Saturday, April 22, 2006

Hanging on in Colon

We have been here in Panama 2 weeks now, due to go through on 29th, so just one more week to go. We have easily filled the time with boat jobs, nerding around the laundry on the internet and making idle cruising chat with friends.We're all in a Colonic limbo, just biding our time until we head on through.There's a huge variety of nationalities and characters, drawn together by our decision to venture into the Pacific and though I whinge about all the time spent here, I am actually quite enjoying it. It's just so much better than I had anticipated! I had envisaged very ugly industrial surroundings, a dirty, crowded anchorage, a crippling threat of crime and poor facilities. Don't get me wrong, it's not beautiful, but we've been to worse places. The anchorage is big and surrounded on one side by the jungle environs of the canal, and by the usual port paraphernalia on the other.Huge ships occasionally pass to the west of us on their approach to the canal, but we're far enough away to be unaffected by their swell or noise, and close enough to be excited by their magnitude. The yacht club is basic but very cheap with everything we need, and it is safe. The threat of crime is real which means that we cannot venture out of the club gates alone, but taxis are cheap and the drivers are brilliant. They give new meaning to the term 'the knowledge' as there is very little they don't know about the town, and they are extremely helpful. The only thing that is driving us crazy is the lack of exercise. We're missing swimming (it's a little oily in the anchorage and crocs have been sighted) and , of course, we can't walk around town so that's frustrating.

A few days after our arrival, we were invited on a practice transit through the canal, which was very exciting. Janine and Michael are delivering a charter yacht to Sydney, Aus, and needed line-handlers to help take them through. Each yacht needs 4 line-handlers, a skipper and an advisor (usually a tug operator from the Canal).

So, we were waiting aboard their boat Tituone (shame!) when we got a call on the VHF at about 9.30pm to pick up the advisor which we did. We then approached the first locks (Gatun) with 2 other boats and 'nested' up (tied ourselves together) with them. We were on the port side with a catamaran in the middle and a steel boat to starboard. The middle boat is usually the bigger boat and it motors into the locks dragging the outer boats. We were behind an enormous tanker carrying dangerous cargo from Nassau. Line-handlers way up on the dock-side throw down monkey fists (balls of lead within an intricate knot) which we tie to our heavy lines, and then we feed them out and they secure them to a bollard. We take up slack as the water comes in etc etc. The boat on the starboard does the same and thus the raft of boats is secured. That happens three times in the three enormous Gatun locks, which takes us up about 80 feet to Gatun Lake. The surges of water caused by the intake to fill the locks, or by the adjacent huge ships, can cause the raft to sway dangerously in the locks and put unusually high strain on boat fittings. The consequence of losing a cleat during the operation of the locks could be disasterous, but fortunately, probably due to excellent, highly trained and intelligent line-handlers, our experience was pretty uneventful! Once in the lake, we unrafted and motored to an enormous buoy to moor up for the night. (It's not advisable to anchor in the lake as it's man-made, and your anchor could get tangled in the trees beneath you.) By now, it was 2am, so progress is slow through the locks. We celebrated our arrival in the lake with a few drinks, said 'adios' to our advisor and listened to the truly terrifying sound of howler monkeys in the surrounding jungle. Only something really big and mean can make that noise!

We went to bed at 3.30 and our new pilot arrived on board at 6.30! We motored through the lake and the cuts, past fantastic jungle for 35 miles. We saw crocs and toucans and many other birds. Then we approached Pedro Miguel lock, rafted up and waited for about 45mins for an enormous, Panama size tanker to come through. Then the lock took us down toward sea level, and finally, to the Miraflores locks where the gates opened and we were out in the Pacific! Janine and Michael dropped us of at the diesel pontoon in Balboa, and we caught the bus back to Colon (2 hours through beautiful countryside and some pretty poor neighbourhoods).

We arrived back at base and headed for the bar but were greeted with the worrying news that an Austrian boat had fallen back onto Kika during a squall that morning! We hitched a dinghy ride straight back to her and she seemed ok. It was reassuring to discover that although the skipper of the other boat thought his near miss hadn't been witnessed, 5 people who were in the anchorage at the time told us about it, 3 of whom went to check Kika immediately. We did go and speak to him the next day just to let him know that we knew, and to find out exactly what happened. It was awkward but I'm glad we did it. It was the first time we had both left the boat at anchor, so we were a little nervous about it: it's certainly a risk. This anchorage obviously isn't big enough for some people! Am I right in thinking Austria is landlocked?

