East Holandes Cays are just a couple hours sail from Green Island. This must be where all the photographers come to take their pictures of deserted palm tree covered islands encircled by white sand beaches and surrounded by reef and waters of peacock, turquoise, and teal.
We bypassed the main anchorage on the leeward side of the biggest island and cut through the reef to join the six other boats anchored in shallow, azure water protected by a fringing reef on the windward side.
The reef was beckoning, so we hopped in the dinghy to go snorkeling. We explored a pass where giant eagle rays and sharks enter the lagoon. The only shark we saw was a lovely, bronze nurse shark sleeping under a ledge. When we stopped probing the reef for tropical fishes and corals, we need only turn around and gaze into the blue to see toothy barracuda and graceful eagle rays soaring through the pass.
Bobby met Dan, a single-hander now that his girlfriend flew home, on Calliope. Dan is a friend of Woody and Missy, our friends from two years ago in the Bahamas.When Dan tells Bobby that they have gone to the mainland and may be back to the Cays soon, Bobby gets excited about the possibility of going out spearfishing with Woody again. In the meantime, Bobby and Dan spend most mornings hunting together on the vast reef system here. Dan is every bit as good of a spear-fisher as Woody.
Dan is also an avid fisherman so he got together with Robby in the afternoons to fish from the dinghy. Robby learned some valuble tips from Dan and couldn’t be happier to have an angler as passionate about his sport as he is as a fishing buddy.
Running Tide is also here. Robby and Michael have renewed their acquaintance with Jessie and Gene from our past two summers in Trinidad. Our group of boats--Australians, Americans, and the first cruising Israelis we have met--get together most evenings for cocktails on the beach of a small, deserted islet nearby. Dan builds a bonfire which has the dual task of lighting the gathering and disposing of our trash. John and his wife, Pat, Australians from the boat Rouseabout, try to explain the value of the Southern Cross in navigation to Bobby.
Robby and Michael spent each Friday night camping on this same island with Jessie and Gene. Bobby brings dinner to them at night and Kerrie, Jessie’s dad, brings breakfast to them in the morning. Michael found what appears to be a whale’s jawbone half buried in the middle of the islet. They are all reveling in this time of independence and freedom on an island of their own.
All too soon, it is time to move on. The sail through East and West Holandes is in reef-protected waters among lovely islets. As we exit the Cays, it is back to the usual high swells on the beam. We’re going to Escribanos, our first anchorage on the mainland of Panama.
Escribanos is hidden from sight until we’re almost in the break in the reef which guards both sides of the bay. The water is shallow so Bobby stands on the bow to guide me in. I find myself lifting off my seat in a futile attempt to make us lighter as I watch the depth sounder scroll down--nine feet, seven feet, six point four. Our six feet of draft barely clears and we’re in.
The bay is a tiny, muddy indentation in the choking jungle along the coast. We nosed in as far as we could without hitting bottom and laid the anchor. We’re right in the center, all by ourselves. The entrance is out of sight around a curve so we feel as if we’ve been mysteriously transported to a lake in the middle of a lush tangle of subtropical bush. Herons strut along the shores while parrots fly overhead. We smell loamy land with no trace of the salt sea air. Monkey cries are punctuated by sounds of something crashing through the undergrowth. We feel lost in the Central-American jungle, yet protected by the water embracing Immanuel, our coccoon.
We got an early start in the morning so we can arrive in Portobelo before dark. Bobby raised the mainsail as we cleared the break between the reefs. The sail stopped less than half-way up.
The rollers hitting Immanuel’s side were tossing us so furiously back and forth that the halyard wrapped around our foredeck light one-third of the way up the mast as well as the bracket for our spinnaker block at the very top of the mast. The line is so tangled that Bobby can’t get it loose. He’s going to have to go up the mast.
