January 01, 2011
Knowing the propensity of Panamanians to set off fireworks when given the least excuse, we were determined to have a prime view of the city skyline from the anchorage at Las Brisas on New Year’s Eve, and the fine citizens of Panama did not disappoint. We may have seen displays with more original, intriguing, or individually larger fireworks but for sheer longevity, numbers, and geographical dissemination (ahead of us along a large swath of the mainland and behind us on the Perico and Flamenco Islands), the hours each side of the midnight transition from 2010 to 2011 in Panama City were, in our experience, unparalleled.
The display at the Figali Convention Center (at the start of the Amador causeway) alone lasted for well over an hour and the only disappointment was that with little wind the accumulated clouds of smoke soon started to obscure the lower-altitude rockets. Perhaps symbolic of the year ahead of us which we anticipate will have many months of Randall and me sailing long distances by ourselves, we greeted the New Year on Tregoning on our own. But we were not lonely in the Las Brisas anchorage as we were surrounded by many other cruisers in their cockpits watching and hearing the pyrotechnic celebrations. There were cheers and horns sounded as midnight passed and several captains took advantage of the general hubbub to test a few expired flares (aimed with great caution to ensure than no smoldering remains landed on any boats). Spending New Year’s Eve celebrating alone after a trip to the Albrook Mall to buy a new flat-screen TV (having given up the expense of trying to get our old one fixed) provided quite a contrast to Christmas Day when we had been surrounded by the peace and natural splendor at Isla Espiritu Santo and shared the festivities with Martha, Debby, and Greg.
Our visit to Las Perlas had started on Tuesday (December 21st) with a fabulous sail from Las Brisas to Mogo Mogo in 10 – 15 knot northerly winds and calm seas. Randall hooked some fish but they were either returned (the not-very-appetizing Mexican tunny), cut themselves free (taking the lure with them), or broke off a hook. The latter occurred as we approached the narrow channel between Islas Mogo Mogo and Chapera and just as a 25 knot squall suddenly kicked up at the leading edge of a rain shower. It made for a few exciting minutes as Randall tried to deal with the hooked fish and I tried to spill wind out of the sails and avoid approaching the islands too quickly or closely.
Once we safely arrived at the Chapera anchorage we were a bit disappointed to see that the wind was now approaching from a more northeasterly direction making that site untenable so we motored north to Contadora where we anchored on the south side close to Sweet Dreams. Debby and Greg had made the crossing the day before with poor winds so our decision to wait a day had been a good one. The next morning in a light northerly wind, we had a jib-only race between the two Morgans from Contadora back to Chapera. Given that Sweet Dreams was towing their dinghy (with the outboard down), that we managed to steal some of their wind (while trying not to push them onto the shallows north of Chapera), and that we have a larger jib, it was not entirely surprising that we (just) won the race. It was a lovely, gentle, down-wind run and for a while, both Greg and I were holding out our jibs with boat hooks.
After everyone enjoyed a pleasant snorkel off the beach on the southeast side of Chapera, we pulled anchor raised all our sails and set off for Isla Espiritu Santo. This time Sweet Dreams won handily. Greg with his whisker-pole was able to fly his mainsail and jib on opposite sides of the boat (wing-and-wing) and he was able to use his mizzen sail (on the aft of his two masts). We did not try to set-up our bamboo whisker pole but conceded the race and followed their lead while gybing gently between broad reaches. We did win the fishing contest, however, with two Sierra mackerel that were featured that night for dinner.
Having heard of years when there might be 15 boats crowding the sheltered anchorage over Christmas, we were relieved to find only two others there when we arrived. A few more boats arrived as the weekend approached, including Terry (the undressed) and Liz on Ohhh Baby, but it was not crowded and everyone was able find a good position sheltered from the stiff northerly breezes. It was beautiful and sunny most of the time, with clear, star-filled night skies so Randall and I kept thinking how unlucky “Poor Sue” had been during her brief, rain-soaked visit earlier in the month. We snorkeled once more on Christmas Eve at our favorite beach on the northeast side of Espiritu Santo. The visibility was not very good and a strong current was running so we cut that short and instead enjoyed lazing and exploring on the beautiful beach. The spring tide was so exceptionally low that small heads of coral were briefly exposed at the water’s edge.
Given the fabulous weather and sailing, Martha’s visit was only slightly marred by her catching a cold but it was a mild one and amazingly Randall and I managed to avoid it. Debby, however, was not as lucky, having started to feel achy and chilled when they were at Contadora and becoming exhausted after our snorkel at Chapera. Consequently we did not see much of her, other than one brief wander on a beach by the anchorage, until Christmas Day when she nobly came over to Tregoning with Greg, having cooked the turkey, stuffing, and gravy. She even managed to join in a cut-throat game of Mexican-train dominoes but this excitement almost finished her off and we sent them back to Sweet Dreams with a pile of left-overs from the turkey and trimmings. Several people at the Las Brisas anchorage had complained of a similar ailment that seems likely to be the ‘flu so Randall and I hoped that the ‘flu shots we got in July would protect us.
Christmas on Tregoning was celebrated with due regard for decorations (many colored LED lights and a small decorated tree) and, of course, Randall’s overwhelming collection of seasonal music. Santa managed to find us to fill our stockings with some tasty treats and there was a modest collection of gifts (and IOU notes) under the tree. I also received several Kindle e-books (Martha having just delivered my birthday-present Kindle) but I had to wait until we got back to the City to download them, having been thwarted by a lack of WiFi access just before we left for Las Perlas. All in all we had a lovely day and it was great to share our feast (including a Cross and Blackwell traditional Christmas pudding with a citrusy St Clements sauce) with such amiable guests as Greg and Debby.
After such comfortable days in the islands (aware that much of the eastern USA and Western Europe were in the throes of one of the coldest, snowiest Decembers on record), we looked at the weather forecast and decided to scoot back to Panama City on Boxing Day (Dec 26th). Even though we motored all day directly into the wind through rather lumpy seas, we made the right decision because the following day brought steady 20-25 knot winds with 30 knot gusts and 10 foot waves were predicted for the Bay of Panama. Instead, we stayed on the boat and played yet more dominoes and Uno, for both of which Randall was enjoying a run of disgustingly good luck. The only disappointment of the day was that we had intended to go into Casco Viejo where Martha was going to treat us to dinner at Manolo Caracol, our favorite restaurant. Our enthusiasm had been further stimulated by my brother Michael reporting that The Times newspaper in Britain had featured this restaurant in an article on Panama. However, by late afternoon it was still sufficiently windy and choppy, and enough other boats had been dragging their anchors that we decided not to venture ashore.
Martha flew back to California on Tuesday afternoon and we spent the rest of the week trying out new patches on the dinghy (why not finish the year as it started?) catching up with laundry, getting WiFi access and, as mentioned before, getting a new TV so that we could quickly catch up with Randall’s backlog of seasonal DVDs. With several of our friends now on the Caribbean side the New Year promises to be a bit quieter and less hectic than the end of the old one. Other than helping Greg if he decides to transit the canal in January, we are looking forward to a month of steadily getting us and Tregoning ready for our February departure for the Galapagos Islands and our subsequent voyages to Hawaii and Alaska.
With the change of year, I will add photos to the most recent entries on this blog and then I’ll start a new blog for our new adventures. I hope that you will follow the blog transition to “Panama to the Galapagos 2011” (remember that you may need to send in a new request for email updates if you enjoy those). We are excited about the ambitious year of Pacific Ocean sailing ahead of us and wish everyone happiness, good health, and prosperity in 2011.
December 19, 2010
During the last week we gathered that the weather had been pretty cold or disturbed all along the western coast of the North Atlantic, with very cold weather in the eastern USA and stormy conditions through the Caribbean. Not only was the rainfall in Central Panama so high that the Panama Canal had to be closed for a day (just as Sea Parents was about to cross) but people died in Portobello and in the Darien as a result of flooding and landslides. One carriageway of the road at the east end of the relatively new Centennial bridge over the Panama Canal collapsed, which subsequently caused traffic chaos with a doubling of the number of vehicles at the Bridge of the Americas in Panama City (the only other permanent bridge over the canal). And all of this in a country used to very wet periods.
It took several days for the backlog of vessels to be dealt with on The Canal so Sea Parents were stalled from a Saturday transit to Sunday. Although Troy and Brady were anxious to get going, none of us was too sorry not to be crossing when the winds were constantly 20 knots with gusts up to 30 knots. Although these are not alarmingly strong winds, about four days of them without much rest becomes tiring at anchor especially when you are reluctant the leave the boat for fear someone will drag into you. During this time we got to meet some new neighbors (who we were glad had held firm on their anchor just upwind of us), a British couple, Dave and Kathy, on a 50ft wooden boat with another British couple for crew. Kathy had worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and they had been conducting sea-bird surveys during their passage through the eastern Caribbean so we were fascinated with their stories.
