After cruising for many months all over the Caribbean Sea, visiting hundreds of tropical islands and beautiful beaches, we passed through the Panama Canal and found ourselves on the Pacific Ocean side with its extreme tides and calm seas. We spent a few months in Panama and went backpacking in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Then, we sailed again. From Panama, south to Ecuador, we covered over 650 nautical miles and we crossed the equator! It was an epic record-fast passage complete with a small crossing-the-line celebration. (YouTube video available Sailing from Panama to Ecuador
Before you sail, and especially when you are planning a big ocean passage, you have to prepare the boat and stock up provisions. We haul out Fata Morgana to do a quick bottom job. This means- to clean and sand the hulls and then paint them with a fresh coat of anti-fouling paint. It is a requirement when you are visiting the Galapagos Islands, which we are planning to visit, and it has to be done anyways every 2-3 years.
We found a haul-out facility near Panama at Puerto Viequez and based on Eric Bauhaus Panama Cruising guide’s information, we thought this would be the cheapest option to do the bottom job. BIG MISTAKE! It turned out this is the most expensive option, where you pay separately for the haul-out, for the preparation of the platform, plus per day and electricity fees; there is a fish and shrimp processing plant inside the boatyard, which stinks of rotten fish, thousands of feral dogs and no showers; as well as no access to town. To go there you have to go through all the process of obtaining zarpe, visiting the port captain, the customs and immigration (all in different far-away locations), paying port fees and the whole thing is just a big screw-up. We regret we didn’t research better before we showed up there, based on old information in the Panama cruising guide… It is much cheaper with way better facilities to haul out at the fancy Flamenco Marina on Amador, and for smaller boats even cheaper option would be the Balboa Yacht club.
After the paint job, we go shopping. Panama City is great for stocking up, with so many shopping malls, stores and markets filled with cheap good quality merchandise, thanks to all the ships arriving here from all over the world to transit the Panama Canal, bringing goodies. Our friends living in Panama help us enormously driving us around the city and bringing all the stuff back to our boat. We get tons of long-lasting food provisions and fresh fruits and vegetables for the journey south.
On January 15th 2016, we say good-by to Panama City and sail 34 nautical miles south, where the Gulf of Panama is dotted by over 200 mostly uninhabited islands of extraordinary beauty, named Islas de las Perlas (The Pearl Islands).
In Las Perlas, we meet our Canadian friends on yacht Daybreak, who were our neighbors for a while in Panama! Maya and Lea are good friends and they spend the next day playing together!
On January 17th, we sail again starting in the evening- 600 nautical miles ahead of us. The north winds pick up a lot behind us as soon as we get out of the Gulf of Panama and the sea rises. Ivo reefs the sails and still Fata is running with 10-11 knots. The waves are big and we feet seasick. We keep a course south and south west, well away from the Colombian cost. The second day of the passage, January 18, the wind gets even stronger- 30-35 knots behind us- and the waves are as big as hills and foamy. With reefed sails Fata is surfing with up to 16 knots- a speed record for us! It is scary, but with time we get used to it. By day 3 we are all pretty used to this fast downwind sailing and even start to enjoy it. We prepare quick meals, which can be a challenge in a moving boat.
In the morning on the third day, January 19, about 200 miles from the Columbian coast, 2oo miles from Panama and 300 miles from Ecuador we approach Malpelo Island- a sinister and forbidding rock formation plunging vertically into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, renowned for its abundance of sharks. But there is no anchorage here as it is very deep close to the island and in rough weather conditions the uninhabited rock is unattainable. So we sail by it adjusting our course south-southeast, direction Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador.
In the late afternoon that same day, the wind starts dropping down and we can finally relax. The fast part of the passage is over, 160 NM to destination and two more fishes in the fridge. That day, we have an anniversary- 23 years since Ivo and Mira met and we make a mountain of sushi to celebrate.
About 80 miles before the equator, we reach the doldrums- a no wind zone, where the winds kind of switch from north to south with periods of total calms. This is weird. Suddenly the wind stops completely and rain starts pouring vertically down in total silence. It washes the boat and we collect rainwater in buckets. We take down the sails and we drift for a few hours waiting for the wind to comeback. But the north winds never came back. Instead, winds from south gently pick up in the evening and we are on our way again!
On the fifth day, January 21st 2016, at about 8:00 o’clock in the morning, we are slowly approaching the equator. The sky is covered with clouds.
Crossing the equator for the first time by boat is a big deal. Until then, you are a Slimy Pollywog but as soon as you cross the equator you transform into a Trusty Shellback. And so we organize a small Crossing-the-Line ceremony to celebrate this unique event. As soon as all the numbers of our latitude become zeros, we offer Neptune a pineapple (and if he wants to, he can share it with Sponge Bob under the sea) and Maya gives him some of her goldfishes thanking Neptune for the fishes he has given us. We make a toast, we drink seawater, and we danced. We organize a little dancing challenge- who is going to fall down first! It is strange dancing in the cockpit of a moving boat and it is not easy at all to keep your balance while the boat is dancing on the waves too.
We imagine the equator as a bright red line, about two meters wide, shining on the surface of the water, or a sort of an ocean underwater rainbow. But we don’t see any line and nothing really changes when we pass from the North Pacific Ocean into the South Pacific Ocean. Except later, we feel the heavy sea-turtle shells growing on our backs. We are now officially Trusty Shellbacks!
We see the western shores of South America for the first time shortly after we cross the equator. We arrive in Ecuador in the evening of the fifth day of this passage, after exactly four days of sailing and we drop anchor outside the bay, at the entrance of a river delta. For the entire passage, we never turned on the engines, including when we picked up and dropped anchor, zero fuel was spent.
In the morning, instead of contacting the port via the VHF radio and requesting a pilot boat to lead us through the shallows and reefs for a $20 charge, two fishermen passing by in a small motor boat agree to lead us, for a few dollars and a couple of beers. We motor up river, where all the other sailboats are moored, protected from the ocean waves. This is going to be Fata’s new temporary home for the next couple of months. It is one of the most protected anchorages, were the wind rarely jumps above 5 kts, there are no squalls, no lightning storms and the marina Puerto Amistad provides 24/7 security, dinghy dock, bar and restaurant, fresh water, fast wi-fi internet, clean hot water showers and a wonderful atmosphere. The city of Bahia de Caraquez itself is a small tranquil place on the shore of the ocean, of friendly welcoming people, cruisers and ex-pats. We have a good feeling about it and we are ready to leave the boat here for a couple of months, and visit the many wonders of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador by land.
Watch our YouTube video Sailing from Panama to Ecuador.