The Panama Interlude

Ok, ok,’ll write something…it is a reflection of my state of indecision that I have been unable to post an update for so many months. Apologies.

I am still here in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I feel disconnected, as if I have been wheeling on the wind at anchor, glued to the border between sea and sky for all my life. The USA has become as foggy and unappealing as Eastern Swaziland. Not to disrespect Eastern Swaziland of course; I’m sure it is lovely.

I know that inland there are roads and homes, trees and rivers and such but I have little to do with them, they are not my world. I look out onto the land as the folk of the land look out on the sea. My territory is the water and its edges, the lagoons and the sea, channels, bays and beaches, endless mangrove islands and inlets, and to a much lesser extent the indian villages and the town of Bocas del Toro with its border of stilted cafes, bars, habitations, dive shops, water-taxi enterprises, hotels and marinas. I have barely touched the mainland nor been more than a few hundred yards from the sea in at least a year. I cross the vast expanses of water aboard Desesperado, poke at the edges, push off again and fill the sail to slip towards the next place, return to my present home afloat in the anchorage and tie up alngside. I don’t know what I am doing here; it is mostly pointless but also enjoyable at times, so I take one day at a time and try not to let my doubts and anxiety pull me down. I’m sick often – fevers and such – and tropical infections have been a problem, my skin is aging from exposure and my eyesight has deteriorated alarmingly; I think the constant intense light of tropical life is burning out my eyeballs.

The town of Bocas del Toro sits at one corner of Isla Colon which is just one of many islands in the Bocas archipelago, perhaps seven miles across. Between this island and the mainland to the south lies a lagoon, big but one can see the mainland on the other side, mountainous Tierra Oscura, the “dark lands”, black beneath a nearly perpetual covering of cloud. All around lie islands and islets and these in turn are largely surrounded by mangrove swamps and mangrove islets which have little or no solid land, being made up only of the mangrove trees themselves growing out of the salt water, sprouting from an impossibly tangled mass of their own roots. I look upon these swamps with horror, they are no place for a human being, but they are not all bad. Since fish can take shelter within the maze of roots this habitat is extremely valuable to them and to other wildlife. I hear of a gringo, drunk, driving his panga at full speed into the mangroves in the dark, thrown forward off the boat into the roots, to crawl out in a nightmare of tangled blackness. Horrible.

After the chaos of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua it is a pleasure to see a place where some rules are taken seriously and there is some measure of municipal control. Panama is quite civilized. Bocas del Toro for example, is rigorously fumigated for mosquitoes, every single building blasted with DDT and patrolled for standing water which makes it the only place I have yet visited other than Isla Mujeres where mosquitoes are rare, though sandflies are far from scarce and are a constant irritant even when anchored out. I am one of those unfortunate individuals who scratches and thrashes about whilst everyone else says “What bugs?” This fumigation I believe is a descendant of the measures taken to control yellow fever and the like during the building of the Panama Canal. It is cheaper than endemic dengue fever, though there is always some of this about. The police are useless here as they are everywhere south of the north, muggings are rampant (the weapon of choice seems to be a two-by four), we are all so sick of being robbed by the indians and others, but the cops are not completely idle; they will ticket you if you walk down the street without a shirt on or fine you if your vessel’s Panamanian pennant is tattered. Always for the money. One may not smoke in indoor public places nor walk down the street with a beer. I kind of like it.

Bocas is noisy in places but peaceful compared with Mexico. The music is horrible as usual, joyless tuneless creole rap-jabbering glorification of scumbaggery and misogyny to which one cannot dance (not just me, it make neither the locals nor anyone else move with any enthusiasm). Calypso seems mostly gone in the Caribbean as far as I have yet seen. One holdout is Calypso Joe who wanders about and plays out cheery stuff on his guitar including his magnum opus “If your mother and your wife were drowning / Which one would you save? / I tell you you better save your mother / You can always get another wife in your life.” There are many interesting and offbeat characters here, most deeply steeped in alcohol which is hard to avoid.

Bocas Del Toro was founded about a century and a half back and was just a village until the arrival of the banana company. The company shifted operations elsewhere leaving today’s Bocas to survive on tourism and as a refueling and transfer hub for the cocaine trade.  Business in the latter racket is good, but as a tourist one might be completely oblivious of it except for the easy availability of the stuff on the street. One may be offered drugs several times in just one half-mile walk along the main street. Banana ships still cross the lagoon to Almarante, the narcos had one of their own ship disguised as such for a while before getting nabbed. Just a few days ago The US Coastguard sank a narco submarine nearby outside the Drago channel, speedboats and yachts are also caught occasionally but we all know that the ones bagged by the local authorities are mere publicity tokens. The big boys are left alone. Few here have a real problem with the trade, Bocas itself has a strong undertow of black money and sin, one can feel it the air, but there is no air of malice or threat. The US Coastguard are less popular than the police or narcos; They show up for shore leave every couple of weeks and the crew are found very intoxicated in the Toro Loco on the drug that someone decided should be legal, and sometimes scoring weed on the backstreets. They are hated by many of the cruisers whose boats are aggressively boarded, searched, and damaged under the pretext of “safety checks”.