Finally, the weather looked pretty good for a few days and Sea Parents were told to meet their advisor at 7:30 am on Sunday so Randall, Mike (from “This side up”), and I joined them, leaving Greg to keep an eye on our boats at anchor. After picking up Advisor Roy, we slowly motored up the channel to the first locks where we tied up to the side of a day-trip sight-seeing boat. Behind us was a luxury, motor-catamaran which appeared to carry about 50 people on cruises around Panama. And that was it, just us and no big ship. We were the last up-lockage of the morning and everything went very smoothly. One of our stern lines missed the crew member on the tour-boat so we re-threw it to a rather surprised passenger who then passed it to the crew member but we considered that it made a good story for the passenger. The second throw was made quickly before our stern could swing too far away (á la Tuwawi) but it turned out that with twin engines, the stern of Troy’s catamaran could have easily been motored back alongside the tour-boat.
The twin engines gave Troy great maneuverability in the locks but were not very powerful, so our transit into the wind to get across the lake to Gatun locks took several hours. We did not arrive at the moorings until 5 pm and by then our advisor although cheerful was ready to go home. Somewhat to our surprise, we were not scheduled to go down until the next day so we needed to be safe on the mooring for the night. Unfortunately, the cruise-boat catamaran had tied up between the two moorings and had put out a forward anchor so we were in jeopardy of swinging into it during the night. After repeated requests to see the Captain, a grumpy man came to talk to Troy and said that he was where his pilot had told him to stay (despite the fact that all our advisors had said that a boat of that size should have anchored instead). The lake is 80 ft deep with many old tree stumps underwater so it is not a good place for small yachts to try to anchor. In his frustration, Troy said that he was going to call the Canal Authorities to complain and he proceeded to call on the radio and then by phone. Almost immediately, the cruise-boat moved away and anchored elsewhere, and shortly afterwards another sailboat appeared and tied up to the vacated mooring, safely away from us. The catamaran probably moved on seeing the other sailboat approach but we hoped that we would not have to lock-down next to them the following day.
All of Monday morning we awaited news of when we would go down and the arrival time of our advisors kept getting pushed back. We watched with some frustration as several ships that looked short enough for us to share the locks with them went ahead. We played Pictionary and numerous other games with the girls, who taught me at least three new card games. In the end the advisors arrived at 5 pm and it was the two Francisco’s. The younger one had briefly been on Sea Parents on Wednesday morning (before The Canal was closed) so he was happy to be back (he was a tug-boat captain, training to become an advisor…although he only looked about 17). The other Francisco was the first advisor we had had for our up-lockage on Tregoning back in January although he clearly did not recognize Randall with his Christmas beard.
We were finally given the go-ahead in the last down-lockage of the day, learning that we could not go with the preceding ships as they were carrying dangerous cargoes (fuel, chemicals, explosives, etc.). Our descent went very smoothly and we were center-chamber in front of two tugs and a grain-hauling ship. This meant that all four line-handlers had to work their lines but it was relatively easy once our heavy lines had been attached to the monkey-fisted, light lines that the shore-side line-handlers threw to us. My only problem was that I needed help to cleat off my line in the very last chamber when the two tugs came particularly close and were throwing a huge wake at my stern side of Sea Parents causing more tension on my line than I could hold. Otherwise it was fairly simple to ease the lines out as the water level fell and to pull the lines back and forth as the shore-side line-handlers walked from one chamber to the next.
It was dark and rained on and off throughout our descent and by the time we reached the bottom the wind was howling around 30 knots straight towards us. With good-sized chop building up in the harbor it was very slow progress to get to the Flats anchorage to drop off the advisors. It then took over an hour to beat around the north side of Colón to get to the small anchorage near Club Nautico where Troy wanted to drop-off us and his rented lines. When we arrived we found that the small area that was sheltered by a mini-breakwater and could comfortably hold four or five boats already had nine sailboats and two tugs in it. After much debate, Troy anchored on the outside edge of the group just in front of the tugs and right on the edge of the marked channel to the cruise-ship terminal. If the wind stayed blowing the same direction all night we would be fine but if it changed much or stopped there was a risk we would swing into the channel and would have to move.
It was just after 9 pm by the time we anchored and everyone was exhausted so we all soon went to bed. The full transit had taken more than 36 hours. Troy did not get much sleep as the wind and waves pounded all night and one of the tugs, whose anchor was very close to us, moved with much commotion but luckily all was well by morning. In the morning light we could see the inner side of the main harbor breakwater about a mile away and waves were regularly breaking over it (not just up against it but over it) so Sea Parents had no plans to leave Colón until that settled down.
We had not expected to spend a second night onboard but even if we had been able to catch the last bus to Panama City at 10 pm there would have been no way to get back to our boats without calling Danny to pick us up at mid-night. Thus, we got the 7:30 am bus on Tuesday and arrived back at the anchorage around 10 am. Mike was fully relaxed about our delayed return but time was a bit more pressing for Randall and me as we had to move Tregoning from the anchorage to La Playita marina for a couple of nights, do laundry, and get the boat tidied up before Martha arrived that evening. We were also expecting to turn around and the three of us join Greg and Debby who were to be assisting Danny for his transit on Paula Jean. He was planning to leave early on Wednesday morning.
Luckily for us, Danny did not want to cross while the winds were so strong so he delayed his transit until Friday. He had got other two people who were interested in line-handling if Randall and I had had enough but Martha seemed keen of the opportunity to make the passage with us. As it was, I was thwarted by a lack of water when I tried to use the laundry facilities on Tuesday afternoon so I had to quickly hand-wash the sheets and towels for Martha and let them flap dry without any sun on the boat. But the necessary things were done in time and since Martha’s flight was an hour late, I was actually starting to worry that she and Randall (who had gone with Alberto to meet her at the airport) had been locked out of the marina by the time they eventually arrived.
We enjoyed our couple of nights in the La Playita marina (filled up with water, charged the batteries, enjoyed using toilets without pumps, and indoor showers) and then returned to the anchorage on Thursday afternoon. At $1.50 a foot (plus electricity) it was not too expensive although we did have to pay $25 for a quarantine inspection (the leaves on our one house-plant were inspected for insects) because we were tied up to the shore and not at anchor. Randall and Martha visited the Miraflores Locks and Casco Viejo while I got the rest of the laundry done and worked on various baking projects.
On Friday (Dec 17th) Danny picked us up at the civilized hour of 7 am and we met our advisors at the mouth of the Canal channel an hour or so later. I thought that his Catalina 42 would seem a bit crowded with the three of us, Greg and Debby, Danny, and two advisors but we were all comfortable and for a change the weather was absolutely perfect. One of the advisors was Francisco on his second advisor-in-training transit (having had his first with us and Sea Parents at the Gatun locks) and the other, Edwin, was also very relaxed and friendly.
We went through the up-locks behind three power-boats including a small training ship that gives Panamanians from other parts of the county a brief tour of The Canal. We were center-chamber with Randall and I on the bow lines and everything went very smoothly. There was a strong head-wind so we were rather slow in getting to the locks and across the lake to Gatun but it was a most enjoyable day and we did not have to drive any over-sized boats away from the moorings.
After a peaceful night we waited until 11 am for our new advisors who were Ruben (who just sat and read his book trying to be inconspicuous but ready in case a problem arose) and Francisco who was fully in charge on his third and final transit as advisor-in-training. He did an excellent job but was, understandably much more serious and focused than before during our center-chamber descent in front of a huge bulk-cargo ship. The rain almost held off until we were out of the last chamber but apart from that it was the smoothest and most pleasant conditions we had experienced during our four transits. Going center-chamber may have entailed more work overall for the line-handlers but we found that it was generally much less stressful than being dependent upon tying up to another vessel.
After bidding Danny a fond farewell at Club Nautico (from which we think Sea Parents and most of the rest of the crowd had left on Friday) we had a very straightforward trip back to Las Brisas by bus and taxi where we found all was well on our boats. So having had to listen to all our stories of near disasters or unpleasant, drawn-out conditions on our previous transits, Danny had the smoothest and most relaxed crossing of all, and Martha had a wonderful experience that few visitors to Panama can enjoy without great expense.
Having stocked-up at the grocery store on Sunday afternoon, the winds look promising for a sail out to Las Perlas tomorrow (Tuesday). Greg and Debby will be there also so we are looking forward to a more peaceful spell over the holiday weekend. We will return to Panama City in time for New Year (when we expect to see lots of fireworks) as Martha’s return flight is on Dec 28th. We really hope that the weather is better for Martha’s trip to Las Perlas than it was for Sue’s visit. So far, it has been pretty good with some stiff winds but also some sunny skies.
