7 Day Passage from Panama to Colombia and Jamaica

In sailing, as in life, there is often a “right” way and a “wrong” way to do things.

When planning our route from Panama to Jamaica we discussed going the “wrong way”: a shorter, more direct route, as opposed to the way most folks go: a longer more circuitous costal route that involves meandering through Nicaragua, Honduras, etc. Most cruisers choose the “right” route because it allows for a better sailing angle. In other words, you don’t have to go dead into the wind and waves and therefore have a smoother, more sailable ride, burning less diesel, which often doesn’t take much longer than the direct route because you can make better time.

You can probably guess that we decided to go the “wrong way”. It was just too tempting. We made our own bed, and then we had to sleep in it. A lumpy, bumpy, painfully slow bed, heeled at about 25º. 

Green = The Right Way
Red = The Wrong Way
Blue = Wind and Waves

 From our previous posts, you know that we had been watching the weather very closely for weeks for a good weather window. This time of year the trades are consistently blowing from the NE, the exact direction we needed to go, so we needed several days of light wind, and small seas. We also knew that “Northers”, strong winds that blast from the north, would only become more and more frequent the longer we dilly dallied around waiting for the perfect forecast. For weeks, the wind cooperated but the seas did not. A good rule of comfort for sea state is that you want the wave period (the number of seconds it takes to go from the top of one wave to the top of the next) to be double the height of the wave in feet. 5 feet at 10 seconds, for example, would be a nice ride. Our forecasts kept calling for about 6-8 feet at 6 seconds, not huge, just fast. Barf. When we finally saw a few days of 5-7 feet at 8 seconds, we decided that would have to be good enough. We couldnt afford to get stuck in Panama until next spring.

ìAdios Panama! 
We checked out of the country in San Blas, a process we were a little worried about because we’d overstayed our cruising permit and the one and only customs agent there hassled us on the way in, but our checkout couldn’t have been any smoother. He shook our hands and said “have a nice trip!” Sweet. That has to be the first time a check-in or check-out ever cost us LESS than what we thought it should. 

We bought our last round of langostina from a Kuna dugout canoe and slept out on the cockpit floor to enjoy our last starry, clear night in Panama. I slept like a baby, however Elan woke up at 3 to have a look around… we didnt seem to be in the same place we were when we had fallen asleep. A quick look at the GPS showed that our anchor had dragged over 900 feet and we were next to a totally different island! Recently they have done a bunch of dredging in the anchorage, and the shallows drop off into 80+ feet quickly. We apparently dragged off the loose, recently stirred up shelf, and peacefully floated backwards until the anchor reached the next shallow area, near the island of Whichubwala, and where it re-set itself. Yikes! We had dangerous reefs on three sides and thankfully dragged in the one direction it was safe to do so. Phew! Thank you for your prayers, which continually keep us safe in situations like this!

We left the anchorage around 4am and pointed the boat NW towards our mid-way goal, the tiny island of Providencia, Colombia. We put up our sails just before day break, and did not take them down again until we reached Providencia, 3 days and 2 nights later. Although the waves were a bit quick, the sails really help with stabilization and we enjoyed a glorious, sunny passage, mostly motorsailing and set a new record for ourselves of 14 hours of sailing on a single tack with no help from the motor. We arrived to the lush, green, mountainous island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea exhausted but happy. Wrong way? Pish, posh!


Nothing but blue for days!


Betcha haven’t seen a phone like that since Zach Morris. Elan making a rare Sat Phone call to his parents, mid-trip.

Apollo and Elan on a doggie potty break.

All that sailing and motorsailing is sure nice on fuel consumption, but it takes its toll in other ways. Living life at a 20-25 degree angle for 3 days left our bodies cramped from constantly bracing the same direction. I have bruised hips and elbows from pin-balling around inside the boat, and I don’t know if its possible, but it sure felt like the skin on my feet was streched out from constantly pushing against the floor, just to keep myself in my seat. Cooking is impossible, and I managed to fling the huge tupperware of my pre-made pasta salad all over the boat early on, so pickings were slim.

We also have this one cupboard, which we not-so-affectionately call the ‘cupboard of doom’. It’s big, it’s deep, it’s dark, and it’s filled with every bit and piece of boat paraphernalia that we didn’t know where else to shove. Unfortunately, this cupboard was on the high side of the boat, and the latch gave out on day one of the passage.  Every screw, nut, bolt, tool, and random chunk of stainless steel slid out onto the floor, causing the Great Silver Lining Landslide of 2012. It also managed to completely block us out of the bathroom for the remainder of the trip, so we resorted to what we have come to call the, uh, “direct deposit”.

The Great Silver Lining Landslide of 2012.


