Panama, Shelter Bay Marina

Our overnight sail from San Blas to Panama’s Shelter Bay marina went without a hitch. If anything we were sailing too quickly so had to reduce the sail area to slow us down as we wanted to arrive during daylight.

Sailing into the area was pretty full on. Huge tankers everywhere, the radio buzzing with ships wanting to depart or dock. We radioed to gain entry to the inner harbour and got told… ‘Sure, just keep out of the way of the shipping containers.’.  Top advice mate! With such deep insight we guessed he must have been the supervisor.


We weaved through the vessels and made it safely over to Shelter Bay marina where we’ll be spending a few days getting our documentation for the canal sorted, final (why do I keep saying final when there’s no such thing on a boat?) fixes to the boat, provisioning for the Pacific, and (hopefully) a few hours drinking cold beers in the pool here.

First impressions of the marina are great. It’s a hive of activity that very much reminds us of Las Palmas before the ARC rally. Boat projects are being tackled everywhere, some of which seem quite serious. There’s a lot of people that seemed to have run into bad weather off the Columbian coast which I mentioned a few posts back. We were lucky I think through here and kept well away from the coastline. Looking at some of the damage and hearing some of the stories I’m glad we decided to play it safe.

We also met back up with Pippy and Richard, a Kiwi couple we ran into and sailed with for a few days over in the Isles des Saints area. There are loads of other Ozzie’s and Kiwi’s here as well. You can really tell we’re about to start this last (huge) leg back home. Some of these guys have been cruising away from home for years but the draw of kids, or grandkids, seems to be pulling them from the sea back to land.

Our agent, Erick, turned up moments after we docked and helped us with all the documentation and booked our meeting with the Canal officials. So far Erick has been amazing with his help and support (taking a boat through the Panama Canal isn’t the most straightforward process). He couldn’t stay long though as immigration decided to raid the marina and I think a few boats might have been ‘bending’ the visa rules a little so he shot off to help smooth over any issues.

Talking of visas, we’ve always been quite by the book when it comes to checking in/out of countries. Some cruisers we know don’t bother and wing it and I’m sure they save quite a bit of time, and cash, doing so. I like being able to sleep at night and it’s one less thing to worry about. We proudly showed our passport stamps we got over in San Blas to the machine gun toting official who seemed pleased we’d done the right thing. At least we didn’t have to run and hide in the pool like some people we saw. Haha.

Like clockwork the canal officials turned up the very next morning and measured our boat, inspected everything and got us to sign 100 more documents. Honestly I have no idea what we’re signing and he could very well own the boat, Helen, and several of our internal organs by now but he seemed friendly enough so we’ll trust him I guess.

At the end of the inspection he smiled, said we were good to go then handed over our Transit number! Woohoo!


Erick has booked us in for a provisional transit sometime on Tuesday the 31st of March. So we have a few more days to prepare and then we’ll be off!


San Blas islands

After an amazing sail over from Puerto Rico we arrived at the picture-perfect San Blas islands. We were pretty nervous coming into the small anchorage as we’d heard so many horror stories about yachts getting wrecked on the reefs. But we’d checked and double checked the waypoints and Simon followed these to the letter, while I stood on the fore-deck with my eyes trained constantly at the water.SanBlas1We had good light and could make out the reefs as we passed and made it safely into the anchorage. It’s quite deep and drops off rapidly, plus with a reef directly behind us we wanted to make sure we were set before setting off to land. We had lunch and studied our transit lines. Then once we were confident we jumped into the dinghy and headed to the dock in search of customs.SanBlas23They’re located right next to the dock but it turned out they were on lunch – doh! We’d forgotten that we had crossed a timeline or two and hadn’t reset our clocks.SanBlas3Oh well it gave us time to explore the tiny island that is Porvenir.SanBlas7We felt like intruders as we wandered the island, there’s no distinct boundaries between the huts, gardens and I guess public areas. The toilets were little more than a hut with a hole over the sea. We were definitely somewhere very different.

