Leaving Panama

We left Panama City eagerly. Delayed repairs on our prop had pushed our departure back by days, the already astronomical anticipation was building.


When we first got to Panama City we discussed heading down to Ecuador before our Pacific Passage. The move would put us in a prime position to pick up the trades below the Galapagos and would give us a week long passage for any last kinks to pop up before the big jump. Traditional routes from Panama to the Marquesas either head first to the Galapagos and then bee line across or, go north of the Galapagos, battle through doldrums for a week, then pick up the trades sometime northwest of the Galapagos. We’d come across another route in our planning. A slightly newer route andthe one we wanted to take. The trade winds start farther east, below the Galapagos, meaning far less time in the doldrums. We were already planning to skip the Galapagos because of the very expensive entry and mooring costs, so this southern route made all the sense. We’d head to Ecuador first, then head due west into the trades south of the Galapagos.


Panama had different plans for us. Leading up to our arrival there was a general feeling that the Pacific gates of the Panama Canal would be the perfect place to get J. Henry into ship shape. It’s a hub of global commerce, a bottleneck for every boat crossing the Pacific, and one of the most modern and affluent cities in all of Latin America. We assumed we’d swoop in, find everything we need, then head south to Ecuador. You know what they say about assumptions. The chandleries and marine supply stores were lacking in most everything we needed and it became evident that we’d have to find another way. We ended up shipping most of what we needed in, instantly adding seven days to our stay in Panama City. Plans for Ecuador still stood. While we waited, we had a diver get our prop off to weld some worrisome chips that we noticed while hauled out in Grenada. Large chunks were missing out of all three of the blades. Electrolysis was eating away at the entire prop, but we were hopeful that we could find a fast and budget friendly solution with a few well-crafted welds.


Prop off and supplies ordered, we turned our attention to finding crew. We’d asked countless friends and acquaintances to join us, but an open-ended, month long, trip to a remote Pacific island is a big ask — time and the price of return flights combined make for quite the investment. Most leads had petered out, but one remained, a fellow sailor from Charleston. Anna was in a unique position to seize the opportunity of a lifetime and after a bit of convincing she was in. She had a good deal of experience at sea from numerous passages to and from Bermuda and she was Safety at Sea certified, both big pluses. An added benefit was her ability to bring the last few supplies from the States that we couldn’t find in Panama. Namely a new main halyard AND a new prop.


Yes, the news had just come in that our trusty old prop was past saving. The electrolysis had compromised the integrity of the prop to a perilous degree. Every attempted weld just fractured the prop further, it was a crumbling mess. If we ordered a new prop through Panamanian shops we’d be looking at a three week wait for shipping alone. That simply wasn’t possible. Not only could we not afford to stay docked without a prop that long but I had plans to meet Joanna in Tahiti come early April. A date that I couldn’t afford to miss. A bit of panic set in but was set aside as Tripp made a few frantic phone calls directly to the prop manufacturer. After some savvy wheeling and dealing he was able to convince them of our struggle and our need. They could have a prop shipped to Charleston by that afternoon, they just needed the dimensions — now. Tripp rushed to the prop shop, took the measurements then hurriedly called back, making the window for same day shipping by literal minutes. His heroics combined with Anna’s travel confirmations meant that we’d have the prop in just a few days, a far cry from the three weeks we were initially faced with.

Over the course of negotiating J. Henry’s repairs it became clear that Ecuador wasn’t in the cards. We didn’t have time with our Tahitian deadlines and the longer we waited in Panama the more ready we were to just start the crossing. We’d keep our same plan and head south of the Galapagos, just without the Ecuadorian pit stop.


Anna arrived a few days later with a shiny new prop and other essentials. Tripp and I had spent the preceding week working on the boat and double checking every system before a month at sea. We’d been busy with a new layer of varnish, servicing the head, replacing wiring, checking all the rigging, provisioning and so on. We got the prop to the diver immediately and as soon as it was on we’d be ready to go.


The next day the diver was scheduled to come in the early afternoon and we planned to leave just after. The big day had finally come. The excitement and the gravity of the month ahead pressed on all of us. I called Joanna the night before and had a long wonderful conversation, knowing it’d be the last one for a month. We were all texting, emailing, and calling our goodbyes to loved ones as we waited to depart that afternoon. The diver never showed. He said that his boss sent him elsewhere. Bigger, more lucrative, jobs had superseded our prop install for that day. He’d be there first thing the next day, we’d leave the next afternoon.


We found ourselves in an awkward position. We had provisioned for 4 months which was the recommended amount of food for the crossing. Not only did we need food for our time at sea but South Pacific groceries are known to be limited and expensive so the going wisdom is to stock up while you can. With that in mind, it felt wrong to break into that food before we left, but we’d also spent the last of our money on dockage, repairs, and food. We found ourselves broke, stuck in Panama, sending ‘hey actually’s’ to those we’d just said goodbye to. We all took it in stride, one more night wouldn’t mean much in the long run. We’d get a fresh start the next day, earlier too. I took the bonus night to FaceTime with Joanna, then said another weighted goodbye when we hung up.


The next day came and with it came the diver. We all watched as he hopped in the water with our new prop, we were moments away from leaving. Bubbles floated up from under J. Henry as we waited with anticipation. The diver surfaced shortly after with disappointing news. The shaft of the prop was too long and would need to be ground down to fit in our driveshaft. We told him we’d take care of it ASAP and he said he’d be back at noon. I texted my parents, Joanna, and others to let them know we would be leaving that afternoon instead of mid morning like we planned.


The prop was quickly made to fit then returned to the boat, ready and waiting for the diver. Noon rolled past. We got word that he was embroiled in a complicated project. He was grabbing a bite to eat, then he’d wrap things up there and head our way. The day crept on as we floated in a Latin limbo always on the precipice of immediate departure, always on the edge of the biggest passage of our lives.


By the time 4:30 rolled around, things looked pretty grim. We hadn’t heard from the diver and the likelihood of getting the prop on that day seemed small. More resigned than anything else we threw up our hands and continued to wait. What else could we do? Just before the sun sank below the horizon, the diver showed up. He apologized for the delay and slipped into the chilly evening water. After a few minutes of work, our prop was back on! The diver apologized again and didn’t charge us for his last day of labor, a classy move that made up for a good deal of our angst. Dusk was falling and we made the decision to leave the next morning, a familiar feeling. I called Joanna that night for what was now our third goodbye, an emotional roller coaster with multiple false endings.


We went to bed that night sure that we’d leave the next day, and we were right.

-Zach

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