The bumpy and sometimes winding road to Panama

Most of the crews of voyaging boats heading for the canal from the Pacific Ocean tell haunting tales of their approach to the Balboa area, at the entrance to the Miraflores Locks, where they make the final arrangements for their transits. To their tales, we can of course add all those from the equally large number of voyagers along the Pacific Coast who aren’t planning to transit the canal but are stopping at the Balboa area. Both groups must round Punta Mala, the point marking the southwest terminus of the Golfo de Panama, and navigate through the gulf to reach Balboa.

The extraordinary conjunction of an extensive point, a gulf 90 miles deep separated from the Caribbean by a narrow and relatively low-lying strip of land, two major ocean currents, and one of the world’s busiest seaways frequently challenges Pacific Coast sailors in their goal to reach Balboa.

The winds of the Golfo de Panama

West Coast sailors who are considering a voyage into the Golfo de Panama may have assumed the coastline of Panama is predominantly on a north-south orientation. When these voyagers, who’ve become accustomed to considering themselves southbound, are still some distance away from Panama and hear others talking about the prevalence of north winds in the gulf – those very winds they’ve loved as they’ve made the trip south – they smile with anticipation. But the smiles disappear when they begin to study their charts seriously and realize the Panama coastline is essentially east-west at the entrance to the Golfo de Panama and that they will have to beat into those north winds to reach Balboa and the canal.

The winds found in this Pacific Coast gulf in the dry season, December to late April, are the winter trades blowing across the Caribbean. These winds funnel south from the Caribbean, following the route of the Panama Canal across the isthmus and blasting out into the Pacific Ocean at Punta Mala. Between mid-December and late April, these northerly winds frequently blow at 25 knots through the Golfo de Panama and reach higher strengths at Punta Mala.

Yet these are the months when most voyagers on the Pacific Coast time their arrivals in Panama so they can sample the delights of the tropical islands and coastline anchorages of southwestern Panama during the dry season. In this season, the precipitation is no more than an occasional shower, and the humidity is generally in the relatively low 55 to 60 percent range. (By contrast, the rainfall from May to November averages 8 to 10 inches a month, and the humidity averages 75 percent.)

The 15-to-25-knot winds common in this dry and windy season are usually much stronger at Punta Mala, the aptly named “Bad Point,” which some sailors contend should have been named “Worst Point.” In early December of this cruising season, early in this dry, windy season, we heard two different crews on the Panama-Pacific Net reporting having been forced to turn back at Mala and wait for lighter winds, one of them on two separate attempts. And these wind and sea conditions were occurring before the strongest winds typically blow down on Punta Mala.

We, too, had to turn back twice this season, although our failed attempts at rounding Mala were in late January, a month known for particularly strong winds through the gulf. In each instance, we had waited in Ensenada Benao, at 15 miles distant the closest anchorage on the coast to Punta Mala, for the promising weather window. Three other sailboats – Marna Lynn, Sea Feather and Sipapu – also came into Benao to wait for the right weather before continuing. Joe on Marna Lynn and Jake on Sipapu downloaded grib files and buoy reports once or twice a day. (Our weather program had the bad manners to be out of service at the time.) We all listened to the weather forecasts on the Panama-Pacific Net each morning, and we shared first- or second-hand accounts and opinions about when to go. Then we attempted each rounding only after all the sources available to us predicted good weather. (Regrettably, and tellingly, none of these sources of data came from a weather station or device at or near Punta Mala. The problem for the navigator wanting to know the precise weather at Mala is that no weather station exists at the point; the nearest buoy transmitting weather information is 30 miles to the south.)

Those who’ve watched the weather in the gulf for years suggest staying put at Ensenada Benao if the winds are blowing 10 to 15 knots or more into that cove. But that advice assumes a consistent correlation between the winds at Benao and at Punta Mala, a correlation that John and Pat Rains suggest in their book Cruising Ports: Florida to California via Panama might not exist and that we’ve not confirmed on our four encounters with this challenging point. The Rainses say the only way to ascertain what the weather is at Punta Mala is to pick up anchor and “poke your nose out to give it a try.”

Making this trip is not a matter of simply sticking one’s bow outside the cove but usually involves a trip at least to the point, if not beyond. After making this exploratory voyage twice this season – six- and eight-hour explorations – we adjusted our attitudes. Rather than ask, “Shall we try to go around Punta Mala today?” we asked, “Shall we go out for another day sail?”

On our third and successful attempt this season, the conditions in Benao were essentially the same we’d had on the previous two unsuccessful attempts. However, we happened upon another source of information: a large private yacht we spotted as it passed the mouth of the anchorage clearly en route to Punta Mala. When we hailed the crew, the captain said he’d report the conditions at the point if we’d call him again in an hour. His later report was encouraging, and we, along with the crews of the three other sailboats waiting to go, hoisted anchor and were on the road again.

