04/12/2009, Panama City, Panama
The night before our date to transit the canal, Dave & Cheryl moved on board Four Points. We were all excited for transit of the canal. A once in a lifetime adventure that we all could share! We are so happy that Dave and Cheryl decided to join us and help us as line handlers for the transit. It is amazing that the time has come to make the crossing to the Atlantic after months, well, really years of talking and planning our sailing trip. This is another major milestone of our sailing adventure!
We all woke early and had a light breakfast while we waited for our Advisor and fourth line handler (a local Panamanian that we hired to help us and hopefully teach us the "ropes" so to speak since he was the only one that had experience transiting the canal)
We were fortunate that Tony of "Tony's Taxi Co." not only rented us lines but also got us in contact with Francisco, our fourth line handler. Francisco promptly met us at Four Points at 7:30 am to prepare for our transit. This was quite interesting because Tony told us that Francisco could speak English but we found out he spoke as much English as we did Spanish. The funny part is that I was the one that could speak the most Spanish to communicate with Francisco. This definitely made it interesting especially with my Spanish! Ha!
We waited around for a while for our advisor and were getting nervous as time got closer to our transit time and we did not have an advisor on board. Brian called Flemenco Signal to see if we were still on the Panama Canal Transit and we were relieved that we were on the list. About that time, our Advisor contacted us on the VHF to say that he was on the ACP ferryboat that was approaching buoy 16 and that we were to come out to meet him. Since we were waiting on a mooring right next to buoy 16 it took us very little time to get to the Advisor. We saw s/v Java Moon, another sailboat that we knew from Golfito, Costa Rico was also schedule to make the canal transit the same time we were scheduled. We followed our first advisor's, George, (we ended up having two, another one, Ricky, on the second day), instructions to motor up to the entrance of the first locks and wait. He informed us that our time had been changed because we could not go in the locks with a ship that was carrying dangerous cargo. We had to wait until the next ship that was carrying freight. We were glad to find out that the next ship coming up behind us was the ship that we were going to transit the canal. This delayed our entry to the first locks by a couple of hours...sorry for those of you that we mentioned via email that we were going through around 9:00 am to view our transit via video cam. We rafted (side tide to) s/v Java Moon and moved as one into the Miraflores Locks just behind a very large freight ship! Being rafted next to Java Moon meant that we only needed to use 2 line handlers, in this case on the starboard side. Francisco took the bow and Dave & Cheryl worked as a team on the stern. Brian was at the helm working with Skip (the captain of Java Moon), making sure that both sailboats stayed in the center of the locks until the four lines were secure to the wall. Since I was still not feeling the greatest b/c my cold developed into laryngitis, my job was to make sure everyone had food and water when needed and take photos!
On the Pacific side there are 2 sets of locks, Miraflores & Pedro Miguel Locks and on the Atlantic side there is Gatun Locks. Between the Miraflores locks and Pedro locks there is the man-made Miraflores Lake. The first two sets of locks for us heading north, are up-locking, which means that 52 million gallons of fresh water (now that's a lot of water!) enter and gushes up from the holes of the chamber floor, allowing the boats to step up to approximately 54' in the Miraflores locks and 31' in Pedro Miguel Locks. This is where the line handlers have to constantly stay on guard (all 4 should work in unison) and haul in the slacking line so the boat(s) (Four Points & Java Moon) do not drift or twist out of center of chamber, thus keeping them from hitting the cement wall. Cement wall is not good for fiberglass boat! Our line handlers (Francisco on the bow, Dave & Cheryl on the stern) did an excellent job! Thanks for your help!
After passing through the second set of locks on the Pacific side, we untied our lines from s/v Java Moon then had to motor across the Gatun Lake for 28 miles beating against the wind. One area you will see in the pictures the muddy lake with wind swells. The lake is constantly being dredged as well as work being done on it for the Canal expansion. The Gatun Lake is a huge man-made lake that covers approximately 117 square nautical miles. Because we were delayed in the morning, by the time we got to the other side of the lake and opening of the Gatun Locks it was already determined that Four Points & Java Moon would have to spend the night in the Gatun Lake on a mooring buoy. Since we were not schedule to transit Gatun Locks until midday the next day, a few of us the next morning took a refreshing swim in the fresh water! Because Gatun Lake is known to have crocodiles, we stayed close to the boat. And just hoped that we would not become a crocodile appetizer! Since David and Francisco decided to not to partake in the fresh water bath, we had them be on crocodile (or cocodrilo) watch. Not sure what we do if they saw one but it made us feel better anyway.
