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Day 609 - Colon, Panama (N 9° 22.1 W 79° 57.0)
13:29 hrs - January 29th, 2009
Change is Good (and Happy Birthday Neville xoxoxoxo)

One thing I have developed a higher tolerance for since this trip began is change, its constant relentless and ever present.  Everything changes all the time in every way and almost every day, and I am (thank goodness) getting a little better at it.  For instance this morning I was in Colon, Panama on the boat which is right now out of the water and up on stilts, and we are stripping and painting her in all kinds of antifouling, cetol and varnish in preparation for the next ‘scheduled’ change, the Pacific ocean. But as I write this Neville and I are on a Continental flight from Panama to New York, on our way to do an interview with ABC for their Good Morning America Now show, and who could have guessed that that would have been on our schedule this week? but there you go! (and yes, we will keep you posted on the air date and we will post it on the website.) 

I’ve never been a big fan of change, I remember when a new project at work was a big change for me, but home and New York always had their familiar comfortable rhythms that I loved, even the dull parts had their joys, but now I don’t even get an opportunity to figure out where they keep the milk is in the local store (if there even is a local store, or milk!!) before something changes or we move.  I have always loved familiar, I like people and things being where I left them, knowing I can find them anytime. But this cruising life creates a whole other way to be, when nothing is ever the same for long, and a routine becomes simply the way you do things you do in different ways, in different places, and often in different languages.  So adapting to change is compulsory and pointless to resist.

Right now we are getting ready to make a huge ocean change, soon we will be in the Pacific which is big new water for both of us.  It will be the first time we have taken on that much ocean with just the 2 of us, and it means weeks of 24/7 open ocean sailing with nothing but us and the deep blue sea.  But we are prepared and so excited and with destinations like Tahiti & Bora Bora waiting for us beyond the horizon, all the changes are worth it.

P.S. Speaking of changes, Neville changed ages today, Happy Birthday Neville!


 
 
       

 

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Day 604 - Colon, Panama (N 9° 22.1 W 79° 57.0)
20:50 hrs - January 24th, 2009
Base Camp

The Gutan locks, the first of six that will raise Dream Time over 100' and back down again into the South Pacific are just a few miles away. The reality of our coming transit from one ocean to another, a new ocean that will see us into the southern hemisphere and across the international dateline, an ocean
that, unlike the Caribbean, demands a dedication to cruising that few are willing, or able to commit to,
an ocean where our first leg will be a 1,000 miles, our second leg (from the Galapagos to the Marquesas) 3,000 miles of open sea - that's about 3-4 weeks of solid, 24/7, non-stop sailing - yes,
the reality of our transit is beginning to settle-in.

Our cruise from the San Blas up the coast of Panama was perfect, beautiful weather - strong winds on the stern, clear blue skies and 8 - 10' swell to surf, Dream Time regularly hit 10 knots sliding down the face of the big waves. We decided to explore a little of the Panamanian coastline and made stops at Isla Grande, Isla Linton and Portobello, all picturesque islands and coastline that our 4-day transit never really allowed us to fully explore or appreciate. But we did climb to the top of Isla Granda's lighthouse to get a stunning 360 degree view of the island. We relaxed in a reggae bar that played nothing but Bob Marley. And we explored the Bay of Portobello - first 'discovered' by Christopher Columbus on November 2nd, 1502. We entered the bay under sail, wind power alone, and dropped the anchor off the northern shoreline blanketed in vegetation, a view, I suspect, almost identical to the one Chris observed over 500 years ago. We were greeted to the anchorage by a group of unseen Howler monkeys that wailed, hooted and croaked for almost an hour after our arrival.

But today we're living on Dream Time in Shelter Bay Marina's car park, like a couple of gypsies. For the first time in nearly two years we were hauled-out in order to prepare the boat for the next chapter of our world cruise - the Pacific. We have quite an impressive list of projects to tackle over the next few weeks - add a few fresh coats of anti-fouling paint to our keel, raise our boot top (water line) and a dozen or so other projects (some of which have already been completed and are listed below).

