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Costa Rica to Panama: An interesting, challenging, but somewhat disappointing adventure

by Dennis Giraud 23 Apr 2019 05:58 UTC
Costa Rica to Panama © Dennis Giraud

We made it to Panama at 1100h on New Year's Day after quite an eventful New Year's Eve. After leaving Bahia Hermosa, we made our way to Isla Tortuga and had a feast of fresh Ahi tuna with all the fixing for Christmas dinner. From there, we made an uneventful overnight passage, motoring most of the way, to Golfito, where we checked out of Costa Rica.

We were under a tight schedule, but were able to take some time to refuel and re-provision in Golfito. We left late afternoon to arrive safely to cross the bar at the mouth of the river that would take us to Petrogal, where we could legally enter Panama. The best time to cross safely is twenty minutes before high slack, when the flow is still with the in-coming tide from the ocean and the swells are at a minimum. We arrived an hour before sun rise and went into a holding pattern on the inbound track to cross the bar (an aviation procedure that works perfectly in this situation).

The owner of the boat, Knot Right, was a new sailor and got a little stressed about crossing the bar. I explained to him that once we commit, there is no turning back and he must follow my instructions. He agreed, and it was a pretty benign crossing. The swells were minimal, but we still surfed two waves. We proceed nine miles up a poorly charted river, avoiding sandbars by staying to the outside of the river bends, and arrived in safely in Petrogal two hours later. Fortunately, a French catamaran tied to the river bank invited us to raft alongside them, making it much easier to wait to be cleared.

Clearing in was an all-day affair. Gerri, who speaks reasonable Spanish, and the owner of Knot Right rowed ashore and after several stops, a long wait over the lunch hour and the stamping of many forms, we were good to go. The only concerns were tide and water depth. We waited until first light to leave, but we forgot we had changed time zones and had to wait another hour. When there was enough water in the river, we headed downstream to the river mouth to cross the bar again. The same river navigation procedures applied, and we arrived on time, despite having hit bottom and getting stuck momentarily. The owner was focused on the chart plotter and I was distracted drinking my Costa Rican coffee. We backed off the sandbar and continue to cross the bar during the only daylight opportunity that day. We arrived at the mouth of the river and it looked good; no big swells. However, the owner was focused on the chart plotter and our inbound track. I guided him to trust his eyes not the chart plotter, and instructed him on how to steer us out. In the end, we exited smoothly.

Panama's Galapagos

We headed to the Coiba group, known as Panama's Galapagos. One of the islands is a former prison, which was converted to a national park. The area was supposed to be filled with sea life and wildlife. Unfortunately, maybe it was a decade ago, but it certainly is not now. There were a few birds, a few fish (we hooked a 10-pound yellow fin but lost it) and not much else. It was a big disappointment, but maybe we would have had a different opinion if we had spent more time exploring there. Our weather window was shrinking, so we couldn't stick around too long.

The winds around Cape Malo were forecast to increase, making the passage difficult, slow and uncomfortable, so we departed the Coiba Islands at 2200h and arrived at a small bay near the east end of the Cape before dark. We planned to hold up there for ten hours until the winds were forecast to subside and we could get far enough away before the winds picked up again. However, when we arrived in the bay, we received a new forecast that recommended continuing on immediately or waiting for three days. We departed and made good progress, but the area of strong winds was much larger then anticipated. We slogged along the coast, with one foot on the beach, trying to find the least current, swells and wind. We sailed straight into wind and current with lots of spray on board. We were all wet, but the water was thankfully warm, though not pleasant.

At 2000h the engine quit! It made no sense as we had plenty of fuel. We tried restarting, but it would not rev up. Then we discovered, as the engine had not quit but was idling at very low speed, that the engine battery wasn't connected to the charge system. It had gotten so low there wasn't enough power to activate the shutoff solenoid. We were too close to the lee shore to fix it, so we pulled out the head sail to the number two reef and started sailing. We couldn't hoist the main because we had a compromised boom fitting where it attaches to the mast. If the main were to let go, we would have been in a dangerous situation. Our speed was reduced from six knots to three and we sailed until 0200h when the wind died. This was a new experience for the owners. We doused the sails, got some rest and waited for the wind to pickup. Two hours later, we got a bit of wind and a knot and a half of speed, then a bit more and a bit more until we were back to two reefs and seven knots of speed. We arrived in front of Vista Mar marina, near San Carlos, at 1030h and were told to wait for the work boat to come out and get us. It arrived fifteen minutes later, tied alongside and pushed us into the Marina. We did minimal cleanup then got to sleep, as it has been a long two nights.

At the Marina, we received a flood of information about what was going on, what was available and how to get things done. We saw a couple of boats we knew from Mexico and discover my friend, Dale Gebhard from Vancouver on Adios, was also here. It was New Year's Day and it has been a year and a half since we last saw him in La Paz, Mexico. It was great to catch up and Dale is a great resource and guide. He had been at the Marina over a year and knew everything and everybody.

We moved off the end tie and into a proper slip, nearer to the ramp and, hopefully, out of the surge. The mechanic arrived, methodically worked thru the engine problem and found the fuel line pickup in the fuel tank was blocked by a gasket sealant. Gaskets should never be used near fuel because they break-down, fall into the fuel tank and block fuel lines. The mechanic also, very fortunately, solved the throttle quadrant problem. He agreed they are not repairable and it had to be replaced. Fortunately, he had just removed one that would fit from another boat. The owner made a quick deal and got a $500 part for $200. The mechanic agreed to return to install it and do all of the routine engine and generator maintenance required.