Providencia, Colombia
We only stayed one night in Providencia, anxious to keep our weather window, although it was so peaceful and beautiful we would have loved to stay longer. We topped off our diesel tanks with the most expensive diesel yet: $6.05/gallon, and ate dinner at a streetside cafe. Dinner wasn’t fancy, but we gorged on the spicy flavorful food. We have so missed FLAVOR during our months in rural Panama! We sipped Cuba Libres and watched the Saturday night traffic flow by: moped after moped with 2, 3, and sometimes 4 people on each one. The girls often rode side-saddle in their high heels, short skirts and done-up hairdos. People of all ages strolled along the waterfront. It was peaceful, but had an energetic edge too. Our one, tiny, little taste of Colombia! We were saddened to realize that this was likely the last Spanish-speaking country of our trip, I guess our Spanish is as good as it’s going to get.

Land ho! Providencia, Colombia

Providencia is one of Captain Morgan’s old hangouts. There is a rock formation called Morgan’s Head… Can you guess what this crack in the mountain is called?

ìAdios Colombia!

Solent, with Providencia in the background.

Smiles… just before realizing what we were really in for…

We left the next afternoon on a passage that, at first, seemed like it was going to be more of the same easy motor-sailing, until we rounded NE, and were reminded that we were, in fact, doing this the “wrong way”. Wind on the nose is annoying. Waves on the nose is uncomfortable. 5 days and 4 nights of BOTH was enough to have me seriously planning on taking our back-up plan and falling off the wind to the Cayman Islands. With full sails up, and the motor blasting away at full RPMs we were often going only 2-3 knots an hour, each wave doing its best to stop us in our tracks. At this rate, we began to question whether our fuel supply would even get us there, comfort not withstanding. 

Before leaving on this passage we knew our new prop/transmission situation left something to be desired, we just weren’t getting the propulsion we should be, but with no way to get a better prop in Panama, we had no choice but to move on and deal with it later. Looking the wind and waves in the face, feeling that our prop was under pitched, and knowing that we had 400+ miles left to go was daunting. Why are we going the wrong way again? We continued to bash into the seas, dodging rain squalls, and the occasional container ship, all without the help of radar, which despite our best efforts (a warrantee repair on the chart plotter, a new junction box, and completely re-wiring the whole setup) was still acting up. 

A rough passage always takes it’s toll on us and the boat. This time we squeaked by with just a few chafes (on my brand new canvas- arggh!), a new transmission oil leak, and an overflowing toilet (you know it wasn’t the clean flush water). That’s it, piece of cake. 🙂 Solent, on the other hand, tried to pull a “Silver Lining” and break multiple things at once: a battery melt down, a metal fishing leader wrapped around the prop, the fridge quit and the engine developed a knock… I guess we all take our turns, whether the boat is old like ours or new like theirs. Se la vie.

My cute lil’ linen fedora is now a smushed mushroom hat. Boat life takes it’s toll…

During the last 12 hours of the trip, the seas leveled out, and we made up for some lost time. Our last night at sea was mostly sheltered by Jamaica and its surrounding banks and reef; the water was almost glassy. The skies cleared long enough to see several shooting stars and we enjoyed seeing phosphorescence for the first time in ages. Not the all-over greenish glow of the Pacific, but a sprinkling of glitter along the leading edge of each wave. Beautiful. I hadn’t realized that I missed the smell of land, until we caught our first whiffs: a rich, earthy, woody smell. Apollo and I spent the last few hours of darkness greedily breathing it all in.

The temperature has been steadily dropping off as we go farther and farther north. I had to dig out a little fleece blankie on my last night watch because the temp dipped down to about 80 degrees. Frigid, positively frigid!

Land ho! Jamaica! 

We pulled into Montego Bay, Jamaica, just after sunrise on the 7th day of our trip. We’d done about 700 nautical miles, the “wrong way”. Would we do it that way again? No. But then again, sailing plays tricks on my memory. One day I would be sitting in a bikini saying “Elan, this is so beautiful and peaceful and exciting. We just have to do an ocean crossing someday” then the very next day I’d have salt spraying in my face, hungry because we cant cook, wearing a chafing life jacket, feeling seasick and I’d be yelling over the roar of the engine “Im not having fun anymore. This is not what I signed up for… why the heck are we doing this again?!?!” But without fail, when its all over and we are once again, parked in a peaceful anchorage, I find myself thinking “ah, that wasn’t so bad” and besides, “its so beautiful, and exciting….”

First light over Montego Bay.

In our first days here in Jamaica it rained a lot. We slept, cleaned the boat, slept, re-organized the nuts and bolts, slept, scrubbed the crusted-on pasta salad stains, slept, ordered a new prop, slept, slept, slept. 

Good thing its time to retire the ol’ Panamanian flag.

…what happens after our first good meal on dry land after 7 days at sea…


On her last trip home, Serena packed these little Christmas trees in her suitcase, so we could properly celebrate! Notice the thermometer on the left side… 85 degrees, at about 10pm… I don’t think we are going to have a white Christmas!

Now that we are all rested up and decorated for Christmas, we are looking forward to exploring the island and spending time here with Elan’s folks who’ll arrive on Christmas Day.

Cheers to Jamaica mon!