Dodging storms into Panama

After a screaming sail to San Andreas we dropped anchor behind the reef close to town. This is the ‘yin’ to Providencia’s ‘yang’, and has been described as Vegas in spandex (note: hopefully when you read this again, spandex will have been consigned to the bin of historical fashion catastrophes, but it was evident in this bustling tourist community). We stayed for a week and were able to do some provisioning and ate out in some interesting local restaurants. As in Providencia, the locals were friendly and although San Andres has a bad reputation for crime, we never felt threatened and wandered through town without concern.

We had intended to stop at the Albuquerque Cays en route to Bocas but when we woke at 0500 the wind was pushing 25kts behind the protection of the reef. After much debate and the realization that if we did not leave then, we would be stuck for another week, we elected to depart and sail the 200 nm directly to Panama.

The first 12 hours were fast. We had a double reef in the main, were cruising along at 8 to 9 kts and were a little concerned that we might arrive ahead of schedule in the dark. After our standard passage dinner of spaghetti and Oreos, Mommy took the evening watch and we all turned in. When I got up at 2300 the wind had shifted and dropped, forcing us to turn on one of the engines and ending any concerns of an early arrival.

We always run the radar at night for collision avoidance but it also lets us see storm cells… and I could now see that there was a line of thunderstorms forming ahead of us. Unlike an airplane, even at eight knots, Rafiki doesn’t outrun storms very effectively. There was a hook-shaped line of red moving port to starboard on the radar screen, and the intensity was strong enough to cause concern. I altered to port to tuck behind the line and was relieved to see that the worst of it would pass to our starboard. By now Alex and I (she was curled up in the cockpit, no longer pretending to be asleep) could see lightning through the clouds and the occasional thunder rumbled around us. It was impossible to determine where it was coming from and like intrepid navigators of old, Alex and I thought the lightning was coming from completely opposite directions.

Just as I thought we were clear of the storm, the hook extended in front of our course and I realized that we would be forced to punch through a small, one-mile chunk of red on the radar. By now it had started to rain, and the darkness was like a heavy blanket extinguishing any ambient light from the moon and stars. The only reprieve from this obscurity was when a fork of lightning would explode out of nowhere, illuminating the sky and sea for miles around us, to reveal a sea-beaten down by rain undulating like a boiling cauldron of black diesel oil.

The modest cell that I had tried to cross seemed to grow before my eyes on the radar screen and we were now stuck in the middle of an eight-mile storm cell. The rain was thrashing the boat and when I looked back at the stern, poorly illuminated by the navigation light, it reminded me of a Gilligan’s Island episode where the studio crew tries to simulate lightning while the special effects people throw buckets of water onto the boat. They weren’t even good special effects! Things really got spooky when the wind dropped to zero, the rain tapered off, and the wind indicator was dancing in circles, signaling that we were now in the eye of the storm. I quickly furled the genoa and started the second engine as the winds came back with a vengeance and the sky illuminated with forked lightning and thunder rolling across the waves. We had been warned that boats in Panama had a disproportionate number of lightning strikes and I began to plan what new and upgraded kit I would install if we were hit!

After four tense hours the rain eased up and the wind dropped off, with only the confused and rolly seas to remind us of the previous night’s excitement. As the sky turned from black to grey and the sun poked its nose over the horizon, Mommy relieved me and I turned in. Alex joined her for the morning watch and you were again treated to a boisterous pod of dolphins frolicking along in the bow wave, erasing the last remnants of the previous night’s stress.

When I woke later in the morning we all sat down to a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs and prepared for our arrival into Bocas del Toro, Panama. As we approached the coast Kathryn was on watch and noticed a defined color change in the water off our bow. When we got closer we could see that it was floating debris from the previous night’s storm and formed a barrier of trees, palms, and garbage for as far as the eye could see. With mommy on the bow, we paralleled this obstacle until we could find a section where we felt that we could safely get through. With engines at idle and a keen lookout, we cruised through this mess into the coastal murky waters of Panama.

Bocas Del Toro is a small tourist destination for North and South Americans alike and feels a bit like the beatnik stops throughout Europe that cater to the backpacking crowd. Lots of hostels, cheap restaurants, surfboards, and tattoos. It is unlike any other area we have visited on this trip and Mommy and I are reminded of our own youthful wanderings through Europe after university.

The check-in process, while outlandishly expensive, ($600USD) was painless and the officials were friendly and polite. We were greeted on the radio that happy hour was starting so we promptly jumped in the RIB and headed to the beach bar. There we were reunited with our cruising neighbors that we had met in Providencia and we passed the evening telling lies and regaling each other with stories of giant waves and close calls.

This feels like the second major milestone of our journey and since departing Grenada last November has been the focus of our route planning. Like all good adventures, it is the journey, not the destination that remains with us however there is always a subtle sense of accomplishment (we’re still floating and no one has died…) when we arrive in a new place. Similar to the waters beyond Georgetown, or south of Grenada, Central America is off the beaten path and the people we meet reflect this. We are excited about exploring this area after our “vacation” back to Canada to visit friends and family (and Jack) this summer.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
Took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost

One thought on “Dodging storms into Panama

  1. Great handling of the roving storm cells chaps – looking forward to seeing you in Kingston
    Hugs to all
    Stephen and Hélène

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