Bahamas to Panama
by Mike McIntire
Trip date - March 2007
Vessel - Moon Dance (1986 Endeavor 42)
Voyages
As regular readers of this site may know, I've been slowly refurbishing my own sailboat
Sleep Du Jour as time allows.  The project has slowed the last few months due to my
rather lengthy commute times (I'm away from home from 12 to 14 hours a day during the
week), and this gives me only weekends for the project and other life tasks.  And as a
result, I hadn't been sailing since the project started last August.

One of my sailing buddies from years past is Warren, a retired business owner from
Michigan who has been cruising for some years with his significant other, Rhonda.  They
lost their first Endeavor,
Featherbed, -- or rather, the towing company lost it (that's
another story) -- after hurricane George in the late 90's.  They replaced
Featherbed
with
Moon Dance, sailed for a while, then took some time out from sailing, put Moon
Dance on the hard in the Florida keys, and bought a house in New Mexico.  They
relaunched
Moon Dance in 2006 and resumed cruising the Bahamas.

Although we only stayed in touch occasionally via e-mail, I learned that Warren was
planning to take his boat to Panama in 2007.  He wanted to look around for investment
property there.  (Panama is a very hot place for investment and retirement right now,
having a number of incentives for Americans to retire there.)  I have had an interest in
visiting Panama for some time now, to consider it as a possible place for retirement,  
Warren needed additional crew for the trip, so I volunteered.  He also signed up another
friend of his, Jeanne, who had sailed with him in the past.

I flew to George Town on Great Exuma in the Bahamas on a Friday after work.  A short
taxi ride took me to
Eddie's Edgewater bar, where Warren was to meet me for the dinghy
ride out to his boat.  I had time for one
Kalik beer before Warren showed up, and we
carried my bags past the enticing smells of an outdoor barbeque down to the dinghy
docks.  A quick pull on the Yamaha outboard, and away we went through the crowded
harbor.  We located Moon Dance by her single mast and illuminated cockpit light, and
pulled alongside.  My bags were passed up and we climbed the boarding ladder.

Warren had been planning this trip for some
time, studying the weather and readying the
boat, provisioning, etc.  As he was ready to
begin the trip the next morning, we enjoyed a
rum punch and a hearty dinner, then hit the
sack to be rested for the voyage.  I got the
V-berth.

Saturday dawned a beautiful day with winds
from the northwest.  This would put them on
our beam for the first part of the trip, around Long island, at which time the winds were
expected to swing more northerly and be on our stern.  We had coffee and a quick
breakfast, then started the engine and hoisted the anchor.  We motored north out of
                                            the crowded George Town harbor, getting away
                                            a little past sunrise.  Our plan was to go around
                                            the northern end of Great Exuma, then head east
                                            past the north end of Long Island before turning
                                            southward.

                                           The first day and night passed uneventfully.  We
                                            rounded Great Exuma and Long Island, then
                                            sailed down the eastern side of Long island.
                                            It's called Long island for a reason, as it took us
                                            an entire day to put the island past us.  It must be
                                            something over 100 miles long.  We divided up the
helmsman duties into three hour watches, so none of us had to spend too much
consecutive time behind the wheel.  I got the 2AM to 5AM slot, great for viewing the
stars, and 2PM to 5PM.  We had good steady wind on the port beam and were making
about 6 knots all day Saturday and Sunday.

On Sunday, as we were passing the southern end of Long Island and turning for the
strait between Cuba and Haiti, the wind turned more northerly as we expected it to do,
but it also intensified to about 20 knots.  This wasn't enough to be any kind of safety
concern, but it did mean we had to steer the boat manually as the autopilot was too slow
to respond as each rolling wave passed under us from astern and we briefly surfed
down its face.  The wind was directly behind us and we were sailing with just the
mainsail, sheeted out and secured with a preventer
against accidental jibes.  
Moon Dance was equipped
with a furling mainsail, and we took it in somewhat so as
not to be overpowered in the event of an unexpected
squall or gust of wind.  We were still doing 5 to 6 knots,
and of course in no real hurry.  But, the constant need
to steer the boat, to keep it on course after every "roller"
started to take its toll on us out-of-shape crew members.
We compared the effort required on the wheel to lifting
weights for three straight hours.  By the end of our watch,
our arms and shoulders were aching as we fell into our
bunks.  And, even though we were exhausted and craving sleep, the movement of the
boat was enough to continually toss our bodies from side to side, as though someone
was trying to wake us up.  We slept very little.

