03/20/2008, Panama Canal
As soon as we arrived in Colon, I set out to try to find a boat on to which to be a volunteer line handler. This is a common strategy for cruisers going thru the canal for the first time; go through first on someone else's boat as a line handler to 'learn the ropes' (literally). This way I could do a better job in caring for Swingin' on a Star as one of her line handlers in the transit.
I needed to find a boat within a day or so, was quite shameless in trolling for a ride. Got a lead on a boat that was to leave the next day, and pretty much ambushed the owners as they were in the harbormaster's office to clear out. Andy and Melissa were very kind and agreed to have me come along even though they already had enough line handlers. Of course, they knew nothing about me, nor I them, and I hadn't even seen their boat. But that's all part of the adventure, right?
It worked out great all the way around. The morning we were to leave, a couple of their other line handlers backed out of the trip, so I was able to step in for one of them. A Brit named Ian filled the other slot.
As we backed out of the slip, we had to dodge boats, divers, floats and lines that were setting up the mechanism that would flip boats for the Bond movie.
We picked up our advisor, Meza, over in the 'Flats' that evening. He was great. Our boat, 'Spectacle' was the largest of the 3 mono-hulls going thru together. So we got to be the boat in the middle of the 3 boats that would go through the canal tied side-by-side. Meza was the senior advisor among the 3, and so in charge of the whole operation.
As we got close to the entrance, the time came for the 3 boats to raft up together. The boat to the right of us was from the Netherlands, with a Dutch and German crew. To the left was a French boat. This was our first raft up, and it did not go well. As our partners came close, the advisors told them to put their transmissions and helms in neutral. But... for some reason this didn't happen. There was lots of shouting in Spanish, French, English, Dutch and German as one of the side boats started to motor our raft around and right towards the bank! It was hard to cast off the heavy lines when they were under tension, but we managed it in the nick of time.
We finally rafted up and motored towards the first locks. Going thru the locks was amazing. The fact that it was night time made it even more surreal. After this first set of locks, we tied up for the night. The next morning, we took off around 7:30 to motor individually towards the 2nd set of locks. Motoring through the narrow short-cut that only yachts could get through was like a mini-eco-tour. We saw monkeys, sloths, and toucan in the lush rainforest we passed through.
When the time came to raft up with the other boats for the second time, we expected that it would go much more smoothly than the first time. Wrong. This time the boat on the left came in way too hot, and the advisor's directive to the skipper to put his engines in reverse was ignored. We thought. The line-handlers bravely tried to tie up the 2 boats anyway. But the inertia of a heavy, 45 ft boat won out, and again we had to abort. Afterwards, the skipper to of the other boat became indignant with Meza and the other advisors for telling him to put his engines in reverse when he came in too fast. Because...he HAD no reverse. This sparked another international shouting match. Finally we got the raft back together, and transited the rest of the locks without incident.
After a pilot boat came to pick up Meza, we headed to the Flamingo Harbor Marina. Unlike the laid-back cruiser vibe of Shelter Bay Harbor we'd just come from, Flamingo is more of a mega-yacht harbor. As we approached, I used the binoculars to check things out and noticed a largish blue motor yacht anchored outside between us and the breakwater. It's hard for me to judge the size of a boat from a distance, but I noticed that this motor yacht was carrying a sailboat. Not just a dinghy, but a keelboat. So I started counting the spreaders. One, two, three, four! Later, Randy looked up the motor-yacht, 'Le Gran Bleu' on line and discovered it's one of the 5 largest American-owned yachts at 354 feet. The sailboat she carries is 74 feet long itself!
We tied up around 3:30. I quickly thanked Andy and Melissa for their hospitality, and ran to catch a cab for the bus station. I'd been warned that Colon is not a safe town, and especially to stay away from the bus station. Since I don't speak Spanish, and was traveling alone with a good amount of cash, I really wanted to avoid it or at least get there before dark. Of course, the Colon bus station is exactly where I ended up... wandering around after dark, unable to find a free cab (busy holiday). D'oh! Randy and I agree that there was only one thing that kept me from a well-deserved mugging; the bad-guys must have smelled a police sting operation since I must have looked like such easy bait. Finally I snagged a cab. The driver had no idea where Shelter Bay Marina was, and all I had was a copy of a nautical chart of the area. But we figured it out together, and before long I was back at SoaS, enjoying a cheeseburger.
Going through the canal was a great experience, of course. But I'm sorry that I didn't get to do it on Swingin' on a Star with Hideko and Randy!
