“Paradise. We all want to go to paradise, right? Paradise means different paradises to different people – we all have our own personal view of paradise because paradise most often resides inside our head. Panama’s San Blas islands might be described as paradise – the sort of tropical island paradise we see in pages of glossy print so it’s fixed in our minds that a tropical island is where we want to be. To ourselves, Green Island was just a convenient place to shelter from howling thirty-knot winds, until we could launch ourselves from behind paradise into the towering sea that everyone warned us would kick our backsides. When we left, we got hammered – crawling into Cartagena with shredded sails and a broken shackle, our exhaustion a testament to what real paradise is.”
When we left Shelter Bay in mid-January we were glad to be gone. Gone from Panama, nearly two years in the country we first planned to get through in less than two months. We had covid to thank for this, we did not suspect what lay ahead when we crossed the border from Costa Rica having never heard of this virus that was festering inside a bat cave in China.
Now we wanted to move on, we wanted to get out of Panama, we wanted to get away from all the bad memories of covid. We thought we might head south, through the San Blas, to South America…
‘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 – 2021
This blog describes both our transit of the Panama Canal and the trauma of returning to Sänna in Vista Mar after eighteen months of the covid pandemic. Our trials and tribulations were emotional and sometimes heartbreaking… though we somehow triumphed against the strangeness of the odds thrown against us…
“The general covid situation in both the Caribbean and Central & South America is highly unpredictable. Vaccine supplies continue to be erratic and will remain so with the major manufacturing nations combating new covid waves and variants of the virus in their own countries. The situation in Brazil and other South American countries greatly affect the Caribbean and Central America, therefore it would be prudent to expect at least twelve to eighteen months before normality returns to the region. This advice is being extended to all UK companies with business activities in Central America, in particular to trade relating to Mexico and Panama. Both countries are currently social planning at government level against the expected threat of second and third waves of the virus.”
UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office – Central America Desk.April 2021
Clearly the dire situation now wreaking havoc in India is a warning to anyone who thought we had the virus beat. Here in England, many of us who follow the sport of cricket watched horrified during January and February when the India v England Test and Limited Overs series was underway, packed grounds of non-social-distancing spectators without masks cheered and hooted every Indian run and each England wicket. Those of us under stringent lockdown during the rainiest of English winters watched with envy, seeing a nation that had beaten the virus put to torch the best English cricket side we could muster.
Now everything has changed, or has it? Here in England we too are convinced we have the virus beat, our vaccination programme is the envy of the world, our renowned and much respected pharmaceutical industries have discovered and created vaccines that are driving the virus back into the Chinese bat caves from where it came.
But the economic and social upheavals are surely, without doubt, going to be with us for some considerable time. Meanwhile, back in Panama…
Twelve long months have passed since we abandoned Sänna in Panama, when our fourteen-day quarantine back in Norfolk turned into a two-month lockdown retreat hiding from the virus. For me, it was two glorious months – sunshine and empty beaches, long daytime treks through wild dunes and hair-raising confrontations with pitchfork-wielding locals intent on keeping themselves and their families alive.
Never did anyone back then think the virus could get this bad. That first wave of covid was an auspicious beginning, a preemptive far-eastern strike against western humanity that was a nasty taster of what the whole world could expect next. Now, here in England at least, the virus is being knocked back, there’s a wonderful light shining at the end of the dark tunnel, an Astra-Zeneca Oxford – Pfizer Biotech salvation not unlike the fightback victories of our maritime heroes Drake and Nelson.
Norfolk is the birthplace of our greatest hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, where he is still revered and worshiped to this day. Now that incredible vaccine technologies mean our long cold-winter lockdown is being lifted, we have returned to Norfolk knowing there is as yet no way we can get to Sänna still moored in distant Panama.
Meanwhile, here in glorious pitchfork-defended Norfolk, not much has changed…
October the 12th finally brought a COVID update from the president of Panama.
