Getting Ready to Leave Bocas del Toro

We left Independence at 1:00 pm on October 3, arrived at the hotel at the Rome airport and were checked in by 2:00. Because the Hilton provided complimentary shuttle bus service into Rome proper, we opted to hop on and do a quick (hah!) walking tour past the highlights. We’re sure glad we did – the bus let us off in the old district a 10-minute walk from the Coliseum, and in just under five hours we managed the Forum, the Vittorio Emmanuel Palace, Mussolini’s Palace, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and pasta at a local sidewalk café. Next time we’ll have to come in a few days early, or leave a few days later, to take advantage of seeing the insides of all of these wonders!

After flying from Rome to Madrid, to Guatemala City, to Panama City, and overnighting at our favorite little Hotel Milan in the City, we took the early morning puddle jumper on October 5 to get back to Bocas and Emma Jo. We were delighted to be met at the airport by Brian, our boat-sitter, cat-uncle, and chef extraordinaire. He helped us catch the marina lancha, and joined us for coffee and a de-brief. We sincerely don’t know how we could manage to spend so much time away from Emma Jo without him. It’s great not only to leave the boat with someone who knows enough to call in help when systems fail, but who also enjoys and spoils the cats rotten. The girls were upset to see him leave!

We spent the first few days going through every locker and cupboard below to sort out our things, determining which could be laundered or aired and which could be given away. Our rule has become “if it’s not used within two years, it’s not useful.” The ladies at Bocas Marina had first crack at the bags – then they were given to a local charity.

I took the bus to David for a couple of days to get the requisite annual medical checkups due a woman of my age…and given the current political climate in the US, was grateful to be in Panama. All labs, plus a visit to the Gynecologist, Radiologist for mammogram and ultrasound, General Practitioner for checkup, then ultrasound for thyroid and consultation with the Radiologist and an Endocrinologist – all done in less than 6 hours, all results in, prescriptions written and filled, grand total: $300. I can only imagine what it would have cost back home, and the $300 wouldn’t even have covered my deductible! I also got the chance to ride out to Caldera and look at the progress on our house – foundations are almost ready to pour, corner columns are up, and the lot is leveled. If all goes well, we should be able to have Christmas there next year! A clean bill of health and a pleasant bus ride back found Ole up to his armpits in the forward cabin.

This boat was built in 1986, and the wall coverings of choice for a semi-luxury cruiser like this was textured vinyl – after 23 years, the last five of which have been in the tropics with the portholes open and occasional sea-spray, the vinyl had begun to peel away at the seams, allowing for the growth (and smell) of mildew to permeate the forward living spaces. We did a lot of research about alternatives – and found online what we hope will be a great solution: textured, paintable fiberglass. The product goes up like dry-hung wallpaper, and can be painted 10-12 times before it loses its texture. It’s mold and mildew-resistant, and the primer and adhesive contain mildew-killing agents. It comes in one-meter-wide rolls of 50 meters length, so we ordered an entire roll, planning to do all of the vinyl surfaces over time. Ole had stripped and masked the forward cabin, and I got back in time to help him prime the surface and hang the product. It’s a small space, relatively – but it’s a boat. Given the complex curves of the hullside, our relative inexperience at wallpaper hanging, and limited selection of tools, it took just about a day and a half to get it up. We let it dry for a day and a half, then ventured into the hardware store in Bocas and found, to our amazement, custom color mixing of Glidden acrylic latex and rollers and edging tools to make the paint go up in less than four hours. We picked a color from memory that we hoped would go with the yellow, beige and cream swirl pattern of the overhead vinyl – and got an almost perfect color match. The shelf and trim were put back up (again, damn those complex curves) along with all of the hardware – and it looks like a new boat! (Smells much better, too.) The next space to tackle will be the master head – small space, small pieces to hang, but more fussy cutouts for the portholes, shelving and shower. We’ll tackle the master stateroom last, as it’s not in very bad shape. If you’d like more information, drop us an email at Pedersens at emmajo dot net and we’ll forward our contacts to you.

Another great surprise on our return was the addition of a canvas and upholstery business right at the marina. We were able to take our pilothouse cushions and the ten yards of fabric we had purchased last year over to the seamstress and have all of the cushions redone within a week for less than $200. What a country.

