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
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.
Also near the grounds of
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
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
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.
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|
|Bridge of the Americas|
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
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.