Watermaking Day already! The water off Red Frog bay had a lot of particulate matter, so we decided to motor out into the main channel and drift for two hours while we made water. Alas, we still managed to turn a brand new pre-filter brown from particulates.
Lesson learned: Next time, leave the archipelago for the open Caribbean Sea to make water. Heavy rains + river outflow = murky watermarking.
Sarah and I think the product water in our tank has a slightly different flavor from what we made in the San Blas. Maybe it’s mental, but it makes sense that it might.
The past few days, I’ve been diving into books by Terry Pratchett, my favorite author. Although I’ve read them numerous times over, now that I’m writing my own novel, it’s like discovering brilliant prose all over again. I now recognize passages I skimmed over in the past as masterclasses in the art of exposition. What a pleasure to discover treasure buried in my backyard.
Zoe started ukulele lessons today. I’ve said “no” up till now, secretly waiting for her to mature enough to take it seriously. Happily, it appears we may have reached that point.
The ukulele is a perfect boat instrument. It’s portable, easy on the ears, relatively quiet, but loud enough to enjoy playing. Small hands, while not essential, are an advantage, making it ideal for children to learn. Not to mention that nylon strings are forgiving to as-yet un-calloused fingertips.
She’s already learned notes on three strings, which allow her to play song melodies like “Ode to Joy” and “Frère Jacques”. Next up is chords, then…the world! I hope Zoe sticks with it.
Speaking of Zoe, tonight Sarah braided Zoe’s hair tightly to create wavy locks for her Hermione Grainger Halloween costume tomorrow. Joss is going to be Elsa, from Frozen.
Two days ago, Tom Kimbrall told us “this is about the time of year the weather shifts into rainy season. We usually closed the resort from November to December.”
The rain started this morning at seven AM and was still going at noon - thankfully, it was mostly drizzles and not a downpour. After all I’ve heard about the dreaded “November Rainy Season” since we’ve been in Panama, I’m curious how it will go. If it restrains itself to a steady drizzle, we will still be able to do shore activities easily - which is pretty important for our collective sanity with two young children on board. If it decides to rain cats and dogs, this boat might get pretty small.
We went back to Red Frog Beach today, and once again no one paid any attention or asked us to pay a fee. Not that I’m complaining, but it seems like we get a lot of unreliable information by word-of-mouth.
Whether from the overcast sky or higher tide, toady our beach experience was marred by an assault of no see ‘ums. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mom move that fast before. She practically threw up a cloud of dust as she escaped to higher ground.
The girls were bummed we weren’t going to swim (no see ‘ums would have made that miserable), so we stopped by a blowhole we’d seen the last time we were here. Zoe and I climbed down and let the ocean spray us a few times, until a big enough wave convinced us to call it a day.
We stopped at Bocas Town’s south anchorage again to re-provision. I went into town by myself in search of a way to activate Sarah and my cell phones.
Maybe because I was by myself or because I left the camera on the boat, I was able to immerse in the experience of the town with fresh eyes. One of my favorite parts of traveling is witnessing bright colors, local art, and different ways of living - all of which Bocas Town offers in spades.
A U.S. Coast Guard cutter was anchored off town today, explaining the higher percentage of clean-cut tourists speaking American-accented English.
I was thrilled to learn that Movistar, the cell service I’m trying to figure out, has an office in town. The two ladies who worked there were professional and spoke excellent English. With a few taps of the keyboard and a bevy of mouse clicks, our phones were working in no time.
My only reservation about the experience is that it was painfully obvious there was no way I could have sorted out the phones by myself, which I spent two or three hours trying earlier in the day.
According to the Movistar ladies, next week there will be two parades - one for Flag Day and another for Independence Day. That explains why people were stringing plastic Panamanian flags across the main streets, and also why the high school drum line has been rehearsing every evening for the past ten days.
Went ashore at Starfish Beach this morning before the tourist masses arrived. What a pleasant surprise! The beach is spotlessly clean and they myriad of competing businesses exist in harmony. Judging from the plethora of signage warning people not to pick up starfish “because it will kill them”. If that is true, the crew of Exit Only is responsible for a coming starfish apocalypse in the San Blas, where we picked them up at every opportunity.
Starfish Beach is just around the corner from Boca del Drago (Mouth of the Dragon?), the channel on the western side of Isla Colon. We took a quick twenty minute dinghy ride to explore the mouth of the Dragon, which was a surprisingly chill area of reef. Perhaps if conditions were more extreme, it would better reflect the promise of its namesake.
As we pulled up anchor, a jet ski buzzed us at full throttle, coming within six feet of the hull. I don’t understand how people can be so reckless. Presumably they haven’t lived long enough to witness how slight errors in judgment change lives forever.
It’s a delicate balance. Mom and Dad have a diminishing willingness to take risks (although, for two people in their seventies, they are currently taking risks a lot of people wouldn’t be comfortable with). I don’t want to be a wuss, but my stomach cringes when I see people risking their lives (and ours) for something as stupid as a high-speed jet ski drive-by. Life is too short and the payoff too small for that kind of pseudo-adventure.
We headed back to Bocas Town, this time anchoring in Saigon Bay so we could see our friends on Blessed before they journey north to the Bahamas.
We took advantage of the strong cell network to call our friend Tom Kimbrall, who ran a successful eco-lodge in Bocas del Toro ten years ago. Tom gave us some helpful inside info on places to go to get the true “Bocas experience”. Between you and me, I’m super stoked to get some guidance because we are running out of ideas on our own. I want to see what earned Bocas its sterling reputation, but unless we can get away from the tourist traps, it won’t happen.
Up early to Bocas Town so we could find a strong cell signal to call the States for a family member's birthday. Anchor down at ten-thirty. Into town for a quick grocery store run. By eleven-thirty, anchor up and on to Starfish Beach, six miles away…
…which is where I sit at the moment.
What fresh hell is this?
Jet skis zoom up and down the short beach, their riders searching in vain for a thrill that might justify the cash they spent on a rental. The beach itself is a narrow strip of white sand, backed up to a wall of formidable mangroves. Every inch of relaxable real estate is occupied by either a beach chair, a thatched hut, or a panga day boat from Bocas Town. Stereos compete for dominance in our ears. Jetskis tow banana boats in a circle around Exit Only. I’m not entirely sure what we are doing here. I suppose such sensory overload will serve to make us appreciate quiet anchorages more in the future.
On the plus side, I would bet my kingdom that there is not a crocodile within five miles of this beach. The music continued to blare even after the beach cleared of tourists around five PM. Accordion solos echoed across the water to reach me at a volume I would play music at in headphones.
The kids are asking where we will be for Halloween. I don’t have a good answer yet. Honestly, I expected to find a few more kid boats in Bocas than we’ve seen so far.
On the way into the resort, we stopped by an interesting catamaran with two junk-rigged stay-less masts. Very unique design. I love how junk rigs look. I’d love to try one someday.
The guidebook warned we would have to pay $3 per person to go to Red Frog Beach. The people on the catamaran told us it was $5. We went onshore, walked through the welcome center without stopping and didn’t pay anything. I’m not sure what happened, but no one seemed particularly concerned with our presence.
The path to the beach was paved with cobblestones and wide enough for two golf carts to pass with space to spare, which they did fairly frequently. The road meandered through a lush jungle, where sloths and tropical birds lounged in the canopy.
Red Frog Beach is everything you might want in a friendly beach - white sand, clear water, and gentle surf. Sarah, the girls, and I had a blast body surfing. To my delight, Zoe got into it more than she ever has before.
We hit up the resort’s well-stocked minimart for a pint of cookies and cream ice cream on the way back. Life is good.
We moved six miles to the bay outside of Red Frog Marina and Resort. Super chill anchorage. Surrounded by mangroves on all sides, it feels a little more remote than it probably is. I’d like to fly the drone here but we are skirting the flight path for the Bocas Town airport, so it’s a restricted zone.
Have I mentioned the most magical fact about Bocas?
There do not appear to be any no see ‘ums or mosquitos at night. What a game changer! Hatches can remain open all night, except when we have to close them for passing squalls.
We wandered around Bocas Town this afternoon in search of pizza, eventually settling on a waterfront place that boasted “Pizza and Discotheque”.
The six of us - two children, two parents, and two grandparents - were different from their usual clientele. But the pizza was good and affordable.
We could see a hotel of backpackers just down the road. They were taking it in turns to jump off the balcony of the restaurant into the water. Peer pressure is a powerful thing to witness. I don’t know who that group of highly enthusiastic, overtly masculine Europeans is, but they are definitely going to have a big party tonight. Possibly at a pizza discotheque.
One more note about that restaurant:
The men’s bathroom is custom-designed for drunk people. Six, handmade urinal troughs of various sizes and shapes line the walls, so even if you miss the one you are aiming for, you’ll likely hit a different one. However, the abundance of targets was offset by the inclusion of a strobe light. Even in the daytime, it was a confusing place to pee.
We pretended we were going to TOTO to buy bread, but really we went for ice cream. For some reason, the packaged ice cream sticks cost half as much as they do at Shelter Bay Marina in Cristobal.
This morning we discovered a handful of bananas on the cockpit table had holes chewed in them. So now we know why fruit-eating bats are flying into our boat.
I told Zoe that after she goes to sleep I’m going to smear bananas in her hair and open the hatches in her cabin. Now that I write it, it seems more cruel than it did at the time.
A local drumline must be nearing a competition because they rehearsed for six hours this afternoon and six hours yesterday. Judging from the simplicity of the drum parts, it’s fairly basic stuff, but they are definitely working hard.
Beautiful sunrise over Bocas Town. Everyone got up early today, and thankfully all were feeling better! I know it’s not all about me…but did I achieve the impossible? On a boat with five other sick people, did I escape catching the common cold? I scarcely dare to hope, and yet the glimmer of possibility tantalizes me.
If this miracle happened, it is incumbent on me to share my recipe for success. Although there were undoubtedly many factors at play beyond those I am aware of, here is what I recommend:
1. Sleep in a separate cabin from your mucus-spewing spouse/children/parents
2. Wash your hands more frequently than a guilt-ridden character in a Shakespearean tragedy
3. Do not allow children to put their hands into common area foods and snacks (chips, cookies, etc)
4. Do not kiss your children/spouse.
5. Spend most of the day “fixing things” at the top of the mast. Bring an e-reader of your choice.
6. Tell everyone you are “going for a swim”, then jump in the water and see how far you can swim in a straight line away from the boat to maximize your time away from germs.
7. Eat only from your secret stash of Saltine crackers.
Anyways, hope that helps you in the future.
We were just reading this morning that Christopher Columbus came to Bocas del Toro on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. It never ceases to amaze me that, sitting in my hammock on the bow of Exit Only, I’m staring out at the same mountains, rainforest, and vistas that explorers of yesteryear gazed out. Undoubtedly, many of these very trees were present in that era.
