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Panama to Tahiti Sailing Tour
Entering the Pacific Ocean from the final Panama Canal lock, you pass the Balboa Yacht Club where they have moorings and a water taxi service. A mile or so further, also to your left, northeast, is Culebra Island and a nice anchorage. Further up into the harbor there is a marina with a dinghy dock. This is where we anchored for the next 10 days provisioning boat for Pacific crossing.
The most important item to find was a new solar panel.
The Saugeen Witch has two 100 watt solar panels. One of the them had been taken out by a wave in the Caribbean. Both panels were mounted on the lifelines so that the bottom leveled up with the gunnel (top side of boat hull). This seamed right because the solar panel top lined up with the lifeline so they didn't really take up any space and also acted as a nice side shades.
However, that this setup worked fine for many thousand sailing miles was pure luck because it did not accommodate large breaking waves. Where would the water, and it's force, crashing up and over back side of boat end up?
Well, as we learned sailing down through the center of the Caribbean to Panama, this force ends up breaking the solar panel. Better to raise it; leaving space for water to wash over deck of boat.
After spending some time in Colon looking for replacement without success, I was now searching places in Panama City recommended by the people in Colon.
Finally, on my second or third morning row to shore focused on continuing the search, I noticed a guy groveling around on the deck of another aluminium sailboat with an Aussie flag anchored near by. There are not a lot of aluminium saiboats and even fewer from Australia in these parts so I had to detour and say hi.
He had been in Panama for some time with his lady raising two young boys. They were getting ready to head over to the Perlas Islands for a while. He offered me a panel he wasn't using. After bringing it back to the Saugeen Witch and considering it hard, I gave it back to him because it was just too big and heavy for the spot. So, he pointed me to a French boat in the same harbor. He knew the captain was in the process of a solar re-power.
30 minutes of talking to the Frenchman gave me 3 months knowledge of the solar panel market in Panama City.
Although Panama enjoys a huge amount of sunshine, they make too much money from the canal to bother with solar panels.
By lunch time I was looking at the perfect panel. It was in a small shop in an obscure part of town near the University owned by a Chinese lady married to a guy from Colorado.
Still with a few hours of sunlight to go, the new panel was charging the Saugeen Witch batteries.
The marina charges for weekly use of their dinghy dock and they give you a colored wrist band that must be warn. The high tidal range and rock or mud shore make this worth it. On the second Monday I was out before their office opened and was lucky to have returned before they closed because there is a guard at the locked gate watching for wrist bands.
I never saw him smile nor did I ever go out of my way to talk or share anything with him.
When he saw me walking up to the gate as before with arms full, all he did was stand firm and point to the office.
This was my clear reminder that unless you go out of your way, many accept you only for your money.
Instead of asking the office girls for one wrist band as before, this time I asked for two. This gave the office girls a chuckle. After my treatment from the guard, I was just thinking that maybe I give the extra to someone who would find it useful.
As it turned out, a few days later when I was about ready to cast off, I saw Anne Marie who had helped us through the canal. She was out looking for crew positions on boats and most liked walking the docks asking boaters in person if they wanted help. I gave her the extra wrist band so that she could enjoy a few days of more effective prospecting without hassle.
Weather wise, our timing of cast off from Panama sailing west was perfect.
Surrounded by land with high hills on three sides, the Gulf of Panama is light fickle winds. So, we motored out of Panama City through miles of anchored container ships a day before what was expected to be about a weeks worth of solid favorable wind. This wind was to start a bit further to the south and west.
True to the prediction, before sunset there was enough of a breeze to kill the motor. The light tail wind together with calm seas made flying only the genoa sail forward a dream. There must have been favorable current too because we were going faster than we could expect for the given wind and sail area.
This is how we were quietly and peacefully sailing through our first night out from Panama City. It was a beautiful full moon night.
Some time between 60 minute deck check alarms I was woken by the powerful feeling and sound of a continuous breaking wave.
View from the hatch was that of a huge metal wall.
I jumped on deck to watch a cargo ship passing by at perfect parallel course. We were less than 3 meters apart.
It's huge power and energy was bone chilling. I tried spitting on it but the wind was weird.
