Posted by Kassandra Henning
At a small quaint coffee shop called Déjà Brew in Bocas Del Toro, we met fellow cruisers planning on sailing to the San Blas islands: Jody, Dauphin and their parrot Rico aboard S/V Monarch and Toni and John aboard S/V Ariadne (pronounced R E odd nee). Making friends planning on sailing to the same destination was the motivation we needed to wrap up our project list. We knew we completed the necessary repairs to make Winnie seaworthy again and it was time to start sailing.
Our three sailboats departed Bocas on November 18th. Our lifelong friends at Marina Carenero gave us a fond farewell and helped us cast our dock lines. We motored a few miles to the entrance of Red Frog Marina and arrived just us our new friends were coming into the pass. We followed the two boats through the mangroves and small islands for several miles and then put up sail for a couple hours bringing us to Laguna de Bluefield. S/V Ariadne was generous and let us tie up alongside instead of us dropping our anchor. The bay was quiet and calm. The people living on the islands have canoes called ulus with only a few having outboards. Unlike Bocas with loud hostels, cars and constant panga traffic the bay was a welcome tranquil change. Toni made us a delicious dinner and we had fun getting to know them and seeing the inside of their boat.
The next morning we were ready to explore. The cruising guide gives details about a path that leads up and over the hilly island to a beach exposed to the Atlantic Ocean. John was interested in coming with, so he, Kyle, and I headed for shore in our dinghy. After asking for directions, we took the dinghy to a small river typically navigated using ulus. Because the water is shallow, we were unsure about taking the outboard up it. Oh and we forgot our paddles. (It seems silly, but this is the first time in months we had packed the dinghy and dinghy accessories away for a passage and we were a little rusty.) A stern faced, hard bargaining six year old was willing to take us up river for two dollars a piece. After balancing in a six foot by foot and half ulu for a couple minutes we doubted our ability to stay inside the boat all the way up the river. We took the dinghy, and Kyle expertly drifted around the tight turns while John and I kept a look out for obstacles and used bamboo to push us off of rocks and fallen trees. Once we could not go any further by dinghy, we went for a long muddy walk up and down steep inclines and declines. After an hour we turned around realizing we hadn’t even made it halfway. We retraced our steps, and brought the dinghy back to the mouth of the creek. Two thirteen boys who had paddled out to Winnie to meet us the night before took us up another shallower river in their ulu. We were hot and muddy and much more ok with falling into the river. The river leads to a series of cool, clean, small waterfalls. We waded through the water and walked the bank to the top and then jumped from short waterfalls to small pools until we reached the bigger pool at the bottom.
After swimming, the kids brought us back to our dinghy and shared young coconuts full of coconut water with us. Luckily we had enough gas to make it back to our boats because of course we also forgot the spare gas can. Just before dark, Kyle and I made a quick stop in the little town. The town surrounded a sports field, has a nice concrete pier to dock small boats at, and has a school powered by a large solar grid.
The next morning we departed for Escudo de Veraguas. The anchorage was exposed to the sea and the waves came in unabated. Toni on S/V Ariadne has a harder time with seasickness than I do, so they left to sail through the night to the next protected anchorage.
We took the three crew members from S/V Monarch in our dinghy to see the island. An hour before sunset, Rico flew to the top of a thatched roof building and wouldn’t come down. Dauphin and Jody called and whistled. Jody climbed a nearby tree trying to reach the stubborn bird. Rico flew into the jungle and after a few more minutes of searching we had to return to the boats before dark. On the way back, we ran out of gas. We remembered the paddles and jerry can, but no funnel. Oh boy, get it together Winnie crew.
The next morning Kyle and Dauphin departed on the Rico Recovery Mission. To make better time in the dinghy, Jody and I stayed back on the sailboats. I am sorry I wasn’t there to take pictures. Luckily Rico was quickly spotted near the place he flew from but was not willing to come down. Dauphin tied a stick decorated with beads called the Rico Stick to a long stick and then Kyle mounted Dauphin’s shoulders and held the sticks out gently to not startle the bird. Rico stepped on the Rico Stick and said, “Hola.”
Escudo de Veraguas is beautiful and with calmer seas we would have stayed and explored longer, but the sailboats were rocking and rolling too much to be comfortable. With the first Rico Recovery Mission a success, we decided to pull anchor and sail to the Rio Chagres, near Colon. The passage to Rio Chagres would take around 24 hours.
