October 2013 - Panama

1 October 2013    Shelter Bay Marina, Panama
Only two days to go now.  I walked to the marina office and paid for 120 gallons of diesel – it costs $4.75 per gallon here and they make you pay upfront.  I wanted to completely fill the tank, so I had to pay for more than I need and they’ll give me a credit for the unused balance when I've filled up – very strange.

Before going over to the fuel dock, I topped up my tank with some diesel that has been standing around in a jerry jug on deck for over a year.  It looked a bit dark as I was pouring it into my filtered funnel, so I left a litre or so in the bottom of the jerry can.  I shook it up and the remainder turned very black – I obviously have some serious sludge in the bottom and need to wash out the container before I refill it.  Fortunately, I’ve recently bought two new yellow containers, which I filled up at the fuel barge.

I did a few jobs in the afternoon and continued to load software onto my laptop and letting it upgrade itself and reboot endless times.  Glenys did another two loads of laundry including the tedious job of removing all of our curtains.  Later, while she was finishing sewing the back panel for the bimini, I helped her by replacing the 14 curtains – hundreds of little plastic clips had to be inserted - what a tedious job, perhaps we should buy some blinds.

We ran the generator and water maker for an hour to test the generator and to make more water ready for the Canal Transit.  Even though we can have as much free water as we want here in the marina, it doesn't taste very nice and we don’t want to pollute our tanks.   

2 October 2013    Shelter Bay Marina, Panama
Final day before we transit.  Glenys went into the shopping mall to do final provisioning, buying mostly fresh food, while I lurked down below in the cool cabin, backing up my website and finishing the chore of installing software on my new hard disk – it’s taken me five days so far, but I think that I’ve now finally got everything working.

Leaving Shelter Bay Marina

Erick, our Canal Agent, delivered the four long shore lines and fenders.  He also brought our international clearance (zarpe) to Costa Rica and told me that he’d double checked that we wouldn't be going against the side wall.  We need to be at the Flats anchorage at one o'clock tomorrow and the Canal Authority Advisor should be on board at two o'clock.

In the afternoon, I spent a couple of hours tidying up the deck, sorting out the ropes and putting the fenders in place.  The fenders are big 2 foot diameter balls which look much, much better than the old tyres that the other agents usually provide.  However, I still have to “tip” the launch driver with $12 at Balboa Yacht Club when we drop them off when we've gone through the Canal.

Glenys spent the afternoon stowing even more provisions and getting ready to have three extra people on board overnight.  Every bit of spare locker space is packed with food, and there are cases of beer and drinks in the aft heads shower.

We went to the bar for happy hour and stayed for dinner.  I think that we’re ready.

3 October 2013    Shelter Bay Marina to Las Brisas, Panama
A big thunder storm went through during the night, so I had to get up twice - once to put our small electronics into the oven and again to put up the bimini side flaps when we had torrential rain.  It was still raining in the morning, which was disappointing after the two nice sunny days that we’d had.

First thing in the morning, we received another email from our agent, Erick saying that the advisor wouldn't be coming on board until four o'clock, which meant that we wouldn't be going through the Gatun Lock until around six o'clock and would be mooring on the buoy in Gatun Lakes around eight o'clock, which was a pity.

Glenys cooked a big pan of Cassoulet ready for dinner and I did some last minute jobs.  Thankfully, it stopped raining around half past nine enabling me to do some things on deck.  I was extremely paranoid about getting my solar panels damaged by the heavy monkey fists on the end of the thin heaving lines used in the locks.  The panels are a nice attractive 5 foot by 5 foot flat target for the shore based line handlers and at $800 each, I don’t want them smashed.  I covered them with our 2 inch thick cockpit cushions and lashed them in place.  After stowing the air conditioning unit and paying the bill, we were ready to go.

William and Neville checking aft shore line

Our three line handlers (Walter & Jacqui from “Jean Marie” and Joachim from “Vela”) arrived at midday and we were soon motoring out of the marina, with other cruisers shouting “Good Luck” as we went past, which was a nice send off.  On the way, I called “Cristobal Signal Station” to tell them that we were heading to the The Flats anchorage ready to pick up an Advisor for a Canal Transit – exciting or what?

