Las Perlas Archipelago

Three weeks ago we sailed to the Las Perlas archipelago off the Pacific coast of Panama. After transiting the Panama Canal and spending a week anchored off the city, we just wanted to “get away” and find some lonely corner of the ocean.

We sailed through the night and before sunrise were off the Isla Pedro Gonzales. We anchored in a bay well protected from winds from all directions. We dinghied to a pontoon and were firmly but politely told that everything except the village is private and sent on our way. We visited the only village and bought a dinghy full of fruit straight out of the jungle. Originally the seller literally filled our tender with more fruit than we could ever eat. We laughingly explained that there are only two of us and took most of the produce back out. That night we visited the private marina and drank an amazing Mohito in the bar – which was open just for us; the only guests. It was depressing to compare the poor village with the luxury just across the bay but a world apart.

taking the dinghy upriver looking for waterfalls

Next we sailed further south to the (also private) island of Isla San Jose. We anchored off a long sandy beach and saw almost nobody for four days. One day we rowed to the beach and waved to four locals on a neighbouring hill just to prove our social skills are still functioning. Trying to get back off the beach through the waves was challenging and ended with a dinghy full of sea.

Heading back north, we threaded through the hidden reefs and rocks to anchor in a tiny bay off Isla Bayoneta. At low tide we took the dinghy through a channel between the islands and plotted a safe route through the rocks. At one point we only had twenty centimeters below us. When we reached the anchorage beyond the channel we saw a familiar looking catamaran with a Brittany flag and were invited for coffee by Marc and Sylvie on Iroise who we know from the Canal transit. Later, at high tide, we took Artemis along the same route with a comfortable two and a half meters of water.

Our next stop was off Isla Viveros. Here developers have built roads and laid electricity to each plot so that rich people can build nice holiday houses. There are a few houses but overall an air of decay. It looks like another great idea that isn’t working. At least there is a functioning beach club and the day before Heidi’s birthday the swedish boat Bengt appeared with our friends Elizabeth and Wim on-board. The result was a long birthday lunch (with a few drinks) followed by Curry (and more drinks) on board Artemis.

River scenery

We traveled to Isla del Rey and anchored off the small township of San Miguel. The plan was to find some jungle trails for the mountain bikes. On foot, we followed the only track out of town and in to a dense tunnel of foliage. It looked promising but less than a kilometer later it stopped at the towns airstrip. Here there are no trails; everyone travels by boat. On the way back we stocked up with fresh fruit and a few other essentials – as well as a six pack of Coke which cost as much as everything else together.

Another few miles along the coast and we found cruisers paradise. A well protected anchorage behind the island of Isla del Espiritu Santo. No swell from any direction. Jungle in all directions. Beaches and even a fresh water stream. Pelicans, fishing bats at night, jumping fish and even a dolphin. Bengt is anchored nearby and we are definitely “away from it all”.

Water, water, everywhere …

The pilot books write that fresh water streams enter the sea here off Isla del Rey. An old, hand drawn map even shows one of them but we couldn’t reach it through the magroves. Neighbours on a german boat had been here many years ago and knew the location of an easy to reach stream up a long inlet. Yesterday morning, just before high tide, a convoy of three dinghys headed off across the bay loaded with washing and empty water canisters.

Information_SignWe have different “qualities” of water that we use. Sea water is great for the first clean; be it cleaning of boat, kitchen utensils, lines or people. And it is limitless. Stream water we also use for cleaning. Marina water is drinkable but mostly tastes of chlorine. Still good for coffees, cooking and everyday use. Rainwater is pure away from the cities and after the first run off goes in to the main tank. The Katadyn water maker produces pure water that we drink and the excess we also add to the tank.

The stream is really well hidden but, with our “guide” leading the way, we found it easily. A few right angle bends through the mangroves and we tied up at the streams outlet. A little boulder hopping took us to some pools surrounded by flat rocks under the shade of the jungle canopy. There was no sign of crocodiles and the six of us were loud enough to warn the biggest snakes that we were there so we could wash our clothes and seat covers in peace.

