Guests on a boat: how our friends nailed it

“Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” When Benjamin Franklin said this, he wasn’t thinking about fitting two families – a total of nine adult-sized humans  – into a 47’ boat that technically sleeps six, for ten days. So why did things go so well when our friends visited Totem in Panama a few months ago? Partly because we already knew how well we clicked, individually and as a group. But also because the Waters family (or to fellow boaters, the Calypso family, because you are known by your boat name) groks sharing small spaces. They’ve cruised on a 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter. They GET it. (pictured above at a historic fort in Panama: our two families plus the crew of Utopia.)

Disclaimer: I’m not going to provide a packing list here. Yes, we do have a standard document for guests coming aboard Totem. It’s partly a checklist directing prospective guests as to how to pack what they’ll need, what to leave behind. It also previews what to anticipate about boat life for everyone to be comfortable on board. (Spoiler: never ever turn on the faucet unless you are using every drop that comes out! THE HORROR of water wasted stuns us all into speechlessness.) Because the packing directions vary based on where we are, what season it is, and what kind of sailing (or not sailing) is expected – the content is customized every time. As I edited our Totem Guest Prep file for the Waters family I kept cracking up while deleting whole sections about life aboard, because thanks to their prior years of experience living aboard and cruising there was very little orientation needed. So, sorry, no checklist: this is about how to be a good guest on a boat.

So, what makes a good guest on a boat?

Mindful of scarce resources

Utilities and the basics of everyday life readily taken for granted on shore (power, water, internet, the ability to refill the snack bin) are constrained resources on Totem. Space, too, is in limited supply. Constrained resources are a big deal on a boat and can be a big challenge for non-boaty visitors. Orientation to what we have (and what we don’t) is in an advance letter to help them prepare for those divergences from everyday life, like the Navy Shower.

I may have thwacked down a faucet turned on to full flow once, which frankly I have to do with my own teens too. But that’s about it. The Calypsos integrated easily because they had awareness, respect, and the needed dose of flexibility to keep things smooth.

Me, Karen (Utopia) and Nica (Calypso)… photobomb by Nica’s son Julian, Niall wondering what the heck we are doing…

Courier service!

Isn’t it amazing how you can have a need, order what you need online, and have it at your door in lickety-split time? I guess it is, but that’s NOT our reality! We may go (many) months. It’s one of the ways in which cruising is good for practicing gratitude and minimalism: when you have to wait six months for that Shiny Thing, you are either VERY appreciative of it when it arrives, or find it wasn’t necessary and skip ordering it altogether.

When visitors come aboard, the understood quid pro quo is that they’re bringing things for us. Possibly a lot of things. I’m pretty sure we told our crew Ty that it was one duffle bag for him, and one for the boat when he last flew to meet Totem in Namibia! Nica and family arrived four months since our last access to “stuff” and the shopping list included everything from quality sketch pads to books to shampoo (one lone bottle thwarted their goal of traveling all carry-on but they didn’t flinch).

Minimizing our cost

We live on a thin budget. When we invite guests, we take care of them, but that’s within the limits of our very frugal life. Gotta go somewhere? Hoofing it or public transport. Eating in a restaurant? An extravagance not to anticipate. We expect to take care of our guests, and we expect them to be OK with the way we live. If we make plans to do anything on shore, we assume we’re doing Dutch and everyone pays their way.

Nica and family went one better. We walked together to find a grocery store near where they met us in Puerto Lindo, Panama, that would cover us during their stay. It was a good leg stretch, with good company, and helping hands to carry provisions back to the boat – and, it turned out, a friend who didn’t let me pay for any of it. Chipping in to cover your part is welcome. Subsidizing the whole grocery stock-up is awesome! Later in San Blas it was lobster from passing dugouts, produce from a visiting boat. They didn’t just cover their share, they lightened the whole burden. This gets you invited back!

Nica in Totem’s cockpit, underway in Guna Yala

Remembering who is on holiday

Our visitors understood that while they’re on vacation, we’re not. (Because cruising looks good, but we still have things to keep up with: beyond everyday maintenance, Jamie’s advising customers about new sails, we have coaching clients to connect and respond to, etc.). Our choice of destination some days had to be Where The Cell Tower Was, not necessarily where the most awesome beach or snorkeling reef or interesting village was.

Nica, Jeremy and family didn’t expect us to be cruise directors with a planned social schedule. We definitely had a more relaxed everyday routine, which was great all around. Their presence ensured seeking out experiences we might have passed on were they not on board. And much of the time they’d figure out a bunch of their own entertainment, whether it was going for a swim, working out on the bow, or reading a book in the cockpit. They had some of their own keeping up to do as well: Nica filmed for her Tasty Thursday YouTube channel I got to peek over her shoulder to learn about the video editing process.

painting on the boat

Bee takes time out to paint on Totem’s bow in Portobelo, Panama.

Getting involved

Being an active participant instead of a cockpit potato is a corollary of remembering we’re not on holiday. When there’s something to be done, good guests pitch in. The Waters family helped prepare meals. They did a lot of dishes. They kept our (snug) berth spaces tidy. We shared the everyday load more like one big family than two families stuffed together. When our neighbor had trouble with the watermaker on board, Jeremy went with Jamie to help troubleshoot. They hung swimsuits on the lifelines, kept shoes out of the way (who am I kidding that was easy, we barely wore shoes the whole 10 days!), and were always ready to lend a hand.

Jamie and Jeremy checking sail trim as we sail west from Guna Yala

Being flexible

Our cruising mentors would tell their hopeful visitors: “you can choose the date, or the place, but not both.” This actually isn’t too far from the truth, especially for any longer-range planning. We can hone in pretty well as a date approaches, but often it’s just hard to know where we can be: weather plays with our ability to control planning. Our mentors’ guide is a truism ameliorated with a mix of planning, flexibility, and the weather gods.

Nica and Jeremy’s ideal was to transit the Panama Canal on Totem, a preview for their intentions to bring Calypso through to the Pacific in the future. But as their arrival date approached, it was peak season at the canal and the lag to confirm a transit spot did not match well with the dates on their plane tickets.

We called them with our Iridium GO (yes, you can make calls with it) from a remote corner of San Blas with the news, and some options. They took it in stride, and plans were revised. They weren’t able to go through the canal, but we had a great time cruising around the idyllic San Blas islands instead.

Flexibility is an everyday need, too. Nica sent me a beautiful thank you note after they got back to Virginia. She felt what I did: that despite the fact we believed our odds were good, there was always some chance that packing us all in a small space for a week and a half would eventually create some strain…yet didn’t. She catches the vibe perfectly:

I keep trying to put a finger on what made it so incredible, and it comes back to a couple of things. First of all was the pace. The way we went through the week felt like just the way we like to cruise. Hang out a while, move on when we want to. No need to race somewhere else just because we’d already seen where we are. Need internet? Stay where we are an extra day or two. Want a better anchorage? Pick up and move. Want to see a village, or get onions, or get to access to town? Move. Check weather, make sure we’re not in for horrendousness, and go accordingly.

kids play at tropical island

Kids… going accordingly, off a picture-postcard island in Guna Yala (San Blas)

Lasting reminders

The Calypso crew surprised us with some excellent treats, picked out with thoughtfulness and care for what our crew would appreciate. First, understand that outside North America, maple syrup might as well be liquid gold (I saw 250 ml in the grocery store here – a surprise itself – for $10. That’s not even one breakfast for this crew!). They know we love it and have Vermont hookups. They brought so much we have it in quantity that doesn’t require RATIONING! That’s been YEARS! And chocolate… oh, the chocolate. Many bags of chocolate chips. Nica, I confess to you here, I might have hidden some of the really good stuff for midnight treats while standing watch between Panama and Baja. We have one bag of chocolate chips left (with less than two weeks until haulout time, when the food stores must be depleted before we leave Totem). PERFECT.

