Sugar Shack in the middle of the Rio Chagres

Passage: Bocas to Colon

Sugar Shack is on the move again.  It’s time to make the passage from Bocas del Toro to Colon.  After Monday Market at the Drunken Monkey, we headed to the Zapatilla Cays.  The fastest way to Zapatilla is 10 miles southeast through the Crawl Cay channel which runs between Isla Batimentos and Isla Popa.  The only problem is that it is not the easiest route to take.  There is a high proliferation of coral shoals that require good light and polarized glasses.  Thank goodness the sun was high in the sky and no rain was in sight.  We made a few “about faces” and decided to “abort” a few routes, but we made it out safe and sound.

A few hours later, we arrived to the twin islands.  We decided to anchor at Zapatilla Cay Numero 1.  The other island is aptly named Zapatilla Cay Numero 2.  Both islands are a part of the Bastimentos National Park.

Zapatilla Cays in Bocas del Toro

Zapatilla Cays in Bocas del Toro

We were all up early, so we readied the boat for departure and made our way toward our next destination, Escudo de Veraguas.  This is a 32-mile journey that should take us about 5-6 hours.  The wind was acting wonky so we only rolled out the jib.  With no wind instruments we didn’t know the wind speed and we only knew the direction by sticking our face in the wind.

The waves were rolly and at about 2 meters, but they were several seconds apart so it was not terribly uncomfortable.  We did have a 1-2 knot current which helped push us along our path and gave us better speed.  Overall our trip took 5 hours with an average speed of 6.1 and a max speed of 8.8 (down a wave).  Not much to do on this passage, but watch the depth, adjust the sail, and enjoy the ride.

Wayne enjoying the passage.

Wayne enjoying the passage.

On the way, we passed by Cayos Tigre and Tiger Rock which make a big impression as you pass by – thank goodness we are passing by as one would not want to get too close.  Its hard to tell from the photo, but there are three protruding rocks in this set of Cays.  For some reason it made me think of Eagle Rock where my mom grew up.

Cayos Tigre, Bocase del Toro

Cayos Tigre, Bocase del Toro

Escudo de Veraguas has rich waters all around the island.  Many fishermen come from the mainland to fish and skin dive.  There are two anchorages on this island, but some friends recommended the southern anchorage so that is where we dropped our hook.

Image: Left a set of sea caves, top right is a large sea cave with a sandy beach, middle, sandy beach but too hard to approach with the surf, bottom more sea caves.

Escudo de Veraguas, Bocas del Toro

Escudo de Veraguas, Bocas del Toro

We had hoped to go snorkeling and or exploring on shore, but the dreary rain kept us on the boat.  It finally cleared around 1700 so we hopped in Sweetie to go check out the massive sea caves.  This island is pretty remarkable with drastically different landscape.  At one side of the island there is a beach and the other side has huge cliffs with little inlets.  Keep in mind that these two landscapes are on the same side of the island, just different ends.

It was a very rolly anchorage making it uncomfortable to stay more than one night.  We had hoped to remain here for a few nights to clean the hulls and waterline and install the new wind index but the weather conditions made it too unpleasant.  So, we left the next day and headed to a very small anchorage called Euero.

Euero is a 46 mile passage from Escudo de Veragas. The good thing about this weird weather pattern is that the waves were actually going with us rather than against us.  We ended up motor sailing most of the way and arrived around 1600.  The anchorage is supposed to be one of the calmest anchorages along the coast.  However, with the northerly winds it was like being inside a washing machine.  We tooled around trying to see if we could make it work, but decided it was not worth it.  Even though we just spent 7.5 hours on the water, we decided to continue on to Rio Chagres, another 90 miles (or 15 hours).  Will be a long passage and longer day.

No matter how we did the math, we were going to arrive in the middle of the night and that is not good. The entrance to Rio Chagres is challenging enough during the day so we were going to have to figure something out along the way.  Matt took the first shift from 1900-2100, then Wayne took the next shift 2100-0100 and I came up at 0100.

We were blessed with a gorgeous sunset and moon rise.  I tweaked the moon photo too much, but I think it is still pretty.

Sunset and Moonrise underway

Sunset and Moonrise underway

By the time my shift came around, we had a new plan.  We were only 10 miles from the entrance and needed to dilly dally for the next 6 hours until the sun came up.  We had no sails up and shut down the port engine to slow us down.  So, for 3 hours, with one engine, I hand steered trying to maintain a heading of 45-50 degrees.  The general idea was to keep the boat heading in the right direction without too much propulsion.  Not a difficult task, but one that you had to remain vigilant at because Auto could not hold course with one engine, crazy winds, and rogue waves.  The wind and waves constantly wanted to make the boat head up. And you could not cross the wind line without doing a full 360.  It also meant you could not walk around, get food or water as you had to man the helm. Lucky for me, Matt was up periodically and fetched me stuff to keep me awake.

