Around the world

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Brigitte and Yves are sailing around the world on board Téthys, their Nautitech 435 which they bought in Greece in 2010. After going through the Panama Canal, and before taking on the world’s biggest ocean, they decided to visit Coiba, on the south western coast of Panama.

In the twilight of 2014, the Miraflores locks closed behind Téthys. Once past the Bridge of the Americas, the Pacific Ocean will open up before us. This time it’s for real. We are really heading out into the unknown, and feel as though we are about to begin The Real Voyage.
Before the Big Crossing we wanted to check out the south western coast of the Gulf of Panama, the western coast of Panama and more particularly to take a trip to the island of Coiba, which is somewhere that the guidebooks don’t talk about too much. We therefore need to head south west to get around a headland which is well-named: Punta Mala.

After doing the supermarkets on the 24th December (what a great idea! However, we did have to stock up) we spent the morning of Christmas Day diving down to scrub our two hulls. That took us each a good two hours as the keel was filthy and had been colonized by different sorts of barnacles. And then we were off, heading for the small island of Otoque, where we planned to spend the night. We found a huge bay to the south, and have it to ourselves until a small fishing boat anchors across on the other side.
Before setting off, we decide to go on foot to the little village which we had seen on the east coast when we passed by. First though, we went to help out the fishermen. They had lost a washer from their fuel filter overboard, and their outboard motor wasn’t in good form. And guess what? Yves finds not one but two washers for their filter. A veritable Father Christmas!
However, we had less success with our walk. Given the swell, there was only one landing point, and from there, there were no paths that crossed the island. We tried to make an incursion via the shoreline, but after an erratic walk across complicated rock formations, we found ourselves at the foot of a sheer cliff, dripping under the hot sun. The rocks were burning hot, so we had to beat a retreat.
Not to worry. At 5pm, we weighed anchor and headed south, somewhere on the coast of the Azuero Peninsula. Whatever happens, as our charts are not very precise, we need to arrive during the day. We therefore need to sail by night as we have 100 miles to cover, with no available shelter and unpredictable winds.
For once we travel more quickly than expected, and we reach the west coast of the famous peninsula at 3pm the next day. We drop anchor in Naranjo Bay, which is calm and magnificent. A small waterfall pours into the sea. Behind the trees which line the beach are a few cabins, given away by the plumes of smoke. We are in the Mount Hoya natural park, with the highest point close by at 1227m. The landscape is really stunning. There is no sound other than the monkeys which cry out in the morning.

Around the world Gladu

Téthys, Yves and Brigitte’s Nautitech 435, is sailing around the world.

The Wonders of Communication

As it was a festive time, we wanted to get in touch with friends and family. We had a 3G key in working order, but we also needed a network. We needed to choose between tranquility or modernity. We headed 20 miles to the northwest, tacking all day, advancing at 3 to 4 knots and with winds shifting 180° every ten minutes, until we reached the island of Cébaco. We spent the night there in a chaotic mooring at a deserted beach. However, there was 2G! Yves managed to read half a message but no more, which was really frustrating…
As one can’t survive without internet these days, we headed for civilization and more precisely, Santa Catalina, a surfing Mecca. There should be a network there. We had to anchor quite a way out, sheltered from the swell by a small island (although the surfers enjoy the swell of course). In the anchorage we had 2G+, which meant that we could take turns connecting and reading and sending texts, which was better than nothing.
After a calm night, we decided to go ashore and try and buy some fresh fruit and vegetables. There was no harbor or dinghy dock so we had to land on the beach. We were lucky that the waves weren’t that large today. We landed in swimming gear, and Yves anchored the Zodiac 100m out, because of the tide, and then swam back. After a quick striptease on the beach, we headed for the village of Santa Catalina. We walked along the one paved road lined with a string of cabins (rooms for rent) belonging to small hotels, and surfing and dive shops. These stretched all along the road, in between the banana and palm trees. We found 2 small grocery stores, a bakery and a fruit and vegetable shop. We found everything that we needed and quickly headed back. We prefer not to stay ashore between 10am and 5pm, as on windless days like that one, the heat can be oppressive.

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Yves, an astute sailor and a distinguished fisherman !

On board we stayed in the shade and sought out any breeze. Luckily the sea is on hand to allow us to cool off from time to time. The best way to cool down is to swim in the shade between the hulls. However, you need to watch out for jellyfish. In the Bay of Naranjo, we got stung so many times that we hardly lasted five minutes in the water. When we got out it felt as though we had been rolling in nettles.
Taking advantage of the calm weather, Yves climbed (with some help from me) up the mast to check up on the halyard sheaves for the mainsail. While up there, he notices with shock, that the mast is splitting around the weld where the forestay is attached. Ay! The year is ending badly. We continue on to Coiba. We will have to deal with that problem next year.
The short thirty mile crossing between Santa Catalina and Coiba under gennaker was very pleasant: the sea was calm, and I decided that I would get all the sails out of storage so that I could air them, as well as clean the locker. Every movement made us sweat. When we arrived at Coiba we jumped straight into the sea, almost as we dropped anchor. The water wasn’t the clearest, but we couldn’t wait, as for more than an hour we had been sailing between beautiful green islands with their white sand beaches and coconut palms set against the blue sea. We just couldn’t wait!

