I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that it doesn’t take much for us to change our cruising plans. Whether it’s serendipity or just an unexpected 20kt wind in the right direction, if it feels right we roll with it and we’re rather proud of that.
The day startd much like yesterday when our sleepy little anchorage off Isla Contadora began to ripple with a breeze. We hemmed and hawed, should we go or should we stay? More me than Marce. Finally I saw two inflatables raftd up together and I said let’s just go in and see what this place has to offer. At the very least the Hotel Romantico that faces the harbor will have wifi. What makes you say that? It would have to, and besides, our beach landings could use a bit of practice. There are no dinghy docks and the tides are fierce, about 17 feet, which leaves you with two options: (a)drag a 325 lb. RIB way up the beach or (b) rig an anchor out in the water and run a painter way up the beach and tie it to something that won’t float away. We chose the beach. That damn thing is heavy.
So one of the rafter-uppers said they were going for a walk and they’d show us around. It’s a beautiful island featuring a small airport that bisects the entire island coast to coast, a nude beach that is right below the landing approach — that’s gotta be distracting — a couple of small shops and the aforementioned Hotel Romantico Bar and Restaurant.
After our walk and just a few provisioning items Marce kiscked back at the HRB&R and I went on a wild goose chase after stamps and a post office, and can now categorically state that Contadorians have no stamps, nor do they have a post office.
So as I say on the beach we chose option (a) not realizing that we had beached Catnip at high tide and were what looked like a good 100 feet from anything that would float a 325 dinghy, and I have to say we were making slow but steady progress when several beefy cruisers showed up and made quick work of our overland Catnip adventure.
Our plans for the following morning were simple, motor over to see a rusting hulk of an 1800s submarine used in pearl harvesting that was stranded on Isla San Telmo’s beach, then putt across the bay to La Esmeralda, anchor and finish provisioning. But then the wind picked up. It was in a favorable direction. It was good. Very good. Too good. We’d been told to expect a slog to the south just to find wind.
I don’t know why but other than the thrill of being in Panama it wasn’t very thrilling. There are a lot of factors that go into new port enjoyment and one major factor is, if it’s the most rolly, bucked-out-of-bed roadstead you’ve ever experienced it probably will lessen your overall enjoyment .
Five dollars a day to land your dinghy at La Playita Marina.
Bikes rusted out and given away.
No cruising guide.
Amazing Frank Gehry building but still under construction and closed.
Stunning high-rise modern city skyline far off in the distance but somehow impossible to find.
Chandleries with nothing in them.
I could go on and given time and a decent anchorage I think we could have warmed to the place but with constant wakes 24/7 from 1,000-ft Panamax monsters and pilot boats that cut right through the anchorage, not to mention Las Perlas and the Galapagos beckoning, the dead pig had floated past the boat.
We were missing our transiting buddies Nancy and Dave, so we decided to walk to the Balboa Yacht Club to get our passports stamped. When asking directions we were told that it wasn’t walkable. We’re Escapees. It’s walkable, and while trying to find immigration we bumped into a guy who said he’d drive us to the admiralty chart shop which had nothing in it that we needed anyhow. No Equador flag…seriously?
After three stops we finally hooked up with a guy that brought out enough plumbing bits that I was able to fashion a diverter valve, bypassing our leaky watermaker manifold using 1 bronzey tee (Panamanian for brass), 2 SS ball valves, 3 nipples, and 3 hose adapters. All without a lick of Spanish.
Yes, I’m that good.
So as I say, they don’t use street numbers so finding a small business is a touch difficult and requires a certain amount of wandering around with a puzzled look on your face. While wandering around with a puzzled look on our faces we bumped into a great NYC style deli and even Marce had a great lunch for a change.
A spot of last minute provisioning had us searching for a cab and a quick dinghy ride home to check the weather for a much needed passage outta here.
Morning dawned with glorious sunshine and light breezes, and with a quick call to Flamenco signal station we set a course through the behemoths at anchor awaiting transit through the canal. Marce wisely “suggested” one reef in the main and as the ultimate authority aboard Escape Velocity I said, “yes dear” while grousing under my breath about losing up to a knot with the light winds predicted.
