I took Admiral Gimpy in to do her business at a small island in the San Andres anchorage. We paddled back and Shannon had the boat all ready to go. We weighed anchor at 10:15 am on July 27th with Bocas Del Toro on the brain. When we left the harbor we were getting some pretty decent wind, approximately 15-18 knots from the east. If our jib was whole we would have been able to use this wind for a nice sail, but unfortunately we could still only use the small corner of useable sail and therefore had to keep the motor on. The sun was shining and there were not many clouds so we considered ourselves lucky and motored on. We had checked the weather and were not expecting very much wind, so both the Gualby and us were expecting to need our motors the entire way. By sundown, about 8 hours later, the Gualby had only had the motor on for a couple of hours and were still about 2 miles ahead of us. We were both jealous of them and happy for them while we listened to our motor all night.
Late that night we picked up some storms on the radar, and we could see lighting east of us but headed our way. We knew that no matter how much we checked the weather we might run into a storm so we continued on with only positive thoughts to protect us. The storms soon caught up to us, and while the wind increased slightly it was far from frightening. The unnerving element which the storms brought was a ton of lightning. This was the first time since we left that we have seen more than maybe a few lighting strikes all night and even then it was from far away. This night we were getting them every few minutes and closer than I could believe. They were all around us, and if it weren’t for the fact that they are so scary I would have been able to appreciate how beautiful and amazing they were to watch.
I have been reading sailing books, magazines, websites , etc. for the past three years and the different recommendations for dealing with a lightning storm are as numerous as the sources you check. Some people claim that having all your electronics and metal objects, including the engine, grounded to the metal seacocks (connected through the hull directly to the water) is the best thing that can be done. Other sources state that you should drag a set of jumper cables from your metal rigging into the water in order to create a clear path for the energy to transfer. Other sites claim the safest thing is to put rubber, such as a wetsuit, under your feet to keep from being electrocuted. Still other sites claim that the best thing to do is to hope for the best and hope that your insurance will cover a lightning strike because everything is going to get fried. While watching the spectacular display get closer and closer, I decided to take all of our portable electronics (handheld GPS, laptop, handheld VHF, etc) and put them in the oven which would theoretically shield them from being fried in the event of a direct hit.
Soon the lightning went from “it couldn’t get much closer” to “holy crap its gotten closer”, and I was getting a little nervous. It is one thing to be the tallest guy on the rugby field when a lightning storm is coming on the horizon in terms being a target. It is a completely other thing to be one of two metal rods 60 foot higher than any other object for miles and miles around. You could literally feel the electricity in the air. The one good thing that I can say is at least there was nothing I could do. That is to say, as the Captain, there was nothing I could really do but hope for the best. We were out there with the lightning, and it was going to hit us or it wasn’t going to it us, no matter what I did. We wrote down some GPS waypoints just in case our main GPS got fried and some course headings in case our handheld GPS got fried. I decided that we should put the autopilot on and hide down below in our aft. cabin, which was the spot on the boat which was farthest from and most protected from the mast. We laid in the bed listening to the strikes and again our positive thinking and luck kept us safe. A few hours later the lightning had passed and we were less than 24 hours away from our ultimate goal of Bocas Del Toro, Panama.
The next day was beautifully uneventful as we continued to motor almost due south. At about 10 am we were joined by a pod of dolphins for quite a while. We added this event to the “list of times we wished we had a camera” and just enjoyed it for the moment it was. No matter how superstitious or non-superstitious you are, when you are joined by a pod of dolphins you take it as a good omen. When you can’t see land and your 38 foot boat feels like it might as well be 38 inches, it truly makes you feel less alone when you are escorted by these beautiful animals.
The rest of the day we ate well from the fully stocked fridge that Shannon made happen before we left San Andres. Because we were getting plenty of juice into our batteries from the alternator we also played music the whole time in an effort to drown out the engine’s hum (a constant hum that we would have killed to hear a couple weeks earlier). We saw Panama on the horizon about an hour before sunset. We enjoyed a delicious homemade pizza together while we watched another beautiful sunset on the bow (thanks again autopilot). We pulled up to the entrance to Bocas Del Toro at about 11 pm. I headed to what my charts said was the first red channel marker. As we got closer I noticed that it was not in exactly the same place that the chart indicated. There were many lights, some stationary from land, some on the water taxis and fishing boats which were going back and forth in the area.
I could not find the channel markers from the charts, so I had Shannon up on the bow with the spotlight looking in the event that perhaps the markers were there but somehow not lit. We searched around and could not find them at all and in the moonless darkness I could not tell how far I was from shore or what was in the water. I put my radar on to see how it jibed with the GPS (some areas are more accurate than others), and it seemed that the GPS was very accurate with what the radar was finding. I decided to proceed slowly into the harbor with Shannon on the bow looking for obstructions. This is only the second time we have entered a harbor at night, as it is very nerve-wracking and not really a good idea. Conor had suggested dropping anchor outside and entering at first light, but because of all we had been through I chose to enter slowly with the help of the radar, the charts, and a spotlight. We slowly made it to an anchorage and found some other sailboats. We dropped our anchor near a group of other cruising boats and made sure it held. We both cracked a beer and celebrated our arrival at our goal 10 months in the making, Bocas Del Toro, Panama.