We anchored on time, just before one o’clock, but when I called “Cristobal Signal Station” to tell them that we’d arrived, they informed us that our Advisor would now be coming aboard at half past five.  Bummer – we’d be doing the whole transit in the dark.

I ran through the canal transit procedures with my crew and showed them how to set up and handle the 150 foot long shore lines.  In order to go through the canal, each yacht must have four of these one inch thick shore-lines, adequate fenders and four crew to act as line-handlers – hence having our three friends on board.  

The sky grew darker and darker as the afternoon progressed and it absolutely threw it down with huge flashes of lightning and loud rolling thunder.   All we could do was to cower under the bimini with the side flaps up - chatting and drinking cups of tea, waiting and hoping that the rain would stop.

Our Advisor, William arrived on a Canal Authority launch and stepped on board.  The launches are large powerful craft, but they handle them beautifully, charging up and stopping with their bow about one foot from your topsides, then backing off as soon as the advisor is aboard.

William told us that we’d be transiting in an hour or so and would be rafting up with a large 80 foot catamaran called “Cat Bird”, which was also anchored in the Flats next to us.  Being much larger than us and having professional line handlers on board meant that we’d simply tie alongside them and they would handle the four shore lines – sounded good to me.  We both upped anchor at about half past six and motored slowly in the dark and the pouring rain towards the lock. 

We tied up together an hour later, just outside the lock.  “Cat Bird” didn’t have a lot of cleats available and the crew didn’t seem to know what the hell they were doing, but eventually we were tied securely together with two bow lines and two springs.  We were a little further back than I would have liked and I was worried that the aft line would be too close to our solar panels & antennas on the arch, especially when the water level dropped, but by then it was too late.

At eight o’clock, we followed a huge, 180 metre long ship called the “Atlantic Pearl” into the lock, which along with its tug left barely enough room for our raft.   The two shore line handlers on our side threw their thin 1/4" diameter "messenger" lines, weighted with monkey fists onto Alba.  We then passed the lines to the line handlers on “Cat Bird” – it was a major gymnastic effort to pass it around the arch and dinghy, but I managed.  After that it was simply a matter of watching the process with the messenger lines being tied onto the big shore lines, which were hauled up by the shore line handlers and dropped over bollards.

First Chamber, Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

The water was very turbulent when it was pouring into the chamber through underwater gates and we were slewing around a little, so I kept a very careful watch on the stern line which was only six feet or so from our arch.  Once the gates were open and the “Atlantic Pearl” was clear, our raft’s shorelines were dropped into the water and retrieved by “Cat Bird’s” line handlers – no work for us at all.  The shore line handlers walked along the dock holding the messenger lines and the process was repeated in the other two chambers.

It continued raining heavily for the 1½ hour transit through the three chambers, but it was warm rain and interesting to see it all happening in the dark.  Once clear of the third chamber, we dropped our lines with “Cat Bird” and motored around the corner to the Gatun Lake Mooring, arriving at quarter past ten.  It was difficult see in the dark especially since there was a large tug anchored close with lots of blazing lights, ruining our night vision.  There was a bit of confusion by my crew on how to moor on the large red rubber-covered mooring - we had to go alongside with just a bow and stern line, but they thought that we were just going to hang off it.   It was my fault because my instructions weren't clear enough.  I’m not used to having crew – Glenys and I work mostly by monosyllabic words and telepathy.

Once settled, we cracked open the cold beers and Glenys produced her Cassoulet with baguettes, which was consumed with gusto.  A box of wine then appeared and we told sea-faring shaggy dog stories for an hour before I suggested that we go to bed because it was after midnight and I was seriously knackered…

4 October 2013    Shelter Bay Marina to Las Brisas, Panama
We were all up at quarter to six.   Today’s advisor, Roy, arrived promptly at six o’clock and ten minutes later, we were on our way, motoring the twenty eight miles to the Pedro Miguel Locks.  Our scheduled time to transit these locks was half past eleven, so we pootled along at 5 to 6 knots following the edge of the shipping lane.  Roy was a nice guy, spoke good English and was a mine of information about the Panama Canal.

Chatting to the Advisor, Panama Canal

The Gatun Lake was formed by damming the Chagres River when the Canal was built in the early 1900s. The original wooded valley was flooded forming a lake of 165 square miles with numerous islands that used to be the tops of the hills.  Unfortunately, no private boats are allowed to explore the area and it’s not permitted to anchor overnight except as part of a transit because the bed of the lake is very treacherous with the remains of trees and buildings. 