The reef is downwind so we can’t take the waves on our stern. I motor directly into the swells, trying to get as smooth a ride as possible. Still, Bobby is staggering along the deck as he readies the boson's chair. The boys get into their harnesses and tethers to attach themselves to the mast while they winch Bobby up. I’m doing the best I can, but the bow is pitching heavily, shipping some green water. I can hear Bobby’s body slamming into the mast before he swings back into the rigging and yells, “Ow!”
The next thing he yells is, “Into the waves--INTO THEM!”
I shove the throttle forward so maybe we’ll have enough power to keep from getting thrown sideways off the oncoming waves but, the fact is, no one could hold a course where we would not be pitching or rolling. Bobby knows that, too, but all he’s thinking about at the moment is the battering he’s taking.
Eventually, Bobby untangled the halyard and raised the main. We’re all feeling a bit green around the gills, but the stabilizing effect of the main makes the difference between an uncomfortable and an unbearable sail.
We rounded Isla Drake, where it is said that Sir Frances Drake was buried at sea, and the stunning bay opened before us. Christopher Columbus named this bay Puerto Bello when he first anchored here in 1502. The name has since been shortened to Portobelo, but the beauty of the bay remains. The beauty of both its scenery and its perfection as a defensible port.
Spain sent its plunder from the Pacific side of the isthmus to the Atlantic side by mule train where it was stockpiled in warehouses at Portobelo before being loaded into ships bound for Spain. The warehouses literally overflowed--silver ingots lay unguarded in the streets when gold filled the warehouses.
The ruins of four forts are on either side of the bay. In the 1590s, just before his death, Drake leveled the beginnings of the Spanish fortifications. Henry Morgan raided in 1668, followed by British Admiral Vernon in 1739. Admiral Vernon inflicted such wounds that the stockpile of treasure was never returned to the bay; ships brought their cargo around Cape Horn and on to Spain. Finally, during the Panama Canal project, rock from the ruins of the largest fort was used in the construction of the first Cristobal breakwater.
We anchored below the remains of Fort San Fernando--right behind Too Lazy To. Woody and Missy are not aboard but we can’t wait to see them. But wait we did. They didn’t get home until almost nine o’clock. They weren’t in the least surprised to see us. The coconut telegraph had kept them apprised of our where-abouts. We made plans to get together in the morning so they could show us around town.
The town is so tiny we didn’t need tour guides but we wouldn’t have known where to dock the dinghy without Woody and Missy’s directions. There is a small house with a concrete dock extending from its seawall. The house belongs to some cruisers who moved ashore here many years ago. They welcome other cruisers into their home where they share their photo albums from 20 years ago.
We checked out two of the small grocery stores and Missy showed me where there were some coin laundry machines. This is our first introduction to the many Chinese who live in Panama. I thought I was asking for five onions and just nodded my head when a grocer repeated my request to me in Chinese-accented Spanish. He grabbed a huge bag and started filling it with onions. He thought I wanted five pounds!
The town is steeped in history. The streets were laid with old ballast stones and there are ruins throughout. Many of the houses are fashioned from three concrete walls butted up against the ruins so that one wall is centuries old. We walked atop the walls of one Spanish fort and speculated as to the purpose of some underground rooms. Cannons have been recovered from the bottom of the bay and placed in battlements facing across the water.
A Catholic Church, built in 1776, is the home of the Black Christ. The Black Christ, a carved statue of Christ hewn out of dark wood, is displayed in a glass case. The face is unsightly to our twentieth century eyes, but the velvet cloak and fine lace ruffles are exquisite. The stories regarding the statue conflict in some of the details, but they all seem to agree that the Black Christ was part of a shipment of treasure destined for Spain. The native people were distraught as they watched their icon taken away. Several days later there was a terrific storm, the ships in the convoy sank, and the statue was washed up on shore, returned to the people from which it came.
It rains most afternoons, keeping the steep hills guarding Portobelo blanketed in spring-green grasses. We always know when the rain is going to start because the howler monkeys, which live above the fort we are anchored under, set up a cacophony of groans, shreiks, and howls. Try as we might, we can never see them--only hear them. Today, the church’s steeple was bathed in glorious color as a brilliant rainbow stretched across the sky, ending atop the church.
