The Panama Frickin’ Canal!

March 10 – Departed San Blas with Teri, Sarah, Diana, and the rescued mainsail. How nice to have our boat whole again and sail!

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It’s approx. 70 miles, a day sail to Shelter Bay Marina, on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal, where we would meet up with Marci and John Forgrave on 3/11.

2 days after lie left San Blas it was closed due to Covid 19.  Our mainsail was 48 hours away from unable to retrieve.  Sovereign Grace, the yacht that delivered it to us would wind up being a ship without a port.  Captain John is now building an organic farm in Colombia with his wife and kids. He was  unable to deliver a note to Club Nautico’s Manager John with a tip inside but it’s not a priority anymore. The thought was there and John knows how thankful we were as we stayed in touch with both of them on WhatsAPP, the norm for anyone outside the USA. 

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Rendezvousing with Sovereign Grace to get our mainsail

The timing was not lost on us.  Less than 2 weeks later Colombia closed its borders.  We stayed one step ahead of many closures as the days ticked by.

SBM is one of our favorite marinas (truth is we rarely go to marinas) because yachts and crews are ready to or just did the transit, and have big plans for the coming year.

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The energy is intoxicating.

The docks are full of boats and their crews, unlike many marinas where people park and leave.  Cruising the Caribbean or crossing the Pacific are where the majority are headed.  Some go north towards the USA, stopping in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, San Salvador, Guatemala and/or Mexico, some south to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Chile, but most continue exploring and very few are Americans unless they are Canadians.  Many Canadians are cruisers but we rarely meet our countrymen. They tend to stay close to home. Bahamas, Catalina Island are their comfort zones.  What happened to the land of the free and the brave?  Nevermind.  Eric and I do our best to represent our country and almost always fly the Stars and Stripes off our stern.  

We attend the meeting for the Pacific Puddle Jumpers and meet others who are setting off on the same great adventure.  A few boats we met 5 years earlier as we prepared to cross the Atlantic.  Some we’ve just met and bond with immediately.  This is going to be a grand adventure so gathering info and materials is important.

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At SBM, the Caribbean side of the canal, there’s a bus to town for provisions and a sail loft on site to repair or order more sails.  A pool, showers, a smart friendly helpful marina manager named Juan,

IMG_8702a small store, laundry services and a restaurant means you have everything you need right there . There’s a resident crocodile so no swimming near the boats.  A handful of boats stay a long time either to wait out the weather or more often to wait for crew, parts and sail repairs.

Walk across the road and you are in the jungle hearing and quite often see howler monkeys, various types of parrots, and a plethora of flora and fauna.  There are relics from days of US servicemen stationed here as well.

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We often heard the howlers from the boat at day break and sun down.

IMG_8244The sound carries, and it’s similar to something made for a horror movie, a deep roaring monster.

IMG_8317Once a week there is a cruisers potluck, a good way to meet others and share experiences and info on islands and nations, and to share ideas on how to fix, install, find parts, and get things done.  There’s a daily AM cruisers net on VHF radio to share info and greet those who have just arrived, and say adios to those leaving.  It is a fluid community filled with characters that could fill a best selling novel.

On Mardi Gras the marina hires locals to dance for the cruisers on the docks.

IMG_8229IMG_8262Some of the Kunas set up shop for the World Arc that has already departed. I bought a couple molas and some beaded jewelry of which the ladies are covered in.  The women love color and so do I!  Still wearing my beads 4 months later as they don’t come off until they break.  Evidently they use strong string.

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I bought these 2 molas
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Lola
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She proudly posed for my curious eyes.  I took polaroids as well and gave them each one.

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3/11 The girls help us clean the boat for the new guests. Upon arrival we request the new guests to take showers and wash off the airport germs, then I head off to provision for the transit.  There is a rule that you must feed your advisors in the transit or they get grumpy and could order food delivered which is costly.  That’s not happening on El Gato!

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The water level was at an all time low so ships had to wait to go single file or be paired with a small boat or 2.

3/12 Our appointment for the transit has been confirmed by the agent we hired to do all the paperwork and get us cleared.  He tells us to watch the advisor closely.  If he is on his phone a lot, and something bad happens, we should have photos of him on the phone to prove he was not paying attention.  We’ve been hearing about canal nightmares lately and I’m getting nervous.  We love our boat.   The instructions are to be at anchor outside the marina near the canal at such and such Lat Long 2 hours ahead of schedule.  If we are not in the assigned area the agent says the advisor will go away, we will pay a huge fine, and we will have to wait a few more days to get back on the list. We have received the large inflatable buoys and lines that we rented and we’re ready to rock and roll!

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Teri and John testing their balance skills

We are there by 1PM with a 4 Pm transit confirmed.  Then we wait. And wait.  Not my strong suit.  We watch as other boats who came out later than us are boarded and head towards the canal.  It’s 5PM.  We call our agent, the port authorities, and get no answers.  At 6PM a boat comes to us and a man jumps onboard and says “let’s go!”.