We’ve lacked good music on board Totem for a while, and I might have complained about how Hamilton sounds through laptop speakers (not good). They brought (and left) and AWESOME bluetooth speaker which has been a great way to bring music and cockpit movie nights back to Totem. Just about every day I use or benefit from something that they brought and smile remembering their visit.

aprils maple syrup for breakfast

Totem + Calypso teens digging the April’s Maple… excellent Vermont maple syrup! Photo: Nica Waters

We hope the Calypso family comes back. But even more I think we hope they SAIL CALYPSO this way, and come share an anchorage with us. South Pacific plans may be brewing, and that’s all I’m going to say on that.

You can also read about the Calypso’s experience aboard Totem on Nica’s blog, Fit2Sail!

Guna Yala (San Blas) practicalities for cruisers

tropical paradise sailboat

Guna Yala, Kuna Yala, San Blas: an evolution of names for the archipelago that stretches from Panama’s border at Colombia very nearly to the canal zone. Officially “Guna” (the better linguistic match than Kuna) since 2011, the region’s active effort to preserve indigenous culture and traditions creates a draw for many visitors. Here’s what I think is important to know for cruisers in our wake to plan their visit.

Orientation

There is a meaningful divide between “Western” and “Eastern” regions that is worth considering in planning. The personality split begins where boats coming from the canal zone would bend SE if continuing towards Colombia.

chart of San Blas

Western San Blas is most accessible to canal/Colon. It is peppered with cays and atolls that drift further from the mainland: picture-postcard tropical islands surrounded by swimmable clear water. Guna communities are clustered on islands nearer to the mangrove-lined mainland shore.

Western communities were a mix of those which followed traditional practices and those which had abandoned it. Basic provisioning (fruit, vegetables, meat, staples) is available, including some dugouts that venture to sell to cruising boats, nearly all cruising boats of which seem to remain in this area.

By contrast, the eastern San Blas is more sparsely populated by Guna and cruisers (we saw only one other cruising boat). Boats carrying cargo arrive from Colombia; as a dejected couple of travelers told us in the eastern port of Obaldia, there’s no road out. You can fly, or you can join a backpacker boat, either at some expense.

Here the water was murkier; this may have been seasonal, but we were there in the dry season when you’d least expect the effect of river runoff. Peak trade winds chopped the water, and together these factors made eyeball navigation difficult. Between water quality and presumed crocodile hazard, swimming was off the menu.

Rules to respect

Visitors are welcomed, but this is Guna land – Guna rules – and between our guest status and indigenous people’s willful choice to separate from modern norms, important to respect. Here’s a snapshot reference for to what the Guna feel are important for visitors to know and avoid: there’s more in the Bauhaus guide.

Guna Yala regulations, as sourced from the Kuna Yala Cruisers Facebook group

I had to restrain my usual snap-happy self, as many Guna are reluctant to be photographed. Always ask first: “¿puedo tomar foto?” to know if it’s OK. In some (so picturesque!) communities, there’s no photography allowed at all. I wish I could paint the pictures in my head. And Guna women, in mola blouses, red and yellow head scarf, gold septum rings and necklaces, and bands of beading on their legs and arms… they are stunning and tempting subjects. But – no, unless permission is clearly given.

Ask permission

Besides asking permission for photos: you’re effectively asking permission to anchor, and expected to pay for the privilege. Be a good guest. If you are anchored off an island with a community and aren’t approached by anyone, go ashore and ask for the saila (village leader) to pay up. It’s the right thing to do! The morning after we arrived, a poor Guna became quite irate with us because he thought we were trying to skip out on paying (we were getting ready to depart). When we finally found the receipt we’d been given the night before to show him, he was mollified and paddled off, but the reaction made me think – he’d been taken advantage of before.

Anchoring fees are pretty consistent in eastern Guna Yala. We paid $10 at almost every stop. In the west it was a little different; sometimes we were asked for an anchoring fee (even at uninhabited islands, if they were part of the purview of a nearby community), sometimes it was a cost-per-person ($2) for going on the beach. In either case it was good for a month. If you’re zipping through, they can add up!

Guna Yala anchoring receipts

Guna Yala anchoring receipts, on top of Bauhaus’ book

Arrive with cash

US dollars are the currency used in Guna Yala. There are no ATMs, there are no credit cards accepted (there are no roads, or power grid, so…). One family arrived recently and had to borrow money from other boats in order to complete clearance formalities! Kind of shocking planning… granted, it’s unusual.

Bring small bills. If you’ve negotiated a couple of lobster for $10 but only have a $20, there’s probably no change; you’ll be buying more lobster or having none. Small tiendas on Guna islands might make change, but not the dugout on your hip.

Is there trading? No. Well, not really. I wondered, before we got there. But this is not so much a “remote” place as one which has chosen to set itself apart… there is access to Stuff, if people want, and that requires cash. So the bartering that was central to some other corners of the world where we have cruised where Stuff is enough, here it was all about cold hard cash. That said, when I came up short on a mola I wanted to buy, the woman selling it was willing to take a handful of instant coffee packets in lieu of about $10 difference I was trying to make up!

Sailing dugout in Guna Yala

Sailing dugouts are the primary mode of transport, east and western Guna Yala

Provision up

General guidance for Guna Yala is to bring whatever you need, and don’t count on buying anything. That’s a little extreme, as there were small shops on occasional communities. It is limited, so good to plan ahead as have a modicum of flexibility. We actually ran out of toilet paper: PROVISIONING FAIL! Times when it’s good to have friends nearby that will sling you a package of TP!

Veggie stand at a shop on Nargana with a posse of cruisers: pretty typical! SV Aseka and Utopia

In the eastern San Blas. where we were offered coconuts, plantains, locally grown fruit or small fish from passing dugouts. On more populated islands there are probably stores; we were only in little islands, and the one store I saw had little more than rice, dried beans, boxed cereal (?), and canned meat.

In the west, boats visit outer reef anchorages specifically to sell produce and meat to cruisers

Honestly, even with the TP fiasco, we’d have been fine. It was available at small shops in Guna communities, along with a surprising variety of other goods. We’re used to adapting our diet to fit what’s available locally, and it wouldn’t have been much adapting to make it work with what we were able to source in San Blas.

Watch for crocs!

Crocodiles are a very real problem in San Blas – this coastline is theirs, not ours, and they do foray out. Risk exists not just in the murky waters near shore but the gin-clear reefs offshore. Yes, both. Even on the islands away from mangroves and murk, dogs have been taken off beaches and a snorkeling cruiser was attacked (and survived, but not without a helicopter ride to the hospital in Panama City) in 2017. What can you do? Find out through the cruiser’s coconut telegraph (radio nets, Facebook groups, deck-to-dinghy chats) if and where they’ve been spotted, and consider whether you want to get in the water or not. I wouldn’t forgo swimming, I’d just swim with some information.

I didn’t realize

We’d be so disconnected! Cruisers reported “there’s internet here,” and I just believed it. Well, there is, in some parts of western Guna Yala. We found none in the much larger eastern region. The Iridium GO kept us connected, but at a text-only basis. (You can post pictures to a Facebook profile from the GO, but not to a Facebook page…to my chagrin).