They say the Panama Canal runs 24 hours a day 365 days a year. That is unless James Bond is in town. We waited all day for the admeasurer to come but at the end of the day the story was that 007 made entering the marina out of the question. They did flip some boats in the back of the bay but yachts seemed to be coming and going in between.
Margaret left today to handle lines on another yacht. We're all looking forward to her report.
03/18/2008, Shelter Bay Marina
I went to the marina office first thing in the morning to discuss our situation. We were tied up on the end of a T reserved for the 007 movie shoot. The dock master Russ is a nice guy but he insisted that we would fit into the slip with the mono hull and he also insisted that we could not stay on the T.
After moving our soon to be neighbor all the way over to their side, the space did pace off to be about 32 feet. Not a lot of room to spare with a 26 foot 4 inch cat. When I got back to the boat one of the director's minions was asking Margaret (who was alone aboard) to move the boat "five minutes ago".
That made the options pretty clear. Margaret and I moved the boat over to the new slip and carefully squeezed Swingin' on a Star in with a nice breeze in the teens to help out. The marina was now officially packed.
Shelter Bay is a nice new marina. The restaurant is decent, although the service is reminiscent of the eastern Caribbean, if not worse. The showers are nice but only some have hot water. There are shuttles to the market and good access to other services. They have free water and 110v 60Hz power, which is nice for us US boats.
It is a great place to meet other cruisers as well. Many of the folks here are going through the canal or have just come through. Most have cruised some very interesting places.
Unfortunately the canal is very backed up at the moment. I guess there are always a lot of large ships anchored about but presently there are more than normal because there has been a bit of a canal pilots dispute brewing. It is worse yet for small boat because they are only sending three through a day and this is the season for folks going south.
A friend on another SF50 went through about two or three weeks ago and only waited three days. We decided to use the same agent and he is currently quoting us four weeks! Not to mention the fact that the admeasurers claim they can't come out to Shelter Bay while the movie shoot is going.
Perhaps we will get to cruise up to Bocas del Toro and Costa Rica for a bit after all...
03/17/2008, Shelter Bay Marina
We were up early this morning ready to make way to Colon Harbor. We had parked Swingin' on a Star at the eastern end of the anchorage so that we would have no one between us and the exit in the overcast grey morning. There were a few buoys to dodge but otherwise the way was clear.
Margaret, Em and Hideko were on the bow but it was difficult to ready the water in the weak light. The bottom came up gradually as we worked our way toward the east exit. The Cruising guide suggested a 10 foot depth on the way out. I couldn't find it. After seeing 4 feet under the bow and backing off a couple of times we decided to head out the south side.
We sailed along the north coast of Panama at a crisp 9 knots or so overtaking a couple of fellow cruisers along the way. We also passed a couple beating their way into the seas in the other direction. Didn't look half as fun as the way we were going.
As we approached the canal zone we began to get some very interesting output on the chart plotter. I had to turn off the perimeter alarms, I have never seen so many targets. One can only guess that all of these guys were waiting to go through the canal. This did not bode well for our quick passage.
Everything in this area is giant sized. The safe water buoy is huge, the markers on the entrance to the breakwater are towering and the ships are of course very large. The breakwater itself is the largest I have ever seen. You see it and expect to reach it in a few minutes but then it is still just as far away as it was.
We entered the port through the huge opening in the breakwater and not surprisingly there was still quite a bit of swell inside. Just a gentle ripple to the tankers anchored about I guess.
After clearing the yellow marks inside the breakwater we turned to starboard and ran along the wall toward Shelter Bay Marina. As we approached we saw cruising boats anchored out front, which was odd because this is not normally an anchorage per the guide. We entered the marina and finally discovered that they listen on VHF 74 with the help of some cruisers in the area. This is not printed on their ads or in the section on Shelter Bay in the Guide.
The management wanted to put us in a slip next to a monohull. I figured I'd give it a look see but was not inclined to believe that we would fit in such a place. After motoring down the dock I decided recon would be required. Fortunately the end of the T was completely open so we tied up there and I went to visit the office.
The dock master was not around but the office manager said we could not stay where we were and that we would have to move to the slip. I said I didn't think we'd fit. She got the dock master on the horn and he asked how wide we were. Hmmm, assigning a 50 foot cat a slip without knowing their beam. I had sent this information to them but I suppose it was not interesting.
I asked why we couldn't stay where we were. She pointed to the slip map white board and there were little Post-its with 007 written all over them. This 007 boat had taken up every spot on all of the Ts. What a jerk.
