Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Into the Caribbean Sea

2200, 11 Mar 12, Still anchored at the Playita Anchorage

We really have had some time to relax, sort of.  In between shopping trips we have taken the time to visit the Miraflores lock exhibit and actually see the locks we will be transiting on Saturday. The exhibit is like a museum of the history and function of the Panama Canal and it proved to be quite interesting. We saw a trio of sailboats and a large freighter go through their last lock on their way to the Pacific. The same day we went to the old quarter of Panama, which is also the part of town where most of the embassies are. There is a real push here to rebuild the old buildings to preserve the ambiance of the area. There is another Panama Canal museum here and it had a Gaugin exhibit with some of his actual works.
Miraflores lock from the observation deck

Other than that we have been preparing for our transit. All of the boats we know that have gone through have taken 2 days to get to the other side. Every boat, so far, has had a mid-morning departure with a stop in Gatun Lake for the night and completing the last lock the following day. It isn’t a real hardship but it means that the crew we will have assisting us with lines will be staying onboard for Saturday night. We will have Ron and Heather from Sun dancer and Michael from Epiphany crewing for us. The one advantage is that we’ll be able to have a good night with our crew in a quiet and peaceful setting and in a fresh water lake, with crocodiles we have been told….

Optical Illusion on their way to the Canal

We’ll be among the last of our group to go through. Most of the others will be crossing this week. Since we did not use the services of an agent we have to organize our own lines and fenders. The fenders are really just tires wrapped in plastic bags and hung over the side as fenders. We have 18 tires, double bagged and ready to be deployed.  We have arranged for a set of lines through Roger, a taxi driver who provides this service and the transport back for the crew. We will get our lines delivered on Friday morning. Soooo, all is more or less ready.  The lines are to be used to hold the vessel steady in the locks so that they don’t hit the sides of the canal as the water floods in or empties out, hence the requirement to have a crew of line-handlers to man each of the lines during the locking process.

Wednesday, 14 Mar, 13, Same old, same old….

Things are progressing, albeit, at a slow pace this week. Everything is in place for our Saturday transit. We have crew, are tires are rigged, tomorrow the lines will be delivered and we will get our transit time, meals are planned for the transit and we are psyched.

We did have one exciting event this week. Ray and Jerry Stacey came through the Canal yesterday on the Island Princess, a cruise ship. We had been planning for some time to meet them somewhere along the canal but after considering all the angles and the “miss” possibilities we had decided to delay our transit just long enough to see them as they exited the system here on the Pacific side. We had some pretty handy resources to assist us including the lock webcams and an AIS app for the I-Pad. AIS is a system that uses special location transponders (most ships have them now)that send a signal to shore stations so that ships can be located anywhere in the world. We were able to see their ship’s progress as it transited the Canal and saw her as she entered the last the last Miraflores lock. We then set off from our anchorage and motored up the channel to meet them. Everything after that seemed anti-climactic. We turned south with our sails up to parallel their course and stared into the sun trying to locate them on this massive ship. It took a while but there they were waving as frantically as we were. (you had to be there….) Ray and I had a few word on the VHF radio (yes, he brought his portable) and they were gone. Mission accomplished.

Island Princess. Ray and Gerry are top left near that black thingy

22:20, Monday, 18 mar 13, Alongside, Shelter Bay Marina

We have been here at the marina for the last few days after crossing through the canal to the Caribbean.

The crossing was everything we had hoped, simple, uneventful and exciting. We left the anchorage with Mangareva and Rio Nimpkish at 7AM after picking up our crew for the crossing. We had acquired the special 125 ft lines the previous afternoon 5 hours late. On Gosling, Fran was driving and JG, Heather , Ron and Michael designated as line-handles.

The first order of business was to pick up the advisor who would act as pilot to guide us through the waterway. Ours was Gabriel, a large tug captain during the week and an advisor on weekends. Once he was aboard we madeour way up the famous waterway to the first of the locks, the Miraflores locks. Gabriel was quite pleased when he received instructions to get us in early so that we could transit the entire system on the same day. This was only the 2nd time he had done this in 17 years of working as an advisor. We must have been Special….

The routine was that the other 2 boats would tie up on each side of Gosling, being the biggest of the three and with the more powerful engine, and then transit each of the locks as a nested group. This meant that only the outside boats would be handling lines on their respective sides, which also meant that our crew and half of each of the other two boats’ lines and crews were surplus. Too bad we hadn’t known before but Canal policy is that each boat must be prepared for the worst possible case.