It was to passing to port (left). Fortunately the genoa was flying to starboard (right).
At first I thought to turn the boat right to get further away but this would have moved the stern closer to port.
The dynamics of that cargo ship, it's bow wave, the wind, the water, the genoa, and the self steering system were working perfectly to our favor. This massive ship was slowly passing us on perfect parallel course and there was nothing I could do to make the situation safer or better.
A basketball player could have reached out and touched this huge mass flying past us.
I just stood there watching dumbfounded, happy to be alive. Pure luck!
Normally my instinct does not consider the VHF radio. After considering the last time we escaped a near collision off Haiti, I understand use of the VHF would have likely simplified the whole situation.
This time, as soon as it passed and I saw its name on the stern, SEAMUSE.
I called on the radio "please, please, please, turn on your AIS transmitter" in what was likely a very startled voice. Unfortunately, I never heard back from it nor did it turn on it's AIS transmitter.
By international law, a ship like that must be transmitting AIS. If that ship was transmitting then the Saugeen Witch's AIS receiver alarm would have given plenty of time to get out of the way without relying on pure luck.
One of the reasons I don't typically use VHF to communicate with cargo ships is because I'm not sure it is of much use. These ships are full of lonely men where I've understandably heard they are far more likely to respond to a womans voice.
In their defense, these big cargo ships are more often well organized. All of my other experience indicates they are very alert; especially considering that all they can see of the Saugeen Witch is a small blip on their radar or what they might see looking out with their eyes.
The people on SEAMUSE were probably just too excited about getting through the canal to remember to turn on some of their equipment. They were down below playing cards drinking rum.
After our near collision with them, the wind picked up nicely for the next week of perfect westward sailing conditions. Perfect to me is 100+ mile days with nice rolling waves that match the wind to the side or behind.
Then the wind died.
Of course, I queried every person and source possible about best strategy sailing from Panama to the Marquises. The only real common advice was to bring a lot of extra fuel.
The problem with that is I like sailing, not motoring, and I wanted to see if it could be done by sail alone. So, I accounted for extra time.
Eventually, I went with Jimmy Cornell's advice from his book World Cruising Routes
. Jimmy's route from Panama to the Marquises suggests passing to the north of the Galapagos if early in the season and to the south if later in the season.
Having left Panama in early February, I choose sailing north of the Galapagos at between at 4 and 5 degrees north latitude.
With that decided, the next question is where to cross the equator. Based on about two months study of weather fax and advice from NOAA of ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) positioning, equator crossing between 115 and 120 west longitude looked best.
I think if I was to do it again I would pass south of the Galapagos regardless of timing. However, passing north of Galapagos was my strategy at that time and that is what I stuck with.
Why no stop at the Galapagos? A lifetime opportunity!
There are basically two options for sailing a private boat into the Galapagos.
- Go to Ecuador Embassy in Panama City and pay a bunch of money for a permit to land at any of a handful of islands and stay for up to a few months. Pay for every night at anchor. Exploration on land or in sea limited to tour or local guide.
- Have Panama put Marquises on their exit zarpa and sail into only one of three islands to deal with bureaucracy and pay a bunch of money to stay for up to five days or a week. Pay for every night at anchor. Buy tour or pay local guide for any exploring on land or in sea.
I thought long and hard about the Galapagos and the options for visiting the place for years. It must be a very special place for reasons we've all heard.
It is also true that there are over 30,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean. Most of them can be visited for free. I'm sure that if you look deep enough, each one of them has their own unique and special wildlife. You could focus your whole life exploring these islands and still only see a fraction of them.
So, I decided to forfeit the Galapagos experience because I only have a fraction of my life left and limited funds.
If you want to live like a king then you'll have to work like a slave. Accept living humble and you can work simple.
And so I continued to sail west; slowly.
I replaced the huge heavy green genoa with a slightly smaller but much lighter genoa. There was often just barely enough wind to fill it with air. Although there were many sail changes, I mostly left the mainsail up. The full battens combined with a solid preventer on the boom did a good job keeping the sail full.
Overall, the sail from Panama to the Marquises took over two months.
