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.

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 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 sailing passages, rather than keep moving in small sections. An offshore trip is always proving!

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.

Adios Kuna Yala

I’ve been living for ten months in the Comarca Kuna Yala onboard Andiamo, a Beneteau Oceanis 50. While I was on board I accompanied more than 300 tourists to visit the beautiful islands of this area, one of the last paradises in the Carribean, and to meet the Kuna people, proud and smiling natives who still live preserving a unique culture and their language. Simple people who live on the abundant gifts that this place offers, but well aware of the effort required to live.

It was not trivial to relate with them. The differences that exist between Kuna and a European boy may seem unfathomable. I have always received warmth and support from those with whom I had the good fortune to work closely together. It was enough to sit down and talk with them to find out that we humans have much to share even where there are seemingly insurmountable cultural differences. Listen, smile and be open seems to me the best way to meet everyone.

Here in this place where land and water mingle with each other (the archipelago consists of about 370 islands) I lived with sails hoisted and attached to an anchor, being aware of what surrounded me. I meditated on deserted islands and met marine life, I learned to recognize the shape of a fish as it swims, and overcome my fears being in touch with natural environment improving my free diving to go and meet the underwater life so close. I fished a lot and cooked the fish caught by creating dishes that even the best seafood restaurant will find difficult to reply, feeding and making hundreds of happy guests. The diet and lifestyle were the most healthy I ever experienced giving me further reason to think that living on a boat and sail around the world is beneficial to health. I experienced feelings of deep loneliness as well as the strain of never having privacy. I admired Remi (my personal Kuna spearfishing guide) swim faster than a huge Red Snapper and catch him. I used to go with him spearfishing in the outer reef where the open sea crush onto the corals and the marine life is intense and busy. I sailed on a sailing cayuco with Dino, my faithful officer on board and a great friend of many difficulties and joys. I met his family and his friends and the lovely people of Dino’s island Yandup. All this and energetic life sustained me  in the responsibilities of the captain, I had the chance to make mistakes, which fortunately were never serious or dangerous and have always solved the major ones, working on emergency in a place with no assistance at all, but supported by the Team of Andiamo, Tony, Mitzy and of course Dino.

The list goes on and on. If I look behind these 10 months I have no regrets and even thinking about the difficulties I can not look to Kuna Yala with other eyes than those of gratitude and joy.

Photos: Me, Marloes, Stefano

Sailing a Cayuco in Kuna Yala

I took three hours of my free time to fulfill a desire I had since the very first moment I arrived in Kuna Yala. Everyday,  you can see the shapes of the cayucos setting sail since the first light in the morning and heading for the fishing destinations. This image always inspired me a deep sense of freedom and satisfaction and an intense desire to sail one.

The Sailing Cayuco

Cayuco is the name the Spanish explorers gave to the boats built by indigenous people of the Antilles and other American regions. It describes a monohull with flat bottom and no keel or daggerboard, propelled and steered by a wide paddle. In Kuna language it is called  “Ulu”, but they often use the name cayuco, at least with non-Kunas like me.

Cayucos are built with the dugout technique: this means that the hull is shaped by carving a log of suitable dimensions, usually mahogany which grows in the Comarca’s (indigenous territory) well preserved forest. Similar to other canoe desings the bow and stern are pointy and they can be paddled in both directions. Looking at the bilge you notice the rough marks left by the tools during the chipping out. It is remarkable how Kuna shipwrights can obtain such a regular shape with this method and the amount of labor behind every single piece must be enormous.

In San Blas Archipelago cars are useless and the transportation happens on water. Cayucos are everywhere, and sometimes it is hard to find docking to the main piers. They come in very different size and dimensions, every family has at least a small paddle one, but sailing cayucos are longer and more expensive. The modernity brought outboard engines and fiberglass boats named “pangas” or the more common spanish name “lancha”.

The cayuco Dino and I sailed is owned by one of his cousin. The man told me that it was built from a tree donated by his father. When his father died he had the permission to cut the tree and have it carved and painted.

