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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Hey, no wake!
03/18/2008, Shelter Bay Marina

I went to the marina office first thing in the morning to discuss our situation. We were tied up on the end of a T reserved for the 007 movie shoot. The dock master Russ is a nice guy but he insisted that we would fit into the slip with the mono hull and he also insisted that we could not stay on the T.

After moving our soon to be neighbor all the way over to their side, the space did pace off to be about 32 feet. Not a lot of room to spare with a 26 foot 4 inch cat. When I got back to the boat one of the director's minions was asking Margaret (who was alone aboard) to move the boat "five minutes ago".

That made the options pretty clear. Margaret and I moved the boat over to the new slip and carefully squeezed Swingin' on a Star in with a nice breeze in the teens to help out. The marina was now officially packed.

Shelter Bay is a nice new marina. The restaurant is decent, although the service is reminiscent of the eastern Caribbean, if not worse. The showers are nice but only some have hot water. There are shuttles to the market and good access to other services. They have free water and 110v 60Hz power, which is nice for us US boats.

It is a great place to meet other cruisers as well. Many of the folks here are going through the canal or have just come through. Most have cruised some very interesting places.

Unfortunately the canal is very backed up at the moment. I guess there are always a lot of large ships anchored about but presently there are more than normal because there has been a bit of a canal pilots dispute brewing. It is worse yet for small boat because they are only sending three through a day and this is the season for folks going south.

A friend on another SF50 went through about two or three weeks ago and only waited three days. We decided to use the same agent and he is currently quoting us four weeks! Not to mention the fact that the admeasurers claim they can't come out to Shelter Bay while the movie shoot is going.

Perhaps we will get to cruise up to Bocas del Toro and Costa Rica for a bit after all...

Colon Harbor
03/17/2008, Shelter Bay Marina

We were up early this morning ready to make way to Colon Harbor. We had parked Swingin' on a Star at the eastern end of the anchorage so that we would have no one between us and the exit in the overcast grey morning. There were a few buoys to dodge but otherwise the way was clear.

Margaret, Em and Hideko were on the bow but it was difficult to ready the water in the weak light. The bottom came up gradually as we worked our way toward the east exit. The Cruising guide suggested a 10 foot depth on the way out. I couldn't find it. After seeing 4 feet under the bow and backing off a couple of times we decided to head out the south side.

We sailed along the north coast of Panama at a crisp 9 knots or so overtaking a couple of fellow cruisers along the way. We also passed a couple beating their way into the seas in the other direction. Didn't look half as fun as the way we were going.

As we approached the canal zone we began to get some very interesting output on the chart plotter. I had to turn off the perimeter alarms, I have never seen so many targets. One can only guess that all of these guys were waiting to go through the canal. This did not bode well for our quick passage.

Everything in this area is giant sized. The safe water buoy is huge, the markers on the entrance to the breakwater are towering and the ships are of course very large. The breakwater itself is the largest I have ever seen. You see it and expect to reach it in a few minutes but then it is still just as far away as it was.

We entered the port through the huge opening in the breakwater and not surprisingly there was still quite a bit of swell inside. Just a gentle ripple to the tankers anchored about I guess.

After clearing the yellow marks inside the breakwater we turned to starboard and ran along the wall toward Shelter Bay Marina. As we approached we saw cruising boats anchored out front, which was odd because this is not normally an anchorage per the guide. We entered the marina and finally discovered that they listen on VHF 74 with the help of some cruisers in the area. This is not printed on their ads or in the section on Shelter Bay in the Guide.

The management wanted to put us in a slip next to a monohull. I figured I'd give it a look see but was not inclined to believe that we would fit in such a place. After motoring down the dock I decided recon would be required. Fortunately the end of the T was completely open so we tied up there and I went to visit the office.

The dock master was not around but the office manager said we could not stay where we were and that we would have to move to the slip. I said I didn't think we'd fit. She got the dock master on the horn and he asked how wide we were. Hmmm, assigning a 50 foot cat a slip without knowing their beam. I had sent this information to them but I suppose it was not interesting.

I asked why we couldn't stay where we were. She pointed to the slip map white board and there were little Post-its with 007 written all over them. This 007 boat had taken up every spot on all of the Ts. What a jerk.

The slips had been reserved of course, but by the director of "Quantum of Solace", the new James Bond film coming out in November 08. It turns out that the boats anchored out in the poor holding area outside the marina were getting paid $100 per day to dress up the set.