Someone on the morning Bocas Cruiser’s Radio net asked if anyone knew of an eye doctor around, so Dad chimed in. Boy, was that cruiser surprised to have an opthamalogist in the anchorage. Dad did two eye consults today. Words gets around. I think it’s rad that he can help folks out.
Holly from Picaro gave us the grand tour of Bocas Town, an impressive tourist outpost that brings to mind Phuket, Penang, or even the Phi Phi islands. Backpacker hostels abound, catering to the army of pale-complexioned, thick-calfed European tourists who wander the town in search of vibe.
One of todays highlights was spotting a “Men” (German manufacturer) overlanding truck downtown. What a beast of a vehicle! Its gargantuan tires must weight at least three hundred pounds. I don’t know where its owners intend on traveling, but they are going to do it in a private tank. That thing can go anywhere. Although I imagine it’s a maintenance nightmare if things break. Unlike a Land Rover or Toyota, it might be tough finding bush mechanics with any experience working on “Le Men” vehicles.
Like most backpacker destinations, Bocas Town is wired to come alive at night. Discotheque entrances announce their presence amidst a bevy of waterfront restaurants.
We tried one of the few restaurants open at noon, a crèpe place called “Cool Crèpes” for lunch. Unfortunately, it wasn’t great. I wish I could say it was, because I don’t want to give bad reviews - especially since Jean-Claude, the smiling owner of the restaurant, made an appearance half way through our meal. But Dad’s $12 hamburger was small and uninspired, and the $7 crèpes the rest of us ordered were mediocre. Sorry, Jean-Claude, but it’s true.
For some reason, Bocas Town has an abundance of well-equipped Ferreterias (hardware stores). I can only assume there is a land rush going on here and people need building supplies.
Also, we ate ice cream at a hardware/grocery store called TOTO. I wracked my brain for good jokes about “blessing the rain down in Africa” but came up empty.
In the late afternoon, the girls and I went snorkeling at a local dive spot. We soon discovered just how much the San Blas had spoiled us - the water was murky, the coral was one tenth the size of what we saw in Holades Cay, and the only marine life of note we saw were volleyball-sized, long-spited sea urchins (which, thanks to the relatively shallow water, I was concerned about the girls accidentally touching). Once the sun was swallowed by clouds, we called it a day. Maybe we’ll try again tomorrow at another spot. People rave about Bocas del Toro as an “eco-destination”, so there has to be some good snorkeling around here somewhere.
We decided to give away more tuna since we still have more than we can eat and don’t want it to go to waste. At random, we picked a nearby boat called Sophisticated Lady and offered them fish, which they gratefully accepted. When we went aboard, we hung out and talked for a while. The girls were delighted to meet Tiki, the owner’s Grey African parrot.
Eventually something rung a bell in my memory and I asked the Captain if he had ever made a review video about drones. That’s when I discovered he is a successful and long-time YouTuber. He took us below and showed us his editing suite. Very cool. Once again, I’m impressed with how much work goes into making a thriving Youtube channel. Rick spends dozens of hours creating each episode. Good to see behind the scenes and talk shop.
It appears one of my GoPro 7s has bit the dust. It froze on me while snorkeling yesterday, then gave me an “SD card error”. When I got back to Exit Only, I discovered the battery compartment had salt water in it. Hoping to replicate our recent success with Lazarus the drone, I dunked the GoPro in buckets of water, blew it out with a fan, then put it in a bag of rice. We’ll see how it does in a couple of days. Fingers crossed…
As Dad and I wound the evening up, a bat flitted into the salon, then flew out. We looked at each other and said, “What was that?”. Then it happened again, although this time the shadow flew into the starboard hull and back out the salon door. “Did you see that?” It flew back in again, this time to the galley and out the door. We shut the door.
While taking a leak of the stern in the middle of the night, I watched bats flit around the sky. Weird how close they are hanging out to us.
I went to sleep at 530 AM and was woken up at 730 AM by the sound of a fishing reel spooling. Evidently, Zoe and Dad decided to set up a pole. Amazingly, they only had the lure out for sixty seconds when it got hit.
The pole was under some serious strain so I jumped up and helped reel the fish in. We saw flashes of color, so at first we though it was a Mahi-mahi, but once it was up to the boat we discovered it was a yellowfin tuna - and at just over three feet long and thirty pounds, a fairly good-sized one at that!
There was some discussion as to whether we would keep the fish or release it, since Mom and Dad aren’t sushi eaters and have reservations about eating fish that tastes strong. But the opportunity was too good to pass up, so we went for it. Sarah filleted the fish like a pro while I cleaned blood off the stern and the fish cleaning boxes.
Sarah knew there was no way my parents would go for raw fish, so she cooked the tuna two ways: baked in tuna steaks (for Mom, Dad, and the girls) and raw in poke bowls (for me and her). Lunch was a complete success! Yellowfin tuna was milder than any of us expected.
We dropped anchor off Bocas Town at noon. Much to our surprise, Mike and Holly on Picaro - friends from Shelter Bay, were next to us in the anchorage. We had so much fish we were able to give them a large bag of tuna steaks too - seeing as they are self-professed “foodies”, I can’t wait to hear how they prepare it.
Just before sundown, a squall hit us with two hours of rain and twenty-five knots of wind. Two twenty-foot sailboats struggled in the conditions, but everyone else’s anchors held firm.
The constant zipping of runabouts through the anchorage gives me flashbacks to Cartagena. Thankfully, boats here are much smaller - although their drivers check their phones just as often, which is alarming to watch.
Mike said that last week a spearfisherman got hit by one of the pangas (runabouts) while swimming and died from the impact.
The weather window is here for our Bocas del Toro run! As promised, southerly winds are in the offing today. It doesn’t happen very often, so we are grateful for the chance to zip across to Bocas - hopefully without too much of a struggle.
As planned, we were out of our slip by 830 AM, and out to open water by 9. Thankfully, unlike most mornings, a massive purple squall wasn’t waiting to clobber us just offshore.
The trip was smooth. Light winds from the South for most of the day, as predicted. The inevitable evening squall gave us enough warning to get our sails down in time. I was surprised how slow the storm traveled - it intensified and diminished over the next three hours, providing plenty of spice to our lives. The wind topped out around twenty-five knots, just enough to create an unpleasant side chop that made the ride less comfortable (but still bearable).
I stood watch from 1 AM to 530 AM, a bit longer than usual, but since I’m the only person in the crew who hasn’t gotten sick yet, it’s fair that I shoulder a bit more responsibility.
Zoe has a slight fever. When Mom and Dad speak, they sound like they’ve swallowed frogs. Josh is a mucus machine. This morning, Sarah said her throat is sore.
I’m the last man standing.
Whenever weather allows, I put up a hammock for my daily writing sessions. This morning Joss climbed into my hammock and cavorted for a solid five minutes, coughing and wheezing her way through multiple games of Butterly in a Cocoon. When I chased her away, I handed her the used tissue I found in the bottom of the hammock. Any chance of avoiding the cold seems to diminish by the minute. Boats are small places when viruses get involved.
I’m freaking doomed.
In the time we’ve been at Shelter Bay Marina, we’ve witnessed the evolution of our neighboring military unit’s company bugler. When he first started, everything was a bit of a mess - extra notes popped out everywhere, occasionally with jazz-esque, raspberrian flair. He’s improved tremendously in the past couple of months. This morning he almost nailed reveille.
His playing reminds me of my grandfather’s funeral. We held it at a military cemetery, where former service members generously volunteer time and services to assist however they can. In our case, a bugler took it upon himself to provide a live rendition of “Taps”.
Evidently no one told him we were playing a recorded version of “Taps” over a loudspeaker - which wouldn’t have been an issue so long as they played in unison. As soon as the recording started, the bugler realized the situation and adjusted his timing to coordinate with the recorded track…a strategy which might have worked flawlessly had they been playing in the same key.
Instead, we were treated to a solemn, note-crunching rendition of one of the saddest songs in the world. When the cacophony finally ground to its merciful, inevitable conclusion, the bugler slung his instrument to his side and quick marched out of sight.
I remain grateful to that poor man. His error turned my sadness into tears of laughter. I don’t know if anyone else at the funeral caught the melodic disaster (sometimes things like that escape the notice of people who aren’t musically inclined), but for me it was a welcome momentary relief from grief.
The admeasurer showed up just before noon today, as promised. He was pleased to learn Exit Only has already been through the Canal once (25 years ago). It made his job easier to know the boat had passed the Canal Authority requirements (holding tank for human waste, strong cleats, tachometers on the engines, sufficient hull speed).
He asked a few questions and filled out some paperwork. Within an hour, we were good to go. The next step is withdrawing $1800 cash from the bank, paying the Canal Authority downtown, then scheduling a day for our transit.
We are heading for the Bocas del Toro tomorrow, though, so that will all have to wait until we get back. Hopefully there won’t be a logjam of cruisers waiting for their chance to transit by then. Starting this January, the PCA is doubling the cost of transit for cruising vessels under 50 feet, so Shelter Bay Marina expects an early Nov/Dec rush by thrifty cruisers who want to save money. Considering that 25 years ago we paid less than $500 to transit the Canal, the notion of paying nearly $2500 is sobering.
I called the Canal Authority Admeasurement Office this morning to see about getting Exit Only measured for our Canal transit. Much my delight, the woman who answered the phone spoke excellent English. She did a great job helping me sort out the necessary forms and steps, so now it looks like we have a shot at getting measured tomorrow morning! We have to call at 730 AM to confirm, but it seems that’s a good sign.
I have to reiterate how impressive the Canal Authority has been ever time I’ve encountered them. When Sarah and I helped our friends on Luna Mare transit the canal three months ago, we got to witness the PCA at work and they were nothing but professional.
It’s a sharp contrast to the Panamanian work ethic I’ve witnessed in other avenues. People here are definitely not lazy - the majority of people in Colon seem to work six days a week - but the combination of not wanting to give customers bad news while also having a lackadaisical attitude towards urgent timetables often results in unreliable information. If you need something in a hurry, this is probably not the place to come. Especially if you need to haul out for boat work. As nice as Shelter Bay is, their boat yard suffers from a well-deserved reputation for slow, poor quality work. Conversely, Cartagena earns nothing but rave reviews on the cruiser grapevine.
Dad woke up with a sore throat today. Mom is still sneezing. The girls are on the mend. Sarah and I wash our hands at every opportunity, but we’re probably doomed.
Both girls have head colds. Mucus everywhere. Mom started sneezing today. We’re all doomed.
Our search for a backup drone led Zoe, Joss, Sarah, and I to the Zona Libré today. We checked all the stores Dad and I found drones in last week, and much to my surprise, most of them had new ones in stock. They must sell a ton of drones here.
I wrestled with the temptation to upgrade from my Mavic Pro (original version 1 model) to a Mavic Pro 2, but settled on redundancy instead. Now we have two identical drones and their accompanying controllers/accessories, all in the name of having a plan in case of disaster.
