Hello, Bocas! Goodbye, Money!

We arrived at Bocas del Toro, Panama late in the afternoon with plenty of time to anchor prior to sunset. It was a good thing that we had Paul as a lookout while we debated where exactly to anchor because he spotted a shoal and kept us from grounding ourselves. Straight away we learned that the chart was a tad off kilter and that it was extremely difficult to read the water. To avoid the potential challenge of navigating the larger anchorage where all the boats seemed to be, we all agreed that the anchor should be set, “Here!” and we dropped the hook.

20140512-164731.jpg

We were just off the shoreline of Bocas Town; so close that we could hear conversations among the land dwellers. It was not quite 4:00pm. Hopeful that I could get this clearance process finished before closing time I hailed the Port Captain on the VHF. No answer. I tried several times on VHF-16 and received no response, nor did I receive a response from any nearby boats. I had hoped someone would at least be listening to VHF-16 and give me some pointers. Brian pulled out the guidebook and our notes from Noonsite to see if we could locate the Port Captain’s office and dinghy ashore to inform the authorities of our arrival. This tends to be ‘Plan-B’ in many of the laid-back areas that we’ve previously visited. Brian discovered, per Noonsite notes, that the Port Captain’s office had closed at 3:00pm. We’d be stranded on the boat all night, since upon entering a new country we are under quarantine not allowed to go to shore unless we’ve been cleared by the officials. We made the most of this dilemma by pouring rum drinks, making supper, and sitting in the cockpit to observe our new surroundings.

20140512-165132.jpg

20140512-165955.jpg

There were all different kinds of boats whizzing and paddling to and from. Taxi boats called pangas were transporting people; these are fiberglass skiffs with large outboards and bench seating. We saw dug-out canoes, dinghies, and boats we couldn’t quite describe like this one below which had two boys aboard.

20140512-165521.jpg

This motorboat blazed past the two boys on that, whatever it was, and left the poor kids in a huge wake! He did a few sweeps back and forth. He’d spotted my zoom lens and on his last pass he gave a look in our direction.

20140512-165642.jpg

20140512-165651.jpg

Some backpacker dudes took a dip off this dock; not sure if they were cleaner before or after that dip. The water around Bocas Town was absolutely disgusting! There were all sorts of trash floating by. We of course hadn’t noticed the trash until after our dips to cool off. Yuck! Ah well, nothing a little soap and fresh water can’t handle…hopefully.

20140512-165912.jpgIMG_20140501_182057_1IMG_20140501_182123

Soon, darkness and rum concealed our surroundings and we enjoyed the cool night air while listening to music blaring from the local bars. The next morning I was relieved to see that none of us had mutated after having swum in the disgusting water. The guys took quite a while to get motivated; the rum was still wearing off and it was a rainy morning. Rainy! Brian and I debated hauling anchor and moving to a sunnier location. I was anxious to get cleared into the country however, so Brian made pancakes while I hailed the Port Captain on the VHF – every 15 minutes – and tried to refrain from doing laps up on deck in the rain between calls. Another sailboat had arrived and sure enough on their first attempt to hail the Port Captain they received an answer. I piggy-backed on their call and told the Port Captain we’d also just arrived. The Port Captain replied that he would be out within the next hour and a half. And then we waited…

The ferry arrived from Almirante, a town on mainland Panama.

20140512-170828.jpg

I’d cleaned the breakfast dishes, and we waited…

We reviewed Noonsite notes to get out the appropriate amount of cash, and we waited…

We watched a US Coast Guard ship anchor. Why the ship was there we had no idea, but this was indeed good entertainment. The ship anchored essentially backwards by setting the hook with their stern to the wind. Makin’ us proud, USCG (she said sarcastically)! Paul and Brian busied themselves to determine the exact location of the ship by using our radar and chart. And then we watched as the ship slowly pointed itself into the wind, and we waited…while the Port Captain visited the USCG first. But hey, we were here first and we anchored appropriately!

