Packing It In – – Leaving Panama

I never thought I’d say this, and it pains me deeply, but I’m leaving Panama. Calling it quits. Packing it in. Returning to the States.

It won’t be for a couple of months but I’ll most likely be celebrating my 74th birthday in Florida.

Why am I doing this? It’s difficult to put things in any kind of orderly, coherent fashion, so this post is going to roam all over the place, but it’s primarily health concerns that are the reason. I have a serious case of COPD and though I take meds for it breathing is sometimes a real issue. Recently I had an incident that made me decide to take my old and best friend, Stefan, up on his mantra of the last couple of years, “Come back here. We’ll find you a boat you can live on and you can enjoy life again.”

It’s not that I haven’t been enjoying my life here in Panama. I DO. I love this place, but really, when I think about it, I’ve pretty much just been sitting around here waiting to die. So what finally made me decide to act on Stef’s offer? Well, the other day I headed out to the nearby tienda to get something cold to drink. It’s about 50 yards away from my front door, but when I got there the place was closed. So I decided I’d head to the Chino, Panama’s answer to the 7-11, which is about a hundred yards up the small hill past my house. When I got back to my house from the tienda I had to stop and rest for about five minutes to catch my breath. (I didn’t have my Ventolin inhaler with me.) When I got up to the Chino I was panting so hard that I had to sit down on a bench at the park across the street until my breathing returned to normal, and I sat down and rested after buying a couple of quarts of orange juice before walking back to the house. That did it. The decision was made. (More about health in a moment.)

Another issue is “What am I doing here?” The name of this blog is “One More Good Adventure.” Well, I haven’t been doing any adventuring for the last several years. The initial move down here was certainly an adventure. My original idea was to come down and build a shantyboat over in Bocas del Toro and then spend the rest of my life poking around that beautiful archipelago. Obviously that didn’t happen for many reasons that I’ve listed in previous posts and the fact that inertia is hard to overcome.

Another expat who moved down here from Sarasota with her husband, Kris Cunningham, is another inspiration for my decision to leave. She’s a 63-year old woman off on a real adventure. Recently she got on a plane and flew to Seattle, Washington, to visit her daughter and grand daughter. No big deal, right? Well, the thing is, she took her bicycle up there with her and plans on riding it back to Panama! And what am I doing with my adventure???

So, back to health. One thing all of us aging expats need to remember is that Medicare doesn’t pay a penny once you step outside the U.S. Health insurance for anyone in their 70s with three stents in their arteries and COPD is basically unobtainable, and if you CAN get it the premiums are so outrageous that it would take every cent I get from SS each month AND a loan to make the monthly note. I have been signed up on Hospital Chiriquí’s program but it isn’t really insurance. It’s more like a discount program. As at all the hospitals if you’re unfortunate enough to need one, you have to PAY UPFRONT before they’ll do anything for you. And with the program I have they will later reimburse you up to 70% of what you shelled out. It’s not great, but it’s better than nothing. And there are many horror stories about people having to use the public hospital here which is definitely something you don’t want to do.

Why haven’t I left yet? It’s because I’ve been putting off having some extensive dental work done. I don’t want to get into details now, but the fact is that even though it won’t be dirt cheap it will be just a fraction of the cost of what it would be in the States.

What would my new adventure consist of? I want to buy a small sailboat commonly referred to as a “trailer sailer.” Somewhere between 20-25 feet long with a retractable keel so I can creep into places I could never have gone with my beloved Kaiser 26, Nancy Dawson,  with her 4-foot keel. With a retractable keel drawing a foot or so I’d be able to put the boat right up on the beach and step off onto dry sand or just ankle-deep water. I don’t intend on staying stationary in a marina somewhere. After my 9-month sojourn to Mexico, Belize and the Rio Dulce in Guatemala I never went sailing with my boat again. I lived on it at a boat yard for nearly two years and then at Marina Bay. The reason was I was trying to work and save enough money so I could go cruising again, but it never happened.

