December 3th, we are finally starting to go out of the river after spending more than two months in Puerto Pedregal. Little did we know when we slowly motored up the shallow river at the end of September that we'll run into administrative trouble and would have to wait so long to obtain the navigational permit allowing us to cruise Panamanian waters and therefore, to exit the river. I don't know if it's the excitement of leaving but the mangrove-bounded river scenery isn't as stunning as when we arrived at sunrise. Perhaps, it's also because we are intimately familiar with these mangroves by now.
On September, 27th, the first sight of the buildings of the little Puerto Pedregal in the sunrise felt like an achievement: We had made our way through the 52 waypoints indicated by our guidebook on one of our most intense navigational challenge (LINK). We passed the anchorage in front of the building to reach the sight of the marina and the suggested anchorage waypoint. After a well-deserved breakfast, we dressed up and paddled the kayak to the marina with our boat documents hoping to check-in into Panama. Paddling to the marina didn't turn out to be the best idea as the person in charge tried to extorcate a fee of 8 dollars per day to leave the kayak at the dock. Finding that ridiculous, we dismissed their insistant questions about how long we would stay and if we stayed anchored here, we would need someone to watch the boat, really were we going to stay on the boat, by asking where the Port Captain office was and saying we'll see all that after. Luckily, the office was just accross the road, and we were received on two chairs outside. Masked officials informed us that our fabric masks were not legit for Panama and gave us disposable ones. Moreover, we weren't supposed to leave the boat before getting covid tested. We would have to go back, anchor in front of their building and wait for the lab and doctors to come. They took pictures of our papers, gave us a couple of extra disposable masks and we were gone, happy to move our boat away from the marina, whose honesty wasn't an evidence for us anymore. It would take us more than one month to break the ice and get food at the little restaurant they hosted, which ceiling was covered with geckos.
Our sanitary inspection, organized by Moises, was scheduled for late afternoon, a great chance for us to catch-up on sleep after our eventful night. The lab came to the dock where they sampled our noses with us on the kayak and them on the dock - a painful but certainly fun-to-watch sight I guess. We were thankful the water in the river was incredibly flat. Unsurprisingly, both tests came out negative. Yalçın's sensitive nose got upset for the rest of the evening, while we were as well since they didn't accept his J&J as a legit vaccine which could wave the test obligation - it had to be two doses! The doctor came at night, and, after some questioning, gave us the green light to enter Panama, after meeting with immigration, which would happen the next day. Immigration would make the trip from the neighboring airport which justified another important fee in cash. Customs as well, even though the fee was more reasonable. But our stash was running out fast and we didn't have enough to pay for the custom, nor the $185 navigational permit we were supposed to get the next day. Luckily, with the help of Moises, it wasn't a problem. Once the immigration process cleared out, we were declared free to circulate in Panamanian territory and we could go to the closest ATM to withdraw more cash. The custom officer did the papers for us and would wait for the paiement in the afternoon. But would we even have enough cash for a taxi? As we voiced our concerns out loud, Moises and the custom officier arranged with immigration that he would drive us on his way back. At least that would justify part of the displacement fee. As Yalçın paddled back to Tirb to drop our boat papers and get our wallets, I chatted - as best as I could with my broken Spanish - with the custom officer. She was a friendly woman with gray hair. I inquired about the vaccination against covid in Panama. I had heard they vaccinated foreigners as well, but hadn't been able to find any information regarding the location of the vaccination centers in David online. She showed me her vaccination card and instructed the immigration officer to drive us to the Parque Cervantes, the central square of David, where we could both withdraw cash and get vaccinated. We then discussed about the many sailors she had seen pass by throughout her carrier. When Yalçın came back, we waved goodbye and promised to come back to pay in the afternoon. I couldn't believe I was finally going to get the covid vaccine. It would certainly be a long awaited game changer. Yet, the part of me that is afraid of needles was silently complaining about the lack of heads-up!
In the car of the immigration officer who turned out to be very friendly, we discovered Panama for the first time, the roads of Pedregal and then the streets of David that we would get to know quite well. But at that time, the moment felt quite surreal: We were still amazed at the spontaneity with which our transfer had been organized, we were thrilled that getting vaccinated seemed to happen so seamlessly and overall impressed at how things were unfolding. We got cash, a vaccine for me and a Panamian treat before taking a taxi back to Pedregal. We met Edgar the taxi driver, the first of a long list of enthusiastic drivers which would make the most of our interactions with Panamian people: Tomas, the driver who was super interested to speak about world politics, told us about Panamian politics and asked me about Macron; Juan, who was extremely friendly and gave us a couple more rides later, in particular the time when he was at the Pedregal Port Captain dock to buy seafood from the fisherman boats and he recognized "Pedro" (Yalçın's Spanish name for when Turkish pronunciation sounds too hard).