Plastic garbage. There is an appalling amount of garbage, some floating in the water, much of it just drifted up on the beach. It’s far, far too much to do anything about. At least those were the only crocs we saw while in Guna Yala.

Crocs of San Blas

Liveaboard community. Gringos have been living aboard (is it really cruising when the western bay where all these boats hang out is only 35 miles wide?) in San Blas for years. There’s a nice collection of some really helpful folks. There’s the inevitable dose of jaded old-timers who seem to have forgotten they are guests and have a skewed view of their “rights.” Whatever. On balance they the driving reason behind this curious distinction between the western and eastern portions of San Blas.

 

Instant coffee is a hit. Who knew! I’ve been working through a hoard of individual serving packets which are very convenient on night watch. When someone stops by, unless they’re a flyby offer to sell fish, visitors are invited into the cockpit to sit in the shade and have a drink. We don’t have sodas on board so it was water or coffee and… well I served a lot of coffee! It would be a great gift item to make nice with the local sahila or a Guna family that you meet.

Next time

If (when? I hope when!) we revisit, I’d plan differently. Mainly, we’d extend our stay, and skew heavily towards eastern Guna Yala. We found the frontier nature of it far more interesting. There was minimal tourism; people had more time; they weren’t only interested in us as potential transactions. Exactly the kind of place we love to sink into and understand better.

Second, I’d extend the stays in individual anchorages, instead of moving on after a night our two (an unfortunate pace driven by necessity at the time). This is a fascinating region, and when you skip through as quickly as we did – you don’t have the opportunity to really connect and understand much of what makes it special. It takes time we couldn’t give to gain that permission and trust.

fishermen on beach with net

Fishermen cooperate for the morning catch

Helpful resources

The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus is an invaluable reference; there’s really not a substitute. The chapter on San Blas opens with an illuminating discussion of Guna history and culture, along with guidance for how to be sensitive to it as a visitor. For details about the islands, it’s the best, and the author has surveyed the region extensively: his charts are the best reference for a coastline which was mostly “unsurveyed” or insufficient for use in our (new!) Navionics charts. They aren’t infallible, but what chart is? We don’t always pick up cruising guides, but I cannot imagine cruising Guna Yala without this one (thank you MM!).

Bauhaus’ chartlets, digitized. Some helpful person turned chartlets in the Bauhaus guide into KAP files you can overlay on your charts (we used OpenCPN for this). Particularly in the eastern territory, murky water hampers visual piloting. Know that Google Earth / satellite imagery isn’t high enough resolution to be useful in many areas, particularly the east. Readily passed between boats on memory sticks, they are invaluable. They are also the intellectual property of Eric Bauhaus! If you acquire and use them, figure out how to pay him. I emailed him, but he never replied… just buy the book, which you can pick up in Linton or Shelter Bay Marina if you didn’t plan ahead.

San Blas Cruisers on Facebook This helpful group is administered by long-term San Blas cruiser/liveaboards who strive to keep information flowing and on point.

Radio. San Blas cruisers have a morning mobile maritime net. It’s a long time since we’ve been regulars on the SSB, but this was very useful for sharing information in an area too spread out for VHF. The 8 meg frequency is posted in the Facebook group. On VHF, 72 is standard hailing for cruisers here.

Totem and crew are in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico… playing catch up on notes & info to share with the community and cruisers in our wake. In case you missed the memo, just because we completed a circumnavigation doesn’t mean we’re done cruising! More adventures ahead.

Northbound to Mexico: lessons from the country-per-day plan

birds on the bow at sunset

The Pacific side of Panama felt palpably different even before the channel markers switched near the continental divide, green buoys replacing red on Totem’s starboard side. It was partly an earthy smell of the hot wind blowing through the Gaillard cut. A changed quality in the light, maybe, on the far side of sawtooth mountains catching tradewind-blown clouds from the Caribbean. The temperature cooled along with the water, and large swells slowly lifting Totem on the exit from Mirabella confirmed her homecoming to the Pacific.

Jamie and I booked flights from Puerto Vallarta to the Annapolis boat show later in April. PV is about 2,000 nautical miles from the canal, so there’s pressure to make tracks to the north…but only after some fun with the family of Shawnigan and a stockup at the Mercado publico in Panama City. It’s north… but it’s actually very much a westbound path as well, as the picture of our sunset bow view attests!

Edging away from the crepuscular splendor fostered by canal zone smog, a first hop to forgotten islands off the coast helps to optimally time rounding Punta Mala at slack tide (the Spanish being very literal with names, if this was designated ‘bad’ that’s worth respect!). From there ahead to Costa Rica, where weather-window waiting began.

Passage planning begins in earnest at Playa Hermosa, towards the western end of Costa Rica. There are two weather hurdles: Papagayo winds that form over Nicaragua, and “Tehuantepeckers” that blow from the Caribbean over the isthmus to the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Rubbery plans stretched hesitantly out. It drives home three principles for safe and comfortable cruising. First, that having a schedule is generally not good. Second, that you should never be tempted toward preferential forecast interpretation. Last, that it’s always OK to change plans at the last minute if the weather tea leaves aren’t lined up in your favor. OH, there’s a fourth: it’s always worth looking beyond your immediate forecast. Had we considered only what the Papagayos were doing, we may have missed that by holding off a couple of days we’d time well for the Tehuantepec.

Traffic on the Pacific side of the canal at our first-light departure

Expected windows evaporated, plans postponed at the last minute; it’s best for the boat and the crew. And then, finally, our patience is rewarded. Not only is there a window to cross the Papagayo zone, but it appears by the time we reach the Gulf of Tehuantepec there will be a weather window to cross here as well. It feels like finding a four-leaf clover in a field and comes with the trivia fun fact that we’ll spend each day off the coast of a different country during the five days to Mexico.

OpenCPN screenshot of our route from Panama to Mexico

OpenCPN screenshot of our route from Panama to Mexico

Departure day – Costa Rica – March 29

Cabo Santa Elena has a reputation like Punta Mala for washing machine seas. We play slack tide again and anchor in the lee to eat lunch until the timing is right. Did it make a difference in the sea state? We aren’t sure. But we did have very comfortable conditions, relatively flat water and a breeze in the mid-teens. Ironically it had been much windier at our lunch hook in the lee of the point, where the wind was probably funneling and spilling over the ridge line.

Crossing into the Gulf of Santa Elena, the seas built to only about 1.5 meters at the greatest point of fetch, when the coastline fell off to a little over eight miles from our rhumb line course. The islands here are beautiful, and all along this coast are mental marks of bays we hope to revisit at leisure.

Scanning the Murcialagos islands

Jamie scans the Murcialagos islands through the binoculars: this is a place to revisit

Along the way, marine life puts on a show. Twice there are pods of whales; nothing is close enough to identify. Part of me is wistful, but part is grateful. It’s actually terrifying to be too close to whales in the water! Dolphins come to play several times, the magic of their directional shift to join our course always heartwarming. A meter-wide ray jumps behind Totem, and three turtles swim by later in the afternoon.

Passage eating: skillet bannock for breakfast, a lunch of couscous salad with beets, garbanzos, chicken, and eggplant parm for dinner… prepared at anchor to enjoy without effort.

