase their own deserts from the menu (chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream - good, but not life changingly so) and key lime pie (crazy tangy, but Joss loved it).
While we waited for the restaurant to open, someone spotted a ground-level sloth, so we hustled over and dutifully took photos. If there hadn’t been a crowd I would have given his fur a quick pet - he was certainly close enough to us. He had a lovely smile on his face as well. I don’t know if God was aiming to create the cutest animal in the world with sloths, but he didn’t fall short of the mark.
The taxi driver said tomorrow is not a day for partying. It is Dio de los Muertos - Day of the Dead. From what I understand, most businesses in town close for the day, while people take time to remember their departed loved ones. It appears Sunday (two days from now) and possibly Monday (maybe Tuesday?) will feature a parade or two. We haven’t found hard information about the schedule, but the mother of a young boy told us her child was ordered to be at school at 830 AM Sunday, so it looks like an early start is in order.
Lots of computing today. Sarah is updating the website, I’m writing, Dad is meme-ing, Mom is blogging, and the children are pining for any form of screen time possible. Other than a quick trip to town for ice cream, today was chill and boat-bound. We didn’t even bother putting the engine on the dinghy, since we are close enough to paddle to shore.
Everything in town was open as normal, with the exception of anywhere that sells alcohol. Dio de los Muertos is not a day for drinking.
Thanks to yesterday’s nocturnal adventure, we moved our normal Friday Movie to Saturday. The girls selected Pixar’s Brave. I’m still not sure about the film’s theme, though. Change your fate by following your heart…what does that even mean?
We weren’t sure when the festivities would begin today. Since we’ve been listening to drum rehearsals for the past two weeks, we figured percussion would cue us in to the start time.
It turns out that Nov 3 is Seperation Day, a day set aside to celebrate Panama’s independence from Columbia - not to be confused with it’s other Independence Day, which celebrates Panama’s independence from Spain.
The parade was wonderful. It was great to witness the civic pride and sense of community on display in beautiful traditional costumes, marching music ensembles, and flag throwing (dancing?). I was impressed by how many people wore polyester costumes in the intense heat.
We pumped an expat who has lived here for sixteen years for solid information about the calendar. It looks like the big celebration - Bocas Day - happens November 15 & 16. Evidently the 15th will feature bands of marching kids and the 16th will highlight older kids and adult groups. But the party really kicks in on the evening of the 16th, when the adult bands will “throw drums, have light shows, and incorporate fire”.
I hope we are going to be around for that.
Watermaking Day snuck up on us again. We have to make water every five days to keep the membranes from growing bacteria. If we aren’t in an area with clean enough water, we can stop the clock by “pickling the membrane” (running chemicals through the unit that preserve the membrane for up to six months). Replacing a membrane would run at least $1000, so it’s worth paying attention.
The water in Bocas del Toro has a lot of particulate matter and is very warm, which means its even more essential that we are diligent about making water on schedule. However, the last two times we made water here, brown growth appeared on our disposable pre-filter. We carry spares, so we are able to keep going, but it reminded us to pay attention.
To that end, today we motored four miles out of Bocas into open water, in an attempt to find a cleaner source of salt water that might not gum up our pre-filter.
We ticked an engine over at low rpms to keep Exit Only from hitting rocks at the bottom of a cliff somewhere and becoming an object lesson to other cruisers.
The ladies gamely tried to conduct school as we bounced on the waves, but it was tough.
It took an hour and ten minutes to fill the main water tank, then we were able to head downwind and return to shelter waters.
Our next stop was Dolphin Bay, for tomorrow morning’s tour of the Green Acres Cacao Farm. It was a relatively short hop of seven miles, but a third of the journey was through unsurveyed water - at least on our charts. I took the opportunity to climb to the first spreaders and act as a lookout, which always reminds me of the old days in my teen years in the South Pacific. I’ve always loved going up and helping navigate through tight spots and around reefs.
Today I was nothing more than a Passenger with the Best View, however. In spite of our incompetence charts’ warnings, there was nothing to fear in these waters - twenty to thirty feet of depth all the way, with no hidden reefs bent on our demise.
There were a few jellyfish in the water, but we didn’t let that stop us from taking a long-awaited swim. In addition to providing a useful opportunity to wash the odor and stickiness from our bodies, swimming is family time that everyone enjoys in their own way. Zoe loves to dive in off the stern. Joss spends more time diving beneath the surface than she does swimming on top. Sarah practices her surface dives. Dad floats. On the rare occasion Mom joins, she floats. And I do it all.
We awoke to a still, quiet anchorage, nestled in the corner of a rain forest. If I was going to buy land and live off the grid, this would be a lovely place to do it.
The entire crew was excited for our 10 AM tour of the Green Acres Chocolate Farm, so for once we wrangled all our cats and arrived early. Marty and Suzanne, our friends from a Nordhaven motor yacht called Alizarr, showed up shortly after us. Robert, a former dentist from America, greeted our group at the dock and engaged us with chit chat until our fellow tour mates arrived from Bocas Town. Four Germans, and an Austrian (and four Polish people who discovered their panga had driven them to the wrong dock, so they turned around and left) later, the Greatest Tour of Our Lives began.
Robert and his wife have owned and operated Green Acres for the past six years. It so happens that they recently sold the farm as a turnkey operation to environmentalists from California, so today’s tour was one of a month of transitional “teach the new guy how to give a tour” days. It was clear from the outset that Robert loves nature. Green Acres is more than just a simple chocolate farm, it is a world-class botanical garden. Part of their mission is to provide jobs and work for the local Panamanians, so four gardeners are employed (minimum wage is something like $1.30/hour here!) to keep the farm running.
Through Robert, we learned the name of blossoms, orchids, trees, fruit, and any other multicolored thing the jungle could throw at us. I loved watching the ocean of information wash over Zoe and Joss, and only hope that they absorbed, if not memories of exact names, at least a greater appreciation for nature.
The chocolate making process is fascinating and labor intensive. As best I recall the steps are:
1. Grow Cacao pods. Keep them healthy. You’re going to need a lot of them because it takes 16 pods to produce one pound of beans. 15% of your crop is going to get eaten by squirrels, by the way.
2. Crack the pods open and ferment your beans (which takes about a week). Once you pick the pods, you only have four to five days to process them before they rot. Since a typical harvest at Green Acres is often at least 1,000 pods, your days are going to be full.
3. Dry fermented beans under the sun (some people capture the sweet liquid that falls during this process to create Chocolate Wine).
4. Roll beans in a heated tank to crack their shells.
5. Separate the beans from their shells using a clever jury-rigged Shop-vac-clorox-bottle-PVC-tube machine. This gives you nibs, which can be used as a topping for almost any food (yoghurt, ice cream, cereal), and the spent shells, which Green Acres uses to make Chocolate Tea.
6. Grind the separated nut through a masher ten times ( requiring two hours) until you have a peanut butter-like paste which can be poured into molds to cool.
Voila! Unsweetened chocolate, ready for cooking.
Health was one of the constant themes of the tour. Green Acres is an organic farm, so it’s not surprising they are serious about diet and skin care. I know it’s their business to promote chocolate, but by the end of the tour I was ready to sleep in a bath of unsweetened chocolate every night so I can live forever. The tour lasted almost three hours and cost $15 per adult (children free), although we sprung for a $5 bag of chocolate nibs too since, among other things, chocolate is an aphrodisiac.
