Ahoy from the crew of the BlueJacket!
When you last heard from your intrepid sailors, we were getting ready to sail from Benao to the Perlas islands. This is an 86 mile passage, which by itself isn't anything special, but you have to go past Punta Mala and the wind and the seas can get very rough there. The normal winds at this time of year are from the NE and they compress as they hit the land mass on the W side of the Gulf of Panama and can easily increase by 50 to 100% above what is forecast over open water. On top of that there are strong currents flowing through the Gulf and when wind opposes current, you get very steep waves.
After an extended period of high winds blowing across the area there was a window where the winds were predicted to be in the 10 kt range. We took advantage of that and departed Benao at sunrise to start the 15 mile trip towards Punta Mala. Immediately we started seeing a current of about a knot against us, but the seas were smooth. As we got closer to Punta Mala the seas got more and more confused with 3+' peaky seas everywhere. The current grew to about 2.5 kts against us and when combined with the boat pounding through the seas, we weren't moving very fast. At some points we were down to 3 kts, which would make an 86 mile trip a very long one! Thankfully as we got further away from Punta Mala the seas calmed down, but the current remained. It wasn't until noon time that the seas were comfortable.
At around 2 PM, when we were about 1/3 of the way to the Perlas Islands, the current started to slowly drop and over the next 8 hours it dropped to 1/2 of a knot of current against us. We had glassy seas until around 7 PM when the wind piped up to 15-20 kts out of the NNE and we had a very close hauled sail to Isla San Jose. That was a wet ride!
I picked Isla San Jose as our destination because it was the closest island and it has a bay which appeared to be very easy to get into in the dark. Entering an anchorage that you've never been into in the dark can be a daunting task, but Bahia Grande appeared to be relatively free of obstructions and there appeared to be lots of room to anchor.
At around 10 PM we started our entry into Bahia Grande and we could see several boats anchored near where we had planned on anchoring. I was closely watching the chart plotter and the depth while Sue was keeping watch. Suddenly Sue yelled "Turn! Turn! Turn! There's a boat anchored out here!" I swung the wheel hard to the right and watched an unlit landing barge go just past our port side. Wow, that was close! Sue had managed to see the black outline of the barge against the unlit shoreline. We're sure lucky that there was a 1/4 moon out providing some lighting.
We anchored near some French boats that we had seen while coming in and rinsed off the boat so that we could open the hatches and portholes without getting saltwater below. The next day we just relaxed and explored the area.
Isla San Jose is a private island with what appears to be a resort on the S end and a few other houses along coastline. At the N end of Bahia Grande there's a house built on a cliff with a large cave below it. If there wasn't surge, you could take your dinghy into it, but it was too surgey for us to do that. Other than that you've got miles of beach with white sand on top and a heavier dark sand underneath of it and the two stay separated. Wild!
The one major depressing issue was that the water temperature had dropped to 69F and the visibility was very poor. According to other cruisers, the strong N winds blow the warm water out to sea and the cold deep water wells up bringing up nutrients, which clouds the water. Considering all of the time that we spend in the water, this is problem.
The following day we headed to Isla del Ray, which is only about 15 miles away. We pulled into Punta Cocos, which is in the hook at the S end of the island. According the the guides there's an active Marine fueling station there and there's an abandoned airforce airfield that you can wander around. However, we couldn't get our anchor to catch and a boat with some policemen in it came up to us and told us something about a boat that was coming in and that we should anchor further down. We couldn't figure it out and the anchor wouldn't catch, so we headed a few miles down to the fishing village of Esmeralda.
We dropped the anchor next to the growing collection of French boats that we had seen at Isla San Jose and were greeted by Jose who paddled out to us and offered to show us around. Later we headed in and were met by Jose and a bunch of kids on the beach who offered to "watch" our dingy for us. Those are code words for we'll play around it and hopefully you'll pay us something when you return. We also saw them unloading a panaga with supplies from Panama city. There wasn't much and this was the weekly supply run.
Jose found us again and took us through this hard luck village to the fishing coop where we got a 3 kg (~7 lb) snapper for $6 and they even cleaned and de-scaled it for us. We then wandered around the village looking for fruit, but we didn't find any, but we did find that the people weren't very friendly, so we decided to head back to the boat.
On the way there we befriended some young kids who offered to show us where to buy fruit, but the "store" (someone's house) was closed. They then offered to go to the finca (farm) and cut some fresh pineapple and bananas for us, but that was going to take too long. We passed as someone on shore had started burning a field and ash was raining down on us. As we got ready to pull up the anchor we saw the kids rapidly paddling out to us with a stalk of bananas and several pineapples. Their initial prices were ridiculous, but their negotiating skills weren't very good, so we ended up getting a reasonable price for the fruit and they were very happy.
We moved a few miles to the N to Rio Cacique and for once the anchor caught right away, saving us from having to pull the anchor up multiple times to re-anchor. We had the whole place to ourselves until the French contingent arrived and we had 6 French boats anchored around us!
