Global Voyage

A Story About Sailing Around the World

Ray & Jenny aboard the ketch Suka

3 years, 35,000 miles, Nov 1982 - Jan 1986

Ray & Jenny Jardine

Chapter 18: Panama page 100 of 109

The following day, the boarding officers arrived by launch and issued us pratique. We then moved Suka to pier-7 at the Cristobal Yacht Club, and Med-moored. The local immigration officer appeared and stamped our passports, and drove us to his downtown headquarters where we penciled more paperwork and paid the requisite ten dollars each for 30-day visas. Returning, we each enjoyed a frosty cold drink in the club's delightfully air-conditioned bar. Then the girls headed for the washing and drying machines, luxuries of great significance to the cruising sailor.

Med-moored at the Cristobal Yacht Club.

Most everyone we talked with warned us not to walk around the city of Colon, because of the danger of mugging. Yachtee friends, yacht club personnel, canal authorities, and even police officers - their advice was the same: don't walk the streets. Perhaps foolishly, we ventured into this infamous city several times, and indeed we received many threatening looks. We were not bothered, but certainly felt we were pushing our luck. Other yachtees told of being openly robbed and even mugged. One fellow had been accosted twice. "I was standing on a street corner under an awning, waiting for the rain to stop," he told us, "when the man I was talking with suddenly grabbed my front pocket and ripped it off my jeans, and ran off with my billfold."

However, the yacht club with its relative security was a haven of refuge - as if a small, tranquil island in a large stormy sea. We spent most of our time there, working aboard by day, and enjoying a late afternoon cold beer and an evening meal at the club.

We visited the Assistant Port Captain's office to arrange our forthcoming canal transit. An officer told us that small yachts were no longer permitted. The inference was that we would have to sail around the horn. After a few long moments, he allowed that he was only joking - much to my relief. These Americans who staffed at the Commission seemed somewhat embittered about the future, 1999, transfer of the canal to the Panamanians. "Who cares?" one fellow told us. "This canal thing (the transfer) is a big joke, and we're down here just biding our time." Nonetheless, I could not help but notice that they had not forsaken their efficiency, for they processed our quantity of paperwork speedily and cheerfully.

One of the forms I signed was a release to the effect that "(Suka's) chocks, bitts, and cleats were of insufficient size, radius, or strength" and that her "mooring lines may not be of the required strength." I considered our gear more than adequate, but as I would later learn, I was grossly underestimating the tremendous forces applied to a vessel by the water's turbulence within the flooding canal chambers.

Almost every day a Cuna Indian woman stationed herself in the yacht club's veranda to peddle her wares: a sizable spread of brilliantly colored, hand sewn appliqués, called molas. We bought several during the course of our two week stay, and with the passing of time Eloisa slowly relaxed and proved herself most affable - despite the strictures of the Indian's cultural taboos. Debborah had just spent two years among South America's indigenous peoples, so she had a special fondness for such people. Eloisa took to embracing Debborah and hanging all over her like a grandmother. They made a quite a sight: the Indian bedecked in her work-a-day colorful garb of molas, her forearms and legs sporting bands, her nose pierced with a golden ring and marked with a black, vertical line to ward off devils - and the California girl dressed in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. I missed that photo, but got a couple of Jenny instead.



Some days, however, another Cuna woman would be there selling molas as well, and on these occasions Eloisa would give us not so much as a perfunctory nod. For awhile we thought we were seeing Eloisa's much less friendly twin sister. But it was Eloisa all right, and as the days passed we realized that she was bound in a culture that shunned relations with the outside world, save trading for the almighty dollar of course. Only when no Cuna witnesses were present was Eloisa free to be warmhearted with us.

The following day, a Panamanian admeasurer arrived with tape measure, calculator, and rather bulky file of paperwork in hand, intent on calculating Suka's net and gross tonnage. This figure would be used to compute her canal transit tariffs. Nervously the officer admitted that this was his second-ever admeasuring job, and the first time doing it alone. He spent nearly two hours measuring the brig inside and out, while poring over his figures at the salon table. Thoroughly confused, at certain intervals he would remeasure something. Presumably my holding my end of his tape comically short at many of the stations was not helping his plight. Even so, his computation put Suka at a net tonnage of 18. Finally he showed me the hastily drawn notes that his boss had sent with him. These were based on years of experience, and estimated Suka at 14 tons. When further fudging of this fellow's figures proved fruitless, he concluded: "Let's just say the boat is 15 net and 16 gross." And these became the official figures on Suka's formal transit documents.

Panamanian admeasurer.

