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Passage to Panama



"The eastern Guna Yala territory is poorly charted so you cannot just turn up and expect to navigate using your chart plotter or Navionics charts..."


Tupbak or Whale Island

Happy New Year from Guna Yala territory in Panama. 


Our environment has been transformed; from the frenetic powerboat rush of pulsing Cartagena to being the only boat in the pristine anchorage. With the palm tree covered island on one side and the jungle covered misty mountains on the other, it’s a very tranquil and beautiful place.


In Cartagena we took the opportunity of getting a lot of boat related things done. We had two major costs. One planned, one unplanned (as is always the way.) The big planned cost was our life raft inspection. This was already almost a year out of date and we knew we had to bite the bullet. It costs so much because of the meticulous checking that has to be done of every seam and element as well as the replacement of the perishables that are contained in the liferaft, such as emergency flares. This will be the last check we do of this liferaft as in three years time it will be eighteen years old and time to buy a new one, which is not that much more expensive than having it serviced! 


The unplanned cost was replacing our outboard engine. We had already been having problems with it flooding last year and had discovered that it had a crack in the carburettor. We ordered a new carburettor, but were not confident it was going to arrive before we wanted to leave and we weren’t entirely sure if that would fix the problem as we were also missing another part we hadn’t been able to source. Honda parts are never available in the Caribbean and we were told by a mechanic that they are harder to repair than other brands. We looked at the prices of a new outboard in Colombia and it was actually cheaper than what we had paid for our outboard in the UK. So we now have a Suzuki 2.5 horsepower outboard. We will keep the Honda as a spare. Outboard engines do often have problems due to their continued exposure in the salt water environment, so this is not a bad thing to have.


We choose to have a very low powered outboard compared to most cruisers who have 15 or 20 HP outboards. This is partly because it is much cheaper, both the cost of the outboard itself, but also you are using less fuel. Also it is safer to go at a slower speed as we are often in areas where there are swimmers around anchorages. At high speed the top of the dinghy lifts, reducing your visibility. However, there is a clear advantage to having a high speed outboard beyond the obvious of getting to your destination more quickly, which suddenly dawned on us as we left Cartagena.


We got some other lower cost boat things sorted too - new cables swaged, the new headsail halyard spliced by a rigger, a new flush unit for our stern heads which has stopped working (luckily we have two), and our navigation lights fixed.


We knew we were heading first for the remote Guna Yala territory so we decided to provision well in Colombia which is much cheaper than anywhere else we would be going. We filled the boat up with food, got our laundry done just before we left and also got dollars - there were to be no ATMs where we were going and we had to pay US$200 for a cruising permit on clearance into Panama.


The passage had to be very well planned. The eastern Guna Yala territory is poorly charted so you cannot just turn up and expect to navigate using your chart plotter or Navionics charts. The bible for this area is The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus, who has extensively cruised and charted the area. 


We knew we had to be extremely careful and use the charts and waypoints in his book, cross referenced with a close eye on the latitude and longitude GPS readings on the chart plotter, daylight only sailing and the depth sounder. What we could not do, is look at the electronic charts and think that that was reality and certainly the depths here are completely different to those on the electronic charts.


Only on the first of December a sailing boat was wrecked on a reef off Porvenir, one of the most visited islands. The lone sailor had to be lifted off by the navy as he broke his ribs so couldn’t even move and the boat was completely wrecked. This event so close to our departure made us even more nervous.


So how do we know when we can’t rely on electronic charts? I first read about the Bauhaus book back in Curação, reading the blog of our friends Mike and Nicki on Zen Again, who had done the same passage last year. It’s a very expensive book - US$45, but not compared to the price of your boat!


Since then, we have been repeatedly told by sailors we have met in Colombia. We are also members of the cruising Whatsapp and Facebook groups for each different area we sail in. These are essential for finding out this kind of information. It is very easy to get complacent after you have been sailing for a while, especially in a relatively benign cruising area like the Caribbean, but you have to keep your ear to the ground and stay vigilant.


With preparations complete and a podcast recording with a Brazilian flautist who is driving around the American continents (coming soon), we departed Cartagena in the early evening. 


As we motored down the channel, still in the vast Cartagena Bay, our engine overheating alarm suddenly went off. We switched it off - luckily it is a wide channel - and drifted along with a bit of headsail out, although there was hardly any breeze inside the bay. We saw that the water filter had some mollusc shell and cleaned it out. With the engine cooled a bit, it started again fine and we decided that if it happened again by the time we reached the entrance to the bay then we would turn back. 


At this point we realised that this is where a high powered outboard engine could come in handy. We knew there was little wind in the basin where we were to enter Panama. If the engine failed and we had no wind, the boat would be adrift and could go aground on the reefs. If you have a high powered outboard engine, you can at least tow your boat using your dinghy.


When we got to the entrance of the bay the engine was still holding up and there was wind, so we decided to continue. The engine was switched off and the sails came up. We got the hydrovane operating and had a great sail all through the night with moderate winds.


In the morning the wind died completely so we switched on the engine. We wanted to reach the check in point in the early part of the day as it is not a secure overnight anchorage, so we would have to clear in and then travel to the next anchorage all in daytime so we could see the reefs as we entered.


The engine lasted for three hours before the overheating alarm went off again. We were in deep water. Once again the water filter had debris in it. We strongly suspected that there was a partial blockage in the sea cock where the intake for the sea water to cool the engine comes in which was reducing the flow of water.


Again, we let it cool down, restarted it and kept it on low revs. Eventually the wind picked up enough to sail again. We had some nice squalls with some welcome rain to wash the Cartagena smog from the decks. Dolphins jumped and swam alongside at times.



Changing the flags

We cleared in at Obaldia, the first check in point in Eastern Panama and headed on to an anchorage for the night. On the way the engine overheated again. We tried to poke through the seacock to push out any blockage but there is a grid on the bottom so we couldn’t push through, but we scraped around with the spare steering cable, restarted the engine and luckily it didn’t happen again until we got safely into our anchorage in Carreto.



Clearing in at Obaldia


The anchorage at Carreto, on the mainland

We’d chosen an anchorage that was slightly more open due to our engine troubles and when we arrived it was beautiful and calm. We could see the Guna huts and the lush vegetation. In the early hours of the morning, a swell came in and we were rocking uncomfortably, unable to sleep. We left early for our next destination - Isla Pinos, or Tupbak in the Guna language, which means whale, due to the shape of the island.


We made it in safely. We are the only boat here and it is gorgeous. We were welcomed by one of the sailas (chiefs) who paddled out to invite us to the congreso - a village congregation and charged us for anchoring. More on that next week.


Now that we’re in a calm and quiet anchorage we’ve given the seacock a good clean underneath. Not only is the water murky in Cartagena, but it is also dangerous to go in the water due to large numbers of powerboats that pass extremely close to your boat at high speed. We think the high water temperatures may have speeded up the growth underneath the boat.


Luciano cleaning the engine seacock

Fingers crossed the problem was caused by a blockage which we have now cleared. Until we move again we’re going to bask here in paradise and enjoy the inky black nights filled with stars. There’s been no visible moon here the last couple of days and no other boats around so the night sky has been spectacular.


Happy new year to you all. We wish you all the best for 2024.




You can find our PODCAST episodes at the links below

YOUTUBE (for video version)





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