There's an energy at the marina as sailors prepare for their transit through the canal. Stacks of old car tires wrapped in plastic and tape, used as crude fenders in an effort to protect topsides from the unforgiving concrete locks, are heaped up along the dock. Piles of 125', 3/4" rope, rented by sailors as dock lines for transiting through the canal are loaded onto boats during the final preparations. Buses shuttle boaters into Colon and Panama City to stock-up on last minute supplies and gear.

For those who are transiting through the canal and heading into the expanse of the Pacific Ocean - the largest ocean in the world that covers almost a third of the world's surface, their time here in Panama is like a base camp - a final chance to prepare the boat, and crew, for what will be for many, the most significant sailing experience of their lives.

Tomorrow we'll be meeting our Panama Canal agent who will arrange all the details of our transfer - boat measurer (to determine how much the transit will cost -about $1,000) our clearance papers from Panama, delivery of our very own car tires and dock lines... all we need to do is everything else.

Dream TIme: Serviced engine - changed oil, oil and fuel filters. (Total running hours 1299). Dismantled windlass, cleaned and lubricated. Removed headsail for minor repair/stitching. Tightened stuffing box. Removed headsail tracks on cap rails. Stripped caprail to bare teak in preparation for new tracks.
Sealed under caprail. Marked anchor rode every 25' with epoxy.


     

 

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Day 595 - Chichime, Kuna Yala, Panama (N 9° 35.2 W 78° 52.9)
17:33 hrs - January 15th, 2009
Goodbye to New Friends

I guess it's not every day you see a large Englishman paddling around a group of remote tropical islands in an "ulu" - a handmade dugout canoe. I suspect, at least for the three Kuna fishermen I paddled past, that it was their first sighting - it was the pointing, back slapping and fits of laughter (causing them to momentary lose control of their own ulu and nearly crash into Dream Time) that led me to this conclusion. I like to think that perhaps it was the first time ever a non-Kuna had paddled an ulu around Chichime Cays (consisting of two islands - Uchutupu Pipigua and Uchutupu Dummat) and that this was a historic event, well, blog worthy at least. But what made this whole scene really exceptional was that I was being chased by a little Kuna boy, probably no older than 9, paddling a bright yellow surfing kayak - my kayak and I'm rather embarrassed to say, was gaining ground! Before you jump to any conclusions, like I stole the ulu and was caught in a hot pursuit, Kuna-style, let me state for the record that it was an agreed trade.

We've been anchored in Chichime for three days, this regrettably will be our final stop in the San Blas, tomorrow we'll begin our journey up the coast to Colon and the Panama canal. Our stay in Kuna Yala over the last 37 days has been simply magical. And while the south Pacific calls us and we're excited to begin the next chapter of our expedition, we're feeling a little melancholy to be leaving this paradise behind. As though sensing our malaise, or more likely wanting to sell us a mola or two, a family of Kunas paddled over to greet us when we dropped anchor. We invited everyone on board to cheer us up. After a few ulu runs back to their island to collect everyone , we had a family of nine on board - relaxing in the cockpit, children playing on the deck, exploring the cabin below, it was lovely. The father, Grimaldo, later invited us over to his island and gave us coconuts (which they sell for 25 cents a piece to the Colombian trade boats), fish and a private tour of his "estate". As it turns out the Kuna islands are like time shares, families each have a few weeks a year to live on the island, Grimaldo shares his little hut with 15 other families throughout the year.

After spending the late afternoon on Dream Time, our new friends had to leave, it was getting late and with no power or generator on the island I would imagine that trying to accomplish anything after 7:30 in the evening would be almost impossible. I ferried the children back to the island in our dinghy, and much to the delight of the eldest son, handed the helm over to him to steer. With the biggest smile imaginable he drove us back to the island. But unaccustomed to steering an outboard (your actions are opposite to the direction you want to go) he did a continuous slalom all the way back to the beach, meandering one way, overcompensating, then swinging back the other way. His brothers and sisters were in tears with laughter by the time we reached the beach. I nicknamed the boy "El Capitán" and gave him a little compass, explaining that perhaps it would help him navigate in a straight line in the future.