It is said that there are three Bocas lies:

1) I am not drinking tonight.

2) I am leaving tomorrow.

3) I love you.

To which I have added a fourth: 4) I am just going a for a pee.

When a lady here goes to powder her nose, it is very often literal.

    Being dependent on water traffic the watery edges of town are infested with rickety wooden docks to to which a huge fleet of pangas tie up to load and offload cargo and passengers (there is also an aging concrete dock for the two ex-Baltic ferries – reputedly stolen by the Russian mob – that lumber back and forth daily from Almarante on the mainland); every waterside business and home – all of which stand out above the water on stilts – has at least one dock, the shore is hairy with them yet it is very hard to find a place to land Desesperado. Private interests have usurped the entire shoreline and we are supposed to be grateful to them if they grudgingly allow us to tie up. With the myriad pangas zooming around being beside the sea in Bocas is like living by a go-cart track; whilst recognizing their usefulness I despise the graceless pangas (referred to as lanchas in earlier posts), they are the bluntest of instruments, ugly fiberglass workboats with outboards bolted on. Laden with life-jacketed tourists they hound and kill what’s left of the dolphins and turtles, they pollute with extreme noise and oil and fuel, as they scream around their wakes knock me off me feet and smash my vessel against docks, swamp the indians in their crude dugout cayucos . They use horrifying amounts of fuel – typically a gallon of gasoline every three miles and are driven at top speed almost all the time resulting in injuries and deaths from collisions with other boats and with swimmers. What is this feeling of a god-given right to travel at high speed everywhere one wishes on the water with no care given to the costs beyond the personal financial? Pleasure journeys are not pleasurable at all, the scream of the motor drowns out any conversation but that shouted directly into the ear, and there are always the painfully expensive stops at the fuel dock. There is some sailing done, mostly by me as I travel everywhere without hesitation by sail, but also a little by the cruisers on their yachts (most of these motor a lot of the time) and a bit more by the Ngobe-Bugle indians who are everywhere in their cayucos, bailing constantly as they fish, some of these carry a crude sailing rig which they can step and unfurl in seconds, the sail itself is a ragged piece of plastic tarp or sewn-together polypropylene rice sacks. They have no leeboards and cannot carry much sail nor work to windward, and often I find their occpants regarding Desesperado thoughtfully as if they wish to learn to improve their own craft. I don’t think they actually will though, they seem content to paddle for mile after mile most of the time. I find it remarkable just how much they can do with such a shitty boat as a cayuco – uncomfortable, unstable, always leaking (one’s seated posterior tends to plug the boat completely so one must bail in front of one as well as behind), easily swamped (the paddler takes the panga wakes broadside, a four-inch head sea can swamp the boat), but narrow and aquadynamic enough to be easily moved with a light stroke of the paddle. Few white people would brave the open sea in such craft but the Ngobe-Bugle indians, at least the young men, seem to think nothing of venturing a few miles out and spending hours diving in ten to fifteen meters of sharky water. It is difficult to imagine how they caught enough food before they had masks and snorkels, spearguns, metal hooks and nylon monofilament; doubtless there was a lot more marine life then. I wonder how it feels to be a Ngobe or a Bugle as the pangas scream past, looking up at the many impossibly complex modern yachts. These indians live in huts on stilts in the sandfly-infested mangroves, in small villages in huts on stilts on what solid land they can claim above the mangroves, and also higher up on the mainland in their own camarca, a semi-autonomous region. Many of the men and a few of the women speak Spanish as well as their own language so we may talk a little, they are inscrutable though not unfriendly. They sit in their rotting craft bailing almost continuously as they hook little fish with fast jerks on handlines. They go through the anchorage overloaded and unstable but never sinking and I buy bananas and root vegetables from them. I meet them out on the vast expanses of the lagoon or the sea, they are paddling the miles patiently or diving spearguns in hand for fish and lobster, their snorkels fitted with some kind of reed (ok it is probably plastic) which makes a flutey piping noise as they breathe on the surface; they say it attracts the fish. I see children getting about by paddle in the bowl of a wheelbarrow.