We have a lovely bunch of friends here now, and I feel it's a little bit like being at university - lots of friends, lots of time, lots of waiting around and lots of beer. We have lots of work to do though, which is one big difference. Nick has spent a few days squashed in the stern cabin, emptying out the diesel tank jam jar by jam jar. We had a blockage coming across the Atlantic (you may remember that earlier stressful blog entry) and also, in the San Blas, we noticed an interruption in revs which could be attributed to crap in tank syndrome, hence the need for draining. I have spent my time sorting charts and their stowage, stocktaking in preparation for provisioning, and mending the dinghy, Brenda. Brenda herself is in great condition, but her seat is punctured and without it, it is very difficult to row (as I have found out on several rather long drawn out occasions!). Brenda's mended seat will mean rowing should be a cinch and the exercise should keep us sane.

On the subject of Brenda, Nigel the outboard is still working (I know you've all been wondering) but using him can be a little hazardous. In order to start him, you need to have the choke on and keep the revs very high. Consequently you go from stationery to maximum speed (which all things being equal, isn't very fast but still....) instantaneously. In a crowded dinghy dock, this can be problematic, and more importantly, very embarassing. I have a large graze on my left arm, and a big bruise on my pride to prove it, but as I've said before, dinghys (and their motors) are the best levellers.

The panama canal has web-cams on its locks, so there's a remote chance you might catch us going through. Yachts transit the Gatun locks between 6-10pm (23:00GMT - 04:00GMT) and the Miraflores lock at the more sociable time of 1-4pm (18:00GMT - 21:00GMT). We'll be waving.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

San Blas to Colon

As it was nearly a month since we left Curacao, we thought that we should head to the customs post at Porvenir in the San Blas and check in officially before heading to Colon. The following day the customs officer made fast work of a bewildering array of paper-work and we'd officially entered Panama. We celebrated our official arrival with a spot of hunting and gathering for a French delicacy .... sea-urchins. After gathering a dozen sea-urchins from the nearly-by reef, we watched as Michele chopped off the bottom, washed out the partially digested sea grass, scooped out the innards and declared it delicious. All the time the sea-urchin's spines continued waving.
Next was my turn and with a little less enthusiasm I waded in with a spoon to sample the delicacy - not as bad as I'd feared. Ellen reluctantly sampled some, but wasn't convinced despite Michele's protestations that in a few years they will be up with Caviar as aspirant sea-food.

As we were preparing to leave, Eagle's Wings arrived at the anchorage fresh from Caracao. We decided to delay our departure and called an impromptu lobster party - Ouf had previously bought the entire catch from a dug-out - around twenty miscellaneously sized crabs and lobsters for $20 and a well-fed evening's catching up followed.

We mentioned we were having problems with our new fridge and Ken (Eagle's Wings) immediately offered to help, despite having just spent five days at sea. Armed with his refrigerant sniffer, pressure gauge and an impressive array of refrigeration repair tools, he set to work the following day and soon the temperature in the cool-box was noticeable lower. We're slightly in awe of Eagle's Wings - they appear to be incredibly well prepared in comparison to ourselves. Not only do they have all the tools, they can instantly locate them and have even qualified as EPA approved refrigeration specialists. Their boat has a real engine room - you can stand up and walk around the engine!

We're now in Colon in Panama, we had a great night sail here and dropped anchor at 7.30. A mad dash around town resulted in Kika being measured the following day and we received our transit date the day after; April 29th. It's a long time to wait, but there's plenty to do on the boat and we're planning to act as line-handlers on other boats transiting the canal before us.