Once in Las Perlas our blog and internet access will be limited. So if I do not manage another blog entry before Dec 25th…and especially if my Christmas emails end up being sent after the event…let us wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, or other Jolly Holidays, and a Happy New Year!
December 09, 2010
Those of us who spent the family summer holidays of their childhood camping or caravanning in Britain were used to the years when it seemed to rain every day. Apart from a few soggy walks or sight-seeing tours, the rest of the vacation, in those pre-DVD days, consisted of trying to stay entertained with reading and board or card games. Such early training was probably pivotal in allowing our guest, Sue, to not only tolerate the conditions during her week-long stay with us but even enabled her to focus on the positive events in each day, even if it was only a window of a couple of hours in which we could escape the boat when it was not pouring with rain.
And rain it did. There had been heavy showers during the day when Sue and I visited Casco Viejo and Miraflores and during our rather boring day of motoring into a headwind from Las Brisas to Isla Pedro Gonzales (when did not even see one dolphin or whale). On Wednesday morning (December 1st), Sue and I decided to make the most of the low tide and absence of rain and rowed ashore to walk along the beach near the abandoned archeological dig. Because of the rain, there were numerous streams flowing onto the beach, eroding away the top layer of sand and exposing the most amazing layer of shells. We had found good shells in this area before but nothing compared to the dazzling collection now before us. It was very hard not to pick-up every one that was large, complete, or unusual but I managed to constrain myself to a select few.
As we reached the far western end of the beach we could see a waterfall tumbling over the rocks just ahead. We scrambled over to where it spilled over a ledge about 15 ft above us and after establishing that it did not seem to be the sewage outflow of an unseen house above, we each enjoyed a refreshing shower. We eventually returned to the dinghy and although we still wanted to follow the trails inland and up the hill, we felt a bit guilty about leaving Randall on Tregoning trying to solve an intermittent electrical problem that had put Sue’s reading light and our bedroom fans out of action. So we rowed back to see if he wanted to join us only to find that he was no closer to a resolution but was going to rig-up an alternative power supply for one of our fans as this was essential when the hatches has to be kept closed all night because of rain.
We never did get back to shore however, because once the rain started at lunchtime it hardly stopped for about 20 hours. I snorkeled under the boat for a couple of hours to start knocking barnacles off (we had grown quite an abundant population at Las Brisas) but I had to give up when muddy water from the main stream by the archeological dig surrounded Tregoning and reduced the visibility to nothing. We then got out the games and taught Sue Mexican Train dominoes which kept us entertained for several hours.
Our rainless window was almost identical on Thursday so we quickly put the outboard on the dinghy and went out to the nearby headland to go snorkeling. The visibility was not very good but there were a few fish and Sue got a couple of excellent close-up photos of a Cortez angel fish and a giant damselfish. Randall and I noticed the absence of any of the whale song we had heard on our previous visit. Back in the dinghy, we bounced our way over to the trench area where we had drifted over so many fish with Tom and Rosie, but the sky was darkening, the wind was increasing, the rain was starting, and Sue and I were getting cold so we abandoned the effort as we would not see very far in the dimming light and rising tide. Just like the day before, the rain then continued for the rest of the day and most of the night, Randall and I busted more barnacles, and we played more dominoes. But Sue was a very good sport and was thankful that we had at least got our beach walk with the bonus waterfall, and had seen some interesting Pacific fish.
We had anticipated that our return to Panama City on Friday would start with some fairly lively close-hauled sailing in the predicted 15 – 20 kt westerly winds. With the wind expected to come around to be on the nose in the afternoon, we left the anchorage as soon as we got up. However, while the wind speeds were as predicted, the direction was not helpful and we found ourselves pounding directly into the wind and waves from the very start. We felt terrible that Sue was not going to get a chance to sail on this trip but we all agreed that we might was well motor back to Las Brisas as directly as possible rather than trying to tack back and forth into the wind knowing that we would then arrive well after dark. It was slow going at first but eventually the wind dropped a bit and the waves calmed down as the fetch across the bay was reduced. One dolphin obligingly showed itself but only briefly and we saw no whales. The sky stayed resolutely grey and we passed in and out of showers until the evening when we actually saw the sunset for the first time in days.
Finally, Saturday was a sunny day and the wind had dropped. We had debated about sailing to Taboga and exploring the island but the wind was now insufficient and Sue, who had now developed a cold on top of everything else, did not want to have to motor there. Instead we organized an expedition to climb Ancon Hill, a steep-sided volcanic mount which overlooks Panama City. We were joined by Greg, Deborah, and Danny, walking up the narrow road from where the bus dropped us at the bottom. Although it is only 680 ft high, the top of the hill has amazing views out over the Amador causeway and our anchorage, Casco Viejo, the main city, and along The Canal. There were a few other walkers but most visitors arrived by car or taxi. Despite our (rather pessimistic) guidebook warning that there were sometimes robberies up there, it was comfortably busy on a Saturday morning and we even saw a few interesting birds and some Geoffroy’s tamarins in the dense road-side vegetation.
The weather managed to stay bright until after Sue’s departure on Sunday morning so she at least was able to get ashore to meet Alberto without getting soaked. We had thoroughly enjoyed her visit and her positive attitude despite her cold and the uncooperative weather. We certainly hope that Martha is much luckier when she arrives in mid-December for two weeks.
In the meantime, our more immediate weather concerns were that strong winds were predicted to whistle over the isthmus for most of the following week during which time we were scheduled to help Troy and Brady make their Panama Canal transit. On returning to Las Brisas, we were told that the small sailboat, Pancho, which had been anchored near us had dragged over towards Sea Parents so Troy and Danny had moved it well beyond the other boats in the anchorage and had set its small anchor there. With 20 – 25 kt winds on both Monday and Tuesday afternoons we were all keeping an eye out for dragging boats. Sure enough during a particularly strong gust on Tuesday a catamaran next to us suddenly moved back towards Paula Jean, and Pancho started bearing down on Sweet Dreams. Luckily, the owner was aboard the catamaran so he pulled anchor and motored further upwind out of everyone’s way.
Greg and Deborah were not so lucky and although they avoided being hit their anchor rode became caught on the stern of Pancho. So in the howling wind and rain, Greg had to go and untangle his line while Deborah tried to motor Sweet Dreams out of the little boat’s path through the anchorage. Pancho threatened to collide with at least two other boats until a kindly powerboat owner towed her over to one of the large moored barges and tied her up there. Pancho’s owner had briefly appeared on Sunday. He had studied his anchor for a while and had thanked Greg for helping to save his boat the first time but who knows how long until he returns to discover where it is now.
In this sloppy chaos, we had to lift our outboard and dinghy onto the decks in preparation for leaving Tregoning for one or two nights while we made the Canal transit with Sea Parents. The dinghy was losing air fast enough that when we raised it out of the water on the spare halyard for the night, it was almost folded in half by morning. But after the escapades with dragging boats and having studied the weather charts that showed even stronger winds predicted for Thursday, Randall and Greg were both becoming less comfortable with the idea of us leaving Greg to keep an eye on Tregoning while we were gone. So it was decided that, with Troy’s approval, Deborah would go with me allowing Randall and Greg to stay on our boats. Troy was clearly a bit concerned about having enough muscle if it was windy in the locks but he understood our position. So Deborah and I spent the night on Sea Parents in the La Playita marina and were awoken early on Wednesday morning to get ready for our 5:30 am pick-up of the advisors just outside the Canal entrance.
José (the fourth line-handler to join me, Deborah, and Brady) arrived a bit late on Wednesday but Troy had given him an earlier time than necessary having anticipated this. So in the steady rain that had persisted throughout the night, we motored out of the slip and anchored as instructed next to channel marker number four. The advisor’s boat did not appear until around 6:30 am and instead of one person we got two. But they were friendly and cheerful so we hoisted the anchor and started to slowly head towards the channel, thankful to be on our way at last.
We learned that we were to follow a car transporter named Pyxis and we slowly edged forward alongside the channel while the massive, box-like vessel cruised past us. Then just as we were ready to take our place, our advisor was instructed that we had to turn around and return to where we had anchored. For a while, there was some confusion as to whether our transit was just delayed or cancelled and even after our advisors were picked-up we were told to wait on stand-by, as it appeared were all the ships, not just us. Eventually we saw Pyxis returning to her anchorage (we assume that she went up to the container-port basin to turn around) and we were finally told our transit had been cancelled and Troy would need to contact the schedulers to book another date.
