We (Just) Made It
27 July 2021
Noon position: N 10° 26.651′ W 78° 43.877′
Spoiler alert! We (just) made it to Panama.
Despite a close encounter with Aeronaval (the Panamanian Coast Guard) and a guy called Mark that was on standby at all hours of the morning to come to our rescue if need be, we made it unscathed.
Not without excitement mind you. We limped into Linton Bay Marina fuel dock with all 3 of our fuel tanks flashing the “reserve” warning. How close we were to having the motor die on us is anyone’s guess.
This blog update is late for a number of reasons. As I am writing this, it’s 3:27AM on the morning of Saturday, August 7. We are once again on the move, making the 130 nautical mile journey from Colón, Panama to Bocas Del Toro near the border with Costa Rica.
The time between our arrival in Panama and making this particular trip was taken up by a whirlwind, 4-day trip to Miami to take care of some bureaucratic bovine manure. It seems since we left Sint Maarten 18 days ago that time has both flown by and stood still.
But let’s back up a bit and close off the story of the passage from Sint Maarten to Panama.
In my last entry we detailed how our diesel was running out, forcing a divert from our intended destination (Bocas) to our fallback position (Linton Bay). The afternoon following that entry saw us fighting a 3.4 knot current pushing us to the east, while we were trying to go southwest.
Imagine walking into a headwind that pushes you back a step for every two steps you take forward. Yes, it’s the classic two steps forward, one step back.
Doing between 6 and 7 knots under normal motoring conditions, we were making extremely slow progress at a little above 3 knots, and still burning a healthy amount of diesel doing so.
Pushing the motor to deliver additional speed would only burn fuel faster, while running at a more economical RPM would mean we would practically stand still in the water.
So there was a lot of calculation being done to try and find the most optimal balance between burn rate and progress made.
Earlier in the day the wind managed to pick up to around 7 or 8 knots from behind. So we hauled out the spinnaker (our largest sail made from a very light material, designed to utilize light winds from behind) and managed to sail for about 2 hours before the wind died down completely.
Down the spinnaker went.
At around 4pm, with the current not letting up in the least, we started realizing that we might not make even Linton Bay. Bear in mind, we lost our wind a whole 24 hours earlier than expected, and the current was almost 3 times stronger than the 1.3 knots forecast by the predictive models.
We had to face the reality that we may run out of fuel before reaching water that was shallow enough to drop our anchor in. If that were to happen, we would effectively be helpless. Without any wind to drive the boat forward, the current would sweep us east toward Colombia. Not exactly ideal!
So we started making some phone calls (thank goodness for satellite connection) to Linton Bay Marina to see if there were any options. The first contact was not encouraging.
“Hello, this is sailing vessel DOUBLESTAR en-route to your facility. We are running low on diesel and may not make it in. Do you have any way of getting some fuel out to us?”
“You’re a sailing vessel? Why not switch off the engine and put up the sail?”
Insert facepalm emoji here as appropriate …
After a detailed conversation explaining the situation with the wind and current, and the fact that we were not simply running along the coast like the majority of traffic they encounter, but approaching from their north after 8 days at sea, the marina manager started seeing our conundrum.
In his defense, he turned out to be extremely helpful, connecting us with Mark, a fellow cruiser who (like many others) seems to have gotten stuck in this part of the world, enjoying the easy and laid back life Panama has to offer.
Mark rounded up around 35 gallons worth of jerry cans in all shapes and sizes, and drove to the gas station to have them filled with diesel. Yes, you can use gas station diesel in a marine engine. The only difference is the color of the diesel, with marine diesel (in the US at least) dyed to identify it because it is not taxed.
This means for example that a truck operator caught with marine diesel in their tanks would face a hefty fine.
But I digress. Back to Mark.
Mark told me (via WhatsApp through our satellite, which once again I am so grateful for installing) that he could run the diesel out to us in his 30-foot motorboat.
His fee was “just cover the cost of the diesel and my fuel to get to you. I hate to see you in a bind.” You’re a good man, Mark. Thank you.
