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.

Rookies of the Sea

For long our plan of sailing exotic destinations has been put under salt for many reasons. Little by little we removed our impediments and finally set our course South.

We departed Brunswick on Monday 24th and made it only as far as New Smyrna Beach, FL, a mere 120 miles away. We transited the Ponce de Leon Inlet right at sunset and dropped anchor in a random shoal just off the ICW.

The reason for such a short hop was health. Both of us felt pretty sick, not only for the crazy motion of our small craft but also for something that we ingested pre departure. I spare you the recounts of symptoms and experiences of this illness, nothing pretty. Without some disappointment we had to make the call to pull over and anchor, to heal and re-gather strength.

We sail a primitive boat, with limited auxiliary power so everything we do has to be timed with favorable weather conditions. Weather is a Master we have to obey.

We had such favorable conditions at the beginning of this week in the form of 15-20 knots blowing from the West allowing us to move South along the Florida coast and reach a favorable hop spot to Bahamas. We could have made it not stop in three days, but we decided nothing good could come from keeping at sea in our sick condition.

Now that we blew this weather window we may have to wait quite a bit. We felt pretty bad about it, as rookies who can barely handle discomfort. It was a tough call, especially knowing what the weather had prepared for us and what is showing for the next days.

Even if our current status is not what our imagination envisioned we are indeed “on the road” in a place we have never intended to visit as often happened before. Our Master will decide how long we will have to stick around and what will be next for us.

Obey your Master.