During our wait, the inevitable game of dominoes had been started and in the end there was perhaps some relief that we would not have to worry about the wind and rain affecting our transit. Sea Parents returned to the Las Brisas anchorage and Troy dropped Deborah and I back on our boats. It was a shame for José, for whom this was to have been his first transit, because his family had completely altered their Mother’s Day plans (the most important holiday in Panama) expecting him to be absent.
Troy and family were also obviously disappointed but with reports that ship traffic had been stopped at the Colón breakwater due to the high winds, it was perhaps just as well to be waiting in Panama City. Spiraling out from a depression over Colombia, these winds were funneling across the isthmus from the Caribbean like miniature Papagayo or Tehuantepec systems. (Winds from cold fronts in the Gulf of Mexico can become funneled in these low-elevation corridors across Central America to reach hurricane strength as they spill into the Pacific.) Since the wind was forecast to be stronger on Thursday night and Friday, Troy decided to postpone their next attempt until the weekend when conditions were supposed to calm down again.
We eventually heard that the cancellation of our transit was not just because they did not want to deal with a sailboat in windy conditions in the locks and lake. Instead the whole Canal was closed down for most of the day because there was so much water in Lake Gatun that needed to be dumped over the spillways near the locks, that the currents were too strong for safe passage of any ships, much less a low-powered sailboat. It was the first time that the Canal had been closed since the USA invasion to ouster General Noriega in December 1989. The first closure in 21 years and Sea Parents was right there!
November 30, 2010
Officially, November 30th is the last day of the north Atlantic / eastern Pacific hurricane season. It is with some disgust that we are enduring several days of grey skies, drizzle, and occasional downpours as a tropical depression is developing in the southwestern Caribbean Sea and is sucking humid air across the isthmus and directly over us. This would be annoying enough (and we realize that those in Britain and the Pacific Northwest are not exactly overwhelmed with sympathy here) but it has coincided with a week’s visit by our friend Sue from Jupiter. Since that is Jupiter, south Florida, at least she was not fleeing northern winter misery in search of tropical heat and light but Panama certainly does not look as inviting under a grey shroud.
Unmet expectations of weather can be surprisingly influential on one’s general disposition in both negative (as with these currently disappointing conditions) and positive ways. I anticipated only damp, gloom, and cold for my two week stay in Britain and so was absolutely thrilled by the two or three days of sunshine to which I was treated (in between days of unremitting damp, gloom, and cold). I gather from Jennie that a bitter, wintery blast overtook the country just after I left on Nov 22nd, so I am doubly thankful for my meteorological luck. After very enjoyable visits with assorted friends and relations, several good walks, and numerous delicious meals, I returned to find that both Randall and Tregoning were in good shape, having enjoyed a single-handed trip to Las Perlas and back. Sadly, the same could not be said for the dinghy and for a few days it sat limply on the bow while we borrowed a dinghy from the absent owners of “This side up”.
My return flight was uneventful once aboard the plane but after a 3:45 am taxi pick-up from Jennie’s house, I was disappointed to find that I had been left at the wrong terminal at Heathrow airport. The free train service between terminals did not start running for another hour (after my check-in time) so I had to pay even more than for my taxi from Harrow to get another taxi to the correct terminal. When I got there I was flabbergasted to find that I would not be allowed on the KLM flight to Panama City without proof of how I was going to leave Panama, which is difficult to provide for departure on a sailboat. In the end, barely containing my early morning irritation, I had to go to another airline’s desk and buy an expensive fully-refundable ticket from Panama City (I chose a Delta flight to Atlanta thinking that I was sure to be able to contact Delta easily) to be allowed to complete my check-in with KLM (it was lucky that I had not waited for the free train). Needless to say, the Panama Immigration officers were not remotely interested in knowing whether I had a departure ticket and when I cancelled the ticket and claimed my refund, I found on my credit card a non-refundable administrative fee that I have been assured would not be charged.
Once back on board Tregoning, there was not much time to complete my laundry, stock up on food, and clean the guest quarters, etc., before Sue’s arrival on Nov 28th (Randall had nobly cleaned up the rest of the boat in preparation for my return). But within the week we were able to get these chores done and with cruisers and guests from several nations, we joined in a celebration of the American Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday Nov 25th. The traditional feast was organized by Donna, Brady, and others, working with our favorite pizza restaurant such that we paid $8 per person for turkey, potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, and some fruit pies, while the rest of the dressings, appetizers, side-dishes, and desserts, were contributed by the 35 (or so) attendees. We invited Alberto, our taxi-driver friend, who came with his wife, his 18-month-old granddaughter and Alberto’s friend. Predictably, the little girl stole the show and once she had eaten an impressive amount of food, she was much exercised and entertained by the energetic young girls from Sea Parents and Blue Sky.
The Panamanian holidays also continued in November with a second Independence Day (this time to celebrate independence from Spain) on Nov 28th. Being on a Sunday, businesses were closed for this holiday on Monday but luckily for Sue and me the tourist spots such as Casco Viejo and the Miraflores Locks were open and happy to receive visitors. The big Mother’s Day holiday when people come from all over Central and South America to go shopping in Panama City is still to come on December 8th but we are taking our own little vacation first with a brief excursion to Las Perlas for a few days with Sue. We hope that we can enjoy some good snorkeling and show her a few of the islands during her brief stay and we plan some rest and relaxation (oh, yes, and cleaning the rampant growth of algae and barnacles from the hull) before we return to Panama City to track down a new dinghy and prepare for Christmas. With Thanksgiving over, the moratorium on Christmas music has been reluctantly lifted (the beginning of December seems a much more respectable start date). The I-Pod’s random-play of Randall’s jaw-achingly (to steal an apt phrase from nephew Roger) large collection of Christmas tunes is in full swing. So we are being cheerfully entertained even if…” the weather outside is frightful…”
November 16, 2010
More details later but all is going very well with my flying visit to Britain where the weather has been generally cold but with some lovely sunny days. I have really enjoyed seeing family and friends including some excellent walks and meals. Having been to Grange-over-Sands, Wakefield, Durham, and Glasgow, tomorrow, Mike and I will drive south to visit friends and relations in the Cotswolds, Taunton, near Exeter, and London. I return to Panama on Monday.
Meanwhile, Randall has been busy (for example, the freshwater pump on the boat died just after I left) and has been trying a bit of single-handed sailing. He has gone out to Las Perlas to join Sweet Dreams, Sea Parents, and Paula Jean (amongst others) at Isla Pedro Gonzales. I am really looking forward to seeing him when I get back…I hope that he will make it back to Panama City in time…
November 07, 2010
While the volume of commercial shipping traffic through the Panama Canal is probably fairly constant all year, the same cannot be said for private yachts. Most transits from the Caribbean to the Pacific occur between December and March as cruisers prepare for passages into the South Pacific at the end of the cyclone season. Fewer and less-seasonal transits are made in the other direction but anyone planning to sail north into the Caribbean after the hurricane season ends there will likely pass through during November. Such was the case for our Canadian friends, Tom, Kim, Dorian, and Lauren on the 66 ft sailing boat, Tuwawi who were heading from the Sea of Cortez to the British Virgin Islands.
After enjoying our own transit, we had been hoping for an opportunity to be line-handlers on someone else’s boat going towards the Caribbean but we had not heard of any requests for assistance. Tom and Kim had arranged for Greg, Deborah, and the Sea Parents family to help them (Tuwawi had plenty of room for everyone) with the intended day of transit being Tuesday (November 2nd). However, when their actual transit date was set for the following day, Troy and Brady could not go because Troy’s sister was flying-in for two weeks’ of vacation and she might not have been amused had no one been available to meet her. So at the last minute, we were happy to be substitutes despite the early start at 5 am.
Not only were we looking forward to a transit where we did not have to worry about the safely of our own boat but we were curious to see the spacious accommodations aboard such an impressive and fast yacht as Tuwawi. We were also glad to have the opportunity to get to know Deborah who had just joined Greg as highly anticipated “crew”. There was an element of high-schoolish teasing and curiosity throughout the anchorage prior to Deborah’s arrival, stimulated by Greg’s infectious excitement about the prospect of being joined by someone with good crewing experience with whom he had enjoyed many weeks of Skype and email interaction. Raised in the USA, Deborah had lived in Britain for 30 years so I particularly looked forward to meeting someone with almost a mirror-image life-story to my own in terms of national allegiances. We were all thrilled to find that all our high expectations were fulfilled and Deborah withstood the scrutiny and bluster of the inquisitive crowd at her first Pizza Night with confident grace and charm.
