Monday, October 24, 2016

Bahia Honda: Captain Renee, Trading for Coconuts

Saturday we sailed from Isla Jicaron back around the south end of Coiba and north to Isla Canal de Afuera. Wouldn't you know it? The wind was not from the southwest or west as forecast and as it had been the whole time we have been here. No. It blew from the north! Right from where we were heading. Again. Unbelievable. Fortunately, the wind was light and the seas flat so it was easy motoring, not bashing like it was when we were going the other way.

Renee was appointed captain for the day. She knows almost all there is to know about the boat and is a capable sailor, but we have settled into roles where I usually plan our passage and make most of the decisions when we are on it, in consultation with Renee, of course, but definitely taking the lead role. And we have settled into who does what when we lower anchor, raise anchor and a host of other tasks. So, it seemed like a good idea to mix things up a bit, have Renee take the lead and each of us do what the other normally does for a change.

Renee captained the boat admirably and I lived the life of luxury, hardly doing a thing, except for a few times in response to orders barked at me from the helm.

When we arrived at Isla Canal de Afuera we discovered the anchorages to be a bit tricky. They are quite small, hemmed in by cliffs, small islands and rocks, with rock-strewn sandy bottoms that slope steeply from the shore. Picking where to drop the anchor was difficult. Too far from shore and the depth requires a lot of chain which means the arc of our potential swing around the anchor could brings us too close to the shore or outlying rocks. Too close to shore and the water wouldn't be deep enough at low tide. On top of that, we wanted to drop the anchor in as much sand as possible because an anchor can hold in a rocky bottom in one direction, but often not if boat swings to another due to current or wind.

I tried to help Renee decide on where to drop the hook, but found that it was difficult for me to offer advice without "feeling" firsthand what was going on by driving the boat myself. It's some sort of kinetic process for me, where I seem to get a better sense of my surroundings by moving the boat around slowly, taking visual bearings on land features, looking at the depth sounder and down at the bottom, feeling the wind and the current and unconsciously building a spatial model of the anchorage to pick the right place for the boat. I have done it hundreds of times, which is enough to get competent, but apparently not enough to explain it verbally to another. Maybe after a thousand times, I'll be able to. In any case, we found a nice spot in which we could anchor with confidence unless that wind blew hard from the east-south quadrant, which was unlikely, tucked into a small cove with a tiny beach, some little islets, and protected from swells in all directions.

We slept well and woke on Sunday to a beautiful morning of bright sunshine, blue water, our pretty little cove and the mountaintops of the Panamanian mainland off to the east graced by puffy white clouds. We lingered for a while, enjoying our surroundings and then headed off to Bahia Honda, a large sheltered bay on the mainland to the east. I needn't write which direction the wind was blowing in when we started, but thankfully the light winds shifted to the south as the morning wore on and we were able to sail a good portion of the way.

Renee suggested we visit Bahia Honda because there was a village there with "limited supplies" and she felt like a little civilization after being in such remote islands for so many days. We anchored off a tiny village where music was playing from two bars on shore. Renee got caught up with trying to make airline reservations by relaying satellite text messages to and from her daughter, so I went to shore to find out just how limited supplies were.

The village is on a tiny island in the middle of the bay and consists of two bars, a tiny aborrotes (like a small corner store), a police station (manned by two policemen), a primary school and small homes dotted around the island for its approximately 100 residents. There are no roads to or around here; you get everywhere by boat and walk around on narrow trails when you get there. It is very isolated.

After confirming that supplies were indeed limited at the aborrotes, I invited myself to join a group of four young guys at one of the bars and to drink some beer and learn more about the place. After a couple of hours of research, I had arranged for a delivery of fruits, vegetables, eggs and bread to the boat in the morning, been offered a large swath of property for sale, met the local indigenous chief and bought about 20 beers, four of which I consumed myself. Meanwhile, Renee had given up on me returning to the boat to pick her up and bring her to land and had gone kayaking instead. That was probably a good thing as the bar was men-only, a very macho scene and I don't think she would have felt comfortable there for long.

Later in the evening we had the first of many visitors float up to Intermezzo. A guy named Kennedy, his wife Olivia and his young sun Octavio motored up in their panga to offer us coconuts, bananas, plantains and limes. We paid a few dollars for some of each and gave them some gas for their outboard. They were very nice and very friendly, telling us that quite a few sailboats used to visit the bay but the numbers have decreased a lot in recent years. Visiting sailors apparently have been an appreciated source of clothes, batteries, books, school supplies, soda, mechanical assistance and cash and the people that depend on them for these things are definitely feeling the pinch from the reduced numbers.

In the morning more people started showing up. A man with his two children stopped by in his handbuilt traditional canoe and gave us coconuts and more lemons in exchange for a soda, toys and schools supplies for the kids and a paperback book for him, which he asked for to help learn English. Before he left, an older man named Domingo showed up, a local celebrity of sorts as his name is mentioned in two cruising guides. Domingo talked with us for a little while, telling us about the problem he was having with his generator among other things and said he would be back with some stuff from his farm. Then the guys from the bar with whom I had arranged the food delivery showed up with a pitiful bag of yucca and plantains; no eggs or bread. By this time we had figured out that these visits were all about trading, not money. The trading is as much a way of socializing as it is one of commerce. The economics are pretty simple. The locals trade what grows in their garden or in the jun
gle for what we have lying around the boat that we don't use. (Actually, we had assembled a big bag of stuff we had lying around the house like pens, pencils, notebooks, flashlights, toys etc. before we left to give to the right people at the right time on this voyage.) On a dollar-measured basis, the locals get the better end of the trade, but realistically, a pen and notebook one of us picked up at tradeshow is worth nothing to us and a bunch of fresh bananas which grow here in profusion is worth next to nothing to them, so it's a very fair deal and everybody comes out ahead.

By midday, Intermezzo was richly provisioned with coconuts, bananas, lemons, oranges, yuccas, and local potatoes, but still lacking eggs and bread. So we took the dinghy back to town, and bought some eggs and flour, since there was no bread. Renee baked two loaves of special concentrated boat bread (our yeast was old) and a nice plantain bread. For dinner, I made a Cuban-style yucca dish with a lemon-orange-garlic sauce and the rest of our skipjack tuna. It turned out quite good and I now know how to prepare and cook yucca, which I find I like quite a bit.

Tomorrow we leave Bahia Honda and make our way towards Boca Chica, where we will clear out of Panama in a few days and begin our long passage north to Mexico.