Bahamas to Panama
by Mike McIntire
Trip date - March 2007
Vessel - Moon Dance (1986 Endeavor 42)
As regular readers of this site may know, I've been slowly refurbishing my own
sailboat Sloop Du Jour as time allows. The project has slowed the last few
months due to my rather lengthy commute times (I'm away from home from 12
to 14 hours a day during the week), and this gives me only weekends for the
project and other life tasks. And as a result, I hadn't been sailing since the
project started last August.
One of my sailing buddies from years past is Warren, a retired business owner
from Michigan who has been cruising for some years with his significant other,
Rhonda. They lost their first Endeavor, Featherbed, -- or rather, the towing
company lost it (that's another story) -- after hurricane George in the late 90's.
They replaced Featherbed with Moon Dance, sailed for a while, then took some
time out from sailing, put Moon Dance on the hard in the Florida keys, and
bought a house in New Mexico. They relaunched Moon Dance in 2006 and
resumed cruising the Bahamas.
Although we only stayed in touch occasionally via e-mail, I learned that Warren
was planning to take his boat to Panama in 2007. He wanted to look around for
investment property there. (Panama is a very hot place for investment and
retirement right now, having a number of incentives for Americans to retire
there.) I have had an interest in visiting Panama for some time now, to
consider it as a possible place for retirement, Warren needed additional crew
for the trip, so I volunteered. He also signed up another friend of his, Jeanne,
who had sailed with him in the past.
I flew to George Town on Great Exuma in the Bahamas on a Friday after work.
A short taxi ride took me to Eddie's Edgewater bar, where Warren was to meet
me for the dinghy ride out to his boat. I had time for one Kalik beer before
Warren showed up, and we carried my bags past the enticing smells of an
outdoor barbecue down to the dinghy docks. A quick pull on the Yamaha
outboard, and away we went through the crowded harbor. We located Moon
Dance by her single mast and illuminated cockpit light, and pulled alongside.
My bags were passed up and we climbed the boarding ladder.
Warren had been planning this trip for sometime, studying the weather and
readying the boat, provisioning, etc. As he was ready to begin the trip the next
morning, we enjoyed a rum punch and a hearty dinner, then hit the sack to be
rested for the voyage. I got the V-berth.
Saturday dawned a beautiful day with winds from the northwest. This would
put them on our beam for the first part of the trip, around Long island, at which
time the winds were expected to swing more northerly and be on our stern.
We had coffee and a quick breakfast, then started the engine and hoisted the
anchor. We motored north out of the crowded George Town harbor, getting
away a little past sunrise. Our plan was to go around the northern end of Great
Exuma, then head east past the north end of Long Island before turning
The first day and night passed uneventfully. We rounded Great Exuma and
Long Island, then sailed down the eastern side of Long island. It's called Long
island for a reason, as it took us an entire day to put the island past us. It must
be something over 100 miles long. We divided up the helmsman duties into
three hour watches, so none of us had to spend too much consecutive time
behind the wheel. I got the 2AM to 5AM slot, great for viewing the stars, and
2PM to 5PM. We had good steady wind on the port beam and were making
about 6 knots all day Saturday and Sunday.
On Sunday, as we were passing the southern end of Long Island and turning
for the strait between Cuba and Haiti, the wind turned more northerly as we
expected it to do, but it also intensified to about 20 knots. This wasn't enough
to be any kind of safety concern, but it did mean we had to steer the boat
manually as the autopilot was too slow to respond as each rolling wave passed
under us from astern and we briefly surfed down its face. The wind was
directly behind us and we were sailing with just the mainsail, sheeted out and
secured with a preventer against accidental jibes. Moon Dance was equipped
with a furling mainsail, and we took it in somewhat so as not to be
overpowered in the event of an unexpected squall or gust of wind. We were
still doing 5 to 6 knots,and of course in no real hurry. But, the constant need
to steer the boat, to keep it on course after every "roller" started to take its
toll on us out-of-shape crew members. We compared the effort required on the
wheel to lifting weights for three straight hours. By the end of our watch, our
arms and shoulders were aching as we fell into our bunks. And, even though
we were exhausted and craving sleep, the movement of the boat was enough
to continually toss our bodies from side to side, as though someone was trying
to wake us up. We slept very little.