20140512-171306.jpg

A panga delivered a slew of officials to Rode Trip. (By the way, they came to us first even though I had piggy-backed on the other sailboat whom had originally hailed them first. Sorry ’bout that, fellow cruisers.) The panga driver and the Port Captain remained in the panga. Customs, Immigration, and we assumed a second Port Captain came aboard. They each wanted copies of our boat documentation, crew list, passports, and Zarpe. I was handing out papers left and right, one copy of that, two copies of this…This was the first location that required so much paper! I may need to spend a day at a print shop just to replenish my stash. (Thanks to my friend, Kim on s/v Anthyllide I had ample copies because she had forewarned this about Central America.) Customs and the Port Captain completed their paperwork simultaneously. Immigration, a woman, told us that we’d need to visit her office prior to 4:00pm that same day to get our Visas. She said the Visas would cost $105/person (more than Noonsite stated). We explained to her that Paul, who had arrived by sea, would be departing by airplane in just three days and asked if he could obtain a lesser Visa. “No,” she replied, “when you arrive by yacht the Visa is good for one year.” We tried again to explain that he wouldn’t be staying for one year and showed her his flight reservations. It seemed a long shot that we could save Paul the expense, and so we told him he’d just have to stay for the year instead. Customs had Brian sign the Customs Declaration, provided us a copy, and then searched the boat. His search was not very in-depth, because he had pulled on one of the cupboards to open it and pulled off the toggle on the back that keeps the cupboard door shut. This embarrassed him, although we observed it and he acted as though maybe we hadn’t, and so he stopped searching and he went outside where it was much cooler anyway. The Port Captain was wiping his brow and cursing the heat under his breath. He provided us with our Cruising Permit. He explained clearly and slowly that this permit is valid for one year, after which we may request an extension for a second and even a third year. The Cruising Permit cost $103 (boats under 10 meters cost less and we measure in, without our bowsprit or boomkin of course just below the high price mark at 9.7 meters). Then the Port Captain told us we had to pay him $20/person for all these officials who had boarded the boat and that we had to pay $50 for the panga fee for them all to get here. Paying for the panga we’d anticipated, not at $50. But we’d not anticipated shelling out $20 a pop for the officials ($100 total) whom we could have easily gone to ourselves. Brian and I looked at each other in one of those moments where we expect the other to make a decision. Brian asked if he could get a receipt. We were assured we could get receipts by visiting each office. This was a bribe, a scam, an unnecessary fee. Naturally, we paid it. Stupid. We did not, however pay the panga fee.

Kicking ourselves, but at the same time thinking it simpler to just pay than to argue with officials we took down the yellow quarantine flag and hoisted the Panama flag. Paul helped us to get the dinghy ready and we ventured ashore. Still not completely cleared, we headed to the Immigration office. En route, we found a print shop where we made copies of Paul’s passport and a copy of our Cruising Permit; Immigration requested we provide this at our visit to the office. Apparently the government can’t afford to supply copy machines even though they are raking in the dough for travel visas. The office building was at the center of town and our visit with Immigration was pleasant. While there, we were also met by Quarantine; received yet another document and an official government receipt for the cost of $15 for Quarantine’s services. Quarantine conveniently searched our boat from the comfort of the air conditioned Immigration office.

20140512-174005.jpg

20140512-174018.jpg

Only $428 and we’re IN! Maybe we should get our year’s worth…

Welcome to Bermuda

Land Ho!

20130626-093136.jpg

We’d sighted Bermuda; this tiny, 20.5 square mile island in the mid-Atlantic was within reach and we were anxious to drop the hook for respite from the sea. When we spotted the island, we were still approximately 20nm away and some quick mathematics confirmed that we’d not make landfall until after dark. We were approaching from the southwest and needed to sail the length of the island to the entrance channel on the east end.

20130624-075013.jpg

Knowing we’d arrive after dark, we consulted the chart to determine whether the entrance channel would be safe. The conditions were calm and the entrance, Town Cut, was very well marked with plenty of water for our draft. The decision was unanimous, we’d sleep at anchor tonight!

20130624-075424.jpg

Bermuda Radio monitors all incoming and outgoing boat traffic for the island. The radio has a strong signal accompanied by a powerful radar system that can spot boats along a 50nm radius. Per my Bermuda clearance research, I’d learned it was necessary to hail Bermuda Radio on the VHF once in hailing range which for us is about 20nm. Per Bermuda clearance research, I’d also learned that Bermuda has an online pre-arrival form. I had completed this pre-arrival form prior to departing Grand Cayman; the information provided is the standard particulars of the vessel and crew (vessel type, length, draft, number of crew, etc). You can find the link for the pre-arrival form here, as well as general information about Bermuda clearance. When I hailed Bermuda Radio the dispatcher was able to pull our pre-arrival information. We provided our latitude and longitude and ETA. We continued sailing as we watched the sunset over Bermuda.

