Sheridan Lathe shares her veterinary skills with the locals on a unique cruise of the Panama islands of Las Perlas
We looked out at the expectant faces before us: kids with footballs in hand, an elderly woman yelling at the teenage boys to turn down their reggaetón music, and two dozen dogs ready for their first ever trip to the vet. As the storm clouds began rolling in over our makeshift clinic on a local islander’s porch, with our yacht anchored in the bay in front of us in just 1m of water, we couldn’t help but wonder what exactly we had got ourselves into.
That feeling was typical of our new way of living. After buying our first boat in December 2016, only to poke a hole through the aluminium hull with a toothbrush (more on that later…), we were certainly learning that boat life is anything but boring.
Chuffed is a 37ft Gamelin Madera, built in France in 1990. And, despite a few challenges, her name reflects how we feel about living aboard: it is British/Aussie slang for feeling content and pretty pleased with life.
After living the 9-5 routine in Australia I decided to take a chance on a unique job providing veterinary care to rescued bears in China. This in turn inspired my husband, Joel, to pursue his dream of working with boats and he managed to land himself a job as an assistant shipwright in Northern Queensland.
A year later we decided it was time for us to combine our passions for animals, the ocean and boats, and sold all our material possessions to purchase Chuffed. We’ve been living aboard ever since, sailing the Pacific Coast of Panama providing free veterinary care and education to local organisations and communities in need.
There was a lot of work ahead of us before we could reach the Islands of Las Perlas. As with many boats bought cheap, Chuffed needed some care and attention before we could cast off. While I was working in China I received an anxious voice message from Joel in Panama. “Hi Sheddy,” he said. “I’ve just got my toe over a hole in the hull, we’re taking on a bit of water… But it’s all good, my toe is doing the trick and my friends are coming over with some epoxy.”
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With a cork poking out of the toothbrush-sized hole we booked an emergency haul out with a full hull overhaul; this included scraping off the barnacle beard, welding some questionable areas and new antifouling. Once she was back in the water I arrived on board to find Chuffed in complete bedlam. Tools littered the cockpit and saloon, there was no running water and the heads consisted of a yellow five-gallon bucket. This was not the yachting life I’d dreamed of.
Soon enough we sorted out the major problems; a new water pump, a repaired toilet, and Chuffed’s hull had never looked better. However, there was still work to be done. I tackled Panama’s chaotic public transport systems to obtain much needed anaesthesia, pain relief, surgical equipment and other veterinary supplies we’d need for our trip.
Finally, it was time to raise the sails and make our way to the islands of Las Perlas, 40 miles south of Panama City. Humpback whales migrate through these waters from July to October, so we were constantly in the midst of these gentle giants. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to swim alongside with snorkels and waterproof camera. One whale nearly ran into our boat, but thankfully we avoided collision and made it safely to anchor.
Near whale collisions were not the only difficult part of sailing in the Gulf of Panama. Weather in this area is difficult to predict, with unexpected squalls, sudden changes in wind direction and large swells. The weather is heavily influenced by the Inter-Tropical Conversion Zone (ITCZ), where the southern and northern tradewinds meet, creating a band of confused weather.
From May to November the ITCZ moves to its northern-most position, which was of course the time we chose to visit Las Perlas. Not only that but weather from both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans can affect the Gulf, with only a narrow strip of land separating the oceans.
The journey began under motor, there was no wind in sight but thankfully we’d chosen to make the short journey to Isla Taboga first, only nine miles from our anchorage in Las Brisas, Panama City. After an hour of motoring the weather took a turn, and with the wind blowing directly on our nose we decided to tack our way to Isla Taboga.
Once settled we took advantage of the calm waters in the anchorage to do a final hull clean; the Gulf of Panama is rich in nutrients – great for marine life but not so good for the lifespan of the antifouling and Chuffed had accumulated a beard of algae and barnacles.
We were then off to Las Perlas, once again with very little wind. We managed to raise the sails for a few hours but the majority of the trip was spent motoring the Doldrum-like conditions of the Gulf of Panama, with seas so flat you could see a perfect reflection of the boat gliding along.
As we neared the archipelago we had to pass the narrows between Isla Mogo Mogo and Isla Casayete; a difficult task with a whale and her calf blocking the way. Thankfully we’d already dropped the sails and were able to drift past them as they played.
We finally ended up in the village of San Miguel, the largest in the Las Perlas archipelago towards the northern end of Isla Del Rey. San Miguel is home to 1,000 people and approximately 120 dogs. The villagers mostly work as fishermen, supplying their catch to resorts on surrounding islands. Tidal changes of over 5m makes anchoring in the shallow bay a bit of fun, though thankfully our swing keel means we can convert Chuffed to a flat-bottomed boat so she can float in just 1m of water.
As we made our way to shore aboard our dinghy a beautiful sight greeted us: brightly coloured fishing boats lined the beach, in front of a hill crowded with makeshift houses with dense jungle surroundings, while a pack of dogs played in the sand. We unpacked our plethora of veterinary supplies, jammed tight in suitcases, dry bags and toolboxes, and made our way through the vivid thoroughfare of the village to the small orange dwelling that was to be our veterinary clinic for the next five days.
As soon as we began setting up, we had people and their dogs already waiting to see us, with a long list of appointments our local contact had arranged – not that appointments have much meaning when everyone runs on ‘island time’. Our surgery suite was a small undercover porch, with just enough room for Joel, myself and our surgery table.