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Advisor arriving 

We offer him water.  Someone goes below to fill a glass and he throws a fit.  “THE AGENT IS SUPPOSED TO TELL YOU I MUST HAVE BOTTLED WATER!”  We assure him this is filtered lovely water and he wants to know the agents name, birthdate, address, phone number, company name, and first born’s name so he can go find him and scream.  It takes hours for me to get him to relax and do his job without anger.  My team building muscles are being stretched and eventually he is calm.  Must have had a bad day so far.  Once things are less stressful Eric does a great job of asking him questions about the canal.  He loves the attention of being considered an expert and starts telling stories.  It was a rough start that ended well. The food was hearty and plentiful and he was not afraid to help himself.

We head towards the canal as the sun is setting.

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The advisor is already on his phone texting his GF!

IMG_8706I learn later she’s from Miami and he wants me to talk to her on speakerphone since I grew up there.  Trust me Miami’s changed.  I rode a horse bareback and played on my Hobie back then.  Now you’d have to drive an hour to have riding lessons in a ring and be enrolled in an Olympic class training session. My childhood had a lot of freedom and I’m not sure I if ever wore a life jacket, nor did my parents know where the heck I was 90% of the time.  Helicopter parents? HA! No wonder I am so fiercely independent and with a free spirit!

We are paired up with a 60′ monohull, French owner and crew, who are friendly and not intimidated or non trusting of a female captain.  They are just as excited as we are!

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Our partners for the first half.

Only one boat can drive and with 2 engines and a much wider boat of  25′, we will drive once the 2 are tied up together.  The advisor spends more time on his phone and my limited understanding of quickly spoken Spanish has me guessing what’s up.  Turns out we are waiting for a small tourist ferry to join us to make a threesome.  Luckily for us they take too long. The canal authorities say leave without them.  2 days later we learn the ferry joined another pair after they were in a lock, and they hit the wall.  Words and insurance info was exchanged. We felt bad for them but oh so glad it wasn’t us.  We think we could have refused that combo if it had been proposed to us.

The sun has now set and Eric has blown the conch shell.

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Our crew is happy, excited and ready.

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Crew boss holding a line handler meeting
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A fairly new bridge making the drive to Shelter Bay 2 hours from the airport instead of 6IMG_8716As we approach the first lock, a large ship is in front of us.  They will go first.

IMG_8719 It seems incredible that we will all fit.  The agent does not want me driving with my engines, to only use the rudders. I suppose they have had bad experiences with people who have no idea what angle their rudders are and the engines won’t turn the boat properly.  We however have good instruments that tell us the angle and I always center the rudders.  At first I do exactly what he says but when towing a boat on your side you need to have control and this is not the best solution. Sometimes you need a burst of power to push the boats and maneuver them.  Using engines as little as possible I keep us off the sides.  Since our throttles are on the starboard side we choose to have the mono tied to our stb so I can communicate with the French owner/capt, and his advisor.  Sometimes we override our advisor and wink.  I say yes to his commands, and then do what needs to be done, now and then asking the other boat to help with a burst of throttle. Considering we were working with 3 languages we did a pretty good job communicating.

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The doors are open. Notice the rushing water.

To transit you must have 4 line handlers onboard and we have essentially 5.  With 2 boats together you only need 2 line handlers for the lines that are tossed from high up on the walls. The cleats on EG are big and strong, our line handlers John and Sarah, are strong and quick with Teri and Diana backing them up.  Marci is in charge of social media and Eric is crew boss making sure all goes well. I keep my phone in my pocket and take photos mostly when the boat is tied up and the water level is rising.  Marci is videoing and all are snapping photos with phones when they aren’t busy.  It’s so impressive!

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Guess who is on his phone NOT taking photos. But we are safe for now.

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Check out the water flow. Without the lines we would be sliding all over the place!

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Obviously not to scale.

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It all goes well and we are in awe, especially Eric who is reading The Paths Between the Seas by David McCullem.  It is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the history of how it was conceived of, design, and built.  It was truly an epic feat.

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The path goes across 45 miles of land with a man made lake in the middle called Gatun that supplies the water to operate the locks.  The first 3 locks take us upwards to an elevation of 240′, and when we reach the lake we go left and the ship goes right.  It is 10PM, we are tired, and there will be no celebration tonight as we’ve heard is common when you’re half way through.  John jumps on the huge bouy that we are required to tie up to. A boat comes to whisk the agent away and he says be ready at 6AM.  Huh?  OK definitely not the time to celebrate.  It’s a quick dinner and we are all in bed, glowing from the experience of being in the middle of the Panama Frickin’ Canal!!!

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3/13 6AM arrives too soon, no agent in sight.

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We’ve been warned about the crocs that live here so Eric made it quick!

We forgot. 6AM means 9AM in manana land.  We hear howler monkeys.  A boat finally arrives with agents for all 4 boats, the pair that went before us, and our pair.  This agent has me gunning the engines towards the next set of locks that will take us down to sea level in the Pacific Ocean.  We have 28 miles to get to the locks so we turn our heads towards shore and enjoy the beauty and serenity of lucious greenery surrounding us on both sides.  It is a long winding path and we see other ships including a huge Costco cargo ship.

