Life in Bocas del Toro: The Bane and Beauty of Boats

At long last, I am going to dive into the murky waters of boat ownership in the tropical islands of Bocas del Toro, Panama. But before I get started, let me be perfectly clear that I am not a “boat expert” in any sense of the term. I have been on many floating vessels of many sizes and descriptions throughout the world but for the most part I have been a life-long member of the “Bow-Basking” club, happily sipping adult beverages and soaking sunshine while someone else is in charge of ferrying me around beautiful blue-water landscapes.

Recently, I decided that it might be to my advantage to be able to use our boat at those rare times when my personal boat “Captain” was otherwise occupied in some other Caribbean life adventure and therefore unavailable for a boating excursion. Looks easy right? You just get in, turn the key, back the thing out of the slip and away you go. No problem. No big deal.

Well… After a few sessions from my very patient and loving instructor/husband, of “Plug this in, Switch this on, Open this, Close that, Check this, Untie those, Secure this, Now start the motor”…. Followed by learning to compensate for currents, winds, wave surges and shifting tides while docking and maneuvering in all kinds of seas and weather, I decided that my original system was much better for me personally. That is not to say that it is not possible and practical to possess a watercraft here and be very safe and comfortable using it to expand your realm of experience in the tropical islands of Bocas del Toro, I just think I will leave the details to those already qualified and enjoy the ride.

So having said that, what should you look for and be aware of when you are thinking of buying or bringing a boat to this Panama paradise? With the help of my “Captain” and many other boat-owning friends that I presented with this challenging question, I think I can offer some sound general advice based on “real-life” experiences in these islands. The one thing that I think stands out to me from hearing other experienced boat owners talk is that every area in the world is different as far as the weather, expectations of boat usage and the nature of the local water environment. A style or make of boat that is perfect for the Great Lakes may not be the best choice in the Exumas. The ideal boat for fishing offshore Tampa may not be a fit for the waters of Puget Sound. The same potential for variation applies to the basics of usage for the boat. Will it be strictly recreational? Will it be used primarily for transportation? Of people or materials and produce? Is it intended for a living quarters? Or does it need to fit a combination of potential use options? The variations are endless and certainly prone to individual tastes.


Of course everyone who has boating experience or has at some point owned a boat has an opinion about the best boat on the water and generally knows everything about operating and maintaining anything that floats. My hat is off to those of you fitting that description but for the rest of us, I am simply going to point out some of the generalities of the conditions that exist in this area and hope that it makes your boating decisions and experiences as economical, fulfilling and stress-free as our experiences have been here on the waters of Bocas del Toro, Panama.

When we arrived in Panama, Doug and I had a working knowledge of boats since he had long ago lived in Florida, owned his own boats and had worked on sport-fishing and commercial fishing boats. In addition, we have enjoyed the freshwater lakes of Colorado and the surrounding states with a small recreational boat. Even so, he is the first to admit that he was humbled by what he learned in his first few months of traversing the waters of the Bocas del Toro island waterways.

After some research, we decided early to take advantage of the existing local market supply of used boats rather than trying to import one or have a boat custom built here in Panama. Both of these options are possibilities and both have challenges and advantages depending on your personal situation. It is possible to import you boat either by sailing it here, motoring here, towing or shipping by container or using carrier ships. Obviously time and money play into this decision as well as weather, fuel logistics and size of the boat. If you are sailing or motoring, there is an entry fee (usually at least $500 in Panama, which I’m told is rather high compared to many other countries.) If you are shipping the boat here, there may be an import fee (usually does not apply if the value of the boat is within the min dollar amount you can bring into the country as “personal” items when you move here. It may also not apply if you have COO {Certificate Of Origin} paperwork to verify that it was manufactured in the US, however you will still pay at least a 7% of value tax.) In every case, you will need to have your boat licensed and registered in Panama. This can all be done at one of the Maritime offices located in Bocas, Almirante or Chanquinola. Make certain that you have proper title and proof of ownership with you. Technically, you will also need to obtain a “Captain’s license” in order to operate a boat in Panama. That requires some personal paperwork, a medical report, a day in class and sometimes a short trip in your boat to show that you can actually operate it. Mostly just inconvenient. Heck, even I could pass that part.

One of the things for boaters to be aware of is the amazing underwater topography. In the interior regions of the archipelago, the depth can vary from 60 feet to 3 feet in a matter of a few meters. If you are not familiar with the area, it is easy to think you are in vast open waters and suddenly run aground or ruin a propeller on an isolated coral head. The learning curve regarding this aspect of Bocas boating is not too steep, but caution, observation and experience will dictate your personal results.

SEE BOCAS DEL TORO’S LARGEST COLLECTION OF REAL ESTATE

The tide here is generally less than 2 feet. This is a huge advantage over the Pacific side where the variance is as much as 15 feet. This does not mean that there are not swift currents created in some areas within the islands because of the way many of the bays and inlets ebb and flow. In addition, the surface winds are relatively strong at certain times of the year which necessitates an additional need for awareness. Sudden rain squalls can occur with short warnings and create a condition known as “whiteout” where it is extremely easy to become totally disoriented. Fortunately these conditions are generally short-lived but are certainly something to be aware of and take necessary precautions.

The last sea phenomena to be aware of is the swell created by off-shore storms in the greater ocean. These swells can at times be rather large and make it necessary for those of us with smaller recreational or fishing boats to have some place where they are protected when not in use. This is accomplished by a boatlift or harboring in a sheltered cove or taking the boat on shore when you are not going to be using it. To leave it tied at a dock is to invite disaster. Some small boat owners emulate the bigger sailboat owners and create an off-shore anchorage and leave their boat to ride the waves. They use a smaller dingy or some means to get back and forth to shore.

So what is the perfect boat for Bocas? Well, it should be big enough to carry all your friends (just kidding), provide safety and comfort in open or rough waters but small enough to be economical. It should have a shallow draft to allow exploring in reefs and shoals and maneuvering in mangroves. It should be narrow enough to get through tight inner-island passages and cut through choppy waves. It should be strong but not unnecessarily heavy. For economy, it should be able to use a motor that provides adequate power and speed to traverse long rides but not so big you cringe at your fuel bill. It should have some sort of cover to shelter from the sun and rain. The local boats that fit that description are fiberglass boats very common and used extensively here in Panama. They are preferred by the water taxi services and most of the Panamanian sport fishermen. They are called “Pangas” and range in size from just under 20 feet to just under 30 feet depending on their usage. Variation of this style are the craft of choice for the Panama Marine Patrol.

So there in a floating nutshell is everything I know about boats except that I truly believe that for all the challenges that go with the ownership of almost any boat anywhere, our experience in the island of Bocas del Toro would be much different if we did not have our own boat. The places we have been able to explore and visit at our own convenience and pace are beyond the scope of this article to describe. We go fishing, snorkeling exploring, visit friends and frequent outlying exotic restaurants and resorts not to mention the many times we just get in the boat and go watch a beautiful sunset or simply float lazy circles in secluded bays where the only sounds we hear are the whispers and songs of the forest or sounding porpoises and the waters are so clear and flat you can believe your floating in a giant aquarium.

Enough about boating for now but remind me to tell you a boating story that demonstrates the true nature of the wonderful people of Panama. Maybe next time. Stay tuned. Happy boating to all.

Article by: Anne Michelle Wand, United Country Bocas del Toro

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