After we saw the chocolate making process, we did a short jungle trek, where the girls were allowed to bash open cacao pods and eat the beans raw. We picked up a small, beige Letter Frog. We did not pick up the bright green, spotted poison arrow frog (although Robert did). I offered to pay the girls $1 each if they ate a live termite. Once again, capitalism proved to be the most effective parenting strategy. Most of the group ate termites (Mom and Dad didn’t, to their loss). Surprisingly, they taste convincingly of nutmeg. I offered to pay Joss a dollar to lick the Letter Frog. She said it would cost me ten, so I balked at the price.
We left Green Acres Chocolate Farm with a greater love for our planet and some concern about how big Robert’s shoes are going to be to fill for the farm’s new owners. Robert’s obvious passion for the land is a big part of what made the place special.
But at the end of the day, you can’t go run with a chocolate farm.
Our plans are flexible at the moment, so when our friends on Alizarr invited us to a surprise 90th birthday party at Rana Azul (Blue Frog), “a restaurant around the corner that also happens to have the best pizza oven in Bocas del Toro” at 3 pm, we jumped at the chance.
The weather, on the other hand, had other plans. By eleven AM, the wind had whipped up to 20 knots and was white-capping in our small bay. The rain followed soon after and kept up, in varying degrees, for the rest of the day.
But rain could never hope to dampen our motivation, for we are avowed pizza enthusiasts. We pulled up anchor around one PM, and followed Alizarr three miles against headwinds and pouring rain to the next bay.
We dropped anchor and settled in for a light snack, saving room for the feast to come. Then the fateful call came over the VHF announcing that “due to inclement weather, the party was rescheduled to Friday”. Marty and Suzanne came back from an exploratory dinghy run into the restaurant and reported that since the party had been canceled, there were no plans to fire up the pizza oven.
We said “thanks, but no thanks” since our anchorage was exposed and we were quite happy to move on if pizza wasn’t in the offing. Ten minutes later, I finished scrubbing mud from the anchor chain and stowed the anchor as we motored away. Three minutes after that, Marty called us on the VHF and said the restaurant had agreed to fire up the pizza oven.
What were we to do but turn around and drop anchor again?
After all the drama, we were fatalistic about the promised meal, but we owed it to the restaurant to go to the effort of dropping the dinghy and installing the outboard engine.
Once we motored around the point of the mangrove peninsula, the choppy water smoothed and the wind calmed down. The restaurant was a covered, outdoor bar, complete with a high quality billiards table, country music on the sound system, an outdoor pool, wifi, and an earthen pizza oven. The owners waited by the dock to personally welcome us with handshakes. They are a couple from Luxembourg who sailed their Benateau here from Gibraltar a few years ago, then never left. He is a ranked billiards player, which was obvious from the way he kept a constant eye on whomever was playing pool.
Zoe and Joss were dying to learn how to play, so I drew on blurry childhood memories and pretended to know what I was talking about. It would have been more relaxing if the table hadn’t been so nice, because I was constant worrying the kids would scratch the surface with an errant swing of a cue. At any rate, I was able to teach them enough bad habits to ensure they will never have a career hustling in pool halls later in life, so mission accomplished.
The pizza was delicious. Thin crust, but still full-bodied. An excellent, non-skimpy blend of cheese. Well-balanced acid in the understated tomato sauce. The pepperonis in particular made a bold, but controlled statement. As an added touch, bottles of olive oil mixed with hot peppers were placed at each table, providing a lively punch to your tongue upon request.
Zoe and Joss had a marvelous time playing with three young kids and a dog. It’s always a blessing when my kids share company with well-behaved kids. The future is a mess of peer pressure and hormones…let’s just enjoy an afternoon of delicious pizza and play fetch with the dog today.
Dropped the dinghy in this morning without a motor, in the hopes of rowing around Exit Only for a 360 time lapse video I try to do in every anchorage. Sarah was my designated camerawoman and together we paddled around the boat multiple times until we realized she’d been shooting a regular video instead of time lapse (my fault for not checking the settings). While I mustered the energy to try again, a small traditional cayuco zoomed past.
I did a double take. The paddlers were three Panamanian children, roughly Zoe’s age, who were adorned in the cutest school uniforms I’d ever seen. The boy at the back steered while the two girls in front provided horsepower. Three backpacks were piled in the front of the canoe and no life jackets were in sight. These kids had a lot of responsibility.
I had to row hard, but after a short chase I managed to catch up to them when they mercifully stopped paddling. Sarah and I tried speaking to them in Spanish, but they remained mostly silent, overwhelmed by the weirdness of a shirtless rowing gringo chasing them across the bay.
They got the picture quickly when I readied my oars, narrowed my eyes, and said, “Tres…Dos…Uno…Arriba!” In an instant, the race was on! Between you and me, I didn’t go all out for very long and they soon pulled away - but also, between you and me, they would 100% have smoked me in a long distance race. Those kids can paddle.
The smiles on their faces promised they would have a good story to tell their classmates when they got to school today.
The bay we are in, by the way, is at least four miles long, and they were headed for the far side of it. Impressive.
We moved Exit Only back to Dolphin Bay in search of a small mangrove island our friend Tom Kimbrall told us about, “A tiny mangrove island with the most sea anemones I’ve ever seen!”. His description was tantalizing, but given what we’d seen so far in Bocas, I wasn’t expecting much. The rainy season sends a lot of particulate matter into the water through river runoffs, so from what I hear you have to wait until December for the water clarity to improve.
A pod of dolphins greeted us on our arrival at the bay. From what we’re told, this is an ideal nursery grounds. Given the lack of jellyfish in the water (everywhere else we’ve been has a fair number), its clear that the babies are finding plenty of food.
A few tourist pangas showed up to watch the dolphins and chased them into deeper water, away from our boat. It was a little disappointing, but that’s the price you pay for anchoring in paradise sometimes. Besides, the dolphins would be back.
Our search for the anemone island was aided by the arrival of a local tour catamaran, who dropped anchor next to a tiny mangrove island and let snorkelers off.
Well, that was easy.
We swam a couple other sites out of curiosity (they were nice and yielded some unique soft corals and bright sponges I haven’t seen before), then headed over to the miniature mangrove.
Eureka! The south side of the island was covered with a carpet of hard coral, sea urchins, and a forest of sea anemones. My favorite, though, was a three foot tall sponge volcano. New discoveries lurked everywhere we looked, including an unfortunate moon jellyfish who got prodded by a succession of fingers once we realized he couldn’t sting us.
A squall roared in while we were snorkeling, and the wind was blowing twenty knots by the time we dinghied back to Exit Only. As we got closer we saw Mom on the deck, struggling to contain the gyrating sun awning and hammock I had left up in nicer weather. I bounded on board as quickly as possible to help wrangle the mess.
In the evening, I discovered to my chagrin that I had mistakenly formatted over all the footage I shot of the Green Acres Chocolate Farm. Nothing left of the girls eating termites, the sweet jury-rigged chocolate machines, the eclectic variety of fruit we tasted, or the poison dart frog. What a bummer. I won’t make that mistake again.
We inquired into doing another tour but it looks like it will be a couple of days until their next one. And no matter what, we lose the spontaneity of the first go round. Alas..
We anchored in Dolphin Bay for an extra day for two reasons:
1. We wanted to snorkel Mangrove Island again, hopefully with bright sunlight.
2. Green Acres Farm informed us there was a tour on Saturday morning (the next day).
In the hopes of luring Mom into snorkeling the Mangrove with us, we raised anchor and headed for the little island…but not without motoring through the middle of a pod of dolphins, who get very excited when we punched the throttle! We spent the next thirty minutes doing the nautical equivalent of donuts in a parking lot while dolphins played in our bow waves. What a blast!