After my shift, Matt continued on the same path for another 3 hours until the beautiful sunrise and a small rainbow.

Sunrise and Rainbow under passage.

Sunrise and Rainbow under passage.

We finally arrived to the entrance around 0700 after killing over 5 hours doing 1 knot. Sounds thrilling right?  As you approach the river mouth, the old Fort San Lorenzo beckons you to look up as it sits majestically a top of the hill.  The entrance is really shallow at 3 meters and tends to have a lot of sediment and a wee bit of current as well.  You can see the fort behind the boys as we passed through the Rio Chagres entrance.

Fort San Lorenzo at Rio Chagres

Fort San Lorenzo at Rio Chagres

Motoring up the river, Sugar Shack splits the water quietly.  It is stunning here. Top image is river before us, bottom is river after we passed by.

Sugar Shack cruising up the Rio Chagres River

Sugar Shack cruising up the Rio Chagres River

The Rio Chagres is a stunning tropical, fresh water river that is surrounded by rain forest. Many believe this is a magical and mystical place that begs for silence which is only broken by the cries of the wild.  After staying here for 2 nights, I have to agree completely.

The Rio Chagres is protected and heavily researched.  The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute maintains an active research presence and all of the wildlife in this area are protected.  The trees form a majestic 50-meter high canopy that starts right at the rivers banks.

Matt at the helm with 50' trees on Rio Chagres

Matt at the helm with 50′ trees on Rio Chagres

Further up the river, we found our own piece of paradise on the Rio Chagres.  We anchored, ate breakfast, and hopped in Sweetie for an adventure.  You can actually take your big boat all the way to Lake Gatun Dam, but we decided to go by dinghy.

There is absolute solitude on the river.  The silence is only broken by the sound of our 25hp outboard and the howler monkeys and birds.  We made the short passage to the dam which was certainly a wonderful sight to behold – especially knowing we will be on the other side in a week.

This river was dammed in 1910 to create the Gatun Lake and supplies the water for the Panama Canal.  A boat can actually navigate 6 miles up the river all the way to Gatun Lake damn.  Many of the earlier pioneers used this passage before the Panama railway was built.

Gatun Dam from Rio Chagres

Gatun Dam from Rio Chagres

There is a lot of wildlife in the area, so we stopped, shut the outboard down and enjoyed the music of the animals.  We did manage to see a sloth and several pretty birds.

Sloth enjoying the cool water before a climb up a tree.

Sloth enjoying the cool water before a climb up a tree.

The cries of the wild. Even though I move the camera, close your eyes and listen to the animals.

Cries of the Wild

Sugar Shack enjoying the Rio Chagres all by herself.

Sugar Shack in the middle of the Rio Chagres

Sugar Shack in the middle of the Rio Chagres

We all slept well and hard after our broken sleep from the earlier passage.  It was still and so quiet at night and as the sun rose, the forest came to life.  Matt spotted monkeys in the trees next to us, so we hopped on the SUPs to introduce ourselves. They were shy, but we got a few good photos.

Capuchin Monkey in Rio Chagres

Capuchin Monkey in Rio Chagres

Wayne and I checking out the monkeys on SUPs

Wayne and I checking out the monkeys on SUPs

We spent the next day being lazy, reading, and doing boat projects.

COMPLETED BOAT PROJECTS:

  • Wind index and instrument installed AND working
  • Bow speaker wires installed through hatches
  • VHF speaker replaced (cock pit)
  • Scrape the bottom and props (remove barnacles)
  • Waterline cleaned

Our last passage is the shortest, Rio Chagres to Shelter Bay Marina (SBM).  Weave in and out of the huge cargo ships, into the Chrisobal Panama Canal entry, across the “explosive anchorage” and into a slip for a few days.  In SBM we will do a massive scrubbing of the exterior of the boat, prepare the port office cabin for Heather and Michael, prep several types of dough (pizza, bread, English muffins), provision, baking (cookies, brownies, muffins), and ready the boat for its passage through the Panama Canal.  So excited!!!

2 thoughts on “Passage: Bocas to Colon

  1. Diana

    Christine, I can almost imagine myself there with you, you describe it all so well. Thank you for sharing your experiences in pictures and words. These are places I will probably never see in person so it’s wonderful to experience it through your eyes.

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