Since leaving for the San Blas Islands two and a half weeks ago, we have:
1. Swum in that amazing turquoise Caribbean water you thought only existed in screensavers
2. Navigated our first reef passage
3. Hosted an amazing pair of friends, Craig and Evvy, for a week and a half!
4. Been engulfed by a swarm of 10,000 bees
5. Seen Craig attacked by vicious territorial feral monkeys (don’t worry, no bites)
6. Heard a sickly grinding/rattling noise as our transmission crapped out
7. Crossed some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes under sail power only in no wind (as a result of Item #6)
8. Flown Ute’s spinnaker for the first time ever
9. Seen some breathtakingly beautiful coastline!
10. Taken our transmission completely apart on the tailgate of a pickup in a dirty parking lot in Panama City
One thing we notably didn’t do is reach the San Blas islands. No matter, though, as we always say, the only sure thing about our plans is that they’ll likely change….We left here (Shelter Bay) on a dreary rainy day and discovered that a month lying fallow in the Canal Zone had turned us back into beginners…..we spent a couple hours trying to remember how to sail while turning green from the adjustment to Caribbean wave patterns. Of the many things I’ve learned on this trip so far, one is that you could go sailing every day for years and still go out one day and encounter a synergy of wind, current, and wave pattern that feels new. And, occasionally, nauseating. Our discomfort passed quickly though and we pulled into Portobelo without incident.
Portobelo is a great little colonial town, tucked into a beautiful bay just 12 miles east of the north end of the Canal. While Colon may be the murder and mayhem capital of Central America, you luckily don’t have to put it too far to your stern to find warm, friendly Panama again. Every day we spend in this leafy, curvy country, I love it more!
After a few mellow nights in Portobelo, and a toast to our inaugural trip into Caribbean waters, we moved up the coast to Isla Linton. (here’s a map http://www.fallingrain.com/world/PM/4/Linton.html if you’re following along). We still had a good four days until Craig and Evvy were scheduled to land in Panama City, and just 40 more miles to cover to meet them in El Porvenir in the San Blas, so we figured we could take our time and check out Isla Linton and Isla Grande…..
Our entrance to the Linton anchorage was out first real reef passage, and although it is a fairly innocuous one as they go, we still held our collective breath as we saw jagged coral heads pass on either side of the hull. We were thrilled to find that our GPS waypoints jived with our new charts, as the alternative can get ugly fast. We toodled into the anchorage unscathed, dropped the hook, and put the boat in reverse to set it, only to hear an unsettling rattling clanking grinding noise which accompanied an equally unsettling lack of reverse movement. The anchor was already pretty well set, luckily, but we still had a pretty powerful Oh Shit! moment.
“Oh shit, it’s the transmission”, Allen yelled. “Now we are TOTALLY F$*#&ED!”
A little backstory here: Allen has heartily declared our T.F. status at least 17 times in the last 8 months. It is getting to be a bit of a joke amongst our friends. I am more prone to the “listen, if we still have all of our major body parts and are not unequivocally dying of an incurable disease, anything else is negotiable” approach.
I had to give him a little credit on this one, though. It was a downer to hear this noise and immediately know the following things: A) there was no way in hell we would be in San Blas to meet Craig and Evvy at the sunny end of a flight they’d already purchased tickets for, B) we were not going to see the San Blas for awhile, and C) the phrase “transmission went out” to boaters is often synonymous with fun ideas like “lifted their engine out using only coconuts and a leatherman” and “maybe we could sell our organs on Ebay to pay for the part.”
But there was no lack of good news, considering…..we were just one day’s chicken-bus travel from Panama City, which is the best place to fix boat stuff between here and San Diego. Craig and Evvy are boat people and would understand. Our anchor was set and we and the boat were all safe. Isla Linton and environs are absolutely gorgeous. And we had no schedule of deadlines of our own, since we have from now ‘til November to screw around in Panama. Of course, we’re broke, but that’s such old news at this point we don’t really worry about it anymore…
So after two sweaty days of screwing around with the engine and trying to diagnose the issue with the generous help of two neighbors (thanks again Tumbleweed and Paradiso!) we found ourselves on a bus at dawn, toting a change of clothes of dubious cleanliness, a propane tank (might as well get it filled as long as we’re headed for the bright-lights-big-city), and part of our transmission coupler. We figured we’d escort Craig and Evvy to the new and improved rendezvous point and at the same time establish contact with the marine diesel cognoscenti of Panama City.
Craig and Evvy touched ground right on time and by the time they arrived at their hotel where we were waiting, we’d even rustled up Billy, who hadn’t yet left for Panama City, and we had plenty of cold beer at the ready. And for the second time in a month we got to experience the joy of not only seeing old friends but also having another Christmas Morning as we opened all the goodies they’d brought us from home: cheese, bourbon, new movies, new music, boat gear, care packages from friends and family, and more. Thanks again C&E! You really went above and beyond….
We spent the next day visiting the old colonial part of Panama City and the Canal museum while simultaneously getting screwed by an incompetent machine shop. Long story short we tried a quick fix for the transmission that was a long shot anyway, made more so by leaving it in the hands of this dude who couldn’t machine his way out of a bowl. Oh well. That was kind of a pisser at the time but it’s already funny in retrospect. What can you do….
The next day we said goodbye to Bill AGAIN and the four of us made the multi-vehicle trek back to Linton. We were anxious to get back to the boat as this (2 nights) was the longest we’d been away from it in 8 months. Funny that we’re so far away from home in the one sense, and yet we haven’t left our house for more than 14 hours at a stretch since September.
