Panama to Chiapas Mexico, Delivery Leg One
Eight weeks after Quincey and I pulled out of our slip in Shelter Bay Marina, Colon, Panama, we ended our “new boat shake down cruise” in San Francisco Bay. We covered 3,572nm from Panama City to Berkeley in 47 days, 25 of which we were underway. We had preparations in Panama, eight days of sailing non-stop to Mexico, 24 more days with “some cruising, mostly bashing” to the USA, finding social relaxation in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Morro Bay, then our welcoming passage of the Golden Gate. We had headwinds in the high teens for most of the trip but also times of no wind, we ran the engine for 511 of 601 hours underway (making our ‘no motor sailing, sailing’ a total of 3.75 days). The closer we came to home, the bigger the waves became. It all ended with huge success, however, as we beat all expectations, and closed the book on ‘Phase Two’ of the QMT business plan—deliver our new boat to Berkeley. What a ride it was. We certainly bought the right boat for our adventurous endeavors. Esprit held up better than we did!
March 14th, 2018 we returned to Shelter Bay, Panama and to Esprit, two weeks after our previous trip to purchase her. We finally quit our day jobs—which certainly had us worried over all—but we had enough money to do this trip and make it work at home. (Read; Where Did We Get All This Money?) We had a big goal to complete; get through the Panama Canal, get her ready to sail to San Francisco, and get on with it by March 28th. The first time we drove the boat off the dock was upon our departure for the Gatun Lock, by late afternoon we would be 80 feet above sea level, in a human-made freshwater lake. By late afternoon the next day, on March 19th, we were in the Pacific and Esprit had actually crossed her outgoing line, circling the world 360°. We’re now nine days to our planned departure for Mexico.
A lot of people have stories of difficulties and mishaps in the Panama Canal but we experienced none of them. Maybe we had good fortune for setting sail the day after Quincey’s 29th birthday! As the Captain, I actually had a pretty easy job of it. I had to drive, of course, but there was a highly trained Canal Advisor that had ultimate control of the situation. He would tell me what to do and I would calmly engage the gearshift or throttle, but a lot of the time I was free to roam the boat and check on crew, use the head, etc. The Advisors would try to get me to push Esprit a little more than I felt comfortable in a new boat, but schedule is their job and we were never late to the next lock. We also hired a professional line-handler, Santo, who we learned a lot from and more than earned his wages. My advice, even if you have a whole crew of friends aboard the boat as line-handlers, hire a professional. You’ll seriously appreciate the amount of work they do for you. What an experience it was, though. The sheer amount of industrialization it took to divide the continents is hard to grasp even months after you experienced it first hand. We had Quincey’s parents, Bruce and Michelle, aboard as well, who are not sailors but are adventure travelers through and through. When we told them about our plans to cruise the world, 360°, Michelle said if we ever transited the Panama Canal, she wanted first dibs. Little did we know that would be our first transit of anywhere, less than twelve months after she staked her claim. They loved it and all their practice with cleat hitches and bowlines paid off.
Once in the Pacific, with the daunting Canal behind us, we could really put our minds to heading North. We did a little cruising to nearby Isla Taboga to test the generator, water maker, ground tackle, etc., and to do some sailing while Bruce and Michelle were still aboard. We spent five nights in the Flamenco Marina working nonstop towards departure for our first intended landfall, Chiapas Mexico. We bought enough dry goods to last 30 days and enough fresh food to last 14 days for four crew. This required hiring a van which translated into four very heavy dock carts. We bought the full size paper charts to go along with our chart book and iPad navigation apps, we checked and rechecked the vessel inventory, we replaced the auxiliary raw water impeller along with numerous other system checks and rechecks. Thankfully, the previous owners were (and still are) very helpful through the whole process, lending advice and reminding us that “there are spare parts for that project in ‘locker X,’ check the inventory list we left you.”
In Panama City we exchanged Bruce and Michelle for Brian and Maurizio. Our crew made this journey more enjoyable and memorable than we could have ever imagined. Brian and I work at OCSC Sailing as instructors and Maurizio is a member of the same club. Both of them have varied sailing experience. Notably, Brian raced his 24-ft Pacific Seacraft Dana in the Singlehanded Trans-pac, and Maurizio crossed the Atlantic in a 100 year old lateen rigged coal barge with nine other Italians… it took them 50 days (their goal was to sail the same route as Columbus. Columbus sailed that route in 38 days.) Practical knowledge earned from each voyage paid dividends on this trip. Particularly, both showed patience and resourcefulness.
With all the food stowed and fuel tanks topped off, we departed Panama City on our target date, March 28th. With one quick stop at Isla San Jose in the Las Perlas Islands, 50nm SSE of Panama City, we scrubbed the bottom and enjoyed absolute tropical remoteness. Next time we’re near these islands, we’ll plan a few weeks of exploring, I suggest you do the same if ever given the chance. At noon on March 29th, we weighed anchor and set a course out of the Bay of Panama. Within 30 minutes of departure we were broad reaching at 8 kts on flat seas and by sunset we had crossed the busiest shipping lanes of the whole trip, rounded Punta Mala, and were flying along at 10 kts with a reefed main. Two of those knots were claimed by favorable current that would turn on us in less than 12 hours. The moon was full, the clouds were distant, and the seas were still flat thanks to the warm offshore breeze. An entry from my journal reads;
“We departed Panama City 48 hours ago but only 25 hours underway to Mexico after our departure from Isla San Jose. The seas are calm with 3-4’ ocean swells spaced well far apart, feels much like a motor through a lake with occasional pleasant undulation. We have almost every port light open for a slight cross breeze but with the engine running at 2k RPM’s, we’re still seeing 85° cabin temps.