Shooting had shut down for the night so we were good for now.

The Holandes Cays
03/16/2008, San Blas

We had a good run to make today to get to the Holandes but we knew that our current anchorage was going to be hard to beat. We spent a lovely morning in our private lagoon. While I was still sleeping in, some Kuna folks came by in a couple of big RIBs to pick up the guys who had stayed on the island. I think that when they saw only women on board they decided not to approach too closely. They did point out their chief to Em as they motored out of the lagoon though.

Margaret had done the navigation for our trip today so once the boat was ready to go we began ticking off waypoints such as Marg-A, and Marg-B. We closed on the Holandes at around four in the afternoon. We approached the east entrance through a shallow and narrow reef break. As we got closer I decided I'd rather not see if we could get in that way. Just a little too much in the way of seas and wind pushing us on. In short order we were around the south side with the sails in the bag and heading up along Ogoppiriadup (I love that name).

The Holandes are very pretty but they are also the focal point of San Blas cruising. My preference is definitely the isolated anchorages. It is always fun to meet new folks though and all cruisers are characters (author included of course).

We worked our way through a couple of spots marked as anchorages on the chart. We passed on some because they were in 30 feet of water and others because they were in the lee of Banedup which is supposed to be buggy. We ended up parking just off of the beach at BBQ Island. Boats all around and AirXs howling.

Margaret and Em went for a swim in the crystal clear water while I put the boat away and Hideko made dinner. We hit the hay early so that we could start the long run to the Panama Canal first thing in the morning.

Private Lagoon
03/15/2008, Aridup

Swingin' on a Star is bound for the South Pacific and it is getting to be time to cross the canal. Both Em and Margaret are looking forward to crossing the canal with us and we'd like to be out in the Pacific by April if possible. All of this added up to us needing to do some larger hops.

We decided to shoot for Aridup today. Aridup is the last island along the coast before you get to the central San Blas. We were underway at first light, slowly backtracking out of the anchorage. Chart Plotter Track Lines aren't a guaranteed safe route but they are certainly reassuring.

Once out of the anchorage we headed for deep water and motor sailed up the coast, leaving all of the islands and most of the shoals to port. We saw many Kuna out in their canoes fishing and traveling about. They seem to get up very early in the twilight hours to head out.

We picked up the Bauhaus waypoints at 09 17.029N, 078 06.160W and headed back inland to cruise through the islands off of Playon Chico. As we came up to the waypoint at 09 18.019N, 078 10.620W we noticed an amazing little harbor back in the Achudup area. We couldn't resist pausing to explore it.

We came in from the southwest around the small islet and reef system south of the harbor. Then we headed east and tried to get in from the south. You can make it most of the way but just before you get into the lagoon there is a reef across the entire entrance. Maybe you could row through in a 105 with the motor up but we had to turn back.

We refused to be beaten however and proceeded with the entire crew spotting on the bow. We followed our track back but broke off and followed the island around to the north staying inside Tacherdup. Coming around from the northwest we found a nice break in the reef and glided into the lagoon.

This is a fantastic anchorage located at 09 18.410N, 078 10.410W. You can drop your anchor in sand 10-15 feet deep in the northwest corner of the lagoon and lay back on good scope. There's just enough room for one 50 foot cat. A perfect lunch spot but fine for overnight as well with very good protection. You might not get out if the seas come up from the north though. After enjoying the fantastic little lagoon for a brief bit we headed back out to Aridup.

Aridup is a beautiful island with a couple of small satellites to the southwest. Just as you might picture the perfect desert island, wonderful beaches sprouting with coconut palm trees. The anchorage shown in the Bauhaus guide is south of the island in 20-30 feet. We decided to see if we could get lucky again and pressed on toward the cove farther up the southwest coast.

It is important to explore this area in good light as there are reefs just below the surface all over the place. Usually they break but in the dark calm of a new moon you can't even tell they're there. There are also some isolated coral heads but these are typically deep enough that you wouldn't need to worry unless you had a fairly deep draft.

After carefully working our way back toward the beach and surveying the bottom we decided that we had found paradise. The bottom was perfect sand with some eel grass patches here and there (easy to mistake for reef if you don't have good light). The edges of the lagoon consist of a beautiful palm lined beach with a view through to the Caribbean Sea, and surrounding reefs teaming with fish and other creatures. We came to rest at 09 22.18'N, 078 15.55'W.

