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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

April 16, 2014-Do you know where your dingy is tonight?

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Dingy Up

We hang the dingy up at night on the port side of Wings right outside of the head. When the dingy is hanging there I can see the top of the motor out the bathroom window and it gives me a good feeling; I know my dingy is safe and sound, tucked away peacefully, right where it should be.

Some other cruisers have had their dingys stolen this year and you have to take care. A real no-no is to leave the dingy floating in the water tied by a rope to your yacht. This is an invitation. Someone comes silently paddling by in the middle of the night and one quick slice with a machete and you wake up in the morning without a dingy.

Costa Rica seems to be bad for dingy theft. One cruising couple we met told us that they had their dingy ON DECK and locked in Costa Rica and it was still stolen while they slept. OK, I have my doubts about that one. They sleep in the forepeak and the dingy would have been stowed right over their heads. Probably even the hatch was open. They would have to have been sound sleepers and the thieves really silent to get away with that without waking up the couple.

We are headed to Costa Rica. We just bought new locks. Our dingy will be hanging where it belongs and locked with strong locks to the boat. But still, when I get up in the morning and stumble to the head, the first thing I will do is glance out the window to see if the top of my Mercury motor is right where it belongs.

Merc in view

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Panama

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

April 5, 2014-Tsunami Warning

Panama City

Tsunami Warning

The call came in on the radio at 8:30pm: “An 8.2 earthquake occurred off the coast of Chile and there is a tsunami warning for Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and PANAMA! It could arrive here in three hours!”

Whoa! What was that?

Whenever there is talk of a tsunami cruisers tend to listen up. Here was someone talking about a possible tsunami in Panama. We increased the volume on the radio but the information was third-hand and no details were provided. A quick internet search got us to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and sure enough, the earthquake was confirmed and the tsunami warning was real. By now the chatter on the radio had increased to a fever pitch as more and more boats got wind of the warning and came up on the local channel to find out was happening. Others simply started preparing to get underway because no-one wants to get caught close to shore in a tsunami. Around the harbor deck lights were on and crews were on deck securing their vessels to go to sea.

A lot of scenarios go through your head. We especially recalled what happened to cruisers in SE Asia in 2004, when several boats were lost and even entire marinas were wiped out, and how many thousands of lives were lost when the waves came ashore without any warning on Sumatra and Thailand. Could we be faced with one of those? At least this time we have some advance notification.

A closer look at the predictions on the web site showed far less severe waves coming our way than what hit Sumatra in 2004. In fact, while it predicted 6’ tsunami for Chile, it only warned of 1.7’ waves for Peru, halfway between ourselves and the earthquake epicenter. Maybe by the time it reached Panama it would be insignificant. We decided to prepare the boat but not to get underway until we had an update at 10:30. Even then we’d have over an hour to get away from shore if the timings were correct.

Then Balboa Signal, the official Panama Control center for the Pacific side, came on the radio and told cruisers that “Leaving the harbor was not recommended.”

A confusing choice of words but we decided that they lost a bit in translation. What we decided they meant was, “We don’t think you have to leave the harbor now.” Still, the fact that Panamanian officialdom was tracking this thing made it more real. We continued securing Wings as if for heavy weather.

But at 9:30 the word came that the warning for Panama was called off. Everyone in the harbor must have given a sigh of relief. Deck lights went off, people went below. We poured a glass of wine.

Whew, that was an exciting evening.

Medical Tourism

Panama is supposed to have good medical facilities and reasonable prices for medical treatment. We are delaying our departure to have some long-delayed check-ups. Now, a few doctor’s visits and trips to the major medical centers later, we are finding that the reports seem to be true. The clinics and hospitals are excellent and the prices are reasonable. Not everyone speaks English, but we are finding we can get by. One thing interesting we did find however, was that, the costs for some services are not a lot higher in the US than they are here. For example, while researching costs for this story, I found that the MRI we obtained here for $522 could be had in many places in the US for similar prices. Well, that is good news for the future. I guess, but we are not in the US now, so we are happy to find advanced medical care at prices we can afford here in Panama. It’s the first place where we have felt that way since Southeast Asia.