While I painted the forward cabin, Ole kept busy installing new starting batteries for the engines, and fixing the motor on our pilothouse CruiseAir conditioning unit. What a project – Ole’s motto being “somebody had to put this together; therefore somebody HAS to be able to take it apart!” Like the boat, the a/c unit is at least 23 years old. To get at the motor, he had to go through the fan, grinding out an opening in two opposing fan blades to be able to get the allyn wrench down to the motor housing. That project done, he installed a third water pump such that for a few hours, we actually had three fully functional air conditioning units!

With all projects done, we figured we’d have a couple of days of local cruising and anchoring overnight to test all systems and make sure we were good to go for our 140-mile passage to Colon and Shelter Bay for haul out later this month. But Friday, October 16 was a rainy one so we opted to shorten the shakedown and spend a last Friday night at the Calypso Cantina to listen to music and say goodbye to our friends and acquaintances at the Marina. Bless Dyllan and Darian – they persuaded Patrick and his friend, Kevin, Andy the Drummer, and a local bassist to let me sit in for a few – gave my last official performance of gin-fueled blues singing to thunderous applause (these people are easily amused).

Saturday morning, October 17, we cruised over to Starfish Beach and found everything in order – including the fact we had the place to ourselves for the first time ever. The weather was overcast, and with the breeze, almost cool! We sat up on the sundeck for dinner, and enjoyed the quiet time out.

Sunday we cruised about two hours down to Isla Solarte to pay our last visit to Brian, thanking him again for his help, and touring the great digs he’s secured for himself while he’s between cooking jobs. He’s refinishing some wood on a 38-ft sailboat owned by the owner of an honest-to-goodness villa on top of a hill, with a sweeping view of sunrises and sunsets, walking path, private marina, and covered veranda. And bless his heart; he’s got a little apartment in the villa complete with a six-burner gas stove for cooking. It was so great to see that he’s taking care of himself well – and was so delighted to share his good fortune with us. We ferried him over to the boat so he could say goodbye to the cats:

We had planned to leave Monday morning, October 19, but although the weather forecast was for calm wind and seas, there was an ugly looking cell of thundershowers right over Bocas del Toro. We postponed our departure until Tuesday morning, October 20. We have had a wonderful time here in Bocas del Toro, meeting some wonderful and eccentric people, feeling very safe and secure, and enjoying some fine cruising. We will miss this place.

A Quiet March in Bocas del Toro

Life on Emma Jo is kind of quiet these days, with Ole gone and Jan reverting to her normal night-owl schedule, staying up ’til verrrryyy late (or early, depending on your perspective) and rising in mid-to-late morning. The month of March, Bocas del Toro received something on the order of 30 inches of rain, most of it from the first to the 12th. As the boat dried out, Jan turned her thoughts to varnish – the cap rail has for some reason blistered (gee, do you think it might have to do with something like 13 FEET of rain since November????) and the table on the back deck needs some attention. But we’ll need more than just a day or two of dry weather to get anything done.

Sharkey has returned for a visit, and I’ve been spending some nice times with her and “the boys.” We took a Sunday outing over to Bastimentos, an island not far from here with a completely improbable but thoroughly delightful Thai restaurant a 15-minute hike through the jungle away from the community dock. The place was enchanting – just a stilt house built by an American guy and his Thai wife – with a hillside view through the jungle out to the Caribbean. The restaurant might seat ten, and our party took up six of the available spots out on the deck. While we enjoyed rum punches and green chicken curry, we were able to spot mama and baby sloths in two of the nearby trees and watch and listen to parrots “coming home from work” in pairs.

A fellow here on the dock is quite a good guitarist, and has been playing on the occasional Friday night at the Cantina. What with a few gin and tonics, lively and silly conversation, and a double-dog-dare, it seems like I can dredge up some blues vocals once in a while. I’ve done it twice, now, at the marina, once pretty well (according to the drinking public) and once not so well (according to me AND the guitarist – probably too much effort and not enough liquor). But hey – it keeps me off the streets.

