The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
In addition to the beautiful off-shore islands Panama has on both the north and south coasts of the country, there are opportunities to do river sailing as well. <Larry: The Darien Province on the Pacific side has many scenic and primitive estuaries, which we did not take the time to see during our visit to that coast.> We chose to have our river experience in the great, historical Chagres River, which crosses Panama from north to south. <Larry: Remember, Panama as a country lies east-west. Courtesy of the Galliard (Culebra) Cut, which slices through the continental divide, the Chagres River is the only river in the world that flows into two oceans: the Atlantic/Caribbean (naturally) and Pacific (through the Galliard cut).>
The wild and destructive Chagres was one of the awesome challenges of building the Panama Canal. For the Canal to be successful, the river had to be tamed and controlled, in a manner that also allowed the Chagres to work its magic in providing the water necessary to run the canal locks. The Canal works by gravity, without pumps. Abundant rain water is the resource that allows this to take place. 52 million gallons of fresh water flow into the oceans each time a ship passes through the Canal system. This water is available because of the river and the climate of Panama. As the Trade winds of the rainy season reach the continental divide of Panama, it rains <Larry: on, what else?, the rainforest>, and Gatun Lake (the former Chagres River valley) collects, contains, and delivers that water. No rain equals no river equals no Canal.
<Larry: Rain water that falls during the rainy season is naturally stored in the spongy soil of the rainforest. During the dry season that water trickles out of the soil into the Chagres River. One of the major concerns of the Panamanian government is that development within the former Canal Zone would reduce this natural water retention. If that were to happen, rainy-season water would not be stored in the rainforest soil, but would flow directly into Gatun Lake, and have to be immediately released via the Gatun Dam into the Caribbean to prevent overflowing the Dam. In that case, the water would not be available to operate the Canal during the dry season. The former Canal Zone is now a Panamanian National Park, but the Panamanian government does not appear to have invested in rangers to protect the asset.>
Once we had recovered from our Canal transit in Shelter Bay Marina, we set out for the Chagres. The river’s entrance is only about 6 miles from Colón, and the contrast between Colón and the Chagres is part of the charm of the river. Colón, as noted before, is a slum in a medium-sized city, without charm or likeability. The Atlantic entry to the Canal is also at Colón, complete with all the accoutrements of an active commercial harbor catering to international traffic. <Larry: For a cruiser anchored in the peaceful and beautiful Chagres, the knowledge that the squalor of Colón is only 4 miles away lends a certain piquancy to the experience.>
The short passage to the river entrance was our first chance to sail the Caribbean Sea, which at this time of the year is more boisterous than the placid Pacific, and gave us a small experience of the consistent Trade winds, blowing their hearts out at 20 knots. <Larry: We had chosen a relatively mild day, so it would be fair to say that “their hearts” weren’t really into the blowing effort.> We had the benefit of not beating into the wind in this direction and enjoyed a nice reach downwind from Colón to the river entrance. I did also notice that the seas are higher than the Pacific at this time of the year.
The entrance into the Chagres is the only challenge to the sail: the mouth of the river is guarded by a reef and a bar <Larry: and the frowning ruins of the Spanish-era Fuerte San Lorenzo>, so the cruiser needs to keep the boat in a narrow, twisting, but short channel. Careful navigation accomplished that.
In John Masefield's "On the Spanish Main", he has an account of the the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan’s attack against Fuerte San Lorenzo, a preliminary to his campaign against Panama City. In his description of the defences of the fortress, Masefield says “Lastly, as a sort of outer defence, a great submerged rock prevented boats from coming too near the seaward side.” After Morgan’s advance force took the fort, his main fleet sailed into the entrance of the Chagres:
Their joy was so great "when they saw the English colours upon the castle, that they minded not their way into the river," being gathered at the rum cask instead of at the lead, and calling healths instead of soundings. As a consequence, four ships of the fleet, including the admiral's flagship, ran foul of the ledge of rocks at the river's entry. Several men were drowned, but the goods and ships' stores were saved, though with some difficulty.
That rock is still there, and we tip-toe’d around it on the way in and out. Close encounters with history!
Once inside, the river is about 35 to 50 feet deep from bank to bank, and free of hazards almost up to the Gatun Dam, a distance of about 6 miles.
