The Red Frog Marina at Bastimentos

The Bocas del Toro archipelago is a group of northwestern, Panamanian islands that separate Almirante Bay from the Caribbean Sea. This archipelago comprises the Bocas del Toro District; Bocas del Toro (or Bocas Town) the major city is located on Isla Colon. Numerous islands, much like a tropical version of Maine, are accessible by ferry, water taxi, and private boat. The archipelago is home to Indigenous people, Panamanians, ex-patriates, and ever wandering cruisers. At a glance, it seemed we would have months worth of cruising opportunities to explore islands.

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First, however, more guests were due to arrive! To accommodate our guests we’d made reservations at a local marina, the Red Frog Marina on Isla Bastimentos. Roughly 5nm from Bocas del Toro on Isla Colon, the Red Frog Marina on Bastimentos boasted excellent water, clean facilities, and a water-shuttle service to/from town. These homey comforts were right in the middle of a tropical rain forest! We were anxious to get Rode Trip docked and explore Bastimentos in preparation for our guests. We were also anxious for a long, pressure-water shower and use of the laundry machines. And so, still with our good friend Paul, we hauled anchor and sailed a beautiful sail to Isla Bastimentos.

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We found the entrance to the marina nestled behind a labyrinth of mangroves. One of our soon to be dock neighbors dinghied toward us in his skiff and met us upon our entry. Stephen (s/v Cinnimon Girl) directed us to our slip; he and another soon to be neighbor, Bob (s/v First Light) assisted with our dock lines. Within minutes Rode Trip was securely docked.IMG_9373IMG_9383

Brian, Paul, and I met with Dock Manager, Lee. Lee was fabulous! Not only did he welcome us to the marina and provide the usual run-down of information (pertaining to wifi access, bathroom door codes, water/electric hook-ups, etc.) but he took time from his busy day to take us on a tour of the area. Lee brought us to the local beaches and restaurants and shared with us what kinds of wildlife we might spot in the rain forest. We were anxious to start walking around the island in search of Sloths, Strawberry Poison-dart Frogs, Monkeys, Snakes…oh no, NOT Snakes!IMG_9376IMG_9378

 

These lovely facilities would be waiting for us later in the evening.IMG_9380And so, after getting acquainted with an unusual new neighbor…we were off into the jungle! This is a Rhinoceros Beetle and we hoped he wouldn’t visit us down at the docks!IMG_8958IMG_8959

 

San Andres, Columbia to Bocas del Toro, Panama

We sailed off the hook after breakfast and buzzed past s/v Eva Marie as we departed San Andres. David and Victoria were on deck ready to wave farewell; they were anchored directly in our path and despite us shouting, “STARBOARD,” while coasting closer on a port tack they preferred to risk collision rather than hoist their anchor to get out of our way. It was all good fun as Brian sailed us around s/v Eva Marie and out the channel.

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Paul was eager to take the helm and expertly steered us through the channel. Shortly thereafter Brian set the auto pilot and we were cruising along in light winds under full sail with the main, genoa, and staysail.

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“So this is cruising!?” Paul observed as we all sat, hands free, in the cockpit admiring the coastline of San Andres. Paul’s previous sail on Rode Trip was her delivery from Halifax, NS to Portsmouth, NH when we’d just bought her in 2010. On that trip, Brian and three crew members took turns hand steering during a 4-day passage. They were less than comfortable (strong winds, high seas, cold temperatures, no lee cloths on the bunks) and were learning a completely new boat on the fly. That delivery was Paul’s first and only offshore experience; this passage would prove to be a luxury cruise in comparison. Paul had been more familiar with lake racing; watching the competition, constantly trimming sails, hand steering, adjusting course to keep up with constantly shifting wind. With Paul aboard, our sails were perfectly trimmed (not that Brian’s trimming skills have dwindled, but certainly getting up and going to the foredeck to actually look at sail shape is above and beyond cruising expectations.)

