A hop, skip, and a jump to Panama
From Beaufort to San Blas in three unequal bites
While in Beaufort, N.C., aboard Namani, our 1981 Dufour 35, we conceived a bold and promising plan: to depart the U.S. East Coast as soon as a November weather window allowed, and head for Panama in a hop (800 miles from the Carolinas to the eastern Bahamas), a skip (300 miles to Jamaica) and a jump (600 miles to Panama). Then we’d have the entire winter to cruise Panama’s fascinating coasts — both of them — before heading off across the Pacific. It seemed a brilliant bit of passage planning.
Strangely, other sailors we met while moving south along the East Coast of the United States disagreed. Jamaica? They grimaced. Too dangerous. Panama’s San Blas Islands? Too quiet. Better to spend time getting acquainted with Saint Augustine or the Abacos, they advised, launching into detailed descriptions of the comfortable marinas we might visit along the way. Nice destinations, to be sure — but I was determined to reach more distant parts, fascinated by blue horizons.
Marcus Sweitzer on the bow during Namani’s Gulf Stream crossing.
Luckily, my husband, Markus, agreed with the plan, and our 8-year-old son, Nicky — well, he can be talked into just about any family venture aboard Namani. The tricky part would be reaching Panama in a narrow window of opportunity: after the end of hurricane season in November but before the Christmas Winds set in to give small boats a wild ride in the central Caribbean. We like an exciting sail, but not too exciting, and were determined to get across the Caribbean early.
It’s one thing to make a brilliant plan, and another to actually realize it. The days of early November slipped away while late season Tropical Storm Sean raged offshore; it was a good time to be tucked into the safe harbor of Beaufort, N.C. Another week passed, but northerly winds would just not let up enough to allow us to cross the Gulf Stream in reasonable conditions. Itching for action, we moved on to lovely Charleston, S.C., positioning ourselves directly west of a narrow section of the Gulf Stream. Finally, we got the green light from our weatherman, Chris Parker, and set off, full of anticipation — and some trepidation — of what might lie ahead.
Charleston to Mayaguana
Months of preparations and worry about this passage eventually climaxed in — well, an anticlimax, as the 30-mile Gulf Stream crossing proved to be a non-event. Namani motored over smooth seas marked by a few stray clumps of Sargasso weed, accelerated at times by a favorable eddy, then suddenly fighting a different offshoot of the Gulf Stream. According to the forecast, the real challenge would come a few days later, with southeasterly winds and an increasing swell that made it critical to make our easting now.
The first two days at sea were our slowest, with modest gains of about 120 miles each day and some hours of fiddling with the sails before resorting back to the engine for a better upwind course. By day three, we shut off the engine for good, moving nicely under sail but still fighting to maintain course against the east-southeast wind. Undeterred by pesky details of heading or speed made good, young Nicky marveled at the clear night sky; he even insisted on sleeping in the cockpit rather than his pilot berth. Markus and I took turns standing three-hour night watches, clipped in beside Nicky with a watchful eye on the compass. The steering was left to our Hydrovane, our trusty fourth hand who faithfully maintained the best course to windward — a meager 175°.
Nadine and Marcus’s son Nicky reads during a night watch.
Namani was making a strong six knots, but wind on the nose and a sloppy leftover swell on the beam made her motion very uncomfortable for the next three days. Our world was one of heaving, splashing, and the occasional bashing as the hull fell into troughs between waves. This had the unfortunate side effect of swamping the bilge, since we hadn’t sealed the hawsepipe properly: a foolish oversight that cost us time at the pump and a good drenching on the bow.
Soon we were thoroughly tired of our windward slog exacerbated by the cross swell; there was too much motion to read, play games, or do anything much more than watch the horizon. We consoled ourselves with respectable 24-hour runs of 132, 152, and 140 miles — and fantasized about the next two legs of our passage, which would theoretically be easier downwind runs. The good news was, we were holding up well to our two-handed watch schedule. Still, I felt a nagging uncertainty about my master plan: what if the central Caribbean turned rough before we could get across?
Each night, the waning moon rose a little later, and each day, we shed another layer of clothing, now down to shorts and T-shirts for good. With the wind peaking at 30 knots at night, we reefed the mainsail and struck the genoa in favor of a smaller staysail that flies on Namani’s removable baby stay. Despite the decrease in canvas, Namani still streamed along at six knots with a slightly more comfortable motion, an indication that we had reefed at the right time. Waves continued to splash over the bow and port side, penetrating Namani’s normally dry cockpit. Never had we had such a salty passage!