The entire operation went off as smooth as silk. We were inside these huge 980ft long locks with only a small passenger tour boat for most of the locks and, on Gosling, we had very little to do except drive the group from lock to lock. After the 2 Miraflores locks and the Pedro Miguel lock we had a 35 mile run through the canal and Gatun Lake. We made it to the last locks at Gatun with a half hour to spare. By just after 4PM we were kissing the waters of the Caribbean Sea in rain showers and a 15-20 knot wind.  

Nested up and ready to enter the lock
Recieving the bolo from the dock hands


Doors closing. Notice the appropriate t-shirt....
Thanks Value Village.

Miraflores to Pedro Miguel. Crew relaxing

Busy Canal with ship traffic and dredges to stbd

Into the Caribbean

In the last lock we had a bit of excitement. The passenger tour boat that had been with us in all the locks, suddenly slewed to starboard and ended up sideways in the lock, almost touching both sides. It later appeared that he had lost one of his engines.


We had expected to stay in Gatun Lake overnight, as had all of the preceding boats had, so we had prepared a good supper and lots of libation to celebrate. We made up for that by anchoring in a designated small boat anchorage area called “the flats” close to the port of Colon for then night.

The next morning we motored to the marina, again in rain and windy conditions. Once tied up it was time to celebrate again. Did I mention that we are low on beer….

Well, all that excitement was 2 days ago and now we are ready to leave the marina for the San Blas Islands. We have had a nice 2 days here but it is time to go. Gosling has had her first fresh water wash since Marina Papagayo, we are watered up and we have a new (to us) main anchor, a 60 lb CQR. We will be back in just over 3 weeks to put Gosling in storage for the summer. Optical Illusion is already there and Warren Peace and Rio Nimpkish will soon be following. Both are going sight-seeing into the Chagres River for as few days. The wind and rain is supposed to be abating over the next few days so this is the time to go.

We will be in an area where WIFI signals will be doubtful so it might be a while before the next entry.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Back to the city

22:00 Saturday. 2 Mar, 13, At anchor at the Playita Anchorage, Panama City

The wind has been howling for the past 6 hours and is predicted to increase over the next day or so. This system wasn’t supposed to arrive until tomorrow so everyone is a bit surprised. The anchorage here is protected on two sides by stone break waters. The eastern wall is a causeway that joins the islands and supports the main road to the mainland. To the north the break-water opens to the marina where we land with our dinghies. With the predominant wind from the north we are well protected.  I pity those further out; it will be a rocky couple of days for them. The anchorage is packed and everyone has increased the amount of chain to reduce any chance of dragging. We are in good company. The threat of bad weather has caused our old friends to arrive early. Over the past few days Warren Peace, Optical Illusion, Ideal 1, Chasing the Sun and Liberte have arrived. Also in the anchorage are Rio Nimpkish, Sun Dancer, Tikka, Knee Deep, Risk taker and Beverly J. Every day we see new boats arriving from the Caribbean side, mostly European boats getting ready to leave for the Galapagos and the Marquesas, including a number of Oyster sailing yachts that are on a round the world rally.

We arrived back to the hustle and bustle of the big city a few days ago after spending a few days in the Northern Perlas islands. Yesterday we had a shopping day at the Albrook Mall where we assisted Ideal 1 to obtain their internet sticks and phone and Fran picked up her new glasses at quite a saving from what she would have paid at home.

Over the next few days we will be getting our Canal transit organized, stocking up on supplies for the remainder of the trip, ordering a few items like our bottom paint and an Engle freezer that will supplement our tiny freezer compartment in the existing fridge. It will really be nice to have ice for our rum and cokes from now on.

A few words about the price of booze in Panama:  Although the price of alcohol has been very reasonable compared to Canadian prices all through Central America, Panama wins the “cheap booze” distinction. Here, a case of beer (24) is under $11 and it is not a bad brew. Rum is dirt cheap with Abuello, a local brand, comparable to Bacardi, selling for less than $12 for a 1.5 li bottle but dark rum is almost impossible to find. The amber variety is popular. All grocery stores carry wine and alcohol and specials are always in vogue. Wine is inexpensive and the “Clos” brand, from Chile, sold in tetra packs for $2.00/li, meets the budgets and the indelicate palates of most cruisers. Wine lists in the moderate priced restaurants have many choices under $20. It would be easy to become an alcoholic here but you very rarely see any….

