Wednesday, November 10, 2021

From the San Blas to the States


Linton Bay Marina at the base of the hill

After our productive week in Linton Bay, we planned to head back to Bocas to keep the boat for the summer. We wanted to get back to Bocas to escape the severe weather in the eastern part of Panama, to avoid the heavy lightning and squalls that occur annually in that region. Bocas has some extreme weather too but not with the frequency that happens in the San Blas.

Sunset as we head west after passing the Panama Canal                                                                                                                                                           
Our trip plan was to sail from Linton Bay and go to the island of Escudas Veraguas that was just off the Panama Coast near Chiriqui Lagoon that is the other major body of water in the Bocas Del Toro Archipelago. We didn't have any reason to stop at Shelter Bay on the return and after our last experience with them hope never to stop there again.

The small tear in our mainsail

The trip was only about 100 nm and we would be fighting current but have some favorable winds and seas so we didn't want to leave too early in order to get there in the daylight. We figured it would only take about 18 hours so we left Linton in the early afternoon to get across the canal anchorage in daylight. 

Our first sunset back in Bocas after what turned into a very long ride                                                      
The anchorages at Escudas Veraguas are on the south and west side. Forecasts were for winds out of the northeast for the next several days so it looked like we would have a chance to anchor there for a couple nights before heading on to Bocas. We thought we might also spend a night or two in Bluefields anchorage which is in the Ngobe region inhabited by the Ngobe people. One of the other indigenous peoples of Panama.

A view of Bocas from Maya Point on Shepherd Island

The weather was as advertised and we got through the canal anchorage with little trouble although we had to maneuver around to avoid ships leaving the canal. Overnight there was lightning around as there usually is.

Another beautiful Sunset

There was a beautiful sunrise that soon faded into clouds but we could see the island ahead of us. We had our sails up with the wind behind us when suddenly about 0700 the wind shifted 180 degrees and was directly on our nose. Soon the waves turned as well. I pulled in the sails except for a little bit of main sail that I left out to help with stability. We were now less than 10 miles from our destination and we could see squalls all around. Then without any warning the canvas on the boat began to hum and pressure shook the boat. The gauges registered nothing but we must have been hit with a microburst. A sudden vertical downdraft of tremendous force. 

 A friendly dolphin that came by for a visit.

Stunned from the experience we began to question whether or not we could anchor and enjoy the island. After another mile or two and the horizontal wind intensifying from the west we decided it would be impractical to anchor in the face of the west wind and swell. So, we altered our course away from the island and toward the entrance to Chiriqui Lagoon. With the wind dead ahead of us it would be a beat into heavy winds and seas. Something with which we've had a lot of experience.




Tropical foods continue to make up a large part of our diet. Above is a raw cacao pod with the cacao beans in a sort of nougat that is very sweet compared to the bitter of the raw chocolate but a very tasty and healthy snack. We love our bananas right off the vine and we always have dried coconut for use in lots of dishes. Also a very healthy food that helps build a good immune system.








The rest of the trip was uneventful and the wind calmed as we made our way back into the Bocas archipelago. We decided we would spend the weekend in our quiet cove to decompress and get reoriented so we could plan our next steps.


On our return we connected with old friends. This dinner is at BB's on the Beach with John and Jennifer Stark and Wilson who was busy elsewhere.

For the next month we hung out in anchorages, spent time with friends, did boat chores resuming the enjoyable lifestyle of Bocas until we needed to get the boat ready for our departure back to the States for 2 months beginning the end of July.

Our lunch stop at Yanasori on Bocas del Drago with friends

The end of June we went back into Bocas Marina to complete scheduled maintenance; do some repairs and modifications; decommission our systems and deep clean for our absence. In years' past at the end of the season we winterized our boats for cold weather. But here we simply condition them so they will continue to perform. 

Most nights of the week banana boats come in to the Port of Almirante to pick up a load of Chiquita bananas. Panama has 3 ports on the Caribe. Almirante is bananas, Chiriqui Grande is oil and Colon is general cargo.