What is Next?

We’ve been gearing up to depart Panama. We done some shopping for spares and supplies, we’ve researched weather resources and cruiser’s radio nets, and today we went to the fuel dock and filled our tanks. Gasoline was $4.32 per gallon and Diesel was $3.87. We’ve used 80 gallons of diesel since a year ago when we filled up in Antigua. We also filled our water tanks at $.10 per gallon and at that price we would have washed the boat but the marina would not permit it. Apparently they wanted us to move on so other boats could come in for fuel, but we didn’t see anyone waiting. Well, never mind, rainy season is coming.

We have some plans for some things we want to do in Panama City next week, but probably before the 20th of March we’ll be sailing on our slow cruise to the North; destination: Mexico. We’ve been researching stops and it looks like Central America has a lot of nice anchorages and towns between here and Mexico. Our first stops however will be in Panama; the Las Perlas Islands look really nice so we’ll go there next.

That's it for now.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Panama

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

March 20, 2014-Back to the Pacific Ocean

Last Lock Door Closes

When Vasco Balboa first ventured across the Isthmus of Panama and sighted a new ocean he named it the Ocean of the South. In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan renamed the sea the Pacific Ocean because of its calm waters.

Having ourselves just arrived back on that ocean I can understand why he chose that word. Compared to the boisterous Caribbean Sea, where a thousand miles of fetch and strong trade winds bring big waves crashing onto the Panama shoreline, this side is calm. It has the protection of the land, and instead of the dark and angry waves, the sea is a weak pale blue; it is “Pacific”. And thus it was given the name it still carries to this day.

However, times have changed somewhat since Balboa first sighted the Pacific.

Now we have 30-40 ocean-going vessels charging past each day, either going into the canal headed to the Atlantic or coming out headed, oh, I don’t know, to China maybe. And there are a hundred vessels anchored offshore, waiting a cargo or waiting their turn in the canal, and the crews aboard these ships need some shore leave, so the shore boats ply back and forth. All these ships and shore boats leave a lot of wakes which destroy the pacific nature of the Pacific Ocean.

So we are bouncing here day and night.

But we don’t mind; it’s good to be back in the Pacific after 10 years.

The Panama Canal. Our transit of it went easy; deceptively easy. The canal has been in the back of our minds for years. It was the unknown; a possibly fearful experience. But you can’t shy away, you have to face it, so you get in line and you move up as the boats ahead of you go through, and some tension builds. Naturally, I guess. Then it is your turn and you march bravely ahead. You do what the canal pilot says, you follow orders. He says go ahead, you go. The stages seem easy, but disaster is just seconds away. A rope can tangle; a swirl of current can grab you and throw you against the wall. The worst disaster of all, for us, other than getting crushed by a big ship of course, which is always in your thoughts, would have been to break our gear shift. It was already dodgy when we started but we didn’t know how much we’d need it. Our pilot, however, seemed to delight in making us change from forward to reverse and back again about twenty times a minute. Over and over the gear shift balked against the heavy usage and I had to finesse it. It got so that I just knew it would break the next time he gave an order. “Just get me out of the last chamber,” I prayed. But you get caught up in the immediate, “Slow the engine now”, “catch this line”, “a bit of reverse”, “now make the lines fast, NOW! Ease it! OK, You’re OK, no, Reverse!” And you are too busy following the orders to think about the disaster which lurks nearby. Finally the doors of the last lock opened into the Pacific and we knew we had escaped the disaster, we’d made it. The gear shift held. The lines didn’t tangle; the swirls never grabbed a hold of us.

That’s the way it is in the Panama Canal, 24 hours of low key stress, then you’re done; you are out. You made it.

And it never seemed like a big deal, but looking back, it was. And we chalked up another one.

So we are happy to have gone through the Panama Canal and we are happy to be back in the Pacific Ocean. We’re not sure what’s next; we haven’t given it a lot of thought, but compared to the Panama Canal, it should be a piece of cake.