Back at the canal office we paid the one-time only US $50.00 admeasurement fee, and the toll of $55.00. Months later we received a refund of $37.00 by mail. Thus, Suka's actual transit toll was a mere $18.00, including the all-day services of an on-board canal advisor. This was an incredible bargain, considering the alternative.

Overland trip by car

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Placing Suka under the watchful eye of our American neighbors Chris and Jean Kelly aboard their yacht Sobriana, Jenny and I rented a car and the three of us drove overland to Panama City.

The land was covered everywhere in lush greenery, this being the rainy season. Our drive was a scenic one indeed, but we soon found that the Panamanian roads belong mainly to the buses. Outrageously decorated in bright colors, and with comical gaudy gobs of long streamers attached to the mirrors on either side, the buses hurled along the two lane highway at express speeds. One horn-blaring bus driver finally passed when I veered suddenly into the oncoming lane and jammed the brakes, whereupon we were engulfed in its sooty plume of noxious exhaust, and then afforded a brief respite before the arrival at our rear bumper of the next garish transport.

We came to a high bridge crossing the Rio Chagres, which feeds the voracious locks of the Panama Canal (52 million gallons of water is required for each of the 40 or 50 ships that transit a day, it is said). We slowed to have a look at the river, and of the valley it had carved, lying below. This was a rare opportunity to see beyond the ever present thickets, so we pulled to the side and stepped out. To the north-east, the valley narrowed and the winding river was lost in the density of the jungle. People shouting drew our attention directly below, where a dozen youths were playing in the river, jumping from boulders into a natural pool, and swimming and splashing. Some stood on the rocks, waving and shouting hellos to us, and beckoning us to come join them.

Swimmers waving and shouting hellos.

Driving on, at one point we found a congregation of buzzards circling overhead. "Those birds can really fly," I commented to Jenny and Debborah. Finally I stopped the car to take a few photographs. Buzzards may seem ugly on the ground, and with their appetites for smelly carrion, they are certainly among the least appreciated members of the winged species. However, anyone who knows much about aerodynamics and the art and lore of thermal soaring will have a special appreciation for the buzzards and vultures, as perhaps the finest in the flying and soaring genre. I had gained much first hand knowledge, having spent many hours thermaling or soaring with a hang glider in the company of such birds, studying and trying to emulate their techniques. However, I had to chuckle when the girls thought my enthusiasm for buzzards was a little daft.

Buzzards feasting on a road kill.

The road followed a bulldozed swath through jungle so thick that the scenery remained unchanged. Bird of Paradise plants grew like weeds along the road banks; heliconias and hibiscus flashed their colors against the deep forest green; pampas grass waved in the breeze. We passed by small villages where traffic slowed and finally stopped at the Guardia stations.

Eventually we reached the outskirts of Panama City, where we discovered, of all things, a fast-food hamburger restaurant. Jenny and Debborah showed little interest, but I managed to prevail, if only just.

After our binge we selected a hotel from the tourist brochure, but finding it proved no simple matter, and in the process we became much more familiar with the city than we would have liked. That evening we went out on the town, and lo and behold I found another fast food joint. However, this was beyond the patience of the girls, and protesting I was dragged away by both arms to a pizza parlor.

Visiting the Old City ruins.

The next morning we drove about the city, visited the Old City ruins, then later set out for parts north: "local north" as the inhabitants say. As anyone knows, North America is north of Panama, and the Panamanian highway, on which we traveled, went to North America. Therefore, when driving in that direction one goes north. "Not so," refutes the map.

Nevertheless, off we went, traveling "local north," or as the map indicated, south - but that is the problem with maps: sometimes they only confuse the issues. Anyway, we set off in the direction of North America. No, that cannot be correct either. Well, then, off we went in the direction that one would drive in order to reach North America. South, by the map.

Later, we stopped at a small beach resort, where the proprietor sat with us at lunch enthusiastically describing the localities many and obvious attributes. "Which way are you headed?" he asked. "North," I replied to test his reaction. His comprehension was absolute. "What direction is that?" I then asked, pointing at the west coast and out to sea. "South-east," he replied. "The sun comes up over the ocean right over there," pointing a little to the left. "It's a little quirk in the land that has us all confused," he admitted. "Everyone knows the highway goes north and south; it's the sun we don't believe."

The drive was was long and hot, and of the type where the passengers wither lower and lower in their seats until ultimately they reach the supine with bare feet extended from the car's open windows. At one point the otherwise blue sky blackened, and an intense cloudburst assailed the area, obliterating any view of the road ahead and inundating the pavement in several inches of water. All too soon, though, the clouds passed, and after the sun had seared the tropical earth awhile, one could hardly tell that the deluge had been real.

