Road Trips and Retreats in Costa Rica
09 May 2019 | Villas Alturas Hotel, Costa Rica
Barbara Johnston | Hot and muggy, with rain and thunderstorms every afternoon
After a few days in Golfito, Costa Rica, jumping through the necessary immigration hoops, we began the process of preparing Sequoia for shipping home. We watched the messages from SevenStar Shipping, which have come on a nearly-daily basis, with a prediction of when we might expect the MV Kraszewski in Golfito. The date keeps slipping, so as of this writing they’ve changed the arrival of the ship to a window of the 17th-19th of May. They’ve also changed ships, and the new one (the Kraszewski) is evidently much bigger, much deeper draft, and the loading will take place 14 miles away from our marina. (Previously they were to load within a mile of where we are). The weather is slipping into the rainy season, and nearly every afternoon there is rain, sometimes heavy, and sometimes accompanied by several hours of thunder and lightning. We’re wondering whether they will continue with loading in such weather, or whether that will occasion additional delays. And of course we can’t purchase our return flights to Portland until we know for sure that we really can leave on that date!
So we’re living in a state of uncertainty, and, damn, the weather is unbearably hot! Most days the temperature climbs over 90°F and the humidity over 70%. We have begun to look forward to the rain, because it does have somewhat of a cooling effect. We try to do one strenuous boat chore at 6:00 or 6:30 am each day, before the sun hits the boat.
The best strategy to beat the heat has been to leave Golfito for a road trip. We first spent 4 nights in San Vito, 3000 feet up in the mountains, inland from Golfito and near the Panama border. We joined with George and Sue to rent an SUV and stayed in a bed & breakfast called Casa Botania. I can unreservedly say this is one of the best lodgings I’ve ever stayed in. (Mountain Home Lodge in Leavenworth, WA would be a close second). It’s almost a matter of a psychological vibe that suffuses the place. They’ve done a beautiful job of landscaping with gorgeous tropical plants – many in bloom – wild ginger, Chinese ginger, palms of many sorts, bananas, “poor man’s orchid” (not sure what that actually is, but very pretty), amaryllis, bougainvillea, bromeliad and so many more whose names are unknown to me. Lots of birds are attracted, most notably many hummingbirds and kites. George and Sue were in a constant state of excitement about all the birds (known to them, as longtime birders) they were seeing. A wonderful breakfast every morning including fresh eggs from hens in a forest enclosure on the property, lots of fresh fruit and amazing home made bread. One evening we had a delicious Costa Rican/Belgian dinner (the proprietors, Pepe and Kathleen, are a Costa Rican/Belgian couple). Two other evenings we put together dinners from a San Vito grocery store, and the staff very kindly put out all the dishes and utinsels we would need, together with a loaf of their homemade bread.
From Casa Botania we made a couple of excursions to the Wilson Botanical Gardens, a 50+ year old enclosure with tropical plants from around the world and supporting research through a consortium of 52 different universities operating as the Organization for Tropical Studies. Needless to say there is a vast bird population attracted by the gardens.
We also visited a group of coffee farms and observed many aspects of their operations (although no harvest happens for the next several months). They sell most of their product to Illy, the Italian coffee company, but they do sell a small amount locally, and we bought a couple of bags to take home. At the end of the tour we participated in a tasting, being invited to comment on “acidity, fruitiness, body, balance…” and some other characteristics that I can’t remember and couldn’t really understand. It was quite an experience. (See George & Sue’s blog post about the coffee plantation
We were back to the boat for 48 hours, while George and Sue took the car to another mountainous area. It was again beastly hot in Golfito, and we took off on Tuesday for what we believed was a beach resort with air conditioning. When we got to the place, though, it was a right turn off the road (away from the ocean) and about a mile up a steep, rutted grade. Never mind, this resort is also a lovely place, with Toucans and Fiery Billed Aricaras (see photo at top of this post) in frequent close-up view, a swimming pool, beautiful view, lower temperatures than the beach, and an adjacent wildlife sanctuary. Although the vibe doesn’t quite live up to the Casa Botania, I can also heartily recommend this place. We found it to be cool enough that we didn’t need the air conditioning. One afternoon I had a massage out on the deck of our “villa”. There is really nothing more relaxing than a massage to the sound of rain and frogs and birds in a pleasantly warm climate.
Well, tomorrow it’s back to Golfito to launch in on further necessary preparations. I won’t write about those in this post, so that we can retain the lovely relaxed feeling of these two beautiful retreats.
