Panama Canal Zone Video
30 December 2008 | Shelter Bay Marina, Panama
The San Blas Islands are one of the most beautiful cruising grounds we have ever experienced. We forged new friendships with cruisers from all over the world, sailed in picturesque tropical conditions, anchored off uninhabited islands and visited with the indigenous Kuna Indians. We could have stayed in the San Blas for months but it was time to go. We had to get to the Canal Zone to start the next leg of our journey. On Zen we watch the weather very carefully and try not to expose ourselves to any conditions that may risk the safety of crew or boat. Sometimes this means leaving a place early or delaying our departure because the conditions are not safe. Fortunately, our situation offered a loop hole and even though we had rough conditions the wind and seas were headed in the same direction as we had to go. Normally we would not hesitate to make a 65 mile trip in one daylight leg but we decided an overnight stop in the middle might be more enjoyable based on the sailing conditions. We prepared the boat for a roucus ride, checked the weather charts one last time and pointed our bows for the open water outside the protection of the San Blas barrier reefs.
The weather charts predicted 20 to 25kts winds and 10 to 15 foot seas for the next couple days. These are by no means life threatening conditions but it does require some extra precautions and heightened awareness. As I mentioned above, the wind and seas were headed in our direction, West. If we were headed the other direction, against the wind and seas, we would not have gone. Smashing into the wind and seas puts too much stress on the boat (and crew). We hoisted the anchor at 9:30am from the Lemon Cays in the San Blas Islands with a goal of sailing about 40 miles to a protected bay behind an island named Isla Linton on the Panamanian Coast. We put a reef in the main and rolled out 2/3 of the jib. Zen took off like a rocket and we quickly figured out that this was going to be an exciting ride. The wind was strong from the start. We do not know the exact wind speed because our wind speed indicator died about a month ago in Cartagena, but I estimate that we had about 20 kts true wind with gusts to 25 or 30. As we came out from behind the reef the seas started to grow. The wind was behind at an apparent angle of about 130 degrees and the seas, at least 10 to 15 footers, were racing up from behind, lifting the sterns and rolling underneath us. As the waves approached, Zen's sterns would fall into the trough of the waves. When this happened all you could see when you looked over the stern was a big wall of water racing toward the boat. For those non sailors reading this blog, imagine driving down the highway and looking into your rear view mirror to see the grill of a Mack truck racing up behind you. This is what the waves look like as they approached. Too bad we could not change lanes to get out of their way . As the wave rolled under the boat the bows would rise up so all you could see was the sky above us. When the wind and seas matched up correctly, every fifth or sixth wave, Zen would climb on top of the wave and surf for 10 to 20 seconds before the wave rolled out in front of us. Our constant speed was about 9kts. When we surfed the speed jumped to 15kts or more. Can you say "yipeeee"?? This was one wild ride. Before we left I had calculated that we would make the 40 mile trip in about 5 hours. That's an avg speed of about 8kts which is pretty fast for a boat our size. We arrived in Linton at 1:30, 4 hours after we left at an avg speed of 10kts. NICE! Linton was very protected and we had a nice meal and good night sleep.
The next day offered the same conditions but we only had to sail about 25 miles to the breakwater to the entrance of the Panama Canal Zone. We had become accustomed to the weather conditions so today we had a new challenge, staying out of the path of all the enormous ships waiting to go through the Canal. As soon as we came around the protection of Isla Linton we met our first big ship. He was about 10 miles behind us on the same course toward the Canal. Just like the day before, we were going about 10kts wildly surfing down the waves. He was going about 13kts so we had to get out of his way. Remember that Mack truck I mentioned before? Unlike the waves, this time we could "change lanes" to get out of the way. We repeated this move several times before we reached the Canal. We have never seen so many ships in one place. Add in the weather conditions and it was impressive, exciting and unnerving all at the same time. The Canal Zone is protected by an enormous rock breakwater with two openings for the passing of ships (and little boats like Zen). I originally planned to pass through the smaller, auxiliary entrance in an effort to avoid the traffic in the main entrance. Additionally we thought it would be safer to drop the main sail in the protected water behind the breakwater...we also thought it would be cool to sail, not motor, through the opening. As we approached, still surfing down huge waves at 15 kts or so, we lined up the entrance and were excited to see the calm water on the other side of the breakwater. Everything was going well until we spotted a 700 foot ship coming out through the opening we were about to go in. Uh oh, now what. We have software aboard Zen that allows us to track the location, course and speed of nearby ships. Usually we have one or two ships to track. At the Canal Zone the computer screen looked like one of Coles PSP games with bogeys approaching from all directions. The ship coming out through the Auxiliary entrance had made a last minute turn into the channel and took me by surprise. We had about two miles to make a decision, turn around and get out of his way or change course for the main entrance and try that approach. I study all the dots on the screen and decided the main entrance was the best move. We were going so darn fast that we could slip through before the next monster ship was making their approach. The video above was taken about 10 minutes later as we passed through the entrance. You will all get a kick out of the little joke that Monique played on me. My heart skipped a few beats as you will see on the video. In any case, we cleared the entrance, dropped the sails in the calm waters and made our way into the Marina. The entrance to Marina was pretty straight forward except for the fact that they tried to put us in a 24 foot slip when Zen has a beam of 26 feet...nice to know this before you have a 20 kt breeze pushing you into the tiny little canal. Fortunately Zen has two engines and we were able to spin around in the tight channel and head back out without crashing into the other boats. As you may imagine, we slept pretty well that night.