We ended up spending more than a month in the gigantic Gulf of Montijo. It turns out to be an undiscovered piece of heaven. As we sailed inland, deeper into the gulf, the water became increasingly calm. We stopped when the depth got down to 14 feet at low tide. By then we had put three islands between us and the sea and we might have been on a protected inland lake. We were in the middle of an enormous, pristine inland bay. The nearest land was at least half a mile away and there was no human habitation for miles. It was as still and peaceful and quiet as anywhere we’ve ever been. It’s surrounded by mangroves, and (not surprisingly) we enjoyed a couple of dinghy trips poking into the mangrove mazes.
This large body of water is roughly 10 miles at the mouth and 15 miles up to the “major” port city of Puerto Mutis. There’s a long island at its mouth, restricting flow in and out and making it subject to tidal currents. Similar to when we were in the estuary in El Salvador, we would turn 180° on our anchor every 6 hours. It’s fed by roughly a dozen rivers that drain the big Veraguas agricultural basin. The water varies from pea-soup green to latte brown from all the runoff. It is definitely not an inviting place for a swim! We are unable to use our watermaker here, because the filters would plug up in just a few minutes. Every few days we would talk about leaving soon, to top off our water tanks.
But we kept putting that departure off because we were able to capture enough rainwater to get by a little longer. We got much more frugal with our water usage, though! We didn’t do any laundry, we bathed on deck in the rain, and we used only a trickle to rinse the dishes. Dan became obsessed with watching the skies to try to predict the day’s likelihood for rain, and spiralled down into despair after a couple of dry days. We also did a few raindances, which seemed to be fairly successful. We are using the awning over our back deck, a piece of canvas roughly 7’ x 7′ secured fairly rigidly to the pilothouse and a roller arm, but loose on the sides. We pull one side out further than the other, causing the water to spill to one side, where we attach a funnel with paper binder clips and clothespins. The funnel goes into a 25′ hose that runs up the side of the boat and into the deck-fill. If the wind is more than about 10 knots, especially if it isn’t directly on our nose, the awning flaps frenetically and the clips pop off. We spend more time supporting it than one might guess. But we keep refining the design, and over time it’s gotten quite effective! We’re working on another one that could be deployed quickly over the boom in front of the pilothouse, and which might be as much as 3 times the size. We had fun in a hardware store one day trying to find a set of plumbing parts that would take water from a hole in the fabric to the hose that fits our deck-fill, starting with a kitchen sink drain. We’re close to deploying this system but can’t yet report back.
We anchored about 5 miles from Puerto Mutis, an international port of entry. There are probably neighborhoods that we didn’t discover, but the town seemed to consist of one road lined with a few bars, a couple of gas pumps and one tiny grocery shop run by a Chinese woman. There is a public dock where the local fishermen (and there are a *lot* of them!) load and unload their boats. Many of them are moored in a big cluster nearby. The area is generally quite shallow, with a shifting sandy bottom. We didn’t dare bring Lungta much closer, although we are now certain it would have been possible. Yemaya, a large live-aboard dive boat, is based out of Puerto Mutis and comes in roughly every two weeks to pick up passengers and re-provision. They *must* be a similar depth to Lungta. (We talked with the owner briefly one afternoon, but oddly he couldn’t tell us what the boat’s draft was.)
There’s a very regular bus that goes from this tiny town to the much more substantial city of Santiago, 18 miles inland (but it takes an hour!). It costs $1.30 each. We found nice grocery stores here, and a couple of reasonable hardware stores. There’s even a big-box store that carries computers, office equipment and home appliances, where we found a replacement laptop for Kathy’s computer that gave up the ghost 3 months earlier – she’s a happy camper! (Her kingdom was shuttered for want of a hard drive.) It’s not a very pretty town, or walkable, but it’s much more functional than we ever expected. We passed by a kiosk outside a stripmall one day with lots of corporate logos (Target, EBay, Ford) that caught our eye. It turned out to be a freight forwarder, like we used in El Salvador. We’re excited to be putting together another shipment of “stuff we can’t live without” coming from the States (mostly Amazon) in the next month or so. We went into town once or twice a week. After the first couple of times we learned that taking a taxi back would allow us to bring back awkward items from the hardware store (like 4 gallons of paint!) and lots of bags from the grocery store, for only about $15.
