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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Gamboa Resort
04/13/2008, Gamboa

Nobu and Nirai from Wakamizu joined us for a trip to Gamboa today.

It is a fairly long cab ride from Shelter Bay to Gamboa so we had to leave at 7AM. It turned out to be not early enough. We were booked to ride the aerial tram through the rain forest but didn't make it in time. Instead we enjoyed a nice breakfast buffet at the resort and then visited some exhibits that the resort runs including a mock Embera Indian village, a reptile house, and a butterfly farm.

The Kuna Indians get all of the fame in Panama due to their lovely and popular San Blas islands. The Embera are a similar but different group living in the more central area of Panama. The Embera usually go topless but when visiting the developed towns they cover up so as not to shock the gringos. There were two Embera women at the village selling incredibly intricate woven bowls and masks. Seeing the $100 price on one might surprise you until you realize that they only charge $1 per day that they work on the piece.

After a break at the Monkey Bar we piled on a jungle boat to explore the Chagres river and some of the islands in Gatun lake. It was a nice two hour trip with lots of wildlife. We spotted various kinds of monkeys, including the elusive howlers. We also ran across a couple of sloths moving in slow motion up in their trees and a few crocodiles and some turtles swimming or sunning on the banks.

When you travel through all of this wonderful territory while transiting the canal there's no dilly dallying. It was nice to have an afternoon to explore the area a little. Like all resorts, Gamboa is more expensive than it would be to pursue similar activities on your own but you get to do a lot in one day.

04/12/2008, Swingin' on a Star

There are some nice folks in a big trawler at the end of our dock. They took a trip to the San Blas and then returned with some fresh tuna. There is an unwritten cruisers law that says if you see a Japanese person you must give them some of your tuna. As everyone knows Japanese and Tuna are linked in a spiritual way.

The crew of Bella were obviously familiar with this rule and gave Hideko a big chunk of wonderful Black Fin. So we invited all of the other Japanese in the marina (Nirai and Nobu) over for sushi. We didn't have a huge selection but it worked out. We made some kapa maki (cucumber rolls), Tuna nigiri and maki, and we also had some yummy King Mackeral in the freezer that was tasty.

04/24/2008 | pablo Ramos
Dude! WWWaaaaaasssssaaaaa-BI! Pass the Soy sauce.
Bruntons & DHL
04/11/2008, Shelter Bay Marina

We have Varifold props, which we love. They work great in forward and reverse, we've never had them not fold or open, and they were in great condition at the two year mark.

We have never had zincs on the tips of the props. The Saildrives have zincs of course but the threaded tip on the props came bare from the factory. I asked the factory about this and they said the props don't need their own zincs, which is a reasonable enough answer I suppose.

I asked Bruntons, the makers of the Varifold props, about the prop zincs and they indicated that you must have them. The respective answers were no surprise. So in the interest of being as responsible as possible I decided to put some zincs on the props. When I inquired, Bruntons informed me that I should buy them from Bruntons, again a fairly predictable opinion.

I figured for the first time out I'd buy the parts from Bruntons, pay the vig, and then see if I could find similar bits elsewhere for a more reasonable rate. The wait for the Panama canal gave us a long enough shipping window to place the order.

The zincs were $34 each and we also ordered a zinc holder, which on our props is a little metal piece that screws in with three socket head screws and has the threaded bolt that the zinc screws onto. This piece is also the bit that stops the blades when they are fully folded. Our starboard prop has two blades that touch when folded due to an indent that has worn into this zinc holder piece, so I wanted to get a new one to see if replacing it would keep the blades from nicking each other every time they fold.

The two zincs and the one zinc holder came to $100, however shipping by DHL came to $130, for a grand total of $230. At a prorated $100 per zinc I was understandably hesitant to place the order. In the end I decided it was probably worth it to get the first set right, and hey, I've been over the coals for parts and shipping the whole Caribbean trip so why not.

Then DHL arrives, promptly I might add, and even more impressive at the boat! No crazy negotiations with customs or anything. Surprisingly though they want $13.80. For what I inquire? No hablo anglais. I really wish I had spent more hours on the Spanish. I'm sure that it has cost me more than the $13.80.

So after paying what I assume is a customs fee I happily opened my package. One zinc. Lovely. Several more emails with a rapidly distant growing European and I think they are completing the order. Hard to tell because although they seem take action when I email them they are either too embarrassed or to annoyed to write back. I finally corner them enough to discover that they have shipped the remaining zinc.

Then DHL arrives. $13.50 por favor.


No hablo anglais.

Yo no tengo dinero. I learned that from Thomas walking in the scary parts of downtown LA. This was of course not what the delivery guy wanted to hear. I tried to explain that I had already paid the import duty on this item as the previous shipment was charged by the invoice which included all items I had ordered (regardless of the short fall in contents).

No hablo anglais.

No hablo Espaniol

I only had a $100 and Hideko was gone with all of the small change. I originally thought $100s would be good to have on the boat. Unfortunately many places simply will not take a 100 dollar bill, due to too much counterfeiting, dogma, or whatever. The marina would not break my hundred. The restaurant would not break my hundred, not even if I bought lunch for myself and the next three people.

After much running about the dock I was finally at a loss. Cheque?, I offered.


What!? DHL would not take my crispy new green back but they would take a check?! Well let me just print one out from Photoshop... (just kidding).

So I paid $13.50 (pretty close to the prior $13.80 but I was not going to even try to figure out what was going on there) and took my package. I now have my two zincs and the one holder for a grand total of $257.30 and two weeks of lead time.

Any cruiser reading this will simply say: u huh. Not an atypical story by any means. Just the fun for today. It is too late for the Spanish but I am now studying the French course we have on DVD with renewed zest. Eleven days until our transit. au revoir...

