Goodbyes In Linton - August 30, 2002
By The Ithaka - Published August 30, 2002 - Viewed 710 times
By Bernadette Bernon More articles by this author
At 7 a.m. last Monday in Linton, we sat on Ithaka’s side deck and watched as Frank and Lynda on Simba, anchored beside us for the past week—indeed, here and there for the past few months!—raised their CQR from the velvety thick mud of Linton harbor on the mainland coast of Panama. As the anchor broke the surface, Lynda guided the Alajuela 38’s elegant, varnished tiller, and our friends weaved slowly through the boats. As they passed Sand Dollar, Frank raised the main, and called good luck to Cade and Lisa. Then they ghosted past Albatross, and wished their best to Helmut and Hannah. Next was Street Legal; Guy and Annika were waving good-bye, as were Warren and Robin on Cuchara. Everyone in the little harbor was up and on deck to salute Simba’s departure for Bocas Del Toro, 170 miles to the west, where the Cassidys planned to leave the boat while they fly home, and then do some inland travel to Costa Rica. We’d been sailing with Simba since they joined Sand Dollar and Ithaka in Providencia, Colombia, back in April. In fact, we’d sailed with them for a while last year, too, in Belize.
|Historic Portobello, named by Columbus, who took shelter in its large bay, was sacked by Captain Henry Morgan in 1668.
With Simba and Sand Dollar, we’d sailed west along Panama’s rolly coast from Porvenir several days ago, skirting many briar patches of reefs and negotiating an endless procession of stacked 10-foot swells that rocked our boats and our stomachs the entire way. For only the second time since Douglas and I started cruising, I had to pop a Stugeron antiseasickness pill to keep my breakfast down. We stopped at a midpoint anchorage for the night, an indentation on the coast called Escribanos, which turned out to have a hellish entrance. Had we not been in company of two other boats, one of which was already inside the reef when Ithaka arrived outside it, we would’ve taken one look at the seemingly unbroken line of heaving, boiling water, skipped it in sheer dread and sailed onward for Linton despite the hour. But Sand Dollar was in, and there we were.
|photos courtesy of Marty Baker|
|We left Porvenir for Escribanos. The runway on Porvenir is notoriously short, and accidents do happen. Here, a plane approaches for a landing, very close to the anchored boats. The second photo shows one plane that, only several months ago, didn’t quite stop in time before blasting into the airport men’s room. No one was hurt.|
We took our customary deep breaths, examined the chart for the 10th time, and pressed in as well, following the bearings recommended by Tom and Nancy Zydler in their thorough book The Panama Guide, A Cruising Guide To The Isthmus Of Panama. Our depth went from 40-something feet to 15 as we crossed through the reef. Then there were coral heads on either side of us, and still the biggish rollers, and finally we surfed inside the reef line. With Douglas halfway up the mast and me at the wheel, by the time we were in, my stomach was in my throat. We anchored Ithaka in mud with only two feet under her, just before a squall hit: zero peace of mind.
photo courtesy of Cade Johnson
|Cade went up the mast of Sand Dollar to check his masthead fittings. While he was up there, he snapped this photo of Ithaka.
"Howzabout we stay here awhile," I suggested to Douglas, without even knowing what the place had to offer.
"Sure, howzabout forever?" he said, without hesitation. Little did we know then how full the next two weeks would be.
Around us were Simba and Sand Dollar, as well as a few other cruising boats, including our friends on Street Legal, Guy and Annika, who’d arrived the week before. Each would have their own dramas unfold here, starting with Sand Dollar. A few days before, while we were all anchored in the Lemon Cays of the San Blas, Cade and Lisa received an onboard e-mail (via their enviable ham system) from Al and Teresa Jacobs, our teacher friends in La Ceiba, Honduras. Together with the Jacobs, whom we’d met through this website in January, after they e-mailed us about The Log Of Ithaka, we’d shared many good times while Ithaka was hauled out for a paint job at the boatyard. Sand Dollar, a Polaris 43, was being painted the same week. We’d all hung out together, and become fast friends; so much so that Al and Teresa flew from La Ceiba to Guanaja, Honduras, to spend a week with all of us before we set sail for the southwest Caribbean.
|Many of the stones used to build the vast Portobello fort were removed and used in building the great jetty at Panama City.
|The cannons of the Portobello fort still aim to the entrance of the protected bay, flanked on three sides by high hills.
There was one big hurdle though: The job was to start as soon as possible.
Standing between Sand Dollar and Venezuela was a 650-mile beat against the powerful easterly trade winds, around one of the most treacherous coasts in the Caribbean. But there was more. When Simba, Ithaka and Sand Dollar went to Porvenir to check in officially (having been in Panama at that point for a couple of weeks), Lisa and Cade discovered, horrified, that they’d left all their boat papers and passports in an internet café in San Andres, Colombia, one month before! Frantic, they called Cade’s dad in the States and asked him to read their Yahoo e-mail, remembering that that e-mail address had been written on one of the lost documents. Sure enough, a message was waiting for them, sent from the girl in San Andres who’d found their documents; she was still holding onto them.
There’s almost nothing that can match the feeling of exposure in a foreign country than not having your passports and boat papers in order, and since September 11, 2001, getting replacement papers from the United States has become a major ordeal. In the most benign circumstances, were you to be discovered without passports and zarpes, you wouldn’t be allowed to go anywhere until you’d gone to an American Embassy to place an order for replacement papers, or until you’d returned to the United States to deal with it in person. In either of these complicated scenarios, Cade would run out of time and lose the opportunity for this job—plus whatever other major hassles would come his way.
|For centuries, Portobello was the end point for the Spanish Plate Fleet—their stolen treasures were brought here by mule over the mountains from the Pacific side.
