St Vincent to Panama: Diary of a passage

This is slightly old news now. It’s scribblings from our 1,050 mile 12 Day passage from St Vincent and the Grenadines to Puerto Lindon, Panama. We arrived in Panama 1st November 2021. by Nick

Day 2

It’s 2pm scorching hot and we are cruising along at a steady 5 knots plus a knot or two of current. We have been sailing for two days now and the ocean swell is growing as we put more distance between us and land. A lolloping 3 metre swell creeps up the stern lifting Lilly from behind and we surf down the waves as the water overtakes us. It’s generally pretty comfortable until the odd wave hits us at a funny angle sending the boat into a big lazy pitch and roll.

I’m on watch for the next couple of hours which, in conditions like this, means plenty of time for reading and writing. A scan of the horizon every few minutes to check for boats and half an eye on the compass to check that the wind vane self-steering is keeping on course is the extent of responsibilities for now.
We caught two Mahi Mahi this morning, our first fish of the passage. They are beautiful fish that mate for life so we were happy to catch both the male and female. They are creatures from a fantasy, iridescent greens and blues continually changing until sadly the colour drains out of them and they turn grey within half an hour of being caught. They make for incredible eating. We flash fried the fillets which are tender beyond belief andmade a broth with the bones and head plus bread fruit and cooking bananas (staples of the Caribbean).
On the subject of wildlife we have a stowaway in the form of a Blackpoll Warbler (like a tit) that found sanctuary on Lilly when we were about 30 miles West of St Vincent. It seemed lost offshore but over the last two days she has become entirely comfortable with the boat and us. She’s currently sat 1 foot away from me sat on the compass looking for more scraps of avocado. The children (Seren and Morla) have been hunting spiders which has served to befriend the bird so much that she will come and sit on our shoulders making us looking like camp pirates.

Day 4 (4pm)

We have had 3 beautiful moon-bathed nights so far and only one squall to interrupt the consistent wind and sea state. Another fish this morning, this time a beautiful chunky Albacore Tuna around 8kg. Too much meat for us in one day (we have no fridge) so with the pressure cooker we have seasoned and jarred a load of meat. It should be good for months like that, even improving as time passes.
The only real disturbance today was coming closer than is comfortable to a 150 metre long LPG tanker. As it got closer it appeared we were close to being on a collision course and it was only after finally reaching them on the radio did they change course but still passed 0.3 mile across our bow. Far closer than you want to be with these roaring behemoths. It was never a real stress being as it was in daylight and good conditions but we will see more traffic now as shipping funnels into towards the Panama Canal. It’s an entirely different experience when you see these ships at night. Distances are very hard to judge in the dark and it’s an art to get a good sighting squinting through binoculars with the boat moving always under your feet. Tonight my watches are 7-10pm and 4-7am. The sunrise watch is normally a joy.
Experiencing the first signs of dawn on the horizon and relishing the slow transition to daylight with its change in atmosphere is engaging and time flies subduing fatigue. This is also the moment to set the fishing lines so there’s the added interest of a potential dawn catch. I’m on watch in two hours so time for my bunk and hopefully a couple of hours valuable rest

Day 5

Exhausted today after not sleeping well last night. I had stayed on after my first watch to hang out with Kieran and extraordinarily, for the third time in 24 hours, we had a massive ship heading towards us. Again we radioed to request a change of course as it was not obvious that they’d seen us despite us putting on our bright deck lights. We sat and watched all 250 metres of container ship pass 0.5 miles ahead. Their silhouette looks incredibly menacing at night. Hopefully we have had our share of close interactions like this, it’s far more normal to see ships sighted passing miles away on the horizon.
My second watch at 4am started with a splash. I arrived on deck bleary eyed with my cup of tea to be promptly drenched by a sloppy wave that slapped the side of Lilly. Back down below to put dry clothes on and start again. These moments are far more manageable here in the warm waters of the tropics than they are, say, in The Irish Sea when it’s a much sterner test of your sense of humour.
After that it was much more steady sailing with a firm wind from behind and manageable sea state. Interactions with wildlife are especially treasured off shore as there are less and less birds around so it made my night when a Petrel (about the size of a pigeon but infinitely more athletic) landed right next to my head on the life line. They seem to like human contact because the night before one landed on Kieran’s head and started fluffing his hair. Curious beasts!
Update on our stowaway Warbler is that she is now firmly part of the crew, always around us and now sleeping next to the chart table despite nearly breaking her back when a jar rolled on top of her yesterday. It’s possible her name is Daffodil but the girls debate it regularly so this is subject to updates.
Again caught two Mahi today and we will eat most for dinner, salting the excess to eat another day. Just finished reading my book (The Art of Joy by Sapienza, recommend highly!) and moved onto a non-fiction account of a family that had to abandon their boatin the Pacific and drifted for over 30 days in their life raft and dinghy before rescue. It’s slightly morbid but also important for us to discuss and plan, as we did last night, what we would do in case of a similar emergency. Hitting a sleeping whale or semi-submerged shipping container could be possible causes. I’ve put 40 Marlboro Reds in the grab bag so feeling relaxed about our prospects.
We are approaching half way in terms of distance, heading now more SW as we have passed the Venezuelan/Colombian border. We have sailed mostly in the middle of Caribbean Sea so far to avoid potential bad weather off the Colombian Peninsular , which has a reputation, but also to be far from the Venezuelan coast to eliminate the slim chance of piracy.
We picked up a weather fax last night and nothing to worry about for now. The slight concern is that we will have not enough wind as get a few hundred miles from Panama which could make for a teasingly slow and drawn out end to the passage. My guess is itwill take us 12 days in total.

