Okay, here we go. This post will bring the blog up to date. For sure. At times my writing style may be abridged to do so.
Our first night (Wednesday night) after arriving at Isla Parida caused me some worry and apprehension. While we were at anchor during the day, we remarked how great it was to be the only boat in such a remote and secluded anchorage. As the evening approached, we thought it highly improbable that anyone would join us and, once night fell, it would be impossible for anyone to navigate safely through all the rocks and reefs in darkness, so we would be safe and secure from any unwelcome visitors. However, at dusk a fishing boat entered the cove, set out its line of hooks and buoys, and then anchored 150 yards away from us. We weren't alone anymore.
There were three muscular fishermen on the boat and just the two lithe and fit of us. Clearly a case of asymmetric power, not in our favor. If the fisherman decided that we were ripe for the picking, there was no 9-1-1 to call for help and only a couple of people on shore that wouldn't really be able to offer any assistance, even if we could get their attention. Not a situation I like to be in.
A lot of my anxiety was due to only having returned to sailing in Central America a week ago. The difference between being completely on your own and alone in a remote place and being a phone call and five minutes from emergency services and with friendly neighbors in California is striking. However, the reality is that, all risks considered, it is probably as safe here as it is there. The large majority of people are friendly and robberies and other crimes against sailors are very rare. When I first got to Mexico last year, I was pretty wary for a couple of weeks, but soon felt very comfortable and safe, the entire way down the coast to Costa Rica.
Still, this was Panama, it was just the two of us, and accepting that we were at the mercy of the fishermen's intentions wasn't easy that night. We locked the boat up tight, inspected and made ready our arsenal of self-defense armaments, and slept with one eye open. All our worry was for naught though, as the fishermen were just fishermen and left early in the morning before we got up. They returned each night thereafter while we were there and we just smiled and waved to each other when they arrived.
We stayed anchored in Ensenada del Vardero on Thursday and Friday to enjoy its peacefulness and scenery and get a few boat chores done.
We tackled the sliding door lock first. We had purchased a short length of chain and a padlock in Gofito and I had a stainless steel padeye in my box of miscellaneous and spare parts. We drilled some holes and attached the padeye near the door jamb, trimmed the chain to length and, voila, we had a satisfactory way to secure the boat, even if it didn't look very elegant. Actually, the big chain and padlock look more robust than the puny sliding glass door lock, so the temporary fix might be more of a visual deterrent. Renee sewed a silicone sleeve around the chain to protect the anodized aluminum door handle and fiberglass. Scratch another item off the list.
Next we set to scraping the hull of the barnacles that had accumulated on it over the summer. The hulls had multiple small patches of them, but the two stub keels were badly fouled. The marina had agreed to keep the bottom clean while the boat was laid up there, so at first I was kind of mad that they hadn't done a better job. Then I remembered how muddy and dirty the water was in the Puntarenas estuary and how difficult and horrible it must be for diving to clean a boat bottom and I decided they had done an okay job, under the circumstances. Renee set to scraping the patches off the hulls while I focused on cleaning the propellers and saildrives. That's when I discovered another boat problem.
Intermezzo has two fancy Danish Gori propellers that fold when they aren't spinning to reduce drag while sailing. They also fold and unfold in two directions, which lets you select a normal propeller pitch for maximum power to push through wind, current and waves or an "overdrive" pitch for maximum fuel economy in calmer conditions. They have worked great so far on this voyage and have probably saved us over a hundred gallons of diesel, plus made the boat run more quietly. Obviously these props are much more mechanically complicated (and much more expensive!) than fixed propellers. Well, the port propeller isn't folding and when I first examined it underwater, wasn't completely unfolding either. It seemed to be jammed at about 75% unfolded which might explain why I thought the port engine was not putting out as much power as usual. I worked on trying to free it up for about an hour, in countless dives under the boat while holding my breath until I started seeing stars. I was
able to get it fully unfolded and visually confirmed, from a safe distance, that it unfolded when running, so it is working well enough. But it's stuck in the "overdrive" mode, which reduces power available to us if we need it, which is of moderate concern, and we are dragging an unfolded prop around when we are sailing, which is of minor concern. I sent an email to the prop manufacturer requesting advice on how to fix it underwater or, if that's not feasible, how to fix it when we next haul out. Put another item on the list.
