Thursday, February 25, 2010

Now ready to cross the Pacific.

We’ve been pretty quiet on our blog since we crossed the Panama Canal at the beginning of February and the main reason is that we didn’t explore much the country. In fact, we spend most of the last three weeks preparing to cross the Pacific Ocean, which is our next step and what a step it is! There are close to 4000 nautical miles between Panama City and the Marquesas islands in French Polynesia. This is about the distance we travelled so far in our voyage! Luckily this passage will be in two steps. The first step is a passage about 1000 nm between Panama City and the Galapagos islands, where we plan to spend one to two weeks, and the second step is a 3000 nm passage from the Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas Islands. The first part should take about 6 days at sea while the second will take more than three weeks. During the passages you will be able to follow us on our blog by clicking the “Where we are” button at the top of the page. By clicking on the pin, you can read a small comment Danielle sent with our position. The blue one indicating our last position Again remember that the map on the side of the page is not going to be updated during that period since we need internet to update it and that the fishes in the middle of the Pacific are not really into the WiFi craze. You absolutely need to use the “Where we are” button since we can update it using our SSB radio or our satellite phone. Also take note that we are not going to update our position every day due to the fact that the distances involved here are so large that the pins would be one on top of each other’s anyway. Also, we don’t want to tell you at what frequency we will update our position because if for a reason or another we cannot do it we don’t want everyone following us to start panicking and thinking that something wrong happened! (especially our moms ;-) ) So, no little pin one day = don’t panic. It only means that we are probably too lazy to do an update.

Travelling such distances on a sailboat is not an easy thing and I am not talking about the endurance it takes to be bumped for weeks by the waves at sea but really of the potential breaks on the boat during the passage. Let’s put things in perspective here. During the next month and half we will use the boat nonstop under sail with all the navigation equipment turned on most of the time to travel the same distance we covered in the past 15 months. For one this boat never did a passage that long and for two neither did we! The probability that something breaks is practically 100%. The question is not whether something is going to break but how are we going to deal with it when it happens? This is exactly what we’ve been doing for the past three weeks; preparing the boat and ourselves in order to minimize all the major problems that can occur and we can try to prevent. Concretely this means to inspect thoroughly the engines and the riggings, to ensure that both autopilots are in perfect working conditions and well oiled and to ensure that all other equipments are in order. Danielle spent hours analyzing all the possible routes as well as the wind patterns of the past two months. We don’t joke with these things and we very well know that we can prepare as much as we want there will always be a high probability that something turns wrong. There are presently two boats here in Panama City who never made it to the Galapagos. The first one saw his mast snap in two and had to motor his way back while the other had a sudden wind change and got his spinnaker, a large balloon shape sail at the front of the boat used for light wind, slid under the boat, and the line got caught in his rudder and propeller and broke them both. They drifted for hours before the rescue arrived and bring them back to Panama. Thankfully in both cases nobody got physically hurt but we can assume that the cost of the repairs or associated to the rescue are probably high.
We top up the diesel tanks and our two propane tanks. We also bought so much food the boat now barely floats! Actually, we have big long green hairs growing on the two last steps because they are underwater all the time. The point of stocking so much food that we could feed all sub-Saharan Africa is not that the trip is that long, it is only a month and half, but because of the fact that in the South-Pacific Islands food is either scarce or very expensive while in Panama prices are about half of what we pay in North-America. So we did what we always do and stocked enough food for the next three or four month just to realize on the other side that it was probably not necessary. But hey, at least our little squirrel side is satisfied.

But the main reason we spent so much time in the Panama City is not as much the length of the preparation but the absence of a proper weather window to cross to the Galapagos. Thus instead of turning our thumbs in the very uncomfortable anchorage of La Playita in Panama City we spent a few days in the nearby islands where the water is much nicer and where we even caught two big fishes with the line we pull behind the boat. For us it is quite an achievement knowing that for the whole past year we never caught a fish with this line! We didn’t fish these large shrimps but instead bought them from a passing fisherman. Each of the 15 or so shrimps is about 7 inches long and we paid $8 for the lot! The fact is we are very bad fishermen. Sometimes at anchor we try to fish in the fish banks around the boat. Once the water was so clear we could see the fishes close to the hull, we threw our line directly onto them and I am sure we knock one once with our bate but it was either that they were not interested or then they would nibble at our bate until it is all gone and all this without touching the hook of course! In a few days we plan to return to the Las Perlas Islands to wait for our weather window for the crossing. We will then see if fish is on the menu again!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Crossing the Panama Canal in two steps.