Shortly after noon, we saw that our advisor (Ricky) was been dropped off to our boat. We quickly prepared and headed to the last set of locks. We rafted up with s/v Java Moon again, just outside the opening of Gatun Locks. We were scheduled to be in front of a large freight ship full of cars. Wow! That is a huge ship...it makes Four Points look like a toy! While it was moving rather quickly towards the opening, we had to move in front of it as fast as we could. Yikes! It really looked close...like we were not going to make it. We have pictures of it creeping up behind us as we enter the lock chamber. Brian did not want to look so I took as many pictures of it, including one of him with his worried look!
We were all excited to continue our journey through the Panama Canal. What an amazing experience! In the Gatun Locks we were going to descend approximately 84' to the Atlantic side or down to the Caribbean Sea. It was amazing because there was a cruise ship that was just ahead and below us. This is known as down-locking. Down-locking is much easier than up-locking because there is less turbulence as the 52 gallons of water is let out and there is no prop wash from the large ships. It is also easier for the line handlers to gradually let out line as we go down. Not sure if you will be able to see the cruise ship in the lower chamber in the pictures.
After completing the last locks we were only 5 miles from Shelter Bay Marina. The ACP ferryboat came by to pick up our Advisor, Ricky and then we headed across the Canal Zone to the marina. We were glad to have finished this milestone of our trip! We cleaned up Four Points from having all the tires hang on her for protection from the cement walls. We were able to get a new hose for the engine, provision, refuel and fill water to prepare for our passage to San Blas Islands.
04/09/2009, Balboa, Panama City
We (David and Cheryl Eakin) crewed Four Points from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. For years Brian and Nancy were dock mates of ours in San Diego, our boat a Hunter 38' sloop "Estate Sail."
With Brian and Nancy having put many cruising miles under their belt since last we left them in Cabo San Lucas, the idea of rejoining Brian and Nancy aboard Four Points for the canal crossing was exciting. COUNT US IN! It would prove a great adventure and a great time to catch up on all their many adventures since Cabo.
04/08/2009, Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City, Panama
David & Cheryl arrived and checked in to the hotel overlooking Balboa yacht club moorings. Nancy felt like she was coming down with a cold so I went to meet them. I had Luis pick them up at the airport. It was great seeing them again during our travels, David & Cheryl crewed for us during the first 800 miles of our voyage down the coast of Baja. We went out for drinks and discussed excitedly about our up coming transit. The next day Nancy's cold was worse but somehow she rallied and we met up with Luis and he drove us around for a look at city. We visited the old French section of Panama and some of the newer areas. Panama is a city of three million people with many living here from around the world. The next day was busy provisioning for the trip, which consisted of three hours of grocery shopping. I also contacted Tony, another cab service, to rent four 125' lines and to hire one professional line handler. After a fun & busy week we were all was set for transiting the Panama Canal on Monday (4/13/09) at 9:00 in the morning.
04/05/2009, Flamenco Marina Panama City, Panama
After an all day sail from Contadora we arrived at Panama City and hailed the Flamenco Marina on the VHF radio. After numerous attempts I finely got someone who confirmed they had a slip available. We got secured in our slip and headed for the marina restaurant for some food and beer. To our surprise the restaurant was a "Bennigan's" a U.S. chain. This is the first U.S. restaurant we have seen on our trip (we have seen some fast food joints).
We woke up the next morning and asked around for a good cab service. Luckily, we met Luis who became our "driver/agent/guide" for the week in Panama City. Luis has a new Toyota sedan and can speak English well.