On this type of boat the rig is a spritsail (similar to an Optimist): the mainsail is attached with a loose foot to a boom, and the “sprit” is a spar that support the leech. The main is sheeted to a hole through the gunwale and tied with a simple knot. The boat comes also with a headsail which is set flying from the bow to the mast head. The simplicity of the construction is a demonstration of how little techonology is really needed to sail. Even if a lot can be done to improve the performance of this system, it is enough for the essential living of the Kunas, and I am still amazed about how good it is the windward performance without a centerboard. You just need to be equipped with a lot of patience, a skill which Kunas culture is rich of.

Cayuco Mainsail: the sprit
Cayuco Mainsail: loose foot

The rudder is substituted by a wide paddle. In fact, the helmsman can be very much called a paddler as you need to paddle the boat into the wind in order to tack. It took me a while to understand how to steer with a wooden paddle and the fuzzy wind of the afernoon was not helping, but it was nothing too complicated. There is definetely a more close feeling of how the rudder operates and the forces that act on it using this technique  rather than turning the wheel of a performance cruiser.

Steering the cayuco

As often happens during fishing trips, especially the ones you improvise, we didn’t catch any fish. Nonetheless I had an interesting day, I learned about traditional crafts and fullfilled a little dream of mine. I hope I am going to do it again,  next time I hope with a bigger sail, just to have more speed sensation and capsizing danger.

Discovering Panamà

Panamà is a small country. But for a strange reason in its 75,515 km2there are several and different interesting sites to visit and live. I took the advantage of a break in Andiamo’s schedule part of the country.

When you leave Panama City you have the impression there’s nothing out of it. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Milan, where you can’t notice many differences in landscape while driving out of the city. Italy is over constructed and over populated and Panama is (for the moment) kind of virgin land out of the capital city.

At one hour and fifteen minutes (Panamanian time) by bus you arrive in San Carlos, the capital of  omonimous district. I decided to take some surf lessons here in El Palmar, one of the last free beaches in the Area (big resorts all over) and perfect spot for beginners like me, due to reasonable dimensioned waves and for the perfect sandy bottom with no dangerous obstacles. I never been on a surf board before and always thought surf is for lazy californian teenager (or lazy young-looking adults). But if you live on the sea like me you should know how to use the resources (wind, waves & similar..) to have fun and do your workouts. Everyday there’s a lot and nothing to do at the same time.

El Palmar, San Carlos, Panamà
El Palmar, San Carlos

I booked two classes with Flor Villareal, owner of Panama Surf School that was recommended to me by Andiamo’s guest Mariano that also learned surf in El Palmar. The first day I was taught by Nino, San Carlos native instructor working with Flor for more than 5 yrs. I started with a long soft board, practicing stand ups and wave catching and helped by Nino for timing and pushing. When I kept practicing alone I was not able to catch one single wave and really exhausted. Surf is for sure funny but is also damned hard work! I had all my muscles hurting and abrasions on knees for board friction but the sensation of control when I rode my first wave was so exciting that I’m motivated to go further in this activity. Next day I was with Flor on the other side of the beach, this one with more stones but nothing dramatical. After sun salutation to warm up the body I worked with her on timing and paddling. I did some progresses and started to think about turning as well. In the afternoon I practiced alone and rode three waves and that gave me lots of satisfaction.

El Valle de Antòn, Panamà

Friday was really bad for waves so I decided to take a bus to El Valle de Antòn, a town that sits in the crater of a dormant volcano. Before going I knew that was a good site for hiking and thermal baths and also a very fertile land. Once I was on the road to the village I started noticing some characteristics: wood and flowers, green all around, water.

La India Dormida, El Valle de Antòn, Panamà

And water on ground and from the sky,  heavy rain all over me while visiting the surroundings, climbing small mountains, visiting waterfalls, slipping from muddy rocks. I rented a bicycle just to go faster in between sites and to run in the middle of the lovely village now sadly littered only with rich people mansions while the locals moved up in the mountains due to the increasing cost of land. I visited la India Dormida Mountain (with the profile of a lying  indian woman), bathed in thermal waters an climbed up to a mirador (but really poor visibility).

