Having returned from our South American trip at the end of November, we were under the mistaken illusion that all that remained for us to do prior to setting off for the San Blas to meet up with my daughter, Rachel and family on 11th December, were a few remaining “little” jobs and provisioning for Christmas. Wrong again! As we neared the date and provisioned the boat to bursting with no free space left in lockers or cupboards, our spirits fell as the fridge went into decline, spluttered and gave up. Mike sped off towards Panama City in a taxi to obtain a spare part from a salesman at the halfway point, but typically Panamanian, he decided he would be late for dinner and didn’t turn up. The next day the whole thing was repeated and with the part in hand, the refrigeration engineer was entreated to fit us into his busy pre-Christmas schedule. To cut yet another long story short, the engineer fixed the fridge problem up to the moment of leaving, checked (or so we thought) the freezer and we set out for the San Blas together with a young German backpacker who had begged a lift from us.
It’s unlikely that we shall ever again offer a free lift to a backpacker. He had no interest whatsoever in the boat or our entreaties to be careful with water, gas, etc. He spent most of the journey either in his cabin or lying at full stretch in the cockpit whilst we worked and handled the lines around him. Once in the Carti Islands he suggested that maybe he might stay with us a little longer whilst he worked out his onward journey to Colombia, not particularly difficult but maybe a little more than he wanted to pay. We found him a hostel and some alternative means of transport and said our sad farewells – we later heard that he reached Colombia unscathed.
Rachel and family were delivered to us at anchor after a breakneck 4×4 ride through the jungle to Carti from Panama City. We had decided to pay a flying visit to the Robson Islands where we had previously enjoyed a canoe trip up the river with Justino. Rachel and co followed in our path and received their initiation into the local canoe, island and jungle life of the Kuna Indians and after much hilarity and trepidation settled themselves into the narrow and unstable log canoe and enjoyed the experience.
Later that day, Rachel noticed that the food in the freezer seemed a little on the soft side. Here we go again – this time the freezer had packed up and packed with several hundreds of dollars of meat, including the precious Christmas turkey (sawn into two halves to go into the freezer and the oven) and a large ham. That sinking feeling yet again!!! Our options weren’t great – we could head straight back to Shelter Bay or try to find an alternative solution in the San Blas which seemed like a very long shot. We were advised on the radio net to take our meat to a local island restaurant and ask to use their freezer – we did just that and for the princely sum of $10 a day, after cooking up enough of the defrosting mince to last us several days, we left our Christmas fare in the unscrupulous hands of the local restaurant owner (they ate most of our chicken!!). Mike by sheer good fortune managed to locate an Italian refrigeration engineer in a nearby anchorage and we sped there to beg him to rescue us. Four days later we were in possession of a repaired freezer (new condenser which the engineer built to fit) and we were able to reclaim our depleted meat stocks from the restaurant.
In the meantime, I might add, life wasn’t too uncomfortable in the beautiful anchorage of the East Lemmons where we awaited the ministrations of the freezer rescuer, Rachel, Paul, Ella and Sam put our new two man (can stretch to four) kayak to good use and explored the reefs and became adept at snorkelling in turquoise waters.
Naturally this being a boat, it wasn’t the end of our inconveniences (the regulator on the alternator packed up, limiting our power source) and we spent a frustrating 24 hours trying to top up our water whilst the Colombian supply boats took their time and commandeered the only jetty where we were able to obtain water – we finally tied up alongside the wooden Colombian hulk and precariously jumped the gap from us to them to the wall with the hose pipe stretching over everything. I think the boat guys enjoyed the jesting and flirting with 14 year old Ella although she, of course, was oblivious to the attention!!!
Although the family had generally withstood the winds and choppy waters of the islands, the long run back to Linton Bay on Christmas Eve proved to be just that bit too much for non-sailors. Following Christmas Day and Father Christmas’ visit to the pretty anchorage and a visit to meet the island monkeys who demanded their token gift of food before allowing anyone to set foot on land, the family decided to return to Shelter Bay with Joachim, our German friend. He had come by road to join us for Christmas lunch (but mysteriously disappeared to eat the much more appealing lamb offered by an Austrian couple rather than our delicious turkey). So on Boxing Day the family regained their land legs and Mike and I sailed the boat back to Shelter Bay.
We confirmed our schedule to go through the Canal on 28th and together with three other line handlers picked up the pilot as arranged and set out with much excitement and some anxious anticipation to tackle the first of the locks. Still in daylight, we followed a huge container ship into the Gatun locks and with lines on both sides kept Romano safely in the centre of the locks. We had worried, unnecessarily as it turned out, that we would have problems, not be able to catch the lines thrown to us, have very little time to get the ropes in order or generally make a mess of our allotted tasks, but it all went like clockwork and with some gentle direction from our pilot we followed his instructions and arrived in Lake Gatun safely and unscathed. (We heard tales from others of horrifying incidents and accidents.).
The pilot guided us in the dark to the large rubber buoy in the lake and after tying up for the night, the pilot boat glided alongside and Victor, our pilot of the day, left us. At 6.30 the following morning we were joined by Carlos and we set off across the vast man made Gatun Lake and the impressive Culebra Cut where for the next five hours we enjoyed the sights and appreciated the incredible engineering undertaking that the Canal had been.
