The Big Ditch
08 February 2010 | The Republic of Panama
We've done it! We're on the other side! Years and years of slightly nervous anticipation about transiting the Big Ditch culminated in a wonderful experience with only a couple of minor hiccoughs.
We arrived in Colon on the Sunday, received our tyres (fenders) and the long ropes on Monday, got measured and completed the paperwork on Tuesday, were given our transit time on Wednesday, set off on Thursday with the friendly advisor aboard and were spit out on the Pacific side on Friday. An incredibly efficient and painless operation.
The first slight glitch was right at the very beginning when we were following the advisor's instructions to stay just to the port side of the channel leading into the Gatun locks with a humungous car carrier up our backside. At this stage he enquired as to how deep our draft was, nodded when we told him seven feet and grimaced two minutes later when we softly but firmly got stuck in the mud right beside the marker buoy. Paul was busy below trying to resolve a stuffer box issue and I was at the helm somewhat concerned about that huge wall of moving mass coming towards us. Backing up just dug us in deeper and going forward was right into his path. Hmmm! Thanks to Otto who managed to spin us around and sharply turn into deeper water, we headed back and proceeded behind the behemoth. Calypso's always got to produce some excitement! The poor guy was suitably embarrassed.
The up locks at Gatun proved to be far less stressful than we had anticipated as, for some unknown reason, the first two locks filled fairly slowly which meant that we didn't have the turbulent rush of water we'd experienced when we went through with our friends aboard Cooee last year. We were rafted up to a 53-foot Dutch ketch with a bow thruster, which primarily put them in control as they were larger and more manoeuvrable. It was approximately three hours after upping anchor when we exited the third lock, separated from our neighbours and motored into Gatun Lake to tie up to a large buoy for the night.
Our first-rate line handlers were our South African friends, Otto and Lil from Vagabond, along with an American couple we'd original met up in Bocas del Toro, Anne & John from Seahorse. Vagabond will be coming through next week and wanted to get the feel whereas Seahorse will not be transiting but wanted to experience the big moment. We were most appreciative of their help and it was great fun to have friends aboard for the occasion.
We awoke early on a beautiful morning to the cacophony of dozens of howler monkeys and toucans in the nearby rain forest. Our second advisor was dropped aboard and we promptly headed off on the four hour journey through the islands of Gatun Lake then on through the Gaillard Cut towards the Pedro Miguel locks. Again, we had to marvel at this amazing piece of engineering especially when considering that it is almost 100 years old. We saw evidence of the dredging etc. progressing for the third lane where an entire island has had to be removed and many miles of banks cut back. This is scheduled to open in 2014 in time to celebrate the canal's centennial and will be capable of handling much bigger and deeper vessels in the future.
Next, we again tied up to the Dutch ketch then entered the Pedro Miguel Lock, the first on the downward course. This lies just a short distance before the final two locks at Miraflores with a small manmade lake separating them. Here we had to wait for a while to allow a large vessel through and this time were lucky to have two smallish tour boats in the chamber with us. We'd had a rather large monstrosity for the up haul which can be a bit disconcerting.
There was great excitement passing through the final two locks as we had friends up on the observation platform shouting and waving and had friends and family abroad watching us through the live webcam. B & H, thanks so much for the call, that was very special and brought back fond memories of our transit together.
Our second and last little mishap happened when the chaps ashore threw the final monkey fist which brings the messenger lines to the line handlers. This one landed right on the glass of our hard dodger and broke the glass. Paul had religiously covered the solar panels as protection but we hadn't even thought about the dodger. Oh well, we knew this was going to have to be replaced at some stage so I guess it's going to have to be a little sooner, that's all. We got off lightly; we've heard a couple of horror stories in the past.
I know I gave some info on the Panama Canal when we went through with Cooee last year but just to reiterate for those of you who might not have read it and may be interested: there are two channels through the locks and the three Gatun lock chambers on the Caribbean (Atlantic) side raise a vessel a total of 26 metres (84 feet). Each chamber is 33.53 metres wide (110 feet) and 304.8 metres long (1000 feet). As I mentioned, after crossing Gatun Lake, the Pedro Miguel lock is separated from the final two by a small artificial lake. It lowers the vessels 9 metres. The final two are the canal's tallest as they have to cope with the extreme tidal variations of the Pacific Ocean. The Gaillard Cut is 13.7 kilometres long and is carved through rock and shale of the Continental Divide and is the area most susceptible in terms of landslides. Apparently way back in 1915, there was a major landslide which caused the canal to close but, apart from that, the canal has functioned flawlessly 24/7 for nearly 100 years.
