Archive for May, 2009

Last day of May

Lat: 06 05.959′ N
Long: 80 32.356′ W

We finally left Balboa Yacht Club late Friday afternoon and started motoring toward Punta Mala, the point of land marking the southwest corner of the Gulf of Panama. For the most part, the winds were light and on the nose in the Gulf, but we were able to sail close-hauled on a starboard tack on a heading of about 200 degrees once we cleared Punta Mala. Since then, we’ve been trying to hold a similar course, although after a series of squalls today, we’re motorsailing a SW course on a port tack. We’ll download some GRIB data when we send this blog and get a better idea of what we can expect in terms of weather in the near future.

The seas have been pretty calm, so the sailing has been pretty non-descript so far, but we’ve had some interesting sightings in the water. There were of course the numerous large ships headed toward the canal, but we haven’t seen any more shipping traffic since Punta Mala. The Gulf of Panama itself is a virtual floating minefield of logs & trash. Much of the floating wood and bamboo is only a 2-3 feet long, but there are some logs with stubs and branches still attached that are large enough for several birds of different types to hang out on. Plastic seems to be the ubiquitous trash of the ocean. It’s the one type of waste that is illegal to dump any distance from shore, but it’s not uncommon to see floating oil bottles, water bottles, plastic bags, etc. Wes told us he read that there are some parts of the ocean where there is more plastic (which simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces) than plankton. As we were approaching Punta Mala, and I was on watch, I spotted what looked like big birds jumping out of the ocean ahead and to the starboard side. I called everyone else on deck and as we got closer we saw what looked like a group of about 10 rays, leaping out of the water to the height of several feet and the doing a belly-flop on the surface of the ocean. They continued to jump as we passed them and we have some cool pics we’ll post when we get back to the land of the Internet. We’ve had numerous dolphin sightings since leaving, but the coolest one was this morning when I spotted at least 50 dolphins about a quarter mile off to port. They were doing shallow jumps, not leaving the water, and stretched maybe a tenth of a mile. Groups would jump in sets of 2-5, and several groups would jump at the same time, spaced out by 100 feet or so. Taken as a whole, it looked sort of like the ancient drawings of sea monster tails, where there are several humps of the tail visible coming out of the water. They were on a rhumb line heading for the Galapagos and crossed a hundred yards or so in front of our bow. As they started to pass us, some of them began jumping completely clear of the water, at least 6 feet in the air and landing head-first or on their back as part of a flip. We have one picture with two in the air at the same time and some short videos as well.

Other than that, just more of the same. The food’s been great as usual and we started having tea time after enjoying it on Dragon. We’re all digging into new books and thanks to Wes, are enjoying audio books, French lessons, etc. on mp3 players as well.

The port engine has picked up a bad habit of setting off the low oil pressure alarm when shifted back into idle after it has been running a while and the port alternator conked out, but other than that no mechanical problems as yet.


Well, we never thought we’d say it, but we are back at Balboa Yacht Club. We were having such a good time in Las Perlas, too. The four of us walked over to the north end of the Isla Contradora on Wednesday afternoon to use the internet cafe and check out the local bars and restaurants. While Dallas and Wes were on the computer, Tiff and I strolled into the local crafts store and purchased a handmade bracelet and a big, floppy hat, respectively. After chatting with a cruising couple from San Francisco aboard the sailing vessel Ecos, we made our way to the resort for happy hour. Some local workers were clearing a tree from the pool area, and Dallas thought it very strange to be watching someone else engage in the kind of work that he would typically be doing. Also odd was the fact that as soon as a small (10-person) plane landed on the runway across from the hotel, the rest of the guests at the pool bar suddenly got up from their chairs and walked over to jump on the plane in their wet clothes. I guess they make day trips from the city on a regular basis.


Anyway, we decided to head somewhere else and eventually settled on Gerald’s, a German restaurant. There we had the pleasure to meet Tony, a Panamanian with great insight into matters both foreign and domestic. He told us of his experiences assisting with several Survivor TV series including the American series, the German, and the French. He gave us the inside scoop, stating that while the Americans were serious about the isolating the contestants from civilization, the European contestants would venture into the village at night to get drunk and eat restaurant food!