Bryan, our 22 year old nephew, is going to fly into Panama within the week to crew with us to French Polynesia. We would like to stay anchored here, both so Bryan can see Portobelo and so he has a short sail to Colon with us before he sets out across the Pacific. We are not officially checked into the country ourselves so decide to take the bus into Colon to arrange a taxi to pick Bryan up and to clear Customs and Immigration.
Robby and Michael stayed on the boat while Woody, Missy, Bobby, and I went to town to catch a bus. We sat on a bench under an almond tree until a school bus, air-brushed in bright, psychedelic colors with a mural of the Black Christ painted on the emergency exit came to a screeching halt in front of us. The names of the cities of Colon and Sabanitas were painted in pastel blue italics on the top edge of the windshield. This is our bus.
The one-and-a-half hour ride to Colon, the large city at the Caribbean side of the Canal, took us through farmland and along many small bays. We stopped whenever someone at the side of the road waved their hand up and down. It might have been pleasant were it not for the dust, heat, and exhaust coming in the open windows. Likewise, shock absorbers that work would have been an improvement.
Colon is a dirty, sprawling old city. Bobby thinks it should be pronounced in the American way (as another word for large intestine), instead of the Spanish way of “cologne.” The city, together with the port of Cristobal, was named after the Spanish way of saying Christopher Colombus. We are overwhelmed by the crowds of people, racing cars, and reports of crime. Woody and Missy led us to the Panama Canal Yacht Club, showing us where it was considered safe to walk and pointing out dangers.
After lunch, they introduced us to Carlos, an English-speaking taxi driver. We all took the taxi to the bank where we split up from Woody and Missy, planning to meet at the bus station or back in Portobelo. Carlos took Bobby and I to make the rounds among all the official agencies we have to visit in order to clear into the country and start the procedures for transiting the canal. Bobby and I have been concerned that we may run into problems since we checked out of Curacao with six crew members (Donny and Kenny flew home from San Blas) five or six weeks ago and haven’t yet checked into Panama. We checked in with all the Sahilas in San Blas, but they don’t communicate with Panamanian officials.
Walking into the Port Captain’s office was like stepping back in time. There are no computers; forms are typed using carbon paper for copies. The metal desks and filing cabinets are from the forties or fifties. Telephones have rotary dials. The offices, and indeed all of Colon, remind me of movies which depict Cuba before Castro’s takeover. Customs and Immigration didn’t mind a bit that we were short two people and had been in their country for weeks before they heard from us--Latin America, you gotta’ love it.
We arranged with Carlos to pick Bryan up at the airport. Regrettably, because of the additional cost, we are going to have to bring Immanuel to Colon and have Carlos drop Bryan off here instead of in Portobelo.
Missy and Woody were not at the yacht club when we returned so Bobby and I walked to the bus station. As we reached the main street, a bus was thundering by. A young thug leaned out the rear window and threw a carton of orange juice, hitting Bobby in the shoulder. This did not upgrade Bobby’s impression of Colon.
The bus station is a riot of noise and milling people. We located our bus and took the last available seats. A vendor walked from bus to bus selling sodas and beers dripping condensation. As soon as the aisle was filled with standing passangers, we were off.
We reached Portobelo only minutes behind Woody and Missy--they had taken another bus. We pick up the boys and go out to dinner together before Woody and Missy leave to sail overnight to Colon. We won’t leave until tomorrow.
Two dolphin escorted us out of the anchorage as we left first thing in the morning. Now that we’ve rounded a curve in the coastline, the sailing isn’t bad. The swells aren’t as big and they are coming under the stern quarter instead of on the beam.
