Panama, the canal and on to the Galapagos
We arrived in Shelter Bay on a Friday (27th March), so expected to spend the weekend finding our feet and get down to business on Monday. We had a lot to organise, not least the canal transit which could take up to a week.. Luckily there was a pool at the marina so the boys were delighted.. Ben the Cameraman arrived on Saturday morning with his “fixer” Eddie who was helping him with permits and permissions, and moved on board. On Monday morning we started the process of buying stores, fuel, spare parts and all those bits we would need for the next 6 months in the Pacific. Finally I could get my anchor that I wanted and some chain.
While in the marina I saw a good looking Catamaran ..a Gunboat 66 ..called Sugar Daddy. These are the Ferraris of the cat world. All carbon and Kevlar, ultra fast and uber comfortable. I was keen to take a look. On enquiry I found it was owned by the same couple (Bruce and Nora) we had met in the Bahamas in June 2008 who then had a Gunboat 62 called Looking for Elvis (Bruce always said he wasn’t looking too hard) He also had the same skipped and wife team with them, a great combo and they really travel, I mean 20000 miles plus a year. We all had a good laugh together and had a jolly evening on board.
It transpired that Bruce used an anchor called a supermax, he had two and really rated them. Now there’s nothing like a personal recommendation and after reading what I could on the internet, I decided this was the anchor for us . After contacting the manufacturer I organised one to be shipped for collection in Balboa on the Pacific side. Great I had finally bought a serious anchor for our pacific leg, something I had been trying to do since the Caribbean
In addition to entry formalities and general organisation there was a lot of paperwork to sort for the Canal Transit and exit papers for Panama. I decided the best thing was to use an agent. Often in places such as this, natural pinch points, to get things done without delay you have to throw money at it so that time is not wasted. You can really loose weeks in places like Panama so we just had to get on with it. $2500 on shopping! $1500 on boat bits! $1800 for agent, lines, line handlers and canal transit! $500 for marina fees!…and we hadn’t bought any beer yet!
Whilst organising Pegasus and ourselves, the pool proved a godsend as one of us could be there with the boys while the other had Pegasus to themselves. In addition to servicing the engines and preparing Pegasus, I had some business that required internet access and managed to get all my contracts signed and sent, while Amanda had load upon load of shopping to prepare and stow, while reorganise Pegasus below decks.
The agent had told us that Thursday would be our transit day, so we prepared Pegasus and ourselves and were ready.
The morning of 1st April arrived but our agent didn’t! The previous day I had phoned him but was told his phone no longer worked…. Oh Dear.
We were scheduled to transit that afternoon and would forfeit our bond if we were not on station at the correct time. Early afternoon the agent arrived with line handlers lines and fenders, much to our relief. The only thing we didn’t have was the exit Zarpe and our passports stamped. He assured us that he would get this done and be back by 4, when we intended to leave. It was a close run thing and we met his launch as we headed out of the marina. We now had all our paperwork in order and were set.
It occurred to me that April fools day was not the best day to go through the Panama Canal, but as it transpired all went well, and after a night in Gatum lake we arrived at the Balboa Yacht club in the early afternoon of the 2nd April, and picked up one of their buoys. We had made the jump, and were finally in the Pacific. I had read a lot of things about the actual transit, which always heightens ones levels of apprehension, but all said and done it is just a series of locks and although the sizes and volumes are staggering it was relatively straightforward.
Sitting on deck with the last of the sun, we looked to the North were a mile away we could clearly see the Bridge of the Americas. It’s amazing to think that the massive continent of the Americas is divided in two by the Panama canal, and there are only 3 crossing points. A rather rickety swing bridge in front of Gatum lock gates, the 2 lane centenary bridge and the 4 lane bridge of the Americas. I find it hard to imagine that they still have capacity .
Balboa, or Panama proper had a rather different feel than Shelter bay and Colon. Much more cosmopolitan, more business like and certainly wealthier. The Canal authority employs many people and the Canal is a massive earner for the country. They process on average 38 ships a day at an average $250000 US each so $9.5 million a day 365 days a year, with maybe a 5% loss for maintenance…that’s…err…a lot. No wonder they think yachts are a bit of a pain at $650us each!
