San Blas and Panama

Beer of the moment: BVI's - none as Allan was ill; Balboa (San Blas), Panama, Atlas and Soberana - yes really (Colon and Panama City)

Thursday 1st - Friday 2nd April

Time was running out and we needed to set sail for Panama any day to meet our friends so we motor sailed to Road Town, the Capital of the BVI's to provision for our 8 day journey. We spent two rolly nights at anchor. Road Town is a very busy place with several large marina's and at least 4 large cruise ships in the bay at any time.

We had an excellent view of the Tortolla Regatta - about 125 yachts racing around the island. A fantastic sight with spinnakers flying.

We received some very sad news whilst we were there that Paula, the girlfriend of Bev's cousin Stephen, had died. Paula was one of life's nice people and it was very sad to hear that cancer had finally beaten her. We spent a very sad night ashore having a quiet drink at the local pub to say goodbye from afar to a very special person who will be sadly missed. 

Friday was spent provisioning at Bobby's supermarket and getting the boat ready for the 1000 mile journey. Bev cooked 4 days worth of meals for the journey - Spaghetti Bolognaise and one pot beef and vegetable stew. 

We had originally planned to set off on Friday evening but with just one hour of light left before we were ready to go we decided to set off at first light the next morning.

Saturday 3rd April - Sunday 11th April

The journey South to Panama is about 1000 miles - roughly 8 days depending upon the wind. The trip across the Caribbean sea can be very treacherous and many round the world sailors have said it was the worst passage they did. The seas and counter current off the Columbian coast can be very bad so we had been watching the weather carefully. In March the seas were still 6-8 meters ! Allan had been calling Chris from the Caribbean Weather Centre on SSB radio regularly for his advice and he assured us it was a great time to go.

Thankfully he turned out to be right. The seas didn't get above 2 meters and the winds didn't get above 20 knots. We even had to motor for a few days. We made contact with a Canadian Boat called Endurance who were sailing a similar route to us and had regular radio contact with Nate and Paddy throughout the journey.

Watches were pretty busy as we got close to Panama with lots of large ships to keep us busy on the radar. We also saw several USA drug enforcement helicopters en route. They circled overhead to check us out. We transitioned to 3 hour night watches which worked much better. Bev was much better than she had been across the Atlantic but still had the odd bouts of sickness when the wave action became uncomfortable and still had trouble sleeping below - not helped by an annoying squeak that developed from the wardrobe - another DIY job for Allan.

On the last day evening of the trip we saw a huge school of dolphins - the largest we had ever seen. There must have been at least 10 swimming under each bow. They stayed with us for at least 30 minutes. Dolphins always have a way of putting a smile in your heart when you see them.

We decided to stop off at the San Blas islands before arriving in Panama. They are a group of 340 tiny islands just off the Panama coast. They are home to the Kuna Indians who have managed to preserve their culture and traditions. They live in one of the most untouched areas of virgin rainforest and it is incredibly beautiful place. Their villages are so picturesque - huts made of wood and palm. They have no furniture just hammocks. They are short - rivalled in shortness only by the pygmies. Many cruisers have described this as one of the highlights of a world cruise and we weren't disappointed.

We anchored off Porvenir - a small island with a little Kuna hotel and immigration - there was just one other boat there. Like all the islands it was flat, only a few feet above sea level surrounded by white sand beaches, reefs and palm trees. Simply beautiful.


Instantly a local dug out canoe arrived at the boat with 3 Kuna women selling their 'molas' - local embroidery. The women are always dressed in traditional dress here in San Blas - a riot of colour and beautifully embroidered garments. Normally we don't like tourist tat - but this was something very different and beautiful so we bought one for $10 dollars to frame as a memento when we got home. 

That afternoon several canoes filled with local children arrived on the island, They jumped into the water and swam to the beach squealing with laughter. It was so refreshing to see children having so much fun with simple pleasures - no gameboys here !

Bev went for a swim off the back of the boat and spotted something large and black swimming beneath her. After a quick intake of breadth she then worked out that it was a large sting ray. 

That evening we ate ashore at the local hotel. All very basic but we got a great meal for $5 a head. The menu was fish or pork ! Beer was a dollar. We were joined by a Canadian solo cruiser on a boat called Nejelte - very brave.

Monday 12th April

We spent a lazy day getting over our passage watching the Kuna's out fishing in their 'ulu's'.


In the afternoon we took a dingy ride over to Wichuhuala, a neighbouring island. It is a typical Kuna island, heavily populated and crowded with thatched huts. It was amazing to wander the small streets. The Kuna's are extremely friendly - everyone says 'hola' and smiles - especially the children. We bought fresh bread from a local bakery hidden inside one of the huts - it tasted fantastic and each roll was only 10 cents each. Although they are relatively poor, the Kuna's are all healthy and no-one asked us for money - it was very refreshing.