I was surprised at the emotion that welled up in me as we approached the Cristobal Breakwater. There are ships on the horizon, ships in the channel, and ships at anchor from almost every large country in the world. We are treated just like any other vessel. We have to obtain permission by VHF to enter the breakwater and are ordered to proceed directly to “F” Anchorage, known to cruisers as “the flats.” Wending our way through the anchored container ships, so close we can read the signs on deck, raises our pulse rates till we can hear the blood rushing through our ears. Being at the sight of the “engineering feat of the century” sends our hearts into our throats. To top it off, two more dolphin, one of which is pure milky-white, guide us around a point before we cross a channel into the flats.
The flats is an area just across a channel from the Panama Canal Yacht Club enclosed by yellow buoys. The bottom is littered with debris and scoured out so the holding is poor. The wind blows 25 knots most of the time and tugboats blast by sending out boat-rolling wakes. It takes us three tries to get the anchor set.
One could sit on deck watching what’s going on for days without growing bored. We’re moved by the sight of three sailboats with plastic-wrapped tires hanging over their sides. Tire fenders are the badges of boats scheduled to go through the canal the next morning. Cruise ships, freighters, Panamax container ships, tankers, tugboats, and million-dollar yachts pass by day and night.
Bobby dinghied in to the yacht club to talk to the manager about getting a slip in their marina.The manager says it’s first-come, first-served. The marina is full and he takes no reservations, even after Bobby offers to pay in advance.
I’m hoping to spend a week at the dock because I plan to buy as much food here as Immanuel will hold. Provisioning in Panama is inexpensive and most of what we want is available. It’s much easier to provision when we’re tied to a dock than at anchor. It’s also more convenient to do laundry and I want to wash all the cushions and bed covers which don’t fit in my sink for washing aboard before we set off across the Pacific. The next time we stay at a marina shouldn’t be until we reach New Zealand. Bobby asks around on the docks and finds a boat that is leaving in two days. The manager says we can have their slip--IF we’re the first boat in it after they leave.
Bryan’s flight arrives late tonight. We’re eager to see him and get to know him better. We spent a great deal of time with him during his early years but barely know him as a young man. We do have concerns about actually living aboard with any other person for what will probably be months. We’re in close quarters and have developed our individual routines for coping with use of space. Rules are few in terms of what we do but may seem fussy in the ways in which we do them. It’s difficult for someone who hasn’t had to fight their way to a pitching foredeck at night, in the dark, to tame a halyard to understand that lines need to be cleated the same way by everyone to avoid confusion in hectic situations. Likewise, anyone who hasn’t lived in a wet, clammy boat cannot see the purpose in keeping salty bathing suits off the cushions. When dinner plates are cleared in the manner I ask, washing dishes is a breeze as opposed to the chore they can be when everyone piles them haphazardly in the sink.
Bryan has minimal experience on boats so we’re hoping he is able to adjust well.Will he and Robby like sharing a tiny bedroom? We don’t know if Bryan gets seasick or if he will find it discomforting to be out of sight of land. We wonder if he will like being with us or wish he was somewhere else.
On the positive side, Bryan is a fellow believer and we’re keen to share our thoughts and insights with his. He is a family member, whom we love, and we want to grow closer. Bryan’s help with the long passage in front of us will be invaluble. In return, we’re hoping we are able to provide him with rich experiences from visiting foreign places and from the travel itself.
Robby, Michael, and I spend the day cleaning the boat. Robby makes as much room for Bryan’s things in his cupboards and drawers as he can. We take all the things Robby has been storing on his guest bed and move them to Michael’s guest bed.
All is ready so we wait, and wait. The boys go to bed and Bobby dinghies to the yacht club where Bryan will arrive between eleven and midnight.
Finally, I hear the dinghy coming. Bryan is here. He climbs aboard with all of his things--he packed very wisely, everything in two small bags--and all the things we have asked him to bring for us, which consists mostly of next year’s first trimester of school for the boys.
A boat is leaving the marina, so we wake up early and rush to be the first boat there. Kanaloa beat us getting their anchor up but, when I call them on the VHF, they say they are getting fuel before moving to the dock so we’re still in the running. And we made it.