However, Gerri and I planned to move on. We had come on the trip to go through the Panama Canal, cruise the Perlas Islands in Panama Bay and end up in Roatan, Honduras. We advertised ourselves on all the line-handler websites and notice boards in hopes of crewing on another boat. In the meantime, we headed into Panama City for the rest of our stay. We would have a better chance of getting on another boat if we are nearer to the Balboa Yacht Club, forty miles away. We would also be able to visit the many historical sites and make better use of our time.

The Panama Canal

We were told our best chances to secure crew positions were at Shelter Bay. We arrived there and were offered positions on Sea Breeze, a beautiful 100 ft Swedish sloop, the next morning. Unfortunately, they were having electrical problems and a fellow cruiser, who is a very knowledgeable electrician and electrical engineer, offered to go with them, so we understandably got bumped. Twenty minutes later, a woman asked if we knew of anybody volunteering to line-handle. We said we did...us!. They were a Kiwi family of 5; a couple in their thirties with three great young boys, 5-9 years in age. Their boat was a Lagoon 42 that they had just purchased in Grenada and were taking it back to New Zealand to sell.

The next morning, we set off for the advisor pickup area for a 1200h departure with about 10 yachts. The owners had been thinking their small boys could line handle, but the advisors were less than impressed. The owners had not done research, read any literature or watched any of the many YouTube videos available on the transit. As a consequence, they were needlessly a little stressed.

Despite all that, Sea Breeze smoothly transited the locks rafted to a catamaran from Belgium, making line handling much easier. It was not much different than the locks of Europe, just bigger and more lines.

We lifted through the locks into the lake and moored in the adjacent mooring area, with three boats to a mooring. We were all tired so there was no party. The next morning at 0900h we were off with beautiful weather and beautiful scenery. After reading The Path Between the Seas twice, it was very interesting to see it in person. What stood out for me was that considering the hundreds of people who died of mosquito borne diseases, we saw only one mosquito. I was not bitten once by a mosquito while in Panama. Yet...

We transited the three locks down with the same yachts, this time in front of a container ship.

Going down was much easier than expected. We managed to complete the transit just before dark, but it was pitch black by the time we got to Balboa Yacht Club. We off loaded the rented fenders and lines to a tender and the advisor was picked up. Balboa Yacht Club sent out a small boat to lead us to a mooring ball, but the owners were very reluctant to trust it. Apparently in New Zealand, green on a chart means "reef", as in rocks and coral. The green on the local charts in Panama indicated mud. We were at high tide and had plenty of water under us. Fortunately, the 10-year old spoke prefect Spanish, sorted it out and we securely moored.

Gerri and I said our goodbyes and jumped into the guide boat to go ashore, grabbed a bite to eat at the Balboa Yacht Club, and took a taxi back to our hotel in Panama City. Over the next few days, before returning to Mazatlan, Mexico, we hiked around the Old Town, visited the famous fish market where they serve the freshest seafood we have found in Latin America, imbibed in a few cervezas on the roof top bars and found and purchased a perfect, ever popular Panama hat for each of us. We hiked the malecon to the high rise area to see the very interesting architecture, similar to Hong Kong, but actually just another busy downtown area. We got up early to hike to the top of Cerro Ancon, a park preserve with a large flag of Panama flying at the top. We hoped to see some wildlife but, considering the mass of human development around the hill, it has become very scarce and shy

Our last two days were pretty boring, as there was nowhere else we wanted to visit other than the Jazz Festival, but that proved to be too far and too complicated to get there and back safely. We returned for another fish dinner at the Fish Market, and had a nice meal at a restaurant in an old square a couple of blocks off Central Avenue. I binge-watched a series on Netflix and chilled. Our last day had us moving out to a Marriott hotel closer to the airport. It was a nice change, as it had windows and sunlight. Now we are on our way back to Mazatlan, via Orlando and Mexico City on three different airlines, and a freshly painted Ultegra.

Lessons Learned

Overall it was an interesting, challenging, but somewhat disappointing adventure. We did learn some valuable lessons on what to do, not to do and what to do differently next time. It was much different than what we signed on for: a cruise to Panama visiting some great cruising areas, transiting the Panama Canal and cruising some of the eastern Caribbean to Roatan, Honduras. Instead, it was an unpaid delivery job, a month late starting due to a completely unprepared boat, and breakdowns holding us up in Costa Rica and Panama City. The boat remains where we left it, still not ready to proceed.

We learned to not take things at face value, but to ask a lot more, very specific, questions about boat conditions, owner's knowledge and experience with their boat and the owner's overall sailing experience. We learned the importance of spending a bit of time with all those who will be on board, before making a commitment. We learned to make sure the boat has all the tools and spare parts required for repairs. We learned we will never ocean cruise on a newer Beneteau or similarly designed boats again, as they are not suitable for long distant ocean sailing. We found them to be deficient in many ways, from a security and safety point of view. We also learned we would not make an ocean passage on a boat with dogs. There were two dogs on this trip, one very old and the other spoiled rotten, and while the passages were not long, they were not pleasant for the dogs at all, and long passages would be horrible for all concerned.

Our lessons are important and valuable because we are hoping to crew on a boat crossing the Pacific next year, preferably out of Banderas Bay. That will be a 15-20 day passage, depending on the boat, which we hope will be of modern design with a waterline length of 50 feet!

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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