Friday, 11 August 2017

Crossroads in the Pacific

Umm, perhaps we better wake the Captain!
Water spout in action.

I am weary that my posts seem to be of the haphazard, high drama nature. I assure you this is not our intention, we would much prefer to live a "boring" existence that nobody particularly cares to read about (dont get me wrong, I really appreciate I have readers out there). We really do try to research all manner of things and gather as much information as possible from others. I suppose it comes with the territory of going to new places and having little experience.
So I'll pre-warn you, unfortunately, this post is no experiences, different dramas!
We had planned to take up a mooring at the Balboa yacht club after the canal transit, for a night, almost under the bridge of the Americas where we could get ferried to land. Our new concern was the 5-6 metre tides on this side, (as opposed to approx. .5m Caribbean side), making sure we anchor out far enough, then the prospect of paddling a long way into shore with no outboard. One of the linehandlers was quite persistent that we should drop them off at La Playita where it would be free to offload them instead of Balboa for the $20 fee. So rather than picking up a mooring ball, dropping off linehandlers with launch, resting and celebrating our canal success, we agreed, as we had planned to anchor at the end of the 6km long causeway eventually anyway.
Salem's shot looking across the causeway to Panama city.

However, on approaching, we had some concerns about the anchorage with only 3 boats in it. The guy was now saying Playita was on the other side of the island. Having looked at my cruiser guide many times, I had doubts and brought it out to confirm. We decided to try and drop them off around the other side of the island, at the marina but as we came around, the wind was suddenly strong in our face, the anchorage ahead looking wild and stormy to our weary eyes. He was gesturing towards the very expensive Flamenco marina, which he had assumed we would be going to! We did a loop in front of the entrance, big rocky walls either side, trying to suss out the area. We thought maybe we could just drop them off and go anchor. The wind was strong as I tried to make allowances coming into the jetty, still managing to cut into the slip foam with the bowsprit chain! We were met with an entourage of marina crew speaking fast Spanish and giving us the impression we shouldn't be there. Glancing down the jetty, I was stoked to see the very famous "Sea Shepherd" on the same dock. (We were later informd they had been detained there by the Panamanian authorities for what they do best: protesting/getting in the way of fishing operations they deem dodgy.) I was instructed to call up the main guy on the vhf but communication was getting no where with them. Dave in the meantime, went down and talked to the sea shepherd guys who took him on board and advised him on a map the best place to anchor. By this time, I was tired and stressed about getting off the dock and out of the entrance in the strong wind, let alone trying to anchor and get these people off our boat- there's no way we could row ashore safely.
Photo:; captions mine.

We got out fine, found a spot, anchored, made sure we were holding, and called out for help on the vhf for a water taxi or someone to help. A neighbour came over raving about how dodgy the anchorage was, he'd draged three times, but he didn't know of any taxi and his dingy wasn't up to taking people. Then he rambled the same thing another 3 or 4 times. While sitting, waiting to make sure we were holding, We finally managed to wave down some guys on a panga, paying them to take the people, lines and tyres ashore just before dark. Such an unfortunate way to end what was an enjoyable transit, the emotions caught up with us as we wondered what on earth we were doing this for.
Las Brisas anchorage looking across to Panama city. 

Turns out, after a good night's sleep, it was a good anchorage, we didnt drag, it had a free, guarded dinghy dock, as opposed to the other expensive side, and we ended up getting ourselves a new outboard, which after one paddle ashore, fully paid for itself!!
Classic example of tides: high tide...

...low tide (notice the horizontal I beams).

Another busy week, getting supplies, thanks to our awesome taxi guy: geto, who knew all the right places to go, loads of groceries...
Trip 2 of 3. Three full trolleys!
Boxed and delivered free, then 3 full dinghy trips.

..water, diesel, petrol.  The kids doing some shopping with their pocket money at the massive mall and getting more clothes as many things are perishing!
Awesome twisty building downtown can easily be seen from anchorage . 

