We set sail to Panama, Bocas de Toro which is over 1000nm from Bonaire crossing notoriously rough sections of sea past the top end of Columbia. Due to COVID-19, our plans to stop and see Aruba, Curaçao and Columbia were slashed, hence the non-stop straight to Panama, where we knew we could arrive and do two weeks quarantine before getting a cruising permit.
As predicted the seas were rough to start and we surfed down waves higher than our binimi which probably didn’t aid the crew getting their sea legs quickly! I’m glad I’d spent the day cooking before leaving. So with the fridge filled with four dinners to start us off I knew my job would be easier.
Three days into the weeks passage the Atlantic rollers eased into more regular waves and everyone relaxed into sailing life. School resumed and afternoons of games, toys, Lego and audiobooks were the structure of the day.
The seas were empty, nothing to see, no one on AIS. COVID-19 has emptied both the skies and seas.
Handovers on night watches started with the question, “Anything exciting”? The response was always, “nope”. Careful for what you wish for though as we sailed into quite a lot of excitement…
Dark brooding clouds filled the horizon and flashes of light crisscrossed the sky. Soon we were under a deluge of rain. Not the pitter patter stuff, the full bucket of water in your face lot. Even the cockpit drains struggled to cope to empty the water fast enough. With the wash boards in, water was still pouring through the ventilation slats, the water was that high from rain! The lightening was all around. From 9pm till 6am the following morning we were in torrential downpours and lightening storms – it was quite scary.
The next day I looked nervously at the sky to see what more was to come but the dawn was bright and beautiful. Our boat was shiny clean too, not a spot of Bonaire dust left anywhere, one advantage of the downpours! But as we tried to trim the sails we realised our instruments were not working, the wind was not being read. And basically every other instrument is a calculation from the wind speed and direction, so if that’s gone you are slightly stuffed. Looks like we got struck by lightening last night then. Not good news at all and we had our fingers crossed that there was no other damage. I had unplugged our satellite phone and spare radio and put them in a makeshift Faraday cage (our metal oven) during the lightening on my night shift as I vaguely tried to recollect an A-level Physics lesson on the subject!! I reckoned they would be safe there at least. We’d have to wait till we arrive to climb the mast and check what other damage we might have incurred.
Five days into the sail and we were starting to get excited about arriving in a couple of days when we got news that a boat ahead of us had been refused entry. Panic rising we used our satellite phone to contact more people in the anchorage and asked for updates. We had only left Bonaire as we knew we could arrive in Panama and do the obligatory two weeks quarantine before getting a permit to cruise the islands. But during these times anything can change…Our contacts reassured us to keep heading to Bocas and they were expecting us. “Be prepared to be met with the armed machine gun navy and you must all be wearing masks” was the reply. Slightly daunted we continued, not that we had a huge amount of choice at this stage of the route.
The wind died and we resorted to motoring the last 40 hours. We even stopped, did our setchi dish (global ocean plankton measuring) experiment and went for a swim. It’s always an odd sensation swimming above a 4000m abyss. The sea was a stunning blue and there was nothing lurking beneath that we could see!
On my night shift I was treated to a pod of dolphins who jumped and swam at the bow under the strong moonlight. They lifted my spirits and I spent a glorious half hour watching them play in our bow wave at night. Truly magical. Moments like this are why we are doing this trip.
At 5am we were only two miles of the coast but with a shallow approach and poor charts (unmarked small islands and no navigation buoys) we motored in circles avoiding rain clouds until dawn lit the way in. A frustrating and diesel wasting activity when you are exhausted and just want to sleep, but necessary. As dawn lit the sky we sailed into the Bocas de Toro inlet and a pod of dolphins jumped out of the water to welcome us. The boys squealed with delight. The sight of so much greenery, tropical rain forest on the islands stunned us after the brown barren dust of Bonaire. We dropped our anchor and awaited the authorities…desperate to collapse into bed and sleep but staying awake, trying to look smart and ready to see what fate awaited us…
We were instructed to anchor beside the pirate ship, we guess this is the place!