Friday, February 28, 2014

The New City of Panama

Panama City is growing faster than most others.
Once we were through the Panama Canal, we anchored near the end of the Causeway off La Playita Marina. The tides here are up to 13 feet! That is a new experience for us! The fleet anchored outside of the marina which is filled with large sport fishing vessels and doesn’t really cater to sailboats. Besides, when the tide is low in the harbor, we would be lying on our sides! In fact, many of these places are having a challenging time trying to accommodate 40 sailing yachts and their multi-national crews. The chatter on the local VHF channel is interesting – even if you don’t understand the language of either party!

Skyscrapers are everywhere now.
Of course, the World ARC Rally had a couple of activities planned for us as well as some optional ones. We chose to partake of it all! We had a full day visit to the Embero Indian village, which is one of the most popular tours in Panama, and a city tour. Then being young at heart, we joined in the fun on one of the famous Panama City Party Buses. The Embero experience is one for a blog posting of its own.

The city tour was very interesting and worthwhile. The old city was founded in 1519 and was the first settlement of Europeans on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It was through here that all of the gold from Peru passed on its way to Portobello where it wa loaded on ships headed for Spain. In 1617, 1200 men led by Henry Morgan sailed up the Chagres River to the city and reduced it to ruins.
Saving the facades of the Old Panama. It looks and
feels like you are in New Orleans.

Since the Panama Canal provides about $2.5 billion USD per year to the government, there is massive growth, new building of infrastructure and buildings. It is thought the intent is to become the financial capital of the Americas! 

In addition to the new development, they are renovating the old town area. Instead of demolishing it, they are keeping the facades of the old buildings, but gutting everything behind them. In the end, there will be modern housing with an old New Orleans look from the street. The area must have been beautiful in its day. I suspect it will become a hot real estate market once it is ready of occupation.

Some of the ruins of the churches. After a while, they
all begin to look alike so I don't recall which one this is.
We also visited some historical sites. One was one of the Catholic church ruins as there were many cathedrals before the plundering. The structures had underground tunnels connecting them to the governmental offices so officials could escape from harm by slipping off to the churches.

We had lunch at this typical Panamanian
restaurant with interesting decor.
We enjoyed a traditional Panamanian lunch with our friends on Vivo. I even ate the cerviche! As some of you know, I like my protein cooked! Surprisingly, I found it acceptable and will probably try it again. Many of their food items consist of a small amount of some meat, cheese or chicken filling wrapped in dough that is deep fried. My stomach can only handle a little of that, but it was tasty. I really enjoy their fresh lemonade.

After the tour we stopped at Allbrook Mall, which is about the size of The Mall of America in Minneapolis! We needed to get Dennis some new clothes. He has gone from a snug 36” waist to a 32-33” one! Trust me, he is being well fed on the boat and we eat out a lot on land. However, this “not sitting at the desk” lifestyle has melted pounds off both of us. I could use a size smaller, too (but I am waiting for several sizes smaller before shopping)! We are so active on the boat and on land that we are burning the fat away. Love it! Much of life underway is an extreme isometric workout just keeping oneself balanced with the boat 24/7. Even when sleeping there is constant motion requiring balance!
It's Party Time!

Now about that Party Bus! I don’t know if I will ever get my hearing back! But it was an interesting experience. Picture this: a colorfully painted school bus with flashing red, green and blue lights, bench seating along the sides, several metal poles in the center and straps on the ceiling for hanging on with one hand while drinking with the other one! Oh, I forgot, the music was so loud it made the eardrums throb!

Now you are touring the city for 3 hours, hopping on and off at other bars! Just my style, huh? It was fun watching the young crews self-destruct with the free flowing beer and rum! I wonder how they felt the next day? My eardrums were still throbbing! 

A lot of happy sailors off for the evening!
Fortunately, it was the Chinese New Year Celebration on the causeway so the traffic could hardly move. Our speed never got over 20 mph, which was good since the bus driver was texting and talking on the phone while drinking and driving! I thought about those headlines: 8 Americans, 10 Germans, and 6 Englishmen die in a bus crash … Opps! Try to put that out of your head. It was worth the experience. I would recommend the Party Bus just to say you have done it, though. Now I can say: been there; done that!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Continuing Through the Panama Canal

The black boat is us as we are passing through Gatun Lake
Morning came very early on the second day of our Panama Canal transit. Around 0600 another Advisor was delivered to the boat. Santiago came aboard and began preparing us for the day's adventure through the last two sets of locks. First we had to free ourselves from the overnight rafting and then proceed across Gatun Lake to the channel. There used to be a bypass, but it is no longer in use. The rest of the passage should take about five hours.Of course, we were to serve him a hot breakfast so out came the French toast menu. Then I served a mid-morning croissant filled with chocolate. That was a hit!