The Chagres is a beautiful tropical river, with shades of green and bluish green. Howler monkeys, toucans, parrots, and frogs on the riverbank make their presence known, and tarpon feed in the river. <Larry: Howler monkeys sound either like dogs barking, or a crowd of baseball fans booing an unpopular call.> The cruiser who anchors near enough to the Dam will be only a mile or so from the Gatun Anchorage inside Gatun Lake, and can hear the constant, low mutter of ships’ engines as they make their transits, and occasionally, ships bleating their horns. <Larry: Far away, one sometimes hears the whistle of the Panama Canal Railway trains. My memory of the Chagres anchorage is of this layer cake of sound, with the birds and howlers overriding all.>
Here are several recordings of bird and animal sounds captured while we were in the Chagres. NOTE: They are quite large files (5-20MB) and may take a long time to download even if you have a very fast Internet connection! You are likely to find the sound breaking up if you attempt to play these recordings directly over the Internet. We have found two workarounds: (1) Click on the link and suffer through the broken sound, then once the recording finishes, click on it again. Because the file is now in the browser’s cache, it may play properly. (2) Or, right-click on the link, download the file to your harddrive, and play the file from there.
Gatun Dam was built in 1910 to create Gatun Lake, which stores and supplies the water of the operation of the canal <Larry: part of the campaign to “tame the Chagres” and retain the water needed to operate the Canal, as outlined above. At the time it was built, the Gatun Dam was the largest earth-fill dam in the world.> We took the dinghy up to the Dam, and a short walk to the area adjacent to the Dam allowed us to look across to the nearby Gatun Locks, through which we had transited a week or so earlier. At the Dam it is possible to catch a bus to Colón for shopping or other services if desired.
<Larry: We anchored Moira about a mile downstream of Gatun Dam. One of the mental adjustments that is necessary when crossing from the Pacific to the Caribbean has to do with tides: where the tidal range is on the order of 18 feet in the Gulf of Panama (Pacific), it is on the order of 18 inches in the Caribbean. But that’s an easier adjustment than the one that folks who come the other direction have to make: lots of cruisers who make the transit southbound (to the Pacific) drag anchor until they get the hang of the math.>
There were several other boats on the river, but everyone chose a spot to anchor that provided privacy to others. <Larry: Because the winds this far inland are inconsistent in direction, and given the very low amount of traffic on the river, we dropped anchor in the middle of the channel, and didn’t have to worry about swinging into the trees on the shore. The river twists and bends enough that one only had to go half a mile or so to put a screening bend in between yourself and the next boat.> We were fortunate to have a friend close by, the sailboat Songline, which made visiting back and forth by dinghy fun and easy, to exchange information about the river, and for the occasional cocktail hour.
There are many miles of trails on the banks of the river. <Larry: The trails are generally left over from when this area was used by the US Army for jungle training during the Vietnam War. We took a stroll along one or two of the trails and met up with leafcutter ants, monkeys, and luxuriant foliage. We also did several expeditions by dinghy into the shallow creeks and byways off the main river, which were full of interesting plants and bird life.>
There are crocodiles in the river. Our friends on Songline, who anchored close to the Dam, saw a big croc one morning scoping out their boat. Howler monkeys are plentiful as are parrots and toucans. There are sloths in the trees, a sort of upside-down monkey. While we did not try swimming, we discovered that the water was cooler on the top and warmer down several feet. We thought this was a result of the trickle of cooler fresh water coming from the Dam, overlaying warmer salt water from the Caribbean; it made for a curious phenomenon when climbing out of the dinghy and rinsing feet in the river. The water is brackish, and fresher close to the dam. <Larry: Watermakers love the stuff!>
This was a peaceful, lovely area and a wonderful opportunity to view and experience a near-virgin tropical forest from the comfort of the boat. We stayed ten days and then had a short beat back to Shelter Bay Marina.
Once back in Shelter Bay Marina we had a chance to think about the next step in our plans. Our destination was the San Blas Islands (also known as the Comarca de Kuna Yala), about 65 straight-line miles, or 75 miles allowing for the detour around Punta Cacique, away from Shelter Bay.
We conservatively count upon doing about 100 miles in a 24-hour period under sail. So we were facing an overnight passage if we wanted to do the distance without stopping.
But in addition to the distance, this passage would be a beat, and the first part of it (as far as Isla Linton/Isla Grande) would be dead to windward, the hardest type of sailing for both crew and boat.
