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!