Later that night I charged the batteries and realized that our 2nd house battery had failed. Our first battery had failed several weeks before and we were getting by on just one. These batteries are huge weighing in at 160 lbs and are about 3-4 times the size of a car battery. The batteries were 5 years old and I had planned on replacing them at the start of next cruising season. I suspect that all of the anchoring that we had been doing had stressed the old batteries and caused it to fail. When a battery fails it accepts a charge, but doesn't hold it and rapidly discharges, discharging other batteries which may be connected to it. This was not good as everything on the boat runs off of the batteries: the refrigeration, instruments, windlass, lighting, etc. The fallback solution was to run the generator when the refrigeration needs to run or to pull up the anchor with the windlass. Not a great solution, but it would work.
As a result of the batteries we decided that we shouldn't be anchored away from other boats, just in case something happened to our starter battery. We also decided that we should make our way to Panama City as soon as possible to search for batteries or transit the canal. Unfortunately that meant that we had to skip most of the anchorages in the Perlas islands that we had planned on visiting.
After bypassing quite a few of the anchorages that we had planned on stopping at in the Perlas Islands, we pulled into Isla Contadora, which is really the only island in the Perlas with significant people, a road infrastructure and a cell tower for Internet. It appears to be a vacation spot for people from Panama City who arrive by ferry or plane. We anchored at the SE end of the island in the among all of the international boats getting ready to do the puddle jump (cross the Pacific) took the dinghy out to explore.
While we didn't go ashore on the E end of the island, but we were told that you'll find some restaurants and a couple of small shops. We did take the dinghy ashore in the middle of the island on the S side at the Restaurant Romantica and hiked up the hill to the roads. We wandered around on the unnamed roads and really didn't find anything other than spread out houses, so we went back and enjoyed a beer at the restaurant which has a beautiful view of the ocean. On the way back we found some girls taking turns posing with our dinghy. I never new that we had such a hot, sexy ride!
The following day we motored on glassy seas to Panama City to search for our batteries, but that will be a story for another blog.
-- Geoff & Sue
For the cruiser:
Punta Popa de Barco in Isla San Jose:
We anchored here after crossing from Benao. We came in at around 10 PM and almost hit an unlit landing barge anchored in the middle of the bay in 50'.
We anchored parallel to several French boats who were anchored in about 37' MLW, but in the morning it was obvious that we could have gone quite a bit further forward. It took a while for the anchor ro grab, but once it did we were OK.
The house with the cave under it is to the east and the cave faces E (for you photographers) and there are lots of smaller caves past that. Surge makes it impossible to bring a dinghy into it.
The beaches are nice to walk on with light sand over a heavier dark sand. Quite a bit of trash collects among the driftwood.
Concholon Bay on Isla del Ray:
S/V Guinevere 1 recommended this anchorage to us and we were headed there, but upon arrival we noted that there was a good westerly swell entering the anchorage. We also looked around and didn't find anything special about it, so we just kept moving.
Punta Cocos on Isla del Ray:
We tried and tried to get the anchor to stick, but it just dragged, so we left. That probably explains why there are now mooring balls in the area.
The concrete steps described by Bauhaus have now been replaced by a large pier with a floating dock and a fueling station which I assume is for military vessels. We wouldn't have felt OK going ashore with our limited Spanish.
Esmeralda Village on Isla del Ray:
After the anchor eventually caught, we stopped here and went into the village. We were greeted by very friendly kids and a local who showed us around. Very tough luck fishing village. Our guide took us to the fishing coop where we bought 3 kg of pargo for $6. The local tienda has very little to provision with. We tried to buy fresh fruit, but none was available. The people in the village were not very friendly. The kids that we met on the beach tried to show us where to buy some, but they were closed. As we were pulling up the anchor they came out to us in their dugout with pinas and bananas and sold them to us after bartering.
Rio Cicaque on Isla del Ray:
Anchored here in about 22' MLW, but could have gone more shallow. Very good holding. Anchor caught right away. Very little swell enters anchorage. Nice sand beaches. Didn't have chance to explore river as you need to enter at 1/2 tide or better.
Channel between Isla del Ray and Isla Canas:
This anchorage is very well protected from just about anything that would blow through. We transited from S to N using the following waypoints which we got from s/v Jacaranda. The shallowest the we saw was about 11' MLW at the N end and then we got into 20+' depths. The anchorage is at 08 23.1603 N 078 49.9693 W. A fair amount of current flows through this channel. Very pretty and the village looks very nice too.
08 21.9521 N 078 50.1269 W
08 22.3155 N 078 50.2822 W
08 22.7934 N 078 50.2045 W
08 23.2762 N 078 50.0831 W
08 23.5439 N 078 50.1109 W
08 23.8664 N 078 49.8271 W
We anchored in the NE corner of the island in about 15' MLW. Holding was OK, but not great as the anchor came up without any resistance, but it caught fairly quickly.
I suspect that the moorings in the middle of the S side are there because the holding isn't very good due to a rocky bottom.
We took the dinghy ashore at the Hotel Romantica and walked up the road. There were no street signs and after walking around for a while and not finding anything, we just headed back to the boat. Later we found out that had we walked to the E, we would have found the shops and restaurants. We also could have taken the dinghy around to the E side.
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