As far as worldwide canals go, there can be no equal; the Suez Canal is a 'same level' structure requiring no locks. The architect of the Suez, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, tried to construct the Panama Canal using the same principle of a sea level channel but came horribly short. Funding, disease, topography and the Pacific's tides all played a significant role in hampering his efforts. In the late 1800's it was taken over by another French company who recommended a lock-type structure. Unfortunately, they soon fell into bankruptcy as they were unable to get funding from the French government. All rights, equipment and ownership were then sold to the United States who finished it and maintained it successfully until it was handed back to Panama at the end 1999. It is, to this day, an incredibly efficient and well-run operation and we are thrilled to have experienced it.
Calypso now sits in the cooler Pacific (damned cold when compared to the Caribbean) outside of Panama City where we'll now start preparing for the big crossing.
We've a lot to do ensuring we have the necessary spares and provisions and getting her shipshape as there will be many, many miles ahead of her before we reach good facilities again; probably not until New Zealand. We'll be hauling out to do bottom paint and replace a few through hull fittings so the next six weeks will be a hive of activity around Calypso and then off to the South Pacific!
13 January 2010 | Republic of Panama
Most everyone's notion of an ideal paradise conjures up images of crystal clear warm & turquoise waters, coral gardens, white sandy beaches and palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze. Well, happily we have all that and all we're missing are the exotic cocktails with those little colourful umbrellas and the waiter who serves them! Believe me, I'm not complaining.
We sailed back to the San Blas region of Kuna Yala Panama, heavenly tropical islands we had visited several times previously. This is to be our farewell trip for, once we transit the canal, these very special gems will be forever left behind us. It's amazing just how many cruising boats there are in this region compared to three years ago. Possibly troubles in Venezuela are causing cruisers to avoid the beautiful offshore islands there and head this way instead. I would guess that the numbers have, at least, quadrupled which is causing changes to the Kuna's traditional way of life, not always a positive factor.
Our ever so busy days have been spent enjoying snorkeling, fishing, get-togethers & socialising and, not forgetting, volleyball, bocci ball, yoga and Qi Gong on the beaches under those swaying coconut palms. Of course, that's not to say it was entirely all fun & games: we also had the continual boat maintenance issues as well as the task of sewing our new boat canopy. This has proven to be quite a large and complicated project and, at the time of writing, is still not 100% complete but we're getting there. My new sewing machine is proving to be worth its weight in gold and handles the task admirably.
We have met up with numerous old friends and are thrilled that we'll know so many cruising yachts who, like us, will be heading through the canal shortly. Sadly, some will not be leaving the Caribbean so it was fond farewells to them: Argo, our Bonaire diving buddies who, along with Sapphire, were fabulous snorkeling buddies as well. We seem to have shared experiences with them for years and will certainly miss them.
We, along with any other nationality who needed an excuse, celebrated the American Thanksgiving while at the East Lemmon Cays with a pig roast and rubber 'duckie' races (the bath tub variety - great fun), Christmas at the 'Swimming Pool' in the eastern Holandes with a hilarious gift exchange and New Year's Eve under an incredible full moon. A perfect start to the New Year.
A couple of days before Christmas, our friends Otto & Lil aboard Vagabond dropped their hook right beside us in our anchorage. Vagabond had left our home port in South Africa about a year and a half after us and we last saw them in Trinidad, at which stage, we headed off into different directions so it was a great to catch up with each other again. They will also be heading westwards on a similar schedule to Calypso.
Our trip down from Bocas del Toro in October brought with it continual alternator problems. This has now been temporarily resolved as we had, fortunately, ordered a spare which Argo brought down from Bocas for us when it hadn't arrived on time. Maintenance issues manage to stick to us like the proverbial tick and our current problems include a dead wind charger and a problematic water maker both of which will have to await our arrival in Panama City where, hopefully, we'll find the necessary parts to get things going again. We had a couple of parts for the wind charger sent to us care of the post office in the Kuna village of Nargana, only to discover that it is closed for a month while trying to find someone to work there! What can one say! The year 2009 certainly will go down as a year which showered us with things going wrong. 2010 WILL be better!
As I continue writing this, we have just arrived back in Puerto Lindo where we'll collect some of our belongings we managed to shed for a while, say farewell to Roger & Binnie, the couple we stayed with for a time and, of course, a final farewell to the sloths - how I wish we could take one away with us.
When we logged onto our emails yesterday for the first time in quite a few months, there were so many messages awaiting us from friends far and wide. Our time with internet facilities will be so short that we're simply unable to answer each one personally at the moment, however, please don't stop writing, we love hearing from you and we'll try to catch up as time moves on. We never even had the opportunity to send out Christmas and New Year wishes to all so please accept this as our very late, but sincere best wishes for all good things in 2010.
Calypso will shortly move on up to Colon for the canal transit arrangements which involves measuring, obtaining line handlers, tires for fenders and the necessary ropes. We're certainly looking forward to the experience of transiting with our own boat, perhaps with a just a tad of trepidation thrown in.
So, if all goes according to plan, our next blog entry should be from the Pacific side.