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Memories of a Circumnavigation: Panama to Canada

by Hugh & Heather Bacon 18 Mar 06:40 UTC
Shelter Bay Marina, Colon, Panama © Hugh & Heather Bacon

In their previous article Hugh and Heather described passages sailed in 2007 from Venezuela to the entrance of the Panama Canal in Colon. They had cruised across the South American continent via Cartagena, Columbia and the San Blas Islands. In 2008, Argonauta I awaited their return from Canada at Shelter Bay Marina.

We had developed a cruising plan for 2008 to sail the yacht from Panama to the west coast of Canada. The route was to be via the Galapagos, Clipperton island, the Hawaiian Islands, Alaska and the Inside Passage to Sidney, British Columbia, Canada on southern Vancouver Island.

February 24, 2008 we returned to Panama. Heather wanted a recess from the boat so she had enrolled in a Spanish refresher course planning to travel and volunteer in Central America. Meantime, I began to prepare the boat for perhaps the longest seasonal passage ever at 8400 NM, almost 1/3 the distance of a circumnavigation..Once Heather saw Argonauta I through the Canal, she would not rejoin the boat until Sitka, Alaska on or about July 4. Thus, I had organized crew as far as Sitka: one person from Panama to Honolulu and a couple from there to Sitka.

By March 4 we had completed the usual series of tasks and Shelter Bay staff splashed Argonauta I. Once on the dock I made application for a Canal Transit. I soon wished I had made the application the day after our February 24 arrival as at that time it had been a one week wait. I received a transit date of April 12, over a month ahead! Labour issues within the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá had caused a large reduction in Canal Transits particularly for yachts booking passage to the Pacific. By March 4 there were many awaiting transit, now approaching a six week delay. Several had gone on jaunts to the San Blas Islands or to the Bocas. Others had cancelled cruising plans and left their yacht in storage flying home in disgust. We stayed at the marina hoping vainly for an earlier transit date.

In view of our delayed departure, I decided we would skip the Galapagos which we had visited in 1999 to go directly to Hilo, Hawaii. That would keep us on schedule for a mid-June departure from Honolulu for Sitka. To be sure the storm season was at an end in the Gulf of Alaska, one would not wish to depart the Hawaiian Islands any sooner. In March, winds looked good along the route to Hilo so we hoped for a fast passage allowing a short stop at Clipperton Island. The passage Panama to Hilo, Hawaii is known as a light airs passage.

My crew member found an opportunity to join a yacht scheduled three weeks ahead of us. Nobly, Heather leapt into the breach, rather than see me single hand to Hawaii. I was delighted and I certainly did not miss the cigar smoke emanating from an ever present stogie. Our Panama Canal transit on April 12/13 was routine and without incident. Timing was different from our 1999 transit which was an early morning start. This time it was a late afternoon start with an overnight on a mooring in Gatun Lake. Line handlers were marvelous and the mid canal night stop with our two companion yachts was magical. Next day we motored south to down lock into the Pacific.

Balboa departure

We took a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club just a mile or so to seaward of the imposing Bridge of the Americas. We had a great view of the Canal traffic which varies from nuclear submarines to tall ships.

Some pop up maintenance, an alternator rewind, delayed us another week. Finally, we departed April 19, 2008. We were blessed with a favorable current of up to four knots which shot us out of Balboa like a champagne cork. We planned a non-stop to Jicaron Island about 236 NM from the canal. It was to be a two night passage but our speed was so high, up to nine knots, we were running about 12 hours early. To avoid a night arrival at Jicaron, we stopped short at Isla Cebaco about six hours closer. There we anchored and continued to Jicaron next day.

Our objective was to sail to 10N/87W where we hoped to encounter some easterly winds. The route Panama Hilo was indeed proving to be a light air passage. April 25, we were motoring in nil wind and the sea resembled a millpond. All of our weather info showed little wind out to Clipperton Island. This meant that we were faced with motoring west at least 1000 NM before encountering wind and even then wind was very much a maybe. Rather than running short of fuel and having to wallow for days in the eastern Pacific, I chose to discontinue the passage.

About 2200 hours local time April 26, 2008 we turned around at 09 21N 086 30W and made for the Costa Rican coast about 125 NM to our east. We anchored in Ballena Bay late the next afternoon. It had been up to me to make the decision. While Heather had planned a break from the boat, she was taken aback to see plans fall through. We had both been in a long passage mind set and it was disappointing to quit.