<Larry: We would be going north-east, the direction whence the wind here comes most of the time. If we are going dead to windward, the mileage we must cover doubles. If one wishes to sail to a destination that is dead to windward, one must tack (zigzag), which means—among other things—that we must cover about 2 miles over the ground for every mile actually made good toward our destination. To put it differently, our progress toward the destination drops by half. Hence the zigzags that show in our track from Colón to Isla Linton (above). This phenomenon makes the effective distance for this entire passage not about 75 miles, but closer to 105 miles, or 24 hours of sailing. Especially in coral waters, one never arrives anywhere at night. Ever. So passage planning becomes in part an exercise in scheduling.>
We decided to take our time and anchor each night. That was a good decision for us as it reduced the anxiety for the first mate (that’s me).
Typically the winds here at this time of year (March) are 15 to 22 knots, even some days 25 knots. When you are facing a beat, it is wise to wait for a weather window that promises wind in the 10 to 15 knot range, which is much more pleasant for the crew and easier on the boat. At the top end of the range of wind speeds, this beat could be boisterous and noisy, with the boat smashing into the waves. And the Atlantic (or really the Caribbean Sea) is not the placid Pacific, even on a good day when the winds are 10 to 15 knots. Below the bottom end of the typical range, the waves tend to be calmer but one tends to wind up motoring. A window of moderate winds was forecast to arrive in a few days so we began the process of preparing to leave.
Not only was this the first real passage in a new ocean, which seems to me to be more rugged and harsher than the Pacific I was used to, but also I find it difficult to leave an anchorage or marina I am adjusted to. <Larry: I have learned to be careful about using “the L-word” around Susan.> There is a sense of community in the cruising world that is great fun and comfortable, more so to the women cruising than the guys. The guys all tend to be goofy individualists who like passage-making and the new challenges of each new ocean or location. But us women hate to leave the comfortable “knowns” of an existing location, particularly a marina that is so comfortable, with luxury showers, washer and dryers, and a good restaurant to meet in and have an occasional dinner.
But, the captain was right…we did need to move on. After all, it had been my idea to see the San Blas Islands even though they were upwind. <Larry: We have this hamartia: we don’t like to sail upwind, but we always seem to want to be in places that are to be upwind of where we are.> So off we went.
We had decided to take baby steps into the boisterous Caribbean from the Canal area, and the first such step of less than 10 miles took us to the first suitable anchorage off the Caribbean coast of Panama, behind Isla Naranjo Abajo. The sail there was a beat, but not as hard as I had anticipated, and the anchorage behind the island and the reef that surrounded the island were lovely and calm. The water color is lovely, very clear and turquoise close to the island. Our first anchorage in the Caribbean, not counting the Chagres river, was successful and delightful.
We were beginning to learn about Caribbean sailing. Learning how to deal with coral reefs is a big part of cruising in this area: they are never marked with buoys, and often they are not well-charted. <Larry: The saying is that many of the charts of this region are based upon surveys done by the Conquistadors!> So the key to successful sailing is good navigation, but especially eyeball navigation. This means good sunlight from over your shoulder, and having an observer (me) watching from a high spot on the boat (I stand on the bottom of our upside-down hard dinghy, which puts me about four feet up from the deck) while Larry mans the wheel. As we approached Isla Naranjo, we could start to see the different colors in the water that are typical of the Caribbean and help the pilot (me) sort out the depths in the water. A deep, dark blue means all clear, and deep water. Light turquoise means a sandy bottom; often the water becomes suddenly shallow with coral under the surface. A light brownish-yellow on the water means a reef….be wary: it’s bad for the boat and usually only a foot or two deep. Coral polyps like to be able to feel the sun, and survive through photosynthesis, so the water needs to be clear and less than 100 feet deep for coral to live. In some areas there is no danger but you need to watch the depth meter very carefully. <Larry: Actually, a conventional depth sounder is almost useless in these waters, except to assist one in calibrating one’s eyes. The depth sounder shows the depth of the water under the boat, which is fine when the depth changes gradually. But when you can go from 50’ deep to 5’ deep in the space of 50’, a depth sounder is useful only for confirming the fact that you’ve already run aground. This area of Panama is littered with wrecks, both freighters and yachts, kind of a memento mori. One of those $nazzy forward-looking depth sounders might be useful.>
In the anchorage at Naranjo Abajo, we were close enough to the shore that we could see the sandy beach, and hear some of the birds that were abundant in the jungle on the island. We were content to have cocktails and dinner in the cockpit, and enjoy our Caribbean sunset and the lovely calm water. We were the only boat in the anchorage. We saw several ulus (dugout canoes) go by, perhaps fishermen out of Colón collecting dinner. We stayed the next day to relax and then moved on to Portobelo.
