Sailing to Panama: the route

When you find yourself in the situation of having a fine sailing vessel, equipped and provisioned for long voyages and when you finally severed the ties that bind you to a specific geographical location, you could incur in the trouble of having to decide where to go.

It may sounds a silly “first world problem” but the world is big and there are so many beautiful places to visit. If you have the goal of circumnavigating the planet then at least you know that you will leave from point A to return to point A. The route then becomes a matter of preference in regard of type of sailing (warm vs. cold), budget and geopolitical situation en route.

We never had a circumnavigation as our main goal, so we faced a very open ended problem. Our only requirements were to stay out of the Hurricane tracks and, possibly, not spend too much money.

After long discussions, numerous changes and endless planning Kate and I agreed to point Tranquility towards Panama.

The reasons in favor of the central American country are the following:

  • This is were we first met six years ago and we haven’t been back since. We still have friends there that we regularly speak to and we want to hug them.
  • It is outside of hurricanes and tropical storms range.
  • Panama is a beautiful and very biodiverse country, touched by two oceans, with hills and mountains covered by rain forest, and surrounded by numerous tropical islands. All packed in a small, accessible territory.
  • Fruit and vegetables taste good, fish and seafood is abundant and not affected by ciguatera.
  • We have an option to continue towards the Pacific if we decide to, or alternatively, to explore the Caribbean side of Central America

THE WINDWARD PASSAGE ROUTE

Once picked our destination, we had to figure out which way to go. If you know something about sailing you understand that the obstacles involved are not only the visible ones. Weather patterns have a paramount influence over the possible routes, and they have to be taken into account to foresee which type of trip to expect.

The first important call to make was wether passing Cuba to the east or the west. Panama lies due south of Florida and the long and tall island of Cuba sits right in the way.  Predominant winds and currents flow E to W fueled by the Atlantic trade winds, making it inevitable to beat upwind: you can either do it earlier, through the Bahamas all the way to the Windward passage, or later, once past the western tip of Cuba; you can face the fierce but steady Atlantic Ocean or try your chances with the capricious Caribbean Sea.

We opted for the Windward Passage route even if the one along the south of Cuba had its attractive and advantages. We thought the Bahamas way could be faster, and considering that it was already that the end of April and we were approaching the beginning of Hurricane season time was a factor to take into account.

Over time we had learned that we prefer to make longer stops and visit places in a relaxed way in between longer sailing passages, rather than keep moving in small sections.

Finally with a destination in mind we started to feel excited about this new chapter. The only thing left was to wrap up the long process that we started one year earlier and sail to the Bahamas.

A much welcomed “chicken move”

I am crossing my fingers as I am writing this but it seems we almost made it through the ICW. Almost because we post-poned our departure again, 6 hours from the original idea of leaving right at low tide around 6:30 am.

Here is what happened.

We woke up in Morehead City, NC where we spent few days waiting for decent weather to sail offshore and keep sailing in a general south west direction. Everything was ready from the night before, we just needed to leave the docks, raise the sails and go.

It was 5:45am when I ventured outside heading for the restrooms. The sky was dark grey, rainy and windy, the nervous chop of the bay slapping Tranquility loudly. The temperature was 39F. For as much as I wanted to ride the Northerlies and get past Cape Lookout to finally head straight to the above average warmth of Florida, the scenario of this early start was not encouraging. The drizzle in particular was very disheartening.

Back under the blankets and with coffee in our mugs we held a brief crew meeting (Kate, me and Beta) and all agreed to postpone departure to next high tide with the idea of spending the next six hours napping,taking showers and in general being comfortable.

At first I was a little mad at myself. I considered that a “chicken move”. But then I acknowledged the wisdom coming from Kate and Beta. There is no need to make your life more miserable when you already are sailing in winter on a tiny sailboat.

We should still have a good 24hrs or so of Northerlies, enough to cover the 100 miles that will put us past Cape Fear and on a SW course parallel to shore. Then we expect another blow between Thursday and Friday, a cold front passing through and bringing other strong northerlies. This time the forecast indicates that it’s not going to be as long lasting as this past one, and by then we should also be hugging the SC – GA coasts with milder temperatures compared to North Carolina, which by the way, we are very happy to leave behind.

This North Carolina endeavor has been cold and rainy, with a lot of idle time waiting for the weather to behave properly.
It sure is challenging and rewarding to be able to sail inland waters, ditches and all, but it also very labor intensive and slow. It’s something between a chess game and an endurance race, played against a very capricious opponent.

With our electric motor we belong offshore, and that’s where we are heading.

See you later.