Craig and Evvy were incredibly good sports about the change of plans. Of course we’ve grown accustomed to being surrounded by turquoise water, lush jungle, howler monkeys, and fuzzy green islands, but they assured us that it was no less of a destination for not being in the San Blas. I guess I see their point. And it was a really cool spot.
We had a fantastic week of swimming off the boat, snorkeling, exploring the islands near Linton, and just hanging out and catching up. Isla Grande, a relatively touristy but still pretty mellow island, was about an hour's row away, so that was fun. Craig did get attacked by feral spider monkeys at Bad Monkey Beach, but I promised I’d let him tell that story. Stay tuned for his installment. We have to figure out a way to put a link to the monkey attack video here on the blog. Danny, can we put video on your site and link it? let us know….
Towards the end of the week the decision was made that the four of us would sail Ute back to Shelter Bay, thus letting Craig and Evvy get some sailing in while safely returning Ute to a place that we could work with a mechanic and safely pull the engine. In this season of variable winds (the trusty rusty NE Caribbean trades take time off in the summer months), we were a bit nervous about crossing the Canal without the help of a motor, but it also sounded like a fun challenge. It was only about a 30 mile trip door to door but we spread it over two days just to make sure we would arrive here in full daylight. We stopped in Portobelo for a night since it was already familiar and seemed like a relatively easy place to sail on and off an anchor. It turned out to be a great stop – we stuffed ourselves on pizza at a bar run by a Fijian/French Canadian couple. It’s a small town, but not your average Panamanian small town…it was, for most of the 17th and 18th centuries, the main shipping port for all of the New World riches shipped back to Spain….all that Inca gold, Bolivian silver, Venezuelan emeralds, you name it. Legend has it that there were times that so much gold and silver came through town that the customs house was full to the ceilings and gold ingots spilled out into the streets It was sacked and burned by Henry Morgan at least twice. There are crumbling, mossy forts and cannons all around. Evvy commented, “It’s just like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland” and we had to laugh that that was our point of reference. (In her defense, we did actually spot a guy in a striped shirt rocking back and forth on a keg and drinking rum). It was actually pretty exciting and hair-raising to see the real thing, even if the cannons cooled off for the last time a couple hundred years ago. The north coast of Panama is peppered with pirate hotspots and relics of Spanish main hotspots…I see our summer filled with fort-frolicking and cannon-cavorting. (when and if we have an operational engine, of course. One thing at a time).
Leaving Portobelo, we had just 16 miles to cover to reach Shelter Bay. It was a brilliant sail. Craig, aka Spinnaker Man, helped us bust out the kite, allowing us to ghost along at a couple knots in virtually no wind for most of the morning. Great experience for us, and very picturesque sailing to boot. No stinky loud engine to bring us down! The wind picked up after noon, and we found ourselves cruising towards the Colon breakwater at an easy 5+ knots, only to have to the wind die completely at the precise moment we found ourselves smack in the middle of the breakwater entrance, and thus right in the path of all ships coming to and from the Panama Canal. Interesting. No need to panic though… Spinnaker Man and crew saved the day again, and we drifted out of the shipping lanes without too many new grey hairs.Craig and Evvy had just enough time to experience disco showers and oropendolas before we had to bustle them off for Panama City last Sunday morning.
We spent the rest of Sunday lifting our engine partway out of the boat with some rotting 4X4’s and lots of rope. Our blood, sweat and tears paid off when we were holding the transmission in hand at the end of the day. Joe, our new mechanic and my new hero, was nice enough to let us ride into Panama City with him late that night…..what a fun and funny treat to be speeding through the night along the back roads of Panama in an old Ford pickup with a farmer-turned-diesel-mechanic from Missouri, dodging agoutis and coconuts, driving over the Gatun locks, wondering if the McDonald’s by the highway would still be open, talking transmissions and boats and critters and more as the jungle pressed in on both sides. Joe’s lived here for 15 years and is married to a Panamanian, and has been working on marine engines for about a hundred years, so we feel pretty lucky to have found him.
This week has been a blur of traveling back and forth to Panama City – a trip of only about 40 miles, but it requires an overnight stay in PC because being in Colon after dark on the way back is not an option – and working on the transmission. The upshot is that Allen is, as I write this, picking up the new part we had made, and once we get the new part installed, and the transmission reassembled, and get it put back in the boat, and reinstall all the things we had to take out to get to the transmission, and realign the engine, we’ll find out if it works or not. phew….should be fun.
In the meantime it’s really nice to be back at Shelter Bay where the livin’ is easy. pricey…but easy. Jungle trails all around, volleyball every afternoon, showers, baths, ice machine, wi-fi. And more canvas jobs, which will help offset the rent, especially if I actually start doing them instead of screwing around online all day…….
welcome to our blog!
This blog tells the story of our 22-month sailing journey from Oakland, California, to Bristol, Rhode Island, aboard our beloved Bristol 32 sailboat, Ute. Please feel free to browse through the archives (partway down the sidebar to your left) to see pics and read stories of our adventures in North America and Central America . (Sorry the first 3 months of the trip are missing - they vanished somewhere in an internet cafe in Mexico - but all you're missing is CA, Baja and Western Mex).
If you're trying to track us down now that we're landlubbers, try us at uteatlarge at yahoo dot com. Thanks!
If you're trying to track us down now that we're landlubbers, try us at uteatlarge at yahoo dot com. Thanks!