On the 8th of May, Exodus entered the bay of Portobelo. Our Navionics sea chart alerted us to the presence of a powder magazine, an iron castle, Fort San Fernando, Fort San Jeronimo and Fort Triana (ruins), all reminiscent of its rich history. Not all these landmarks were easy to spot, except for the remains of three forts that greeted us as we entered the wide bay.
Several shipwrecks against the scenic backdrop of rolling hills and lush green vegetation completed the picture. Some of the shipwrecks are submerged and marked by buoys, others have parts protruding. Some are only aspiring to the state of wreck lying stranded on a sandbank, weathered down by wind, sun, sea, rain. All are relics of a not so distant past, faint memories of busier days.
Up to 2 years ago, Portobelo was an important stop for cruisers. Along came Linton Bay marina, around the corner, boasting brand new facilities and filled a gap for those that prefer the vicinity of marinas and its amenities. The amount of passing yachts seriously thinned out in Portobelo, only the battered long term resident yachts remained, accompanied by some Colombian fishing vessels. Or the type of cruisers that are happier in a genuine, more local place, like Exodus…
Portobelo was baptized such by Columbus on his second visit to the new world. Tale has it, it is named after a Portuguese nobleman San Felipe de Portobelo. Or maybe it just means beautiful harbour, which we found more suiting, as it must have looked picture perfect in its heydays.
After its discovery by Columbus (1502) and a break of 90 years it became part of the Spanish main. Portobelo was a crucial town in the Spanish main, due to its strategic location as a convenient stopover for the Spanish treasure fleet that carried silver out of Peru. It offered a safe harbour for the Armada and trading vessels, with access to Panama City (they even built a stone paved road). But more importantly, it served as treasury for the mule train. From the 16th to the 18th century all the captured gold of the Inca, Maya, Toltec, Aztec and other precolombian civilisations was stored in this small town, carted out onto big galleons and transported to Spain.
With all that treasure around, the place was irresistible to pirates and opponents. Important names associated with Portobelo are the following:
- Sir Francis Drake liked to pester and bully the ‘innocent’ Spaniards with his dragoons. All in name of the Queen. He died an untimely dead, most likely dysentery killed him, in the bay in 1597. His lead casket was discovered a decade ago by a diver.
- Privateer William Parker captured the city in 1601.
- Henry Morgan ransacked the place in 1668. He only had 450 crazy pirates with him. They made ladders wide enough to carry 3 men next to each other to scale the walls of the fortifications. They stripped the town of all that was worth taking: richesses, goods, lifestock, booze, women’s virtue, lives and then went on with business as usual…
- 12 years later John Coxon took it.
- In 1688 English pirate Bartholomew Sharp teamed up with frog buccaneer La Sound to pay the jewel in the Spanish crown a visit.
- In 1739, the British admiral Edward Vernon, made his name and fame by capturing the beautiful port. Instant VIP status and praise for him, especially since the British fleet ate dirt at the hand of the portobelans a mere 13 years before and were aching for a success story. Two years later, Vernon was defeated during the battle of Cartagena de Indias (in present day Colombia, the next stop for Exodus), and forced to return to England with a decimated fleet, having suffered a staggering 18000 casualties! The pictures above were taken in front of the big fort of Carthagena. The British were that sure of their victory they made plaques and coins in advance… Very unwise, given how history turned out…
As you can deduce, the Spanish did not sit around idly and planned to build some serious fortifications from the moment they set up shop, no doubt spurring more unwanted attention. From 1600 till 1753, 10 fortifications were built at two major sites (now world heritage sites). Fort San Felipe was built first at the entrance to the harbor and was fortified with 35 canons. Fort San Jeronimo was built on the eastern part, and Fort Santiago de la Gloria, on the western part of the bay. These forts were built with coral stones walls, which are as strong as granite.
Today, the following remnants can be found (although it wasn’t always clear which was which).
The San Fernando fortifications including a Lower Battery, Upper Battery and Hilltop Stronghold.
San Jerónimo Battery Fort
The Santiago fortifications include:
- Castle of Santiago de la Gloria, Battery and Hilltop Stronghold
- Old Santiago Fortress
- Ruins of Fort Farnese (“Fort Iron”)
- La Trinchera site
- Buenaventura Battery
- San Cristóbal site
This made Portobelo port the most heavily fortified Spanish coastal control point in the Americas. Many of the fortifications were attacked and crumbled to heaps of rubble, as you can see on some of the pictures. Only the fortifications built in 1753 have survived in good condition, as Admiral Vernon bypassed Portobelo during the last battle. They now serve as popular hang outs for the ever present black turkey vultures.
