Monthly Archives: February 2010

A short stop in the beautiful Perlas Islands for some boat maintenance

Panama city looking across the causeway

Panama city looking across the causeway from where the boats were.

Panama city was much bigger than we expected and it had several big shopping malls with huge supermarkets.   We stocked up the boat because this was the last time we would see food in such quantity until we get to NZ.  The prices were good so we made several shopping trips filling the boat with essentials. Bill spent time visiting the chandlers to try and buy a new muffler but without luck, BWR will bring one out to Galapagos for us it should last until then.

Carnival comes to town

Carnival comes to town

Carnival came to Panama city and a group of us went into town to watch the parade.  We arrived early and found bags of ‘hole punch droppings’ being sold and everyone was throwing them at each other and us.  We soon bought some bags and joined in, the little pieces stuck to our hot skin and we kept finding them in the boat for days afterwards.  We walked the length of the main road looking at all the sights.  The parade started at 4pm and was very noisy and colourful.  There were lots of people there enjoying the atmosphere.

BWR put on a social programme and we spent 10 days at anchor.

Monday 22nd February we left Panama city, it was 8am and already hot and sunny.  We were off to find a nice anchorage where we could jump in the water and have a swim.  The water at Panama had been very dirty.  We were heading for the Archipelago of Las Perlas.  There wasn’t any wind so we motored for 6 hours to charge the batteries and make some water.  

The beach at Contradora

The beach at Contradora

We arrived at an island called Contradora where there were already 4 other BWR yachts.  The crews of Briet and Norsa joined us for a drink that evening.

The next morning we had our swim off the back of the boat, it was wonderful.  We dropped the dinghy into the water and landed on the beach to go and explore the island.  It’s the most developed island in the archipelago with a small runway for light planes and paved roads although there were plenty of potholes. 

Sadly this boat had seen better days

Sadly this boat had seen better days

Sadly a lot of the buildings had fallen into disrepair and this boat on the beach had been abandoned, it was like a ghost town, maybe a sign of the times.

The next day we moved to the anchorage between Chapera and Mogo Mogo, these 2 islands had been the setting for the TV series ‘Survivor’.  We were looking for a beach to put Camomile up on her legs to dry out and scrap her bottom before the Pacific crossing.  Mogo Mogo looked like a possibility. 

The beautiful beach on Mogo Mogo covered in pink shells

The beautiful beach on Mogo Mogo covered in pink shells

The island is surrounded by shoals and isn’t suitable as a normal anchorage because it’s too shallow.  We took the dinghy over at low tide and it looked ideal.  We surveyed the depth and found a channel deep enough to enter.  We set up our own transits on the beach and went back to Camomile to wait for the tide to come in. 

There was a group of rocks sticking out of the water that marked the end of a reef, at low water it looked like it could take a bite out of a yacht.  This was opposite a peninsular at the end of the island.  The channel in between was deep enough for us at high tide.  We already had the ‘legs’ attached to the side of the boat so we motored very slowly towards the beach. 

Camomile sitting firmly on the beach

Camomile sitting firmly on the beach

We just touched the bottom and stopped.  Bill quickly wound the legs down in place and attached a line fore and aft from each leg.  We put the dinghy down and Bill took a kedge anchor and dropped it in the water behind us then we tied one of our long Panama warps to a tree on the beach and tied it to the bow … and waited. 

Camomile on the beach waiting for the tide to go out

Camomile on the beach waiting for the tide to go out

The water slowly dropped exposing the hull.  The copper coat that we had put on before we left had worked very well but there were lots of barnacles attached which needing scraping off. 

I helped too

I helped too

I set about that while Bill gave the hull a scrub, he also changed the anode and scrapped and polished the propeller.  It didn’t feel like hard work because it was such a beautiful setting.  The island was completely uninhabited and I walked the beach collecting beautiful pink shells and watching the Iguana’s running around while wearing only a hat! 

A lovely pair of bottoms!!

A lovely pair of bottoms!!

It’s impossible to describe what it was like, the sounds and smells and quietness are difficult to convey with just a photo.  That evening we sat on the bathing platform, glass of wine in our hand, watching the tide coming back in.  A ray glided past to see what was going on.  The tide didn’t come in until after dark but all was well.  We lifted for 3 or 4 hours and then sat back down again and stayed in the same position. 

On the beach

On the beach

The next day we decided to stay longer because it was such a beautiful place.  We went exploring and found an equally beautiful beach on the other side of the island.  There were lots of Iguana’s sitting in the sun and birds nesting in the trees.  It felt like the garden of Eden.  We had been talking to other BWR boats on the VHF who were anchoring between the islands where we had originally been, they said it looked as through Camomile was floating in the air. 

