Monday, April 29, 2013

Leaving the Boat in Panama - What Can Go Wrong?

A developing country like Panama has its beauties and charms: the weather is always hotter than in our home countries, nature’s attractions are abundant and there are new adventures around every corner. But, when it comes down to efficiency, responsibility, and common sense, this Central American country has a long way to go. Having spent a whole year in this region overland in 2005-2006 and another twelve months this time around, Mark and I know what to expect – or better – what not to expect. Last year, when we started talking about leaving Irie in Panama for a couple of months, to take a break from the boat life and catch up with friends and family in the civilized world, we realized we should plan well ahead of time and do whatever we could to have things in order for ourselves and our floating home.

But… the longer we travel in this part of the world, the more we realize one important fact: no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you plan, prepare, organize, expect, and confirm, things will not go the way they should. This is the short story of sorting out our past summer visit to the United States and Belgium, just so people know what to expect when trying the same thing, or to understand what it means to “abandon ship” for a while. With a lot of patience, determination and acceptance, solutions were found, but that doesn’t mean we were totally happy with them!

Already in February 2012, we contacted the French owners of Panamarina, between Puerto Lindo and Portobelo to secure a safe spot. This is a small marina with only mooring balls, which fills up quickly. The only thing we got accomplished via email was a notification that there was no room. Not willing to give up and knowing people secured a spot later in the year, we visited the French owners in person, European style. This was the way to go and after a short talk in French, we had ourselves a mooring ball for the duration of our absence.  I confirmed the reservation orally and electronically and we were assured we could go ahead and book our flights. Which we did, all based on dates that would work with the marina’s bus transport and operating days/hours. We needed to make sure that we could leave Irie the day of our departure from the airport and get back to her the day of our arrival back into Panama.

A few months went by and we started looking forward to our trip “home”. Big was our surprise, astonishment and disbelief, when – a month before take-off – we received a blunt email (in my junk folder) from Panamarina, saying that they cancelled our reservation! The boat that was in “our” spot wasn’t able to leave, because of the owner’s disease. .. What??? A few phone calls to the Frenchies led to rudeness and us being treated very poorly, unprofessionally and disrespectfully. We were laughed at in our faces and had to find another solution, pretty much last minute. The expensive Shelter Bay Marina ($900 a month for our size boat; catamarans pay 1.5 X the usual amount and there is a minimum of 40 feet you have to pay for; we are 35 feet) was out of the question and the marinas all the way in Bocas del Toro were not part of our travel plans.

After a few weeks trial and error in the West Lemmon Cays in the San Blas islands, where cruisers have left their boat successfully the last couple of years, Mark and I secured a mooring ball in the much cleaner waters. A German guy was in charge of the friendly, reliable and well-running operation, while the Kunas were the owners and cashiers. His wife was known to vigilantly check on boats, air them out and make sure all was in order, while the owners were absent. Even though we never were able to meet the couple in charge (we sure tried and planned our departure around this) and we saved a dragging boat which barely missed us, the day before our departure, we were OK with the new solution, based on positive reports and experiences of other cruisers.

Everything was booked and planned ahead of time for our trip to the US, to little avail. We waited over an hour for boat transport to Carti, mainland Panama, where our assigned driver had already left. A different jeep driver brought us to our B&B in Panama City, trying to get more money out of us. The following morning, the “arranged and confirmed” (unbeknownst to him) taxi driver did not show up on time. We called him out of bed and with less than an hour to spare, he managed to swiftly drop us off at the airport. Thanks to Roger’s commitment and responsiveness, we didn’t miss our flight.

Once in the US and Belgium, we could breathe again, but not for long. After continued inquiries about how Irie was doing in the San Blas, we finally heard that the German and his wife were no longer there! Nobody was watching our boat during the heavy summer storms, lightning and winds, while irresponsible sailors were anchoring their boats on shelves surrounded by very deep water. Once an anchor would drag, the boat was free to hit everything in its path… When the subject of Irie came up in conversations, Mark and I stubbornly avoided the topic. There was nothing we could do from thousands of miles away. Towards the end of our western world visit, we had friends confirming that our floating home was looking all right and everything seemed in order. Pfew!

Upon our return to Panama, we shopped and stayed an extra night in the capital, before the jeep drive (not without complications and extra costs) and boat ride – all in heavy rains – to Irie took place. We were very happy to be back home and to find her in good shape. We found no extensive mold inside and the bottom was in the same shape as when we left. We managed to deal with all the hassle and best of all: we were back in paradise and ready to enjoy it!

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