Best wishes to our friends and family.
Craig & Barbara Johnston
02 May 2019 | San Vito, Costa Rica
Barbara Johnston | Pleasant during the day, cooler and foggy at night
As we’ve traveled over the past two years, we have continued to run into new holidays and new reasons for government offices to close. We have sometimes found ourselves cooling our heels while the locals are out celebrating.
We were in Panama, wanting to head northwest into Costa Rica. We were mindful that Panama is a Catholic country, and that the Holy Week, before the Easter weekend, is a big deal. Our friends, George and Sue, headed for Puerto Armuelles, in the extreme western part of Panama, so that they could check out of the country before everything closed down for the Easter weekend. We decided we couldn’t make it that far in the time we had, so we aimed for Easter Sunday afternoon, thinking to check out on Monday morning. As it turns out, George and Sue weren’t able to complete all the steps before the offices all closed for the weekend at noon on Thursday. So they were able to offer us lots of information and advice while we made our way to Puerto Armuelles, and we all successfully completed the checkout on Monday morning.
Puerto Armuelles used to have a big banana export business, and their big dock (the “bananero”) was used to load ships with bananas. But for whatever reason, the business went away, and the bananero is following as fast as it can. It used to be that cruising boats could tie their dinghy to the dock and climb a ladder to reach shore. But the last ladder blew away in a storm last month, sheet metal is hanging by a thread, and the dock is falling apart in so many other ways. See photo at the top of this post.
The only way to get ashore is by doing a beach landing. George and Sue took their dinghy ashore that first morning, getting wet and sandy on both the landing and the re-launching. But it turns out that some of the local fishermen operate as water taxis on an unpredictable, ad hoc basis. They know the waters and the waves, so are able to get passengers to shore without a dunking. If you’re lucky, they come by when you need them, or you have a phone number to call. If not, you might wait a long time!
The anchorage at Puerto Armuelles is an open roadstead, and when the south wind rises in the afternoon, there’s a lot of rocking and rolling going on. Fortunately, at night the air is completely calm, so it’s a very good overnight anchorage.
The locals ride bikes or walk out to the end of the dilapidated dock and fish with hand lines while hanging out with friends from dawn to dusk. The fishermen anchor their little boats close to the dock and climb up ropes or parts of ladders pieced together with ropes. At one point on Sunday afternoon, a man walked out on the dock to near where we were anchored and shouted questions at us. It turned out he was the person in charge of the whole customs and immigration process, and he wanted to know whether we needed to check in or check out, even though it was Sunday and excessive fees are charged. I got the gist of it and assured him that Monday would be fine.
George and Sue had arranged transportation with one of the fishermen/water taxis for 9 am Monday morning. Unexpectedly, the little boat arrived at 8:30, and it was a mad scramble to get our papers together and our heads screwed on straight. The beach landing was straightforward and we proceeded to the first office. There was a lot of waiting around, and then we visited at least four other offices in succession, including immigration, customs, health/quarantine and merchant marine (???) Some of the offices were in a very old building with high ceilings and cool interior temperatures. Others had icy air conditioning and were filled with government employees who had clean desks and seemingly nothing to do except look at the screens of their phones. The man who had accosted us from the bananero dock on Sunday was in charge of the whole process. He took us to each office in succession and helped with communications. We had heard some fairly negative things about clearing out in Puerto Armuelles, but that’s not what we found. Only the anchorage and the need to use local transportation to get ashore should give other cruisers pause.
After clearing customs, Julia Max and Sequoia departed immediately for Costa Rica. A long peninsula juts southward and the border between Panama and Costa Rica runs down the spine of the peninsula. We headed south, rounded the tip of the peninsula and then anchored in a big, shallow bight (unnamed) just beyond the tip. We had a terrible time getting the anchor to catch – instead it would just drag across what appeared to be a field of bowling balls. There wasn’t much wind, and not much was predicted, so we finally just decided to accept a less than optimum hold. We ended up about a half mile away from Julia Max. George reported they had good holding with their anchor. We set the anchor alarm and hoped for the best.
The water motion was gentle throughout the evening, but at about midnight a giant wave struck. George reported that he felt a sudden wind, saw a large wave approaching, and then Julia Max was pitched up at a 45 degree angle. The wave washed over the boat, in through open ports and onto a berth and the cabin sole. It threw Sue across the cabin, putting a gash in her forehead.