As we prepare Dream Time for our coastal voyage to Colon, regrettably we don't have the ulu strapped to our deck - I won't be exploring the islands in the south Pacific in a Kuna-made canoe, which would have been so cool, it was only a temporary trade. But the memories we have of these little islands, and more importantly of the people we met here are far more valuable. Like spending the afternoon in a Kuna ulu and watching El Capitán having the time of his life in my yellow kayak.


   

 

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Day 590 - Coco Banderos, Kuna Yala, Panama (N 9° 30.8 W 78° 37.0)
19:26 hrs - January 10th, 2009
Fear Factor

Neville and I have always been very different creatures which would manifest in all the usual ways.
Him structured me ponderous, him disciplined me relaxed, him able to turn his hand to every possible sport, me not so much, so when it comes to the boat and all things watery there has to be a level of concentration on my part where for Neville it comes naturally.  I found to my surprise this applies to snorkeling too. 

For Neville heights are a problem, for me its depths. Or more precisely the running out of air in depths.
I know that snorkeling only requires the participant to float and paddle around on the surface but you would be astonished to see the kind of pickle I can get myself into doing just that, I can be happily bobbing around on the surface in my foggy mask when inexplicably my nose and mouth forget which
one is supposed to do the breathing, so they both try, and that’s when the show really begins.  It usually involves flailing limbs and some spluttery attempt to reattach my mask and snorkel without looking like too much of a goof while perhaps attempting to casually make my way back towards the boat and safety, meanwhile Neville glides around effortlessly amongst the fish and coral completely at home far below the surface, its just another one of those things that I must aspire to, for now I simply aim for improvement. 

In my pursuit of this improvement, we have spent the last few weeks searching for the perfect snorkeling spot, and I think we actually found it. Its perfect enough for me to want to go back to over and over again despite my snorkeling ‘issues’ and its making me think that whole practice makes perfect thing actually works!  We found several parallel reefs where they form these remarkable coral canyons where the water races through, and they are full of every possible kind of fish.  I figured out a way to swim hard against the current to one end and then let the sea float me back effortlessly to the other as I watch this incredible underwater world go by.  And I have all but conquered my brain freeze on the breathing thing so if it does happen, I figured out a way to fix it without too much uncool flailing.

To illustrate my surprising improvement I can show off with a good shark story.  Yesterday as Neville and I were circling the same reef I spotted a startlingly large 6ft. nurse shark just below me (FYI  they are all startlingly large when they are big, shark shaped and near you) I immediately swung round to tell Neville but as I turned to tell him, I saw an even bigger 9ft. one swimming up right behind him, I did the whole frantic pointing thing towards the large grey swimming object making its way towards us but as soon as Neville turned around to face it, it stopped, looked at us, thought for a moment, and swam away.  The impressive bit on my part is not only did I remember to breathe through the right hole, thus avoiding the whole drowning thing, but other than a temporarily heightened heart rate, I was panic free!! No uncool flailing, no dash for the boat, just an electrifying experience.  This was remarkable to me until I tried to understand why I hadn’t been more afraid, because frankly to me a shark is a shark is a shark, and then I realized that until that moment every shark I have ever been that close to before has always been safely behind thick aquarium glass and the illusion of proximity to something so large and menacing has been thrilling rather than frightening, but the sensation of being underwater gave me that same visual sense of being behind glass, and my brain didn’t fully grasp the whole ‘SHARK!’ signal at the time so I remained relaxed.  Although nurse sharks can certainly be intimidating, and it’s probably wise not to annoy them, they are for the most part just giant harmless shark shape creatures that just happen to swim underwater way better than I do. My lesson here was that although this whole beautiful sea thing may have all the appearance of an aquarium, there is no glass wall here to separate me from some of its more hazardous inhabitants. Note to self, its real, pay attention.


