Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Off 2 San Blas

The jungle reclaiming Fort Sherman. An old US Army post.

We spent a total of a month in Shelter Bay. Far more than we originally planned but we accomplished a lot in that time and got ready for the San Blas.

When we arrived in Shelter Bay we had several objectives. One of the major ones was to buy a new dinghy as our old one was getting harder and harder to keep inflated. The old one was made in 2011 and we bought it used in 2014 as a cost compromise from buying a new one at the time we were outfitting our boat. We were able to connect with the dealer for Caribe who had a Bodega in the Colon Free Zone so we were able to buy it at a very good price. About $2,000 less than a comparable AB dinghy at their downtown dealer.

 What's left of the Post Chapel.

For two days we rented a car and drove into Panama City to do shopping. In the two days we visited Centro Marino that is an excellent marine supply store We found an excellent store, La Casa de Jamon (The House of Ham) that features top quality Spanish imports of hams, cheeses, wines, pastas, chorizos, and other delicacies from Spain.We also found a good hardware store, a very good supermarket and Pricesmart, an almost exact clone of Costco. So among the stores we were able to find so much of what we needed.

Our new car (dinghy) that will hopefully last another 10 years for us.

Shelter Bay runs a twice daily shuttle bus into Colon that we took frequently. Our common stop was at the Rey Market which was a pretty average supermarket but adequate. One nice thing is that they did carry products from El Corte Ingles which is a large store chain in Spain along with a nice selection of Spanish wines. At a Rey store we found in Panama City they had an entire section of products from El Corte Ingles. They even carry Duke's Mayonnaise from the US. 

  Precios de pavos y jamones disminuir├ín ...

Picture inside of La Casa del Jamon

From the Shuttle we also found our way into the Colon Free Zone. The Free Zone is an area of several square miles that contains stores that feature duty free products. Many of them are clothes, accessories, electronics and housewares much like you find in airport duty free shops. We were able to buy beer and liquor there at excellent prices to fill our lockers for the trip. At one store we found Marie Sharp's Hot Sauces from Belize.

El Diablo Beach at Shelter Bay

Besides shopping we had serious work to do. The night before we left Bocas our installed air conditioner broke. So when we arrived at Shelter Bay we worked through the marina to get an air conditioner technician who after working on it for about a week repaired it so that it is running better than it has since we bought the boat. 

A couple of Capuchin monkeys from one of the troops we always saw.

There were many smaller tasks we accomplished but the other major task (I didn't think it was a major task) was to improve the anchor chain by simply turning it around and putting the lesser used part out that required resplicing the line to the chain. Working with the marina service manager he presented the options of having the chain regalvanized or a cold cleaning and spraying process. We never got a price for a hot-dip process which I would have preferred so I went with the alternative hoping it would provide some help. The chain came back looking good and it didn't scrape off when I laid out on the concrete pad. But, after use the coating flaked off revealing rust. Apparently, the cleaner reversed the ends so when I reversed it we now have the old end out instead of the back end. The worst part is it took much longer than we had planned to get the work done.

Ruins of Battery Mower on Fort Sheridan. One of the major batteries of the Coastal Defense.

While we were waiting for work to get done we enjoyed walking through the jungle. Shelter Bay Marina is on the site of the old US Army post, Fort Sherman. Fort Sherman was originally built to guard the eastern end of the Panama Canal from invasion. When it was built the US Army still maintained shore batteries to protect harbors. A function that was abandoned after World War II as newer technologies rendered them obsolete. Fort Sherman became the home of the Army's Jungle Warfare Training Center offering many training courses for all the services and was especially vital during the Viet Nam War.  

A Yellow-headed Caracara that is a type of falcon that we saw on our walks.

During our stay we explored several of the old batteries that are still in place and walked the grounds often seeing troops of monkeys and Cotimundi. Walking the post and looking at the skeleton of what remained of a formerly important US Army post that was operational during much of the time I was on active duty made much of my career seem like ancient history. How quickly the jungle overtakes what we do. How quickly our past fades into the jungle of life.

