8 Days and 1200 Nautical Miles to Panama

It’s been a whirlwind 3 weeks or so since we left Florida for Panama to when I started actually trying to update our blog – it will likely be posted even later than that.

Underway off of Florida
A summary: Meeting crew, a seven day passage, crew leaving, crew arriving, ten days of waiting to transit the canal, fixing things on the boat, and now Cassidy and Dougal are finally free of crew and staged in Panama City to head out on the beginning of the trip north towards Mexico. So time do catch up on writing. Dougal is writing this post, and instead of referring to himself in the third person, I will hereafter be known as “I”…. I did not consult a style manual for blog writing and while Jen seems to be a natural at it, I am going to attempt to provide some information and commentary.

This post will try to capture details of our roughly 1200 nautical mile passage from Florida to Colon, Panama. It was a good shakedown trip for a new boat and we learned a lot about how the boat performs and how all of her systems behave. Some key points:

  • We had great crew in Nels and Rudy, 2 guys we had never met in person prior to the day before we left the dock in Florida.
  • We have already had to deal with what is absolutely the worst job on a boat, dealing with head (what we call the toilet on a boat, for those of you following along that aren’t “boat people”) plumbing.
  • Weather on the passage was different that what we had been seeing in the forecasts that we were closely monitoring for several weeks before leaving.
  • We had good luck catching and eating fish with multiple good table fare species caught including Tuna, Dorado, and Wahoo.
  • As impressive as the fit and finish and overall build quality of Nordhavn boats is in general, they are not without fault and we had to address an issue with an air conditioning drain that was definitely an oversight in either design or manufacturing of the boat.
  • Losing our push button control of the controllable pitch Hundested propeller and requiring use of a backup hand crank is not fun.
  • We blew a hydraulic line to the headsail fuller and had to crank that by hand to furl and unfurl the sail.  Happy that the hand furling backup option is there; not a fun experience to have to use it.
  • The Nordhavn 56 without question has a much softer ride into head seas than the Nordhavn 40.
  • Not having fin stabilizers like on the Nordhavn 40 in beam seas with light winds will take some getting used to.  If the sails don’t have wind the boat WILL roll uncomfortably.
Before getting into the details of our actual passage, some brief background on our crew. Along with me running a boat that I had really only taken off the dock twice, our crew was my dad, Colin who is living in France in retirement and Nels and Rudy from Wisconsin.

My dad doesn’t have a lot of boating experience but my parents had friends in San Diego when I was growing up that had sailboats so he has at least been out on the water a few times. Also, being a Kiwi, where sailing seems to be somewhat of a national sport, he’s always been interested in and followed the Americas Cup racing. It was great to have him on board for the trip as we don’t get to spend a lot of time together and he’s in the mid 70s age range these days.

It’s a somewhat long story as far as how we got connected with Nels and Rudy to crew on this passage, but I will try to summarize. Nels has been very interested in the Nordhavn 56 Motorsailer and had even considered putting on offer in on Ata Marie before we bought her, but he was in the South Pacific sailing and we beat him to it. He was in Florida for a sailing regatta after we had purchased the boat and asked the seller of our boat if he could take a look at it because he’d never seen one in person. The seller of our boat asked me if this was okay and I had absolutely no problem with it.

Nels and I had a phone conversation and the idea of crewing to the Panama Canal came up and after some further correspondence and dialog it became apparent that we would be compatible enough to spend time together stuck in a boat for 6-8 days. I didn’t have any other crew lined up and we decided it would be good to have another crew so Nels asked his friend Rudy if he could get time away from work to help and it all worked out.

After spending time offshore with both of these guys I can say without hesitation that it was great having them on board. I learned a lot about sailing and they both got to experience the boat and what was the longest offshore passage that any of us had been on. I’ve heard horror stories about crew over the years and this is definitely not one of them.

Crew: Left to Right – Rudy, Colin, Nels, Dougal

Almost ready to leave the dock
On to the passage. We left the dock in Florida on April 3, 2019.

Out of sheer laziness and because I am trying to get caught up with posting to our blog, I am pasting excerpts from my daily journals with additional detail added below as commentary in some cases:

Day 1 – April 3, 2019

Left dock in Tierra Verde Florida at 10 am. Sailed a little bit and then wind died down. We caught 4 fish on the day, 3 mystery Tuna and 1 that might be a Blackfin Tuna. Kept two of the fish. Duckbill valve connection on port head blew off because I forgot to open the through hull to discharge overboard. Coffee machine has been falling into the sink when heeled over and will need to be secured better.