Herman the German has been renamed Titan
As we motored through the lake, Santiago pointed out the new canal construction sites, areas where they were "planting" explosives to widen the canal, and even the largest movable crane in the world: Herman the German. This crane was one of the spoils of WWII and has been used in the Panama Canal for many years. They claim the Canal expansion will be done soon, but we don't think so! There is still a lot of digging to do before they can create the concrete walls.

Explosives are "planted" in the PVC pipes
There is a lot of work being done to modify the existing parts of the Canal as well as the new locks being built to handle wider ships. In the past, ships have been built to the dimensions of the Canal. Now bigger ships are in demand and they need to be accommodated in the new wider locks. There are places in the passage where two ships cannot pass one another so that is being widened, too.

Our fleet of boats passed through the lake individually for several hours before rejoining our nesting groups. Once we gathered at the lock approach, we once again had to raft up while motoring at six knots. We successfully joined the other two boats and began our journey through the Pedro Miguel Locks.

Santiago with Bob from Vivo and Peter working the stearn.
When the fleet of 14 had all come into the chamber, the monkey fists were once again tossed on to the boats and the messenger lines attached. Our crew took up the slack to hold us firmly in position. Then the gates closed and the water was lowered. This time we had to pay out our lines as this is a downward lockage. It is supposed to be a more peaceful experience than the Gatun Locks.
This time Todd and Bob from Vivo came on board to assist with the lines since once again the current was on our side pushing us to the port.

Ron and Todd worked the foredeck.
However, we seemed to be the nest that needed more excitement than the others, so once again we had an exhibition of what not to have happen during a transit! Granted,  we were all on our toes ready to make sure everything went smoothly on the second day. Once again the ACP guys on the mainland screwed up! This time they failed to communicate with one another across the Canal and did not properly align the tie ups. We went diagonally in the chamber again. 

The Bridge of the Americas
Unfortunately for Avocet, the current was on our side and was pushing them against the wall again. Mike on Vivo and Dennis were following the Advisors' orders trying to keep them from harms way by using the engines in forward and reverse. There was a little gel coat damage. We were not too impressed with the attention the guys on land were giving to the situation. Everyone in front and behind us was trying to figure out what was happening. After some more shouting in Spanish and a lot of arm waving on land and engine maneuvering in the boats, we managed to get squared enough to move forward through the lock and were lowered down.

Why does it always feel like your mast is not going to
make it under the bridge as you approach one?
We continued to stay rafted or nested as we moved on to the next and final set of locks, through the Miraflores Lake and into the Miraflores Locks. This is the final lowering to the level of the Pacific Ocean. This lower chamber is the highest in the system, a requirement due to the extreme tidal variation in the Pacific Ocean. This will be our first time dealing with extreme tidal changes. There is also a strong current from behind in these locks so now we have to use reverse to control our progress.
Welcome to Panama City!

Once the final gate opened, we had to travel another 2.5 miles to the anchorage near La Playita Marina. Seeing the Bridge of the Americas ahead was a welcome site as we entered the Pacific Ocean. On the port side was the beautiful skyline of Panama City. Dennis and I looked at each other as said, "Well, we did it! We are now in the Pacific with another 29,000 mile to go!" Go West, young man, go west!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Excitement in the Panama Canal

Rafted up going through the Panama Canal
Most people I know who have made the passage through the Panama Canal have done it on a cruise ship. We have had the rare experience of transiting in our own boat and it was quite an experience to remember. The process is long and it involves some interesting sailing skills. Of course, we don't actually sail through the canal, but rather motor while rafted (tied to other boats).

Keeping our eyes on things!
There are very strict regulations for making the passage which the World Cruising Club manages for us through their agent. You must have an agent to deal with the Panama Canal Authority. You are given an assigned date and time. If you miss it there is an $800 fine plus you must reschedule and pay all of your transit fees again. Prior to leaving the marina, an Admeasurer comes on board to measure your vessel and determine your tonnage so they can calculate your transit fees. He also checks to make sure you have the proper equipment and clean facilities for their Advisor who boards before the transit.