We were soon touching 7+ knots in 25-30 knots of wind and put in another reef when the leeward hull started to dig in. It turns out that the uterus is not only a most excellent tracking device but it’s a wind predictor too and we have one onboard!
So, where was I? Oh yes, we were barreling along asking each other, “is this too fast?” when Las Perlas hove into view and we stood on until it was time to turn into Survivor’s favorite island group.
Ok, the sail take down earned no style points but this sure is a pretty place, and Jeff…we’re ready.
Everyone seems so excited about the canal transit. Me, I’m overwhelmed with all the planning and paperwork not just for this step, but for the next three or four in our Pacific journey. Everything is complicated by the lack of wifi in the marina and the marginal cell signal that makes sending and receiving email akin to tending a tiny fire with damp kindling and hoping the breeze doesn’t blow it out before the bigger sticks catch.
We had a detailed briefing from Peter and Monique from Deesse who went through on another boat as line handlers. We weren’t much concerned about the locking part because we’d done that many times in the rivers of Pittsburgh. I was more obsessed with what I was going to serve six people for five meals and how I was going to keep everyone fed and watered while I was line handling. We topped up the water tanks and confirmed that we had plenty of fuel.
Our hired-on line handler — we need four, not counting Jack, who must be on the helm at all times — was friendly and helpful and spoke little English but we managed to communicate anyway. His name is Erick just like our agent so we told our agent we’ll call him Lil’ Erick. He laughed.
Our start time was pushed back to 5pm from 3pm but Lil’ Erick wanted us to get to the flats, the staging anchorage for small boats, by 1pm anyway just in case.
Nancy made sandwiches for lunch and I had dinner started, but as soon as we got the anchor down I went below and took a nap. The last few days of very little sleep got the best of me and I slept despite the rolling.
A pilot boat finally made the rounds of the anchorage dropping off the “advisors.” As a small boat we don’t get a pilot, just an advisor who directs the helmsman through the canal. Our advisor is Fernando and it turns out he’s a devout Baptist who takes his vow to spread the good news seriously.
EV and two monohulls were the last of the yachts to leave the flats. We hoped we would be rafted in the middle — that means no line handling for us — but as we approached the Gatun locks Jack was instructed to raft up to port of a monohull that had a couple of feet on us in length.
That meant Erick, our hired line handler, and I will be responsible for keeping the left side of the 3-boat raft-up steady and centered in the locks as the water flows in. There are three chambers in this set of locks, so we will do this three times, lifting 29 feet each time.
Men on the lock walls toss small lines with monkey fists to the boat and we tie our big fat lines on and they are hauled back to the wall of the lock and looped over bollards. The small boat on the right side of the raft-up also has lines bow and stern so we three boats are held in place by four big lines attached to the walls of the lock. This is the only part that’s different for us in locking through. In the rivers of Pittsburgh small boats are held against the side wall of the locks but you still have lines to tend. As the water lifts us our job is to keep pulling in our lines so we stay nicely centered and stable.
As we get to the top of each lock, the men on the lock walls drop our heavy lines into the water and we haul them back aboard, the small lines still attached. The canal men walk alongside holding the small line as the center boat motors us the 1000 or so feet into the next chamber. When we ‘re about in the right place our heavy lines are pulled back to the lock walls and dropped over a bollard and we start all over again. By the second chamber I was wishing I had dug out my sailing gloves. Those fat lines are hard on the hands, especially when they’re wet and salty.
We got through all three chambers under the bright sodium lights of the Gatun locks and emerged from the last one into such darkness that we were all blinking, trying to regain our night vision.
We pulled out our rarely used handheld spotlight to find the big mooring puck we had to tie up to and got secured about 10pm and dropped into bed exhausted. A few more boats showed up an hour later but I never even heard them.
