Saturday, 9 May 2015

Panama Canal

Panama Canal 26 February to 4 March

We reached Shelter Bay on the Caribbean side of Panama on 28 January as planned to meet Chris Budd who was joining us for the Pacific leg of the journey. We were due to transit the canal on 3 February so we had 5 days in Shelter Bay, two days to transit the canal and then a further two days in Panama City before heading off to the Las Perlas Islands, thirty miles off the coast of Panama.

Shelter Bay
The days after we arrived we went on a visit to the Panama Canal. In fact it was the same visit that Catherine and I did the previous year on a trip with Capgemini but it was interesting to see it again as we would be soon going through it. It also gave Chris his first glimpse of the locks we would be going through. The boats that go through the locks are built to a specification that allows just a few feet clearance between the ships and the side of the locks and are held in position by four trains with steel cables attached to the boats. It made you realise just how little clearance these boats have.

Catherine and I took our first reconnaissance of the shops the next day as we were advised to get most of the shopping we needed on this side of the canal. The shuttle bus left at 8 in the morning (there is only one per day) and took us on a 45 minute journey to the local shopping centre, crossing the canal. The first 20 minutes were along a pot holed road where the bus had to swerve from side to side to miss the potholes and could only travel at 10 miles per hour. When we reached the locks we had to wait until the locks were closed to be able to cross the canal which would take 30- 40 minutes of waiting in a traffic queue and then a further 30 minutes to get to the shopping centre. So the whole journey was about an hour and half each way.

The shopping centre was not as I was expecting. There was one fairly small supermarket and a number of shops which looked pretty run down and even one that sold guns. Many of the shops had signs on them barring the carrying of guns in their shops and it was not an area that you want to hang about in too long. The supermarket covered all the basic needs but not much than that.

The following day we went on one of the visits which was the highlight of our stay in shelter Bay. There is a tribe of Indians that live deep in the jungle which allow tourist to visit twice a week during the first 3 months of the year – during the dry season. The tribe numbers 140 people who still live a traditional life style although earn some income from tourism. They originated in Columbia but moved to Panama to escape the conflict about 150 years ago and have lived there since.
Something was funny!
We were taken by bus to a river, a two hour drive from Shelter Bay where we were met by the Indians in dugout canoes with large outboard engines attached. From there they took us on a 30 minute fast ride along the river, deep into the jungle to their village which is the only route to get there. Very remote and cut off from civilisation except by boat. The shame is that they can no longer hunt animals (because of international law) and have turned to tourism to allow them to support their independence.
Traditional dwelling

We were treated to traditional cooking of fish and plantains wrapped in a cup made of leaves and they talked about their life style through an interpreter. Much of the traditions remain (apart from hunting) and villagers can only marry within the village if they are to remain there. So very few have left and they provide their own schooling for the children.
Catherine having a Tattoo

While we were there a group of American tourists arrived from a
cruise ship. They did not have the traditional food we eat but had bought their own food – processed white bread with processed slices of cheese and ham with tomato sauce. It was amusing to see this.

The ride back was equally wet as the ride there as dugout canoes are not really designed to have outboard engines and go at that speed. But the journey through the jungle was beautiful and was part of the magic of the trip.

Our final few days at Shelter Bay consisted of maintenance of the boat plus one major shopping trip where we tried to buy six month’s worth of dry food (rice, pasta, flour etc) since provisioning would get more difficult and expensive as we crossed the Pacific. We also needed to get enough meat for the next 8 weeks to see us through to the Marquesa islands, 4000 miles to the west.

Each evening we would meet up in the bar with the crews from the other boats, the core being ourselves, Andy and Emma from Pentagram plus some of the crew from Exocet Strike. Many a good evening was had at the bar with happy hour from 5pm – 7pm providing the focus to stop working on the boat and go for a drink.

Transiting the Canal
We left the marina at 3pm to go to a holding anchorage about 4 miles away from the first lock. Each boat had to have one pilot on board for the entire journey and one of the key requirements was to feed them when they arrived. And keep them fed and watered during the next 24 hours.

Ricardo - our pilot for the canal
Our pilot was Ricardo who was also the manager for the transit of our yachts through the canal.  Not a small man to say the least but very friendly and unexpectedly he brought with him a trainee, equally as large. Catherine had already prepared and cooked a beef stew for us all but with the size of our guests had to forgo her dinner least they went hungry on route!