Day 7

It’s late morning and for now we still have plenty of wind. Yesterday we even had to start reducing sail area as the wind increased and we are now running down impressive ocean swell. Generally comfortable save for one wave every half an hour that drenches those that are sat on deck on the windward side.
I was having a shower this morning and it’s worth a few words to describe this comedy process when it’s rough. Generally an undignified scene, you grab a bucket of limited fresh water and head to the foredeck where the movement of boat is most exaggerated. Then, legs apart for balance, the game is to not face plant while the bow lurches up and down waves. It can be similarly exhilarating taking a shit which is also rudimentary (bucket and water on the foredeck) but the stakes are that much higher if you fall over!
While writing this there was a shout of ‘Dolphins!’ from on deck and I paused to spend 15 minutes captivated with the pleasure of watching a large pod play around the bow of the boat. The most energetically performing dolphins we have seen since leaving Wales they acted like surfers waiting for the biggest waves to then leap clean out of the water.
Sometimes executing elegant arcs but often, and more entertainingly, shooting vertically out of the water and landing with a phenomenal belly flop. Speaking of their bellies they had pink undersides adding to the richness of the scene.
We’ve had a nice morning for wildlife with a huge Osprey at dawn coming to view us just above the masts. Took a day off fishing yesterday but back to it this morning but only had a small Barracuda on the line which we sniffed at and put back. With the superior meats of Tuna and Mahi around we felt justified in being picky.
Time for a strong coffee and to take the bread out of the oven. I’m on watch this afternoon and we have seen a few big logs float passed today so we have to be extra vigilant. Not a nice thought that we could crash into one of these at speed.
Update on our stowaway Daffodil is that she’s has abandoned us after making an ambitious bolt for land flapping furiously in the direction of Colombia. We hope she makes it.

Day 7

It’s incredible how sailing can feel so different in such a short space of time when the weather changes like it has in the last hours. Late afternoon yesterday I was dozing on a dinghy on deck in the calmest conditions of the passage so far then nightfall brought with it brilliant flashes of lightning from a big weather system in the direction of Colombia. We gybed to sail further offshore partly to improve our course also to move away from the weather which might be associated with the land.
The sea state was beginning to pick up as was the wind. By 10 pm there was distant lightning on the horizon all around us but still we stayed dry and I went to bed wondering how conditions would be when I got up again at 4am.
Jean-Marc and I began our early morning vigil and the drama was cranking up and soon we were in a theatre of lightning storms all around us, closer than before. Every few seconds the sky, the sea and the boat were momentarily and brilliantly illuminated with repetitive flashes. Fork lightning was beginning to be a regular feature of the show, some staying in the sky and reaching from cloud to cloud and others crashing down and connecting with the horizon. Its gets the heart going but counting the seconds to the booming thunder we guessed the storms were between 15 to 25 miles away and not getting much closer so it was easy to sit back and absorb the drama without anxiety. There is a part of me that really wants to experience being in an electrical storm at sea but
equally I don’t want to wish it up on us so no problem if it doesn’t arrive!!!
12:10pm: It arrived!! I’m writing this in the middle of a phenomenal electrical storm with fork lightning FAR too close for comfort with thunder shuddering what seems like a split second later. It’s windier now and we have taken down more sail area, racing down the waves with just a reefed foresail and headsails. You feel like such an obvious target for a lightning strike with two great masts sticking 15 metres up towards the weather. We have put the handheld GPS, VHF and mobile phones in the oven as a precaution. I’ve no idea why it works but apparently it can protect them from an electrical surge if we do get hit and they would be vital if we lost our other instruments.
It’s very hard to describe this atmosphere. It’s so intense, so powerful being in the middle of all this. Utterly exhilarating! Amusingly the kids are here down below playing with their toys, completely chilled and unfazed as if it’s just another day. Where’s the fuss?