The weather patterns here seem more predictable than earlier in our travels. Although every day looks quite different from the day before, we learned to recognize which direction our rain would come from. Virtually every day had rain in the area, often quite threatening looking, but most of it skirted around our particular spot. Almost everyone else would have celebrated this fact. This is the rainy season in Panama, and there are terrible stories of intense storms with lots of lightning – and serious damage to boats and even boaters. We were initially nervous about going to Panama, but then met a number of people who hadn’t had any trouble. Now we’re thinking that the troubles are more localized, for example only during the rainy season or only in the Gulf of Panama (the region around Panama City and the Canal). We don’t know why, but we just haven’t had much serious weather here. But the sunsets, oh my!
While in this remote little patch of heaven, we accomplished a few major projects. (Don’t forget that cruising is really just boat-work in exotic places. ) Kathy spent many hours putting a new sun-guard strip on the mainsail. This is the last of the sails that was missing the burgundy touch. It’s our newest sail, only about three years old, and the sailmaker put a white strip of UV-resistant dacron on it, so it wasn’t in danger of falling apart. It was a big job for the Sailrite sewing machine, and she ended up finishing it by hand at each of the corners where there are just too many layers for the machine to handle. Dan spent much of this time painting the decks and refinishing the entire caprail. He also polished some bronze fittings that now just gleam! In addition, he did some caulking around windows and various fittings around the boat. This ongoing activity has finally reduced significantly the amount of rainwater that makes it into places in the boat other than our water tanks! Hooray!
One day Dan noticed that the surface underneath the floorboards in the office was wet, and the next day it was even wetter. We removed all of the stuff that is stored underneath the 5 boards – mostly spare materials (wire, hose, stainless steel, aluminum, rubber, gasketing, etc), and our backup propeller and starter motor. The room was a total shambles, as were the galley and forward head areas, which absorbed the overflow! Kathy sponged up the water, flooded the area again with SaltAway, sponged it up again, and painted the whole area. This all took a bit longer than it might sound because all this time the leak was still happening and we were trying to track down the source. It turned out to be a *tiny* crack in the cement bulkhead near the main door to this room. We think, but haven’t been able to fully confirm, that it is leaking rainwater from somewhere above. We’ve made it more difficult to confirm by drilling a hole through that cracked spot, to allow the water to drain the opposite direction, down into a bilge rather than onto the top surface of our steel water tanks. This volunteer project caused quite a bit of consternation when we thought that we might have a serious leak (the room is below sea level, and contains several thru-hulls and lots of hoses). We also ended up cleaning up the bilge, testing its pump and replacing a stuck valve that was preventing the pump from fully emptying the bilge. We are pleased at having the area clean and painted, the materials reorganized and stowed more neatly, and the sense that the water management in that area is quite improved.
Eventually, however, we decided that we had done enough work and it was time to move on. I almost forgot to mention that we have ordered a new dinghy from a distributor in Panama City. Our old one was quite old when we bought it from a fellow cruiser and the fabric has become leaky from too much sun exposure (before the set of chaps that we added a couple of years ago). We have to pump it up daily and have patched it a few times in the last month. We haven’t ever had a new dinghy before, and it’s exciting to think that soon we won’t be dealing with the consequences of someone else’s choices. It’s due to arrive in Panama City the last week of August, so we need to get that last couple of hundred miles soon. The time has come! We’re on our way…
We moved to a place along the north shore of Isla Cebaco, the island that caps the mouth of the gulf. We spent a couple of days running the watermaker, doing laundry, replacing a chock to support the dinghy on deck while we’re traveling on the ocean, and knocking out a number of small house projects. We intended to clean the boat’s bottom, but somehow didn’t manage to find a good time when the tidal current would allow it. One day a local fishing boat with 3 men stopped by to chat for a bit. We had a confusing conversation where we ended up thinking we’d been invited to come out to the house of one of the guys that afternoon at 4, after they got done fishing. We made some hummus to share and got ready to go. At 4:00 they were still fishing nearby. At 4:30 we hopped in the dinghy and zipped out to see what the plan was. There were six people happily fishing with hand lines, and they had quite a number of smallish fish – a successful outing. We talked about the types of fish they were catching and their techniques, but nothing was said about getting together later. In retrospect, we decided that they were probably inviting us to join them fishing rather than afterwards. Just before dark, the original 3 men stopped by again, while returning from tending their nets. They gave us a couple of corvina fish that they’d caught – very generous! We were so disappointed to have misunderstood what they were trying to communicate earlier! (But we have been enjoying the hummus!)