Kuna Village

We ate again in the 'hotel' that evening as it was so cheap and such a unique experience. This time we took a torch though as there are no street lights here to help you find your dingy and the hotel turns its generator off at 10pm, plunging everything into darkness. 

Tuesday 13th April

It was with great reluctance that we left this little taste of Paradise. We were blown away by San Blas and so pleased that we had taken time out to see it.

We waited until 8.30 when the sun was just high enough to navigate the reefs and slowly edged our way out. 

We had a great sail along the Panama coast to Portobello.


As night drew and the wind dropped we had to put on the engines to ensure we made our anchorage before darkness. Portobello is a deep sheltered bay that was first discovered by Christopher Columbus. It later became one of the most important places for transferring South and Central American riches to Seville. The bay is deep in the jungle and we anchored off one of the ruined fortifications. It was an incredibly beautiful place. That night we could hear the sounds of monkeys in the jungle.

Wednesday 14th April

In the morning we took a trip into the village which is pretty much a shanty town and to see the fortifications. A very friendly former cruiser who had settled in Portobello told us about the history of the place.  When we were looking around the old fortifications we were amazed to see a yellow parrot - the first we had seen in the wild. We would have loved to have stopped longer but had to set off for Colon that day to meet our friends who had arrived a few days earlier.

We had a great fast 20 mile sail to Colon - averaging 7 knots. It was amazing to see all the large ships anchored outside the breakwater waiting for their canal transit. Our radar screen nearly exploded under all the activity.

As we headed through the breakwater we met up with Pamina - friends of Meander - soon to become ours too. Karen from Trade Secret guided us in and very soon we were at anchor in the flats and enjoying the last of our cold beers with our friends. Although not the most scenic of destinations it was great to be here.

That evening we ventured into the Panama Canal Yacht Club. A pretty run down but very unique place. Unique because most people that are there are doing the same as us - sailing to the Pacific and negotiating the mound of paperwork and bureaucracy required to transit the canal. Everyone is extremely friendly and there is a real sense of camaraderie. Luckily the Yacht Club has a cheap bar and a great cheap restaurant that sells Chinese food amongst other things. Sweet and Sour Chicken became a regular during our time there.

Thursday 15th -  Thursday 22nd April

Our days in Colon went fast. Checking in is a mammoth procedure, then there is a lot of paperwork to do and offices to visit to get through the canal. We were lucky to get it all complete in a day and a half but our transit date was still set for a week away.

Colon is a strange place. The town is pretty run down but there are glimpses of nice architecture albeit a bit decayed now. You are advised not to go anywhere without a taxi because it is too dangerous. The place definitely has an unsafe feel. At $1 a taxi ride its not worth the risk. You can get pretty much anything you want in Colon if you know where to look, at a good price. They have a free trading zone - the second biggest in the world which we took a trip to. We didn't manage to buy much but lunch of half a chicken, drink and fried plantains at $3 (£1.75) was a real bargain. 

Our friends Matt and Mel, Steve and Karen were due to transit the canal before us so we accompanied Trade Secret on their transit as line handlers. It was a great opportunity to see how everything worked before we went through ourselves - most cruisers do this. They ended up having a 2 day transit so we spent a night on their boat anchored at Gamboa in the lake between the locks. Luke from Eagle Wing was also on the boat so it was a great to meet him - and later we met Emma his wife. Luckily everything went well for them although Meander unfortunately managed to get a bit of a ding at the back when they hit the wall in the lock - caused by one of the Panamanians not putting their rope on a bollard quickly enough. 

Meander in the lock

Most nights were spent at the Yacht Club where food and beer was cheap and conversation plenty. One night at the Yacht Club we met a few of the crew from a 50 meter mega yacht called Squall. They invited us to see it the next day before they left for the Bahamas. What a boat. Fully air conditioned, 2 washing machines and 2 dryers, jacuzzi, 1400 horse power, two 80kw generators, even a special fridge to keep the red wine at the correct temperature.........Everything was absolutely immaculate. An amazing boat (it should be for $25 million) and very nice people.

As the day of our transit drew close Bev spent the majority of her time in the launderette. We had a pile of washing to do and with only 2 machines and lots of people wanting to use them it seemed to take forever. Allan had to fix the outboard engine for the dingy which had unfortunately broken down - not a good thing when the journey from the flats to the yacht club is some way and involves negotiating lots of big ships. Luckily Meander lent us their spare outboard in the interim.

The wet season seemed to have arrived just before we left Colon. The atmosphere was airless and when it rained - boy did it rain, bringing with it lots of black dust and flying ants that covered the boat. Lovely.