Valentine’s Day at Bocas Marina

With the Bocas Marina Cantina under new and creative management, a Valentine’s Party was planned and executed with impeccable flair by Dyllan and Darion. The festivities included welcome pink jello shots, romantic poetry on ribbon-tied scrolls, hundreds of paper hearts flying all over the posts, walls and tables, and a great meal of eggs benedict, champagne, and rum punch. The highlight was a musical trio booked in from Peru – with a keyboardist, percussionist, and “girl singer” who started slowly and romantically, then built up to full-on dancing music. They were truly the best entertainment we’ve seen in Bocas, and it figures, considering they are from out of town! Here are a few moments from the party…

Garden Tour on Isla Cristobal

After brunch, we went with Len and Lois and Pam and Bill on a tour sponsored by the Bocas Garden Club to the nearby island of Cristobal to visit a small farm owned and run by a retired Puerto Rican couple. Though they only have five acres, they are able to grow 68 kinds of fruits and vegetables on their property.




Bocas del Toro Chocolate Competition

Another highlight of the weekend was the annual Chocolate Competition sponsored by Dave Cerutti of Green Acres chocolate farming fame. The tasting was a zoo – but there were some really creative applications of chocolate – from mole sauce to liqueur, and cake to ravioli – all having been made with the local “black gold” that is Dave’s chocolate. The winner was a woman from the marina who made a flourless chocolate cake that made you melt.


After the chocolate competition, we ended up at the Pirate, home of the Bocas dinghy dock, for whole deep fried snapper, beer, and more entertainment from the Peruvian trio. All in all, a very eventful Valentine holiday!

Full Moon at Starfish Beach

During a break between the rain squalls, we decided we needed a few days out at anchor, to get our sense of territory back, give the new engine exhaust manifold a tryout, and find somebody to repair our bimini top and bridge cover. We joined Steve (Serenity) and Gary (Sea Feather) for a planned couple of days at Starfish Beach, and shared a good meal aboard. We were fortunate enough to experience a full moon rise, and Ole went out in the dinghy to try to capture a few “mood” shots.

After a relaxing couple of days, we picked up anchor and moved to Dolphin Bay, where Cyntha and Tommy from Moondancer are house-sitting for Carl and Mary of Camryka. We were able to cajole Cynthia into repairing our canvas, much to our delight. Should get at least another year out of our “bargain” bridge cover from Rio Dulce after repairs.

Party Time in Bocas — Lack of Pictures to Protect the Guilty

The second half of October was uneventful (save a couple of spectacular parties to be described in a minute). We waited for parts. Ole has been down in the engine room dismantling the engine, cleaning up, and getting it ready for the hopefully soon arrival of a new manifold and adapter kit. I’ve been working on making new window covers for the outside of the pilot house, trying to protect the interior wood while providing much-needed shade. Thankfully there are just enough common sense fasteners to handle the just enough Sunbrella I have left.

Now to the parties:

Sharkey (the woman that runs the cantina here at the marina) suggested we all go over to a farewell party for one of the expats who’s been a realtor here for several years. The party was held at the house of a well-known local artist, on Marina Carenero just a few doors down from the marina. The instructions were that it was to be women-only until after 9:00 p.m., then the men were welcome to come. While I expressed discomfort at going to a party for someone who didn’t know me, especially one that called for “women only,” Kathy (from Attitude) and I shored each other up, and talked Ole and Neil into waiting for us at the Cosmic Crab (between the house and Marina Carenero) in case we wanted to leave early. Fat chance.

The reason the first half of the party was “women only” was that apparently Darion (an ex-Chippendale from South Africa who shares a boat here at Bocas Marina with Dyllan, an ex-figure skater) had been invited to “perform” for the guest of honor. Now as a grown woman, I have been not only around the block but around MANY blocks. And I can say, without equivocation, that Darian was the best male stripper I’ve ever seen! At the point where he got out the baby oil and flaming torches, Julie, the owner of the house, got up to get the fire extinguisher and sat clutching it to her chest with her mouth hanging open. The performance was cathartic, ending with twenty or thirty females screaming at a quite improbable retrieval of a dollar from the guest of honor’s teeth (let’s just say it involved an inward-facing handstand between the guest of honor’s knees). My oh my.

