Full Up

While Jonathan was onboard he shot lots of film, from inside the cockpit, up the mast and racing along side us in the dingy. He has created a fantastic short video of our sail from Bonaire to the San Blas, you can find it here – 

https://vimeo.com/155366014. The password is RAYA.

We have had a very busy week preparing for our passage to Galapagos and meeting with old friends. One of the great things we are discovering about this trip is how many of our friends are managing to join us. We first met Peter and Junko during our stay in Japan, then we were all posted to Sweden together, they now live in Florida. Panama is part of Peter’s professional patch so they and thier girls came to see us for the weekend. We returned to the old town for dinner. What a difference from last week, after the Carnaval holiday, Panama City has come to life. The streets are full of traffic, the restaurants and bars busting at the seams and the shopping malls bustling, the old town felt young and vibrant.

Rick and Junko, dinner in the old town

Raya is also rather full, full of fuel, full of water, full of food. We are moored on the most seaward of berthsin the marina, so getting everything to the boat is a real challenge, a ten minute trek along rickety, rocking wooden pontoons, but we are almost there, every locker is jam packed and the fridge and freezer overflowing. We are unsure how good the provisioning opportunities will be over the next few months, so we are taking advantage of the large and relatively cheap supermarkets here. The cupboards are full of tins of tomatoes, beans, corn, tuna…… Behind and below the seats we have long life bread, stocks of tea bags, coffee, flour, ketchup……. the shelves are full of fruit, biscuits, nuts…….. And every nook and cranny has a bottle of wine, can of coke or case of beer.

We hear the alcohol in French Polynesia is expensive

Penny and Stephen have arrived and we set sail tomorrow for the Las Perlas Islands, a group of small islands that lie about 30 miles off the Panamanian coast. To enter the Galapagos your hull has to be completely clean. If they find so much as a barnacle lurking in some crevice, they send you twenty miles offshore to clean it, not something we fancy. So we are stopping at these islands, where hopefully the water will be calm and clear, to take a look and ensure the diver that we paid to give us a clean up has done a good enough job. Then it’s off to Isla San Cristobal the first island on our Galapagos adventure.

Windy City

I’m on laundry watch, the sheets are drying perpendicular to the decks and despite each one having ten pegs attaching it to the line I don’t want to take my eyes off of them. Rick remarked, as the bun on top of his burger flew off accross the restaurant “you know it’s windy when there are waves in your wine glass”. For the last week at least, Panama City has been the Windy City.

We spent a couple of nights in the Hilton to say goodbye to Jonathan and Sheridan and explore. It was a big holiday here and most things were closed for four days, so it seemed a good time to take a small break. It was carnival time and each night there were fireworks and the main sea front highway was closed for entertainment and parades. The security was very tight, I have never seen so many police and to enter everyone was searched. It all seemed rather unnecessary as the crowd was mostly made up of families, everyone was happy and good natured. The floats in the parade were suitably over the top and the music set the Central American scene but it was difficult as outsiders to feel involved, we moved on to explore the old town. 

  
Dating from the seventeenth century, a time of Spanish domination, it almost feels European.  Until recently the whole area was very run down but as the rest of the city  went through a huge expansion, tower blocks springing up everywhere, gradually the value of this piece of land has increased. Entrepreneurial youngsters began doing up properties and soon the authorities and private investors moved in. The area is now very smart, full of trendy restaurants and beautiful houses, with the odd incongruous slum tucked in between to remind everyone the job isn’t quite finished.
Back at the boat we are moored in Flamenco Marina with Panama City as a backdrop. There are only a couple of other yachts here it is full almost exclusively with brash, high sided, sports fishing boats. Despite our bag of a dozen different electrical connections we can’t connect to the power supply and are having to rely on our generator. There are so few women here that the ladies shower block is kept locked, so to use the toilet I have to request the key from the marina office and once in, the facilities are clean but basic. We are moored right by the entrance and in these windy conditions the berth is rather bouncy and the ‘Free’ WIFI is non-existent. At over $150 a day it has to be the least value for money marina we have been to. However, we need to be tied up for a while to get everything done for the long passages ahead. 