Click here for more photos.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Panama

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

March 16, 2014-Follow WINGS through the Panama Canal.

On Thursday and Friday we are scheduled to transit the Panama Canal and through the miracle of technology you can watch.

On the Marine Traffic web site, if we are underway, we'll be on the system and you can see our progress as the transmissions of our AIS transponder are picked up and plotted on Google earth. We had trouble with Internet Explorer, but with Google Chrome it works just fine. Open Chrome and click on this link and then paste our MMSI number (367362090) into the "Vessel/Port" search box at the top right of the screen. Don’t hit enter, just wait a few seconds until it pops up our name, then click that. If we are moving and we have our AIS transponder on, we'll appear on this screen.

When you see our photo and a red banner which says "Show on Live Map" you can click that and when the Google earth picture comes back we’ll be right in the middle of it. Play around with the check boxes on the left and you can eliminate some of the clutter and even show the names of the boats and ships.

Late on Thursday, if you watch, you will see us move into the Gatun locks and later stop for the night in Gatun Lake.

On Friday morning we will move through the lake the Culebra cut and into Miraflores Locks which will let us down to the Pacific side of Panama.

When we go through Miraflores Locks you might be able to catch us on the web camera there. Click on this link to see the live action at Miraflores. If you are following us on the Marine Traffic you will be able to predict when we’ll come into the camera’s view.

But don’t expect a lot of action, we’ll be trying our best to avoid that.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Panama

URLs used in the links above:

Marine Traffic:

Web Cam:


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March 16, 2014-Jungle Line

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Panamanian Jungle

The city of Colon is east of the Panama Canal but Shelter Bay is on the west and just past the marina the jungle closes in. Walk a few hundred yards along the road leading away from the water and you are in the thick of it; the canopy spreads overhead and the eerie echoing sounds of the howler monkeys reverberate off of the forests of tree trunks and shake the banana leaves.

You can’t see the howlers. They roar and scream and they sound like they are just there, just off the road, but the jungle is impenetrable and even though you stare, you don’t see them.

And if you do stare into the green trying to see the howlers then the sound suddenly comes from behind you, from the other side of the road and you want to run. But wherever you go, you still hear the howler monkeys; a rhythmic, grunting, roaring, chest thumping sound, charging, chanting down the jungle line that makes you wonder what they are saying and if it is about you.

We’re told they are harmless, but those kinds of jungle sounds can still haunt you.

At the bar, a guy named Rousseau nursing dark rum stared into the distance and shook his head when I asked him if it was the howlers he had seen.

“No, I only wish. No, I ran into a big black cat, jaguar maybe, in one of those abandoned concrete buildings out there. He was just standing there when I saw him, and he stared at me with impassive yellow eyes and his tail twitched left and right. I just backed out of there and walked away and never looked back. That scared me. Still does.”

Howler monkeys, jaguars, what else? But hey, a walk in the jungle is supposed to be good exercise.

So one morning we grabbed the Nikon and headed out. Edith has been there before and she showed us the way. It was easy going, lots of birds, a few howlers, nothing much. Then Judy nearly stepped on the snake.

I saw it and yelled and shoved her and her foot missed the coiled serpent by inches. And she screamed.

But the snake was dead.

I was ready to turn back, but Edith said just a little father, ten minutes, no more.

And there was the sloth. We almost missed it as we walked under the branches which reached over our heads across the road but a group of workers cutting brush pointed it out to us.

Right above us about 50 feet was a furry dark mass with long arms gripping two limbs and not moving.

We moved around trying to get a camera angle and hoping for some sunlight.

Suddenly branches started breaking off to the side of the road, up in the trees, there were noises, leaves were shaking. No howling monkeys but this was no sloth either. A group of smaller monkeys appeared, looking to cross the road in the intertwining branches. They stopped when they saw the sloth right in their path and looked at the sloth and they looked at us below them in the road. What to do?