We dropped anchor close enough to Mangrove Island to paddle the dinghy over (but not close enough to convince Mom to join us, alas). This time we swam around the entire perimeter of the island and were shocked to discover the huge variety of underwater growth on mangrove roots. Swimming amongst the otherworldly scene was spooky, especially considering the relatively low visibility. Just between you and me, I kept my head on a swivel for crocodiles.
Joss discovered another (or possibly the same?) moon jellyfish, which we all duly poked and prodded again. That poor little guy is going to be traumatized.
Movie night meant popcorn and the Lion King. The girls hadn’t seen it before, so their minds were blown.
Mom and Dad remained on the boat while my ladies and I paddled in for Green Acres Chocolate Farm Tour 2.0.
Thanks to cancellations due to the rain, the group consisted of us and one other German couple. Even though we had heard much of the information before, Robert (the tour guide/former owner of the farm) has such an exhaustive knowledge of nature we still learned a lot.
The girls were stoked to have another run at the tour. They were happy to relive highlights like popping open a cacao pod and eating fresh nuts, cracking dried nuts and eating them, eating refined chocolate nibs, and eating termites. Now that I think about it, they were mostly pumped about eating things.
Sarah caught a green poison dart frog in her hands, which made me super proud. Joss held it too, which also made me proud, but super concerned that she washed her hands well.
We saw lines of army ants marching through the jungle. Robert said that plagues of marching ants forced them out of their house twice in the six years they lived at Green Acres. Both times, they returned to the house after five or six days to find that every insect in the house was eaten. The army ants ignored a plate of food that Robert had left out as an experiment.
The tour was equally fantastic the second time.
We made it back to Exit Only for a late lunch of enchiladas, then raised anchor and powered against 15-20 knot headwinds towards Bocas Town. It’s Watermaking Day again! It is the first time we’ve made water in squally conditions, and our setup worked like a champ. One and a half hours later, the tank was full and we were able to punch the throttles.
A prime anchoring spot waited for us in the middle of the fleet. It must have been recently vacated, because spaces don’t last long off Bocas Town. Within seconds after dropping the hook, a wall of pangas zoomed by at unwise speed and pointlessly close proximity. Yup, we were back.
My main goal for today was to hit a coffee shop with internet to try and recover the Green Acres videos I accidentally formatted over. I was successful in spending $60 on software, but unsuccessful in opening the files I managed to pull off the SD card, so I’m not sure if I was victorious or not.
Oh well, maybe that program will save me in the future.
When I accessed my hotmail account, Microsoft freaked out and blocked the email until I could confirm my identity, which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that I swapped SIM cards in my phone so my phone number is different.
And just like that, I became a man without a digital country.
On the plus side, I enjoyed the coffee very much…so much in fact that I bought a hot chocolate as well. They served both drinks with a Hershey’s kiss, adding an extra touch of class to the experience.
The shop’s clientele seemed to hail predominantly from the midwestern USA. I’m used to hearing German accents in situations like this, so between the patrons and the English-speaking music (100 variations of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”), it felt very much like a cozy coffee spot back in the States.
Rainy season is upon us. It’s not as bad as expected (yet), mostly just determined drizzles and occasional cranky squalls. Still, we’ve had to adjust our expectations so we are okay with getting wet in the dinghy - otherwise we’d never leave the boat in November.
Rain quantity is just another example of the importance of taking cruising advice with a grain of salt. Over the past three months we’ve received a series of well-intentioned but flawed advice about what to expect in Panama.
“They charge you $5 per person to go into that beach!” (We were charged nothing both times.)
“There’s no diesel in San Blas.” (There’s diesel if you go to Nargana.)
“Prepare for an unrelenting wall of rain from November 1 to 30.” (It’s Nov 10 and we’re fine.)
“You can anchor in Linton Bay, no problem.” (Since we’ve been here, there have been five robberies in Linton Bay and Nombre de Dios, the next bay over. Three of the robberies have been violent.)
Dad and I went into town to accomplish a short list of errands while the ladies did school on the boat. Unfortunately, we didn’t account for the local holiday (Los Santos), which closed the marine store and the Movistar (the cell phone provider) office. Fortunately, grocery stores were still open so we completed the missions assigned to us, namely, to buy and carry heavy supplies of long life milk.
On our way back to the boat we decided to stop by a small, classic double-ender at the far end of the anchorage. It turned out to be a Westsail 32, the same design as Mom and Dad’s first blue water cruising boat forty years ago in Puerto Rico. The owners are Mike and Betty. Mike used to be an Apache helicopter pilot and his wife is from the Philippines. Although they’ve lived aboard for three years, their cruising dreams are just beginning. Like so many cruisers we’ve spoken to, they are planning to transit the canal in the next six weeks. Everyone wants to get through before the price doubles in January.
A couple of days ago Sarah wisely made appointments for us at the French Consulate to get our long stay visa process started. We’ve got until December 3 to sort out the long list of required paperwork and show up in Panama City. After so much discussion over the past six months, it’s surreal to finally be this close to starting the process. Fingers crossed it goes smoothly.
It blows my mind that in 2019 they are still physically mailing passports to Tahiti for processing.
Now this is what I expected from rainy season in the rainforest: low cloud cover, endless drizzles punctuated by sharp squalls, and perpetual wetness on a cruising boat. For people like us, who need to hang laundry outside for it to dry, this is not a recipe for smelling fresh and clean.
Mom and Dad went back to the Indian restaurant for lunch today. It must be delicious, because they rarely, if ever, gush about food. Sarah prepared spaghetti for me and the girls. Aside from the indisputable fact that Sarah is a wonderful cook, her culinary efforts have an extra spark of radness because they don’t involve spending money at tourist prices. I’m a blessed, happy, and very full man.
As if she wasn’t awesome enough already, Sarah upped the ante by baking fresh cinnamon rolls this afternoon. SO good. The only downside was how the girls bounced off the walls after they finished licking the frosting from beneath their fingernails. Boats can be a tough place for kids to dissipate energy, especially if its raining and you are in a bay where the water is too dirty to swim.
Weather derailed our original plans, so it looks like we are going to hang out in Bocas Town until the parades this weekend, then hit a few anchorages on our way out of the archipelago. We’re all looking forward to seeing the fringes away from the tourist sites.
Today everyone but me took the car ferry into Almirante. To Joss and Zoe’s enduring delight, friends on Ketchy Schweby (another kid boat in Bocas Town), joined them for the ride. The ferry travels at 6.5 knots and takes an hour and half each way, so the kids had lots of time to play and watch Madagascar (in Spanish) in the ferry’s waiting room.
Tickets for the ferry are only $2 per adult. Finally, a bargain in tourist town!
Almirante is home to Chiquita Bananas’ shipping facility, and features two humongous red cranes that load airtight containers of produce onto ships.
Mom and Dad were determined to take the noon ferry back to Bocas Town, so the short turnaround time didn’t allow them to explore Almirante. Sarah and the girls walked around and ate lunch with Ketchy Schweby, then took a high speed water taxi back for $6.
The rocket-powered panga traveled at least thirty knots and passed the car ferry like it was standing still.
On Exit Only, I kept a sharp eye on the ferry’s progress so I could pick the crew up. To my amusement, the car ferry turned right instead of left and disappeared into the far-off mangroves near Red Frog resort. With a twist of the Captain’s helm, Mom and Dad’s journey turned into an epic adventure of inter-island supply delivery.
