From Bahamas to Panamá – by Franci

It was by far the worst trip so far on our circumnavigation. We knew that we were actually leaving our departure from the Bahamas a little too late and that most of the favourable weather windows would be closed by the time we left. That is why we took the weather window we did, even though it included about one and a half days of 28 knot winds (the wind strength at which we have only one sail up and my Dad starts sleeping in the cockpit).

Well, it turned out that we had that strong wind not for one and half days, but for more than three. And the wind almost never touched 28 knots, because it never sunk below 30. It mostly stayed in the high thirties, low forties. Once it even gusted up to 50 knots!

To try help you to understand a little better: 1 knot of wind is more or less 1.8 km/h. We sail the best with 15knots of wind – all four our sails up. At 20-21 knots we usually pull down the mizzen sail (the sail of the aft mast) and roll in the stay sail. Between 21-28 knots the main sail (from the forward mast) gets reefed more and more (‘reef’ is the sailing term for pulling the sail down a bit so that it’s smaller). By the time the wind reaches 28 knots, the main sail is down completely and my Dad has become a permanent fixture in the cockpit. 35-44 knots is something we haven’t had before, and it was a bit stressful. We only had about a blanket sized piece of our jib out, but we were still doing a good 5 knots.


The waves started getting really big and it was so rolly that there wasn’t really much any of us could do except sit in the cockpit or sleep. Because the wind was from behind most of the waves came from behind and went underneath us, but some came from the side splashing or even washing over the foredeck. The waves make a very loud ‘THUMP!’ if they hit directly against the side of the boat – and since my bed is almost right against the side of the boat I hear those thumps very clearly through my sleep. Once I woke up from a particularly large whack, just in time to watch some water pour through my hatch on top of me. See, our hatches are made in such a way so as to keep spray and rain out, but still let some air in – a very nice feature unless the hatch is submerged, then it lets water in as well. Anyway . . .that was not the nicest way to wake up : l.


We are ten times over grateful for the sail-flaps which we can close down to protect the cockpit, because it meant that none of the waves could splash directly onto us, even though the cockpit still got very damp after a while. Everything in the cockpit and the boat got sticky with wet salt. To top the situation off, the auto-pilot refused to steer with all the big waves. I don’t blame it. So we had to hand steer the boat the whole time and with all the big waves pushing us off course it was really hard. My Dad did a lot of the steering and got almost no sleep.


There were two particular waves that I remember well. The first wave I remember because we surfed it. My Dad was down below for once in a long time, Marike was steering, I was reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’ aloud and Karin and Sophia were just lying down in the cockpit. Then suddenly Shang Du’s nose dipped and for a few seconds we were actually staring at the bow of the boat down a very steep slope and were literally surfing down the wave. I don’t know how big that wave was, maybe even ten meters. . .(Our speedometer clocked 17.5 knots).

The second big wave was at night. I was steering and Sophia was reading to me. I think the tenseness of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ books actually fit in very well with the atmosphere on Shang Du X P. My Dad was in the cockpit trying to sleep. I heard a wave coming up behind us and made ready to counter it when it pushed us off course. In the end the wave actually pushed us directly along the course, but it broke on our aft deck, right on top of our parents’ hatch. It made a huge crash as it landed and some of the water flowed right over the cockpit roof. I’m actually glad it was dark and I couldn’t see how big that wave actually was, but from the fact that it was able to crash onto our aft deck I’m guessing it was pretty huge. For a few moments I had a lot of adrenaline without having anything to spend it on, cos the wave wasn’t fighting the steering.

My poor Mom got woken up by all the water streaming in on her, and their whole bed got soaked. And it stayed soaked till we got to Panama. They spread their olies (wet-weather jackets) over the bed so that they could at least sort of stay dry while sleeping.

That same night I was just so ready to go to bed. To try and sleep through the thumps and pretend they weren’t there. But I wasn’t to have it that easy. I had quite a few things in my room, like a grab bag (a big yellow container with a red lid which we are suppose to grab if the boat sinks), that just kept on and on thumping to and fro, no matter how I wedged it. I felt too seasick to really sort out the problem completely and just tried to ignore the thumping while I tried to sleep. That plan backfired, however, because amongst the things in my room was a plastic bottle of honey. A bottle that was suppose to come under my bed, but I had procrastinated and forgotten about it. Bottom line: I came down from my watch very ready for bed and found sticky honey all over my floor. I felt like pressing an ‘off’ button somewhere and just for a while not have a room that rolled, not have waves crashing against my wall, not have things thumping about in my room, and not have honey on my floor.

My mom was still awake from having water dumped on her, and she came in and helped me clean up and sort out most of the honey mess. I’m really grateful to God for giving me such a kind and loving mom. She also helped me to tie down the grab bag once and for all so that it would stop thumping. I was so grateful for that.

As we were mopping up the honey I remembered something I had read before leaving Bahamas, about giving thanks: we find it easy to rejoice in and give thanks to God for His goodness when all is going well with us, but then tend to stop giving thanks when things are hard. Does that mean we’re saying God is any less good? We need to be able to rejoice in God the same amount when we’re in a nice quite anchorage and all’s well, as when we’re being tossed about, feeling seasick, and have honey all over the floor. . .



Finally, after two days of being bashed, we ‘heaved-to’. It’s what every sailing book tells you to do and will definitely from now on be standard procedure for us if we ever have such high winds again. ‘Heaving-to’ is when you take down all the sails except a wedge of the main and turn your bow into the wind. Without the sails your boat doesn’t have enough power to push through the wind, but you wedge the wheel to keep on turning into the wind anyway. So basically the boat comes to a standstill. The wind is still pushing you, but you’re not going very fast and nobody needs to steer, nobody needs to worry about the sails. By this time my Dad was paste and he could finally get some sleep. We were still rolling, but a lot of the tension was gone and we could all rest properly. After about ten hours of recuperation my Dad had finally caught up on some badly needed sleep and we all had more courage to face the rest of the way to Panama. We rolled the jib out again and continued on for about another day.


We were very happy when we finally came to Panama. It was a bit stressful maneuvrering through all the big tankers and cargo ships anchored in the bay, because the wind was still pretty strong and we weren’t sure exactly which ships were moving. Our AIS on the GPS kept warning us that we were on a collision course with some other boat just behind us, but we couldn’t even see a fishing boat there, so we continued and just kept a sharp lookout. Our AIS system picks up other vessels and displays them as green triangles on our screen, or red triangles if we are on a collision course. It turned out that our AIS had for some reason counted our own AIS signal as a separate vessel, so that according to the system, we were on a collision course with a GPS manufactured Shang Du Ghost. Hmm.

We needed a few things fixed on Shang Du, but because we arrived on a Friday we didn’t want to spend the weekend in a marina while nothing happened. However, the only designated anchorage was devoid of any other sailboats and not even a sign anywhere that this was actually an anchorage. So we changed our minds and went to the Marina directly, of which we are very thankful. Further blogs will be written about the marina and everything and everyone there, but my immediate concern was the fact that they had showers. Showers with hot water. With a boat full women I don’t think it’s too hard to guess what one of the first things we did was ; ).

And thus ended our first trip through a storm. Well, technically its only really classified as a storm if the winds are higher than 50 knots, but we did see 50 knots on the GPS once. . . So now if people ask us if we’ve been in any storms we will actually be able to say yes ; P.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.