Posted by: catamarantwooceans | February 7, 2017

Sailing to Darien

2.2.17 – Thursday afternoon – Once the boat was in the water I had a few things on my list. I approached a taxi driver in La Playita marina offering him the project. Chava drove me first to a company named “Panamatek”, agents for ACR, the company that makes EPIRBs – Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacons. One activates an EPIRB only in emergency; satellites receive its transmission, pinpoint its position and alert Search And Rescue (SAR) units which are supposed to do what their name implies.

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EPIRBs have a battery life of five years and my unit needed a replacement battery. I was in touch with Panamatek in advance and even got a reply with a quote for the service. Stanley, my canal agent, took the EPIRB to them the same day we crossed the canal. Now, more than ten days later I came to take my revitalized EPIRB. Surprise! “We don’t have a battery right now, we can sell you a complete unit if you like”. I’ll import it through Marine-Warehouse in Florida and come to them for the installation.

Next – to the Rey supermarket and the laundry place. Back at the boat I put everything in place and was ready to go. But go where? My crew for the continuation of the voyage will only come on the 12th; I am not the type to sit and wait, especially not in Panama City. I thought to myself:”Why not return to the original plan and go to the San Miguel gulf in Darien on the east of the country, where one could enter rivers and rainforests and watch birds and monkeys. I sat down and made a Float-plan for that area.

3.2.17 – Friday – The plan for the first day called for sailing 24 miles to Isla Chepo, not a point of great interest, and the next day – 42 miles to Brujas. Having gone to bed early, I woke up at 0300 and said to myself “If I go out now, I can easily get to Brujas today”. So instead of returning to bed I raised the anchor and left the anchorage. I had to go through what, from the distance, looked like a wall of lights, ships waiting for their canal passage and all sorts of crafts either at anchor or moving in all directions. Once I was clear of all traffic I opened the jib, deciding to wait for daylight to raise the main.

At the beginning the wind was about 17 knots from the North and we had great sailing, but with daylight the wind decreased and I had to use an engine all the way. At one point, with the wind from behind, I tried poling out the jib but the wind died and I had to take the pole down; good exercise , though. The entry to Brujas anchorage is complicated, according to the guide; looking at the chart it seemed I could have easily made a few shortcuts on the way in. With the trauma of hitting the rocks in Canas Island still fresh, you can bet that I followed the guide religiously, motoring in very slowly. I believe I mentioned in the past the modern variation on an old adage:”He who was scalded by boiling water puffs to cool the yoghurt”. I anchored behind Brujas point, not far from the fisherman village. 62 miles in a day, that’s a lot.

Fishing for dinner I took three catfish in a row and since I don’t like them and do not know how to cook them I released them and made do with spaghetti and grilled chicken from “Rey”.

4.2.17 – Saturday – Leaving Brujas was less stressful than coming in, mainly because the tide was high. My goal was to get to Congo river in Golfo San Miguel, again a bit of a long passage for a day but if I succeed I’ll gain a day in that area. Again the wind was light and I had to motor-sail. Near Islas Pajaros, bird islands, I passed a fishing boat that had a large number of pelicans around it, probably waiting to snatch a fish thrown by the fishermen. Pelican abound here and the way they fly low over the water or dive-bomb for fish is a sight too behold.

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Turning east near Punta Brava, passing between Banco Del Buoy, which has places with one meter depth at low tide, was nerve wracking, but I followed the waypoints I put into the plotter and never saw less than eight meters on the gauge. A sea bird alighted on the SUP and rode with us almost all the way to Congo river.

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Past Punta San Lorenzo, turning right around the small Isla Batatilla a three knots counter current hit us, slowing us down to 3.5 knots with both engines at cruise power. I was afraid I would not be able to reach the river early enough and would have to anchor near Iguana island, an open, unprotected anchorage. Luckily, as I rounded Iguana island the current subsided somewhat and I motored towards the river entry. At a distance I saw what seemed to be a small fishing boat on my track; getting closer I suddenly noticed that it was a flagged pole and that I was very close to run over a fishing net. Autopilot disconnected, I broke to the right and missed it by meters. It was low water and at one moment the depth showed less than the charted values, understandable in a river outlet. I slowed down when it showed 3 meters and continued slowly with a minimum of 2.4 seen. As I approached the entrance, where a fishing village not unlike Esmeralda was located on the west bank, the depth increased and I could breath easier. 

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                      Rio Congo village – note the low water

I anchored at the recommended anchorage. I was very tired and took a half hour nap – there was some work to be done; Check a suspected oil leak in the starboard engine, check belts and install some bolts surprisingly found missing in the steering system. All that accomplished, I had a refreshing shower, a whiskey and sat down to write this. As the sun went down, a nook on shore, with some white birds on it was painted in that special evening light; awesome!

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As I was sitting writing, feeling as if I was all alone in the neighborhood, I suddenly heard shouting voices outside. A panga with two guys came by, one of them waiving an empty gasoline tank (although his motor was running) and asking for fuel. I didn’t mind giving them a gallon and also some two stroke oil that I no longer needed. They had a lot of fish in their boat, big catfish and a few really big groupers. They said they caught them up river, which is interesting as groupers are saltwater fish.