We all put our heads together in Porvenir, anchored as we were right under the very nose of the customs and immigration offices. Finally, Cade and Lisa decided they would lay low in Porvenir that afternoon, not check in, not report the problem to any authorities, and first thing the next morning boogie on up the coast to Linton with Ithaka and Simba. They knew they had to find someplace in Panama City or Colón where they could get the papers safely Fedexed from the internet café in San Andres, a process that would take at least a week. After that, they figured they’d stock up and immediately start the slog to Maracaibo. But to whom could they send these precious papers in the city, and how would we get them from the city to Linton? Douglas and I had one idea, though it seemed a long shot.
An hour or so after anchoring in Linton, and settling the boat, having had a calm-down drink, I heard Douglas gasp, "I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! It’s Gringo Joe!" The speeding 26-foot (made-from-one-tree) ulu, brightly-painted with "GRINGO JOE" on the bow, sliced through the water about 10 yards from Ithaka. Douglas waved his arms and whistled to get the attention of the two black men and one white one onboard the lancha. They all turned when they heard him. "Joe! It’s Ithaka!" Douglas called out. "Hello there!"
"Ithaka? No way, man. I don’t believe it!" said the big white Kojak of a guy.
"I don’t either!" said Douglas. "Wow! Awright! This is too cool. Come on over!" He’d been corresponding with Joe Logan, aka Gringo Joe, for a year, ever since Joe had sent us an e-mail through the CW website to tell us he’d been following the Log, and offering us some useful technical advice when our old alternator bombed out. Joe had mentioned to Douglas that he was building a little house down here, on Isla Grande, only a mile away, and said he hoped we’d visit, which was in fact one of the reasons we were there. When not building the house, it turns out that Joe lives in Panama City. So began our wonderful in-person friendship with Joe and Cecilia Santamaria Logan. And so ended Sand Dollar ’s Fedex dilemma.
Joe and Cecilia Logan
|The Logans hosted a cookout for the cruisers anchored in Linton.
Joe had lived in Edenton, North Carolina, for 28 years, and had been a pilot for Eastern Airlines, then for Southern Air, until his retirement a few years ago. His wife Cecilia was a banker from Panama City, who’d retired in 1996 from Bank National de Paris. After living in Edenton, they decided to make their permanent home in Panama, where they’ve been since 1998, and loving it. Two years ago, Joe embarked on the project of building a getaway house on Isla Grande, an unspoiled little hive of local waterfront establishments strung along a sandy walking path, all only a two-hour drive from the city and a short lancha ride from the mainland.
Joe and Cecilia showed us the personal side of Panama City, but it’s really little Isla Grande that won our hearts. This is the island where Joe got his nickname. From the start, all the locals referred to him as Gringo Joe, to the extent that deliveries of building supplies destined for "Joe Logan" never made it. No one knew who Joe Logan was. It was only when he gave up and started having deliveries sent to "Gringo Joe" that materials made it to his building site. Finally, he embraced the name and painted it on his lancha.
photo courtesy of Marty Baker
|There are no cars on pretty Isla Grande, so kids play freely, and the pace is slow.
"When I was a kid," he said, "every Sunday, I watched my father iron five shirts, one for every day of the week. He was a teacher, and he always looked so damn happy when he was ironing. ’Whaddya so happy about anyway?’ I said to him once.
"’I like teaching school,’ he said. ’I just look forward to going to work.’ That impressed me. I wanted that feeling, and I got it when I became a pilot. I just loved going to work every day. And now I love this, being here, being part of this place."
|Budding schoolteacher Cade Johnson
In front of us in the Isla Grande anchorage were a couple of sailboats bouncing around in the squall; each had seen better days. There was the incongruously named Tara, which was a peeling blue steel, rusting hulk with a toilet mounted on the stern rail; and in equally bad repair was Most Wanted, looking like nobody wanted her. All along the Central American coast are sailboats like this, that end their journeys mid-cruise, then start falling apart in the sun, and you sit and wonder what on earth their stories could be.
|Throughout Portobello is artwork celebrating the Black Jesus. This one, we thought, also seemed to celebrate Little Richard, but we could be wrong.
We huddled together, Douglas and Cade talking about teaching, and the best strategies for making Maracaibo, and Lisa and I talking about what it will be like for them to live on land again, and this rain, and how as children we both loved to go out to play in it. I’d put on a dress, I told her, get my mother’s umbrella, sneak out and do dance numbers on the back of my father’s pickup truck, belting out "Singing In The Rain."
"Girlfriend, that’s the difference between you and me," laughed Lisa. "I loved playing in the rain, too, but I grew up in Kentucky. When it started to pour, I’d put on my bathing suit, grab a piece of cardboard and start sliding down hills into the mud!"
Lisa and Bernadette
We spent our days in Linton doing boat projects, exploring, visiting our new and old friends, and provisioning in Colón. One day, we all took the bus to Portobello, only eight miles away and the site of a dramatic Spanish fort built in the late 1590s. Now the town is built in and around the fort, the remains of it are everywhere, open to everyone to amble through. Ancient ramparts stick out of houses, old worn-stone Spanish footbridges connect to the modern pavement, and canons aim out across the magnificently protected bay.
|The Black Jesus, patron saint of beggars and thieves, and protector of Portobello
|A mural of the Black Jesus, in a local bar
|Another mural from Portobello, showing mortification of the flesh, or a thief who’s been whipped, or what you do to yourself if you sail between Panama to Maracaibo from west to east.
Cade and Lisa know they have a potentially hellish ride ahead, and they’re nervous about it. That kind of distance, all into strong headwinds, stresses a boat and exhausts its crew, and if something goes wrong, there are precious few places to anchor for refuge along the unforgiving Colombian coast. I’ll miss these two people very much, especially Lisa, and I worry.
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