Monday, January 28, 2013

Buenos Dias from Panamá City

Position: 08°55’N, 79°32’W – La Playita, Panama City

We had a pleasant stay at Isle Contadora, walking on terra firma, swimming, snorkelling and sleeping. One evening Kate & Paul invited us over for a dinner (roast chicken – OMG!) and introduced us to Andy & Sue, an English couple who sailed extensively around Ireland before coming across the Atlantic. We had a lovely evening swapping sailing stories over dinner and exchanging information about our respective next destinations.

Seeking a safe spot at La Playita
On Thursday we travelled the final 10 hours to Panama City and marvelled at the number and size of huge container ships waiting in the bay for their canal transit. We motored into La Playita anchorage, looking for a space to anchor among the many other yachts. As we passed a Canadian yacht, the Skipper spotted our Irish flag and called out to tell us his wife is from Ireland. This alone was a first but when we heard where in Ireland she was from, we almost crashed the boat – Mayo! That’s where we’re from! Whatever about meeting another Irish person on another boat, the chances of finding one from Co. Mayo in an anchorage in Panama are beyond slim.

Here on the Pacific side of Panama, the sailing community is diverse. Some boats have just come through the canal; others have journeyed down from Vancouver or San Francisco. Most boats are preparing to cross the Pacific Ocean; the odd few are going the other way, like us; others plan to stay ‘local’ and travel to Costa Rica or Mexico. Every morning a local American sailor hosts a 30 minute morning radio call, welcoming new arrivals, wishing departing boats well, and facilitating the exchange of information about local goods and services like laundry, tours, stores to buy boat parts or suppliers to do boat repairs. It is a great way to meet people and get information, and has cut back on a lot of Google time as we trust recommendations from other sailors above any others.

Si, Señora
Come Friday, it was time to spoil ourselves so we checked into the nearby Country Inn & Suites Hotel. A king-size bed, a bath, a proper toilet, a TV, unlimited power, WiFi, air-conditioning – it felt like we’d died and gone to heaven! On Saturday we went on a shopping spree at the local mall, splashing out on new clothes and feeling like ‘normal’ people again. A haircut was well-overdue so we ventured into a hair salon in the mall and found ourselves sitting side by side with local Panamanians, miming instructions to the non-English speaking staff and hoping that ‘Si, si, si’ meant that we were on the same page. Obviously whatever it was we said, the Skipper’s ‘short back and sides’ seems to have translated as ‘that drug dealer look, like every other guy in Panama’.  

On Sunday we got our first glance of the Panama Canal when we visited the Miraflores Locks Centre. The Miraflores Locks are one of three sets of locks in the Panama Canal, which we hope to pass through sometime next week with Ashling. It was fascinating to learn about the history of the canal, the traffic passing through each year and the plans for expanding its size and capacity by 2014. We even got to see the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship pass through while we were there.

A container ship transits the canal with the Queen Elizabeth coming in through the second lane behind. You can just about make out some more container ships lining up in the distance.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Photos from the Pacific


Crossing the Equator
 
Smiles on board for Christmas

Santa came to Sweeney!

Chocolate cakes on Christmas Day
  
First Mate gets sewing while the 'chute gets sailing

Raising the Panama flag
 
Our first friends in Panama

Under tow from the Panama Coastguard/Navy

Two happy campers en route to dry land
On dry land, at last!

Panama City, here we come

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Counting our blessings at Isle Contadora

Position: 08°37'N, 79°02'W – Isle Contadora, Panama

Ensenada Naranjo was just so beautiful, we stayed for three nights,
doing odd jobs on the boat and re-introducing our legs to dry land. The
smells and sounds of the nearby forest never got old, and we enjoyed
sundowners and man-sized dinners every night before getting some quality
sleep. We had the bay to ourselves and maxed out the opportunity to
acclimatise to land life at our own pace. Even if we had planned it, we
couldn't have imagined a better landfall.

Rested and relaxed, we set off on Thursday to our original destination –
Isle Contadora. On the chart it looked like an easy two-day, 200 mile
sail but the tides, currents and wind in the Gulf of Panama didn't quite
agree so we had a few bumpy days and nights. We spotted shooting stars
overhead at night but, given our experience the past few weeks, it's
hard to know what to wish for now. A week ago, we would have killed for
a puff of wind, yet on Thursday night we had two reefs in the mainsail
(to cope with the high wind) and struggled to stand upright, let alone
sleep.