Sequoia must have been at a different angle to the wave. We experienced extreme rolling, but no wave came over the boat. The giant wave came back every few minutes. We got up and re-stowed or cushioned things that were making a loud clatter. And fortunately, the anchor held.
It’s a mystery what it was. After a few hours the waves stopped, and we were back to a calm night with just gentle rolls. Was it a tsunami? A rogue wave? We searched Google for any report of an earthquake that might have generated a tsunami. None found. We’ll never know.
The next morning we continued north into Golfo Dulce and then into Golfito. It’s a beautiful tropical bay, but beastly hot. Some days there is lightning in the hills and some days a heavy rain shower.
We’re here in Golfito to await the arrival of the MV Kraszewski, which will load up Sequoia and Julia Max and deliver the two boats to Victoria, BC. We presently expect the ship on about May 15, two weeks from now.
So, you may ask, why aren’t we sailing Sequoia all the way home? We had intended to sail to Hawaii, and from Hawaii to Portland. But the more we thought about the 30-day passage between here and Hawaii, the less we wanted to do it. Going northwest along the Central American, Mexican, California and Oregon coasts is not really an option because there are almost always very strong winds blowing in the opposite direction for much of the trip. It’s a bash that beats the stuffing out of sailors and their boats. It can be done but it doesn’t meet our definition of fun (and this is supposed to be a fun trip). Additionally, we’ve been having serious issues with our only-two-years-old electronic instruments which we are not wanting to test against the Pacific Ocean.
Then, of course there is the attraction of spending the summer in the Pacific Northwest, which is very much a special time of year. And since we’ve made this decision, I’ve signed up for three week-long chamber music workshops this summer (including one in Romania) which I’m very much looking forward to.
The coast of Costa Rica is unreasonably hot this time of year. We understand that the rainy season starts at the end of May, and that it will become generally a bit cooler at that time. But for now, the air is stagnant, temperatures are in the nineties every day, and humidity is 65-70% We find ourselves unable to do anything productive, other than the minimum required to keep ourselves fed and bathed (showers are very popular!)
So yesterday we and the Stonecliffes rented a car and drove up into the mountains, where it is considerably cooler during the day, and downright cold and foggy at night. We’re staying at a lovely Bed & Breakfast, called Casa Botania, in the middle of tropical jungle near the town of San Vito. There is an abundance of birds and flowers here. We’ve visited the Wilson Botanic Gardens, a major tropical research center, and we have plans to visit a coffee plantation, perhaps an indigenous art and culture center, and just hang out in these cooler temperatures. After a few days here and a couple of days back at the boat, we have plans to spend three nights at a beach resort – air conditioned! When we return to Golfito, we’lll have 4-6 days to get the boat ready for shipment.
So look for us in Portland before the end of May. We’ll need to make a quick trip up to Victoria to receive Sequoia off the freighter, and then we should have her home by mid-June.
Best wishes to all our friends and family,
Craig & Barbara Johnston
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
The Panama Canal - Thoughts for Other Cruisers
11 April 2019 | Panama City, Panama
Barbara Johnston & Craig Johnston | Hot, muggy, overcast
With our Outbound 44 sailboat, we transited the Panama Canal in the southbound direction, on April 7-8 2019. We started at Shelter Bay Marina at the north end of the canal, and finished at La Playita Marina, Panama City.
Much of this narrative relates to dealing with agents. We elected to hire an agent. Other people did not. Since I don’t know much about doing it on your own, this narrative doesn’t cover that situation.
Our agent was Erick Galvez, email email@example.com. He certainly did an acceptable job, although we never met Erick, and his employee, James, didn’t speak enough English to be able to answer many of our questions. We saw James 3 times: for the initial sign-up when information is gathered, when the lines and fenders were delivered (one day before the transit began), and when we redelivered the lines and fenders at the end of the transit. The last two times there was no conversation; he was merely one of the people carrying lines and fenders. The reviews on Noonsite for Erick are much more positive than this. Apparently Erick used to show up at Shelter Bay frequently. Now not so much.
For Sequoia, a 44 foot boat (which with all projections measured out at 46.59 feet), we paid a total of $1469 (April, 2019). That includes tolls of $800, $54 inspection fee, $130 “security fee” (I have no idea what that’s for), $60 bank charges (the cost of using a credit card), $350 agency fee, $75 lines and fender rentals.