Our engine requires servicing every 250 hours. Before we came to the Caribbean I serviced it several times a year. Since we've been in the Carib I only need to service it once a year because I never hit the hourly requirement. In 7 years of cruising we've only added 2,000 hours to the engine log. In the Rio and up north I never worried about a fresh water flush. But, last year I realized the engines here need to be flushed with fresh water. This year in addition I pulled the heat exchangers from the engine and generator and cleaned them along with flushing the cooling system. Everything performed well.

A visit to see our friendly Red Frogs.

Our generator, likewise, is under utilized. In our 7 years we have only run it less than 2,000 hours. For the first time I replaced the coolant in that and pulled the heat exchanger to clean it. 

Pulling the heat exchanger off the genset.

Our mainsail was original with the boat and has been beginning to show it's age. Also, in the microburst we suffered it got torn slightly so I called a sailmaker who came and cut it down and fixed the tear. He also did some repairs on the jib that were needed. With this work we can hopefully get several more good years out of our sails.

Our mainsail was recut to hopefully avoid jamming in the furler. I later tuned the rig to be sure the mast was perfectly straight as well. 

I rebedded our chainplates for the first time in 5 years. Most of them looked good but one had been leaking so I redid them all. The chainplates are fiberglassed into the hull of the boat and hold down the shrouds that support the mast. If a shroud or a chainplate fail the rig can collapse. From what I could see they looked good and since I repaired the leaking one I've seen no evidence of any leaking.

Time to replace the LED anchor light. It has a photo sensor to turn it on in the dark and off in the light. A nicely sealed self-contained unit lost its luster possibly when we were hit with the microburst. 

Last year I rebuilt our windlass and after rebuilding it only worked one way. In talking with the experts it was their recommendation that one of the gear assemblies might be jammed and could be repaired or replaced. I discovered that after I had completely reinstalled the windlass. It worked fine on the workbench before it was reinstalled but, rather than assume I could unjam the gears I bought a new one. It had to come from England so instead of waiting on it I knew we would be back in Bocas later so I waited to rebuild the windlass again. In the last anchoring before we came into the marina something happened to the windlass so I could no longer use it to retrieve than anchor with the motor but I could bring it up by hand. That turned out to be a simple fix once I tore the windlass apart. It's now been rebuilt and fully functional.

Our hotel view of Panama.

Living on a boat there is always work to keep everything "shipshape." The elements of sun, wind, rain and sea deteriorate everything quickly and to have a viable home it's essential to keep after the requirements. It's a love-hate relationship. I hate to do the work but love what we're doing.

The harbor walk from Casco Viejo was a favorite tourist destination selling Panama souvenirs. 

After a month of working on the boat we left for Panama City on 26 July. Two days before our flight to the States so we could get our Covid test and other business in the City. On 26 July we left Panama, for our 2 months in the States. Our plane to Miami was late but we were back in the States.

The Panamanian Ministry of Culture
Casco Viejo

Cathedral Plaza

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Our first stop after the San Blas

Our last views of the San Blas

We left the San Blas with a good weather window on Thursday 13 May 2021 and motor-sailed back to Linton Bay. We had spent about 6 weeks in the San Blas which was far less than we had planned but as always life gets in the way. During the rainy season that begins in June the weather becomes potentially very bad. Extreme electrical storms and the early morning squalls can make the San Blas a dangerous place in the summer. We began seeing some of the electrical storms before we left and we knew we didn't want to stay much later.

View of the Linton Bay Marina

At the same time we wanted to begin our applications for Panamanian Residency so that would require a trip to Panama City to begin the process and give us an opportunity to do some additional shopping in the key markets that we liked. We also wanted to do some more cruising back in Bocas before putting Amekaya in a slip to get her ready for us to return to the States.

The historic Customs House in Portobelo

We returned from the San Blas to Linton Bay. In addition to the routine maintenance we expected to do there we planned a trip into Panama City and a trip to Colon. We planned our travel so we could avoid the need to stop back at Shelter Bay. We also wanted to visit the historic town of Portobelo.  Which was not far from Linton Bay.

 A view looking out at the mouth of the harbor.