  
We look for the positives. It is fun to be back in tidal waters, we are rising and falling 5m each tide, the wind although strong, tempers the high temperatures and the bird life is incredible. Buzzards ride the thermals on the surrounding hills, flocks of Pelicans glide by and dive for fish feet from the boat, a multitude of seagull species take it turns to fill the pontoons, frigate birds lurk menacingly above us and there is even a small tame crane that patrols the docks. However, it is the prospect of what being here means that is the real source of our smiles – the Pacific adventure begins.

If we thought preparing to cross the Atlantic was a challenge we now have the prospect of there being little in the way of supplies or services until we reach Tahiti in about four months time.

We have pretty much sorted the boat out, the generated has been serviced, Rick has attached the new solenoid to the gas cooker and most routine checks are complete. However the domestic chores loom large, the boat needs cleaning top to bottom, the provisioning task is huge and there is the remainder of the laundry that needs watching.

South Thirty Echo Alpha

Friday 5th Febuary

We motor off the dock and weave our way through the anchored cargo ships and tankers to the ‘Flats’, the small ships anchorage. Here we wait in slight trepidation for our advisor to join us aboard and guide us through the first part of the Panama Canal, Gatun locks.

The Canal has three phases. From the Caribbean side you pass firstly through the three stage Gatum locks and into the large man-made  Gatum lake, the channel runs for about 12nm across the lake before it narrows and follows the canal for another 14nm to the final set of locks. The Pedro Miguel lock joined by the small Miraflores lake and two stage Miraflores locks which lead into the Paciffic. The Canal traffic has to be a finely choreographed to allow the flow of the huge lumbering ships that need to pass through each day. There is not only the two lock systems that are one way but a part of the canal itself that is too narrow for ships to pass. Everything is perfectly timed to enable the maximum transits. To be able to get from one end to the other in one day a vessel needs to be able to maintain a speed of ten knots, too fast for the smaller vessels, so they stay moored in the lake overnight.

We are informed that for the duration of the transit we will not be known as Raya. There are so many boat names, in so many languages, to make it easier on the radio and for the controllers, each boat gets a code name. We are S30EA, the S indicates we are southbound through the Canal. All traffic is numbered each day in the order they first enter the Canal, southbound boats are given even numbers and northbound boats odds. As the fifteenth southbound boat through we are number 30. The E is our position within the lock and A indicates that we will spend one night within the system. South thirty echo alpha is to become a familiar phrase over the next two days.

Our advisor  arrives at 5.15pm, much younger and more casual than expected, he smiles and gets us going. We are to follow a 538ft long and 78ft wide container ship – Ditlev Reefer, piled high with refrigerated containers.  We shall be sharing the lock with him and also two smaller yachts, which will tie up either side of us to form a three yacht raft. As we shall be in the middle the tricky job of handling the long lines that keep us central in the lock will be done by the two outside yachts, which is a relief but also slightly annoying as we now don’t really need the long lines we have prepared or the line handler we have hired.

As we approach the first lock it is beginning to get dark, strong lights show the way. Rafting to the other two boats is relatively easy but feels very odd to Rick at the helm as he guides the three boats into position in the lock. We are dwarfed by the tall ship that looms above us. 

Entering the first lock behind the container ship Ditlev Reefer

The large gates clank shut heavily from behind, they are made of dark, riveted steel, Rick names them the Gates of Mordor. A ripple of excitement runs through the three yachts, cameras click, we all gasp in awe and wonder as millions of gallons of water start to fill the chamber lifting us the ten metres required to enter the middle lock. The process is repeated a second and then a third time until an hour and a half later we are finally 30m higher and can look back to, far below, the Carribbean sea.  We enter the man-made Gatum lake and moor up to a large bouy, unload our advisor and settled down for the night.

The ‘Doors of Mordor ‘ close behind us

The lake was flooded when the Canal was first created at the beginning of the last century, by damming the Chagres river. The hill tops, now islands, having been isolated for over a hundred years and have become an incredible haven for wild life. The guide books tell us they are home to amongst many other things monkeys, sloths, toucans and crocodiles. We are informed we should not leave the boat for a swim, advice we decide is worth taking.

At 9.30 the next morning are next advisor joins us, another young guy with perfect English. We are told they are Canal staff that volunteer for overtime to go through with the small yachts as they enjoy the excitement and varying nationalities of the crews. Edward is a tug boat captain, hoping to one day be a pilot guiding the large ships through and is very well informed.

