Shelter Bay Marina is the only marina on the Caribbean side of the Canal. It was not here when we sailed from Honduras to Panama about 8 years ago with brother Bruce aboard Chance Encounter. At that time the Panama Yacht Club was the only place to stop to do laundry, provision, clear customs etc. That has now been replaced by a huge container port but one can still anchor out in the flats although with no place to go ashore it has not got much appeal unless a late transit of the canal leaves it too late to approach Shelter Bay on the other side of the Canal.
With our 2 day passage we were into the marina early afternoon and were very glad to be greeted by Ken and Carole ( Nauti Moments) Chris and Dwayne (Risk Taker)and the Shelter Bay staff as we tied up alongside. It had been a long time since we had pulled into a dock!
With a fair bit of coordinating we were able to get Jeff onto the staff bus back to Panama then had dinner ashore at the restaurant. Shelter Bay has a very nice swimming pool, a great little store, a Laundromat to do your own laundry or get it done for you, a small marine chandlery and wonderful warm showers with unlimited water!!!!!
We gave Optical Illusion a well deserved wash down and did a fir bit of cleaning. Jack and Marilyn took the free shuttle bus into Colon to explore the shopping there and to buy a few things as well. We chose to see Colon, or at least the safe parts of it, on our return from the San Blas.
Friday morning with a very brisk wind we headed out towards Portobelo, our first stop on the way to the islands! We had forgotten how windy the Caribbean was and it was a most unpleasant re-introduction! It is only 18 miles but took us 6 hours of bashing. Jack and Marilyn were real troopers but did not enjoy that leg! By the time we anchored and headed ashore to explore all the shops were closed and Portobelo was a rather depressing place to wander around. The history there is incredible with the ruins of three different forts from the Spanish plundering days! This city and Nombre de Dios further along were the major storing and loading ports for the ships taking gold from the Americas back to Spain and was once a thriving place.
We met some cruisers at the local hang out and discovered that the trip to the San Blas needed to be broken into 2 parts; it was too far with the wind on the nose again to make it all the way with proper lighting. So off we went early the next morning and anchored off Isla Grande some 12 miles away intending to stay the night. It was not an appealing anchorage and after a quick snorkel we went in search of a better destination. We discovered there were not many options and when Jack and Bill were left unattended they headed off on a very pleasant course following an Italian boat who must know what he was doing! Unfortunately he did not!! In order to get back on the correct course we were right into the wind again and bashing forward! We soon discovered that the very pleasant bay at Green Turtle Cay was not a viable anchorage but by nosing in slowly we did discover boats tied alongside tucked in a Marina. Since the boat we could see was considerably bigger than us it looked like a possible refuge for the night. We could see the manager out on the breakwater talking on his VHF (we thought) but could not find the channel he was on. He was making hand signals but not making much sense. We tippy-toed in through a rather scary entrance and eventually tied up to the gas dock at Turtle Cay Marina. It was at this time that we found out the Yogi, the manager was talking on his cel phone to the lost Italian boat who had the wrong coordinates . He thought he was talking to us since the Italian boat was nowhere to be seen at the time so communication was not really happening at all. What a fiasco!
This marina has been under construction for many years and has progressed very slowly. It was only European boats who were there any most were tucked in more than us. We moved to a slightly less surgey spot for night two but needed to be way back inside to avoid the surge even more. There is a travel lift being constructed and a storage area being graveled but it was along way off yet!
We walked out to a little restaurant/bar near the breakwater and could not believe the size of the rollers coming in. Our planned departure for the San Blas to keep Jack and Marilyn on schedule was not working out well. We had not counted on the unfavourable weather we had encountered and were advised not to try an escape the next day. The closest airport in the san Blas had been closed for political reasons and the only one operational was still a long way off. Jack and Marilyn had booked their flight back to Panama based on our estimate and their flight from Panama to Mexico the day after. We did discover that Yogi could taxi them to the bus station for the chicken bus to Colon from Nombre de Dios and then they could take the express bus to Panama City from Colon and after much discussion we decided it was not a good option to continue on. We were all disappointed because we had wanted to share the San Blas Islands experience with them and had thought it was a doable trip but alas it was not in this weather!
After 2 very surgey nights aboard Optical Illusion at the dock they headed back to Panama City and were at their hotel right from the dock in only 4 hours. We did have some nice down time reading and relaxing on the beach but swimming was not much of an option because the waves just kept growing as the wind kept ablowin’. The best laid plans of mice and men!
After a third night at the marina we were ready to head off and the wind had abated so off we went again. This time after motoring for a few hours to get out far enough to avoid the shoals we were actually able to put up the sails for something other than stability and we sailed the last 4 hours into a little atoll called Chichime. This was our first experience in a long time navigating in shallow waters amid coral reefs and we went very slowing from waypoint to waypoint and dropped anchor in the midst of about a dozen boats.
The next day we moved a couple of miles to the East Lemmon Cays to connect with a boat called “Dream” owned by an Italian couple. Pierrot is a refrigeration technician and our frigo-boat had not been behaving quite right lately. We didn’t know if it was a fridge or a battery issue. Being new to the area we chose the wrong anchorage in the East Lemmons and bumped the ground at one point just off Yan Saladup. We a bit of powering we moved back into deeper water and dropped the hook. We contacted Pierrot on VHF and although we could see the boats close by, it took a full hour to go the 5 miles around the coral reefs to the correct spot.
He was aboard shortly after we anchored and by the afternoon he had evacuated the gas in the system because there was water in the evaporator tube. He evacuated the gas twice and then refilled it. This was probably caused because we had not changed the seals in the 6 years we have had the system. $80 later and the fridge was humming.
