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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Folks on the Dock
04/19/2008, Shelter Bay Marina

After you've been in a marina for a while you get to know many of the locals. Shelter Bay is an interesting spot because it is so far from everything. It makes the odds of running into someone on a boat in the marina during your day very high.

Bruce and April are a couple from the US west coast living on their cat in the marina. Bruce runs the dock and April is a representative for Marine Warehouse. They are a wonderful family with two great kids and some wild pets. They are currently rehabilitating a toucan and a little sloth. Both are very cute (sloth pictured).

We have met many folks going east and many going west and some planning to stay put for a while. Our new friend Ed just hauled out his Norseman 430 in the Shelter Bay yard. We met Ed our first day on the dock and have enjoyed his company when he has stopped by the marina. Ed has purchased Little Star for his place out in Bocas Del Toro and is likely to join us on the trip to the Galapagos.

Our friends Peter, Debbie and their kids Josh and Mattias on Sea-u-manana arrived a few days ago. They are spending a lot of time in town trying to replace a number of electronics items that some unscrupulous individuals stole from their boat in Columbia. The four of them have agreed to help us out tomorrow as line handlers on our boat as we transit the canal.

Nobu from Wakamizu has also agreed to join us for the trip through the canal. Including Hideko, that gives us four adult line handlers plus the skipper which is what the canal requires. After going through once I'd say that is also a minimum. It is nice to have one person to sweat the line and one to bring it in when you are going up at Gatun. If you end up with three or four lines on you boat (not likely but it can happen) you'll have everyone working hard.

There's a swap meet at Shelter tomorrow morning so we've collected a pile of stuff to get off of the boat. We'll sell what we can and then head through the canal. Very exciting stuff!

Two stroke repair
04/18/2008, Shelter Bay

I hate to say it but we have decided to sell Little Star, our dinghy. The longer distances you need to cover to explore in the Pacific and the desire to go fast with guests aboard were our primary motivations. We loved Little Star and it was a hard decision. Crazy to get sentimental over a dinghy, I know, but these things happen.

After looking around quite a bit we ordered a new 12' AB with a 25hp Yamaha 2 stroke from Marine Warehouse. Marine Warehouse is run by Albert in Miami but they have offices in Panama. These guys are fantastic for shipping to Panama and other out of the way destinations ( We had a very good experience with them.

Some folks had come over to purchase the Yamaha 8 hp outboard today so I put it on their boat and told them that it was a one pull motor. Four hundred pulls later it would not start. Needless to say they didn't buy the motor.

I'm not much of a 2 stroke mechanic but fortunately our neighbors are. Paul and Colin began tearing the thing apart before I could blink an eye. We had thought we were going to be through the canal in a week when we arrived so the outboard had been sitting with fuel in it. Normally you run a 2 stroke out of fuel before laying it up so that the oil in the fuel mix doesn't gunk things up.

After cleaning up the injector nozzle and sprayer the motor looked great. Colin put it back together and it ran like brand new. Cruisers are really cool people. I have now added, "recently serviced by an expert mechanic" to the for sale sign.

Cuanto cuesta?!?
04/17/2008, Colon

We paid our canal bill today. Ouch.

Crossing the Panama canal is not cheap. The admeasurer measured us in at 49' and change but after looking at our documentation, recorded us at 50'. He indicated that he had to record us at the greater of the ships documentation or the measurement. The difference between 49'11" and 50' is about $350. If you have a 50 footer and want to sooth your anguish over the extra change simply consider the average cargo ship's vig, which is in the neighborhood of $250,000 a trip. Could be $500,000 or more if they buy a premium slot.

The current wait for new yachts arriving is 8 weeks. This pretty much eliminates cruising plans for the South Pacific. If you arrived today 4/18 and went through in three to four days (as one might expect) you could be in French Polynesia by June after a nice stop in the Galapagos. This gives you plenty of time to get to New Zealand or Australia and see the sights on the way. Add two months and you end up in French Polynesia in August staring storm season in the face and with 3,000 or more nautical miles still to cover.

Two boats we have talked to have come into Colon, received their date, had a melt down and then arranged freight. By this I mean they have pulled the mast off of the boat, packed it up and put it on a ship, or a truck in one case, bound for Panama City. On the other side you unpack the boat and put the mast back on, then sail away. This could run you $3,000 to $10,000 for a small boat. It is also a little more hazardous for the boat. That said it is a whole lot faster, running perhaps a week and a half or two.

Our tab ran something like this:

$910 - Toll for the Panama Canal
$300 - Taxes
$350 - Agents Fee
$100 - Rental of 4 Lines
$070 - Rental of 10 tires
$086 - Miscellaneous vigorish (not sure what this was for)
$090 - Charge for using a VISA (that VISA tells everyone not to charge in their contract)

The only ways to reduce this are to get an admeasurer that will record what he measures (our sister ship benefitted from this treatment) and/or cut the agent out. A 49'11" boat is good for a $350 savings and doing it yourself without the agent will cut out another $350 to $400.