We have heard about much more personalized service from “Stan”. On the downside, Stan wants to be paid cash or by wire from your bank; Erick accepts a credit card and charges a $60 fee for “bank charges.”
We emailed Erick for the first time 5 days before we arrived in Panama. He asked for additional detailed information, which we provided by email. (Never mind that we were asked for all that information again when we arrived in Panama).
Whoever your agent is, be aware that once you are anchored out awaiting the arrival of your transit authority, you are completely in the hands of the Panama Canal authorities and not your agent. Your agent collects information from you, gets you a slot in the system, answers some of your questions, and provides you the lines and fenders you will need. If you are unable to find line handlers on your own, your agent can line up some or all of those people for you. But don’t leave it until the last minute (and by that I mean 3-4 days before), or your agent may have already committed all his available line handlers. (More about line handlers below)
In that initial meeting with your agent, you will be asked to make some choices, and we wish we had been more informed at that time. The biggest questions: (1) when do you want to transit, (2) do you need the agent to provide some or all line handlers, and if so how many and (3) which transit configurations are acceptable?
It turns out the first two questions are interlocked. You may have agreed with another boat or boats that you’ll serve as each other’s line handlers. If so, you’ll have to coordinate dates to make sure that you’re not scheduled for the same or overlapping transit time. The transit (at least southbound) takes two days. From experience, it’s completely exhausting to do a 2 day transit on one boat followed by a 2 day transit on another boat. You should consider scheduling a day in between. Don’t forget that on your own boat you will have to provide sleeping accommodations for 4 line handlers plus yourselves, meals and snacks for 4 line handlers plus your transit advisor plus yourselves, plus one of you will have to serve as skipper.
There’s something to be said for having the agent provide at least one line handler. That person will be local, will speak Spanish, will likely be young and relatively physically fit, will be completely familiar with all the canal procedures, and can assist in directing your less-experienced line handlers as to what they ought to do and not do. You’ll pay $100 for each line handler hired through your agent.
Other cruisers would be our first choice for the other three line handlers. But there are also people out there who will serve as line handlers for a fee, and/or for transportation reimbursement. We engaged a couple of teenagers from a Shelter Bay cruising boat, who are doing line handling to make some money. That worked out fine. We also engaged a local expat who wanted to do it for the experience. That also worked out fine. We reimbursed him for his transportation.
Land transportation across the isthmus can vary widely in cost and effectiveness. A Panama City taxi will charge $75-100 for the trip to Shelter Bay Marina, and they most likely will not know how to get to Shelter Bay. (It involves either a ferry or a trip across the locks when the gates are closed between ship transits). (When the new bridge opens it will become much easier. We are told it will be “May, but we don’t know what year.”). For now the much better option is to take the express bus from Albrook Mall in Panama City ($3.15 to Colon) and then a taxi for $25 to Shelter Bay Marina. The Colon taxi drivers know the way to Shelter Bay. The only downside of that is that Colon is a very run-down city, and the bus station is located in a dangerous district. Much better to get off at an earlier stop (Avenida 13 is the last stop before the station.) There will be taxis everywhere. I have learned from another cruiser that Uber is a bit cheaper than a taxi for cross-isthmus travel, but they are also unlikely to know the way to Shelter Bay.
The third question, acceptable configurations, is important. Your agent will show you four diagrams of how you might be placed in the lock. You are allowed to reject one of the configurations, but you have to accept the other three. The configurations are (in no particular order) (1) by yourself, tied to the side of the lock; (2) tied to the side of a tug; (3) by yourself in the center of the lock; and (4) in a “nest” (raft-up) of 2-3 yachts in the center of the lock. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each (that I can think of).
(1) Tied to the side of the lock. Advantage: not subject to pushes, pulls and personalities of other boats. Disadvantage: In turbulence, if your boat rocks or rolls, you could be subject to spreader damage against the side wall. Also sliding contact up or down wall of the lock. This option is probably the one to veto.
(2) Tied to the side of a tug: Advantage: Tug is presumably very knowledgeable about being secure, you’ll have no lines to the wall, and you’ll be protected from most turbulence once you’re attached. Disadvantage: the tug will be at work, and there will be times you’ll have to wait, tied up to a wall or to the buoy until the tug is ready for you. Potentially much more work for the line handlers.
(3) By yourself in the center of the lock: Advantage: Not subject to pushes, pulls and personalities of other boats. One boat is easier to control than three. Disadvantage: All four of your line handlers will be fully engaged with receiving the monkey fist from the canal workers, attaching the line, and adjusting it during lock operation.
