A friend of mine recently asked me about cruising the western Caribbean and transiting the Panama Canal. In the process of replying in email, I realized it was going to be a fairly long response that might be better served on our website where more people could see it.
In the process of planning my own cruise through this part of the world, I did a lot of online research to see if anyone could provide reliable information and it was difficult to find anything that turned out to be valuable. So in the spirit of helping fellow sailors, I hope this article helps you to make sailing through these areas a pleasant and wonderful experience.
First, some general suggestions that apply to sailing and traveling through this entire region of the world.
In some of these countries they prefer to use US cash (Panama for one, Antigua for another) and it is always good to have some along. All countries we’ve visited have banks who could exchange it for local currency too. Be sure to only bring new US$100 (old bills will be refused), nothing smaller will be accepted at banks. However having a small amount of $5/$10/$20 for local markets in Panama is useful too.
We also find that using ATM machines for local cash works well in most places and having a pre-paid credit card (loaded with funds as you need them) has been really nice to have so we don’t worry about the possible loss (or compromise) of a full credit card.
We have three of them. (2) 200 liter and (1) 100 liter, the complete price was about €800 shipped from Brisbane back in 2014. They strap down on our sun deck and we use them all the time. Nothing like arriving in some remote location and being able to top yourself off. They fold up and store under the floor instead of lining the deck like like jerry cans.
Since there are few deep water marinas/ports along your path, having bladders allow you to get fuel anywhere even diesel from a gas station.
They also guarantee you have some good fuel with you (make sure you read about our fuel issue between New Zealand and Fiji!). After having them onboard, I wouldn't go on a passage without them.
Bring along unlocked phones as you should buy local SIM cards to get good internet everywhere very inexpensively. We used DigiCel as it’s on almost all islands in the Caribbean, Bonaire, and Panama. Good coverage even for some of the San Blas Islands!
As WiFi is available in most bars and resorts, you can always bring a laptop and grab a beer to catch up on email, etc. however we found having a SIM card and local internet package allowed us to use our iPhones (not sure about other companies… I’m an Apple guy!) to provide a ‘personal hotspot’ for connecting our computers while onboard. We also have a 4G router onboard and occasionally put a local SIM card in it to provide WiFi around the boat. In some places, having a nice WiFi booster allows you to grab some internet from shore.
Writing this from Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, I can assure you we’ve done this successfully all the way from the Caribbean and it works fine. I have a collection of 30+ SIM cards from all the islands and countries we’ve visited over the past 3 years!
Navigating around Reefs
In populated and well-travelled areas, paper and electronic charts are pretty good but when you get to places that aren’t so well-travelled you’ll find missing or completely wrong information, We’ve had lots of experience at coming up with techniques to navigate safely and can summarize what our techniques are that might help you out.
Never travel at night unless it’s between islands with no possibility of reefs or shallows in-between (unless you have traveled the passage before and have a track on your chart plotter showing you the safe path you took last time).
Do your planning using Google Earth (OvitalMap on the iPad/iPhone is much better) Review my article Navigating safely in the Pacific so you know what dangers are really there versus depending only on charts (paper and electronic are equally bad in most places.
Always plan to arrive at a pass or anchorage with the sun overhead as much as possible to give you the best light for seeing the shallows. Post a crew member on the first spreader with binoculars to look ahead.
If you are even a little bit unsure of depths and underwater obstacles, launch a tender with crew and a portable depth sounder ahead of the yacht.
No need to go into depth here as so many articles have been written about Antigua (here’s all our articles on Antigua...). It's a wonderful place to hang out, extremely 'yacht-friendly' and has a huge selection of restaurants, bars, markets and resorts.
The marinas in Falmouth Harbour and English Harbour have fuel and WiFi but beware of the shore power electrical costs, they try to slap you with a fixed daily fee which is outrageously expensive. It's usually cheaper to run your generator than plug in to shore power!
There's an office in English Harbour for doing all the immigration/clearances and they’ve now added two other locations close to St. John's as well. Be prepared to join the group of people standing around filling out forms by hand unless you've prepared in advance online with eSeaClear.
Carnival in February is a great time to be there. The diving is absolutely the best in all of the Caribbean as the entire island has been a Marine Reserve for the past 30 years. Tracy and I had been there on three dive trips before but noticed that, as good as it was on our previous visits, it was even better now as more time as gone by.
There is no anchoring and no fishing is allowed anywhere, so you have to be in a marina. Before diving you need to purchase a small park tag to place on your BC (US$25 from any dive store on the island) and that allows you to dive anywhere. There are lots of good restaurants, bars, etc. Lots of very nice people on the island, it’s become one of our favorite places to visit!
It’s very relaxed and easy here, just get to the marina and take your paperwork to the immigration office in Kralendijk (10 minute walk). They might want to see everyone on check-in and check-out to match up each person to their passport.