But euphoria and the feeling that everything was set on track was cut short the next day when Moises informed us there might be a problem with our paperwork, asked us if we had any other documents with the boat name and that we should meet with Josef, another AMP (the Panamian Maritime Authority) employee about our cruising permit. Josef explained they had looked at the problem however possible but their central office in Panama couldn't issue us a navigation permit since the name of our boat wasn't showing on our boat title. We explained it is like that in California, we have a CF number, like a plate number and this is all that matters to Californian authorities. We had already encountered the problem but each time it was when we left the countries so they always took our entry paperwork as a proof of the name, but not this time. Josef explained that they treat vessels like people, they need to have a name and a nationality, and our boat had none. They advised registering the boat in Panama, an option that sounded appealing until we realized it meant paying several thousand dollars in import tax. They didn't take offense and understood that wasn't a viable option for us. Hence, after confirming with an independent agent that not having the name on the boat title was a no go for the cruising permit, we started going through lists of countries that would register Tire-Bouchon at a reasonable price (we had already paid sales tax in California so we weren't super keen on doubling them), with the name on the certificate and enough traceability that changing anything about the registration wouldn't be an ordeal, and last but no least, that would also us to do the whole process remotely. The obvious choices had been excluded from the start: None of us being US citizens (and actually both of us would have had to be), registering the boat federally with the US Coast Guards was unavailable to us, Turkey doesn't register old boats and foreign made boats need to go through a thorough inspection to be imported in the EU, a costly process that can only be completed in the EU, not to mention that a lot of sale taxes to be paid that might still become a problem in the future, but that's a story for another time#. A trendy choice that ticked most of our boxes seemed to be a Polish registration. A lot of online companies recommended it for it's one time fee, fast, easy and remote process. We almost went for it, as, remember, Tire-Bouchon was basically grounded in Pedregal until this was sorted out, but at the last minute, I realized this meant importing the yacht in Europe, and even though we didn't have to pay any import tax for now, it meant tax would be collected as soon as we'd set foot in Europe. Clearly, not what we wanted as we preferred to retain our right to a temporary import permit in Europe as well. Anyway, you get it: These administrative considerations are both uninterested and incredibly complicated to navigate. It took us one week of research, back and forth with registering agents and chat with other cruisers to settle on a Delaware registration. It was the only one to tick all of our boxes: A paper with the name, accepted by the Panamian authorities and obtainable remotely. Main drawback: the state had backlog in its registration and the process would take about two months. That's how we went from a navigation permit the next day and a short month in David for physio, to more than two months in Pedregal, where we took our anchoring quarters in the safe zone of the Harbor master with a view on the militaries back yard. Yet, it was a relief when we finally started the procedure for Delaware and knew we only had to wait for the situation to unlock itself from now on. For reference, the process with between submitting the application to Delaware to receiving the paper in the mail in the US took 1 month and 10 days in October 2021.
In the meantime, I had started physical therapy. Not a lot of things are advertised through internet in Panama and finding a PT wasn't easy. Milva, one of the few therapists I found online, was practicing in a beauty saloon, which didn't turn out to be in the convenient location I had envisioned. We exchanged on WhatsApp and she confirmed she was a certified therapist who spoke enough English to understand one another during the sessions. Her workspace was small and basic, but as a result, I could replicate every exercise at home, or "at boat" as she once said laughingly, which was great for making progress. She was very involved and attentive during our sessions and being able to ask her my many questions about the recovery process helped me regain trust in it. Throughout the sessions, we also became friend as we had more or less the same age, and discussed anything from the gas price to life choices. After waiting in the beauty saloon during the first sessions not understanding any of the chit-chat going on around him, Yalçın adopted a little coffee shop (one of the only ones in town) a few blocks away, where we enjoyed the internet, the air conditioning and "sandwich de huevo" three times a week when I went to therapy.
My foot mobility started to improve slowly and, still on crutches, I was able to put more and more weight on my leg when walking. Yet, damages on our visions for the future had been done. We had arrived from Costa Rica in different moods and had a hard time to see how to resolve this foot crisis which made the future quite difficult to look at for me, an intense program of boat maintance that kept being pushed back and yet was a necessity for the rest of our travel and now these administrative shenanigans.# Since projecting and communicating was a little difficult for a while, we opened the Pandora box of TV show watching and starting to rewatch Doctor House, a 8 season show we both had seen separately years ago. Believe it or not, our regular incursions in the city as well as watching this show on Yalçın's small phone eventually gave us back a sense of normality and togetherness. We were ready to make plans again, yet we were still stuck in Pedregal for probably another month.