I went into town to hang out with Sarah and the girls, who had arrived around 2 PM. We walked around town, chilled at Super Gourmet (air conditioning and wi-fi), and waited. The car ferry arrived at 4:30 PM, whereupon it off-loaded an armada of supply trucks and my two very hungry parents.
Pizza at La Italiana’s happy hour ($6 personal pizza + drink!) was the order of the day. They have a wood-fired pizza oven, so all was well in the kingdom.
Watermaking Day sneaked up on us again. We hadn’t intended on staying in Bocas Town this long, but weather and circumstances conspired to laugh at our plans. Because of the town’s habit of dumping sewage into the harbor, we hadn’t swum in five days - a lifetime on a sailboat in hot weather.
We were all pleased to raise anchor and head for cleaner water. After assembling the three-piece water maker so many times, Dad and I have it down to a science. Within two hours of leaving Bocas Town, our tanks were full of fresh, drinkable water.
Swimming was the order of the day!
Perhaps from all the recent rain, the water on the surface was cooler than any we’d found in the archipelago. Refreshing cannonballs led to an examination of the barnacle-crusted hulls, and before we knew it, scraping the hull was the (new) order of the day!
Over the years, I’ve cleaned Exit Only’s hulls many times and in many scenarios - by myself, with Wendy (my sister), with Sarah, and with Dad. The easiest, most pleasant hull cleanings are in warm water with great visibility. Open ocean is mentally intimidating, but as long as the waves aren’t too choppy, it’s not too bad (you just have to focus and avoid thinking about big-toothed fish hunting you just out of sight). The Hatea River in Whangarei, New Zealand was notably cold and had terrible visibility, but I had no choice because the bottom growth was so bad we could barely motor at more than a knot of speed.
It warmed my heart when Joss and Zoe excitedly lined up to tie scrapers to their wrists so they could help. This situation is what every sailor hopes for when they have children.
The five of us (Dad and Sarah scraped too) made short work of the burgeoning barnacle colony on the hulls. Piece of cake.
Upon returning to Bocas Town, I discovered my labors were not yet finished. Sarah informed me that in addition to Watermaking Day and Scraping Day, it was Laundry Day!
Thus began a couple hours of plunging, squeezing, rinsing, squeezing, and hanging. Exit Only soon looked like a clothes vendor stall in a suq.
Miraculously, the rain held off long enough for clothes to dry.
Let me repeat that, so as not to gloss over the incredibility of that sentence.
The rain held off long enough for clothes to dry.
Sarah, the girls, and I went into town around sundown to stretch our legs and inspect preparations for this weekend’s festivities. A large stage dominates the end of Main Street, the city park is flush with Guna Yala mola booths, and a sense of anticipation hangs in the air.
Zoe and Joss joined the local kids on the park’s plastic playset, and we enjoyed watching them run around screaming in bilingual joy. Eventually a game of Tag evolved (a game that transcends borders and requires no instruction) and I found myself chasing Panamanian children while shouting “Yo soy El Tigre! (I am the tiger!)” I’m hopeful a playground legend was born tonight (The next morning, a crowd of schoolchildren leaned in closer to hear Juan speak of El Tigre. The small boy twitched and whispered, “El Tigre lurks in the dark and Tags without warning. Nowhere is safe.”).
The evening closed with a triumphant mean at the El Pollo (“Chicken”) restaurant. We’ve been keeping an eye on the place ever since we noticed lines of locals queuing up for takeaway meals. We were not disappointed. $8.50 fed our family of four with half a rotisserie chicken, a heaping plate of French fries, and plantanos (smashed, fried plantains). Delicious and affordable! As an added bonus, a local boy taught the girls how to fish using a simple line and hook wrapped around a water bottle.
Parade Day #1! The car ferry pulled into Bocas Town this morning on schedule, but instead of trucks, it disgorged over a thousand life-preserver clad school children from across the Bocas district. From what we can tell, Bocas Day festivities commence with today’s children’s parade, pause for the evening, then relaunch with an adult parade tomorrow.
Knowing the casual Panamanian attitude towards start times, we stayed on the boat until the sound of marching drums called us to shore. Around 1030 AM, the cacophony became too intense to deny, and we went in.
Just like the Independence Day celebration two weeks ago, the back streets were packed with a long line of bands waiting their chance to march in glory down Main Street. Coordination between groups was smooth, thanks to in-ear communicators worn by the leader of each band.
We recognized many of the schools, and even some of the more gregarious children (just like every class has a clown, every band has a drum major waiting for an opportunity to declare him or herself).
Today’s parade moved with at a snail’s pace so each school could perform a routine in front of a stage at the end of the street. The speed was awkward but gave the drummers a chance to shine, which they embraced at full volume.
We watched the procession for a couple of hours, then went to Super Gourmet for sandwiches. To our delight, we met Lorelei, the US owner of the shop who sailed into Bocas del Toro eighteen years ago and never left. We also met a young man from Michigan named Alex who founded and runs a resort called Bird Island Bungalows on the northwestern side of the island. Both locals kindly answered a hailstorm of questions about expat life in the archipelago.
One of the more fascinating exchanges was about the challenges that come with employing indigenous (Ngobe) people, since their expectations about work ethic differ from those in the USA.
Alex confirmed the popularity of Bocas del Toro with German tourists, saying that most of his clients come from Europe and Canada. In his experience, Americans tend to want to be entertained and constantly engaged, so they don’t book vacations where solitude and tranquility are the order of the day. Their resort caters to a niche who identify themselves as flashpackers, people who spent their twenties traveling on a shoestring but have entered the workforce since and now have the resources to embrace comfort when they travel by backpack. The rooms at his resort range from $45-120 a night.
Tomorrow is the big day! I’m trying not to get my hopes too high, but we hear rumors of acrobats.
Another jam-packed ferry motored in this morning, bursting at the gills with revelers, band members, and presumably, acrobats. The bands were so excited, they played during the ferry ride. Lacking a unified song or leader, it was pure cacophony.
The drums started in earnest around 1030 AM, so we went into town. We caught most of the early groups by the downtown park, where they amped themselves up for their big moment at the Grandstand.
The bands were comprised of older students today and we recognized many groups from the Independence Day celebrations. The second to last group was an ensemble of testosterone-fueled hotshots, local standouts and my favorite from last time. There was clear improvement in the overall skills on display, forged in the fire of an additional two weeks of nightly rehearsal.
We bought groceries and returned to the boat around 4 PM to rest and prepare for the Big Show to commence after sundown. An expat who runs a local restaurant told us this is her favorite day of the year and promised a night of flying drums, fire, and lights from bands who traveled all the way from Panama City to compete and perform for Bocas Day. With 17 bands participating this year (an unprecedentedly high number) I was skeptical about the likelihood of the event starting on time or finishing in the next three days.
After two hours of lounging, snacking, and napping, we charged back into town around 6 PM. We worked our way through hundreds of performers who were patiently waiting for things to kick off. The complete lack of organization or urgency on display convinced us to introduce Mom and Dad to the Pollo (chicken) restaurant. $10 well spent.
After dinner, we staked out a spot in front of a grocery store, hoping to take advantage of their bright neon lights to capture better video and photos. A constant stream of partially-uniformed, drum-toting musicians weaved through the crowd in the general direction of start line, none of them looking particularly concerned about the fact we were already an hour behind the official start time. Around 7:30 PM, we watched a tall man from the national TV station try to convince the Police to get things moving. I can only imagine his frustration at having to stall the live broadcast for hours of crowd shots.
