It began as a simple question.
“¿No tiene dinghy?” (You don’t have a dinghy?) The security guard at La Playita marina/anchorage asked us as we pulled into their dinghy dock in our yellow kayak.
We answered no, to which he replied that his friend is selling a 6-ft dinghy complete with an outboard motor for $300. Holy crap that’s cheap! The thought of having a dinghy to make our trips ashore far more efficient and faster than a kayak started to tempt us. So we were told he would give us his friend’s phone number the next day, and thus we added “buying a dinghy” into our already-long to-do list in Panama City. To-do list while on vacation? Yes, our time in Panama City unfortunately was spent mostly going around town buying things or working on Vento Dea to get her ready to transit the Panama Canal. It was not very fun, but needed to be done.
The next day we found out that the security guard’s friend already sold his dinghy. Bummer. But then he asked this guy who was hanging around the marina parking lot if he knew of anybody selling a dinghy and that guy answered yes. That was our introduction to Fred, a taxi driver and canal transit expeditor (as stated on his business card). And so we went with Fred, to check-in with the port captain and immigration first, then to see his friend with the dinghy. Fred was pretty much our chauffeur for those days we had to go all over town running errands; he helped us find everything we needed and translate our haggling for the dinghy as well.
After finishing up with the checking-in process, we drove to meet Fred’s friend in the market area. We met him, but no dinghy. A short conversation later, Fred parked his cab on the side of the street and told us we were going to go in his friend’s car to his house, 20 minutes away. As we were driving away from the city in a random stranger’s car, I couldn’t help but think that worst-case scenario these two were secretly serial killers about to murder us and dump our bodies somewhere in the Panamanian jungle. Okay, too much CSI and Criminal Minds reruns, I thought. We did only end up at his house, located in a nice suburb where each house looked exactly like the one next to it. He showed us his dinghy; it was yellow and cute and…motorless. But Fred convinced us that he could help locate a used motor for relatively cheap, so that yellow dinghy ended up coming home with us to accompany our yellow kayak.
We did find someone who had a used 2HP outboard motor that he could fix and sell to us in 4 days’ time. Meanwhile we busied ourselves: going to the marine store for a whole bunch of stuff (including a brand new, super cool depth sounder), buying a new GoPro, getting extra diesel jerry jugs, installing new cleats for the transit, refilling our propane tank and fuel, and going around hostels to find backpackers who want to help us as linehandlers as we transit (these are the people holding the ropes to secure the sailboat as water rushes into the locks so the boat won’t slam around too much from the current. The lines are held at the other end by the Canal linehandlers). Everyday there was something to do; it seemed as if we were always running errands, working or just stuck in the rolly La Playita anchorage. Restlessness began to take over the female crew members on board Vento Dea. Gidget chewed up my bed out of immense boredom and I simply had a mini breakdown from it all: the waiting, the work, the rolly anchorage, the leaking boat, the no-amenities marina, Gidget, the chewed-up bed – you name it, I was pissed with anything and everything. It simply was amazing (worthy of a standing ovation, in my opinion) that between Gidget’s shenanigan and my temper tantrum, Jerrad hasn’t thrown us overboard yet. Instead, he calmly dealt with his female crew and continued to focus and do what needed to be done to prepare Vento Dea for the transit.
The last day of our stay finally came, and the dinghy was still motorless. After 3 useless trips and delays, it was promised that the motor would be done that Friday. We started our day by moving to the calmer and less rolly Las Brisas anchorage, cleaning and organizing Vento Dea so she looked decent enough to accommodate 3 extra people for 2 days. We met Fred at noon to check out with the Port Captain and Immigration, run more errands and go provisioning so that we could feed 6 people for 2 days (that would be us, 3 linehandlers and the panama canal transit adviser). No wonder I was never fond of the idea of “entertaining in our home” because trying to figure out what to buy and cook to feed these people has made that provisioning trip the most stressful one I’ve ever had. Finally we went to pick up our outboard motor, only to find that it was not ready…. again. He needed a new part and said it would be ready the next day – the day we transit. No bueno. Fred offered to deliver it to us to the other side of Panama (for a fee of course), but that was still no bueno. You see we had to pick up 3 people from the dinghy dock to our boat very early in the morning of our transit day – a trip that would be much easier and faster if we had a dinghy instead of a kayak. Besides, what if the guy screwed up and the outboard doesn’t work properly?