Approaching the Canal from The Flats in our "nest"
We learned that the Canal is a real boon to the Panamanian government as it gives the government around $2.5 billion USD a year. That is why there is so much building going on in Panama City. The number of ships anchored waiting to for their passage assignment was amazing. Our chart plotter was splattered with AIS targets on both sides of the Canal. And now they are building a new canal so wider ships can pass.

We left Shelter Bay Marina at 1530 to begin our passage. We waited in an area called The Flats for the our Canal Advisor, Victor, to board. Each boat has an Advisor on board to assist though the process as the line handling is quite challenging. The delivery boat comes up next to you and a guy steps from one boat to the other with great skill. The helmsman of the delivery boat was very good at easing his boat to ours without bumping us.

There are actually three stages to the transit. First you pass into the Gatun Locks on the east end. This lock has three chambers to raise you up to the level on the interior Gatun Lake - about 26 meters or 84 feet. Each chamber is 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long. The length of this lock set is over a mile long from the entrance to the exit into Gatun Lake.

We are required to serve hot meals to the Advisor
We left The Flats around 1630 and moved toward the approach area. As we were motoring, we came up to the starboard of Vivo, a large catamaran, and exchanged docking lines to hold us tight against the fenders between us.

Then another monohull, Avocet, did the same on the port side. We are now one unit or as they call it, nesting. It was an interesting test of the nerves having to come up against another yacht while underway. It sure tested my helmsman skills, but I was successful.

The WARC Fleet passing through the Panama Canal
All went well through the first chamber. Each yacht is thrown a pair of monkey fists (messenger lines) that are then attached to the handling lines we have on board. The Advisor gives instructions on tying the special knots that need to be tied to the lines from the linehandlers on the mainland who walk along the wall and carry their end of the line. For the big ships there are electric automotives that move along a track to maintain the correct pressure on the lines.

This is not the guy who mess up the lines!
After passing into the chamber and getting all 14 boats in the 1000 foot area, the huge steel lock doors close behind you and the water begins to rise. It takes 15-20 minutes to fill the chamber with water. The linehandlers on the yachts (our crew) have to constantly take up the slack in the lines as the boats float higher in the lock. Once the chamber is full of water, we were instructed to move forward into the next lock. The process was repeated again.

Then the excitement happened! The ACP linehandler on our stern line was asleep at the switch, as they say! As he was walking up the incline and paying out line, he failed to see that the messenger line became lodged in a concrete crevice. While he kept walking, the line was holding us back and turning our nest sideways. There was a lot of Spanish being thrown back and forth across the canal. I am guessing it was swearing! In fact, I am sure it was and it was very loud!

Here are the lock gates closing behind us. Next the area
will fill with water and we will all rise up to the top level.
Unfortunately, the linehandler did not realize he was the cause of the problem and kept walking and paying out line. Then our messenger line broke and we were loose on the stern. This caused Avocet to get too close to the wall on the other side. There was concern for their rigging as it was close to a light post and their bow was headed toward the concrete wall. It was a little scary for a while.

Mike on Vivo and Dennis had to maintain control
after the workers on land messed up.
In the meantime, our guys managed to retrieve the loose end of the messenger line and tie it to our bowline and send it back up to the mainland. We did not see the guy who screwed up again. I wonder where he is working now??? Once we got squared away, literally, we were on our way to the next chamber. Of course, the boats ahead of us and
behind us were wondering what was going on. Later we learned the rumor in the fleet was that the guys on Trillium messed up. Our entire "nest" will set that straight!

Excitement in the dark - again!
We made the passage through the third chamber without incident and went well into Gatun Lake in the dark. Under the direction of the Advisor, Victor, we docked on a huge bouy where four WARC boats rafted for the night. Then Victor was picked up by another boat and we all went to bed for a few hours until our Advisor for day two arrived.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Discovering the Panamanian Coastline

We left the San Blas Islands and headed toward Colon and the Panama Canal. To break up the 80 mile trip, we stopped in the village of Portobello. This town had been a major player in the days of pirates and bounty! The Bay of Portobello was discovered in 1502 by Christopher Columbus! Representing the Spanish Crown, he chose Portobello as the Caribbean transshipment center.