BWR crews enjoying the water

BWR crews enjoying the water

On the third day we were invaded, they all came over in dinghies to see us.  That afternoon when we lifted we gradually slipped off the beach and motored back over to join the others for Mark on Blue Magic’s birthday beach party and back to reality.  Too much reality because the next morning someone logged on early to check their emails and discovered a tsunami warning from Rally control.  Word went round the anchorage and we all weighed anchor and headed out for deep water.  Fortunately nothing came and we went back to anchorage.

We decided to go and see what some of the other islands were like and sailed down the east side of the Isla del Rey and anchored off the village of Esmeralda. 

These two little chaps appeared selling bananas

These two little chaps appeared selling bananas

Within minutes two little faces appeared over the aft quarter offering us bananas and papayas, they looked so cute.  We ended up paying US$3 for a big hand of bananas and 2 big papaya and they took our rubbish away.  We’d obviously paid over the odds because they went away smiling.  We got in the dinghy and went ashore.  I took a bag of trinkets and chocolate to give out.  A young man who wanted to show us around the village met us as we approached.  They weren’t as organised as the Kuna’s but they had a nice community.  We were shown around the village. 

Washing hanging out

Washing hanging out

Their homes were made of concrete with cast iron roofs and everywhere you looked there was washing hanging out.  There was a school, a clinic, a cantina, a military post and a small shop selling very basic food.  As we walked around the village we were treated like celebrities, children surrounded us wanting their photo taken and then wanting to see themselves on the screen on the camera, they were fascinated.  There were children of all ages following us and some were fighting who was going to hold my hand, they were so sweet. 

I was surrounded by children

I was surrounded by children

Mothers were bringing their babies out to show me so I had to have a cuddle although one was very wheezy; I’m not sure what the infant mortality rate is.  After staying for an hour and bartering for some pearls we got back in the dinghy and went back to the boat with all the children waving us off.

We continued a little further along the coast to Rio Cacique where we intended anchoring for the night.  We found a dozen or so BWR boats already there.  Rio Cacique, a scenic river full of wildlife, can be explored by dinghy on the flood tide.  At about 4pm, an hour before high tide, we motored to the entrance. 

Creepers dangling in the water

Creepers dangling in the water

We followed the river for a while then Bill turned the engine off and rowed, we let the tide take us as we glided through tall, partly submerged mangroves and rainforest in silence.  We saw several different kinds of birds sitting in the trees and creepers hanging down from the branches like fingers dangling in the water.  There were lots of noises coming out of the rain forest and we saw lots of crabs climbing around the mangrove roots.  Towards the top it was difficult to tell where the river was but we continued rowing among the mangroves and eventually found it again. 

Beautiful reflections in Rio Cacique

Beautiful reflections in Rio Cacique

As the tide turned we rowed back marvelling at the wonderful reflections the mangroves made in the calm still water as it gently ebbed away in the fading light.

But time was pressing on and we needed to start heading out into the Pacific for the Galapagos Islands.

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Panama canal transit

The next morning we were off again.  It would have been nice to have a look around the old town but sadly, as is often the nature of the rally; we had to move on to keep to schedule.  We needed to reach Shelter bay in reasonable time because Bill was booked to be a line handler for one of the other boats that afternoon. 

Ships on the skyline

Ships on the skyline

There wasn’t any wind so we motored the 20 miles to the entrance to the harbour.  As we approached, the ships started appearing on the skyline, waiting for their turn to go through the canal.  I counted 27.

Shelter bay marina was great.  It had showers, a launderette, nice restaurant and bar and best of all a swimming pool and spa pool.  We had a proper pontoon berth with wifi for the first time since Lanzarote.  Bill went off to be a line-handler that afternoon but didn’t have a very good time. 

A Panamax coming in behind Moonshiner

A Panamax coming in behind Moonshiner

The boat they put him on had only just joined the rally so we didn’t know them plus it had engine problems.  It ended up breaking down in front of a panamax ship and had to be quickly towed out of the way by a pilot boat.  Luckily Bill managed to fix it for them.

We spent 3 days at Shelter bay.  I did lots of washing and shopping and, once he returned, Bill had lots of jobs to do on the boat.  There was a free bus to a safe supermarket in Colon, a crime black spot in the world.  

Camomile off for her turn in the canal

Camomile off for her turn in the canal

On Wednesday 10th February we left Shelter bay for the canal. The canal rules state you need 4 line-handlers plus the skipper plus a transit advisor, you also need 4 x 125ft warps (seen in the photo laid out on the deck). We had Margi from Peregrina and Susan from Enchantress plus Fionn from BWR to line handle for us. 

In 1903, following Panama’s declaration of independence from Columbia, Panama and the US signed a treaty by which the US undertook the construction of the canal across the Isthmus.  It took 10 years, the labour of 75,000 men and women, and almost US$400 million to complete the task.  Many died from malaria and yellow fever before it was brought under control.  The canal opened for traffic 15th August 1914.  Since then there have been more than 850,000 transits through the waterway and now it was our turn.

