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Latitude on charter in Panama



The 170-foot expedition motoryacht Latitude is built to charter the world, with enough toys and tenders for her guests to fish and dive every inch of it. 



The 170-foot expedition motoryacht Latitude is built to charter the world, with enough toys and tenders for her guests to fish and dive every inch of it. 

By Kim Kavin

Panama beachSure, I’m excited as I approach Latitude, but like everyone else in the dinghy, I can’t help but look past her. In any other place, on any given day, odds are the 170-foot expedition motoryacht would be the biggest boat in the harbor. But on this afternoon just off Panama City, Latitude happens to be anchored a gull’s hop from the 414-foot motoryacht Octopus, one of the biggest private boats in the world. Its reputation casts a shadow even longer than the one that blocks our view of the sun as we inch alongside for a snapshot.

The positioning turns out to be fortunate, really, because if not for my autofocus on Octopus, I might not have fully appreciated just how well Latitude was blending into the local scenery. She’s an expedition yacht, 734 gross tons of steel that started life in 1973 as an ice-class supply ship and was gutted about five years ago by a Brazilian man who wanted a go-anywhere exterior with a comfortable, yacht-quality interior. He succeeded: Here off the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, Latitude hides her lovely decor within an exterior that looks far more like the cargo ships awaiting transit than the luxury megayacht off her starboard quarter.

It’s an excellent quality for a true expedition yacht to have, especially one like Latitude that lives up to her abilities. If you’re going to make the best use of fuel tanks that can keep you at sea for 55 days, say if you want to cruise from Central America to New Zealand in a single shot, the odds are you’ll find yourself in destinations where camouflage is key. You can be the guy onboard a yacht like Octopus, whom everyone is trying to score a photo of from their dinghy, or you can be the guy onboard Latitude, enjoying similar pampering and comforts without anyone else knowing you’re there.

I thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of the latter for a few days in the Las Perlas Islands, some 35 miles southeast of Panama City, about halfway to Colombia. They’re a group of 100 or so islands, most of them uninhabited and unheard of, except for Contodora, which has some resorts (but no streetlights or banks) and is a setting for the television show “Survivor.” As places go for evaluating an expedition yacht’s crew and services, this is a good one. Most days and nights, it’s just us and nature, with no help, no entertainment, and no supplies to rely on from shore.

That’s not to say we lacked for fun—and there is plenty of it to be had aboard Latitude for charter guests who enjoy water sports and fishing. Her arsenal of toys includes all the normal fan favorites from water skis to wakeboards, plus a windsurfer, a kite surfer, regular and clear-bottom kayaks, and six sets of scuba gear for certified divers who want to descend straight from the boat—an unusual option in yacht charter, as liability concerns often require guests to rendezvous dive with a local operator. Guests still earning their scuba certification can do skills testing with a dive master in Latitude’s onboard freshwater pool, which of course is also available to anyone simply wanting to relax with a cocktail in hand.

Latitude also carries a fleet of tenders that includes a RIB, a 27-foot World Cat center console, and a 43-foot Mares powercatamaran tricked out with a fighting chair.

“The owner is an avid fisherman,” a friend of his told me. “That’s why he built Latitude this way, so he could go to far-off places and go fishing.”

Hence the 40 monogrammed rods and reels in Latitude’s fishing supply room, and the main yacht’s fish-cleaning station, which is much like the ones you find on docks in the Bahamas. It’s near the helipad, if you want to charter a copter to meet the yacht some distance from an international airport.

These are far from your standard charter yacht amenities, and they are what make top-notch experiences possible in a place like Panama’s west coast. To the north of our coordinates in the Las Perlas archipelago, toward Costa Rica, is arguably the best fishing and diving (I heard a lot about Coiba Island in particular), and farther south, almost at the Colombian border, is Pinas Bay, whose marlin and sailfish draw world-class anglers annually. Latitude, either on her own hull at 12 knots or in tandem with her powercat at a maximum of 32 knots, can get you to all of these locations in the span of a 10-day or two-week charter.

I had only a few days onboard and thus stayed in the Las Perlas chain, where I sampled Latitude’s diving program at Isla Pacheca and her fishing program while trolling the trench between Isla Contadora and Isla Bartolomé. In both cases, I was onboard the powercat—and in both cases, the tender and crew performed exceptionally.

It’s a treat to go fishing and diving onboard a tender that has plenty of shade, a proper dining area, and even a cabin if you need a nap after lunch. Even better, I look for safety first whether I’m donning an air tank or a fishing belt with a rod holder, and it’s clear that Latitude’s crew takes both sports seriously. Our location wasn’t the best that western Panama offers for either activity (we saw mostly sea stars while diving, and caught nothing bigger than a 15-pound jack while fishing), but I would chase reefs and schools with Latitude’s team anywhere.

The one thing I’d ask about before booking a charter is whether Latitude has installed zero-speed stabilizers, an upgrade that the yacht’s manager told me was being seriously considered. I personally found the ride remarkably smooth, even when cruising at night in an athwartships berth (which, instead of being positioned on centerline so that it rocks from side to side like a hammock with the boat’s hull, is caddy-corner and thus rocks more like a see-saw under way). I didn’t feel the need for stabilizers, but the owner’s representative says the yacht rolls, sometimes heavily, in rougher seas than we encountered during my stay, and the owner wants Latitude to be prepared just in case. Hence the question about upgrading the stabilizers.

That’s the kind of attitude that impresses me, one that leads to things like a fleet of tenders and dozens of fishing rods and navy-caliber captains—the kind of attitude that, in my opinion, should guide the program onboard any true expedition charter yacht.

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