We moved on again, hoping that the next anchorage would be a better place to clean the hull, since it should have less current. Although the day began as usual with patchy cloud cover, the clouds got heavier as afternoon approached (not unusual). Unfortunately, a rain storm settled over the little bay that we intended to anchor in. With somewhat limited visibility, we were watching carefully for the rock hazards in the area. Dan pointed out an area where he thought he was seeing something uncharted breaking the surface. It turned out to be a small pod of whales, at least 4 of them coming up and spouting then descending for a couple of minutes. These were the first whales we’ve seen in quite a while! We’ve since seen several more pods. Here’s a photo that shows another obstacle we often have to watch out for: fishing nets. Fishermen who use small boats who use nets for fishing often mark the two ends of the net with floats that have flags sticking up for visibility. They don’t want a power boat with a sharp propeller to drive right over the nets! And the boater certainly doesn’t want the monofilament line tangled around his prop shaft! The flags are typically made of black plastic garbage bags. This is a good example of a pair of markers on a clear, calm day, when they are “most” visible. (Admittedly, sometimes at night they also include a small strobe light for visibility.)
We arrived in the late afternoon, and dropped the anchor in a brief break in the rain. The bay looked mostly uninhabited, although there were two anchored pangas, one of which had some crew moving around, presumably getting ready for the night’s fishing. As they left, they made a big circle and came back to visit us. It turned out that they were the Panamanian Coast Guard, the Aeronaval. They were polite and friendly, asking us the routine questions of where we were from, where we were going, etc. Three of the five men came aboard to look at our paperwork, passports, and navigation equipment. They told us that they worked 15 day periods, and that they patrolled the northern half of the country, all the way from here to the boarder with Costa Rica. Five men in a 25 foot open boat! They left, and we had the bay to ourselves for a while. The rain persisted and got much heavier, and they ended up not being gone for long. It rained heavily all night, and we found that we rolled a lot because we were in the ocean swell. At 4:30am (after a short night of somewhat fitfull sleep), we were woken up by the sounds of voices in a very close panga trying to catch our attention. We threw on some clothes and went up on deck, to find that it was the same group of military men. They said that there was a problem with the anchor, and we were concerned that they were saying our anchor was dragging in the storm. However, they actually said that they had lost their own anchor, and needed some help! We rafted their boat up to our side and invited them onboard.
Two hours, six towels, 4 cups of coffee (and 1 hot chocolate), two apples, two packages of cookies, and a chess lesson later… another naval boat arrived and our team quickly departed. The two boats, along with a panga full of jerry jugs, tied up together for more than an hour and busily went about their business while drifting around the small bay. But it kept on raining and the group stuck around another night. A couple of hours later, the panga returned to Lungta and asked for a lighter to light a fire on shore to make some dinner. What would these guys do without us cruisers?
It rained all that night and the next day. We took a down day and did nothing but hang around home reading and playing chess. The bay turned a very muddy color with all of the runoff, and we decided once again to defer cleaning the bottom until better conditions. The bay of Ensenada Naranjo is very pretty, and it’s a shame that we didn’t spend more time there, when the weather was more cooperative. There were a couple of pretty black sand beaches, lots of coconut palms bearing fruit, and howler monkeys making their usual noises. The bay is named after the orange trees that have gone native. It would have been fun to collect a few oranges for breakfast! But we’re enthusiastic to make it to Panama City, so we won’t be dawdling any more.