By 8:10, we could make out motion at the far end of Main Street. A band was definitely marching in our direction, headed by the twirlingest baton ninja you ever did see.
By 8:20, the band had advanced another 100 feet in our direction.
By 8:30, the baton twirler close enough to take pictures of.
By 8:40, drummers had drawn even with us.
By 8:50, the rear of the band had passed.
Don’t get confused by this timeline - the band was not overly large, they marched excruciatingly SLOWLY. I suppose one down side to booking bands from across Panama is that they might passive-aggressively extend their moment in the sun (and thereby justify the effort they put in to travel) by advancing at a pace that would make glaciers blush.
The rest of the bands adopted a similar attitude towards speed.
Seventeen bands of this? Good luck finishing before dawn.
Random sights and sounds:
As promised, a few hearty souls hurled their bass drums in the air, which was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped. One enterprising drummer cut a hole in his drum, where he stored a can of aerosol spray that he used to spew fireballs when he wasn’t busy honking an air horn - in retrospect I’m not sure he was a drummer at all.
On a personal note: I started playing drums in seventh grade and went so far as to earn a minor in percussion in college, so I appreciate drum lines more than your average person. When I was in eighth grade in Saudi Arabia, I used to take private drum set lessons from a teacher at school. He taught me to play traditional grip (one hand overhand, the other with the drumstick resting like a chopstick in my upturned hand - a common grip used in marching percussion, as opposed to matched grip where both hand are face down), but he taught me to do it backwards, with my right hand upturned. I used this skill to defeat more skilled drummers in competitions because no one else does it “backwards”. Tonight, I was shocked to see one of the snare lines march past with the entire line playing my backwards grip. Pretty rad.
The fifth and final band we watched (the kids were running on fumes) was adorned in gorgeous, colorful African-influenced costumes. Their presentation felt more like a Carnival band in Trinidad than any of the traditional uniformed groups we’ve seen in Panama. Each section wore eye-catching, bright costumes, but the ladies with huge necklaces in front and the woman with butterfly wings at the rear of the group were standouts.
A squall peppered Main Street with rain at 11 PM, the first inclement weather in two days. We took it as a sign and called it a day. Within half an hour, we collapsed into our bunks and fell asleep to the sounds of night marching. Fireworks erupted at 1:30 AM, so I can only assume the later bands picked up the marching pace.
What a privilege to participate in an event like Bocas Day! So often we arrive at a destination only to discover their annual festival of Awesomeness happened three days before we got there. It was nice to time it right for once.
A squally sky dared us to move Exit Only today, and we called its bluff. Now that we had enjoyed Bocas Day, it was time to explore the archipelago again. We moved ten miles to the southeastern side of Bastimento island, near Crawl Cay.
Once again, I’m amazed how many small resorts and homes dot the mangroves and shore in Bocas del Toro. The competition for the tourist dollar must be fierce.
We made it to our new anchorage without any issues. It was a relief to be out of the constant flow of panga traffic. We are the only cruising boat here so it feels isolated and remote, but we need only to look at the shore to find lights and be reminded we aren’t alone.
We’re only 300 feet away from a highly-recommended snorkel site, so that will be the first order of business tomorrow. Three pangas stopped there for snorkel tours this afternoon, so we know it’s going to be good! The girls can’t wait to get back in the water.
Seven tourist pangas disgorged snorkelers to a site five hundred feet from our bow this morning, so it was fairly obvious where to start Mission: Snorkel.
Bocas del Toro offers a stunning variety of underwater life, seemingly unique to each site. Crawl Cay features incredible vase sponges, two to three feet in height and eighteen inches in diameter. They dance and weave to the pressures of tidal currents and wave motion.
Another unlucky moon jellyfish approached our group and was duly poked and prodded until he could make his escape.
I spotted a large green moray eel hiding in the crack of an undersized coral head. Given his healthy size, he’s making the shallow water and minimal shelter work for him, so I guess I shouldn’t judge.
The Award for Weird Animal of the Day goes to a foot-long orange millipede that scurried out from a cave to attack a sponge. At first I thought it was a sea cucumber, but it moved too fast. When I disturbed it by waving my hand, it flexed small white bristles that lined the sides of its body. Everything about this animal said “Back off, muchacho”, so I didn’t let the kids touch it.
We finished the mission with a drift dive through a pass and enjoyed the best visibility (30-40 ft) we’ve seen in Bocas del Toro. As an exercise in fitness and confidence, we swam the dinghy the remaining 200 yards to the boat. I was pleased how well the girls did with the distance.
Tonight we discussed our future plans. After doing math and consulting maps, there is some doubt as to whether we will need a long stay visa for French Polynesia. The Pacific Ocean is so vast and offers so many excellent destinations, it makes sense to devote only three months to the region in order to have more time in Tonga and Fiji at the other end. It’s frustrating, but impossible to complain about without sounding very entitled. Not many people get to cruise the South Pacific in their lifetime, so I’ll keep my mouth shut and be grateful.
We had our first taste of Rainy Season today, at least as I envisioned the nature of a Panamanian November to be. Grey blankets of rain smothered us the entire day, foiling our attempts to make water and pour diesel from our jerry jugs into the main fuel tanks.
On board Exit Only, it felt a lot like we were on passage. We read, the girls watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, then we read some more.
Sarah made pizza for lunch, which was a wonderful boost to crew morale. We enjoyed the crushed hot pepper we bought in Bocas Town (in spite of being informed by the owner of a pizza restaurant that the spice was nearly impossible to find, had to be imported, required selling a kidney for, etc.).
After lunch we launched the dinghy and visited the local grocery store/restaurant in the hopes of finding a wifi signal. The store was organized African-style, with a walk-up counter where customers ask a clerk to retrieve products displayed on shelves. Mom bought six eggs and some knickknacks to support the local economy, but there was no internet to be found.
Sarah and I watched Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the evening. She was unimpressed by its plot departures from the book, but I’m down with any movies that feature dragons.
The sky finally cleared at 11 PM and apologized for the dreary day by sharpening the twinkles of a breathtaking ceiling of stars.
This morning was crisp, clear, and everything we need for a day at the Zapatilla islands. A complete lack of wind promised that the exposed anchorage would be safe for Exit Only, so Dad and I fueled the boat immediately after breakfast. Or, we would have, if I hadn’t accidentally unscrewed the top nozzle lid of the suction pump we use to siphon fuel out of our jerry jugs. Thankfully, it was only the work of a few minutes to disassemble the pump and clean it out. Every time we use that pump, I recall how we agonized over spending a hundred dollars on it, not knowing at the time how much easier it would make our lives. In addition to easing and speeding our refueling process, we use the pump to suck old oil from the engine and transmission during oil changes. It turns things that could be disastrously messy into non-events.
While I’m thinking about it, I should mention another $100 purchase that has proven indispensable: a 10 x 13 foot camping rain tarp. When Sarah and the girls were in the USA a few months ago, Mom requested they bring back a large tarp to act as a sun shade on the front deck. Much to the crew’s delight, the tarp is awesome sauce. It gives us another area to hang out, which is no small accomplishment on a relatively small sailboat. What’s more, the rain tarp became my daily writing office. Once the girls start school in the morning, I string up my hammock and sun shield, put in my headphones, and start typing. I’m typing this from my hammock, in fact. My happy place.
The Zapatillas are everything they were advertised to be. Relatively clear water (evidently the visibility improves markedly in December, after the rainy season stop muddying the water), coral life, and pristine beaches.