Our first job of the day was to check into Panama through Immigration, Customs, and the Port Captain. This is usually an all day event but with Luis's help (he knows everyone at each office) we were also able to visit the Canal office and set-up a visit for the Admeasurer to measure our vessel for the transit of the Canal. It was a long day but we got so much done we couldn't believe it. We also had time to pick-up a Panamanian cell phone ($15).
We had to wait on our boat the next day for the Admeasurer to come to our boat. He arrived around 10:00 and it took about two hours to measure Four Points and fill out all the paperwork for our up coming Canal transit. That night (after 6:00 pm) we called the Canal office to set-up the date & time for our transit. Because our friends David & Cheryl Eakin were flying in to work as line handlers we scheduled five days out.
The next day we moved Four Points closer to the Canal entrance on a mooring at the famous Balboa yacht club. David & Cheryl are expected to arrive the next day and stay at the hotel overlooking the moorings. We are excited to see them. During this time I shopped for an outboard replacement. Our Johnson 15 HP is fourteen years old and we are worried about reliability. We found out we could get a Yamaha 15 HP for $500 cheaper than in the U.S. Coming down the coast we saw so many Yamahas (fisherman, yachts, etc) we realized that service & parts would be easier with a Yamaha. Luis drove us around to different dealers to do cost/weight comparison shopping but settled on a Yamaha 15 HP two stroke for $1800 delivered to the dock at Balboa yacht club (I posted the old Johnson on Craig's List Panama and it sold on the night before we were to transit).
04/03/2009, Las Perlas Islands (The Pearl Islands)
We were excited plus a little bit nervous for this passage to Las Perlas Islands. The reason being that we had to round the major headland, Punta Mala (Bad Point), which is known for its very strong winds and current (aka "cape effect" is how it is described) Actually most of books have been vague about this "cape effect" but later found out that they were referring to the winds being very strong with steep seas along the coast line on either side of the headland. Often the winds can be totally different in Bahia Panama versus what is on the other side of the point. It was not until we were almost around the point when we experienced this and of course the wind was right on our nose, so we had to beat into it. This is not the only reason that we were a little nervous about this passage but this is also the main shipping area for all the large ships coming and going to the Panama Canal. We had calculated that we had approximately 85 nm from Benao Cove to Contadora. We decided to start our passage in the late afternoon to give ourselves enough time to round Punta Mala before dark and then get to Contadora by early afternoon the next day.
Surprisingly as we motor sailed along the coast towards Punta Mala the seas and wind were fairly calm, it was eerie, almost like we were cruising in a lake .....definitely confusing but we were glad it was not the steep seas as expected except for the fact that we had to motor sail! As nightfall came, we were closer to entering the high traffic area otherwise know as the main shipping area of the bay of Panama. With radar this gave us a better viewing of what traffic we had around us and gave us the ability to track the oncoming or going ships. At one time we had parallel ships heading towards us. We were able to stay on our course as both ships cruised by us at a distance approximately 3 miles away, one to the port and one to the starboard. We had a very active night! We not only had several ships to be concerned with but we watch several storms develop around us then eventually we got caught right in the middle of it. Very scary, we could see the lightening in a distance and we changed our course a bit thinking that we could out run the storm. Silly because we are only traveling at 5 knots! Initially the storms looked like they were going to miss us because on the radar they appeared to be moving towards the north (away from us because we were heading south east) therefore thought they would miss us. We got a fair amount of mixed seas and the wind was changing directions making it hard to set the sails appropriately. We watched the radar develop a very large blob of yellow encompassing us, just as we started to feel the downpour of heavy rain. We were able to tuck under our dodger to stay dry. We seemed to be on the less windy side of the rainstorm and luckily did not experience any close hits of lightening. Yikes...not a place you want to be sailing with a tall mast out in the open water with lightening!! As far as we could tell was the lightening was several miles away from us in the opposite direction. With all this excitement who needs TV! We definitely were glad that we had radar because with the heavy rain this was the only way we could keep track of the ships. The rainsquall seem to have stalled right over us and lasted for several hours; needless to say Four Points was wet from top to bottom! The positive side is that her topside got a good rinse of fresh water.