One of the many megayachts that stopped in Shelter Bay while were there. This was a supply boat to support an even bigger megayacht.




 Laying out my newly reefinished anchor chain to paint distance markings before loading back onto the boat.









After all our work was done our departure was delayed on two occasions because of weather. Finally, we had a good day to depart and we did. As is often the case when we can go there is no wind to sail so we took off on a short 5 hour motor to Linton Bay Marina.

This is the weather system that delayed our departure as it was heading our way. About an hour after I took this shot of radar and made the decision to stay the system dissipated.

At Linton Bay we met up with one of our old friends, Claudette on ProfASea. Robert had gone back to the States but we rendezvoused with Claudette to go to the San Blas. ProfASea was our dockmate in the Rio and was in our convoy that sailed from Guanaja to Providencia. After some final provisioning, topping off with fuel and water we were finally set to go to the San Blas.

Pictures of Linton Bay Marina


So early Saturday Morning, 10 April we took off to the San Blas. A year later than planned but we were finally off 2 the San Blas Islands.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Waiting to Move On


 Leaving Bocas on a sail around the archipelago.

Our last blog update was quite a while ago. Since we came back from the States we have been in somewhat of a holding pattern like many others in the cruising world. Covid forced restrictions limited destinations and resource availability here in Panama. Many cruisers moved on and often found themselves stuck or simply moving on to whatever destination was available at the time. We decided to stay on in Bocas a little longer while external events evolved.

A beautiful moonlit night on anchor.

Of all the places we could be stuck, Bocas was not a bad place to be. There was plenty of great produce available at reasonable prices. Restaurants were slowly opening and food options were becoming more available. The area offered some beautiful remote anchorages. But as importantly we made many friends in the community. So, there was no reason to push on as we had no schedule and could continue our trip when the time was right.

Bocas beach looking at Isa Caranero 

Our plan when we initially left the States was to travel the western Caribbean for a number of years and work our way around it all slowly. We had no seasons to avoid like people trying to cross the Pacific nor a home calling to us. Here in the western Carib hurricane season is of less concern. We had just the casual opportunity to enjoy life in beautiful places.

Dinner with friends Dan and Jackie Youngcourt and niece Bec when we arrived back in Bocas

So during the four months after returning to Bocas we discussed all of our options including travel plans to leave Panama to renew our visas, visit other places, move on inside Panama and how to best take advantage of where we were.

                                  A visit to the Blue Coconut


One out-of-country excursion was to Costa Rica to visit friends that always vacation there in February. But, that would be fraught with many Covid-imposed obstacles if we were to go. But, when our friends told us they weren't coming that was resolved. 

              Bocas Marina at Christmas






About the same time the government of Panama extended visas until the end of June so we had more time for that.

 Dolphins off the bow.







So we split-up our time in Bocas by going to different anchorages by ourselves or with friends and spending time in the marina for work. We got into a routine of leaving the marina on Thursday and returning on Tuesday to hit the markets when they were best stocked. If we had work to do or the weather wasn't particularly enjoyable to be out we stayed in the marina. 

One project was fixing a cooling problem with the generator. Turned out a very recently installed impeller came apart and a hose clamp broke.

Gradually areas of Panama began to reopen, although the San Blas region known as Guna Yala was remaining closed. We learned from many friends that in fact boats were going there so we began to focus on our long-anticipated sojourn to middle and eastern Panama. Each time we thought we could could go something arose. Boat issues, new Covid restrictions, weather, incoming mail or whatever but something always thwarted our plans.


New Year's breakfast. Bagels from a kosher bakery in Boquete, cava and fruit.

Finally in late February it looked like we could head east in early March so we began to make plans. We stocked up as best we could from the Bocas markets. It's amazing the eclectic selection available in Bocas. One of our regular stores, Super Gourmet usually had a great selection of organic greens and other products. The major markets were usually well-stocked with conventional items and some of the specialty products and brands that we liked. Shortly before we left we discovered a wonderful meat provider that we had heard about often but since we didn't buy much meat we never shopped there. We ventured in to Tutty n Fish for some pork for New Year's sauer kraut dinner and fell in love with them. Smoked pork chops, thick cut bacon and chorizo soon found their way to our freezer. Another wonderful find a few days before we left was Bocas Berries. What a wonderful source for hydroponically grown herbs and greens as well as locally grown strawberries and other products. With such great resources it was hard to leave.

