Stick your head out, from the cozy bed, set the sails, the waves will shake the boat and its crew to the bones. And before the sun dawns we will be behind the horizon, in another land.
One Monday morning, after all teas have been drunk and all hands shaken for a farewell into an unknown future, after we said goodbye to the ACAPULCOs, the AVENGERs, the AZÚCARs, the DAPHNEs, the KILAUERAS, the WUNDERBARs and all the new friends in the marina, we left Linton Bay Marina.
Another long, adventurous chapter full of surprises ended. Time for sailing, we all get a bit too lazy, have grown roots, kind of rusty, after such long period in one place.
That morning, ARGO could not wait to be seaborne, again. Our proud boat got so many repairs and upgrades, a newly painted belly to defend her against parasites that would slow down her swift travel over the oceans. The sails got a makeover, and patches and neat leech lines. New batteries of the latest technology were shipped from the deserts of Nevada, and a high-end inverter activating the plugs with good 220 Volts, like at home, got installed. Various electric drives received an overhaul in a workshop in Panama named ‚Great Electric Motors Company‘. All winches have been cleaned and greased for a swift handling of ARGO’s huge sails.
We motored for a last time through the reefs of Linton Bay — passing the poor sailor high on the reef, that only two weeks ago first lost the keel and rudder, then all the valuable equipment (stove, electronics, winches, etc.) to desperate locals, sailors, and finally lost the mast. The spinnaker pole of this poor sailor rests now on ARGOs foredeck — in exchange for a handful of dollars to Jim, the now-owner-recycler of the poor sailor.
Wild, violent East of Panama
Linton Bay is a wild, rough and beautiful place in the jungle.
Life for the locals is kind of Wild-West-like. Both, the government and the police are barely present. The boats of the coast guard (Aero Naval) are rarely equipped with VHF radio, not to speak of radar or AIS — in sharp contrast to the Columbian coast guard, who have all the shiny equipment of a US-funded paramilitary unit.
The village Puerto Lindo, adjacent to the anchorage and the marina, has no police station but a bad reputation among the neighboring communities for violence and crime. Just last week, one of the locals was shot to death. Seven bullets on the street of Puerto Lindo at daylight, people say. We knew that person named by his colorfully painted boat: ‚El Hablador’, the Talker. El Hablador, mestizo-Panamanian and probably in his late thirties, sold us veggies, eggs and fruits in August last year, when we arrived in Linton-Bay. The quality of the produce was so-and-so, but the prices have been kind of steep. Anyway, we did not had too many choices, since we served a 14-day quarantine. Later, people in the marina told us that El Hablador desperately looked for valuables on the sail boats in the anchorage that he could ‚collect‘ at nighttime — while selling food during daytime hours. Our dog Vu did a great job convincing ‚El Hablador’ not to meet him at night again.
His fellow-Puerto Lindarians mainly live off social welfare — the Panama Channel is a stable source of income for all Panamanians. As one consequence, all life here is laid back. For instance, all local Panamanian shops and trades are pretty basic — if existing at all — in this corner of the country. All villages got a Chinese, a Colombian, a Nicaraguan or a European who is stepping in, is taking advantage of the notorious shortage of supplies in the jungle and selling all kinds of groceries and services.
A second source of income in Panama is the trade of several thousand kilograms of cocaine along the Panamanian coastline. The locals say about this business: ‚The rich get gold, the poor get a bullet or prison.‘ El Hablador might have tapped into this business without accepting that the entire system is set up to always favor the rich and powerful. Of course, Panamanian law enforcement agencies fight the trafficking with their poor equipment. But in the large scheme they are part of this puzzle, in which every package of cocaine — once shipped from Columbia reaches — will be delivered at its destination, no matter what. That’s what locals told us.
In a sharp contrast, we as tourists never experienced even the slightest kind of crime during our stay. Nor we observed the trafficking gangs. Nothing bad happened to us or to our fellow cruisers. Not in the marina, not in Colon or Panama-City. We rode the same busses and the same taxis as the locals, we went shopping in the same malls, the same supermarkets, retrieved cash from the same ATMs as the locals. No one got burgled, not a thing got stolen from our boat. Not forget: tourism is a growing and ‚clean‘ source of income for Panama which Panamanians highly regard and protect.
(For reasons of completeness — the other source of income of Panama are banks — Panama City has the highest density of retail banks on the planet and is home to the offshore banking industry. But Panama City is far far away from Linton Bay — geographically, economically and in general lifestyle terms of Caribbean Panamanians. That’s a different story.)
