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San Blas Islands

 

These islands are home to the indigenous Kuna Indians who have best preserved their culture and traditions out of all the tribes in the Americas. The Kunas are physically small (2nd only to the African pygmies) and are very friendly. It is a Matriarchal society whereby inheritance is passed down through the women who control the money (very sensibly!). They are also the primary breadwinners selling Molas and other handicrafts to tourists and yachtsmen.

 

We had been warned in Cartagena that the women market their Molas quite aggressively so we were well prepared at our first anchorage with “no mas molas para mi, gracias”. Unfortunately, Roger used this phrase so successfully that it took 2 weeks for Vicki to actually buy her 1st mola !!

 

Molas are brightly coloured reverse-applique panels and are made by sewing together layers of fabric and cutting through the layers to form imaginative designs. Kuna women traditionally wear molas sewn onto their blouses, have beads on their arms and legs and a thick nose ring whilst the men tend to wear western clothes or, when fishing, skimpy black pants (Tracy – take note!) 

 



The Islands are all owned by Kuna families no matter how isolated or even if they are totally uninhabited. The entire area is now known as Kuna Yala and is, for the most part, autonomous from the Panamanian Government. They consider themselves their own country with their own laws, eg. it is an offence to remove anything from the islands and even taking a fallen coconut can result in a stay in jail…

 

There are some 340 islands in the archipelago – all like picture postcards – tinged with powdery white sands, a coral reef, piercing turquoise water with many populated with no more than a cluster of coconut palms.

 


Obviously we didn’t have time to visit them all so, after much deliberation, we initially anchored off Obsicuidup in the Eastern Coco Bandero Cays (ECBC). What a wonderful place to start !! The ECBC consisted of 4 small islands and Monty loved running around on all of them. We soon became a regular early morning sight heading off for the beach ready for a run and a swim…

 

Unfortunately, our vacuum packer had packed in whilst we were in Cartagena so we were rapidly running out of fresh food.


Luckily, Arnaldo came to our rescue delivering wonderfully fresh fruit, vegetables & eggs to the anchorage.


For US$19 we stocked up for the week with Vicki becoming vegetarian and Rog surviving on cheap, fresh lobster – Vicki has finally learned how to cook Lobster Bisque, Crab Cakes, Bouillabaisse and more….  

 



After a week, we decided it was time to up anchor and move all of 2 miles away to Orduptarboat in the Western Coco Bandero Cays (WCBC) where we had an anchorage all to ourselves for Roger’s birthday.


We renamed the smaller island nearby Monty’s Island as he loved being able to run all the way around it while we stood in the middle watching!!


6 days later, a 53’ trawler had the audacity to interrupt our solitude and we first met Kathy & John from M/v Mystic Moon. What a lovely evening we had with them aboard El Vagabond during which we made 2 very special friends and Monty gained a new Auntie & Uncle. The following morning as we were preparing to leave, Kathy donated 2 Guinea Fowl from her freezer so that we could enjoy some meat for the 1st time in 3 weeks –  what a meal we all enjoyed that night although, unsurprisingly, Monty had the main share……..

 




As we had felt we should be exploring more, we decided to visit Nargana, one of the more populated islands. Even before we had dropped the hook, we were bombarded with ladies selling their molas – “no gracias” was the easy response despite what we might have wanted to do…. We dinghied in to the main village to get some bread and, as soon as we had set foot on the island, we were accosted by a couple of beaming kiddies demanding US$10 as we were wearing shorts !!!!  We established that it was a legitimate claim as it was festival weekend and they were raising funds for the local School so we paid up gracefully wondering why we hadn’t come the previous day….

 



Having bought our fresh bread, it was off to Green Island for the weekend. We stayed for a couple of days and enjoyed a beach party with Visions of Johanna (Bill, Jo & Graham), Cherokee II ( Peter & Renee) and Hooligan (Tim, Paula & Boat dog Nigel). Nigel was the 1st dog Monty has really had the chance to play with and he promptly rugby tackled Monty to the floor to introduce himself….. Unfortunately, we don’t have any photos of Nigel but, suffice to say, he is at least 5 times bigger than Monty but they became fast friends and over the next few months Monty loved hangin’ out with him and following him around at social occasions !!!
 




We left Cherokee II on their own (well, in the company of a Crocodile as we found out afterwards – thankfully it didn’t see Monty) and headed off to the Eastern Lemon Cays where we met up with Mystic Moon & Hooligan for cocktails. John introduced Roger to his special Margaritas and, yep, you’ve guessed it – Rog was hooked !!

