Chesapeake to Panama


Our first breezy beat from Chesapeake City to the Sassafras River gave us a proper taste of autumnal sailing. As we found all down the Eastern Shore, the very shallow anchorages were surrounded by wooded, low, sandy bluffs. Our echo sounder usually showed less than our draft as we plowed gently through the silt.Like almost everyone with more than four foot draft we came to repeated slow halts before finding anchorages in six or seven feet of water. Chesapeake Bay is a complete contrast to Maine and Nova Scotia. Rocks, deep water and dark green pines gave way to mud, gunk holes and the turning leaves of the fall. While in most of Maine and all of Nova Scotia solitude was fairly easy to come by in the Chesapeake it took some searching out and the plethora of weekender powerboats seemed at times to stir the whole Bay into an enormous cauldron of mixing and conflicting wakes. Of all the creeks, we found the essence of the Chesapeake for us at Dividing Creek on the Wye River East. Despite the Middle East conference and its attendant helicopter traffic, the creek was peaceful and the turning leaves of the surrounding woods were beautiful. Herons fished and eagles soared - as did the ubiquitous vultures. Fortunately, Vicky's sister Annabel and her husband Dave were with us for this delight and several other quiet Eastern Shore anchorages during their week's visit with us.





The contrast with the Western Shore was sharp. It was still possible to anchor virtually everywhere, even in Annapolis and Baltimore, but the harbours were congested, the towns and cities bustling. So were we! The sights of Washington DC took up a couple of days, visiting the Library of Congress to view and copy charts took another, the Boat Show at Annapolis another, the OCC meet courtesy of Dick and Erica Lowery yet another. We even got in a day's racing 'fix' on 'Gaucho'. So many people were kind and helpful to us. Quite apart from the Lowerys, Gaither and Merle Scott, the Thayers and Geoff Stagg made our Annapolis stay a pleasure and at Oxford, Eric Crawford, and the crew of 'Reckless' made us welcome. After three weeks in the Upper Bay we moved south in a series of long day sails. We stopped for a day in the Piankatank to visit with Bill and Alice Caldwell, whose daunting reputation for kind hospitality in the OCC is entirely deserved. Through their generousity we visited Williamsburg and Yorktown.



Gary Naigle's hospitality and dock at Norfolk made stocking easy before we set off down the ICW. We made a false start by arriving too early to enter the Dismal Swamp Canal. Motoring fast in the dark down a narrow canal lined with high, overhanging trees with only moonlight for a guide was a haunting, though not unpleasant, experience for us. Though it does an injustice to some of the pretty sights and wildlife of the ICW, it does all tend to merge into vistas of reeds and cypress swamps. Surprisingly, we did find some isolated anchorages and were delighted by the helpful welcome we received in Oriental and Beaufort. But we were very happy to get back to sea.


Apart from anything else, the engine was again attempting to tear its mounts apart. We had a slow but pleasant passage from Beaufort to Charlestown, where we spent several days exploring a fascinating city which no one visiting the East Coast should miss. There are beautiful houses everywhere and it is a delight to walk around the town. Our last offshore passage for months took us to the St. Johns River in Florida. It was magical, with perfect reaching winds, dolphins playing around the boat for hours and tuna leaping onto our hook for dinner. We re-entered the ICW for the last 30 miles to St. Augustine, which, as recommended, proved an excellent choice for our pre-Pacific haulout.

The Oasis Boatyard, run by Mick and Rhonda, was superb - efficient, helpful and ever-cheerful. We finally bit the bullet and removed the 22 year-old Volvo engine, to replace it with a a slightly more powerful Yanmar. It was predictably expensive, but fitting it kept Tom off the streets, while Vicky painted or varnished anything that didn't move for ten minutes. We finally caught up with the re-splining and most of the varnish.



Two quick visits to family for Christmas in New York and Erika's (Tom's Mum) 80th Birthday, interspersed with engine trials brought our stay in the USA to a close and in early February we sailed from West Palm Beach to the Bahamas. Initially our plan was to dart through the Bahamas expediently, to get to Panama fairly quickly and thus through to the Pacific to begin our western wanderings. Though we found the very shallow, coral-head-strewn waters a bit daunting, we were won over to their charms by places like Royal Island Harbour, Waderick Wells and Little Farmers Cay, the latter two both in the Exumas. We still didn't stay long, but longer than we anticipated. What we could not understand is how cruisers can spend weeks in Georgetown, whose facilities are limited and expensive. But in the winter months there are often 400 boats rotting at their anchors here for weeks at a time, their crews doing all the things they could do back in the States, communicating by myriad VHF 'Nets', even including one for tennis players! We left them to it and cleared out for the San Blas Islands in Panama.







Six and a bit days later we had covered the 1000 miles through the Windward passage to Porvenir in the San Blas Islands, home of the Kuna Indians, whose persistence in maintaining their culture has won them an autonomous region within Panama. The islands are stereotypical palm-topped, white sand fringed islets, beautiful, but all quite similar. The Kuna people live by and on the water. They paddle and sail their canoes everywhere, to fish, to trade and to tend their mainland farms along each village's river. We anchored off and visited a conservative and therefore traditional village. The Kuna are rapidly becoming absorbed into a global cash economy through their sales of produce, but most importantly the hand-sewn 'molas' - applique designs sold to cruise ship passengers and exported widely. Nevertheless, their village lifestyle remains relatively untouched by modern technology - apart from the ubiquitous outboard. We enjoyed their welcoming openness.

A single stop along the Panamanian coast took us to crime-ridden Colon at the Northern end of the Panama Canal. The trials, tribulations and delays of Canal transit are the subject of cruisers' bar stories around the world. Ours was no exception, but also nothing unusual. Everyone is very polite, but everything happens 'manana' - or several 'mananas' after it is supposed to. Remarkably we managed to cram a few more stores into Sunstone's overburdened lockers and had a quick transit - only one day - mercifully damage-free despite being thrown all over the lock by the prop wash of a ship less than 50' ahead. It was a blessing to have a new and reliable engine, both for peace of mind and to give the speed needed to complete the transit in a single day. Unlike most cruisers, we did not stop in Balboa, but carried straight on to Las Perlas Islands where we took three days to complete the last absolutely essential task before the Pacific crossing - varnishing the hull.