 

 

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Day 584 - Waisaladup Island, Kuna Yala, Panama (N 9° 28.3 W 78° 38.2)
16:25 hrs - January 4th, 2009
The Perfect Spot

When cruising in Kuna Yala you really are spoiled for choice. You can't swing a bunch of coconuts without hitting at least half a dozen absolutely, gorgeous, serenely perfect islands in the most ideal cruising conditions imaginable - steady trades, clear waters, reef just bursting with color and life, sandy beaches - its sometimes difficult choosing where to go. Which is why, I would guess, many cruisers just drop their anchors right in the recommended locations on the cruising guide charts indicated by little anchor icons, it just makes life easier. After-all, someone else has done all the research - finding the location, providing approach routes and waypoints, noting hazards, I doubt the author for the cruising guide books would have mentioned these places if they weren't any good. The problem with this is that you get little clusters of boats anchored together in each of these locations. Now, just to keep this in perspective, when I say "cluster" it's not like an eastern Caribbean cluster of masts in say, Antigua or the B.V.I.'s where there can be a few hundred boats packed together in a harbor, but the nine boats we saw on our approach to Green island just seemed a little too cramped so we took a detour to find our own private spot.

Leaving the suggested route and approach waypoints behind, Catherine and I nudged our way further in behind the reef to find our own 'private' little anchorage. With the chart plotter showing us firmly aground, we relied solely on eye-ball navigation to negotiate the deeper water. With the sun high and behind us, picking out the shallows was as easy as driving along a road with two freshly painted yellow lines. We motored around Waisaladup island, a little patch of sand about 100' long and 50' wide, dropping the anchor on its south shore, protected from swell by reef that almost completely surrounds us. To celebrate our arrival I went for a swim, naked, then showered off on the deck in all my natural born glory (something that is frowned upon when you have neighbors).

For dinner, Catherine and I decided to light a bonfire on the beach, we cooked sausages on telescopic forks, snuggled on a blanket in the warmth of the fire long into the night, we were alone in our own little world - perfect!


 

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Day 583 - Nargana, Kuna Yala, Panama (N 9° 26.4 W 78° 35.2)
16:27 hrs - January 3rd, 2009
Happy New Year!

Two hours before midnight on New Years Eve, Catherine and I motored across the dark lagoon in our little inflatable boat, attempting, mostly successfully, to navigate our way around Banedup island whilst avoiding the numerous reefs that hid just below the surface. Approaching BBQ island, a small patch of sand no larger than a football field and the location of the 'official' Holandes Cays 2009 New Years Eve party, was like stumbling across the site of a secret ceremony. A dim light in the middle of the island cast long, distorted shadows amongst the towering palms. A mass of people moved together, arms flailing, legs kicking, bare feet stamping. They seemed to be moving as one, circling the hallowed ground as though performing an ancient and unsettling ritual. We pulled our dinghy up onto the beach and made our way towards the island's center to get a better look. It was a sight to behold - 60 or more cruisers, dozens of nationalities, shapes, sizes and ages, joined together in a long, meandering conga line - this was where we celebrated the New Year.

We began our evening by inviting over some of the neighbors for a 'pre-party' aboard Dream Time.
By eight o'clock we had ten people wedged into our cockpit. Jammed tightly together we all swapped sailing yarns, where we all came from, where we are all going, what we were doing last New Years Eve... It doesn't really seem possible that only a year ago Catherine and I were still in America, berthed in Florida and readying Dream Time for her passage south, out of US waters and into the Caribbean. So much has changed; us, the boat, the global economy. Things that we could have never imagined or predicted only a year ago are now a reality or a collection of colorful memories and experiences that we shall never forget; Like our journey into Havana - discussing the end of Fidel Castro's 49-year reign with a taxi driver in his 1950's Buick, or having the Cuban Minister of Interior personally return stolen goods to our boat and apologize on behalf of his country for the embarrassing incident; Or Catherine's harrowing 'surgery' at a naval hospital in Mexico, with no anesthetic, and being held-down on a table by an armed nurse; Or tropical storm 'Arthur' that we survived unscathed in Belize;. Sailing up the Rio Dulce into the jungles of Guatemala; Exploring the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal; Climbing to a lava flow on Pacaya; Finding ourselves caught in the middle of a civil protest in Honduras, and more recently, sharing a few Colombian beers with three good friends from New York and a dozen Kuna fisherman on the remote Panamanian island of Aridup...the list of experiences goes on and on.

Yes, it's been a remarkable and memorable year, and as we ready ourselves and Dream Time for her transit through the Panama Canal into the Pacific, we can't even begin to imagine what 2009 has in store for us. Happy New Year!