Thursday, December 13, 2018

Panama Canal Transit

In Jimmy Cornell’s book, World Cruising Routes, he says that the best way to sail from Panama to the United States is via Hawaii, a distance of over 5,000 nautical miles.  Of course, once you’ve arrived in Hawaii, you still have over 2,200 nautical miles to get back to North America.  On the other hand, a vessel can choose to follow the coast of Central America and Mexico, a total distance of about 2,700 nautical miles between Panama and San Diego.  Cornell says the best month to follow that route is in November as it’s a transitional month between the rainy and dry seasons.  The ‘Christmas Winds’ of December are notorious for very strong headwinds that can last for weeks at a time.  Armed with this information, we decided to schedule our Panama Canal transit for November 1.
Enter Your Own Caption
The very first decision we had to make was whether to hire an agent or do the paper work ourselves.  Granted, an agent was going to cost several hundreds of dollars but in the end, we felt it was worth it.  A short-lived bidding war took place between two highly-recommended agents but we chose to hire Roy Bravo and he immediately swung into action.  Less than a day after we agreed to hire Roy, the ‘admeasurer’ from the Panama Canal Authority was on board Rutea, who measured out to be slightly over 53 feet, her davits and dinghy being the culprit of our extended length and forcing us into the next higher rate category.  Among the documents that I had to sign was a statement that essentially said that Rutea wasn’t designed or built to take the rigors of a Canal transit and that the Canal Authority had no liability if she was damaged or destroyed while in transit.

The Canal Authority requires that in addition to the skipper, a yacht transiting the Canal must have four line handlers.  Roy, our agent, offered to provide us with professional line handlers at a cost of US$150 each, which we considered – having professionals do a potentially dangerous job had its attractions.  On the other hand, feeding and berthing four men that we didn’t know for two days wasn’t that appealing.  Many cruisers actively search for boats making the transit and they volunteer their services as line handlers so as to gain experience before they make the transit in their own yachts.  We made it known around Shelter Bay Marina that we were looking for volunteer line handlers.
Cécile and Sylvain on the right, Roger and Amy on the left
Miraflores Lock
We had met Roger and Amy on the Pacific Seacraft 40, Shango, when we were in the Marquesas.  They completed their circumnavigation about a year ahead of us and we rendezvoused with them when we were visiting Gloucester, Massachusetts.  They continued to cruise and coincidentally were in Shelter Bay Marina at the same time we were.  Needless to say, they’re very skilled yachtspeople and we’re very fond of them.  They introduced us to Cécile and Sylvain on the 44-foot catamaran, Stella Maris, who were eager to make a Canal transit before they took their own boat through.  We agreed to take Cécile and Sylvain on as line handlers and encouraged Roger and Amy to come along as well although since they had already completed a transit in their own boat, there was little incentive for them to join us.  After some gentle cajoling, though, Roger and Amy agreed to be line handlers for us.

I scheduled a meeting with our line handlers for the day before our transit.  My agenda for the meeting included demonstrations for line routing options, line throwing and safety concerns.  Down below, I pointed out fire extinguisher locations and other safety equipment.  We gave the cabin assignments and each person was issued a Rutea t-shirt, the official but optional uniform for the transit.

Roy Bravo appeared with the six huge Poly-Form fenders and four 125-foot lines that he was loaning us.  The schedule was to meet our Canal Authority-assigned advisor (all yachts under sixty-five feet have an advisor aboard – over sixty-five feet have a pilot) at the ‘Flats’ at 1700 hours on the first of November.  Roy told us that we needed to have a hot meal ready for our advisor when he boarded our boat, that the advisor would only drink bottled water and failure to have an adequate meal might lead the advisor to order a meal, have it delivered and send us the bill!  Ruthie knocked herself out, preparing a huge, elaborate meal along with a table piled high with grab-and-go snacks:  Home-made hummus, fresh-baked cookies, fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, etc.
The Janet C Shared the Gatun Locks
with us

We cast off the dock lines at about 1500 hours, once our four line handlers were aboard.  It was a good exercise in developing patience while waiting for our advisor but he did show up eventually.  While we waited for instructions, he spoke rapid-fire Spanish into a private-channel handheld radio.  He explained to us that we were supposed to go through the Gatun Locks rafted up to a 65-foot catamaran but the owner of the cat adamantly refused to be rafted up to us.  This meant that all four of our line handlers were going to have to be responsible for managing each respective line (had we rafted up, two of the line handlers would have had nothing to do) and it meant that the Canal Authority was going to have to supply twice the number of staff to take us through.