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I think that’s enough action for today.

5.2.17 – Sunday – I the morning I went up river to take a look at an island near its eastern shore.

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Motored around it and made my way out towards Cucunaty river, again – following a safe route that would enable my heart to keep its regular rhythm. With the high tide I never saw any depth less than 7 meters. On my way I passed a few fishing boats, and remembering my near miss the day before I kept looking around for their nets, also using the binoculars. At one point I left the wheel to check whether there was cellular reception and a few seconds later I heard the engine stop, alarm sounding, and felt the boat stop. My first thought was that the prop was fouled by a rope but as I looked around I saw that I did hit a net. The fishing boat, to which the net belonged was far astern and not coming over. The port engine was free of the net and I tried turning the boat in the hope of release but this did not happen.

For a few minutes I waited to see what they would do and then decided to try and free my boat myself. By that time the tide was already going out so there was a current to consider. I wouldn’t go into the water without putting my anchor down and that I did but somehow the chain got fouled by the net too. Just as I was getting ready to go into the water, the fishermen’s boat came. They cut part of the net and started pulling it in. I cut the part that was stuck on the chain, went into the water, tied by a rope to the yacht and free diving in the current, mindful of the necessity to be careful not to get myself snared in that net I started cutting, first freeing the prop and shaft and then the rudder.

Once that was finished I climbed back on board and waited for the fishermen to come; there was no way I would try to run away. I did feel partly responsible and making the local guys mad was not something I wanted to do. I was ready to pay a sum for their damage and also prepared a bottle of Tequila for them to put things on a friendly atmosphere.

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                                     The fishermen coming

When they came over I asked for the captain; the man came and we commenced negotiations, in Spanish, with me trying to explain that we both shared the fault, me for not seeing the net and he for not marking it with a flag, which he had on board but did not use. The captain was speaking so fast that I had difficulty understanding. At one moment I asked him to stop and came up with five 20$ bills and the Tequila bottle. This had the desired effect but he said he wanted 50$ more. I made an unhappy face, said that he was taking more than half of what I had (almost true) and came up with the additional dough. A few courtesy words were exchanged, specifically in regard to not drinking the Tequila immediately and then, probably in accordance with the captain’s command, one of the crew came over with a big fish for me. This convinced me that the affair was ended to the satisfaction of the captain, which was certainly what I wanted to achieve.

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I motored on to Cucunaty river with no further drama and anchored. Cucunaty, just as the Congo river, is a very wide one and one cannot anchor near shore because of the three meters tide range. I was too tired to take the dinghy or SUP and explore. I’ll do it tomorrow. The 150$ fish, both as sashimi and pan fried in butter, tasted great.

6.2.17 – Monday – A day that you write about just a little can be a great day. I motored just three miles up the river and found the place I was looking for. The river narrowed at about 8 30.0 N and there was a bunch of mangrove islands on the east bank.

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I could approach very close to shore and still saw 13 meters depth. There were signs of habitation around but except for a single man on a panga I saw no one. I went ashore at a place I saw a thatched roof shack but apart of three dogs, a cock and some chickens no human was seen.

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Two pair of pants were hanging there, a neglected cayuca on the beach and no one there. Who feeds the dogs?

I motored to the other bank, thinking that it was the forest side, where I could see some wild life. The trees were all big mangroves and the only life I saw were white Ibis-like birds, which were very cautious and did not allow me to come near and take a picture; I used the Canon big zoom to capture this one.

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Another photo shy creature was a very colorful crab, who was hiding behind a tree trunk and every time  I turned around that tree he went the other way.

Back on the boat I watched the tide play. Places covered by water became mud banks and the boat turned with the flow and not with the wind.

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Dinner – chicken and vegetable curry, yummy.

7.2.17 – Tuesday – Today’s plan was to go to La Palma, the capital of Darien province, a town with more than 5000 people. You may rightly ask what were my reasons for  going to a noisy town and here they are. First, although not uppermost in my mind was the procedural necessity to check in. Secondly, and most important, was the need for communication; in the last few days I could only call using the Iridium sat phone not to mention the lack of internet. I wanted good communication in order to promote an idea that I had regarding the continuation of the voyage.

Up till now the plan was to get to Ecuador, go home for a month and come back to continue to Polynesia via Easter Island and Pitcairn. As readers of the blog know, Gili had to leave the boat when her mother passed away. My new and wild idea was to suggest that she comes back to the boat, sail with me and the friend who is joining on the 12th to Ecuador and then do a land trip in Ecuador and the Peruvian ancient city of Machu Pichu. I broached the idea to Gili and she was enthusiastic about it. So, as I entered the Boca Grande river and got closer to La Palma, cellular and internet became available and we spoke at length about the new plan.

I anchored opposite the town’s boatyard, not far from a dock. I’ll go ashore hoping to finish the formalities, publish this post and find a quiet place to anchor for the night.


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