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Approximately 5-hours into our passage, we came upon the Albuquerque Cays. These two, small cays were completely surrounded by coral reefs. An excellent stop for snorkeling and spearfishing! We anchored Rode Trip in about 20-feet of water, dropped the dinghy, and grabbed our gear. Brian gave Paul a short tutorial on how to use the Hawaiian sling. I was on dinghy duty while the guys explored below the water. Paul is certified to scuba dive. He’s visited many reefs, but this was the first time that he was not observing the beauty of the coral and fishes. Paul was now on the hunt! Our survival at sea depended on whatever fascinating fish or lobster he could kill! Brian managed to spear two Spanish lobsters. They were so small compared to the lobsters in New England or the Bahamas that we looked at them as though they would hardly provide appetizer. Spanish lobsters grow to only 8-inches long. Back at the boat, Brian prepped fried rice and lobster for dinner while Paul and I readied the boat to get back underway.DCIM101GOPRO

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During the nights, we each took a 4-hour shift; Brian started 8pm-12am, then I took 12am-4am, and Paul took 4am-8am. It was smooth sailing and we all had plenty of sleep. Paul seemed to think that the bunk with a lee cloth was much more comfortable than being packed in-between sails in the v-berth as was his first experience aboard Rode Trip. During the days, we tried to stay cool and Paul tried to stay out of the sun. Both of these tasks would have been much easier if Rode Trip had a dodger and/or bimini. But we don’t, so we sweated it out. Paul and I kept our eyes on the sea whenever outside, but we saw more garbage than sea creatures. We also spotted one very bloated, dead sea turtle floating on the surface and one massive water spout amidst some passing squalls. The guys set the fishing line often; we caught one barracuda and threw it back. Although Paul likened the passage to a camping trip, he did enjoy the food. Eggs and plantains for breakfast, fresh bread each day, homemade carrot with coconut milk soup, and homemade cookies for late-night fixes.DCIM101GOPRODCIM101GOPRO

Paul enlightened us with all of the current events and new technology that we’d been missing back in the states. He brought several gadgets with him and thought of various forms of data collection that he could do aboard Rode Trip. On day two, we did speed trials. Paul set the GPS on his android phone within clear view of the cockpit. Then, he focused on sail trip and steered course. The GPS displayed speed in kilometers per hour; despite his best efforts we didn’t increase beyond 10kph which is roughly 5 knots. Not too shabby for the Wetsnail in 10-12 knots of wind. The guys were quite happy with their performance!

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We sighted land on our third day and Paul very nautically shouted, “Land ho!” Panama lay straight ahead!

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Schools of fish were jumping and gulls were swooping very nearby, so rather than head straight for the entrance to Bocas del Toro the guys took advantage of this opportunity for some more deep sea fishing. Brian caught a tasty lunch! While I broiled the fish, Brian and Paul navigated us toward Bocas where we’d soon set the hook – our third country this year!

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November 14-16th – Southbound Passage, Rough Seas

We left on Wednesday morning at slack tide with a prediction of north winds from 15-20 knots. A perfect Westsail sailing day. We decided to pull down the genoa and replace it with the jib because one of the multiple weather forecasts called for wind building to 25 knots during the day. There were several boats tempted by this promising forecast to head south; we left in the company of Anthyllide, two other monohulls, and a catamaran. We sailed past the Coast Guard cutter where cousin Maggie is stationed and waved as we set sail and headed out the well marked Beaufort channel.
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The wind quickly built to the predicted 20 knots and Rode Trip was cruising along around 7 knots with a double reefed main and jib. The autopilot took over and I got down to the serious business of fishing. We got a little farther offshore and the waves started to build to 4-8 feet when the drag on the fishing pole started to run! “Fish on!” I yelled to Stephanie and disengaged the autopilot so that I could slow the boat down to fight the fish. As Rode Trip headed up into the waves and started to slow down the waves suddenly seemed much larger and the rocking motion allowed the fishing line to go slack, and the fish was gone. I guess slowing the boat down isn’t always the best way to reel in the fish. With Rode Trip back on course and the fishing line redeployed we continued to run downwind. Stephanie was starting to feel seasick and felt a little better while lying down in the cabin. I stayed in the cockpit watching the northern gannets and other seabirds flying around the boat. After about an hour I got another bite, and this time I decided to let Rode Trip keep running downwind while I tried to reel in the fish. After about 10 minutes I had a small tuna flopping about in the cockpit! Stephanie peeked up out of the cabin and took some pictures during this excitement prior to heading back to her cozy berth inside the cabin.
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Darkness, it was pitch black without a star in the sky. The wind was building higher than the predicted 20 knots and we think even higher than the potential 25 knots predicted by Passage Weather. Around 10:00pm Rode Trip was rocking and rolling downwind and we decided that it might be more comfortable with a little less sail area up. The main came down completely and we continued to run downwind with just the jib up. Rode Trip didn’t slow down at all! Since the main was down this seemed like a great opportunity to rig both running backstays to give the mast a little extra support.