(4) In a “nest”: Advantage: One of the boats (the center of three) will be in charge of moving, and a superior transit advisor will be aboard that boat, directing all three as to engine and steering state. If you are an outside boat, only two out of your four line handlers will interact with the canal workers. Disadvantage: Interacting with lots of other personalities, possible conflict between your own transit advisor and the controlling transit advisor. A mistake on one boat could affect all. This is a common configuration.
Thoughts about the transit:
The start of the transit will be a trip out of the Shelter Bay Marina and anchoring in “the flats”. (Be sure you have your wash down pump ready to go when it's time to up-anchor. The bottom is obnoxious mud infused with petroleum and sewage.) If you’ve been through the canal before, be aware “the flats” have moved. Erick had us out there 2 hours before the anticipated time the transit advisor would be brought out by pilot boat. But as it turns out, we were out there for 4 ½ hours before our transit advisor arrived. I believe the agent has no control over changes of schedule. We were told right away, upon our arrival in the flats, by “Cristobal Control” (Channel 12) that our pick-up time would be 1730, not 1500. On Craig’s first transit as a line handler, s/v Julia Max was told to be out there prior to 1630, but at 1545 the advisor came aboard saying “go, go go!” On that trip, the second day was scheduled late and they entered the last two locks at sunset and had to find the La Playita Marina in the dark. On Sequoia’s transit we got finished in daylight.
The overnight accommodation is tied to a large buoy in Lake Gatun. You’ll likely be sharing the buoy with one or two other boats. All need to be tied together and to the buoy; the transit advisor will help you figure that out before he leaves by pilot boat. Periodically you’ll get a wake from a passing freighter and all the boats will bob or roll at a different rate, stressing the lines and the fenders. Your transit advisor for the second day will show up at 8:30 or 9:00 am the next day.
Your friends may enjoy watching you go through the canal. There is a webcam in the highest Gatun lock, and even on the darkest night it’s possible to make out a yacht under the brilliant canal lights. There is also a webcam in the higher Miraflores lock. If you are paired in the Miraflores lock with a very long freighter, they may put the sailboats so far forward in the lock that you won’t be visible to the webcam. In the locks on the way up, the sailboats go in behind the freighter; in the locks on the way down, the sailboats go ahead of the freighter.
Webcams are found here: https://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html
If you do have friends watch, you might consider having them take lots of screenshots of you and save them for you. I’m not aware of any way to obtain those images after the fact.
Thoughts about lines: 4 lines of 125’ are required, and most cruisers rent them and fenders from the agent. The lines they supply are 7/8” 3-strand polypropylene blend. They need to go through cleats or chocks and the pull will be upward to the top of the wall. It is more convenient if they are led to a big winch, as they will need to be continuously taken in (going up) or let out (going down.) Two other lines may need to be supplied for springs to adjacent boats if rafted; these should be strong and low stretch, ½” double braid at an absolute minimum. On Craig’s first trip, as line handler, they were rafted to a larger boat with a marginal skipper who seemed unable to apply small fore/aft propulsion corrections, and he moved too hard astern, causing a poorly cleated spring line to slip free, then with several feet of slack overcompensated with full throttle forward, fetching up hard on the other spring and breaking his mid-ships cleat clean off. (It was aluminum, old and corroded.) Fortunately no one was injured.
Re the fenders, even if you have lots, renting their big ball fenders is recommended. You will end up with all available deployed.
If you are lucky and keep a sharp eye out, you may see alligators on the banks. This should perhaps discourage swimming in Lake Gatun while tied to the mooring buoy there overnight.
Panama - the Atlantic Side
04 April 2019 | Shelter Bay Marina, Colon, Panama
Barbara Johnston | Hot and windy
Our passage from Jamaica to Panama took four days, just as planned. At this time of year the winds and waves are strong off of Colombia. Even though our route would not take us close to Colombia, that didn't stop the large waves from reaching us. So it was a fairly rolly passage: a decent amount of wind, and too much wave action, especially during the last 24 hours. We had many of our glasses and other dishes packed in socks, but that didn't stop the clank-clank that happened with every wave. We have a couple of wine bottles stored under the floorboards, and I think those were the worst. Their bubble wrap must have come off, so they clink gently together with every movement of the boat. (Boat project #1, for tomorrow: find the clinking bottles and re-stow in a silent way. Or maybe just drink the contents.)
