04/20/2008, Panama Canal
Wow, it was a long day. We got up early to get things going with the swap meet on the dock. It was strange to walk out into the cockpit and see it open with no dinghy. Hideko and I will really miss Little Star. Having no dinghy we decided to go into Flamenco Marina on the other side of the canal until our new dinghy comes. Flamenco is almost completely filled with permanent residents of the sport fisher flavor so it is hard to get a slip. We tried a couple times and got turned down the first time. After a few days we contacted Ken, the guy in charge of all of the docks, and got a spot.
We had a hard time deciding what to do with the cruising guides and charts of the Caribbean. You get attached to these things. You use them a lot to find stores, services and sights to see when you're cruising, they're kind of a log of where you've been. We try to keep our catamaran light (for her size) and to do that you really need to consider every little thing, but especially heavy things. A stack of cruising guides displaces some water. They are also going to do nothing but sit for three years or so until we get back to the Caribbean. Seeing that they will be five or six years old by then, we'd probably want to buy new ones anyway. Taking a boat slowing, depreciating asset on a world tour didn't seem like the right thing to do. So we kept the best charts of the areas we thought we'd really like to come back to and sold the rest.
After the dock sale I ran across Bruce the dock/yard manager and we got to talking about ukuleles. I had no idea he was a uk guy. He had like 8 uks on his boat. Just goes to show that you should try to get to know your neighbors in the marina sooner rather than later. After commiserating about the missed opportunities for a good uk jam I made him an offer on a 8 string. I only have a 4 string and the 8s sound really nice and full. We said goodbye and I left with a nice new uk. Get rid of some weight add some weight.
Hideko was going crazy cleaning the boat when I got back. She had made a tasty casserole to feed everyone for dinner. It is a big leap to plan the food bit of a canal transit for a crew used to two mouths. We had an additional family of four, Nobu and an ACP advisor joining us increasing the intake substantially.
We checked in on the VHF radio with the canal and the current instructions were to be out in the F anchorage (the only yacht anchorage) by 17:00. So we targeted a 16:00 arrival and a 15:30 departure from Shelter Bay. All of our crew were aboard and ready to go at around 15:00. So, after a month of waiting, we fired up the Yanmars and idled out into Lemon Bay.
It is a big bay. Without really cranking up the throttle it probably takes a full half hour to get from your slip to the anchorage. As we neared the flats we could easily identify the other boats making the canal transit with us. They all had every fender they owned out as well as a batch of rented tires. We rented ten tires and used eight fenders with one kept in reserve on the tramps for emergencies. You could use less but I wouldn't. The ten tires cost us $70 and came wrapped in plastic with little blue lines.
It was great to have four able bodied crew. Usually Hideko and I decide to do something and then we go do it, and it takes a while. With four adults and two young men on deck I could simply ask for something and it was done in the bat of an eye. They had the tires and fenders adjusted before I could even get out of the marina. It's nice to have crew!
Our transit was to be an unusual one. Being so backed up, the canal decided to start moving larger groups of yachts through the canal at one time. Recently they were running three through every other day. The three would raft up, pull in behind a freighter and go through. This is what Margaret and I experienced when we went through as line handlers. With us they were running 10 yachts through with no shipping. We had a large power boat and a sail boat, both over 100 feet, and eight yachts 30 to 55 feet. New boats arriving in Colon were waiting eight weeks currently so it was nice that they were trying to do something.
As we sat on anchor we checked in with the canal every so often by radio. Not surprisingly they delayed the arrival of the advisors several times and it was dark before we got a time that finally stuck. We fed the crew dinner and waited patiently.
At around 18:00 a pilot boat entered the crowded anchorage. Not knowing who they needed to single out in the crowded anchorage they simply stood off and called yachts over the radio to come to them. We were first up so we brought in the anchor and made out way to the pilot boat.
The pilot boats are big steel jobs and you don't want to bump one. You have to get close enough for the advisor to safely step aboard however. This can be interesting depending on the wind, which had started to kick up. I approached the pilot boat and stopped, assuming they would want to do the maneuvering since they had all of the horsepower. We had the side gate open and after a bit of back and forth on the radio to position the boats in the wind properly we helped Mesa, our advisor aboard.