We reached the sea buoy for the Town Cut channel at about 9:15pm. Once again we hailed Bermuda Radio and received excellent directions for entering the St. George’s Harbour and locating the Customs dock. We dropped the sails and motored through Town Cut channel; our only engine hours during the entire passage. We found the buoys to be exact.

Once in the harbour, we located the Customs dock to the north of the harbour, at the northeast corner of Ordinance Island. It was just after 10:00pm and we were thrilled to meet three fellow cruisers at the dock who voluntarily assisted us and welcomed us. After a short chat, we made our way to the Customs office, the building is on the dock; the office is open from 8:00am – Midnight. The woman who assisted us at Customs was pleasant and efficient. We completed one form, surrendered our flare gun, paid $70USD (via credit card, USD accepted) and within 15 minutes were cleared. We found a cozy spot to anchor just off the Customs dock. The hook was set in soft sand by 11:00pm.

20130626-093212.jpg

By Midnight we’d converted Rode Trip back into a home and had sprawled in the very spacious v-berth. Our bodies rejoiced for the stillness, the flatness of this new resting place and we slept soundly.

Grand Cayman Island

Our passage from Cienfuegos, Cuba to Georgetown, Grand Cayman was uneventful. We traveled for 45 hours in very light, east winds. Clearing customs was a breeze. We hailed Port Security on VHF 16 when we were approximately five miles from Georgetown. We provided information pertaining to our vessel; name, length, draft, beam, number of persons aboard, previous port, and estimated time of arrival. Grand Cayman’s hotel lined Seven Mile Beach was a stark contrast to Cuba’s untouched mountainous landscape. We hailed Port Security a second time upon approaching the Government Dock and the very helpful officer directed us to the Customs Dock. It took us longer to dock Rode Trip against the stone wall than to clear customs. Brian and I each completed a form, we provided our passports, and Brian surrendered his Hawaiian Sling. Then we left the dock and secured Rode Trip to a free mooring ball just off Georgetown’s shoreline.

20130531-140717.jpg

Grand Cayman is the largest of three sister islands (Little Cayman and Cayman Broc) which are situated in the northwestern Carribean Sea. The islands are a British Overseas Territory and are known for their banking industry and tourism. Grand Cayman is a popular diving location; the clear and well protected waters are home to an abundance of coral and fish. When Columbus found the islands he had named them La Tortugas because at that time there was an abundance of sea turtles here. During the 1600’s and 1700’s the Cayman Islands became a provisioning stop for vessels in the Carribean because the conveniently situated islands provided turtles and also fresh water wells. Sailing vessels could stock their food stores with fresh meat, turtles which they often kept alive on board, and fresh water from limestone wells. Turtle is still eaten in the Caymans and the turtle population has been maintained through farming. Brian and I planned to reprovision at Grand Cayman prior to our passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately we won’t be catching any sea turtles to keep on board but we should find everything we need. This is quite possibly the most expensive location we could have chosen since each $1.00USD equals $ .80CID. There were so many sights to see…not to mention making all the necessary stops for provisioning.

20130531-141058.jpg

First on our agenda was connecting with Mike at Compass Marine to arrange the replacement of a piece of our rigging. During a rigging inspection back at Jamaica, Brian found a kink on one of the inner stays. A kink is not a good sign because it means that the stay is weakened. Since the stay holds up our mast it needed to be replaced. Brian took down the stay and we were able to arrange for Mike to pick it up at the dinghy dock. Mike’s assessment was that the kink resulted from improper tightening. Fortunately Compass Marine had 9/32 stainless in stock but had to order swaged fittings in order to make our new stay. It was Wednesday and Mike thought the project would be done by Monday the following week. Brian and I were thrilled with Compass Marine; Mike was prompt and straightforward and the new stay was made right.

Rigging in progress, now we had several days to one month’s worth of food stores and replace yet another vital piece of our boat…the vent fan for the composting toilet.