Reaching the city of Santiago late in the afternoon, we checked into a small motel. The girls elected for a browse of the shops and a quick dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I was more inclined to relax quietly with a news magazine and a bag of chips. I awoke well after midnight, prompted by the aromas of my Mexican dinner the girls had kindly fetched from the restaurant. My feast drove Jenny and Debborah to bury their heads underneath their pillows.

The drive the following day proved significantly more interesting, as the road began climbing into the higher districts. The dense, impenetrable vegetation of the lowlands began thinning, and this allowed a view of the countryside. Whereas before we saw only two parallel walls of green jungle flanking the highway, here we viewed immense mountains of the Cordillera Central towering in the distance, and numerous, capacious and fast flowing rivers coursing beneath bridges. This was the Chiriqui province.

We arrived at the city of David, (Daw-veed') Panama's northernmost municipality of consequence, which incidentally on the map lies on a latitude more southerly than does Colon and Panama City. From here we left the Pan-American Highway, and followed a lesser road that climbed into the mountains proper. The higher the road climbed, the more its views expanded. This is dairy country, known for its rich grazing land, and many of the locals, being descendants of Swiss emigrants, lived in beautiful chalets. "This is Panama?" we asked one another incredulously.

The village of Boquete

At last we reached our destination: the village of Boquete (Bo-ket'-tay) a study in tranquility, nestled in a valley overshadowed by mountainous volcanoes. This is coffee country. Most residents owned at least one small finca, or coffee farm, either in their yard or tucked away on a mountainside. Also, nearly every back yard featured a modest orchard of orange trees, loaded and drooping ponderously with succulent fruit. Towering above the city, Volcan de Baru - Panama's highest peak - rose to 11,450 feet and beckoned mountaineers to explore.

After checking into a pension - a small hotel charging modest rates - we strolled about the town. Here we felt rather obtrusive; the people obviously did not see many tourists, as evidenced by most of them staring at us, although without meaning offense.


We were glad to be touring the highlands during the rainy season. Flowers were blooming profusely, fields were a patchwork of vibrant greens in various hues, and the air was clean and fresh. We inquired in a couple of the shops as to where we could purchase fresh coffee beans, and were directed to the office of one Doña Toby Hackett, manager of the Associo: a local, coffee-bean processing cooperative. Toby was a congenial American who preferred the slower pace of life in Boquete, and who had been living here for 20 years. She gave us an insight to the coffee grower's life in the highlands of Panama, and escorted us on a personal tour of the Associo.


Here the villagers bring their harvest of ripe coffee beans to be processed, bagged and exported. First, the red seeds are washed as they tumble down a wooden chute, sluiced with fresh water piped from a nearby river. A chafing machine removes the dried husks. After "pulping," a fermentation process that brings out the flavor, the beans are spread under the hot sun to dry, roasted to remove the moisture, and poured into 100-pound burlap sacks, ready for the Panamanian coffee market. Much is exported to the States, where, according to Toby, the coffee is "adulterated with legumes, lentils and other cheap fillers."

Toby gives us a tour of a coffee bean processing cooperative.

Coffee beans drying in the sun.

On parting, Toby presented us with a couple of kilo bags of the Associo's premium roasted, aromatic ground coffee. Later, aboard Suka we brewed some of this and found it wretched. This is where we leaned that we had been accustomed to blending coffee containing fillers, and as such, I had brewed this genuine coffee far too strong. I tried again, using only one third the amount of grounds we normally used, and the coffee was delicious.

Climbing Volcan de Baru

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Interested in climbing Volcan de Baru, we inquired around town as to the best approach to the mountain. Curiously, though, each person gave a different reply. "Well, I think there's a dirt road," said one woman, "but I don't know if it goes all the way to the top. Anyway its the rainy season and that road will be a mess. You'll be up to your knees in mud."

"That's at least a two-day climb," said another. "Volcan de Baru is not an easy hike, but a friend of mine knows the way."

We asked to speak with this friend. "Yes, there is a track up there," the friend offered, "but it's really hard to find. I can guide you to the top for only $25."

Surely, we imagined, we could find our own way. We drove to the periphery of the village, and walked the steep streets at the mountain's base. But we could not find the dirt track we were looking for. Later that evening we asked the señora at our pension if she knew the way. She said that her son had been to the top of the volcan. We talked with this young man, and he explained how to find the jeep track.