By now we were enjoying ourselves and reluctant to finish our crossing. Our exit from the Canal came with the three locks down to the Pacific and we entered the first of them followed by a huge car transporter which filled the lock. Their bow towered over us as they were slowly pulled by “mules” (mechanised) foot by foot within to what seemed like touching distance of us. We could hear the guy on the bridge saying “I can’t see them any more” as he talked to his colleague on the bow who, with walkie talkie in hand, guided the enormous ship ever closer to us. It’s a thrilling moment as, safely tied up, the locks fill or empty and you rise or fall as the swirling water empties or fills and you can only wonder at this modern day wonder which has withstood one hundred years of constant use. We were told that they close the locks (there are two lanes side by side) once a year for maintenance for maybe a week, but incredibly the 2 metre thick walls are still the originals as are the lock gates, all installed over one hundred years ago. Carlos, our pilot, was very pessimistic about the new canal and locks currently under construction for today’s larger ships, which are already late in their completion date and having leakage problems through bad construction. He forecasted that they would not last beyond five years before needing severe remedial work – a sad indictment of our modern systems and work ethics.
We fairly shot out of the last lock as the fresh waters rushed out to mix with the salt of the Pacific where an initial 5 knot current diminishes over a number of miles. The Pacific side of the Canal is badly served with marinas and anchorages and with little choice we put the anchor down in the rolly, noisy and none too clean anchorage of La Playita (at the end of the Causeway built with the spoil taken from the Canal excavations which joined several little islands to the mainland).
After ordering more parts and devices and spending two weeks listening to the workboats roar their way in and out of the nearby marina, timing dinghy entrance and exits to the boat to avoid the mountainous wash of the passing traffic, watching the hundreds of Pelicans diving all around us and generally frying in the heat of the oppressive Panamanian climate, we decided to head for the Perlas Islands some 35 miles away and some peace and quiet.
In our view, the Perlas are a much prettier group of islands than the San Blas. For starters they are blessed with hills and lush, varied greenery with plenty of trees, not just palm, as well as beautiful beaches. We anchored for a few days off of the lovely island of Contadora where we swam, snorkelled and explored ashore in search of coconuts. The harvest was pretty bleak as most of the time we discovered that man or crabs had beaten us to it, but we did manage to return to the boat with one or two. (Along with raisins, dried fruit and other nuts, I use the coconut, finely chopped and dried in the oven to supplement the local rather uninteresting muesli). The anchorage which lays between two islands isn’t great as we were at the mercy of a very strong current which made swimming off the boat precarious. I discovered very swiftly that it was stronger than I am when I jumped in to rescue a fly-away bowl and very quickly realised that swimming back to the boat wasn’t an option (and I wasn’t going to relinquish my hold on the bowl either!) Whilst weighing up the probability that I would be asking for asylum on the next boat downwind, Mike managed to throw me a rope and drag me back. Another afternoon, we again experienced the strength of the current when Mike proceeded to row us from shore back to the boat (we hadn’t put the outboard on the dinghy). He puffed and sweated profusely with just a few oaths before we finally made it back to safety and he could reach for a well earned beer.
We heard on the daily VHF net that very strong winds were about to hit us and decided to move south to a more protected anchorage on the second largest island of San Jose, besides which we needed somewhere without current where we could clean the bottom. The strong winds didn’t, of course, materialise to the extent that we had been warned, but the anchorage was pretty and quiet and Mike did, at last, get to try out his Brownie hookah system which worked brilliantly and between us with ropes under the keel, we managed to scrape off the profuse barnacle and weed garden – so much for Coppercoat antifouling! We continued to sail on around the islands to the beautiful bay on Isla del Cana, another lovely protected anchorage where we were met by dozens of rays swimming around us in formation of about 8 or 9 per squadron. They approached the boat as we anchored, eyeing us as they glided past and it seemed that having satisfied themselves that we were harmless, disappeared until the following day. We must have arrived in the islands during the annual hatching of a swarm of butterflies and we watched thousands of these large iridescent black, green and gold creatures, flying in all directions – why would they be flying out to sea?! They were too fast for our photos, but we did manage to fish one out of the water on a trip up the nearby little tidal river.
Although we had anticipated spending most of our five weeks before we needed to depart Panama in the Perlas, as always, it wasn’t to be and with no information or response on certain parts and the SSB still not working, we had no option but to leave these delightful islands and head back to Panama City and the not so delightful anchorage of La Playita. It was no pleasure to put our anchor down once more into the thick, glutinous mud which I had spent some time cleaning off the decks, the anchor and chain and myself when we had left two weeks earlier. Within a very short time, our beautifully clean hull, below and above the waterline, was again filthy and encrusted.
These past four weeks have been incredibly frustrating but the SSB (long range radio), after hours/days of checking, rechecking all the components and finally calling in a professional is at last working well – hurray!! The AIS is, fingers crossed, also off the list and we are, dare I say it, nearly ready to leave. We are well provisioned after many visits to the supermarkets, with the waterline now below the plimsoll line with just the fruit and vegetable market to re-visit. (At our last visit, we bought half a sack of sweet local oranges – about 50 for $2.50 – with imported oranges in the supermarket at 50c each we reckon that must be the biggest bargain ever.)
I took the opportunity to relieve the boredom of La Playita by line handling for a yacht going through to the Caribbean side and it was interesting to experience the journey from the other direction as well as giving me the chance to see and appreciate again the incredible engineering feat that is the Panama Canal. It was fun, although somewhat chaotic with a couple of gays proudly flying their “rainbow flag” and their relatives who had never been on a boat before. Apart from one cliff-hanging episode in the second lock when we failed to tie up to our neighbouring tourist vessel because her bow thrusters continued to push us towards the opposite wall, everything went according to plan and we raced across the lake and out into the Caribbean side all in one day and I returned to La Playita the following day.
Our new crew member, Rich, arrived a week ago and has been hard at work ever since. Hopefully, following Mike’s dental appointment tomorrow to glue in place once more the bridge which he had fitted in Colon, topping up the gas, filling the water and fuel tanks and that visit to the market for more oranges and much more, we shall be ready to check out on Thursday and leave for the Perlas to clean the bottom. And with fair winds next weekend we shall finally be able to set our sights on Easter Island and the long passage south.