I must have been in Georgetown just about a week before a weather window for the Windward Passage to Panama that I couldn’t refuse was forecasted. It was going to be an 1100 mile cruise to Panama, by far my longest non-stop solo passage, with virtually no possible stops or anchorages after the first 350 miles or four days. So the route was to leave via the southwestern cut out of Elizabeth harbor, it was a few extra miles but I had already ran the cut once and didn’t feel like stressing my self through a new one. The cut went smooth, in fact another vessel hailed me just to chat on the radio, they assumed I was heading north to Nassau like everyone else that day and thought we might buddy boat or something up the Exuma sound until I informed then I was heading in the opposite direction, however I also told them I would follow them out the cut since I didn’t have a chart plotter and they said fine. Then I watched them head off toward very shallow water (at least it wasn’t a reef) and I decided to follow the same course I took last time, luckily, as I watched them come to a halt as they bumped bottom. It was mostly just sand so it looked like they just powered through the shoal and carried on ok, I stayed way off in only slightly deeper water.
After the cut I was pleased to be able to sail close hauled, more or less a rum line for the north end of Long Island. Then next few hours were uneventful, the North swell they had been warning us about for the last several days was lingering but only a few feet and didn’t really slow me down or make the sail uncomfortable. Once I rounded Long Island? I was even happier to be heading more in the direction of Panama even though a wind shift forced me to make one or two short tacks off shore to keep my sea room, something I’m really learning to value especially if you want to get any rest. The next stop I was considering was the Acklins, one of the last few Bahamian Islands I would pass heading south. I opted to press on to the Windward Passage since I wasn’t quite completely exhausted yet and still had all of my fuel. Plus the two anchorages in the Acklins either involved a very tricky narrow cut between reefs or, an easy entrance but without 360′ protection. Since I was once again sailing in front of a front, I decided to press on, and glad I did since the radio indicated that that had winds well over 40kts North East of me. I was already at least one, maybe two days ahead of the front so even at 5kts I had a reasonable chance to say ahead and possibly avoid the worst of it if I didn’t stop. Things went more or less smooth until I rounded the North Eastern side of the Acklins. The wind got light and variable so I was constantly tacking, into what seemed like a knot or two of current and basically made lousy headway in addition to being tired. I remember looking at my tacks on the GPS thinking wow it looks like I’m just sailing back and fourth you would never guess I was trying to head south. Then for all my diligent sailing throughout the day I was rewarding at night with calms and squalls, not quite as dramatic as the ones I would encounter in the next few days but annoying none the less, It seemed that as each day went on I just got more and more tired not getting any decent rest, and I knew that this would persist till I was through the windward passage and in open ocean, free from hazards like reefs, islands, coastal traffic, etc.
It was somewhere North of the Windward passage when I had my closest call with another vessel that I can recall. I remember spotting this medium size freighter several miles off (still very big) and he appeared to be passing in front of me. About the same time a nice little storm popped up forcing me to reef the main, and continually adjust my course, plus the rain I discovered makes it nearly impossible to make out targets on the Radar. By the time I had my boat under control I realized that the freighter was on a collision course, no not one of those “he’s going to get really close” courses, I mean oh *!$# he’s heading right for me and very fast. I tried the radio over and over but no response, so I started the engine, I hadn’t even had the wind vane steering since I was just changing my course from the wind shifts in the storm, I wanted to run below and grab the spotlight (that from then on stayed in the cockpit at night easily at reach). So when one of the monster ships gets so close that you have to look UP at it, you better get the hell out of the way, I could reach the ignition while still steering by hand, so I fired the motor, tacked the boat, and I honestly think I had well under a minute to do it or I would have been little bits of pieces in his wake. In his defense I later realized that the radio wasn’t working so he couldn’t have heard me, and I should have (even though I shouldn’t have had to) altered my course earlier, only I was preoccupied with little storm that popped up. On the up side, you can be sure I kept a better watch, and stayed WAY clear of all traffic from then on.
