Sunday, October 9, 2016

Isla Parida: UFO, Bang In the Night, Pilotage

Here I continue to try and bring the blog up to date, as we lie anchored on a pleasant Sunday morning off tiny Isla Gamez. I'm still a few days behind...

It was raining when we left Gofito for Isla Parida on Tuesday afternoon. The good thing about rain here is that it usually brings with it wind. Unfortunately, the wind is often short-lived and fickle, so we found ourselves hoisting sails and turning of the engines but only sailing for minutes before we had to douse sails and turn the engines back on. So we ended up motoring through the afternoon and until midnight, when we were able to sail downwind under the Code 0 for an hour or so.

During the night we encountered a suspicious, mysterious Unidentified Floating Object. At around 8 pm, Renee woke me up very concerned about what she had observed out on the water. She wouldn't wake me up if it wasn't something serious, so I sprung out of bed quickly to find out what was up, shaking off the fog of sleep as quickly as I could. Renee explained that she had been tracking a very big bright red light to port and then, suddenly, the light went out. She was worried that the vessel went into dark, stealth mode because it intended to intercept us with evil intent. I asked her what happened to the vessel on the radar? She said it never showed up on radar. I began to wonder and question what she was telling me and scanned the radar at multiple ranges with the gain turned up to maximize sensitivity. A vessel with a big bright red light would normally turn up on radar; at the distance Renee reported the light, we would normally be able to pick up a small open panga fishin
g boat on radar if we looked carefully enough. I satisfied myself we were in no immediate danger and went back to sleep wondering what the hell Renee had seen... or, very unlikely, but perhaps she was fatigued and imagined it all?

I came on watch at 9 pm and settled into the relatively boring job of watching the instruments, plotter and radar, squinting into the darkness all around the boat from time to time as the boat motored along under autopilot. A little after 10 pm I was surprised to see a big bright green light appear out of nowhere a few miles behind us! Renee's UFO had reappeared! I immediately turned to the radar to identify it as a target, but the UFO didn't show up at all, even though the radar clearly showed the two fishing boats further away. And then the big bright green light went out and we never saw it or the red light again. I wonder what it was? A warship wth a cloaking device, messing around with us with it's lights? A tiny fishing boat with really really big lights? Who knows?

My next watch started at 0300 as we continued to motor along through the night. Renee's midnight watch had been uneventful and she got into bed and fell asleep quickly. About a half hour into my watch I was shocked alert by a loud, solid bang from an impact to the port hull that shook the whole boat. It was a big enough hit that I immediately grabbed the portable searchlight to inspect the outside of the hull for damage and then went below to check the bilge for water. Thankfully, no damage and no water. I then directed the searchlight astern and saw that we had hit a large log, about 10 feet long and a foot or more in diameter. We've seen a lot of branches, logs and other debris in these waters during the day. There are a lot of rivers in Panama, it is rainy season, the tides are strong so a lot of stuff gets swept out into the coastal waters. During the day, you can dodge this flotsam. During the night you leave it to chance, because you typically can't see a thing and the
odds are greatly in your favor because there is much much more clear water than there is water occupied by debris that can cause damage. But after sailing thousands of miles at night never hitting anything, we were due to hit something. Fortunately it just scared the hell out of me, but didn't do any damage. I was surprised it didn't wake Renee up, so I poked my head down below and announced, "Well, we just hit a big log, but we're okay." Renee didn't stir, she was so sound asleep.

Around 5 am, the wind piped up, I unfurled the Code 0 and started a delightful sail into the dawn light ahead of us in the East. The light, clouds, ocean and quiet without the engine running was so peaceful and beautiful that I told Renee she could sleep in and didn't have to get up for her 0600 watch. Isla Parida was only 10 miles away, so we would be making our final approach into the anchorage in a couple of hours.

We had chosen Ensenada del Varadero at the southeast corner of Isla Parida as our destination anchorage. There are a lot of small islands and rocks, submerged and visible, scattered around the approach to the anchorage and the charts are not very detailed and often not accurate. So we had to proceed very carefully, using multiple means and resources for navigation. I focused on the electronic chart and the boat's GPS position and heading. Renee focused on the detailed chart in (the excellent) Bauhaus cruising guide and estimated our position visually and by transferring GPS latitude and longitude to the paper chart. We compared observations as we went along and slowed or stopped the boat when we didn't agree or were uncertain.

The colors of the foliage and shores of the outlying small islands and the main island are the same, so visually, the profile of the land blended together, often making the small islands invisible until the boat reached a viewpoint where the separation between main island became visible. This sometimes made visual pilotage tricky. The charted locations of rocks was a bit off in some cases, but at half-tide it was easy to see the surface disturbance of the water around and above submerged rocks. Our vigilance and piloting skills served us well and we entered into the anchorage with no problems at all, dropping anchor just after 9 a.m.

Ensenada del Vardero is a beautiful little cove lined with dark sand beaches, palm trees and jungle vegetation. There are several thatched huts on shore and we saw a person on the beach near one every once in a while. Looking out from the cove, you see lots of small pretty islands against a backdrop of cloudy blue sky. The water changes color from green, to blue, to steel grey depending on the sky above. To our grateful surprise, we found that no mosquitos made it out to the boat, even though we weren't anchored very far off the shore. We picked a good place for our first stop in Panama.

Next, another boat problem, security concerns, in-the-water boat maintenance and more at Isla Parida.