‘Right now, just like everyone else on this virus-ridden planet, we don’t know what is gonna happen. When we set out back in January from Marina Papagayo in the north of Costa Rica for the Panama Canal, everything was fine – the world then had not gone mad. Even when we sailed across Costa Rica’s southern border into Boca Chica there were few signs that in just a short while our whole adventure would tumble into this mind-blowing crisis. Only the Lord knows how this murderous Chinese bat virus is gonna change the insane world we now live in…’
Anchored in Golfito, in the south of Costa Rica, we were fine. We’d heard the virus was bad in other countries, but these places were around the other side of the world. In the two countries we were in touch with, the UK and the US, there seemed to be no panic or even any form of preparation, so we didn’t think there was much to worry about.
Then, over the next two weeks, everything went from bad to worse, then deteriorated even further – before the whole world then tumbled over a cliff…
We left Golfito without too much bother to sail south over the Panamanian border, intending to head for the nearest port of entry in Panama. That was the port of Armuelles, but on leaving Golfito, Bob & Carol onboard the American sailboat Singularity informed us the Panamanian authorities had, for some obscure reason, closed Armuelles. This did not cause us undue problems, we would instead head for the nearby township of Boca Chica. We dropped anchor overnight just over the border behind Punta Balsa, but when we made Boca Chica things started to unravel almost straightaway. Customs and immigration formalities, although expensive, are normally fairly easy in Panama – unlike Costa Rica which can be a whole day affair. Boca Chica is not strictly a port of entry, but we were told by the local fix-it guy Carlos that he could arrange for all the officials to travel down from Pedregal and the procedures would be quite simple. Twenty-four hours later we would receive our Panamanian cruising permit, we would then be good for the whole year. Well, it didn’t quite work out like that.
Carlos, true to his word, arranged everything. We took our dinghy through the hair-raising tide-driven narrows to spend the morning completing the paperwork with the officials who had travelled to Carlos’s place, but our expected cruising permit from the harbourmaster did not materialise. For the first few days waiting for our permit we had no real concerns, because Boca Chica is a spectacular anchorage with a couple of good local eating places that we could easily take our dinghy to, plus our good German friend Wolff joined us there in the anchorage in his trimaran Del Sur. Wolff told us there was worrying news coming out of Italy about the coronavirus. I asked Carlos if Armuelles was closed because of this new virus – no, Armuelles was closed because of problems with the officials there, he said. He would not explain.
Carlos told us our cruising permit needed to come from Panama City and that it might take a week. There’s a new system, he said. Singularity were having similar problems so we decided to make the best of it. I told Wolff we’d take Sänna down to Isla Parida for a few days whilst waiting for our permit, we could anchor, make freshwater and swim in a really nice location. Wolff told us he would join us there. For five days we anchored off the island beach, buying fresh-caught lobsters for five dollars apiece from a local fisherman, which the three of us barbecued ashore each night watching the sunsets. Marie made up the rice salad with Wolff rustling up his beetroot, potato and onion fry. For a couple of days we were joined on anchor by a Panamanian navy launch, they were friendly and gave us no trouble.
We returned to Boca Chica and still no permit. This was now causing a problem as we needed to be in Panama City for Marie to fly back to England. We also needed to find somewhere to haul Sänna out of the water – there was still our bitter and long drawn-out fight with our insurance company over our lightening strike back in El Salvador to resolve, we had to arrange for an insurance survey of our repaired damage – but for this we had to be insured to enter the boatyard. It was still an angry ongoing saga – never ever buy insurance from Allianz folks, when you’re in the shit Allianz don’t give a shit. There were haulout facilities in Vista Mar marina but we’d heard terrible reports, so we planned to go there to check the place out before heading to the Playita anchorage off Panama City. First, we’d have to round one of the world’s infamous headlands. Punta Mala.
We decided to leave Boca Chica without our cruising permit, although this might cause problems if we were stopped and boarded by the AeroNaval. Carlos said he would get the permit to us somehow when he himself received it from the harbourmaster in Pedregal. This seemed fine with us so we pulled up our anchor to head for the Secas Islands. The gap winds were by now blowing a near gale, we made a fast passage – it quickly became clear to us that the Secas Islands offered no safe anchorage in the fierce winds so we carried on another forty-odd miles to anchor behind Catalina Island. The next morning we again caught the gap winds to take us to Bahía De Naranjo, anchoring there for one more night before heading to Ensenada Benao. This large bay is the established safe haven to wait for the gale-force gap winds to die down. There, we would wait to make our attempt to round the Punta Mala headland to take us into the Bay of Panama, then head for Vista Mar marina just to check it out. We would stay no longer than two or three days in Vista Mar before making the forty miles or so to the main Playita anchorage at the entrance to the Panama Canal.