Portobelo was a colonial Spanish port established in 1597. One of the key ports along the Spanish Main. Spanish ships brought gold, silver and precious gems from the Pacific countries to their port of Balboa on the Pacific coast at what is now Panama City. From there, they would transport the treasure the short distance of less than 100 mi across the isthmus to Portobelo where it would be loaded on ships going to Spain. The presence of treasures made Balboa and Portobelo targets for pirates and other countries looking to steal the royal wealth of Spain. Anxious to see the famous ruins of this port we took a cab one day and walked around the town. Seeing the harbor it's easy to see why this was chosen to be the port of embarkation.

A view through the main fort by the town

The harbor is a natural. There is a deep channel coming in and the mouth is close enough that shore batteries could engage an attacking enemy. The high ridges around the harbor protect it from storms and there are reefs near the entrance that would, and the fact it faces away from the prevailing swell, keep it safe from bad weather. Ironically, the port was captured by Henry Morgan in 1668 by attacking from the land side. 

A board describing the reconstruction in the early 18th century after the town had been sacked

By the middle of the 18th Century Spain began changing it's trading habits to reduce vulnerability to pirates and Portobelo lost much of it's importance.  But, for well over 150 years it served as one of the key ports on the Spanish Main. Today the old forts sit in ruins of a bygone day. They are a world heritage site and Portobelo exists mostly on tourism which because of Covid has been destroyed. Hopefully, soon it will be restored. 

Cannons on the main battery to protect Portobelo.

Having achieved our desire to see Portobelo we planned our next major goal for this stop. We needed to go to Panama City to begin our process for a Panamanian Residency. Panama offers several possible ways to achieve residency status. One is the Pensionado Jubilado. Having the Jubilado status allows senior residents many legislated discounts to air travel, hotel stays, restaurants and medical treatment. But, our main concern is that if a world-wide lock-down occurs again we have another place we can go without having to go all the way back to the US and not risk being caught in the hurricane zone.

Bunkers inside the fort for storage of ammunition and quarters

To get residency status we only needed two things. A clean background check and verified proof of our social security income. To get that we hired a document services firm and we met with them on Monday morning 17 May. The key biometric things they needed were fingerprints, photos and proof of identity. By meeting with a document validation firm we were able to do that and our residency process was underway. Or so we thought. More on this in later blog posts.

Looking at the harbor entrance from the main parapet of the fort

A couple days after going to Panama City we arranged to go into Colon for two key objectives. The first was to pick up some items that had been shipped to us there and the second was to go into the Free Trade Zone and buy bottom paint to be applied at our haulout in the Fall. 

Iglesia de San Felipe with the Black Christ statue

We arranged with the driver that took us to Panama City to take us to Colon. The first task was simple. We picked up our package and did some shopping at the Rey store in Colon. The second objective was more difficult. First, we had to obtain entrance to the free zone for us and our driver. Then we had to find the dealer we wanted to visit and buy the paint. Getting entry to the Free Zone requires paying some minimal fees that are determined by the Pass Office and as we later learned if you are in the Country more than 90 days you are deemed a resident and can't enter. But, since they had already sold us our passes they let us in. We had been in country 6 months at that point.

A ramp leading up to the parapets of Fort San Lorenzo

The store we were looking for, Panamax Oceanic Supply was not in the location Google said it was. The Colon Free Trade Zone is huge. It is easily 3 square miles of crisscrossing streets with stores and bodegas of varying sizes. We finally found the warehouse for Panamax and went into the office. The paint we wanted was only available in 5 gal buckets for US$650. That's about half what we paid in Guatemala and about 40% less than the US. Since we didn't have a commercial account we had to pay cash. Fortunately, we had been to an ATM that morning and had the bulk of the money in larger bills. But the last couple of dollars we paid in quarters and dimes.  Considering the hundreds of dollars we saved it was worth the trip and the paint should be highly effective given the chemical composition. The paint is made in the US but would not be applied in many US yards due to the high level of toxicity which should make it very effective.

Our errands in Linton Bay concluded we planned an overnight sail to the offshore islands of Escudas Veraguas. We freshened our supplies and headed east on Thursday after being in Linton Bay a week.