In the Las Perlas fresh water is a luxury.

We filled five containers with water destined to be used to clean Artemis and then did some serious showering revelling in the absolute luxury of limitless fresh water and the coolness below the dense foliage.

Today we planned an early start and boat cleaning with our five canisters of water. And then it rained. Within minutes we were being lashed by wind driven rain. Heidi shot out of bed and started to collect rainwater for our fresh water tank. When the wind rose such that the water was coming horizontally, she grabbed a scrubbing brush and motivated Neill to help clean the entire deck and cockpit with the never ending rain. The dinghy was swimming in water so all the lines (ropes) and strops we own were uncoiled and thrown in to the “floating washing machine”. We changed between cleaning and collecting water depending on the angle of the rain but by midday the tank was filled to seventy percent, Artemis was shining and …

… the canisters of stream water are still full and looking for a new use.

Ultra Stereo 98.9FM – Panama

We are anchored off Viveros Island in the Las Perlas archipeligo. We have been “lost” among these pacific islands for nearly two weeks now. Uninhabited islands, reefs and deep water passages between all the rock. Jumping fish, Rays swimming in formation under the boat and pelicans flying above us. Sunshine, breezes and a huge full moon at night. We have reached paradise.

Artemis at anchor amongst the islands

Two days ago the Swedish sailing yacht Bengt sailed in to the bay and yesterday we celebrated Heidi’s birthday at the beach club on the island followed by dinner on Artemis. Life is good.

Today we tuned the radio in to the Panamanian radio station Ultra Stereo 98.9FM to enjoy non-stop music from the 80s. Just after sunset they played ” a whole lotta Rosie” by AC/DC.

So there I was with the radio turned up full and singing
“Wanna tell you story 
About woman I know 
When it comes to lovin’ 
She steals the show…”

at the top of my voice to my bikini clad beauty.

birthday girl in video chat

I think, if 19 year old me could have seen 56 year old me he would have approved.


The perfect cruiser’s dinghy packs up really small and can be stowed away for passages. At the same time it should be stable in use and capable of carrying people and cargo safely and relatively dryly.

Our inflatable Avon fulfils the first specification perfectly. It takes a little time to install the wooden slat floor and rowing seat then blow it up and just as long to reverse the process but it stows in the aft locker. Unfortunately it fails on the safe and dry requirement. If we use it to go up wind against waves of any size, the only suitable apparel is bathing clothes and everything we take needs to be extremely well packed. More than once it turned over in the wind and once set the outboard under water. When we visit another boat, we need to remove the motor and hang it on their boat if we want to relax.

Our Avon dinghy fully stocked

In the Caribbean the Avon was ripped directly next to a seam. Four attempts by us to repair it all failed and when we found an expert in Panama, he could only solve the problem by lifting part of the seam and glueing under it. His repair worked but we needed a more reliable tender.

The selection of small dinghys in Panama is not huge but with the help of Sheila (an American lady rebuliding her boat at Port Linton) we bought an AB dinghy with a fiberglass bottom. This is safe and stable but impossible to stow any where but between the mast and inner forestay. Sailing is, of course, a series of compromises so we have now developed a way of doing that. Once we have the AB dinghy in the water she is great fun. We bought her just before Annalena and Daniel arrived and “test drove” extensively in the San Blas Islands. In the Las Perlas archipeligo we completely filled her with water when a breaker swamped us just off the beach but, even full of water and sand, she can be rowed home.

With the dinghy, we received a free dinghy chap (a material cover to protect the dinghy from sun and rubbing). It was for a different size and type of dinghy and had no holes for the carrying handles or anything but did come with a bag of “blue bits” to sew as protection around any holes. Luckily we have a Heidi on board and she and her sewing machine can do anything. After hours and days of hard work, perspiration and many many broken needles, we had a cover that fitted and a matching bag to stow items while in transit.