In Ensenada Benao there were two other American vessels waiting to round Punta Mala, the motor vessel Stand Down and the sailboat Rhapsody. It’s a rolly anchorage that can make for a miserably long wait for the right conditions. Punta Mala itself is an infamous legend amongst sailors going back centuries, the cold Humboldt currents drive northwards all the way along the Pacific South American coastline for many hundreds of miles, to end up at Punta Mala. The relentless gap winds that originate from the Caribbean side of Panama, usually at gale force or more, blow south through the Bay of Panama creating steeped wind against current conditions that you have to see to believe. The big seas there are dangerous most of the time, small vessels like ourselves have to wait it out for the gap winds to die down to then make an attempt to round the headland. Our Canadian friends Rob & Debra onboard Avant, waited nearly a month for the right conditions. Punta Mala has a well deserved reputation for being deadly.
We were fortunate, wind predictions indicated a decline from the relentless twenty-five to thirty knots to a mere five to ten in three days time. There was no chance of going ashore in Ensenada Benao, the surf rolling onto the beach made this both impractical and dangerous, we would sit it out in the glorious sunshine. Punta Mala is around twelve miles from the Benao anchorage so we would time it to reach Punta Mala at slack tide with the least winds – and timing for our approach was gonna be crucial. Three mornings later we pulled our anchor at five-thirty am to see that Rhapsody and Stand Down had already left. They were nowhere in sight.
With both those vessels gone I was worried that our timing might be wrong. I checked my passage plan again, it was fine. Why had they left? Marie checked too, saying that she thought we should have left a little earlier if we wanted to make Vista Mar in daylight. In any event we rounded Punta Mala in slack calm conditions… then hit the four knot current against us – this was why Stand Down and Rhapsody had left early, it was gonna be a long hard drag on the engine. If the wind happened to blow up against us then we would be in trouble. Marie informed me that she calculated we’d be in Vista Mar well after dark if this current remained against us. Then, as a complete bombshell, the shit truly hit the fan.
Rounding Punta Mala we picked up a decent cellphone signal. Rob from Avant had sent an alarming message – the Government of Panama had closed all marinas and anchorages due to new emergency coronavirus restrictions. What? I desperately tried to contact Vista Mar marina without any response. Then, heading towards us fast was a catamaran sailing downwind, they were American and I called them up on the radio. Yes, they’d left Vista Mar a few hours previously and everything was fine. I decided to call up Stand Down around twenty miles ahead of us. Yes, they too had received a message the marina was closed. Stand Down called ahead to Rhapsody who confirmed they were just entering the marina although it had just been closed. The whole situation was incredibly confused.
Marie and I talked, deciding that we had no option but to continue. We agreed that our best plan was to arrive at Vista Mar after dark then sneak in, hopefully without being noticed. We had around six hours before we would arrive and the wind was beginning to blow up. My main worry was that Vista Mar would chain off the entrance and, in the dark, we would not see the obstruction. Also, would the AeroNaval send a navy launch to picket the entrance to turn approaching vessels around? Where would we then go that was safe?
Later, against big winds and a rising sea breaking over our bows, we approached the shallows that stretched out more than five miles towards the Vista Mar entrance. Ahead of us, in the fading light, there was a naval vessel anchored stationery, dead on our course. My heart dropped, Marie looked horrified – to our relief it turned out to be an abandoned fishing vessel seemingly left on anchor, in the dark we would have collided full on. But where were the AeroNaval? Surely the navy would be the ones to enforce these new harbour closures – at this time we did not realise that we would soon find out (next paragraphs temporarily removed due to legal procedures with Allianz Insurance).
At long last we tied up in Vista Mar, it was rough, in no way could it be considered a safe long-term solution for Sänna to be left. The Pacific Ocean rolled straight through the entrance, every vessel in there was rolling and scrunching against their fenders protecting them from equally rolling pontoon slips. This was awful. We inspected the haulout facilities, hauling Sänna from the water was definitely not an option either. The boatyard used a tractor-hauled trailer to pull vessels up a steep ramp, it might be ok for a thirty-five footer but not for a vessel of our size. The marina office said we could stay, even though the marina was officially closed. There were more government virus restrictions being announced daily, the British Embassy once more contacted us to say that Panama was closing all borders to foreign nationals. More worryingly, the international airport would be closed to all flights from the 18th March. Marie needed to be back in England, Delta Airlines and KLM were not available to arrange for the use of her existing ticket, none of the airlines could be contacted. Marie’s Iberia flight to Madrid was cancelled. There was an American Airlines flight out from Panama City to Miami with an ongoing flight to London, it left on the day the airport closed – in fact it was the last scheduled flight out of Panama. Marie booked her ticket out.