There's probably room for only one boat, maybe two good friends, but that was fine with us. Just like the Carreto anchorage we saw no more than two or three other boats all day (not counting Kuna canoes) and anchored alone.

Once setup we contemplated bringing a coconut tree line ashore. We were about 400 feet off of the beach though and after a snorkel around it seemed that we had plenty of swinging room for the conditions.

There are a couple of Kuna shelters on the island but I didn't see any people when I explored. The girls decided to take Roq for a hike while I looked around for Lobster.

As I snorkeled about I noticed a canoe approaching. I popped my head up and three Kuna men came to speak to me. We had the typical friendly greeting followed by lots of chatting with neither party understanding what the other was saying. In the end I successfully communicated that I was trying to spear lobster. They seemed more interested in fish but after a bit more discussion one of them jumped in to hunt with me.

After about 20 minutes of joint searching, fruitless I might add, my Kuna friend decided he'd had enough. The three of them said goodbye and went ashore for the night. Shortly thereafter I speared my first one. I looked around on the outside for another hour but the cold I'd been battling was starting to make it hard for me to equalize and I could get past 10 feet. I saw a couple of nurse sharks on the prowl, known for eating lobster, and decided to leave them to it.

Em, Hideko and Margaret were all enjoying some great snorkeling as well. Margaret is very industrious and cleaned the water line for a while as well. I turned in early but the girls enjoyed one of Hideko's wonderful Mahi Mahi creations with a lobster appetizer.

Sailing northwest
03/14/2008, Suledup (aka Isla de Oro)

We had a relaxing breakfast aboard today and enjoyed the tranquility of Carreto bay. Some Kuna came by to get a look at us and say Bueno Dias. We have not seen any women out on the canoes, only men and boys. An older man and a boy came by offering Avocados for sale. They were huge. Hideko purchased four, each of which made some tasty guacamole.

We ultimately invited them aboard for a glass of water. They ate some grapes we offered with quite a bit of interest, as if they had not seen such fruit before. They pocketed the seeds indicating that they would try to plant them. They were also interested in acquiring some magazines so we gave them a few older sailing mags. I wondered if the chief would be ok with westerners spreading propaganda in such a way, but they wanted our Panama Cruising Guide originally which I just couldn't part with. They were both very polite and courteous.

Margaret had noticed that our port jack line running under the bridge deck was loose. I jumped in to check it out and it seemed to have been rotted away in the middle with the aft section completely missing. These lines are great for pulling yourself along the boat as you scrub the waterline or what have you. The port line was always a little longer than the starboard line and would get wet unless the water was flat. I can only assume that it just gave in to the sea as it didn't look to be cut. Definitely on my list of things to fix.

We decided to get going around 1 in the afternoon. It was a nice day to sail but our sailing was upwind. We slowly tacked up the coast at 6 or so knots in 10 to 12 knots of apparent wind.

I was struck by the amount of plastic trash floating about. I don't think I have ever seen a coastline with so much junk in the water. This whole area is amazingly beautiful in all other ways. I suppose if you make everything from natural objects like trees, plants and rocks you're used to being able throw anything into the ocean without recourse. I worry about what it will be like in ten years though and wish I had made it here ten years ago, before the trash and anchoring fees.

The Kuna people are rich in culture and there is no real concept of poverty. That only comes in when people begin to want things. I have seen people with much more than the Kuna who are certainly in the poverty bin. The Kuna we have met all seem happy, content and rich in the most important ways.

Many Kuna villages in the southeast are traditional blending in with the environment. There are many on islands as well. Some (as pictured) seem to overflow the shores. The great thing is that they denude and build out to the waterline on one island but leave those around them (as pictured) completely pristine.

We didn't get far today in our trip up the coast but it was a relaxing sail. We decided to put in at Suledup after consulting the navigational aids. Our charts of the area are medium scale and good for planning but not close in to shore. The Navionics electronic charts are in the same bucket. Both have huge areas that simply say "unsurveyed". The BauhausGuide is the indisposable gem here.

The Panama Coast is very rocky and reefy and there are lots of hazards about. The detail, accuracy and coverage Bauhaus provides makes getting around a lot safer. The Guide also sets out many anchorages not found in other references.

We crept up around the reefs and islets to the south of Suledup, Isla de Oro on the DMA chart. We saw 7 feet idling through some of the reef breaks but once inside it was a really nicely protected harbor with about 20 feet of water. An American trawler was already anchored inside. You could have probably squeezed another two boats in but it was nice with two.