We are now at a turning point in our journey. First this is the point where we cross from the Atlantic Ocean (the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean and second we go through one of the most famous structure built by men today namely the Panama Canal. The pyramids of Egypt it is very nice but it is completely useless. For an engineer like me this is a big pile of rocks. All right, really big rocks piled over 3000 years ago I agree but useless nevertheless. The Panama Canal was built a hundred years ago almost to the day and still functions 24 hours a day 365 days a year. The six locks and the artificial lake spread over 70 km and between 20 000 and 40 000 people died building it. This is engineering! Danielle for her part appreciate of course the scale of the installations but it is also for her 25 different ways of smashing the boat into pieces if something wrong happens during the crossing!

It is then with much apprehension, excitement and curiosity that we attack the crossing of the Canal. Fundamentally, it is simply 6 locks and a lake to cross. After the 33 locks on the Erie Canal we crossed at the beginning of our journey this should be a simple matter of a well packed day. But there is a small technical difference here. You see, the Panama Canal it is not for the small and tiny boats. Over 40 super cargos cross the locks that measure 1000 feet long by 110 feet wide every day and pay between $50,000 and $200,000 to do so! Us we pay $609 and find it way too expensive. The canal authorities don’t want us here and I assume that they let us pass only because they are forced to do so in a way or another. For this reason they ensure through a set of rules and procedures that everything will go smooth once we go through because the last thing they need is a smart ass arriving with his little plastic boat and a sail and saying; “Hey, locks that’s nothing. Look at the pro here. I’ll go through this in no time.’’ And then does everything wrong and finally blocks the canal and at the same time of the most important source of revenues of the country and managed by probably the most profitable company in the world.

The rules are relatively simple and logical. We must have 4 line handlers, a captain at the wheel, 4 lines at least 120 feet long, about 10 tires on the side of the boat to fend her and finally an adviser employed by the company must be on board at all time during the crossing. In addition to this we must go to many administrative offices in Colon to process the paperwork of the Canal authorities, the port authorities, the customs and immigration. To make our life easier we hired an ‘’agent’’ named Tito how takes care of us for the paperwork, rent us the lines and tires and provides additional line handlers should we need any. Our dear Tito was not very expensive but he had two interesting characteristics. The first one is that he would never be there at the time he said he would be and the second is that no matter what, he would do what he said he would do even though most of the time it is at the last minute. Because of this everything goes smooth but we need to be very patient! But while we were waiting for Tito we prepared the boat by protecting the solar panels and by preparing the lines for the crossing.

At 16:30 on Sunday January 31, 2010 our advisor came aboard. To meet our requirement of 4 line handlers we agreed with Marion and Theo, who sail on their boat Marionetto, to cross with Chocobo first then to come back to Colon and cross with Marionetto two days later. For the fourth line handler we hired Leonardo a guy from Colon provided by Tito who wears a yellow T-shirt on the picture. In foreground you can see Marion and Theo and behind this is José our advisor for the first part of the crossing.

At the exact planned time (which changed three times within the last hour before we entered the lock) we entered the first lock called Gatun Lock, which are in fact three locks in cascade representing the first three locks of the crossing and raising us by about 85 feet from the Atlantic Ocean to Gatun Lake. The crossing of the entire canal happens over two days. The first day we go through the first three locks and spend the night on Lake Gatun then on the second day we cross Lake Gatun and go through the last three locks. On the way up we are placed behind the cargo ship crossing with us. You didn’t think that they would work their entire lock system just for a sailboat do you? But here the cargo in question is only a small 500 feet long ship so we had enough room to place our mega 40 feet sailboat behind a second boat, which is here a red fishing boat called Queen Alisa heading to Hawaii.

We are very lucky this time because there are no other boats with us to attach to the walls of the lock. The four lines are attached to large cleats on the top of the walls and each line handler ensures to keep the tension and removing the slack on his line as the boat rises. Danielle is at the wheel and moves the boat from one lock to the other once the large doors open. Everything goes fine albeit the justified fears of Danielle. I say justified because we’ve learn from our experience in the Erie Canal that rising in a lock can be fatal for the boat. When the millions of gallons of water are poured into the chamber through giant pipes under the surface large whirls are created and push the boat in all directions. This is exactly why the Canal Authorities ask for four strong lines to hold the boat in position during the rise.

A little after dark we moored Chocobo to the largest mooring buoy we’ve ever seen to spend the night in Gatun Lake. They say that the lake is infested by crocodiles but none of them bothered to come to see us. However, we could easily hear the howling monkeys from the Central American jungle surrounding the lake. Danielle pleased everybody with a delicious Suisse cheese macaroni that she made in the afternoon and then after the advisor left. After a well deserved bottle of wine we all went to bed for a short night as the departure was scheduled to be at 6:30am the next morning!