Panama Canal administration building. 

Then there was the local fruit and veg market..
Grains, oils dried beans etc.

Pineapples 3 for $1!!!

$6 stalk of bananas

Citrus department.

Got to meet up with a couple of kid boats, get some playground time, which only just opened next to the anchorage.
4pm onwards, water spurts start, lit up with different colours.

Checked out a small rainforest park right close to the anchorage also.

Eli's shot of Senor Iguana.

Spot the tiny orange, red a and brown frogs.
Photo: Eli.

Red eyed tree frog (see below) sleeping! Photo: Eli.

Can you see the well camouflaged big green
frog on the top leaf? !  Photo: Dave.
The more prepared we became, the more at ease we felt about the big trip looming. It was really nice to know that an Aussie family and a kiwi guy and his dad were all on a similar mission.. to Panama's Las Perlas islands first, then on with the crossing.
Our first city anchorage, Panama city.

The day we were to check out, I remembered to turn on the vhf to listen in on the cruisers' net. To our horror, we learnt that a boat between Galapagos and Marquesas had sent out a mayday. They had a 60cm crack between the keel and hull, taking on water, bilge pumps not keeping up and their dive/repair attempts were not working. Then we realised we knew the guy, we'd met him at Bonaire boatyard, he was fixing his rudder at the time and would often send the kids to the shop to buy him food in exchange for iceblocks! We'd kept in regular contact ever since. By the time we caught wind of the news, he had called off the mayday, had managed to run a tarp under the hull, used the engine's intake hose to pump out the bilges and eased off the standing rigging, thereby lessening tension between the mast and keel. They were hopeful to continue the 1600nm themselves. We were obviously relieved to hear they were doing ok but it does play in the back of the mind...what are we doing?!
Lot's of humpback whales and their calves
about. Photo: Eli.

Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable day's motorsail down to Isla Espiritu Santo in the Las Perlas islands, were met with some friends dinghying out to greet us and we spent a couple of enjoyable days between two anchorages with the two families.
Dave on a foraging mission.

Salem would much rather be the
one with the machete!

Oh so sweet.

So this is how they grow!

Inside Isla Espiritu Santo.

Windward side Isla Espiritu Santo. 

Eli's shot of a stingray.

Photo: Eli

Leo off the Aussie boat, also offered to help Dave figure out how to set up our light wind sail.
Eager to keep up with our Aussie friends who were doing Marquesas via Galapagos, we left a little later with them in our sights on the horizon. Being a much larger boat though it wasn't long before we lost sight of them but we knew we would meet up with them again in a month.
Putting one third of the bunch to use.
Can't help but sing.."hey mumbo, mumbo
Italiano, hey mumbo!" Then it's stuck in
your head for the rest of the day - you'll see..
You're welcome!

The next two days had been pleasant, getting into the swing of things. We had a current in our favour, so even though it was a light head wind most of the time, motoring along, we were making a good amount of mileage. The boys were very accepting of the big trip and were handling it well. Salem who had suffered seasickness the most, had managed the last two trips and this one without taking any pills, even managing to go downstairs. Eden would say he hates sailing 'cos it takes too long, then in less than an hour make a statement starting with.."this is the best day ever!" We had seen lots of whales breaching and spurting water in all directions, every day.
We even caught a tuna trawling! Our most success ever..thanks Eric for your recommendation.

