Panama -- The Pacific Side
23 April 2019 | Golfito, Costa Rica
Barbara Johnston | Hot and humid
I wrote a somewhat technical notes, for other cruisers, about some of the “wish we’d known” things for the Panama Canal transit. But I haven’t actually written about our interesting experiences in the canal transit. So I’ll start with that.
On April 5, Craig left Shelter Bay Marina to be a line handler for Julia Max, the boat owned by our friends, George and Sue Stonecliffe. The plan was that he and George would return to Shelter Bay by land transportation once they arrived in Panama City (at the Pacific end of the canal). George would then serve as a line handler for Sequoia, starting the next day (April 7). I stayed with the boat to get everything ready for our 4 line handlers, plus our transit advisor, plus the two of us. Meals had to be planned and prepared for 7 people for two days, and places found for six people to sleep (the transit advisor goes home at night). It was a lot of work!
At one point, on day 2, I heard flute music coming from the French boat across the dock from us. I decided to take an interruption, take a chance, see if there was some possibility of chamber music – something I’ve been looking for throughout our trip. Indeed, Rèmy brought his flute, some baroque music and we spent 45 minutes playing through some old chestnuts. What a thrill to combine my love of sailing and my love of music in one place!
Craig and George had quite an adventure getting back across the Isthmus on a Saturday night. They decided to take a taxi all the way, and the problem is that the Panama City taxi drivers know their way to Colón, but they certainly don’t know their way to Shelter Bay Marina. Their taxi driver insisted on going the maximum possible speed despite deep potholes, and he disappeared from the vehicle while waiting in line for the ferry (they were lucky he reappeared at the last possible moment to get onto what may have been the last ferry for the night!)
We were instructed to leave the marina at 1 pm on the 7th and go out and anchor in “The Flats” (just outside the marina). Our transit advisor would arrive there, by pilot boat, around 3 pm. When we arrived at The Flats we were told by Cristobal Traffic Control that our transit advisor wouldn’t arrive until 5:30! The sun was going down as we entered the first lock and it was totally dark before we got to the second lock (of three total in the Gatún locks).
We exited the last lock into Lake Gatún, and found our way, with spotlights, to the mooring buoy set up for small boats like us. It’s a giant buoy, rubber for gentle bumping and a large flat top, about 6 feet across. One of the linehandlers is expected to jump onto the buoy and tie lines onto the big ring in the center. (Fortunately we had a teenager aboard, who was more than happy to do that). Another boat was on the other side of the buoy, and we tied bow and stern lines to them. Then a third boat came along and rafted onto our other side. The water in the lake seemed calm and peaceful – there wasn’t much wind. But during the night, each time a giant freighter went by, there were big wakes and the three boats rolled back and forth at different rates with much jerking of lines and squeaking noise of complaining fenders.
The second day we got a much earlier start. It was about 4 hours through Lake Gatún and then into the infamous Culebra Cut through Panama’s continental divide. On the way from Jamaica to Panama, I had just finished reading “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCulloch and so much of the construction difficulties centered on the Culebra Cut. The walls of the cut continued to subside for years, and they’ve had to excavate further and further into the hillside to achieve a stable angle of repose.
Immediately after the Culebra Cut we came to the Pedro Miguel Lock, and then continued to the first Miraflores lock. Here, things ground to a halt. We had been scheduled to go through the westernmost lock, but it had suddenly and unexpectedly been shut down. Our transit advisor finally told us that a canal worker had fallen into the canal. They searched for his body but did not find it. Apparently it was caught in one of the gigantic pipes that moves water between locks. Horrific to think about. It had struck us that the workers were fairly casual about their own safety and that railings and gates were much less evident than might be expected.
Ultimately the schedule was revised, and we continued into the eastern channel of the first Miraflores lock. Here is where one of the Canal’s webcams is positioned, and our friend, Joe Carr, monitoring us via the internet, had a good view of us. He posted a new image whenever there was anything new to see, throughout the transit of the canal. Thank you, Joe! We passed by the Canal’s visitor center, where we had stood watching a few days before. There was just as big a crowd watching us go through as had been there when we were part of the crowd.