On Monday February 1st, 2010 we crossed Lake Gatun on a three hour ride and arrived at the famous Gaillard Cut, which is a giant trench dug by hundreds of thousands of workers with picks and dynamite a hundred years ago. This is here that the majority of the tens of thousands of people who died during the construction of the Canal found their last sleep. The Panamanians (or should we say the Colombians as the area was a province of Colombia at the time) who built this work didn’t dig only with their sweat but also with their blood. It is unbelievable to think that it took so long for our societies to come up with descent safety regulations at work.

For the last three locks, Pedro Miguel and the two famous Miraflores locks with their giant doors, we were rafted with another catamaran slightly larger than us. We were again lucky since no large ship was with us but only six small crafts crossing at that time. The crossing went with no incidents and by early afternoon we were safely anchored close to the marina La Playita de Amador in Panama City. We were very happy that everything went so well and were ready to go back to cross again on board of Marionetto, which should be a formality for us four since we already had the experience of crossing once. But we couldn’t be more wrong than that and what we didn’t know at the moment of leaving Chocobo for Colon is that the real adventure of this crossing was ahead of us and not behind!

We arrived by bus in Colon around 6:30pm just before sunset. Marion needed to go to the grocery before returning to the boat, which stayed at anchor in the Flats of the port of Cristobal at the entrance of the canal. We were hungry so we went to McDonalds and called Tito who was to take us to the dock where the water taxis can take us to the boat for the astronomical price of $20. Keep in mind that the 2 hour bus ride from Panama City to Colon cost $1.80 per person. But there was a problem and it was that at that time it was already dark in Colon and Tito expected us in the afternoon. The fact is that anyone who knows Colon wouldn’t dare walking at night in most of the area of the city and especially the one where the water taxis are located. Of course, this we didn’t know and for four white peoples, tourist on top of that, walking in Colon at night is like being four turkeys walking on the street on Thanksgiving! Tito was physically in Panama City at this moment and painfully explained us with his broken English that we must not set a foot on the street, jump immediately in a taxi and go spend the night at the hotel Sotelo near his office and meet him there in the morning. He couldn’t get a water taxi for us tonight because the employees and the owner of the boats would never venture on the street along the docks at night. Tito himself had lost two members of his family during the past five months as they were assassinated by the gangs of thieves marauding at night in Colon. After hanging up the cell phone we looked at each other; Oups! The McDonalds was guarded by a security guard and Danielle went to him and asked him to help us to get a cab. Finally we jumped in a taxi and once at the Sotelo hotel we were greeted by Leonardo, the guy we hired to cross the canal, who Tito had called and asked him to ensure we were safe at the hotel for the night. Finally everything ended well. The cleanness of the room was debatable but after our trip to Peru nothing bothers we anymore and at least we were not killed for the $30 we had in our pockets!

The next morning we went safely back to Marionetto and at the end of the afternoon, after Tito brought the lines, the tires and Leonardo 30 minutes before our departure time, we cross the Gatun Locks for the second time. Everything went well and just before sunset we were moored to the same buoy we used two days ago with the monkeys shouting but not showing up and a delicious dinner Marion made for us. However, it was the hottest night of our life. There was simply no wind on Lake Gatun that night and the temperature reached 32°C with 100% humidity. Even the crocodiles were too hot to come and eat us!

But the real fun really started at the Pedro Miguel lock. For the crossing Marionetto was rafted to another boat about the same size. However, we needed to attach the raft to another much bigger cruise boat doing cruises in the canal for the tourists, which was attached to the wall. Gary the captain of the other boat was the one steering the raft and the approach to the cruise boat at the very end of the lock presented itself well until we were close enough to throw our mooring lines at her. This is then that things went bad. The wind picked up suddenly and started to push the raft away from the cruise boat to a point that we couldn’t attached to her anymore. Gary turned toward the cruise boat in an attempt to bring the raft back at the cruise boat but with no success. Me, I was at the bow and I then threw my mooring line to the guy on the cruise boat so he can attach it. At this moment the wind caught the back of the raft and we turned 180° within the lock. Gary’s boat engine wasn’t strong enough for him to get back control of the two sailboats attached together and the wind was now dangerously pushing us on the closed front doors of the lock. Our only chance now was the line I threw before the boat started to turn. Everybody started shouting at the guy on the cruise boat to tell him to attach the line, which he did on a hurry. The line went straight and the raft stopped. Gary put his engine in full throttle and managed to bring back the raft. We untied the mooring line that just saved the two boats then turn the raft again and safely attached it to the cruise boat with all the passengers following our maneuver with great interests!

Eventually, with a super cargo behind us the crossing of the locks went very well even though four hours and a bottle of wine were necessary for us to recover from the Pedro Miguel lock episode! And as Marion put it so well after, this was a wonderful experience to cross the canal but if someone would ask her to cross again with them she would pass this time.