It was well after dark as we approached the first of the Gatun Locks.  The Janet C, the freighter that was going through the locks the same time we were, entered first, followed by the cat and then us.  The Canal workers on shore heaved weighted ‘monkey’s fist’ at us, to which we attached the heavy 7/8” line that Roy Bravo had loaned us.  The walls of the canal towered above us, dwarfing Rutea and intimidating me.  The massive gates closed silently behind us.  Somewhere, someone moved a lever or pushed a button that opened a valve, allowing 26 million gallons of water to flood the chamber.  The force of all that water rushing in was tremendous and it took a significant amount of effort from our line handlers to keep Rutea centered in the lock.  Interestingly enough, it takes the exact same amount of water to lock a vessel up and down, regardless of its size – in other words, it would take the same amount of water to lock Rutea up and down as it would a mammoth freighter.  The experience was intense but we were able to complete it without any damage or injuries.  Once we were out of the third of the three Gatun Locks, our advisor directed us to a mooring buoy about five miles into Lake Gatun.  He was met by a launch and he departed without so much as a single bite of food.

We were all exhilarated and exhausted but quite hungry and in bad need of liquid refreshments.  Fortunately, I had stuffed the refrigerator and freezer with beer and wine – it was a short time later that the effects of the beer and wine mellowed us to where we were able to enjoy a fabulous meal.  Some of us showered on the aft deck under a garden hose before retiring for the night and it was a very calm night, albeit beastly hot.

The next morning I made coffee and fresh-baked scones for all six of us.  Our new advisor, Reynaldo, showed up and we began steaming across Lake Gatun, the constant freighter traffic requiring us to be on the highest level of alert.  As we approached the Pedro Miguel Lock, our not-so-friendly Canal companion again refused to allow us to raft up to them.  They were allowed to proceed into the lock while we had to wait for another Canal partner to be assigned to us.  The wait delayed us about two hours but we were assigned to a 120-foot tour boat, packed with tourists transiting the Canal just for the experience.  This took virtually all of the effort out of our hands:  Once we were tied up to the tour boat, there was nothing we could do.  Plus, locking down doesn’t involve the massive pressures on a vessel – the water in the lock simply drains out, leaving all vessels in the lock 31 feet lower than when they entered the lock.

As we approached the Miraflores Locks, the horizon began to darken and by the time we were entering the lock, a heavy rain was falling.  Fortunately, there was very little wind involved but, nonetheless, all the work we had to do was in the rain.  There was a significant delay in exiting the final lock as there was a Neopanamax ship (up to 366 meters – up to 1,200 feet) leaving the new Cocoli Locks and we had to wait for it to get out of the way.  It was dark by the time we got back underway and finding a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club was a little difficult.  Once tied to the mooring, though, we indulged in well-deserved, cold liquid refreshments.  The transit had been an enormous success with virtually no damage (one broken bottle of beer) and the only injury was when the advisor was being picked up and eager to get off Rutea, he accidentally stepped on Roger’s toe, tearing off a previously damaged toenail.   Good thing that Roger is tough and he was soon grinning again after a few beers.

The next morning I baked banana nut muffins for breakfast and our very hard-working friends prepared to depart.  We know that our paths will cross again, in some remote anchorage somewhere.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

San Blas Islands

We had been eager to visit the San Blas Islands for years but after our trip to San Diego, where we had a fabulous visit with family and friends, it was more of an effort to develop enthusiasm to sail eastwards, even if it was only 70 miles.  Our Panama Canal transit was weighing on our minds and the thought of only being 2,700 miles from home was a calling that was hard not to hear.  Still, we managed to rustle up the energy to cast off the dock lines (in 25 knots of wind) and sail out of Puerto Colón and into the western Caribbean.  Of course, the wind soon died and we had to motor most of the way to Isla Grande, arriving late on a Saturday afternoon.  There was still enough light left for me to clean the propeller as it was badly fouled with barnacles from sitting in Shelter Bay Marina for so long (cleaning while tied to the dock in Shelter Bay wasn’t an option as there are crocodiles in the water there – we’ve seen them).  It would have been helpful if our built-in hookah was working but after so many years of nonuse, it wouldn’t run so I had to clean the prop by free diving.  Note to self:  Avoid arriving at a tourist destination on a weekend night unless you want to listen to very loud music all night.

The next day was an easy passage to Cayos Chichime and even though some cruisers disdain the location as too popular, it was a delight for Ruthie and me as it represented the quintessential destination:  Clear, warm water, small palm-covered islands, good sand holding, mill pond-like anchoring, no loud music and friendly locals.  One of the big draws for our visit to the San Blas is that they’re populated by the Guna Yala, a people who still live simply, shunning many modern conveniences like electricity.  Of course, there are Guna Yala who use outboard motors on their crudely-built canoes and one family brought us their iPad and iPhone for charging but many still live traditionally.   What is unique and distinctive among the Guna Yala are the beautiful molas that they sew and wear.  Made from layers of brightly colored cloth, the molas are embroidered by hand and can take months to complete.

