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November 23, 2005

Sailing to Escudo de Veraguas

So, Rick's friend Ed has a 43-ft Catamaran called Quixotic and last week he invited us to sail with him to Isla Escudo de Veraguas. We jumped at the opportunity since Escudo is known to be gorgeous but infrequently visited by tourists. Plans were made tentatively because it was unclear when Ed would be able to make some necessary engine repairs. The night before the tentative departure date we met Ed in Almirante just as his engine repairs were being completed by a local mechanic - or rather, by Ed who was working under the mechanic's direction down in the cramped, hot engine hatch. The mechanic sat comfortably up on the deck complaining about his bad back and how underpaid he was, every so often giving directions to Ed. 

Getting to Almirante in the first place had been interesting, with six people, lots of luggage, decent-sized swells, and minimal gas. We had brought 2 of the teachers into town to do errands, and by the time we had picked them up and fought the waves across the bay to Almitante we arrived with less than 400ml of gas remaining. Upon seeing the size of our panga and the weather conditions, the teachers had decided to bring along their lifejackets, which was  a source of amusement for the rest of us. There were only four of us returning because we left the Wwoofers in town so we hitched a ride back to Tierra Oscura on Quixotic and introduced the teachers to the luxury of yachting  =P

Anyhow, we were up early the next morning to pack everything we needed to take. And yes, the amount of luggage that we managed to bring along was incredible. Unbelievable. Ridiculous, even. But we did manage to make use of almost everything except for Rick's dive gear. Besides that, we packed: a 2-person ocean kayak, 2 playboats, 4 paddles, lifejackets, helmets, spray skirts, laptop computer, giant spotlight, boxes of food, a large thermos of coconut juice, tupperware containers of coconut cream, etc etc etc. Plus, there were one hundred other things going on at the same time while we were packing. Between the farm workers coming and going and helping and needing to ask questions about what was supposed to happen while we were gone, and Ed running around trying to get internet and cellphone access and trying to book flights between Panama City and Bocas, it was a minor miracle that we were able to leave by about 9am. And it was yet another minor miracle that Rick's head didn't explode.

Once we were finally underway everyone started to relax. The four of us included Ed, Rick, myself, and Marcella. Once we were outside of the mangrove islands and clear of the shallow water we put up sail and turned off the engine. The wind and waves were both coming from directly behind us and were quite powerful and we were able to surf the catamaran as we headed out towards open ocean. Now THAT was a cool feeling! Ed started to teach us the ropes on board the boat so that we could help him while under sail power.

Once we got into open ocean and headed towards Escudo large waves started to hit us broadside. We were pitching and rolling all the way to the island, and it turns out that Rick gets seasick. Violently seasick. But we made it to the island with only having lost one of the slats of teak that make up the rear deck, which got punched out by a strong wave. Rick later managed to gouge out two long, deep holes in his foot when he slid onto and across the nails that had originally held the board down. Fortunately Ed carries good first aid supplies, but it made it difficult for Rick trying to keep his foot dry while being in a paddling and snorkelling wonderland.

The main island of Escudo is surrounded by islets that protect it from the breaking surf, creating a calm-watered paradise of lush virgin rainforest and hidden sandy beaches. Outside, the surf crashes against the islets creating stunning rock formations and some perfect surfing waves. As soon as we had anchored Quixotic in a semi-protected bay, Rick and I jumped in the ocean kayak and took a quick tour along our end of the island. The strong swells were fun to paddle in as we snuck in and around some small islets - rushing surges that threatened to slap us up against cliffs. Fortunately we'd already practiced rolling the double ocean kayak so we were comfortable paddling together and able to enjoy it without letting it freak us out. The small hidden beaches are spectacular - we paddled up a narrow channel to get to one, where we beached and walked around for a bit (barefoot through the jungle - yikes!).

After the ocean kayaking, we decided that there was still enough daylight to do a little surf kayaking. So we tied up the ocean kayak to the back of Quixotic, got into the whitewater boats, and seal launched ourselves off of Quixotic's front trampoline. It was a 10min paddle or so out to the surf, where we caught a few waves. The wave speed was too fast for the hull speed of our short boats though, so it was difficult to stay on the waves. Marcella was kicking herself in the butt for not having brought her surfboard (it was being repaired in Bocas). She's writing a travel column for a Mexican surf magazine, so surfing is obvioulsy pretty important to her.

The next day we all decided to circumnavigate the island, trading back and forth between the dinghy and the ocean kayak. As we were getting the boats ready we spotted a military-looking ship heading our way. Ed got concerned because although he had paid for and organized all of his permits, he hadn't yet received them in the mail. So he and Marcella took off in the dinghy, leaving us alone on Quixotic. We took our time putting around getting ready to leave, sure that they were watching us with binoculars. We paddled slowly after the dinghy, and didn't have any troubles.

After passing through a channel with some interesting signage we spotted some men snorkeling looking for lobsters. They had bottles of bleach that they were using as poison to make their jobs easier. Lovely. Shortly after that we passed a large protected bay where there were a few small houses, made in the typical thatched-roof up-on-stilts style that the indigenous people here build. This was the island village, made up of 4 or 5 families. There was no school, and some of the children didn't speak Spanish. On the opposite tip of the island there is another small community of men from the mainland who are there to dive for lobsters - they paddle their cayucos over from the mainland and dive to a depth of up to 80ft. Pretty impressive.

Eventually we caught up to Ed and Marcella between some small islands where they had stopped to snorkel - and were finally able to drink some water. We then traded vessels, with them paddling and us motoring. When they got into the kayak, Marcella shrieked over its tipsyness and was talking about how she didn't like paddling and Ed would have to do all the work. So we were quite surprised when we couldn't find them shortly thereafter! We spent quite a bit of time going back and forth between the islands, making sure that they hadn't flipped somewhere.

Once we even had to pull the dinghy under a fallen tree. Eventually we continued around the rest of the island where we met them back at Quixotic - they had beelined it around the inner coastline and through some waves (which we were sure they would not attempt in the kayak without sprayskirts), then hired a guy with a motorboat to tow the kayak through a little rough section back to the sailboat. So we had a bit of a stressful time worrying about them and making sure that the motor didn't touch the coral (I spent a lot of time depth probing with a wooden paddle). But now we know that place like the backs of our hands!

Later that night we took the dinghy back to the little village to buy some nice fresh fish for dinner, and on the way we were stopped by the military-ish boat. It turned out to be the Panamanian Coast Guard, and they were very friendly and chatted with us for a while. We bought three large red snappers, a lobster, and a bunch of smaller fish from Don Pancho, owner of the "Fish Man" boat which is often seen in Almirante. It turns out that he makes a regular run between Escudo and Almirante. He sold us the fish for $0.80 a pound.  In Almirante it sells for $1.25/lb. Strangely enough, he also had a bunch of closed-cell foam - perfect for outfitting kayaks and hard to find in Latin America. He uses is for keeping the fish cold, but had extra so he sold us a large block of it for $2. On the way back we managed to get the propeller caught in an unseen fishnet and spent a while floating and shredding the skin of our hands trying to tear it off (where's the machete when you need it??) until the owner came out to help us. He was very nice about it - probably because it was an illegal net. But we gave him some gas for his troubles anyway, because we shredded his net. 

The next day we had to head back to reality. The winds were very light, so we had to motor most of the way, stopping briefly at Isla Tigres for a quick snorkel break. Shortly thereafter a school of dolphins visited us for a while, racing alongside and in our wake.

Back home again, unpacking was easier than packing as we simply piled all the cargo into the boats, tied them together, and ferried it all over to the dock.

Posted by rick at November 23, 2005 01:50 PM