The slips had been reserved of course, but by the director of "Quantum of Solace", the new James Bond film coming out in November 08. It turns out that the boats anchored out in the poor holding area outside the marina were getting paid $100 per day to dress up the set.
Shooting had shut down for the night so we were good for now.
03/16/2008, San Blas
We had a good run to make today to get to the Holandes but we knew that our current anchorage was going to be hard to beat. We spent a lovely morning in our private lagoon. While I was still sleeping in, some Kuna folks came by in a couple of big RIBs to pick up the guys who had stayed on the island. I think that when they saw only women on board they decided not to approach too closely. They did point out their chief to Em as they motored out of the lagoon though.
Margaret had done the navigation for our trip today so once the boat was ready to go we began ticking off waypoints such as Marg-A, and Marg-B. We closed on the Holandes at around four in the afternoon. We approached the east entrance through a shallow and narrow reef break. As we got closer I decided I'd rather not see if we could get in that way. Just a little too much in the way of seas and wind pushing us on. In short order we were around the south side with the sails in the bag and heading up along Ogoppiriadup (I love that name).
The Holandes are very pretty but they are also the focal point of San Blas cruising. My preference is definitely the isolated anchorages. It is always fun to meet new folks though and all cruisers are characters (author included of course).
We worked our way through a couple of spots marked as anchorages on the chart. We passed on some because they were in 30 feet of water and others because they were in the lee of Banedup which is supposed to be buggy. We ended up parking just off of the beach at BBQ Island. Boats all around and AirXs howling.
Margaret and Em went for a swim in the crystal clear water while I put the boat away and Hideko made dinner. We hit the hay early so that we could start the long run to the Panama Canal first thing in the morning.
Swingin' on a Star is bound for the South Pacific and it is getting to be time to cross the canal. Both Em and Margaret are looking forward to crossing the canal with us and we'd like to be out in the Pacific by April if possible. All of this added up to us needing to do some larger hops.
We decided to shoot for Aridup today. Aridup is the last island along the coast before you get to the central San Blas. We were underway at first light, slowly backtracking out of the anchorage. Chart Plotter Track Lines aren't a guaranteed safe route but they are certainly reassuring.
Once out of the anchorage we headed for deep water and motor sailed up the coast, leaving all of the islands and most of the shoals to port. We saw many Kuna out in their canoes fishing and traveling about. They seem to get up very early in the twilight hours to head out.
We picked up the Bauhaus waypoints at 09 17.029N, 078 06.160W and headed back inland to cruise through the islands off of Playon Chico. As we came up to the waypoint at 09 18.019N, 078 10.620W we noticed an amazing little harbor back in the Achudup area. We couldn't resist pausing to explore it.
We came in from the southwest around the small islet and reef system south of the harbor. Then we headed east and tried to get in from the south. You can make it most of the way but just before you get into the lagoon there is a reef across the entire entrance. Maybe you could row through in a 105 with the motor up but we had to turn back.
We refused to be beaten however and proceeded with the entire crew spotting on the bow. We followed our track back but broke off and followed the island around to the north staying inside Tacherdup. Coming around from the northwest we found a nice break in the reef and glided into the lagoon.
This is a fantastic anchorage located at 09 18.410N, 078 10.410W. You can drop your anchor in sand 10-15 feet deep in the northwest corner of the lagoon and lay back on good scope. There's just enough room for one 50 foot cat. A perfect lunch spot but fine for overnight as well with very good protection. You might not get out if the seas come up from the north though. After enjoying the fantastic little lagoon for a brief bit we headed back out to Aridup.
Aridup is a beautiful island with a couple of small satellites to the southwest. Just as you might picture the perfect desert island, wonderful beaches sprouting with coconut palm trees. The anchorage shown in the Bauhaus guide is south of the island in 20-30 feet. We decided to see if we could get lucky again and pressed on toward the cove farther up the southwest coast.
It is important to explore this area in good light as there are reefs just below the surface all over the place. Usually they break but in the dark calm of a new moon you can't even tell they're there. There are also some isolated coral heads but these are typically deep enough that you wouldn't need to worry unless you had a fairly deep draft.
After carefully working our way back toward the beach and surveying the bottom we decided that we had found paradise. The bottom was perfect sand with some eel grass patches here and there (easy to mistake for reef if you don't have good light). The edges of the lagoon consist of a beautiful palm lined beach with a view through to the Caribbean Sea, and surrounding reefs teaming with fish and other creatures. We came to rest at 09 22.18'N, 078 15.55'W.