By the time we made it to the anchorage, an armada of ten pangas had landed on the beach and unleashed an invading force of fifty sun-seeking tourists. Fortunately, it was a simple matter of waiting their tours out. By 4 PM, the islands were ours.
We deployed the kayaks for the first time since the Bahamas, and somehow Zoe’s paddling skills improved tenfold in the mean time. It freaks her out to be more than ten feet away from me or Exit Only by herself, but we’re working on it.
The girls had a blast on shore. Most of their energy went into digging a hole. After a while, Joss transitioned to writing “I Love You” in every spare patch of sand she could find. I’m not sure what that was all about, but as long as no boys are involved, I’m cool with it.
We checked out Zapatilla #2, the southernmost of the pair, today. Pangas congregate on the broad beach of Zapatilla #1 and tend to leave #2 alone.
I’m not 100% certain, but my memory told me that Tom, our friend who used to run a nearby resort, recommended Zapatilla #2 for snorkeling.
Two park rangers came over in a powered cayuco as we prepared to go to shore. From the signs Dad read on Zapatilla #1 yesterday, it seemed there may be a $10 per person charge for visiting these islands, so we figured they were looking to collect fees. Pablo, the speaker for the duo, didn’t speak much English, but we managed to communicate that the National Park is free and we were welcome to stay.
Then he asked if we wanted a soft drink, which was strange since there wasn’t a cooler in his boat. We said, “No thanks, we are good.” After an awkward moment of mistranslation, he made it clear that, in fact, he and his partner were hoping we might provide them with beverages. No problem. Fresca and Coca-cola on the way, mates.
Happy with their drinks, they zoomed away to Zap #1, where I suppose they walk the beach and appreciate the bikini-clad European day tourists.
A quick walk around the beach confirmed why - there was coral everywhere, much of it within swimming distance from the beach. We attempted to circumnavigate the island on foot but were stymied by mangroves on the south side of the island. No sign of the park rangers’ lodgings, but Pablo said two of them lived on Zap #2 and one ranger lived on Zap #1. I wonder if they take turns living alone.
We headed back to the more sheltered anchorage at Zap #1 in the afternoon. Since it was only about a mile and a half, I suggested towing a rope behind Exit Only so the girls and I could snorkel at high velocity (or as Dad likes to call it “trolling for sharks”).
Being pulled at three knots behind a boat is surprisingly intense. I can see what it hasn’t really taken off in the world of tourist snorkeling, since most of your energy is focused into holding on and trying not to turn your head sideways in case the blast of water rips the mask from your face. The girls lasted five minutes and I put in an additional five, although most of that was spent doing barrel rolls.
Priority One today was snorkeling. The water was clear, flat, and begging to be explored. The girls finished school early and we launched the mission to circumnavigate Zapatilla #1.
We discovered a network of huge bommies (large coral heads that erupt from otherwise deeper water) on the windward side of the island. Visibility was around thirty feet, with a fair amount of particulate matter in the water (which is to be expected when waves pound nearby).
As large as the bommies were, they didn’t boast a huge quantity of healthy coral. But small schools of sizable reef fish, like Dorys and Groupers, called the reef home.
There’s a huge amount of underwater life here, but the relatively few large patches of brain coral, stag coral, and other markers for the ecosystem’s health were often scarred. From what Pablo the Park Warden indicated, the Zapatillas were relatively recently declared a national park. Hopefully that protection with make the reef flourish over time.
After lunch we zipped back to Crawl Cay to buy some gasoline for our generator and outboard motor. Zoe and I took jerry jugs to the fuel building, which declared itself with a handwritten “No Fumar” (no smoking) sign.
They weren’t kidding about the smoking - this place was a bomb. The shack’s walls were lined with barrels of gasoline and jerry jugs, and doors were left open to allow fumes to migrate. The attendant used two small sticks to pry the lid from a fifty gallon drum of gasoline, then siphoned it into a five gallon bucket. Once the bucket was full (which was how he measured the amount of fuel), I held a funnel for him to pour gas into our jerry jugs. The process was largely controlled, with only a small amount of overspill.
In all the times I visited bedouin gas stations in the deep desert or siphoned fuel in remote situations, this was the first time I’ve seen the five-gallon bucket gas transfer method. No Fumar.
Gas was $3.90/gallon, which is slightly higher than I’d hoped but about what I expected. Plus, you have to give the guy a bonus for hazard pay. He’s living on the edge.
I nearly lost the drone again today. Sarah had the great idea to write “MAXINGOUT” on the beach of Zapatilla #1 for me to capture from the sky. I stayed on the boat and flew the drone 1,500 feet away to take videos and pictures. I was hovering 30 feet in the air over the sign when the remote control flashed “Connection Lost”, and the drone stopped responding to my commands. The viewer screen on the remote froze and all the flight telemetry disappeared. I knew I had about 60% of battery life remaining, so I had a cushion of time before the drone tried to return home in emergency landing mode. The problem with the “Return to Home” function on a boat is that you rarely remain in one place on anchor. If the drone insisted on returning to the latitude and longitude of its launch point, the chances of Exit Only still being there were slim.
On the off chance my commands were still getting through, I tried to make the drone land while it was hovering over the beach. Zoe, Dad, and I jumped in the dinghy and raced to shore. We scanned the sky for the drone but couldn’t spot it anywhere (it’s often difficult to spot a drone when it flies above hearing range). I mentally rehearsed losing $1000 and it didn’t feel good.
As a last ditch effort, I restarted the remote control. My main concern was that the drone would sense my restart, then try to fly back to home point while the remote rebooted. Much to my surprise, when the remote kicked in again, the screen was full of sand. I angled the camera up and discovered the drone had landed on the beach!
What are the chances? I still don’t know if the drone decided to land because it lost contact with the remote or because I commanded it to. The question doesn’t bode well for future flights from the boat.
As for what happened to lose contact in the first place, my theory is that by going into the cockpit to fly, I put myself in a position for the signal to be compromised. I was just trying to get out of the photos so every picture didn’t show me standing on the deck and staring down at my hands, but I was also surrounded by the mast, boom, windmills, and rigging. It makes sense for that much metal to challenge the integrity of the signal from my tiny battery-powered remote. I won’t make that mistake again - get ready for photos of me staring at my hands, world!
After we recovered the drone, it was time to take Zoe scurfing (tow surfing behind the dinghy). She latched onto the idea of scurfing after seeing the kids from Ketchy Schweby zoom through Bocas Town anchorage. They made it look easy (which is always a dead giveaway that something is harder than it looks).
Hoping to start her off easy, I opted to tow her on the small blue kayak. Unfortunately, that kayak doesn’t track in a straight light whatsoever, so she struggled to understand how to angle the rope to orient herself straight. A storm cloud descended on her face before we’d even begun towing as she realized this wasn’t going to be as simple as she expected.
Within thirty seconds she wanted to stop. When she flipped the kayak, she panicked and claimed she couldn’t flip it back over. After she realized she had no other choice, she managed to perform the simple task.
Experiences like these are some of my toughest parenting moments. More than anything, I want the kids to learn valuable life lessons while having fun, but more often than not it seems like they insist on learning valuable life lessons while choosing NOT to have fun.
To Zoe’s chagrin, once she was back on the kayak I pulled her all the way to the beach instead of taking her to Exit Only. She was the one who wanted to go scurfing, so it was important that she followed through and did it, after all. By the time we reached the beach, she was fine again.
We played on the beach with Mom, Sarah, and Joss for half an hour.
