#38—Panama's Pacific Coast
Down the Coast Without an Impeller
We departed Golfito, Costa Rica, Thursday morning and sailed 60-miles to Puerto Armuelles, Panama, where we anchored southwest of the town along the coast. Calm winds and flat seas provided a suitable, although not ideal, anchorage. A line of submerged rocks, invisible at high tide, loomed a little too close.
The next day, in an attempt to be a good captain, I cleaned the engine's raw water intake filter. It hadn't been checked for some time, and the strainer was almost clogged solid with a slime that would have been ideal to bottle and sell to 10-year old boys. With a clean slime-free sea strainer, fresh seawater once again flooded into the engine's cooling system.
The engine's operator's manual indicates that it's a good thing for the engine to receive plenty of cooling water. The manual assumes, incorrectly, that the engine's impeller is a) in good working condition, and b) includes all 18 rubber paddles. The manual failed to cover the possibility of raw water overwhelming what was left of a well-used, un-maintained impeller containing only three of the remaining 18 blades.
The impeller responded to the new and unexpected flood of seawater by immediately disintegrating. This was apparent because, as Chris quickly observed, "there's no water coming out of the engine's exhaust system." In Spanish, this is described as a "problema."
We shut the engine down and unfurled the headsail. Fortunately we had ample sea room. So we sailed along peacefully while I crawled, once again, into the 100-degree+ engine room. If you want to know what it's like to change an impeller, imagine stuffing a 3-inch, 18-blade rubber paddle wheel into a 1-1/2 inch oblong cavity. It defies logic. People who complain about trying to insert a square peg into a round hole need to try this first. The square-peg round-hole problem looks easy after this.
Chris suggested applying ample amounts of Vaseline, which ultimately helped coax the little device into its new home. After jamming in, I mean replacing, the impeller, Chris and I started the engine and waited. When water gushed out of the exhaust the two of us jumped up and down and cheered. This is definitely a male thing.
Our route south along Panama's Pacific coast took us to anchorages of Isla Parida, Isla Secas (interesting snorkeling, but not as great as Costa Rica), Bahia Honda (where we spent an extra day), Bahia Arenas, Punta Benao (where we arrived in the dark after a long windy passage), around Punta Mala to Punta Anton in Bahia de Parita, to Isloa Otoque, and then finally Balboa at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. We sailed 435 miles from Costa Rica's southern-most port of Golfito.
A Howlin' Great Birthday
Our favorite anchorage, Bahia Honda, provided me with a wonderful 48th birthday present. That morning Becky and I awakened before dawn, stepped into the dinghy, and motored into a mangrove swamp along the fringe of the bay. We cut the motor, quietly floated across the still water, grabbed a branch to steady us, listened, and waited.
As sunlight spilled into the bay, it awakened a troop of Howler Monkeys high above us in the jungle canopy. As the Howler Monkeys stirred from their sleep, they greeted the day with deep, loud, gorilla-like barks. According to our onboard reference, Microsoft Encarta, Howler Monkeys can be heard up to two miles away. As the monkeys roared, their barks and howls echoed through the stillness of the bay.
As we sat quietly in the dinghy, the jungle erupted with life. Other troops of monkeys awakened in the distance. Flocks of water birds squawked loudly to greet the penetrating sun. Insects, the size of B52s, buzzed overhead.
As wonderful and as unique as that day started, the pièce de résistance was chocolate cake, with chocolate chips and chocolate frosting, that Becky baked for my birthday that afternoon. To help us celebrate, we hailed Chuck and Jeanette Stockon, anchored nearby aboard their Nordhavn 50, La Vagabunda. They joined us that evening for a party. Good thing, because Jeanette brought the candles.
Baking Chocolate Chip Cookies in 35-knot Winds
On Friday March 9th we motored toward Punta Anton in glass-flat, brightly sunlit water. We motored in the morning, motored in the evening, motored at supper time. (If you recognize that phrasing as being similar to a pop song from the 50s, you qualify as a 'mature audience.')
During the afternoon we watched the barometer drop as little rain clouds appeared on the barometer's LCD display. Then, about four hours out of Punta Anton, with crystal clear blue skies, a storm hit us. Except this storm had no clouds and no rain. Only wind. We think the wind bore down on us between 30-35 knots. (Because the Autohelm windex was still broken we had no way of actually knowing the wind speed, save for the whitecaps.) Conforming to the strict rules of sailing, the winds came straight at us. "On the nose" as sailors often say.
Given that we were only in about 60-feet of water, a nice little 3-4 foot staccato chop formed, which we plowed directly into. Becky took her turn at the helm for some heavy-wind experience, and then went below to bake a double-batch of chocolate chip cookies. I'd like to see Betty Crocker do this. Betty would have been as green as sea-strainer slime in these conditions, with her head over the rail, tossing her cookies instead of baking them. Now there's a new product idea: Betty Crocker Tossed Cookie Mix. You could sell them to 10-year old boys.
Our face-into-the-wind sail slowed us downsometimes to only 3.0 knots. Consequently, when we arrived at our anchorage at 21:00 instead of 18:00, as we had originally anticipated, we had to anchor in the dark in 30-knot winds in 20-feet of water two miles out from shore. Disconcerting. It felt like anchoring in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Balboa, PanamaWestern Approach to the Panama Canal
Sunday March 4th, 2001 we arrived at Balboa, Panama. Balboa is the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. Although boats less than 100-feet in length are not required to check in, we hailed Flamenco Signalthe control tower for this section of the canalto report our arrival. Flamenco Signal held us off of buoy #4 for check-in.
We waited at anchor for about an hour and a half until Spencer Rogelio arrived via one of the pilot boats to check us in. The captain of Spencer's boat expertly guided his craft within safe boarding distance without touching Andanté's hull as Spencer stepped on board. He courteously completed our arrival papers, and called for the boat to pick him up about 30-minutes later.
The next day we moored at the Balboa Yacht Club. The use of the term "yacht club" here is a bit of a misnomer. In this instance, "yacht club" is a very fancy term for a collection of mooring buoys anchored in a mud flat.
For the next eight days, we waited for our official transit date. On Wednesday March 7th Heather Galioto, Chris's daughter, arrived with much enthusiasm and many boat parts. To pass time, Chris and I installed a new membrane in the Spectra water maker, added a freshwater flush system, and debated the merits of 15-amp vs. 25-amp toggle switches.
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