There's probably room for only one boat, maybe two good friends, but that was fine with us. Just like the Carreto anchorage we saw no more than two or three other boats all day (not counting Kuna canoes) and anchored alone.
Once setup we contemplated bringing a coconut tree line ashore. We were about 400 feet off of the beach though and after a snorkel around it seemed that we had plenty of swinging room for the conditions.
There are a couple of Kuna shelters on the island but I didn't see any people when I explored. The girls decided to take Roq for a hike while I looked around for Lobster.
As I snorkeled about I noticed a canoe approaching. I popped my head up and three Kuna men came to speak to me. We had the typical friendly greeting followed by lots of chatting with neither party understanding what the other was saying. In the end I successfully communicated that I was trying to spear lobster. They seemed more interested in fish but after a bit more discussion one of them jumped in to hunt with me.
After about 20 minutes of joint searching, fruitless I might add, my Kuna friend decided he'd had enough. The three of them said goodbye and went ashore for the night. Shortly thereafter I speared my first one. I looked around on the outside for another hour but the cold I'd been battling was starting to make it hard for me to equalize and I could get past 10 feet. I saw a couple of nurse sharks on the prowl, known for eating lobster, and decided to leave them to it.
Em, Hideko and Margaret were all enjoying some great snorkeling as well. Margaret is very industrious and cleaned the water line for a while as well. I turned in early but the girls enjoyed one of Hideko's wonderful Mahi Mahi creations with a lobster appetizer.
03/14/2008, Suledup (aka Isla de Oro)
We had a relaxing breakfast aboard today and enjoyed the tranquility of Carreto bay. Some Kuna came by to get a look at us and say Bueno Dias. We have not seen any women out on the canoes, only men and boys. An older man and a boy came by offering Avocados for sale. They were huge. Hideko purchased four, each of which made some tasty guacamole.
We ultimately invited them aboard for a glass of water. They ate some grapes we offered with quite a bit of interest, as if they had not seen such fruit before. They pocketed the seeds indicating that they would try to plant them. They were also interested in acquiring some magazines so we gave them a few older sailing mags. I wondered if the chief would be ok with westerners spreading propaganda in such a way, but they wanted our Panama Cruising Guide originally which I just couldn't part with. They were both very polite and courteous.
Margaret had noticed that our port jack line running under the bridge deck was loose. I jumped in to check it out and it seemed to have been rotted away in the middle with the aft section completely missing. These lines are great for pulling yourself along the boat as you scrub the waterline or what have you. The port line was always a little longer than the starboard line and would get wet unless the water was flat. I can only assume that it just gave in to the sea as it didn't look to be cut. Definitely on my list of things to fix.
We decided to get going around 1 in the afternoon. It was a nice day to sail but our sailing was upwind. We slowly tacked up the coast at 6 or so knots in 10 to 12 knots of apparent wind.
I was struck by the amount of plastic trash floating about. I don't think I have ever seen a coastline with so much junk in the water. This whole area is amazingly beautiful in all other ways. I suppose if you make everything from natural objects like trees, plants and rocks you're used to being able throw anything into the ocean without recourse. I worry about what it will be like in ten years though and wish I had made it here ten years ago, before the trash and anchoring fees.
The Kuna people are rich in culture and there is no real concept of poverty. That only comes in when people begin to want things. I have seen people with much more than the Kuna who are certainly in the poverty bin. The Kuna we have met all seem happy, content and rich in the most important ways.
Many Kuna villages in the southeast are traditional blending in with the environment. There are many on islands as well. Some (as pictured) seem to overflow the shores. The great thing is that they denude and build out to the waterline on one island but leave those around them (as pictured) completely pristine.
We didn't get far today in our trip up the coast but it was a relaxing sail. We decided to put in at Suledup after consulting the navigational aids. Our charts of the area are medium scale and good for planning but not close in to shore. The Navionics electronic charts are in the same bucket. Both have huge areas that simply say "unsurveyed". The BauhausGuide is the indisposable gem here.
The Panama Coast is very rocky and reefy and there are lots of hazards about. The detail, accuracy and coverage Bauhaus provides makes getting around a lot safer. The Guide also sets out many anchorages not found in other references.
We crept up around the reefs and islets to the south of Suledup, Isla de Oro on the DMA chart. We saw 7 feet idling through some of the reef breaks but once inside it was a really nicely protected harbor with about 20 feet of water. An American trawler was already anchored inside. You could have probably squeezed another two boats in but it was nice with two.
We had sailed all day with overcast skies so the batteries needed a little boost. We ran the genset and played dominoes for an hour or two after sunset and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings.