We motor a short 100 yards to the fuel dock and fill up on 40 gallons of gas for the boat’s two tenders then get underway on the ICW, past PGA and Parker bridges and down the waterway past Peanut Island and out into the Atlantic. Offshore it is windy and choppy. The Gulf Stream passes close to Florida here and soon our speed is reduced to a stately 6.5 knots and we are crabbed 10-15 degrees to the south to counter the northward push of the current. We spend the day acclimating to the boat and its systems. I’m aboard at the invitation of Captain Bernie Francis. Bernie joined us aboard Tivoli on our first day of ownership back in 2011 and helped us move the boat from Chesapeake Bay to Palm Beach. In the intervening 10 days we learned much and then took Tivoli down to Key West and up the west coast of Florida to Tampa. Bernie and his wife June then brought the boat across the Gulf and up the Tenn-Tom to Tennessee for us, completing the delivery. Bernie’s extensive experience in the Navy, cruising aboard his Tayana 37, as captain of a 60-foot Hinckley sailboat in the Med, and years of deliveries, commissioning, and training new Nordhavn owners worldwide put him in a league of his own. I am happy to have the opportunity to once again make a voyage with him. His frequent crew member Robert E. Lee (a Canadian and no relation to the general) is with us as well. The three of us will share the next 7 days 24/7. Watches during the day are flexible but during the night I will take the 10 PM to 1 AM watch, Robert will take the 1-4 AM slot, and Bernie 4-7 AM.
We reach Grand Bahama Bank at the “Hens and Chickens” around nightfall. The ride is much smoother and seas calmer as we expected and our speed picks up. Still, I get little sleep. This is typical for the first night out. We see little traffic until we approach the cut between Andros Is. and the Berrys near Chub Cay. This cut funnels traffic through a relatively narrow opening and consequently we negotiate our way through several sailboats, commercial vessels, and sportfish boats all transiting the area. We soon enter the Tongue of the Ocean with deep water with its associated seas and turn south. Light from Nassau looms on the eastern horizon as we pass New Providence but soon all is dark. There is little moon on this trip though it will be visible about an hour longer each day as we progress down our track. There is no traffic to contend with here; only small inter-island cargo vessels transit the area at all hours while pleasure craft cross the banks during the day. We arrive at a waypoint marking our turn east across the Exuma Banks and, once again, are in shallow crystal-clear water heading for Conch Inlet just north of Compass Cay. Though coral heads are a hazard elsewhere on the banks this course is through relatively deep water with no nearby coral. These are familiar waters as Deanna and I spent a month or more in the Exumas last season. It is good to be back in this beautiful place. Warderick Wells is just to the north. White sand beaches, green islands, deep blue seas, and fifty shades of turquoise.
As we approach Conch Inlet Bernie takes the helm to manually run through the inlet. There are rocks awash in the center of the channel. The charts show the course running north of the rocks but the better, deeper and wider passage is to the south. We pass the rocks and enter Exuma Sound around 3 PM. If we were to have arrived after dark we would have anchored and not run through this inlet in the dark. Fortunately, we timed it right and continued on our way. The ride down Exuma Sound is rough; seas are on the port beam or forward and we bash our way south. The 62 is a ship; 132,000 lbs and 67 feet in length, she takes the seas well but the ride is still challenging. It is difficult to move around the boat, periodically we here something rattling around and have to check it out. We conduct engine room checks every 3 hours; bilges, stuffing box, fuel supply tank levels, temperature of the stabilizer hydraulic fluid, any unusual leaks, smells, sounds, etc. All is well. Sleep on this leg proves difficult to come by for all of us; I’m in the forward cabin and find it tough to sleep while being periodically levitated. By dawn we have turned a corner more southwest, have moved into the lee of Acklins Island, and the ride improves considerably. Miles pass, the occasional ship passes, but we see few pleasure boats of any kind. We are now in the most southern of the Bahamian islands where ports are few and services non-existent. As a result many cruisers stop at Georgetown and few explore these beautiful but remote places further south. Most cruisers headed this way are bound for the canal or to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and points further southeast.
We are approaching Great Inagua Island as my watch begins. It is dark, two AIS signals reveal the presence of two cargo ships. One is docked and one is at anchor. Both are likely taking on salt produced by the Morton Salt company in evaporation ponds on the island. Matthew Town passes to our port and we turn onto a new heading taking us through the Windward Passage. It will be a 4-day run across the Caribbean Sea from here. We have been monitoring weather all along; either via cell service in the Bahamas or using my Iridium GO satphone and Ocens grib files. We expect the conditions to remain similar for 3 days; 15-20 knots of wind and 5-7 foot seas. On the fourth day, as we approach the canal conditions should moderate. Fortunately, the seas will remain aft of the beam making the ride tolerable. We press on.