Non-Sailors Note – Running backstays are a removable piece of rigging that can be attached in a “stowed position” where they act as an additional side stay for the mast or an “active” position where they can double as a piece of rigging to ease the strain on the lone backstay. When the main is up only one running backstay can be active at a time because they get in the way of the boom.

Shortly after taking down the main we jibed and changed direction to head around the outside of Cape Fear. After heading due south for 4 hours we were able to jibe back, and continue our course towards Charleston. On this course Rode Trip was rocking through 30 degrees; 20 degrees of heel back through to -10 degrees. It was extremely uncomfortable, and our bookshelves learned a new trick of emptying themselves onto the settee.
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Almost every account of sailing at night involves glowing trails of phosphorescent plankton and a full moon lighting the way across a calm sea with a gentle breeze. For us it felt like our world was very, very small. Sitting in the cockpit we heard waves breaking just to either side. It was so dark that the waves remained invisible until they came up right under the boomkin at which point the white froth was illuminated by our stern light for a split second just before the boat rose up and over the wave. Rode Trip would race forward down the waves, sometimes hitting speeds over 10 knots and never falling below 7 knots. My world was contained within the boat and the minuscule distance from deck that could be lit by a flashlight. Stephanie’s entire world at this point was the settee, she was too seasick to move. After peering into the dark for hours just to get a glimpse of the waves I finally stopped. Unseen and without any predictable pattern, waves hit Rode Trip on the side with a loud CRACK! or whitecap over the side and we’d hear the sound of water rushing down the side decks to drain from the cockpit.
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Thank goodness for our trusty autopilot! I spent most of the night down inside the cabin out of the rain and talked to Steph when she surfaced from her seasick coma. I poked my head out of the hatch every five minutes and peered into the gloom, but I had not seen another light or boat since we sailed away from Anthyllide around noon the previous day. We talked to Anthyllide occasionally on the VHF. They had stayed about 7 miles away but were no longer visible.

The night was one long waiting game hoping the weather would subside. Lack of sleep was catching up with me, but Rode Trip seemed to really be enjoying herself. She seemed to bound through the huge waves as though skipping through a field. When the sun finally rose it was obvious that the waves had grown significantly during the night and the ride was not getting any more comfortable. Some dolphins joined us for the early portion of the morning and were having a grand time swimming around Rode Trip and jumping in our bow wave. They really seemed to enjoy jumping out of the water right near the bow while Rode Trip was heading down the front of a wave. With the large green walls of water all around it was quite strange to look up at the dolphins occasionally when they were near the crest of a wave and we were in the trough.
The wind would build for a while and then it would rain and the wind would die down for a couple hours before building in seeming even stronger than before. We motor sailed for a few hours to recharge our batteries. Stephanie was able to leave the settee and we resumed a watch scheduled of 3-hours on 3-hours off.
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We arrived at the main channel into Charleston harbor just after the sun had set. We were now closer to land and the waves had calmed down to a much more reasonable 4-8 feet. It was rainy and foggy and we really wanted to be inside at anchor. We took down the sails just before sunset and were motoring up the channel. The entrance to Charleston harbor includes a breakwater that sticks out almost 5 miles to sea. We knew once we entered the narrow entrance of the breakwater the seas would calm down and we would only have a couple more hours of motoring in the dark to reach the anchorage. It quickly became apparent that entering wasn’t a good idea. The channel buoys were about one mile apart, but due to the fog we could only see one set at a time. We were relying entirely on our GPS to get us from buoy to buoy. With these conditions we were concerned that we could end up beaching ourselves on the rock jetties in the dark. As we passed the second to last set of buoys before the breakwater we decided that good judgement is the better part of valor and we pulled a u-turn and headed back out to sea. We decided that milling around the channel entrance would keep us too close to any other boats in the area waiting for morning. We put the sails back up and headed south down the coast. We were really looking forward to Charleston, now it is added to the bucket list.

The second night was quite uneventful and Stephanie was starting to feel much better, allowing me to get more sleep. With the smaller waves and less wind we had slowed down to a mere 5 knots, but we had no interest in putting the main back up in case the wind started to build. We listened to radio traffic about commercial boats not able to enter Charleston, and then Savannah. This fog was really throwing a wrench in a lot of peoples’ plans.
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Around 3 o’clock on day three we decided to try the entrance to Sapelo Sound and cautiously approached the entrance channel. There was a LOT of current running out of the sound, but the engine pushed us through and we made it into the Georgia marshes where we dropped the anchor in Mud River.

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It was time to sleep and recuperate.