The ceaseless commotion made the sight of Mayaguana on our sixth morning out a welcome sight. In this area of the southeast Bahamas, depth contours squeeze together like tight isobars on a messy weather chart; we didn’t come into soundings until the very entrance to Abraham Bay, a five-mile long refuge strewn with coral heads. Proceeding cautiously at tick-over speed, we guided Namani through until she came to rest at last, the lone boat in a vast anchorage.
Marcus in the cockpit.
In short order, we took a refreshing dip, pumped the dinghy, and cleared customs ashore. At anchor for a long weekend layover, the essence of our days changed completely. We settled back into a diurnal rhythm, trading the slate-colored ocean for an aquamarine paradise and substituting the music of Jimmy Buffett for the voice of the weatherman. A change we could get used to! But not yet. In the Bahamas, we were poised at the “wrong” edge of the Caribbean, and wanted to get across fast. Having toured the sleepy island and restored order to the boat, we were off once again. Leg one clocked in at six days and a distance of 801 nm.
Mayaguana to Jamaica
If our passage to Mayaguana was something of a tedious ordeal to be endured, the three-day downwind run to Jamaica was a gentle walk in the park. Any misgivings about the master passage plan now gave way to satisfaction. An ominous-looking series of squalls turned out to be relatively benign, especially with an east-northeast wind abaft the beam and only a minor swell. Gone were the days of hanging from handholds and clinging to every inch of easting by the skin of our teeth; this was the kind of Caribbean passagemaking we had hoped for! The main challenge came on the second night, when we nervously tiptoed an invisible line between mountainous Cuba, tinted orange-red by the setting sun, and the Windward Passage shipping lane, dotted with the lights of freighters. To my relief, it was a night of little action on both fronts.
Cuba’s low mountains remained in view for most of the next morning, and we even caught a glimpse of Haiti’s lofty Massif de la Hotte far to the east. These impressive heights were a welcome sight after months along the relatively low-lying U.S. East Coast. At the same time, I imagined the three-dimensional world invisible beneath us: the sea floor rising and falling in mountains, plateaus, and dramatic valleys. Although it seemed as if Namani was barely crawling along, a look at the speed log revealed five to six-knot progress under poled out genoa alone. It was Thanksgiving Day at sea, and the setting sun colored the scattered white crests of waves with its red hues: yet another beautiful sight to be grateful for on a long, full list.
Our third dawn at sea lit the breathtaking sight of Jamaica’s aptly named Blue Mountains ahead. As Namani closed with the coast, we were enveloped by the exotic scent of a rich and humid forest. While wind and seas come to a crashing halt on Jamaica’s north shore, boats can duck through a narrow side entrance into the perfectly protected inner harbor of Port Antonio.
Putting the staysail to work during a blustery patch in the Atlantic.
If Mayaguana was our solitude interlude, Port Antonio was our taste of city bustle on a small, walkable scale. Nowhere did we find evidence of the dire warnings we had received about Jamaica, only friendly and helpful people in what is known as the safest (if rainiest) corner of the island nation. From the accommodating customs officials and staff of Errol Flynn Marina, to the street vendors and local populace, we felt warmly welcomed. The town was a bustle of activity and reggae music, and the rooftop Tip Top Restaurant was the perfect perch from which to take it all in. Leg two took us three days and we covered a distance of 338 nm.
Jamaica to Panama
Port Antonio proved to be a practical and easy place to complete all our business, not to mention indulge ourselves in some fun, such as a raft trip down the beautiful Rio Grande. Still, we did feel like the odd man out again. In the southeast United States, everyone seemed headed for the Bahamas; here, the cruisers were all staying within a triangle formed by Jamaica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Sometimes, forging your own path can mean a struggle over creeping doubts, but every sailor has to heed their own ambitions, time frame, and interests. Ours stood up to the test and pointed us steadfastly south.
After five short days in Jamaica, a fair weather window offered the promising opportunity to reach Panama in relatively comfortable conditions. Our previous passages were only stepping stones to this decisive leg across the central Caribbean. It was still early December and we hoped the statistics would bear themselves out in our favor: according to pilot charts, the wind and waves would build significantly over the coming weeks as the trade winds started to fill in, but by then we should be in Panama — or so we hoped!