The stiff breezes and rolling waves continued for two days. By the end of
Monday, the winds began to subside and we were able to let the autopilot take
on steering duties. We were all grateful for the mechanical help, so we could
sit back and let our aching muscles relax. At sunset, to celebrate the
improving weather, the captain ordered rum punches all around. That night,
we passed close enough to Cuba to see some glow in the sky from lights on
the island. Whether it was from the smoother boat movement or the rum
punches, that night we all got some much needed rest.
On Tuesday the day broke bright and fair, the winds were still at our back but
now about 12 to15 knots. And though we couldn't know it at the time, they
were to stay that way for almost the entire trip, making this voyage very
Many sailors believe you make your own luck, and I think Warren is in this
category. Before we left, he had just passed his ham radio General Class exam
in George Town, and he had subscribed to Sailmail (www.sailmail.com) so we
would have e-mail access at sea, in addition to VHF, amateur radio, and SSB. I
had been communicating with Moon Dance via e-mail before the trip, so I was
happy to know that we would not be incommunicado for over a week. I don't
mind the isolation, but friends and family like to know you're OK. Although
Sailmail is far too limited for something like web browsing, it works just find for
sending and receiving batches of e-mails (without attachments). Warren also
engaged the services of a private weather forecaster in the Bahamas (the
name escapes me) who does custom weather forecasts for mariners in the
Caribbean, and he could tune in to listen to forecasts for the area we were
transiting every morning, at different times on different frequencies for best
signal propagation. By this method we knew what the weather would likely be
in our particular part of the ocean, more useful than the general forecasts that
the weather services give.
That same day we passed Jamaica in the distance, the last land we would see
before reaching Panama. Since the autopilot was now handling the steering,
the helmsman's job was primarily to just keep an eye on things, and check the
radar for approaching boats occasionally. We broke out the fishing poles and
starting trolling for something tasty for dinner. Now we're not the world's most
skillful fishermen, but fortunately not a great deal of skill was needed. On
three successive days we landed a tuna,all of which a fish identification guide
on board called "big-eyed" tuna. And we hooked but didn't land probably an
equal number. Warren cleaned the fish, and Rhonda, serving as ship's chef,
made some mighty tasty dishes with the fresh fish and we feasted.
All four of us were now into our routine, standing two three-hour watches a
day, with nine hours between watches to give plenty of time off. Since I'm a
veteran traveler and spend a lot of time on airplanes, I have been using an
MP3 player for years. I had been using it during my night watches, listening to
podcasts, music, and Spanish lessons (that I thought might be handy in
Panama). I soon found out that none of my shipmates had used one before,
and I offered mine for them to use during their watches. Well, before long I
had three converts to the technology. I brought my laptop along on the trip,
and was able to load the player with the favorite music of each crew member.
Rhonda, who had not particularly liked standing watches, was like a new
person once those earbuds starting spewing out her tunes. The change was
like she had been injected with happy juice. I don't know, but would guess that
they all own MP3 players by now. Mine, if you're interested, is an iRiver899
with 1GB of flash memory and FM tuner. It runs on a single replaceable AA
battery for many many hours. I like being able to carry a spare battery and
quickly swap it out, rather than have to recharge an internal battery like the
For the seven days of open water between Jamaica and Panama, we had
remarkably good weather. We did have the occasional rain come up, and
sometimes we could avoid it but not every time. I was expecting some high
winds with the rain, but as it happened there were no gusts worth mentioning.
We had fair winds on the stern until we approached the Panama coast. That
Monday night before our expected landfall on Tuesday morning, the winds
diminished and some steady rain fell, but nothing that could dampen our
spirits. With the light winds our speed dropped to 2 - 3 knots. We had not
used the main engine on the voyage (we ran the generator to charge the boat
batteries, make freshwater, and cool the refrigerator and freezer daily), but we
started motoring in the evening so we would make the harbor shortly after
The GPS, that modern miracle, didn't lie and we found ourselves at the
entrance to the channel at Bocas del Toro, ten days and a bit more than a
thousand miles from our departure point. We now had to pay attention to the
chart again, since we were close enough to land to actually hit something for
the first time in a week. We had to pay even closer attention to the channel
buoys, which were not all at the positions shown on the chart -- obviously, the
channel had shifted somewhat since the chart was produced.