This is also a very popular spot for the local Kuna Indians who visit in their cayucas (dugout canoes equipped with sails) and show off their artwork. Venincio, a well known artist arrived with his salesman brother shortly after 2 sisters and we bought molas from both groups. It is very hard to say no since the work is so labour intensive and is done exclusively in this part of the world. Venincio has a very intricate product and does ask quite a bit for his craft but you can see the difference in the quality. Lisa is another well known transvestite artist. He/she is very talented as well but we never got to see his/her work.
While we were at the East Lemmons, Gosling, Warren Peace and Alegria arrived and chose to go to the East Hollandise Cays to the “swimming pool” anchorage.
We spent one more day in the Lemmons then joined the gang at the swimming pool. The scenery here is incredible; it is called the swimming pool because it is almost completely surrounded by reefs and there is wonderful snorkeling. We eventually moved right up to the front near BBQ island with only 2 feet of water under the keel. It was a bit nerve-wrecking but was a beautiful spot. We later found out how beautiful, when a few days later a lady from a boat called Safari, came by and asked if we would like to purchase a picture she had taken from the top of her mast. She is a professional photographer from South Africa and since they are heading to Tahiti where they would like to enroll their children is school decided to earn a bit of money while she could. Ours was the first picture she took and charged us $5. The price quickly went up to $10 for others since the $5 price was ridiculously low and we did a good job of promoting here work.While we were anchored there, a Canadian couple came b y in their dinghy. They were just saying hello but we quickly discovered that we knew each other. In 1999 before our last Caribbean trip we had joined the Fleet of 99 with the BlueWater Cruising Association. Neil and Ester Symons were in that fleet with us as we took all those extra courses available. They have been sailing since that year; some years for 8 months and now generally in the San Blas for 4 or 5 months at a time. It is their floating cottage since this is the area they like the most and they have a large network of friends they associate with in this area. Neil took us to his favourite snorkeling area and later led us to the pigs on the islands. For the next few days we gathered our compost and took it ashore each time we snorkeled and fed the pigs. They were in an enclosure but the owners are a bit negligent and they were quite undernourished.
We moved from the swimming pool to Bug island with more protection as the wind picked up, then eventually to the hot tub anchorage, the calmest one around as the wind picked up again. We almost dragged down on Warren Peace at Bug Island when our anchor dropped off a ledge and thanks to Steve’s voice and preventative maneuvers we avoided a double insurance claim with the same insurer. Warren Peace has had two claims in one year so did not want another! They were hit by a boat in El Salvador in the Spring when a micro burst dragged the moorings around then were hit by lightening in the summer sometime. They have exhibited a lot of patience with the repairs that were needed.
Over the next few weeks we moved around a bit and eventually visited Cambobia where we met with Rio Nimpkish, Rio Azucar to get some water then Nargana to buy diesel and a few basic provisions. Janet got a desperation hair cut in Nargana. The lady was not a hairdresser but cut her kids hair and was willing to give it a go. There was not much hair left when she finished and Janet and the dog sitting beside here were totally covered in hair!! The curls were almost gone and there is time for it to grow back for a more stylish cut when we return home. Fran and Jean-1Guy on Gosling kept us company on these little detours.
From Nargana we met up with Rio Nimpkish at Coco Banderos, a very beautiful anchorage. The wind picked up too much for us to really get to appreciate it and eventually we moved back to the hot tub for some more peaceful nights.
Warren Peace and Alegria had both headed back to Portobelo. Alegria was eventually heading to Cartegena but needed to reprovision since the weather had not been cooperating and they decided to meet with Windward who had just transitted the canal and wanted to go to Cartejena as well. Warren Peace was going to Portobelo to meet with Ray and Jena on Nighthawk to have the repairs done on their boat from the original insurance claim. Ray is a talented shipwright and could do most of the repairs at anchor in Portobelo.
From the hot tub we headed back to the East Lemmons and eventually said good-bye to Tabasco and Pavo Real
Fran and Jean-Guy on Gosling left with us the day we headed back towards Panama. We had a nice breeze and managed to get in a lot of sailing on the way. We anchored near Warren Peace,who kept trying to get away from us!
It had been a different year. There had not been a chance to have any routine and it was very nice to get in at least one hike together.
Our trip back to Shelter Bay was much more pleasant then the trip out and we were tied alongside Ventana with Mitch and Ann (friends of Chris and Sandy on Faith) by late morning.
The next few days were a whirlwind of activity trying to get everything done in time to haul on the 23rd. We did manage to get in a dip in the pool each day and it really helped to refresh and revitalize after the hot days of slugging. When we were hanging in the sling waiting to be moved onto the trailer and after the powerwashing removed all the bottom paint we discovered a hitch in the plans. The trailer was not able to accommodate a wing keel! So…back into the water, back to E 27 (?) across from Cirque and get her ready to lock. Unfortunately the dehumidifier did not make it aboard before we left and so for a week or so, until we heard from them we were a bit anxious. Dave, the yard manager is leaving at the end of May and not knowing who is taking over is also a bit of a concern but what can you do????
We taxied into Panama with Jean-Guy and Fran ( a very long ride since our driver did not know where he was going) and we spent 3 nights at the Baru Lodge and will stay there again when we return. It was quite central, very nice and quiet and not too expensive. We took in some of the tourist highlights, got a lot of scouting done for purchases when we return, a lot of walking and our teeth cleaned in the two days we had there.
The flight home was uneventful and we are just delighted to be back home with nice cool nights and a bed that stays still!