It was the end of October by that time and we started being a little bored with the city of David. Sold by guidebooks as Panama's second city, it didn't have any of the perks of large metropoles. After one month, we hadn't found any nice place or park to hang out, the city hosted no culture or tourist attractions like a museum. There was convenience like supermarkets, hospitals and car repair shops - a lot of car repair shops - but not much more. Most restaurants were only serving one dish and quite disappointingly, we were spending most of our time outside the boat in an American style coffee shop. The daily afternoon pour of the rainy season, even though convenient to justify watching House episodes, started taking a toll on the boat. With a high humidity and without being able to air out enough, mold was starting to damage the interior wood at a faster pace than usual and the dorade box leak we had found in Golfito wasn't helping. It was time to act. We made a list of repairs, cleaning items we wanted to tackle while on that flat anchorage and started addressing a little bit everyday, hoping to have a boat in good shape with the option of crossing to the Caribbean. Part of the list was cleaning the boat exterior where green growth had slowly started to assimilate our beige canvas to the color of the mangrove. While inspecting the deck, I noticed a wasp entering the lazy jack that covers the main sail. We had already seen a begining of nest in the sail, so I opened the cover and followed it and I found... Bats nesting in the fold of the sail, as well as little clay-like tubular structures. Those were individual wasp nests that actually countained non viable larve. We decided to hoist the sail to remove all these undesired neighbors. A dozen bats flew away when hoisting in a cool Batman moment. We detached the wasp nests and that turned out way less majestic when large apparently dead spider fell from them. Spooky, and quite vivid only a couple of days before Halloween! After internet research, it turned out the spiders are paralyzed food deposited by the parent wasp for the larva to feed on - marvelous!
It's around that time that Milva, my physical therapist, announced me she was going to leave for another job on one of the islands in the Bay of Chiriqui for the following 6 months. The place looked amazing (and we would come to love it as well when we took off from Pedregal) and I was happy for her, but I was also really upset to loose her support and the routine we had put in place for the past month. She had planned a replacement, but even though she looked competent, she didn't seem to speak much English, so after debating for a couple of days, I decided to check out Hopital Chiriqui, a place that several locals (again the taxi drivers!) had mentioned when I told them I was doing physical therapy for my foot. The place was different from Milva's one room clinic, more professional but also more impersonal, at least at first. When I stopped by for the first time, I checked with Tamara, one of the PT of the center who was quite friendly and explained they had plenty of equipment - which I thought would be good for the second stage of my rehabilitation where strengthening was becoming more important now that my range of motion was improving - and they had a PT who spoke good English. Starting at the clinic became a little erratic as they required me to pay for a visit with the doctor of the center which I didn't quite understand. After back and forth misunderstanding, I ending up getting good care there from Anthony (or Ahmed), Tomas and Tamarida whose English was still good combined with my Spanish and the help of Google. Even if the sessions were quite impersonal at first since it wasn't always the same therapists and they had several patient in the center in parallel, throughout my 10 sessions, we came to know one another better and the time spent there became more productive and friendly. I gave up the crutches for a canne, which we got in a local cheap store for 4 dollars instead of at a pharmacy that was 5 time the price. For the last sessions, I was under the care of Magdelena (guided by either Tomas or Tamara) who had just joined the center from a practice similar to Milva's, she was nervous on her first week and she was speaking little English allowing me practice my Spanish. She told me I was her favorite patient the day I left, which warmed up my heart.
When I changed physical therapy center, more or less, one month after we arrived, we started thinking about leaving. We were more in sync about the future and even though we knew the new boat paperwork wouldn't arrive before a few weeks, we were more driven to complete maintenance or repairs. We started to have a fighting chance against the mold that was gaining ground inside. We brought the entire cushion cases to the laundry and got new cushions for the interior. Yalçın worked once again on strengthening our ever breaking dinghy. I think it was dead to me at that time, but he didn't loose hope and went for another round of glueing back the bottom to the tube and waterproofing it with heavy quantities of silicone. We sorted out some of our stuff to make a little more room and went through the pain of sending a couple of packages with the post office - an adventure we are not going to forget anytime soon! By this time, we were finally able to walk a little around the rural streets of Pedregal, to exercise my foot here and there. We also finally took the bus, which is always a cool experience given that you see real places were people leave and not just the main roads, and you never really know when you'll end up.
Eventually, after the holidays of November, the month of the nation in Panama and Thanksgiving in the US, we finally got our Deleware paperwork, which meant the long awaiting cruising permit and being free to leave. It took us a couple of days to get actually ready, with Yalçın kayaking water jugs and then diesel back and forth, two rounds of provisioning and a last Libanese restaurant to say goodbye to this city we didn't really like but we were still somewhat sad to leave.