Well, after THAT, Kathy and I elected to run over to get Neil and Ole, and return to the party. English Bill, a cantankerous electric guitar player, was there, and with enough rum I can be persuaded to do a bit of Janis Joplin (the fans were screaming for more). Add an open bar, frustration over a broken engine, and the prospect of Neil and Kathy leaving soon, and the evening just got wilder and wilder, culminating in Sharkey opening the cantina bar at 2:00 a.m. for more drinking and disco exhibitions featuring Dyllan, Darian, Kathy, Anne, Sharkey and me. I’m not entirely sure, but I think Ole and I carried each other home some time around 3:00 a.m., and didn’t speak for nearly 24 hours. It’s hell to get old.

More boat work, more waiting, more sewing later, and Halloween rolled around. As South Africans, Dyllan and Darion had never experienced it, so of course they were put in charge of decorating the cantina. As a costume minimalist, Ole wore a Wartisila diesel shirt and I put a dollar into each of my earrings (I’m a buck-an-ear…). Some folks went all-out, and it was hard to judge whose costume was best I was particularly fond of the carpenter who used foil-backed insulation to make himself into a dragon, but Darian’s “naked chef” was inspiring as well. When things wound down here at the cantina, a few of us opted to take a water taxi over to town to see what was cooking at the backpacker hangouts. It was pretty wild…and the local cops seemed mellow and amused.

Exploring Almirante Bay, In a Convoy

On October 1, we cheerfully left the dock, picked up 100 gallons of fuel, and headed out with four other boats from the marina for a week to ten days’ worth of relaxation. In the group were Pamela Jean, a 50-foot Formosa cutter from Texas with Bill and Pam aboard; Mariah, a 63-foot Choy Lee sloop with Evelyn and Dave from Key West; Serenity, with Steve (who’s the staff captain on NCL’s Norwegian Jade); all following Guavi, with Ariel and Michelle from Puerto Rico out to some of the islands and anchorages in Bahia Almirante.

Cayo de Agua (Water Cay)

Our first stop was Cayo de Agua (Water Cay), where one of our marina-mates has property he’s hoping to turn into an eco-resort. The weather was fantastic – the sea flat as a table – which was a good thing, because Cayo de Agua is right up against the Caribbean. We anchored on the south side of the cay, off Daniel’s dock, where we were greeted wildly by his three mixed-blood hound dogs who have the run of the place when Daniel isn’t there.

An afternoon walk showed us that “eco-resort” is a stretch – Daniel has a couple of local guys who watch over the place; who have hacked a few steps into the hillsides; who have built a palapa-covered platform with hammocks for barbecuing and lounging; and who have dammed a little creek in the hopes of providing a fresh water reservoir. Primitive would about cover it.

After a calm night at anchor, that featured dinner aboard with Steve and Amy of Serenity, we rounded up a dinghy flotilla for a tour of the north side of the island and a bit of snorkeling. The beaches were beautiful, the sea was flat, and the company was great. In the evening, we gathered in Daniel’s palapa for a pot-luck barbecue, drinks, and stories.


The next morning, we formed up to motor over to the Zapatilla Cays, twin islets that comprise a national park here in Panama. On the way over, the starboard engine overheated, so we ran on one engine, dropped anchor, and Ole set out to discover what was wrong. Jan was off with the rest of the dinghy flotilla to explore the easternmost of the cays and pose for a cheesecake photo. It’s beautiful (the island, not the cheesecake photo) – a storybook white sand islet ringed with palm trees and featuring well-maintained walking trails through jungle and mangrove. We cut through the center of the island, then waded around the western half, back to where we started.

When I got back to the boat, it was to discover that the starboard engine would NOT turn over, no matter what Ole did to it. Luckily, Steve on Serenity has the same Ford Lehman engine, and a stash of extra engine parts that Ole can try to cobble the engine back together.