Unfortunately, the dock-side disco that pounded out its tunes for most of the post Pizza-Night, pre-Panamanian-Independence-Day night, kept awaking Greg and Deborah into the early hours so that by 5 am when Tuwawi called us on the VHF with our embarkation instructions there were no signs of life on Sweet Dreams. The plan was for us to all go ashore in Greg’s dinghy where Tom would pick us up in his dinghy before cruising Tuwawi out to meet the pilot at 5:30 am. Despite repeated call on the radio and much flashing of lights from Tregoning onto Sweet Dreams there was no response. So a remarkably unruffled Tom came to pick us up and we roused Greg (who had accidentally turned off his alarm during the disturbed night), telling him to be ready at the dock as soon as possible. Randall took Tom’s dinghy to the dock while we raised Tuwawi’s anchor and motored her as close as possible in preparation to bolt as soon as everyone, and Tom’s dinghy were aboard. This revised plan unfolded smoothly and with me on the Tuwawi’s bow to look out for moorings, unlit fishing boats, and breakwaters in the dark, we got to experience Tom’s focused but calm Captaincy and the boat’s impressive speed under power.
Having being measured as over 65 ft in length, Tuwawi was required to carry a ship’s pilot for the transit not one of the advisors as we had been assigned. Used to taking the control of the large commercial ships, these pilots may only work aboard a yacht once or twice a year and we noticed a rather less sociable and more business-focused attitude than we had previously experienced. Even though Tom had been required to pay $160 extra to rent an AIS (automatic identification system) transmitter for the transit, the pilot did not bring one which seemed a bit annoying given that it was unlikely that Tom would be offered a refund. Other than this, and despite being a few minutes late in our rendezvous with the pilot boat, all seemed to go well in our approach to the Miraflores especially for Randall who was enjoying being at the helm of such a large, powerful boat.
During our final approach to the locks we were sandwiched between the huge container ship, Lisbon Trader, with which we would share all of our lock chambers passages and a massive oil tanker that was waiting behind us to enter the adjacent chamber. There is something rather exhilarating about being in such close proximity to these large ocean-going vessels as they are being confined from the freedom of the open sea into the straightjacket of the locks.
We were the third and final boat to follow the container ship into the chamber, with a tug being tied to the lock wall, a small Panamanian Navy boat P207, also called 28 de Noviembre (the date of independence from Spain), tied to the tug, and Tuwawi tied to the Navy boat. In each of the three up-locks (two at Miraflores and one at Pedro Miguel), Tom’s expert helmsmanship slid us perfectly next to P207 such that we could just pass our lines to the waiting naval crew without so much as a toss. Bow and stern lines were attached directly from our boat to theirs and a pair of spring lines from the front of one boat to the stern of the other stopped us from surging backwards or forwards in the lock’s current or wake of the container ship.
As we passed from one chamber to another we had to quickly untie from our neighbor, and they from the tug. We moved forward as slowly as possible so that the tug had time to reposition itself on the wall in the next chamber and P207 could be secured to the tug before we arrived to complete the trio. With sunny weather and everything going so smoothly we were optimistic that it would be a short, cheerful transit and that we would be back on Tregoning that evening.
The tug left us as soon as we arrived in Gatun Lake but Tom moved Tuwawi along at a good pace so that we were not far behind the Navy boat by the time we approached the Gatun, down-locks. We saw the container ship we had followed but were disappointed to see that it was anchored and not moving forward into the locks. The pilot had warned us that we might not make a direct transit and he was correct. Instead we had to tie up on a mooring next to P207 and wait. And wait we did…for about 10 hours. Our pilot left us as soon as we moored and in the absence of anyone appearing intent on enforcing the rules, some of our crew jumped into the lake for a swim. We also played a painfully long, endurance game of Mexican-train dominoes.
Finally, around 9 pm we were given another pilot and we were permitted to slowly approach the locks and take our place in the confusing procession of lights scattered over the dark lake. This time the Navy boat was tied to the chamber wall with us alongside and the container ship was behind us. Although the locks were flood-lit, with few points of reference visible outside the locks it was not easy to judge the increasing speed of the cross-wind. Everything continued smoothly in the first two chambers but with the wind and strong forward current, it was becoming increasingly difficult to stop the stern of Tuwawi from swinging around a little between each chamber, causing her to move forward at an angle of almost 45 degrees to the lock walls instead of completely parallel.
Tom was able to cope with this expertly until the very last chamber into which we entered a little too fast. This alone would have been manageable but as we approached it became obvious that the Navy boat had tied up too far forward on the wall and had been instructed to move back. Thus, it was still moving and getting lines tied to the wall, with a propeller wash pushing Tuwawi further off a straight line, as we started to come alongside. Seeing that our stern was going to be much further away from P207 than before, I hurriedly gave my huge dock line to Randall (as we had previously planned) knowing that he had a much better chance of throwing it than I did. As Tom tried to position Tuwawi alongside P207 and the bow line was passed across, the wind caught the stern and quickly swung it further away. Randall made two heroic efforts to throw the heavy mooring line but he had no chance of success throwing into the wind. With Tuwawi held at the bow, suddenly the stern was almost at right-angles across the chamber desperately close to hitting the far wall.
The blinding clarity of hind-sight suggested that we should either have had another lighter line ready should such a long throw be needed, or we should have run the stern line up to the bow and had teams on both boats use brute strength to walk the line back to the stern while pulling it shorter. Instead, the alert crew on P207 threw us a small line of theirs which had a large monkey fist on it. Randall caught the first throw but could not get the line onto the rail or our larger line before he had to let go. Tom was trying everything he could with the engine to keep Tuwawi from swinging further around onto the lock gates just ahead of us but he had no room to maneuver. Dorian and Kim raced around with large fenders, bracing themselves to try to pad the boat’s inevitable impact with the far chamber wall or lock gate. The pilot had little to contribute as the action was rapidly unfolding except to respond to the pilot on the container ship who was asking whether they should stop proceeding towards us into the chamber.
Finally, a second throw of the monkey fist reached amidships on Tuwawi and we got it tied to the stern line which gave the navy crew enough line at their end to haul on. In the melee, it turned out that the stern line was now being pulled over the safety rail which might, or might not be able to take the strain but that had to become a secondary concern. As it was, the marvelous naval tug-of-war team, despite having to pull on a frighteningly thin line (the one with the monkey fist) managed to pull Tuwawi’s stern back towards them. In mid-pull, Randall and Tom were able to flip the heavy mooring line over the correct side of the safety rail, so even it was saved from damage and eventually we were tied alongside P207 and our final stage of descent could proceed.
Needless to say, everyone had been awash with adrenalin and the few electrifying minutes of action had thoroughly awoken us. despite how long the day had already seemed. I was not completely useless in all the excitement, getting down below the hauling men to tie and retie lines on the stern cleat as needed and passing along commands and requests from Tom and Randall. Tom did not hang around once the final gates were open and our lines cast off but after many heartfelt cries of thanks to the crew of P207, he motored us briskly away from the canal and out into the anchorage at The Flats in Colon harbor.
It was close to mid-night when he was finally satisfied that the anchor was holding and that we were not in jeopardy of swinging too close to anyone else. By this time the drama of the final chamber had been thoroughly reviewed and the disturbing proximity of sustaining serious damage by hitting the lock gates had been fully absorbed. Once the event had been sufficiently analyzed, it did not take long for most of us to fall into a sound and exhausted sleep
The next morning, Tuwawi pulled into Shelter Bay marina to unload the tires and return the mooring lines. As we approached the face-dock we noticed P207 nearby and gave the crew a hearty greeting and more thanks. After bidding Tom, Kim, Dorian, and Lauren good luck with their passage to the BVIs, Greg, Deborah, Randall, and I waited for the afternoon marina bus to take us to into Colon and we were quickly able to get a bus back to Panama City. It was late afternoon by the time we returned to the anchorage but we were relieved to find that all was well on our own boats after the unexpectedly long absence. And there is nothing quite like the feeling of appreciation that one’s own boat is safe after witnessing a near-disaster on someone else’s.
November 02, 2010
We had become so used to being anchored in such a relaxed and interesting place (by the islands at the end of the Amador causeway) that I sometimes had to remind myself that we were staying in a bustling capital city. Many people drive, bike, or walk out along the causeway at the weekends to enjoy the various restaurants, gift shops, and views of the canal traffic and all the anchored boats. With our morning VHF network and Tuesday night gatherings of cruisers at the pizza restaurant, it was easy to get a rather inflated view of the significance of our little cruising community. But every so often the city reminded us that we are just a few visiting boats occupied by the tiniest minority of people.