The stiff breezes and rolling waves continued for two days.  By the end of Monday, the
winds began to subside and we were able to let the autopilot take on steering duties.  
We were all grateful for the mechanical help, so we could sit back and let our aching
muscles relax.  At sunset, to celebrate
the improving weather, the captain ordered
rum punches all around.  That night, we
passed close enough to Cuba to see some
glow in the sky from lights on the island.  
Whether it was from the smoother boat
movement or the rum punches, that night we
all got some much needed rest.

On Tuesday the day broke bright and fair, the
winds were still at our back but now about 12 to
15 knots.  And though we couldn't know it at the
time, they were to stay that way for almost
the entire trip, making this voyage very pleasant.

                   Many sailors believe you make your own luck, and I think Warren
                   was in this category.  Before we left, he had just passed his ham
                   radio General Class exam in George Town, and he had
                   subscribed to Sailmail (
www.sailmail.com) so we would have e-mail
                   access at sea, in addition to VHF, amateur radio, and SSB.  I had
                   been communicating with
Moon Dance via e-mail before the trip,
                   so I was happy to know that we would not be incommunicado for
                   over a week.  I don't mind the isolation, but friends and family
                   like to know you're OK.  Although Sailmail is far too limited for something
like web browsing, it works just find for sending and receiving batches of e-mails (without
attachments).  Warren also engaged the services of a private weather forecaster in the
Bahamas (the name escapes me) who does custom weather forecasts for mariners in
the Caribbean, and he could tune in to listen to forecasts for the area we were transiting
every morning, at different times on different frequencies for best signal propagation.  
By this method we knew what the weather would likely be in our particular part of the
ocean, more useful than the general forecasts that the weather services give.

On Tuesday we passed Jamaica in the distance, the last land we would see before
reaching Panama.  Since the autopilot was now handling the steering, the helmsman's
job was primarily to just keep an eye on things, and check the radar for approaching
boats occasionally.  We broke out the fishing poles and starting trolling for something
tasty for dinner.  Now we're not the world's most skillful
fishermen, but fortunately not a great deal of skill was
needed.  On three successive days we landed a tuna,
all of which a fish identification guide on board called
"big eyed" tuna.  And we hooked but didn't land probably
an equal number.  Warren cleaned the fish, and Rhonda,
serving as ship's chef, made some mighty tasty dishes
with the fresh fish and we feasted.

All four of us were now into our routine, standing two
three-hour watches a day, with nine hours between watches to give plenty of time off.  
Since I'm a veteran traveler and spend a lot of time on airplanes, I have been using an
MP3 player for years.  I had been using it during my night watches, listening to
                  podcasts, music, and Spanish lessons (that I thought might be
                  handy in Panama).  I soon found out that none of my shipmates
                  had used one before, and I offered mine for them to use during
                  their watches.  Well, before long I had three converts to the
                  technology.  I brought my laptop along on the trip, and was able
                  to load the player with the favorite music of each crew member.

                  Rhonda, who had not particularly liked
                  standing watches, was like a new person
                  once those earbuds starting spewing out
her tunes.  The change was like she had been injected with
happy juice.  I don't know, but would guess that they all own
MP3 players by now.   Mine, if you're interested, is an iRiver
899 with 1GB of flash memory and FM tuner.  It runs on a
single replaceable AA battery for many many hours.  I like
being able to carry a spare battery and quickly swap it out,
rather than have to recharge an internal battery like the iPod
system.

For the seven days of open water between Jamaica and
Panama, we had remarkably good weather.  We did
have the occasional rain come up, and sometimes we
could avoid it but not every time.  I was expecting some
high winds with the rain, but as it happened there were
no gusts worth mentioning.  We had fair winds on the
stern until we approached the Panama coast .  That
Monday night before our expected landfall on Tuesday
morning, the winds diminished and some steady rain
fell, but nothing that could dampen our spirits.  With the
light winds our speed dropped to 2 - 3 knots.  We had
not used the main engine on the voyage (we ran the
generator to charge the boat batteries, make fresh
water, and cool the refrigerator and freezer daily), but
we started motoring in the evening so we would make
the harbor shortly after daybreak.

                 The GPS, that modern miracle, didn't lie and we found ourselves at
                 the entrance to the channel at Bocas del Toro, ten days and a bit
                 more than a thousand miles from our departure point.  We now had
                 to pay attention to the chart again, since
                 we were close enough to land to actually
                 hit something for the first time in a week.
                 We had to pay even closer attention to
                 the channel buoys, which were not all at
the positions shown on the chart -- obviously, the channel
had shifted somewhat since the chart was produced.

