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Exploring Panama

Jane and Russell Poulston

Ta-b
46’ Fontaine Pajot Bahia Maestro Catamaran
October 10th, 2016

After spending a magical time cruising the San Blas islands, we headed west, stopping in Portobello for a couple of nights on our way to Shelter Bay Marina in Colon, Panama.  We had a fabulous sail and had fun dodging in and out of the freighters outside the breakwater, at 10.6 knots.  We headed in; dropping our sails at the entrance to the Marina, without realizing that sailing inside the harbour is prohibited. Oops!  Shelter is not a marina to come into at night. One boat did while we were there, and got stuck on the reef, fortunately only for a short time.

Sailing into Panama

Sailing into Panama

We are usually at anchor, so Shelter Bay Marina was a treat.  We soon found it was cheaper to pay for 16 nights than 12; however, after Rio Dulce it was expensive; especially as it is a good 30 minutes into town.  The marina has a bus, but it only holds 12 people.  There is a sign-up list, but it was nearly always full and allowed only one crew member a seat per day.   Taxis were an option, but at $35 each way that was a bit above our budget.  The facilities at the Marina were good and we enjoyed an event there that the Puddle Jumpers Rally put on.  Lots of information and at no cost.  Most impressive  The supermarket at the mall that the Marina bus goes to, does have a free shuttle back if you spend over $300. This worked well for us.

We had lots to do to prep Ta-b for the Canal transit, as well as the long offshore passages after.  First was to organize our transit.  We used Erick Galvez, an agent who proved to be very efficient and worth the fee we paid him. However, do not get a fumigation certificate in Panama as they are no longer valid in the Galapagos.  A lot of our other cruising friends used him and were duly happy with his services.  You do not need to use an agent; however, the time and money that our agent saved us well covered his fee.

Life raft servicing.

Life raft servicing.

We had our life raft and EPIRB serviced, both by excellent companies.  We took delivery of our new main sail, checked rigging – Rigger Mike was awesome at organizing and fitting a new port stay, and that was only the start of the list.

By the time our daughter Amy, and her two friends Kevin and Jason arrived, we had most of the “to do” jobs done and had even found time to be line handlers for a friend, to get some experience.  However, we were exhausted.  Within a couple of days of our crew’s arrival, we were off to the anchoring area known as “the flats” to wait for our “advisor”, who would come on board.  He would help us through the first three locks, called the Gatun Locks, that are physically connected to each other.  At Gatun, the boats are raised a total of 84 feet, with each chamber being 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.  The chamber, however, feels small when you are sharing it with a huge tanker and boats rafted up to either side of you.

Panama Canal

Panama Canal

Most boats go through in the late afternoon and spend the night in Gatun Lake, where a launch quickly picks up your advisor, for whom you are asked to provide snacks and a meal  before he leaves.  Gatun is the world’s largest man-made lake, covering an area of 423 sq kilometers of what used to be a rain forest.  It is a huge lake between two massive continents and two seas, being one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems.  It was a truly unique place to spend the night.  No one swam in the fresh water the next morning; it was murky and home to crocodiles, so not very appealing.

Our new advisor was scheduled to turn up at 0630h, but arrived at 0930h and, from the moment he stepped on board, we knew that our second day was going to be very different from our first.  He was a total waste of time and ended up being a liability, giving wrong advise and even fell asleep on the job.  Thankfully we learned a lot from our “practice” transit, and this kept us out of trouble.

Day two in the Canal.

Day two in the Canal.

We traveled 38 kilometers through the Gaillard Cut to the last three locks.  The cut is narrow and famous for its treacherous curves. It is nicknamed Culebra (snake).  This is where the bulk of the 7.4 nautical Canal excavations took place, and continues to be the most susceptible area for landslides.  In 1915, it was the site of the largest landslide in the Canal’s history, and the only one that has caused the Canal to close.   We passed Gold Hill, a 588-foot rock wall, and the site of many devastating landslides.  It got its name from rumors that the Panama Canal Company created it so that the workers would dig harder to find gold deep down.  Sadly many workers lost their lives here.

After about four hours, we arrived at the Miraflores Locks, where we had two fellow cruising boats raft up to either side of us.  Our advisor woke up and told us to do a very dangerous manoeuver. Being at the helm and also the Captain, (the advisers are not in charge of the vessel and are there to simply advise) I said ‘No way.’ and instead turned the raft into the wind and safety, where we sat for a peaceful hour. The two Miraflores Locks are together with the Canal’s tallest gates.  With a huge tanker behind us nearly touching the sides, and only about 100 feet away from our stern, we just prayed that the line handlers were doing their job, as the current behind us was very strong.  Nothing would mess up your day more than a tanker shoving you in the bum!

Jane in the Canal

Jane in the Canal

The last lock was Pedro Miguel and then, with the beautiful Bridge of Americas in front of us, we pulled into Balboa Yacht Club to anchor.  The launch quickly picked up our advisor – phew, and then another collected the lines and fenders that we rented.  All done and dusted, it was now time to celebrate; we were in the Pacific after cruising the Caribbean and the Mediterranean for eight and a half years.

The next day we left early for Playita anchorage, just south of the causeway where a lot of our friends were.  Our first job was to make water. It was too dirty and oily in Playita, so after a day we headed for Isla Taboga, where we had a couple of lovely days.  We had our first swim in the Pacific before hiking up to the top of the Island for a spectacular view of Panama and all the tankers, before kicking back for a much-deserved rest.

Getting back to Playita, we ticked the final “must do” jobs off our list and had taxi driver Roger and his van help us buy out Pricemark.  He was fantastic and then Carlos helped drive us around town so we could pick up the last items on our “must get” list.  We would highly recommend both, at under $10 an hour, although they both got large, well deserved tips.  Our plan was to go to Las Perlas Islands to wait out a weather window; in fact other boats had been waiting weeks for the right weather.  However, all cruisers know that plans need to be flexible and sadly we never got to Las Perlas. Instead we grabbed the weather window that suddenly appeared and had a perfect five and a half day sail to the Galapagos.  We wonder if we will ever get back to visit Las Perlas. Who knows, but in the meantime the Galapagos Islands were waiting to be explored.

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  1. Roger Frost says:

    Wonderful, congratulations and fairwinds ahead. S/V Tradewind Seeker, Nanaimo, B.C.