As usual, Dave and I were the early risers and while we were enjoying coffee in the cockpit I heard an announcement over a PA system. “The breakfast buffet is now open. You are invited to the breakfast buffet.” Hey, sounds great to me! While I looked around for the breakfast buffet, Dave laughed and pointed out the small canal tour boat anchored just behind us but mostly hidden by our stadium seat. We could see the guests lining up for what we imagined were made-to-order omelets and pastry. I served our crew breakfast burritos with Bahamian peas and rice and roasted Caribbean pumpkin. That will have to do.
While we were eating the tourboat passengers were ferried ashore in small boats and they took photos of us as they passed at close range. That’s a funny thing we’ve noticed as we travel; we end up in people’s vacation albums and slide shows.
Our advisor was late getting back to us and we finally started on the 26-mile motor across Gatun Lake at about 10am. The delay put us in company with two smaller monohulls and we adjusted our speed to match the slowest boat. Nancy and I made the sandwiches for lunch and got dinner ready to go into the oven later. While we cooked we could hear Fernando engage our resident scientist Dave in a discussion on the origin of life. It was clear they had different viewpoints and I decided that was as good a time as any to go below for a nap.
When I woke up a few hours later we were still motoring towards the Pedro Miguel lock and without thinking I climbed up to the stadium seat beside Fernando to enjoy the view. Dave, I noticed, was out on the side deck and Jack was focused on the way ahead.
“How can I be a better person?” Fernando asked.
“You’re in the hot seat,” said Jack. Oh boy, I thought, and Fernando launched into a convoluted argument about morality that I had trouble following. I excused myself as soon as I could and for the rest of the transit no one sat next to Fernando.
We reached the Pedro Miguel lock shortly after 3pm and the two small monohulls rafted up to either side of us before we entered the chamber. Woo-hoo! No line handling! Although that meant Jack was driving the bus, no small feat in wind and current.
In these locks, the yachts went in first, and a Panamax cargo ship came in behind us. We quickly moved into the first Miraflores Lock, motored right up to the gates and tied off.
Fernando pointed up to a tower on an adjacent building. “That’s the webcam,” he said, and he logged on to the canal website to request an angle change to be sure we’d be visible. While he was doing that I checked Facebook on my phone and shrieked when I saw that my cousin Carla posted a perfect screen grab of EV and her two minions waiting patiently in the lock. Nancy and I waved furiously at the webcam and we all took turns taking photos.
We noticed after a while that we weren’t going anywhere and looked behind to see that our Panamax friend hadn’t entered the lock yet. Then they closed the gate and we figured we were going down alone. But after a while the gate opened again and our partner ship came in and we finally made the trip one step closer to the Pacific Ocean.
With one more chamber to go we looked over the top toward our new cruising grounds and I welled up with a messy mix of pride in what we’d accomplished so far, anticipation for what’s ahead, and relief that we apparently did most things right when planning our haphazard Schulz-y way.
The sun was fading when we motored out of the last lock. We disconnected from our partner boats and motored a couple of miles to the meet-up points where Fernando and Erick were picked up, then continued to the anchorage. We dropped the hook in total darkness and Dave popped the cork on a champagne toast to put an exclamation mark on the turning point of our journey.
As passage prep goes this one was a bit more intense than normal. We had the usual provisioning except there were six aboard Escape Velocity for the Panama Canal transit with all its attendant meals and bottled water for our expert line handler, canal advisor, and Marce’s sister and brother in law, Nancy and Dave. Our Canal agent helped with most of the paperwork and clearance Zarpe, in addition to a wheelbarrow load of heavy 100-foot lines and eight large fenders.
Once our line handler came aboard we cast off and headed out of Shelter Bay Marina, got permission from Cristobal Signal Station to cross the shipping lanes and anchor in what is known as the flats, await our advisor and our revised transit time.
Slowly a few other boats gathered in the small boat anchorage and sure enough the start time slipped all the way to 17:45 hrs.
We are going to do this in the dark.
