We have never been in a situation where all of the forces, (wind, current, fetch, and swell) were working against us. It felt like a giant was scooping the water out to sea with his hand while blowing as hard as he could, trying to keep us from entering the Gulf of Panama. We are not making any head way to our destination, and are entering the shipping lanes for the Panama Canal in the dark, then, our motor dies……
The day before, Epiphany along with our buddy boat Litha, are at anchorage in a spot named Benao. Benao is the last stop before rounding Punta Mala, and into the Gulf of Panama. We arrived in the afternoon the day before to this beautiful bay with the winds howling around 17 knots, and dropped our anchors for the night. We got to go ashore the next day in our dinghy’s to discover a hot, bohemian party place for young rich Isreali’s and Panamanians. We all enjoyed seeing the young, tanned buns on display in their thong bikinis while eating lunch and drinking margaritas at a palapa restaurant. The latin based music blared into the night until 4:00am.
Punta Mala (meaning bad point) is notorious for being difficult to maneuver around. As we discovered coming down the coast, most points rounding large bodies of water, like Point Mendocino, Point Conception and Cabo Corrientes, need careful planning with weather and currents. We figured that we would give ourselves a day of rest after our overnight passage to get to Benao, then we would leave the following evening to go around Punta Mala at night, and into the gulf of Panama.
As we prepare to leave, Justin from Litha dinghy’s over the game Battleship so we can play as we travel over the VHF. We planned on a 15 hour trip to arrive to the first island in Las Perlas, San Jose. We would leave around 11:00pm ahead of Litha’s 1:00am departure because they are a bigger, faster boat than us. After our two- margarita lunch we all take a siesta to rest up for our overnight journey ahead.
Bill and I pull up anchor at 11:00pm and head out into the darkness. As we get out of the protection of the bay the winds pick up and we put up a reefed main and our staycil. We are happy with the wind and start sailing towards the point. We decide to stay at least 4-5 miles off Punta Mala because of the confused currents. As we get closer, the boat starts gyrating in every direction. I go down below and secure falling wine bottles and dishes as we were rocking and rolling like the inside of a washing machine. Thinking of Litha, and all their kid’s things on their boat, we call them and tell them to lock everything down and keep their distance off the point.
This rocking continues and gets worse. We finally begin angling into The Gulf of Panama, and as we do the 25-30 knot winds are hitting us right on the nose and the 6 foot every 2 second wind waves are coming over our bow. Epiphany doesn’t even have time to make it down one wave before another crashes into her. The wind, fetch and swell are coming from exactly where we need to head, and we are only making 2-3 knots speed. We decide to angle off a little and curve around the gulf to hopefully find some relief on the other side. We now have to contend with all the tankers heading towards and away from the Panama canal.
We still were not making much headway, so out of necessity we start our motor and slowly begin maneuvering around the tankers. Carefully one by one, we check each oncoming ship’s CPA (closest point of approach). We do not transmit AIS so chances are ships of this size can not see us at night. We successful get through one side of the shipping lanes and begin heading for the next with all of our capacities on high alert, and our motor dies. We are crashing into waves head on in the middle of the busiest tanker passage in the world with no motor like a sitting duck. Right at this moment I look down and see the Battleship game that Justin brought over for us to play with them over the VHF and realize right then that we forgot to toast Neptune before we left, and probably did not give Punta Mala and the Gulf of Panama enough respect.
What should have been a 15 hour passage turned into a 41 hour test for Bill and I. The conditions were so bad we couldn’t get to our engine room to see why the motor died. Finally, on day 3 of sailing back and forth for hours on end, hardly making any headway, the wind calmed down. I ran down and woke Bill up and said, “We need to try and start the motor now!”
At last, we got the motor going long enough for us to limp into the island San Jose and drop our anchor. Litha was patiently awaiting the arrival of their wayward friends. We did manage to get a message to them that we were alive somewhere in the Gulf of Panama with our Garmin email, so they weren’t completely panicked.
In conclusion, we learned that the Gulf of Panama has a serious temper, and if you do not give it it’s due respect it will break you down and make you pay. This experience truly was a test in patience, and lack of control. As I look back now, I believe this was a forewarning for what we had coming with COVID -19, and our 55 day quarantine in the Galapagos. That will be the illumination of my next post.