Once again we made the passage with George and Sue Stonecliffe aboard Julia Max. Julia Max's hull speed is just a little bit slower than Sequoia's so they left about three hours ahead of us from Port Antonio, Jamaica. For the first day or so we both proceeded at about the same speed, but mid-passage there was a wind change and our sail set became more efficient. At 8 knots or more of speed, we quickly passed Julia Max, and each boat got some great pictures of the other (it's pretty hard to get mid-passage photos - so unusual to pass close by each other). (See photo at the top of this post). We made such progress that ultimately we had to take desperate measures to slow down so we wouldn't arrive in the middle of the night. We reefed the main down to three reefs, dropped back to staysail, then reefed staysail, then no jib at all, until we were only making 3-4 knots. Unfortunately with such shortened sails the rolling became worse, and the last 24 hours was not fun. Fortunately, all the pre-made food was helpful, and I didn't have to deal with cutting up round objects on a counter sloped at 30 degrees.
For entertainment or pathos, a barn swallow showed up on the boat when we were about 80 miles from the end of the passage. We were amazed at how a barn swallow could fly that distance, but obviously birds are able to do much longer annual migrations. The poor little bird perched precariously on rounded surfaces, and before long was inside the boat, where he took up residence. We thought he'd left in the late afternoon. But in the dark of the middle of the night I felt for a handrail and got instead a piece of moving fluff. I'm sure it startled us both. In the morning there was no sign of him, just a couple of small feathers and a pile of bird poop. (Which does not come out of the cushions easily, I'm sorry to report).
The last 24 hours the ship traffic increased substantially. We passed a number of tankers headed for Houston, and several 800 foot long, 140 foot wide container ships loaded as high as we've ever seen with shipping containers. Several times the ships were heading right at us, on a reciprocal course, and we had to change directions to allow them to blast past. As we approached the entrance to Limon Bay (the canal approach), dozens of giant freighters were anchored and others were moving in various directions. A way was open for us, though, to go straight ahead, past the breakwaters and into the bay. We took the sails down and found our way into Shelter Bay Marina - easy and straightforward.
The marina is located on the former Fort Sherman military base. The US turned the base over to the Panamanian government in 1999, and it appears about the only thing that was done was to create the marina. Dozens of other buildings are in the vicinity; they've all been looted and the jungle is growing around them, on top of them and through them. It's about 3 or 4 miles by road through the jungle to reach the perimeter gate, and then at least that far again to reach the nearest decent grocery store in Colón. We took the marina bus into Colón to the Rey grocery store. The roads are simply appalling, full of potholes. Once you get into the City of Colón, it becomes apparent how run down everything is. Old buildings, with small trees growing out of the roof, missing windows, peeling paint and sagging balconies are nevertheless festooned with satellite dishes. The Rey grocery store is in a run down shopping center. Most shops, including Rey, do not have signs; they just have peeling paint. You have to look in through the door to figure out what's there. There are areas of the city which, we are advised, are very dangerous. This includes the area around the bus station and the train station. There is construction going on, but it appears to be primarily to repair the worst of the decaying infrastructure, and not for any new construction.
By contrast, we crossed over the Gatun locks, and everything there appears to be in good condition. The 1914 original construction is still in good shape and in full operation. New, bigger locks opened in 2016, and now the canal can accommodate ships up to 1200 feet long and 160 feet wide.
Before we got here, we had contacted a canal agent, Erick, to set up our transit of the canal. In addition to the usual immigration and customs papers, there were a lot of additional hoops to navigate. First, an official inspector had to come inspect and measure our boat. We didn't know when exactly the inspection would happen, but it was clear that we couldn't leave the boat, because if we missed the inspector's visit, we'd go to the bottom of the list. We finally saw the inspector on Friday (we had arrived Tuesday), and we have been given the date of April 7 for our transit through the canal. One or two days before then we will receive a detailed email with all the instructions, plus a delivery of four lines and many large fenders.
By then we'll need to know whether we should hire line handlers - we're supposed to have four, and it's sometimes possible to use other yachters or friends as line handlers. In addition, we will have an official "transit advisor". The TA is someone like a pilot with knowledge of all conditions and procedures who will "advise" us as to where to go and what to do. We are instructed that we must have "good food" for the advisor. No cans, no sandwiches. And we must provide bottled water. No tank water. (Our mission to avoid plastic bottles for environmental reasons has hit a temporary wall...)
