Atlantic side of the Canal
15 June 2008 | Colon, Panama
Since our arrival in Panama on May 16, we've been at a Marina near the mouth of the Canal.
The city of Colon, on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama, boasts two marinas where one can stay: Panama Canal Yacht Club and Shelter Bay Marina. The PCYC is the older of the two establishments, in the middle of Colon, but it is run down and very crowded. By car, Shelter Bay is on the other side of Gatun Locks , the first of the Panama Canal locks, so it is a bit farther out and requires some foresight in planning when getting around, but it is newer and much more spacious. We chose to stay in Shelter Bay, especially after reading that Colon is a crime ridden city, where one is strongly urged not to walk on the streets! Ever! After seeing the town for ourselves, we were confident in our choice of Shelter Bay. The folks in Colon say that after the Americans left the Canal to the Panamanians, the jobs that were once plentiful under the American rule disappeared almost overnight, leaving Panama's second largest city with a lot of very poor people, eager to do anything to get some money; an undoubtedly sad state for a people.
We arrived in Shelter Bay in the middle of the day and immediately started running around to get our paperwork done for the Canal. We wanted to get everything done quickly because we would leave on Monday, May 19, for Turkey to visit my family and attend the wedding of our good friends Gamze and Can. We had also heard that there was a waitlist of at least three weeks for a transit, so we wanted the waiting to happen while we were gone. First off was checking into the country, which was accomplished by Victor, the ever resourceful driver of Shelter Bay. We were misinformed before arriving, thinking that Turkey was not a country from which Panama requested visas, and we were both anxious to see what would happen when my passport showed up in front of the immigration officer. But getting an entry stamp couldn't have been easier thanks to Victor's connections. (It happened in the van after we'd picked the immigration officer up at a local mall!)
While Victor handled the customs check-in for Leander to Panama, Paul and I headed to the PCYC to find a taxi driver who could help us jump through the hoops of canal transit. To get a yacht to transit the canal, one has two options: using an agent or doing it alone. The agents cost upwards of $500 and, according to what we read and heard from fellow sailors, do not provide any additional value, such as the ability to pull strings to get their clients' boats ahead in the wait for transit. At PCYC, we found Tito, who offered to help us jump through the various hoops. It helped that Tito's father was once the head canal officer in Colon. Tito charged only $35 for his services, and helped us complete all paperwork and rented to us the lines and fenders needed for the transit.
We caught the admeasurement office just before they closed on Friday and were told that an officer would come aboard Leander and take necessary measurements and provide more paperwork to be completed before we would pay for our transit. On our way back to Shelter Bay on the marina bus we met Renea, from Ventura, CA who had been cruising with her husband for a while in the area. Once we got back we were invited to happy hour drinks with Renea and Dave getting a first taste of the welcoming attitudes of the folks we would be living with at the marina. After a few drinks, the fatigue of having been at sea for 4 days caught up to us, and we crawled into bed, looking forward to a long night's sleep, uninterrupted by watches.
The marina manager Russ had told us that several sixty-plus foot racing yachts competing in a "Clipper Ship Around the World Race" would be arriving in Panama that night and we would have a neighbor in our slip, so we were somewhat ready for a late night arrival. What we were not ready for was what came in the wee hours! In the middle of the night I woke up to go to the bathroom and through the portlights I saw a bunch of people where there was meant to be nothing. As I was walking up to the cockpit to see what was going on I heard a yell "Fenders on the port side!"
Hey, we're on the port side, I thought, in my grogginess.
Nothing like that to wake you up! I clambered topside to see if I could put a fender to protect Leander from the blow but was a little too late as we got creamed on our starboard side by the sixty foot racing cutter. The crash woke Paul up, and we both met our new neighbors amid apologies and jokes. There was no damage to us, and the incident left me feeling rather self-confident. I mean, if the skipper of an around the world racing boat can make such mistakes, then the difficulties we sometimes have with coming into slips is completely understandable, wouldn't you say?
We spent the next couple of days getting ready to leave the boat for a week unattended. Even though we had only been in Panama for a couple of days we could see that the amount of rain that comes in would show us where any leaks might be in the boat, and boy did that prove true. The most damaging leak was coming through the port side, where water pooled in an enclosed area in the cockpit and dripped into the electrical panel from a hole that we cannot reach. The electrical panel is not exactly a place where one wants water! But Paul's ingenuity came to play when he purchased some diapers and put them inside the electrical panel to save the wiring. I never seize to be amazed by his solutions! I think he is becoming a total Hubbard (a term we use after our friend who can jury rig everything on a boat)!
Another side effect of the rain was that the admeasurement officer did not show up on Saturday. Nor on Sunday, for that matter. Too much rain, they said. But given that it rains pretty much every day in Panama during the rainy season, that was pretty ridiculous! So Tito came to the rescue when he made some calls and made sure that the officer showed up on Monday, just before we had to catch a cab to Panama for our flight. After the measuring, we paid for the transit and were given an initial transit date of June 7th, and headed to Panama for our flight.
Our trip to Turkey was excellent as always. We had some quality time with family, attended Gamze and Can's wedding, and had a ton of fun. Paul returned after 6 days and I stayed an extra week, returning in the beginning of June. Coming back to the boat, we both set out to work. There were plenty of things to be fixed before we headed out. We also found out that the other side of the Canal was a lot more expensive to keep our boat, and so decided to get as much done as we could in Shelter Bay.
What a good decision that was. Despite postponing our transit for a couple of weeks we both accomplished more on the boat and met some really wonderful people. Dave and Renea from Bella were great fun. Paul , the diehard Celtics fan, and Dave, the Lakers fan, had a bet on the NBA finals. Even though we could not watch the games (the marina has a direct tv package where one can watch espn, espn 2, even espn ocho, but not the good ol' US Networks - go figure), we would exchange a "Go Celtics" or a "Go Lakers" in the morning after the game. Unfortunately for Dave, the Lakers lost and we were graced with a fun evening of cocktails aboard their boat followed by the dinner that was the prize of the bet. We also met Marith and Janice, also from California, who had us aboard their boat for dinner and made us a Turkish dish to remind me of home. Janice had lived in Turkey for a while and was a source of wonderful stories of Turkey from the 70's.
Then came our boat neighbors, Californians Carol and Alex, aboard Nepenthe. They arrived from the Pacific side having transited the canal, on their way to the Caribbean. Almost before introductions were complete, they told us they were going to be traveling to Panama City, and offered to pick up any marine supplies that we might need. They not only got us supplies but were thoughtful enough to give us calls during their endeavors to give us updates on what they could and could not find, in case we wanted to get things shipped from the US.
After they returned from their trip Carol and Alex had us onboard their boat, where we spent a long evening drinking cocktails, eating some very yummy food, and exchanging stories. As we chatted about our upcoming canal transit they asked if we had our linehandlers for the canal, and upon hearing that we did not, nonchalantly suggested that they could come for the ride. They are really special people.
During our stay at Shelter Bay we also enjoyed watching Turkey play in the Euro 2008. The games would be mid-afternoon Panama time, so after a morning of working on the boat, we'd go to the bar, sip cold sodas in the air conditioned comfort and bite our nails.
So after being here for a while, we are looking forward to moving west. Our canal crossing comes up in a couple of days on the 21st of June, and we are still short a crew member. We will get it done though.
We always do!