Once I updated the firmware, it was time for a test flight. The new drone flew like a champ!
“Ferreteria” means “hardware store” in Spanish, so don’t get your hopes up.
Today we visited the “Diablos Rojos” (Red Devil) passenger bus drag races held at the disused runway next to the marina. Ranger, the marina’s shuttle driver, has mentioned the drag races in the past, but we never bothered to check them out - to our loss, as it turns out.
The strip was packed with hot-rodded, tricked-out Bluebird school buses who raced down a narrow path of hot asphalt, risking the lives of everyone present for glory and bragging rights. Three to four hundred people gathered to witness the proceedings (and presumably, to make some bets on the side). It felt like a tailgate party.
Zoe and Joss didn’t know how unusual the sight is. I suppose one liability of showing them diverse, awesome things is that you risk everything getting lumped into a box labeled “Normal”. Still, I’m glad they were there - although I watched them like a hawk, since amateur bus drag races have the potential to turn catastrophic at one inattentive spin of a steering wheel.
Nowhere was the risk more evident than when we watched twenty young men push a bus out of a large patch of mud. There was no communication with the driver - they just dove out of the way whenever he flipped into reverse to get a run-up. It was an accident waiting to happen.
I think one of the key differences between being twenty-five and forty years old is that fifteen years ago, I would have jumped in to help push the bus. Today I was more interested in making sure no one got killed.
There was a modicum of safety at the event, in the form of off-duty municipal policemen who walked the length of the strip, exhorting the crowd to step back from the edge. I don’t think anyone was enforcing safety regulations inside the racing buses, however. For unknown reasons (Weight distribution? Matching overall weight for fairness? Stopping tire spin?), all the racers had at least two to three passengers hanging out windows to wave flags, taunt their opponents, or scream during their runs down the drag strip.
Diablos Rojos earned their name thanks to their overcrowded, lethal reputation. In addition to belching smokestacks and foghorns, they boast custom airbrushed graphics. Although Ranger says each bus has a dominant color to allow passengers to tell its destination, they all look like a rainbow explosion to me.
Ironically, our favorite bus of the day was painted nearly completely black. We called it “Darth Vader”. When Darth raced, one of the lunatics inside leaned out and bashed an aluminum propane tank against the side of the bus while another person opened the emergency exit door and rattled a long, dragging chain with all his might. We can only assume they were trying to spark an explosion of some kind.
Darth Vader won his race. Possibly because his opponent feared getting rammed off the road, I suspect.
Back at the marina, Mom and Sarah pulled out all the stops for Sunday evening Cruiser’s pot luck at the palapa. Sarah made a couscous salad and a loaf of foccatia bread. Mom made a cake, bean dip, and grilled plantanos. Between Exit Only’s offerings and those from the rest of the fleet, we had a full-on feast, complete with after dinner s’mores courtesy of Spencer on Scout. The girls had a blast playing with other kids and we enjoyed meeting new friends who know our old friends.
All the ladies went to Colon on the morning bus, so Dad and I had the boat to ourselves. They came back with a pair of new flippers for Joss and new swimming masks for Sarah and Zoe. The girls were over the moon about jumping in the pool to try their new gear.
Joss can swim the length of the pool in one breath with her new flippers. It’s incredible to watch her power through the water like a fish.
She can swim the length of the pool in one breath now. After I reviewed the video of her under-the-keel dives with her, we realized she’s been wasting air by blowing out of her nose while swimming with a mask. She added another twenty-five percent of air capacity once she stopped doing that!
I’m drawing on my swim team training to improve the girls’ swimming strokes. Once both girls start cupping their hands closed when they pull forward, they are going to increase their speed and distance immensely.
Up early this morning to check out the Zona Libre (Duty-Free shopping area) for drones. Sarah and I are planning to buy a backup drone because there are no guarantees Lazarus isn’t a ticking time bomb.
Since we’d been to the Zona Libre before, Dad and I covered a lot of ground quickly. It’s organized into sections, like a souq. The electronics section featured multiple stores that sold drones, but it was a complete crap shoot as to what price or type they had in stock. We found a few that will work well, at prices that are much lower than I expected (but still expensive - it’s a drone, after all). When I tried to pull the trigger on an $800 drone identical to Lazarus, the store owner said, “We recently sold out of stock. More will come on Monday.”
Life experience has taught me to never believe any shopkeeper who says, “Come back later, more is coming.” I leaned in and asked him, “So you are getting more of this drone on Monday?” and he said, “God willing, yes.”
That’s another red flag. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where saying “Inshaallah” (God willing) is a national pastime when discussing if something is going to happen in the future.
Will you have gasoline tomorrow? Inshaallah.
Can you cut this tree limb with a chainsaw without slicing off my thumb? Inshaallah.
Did the hungry pack of hyenas leave? Inshaallah.
Suffice it to say, I’m not banking on finding a Mavic Pro at that shop when I drop by on Tuesday. Fortunately, I have a few other options available from other stores.
It was inevitable. The volatile nature of weather in the San Blas meant that when we saw a window for the jump back to Colon, we were going to leap at a moment’s notice. We recognized the first glimpses of that window this afternoon after a huge squall ripped through the swimming pool anchorage. The storm smoothed the waves out and and interrupted the west winds we typically experience in the afternoon.
We knew it immediately: it was time to go for it.
I was proud of how quickly the crew dialed into the plan. We had no drama, just a series of tasks we rapidly checked off our to-do list.
One sad note: friends on a boat named Nomad had only just pulled into the anchorage and we were disappointed to not have time to hang out with them. It’s an all-too-familiar pattern in the cruising lifestyle - more often than not, boats are on slightly different schedules, so interactions are often brief but always fascinating.
I was surprised how melancholy I felt as we motored away from the San Blas. This region deserves all the accolades it gets. I’m so glad we came here in low season and missed the crowds - I’ll take an undeveloped, natural paradise over a tourist destination any day of the week.
The jump to Colon was uneventful. Our fuel re-supply in Nargana gave us ample diesel, which was good since the trip was largely windless. The simple overnight hop was complicated slightly by heavy canal-bound traffic, but it helped that we’ve been here before.
We slipped through the breakwater at dawn, anchored for an hour, then booked our old slip (“E21”) at Shelter Bay over the radio. By nine AM, we were settled in and I was asleep.
We took the afternoon bus to the city, mostly to get blizzards at Dairy Queen. Dad and I found some SCUBA masks at the Abernathy chandlery. I lost my (awesome) mask in the San Blas and have been borrowing an old spare for the past two weeks. Stoked to get a quality replacement.
Droney McDrone-face LIVES! After drying him out in a Ziploc bag full of rice for two days, we plugged a fresh battery in and he powered right up as if nothing had happened!
He passed all our system tests with flying colors - camera, gimbal, and engines all work. I replaced two propellors that were damaged in the collision, and then we did a test flight. I felt like I was flying a drone for the first time - riding the edge of control, one thumb twitch away from careening into the ocean.
After his successful test flight, we made it official: Droney is no more…he has become the Lazaraus Drone.
To summarize our timeline and seat-of-the-pants technique for saving Lazarus (in case your drone encounters the same watery fate as mine):
1. He hit a halyard as I tried to land on deck before a squall hit Exit Only. There may have been a gust of wind or the boat may have moved on anchor, but either way it’s still my fault for bringing him so close to the halyard in the first place. I twitched my thumb right instead of left and paid the price when the drone’s props hit rope.
2. He dropped into forty feet of ocean water. Fortunately, although the light was dying, there was just enough for me to spot him on the sandy bottom amidst the sea grass. One of his legs was folded inwards and there were no lights visible. I hadn’t ever free dived that deep before, but I threw on fins and discovered I could. I admit to being slightly concerned after I reached the bottom and collected the drone. The surface looked pretty far away and I was alone, so blacking out would have been a very bad thing.
3. The squall hit us just as I surfaced, so we didn’t film the rescue. Instead, Dad ran the engines to take pressure off our anchor while I dunked the drone into a bucket of fresh water. After half an hour, we moved the drone to another freshwater bucket, then repeated the process again with a third and fourth dunking for a total of at least two hours of soaking.
4. We dried the drone on top of a portable fan for two hours.
5. We placed the drone inside a mosquito netting hat to keep rice from penetrating its crevices, then slid it into a five gallon Ziploc bag full of rice. The rice acts as a desiccant to absorb moisture.
6. We cycled the drone in and out of the rice bag, sometimes putting it outside to create a greenhouse effect in the sun.
7. After two days of drying, we powered it up and ran system checks.
8. Held the drone down and let its engines spin at warm-up revs to exercise the motors.
9. Tested the camera while handholding the drone.
10. Short test flight to take off and land.
11. Long test flight to take photos.
I can’t guarantee this process will work for anyone else (or even how long Lazarus’ life expectancy is - he may have an undiagnosed time bomb that spells doom down the road), but figure it might help someone out there who messed up like me and needs a road map to hope.
One side effect of using so much rice to absorb moisture is that we are eating rice for every meal in the foreseeable future.
OTHER BIG NEWS:
Today Zoe swam under both keels without using fins! I planted seeds for this goal years ago, hoping to motivate Zoe with a big challenge. Her swimming skills have steadily improved over the past six months, and today was the day of victory. As promised, she earned $10 for her effort.
I was so proud to watch her push her comfort zone and make it happen. Joss saw the whole thing, so I won’t be surprised if she isn’t doing it within the year too.
Days like this are what it’s all about. It makes me so happy to see my kids thrive in a challenge.
Hard to sleep last night because the no see ‘ums were laughing so loudly at our proclamations about how glad we were to be in a secure anchorage so we could “have a good night of sleep”. Everyone rolled out of bed this morning with bleary eyes and a collection of battle scars.
We discovered we can fix our radio clipping issue by running our engine to charge our house batteries before the morning net. Hopefully that fixes the problem because the next step would be to tear the wiring and cabling apart behind the nav station.
Even after weeks here, this anchorage continues to surprise us. Yesterday we struck out in a different direction for our afternoon snorkel and discovered a wonderful collection of coral that was arranged in a series of underwater canyons. It was so good that we are plotting how we might convince Mom to join us for another run at it tomorrow. I would hate for her to miss it.
Sarah made some of the greatest bread in the history of the world today. Two perfect loaves - light and fluffy on the inside, with a crisp brown exterior that crunches slightly with each bite. I asked her if it is a new recipe and she said she’s dialing in the old one. Whatever is going on, I endorse her efforts and nominate her Queen Baker of the Universe.
Droney is now dehumidifying in a fresh bag of rice. This is the final stage of our attempt to bring him back to life. Fingers crossed…
Switched anchorages this morning. Our love affair with our stunning new locale didn’t last long because we were exposed on two lee shores (the wind blows the boat towards the shore instead of away from it - something wise seamen try to avoid). We gave our best shot at anchoring there, resetting our tackle in four different places, all to no avail.