There is no actual sailing in these waters.
There is always a long swell from multiple directions caused by some distant weather system far north or south. Waves get kicked up by squalls you watch pass by a little ways this way or that. If you're lucky enough to get hit by a squall, you get 10-20 minutes of wind, rain, and then an equal period of windless dead air. Mostly, you just watch squalls pass by to the left or the right and live in sloppy soupy waters averaging 1 to 2 meters where the 5 knots of wind you get isn't enough to fill the rolling and pitching sails.
The result is not really sailing but drifting directed by a flogging of sails and damage control.
In the old days, Polynesian's paddled, European traders explorers and whalers towed themselves through dead zones with workers on row boats. Today, normal people use their motors and the few of us masochistic ones patiently flog their way through it.
Across this span of ocean, when weather fax says you should be in 10 knots of winds, you're more likely to experience 5 or less. I think they error on the high side like the report for waves. So, for example, when the weather models predict 4-5 knots of winds with gusts to 6, they'll mark it as 10 because their granularity is 5 knots and 6 knots is greater than 5. Likewise, if they predict 6-8 knots with gusts to 11, they'll mark it as 15.
For most of the passage it is easy to see various swells and waves that do not match the light wind. At times I saw swells coming from three different directions. For example:
- 3 meter swells from the N with a 100 meter intervals between crests.
- 2.5 meter swells from the SW with 130 meter intervals between crests.
- 3 meter swells from the ENE with 80 meter intervals between crests.
It really just takes time observing the ocean and its movement to become aware of these swells that are normally not even noticeable in the noise of waves.
I must have been really bored. For this writing I had to double check my memory with the log book to see that one time I actually went for a swim under full main and genoa. In other words, I jumped off an empty boat with all the sails up and no pilot.
Twice I scraped the bottom of these beautifully marked purple rubber band like thick tubes things that grew without shell. A green yellow fish about 1/2 meter long with spectacular markings followed us for many weeks. He actually picked up a mate just south of the equator and they both followed us all the way up to the muddy waters off Hiva Ova.
I sat watching them for hours coasting along with the boat and then darting out to catch a meal out of a small flying fish.
I smoked Warren's Cuban cigars (because he never made it to Panama to pick them up) and gave myself incredible mind rushes while hanging on to the mizzen boom gallow with Qigong breathing exercises.
Of course, I also was able to read a lot and capture a number of neat Peace out Place videos to share much of this experience of ocean swells, spectacular sunsets, sunrises, and birds.
After sailing south of 5 degrees S latitude, I figured the wind would finally start to pick up. We were in 15 knots of winds, the best we'd seen in almost two months. Most Excellent!
Not wanting to blow out the light genoa, I took it down from the roller furling track thinking it easy to raise the big heavy green one. At a marina or calm anchorage, this is simple task. However, out here this proved not so simple.
Of course, as usual the waves did not match the light winds making the boat rock around more than normal. Also, this job needed one hand for raising the halyard, one hand for guiding luff of sail into roller furling track, one hand for unflaking sail keeping it out of the sea, and another hand just for hanging on for dear life while perched on a bowsprit 2 meters in front of the boat slamming into waves.
After working this for some time, a small piece of sail ended up in the water dragging the whole lot under the boat. I pulled it up from the other side most thankful it wasn't damaged. Ripping this sail out here exposed in this part of the world would not be good. I decided this job not worth the risk so raised the inner staysail and left it at that to ponder another way.
It took a three more days of experimenting, pondering, and slower sailing before I finally devised a working strategy for getting it back up. Of course, this was after the wind died back down too.
We finally made it to the Marquesas first port of call, Atuona at south west part of Hiva Oa island, in the nick of time.
The going was extra slow and nerve racking because I knew it would be pitch black soon after sunset with low clouds and rain enveloping the island. The moon would not rise until a couple hours after sunset.
We were sailing only 1 to 2 knots in this churning seaway with little wind. Maybe there was a counter current.
Around noon of this day I thought of experimenting with heaving to on port and starboard to observe drift; basically set up hanging out for another night and then sailing to anchorage next day. However, being only 10 miles away and even closer to three steep islands where odd currents change at unpredictable times and places drifting you anywhere, that risk wasn't appealing either.