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Santa Catalina, one of surfing’s Meccas, allowed the crew to get a (not very reliable) internet connection !

Coiba, At Last !

There used to be a penal colony on Coiba. From 1919 until 2004. I’ve heard it said that Noriega set up a training camp for the “contras” at the request of the CIA… It’s difficult to know if this is really true, but the island’s history meant that it avoided being populated. It was therefore a logical step when in 1991 it was turned into a nature reserve. It’s worth noting that as with the island of Cayenne, the prisoners couldn’t escape as the waters were shark-infested. (We didn’t see any evidence of them).
Coiba is a land and marine natural reserve, and is sometimes compared to the Galapagos or Coco Island. It’s a rather large island and is home to the wardens of the ANDA (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente). According to our map we are in the bay where their office is located. We quickly launch the dinghy to go and introduce ourselves. However, there is no sign of human life around here…
When we were arriving we had seen a small cruise ship moored just outside a large bay at the back of which we could make out some cabins. As well as the cabins, we could see a few motor boats, and with our binoculars could make out people frolicking on the white sandy beach that was lined with coconut palms… That’s obviously where we need to go. There are around a hundred light-skinned, mainly eastern Europeans and Russians on the beach and in the water making lots of noise.(I heard lots of “niet”). I find a way through the crowds and see a dark-skinned man coming my way. It’s the warden.
“Hello, we’ve just arrived and would like to spend the night in a bay a bit further along.”
“No problem. Entrance to the reserve costs $20 per person. How long is your boat?”
“43 feet.”
“Ok, that’ll be $60 per night. How many nights are you staying?”
“Er… just the one night” (Damn, if I’d known that the price was based on the length, and that he wasn’t going to ask for any documents, I would’ve said 13 feet!)
With a lot of questioning I eventually found out that we could anchor just about anywhere. No special rules and we could fish if we bought a permit… Welcome to the reserve. Just as Equador has done with the Galapagos, Panama has transformed Coiba into a cash machine. We observed several luxurious cruise ships delivering their “happy few” onto the magnificent beach for a lively barbecue.
I handed over my $100, but I was furious. I’ve heard that there are some interesting walks to be done and ask him where the paths are. He waves his arm behind him and tells me that they are in that direction and if I go up that way I’ll find them. I ask if he can be a guide, and judging by his face I realized that it would depend upon how much I spent. This guy’s not going to get another cent off me. We’ll manage without him.
So the next morning we set off with all our kit (walking shoes and water bottles) and headed into the forest. I had read that you could see howler monkeys (we heard them mainly in the mornings and evenings), white headed capuchins, indigenous agoutis, hundreds of bird species (we are accompanied by lovely birdsong all along our walk but we didn’t see a single bird), and there are also nasty crocodiles and 15 species of snake including boa constrictors and the famous lancehead snake which it is better not to meet. There is indeed a path which leads to a bay that we want to explore. Yves easily finds the route (if I had been alone I would still be there!). The wardens didn’t even watch us leave, only telling us that we would need around 4 hours to complete the circuit. All along the route, I wondered if after 8 hours the wardens would come and find us… I did regret somewhat that none of them had accompanied us, as we could no doubt have learned a lot more about the forest, and maybe see some animals, because on that score we came home having seen nothing at all.
As they had warned us that the track was difficult, I assumed that we would have to be cutting the creepers with machetes to be able to advance, but not at all. Apart from a few tree trunks that were blocking the path that had to be climbed over, it was clear. In a strange way, this dense forest which sometimes blocked out the sun, the land and sea which blend together in the lagoons and the brooding silence at certain moments, all combined to give us the impression that we were alone in the world.

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Coconut palms and white sandy beaches : welcome to paradise !

As soon as we had returned, we ran into the sea. After four hours of sweating buckets, bathing in this clear water (as it was in this zone), did us the world of good. We then said goodbye to the wardens, had a quick look at the exhibition based mainly around the creation of the reserve, (plus a few bottles with preserved snakes), and we were off. Adios Amigos… and we headed to another bay, a little further south. Given the torpor of the wardens, and the little motor boat that they had, we doubted that they would come looking for us so far away.
We spent the night in Hermosa Bay (aka Beautiful bay), which certainly lives up to its name. It’s immense. Half of it is bordered by a coconut palm beach, whilst the other half is a long vegetal “wall”, along which we shelter from the swell. A magnificent place to spend the night.
Since we had spotted the weld problem with the stay, Yves had been securing the mast with the spi halyard which was left on the topping lift winch. To do this he had to undo that halyard’s stopper knot.
After our swim we set off for Coiba’s little sister: Jicaron (which is also part of the reserve). As the weather was good, and the wind was behind us, we hoisted the spi, and what we feared finally happened. I pulled frantically on the wrong end, the halyard set off like a rocket (including the stopper knot) … and fell onto the deck… Oh dear, we were really in trouble now.
We still managed to reach Jicaron’s northern bay. There was a huge sandy beach lined with coconut palms and hundreds of birds. We were alone. No other sails or craft. No other boats. Nobody.