I remained, we were in a precarious situation with regards to the safety of Sänna. By this time we’d got to know Richard & Nancy onboard Stand Down, and Bob & Sarah onboard Rhapsody quite well. Bob & Carol onboard Singularity were in the marina too. Other vessels came and went – so it wasn’t a rigorously enforced closure. A few days after Marie left, two huge billionaire motor-yachts came in to tie up. The police and Aeronaval were there to meet them, but not soon enough to prevent some of their crew absconding quarantine before the police arrived. It turned out, speaking to Wolff and Carlos, these vessels had loaded Italian guests from Italy in Boca Chica, some of whom were now suspected COVID-19 carriers. The AeroNaval instructed both vessels to leave the marina. Later that same morning, three armoured vehicles stationed themselves at the Vista Mar complex gates.
The situation deteriorated day by day. First, the Government of Panama closed its borders entirely, then there came a military enforced curfew, first from 9.00pm until 5.00am, four days later 5.00pm until 5.00am, then, almost immediately afterwards, they introduced a full 24-hour enforced curfew. We were allowed onshore off the boat for only one hour each day to buy supplies, with staggered times depending upon the last number on our passports. Then this too changed, men and women were only allowed into the nearest town on alternate days. Breaking the curfews meant arrest and detention by the police and army. The number of virus cases were growing throughout Panama City – though nowhere near on the scale of Italy and Spain who had by now implemented their own drastic emergency lockdown procedures. Curiously and bizarrely, the UK now had far more COVID cases than Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador combined, all of whom had closed their borders and restricted movement at an alarming speed – but not the UK, the UK had done virtually nothing. Everyone in Vista Mar talked about Boris Johnson’s ‘Herd Immunity’ theory, was he right? I found the whole thing confusing. Of course, to the consternation of just about every American in Vista Mar, President Trump too seemed to have a wholly different agenda. I began to feel a growing respect for the president of Panama.
By this time, Wolff had registered for a German emergency evacuation flight flown by Lufthansa. He would take a domestic flight from David to Panama International Airport near Panama City. The airport had been declared open for foreign evacuation flights only, along with other European governments the German government were repatriating all of their citizens worldwide. No such good news from the British government though. When Wolff arrived at the airport in David, his domestic flight had been cancelled. He rented a car to drive the nine hours to Panama City, through the roadblocks with his letter of authorisation from his Embassy. He called me to ask if he could stay with me overnight in Vista Mar before carrying on early the next morning to Panama City – and he had with him our Panama Cruising Permit given to him by Carlos. Of course, I said, I’d make arrangements at the security gate, inform the army boys manning their armoured vehicles then meet him at the gate… except that at the first security checkpoint he came to they took away his hire car, they put him into the nearest motel as the 5.00pm curfew deadline approached. Frantic calls to his Embassy restored his hire car the next morning before continuing to just make the flight to Germany… and our Panama cruising permit went to Germany with him.
Then came the appalling Zaandam incident. The Zaandam is a huge Holland-America cruise ship that had been trying to dock anywhere in South America that would take it loaded with coronavirus sick, including British dead. No port of call would allow the ship to dock, it then made its way into Panamanian waters to make an attempt to transit the Panama Canal to its home port in Florida. The vessel was intercepted by the AeroNaval, the captain of the Zaandam requested that the Panamanian authorities take off the sick and dead to allow his ship to transit the Canal. Permission was refused by the Panama government and the AeroNaval, Holland-America then arranged for a second cruise ship to evacuated the non-COVID sick from the Zaandam – except they never informed their crew.
The British embassy in Panama became involved in negotiations with the AeroNaval to evacuate British sick from the Zaandam into the Panama health system. After consultation with the Panamanian government permission was refused, the embassy then informed me that all foreign-flagged vessels regardless of size or purpose would be kept in quarantine – and if any vessel then declared coronavirus onboard they would be escorted by the AeroNaval to designated quarantined anchorage areas for self treatment with no regards for vessel safety – no foreign national from any vessel in Panamanian waters would be allowed access to the health system for treatment. This was a potential death sentence – the British Embassy immediately advised all UK maritime nationals to get out of Panama at the first opportunity.