On our last night in Colon we had a great meal aboard Pamina (conjured up at the last minute by Henri and Connor) with Stephen and Matt who had volunteered to be our line handlers. This was their 3rd time through the canal so we were really grateful that they had waited for us and offered to help.

Friday 22nd -  Saturday 23rd April

At last the big day had arrived. Bagpuss was ready with 4 x 125 ft lines which we had rented from a local taxi driver and lots of wrapped tyres hung over her rails to protect her in case she hit the wall. Everything possible had been removed from the decks and the solar panels covered to prevent breakages. The canal line handlers throw a 'monkey fist' down to you which you attach your ropes to - if this hit the solar panels it would break them. Luckily they are very accurate shots. 

Our transit time was originally set for 5.00 am but gradually we kept being pushed back later and later. Pamina set off on the same day as us and managed to get through in one day. Our advisor arrived at 9.30 am and we instinctively knew then that we would be a 2 day transit.

Allan had picked up our third line handler - Einz at 6.00. You need 4 line handlers to transit the canal, one person to steer the boat - plus the pilot. He cost $55 a day - not much in UK terms but when you realise that the local average daily wage is $10 - he was making a killing!

Luckily for us we went through the 6 locks either by ourselves - central lockage or against a tug. Yachts normally have to transit as a raft of 3 boats where the room for error and damage is much greater. Still there was lots of delicate manoeuvring in a tight space in each lock against lots of current and wash from the big ship that we were sharing the lock with. A tense time - especially when the pilot told us in error to reverse pushing us hard against the side of the tug rather than away from it. Thank goodness for the fenders !

Having got through the 3 upward locks in the morning we then motored across the lake in between (30 miles in length) and anchored for the night. En route we had seen a large crocodile swim past and glimpsed monkeys in the trees. Our line handler and the pilot left us until the next morning. A happy although hot night was spent on board and most of the beer rations consumed by the men ! 

Next day we set off again at 10.00 and completed the 3 downward locks by 2.30. The last lock was definitely the most tricky. This is where the fresh water and sea water mix creating swirling currents. We were to be tied to a tug that was pushing a large car container ship into our lock. This meant that Allan had to try and negotiate the lock slowly with the large ship bearing down on us from behind. At the last minute the tug nipped ahead and we tied up to it - what a relief. Its very hard to control the boat in a small space at low speed as we lose steering.

Panama Locks

As we left the last lock and headed for the Bridge of the America's, the only road crossing point between North and South America, we felt very relieved. We celebrated with a bottle of bubbly as we crossed under the Bridge into the Pacific.

Half an hour later we were safely tied to a buoy in Balboa, part of Panama City. It was an amazing experience to go through the canal and now be here in the Pacific with 4000 miles to go to the Marqueses.

We celebrated us all being in the Pacific aboard Meander that evening and tasted their $1.40 a litre tetra packs of wine. We were amazed how good it was and all boats made a hasty trip to the supermarket the next day to stock up!

Hello Pacific 

Sunday 23rd -  Tuesday 24th April

Yet more paperwork. We were boarded by customs and charged another $30 for we are not sure what. Interestingly Sunday is charged at an overtime rate and even boats that had been here since Wednesday got a visit on Sunday. Monday saw the arrival of the Agricultural inspector. $15 later we were pronounced clear of cockroaches and mosquitoes ! 

The rest of the time was spent getting ready for our journey to the Galapagos - washing, buying fresh food, cooking meals, refilling gas bottles, refuelling, cleaning etc...

We spent a pleasant evening with Meander on Sunday evening at Buccaneers before they left for their crossing and arranged a radio net with the rest of the boats. There will be 5 boats setting off within a few days of each other - Trade Secret, Meander, Pamina, Eagle Wing and us. We will rendezvous in Galapagos and then head out to the Marqueses together.  

A great thing about the Yacht Club here is that no-one is allowed to use their own dingy and they send a tender out to your boat to collect you to take you ashore.

We had three offices to visit to clear out and were glad to be leaving all this humidity and bureaucracy.

Wednesday 25th April

Today is the day we start our 1000 mile crossing to the Galapagos. The forecast is for little wind which is pretty normal for this stretch of the journey so we will have to do quite a lot of motoring unfortunately. We aim to spent a few days visiting the renowned wildlife whilst in the Galapagos - seals, giant tortoises, penguins etc... It is supposed to be an amazing but expensive place. A days pass into the park is a $100 per person with the cost of the trip on top! Its also a bit colder due to the cold Humbold current which pushes up from the Antarctic so we will have chance to wear all the cold weather gear we brought with us which hasn't seen the light of day for nearly a year. From there we will then have a 3,000 sail to the Marqueses so wont be able to update our website again until early June.  


© Copyright Allan & Bev Dornan 2016