We crept into Boca Chica, Panama, at low tide, with a few feet to spare under the keel. Compared with our last visit, it felt like a ghost town. Gone were the cruising boats anchored amidst the tourist and fishing pangas zooming by. This time the anchorage was nearly empty, and the only sounds were the howler monkeys on shore. It felt a little eerie!
We anchored as far from the channel and it’s whirling tidal currents as possible, not wanting to risk going under the 60’ high power lines with our 57′ vertical clearance. This is the same harbor where we hooked a huge waterlogged tree on our anchor, so we carefully avoided that area. Once anchored we contacted another cruiser who had anchored past the electrical wires to get the scoop on what was happening in Boca Chica (nothing), and what was the latest on getting an exit Zarpe (no luck). So, it was time to hunker down and wait once again.
Propane Procurement Problems
Needing propane and diesel, we arranged for a water taxi to take our tanks to a land taxi driver who would drive them to town and bring them all back full. It sounded like such an easy process! Who am I kidding; this is Panama, and worse it’s Panama under a pandemic. In addition to restricting travel by the last number on your ID, Panama has also stipulated gender restrictions for an hour of shopping and a strict curfew requiring everyone to be home by 5pm each day, with no travel at all on Sundays.
On the first day of the great propane procurement plan, it was a day designated for female travel only. Since it was ladies’ day, our male taxi driver was stopped at a roadblock and forced to turn around. Day two, he tried again, and got as far as the propane refueling station. Unfortunately, the worker there said our tanks were full and he couldn’t fill them. Huh? So that took another day to say just open the valve and release whatever pressure is there and refill them because we knew they were empty! Day three, lady’s day again, no men can travel. Day four, voila, the land taxi can travel, the workers somehow filled them, and the water taxi brought them back at sunset on a slack tide. We ended up paying for each taxi attempt, and an extra “service charge”, but hey, it was nice to be able to cook again and have morning coffee! Ah, hurry up and wait, and wait…
Zany Zarpe Zoo
Now that we had fuel and propane it was time to turn our focus back to that elusive endangered species; the Exit Zarpe. We soon found ourselves in a giant catch-22 of total insanity. There are three officials that are normally required to enter and clear a country; Immigration, Maritime Authority (AMP), and Customs. In addition to those, there is now a Ministry of Health (MINSA) requirement because of Covid-19.
Our problems stemmed from the fact that MINSA wouldn’t issue us a health clearance because we were leaving the country. If we’d been entering the country, a MINSA official would have come to us and cleared us in. However, since MINSA wouldn’t give us the health clearance, Immigration wouldn’t stamp our passports, and without the passport stamps, AMP wouldn’t issue the Zarpe, and without the Zarpe, Customs wasn’t going to clear us. Soooooo, very VERY long story short, we went around and around with numerous officials, phone calls, emails, embassy calls, etc., etc. with no luck. Even though the MINSA clearance was not required to exit, La Hefa at the Immigration office was not going to budge.
After two weeks of this insanity we finally hired an agent to do the calling and arranging for us. As Carlos said; “if you can’t go straight, go crooked”. Funny, it seems that money talks! Immediately the agent had a plan; he arranged for us to go to a MINSA health examination clinic and get the health clearance ourselves, since the official refused to come to us. Easy peasy, right? We got up at dawn, got a water taxi to take us to a land taxi, drove on back roads in the land taxi to avoid getting stopped by the police since we weren’t allowed out, and finally arrived at the health clinic. After much talking back and forth, and more phone calls, we were told by the workers at the clinic they couldn’t give us a clearance but that if we said we’d never been there, and promised not to leave our boats again, they would email a clearance to us! Ah, the logic of Panamanian government authorities.
We reversed our trip, avoiding the police on the road, hiding out in the water taxi when the Navy got too close, feeling a bit let down and wondering if we’d ever see the health inspection email. Back on Happy Dance, we resumed waiting. But low and behold, after a few hours we had an email with our health certificate! We sent it on to our agent, but since the other offices were now closed, he would go in the morning. Okay, what’s another day? We’re getting good at this waiting stuff!
The next day our agent started at 7am on his way to David and made it to Immigration without a problem. Next stop was the Maritime Authority in Pedrigal, and he soon had our Zarpe in hand! The final stop was at Customs for another stamp and of course another fee. Sometime around 1pm the agent was finally on his way back, and then of course he was stopped by the police at a roadblock. We’re not really sure what went on or why it took so long, but he was able to get through the road block and arrived back to the marina at around 4pm. We emailed the agent his $600 dollar fee and the long insane wait for the elusive Exit Zarpe was nearly over.