We were really stuck in a catch 22 situation. So close with so much time but too far going too slow.
Memories flashed of an odd current almost crashing the Saugeen Witch into a rocky island in the Carnaries while hove-to in the night.
At the same time, these beautiful islands reminded me of the Azores; tall with steep rocky sides and little shelter. Water falls cascading down steep rocky cliffs and huge crashing waves tossing massive multi-story tall spray.
We were also getting pushed into a dead end rocky bay with no shelter in sight.
So, I decided turning on motor for assist and hyper observing; visually pulling in as much information as possible with binoculars, compass, and chart heading to where I believe the bay should be knowing it will be pitch black by the time we get there.
It was nerve racking.
Anyway, even with motor we were not making speed but an evening squall saved us with a very welcome last minute push of wind. Within minutes of the twilight's final rays long after sunset, I spotted other boats anchored in a crowded bay, pulled in, and the dropped anchor.
After 64 days of continuous sailing I poured myself a glass of rum. Feeling good.
Checking into French Polynesia in Atuona on the island of Hiva-Oa took a week. This was because of a weekend, a holiday, and just the way general bureaucracy works.
It was not difficult or painful.
Rather, the people there were most friendly even with my poor French. I tried learning some French during the passage but not well. I have a hard enough time with the English language and have not yet figured out how to learn another.
Regardless, from the group of guys that hailed me over from the sport field stadium drinking beer to the multiple people who stopped as I was walking down the road. Some went out of their way to give me a ride without even being asked. Most everyone I ran across in the Marquises was general happy and relaxed.
The first time I walked into a shop I picked up a sample of every piece of fruit and vegetable they had. Mostly it is fruit there and I did not recognize most of them. The lady that rang up the tab looked at the last two pompomossa I had picked up (like huge grapefruits) and embarrassingly gave them to me for free. I ended up getting addicted to them and trading some fishing gear to couple guys in Fatu-Hiva for a huge sack of them.
While hanging out for that week getting checked in I also met many other interesting boaters including:
- Two Swiss brothers who sailed over from Europe via the NorthWest Passage (that's north of Canada).
- An Alaskan with his Colorado girl who were just coming to conclusion it was not worth racing to keep up with the rally they joined somewhere on the west coast of North America.
- A friendly couple from Santa Cruiz, California who loved surfing and diving and they had a great setup to enjoy it.
One day while hanging out on Point Teaeoa, I got to talking with a local named Oly. I told him about my sailing plans. He asked if he could come and I said sure, as far as Nuku Hiva.
A few days later Oly and I sailed down to Fatu Hiva. It was an easy overnight sail. While there, I made water to finally re-fill the tanks and wash the clothes (video
Fatu Hiva also has neat hiking up a spectacular valley and some incredible wall diving/snorkeling in clear water.
Next we enjoyed another easy overnight sail up to Hakahau on Ua-Pou. Hakahau is a rolly uncomfortable anchorage so after a couple days we headed up to Hooumi Bay with is the most south western bay of Nuku-Hiva.
Beautiful Hoooumi bay is very comfortably and well protected surrounded with black cliffs and waterfalls.
I never went to shore but Oly did. It seams every village has an outrigger club and Oly had the excellent knack for hooking up with the people of a club and using one of their outriggers.
Instead of going to shore, I was focused on one of the dinghy oars that had broken. I never thought that a simple wooden oar would break. But, of course, there is no reason why not; especially in the middle of the shaft where it chafes on the oar lock and where there is the most levered stress.
I ended up wrapping some fiberglass around the break with some epoxy and then wrapping leather around the whole area that could hit up against the oar lock. The leather takes the chafe and spreads the load. This standard oar modification has been working fine.
So, if you use oars, consider wrapping the shaft around the oarlock with leather because you know you don't want to be up some creek without a paddle.
Then we sailed over to Taiohae which is the capital city of the Marquesas. Interestingly, this largest and most sophisticated capital city with a college and all takes about 5 minutes to walk across. And by 5 minutes I mean the long way across the waterfront from one side to the other. There are a number of really cool tikis there too.