Tony also informed us that despite the difficult historical relations between Panama and the U.S., he did not believe that any anti-American sentiment currently existed among the Panamanian people. On the contrary, he said that they were grateful for the wealth obtained as a result of the creation of the Canal and pointed to Colon as an example of what happened when the Americans (and their money) left the country in 1999.


After a couple of hours of great conversation with Tony, we quickly made our way back to the boat. We managed to beat the rain thanks to some islanders who let us catch a ride in the bed of their truck. The boat became very hot that night as a result of having all of the hatches closed, and at one point in the night I got up to see if there was any wind outside in which to cool off, but there wasn’t. I don’t remember checking on the dinghy at this point, but I’m sorry to say that in the morning, it was gone! We have wavered between believing it to have been stolen versus it getting dragged away in the current, but since the outboard engine was not on it (thankfully) and other boats nearby still have their dinghies, it seems likely that it was the latter.


Rather than dwelling on how unfortunate this was, we turned on the engines, quickly cruised around looking for it, and decided to motor back to Panama City to get a new one. Upon arrival, Wes got in touch with his contact for marine supplies and received a quick response, so just like that, we now have a new dinghy!

We had a cool rain shower en route to Balboa

We had a cool rain shower en route to Balboa


The Panama City Skyline

The Panama City Skyline


The new dinghy

The new dinghy




  Since we had yet another evening to spend moored at Balboa Yacht Club, we found our way back to T.G.I. Friday’s to watch the Cavaliers and the Magic play game 5 of the NBA Eastern conference championship. I’m not a huge sports fan, but Lebron is just amazing to watch. Today Dallas and I found our way back to Friday’s (which was hopping since it’s Friday) for one last bowl of broccoli and cheese soup. Now we are back on the boat with the new dinghy on the davits, ready to head to the Galapagos! The passage will take between 8 and 12 days, our longest thus far. It’s not an especially well liked passage as a result of the counter-current and lack of wind, but we have a plan for maximizing our speed to the extent possible. We’ll keep you posted… 








Isla Contadora

Ahhh.  Let’s see.  Wednesday.  What’s on the calendar for today?  Oh yes. 

12:30 am — Finally get permission to tie up at the dock to fill our water tanks before leaving the Balboa Yacht Club. Then Wes takes the helm and the first watch to motor out the channel and through the ship anchorage.  Winds are light and on the nose, so we decide to motor all the way to Las Perlas.

2 am — Get up when port engine seems to have caught a line in the prop.  Both engines seem to be OK, so keep going.

4 am — Wake up to give Lauren a hand when we are in the midst of fog and lightning with zero visibility.  I suggest that she cut one engine to reduce our speed to make it easier to hear and spot any traffic. Then back to bed.

5:30 am — Start my watch just as the sun is starting to come up.  We can see the northern islands of Las Perlas as well as the coast of Panama in the distance.

8:30 am — Pick up a mooring on the south side of Isla Contadora and drop the dinghy in the water to row ashore.  Notice that something 60 fish are visible below the boat and that there is something large and white streaming from the port prop shaft!

9:30 am — Walk across the island.  The sights of Contadora include numerous waterfront mansions both finished and under construction, an open-air elementary school where the kids are enjoying recess, 60 ft bamboo patches, vines hanging vertically from the forest canopy, and odd red bugs everywhere.

10:00 am — Reach the other side of the island to visit the “Super Mercado”.  Until you’ve seen a small grocery store on a small island, it’s hard to explain.  Pringles – $2.75.  Big liquor selection.  The fresh fruit and vegetable section is just some wooden shelves that have between 2 and 20 of whatever happens to be available and hasn’t completely rotted yet.  Postcards from 1978 or so.  Pick up some ginger that may help with seasickness in the future.  Visit the Internet Cafe which will be open from 3pm to 5pm.