Originally named Puerto Bello (beautiful port) by Christopher Columbus in 1502, Portobelo is a deep natural harbor, and was the main port for the Spanish treasure fleet in the Caribbean. From 1534 to the 1700’s the Spanish were busy throughout most of Central and South America building up their colonial empire, fighting the English, and raping the countries by removing all the gold, silver and gems they could gather. They had many ways to ship the loot out of the various areas under their control, but most of the treasure eventually passed through Portobelo for shipment on the Spanish fleet back to Spain. Ships laden with goods from Spain and Europe also came to Portobelo for trade with the Spanish colonies. So Portobelo became a center for trade and prospered for over two hundred years. In that period it was plundered several times, notably by Sir Francis Drake, the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan, and ultimately by the British admiral Edward Vernon. <Larry: Morgan was certainly a successful fellow, but reading the accounts of his exploits here, it begins to sound as though the chap had only one trick in his book: attack any fortress from its landward side.> But the battlements of the old fortifications still remain, constructed of hewn coral blocks. The old customs house, nicely restored into a museum, gives the village charm and ambiance amidst the run-down look of the rest of the village today. The old forts are amazing to look at from the sea and harbor. I suspect for many years the high walls and heavy fortification kept the British and the pirates at bay. But, nothing is forever as the city and the Spanish found out.
<Larry: For a history of piracy on the north coast of Panama, including Portobelo and the San Blas islands, see John Masefield, On the Spanish Main.>
Portobelo is a nice midpoint in the trip to the San Blas. Portobelo does have some supplies, several restaurants and four fascinating Chinese groceries that we enjoyed exploring and from whom we bought some fresh veggies. During the cruising season it is common to see 20 to 25 sailing boats who have anchored in this fine harbor, either coming from or going to the San Blas. <Larry: One of the attractions of Portobelo is relatively easy transport by bus to either Colón or Panama City for parts or other supplies.>
We stayed several days, exploring the area and taking dinghy rides around the harbor area. We had seen Portobelo before during a day-tour out of Balboa. One of the symbols of Portobelo is the “Black Christ,” a large, wood crucifix that is displayed in the largest church of Portobelo. Salvaged from a sinking ship, the “Black Christ” is known throughout the area as a miraculous icon. There is a pilgrimage every October 21st to see the black wooden figure with its purple garments.
We were ready to push on Isla Linton and Isle Grande, two neighboring islands about 20 miles from Portobelo. The anchorage behind Isla Linton was calm, with a nice Trade wind blowing. There were about 15 other boats in the anchorage. After we anchored a dinghy pulled up and we found that old friends we last saw in Ecuador were anchored not far away. Moonsong had been in Isla Linton for a week or more making repairs to their boat from an accident during their Canal transit, which resulted in significant damage to their starboard side coaming, winches, rail, and bimini (awning). Fortunately, Jerry, the captain, is a shipwright and, having built the 60-foot sailing vessel in Alaska years before, was able to fix most of the damage himself. But they needed consolation and we organized dinner on our boat to renew our acquaintance. Several days later, they reciprocated.
Next door to Isla Linton is Isla Grande, a popular vacation spot for Panamanians, usually overrun with local tourists on the weekends. Larry and I took our dinghy there to explore, but during the week. We have a hard (fiberglass) dinghy rather than the more common inflatable dinghy and 15 horsepower engine of most cruisers. Our little Honda four-stroke engine is 2 horsepower and we seldom use it. Larry likes to row and I like being Cleopatra so the combination usually goes well. The row to Isla Grande was about two miles <Larry: upwind>. The half-mile gap between the two islands allows the ocean swells to enter, untamed by the shelter of the islands. For a while I thought we would have to turn back but the captain persevered and we made the dinghy dock which was at one of the few local restaurants open during the week. We enjoyed a decent fish lunch, some great Panamanian beer ($1 USD) and went on to explore the village. I was looking for signs of a grocery store—not a Safeway, but a local tienda which would sell veggies and fruits. “No hay tiendas,” we were assured by the locals, but they did guide us and actually took us by the arm to a house which sold veggies and fruits from their kitchen. It was a small, concrete-block house with extra refrigerators full of stuff. I stood in the kitchen and kept asking for certain veggies and fruits and the young lady kept pulling things from boxes or the refrigerator. This was local shopping!
