Tuesday, 1 August 2017

To the Colon, the Canal...the Pacific!

"A man, a plan, a canal, Panama..."
Is one of the world's most famous palindromes: you can read it forwards and backwards!
Panama's area is 74,177.3 kmsq (NZ is 3.6 times the size, according to madaboutpanama.com). Their population is 4,052,481 with nearly half living in the capital, Panama city.
As our cruising guide described, the first thing you'll notice coming down the coast, that you're nearing the Colon entrance of the Canal, are the fleet of ships anchored outside the breakwater, awaiting their transit.  From a distance, they almost appear to be anchored in a line on the horizon. Massive cranes and other port objects came into view and Eli asked, "Is this the entrance up here Dad?"
"No, no, this is the port before the Canal, we've still got a way to go." Five or 10 minutes pass, I say, "That looks a lot like the 30 metre lights on the breakwater mentioned in the guide"..no, still a way to go. There's a ship leaving the entrance, it seems slow, but due to previous experience, it looks that we wont have time to pass in front. While were discussing whether to turn to port, towards the entrance, or starboard, away from entrance, but also towards the same direction the ship is heading, it suddenly appears remarkably close. (At least it's not night time!). Dave quickly turns off the auto-pilot and turns to starboard while Eli and I, from the safety of the cockpit, try to sheet in the roller furler that is flapping madly about from the sudden turn into the wind.
A little too close for our liking!

The ship comes powering past as we do a full 360, then go back to our course.  Another ship comes powering up in front of us and heads toward the entrance as Eli makes another comment about whether that is the Colon entrance. Dave, frustrated at having to repeat himself, grabs the tablet with the navionics map to prove his point. It shows our boat outside Isla Naranjos, a number of miles back. Somehow, the chart had stopped tracking! I quickly went below retrieving my phone off charge, brought the charts up, only to discover that yes, we had just sailed straight past the entrance!!
Another u-turn and all of a sudden, our tranquil cruising downwind turned into a raucous as the boat lurched up and down into the wind, jerking side to side as we rolled over the seas, which always feel bigger when you have to punch into them!  I called up the Cristobal signal station requesting permission to enter the breakwater, thankfully were given the all-clear.
The canal entrance area on a nice still day!

We had planned to anchor in the busy Colon port area of Club Nautico, which is close to the cruise ship docks and a not so good neighborhood, requiring us to paddle ashore and taxi everywhere for safety reasons. After this ordeal, Dave made the call, we're heading to the marina, "I need to relax." Luckily I had previously enquired of any vacancies and being low season there was space available. We motored along the breakwater, super cautious of the shallowness on that side, but also the reef on the other side that we had been forewarned. (We had previously plotted a course for the marina, as another option). Called up the dockmaster, receiving instructions for entering the narrow marina alonside the mangroves.
Boatyard out back of marina, surrounded by lush rainforest.

Turned out to be a great decision.  Being the low-season meant that for a little extra, we could stay for a week, rather than a few days, focus on jobs for canal and get some better sleep, not waking often to check on whether we're dragging anchor.  But just for a bit of excitement, reading the marina brochure, they advise to keep a look out for crocs cruising between boats after 9pm!!
Our nice admeasurer Jose.

We could get our paperwork done and the admeasurer was out to see us next morning. Once again we were welcomed and encouraged by lots of great people, while "cooling off" (not really!) in the pool and there were quite a few kids around.
The free shopping bus trip into Colon was awesome, we had to drive past old military buildings from the war and through the military checkpoint.
Photo courtesy of sailcetacean.com

Lush rainforest meets the road until we have to stop and wait for traffic: boats entering the Canal!  Once through, we then drive right past the first lock.. (apologies for bad photos using phone through bus window)..
Driving at water level past the lock, a little unnerving
seeing water seeping through some gaps!

Over top of canal operations, notice ship in 2nd lock ahead.

Then zigzag through a myriad of buildings and operations, over top of the lock system, feeling like we were in the midst of a real-life mouse trap game.
We pop out the other side, back into rainforest, short time after, arriving into a spaghetti junction/4 lane highway that we cross over to the shopping area.
One return trip home, we even got to travel across the canal on a car ferry.
With all our paperwork and fees paid for (shopping bus could drop us at bank), we nervously made the phone call after 6pm as instructed, to find out our transit date. The man, speaking very good English said the earliest we could do it was..Sunday..in two days???!!!! (we're not ready for that, literally or mentally!) How about Wednesday? I countered.
"Oh yes, that should be fine, just call up the night before, July 11th to confirm"
Goodness gracious, we are actually doing this!!

Checking out jungle clad ex-war
buildings near marina.

I've been pretty darn excited about the prospect of Panama and the Canal ever since we bought the boat. I'm sure the nervousness will kick in closer to the time. Dave is quietly nervous, but handling it very well, working through the jobs. It's been really nice bouncing things off other cruisers. Met a few Kiwis even, having a rather funny, entertaining but also very informative evening with one lot of very experienced cruiser/racers.
The week disappeared very quickly making a start on grocery provisioning, refuelling and filling water tanks.
Dave and I managed to sneak in a small jungle walk while the kids made the most of their friend/screen/pool time.
Finally got to see the howler monkeys.

Dave braving the bats: constantly flying between two doorways straight past his head!-note bat blur on right wall!

In amongst all this, Eli turned 15! Dave and I are immensely proud of this guy, he has been such a pleasure to have in our lives and has blown us away with his transformation in maturity and attitude.

