Panama, a good place to be

We are finally in Panama. We arrived into San Blas islands on the 9th July and spent two days there, resting and replenishing our diesel tank. We would’ve liked to have stayed a bit longer on those beautiful islands but the waves were calling so we sailed on.

The sail to Isla Grande was really enjoyable. We had only one squall that didn’t really bring too much wind but a crazy outpour of rain. Isla Grande is a small island 30 miles north of San Blas and just before Colon. We had heard there could be good waves there so we decided to make a stop and check it out. We were the only sailboat anchored off the island. Most of the other cruisers choose to anchor a bit deeper into the lagoon next to a spot called Linton Island, a bit more quiet but for us too far from the waves, so we didn’t’ mind a bit of music at night and the constant noise of the motor taxis driving by with all the tourists from panama city that come to the island for the weekend.

We spent three days there and got to surf the point which was a fun little wave. The first day there was a bit of a crowd, probably from surfers from the city but to our delight on Monday morning we had the spot all to ourselves. We also seemed to be the only tourists left in town and we were the new target of some not so friendly Panamanian military.

On that Monday afternoon we decided to go for a walk to the light house on the island. We walked by the house where the military were all gathered in, said our polite good morning and planned to keep walking, when Mick unaware that he was being called “caballero” (that’s gentleman in Spanish) kept walking on. I told him he was being called and we turned back and face the commander in chief. He didn’t want to let the opportunity go by and having a curious crowd of locals decided to use us as a platform to show his power. He went on treating us a bit like we were in the wrong and asking us all different questions like where are passports were, how long did we have to stay in the country, that we needed to wear our lifejackets while on our dinghy and few more things. We played dumb and acted really polite and obedient and continued to walk on.

Unfortunately we had to pass the same house on our way back to the boat and the silly army guy stopped us again. I could hear the locals say the word “otra vez!” that’s “again” in Spanish as they couldn’t believe that the guy was having another go at us. So we politely stopped again, but I was really struggling in hiding all the bad things that I was thinking about him. We again nodded and said “yes sir”, as he continued to remind us that he didn’t want to catch us again without our passports, etc. What a prick! We are tourists here, we weren’t doing anything wrong, and he just wanted to show off. I could even tell that he wanted to laugh, he knew he shouldn’t be treating us that way, but it was a good lesson for us and a reminder that we are in a different area of the world now and we have to obey whatever the authorities demand and always be smarter than them; that means not leaving our boat without a copy of our passports and never let them catch us without a lifejacket on our dinghies again.

We were happy to move on and leave Isla Grande and their controlling military behind, so we set sail to Bocas del Toro, which laid 170 nm north. The passage was slow and painful and full of lightning and rain. We had a strong counter current and the wind was below 10 knots for most of the days, so we motor sailed the whole way. We were heart broken when on the second day we couldn’t make it to Bocas with daylight so decided to spend the night in Zapatillas Cays, only 5 miles away from Bocas, so close but so far away still. It was a good decision to have a good night’s rest and keep moving in the morning.

We got to Bocas around mid morning, cleaned the boat a bit, went to town for a quick check of our new home for the next month and returned to the boat as quickly as we could to do what we had been waiting for months: surf! And so we did. We went to the point called Careneros and it felt so good; warm water, small clean waves and friendly people in the line up. We returned to the boat with a feeling of achievement and satisfaction. We definitely felt at home amongst the waves.

Bocas is a cool little town. It has a mixed of indigenous, black, Chinese and foreigners all in one. It attracts a lot of tourists that come here for the waves and for the diving and all different activities that can be done here. It’s an archipelago with multiple beautiful islands to explore and for the first time in months we have felt like travellers not like “cruisers”. Don ‘t get me wrong there’s nothing wrong with being a crusier, it’s a great thing to be, but it feels refreshing to be in a town where there’s a mix of everything and that we can meet all different kind of people and that not necessarily everyone that we meet lives on a boat.