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A sportive hike on Coiba.

A little bit of DIY

Of course our first job the next day was to put the halyard back in place. Yves weighted a fine halyard with a small lead fishing weight and we then sewed this onto the spi halyard. He then took it up to the top of the mast (with a leg up from me again). Straight away the little weight fell into the mast and fell right down to the bottom. We managed to get to the weight through the correct hole and it was done! I suppose it was pretty simple in the end, but it still took us two hours, and all the time the sea was becoming more and more choppy, so it got quite interesting at the top of the mast. After all that effort we needed some downtime, so we set off for a walk around the large bay and its magnificent coconut palm fringed beach. The pelicans hardly moved to let us pass by. Behind the beach were various lagoons which would probably be a favored hunting ground for the crocodiles. We also started to scrutinize the back of the bay, which we had waded through: there seemed to be what looked like strange tree trunks which moved on their own, which were possibly not vegetal at all... We continued our investigation in the zodiac but the “trunks” moved away and disappeared when we tried to get too close. We assumed that when we were wallowing in the water just before that they hadn’t been hungry.
To our great disappointment, the water is still very murky, whether in the bay to the north or along the east coast which we explored for a while. So we decided to head back to Coiba along the east coast, and to spend the night in front of the ruins of the old penal colony which we planned to visit. We arrived late afternoon and were horrified to discover that the old prison was now a military base. Immediately, soldiers from the “Aeronaval” sprang into action on the beach, on foot and on quad bikes, all heading for a motor boat to come out and check us out. It was too late for us to turn around. And with night about to fall, we had nowhere to go. This natural reserve was certainly throwing up one surprise after another. 7 of them came on board, all armed with guns. I have to say that they were very pleasant, but seemed just as astonished as we were. We explained that we had come there to do some work on the mast which risked breaking (and showed photos which seemed to convince them). Then, having checked our passports, they apologized for not being able to help us and bid us good night. We never knew whether we had the right to anchor there, but at least we slept well.
The next morning we quickly set off determined to try and find some clear water and to see what lay under the water. I had seen a little diver symbol on my tourist map, so that was where we headed. It was a pretty little island just off the north east coast of Coiba. Upon arrival we already saw four motor boats anchored in a sheltered spot. Their passengers were all having a lovely time on the beach and in the water. We decided to do the same. With Téthys hardly anchored, we were both in the water with our cameras. The water was warm and clear, transparent even, and there were turtles and fish everywhere. At last!
However, we didn’t see any cetaceans, big fish, sharks or manta rays, which are supposed to be so common here. It’s obviously not our lucky day, and we probably don’t have enough detailed information. And yet we spent many hours in calm conditions, ideal for watching animals, but only the seagulls kept us company. Some of them used Téthys as a bus, being taken from one island to another, never lifting a leg or a wing, and often asking for food. One of them stuffed so much cheese down, that it couldn’t take off. It finished off falling into the water with a splash, and we never saw it again.

Around the world Gladu

The neighbors in our anchorage? Pelicans!

We didn’t see a single sail, even though there had been a hundred or so yachts anchored when we came out of the Canal. Obviously, most sailors prefer to head for the Pearl Islands or to take on the Pacific crossing straight away. We take fond memories of this short excursion to the ends of the earth with us.
We need to head east to Panama. At the beginning everything is fine: we sail under an asymmetric spi, we catch a tuna, and spend the first night in a bay at Cebaco Island, and then the second night in another, Naranjo Bay.
Up until Punta Morro de Puercos, the weather conditions had been kind to us, but that changed brutally: a headwind blowing at more than 30 knots, with a countercurrent and a wicked sea. We struggled on for 7 hours until we reached Benao Bay, where we were able to get some rest for a few hours.
And then we had to take on another 27 hours of sailing, into a headwind, 25-28 knots, with 33 knot gusts. We had 3 reefs in the mainsail and the genoa was three-quarters furled. Our weather forecasts had got it all wrong… and Punta Mala certainly lived up to its name. We noticed again, that the Trade Winds that blow across the Caribbean pass quite happily over the Panamanian isthmus, before arriving in the Gulf of Panama with renewed vigor.
We are a little stressed out because we have an appointment, and that is never ideal when sailing in windy conditions.
We had made the appointment with Quality Yachts in the Flamenco de Panama marina, for haulout, antifouling and taking down the mast to be able to re-weld the fitting. The quality of the work left a lot to be desired. But that’s another story…

Around the world Gladu

The shower for rinsing is just here, at the edge of our anchorage.

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