When I was on the Rio Dulce back in ’92 if I’d have been able to get my hands on just $4,500 a year I could have had a nice life living there on the hook (at anchor). But I couldn’t get that much money so another dream shattered. Now, though, I have a small but steady income from Social Security, and living on a paid-for boat and anchoring out as much as possible, I can still have a nice life.

And what would this “adventuring” consist of? Taking the boat as far north on the Intracoastal Waterway as the Chesapeake and revisiting old places I’d stopped along the way on the half-dozen times I’d traveled that route: Charleston, SC; Belhaven, NC; Wrightsville Beach, NC; St. Augustine, FL among others. Checking out some of the intriguing places I never got to see along the way because I was working delivering the boat I was on. I’d also like to go explore the St. John’s River in north Florida. When my mom died my dad took his two toy poodles, got on his Stamas 26 over in Venice, FL, and disappeared for six months. No one knew where he’d gone. Turns out that he’d taken the cross-Florida route through Lake Okeechobee and vanished into the St. John’s to do his mourning.

I’ve never done the Florida Gulf Coast ICW and I’d like to see what that’s about. I’d like to poke around the waters of the Florida panhandle, Appalachicola, Pensacola, and on over into Alabama and Mississippi. Perhaps go up Mobile Bay and into the Tenn-Thom Bigbee waterway. Go into Louisiana and revisit all the places I know from my crew boat days: the bayous of Cajun country and up into the Atchafalaya. Check out places I’d lived at in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. Go on into Texas all the way to Brownsville, perhaps. The entire Intracoastal Waterway system from Norfolk, VA to Brownsville, TX is 3,000 miles. That’s a lot of area to explore. Who knows?

“So,” sez you, ” if you can’t walk 100 yards without getting knackred, how are you going to do all that stuff?”

Beats the hell out of me! There’s a good chance I can’t. ¿Quien sabe? as they say here in Boquerón, but you never know what you can do if you don’t try. But I wouldn’t be doing any long, open-water sailing. Most of what I’d be doing would be motoring or motor-sailing…using the sails when the wind was on the beam or off the quarter. No beating into the wind.

We’ll see.









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9 responses to “Packing It In – – Leaving Panama

  1. Oh my goodness, Panama isn’t going to be the same without you. But, I totally understand. If you can have your dream of living on the water, have access to health care, etc it makes a lot of sense. Who knows how much time any of us have, so spend it doing something you love.

    Thanks, Kris, and you ARE part of the reason I’ve decided to do this what with your adventure. I’m envious that you have the physical ability to pull it off, and I think you’re an inspiration to a lot of people.

  2. indacampo

    Richard, although I have never met you I have learned much about you from Kris and this blog.

    When the time comes for us to leave I will be unapologetic as you should be. Stepping into the humid, tropical air of Panama for the first time is farther than many people go, never mind living here for several years.

    Follow your passion, no matter what your age. Did you see the “If You’re Not Dead Yet, You’re Not Done Yet” post from Elizabeth Gilbert on Facebook yesterday? You’ve obviously got all your marbles and You’re Not Done Yet!

    All the best in your new adventure,
    Karen Ann

    Thanks for the kind words. I love it here in Panama but there are certain realities I have to face up to and the biggest is that if I had a medical emergency I couldn’t cover the upfront money. I’d be toast. So it’s back to where Medicare will cover me. I don’t intend to remain stationary when I get back, either.

  3. We’re also stunned to hear this news, and very sorry you’re going to be leaving us. But we know you have at least “One More Good Adventure” in store and it sounds like you’ve planned it well. We always wanted to sail the ICW and it will offer a protected and low-stress way for you to be back on the water. We expect a new blog on your experience!
    All the best from John and me.
    – Susan

    Thanks for the kind words. It’s something that’s been tickling the back of my mind for a while, and while I thought I’d never leave, and I really DON’T WANT TO leave, sometimes we have to do things that are in our best interest no matter how we feel about it.