Last night was real magic. The seas were a little bit rougher but still not rough by any means. The winds were variable between 15-20kts while we broad and beam reached out of the Gulf of Panama, towards Punta Mala. The moon was almost entirely full and there was little cloud cover, making for a well lit ocean. Maurizio, our Italian crew and spiritual leader, looked at me while we were sharing the 2am watch and said, “At the end of the day, this is spirituality. This is why we are to be grateful, for times like this.” He also told me that whenever asked what his perfect bliss would be, he says “night sailing with a full moon.” About halfway around the peninsula the wind died and we were headed by a 1-1.5kt current. So much for perfect sailing.
We’re already getting into the comfort of being away from it all, engrossed in our little universe like astronauts in a space station. We can still see land as we head due west off Isla Coiba, but we’re only concerned with the weather that comes from it, no thoughts of what we could be enjoying land-side, with a great internet connection or even the simple shade from a tree.
We had eight nights and seven days of what would be the most enjoyable miles covered of the whole trip. Remember, this was very much a yacht delivery and when there was not enough wind to keep the boat moving at 6 kts, we motored. This was true for an average of 12 hours a day but when the wind was up on this leg, it was behind the beam. Generally, the wind was so short lived that the waves never really built, providing relatively flat seas, any waves that did develop were behind us. At night, between mixed sailing and motoring, we were enjoying very distant Central American lightning storms overhead and—often referred to as the most magical part of the whole 3,500nm trip—bioluminescence light shows below the surface.
I’ve seen bioluminescence before, we all had. Typically your wake leaves a dim but distinctly glowing green trail as you pass. This is caused by algae and the friction created when water is disturbed. Sometimes you can see it in the toilet at night as you pull in sea water to flush, but this particular experience was otherworldly, something none of us have ever seen.
Imagine dolphins playing in daylight, jumping in front of the bow and darting through nearby waves, all can be seen through the clear, bottomless blue water melting into the blue horizon and sky. Now, take all the but the dolphins out of the picture and replace with night so dark you can’t see anything but the deck of the boat and few, if any, stars. Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you see a green torpedo, just under the surface, headed right at your boat. Startling at first, then you realize the dolphins are coming to play and are outlined by the magical algae that you’ve already been mesmerized by for hours. You can see every turn and twist, brightly outlined by the bioluminescence. It’s almost like they are in the air with you. The dolphins and their movements are far more visible under the water at night than they are during the day. Along with this magic, numerous big fish light up huge bursts of algae as they bolt away form the boat. It’s like an underwater disco guiding us into Mexico.
On the fifth night out we had a little scare with our trusty old engine, a 1985 VW delivery truck diesel made work in boats. We noticed what we thought was a lot of smoke coming from the exhaust. This seemed unusual to me so I went to the throttle and pulled all the power off then looked at the oil pressure gauge. It was LOW, lower than I’d ever seen it before so I shut down the engine immediately. I was terrified. I thought we’d blown the engine. I went below and checked the oil level. We were only 1.5qts. low. That’s not a lot for an engine that take 7qts. to fill. I decided to change the oil anyway, even though we were only 80 hours into a 100 hour cycle (which is still considered short). While Brian and I figured out how to change oil on a new boat with tools left behind by the previous owners, Quincey and Maurizio kept watch. Just as we started to extract oil from the engine, a 300-ft ship appeared on the horizon. As this was just after sunset, a time when eyes are still adjusting, we were concerned with our visibility. We turned on every light on the mast and got on the radio, hailing the ship we could identify on the AIS system. Talk about stressful. The ship never replied but did change course to pass us about 2 miles astern. After about an hour of changing the oil—a process I won’t get into but did take us little time to figure out—we started the engine again. The oil pressure was very high due to the cold oil—which is fine—so we set off again. After that, I checked the oil every 12 hours for the rest of the trip. The smoke remained and I kept a closer watch on the oil pressure gauge form than on. Now that we’ve owned the boat for a year I understand that when the oil is hot, like it was that night, and the engine is at idle, the pressure is low. It was perfectly normal…
This was Quincey’s first experience with offshore sailing and also her first time sailing more then 10 hours start to finish. Besides wishing for more consistent wind and a little less motoring, she loved it. When we were 24 hours from our finish we could all smell land for the first time in a few days. She explained the air smelled like sandalwood just before Brian came on deck. He exclaimed it smelled like burning trash. Thanks for the reality check, Brian!
We arrived in the southern most port of Mexico, Puerto Madero, at 9am on April 5th, right on schedule. Tucked snugly back in a lagoon is a very modern marina—besides the lack of internet. We invited all the Mexican officials aboard to approve our health, search Esprit for drugs—with a super cute German Shepard—and customs and immigration. By 11am we were allowed off the boat and we went for showers and a stretch on the lawn. We visited town to resupply, check email, eat tacos, and for Maurizio to impress us with his perfect Spanish (a feature for the next blog). After two full days on the dock it was time to fuel up, check out, and head for our next port. Would it be Acapulco, Zihuataejo, or Manzanillo? The Gulf of Tehuantepec would help us figure that out!
Stay tuned for our next leg update!