We pulled anchor in the early afternoon, and then motored just half an hour to an anchorage off of Punta Vieja. Again, couldn’t fault the weather. The seas were bathtub flat. We would never attempt this anchorage for an overnight if there were any hint of wind. All of us agreed to meet at the bar at a little resort called Al Natural. It’s one of those all-inclusive places where, for about $150 a night, you get accommodation, three meals a day family style, transportation, and use of snorkel equipment, kayaks, and the like. The bar was charming, and Martin, the host, had made a special trip back to Bocas to stock it for us, as the ten of us added about 60% to his business. The dinghy trip back was spectacular with bioluminescence the locals call “estrellas” (stars) in the coral. The next day, Ole opted to stay aboard and work on the engine, while I went out for a snorkel with Steve and Amy. Still no luck getting it started. So another evening was spent at the bar, commiserating with the locals and telling stories to each other over several gin and tonics.

Hiking to Salt Creek

In the morning, we caravanned up a little river to a Ngobe-Bugle village called Salt Creek, where friends from Marina Carenero have established a mission. The tiny Indian village is neat, tidy, and friendly, located about a quarter-mile up a paved path from the dock. Mike and Christine, the missionaries, are working with the village to establish itself as a tourist destination and craft center. The crafts, though primitive, are well-priced and include bags woven of natural fiber, carved and painted fish and sea creatures, and jewelry made of shell.

We must have touched bottom in the river on the way out, though, because the dinghy wouldn’t get up to speed – the propeller just freewheeled past a certain point. Jeez, it’s always something.

We all opted to move to Crawl Cay, a snorkeling spot popular with the lancha traffic ferrying backpackers from Bocas. We arrived right at lunch time, found a calm spot to anchor in about 25 feet, and dinghied over to a great little over-the-water restaurant for lunch – some of the best conch ever! And very expensive, for here. Two plates of conch, two beers, and a rum punch set us back about $50!

The next morning, all of us decided to head back to the marina. It was a full few days, but not nearly what we wanted. Engine troubles being what they are here in the third world, it made sense for us to head back – but we were disappointed not to have had more time away.

As soon as we were tied up, and the engines cooled, Ole was back down in the “basement,” still trying to troubleshoot. Finally, after a couple of days of trying a, b, and c, he discovered water in the cylinders (not good) and traced it to a shredded exhaust manifold which, of course, is not available in Central America. Several phone calls and boat units later, we have the parts coming from American Diesel in Virginia, hopefully in time to have them installed before Ole has to go back to work on November 17.

Working Through the List

The work list continues…and so does the heat.

The highlight of the month was the fifth anniversary party of Bocas Yacht Club and Marina. With an expected turnout of 75-100 people, several of us opted to spend the Saturday afternoon of the party helping Sharkey cook, clean, and organize. I’m glad we did – everything was perfect for the expected 5:00 pm start time, with finger food, beer, wine, soft drinks, and killer rum punch ready to roll. All the cruisers were there, as were several folks from town, to enjoy the live music, a fire dance, a juggler, and general alcohol-fueled mayhem. And during the evening, I got to discover why they call them “fire ants.” Sitting on a rock in the lawn I thought I had dropped cigarette ashes on my ankles!

Finally, tomorrow morning we’re going to head out in a convoy for a week or two (as long as the food holds out) with four other boats – Pamela Jean, with Pam and Bill from Texas; Mariah, with Evelyn and Dave from Key West; Serenity, with Steve Tepper (staff captain on Norwegian Jade); and Guavi, with Ariel and Michelle from Puerto Rico. Should be fun!

Back in Bocas

Getting back to the boat was fairly straightforward – Barcelona to Madrid to Guatemala City to Panama City to Bocas del Toro…with a stay in one of the sleaziest hotels never to be frequented again in Panama – Hotel Riande Airport. A dump of unworkability priced at about $92 per night, it’s the only hotel conveniently located five minutes from Tocumen International Airport. Stench of mold covered over with Lysol, irregular surging from the air conditioner, and a non-functional toilet. After coming from the state-of-the-art Independence of the Seas, the third world was an abrupt comedown. Eeesh.

The cats were thrilled to see us again – looking plump and well cared for in our long absence. Brian has been bringing them tidbits from the restaurant, and has developed a great avuncular relationship with them. We were especially thrilled to see little old Maggie had put on nearly all the weight she’s lost in the past year. Seems the hyperthyroid medication has really helped regulate her.

The boat looks great – but nobody seems to do housework like the owner, so we spent the first couple of weeks spreading out and remarking our territory. I really felt bad that we kicked Brian to the curb and he had to move onto a sailboat that required about five days of cleaning to become habitable. But he has agreed to return to the cat-nanny position in November when we go back.