Currents and tides

The strong Caribbean trade winds blowing north to south across the  isthmus of Panama are only part, though surely no small part, of the challenge for navigators on slow-moving pleasure boats. The presence of two major ocean currents constitutes another significant obstacle. These two currents, the Peruvian and the Mexican, come together offshore of Punta Mala, but even more problematic than this confluence is the curve the Peruvian current cuts through the Golfo de Panama. This current moves northward along the coasts of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, and then parallels the east side of the gulf, flowing at a rate of 1 to 2 knots in most areas as it flows northward and into Bahía de Panama, at the head of the gulf. In this bay the current assumes a southward flow along the western side of the gulf to Punta Mala before once again entering the main body of the Pacific Ocean.

Another deterrent in getting a small pleasure craft around Punta Mala and up into the Golfo de Panama is the huge tides – sometimes as much as 20 feet. As one would expect, on those days of greater tide ranges, the velocity of the currents increases as well. Voyagers, for example, frequently discover southerly currents flowing past Punta Mala at speeds of 3 knots on days of maximum tides.

When we made this passage last year, we left Ensenada Benao at 1400 hours to be at Punta Mala at slack water before the beginning of a flood. By doing so, we were able to round the point and maintain a northeast course to arrive at Isla San Jose, in the Perlas Archipelago, in the morning the next day. Despite the uncomfortable motion of the boat and our heightened anxiety at crossing this busy seaway in the dark of night, we counted the passage a success.

On our first attempt this year, we tried this same tactic, but without the same success. The sea conditions resulting from the 30+ knots of north wind combined with the normal southbound current meeting the incoming tide resulted in 8- to 10-foot seas on intervals of no more than five seconds.

For the second try, we timed our arrival at the point to coincide with mid-tide on an ebb, but this attempt also failed, again because of the strong north winds.

Finally, success came when we reached Mala with an hour and a half left of the ebb tide. That success, we think, resulted more from the decreased northerly winds than anything else. Those winds, with a westerly component, forced us to maintain an east course for 40 miles, much longer than we would have wished, and they made for a frequently uncomfortable sail. But we were jubilant to have rounded the point and crossed the mouth of the gulf.

Heavy traffic in the gulf

Though the winds and currents lead to much of the difficulty for those voyagers transiting the Golfo de Panama, the heavy ship traffic may ultimately be the most disturbing to many of them. A seemingly continuous parade of ships from every country in the world passes through the Panama Canal daily, and essentially all those ships must travel either north or south through the gulf on their approach to or exit from the canal. Add to these the containerships going in and out of the docks in the city of Panama, and the number becomes even more staggering.

Our crossing of the gulf last year between Mala and Isla San Jose in the Perlas, a distance of some 80 miles, was almost entirely after dark, and we were tracking one or more ships on radar throughout the night. In one instance, we had been tracking the southbound course of a large ship on radar and were confident this ship and Carricklee would pass port to port at a range of four or five miles. Two northbound ships were three miles off our beam, and we exp ected the oncoming vessel to pass those two ships and us port to port. Instead, the ship abruptly altered its course to port rather than to starboard. We realized it could intersect our course within minutes. After we changed course, we spoke with the tanker captain, who assured us he had been watching us on radar and had reduced the speed of his vessel to eliminate the chance of a collision. Needless to say, we appreciated his consideration.

But our relief after the tanker altercation was sorted out was short lived, for almost at the instant we were abeam of the tanker, we began to pick up a faint radar image less than two miles off our bow. As we changed course to starboard to avoid another potential collision, we observed this boat off our bow had turned the same direction we had. When we called on the VHF to alert the crew of the other craft to our presence – in case no one aboard had spotted us – the woman on watch, who identified her vessel as a sailboat, came back immediately to say she had seen our lights and our course change. We agreed to pass starboard to starboard and passed one another with half a mile to spare.

Our experiences with the tanker and the sailboat illustrate one of the primary reasons this traffic in the Golfo de Panama is so challenging for the navigator of a small boat: the lack of a traffic separation scheme. No chart we could find, even at the premier chart store in the city of Panama, showed a designated traffic separation scheme, as is standard in major U.S. ports. As a result, ships transit any portion of the passage between the Perlas and the western shore of the gulf, and pass one another port to port or starboard to starboard, seemingly without reason. This lack of predictability keeps navigators on voyaging boats busy determining where they will be safe, especially at night.

Although not critical, radar makes night passages through the Gulf of Panama less stressful. Navigators in the past made passages through the area without radar, of course, but ships travel more rapidly all the time, giving a slow, small boat less time to get out of the way. Being able to see a ship on radar when it is still 10 miles or more distant gives the crew on a small boat sufficient time to get out of its path.