     Some of the dugouts are impressively huge. Apparently they can still find a few trees large enough to carve out a high-sided canoe upwards of 45 feet in length which will go at a good speed with a small outboard despite their weight. We race each other across the lagoon, all smiles, if there is sufficient wind I can beat even the fastest of them and this is a thing of wonder. Deseperado is famous in the archipelago, and Panamanians black, white and indian are all gratifyingly appreciative of him. Often I ampaced by boautloads of tourist snapping pictures .Winds here were mild and fluky for most of my time here leaving me to take hours to go nowhere but occasionally beset by vicious thundersqualls during which I have had quite a few scary adventures. For the first two months the thunder and lightning were pretty much continuous. Now we are in the worst of Panama’s rainy season, rain that beats one about the head, cold but not unbearably so, rain that soaks the world, mildews my clothes and sails, rain that can sink a dinghy overnight.

I have not moved on, I don’t know if I can. The Nicaraguan coast frightened me almost witless and ahead lays worse. I hoped my courage and enthusiasm would return but it is not happening. I have been here nearly six months. I have made some friends, such as Belgian Chris, an all-round dude and decent fellow, speaker of six languages, good-looking and fun-loving. He found me in the rain on Desesperado months ago and arranged a boat for me to stay on, then another, and has warmed my life here with good company and large quantities of rum. We run to Starfish Beach on his boat Marita, work together to save yachts dragging at anchor in storms in the night, investigate mad schemes like raising sunken boats and sometimes even do a little useful work. Though mired in self-doubt I sometimes realize that this is as good as it gets, this could be the time of my life. I realize that much of what I have said about Bocas is not positive, it is a weird place, but it does have good qualities: friendliness, relative safety, the blue easy waters and an openness for one to make what one can of one’s existence here.

But the doubts do stand. To live afloat is to separate oneself from all things green, to never dig the soil, to never hear a bird that doesn’t just squawk or schreech. To be utterly dependent upon systems and stuff. To rarely break a sweat in meaningful work, though there is an abundance of work to be sure.. I just read Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a haunting masterpiece whose dominant theme is the beauty of the land, and I ache – literally ache – for the mountains and streams and invigorating physical work in touch with the life and land amongst and upon which my being evolved. The sea has its beauty yes, but it is not a human element. Many are driven, not pulled, to it. Here the land is a humid and swampy bug-infested jungle replete with snakes and virulent infections; the indians can survive it but it holds little promise for the rest of us.

I live aboard Odin, a massive brute of a trimaran with a white deck like a tennis court, out at anchor south of town. Odin is a masterpiece of heavy construction built by Captain Kirk, and launched in 1969, still in perfect condition. Desesperado looks like a toy tied up alongside. Captain Kirk, 78 is a kindly and amusing man of amazing physical zeal, a well know tug-and-salvage man of San Francisco harbor. I could say so much about him. I love the guy and and would do anything to protect his boat which is now under contract for day charters and needed a watchman whilst Kirk himself lives on an extraordinary molehill of an island completely surrounded by mangrove swamp a few miles to the south. Somebody must guard Odin from the besieging thieves and learn the systems to be ready to fire up and cut loose the anchor when another boat drags down upon it in a storm, and I take my duties seriously to the extent that I rarely leave the boat at night and head back to it at speed at the first black sign of a squall.

I have lately been trying to save a big steel Chinese junk wittily titled Nuthin’ Wong which went up on a shoal during a squall a month ago. Repeated attempts to pull her off have come to nothing, and high winds and waves pushed her up and up until now she is seriously grounded in a deep hole in the coral sand. I have been unable to persuade my partner in this enterprise to take what seems to me to be the only logical approach – quit trying to dig the ocean deeper, instead float the boat higher then lead her off like a lamb. To this end I devised ultra-cheap airlift bags and have made enough of them to apply over five tons of buoyancy; I am keen to use them but with one let down after another I may not get that chance; the high tides are now passed and Nuthin’ Wong has now opened a weld and is leaking badly. It is another painful lesson to me that sometimes one must just take over and not wait for others. I should now use my time to make repairs to Desesperado for he now needs re-varnishing and a new sail, and the new deck I put in a few months ago is already deteriorating in this damp climate. A rudder bracket just snapped off meaning I must cut the new deck open again. Admittedly I have not gotten much done for myself in recent months; between my many illnesses and a penchant for going off trolling by sail it seems there is little time left over for work. Sometimes I pick up a random person for company from one of the hostels on legs and sail them out the Bastimentos channel through the rough stuff thrown up where the outgoing current meets the incoming swell, then surf back through the waves , perhaps landing a shining fish on the way; it is always a pleasure to hear someone say as they so often do that that was the finest experience of their whole long trip, one of the best of their lives. Desesperado shines on.

Sorry about the lack of photos, the climate ate my camera. I’m surprised it lasted this long.

