January 26 – 30, 2013
Passage planning for our crossing from Jamaica to the San Blas Islands of Panama was the most difficult for us to date. At this time of the year, there is a stationary low pressure system that sits down in the Colombian basin of the Caribbean Sea. This weather low constantly flares up creating gale force winds and big seas throughout the area. We had heard stories from those who had gone before us, and we knew this was not an area to be reckoned with.
During our entire stay in Jamaica, I studied marine forecasts daily, pouring over weather charts, grib files, and reports. If we missed even one opportunity to make the crossing, we could possibly end up sitting in Jamaica for up to 6 weeks! Not such a bad idea for some people, but we were ready to get rolling.
Up until this point, we had been doing our own weather routing. However, this time I wanted the comfort of a professional, so I signed on with Herb of South Bound II. Via marine HF/USB radio, Herb provides a free weather routing service for vessels on the high seas.
After days of weather watching, a 4-day weather window came up, but it was iffy. There wasn’t much time for seas to subside from previous high winds, and it was possible the window could close while we were out there. We decided on Plans A, B and C.
Plan A was a route directly to Porvenir in the San Blas Islands, with a curve slightly west to avoid the stronger winds. Just in case we would get most of the way to the San Blas, but couldn’t squeeze past stronger winds, Plan B was a route to Portobello,Panama.
Plan C was the route that I was 95% sure we would end up taking. It was quite probable that we could be about 2 days out when the low pressure system would flare up again. We would monitor the weather as we went, and if it didn’t look good, then we would alter course for Providencia, a small Colombian island about 125 miles off the coast of Nicaragua.
We departed Jamaica at about 0130 hours on a Saturday morning. Our departure was supposed to be the day before, but everything we attempted to do that day took 2-3 times longer than expected. After a 3 hour nap, and waiting for a rain squall to pass, we hoisted the mainsail and the anchor and sailed out of Port Antonio. I guess we could say that at least we didn’t start the passage on a Friday!
As we pulled away from Jamaica, I had the first watch. It was a beautiful, starry night with a bright moon, and I could make out the outline of the Jamaican mountains. As we neared the eastern end of the island, I started noticing lights from other boats on the horizon. I was guessing that they were fishing boats, since there was a bank that extended out in that direction.
The lights gradually grew brighter as we sailed closer. I was expecting to see more lights from each boat on what I thought would be larger fishing vessels. Eventually, more lights appeared, but it wasn’t from the size of the boats. There were a growing number of boats. The lights would also disappear below the waves, and reappear as they lifted up again. I was so confused about what I was seeing, and even the binoculars didn’t help. Suddenly, just off our starboard bow, what I thought was a larger vessel in the distance, turned out to be a small fishing panga with a single white light. As the panga passed by, I could see 2 people in the small boat. As far as I was concerned, I’d almost run over them!
It was like a city of small fishing pangas about 5 miles off the coast. Once I realized what I was seeing, I was able to safely navigate between the tiny vessels. For the time of night, I was amazed at how far offshore these small boats were, and with only one small white light.
Over the next 2 days, we progressed on our planned south to southwesterly direction. Eventually, we arrived at decision time. Providencia orPanama? We were in luck, the weather was continuing to hold in our favor. Panama, it was!
About the same time we made the decision to stay on course for Panama, Colin came down with an extremely sore throat and low grade fever. The presentation of symptoms led me to believe he possibly had strep throat. After a few emails back and forth with my dad (a retired ER doc), we decided it was time to bring out the antibiotics. Since we were at least 2 days away from the nearest medical help, we needed to ere on the side of caution. We also decided to aim for the more populated Portobello which was also on the mainland, rather than Porvenir in the San Blas Islands.
The following morning, Colin’s throat was miraculously a lot better. It was still red and irritated, but his fever was gone. He was also back to his normal, bouncy self. Our course plan switched back to Porvenir. That is until . . .
It was during the wee hours of the morning when we were making our approach to the San Blas Islands. A couple of cruisers on the Magellan Net had given us waypoints for anchoring in the lee of the Chichime Cays. The approach was simple and straightforward, and we wouldn’t have to heave to in the large swell for the rest of the night.
Our senses were alive as we felt our way up to the island of Chichime. The night was dark and hazy, and as we came within a mile of the cay, we were surprised to find that the only lights we were seeing were anchor lights atop many masts. There were no lights from the islands themselves.
Amidst the darkness, we could also hear the sound of pounding surf nearby. We could hear it, but we couldn’t see it! However, we could already make out the shapes of other sailboats anchored just ahead of us, so we knew we had reached our destination.
The new light of the morning would bring us new perspective on our surroundings.