One of our sloth friends 

The day before we left new issues arose. We found a leak with water coming in through one of the chain plates. The night before we left our inboard air conditioner stopped running. Remediation was simple. In the morning I could caulk the chainplate and the AC could wait until we got to our next destination, Shelter Bay Marina. 

Lunch at our favorite restaurant El Clandestino with friends Mike and Holly Redmond

With that we were off. We left Bocas Marina about 1430 on 04 March headed for Shelter Bay marina that was at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal. Forecast was for a good probability of sailing and we had the current with us but swells would generally be in front of us the whole way.

A beautiful sunset at anchor.

So we left the safety and security of Bocas del Toro that we had come to know so well and for the first time in over a year we headed for an offshore overnight passage headed to the Panama Canal. Our course was almost exactly 90 degrees and a distance of about 130 nautical miles. We expected to be at our destination before noon on Friday.

Bocas in the rearview mirror

Going out the main Bocas channel we were beating directly into the wind and waves. With white water on both sides we didn't have a lot of room to maneuver so we motored straight without the sails. Once we got past the reefs and the breaking waves we got onto course and pulled out the sails. While it lasted the sail was great but the wind began backing and didn't provide enough force to keep the sails full as we rolled with the swells. Eventually, we turned on the motor to motor-sail but an approaching squall took out all the wind and we motored for several hours in the calm while heading into the swells.

Even squalls come with rainbows

Fortunately, we were going with the current so even though the waves slowed us down we were making good speed over ground.

In the dark hours before midnight the wind came up again ahead of our beam this time so we went to full sail until dawn. There is a tremendous difference between sailing through waves and motoring through them. It's much smoother and less raucous as the wind and waves seem to fit together in harmony. Just after midnight the last quarter of the moon began giving us light to watch the glistening foam on top of the waves as they passed the boat. 

Sails up! Downwind.

Finally after a year in Panamae we were under full sail making 8-9 kts with the beautiful moonlit night. The moon wasn't so bright to hide the stars and the clouds of constellations overhead as always made us realize how small we really are. We didn't get much sleep with the excitement of a great sail, the beauty around us and anticipation of another new destination.

Past the squall and the seas began to lay down for a while

We sailed until just after daybreak when the wind continued clocking to almost on our nose. We could have turned more off the wind and continued sailing the last 30 miles but that would have required tacking and we were approaching an area that would have lots of ship traffic so we opted to motor sail using our main and staysail to get in as quickly as possible. The further east we went the larger the swells became so in a building sea getting in quicker made more sense.

Entrance through the canal breakwater is controlled so at 8 miles out we called traffic control to report our intentions and we were told to call back when we were 3 miles from the breakwater. At 8 miles out we could see the ship anchorage we needed to navigate through to get to the breakwater. The 3 mile mark was in the middle of many ships so we planned a course around the monsters and their lengthy anchor chains while avoiding shoals and shallows near the coast that the waves could push us on.

Ships in the anchorage waiting to go through the canal.

Fortunately when we called back they cleared us to enter. We heard another boat later being told to wait an hour before entering so we were happy to be allowed to follow one ship in and be ahead of another. We pulled in the sails before going through the breakwater out of an abundance of caution and we would have had to jybe going through the breakwater. Once inside we needed to follow the channel to the marina so getting the sails down outside made a lot of sense to us.

Welcome to Shelter Bay Marina

Once inside the breakwater the seas flattened but the wind was still howling. At about 1030 on Friday we tied up at the fuel dock in Shelter Bay Marina. We covered about 140 nm in 20 hours giving us an average 7 kn for the entire trip. Not bad for our first outing in a year.