We’d come to the end of our wanderings when we saw a man cross the airport runway so we decided to follow him (as you do!).SanBlas20We came to a hotel and had a cold drink before heading back to customs. Clearing in was pretty straight forward but set us back a penny or two. Immigration and cruising permits do not come cheap here, but we’d need them for Panama anyway so we stumped up the fees.

Then we headed back to the boat where we were visited by some of the local Kuna people selling molars. These are pretty pieces of embroidered fabrics that they traditionally use for their dresses. We chose a few samples and enjoyed some laughs as we didn’t speak the same language. The Kuna people have their own language but as a result of the Spanish conquest the common language spoken between the locals and tourists is Spanish.SanBlas18SanBlas14SanBlas5From there we nipped across to East Lemon Cays where we planned to stay the night. Again we carefully followed the waypoints and scanned the sea for reefs but made it in safely. We had updated our Navionic charts just before leaving Puerto Rico and I must say they were spot on despite all the reports.

This anchorage was beautiful, nestled between a cluster of islands and surrounded by reef it was not only stunning but as flat as a pancake. What a pleasant feeling after the rocky, rolly marina in Puerto Rico.SanBlas8We were pretty beat after our crossing so we chilled out and watched the sun set over the palm-tree covered islands before crashing into bed for an early night.SanBlas10The next day we were up for some exploration. We dived into the crystal clear waters and had an amazing snorkel across the reef to the nearest island. We wandered around the edge taking in the views.SanBlas2SanBlas9SanBlas11The islands are so tiny. We’d wandered about half-way around the island when I saw a Hanse just like ours. I pointed it out to Simon who laughed his head off. It was Interlude! I guess we’d walked further than I thought. After that it was a long swim against the current to get back. SanBlas17We had lunch and then decided to get the dinghy out to explore one of the other islands. This one even had a dinghy dock (in about 1 foot of water) which works well if you’re in a sturdy dug-out canoe but is a bit scarier in a inflatable, soft-bottomed dingy.SanBlas19This island also had a bar!SanBlas12The drink selection was simple, a can of local beer (Balboa), a coke or a water. So we had a few beers and laid on the beach watching as one tour guide boat after another turned up bringing hippy-like backpackers too and fro.SanBlas13SanBlas16We had a paddle and found some amazing star-fish, saw a hermit crab, played some naughts and crosses and hangman in the sand, and generally lazed the day away.SanBlas6SanBlas24Back on the boat we were visited by Lisa, a local transvestite that’s known for the quality of her molars. I must say they look great so we bought a few more.

We were enjoying ourselves so much in East Lemons that we couldn’t be bothered to go anywhere else and decided to stay another day. Sometimes it’s all too easy to rush around from one place to the next in case we miss something, but that day we decided to stay put and take it all in.

The following day we decided to head to Dog Island. Some fellow Aussies, on a boat called Henri, got the jump on us so we followed them over. They’re heading to Panama then back to Oz in a few week’s time which makes us think we’re not leaving it too late.SanBlas21Followed the waypoints again, and again no problem with the electronic charts but using the waypoints from the guide also gave us a bit more confidence. Especially when you see the number of wrecks here. It seems like most reefs have at least one.

Anyway on Dog Island that’s what we’d come to see. A cargo ship had been wrecked here many years ago and now is home to hundreds of reef fish. We swam over, against the current again, and had a look around.

The wreck is conveniently located close to the beach and close to the surface making it perfect for snorkelling. Simon has purchased a new waterproof case for his iPhone so he was able to take some underwater, and above-water pics.SanBlas22SanBlas4SanBlas15On Dog Island you can pick up a can of coke but not much more. These islands are really unspoiled – and these are the touristy ones! I think this is the most beautiful place we’ve been. A taste of paradise!

After that it was time to head back to Porvenir to clear out. Next stop Panama – yikes!

Puerto Rico to San Blas crossing

Helen and I were excited to be heading out on a long passage again.