As dusk fell over the bay, what light we still had grew more otherworldly as all the flashing marker lights took over influencing what we saw. Red, yellow, green, white, we fell in line with the monstrous stern of a tanker only to find that it was the wrong tanker. Fernando, our advisor, said oh, ours is back there so we pulled out of line to wait while the advisors decided to take advantage of the wait to raft up. This would be difficult in the daylight but at night it’s downright scary. So with all fenders deployed I carefully maneuvered EV up to a monohull and got a full marks attaboy from the controlling advisor. We will be on the port side of the three boat raft up, with responsibility for bow and stern lines of the raft on our side.
We glided up to the center of the first chamber of the Gatun Lock, tucked in just behind the huge stern of our new best friend, the Atlantic Acanthus.
It’s hard to impress a Pittsburgh boater with a lock. Running up the Allegheny River from the ‘Burgh you are going to lock through just about every ten miles and I’ve boated there most of my life so I know locks. That being said, I don’t want to come off like Peggy Lee, nonchalantly asking the ether if that’s all there is. For me it’s the history and the accomplishment of transiting the Panama Canal rather than the size of the thing. Don’t get me wrong it’s big…real big, and the new one is even bigger but I know locks. Been there done that kinda thing.
The monkey fists thrown from ashore hit the fiberglass decks with a resounding report and our lines are let out all the way to the lock bollards. We tied cockpit cushions on top of our solar panels to protect them from from an errant throw; we sailors can be a cautious lot. Soon the 3-boat raft is suspended more or less in the center of the chamber and water…lots of water is roiling up from underneath.
We do this three times and in near total darkness we unraft and head out towards two flashing yellow lights that might as we’ll be in outer space. The yellow lights turn out to be two six foot round, rubber coated mooring donuts, looking for all the world like gigantic hockey pucks. All three boats from our raft tied up to the huge hockey puck and each other with copious use of fenders, for a less than restful night.
Morning dawned and we discovered three extra boats rafted up alongside and a couple of dare devils taking the waters, swimming with crocodiles. It’s a jungle, remember. Our advisor was an hour late and that demoted EV to the second tier with a smaller boat lashed on either side.
Gatun lake was well marked and meandered through beautiful uninhabited jungle with occasional heroically large canal structures, usually having something to do with the new canal which apparently uses a lot of the old canal. My main concern was to watch for stealthy mammoth ships sneaking up from behind. How something that big could make so little noise is beyond me.
We paused to raft up again as dusk began to overtake us. Seeing the Pacific from the top of the Miraflores lock I found myself overwhelmed. Marce mugged for the lock web camera and down we went.
As I was saying we’ve read so many books about the history of the Panama Canal with old photos and even some film footage that to actually be here is a real kick. Our favorite walk at Shelter Bay was past what must have once been turn of the century American officers quarters perched high on top of a breezy hill called the Kennedy Loop. The houses are gone but the concrete foundations and stairs are still there, in addition to a large troop of howler monkeys running around in the amazingly tall royal palm trees and still-manicured grounds, while the old powder magazines which are rough concrete structures half-buried in the hillside, slowly crumble into the jungle. The jungle always wins in the end. Kind of an eerie place.
Both canal men are off the boat now but it’s really dark as we race toward the anchorage following a long row of red floating lights just out of the channel and tip toe our way in past the usual unlit outliers and try to judge distances based on a small point of light sixty feet above the water. I hate doing this in the dark. Finally Marce yells release the hounds and the new Rocna splashes into the Pacific water. The anchor grabs and pulls EVs bow around…we’re hooked. Engines off, Marce’s pasta with five cheeses and victory champagne provided by Dave and Nancy. The rest we’ll sort out tomorrow.
From the beginning of our life aboard EV my sister and brother-in-law booked the passage through the Panama Canal and here we are, finally, after nearly two years aboard, welcoming them for the first time in a year. The past week has been hectic and exciting and fun. Jack and I are certainly self-entertaining and enjoy our voyaging life but having my dearest family with us makes everything so much better. As it is with family and good friends whenever we get together, even after long periods apart, it’s as if a day hasn’t passed since the last time.
