Wednesday, February 13, 2008

“You will miss most of the rocks if you stay 1 mile offshore.”

February 13, 2008

The title of this log is a true quote from the Zydler Panama sailing guide regarding sailing off the island of Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro area..  That absolutely cracked us up.  Guess you don’t need to miss all of the rocks, just most of them.  We had the electronic chart route tracks from another boat that visited here last year and we sailed right over their track.  This was less than one-half mile from shore but we felt okay doing that since the other boat didn’t hit any rocks and that boat has the same draft as ours.

When we arrived in the anchorage at Bocas del Toro we anchored right next to S/V BRUADAIR, a Hans Christian out of Kemah, Texas.  I have followed the website for David and Damon on BRUADAIR since before we decided to begin cruising and bought our boat, and we had some email correspondence over the past three years.  It was a pleasure to finally meet these guys.  They have been here since late April 2007 and will be departing very soon and off to Cartagena.  They have a beautiful boat; not our type boat because of so much wood that requires so very much hard work to maintain, but a beautiful boat nonetheless.

Within minutes of dropping our anchor we were visited by the Customs and Immigration officials, as well as the Port Captain.  They came aboard and we sat in the cockpit to complete the clearance paperwork.  Bill served them sodas and beer while I handled the paperwork since I am the official captain.  Everyone was cordial and it was the most pleasant and easiest clearance we have experienced to date.  It is supposed to be quite common for officials to come out to arriving boats, but this is the first time we have experienced it.  Would that all clearances could be so simple and pleasant.

Bocas del Toro is by far NOT my favorite place.  I am trying to not be too negative about this area but am not being very successful.  The reason is the horrible, horrible, horrible noseeums.  These tiny insects are driving me out of my mind.  Noseeums are one of the midge insects.  They are very tiny and one cannot even see them without looking extremely closely.  Hence, the common name of “no-see-um.”  These tiny midges bite like crazy.  Most people feel a sharp bite and then might get a tiny red dot on their skin which quickly disappears.  Not me.  I am hyper-sensitive to noseeums.  I don’t even feel the bites, but about 12 hours later very itchy hard welts appear.  These last 2 to 3 months (sometimes longer depending on the variety of the midge) and itch very severely the entire time.  They make large bleeding sores and seem to take forever to stop itching and heal.  Taking Benadryl for several days when the bites first occur helps reduce the reaction, and using Benadryl gel alternated with hydrocortisone cream helps best with the itching.  But these bug bites make me miserable.  I had been afraid this was going to be a problem because of the heavy vegetation in the Bocas area, and it definitely turned out to be true.  I got at least a hundred bites the first day we were in this marina.  That night we turned on the air-conditioning and I have remained closed up inside the boat ever since.  Now, that really puts a person into a pissy mood – itching like crazy and going stir-crazy inside a closed up boat for weeks.  Sounds just lovely, doesn’t it?  And this marina doesn’t even have internet right now because a boat anchor cut the underwater cable to this island.  So it is really, really boring.  BTW, I am the only person in the marina who is affected this way by these insects.  No one else understands why these bugs bother me so much; they simply find the bugs annoying.  But, then, they aren’t itching to death for months with dozens and dozens of bleeding holes in their skin. 

The good news is that when the wind blows then the midges cannot fly.  And yesterday afternoon the winds started to blow nicely and are predicted to remain up for several days.  So this morning we have turned off the A/C and opened up the boat.  Ahhhh, the beautiful outdoors again.  I might begin to like Bocas after all; we’ll see.  Insect repellent sprays and lotions have no effect at keeping noseeums at bay.  There is a local preventive called Nopikec that we are now using.   Nopikec is a soap.  You wet the bar of soap and work up a lather, which you spread over your legs and arms and let dry without rinsing.  It doesn’t smell bad and contains no chemicals or poisons.  It does make your skin feel somewhat sticky but it also appears to help a lot.  Not enough to allow me to go outside unless the wind is blowing, but enough to protect Bill from the bites.  Think we will stock up on several bars of Nopikec.

Yesterday afternoon we took the dinghy over to Bocas Town for a few supplies.  While there we ate spicy pork soft tacos at a Mexican “restaurant.”   These were served with finely chopped cabbage mixed with chopped jalapenos.  Lettuce is hard to find most of the time, so cabbage is the substitute.  Probably sounds yucky to those of you back in the land of plenty, but it surprisingly tasted pretty good.  This place also had enchiladas verdes (chicken enchiladas with green sauce) on the menu, but they were way over-priced so I passed on what is normally my favorite Mexican food.  Figured these enchiladas would not be anything like normal anyway, so better to make my own on the boat when the right ingredients are available. 

Speaking of food, I am sorry to say that we have not found any special local foods in Panama that we would want to try again.   Everything is just sort of okay, nothing different and really good like the arepitas in Venezuela or the arepas in Colombia or the doubles in Trinidad or the curry pastries in Grenada (can’t remember now what those are called).  The Panamanian version of empanadas is thick dough that is very tough and oily.  The fillings are not as well-spiced as Mexican empanadas; just sort of bland and tasteless. The Panamanian version of tortillas is just plain weird.  Think of a normal Mexican corn tortilla overdosed on steroids---very, very thick and stiff; made from corn but crumbly and oily.  I have tried several thinking that maybe I was just buying bad ones, but they have all been yucky so I will not try any more.  There is a local fruit that is interesting.  It is called a mangostein.  This does not resemble a mango in any way.  It is hard and round and reddish and reminds me of a coconut; when cut in half the white inside is exposed, which is the edible part and is sort of slimy and sweet.  Not bad, but I definitely prefer regular mangoes over the mangostein.