The following morning before first light, we drove to the end of the paved road, as the young man had described, then in the crisp mountain air we set off on foot up the steep track. Debborah did not accompany us, as she wished to spend the day exploring on her own. We were unaccustomed to strenuous hiking, or to the higher elevation, so of necessity our pace was slow. We seemed to gain altitude rapidly, though, and soon the sun greeted us with its first rays of light and warmth. Below were magnificent views of the valleys, while overhead, persistent clouds shrouded the surrounding peaks, blocking our view to the south, where we might have seen the Pacific.

Taking a break while climbing Volcan de Baru.

On the volcano's lower slopes the rain forest comprised a dense wall of vegetation alongside the track. Most of the flora seemed in a perpetual struggle for soil, space, and light. Ferns grew in tall thickets; wild flowers bloomed in profusion; and bromeliads clung to tree trunks and branches. These bromeliads grew in such abundance that many had fallen to the ground, perhaps as a means of propagating the species. Despite all the verdure we were surprised to find no creeks, rivulets or springs. And contrary to what some of the villagers had said, the track was dry.

">Gradually we passed from the lower rain forests into a montane zone of pines and cedars, where in shaded glens we found small groves of intricately patterned bamboo. Then reaching a low cut along the extinct volcano's rim, we looked down into the crater, long ago nearly filled and heavily vegetated.

Climbing Volcan de Baru.

">We forged on, and eventually passed through timberline. As we approached the mountain's summit, the track became even more steeply inclined. Near the top is a microwave relay station, which accounts for the track we were following. We passed the station buildings, where the road ended, and followed a footpath to the top of Panama's highest peak. The air was cold, especially to our tropically acclimatized blood. Grey clouds moiled around us. On the far western horizon was Costa Rica's Cordillera de Talamanca, and northern extension of Panama's central mountain range. Somewhere in the mass of mountain tops blending with heavy rain clouds lay Chirripo, Costa Rica's highest peak. The freedom of the hills was now flowing in our blood, and as we retraced our steps from the peak we discussed the possibility of also climbing Chirripo. By car from Boquete it would have been only an hour's drive to the Panamanian-Costa Rican border. But Suka was waiting, and we decided it best to attend to our canal transit before spending time sight seeing in Costa Rica.

The summit.

On the summit.

">We walked quietly down the road, each absorbed in our own thoughts. I wondered where we would be a year from now. As I recalled the year past, an interesting coincidence occurred to me. One year ago to the day we stood surrounded in misty clouds, marveling at our lofty location atop Reunion Island's Piton de Neiges. This boundless globe we were circling again seemed immense.

">Half way down we came upon a pick-up truck parked on the steep grade. Three men stood at the back, their attention focused on something intriguing. The men appeared surprised to see us tromping down the road. We exchanged greetings and learned that they were scientists sponsored by the National Science Foundation, studying anopheline mosquito larvae - the malarial transmitters. They were collecting specimens from bromeliads, and they showed us how the leaves of this plant form a natural, water-holding cup at their base. These cups were but one of the many habitats of mosquito larvae.

Scientists studying malarial mosquito larvae.

">We arrived back at the car late in the afternoon exhausted and thirsty, but happy. Tomorrow we would return to Panama City, and soon enough we would be preparing for the canal transit and our trip north-westward along the Central American coastline.


With regret the three of us left the sleepy, hanging valley of Boquete. Like many of the interesting places we had visited, here was a beauty, a charm, and fascination that deserved more time. As always, though, our main concern was for Suka, and we knew that the longer we extended our forays, the less likely we would find her undisturbed.

We arrived in Panama City late that night, and found a hotel. Then the next morning, dawn found us traversing the breadth of the long, thin isthmus of Panama, from the Pacific to the Caribbean coasts.

“I was in no position to argue, however, especially with his machine gun wielding sentry glaring at me.”

Nearing the outskirts of Colon we were approaching one of the usual Guard stations so frequently seen, when an officer motioned vigorously for me to stop. I went inside the station thinking he wanted to have a look at my credentials. He asked to see my driver's license. "You went through the stop sign," the officer asserted, pointing to a stop sign directly behind where I had parked the car. Curiously, the sign faced in the opposite direction. I was in no position to argue, however, especially with his machine gun wielding sentry glaring at me. The officer wrote me a traffic ticket for $50.00, but thinking I might be able to reduce the "fine" I said that I did not carry that much money. Without a moment's deliberation the fellow said that my driver's license would be delivered to Colon police headquarters, where I could present my $50 for its redemption. When I asked for the location of the station, he asked me to leave.