While we’re mucking about in togetherness we’re also making the arrangements for transiting the canal, made so much simpler by our canal agent, Erick Galvez. We still have lots to do, but he guided us around the bureaucracy and made lists for us to follow. Two days before our scheduled transit he came by with a dock cart loaded with the heavy 100-foot lines we’ll need to control EV in the locks, and big fenders to protect us when we raft up with other boats, as most yachts do.
While I busied myself with paperwork and applying for permits for our next destination — the Galapagos — Jack got the boat ready and offloaded, with much sadness, our beloved but now rusty bikes and the retractable screen door we worked so hard to get only to discover it’s the wrong model for the boat. All week things were complicated by no Internet at the marina and extremely low water pressure. Sometimes the marina water was shut off completely, meaning you couldn’t shower, do laundry or even flush a toilet. Luckily Nancy and Dave are troopers and didn’t run screaming to a hotel. They pitch in anywhere and everywhere they’re needed.
We didn’t need much of a weather window to make Colon from Portobelo, Panama. Just nothing on the nose, please. The weather prognosticators promised such light conditions that we didn’t even take off the sail covers.
The breeze slowly built into something useful but by that time I had other concerns.
I’d had the chartplotter zoomed way in to negotiate our exit out of Portobelo harbor and when I noticed very few AIS contacts. I zoomed out to twenty four miles. The screen was a solid ball of purple triangles, each one representing one of those 700-foot monsters looking for all the world like thousands of space invaders advancing down the screen at us, some at anchor awaiting transit, some not, some could be a tiny sailboat lost in a solid ball of purple. Who could tell? I don’t mind telling you Dear Escapees, I swallowed hard when that screen came up. You could say that I was a scoshe intimated. We’d followed a small sailboat all the way from Portobelo but you could never pick her out of the sea of purple on my screen because I would have to isolate one of the contacts to click on it. This is no ordinary crossroads. This is…well…cellophane, as Cole Porter once wrote. As we dodged one space invader after another I kept one eye on the shipping lane which passes through a gap In the magnificent stone jetty which protects the approach to the canal. We would be crossing the first shipping lane and entering the second and with any luck at all, after a hard turn to starboard, following the jetty to the entrance of the famous Shelter Bay Marina. While crew ran around trying to remember where we stashed long forgotten dock lines I negotiated the circuitous path to dock E, slip 7 while trying to talk to Frank the dockmaster who apparently has his VHF radio on USA frequencies while ours is on internationalI frequencies naturally, and my brain decides to use this opportunity to draw a blank on the absurdly complicated method to go back to USA frequencies. I chose to pull straight in with starboard side tie.
Shelter Bay has a shinypants look to it with prices to match and their welcome package, a photocopied, multi page, stapled together affair, reminds us that the marina is surrounded by jungle and is visited by crocodiles! ‘Nuff said.
Our canal agent Erick showed up and efficiently took care of business and said to expect the admeasure guy maybe in the morning. Every boat must be remeasured…every time.
What we saw, first thing in the morning, was a column of thick black smoke rising up from an out building right across from E dock.
Somebody at the end of our dock said it was an army barracks which I could believe because large groups of young men often run around here in matching sweat gear shouting and singing. So, as I say, at first it was just burning with no response but soon the very large fuel tanks contained in the out building started exploding. It was like a twenty one gun salute just for us. No emergency response.
The black smoke really got going then and I have to say that some of the sleeping attire on dock E could stand improving. No response, apparently as one bizarrely dressed sailor said they have no fire fighting stations on this side of the canal. That’s when the three story building next to the out building really became engulfed in flames. No response, some of our coffee deprived neighbors drifted off to make some or at least to put some clothes on.
So the fire cut the power to Shelter Bay Marina which stopped all Wifi and exposed a lot of fashion gaffs in our sleeping attire on dock E. If you’re reading this it means that the Panamanian response time for wifi is better than the Panamanian response time for fighting major building fires.
I think I hear fire engine sirens. So…while we’re waiting for some firefighting action it’s interesting to note that to transit from the Caribbean to the Pacific one travels south east, that ought to be worth a couple of free beers in a bar someplace.