Pacific Crossing 2010-11
Sunday, February 13, 2011, Panama City, Panama
Welcome to the Pacific! Shango and crew exited the last of the Miraflores Locks into a different Ocean on Thursday afternoon the 10th of February after an uneventful transit of the Panama Canal.
When we last updated the log we were headed to Shelter Bay Marina in Colon to prepare for our Canal transit. On February 1st we had a terrific sail from Portobello to Colon with 18-25 knots of wind dead astern. Roger set up the whisker pole and we made good speed with the sails wing on wing. As the outer anchorage of Colon came into view we doused the sails and began threading our way through dozens of ships. Because they all have to wait for their appointed transit times, most of them were anchored…thankfully. We cooled our heels at Colon’s breakwater briefly while one ship exited the inner harbor and another entered, then we scurried across the channel towards Shelter Bay.
For the next eight days we worked on a large variety of projects. On the day we arrived, Erick, our agent, explained the transit process and got us started on the required paperwork. We checked in with Cristobal Signal as well as the Port Authority. Our large propane tank went off to be refilled with a guaranteed three-day turnaround time (you can see where this is going I’m sure.) I spent hours in line waiting for my turn at the washers & dryers and eventually managed to complete the laundry over a five day period. Roger resealed the aft water tank top while I made new covers for the cockpit cushions.
We got our first view of the Gatun locks while on the complementary bus to the supermarket in Colon. The bus route crosses the first set of locks and the trip can be rather time consuming if there is a ship in transit when you arrive. The day was rather windy and it made the approach to the lock look distinctly nasty. I hoped there would be no wind on our transit day.
Erick showed up on Tuesday the 8th with nine tires covered in plastic bags and four lines of 125’ each. Fernando, our main line handler, assured us he’d arrive early the following day with his two friends. I was to be the fourth line handler. We were scheduled for a 4:00p.m. transit on Wednesday and were expected to anchor at the Flats anchorage by 2:00. This is where the propane comes into the story. Apparently the Marina had several employees call in sick and yet another broke his leg. This prevented the free bus from running for several days. What we did not realize was that our propane was to return on the free bus. The propane had been gone for way more than three days and daily checks in the office brought regular promises of “tomorrow.” No such luck. By Tuesday we were distinctly anxious about our AWOL tank. The office promised that they would get us our tank by Wednesday morning even if it meant they had to send a taxi for it. Despite this one snafu we found Shelter Bay to be a great place to meet fellow cruisers, get projects done, have access to internet, laundry, showers, and a swimming pool!
On Wednesday morning our transit was moved up to 3:30 which meant a 1:30 arrival at the Flats. This required a 1:00 departure from the Marina. Finally, at noon, our propane tank appeared. Yay! Now our concern shifted to the line handlers. There was no sign of them and it was 12:30. We talked with the owner of the boat called Jedi, which Fernando maintains. It seemed Fernando and the line handlers had planned to take the free bus to the Marina and were now scrambling to make other plans. Hmmm… We take a final plunge in the pool and hope Fernando & Co. turn up. At 12:50 I saw legs on our dock as I looked out through the port lights. “They’re here!” We cram sandwiches down their throats and untie the dock lines at precisely 1:00. We took these two happy conclusions as a good omen.
We dropped the hook at the F anchorage and hailed Cristobal Signal to alert them to our arrival. They told us our transit time had been moved back to 4:00p.m. Naturally.
Our Transit Advisor arrived promptly at 4:00 and we and Elbe, another sailboat headed for the Canal entrance. According to our Adviser we would be rafted with Elbe and since we were the bigger boat we would be in “control” of the “nest.” This meant that we would be maneuvering the nest with our engine. It was the first time in a while that we had been larger than someone else and we were ok with it. We were to go into the Gatun locks behind a small (250’) freighter. Our luck was holding. Just short of the entrance we sidled up alongside Elbe and made fast. The next several minutes were rather nerve wracking as I called to mind every horror story I had ever heard about Canal transits. It was all wasted energy happily. The monkey’s fists tossed from above to pick up our lines injured no one and broke nothing. Our line handlers did a terrific job. There was no prop wash from the ship, which was so far forward of us we could barely read the name on her stern. Up we went as smoothly as can be. I was grinning despite myself.
The second and third Gatun locks went equally well and we found ourselves in Gatun Lake, tied up to what seemed like the world’s largest mooring buoy by 7:00 p.m. Elbe was tied up to the far side of the mooring buoy if it helps to give you some perspective on the size. The Adviser departed shortly after wolfing down some lasagna and the rest of us relaxed in the cockpit. Fernando was our “senior” line handler at the ripe old age of 45. Homer was 34 (with five kids) and Rudolfo was all of 15. Fernando learned to speak English at home. His grandparents had worked for the Americans on the Canal and taught all their kids English. Homero and Rudolfo spoke no English but it didn’t matter because they were able to follow the directions of Fernando and the Adviser.
Thursday morning we were up before dawn. We expected our new Adviser by 6:45. Roger got the pancakes underway and the troops were eating by 6:15….when the Advisor turned up. We had just enough time to feed him before we got underway at 6:30. Ivan, our Advisor for this portion of the transit was very experienced. He was a Canal guide and had made about a thousand transits.
Our noon transit of the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks had been moved up to 11:00 a.m. We moved right along hoping Elbe would turn up in time. The trip through Gatun Lake was very scenic. We had to remind ourselves that all the islands we saw around us were formerly hilltops in a now sunken valley. The lake was created in the early twentieth century when the Canal was reaching completion. We arrived a bit early at Pedro Miguel and tied up to await our opening. Elbe turned up before too long and we rafted up once again for “Locks, Part Two.”
