“The Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea didn’t look much different to the Pacific, both oceans are a relentless mass of heaving water that has no emotional attachment or care for an insignifIcant sailing yacht, especially one trying to make its way fighting with the wind. In a strange way, now that we’d transited through the canal, we expected something different from the ocean – perhaps a more benevolent attitude or even a friendly gesture by allowing us an easy passage to Bocas Del Torro. No, what we got was a hard overnight slog, driven back by a fierce three-knot current flowing against nearly twenty-five knots of breeze – the kind of wind against current that mariners fear with good reason, one that creates a maelstrom sea deliberately thrown upon us to kick our backsides big time. ‘Welcome to the Atlantic,’ I thought to myself with grim foreboding…”Dave
Shelter Bay, Bocas Del Torro and Morgan Stanley Bank
Wonderful Bocas Del Torro waited. Without doubt the few jewels of Panama are on its Caribbean side. Of course, we had enjoyed the tropical islands of Boca Chica in pacific Panama after we crossed the border from Costa Rica – which seemed a pre-pandemic age away from where we were now. Our time back in Vista Mar was never easy, our passage south and even our transit of the Panama Canal had been fraught with troubles and anxious moments. Now, we paid off our geriatric line handlers and settled down in Shelter Bay to sort things out. Our anchor windlass needed urgent repairs with a complete replacement of our entire anchor chain – which I’d ordered back in Vista Mar and was now scheduled for delivery after being shipped all the way from Florida. Our dinghy was also in a bad state and falling to bits – a quick search on the internet found a new one in stock in Panama City.
Our big bonus was that Rich & Nancy onboard Stand Down were already waiting in Shelter Bay. We’d first come across Stand Down while anchored in Boca Chica but had not really got to know them – there is not much social interaction between sailboats and motor cruisers because of the fundamental differences in making passage. However, on that last March day in 2020, when we raced in to Vista Mar to avoid the harbour closures at the outbreak of the pandemic, both Stand Down and the sailboat Rhapsody had made it ahead of us before helping us moor up. Since then we’d got to know Richard & Nancy on Stand Down and Bob & Sarah on Rhapsody well. When we finally made it back to Vista Mar eighteen months later both Stand Down and Rhapsody had left, both having gone through the canal. Rhapsody was somewhere in the Caribbean, Stand Down was still in Shelter Bay.
Stand Down planned to head westwards to Bocas Del Torro, a remote island area in Panama often frequented by backpackers and travellers. Rich & Nancy had been joined by their friends Randy & Tonie but Richard was adamant they needed one more additional deckhand. They had recruited a Colombian guy but he had not yet turned up – Nancy suggested that Henry might want to join them instead. Henry was super keen, they would pay his keep plus he would get a free ride for maybe three weeks or more while we completed remedial maintenance on Sänna. There was only one slight problem – Henry was on a gap year from Exeter University, he had a number of online intern job interviews lined up for summer work back in the UK. These would be zoom video calls, needing good quality fast internet links to make these interviews work, it was an interesting foretell of what was to come.
The day before Stand Down left it was suddenly confirmed on the news that Panama was no longer on the UK’s Red list. This changed everything, we would not need to land or air travel over the border to Costa Rica for fourteen days to then get flights home, we could now fly direct from Panama City. At this point, to our horror, we also realised that Henry had been given only a thirty day visa in his passport on his entry into Panama whereas Marie and myself had the usual ninety. Henry’s Panama visa was about to expire, we called our agent Rogelio who promised to investigate – he was sure Henry’s visa could be extended in Panama City but it would take some time – but another panic lay ahead of which at this moment in time we were unaware.