The rain stopped well before daybreak. We seemed to have dried out before mid morning. We still had another 6-7 hours of sailing until we reached the Archipelago of Las Perlas. There are approximately 200 islands, big and small, with many reefs and beaches, however there are only a few of the islands that are populated. The TV series "Survivor" was filmed on a couple of the islands.
We stopped at one of the most populated or developed island, which we found out, that is a favorite weekend destination for the vacationers from Panama City. The island has a small airport, 2 resorts and many large mansions. We picked up a mooring on the south side of Contadora after being told by another yatista that the moorings are ok to use during the week but we would need to anchor on the weekend. (Owners with large yachts motor over from Panama City on the w/e). There were a lot of other sailboats (mostly from New Zealand & Australia) moored here too. Most of them had already gone through the Panama Canal and they were waiting for a weather window to sail to Galapagos or Marquesas. This side of the island had a beautiful white sandy beach and clear blue green water. There was a resort that just off the beach that we could pull up our dinghy. The island was very small. We decided to hike to the other side to check out the other anchoring area. The other side also had a nice white sandy beach and a resort/restaurant that welcomed cruisers. We noticed that the north side seemed much more calmer because the wind had switched (this made the south side bumpy). After enjoying a light lunch at the Punta Galeon Resort, we hiked back over to the other side where we had left our dinghy. Once we got back on the boat we decided to go around to the north side to anchor for a few days at least through the weekend since we needed to wait until the Port Captain's office was open in Panama City to officially check in to Panama.
While we were anchored off Punta Galeon Resort for the weekend, s/v 401K
(Jamie & Linda) came in to anchor. We were surprised to see them again. We had met them earlier in Costa Rico and knew that they were heading towards the canal but since they left earlier than us we figured that they had already gone through the canal. They told us that they had already checked into to Panama and have a later date in April to transit the canal, for they had to wait for their guest to come to help them line handle. They came out to Pearl Islands to explore the islands and wait for their guest. We were very happy to meet with them again because they gave us some very useful information about taking care of the paperwork ourselves vs. hiring an agent for transiting the canal. Up to this point Brian and I had planned to use an agent, but after seeing the cost vs. doing the paperwork (and leg work) ourselves, it was a no brainer!
As we were having sundowners on 401K, the wind had picked up a bit making this side of the island and anchorage very rocky! We decided to wait it out to see if the wind would die down. As the night progressed, so did the wind, and with the wind increasing to 20-25 knots, this made the sea very bumpy and uncomfortable. Finally after several hours and contemplating whether or not to stay here and have a very uncomfortable night or make the short passage around to the other side of the island worth the risk (since there are many reefs and shoals to watch out for....very difficult at night!) We finally had had enough of the roughness and made the decision to pull up anchor around midnight. We followed our GPS track around to the other side. We were so glad that we did because not only we were able to find an empty mooring buoy, but this side of the island was smooth as glass! We informed 401K via VHF and they came around shortly thereafter. We quickly got to bed for we knew we had to rise very early to make the passage to Panama City.
03/29/2009, Benao Cove, Panama
We arrived at Benao Cove and anchored behind a huge rock/island next to a Catalina 40. We met the family onboard who just finished a circumnavigation of the world (Bruce, Lisa, Tristan, and Matthew), which took four years (search for their website under their boat name "Ohana Kai"). We all loaded into their dingy and went surfing together. The surf is a beach break with sand bars. It was breaking about 4 foot faces but fun, mostly lefts. They sailed off the next morning heading North back towards home. We stayed a couple more days surfing each day as the swell was building. The best surf we got was early afternoon with a rising tide. It was a consistent 6 foot face right with a good hollow section. I surfed until the locals started showing up after work. We asked around but couldn't really tell where they were coming from because there was not much happening on the beach, just a small hotel and a couple of houses. We enjoyed our stay here but needed to get ready to round the famed "Punta Mala" which means the "bad" point in Spanish. It is going to be an over night sail to the Perlas Islands with possible heavy winds and many ships rounding the point into the Panama Bay.