We took off the next morning and went another 45 miles to Punta Guanico, a quiet little corner of the coast with a beautiful community of houses nestled in the hills. We saw lots of waterfalls on the cliffs along the way. Although the rains had cleared up, the winds had been sucked away. We ended up motoring most of the day and arrived late at night. Here we stayed long enough to make a first pass at cleaning the bottom. It was both better and worse than we had hoped. The sides were slightly coated in a dusty or slimy layer with only the occasional barnacle – all of which wiped off with a sponge! Wow – the first impression of our new bottom paint was exciting! Unfortunately, the entire bottom of the keel, where we have scraped off the new bottom paint on a reef, was completely covered with barnacles, growing in clumps on top of one another like condominiums! Although much of them came off in clusters, they needed to be scraped off with a tool. And many others needed some hard work to break them free of the surface. We worried that it would be difficult where the paint had been scraped from the surface, but this was far more coverage than expected. It seems that these barnacles are different than those we’ve encountered before, and that they might get in under the paint once they find an edge. This may turn out to be a significant problem that requires us to haul out again much sooner than we had planned.
From there, we moved a short distance to Ensenada Benao. There was another threatening storm that we chose to wait out. But the next day we made the leap around the corner into the Gulf of Panama. Punta Mala (“Bad Point”) is known for strong winds and contrary currents. There’s lots of advice to choose a good weather window and give it a wide berth. But we got lucky; we had a beautiful day of sailing around the point. As we rounded into the gulf, a pod of dolphins greeted us. Shortly afterwards, Dan looked up and saw a whale in mid-breach. Wow! The water got smoother too. We’d been dealing with a swell from the south that was often directly on our beam, causing the boat to rock uncomfortably – and knock things around. Once we entered the gulf, Punta Mala generously blocked that swell, making travel that much more comfortable. Over the course of the day, we caught a good size tuna (it was delicious!), and we were visited by several more pods of dolphins and a few curious booby birds. While there seems to be a good bit of wildlife, a pleasant surprise, we were appalled to see as much plastic floating in the Gulf as we did. We spent 30 minutes together on the bowsprit just watching a stream of bottle caps, detergent bottles, shoes, labels, even toys go by. The largest item we identified was a full-size refrigerator, floating its way out to sea. Ugh! We sailed the better part of 36 hours before stopping for a break at Isla Otoque.
We spent a surprisingly restless night at Isla Otoque. The north winds made a racket and kicked up a choppy uncomfortable sea. We were anchored in a place that was a little steeper than ideal and the wind was headed on shore. This means that if our anchor did drag even a little bit, we could end up touching bottom – not something we wanted! So we set an anchor alarm and a depth alarm and kept an ear open all night through the noisy wind and waves. We got up when the depth alarm said we were getting close, but watched until the tide turned and things got deeper. This was a beautiful little island but we were very glad to leave it behind in the morning.
We had a good day’s sail into Panama City. We had strong northerly winds to begin with, and traveled quickly for the first 4 hours. About the time we were approaching the Vessel Traffic lanes for the approach to the Panama Canal, the winds died back and we motored for a while. Pretty suddenly we went from having the whole horizon to ourselves – to being in a crowded area. There were a couple dozen ocean-going freighters and tankers anchored in between three or four small islands. There were a few pleasure boats, both sail and power, moving around in between them. We saw a ferry and a dredge and a huge workboat that appeared to do work on underwater cables. The radio traffic went from nonexistent to frequent (but professional). We are beginning to feel the culture shock! As we approached our anchorage, we passed a whale playing at the surface. We watched for a while and realized that it was two, but couldn’t figure out if it was a mother/child or coupling behavior. We both heard some whale song through the hull, so these were almost certainly humpbacks. It was an odd juxtaposition to find this natural wildlife display in what seemed to us to be an industrial area!
So we’ve dropped our anchor, and we’ll change gears again to get acquainted with a new place. We’re safe and happy; we’re having fun traveling; we’re excited to be getting a new dinghy; does life get any better?