At this point we were about 40 miles out. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you are only managing to move forward at 3 knots, that’s still 13 hours of engine use.
Our second option was to contact Aeronaval. We figured it would be prudent to at least alert them of the possibility that there would be a vessel in some form of distress off their coastline, especially given the hour. We did not want to try and hail someone at 2AM when we really needed the help.
Better to have something and someone on standby.
We had one satellite phone conversation with Aeronaval. They did not speak English. We did not speak Spanish. After a lot of back-and-forth, we managed to establish two things. First, we were not in imminent danger, and did not need immediate assistance.
Second, they wanted us to report our position back to them in 90 minutes.
After 90 minutes, and repeatedly after that, I tried calling them. There was no answer. We never heard from or spoke to them again.
So we reverted to Mark as our backup plan. He suggested that we try to make it to a marine farm located 20 miles from Linton Bay Marina. He mentioned there were some mooring balls in that area we could tie up to.
We also saw another anchorage fairly close by that we thought we could get to, where we could drop anchor and launch our dinghy for a long ride into a small fishing village nearby that we were pretty sure had a gas station.
Mark said he would monitor his phone through the night, and we should contact him if need be. So with that we figured we had a plan if all else fails, and we set a course for the fishing village. Right after sunset, we noticed the breeze had picked up ever so slightly – around 4-6 knots.
More importantly, it was coming from the side, making it somewhat usable.
Most importantly, the current finally started dropping, settling at around 1.3 knots – significantly better than the 3+ knots we had experienced for most of that day.
We hoisted our main sail and Genoa (our forward sail, designed for heavier wind conditions, which we certainly were NOT experiencing, but it was our only option) and switched off the motor. We settled in for a long, uncomfortable night.
We were rolling back and forth as the faint breath of air filled and then spilled out of our sails. The log (the device that measures boat speed) showed us moving forward at a paltry 1.2-1.6 knots. We were sailing slower than a Sunday afternoon stroll, but we were making progress, heading in the right direction and not burning fuel!
We kept at it throughout the long, sleepless night, watching the DTD (distance to destination) number ticking down at an excruciatingly slow pace. Finally, when we were 12 miles out, we figured we’d have enough fuel to cover the last bit.
So back on the motors went, and we gingerly covered the last 12 miles at a low RPM, rolling into the fuel dock at Linton Bay on vapor alone!
Phew! The feeling of relief when we tied to that fuel dock was immense. We felt like we cheated fate, and it was all the sweeter that we’d finally complete our 1336 nautical mile passage from Sint Maarten.
The numbers on this passage:
Departed: 20 July 2021
Arrived: 28 July 2021
Distance traveled: 1336 nautical miles
Average speed: 6.30 knots (this number dropped severely in the final 24 hours of the trip)
Maximum speed: 11.80 knots
We’ve now covered a grand total of 10,109 nautical miles in DOUBLESTAR. Considering the circumference of our planet at the Equator, we’ve sailed halfway around the world, distance wise!
We did not check in or stay at Linton Bay. We were still determined to reach Bocas. After we refueled we cast off and started making our way east. It would be another night of sailing though, and we were all pretty beat, especially after the stress and lack of sleep from the preceding 24 hours.
On the suggestion of our friends on SV Gargoyle, we ended up diverting to Shelter Bay Marina in Colón, at the entrance of the Panama Canal. It turned out to be a great decision. A super calm, protected marina with good facilities and excellent staff, especially Juan Jo and Eddy – great guys with an awesome attitude and always willing to help.
We cleared into the country (a relatively painless process) and secured the boat before making the 4-day trip to Miami and back.
Now as I am writing this, finally, we are on our way to Bocas, our originally intended destination.
As is often the case with the sailing life, we get there in the end. Just not when and how we expect to.
Thanks for all the encouragement and support in reading this and following along on our Instagram feed. It really helps alleviate some of the more boring hours, and we sincerely appreciate all the kind messages and words of encouragement!
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Captain J and Chef Engineer T