On our first attempt, I found a six foot, forty pound piece of waterlogged wood/coral wrapped around the anchor. When I pulled it off and threw it back in the ocean, it sunk like a stone. A near miss, there - a fouled anchor is the last thing you want in a steep-sloped, coral-strewn, lee shore anchorage.
Eventually we surrendered to the inevitable and sailed six miles back to the Swimming Pool anchorage. For the first time in forever, we got to enjoy a downwind run instead of bashing into a headwind.
Last night we had a 2 AM squall drill. Nothing truly gnarly rolled through, but the decks got a good washing. Our relatively close proximity to the island, reef, and power yacht had me, Dad, and Mom up for a hour to monitor the situation. Fortunately, the wind stayed low and nothing happened that required our intervention.
The poweryacht didn’t budge, no matter which way the wind shifted. I’m assuming they put out an additional anchor to their stern, which is an interesting strategy - it would give them insurance about not drifting into shallow water to their sides, but it also risked putting them at odds to Exit Only and another French catamaran if the wind moved to the south.
Thankfully, after forty-five minutes of squall watch, the weather calmed so we could go to bed.
BIGGEST NEWS OF THE DAY:
Tonight I crashed Droney McDrone-face, my beloved Mavic Pro drone, into the rigging. It spun out of control into the ocean and sunk in forty feet of water. I threw on some fins and a mask and recovered it, so it spent less than ten minutes in salt water. We soaked the drone in a series of fresh water buckets to wash the salt water out, then dried it over a fan for a couple of hours.
Finally, we poured two large containers of rice into a five-gallon ziplock and sealed the drone inside. We are adopting the classic “save your cellphone after it fell into the toilet” strategy beloved by clumsy people around the world.
We will let the rice do its desiccant work for a couple of days, then plug a battery in and discover Droney’s fate. Given the complexity of electronics necessary for the drone to function, I’ll be surprised if we can save him, but we’re giving it our best shot.
On the plus side, I discovered that I can free dive to at least forty feet. Once I got to the bottom, it was a lot deeper than I expected. I didn’t hang around at depth, but the ascent seemed to last a lifetime.
BACK TO OUR REGULAR UPDATE:
It’s hard to believe but five days have already passed since our last water making effort, so today we busted out the Rainman system again. Interestingly, it took almost the exact same time - one hour and fifteen minutes - to fill the freshwater tank up.
I did some more writing on my novel during the water making, and passed 42,000 words. I have a sneaking suspicion I’m going to crack six figures on this first draft.
After a lunch of ramen noodles, I went up the mast and removed the anemometer again (I tried this in Cartagena a month ago, but the indicator went on the fritz again). This time I sent the anemometer down to Dad to clean on deck, hoping he might be able to do a better job than I could from the top of the mast.
Our workday ended with a quick snorkel session at the reef we enjoyed so much yesterday. I knew we were pushing our luck doing an expedition in the late afternoon, since crocs and sharks tend to get more active around five PM, so I kept my head on a swivel. The sun was out in greater splendor today so the reef looked even more vivid, which made for some great GoPro footage.
After half an hour of swimming, I noticed a brown coral fan shaking about twenty feet away from me. It’s behavior was unrelated to the wave motion, and oddly violent. I swam closer and discovered the “coral fan” was actually tails of two sharks who were aggressively feeding on something.
“Girls, back to the dinghy.”
We left the area immediately. Although the sharks were nurse sharks, which are usually passive, I’m not taking any chances out here. Aggressive behavior is nature’s way of saying “back off”.
The no see ‘ums returned last night, this time with a special forces crew that easily overwhelmed our defenses once the wind stopped at midnight. I put on socks, a shirt, and gallons of insect repellant, then slept in the salon so my body heat wouldn’t combine with Sarah’s to make our cabin a sauna.
I was in the cockpit at 430 AM and heard an animal gasping for breath in the water. I don’t know if it was a dolphin - the sounds were very blow hole-like - or a crocodile. Either way, it sounded large. Very creepy in the blackness.
Dad and I siphoned our Narganan diesel into the fuel tanks, then raised anchor while the kids did school. An hour and a half later we dropped the hook in a picturesque day anchorage further to the west, but still in the Holandes Cay group.
I felt a bit like an obnoxious tourist, but this stop was purely a photo opportunity. The anchoring situation was not very secure, so I deployed our drone, zipped around for thirty minutes in search of stunning vistas, then landed. Within five minutes Exit Only was on our way again, leaving some very annoyed Guna Yala dogs in our wake.
We found our intended overnight anchorage another mile and a half ahead. This time we anchored within a stone’s throw of an inhabited island, so native visitors arrived in short order.
When we first arrived in the San Blas islands, we didn’t know what to expect from the locals. Reports from other cruisers suggested that merchants might be irascible if we didn’t buy, but we haven’t found that to be the case. So far, we’ve purchased goods, fish, lobster, and molas - but never under pressure and not every time they are offered.
Aside from needing supplies, we are also motivated by a desire to invest in the local economy. The Guna Yala people largely subsist on what food they can capture or what goods they can sell to yachts. So when Prado and Brian rowed up with molas yesterday, they found a receptive audience for their wares.
Sarah bought two bracelets (which I think look awesome on her), the girls each bought a fabric costume mask and a tiny stuffed animal, and mom bought two molas.
Current mola count on Exit Only: Twenty-six.
Fishing cayucos dropped by a few times and accepted our “No necessito de pescado ahora, gracias” with good grace. One fellow tried to sell us ten langostas (lobsters) for $40 - granted, they were small, but that was quite a deal. I was tempted to buy them to set the little guys free.
By the time we’d finished our chores, clouds rolled in. Dad and I checked the bottom depth and contour in a circle around Exit Only, so we knew what we would face if the night-time squalls came through. We determined that our highest risks were dragging onto the island south of us or hitting the reef to the north.
We grabbed the girls and zipped over the reef for a quick snorkel. I knew it was going to be a special place because, as I prepared my gear in the dinghy, everyone who jumped in ahead of me said some variation of, “Whoa!” once they hit the water.
They were right. The coral was lush and incredibly varied. Abundant fish skittered past in every direction. Highlights included a moray eel, a massive stingray who gave me quite a chase when I tried to capture him on camera, and three lionfish who were happy to let me film their grand displays of machismo.
A poweryacht anchored slightly closer to us than necessary or safe, but that’s nothing new. It was surprising that they packed eight people into a sixty-foot boat, however. Also, much to our surprise, they played music at a reasonable, low volume.
I stand by my earlier statements about the difference between power boaters and cruisers, but these folks were decent neighbors.
Fuel Day (hopefully)!
An early morning start coupled with our freshly cleaned hull got us to Nargana by 9 AM. We called Paco and were reassured that he had 45 gallons of diesel, although there was still a great deal of confusion as to how we were meant to procure it.
As Dad and I put the dinghy in the water, a blue cayaco detached from a nearby dock and angled straight for Exit Only. It was the fabled fuel boat!
The boat docked to our starboard side and I jumped down to help siphon diesel from their jerry jugs into ours. I was slightly concerned about the quality of fuel given their motley assortment of fuel containers, but my fears were unfounded - the sweet, transparent engine nectar looked clean.
Once the fuel was transferred, we were free to explore Nargana.
Nargana is a two-island town connected by a covered concrete footbridge. Houses are made from a wide range of materials: concrete blocks, wooden planks, bound sticks, and corrugated tin. A few of the houses are on stilts, but most are ground level and separated from each other by thin, metal fence walls. Every property on the rim of the island features a stilted outhouse, so it doesn’t look like indoor plumbing has made it to Nargana yet.
The town is unique in the area because its population is comprised of Guna Yala Indians who have chosen to forgo the traditional Guna lifestyle in favor of modern conveniences. The islands have electricity, satellite television, and cell service.I don’t know the population of the town, but I’m positive its growing at a rapid clip. Everywhere we looked, young children ran through the streets, clinging to their parents’ hands and staring back at us. To a child, they all waved back.
Two large communications antennas tower over the southern edge of the island closest to land, providing high speed cell service to the surrounding area. Dad bought a SIM card and data recharge cards for the local Digicel provider before we left Colon, so his phone works in the San Blas whenever we come in range of the tower.
I refused to buy a SIM card in Colon because I didn’t want to spend the dollar it costs. Dad reminds me this every time I turn his phone into a hotspot, but the joke is on him because I have a shiny dollar.
Both islands are organized around central squares containing basketball courts, civic statues, and playgrounds. The dusty streets are unpaved, but roads form right angles thanks to the neatly laid out houses and buildings. Much to my surprise, the town even has a Panamanian Bank guarded by a requisite no-nonsense, camo-clad security guard (whose gaze was locked on his cell phone every time I walked by).
Nargana is dotted with multiple tiendas (stores), which are only distinguishable from surrounding houses by hand-painted signs and open doors.
Goods on offer were basic, but we found many things we are running low on - namely: butter, eggs, and flour.
To our delight, a tienda called “Johnny’s” (pronounced “Joe-knees”) sold more than vegetables, chicken’s feet, and bread…they were a Heladeria! The ice cream selection was limited to three flavors: strawberry, pineapple, and rum raisin.
The girls surprised me by choosing pineapple and rum raisin (I would have gone strawberry, all day). I wouldn’t say the ice cream gave the most conventional takes on the flavors, but on a blisteringly hot day, they hit the spot!
After helado, I found myself carting three thirty-five can cases of Coca-cola (the sweet flavored ones manufactured in Georgia) across the bridge, praying I wouldn’t trip and create an aluminum avalanche that would live on in Narganan legend for years to come.
As we waited for Dad to come pick us up in the dinghy, I walked over to three boys who were playing in the shade under the bridge. They laughed and hid as I tried to engage them, then came out when I asked to see the sketchbook one of them was drawing in.
He had drawn a beautiful heart, one half of which had hair falling down over an eye. It was really impressive and a cool style.
I asked if I could draw a picture of him and his friends on his notepad. He nodded and went to the other side of the walkway to pose. I made a big show out of trying to get all their features right as I scribbled a ridiculous, steroid-buff bodybuilder.
The boys lost their minds when they saw his portrait.
I wonder what is going to happen to that page. Will the boy throw it away? Will he remember it fondly for years as the time that foreigner came and drew an insane portrait of him? Will it spawn a new era in Guna Yala mola designs?
While motoring back to Exit Only, we passed a professional cayuco-maker hard at work in his back yard. He was very friendly and demonstrated how he used an adze to hollow out an enormous log, one chip of wood at a time. The thirty foot cayuco he was currently working on had taken a month of labor so far and would last more than twenty years when finished. As awesome as the guy was, the highlight of talking to him had to be his young tighy-whitey-clad son, who peeked around the corner with a cheeky, curious grin on his face.
We finished in Nargana by noon and motored back to the Holandes before our headwind could strengthen and make life difficult. Once we made it back to our home away from home, we dropped anchor and went swimming.