We had more shopping to do and a few last bits. We needed all the fresh food supplies and definitely a new DVD player for the boys. We seem to go through a player every 2 months. Amanda needed some time in the supermarket on her own, so I took the boys swimming at an open-air pool. A sort of Panamanian Tooting Lido.
There were only about 50 people in a 6 lane pool with 5 and 10 meter diving boards. It was the usual scene, the 16 year olds jumping and diving off the 5-meter platform, the 10-meter platform closed. Now Jean-Jaques loves to jump in the water, but Louis is not so keen. After half an hour or so I watched JJ approach, and start to climb up the ladder. Ok,, he won’t do it but its good for him to have a look. The local boys helped him off the ladder and off he went. He just stood on the end and jumped. No thoughts, no worried looks, just jumped. He had a huge smile on his face and just went straight back up, time and time again. I was quite amazed. Louis, seeing JJ having a laugh indicated that he wanted to jump. Right, there’s no way I thought. I took him up and held him as we looked over the edge. He made a little noise and clearly wanted to go back down. OK, that’s sorted then. 5 minutes later and Louis had changed his mind. Up we went again. This time I asked if he was sure. Yes he wanted to jump, so I took off his swim jacket and held him with me. I looked over the edge and not wanting to be shown up by a 2.5 year old knew I had to jump, so off we went. Louis came up with a grin from ear to ear. So that was us for the next hour. JJ jumping alone, and Louis with me. The locals didn’t know what to make of it, and neither did I, I mean it was really quite high.
After a week at the Balboa Yacht Club we were ready to go We were glad to be leaving. It wasn’t really set up for yachts and we felt ..well tolerated but not really welcome, unlike Cartagena which was very welcoming and friendly. The Columbians were always asking questions, were extremely polite and hospitable, and proud of their city and heritage. We didn’t feel that about the Panamanians although all that we met were polite and courteous, it was just different.
In Columbia we had felt safe, but in Colon it was definitely dangerous and although less so, Panama was also threatening. One afternoon we took a taxi to the Old Town with the cameraman and his equipment. To approach the old town you need to pass through some quite run down areas. On our approach, only a mile from our destination, there were suddenly 10 or so 20 year olds around the Taxi where there had been none a moment before. They had run out of a side street and blocked the taxi from going forward, shouting and slamming the bonnet. Sensing the situation the Taxi edged forward pushing the youths round the side of the bonnet. I looked up the side street and saw a woman clutching her stomach. Clearly she had been shot or stabbed, and the youths were trying to stop the taxi by force to help their situation. There was no way he was stopping and on seeing this, one of them tried to break the windows by throwing stones at the glass as he accelerated away. Had he stopped in that neighbourhood we would all have been robbed within minutes. Every chancer seeing the scene would have been on the street within minutes. We would have been eaten alive. We were lucky the windows did not break and that the Taxi driver just kept going. It was all very sudden, but you could see it unfolding as it happened. The fact that there were children in the car made no difference to the stone throwers.
We had one last issue to sort before we could leave. Jean-Jaque’s passport is due to expire in French Polynesia, so we needed to organise a new one. We contacted the British consulate and made arrangements to sort the paperwork. All seemed to be going well until we heard that the biometric printer in Costa Rica, where the passport was to be issued, was broken, and wouldn’t be fixed until after Easter. After much discussion a plan was hatched. The new passport would be delivered to Panama, then forwarded to the New Zealand high Commission (commonwealth) in Tahiti where we would pick it up. I really hope its there when we arrive!!!
Ben the Camera man left on Tuesday, satisfied with the footage he had shot, and on Thursday 8th April we headed off to the Las Perlas islands 40 miles south of Panama for a bit of R+R before the passage to the Galapagos. We motored the whole way and in the early afternoon saw a school of Killer whales rising close to the boat.
The islands on the west side of the Isthmus are remarkably different. Gone are the desert island and coconut palms, replaced by an arid landscape with deciduous trees and only a very few coconut palms. They are mostly rock.
We stayed at Isla Contradora for 2 nights and had some good social with friends on their boat Mikado. A day on the beach, some walking on the island, dinner ashore and we were ready to leave. We all wanted to get going.