Warren made a call on the VHF, and received instructions
for clearing in to Panama.  We were to go to the anchorage
opposite the customs dock, and the customs and immigration
officials would come to us in their launch.  This turned out to be very efficient, as there
were several sailboats that arrived at about the same time.  We raised our quarantine
flag and continued motoring to the anchorage, where we dropped the hook.  And turned
off the engine.  And stopped moving for the first time in ten days.

The launch pulled alongside and the customs and immigration people -- four of them --
came on board.  They all sat around the table in the main cabin while Warren showed
them the ship's papers and started filling out forms.  Panama, it seems, is partly on the
English system of weights and measures and partly on the metric system.  Some items,
like the boat's length, had to be converted from feet to meters, while others, like weights,
were in pounds.  The forms were in Spanish, of course, but at least some of the
Panamanians were able translators.

The paperwork went along smoothly until we were asked for our clearance papers out of
the Bahamas.  "What?", said Warren.  "The Bahamas doesn't require you to clear
outbound, only inbound."  And he was right, as far as it went.  It turns out that while the
Bahamas doesn't require outbound clearance, some other countries -- including
Panama -- require that you have cleared OUT of your previous country before you can
clear IN to theirs.  

For a while, it looked like we would have 48 hours to leave
the country, and that just would not have been good on so
many levels. Well, not to drag out the point, but it took a
few days of telephone calls, e-mails, and Internet research
to get the magic form, called a "zarpe", into the hands of the
customs officials.  I ended up spending a few hours in their
offices at the end of the ordeal, filling out forms and
answering  questions.   The Panamanian officials were
very polite, and as helpful as they could be, but they could not find a way around us
having that form.  But, we got it, and were allowed to stay.

Technically the voyage was over at this point.  Warren and Rhonda were planning to
stay in Panama indefinitely, Jeanne for a few weeks, and I had a flight home booked out
of Panama City the following Sunday.  I spent my free time in Bocas Town being a tourist
and getting to know the area a bit.  There is a real estate boom going on in Panama,
with Bocas del Toro being one of the hot spots.  Without exaggeration, I can say that at
least half of the foreigners I met (most of them Americans) were in town looking for
property to buy "ahead of the curve".  The demand is making prices soar to somewhat
unrealistic levels in some cases.

On Friday we moved the boat from the anchorage to the
Bocas Marina.  I took an Air
Panama flight to Panama City later that day, spent Saturday seeing that area, and then
flew back to the states.  Here are some more snapshots from the trip.
Moon Dance  in Nassau, Bahamas
Leaving George Town harbor
A rolling wave passes
under
Moon Dance
Sunset in the Caribbean,  
somewhere east of Cuba
Warren
getting the
latest weather
and emails
One that didn't get away
Rhonda finds
a happy place
with the MP3
player
Moon Dance is surrounded
by areas of rain.  The radar
also detected ships as far
as 18 miles away, before
they were visible to the eye.
Land Ho! on an
overcast
morning
The quarantine flag
is being readied for
raising.
Mr. Customs Man
made lots of phone
calls to help us from
his office.
Olas is a waterfront
hotel and bar with
dinghy dock not far
from our anchorage,
with free Wi-Fi.
Moon Dance from
Olas, just in front of
the catamaran.
Not all the roads in
Bocas town are
paved.
Walking down the
street into Bocas
town
I love this bar!
Getting to know
some of the locals
Just like Paris, the
city provides a map
for the tourists
Vegetables and
fruits were very
cheap.  They were
even cheaper in
Panama City
Many of the
waterfront bars
have decks over
the water, like these
Downtown Bocas
del Toro
Seafood feast -
lobster, shrimp,
mussels, fish,
plantain, and salad
in a nice restaurant
-- about $12
Waiting for a flight
in the Bocas del
Toro airport
We don't need to
lock the cockpit
door.  We don't
have a door.
Goodbye Bocas.
Clear Caribbean
waters off the north
coast of Panama
Panama City,
looking west along
the waterfront
Yes, these prices
are in US dollars.  
The pineapples
were 25 cents.
Street market in
Panamá la Vieja (Old
Panama)
For a quarter you
can ride a wildly
decorated city bus
as far as you like.  
Pay as you exit.
The pilot gave us a
bird's-eye view of
the Panama Canal.  
Here are ships in
one of the locks.
OH NO!  Sunday
morning, time to fly
home.
Well, that's all folks, my first attempt at writing a travelogue.  How did you like it?  Too
long?  Too short?  Too much boring detail?  Not enough boring detail?  Find some
errors or sections that weren't clear?  Got a question?

I'd love to have your comments and criticisms.  Email me by going to the Contact Us
page.

If you've got a sailing yarn to share with other visitors to this site, write me at the
same address.
Jeanne at the helm
on a sunny day in
perfect seas