Warren made a call on the VHF, and received instructions for clearing in to
Panama. We were to go to the anchorage opposite the customs dock, and the
customs and immigration officials would come to us in their launch. This
turned out to be very efficient, as there were several sailboats that arrived at
about the same time. We raised our quarantine flag and continued motoring to
the anchorage, where we dropped the hook. And turned off the engine. And
stopped moving for the first time in ten days.
The launch pulled alongside and the customs and immigration people -- four of
them -- came on board. They all sat around the table in the main cabin while
Warren showed them the ship's papers and started filling out forms. Panama, it
seems, is partly on the English system of weights and measures and partly on
the metric system. Some items, like the boat's length, had to be converted
from feet to meters, while others, like weights, were in pounds. The forms
were in Spanish, of course, but at least some of the Panamanians were able
The paperwork went along smoothly until we were asked for our clearance
papers out of the Bahamas. "What?", said Warren. "The Bahamas doesn't
require you to clear outbound, only inbound." And he was right, as far as it
went. It turns out that while the Bahamas doesn't require outbound clearance,
some other countries -- including Panama -- require that you have cleared OUT
of your previous country before you can clear IN to theirs.
For a while, it looked like we would have 48 hours to leave the country, and
that just would not have been good on so many levels. Well, not to drag out
the point, but it took a few days of telephone calls, e-mails, and Internet
research to get the magic form, called a "zarpe", into the hands of the customs
officials. I ended up spending a few hours in their offices at the end of the
ordeal, filling out forms and answering questions. The Panamanian officials
were very polite, and as helpful as they could be, but they could not find a way
around us having that form. But, we got it, and were allowed to stay.
Technically the voyage was over at this point. Warren and Rhonda were
planning to stay in Panama indefinitely, Jeanne for a few weeks, and I had a
flight home booked out of Panama City the following Sunday. I spent my free
time in Bocas Town being a tourist and getting to know the area a bit. There is
a real estate boom going on in Panama, with Bocas del Toro being one of the
hot spots. Without exaggeration, I can say that at least half of the foreigners I
met (most of them Americans) were in town looking for property to buy "ahead
of the curve". The demand is making prices soar to somewhat unrealistic
levels in some cases.
On Friday we moved the boat from the anchorage to the Bocas Marina. I took
an Air Panama flight to Panama City later that day, spent Saturday seeing that
area, and then flew back to the states. I've posted some more snapshots from
the trip on this page.
Moon Dance in Nassau,
Leaving George Town harbor
A rolling wave passes
under Moon Dance
Sunset in the Caribbean,
somewhere east of Cuba
Warren getting the latest
weather and emails
One that didn't get away
Rhonda finds a happy
place with the MP3 player
Moon Dance is surrounded
by areas of rain. The radar
also detected ships as far
as 18 miles away, before
they were visible to the eye.
Land Ho! on an overcast
The quarantine flag is
being readied for raising.
Mr. Customs Man made
lots of phone calls to help
us from his office.
Olas is a waterfront
hotel and bar with
dinghy dock not far
from our anchorage,
with free Wi-Fi.
Moon Dance from
Olas, just in front of
Not all the roads in
Bocas town are
Walking down the
street into Bocas
I love this bar!
Getting to know
some of the locals
Just like Paris, the
city provides a map
for the tourists
fruits were very
cheap. They were
even cheaper in
Many of the
have decks over
the water, like these
Seafood feast -
plantain, and salad
in a nice restaurant
-- about $12
Waiting for a flight
in the Bocas del
We don't need to
lock the cockpit
door. We don't
have a door.
waters off the north
coast of Panama
looking west along
Yes, these prices
are in US dollars.
were 25 cents.
Street market in
Panamá la Vieja (Old
For a quarter you
can ride a wildly
decorated city bus
as far as you like.
Pay as you exit.
The pilot gave us a
bird's-eye view of
the Panama Canal.
Here are ships in
one of the locks.
OH NO! Sunday
morning, time to fly
On a sunny day in perfect