While still anchored in Cayos Chichime, we were approached by two men in a canoe who asked if they could come aboard and show us their molas.  We found them to be stunning and searched through dozens and dozens before picking out fourteen.  I choked a little as I counted out the cash (Panama uses the US dollar as their currency) but we were delighted with our purchases.  Before leaving, one of the men gave us his card and it read ‘Venancio Restrepo’.  Later, as Ruthie was reading our Lonely Planet guide for Panama, she found a paragraph that said don’t miss the molas made by Venancio Restrepo.

Moving still further eastward we found islands more remote and less populated, both by cruisers and the Guna Yala.  In the Cayos Holandes, we found some excellent snorkeling only to be told later that the area is well populated with crocodiles.  Our snorkeling routine changed immediately and we only went with other cruisers, one of whom would stay in the dinghy, armed with a loud air horn to warn those in the water of an approaching croc.  We never saw one but others had and it was enough to make us cautious.

Throughout our stay we were visited by locals, many times offering us fish, crab or lobster but sometimes just coming by to say hello or ask for a drink of water.  Large, live lobster typically went for US$5 each and one time a group of young men came by with two huge Caribbean crab.  When I asked how much for the crab, one of the men quickly said, “Ten dollars.” and then just as quickly said, “Eight dollars.”  I asked, “Two for fifteen?” and a smile swept across his face as he accepted my offer.  The crabs were so big that I could only cook one at a time in our large, 15-quart pressure cooker.  The crab was fabulous and we ate it for days.

One aspect of the San Blas Islands that we found disappointing was that many cruising boats seem to be abandoned there.  We would see boats that appeared to have had no attention in years, their names and hailing ports erased.  The Guna Yala would be helpless at getting these vessels removed as ownership would be almost impossible to prove and salvaging would be stratospherically expensive.  Granted, there are many responsible cruisers there who have made the San Blas Islands their home (we met one couple who had been anchored in the same spot for thirteen years) but some have taken advantage of the kindness of the Guna Yala and exploited it.  It’s a terrible form of pollution.

On our way back to Shelter Bay Marina, we stopped for the night at Bahia Linton, a spot that is very popular with the cruising fleet – probably over 60 cruising sailboats at anchor.  We had no contact with anyone and left the next morning.  Once we arrived back at Shelter Bay, we learned that three cruising boats had been victims of armed robberies in Bahia Linton just recently.

Back in Shelter Bay, our focus was now on our upcoming transit of the Panama Canal.

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Our approach to Colón, Panamá was both thrilling and intimidating, intensified by occurring at the end of a 4-day passage with little sleep, right at first light on the morning of May 14. We hadn’t seen a fleet of freighters that size since we were in Singapore and maneuvering among them was a true white-knuckle experience.  Regulations required us to contact ‘Cristóbal Signal Station’ on the radio when we were within 2 miles of the entrance to Colón harbor and though they were extremely busy, they gave us explicit instructions.  Entering right behind us through the opening in the 3-mile long breakwater was one of the mammoth Disney cruise ships, which had to slow down to match our snail’s pace of 6 knots so as not to over-run us.  It was a relief to pull into Shelter Bay Marina with its substantial docks, excellent facilities and mill pond-like conditions.  They made us a pretty good offer on an extended-stay rate which we accepted and we got started on the long list of projects we wanted to complete before we left for San Diego.

Shelter Bay Marina is on the grounds of what used to be Fort Sherman, one of two military installations built by the US to provide security for the Panama Canal.  Both installations were turned over to the Panamanian government in 1999 as part of the treaty signed by Jimmy Carter.  However, the Panamanian government either wasn’t interested or didn’t have the resources to maintain the buildings, roads and other aspects of a large, complex installation and the jungle is a powerful force that will overtake whatever it wants unless a great deal of time and effort is spent to keep it at bay.  Wild life abounds in the form of mantled howler monkeys, white-headed capuchin monkeys, sloths, iguanas, crocodiles and lots more.  From our berth at the marina, we could hear the howler monkeys.

Also near the grounds of Fort Sherman is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Fuerte San Lorenzo, a fort built in the 16th century to protect Panama’s Caribbean coast.  We toured the fort which was fascinating but lost count of how many times it was destroyed and rebuilt (I don’t remember who destroyed it the first time but I do remember that Sir Henry Morgan (of the rum fame) destroyed it the second time.).

The majority of cruising sailboats transit the Panama Canal in the December to February time frame and though many slips at the marina were empty, there were still a few cruisers there and they made an effort to maintain a ‘community’.  The morning ‘net’ on the VHF radio was expertly controlled by any one of several volunteers and it seemed to have a pretty good level of participation.  There were daily yoga lessons, water aerobics in the swimming pool and a weekly pot luck dinner.  As with many cruiser communities we’ve become associated with, there were a few people who seemed to be there forever, some that knew everything and some who had nothing to do with anyone.