A bigger monkey came up from behind to check out the situation. I guess it decided it was OK because it led the way across in the branches over our heads, with the smaller monkeys following, and circled around the sloth who watched motionless except to swivel its head.

The monkeys moved away in the trees on the other side of the road, throwing down seed pods which thumped into the forest floor, and continued to make tree top noises; the sloth stayed put, and the birds sounds and the howlers came back into our consciousness.

But now, somehow, it didn’t seem so threatening anymore.

Click here for more photos.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Panama

Thank You Joni Mitchell

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Febuary 27, 2014-Judy Returns from Florida

Panama City

We are lost. Its 1:00AM and we're driving through the rough interiors of Panama City. Its dark, there are no other cars and nobody on the streets, hardly a lighted building. We got off the track somewhere coming back from the airport.

I'm not worried however; as long as we don't wind up at a dead end with a bunch of surely Panamanian youths I know I will find the hotel eventually but scenes from Bonfire of the Vanities swirl through my head.

Judy is navigating with Google maps and the android phone, but she is exhausted from the trip and from her time in Florida with Margie. She is incoherent, but she is trying to help.
"Turn right here," she says.

I am skeptical but I see a sign: Balboa Avenue. Now I am jubilant, from Balboa Avenue I can get to the hotel and I accelerate onto the elevated roadway. At 1:30 we reach Belle Vista and turn into the driveway of the hotel. The guard opens the gate and we're here. We have the penthouse tonight, what luxury, and we head up.

I love Panama City. The high rise buildings are stunning. The city is clean and modern. By day the streets are vibrant. But I didn't like getting lost at night.

The next day we have to go to the Canon warehouse to pick up our printer. We have a paper with directions, but the street names don't match up and besides, few of the streets have signs. Traffic is bad. We wind up in the Cinco de Mayo area. Here is a maze of narrow lanes, crowded with people, but the cars are moving; at least we can go somewhere. The freeways, on the other hand, are gridlocked.

Then Google packs it in. I don't know the problem but for the moment, it is useless. For the second time in 24 hours we're lost. The patina of Panama City is starting to wear thin.

We have a brochure with a map and a few streets on it. One I recognize from the directions: Ave. Frangipani. The warehouse is on Frangipani. But it's on the other side of the city. We set out again.

And of course we have another hour of cruising aimlessly before we see a landmark from the directions. Then everything clicks. By 2:00 we have our printer and we can head back to Colon happy to get on the highway north. Nothing left to deal with now but an empty gas tank, empty stomachs, and a baffling system of toll booths. But we're making progress. Judy is back, we've got our shopping done, and Wings is not too far away.

When we get to the boat maybe things can get back to normal.

Click here for shots of Panama City

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Panama

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Febuary 24, 2014-Panama Canal Trial Run

Panama Canal

Colon: the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. Boats here are going through the canal to the Pacific; half a dozen today and more arriving each a day to get into the queue. Most will head out into the Pacific Ocean to the Galapagos Islands and then across Australia. But first they need to get through the canal and for that they need crew to handle the lines in the locks. Line handlers. I was asked if I would go with Derek and Ann Marie on Sand Groper, a 46' catamaran.

OK, why not? Judy is in Florida; I am alone on the boat here in Colon. I could use the experience. We won't be taking Wings across the Pacific Ocean again but we will go through the canal before heading to Mexico. Besides, they will feed us. I agree.

I join Sand Groper and in the evening we set out for the Gatun Locks. It's interesting and exciting. Maybe a little challenging for Derek, our skipper; it's windy and the quarters are tight as a huge container ship glides by at close quarters to go in ahead of us. Along with two other yachts, to whom we raft tightly just outside, we enter the first locks. They are chambers of concrete with iron gates at both ends, long but not particularly wide. I am, however, impressed about how high the sides are. The locks must lift us 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake before we can motor across the Continental Divide to the Pacific side of Panama and then be lowered again to sea level and the walls tower over us. The lock tenders high at the top of the walls throw monkey fists down then take our lines up to the bollards. They are silent, watching impassively as the lock floods with swirling water and we float higher. We are tossed around. The Panamanian advisor from the Canal Authority on our yacht reminds me to take in the slack on my line then secure it tightly as a swirl of water tries to throw us against the wall. I pull on the line then tie it off. I know my back will be sore after this night. I sit down on deck to be able to reach the cleat without bending over. I change the way I am tying it off the line so there is less chance of a jam. I am learning from this trip.