At five o’clock, a general call came over the VHF radio, “Croc sighting”. We hailed them and asked for details. The croc was a ten-footer, just off their starboard beam, and evidently within sight of Exit Only. We scanned the water with binoculars but were unable to locate it.
It was a good reminder that the San Blas islands have crocodiles and that it’s a good idea to get out of the water before five o’clock, when they become more active.
We bit the bullet and had another bottom cleaning party today. Dad took care of the waterline with a wool sock on his hand, Sarah hit the mid-range stuff, and I focused on the deepest parts of the keel and the propellors.
In the space of two weeks, we accumulated a field of yellow grass on the prop blades. Back in Fort Pierce, we painted some kind of special product on the props, but it doesn’t seem to be doing very much.
Our bottom paint, on the other hand, has been a champion. Given the challenges we’ve thrown at it in the nutrient-rich waters of Shelter Bay, Cartagena, and the San Blas, we’ve had surprisingly little growth. If I was more diligent about scraping the hull regularly, we could easily maintain a smooth surface permanently.
Dad dared Joss to touch a remora. In typical Joss fashion, she said, “Sure!” and dove for one attached to the keel. Two minutes later, she traumatized a remora for life by touching its tail.
How did it feel? According to Joss, “Gooey.”
We also saw our first big squid while snorkeling. I tried to film him with the GoPro, but once he realized my intentions, he took off like a torpedo. It’s hard to imagine any fish being able to eat a squid that can move that fast.
Paco called us today and tried to organize a fuel purchase. Even though we all speak various degrees of Spanish, language continues to be a barrier over the phone. We aren’t sure if he has diesel available, but at least he seems interested in selling us something.
The wind ate its Wheaties. All day long, we had up to 30 knots of wind from the south/southeast. Thankfully, even though we could see whitecaps in the distance, we were sheltered from the brunt of the elements by an island.
Today we fixed the snapped linkage cable. Dad had been avoiding looking at the problem until now because he wanted to be able to sleep without lying awake in bed trying to solve the challenge. I was very impressed with the solution he came up with.
Dad found two pieces of stainless we had left over from installing the wind generator poles, then bent them into “U” shapes. With a little wizardry, a Dremel tool, and some clean living, we soon had a bracket that allowed us to bridge the gap between the broken rod and the transmission’s shift lever.
The whole project took about two hours and resulted in a semi-permanent bush mechanic repair. Dad is the best. I didn’t mention it to him, but I also had an idea of how to fix the problem. My idea involved the use of two nuts, epoxy, about fifty toothpicks, and some wire ties. I’m pretty sure his fix was better. It was definitely more permanent.
Fresh off the high of fixing a Challenging Thing, we spent the rest of the day goofing off.
We had a visit from a fifty-foot cayuco this afternoon. We hadn’t met this particular Vegetable Boat before, so it was interesting to see what he had for sale. Ultimately, we bought two pineapples, a bag of flour, and two eggplants - oh, and the girls spent their own money to buy a packet of authentic Oreo cookies.
I got permission from the seller to take a photo, then popped the drone in the air for a perspective shot of the huge cayuco dwarfing Exit Only.
We’ve picked up three remoras. When this happened in the past they tended to keep to themselves, but these hombres are frisky. I think they are curious about us, the lone sailboat who forgoes the nearby shallow, picturesque anchorage in favor of a deep, poweryacht-filled bay.
The remoras like to circle the boat and check us out while we swim, much to Zoe’s dismay. I’ve tried to explain that the worst a remora can do is give the biggest hickey in the world, but it hasn’t helped.
It rained most of the night. I got up four or five times, but weather conditions weren’t severe enough to require checking the radar or staying up to ensure no one dragged anchor.
The storm saved its haymaker for dawn, when a black cloud invaded our happy little world and bombarded the anchorage with buckets of rain, thirty knots of wind, and a lightning show.
I put buckets and containers out in the cockpit to catch as much rain as possible. While reorganizing one of the overflowing five gallon buckets, lightning hit so close that the flash blinded me and I heard the hiss of air ionizing a microsecond before a boom shook our world.
I really hope we survive the San Blas without getting struck by lightning. Just yesterday, a friend name Ruvé posted on Instagram that his sailboat got struck on the Pacific side of the Panama. He got lucky - only their backup chart plotter was fried.
When we sailed through Singapore, intense lightning shows were a daily fact of life. We knew two boats that got struck, and in both cases all the electronics were destroyed in an instant.
Around 9 am, we managed to contact a man in Nargana named Paco, who evidently supplies the diesel that no one has been willing to deliver to us. He rattled off a rapid-fire soliloquy in Spanish, finishing with something like, “Call me”. Dad and I looked blankly at each other. Our best guess is that he was saying, “I’ve got the diesel you want - forty-five gallons, right? Come to Nargana to pick it up and call me when you are close.”
But he could also have been saying, “I have gasoline, but diesel is harder to come by. If you want forty-five gallons, it’s going to take time to get it from the mainland. Call me in a few days.”
Until we fix our starboard gear shift linkage, it’s a moot point - we aren’t going anywhere.
Warm, tropical water is a breeding ground for bacteria, so every five days we have to run our water maker system or risk allowing growth to get a foothold in the membrane. Dad and I were forced to remove one or our two freshwater tanks due to pinhole leaking during the refit, so the watermaking schedule actually works out well - we only have six days of capacity.
Our water maker is a two-piece Rainman unit. It has a high-pressure pump (about the size of a large carry-on suitcase) and a membrane (the size of a rifle carrying case). We power it using a portable Honda generator. The water maker we installed in 1995 and circumnavigated with made 3 gallons per hour. This Rainman unit produces thirty-six.
It’s a whole new world for us now - filling our freshwater tank takes an hour.
After yesterday’s slog to Cocos Banderos and back, the crew needed a rest day to recover. Aside from collecting rainwater from the mainsail stack pack and running the water maker, we had a pretty chill afternoon. I had the chance to do a lot of writing on my first novel and set a personal record of 1,402 words in a day.
Last night was rough. I spent the first four hours of sleep being chased in my dreams to the point that I evidently tried to wrestle Sarah, who then woke me up.
Then our first big squall came through. We only caught the edge of it, but it still meant staying up from 2:30 am to 3:30 am to monitor radar and make sure no one was dragging in the anchorage. After that squall passed without incident, another one came through around 4:40 am.
Definitely a day for sleeping in.
In spite of the overcast skies, we moved the boat to Cocos Banderas this morning, as per our discussion with Eric the Vegetable/Fuel Guy. We made it in plenty of time for our scheduled afternoon rendezvous.
Although the guidebook touted Cocos as an “uninhabited paradise” and one of the best anchorages in San Blas, things seems to have changed since its publication date. One of the islands is home to a village, complete with huts, fish nets, and a volleyball net. The other two islands house temporary shelters for the many tourists who motor out for a tropical day adventure.
The substantial reef did an excellent job knocking down a heavy northeastern swell, but the turbulence limited underwater visibility, so snorkeling wasn’t great. I can see the potential, though - there was a wide variety of coral and a steep drop-off that hinted at bigger fish and an abundance of cave-dwellers.
We discovered an awesome palm tree trunk that extended out over crystal blue water, so the girls and I spent fifteen minutes testing our balance and agility by trying to walk across its slippery surface. It was a blast, although admittedly only as long as no one took a huge tumble and gave themselves a concussion when they fell. Zoe took the biggest fall of the day, losing her footing and making the classic error of straddling a tree trunk at high speed. She was okay, but the game was over.
Alas, Eric the Vegetable Guy fooled us yet again - even though his hometown of Nargana was close enough to see in the distance, he never showed.
We resolved to head back to East Holandes Cay late in the evening without any fuel. When we raised the anchor, we discovered that the starboard engine was not engaging into gear. This is a capital “P” Problem.
I ducked into the engine room and found the culprit: the linkage where the throttle control cable connect to the gear shift lever on the transmission was broken. The engine will run but it can’t kick into gear unless someone (me) goes into the engine room and pushes the gear lever manually. It’s doable, but potentially dangerous if I make any contact with the spinning propellor shaft. Since we couldn’t do anything about it at the moment, we used the port engine to get us going.
We had fifteen to twenty knots of wind on the nose for our return trip. Not even a brief visit from curious dolphins could lighten the mood as we pounded through the swells. Because we left Cocos Banderos so late and fought headwinds, we were forced to thread our way through the reef entrance after dark. Thankfully, our Navionics chart plotter was reliable and we arrived without drama.
Asked Runner for advice on our missed rendezvous with the fuel-toting Vegetable boys. They’ve been in the San Blas so long that it’s all old hat to them at this point. I could hear the amusement in Deb’s voice as she processed my naive expectations about schedules and fuel deliveries.
Basically, she said the Vegetable boat could show up today, tomorrow, next Thursday, or any time in between. She hadn’t seen this particular boat, run by a young man named Eric, in more than three months.
Also, according to the grapevine, Eric recently dropped his phone in the water, so there is no way to get hold of him.
Fortunately, it turns out there might be diesel fuel at Nagana, a small island town 12 miles from here. We had a crew conference and decided to give Eric one more day to show up at Holandes Cay with the fuel we ordered, then head towards Nagana tomorrow. Since today is Saturday and everything will be closed, there’s no rush to leave.
EIGHT HOURS LATER…
We were heading out for our afternoon snorkel when we came across Eric and his Vegetable boat of Doom in the far anchorage. I don’t know if he was avoiding us or didn’t remember us, but we had to chase him down before he was willing to stop.
Unsurprisingly, there was no diesel fuel in his fiberglass cayuca.
Eric’s partner told us they hadn’t brought the fuel because their boat wasn’t big enough. It was unclear how they planned on filling the order in the first place if that is the case, but we let it slide.
They were selling a plethora of delicious looking vegetables, so we arranged to have them stop by Exit Only later so Mom could take a look.
We aborted our snorkel mission and waited for them on the mothership. Thirty minutes later, we bought eggplants, pineapples, zucchinis, rambutans, and a papaya. Zoe and Joss were over the moon when Eric’s boatmate gave them handfuls of free durian fruit.
We told Eric not to worry about the diesel and that we would take care of it. In an unexpected flash of entrepreneurial initiative, he asked us when we planned to be at Coco Banderas, tomorrow’s anchorage. We told him it would probably be around noon (it’s only three miles away).
Eric said he would meet us there tomorrow with forty-five gallons of diesel.
I’m a bit skeptical at this point but I’d love for him to prove me wrong. Fingers crossed!
SIDE NOTE: Remember when we bought a ginormous squash three days ago? It’s been featured in nearly every meal since. Now I’m not one to complain, but between you and me, maybe we should buy a smaller squash next time.
Aaaaand…..it turns out today was not Fuel Day. We kept an eye to the horizon but our Vegetable boat guys never showed up.
