The last two weeks can pretty much be summed up in one word: RAIN.
Yes, December is the Rainy Season. Yes, Panama is a rainforest. But it’s the Caribbean, right? Shouldn’t we get some sunshine on these deserted beaches and magical rivers we (planned to) visit? “No”, is apparently the answer.
We left Bocas a couple of weeks ago with the intention of stopping in some super-cool spots, which also happen to be fair-weather anchorages. Well, guess what? We’ve had NO fair weather. Everyone said we were getting a late start to this passage: “November is unpredictable; you really should’ve gone in October”. Thanks, thanks a lot. I know folks mean well, but unless you have a time machine handy, maybe not so helpful to suggest we should’ve already done something. Just sayin’
But they were right; we missed all the cool stuff we wanted to see along the way: the “secret beach”, Tobobe and the Rio Chagres. And, while we did stop at Escudo de Veraguas, it was so rainy and windy that we didn’t even get to enjoy it properly. Blarg.
So, in the interest of reporting to the cruisers (and all you folks at home) what indeed happened, here’s what we ended up doing instead:
Stopping in Bluefields for two nights. Bluefields was fine. It was fine last year. It’s a super-protected and calm anchorage which meant a nice, calm night’s sleep. But, it’s also one of those places where locals pull up in their Cayucos and hang on your lifelines and stare into your cockpit/cabin/dinghy for upwards of an hour.
While I don’t mind at all when folks come to sell or trade with us or even if they want to engage in some conversation, there’s something about someone silently looking into your windows for what feels like for-e-ver that I dislike very much.
I mean, I understand that in a place like Bluefields, which is very remote, visiting yachts can seem as foreign as spaceships and therefore certainly attract curiosity but boats have been coming to Bluefields for years, so you think folks might get used to it, right?
It seems that perhaps the good folks who call Bluefields home have come to start expecting something from the cruisers . . and, this is when I’ll get on my soapbox . . . if you are someone who likes to support an increase the quality of life for those in remote places, please do not give out hand-outs (especially to children). It doesn’t help anyone. You might feel good in the moment, but it’s not at all good in the long run. Trust me. Or, at least trust them. Off the soapbox . . .
Lucky for us in the case of the lifeline hanger-on’rs, we have a secret weapon: “el perro bravo” (a dangerous dog). Don’t get me wrong, we don’t sic Kemah on anyone, but I don’t mind that it’s not particularly welcoming to have a big dog barking at you when you’re not particularly welcome.
So, back to Blue Fields, the highlight of the stop-over was being invited over to a (new) friend’s boat for lobster dinner. Acuncion and Ivan of S/V Paloma were amazing hosts. We had loads of lobster, caramelized onion & garlic mashed potatoes (I made these!) and then capper of all cappers: flan. Yum! To top everything off, our dinner was hosted aboard a Lagoon 40 and that boat is sa-weet. Funny, though, while they have a TON more space aboard, they really don’t have much more room(s) than the Gemini and I bet their maintenance costs are much more – see, we’re fine without that fancy boat
After Bluefields, we headed out for Escudo de Veraguas, a beautiful island only a day-sail away – past the two other amazing stops we meant to see (the “secret beach” and Tobobe).
Escudo was an easy day sail from Bluefields. We had been looking forward to Escudo since our stop-over here a couple of years ago. It’s a beautiful island surrounded by reefs and, after a couple of days on the boat, we were ready to get anchored and explore.
Escudo’s hidden coves
D, photoshopped into paradise aka Escudo, in 2011
But . . . the weather continued to be uncooperative. Even upon approach the “anchorage” seemed to be uncomfortably rolly but we snaked our way closer to the beach and quickly radio’d back to our buddies on Adamastor that they had the depth to follow us.
While they snuck up on the beach, we continued to radio them of a dangerous rock just off our starboard bow – but wait – what!?! The rock was moving – huh!?! James thought it was, perhaps, a whale, but as it got closer and closer we realized it was a HUGE rootball attached to a downed palm. It must have been the heavy rains that broke it lose. And, AFTER we used the boathook to poke it away from drifting between our hulls, we all a good laugh about the “dangerous moving rock” in the Escudo anchorage.
We spent a few days at Escudo waiting for the weather to change and even took advantage of short break in the clouds to dinghy-‘splore the coastline and walk along the big, wide beach. While there were a few highlights in the form of tucked-away coves and a cool, fresh river washing out to sea, unfortunately, the impression that was left with us from our beach walk was the horrid amounts of plastic flotsam and jetsam littering the shore. Makes ya kinda wonder what all the crap was made for if it’s just gonna end up on some otherwise-beautiful beach. Seriously, earthlings (including us, of course) we have *got* to get it together.
Despite our depressing walk along the beach and the lack of snorkeling we did manage to have one particularly entertaining – although it was alarming at first – experience at Escudo:
It was dark-thirty. Damon and I were on Adamastor enjoying a movie night with Jess and James. All of the sudden, Jess popped up, snatched our attention away from the film and called it to the flash of white light that just came through the porthole across the screen. In slow motion, we all seemed to come to the same silent conclusion: “Right, of course, we’re in the middle of nowhere, on our boats. We should definitely be concerned about those lights – which definitely aren’t headlights shining into our living rooms from a passing car. WHO IS OUT THERE!?!”