Howl at the moon
The vegetation in Portobelo was slightly different and less dense than the jungle we got used to in the Bocas del Toro province. Mangoes, papajas, bananas and avocados thrive in portobelo. You could easily collect a week’s worth of fruit during any hike in the bay.
But what made it really unique, was waking up or winding down after a busy day to the sound of the howler monkeys. These are the biggest and loudest monkeys in the Americas. They travel in communities of 15 to 35 individuals. What first sounds like a dog barking to alarm his neighbours with all the neighbouring dogs falling in, soon snowballs into a full mexican wave of howling monkeys resounding over the entire bay. Pretty impressive to hear, but quite impossible to record with a simple Samsung smartphone. Numerous attempts were taken by your writer, feeling increasingly silly getting up at dawn and running from bow to stern trying to reflect some of the sound intensity. Now we know first hand why tv sound technicians walk around with these massive furry microphones on extendable poles!
In Linton Bay, we repeated the exercise, with slightly more success:
Last post left you in Bocas del Toro. We had the kids and Winnie’s mom over for the easter holidays. We visited Saigon Bay, Dolphin Bay and Bahia Honda. When they left we had about 2 weeks to gear up for our departure. Louis and Marna joined us for the sail down from Bocas to Portobelo. We were escorted out of Crawl Cay by dolphins and saw some more at night. The conditions were unfavourable to sail up the Chagres river, so we had to reserve a visit for another time. Likewise, the entrance of the Panama Canal looked really busy so instead of going to Colon we sailed on to more pleasant and solitary islands and headed straight for Portobelo. Some of us (no names mentioned) clearly were out of practise, sailing wise, and ended up ‘feeding the fish’ for a fair part of the journey. And she continued with her altruistic efforts for a fair part of the sail to Carthagena…
We spent about 2 weeks in Portobelo, preparing our departure from Panama and sorting out Arthur’s Colombian visa in Panama City. We used the famous ‘diabolos rojos’ a few times. These customised and personalised old school buses provide local transport in far out places and guarantee an authentic experience!
From Portobelo, we picked up an extra crew member, Lauren from Bretagne. We stopped in Linton Bay to get some fuel and then set sail to Carthagena.
The wind was predicted from the east, blowing straight from our desired destination. That implied Exodus had to sail upwind. As predicted, we had 3days and a bit of hard upwind sailing, doing long tacks, to get to Carthagena.
In Panama, the rainy season had clearly started, filling bucket after bucket of rain. During our sail, we were not so much bothered by rain, but there were lots and lots of squalls all around us.
The further away we got from the land, the hotter and drier it seemed. On our second day, when the wind was blowing softly, we decided to take a refreshing swim in the middle of the ocean. Winnie and Gitane went first and immediately realised that Exodus was moving faster than expected. An ideal solution lay in tying a lenght of rope off the stern with some knots making it easy to hold on. There we were, sailing far off the continental shell, hanging onto our rope, staring at the deep purple water, wondering if anything would swim up from 2km below and nibble our toes…
About 5 miles out of the mouth of Carthagena, with victory in sight, a sudden fierce squall caught up with us and tried to keel over unexpecting Exodus. Just like ‘snakes and ladders’, we were sent back a few steps (miles, in our case), 3 people jumping around in torrential rain trying to reduce the genoa and furl her. We arrived in Carthagena soaking wet.
Stitch and stitch
In Portobelo we noticed the stitching of the sprayhood had disintegrated. We got out the sewing machine and restitched it to the best of our abilities.
Once this was done, the fabric of our trusted kayak ripped on us, and we hand-stitched it. Meanwhile we discovered the zipperfeet had completely corroded. Of the 4, only 1 could be salvaged. This meant one zipper had to be hand-stitched closed with dental floss until we could get another weather proof, heavy duty zipper. That type of zipper was found, and mounted (with a lot of effort) in Carthagena.
Our next post will be on Colombia, but might take a while before it gets posted as we now have a full boat. In the interim, the kids will be posting updates (in flemish) so you can have an idea of what we are up to.