I am also thinking about how we will sleep six people on Wings when we come through, and what we will cook them; good meals are expected.

Then the gates open and we move into the next lock. There are six in total.

Twenty-two hours later, after a night anchored on Gatun Lake, we cleared the last lock gate and passed into the Pacific. Quite an experience.

Click here for some photos.

Fred, aboard Sand Groper, Panama Canal

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Febuary 12, 2014-One Day at the Beach and then...Panama City

Judy in the Water

We watched the weather and took our opportunities to work our way west from the Eastern San Blas.

We needed a window to get to Colon and then Panama City to get Judy on a plane. Her sister in Florida needed her.

Tuesday looked good; we'd leave the San Blas in the afternoon to get to Colon by Wednesday morning.

Time for one last day at the beach.

Our favorite location for private swimming was just around the corner from the Hot Tub anchorage (and that's as close as I'll get to telling you where it is) and we took the dingy over. We ran barefoot in the sand and swam in the deep, clear, cool water. It was marvelous there, and even though the light was not good for those stunning beach photos I wanted you can get the idea from these shots . We loved it

Back on Wings we made ready for sea; the dingy was put away, the awnings struck, sails bend onto spars.

At 17:00 we raised the main and sailed off the anchor and made our way out between the reefs, then we set the jib and turned west.

By sunset we were on a good breeze and we cleared into the open ocean between Hollandes and the Lemons. Sailing was fine and the farther west we went the freer we found the wind. Wings flew.
Now a new problem arose: we were going too fast. Before midnight we had to get the jib off and that took us down to six and a half knots; slow enough maybe. At 0800 we arrived at Shelter Bay Marina in Colon.

A day or so in Colon, long enough to clear in and decide Colon was basically a slum, (the whole place, but we saw that the Panama Canal looked interesting; we'll see for ourselves soon enough), and long enough for us to make Judy's flight arrangements to Florida and for us to catch a bus to Panama City.

Now Panama City is something else. For one it is stunning. The high rise buildings, the freeways, shopping centers, and it is huge, modern clean and buzzing. The Pacific ocean looks serene after the tumultuous Caribbean, I guess that is what Balboa thought too, since he gave it the name "Pacific".

We had time to have some minor dramas, senior moments I'd have to say, which are better left un-described, but we finally got to the hotel, checked in and everything was good. Dinner in the old town at Cafe Rene with some Panamanian rum and a bottle of Malbac, and we were feeling no pain and it was surprising that we found our way home to the hotel, but we did.

Judy is now in Florida and I am back on the boat in Colon, doing minor boat projects and enjoying the heck out of Happy Hour at Shelter Bay Marina, and planning our Panama Canal Transit. We'll go into Gatun locks in March and head back to the Pacific Ocean, which we crossed heading west in 1998 (we're still heading west, 16 years later).

And that will be another new adventure.

Click here for more photos.

Fred (and missing Judy), SV Wings, Colon, Panama

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

January 29, 2014-San Blas Islands

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Wings in San Blas

Picking the perfect anchorage for the night in the San Blas Islands isn’t easy, something about a surplus of choices.

Cocos Banderas Cays is beautiful and we had phone coverage there so there was Internet, but it had no protection; we rolled and pitched there and one night of that was enough.

Green Island was crowded, and besides, we’ve been there.

There are a thousand other anchorages, how can we choose?

The we saw one on the chart which looked good; an uninhabited island in the Eastern Naguarandup Cays called Esnasdup. It wasn’t mentioned in the guide books but it looked protected.

We decided to give it a try.