It takes us five hours to motor the 30nm through the lake and canal to the final locks. We keep our eyes peeled for wild life and are rewarded by sighting three crocodiles, two small ones sun bathing, mouths scarily wide open and one larger specimen swimming closer to the banks. Apparently we are very lucky, most transits never see any sign of them. The lake turns from blue, to bright green, to brown as we approach the feed from the river which dumps tons of silt into the lake each day, creating the need for a very comprehensive dredging programme. Situated here, in this industrial but isolated position, is the high security facility that holds high profile prisoners including the ex-dictator of Panama, Maneul Noriega.

We vary our speed, allowing us to arrive at the Pedro Meguel lock for our allotted 4pm slot. Enroute we are passed by two huge tankers and one container ship. When at sea we think it’s a close shave if we come within a nautical mile of one of these monsters, even in the busy Southampton Waters it is rare to be quite this close, we could almost reach out and touch them.

  

For this lock we are tied alongside two pleasure craft full of tourists, a lot of them were English and American and seemed to be as fascinated by us as they were by the locks. We are followed in from behind this time by the 550ft long Chemical tanker Concept. The current locks are 110ft wide, the concept is 105ft wide that leaves just a couple of feet spare each side. They are guided through by locomotives that run on tracks either side of the locks and attach to the ships with cables, the drivers, guided by the pilot onboard slowly tighten and slacken these cables to inch the vessels into position. The widest boats we saw were 108ft wide just 2ft less than the locks!

It was a tight squeeze for the locomotives to fit the 105ft wide Concept into the lock.

It is then a quick motor through the small Milafores lake to the final two locks, again we are tied up to the pleasure boats and followed in by the Concept. But as we enter the second and last lock there is a fast current caused by the mixing of the fresh water behind us and the sea water of the Pacific in front of us. Docking with the pleasure vessel proves very difficult but with the team work of both crews and the advisor we finally get attached. We watch as the water level drops down the sides of the enormous walls for the final 10m, the gates begin to open and there we are approaching the Pacific.

Passing under th Bridge of the Americas into the Pacific Ocean

As we congratulate each other, another big step completed, it all still feels unreal that we are actually doing this. I look back at us sitting on the terrace at Ongley planning each stage and amaze that we are slowly but surely ticking each of them off.

Waiting our turn

 Wednesday 3rd February 

We spent a couple of days in Shelter Bay Marina, going through the process of admin and queuing for our turn to go through the Panama Canal. Onboard, every yacht has to have four sturdy lines, a minimum of 125ft long to reach up the high walls of the locks, plenty of fenders to protect the boat and four line handlers as well as the skipper on the helm. You are visited by an Admeasurer, a Canal official who measure the boats dimensions, checks that the boat can motor fast enough to keep up with the Canal traffic, is in good working order and has all the appropriate equipment. Raya passed on all fronts except we were one man down, we spent a few anxious hours asking around to find someone available to come through with us and finally found an experienced local guy who could help. It was then a waiting game until a slot became available.

Shelter Bay is the site of an old American base, when they handed the running of the Canal over to Panama at the beginning of 2000 the area was abandoned and the houses and streets are being rapidly claimed back by the rain forest. Just a couple of hundred metres from the marina is a 30min walk around an old road called the Kennedy Loop. On either side of the road is thick encroaching jungle, full of animals, birds and insects. It was great fun being able to walk through the undergrowth and see it close up while still being on the safety and comfort of talmac. There was great excitement as we spotted a band of monkeys leaping high above us in the tree tops. We were fascinated by a trail of busy ants, hundreds of them loaded down with bits of leaf they were carrying back to thier nest, so industrious had they been in their task that they had worn a path through what to them must have been giant leaf litter and sticks on the jungle floor. We could hear many types of birds flying between the trees and spotted flashes of exotic colourful feathers and above our heads sored a dozen buzzards. Last but not least we’re the huge butterflies of turquoise, orange and yellow fluttering between the flowering bushes.