Day 2 – Nicaragua – March 30

We wake up in Nicaragua, Totem’s 47th country/territory and what turned out to be our 1,500th anchorage while cruising! Papagayos are worse at night; this curve of bay in the surf town of Pie del Gigantes was a good place to stop. Winds were in the mid-30s, nothing like the force they can pack but still enough to whip up some nasty seas. Picking a mellow bay to get another night of sleep while the wind blew was definitely the right course for us. Although close enough to shore to watch families on their Semana Santa holiday romp in the surf, we remain aboard and don’t try checking in. Technically we should… our usual rulesy selves are passing on the hassle, still smarting from the 10 hours to check in and out (concurrently) in Costa Rica.

Kids swim from the bow of the boat

The kids want to chalk up a swim in every country: Niall and Siobhan get ready for a dip in Nicaragua

Diurnal winds bring better conditions than expected, and with nice morning breeze Totem makes miles under sail. It fades at midday, we fire up the engine and then 15 minutes later breeze is up in the opposite direction… without a change in course we just pull the jib out on the other side and BAM making 7-8 knots again! Flat water in the bargain. Reminds me of being back in Madagascar, except the difference at night in our northern hemisphere carpet of stars.

Passage eating: a late breakfast of ham/cheese/egg sandwiches, snacking our way through lunch pangs, a hearty bean ragout with sautéed cabbage at sunset in the cockpit.

Day 3 – El Salvador – March 31

Some hitchhikers are especially fun, and today was Bird Day on board. The booby on the spreader was cute until it flung fishy poop on our strataglass. But the pair of terns that snuggled up on the bow in the evening, cooing and grooming and occasionally nipping each other, were nothing short of adorable.

Painfully cute pair of nuzzling terns on Totem's bow

Painfully cute pair of nuzzling terns on Totem’s bow

We have a full moon on this passage, and it’s a particularly stunning strawberry color as it rises from behind low-lying clouds this evening. As a general rule, full moon is a welcome feature as it makes it easier for the on-watch to see the sea state at night. It’s also something we have had comically bad timing with in the past! But the seas are board flat, our nights will mostly be motoring as the wind dies after sunset, and I find myself missing the carpet of stars as most are eclipsed by the bright moon. Yet during my watch in the wee hours of the morning, I can see the southern cross on our port side and the north star to starboard. The unusual occurrence of these pole harbingers never fails to feel special. As if to agree, I hear the huff of dolphins aspirating somewhere just out of my sight.

Passage eating: make-your-own-oatmeal-when-you-rise, team lunch of arepas with sweet potato/black bean hash, and a rich, creamy beef stroganoff in the cockpit for dinner.

Day 4 – Guatemala – April 1

Apparently, it’s Easter. When we started cruising this would have been preceded by a week of eggy crafts and making natural dyes to tint blown-out eggshells; on Easter morning we’d have hidden chocolates in the cabin and hoped they’d all be found before melting in the subtropical heat. This year is lower key, we’d almost have missed the holiday if not for the Semana Santa (Holy Week) that takes over in Central America. The thump of music from beach revelers reaches us as far as 12 miles offshore.

Mairen and a plate full of hot cross buns

Mairen and a plate full of hot cross buns

Our subdued nod to the holiday is a big pan of hot cross buns, complete with shortcrust pastry decoration. Checking social media through our Iridium GO, I learn that Easter is becoming like another Christmas with Santa suits swapped for bunny outfits. This addition to the consumer driven holiday panoply is startling. I’m glad it’s absent from our reality, and reflect on how our relationship with Stuff has been changed by the way we live.

Passage eating: hot cross buns, eggs optional; yogurt and fruit; a Provençal stew (if only we had rabbit).

Day 5- Mexico – April 2

At dawn we’re off the coast of Chiapas, Mexico. If the Pacific felt like home, arriving in Mexico is yet another homecoming: it’s a few skips north up this coast where we will cross Totem’s outbound track to complete circumnavigating. In a twist of fate our landfall is within 24 hours of the precise eight year mark that we pointed Totem away from Mexico to begin our passage for the South Pacific.

Cownose ray winglets disturb Marina Chiapas water at dusk

Cownose stingray winglets disturb Marina Chiapas water at dusk

Puerto Chiapas is the jumping point for the Tehuantepec, and as the forecast has held the window to cross. We have just enough fuel to make it, and it’s tempting, but could have us arriving on fumes; we’d rather have a buffer. The window won’t close if we stop overnight here to check into the country and top up diesel, so by 8am we are tied to the dock at Marina Chiapas. The marina staff are smiling and friendly; the ebullient welcome from the charismatic manager Memo buoys us further.

Arrival celebration: bacon and eggs for breakfast, because bacon; lunch on the run during clearance; chicken on the braai; tequila. Viva Mexico! ).

Rest, then northbound again

Passages have a rhythm. There’s a stride that sets in on the third morning; no longer sleep deprived, accustomed to the body clock shift into multiple sleep cycles. Stopping in Chiapas was the right thing to do, but it resets the rhythm. That the passage across the Tehuantepec is only one night is awkward again, but a mixed-up body clock is not even a blip in the decision to go. The window is open, and what we’re paying closest attention to is… well, look at our PredictWind screenshot below. What do you think?

PredictWind view of Tehuantepec

Meanwhile, we heard from friends on the far side of the Gulf – a family we last saw in Mexico just prior to departing for the South Pacific, and they’re waiting with bubbles. Time to go!

Boobies wrangle for spreader ownership

MY SPREADER.

 

Anatomy of a Panama Canal transit

Roy- Totem's ACP advisor- and Jamie

What’s it like to transit the Panama Canal? How much it costs to go through is the first thing most people want to know, if only out of curiosity; those details are here. What’s the process of a transit through the isthmus like? For those in our wake: a summary of Totem’s our experience, the resources that were helpful to us, and what we learned about how to transit safely.

“Cristobal Signal Station, this is sailing vessel Totem.” After weeks of anticipation and planning, the VHF call to inform the port entry coordinator of Totem’s location marks the start of our canal transit.

Pre-transit planning

This process began with research a few months before. Approach varies depending on whether you do it yourself or hire an agent. Despite a bias to DIY, we chose the latter to have an advocate for getting through in a timely fashion and avoid tramping around Colon (unsafe in the best of times, worse with the rioting this month).

The agent will handle:

  • the canal officialdom runaround
  • organize lines (4 x 125’) and fenders and line handlers if needed (for a fee)
  • cover your $900 “buffer” fee with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)
  • advocate for your desired transit date
  • assist with outbound clearance

Colon has a dismal reputation for personal safety and erupted in riots in March, so it was peace of mind that our agent did the leg work there. He also found us early transit dates when arriving boats were being assigned two to three weeks wait period.

line handler prep for panama canal

Jamie coaches our line handlers before transit. Yes, the Flats is quite a charming anchorage…

Want to DIY? No problem, by all accounts. Good cruiser descriptions for their DIY transit to be found at Gone with the Wynns, White Spot Pirates, and ImpetuousToo.

Waiting to transit

A transit date is only assigned after your official measurement is complete and all canal fees are paid. This interval can take a few days in low season or a few weeks at peak. Waiting in Colon means either paying steep rates at Shelter Bay Marina (owning the monopoly!) or anchoring out where you 1) must not leave the boat unattended for security reasons, and 2) have no place to leave the dinghy, so it’s drop-offs / pickups only.