There are 3 heads on this boat that each have the option of the discharge from the toilet being routed into a single blackwater tank located amidships in the lower part of the boat, or by throwing a Y-valve, discharging directly over the side of the boat. Offshore the preferred position is direct overboard discharge. Yes, it is completely legal and not bad for the environment when in the appropriate location. The point of sharing this is not to get into philosophical debates as to what should be done with the sewage, but rather the gory technical details of how the plumbing works (or can fail).

Prior to leaving the dock we secured the Y-valves in the overboard discharge position. This also requires opening a through hull hull fitting so that when the sewage from the toilet is diverted overboard, it can exit through the bottom of the boat. This is a a key step, as if the through hull fitting is not opened, pressure quickly builds up in the hose when the toilet is flushed and something has to to give.

Not to far into our first day, Dad (Colin) came and let me know that there was water coming out of the bottom of the toilet in his head and sloshing along the tile floor. Not good. I immediately went and took a look, lifted a hatch in the floor, and took a look at the configuration of the Y valves and discharge hoses. The discharge hose from the Y valve in that head was not open! This is a mistake that I can promise will never ever be made in the future. The hose that connects to the joker valve on the discharge from the toilet had blown off under pressure with now where to go, depositing all of the contents of the toilet in to the bilge space below.

Luckily – the only things that we had stored in the bilge below the head was a collection of dry bags and wetsuits and dive gear, which is all stuff that doesn’t mind getting wet. It could have been much much worse. I quickly moved all that stuff outside to flush with a hose, cleaned the bilge space, and reattached the hose. Thats the abridged version. Reattaching the hose was a bit more involved and not fun in a seaway but it did get done.

Any projects involving heads and sewage problems on boats are absolutely at the top of the list when it comes to bad projects; I am hoping that there is not another opportunity to have to work on any of the heads in the near future.

Day 2  – April 4, 2019
10:00. 180 nautical miles for the first 24 hours. We are 50 miles west of Fort Jefferson. Wind speed is 19 knots, 105 degrees T – on the port beam. Motorsailing making 8-9 knots, both sails up, 2.6 GPH at approx 1000 rpm.

Day 3  – April 5, 2019
Woke up northeast of the west end of Cuba. Caught a football size tuna of unknown species. Ate it for lunch and it was really good. Passing Cuba we got in close (within 2 miles) sow that we could see land but it was really just a low rocky peninsula with a light house and not much to see. There was a fair amount of boat traffic in the area, large cruise ships, tankers, and we saw a large container ship. Rounding Cuba we ended up almost nose in to the wind and swell and it appears that it will be building over the next couple of days, although it looks like the wind should be more on the beam which might help with getting some push from our sails. Rounded out the day with a small barracuda that Rudy landed about mid day and a small Wahoo right as the sun was going down. Dinner was bratwurst on the grill.

Day 4 – April 6, 2019
Colin noticed water dripping from the headliner panels in the galley toward the starboard side of the boat. Nels and Dougal investigated by pulling down the headliner panels and found a small air conditioning unit up below the deck that feeds cold air to the pilothouse. It has a very small tray for a condensate drain, maybe 2 inches deep and that tray was overflowing with copious amounts of condensate water. Because of the direction we had been sailing with respect to the wind, the boat had been heeled over to the starboard side for days (port tack) and therefore the water was not draining. It definitely appears to be an oversight in the design of the AC system, as on that tack the. Water needs to go uphill to where it ties in to the drain for the refrigerators on the centerline of the boat. Something to address in Panama, but for now we left the headliner panels off and jury rigged a hose to drain the condensate into the galley sink

We also shut down the main engine and feathered the Hundested prop flat so that use could pump some grease into the propeller mechanism. This is a 100 hour service interval so needs to be done several times on long passager. It also gave us the opportunity to see how the boat sailed without any assistance from the engine and we turned of the wind 90 degrees from our course to Panama for about 30 minutes. Very nice experience as the boat flattened out, rode nicely, and no engine noise. We had to turn back on course though otherwise we would have ended up in Belize.

When getting the boat ready to run again, l started to adjust the prop back to the running position with less pitch and the control unit at the helm went dead. We spent some time troubleshooting but couldn’t find any obvious solutions, so used a hand crank to manually wind the propeller back to a pitch that allows us to continue. Its a hassle but not something that stops us from making progress. We were in touch with a rep from Hundested but he couldn’t tell us much more to try than we already had and recommended we continue to troubleshoot at the dock when we make it to Colon.