After fueling we moved to our slip and got ready for new adventures.   


Rainbow over Bocas


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Traveling in the Age of Covid

Where we were leaving.

When I first started this piece I intended to only talk about our efforts to get to the States but conditions changed so quickly the details quickly became irrelevant so I broadened it to include our whole two-month trip to the States. Over the two months that we traveled, we were on 8 airplanes, had 5 rental cars, spent 64 nights on the road in 14 different hotels, 6 cabs and ate most of our meals out or from takeout at a time when many people were reluctant to venture out at all. We did not do this lightly and developed a good protocol throughout the trip that apparently kept us safe throughout.

Dolphin Bay, one of our favorite anchorages

For the last several weeks before we left we worked half-heartedly to get the boat ready so we could be gone for about 2 months that at some point we hoped would arrive. As events evolved we finally established a firm plan to leave by making flight reservations with Copa Airlines, Panama's international airline that had been granted permission to operate taking people out of the country and so we knew that we would finally be going after several false starts. The big question remained if we could get back. So our work began with purpose after months of just passing time.
Cleaning and marking the chain.
Our major systems had to be flushed with fresh water. In the past when we were in the Rio it wasn't needed because the river was fresh water. Engine flushing for our main engine and generator was in addition to the regular services needed. The sails and lines were removed, cleaned and stored to avoid sun exposure. Everything was thoroughly cleaned and made ready for us to leave.
Heading out in the water taxi.

So after months of anticipation the date to leave finally arrived. As we boarded the boat it was hard to realize that we were actually leaving on our rides because for 6 months we were confined to a very small space and had planned several attempts to leave. Leaving aroused lots of anxiety, anticipation and speculation about what would happen during our travel. Throughout the pandemic we had been isolated and sheltered from what was happening beyond the water of Almirante Bay. 
Crossing through the center of Panama.

One of the major challenges we faced over the months was if we left, as many of our friends did, we might find it difficult to return. Many of our other friends also hadn't left because they were facing the same challenge. Over the previous several weeks Panama had issued guidance for returning and announced the full reopening of the International Airport would occur on 12 October and that domestic air travel would resume on 28 September. Beginning the 14th of September internal land travel restrictions would be relieved allowing for free movement around Panama for the first time since March so it seemed likely we would be able to return as planned.

Crossing over the canal.

To travel internally, as we did going to the airport, the government required special permission known as a Salvoconducto, or Safe Passage. People traveling to hospitals required one from medical personnel but for us to go to the airport we needed one from the US Embassy. After September 14th they would no longer needed. Roadblocks were setup along the highways to stop travel. Even though we were stopped the police never asked to see our papers. Our driver seemed to know them all and stopped to chat with them so they never bothered us.

The view outside our hotel room. at the airport Riande

The first leg of our trip began with a water taxi ride from the marina to the water taxi that would take us to the mainland. Our ride arrived late but got us to the dock in time for the departure to the mainland. Our next ride was a 40 minute boat ride to the town of Almirante on the mainland. When we left Bocas it appeared that a squall might blow in but fortunately we made it to Almirante without any rain. 
On our way on Copa.
Our land taxi met us at the dock. We had partnered with another passenger and the 3 of us rode in a 4x4 truck to Panama. The road to Panama in many spots was gravel with washed out ruts and potholes as it crossed the massive mountains of the Panamanian mainland. Subsequently during the passage of Hurricane Eta the road was washed out preventing supplies to the entire western Caribbean coast. After getting to the Pacific side we got onto Highway CA1 (Central America) which is part of the Pan-American Highway that runs from the tip of South America to Alaska.
View from the Miami Admirals Club.
We stopped frequently for breaks but other than gas stations and grocery stores there were few places open. That probably changed in the future although many businesses have permanently closed.
Our first meal back.
After about 9 hours we made it to our hotel in Panama. We had reservations at the Riande Aeropuerto, that was open with very limited services. Many of the hotels in Panama City were closed and the City was subject to the same draconian curfews that we had been under for many months so the opportunity of getting a room and meals in the City was a challenge. The hotel restaurant was open with 1 or 2 people working in it and a very limited menu. Breakfast was just toast, fruit, juice and coffee. The hotel closed about 2100 and only a security guard was around to manage the facility.
Our first meal out at Clyde's of Reston. A place we used to frequent often.
The hotel offered a shuttle to the airport running on a 30 minute schedule. So in the morning we used the shuttle for the nearly 10 minute ride to the terminal. We quickly got to the airport terminal and there seemed to be lots of traffic considering how few flights were operating.