Costa Rica

Puntarenas is not a tourist mecca. The small city is a few miles up the Gulf of Nicoya from Ballena Bay. The Costa Rican Yacht Club, CRYC, is located on a shallow, sheltered estuary of the Rio Ciruelos behind the city. A helpful Club panga guided us through the final shoals to a berth. CRYC is accessible only at high water but even then shallow bits leave perhaps two feet of water beneath the keel. On a slip, yachts often rest in mud at low water. There we reassessed the situation and advised our two crew expecting me in Hawaii of the unfortunate development.

It was now too late in the season to coast crawl north as the eastern Pacific hurricane season was looming and we were loath to put off an arrival in Canada for another year. We checked availability with Dockwise, a float on/off yacht transportation company based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Amsterdam. The company provided yacht transport from Golfito, southern Costa Rica to Canada. Miraculously an imminent departure date was available of June 12 so by internet we made a booking. A week later we found that we had been tripped up by Date Format. In fact the date we had booked was December 6, not June 12! So we had to adjust our year yet again.

When we checked into Costa Rica April 30, 2008, we learned that a foreign vessel was permitted an initial stay of 90 days with a renewal for a further 90 days upon application in person. We were told that the boat then could be bonded for a further stay but this would be costly and the option was only available in two locations, both expensive high end marinas catering to sport fishing motor yachts. Since renewal had to be done in person it meant we would have to be in Costa Rica a few days prior to the first 90 day expiry which was July 30. So the plan developed that Heather and I would fly back to Canada leaving the boat at the CRYC. I would return late July to renew then return to Canada. The CRYC offered dry storage. Haul out using a small 20 ton travel lift was a challenge. To complicate matters, the haul out slip dries at low tide. To give us about 6 inches under the keel we needed a high tide. May 16 was the day. It was of course necessary to enter the slip stern first, drop the wind generator tower and disconnect backstays. All went well and May 21 we flew back to Canada. July, we heard from our agent in Puntarenas that the Costa Rican authorities had arbitrarily and without prior notice discontinued the option for a 90 day extension. New plan: sail Argonauta I from Puntarenas to Marina Puesta del Sol in northwestern Nicaragua, returning to Costa Rica to board Dockwise in December.

On July 26 we flew back to Costa Rica. Our agent had arranged an International Zarpe for departure the last day of our three month stay. We splashed the boat one day prior. Luck was with us as the aging travel lift had lost a wheel and dropped its load the week before! As well, tides were high enough to provide adequate water at the haul out slip. Midday July 30 at high tide we motored down the shallow estuary and anchored off Cedra Island for the night. Early next morning we headed out non stop for Puesta del Sol. We covered the 275 NM from Cedra Island in 50 hours. Weather was good although we had to motor sail some 33 hours. Winds were light enough both locally and in the Western Caribbean so I chose to cross the Gulf of Papagayo directly rather than shore crawl as many are forced to do because of the often high easterly winds funneling across the Central American Isthmus. The entrance to the lagoon for Puesta del Sol Marina is easy especially from the south. We tied up by 0900 hours in a very modern facility.

We knew that Nicaragua merited exploration. We arranged a tour and stayed for very reasonable costs in quite opulent lodgings. Throughout the country we sampled delicious cuisine: ceviche at the marina restaurant, as well as fish caught by an American boater who had the chef prepare his catch and share it with us. In Managua, a family we met at the marina live in an architecturally designed home in the hills. They own a restaurant where we had a great meal in the South American parilla style.

We felt that the Nicaraguan people were particularly friendly and forthcoming. They have survived a devastating Civil War, hurricanes, earthquakes, a landslide which buried thousands and aggressive foreign interference. Yet they still smile and offer hospitality. Scenery was spectacular. We were exposed to rich examples of literary and artistic culture in Leon and Granada. August 10, we flew back to Canada, happy to leave the yacht in a jurisdiction somewhat more accommodating than Costa Rica.

Sail back to Costa Rica

October 26, 2008 we returned to Puesta del Sol. Heather brought a suitcase full of books for children; a yachty at the marina was giving English lessons to kids. Their reaction was overwhelming and they patiently sounded out "LEETLE RED RIDDING H OO D and glowed with pride.

The yacht was in good condition although bats had made a home in our Doyle stack pak creating a huge mess. We spent a lot of time cleaning up, then they came back! Yet another clean up! November 1, we departed early morning and headed south. The last bat flew shoreward as we raised the main! Overnight we continued to isolated Santa Elena Bay, Northern Costa Rica. We dropped anchor next morning at 0945 and remained there for a few days before heading around Cape Santa Elena for El Coco to check in.