This day was punctuated by two issues with the boat that could generously be things one might expect to find on a shakedown cruise with a new boat. Not so generously, the boat is 9 years old and has over 5,000 hours on the main engine so she has seen some sea time and both of these things should have been hashed out at some point in her life already. All ranting aside, in over 20 years of boat ownership we’ve come to expect that there is constant maintenance and unexpected things that happen so it just comes with the territory that there is always something to fix on boats. A good line that I have heard before is that cruising is “fixing your boat in exotic locations” and it is really not too far from reality,.

The air conditioning issue – really no excuse for it. As well built and designed as the Nordhavn line of boats is, the issue we have with the air conditioner condensate drain is either an oversight in design or in execution at the factory. The fact that it did not present as a problem in this passage leads me to believe that neither of the previous owners ran that AC unit while underway in a humid climate on a port tack.

The drain is basically a shallow pan with brass nipples on both sides (one outboard toward the starboard side of the boat, one toward the centerline of the boat) that both connect into a centerline drain where the galley refrigerator are. At some angle of heel, the drain becomes uphill and the water has nowhere to go but over the outboard edge of the drain pan. From there it goes onto the headliner panel and then down the outboard galley wall. Since we got to Panama, I installed a T fitting in the drain from the pan and a secondary hose to eventually tie it in to the sink drain and then overboard. It’s still a partial jury rig as I could not get the hose all the way to the sink drain and gave up after about 4 hours. Its now a “clean” jury rig and a hose comes out next to the microwave and into the sink. Completing that repair is on the list of non-essential repairs for now.

Hundested Propeller Controller – this controllable pitch prop is one of the key pieces of hardware on this boat and it allows the engine to be loaded properly at and RPM depending on how much assist the boat is getting from the sails. It also allows the blades to be rotated flat so that there is minimal hydrodynamic resistance when sailing without the engine on.

When we feathered the prop and attempted to rotate the blades back to the motoring configuration, a circuit breaker blew and it would not stay in the closed position when we attempted to reset it. This means that we had to adjust the prop pitch for the rest of the trip by winding a hand crank in the engine room that resembles the things I’ve seen used to start some of the first automobiles. Not a fun chore. But at least we did have a way of recovering the pitch manually so we could continue to use the motor.

I got the prop controller working again at Shelter Bay Marina, but not in a way that means the problems is actually fixed. It was a sequential application of 24 volt power through various circuit breakers that finally got the one problematic breaker to stay closed and the controller to operate. But it requires more in depth troubleshooting to ensure that it is actually operable and robust.
Hundested prop controller

Day 5 – April 7, 2019
Rain squalls on the radar at 8 am. Very little in the way of other vessel traffic. Wind is still on the nose at 37 degrees apparent. We had a pretty slow day today as far as problems on the boat for most of the day and the crew was mostly relaxing in the pilot house with everyone taking turns on watch.

The latest wind model showed that the wind that we were experience on the nose would eventually be more on the beam as we got more south toward Panama, but if we turned the boat 20 degrees to the south, we would put the wind at a better angle to increase boat speed and burn less fuel. The tradeoff would be that as we got south we might have to make a leg even more upwind into the isthmus of Panama. We discussed in great detail the pros and cons each approach. This is definitely something that I never had to think about before with a pure powerboat, and it was really good to have Nels and Rudy here to discuss the route options. The other downside of turning more downwind is that we then have to be very careful to pick through hazards in the shallows off of Honduras and Nicaragua along what is marked as the Mosquito Coast on the charts.

We made the decision to run south for approximately 80 nm and then slowly angle back over toward the rhumbline course that we were on prior. So far it seems to have paid off as we have good boat speed – over 6 knots, and are burning 2.5 gallons per hour at a little over 1000 rpm.

Interesting notes for the day: A line on the hydraulic headsail fuller seems to have blown out as it was spurting hydraulic fluid from below the deck when we tried to reef the head sale. We had to roll it in manually and will wait to diagnose when the seas are flatter or we are on the dock.