Our days have been really busy since we got here. After only one day of arriving, we had the visit of my brother Daniel who lives in Costa Rica. He came to the boat and spent 4 days with us and we had a great time. We had a short sail back to Zapatilla Cays and spent the night there. We snorkelled, did beach clean ups and on his last morning here, he was happy to come along as we joined a clean up of the small island of Careneros just in front of Bocas that the NGO Sea Turtle Conservancy was organizing. It was a tough morning, and we stayed for almost 3 hours filling up bag after bag of rubbish. It felt good though to contribute a bit and it was great to meet Georgina who is the educational coordinator of the NGO and who we are now teaming up with to organize lots of educational activities here in Bocas in regards their problem with rubbish and plastics.

When the fourth day came and we had to walk my brother back to the airport, we left each other with the promise of hopefully another visit soon maybe when we are on the other side of Panama in the Pacific side. Although it was a short time spent together, it was very valuable and it feels good to know that our relationship as siblings is only growing stronger and better with time.

After almost a month of moving from one place to the next and spending lots of time at sea, this last week has felt like the first time in a long time that we can settle and organize ourselves again. There are lots of little jobs to be done on the boat (those are on Mick’s list). As for me, I’ve been busy visiting the local schools and meeting up with people of the community involved in environmental activities as we are organizing showing the documentary “Bag It” in the schools and motivating the students to participate in a contest to provide the best idea on how to improve the problem of rubbish in their community.

I’ve working alongside two girls in particular: Georgina and Yorlenis. I’ve mentioned Georgina before, she works with Sea Turtle Conservancy and she’s originally from Spain but has been working with turtles in this area of the world for almost four years, first in Costa Rica and now here in Panama. Georgina introduced me to Yorlenis, she is from Panama but from a town called Chiriqui on the Pacific side and she’s been running a project in town called Bocas Eco Huellas, who produces rubbish bins out of plastic bottles. They are both so passionate and fun so it’s been wonderful to hang around them and get energized with their enthusiasm.

In between all of these, we are also surfing a lot and Mick is doing his water photography and getting some great shots. So life is good and although it does rain a lot, we love being here in Bocas. We are definitely going to be here at least until the 14 August because that’s when we are going to join the Smithsonian on their nature event and run our contest between the schools. We’ll probably leave a few days after that and head to Colon to organize our canal crossing. Until then, we’ll make sure we enjoy the waves and the new friends we’ve made. Panama is definitely a good place to be.




Stuck on our boat

“Santa Marta Marina, Santa Marta Marina, Santa Marta Marina, este es Ondular, Ondular Ondular, cambio.”We’ve been calling on our radio all day and so far nothing. We are anchored at a bay next to the marina in the little town of Santa Marta in Colombia. This was never our plan but after facing huge waves and 30+ winds, we had decided it was best to go into the bay and have a rest. We had arrived here two days ago on Wednesday afternoon.

At first we thought, let’s just relax for a few days, try to lay low so that no one bothers us to clear into the country, because from what we’ve heard, the paper work to clear into Colombia could be very extensive, we needed to arrange an agent to do the process for us and it would not only cost us around 200 dollars but it would also take a few days for the process to be completed. As we wanted to leave in a few days, the expense and time didn’t compute with our plans so we decided it was best to just stay on our anchor, hope that the coast guard ignored us and that sooner than later we could continue on our journey to Panama.

Today, Friday, we had checked the weather again and realized our weather window would maybe take a few extra days of waiting, so we decided to call the marina and see if they could help us to arrange an agent and at least have the answers to all our questions and see if we could clear in and enjoy a few days on land before driving each other crazy on an 11 feet boat. But so far there has been no answer. I’ve been trying to forget about it all and have spent all day reading a book. Mick has been doing a few projects here and there and now is checking the charts one more time, trying to figure out a better route to avoid all the horrible weather we have been facing since leaving Aruba.

