30/04/2012, Shelter Bay Panama
We have found a spot for the boat in the Shelter Bay marina in Panama and I just returned from a two days line handling job on a canal transit of another boat. How it works is that the Panama Canal transit authorities require 4 "able bodied line handlers" on board each yacht that transits the canal, this is above the captain of the vessel. As there are always several boats waiting in the area to transit you typically ask around and find 4 crew from other boats who want to do the transit as line handler. Just for fun and many like it to gain the experience before they do the transit with their own boat. For me was as well it was both, just for fun, having a little mini cruise on someone's else boat across the panama canal with the big advantage that it is not your boat so you do not have to worry about anything. Just enjoy and relax and pull on a line once and a while. I loved it. The other reason was also to gain experience in the process. To learn what is expected etc by the Canal authorities. The boat handling part I had no concern about as coming from Holland you grow up with locks. (Every weekend we would go sailing we had to pass a lock in Holland to get offshore). Since it is a rather costly exercise to transit the canal and penalties can be stiff if you are not meeting their rules I wanted to know the practical requirements etc. Well it was very easy really and I see no problems for us doing the transit several weeks from now. Although there are several scenarios the Canal company can do for yachts, currently they run the following scenario with all yachts for transit. You are expected to be on the F anchorage stand by around 16:00 of your assigned day. So most boats get there between 13:00 and 14:00, you do not want to be late and miss your assigned transit. Between 16:00 and 17:00 the advisor comes on board. The big commercial ships have a pilot, the yachts get an advisor (any yacht below 65ft). These are typically pilot boat operators or security boat operators working for the canal company and having this as a second job, making some extra money. The advisor boards the vessel and tells you to get underway towards the first set of locks. With more yachts planned, they raft three yachts together just prior entry of the actual locks. The largest yacht in the middle. Once inside the lock there are 2 line handlers on the locks on each side throwing a messenger line towards you. Your line handlers on deck, which you should have positioned at a dedicated corner ties the messenger to your 40 meter lines which they will pull to the locks wall. In the requested position they throw them on a boulder and you tie them off on your cleats. The lock door close and you go up around 10 meters. Here the line handlers come into play by adjusting the lines, keeping them under tension as not to have the whole raft of boats floating around the locks. In several sets of locks you go up around 30 meters (85ft) from sea level. Exiting the locks, the advisor on each boat will direct all yachts to an anchorage on the portside of the locks in the Gatun lake, where you anchor or tie up to a mooring. By then it is around 20:00 in the evening.
The advisor departs from your boat and you will have to wait the night there with your line handlers on board. The next morning between 05:00 and 07:00 a new advisor will board you and directs you to head for the other locks 28Nm away via the shipping fairway in the Gatun lake and subsequent Gator Cut. Now it comes into play what you have put on your documents during the "transit request", weeks earlier what your boat speed is. There is a lot of talk amongst cruisers and on the web about what speed to put down. Well as we have seen many times before, cruisers talk too much, spin the story away from common sense and the reality turns out way different. In the Panama rules (small notes) there is a note demanding minimum boat speeds of 8 knots. That is just a contractual issue that someone put in there many years ago. A laywer might say; hence you need to put down 8 knots on your paper, or else you give the Panama Canal auhtorities an opening to clain a penalty or higher fees. In reality they are not interested in putting down penalties, they just want to ensure certain speeds can be maintained.
Many cruising vessel cannot achieve that but still these cruisers put 8 knots down on paper thinking they get a penalty from the canal commission if they put less than 8 knots down. The talk amongst some cruisers is that it is best to put down 8 knots because of what I mentioned above. Well I doubted that from the very first time I heard that story. Talking to the three advisors in our raft, they all said the same. Put down what your true boat speed is, what you really can do comfortably without having a risk for breaking down (engine).
The speed you put down, they simply use that speed to calculate your assigned lock time on the other side. If you put down 8 knots on paper they calculate your lock assigned time (for the locks on the other side after the 28 Nm cruise) based on 8 knots. If you then can only do 6 knots, you obviously not going to make that time and you might have to answer some tough questions. The Canal authorities are very well aware that most heavily loaded cruising boats cannot do 8 knots for 28 Nm and they are totally fine with that. Put down what you can really do comfortably, that is what they need to know. You should be able to do around 5 to 6 knots however minimally, as that fits well with the bigger ships heading you direction (south bound and north bound groups). They do sometimes 18 knots in the Canal, but you will see several "groups" big ships passing. They all fit in the tight schedule for lock assignments, just as your little sailboat fits in the lock assignment. You might be assigned for the next lock with a commerical vessel that does 18 knots in the Canal. He is simply scheduled to depart for that lock only 2 hours before lock time to cover the 28 NM, while you are instructed to depart 6 hours prior your lock time, so you arrive together at the next lock.