After sun down we went through a line of squalls that were mostly just a little bit of rain, but one of them had winds that pushed up over 30 knots and the boat got heeled over so far that we had the starboard side portlights under water for a short while. Turning toward the wind fixed this and then we continued on our way.
A large squall on the radar

The headsail furler hose blowing out was a hassle but something that proved to be a relatively easy thing to fix. There was chafe where a couple of short hoses penetrate the deck from the anchor locker and because they are designed to be replaced, I had 3 new hosed built up in Colon in Panama and reinstalled and it is working properly again.

Measuring for new hydraulic hose covers

Getting new hydraulic hoses fabricated in Colon, Panama

The old hoses – one is failed and 2 are now spares.

Day 6 – April 8, 2019
We were running on a more southerly course than originally planned along the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua today. I knew there had been some posted incident reports in the area but since it was broad daylight while we were transiting we decided to take the risk. While reeling in a fishing rod to clear seagrass from the lure, we saw a 37 foot Boston Whaler painted military gray coming up fast on the starboard quarter. We hoped they were just fisherman but it became readily apparent that they were heading straight for our boat and were intent on stopping us. The guy driving the boat didn’t seem to care that our sails were up and couldn’t just stop and kept yelling and waving his hands at us. Nels and Rudy furled the headsail and the boat slowed enough that they could try to board.

They came up on the starboard quarter closing dangerously fast and proceeded to ram our boat just under the rub rail. After backing off and trying a couple more times, 2 guys jumped on board – one toting a rusty old AK-47 rifle. Between our broken Spanish and their broken English, we were able to communicate but never very well. They asked for our names and where we came from which we wrote on a piece of paper from Nels’s journal. The guy without the gun then proceeded to fold that paper up into a ball and tossed it back to a guy on the military boat that had some sort of radio.

Gun toting guy then decided he was going to search our lazarette. He jumped in there, opened our freezer, moved all kinds of stuff around, and didn’t re-stow any of it. He then came up and asked to look around the boat more. While me in the aft stateroom, he kept making statements shooing that in no uncertain terms, he should have my watch as a “gift”. I kept saying “no comprende” hoping he would drop it but I soon got the feeling that he wasn’t going to sign off on his search without taking something for his time. I found a folding knife that was not exactly cheap but considering all of the other stuff on this boat that they could have decided to steal it seemed like an easy way to get him off our back. Coming back up to the pilothouse, the other guy had collected a hat from Nels and a pair of sunglasses from Rudy.

It seemed like they were finally satisfied – but decided to wait to recover the boarding party and refuel their Whaler from a 50 gallon drum into their built in fuel tanks. They did this by one guy starting a siphon with his mouth and then siphoning fuel from the drum in to a 5 gallon container, and finally into their tanks. After the drum was sufficiently drawn down, they even put the entire drum on the gunwale of the Whaler and started to siphon directly to the on board tanks. It looked like orchestrated insanity.

When it was finally time to recover their two guys, they came up again on the transom with the bow of the whaler dangerously close to ramming our boat. It spite of us having fenders ready this time, they still managed to scrape the side of our boat. The two guys jumped on board and one almost managed to get crushed between the two boats. We are guessing that any sort of formal seamanship training was not a requirement to patrol the coast.

To top it all of off, one of the guys make sure to tell us that their boat was donated by “Estates Unidos”. To put it mildly, I am not exactly happy that the US government is donating tools to foreign governments that are then used to shake down US citizens on the high seas.

The boarding – altogether a very unpleasant experience. After arriving in Colon I was able to remove almost all of the damage from their boat with rubbing compound, other than some deep gouges in one of the stainless steel hawse holes for our dock lines. My journal from the day sums it up pretty succinctly – the fact that they US government is enabling these thugs very disturbing. They appear to be operating like pirates in uniform with no oversight.

As a somewhat comical follow-up to this thing, the guy that boarded with the rifle (and took my knife as a “gift”) asked for my WhatApp (a texting app that works on wifi and is widely used in Latin America to communicate) contact info on the way out and I gave it too him figuring that was pretty harmless. He’s started sending me notes and trying to voice call fairly relentlessly about two days after the boarding. I have not responded or acknowledged the guy at all yet. Today though, it was a little over the top as he sent a photo with him holding a fish and proudly displaying the knife that he took as a “gift”. I guess we are now friends for life.

Getting questioned by the apparent leader of the boarding party

More interrogation

Rifleman diving into the lazarette

What appears to be stellar military tactics, face down with his gun towards the bottom of the boat inside a small hatch.


Close up of the folding knife that he took.