Another sailor told us he had been quoted one thousand US dollars for such a dinghy chap and Heidi now says she fully understands why they cost so much. She doesn’t plan a production series.

Water maker. Katadyn 40E

A boat is freedom. Freedom to go where you want, when you want. With Artemis full of food and a fair wind, we can travel far away from civilisation and visit otherwise unreachable places. But you need water. Until now we have filled our tank where ever we have found a supply and, in the worst case, bought bottles. But the logistics detract from the enjoyment and, as we head out in to the Pacific, good drinking water will become a scarce commodity.

So we have invested in a small Katadyn 40E water maker. This magic device takes fifty liters from the surrounding sea and five ampere hours of electricity with which, through the miracle of reverse osmosis, it produces five liters of drinkable fresh water. We use about ten liters a day so in two hours we can produce all we need for that day.

This is one of the smallest devices used on boats but it has the advantage that we can power it from wind and solar power. It also fits nicely in our “bathroom” which is now the “water works”. We bought this model as every one wrote that it “just works”. Andi Blenk installed one this year and his positive feedback convinced us to invest.

Unfortunately our system didn’t “just work” as it had been incorrectly assembled in the factory. We needed many emails, lots of tests, much frustration and hundreds of extra dollars before we tasted our first fresh water but now it works and it was worth it.

We use a pre-pump to take sea water from the ocean and pass it through a sieve and two pre-filters. The standard system uses one filter but this way we can run it in silty anchorages. The filtered water enters the Katadyn and is then compressed and forced through a membrane which removes most of the salt leaving less than 200 parts per million which is far less than we can taste.

Produced and cooled with solar and wind power.

Another piece of freedom!

Two T-shirts travel the world

The people who built our foldable mountain bike frames – Montague – asked if they could write about our travels and we agreed. But we mentioned that a couple of T-shirts would be nice in return.

In the middle of August Liza sent two T-shirts to us via the US post addressed to the marina in Aruba. Three weeks later the shirts had not appeared and the tracking system showed that they were in Tokyo! California to Aruba via Tokyo makes no sense.

Montague T-shirts

In September Liza agreed to send us two more shirts to Germany but before she could send them out, we received a message from Aruba (which we had long ago left) that the T-shirts were there. We asked the Marina to give them to an American boat who passed them on to a Swedish boat heading our way.

Wim and Elizabeth hand deliver the shirts off Panama City

Bengt – the Swedish boat overshot us when we were offline in the San Blas Islands so our boats finally met up at the end of November anchored off Panama City in the Pacific. And finally we have two Montague T-shirts.

Panama Canal transit

At 17:09 on Saturday the 23. November, the gate of the last lock on the Panama Canal opened and Artemis of Lleyn entered the Pacific Ocean.

The previous Sunday we sailed to Colon, the port at the Atlantic end of the canal and on Monday morning we were visited by a canal official who checked the length of the boat, ensured our cleats were strong enough and asked if the toilet worked. The inspection didn’t take long, probably as there was lots of sun, no wind and baking temperatures in the boat.

On Tuesday we took a shuttle bus in to the seriously unsafe city of Colon and paid $1875 US in to the canals bank account. Hopefully we soon get the $900 deposit back so the transit will “only” have cost a thousand dollars. We also took the opportunity to do a quick shop and filled six bags with groceries. In the evening we called the Canal and agreed a transit date for Friday.

Wednesday we took a day off and went cycling to look at the canal.

Thursday we bunkered fuel, water and a bit more – only four bags – shopping. In the evening we confirmed timings and that we should be waiting at 16:00.

About Friday lunch time our line handlers arrived. Each boat needs four crew to feed the long lines in or out during the lock transits so Heidi was joined by Wim and Elisabeth, our friends from SY Bengt and Tobias from SY Maya. Bengt transitted last week so were our experts and Tobias was doing a reconnaisance for his transit next month.