To be honest, it wasn’t always that bad. We left Aruba at 7am on Monday 29 June. The wind was predicted to be around 25 knots and the whole day and night we had winds around 10 to 15 knots, so the first day was actually really enjoyable. Mick even caught a tuna, in the first hour of our passage so we had beautifully cooked fish for lunch, enjoyed the sunset and did our watches without a problem.

The second day was a different story. The wind was light in the morning, but maybe after lunch, the waves started to pick up and the wind did too. Our auto pilot was having trouble keeping the boat on course because of the waves so we started to hand steer. We took turns, one hour on one hour off, and it was fun for a while as we were comparing who had the most speed with each wave we surfed on Ondular.

The sunset was spectacular. We both agreed that we hadn’t seen colours like that before, so we stared in awe, but I was also a bit concerned as the numbers on the wind gear kept getting higher and the darkness was creeping in. We had put the jib away and were powering the boat by a 3rd reefed main. An hour into the night, the wind kept getting stronger and we made the decision that we had to put the main away and get the jib back out to get more control onto our boat as the waves were also getting bigger.

There we were in the middle of the night, 30 knot winds and 2 +metre waves, I had to turn the engine on and face those monsters face to face; I was terrified, I kept shaking and crying, then I would start screaming and begging Mick to come back as I saw him climbing on top of the mast trying to put the sail away. It was horrible and those 20 minutes felt like forever. We managed to put the main away and get the jib out without any accidents and we turned the boat back into our set course and continued on. By now it was 9pm and we were both really tired. We stayed together, sharing the load of hand steering for another hour and the conditions started to get calmer. Mick put the auto pilot on and could finally rest and I went down stairs and passed out on the bed. Before I went to bed though, I made clear to Mick that I wasn’t meant for this kind of stuff. He assured me that no one is!

That night we had shorter watches, Mick woke me two hours later and I did the same to him until the day light came back. Luckily the conditions continued to be calm through the night and into the morning. It got so calm that we decided to motor sail as we were going too slowly and we sailed on.

After lunch I went to have a nap and because it was so settled I decided to open one of the small hatches in the room. I was woken up by a wave landing on my face and ran upstairs to find Mick battling his way through huge waves. We were passing near Punta Aguja, close to Santa Marta and the water depth changed from its normal 1000 plus metres to 100. We looked at each other again and asked the question; what do we do?

I went downstairs and started reading the sailing guides we had about this dreaded passage known to be in the top 5 worst passages around the world. We knew that only 50 miles from where we were we had to cross a river called Magdalena and by the pace we were sailing on, we would have crossed the river around midnight. I had to double check the notes again as I remembered reading something specific about the river and when was the best time of the day to cross it.

On the notes I found the advice of trying to cross it as early in the morning as we could, because it was known for having big seas, so the less windy it was the better. I went upstairs to share this with Mick and we both decided it was time to change our course and head towards Santa Marta.

So here we are. We still haven’t heard from our friends at the marina or haven’t been visited by the coast guard. We are still here watching the city of Santa Marta in the distance, seeing the big cargo ships coming and going from this busy port and wondering what is next for us on our journey to Panama. One thing we know for sure, if we ever come back to the Caribbean, we would never do this passage again.

Final note: We were finally able to communicate with the marina yesterday late afternoon and this morning we brought our boat in. We haven’t check into the country and we’ll try not to, because it will take too many days, so we will just use these days to enjoy the comforts of being in a slip, clean the boat, relax and use the internet. It looks like we’ll be leaving on Monday night.


Adventures on Ondular (Bonaire)

June has been a great month. We had our first longer passage, from Grenada to Bonaire, and we went really well, working together as a  team. Once in Bonaire, we welcomed our first ever guests, Viviana and Juan Martin. We ran into our friend Dubi  in Bonaire (we met Dubi in Dominica and we saw him in Martinique as well) and met his lovely 83 year old mum, who not only came to visit him from New York for a week, but who also stayed with him on his boat. We sailed to Aruba where we are at the moment, waiting for our weather window to continue on. With some time on our hands, I put together a video of our time with Viviana and Juan Martin and the fun we all had together. Here it is!

