Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ready for the Panama Canal

We are scheduled to transit the Panama Canal on Sunday January 31st, 2010 at 18:45 and Monday February 1st, 2010 between 09:00 and 12:00. The transit from North to South (southbound) of the six locks is spread over two days. Late Sunday afternoon we will go through the first three locks called the Gatun Locks. We will then spend the night moored in Gatun Lake. On Monday morning we will cross the last three locks called, in order, the Pedro Miguel lock and the two Miraflores Locks to finally reach the Pacific Ocean. You can follow our transit through the Web cameras on the Panama Canal web site as shown on the picture. The address of the cameras is: from where you can select either the Gatun Locks or the Miraflores locks. The tricky thing here is that we will be likely transiting with a large cargo ship and other sailboats so look carefully we are a white catamaran with yellow covers. Unfortunately, at this point we don’t know yet the exact transit time on Monday.
We arrived at the port of Cristobal, which is where the canal starts on the Caribbean side and anchored in an area called the Flats to make the necessary and painful arrangements for the transit. The interesting part of sailing to the flats is that we had to go between all the large cargos anchored inside and outside the port area. Usually when you see two or three cargos at a time it is quite nerving but here there were at least 50 spread all over and many of them were moving! Of course, the Panama Canal being the only place boats can go through to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans without sailing around South America you can imagine it is quite a busy place. At first we wanted to do the paperwork ourselves but finally decided to hire an agent called Tito who took us through all the different offices that are required to sort out the complex entry and transit procedures of Panama. And thank god we did that! For one thing all the offices are in a small town called Colon, which is the most rundown rat hole I’ve seen in my life. Sorry I don’t have pictures to show you yet but really Colon is not a place to walk with an expensive camera around the neck. Also, it is not possible to go ashore from our boat with the dingy. The Panama Canal authorities are polite and nice when dealing with us but since the control of the Canal was passed to Panama by the USA in 1999 they made everything possible to get the small boats like us out of the area. Let’s face it, when a cargo pays tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to cross the canal a small sailboat paying $609.00 is just a nuisance. But thanks to Tito, who knows exactly where to go, what paper to bring and what to say, everything went relatively smooth and safe at least so far. We’ll see how it goes when we will be in the locks behind a behemoth spinning its propeller bigger than our entire boat!

Portobelo and a quick hop in Panama City

Before heading toward Colon, where the Panama Canal starts, we decided to stop a few days in the small town of Portobelo, which was once the bigger port of the area where transited all the gold from Peru in departure for Spain. The choice for this port by the Spanish is quite obvious once you get there. The large bay is easy to access and extremely well protected against the wind and the waves. But this is not the gold that brought us here but the proximity with Colon and we were hoping to be able to get more firsthand information about the procedure to cross the canal. The information we got was not very good as the only marina in the canal vicinity is completely booked for the next two weeks and we were hoping to stop there to make the arrangements for the crossing.

But Portobelo itself offers many things to the visitors. A few groceries for sure but also an internet cafĂ© with very good speed. I managed to get some gasoline at Papito’s, which is basically the house of a guy who sells some gasoline. You show up there with your jerry can and he gets inside and comes back with a bunch of 1 gallon water plastic bottles recycled for the occasion into gasoline containers! Nevertheless, the gasoline looked and smelt OK to me.

One of the few attractions in Portobelo is to visit the fort on the north side of the bay just a few hundred meters from where we anchored the boat. The battery posted here was to protect the bay probably against the possible pirates who were roaming the area for some time. Another battery was posted just beside the harbor as a second line of defense. Here you can see Chocobo anchored in the bay of Portobelo. This is the smaller of the two catamarans on the picture and the one closer to the shore. When we started our trip we thought we had a big boat but this was before reaching the south of the Caribbean Sea where our tiny 40 footer is probably the smallest boat you can find in the area!

This is a weird beast we encountered in one of the vigils of the fort. If anyone knows what this is please send us an email to let us know.

Since we were kind of delayed in Portobelo and had to wait for the canal we decided to take our backpacks and go for a few days in Panama City where there was a few places we wanted to go to buy different kind of parts and other items. Panama City is a large city with more than 2 millions inhabitant (the exact figure is hard to get) with large buildings and some dilapidated areas where even the bravest of us all wouldn’t dare setting a foot. But many other areas are just fine at least by the Central American standards. This is also the “other” end of the Panama Canal where we are going to stop once our transit is complete. At the end we were able to do everything we needed to do in two days and stayed only one night before taking the three hour bus ride back to Portobelo. Two days later we went back to bring our SSB radio to an ICOM repair shop but came back the same day.

Cruising west in Panama

Someone once told me “Why taking a picture of a sunset? There will always be sunsets for the rest of your life!”. He is right about the fact that the sun will keep setting every night but I think this picture answers his question. We have nice sunsets back home but really the ones we’ve seen sometimes in the south of the Caribbean Sea are just indescribable.

Here some more scenery we had the chance to watch while leaving the San Blas islands on our way west to get to the Panama Canal.

One thing hard to avoid in the San Blas Island is to buy a crab from the local fishermen. The problem is that the buggers have a real hard shell and the only way I found to get to the meat is to use our trusty hammer. Bang! And we have a tiny piece of smashed crab meat. After an hour of work we had enough to make the most amazing crab chowder we had in our life and that makes us forget the trouble of getting the meat out of this freaking armed armor.