Coming alongside Natibou

Coming alongside Natibou

We assembled on the flats with Natibou, a catamaran, and Chsalonina as we were all to be rafted together.  There was also Blue Magic, Gaultine III and Miss Tippy who were to form a 2nd raft.  Our transit advisor arrived and we motored the 6 miles towards the first locks, it was so exciting. As we approached Gatun locks we joined together with Natibou and Chsalonina.  We all had our engines on but Hans on Natibou was the controlling boat.  As none of us had bow thrusters Bill and Jeremy were given instructions by the transit advisors as to when to speed up or slow down to keep all 3 boats level. 

Camomile in Gatun locks

Camomile in Gatun locks

As we continued into the lock there were 2 line handlers standing up on the wall each side for each raft.  They throw monkey fists down to you, which are extremely hard (we had covered the solar panel with a blanket), we then had to tie one of our warps to it and they haul it back up.  As we motored into the lock they walked alongside us on the wall.  Fortunately we were in the lock with just the other raft and no other ships.  The lock gates closed and the lock started filling.  Fionn and Margi hauled in on the forward line and Susan and I winched the aft line. 

Susan and I manned the aft lines

Susan and I manned the aft lines

 Steadily we made our way to the top, the gates opened we motored into the next lock and repeated the process.  There are 3 locks in all raising the boats a total of 84 feet.  Each chamber is 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long.  Once through we were led to two huge buoys in the lake and told to raft up to them overnight.  Our pilot was taken off and we were left alone.  It was possible to walk across these buoys to the other boats …. PARTY!!! 

Camomile in Gatun lake

Camomile in Gatun lake

The next morning we awoke to find we were in a huge lake, that we hadn’t been able to see in the dark the night before.  Some people had sore heads but we were all up ready for a new set of transit advisors to board us at 6am and off we went.  Unfortunately the transit advisor for Gaultine III didn’t turn up and they were left behind.  We asked our advisor if we could wait but he wouldn’t hear of it, the canal runs a tight schedule and they would have to lock in later.  Gatun lake is man-made and extends across the isthmus; it covers an area of 117 square nautical miles.  It was formed by erecting the Gatun dam across the Charges river. 

Gold hill in the Gaillard cut

Gold hill in the Gaillard cut

We had to motor 20 miles across the lake to enter Gaillard cut where the Chagres river flows into the channel.  Gaillard cut is 7.4 nautical miles long and is where the bulk of the canal excavation took place.  It still undergoes a constant programme of widening to accommodate increasingly larger ships. We passed Gold hill in the cut where, during the excavations, it was rumoured to contain gold deep down in order to make the workers dig harder.  On the Pacific side the three locks are separated. 

Joining up with Natibou again for the Pedro Miguel lock

Joining up with Natibou again for the Pedro Miguel lock

As we approached the first one, Pedro Miguel lock, we joined together in our raft again.  We had heard on the radio that Gaultine III was catching us up but we weren’t allowed to wait for them.  Miss Tippy and Blue Magic rafted together and we entered the lock.  We were lowered 30feet to the Miraflores lake, a small artificial body of water that separates the two sets of locks.  We motored across together in our rafts to the Miraflores locks.  We waited 40 minutes in the lock for Gaultine III to catch up which enabled us to wave at the webcams but I don’t know whether any one saw us. There wasn’t time for Gaultine to join their raft so they had to tie alongside a small pleasure vessel that joined us in the locks.  We were lowered to sea level in the last two locks. 

Champagne under the Bridge of the Americas

Champagne under the Bridge of the Americas

It was an emotional moment as the lock gates opened and we got our first view of the Pacific.  It was 13.06 and the next part of our adventure was beginning.  As we motored under the bridge of the Americas the champagne corks were flying.

The beautiful Kuna Yala

After our horrendous journey of 5 days of total purgatory we arrived at Pourvenir in the San Blas islands with 14 other BWR boats to check in with customs.  Even in this remote part of the world we still had to check in with customs and get our passports stamped.  

Pourvenir, the blue roof belongs to the hotel

Pourvenir, the blue roof belongs to the hotel

Pourvenir is just an airstrip, the customs office and a very basic hotel. That evening we all went ashore to eat in the little hotel.  The choice was chicken, rice & chips or fish, rice & chips.  As the chickens were still running around round the back we decided that would be the freshest!  We had a party to celebrate arriving safely. 

The San Blas islands are a vast archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast.  Home to the indigenous Kuna Indians it is one of the most untouched stretches of virgin rainforest and a cruising ground of incredible beauty.  The kunas don’t like the name San Blas, given to them by the American’s, and prefer Kuna Yala, their own name for their land.  The land is not divided into individual properties and fences are absent. 