So came the backseat-of-Fred’s cab conversation. We discussed our options, exercising our marital obligations like husband and wife are supposed to do. Option A would be to have Fred deliver the used-and-hopefully-properly-fixed $400 motor after we finished the transit. The up side obviously was the (relatively) cheap price. The down side would be the fact that we wouldn’t have a dinghy to pick up our linehandlers and that nagging possibility of the motor not working properly. Option B would be to buy a brand new outboard for $900. Gulp. We almost never bought anything new; the only new objects on board were our solar panels, the refrigerator and the depth sounder. Everything else was pretty much ancient. The up side to this would be a new, properly working and reliable engine. The down side obviously was the cost – this was money no longer available in our budget. Especially not since we have spent an exorbitant amount in Panama city. Between new supplies and paying the canal transit fee, in 10 days we spent the same amount of money as what we spent in the first 2 months of our trip! Yes we would get most if not all of the canal transit buffer fee back (that’s the money paid back if your boat doesn’t damage the canal), but Panama canal was still one expensive ride. In the end, we decided to go with option B and whipped out the magic credit card. We will need a dinghy once we get to the Caribbean sea and after we are settled in the Virgin Islands, and a good outboard is worth the long-term investment.
We got back to Las Brisas anchorage with no time to waste. We had 45 minutes to mount the outboard to the dinghy, test it and put away all the groceries before we had to meet up with our potential linehandlers. Jerrad zoomed out with our kayak – the box containing the motor propped on securely – with clear instructions that I was to get all our groceries on to the dinghy dock ready for when he comes with the dinghy. Here came the fun part, for Las Brisas dinghy dock was no ordinary one. It was a public dock with significant surge damage – covered with random boards and literally separated from the stairs leading to the parking lot. The attachment to the pilings were half gone and tied with ropes to keep the dock from floating off into the sea. The dock actually moved back and forth with a vocationally jarring motion. This motion created a creaking noise enough to convince me that the whole dock would just randomly break and fall apart at any moment. And what was the solution to this problem? A red, small dinghy that was attached with ropes and a pulley system to transfer people from the dock to the stairs. Having no super upper extremity strength, I had to walk back and forth between the parking lot to the bottom of the stairs to carry all the grocery bags. Once everything was there, I then had to get all of the bags into the red dinghy with muddy water puddle inside it. As I was struggling with this grocery-bags exercise while sweating profusely from the heat, pulling on the rope to get us to the dock then balancing to get myself and the now-half-torn-and-soaked-in-gross-water grocery bags out on to the floor of the dock, I couldn’t help but laugh at the silliness of the whole situation and imagine the horror look on my parents’ face if they just could see me at that moment.
Finally I sat waiting, surrounded by our groceries, until a few minutes later I saw a yellow dinghy zooming out from behind the anchored boats. Yes! I got up and put both my hands up in the air with a feeling of triumph: we got ourselves a working dinghy! We put away all the groceries and came back to meet with our linehandlers who agreed to return at 6am the next morning. With that the exhausting day came to an end… almost. We were about ready to finally relax when suddenly it struck me like a lightning bolt that I didn’t remember putting the sausage away. The sausage we just bought that would be the main and most important ingredient to feed these 6 people for dinner… it was gone. Damn, did I drop it somewhere? did it fall during the whole dinghy dock ordeal? Should we just go with vegetarian dinner? Ugh definitely not, we need meat. So Jerrad dinghied back to the dock trying to find our sausage. It was lost for good. He then walked to the closest convenient store to replace our seemingly-delicious, jalapeno and pepper sausage with mediocre convenient store sausage. I just hoped that our linehandlers were neither high maintenance nor picky eaters. Thus came the true end of the day. We were exhausted and in dire need of a good night’s sleep, for in a mere 9 hours we would go through the Panama Canal – to the Caribbean sea at last.