Panama has the record for paper work so far. We've amassed:
  • Canal ship identification number
  • Port captain form
  • Handline lockage Request form
  • Ship's information and Quarantine Declaration
  • Handline undertaking to release and indemnify
  • Admeasurement clearance and handline inspection
  • Navigation permit for pleasure vessels
  • Immigration form
  • Visa request form
  • Port clearance form (Porvenir -> Colon)
  • Crew list x 2
  • Reciepts x 5

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Swimming Pool

Well, the weather did stabilise in Coco Bandero Cays and we had a couple of lovely days there exploring the reefs.
We were visited by a Kuna tradesman in his dugout from whom we bought some fruit. He offered to take an order of groceries for delivery the following day and we almost snapped his hand off as we were running very low on provisions. Also, we seemed to have reached a dead end with our outboard motor (Nigel), and felt that little would be lost by asking him if he knew of anyone who could repair it. He was pretty enthusiastic and promised Nigel's safe return with the groceries 'tomorrow'. We watched Nigel get whisked away out of sight and wondered if we'd ever lay eyes on him again.We waited for the sound of the Kuna's motor all the next day, but no show.

We were reassured by some of the other cruisers in the anchorage that he does a lot of trading in the area and wouldn't risk jeopardising this for our broken outboard (nice though he is!) Sure enough, he arrived the following day with all our groceries and Nigel nestling treacherously in the bow. Nigel, alas, had failed to be resuscitated, so we paid our man for his labour and said 'adios'. On closer inspection, however, Nigel seemed to have been reassembled in a rather haphazard fashion, with a few bits missing (screws and washers). Nick patched him up and made a last ditch effort to revive him which, against all the odds, worked! So maybe our Kuna friend had done some good after all. Nigel has been pretty reliable ever since though he still sounds very rough!

On Friday, we decided to make our way to the much talked about Eastern Hollandes Cays, renowned for their beauty and excellent snorkeling. It was a short, pleasant motor sail once again alongside 'Ouf' and we arrived in the afternoon and dropped anchor with 2 metres of crystal clear water under the keel. The anchorage itself is called 'the Swimming Pool' as it's a huge expanse of shallow turquoise water, protected from swell and current by the outer reef. As usual, there is a scattering of small islands in the vicinity. The snorkeling has been wonderful, although the spear fishing has been less successful. 'No Mercy' Nick has been showing more mercy than he would like and we haven't managed to catch a cold let alone an edible fish. Today could be the day!

There are about 20 yachts here, most of which are American, and it is customary to congregate once a week on the small island to the north of the anchorage for a 'pot luck' supper and a bonfire to burn all combustible rubbish as there is no rubbish collection within the islands. It's been good discipline for us to sort our rubbish and deal with it ourselves - it's not pleasant but it really makes you consider everything you discard. Aluminium cans can be collected and given to the Kuna, (who sell it for recycling), glass, tin cans and paper can be jettisoned when in deep water, and the rest is responsibly burned when possible. This we did last night, and it was lovely to meet our temporary neighbours around the bonfire.

Nick was reassured to learn that the fish are quite elusive here and difficult to spear, but, at the same time, fresh grouper and mackerel were on the 'pot luck' supper menu, so someone has had success! Spear fishing aside, the snorkeling has been wonderful here. While out on Sunday, we were delighted to see barracuda, trigger fish and a stunning eagle ray which humbled us with its grace and beauty. At one point, we ventured through a narrow channel in the reef, and were greeted by a 5 ft shark which was driven by curiosity to venture out of its lair. We beat a hasty retreat but were followed menacingly for a distance. The dinghy seemed quite far away! On inspection of our reference book, it appears it was a nurse shark 'harmless unless molested'!

Yesterday saw the best snorkeling I have enjoyed so far. We found a reef that was so varied and interesting, where you could swim over the top and get a bird's eye view of the coral, or easily find channels between the coral heads to explore. It was also very high (about 20 metres in places) and not surprisingly was teeming with life. I shan't write a list but briefly, here's what I saw (in the form of a list!!) and some of you I'm sure will have been wowed by them like I was. Firstly, a stingray, always a good start, then a beautiful, lugubrious yellow boxfish about 50cm long, the ubiquitous but nonetheless stunning parrot fish, angel fish, and squirrel fish, the (apparently, though I'll never know) tasty snappers and groupers, barracuda, jacks and trigger fish and, finally, six eagle rays - awesomely large and slow, and impervious to our interest. They are clearly on a higher plane! No sharks, though I had my eyes peeled, believe me!

So, we have one more day here in 'The Pool' and then we head to our last stop in the San Blas, Porvenir. More tales from there.