As you may recall, I accepted an invitation to crew on J’Sea, to take her from Florida to Panama, via Jamaica. In Part One, we dealt with a refugee rescue situation. After that, we were ready to continue on our journey.
Part Two: Transiting the Panama Canal
We are now four days from Jamaica and 280 nautical miles from the east end of Cuba. We sail if we can maintain a good speed and motor sail when the winds go light or change to an inopportune direction. The wind tends to build during the day, and sometimes we find ourselves sailing close hauled to our next waypoint.
As we approached the eastern end of Cuba, we had a fantastic sail! Downwind 20-25 knots wing on wing from the eastern end of Cuba to Porto Antonio, Jamaica, averaging 8 knots with occasional surfing to 11, 12 and my personal record of 13.8 knots.
We arrived at Errol Flynn Marina, a lovely small marina with wide concrete docks, showers, a bar, and swimming pool all landscaped with lush greenery. We’d radioed ahead for a spot, hoping that we could check in, take on fuel, water and provisions then check out the same evening. Too ambitious. Customs agents did visit us but we couldn’t leave the marina compound until we were cleared by immigration the next morning. Our Q flag stayed up. Jeff Temes bused from Kingston to join the crew.
The next morning, the immigration official arrived bright and early at 1030h. By this time, Jeff had done one run into town, but the rest of us had to wait to explore the town until checked by immigration officials. But we were finally freed to walk two blocks to the stores and outdoor market to restock the cupboards.
We left the fuel dock that afternoon and headed into a southeast wind that slowed our progress around the eastern tip of Jamaica, for our 560 nautical mile journey heading 210 degrees to Colon, Panama. We admired the lush hilly terrain cloaked in mist as we tacked in close to shore. Two fisherman came alongside to sell us lobster (5 for $20US) so our pesto pasta dinner was elevated to a seafood feast.
We motorsailed through the evening as the wind was still light, but by morning we had a beam reach in the 20 knot tradewinds. The next day as we headed south, we were wing on wing with a poled out jib, clocking down the miles. The waves and swell kept us on our toes and we hand steered. At night we reefed down the main to provide a more balanced sail and navigated by the Southern Cross.
Two days and two nights later than anticipated, we are less than 40 miles from Colon.
Approaching the Canal
Two no-no’s as we entered the breakwater leading to the Canal:
- We were to radio in to ask permission to enter from the harbour master
- We’re not allowed to sail in, but must motor
Oh well, we weren’t arrested.
We were given a berth at Shelter Bay Marina, our home away from home until a Canal date could be arranged. The marina is beautiful with showers, a restaurant and mini store, a pool and laundry. Very comfortable.
The next day we were visited by our Canal agent, who explained how things work to transit the Canal. He’d arranged to have our boat measured and inspected to ensure that we had the requisite four 130’ lines, many fenders, four crew plus a helmsperson. We were advised we must provide meals for our on-board advisors.
An advisor will join us and stay through the first three locks, then depart while we anchor overnight at Gatun Lake in the middle of the Canal. Another advisor returns early the following morning to help us maneuver the next three locks. And then we will be in Puerto Balboa on the Pacific. So the hoops are jumped and now we wait for a Canal date.
We had a few days to get to know our neighbours. One sailboat is 21 feet long, painted bright turquoise and pink and skippered by a French woman who sailed solo from Brittany to Panama to celebrate her 70th birthday. Her ultimate destination is Tahiti.
She’d attempted the Canal crossing a few days earlier, but was sent back because she refused to tie up to a tug boat, didn’t have the requisite four cleats and the advisor wasn’t sure she could achieve the minimum speed of five knots. She’s trying again in a few days with a new outboard. We all wish we could tow her or tie her alongside our boats.
Other boats are large luxurious catamarans, as well as sail and power boats from all over the world. One morning, the excitement involved watching a beautiful sailboat from Port Ludlow, Washington, bash into several other boats while maneuvering in the marina. The trade winds were strong and pushed him sideways, but those same winds do keep the temperature bearable for the rest of us. It was 33C.