In retrospect, it would have probably been a good idea to get a cell phone number for them (not that we have a cell signal here, but it would at least be a clue from which to begin our sleuthing).
Tomorrow we will talk with folks who’ve been here longer than us and see if what they recommend. Should we wait another day? Should we move on? Did they mean “a week from this coming Friday” when they said they would deliver on Friday?
Excellent snorkeling today. We returned to the lobster-rich reef again, this time to show Sarah its beauty. Much to my surprise, the same small brain coral still had four lobsters lurking under it. Those guys are doomed if they don’t find a new hideout. They are a buffet waiting to happen.
We found a school of two hundred barracuda-style fish in about twenty feet of water, so I swam down into them and took photos. I love the way fish swerve in their hive mind, effortlessly avoiding intruders like me while maintaining safety in numbers.
Friday is Movie Night on Exit Only. We were supposed to watch The Little Mermaid, per Joss’ request, but somehow ended up with Prince of Egypt. It was interesting to watch it in light of having children in the room. I know its source material is the Old Testament, but I winced when Joss asked me, “What’s the Angel of Death?”
On a completely different note, I introduced my kids to Mr. Bean on Thursday night. Can’t believe I waited this long to share one of my childhood favorites with them. I’m proud to say that the Abbott sense of humor lives on in the next generation.
Last night started off with a concerning lack of wind, but thankfully, a fifteen knot blow whipped up from the south just as the no see ‘ums began their strafing runs. The breeze lasted all night and gave us our first night of uninterrupted sleep in days.
Today the girls, Dad, and I snorkeled in a different section of reef - the closest one to Ramiro’s village. We were amazed at the variety of coral and found five lobsters! They were only in six to seven feet of water, so we were able to get some really solid GoPro footage.
If we had a lobster tickler stick or gloves we could have feasted on lobster tail tonight, but honestly, I’d rather just observe them in their natural habitat and let them live. Although if they intend to survive much longer, they need to find much better hiding places - four of them were huddled together beneath one chunk of brain coral.
The wind came up in the afternoon, strong enough that it forced us to take down the sleeping bag and sun shade. I know I mention the weather frequently, but it’s an honest reflection of life on board a boat - everything revolves around the weather. If it’s hot, we’re going to be sweating (we don’t have air condition on board). If it’s rainy, we’re going to huddle inside or get wet outside. If it’s windy, we have to make certain our anchor isn’t going to drag, and doubly certain that other boats won’t drag down onto us.
Which brings me to one of our most popular mottos on board Exit Only: “The boat comes first.”.
I don’t know how many times we’ve used that phrase to explain to the girls why we have to do some form of boat maintenance before we can play. If we take care of our boat, she can take care of us - and when you’re dealing with ocean crossings, you’d best be on the same team as your boat.
Tomorrow is supposedly Fuel Day. The guys on the Monday Vegetable boat promised to return with forty-five gallons of fuel on Friday, so we will see what happens. In our experience so far, Panamanians tend to have a relaxed attitude about dates and times. From what I understand, these fellows are going to have to arrange to buy diesel at a service station, the nearest of which is four hours land travel from Carti, so it seems like there are any number of possible wrenches that could get thrown into this plan.
It’s Gaga’s birthday! Joss and Zoe ran through the boat at 6:30 to give her handmade birthday cards. Thankfully, she was already awake.
Sarah and the girls made red velvet cupcakes, which they decorated with frosting - per Joss’ insistence - sprinkles. Mexican food for lunch combined with cake…pretty much living the dream.
Another vegetable cayuca came by today, this time bearing the unexpected surprise of cases of Coca-Cola! We bought a case of 35 cans, which turned out to be manufactured in Atlanta, which means they have a completely different flavor from the Coke made in Panama.
As everyone whose ever bought a glass bottle of Mexican Coke in a small burrito shack knows, soda tastes differently depending on its country of origin. Whether that decision is made in deference to local ingredients, regional taste preferences, or cost considerations, I don’t know - but it’s always a fun adventure to pop open a can in a new country.
Georgian Coke tastes smooth and creamy compared to its more peppery Panamanian brethren.
I wonder how that case of Coke made it from Atlanta to an anchorage in the East Holandes, San Blas. It’s hard to imagine that the warehouse had this in mind. Maybe there was some kind of Coca-Cola heist from a container ship on the high seas.
We also bought a variety of vegetables from the cayuca, including a squash, a pineapple, oranges (green ones?), watermelon, and two peppers.
Today we saw our first octopus! She was a fairly good sized specimen, and camouflaged herself agains the reef with a white skin, green patched color scheme. I stuck my GoPro next to her on a selfie-stick and managed to snap some cool photos.
Octopi are one of my favorite ocean animals. They are smart, strong, crafty, and masters of disguise - what’s not to love? I’m glad the girls got to see one in its natural environment.
We’ve been here for nearly two weeks now, but there’s still plenty to do and see. This bay is surrounded by healthy, thriving reefs on all sides and since it’s not high season, there’s room for everyone (at least until the weekend, when power yachts descend upon us with blasting stereos, inconsiderate wakes, and questionable anchoring skills - not that I’m biased against them).
I tried sleeping on deck in a hammock last night. Thus far in my life, passing an entire evening in the chillaxed nylon folds of a double-wide snooze sling has eluded me. I tend to prefer sleeping on a firm surface, so perhaps it’s just a matter of getting used to it?
Constant flashes of silent sheet lightning kept me company, since clouds denied me the pleasure of stars. Mysterious splashes around the bows of the boat kicked my imagination into overdrive, so within the first hour I was certain a platoon of crocodiles was attempting to scale our anchor chain. Still, I was fatigued enough to shrug and roll over.
And then the wind died.
Thus emerged a new front in the Great No See ‘Um War of 2019. The little buggers found and exploited cracks in my blanket armor with nearly audible cackles of glee.
I fought the good fight for twenty minutes, then retreated to the shelter of the salon a beaten man, my hammock dreams laid to smoldering wreckage by invisible, tiny wartime aces.
Ramiro paddled by in the morning and informed us that his children and grandchildren were going to drop by this afternoon. At least we think that’s what he said. He definitely mentioned the number “three”, so we made certain we were back on Exit Only at three o’ clock - an hour which passed by without anything happening.
They eventually showed up at 4:45 pm.
It was Ramiro’s daughter, son-in-law, their two-year old daughter, and six-month old son and they came bearing gifts - a couple of handcrafted flowered headbands and beaded anklets for the girls.
We chilled in the cockpit and did our best to negotiate the language barrier. Fortunately, all the Guns Yala we’ve met speak both Guna and Spanish. My attempts at using my phone’s translation software were met by laughter - which is a universal language, so I suppose the app worked.
One fun tidbit we learned in our cross-cultural exchange is that in the Guna language, Father is “Baba”, Mother is “Nana”, Grandfather is “Dod”, and Grandmother is “Moo”.
We asked these two born-and-bread Guna natives if they had ever seen crocodiles in the area, and they gave us the same answer as everyone else: “No, I haven’t personally seen any crocodiles, but I know someone who has. They come out at night.”
I’m starting to wonder whether the crocodile population in the outer San Blas islands is mostly comprised of legend, driftwood, and hearsay. Not that I’m dying to see any crocs. Every time we swim, I’m careful to scan the water for any logs with teeth. I don’t mess around with crocs - they are smart, territorial, patient, toothy, and stealthy.
We learned of the existence of a daily SSB radio net for the San Blas, so we checked in today. Although the other four boats are all relatively nearby, it was a good test of our radio rig, which worked perfectly. It’s good to knock the cobwebs off, since once we hit the Pacific and leave cell phone towers and civilization behind, the SSB will come into its own.
Excellent snorkel session today at the Swimming Pool anchorage. I was delighted to find two lionfish lurking in a cave. I had to cajole the girls into swimming over to check them out, but they were glad when they did. Because they lack natural predators, lionfish populations are surging out of control on reefs around the world. I know they are considered pests, but I always am amazed by how regal they are.
Lionfish remind me of Victorian-era queens, laced into impractical, high-necked gowns designed to impress and intimidate. I’m glad they don’t get much bigger than a basketball. If they grew to the size of grouper, I’d be teaching the girls how to say, “We welcome our spiky overlords” in fish-tongue.
Last night was rough. When the wind died at sunset, we braced for a battle with no see ‘ums. They came prepared for a war.
Were it merely a matter of numbers, we would have emerged easy victors. The walls of our cabin are dotted with tiny, flat carcasses who were too engorged on our lifeblood to dodge our clumsy blows. Ultimately, our efforts to defend ourselves only inflamed the passion of our tiny aerial attackers. Sarah and I lie awake most of the night, sweating, swatting, and swearing at our tormentors.
The rest of the crew fared little better, although Dad successfully fortified his ankles with socks - a strategy I will adopt in future evenings.
This afternoon we moved the boat to the middle of the bay in the hopes of thwarting the advances of the tiny, nocturnal, teeth-gnashing hellhounds.
Today we dropped by Runner, a boat owned by American liveaboards who have spent more than a decade in this anchorage. They were friendly and eager to share their knowledge about the San Blas islands, which they clearly love. While we were visiting, a cayuca brimming with fresh vegetables pulled up to their boat. We were thrilled to meet the local produce crew and arranged for them to drop by Exit Only later.
Our fruit haul for the day included fresh bananas, carrots, cucumbers, onions, lychee fruit, tomatoes, and potatoes. As a bonus, we discovered they are able to deliver diesel fuel! We ordered forty-five gallons of diesel, which will be delivered via jerry jugs on Friday (four days from now). A fuel reserve will give us more freedom to charge our batteries with the engines and motor as necessary.
Sarah baked three loaves of bread from scratch while the rest of the crew gallivanted around the anchorage. The smell of fresh bread is still wafting through the boat. She also baked a tin of cinnamon rolls as an early gift for Mom, whose birthday is later this week.
Lots of smiles around here.
No one slept well last night thanks to a windless evening and an occupying force of no see ’ums. These little creatures are known by different names around the world - mee-mees, gnats, sandflies, or hellspawn fangbeasts (I might have made that last one up).
Until now, we haven’t had any nights without wind - and sometimes quite impressive qualities of it - so we were spared the sensation of being gnawed alive by creatures whose jaws are only slightly larger than a single one of our DNA strands.
Invisible. Reprehensible. Insatiable. Merciless. Relentless - such was the character of our horde of winged foes.
Sleep was in short supply last night. Tonight we will all bathe in insect repellant and pray.
The entire crew went snorkeling today. This anchorage is popular and well-known for the “Swimming Pool”, an expansive reef with easy access. It’s such a delight to see a underwater life thrive in the wild. Reefs are dying around the world, often without an obvious cause, so I’m grateful for the girls to see what the ocean can and should be like.
We even encountered a few spotted eagle rays, a favorite species of ours that we first became familiar with in the Bahamas!