Motoring up to the first locks on departure day

Motoring up to the first locks on departure day

If your assigned transit date is too long to wait around Colon, there are two options. First, pay to fast track. We were quoted about $3,000 in addition to other canal fees to request an expedited transit from the ACP. Well that was nice to know! Alternatively, do a day sail east to historic Portobelo or go overnight to Guna Yala (San Blas). Getting to either can involve bashing during peak tradewinds; watch conditions.

Go time!

Six humans is the minimum crew during transit: the captain, four line handlers, and an ACP advisor. Mairen and Siobhan were rejected as line handlers (on the unfair basis of their gender, as far as I could tell, but it’s not our call). They’d have done fine, but it was a bonus to have two friends aboard helping fill the role.

Cruising boats do what’s called a handline transit: this means the lines between ship and shore are moved by human handlers. Commercial ships (or fancypants boats measuring 125’ and more) get pulled through the locks by cables attached to locomotives.

Locomotives pull ships in the panama canal

Shoreside locomotive with cables to our Ro-Ro lock buddy, Sunshine Ace

Handline transit vessels have four possible configurations to pass through the locks. When your boat is measured, you can specify top two preferences with the admeasurer. Descriptions to prepare for locking through in different configurations is thoroughly detailed in the Mad About Panama ebook.

Transit begins by meeting your advisor at The Flats, an anchorage 2.5 miles from the first Caribbean-side lock. Totem was assigned a one-day transit, so we anchored overnight as the advisor was due to arrive before sunrise. Andrew and Tristan From Utopia II joined us as linehandlers (and entertainment!). When two other boats anchored nearby, we suspected that our raft partners had arrived. Just before dawn, an ACP vessel maneuvered in to deliver an advisor to each anchored boat.

ACP boat delivers advisor at dawn

And advisor is delivered to Totem at dawn

The canal is roughly 37 miles long, most of which is the waterway of Lake Gatun and canal cuts between the trios of locks at each end. Entering from the Caribbean side, three sequential chambers of the Gatun locks lift vessels up around 90 feet. On the Pacific side, there’s a brief motor across Lake Miraflores between the inland lock (Pedro Miguel) and the last two chambers (in front of the Miraflores visitor center) where boats are lowered back down.

Canal path screenshot on OpenCPN

With our advisor, Roy, on board things began to happen quickly. We were directed to create a raft with Totem in the middle. Roy dryly commented, “perfect, now we have big fenders to protect us.” We like Roy! The boats remained rafted through the first three locks, then separated to cross Lake Gatun, rafting up again to descend the last three locks.

Entering the locks

As the center boat, Totem was responsible for primary propulsion of the raft and Roy was the lead advisor to direct all three boats. It also meant an easier trip for Totem’s line handlers. Once the raft was formed by securing bow, stern, and spring lines, our line-handlers became passengers.

Most cruising boats share the chamber with a commercial vessel. When locking up (towards the higher water in Lake Gatun), commercial boats enter first.  Our “buddy boat” for the first series of locks was the 650’ ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off car carrier), Sunlight Ace.

As the raft drives slowly into the open lock, four ACP handlers – two on each side of the lock walls – throw a small, weighted monkey’s fist with messenger line attached down to the two boats on the outside of the raft. Line handlers on these boats tie the messenger lines to loops on to corresponding bow and stern lines. This does require that the line-handler know how to tie a knot! Our expectation was this was fast and furious, but it happens slowly. This is not the tricky part.

Panama canal line handlers on boat and on shore

It’s an intimidating toss for the weighted line from a shoreside handler

When messenger line and your line are joined, the shoreside line-handlers pull your lines up the lock walls and secure the loop on large bollards (big ship cleats). When boats are secure, the riveted steel plates on the massive lock doors begin to close.

Sending lines back up to shore

Sending lines back up to shore

What happens in the locks?

When the lock doors close and water level begins to change, the line handlers must tension (or loosen) the lines per advisor instructions. It sounds easy, right? But a line handler thinking about capturing the scene on the GoPro they have stuffed in a pocket may not respond when necessary. A cleat that is cluttered by junk on deck will make the line handler’s job unnecessarily difficult. A language barrier between handler and/or skipper and/or and advisor can cause problems from missed or delayed communications. A side-boat advisor distracted by cell phone because primary advisor is in charge is dangerous too.

Panama Canal advisor directing boats

Roy advises all three boats from the center of the raft

Once the change starts, it is critical to keep pace tightening or easing the lines to shore as directed. Something like 55 million gallons flow through in 10 minutes and the water movement is intense. Salt and fresh water don’t like to mix, so when they flood together, lighter fresh water rushes over the salt water create currents on horizontal and vertical planes. If spider-leg lines holding your three-boat raft in place are not properly handled the raft can begin to spin, which is when bad things happen to boat.

intense turbulence within a Panama Canal lock chamber

Handlers manage lines during intense turbulence in the chamber

Dry descriptions don’t convey how heated action can be inside the chamber. Turbulent water can damage boats and humans. When locking “up” to Lake Gatun, lines had to be tightened as the raft floated up to meet the top of each lock, shrinking the distance from boat to bollard. Locking “down” meant loosening lines. If not closely watched, the lines really load up. One of the boats next to us was sloppy with easing the lines when the raft started to shift. The crew realized and scrambled to secure the line that was pulling from them, and twice, nearly caught hand/fingers in the process. So much better to just pay attention!

Exiting the locks

When a massive ship just in front of you spins up the props to move out of the lock, there is a lot of wash. Totem’s engine in forward with moderate RPMs to hold station against four knots of current. All hands must pay close attention to advisor direction to keep the boats centered and pointing straight.

Massive steel lock gates in the canal

Massive steel lock gates in the canal. Does this make it look gentle? It’s not!

Once turbulence subsides, the raft slowly motors forward. If another lock is immediately adjacent (this happens three times), the shoreside handlers walked the raft like they were a trio of dogs on a leash. If there’s not another lock immediately ahead, shoreside handlers will remove lines from bollards and toss them into the water for the boats to pull in.

When dismantling the raft for Lake Gatun and at the exit, the connected boats first motor ahead a safe distance to be clear before separating under the advisor’s direction.

Lake Gatun

By the time we reached Lake Gatun, it felt like the day should be half over – but it was barely 10 o’clock in the morning! Time to hydrate and pass the snacks.

If assigned a two-day transit, you spend the night tied to a large buoy just outside the channel. Lake Gatun is an artificial lake full of tree-stumps and other anchor-eating debris, so it’s mooring only! We initially hoped for this overnight stay, to watch for crocs and listen for howler monkeys. In hindsight the one-day transit was nice to get it done, though long at 11 hours. Thanks to our friend Tammy for this photo of their Gatun mooring!

From here it’s a motorboat ride through history on the big-ship highway to Pedro Miguel locks on the far side. Mad About Panama’s ebook details it all, from how to spot Noriega’s jail to the crane called Titan that was built by Hitler’s Germany and claimed by the US as a war prize…it’s still used to service lock doors.

Sailboat passing OOCL cargo ship in the Panama Canal

Andrew keeping an eye on traffic

Differences in the last locks

Locking down the three chambers reverses a few aspects of locking up – besides the obvious descent. Cruising boats enter first, with the commercial vessel behind. Boats float at the same level as shoreside handlers, so Monkey’s fists are tossed across instead of dropped down, a less intimidating prospect for the weighted line.

throwing monkey fist at canal

Lousy picture – you get the idea!