Waiting to Transit
We decided to take a little walking jaunt through the jungle to Fort San Lorenzo National Park. Something about “mad dogs and Englishmen in the noon day sun”. The road was paved with huge trees and ferns edging in on both sides. Small black monkeys stared at us from their perches high in the trees. A large hawk tracked us, flying low and perching on a branch ahead, waiting for us to pass. Waiting for me to collapse was my belief.
Halfway into the 10km walk, with blistered feet and swollen hands, I bailed but the others also realized that 20km was too much, so we retraced our steps, stopping at a beach for a welcome swim.
There we met several men who’d been fishing and collecting coconuts. They imitated the call of a howler monkey and when they received an answering call, they pointed out three of them glaring down at us. They were much larger than the monkeys we’d seen earlier.
On our return to the Marina, we sat in the air conditioned bar until our temperatures returned to normal. We also researched a trip to Portobelo and Isla Grande on the Caribbean side, south of Colon, this time by car.
A couple of days later, we taxied through the abandoned Fort Sherman, formerly the US Army base that oversaw the Canal operations, to Colon to pick up a rental car. It takes almost an hour to drive 20 km, by the time you wait for either the ferry or the Canal traffic. The ferry ramp had malfunctioned, so we waited for the road that goes under the Canal beside the locks. It is eery to drive beside the big doors that hold back the water. We got a glimpse of the boring machine that is tunneling out the new, larger Canal.
Four of us set out for Portobelo, pop. 3,000. It was a major shipping port for gold and silver from the Americas to Europe in the 17th century. The original port and fort was at Nombre de Dios 20 km away, but this harbour is much more defensible. There were once two forts here, but the Americans blasted one of them to harvest rocks to build the Panama Canal. The other is in ruins in the middle of town.
We stopped in at Captain Jack’s hostel, harbour-view restaurant and bar for a really delicious lunch. There is a drought, so even though it looks green to us, this town has little water. Our server poured bottled water over my hands so that I could wash them.
We secured the last available hotel room at the Coco Plum Eco-lodge. The room reminds me of story of the three bears with its row of four single beds. We were lucky to get this, as tomorrow is a festival, so the town is fully booked. But like the rest of the town, there is NO water, so no showers and we were issued a bucket and ladle for washing and toilet flushing.
From Portobelo, lorchas can take you to Isla Grande or the San Blas Islands, where the Cuna Indians make their home. But an email arrived from Roy, our Canal expediter, announcing that Canal transit would begin Monday, a week after our arrival, so we headed back to J’Sea.
Roy told us he’d come by the Marina at 1230h. He arrived about 1330h. We don’t know whether he regularly tells us an hour earlier so we’ll be ready or that he’s always late. This part of the world isn’t known for its punctuality. ‘Soon come now” is the Jamaican equivalent of manana.
We motored out of the Marina and waited for the pilot boat to deliver our advisor, Guillermo. At his direction, we continued to Miraflores Lock. J’Sea and another Jeanneau, UpNext, were to raft to each side of a Nordhaven 55 from Salem Oregon.
The huge gates opened and we followed a freighter into the lock. The Canal line handlers threw a thin line ending in a handball-sized monkey fist, which we attached to the 130’ line on our stern cleat. Our bow and stern lines were attached to the Nordhaven. We were centered in the Canal well away from the concrete walls. Under the advisor’s instruction, we ran the engine in reverse at full throttle to hold us steady, while the gates closed. It was very weird to peek out at the roadway that we’d driven through the days before.
The water filled up to 45 ft. quite quickly and we proceeded to the next two locks, repeating the procedure each time. It was all quite easy and we spent some time taking pictures.
As we left the third lock and un-rafted, we were directed to an anchoring area in Lake Gatun. UpNext had already anchored, but our Guillermo instructed us to drop our anchor in 35 ft of water – unfortunately it was exactly where UpNext had been directed to drop their anchor, so we upped anchor to try again and this time the anchor didn’t dig in, so we ignored our advisor’s orders and anchored successfully.