Zoe successfully dove from one side of the boat to the other today! She did it under the section between the keel and the propellor, but it’s only a matter of time before she does it under the keels. I’m so proud of her!
Thankfully, since today is Sunday our bay is going to empty out of many of the motoryachts that pour in on a nightly basis over the weekend. It’s not that I don’t want to share - there’s plenty of room for everyone…but in my experience motor yachts tend to throw money at problems instead of brain cells.
We had multiple instances of large yachts dropping anchor unnecessarily close to us, which instantly transforms your secure anchoring situation into a question mark. The weather changes rapidly and constantly this time of year and we’ve dealt with multiple significant squalls over the past week. The last thing you need in a 3 am Chocosano is for a doofus with an eighty foot sportfisher to drag down on you because he couldn’t be bothered to exercise common sense eight hours earlier.
Also - and this is just a common courtesy thing - motoryachts seem to think it is okay to serenade a previously quiet anchorage with music over their outside speaker systems. Not cool. The past two days we worked our way through nearly all of Celine Dion’s back catalogue thanks to a sixty foot French powerboat who anchored nearby.
I think it comes down to a difference in mindset. Powerboats, by definition, solve problems via horsepower. Powerboaters are inclined to exercise their will over the elements instead of working in congress with them. They demand that nature meet them on their terms.
Sailors, on the other hand, learn quickly that humility is the only way they can survive on the ocean. Mother Nature tolerates our passage when we work with what she provides and punishes us when we don’t. Thoughtful action is the order of the day.
Another excellent hammock/rain tarp combo day today. Days like this are exactly what I bought them for - partly sunny, light rain, gentle breeze…it’s a perfect formula.
We had some unique Guna Yala encounters today. First, a cayuca of fisherman pulled up and offered fresh catch. A seven-pound red snapper caught Sarah’s eye, so tomorrow we feast on fish! I’m curious to see how she prepares it. For as much sailing as we’ve done, we’re relatively new to the fishing scene, so we are always trying new ways to prepare the meat.
Sarah and I harbor secret plans to make fresh sushi once we catch some tuna in the Pacific. Mom and Dad will not be swayed to try it, so we are going to have to go it alone.
Later in the morning, Ramiro showed up and said he would bring his family out to Exit Only in the afternoon…or at least we thought that’s what he said - Dad was the only one on deck for the conversation so there was some confusion as to whether we were supposed to go into Ramiro’s hut (he invited us to visit previously).
We decided to assume he intended to visit our boat and thankfully, we were proven right!
Ramiro brought his son-in-law, daughter, and their two children (a two-year-old girl and a six-month old boy). We offered them snacks and then sat in the cockpit talking about life in the San Blas.
At one point, Ramiro asked Sarah if she was Panamanian and said she has “Guna Yala hair”. This happens pretty much everywhere we go. Thanks to Sarah’s mixed Indian and European heritage, she is often mistaken as local everywhere we go. In French-speaking countries, this isn’t a problem, because she speaks the language fluently. In Spanish-speaking countries, it often leads to streams of high-speed conversation before Sarah can plead, “Yo hablo Espanol poquito.”
Because it’s the weekend and there was no school, we squeezed in two snorkeling sessions today. The girls and Sarah are interested in improving their free diving skills, so swimming mostly consists of someone shouting, “Watch this!”, then diving as deep as they can.
I tested my own skills by diving on the anchor and was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to dive to thirty-five feet and slap the anchor with my hand. I could have easily done another ten feet without difficulty - and possibly more if I had worn swimming fins.
]I admit it’s a little alarming to swim deep, then look up and realize a wall of water separates me from air I will soon require if I wish to continue living. Without regular discipline in learning and testing my diving limits, I’ve got to be cautious about how deep I go. If I learned anything from a recent lunch with a world-class spearfishing enthusiast, it’s that technique and experience matter underwater.
The kids love swimming. It’s been a long road to get to this point, but we are here. The sheltered waters of the San Blas have proven an ideal swimming pool so far. Much to my delight, I’m finally getting opportunities to coach them in diving underneath the boat.
Both kids were intimidated by the idea but once I showed them how, they gave it a shot. Zoe managed to swim underneath a keel by herself. Joss can’t dive that deep yet, but she can do the portion of the hull that’s aft of the keel.
It makes me tremendously happy to be able to help them advance in an activity I love. In my experience, parenting is rarely so straightforward.
I wish it were simple to help Zoe overcome her fears of the water. It’s a strange paradox - as much as she clearly loves swimming, when she’s in water that’s deeper than a pool, she behaves as if piranhas are chasing her. Where did these fears come from? I wish the solution was as simple as punching shadows away. It’s frustrating to watch your child deny themselves happiness for no good reason.
But that’s parenting - we move forward together, one step at a time.
We ran out of freshwater in our tank, so today we pulled out the watermaker for the first time in over three months. It’s a fair amount of work to set everything up, but there’s something comforting about falling into the routine - with the added bonus of making delicious H2O (the Rainman unit produces a lovely tasting product, IMO).
Right after we finished making water, a large cayuca pulled up bearing a couple of familiar faces - Venancio the Master mola craftsman and his boat driver, Idelfonso. We last saw the pair when we were checking into the country at an island called Porvenir. We had no time to appreciate their molas, so they promised to find us another day - and find us, they did.
Venancio asked for permission to come aboard and escape the brutally hot sun, which we gladly granted. When they lifted two overflowing buckets of molas into the cockpit, I knew we were doomed.
The next hour and a half can only be described as a masterclass in mola craftsmanship and salesmanship. Venancio displayed every single mola in his inventory, one-at-a-time. When we liked one and asked how much it cost, he would shush us and say, “After, after. We choose, then talk.”
The girls each used their pocket money to buy a small mola and a bracelet.
Mom and Sarah were left to negotiate price at the end of the mola marathon. Venancio’s easy-going demeanor didn’t make it easy to bargain. Although his molas weren’t cheap, they were top-notch craftsmanship, which he repeatedly reminded us of by pointing to fine-hand stitching and saying, “Mucho trabajo” (“A lot of work”).
Ultimately, we settled for buying fewer molas in lieu of hard bargaining. His work was worth his prices, and it’s always good to invest in the local economy.
I’m still not sure how Venancio made all those molas. He said they take weeks to make, so either he doesn’t sleep or it’s a family business. Either way, he’s hustling hard and deserves to call himself a mastercraftsman.
Current mola count on Exit Only: Twenty-four
Another southeastern squall ripped through last night. Its characteristics were very similar to the small storms we experienced on our entry to the San Blas - twenty-five knots of wind, heavy lightning, buckets of rain, two miles deep, and lasting an hour. Are these formidable, but fairly standard squalls the legendary Chocosanos? I don’t know.
From what I read, proper Chocosanos arrive around 3 AM and often blow more than fifty knots, which is a completely different kettle of fish to anything we’ve yet to see. I admit to having a certain curiosity about what the Chacosano Experience is like, but only when I’m emboldened by daylight.
An old-school, James-Bond-Thunderball-era Panamanian megayacht joined us in our anchorage last night. We shared a bay with these guys before. Although reasonably friendly, they conduct themselves with a hilarious erraticness so common to rich, Yachting people.
For example, instead of dropping their anchor, they motored around our small bay for nearly two hours while their passengers rocketed from snorkel sites to beaches in the motoryacht’s tender. Eventually they surrendered to the failing light and set their anchor, but not before wasting untold gallons of fuel.
The last time we shared an anchorage, I watched in amazement as their Captain took one of their tenders out and tried to fish the bay at seven or eight knots of speed. He pushed the throttle forward and fished furiously from the bow with a casting rod like his life depended on it. From time to time, he spun around and frantically grabbed the wheel to avoid hitting land.
It looked all the world like he had consumed five espressos and been struck by a sudden desire to eat fish for dinner.
I’m not a hugely experienced angler so I tried to reserve judgment - even as the fish and I laughed at the awkward spectacle playing out before us - but since he didn’t catch anything, I feel justified ridiculing his approach. What a mess. There is no doubt in my mind that if grenade fishing were legal here, he would have blown himself up trying.
I love how the cruising lifestyle opens its arms to anyone, regardless of their life experience, creed, or social status. In spite of their differing ability to throw money at problems, megayacht owners and scow captains share the same anchorages.
I can’t close the door on today’s journal without recounting the excellence of this morning’s hammock-based writing session. Normally I just sling up a hammock and try to write, but this morning I busted out the sunshade and hammock combo, which blew my mind. All the hammocky comfort I desired with none of the sunburn! Awesome. And for the first time ever, I didn’t fall asleep. Stoked to make this a regular routine.
Woke up to our first rainstorm in three days. Rainy season in the San Blas hasn’t been as gnarly as we expected, at least thus far. Aside from the two Chocosanos on our first day, squalls have been few and far between.
We’re taking advantage of the downpour to capture fresh water in buckets and containers for showers.
Ramiro paddled out to Exit Only this morning, this time with his wife Irena. She, like most Guna Yala women we’ve met thus far, makes and sells molas. We offered them some snacks, which they accepted gratefully but set aside for their two year old grandchild back at their hut.
Zoe and Joss each paid $5 from their savings for small molas - Zoe bought a flower and Joss a parrot. They are so proud to wield purchasing power that I sometimes find it hard to say “no” when they want to buy things.
Mom bought two $10 molas and a teal beaded bracelet.
Current mola count on Exit Only: Twelve (including ones we bought at Shelter Bay marina in Colon a couple of months ago).
Yesterday I managed to wrestle Dad’s prepaid cellphone into submission to make some brief outside contact. We made a few phone calls and let the outside world know we are still alive. Cell service is extremely limited in the San Blas, at least with our provider. However, it’s also possible I missed the boat entirely on the best strategy to keep connected - nearly all the Guna Yala men running water taxis in Carti were chatting away on phones.
In fairness, I knew this was coming. I had the opportunity to purchase one dollar SIM cards and five dollar charging cards a few months ago for exactly this situation, but I’m too cheap. I hoped that Google Fi, the cell service Sarah and I use, would work here. Thus far, it’s been a no-go. Our phones occasionally connect to ghostly wisps of network connections, but not in reliably usable intervals.
On one level, it’s inconvenient not to have convenient cell service.
On another, it’s a dream come true. I love for our children to live in a world where their parents aren’t asking their overlord cellphones for life instructions every five minutes.
This evening was one for the books. During our daily swim session, Zoe put on fins and finally trusted me to help her swim beneath the hull. At first, she needed me to dive under and pull her arm forward to clear the hull, but once she got her confidence up I was rendered a mere observer of her Awesomeness.
We built on small successes until I convinced her to take a shot at diving beneath the deepest part of the vessel, the keel. Exit Only only draws four and a half feet so it isn’t a huge physical challenge, but to an eight year old it’s a daunting mental one.