    I’ve done the Atlantic ICW a half dozen times. Interestingly five of the six have been north to south passages. The first time was in ’74 when I brought a Hatteras Tri-Cabin from Chicago to Ft. Lauderdale. Went through lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie. The Erie Canal and Hudson River. But my deckhand had to bail in Norfolk and the owners couldn’t join me. Didn’t want them to, either. Horrible people. So I did the entire ICW single-handed!

  4. Sorry to hear that. And sorry we haven’t gotten together for a drink or two. We’ll do that before you go. Don’t worry, I’ll go there. :).

    I hear the ICW on the gulf side of FL is very shallow in spots. We had to cruise along the coast a bit on a trip from Tampa Bay to Sarasota. My experience is dated (5ish years ago). So, give it a shot and share your experience.

    We’ve got a couple of months to get together before I leave.

    I know Florida’s Gulf Coast ICW is shallow, one of the reasons I’m going for a boat with a swing keel.

  5. Frances

    I’ve been following your blog but have never posted. I have two boats docked at Lake Monroe Marina, Sanford, FL, which is part of the St.John’s River–a swing-keeled Catalina 22, which I have owned for 12 years, and a wing-keeled Catalina 25 (I preferred this to a swing keel for this size boat) less than a year ago. The wing keel has a draft of only 2’10”. I am sitting on my C25 right now as I write this.

    I cruise the St.John’s River whenever I can, mostly alone. It is beautiful. I also would like to do the Great Loop and am collecting all the information, charts, etc. to do so. With proper observance of weather, etc. I believe you can do this. One of my boat friends who also has COPD and heart issues, carries a stern anchor on his sailboat as well that he can drop quickly and easily if he has an attack.

    Just as an FYI, I am a 71 year old female. If I can do it, so can you.

    When one has sailing in his/her blood, one must do it. If I can be of any help, please let me know.


    Well, I’m glad you finally commented. I’m very interested in checking out that river. I’m sending you an email so we can write to each other.

  6. Best of luck, good health – and onwards with the next adventure!

    Thanks for the kind words. Onwards and upwards!!

  7. Well, sorry to hear this adventure didn’t quite pan out, but I’m looking forward to reading about your Florida-based sailing adventure. We’d love to meet you if you happen to sail past Port St. Lucie 🙂

    Well, the adventure panned out for six years. That’s a pretty good run for a guy whose longest job EVER was three and a half years. And I’ll be passing through Port St. Lucie on my way to the St. John’s, hopefully in the next year.

  8. Well. i guess you’ve had an adventure, just not what you were expecting. I’m sorry to hear you have to come back, but, if you think about it, anywhere in south Florida is an adventure these days. Being close to medical care is very important at our age.
    Though i’ve only recently found your blog I don’t see why you cannot just continue it in Florida. I lived in south Fla for most of my 66 years and I know that there are plenty of good adventures left there.
    good luck , and keep up the posts.
    Mike Rearic

    I know a bit about south Florida, Mike. I lived there for 35 years with time outs for 10 years in New Orleans and 3 years over on the French Riviera. I remember when the tallest building downtown was Burdines at 3 stories. It was where the city offices are now on Andrews. I had a friend, now gone, who remembered when there was a BRIDGE where the tunnel is.
    I’ve had a good run down here in Panama. LOVE the place and the people, but there are times when inertia sets in and you’ve got to overcome it and move on to something else.

  9. you wouldn’t be a Stranahan grad would you. burdines goes way back. I used to deliver western union telegrams around town back in ’65 on my bike. It was agreat place then, hanging out at south beach and watching the boats at the marina., much has changed.

    Nope. I’m an honest-to-God Yankee. Both sides of my family were ensconced in Massachusetts by 1635. But remember Chilly Willy, the penguin with the wool cap and scarf? That was me. I always hated the cold and I showed up at MIA in late August 1961 to go to the University of Miami. Spent 35 or my 74 years in Broward County.