Sailing to Panama: enduring tropical waves in the Caribbean Sea

While waiting for a weather window in Great Inagua, we had a full time recap about tropical weather. Metereology is a fascinating discipline, and it’s also very important to know the basics when you live outdoor and your safety depends on good weather conditions.

Along the 750 miles that separate the last island of the Bahamas from Panama lays the Caribbean Sea, an open stretch of ocean surrounded by land and islands on its 4 sides. This alley is crossed by tropical waves, low pressure systems that generates in Africa and travel west across the Atlantic ocean, towards the Caribbean and South America and generally dissolve over Central America.

During the peak season of tropical weather activity (August through October) these tropical waves could very likely generate hurricanes and tropical storms if they encounter conducive conditions on their way. The sad events of this very active hurricane season reminds us how small we are compared to the forces of nature, and that avoidance is always the best strategy.

Tropical Storm Bret formed early in June from a Tropical Wave (here covering Trinidad and Venezuela) Author: NASA, MODIS / LANCE

We held our position in Great Inagua because Bret, the “earliest named storm to develop in the Main Development Region of the Atlantic basin on record”, had just formed from “a low latitude tropical wave that had moved off the coast of Africa on June 12”. As soon as Bret went its own way we resumed to follow closely the tropical waves to find the right moment to sneak in between them.

We knew that we would encounter at least two tropical waves during this leg, because they usually run every 2 to 3 days. Tropical waves could bring stronger winds, higher waves and thunderstorm activity, and each tropical waves seems a little bit different depending on the conditions encounter during their long trip. The closer to the peak of hurricane season, the higher are the chances that those low pressure system develop into a life-threatening storms.

Luckily we were about on time in our schedule, and the water temperature and general conditions were still not too favorable for tropical depression development. Making sure no yellow Xs were anywhere on the Atlantic charts (the yellow X is the symbol for potential tropical depression forming on National Hurricane Center website), we prepared to leave as soon as possible.

During the entire passage we also had the fortune to be in contact with two friends on mainland US, Chip and Elliott, that sent us daily weather updates via Delorme messenger along the way. We are very thankful for the great help and company from these cool dudes.

We pulled the trigger of our “as soon as possible” departure strategy during a day of strong southeasterlies that blew over Inagua and made even the sail in the lee of the island a bit of a challenge. Pulling off the umpteenth false start, we re-anchored a few miles to the south from where we started and decided to wait one more day before trying again.

LOG 1002nm June 23 Departure from Great Inagua

Flying fish are common during ocean passages. They mistake Tranquility as a landing strip.

The wind was lighter and on the beam when we set off again.  Once we cleared the south point of the island the swell and wind waves from the trades turned on the washing machine motion on Tranquility. We made a full day of steady progress until we found pockets of light winds inside the Windward Passage, in the lee of Hispaniola. It slowed us down a lot, with only 60 miles logged in 24hours which was exactly half of what we did on Day 1.

Those hours were uneventful from a sailing point of view, but Kate had the luck to see a pod of pilot whales during her watch, while sea birds visited us regularly, with boobies, gannets, frigatebirds and white tailed tropicbirds, very elegant looking birds, flying in circles while scouting for fish. The Windward Passage is a corridor open to everybody, from small old fiberglass sailboats to Freighter and tankers, from wildlife to floating garbage.

South of Navassa Island, a steep walled island that used to harbor a US military facility, the wind came back and we finally pointed Tranquility to 240 degrees shooting for Puerto Lindo in Panama. With no land in sight and way less company, our only “obstacles” were two areas of banks East of Jamaica, areas of shallower waters that could potentially generate rough seas. With 90 degrees of apparent wind on the port side, we had enough play to adjust our course and clear the shoals with ample margin.

Beginning of the night watch

 

Shortly after we received the visit from the first tropical wave. The wind increased, 25 to 30kts from ESE bringing haze sky. Luckily we didn’t encounter significant thunderstorm activity nor rain, but the soaking was provided by the tall waves crashing on deck and on the watch keeper.

For the following 5 days we experienced very similar conditions, sustained winds of 25 knots and 7 to 10 ft waves, that translates in permanent use of foul water gear and constant change of clothes. All the hatches and portholes had to stay shut, and the cabin soon turned into a steaming hot sauna, with soaked garments hanging in the hope they could dry.

The persistent moisture was source of discomfort for the crew (and we suppose for Beta too) but at least the progress to destination was steady and fast, with average daily runs well above 100 nautical miles and a peak of 133 on Day 4. We counted three tropical waves passing us during this leg, each one bringing slightly different wind speeds and weather.conditions, but nothing too severe, with almost no squalls.

The change of guard during the morning watch is an opportunity to squid around

At a certain moment the shackle of our staysail halyard block, a sort of pulley that hoists our smallest sail, broke dropping the sail on the foredeck. After clearing the area from the tangled halyard and retrieving the block, I started to assess the problem.  Our smallest sail is very important in our sail plan, and we made a great use of it during this passage. The staysail helps filling the fore triangle area catching more wind and working together with the jib during most of the point of sail. In the windiest conditions, when our bigger headsail gives us too much power, we prefer to keep it furled and fly the staysail only. After probably half an hour of concern about how to fix the problem, I finally remembered that we have a spare spinnaker halyard ready to use on deck that worked perfectly in hoisting the sail again for the entire duration of the trip.

Kate with a secure grip on the boat
LOG 1746 nm – July 1st Puerto Lindo, Panama

The vanishing winds dropped us roughly 30 miles to the NE of Puerto Lindo, where we were hoping to land and clear into the country. Panama has two main seasons, dry and wet. From December to April the trades are strong enough to bring constant wind and clear sky over the country, while from May to November winds are light and variable and depend upon weather patterns influenced by the mainland.

Those were the longest 30 miles ever on a boat; the rainy season brought the typical lack of significant wind. On top of that an adverse current pushed us east towards Colombia. It took 24 hours of patience and effort to cover those 30 nautical miles and make landfall, which of course happened around 3AM local time, in pitch dark. Our approach was very slow under electric motor. Luckily our Navionics charts seemed to be accurate enough to pass safely in between three islands and relative reefs before reaching the anchorage. After a brief marital disagreement on where it was safe to drop the hook, we successfully anchored in the unknown dark bay cluttered with other vessels. For the first time after 8 days Kate and I went both to sleep at the same time.

In the morning we called Linton Bay Marina, and proceeded to a dock where we tied up Tranquility. Showers, electrical power, fresh water from the docks and other amenities helped our recovering from the tiring passage. Finally we were in Panama once again. It was 6 years since the last time I was here.