The gates opened after a bit of a wait and we made our way toward the entrance. Pedro Miguel is the first of the three “down” locks which lower you from Gatun Lake level to the Pacific Ocean. A small lake called Miraflores separates the Pedro Miguel Lock from the two Miraflores Locks. We made our way smoothly from Pedro Miguel Lock, through the Lake and to the Miraflores Locks. At the last minute Ivan had us shift into neutral and eventually reverse while we waited for five northbound vessels to exit the lock. I became a bit nervous as we drifted toward the right hand wall in front of the lock entrance. Happily, the fifth vessel finally cleared the lock and we were able to pull to the left and head in. We were nicely centered at the front end of the first lock while we awaited whatever might pull in behind us. It turned out that a smallish tour boat would be our company in the lock. The eyes of all aboard our little nest watched as this 100+ foot boat pulled in behind us. According to Ivan it was a fairly flat bottomed boat which explained why it started to slew sideways as it approached us from astern. We waited nervously until we saw the lock line handlers pull in the slack and stop the forward/sideways progress of our aft neighbor. Also watching this were the many tourists visiting the Canal Museum which overlooks the Locks. Without further incident we completed our last Lock and the massive steel gates swung open, ushering us into the Pacific Ocean.
Wednesday February 23rd, Isla Bayoneta, Las Perlas, Panama
Here we sit recovering from our ten days in Panama City. Our anchorage, behind Isla Bayoneta, is very pretty with a Maine feel about it. There are lots of big rocks which uncover with the seventeen foot tides. The water is alive with plankton and you cannot see the rocks no matter how much sun there is. The Island has tall trees instead of palms, but unlike Maine they are not spruce. If I squint and ignore the pelicans this could be the Roque Archipelago. Two days ago we had a terrific forty mile sail from Panama City. The breeze was blowing offshore at fifteen knots and we slid along for hours. Oh Joy. Toward the end of the day we began to see golden blobs in the water. At first I thought they were turtles or seaweed but no. Eventually it became clear that what we were seeing were golden rays. They were very beautiful as they surfed just below the surface of the waves. It was a good start to our “Pacific Creatures” list.
Our time in Panama City was productive if a bit of a slog. There was the usual misery of entry/exit paperwork for Panama which Roger did, but the bulk of our energy went toward projects and provisioning for our two upcoming passages. Roger’s major project was the installation of a new alternator and regulator which went well but more slowly than anticipated, which always is the case. I spent my days driving around town scoping out our possibilities for provisioning. Usually I took cabs which went well. One day I opted for the bus to see if it was worth the cost savings. The answer, for me at least, was a resounding NO. The directions I was given involved taking the Causeway bus to Cinco de Mayo then switching to the bus for Transismica. Not as easy as it sounds. Two other cruisers and I managed to take the wrong Transismica bus which involved several hours of driving in circles before we arrived at our destination. Needless to say I took a cab home.
Our BIG provisioning day involved hiring a taxi by the hour and driving to an untold number of places to buy stuff we weren’t sure would fit on the boat. Naturally the anchorage was a blustery, bouncy disaster when we returned with our goods, adding a clean-up step to our stowing. If you aren’t fond of grocery shopping via car in the U.S.A. you’d definitely dislike the whole taxi/dinghy/salt spray thing.
We spent Sunday morning, our last in Panama City, shopping at Abastos, the municipal fresh produce market. There’s nothing I like more than a fresh produce market and this one didn’t disappoint. We were with Juan, our favorite taxi driver, who knew his way around the vast expanse of fruits and veggies. If Juan’s eyes widened when a vendor quoted a price we moved on to a different vendor. It was a very successful outing. Before heading back to the boat we took a drive through Casco Viejo, the Old City of Panama. Its construction began in 1673 shortly after Captain Henry Morgan sacked (and burned) the previous “city.” It is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is slated for a much needed restoration over the next few years.
Our stay ended with a VERY bumpy Sunday afternoon. The wind picked up, along with the seas and boats began to drag. One boat, with no one aboard, began to drag toward the rocks of the Causeway. A small flotilla of cruisers, Roger included, charged off to help. Not long after, they were able to deploy the boat’s second anchor and avert disaster. Ah, life in paradise. Needless to say we were more than ready to leave the following day.
Monday February 28th, Isla Espiritu Santo, Las Perlas, Panama
The Las Perlas were a terrific stop for us. We spent eight days lounging around and getting organized for our passage to the Galapagos, eight hundred miles away. There was no shopping to be done and it was replaced by bird watching. After four days of solitude at Isla Bayoneta we wove our way through the Island chain to the east side and the Island of Espiritu Santo. Once again we were captivated by the stark beauty and quiet of these islands. Espiritu Santo is a tiny uninhabited jewel of a place separated from the large Isla Rey, its neighbor, by a narrow channel where we anchored. Every day low tide would reveal a large sand spit where birds enjoyed eating the crabs and one happy trimaran cleaned its bottom.
It was at Espiritu Santo that we caught up with the crew of the Australian sailboat Pyewacket. We enjoyed the company of Noel and Jackie several times in Panama City and were happy to run into them again in the Perlas. We shared several dinners and swapped a variety of sailing tales during the days we spent bobbing together behind Espiritu Santo. Also planning for a Galapagos departure was Reality, another fifty footer, from San Francisco. We met Vaughn and Sharon at the Gouyave Fish Fry in Grenada last January and it was nice to see their familiar faces turn up in Panama City. They had to make a last dash back there for a water maker part but by today, the last day in February we’re all in the Perlas with a stack of GRIB files, weather faxes and itchy feet, ready to get our passage underway.
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