A shoal extends in a semi-circle behind our slip so Bobby has to take us in sideways. Bryan is already proving his worth by being ready with a fender to hold against the side of Immanuel just before we touched the anchor hanging on the rail of the boat beside us.
We tied off and Bobby shut down the engine. Bellows of steam fill the engine room. Something very bad has happened to the engine but, at least the timing was very good. We wouldn’t want to loose our engine pulling into the slip, or worse, while transiting the Panama Canal.
Our one week stay at the marina turned into almost a month. Our engine had blown its head gasket. Bobby did all the work on it himself with Harry, from Cormorant, advising him on the technical aspects he was unsure of. Bobby removed the head and we hired Carlos to take it, and us, into Panama City to have it checked and reconditioned. The drive, mostly through farmland and woods, takes an hour and a half. I saw a gray-brown ball of fluff that turned out to be a sloth in one of the trees we drove past.
Rasa, the engine shop where we took the head, is run by a pleasant young woman, Michelle, who speaks excellent English. She suggests that Bobby call her in the morning to find out if the head is able to be repaired and she offers to deliver it personally to Immanuel when it is either found to be ruined or is reconditioned. Additionally, she made an appointment for me to see an English-speaking dermatologist about a rash I’ve been fighting since we arrived in San Blas.
Panama City is a sprawling metropolis, much like Miami of 20 years ago. There is curb-to-curb traffic between high-rise office buildings and condominiums interspersed with strip malls, hotels, residential districts, and shopping malls. Our first stop is the doctor’s office in a modern medical office complex. The air-conditioned lobby has marble floors, granite counter tops, leather seating, and original art on the walls. The patients and staff are dressed in the style of New York executives.
The doctor’s exam room looked much the same as any American examination room, albeit cleaner. The doctor pronounced me suffering from an allergic reaction and gave me two prescriptions which we filled at the on-sight pharmacy. The whole process took only one hour and forty dollars.
Our next stop was Burger King which tasted just the same as it does at home, except they didn’t have what I really wanted--a chocolate milkshake. The rest of the day was spent buying things that aren’t available in Colon--novels written in English, items for the boat from a chandelery, and the boys’ birthday presents. Yes, it’s only February and their birthdays aren’t until May and August, but we won’t have anywhere between here and Tahiti to buy suitable gifts.
When Bobby called Michelle in the morning he received the good news that our engine’s head will be fine after reconditioning. She will be happy to procure some of the engine maintenance items, such as fuel filters, that Bobby has been unable to locate and deliver those as well as the reconditioned head.
In the meantime, I started provisioning in earnest. I took turns Shanghai-ing whoever was available to accompany me to the grocery stores in the area. The Rey has the best cheeses and breads while the Super 99, just outside of Colon, has the largest general selection. Robby was the lucky one who went with me for one of my large purchases at Super 99. We bought 70 pounds of rice, 60 pounds of flour, countless cans of fruit and vegetables, three cases of canned milk, and boxes of Bisquick, brownie and cake mixes. Altogether we had three cart-fulls after two hours of grocery shopping.
We made our way through the check-out line causing a minor sensation among the local shoppers. I presented my Citibank Visa card and waited for the machine to spit out my receipt. Except it didn’t. The checker showed me the window on the machine while explaining in rapid-fire Spanish what the problem was. I suspected it was the good folks at Citibank once again refusing to honor my credit card, even though my father-in-law keeps my credit rating higher than it ever was when I was taking care of my own bills. It took a security guard whose English is about twice as good as my Spanish to interpret. Citibank did, indeed, need me to call them.
The security guard took Robby and I to a pay phone outside, in the dark, in Central America, and chased one of the locals off the phone so I could use it. Citibank just needed my mother’s maiden name. They, and American Express, continually create problems for us because their computers can’t handle the fact that our credit cards are used in one country one month and in another the next. When I explain to them that they are causing me grief, putting me in awkward situations, and not enhancing the reputation of Americans traveling in foreign countries, they suggest I give them a detailed itinerary of where we’ll be and when. I’ve tried to provide them with this and it did help. For two months. But now we’re back to hassle and embarrassment. I know we don’t exactly have a conventional lifestyle and that they are simply trying to protect us from a thief using our credit cards, but I wish there was a way for us to avoid these problems. At least, this time, there is a convenient, working pay phone nearby and I didn’t have any perishibles awaiting my credit authorization.