Next to the dinghy dock at Las Brisas de Amador there was a large barn-like building with fabric roof and sides. Since we had been here we had seen a couple of parties hosted there but mostly it sat open and was used as a shelter for the occasional repair boats or cars. We all watched with great interest one week as the place became a hive of activity with a stage and various other mysterious structures being erected. Rumor had it that there was going to be a massive Gay-Pride Halloween party. This sounded as though it would be a good spectacle and reminded us of the excellent Halloween parade Randall and I had seen two years previously in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Huge posters were hoisted announcing the American Fest Party Disco Scene (or something along those lines) and large inflatable beer bottles and assorted tents, tables, and fences were positioned around the building. The next thing we heard was that this was going to be a regular weekend disco with a $20 cover charge and all-you-can-drink all night long. That Thursday night (Oct 28th) a search-light swept high into the clouds from the parking-lot, we saw colored lights over the disco, and heard the music from about 9 pm until sometime in the wee hours. Friday night was much the same with the additional treat that I was briefly awoken by fireworks just after midnight. On Saturday night we passed by at 10 pm and saw that very few patrons had arrived yet but this time the music was still going strong when we got up and did not stop until 7 am on Sunday. As in Jamaica, it seemed that the music was deliberately aimed over the anchorage but in this case it was more likely that it was non-directional and just carried further over the water. Suddenly, despite the longer dinghy-rides to the dock, our strategy of anchoring at the outer edges of the anchorage was vindicated. While many people anchored closer to the disco were kept awake by it, we hardly heard it on Tregoning and certainly not below-decks when the hatches were closed because of rain.
The other reason why we tended to anchor further from the dinghy-dock at the head of the bay was to avoid the more crowded anchoring conditions there and reduce the risk of being hit if another boat dragged its anchor…or have less chance of collision if our anchor should drag. When we returned from Las Perlas we learned that another of the moorings near the dinghy dock had broken and a large, new catamaran island-ferry had drifted a considerable distance through the anchored boats and out towards Panama City where it was rescued before sustaining any damage. How it had not (that we knew of) rammed an anchored boat during its wanderings was almost incomprehensible.
Curiously, in two brief blows during a subsequent week, the two boats that ended up dragging their anchors were both out on the edge of the anchorage near us. In the first case, there were strong winds while many of us were ashore for cruisers’ Pizza Night. After a phone call was made to the restaurant saying that it looked as though a boat was dragging, someone from each crew went to the dock and peered out into the dark anchorage to see if they could identify their boats. Everyone (including Randall) came back satisfied that their boat was as they had left it and we enjoyed the rest of the evening waiting for the wind to subside. Eventually, Randal and I returned to Tregoning at the same time that Greg (Sweet Dreams) and Bill (Some Day) decided to leave. As we walked down to the dinghy dock the security guard told us in Spanish that a boat had moved and we soon realized that he was naming Bill’s boat. We sped out in our three dinghies and sure enough, Some Day had gone.
It must be the most sickening feeling and I had to admire Bill for how calm he managed to appear. The problem was that even though he had a flashing light on the boat (a surprising number of people in a busy anchorage do not use any anchoring lights) it was impossible to see his light against the backdrop of the nighttime city skyline. So while Randall and I returned to the security guard to ask for more details, Bill frantically looked around and Greg went and got a VHF radio to ask if anyone had seen the boat. After being told by the guard that the boat was safe but had gone a long way, we eventually found it just beyond the furthest anchored yachts. We later heard that a couple of cruisers who had been on their boats when Some Day drifted by (probably quite close to Tregoning) had gone aboard and let out more anchor chain which had stopped its dragging. In this case the wind was blowing away from the rocks of the causeway and Some Day could have gone a lot further before reaching shallow water in front of the city but it was still an understandably alarming experience for Bill. We were somewhat surprised when the next day he went back and anchored in exactly the same place from which he had dragged. We would have had to try somewhere different but his boat firmly stayed-put until he left for Costa Rica.
The other boat was less fortunate in its wayward course and during a brief squall that blew winds of more than 25 knots from the northeast during one Saturday morning, a large (> 60 ft) and elegant Panamanian ketch (supposedly built in the Darien) dragged onto the causeway rocks. At the time, we were aboard Tregoning keeping a wary eye on another boat that had been towed and anchored rather close to us (after dragging slightly elsewhere and lacking a functioning motor) but we heard a call of warning on the VHF radio and then saw the Darian boat near the rocks. After calling for other dinghies to help, Randall set off in the strong winds and nasty chop in our dinghy which had by this time sprung a leak from another seam and so was partly deflated. I stayed on Tregoning to make sure that neither we nor our neighbor moved while a flotilla of dinghies raced to the causeway. In the squall conditions, I half expected that Randall would need to be towed back to Tregoning when he tried to return upwind in our pathetic dinghy that had become essentially an inflatable surf-board but he kept going all right, albeit rather wetly.
Although the dinghies were able to keep its bow off the rocks, the stern of the Panamanian boat settled on the boulders as the tide went down. The waves were not big enough to move the large boat so when the owner (or captain) arrived, he asked everyone to leave it alone as it was more likely to be damaged by any attempt to grind it over the rocks. Instead he waited until the tide returned to the same stage (about six hours later) and they floated off without any obvious damage. When the tide was low, the boat did lean at a rather rakish angle towards the shore and a few cars stopped on the causeway to look at the rather sad spectacle. But the relaxed attitude of the owner and crew (who had been ashore when the anchor dragged and then nonchalantly cleaned the hull while it was exposed) suggested that this was not the first time that something like this had happened. I think that I would be pretty frantic if Tregoning ended up sitting on rocks like that but perhaps this is a good lesson in the value of staying calm and patient.
After Randall managed to get back to Tregoning without the need for assistance, yet another round of dinghy patching was initiated. During this time, there was one further boat incident that influenced the anchorage. We did not see the pivotal event but one day we noticed a large hull (maybe 150 ft long) floating upside-down near the ramp at Las Brisas. It turned out that a small cargo ship that delivered goods to Las Perlas had been poorly loaded with something very top-heavy. The excessive cargo had not been centered properly and as soon as the boat was untied from the dock it rolled over towards the over-weighted side and subsequently became fully inverted.
It is a sad sight to see any capsized boat and it took a major effort with several large cables, chains, and tractors to scrape it up the boat ramp and get it out of the water. But the worst effect for the rest of us was that enough diesel fuel leaked out to create a smelly, ugly, and unhealthy sheen on the water in the anchorage for several days. During that time, on incoming tides we noticed the pelicans and terns frantically feeding just ahead of the next wash of fuel, presumably where small fish had been driven by the incoming slick of tainted water. We even saw dolphins feeding throughout the anchorage (not an uncommon sight) and hoped that none of these predators would be sickened by the leaking fuel. By the time the fuel had been removed from the hull, we never saw any distressed birds or sea mammals but we were certainly tired of the fumes on our boats.
Other than the disco, the celebration of Halloween was not very evident in our part of Panama City. Randall and I joined Margaret and Mo on Saturday evening (Oct 30th) for a bus ride and walk into Casco Viejo (trusting in Margaret’s excellent navigation skills in the dark to keep us out of the dodgy areas nearby) to see the “Annual Zombie Walk”. We somewhat underestimated how long this parade would take to get from its starting point (allegedly leaving at 7 pm) to the heart of the old town where we were waiting. But more patient minds than mine prevailed in our group and after two and a half hours of wandering around the historic area, having cocktails, and enjoyable conversation we were rewarded by the arrival of a motely procession of about 100, student-looking “zombies” who appeared to be wending their way under some supervision from one bar to another. A few of the costumes were quite clever while others had the minimalist approach of just white face make-up with blackened eyes but they seemed to be having fun. We had perhaps expected a more diverse and traditional parade with music and banners and there was some muttering from the very few local spectators that they were just a bunch of spoiled, rich-kids who were being given a police escort and were allowed to disrupt traffic in the narrow streets. But it seemed fairly harmless to us and they all appeared good natured and to be having fun so it will be interesting to learn over the long-term whether this event (only in its fourth year) becomes more established or fizzles out.
On Halloween afternoon we were visited briefly for “Tricks-or-Treats” by costumed Brady, Troy and the girls (Samantha, Ashley, and Emily) as they rode their dinghy ashore to meet friends for the evening. Otherwise, we were ourselves condemned to eat the rest of Halloween candy we had bought. I saved a little for Randall’s birthday a couple of days later, incorporating it into a rhyming scavenger-hunt for little presents (or promises of presents) around the boat. Being on a Tuesday, his birthday was further feted by a rendition of “Happy Birthday” when he hosted the morning VHF radio net and at cruisers’ Pizza Night, for which I had made a large chocolate and cherry cake for all to share. Being the night before the holiday for Panamanian Independence Day, the restaurant was mysteriously banned from selling alcohol but everyone still managed to have a good party despite the unexpected absence of beer. Apparently it is all right for Panamanians to get intoxicated on the national holidays (there are a bewildering number of holidays during November) but they should start out sober and so not alcohol can be sold or served the day before. An interesting strategy…
October 25, 2010
We had enjoyed our sojourn at Espritu Santo even without being able to use the dinghy or without going snorkeling. However, we really needed to be able to get off the boat without having to depend upon our neighbors so we headed back to Panama City to look at options for getting another dinghy and to enter into discussion with West Marine about the warranty on the disintegrating one.