Current effects were different: again, it was essential to pay close attention to the advisors direction and expect that his instructions may not feel intuitive. Our return to the Pacific (a journey which the canal makes mostly by going south, and a little east!) was a relief, celebrated with the

Takeaways for a safe transit

Notes on our transit, reflections over the last two weeks, have gelled some perspective on our transit: what worked, what could have been done better.

Foremost, all advisors are not created alike. Roy was excellent, and helped us have a problem-free trip. Advisors adjacent to Totem were more attentive to their smartphones than the line handlers. This caused a few exciting moments – all ended well, anyway.

The advisor isn’t the captain—you’re responsible for boat and crew!—but our number one takeaway to transit safely is that it’s essential to work tightly with the advisor. They understand the lock conditions: some instructions may seem odd, like directions to turn the boat to point towards a lock wall, but it’s for a reason. There could be a four knot current deflected by the wall, and their direction is to prevent bad things from happening.

Panama Canal Advisor Roy on board Totem

Our advisor, Roy, was all that and a bag of chips. We scored with this great guy on board!

The advisor is assigned; you don’t have control over that. Here’s what you can control and do to prepare.

  1. Clear decks. The area around bow and stern cleats must be as clear as possible. We moved stern rail mounted outboard to rest on deck near Totem’s mast to free up space near the stern cleats.
  2. You’re either a line handler or you’re not. If you want to take photos or text or adjust your GoPro or message Facebook friends or, or, or, when in the locks, then you are not a line handler.
  3. Fair leads! You know your boat: if the bow line has to pass through the bow pulpit for a clear path to the cleat, then have it run that way at the start. Re-leading in the moment takes time you may not have if currents start spinning the raft.
  4. Stern lines: Jamie felt these took the most load: a strategy to consider is running them to a cockpit winch with the stern cleat as a guide. This gives far better control when easing a loaded line and more muscle to tension when required.
  5. Repeat the instruction given by the advisor. This makes the advisor’s job easier by confirming you heard and are responding to the action called for. It may serve to clarify the advisor’s intentions when issuing rapid instructions.
  6. Mitigating an un-engaged advisor. If the lead advisor is distracted or communication is poor (and even if they’re not), proactively talk through maneuvers before they need to happen. We felt the boats rafted to us struggled a couple of times due to less attentive advisors.
  7. PAY ATTENTION! The lead advisor (who is not necessarily on your boat) may call for rapid engine and or steering changes. One of the boats rafted to us was… less attentive. It created a couple of fire drills and added to our burden to prevent the raft from spinning.
Three boat raft for the Panama Canal

Totem and her fenders I mean lock mates: a nearly matched set of Ovnis.

Resources for planning

  • Start at Noonsite: succinct, solid orientation for the process.
  • Ready for details? They’re all in Mad About Panama’s website and very useful $1.99 ebook. If you read just one guide to prepare, this should be it.
  • Also helpful is The Panama Cruising Guide (Bauhaus) but it’s very expensive if you only want canal info. Invaluable for Guna Yala, however, a good all-around cruising guide for Panama.
  • To appreciate the magnitude of this awesome feat of human labor, read David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas
  • In addition to reading, first-timers can prepare by volunteering to line handle for another cruiser in advance of their own transit: a great way to pay it forward and internalize the process before going in your own boat. Listen on the morning VHF nets (details on Noonsite)

Totem is now northbound from Panama, lingering off Costa Rica for a better window to get across the Papagayos. We’ll cross our circumnavigation track in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, in the next few weeks. If you’ll be in the neighborhood, let us know!

 

 

Exploring Panama’s Guna Yala

sailboat at sunset

Plumes of spray shoot up where waves strike the rocky spires of a reef off the coast of Guna Yala. Totem is bashing west to our next pocket of protection for anchoring, and none of our charts on board match what our eyeballs tell us. “I guess we won’t sail between those islands” considered Jamie while eyeing breakers that stretched across the gap. One chart showed the area as grayed-out UNSURVEYED territory. Two others with some detail suggested it was passable. Welcome to navigating in the eastern Guna Yala! (This post builds on the prior introduction to Guna Yala).

Tucked into a deep bay a few hours later, the kids jumped in for a swim: sediment meant limited visibility, but the sun broke from behind the dry-season cloud cover and turned it a lovely shade of turquoise. Swimming was short lived… was that the smear of a crocodile’s haulout on shore? Impenetrably green hillsides tumbled down to the water’s edge, and in the distance cried a bird, or maybe a monkey; the call was unfamiliar to our ears.

Visitors arrive paddling a large dugout ulu (which also sports a 9.9 hp outboard) from the cane-and-thatch homes nearby. Three generations of a family come aboard: grandmother, parents, and three young children. Together they comprise the majority of the 11-count human population of this community, a handful of structures built a few yards over the water on piles of coral rubble.

Arsesio speaks reasonable English, a legacy of the time he spent in Panama City before choosing to return to traditional Guna life. A few of our Spanish words come in handy too; his wife and mother are more reserved but listen in and smile at appropriate enough times that I think they understand more than they let on. We share snacks stories of our lives while his adorable toddler stuffs crackers into the top of a winch, just like our own kids found them receptacles perfectly suited as string cheese holders some a few years ago. Gifts were lightly bartered: green coconuts and plantains in thanks for batteries and candles. (I’d love to come back to Guna Yala with cases of solar-powered Luci lights to brighten evenings in settlements like this!)

He later asked a favor: since we were headed west, could we take his family (his mother Selina, wife Obaldina, and their three children) on Totem to their larger island community? We pored over the thin data on our charts, and it looked risky. The shallow draft of their dugout makes it effortlessly through a channel between islands and mainland, but it looked questionable for Totem. In good conditions, with water depths we could visually pilot? Maybe. But whitewater blowing across the reef didn’t give us enough to work with for finding a safe path.

Meanwhile, learning about the reason for the request helped us understand how to help. It was time to fill their canoe with coconuts, plantains, and more to sell at the densely populated 10 miles north. Yet when it was loaded down (this included two additional village members, their gear, and an intact but very much not alive deer-like mammal), the sea state was too rough to safely cross the ocean pass between the islands. Now we knew what to do: it was a matter of getting them across this cut into the lee of the next island, not all the way up to their destination; and that we could do. And so, the following morning, all six family members boarded. It wasn’t until they began loading goods—a chain saw, a portable generator, a shotgun, a plastic tub of clothing, two puppies!—that the need became even more apparent. No way could they get across the rough seas in their dugout with all this! So our girls led their girls in coloring pictures below deck while we nibbled fresh bread in the cockpit with adults. It wasn’t a long journey, but an unforgettable one.

We had all the company we needed already with Utopia II.

The eastern range of Guna Yala (also called Kuna Yala, or San Blas) is virtually devoid of other cruising boats: we encountered only one throughout this stretch. Did the relative isolation foster opportunities like meeting the family in Escoses? On another island, we were shown ambergris worth tens of thousands of dollars sitting out on a coral wall to dry. Near Playon Chico, a frequent Guna visitor would ramble for hours some afternoons on everything from his island’s upcoming chicha festival to bandidos stealing from his garden on the mainland. There’s the time our guide for a hike told us with pride about the role of US military in supporting Guna independence; he offered geologic survey markers from the late 1940s as evidence and told us about the armadas from the US to support the Guna during their struggle for recognition – pointing to his ballcap commemorating the 90th anniversary, 1925-2015. And memorably, the afternoon a weathered man beckoned from his doorway calling “cultura! cultura!”- culture, my kryptonite – to show me rows of nuchu, statues with living spirits important to Guna religion, on a corner hutch inside his drafty bungalow.