There is a great deal more I wished to say about my experiences here, but suddenly everything has become a rush. Yesterday I was asked to join the sailing yacht Devaneo as paid crew on a charter trip from here to Cuba and back via the Colombian islands of San Andreas and Providencia. There will four of us aboard and we will be out for two or three weeks. I have long wanted to make some long ocean passages for which Desesperado is unsuitable, in fact I have not been more than forty miles out. I dread the seasickness to which I am prone but I am very excited. We weigh anchor tomorrow..


16 thoughts on “The Panama Interlude

  1. Hey Grilla, thanks for your very interesting report. Not only the nature of your wild enterprise but the way you write of it and examine your own self make this blog pretty unique. It stands apart from the many cruising blogs where cruisers post photos of themselves having dinner with other cruisers on each others boats.
    I doubt I’ll be the first to suggest that you consider working back through your posts and fashion a book from your writings, your prose style is easily read and very evocative and for many armchair adventurers you are living their dream by proxy. You have already lived a classic story of small boat adventuring and should not underestimate the value of it, even as time trundles by and you wonder what it’s all about.
    Good luck on your paid hand gig, sounds like a great program. In my experience, seasickness passes and once you get your sea legs you forget all about it.
    Really looking forward to the next report. Thanks for taking the time to share it all.
    Fair winds and regards to you from Groover

  2. hey Chris, I eat up your words with great joy and anticipation.. you are such a natural writer..I am in awe of your adventures and your survival,,, can’t wait to read about
    Cuba..bon voyage…nakki

  3. Beautifully written, Chris.
    The text is showing up dark brown and is difficult to read on my screen.
    All the best to you down there on the water. xoxbeth and jeff
    Merry Christmas

  4. Hi Chris. Great to get an update, I do check in occasionally although I have not commented for ages. And great that you are out at sea and making some money! Hope Desperado is safe. And hope you get to enjoy Cuba.

  5. keep it up Chris! I saw a video of you and someone (?), sailing Desperado on youtube, and you guys sure looked like you were having fun! Wow, great adventures! malxxx

  6. You have probably set off on the charter trip to Cuba by now, but here goes anyhow.

    Devil’s Advocate Position:

    You may not know it, but you have a remarkably-strong constitution. You are also still relatively young.

    People so blessed tend to take their physical well-being for granted.

    But I would propose that even the strongest constitutions can be eroded over time and it sounds to me like yours is on the way.

    Get the hell out of there *now*. Come back to “The World” (as we used to call it long ago and far, far away). Get your health back up to speed, get your mind re-calibrated…and then decide if you want to pick up where you left off.

    A nice-to-have would be finding a cooperative cruiser who would take Desperato aboard and deliver him to some East Coast port where you could pick him up at your leisure.

    Barring that, leave him and get on the first plane north.

    You are too valuable a resource to sink in to irreparably-damaged mind and health.

    Get out while you can.

    Oh yeah, and happy new year….

  7. Hola Chris.
    It´s very interesting to read your adventures…..I remembere very well your statemnet of ” Turist processors ” in the Yucatán riviera, I agree with you a 100 %. You allready have material for a book, Enjoy the Present time.
    Saludos from Chicxulub , Yucatán Mx.

  8. I also have an small message :
    Worry is a TOTAL waste of time ,
    It doesn´t change anything ,
    ALL it does is steal your JOY
    and keep you very busy doing NOTHING………..but you allready knows this./ SALUDOS.

  9. Chris,
    It is always exhilarating to read your posts! I can only imagine….. Have fun, be safe and stand tall in the face of danger. My thoughts are always with you and I tell stories of you often. Best, Flaco.

  10. Hi Chris.

    My son Robert Hielkema is sailing from Cuba to Panama about now. He is on board a racing keel yacht promoting the Dubai World Expo 2020. The boat is covered in promotional sign work so you can’t miss it. Rob is very fasmilliar with proas as he grew up around them all his life. You may find a kindred spirit. Rob can be contacted at robert hielkema He’s keen to meet up if possible, his partner Hannah is a journo writing about anything related to sustainability, global health, global peace etc. Really hope it’s possible.



  11. Harmen,

    I’m sure my Son, Chris, would love to meet your Son, as it seems they have a lot in common. Unfortunately, Chris will possibly be crewing on a yacht, headed through the canal and then on to Hawaii, then back across the North Pacific to the Seattle area. I’m not sure of this, as Chris has neglected his blog, and also his email, as I have not heard from him for a couple of weeks. The name of the yacht is “Samphire”, so your Son Robert should look for her and give her a hail if sighted.

    We fathers can only do what Dads do so well —- worry —-

    • Hi Dad.
      I trust you found your son OK. Mine got back safe and sound I’m glad to report. Please convey my appreciation to Chris of his monumental achievement. I followed his journey all the way. My old Proa Toroa is very much like that of Chris’s. I too made long solitary trips around the coast of NZ back in the 1970s. No way of recording back then other than journal and film photography. Best Harmen.

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