As soon as Carlos delivered the papers to our friend Nora, who was anchored beyond those low hanging wires I mentioned, she decided to make an attempt to get past the wires so that she’d be ready to depart in the morning. It was nearly low tide, but the tide was still coming in against her at a fast clip, making it difficult to maintain speed and steerage and she was in danger of going aground. Carlos tried to help her maintain steerage by tying a line to her bow to steer her bow into the channel with his panga. Well, another long story short, the current won the battle and both boats were in trouble. The panga got swamped, the line was under the sailboat, the sailboat had to turn around, and they both headed back to where they started with a bit more stress added to the day.
This of course delayed us as well, because now Carlos couldn’t bring us our papers because his panga was full of water, his phone was drowned, his engine was full of saltwater, and he was not happy. Eventually he got sorted out, dried out, and low and behold, here comes Carlos zooming to Happy Dance with our all-important papers. Yeehaw! We did a drive by grab, exchanging paperwork and passports for a bag of trash (poetic?), and we pulled anchor. We had just enough time to leave Boca Chica and head out to a favorite anchorage before maritime sunset.
It was lovely dropping anchor (in the dark) in an empty anchorage off Isla Parida. No more cell calls, text messages, or bad news, just parrots squawking in the trees and waves crashing on the rocks. A nicer venue for that wonderful activity of waiting.
We spent two nights relaxing and swimming in beautiful Parida while we waited for our friend Nora to make her way under the wires at low tide and out of Boca Chica. Along the way she realized that her auto pilot wasn’t working, and that was a big problem considering that she was single handing and planning a long passage straight to Mexico! Thankfully she is very savvy and took the auto pilot apart, to determine the problem. With some help from Carlos they soon had the unit back together and working.
Once we heard via VHF that she would soon be on her way we agreed to have her meet up with us in the next anchorage called Punta Balsa. This is the last stop on the northwest corner of Panama before heading into Costa Rica. Since the border in Costa Rica was closed, we planned on making an overnight run from there and trying to anchor in a secluded anchorage that hopefully the Navy or the GuardaCostas wouldn’t be guarding.
Waking at dawn to the sound of thunder isn’t my idea of a good time. The dark clouds were massed over the point to the northwest, and a procession of thunderheads stretched out to sea in a threatening line that we would have to cross. As we pulled anchor, I watched the bolts of lightning hit and counted off the seconds until I heard the thunder. Miles away, but still too close! The anchor was finally stowed, and we peeled out of the anchorage trying to leave the lightning show behind us.
As daylight brightened, the clouds dispersed a bit leaving a lumpy sea for us to maneuver around the point. Then it was time for sails out, engine off and a lovely sail up the coast along the rainforest toward the huge Gulf of Nicoya.
All was well until about midnight. Marty was on watch and the radar started showing bands of thunderclouds off to starboard toward land. Unfortunately, they were also ahead of us, and we were soon engulfed in lightning and rain. (Here’s a story about why lightning scares me so much!!) At this point he could see Nora’s boat on the radar but as he watched, another band of clouds slowly moved around in a hook and absorbed her. She called in reporting driving rain, 30 knot winds, and lightning.
Pretty soon we were both swallowed up in the clouds that had now connected to form a huge blob on the radar with nowhere to run. Marty decided that heading toward the mainland to get out of the storm was the best idea and shortest distance through the storm. We got Nora’s position via VHF and recorded it on our chart before making a turn so that we didn’t run her over since we couldn’t see anything but storm clouds on the radar and visibility was zero due to the rain.
After a long night at the helm, hanging on in gusty winds, driving rain, and scary lightning, Marty took a much needed break (my hero!!) and I stood watch impatiently waiting for sunrise. We had altered course and we were now heading toward a tiny anchorage called Bahia Dominicalito. Our charting software described this as a decent anchorage with good holding. We arrived to find a huge swell crashing over the protective reef; time to move on!
Our next stop was in the southern anchorage of Manual Antonio National Park, a protected area of rugged rainforest, white-sand beaches and coral reefs. We made our way through the rocks to a slightly protected spot where we were soon anchored. Nap time!