IMG_8779IMG_8775IMG_8772IMG_8765IMG_8766It feels like a race and in some ways it is.  This agent wants to go before the other pair so he can go home earlier.  When we arrive we learn we are paired with the monohull from the other group, also French owned.  Again, very nice and agreeable.  And this time no drama – our agent is happily doing his job.  Instead of behind, we are now in front of a large ship.  And I’ve been warned by the last advisor.  Make sure when they open that last lock you are ready to bolt!  “Theres a lot of current with the water rushing out and there’s a large ship behind you. You must get out fast!”  I’ve been nervous since the day before, or excited, or a healthy combination as there’s a lot of responsibility lying on my shoulders for not just one but 2 boat’s welfare. It feels similar to just before an important regatta.  Butterflies that won’t go away until the starting gun goes off.  Then it’s full concentration.

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Our crew does an excellent job, the weather is perfect, we have a friendly crew tied alongside, no grumpy people anywhere, and we are all grinning from ear to ear.  The preparation and waiting is finally over. We can check this sailor bucket item off our list soon but in the meantime we will relish every moment together with lifelong friends.  Eyes are wide open, soaking it all in.  And of coarse the cameras are too.  There is a live feed in the Miraflora lock and 2 friends have gone online to watch and take photos for us.  Debbie Risden and Diane Davis are Miami friends who send us shots as we go through.  It’s daylight so they can see us! We look minuscule in front of the ship.

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The advisor gets a phone call from our agent.  All ports have closed on the Pacific in Panama.  Huh?  The crew had planned to hang out a few days to explore Panama City and bid us farewell.   Things were changing fast.  Everyone got on their phones to figure out how to change tickets or buy new ones.  What if the airport closes? The what if’s were flying around the boat like a swarm of bees.  Luckily I’d made reservations the day before at a marina just on the other side of the canal at La Playita Marina, little beach marina.  But I hadn’t given them a credit card as I was uneasy doing this in an email and I couldn’t reach them by phone.  John speaks fluent Spanish and made the call.  They would honor our reservation and we would be the last boat allowed in. One step ahead. Again. So we continued on with the knowledge we had a place to stay until we left for the Marquesas.  Whew.

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The last gate opens.

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The girls find new flights and depart the next day.  It’s been a rich experience and we all hug tightly as we say our goodbyes.  Who knows when we will see each other again.  Our destinations include the Marquesas, Society Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand where we will watch the America’s Cup. The soonest would be in a year unless they fly out to meet us somewhere.  We have been friends for decades and this will be a memory none of us will ever forget.  I’m crying as we say bye bye.

Our last crew member, Simon Garland arrives on the very last flight from California to Panama. All we have to do is fill up with fuel and provision for the long haul to the Marquesas, approx 3,900 miles as the albatross soars.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Panama Frickin’ Canal!”

  1. First, CONGRADULATIONS!!! In 2017, we were fortunate enough to daylight-transit the Canal with 15-similar boats (5-nests of 3-boats) and had none of the ‘guide’ drama. The center, slightly larger boat Oyster 53 Venture, handled fwd thrust, and the two side Oysters corrected for angle. The Canal will not schedule an all-sailboat transit again, as even though they just double the fees, it is peanuts compared to revenue from a ship, and it is a manpower and water resource drain (no pun).
    Although we were in Nest #2, our guide Harold told us to ‘dog it’ out of the Gatun to avoid being the inside boat of EIGHT boats tied to that massive mooring ball. BTW, Unconditional is in Marina Lefkas this year along with Venture – life long friends… I have a 2nd planned transit on Oyster 54 Sea Avenue this November, but who knows if that will occur.
    We and many boats sailed 3,030nm to make landfall in Fata Hiva’s Bay of Virgins. It is not technically legal, but their Tourist Board unofficially recommends it, as do I. Worst case is a slap on the wrist. Expect brown worm-like barnacles on the starboard (I think) side of the boat bear the waterline – not easy to get off. We sailed from Santa Cruz in the Galapagos, dropping down to ~4S going west to ~11S without using the engine. A Coconut Milk run with 600nm made good in westerly current for 3-days. Very good for a 49′ monohull! You will FLY!
    The yellow general store is the size of your bedroom, so don’t expect much. you’ll find a local for eggs. Tomatoes & lettuce are not found, but pamplemouse (similar to grapefruit – actually grapefruit itself is a hybrid) are free for the picking, and fantastic! Find a local woman to make the boats in the harbor a dugout meal – 1 or 2-day notice. Ask at the store or around. She is a left turn near the store walking up the hill after the pavement stops. No banks or ATM, if I recall.
    Cruise up the islands until you reach an official entry port. None of us were challenged. Enjoy the lushness, but curse the slippery landings.
    Good Luck, as what could possibly go wrong? LOL
    Al
    (Sheltering in the Home of the Brave being not allowed access into the EU)

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    1. Hi Al! Great to hear you story too. We transited in March and have not written the next blog which tells how we could not cross the Pacific. “What could possibly go wrong?” Insurance. Covid. So we cruised Mexico and are home with El Gato at the San Diego Yacht Club enjoying our new slip. Missing cruising but enjoying the easiness of being home albeit weird times. Thanks for reading! Annie and Eric

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