Friday, April 12, 2019

Enroute to Panama Canal

April 12
7.2N 81.3W

There is not much to say about our passage so far to the Panama Canal. There is more ahead of us, though.

Yesterday's highlight was our dinner stop anchored of Isla Montuosa. It seemed like quite the slog getting there, motoring in virtually no wind against a weak foul current and gentle swells.

Montuosa is a tiny island that lies 50 miles off the coast. That far out, you might as be anywhere in the ocean and that's what it looks like when you get there. The quarter mile wide, roughly circular island is a pinnacle that rises steeply from 675 ft below the ocean surface to 500 ft above it. It is heavily vegetated with a mostly rocky shoreline. We anchored off the sandy beach on north side of the island in about 33 feet of water.

The gentle swells on the ocean turn into breakers that crash among the rocks off the beach. Off the west end of the island is a long rocky reef with even more impressive breakers. Our dinner stop was a bit rolly when the boat swung beam to the swell, accompanied by the distant crashing of waves and the squawking of birds in the island jungle. Bright green palm trees front the white sand beach, various species of tropical trees grow on the slopes above. Through the binoculars, I saw an amazingly large tangle of jungle vines in one spot, weaving in and out of themselves and taking over a sizeable patch of the jungle, to the apparent detriment of the trees there.

It was nice to stop the boat for dinner instead of eating on the run. It looked like we might be treated to a nice sunset, but it fizzled out at the moment of truth. Shortly after the sun set, we weighed anchor and we were off, motoring again in calm conditions.

We motored all night. We now have an (unforecasted) light easterly wind on our nose and continue to motor. We will soon turn to the northeast and the wind is forecasted to continue being on our nose, with a foul southerly current building as we get nearer to land. I'll bet we motor this entire passage, which is always disappointing, not to mention expensive at $4 or more a gallon for diesel and less than 7 mpg fuel economy. Messes up my carbon footprint, too.

We are seeing a growing number of ships on the radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) as they converge onto the canal entrance from ports all over the Pacific. When we get close to the canal, we will need to deal with the Traffic Separation Schemes designed to keep ship traffic organized and stop them from crashing into each other. We need to call the Flamenco Signal Station on the VHF when we are in range and announce our arrival. They then tell us where to sail, much like air traffic controllers do for aircraft. I'm expecting them to mostly ignore us, a small bit of plastic flotsam compared to the big ships that are their main concern.

As we approach the Golfo de Panama, we round a the large peninsular that forms the west boundary of the gulf, defined by two points, Punta Mariato to the west and Punta Mala ("Evil Point") to the east. There are strong currents, tidal rips and the wind accelerates around Punta Mala, sometimes doubling its forecasted speed. Fortunately, the forecasted winds (more like "suggested winds" around here, in my opinion) are light, but we still need to deal with tide and current. The current flows out of the gulf against our sailing direction, so best to enter when the tide is flooding, which diminishes the current, rather than when it's ebbing, which enhances the current. I'm trying to time our arrival at Punta Mala accordingly.

Besides tide and current, the other navigational consideration is the timing of our arrival at the canal. I don't want to be putzing around the mouth of the Panama Canal in the dark among all those ships, all of us trying to find a place to park. I'll need to adjust boat speed or even make a rest stop to make sure we are sailing there during daylight hours. That might conflict with trying to find favorable tide conditions, which are time dependent, as is the boat's position, course and speed at any moment. It appears to be a problem well-suited to linear optimization techniques, but I can't be bothered. We'll make daylight sailing the priority and deal with tides and currents as they are.

The boat is damp. The tropical humidity is constant, but in the morning heavy dew covers the deck and light moisture over all the horizontal surfaces inside the boat. The pages of my charts and books are curling, no clothes or bedding are completely dry and the cabin sole under my feet feels like a damp mopped floor. I expect moss to start growing on everything and us soon.