How quickly time can pass by when you aren’t paying attention. We’ve been in Panama City for more than a month – so it’s time for me to update those of you “out there” who are interested in the happenings of our Lungta Life.
Panama City is the largest city in the country, and (as often seems to be the case in smaller countries) more than half of the population lives here. It’s situated on the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, which opens up near a small group of tiny islands (Flamingo, Parrot, and um, Naos) that have been connected together by a causeway. This causeway basically forms a 3-mile-long peninsula which is covered with tourist places (restaurants, souvenir shops, bicycle rental) and maritime businesses (marinas, chandleries, and a naval substation). The marinas mostly cater to a fleet of sport-fishing boats and are mostly full (and universally expensive!). There are also a couple of anchorages nestled alongside this peninsula. One is right along the path followed by boats entering and exiting the Panama Canal, so it’s pretty turbulent with all the comings and goings. The other is on the other side of the causeway, still within sight of that entrance but far enough away to miss out on much of the noise, wakes from boats, and general hustle and bustle. This is where we’ve chosen to hang out for the better part of this last month. We have a spectacular view of the city to the north of us, which sparkles with lights (and a couple of brilliant and gi-normous LCD screens). There’s a nice public dock nearby which is open to cruisers and our dinghies for no charge. It’s run by the navy who keep an eye on it 24/7.
PC (as we’ve started to call Panama City) is a very cosmopolitan city with a huge and well-run public transportation network. They have a card-key system that works on all of the buses and the one subway line. You just touch the card to a panel as you board and it deducts your $.25 fare and shows you your balance. It’s easy and efficient. (It is a little challenging figuring out how to get a card before you board your first bus!) It’s been nice to see quite a few people just click someone else in who’s having trouble finding their card or whose balance is low; because the fares are so cheap it’s not a big deal. We had a card given to us by a boat we met a few months ago in Costa Rica, which really made it easy to get jump-started! There’s a bus that runs down the causeway about every 20 minutes, and a bus stop just at the end of the driveway at the top of the dock’s ramp. Easy-cheesey! This bus takes us directly to one of the city’s major hubs, and (at least so far) we’ve always been able to get wherever we want with another bus that comes to that hub. The hub is at the Albrook Mall, one of the largest malls either of us have ever been in. It includes three food courts, a grocery store, an office store and 2 hardware stores – often we don’t even need to go any further. We’ve branched out a bit further a few times, for a fresh produce market, Pricesmart, a dentist, and a specialty plumbing shop. We haven’t done any sight-seeing yet, but the bus into town passes the port’s facilities where containers are stored and loaded onto ships transiting the Canal, the neighborhood where Panama’s president lives, and a couple of interesting monuments.
Shortly after we arrived here, our two shipments that we had arranged for in Puerto Mutis arrived. First, our new dinghy – hooray! It’s a little bit smaller – and a lot lighter – than our old one. It rides a little differently, but we’re getting used to it and are thrilled at having a dinghy again that holds in the air and holds out the water! Kathy has already made up a new set of chaps to protect it from the sun, in the hopes that this one may last us a decade or two. Woo-hoo!
Our second shipment was an assortment of mostly Amazon purchases that we had sent to a Florida warehouse where they were bundled onto a pallet and put on a ship to arrive in PC a week later. It’s worked so well that we’re already planning a second shipment. Whenever we make a big purchase, it’s almost always associated with a boat project, and this time was certainly no exception. One of the projects that we were able to complete after this shipment was the installation of a saltwater faucet in our galley, alongside the normal fresh water one. Now we’re washing our dishes in saltwater with only a rinse in fresh – should save us a significant amount of energy in desalinating water. It’s still a novelty to us, and we have been known to elbow each other out of the way to do the dishes. We also installed our new wind gauge. Our previous one was damaged by lightning in Costa Rica after only a few short weeks. Hopefully this one will serve us a good bit longer! We also got some repair parts for our power system and are now able to manage our battery charger much better. Another project that is queued up now is to replace our lifelines. The current set is steel cables which are beginning to show signs of serious rust. We’re replacing them with a synthetic fiber that is even stronger and will never rust. Installation will require some effort because they support 4 of our solar panels, but we should have it done by the end of the year. Our watermaker is still being restored to its full functionality after losing its electronics in the “near sinking” last year. With the contents of this shipment, we were able to make one more improvement to that system that makes it easier to control the watermaker manually, and without having to pull up the floorboards and move a hose from one place to another. It’s cool to see all of these upgrades to our home, and also to realize that the scale of our improvements is changing from “critical” to simple “replacement” or “improvement to existing”. Even though our watermaker is functional and getting better, we are still frequently making use of our water catchment systems on both the back awning and the boom in front of the pilothouse.
