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Sailing the San Blas: From the Hamptons to the Panamanian Jungle  

                  I saw Adele across the lawn and made my way over to her. Her daughter, Emily, was one of my star students on the 420 Racing Team at the Westhampton Yacht Squadron. I’d been coaching Emily for a few summers, and she had just finished the last year of her junior sailing career with a bang; Emily and her crew had come in first or second in every regatta on the bay that year. Their main competition were their classmates, Matt and Alex, who’d done just as well. All of the hard work in their sailing lessons had paid off; I was a proud coach.


Sailing on long island
A WYS boat coming in first to the windward mark at a regatta

                  It was the Support the Staff & Children’s Award Night at the Westhampton Yacht Squadron. I had known Adele for years, and wanted to congratulate her on her daughter's achievements.

 

Adele! I can’t tell you how proud I am of Emily. We are going to miss her next year!

 

We chatted for a while, and she asked me about my plans after the season; I had spent parts of the last two winters traveling in Asia and Peru. My plan for this winter was to fly to Panama, take a boat to Colombia, and then make my way down to Peru to spend time with the friends I had made last year.

 

That sounds incredible! My cousin Roz and her husband live in Panama City, and they own a marina on the Caribbean coast. I’d love to put you in touch with her!

 

If I had learned anything traveling, it was that going to a place and being able to meet up with someone who lived there made all of the difference in the world. I gladly accepted her offer, and a few days later I had an email from Roz.

 

Luke, we’d love to have you stay with us in Panama City and come out to the marina at Linton Bay. When do you arrive?

 

A few weeks later I landed in Panama City and Roz picked me up from the airport. We made our way to their neighborhood, driving under Panama City’s massive skyscrapers. It seemed like Latin America’s version of Miami, but with more building and more Spanish.

 

It was Halloween, and after a long flight, I wasn’t up for a big night out, but I did walk over to La Rana Dorada, a craft brew pub close to Roz’s apartment. They had the World Series on. I watched the game, had a few surprisingly good IPAs, and chatted with a few Panamanians….in English. For this I was grateful; at the time, my Spanish was basic, having struggled through Spanish class in high school and college. English is widely spoken in Panama City, especially amongst the middle and upper class.

 

Roz and her husband Alan were incredibly generous hosts. We’d have breakfast each morning and I’d come away with a long list of things to do. They’d go to work, and I’d go explore the city. The first day there I went to the Biomuseo, a museum focused on the natural history of Panama, and Frank Gehry’s first building in Latin America. Afterwards I rented a bike and rode out to the end of the Amador Causeway, which extends almost four miles into the Pacific. Riding out to the end, I looked at hundreds of ships waiting their turn to enter the Panama Canal. On the way back, I stared a breathtaking view of the Panama City skyline.

 

Out at the end of the Amador Causeway in Panama City

The next day I hiked up Cerro Ancon (Ancon Hill). It’s a sizable hill in the midst of Panama City’s sprawling metropolis; you can see the enormous Panamanian flag flowing in the wind atop the hill from most of the city. As I made my way up, I felt like I had been teleported from a concrete jungle to the middle of a Panamanian rainforest. Monkeys climbed around the trees amidst the dense vegetation. Sounds of tropic birds filled the humid air. Best of all was the view at the top; Panama City and the Pacific Ocean peak out of the vegetation on one side, and the other offers a view of enormous container ships entering and exiting the Panama Canal.

 

The view from the top of Ancon Hill

That was where I was going next. I hiked back down and took an Uber to the Miraflores Locks, the main visitors center of the Panama Canal. I made my way into the museum and was instantly enamored. I’ve always loved history and boats, and the Canal Museum was a gold mine for both. After a few hours inside, I walked out to the viewing area, which resembles a small section of a stadium, but instead of a field below, there are ships. These container ships are hundreds of feet long, but only have a few feet of clearance on each side; ship builders make them as big as possible without being too wide to fit through the Panama Canal.


My first visit to the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal

The next day Roz and I left Panama City and headed to their beach house in Linton Bay, about two hours from Panama City, but on the Caribbean Coast. We the metropolis of Panama City quickly gave way to the rural areas along the Panama-Colon expressway, which roughly follows the path of the Panama Canal towards Colon.

 

After about an hour, we made a stop in Sabanitas to take advantage of the last grocery store (and ATM) before Linton Bay, still an hour away. The rest of the trip felt like we were going down a back road through the jungle; the Caribbean coast of Panama is sparsely populated East of the Canal. Eventually we arrived in Linton Bay; little did I know, it would be my part-time home on and off for the next two years.


The view from Roz's house in Linton Bay

Roz had told me about a small sailboat they'd been given but hadn't been set up yet. I happily volunteered to put the boat together, glad to be able to repay their generous hospitality. I was happy that all of the parts were there and got the boat going without much fuss. There were a few other guests at their house that weekend, one of which was a kid named Steffan. He had never sailed before but seemed interested, so I offered to give him a sailing lesson.



We went out a few times that weekend. Steffan was a natural, and got the hang of the tiller right away. It was a surreal experience for me; a few weeks ago I had been teaching sailing on Long Island, and now I was in the middle of the Panamanian jungle teaching someone how to sail!


After the weekend, Roz and her guests went back to Panama City, and I stayed in Linton Bay. There wasn't much to do there, so I spent most of the days wandering around the marina and chatting with cruising sailors. I had sailed on small boats since I was a kid, but this was the first time I was around big boats, and my first introduction to "cruisers," people who live on their sailboats and sail from place to place. Becoming a cruising sailor sounded great to me, but it definitely wasn't in my backpacking budget.


My first glimpse of Linton Bay Marina

When I had been in Peru the year before, a friend had told me how she sailed from Panama to Colombia on a "backpacker boat," basically a floating hostel. I had tentatively planned to do the trip, but now it was a definite; I needed to scratch my itch to get out on the open ocean. I sent her a text, got the info for the booking agency, sent them an email, and waited for a reply.

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