Day 8

Over the late afternoon yesterday and through the night the clouds cleared, the wind dropped and the swell calmed steadily until now where we enter a different paradigm.  We are becalmed and it’s bliss. Mainsail down, sunshade up and time for swimming. We are 160 miles from Panama and there is a small low pressure ahead which we anticipate will not move so soon we will decide whether to use the engine a bit to help our onward progress. It’s a real shame to consider using diesel but we could be here over a week trying to pass a hundred miles if we are to be purists about it. For now we are just enjoying the tranquility.
This morning we had a very special moment. We were sailing very slowly and over 20 dolphins came to visit Jean-Marc and Seren who were hanging off the bobstay under the bowsprit to have a dip. We ‘hove to’ (stopped the boat), put snorkel masks on and jumped in to swim with them. We were incredibly lucky because they were not spooked, instead they swam underneath us to watch us with interest at a safe distance. I was unprepared for how emotional it would be to swim with these incredible animals. The visibility was almost perfect and diving down towards them listening to their distinctive clicking and squeaking provoked an instant lump in the throat.
We came crashing back to reality moments later however when one of Jean-Marc’s swim fins was dropped overboard and neither Kieran or I could dive quickly enough to grab it as it rapidly sank. We are bloody clowns compared to the dolphins! An extra point of interest is that dolphins mainly seem to visit us when we have loud music on. Party animals.

Day 9

We decided to motor through the night to clock off a few miles and after a snooze I came on deck to meet our latest and most eccentric stowaway to date. Clumsily perched on the hatch above the companionway was a massive heron. At least a foot and a half tall it was described to have the air of an undertaker about it with its hunched stance, gangly limbs and long pointed beak. Every time you went down below you would find yourself at eye level with our funereal friend less than a metre away. It added a totally surreal aspect to the nights trundlings.
It’s the afternoon now and only 80 miles to go. We motored again this morning and then stopped for lunch and a swim before a squall sent us charging at 7 knots in the right direction. Feels good to sail again and landfall will be possible in the next couple of days.

Day 10

Confronted by a headwind last night we scrapped the idea of trying to push to arrive today and we are just sailing the best course we can. This morning we got our first glimpse of Panama 35 miles away and can at times smell the forest. Morla (5) literally jumping for joy!
The night time breeze has dissipated so we are becalmed again but the sea is flat and this situation has provided for some more beautiful moments. I put fins on and went swimming an hour ago. Free diving off shore is very special. The colour of the water and perfect visibility makes the experience utterly expansive. When in the water there was a cry of ‘fish!’ from on deck and Jean-Marc and I swam over to meet an excitable school of small tuna. I dived on them to get closer but I found not just tuna but also a bloody shark below them! Annoyingly I didn’t fight my instinct to get sharply out of the water but I did fulfill an ambition to shout ‘SHARK!’. Jean-Marc stayed to look on until we saw there was more than one shark and he found his comfort limit there.
We were back in the water shortly after hoping to see them again as the tuna continued to school not far from the boat but they never came close enough again. It was back to simply enjoying the mesmerising experiencing of free diving in incredibly deep water. It elicits an infantile joy, trying to push boundaries and diving deeper and longer as you relax more into it.
It’s a very nice moment of the passage to be slow after mostly brisk sailing. No rush to get there and a time to unwind before land which will be overstimulating after being at sea.

Day 11

I had a preconceived image of arriving in Panama in lush sunshine but it was much more like a typical Welsh wet day. Completely grey skies and rain intensity rising and falling.  We were soaked through when we dropped anchor but the setting is staggering. Surrounded by lush jungle and waters visibly busy with fish. That afternoon as we unwound and drank rum we watched eagles soaring overhead, spotted spider monkeys on the beach and at dusk listened to distant howler monkeys noisily moving through the jungle. It’s a very promising start to watch promises to be an incredible part of the world to explore.

2 thoughts on “St Vincent to Panama: Diary of a passage

  1. Hi Kieran, Great to hear of the goings on and imagine for a moment being there and experiencing it all. News from NZ is that borders will be open to internationals, quarantine free, from October 2022 but I’m not sure if self isolation is still a part of it. Us poor bastards in tourism are suffering through another summer season without tourists but I’m tired of worrying about paying the mortgage. What will be will be. I often think about what it will be like to see you and Lilly again and to meet your family. I imagine your girls to be very bright and wild and possibly the complete opposite to my little boys who’ve had such a comparatively ordinary life so far. I think of your girls as possibly some of the luckiest kids in the world. I have no idea what your wife is like but I imagine strong, intelligent and beautiful (also fucking tolerant! haha). Anyway, thanks for the update. Always a great read and love the pics xx

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