 

After spending some weeks in Kuna Yala we realised that it really was time to check in officially to Panama so, reluctantly, we left the islands heading West for Colon via overnight stops in Isla Linton, Portobello (more on these places later) and Islas Naranjos just a few miles East of Colon.

 
 

Colon

 

We arrived in Shelter Bay Marina, Colon on 27th July planning on a quick stop to re-provision, get gas and clear immigration and customs. Within seconds of arriving, we met Coco Bear – a Havanese owned by Eddie & Glenn (M/v Tothill) – the first other Havanese we had seen.


Not long after arriving, we saw Chris & Tuula from s/v Wishful Thinking who asked us if we would like to line-handle for them through the Canal. As we couldn’t both go, Vicki stayed to Monty sit and Roger went with them for the experience. This was a great opportunity as he then knew exactly what to expect when it was our turn some 3 months later.

 

We were closely followed into the Marina by Mystic Moon who were getting ready to fly back to California for a couple of months so a full Sunday lunch (English Style) was enjoyed before they left.



Luckily, having watched them stagger up the pontoon, we were glad we were already at home!!!

 

It was our intention to be back in Kuna Yala by 4th August for Jo’s birthday but, unluckily, Malarkey had a direct Lightening strike in Cartagena damaging all their electrics so they weren’t moving anywhere. Accordingly, we decided to saunter back slowly    (as only we can)……. 

 
 

Portobello
 

We spent a week on our own in the Islas Naranjos and got to Portobello just in time to see Jeff & Ruth (s/v Kirsti) for a couple of evenings before they flew back to the UK. Portobello is a lovely old Town with fortifications dating back to 1760. It was infamously attacked and taken by the pirate Henry Morgan when it was the main site for transferring South American riches to Seville.

 

Monty loved running around the old ruins so we stayed here for a week before moving on to Isla Linton.

 
 



Isla Linton

 

This is an island privately owned but solely inhabited by Monkeys (who can be a tad aggressive). On our first visit here in July, we hadn’t been that impressed with the anchorage but, when we arrived this time, Hooligan introduced us to the French Restaurant at Panamarina - a short dinghy ride away.


Well, short for anyone with a 15Hp engine but about half an hour for us !! 


The Restaurant had wifi so we caught up on some e-mails and had a fabulous French meal. In fact, in 4 days, we ate there 3 times! It was also lovely to see Gary & Linda from s/v Rainbow Rider who we had last seen in PLC (Aug 08) – they were en route to Bocas del Toro so just a quick pit stop for a Gin & Tonic but it was good to see they were still enjoying themselves.

 

From here, we thought we would investigate Punta Macolla where they are building a new Marina at Green Turtle Bay. We anchored outside the entrance and Roger dinghied in to find only a few piles in the water, a couple of small boats and very little else. We stayed one night and moved on quickly the next day as the anchorage was just too rolly. We subsequently learned that the Marina development had come to a very abrupt halt so we can draw our own conclusions as to where the funding was coming from…..  


 

Eastern Lemon Cays

 

We eventually arrived back in Kuna Yala on 26th August at the Eastern Lemon Cays where we met John & Jennie (S/v Oyara) who invited us over for a delicious Curry evening before they left for Cartagena.



By this time, we realised that Malarkey were going to be delayed some time so, after a week enjoying the beaches, having Pizza nights on the island, being entertained by Connie & Steve (S/v Better Days) with a fantastic Mexican evening and getting shown how to use our SSB receiver properly  by Alan (S/v Sunflower), we left for the Rio Chagres.

 

En route, we stopped at Panamarina for another lunch (!!) and at Portobello to pick up 6 Rotisserie Chickens – we had managed to pick up a new Vacuum Packer in Colon and cooked chickens save gas…….. We were well stocked up with everything else and were looking forward to hiding up the river looking for Monkeys and Crocodiles.

 


Rio Chagres

 

This is a beautiful River surrounded by Rainforest flowing from the San Blas Corillera (Atlantic).  The only sounds are chattering monkeys and birds and the area is abundant with butterflies.


It was dammed in 1910 to create the Gatun Lake and supplies the water for the locks of the Panama Canal.

 

Being a river, it is fresh water so Roger had his daily swim cleaning off our bottom whilst Vicki & Monty were on ‘Crocodile Watch’. Even Roger wouldn’t stay in the water after 5pm but we still didn’t see any crocs…
 




We left the river after a week heading for Bocas del Toro but, after a day spent bashing into the wind and a horrible rolly overnight anchorage, we decided it just wasn’t worth the trouble without an autohelm so we returned to the Chagres River for another week – lucky we had bought all those Chickens !!

