Trials at sea and ashore: sailing from Colombia to Panama


Gentle ripples stream in the wake of an ulu as a lone paddler sets out in the gray light of early morning. By the time the sun has inched above the horizon, a dozen more dugout canoes have joined this one to fish the reef off Anachucuna village. Meandering to pass near Totem, fishermen offer a smile and greeting. By the time it’s light enough to see woodsmoke from kitchen fires hanging in a layer over thatched homes and to hear intermittent braying from a donkey on shore, the day is in full swing. Placid water and friendly faces are just what we need on our first morning in Panama after a trying series of hops from Colombia.

Departing Santa Marta on the 24th, Jamie steered downwind through challenging seas and wind from 25 gusting to 40 knots when a loud POP proclaimed a break in the steering cable. Steering from the helm was gone, but the autopilot still did the job. This a point we knew well from Seychelles in 2015: another cruising boat boat made much of steering failure drama, refusing to believe what Jamie told them – that they could probably still steer with autopilot.

Square‐faced breaking seas of 3 to 5 meters required steering, and what followed was an autopilot‐ driven trial shared by Niall and Jamie for nearly eight hours. “Plus ten degrees, plus ten degrees… minus 20, now!” Steering poorly meant a possible round‐up, not a good thing in these conditions. Steering well meant working the autopilot hard, risking gear failure. As a backup, Totem’s emergency tiller was in place as soon as steerage was in hand with the autopilot. We have a big rudder, so driving Totem by emergency tiller in those conditions would be like steering a loaded dump‐truck with the steering wheel removed. This was not a boring day!

The cause was a failed link in the chain portion of the steering cable. To enable repairs, we anchored that evening near Barranquilla: the same Barranquilla where three nights later a series of police station bombings began, killing at least five and injuring more than 40. Feverishly working to put a repair in place (Dyneema to the rescue again!), Jamie was interrupted by the arrival of marine police and a firm but friendly boarding. What followed was the most thorough search we’ve ever had, at least until the officer seemed to get bored; but meanwhile, most lockers were opened,even some headliner removed to peer into potential hiding spaces. Upon learning Mairen was 15, once officer lit up, exclaiming “Quinceañera!” (Latin American ritual celebrating female fifteenth birthdays, traditionally a presentation of her transition from child to woman) and with simple words and gestures, suggested he should be her boyfriend. The police vessel departure was a relief, but sleep did not come easily as every sound made me question the possibility of unwelcome visitors.

Day two saw the fix in place holding well. Again steep seas chased Totem to the southwest, but they abated by midday as we sailed in progressively sheltered waters. We heard from friends back in Santa Marta that we’d gotten out just in time, as 40 knot winds again blew just outside the marina! Our original plan had been to carry through overnight to Panama, but exhaustion from the prior day’s effort took a toll. The easy decision was turning into Cartagena’s Boca Chica, and anchoring overnight behind the stone fortifications of the 18th century Fort San Fernando to evaluate the steering repair and get a good nights’ sleep.

The following morning we felt sufficiently rested to continue overnight for the remaining 150 nautical miles. Our destination: Puerto Obaldia, a Panamanian pueblo just over the border from Colombia. Windspeed drops further in the lee of Colombia, although seas were still sloppy; eventually we fired up Totem’s Yanmar to make more comfortable and timely progress. It was important to arrive no later than mid‐morning, as advance information suggested that Puerto Obaldia’s exposure to swell made the anchorage difficult, and unsafe overnight. Clearance can take several hours, and departure by 2pm was necessary to reach the tranquil protection of Puerto Perme with decent light.

Our conditions in the anchorage were nearly untenable. The swell rolled in, waves stacked short and steep; Totem was hooked well enough but pitching uncomfortably. No conditions for launching the dinghy from our bow, much less successfully dropping the outboard on the back; instead I shuttled in with Utopia II, their dinghy more readily dropped from davits with a lightweight outboard.

All reports indicated the entire crew must go ashore here. We could not imagine leaving the boat unattended in these conditions: it was simply too dangerous. The police were our first line of clearance: without pleading the case too hard, I pointed out the plain truth of this problem. Thankfully officials allowed a single representative to complete clearance on behalf of our crews on Totem and Utopia II.