Just before four we moved out to “the Flats” (the agreed location) and made fast to the french catamaran “Iroise” for coffee and cake. French, swedish dutch, german and british were all sat around waiting for the canal pilot to arrive. A pilot boat arrived about five thirty with three young pilots and within minutes we were off heading under the Atlantic Bridge to the flight of three locks at Gatun. There was already a huge ship in the the lock and two tugs behind it. We made fast to Iroise and an american boat did the same on the other side and then the three of us motored in to the lock. As we entered ropes were thrown across from the walls which we attached to our long mooring lines so that the “pack” of three vessels could be securely attached.

With the lock gate shut behind us, the water began to rise and the line handlers earned their “Artemis pizza” as they pulled them in to keep everything tight. The lead pilot – on Iroise – was having a bad day and managed to get every one spooked but our pilot Miguel was totally cool and got us through all three chambers safely. It is a bit “worrying” trapped in a concrete box with a huge ship and lots of water flowing around but our line handlers worked perfectly, the workers do this every day and it all has a system

After the Gatun locks, we entered the lake and motored through the darkness until we reached a huge buoy where we made fast for the night and celebrated our success. Luckily there was no rain during the night which was good because, with the boat full of guests, we had to sleep outside in the cockpit.

Saturday morning, after breakfast, the pilot boat brought David, our canal pilot for this day. We motored about 25 miles across the Panama Isthmus meeting a constant stream of ships coming the other way. Occasionally we were instructed to stop when a gas carrier came as they have absolute right of way. Unsurprisingly, every one wants to get these mobile bombs out of the canal as soon as possible. Heidi once again proved that Artemis is a top restaurant with delicious Lasagna served in the cockpit. We crossed the Gatun Lake and a long cutting which led to the first lock of the day – Pedro Miguel. In daylight you can see far more and appreciate how truly monstrous the container ship is that followed us in. Locking down was stress free with three happy pilots directing proceedings.

A short motor took us to the last lock – Miraflores – which dropped us all the way down to the Pacific and back in to salt water. By now every one knew the drill and Heidi commented “This is fun. We could go up and down all day.” We dropped the pilot off once we were out of the channel and Wim took over the navigation and brought us safely through the dark anchorage and to anchor next to Bengt with the Panama City skyline as a backdrop.

About twenty four hours after starting, we were in the Pacific and set for our next adventure.

Panama Menu
Line handlers lunch:
Avocado Pesto with walnuts and ham.
Fruit salad with fresh farm fruit
Coffee with home made irish cream

Gatun Lock dinner
Pizza Artemis
Chocolate on the go

Lake Breakfast
Toast, cheese, ham, assorted Condiments with coffee or a selection of teas.

Canal Lunch
Lasagna with corned beef and cheeses.
Irish cream coffee

Anchor supper
Pina Colada & wine

Agua Clara Visitor Center

We are at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal waiting to transit on Friday and with time on our hands we thought we would cycle over and look at the Gatun locks that we will be passing through this week. They have the huge, really nice, informative Agua Clara Visitor Center there as well.

But WE WERE NOT ALLOWED IN because of the heinous and unforgivable crime of riding there on pushbikes and not burning fossil fuels or polluting the environment!

It all started off nicely with a 14 km ride through the jungle to the Gatun locks. They are really impressive but hidden behind high fences topped with razor wire. We asked a security guard how to get to the visitor center and he explained we should head about four kilometer down river, cross over the four lane, eighty meter high Atlantic suspension bridge and then cycle another five kilometers back up river.

Atlantic Bridge. 80 meters high

No problem. More jungle. More kilometers. More training.