This is a shame because it looks beautiful and has a huge variety of wildlife (including crocodiles). The whole middle section of the Gatun Lake is now a nature reserve and we motored past the world-famous Smithsonian Institute which does research into tropical medicine and wildlife.

There’s a huge amount of construction work going on at the moment - the Canal Authority is creating new, wider locks at both ends of the canal allowing larger ships to transit, aiming to double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2015. They are also widening and deepening the existing ship’s channel and we passed some interesting machinery being used, especially in the Gaillard Cut. 

When the Canal was originally constructed, the greatest barrier was the continental divide, which was solid rock rising to 110 metres above sea level at its highest point.  The scale of the work was massive.  Six thousand men worked in the six mile long Gaillard Cut, drilling holes and exploding a total of 27,000 tons of dynamite to break up the rock, which was then taken away by train.  Today, the Gaillard Cut is being widened and deepened by drilling into the lake bed rock, using explosive to shatter the rock and huge diggers to scoop the rubble into barges. 

Dredging in the Gaillard Cut, Panama Canal

While we were motoring along, I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t get my phone to access the Internet even though I’ve got a data service enabled.  Roy had a look at my phone, removed the battery & SIM card, restarted the phone and the bloody thing worked.  He says that his phone does the same thing and resetting it seems to do the job.  I was really happy.

The plan was for us to go through the remaining locks alongside “Cat Bird” in a similar way as yesterday, but they developed a problem with one of their engines and didn’t make it to the Pedro Miguel Locks in time, so we changed to rafting alongside a tourist ship called “Atlas III” that was taking school children on a trip through the canal.

We were in the first batch of boats to go southbound and there was no large ship in the lock with us, which is amazing considering the amount of water used with each transit.  Roy told us that 52 million gallons of fresh water flow from Gatun Lake to the sea on every transit of the canal.  That’s about 6 million gallons of fresh water lost in every lock chamber.  He also told us that the average fee for a ship to go through the Canal is a staggering $300,000 – I now think that our $1,500 fee is a bargain.

There was a bit of confusion at the Pedro Miguel locks because we were initially told to go into the left hand lock chamber, but then were told that we had to go back out and wait for a sailing boat and a small ship to come up.  We must have hovered around for half an hour, gently going around in circles trying to avoid the “Atlas III”.

The transit was very painless.  “Atlas III” went into the chamber first and tied up against the port wall with us following 100 feet behind.  Once they were settled, we went alongside, where there was a bit of confusion because their crew weren’t ready to receive us, but it soon worked out.  We only had a bow and stern line attached with no springs, so I was a little concerned that we would be moving around too much in the turbulent water, but Roy assured me that going down was much, much smoother than going up.

Leaving the Pedro Miguel Lock, Panama Canal

A large tug and another tourist ship came in behind us, the lock gates closed and we started to go down which, as Roy said, was very smooth.  We chilled out with nothing to do except chat to the school children (who were fascinated by our boat) and eat the pasta that Glenys had prepared for lunch.  When the lock gates opened, we dropped our lines and motored out ahead of everyone else heading for the Miraflores lock a mile away.

“Atlas III” turned off the ship’s channel to drop off their passengers and we went through the two chambers of Miraflores rafted up to another tourist ship called “Fantasia Del Mar”.  It was a similar procedure going in, but this time when the lock gates in the first chamber opened, we cast off, then I had to get clear and back up while ““Fantasia Del Mar” motored off ahead of us.  Backing up in the turbulent water while not hitting the tug behind us was probably the most stressful  part of the whole transit – yachts don’t back up well with just a single engine.

The descent in the second chamber was painless.  When the final lock gate opened, we dropped the lines and motored out into the Pacific Ocean – no going back now…

A Canal Authority launch met us under the “Bridge of the Americas” and took Roy ashore, leaving us to continue to the Balboa Yacht Club.  We motored into the mooring field and hovered about while we waited for the club launch to come out and meet us.  It’s a horrible mooring field, badly affected by the huge wakes from passing ships and tugs – the yachts moored there were pitching and rolling 20 degrees or more.  I wouldn’t like to stay there.