That evening at a cruisers' get-together, one family caught wind of the news and managed to arrange a large tub of icecream to be delivered from a cruise ship, as a celebration gift! We also found out only 6 weeks prior, three 3m crocs had been wandering around that very bbq area!
Canal day arrived, we had our lines and tyre/fenders already delivered, our linehandlers had arrived and so had a rather large crew of friends to see us off.  The kids were yelling constant goodbyes, friends were waiting to untie our lines, I switched on the key...nothing.  Checked the switches, tried again, nothing.  "Um, Dave, can you take a look at this." There was so much noise from the kids, no-one noticed, Dave fiddled about, managed to get it in the correct sweet spot and fired the engine to life..phew, no pressure!  We meandered out at snail pace, the poor marina occupants listening to constant goodbyes from the kids running about the the finger slips, following us out! We motored a short distance, half hour or so to the industrial side of Colon to the "flats" anchorage where we waited for our advisor to be delivered by boat.
Just to give you a better overview, here's  a picture from AMP:

From Colon (Cristobal on the map), to Balboa is 39.5 miles.
Image: slideshare.net

3.30pm our advisor arrived and we followed a catamaran through the traffic up to the first lock, tying together shortly beforehand.
We followed a massive ship that had just passed us, then a tug snuggled in behind us.

Bit of traffic to keep us actively observant.

The monkey fists got thrown to us from the men on the  land, which were attached to our lines.

An alarm goes off, the massive iron doors close and the water starts to churn into the chamber, as we watch the water level rapidly rise, Eli suddenly yells out..shark! We'd heard of crocodiles being the only ones to get a free pass through the canal, but Eli and Eden definitely saw a shark about 3 metres long.

The black bridge underneath slides out to cross; this is where we travelled across by bus.

As we rose, the ropes holding us in place had to be constantly adjusted.  Once at the top, the doors opened. The men on land pulled us along with ropes, having to climb a steep set of stairs to reach the next chamber.
Trains pull the large ships through while men walk us along, up the steep hill!

During this time, the catamaran was driving the two of us, while I adjusted the throttle according to the advisors' directions.
While sitting at the helm, I noticed out the window, Dave's legs at the edge of the boat, and on the other boat, many sets of legs, all milling around Dave, he seemed to have become the star attraction!  They were asking lots of questions about what we were doing and did we have a generator (no) and a watermaker (no), they'd look at the paint flaking off the decks and say, "oh, yes, it does need a bit of work!"
Tied up together.

The group were chartering the boat, with a young Aussie Captain and stewardess taking them through. Then one of them came out with souvenir teeshirts for Dave and I! The next two locks were thankfully fairly uneventful, but also very enjoyable.  Once out of the last lock, we untied, motored about 20 minutes into the Gatun Lake where our advisor skilfully jumped ship to go home.
Celebration in the lake.

Our linehandlers stayed on for the night, having dinner pre-made, we enjoyed the sunset, drinks and semi-conversations of mixed Spanish and English.
Sunrise looking out our bedroom port over Gatun Lake:
Surreal moment.

Up early, preparing apple yoghurt muesli, expecting the advisor to arrive at 7.30am, it was 9.30am by the time we left, due to some delay in the canal.
Eden has breakfast on the rubber buoy and watches massive ship leave the new canal into the lake.

The catamaran had left about an hour before, which ended up working in our favour: we got to take the more scenic "banana cut", shaving off about a half hour or so. Dave took over the helm for an hour while I prepared lunch, then I jumped back on it. This combination works best for us as I am quite comfortable driving, while Dave prefers to be taking all the details into consideration to make clear decisions and directions, to me at the helm.

We were praying it wouldn't rain for our canal transit, mostly out of concern of visibility. A tall order in Panama, during rainy season, where thunder and lightening are a daily occurrence. It did rain, actually, it poured, but I could see anywhere between 2 and five markers ahead. There was some pretty intense thunder and lightening overhead also!
We did get to see a large crocodile on the muddy bank, which was very exciting and made for a good side track to forget about the weather.  A massive ship was closing in on us, 500m, 300m, then backed off. I was also praying for visibility to enjoy the view of sailing under the Centenario bridge, which it did.
Gold hill in the Gaillard cut.

Centenario bridge.

We found out later that because of the lack of visibility, the large ship behind had to ease right back, which actually set us up better for the next set of locks, catching up with the cat and tying alongside them again as they cheered and clapped!
Pedro Miguel Lock sitting up at the top..
Love this shot my brother in law took of us from the canal camera website..thanks Johnny.

This set of locks had us going down and it was weird looking down over the gate into the Pacific.
Hello Pacific! 

I suddenly felt rather teary, the reality of all our years of planning and hard work had actually brought us from the Caribbean to the Pacific, we almost had our boat on the right side of the world at long last!
At the helm.

While waiting for the large ship to get set up and meet us in the lock, I was also very fortunate to have constant communication with family on whatsapp, as they watched us on the cameras online, further adding to the rather surreal experience.

At the bottom, all drained out!

Watching our depth sounder, we were at 75 feet at the first lock, we dropped down to about 54 feet, the gates opened and by the time we reached the next lock gate, we were at 75 feet again!

The water going out was very subtle, we motored out of the last lock, untied from the catamaran, then followed the buoys out of the busy harbour and under the bridge of the Americas - joining South America to Central and North America.

Bridge of the Americas.

Our advisor kindly complemented me on doing a good job before leaving on his pilot boat ride.

We were in the Pacific.  But that will have to wait till next time..thanks for reading.

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