While anchored close to the island of Porvenir this three-mast set his hook just beside us.

We stopped a couple of night close to Isla Grande and took the time to go ashore to visit the small village on the other shore. This village was at the image of everything we saw in Panama so far; people are really poor.

Another place we stopped is Linton Island. According to our cruising guide book the main thing about the island is a couple of monkey families who lives on the island. We went to see for ourselves but the only monkey we saw is on the bottom left hand side of the picture!

Well if we can’t see monkeys the one thing you sure to find anywhere on the earth are human settlements as human form a planetary pandemic. With humans comes the urge they have to get their hands on your money and this is why you can always find a restaurant even in the most remote places such as here. The food was good and the prices more than affordable. The meals cost $4 to $6 but the wine was quite expensive $25/ bottle. We went for the wine by the glass $5/glass!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Christmas in Panama.

We may be in the middle of islands with sand and palm trees we can still celebrate Christmas like everybody else. On December 25th we went on a small island called BBQ Island. This is an inhabited island but is regularly used by sailors to socialize and have a drink. This time the crews of the twenty or so boats anchored nearby gathered on the island to celebrate Christmas. This was a potluck so everyone brought a dish and a gift exchange was also organized. For the occasion we made a reversed pineapple cake and brought a board game we never use. Of course celebrating Christmas in broad day light, wearing shorts and T-shirt with a bunch of people we never met before, on a sand island with palm trees all around is very different than the ones we are used back home with snow, winter coats and boots and the sun setting at 4 pm but it was sure better than staying by ourselves on the boat. Since there is no electricity on the island the party stopped at 6 pm when the sun went down and everyone went back to their boat. Some even had Christmas lights that night and discharged batteries the morning after!

This happy bunch came to whish us Merry Christmas and to ask us if we had a beer. We gave each of them one even though the second one from the front was not more than 15 year old and the fact that it was 8:00 in the morning!

Here Danielle drinks her glass of wine during the Christmas party.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Palm trees and the Kunas

We finally arrived in the San Blas Islands that form a large archipelago off the coast of Panama. Each island is relatively small and only a few meters high with mostly palm trees on them. The water is clear and there is coral everywhere. It would be paradise if it wasn’t of the sand flies or noseehem. These little bugs are the nastiest beast known to us. When the wind is calm these little flying monsters send a legion to the boat for a rampage. They are about the size of a grain of salt and unless you are in bright day light with a white background you just don’t see them. Like mosquitoes they come out at night and pass through our screens to feast on us while we are sleeping. Even if they are tiny their stings are pretty painful and the bumps they leave are very itchy and last over a week. As I write these lines I have at least 100 stings all over my body but mostly on the legs all this from a single night where the word passed that it was “all you can eat” at Chocobo’s! After that the wind picked up in the archipelago and we got only a couple of bites since then, which is not too bad. Of course while I was the main meal Danielle barely got a sting!
Here you can see Chocobo anchored near Porvenir Island. For the gentlemen reading this post please note that Chocobo is the sailboat with yellow covers in the center of the picture. If you finally focus you attention a little bit at this location on the picture you will eventually see it!

The inhabitants of the San Blas islands are the Kuna Indians who leave here with their own semi autonomous local government from an agreement with the government of Panama. The archipelago is actually called Kuna Yala by the kunas. They mostly live in a very traditional ways although we can see many of them talking on cell phones and there are TV antennas here and there. At least they could use “traditional” cell phone made of coconut shells and palm leaves! Here you can see pictures of Wichubhuala island where basically the village covers the entire island and even some houses are built on pylons, which is interesting since most islands are inhabited. We see them all day paddling in their boats carved in a log; some will use a simple sail while others will simply use the good old outboard motor. But I guess they are traditional motor too!

With the corals everywhere and the shallow waters the bounty of the sea is plenty. We could go spear fishing to get our dinner but hey, why bothering doing what the Kunas are so good at and very willing to sell you crabs and lobsters for a decent price? Here we got all five lobsters for $10 and the crab, a bit more expensive, for $5. It took me forever to get the meat out of the crab but the crab chowder we made with it was to die for! The lobsters ended up in the fondue we had for my 43th birthday and in stuffed avocados that Danielle likes so much. One note about the prices; the price we paid may not be very much compared to what we pay in North America but by panamian standard $5 for a crab is a bit pricy. We could have dealt down the price but when we think that the kunas let us come to their island with no restrictions and greet us with friendship and large smiles we thought that paying a bit more to contribute to their local economy to allow them to get what the islands don’t give them is not a very big price to pay.

Here is a group of Kunas passing by in their wooden boat. Often they will stop at our boat to sell us stuff such as crabs, lobsters, fish or molas. The molas are complex and very artistic patterns sowed on a piece of fabric. We bought a nice one and it will make a very nice genuine souvenir of the region. Another interesting point is that the kids on board these boats will almost systematically ask for “caramelos”, which basically means candies. Of course it is almost impossible to resist and we give them some pretty much every time.

Arrived in Panama

We arrived in Panama, more specifically in Porvenir in the San Blas Islands, on December 20, 2009 after our longest leg at sea of 287 nautical miles (534 Km) on this trip that took us 56 hours (2 days and 8 hours). This trip was not also the longest in miles and time but also the one we went the furthest at sea as at one point we were at 80 nautical miles (149 Km) from any land.