Portobello has a magnificent harbor where they built four forts to protect the gold and silver that was being shipped back to Seville. The guide book said that between 1574 and 1702 forty-five galleons were set forth, none of which carried less than thirty million pesos of riches! The ruins of the fortifications and several old buildings remain today. We climbed among the ruins to see the cannons and structures.

It is also home to the Church of San Felipe de Portobello. This church is said to be the home of the Black Christ of Portobello, a wooden statue of Jesus of Nazareth. The statue has become holy and worshipped because of the many miracles attributed to it.

The famous pirate Henry Morgan attacked the area on numerous occasions to get the bounty of silver and gold. Today the town is a sleepy village with several small markets run by Vietnamese or some other Asian group. There are a couple of restaurants, but only one stood out for us so we ate there both evenings.

After a day of exploring, grocery shopping and relaxing and two nice dinners out, we raised the anchor to head on into Shelter Bay Marina, just inside the break wall at the entrance to the Panama Canal. The area was very busy with ships waiting for their transit time through the Canal to the Pacific Ocean. The water was fairly turbulent in that area as well. So it was a bit like dodge ball: Keep your eye on everyone and keep heading to your destination!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

San Blas Islands – Back on Track

Molas are for sale everywhere. They are beautiful handmade
art objects. Some are more detailed and finer work than others.
The good news is when I turned on the chart plotter to do an anchor check before bed, up came all of the chart detail we had been missing earlier in the day! It seems that I needed to turn off the chart plot and power it up again after inserting the SD card with the new area. I am always afraid to turn off the chart plotter when underway in case I lose our track or position – or worse yet, it doesn’t come up at all! So, needless to say, I was happy to see it working. Although we still need to heed the warning from Noonsite regarding the error on the Navionics charts. Our charts are new and may have the correction, but we are not taking any chances as we move among these little islands.

This is where you check in with
Customs and Immigration.
The San Blas Islands are really around 400 cays (pronounced “keys”) as they are very small up croppings of low lying land surrounded by reefs.  This group of small cays lay off the coast of Panama on the Caribbean side. The sand is white and coconut palms provide some shade. Actually, coconuts are the main crop of the San Blas Islands, providing over 30,000,000 coconuts per year! However, I don’t think you can buy them as there are no stores here!

When did you last see these as
the major way to communicate?
This is the airport. It is a landing strip
with water at both ends!
Navigation is very challenging and it is wise to have someone on the foredeck watching for changes in the water color. When in the dinghy, we suddenly hit the bottom with the motor even though we were quite far off land. Many of the islands are uninhabited. Some offer good snorkeling. There are no services, provisioning or communications available here.
The restaurant where we lunched.

Once we figured out where we were and where we needed to go, we headed to Porvenir to check in with Immigration and Customs. On the way there, we saw the infamous Sail Rock which has claimed a few hulls over the years! It is a nasty place to kiss the reef!

Once on Porvenir, we met our WARC team and crossed the runway to the government offices. All went well until they discovered that Dennis and my passports had not been stamped in St. Lucia.  I guess we will be more watchful when checking in and out of these countries. They finally let us complete the paperwork and leave. This island has a police station, a bank and pay telephones, all of which are not available on the other islands.

We found an interesting place for lunch. It is one of the two restaurants on the island. There was no menu. We were told they were serving fish, rice, and vegetables. All was fresh and very tasty. I was a little taken back when I was served first and the fish had its head, tail and fins all intact and cooked in a tasty curry batter. I really don’t like to see my food looking back at me!  But it was really good and I managed to eat the proper parts.

The beach here is lovely and looks as I would expect the islands to be complete with the thatched huts and beautiful white sand. Since the sun is so hot and the air humid, it is nice to cool off in the water from time to time. It is interesting to see the local people wearing jeans or layers of their native dress when we are sweating in shorts and tank tops! I hope I adjust to the heat soon as it is difficult to sleep at night. And my hair is wet most of the time just from perspiration.