At roughly 950 Miles the sail from Puerto Rico to the San Blas Islands just East of the Panama Canal, this would be our second biggest crossing after the Atlantic.

Since then we’ve tweaked the boat, and other areas such as our weather software, so it would be interesting to see how everything worked once off shore.

We set off a few days later than we’d have liked due to some postal issues. As is the norm with cruisers a very nice guy came to our aid so we left feeling safe that our waypoints into the tricky San Blas area (most of which is based on chart data over 100 years old) was as accurate as could be.

The only real issue was the wind might drop a little too much.

We said goodbye to Eileen and Geoff who were the lovely couple we met on the boat next to us and made it back out of the marina with little fuss. It’s hard to rate ‘The Yacht Club’ on Puero Rico’s East Coast. The staff, facilities, and berths were spot on but they do have a real issue with swell which drove everyone crazy.

No sooner had we cleared the marina than a large boobie landed on our Bimini. Now it’s not every day you can say that but unfortunately the boobie in question was a bird. He just hung out calm as you like while we took some photos. I even stroked his feet which felt like cabbage leaves. This fact made Helen laugh for some reason. I don’t think the boobie was impressed with my observation either as he flew off at this point to catch more fish.

Panama Crossing1

It was lovely sailing down Puerto Rico’s southern coast. This side of the island was lush greens, a huge contrast to the concrete industrial parks etched into the landscape everywhere when you travel by car.

We had a perfect days sailing with warm winds pushing us smoothly over flat seas. Nice.

Panama Crossing3

During the night the wind dropped as we feared and day two was spent fighting flogging sails. The seas were still flat and sun shining though so we couldn’t moan too much.

I mentioned our new weather software. After rave reviews from Cam and others I know who use it we’ve signed up for PredictWind. It’s not cheap but after doing some research the features it offered were exactly what we’ve been after.

Whilst on shore you can get detailed info, get the thing to work out what’s the best day to leave, etc.   but what we’re really loving is the weather routing and how that works offshore with our Iridium GO satphone.

You just enter your current location and end point and PredictWind looks at all the major forecasting models to create a route. You can tell it to provide the fastest route or make it more comfortable. So far it’s been scarily accurate for us and via the Iridium GO we can download a small text file version of the the data in seconds, rather than wait 5mins for a GRIB, which the app then converts into graphs and easy to read charts.

You can even export its route and import it onto your plotter. Based on the conditions it creates waypoints to head for. Sure enough the actual route we ended up taking, due to wind angle most of the time, matched up to the predict wind forecast perfectly.

So far we are very impressed.

The next few days were some of the best sailing we’ve had on the whole trip. Sunny days, 14-18 knot winds behind us, and flat seas. It’s exactly the conditions we had expected during the Atlantic crossing but never got. Tradewinds at their best!

Panama Crossing4

We didn’t see a soul for two days. Just open water by day stretching out before you in every direction and a stunning dome of stars showing off by night. Those moments of looking outwards or upwards will be one of the biggest things I’ll miss after this trip ends.

We weren’t always alone though. One afternoon we crossed paths with the largest pod of dolphins we’ve ever seen. It was like they hadn’t seen anyone for days either so raced over to us excitedly shooting out of the waves as they approached from the side in a huge arc. There must have been over 100 and the water was thick with them all diving and spinning around us. For 30mins our boat was totally surrounded by dolphins as they took it in turns to play in our wash.

By night we were treated to perfectly clear skies above while below huge jellyfish protested being run over as they lit up creating cool glowing orbs in the water just behind our stern.

For some reason this crossing I’ve had the sunrise watches and have been trying to find new and innovative ways to wake Helen up. First up, I was cleaning the decks and ‘accidentally’ threw a bucket of water through the window onto Helen as she slept. Could have sworn it was shut. Helen wasn’t exactly impressed. The next day a flying fish landed on the decks and I spent 5 mins trying to free it. Not impressed with that either!!

The other visitor that kept making an (unwelcomed) appearance was the same seaweed we ran into crossing the Atlantic.