Richard & Nancy plus their new crew left without mishap late in the evening. It was by now mid-November, we needed to keep one eye on the wedding event after Christmas which was the main reason for our return to the UK – Sarah was Marie’s best friend and Marie was main witness and maid-of-honour. Everything now seemed much easier with Panama no longer being on the Red list but our new found relief was short lived – Stand Down was only just still in internet range when Henry received notification from the investment bank Morgan Stanley telling him that he had been selected from a long list of applicants for a job interview with the prestigious bank – in three days time. PANIC! Of course, there was no sure prospect of finding a good enough internet link to facilitate an online zoom video call while at sea, so Marie, Henry and his father back in the UK hotly debated a way of contacting Morgan Stanley to explain – to no avail. There was only one way out – a bizarre plan for Marie to take Henry’s place at probably the most important interview of his life to date.
On the morning of Henry’s interview, at around 3.30am because of Panama’s time difference with the UK, Marie took herself up to the Shelter Bay cruiser’s lounge where the internet wifi was stronger, she logged on and waited for Morgan Stanley’s interview team to connect. The signal was strong and clear, the interviewer appeared with the normal greeting of ’Good morning Henry, how are you for this interview today…” and quickly realised that it was not Henry there on the video call. Marie, of course, replied. ”Good morning, I’m Henry’s mother…” Marie explained the situation, which was somewhat different to all the other applicants which the interviewer noted with a great deal of surprise. However, the two of them agreed that Henry’s first off interview could be a simple telephone conversation – with Henry having just enough internet signal to make the interview call while ducking from the wind, hidden behind the coming of Stand Down’s flybridge. Of course, this cannot be described as anything like the ideal circumstances to undertake such an important interaction with your potential high profile job employer, especially one of Morgan Stanley’s standing.
Because of the somewhat vague possibility of Henry making it to the second round of job interviews, Marie and I decided it would be a good choice to sail Sänna the one-hundred odd miles to Bocas Del Torro ourselves, it would be an ideal shakedown cruise to test the work we’d completed plus it would reveal any further work that we would have to get done. Also, we could bring Henry back to Shelter Bay – the offtrack roadway to Bocas Del Torro was wild and almost none existent, the only real option was an expensive one way flight. We prepared, we left in the second week of November and we got hammered.
Our first experience of Atlantic sailing was not good. The distance wasn’t great, around a hundred and twenty miles north-westward towards the Caribbean Costa Rican border, the wind predictions didn’t look bad either but we hadn’t reckoned on or knew about the significant current that flows eastwards in this area, especially in the wet season when the mangrove rivers are emptying into the sea in torrents from the torrential rain that deludes this jungle coastline. We battled a fierce sea, heaped up by the near four knot westward current forcing itself against the prevailing wind blowing straight out of the Caribbean. At some point, our rear transom buffer, which seals the rear hull to deck joint, came loose and we began to ship worrying levels of seawater into our bilges. In the dark there wasn’t much we could do, it wasn’t critical yet but if the buffer parted from the hull then we would know about it. I inspected the rubber buffer, it was crazed and dry – more damage from sitting eighteen months in the glaring sun and heat. This was exceedingly tough sailing, especially when we had anticipated nothing like this.
We made Bocas Del Torro, a wonderfully sheltered bay with umpteen tropical islands offering scenic calm anchorages in idealic rainforest surroundings. We anchored off Red Frog marina where Stand Down was tied up – once more we were faced with extortionate marina fees that did not make sense or stack up, particularly when there were so many calm anchorages to choose from. Most boats there were freely anchored. The Bocas area is a magical hang out – the laid back town catering largely for foreign backpacking travellers is cheap, lively and around half the prices of expensive Panama City. Unfortunately, while anchored off, we had a bad experience with the Red Frog management – the resort reception themselves were exceptionally helpful and friendly, telling us we were free to use the resort and the self-serve laundry facilities for which we could pay for by putting coins into the machines. Making our way there we were pounced upon by the marina manager whose aggressiveness was astonishing – nope, we couldn’t use the laundry, it was out of bounds to anyone anchored out not tied up in the marina. He was American (it’s not fair to reveal his name – but it’s Deci Davis), an arse and a twoke looking creature to boot. One of life’s real twats. In the event, we snuck in under his radar to use the free island ferry, his refuge bins and fresh water refills for our tanks – all of which we would have been quite happy to pay for. Up yours Mr Davis.