22:30, 6 Mar 2013, Same place

The wind has died down finally and we are enjoying a moderately calm night. The wind seemed to peak this afternoon at about 25 knots, and there were some boats that began to drag. No serious damage was done here but in the Las Brisas anchorage across the causeway, a large motorboat slide into a number of boats and there was some damage done. In Panama the police and harbor officials don’t pay too much attention to small vessel complaints. They must have their hands full with the larger vessels so the little guys are left to fend for themselves. It is doubtful if anyone will be able to get compensation except from their own insurance providers. On the Colon side of the canal there are reports of several freighters aground.

Today was a productive day. After assisting Warren Peace with their in-clearance we went to the Ad-Measure office to apply for our clearance papers for the canal crossing. This is the first step in a complicated process that will take a few days. Next step will be a visit from the Ad-Measure officials who will measure and inspect Gosling to make sure that we are ready. Once that is done we have to go to the bank and pay our various fees and an $800 deposit (in case we damage the Canal….). This amount is returned after the event. We are then given a date and time. Before the actual event we must get our 4-man line handling crew organized, tires lashed to the sides as fenders and rent 4 X 125 ft lines which we will use to keep Gosling centered in the canal and off the walls. We won’t know until we actually enter the lock whether we will have to tie up alongside another vessel or share the lock with a large ship.

Another change to our plan…. We will not be going to Cartagena this season. Although our insurance policy covers us for the location, we seem to be the only ones that have theft coverage while in Colombia. We are about 6 vessels here with the same insurance company but it seems that our underwriters are different and most have one that is still nervous about Colombia. Everything we have heard about Cartagena has been positive but their underwriter is adamant. The plan now is to explore the San Blas islands and then return to the Caribbean entrance to the canal and summer over at the Shelter Bay marina.

Tonight Fran and I had dinner at the Balboa Yacht club. We were there to meet a few other cruisers and pick up a set of paddles for the dinghy. Encore, a vessel from San Diego and very good friends of Sunday gave us a beautiful set of oars. One of ours keeps breaking and repairs have made it quite a bit shorter than it should be. The other is still intact but in sad shape and we have literally been “up the creek“ without one paddle for most of this trip.

21:00, Wednesday 6 Mar 13, Same location

Another productive day, we were Ad-measured today. A Panama Canal Official came aboard and officially measured Gosling, told us the rules, inspected the boat to confirm it meets the required specs and filled out a raft of forms. Some copies of those were then taken to the Canal’s chosen bank where we paid our canal fees of close to $2000. An automated copy was sent from the bank to the Canal Authority’s offices and tomorrow we should have confirmation of our appointments to cross the canal.

We did all this with Steve and Linda (Warren Peace). We walked back to the Balboa Yacht club to see if we could scrounge some tires and we lucked out with 4 each. On our way to the Playita back Fran hailed a cab and wormed the guy down to half his asking price for the ride back. Is it Fran or the female touch?? I vote for Fran…

21:30 the following day.

Just finished our routine of watching one of our canned movies in the cockpit on the computer, something we usually do whenever we are onboard by ourselves for an evening. We have a light breeze blowing from the shore and it is nice and cool, another good sleeping night.

We are now officially crossing through the Canal on Saturday, the 16th. This is a lot later than we had planned but now that Cartagena is no longer in the cards there doesn’t seem to be so much of a rush. Most of our friends are crossing through next week and we will be among the last of the group. We’ll accompany Rio Nimpkish, also scheduled for the same date.

Fran went to the Price Smart (similar to Costco) store today and stocked up for the next month and I continued to get Gosling ready with fuel and water. I also scored another 10 tires from a French boat that had just crossed to this side. My expertise in repairing Avon dinghy valves came in handy today with British boat with a broken valve. Luckily he had the parts but had no idea how to install them. It is a very tricky procedure.

Now that we have a firm date we can relax a bit so we are planning a tourist day over the weekend to see the sights of Panama City.  We still have lots to do and, already, the preparations for storing the boat in just over a month are in our minds. The improvements we had planned to do in Cartagena will most likely not be done now due to availability of the specialists and cost, however, there are a number of items such as the vibration in the shaft, the bottom paint and checking out the gearbox that will have to be done before we leave or when we get back in the fall. Shelter Island is in a remote location and we must obtain as much of the materials we will need before we leave this side. That includes the bottom paint.