Another advisor was to arrive at 6:00-6:30 the next morning. We were drinking our coffee when the pilot boat delivered advisors to UpNext, the Nordhaven and a 70’ catamaran. We were left behind. Around 0900h, our new advisor, Roy, was delivered alongside. For several hours we motored 21 miles across Lake Gatun. We hugged the starboard side of the shipping channel as huge freighters, reefers and tankers passed us on each side.
Roy pointed out a Smithsonian research vessel and buoy maintenance crew. He told us that once a jaguar climbed the anchor chain of a freighter and had to be rescued and removed by a vet. There is recreational fishing allowed, away from the channel. He said that he used to see lots of alligators, but not many anymore as Panamanians shoot them and sell them. Tour boats take visitors to several islands where all the monkeys were relocated, when the lake was created by the damming of the Chagres River.
The drought this year in Panama has the lake down by about six feet, the lowest level since 1988. Tree roots from the original flooding were clearly visible.
As we approached lock four leading downward to the Pacific, Roy explained that we would go into the lock ahead of a freighter aptly named the Virgo Colossus. We’d moor temporarily on the port side of the Canal. One of the freighter’s three tugs would pass us and proceed to the front of the lock. We would then release our mooring and tie up to the tug on our port side. Easier said than done. The wind was on our stern at 12-20 knots. The tug pushed the freighter against the Canal side so he could pass it, then us. I was at the helm and unable to hold my position as the enormous tug quickly motored up beside us. We were ready to throw lines to the tug, but one of the guys on the tug said “not yet” countermanding our advisor’s instructions. In seconds, I was broadside in the Canal with no steerage. Our crew kept us off the wall and I was finally able to get the boat maneuvered again within throwing distance of the tug. This time they caught the lines. Roy wasn’t happy and said it wasn’t my fault – they should have been ready. According to him, the guy on the tug was showing off to a new female crew member.
The water flowed out of the Canal. Roy instructed me that as soon as the gate opened and the lines thrown off, I was to motor quickly out of the Canal. “Go, go, go”, he ordered, but when I throttled up we were still too close to the tug and despite our crew pushing off, I slightly bent a stanchion. I felt terrible.
John wanted Jeff to take the boat through the next lock to give him some experience in boat handling. I’d taken J’Sea through four locks and was still rattled about the stanchion, so willingly gave up the responsibility.
Once again we were to enter the lock first and tie up temporarily to the port side of the lock, while the Virgo Colossus was maneuvered into position behind us. The concrete sides were badly spalled; there were metal edges and areas of voids. The rubber designed to protect vessels from the Canal sides was several feet higher than the water level, so provided no cushioning. Unfortunately, J’Sea hit the side with a sickening crunch. I didn’t know until later that a metal rod shattered a plexiglass window, fortunately leaving the fiberglass hull intact.
Glenn took over for the last lock and experienced a similar inability to maintain steerage, but we were finally tied up to the tug. The water in this last lock drains to the Pacific. Roy warned us about the current – really! This time, the instruction was to wait for the even larger tug, Cerro Grande, to leave first, then follow him out. Glenn had as much inability to control the boat as Jeff and I had. The aft section of the Bimini tore out of its attachments as it caught on the tug. J’Sea came very close to the starboard wall but didn’t hit. No one likes to damage someone else’s boat. It was dismal and distressing. We clearly understood now why the French woman sailor refused to go through the Canal transit alongside a tug.
That night we anchored in the mooring buoy field that comprises the Balboa Yacht Club and Roy was picked up shortly thereafter by the pilot launch. He said he hadn’t had that bad a day in years. We were all ready to drown our sorrows.
We rallied enough to jump into the Yacht Club barca and were delivered ashore to a long pier with rusty railings and unevenly placed floorboards. The showers were basic and the restaurant overrun with feral cats, but Balboa beer helped dissolve our bad mood and celebrate our arrival in the Pacific.