Feel Free is Back in the Pacific


By Liz Tosoni

Las Perlas
Islands Panama

We sometimes feel guilty leaving Feel Free on her own on the hard, for months on end. Like nervous parents, we watch and wince every time she is lifted out of the water, placed on land; and every time she is lifted again and dropped back into the water, we breathe a sigh of relief. Its unnatural for a boat to be sitting on the hard earth, out of her element, like a beached whale waiting to be rescued. But its one of those things that Tom and I have learned to live with.

This time, we left Feel Free in Shelter Bay Marina just outside Colon, Panama. What we found upon our return was our beloved boat unharmed after a summer of sultry, tropical heat and electrical storms but covered in dirt and grime, mould and mildew.

Wildlife took up residence during our absence too- a cute iridescent insect, a shy frog, a curious gecko, a prehistoric beetle.

If she could talk, I wonder what Feel Frees words would be. How dare you to leave me for so long in this place! Look at what has become of me. Inside and out, Im filthy. Its disgraceful. My systems are getting rusty. Now, get on with the work and lets get going. Take me out of here!

Well, we got on with the work as fast as we could, which wasnt fast enough. Doing all that dirty work while living on the hard is definitely among the most unglamorous aspects of the cruising life. But, what satisfaction when the jobs are done and the boat is floating freely, bobbing happily, and then sailing away.

Speaking about unglamorous, thats probably how one could describe the way we sometimes have to get to shore in some of the worlds most famous ports.

We are now on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. Yes, we recently transited and Tom will provide all the details in the next entry. Here, Feel Free lies at anchor in picturesque Las Brisas de Amador, from where a short taxi ride will take you to and from Panama City.

Its one of those great cruiser hangouts: it costs nothing to anchor, its safe, there is free wifi for everyone, a morning net allowing you to find out anything you need to know about the area from other cruisers, cultural activities, nice cruising just a day sail away, and its within easy access to quaint restaurants and the best shopping weve seen since the Mediterranean, but a lot cheaper.

Our first trip ashore I met a young mother with her two young blond kids, also getting out of a dinghy.

After quick introductions I learned they had sailed from Russia. Then came the next obvious question:

How long have you been here?
Oh well, we came here with the older one, planning to spend a couple of weeks provisioning before heading to the South Pacific. That was almost five years ago! The younger one was born here. Its an easy place to live.

Its just that kind of place. We've met several circumnavigators over the years who, when asked if there was any place of all the countries they have visited that theyd choose to live in, would say Panama, for the fine climate, the friendliness, the affordability, and the strong economy.

But lets get back to the unglamorous part which has to do with landing your dinghy and getting to shore. Not too long ago there was a nice long floating dinghy dock, accommodating the 15 foot tidal range you encounter on the Pacific side, next to steps leading to good ole terra firma. It was a perfect arrangement, very convenient, easy and handy. Unfortunately though, shortly before our arrival there, the middle section of that nice long dock, the section next to the steps, sank, and has not been repaired. Now, one can still leave a dinghy on the same dock but to get to shore, there is a rather tippy little red boat, set up by an enterprising fellow who receives a weekly fee from all yachties who use it.

A block and tackle arrangement allows you to pull yourself to a set of slippery, concrete steps. Balance is key! After a morning of major provisioning, Tom is heading over to pick up our dinghy. Next step-drive the dinghy to the slippery steps, where we somehow manage to transfer goods into dinghy. It can be a comedy routine for those watching. This lot took two trips to Feel Free by the way, and without mishap Im pleased to report!

After a summer of working in Canada, then a week in the BVIs as Captain and Chef, next, our time in the boat yard, followed by all the preparations for the transit, followed by the transit itself and then all that provisioning and the countless small maintenance jobs in the convenient but crowded anchorage, Tom and I were more than ready for a holiday, for some honest to goodness island time.

So, we upped anchor and set sail for Las Perlas Islands, just 35 miles away, an archipelago in the Bay of Panama, made up of 227 mainly uninhabited islands, with plenty of secluded anchorages and untrodden shores. Just what we were after.

Its hard to imagine that these peaceful islands, where in our time its rare to see another cruising boat, were a hub of activity just 500 years ago. After Vasco Nunez Balboa discovered the Pacific and then the islands, he came to realize the existence of the rich pearling grounds in these very waters. Word got around of course and then came the legions of pirates and conquistadores. In 1515 two Spanish conquistadores, Francisco Pizarro and Gaspar de Morales, defeated the indigenous King Toe, enslaved his skilled pearl divers, and brought huge quantities of pearls back to Spain. Apparently, the famous 31 carat peregrina pearl of Queen Mary Tudor of England came from these islands. They say that even though pearls are not cultivated these days, you can still buy them from the locals at a good price.

King Toe lived on Isla del Rey, which I can now see clearly from the cockpit. We are anchored in a bay off Isla Canas, considered to have the best all round protection in the islands, just northeast of a small village on Isla del Rey. With the southerly winds we are getting, its the best place to be. Ashore at low water is a long, sweeping sand beach, camel coloured, backed by dense tropical foliage of every hue of green. At high tide the bottle green waters lap up against the jungle shore, stealing the beach from sight.

I am delighted to discover that the beaches of Las Perlas are like none weve seen. From a distance they appear just like any other beach.

On closer inspection though, you cant help but notice the trees against the landscape, smooth, rust coloured limbs and branches taking on a beauty all their own, their roots twisted and gnarled, digging deep into the sand or rock for nourishment.

Then there are the rock faces, exposing their many intricate lines and contours, swirling, thin threads of amber against a striking teal.

Beneath these ancient rock walls are layers of rocks of varying sizes, shapes and designs, then stones, thousands of beautiful stones, each one unique, as if fired from a potters kiln. The minerals in the sand give them their fine detail and polished by constant tidal flow, they are as smooth as babys skin. I had to start a collection.

I dont need another collection, but things we have found on the worlds beaches have become treasured souvenirs of the countries we have visited, even gifts for family and friends: sea glass from Curacao, sea biscuits from the San Blas, mini sand dollars from Vanuatu, cowries from Polynesia, nautilus (nautili?) from New Caledonia, tiny seashells from Mexico (glued to a mirror frame in the forward head), a perfect paper nautilus from the Sea of Cortez, and now, a sea rock collection from Las Perlas.

When we are old and grey (not yet!) well look at our beach souvenirs and recall the beach, the anchorage, the country, the people we met there, the things that happened.

When people say Every beach looks the same after a while I am always surprised. Maybe they dont take the time to take a closer look, marvel at the details.