I know this stuff produces more oxygen than anything else on Earth so I should give it a break but when you have wade through huge fields of the stuff it gets wrapped around your keel and rudder slowing you down to a crawl. I know. First world problems. The only way to get rid of the stuff was to crash tack into the wind then spin the boat back downwind a few times hoping it would fall away. That or dive under the boat and free it by hand. As I took the last turn to do that mid Atlantic in 4000m of water, Helen decided to stick to the crash tack method. Clever girl.

We’d been warned by many people that the Columbian coastline is prone to some of the worst conditions on the planet. We did an update on PredictWind which showed the winds and swell would be picking up so tried to stay a good 50 miles offshore as we came towards land. Even that far out the seas got very confused and we spent the day getting tossed this way and that.

I’d hate to try and tackle this area in bad weather.

During our last day the wind really dropped. Wasn’t an issue through as we only had a few miles to go and couldn’t get there that day anyhow. As the sun set one last time before landfall another pod of dolphins joined us. One of these was amazing. He kept speed with the boat and then shot out of the water in front of us doing crazy spins and summer salts. Over and over he did this. I think he was a Sea World escapee. We named him ‘Nutter’.

That night I was woken to the sound of Helen screaming. I flew up on deck half asleep thinking we were sinking or being attacked by a Johnny Depp wannabe only to find a flying fish had landed in Helen’s lap.  We got the fish back in the water and cracked up laughing as the adrenalin started to wane.

As the sun rose Panama loomed before us in the distance preceded by a splattering of tiny islands called the San Blas Islands. We’d made it. 980 miles in just under seven days. Seven of the best days at sea we’ve had.

Panama Crossing5

Hopefully all our crossings back to Sydney will follow suit.

Panama here we come!

We’re all set. Heading off to Panama in a few hours. The tanks are topped off, the batteries fully charged (thanks to Geoff for the continued use of his power adapter), and Interlude has more food onboard than we know what to do with.

The weather window still looks good although the wind might ease off a little too much later in the week. The swell, which is the thing everyone has told us to be respectful of for this passage, looks to be extremely calm for the whole week now so it should be a pretty comfortable few days.

We’re actually really excited to be setting off. This will be our second biggest passage after the Atlantic crossing so it’ll be good for us to really get back into the swing of long off-shore sailing before heading out into the Pacific.

It also give us almost week at sea where we can check Interlude is working as she should. We still have time in Panama to fix up any issues we run into. Hopefully nothing too major crops up.

In other news our Galapagos visa has been approved! We now have all the paperwork in place for a visit to this amazing area which is where we’ll head to directly after we’ve made it through the canal.

We plan to make Landfall in the San Blas islands 200 miles East of the Canal. This area is meant to be amazing to visit and nothing like we’ve experienced so far so we can’t wait to spend a few days there.

Hopefully we’re still on track to get through the Canal before the end of March- that was always our RED ALERT date for starting the long trek home. We had hoped to be in Panama by now but you can’t hurry love, I mean the weather.

You can keep an eye on our progress via the ‘Location’ link above.

Delays… (FedEx you SUCK!)

We’re stuck here in Puerto Rico ready to leave but are waiting for the Panama cruising guide to turn up which you really need to sail around San Blas. We paid a lot to get ‘guaranteed’ overnight delivery from the States a few days ago but after just calling the office we were told it ‘might’ show up Monday (a full three days later than it should have).

It’s our own fault for leaving it too late. We thought we’d be able to pick up a copy here locally.

There’s a nice guy on a Cat in front of us through who has the book so we are waiting for him to return to the boat to hopefully lend / buy it from him. We’ll then post our new copy to his address somehow.

That’s our mad plan anyhow. If that doesn’t work Helen’s going to put a pair of tights over her head tonight and she’s going to rob him.

We wouldn’t mind too much but we’re running low on time now to get to Panama and there’s a great weather window to get there RIGHT NOW. These things are sent to try us I guess. Grrr.