On Saturday we sailed a short three miles to Isla Gamez, a tiny island just off the northeast end of Isla Parida. Gamez is a pretty little island with a nice white sand beach. We anchored there for a couple of nights, did yoga on the beach, finished cleaning the barnacles and generally relaxed. During the morning, evening and night we were again the only boat in the small anchorage. But it was the weekend and in the daytime we were descended upon by a half dozen power boats, big and small, and had to share the place with partying people with competing loud music. We were anchored far enough off the beach for it to be tolerable and enjoyed the people-watching.
Today we left Isla Gamez at 6 am to make our way to Pedrigal, a port town located up a jungle estuary near the major city of David, to officially check in to Panama. The dawn air was cool and the boat was wet from the night's rainfall, Renee's rainwater catchment bucket for laundry full. We headed to Boca Brava, one of the three mouths into the estuary, where we had to thread our way between lines of breakers along the shoals each side of the main channel. Again, a combination of electronic, paper chart and eyeball pilotage was necessary to stay in safe water.
As we entered the estuary, the tall mountains of mainland Panama lay ahead, the clouds draping themselves over their tops. It was sunny out, but the gentle breeze from the land was still morning cool. The lower half of the estuary is lined with lush jungle vegetation sloping steeply up from the water's edge. Upstream, the land flattens and it's mainly mangroves along the banks. The estuary is totally undeveloped, save for one or two tiny farms we saw carved out of the jungle. Navigation is a bit tricky as their are a lot of shoals and shallows, but we had a GPS track from the Sarana cruising guide and were traveling on a rising half high tide.
When we reached Pedrigal, we were underwhelmed. It is a tiny little port, just a couple of dilapidated docks, a few small buildings for the Navy, marine authority and customs and a small marina with a fuel dock. I took the dingy into the marina while Renee guarded Intermezzo to figure out how to clear in.
A guy at the marina directed me to the marine authority office and I walked in and introduced myself. Nobody spoke English, but my Spanish was good enough to explain my situation and understand most of what they told me in response. I was surprised when I sat down at a desk with one of the marine authority officers and it seemed like he had never cleared in a boat before. He had to look at previous filled in forms to figure out how to fill in my form and I ended up helping him get the right information in the right boxes. Then he asked for our passports and disappeared.
I sat waiting for about a half and hour and then the office started filling up with new people- two guys from immigration, a woman from customs, plus a more knowledgeable marine authority official. I was told that they all needed to go out to Intermezzo anchored off the small Navy pier in the estuary. They all piled into the dinghy with me and I dutifully ferried them, all clad in bright orange life jackets, to Intermezzo. Renee looked a bit surprised upon our arrival, but quickly threw a shirt over her bathing suit top and welcomed them aboard. We got them all cold sodas and ten minutes and $45 later we had immigrated into Panama, cleared Customs and ticked all but one remaining box to get the boat cleared in. We were told that a representative from the Ministry of Health would be by to inspect the boat in the morning.
I ferried the party of officials back to the marina and went back into the office to finish the paperwork. It turned out that the health official was on his way and would inspect the boat this afternoon. He arrived about 15 minutes later and together we got into the dinghy and zoomed back over to Intermezzo, the dinghy being much lighter and faster than with my last full load of passengers. I announced his arrival and purpose to Renee as he boarded Intermezzo. He was a friendly guy, did a quick walk around the decks and popped his head into the galley, where I helpfully informed him, "No tenemos insectos", to which he smiled and rolled his eyes slightly, seemingly acknowledging the bullshit nature of his inspection. He told us everything looked great, we had a beautiful boat and there was no need to fumigate, for which I was grateful.
The health guy and I returned to the office, more papers were stamped, I was relieved of $30 for our health inspection, and we were done. Almost. It turns out we need a transit permit, too. I actually knew that we needed a cruising permit, but had hoped that between the limited time we plan on staying in Panama and the backwater nature of this port that the officials would let me off, as I understand the permit costs a couple hundred dollars. The guy in the office couldn't tell me how much the permit would cost as he had to get authorization from somebody higher up. I filled out an application and was told to return to the office at 2 pm tomorrow to pick up my permit; we'll know the damage then. I don't feel too bad about paying for the permit, as most of the outlying islands are part of national parks and are protected and preserved partly for their touristic value. If cruising permit fees help with preserving natural areas, I'm all for them.