Catching up

Today is Tuesday 16 June and I’m going to narrate, as briefly as I can, what we’ve been up to during the last month.

On May 13th we left St Anne in Martinique around 10:30am and we did the short sail to Rodney Bay in St Lucia. It was a nice sail and when we were safely anchored, we spent the rest of the afternoon on the boat, baking cookies and cooking some lentils, in preparation for our sail the next day.

At 4am in the morning the next day we left the bay and had planned to sail to Wallalibou Bay in St Vincent to spend a couple of days. Well, that plan changed during the course of the day and we continued sailing until we reached the tiny island of Bequia, part of the Grenadines. We arrived almost when the sun was setting, and this was an accomplishment, so we were pretty happy but so tired that we went straight to bed.

We spent two days here in Bequia. We ran into Moody Mistress, our Canadian friends and we caught up with them a couple of times. They were on their way to Grenada where they were leaving their boat for a couple of months while they return to Canada to see family and friends. Bequia is a tranquil little island full of fruit stands, cute shops and a vibrant atmosphere. We both felt like for the first time we were on an authentic Caribbean island as we had imagined they would look like. So we didn’t want to rush through here but at the same time we had to, so two days later, we raised the anchor and sailed on to Tobago Cays.

We had heard so many nice stories about this place,that we tried to plan it to be there for my birthday which was coming up. Tobago Cays are a group of tiny islands, all surrounded by a reef. It’s a wonderful place with turquoise water, white sand beaches, palm trees and turtles; the perfect place to celebrate my birthday.

We stayed here for two days and we just spent them snorkelling and relaxing on the boat. We also met another aussie boat  owned by a couple from WA, Michael and Floss, who bought it in Greece and sailed it to the Caribbean. They had another couple of friends visiting them, Leoany and John, also from WA, and they also happened to know Bergtoff a very nice German man that we had met in Dominica and his wife, so we were all invited to their boat for some drinks on the night of my birthday. They didn’t know it was my birthday but it was really nice to spend it with friendly happy people and we even got to sing “Home Among the Gumtrees” and show the hand signals to our surprised German friends. It was a fun night!

The next day we continued on to the little town of Cliffton in Union Island, another beautiful and colourful town. We checked the internet here and walked around town. We visited a dog shelter full of cute doggies and we pad them and talked to the lady that runs the place; she told us about how they welcome street dogs from all the other islands and they find caring and loving homes for them. They are also trying to educate the community on how to properly care for dogs. Wonderful effort!

After we did our customs and immigration paper work we continued on to another bay called Chattam Bay on the same island to spend the night. It was a beautiful bay, surrounded just by trees and a few small restaurants on the beach. We watched the sunset and had a restful night.

Although we planned to stay a couple of days here, we again decided to keep moving, so our next stop was Grenada. Before arriving to St George’s capital of Grenada and port of entry, we made a quick lunch stop in a bay where we have heard they had underwater sculptures. We had a quick lunch and went to explore. It was a very interesting place to snorkel at and we were happy to have stopped. We quickly towel dried ourselves and continued on to the city. We wanted to make sure we arrived there before dhl or fedex closed for the day and we did. We had a few packages arriving, so we went and collected some of them and went back to the boat.

The next morning after collecting the rest of the packages and looking around town we continued south to Prickly Bay where we spent the next 10 days. We loved this anchorage. It was a bit rolly but protected and there is the Prickly Bay Marina there, which has a very welcoming attitude toward cruisers.

They have a big restaurant and bar area, with great internet connection. They were never too fused about us staying all morning long only drinking a coffee and checking internet, they had free yoga classes two times a week and all sorts of social activities: bingo night, Mexican train domino, karaoke night and so much more. So this is a place that I definitely recommend for a stop and recharge.