The next day we tried a dinghy excursion <Larry: with the outboard!> to the Panamarina marina, about 2 miles from Isle Linton. We had noticed on some of the charts the implication of a passage through the mangroves that looked big enough for the dinghy; the use of such a passage would avoid leaving the protection of the islands for a detour through the open ocean. We found the passage very useable and ended up in the marina, which consisted of a few dozen moorings, a dinghy dock, a restaurant (closed during our first visit), and a house for the owners. Our dinghy ride to Panmarina was in a narrow channel through thick mangroves. The mangroves provided a canopy over us as we powered through the channel in nice shade. Along the way we saw birds, and some crabs on the mangrove roots, but no crocodiles. <Larry: The trip was reminiscent of the “Tenacatita jungle tour.”> We returned the next day in company of Moonsong to try out the restaurant for lunch.
And, the owners were willing to take our trash for a dollar a bag! Trash is a constant issue for cruisers outside of a traditional marina. Once we are over three miles offshore <Larry: a distance mandated by the MARPOL marine pollution treaty> we discard “wet” garbage over the side, and we sink cans and glass bottles in the deepest water we can find. Plastic trash accumulates quickly even though I remove most of the modern packaging from food I buy at the local grocery stores or local markets, and there is no way to legally and safely discard plastic at sea. Plastic needs marinas, city trash containers, or a cruiser’s bonfire on an island that allows such treatment. Such islands are becoming rarer as justifiable ecological concerns arrive in the Third World. <Larry: What the cruiser needs is a way to convert plastic into potable water and charcoal briquettes using, say, baking powder and sunlight!>
While we enjoyed Isle Linton we moved on after five days there to the next anchorage, Playa Chiquita (“little beach”).
<Larry: Isla Linton marks a significant spot in the transit from Colón to the San Blas. From Colón to Isla Linton, one is traveling north east, directly into the teeth of the Trade winds. East of Isla Linton, the coast bears away to permit a course that is due east, or even a trifle south of that. Still a beat but, one can hope, at least no longer tacking, and no longer 2-for-1 mileage.>
The sailing was easier because of the direction of the winds, and the sail was pleasant. The anchorage was a new experience for us because it was not on the list of recognized anchorages in most of the cruising guides. The advice we got was to sail directly from Isla Linton to the first group of islands—called Chichimé—in the San Blas, a passage of about 45 miles. We didn't want to do that because we felt we would arrive a dusk which is not a good time to come into serious coral waters. You just can’t see enough to make it safe. <Larry: It’s all about tradeoffs, right? We needed a daylight arrival, preferably before about 3PM, to be able to see the reefs. We didn’t want to get up before dawn to ensure a daylight arrival. We didn’t want to power the whole way. And I’m always interested in being the only boat in an anchorage, which seemed likely in this case. Ergo, another baby step.>
To our thinking, the charts seemed to indicate that, with the wind from the north east, the anchorage at Playa Chiquita <Larry: the “notch” in the track line on the chart above> would be ok for a night. So in we went. Playa Chiquita worked out fine for us though it was a bit rolly. We anchored in about 30 feet of water behind the reef that protects the anchorage and the small village on shore, and had a good night. The one cruising guide that mentions Playa Chiquita calls it a “marginal” anchorage and I would not spent more than an overnight <Larry: and with winds more out of the north, it would be quite uncomfortable.> Playa Chiquita had the advantage of being easy to get out of should the wind change during the night. We could have left at night and heaved to overnight 5 miles out in the ocean until sunrise. But no wind change occurred, and we left at first light to the San Blas.
The last leg to our destination was easier yet because we were able to sail slightly off the wind, behind the Escribanos ("write to us") Bank, the first major reef formation as you approach the San Blas islands. <Larry: The wind backed slightly (rotated to the left) as we sailed because of the thermal sea breeze, which kicks in most sunny afternoons, and gave us a more favorable wind angle. The effect of this can be seen in the very slight upward curve in our track east of Playa Chiquita. On this leg we passed the first wreck we encountered in the San Blas region.>
It was wonderful to see the approach of the San Blas Islands: the clean air, the lovely colors of the waters, the small, palm-covered islets which almost appear to float above the ocean. The archipelago, only 5 to 10 miles from the very green, mountainous mainland of Panama, is quite amazing. All of a sudden, more and more islets appear on the horizon and we are there. We now understood what all the cruisers had been saying about the San Blas. This lovely group of 400 islands would certainly make for wonderful cruising adventures for the next several months. We put down our anchor in the beautiful, crystal clear water of the Chichimé Keys that afternoon and did a high-five to each other! Another tough sail <Larry: NOT!> under our belts and our first experiences with dodging coral reefs! We were on a high that would last for our entire stay in the San Blas. But that is the next part of our story.
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