 

Colon
 

On 28th September, we returned to Shelter Bay as we had run out of fresh food and didn’t want to start attacking our Pacific supplies. To our surprise, John & Kathy flew back the day after – we hadn’t realised the 2 months had flown past so quickly. We had a lovely dinner on MM also with Tim & Paula (as Hooligan were in the Marina doing some chores) and then the next day, Bill & Jo sailed in on ‘Visions’ as they were getting ready for their transit. We had a great evening with them before we took off on holiday for a long weekend to El Valle. We had managed to hire a car (although got lost in Colon for 3 hours when picking it up) and had found a ‘pet friendly’ Hotel (Los Capitaines) so off we went…….

 

El Valle
 

Nestled in the crater of the World’s second largest extinct volcano, El Valle de Anton is a beautiful and relaxing destination perfect for a weekend getaway from Panama City. It took us about 3 hours to drive there from Colon and we had a lovely weekend away from it all.


Apart from the consistent rain, it was perfect. Monty loved being on holiday and had more room to run around in the suite than he normally has when aboard El Vag.


We walked around the village with him, visited a couple of the waterfalls and generally enjoyed ourselves although we did say “no” to the mud baths bearing in mind the weather !!!




It is a wonderful area which really appealed to us as a potential home one day in the future….

 


Kuna Yala again…

 

After we returned from El Valle and had returned the car (Roger followed Tim back to the hire car place to save getting lost again), we left Shelter Bay to head back to the San Blas.




We headed for Monty’s island in the Western Coco Bandero Cays where we arranged to meet Malarkey for Sunday Dinner – yep, they had finally got away from Cartagena. We had a lovely time catching up with them and they agreed to be line-handlers for us through the Panama Canal. We had Paul Kibble (PK) flying out from the UK for the experience so we now had our full complement of crew for the transit.

 

We reluctantly left the WCBC on 16th October as we knew it was time to start heading back towards Colon.


We stopped off at the Eastern Lemon Cays to see Mystic Moon and Hooligan who had both now escaped from Shelter Bay.




We enjoyed a few Beach Parties with them and Nigel finally allowed Monty to chase him along the beach….. Malarkey came over to the Eastern Lemons but we had omitted to mention which anchorage we were actually in so they ended up on the other side of the big reef anchored all on their own – a bit different to pre-Monty days when it would have been us out on a limb and Jo & Trevor in the midst of the parties !!!

 

After one such party, John was laughing so much he fell into the water whilst climbing down the ladder from El Vag into his dinghy with Kathy closely following him to make sure he was ok…. We had another couple of lovely evenings on MM with Hooligan and it was a very sad time when we had to say “farewell” to our American friends. 


We left on 22nd October, stopping at Isla Linton for a final lunch at Panamarina where we were joined by both Malarkey and Kersti (who were back from the UK but still in the Marina as they were fixing their Generator).


We also remembered to collect our ‘canvas cockpit conservatory’ which Portobello Canvas were repairing and which we will definitely need when we get to Chile….



Colon
 

We arrived back in Shelter Bay Marina on 26th October to give us a week to get ready before PK arrived from the UK. We arranged to use Tito as our Transit Agent who was superb – he came promptly when he said he would (no minor feat in Panama), took all the hassle away from us, provided us with the appropriate lines and tyre fenders, dealt with all the paperwork and whizzed Roger around to see all the necessary authorities. The Admeasurer came to measure us up (49.24 feet) on the 29th and we had our Transit date confirmed as 4th November – exactly the date we wanted….

 

(NB We would highly recommend using Tito as a Panama Canal Transit Agent. He was very efficient and his charges were very reasonable – Tel 646 35009).

 

All we had to do now was a couple of Supermarket runs to stock up for the next 5 months (until we reach Chile) – you wouldn’t believe how many tins of Tomatoes and baked beans we have on board - and we were ready!!! We enjoyed a Halloween Party in the Marina and said goodbye to even more people, Malarkey arrived 1st November and PK arrived on the 2nd much to Monty’s disgruntlement. He barked non-stop at the stranger in his home until he realised that PK liked to sit and chat to him!!

 

The Panama Canal

 

We left the Marina about 1pm on Wednesday 4th November heading out to “the Flats” which is an anchorage area just near to the entrance to the Canal. Here we were met by our first ‘Advisor’ Frank who was very nice and who had a very calming manner (good for the girls on the stern lines !!).

We set off promptly at 2pm motoring for the first set of Locks – about 5.5 nm (10km) through some Mangrove Swamps. 