We were quite busy during our stay here. We replaced all the standing rigging ourselves. Mick went up the mast and took them out, then he took the wire to the rigging shop and brought back the new ones and put them back on again. It was really hard but we saved a lot of money by doing it this way. At the end of it all, we had a rigging inspection done to make sure everything was fine and also for insurance reasons. Once we were finished with all these jobs, we were ready to leave for Bonaire.

We left Grenada on Monday 1 June around noon. It took us 76 hours to reach Bonaire and we had a very pleasant passage. Although I had done an 8 day long passage before (New Caledonia to Australia) , I did it on a 62 ft Catamaran, we weren’t in charge, we were just crew and I didn’t feel like I was doing much, just hanging out with Mick, while he was on watch, really.

This was my first time, on watch on my own, on our boat, the two of us alone; so I was a bit nervous. But I’m happy to say, I had a good time. I had my moments of fear, where there were some bigger waves and I got a bit scared, but I also had exhilarating moments and moments of peace and happiness. It was a beautiful passage with a big bright full moon and not so rough conditions; and the most important part for me is that we did really well as a team, supporting each other and being there whenever we needed the extra hand. So first three day passage completed!

And then we arrived to Bonaire. The good thing is that we arrived on the late afternoon of Thursday, so we had long showers, ate a nice hot meal and had the whole night to rest. The next morning we were up and running from really early because by 9pm we were welcoming our first guests ever!: my friend/cousin Viviana and her 5 year old son Juan Martin who were coming from Florida to stay with us for a week.

We had a wonderful time and I’m so glad they came. We were a bit nervous on how they would feel being on a boat, small space, different type of bathroom and shower etc, etc.. but they loved it. Juan Martin had never snorkelled before, so that was one of the first things we did with him. Here in Bonaire, the water is the clearest we’ve ever seen and there are so many fish everywhere, so it was the perfect place for him to learn. And that was it, once he passed those first moments of fear, that’s all he wanted to do for the rest of the time..snorkel, snorkel, and snorkel a bit more!

Viviana was my good friend since before she married my cousin Juan Carlos, so I love her company; she makes me laugh and we always have fun together. It was great to share with her this special time in my life and to spend these days in Bonaire. The week passed so fast but we managed to do a lot of things. We rented a car for two days and we drove all around the island. We saw flamingos, went to the national park, which has beautiful secluded beaches, we went to the kite surfing and wind surfing beach and we just hung around all the nice restaurants in the main city Kralendijk.

One of those days we took them snorkelling to Klein Bonaire, which is a little island in front of the main city, very popular for diving and snorkelling. It was quite an adventure as we went there on our small dinghie, but we managed to go there and get back safely. We noticed there was a lot of rubbish on one side of the island and Viviana wanted for us to show Martin about beach clean ups so the next morning we returned to the island and picked up four big bags of rubbish. Juan Martin got really into it and he was excited to know that he was helping all the turtles and fish that he got to see, while he snorkelled.

They flew back to Fort Lauderdale last Friday and I was devastated when they left. It was so nice to have them here with us and we are definitely missing them. Before they left, we created a certificate for Juan Martin for all his great behaviour and for all he had learned on his time on Ondular and we had a small ceremony. I think it was a very proud moment for him and I hope he remembers his time on the boat.

We had the weekend to rest and recuperate after that busy week with them and our 3 day passage from Grenada. Now we are back doing things for the boat and really just waiting for some strong winds to pass as we have to continue our journey. Next stop will be Aruba just to shorten down the trip to the San Blas islands in Panama. We are hoping to leave on the weekend, maybe one or two days in Aruba and then do the 4 day passage to San Blas, another mile stone on our life on the boat. We are definitely looking forward to a Spanish speaking country, waves to surf and some time to settle, as we are thinking of spending at least three months in Panama.