Thunderstorms on the way to Panama

After waiting for better weather conditions for another week in Bonaire we were keen to get going and decided to set sail to Panama. None of us have ever been in Central America before and we were excited to see something new. We said bye to our friends, enjoyed one last meal at a restaurant (the largest pizzas we’ve ever eaten) and prepared the boat for the 750 nautical miles downwind sail to Panama.

Leaving Bonaire after filling up on diesel and water

Our weather window appeared to be as good as it gets with constant 15-20 knots or winds pushing us towards our destination. Unfortunately there was no way around the wide windless area stretching between Panama and Western Columbia. We prepared ourself with a lot of food and diesel so we can run the engine for 3-4 days.

Otherwise being a very smooth downwind sail, we had to be extra alert at night when thunderstorms built up and approached us. Every night we would see the sky light up by squalls far behind the horizon. Due to the cloud coverage we could often not see much during the pitch black nights, leaving our eyes blind to large squalls creeping up behind us. Luckily we could rely on our radar to help us identify clouds that might contain rain or lightning early enough to make a run for it. And so we did several times a night.

First terrified of the possibility of being hit by lightning, we soon learned to react in time and to slalom our way through the dark clouds spitting bright strikes of lightning. It’s slightly uncomforting to know that you’re the only tall metallic pole floating on a large body of water, potentially even drenched in rain. Apparently it’s not uncommon for boats to be struck by lightning. Other sailors‘ stories of ships losing their electronic systems, batteries or, even worse, catch fire were stuck in our heads when we tried to outrun yet another squall. If we weren’t sure if we can successfully dodge it, we put all our important electronic devices in the oven, wrote down our GPS position and listened to the rumbling noises surrounding the boat hoping not to get hit. Luckily being vigilant and keeping an eye on the radar during night watches helped us to never get too close.

If our electronics would have been fried, we could have fallen back on Max’s newly acquired celestial navigation skills. As long as the sky was not covered by clouds, he practiced his noon sightings and calculated our position almost accurately. Well, at least we would have made it back to land eventually.

Max practicing his noon sightings

Surprisingly we only had to run the engine for the last day since we entered the infamous windless area covering the Caribbean coast of Panama this time of the year. Flat seas and not much current against us made the motoring not nearly as bad as expected. Only the noise, diesel smell and heat coming from the engine room didn’t let us sleep as good as the refreshing, quiet breeze we were used to.

Daniel hand steering at sunrise on our last day at sea

It was all good until our ancient autopilot, Robert, decided to stop working again. To be exact it’s the old remote that has been installed on the boat since the 90s and badly corroded over time. Not only does the autopilot suddenly turn off without any notice but also randomly spins the boat 180° around. Usually it takes a few hours for Robert to recover before he is willing to get back to work, leaving us to hand steer Porky for hours at a time.

Trying to clean and fix our autopilot remote control

Soon after sunrise of the sixth day at sea the mountain range of Panama appeared at the horizon and we had land in sight. The closer we got to land we could see the lush green vegetation, even though the weather was overcast. We anchored in Linton Bay, East of Colòn, where we were able to clear in, have a drink at the marina bar and walked through the nearby fishing town of Puerto Lindo. Children, dogs, chickens and pigs were playing in the alleys, fishermen came and went, and groups of adults sat on the streets sharing food and conversations. Taking in the new surrounding made us realize that we have just sailed to a new country, a new culture and totally different environment than we have ever seen before. Now it’s time to explore…

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