In the western San Blas, the dynamic shifted significantly. Here were scores of cruising boats. Not all islands follow the Guna’s traditional ways. There were conveniences again: the ability to buy bread and other groceries from small stores (in the east, fewer options and smaller shops; we might buy coconuts or plantains or fish from an individual with extra). Internet access. And here, at last, were the breathtaking islands: white sand beaches, tall coconut palms leaning gently towards turquoise water.

Empty anchorages of the east were traded for bays holding a dozen or more boats at a time. Many were long-term liveaboards, many were “backpacker boats” ferrying travelers (at surprising cost) for their Kuna Yala Experience… or an alternate mode of transportation to Colombia. A few, like us, were cruisers passing through; the western islands are an accessible overnight sail away from the canal region.

These numbers shift local dynamics. Guna in the western islands have built livelihoods around marketing to visiting boats. Dugouts were more likely to come along side marketing handicrafts, offering tours, selling fish and lobster, and occasionally other provisions. And here in the west, thanks in part to that reach, are renowned mola makers: Venancio Restrepo, from Isla Maquina, and “Mola Lisa,” from Rio Sidra.

Venancio and his brother Idelfonso charmed us with their beautiful textiles, patient explanations, and gentle manner

We saw stunning molas in the east, too, but the combination of volume here, the English proficiency of the artists, and their ability to range to the more distant islands favored by cruising boats contribute to their fame.

Shortly before we departed San Blas, a Guna family from Nusatupu island (just below Rio Sidra; near 9 26.8 N / 78 50.20 W ) sailed their ulu over for an early morning visit. They’d seen our mast over the spit of mangrove-covered land that separated us from their home. Igua and his parents were pleasant company; his mother, Floricelda, more outgoing than any other Guna women I met. They visited in our cockpit for a while—drinking coffee, offering molas for sale. From them we learned about the divide is then between Guna who can afford outboards for their canoes range further from the settlement islands to peddle molas; should we return (I hope we return!), I’d make more of an effort to seek out these islands and the artists who don’t have those means. Igua is an albino; there’s a high incidence of this among Guna. The trait is revered, and has a special place in their culture, but given the hot tropical sun… we sent Igua with a bottle of sunscreen. I wish I could say if I’d though tof it first, but it took his request for an application from the one in our cockpit for me to clue in. Maybe some boat in our wake can stop in at Nusatupu, pass along a bottle of sunscreen for Igua, and tell Floricelda her beautiful mola has a good home.

Floricelda allowed photo of her stunning wini, the beadwork decorating women’s arms and legs

Guna Yala holds so many facets of what makes our life interesting packed into one place. Picture-postcard views when the sun emerges (white sand, turquoise water, islands the size of a baseball field sprinkled with palms). Deserted islands where the kids can swim and play. Low tech local community, where people have time to talk. Cultural experiences far from our norm, with lessons to give. And not least, good company: this is the last sailing we’ll do with Utopia II for a while, and so we made the most of it.

Celebrating a boat-kid-birthday in typical low key style, with a beach picnic and games.

Next: practicalities for cruisers planning to sail for Guna Yala / Kuna Yala / San Blas

Like nowhere else: the allure of Panama’s Guna Yala

dugouts under palm tree

Headwinds. Choppy seas. Eyeball navigation through reefs where the usual tropical cues are absent. Days of gray skies. Taciturn communities. Few supplies. All features of our weeks sailing through the islands of Guna Yala (also known as Kuna Yala, or San Blas). Am I selling it yet? The truth is, there’s an undeniable attraction to this wild section of Panama’s Caribbean coast.

The territory includes around 350 islands along a coast of just over 100 straight-line miles. Communities pack into islands where homes constructed of cane and thatch butt up against one another, and footpaths are small enough in some cases to reach out and touch the low-slung palm roofline on either side. These alternate with islands which are largely uninhabited.

It is relatively disconnected: just a single four-wheel-drive road links the far western end to the rest of Panama. The only other “roads” are rivers and footpaths reaching into the tangled green jungle on the mainland: coastal waters are the real highway. Guna ply their dugouts by sail and outboard between islands; what isn’t grown or foraged is largely brought by Colombian supply boats.

Guna Yala is part of Panama… and it isn’t. Indigenous Guna people fought (and won) the right to self-determination and have largely rejected modern “civilization” in favor of preserving their traditions. Retaining this culture is not an outcome of their location, but a deliberate choice: although Guna Yala feels remote, the modern hub of Panama City with its millions of people and bright lights and shiny tech is within reach.

Google’s satellite view shows the density of a populated Guna island

Most islands have little more than coconut palms

Escaping the breaking swells in the clearance port, Obaldia, we shook off the difficult passage from Colombia in the placid water off Anachucuna village. Within a few hours with a shy young couple paddling their dugout to Totem introduced the first ritual of a Guna anchorage: anchoring fees. Uncommon in most of our travels, it’s the norm in the eastern San Blas. There; you’re expected pay whoever presents an officially stamped receipt on behalf of the local ‘congreso,’ the governing authority, and receive rights for a month in return. Too bad we were only staying overnight! I explained this to the visitor, asked for grace on the charge based on our short stay, and offered a handful of instant coffee packets as goodwill. A more social visit came from a father and son the following morning: in addition to their fishing handline, the bottom of their dugout included bananas, limes, and handicrafts to sell. Joining us in the cockpit we learned Andreas also had time, and was interested in talking. Or trying to, as our Spanish is weak and Guna language (Dulegaya) skills nonexistent! My first lesson in ensued, along with my first mola purchase.

Tucked in his basket were a few molas, panels of reverse appliqué panels used in women’s blouses. If you’ve heard about San Blas, you’ve probably heard about molas: the textiles are famous, for their intricate hand-sewn detail and vibrant illustrations representing everyday life or cultural motifs. The first mola he showed us was so nearly approximate a likeness to Totem’s orca, I couldn’t resist. Little did I know this was the beginning of what I now understand to be emola virus: by the time we sailed out of Guna Yala, the single panel had grown to a small stack in the aft cabin.

Totem moved steadily west, gunkholing from one island to the next with a night or two in each stop. It was a fast pace, but we hoped to secure an earlier canal transit (it didn’t work, oh well). Now is the dry season, but ironically, that’s when a cloudy haze obscures the mainland. Occasional breaks offer a tantalizing hint at rugged topography beyond the nearest foothills: the mainland horizon is only rarely visible behind a veil of clouds. Not the classic tropical landscape, but beautiful vistas nonetheless. Local knowledge and shallow draft let local boats move more nimbly than we could!

sailing dugout canoe

Overcast skies also make navigation difficult. The charts here are… wait, what charts?! Most of eastern San Blas just shows ‘unsurveyed’ on ours, and many visual piloting cues are absent in the overcast light and murky water. We move slowly and try to read each wavelet in the choppy water.

There’s a reef here just 3′ below the surface. See it? Yeah neither do we.

This is the area chosen for the Darien scheme, a Scottish effort to find the overland route to the Pacific: doomed not only to fail in transiting the isthmus, but to bankrupt many Scots and contribute to weakening the kingdom to the point it “united” with England. In a deep bay where St Andrews Fort once stood, a village with a handful of cane homes sits out on coral rubble over the reef.

sailboat and thatched huts

To be continued…

Panama Canal: the cost for a big shortcut

Totem enters the Pacific

Totem rocks gently at anchor on the Pacific side of the Panama canal. There’s more to share about our transit, but “how much does it cost?” comes up frequently. Here’s what we paid to transit the Panama canal, with a breakdown of fees to help estimate what it could cost others.  It’s a lot of money, but let’s face it: Cape Horn and the Northwest Passage present inconvenient alternatives for sailing to the Pacific.