After a number of days in Taiohae, Oly moved off the boat to hang out with his sister on the north side of the island and I headed over to Taioa Bay.
Probably because the little hamlet of Hakaui in Taioa Bay was exploited in a Survivor TV series, a guy living in one of the islands old king's homes charges a fee to go hike up to the water falls. He was a really nice guy. His cool dog followed along with me hiking for hours all the way up to the waterfall and back.
The small fee he charged is fine but it was interesting to hear some other residence talk against this new policy so I guess this guy doesn't really share his take with the community.
It could also be that some people really just enjoy complaining.
Regardless, this guy charging money for the hiking trail to the waterfall happily gave me as much fruit as we could store. Some of that fruit I had never seen before and have no idea what it was called. I was happy to stock up for sail down to through the Tuamotu Atolls.
It would have been super easy to hang out exploring the Marquesas for much longer but French Polynesia bureaucracy makes non European Union visitor visas lasting over 3 months a real hassle, the break between cyclone seasons is 6 months. There are many atolls, more islands and a lot of sea miles that span this country.
So, after a month in the Marquesas, it was time to sail a little south and west to a completely different landscape.
Without GPS, I would be very afraid of the Tuamotu atolls. I would give them wide birth spending extra time sailing around them, or I would time it to sail through crosswise during the day.
This is because these atolls rise from a very deep sea to a thin coral bar and you can see them only as far as you can see a coconut tree growing from high tide.
Given GPS and patience; however, visiting in small light powered sailboat is easy.
Normally, I think travel is the matter of experiencing either of two extremes:
- A lot of a little.
- A little of a lot.
With such limited time, there wasn't really even the option of visiting much more of the Tuamotu Atolls than a little of a little.
The sail time from pulling anchor in Marquesas to dropping anchor in Tuamotu atoll took five days mostly because I was nervous about entering an atoll.
The tidal currents run strong through narrow passes and although the trade winds are fairly consistent these narrow passes are often not favorably oriented for tacking a sailboat.
It was after much thought about these factors that I finally decided to visit Tahanea and Fakarava. This decision was after sailing a good distance out of the way to the Raroia atoll and then changing my mind in favor of Tahanea.
Tahanea is one of the smaller uninhabited atolls and Fakarava is another of the larger ones with an airport and tourist industry.
First we spent an early afternoon slowly sailing by Tapuhiria pass at the northern end of Makemo atoll. I did this just to see what an atoll looked like from the outside and observe the pass entering it.
Then we sailed around it to the sheltered south side and spent the night slowly beating to windward or hove-to around the Katiu, Tuanake, Hiti, and Tepoto atolls. By sunrise, the Saugeen Witch was positioned within a few miles upwind of Tahanea's Teavatapu pass. We were a couple hours into the rising incoming tide.
And we were lucky again!
Sailing into Tahanea was too easy with perfect wind and current. The next thing I knew the stress was over and we were hovering in crystal clear blue water over white sand and coral. Colorful tropical reef fish were swimming all around peppered with black tipped sharks.
The Soggy Paws couple have put together a number of very helpful Compendium on sailing this part of the world. See svsoggypaws.com
. In their Tuamotu Compendium they share one most excellent anchoring ideas of all time. As my dad would say, I think their anchoring idea is the best since sliced bread.
First the problem; then lets look at their solution.
Often, a boat at anchor shifts around over time with the alternating current and winds. Some times there are columns of rock or coral that snag the line or chain between boat and anchor during this shifting.
Heck, one time this shifting tied the Saugeen Witch's anchor chain under the anchor and then back around a huge rock into a knot. It was a genuine half hitch knot that would have never come out without me diving on it to untie.
In the worst case, this snag could happen directly underneath the boat leaving no room for slack and even sink the boat if a rising tide lifted the water level too much.
The SoggyPaws anchoring idea to overcome this is to position two floats on the anchor rode keeping it suspended.
See picture to right.
I found what works best with all chain rode is to first let out three fifths of the anchor rode; attach first float; let out another one fifth of the rode; attach second float; let out final fifth of the rode. For example, if you want to put out 40 meters of chain, you'd tie the first float at 24 meters and the second at 32 meters.
