Our first foreign ports aboard Heretic brought excitement, challenges, new friends, and great experiences!
Although we’d both traveled a bit before Heretic, coming into a foreign country by boat is an entirely different experience. The land rises from the horizon, barely perceptible at first, and for hours you watch it grow steadily larger. More boats appear–fishermen, pleasure craft, commercial ships. A port opens up and suddenly you have to pick out navigation markers, identify your position more rapidly than you’ve had to do on the open ocean, and avoid the other maritime traffic.
You hoist your yellow Q flag (for Quarantine), hail Customs on the VHF radio, and hope someone speaks a language you speak. They direct you to a dock or anchorage and you have to remind yourself that the space is not actually as confined as it appears: that’s just a leftover perception from spending days out of sight of land.
Our arrival in Nassau, Bahamas after a week at sea was pretty much exactly like this. The ocean decided to add a waterspout to the mix right when we made landfall, but fortunately it was far away. A couple days after docking and clearing in, we were off again for the Exumas, low-lying, sparsely populated islands surrounded by coral reefs.
We reached Warderick Wells Cay, headquarters of the Exuma Land and Sea Park, on Christmas Day just in time for the annual potluck! There we met three other young cruisers aboard a ketch from Florida. The seven of us became good friends over the next few weeks as we sailed in company.
We and our friends on the ketch headed for George Town to clear out of the Bahamas. Heretic‘s crew still numbered four at that point, which was really too many for a small boat with no privacy. So before leaving the Exumas we swapped a crew member for Josh, one of our friends from the ketch, which worked out well for everyone.
A 2-day passage brought us to Provo in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Our time there was mostly spent trying to fix the engine (unsuccessfully, as it turned out later) and installing a self-steering wind vane that would allow us to sail short-handed (just Seth and me). Then we were off for Great Inagua Island, home to Morton Salt Company’s evaporation pans, some nice coral, and the largest population of flamingos in the western hemisphere.
In the company town we were impressed by the seamanship of the sailors of two wooden trading boats from Haiti. They arrived at dawn, shooting the tiny gap in the breakwater into the inner harbor with the perfect speed to round up the quay.
After another short passage Heretic dropped anchor in Port Antonio, Jamaica. As well as exploring the town and making friends with the crew of an American boat moored next to us, we hiked up a river to a beautiful hidden waterfall.
When we departed Port Antonio, we made a short stop in Negril, Jamaica, before sailing the 600 miles to Colon, the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. Once through the Canal and into the Pacific, there’d be no turning back!
We began our Canal transit in mid-March, in company with our friends we’d met in Port Antonio. We entered Gatun Locks at night; the volume of water pouring in was impressive, and we learned from our pilot/advisor Cooper that the locks still operate mechanically in the same fashion as when they were built in 1914.
We rose 85 feet through three locks, and once in Gatun Lake we rafted to a large red mooring ball to spend the night and continue to the Pacific the next day.
Our transit the next morning was quickly curtailed by engine failure, the same problem we’d had in the Bahamas! To make a long story short, Heretic ended up spending a week in Gatun Lake. Seth and I eventually met the very generous owners of a big catamaran who agreed to tow us to the Pacific. Without their help, we’d probably still be moored on Gatun Lake, listening to howler monkeys in the jungle around us.
Once finally anchored off Panama City, we had to repair Heretic. Our two friends both departed, and Seth’s father arrived to sail with us from Panama to the Galapagos. The three of us struggled with the engine for a month with the invaluable help of Joe, an American mechanic who had settled in Panama.
Seth and I had one day of sight-seeing while in Panama when we visited the Casco Viejo (old town) with its lovely old colonial buildings, Canal Museum, and churches with sumptuous altars. One of these gold altarpieces had reputedly been painted black during a pirate raid in the 17th century in order to fool the marauders.
Finally it was off to cross the Pacific!
You can also read about our departure and first months aboard on the East Coast page 🙂
All text and photographs © Ellen Massey Leonard and Seton Leonard, 2015, All Rights Reserved.