 A trip to one of our favorite places Annapolis on a Sunday afternoon. Life resumes.
At first the airport seemed to have lots of people in it for what few flights there were. Many of the airport entrance doors were closed and upon entering an attendant took our temperatures before allowing us to enter. We had done a web check-in so we were able to go right to a counter to check our bags and then through immigration. At the check-in counter we were asked some health and security questions. Going through immigration there was no question about our 4 week overstay as the government waived requirements because nobody could leave. We went through security that was pretty typical. From hotel through security took about 20 minutes. We walked to our gate through a concourse of closed shops and restaurants where we had to undergo another security screening at the gate. This security check was just like the first one except I was randomly selected for additional screening that took longer. They were picking out many people for random checking. Once inside the gate we couldn't leave without coming back through security. Everyone in the terminal wore masks.
Two fawns on one of our walks. 
Our first flight was on Copa Airlines, Panama's international airline, from Panama to Miami and the plane was almost completely full. The airline provided a prepacked lunch consisting of a ham sandwich and a brownie. They also provided a prepacked water bottle with a prepacked safety kit of wipes, masks and gloves. The crew was friendly and courteous. On the Copa flight they only boarded 3 rows at a time starting from the back of the plane. They exited one row at a time from the front.
Dinner with grandson Alex at College Station, TX 
At the Miami airport we quickly passed through check-in with our Global Entry and got our bags to go recheck for our domestic American flights. Most of the areas were shutdown and the ones that were open weren't very busy. The American check-in area was pretty deserted. There was no wait to go through security. I was surprised on the inside with the number of shops and restaurants open. Food was all for takeaway. Everyone wore masks.
A band performing on the dock at Annapolis.  
Our two US flights on American were full or almost full. They offered no snack or beverage service but they were relatively short flights. Boarding and exit on our flight to Charlotte was normal. Exiting on our flight to Dulles was exited by rows. As we were exiting the plane at Charlotte crews were already on the plane cleaning and disinfecting it.
Getting our mail at St Brendan's Isle.
However, at the Charlotte Airport you wouldn't know anything was going on. Most of the shops and restaurants were open and the airport was as crowded almost as normal. Even many of the bars had patrons sitting on stools at the bars. Most people were wearing masks but some weren't.
Visiting family in friends with constraints by the virus. Here having an outside dinner with my youngest son.  
At Dulles airport it was getting late so whatever was open was closed and there weren't many people there. I've often trekked through there late at night through deserted concourses. Outside the terminal life seemed normal with most of the normal shuttles running and with lots of people looking for them.
Visiting with my oldest son and sister
Arriving at our hotel in Virginia we weren't sure what to expect. Many of the welcoming amenities we normally expect to receive when arriving at a hotel were absent. Everything functioned but everything was at a distance and things that could potentially serve as a host for a virus were removed from reach.
Linda and her son Seth hiking in Illinois 
Normally we fly from Miami to Reagan Airport and then Uber to our hotel but since we had the chance to rethink our travel we flew to Dulles and had the hotel shuttle meet us at the airport and we got our rental car at the hotel minimizing social contact. Friday, the next morning, after getting our car we moved over to our suite hotel where we stayed for several weeks as we went about our business of medical appointments and buying stuff to take back. Before unpacking in the hotel we wiped down everything with disinfectant wipes even though the hotel claimed it was already done. A practice we did each place we stayed.
Store shelves stocked with ample supplies.
Arriving back in the US we experienced an interesting transition from the isolation and solitude that we endured for the past 6 months. For those 6 months we saw mostly the same 30-40 people all the time. There were more people on each of our flights than that. The airports had businesses that were open with life that we hadn't seen in months.. Now that we're back we're eating in restaurants, albeit outside, visiting friends and family at a distance. Traveling to the States we weren't sure what to expect, how to react, what we could do or what was safe. For those past six months access to people or services beyond our immediate circle was restricted and then suddenly we were free to pursue life openly.