Arriving at the yacht club, we were relieved to find Suka lying quietly and undisturbed. Stepping belowdecks, however, we found the cupboards, walls, overhead, and sole had sprouted a thin coat of gray-blue mold. My mistake for having closed the hatches, skylight, and the ports. The hot, humid climate coupled with lack of air circulation had precipitated the parasitic growth. But a liberal application of elbow grease and vinegar soon remedied the problem.

We kept the rental car for the day, and drove to the gas station six times, refilling plastic diesel jugs and returning aboard to empty the fuel into Suka's bilge tanks. Also, we purchased victuals at a large supermarket. The cashier chided me for withdrawing the money from my shoe. "They just cut off your foot," she related. From there we drove to a propane bottle filling station, and then to the Canal administrative office where we scheduled Suka's transit, a few days hence.

We spent two days preparing Suka for the long voyage ahead. While the girls busied themselves with the usual endless domestic chores, I spent most of my time in the engine compartment. Perkins was running hot, and prohibitively so at higher rpm's. This was a persistent disorder that was to worsen during the weeks to come, despite my best efforts at determining its cause.

Artwork by Debborah.

The story has 109 pages. This is page 100.
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Page Links
GV 001: Title Page
GV 002: TOC
GV 003: Dedication
GV 004: Preface
GV 005: Prologue
GV 006: Beginnings
GV 007: Work Done
GV 008: Making Ready
GV 009: Departure
GV 010: Sailing Credentials
GV 011: First Lesson
GV 012: Sextant Navigation
GV 013: Safety Harness
GV 014: Murphy's law
GV 015: Spirit of Adventure
GV 016: Holding On
GV 017: First Big Storm
GV 018: Storm Intensified
GV 019: Rolling Violently
GV 020: Mizzen Sleeping Bag'sl
GV 021: Freeing the Propeller
GV 022: Visits by Birds
GV 023: Crossing the Doldrums
GV 024: Nearing First Landfall
GV 025: Land Ho
GV 026: Fatu Hiva
GV 027: Trek Inland
GV 028: Anchor Watch
GV 029: Passage
GV 030: Hiva Oa
GV 031: Skin Diving Circus
GV 032: Almost Like a Jungle
GV 033: Polaris Missile
GV 034: Taiohaie Bay
GV 035: Cascade Hakaui
GV 036: Taipi Bay
GV 037: Cyclone Lisa
GV 038: Cyclone Nano
GV 039: Passage of Patience
GV 040: Tuamotu Archipelago
GV 041: Tahiti
GV 042: Cyclone Reva
GV 043: Secret Sharer
GV 044: Moorea
GV 045: Cyclone Veena
GV 046: Aftermath
GV 047: Good Weather in Papeete
GV 048: Huahine
GV 049: Raiatea
GV 050: BoraBora
GV 051: Rarotonga
GV 052: Tonga
GV 053: Fresh Air
GV 054: Tongan Feast
GV 055: Excursion to Maninita
GV 056: Mariner's Cave
GV 057: Fiji
GV 058: Ndravuni Island
GV 059: Mara Island
GV 060: Aneityum
GV 061: Noumea
GV 062: St Elmo's fire
GV 063: Breakwater Reef
GV 064: Bundaberg
GV 065: Life on the Burnett River
GV 066: Engine Sabotage
GV 067: Flying
GV 068: Aground in Round Hill Creek
GV 069: Gladstone Confinement
GV 070: Tropical Queensland
GV 071: Trip into Townsville
GV 072: Cairns Sojourn
GV 073: Cramped Cooktown
GV 074: Lizard Island
GV 075: The San Michelle
GV 076: Lost Mummy Cave
GV 077: Land's End
GV 078: Darwin
GV 079: Christmas Is
GV 080: Passage
GV 081: Cocos Keeling
GV 082: Crossing the Indian Ocean
GV 083: Rodriguez
GV 084: Mauritius
GV 085: Reunion Cirque de Mafate
GV 086: Reunion Cirque de Salazie
GV 087: Passage to Africa
GV 088: Kruger National Park
GV 089: Richards Bay
GV 090: Durban
GV 091: Port Elizabeth
GV 092: Cape Town
GV 093: Storm Passage
GV 094: St Helena
GV 095: Passage to Brazil
GV 096: Fortaleza
GV 097: Passage to Caribbean
GV 098: Bonaire
GV 099: Passage to Panama
> GV 100: Panama
GV 101: Panama Canal
GV 102: Medidor
GV 103: Costa Rica
GV 104: Passage to Acapulco
GV 105: Acapulco to Cabo
GV 106: Baja
GV 107: Home Port
GV 108: In Retrospect
GV 109: Next Time
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