Its 850 miles from Panama to the Galapagos islands through the Inter tropical convergence zone or doldrums so we were prepared for windless days and had bought and stored an additional 200 litres of diesel. We expected to motor for a day or two then pick up some wind. We headed south out of the bay of Panama. This proved quite slow as we had at least a knot of current against us.
Our first night it rained heavily with distant lightening. We were filling our water tanks and there was a mighty clap of thunder overhead. Although I’m sure we weren’t hit? Our wind indicator, which shows wind speed and direction, just stopped working as did the primary GPS. I suspect they are both fried. I don’t think they are repairable and in fact I went up the mast twice and removed the wind indicator.
That was a difficult thing. Although all seemed calm at sea level, 60 ft higher at the top of the mast it was a job in itself just to hold on. I was being thrown around and had a sudden realisation that what I was doing was really dangerous and that I had to finish the job quickly or get down. There’s no way I could climb up there at sea on my own, or even be winched up. You need both hands and legs just to hang on.
We motored, sailed and motor sailed for 4 days, and finally got a steady wind on day 5 where we could start to clock some mileage.
While motoring we saw some amazing wildlife. Eagle rays just leaping out of the water all around us. Manta rays on the surface, pilot whales, dolphins and sharks. I’m sure I saw a marlin sunning himself on the surface as well. The sea was alive.
As soon as the wind filled in we sailed hard and on the evening of the seventh day we arrived in Wreck Bay on the island of San Cristobal, Galapagos. We arrived at night and with a little trepidation felt our way into the anchorage and found a tight little spot dropped our new anchor and cracked open an anchor dram. There was movement all around and with a torch we saw at least10 sealions swimming around the boat making quite a racket. Surreal.
We were all up early the following day and the boys were delighted to see two sealions asleep on the engine room hatches. Amanda and I knew that they would be on board. During the night Amanda woke me up saying that she could hear something. She popped her head out of the hatch, to literally be kissed by an inquisitive sealion. I’m not sure who was more shocked, as both parties recoiled with some speed.
The water was much cooler in the Galapagos at 23-24 degrees so quite refreshing, not the 27 degrees we were used to. We all swam as there was a lovely beach just 50 yards from Pegasus and on Sunday and Monday the water was crystal clear We discussed our plans.
It was apparent that to stay any length of time we would need to clear in with an agent. The islands are spread out and to move your boat you need to sign in and out of every island, using a new agent each time. Generally its about $400 for paperwork and permits for a 20 day stay. Its really geared around local employment and tourists. We certainly didn’t want to stay that long, as 2 small boys are not going to sit on someone else’s boat for hours or listen to a guide, that just wasn’t going to work. They need much more interaction. On our wish list were sealions, turtles, tortoises, and penguins. We decided that the penguins on Isla Isabella would have to wait for another day. All the others were available on San Cristobal. Having arrived on Saturday night, we checked in on Monday morning for a 72-hour stay. We were told that a free stay was now limited to 24 hours. A little short but it suited us fine. We saw giant tortoises, swam with turtles and sealions and had a good meal ashore. On Tuesday we bought fuel and supplies and had some Internet time for weather routeing.
The Grib files looked good so after picking up my Zarpe or exit clearance and a final swim, we were ready to get going on the next leg, Galapagos to Marquesas some 3000 miles.
I started to pull up the anchor and found I had a problem. Our anchor rode was well wrapped around a boulder in 5 meters of water. I repeatedly free dived but just couldn’t clear it was at the limit of my range and the visibility was pretty bad due to a large swell that had been running for the last 12 hours. We were stuck!
I called a friend on the radio. They said they had a friend who had some diving gear on board. 30 minutes later we were clear of the bottom, the only casualty a cut rode / chain splice.
Its amazing the help you can summon when you are part of the cruising community. That’s the difference we have found being slightly off the regular cruising routes. There is a real spirit of camaraderie and a pool of knowledge with people keen to help others. Were not in the same boat, but on the same ocean with the same challenges and the same 3000 miles ahead of us.
We motored out of Wreck bay at 1600, 21/4/09, on a glassy sea with some 3000 miles to our next landfall.
Las Perlas to Galapagos Daily milage 105,101,117,98,151,184,172 (part)
See our Photographs of Panama canal and on to the Galapagos at