We were awoken a few hours later to the sound of large engines outside the boat. As we crawled blurry eyed and stumble footed out the companionway, we were greeted by a Costa Rican GuardaCostas boat trying valiantly to maintain position next to us in what was now a very lumpy sea. While we’d slept it appeared that the storm we’d been running from overnight had now arrived on shore and we were in the middle of it. Our calm anchorage had turned into a nasty lee shore.
We handed our papers and passports across to the GuardaCostas and were told to wait while they checked them out. They asked lots of questions about our health and our intentions. Since Costa Rica borders were closed, we were anchored illegally, so we hoped that they didn’t boot us out and would let us stay until the following morning.
While they were making phone calls and trying to decide what to do with us, the rain started pouring down and the wind picked up. Their boat was open, so they were soon drenched, as were we, because they ordered us to pull anchor and follow them. Huh? We had no idea where we were going or why we needed to follow them, but since they had our passports, we decided it was probably a good idea!
We have a 75hp engine on Happy Dance, but even so, getting out of that anchorage was a challenge. We had to drive straight into the heavy swell because of the rocks guarding the entrance. At times we were being launched off the waves into troughs that would slow Happy Dance down to just a couple knots. Nora was behind us and with her smaller engine her boat was having trouble at times maintaining steerage. It took a good half an hour to get past the rocks where we could finally alter course to take the waves at a better angle. It was still pouring rain though, so that we could hardly see the GuardaCostas boat in the distance. Since we still didn’t know where they were taking us, we didn’t want to lose sight of them as we navigated around the rocks and reefs in the area.
Pretty soon we realized the Coasties were leading us to the northern anchorage of Manual Antonio Park, which was a much more protected spot than where we’d been. They spent more time making phone calls and asking questions, but pretty soon they came over and told us we were allowed to stay, but we were not allowed to go ashore. Perfect! Muchas gracias!!!
Needless to say, we slept well that night.
The next day we made a short hop to Bahia Ballena, one of our favorite spots. Nora decided to do another overnighter to put the thunderstorms brewing over the rainforest on the Nicoya Peninsula behind her, so we bid her adios knowing we’d catch up with her further north. The clouds started hovering over us at sunset, but nothing much developed, and we had an easy night along with another easy day of travel around the peninsula up to Bahia Samara.
Even though the day had been sunny and clear, and we’d enjoyed a gentle sail on smooth seas watching hundreds of mobula rays put on a leaping show, everything changed about 30 minutes after we set anchor in Samara. The clouds stacked up over the bay and pretty soon the rain came down. Three free boat washes in as many days…Happy Dance was so clean!!
While in Samara Marty was finally able to determine why our bilge pump had been running. Happy Dance is a very dry boat, so when the bilge pump goes off, we both sit up and take notice. We’d thought it was simply the refrigerator draining from the high humidity, but Marty did more digging and discovered that the dripless prop shaft seal was dripping at a pretty steady rate. Salt water inside is not my idea of fun. Rutro!!!
Thankfully we had internet in Samara so we could do some research and ask cruiser friends for information. Pretty soon we’d learned that our dripping dripless would need to be replaced, which means that we’d have to pull out the propeller shaft in order to put on the new shaft seal. Obviously it’s not a task that can be done in the water. The next haul out open to us (since we couldn’t enter Costa Rica) was in Chiapas, Mexico, still 400 miles away.
Marty was able to slow the leak with grease and then wrapped it while we were at anchor. We decided to wait in Samara a couple days while another boating friend caught up to us so that we’d at least have a boat within hailing distance in case the leak got worse while we were under way. Pretty soon we were on our way again with planned overnight stops in Playa Conchal, Costa Rica (where we’d seen the yellow-bellied sea snakes on our way down the coast), and Pie de Gigante, Nicaragua. Thankfully the grease that Marty had put in the seal seemed to be keeping the sea water out even while we were under way – yay!
We’d hoped to put into one more anchorage at El Transito, so that we didn’t have to do another night passage, but with the extreme swells the coast had been having, the anchorage was untenable. We couldn’t even get close to the beach because of the huge rollers running straight in. We altered course yet again, put Happy Dance into a slow motor into the wind while we both went on deck to add more fuel to the tanks from the jerry jugs on deck. Once the fueling was done we set a course for Puesta del Sol, and motored all night at a butt numbingly slow 4 knots so that we’d arrive at dawn.
The entrance to Marina Puesta del Sol is via a shallow estuary channel that ebbs and floods with the tide. Our intent had been to arrive at high slack tide which on this day was at 4pm. So of course, we arrived at dawn, 10 hours early, as the tide was still going out, with about two hours until low slack. When you have a large swell entering a shallow channel against an outgoing tidal current, it’s generally a good time to anchor and wait it out.