We had sailed all day with overcast skies so the batteries needed a little boost. We ran the genset and played dominoes for an hour or two after sunset and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings.

Traveling to the San Blas
03/13/2008, Carreto Bay

The boat was in passage-making mode so we were ready to make way after a half hour of prep in the predawn. We motored out of the anchorage favoring the east side of the harbor in the moonless dark. By 06:30 we had rounded the island and the southwest shoal, making way for the southern end of Panama. We saw a couple of well lit fishing boats out and about.

It was a cloudy day but we had a nice close reach with the wind in the low teens and the seas just aft of the beam the whole way.

As we closed on the Panama coast we noticed the clouds thickening over the mainland. A friend we met in Cartagena had told us that often the outlying islands will be sunny while the mainland is getting drizzled on. We were certainly finding this to be true. The whole area seems a bit cloudy this time of year but the mainland is always a few notches more cloudy and rainy on the scale.

The crew had selected Carreto Bay as our first landfall. I have still not gotten used to picking anchorages that I have never seen before from the chart with total exposure to the east. I guess a year and a half of anchoring in the lee on the west side of islands will do that to you. Here everything comes from the north. Maybe north east or north west, but north just the same.

Carreto Bay is a large bay with an easy in and out fairly close to the southeastern most extent of the Caribbean coast of Panama. A very traditional Kuna Indian village sits at the back of the bay with some huts lining the hill above. They have no TV, radio, motors, cameras, video or power here.

We anchored at about 18:00 in the anchorage described by the Eric Bauhaus Panama Cruising Guide. The guide had been very useful in planning our travels through the San Blas. It will be interesting to see how well it matched up to the actual.

Our first encounter with the Kuna folk took place as we were setting the anchor. There were several dugout canoes in the bay fishing and what have you and as we arrived a couple made there way over to get a look at us. It was strange and wonderful to be in such a foreign environment.

We exchanged waves and hellos/holas with the people in the canoes as they glided by with their hand carved paddles. Once we were settled a new canoe arrived and seemed to have business to do. I greeted them, it was a friendly group. They spoke Kuna and a very small bit of Spanish. I of course spoke English and a very small bit of Spanish.

When it became obvious that we were not going to get far verbally they handed me a receipt. It was for anchorage fees of $10US. I must admit that this first interaction with the Kuna did burst my bubble a little. Margaret counseled me to look at it as a park fee which made it a little easier to swallow.

As the sun set I wondered if electric lights would come up in the village. Nope, a few fires here and there but otherwise nothing but darkness, just as it would have been many years ago.

Cartagena to Isla Fuerte
03/12/2008, Isla Fuerte

We got up at 05:30 to get the boat ready for an 80 something mile run to Isla Fuerte off of the south coast of Colombia. We wanted to go out the south Cartagena entrance, Boca Chica, so that we could see all of the forts built throughout the harbor.

I have never seen more forts built around a single area. The Boca Chica pass has a good sized fort on both the north and south point. Many of the forts and walls have been painfully restored making them that much more impressive.

We were told to check in with the Coast Guard and the harbor master on the way out. We hailed the Coast Guard a few times but received no response. The harbor master answered right away and was very friendly. After being cleared to exit we passed several cargo ships and left a large cruise ship to starboard at the sea buoy on the way out.

The sail to Fuerte was fairly eventless. It was great having Margaret and Em aboard to help crew the boat. Em was in good practice and Margaret is just a great sailor. Unfortunately I made everyone lattes on the way through the harbor and somehow all of the girls (and Roq as well) went to sleep shortly after finishing them. Maybe I shouldn't be using the Venezuelan beans in Colombian waters, I don't know.

We got in to Isla Fuerte just before 17:00. The approach was easy. A boat boy tried to intercept us but he didn't speak English and we ended up trying to ignore him although it was almost impossible. I was having unpleasant flash backs of Saint Lucia. I gave him a beer anyway but he didn't seem thankful.

Fuerte is fairly well populated and is a tourist destination of sorts. The anchorage is a small bay on the south side of the island protected from the west through the north, north being the direction the wind generally blows from in this neck of the woods. There are exposed rocks on the west side. The east side seems to provide a clear passage into and out of the anchorage and we saw no hazards clear of the rocks and shoal to the west.

There were three other boats in the anchorage enjoying themselves ashore, where we hear there are restaurants and bars. We had another long day tomorrow with nearly 90 miles still to go to the San Blas, so we enjoyed dinner on the boat and hit the sack early.


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