 



The first set of Locks are collectively known as the Gatun Locks. There are 3 locks which are physically connected to each other. Here, we were raised a total of 84 feet during the 3 stages. Each Lock chamber is 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide, while the entire Gatun Lock system, including the approach walls, is 1.08 nm (2km) long. 





When we approached the first Lock, which we shared with a 650 foot cargo ship which towered over our bow, a monkey fist was thrown down to each line-handler {2 at the bow (Trevor & PK) and 2 at the stern (Vicki & Jo)} by shore-based line-handlers. Each line-handler had to tie a bowline to attach their mooring line (125 feet long) which was then pulled back towards the shore until we were in the correct position.


We had asked for “Centre Chamber Lockage” which is what we got – effectively, we were held in the centre of the chamber by our 4 lines. The lines are then tied off on the cleats and as the water enters the lock and the boat rises, the line-handlers have to take the slack up to make sure the lines stay tight – otherwise the yacht can swing and hit either bow or stern on the lock walls.


Once through each chamber, the lines are slackened again and the shore-based line-handlers walk with the boat to the next Lock.


Sounds simple and if you have proficient line-handlers as we did, it is !!!

 




From the Gatun Locks, we entered Gatun Lake, a man-made lake extending across the isthmus. When the waterway was built, Gatun Dam was the largest earth dam ever built; Gatun Lake the largest man-made lake and the 3 sets of locks the largest concrete structures in the World. The Lake covers an area of 116.64 square nautical miles and was formed by erecting the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River. 



We tied up to an enormous buoy in the lake and having fed Frank he left us for the night. The stress of the day (coupled with the effects of a Malarkey induced hangover from the night before) meant that we were all ready for bed by 9pm !!

 

It was an early start the next day as our new ‘Advisor’, Regis, arrived at 6am ready for the next stage. We motored the 28nm through the Galliard Cut at 6 knots as we had to get to the Pedro Miguel Locks for our 10.40am slot. We were due to be locked in with another large ship as per the day before but he didn’t show up.




After waiting in the Lock for about 1 1/2 hours, the other vessel still hadn’t turned up so we were granted “Special Lockage” and went through the last 3 Locks all on our own….Awesome !!!!! 




The first step called the Pedro Miguel Lock lowered us 29.5 feet in one step from the Gatun Lake into the Miraflores Lake, a small artificial lake that separates the 2 sets of Pacific Locks. We crossed the lake and then were lowered the remaining 2 steps to Sea Level at the Miraflores Locks just over 0.86nm in length. Due to the Pacific Ocean’s extreme tidal variations, the Miraflores lock gates are the canal’s tallest.




There is a Restaurant overlooking the Miraflores Lock and we thought the Tourists may have been a tad disappointed to see just a tiddly  yacht transitting rather than one of the huge “Panamax” ships until we were reminded that Bill Gates had paid a fortune to transit privately on his yacht and, therefore, we must be very influential Brits !!!

 




We were now in the Pacific………….

 

 

Bay of Panama 





We picked up a buoy outside the Balboa Yacht Club and celebrated our arrival into the Pacific with a bottle of bubbly, courtesy of Trevor & Jo. As it was a Bank Holiday, the yacht club was closed which was a bit of an anticlimax but we were here safely without any mishaps so all was well.




Trevor & Jo left us the following morning to go shopping and we untied with PK and headed off for the Island of Taboga. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of wind so we spent the few days PK had left trying to get in some sailing in the Bay.


We decided against motoring to the Perla islands as we would undoubtedly have had to motor all the way back again !! 


PK treated us to a lovely lunch at the Vereda Tropical Hotel in Taboga but, sadly, it was all too soon that we had to get back to Panama City and wave goodbye to him.




Monty seemed especially sad as he had got used to his big friend sitting in the cockpit with him every morning and he spent the first 48 hours looking around for him everywhere expecting him to materialise.

 

It was time to get down to business and get El Vagabond ready for the Pacific. Roger had been promising himself a new Autohelm Drive for nearly 5 years so we finally bit the bullet and had one fitted. The Guys at Protecsa did a great job squeezing it in but now we need to rebuild all the struts under our bunk !!! Our fridge has also been re-gassed and we now have all the equipment so that we can do it ourselves next time. Our last expense was a new dinghy with a bigger outboard……. At last, we hear you cry !! Yes, we have realised that our lovely little Walker Bay may not be quite sturdy enough for the next stage of our voyage so we have upgraded to a Caribe and a 15Hp motor.....Wow !!! 

 

Hopefully, all will be finished by Friday 27th when we intend to leave here for the Galapagos Islands………