Life Raft Cert
04/10/2008, Colon

We got our Viking 8 person life raft recertified today. Panama Marine was nice enough to let us watch the raft inflation, play with all of the gizmos and look over the contents. These guys are certified for almost all brands of life raft and the tech who worked on our raft had been to many training sessions for various venders. A solid outfit.

I had done the life raft drills for the STCW but it is still really nice to get a good look at your own raft. Hideko enjoyed watching the process as well.

As expected all of the flares and such needed to be replaced. The total would have been around $750 for the service (with pickup and drop off) but it turned out to run $1,300 (about 50% of the cost of a new raft!) because Viking required the replacement of the relief valves.

A life raft is a debatable necessity on a catamaran. If your boat is positively buoyant do you really need a raft? It would be nice to live in the raft tied to the big boat if the big boat was upside down I suppose. Regardless, if you're going to have one you should probably bite the bullet and keep it serviced.

The Balboa Yacht Club
04/09/2008, Balboa

The Balboa Yacht Club is just outside of the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, almost under the Bridge of the Americas. This is the primary advisor pickup and drop off location for transiting yachts and a hang out for those in waiting mode.

The Crane
04/08/2008, Gamboa

The local word is that this is the second largest crane in the world. The Americans took it from Hitler's Germany after World War II and relocated it here to assist with maintenance on the canal. Whatever its pedigree, it is big!

Line Handler Part II - Day II
04/07/2008, Panama Canal

The howler monkeys begin their howling at about 6AM. If you are sleeping outside, or your boat is not well insulated, this is when you get up. Howlers are considered the loudest land animal and are among the largest of the new world monkeys. While it is very easy to hear one it is fairly hard to catch sight of one. A cab driver Hideko chatted with on the subject said he had see a howler once, and he had lived in Panama 65 years!

The advisor arrived at 07:00 and shortly thereafter we were underway. The most amazing thing about crossing the canal is that it is not a canal. It is a lake. A lake in the middle of the jungle. There's a bit of canal feel at the south end coming through the astounding Gaillard cut but most of the trip is literally through the jungle. It is one of the most pleasant day cruises you could ask for.

Another remarkable thing about the canal zone is that everything in the entire area is so well marked it makes US waters look ill tended to, to say nothing of the rest of Panama or South America. Even the banks of the canal are lit along the big boat channel.

Small boats take the Banana Channel through Gatun lake. This is a short cut that the large boats stay out of previously plied by the Banana Boats. You can almost hear Harry Bellefonte. We never saw less than 30 feet of water but I guess the lake can get lower than it was when we went through. Rahula has a Yanmar 27hp outboard diesel. The first I'd ever seen. It was a cool beast. We ran out the jib and motor sailed at around 6 knots in the flat lake with little wind. It was as pleasant a trip as you could ask for.

There's a place in Gatun lake I had read about in "The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them", called Barro Colorado island. It is the home of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a center devoted to the study of everything associated with the jungle. Bugs, plants, bats, you name it. It was an enjoyable book and I was very pleased to finally see the place, deemed the best studied patch of rainforest in the world. It is also unique because while just another part of the rain forest in times of old, for the past 100 years it has been an isolated, largely unchanging island, thanks to the man made Gatun lake.

As we came out of the Banana Channel and rejoined the main route the large ships began to pass again on their way to the northern lock we had come from. As you go by the Gamboa area you get a look at some of the cranes and dredgers still in use daily.

The Gaillard cut through the continental divide is massive. It is the narrowest bit of the canal and you can easily see why. Huge land slides have plagued the area in the rainy season from the first day of digging. The canal folks just keep digging the spills out and moving the mountains back. Just when it looked like the mountains might be content they will have to widen things for the huge vessels that will come through the larger locks.

The south side of the canal has two locks, the Pedro Miguel and the Mira Flores. We rafted up just before the Pedro Miguel and entered the lock where a tour boat from Panama City was already on the wall. Going down was easier than going up. Going up you have to pull in the line as the boat rises to keep the raft centered. Going down you monkeys fist can almost be handed to you and you simply let the line out at the right speed as you go down.

The only bit of extra work comes when you have to let go of the messenger lines to cross Mira Flores lake. Mira Flores is a small lake so you stay rafted up on the way through. Once in the first chamber of the Mira Flores lock on the south side of the lake you take the messenger line, tie up the big lines and drop down again. They walk you forward into the second chamber and you're off into the Pacific.

The last chamber is the biggest of them all due to the tides on the Pacific side. The Pacific tides are a shocker for a lot of the American Caribbean cruisers. You almost never see more than a foot of tide from the Bahamas through to Panama. When we arrived in the Bay of Panama on the Pacific side the tidal range was 15 feet!

Rahula made her way nicely down toward Balboa Yacht Club after an easy transit. The Pilot boat picked up our advisor and then we tied up at the fuel dock to off load the rented lines and tires.

The Balboa Yacht Club is not much of a yacht club. It is basically a mooring field with less than optimal old-tire moorings. The "club" is a fuel dock (floating of course) and a building that looks nice and from what I hear has a bar and grill.

James and Amelia moved on to La Playita anchorage. This is a rolly but otherwise nicely located anchorage just at the end of the breakwater. It is a short dinghy hop to the fisherman's dock which is located right in the middle of a group of shops, restaurants and even a decent chandlery.

The crew celebrated a safe crossing and arrival in the Pacific with a bottle of champagne. With regrets I headed ashore as the sun began to set.

Tony the famed cruisers taxi driver met me at the pier. Not everyone will take you all the way to Colon from Panama City. It is a long way and the cab driver typically has to go both ways to get home.

It was a great trip with wonderful folks. We hope to see Rahula again in the Pacific.


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