It’s a good thing we arrived around 8:00 in the morning, as it literally took right up until our self‐ imposed 2pm deadline to complete clearance and still reach a safe anchorage with daylight. There are three officials processing entry in Puerto Obaldia: military police, immigration, and port captain. At each step is a ponderous analog process of varying durations while details for the boat and crew are handwritten in a register or multi‐part forms (there were seven layers to the port captain’s). Had the process run smoothly, it would have taken between two and three hours. It took us about six. The snag: while waiting for Migracion to receive our visa registration number from some central authority, the internet connection went down. No registration number, no clearance. Andrew or I would periodically walk from the officina to where we could see the boats in the anchorage, and my stomach lurched right along with our vessels watching them buck in the waves.

Noon. No reply from Panama City, and now everything is closed for lunch. Andrew and I got lunch in the small restaurant across from Migracion. Soup, fried fish, plantain, rice, onion/tomato salad: four dollars of deliciousness! The proprietress locked up and left before we were finished, unconcerned that we hadn’t paid. I guess in a town with no roads out, she figured she’d catch up with us (we paid someone, who made our $2 change with the Migracion officers, and presumably later paid her).

We ticked closer to 2pm, and caught a break. The officials were humans first and bureaucrats second. They knew we needed to move; they didn’t have central approval. It was Saturday afternoon, and unlikely to come before Monday. So they gave us our passport stamps, exacting the promise that we’d follow up at the next available port with a Migracion office for the missing registration numbers. Gratefully we headed out to anchor in Puerto Perme, the placid anchorage from which to begin adventures in Panama’s semi‐independent indigenous province of Guna Yala.

Totem is in the disconnected eastern reaches of Guna Yala! This post is sent through a satellite connection. Pictures to follow when internet allows.

 

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10 Responses to Trials at sea and ashore: sailing from Colombia to Panama

  1. Brooke January 31, 2018 at 7:48 am #

    Wow, what a sail! So glad you guys are okay and that you had the experience and know how to know what to do and how to fix it. Hope y’all are enjoying Panama so far and catching up on some probably much-needed rest!!

  2. Mike on Galactic January 31, 2018 at 5:50 pm #

    Fun to see you guys in places we were at a year ago. And I’m reminded of asking you about southern Africa when we were a year behind you there! Too bad we didn’t overlap more!

    • Behan February 12, 2018 at 11:16 am #

      I wish we’d overlapped more too. We might have to sail to Alaska. 😉

  3. PG out of Kirribilli January 31, 2018 at 7:51 pm #

    A masterful depiction of how nerve-wracking clearance can be, even when you plan for difficulties and give yourself plenty of time. Why can’t there just be an app.

  4. Patrick January 31, 2018 at 9:40 pm #

    How did Jamie connect the Dyneema into a chain loop such that it would travel over the gear cogs smoothly? I probably would have used a few wraps of seizing wire (thicker kind I use for anchor shackle seizings). But knowing Jamie’s skill with Dyneema his solution was probably more elegant.

  5. Curtis Prince February 1, 2018 at 12:21 pm #

    Glad all is well! Tough trip, but wishfully smooth sailing ahead, and super fun when Nica and family get there. Peace ~ Curtis

  6. Josh February 1, 2018 at 10:45 pm #

    Sounds like a rough go. Given that I just finished reading the Pardey’s Storm Tactics Handbook, I’m sure that for the next few weeks, to me, all challenges at sea will look like they deserve a good heaving to. With that in mind, it makes me wonder why you guys didn’t heave to, either when your steering went out, or when you were assisting Utopia when they had their steering issues. Or perhaps you did, but I just missed it in your accounting of events. I’ve done plenty of steering-by autopilot in fair weather, but it sounded none-too-pleasant in the conditions you described. Well done!

  7. Jacquelyn Harris February 6, 2018 at 12:21 pm #

    Wow! I love reading your updates and I’m glad you guys made it safely!! Isn’t it wild how something as small as a chain link can really ruin your day? I was fishing off the Oregon coast in some nasty 15-20 ft seas, and we had a large bag (about 15k lbs) of Petrale right at the stern ramp when the chain on the net reel broke, and the net free spooled all the way back out. Luckily my instinct was to jump back as I was running the net reel, and the chain whipped around and gouged a chunk out of the deck board… just one damn link… I look forward to the next chapter of your adventures and I just got your book to start reading! Cheers!

    • Behan February 12, 2018 at 11:13 am #

      YIKES Jacquelyn glad the deck board was the only thing that was gouged. One damn link is right!!!

  8. Mike L February 9, 2018 at 6:34 am #

    Sounds so fun man! At least it is warm.

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