We spent a couple of nights on the southeast side of Contadora having found our friends on Sea Parents (sans Brady who was visiting her mother in the USA). I enjoyed a couple of afternoons with Troy and the girls on the beach…well, the girls were on the beach and Troy and I sat on the rocks logging into the WiFi from the Galleon Hotel. But it was rather rolly at night so we decided to leave Troy and the girls to their school work and we headed back to Panama City on a calm, hazy Wednesday (Oct 13th). We had to motor the whole way, saw no whales, and did not have a single bite on the fishing lines so it was rather a tedious crossing. We anchored on the edge of the crowd near our friends Margaret and Mo on Wadda and learned that Greg had taken Sweet Dreams to Taboga to clean her hull and enjoy the hikes.
We stayed on Tregoning for several days working on assorted small projects and exchanging emails with West Marine. Once it was obvious that we were not going to try to send the dinghy anywhere else to have it repaired or evaluated, we decided that we had to get it, at least temporarily, functional so out came the Gorilla Glue (actually the Panamanian equivalent which, oddly, was Rhino Glue) and some patching material and Randall set to work. The result was an ugly mess of patch and foaming glue that had hardened in ghoulish dribbles down the side of the offending tube but it did seem to hold air fairly well. Thus, Randall was released from his (somewhat self-imposed) three weeks of boat-arrest, which we promptly celebrated with an ice cream and walk around the Amador boating-supply shops.
After hosting dinner on Sunday evening for the recently returned Sea Parents and Sweet Dreams, we spent most of that week looking at new dinghy options (not much) and starting to get our self-steering-wind-vane (Sailomat 600+ bought second-hand from cruisers in Bocas) ready to mount on the stern. After an apparent reluctance to initiate this project (perhaps somewhat daunted by the need to drill holes in the hull) and after much studying of the complex instructions and the numerous pieces of equipment, Randall soon embraced the assembly and installation with enthusiasm.
Unlike the auto-helm which maintains the boat on a compass bearing or charted course using electrical power (often in copious amounts), the self-steering-wind-vane will maintain a particular course in relation to the wind and requires no electrical power, which may be very important on long passages. Ideally the bulk of the equipment that connects the “oar” (which dips into the water) with the flimsy plywood wind-vane and the steering cables, is mounted at the center of the transom (stern part of the hull) at a height that puts about 45% of the oar in the water. While this particular model can be off-set to one side, it is then likely to be biased to be better on one tack than the other so we decided to aim for a central mounting even though this was exactly where our boarding ladder was located. It took three tries, with the heavy aluminum pieces being supported by the main halyard, to work out their best position in relation to the ladder. Luckily we did not have to remove the latter which would have required removing a lot of thru-hull bolts. We could use a flexible step-ladder over the side to get in and out of the dinghy and we concluded that at the times we were mostly likely to need to climb into the boat from the water (for which the stern ladder was necessary) we would probably not be using the self-steering equipment. The position selected also allowed the four bolt holes that had to be drilled in the transom to be comfortably high above the waterline.
We would not be able to test the device until we had got the necessary blocks and lines (to be brought to us from Florida when our friend Sue arrived after Thanksgiving) but we had been able to get the large stainless steel nuts and bolts that we needed locally. In fact, a fellow cruiser, Bill from Some Day, had announced on the VHF net that he had such hardware (sold at a good discount) having kept some of the inventory from a chandlery store that he used to run. It took us several visits to end up with the appropriate number, sizes, and unbentness of nuts, bolts, and washers but it was far easier to visit Bill’s boat (especially after he moved from Balboa to Las Brisas) than to keep traipsing into the city.
For our first meeting, Randall and I enjoyed a beautiful Saturday evening walk to Balboa Yacht Club where we found Bill with his hardware at a table in the bar. The slightly clandestine feeling of the transaction (us examining “the goods” and Bill counting out our money) was soon overcome by the surrounding activities, it being “Karaoke Night”. Randall and I are not particularly big fans of this form of entertainment but to our surprise both Bill and his crew-member, Ryan, selected quite difficult songs and delivered reasonably good renditions of them. Not all of the other patrons were as talented and after a couple of bold but painful ballads (one in English, one in Spanish) we made our exit, immediately and thankfully catching a bus back to Las Brisas just before it started to rain. Greg had been encouraging us to go to Karaoke night for several weeks (he was otherwise engaged that night) so I fear that his task of persuasion for future expeditions there has now been rendered even more challenging.
October 11, 2010
We arrived at our favorite Las Perlas anchorage at Espiritu Santo on the afternoon of Sunday (Sept 26th) after spending a rolly night at Contadora and finding ourselves at low tide closer to rocks than ideal. We had anchored on the west side of the airport runway rather than where we had previously anchored with Sea Parents because weekend motor boats were moored in our way and a chap from a large catamaran warned us that sailboats were sometimes moved from the area if they were too close to the runway approach.
We also did not want to stray too close to the rocks on the east side of the runway having recently heard the story of sailboat on its way to New Zealand that had hit bottom there during a low tide at night and then had backed over an anchor line which had caught in the propeller and bent the shaft So when we looked over the stern at low tide on Sunday morning and saw some rocks unexpectedly close to our rudder, we started to be a bit less smug about our anchoring prowess compared to the other, less fortunate boat. Randall snorkeled to see that the anchor itself was well buried in sand and by pulling in 20 ft of our anchor rode we would stay clear of the rocks but we decided that we might as well go on to Espiritu Santo rather than completely re-anchor or worry all the time at Contadora. After Randall reported large numbers of fish including many large king- and Cortez-angelfish, I snorkeled briefly before we set off. Even though we were only in the water briefly, one of the first things that we noticed was the wonderful, ethereal sound of whale songs. We made a note that this might be a good place to explore in the future…when we had anchored more safely.
Even though we had originally planned to stay for two nights at Contadora so that I could go ashore to make some pay-phone calls, our choice to move was a good one as we had a glorious, brisk and sunny sail to Espiritu Santo on almost a beam reach at 5-6 knots and the following day was very wet and stormy. With wave conditions much calmer than on the previous day, Randall set up the fishing lines and caught a large Sierra mackerel. Each time I got ready to prepare our salad lunch, one of the reels would start screaming but we landed no more fish as something large had escaped from the hooks on his small lure by unbending them and it took a couple more hits and escapes for Randall to realize the problem.
Early in the passage a log hit the hull. It was mostly submerged and hence was very difficult to see so the first we knew was when it made a very loud bang. We were thankful not to be going considerably faster than 5 knots and for our sturdy, Morgan, fiberglass hull. We saw some whales breaching as we sailed passed but the real thrill of the trip was as we started to motor into the anchorage one adult and two juvenile whales (most likely humpbacks) were swimming just ahead of us. We waited to see what they would do and they swam a lazy lap of the wide channel, between us and the two anchored boats (Wolfgang and Uta on Lumme and another boat), and then passed us to return to the open sea.
On Tuesday evening, just as it was getting dark, we were treated to a repeat performance, presumably by the same graceful trio. In the peace of the evening, the rhythmic and rasping sound of their blows positively echoed around us and we felt especially honored to see and hear their visit. The magic of that night was further accentuated by the clarity of the sky (for the first time in many nights) and with the late rising half-moon, the myriad stars constellations that we could see in the absence of city light pollution.
Learning the constellations and individual bright stars is one of those activities that become exponentially easier the more one learns. Having identified one or two distinctive constellations in an area of sky, it is then not difficult to use the charts to pick out the surrounding features. Of course, the visible constellations vary during the course of the night and over the year but I feel fairly confident about naming 30 or so of them. Spotting stars on an anchored boat usually has the advantage of fairly wide, clear views to the horizons (I usually have to ignore the stars directly overhead that get tangled up in the mast and shrouds) but the slight swinging motion does make it necessary to keep re-orientating yourself to the known constellations as your relative position rotates slightly.
To aid us in our star-gazing, we use the blight green laser pointer that I gave Randall several years ago (he could not see the dim, red ones that people usually use during presentations and classes). It can throw a green dot of light on the shoreline a remarkably long distance away and the beam is usually visible enough that it can be used to point out individual stars quite effectively. We wonder how many people on shore and in other boats have been curious about the green light-beam that jumps around an anchorage every so often!