And now we are anchored at Esnasdup Island which is a magic place in the back of the San Blas, under the tall, mysterious, mist shrouded mountains of the Isthmus and tucked in behind a vast reef. It’s quiet here. We are totally alone, no village or houses ashore, no other boats, and no way the wind or waves can get to us. We have absolute peace and quiet for the first time in the San Blas. We can hear the birds. There are hawks and eagles and egrets but strangely, no pelicans.

However there is a crocodile here. When we reported our location on the net this morning several boats radioed back that they have seen a crocodile here, about 2 meters long, and, apparently, shy. It flees from people. Well, I hope so. We have not seen it.

Here we will stay for several days, and we’ll be looking for the croc. We’re not sure about how much swimming we’ll do.

Other than Esnasdup, how has our stay been in the San Blas?

Pretty good, we’d say. We spent a few days in the main town of Nargana getting provisions including fresh meat for the freezer, whatever veggies which were available, rum and wine, propane, and some spending money. We stayed a night tied to the dock in a Kuna village at Rio Azucar and there we filled our water tanks from their pipeline. Being basically inside a Kuna Village all night was interesting. We could see life up close in the houses near the wharf.

And we’ve been to Green Island and Cocos. We have a few more places to try, but like our general approach to cruising, we know we can’t get everywhere in the San Blas, and it’s alright.

We’re going to enjoy where we’re at, and move on when we feel like it.

Click here for more San Blas photos.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, San Blas Islands, Panama

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

January 17, 2014-Kunayala

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Judy in Panama

The Panamanian official stamped my papers with a flourish and handed them to me. “This is your Zarpe, it should get you through Kunayala” he said, which I thought was strange because it sounded like he was referring to a foreign country.

He was. Kunayala, the land of the Kuna Indians is autonomous from Panama. The Kunas maintain their own local government and customs and barely acknowledge the existence of Panama. They do not fly the Panamanian flag.

While there we did not fly ours either.

But they did honor my Zarpe. Other than charging us a fee every time we anchored in one of their towns, they didn’t bother us as we passed through their land.

That cruise however, has been interesting. We were fascinated by the Kunas. They are very traditional people living an existence which is more out of the 1800’s than 2014. Telephones are rare, banks are non-existent. We have not seen a single car, truck, or motorcycle.

The Kuna houses are made of sticks and thatched with palm fronds and have sand or dirt floors. But they are clean and there is little trash evident.

The Kunas paddle the waters in dugout canoes, outboards motors are also rare. They are forbidden to intermarry with outsiders and mostly do not permit photographs.

Tobacco and alcohol are not used. And they are small people, few over five feet tall. However they are beautiful people with high cheekbones, straight noses, and clear brown skin. The women wear bright red and blue dresses and scarves and colorful beadwork on their arms and legs. I’m going to try to get some photographs if I can without offending them.

And they are intelligent. The laughing eyes of the Kuna lady who sold me fresh baked bread, when she figured out what I was trying to say, told me that.

Then there is their choice of where to live. The Isthmus of Panama is mountainous; a hostile, and inhospitable place. It is and covered with dense, steaming, jungle. The valleys are swampy. Insects are fierce and diseases such as Malaria are common. There are snakes and alligators.

The Kunas don’t live there. They live on densely populated offshore islands which are cool and dry and free of the insects and other bad critters.

In fact, until you get close to the area of the Panama Canal, almost no-one lives on the Isthmus itself. It is roughly 100 miles up the coast from Colombia to the San Blas Islands, through Kunayala, and so far, along that distance, we have seen no sign of population ashore or in the mountains, just rows of jungle covered ridges and peaks disappearing into the haze. No roads are visible. It looks in penetrable. At night there are no lights there as far as you can see up the coast or down.

So this has been sort of a nature tour for us, away from the crowds. The sailing has been good, most of the anchorages peaceful and calm. We’ve enjoyed it. But we’ve been out a month and it’s time to be moving on.

Next we head to the San Blas Islands, where many cruising boats hang out and where we can buy cooking gas, supplies, and get our water tanks refilled.

And maybe we will put up our Panamanian flag.

Click here for more photos.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Kunayala

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