Had one intense evening of very heavy rain, pooling up the ports, with some leaking dribbles inside. Dave also had a good amount coming into the cockpit that he was pumping out with our manual hand bilge pump.
It was nearing the second evening at sea, I proudly observed the following: Eli was sitting next to me in the cockpit, absorbed in whatever he was doing. He stopped, poked his head out past the semi-lowered tarp blind and mentioned the wind had picked up and changed direction. With that, he jumped up to the front of the cockpit, altered the stay sail and foresail, altered course on the autopilot to make the most of the wind angle, pulled out the roller fuler and just like that, we gained an extra 4 knots speed! I was so impressed with the awesome seamanship skills this guy was showing.
About an hour or so later, Dave woke up and asked me to see him downstairs. I couldn't help feeling "this can't be good," going by the stressed look on his face.
To my horror, he disclosed his concerns for our safety, the stress he was feeling and his absolute resolve to turn the boat around and return to Panama city. I was gobsmacked, and gutted, I thought we were doing well, but I was weary of the fact that if anything goes wrong, it's essentially on his shoulders to figure out a solution, being the onto it, practical, resourceful one of the family.
Seeing your best friend unhappy under that much strain I witnessed on his face is never nice, so, he turned us around.
I expressed in my pain, that I will love and respect his decision.
This is still difficult to write about. Eli and Salem in the cockpit at the time, piped up, "what are you doing?" Dave's answer to them was to our surprise, met with tears from the boys and much debate from Eli about how it's going to get better, this is our home even if it isn't super comfy and got all the "essentials," how he feels more at home amongst the sailors. We were all upset about not being able to rendezvous with our Aussie friends in the Marquesas. Salem and Eden had already gone through their arguments off the head of Colombia when Dave last said he was going to put the boat up for sale and fly home. This transformation in Eli though, especially under these circumstances was surprising, awesome, and all too bittersweet.
To make matters worse, we turned around in nice conditions and headed into the worst weather we've had yet generating off the infamous Punta Mala (bad point).
Dave's face within hours though, was already looking years younger up as he confirmed he felt better already at the decision. It took the rest of us a good 24 hours or so to come around to accepting it.
It takes alot of courage to stick to your decision or gut, when everybody is against it and not just try to please the masses, something I have always loved about Dave.
The morning we were to arrive back in the familiar anchorage of Isla Espiritu Santo, a dark heavy cloud band hung over Las Perlas islands, lightening sparking down between the hills. Do we head into that or continue north to Panama city? That was when I thought I was watching the all familiar sight of a whale spurt on the horizon to the north of the island..funny, it's staying up for a long, check out that cloudy finger..imagine if..oh, how bout that, maybe we should wake up Dave!
"Oh, that can't be good" came the weary response as Dave's eyes came into focus with the dodgy looking system feeding into the water spout.
It dissipated within 5 minutes or so. Dave was desperate for some rest and the weather looked to be slowly moving south.
We got settled into the anchorage, it felt gloomy and lonely this time though, knowing our friends had long gone.
Las Perlas. 

Then Dave quietly broke down on the aft deck. He was disappointed we had turned back.
Rested up later, Dave expressed he felt it was still a good decision to make. I felt it was important to let him know that even though I respect his decision, I can't deny the fact that I'm gutted. He was 90% sure we would be flying home. I was 85% hopeful we would find a way to continue to the Pacific, in spite of the daunting feeling of having to repeat that passage.
For some reason I have this crazy notion that if we can make it to Tahiti, all our hard work, stress and endurance will have paid off.. the great reward. The day we had been dingying ashore to an island beach in Las Perlas with other cruiser friends, actually hanging out was the first day we've had. It seems a shame to not reap some more benefits especially for Dave's huge investment of stress and work.
We were just preparing to head off next morning when it clouded over with the look of heavy rain about to approach. Waiting in the cockpit, amused at what I thought was the familiar sound of a fishy boil up, my eyes were met with a different sight: 10 metres from our boat, water was spiralling in an upward motion! It moved parallel with the boat then headed to the end of the island, no cloudy finger to boost it's power though, phew!
"Death at every corner," to quote what one cruiser friend semi-jokes about the "cruising" life! Within minutes of that, the wind picked up with fierce intensity, bringing waves through that consistently rocked our bow up and down, pulling hard at the chain. We sat, concerned, discussing our options and course of action. Alright, I'd have to agree, this is not fun. All the tiring emotions welled from the last 72 hours, messing with the overwhelming scary situation we were in. All I could think to do was get busy: I tidied and made an early lunch, in case we needed to up-anchor. It helped. We then watched a medley of previously loaded TedX talks. These were a great distraction, uplifting, encouraging, funny, challenging, the boys loved them and at some stage the wind eased off while our anchor held.
We stayed on for another night, getting woken early morning by a consistent splashing noise outside our cabin port. It was still dark out but I could just make out the culprit for the noise: bats flying laps around our boat, dipping for fish every 4-6 seconds, no wonder I wasn't getting any sleep!
Another whale, this time close to the anchorage. 