We reached the beautifully laid out visitor center and asked where to park our bikes. Maybe we should have just asked where we could leave our machine guns or stash our cocaine? The reaction could not have been worse. The guy at the gate called the “security lady” who was wearing a side arm and was seriously annoyed that we were on bikes. Apparently it is absolutely, totally illegal to cycle to the visitor center. No way would we ever be allowed entry.

We could have come on a motorbike, a gas guzzling Hummer or on the back of the dirtiest oil burning pickup but NO WAY were we allowed to arrive by bike. Apparently there was a sign informing us of this at the bottom of the hill.

A tour guide tried to reason with the storm trooper but by now she had called up back-up and three sets of armed, evil eyes were glowering at us looking like extras from some film about a 20 century Junta. Is this how eco-terrorists feel when they protest against global warming.

Obviously this impressive little sign means the main road and not the farm track.

We were obviously not going to be allowed to discover all the great ways that the Panama Canal has helped the local wildlife and the environment in general so we cycled back to the boat. We did find the promised sign but it still looks like it refers to a farm track rather than the beautifully surfaced (but totally forbidden) road.

I am just glad she never found out we arrived on a sailing boat using the wind and not via a kerosene burning aeroplane. She would probably of locked us to the railings and beaten us. We were lucky to escape from the Agua Clara Visitor Center.

We cycled 52km and saved 30USD by being refused entry. 🙂

Panama jungle life

Here in Port Linton (Panama) we are anchored on the edge of the Portobelo National Park. You don’t “head off in to the jungle”. You live next to it!

Just over on Linton Island there are spider monkeys who keep the tourists entertained by hanging from the trees and stealing anything they can reach. The surrounding jungle is also full of howler monkeys. We haven’t seen them but hear them all the time. The local dogs start barking which sets the monkeys off howling which drives the dogs to bark insanely which drives the monkeys wild which … You get the picture.

Panama jungle life

Walking down the road we thought we saw a spider monkey but on closer inspection it turned out to be a sloth hanging happily upside down and chewing away at the leaves. The next creature we mistook for a monkey was a variegated squirrel with its huge bushy tail hanging down.

The flowers are full of huge brightly colored butterflies which are definitely much larger than the tiny humming bird we saw flitting from flower to flower this afternoon.

There are also caiman, crocodiles and poisonous snakes here but we have managed to avoid all three.

All photos are from Wikipedia and licensed under the Creative Commons license.

San Blas Islands

Annalena and Daniel flew to Panama to meet us for two weeks holiday. And where better to spend a two week holiday than in the San Blas Islands? These are an archipelago of low lieing palm islands where the coral reef rises above the surrounding sea. No two sources agree on the number of islands but it may be about four hundred- or more. It really depends on how you define an island – at least one grass hut, or at least one palm tree or a rock with crabs on?

The whole area is a maze of coral reefs. The pelican may fly a mile but we need to weave between the reefs with an eye on the depth gauge and at least two eyes at the bow spotting the coral. The direct route is a guarantee that you join the wrecks that litter the area.

The local Kuna people live in bamboo and palm huts and still use dugout canoes to travel and fish. If the wind is blowing in the correct direction, they hoist small sails and lean far out upwind using their single paddle to steer, Vincent paddled out to us to swap some of his limes for our sugar and then charge us the village anchoring fee of ten dollars for a month,

It is very surreal when you anchor behind a reef in totally flat water but with the sight and sound of the swell breaking nearby. And when a sail driven dugout passes you from palm island to palm island, you know this is some where special.

At the west end of the archipelago there is tourism but as we sailed further east it became more lonely. When we visited the twin towns of Nargana and Corazón de Jesús there was no sign that tourism plays any part in their economy. The two towns each cover their respective island and are joined by a footbridge. Here we saw schools, shops, a court house and churches. After over a week out in the islands we felt we had arrived in the big city.

Our guests only had two weeks holiday so we returned to Port Linton with only a tiny part of the islands explored but with beautiful memories and a hand sewn picture bought off a passing canoe.