Robby and I went back in the store, the machine spit out its piece of paper, I signed, and we followed four box boys out to Super 99’s complimentary bus. The bus is just like the local, garishly painted ex-schoolbuses but we get it all to ourselves. The boys, ten to thirteen-year-olds, loaded all of our groceries and I made motions to tip them but they shook their heads and jumped into the bus. Robby and I followed them aboard and chose a seat opposite a sleeping baby girl.
The driver climbed in and the bus started with a hiss of air from the brakes. I pointed out the baby to him and he smiled and nodded his head. Apparantly she is his daughter and he brings her to work with him. I was worried she’d fall off the seat as we bumped and banged on our way. I was pleased when she woke up so I had an excuse to hold her on my lap. Not only was she a bit safer, but it felt pleasant to hold a baby again.
The boys all piled out when we reached the yacht club. They strained their little muscles carrying heavy boxes to our slip. When they came to one that was beyond their ability to lift, they worked together, each carrying an end. Robby and I delight in the service and the boys appear happy with their jaunt away from the store, not to mention their tips.
The yacht club’s laundry room has a large stainless-steel sink that’s perfect for washing all of our upholstery. It’s useless for doing laundry. The two working washers take up to two hours to wash one load, depending upon the amount of water being diverted for use on the docks or in the kitchen. One dryer tumbles but has no heat, the other dryer heats but doesn’t tumble. Like the rest of the club, machines are not being upgraded because it is expected that the marina will be razed within two years to make room for the Chinese-owned cruise ship port planned here. Substantial property, including some government office buildings, on either end of the canal is leased to a Chinese corporation.
Either Robby or Michael and I take laundry in to a combination bakery and laundromat in town. On one of my outings with Michael, we brought along a backgammon board to give us something to do while we wait for the clothes to dry. Two police officers stopped in to buy some pastry (their version of the cops in the donut shop). One of the officers was quite interested in watching Michael and I play. When we finished our game, Michael taught him how to play even though he speaks a different language. The officer was so proud of his winning on his first try that he rode off on his bicycle, leaving his nightstick behind.
Bryan spent his time helping on the boat, joining me for some grocery store runs, and walking around Colon getting to know people and working on learning Spanish. One time, he was speaking to a local who said he was just out of rehab when a policeman pulled up and subjected Bryan and his friend to a thorough patting-down, looking for drugs. Bobby never got over his experience with the thug throwing things at him and worried whenever Bryan left alone, especially at night when Bryan went to church or when he brought his expensive camera with him for local street shots. Somehow, I grew to like the crowded, filthy old city and felt relatively safe, so I wasn’t overly concerned about Bryan.
There are gangs of treacherous men and squalid areas where no one is safe. However, on the whole, I found the people to be bright, congenial, and anxious to communicate regardless of our lack of Spanish. Most people professed a liking for Americans and many told us they wish the US had not pulled out of Panama. We were told that 1000 civilians were killed when the United States captured Manuel Noriega by two different taxi drivers who firmly believe this. I hope it’s not true and believe that, had something of this magnitude taken place, the American media would have raised a giant ruckus about it.
Something scary diffinitely took place. Carlos told us that he was in the Free Zone at dawn and witnessed missiles flying through the streets and Panamanian policemen running around in their underwear because they had stripped off their uniforms so as not to appear to be military. On another occassion, we were told that a gunboat pulled up in front of the yacht club and shot up a building in a surgical take-out of Noriega supporters. Special forces did an outstanding job with no civilian casualties. Wherever the truth lies, there was no discernable anti-American sentiment. Quite the contrary, they want us back.