Punta Mala

This whole time, we’d been sailing to Panama, but on this leg we arrived.

After checking out with the Costa Rican authorities and eating ice cream in the grocery store parking lot, we taxied back to Banana Bay marina. Local custom is to stand on the side of the road you wish to travel, and vehicles with open seats allow passage for a dollar or two. Our driver and co-pilot seemed to be longtime friends out for a ride and joining them and the fifth passenger was a fun way to be sent off from Costa Rica. This taxi style continues into Panama, and presumably many parts of the world.

We untied the dock lines in the late afternoon and received a stunning show of clouds.

I have cooked at least sixty dinners at sea, popping out around 7 PM with bowls in hand. Our watch schedule changes then, but it feels spirited to stretch the handoff by watching the day tuck into the night.

Around 2 AM we crossed into Panamanian waters and had a show of thunder and lightning to starboard. The current was with us and sixty easy miles passed under the keel. At 6 AM the wind was light and the water was sloppy. We turned on the engine to make forward progress. We passed Coiba island and were back under sail power by sunset. I showed Scott the storm blobs on the radar display at the 11 PM watch change and we tracked them over a mug of tea.

The next day passed without many noted occurrences. The sea was choppy and the only “narrative” I offered the ship’s log was that my handwriting was worse than usual because of the bucking motion of the boat. The weather got spicy and we were headed straight into it. We sailed closer to the coast than planned – sometimes the temptation to sail in a straight line is too strong. Our speed dropped due to an adverse current. I recall a dicey maneuver to empty a jerrycan of fuel into the deck fill and trying and failing to avoid salt water jumping into the tank as well. Here Scott reminded me that we added an external water/fuel separator for this reason.

We are most frequently asked to share the harrowing experiences, the breaking points, the Big Storm. Acute moments spring to mind, but the real adversity has been the relentlessness of all this. It isn’t me holding a line in my teeth to stay on the boat, it’s remembering to drink enough water and switching on some music to shift morale. Traveling at a top speed of seven nautical miles per hour requires a beautiful amount of patience. Learning to read the weather avoids most of the big bad storms, but the perfect conditions don’t exist. We have cultivated the skill of getting unmoored, having enough to go on to keep going.

36 feet of boat and no internet means confronting yourself and the crew, rather than diving into flashing screens and schedules. The vastness of the ocean allows for a different kind of numbing out and I’ve found it helps to metabolize big thoughts and emotions. I’m writing this post while processing the actions of my country’s court to protect guns and control women.

With the current against us, we spent most of the next two days agonizing and celebrating over 1-2 knot speeds. Our destination seemed stuck around 148 miles away. We zigged and zagged and sent weather requests. Our sat phone chimed regularly as loved ones celebrated our incremental progress and shared findings on the boundary of this current and the weather to come. We ran the engine to try to power through it until we became concerned about conserving fuel and agitated with the noise of that big diesel. We napped fitfully off shift and tried to keep the energy up on shift. We drank lots of hot chocolate and named the motion of the boat “yip yap” because it wasn’t really a roll, pitch, or yaw.

We finally turned north after a half day of dodging containership traffic in the western approach to the canal zone. Rounding Punta Mala was the last of the three baddies on the Pacific Coast, including the Gulf of Tehuantepec and the Papagallos off Nicaragua. It translates simply to “bad point” and we can attest that there was no false advertising here. We have since learned that papagallo means parrot.

Relief washed over as we exited the shipping container lanes. This is like an extraordinarily slow street crossing, and while we technically had right of way, this area of the world famously runs on the “might is right” rule. We passed one more night of sailing through the Bay of Panama, past Las Perlas islands, and into the canal zone. We watched Pirates of the Caribbean for some light-hearted research of the waters on the other side of the canal. I also read a quarter of The Path Between the Seas and the history of the area loomed larger with each page and mile.

We crossed into the greater canal zone around mid-day and announced our arrival to the authorities. For fans of space dramas, this was like the Starship Enterprise or Rocinante entering a new port and giving controls over to local command. The skyline contained skyscrapers for the first time since Acapulco. The presence of so many large ships reminded us of San Francisco and we felt a similar giddy feeling from being on the water in a metropolis. We were approved to carry on to Balboa Yacht Club.

The sun was dipping close to the horizon. This sail included a Daylight Savings Time shift and passing through a few timezones. My sister tapped in to tell us about sunset expectations and local time, and Scott’s mom called ahead to BYC to expect us.

This sail was the hardest we have been tested, but the bright side was how asking for help brought others into the experience with us. Dave and Joe texted every shift and did some creative Google searches to help equip us with updated weather info. A little extra information and the knowledge that someone knows you are bobbing along out there goes a long way.

Published by Ash

Knitter, sailor, and sewist on the move from San Francisco to the Chesapeake Bay aboard a 36' sailboat named Azimuth.

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