We hung out in this anchorage for about three weeks before the time was right to go visit the Perlas Islands. We’ve heard about these islands for many years and were looking forward to finally seeing them for ourselves. They are an archipelago (isn’t that a fun word! but still not as cool as isthmus ) about 30 miles south of Panama City. A full day’s sail to the closest island, and then a couple hundred islands to choose from. Most of the islands are tiny and uninhabited, a couple dozen have villages, and a few have been developed for tourism. There is a daily ferry that goes to 2 or 3 of the islands. We chose not to visit those on our first excursion. We only had 10 days (because of a dentist appointment, if you can believe that!), so we only scratched the surface. We did visit 3 islands, though! Surprisingly we only found coconuts on one of them. And we came back with a dozen – yum! One afternoon a panga approached us with a hold full of seafood to sell. When we asked how much a fish would cost, he said we could have everything for $80! We didn’t need quite that much, so we settled on 4 lobsters and two snappers for 6 gallons of gasoline. We all came away happy from that deal! Another afternoon we strolled on a white sand beach where the sand was as fine as powdered sugar. We swam in clear turquoise water (while we cleaned our hull, but hey, it started out clear!). We generally relaxed and enjoyed a few days out in nature. There are lots of whales in the area. We saw quite a few spouts and one time we saw a whale breaching up out of the water several times in a row. Wow! We caught a tuna on the way back – it was silvery with beautiful mottled blue stripes. We couldn’t definitively identify which type from our book, but it might have been a bigeye (it’s eyes were really large!). We steaked it and will enjoy it for four meals.
A week or two earlier we had met a Kiwi family on a boat in PC that was bound across the Pacific. We had a couple of nice conversations with them and helped them do a last-minute repair on their engine, and then they were gone. Unfortunately this isn’t really the best time of year to cross, and they were unable to make much progress with the winds that they encountered. They changed their plans and returned to Panama. We ran into them again in the Perlas, as they were decompressing from a frustrating week at sea. Coincidentally, they had already reconnected with another boat that they had befriended previously. We spent one very pleasant evening hanging out on deck with all of these folks, while their kids played and watched movies down below. Now we’re back in the anchorage in PC and it seems a little less crowded with strangers.
Back in PC, we’re attending to a little business before we head back out to the islands. Dentist appointment, check. Provisioning top-up, check. But before we can head back out, we have to find a weather window. Looks like Monday – no, Wednesday – no, Friday. Tropical Storm Nate put a crimp in our schedule, causing surprisingly strong winds here, sucking all the wind north into the Caribbean from this area. The weather here is quite variable, but generally moderate. We were surprised to have a day with winds in the 20 knot range, followed by a night in the 30’s and then a day with lots of gusts in the 40’s. Our anchor dragged early that first night, because we hadn’t put enough chain out, wanting to “fit” into a slightly tight place between other boats. Just as we started to pull it up in order to relocate back to where we started from, it began to rain. It didn’t just rain, it *poured*, for almost exactly the time it took for us to raise the anchor, motor 100 yards and drop it again. Kathy was drenched to the bone and shivering at the end of that period. Afterwards we spent a nervous night rocking uncomfortably. The next day we generally laid low while the wind played itself out, but there were a few incidents that caught our attention. There are lots of big “work boats” in this area, and quite a few of them anchor in the same area that we do. They all seem to have their stories. One of them is a former US Coast Guard vessel that is in the process of being dismantled. We hear sounds of metal work from that direction most of the day, and we’ve noticed that the pilothouse is no longer there. One day we watched three or four guys try to haul a sunken panga out of the water using a big arm, a crane on the back deck. They were unsuccessful. During the storm this boat was dragging its anchor (or mooring?) frequently, and a tugboat that is usually tied up to it was constantly tugging it back into place. It was like a rodeo. Finally they secured the vessel to a different mooring and it stayed in place the remainder of the time. In the afternoon of the second day we heard a call on the radio for help protecting a cruiser’s sailboat from another unoccupied sailboat that was dragging anchor downwind on a collision course. We hopped in our dinghy and helped push the offending boat away initially and then deploy a second anchor borrowed from another cruiser, to try to stop it from sliding backwards and also to pull it out sideways away from the “target” boat. All this in choppy seas, howling winds and stinging rain. Just another day in the life…