The facilities at the marina are good - a swimming pool, nice restaurant, small grocery, small chandlery and a laundry. But after a couple of days, boredom does set in. So we decided to take the bus over to Panama City (on the Pacific side of Panama) and see some sights. Our friendly marina bus driver, Ranger, took us right to the bus station, with clear, insistent advice not to dawdle, and get right on that bus, over there. It was a nice enough bus, and it didn't leave until every seat was full. Then for the next 10 miles the bus made numerous stops, picking up more passengers until the aisle was completely crammed full of standing room passengers. The TV screen at the front was playing a Christian football movie, which was completely full of violent language and violent football footage, interspersed with prayer meetings. The volume was turned up to blastissimo and there was no escaping. As we arrived in Panama City, Billy Graham was giving some kind of closing sermon.
(On the way back to Colón the next day, the movie was Apocalypto, an extremely violent Mel Gibson movie about pre-Columbian Central American tribes torturing, enslaving and slaughtering each other. At least the sound wasn't turned up quite as loud. Yikes! I'm not a fan of Panamanian bus drivers' taste in movies.)
Upon arriving in Panama City, the first thing we did was catch a taxi to the Miraflores locks visitor's center. We wanted to have a look at sailboats going through the locks, just to look at the procedures and evaluate the degree of turbulence those boats were experiencing. We've been told that due to the huge volume of water passing through the fill/drain tunnels of these locks, there can be a high degree of dangerous turbulence. We were able to watch as a rafted-together "nest" of three sailboats proceeded down through the two lock chambers in the Miraflores locks. We didn't see much evidence of turbulence, and they did have to wait a mighty long time for the tanker behind them to get positioned for the lock-through.
We spent the night in a nice hotel in the Casco Viejo section of Panama City. Lots of renovation is going on in this district of substantial old apartment buildings. On any block, you're likely to see a beautifully renovated building side by side with a rubble-filled lot, and the shell of another old building being held up by substantial bracing blocking the adjacent sidewalk. We enjoyed eating in a new restaurant called "Lo Que Hay" (Whatever's Available) where the flavors were unexpected and different, but quite delicious. That evening, and the next morning, we walked along the streets and enjoyed the occasional view into the interior of buildings, or the rubble of one that didn't quite make it.
We took in parts of several museums and viewed the murals of Van Ingen documenting the canal construction, and charcoal drawings that may have been preliminary sketches for the murals, at the Canal Administration Building. All in all a good visit to an interesting City, and I have no doubt there is plenty more to see. We'll have a second chance at it after we make our canal transit this coming Sunday and Monday.
So we're back now to the Shelter Bay Marina, with a long list of chores to do before our transit. Chief on my list is making that "good food" that the Transit Advisor needs. I'll do a beef stew and a chicken/rice, both heavy on the meat. We also need to rearrange our stuff so that we have comfortable sleeping spaces for six (us plus the four line handlers). And of course, laundry, cleaning and various other boat-keeping chores. Tomorrow Craig will sign on as temporary crew/linehandler aboard Julia Max, helping George and Sue Stonecliffe make the transit tomorrow and Saturday. This will be a great way to preview the whole process.
If you'd like to catch a glimpse of us locking through on Sunday and Monday, there are two webcams.
We'll expect to go through the Gatun locks on Sunday, April 7, between 3 pm and 6 pm local time (UTC minus 6 or same as Mountain Daylight Time), and through the Miraflores locks sometime Monday afternoon. You can probably find out where we are by checking this website
. If that doesn't take you right to a map showing our boat, try inputting our MMSI number into the search box. Our MMSI number is 366806740.
Best wishes to all - See you on the other side!
Craig & Barbara Johnston
22 March 2019 | Jamaica
We are departing this morning from Jamaica for Panama. We've been on the northeast side of the island, so I'm counting on a couple of hours of cell phone signal as we go around the island toward the south. Maybe I can get a blog post done?
The last couple of days have been the usual rush of provisioning, cooking, and getting everything back in its place. This time we added socks around the glasses and cups - they were so noisy on the last passage! We are all set with 2 dinners of "Cape Horn Chicken" from Amanda Swan-Neal's book, Cruiser's salad (cabbage, almonds, hard boiled eggs, a bit of onion, a can of chicken and some salad dressing), Bean-corn-tomato salad with cilantro, lots of lime juice, a bit of oil, garlic, and Carrot-raisin salad, with a bit of added fresh pineapple. The settees in the main cabin are all set up with their lee-cloths to prevent us from falling off, and the watch schedule is set. I'm actually on special dispensation from the watch schedule to get this blog done before we lose our signal!