The embassy then swung into admirable action. There was an emergency evacuation scheduled for the 26th March, arranged by the Dutch government with their KLM airline to Amsterdam. They could arrange for me to be on this flight to Amsterdam, but I would then need to make my own arrangements to get from Schiphol to Heathrow. My problem was it was now the 25th, I had to have arrangements to get from Vista Mar to the international airport which by now was a long drawn-out process. I was offered a seat by KLM but missed that flight. I was bitterly disappointed because the embassy had advised there would be no further flights out of Panama for some time. Then, a stroke of luck.
There was a second KLM flight scheduled for the 29th. The embassy applied on my behalf and I was offered a seat. There was now a good deal of communications between the embassy and Coronado Transportation Services, including all letters of authorisation for permits to transfer me through the military checkpoints and roadblocks which all had to be notarised by the transport company’s lawyers before I could travel. With the invaluable help of the South African Ollie in Vista Mar, who communicated with the transportation company on my behalf, I managed to get everything together. I despondently packed up Sänna, readying her in a hurry to be left for a potentially long time, maybe two or three months I thought. It was not a safe place to leave her, even in good times I would never have chosen to leave our boat there.
At 6.30 am on the 29th, at first light, I was picked up by Coronado Transport Services from Vista Mar, in a long-wheeled van with all passenger seats removed except one. Even with all the necessary permits and requests for safe transit we were stopped at the first roadblock. The police checked my temperature, checked all the documentation, then allowed me through to the next checkpoint. The same procedure happened twice more before we arrived at the international airport, once there everyone was made to wait outside the locked departure entrance. Also waiting outside were those excepted onto an emergency Iberia flight to Madrid – a few hours later ambulances arrived transporting suspected COVID cases for this flight. By now there were dreadful coronavirus stories coming out of Spain. What the hell was happening in the UK? The KLM flight waited outside of departures until the Iberia flight had cleared and flown. When we eventually sat at the departure gate, every passenger there clapped and cheered the KLM flight crew when they came through to board their aircraft. Me too, I enthusiastically cheered along with everyone else.
I arrived in Schiphol, missed my British Airways flight my daughter had arranged for me on my behalf, then slept overnight in Schiphol Airport – which was not allowed under their own emergency restrictions. I found the meditation lounge unlocked, slept in there, then found the door locked when I tried to leave. A cleaner released me then took me to see the catering manager who kindly made up a sandwich for me. I stopped a KLM representative to explain my situation, that I had missed my flight to London. I was taken to the single open KLM checkin desk in the deserted airport who gave me a ticket free of charge to Heathrow. I left Schiphol a few hours later onboard a near empty KLM flight to London. From Heathrow, my three daughters had clubbed together to arrange a taxi to take me the whole way to Norfolk for my self-imposed fourteen day’s quarantine. Around seven weeks later, our Panama Cruising Permit arrived safely from Germany… courtesy of the post from our good friend Wolff.
Sänna is now left in Vista Mar. It is not an ideal location to leave any vessel long term, but we have arranged for Ollie to take care of her in our absence. Sänna will be safe for the foreseeable future, our worry is if the civil situation deteriorates in Panama, but this risk is a real risk in many countries during these crazy times. The president of Panama acted quickly and decisively when faced with the disaster caused by this Chinese bat virus – well ahead of the UK and US governments who seem to many to have prevaricated like headless chickens. How this will pan out over the next few months is anyone’s guess. Right now there are severe restrictions for the Panama Canal, not so much with the Canal authorities but in the Canal marshalling areas, anchorages and marinas that are essential to planning a safe transit for small vessels under 65ft in length. Marie and I are considering a possible alternative route south to the southern cape in Chile and Patagonia, but this option is a long and difficult passage. We are currently back in the UK, under severe travel restrictions which in other countries are beginning to be lifted. But not here in the UK, the UK has the highest death rates from the Chinese virus than anywhere else in the world other than the US.
It’s a moot point whether we were safer in Panama rather than in our own country. Here in England we have free access to medical facilities that we would not have in a Panama – though Panama possesses its own excellent health services with ample supplies of PPE. This begs the question which of the two countries is more advanced in terms of taking care of its people?
Footnote update – April 2022. We left Sänna nearly two years in Vista Mar. Unable to return to Panama due to international travel restrictions and closed borders worldwide, these early days of covid were nothing compared to how the virus eventually took hold and millions of people died. Left alone, Sänna had to be emergency hauled from the water when a leaking thru-fitting threatened to sink her, the marina staff and Ollie, our valuable South African friend, saved the day and we will be forever grateful. We ourselves, Marie and I, both caught covid although we were fine. We eventually returned to Vista Mar in October 2021 to find Sänna in a bad way, but we patched her up and got her thru the Panama Canal in November 2021. At this time of writing we are in Cartagena, Colombia, undertaking ongoing repairs arising out of the pandemic.
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