So it is very important you put down a boat speed what you can really do and not some number based on a contract. The lock assignment schedule is dynamic and based on the true speeds they can adjust lock times, move you up or down the lock schedule. They do the same for the big commercial ships. It is all pretty straight forward, however again it is important you put down what you really can do and not some made up number. Common sense.
We arrived the next day around 11:00 at the locks on the Pacific side. There you raft up with two other boats and you go down in a series of locks. Around 13:00 you are on the anchorage on the Pacific side and you can open a can of beer (or two). All just that easy and very enjoyable. The trip is great, provides some great views and provided you have some good line handlers it is very much a stress free operation.
We will head for the Chagres River tomorrow and anchor there for a few days, it is only 6Nm away. Then come back here to pick up the watermaker we have ordered and then head out to San Blas soon, till the 15th, which date we have to be back here to get "measured" for the canal transit. Getting measured is nothing more than someone from the Canal authorities coming over to have a chat and look at your boat and then tells you that your cost will be a 950 USD for the transit. After the measurement you get your transit date assigned. All easy. Prior our transit I will make a quick dash to Holland with Auke to see our parents, and upon my return Heloisa will make a quick dash to Brasil to see her mother and look after our little house we have there. Then it will be Pacific time to what we are looking forward to very much.
26/04/2012, 9 20.642'N:79 54.536'W, Colon, Panama
We arrived in Colon yesterday evening 23:00. We have anchored out on the flats (F anchorage for small craft) where it is empty. A single other cruising boat is anchored here and two Dutch tug boats. Today we will get fuel and water and some mail at the Shelter Bay marina on the other side of the bay. We will see if there is a berth available and stay for a day or two to get cleared into Panama and collect some mail. If there is no berth available we have to decide whether to anchor of the Colon Nautico yacht club and to do the clearance or sail to San Blas and do the clearance in Porvenir. One month ago a cruiser was boarded in the night and tied and robbed on board while anchored in front the Nautico yachtclub, hence we are not too keen in anchoring there. The trip went well, except for several hours approximately half way where the winds became calm and a terrible cross sea existed. I guess it must have been the waves pushed up by the North wind fighting the normally Eastern swell. The cross sea was terrible and throwed the boat around. While downwind with most of the swell in the aft quarter, small breaking waves would hit the boat with terrible noise on the side, spraying the decks and the cockpit and everyone in it with seawater over and again. Auke who did well so far without his seasickness pills got seasick then and there and I got into a bad mood after several hours of trying to get the boat steady and sailing again. Nothing seemed to work to get the boat stable and sailing again, and after 4 hours trying in all darkness with all types of sail set ups, I gave up and went to bed for some hours sleep. In the morning we tried again and then as suddenly as we had got it the terrible cross sea disappeared and the boat started sailing again, with the jib poled out to one side and full main fixed out to the other side making good 5 knots in 15 knots true winds. Auke started to get over his seasickness again and as always the bodies of those little ones go in some kind of recovery mode and get an appetite which for a parent you are nearly not able to satisfy. In those recovery modes as parent you are busy preparing bread with cheese, popcorn, anything savory is demanded by the little boy who just eats it up as if he had not eaten in weeks. He was most unhappy we could not make him french fries while at sea, as that would have been very nice according him. At 23:00 we were in between the breakwaters among the big ships. Although very busy with big ships naturally, all heading for and coming from the Panama Canal, it is an easy entrance, wide and as long you stay in contact with Christobal port control (Christobal Signal Station) and out of the fairway you will have no problems. The A IS receiver as I expected you can switch off as we had over 280 filtered targets. With so many filtered targets and ships moving around, you always have several active targets at any one time while heading onto the anchorage in front of Colon and inside the breakwaters , causing alarm on the AIS receiver, even while we have our alarm trigger values set really tight. But with the AIS switched off, with a good pair of eyes (Heloisa) in the cockpit and radar it is no problem approaching Colon at darkness.