Joss asked me to teach her how to bodysurf, so we hung out in the waves together. That was rad.
When it was time to return to Exit Only, Joss wanted to try scurfing. The blue kayak freaked her out too, so in the end, I got towed back and had a blast.
The next time the kids go scurfing, we’ll use something with a skeg so they can steer.
At breakfast, we determined this would be our final day in the Zapatillas (and Bocas del Toro). Dad wanted to snorkel the South Island, which proved to be an excellent idea as it turned out to have the most impressive quantity and variety of coral we’ve found yet. The bommies were so large they gave us a God’s-eye view of tectonic activity.
The kids and I enjoyed spooking large schools of Dory by diving down to join their ranks. But my favorite encounter was with a pair of foot-long angelfish who lived in a cave. I stalked them like a paparazzi, and managed to snap some nice photos.
We misjudged the weather earlier in the day and missed the optimal window for snorkeling that area. An offshore swell built up and gave us a bit of chop, so for some of the snorkel sites Dad stayed in the dinghy while we swam. We didn’t want to lose the dinghy so far from shore!
I smiled as waves threw me and the girls back and forth in the water. The experience brought back memories of the first time I tried to introduce them to snorkeling, at Mermaid’s Reef, just outside Marsh Harbour, in the Bahamas. The choppy water freaked the girls out completely to the point they stayed in the dinghy while I snorkeled. That was not my best moment of parenting (it drives me crazy when my kids listen to voices of fear and won’t let me help them. I want them to recognize danger, but fear is a choice and it’s important they have strategies to conquer the stories that lie to their minds).
Normally I try to brush that memory aside when it raises its hand, but today it was a beautiful illustration of how much my little ladies have grown in the past six months. They didn’t even notice the waves, they just snorkeled and played in the water.
A huge win in my book.
Saturday brought a record number of pangas to the beach (we stopped counting at fifteen). By the time we returned from snorkeling, the beach had cleared enough for us to consider going onshore to frolic. I packed up the drone to conduct land-based test flights, hoping to troubleshoot yesterday’s connectivity issues in a safer environment.
We landed on the beach and scattered. As I searched for a spot to launch the drone, a Panamanian man wandered over. I assumed he was the island’s resident Park Ranger checking to make sure the beach was clean after the tourist exodus.
He turned out to be from a Turtle Conservation group from Florida. And he spoke very good English.
“I am giving a tour to a group who went out snorkeling. When they get back, I am taking them to a turtle nest for hatching. Would you like to come?”
We stared at each other in disbelief. We’d all seen the island’s signs warning tourists to stay away from orange-flagged turtle nests.
“Yes, we would love to!”
“Would you be willing to pay?”
Aha. The shakedown.
“Kids are free. $5 for each adult.”
$20 to get a guided tour of a turtle nest hatching from an authority on the subject? I was expecting him to say $20 each person. Sold.
I ripped back to the boat to retrieve cameras.
The nest was located on the windward side of the island. I was impressed mama turtle was able to climb the sandy cliff to lay her eggs.
Our guide (I don’t recall his name, unfortunately. I believe it was Atensio, so I’ll go with that.) dug the top of the nest out and smoothed a little beach-bound path for the turtles to follow after they emerged.
Within five minutes, a frothing mass of tiny hawksbill turtles fought their way to blue skies. Their little flippers pounded the sand as they instinctively followed the light to reach the ocean. Each turtle was only four inches long and two inches wide. They moved with amazing purpose for little creatures who were bombarded by terrific new sights and sounds.
Once they reached the water, waves swept them away. The turtles tiny heads bobbed for air as their flippers powered into fluid motion.
Atensio said only one or two of the one hundred-forty eight turtles in the group would survive. It’s a sad fact, but easy to understand as we watched the brave little guys paddle away into open ocean.
After the turtles departed, Atensio counted all the unhatched eggs and broken shells. One hundred-forty eight babies born and ten never gestated. He said that this island, Zapatilla #1, has four hundred turtle nests this season, which sounded impressive until he mentioned that Zapatilla #2 has five thousand nests.
Atensio showed us a spreadsheet that documents each nest’s location and when the eggs were laid. Since he knows the gestation time is seventy days, he can monitor the progress of each nest.
Over ten years ago, Mom and Dad saw a nest of turtles hatch in Australia, but the experience was completely different. The conservationists cordoned off the beach, made everyone stand back, organized a single file line, and tightly controlled the experience (which happened at 2 AM, incidentally).
I understand the Australians’ passion to preserve and protect the sea turtles nesting grounds, and see the virtue of tightly controlling highly trafficked areas, but today’s relaxed atmosphere made me appreciate the experience even more.
I hope the kids absorbed everything today. Sometimes I feel like we are asking them to drink from a firehouse of amazing adventures. It’s so easy to take things for granted or “normal” as a child and I hope these memories embed themselves in their worldview. I hope days like today make us all love the planet and nature even more.
Hard to believe it’s already been a month in Bocas del Toro. When we first arrived, I had trouble connecting with the place because we were caught in ground zero of the tourist industry. Once we sought local advice, things kicked into gear and we saw the beauty of the region. I’ll miss it.
Today we travel to Escudo des Veraguas. It’s only 30 miles away, but far enough to be outside Bocas del Toro province. Multiple cruising friends have raved about the island to us, so we are intrigued by what me might find there. From everything we see in satellite photos, it looks pristine.
The wind was light and at our backs, so we were able to carry sail downwind while taking advance of a 1 knot current at the same time. If only all passages had such cooperative conditions!
Ten miles from the island, I spotted an empty cayuco floating in the middle of open water. We motored over to investigate and confirmed the strange sight. Cayucos are too valuable to waste, so we figured someone must have lost it.
Two Panamanians motored by within a mile of us, so we changed course to tell them about the canoe. Once they recognized our intentions, they headed straight for us.
We got within yelling distance and learned they were searching for a lost friend who had been missing for four days. We pointed to the cayuco and they raced over to check it out. After a minute or so, they pointed back towards land and zoomed away.
I don’t know if their search and the canoe are connected, but I hope they find their friend.
We anchored in twelve feet of water at Escudo de Veraguas. The water has the best clarity we’ve seen since the Bahamas. Unfortunately it is a fairly exposed anchorage, so I can see why it isn’t crowded.
There was just enough time to put the dinghy in and head for the beach. I brought the drone in for test flights, hoping to nail down the cause of the Remote Connection error that plagued me in the Zapatillas.
The beach sported the greatest collection of driftwood I’ve ever seen in one place. Palm trees, huge root systems, two by fours…this place has it all.
My drone flights went fine for a while, then the remote connection error happened again. This time I immediately turned my remote off then on again. It re-established connection, but wouldn’t let me interrupt an auto-landing cycle. The drone planned to land ten feet away from the rough launchpad I set up on the sand, so I had to jump in at the last second and catch it before it touched down on a pile of debris. I’m going to try switching the new remote for the old one from my Lazarus drone to see if that fixes the remote connection issue. As it is now, I don’t think it’s safe to fly the drone from the boat.
The no see ‘ums were attacking in full force, so we organized a hasty retreat from the beach. On our way back to Exit Only, we decided to swing through the unusual rock formations that extended north of the anchorage. What we saw blew our minds. Escudo des Veraguas is nothing less than a stand-in island for Jurassic Park. I’m in love!
Thick rainforest covers the island, and even extends onto the individual motus (islands) that broke off from the main terrain in years past. The limestone-like rock formed a coastline of arches and dramatic sea caves, just begging to be explored.