Entering Portobelo

There are many boats that go to Linton Bay and for people interested we offer our thoughts. We like Linton Bay Marina for many reasons. The staff are friendly and helpful, there is a produce truck there almost every day and many services are available. The downside is that the area is very crowded with anchored and moored boats making access difficult and the one marina restaurant is very undesirable. We would stop in the marina again for fuel and to rest but wouldn't be anxious to spend much more time there.

Our lunch spot just out of town the Pirates Cove with the story of Francis Drake buried outside the harbor

So Thursday morning 20 May we dropped lines and headed back west again. From Linton we calculated about a 20 hours sail so we didn't leave really early and after checking out dropped lines about 1000 and headed for our next adventure.

 El Castillo Resort in Portobelo where we had lunch.


Thursday, July 1, 2021

Our preview of the San Blas

One of the first San Blas Islands that we saw 

We arrived in the San Blas much quicker than we expected. The trip was pretty uneventful motoring through windless rolling seas. There was so little wind that we couldn't even pull out the sails to get any benefit. We were following our buddy boat, Claudette on ProfASea and she attempted using her sails but we could hear the slapping as the swells just rocked them back and forth in the calm air.

Our buddy boat ProfASea cruising to the San Blas in the flat rolly seas.

Our first stop was just inside the archipelago at a small cluster of islands in the Eastern Lemmon Cays. We anchored just south of the island of Banedup where about 6 other boats were already anchored. Coming into the archipelago the water and the sand islands were as pretty as their pictures. Each little one looking like an ideal backdrop for the perfect tropical paradise. 

Our first San Blas sunset

We anchored in about 15' of water that would be the shallowest anchorage in our time in the San Blas. By the time we had the anchor set a pango arrived along side. We weren't totally sure what to expect. We didn't know if this was the local rent collector, someone selling something or one of the many other interactions the Kuna have with yachts.

Walking around Banedup








The San Blas is an autonomous region of Panama run by a group of family leaders known as the Congreso. The Congreso meets frequently and adopts rules and oversees the governance of the region. It was in March of 2020 that this body decided to close travel into Guna Yala, the province that includes the San Blas, because many Covid cases had sprung up among the Kuna people and there are little or no medical facilities in the region. We were on our way there last year when it closed and we returned to Bocas del Toro.

Some Kuna with their cayuca swimming off banedup

Kuna are a very unassuming people but they don't hesitate to approach yachts for many reasons. Mostly it's to trade or ask for something they can't easily get. Among the islands we have heard of families charging yachts for being there and the head of the family approaches the boat and asks for the "permit fee." We weren't approached during our stay for any "permit fees."

Even in the San Blas boatwork continues.  I thought our head base needed a new gasket but it turned out there was a crack in it. I epoxied the crack and ordered a new base. 

The boat that approached us was Venancio the most famous Mola maker in the San Blas. Molas are traditional Kuna hand-sewn mini-tapestries depicting images from the Kuna life and is part of the traditional outfit of a Kuna woman. It is a reverse-applique technique panel. Venancio had hundreds of Molas to show us but agreed to come back the next day since we had just arrived. Kuna Molas are prized throughout the world.

Venancio and his Mola's spread out on Amekaya

 Venancio was a wonderful guy. In the hours he was with us he explained a lot about Kuna life and culture. He is an institution in the islands among cruisers.


A gorgeous sunset in the West Holandes

So after a year of waiting we made it to the San Blas and kicked-back after an arduous journey. One of our key decisions was deciding what we wanted to see. We've known many people that are out to see as much as they can as fast as they can. They anchor in a place for a night and then move on the next day. Very early on in our cruising life we decided not to do that but to spend time in each place and get to know it. Rushing around you can get to see a lot of places. But, staying in each spot longer we find to be more enjoyable.

Saladup Island where we spent a few nights

So we spent two nights by Banedup doing exploring, snorkeling and just enjoying being there. Next we moved on to the West Holandes group of islands where we found fabulous reefs to explore. Before leaving Banedup a produce boat came by. Since we had stocked up well in Linton Bay we didn't need much but we didn't know it would be it would be two weeks before we saw another.


We had some great sailing too. Above photo from our spinnaker run to Saladup and to the right our great sail froma Saladup to Green Island.