Pozos Termales @ El Valle de Antòn, Panamà
Pizza @ La Casa de Juan

Exhausted after cycling and hiking when I get back to La Casa de Juan (cheap and warm hostel) I was involved in the pizza baking for dinner. All the guests of the house gave a strong hand for the preparation, a nice way to know each other and enjoy good food under the sight of Juan (hostel director) who promoted the event with genuine generosity.

Back to the city next day I was surpised how fast I got back to the apartment  (2hrs and a half in total, with 2 buses change and 1 taxi). I’m sure this combo is perfect for weekends and days off, quick and effective, and two destinations  to see for any travellers in Panamà.

Toad Waterfall
Pueblo El Valle from top

New possibilities in San Blas Islands

How to describe San Blas? I’ve been spending aproximately 2 weeks in my new adventure aboard SV Andiamo and I’m still without words. I noticed one sure fact: visitors going crazy about their sailing experience here.

front of Cartì Yundup

First I have to explain where we are. It’s Panamà, the fastest growing economy in Central America. It’s Panama City  with new buildings appearing everyday, traffic and good restaurants, malls and signs that invite you to come and invest or retire here. The skyline is amazing, something I’m not used to as I’m from Europe and that’s the reason why Casco Viejo, the old colonial zone is more familiar to me.

But San Blas has nothing to do with Panama City, we’re at the antipodes. The separation is provided by a wide stripe of virgin forest still unexplored in some of its parts. After the forest the coast and and the islands, more than 370, sometimes just few centimeters of sand with  palm trees. We are in the home of Kunas, the indigenous that own and administrate this region, with their own laws and traditions. Paddling or sailing on their dugout they move from and to the coast carrying water, food, people.approaching the boat to sell lobsters, crabs or fish, or the Molas, traditional and really artistics handicrafts made by Kuna women.

And that’s the other world, the world of wise Kunas, ancient traditions and deep respect for natural environment that gives us a wonderful scenario to sail and relax. It’s more than a postcard, it’s life!

Central Cayos Holandeses

On the way to San Blas #2

After Berlin underground crossing it’s time of U.S. in a trip that since its starting was very long and became even longer.
Landed in Miami on July 21st I stayed in Fabi’s house in Ft. Lauderdale for one night to be ready to leave for Panama on Friday night. Fabi is my boss’s friend, a friendly and nice woman who helped me a lot in Ft. Lauderdale.
After an entire day visiting around to wait for my late flight already checked in and already at the gate I received the bad news from the airline: plane had mechanical problems so is not leaving
General panic and fights always ready to start  between passengers and staff and between passengers! I used all the skills trained in italian post offices to conquer one of the first places so I got quickly my hotel room and my ticket for next day. One more day in Florida that passed by taking advantage of the comforts of my hotel room and going out for dinner with Fabi.
I have few and confused images of me in a car with Mitzy, the boat manager, and his brother driving through the incredible buildings of Panama City. Not more than three hours in the apartment and I’m
on a 4×4 that carries Kunas and their provisions from the city to the “Comarca de Kuna Yala”. The road is a tarmoil ribbon that flows trough the jungle and I ignore completely where I am only noticed I am stuffed in a vehicle that is collecting people all around. Finally I get to the “embarcadero” and jump on a lancha that takes me to the SV Andiamo, my new experience, in the unknown surrounding of San Blas Islands.

On the way to San Blas

First step is saying goodbye to family and friend. Has never been so hard before, can’t understand why but that’s it.
I’m leaving Milan heading for Berlin, city that I love but this time I’m only crossing it underground S to N to catch the flight that tomorrow is going to take me to the US. Another night in Fort Lauderdale and finally on friday I’m hopefully landing in Panama where the yacht manager pick me up.