At daybreak, we arrived at the mouth of the river. It poured rain most of the day. In less than an hour our small rain catcher filled our portable 14 gallon water tank and 5 gallon bucket. We watched the howler monkeys play in the trees and caught up on sleep from our overnight passage.
In the morning, we visited Monarch for coffee and cookies. We easily convinced them to join us on a hike through the jungle. The guidebook has details about a 53 meter crane the Smithsonian keeps in working order for research and anyone is allowed to visit it. We slowly dinghied along the riverbank in search of a trail. Not finding one, we settled on a satisfactory spot to tie the dinghy and start making our way to the GPS coordinates for the crane. We used our handheld GPS that showed the crane half a mile away. Our GPS is for water navigation and doesn’t show any map topographical details. We climbed further and further up into the jungle. Rico rode on Dauphin’s shoulder. He ducked, lifted branches over his head and moved up and down Dauphin’s back to avoid limbs and vines. We used a machete to chop away thorny vines and all of us tried to make a mental map of creeks and rock formations. The hike took us two and a half hours, until the crane suddenly appeared in the middle of the jungle. The crane was in good condition and a groundskeeper gave us permission to climb the inner ladder to the top. Jody stayed on the ground with Rico and the three of us made it to the top to take some photos and enjoy the view.
With only three more hours of daylight left we quickly worked our way back through the jungle. Our GPS ran out of batteries, and we were relying on a compass to keep us moving in the right direction. We were all a little nervous about finding the dinghy before dark and to ease tension we would speak up when something looked familiar. Dauphin who is very talkative was constantly trying to reassure everyone. “Now I’m serious, guys. I remember those red little flowers. Don’t you remember Kassie when you saw them and said, ‘Those are pretty flowers’?” After an hour of working our way down steep declines and trying to find the best holding ground for our footing, we were in unfamiliar jungle. We continued to follow the compass. We would reach an area too steep to traverse, back track, find a more manageable path and help each other down. Dauphin slipped and fell hard busting his tailbone on a rock and sending Rico falling off his shoulder. He was hurting but still able to move quickly, so we didn’t slow down. It took us two hours to reach the riverbank. Jody and Kyle walked in separate directions to find the dinghy. Luckily after only a few minutes Dauphin and I heard Kyle shout he found it. We were proud that by compass alone, we were able to traverse through the jungle and land just a couple hundred meters from the dinghy. We relayed the message to Jody and all made it back to the dinghy with some daylight to spare.
(These three pictures seem to capture my emotions though the day. A calm selfie before the hike. A moment halfway up the crane when I was too freaked out to look up or down. The end of the adventure back in the dinghy filthy and wild hair.)
Up the river past the Gatun dam for the Panama Canal is a boat ramp. Several people drive out to go fishing from the riverbank. We took the dinghy and left it for the day. We followed the drive to the main road and caught a chicken bus. We rode by the construction of the new locks and through the Gatún Locks to Colon. We spent the day shopping for boat supplies and Thanksgiving dinner.
We spent Thanksgiving on Monarch. They have an oven aboard and Jody worked hard to bake a chicken and homemade apple pie. We had mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, carrots and a lot of fun sharing stories.
Planning on a weather window forecasted to have calmer seas, we stayed at the mouth of the river a couple of days. We checked out Fort San Lorenzo and one day we were lucky enough to see a cab driver fishing with friends. He drove us to the nearby marina Shelter Bay where we visited friends and filled 3 jerry cans with diesel.
Spending over eight days on the calm river waters and waiting patiently for a weather window led us to be complacent and make a few mistakes on the morning of our departure for Puerto Lindo. We hadn’t lashed down equipment as well on deck and tidied up the cabin the night before, so we were rushing to put it all away. Knowing we would not arrive in Puerto Lindo until late afternoon and only wanting to snack underway, I made a substantial breakfast of banana pancakes with chia seeds. Which, because of the rushing, we finished eating right before weighing anchor. Obviously the weather was not good sailing conditions. A favorite saying of mine from a friend in Bocas is, “The wind is always too strong, too light or right on the nose.” The waves were 8 to 10 feet, frequent and hitting us on the beam. The wind was coming over the bow so we couldn’t have any sail up to stabilize us. Kyle was queasy for the first couple hours and I of course was full on seasick. We departed the Rio Chagres on November 30th and safely arrived in Puerto Lindo. Over two months later and I still have not made one of our staple meals of banana pancakes.
Thanks for the news! Really enjoy reading about your adventure and seeing the great pictures!!!
Looks fabulous. What a great adventure. Happy sailing. Tom B.