On average we did 5.6 Nm per hour which is not bad for this old lady sailing downwind considering we had those 6 hours of calms with terrible cross seas in where the boat speed was not above the 3 knots. Today we eat fresh fish, a dorado we caught several hours after departing San Andres and which Heloisa quickly got cleaned up and cut up in filets and are now stored in our fridge and mini freezer compartment. Great!
Al well with boat and crew.
24/04/2012, 11 47.331'N:81 22.759'W, San Andres to Colon, Panama
We left San Andres and are underway to Colon in Panama. We should arrive there tommorow night sometime. Winds are 20 knots from the N, so we have everything in the aft quarter. On our way out of San andres you pass by several wrecks. This happens if you do not pay attention (and there are several of them).
All well with boat and crew.
21/04/2012, Isla San Andres
And we are about to get underway again. We will be departing from Isla San Andres tomorrow for our 210Nm dash to Colon Panama. There is strong North wind coming in, which should blow us nicely to Colon in Panama, winds in the back, that is how we like it. In Colon, Panama we will do the clearing into Panama and subsequently sail on to San Blas, a group of Islands 80Nm East of Colon. We want to spend a few weeks in the San Blas prior going via the Panama Canal into the Pacific.
We had a great time on Isla Providencia and Isla San Andres. Both are Columbian territory and the locals speak Spanish and Creole (also called Patois), a language you find often also in Jamaica and a mixture of old English and West African local languages. On Isla Providencia the majority speaks Creole, thus the Jamaican background is very apparent. In the local bus (van) on Isla Providencia that drives around the island in 30 minutes a few times a day, a local lady made it jokingly clear to everyone in the bus that Spanish should not be spoken on the bus, only English (They call it English, however is a mixture of several languages and we are certainly unable to understand it). Most prefer the Creole, however by Colombian law Spanish is taught on the local school so the little kids all speak Spanish. The Creole they get from home. Isla San Andres however is pure Colombian and they are proud of their Spanish language and Colombian background, they are only a mere 80Nm apart from each other but quite different.
We spend about a week on Isla Providencia before we sailed on to San Andres. Somewhat unplanned, as we had planned to sail direclty to Colon in Panama, however with a lumpy sea and Auke having a bad bout of seasickness we decided to divert to San Andres, only 11 hours away.
Isla Providencia is a remote small island, a rock surrounded by reefs, beautiful and un-spoilt and the locals make a sincere effort to keep it that way. A rarity in nowadays cultures we find. Supplies on Isla Providencia come from the island San Andres and from Central America mainland in old fishing boats converted to cargo ships. Years ago while backpacking our way from Mexico to Chile overland, I travelled from Panama to Columbia on one of those old converted fishing boat. That trip turned out to be a bad four day experience that involved big seas, a poor old ship, broken ports due to the big seas and two seasick backpackers. So when I saw these old converted boats, it brought back some vivid memories.
Isla Providencia is very quiet and truly a little paradise, a great spot for a passing sailing boat. It has some great beaches around the island and a fringing reef protecting the island from the heavy Caribbean Eastern swell. The locals are great and proud of their little island. It is primitive and remote, if you want to get away from everything for a while, this is the spot. However besides rainwater there is no water available (other than bottles of water), so for us without a watermaker we had to depart as we run low on water in our tanks. A pity as we could have stayed longer to explore the beaches and many reefs.
Isla San Andres is something totally different, equally beautiful and similar in size, it is set up to be the tourist place for the middle class of Colombia and other South American countries. Tourists which are flown in by plane loads. However in a nice way, no resorts, just small hotels and pousadas and tons of small restaurants and bars on the streets that line the beaches and happy South American beach goers. Good quality supermarkets with everything available for relative good prices and many shops trying to sell everything a possible tourist might want. The island is equally fringed by an even more brutal, unforgiving and beautiful reef, that has captured a many ship in the past, up to very recent. We arrived in the middle of the night (02:00) and in the moonlight the outline of a small sized cargo ship (coaster) was clearly visible against the horizon. However there were no lights visible on the ship so we assumed at anchor with no lights (normal around here). The next morning at daybreak it became clear the coaster was sitting high and dry on top of reef, less than half a mile from the entrance. A recent casualty and it is obvious to see that they likely tried to cut a corner or simply missed the entrance by less than half a mile, which here is unforgiving and cost you your ship. The seas will eat her up in the next one to two years. Another very large ship, or the remains thereof litter the entrance of the reef, an old causality.