Jamaica was an amazing, delightful place. We docked the boat in Port Antonio, definitely not a tourist resort, but a great window on Jamaican life. As we have been doing for some time, we are buddy boating with George and Sue Stonecliffe, who are aboard their boat, Julia Max. Sue and I have enjoyed seeing the street market several times - it seems to be open every day and the best looking fruits and vegetables happen at 7 am. The only things we couldn't find here were celery and cilantro. No call for those, I guess. There is a call for garlic, which is plentiful for local cooking, but all comes from China. I recognize those little mesh bags, with tags like "Beauty Garlic".
In part to find those slightly more exotic groceries, we made a trip over the Blue Mountains to Kingston. We hired a driver who took us through the mountains, to a coffee plantation, and then to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, before hitting the "Mega Max" grocery store just before we headed back. The roads are good along the coast, but once you head toward the mountains they become very bad AND full of traffic. Some places are too narrow for two cars to pass, much less the frequent big trucks. Lots of potholes. Some sections are unpaved. Bridges that made me close my eyes and hang on for dear life. There are coffee bushes and banana trees interspersed among them, primarily to provide shade. The beans on the coffee bushes seem to be at all stages of ripeness. After an hour or so of this we stopped at Dennis's coffee shop and farm. I think this exists primarily for the tourists, but is still an indication of how everything was done before the factories came along. They have pickers as well as area farmers who bring in bags of beans, year round. The beans are dried and then pounded in a mortar and pestle that look like they belong in a museum. The pestle is about the size of a baseball bat, but quite a bit heavier, made of a local dark hardwood. The mortar is simply a hollowed out log. Once the shells/skin are removed by the mortar and pestle, they are put in a heavy cast iron pan over a campfire, and a guy stirs the beans for about 45 minutes until they're dark brown. Of course they have a classy looking old crank grinder mounted on a heavy wood counter. They gave us some coffee, and it was indeed excellent. We bought a bag of roasted beans which we'll probably crack open on this passage.
I'm not much a fan of Bob Marley's music, but it was indeed interesting to learn about his life and his political importance to Jamaica. The Jamaicans attribute their present democratic government to his "peace and love" campaign which culminated in two opposing political leaders joining hands over his head during a huge concert.
The Mega Max had the celery and cilantro, but the prices for everything were astronomical. We got out of there quickly and returned to Port Antonio via a slightly better road that skirts around the Blue Mountains.
Quite the opposite of the Mega Max prices was what I had to pay for my haircut: $700 Jamaican dollars which is the equivalent of about $6 US. I got a nice haircut (quite short) although done 95% with electric clippers. Sue watched the whole thing, although she didn't screw up her courage to have her hair done the same way. Throughout the process I watched a guy across on the other side of the salon having his long hair put into multiple braids. We have seen such gorgeous, elaborate hairdos, for men and women, throughout the Caribbean, but this is the first time I have seen part of the creative process.
Yesterday, for an interruption in the passage preparation, Craig, Sue and I went out on a diving trip. I've been opting out of diving, and just doing snorkeling, simply because it's so much less trouble and you can see almost as much. In this case, I saw something the divers didn't: Four spotted eagle rays, seemingly out for their afternoon stroll, flapping gently across the sand. At one point they did a beautiful circle, going around 2 or 3 times like synchronized swimmers, then heading off on their stroll again. We were in an area which has been declared a sanctuary, and the fish and coral are beginning to come back. I saw lots of huge elkhorn coral. A solitary barracuda followed me for about 15 minutes (apparently a normal behavior for them). I didn't much likely his slightly open mouth bristling with sharp glinting teeth. But I saw other beautiful fish in many colors. One of them was turquoise blue on the front and grey in back. I described it as the color of that motor catamaran we saw in Guadeloupe - "Rock Star" - which turned up in Port Antonio while we were there. The color was like those early-sixties turquoise appliances. Not complimentary, to my mind, on a boat, and absolutely startling on a fish.
Well, we'll head out to sea and away from the cell signal soon, so I'd better wrap this up - See you all in Panama, maybe about Tuesday?
Best wishes to all
Craig & Barbara