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Cruising Journals - Pam Wall

Chapter 6 - Panama

As the anchor came up we watched the black morning. The sea was steel gray and the sky had the nasty look of squalls and rain. There was a lot of wind, and it was from a favorable easterly direction. We were leaving behind the low San Blas islands headed for the mountainous Panamanian coast. The short steep chop of the winter Caribbean Sea was like a landscape of hills and valleys. On the tops of the hills the vicious wind would blow the white caps away, while the bottom of the valleys lulled us for a few seconds before the mad rush up to the next peak. We had made the mistake of towing the inflatable dinghy. It would get momentum of its own, and wildly pass our stern as we plunged down the steep seas. Then as we climbed up the next wave it would jerk to attention on its painter. We were happy to feel an ease in the wind as we approached Isla Grande before making the gybe over for our approach to the anchorage.

The lush green island contrasted to the low San Blas. Here there were high hills covered by every shade of green. We could not see any sand beaches and the harbor lay behind a makeshift breakwater. Once inside we lowered the anchor and it absolutely would not hold. With Sammy and Jamie shouting encouragement to their father, Andy dove over the side and struggled to set the anchor in the hard packed sand. At last we were secure, and as usual, the crew fell into tidying up the boat. Sammy scurried below and cleaned and straightened the cabin, while Andy, Jamie, and I got the deck ship shape. It is a wonderful time of day when Sammy announces tea and the snacks are ready. We all relax in the cockpit and enjoy the view of our new front yard! We wanted an early start the next morning to climb up to the precipitous lighthouse on the East Side of the island. Sammy and Jamie loved packing the backpacks with drinks, sandwiches, fruit, binoculars, hats, suntan lotion, towels, compass, camera and all the other "heavy" equipment necessary for a days outing. Naturally, they knew their Daddy would carry the loaded backpack, so it didn't matter to them how much they stuffed it. And finally off we set to find the white lighthouse, "Faro Blanco."

We took the dinghy ashore and left it at a ramshackle building called "The Hotel". The walking was pleasant and easy along the shoreline to the tiny town. The going got really tough as we started the ascent up into the jungle. We were especially proud of 4 year old Jamie who never once complained. The climb was steep and hot and through dense woods. There was no sunshine or breeze getting through the thick trees and vines that covered our trail. Just before we reached the summit where the lighthouse stood, a living cloud covered our upward track. We were surrounded by hundreds of electric blue butterflies! It was as if the dark jungle was illuminated with bright fluorescent blue dancing lights. We could not believe how beautiful this mass of butterflies made the dark green path.

At last we reached the lighthouse perched as a sentinel on a cliff overlooking the churned up Caribbean Sea. The view was spectacular, and we wished we had been there with binoculars the day before as we had sailed past this glorious landmark. Along the wild coast of Panama there is another anchorage not to be missed. A huge bay, only a short distance from Isla Grande, called Portabello. It was from this bay that Spanish gold from the Americas was shipped to Spain. This was a busy port when Spain was getting rich from all the gold being robbed from the New World. And it was here that the Englishman, Sir Francis Drake, sought the Spanish gold. He would lie in wait for the gold- filled galleons to depart this bay, then pounce on these ships with cannon and sword. Sir Francis Drake loved to plunder the Spanish ships and bring the captured gold home to Mother England. The hills surrounding Portabello gave testament to the fear the Spanish held for this one persistent man. On both sides of the large bay were a series of monolithic fortifications. One row of cannons was under another row of cannons, which were in turn under a third row of fortifications. All cannons pointed out to sea, all cannons pointed towards the hated "El Draque" and his fleet of pirate ships We anchored under the forts on the left side of the bay. Towering above our little vessel, the abandoned cannon ports beckoned us ashore. The enthusiasm of our two small children had us in the dinghy rowing ashore within minutes of anchoring. We could visualize the richly dressed conquistadors looking out to sea, straining their eyes to see if Drake was about to enter their rich bay. The tiered forts began at the shore and ended up high on the cliffs overlooking the entire bay. Imagine the dread those Spaniards must have had of Sir Francis Drake to build such monuments for their protection.

The irony of history is amusing. Sir Francis Drake did end his days here. But it was not a cannonball or musket that snuffed out his life. A tropical fever overcame this powerful man. And instead of dying in his beloved England, he was buried at sea here in Portabello. The story is told that he was put into a coffin loaded with Spanish gold. And to this day, the people of Spanish heritage in Panama are still looking for their pilfered gold that anchors his coffin somewhere on the muddy bottom of Portabella Bay. "When are we going to be in the Pacific Ocean?" And the all too familiar, "Are we there yet?" If Andy and I heard this once we must have heard it a hundred times! Sammy and Jamie just could not wait to see this new Ocean. Another short passage and we sailed into the bustling port of Colon where we would make arrangements for going through the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal Yacht Club opened its warm, friendly, and comfortable doors for us as they do for all the cruisers about to transit the famous Canal. This was our last port in the Atlantic. As excited as we were to get to the Pacific, it is a little daunting to realize that here is where the voyage around the world really begins. Once through to the other side of the North and South Americas, the vast Pacific Ocean is the highway away from home. We were to bid farewell to all that was familiar and head down that magic road of unknown adventures. Our children were ready and eager, and we too could not wait to feel the tradewinds of the Pacific.

Pam Wall - Expert Sailor

Pam Wall

Outfitting Manager, West Marine Ft. Lauderdale

  • A lifelong sailor, Pam and her husband have been cruising together for over 36 years!