The entering at darkness (no moon) was well to do due to the good charts (Colombian charts) we had in our CMap Max and the entrance contain a series of working lights. 16 lighted green and red buoys marked the entry into the bay. The red white outer marker with white flashing light we failed to see initially which gave some concern, however the following red and greens were clearly visible, visually and on the radar so we decided to proceed, assuming the red/ white outer marker buoy had been removed. Well the red / white outer marker showed up only a few meters ahead of the bow, it had not been visible against the illuminated skyline of the island. Heloisa spotted it just in time so we could go around it. The remaining buoys were clearly visible with the one very challenge however that the Columbian nautical authorities have given all red and green buoys (16 of it) the same flash code on this island, all ISO 3 seconds!! So it is challenging to figure out which buoy is next and when you miss one you can quickly end up on top of an underwater rock.
With help of radar and plotter and Heloisa up front at the bow we managed the 2.5 Nm inbound and dropped anchor in between some old fishing boats and a catamaran.
The San Andres bay is full with old cargo ships and fishing boats seeking shelter for a few days. There were two other sailboats when we arrived at anchor. On the first day we managed to get some (expensive) potable water for our near empty water tanks which should get us to Panama.
On Isla Providencia the anchorage in the bay is excellent, as we had some windy Caribbean days with over 30 knots of winds consistent, but the anchorage was smooth as could be. There was also the occasional rains shower, but that is part of the tropics and required a quick dash on deck to close the hatches etc.
During the rain shower days we spend the afternoons on nearby beaches, accessible with the dinghy, where you can access to reefs right of the beaches. I would spend my days looking for eatable fish of sufficient size on the reefs with the speargun. On the clear non-rainy days we would take the local van, that drives around the entire island in 30 minutes and had us drop off on one of the Eastern beaches, where Auke enjoyed the surf on his un-separable body board. On his way to one beach which required a short hike he quickly became friends with the local piggy, which you could smell from a mile distance.
A great spot was this little paradise Isla Providencia and Isla San Andres is a great spot to get a good meal in a restaurant or simply enjoy the many shops (Heloisa) loaded with goodies for the South American tourists.
21/04/2012, 12 34.502'N:81 41.911'W, Isla San Andres
At anchor on Isla San Andres. We actually like it here. We had heard negative stories but it is a nice place. It is THE vacation destination for the middle class from the Columbian mainland, so very much busy with South American tourists. The waters are crystal clear over the reefs, which are littered with wrecks, old and recent so a good reminder to keep up the navigation while approaching these type of reefs littered island. We were able to buy some water so we are ok for the next few days, however we are dreaming of having the water maker on board as to not have these issues anymore.
I am downloading some weather files currently. There is some North wind coming in the next few days, which is our cue to depart and head for colon Panama. Till then we enjoy the reefs, beaches and ice-cream shops.
19/04/2012, 12 47.084'N:81 31.088'W, offshore
It is now 20:30 and we are underway from Isla Providencia to Isla San Andres. We had planned to sail to Colon, Panama direclty, however the winds are now relative low and the seas are still high, left overs from a week breezy winds. Quite uncomfortable really as there is not enough wind to keep steady pressure in the sails, so the boat is thrown around with us inside. Auke is badly seasick and as such sleeeps with his head in a bucket more or less, as he did not want to take his seasickness drops (Dramanin) prior departure. It is hard to see these kids being seasick and nothing you can do for them. I have been seasick many times in my life, so I know very good how he feels, and I know that it is not a happy feeling. Kids can be so stuborn. This is now the second time, somehow he got it in his head that these seasickness drops were not for him, even while he has been taking them for 6 months now fwith great succes against sea sickness. So we will make a stop in Isla Sa n Andres, we will arrive there around 02:00 in the morning (it is now 21:00). There we want to wait a day for the seas to come down or perhaps we wait about three days as according the grib files winds will turn North over this part of the Caribean, which suits us well to head for Colon in Panama. To head now to Colon in Panama is close hauled (apparent wind) in theses lumpy seas, not fun. We had to leave Isla Providencia as we run out of water and there is little potable water to get on the island. We have a watermaker ordered a few weeks ago that we will pick up and install in Panama. This event of runnig out of water while at Isla Providencia was a good confrimation for us that we really want to have a watermaker on board, despite the high cost. We do not want to be pressured to depart beacuase of water shortage. We really liked Isla Providencia and could have certainly stayed more two weeks was it not for the potable water. Great anchorage, great beaches and reef s and great local people around.
So tonight at anchor at San Andres.
All well with boat and crew (except for Auke who is at this very moment staring at the bottom of his bucket again)