On this visit to Espiritu Santo we ended up staying for two weeks and thoroughly enjoyed the calm of the waters, the absence of many other people, and the beauty of the scenery and wildlife. Compared to when we had stopped for the night with Tom and Rosie, the water was much cleaner with far less ugly debris floating by. Given the poor water visibility when we snorkeled there with Tom and Rosie, and having not quite worked out the pattern of the strong tidal currents, during the first couple of days of our visit I made hourly measurements of the water clarity and flow using a little homemade Secchi disc that we lowered over the side of Tregoning. (A weighted Secchi disc is painted in alternating black and white quarters and is lowered and raised in the water until it just goes out of sight. The depth of its disappearance gave us a relative scale of water clarity. Flow was crudely estimated as none, low, medium, or high based on the lateral pull on the disc. Oh, here is the little limnologist at work.)
Anyway, where we were anchored the flow was strongest going towards the north for three hours after low tide, it briefly went slack an hour before high tide, it was strongest flowing southward for three hours after high tide, and was slack again three to two hours before low tide. The water was clearest when the current was strongly going southward (coming in from the more open sea) and was reduced (from 12 – 14 ft to 4 – 6 ft vertical visibility) when the current flowed from the south. At that time the flow was bringing water past us that had drained at low tide from the muddy bays and streams to the south of our anchorage.
This information was useful in telling us the best times to get in the water to clean Tregoning’s hull (good visibility is nice and some flow is good but too much current makes it hard work) which we did for a couple of afternoons. The waterline was a mess but the hull was better than expected because the triggerfish that bang against the hulls (especially at 6 pm and 6 am) were doing a pretty good job of removing any barnacles (I saw some large, half-eaten ones which provided testimony of how strong the fish teeth must be).
We had also hoped to compare the water clarity at the best snorkeling sites with my data from the anchorage but we were thwarted from doing any snorkeling away from Tregoning by further problems with the dinghy. It sat on the deck from the time we had left Las Brisas until we finally had some dry enough weather for Randall to try fixing the tiny leaks around the new patches on the starboard tube. But as we examined the patches we realized that parts of them were now less well adhered to the tube than they had been before. With one swift yank, Randall was able to pull off not only our most recent patch but, attached to it, the patch that we had paid Diego so much to apply. The seam below it had become unglued again and further examination of the seams on the bow tube showed that they were becoming unsealed as well. At this point, even if we had had enough glue, our attempts at patching were likely to be useless and it was time for the manufacturers to see if the boat could be repaired or if we needed to get a new one. Using the single-side-band radio we sent an email to the warranty office of the manufacturer and then waited to hear what they suggested.
In the meantime, we decided to stay at Espiritu Santo and cope without a dinghy. With such lovely surroundings and plenty of projects to do on the boat, this was no hardship. There was so much rain during the first week that we were able to wash the deck, all of the cockpit cushions, and various other cushions from the cabin. We spent time reading various books and studying the pilot charts to plan our trip to the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, and Alaska, drawing the conclusion that we should plan to leave Panama in early February. We also made a list of things that we need to do before making our long passages and started checking the necessary equipment, such as the life-raft…which we had yet to get out of its shipping box. I also started using my new sewing machine to make various bags and cushion covers, leaving the more complex canvas projects until I have a gained a bit more practice on thin fabric and simple items.
Even without the dinghy, we were not totally isolated. A couple of times, Wolfgang from Lumme brought us Sierra mackerel that he had caught from his dinghy. Their dog from the Kuna Yala, Lucy, only eats fresh fish, so Wolfgang has to go fishing every few days and he was kind enough to share some of his catch with us. We usually returned the favor with a few brownies or oatmeal raisin bars. One day, the little red inflatable from the other anchored boat came nearby and we were greeted in his own, rousing style by Terry from Ohh Baby, a boat that we had first seen in Golfito. Terry warned us that he planned to set-off some fireworks that evening from the beach in honor of Wolfgang and Uta’s 10th anniversary. We mentioned that it was our 7th wedding anniversary and immediately Terry arranged for us all to get together on Lumme to celebrate as his 11th anniversary was the following week. We had a loud, funny evening exchanging stories with Terry and Liz, Wolfgang and Uta and they were very sympathetic to our dinghy woes. It turned out that we were the only ones celebrating a wedding anniversary as the others were recognizing when they had set sail, in Lumme’s case, from northern Germany, and Ohh Baby from San Diego. Luckily, I had made a chocolate and raspberry cake for our anniversary so I contributed that while Terry and Liz generously provided a couple of bottles of good wine.
Although our first meeting with Terry and Liz in Golfito was during their return from a year of visiting Mexico, we learned that, like Lumme, they had spent several years hanging around Espiritu Santo so they all knew each other and the place very well. That week, with drier weather and very low tides in the morning, Uta kindly took me to shore to join her and Lucy on several of their beach walks and I was greatly honored to be shown some of her favorite beaches and where she finds fruit and grows small crops.
Later that week, Ohh Baby went to Contadora to get gasoline and while they were gone, Serenity, with Debbie and Victor arrived. We had met Debbie a couple of times at Balboa and Randall had talked to her several times as she organizes the SSB network (which Randall hosts on Sundays). We invited Wolfgang, Uta, Debbie, and Victor over on Saturday evening and were delighted to discover that Uta’s father had been a master baker and she has an incredible talent for baking exciting cheese breads, etc. We had another entertaining evening and being a clear night we even got everyone out on the deck to identify constellations with the laser pointer.
When Ohh Baby returned the next day, they brought us greetings from Sea Parents who had also been anchored at Contadora. While Brady was visiting the USA, Troy and the girls were getting lots of school-work done and enjoying the clean waters away from Panama City. Having not heard back from our emails about the dinghy, we decided to go to Contadora ourselves for a night or two to use the internet and phones…and, hence, this update of the blog.
Oh, yes…good luck with everything, Valma. We are sorry to miss you and Eddy now that you have to stay in NYC for a while.
September 26, 2010
Back in Panama City after our fishing contest and trip to Las Perlas were aborted on Wednesday, we kept ourselves busy. Greg will be stuck in Panama City for a few weeks while he waits for a new water pump for his engine. We have had enough wind recently that he was tempted to sail to the islands without power but it might limit where he could anchor. And he could be stuck in one place for a while if the winds quit for several days, as they are wont to do at this time of year, as illustrated during Tom and Rosie’s stay. Instead he is organizing various fun projects such as polishing the hull, working on his outboard, etc.
The winds were suitable for us to have headed out to Las Perlas on any of the last few days but I got caught up in trying to book a flight to Britain for two weeks in November (Randall will nobly stay with the boat) using frequent-flier miles. A procedure that would have been relatively easy from our home in Gainesville, it took me several days of phone calls, email, and faxes to get the whole thing sorted out, with sending a fax being the most complicated aspect. It was only at the fifth place that claimed to send faxes that we actually found a functioning machine that could be used to send a fax to the USA and this was located at the national bus terminal. Ah, the joys of international travel…maybe it is time to get a scanner so we can send faxes online.
We also did not have any luck trying to find a replacement for the broken nozzle on our dinghy air-pump. However, we did work out that we could still use the pump on the high-pressure valves, it just takes two of us as one person has to hold the hose in place while the other pumps.
It was not all frustrations, however. During our expeditions to find a functioning fax machine and the correct nozzle we did, at least, vastly expand our knowledge of the Panama City bus system. Each trip only costs 25 cents so even with several route changes it is much cheaper than using taxies all the time, as we had done previously. It is very interesting to see what is going on inside and outside the wildly decorated buses, it is just less comfortable and, inevitably, a multi-route trip takes much longer than by taxi. We are not doing Alberto out of a job as there will be plenty more days of shopping at a complicated series of places, for large loads, or in some dodgy parts of town when we will be only too glad of our helpful taxi driver.
So by Saturday morning, we seemed to have all our purchases, had my tickets booked, and amazingly, still had favorable winds. With rather choppy seas, fishing was sacrificed for the trip but that did not matter as we enjoyed one of our best close-hauled passages ever. We have never been able to sail all the way to Las Perlas or back before and with steady SW winds between 14 and 21 knots it was probably one of our fastest crossings. And as a bonus, even with all the boat’s motion and the white capped waves, we saw several humpback whales breaching or fin-slapping
We anchored on the north side of Contadora where it was a bit rolly but we were unexpectedly rewarded with wireless internet access on the boat (from the adjacent resort), hence this blog post. This afternoon we will head to Espiritu Santo so we will be away from the internet for a week or two but it is surely good to be back in clean water and out in the islands again.