Much to my delight, Zoe went for it and cleared the keel on her first try, without any help from me! I have a standing offer of a ten dollars cash reward for her and Joss, for whenever they develop the skill and courage to dive beneath both keels in one breath.
We tried tonight but she didn’t have the breath stamina for the task. Still, I’m counting it as a huge victory. Opportunities like this are priceless. It’s rare that my kids let me teach them or help them as much as I’d like to.
Sharing my love for the water with them is a dream come true for me.
Another unexpected development happened today. Some Guna Yala fisherman ran out of gasoline for their outboard motor, so they asked us for help. When I poured two gallons of fuel from our gas tank into theirs, they reciprocated by giving us six lobsters!
Mom doesn’t care for eating seafood, let alone boiling lobsters, but she took one for the team and prepared dinner. The lobsters - or langustas, as they are called in Spanish - were delicious! It was the girls first lobster, too. Joss loved it. Zoe picked at her plate.
I cleaned every drop off mine. What a wonderful, unexpected culinary adventure. The San Blas islands are treating us very well.
I was relieved to see the sunrise. It took us so long to get through immigration yesterday that we had to settle for an exposed anchorage. To a bird flying overhead, we look like we are anchored in no-man’s land between different island groups. If the bird had the benefit of a chart, they would see the thirty-foot deep sea mount we dropped the anchor on.
We have little to no shelter from the swell here, so I got up at least five times last night to make sure we weren’t dragging into one of the surrounding reefs. Thankfully, no Chocosanos visited us.
Another security concern we don’t talk about much is the recent rash of attacks on yachts in this general area over the past last year. Most happen outside Guna Yala territory, with the exception of a tragic incident six months ago when thieves boarded a New Zealand family’s motor yacht at night and killed the father/Captain when he tried to stop them stealing the outboard motor.
The other attacks have been thirty or forty miles from here, mostly at night. Usually, a boat of drunk or high locals sneaks aboard an anchored sailboat, then overpowers the crew and ransacks the boat. No one has been killed in those attacks (yet), but it’s only a matter of time. Multiple people have been held at gunpoint and it sounds like one woman came scarily close to being raped.
Like anyone else, we don’t want to lose our computers and electronic systems on the boat to theft, but we are keenly aware that nothing on board Exit Only is worth our lives. Our strategy to avoid entanglements with malignant forces is to treat people well and choose our anchor sites carefully. There are a couple popular bays between here and Colon that we give wide berth because stopping there isn’t worth the risk.
On another note, the Tooth Fairy visited Exit Only last night. It’s amazing how she keeps finding us no matter where we are. Zoe has lost so many baby teeth at this point that her mouth is even outpacing her grandparents as a source of pocket money.
Joss, in spite of her best efforts at wiggling them with her fingers, has yet to lose a tooth. She watches Zoe’s growing hoard of cash with great frustration.
For the first time in a long time, we are running low on diesel fuel. The trip from Cartagena drained our supply more than we anticipated, since (once again) we had wind on the nose and a counter current for the entire run.
We dropped by Carti, the mainland outpost for the region, but had no luck. In spite of the two dozen off-road motorbikes and wide assortment of SUVs along the shoreline - presumably belonging to adventure tourists - the town offered no diesel, only gasoline.
The fuel was kept in a fenced enclosure, in containers ranging in size from small canteens to full-size barrels. The only concession to safety was a spray painted blanket proclaiming, “FUMAR PROHIBIDADO”.
We surrendered to reality and resolved to conserve fuel. In spite of the ever-increasing hours on our engines, we prefer sailing to motoring, but lately the weather hasn’t permitted us the luxury of harnessing the wind. I’m not sure what we did to offend the Gods, but nearly all our passages have been to windward of late. If we were in Ancient Greece, someone would definitely be getting thrown overboard.
But this afternoon, our fortune changed. Almost as soon as we realized the necessity of rationing our fuel, a strong north westerly breeze piped up. We were able to throw all our canvas up and run downwind for three hours. Thanks to her freshly shorn hull and ample sail area, Exit Only saw 7 knots of boat speed for the first time in half a year. Bliss!
As a side note, this was the first time we deployed our second headsail since the debacle in the Bahamas when we couldn’t drop the sail in heavy wind conditions. Everything went smoothly today.
We returned to our first anchorage, in the eastern end of the Holandes Cays. Just enough light remained for a swim, and then the girls put on dresses and had a tea party.
My right index finger feels and looks like I put it through a cheese grater. Note to self: Wear gloves when scraping thousands of barnacles from a boat hull.
Today we checked into Panama. Panamanian immigration has a unique, laid back take on bureaucracy - since they aren’t burdened with a cutting-edge fiberoptic network of computers, the officers tend to wade through the forms with good-natured indifference. The work gets done, just not in a hurry.
Once we finished the paperwork, we met with three older Guna Yala women who staked out the immigration building. They were determined to sell us molas - hand-sewed fabric panels that depict animals in traditional Guna Yala fashion. We put up a good fight, but it mostly for show. When we decided to come to the San Blas, we knew what we were signing up for. Molas, baby. Mom loves the molas. Forty years ago, she came to the San Blas specifically to find them. In fact, her airplane landed on the pock-marked runway we walked across this afternoon. Small world.
Today we busted out the Sharpie markers and touched up all the custom art on the dinghy. Our strategy for discouraging dinghy thieves is to make ours look unmistakable. To that end, I drew a series of Polynesian-inspired waves and sea creatures on the pontoons when we got the inflatable eighteen months ago.
Zoe was over the moon about helping decorate the dinghy, so she helped me redecorate. I love including her in Boat Work, but don’t often unleash her without supervision. She was a drawing fiend today and did a great job.
That’s the word that keeps running through my head as I gaze around this anchorage in the San Blas islands. Not many people get to see such a pristine place at all, let alone do it with their family.
The fish jump and circle throughout the day in intermittent feeding frenzies. The last time I saw this much activity in the water was almost fifteen years ago, in Fiji. Every bait ball I observe from the deck today triggers a boatload of memories from my past lives.
Today we met Ramiro, a 76 year old Guna Yala tribesman who visited to change us the requisite monthly anchoring fee of $10. I don’t believe he speaks English, but with a lot of squinting, he carefully copied “Exit Only” onto the receipt.
As often happens, Ramiro brightened when he saw Zoe and Joss. Kids are a wonderful, international, language-irrelevant ice breaker. He has two grandchildren of his own - a two year old and a six month old baby, who both live in his hut with him (so not overly dissimilar to the failure to launch syndrome sweeping the millennial population…not that I’m one to talk - I live with my parents at the moment).
Ramiro had a paper-thin band of pink cloth tied around his knee as a makeshift bandage. After the receipt ceremony was complete, he pointed to his injury and asked Dad if we have any medicine. When you consider that he had no idea Dad and Sarah are medical professionals, it’s kind of a shocking question - for all he knows, this boat is laden with hallucinogenic mushrooms we call “medicine”.
Fortunately, he came to the right place. Sarah prepared a bandage with antibiotic cream for his knee injury (which didn’t appear infected) and Dad examined the bruise on the orbital floor of his eye. Ramiro paddled away in his cayuka a healthier man.
He invited us to come visit his grandchildren at his hut. We don’t have time to do it today, but I hope the invitation still stands when we come back to this anchorage.
The other big event today was cleaning the hull. Thanks to an abundance of barnacle growth, unfavorable wind directions, and a counter current, our trip from Cartagena to the San Blas set records for us as the Slowest Passage Ever. Our progress was so bad that I jumped into the ocean twice in one day and took a scraper to the hull in a desperate attempt to gain a few more milliknots of speed.
SIDE NOTE: This was the fist time I’ve ever jumped in open ocean to clean the hull. It was less intimidating than I expected. Although the water was a deep blue and well beyond 300 feet deep, it was crystal clear and a lovely warm temperature. I took solace in the knowledge that if I got attacked by an oceangoing shark, I would at least be comfortable when it happened.
The biggest danger turned out to be from the minimal swells. Even with relatively flat water, once the boat lost forward motion, it turned sideways to the waves and commenced heavy oscillation. I had to be careful to avoid any particularly large swells that could slam me against the underside of the bridge deck.
Ultimately I settled for a thorough scraping of the propellors and a quick once over of the easiest areas on the hulls. I probably only scraped off ten percent of the barnacles at best, but it was better than nothing. I climbed back on board happy in the knowledge that I’d done my part.
The girls did surprisingly well. I thought they would drop out after ten minutes of scraping, but they both lasted at least twenty. Zoe, as usual, took some time to overcome the realization that she couldn’t see the bottom. Joss, as usual, was completely unconcerned about anything and required that much more supervision for it.
I know there are crocodiles in the San Blas, although I have yet to see any. I try to keep my head on a swivel when my kids are in the water, but there’s really only so much anyone can do. The consensus amongst cruisers seems to be that it is best to get out of the water before sundown, which is a pretty standard strategy for sharks too. We’ve always tried to use that as a guideline and will continue to, no matter the destination.
It took us two hours to knock out the hull cleaning. There’s still more to do, but the bulk of the task is complete. As I was scraping, I kept thinking about what it’s going to be like before we head for the Galapagos. The authorities there are serious about cruising yachts arriving with spotlessly clean hulls, so I have a feeling I’m destined for another mid-ocean scraping session in the future. Unfortunately, thanks to the Humboldt current, the water is going to be far, far colder. Oh well.
Yesterday afternoon a tremendous squall forced us to delay our arrival in the San Blas. The roll cloud preceding the storm was very intimidating. As it passed over Exit Only, it looked all the world like one of the alien spaceships from Independence Day. Fortunately, it’s teeth were limited to 25 knots of wind, heavy rain, and copious quantities of lightning. We ran with it for thirty minutes, then turned around and let it sprint away.
Around here they call these 2-mile wide, intense storms “Chocosanos”, which means “Chicken Anus”. It pretty much sums up the experience. Evidently, Chocosanos form in the mountains of Colombia and ripple across the San Blas, often around 3 am. Awesome.
Last night, we experienced a second Chocosano. As promised, it arrived at 3 am and stayed for an hour. When the wind generator beside our bunk started howling, Sarah elbowed me awake and I turned on the radar and chart plotter to make sure we weren’t dragging anchor. Mom woke up and rode the squall out with me. Sarah, Dad, Zoe, and Joss slept through it all.
Fortunately the nighttime Chocosano didn’t hit us with anything more than twenty knots of wind. I’m told they can often exceed fifty knots, which would be a completely different situation altogether.
In conditions like that, the best thing to do is to turn on the engines and motor gently into the wind to take pressure off your anchor and avoid dragging. Also, turn on your radar (and possibly AIS system) to identify other vessels in the area if they are to windward, to make sure no one is falling down on you.
From what I’ve been told, in a heavy Chocosano, rain and wind reduce visibility to nil. It doesn’t sound like a good time, so I hope we can avoid anything that heavy. We’ll see.
Tomorrow we head for Porvenir.