It also provided the perfect viewing platform for locals, and we were to be the best entertainment in town. The combined kitchen, dining and lounge area, totalling around 10m2, was converted into a patient recovery, storage and cleaning space.
Working in a remote area with limited supplies turns you into a bit of a veterinary cowboy – rigging up contraptions to deliver intravenous fluids, stabilising our patients’ surgical position using towels and tying up patients wherever you could to prevent escape.
Many of these dogs had never been held, let alone restrained by a vet, so we administered a sedative half an hour before surgery to help them feel calm. This would often leave the dogs acting like a drunk and more than once we had to rescue a patient that was weaving their way down the hill after escaping their confines.
San Miguel does not get a lot of foreign visitors, let alone foreign visitors wielding scalpel blades. As soon as the school bell rang children would come running and screaming down the street to watch the surgeries take place.
These surgeries were not pretty, with blood and organs appearing regularly, much to the delight of the local kids. The only doctor on the island also turned up to watch: he does surgery so infrequently he had many questions and thought it was a great learning opportunity.
It was like no veterinary clinic I have ever worked in. With errant soccer balls flying at my head, patients trying to mate each other and music blasting from every house on the street it was hectic to say the least!
Joel and I averaged eight surgeries and 20 patients a day, while also cleaning and preparing all our own equipment. By the time evening rolled around it was all we could do to take the dinghy back to Chuffed, eat some instant noodles and fall asleep ready to start all over again the next day.
The language barrier also provided entertainment to the locals and added an extra challenge for us. We learned quickly, with broken Spanish and hand gestures proving sufficient to explain even the most bizarre of medical conditions, including one hermaphroditic dog. Explaining that their beloved pet had both female and male parts caused much hilarity, especially for the watching teenagers.
Living, sailing and working in San Miguel was one of the most amazing experiences we have ever had. The community invited us into their homes and lives. Locals would walk up with bottles of soda, handfuls of apples and fresh fish for us to enjoy. They would tell us about their lives, the economy and their struggles.
They trusted us because we were providing a completely free service to their community. We learnt about the difficulties young people face finding work in the city, the constant problems with power and water supply and the lack of veterinary care for their animals. The closest vet for these islands is in Panama City, a 40-mile boat journey.
It was a rewarding experience providing veterinary care for the animals and their humans. The health of the environment, animals and people is intricately linked and if one suffers they all suffer. An overpopulation of dogs has increased risk of disease to the dogs, wildlife and humans, and puts a strain on the community trying to feed, shelter and care for a growing dog population.
As I placed the closing suture in our final patient, storm clouds rolled in. Gusts of wind were blowing the surgical equipment all over the porch, and we couldn’t help but feel the gods were telling us we had done enough. We’d spayed every female dog in the village, effectively stopping the growth of the dog population, at least for now. We’d provided treatment for more than 100 dogs, with a range of conditions from intestinal parasites to fleas and respiratory infections. We had truly made a difference.
Having hosted veterinary clinics in three towns during our time in Las Perlas, it was time for us to take some rest, and we set off to explore the amazing uninhabited beaches of Isla Casaya, Espiritu and San José. These islands and the surrounding waters are home to an incredible variety of wildlife including bright blue macaws, gigantic whale sharks and multicoloured iguanas.
Las Perlas offers amazing cruising waters for short or long-term stays. With over 200 islands in the archipelago, many of which are completely uninhabited, there are endless opportunities to explore.
Anchoring in some areas can be difficult, especially for boats with deep draught because there are many rocks and shoals scattered between islands, and some passages that are only a few metres deep at high tide.
But this island playground is perfect for a modest boat like Chuffed, with her lifting keel we were able to anchor close to the beach, and sit on the sandy bottom. Our favourite spot to explore was Isla Espiritu Santos (Holy Spirit), a tiny uninhabited Island located on the eastern side of Isla Del Rey that is rich with wildlife, including iguanas, waterfowl and plenty of fish – not that we managed to catch any with Joel’s Hawaiian sling harpoon.
We explored miles of coastline, not all without incident. Entering the south-eastern anchorage of San José is tricky in the best conditions – a shoal in the middle of the bay creates a huge rolling break and massive pillars of rock form dangerous islands on both the northern and southern points.
Sailing Panama in the wet season guarantees regular squalls, and one such storm kicked up the waves before we entered this bay. It was at the exact moment we passed one of the rock pillars that our engine cut out. We quickly unfurled enough headsail to keep momentum, and fortunately managed to restart the engine within minutes to make it to anchor.
The Pacific coast of Panama offers much to the sailing community; with a cruising permit of nine months (and six months on your personal visa) it allows you plenty of time to explore. While anchored in the free anchorage of Las Brisas in Panama City we were able to take advantage of being close to civilisation and taking the opportunity to visit the Miraflores Museum, which documents the construction and history of the Panama Canal.
We had some amazing experiences: rescuing a critically endangered marine turtle, hiking the jungle in search of rare frogs and enjoying some spectacular sunsets, cocktail in hand. We’re privileged to be doing what we love, and even a bad day on board still beats the daily grind of our old lives.
About the author
Sheridan and Joel Lathe are sailing around the world, offering free veterinary care to communities in need. They blog and vlog their adventures, you can follow and donate to support their work at: vettails.com and facebook.com/vet0tails
First published in the September 2018 edition of Yachting World.