Strategies for Golfo de Panama passagemaking

Many voyagers who want to make a passage through the Golfo de Panama hope to take the shortest, most direct route from Punta Mala to the Balboa area, just as the large ships do. Added to the clear advantage of the shorter distance traveled on this route is the possibility of making the entire voyage during daylight hours with one overnight stop assuming, 1) voyagers pass Mala at dawn, 2) that their passage corresponds with a flood tide and 3) that their boats have strong engines.

When wind conditions permit, voyagers on this route turn north after rounding Punta Mala and parallel the west coast of the gulf for approximately 70 miles. Here they can stop for the night at the anchorage on the south side of Isla Otoque if weather and sea conditions prevent their going on or if they want to avoid overnight passagemaking in the gulf. The next day, then, will be a short hop of only 24 miles on to Balboa.

A lucky few do on occasion find north winds at Mala light enough to allow them to take this direct route. Bob and Cheryl aboard their Valiant 42, New Passage, made such a voyage successfully last year. They stopped at Otoque to rest for a few hours and then continued on to Balboa. Most of us, however, have not been fortunate enough to find such light winds at Mala.

While we sat in Ensenada Benao the night before our first challenge to Punta Mala and the Golfo de Panama this past January, the light winds in the cove and the favorable predictions we were getting beguiled us into thinking we could try this direct passage. We changed our minds upon finding 25- to 30-knot north winds and 10-foot seas between us and our destination.

The prevailing northerly winds dictate a different strategy for the majority of voyagers. The most common goal for voyagers after rounding Punta Mala is to set a course northeast to one of the islands in the Perlas, between 70 and 80 miles from Mala. If the winds are anything but northeasterly, most sailboats can hold this course, either under sail or by motorsailing.

The problem with this destination is the time of arrival in the islands.

The preferred plan for most with whom we’ve spoken is to cross the 30-mile area immediately east of Punta Mala, where they’ll encounter the ship traffic, during daylight hours. However, the navigators who choose this plan must then go into an anchorage after dark or continue under way until daybreak.

Although this crossing of the shipping lanes during daylight hours seems one of the best laid plans for rounding Punta Mala, it, too, often goes awry. For example, a boat passing Mala in desirable 15-knot north winds but with a 3-knot ebb flowing can be swept far off course, expending those valuable daylight hours.

Once in the islands, voyagers often linger a few days to enjoy the beauty of these tropical jewels or day-hop on up into Balboa. Either way, this course makes a pleasing coda to the Mala rounding.

A third plan highly regarded by some navigators is to attempt neither a straight shot at Balboa nor a northeast course for the Perlas but to set an east course to take them to or near the eastern shore of the gulf, somewhere around Bahía Piñas. Along with many others, Doug and Lisa, sailing their Peterson 44, Mamouna, champion this longer route, summing up this strategy: “Sail farther. Sail faster.” And one might add to their summation “sail more comfortably,” since those who sail directly east across the Golfo de Panama will generally have a relatively easy voyage.

Doug also recommends passing Punta Mala with a wide margin, perhaps as much as 10 to 15 miles, to avoid the discomfort of the combined current and wind close to the point.

Those navigators who cross to the eastern side of the gulf can then usually tack over toward the Perlas, as we and two of the other boats employing this strategy did recently. Or they can make a beeline for Balboa, as did Joe and Jacque, on the fourth boat in our group, Marna Lynn, a 47-foot Wauquiez, arriving in Balboa at about 1600 the next day.

The last general scheme for a successful voyage past Mala is undoubtedly the least favored by most navigators but generally one of the most promising. That scheme calls for sailors to head offshore from some point west of Ensenada Benao – for example, Isla Parida, Isla de C�©baco or Bahía Honda – and sail to a point 50 miles or so south of Punta Mala before beginning to tack up into the gulf.

Gary and Terry, on their Aloha 34, Ishi, arrived in Balboa a few days ago after sailing directly here from Golfito, Costa Rica. They reported having sailed all but about 15 hours of the 4-1/2-day passage to the Perlas. More interesting was their ability to tack fairly handily all the way up into the Balboa area, with winds primarily from the northeast as they sailed along the east side of the gulf. And they avoided entirely the traumas of rounding the “Worst Point.”

Charlie, our buddy-boater on Sea Feather, called us on the VHF the morning after we all arrived in Balboa and asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate Punta Mala with all the other points you’ve known?” We laughed when he answered his own quiz: “I say it’s a 10+ for bad!”

We couldn’t argue with his evaluation. Yet, just as the vast majority of canal-transiting voyagers successfully achieve their goals without harm, so do most voyagers who are simply trying to pass around Punta Mala and sail through the Golfo de Panama.

By Ocean Navigator