The marina is in a great location and is the only one on the island so you need to make reservations a long time in advance. It's worth it though as you can tender over to the best dive sites in Bonaire from the marina. We were berthed alongside (can’t recall the berth number) but it was right at the entrance to the marina (on the right side going in) and it was a fantastic berth as we could dive/snorkel right off the swim platform!
There’s also a small number of mooring balls in front of the city but they are for shallow-draft boats and it’s hard to find one that is not already being used.
Fuel is available in the marina but not for deep draft yachts. Use the fuel bladders to top off if needed (see suggestions above)
Phone & Internet
DigiCel is here with good coverage, speed and price and I seem to remember the marina having wifi too.
Good markets, liquor stores, etc. Being affiliated with the Netherlands, lots of European goods are available (there are direct flights from Amsterdam on KLM as well as from the USA).
Articles to Reference
- Antigua to Curacao 2015
- Forget Aruba or Curacao just do Bonaire
- Underwater images from Bonaire
- So there I was in Bonaire
Over the years we'd heard of how dangerous it was in Colombia to the point where it seemed unlikely we'd ever take the risk to visit the country. However, it's not widely know that big changes have happend over the past decade and the country has become safe for tourism and very welcoming to visitors. We're really glad we gave it a chance and look forward to getting back there someday.
Special Weather Note
You might have heard the weather going ‘around the corner’ (the northwest coast of Colombia) can be challenging and you heard correct. The winds are strong as is the sea state. Toss in a bunch of debris (some are entire trees!) that come down all the rivers in the big rainstorms and flushes out to sea and you’ve got some interesting sailing conditions. Our plan was to go way offshore, reef down and push through. Worked for us but we saw some strong sailing conditions but nothing a seasoned crew can’t handle.
We did a stop in Santa Marta instead of Cartagena (it had a fairly new marina, good restaurants, colorful town, good internet and phone) but the marina fuel dock is in 3m so using fuel bladders is a must for deep-draft boats as is anchoring out. Be sure to contact the harbor control as they were particular about where we anchored to stay clear of commercial shipping and ferries.
We felt very safe here and enjoyed walking all over the town night or day. ATM machines worked fine for getting local cash and banks will change USD as well. A special trip arranged by Dino (see below) took us to a coffee plantation for a visit. Santa Marta is a nice place!
Dino Shipping Agent, Dino Melo Campo, firstname.lastname@example.org
We used Dino for clearing us in as we did not stay in the marina (berths not deep enough for us). The marina also has staff to assist with clearing in/out too but Dino worked really hard for us and got everything done perfectly. He handled clearing the boat in, immigration as well as getting us our clearance from Colombia to Panama.
IGY Marina Santa Marta, http://www.igy-marinasantamarta.com
Articles to Reference
We'd been to vist 'The Canal' on a few other occasions but never thought we'd do a transit on a sailboat! When you search online there is all sorts of opinions about how to do it, who to choose for help or to do it yourself. I can tell you the way we did it (see below) worked perfectly with no problems whasoever. Aside from the transit, we spent time on both coasts (Caribbena and Pacific) as well as some time in the interior. Panama is a country well worth visiting aside from doing the transit.
As we were coming from Colombia, we wanted to clear in at the San Blas rather than go all the way to Colon to do it first. We cleared in Cayos Holandes and it went smoothly (bring US cash).
San Blas Islands
First a warning… charts are not that accurate and coral reefs, bommies are everywhere so be very vigilant and don’t arrive at night (see above on arrivals and departure from ‘reefy’ areas). We saw more shipwrecks in San Blas than anywhere else we’ve been!
We met so many lovely people on the islands and they all offered coconuts in exchange for fresh water, bread of rice. Be sure to bring some things along to trade.
Marina (Colon side)
Shelter Bay Marina is really the only decent option and they have fuel and good berths. It might be worth renting a car as the town (Colon) is 30min drive by taxi and we found ourselves going back and forth a lot.
Use a handler, Roy Bravo was the one I used and he was great, I would use him again. The cost you might save by trying to do it yourself (as you might read online) is offset by the completely hassle-free process of using Roy.
Marina (Panama City side)
For deep-draft yachts, there were no marinas deep enough to handle them. Even shallow-draft yachts would have a difficult time as the marinas were all full of local boats.
In Panama City you can get anything you need, it’s a large modern city and really the last good provisioning you’d have before you leap off across the Pacific. We anchored off for week and got ourselves topped off with fuel (bladders again) and all the provisions we could fit onboard.
The Pearl Islands are a nice place to go hang out for a while before you continue onto the Galapagos or go back through the Canal. Hacienda Del Mare is a place Tracy and visited in 2008 by flying into their private (dirt!) airstrip. We wanted to come back with the boat and as had a nice time. There’s goo places to anchor in front of the resort and they welcome visitors to the bar and restaurant. We also got to do a really cool tour on 4WD ATV’s all over the island. Flights from Panama City are easy for guests to join you too.
Articles to Reference
We’ve written a lot of articles on Panama so go take a look.
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