Walking on the familiar W&OD trail. Different than the jungle but still beautiful.

During our stay we were able to visit all of our children and siblings and almost all our grandchildren except one who already had to leave for grad school. Visited many but not all of our old friends as we tried to reduce exposure for everyone. We visited Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. We flew thousands of miles, drove thousands of miles, visited stores and restaurants almost daily taking precautions at each stop.
Birthday dinner with my daughter Kirsten and her family in Sanford.
We planned to end our trip and fly back from Miami. We could get our mail, visit our storage, visit my daughter and arrange our travel back. The last week we drove to Punta Gorda to visit my classmate and his wife to celebrate our big 70th birthdays as a final stop before our trip back. Just like everything in 2020 our return trip was impacted by tropical weather. We had originally planned to drive to Fort Lauderdale Sunday to stage for our return to Panama but the Florida east coast was being pummeled by Hurricane Eta so we stayed in Punta Gorda one more night. We did not want to get stuck in the hotel with no air-conditioning or anyplace to go. The next day when we drove to Fort Lauderdale we found lots of street flooding including in our hotel. As we were checking in we talked to people that hadn't eaten in two days because there was no food in the hotel and they were unable to go out so we clearly made the right decision to stay in Punta Gorda.

A neighbors yard for Halloween in Sanford

Our last task before returning was to get a Covid test within 48 hours before arriving in Panama. We planned to go to one of the outdoor public drive up sites for testing but they were all closed because of the storm.  We tried some local drug store sites but they were all booked. We were able to find a place in North Miami Beach where we could get a rapid test so we drove down there, got tested and got our negative results that paved our return.
Some friendly birds on a walk in Florida. 2 of several Sandhill Cranes.
 After completing that task we returned to pack our 300 pounds of "stuff" that we would be returning with including boat parts, nutritional supplements and dried food for the next year. It's always amazing how much fits into our bags as we try to limit them to 50 pounds. We also inventory each bag so we can be sure nothing is lost in transit and it makes it easier to transfer to our boat inventory.
The flooded parking lot of our hotel in Fort Lauderdale
This time there was more activity in all the airports and had a more normal feeling. Each of the 10 airports we passed through got progressively closer to normal but all of the flights we were on were nearly full.  We were asked for our Covid test results in Miami at the ticket counter, at the gate and then before we passed through immigration at Panama City airport. 
One of our favorite places in FL, TooJay's NY Style Deli
But, we weren't back to Bocas yet. Because of the connection times we had to spend a night in Panama City before our flight back to Bocas the next morning.  We stayed at a very nice Marriott AC hotel which is a European brand with beautiful views of the cityscape. Like most of the hotels we stayed in on our trip staffing and services we limited but sufficient. During our trip we learned that the hotels were operating a greatly reduced occupancy as they thoroughly ventilated rooms allowing them to sit empty for several days and then cleaning an sanitizing to prevent the spread of disease.

 Cityscapes of Panama City from the AC Hotel
Next morning we took a cab to the airport. Because Air Panama has small planes and passenger baggage allowance we checked our bags as air freight for about the cost of one extra bag. We boarded our flight and got back to Bocas on time. We were also able to get our credit certificate for our unused Air Panama tickets that we we can use in the future.
Our final flight
Once on the ground in Bocas we took the marina shuttle back to our boat and we were home. We had to go back to the airport as our checked bags came in on a later flight and then with the help of taxis we got them all back to the boat.

The Big Bird back in Bocas

Our trip was completed and it was great to be home. Now the hard work of putting things away and getting the boat back in sailing shape for plans we have yet to determine.
Where we returned to.