  
Rick our line handler also used his car as a taxi so we got him to run us to the viewing platform above the first set of locks we would go through, Gatum Locks. We watched as a huge tanker squeezed in through the side walls and was slowly lifted up ten metres. The scale of this incredible piece of engineering became clear, especially when we moved on to view the new locks they are building to accommodate even larger ships, where still in construction, we could see its massive bare bones. We came away more apprehensive than ever.

  
The marina itself promised much but delivered less. The entrance led from the Cristabal Harbour and was very close to the action at the beginning of the Canal but was totally isolated on shore and was miles from anywhere .The mini mart on site was always late opening and rarely had much for sale. Sheridan and Jonathan bravely took a taxi 30mins to the nearest town Colon, a rather run down place that supports the activities around the running of the Canal and where we were warned it was unsafe for tourists to wander on the streets but they did find a supermarket and picked up a few supplies.The marina staff were friendly and tried to be helpful but  everything was rather disorganised. The food at the one restaurant was okay but the service was so bad it was agony to eat there. There was a pool to cool off in but too small for lengths and a wifi service that at best was intermittent.  

Luckily our agent Alex whom we had hired to organise our canal transit has got us a cancellation spot, we leave tomorrow. 

Stunning San Blas

Monday 1st February 

I am almost embarrassed to post the pictures of the San Blas, so photogenic were these islands littering this part of thePanamanian  coastline, that we couldn’t stop clicking our cameras. The rough sail down was definitely worth every rocky moment. I apologise in advance.

Sitting in the cockpit anchored between two islands at the eastern end of Holandes Cays the views are stunning. Straight out the back is blue, blue sea stretching ten miles to the mountainous mainland shrouded in the haze. To the right is the palm covered island of Acuakargana the shore of which lies behind a long coral reef, the water is extremely clear and warm. We had a great snorkel amongst the pretty coral heads and the shoals of Blue Tang. In contrast was the guy we came across with his loaded spear gun (spear fishing is prohibited in the San Blas) clad in army camouflaged wetsuit with three unlucky reef fish tucked in his belt.

Back in the cockpit to the right is a tiny sand bank just exposed above the waves, that is surrounded by crystal water of multiple shades of the turquoise that I simply love. We seem to have finally arrived.

  

In front of us is Waisaladupat a slightly larger island again thick with palms and mangroves around its shore. It had an irresistible white coral, sand beach completely surrounding it, so just before dusk we took the dingy ashore and walked its perimeter. The shore was strewn with fallen coconut palms exposing thier amazing root systems, tendrils of which in some cases still clung to the sand in a last ditch attempt not to be washed out to sea. The trunks were often covered with small crabs using them as a bridge above the tide. Otherwise the islands were surprisingly rather devoid of wild life, the sea contained less fish than expected and in the sky there were pelicans, whose fishing antics are always fun to watch, but not a lot of other bird life.

  

Avoiding the mangroves that blocked our path around the island.

We had spent a night in two other equally beautiful anchorages. On each of the islands we have found huddles of small wooden huts roofed with palm fronds, these belong to the indigenous population the Guna Indians whom despite an airstrip connecting them to the rest of Panama and the continuous stream of yachts, continue to preserve thier culture and traditions. They seem accepting of all the visitors but we did feel a bit strange landing and walking on thier islands rather as if we were traipsing through thier gardens.

We were frequently visited by small groups of Guna that paddled out in sturdy dugout canoes to sell us lobsters. We had only been anchored for about ten minutes before we had a large specimen onboard ready to go on the BBQ, at the back of the boat and very delicious it was too. Other canoes are full of local crafts, including the appliqu├ęd squares of fabric intricatly embroidered called Molas, Sheridan and I spent a very pleasant hour choosing and negotiating a few to buy as souvenirs. 

Gona dugout canoes ‘ulu’

Navigating the shallow archipelago was not as difficult as we had imagined, the passes through the coral were relatively deep and wide and the colour changes indicating the depths of the sea bed and position of the reefs easy to see from the bows of the boat. Looking back at our track on the electronic charts we were glad to have been warned to ‘eyeball’ navigate, it indicated we were anchored on top of the island and we had entered the lagoon by motoring directly across the reef.

We said a sad farewell to the soft white sand and turquoise seas on Sunday, as tomorrow we have our inspection with the officials for the Panama Canal hoping for a transit on Wednesday, a very different but no doubt equally fascinating experience.