11:00 am — Walk on the beach to explore a small cave exposed by the large tide.

11:30 am — A leisurely paddle back to Pura Vida and then tea and biscuits on the “yacht”.

12:00 pm — Lauren and I suit up for a quick swim to free the line from the prop, check out the fish, and take a look at the bottom.  The line was easy to remove and the bottom doesn’t look awful — some algae and missing bottom paint, but there are no barnacles, and Wes’s patch is still holding well on the starboard keel.  Down at about 15-20 feet there is a large school of silver fish that are joined by what looks like several yellow tail snapper more than a foot long.

1:00 pm — Lauren uses leftover rice from yesterday to mix up a concoction that includes black beans, onion, tomato, corn, lime juice, cumin, and a little jalepeno. Served on corn tortillas that we have had for quite some time but are still good when heated.  Yet another first time success from the galley.

1:30 pm – Blog & stretch out with my book just in time for my afternoon nap.

Isla Contadora is much more to our liking than anywhere we’ve been so far.  It’s beautiful, typical island life at the island life pace. The skies are clearer, there’s been a cool breeze, and we’re back to a simple life on the hook.  Not a bad day at the office so far.  Hopefully there will be some time to relax later this evening…

Estamos listos (we are ready)!

Good news! We are leaving the isthmus! I think it is time to leave Panama City before it loses its luster completely. Fortunately, the rest of the crew agrees (although we are a democracy—we only need 3 out of 4).


 That is not to say that we haven’t had more good times here since I last blogged. There have been several noteworthy experiences. For example, Tiffany and I enjoyed trying to dance to the Latin beats on Calle Uruguay, although we found the doh (pause) di-doh-doh beat in every song a little monotonous. Also, Wes, Tiff, and I returned to the city a couple of times to explore, get some last minute provisions, and have some authentic food–the fresh Covina (sea bass) truly melts in your mouth! In the process, I’ve been getting a better grasp of Panamanian culture as well as the Spanish language (notwithstanding bouts of miscommunication with taxi drivers and street vendors).



Sea bass in garlic sauce with rice and vegetables

Sea bass in garlic sauce with rice and vegetables


Residential area in Panama City

Residential area in Panama City





Did he say $1 for 1 grape?

Did he say $1 for 1 grape?





 However, since the heat index is over 100 most days, we have spent a fair amount of time over the last week seeking out a cool place to sit around and read or surf the internet—not a bad thing in and of itself, but I think it will be beneficial for us to unplug for a little while and get on our way. 


We are leaving late tonight so that we will arrive in Las Perlas around sunrise tomorrow, giving us the day to explore the islands and the associated marine life. Personally, I can’t wait to be spending the hottest part of the day in the water, either snorkeling or scuba diving!


By the way, I think it is worth mentioning that since the salt life is pretty unkind to electronics, the shift keys on my  keyboard stopped working. This meant that I could no longer type with exclamation points, so naturally I had to find a new keyboard here in the city. Now I can sufficiently express my enthusiasm toward the wildlife that we will see in the Las Perlas, not to mention the Galapagos!!

People have had a lot of questions about how we choose our route, how we know what type of winds to expect, etc.  Since we’re getting ready to pass through the ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone) on our way to the Galapagos, I thought I’d post a short note about the basic wind patterns we take advantage of.


World Wind Patterns

World Wind Patterns

The image above shows the predominant winds for the whole world.  Most of our sailing will be in the trades, with nearly all of the Pacific crossing in the southeast trades.  Where the southest and northeast trades meet, there is an area of light winds, rain, and squalls know as the doldrums or the ITCZ.  Its exact location and width varies throughout the year, but in the eastern Pacific it is typically between 5 and 9 degreees north lattitude.  Once we make it through the ITCZ (hopefully about half way from Panama to the Galapagos) we should have nice tradewinds all the way to Fiji.  In order to get across the ITCZ as soon as possible while also trying to avoid the contrary current near the coast of South America, we’ll likely head south-southwest until we pick up the trades and then change course toward the Galapagos.