As if that wasn't enough, the Gulf of Panama is one of the busiest
shipping areas in the world. This meant keeping a constant watch day and
night for container ships or floating debris, not to mention stray
up-to-no-gooders on smuggling trips along the Panama-Columbian border.
As we passed the dense rainforest on land and kept an eye out for any
human activity at sea, we felt like we were in a James Bond movie!

Yet as we have learned, all things eventually come to an end, even 27
knot winds and errant currents. At 0830 on Sunday morning we finally
dropped anchor at Playa Cacique on the west coast of Isle Contadora, and
breathed again with smiles on our faces. There were many other cruising
yachts and motorboats in the bay and we popped by a neighbouring yacht
on our way to shore to get advice on where best to land our dinghy. We
weren't quite sure of the boat or crew nationality so it was a pleasant
surprise to hear the familiar tones of Down Under and meet Kate and
Paul, a friendly Australian couple who have been cruising for the past
two years. (Kate Holme & Paul Walters, we know you'll love this :))

Isle Contadora is the most developed of 220 islands in the Las Perlas
archipelago. It translates as 'counting house' as it was where pearls
gathered from local oysters on the surrounding islands would be counted
before being shipped to Panama and then to Spain in the 1500s. There are
white, sandy beaches, two 'supermarkets' and a handful of guesthouses
and restaurants - all we need to relax before we make our final approach
to Panama City and a true return to the real world.

In the midst of all the activity this week, we received the wonderful
news of the birth of our first nephew – Louis Henaghan Jnr. Welcome to
the world li'l Lou. We can't wait to meet you later this year.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

At land, at last

Position: 07°16'N, 80°56'W – Ensenada Naranjo, Panama

Pacific Ocean – tick.

Just after lunch on Monday, it seemed that the voyage across the Pacific
had finally taken its toll on our mental states. A Panamanian Aeronaval
patrol boat had appeared on the horizon and wide-eyed, not daring to
believe what we were seeing, we pinched ourselves to make sure it was
real. We only really did believe it when the VHF radio crackled into
life and a naval officer announced that they would reach us in five
minutes.

We scurried around setting up lines and fenders, not knowing what was
about to happen but trying to prepare for every scenario. Would they
give us fuel? Would they tow us to land? Would they come on board and
search the boat to make sure that we weren't some Columbian banditos
trying to pull a fast one?

Thankfully they had an English speaker on board so the First Mate got
busy on the VHF and next thing we knew, we were being towed for the
final 25nm back to land. At 8 knots per hour, the Aeronaval Skipper was
struggling to keep the engine going at minimum speed; Ashling was
struggling to keep up with speeds she has never seen before, even in the
best or worst of weather conditions.

We arrived at the secluded bay of Ensenada Naranjo in the northwest of
Panama just after sunset. This morning the Skipper went ashore with some
of the Navy crew to buy fuel and do the equivalent of a supermarket
trolley-dash, running around the Super 99 in Santiago like a madman,
grabbing items randomly from the shelves – bread, beer, ham, milk, Betty
Crocker's Instant Chocolate Cake mix (forget Coca Cola, Betty C is a
case study for globalisation!). They returned a few hours later to fill
up our fuel tank and check that everything was working as it should
before leaving us to a sunny afternoon alone in the anchorage.

Words cannot describe how we feel right now. The past 24 hours has been
such a whirlwind of activity that our emotions haven't quite caught up.
One minute we had resigned ourselves to a further 3-7 days at sea; the
next minute we were at anchor, surrounded by trees and birds and land.
It will take a few days (and a few beers) to fully come to terms with it
all but already, relief, ecstasy and bewilderment make a good start.

We cannot thank the Panamanian Coastguard / Navy enough. They were so
professional in everything they did for us, even when at first they
thought we were some silly kids who had run out of fuel after only a few
days of sailing down the coast from California. Once they heard that
they were the first people we had seen in 54 days, their stunned faces
showed that they had suddenly revised their opinion of us.

And from the bottom of our hearts, we thank you to all of you who have
sent us encouraging messages over the last two months and the last few
days. You have brought tears to our eyes but they have been tears of
joy, gratitude and appreciation for the many people who are thinking of
us. You made this long ocean crossing so much easier for us; your
support, your encouragement, your positive words made a world of
difference to our days and worked wonders to re-energise us both
physically and mentally. We will never forget it.

And now with a cold beer in one hand and a massive bowl of spaghetti
bolognaise in the other, I find I have no hand left to type with. What a
dilemma!

Monday, January 14, 2013

So close we can smell it

Position: 05°53'N, 80°47'W

Distance to land: 50 nautical miles

Leaving the Marquesas Islands on November 22nd, we averaged 100 miles of
distance per day. A week before Christmas, this dropped to 80 miles per
day when we lost our forestay and use of genoa sail. Now, as we make out
the faint shape of the Panama coastline, we are happy to make just 1
mile an hour, 24 miles a day. Progress is all relative really.