I didn’t see a lot of traffic after that anyway until I was almost clear of the Windward Passage, near the South west tip of Haiti? Again, at night, and off course, again the wind had picked up from a near calm (this really seems to the routine until I got into the trade winds). So this small commercial looking vessel, maybe 100′ long, was actually following me. I see him on radar way off after the alarm alerted me, and basically just kept an eye on him as usual until I’m clear what his course is. Then I catch him in the Binoculars, both his red and green lights, meaning that he his heading right for me, plus I realized that the wind change had me on a course heading toward Haiti, not a problem since it was still 5 miles off but I realized that any military or coast guard might wonder where I was heading in the middle of the night just a few miles off of Haiti. Once again I alter my course, more than I had to, 180′ to get out of the way of this vessel still almost a mile off, and then I got nervous. He altered his course too! I turn and I see his red and green lights again! Again, I tired the broken radio with no luck (go figure). Plus it was really blowing, 25kts or more I had just put in the reef, finally when this guy got really close, within a quarter mile I started putting my spotlight on him, then on my sails, and after less than a minute of that, he just turned away. Funny thing was at this point he turned the same direction that I wanted to go, so now I was nervously following him, until he eventually disappeared into the night, he was going a lot faster than me. That was the end of the drama for several days. I had still had storms at night for the next day or two one even hit hard and fast, picked up some sizeable waves, and then went dead calm, I felt like I was in a washing machine. After two, not one but two big waves came over my stern and flooded the cockpit I decided to finally start the motor and get moving, I think that was the first time I ever sat in seas like that with absolutely no wind at all. Motoring on improved the motion of the boat, and it really wasn’t long before a steady breeze set back in. In fact I think that last storm was the front since the very steady NE winds that they were promising finally filled in and stayed steady for days. I actually read THREE books, caught up on all my sleep and with the exception of a strange injury to my finger that cost me the finger nail, it was a perfect sail.
Its funny how right now as I write, I vividly remember the close calls, the injury, the storms, etc, when there was a LOT more times where it was just smooooth sailing, stunning blue water, flying fish everywhere, just sitting back in the cockpit (when it was dry) sucking on a beer reading a book or napping, totally relaxed. I mention this because after I just reread the last few paragraphs it probably looks like the passage from hell, but in all honesty it just wasn’t. It had its share of excitement, and the fatigue from the first several days probably compounded everything, in reality there were no major issues with the boat or me, no navigation problems, etc, I don’t think I have any right to complain.
So something like days 5 through 9 were perfect sailing. Wind aft of the beam, following seas, almost never touched the sails or the rudder, some nights with the radar alarm and gps alarm set I would get several hours of rest in one shot, I was feeling good. I’m not sure what happened to my finger. I’m pretty sure I slammed it in something like a locker door or something, at the time I was half asleep, and just went back to bed. By morning it was throbbing in a bad way, turning blue, and getting bigger. I was actually a few days closer to Jamaica than Panama so the thought of turning back did cross my mind for a second, but the wind and sailing was too good, so I just laid in my bunk with the hand elevated and kept ice on it. I remembered a similar injury that the doctor drained by putting a small hole through my fingernail, but I was afraid to put any holes in myself and risk infection being several days from land. Finally about 2 days out from Panama it wasn’t hurting so much and I only had to peel up a little dead skin to drain out the… stuff. That made it feel even better. Three days or so after arriving in Panama the entire nail came off (now that was a little messy) I took a picture so you can see how pretty it was.
Back to sailing, everything was going very smooth up until the last night or two. Really only two minor things kept it from being as perfect as before. First off the wind had backed and was right on my stern, so I was sailing wing on wing, with the main on one side and the jib poled out the other side. I wont get into all the details but this sail configuration requires about 6 different lines and sheets (down hauls, preventers, etc) all set up to keep the boom and pole from banging around as the boat really rolls around down the waves, it also doesn’t make the wind vane too happy so it kind weaves back and forth between about 30 degrees like a drunk helmsman, only lightly jibing a few times a day so I suppose it was acceptable. The other thing that changed close to Panama was a LOT of traffic, I started to see boats on the radar constantly. Almost all of them gave me plenty of room, but a few came within a 1/2 mile or so, its hard to imagine how close that is until you see them, but its a just a tad too close for comfort, especially after my close call only a week or so back off of Haiti. I think that just about covers the trip to Panama except for the part where my motor was acting up (and still is) forcing me to sail through the port into the anchorage. Ill try to write more soon about my adventures in Colon, Panama, and cruising a local river with Michael Lee.
Oh, one quick up to date update… My transit date is now delayed as I wait for a fuel injection pump that should be here Monday or Tuesday so hopefully I should be able to transit next week, more on that later. PLUS a few updates and several photos have been added to sailingsalsa.com. Gotta run, helping more friends through the canal tonight. -Kirk
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