While pricey I think I would use our agent, Enrique Plummer 507-6674-2086, again if I had it to do over. Enrique is bilingual and for us with our poor Spanish this is a pretty big help. Enrique generally answers his phone and gets back to you quickly if you have to leave a message. This may seem trivial, but I assure you it is above and beyond the call in this neck of the woods. Such expeditious turn around may make the difference between being moved up and staying in line. Enrique also cleared us in and will clear us out. We have never had to talk to anyone but Enrique and everything has been hassle free. He sourced the lines and tires (Panama Fenders) for the transit and has kept us posted on all of the timing issues.

I have seen others lose their spot due to payment issues (a VISA won't clear because the bank has stopped the card for possible fraud, etc...) or they have just missed a communication from the ACP. Agents have corporate accounts and they make you good with the canal so as long as you pay the agent you never have to worry about the canal. Agents also keep track of their boats and can work out new slots amongst their boats if conflicts arise. From a communications stand point the agent is talking to the ACP several times a day making it very unlikely that you get missed when things shuffle.

$2,000 is a big chunk out of the cruising kitty but it beats Cape Horn...

04/21/2008 | Pablo Ramos
Crossing the Panama Canal... Priceless!
Galapagos GRIBs
04/16/2008, Colon

We have been moved up twice in the queue to go through the canal. Our new date is Sunday the 20th. We are pretty happy about this but now scrambling a little more to get everything ready.

Over the previous weeks we have been refining our passage plan for getting to French Polynesia. The first step is to get through the Panama canal, then to cruise the Las Perlas, next the Galapagos and then on to Fatu Hiva in the Marquises.

From the looks of it the Galapagos bit will be the toughest to sail. As you can see from the current GRIB the wind from Panama to the Galapagos is anything but normal. Some say beat your way down to Ecuador and sail out on the equator. Some say sail around the peninsula to the north and then head more south to make the crossing.

If you watch the unpredictable patterns for a few days you may come to the same conclusion I have come to. The shortest path between two points is a straight line. Perhaps this is not the purists approach but I think it is probably the fastest this time of year.

Reports from the Galapagos are: diesel delivered to the boat at about $2 a gallon. This is not Venezuela cheap but it is half off the rest of the world. Given the option of topping up in the Galapagos I think we will be ok with burning a few dinosaurs on the way. With these wind patterns we could just as easily sail the whole way, who knows?

April 15th
04/15/2008, Everywhere

We e-filed our US taxes from the boat today. If I didn't have Turbo Tax and a good Internet connection I don't know how we would have managed (yes I do, we would have filed an extension...).

It also reminded me how backward the US is tax wise. The Turbo Tax interview (necessary to get a fair shake on deductions) is a forensic map of the PAC influences and election campaign promises which have created the beast.

Many have a vested interest (particularly the IRS) in seeing the status quo go on but there are options. The Fair Tax is certainly compelling and I would encourage anyone displeased by the bureaucratic overhead associated with April 15th to take a look. I can't imagine a better system for cruisers!

Panama: #2 Mail Drop in the Carib
04/14/2008, Colon

Hideko and I visited the "Free Zone" in Colon just to see what it was all about. What a place. It is a massive industrial warehouse facility directly connected to the port. Everything inside is tax free if you are in transit. You need a passport to get in and the Panama citizens are not typically allowed to shop there. The prices are ok but I think you get the same things for about the same price in a much more pleasant setting in Panama City.

With all of the shipping and receiving that goes on around the canal the country does seem to have the whole yacht in transit bit worked out. We had four boxes sent out from our mail forwarder, Saint Brendan's Isle, with spares and lots of other odds and ends. Most places in the Carib, even the supposed free ports, give you quite a hassle when you try to receive this sort of shipment. SBI puts all of the small things you get in the mail in a larger box, breaking things down and tossing junk mail to save space. The manifest is an SBI one because they can't pull the invoices for each individual item (they may not even have access to them). This non-original manifest gives the Grenada customs folks a serious conniption. Curacao had a big problem with DVDs. They charge different rates for Games, Movies and computer software.

In Panama the package comes right to the boat and they charge you $15, even for four boxes. This makes Panama the #2 spot we've found in the Caribbean to get mail. The number one spot was the BVI. The same as Panama but no $15 fee, which allowed them to leave things at the marina office when you aren't at the boat.

We just got moved up again by the ACP so we are now going through the canal this Sunday! Apparently they are getting too many yachts stacked up on the north side. They are sending three rafts of three through with us (9 yachts total). Most of the yacht transits we have seen lately have been a single raft of three behind a cargo ship on the Gatun side and the you go down on the Pacific side with the tour boats. It will be nice to go through with all yachts because it will avoid any problems you might have with prop wash from the big boats.

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.


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