Fees levied by Panama’s canal authority, the ACP:

  • Transit toll: $800 (same all boats up to 50’)
  • Inspection by an ACP Admeasurer: $54 (fixed by ACP)
  • Security charge: $130 (fixed by ACP)

Fees for Panama formalities:

  • Panama cruising permit: $197 (fixed)
  • Panama visas: we paid $315 ($105/adult). Panama since stopped levying this fee. bummer for us!
  • Other formalities: $55

Other canal transit costs:

  • Agent fee: we hired Erick Galvez from Centenario for $350
  • Line handlers: four required in addition to the skipper/helmsperson. Our friends volunteered. $0
  • Lines/fenders: Rented four lines of 125 feet, and large fenders, through our agent for $75
  • Bank commission for ACP payments handling: $60
  • Water taxi tip for collecting lines/fenders: $12

Total fees necessary for Totem to transit the canal: $2,048.

You can pay a little less, and you can pay a lot more. Here’s how:

Boat size: The 50’ cutoff for $800 is a hard one. There is no lower cost bracket for shorter boats. From 50′-80′, the fee is $1,300. The Admeasurer brings a tape and measures the vessel’s extreme length. Got a bowsprit? Anything sticking off the transom like a solar arch? These are included in the length. We deflated our dinghy tubes to keep them on the davits (thinking a clear foredeck was safer for line handlers) and stayed barely below the 50’ mark.

Agent fees: You can save this expense and arrange transit yourself. Not rocket science, just takes time, and some precautions. Agent fees vary. We picked ours based on a mix of glowing referrals and competitive rate. An agent saves money in some ways (no buffer paid- more on that below; no taxiing around to visit officials – you don’t walk / take public transportation in Colon with a pocketful of cash, it’s not safe). Our primary purpose in hiring the agent was to have an advocate for our transit timing, so our friends visiting from the US could transit with us. That didn’t work, but once we were in Colon, he was an excellent advocate and presented short-term openings for us twice in our first week there (the waiting period during our peak-season stay ballooned to as much as 21 days from measurement to transit; we got through in 10).

Line handlers: Hiring a handler is $100+ and hires sleep on your boat overnight. Cruisers often try to transit on another boat ahead of their turn in order to see what it’s like, a nice tradeoff for everyone. You should pay their taxi fare in the opposite direction. Do make sure they know how to tie a proper knot and have basic boat sense, and will be ready to work instead of take pictures. A guy next to us worrying about his big DSLR nearly lost his fingers because he wasn’t paying attention.

Lines & fenders: we have line of sufficient strength and length on board, but it would have to be cut for canal use. The lengths are intended for use with our sea anchor, and then we’d want to replace that line. Standard dock fenders are not strong enough for the forces the canal may impose (also: having seen the concrete walls, would not want to subject them to it!). It’s possible to pay less (I heard $50) and get tires instead of fenders.

At least the tires are usually well-wrapped in plastic, and certainly durable

Bank fees: if you walk around and get all the cash (US dollars, and you do need cash, and it isn’t easy to get to ATMs in Colon, and you cannot safely walk for one block in Colon with that kind of money on you), you can probably save some of the bank commission (which you’ll then pay in taxi fees). We were happy to let the agent handle this.

Water taxi: your rented lines/fenders have to be returned, and the launch crew at Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side handles it for $12. One of the boats rafted with us stiffed them. Not cool.

Panama visas and cruising permit: the visa fee was eliminated about two weeks after we checked into the country. If we weren’t such rules followers, and sailed through Guna Yala without clearing in and waited until we reached the canal zone, we could have saved $315! Oh well.

Clearance fees: Outbound clearance fee: $35; “document fee” to crooked port captain in Colon: $20. Well hopefully you won’t have the unscrupulous Colon port captain who charged us a “pena” (penalty) I’m pretty sure was not warranted, to prepare a maritime authority document which our inbound clearance port that had not provided. The $35 outbound clearance fee is fixed, however.

Buffer fee: In addition to the other ACP fees, all paid in advance of transit, you must pay a nearly $900 “buffer fee.” This is a bond to ensure you don’t rack up charges from missing your slot, being too slow, needing a water taxi for your line handlers or whatever. If you hire an agent, he takes care of this buffer fee. That fee is eventually returned by the ACP, but between general distrust of the efficiency of the system, our intention to sail north from the canal ASAP instead of sticking around to make sure we got our money back, and a desire for advocacy in our timing and procedure for transit – we picked hiring an agent.

I wished to have a simple breakdown of the costs and how they varied to estimate our fees (we ballparked higher, but were basing off a boat that paid more – partly based on LOA, as their LOA crept over 50 although it’s “46 feet”, and partly based on agent charges). I actually expected our fees to be at least $3,000, so as bad as this sounds, it’s “good.” Although even if we paid less, the canal fees still make Panama the MOST expensive country we have cruised in to date – by a margin of hundreds of dollars!

That’s OK. We didn’t have the warm enough clothes to detour the long way in either direction anyway.

Tristan and Niall contemplate the Bridge of the Americas from the Pacific

 

Pictures from the Passage: Colombia to Panama

Photos of sea state never do it justice. It is a truth and occasional lament, as it’s difficult to convey the feeling of being at sea. This passage (Trials at Sea and Ashore) held some of the most unpleasant seas we’ve experienced: flat-fronted walls of water, tossing Totem around. These pictures won’t capture those seas, but to the challenging passage from Colombia to Panama.

A more pleasant start on departure from Santa Marta; ahead of us, the 51’ Utopia II is dwarfed when passing the massive yacht M5.

Bit of a size difference

A few hours later, a chain link of Totem’s steering cable broke: steering was still possible with the autopilot, but not with the helm. In many situations, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. In these seas, which necessitated more human-controlled steering to avoid rounding up, it was a bigger problem. What followed was about eight hours of “hand steering” the waves by pressing autopilot buttons to adjust course. Here, Jamie works on repairs that night as we lay at anchor near Baranquilla. More about the break, and the fix, in a later post.

Headlamp-powered repairs to the steering cable

The next day was relatively uneventful, but exhaustion prompted a stop in Cartagena to rest. Aussie catamaran Aseka entering behind us, in a narrow channel shared with commercial vessels like that in the background.

Kinda snug in the channel…

Fishermen heading out to sea in the early morning, passing the 18th century San Fernando fort which guards one side of Cartagena’s Boca Chica entrance.

Fishermen commute

For the first time in months, a pod of dolphins joined us to play in the wake.

What species?

Feathered hitchhikers are always fun, although boobies like the one that joined us overnight can leave appallingly smelly poo on deck. This one struggled to sit on the furler and eventually settled on the anchor roll bar (an excellent poop scoop). We decided it was practicing for a band album cover with extended stares off into the middle distance.

Clearing in at Puerto Obaldia, Panama, was… “interesting” as swells rolling in made us pitch at anchor. Thankfully we were able to depart the tenuous spot to find serene waters in Puerto Perme before nightfall, and host our first Guna visitors (and their dugout) the following morning.

Trials of this passage are detailed in the prior post, but internet prevented pictures at the time – enjoy a late update!