At Work and Play in Islas Perlas

Namani's crew scurried to get tools and parts in Panama City and then hightailed it to the unspoiled islands just a daysail south. There they could make repairs in peace and quiet while squeezing in time for fun and relaxation.

Islas Perlas

Nadine Slavinski

Something had gone terribly wrong in our Panama cruise: The work/play ratio was badly out of proportion. My husband, Markus, and son, Nicky, and I planned to enjoy a few weeks in the Archipiélago de las Perlas, an unspoiled, quiet island group at the doorstep of Panama's mainland, before heading out across the Pacific aboard Namani, our 1981 Dufour 35.

But no sooner were we through the renowned canal than a cloud of reality settled over us in the form of a leaky hatch, blocked plumbing and a broken anchor windlass. Instead of kicking back in secluded anchorages, we were sweating over repairs and scavenging Panama City for replacement parts. Our Las Perlas cruise was tantalizingly near, but oh, so far.

Then, I had it: Why put off the trip when we could cruise and repair at the same time? Las Perlas are within a day’s sail of the city, making it possible to tackle jobs in a beautiful setting and still return for a provisioning run before departing for the Galápagos islands. We stowed newly acquired tools and parts and set off, if not for a splash-and-drinks cruise, then at least a working visit.

Sailing south in a fresh breeze, we left city tension behind and were pleasantly reminded that many things on the boat still did, in fact, function properly. The hull was keeping the water out and the sails were pulling Namani along nicely on a broad reach. Playful dolphins further lightened our mood, seabirds swooped overhead, and a whale breached straight out of the water in the distance. We felt magically transported back into the joys of the cruising life instead of the gritty negatives. Forty miles later, we anchored off Isla Contadora: a short distance, but a big mental step away from the point of low morale we'd just escaped.

Of course, the magic of the sea doesn’t solve everything, and the job list wouldn’t work itself away on its own. And so it was that Contadora, island of blooming frangipani and shy roe deer, became Contadora, island of frangipani and the clogged toilet pump. Hoses were disconnected, parts cursed over, but night fell in sweet silence, with sparkling bioluminescence imitating the stars above, all the clearer without a city’s dimming effects. The outgoing morning tide exposed a beach with enticing caves at the foot of steep bluffs, just the place for Nicky to dig for buried treasure. The archipelago had served as a pirate’s den since the 16th century, but I was beginning to suspect that buccaneers spent more time here tarring the rigging and repairing torn sails than counting their treasure.

A short sail south brought us to the lee of uninhabited Viveros, an island of diving pelicans and anchor windlass repair. There, we had a huge bay and endless sand beach all to ourselves, at least during short breaks in our dawn-to-dusk efforts on board. Work even took on an aspect of pleasure as I dove into the clear water to replace the corroded propeller anode. Ah, the satisfaction of a quiet anchorage and another item ticked off the job list!

While the southern portion of Las Perlas consists of large chunks of land dotted with a few small villages, the northern half is an explosion of mini islets. We headed back to that enticing maze of land and water to anchor off a pristine, gold-hued beach backed by tangled green vegetation. Isla Chapera is well known as the film site of the Survivor television series, but for us, it provided the perfect quiet location to scrub Namani's hull. Unfortunately, the plan backfired when a raging current blasted clouds of plankton past, with dozens of jellyfish in silent, tentacled pursuit. Later, we savored the glowing sunset, not over cocktails in the cockpit, but over a tube of sealant on the coach roof, rebedding a leaky hatch. Still, our mission was accomplished: We were enjoying the wonders of Las Perlas and getting critical work done.

Too many cruisers endure the exposed anchorages of the city for too long, and come away feeling jaded as a result. We learned that it’s best to load up on what parts are readily available and get away, improvising the rest in more pleasant, even rejuvenating, surroundings. Our getaway even helped us economize, considering the mysterious way that cash slips away in a city setting — a taxi ride here, a fortifying ice cream there. Sometimes, you really can have it all!