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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
The New Panama City
03/22/2008, Panama City

We took a tour of the three Panama Cities today.

The original Panama City, Panama Viejo, is little more than a pile of stones and mortar east of the modern Panama City. The pirate Henry Morgan sacked the original Panama City in 1671 and it subsequently burned to the proverbial ground. He sailed up the Rio Chagres from the Caribbean side and marched the final bit over land. Unfortunately for the city all of the defenses were aimed at the Pacific Ocean.

The second Panama City is known as the Casco Viejo and was built on the peninsula just west of modern Panama City. This was quite a place in the hey day of the canal's construction. The canal passes right along the old city's west bank. While there seem to be some efforts to bring the old city back, and it does have its quaint patches, it is mostly impoverished and in disrepair.

The new city is fairly modern and packed with tall buildings. An expansion project is underway to fill in a large swath of the Pacific Ocean on the west side of the water front highway. It seems a place where you can get just about anything, but like most big cities, has its good areas and its bad areas.

When the canal expands in 2014 it is certain that the importance of the city will grow.

Panama Canal Railroad
03/21/2008, Panama Canal

The Panama Railroad is an important part of the modern Panama infrastructure. The railroad was built by Americans and completed in 1855, over 60 years before the canal, while Panama was still a provence of Colombia. This path was used by many US east coasters to reach the gold rush in the Amrican West without having to brave the lands of the North American Natives. The railroad moves many containers between Panama City on the Pacific side and Colon on the Caribbean side each day.

Volunteer Line Handler
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!

Shelter Bay
03/19/2008, Colon

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.

Hey, no wake!
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...

Colon Harbor
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.

The Holandes Cays
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.


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