Day 7,  April 9, 2019
Really nice day as far as sea state and sailing conditions. We were making an average of 7 knots motorsailing. The wind shifted further out on the beam although not yet aft of the beam. We’ve been pretty much partially into the wind for the entire length of the trip south of Cuba. Pretty uneventful day in general.

We had one minor scare when the high water siren went off intermittently. Looked in the forward bilge under the main engine and the high water pump was submerged and did not appear to be pumping water out. After some troubleshooting, I tried tapping on the fitting that is inline with the bilge pump hose that has a flapper valve that is supposed to prevent siphoning and after tapping it the bilge immediately drained. The valve must have just been stuck either closed or open and we will monitor it.

Day 8 –  April 10, 2019
Less than 100 miles to Colon. Looks like we will arrive sometime in the middle of the night. Sea state is relatively flat and we are motrosailing with just the main sail up. The boat is rolling fairly significantly as there probably isn’t enough wind acting on the main to stabilize the boat. Its a relatively long period slow roll caused by swell on the beam and more just annoying than uncomfortable. Its definitely a motion that we would not have ever had on the Nordhavn 40 though. The fin stabilizers bucked out almost all of the side to side roll except in very extreme conditions. This will take some getting used to.

I never finished my journal entry for the final day as we arrived at Shelter Bay marina that night and it required a lot of concentration at the helm for the final two hours approaching Colon. In addition to the bad sea state, there was a lot of ship traffic and anchored out ships outside the main outer break wall waiting to transit the canal.

Our large open-array radar decided to quit working about 2 hours out so we had to navigate the final approach with only the back up lower powered dome radar on the mast working – but at least we had something. Without radar it would have been dangerous to enter the harbor at night. After entering the outer break wall, its a sharp right turn and then we paralleled the breakwater until a small narrow passage brought us in to Shelter Bay marina where we would spend the next 10 days waiting to transit the canal.

Approach to Colon - AIS targets everywhere!

All things considered a successful shakedown trip for us. No one was badly injured, we came through the boarding mostly just pissed off and with some stories to tell, and there was no damage to the boat that was mission critical. Cassidy and I are in Golfito, Costa Rica as I finish writing this and getting ready to paste in some photos to illustrate a lot of the events on passage.

The boat is performing great and it is shaping up to be really the perfect boat for the type of cruising that we hope to do. I’ve obviously got some catching up to do with this writing, so next will be an account fo the Panama Canal Transit, and then our experience to date cruising the Pacific side of Costa Rica and Panama.

Colin on watch
Trolling for fish
Dinner Time
Pulling in dinner.
More fishing

Rudy enjoying some fresh air.

View while heeled and going toward the wind

A lot of days on the lean. Not something one deals with on a pure trawler!

Tuna on deck

Multitasking: Reading and Fishing

First morning in Panama, Shelter Bay Marina fuel dock.

Tied up next to Nordhavn 40, Sprezzatura
Port Captain in Colon, Panama

Immigration in Colon, Panama

2 thoughts on “8 Days and 1200 Nautical Miles to Panama”

  1. Wow, the waters near Nicaragua sound a bit like traveling by car through Baja….a bit lawless to say the least.  Glad you and boat are not much worse for the wear!  Looking forward to your next blog.  Take care!!! 

  2. Dougal, reading your blog re the Hundested prop controller & popping a breaker, I would say that whatever is using the power from that breaker is using too many amps for the breaker. I am guessing a motor drive or electric hydraulic pump is failing. Your schematics should trace to the part or you could use the half-split rule & disconnect (tape up & tie back live cables) along the path until the breaker stays in or disconnect at whatever drives the prop pitch & test.

    In my experience as an electronics engineer, electric motors & pumps on boats don’t like salt air.

    The other problem can be on the earth side (negative bus), all connections to the negative side (earth) need to be cleaned and retightened with marine anti-seize. This applies to all connections including the antenna outside thread on your radios & the metal case of all equipment.

    When you have nothing to do? I would also check all the DC – & + brass Bus bars, I assume its 24V but check for tightness & any corrosion. A few cans of CRC Marine is great to have.

    Checking all the connections from the Negative of the battery banks all the way to the zinc anodes connections helps a lot to fight corrosion.

    If there is any “noise” in your radios, check that all motors are really well earthed all the way to the Zinc Anodes. I like to use copper zinc plated woven earthing straps about 1 inch wide held down with spring washers or Nylex nuts.

    Cheers, Ed

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