Hmmm…We decided to give it a try.
Our first attempt was a little dicey as we followed the waypoints that were listed on the marina information in Navionics. When suddenly we were doing 10 knots surfing down a large swell, we quickly did a 180 back to deeper water to rethink our approach. We decided the better angle would be a straight in approach with a quick 90 degree turn into the entrance closer to the small peninsula that guarded the channel.
Our second attempt was an easier approach to the entrance, but it was still a bit “lively”. The outgoing tide and resulting chop slowed us down to around three knots for a short section along the beach. With breakers on one side and rocks on the other, there wasn’t much of a choice but to keep upping the RPMs until we were through into the estuary. Once past the entrance we could relax and simply keep an eye on the depth sounder and the channel markers.
Soon we were tied to a dock, and trying to get our land legs under us. It felt wonderful after 32 days of being on Happy Dance! We recognized some of the boats in the marina, so it was nice to get caught up and to get Happy Dance ready to stay put for a while. With the tarp over the boom to make shade, the chairs in the cockpit, and the boat tied up we were ready for some relaxation!
The health inspector came out and announced us clear of Covid19 (are you sick? No..). All was great, we’re relaxing, waiting for the Immigration official and the Port Captain. But then, the Navy arrived…is that the theme from Jaws I hear?
It seemed that the previous week the Nicaraguan border was closed unofficially, but they forgot to tell everyone until the day we arrived. So, we were the last boats into the marina, and now they were saying we had to leave; Nicaragua was closed. This was all taking place after we’d spent weeks talking with the marina, forwarding our documents and keeping them informed on our arrival date.
Robert, the owner of Puesta del Sol Marina, is well connected and he got on the phone to call the President of Nicaragua, and the Head of the Navy, and we were given a short reprieve. They had us move off the main dock to another empty dock, where we were not allowed to leave the boat. A Navy boat was stationed right next to us to make sure we stayed on board. We were told that the next day another health inspector would come give us a more thorough exam to see if we were healthy. If we passed that health inspection, then the rest of the process would begin again.
The next day, as we were sitting onboard filling out the papers to check into the marina and waiting for the health inspector, we were told that the marina and the Navy would let us stay for a few days illegally; as if we weren’t in the country. But then, that familiar theme music started up again…and the manager received a phone call from Immigration saying that we would not be allowed to stay. Robert got on the phone again trying to use his influence to get another reprieve, but Immigration was a tougher nut to crack and they wouldn’t budge. We were told we had to leave, and we had to leave that day regardless of conditions at sea.
At high tide that afternoon we refueled and headed back out the channel, with a three-day passage in front of us. The forecast showed the possibility of some thunderstorms, with light winds on our nose and a long low swell. A stiff wind was blowing onshore as we headed straight out past the breakers and the reefs, but we were soon able to set a course with a reefed main and jib out and sailed until sunset in a lumpy sea doing only about 4.5 knots. When you’re looking at a 340-mile run, 4.5 knots feels very slow!
The wind eventually died down as darkness crept in and the rest of the trip was an easy one. We enjoyed lots of dolphin encounters, turtles and burtles, rays jumping, and a red sun peeking through the hazy skies at sunrise and sunset. The seas smoothed out, the thunder bumpers stayed far away, we were able to increase speed, and we arrived at the entrance to Chiapas, Mexico at dawn on the third morning. We gently rode the swell past the breakwater, and maneuvered down the channel into the flat water of the marina. Listening to the morning bird calls all around, we backed into a slip, tied up, and heaved a huge sigh of relief.
One of the marina guys came over to take our temperature and advise that the Port Captain and the Navy would be by shortly. We passed those two rounds of paperwork, then it was time for coffee and oh, maybe just a short nap…ha! Since it was Sunday, we couldn’t check in to the country until the next day anyway.
The quick story of a long day of driving, waiting, driving, waiting, is that on Monday, Marty did the paperwork cha cha with four different officials, plenty of stamps on documents, and a great sprinkling of pesos. When he got back to Happy Dance, we did the happy dance, toasted our happy life with a Negra Modelo, and celebrated our official entry into Mexico!!!!
Twelve hundred miles, thirty six boat days, sixteen bolts of lightning, four closed borders, and a dripping dripless shaft seal (sing along!!)….yep, this living the dream can be quite an adventure!!