The forecast for the Gulf of Panama from all sources was for light winds. Here's the official text forecast from yesterday:
GULF OF PANAMA: MAINLY LIGHT TO GENTLE WIND WILL PREVAIL ACROSS
THE AREA THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS. SEAS WILL GENERALLY REMAIN IN
THE 4 TO 6 FT RANGE DURING THE ENTIRE PERIOD DUE TO LONG PERIOD
The forecasts weren't even remotely accurate, save for the SW swell, which wasn't very important. Instead of light to gentle winds, we had 20+ knots blowing from the NNW, the direction we wanted to head to get to the entrance of the canal. The winds had whipped up a steep chop for us to bash through. And to make matters worse, there is a constant southerly current flowing out of the gulf that took one to two knots off our speed.
At Punta Malta, that southerly current combines with the prevailing westerly coastal current. I came on watch at 2200, right as we were approaching the point traveling roughly due east. The boat rapidly slowed from the five knots to less than two knots with one engine running. I started the other engine and revved both up to their near maximum rpms. I was making about 3. 5 knots as I began rounding the point. As I rounded the point, the wind speed increased from about 12 knots to over 20 and now I was barely making two knots, Intermezzo shoved back by wind, wave and current. I experimented turning the boat onto different headings and watching the speed over ground (SOG) and velocity made good to our waypoint (VMG) carefully to find the optimum course. I finally settled on a heading that put the wind and waves about 30 degrees off the port bow, quite a bit off our rhumbline, but resulting in the best VMG. Despite my efforts and those of Intermezzo's valiant little Yanmar diesels, I only covered 10 nm over the course of my four hour watch!
The NW wind chop mixed with the six to eight foot swells from the SW and the SW current produced a sea state that looked and felt like a washing machine gone mad. Intermezzo pitched, rolled, yawed, and slammed violently, a most uncomfortable and unpredictable motion. I had to hang on tight to the helm seat so as not to be thrown off. As unpleasant as the motion was, the ocean was beautiful. The moon had just set and the sea looked like a liquid plain of blank ink strewn with bright white, slightly green clouds from all the bioluminescence being activated by the breaking crests of the waves. These clouds were so numerous and so bright that they lit up the surface of the sea for miles in every direction. It was amazingly beautiful, I've never seen anything like it before.
John and Kim took over for me at 0200. The little distance I covered beyond the point was moving us out of the area where the currents combined and Intermezzo started picking up some speed. I slept in the salon, getting up every hour to check on our situation. By mid-watch, the wind had decreased to around 10 knots and we were able to make five knots SOG running just one engine. I started to think that the high winds were just local to the point and that we would soon see the "mainly light to gentle wind" forecasted. We were still being tossed around and pounding into head seas, but much less violently. I began to think we were out of the woods.
Roy came on watch at 0600 and an hour and a half later, the boat suddenly slowed down as the wind whipped up again to over 20 knots. We started the second engine up and pushed the throttles forward, struggling to make more than four knots SOG with the boat slamming, pounding and shipping a lot of water over the bows.
There was no way were would make it to our planned anchorage at the Balboa Yacht Club before dark and we were all fatigued from the constant noise and motion. I decided to head to my "bailout" anchorage, a sheltered cove on the south side of Isla Otoque, about 25 miles southwest of the canal entrance sea buoy. We altered course to head there.
Fortunately, the wind and waves gradually calmed down, so that by the time I came back on watch at noon, the slamming and pounding had stopped. We still needed both engines to make speed against the current, but we were making over five knots. By 1445 we were anchored and Roy, John and I all dove into the water for a refreshing swim. Roy and John swam to shore to collect coconuts (their new hobby?), while I got back on the boat and mixed myself a tall rum drink. Kim relaxed and kept an eye on the shore party.
It was 14 hours of very trying and tiring conditions after sailing for 36 hours. Not dangerous, but very challenging . I've been in much rougher weather, but yesterday's conditions were the worst I can remember in terms of duration of jarring discomfort. It was such a relief when the seas calmed down and an even bigger relief when we anchored, turned off the hardworking little diesels (I'm thinking of naming them Yin and Yan) and all got quiet, except for the soft bird sounds and the gentle breaking surf on the beach.
Tomorrow morning we resume our journey to the Balboa Yacht Club. We should be there mid-afternoon.
The forecast is for light and gentle winds.