Cruising Notes


Voyage Summary

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Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world

Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Curacao to Panama


On Sunday, 23 March, we sailed away from Curacao and had fair winds and comfortable seas all the way to Cartagena ( 475 miles);   a great relief, as this stretch of sea along the Colombian coast is notorious for strong winds and steep high waves and has a reputation for the ‘washing machine’ experience!   But we made steady progress through breezy sunny days and brilliant starlit nights and by Thursday afternoon came the smudge on the horizon which was Colombia.  Then we saw the standing ranks of tower blocks which is modern Cartagena, and finally, lying peacefully in the afternoon heat, unchanged for 300 years, the old city, the great dome of San Pedro de Claver and the cathedral tower rising above the ramparts.   Following in Drake’s wake, (he sacked the city in 1586) we entered the bay  through the Bocagrande and (passing forts to left and right) made our way across the harbour and anchored off the Club Nautico.


A fifteen minute walk takes you over the bridge, through an impressive stone gate into the walled city.  One of the first things you notice is the street cries of vendors, pushing carts, carrying buckets, ringing bells.  The coffee sellers have a 3 wheel bicycle with coffee grinder, thermoses and little cups.  A ‘tinta’ costs 200 pesos (5p).  The city itself is a gem, - convents and churches dominate, while the narrow streets are lined with 17th century houses, - over-hanging balconies spill purple flowers and open doorways give a glimpse of cool courtyards within.   The streets open on to charming plazas where every shady seat is occupied as people retreat from the hot sun under the huge old trees. The prettiest square is the Plaza Bolivar with the grand Palace of the Inquisition and a beautifully restored building housing the Museo d’Oro where we saw gold artifacts made hundreds of years ago by the Indians, pre Columbus.  We ‘did’ churches and convents and walked the walls… the strange thing is that Cartagena is not a tourist museum;  the city lives, with traffic, shops, bars, crowded buses, …. we rarely saw another ‘gringo’.   Colombia being a cheap place to provision the lockers, we also made trips to the supermarket, a long hot walk, but overlooked by ‘La Popa’ convent gleaming white on the hilltop, and past the truly massive San Felipe fort.


Our departure from Cartagena, after 10 days, was a bit stressful.  Colombian authorities are paranoid about cocaine, and you had better know their latest whims about procedures for departing yachts!   Learning from others’ errors, we contacted the Guarda Costas to inform them of our intention to be under way ‘a las dos y media’.  In the event it was an hour later as it took so long to clean the barnacles off  30 meters of anchor chain  -  we have never experienced anything like it.  We eventually set off along the buoyed channel to exit the bay at the Boca Chica, informing port control of our progress and dodging the big ships which use this narrow, but deeper entrance.  No one pursued us and we were relieved to slip between two more fine forts into the open sea.


Two days later, the little green islands of the San Blas began to appear on the horizon.  These islands lie along the coast of Panama, 80 miles from Colon, the port at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal.  The San Blas must be among the most tranquil places on earth, - an autonomous region of Panama where the Kuna Indians have lived for hundreds of years, doggedly maintaining their traditions, language and way of life.   On the larger islands (ie about half a mile long!) one or two families live in palm-thatched huts;  the men fish from dug-out canoes, the women stitch their famous ‘molas’  - intricate applique/embroidery, beautifully worked in strong colours.  They make a living from coconuts, fish and molas and are totally in control of their domain.  Gently welcoming,  they barter with yachts, offering molas, lobsters, bananas, avocados for whatever they happen to need:  sheets, medicine, fish hooks, tobacco etc.  We anchored amongst a group of tiny islands called the Hollandes Cays where we got to know Ricardo and Benedicto.   They invited us to a dinner of rice cooked in coconut milk and lobster, served on the beach in front of their home at sunset.  This time they wanted to trade for dollars, for they have to finance their children’s education.   A Panamanian has since explained to me that the Kuna people sell coconuts, fish and molas on the mainland for dollars.  They go to school, and indeed to university.  But he says they return to the San Blas to live in the old way and very rarely marry outside.  He considers this behaviour to be stubborn!  But any yacht that spends time here speaks of a deeply peaceful, soothing experience.  The people are calm and the sea is as still as a lake.  When the morning sun lights up a sweet island; tall luscious palms, a beach to die for, the silhouette of a canoe gliding quietly past,   well! you don’t exactly wish you were somewhere else!



Unfortunately, we had to press on to somewhere else, namely the port of Colon, in order to transit the Panama Canal.  Arriving here just before the Easter weekend, we have been delayed in getting through the formalities (we could as well have stayed longer in the San Blas!).  But we now have a date, 2 May.  We have both already been through on other people’s boats, as each boat is required to have 4 line-handlers in addition to the skipper so yachts help each other out by acting as extra crew. This gives us the chance to see what it is like before taking Tokomaru through.  It is an awesome experience going through these massive locks in a small yacht with some huge container ship a few feet from your bow or stern.  There are three locks at this end to take ships 30 metres up to the Gatun Lake.  A deep channel weaves through this vast lake, bordered by impenetrable wilderness where you can see crocodiles and monkeys.  It takes about 4 hours to sail across it and then there are three more locks to take the ships 30 meters down to the Pacific.  If you have nothing better to do, you can watch it all happening on In fact, there is a webcam  positioned over the Miraflores Locks (at the Pacific end of the canal) showing continuous live coverage.  Tokomaru 2 will be going through the Miraflores Locks between 2.30 and 4.30pm on the afternoon of 2 May, which would be between 8.30 and 10.30 in the evening, in UK.   There will be six of us on deck, including the pilot.  We may be tied to one or two other yachts, we may be on our own, or we may be tied to a tug boat. 


As we have time at this end of the canal we are stocking up the lockers so that when we get through the canal we can head off in to the Pacific.  Next stop, the Galapagos Islands.


Hope you had a nice Easter holiday.  Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008