Bocas del Toro, Panama, which many sailors consider the Undiscovered Caribbean, is about to become even more alluring, and I’m not referring to the streamlining of their clearing-in process and their affordable, full-year cruising permit. What has many sailors so excited is a new boatyard, which will soon open after years of bureaucratic delays.
The permitting hassles have been so severe, that most mortals would have either given up or taken to the bottle. But owner Courtney Parks has persevered and, barring monsoon conditions, the first boats should be gliding into the 60-ton, 20ft-wide travel-lift this autumn. If you have been thinking about sailing downwind from the Eastern Caribbean to check out this enticing cruising ground, this is one more reason to do so.
The options along the way – if you need a haul-out – are Trinidad, Cartagena in Colombia and Shelter Bay near the Panama Canal. Having spent considerable time aboard my boat at all of these places, I believe that Bocas del Toro has a significant advantage over these spots. What make it the superior option are the wonderful cruising grounds in the Bocas archipelago that are an easy sail from the boatyard. You will find dozens of unspoiled anchorages without a single boat in them. There are pristine, almost empty beaches, jungles plush with monkeys, sloths and toucans, young coral reefs, a bay where dolphins give birth, gorgeous panoramic views of mountains and volcanoes, a funky, laid-back town and an amazing mix of cruisers, surfers, backpackers and ex-pats.
Although Bocas Yacht Services will be a full-service yard, Parks emphasizes that do-it-yourselfers will be warmly welcomed. The facility, which can accommodate 25 boats, will provide skilled craftsmen for mechanical and electrical repairs. Hull, deck and cabin painting at reasonable prices will be a specialty. Standard boatyard parts will be stocked and trickier items can be ordered from West Marine through the yard’s Marine Warehouse program. Special yard discounts will also be available to those who use the Bocas Marina. Access to the haul-out is really easy down a deep channel dredged out for Panamanian banana ships.
Once your haul-out is finished, you have the exquisite Bocas archipelago to explore. But be warned! Cruising here is so relaxed and pleasurable that two years might slip by and then you’ll need another bottom job. But, hey, you already know the course to steer to the boatyard.
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Ray Jason is the author of the humorous, offbeat sailing book Tales of a Sea Gypsy. He’s still out there happily wandering the wide waters in his lovely 30-footer.