We only had to wait five minutes for the tender to appear.  It was a challenge to load the four heavy mooring ropes, eight fenders and our three friends onto the madly pitching tender.  I hadn’t put enough fenders down and was fully occupied jamming a hand-held fender down to stop the damn thing scratching our top sides.  It was a relief to cast off the tender, but sad to see our friends disappearing off, leaving us alone in the big bad Pacific Ocean.

Alba in the Miraflores Lock, Panama Canal

We motored along the ship’s channel and around the two islands at the end of the Amador Causeway and into the Las Brisas anchorage.  There’s over fifty boats anchored or moored here, but we soon found a big space to drop our anchor making sure that we had enough water to compensate for the five metre tides – we’re going to have to adjust to having such big tides after the small one foot tides in the Caribbean Sea.

We were settled by four o’clock and it didn’t take long before we cracked open a nice cold beer.

I've produced a Google Earth trip showing our route through the Panama Canal.

5 October 2013    Las Brisas, Panama
We had a chill out day.  I managed to get a good internet connection provided free by the Panama City authority, so I caught up on a few emails.  Some of our friends had managed to capture some pictures of us in the Miraflores Lock taken from the webcam, which is nice.  I spent the rest of the day reading, getting this diary up to date and sorting through the hundreds of photos that we’d taken on the Canal Transit.

Glenys read up on the Darien province of Panama which is only about 80 miles away and is a region of rivers stretching into dense jungle.  The Pan-American Highway stretches from Alaska to the tip of South American apart from a hundred or so miles through the remote Darien area.  Columbia is south of the Darien region and Panama has resisted all requests to build a road joining the two countries because of security concerns.  The impenetrable jungle acts as a natural barrier preventing drug runners and illegal immigrants from entering Panama.  If we travel to this region we will be going into a remote place and it would be better if we went with another yacht so that we had someone to assist us if we develop engine problems or run aground.

In the evening, we were in invited by Dominique and Dominique to drinks on “Kea”.  Another French couple, Luke and Marie also came and we had a very pleasant evening speaking a mixture of English and French.  I’m sure that the quality of my French is directly proportional to the amount of rum that I’ve consumed.  I can’t remember how we got onto the subject, but did you know that the French for “wand” is “baguette magique”?

Dodgy dinghy dock, Las Brisas, Panama

We first met “Kea” in Shelter Bay Marina back in July, when they were repairing the hull of their catamaran after ending up on a reef in Porvenir when their anchor dragged in a sixty knot squall.  They went through the Panama Canal and arrived in Las Brisas about six weeks ago.  Within a couple of days they were hit by lightning, which blew out some of their electronics.  Incredibly, a few days later they were hit by lightning AGAIN, which destroyed all the rest of their electronics and electrical systems.  Unlucky or what?  

6 October 2013    Las Brisas, Panama
We went ashore for a walk around the local area.  The dinghy dock is amazing.  It’s a floating platform (in a very poor state of repair) which is close to shore near some old concrete steps, but there’s no gangway between the dinghy dock and the steps.  The tidal range here is five metres, so to get people ashore, the local cruising community has installed a small plastic boat, which is connected to the dock and the steps by a rope.

To get ashore, you have to step into the very tippy boat one at a time and pull yourself to the shore where you gingerly climb out onto the slimy steps.  We’ve been told that climbing the concrete steps is the most dangerous part especially on a falling tide when the slime covering them is at its worst.  It was no problem for us both going ashore and returning, but I wouldn’t like to be carrying lots of shopping backwards and forwards.

There are three small islands linked to the Panama City by a long causeway and the place is a weekend destination for the locals with lots of restaurants plus a couple of big marinas, some hotels and a duty free centre.  We went to a small park run by the Smithsonian.  It only costs $5 each and has some pleasant paths through the grounds and a few small sea-life tanks.  I had heard that there are some wild sloths in the park, but we still haven’t seen one up close. 

We wandered around the area for an hour and ended up in the “Hacienda Columbian” having a Columbian platter for lunch.  We were glad that we only had one between two because it was huge with beef, minced pork, belly pork, chorizo sausage, fried egg, rice, plantains, patacones, yam and red beans.  Washed down with a couple of cold beers, it was a lovely Sunday lunch. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon back on Alba, reading and sleeping off the Balboas.