Thankfully we had a very pleasant motor up (still no wind), regularly entertained by whales, sometimes within metres of the boat.
Meeting other cruisers that day our questions of storage were soon answered: there's no cheap, easy option on this side of Panama. Ecuador and Costa Rica were not particularly straight forward either, given our budget restraints.
Turns out we were probably in the safest place for the wind, as it hit like a battering ram through Las Brisas, Panama city.
It was of some reprieve upon arrival on land, taking the kids to the playground, we bumped into some friends with kids we'd met at Shelter bay. Having them there, and anchored close by, helped ease the discomfort and tension.
We researched. We figured out lists.
I realised it was a good decision. We got prices together. Dave courageously started working through the jobs. We listed the boat for sale, keeping our options open. Somewhere along the way we came to the conclusion that selling is not going to be a quick, easy out, we need to keep plodding forward.
There's been a good amount of tension, being in close confinement with arguing, fighting kids and the stress that ensues such decision making under a serious lack of resources, both locally and financially.
We have been feeling rather timid and often overwhelmed but throughout this time have been hugely grateful for the constant encouragement and timely words from close friends and family, regardless of our decision of which way we go. We couldn't have got this far without them. You know who you are, thank you.
I've noticed something over this last week : sitting in the relative safety of our anchorage (not including the days where the wind screams through threatening to drag us all out to sea or into each other), contemplating the possible outcomes of give up, sell up, go home to comfort vs keep on pushing to achieving the goal (which at this stage is very hazy), there has been a subtle change in attitude. Contemplating left us feeling timid, unsure. Now that we've started to progress through the list of jobs, as each one is dealt with, I believe we're getting just a little bit more courage. One could summise, that once we got proactive, only then did the courage follow, albeit a tiny ounce! Then just when we start to think, "yeah, we can do this," we get a knock back like intense thunderstorms cracking overhead and all we want to do is cower to land for cover and catch the first plane home!
Bridge of the Americas has disappeared, here we go again!

I've also noticed a change in courage for me, ie seriously lacking now. Or perhaps it's just that I'm not so blissfully ignorant now!
You'll be pleased to know, our mayday friend made it to the Marquesas under sail, 37 days. A large freighter passed by, and dropped off repair items to help. He is even courageously considering continuing to sail another 10 days onto Tahiti where there will be better repair facilities.
Las Brisas, spot Bridge of the
Americas in background. 

We are aiming for crossing attempt round 2, God willing. Prayers and encouragement much appreciated, we need all the help we can get!


  1. Dear Vicki
    Being a past inexperienced cruiser with 2 small kids and for our part a stressful marriage with financial strain I so so understand some of your journey. In hindsite and being forceably landlocked always seem to come back to a few get overwhelmed by the responsibility of their family's happiness and welbeing and decisions always could be seesawed by the woman's confidence in him and the situation. Cruising is also not a destination or a journey to get to the end is the revealing and expansion of yourselves through each experience. Don't give up !! This is cruising ..this it!! Once you have tasted the freedom no matter how scary or impossible it seems you cannot go back..well not without dumbing down a beautifully alive vital part of yourselves. Listen to your boys ..a life truly lived with your whole being never promised to be smooth sailing but it brings greater joys and supreme experiences that will be hard matched. Sending love to a family I don't personally know but am rooting for. X Kim 🌺

    1. Thanks so much for your encouraging words Kim, very much appreciated. Are working towards a second attempt, will update as we can