Take part in the first Bocas Regatta:
On the 5th of February 2019 Exodus arrived trimmed, prepped, unburdened by all her annexes (dinghy, diveboat, kayak) at the start line of the very first cruising yacht Regatta in Bocas del Toro. And also the first regatta in Panama. The event was set up by Colin, a New Zealander, on a hurricane-damaged cat called Parlay Revival. Starting positions were accorded on the basis of supposed handicaps, giving the slower designed boats a head start. Exodus was number 13 out of 32. On board was captain Arthur, master sail trimmer Douglas, rope puller Winnie, usher Gitane and supporter Suun Li. As opposed to our opponents we did not go and practice the 2 laps of the triangular track we were supposed to sail. We got Doug and Suun Li on board an hour before our kick-off to hoist and lower sails to get the hang of things.
Exodus started off with little wind mainly from the back. Only after passing the first buoy she got sharper to the wind, to our great advantage as Exodus just loves the sharp edge of things. From then on the fun and games really started and Exodus started overtaking all the predecessors. The crew on other boats seemed to be lazing around whereas Exodus was a hub of activity. The captain was at the helm at the most crucial times (rounding a buoy in between a bunch of boats that all have the same idea and having to choose between running your keel over the shallow reefs or being sandwiched and having you wind cut off was best left in his hands) and Doug unrelentlessly gave instructions to trim sails. We steered, tacked, trimmed and passed one boat after the other. Doug remarked to the captain it is a good thing neither of them are competitive.
We got through the first lap unscathed, even though we had a few close calls with boats not respecting the rules. Especially each buoy we had to round, tended to be a cluster fuck. And to make it more exciting, in the second lap the multihulls were starting to catch up and taking up a lot of sailable space. To make a long story short, Exodus was cooking and sailing neck on neck with a bunch of ketches (who have lots more sails out than us), leaving one after the other behind. As we were on our last tack to the finish and busy overtaking ‘cirque’ (who won the race) the top loop on the genoa came loose… We limped in over the finish what seemed to be an eternity later… But we all had great fun!
Get adopted by the locals in Blue Fields:
Bahia Azul or Blue Fields is the area where the mainland sticks out a landfinger to create a bay. This offers great protection against the wind and chop and makes an absolutely peaceful anchorage. It is a scenic environment, with overgrown rocks, only a few local houses and even some pasture lands on the hills. Bluefields derives its name from the Dutch pirate Abraham Blauvelt who found a safe haven in this place in the 1600s. Yet, this is not the only spot on the Caribbean/ Atlantic coast that carries his name. He set up settlements in several remote areas (Nicaragua, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, just to name a few), that still bear his name today. A point of attraction is Tiger rock, the so called best dive spot in Bocas, as it has a pinnacle coming up from 35m and attracts lots of big and small fish and plenty of sharks. Unfortunately, the weather conditions did not allow exploration. We went on a few snorkel expeditions in and outside of the bay. Inside the bay we found at least 3 good snorkel spots, some with long stretches of shallow reef filled with life. The big thing about snorkeling in the bay, was that it was so peaceful, a stark difference to Isla Colon and Solarte where lunatic watertaxidrivers speed around. In Bahia Azul, in comparison, the local pangas move at the speed of a sloth. Supposedly the remoteness of the area makes them more wary of fuel consumption, and nobody is silly enough to waste money and fuel on showing off. Moreover, the local pangas approach with the greatest care as soon as they see your boat, suspecting that if there are no people on the boat they should be somewhere in the water around it. While exploring the bay, we met some members of the Dounca family, who invited us to Punta Allegre, where the whole family lives and has a small grocery shop. Grandmother Aurora (who has Jamaican roots) welcomed us in English. We went for a visit to their finca/ farm where they have a waterfall with monkeys and sloths. The ride alone on our dive boat and the walk through the jungle was worth it. Gitane nearly walked out with a baby fresh water turtle as a present. Another nice thing was that Exodus got visited frequently by the locals who would paddle out in their dugout canoe to sell us bananas, fish or swap for old clothes. Most of them came out of curiosity (they are not connected to the grid, only a few houses have a generator), in want of some conversation. A returning question was for books in Spanish or English.
Navigating crawl cay without sonar :
The Bocas archipelago boasts several islands and islets, an ideal cruising ground. However, for those who go sailing around it helps to get the Bauhaus book ‘ Cruising guide to Panama’ which has the completest set of maps with depth soundings to help you navigate without running aground on one of the numerous undeep coral reefs and expanding mangrove islets. You’ll need this book as the other marine maps lack the necessary detail. If you have a deep keel (like Exodus) you also need a sonar that works. While we were doing some of our exploration, the sonar decided to pack up, limiting our movements to what was deep enough according to Bauhaus and having spotters at the bow for any protruding coral heads, sunken pangas, or lost washing machines. After visiting the Zapatillas we would have to sail back the way we came as the short-cut through crawl cay just did not seem feasible without depth sonar. Luckily we ran into Alex and Thomas on Patchwork who agreed to take us in tow. Patchwork went ahead of us and called through the depth sounding over the VHF radio, steering us without a problem through the shallow parts. No pictures are made of the occasion as the handheld VHF doesn’t work and the photographer was forced below deck relaying VHF messages.
Lounge at Skullies and see a real life pirate:
Skullies is a rock and lounge bar and hostel at the beach that has a pirate theme. It is a good place to hang out and meet some locals and expat families. One of the staff is also a good example of how to make your handicap into the best business promotional concept. He lost his leg and now goes through life dressed and behaving like a real pirate. Definitely adding to the scenery.
Shoot a fish:
Part of our routine is going out in the weekend and shooting a fish. It is commonly heard that the whole area is overfished, yet that has not been our experience. We have dived in several spots and keep noticing how plentifull and diverse the marine life is. It is true, however that the abundant flow of fish is very tide dependent. It is not easy to figure out the exact dynamic with the water flowing in the channels between the islands, but we have noticed massive differences from having only reef fish around to having schools of Sero, Spanish mackerel, big barracuda and some tuna. Shooting predator fish around here is no easy feat as conditions are ever changing, and very often visibility is very poor, making them very skittish. But, if you want to shoot predator fish you have to think like a predator. And clearly our predator is getting the hang of it…
So far, after 9 months here, we have taken a specific liking to this special place. We have all the things we need right on our doorstep. If you want to socialize or go out, there are plenty of bars and party places to go to. Looking for a deserted island, a quick get-away? There are quite a few of those around and it takes only a 6 mile sail to be outside of cellphone reach. For keen snorkelers or divers, there is an amazing biodiversity in the whole archipelago, all in relative shallow areas. Those who like walking in nature, can have their fill in any of the jungle pieces and be stunned at the plant and animal life per square centimeter. The rain water is clean, most people and businesses in Bocas del Toro rely on the frequent rains for drinking water. Panamanians are a kind, easy going folk that have no interest in bullying their visitors. Police is present but is polite, friendly and pleasant at any time. Authorities don’t bother you with petty rules and attempting to control every move you make. In other words, Panama is a great place to be.