The museum was very interesting in the way it showed the Kuna Indian way of life. It is a very simple lifestyle, but they must work at gathering their basic foods. Their personal economy depends on the sale of molas so every woman and some men make and sell them. Apparently, no one owns the land, but they all own the coconuts. It is advised that you do not pick one. Here are some photos from the museum:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Seeing the Kuna Indian Village

Molas are everywhere!
Since we did not know exactly where we were among the numerous cays, we chose to anchor near several other World ARC boats. It was sort of the blind leading the blind as we soon discovered. We didn’t realize we were off the coast of Palm Island, which was a residential area. I called the Rally office on the VHF to confirm where to find them. Davide and I both agreed that we should come to the pink and green building and walk toward the airport landing strip. Not a problem!

Walking through the neighborhood.
We went ashore looking for the WARC Rally office only to discover it was three islands away. We knew it was on the island with the airport. When we asked the Kuna Indians for the airport, they all pointed in the same direction. After locking the dinghy to a concrete dock, Dennis, Peter and Ron assisted some Kuna Indian men in pulling a large water taxi up onto the shore. They were using PVC pipe as rollers. The extra muscle power of our guys made the last few yards easier for all. Fortunately, one on the older men understood some English and directed us through the village to the airport.
Children playing in their "yard."

So we continued to walk through their village until we got to the other side of the island. That is when we discovered that we were several islands away from the airport. It was still a wonderful experience as we saw there “city” streets of sand and their thatched roof dwellings. Upon glancing into one of the open doors, it appears to be a large room with a sand floor and little else. The stick and thatch dwelling must be much cooler than sitting in the sun all day. The houses are very close together and the ladies were sitting in chairs in the paths between the huts sewing their molas.
Ladies sewing and girls playing in the "side street."

Homes are constructed out of sticks and palm leaves.
When I asked if I could take photos of them and their work, the women said “one dollar.” But the little children wanted their pictures taken, so I did! The villagers checked us out but were cautiously friendly. I am guessing that not that many people visit this “residential” island. Seeing their village and way of life in a natural setting was most interesting.

Anytime you ask if you may take a photo of someone, they say, "One dollar." When they asked for a cookie for a child in a dugout canoe, I replied, "One dollar." At first the mother looked at me strangely and then she started laughing. So we all laughed together and I took the photo!

The structure at the end of the dock is the toilet.
They bathe in another area of the sea.
The islands were very clean and did not smell of garbage or human waste. We learned about their “public works” system. The community toilets are small huts on stilts that are out over the water. That means don’t swim off your boat in that area! They bath in another area of the beach away from the toilet. Drinking water is collected from the rain and the guide books advise against consuming it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The San Blas Islands – Losing Our Way

Kuna Indian women coming to sell their molas
We crossed the finish line outside of the San Blas Islands at 0718 on January 18th. Unfortunately for us, our chart plotter was not showing the details of the area. Initially I thought I had failed to purchase the correct chip. I recalled looking at the coverage area on the South America and Brazil chart chip and seeing the Panama Canal. When it did not show details, I concluded that I should have purchased the Central America chip. 

As a result, we used the iPad Navionics app and old fashion paper charts to guide us through the islands to an anchorage. At times it was tense as we were not sure where we were going and what obstacles were in our way. We desperately wanted to avoid Sail Rock which has taken out many a sail boat!

And beads. At  least they don't haggle with you!
Without the detailed Navionics electronic charts (which Noonsite claims are inaccurate by 100-200 yards – a big issue!), we actually anchored a long way from the island we were trying to reach. We needed to check in at Porvenier but discovered later that we were anchored in front of Palm Island (actually there are many islands there named Palm!).

Before we were even anchored, the Kuna Indian ladies arrived in their dugout canoes filled with handmade items for sale. They were selling lovely molas and strings of beads that they wrap around their arms and legs like bracelets. Their native dress was very colorful and accessorized with beading. One of them wanted to board the boat, but Vicky and I decided we might have trouble getting her to leave so we declined her offer to bring the goods on board!

Then the young men come by selling fish and lobsters. These two only had two lobsters so we bought them for a grand total of $10 USD. I sauteed them and managed to feed five people! 

The dugouts were most interesting. First they were very large and looked to be extremely heavy. They are truly dug out trees and the sides are several inches thick. Everyone seems to have a canoe of some type. Even young boys will paddle up in a smaller one.

As for the ladies, one woman paddles in the front and one at the back, usually with a small child in the middle with the wares. I think the child’s presence is two-fold: 1) you can’t leave her home alone and 2) sailors have a hard time resisting the cute shy smiles of the little ones. After our purchases, we gave them some Jolly Rancher candies. The little girl did not waste any time trying it.