We hung out with Stand Down, who also moved out from Red Frog due to ongoing arguments about the supply of electric power. We took ourselves off to the more downmarket Marina Carenero located on Carenero Island, Stand Down went to Bocas Marina in Bocas town, we’d meet up in the delightfully laid back town for cheap nighttime food and drinks. This was a grand place, somewhere we’d normally hang out for weeks but after nearly ten days our time was nearly up – we made plans to get back to Shelter Bay. Then, an even bigger shock – Henry had made the second round of interviews with Morgan Stanley bank. This caused a fundamental problem all round, Henry’s second interview was an all day affair along with twelve other selected candidates, it was again a zoom conference video call – so fast internet broadband was an absolute prime requisite for this to happen. We made yet one more plan. Once back to Shelter Bay, Henry would travel from Colon to Panama City, find a business style hotel with good wifi then spend the whole day online with Morgan Stanley plus another 3.00am start. We also received news from Rogelio about Henry’s now expired visa, Henry would need to visit immigration in Panama City to ask for an extension before trying to exit through immigration in Panama’s airport. There would be a financial penalty fine, probably around fifty bucks, but we were not sure. In the event, our sail back to Shelter Bay eastwards was fast and dry – except for yet one more thunderous downpour of torrential rain. The current was still swift though this time in our favour, we regularly made ten to eleven knots of speed over ground. In Bocas I had temporary fixed the stern buffer that was leaking seawater, I epoxied the underneath underwater joint then sealed the upper surface with 5200 sealant – the repair worked a treat until we could get to pull the whole thing off to seal the actual joint, but this was a future out-of-water job at the next haulout.
The Henry plan became more complex. It was a hundred dollar taxi ride from Shelter Bay to Panama City, plus at least two nights in a decent but expensive business level hotel suitable for a conference call interview. Then there was the potential fine for overstaying his visa. The answer was a five-dollar three hour bus ride from Colon City to Panama City plus a cheap downtown hotel that looked half decent as a backdrop to a zoom call. The first problem was getting from Shelter Bay to Colon but that was easy, there are two free bus rides daily run by the marina into Colon – this is provided because Colon is commonly recognised as the most dangerous city in Central America. Then we learned there was no free bus on the day because it was a public holiday, Marie quickly organised a taxi ride with strict instructions to the driver to drop Henry right at the bus door in the bus station – but Henry still got hustled between the taxi drop and public bus. Of course, Henry made it safely, he ensconced himself comfortably in his hotel room for his Morgan Stanley interview. When the interview began, he explained why it was still dark outside, that sunrise was still three hours away, that he had been working as crew and the travel dangers he’d been through to get to the interview.
Meanwhile, Marie and I followed Henry a couple of days later, taking the same bus ride from Colon. Rogelio took Henry to Panama immigration to sort his visa, it wasn’t a problem, there had been a mistake at immigration when Henry entered Panama, the thirty day visa in his passport was incorrect, the computer system showed a ninety day visa against his name, there would be no problems at airport immigration, there was no fine to pay and Rogelio said his time too was free. A great guy is Rogelio, use him if ever you can.
The three of us flew out of Panama the next day, through Amsterdam the same way we had come in – the same route as our emergency evacuation from Panama nearly two years before.
I tell you this, Henry was later offered and accepted the position with Morgan Stanley working in compliance law. They said he was the outstanding candidate of the six selected from the final twelve. They said his story of his death defying bus ride from Colon to make the interview, the just past midnight zoom call and his escapade tales of crewing through storms across the pacific were just the qualities needed for a city of London career in compliance law.
And, in the evening after his interview, Henry went down into the bar, he met a girl, a lovely german girl…
Dave – March 2022
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