We now enter the “Ground Hog Day” phase of the trip. We have adapted to our watch schedule and now each day is the same. Get up, shower, eat breakfast, read, drive the boat, eat lunch, nap, drive the boat, eat dinner, sleep, night watch, sleep. Get up and do it again.
We keep a healthy distance off both Cuba and Haiti. We pass Cuba in the night and see nothing but a few lights; we pass the southernmost point of Haiti during the day and see its mountains periodically among the scattered showers.
The days pass, the boundless sea passes slowly, the image on the chartplotter doesn’t change, only our position and the miles to our destination changes. We encounter many ships; some pass us and some meet us. Most are doing 15-20 knots; we average 8.5-9.0 We keep at least 1 nautical mile away during the day and 1.25 or more during the night. Most cargo vessels are container ships or car carriers. Most of these are standard size the largest of which just fit in the old Panama Canal, the panamax vessels. Occasionally we pass a monster; the neo panamax vessels. These container ships were designed to fit in the new and much larger Panama Canal locks. They are over 150 feet wide and 1000 feet long. We hailed one on the VHF and asked how many containers he could carry: 10,100. Amazing.
We have occasional rain showers. Fortunately, no lightning. We look forward to them as they wash the salt off the boat. At one point Bernie canceled navigation and hand-steered the vessel to a nearby isolated shower just for a boat shower. If you zoom into our track you might find a loop and wonder what caused that….you might not have predicted the need for a bath.
On the fourth day out from Great Inagua we approach the coast. The mountains of Panama are in view. Cell coverage returns. Hordes of vessels converge on the canal. By the time we are within 15 miles of the harbor we see 335 AIS targets on the radar! These are mostly ships at anchor both inside the breakwater and outside the breakwater. We watch them all intently as one will fire up and begin to move toward the entrance to begin its transit of the canal. It is sunset as we approach. We had hoped to arrive in daylight; it will be close.
Robert and I open the doors for the first time in a week and put out fenders and mooring lines. The hot and humid air is a sharp contrast from our comfy air conditioned vessel. We negotiate the channel, contact the marina on VHF and get our slip assignment. Bernie stands at the control station on the Portuguese bridge and deftly maneuvers the boat into her slip. We have arrived; it is now dark.
Parrots squawk and howler monkeys screech in the trees. We step on the docks and look around. Shelter Bay is a nice marina populated by many boats from all over the world, mostly sailboats, some as long as 100 feet. There are also a few trawlers and the occasional megayacht or sportfish vessel. Two other Nordhavns are here; a 55 and a 78.
Tomorrow is Panama’s Mother’s Day and we arrived after hours so we can’t clear customs. The yellow Q flag will remain up for a couple days. No worries. We spend two days cleaning the boat and doing various small projects. We used the canal agent Roy Bravo to arrange our clearance so he drove us into Colon to an office in case our physical presence was needed. I’ve been in third-world cities but this one is shocking. Crowded narrow streets, filthy, bars on all windows, razor wire on fences, etc. We passed the only “upscale” neighborhood in town; it was surrounded by a 10-foot high concrete wall with an electric fence on top. Couldn’t wait to get out of there. We waited in the car until Roy returned with our passports properly stamped. We had cleared customs without making a personal appearance. I’m told Roy is the best, most professional canal agent and I would have to agree; he was courteous and efficient. He drives us to a shopping mall where we had arranged to me our driver Louis. We are told Louis is busy but Carlos will take us to Panama City. We meet Carlos and throw our luggage in the back and climb into his nice Honda Odyssey. We ask him to drive us to the new Panama Canal visitor center for a quick look around before heading to Panama City. I’m glad we made the stop. The new canal opened in June and is most impressive. A neo panamax vessel was just entering the first lock guided by two tugs; one forward and one astern. The vessel is not under power during transit; a pilot is aboard and the two tugs handle all maneuvering required to get these massive ships into the lock. These vessels pay nearly $1M in fees to transit the canal. The new canal handles 6-8 neo panamax vessels per day. It was impressive to watch as there is very little space to spare on either side of the ship.
The ride across Panama improved my opinion of the country; the countryside is beautiful. Mountains, lush tropical forest, and occasional views of Gatun Lake with its islands provided spectacular vistas.
All in all and great trip with good friends on a remarkable boat.