Namani rounded the east end of Jamaica on an easy beam reach, but the rest of our 600-mile trip to Panama was a broad reach under foresail alone. We enjoyed steady northeast or east-northeast winds the entire way, with only a gradually building cross-swell to put on a short “complaints” list. The lightest winds came on our first full day out of Jamaica, giving us a chance to fly our new Parasailor with satisfying results: Namani’s roll evened out thanks to the lifting force of the sail’s “wing,” and we made good time while keeping the shallows of Morant Cays safely to port.
Nadine Slavinski at the helm of Namani.
Our friend Bill had flown in to join us in Jamaica, hoping for some memorable offshore sailing. Having a third watchkeeper aboard brought us a curious new phenomenon: free time. On the first two legs of our trip, I was either standing watch or sleeping: there was no in between. On this passage, I would go off watch and straight to my bunk out of habit, only to find that I wasn’t actually sleep deprived. Now what? I quickly re-discovered the pleasant pastimes of reading, playing games, and working on home schooling with Nicky.
Soon, we had all settled into the new rhythm, hiding under the shade of the bimini by day and reveling in the stars at night. For a time, we ran downwind with our twin genoa (two symmetrical headsails sewn onto one luff tape) opened wing-on-wing. Later, with a growing swell on the beam, we poled both parts of the genoa out to one side and gybed from one broad reach to another for a somewhat more comfortable motion. The main excitement of day three was the visit of an American drug-enforcement plane that circled Namani suspiciously. I tried to demonstrate our innocent intentions by waving a friendly hello together with young Nicky. Otherwise, our attention turned to a series of mild squalls and passing freighters (about five each day) shuttling between Panama and the Windward Passage.
Namani ticked off the miles, slowly rolling along. Compared to the featureless horizon, the night sky was the most memorable aspect part of this passage. As Namani headed ever farther south, familiar constellations hung at angles like paintings gone askew with time. At this latitude, the waxing gibbous moon bulged at the bottom rather than from the side, casting a pale light that turned everything grayscale, like a classic black and white film.
Departing Port Antonio in Jamaica, headed for Panama.
Sometimes I tackle night watches with a good read or a travel guide, anticipating the landfall ahead; at others, I’m content to simply sit and think. Occasionally, I play host to my anxieties, as was the case on the third night out, when the wind and swell were expected to increase significantly. Was the lightning on the eastern horizon a harbinger of worse to come? Would the increasingly agitated seas intensify? As usual, I feared the worst and was ultimately relieved when nothing more drastic than an eight-foot swell with a bearable eight-second interval materialized. As it turned out, our timing was just right: an Australian crew who sailed the same route two weeks later reported more onerous 30-knot winds and 12-foot seas.
Fifty miles from the coast of Panama, we put several rolls in the genoa to slow down enough for a dawn arrival. Excited at the prospect of landfall, all hands came on deck to watch the unmistakable green hill of Punta San Blas take shape over the horizon. Soon after, we could pick out low, palm-lined islands like El Porvenir, where we could clear into Panama. Once that was complete, we could officially declare the bluewater passagemaking section of our trip over, and balance it out with coastal cruising along the gorgeous San Blas Islands. Leg three encompassed five days and a distance of 590 nm.
The vented Parasail spinnaker creates lift.
Sitting at leisure in Namani’s shaded cockpit in a picture-perfect tropical anchorage, we reflect on three weeks filled with impressions: vast seascapes, the small world of our boat, and memorable landfalls. We could now enjoy the bounty of our efforts, with nearly three quiet months in which to arrange our Panama Canal transit and enjoy varied cruising grounds on both sides of the isthmus; a long breather before heading into the vast Pacific.
Above all, we feel the satisfaction of a plan come to fruition. Our route was not an especially treacherous or bold one, but it often seemed out of step with other sailors. We had heard and carefully considered much contrary advice along the way, re-evaluating but ultimately sticking with our original plan. Lessons learned? Be flexible, make informed decisions, and dare to be different!
Nadine Slavinski is the author of Lesson Plans Ahoy! Hands-On Learning for Sailing Children and Home Schooling Sailors. Together with her husband and young son, she lives aboard her 1981 Dufour 35, Namani, currently in Panama and the South Pacific. Her website, www.sailkidsed.net provides many free resources for home schooling sailors.