These two weeks Ole has reverted to shipboard behavior, getting up at the crack of early and blasting through a 36-item list on our boat like the auditors were behind him! I’ve been trying to keep up, but man, he’s the energizer bunny! The list has included repairing/repainting the running lights, polishing all the stainless, stripping and repainting the aft deck, cleaning lines and fenders, and chasing leaks.

We did, however, make a quick trip into David to meet with the developer at Montanas de Caldera and do a bit of shopping.

A Quiet April in Bocas del Toro

Bocas Yacht Club and Marina

Nothing much to report this month, as Ole is away in Finland getting the Independence of the Seas ready, and I’m just being a homebody here at the marina, busying myself with putting a coat of varnish on the caprail, painting the arms of the deck chairs, refinishing the table on the back deck, and making a few odds and ends of canvas to cover sensitive stuff on deck.  It’s tough to schedule, as you never know when it’s going to start raining and not stop for three or four days.  Oh yeah – and TAXES.  Easy to do now online, but a pain in the butt to have to pay!

Neil (Attitude) came back on April 4, without Kathy.  She’s recovering from a killer of a skiing accident, and it may be some time before she’s up to leaping around the deck of a sailboat, what with the steel plate and bolts she ended up with through her femur.  She’s expected back sometime near the end of the month..

The Marina Cantina has a cocktail hour from 4 to 6 every day, and I make a point of going up every couple of days, both to let people know I’m still alive, and also to get to know some of my neighbors.  Like all of the other places we’ve been so far, there’s a great sense of community here – I know that if I need anything there will be loads of help.

One day I think I’ll write an essay about “The Usual Suspects” that seem to inhabit every marina and anchorage – the cast of characters may have different names but the roles are pretty much decided.  There’s the know-it-all, the drunk, the doper, the many-times-divorced single hander, the gonna-get-my-boat-fixed-one-day type, the daily waxer and polisher perfectionist, the so-there-we-were-and-this-is-no-shit storyteller, the stuck here waiting for parts ones, the rich ones, the fixed income ones, the timid and the bold.  But the constant is the community.  We may have nothing else in common but boats, but that commonality is so strong that nothing else seems to matter.  It’s fun to watch.

The Bocas Garden Club (!) put together a tour to Tranquilo Bay Resort,  a few islands down from here.  Built by two 40-something Texans who’ve been friends since childhood, the place is a marvel of will and a testament to quality.  The owners took about 20 of us on a guided walk through their jungle, showing us some rare and interesting plants.  Also saw my first 3-toed sloth (just a furry lump in the crotch of a tree) and white-faced monkeys swinging through the trees.  I really have to hand it to anybody with the wherewithal in guts and stubbornness to build anything here, much less something of such quality.

Wild Hogs Explore Isla Colon

Five of us on four scooters, each of which had its own unique mechanical problem. Mine kept stalling in idle; Trevor and Sandy’s was smoking like a chimney and stinking up the place; Jennifer’s handlebars were crooked; and Drury’s had minimal suspension. At $60 for half a day, it was pretty expensive, but off we went.

There are essentially two roads on this island – one following a big wide bay on the east side and the other pretty much following the middle out to the north end, to a place called Bocas del Drago. We started out thinking we would run along the east side, but gave up after about 90 minutes of circumnavigating mudpuddles (lakes!) in a road made of sand. The star of the day was Jennifer, who broke trail most of the way, zooming boldly through the puddles, daring the depths. I provided comic relieve, falling once when the scooter stalled as I was trying to get up to the footpath from the road, and taking a spectacular header while avoiding a puddle with a damned navigation aid in it! Too bad – it would have been a beautiful trip, as this bay is where many of the new “resorts” are planned to be built. It’s their trucks that have been digging up the road. So we ran back to the main road for an enjoyable run 18 kilometers to the end of the island, stopping here and there to ooh and aah at the scenery and try to spot wildlife. We stumbled into the restaurant on the beach at Bocas del Drago, me looking for all the world like something the cat dragged in – covered in mud, ripped pants, and helmet hair. All in all, though, it was a splendid day.