Diary – Sailing from Miami to Panama

June 10, 2021

Should have left earlier … initially we planned to stay in Miami for only a week so that we could avoid hurricanes on our way to Panama. We ended up staying for three weeks.

We had been thinking about getting vaccinated against Covid-19 for a while when we made up our mind to do it as soon as possible. It would help us enter new countries, and it may minimize the risk even if we do contract the virus. We had nothing to lose asking around as non-American citizens about getting vaccinated, how much it would cost, what the procedure would look like. We went into a drug store where they simply asked which vaccine we preferred, Pfizer, Moderna etc? We could get the shot right away free of charge, and then the second one in three weeks. That’s the story of our delayed departure from Miami.

In the meantime we kept an eye on the weather forecast and started to get more and more worried. The hurricane season was around the corner and we should have really left by now. Cyclones appeared above the Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico, some of them having already carved out a name for themselves … The date of our second shot could not be moved up. Even though we warned the healthcare workers about the impossible sailing conditions the longer we waited, they took the vaccination schedule very seriously.

The coming bit was by far the toughest part of our journey so far. And not just for us.  Later in Panama we talked to other sailers who shared their experiences about how difficult this crossing was for them as well, no matter when they did it. We were exhausted by the end, nature dictated a crazy pace, it was really hard to keep up. It required non-stop focus, there wasn’t much opportunity to take it easy, not even for a bit. Right after setting out we had to maneuver on a narrow strip between the shoaly, shallow waters and the oncoming Gulf Stream (2-3 knots). Here we spotted the metal structure of the lighthouses, which were built in the 70’s. They kept us company all the way to Key West.

There was no fuel station deep enough for our boat near Miami. So we had to stop over at Key West, where we found a fuel station where we could pull in at high tide.  We filled up the tank and went on.

We really wanted to stop at Dry Tortuga as we had heard how beautiful it is, but we had to press on if we wanted to escape the hurricanes. It was a real challenge to cross the Gulf Stream. At the same time, in the Gulf of Mexico a cyclone was forming, acting as a magnet – all the storms along the way were heading in that direction. This made it easier for us to calculate their routes and possibly avoid them. We had to slalom around them. Sometimes they were attacking from the back usually accompanied by lightning, which can be a pretty scary sight at night.  At least during the day we couldn’t see the lightning. We prayed a lot not to get struck by them. Our prayers were heard.

In the first couple of days the wind was not too strong.  At times we were cruising on the glassy water with the motor on. It was then that we spotted a huge group of dolphins swimming towards us. They played near our boat for a long time, watching them play was an amazing experience. Like an open- air dolphin show.

Domi’s foot got injured during this stretch. It may have been caused by the constant healing of the boat as he stood at the wheel. This might have strained the joint which had been operated on earlier. We applied a cold compress and some cream for three days, but he could hardly stand on his foot. I was his autopilot, he gave me directions which I tried to perform to the best of my best abilities.

During the crossing our girls sleep in the saloon, where we transform the table into a bed. It is the most stable spot on the boat. They occupy themselves readily, play, draw, and sometimes Boroka prepares dinner for both of them if I can’t attend to them because of my duties on board. After dark we cannot keep the lights on in the cabin as it disturbs visibility for the person at the steering wheel. Thus the girls need to go to bed early. In the afternoons with no storms in sight we would play something together, watch a movie, read together or chat.

Having circumnavigated Cuba, we arrived to the Cayman Islands. We were permitted to stay there for two days, but were not allowed to go to shore. Only after 14 days of quarantine could we have the possibility to do so, but we were under time pressure to move on. We could fill up the tank and buy groceries though. We had to anchor at a designated mooring. Domi had an official permit to take the dinghy to collect the pre-ordered goods.  From a distance he could see how the delivery service deposited the goods near the shore, then left.  No one else was on shore when Domi collected the groceries.  Rather strange but understandable procedures. Back on the boat, the moment we had a bit of a wi-fi signal we printed out the test papers for the girls and they took (and passed!) their exams for school. The sea was a wonderful blue around us, and mesmerizing corals glittered in the deep.

At last we had fresh food again. This made it easier to face the bad weather which awaited us. We had sizeable waves even though thanks to the forecast we started out earlier to avoid a heavy rain zone. We were glad to be on the way again, but were very much looking forward to our arrival. Four meter (13 foot) high waves were attacking the boat from the side, storms were passing us left and right.  We had to change direction a couple of times to avoid most of them.

We saw a number of cargo ships on the way, but only cargo ships and nothing else thankfully. We took a big detour avoiding the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua. We did not want to risk meeting pirates.   Pirate attacks are not uncommon in that region.

Our journey lasted 13  days. We were only a few miles from the breakwater when we noticed storms on the radar yet again, dark clouds on the horizon everywhere. It was a guessing game to try to go around them, however, as soon as we headed one direction the clouds closed up and it seemed impossible to go around them. You could only break through them which we did not want to do at first, so for another 1-2 hours we tried to avoid them by sailing into all sorts of directions, without success. The whirling airmass has closed in around us. There was rain, heavy wind and lightning everywhere but right above us. The big, unfriendly waves tossed the boat from one side to the other. We had no choice but to break through the storm the shortest way possible in the direction of the breakwater leading up to the Panama Canal. The storm calmed down somewhat in the meantime, and we managed to get out of this whirlwind relatively easily. We were exhausted.

All we had to do now was to check in with the breakwater control station to ask for an entry permit. Unfortunately, our VHF antenna did not work properly and they could not hear us at all. Huge cargo ships were going 12 knots in and out around us (our speed was max 6-7 knots). Soon we noticed a „slow” cargo ship going 5-6 knots so we lined up behind it. Domi asked them via radio (it worked for short distance communications) if we could follow them due to our antenna fiasco. At the breakwater we could then radio the station and got the permit to enter. From there it took about a half hour to reach the marina, among shipwrecks and reefs, we approached it carefully. Soon after the sun went down.

We had a warm welcome in the marina. The following morning the coronavirus test person was supposed to show up. We could not leave the boat until we produced a negative test. With the negative results in hand, we got assigned a new spot in the marina. The head of the marina took the girls for ice cream as he had promised them the night of our arrival.