Groupers from Kunas
Linton Bay is an astonishing beautiful place in the jungle, too — dolphins and turtles are swimming through the anchorage, howler monkeys and sloths are hanging in the trees. The horse-back riding along a jungle river to a waterfall has a special place in our memories. Plus, the anchorage is very safe: The holding is excellent, and it’s protected from the waves of the Caribbean Sea. Moreover, Panama in general is well-known for violent thunderstorms. For instance, we met about 10 boats that got hit by a lightning in Panama last year. And to our surprise, the bay of Linton seems to be sheltered from lightning storms. In the last wet season we did not experience any electrical storm inside the anchorage, but many thunderstorms passed by quite closely.
When we arrived at Linton Bay, ARGO was overdue for some maintenance and repairs, including sails, electronics and underwater body. Regarding boat works, this place was another positive surprise to us. People — craftsmen, marina employees, the groceries sellers in the marina — are mostly hardworking but easy going. Prices are affordable, the quality is sufficient. For every problem that couldn’t be solved with the locals, the long-staying cruiser community is a rich source of advice and crowd-intelligence. A vast and polyglot community of sailing families, charter captains and globetrotters, which finds any spare part in Panama or a way to get it shipped to Panama.
However, the key feature of this area is another one: The quick access to the paradise of Kuna Yala aka San Blas — only a short day sail away. Kuna Yala is one of the few autonomous regions of indigene people, where traditions dictate daily politics and shape the life of the Kunas. We visited the free land of the Kunas twice for almost two months in total — and it was always a life-changing experience. That is not an under-statement: We became friends with the Kunas (which is a complete other story worthwhile to tell one day), and we became friends with our friends — just imagine weeks spend together on a solitude island with 30 people from seven nations, adults and kids, with a perfect beach. Somedays the party starts at 10 in the morning with fish, lobster and continues as a feast with activities and music and dance. Some other days there is no party, but beach clean-up, spear fishing, surfing. Holidays from the boat life in an anchorage, a break from the routine of project work and homeschooling.
East Panama is for me: buying a big grouper from a Kuna dugout for a handful of dollars, cooking the fish on a BBQ and sharing the meal with friends.
We have a thousand reasons for not leaving or returning to Linton Bay in a few years. A few dozens are people we would love to meet again. And a ton of experiences still awaiting us. But some day the wind blows from the right direction, and is time to leave.
The contrast: Expensive wholegrain smoothies
Panama has two opposite destinations for tourism in Caribbean paradise — Kuna Yala and Bocas del Toro. Both are archipelagos with hundreds and hundreds small islands. And both are the main destination for tourists visiting Panama. But because Kuna Yala is still a rural paradise with almost none infrastructure (airports, hotels etc.) it’s the destination for backpackers and cruisers on a budget. Bocas del Toro — on the opposite corner of the countries’ Caribbean coast — is for mega yachts, hotel vacations and traveling with scheduled flights.
West Panama is for me like enjoying a hilariously expensive ice-cold ‚wholegrain smoothy‘, with the feet in the pool, surrounded by urban US hipsters, with their beards and tattoos and their pale, not-so-skinny girlfriends. We felt reminded to Tulum at Yucatán/Mexico — definitely the same crowds hang out in Bocas. Like in so many other places of the Caribbean. Bocas is not ‚off-beaten-tracks’.
And we enjoy it. Sometimes it is good to have reliable internet, a pool, a restaurant with changing menus. At the end of a 30h passage with little sleep, we like to relax.
The passage to Bocas was fast sailing, with a shiny underbelly and new equipment in the boat. However, the journey was not as fast as it could have been — the Golf of Panama is a special place with weird and unpredictable currents. The trade winds build up the waves for a couple of thousands miles — and all the energy is reflected from the shoreline back into the ocean. Thus, ARGO sailed in the oneandahalf days 210 nm through the water, and 180 nm over ground, from marina to marina. The Caribbean Bay of Panama is not an easy sail: big rollers, counter currents, at times chaotic waves from all directions.
Stops on our way home — Nicaragua and Honduras
We will watch out for a weather window in the week of March 1st, 2021. We need a wind with East-Northeast of >75 degrees to sail to the Albuquerque Cays (Colombia). The current on that passage is setting with almost two knots to the East — if the drift is too strong, we will aim for Corn Islands (Nicaragua). Both places are a stepping stone for the sail around Cabo Gracios los Dios and the Nicaragua Bank, which again we want to avoid because of the pirates — same as on our way from Mexico to Panama. We aim to sail as far as East as the Seranilla Bank — which might take us four days in total. From there, the NW Caribbean is easy to sail with the prevailing Easterly trades.
We would love to see Corn Island — when Lena and I have been young teens in East Germany, we collected money for the solidarity with the Sandinistas — hospitals and schools have been built thanks to the socialist brothers and sisters. Maybe it is time to visit Nicaragua…