Bill walking through the village on Nalunega

Bill walking through the village on Nalunega

The Kunas accept visitors but intermarrying is forbidden and foreigners can’t buy land or invest in Kuna Yala therefore it remains unspoilt.  We visited the island of Nalunega to meet the Kunas with the crews of Enchantress, Bali Blue and Miss Tippy with their children.  The Kunas are physically small but they are peaceful and crime is extremely rare. 

A Kuna Yala woman

A Kuna Yala woman

The woman dress in very colourful, handmade clothes called Molas, which they were also selling.  They have a strict hierarchy of tribal leaders and the chief or Sailas holds the highest authority.  Sailas are more than leaders they are also holders of medicinal knowledge and history and they sit every evening in the Congresso surrounded by the people, woman and men, to discuss complaints or ideas. Kuna Yala is a matrilineal society, the women control the money and the husband moves into the woman’s family compound.

Nesta, a young man who spoke some English and who was keen to show us around his village, met us on the beach.  The huts are made from renewable, fast growing materials; the floor is slightly elevated with compacted sand, while the walls are made of cane.  The roof is made from a palm leaf found in the jungle.  There are no nails, everything is held together by jungle creepers, and remarkably they remain dry when it rains. 

Inside Nesta’s house

Inside Nesta’s house

Nesta’s home was very sparse with all their clothes stored in the rafters.  There was a screen in the corner with a double bed behind it but the mattress was falling to bits and the pillow was very dirty, there was no sign of any sheets.  The rest of his family sleep in hammocks of which there were about a dozen or so hanging from the rafters in the one hut that he shares with 3 generations of his family. Nesta’s wife and 2 small children were sitting swinging in a hammock, they were all smiles and happy for us to look around, they appeared to have so little, maybe we all have too much?  

We took bubbles and trinkets

We took bubbles and trinkets

We had all taken gifts for them, Shelia took a bag full of clothes the girls had grown out of, we took bubbles and trinkets for the children, and others took chocolate.  Although they didn’t have a lot they were very happy and welcoming people.  It made you feel very humble.

We had a further 5 days to explore some of the other islands, many of which are uninhabited with just a covering of Palm trees. 

Camomile anchored off Barbeque Island

Camomile anchored off Barbeque Island

We sailed over to East Holandes Cays some 20 miles East and anchored in ‘The swimming Pool’, a wonderful anchorage with water the colour of a swimming pool and so clear you could see to the bottom 3M down.  That evening we joined some of the local liveaboard cruisers on ‘Barbeque island’ for the weekly cruisers barbeque. We spent some time snorkelling in ‘The hot tub’, which had one of the best coral gardens we had seen. 

The beautiful beach at Chichime Cays

The beautiful beach at Chichime Cays

We made our way back to Chichime Cays a lovely protected anchorage.  David and Susan arrived on Enchantress with a huge Tuna they had caught.  After Bill and David had finished butchering this poor thing into steaks Susan and I made a delicious meal with marinated tuna and roast vegetables.  The next morning we left to motor the short distance back to Porvenir to check out and collect our zarpe’s ready for the next port, when we were surprised to hear the smoke alarm going off below.  On closer inspection I found the aft cabin full of smoke, which turned out to be exhaust fumes.  Bill stopped the engine and looked in the engine bay to find it full of water, we were sinking!  I started pumping the manual bilge pump while Bill ran round to find out where it was coming from.  After lifting the floorboards he found a split in the exhaust muffler.  He clamped it temporarily with molegrips so we could continue to the anchorage. 

BWR boats anchored off Porvenir

BWR boats anchored off Porvenir

Once there he removed it and bound it up with aircraft tape and cable ties until we can get a new one.     

There was a mass exodus of BWR boats the next day bound for Portobello.  It was 53 miles along the coastline.  We started off with a reef in the main and 2 turns in the genny because this was the first time we had been ‘outside’ since our awful journey from Bonaire. 

The Panama coastline

The Panama coastline

We needn’t have worried because it was a beautiful day with a lovely F5 and we had a great sail.  Bill was pleased because we managed to keep up with Enchantress and then started beating them and they are a bigger lighter boat.  We anchored in Portobello at 16.00 and invited David and Susan on board for a return meal.

Ruins of the fortification, Portobello

Ruins of the fortification, Portobello

The next day Saturday 6th February we all went ashore and were picked up by Richard from BWR for the first briefing of the newly formed rally.  We were now 25 boats and the rally was almost complete.  We were taken to a restaurant in the hills for the meeting followed by a lovely meal in the garden.  Although we had met a lot of the new crews already it was great to all sit down together.   We discussed the transit for the Panama canal and how it was all going to happen.  There were going to be exciting times ahead.

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