Yesterday morning Bill had a mechanic check out our engine because it was smoking at high revs on our passage here from Colon.  Bill had already adjusted the timing and thought the smoking problem was solved but he wanted a real diesel mechanic to check it out.  This guy took things in the engine apart and cleaned everything.  In doing this he broke several gaskets and O-rings.  We were afraid this was going to happen.  We had some spares but not everything needed.  Bill tried to order replacements from the Yanmar dealer in Panama City and found that these are on backorder from Japan for at least a month.  This is very distressing news because our engine cannot be reassembled without these gaskets and O-rings.  So we are stuck here until we can find replacements and have them shipped to Bocas.  This is not the time to be stuck without internet access.  Surely these gaskets and O-rings are available somewhere in the States but we need the internet to find them.

This happened just days after we had changed our minds yet again regarding our next destination.  Last Saturday we notified an agent to arrange our Panama Canal transit for shortly after March 13.  Then, instead of cruising the Pacific coast of Costa Rico, Nicaragua and El Salvador as we were planning, we are going to the Galapagos Islands!!!!  This is a place that I am very eager to visit.  We were going to buddy-boat with Paul and Michele on FREE SPIRIT for a year on the western coast of Central America; then they were headed off to the South Pacific; and we didn’t know where we would go next—maybe the Sea of Cortez.  But both boats are sailing to the Galapagos late next month or early April – assuming we find replacement gaskets and O-rings for our engine.

If we absolutely hate the passage to the Galapagos Islands, then we will return via Ecuador.  That will be a tough return passage against both wind and current, but better than the alternatives of either going completely around the world or going north to Japan and Alaska and down the west coast.  If we do enjoy the passage to the Galapagos Islands, then we will continue onward to the Marquesas and the standard Coconut Milk Run to New Zealand.   Our longest non-stop passage to date was 460 NM hard-to-windward.  The passage to the Galapagos will be around 900 NM and half of that will be to windward.  Here’s hoping it is a calm passage with not-too-contrary winds against us.  The next passage to the Marquesas will be 3000NM almost totally downwind.  That would place us a little more than half-way to New Zealand.  So you can understand why we want to be certain about enjoying the first 900 NM passage before we commit to the next 3000 NM leg of a very long journey.

Now a few short history notes about Bocas del Toro:

The Archipelago of Bocas del Toro is located in the northwestern Caribbean corner of Panama, about 30 miles from the Costa Rican border.  This area is booming and rapidly becoming Panama’s main tourist destination.  We met a young couple at the Mexican “restaurant” yesterday who had flown down from Michigan, and the streets of Bocas Town were filled with backpacker-type younger tourists.  So this is definitely not just a cruiser destination.  Bocas Town has many bars and small clubs and the young tourists enjoy the nightly reggae and calypso “riddim” (local pronunciation of rhythm).  Lots of activities available to burn off that youthful energy.  

Real estate is hot here.  We have met at least a dozen cruisers who either already own local property or are searching for the perfect piece of land to build their retirement home.  The area is comprised of 2 huge lagoons, 8 major islands, 51 cays (small islands), and over 200 minor islets.  The last major earthquake in this area was 1991.  Bocas is reached via a regional airline direct from Panama City or via Nature Air from San Jose, Costa Rico.  One can also arrive at Bocas from San Jose by taking a bus to Changuinola, Panama, and then a water taxi to Bocas.  I think it is about a 9-hour bus ride and very inexpensive, which explains the popularity of this area for the backpacker youths.  Surfing seems to be a popular activity, as we have seen many water-taxi boats motoring around with young people carrying surfboards.   Don’t know where these people are surfing because we did not see any surf on our way into Bocas but it must be nearby.  Those annoying jet skis are also popular and available at several local resorts.  If the Port Captain of Bocas were smart, he would ban jet skis as so many of the Eastern Caribbean area have done.  Or he should at least restrict their use to areas less congested by dinghies, water taxies and anchored sailboats.

There is heavy vegetation on all the islands and the water is somewhat murky due to run-off from the mainland.  You can still see several feet depth but definitely not the crystal clear waters that we are familiar with in most of the Caribbean.  This area is well below the hurricane belt and rarely suffers any bad weather other than heavy rain.  Like the rest of Panama, there are 2 seasons:  the dry season from December through April, and the wet or rainy season from May through November.

Christopher Columbus discovered Bocas del Toro on his fourth and final voyage.  The indigenous people were various Ngobe tribes (there should be 2 dots over the “o” in Ngobe but this keyboard doesn’t do that).  Most of the remaining indigenous Ngobe Indians now live a subsistence lifestyle in remote communities.  They have not maintained their traditional way of life like the Kuna in the San Blas Islands of Panama.   The Ngobe are also called Guaymi and comprise 35% of the indigenous population of Panama

The remaining local population is a colorful mix of creoles, descended from the Jamaican blacks and Chinese and Colombians brought to this area by the now-defunct United States Fruit Company to work the banana industry in the late 1800s.  Even today bananas make up over 80 percent of Panama’s exports and the banana fields are increased each year.  Nearly a million tons of bananas per year are exported by the Chiquita Brands International Fruit Company in the Bocas province.  The language of these mixed race inhabitants is guarguari, a mix of Afro-Antilean English and Ngobere and spiced up with some French.  Most everyone also speaks Spanish and about 15% also speak English.  Theft is a common problem but nothing out of the ordinary.

As is common in most of the poor areas visited by cruisers, the cruisers here do various activities to raise money which is donated to the local efforts of educating the children.  Uniforms are required for the children to attend school and many families cannot afford the uniforms.  The cruisers hold trivia contests and auctions to raise money for a group called ESSO, which distributes the donations to the needy local families to buy backpacks, uniforms and school supplies.  Otherwise, most of the children would not be able to attend school.

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