28 Hours at Sea: Bocas Del Toro to the Rio Chagres

A Winterlude update from our two years in Panama, leaving the marina at Bocas Del Toro to sail overnight to the Rio Chagres…..

“Friends danced the hula for a festive sendoff for Winterlude leaving the Bocas marina Thursday morning. The significance of the hula is a bit cloudy, but hopefully it brings fair winds & following seas. Hanging a sharp right at the Bocas seabuoy, we charted a ninety degree course. Directly ahead 130 miles and an overnight sail is the Rio Chagres where more friends are waiting.

Local wisdom says it is not possible to sail across the Golfo de los Mosquitos – no wind …no way. So we were pleasantly surprised to be sailing a beam reach. Hoisting the sails was instant relief from the noisy rumble of the diesel. The only sound was the hull splitting the inky clear water – similar to sitting beside a babbling mountain brook, very calming after the rush of the marina. Ideal sailing – flat calm seas and winds ten knots just aft of the beam! If we could guarantee ourselves this type of sailing, we’d go through the canal that we’re sailing towards and on to the south pacific!

Our First Blackfin Tuna!

Our First Blackfin Tuna!

Two hours into the passage, fish frenzies were all around – easy to spot … birds hovering just above the churned up water and smaller fish jumping, chased by something larger in the food chain. David dropped the rattlejet lure on the offshore rod into the water and settled into the cockpit to enjoy lunch. Not two bites into his turkey sandwich, the line goes ZING! David scrambled for the pole while I scrambled to turn the boat into the wind to slow down. David was reeling in & reeling in, muttering under his breath and no wonder! This fish was a fighter!!! A bit later, an exhausted David was clinging to the pole with one hand & gaffing the fish with the other. Hanging over the stern of the boat to get the rattlejet lure back from an as yet unidentified fish. “Should I let him go?” he gasped …. I run for the fish book and the camera. No wonder David was tired, this fish has black fins and a golden iridescent stripe down the sides – we’ve caught a Black Fin Tuna – pound for pound one of the best fighting fish in the world and excellent food quality! Yippee!!! Let it GO??? No way!!! But now the problem was what to do next (can you tell we haven’t caught many fish with the offshore pole?). With David hanging over the stern, both hands occupied, I do the only thing I can think to do – run for the cooler. Unceremoniously dumping the fish in the cooler – we discover, OH NO – he’s too BIG for our large cooler! The fish’s tail is hanging out of the cooler and he’s flopping, slinging blood all over the stern. Both of us reacted instantly – slamming the lid – with the tail hanging out and sitting on the cooler to keep the lid shut since it won’t latch. Somehow I doubt we’ll be offered a contract on some Outdoor Life fishing channel, but the fish is ours!!!

The afternoon was spent cleaning the tuna, cleaning the boat and relaxing, taking it all in. The water rushing by, an occasional fish or ray jumping and pirouetting – a private show just for us.

Sailing Across the Golfo de Mosquito, Panama

Sailing Across the Golfo de Mosquito, Panama

Later we debate whether or not we put a reef in before sunset, one of our ironclad rules which we broke – perfect weather forecast, perfect sailing. If we put in a reef, we’ll slow too much & have to motorsail or risk not getting across the bar at the Rio Chagres until late afternoon when there might not be enough to clearly see the reefs. We enjoyed dinner (lentil chili prepared before we left the marina), checked in with friends for a 7 PM SSB position/status report – most boats check in with a friend every 6 hours or so on the SSB radio just if anything would happen, someone will have relatively recent GPS coordinates. Afterward, I go to rest for three hours, leaving David on watch. The watch schedule we prefer on overnights usually starts at 6 PM & alternates with one of us on watch & one of us sleeping, or at least resting, every three hours. One hour later, David decides it’s time for a reef (wouldn’t you know) – lightning is chasing us & radar shows a couple nasty storms trailing us at about 12 miles. We turn on the diesel to try and outmaneuver them – a technique we’ve termed “dodge-squall”. As we watch the radar another storm crops up and suddenly we have converging squall lines moving different directions – certainly cause for concern! We were happy we opted for two reefs when the wind line hit, increasing from nothing to 20 instantly and building quickly to 30 knots. Needless to say, the next couple of hours were a wild ride! It might have even been fun surfing down waves at 8 knots had it been daylight! In the dark, it was just scary! The lightning show would have qualified as a magnificent 4th of July celebration, if we’d had time to watch. Needless to say, we were a bit busy!
Luckily, Winterlude was wonderful – a steady, calming influence – the boat seemed to be saying “What’s the worry? This is what I was BUILT for!” We’ve always said, the boat was built to go around the world, but we’re not! ?

By midnight the squalls had dissipated, leaving no wind, just very confused large seas – waves rolling from all directions seemingly at once!

Once again, we’ve screwed up our sleep cycle – best laid plans! But David sleeps from midnight to 3 and I sleep from 3 to 6. Not enough rest, but better than some overnights. The lightning display continued all night. I was surprised that we only saw one ship – within a hundred miles of the Panama Canal, I just thought we’d see a parade of ships all night long coming & going. And we dodged absolutely ZERO crab pots!!!

After checking in at 6 AM on the SSB with friends, we were able to access the storm’s damage … luckily nothing except the string on the KISS wind generator had wrapped itself completely around, bring the big fan blade a sudden halt. We noticed during the storm that the wind generator quit, but neither of us were going out to find out why! Mr Coffee and some toasted honey wheat English muffins made a great start, a bit of housecleaning and the last 6 hours of the passage resumed the idyllic crossing we started!

Rio Chagres Entrance Showing Bar

Rio Chagres Entrance Showing Bar

With Fort San Lorenzo overlooking the bluff, we crossed the bar (shallow sandbars build up at the entrance to most rivers) to enter the Rio Chagres.  Friends meet us in their dinghy & they climb aboard to visit for the 3 mile ride up the river to where we’re anchored at 9 16.926N 79 57.699 W for those of you charting our progress!

Stay tuned, the banks of the Rio Chagres are primary rainforest and since it’s inside a national park, there are trails, waterfalls and abundant wildlife.”

Did you anchor in the Rio Chagres?  What was your favorite about it?  Leave a comment and let us know!   Cheers!  Jan


  1. Brian Nolan says:

    I love ALL your posts..I have a 1979 Morgan OI 33. I hope to follow in your footsteps someday.You keep me motivated. Currently I sail in the Tampa Bay area..never overnighted at anchor. I am addicted to skore power LOL

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