Mesa was a fun guy and had been an advisor on the yacht Margaret went through with. She had apparently made quite an impression because made me promise to say hello to her from him. "Hi Margaret." Once you have the advisor aboard you are done with the radio until you are out into the pacific. The advisors exclusively coordinate with the canal and the other advisors, which is a nice service.
We were motoring around in the anchorage under the assumption that we would be heading for the locks to raft up. Then they delayed the transit. Then they delayed again. I the end it would have been better if I had just re-anchored. As it was we motored in place, keeping the bow to the gusty breeze for almost two hours. After several false starts we finally got the go ahead to proceed to the locks.
The canal runs like a conveyor belt. Everyone scheduled to go through has a number and you simply pull in behind the guy with the number one above yours. Every day (00:00) the sequence starts over. We were something like 84A, designating the 84th lockage of the day and the letter ("A" in our case) being an anomaly allowing all of the yachts to have a unique identifier.
When the big ship with the number before us went by we pulled into the canal channel. We had made friends with another yacht crossing tonight named Galetia, a German boat with two guys named Wolfgang aboard (what else?). We asked Mesa if we could raft with them and he got it done. I knew that Wolfgang was a professional skipper and had gone through the canal with him when we both served as line handlers. My greatest fear in going through the canal was to be rafted with an unstable captain. Margaret's tale among others had me quite happy to be hooked up with Galetia.
As we approached the locks we stayed well to the starboard side of the channel. The marks were IALA B on this side with the red nuns running right off of our starboard rail. We kept a little bit of way on as we pulled into the channel to wait for Galetia. Wolfgang had his third crew member Claudia (name?) driving and she did a great job bringing Galetia along side. We rafted up and moved into the locks behind the two mega yachts.
We were lucky with only two boats in our raft. The beam of our cat was the reason. Most yacht rafts have a 50 foot monohull in the center and an smaller boat on the sides. The port side boat takes the two port wall lines and the starboard side boat takes the two starboard side lines. The center boat just drives while the outside skippers stand by with engines running in case. Our setup required us to drive and take two lines to port, while Galetia handled the starboard lines.
When you get into the out lock area the guys on the wall throw bolas down on deck. The bolas consist of a thin twine like messenger line with a monkey's fist on the end. Best plan here is to watch them throw it and then get out of the way. Cover your solar panels so that they don't shatter if an errant monkey's fist strikes them.
The guys tossed the lines down and hit the deck making it easy for the crew to grab the lines. I couldn't help but wonder at the fact that not one bola hit the tramps the whole trip, which I would prefer to the gel coat. The crew tied the large lines we had rented (you probably don't want to put your own lines through a canal transit) onto the messengers and we then moved the raft into the first chamber. The guys on the wall walk the lines on their side into the chamber and then haul up your large lines. The end you send them has a large eye that they drop onto the bollards on the wall. At that they walk away and you are alone in the lock.
When everyone was in position in the lock (which took a while with five boats/rafts) the doors closed. The ride up is more turbulent and more work than the ride down. Everyone was pretty amped up because other than the advisor and Peter and myself (with a whopping one transit each) it was the first time in the locks.
The water bubbles in from the bottom of the chamber and the raft swayed a little on the lines. The crew have to pull the lines in at the right speed to keep the entire raft in the center of the lock. It sounds easy but communications across the boats are critical. If you have a language barrier and a boat in the middle it could be challenging. We had just two boats and everyone spoke English so all went perfectly.
Once at the top of the chamber they open the deeper gates and the wall crew sends the big lines back down to the yacht. Then I motor the raft into the next chamber as the wall guys walk the messenger lines forward. Once in position the wall guys take the messenger lines in and drop the big lines back on the next set of bollards, the gates close and the process repeats.
It was midnight when we exited the third and last chamber in the Gatun Locks. We motored out into the lake a bit and unrafted then headed to the anchorage off to port by the Panama Canal Company's Gatun Lake Yacht Club. They have a wonderful dock but you are not allowed to use it. There are two ship moorings which are rubber and plastic. You can et one boat on each side and then you have to raft up from there. We decided to anchor instead.
We said a hearty goodbye to Mesa as he rode off in the pilot boat that came to pick him up. We all had a quick beer and a toast to a successful locking. It was 2AM when we finally shut down and the new advisor was arriving in four and a half hours.
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!
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 (http://www.marinewarehouse.net). 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.
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...
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?
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!
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.