Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   May 2017


Hurricane Season – Plan BDT

by Ray Jason

With hurricane season approaching, it makes sense to consider various options for protecting your boat. One that you might not have thought of is sailing to Bocas del Toro. 

It is a large, pristine archipelago in Panama. The cove where I am writing this could easily accommodate 20 boats, and yet there are only four of us anchored here. The name of this lovely spot is Dolphin Bay because there is a resident pod of them here all year round; you often see a mom swimming with her youngster.
In the jungle onshore there are large troops of howler monkeys to entertain you and wild parrots to wake you up in the morning. Other exotic creatures, including sloths and toucans, hang about in the trees. (Actually, the sloths hang and the toucans perch.)

So, how does this zoology intel relate to hurricanes? Well, Panama has rarely experienced one. Therefore, you won’t have to spend every morning nervously listening to Chris Parker on the radio. Instead, you can scan the shoreline with your binoculars looking for verrry slowww sloth activity.
Getting here from the Eastern Caribbean can be a rip-roaring non-stop downwind run, or there are lots of places to stop if you’d rather do it seagoing-sloth style. Two of my favorites along the way are Cartagena, Colombia and the San Blas Islands in Panama. If you stop at San Blas, you can buy some of the world-renowned molas from the Kuna women. These tiny women are such ferocious negotiators that they would win the admiration of the most gung-ho Amway “sales associates”. Plus, they do so in their traditional clothing that is as colorful as the inside of a kaleidoscope.

Once you arrive in Bocas del Toro, there are dozens of empty or almost-empty anchorages to accommodate you. Two of these are near town and the others are in gorgeous remote spots with no traces of human habitation.
If you prefer the convenience and camaraderie of marinas, there are three nice options. Red Frog Marina boasts a sensational nearby beach and lots of mega-yacht viewing. Marina Carenero is the least expensive, and has a great view across to Bocas Town. My personal favorite is Bocas Marina, with its beautiful garden setting and friendly bilingual staff. All three of the marinas have sparkling clean shower rooms, reliable electricity and pretty solid WiFi.  
Another nice feature of Bocas Marina is their on-premises bar and restaurant. It is one of the last great cruisers’ havens left on the planet. Besides good food and drink, there is live music. In fact, Jimmy Buffet dazzled the gang here several years ago when he sat at the bar for a couple of hours “strummin’ his six string” to the delight of everyone. If Jimmy chooses to chill in BDT, that’s a pretty righteous recommendation.

A few words about the main town of Bocas del Toro. If you are looking for a prissied-up, sanitized spot that appeals to the cruise-ship crowd, this is not your place. On the gentrification scale of 1 to 10, it is a 3 — without higher aspirations.  But it is Charming with a capital C. It may not be postcard perfect, but it is genuine — and, boy, is it ever fun!
The local mix is Spanish and Indio and Afro-Caribbean. The visitor potpourri includes surfers, backpackers, adventure travelers, sailors and miscellaneous ex-pats. This last category of irregulars always amuses me; every time I drink a beer with this colorful crowd, I am reminded that the Witness Relocation Program is alive and well.

For supplies, you can find all of the essentials and quite a few luxuries. There are many grocery and hardware stores and the restaurant scene is astonishing. You keep saying to yourself, “How can this many great restaurants stay in business in this tiny town?”

However, I don’t spend much time in town because it is so magical out in the archipelago. There are nine big islands and over 100 small mangrove islands. The anchorages are never crowded and there are no “pay-by-the-night” mooring fields. There are a couple of large islands that act like Neptune’s breakwater, thus converting the area into an inland sea, so you never have to double reef and strap in when moving from isla to isla.
There is excellent surfing here (even Kelly Slater flies in when the waves are up) for both mid-life long-boarders and early-life surfers who use boards that look to me to be about the size of oven mitts.

Another great addition to this area is the new, full-service boatyard. They have excellent laborers, welders, painters and mechanics. They also encourage “do-it-yourselfers”. You can also order in all sorts of boating supplies through the local Marine Warehouse outlet. They arrive by ship, so even heavy items like paint and chain and dinghies can be shipped in.

So, as the folks at the Weather Channel start to get sideways crazy about hurricane season projections, just switch ’em off. Instead, you can create your very own one-boat Travel Channel. Head west to Bocas del Toro — we’ll leave the anchorages un-crowded for you!

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