Provisioning in the San Blas is an art. As a remote outpost there is limited opportunity for shopping. There are some small markets in the larger villages but under the current restrictions going to them is outlawed for foreigners. Many people subsist on fish and coconuts while in the San Blas and there are boats that will obtain provisions but as we found it's hit and miss. We had two regular boats that brought us supplies and the local Kuna came by almost daily with fish, crabs, lobster and bread. One of the supply boats supposedly has people in Panama City going to the major markets and will buy requested items but we found they usually only had the typical veggies and fruit regardless of what we asked for. We'll work with our boats next time to try to do better. But, we always had eggs, bread, bananas and lobster.

Above are two lobsters we bought for $5 each. The Kuna wanted to sell us a huge crab and 6 lobsters for $20 but we had no way to cook or keep them so we just bought the two. Left is after one of our produce boats came and below is a stalk of bananas we bought from another produce boat.








In Guna Yala there are many rules like no diving or spearfishing but seems like many people do it. I did one dive and wanted to do a second but to get a weather window to go to Linton Bay I didn't get a chance to do it. Another issue that the rules haven't seemed to impact is trash. On many of the islands that we visited there were piles of bottles and cans. Most trash is burned or organic garbage is thrown overboard. We gave several bags of bottles and cans to one of our delivery boats because they supposedly get money for them. The rest we hauled out when we left. I tried breaking the glass but couldn't. My plan for next year is that we will smash the bottles into pieces as fine as possible and dump it in deeper water. Glass is made of sand and will return to the natural habitat.


One night we did happy hour on this little island called Wasaladup. There's actually 3 islands by that name in the San Blas but this one is by Green Island. Linda and Claudette posing and a little hut on the island that is apparently used for partying judging from the bottles and cans laying around.








We spent several nights in the West Holandes and saw many boats coming and going. Even though there weren't supposed to be any charter boats, many appeared to be charters. We left the Holandes and had a nice spinnaker sail down to Salardup, an uninhabited island where we spent a few nights enjoying being alone with our buddy boat.

A Kuna boy out sailing his ulu.

Our next destination was Green Island sort of in the center of the San Blas. We had a very nice sail to there as well. Sailing in the San Blas is very nice because usually the winds aren't really strong and the waves get taken down by the reefs so the seas are generally flat. The distances between the islands is also not very far so it was easy to leave one place late morning and be at the next anchorage early afternoon.

The views at Coco Banderas. Largely regarded as one of the most scenic anchorages in the San Blas.


For most of the time we were the only boat there.





 Weather in the San Blas has two seasons. The dry season is December through May and the rainy season is June through November. During the peak of the rainy season daily storms roar through with heavy lightning and thunder. There are also frequent violent squalls during the wet season. That drove our original plan to leave by mid-May. While we were in the San Blas, having arrived in early April, we had some periods of rain and 3 strong thunderstorms that lasted several hours and produced lightning strikes near us. So we left a little earlier than we would have liked but others we know weren't far behind us.

One very clear morning after a storm the mountains on the mainland were spectacular.

After Green Island we spent about a week-and-a-half in the Coco Banderas islands. We hadn't planned to but it was a beautiful protected spot and there were some very nice reefs to snorkel. For most of the time we were there we were the only boat in the anchorage. From there we headed back to the Holandes with a night at Banedup before heading back to Linton Bay.

The sunsets never failed to impress.

 We plan to go back to the San Blas in the Fall and will have several more posts about them. The islands are the perfect postcard picture with white sand beaches, clear blue water and huge swaying palm trees. It's very easy to get addicted to the San Blas. I'm sure as travel reopens more broadly the San Blas will get even more crowded so when we get back we will need to search harder to find the secluded islands.

The Southern Cross along with numerous other constellations and galaxies was visible every night it was clear.

Navigating was not that difficult using the Bauhaus charts to get to the right places and then using visual piloting to enter into approaches to the islands to anchor. Like Belize, the water is deep except where it's not and it's usually easy to see where it's not.

Our final night in the San Blas. Back at Banedup.

The San Blas had features of the Bahamas and Belize yet much different. We look forward to getting back there in the Fall and hope we can continue our journey to other places after the San Blas.


Until next time.