We stayed just three nights in the Marina Playitas in Panama City – doing clean-up and provisioning for the next part of our trip. We sketched out an itinerary taking us to the Las Perlas Islands and then westward toward the border with Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, April is the season of burning in Panama. Some have told us this is agricultural field burning but others say that just before the start of the rainy season, the land is particularly vulnerable to fire. Most notably, the tropical sun shines through glass bottles (part of the garbage that’s discarded everywhere), the bottle focuses the sun’s rays and a fire starts. Or someone throws out a burning cigarette. Or power lines fail. Craig particularly noticed eye irritation, but more than that, the air was thick, heavy and hot, with only a few miles of visibility. At times there was ash falling out of the clouds. We didn’t get much enjoyment out of the Las Perlas (so beautifully pictured in our cruising guide) because there was nothing much to see. A couple of sailboats were there, but no one went ashore and no one went snorkeling. We did try once, but the water was full of organic stuff and there was nothing to see underwater.
We continued westward, around the Azuero Penninsula and into the Gulf of Chiriqui. We stopped at Benao, a surfing resort (still quite smoky) and then on to Ensenada Naranjo, where the smoke started to lift and the jungle ashore was quite pretty.
From there we sailed to Isla Coiba, a national park. George and Sue had told us that the year before they had paid $100 per night, but that it was worth it because the snorkeling was so spectacular. We did not find any good snorkeling, perhaps because we were anchored in a different bay. Again, the jungle was beautiful, but the water was cloudy with organic material. Some park rangers came around and told us that the fee for anchoring is $180 per day, plus an unspecified per person cost. We’d have to go to the ranger station to pay it. OR, we could pay them on the spot, $50 per day, and then we wouldn’t have to go to the ranger station. It did look like a government boat, they were wearing official-looking uniforms, they said they were the ones in charge of the whole area and they spoke with a great deal of authority. With a lot of regret in hindsight, we took their deal. We later learned from George and Sue that there were interesting and helpful people at the ranger station, that an interesting trail started there, they had an opportunity to see monkeys, and the cost was in fact $60 per day, not the $180 quoted by “our” rangers.
Every day here has been brutally hot (90+ degrees F, with 65% relative humidity) and we find ourselves without much ambition. There hasn’t been much wind and sometimes at night there are lightning storms in the skies. So far, there are lots of clouds but not much rain.
Yesterday we arrived at the north end of Parida Island. We’ve been seeing trees just above water level with clumps of white blossoms but not much in the way of leaves. As we came into the anchorage there was a lovely flower fragrance, and we have suddenly realized that these are plumeria trees – the blossoms are used in fragrant Hawaiian leis.
We chose this anchorage because our ten-year-old Panamanian cruising guidebook said there was a resort here – we were excited by the thought of going ashore and having, perhaps, a resort restaurant meal. What we could see ashore looked like several very modest houses and a number of shacks. A variety of small boats came and went, and some of them – perhaps – carried tourists. But when we went ashore, we learned that this is a new national marine park, Golfo de Chiriquí, consisting of Isla Parida and 43 other islands. The most substantial building ashore here – perhaps it’s the former resort – is now park headquarters. So much for the hoped-for resort restaurant dinner!
On the beach we met Carlos and Indira, emerging from the ocean with snorkeling gear. Carlos, it turns out, is the chief administrator (“Big boss”) of this park. He lives in Puerto Armuelles and spends about half the week in the park. He talked at some length about the difficulties of getting the government (and the people) to take the environment seriously. Among the problems they face are the dozens of families that have lived in these islands for generations and cannot be kicked out. Those families continue to generate garbage and other environmental damage. We wanted to find the trail to the other side of the point which was also mentioned in the guidebook. We learned that the trail is unmarked and in poor condition because the local families don’t really want people walking on their property on the island.
We invited Carlos and Indira to stop by Sequoia as they left the island in the afternoon. They arrived in the government boat, loaded up with 6 or 8 other people and headed for Boca Chica. Fortunately we were not obligated to entertain them all! Indira is a lawyer, and speaks much better English than Carlos. Between the four of us and our varying language skills, we were able to carry on an interesting conversation about the island, the problems of their country and living in this heat! They stayed only about 20 minutes but were very friendly and interesting. Carlos offered to help if we run into any difficulties with customs and immigration in Puerto Arguelles, and we have his phone number!
I had intended to upload this post to the Sailblogs page when I finished it, but we didn’t have internet until now, 4 days later. A lot has happened since then, but that will have to be the subject of a different post.
Best wishes to all our friends and family!
Craig & Barbara