The Panama Canal Authority requires every yacht that transits the Canal to have at least four line handlers and whereas a transiting yacht can always hire professional line handlers, it’s cheaper and more fun to recruit a fellow cruiser who is interested in gaining the experience before they take their own boat through.  I posted a 3x5 index card on a bulletin board near the marina office that Ruthie and I were available as volunteer line handlers and less than 30 minutes later, there was a knock on Rutea’s hull and there stood Luc, a Belgian who was looking for two line handlers for his 54-foot catamaran.  He invited us for cocktails that night and it was there we met his wife, Elaine.  Luc speaks excellent English but Elaine not so much and their three young children not at all.  Their transit was to be a single-day, meaning there would be no overnight mooring in Lake Gatun.  Since we needed to pick up our Canal Authority-assigned advisor at 0500 at the ‘Flats’, we needed to leave the marina at about 0300.  It was hard for either Ruthie or me to get much sleep that night, knowing that we’d have to wake up at about 0200, make coffee and button up Rutea for the day.  We were right on time as we were about to step aboard the big cat when Luc met us on the dock.  Our transit had been postponed by a day.  “Go back to bed,” said Luc.
Gatun Locks with Giles and Artur

The next morning, at the same time, we cast off the dock lines shortly after 0300 and steamed towards the rendezvous point.  Our advisor was right on time and we were just heading into the first of the three Gatun Locks as the sun was rising.

One of 46 tugs used at the Canal - $15M each
There are any one of several configurations that a yacht can be assigned when transiting the Canal.  If there are several yachts transiting at the same time, a ‘raft’ can be formed and the outside boats have the required 7/8” lines go ashore where workers place the eyes in the ropes around massive bollards.  Another configuration is for the yacht to be against the wall of the Canal and hopefully the robust fenders that the agent provided will keep the yacht from being damaged.  A third option is for the yacht to tie up to a tug or work boat that is tied to the wall.  The big cat we were on was assigned to tie up to a 60-foot work boat.  The work boat was kind of a grungy thing and since it didn’t have an enclosed toilet, the owner had opted to rent a ‘porta-pottie’ and place it on the aft deck as Canal regulations require all vessels to have an enclosed head.  Besides showing lots of wear and tear, the work boat belched thick clouds of black exhaust from its engines, which were never shut down.

Bridge of the Americas
Our transit went smoothly enough and was even boring at times.  We made it through the final lock and into the Pacific while it was still light and anchored between Isla Culebra and Isla Flamenco.  Luc and Elaine offered to take Ruthie and me out for dinner but the children were already falling asleep, so we requested they just take us ashore.  They insisted, though, woke the children and all of us piled into their small dinghy for a wet ride into the dinghy dock.  We had dinner, found a nice hotel, said ‘au revoir’ to Luc, Elaine and family, got a decent night’s sleep and took a bus back to Colón.

The next couple of weeks where whirlwinds of activity aboard Rutea as we prepared her to sit patiently in her slip while Ruthie and I returned to San Diego.  We were able to find a cruiser who was willing to look in on Rutea and that gave us a little piece of mind that if something were to happen, at least we’d know about it before we returned to be surprised.  We left Shelter Bay Marina and Rutea in the early morning and shared a cab with a cruiser who had business in Panama City, about an hour-and-a-half drive away.  We checked into the squeaky clean Hotel Coral Suites and even though we were there well before check-in time, they showed us to our spacious room.

Armed with a copy of Lonely Planet for Panama, its top edge fluttering with bits of paper marking important pages, we set out to discover this city whose skyline resembles that of Miami Beach in Florida.  As per usual, Ruthie and I walk everywhere and, fortunately, Panama City is mostly very flat.  That didn’t stop me, though, from working up enough perspiration to completely soak my clothes, the tropical heat and humidity continuously torturing me.

One of the highlights of our tour was visiting the old part of Panama City, which, like many cities, has undergone revitalization and now hosts trendy shops and tony eateries.  We easily spent three hours in the museum on the building of the Panama Canal, the saga of which almost reads like a fictional murder mystery.  For lunch, we walked back to the fish market, a massive facility for both wholesale and retail seafood sales, complete with many restaurants and stalls.

That evening we got together with a cruising couple we had met at Shelter Bay Marina (who were also leaving their boat and heading home) and after cocktails in our room, we walked to a restaurant with a dinner show featuring traditional Panamanian folk dancing which was far from professional but had much in the way of effort, dignity and pride.  We all felt it was very worthwhile and the food was pretty good, too.

Then, one more time, Ruthie and I boarded a plane for home, knowing that probably it would be the last time we’d leave Rutea in a foreign port and fly home.