No it’s not a rogue wave, although it might be an unseen reef. Most cruisers think about sinking, dismasting, storms and rogue waves the way Midwesterners think about tornados. You know it can happen, but you don’t worry about tornados daily, in fact you rarely think about them. Likewise, taking the necessary precautions to avoid bad weather, both wind and seas, is second nature to almost everyone who cruises for any length of time.
No, one of the biggest nightmares is getting the e-mail via sailmail from home with bad news about elderly parents … or other family members or loved ones.
Luckily when the e-mail from my brother Jeff arrived, Winterlude was already anchored in cell phone range in the San Blas Islands in Panama. Unluckily, the infamous Columbian LO located just offshore featured 17 foot waves and 25 knot winds for the past two weeks crashing on the Panama lee shore. While more than 70 miles seems inconsequential to those of us used to traveling the U.S. interstates at more than 70 miles an hour, at 5 knots an hour that same 70 miles becomes very treacherous. But it was the only way back to Colon and the only marina in which to leave WInterlude. My Mom has had Parkinson’s Disease for the past 15 years, all her body systems were getting tired and prone to failure, so when she complained that she couldn’t breathe, no one knew what to expect … a routine case of bronchitis, a worse but treatable diagnosis of pneumonia or the worst. Given the weather situation, we debated options to get home as we anxiously waited for more information.
Cruising in the San Blas Islands is idyllic and isolated, which is part of why it is so attractive. Nowhere in the world, short of remote islands in the South Pacific, can you find an indigenous culture almost completely isolated from the outside world. No way in, no real roads — the mountain jungle of the Darian disrupts the transcontinental highway, the only interruption from the top of Alaska to the bottom of South America. There are no marinas, no facilities, not even food stores. The only way back to civilization is 70 miles back to Colon along a scenic lee coastline hostile for sailors.
Luckily for us, the Columbian LO which stations itself just offshore and creates the brisk tradewinds and oversized waves, took a break just about the time we got the bad news. Hearing that Mom had been taken from emergency to the hospice signified a rapidly worsening situation. Knowing that it would take us parts of 3 days to sail to Colon, we hastily upped anchor within the hour. Now it’s a race. We could have sailed overnight to Colon, but the winds & waves were still a bit brisk, so we opted to stage to the outmost San Blas Islands and leave by dawn the next morning – this way we were already clear of most of the reefs surrounding the picture perfect San Blas islands. Unfortunately it also meant a rolly night with very little sleep. Sailing all day to Portobello the next day was a rolly, but not uncomfortable sail – winds dropping to 20-22 helped our sail. En route we sailed by one of the largest sea turtles I’ve ever seen swimming the other way – it had to be six feet in diameter and I’m not exaggerating. The purple protrusion in the azure water rushing by the hull resembling a little girl’s brightly colored hair comb is the
infamous Portuguese Man of War – the deadly jellyfish. Ships approaching the Panama Canal hovered on the horizon. Regardless, we were both very happy to sail into Portobello and drop anchor for the evening in flat water … no roll, no bugs meant our first good night’s sleep for awhile.
The next morning, sailing with dolphins playing in our bow wake combined with winds and waves laying down a bit made for a pleasant early morning sail. We followed a container ship through the jetty into flat water once again and dropped our sails for the last time this season. A few minutes later we were welcomed back to Shelter Bay Marina and tied to a dock for the first time in 4 months – nice not to worry about weather for now.
Normally we take about 2 weeks to get the boat ready to leave for the months we return to the U.S. We like to take our time and accomplish a task or two a day while taking daily walks out on the Panama Canal Jetty to watch the ships or meandering through the jungle trails watching the howler and cappuchino monkeys, the sloths, toucans and noisy green parrots. Now we’re debating, do we leave it as is, depart immediately and return after we’d flown home and checked on Mom. Or do we rush through the critical items, like pickling the watermaker, cleaning out the fridge, fresh water flushing the diesel and outboard … all the tasks making sure we wouldn’t end up with rats, cockroaches, mold or worse aboard when we return? Ultimately, with Mom “stable” in the hospice, we spent 2 days and accomplished almost all the critical tasks – we missed filling the ¾ empty diesel tank – we like leaving our diesel tanks full to avoid the creeping crud growing in the tank. But given the fact that we wanted to get back as quickly as possible, we sacrificed the diesel. Upon returning, we’ll have one full tank and one one quarter full. We’ll run the quarter through the fuel polishing system several times. By running a quarter of the full tank out first, we can cycle the quarter tank in the contaminated tank into the clean tank. This will allow the messy, stinky but doable task of physically cleaning out the contaminated tank – it’s difficult to get all the crud out because of the baffles and the tank location, but it is possible.
Luckily, we were able to get last minute flights back to the U.S. and arrive at the hospice the morning before my Mom passed away. I guess you could call that a happy ending to a not happy situation. Now having gone through all the Memorial Services and graveside services, we are very happy not to need to return to Shelter Bay to put Winterlude to bed for the summer. But we are not happy about the weather … David’s resolve never to be forced to wear anything but shorts after he retired has been altered … returning to 32 degrees and SNOW in April only strengthened our resolve to stay gone through at least May next year!
In the meantime, we’ll return as early as October 1 and continue the cruising adventures. Until then, check the website in a few weeks, I’m sure I’ll find time to post photos from this past winter’s adventure!
Jan & David
back in the U.S., Winterlude is in Shelter Bay Marina, Colon, Panama