The Panama Canal
08 May 2010
Our agent Enrique Plummer failed to show up at the marina and so I decided to do all the paperwork myself. It turned out to be very easy and I was surprised the agent myth had survived so long.
Colon/Christobal was a hole and a USD60 return trip from Shelter Bay Marina by taxi. Fortunately the marina provided a free bus service twice a day if you got your name down quickly enough. The marina was not too bad but the only restaurant was a chips and burger type with bad acoustics. The marina was in a national park with howler monkeys and other animals.
Finally the faulty alternator/regulator was replaced and other repairs and maintenance done. We provisioned and waited.
It is recommended that you send at least one of your crew members ahead on another boat to see what happens and to get experience as a line handler. It turned out that this was a waste of time and you don't need to do it. Ted volunteered to do the line work on a boat leaving before us but the boat was delayed. He had made four changes to his itinerary in the seven weeks he was on board, which kept me busy. Eduard, who did the Atlantic crossing in 2009 but not with the ARC, joined Fandango for the Pacific.
Our departure was confirmed for 1400 hours and we felt relieved that it was not the 1730 hours allocated to our neighbours Jim and Heather on a J42. At 1400 hours out on "The Flats" Fandango was called by "The Tower" and told to wait until 1800 hours. The storm clouds dumped on us but cleared in time for the off. Our neighbour turned up and we were going together with a big cat and another boat. We were to be rafted with the cat.
It was very exciting, easy and the "adviser" or trainee pilot was a good guide. Into the first of the three up locks. Lines were thrown down from the top of the lock and our long hired lines were attached with a turn round a cleat and on to a winch. Forward lines do not have the benefit of a winch. The big metal gates slowly and silently closed us in behind a ship that took up the rest of the lock. The water swirled and surged, the lines were held taught and up we go the seven or eight metres at the rate of nearly a meter a minute. The gates in front opened and we motored into the next lock, a bit like a three legged race contestant moving up to the start.
We were soon on the Gatun Lakes and motored over to the huge mooring buoys that would be home for the night. They say be ready the next day at 0600 hours but most reports indicated it could be more likely 0800 before the second adviser turns up. This morning he was on at 0555! No time for a swim in the fresh water. They say the crocs here are harmless or was it that we would be armless?
The sun was up and off we went on a very enjoyable scenic tour of the lakes, fringed by a beautiful restricted jungle home to many creatures and scientists from the Smithsonian Institute. Breakfast and elevenses were prepared for all six of us, Eduard, Adrian, Chris, John, myself and the adviser. He was cheerful and easy to please. Another myth exploded. About five hours later we approached the first of the down locks. Again we rafted to the cat and our marina neighbour went the other side. The other boat hadn't made it but we were not sure why. This time the water was more placid as it was drained out rather than pumped in.
Our raft's combined line handler force did an excellent job and we were soon popped out the other end to be viewed by crowds of tourists on two observation decks. We looked for the cameras and waved. A short burst of speed and the adviser left further down the river, allowing us to dump our lines at Balboa and head round to our anchorage at Las Brisas de Amador.
Here, Fabrizio and Shirley joined us for the Pacific. We will be eating well.
The water here was disgusting, as in many anchorages near big cities. Our water filters soon turned dark, again. On shore we looked around the old town. Similar in some ways to Cartagena but needing a lot of repair. We visited the famous Havana Club but it was too early for any action. We had many runs into the city to do our washing, get petrol for the outboard, provisioning and to refill our gas bottles. The later took three days and they returned the bottles empty saying they were faulty. I tested them and they were fine. We had enough gas to reach the Galapagos where we were informed that gas was available. Otherwise I would have to buy a charcoal BBQ.
Taxis were fairly cheap, once you know the ropes, and one chatty driver informed me that whilst walking around most of the city was safe, even at night, taxis were dangerous. If there was another passenger, he could be waiting to slit your throat. There was no ID for drivers and taxis were used for assassinations, kidnappings and robbing tourists. Oh really I said, making sure my hand was ready on the door handle.
Panama City was awash with stalled building projects. It's not a bad place if you like a bit of the big smoke once in a while but we have had enough, so Las Perlas here we come.