June 2013 - San Andres to Panama

1 June 2013   San Andres, Colombia
We went shopping in the morning and spent the last of our Colombian pesos.  The supermarket where Glenys did her provisioning had run out of canned beer, so I went out on a quest to spend our last 40,000 pesos on 12 cans of beer.  It’s a strange, but very nice feeling to spend all of your remaining cash.

We spent the afternoon tidying up ready to leave tomorrow.

2 June 2013  San Andres to Cayo Albuquerque, Colombia
We jumped out of bed at seven o'clock and were away before eight.  There was a pleasant ten knot wind as we followed the shipping channel out of the bay.  Once out in the open sea, the wind dropped, so I put up our asymmetrical spinnaker.  There were dark shower clouds to windward of us, so we kept a sharp eye on them and sure enough, thirty minutes later, the wind started to pick up.  By time we got the damn spinnaker down, it was blowing 20 knots, but fortunately the heavy rain passed by us.

Remora attached to my leg, Columbia

As the squall went behind us, the wind settled down to 15 knots and we had a great sail for a few hours.  We motored in through the reef around Cayo Albuquerque keeping a sharp eye out for the various shallow reef patches.   It’s a couple of miles from the entrance to the two small islands in this isolated atoll.  I’m glad that we had good light because there are quite a few shallow patches that we had to navigate around.

We anchored in 8 metres of water in sand among coral heads to the west of the bigger of the two cays.  There’s only one other boat anchored here which is nice.  The water colours are stunning and the cays look idyllic being covered with coconut palms and having white sand beaches.  One of the cays has a fishing camp and the other houses a small naval military base.  We were hailed on the VHF and asked to go shore to present our documents.

We were met at the beach by a soldier in shorts and bare feet, but toting a mean looking shotgun and wearing a flak jacket.  He led us through the coconut grove to the centre of the island where there are five or six wooden buildings.  The place is nicely kept with brightly coloured conch shells surrounding the base of every one of the numerous coconut palm trees.  The soldiers based here obviously don’t have a lot to do.

The commandant was a young officer who we found watching a baseball game on TV with the other off-duty soldiers.  Our paperwork was soon inspected and he simply recorded the details of our boat and where we’re going.  On the short walk back to our dinghy, I found out that there are about twenty naval personnel based here and they come out for thirty days at a time – not a bad job…  

We went snorkelling, swimming from the boat to the nearest patch of reef about 100m away.  When we jumped in the water, there was a small, nine inch long Remora under the boat, which followed us for 30 minutes, trying to attach itself to our legs.  Glenys was not a happy bunny and kept scaring it away when it came to her.  It would then frantically swim to me and stay with me until I shooed it away.  I let it attach to my leg with the large sucker on its head - it was a very gentle attachment, but a little weird.  Glenys was very relieved when it gave up on us.  The reef was okay, lots of small fish - I guess the fishermen have killed the large ones…  

We invited Mark & Debbie from “All Ways” over for a sunset beer.  They live in the Bocas del Toro in Panama, so they had some useful information about our next destination.

3 June 2013   Cayo Albuquerque, Colombia
It was a miserable rainy morning, with several large squalls coming through, giving us heavy rain, high winds and lightning, so we hunkered down and pottered about in the morning.

The afternoon was better.  It brightened up and we went snorkelling on one of the isolated reefs, which are like miniature atolls.  They’re about 50 metres in diameter with the top being very shallow and the edges dropping down to the surrounding white sand at a depth of around ten metres.  The sides of the reef are covered with coral and teeming with small fish - we spotted a nice Southern Stingray burrowing its way through the sand looking for food and a Masked Hamlet which I've never seen before.  I can tick that off the list, but I'm now on a mission to get a good photo of one. 

The weather turned unsettled again in the evening, so we hid down below and watched a movie.  Unfortunately, there are lots of flying ants that are being attracted by our lights, so we ended up having to close all the hatches to keep them out of the boat making it unpleasantly hot inside.