Suddenly, we were all up from the settee, out in the cockpit and trying to discern the figures and make of boat approaching us quickly from the sea. Of course, with their lights shining in our eyes, it took us a minute to make out the five men, in fatigues, with machine guns slung over their shoulders headed towards Mother Jones – where Kemah was holding down the fort. Relief washed over us all. It’s funny that the sight of those big men with their big guns was a welcome sight: it meant they were random pirates coming for us, they were *government* pirates, at worst.
We signaled them to come to Adamastor, where over the next hour they checked Adamastor’s paperwork and did a cursory inspection of the vessel. When it came time for our turn of the government check, the men opted not to move over to the Kemah-stronghold of Mother Jones, instead asking us to take our dinghy, get our paperwork and bring it to them, which we happily complied. God bless that terrifyingly ridiculous dog.
While El Jefe worked on our paperwork, I offered the group some refreshments which they accepted tenderly while explaining clearly they did not expect, and could not accept, any gifts – amazing!
All-in-all, their impromptu visit turned out to be quite pleasant as we ran through the rigamaroll exchanging Spanglish with each other. We were also happy to have them anchored next to us for the next two nights – although we were very happy to be sleeping in our cozy berths rather than under a tarp in a panga like these commandos.
Making friends at Escudo
But, our luck with the friendly pirates was not to rub off on the weather. We had enough of the rain, enough of a rolling anchorage and so it was time to head off to Portobelo on our first overnighter since this.
The afternoon we left was fine. We had a little excitement as a few swallows came aboard for a rest – which is totally fine unless Mr. K sees them. Then, it’s pandemonium whilst he scrambles about giving it his all to give them their namesake.
Once night fell, the easy afternoon turned.
“Once bitten, twice shy” was I as I listened to a familiar sound of the halyard clanking, felt the familiar motion of pitching into the seas ahead and watched the running lights cast its eerie red glow on the deck and dark waves. Ugg. We shot towards Portobelo at the quick pace of eight knots in high seas. It seemed all-too-familiar.
I was uneasy. I white-knuckled my shift. When D got up for his we had a come-to-Jesus. Turns out I wasn’t the only one “remembering”.
“Why do we do this?” was the question de nuit; both of us remembering the last time we asked each other *that* question on *that* passage. It was sobering. And good. We were on the same page: we love cruising; and, we have a healthy respect for the ocean; we have fear; and, we have the where-with-all to acknowledge it, make corrections and keep moving forward. So, we reefed.
Just like that, it seemed the sea exhaled. Mother Jones settled into a comfortable lob and we settled into ourselves again.
The rest of the night and into the morning we gently pushed forward. We had the engine on ever-so-slightly just to help us maintain course against the current and winds pushing us towards the coast. (To other sailors out there heading this way this time of year in Easterlies, I’d strongly recommend you head north at least 15 or so miles off Escudo and then tack back towards your Colon or Portobelo destination)
Like other missed destinations, I was disappointed to have to pass on visiting the infamous Rio Chagres. But I knew it was the smart move: two years earlier we had stood at Fuerte San Lorenzo and witnessed a yacht washed aground (and then picked clean) from an unscheduled discharge of the Rio Chagres dam by the Canal authority. As a matter of fact, the Canal Authority apparently does sound an alarm to give anyone on the river – including Panamanians fishing in Cayucos or working on the shores of the Chagres – a WHOLE 15 MINUTES prior to opening the damn so folks can safely remove themselves from the path of MILLIONS OF GALLONS OF WATER FILLED WITH DEBRIS. Ummm, thanks?
S/V washed ashore during a dam opening during the rainy season
But, due to us having at least one good idea a week (ambitious aren’t we?), we opted to keep moving towards Portobelo. Soon past the Rio, we were smack-dab in the middle of the Canal zone dodging the huge tankers waiting for transit or resting at anchor just after.
Even still, I can’t get over how HUGE these ships are, how much cargo they transport and, sadly, how much of it is probably disposable crap we – yes, I’m including me in the “we” here – consume all over the globe. And, how I’d be willing to bet a (literal) ton of it ends up on beaches just like the one we left less than 24 hours ago.
Or, maybe instead of one million pen caps and lighters, those ships are full of life-saving medications, fresh water, food and shelter destined for our planet’s sick, thirsty, hungry and homeless. Aww, a gal with a bleeding heart can dream, right?
Moving on to more selfish thoughts, we spent the last leg of our overnighter wet and squinting in the white-out rain happy none-the-less in part because: 1) if we *had* to be in white-out rain, we were glad to be in white-out rain PAST the tanker minefield; and 2) we were dreaming of our first stop in Portobelo: Captain Jack’s, our soon-to-be-latest stop on our Cheeseburger in Paradise tour.
Portobelo in a break in the rain. Cheeseburger dead ahead