Thereafter, we day sailed down the coast to Golfito. Most anchorages are 40 to 50 NM apart and protection at some is marginal at best. Uvita Bay was the worst. We arrived an hour before last light. A Marine Parks vessel was nearby and soon an inflatable filled with officials arrived. They informed us that there was no anchoring allowed and we would have to leave. Heather convinced them to let us stay one night. The roll became greater once the rising tide covered the protecting reef so we got out of there at first light and anchored in tranquil Drake Bay by noon. Drake Bay was a pleasant stop where we enjoyed a coastal eco tour and did some re provisioning. November 22 it was time to move on towards Golfito.

In Golfito, SUPER SERVANT 3 was the Dockwise vessel we awaited along with several other yachts. Happily, she was running close to schedule and arrived December 4. That day we completed paper work with the agent and removed bimini and dodger ready to load next morning. Loading proceeded efficiently and soon we were advised to motor aboard.

Boarding the vessel, I noticed that we had about 10 feet of water under the keel as we passed over the submerged deck to tie up. It was easier than entering a marina. We handed over boat keys and were ferried ashore. Back to Canada to meet Argonauta I.

Nanaimo, Canada

Nanaimo is a small, deep water port on the east coast of Vancouver Island about 50 road miles north of Victoria, the provincial capital. SUPER SERVANT 3 docked December 25. Weather the week prior was unusual for the southern coast: major snowstorms and road closures. By this time we were staying in Sidney near Victoria Airport. Unloading was scheduled for December 27. Friends kindly drove us up to Nanaimo the day before. With full winter gear, we boarded the yacht carrier early morning and after signing Customs forms, made our way to Argonauta I. The ship was still at a dry deck condition but welds securing hull supports to the carrier's steel deck had been removed. All tie downs were still in place. I had the chance to grease the Max Prop and check anodes then we waited in the cockpit while the vessel sank to wet deck. This took about three hours! Once we were afloat, divers knocked over the supports and tie down straps were removed fore and aft as well as from around the mast. When other boats behind us had motored away, we untied our lines and reversed off the ship.

We docked at the nearby boat basin and inspected our yacht. Dirty but no damage! We rigged the dodger and bimini and spent a quiet night alongside. Argonauta I had never been in such cold! Air temperature was about 5C, water temperature about +8C. No cabin heater of course but I had brought an electric space heater so with shore power we were comfortable. Next day dawned bright and sunny. We stopped at the fuel dock to buy diesel, the cheapest since Venezuela. Then we headed south. We awaited slack water at Dodd Narrows, as otherwise tidal currents would be severe. No trouble there but avoiding floating logs was a constant concern. We docked at Thetis Island Marina that night... 6 inches of snow on the slip! In the face of a gale warning for later next day, we left at first light and motored the remaining distance to our new slip at Canoe Cove Marina near Sidney about 20 miles north of Victoria. We arrived just after noon well before the gale at the new home port of Argonauta 1.


In the following years we cruised the local Salish Sea as far north as Desolation Sound. We had thoughts of Alaska or indeed a non-stop back to French Polynesia via the Marquesas but we were becoming chronologically challenged. Sailing for us had come later in life. Our cruising began in 1997. In 1999 we had been age sixty when we left Panama on the Coconut Milk Run. Then we had no particular goal of circumnavigating but given the prevailing winds and with good luck, we found ourselves progressing west. Safety at sea, equipment preservation, and pleasant passages within seasonal gates had been our objective. Soon, a decade had whizzed by and in 2007 we were back in Panama.

In 2012, we had thoughts of moving on to something else. While deck work on a sailing vessel does not require athleticism, it does require agility and mine was reducing. The upshot was we decided to sell Argonauta I while things were going well. The yacht was in good shape and well found for blue water passages. We met a highly competent sailor and his spouse who sought a larger vessel. A deal was made and we sold in March 2013. Since then, Heather and I have guided four charters in the Caribbean and our ex yacht has visited Alaska, Mexico, Hawaii and sailed back to Victoria. Yes, she finally got to Hilo.

Note of appreciation: Our thanks to Rosario Passos, Editor of Currents Magazine who encouraged us in writing Memories of a Circumnavigation and to John Curnow Global Editor, for helping us to keep at it during the pandemic.

Hugh and Heather Bacon,
Calabogie, Canada.
March 16, 2021.

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