After travelling over 5,000 nautical miles (3,800 as the crow flies)
over the past seven weeks, it seems that the Pacific Ocean isn't quite
ready to let us go just yet. The Gulf of Panama is known for its light
winds so it's no surprise that we cannot sail for the final approach to
land. Normally this isn't a problem as we can turn on the engine and
motor our way instead.

We were doing just that on Saturday morning when the trusty Perkins
4-108 gave a few coughs and died. The fuel gauge showed plenty left in
the tank so the Skipper got out his tools, rolled up his sleeves and
looked for the problem. Cables – check, connections – check, filters –
check, water – check. Everything seemed to be in order so he opened the
tank to see if there was a fuel or air lock. The good news was that
there was no blockage or air lock. The bad news: there was no fuel left.
So much for the fuel gauge.

So when we can't sail and we can't motor, we drift with the current
which, thankfully, is bringing us towards land. We've been in touch with
the Panamanian Coastguard to let them know about our situation and they
are putting together a plan to meet us closer to land with support and
supplies. A side effect of this has been a rapid improvement in our
Spanish learning over the past two days. The Coastguard started off with
Spanish, then tried English and eventually sent their response in three
languages – Spanish, English and Irish!!! Thank goodness for satellite
phones and translate.com.

Apart from the reduced speed, all else is good on board. We have of
food, water and gas; the sun is shining in a clear, blue sky; the flat,
calm sea is putting minimal strain on Ashling. Yes, our spirits have
taken a kicking and we are digging deep to find the last ounce of
patience that we didn't think we had. But we can see land – we can even
smell it – we just need to wait a few more days to feel it.

One thing is for sure, there will never be another landfall more
appreciated than this one.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Are we there yet?

Position: 04°08'N, 88°22'W

Another week, another month, another year...and we're still here,
bobbing away. It has been over six weeks since we last stood on dry land
and the good news is that we're almost there again. Finally.

Last week's magic carpet current eased eventually, returning us to
average wind speeds and an average current. We were becalmed for a few
days, floating along at 1-2 knots in a flat sea of thick, black ink.
Light winds are common around this latitude as the hot air over the
equator rises, cools and falls, creating a zone of calm, humid weather
known as the Doldrums. The final 600 miles to Panama will be slow moving
but with a little more patience, we'll get there one degree and one day
at a time.

There's no shortage of thinking time out here at sea and as we near the
end of our second ocean passage, we've started to notice a pattern to
our thoughts during the different stages of these voyages. After leaving
land, we spend the first week looking back at what we left behind and
steeling ourselves for any unknown challenges to come in the weeks
ahead. A few weeks in, we have settled into the routine of life at sea
and are no longer thinking about what we're missing. It's too early to
think about our next destination so we just look to the next day and the
next week, and deal with the demands of the foreseeable future.

As we pass the halfway mark, anxieties ease somewhat as we reflect on
what we have achieved and start to believe that we can actually do this.
We dig out the cruising guides and travel books to indulge ourselves in
descriptions of anchorages, restaurants and tourist attractions at our
next port. In the final week, excitement levels rise with the
realisation that land is days rather than weeks away. Last month's or
last week's achievements are diminished to insignificance as we
impatiently look only forward. Like a drug addict seeking a higher high,
we become obsessed with faster speeds and maximum daily mileage, doing
everything we can to shave a few hours or even a day off our arrival.

Things we have learned on this leg:
- The Pacific Ocean is bloody massive!
- A chapter of a Harry Potter audio book is a great way to start the day
- Recently-heated ovens and engines make great clothes dryers
- You can never have too much food on board
- In desperate times, the Skipper will eat sweetcorn, couscous, even Tom
Yum soup
- Even in desperate times, the First Mate will not touch corned beef

As Panama approaches, Spanish learning has begun in earnest. The Skipper
is taking the lead this time, listening to a chapter of a 'Learn
Spanish' audio book (Thanks Alan C!) during his night watch and then
passing on the highlights to the First Mate over breakfast. The first
lesson didn't exactly inspire confidence – "No hablo Español" – but
things have improved and we are now on to directions – "Dónde esta el
restaurante de biftek? Dónde esta la carnicería?" (Where is the
steakhouse? Where is the butcher shop?"). It's all about priorities.

Congratulations to Mairéad & Frank who got engaged this week. We're
looking forward to being there to see you tie the knot in Ireland this
summer.