Land and air borders are now open, meaning that air travel into Panama is now possible though military and police enforced curfews are still in place. Security forces ensure that government imposed restrictions are strictly adhered to with the curfew hours of 11pm to 5am Monday to Saturday maintained. From 11pm on Saturday to 5am on Monday a full lockdown is in place, meaning that no one is allowed from their home for any purpose or travel. In Panama City, the volatile eastern provinces bordering Columbia, the Caribbean-side provinces of Colon, Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro are each under stricter curfews – from 11pm Friday until 5am Monday it is almost a total weekend lockdown. The president fears lack of social distancing and increasing civil unrest will spread the virus in these higher risk locations.
Of course, this differs greatly from the new virus restrictions in the United Kingdom. So how does this leave us with Sänna still tied up in Vista Mar?
‘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…
“Many long-distance sailors fear lightening more than they fear anything. Battling atrociously big seas and gale-force winds comes with the ticket, with storms an experienced mariner can ready their vessel and take precautions, experience will then generally see them through. That is the way it has always been. With lightening at sea or even in harbour, a sailor can do nothing. It is not unlike being shot at by a large cannon that could sink your vessel if hit, and many ocean sailboats are struck by lightening. A lightening storm is a truly frightening experience, because you cannot do anything to prevent it.”
Sir Francis Chichester, 1979 (edited)
We ourselves have come across many sailboats, a large number of them multi-hulled catamarans, that have been struck by lightening. A lightening storm at sea is a frightening experience, it has always been our own greatest fear.
Bahiá Del Sol, in El Salvador, suffers its fair share of ferocious tropical storms during its wet-summer season, further north in Mexico and Guatemala they generally manifest themselves as Pacific hurricanes. Even so, a tropical downpour in this rain-forest and mangrove wilderness is something you won’t forget.
At the back end of August both the Dutch catamaran SVMadeleine and Sänna were struck by lightening whilst moored in the Bahiá Del Sol. Madeleine was severely damaged, ourselves less so but damaged nevertheless. It later transpired that two other vessels had been struck during the same storm, including Doug & Sara on Illusion.
They say lightening never strikes twice, it’s the second time that Madeleine has been struck…
“We left Sänna in, of all places, El Salvador, which made one or two blink wide-eyed because of the high crime, the gangs and all that. It seems an okay place so far, there’s a small gathering of US and Canadian sailboats waiting out the hurricane season, they tell us there’s never any trouble…”
It’s a little late, but we’ve now gotten around to writing-up and updating our ‘Where Are We Now” part of our Sänna website. Lots of you have been asking. This describes our voyage south from Ensenada in a northern Mexico to Bahiá Del Sol in El Salvador back in 2018.
Much has happened in the last twelve months or so of this year. You know how it is, family, the lure of an English summer, music festivals, the cricket… so we decided to spend this last summer back in England.
La Paz is a nice place, there’s no doubting that, the harbour sits forty miles or so up on the east side of Mexico’s Baja Peninsular and is considered by most sailors to be the gateway to the fabled Sea of Cortez.
This eight hundred miles of smooth sea that’s landlocked on three sides had been the subject of much conversation between ourselves and American sailors ever since we’d sailed our way south from Alaska, eventually reaching the San Juan Islands to the north of Seattle’s Puget Sound in Washington State. In the truly sublime North American harbours of Port Townsend and Friday Harbor every sailor it seemed had spent some time or other in Mexico’s most well-known sailing destination.
As we then made our way south down the US Pacific west coast, their enthusiasm and perfunctory advice grew in intensity, we were not under any circumstances to miss out the Sea of Cortez…
Leaving Ensenada to make our way south provided a welcome relief from the trials and tribulations of bringing Nellie Cat from England to Mexico. Now we’d see how Nellie took to life on the big ocean which, let’s face it, would be a new experience for all three of us. Well, coming as a complete surprise our new ship’s cat was seasick. Neither Marie or myself had given any thought to the issue of cats being seasick, I think it’s fair to say we were as much stressed than we’d ever been since our time onboard Sänna… we were paranoid about losing our new ship’s cat overboard.
By the time Nellie herself overcame both her fear of the sea and her insufferable seasickness, we’d made the sixty-five miles south overnight to anchor in the tenuous shelter of Cabo Colonet…