4 June 2013   Cayo Albuquerque, Colombia
It was a much nicer day, so we went snorkelling in the morning and again in the afternoon.  The rest of the day was spent hiding from the heat of the sun and tidying up ready to leave for Panama tomorrow.   It's 180 miles, so we'll leave in the morning and sail overnight.   I checked out the weather forecast and the wind is going to be light and variable for the next week, so we'll probably have to motor the whole way.

Thunderstorms build at dawn en-route to Panama

It's my birthday tomorrow, but we've postponed it and I'll have an official birthday after we're settled in the anchorage in Bocas town.  In the evening, we went over to  “All Ways” for sun-downers - Mark made a Conch Salad, which was very, very tasty served with tortilla chips.

5 June 2013   Cayo Albuquerque to Bocas del Toro Town, Panama (Day 1)
It was bright and sunny, so we upped anchor at half past seven and weaved our way out through the coral patches.  There was a pleasant 12 knot east wind, so we were able to sail south on a reach in fairly calm seas.

The wind gradually died on us and veered around to the south, so by four o'clock, we were motoring.  By dark, the seas had dropped and we slipped along in glassy seas all night.

6 June 2013   Cayo Albuquerque to Bocas del Toro Town, Panama (Day 2)
We had a very uneventful night, seeing two fishing boats and lots of stars.  The only slightly worrying thing was the frequent flashes of lightning to the west of our track, but all the activity seemed to be near to the Costa Rican coast well over fifty miles away.

When dawn came, I could see some impressive thunder clouds to the west and south of us, but fortunately we sailed right between them all.  A pod of Bottlenosed Dolphin escorted us through the shipping channel into the bay. 

Bocas del Toro is a 15 mile wide collection of small islands that forms a very protected stretch of water with lots of anchorages.   We motored around to Bocas Town and anchored amongst a dozen other boats – by the look of them most are permanent live-aboards that probably haven’t moved for years.  I hailed the port captain on the VHF radio and thirty minutes later, we were boarded by four officials – Port Captain, Immigration, Customs and Agriculture.  They were all very pleasant and efficient and the whole process took less than 15 minutes.  It cost us $100US including $15 for the water taxi that brought them out.  Tomorrow I have to go and get a cruising permit that will last for one year, but cost us $195US.  Not a cheap place to visit.

We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out – we’ve decided to have my official birthday on the 8th June.

7 June 2013   Bocas del Toro Town to Red Frog Marina, Panama
We dinghied into town and found a rough dinghy dock squeezed between the numerous waterfront restaurants.  The port captain soon issued our cruising permit and relieved me of $195US.  It should have cost us $193, but he stung me for $2 with the old “I don’t have any change” trick – I told him to buy himself a beer and saved a little bit of face.

My Birthday Party, Red Frog Marina, Panama

Bocas Town is a typical Western Caribbean tourist town – lots of small restaurants, Chinese supermarkets and souvenir shops.  We spent a couple of hours wandering about and checking out the supermarkets and hardware stores.  There’s not a lot here, but they sell some reasonable wine in 1 litre cartons for only $4, so we’ll be stocking up on that before we leave.  The island is popular with surfers and back-packers, so there’s plenty of young, scruffy people wandering around in strange looking clothes and sporting dreadlocks.

We met Tony from “Cetacea” on the main street, who told us that the Red Frog Marina is having a party tomorrow afternoon and the food and beer is FREE….  On top of that they are offering FREE docking for transient boats for the weekend.  As soon as we were back on the boat, I called Red Frog Marina and sure enough we could go there for free.  I cheekily asked if we could have two free nights and they said “Sure”.  That’s my birthday party and present sorted out then.

I nipped back into town to buy a few more essentials (beer, wine and bread) then we motored around to the marina five miles away.  Red Frog Marina is a lovely new marina hidden amongst mangroves and overlooked by jungle.  We were soon settled, so Glenys rushed off to use their laundry room – we’ve not had any laundry done since we were in Montego Bay in Jamaica six weeks ago, so the dirty washing has been piling up.

Meanwhile, I dragged out our small air conditioning unit and made a small stand, so that it fits into our companion way.  By half past five, everything was plugged in and we had lovely cold air blowing around our saloon.  We had a quiet night in, watching a movie and luxuriating in being cold for a change.