Night was coming, so we only had time for a cursory look, but we were thrilled with what we saw. I hope the weather cooperates. Rumor has it the other side of the island is a maze of small island and picturesque reefs.
The rain started in the middle of last night. The wind shifted in all directions as squalls rolled through, making us feel like we were on a passage.
We were hoping for clear skies and calm seas, but it wasn’t in the offing today. A succession of squalls kept us busy opening and closing the hatches. We didn’t even put the dinghy in the water, since the waves were choppy and would have made exploring shore difficult.
We managed to make water, though. And we preserved the membrane in anticipation of being in Shelter Bay next week.
I’m going to miss these islands. Fortunately, it sounds like the Perlas island in the Pacific are their equal in beauty.
Here’s hoping that tomorrow’s weather gives us a chance to explore Escudo de Veraguas. This island is too rad to miss!
More of the same today. Occasional squalls and headwinds. Swells too large to safely get off the boat and explore the coves.
After failing to download a grib file (weather forecast via SSB radio) without success, I kayaked to our neighbors on Serenity, a Lagoon 47 catamaran, to ask if they have any weather information.
Fortunately, they have Iridium GO (satellite system) and promised to swing by Exit Only after breakfast with the forecast scoop.
A couple of hours later, Karen (skipper) and Rob (crew) paddled over to Exit Only. We invited them on board and chatted for an hour. It was fun to share highlights from our cruising experiences in the San Blas and Cartagena. I hope for their sake that Serenity decides to visit those places.
The weather forecast was for more of the same for at least two more days: strong westerlies.
A bigger fly in the ointment, however, were the swells that rolled into our anchorage from the East. Dad and I had growing concerns as the swells continued to increase in size until the sets were breaking two hundred yards from Exit Only. We weren’t in danger of getting swept ashore, but what would happen if they continued to grow and we needed to escape a dangerous situation after dark?
It was unfortunate we didn’t have more time to explore Escudo de Veraguas, but we decided to pull the plug before things got out of hand.
As the old saying goes: Great seamanship means not putting yourself into a position where great seamanship is required.
We timed raising our anchor between sets of swells, since we had to motor closer to the beach (and breaking waves) to gather all our chain, but still got caught by large waves that put a serious strain on our windlass. It was sketchy, but thankfully, nothing broke and no one got hurt.
I finally managed to download a grib file, which confirmed everything our eyes told us. The swells from the east were remnants of robust northeaster trade winds blowing in the Caribbean Sea. There was no way to escape them in such an exposed anchorage, and unfortunately our course to Colon meant tackling the swells head on for eighteen hours.
The grib file indicated we would have wind from our stern until the early hours of the morning, then the wind would switch to the east and force us to beat to windward for the last twenty miles.
We soon discovered the forecast was conservative. Instead of a ten, we had a fifteen knot tailwind. The wind switched around to the east by 10 PM, and was blowing 20 knots by midnight. By four AM, we were hitting twenty-five knots on the nose.
Exit Only handled the rough conditions like a champ. The crew, less so. Endless bridgedeck thumping and roller-coaster elevator rides beat us up. It was a challenging final chapter to two days in a bumpy anchorage, making the whole Escudo de Veraguas feel like a three day offshore passage.
We were thrilled to cross the Colon breakwater. By 10 AM, we were tied up in our old slip (E21) at Shelter Bay Marina.
Today is Thanksgiving and WE. ARE. THANKFUL.
It was great to catch up with our friends from Shelter Bay. The marina has come alive with new arrivals hoping to transit the Canal before the fees double in January for boats under 50 ft in length. We immediately noticed an influx of younger cruisers, the sort of folks who are doing longer ocean passages instead of finding a place to chill for retirement.
A few cruising families are here too, which the girls are over the moon about.
Spencer from Scout honchoed a Cruiser’s Thanksgiving potluck in the palapa (covered hang-out area) tonight. He grilled a giant ham, made mashed potatoes, and a pan of s’more brownies - the perfect foundation for the smorgasbord of items other cruisers brought to the table.
Delicious. I love cruiser potlucks - so many different flavors from different parts of the world.
Zoe and Joss got to eat at the official Kid’s Table. I’m so pumped they have a chance to connect with other kids - we’ve seen fewer kid boats than I expected to on the journey so far. Here’s hoping the Pacific lines us up with some friends!
Dad and I rode the morning bus into town and went to the bank first thing today. The next step in scheduling our canal transit is to deposit $1875 into the Canal Authority’s bank account at the downtown Citibank office that exists just for that purpose.
SIDE NOTE: Thus far, we’ve done all our Canal Transit footwork ourselves and it’s been very simple. I’m not sure why agents require between $300-400 to do this for cruisers (maybe I’ll find out when it comes time to getting an actual date).
When our banking was complete, we headed for the Zona Libre.
We use GoPro 7s for nearly all our filming and much of our photography. They are ideal for our purposes - affordable, heavy duty, and waterproof. When I saw the improvements for the new model, I hoped they might be available by the time we made it to Colon. Much to my delight, many shops in the Zona Libre sell the GoPro Hero 8!
Before I could get my hands on one of the new models, I had to navigate the masses of electronics-starved cruise ship crowds. The shopkeepers took advantage of the season to plaster every shop window with “Black Friday Sale!” signs, which drummed the shoppers into an even greater frenzy.
Most of the shoppers are from South American countries like Peru and Argentina. They carry black plastic garbage bags or pull carry-on suitcases from store to store, taking advantage of duty free shopping. Alcohol, shoes, and consumer electronics seem to rule the day - although there are almost certainly areas of the Zone I’m unfamiliar with.
Since this was my fourth time there, I didn’t need help from any of the willing guides who petition pedestrians for an opportunity to show them the best deals. Dad and I marched to the far end of the Zone, where the small electronics stores clump together and sell electrons.
Once I drew the attention of Marwan (the Lebanese shop attendant I met a month ago), he put my name in a computer. Then I stood in line at the glass-sheltered cashier desk to pay, whereupon I was issued a full-page piece of paper as a receipt. Then I gave the paper to a man at a glass desk, who handed it to a person on the stairway, who took a stack of receipts upstairs to find the items in the warehouse. Then I waited while they brought baskets of items downstairs and matched them, one at a time, to receipts from a line of people at the counter. The man next to me bought a laptop, a mouse, a hair roller, some mini-tripods, a pair of headphones, and a variety of other consumer electronics.
Finally, they called my name and I fought my way to freedom, new GoPro in hand.
We called the Scheduler after 6 pm to request a date for the transit.
“When would you like?”
“Somewhere around Dec 10th would be great.”
“I have dates available for Dec 10, 11, and 12.”
“We’ll take the 11th, thanks!”
And just like that, we are set to go. I’m really not sure why people hire agents for the transit. It was very easy to set things up ourselves.
We hosted a Kid’s Movie Night in the Cruiser’s Lounge. Sarah popped a garbage bag of popcorn and we busted out Lego Movie 2. A good time was had by all.
Mom, Sarah, and the girls went provisioning and brought back Pizza Hut!
Two large cheesy crust, full toppings pizzas run around $22. It’s not dirt cheap, but it’s the best value we’ve seen for pizza in ages.
We are starting to see a greater influx of boats into Shelter Bay now that hurricane season is over. Everyone anticipates a rush to get through the Canal before the prices double in January, so it will be interesting to monitor the flow. There are certainly a greater number of kid boats coming through. Every day seems to bring a new opportunity to meet families from around the world.