This is the strategy I found easy to deploy, very effective, and simple to retrieve.
When pulled tight, boat is still pulling on anchor at same angle it would without the floats. When slacked, the extra chain hovers above the snags of rocks and coral.
It was here in Tahanea that I first started experimenting with this anchoring strategy and it proved quite useful for most of the anchorages in and around the small islands and atolls in the South Pacific.
We hung out at various anchorages around Tahanea for a couple weeks. Although no one lived on the atoll, there were a few shacks with water catch basins scattered around. Locals come to stay at them for periods of time working the copra.
A woman and her brother were staying at one of these under a tree overlooking one of the best sunrise views in the world. Every day they were out collecting copra from sunrise to sunset.
One day I came over to give them some Marquesas fruit and some banana chocolate chip biscuits. I asked about the best way to open a coconut expecting to learn some neat new elegant way. He pulled out a full hatchet and in one swipe lengthwise, cut the nut in half and then easily dug out the white meat with what would be like a long shallow spoon. There was no thought of the spilled milk.
One night we had dinner together. While I was talking to his sister, he went out to a reef and came back 20 minutes later with three big grouper fish. Pretty much the only thing they bought with them for three months working copra on an uninhabited atoll was a sack of rice and a few tools.
I felt like a glutton.
It was here in Tahanea that I made the video about food, storage, and preparation that has worked well on Saugeen Witch for some time (video
We were at the far windward end of the atoll when timing was right for leaving Tahanae with the late morning low tide, slowly sailing up to Fakarava at a conservative safe pace through the following night, and entering entering the Tumakohua pass early the next morning with the incoming tide and favorable light.
It was a good plan in all aspects. However, I failed at one part: lack of patience.
The problem was that the wind was strong and we sailed out to the pass exiting the atoll much faster than expected.
From the inside, I saw a stationary sailboat outside of the atoll. Had it run aground?
Moments later it was easy to see why.
They were just motoring into wind and waves waiting for low tide.
Obviously the people on that boat could see the huge standing waves kicked up by the outgoing flow of water against the solid trade winds. They were smartly waiting for the tide to change.
After the last couple hours of nice smooth sailing, my thinking was, "Yes, we got here a little early but let's just go for it anyway".
Then, as we rounded the corner and got sucked into the channel with the current, I saw the standing waves.
It was too late to back out.
Seeing this, I quickly raised the mizzen sail and started the motor knowing we needed to stay more to windward and the only other sail up was the genoa.
This just makes for better power and sail balance for windward maneuvering. Thankfully, it was just enough.
Standing waves might not be the best name for it. What was in front of us was more like a 100 square meter area of wicked churning mess of big wave and water washing machine.
I revved up the engine best I could, sheeted in the genoa and mizzen, and braced for a wild ride.
Waves breaking over the bow quickly flipped wide open the forward hatch. From the back of the boat looking through the cabin forward, I watched huge volumes of water washing over the entire deck and dumping uninhibited into the forward bunk. Above, I watched the wind pushing us into the outside coral rock wall of the atoll.
During the whole time I was white knuckled working the tiller unable to do anything else.
But we made it!
Once through the churning standing waves, peace returned quickly. I turned off the engine, fixed the sails, and closed the front hatch. All the water that was taken on through the forward hatch was forgotten until the next day; long after we were safely anchored inside the Fakarava atoll.
Being more developed, the charts for Fakarava atoll had well marked straight line channels. After sailing around Tahanae and others with no such markings, I learned it's fine to sail around the inside as you please.
One atoll may be 20-30 meters depth and another may be 10-20 but once you figure out average depth, it's pretty much they same throughout with columns of coral randomly scattered all over. It is the random coral you have to look out for and they pretty much grow to low tide. So, as long as you time your sail such that the sun is behind you and you keep your eyes open, these coral bommies are easy to detour and the atoll is fine to navigate.
Maybe because it was bigger or maybe because it was more developed, Fakarava had less underwater wildlife than Tahanae.
The sail to Tahiti took only 2 uneventful days.
forward to Tahiti to New Zealand