On November 4th, Scream left Golfito, Costa Rica for Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador.
We planned this trip excessively. The passage profile is uninviting, even at the ideal time of year, November through March. The trades here blow consistently out of the SW, shifting closer to S as the coast of South America is approached. This means that you’re close hauled against the wind and waves for the whole 600 mile trip. Add the Humboldt current pushing you NE as you near shore, and the whole trip can be a nightmare.
We left from Costa Rica in order to be able to sail without having to beat. Boats leaving from Panama need to beat against the wind and current. However, this means that we missed Panama entirely.
In practice the trip was better than we expected if still uncomfortable. We made the passage in one hour less than 7 days. We had 15 knots SSW to WSW for the entire trip, with 1-2m wind wave at 5-6 seconds. We stayed close hauled on starboard tack for the first 6 1/2 days. We found that the motion of the boat crashing into the waves was uncomfortable when we were at speed (say 6 knots), so we backed off to 3.5 knots by reducing sail and found the motion much more comfortable. We think that we had favourable current near the beginning and we did have opposing current on the last day, but all of the currents were one knot or less.
We checked into the Panama Pacific SSB Net every morning, except for one day when the radio propagation was poor. They run on 8143 USB at 14:00 UTC. They use 6130 USB as an alternate frequency when 8143 has poor propagation, which was most days of our passage.
We saw almost no vessels during the days. On the night we left Costa Rica we saw several ships going to or leaving Panama. The next night we saw one vessel approaching Panama. We then saw no vessels for two solid days. We saw Isla Malpello during the day, and were honestly shocked to discover later that it has a 25 nm range lighthouse working on it. That night we passed very close to Eva, who were on the reciprocal course from Ecuador to western Panama. We chatted with them on the VHF.
The next morning, we were approached by a pair of pangas at dawn. These are 25 foot open boats with outboards. They were engaged in fishing operations perhaps 150 miles from shore in over 2km of depth. They came alongside and asked us about “Cigaros”. We thought they were asking about radios, and confusion ensued. We eventually gave them a few cookies and they went on their way, with a promise in English to “See you tomorrow”, which we eventually determined was a poor translation of the Spanish “Hasta Luego”.
That night, still over 100 miles from shore we stumbled into a traffic jam just after dark. Two large power yachts were north bound along with a freighter. Two other freighters were southbound, all of us within 10 miles of each other. One power yacht approached fairly close to us: the wind was shifting and going from 15 to 20 knots so we were not keeping a steady course. In response they were swinging side to side like a slalom skier trying to avoid us, showing us red then green and steadily approaching. We ended up calling them on the VHF, and they thankfully spoke English. We sorted the situation out but they did pass just a couple hundred meters away and swung along behind us to take a look before continuing north.
On the next night, still about 100 miles from we ran into a field of fishing boats with long lines. They had weak flashing lights on the end of their poles, and I had great trouble identifying them until they cam quite close. We also almost ran over a small panga. It had a pair of weak orange side lights, mounted less than a meter above the water. When I first saw them I thought that they were a freighter more than 20 miles away, falling in and out of sight with the waves. Actually they were probably only 200m away. I might never have figured it out if the two lights hadn’t started to move in opposite directions when the panga crested a nearby wave. With them just meters away and us close hauled under wind steering and the engine off and them just to leeward, all that I could do was shine my pen light on their hull as it passed.
The last day we started to get pushed by the Humboldt current and fell off of our desired course. We saw a pod of short finned pilot whales, but failed to get a good photo. We ended up motoring overnight to Bahia Caraquez in order to make the high water slack entrance over the bar on November 11 at 10am EST.
Our track is online at http://www.pangolin.co.nz/yotreps/tracker.php?ident=VA7WHM
After our passage we met with other cruisers who made almost equally comfortable passages from western Panama. While officialdom in western Panama is a pain, this route has a lot of merit and should not be dismissed lightly as western Panama is supposedly quote pretty. Practically, your options for checking in and out of western Panama are the open roadstead at sometimes open Puerto Armuelles or going up the shallow, poorly marked channel to Pedregal at high water.