All the 9 boats set off together towards the first lock two hours before our scheduled lock time to cover the 4 miles. We had to go very slowly as it was only 4 miles but we did have to come together in groups of three to raft up. The first boat we rafted up to was not from the Rally and the boat had seen better days (or had been in lots of adventures and come off worst in them) so when the skipper brought the boat alongside while trying to video the procedure it explained a lot about his boat.  But we had fendered the boat well so after his third attempt at actually coming alongside rather than bouncing off us we managed to tie him up without any damage being done. The other boat Allegro was from the Rally and rafting up was, as it should have been, very easy.

We approached very slowly into the lock at dusk with line handlers
each side of the lock throwing pilot lines onto the two outside boats of each raft. The crew grabbed the pilot lines which were attached to the huge dock lines onto their boats while as the centre boat we provided the steering and power for the raft. It seemed to take an age to get the three rafts into the huge locks before the doors closed and the lock started to fill. As the boats rose the 10m in the locks, the crews had to pull in the slack on the dock lines to keep the raft still and in the middle of the lock. With a million gallons of water rushing in over a 10 minute period, there is some turbulence in the lock but not as much as I expected. It felt like going up in a very slow lift but fast enough so you were aware that the boats we rising.

We repeated the same process for the first group of three locks at the entrance so that we were 30m above sea level after two hours and into Gatun lake the other side. There we tied up to a buoy for the night while our pilot guides left us to go home at 10pm only to be back at 7am the next morning (and ready for breakfast!).

We were the last boats to go through the locks in this direction that night (the direction of the boats changes every 6 hours) and we left our anchorage before the direction changed again so that we would be ahead of the new set of boats coming into the canal. We had 28 miles to go to the next lock and were scheduled to go just ahead of a car carrier at 12:10. If we were not there on time, the boats behind us would overtake us and we would lose our slot.

Gatun Lakes after the first locks
The first part of the journey was through Gatun Lake which is a flooded valley where you can still see the tops of trees that have not yet disintegrated. It was through the jungle most of the way and provided plenty of things to look at. We only saw one crocodile although the canal is full of them so swimming is not encouraged! All the way along we were passing container ships coming the other way and we had to keep well over to avoid them, particularly on bends where often tug boats were needed to get them around the corners.

Three Rally Boats rafted in the lock
The second set of locks are three separate locks which took us down 30m back to sea level. As we approached the first of these, a big oil tanker was coming out of the other lock and after a lot of shouting we were asked to put on full power to get into the lock on the right hand side. When we looked back 20m behind us we could see the oil tanker being pushed by two tugs sideways across the canal to where we had been coming along so that it could get around the bend further up.

The first lock was still quite exciting as it was the first one in the day light. We could see lots of people in the viewing platforms, more interested in the big ships going through the canal than us. There is 7 miles to the next set of two locks which are together took us back to sea level and into the Pacific which felt like quite a milestone.

We moored in a marina for two days on the Pacific side of the canal and Catherine and I went for a visit into the old town. We found a micro brewery which served their own beer that was not lager – first time since we left the UK we could drink real beer. We found a nice restaurant for dinner with the bar on the top floor overlooking the city. It was a pleasant place for a gin and tonic while we waited the 45 minutes for a table and it was worth the wait. Some of the best food we had had in a restaurant for months.

Las Perlas Islands 

We left the marina on the third day to go to the Las Perlas islands. Very beautiful islands, some of which were uninhabited (and one where a TV reality programme had been made (survivor or something like that) but no-one seemed to know which but we went for a walk around it anyway. The main island was very attractive with some beauriful houses dotted around the island. It was where the drug barons used to own holiday homes but since been fallen out of favour (or they are all in jail somewhere, probably Columbia).  Now slightly jaded but still very attractive. The only mode of transport are golf carts driven along immaculate roads with stunning beaches around the coast. 

Unfortunately the generator stopped working and we were forced to go back to Panama City to have it fixed. So we cut short our visit and spent yet another day waiting while it was taken apart and fixed. By lunchtime it was working again and 20 minutes later stopped. So they had to come back and spend another 6 hours trying to fix it.

It was also the day that Sarah was due to arrive from Equador so she was able to meet us in the marina rather than take a ferry to the Las Perlas islands. It was good to have Sarah back with us and we enjoyed listening to all her stories over the coming days.

So with the generator fixed (or so we thought), we set off again to Las Perlas to get the boat ready for the crossing to the Galapagos.

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