23 March 2009
Zephyra finally made it to Panama City last week after day-hopping with a few overnighters thrown in down the Costa Rican and Panamanian coast. We are anchored in the La Playita anchorage getting the boat ready and provisioned for the big crossing. Next stop will be the Galapagos (about 9 days) and then the big jump to the Marquesis Islands (28 to 35 days). Panama City is a large diverse city with quaint buildings and plazas in the Casco Viejo (old city) and giant modern shopping malls in the new parts of the city, where American and European products are available in abundance. They use US dollars as their currency in Panama, so it takes all the figuring out of every transaction and, we once again know at a glance what we are paying for things. Costa Rica's currency, the Colonas, was about 550 to 1 when we were there. A loaf of bread would cost 2,854 Colonas and we would have to figure in our heads if that was cheap or expensive. Prices for food, fuel and clothes are much more reasonable in Panama than in Costa Rica and much more is available than in the poorer Central American countries.
After leaving Nicaragua, the sailing got better and the winds more moderate. We enjoyed many days under sail (some with spinnaker) and found beautiful anchorages to rest and see the sights. We hiked with the monkeys in Manual Antonio National Park in Costa Rica, enjoyed the hospitality of Land & Sea in Golfito, which is set up to make life easy for cruisers and spent a few days in the Perlas Islands before making the trip to Panama City. Our friends, Suzanne and Mike on Namaste, have been in the anchorage for awhile and emailed us the instructions for the approach and general information cruisers need to know. It is always great to meet up with folks from home who we haven't seen in a long time. The anchorage here is rolly and the dingy dock chaotic, but watching the big ships passing a few hundred meters from the anchorage day and night is fascinating.
On Friday, Zephyra stayed parked in the anchorage while Debbie and Russ got to go through the Panama Canal on a 72 ft (canal measurement) 3 masted aluminum schooner. We had been traveling down the coast with the schooner, Arctic Vixen, and when we found out they were planning a quick canal transit, we volunteered to be line handlers. Since they used an agent, they arrived with us Sunday afternoon and were able to arrange a transit for Friday. Because of the size of the boat, they were required to have a pilot (not just an advisor) aboard. They also hired one "professional line handler" since none of us had ever done the canal before. We all had a wonderful, but long, birthday dinner for our friend Joel in a restaurant in the old town where there is no menu and they keep bringing out different small dishes to the table. The food (most seafood) was delicious with interesting combinations of flavors, but the meal took 3 ½ hours, and by the end the owners of Arctic Vixen were getting anxious about the canal transit. Russ and I and the other line handlers spent the night aboard their boat since we were told to be ready for a 6:30 am departure. After we left the anchorage, we went to a staging area where a vessel brings the pilots out. Once the pilot is aboard, he radios the control center and finds out we will go through the locks tied to a tug. This is supposed to be the most desirable way to transit, since once you are secured to the tug, there is no line handling involved. If you are centered, with or without a raft up, the boat must be kept centered in the locks manually using lines from the side walls.
In our first set of lock, Mira Flores, we tie up to our tug on starboard. In front of us center tied in the lock is a tour boat, Princespa Panama, then us, and then a tug with no vessel tied alongside. The water came in and raised us and then the gates opened. Our pilot told our skipper Ron to back down, because the tug was going to pull out first and then we follow. Ron starts backing down and Russ is told to release the bowline from the tug, so they can slip out, but pilot was not used to sailboats and didn't understand how they respond to current, so the bow swung out to the cement wall. Penny, Debbie and Lee ran around with fenders trying to keep them between the wall and the schooner, as Ron and the pilot worked feverously to keep the boat from landing up backwards and being sucked into the rear gate. After a long swing the bobstay of the schooner did make contact with concrete wall. A couple of canal workers had run down and Russ threw them a line to keep the boat from swinging further thus aligning the boat properly with the lock. Then with enough forward momentum, Ron was able to regain steerage to straighten the boat and drive forward. Spinning donuts in a schooner can be hair-raising. We then motored the short distance to the Pedro Miguel locks, and once again tied to the tug. After some discussion, it was decided that when we were ready to untie the sailboat should go first and then tug could motor around us. This worked very well and the next 2 chambers were transited without incident. We then motored through the cut and into Gatun Lake, the man-made fresh water lake 85 feet above sea level. After motoring for several hours, we come close to a shortcut called The Banana channel, but our pilot says it is unsafe to transit this alone and can only be done in the company of another vessel. Then from behind a smaller sailboat (a Hunter about 40 ft) approached and our pilot and their advisor decide to use Banana to save time (we are trying to make it through in one day and cutting it close). They are lighter and faster under power, so they reached the lock first and were brought to the chamber. Our pilot then got a radio call that they are holding a lock for us and we should motor ahead of all the big ships and go right in and tie to a tug. This time the setup is for us to tie on port to a tug and the small sailboat to then tie to us in the front part of the lock and then a large tanker pulled in behind us. This lock, the Gatun has 3 chambers, and the tying and untying goes well until the third chamber. This time it is the little sailboat that loses control and starts dancing about the chamber and into the davits of Arctic Vixen. After it was all sorted out, we are finally lowered into the Caribbean sea. We then motored out to the flats in the fading light, unloaded our pilot and line handler, and had a great onboard dinner celebrating a successful transit. Ron was a great skipper and kept his cool through the whole thing and Penny took great care of crew. It was something I always wanted to do and am thankful to have the opportunity without having to take our own boat through.