Friday, 8 May 2015

The Panama run

Before the canal, Panama was Porto Bello and its harbour
We're called a Y-Job. First timers through the Panama Canal. That means we'll have a Panama Canal Authority Advisor with us when we transit from the Colon side of the Panama isthmus to the Pacific side. We have been instructed to feed him well, and to offer him only bottled water. No watermaker water, thank you.

The Panamanian Canal Authority Admeasurer visits Enki

We enter the canal on the evening of Saturday 9 May, all going according to plan. That's tomorrow.

Sailing through anchored ships towards the canal breakwater - Atlantic anchorage, it's called

Approaching the breakwater, under motor 

We've been instructed by our agent (Erick Galvez, from Centenario Consulting) to leave Shelter Bay Marina in time to be anchored at the Flats (the anchorage off Colon) by 1 pm. The advisor won't come on board until 5 pm,  but you cross the channel when when you're told to cross, you anchor where you are told to anchor, and then you listen out carefully on Channel 12 for any changes to the schedule. The traffic going through the Panama Canal is much too big to argue with.

We're going through.

It's quite something.

When we say we're nervous, we mean it. Not jittery nervous, just aware that while most transits are uneventful (people on a large catamaran which came in last night from the Pacific side described their transit as "fun"), there isn't any room for error. You take this one seriously.

Shelter Bay marina takes cruisers to the supermarket by bus, and picks them up

Other people walk...
or catch public transport

We crossed over the canal the other day by road on the way to the Rey supermarket on the grim outskirts of gangster-ridden Colon. The massive, studded iron gates of the first of the three Gatun locks looked their age, 100 years old. Water ripped through the median "strip" separating the canal's two lanes. The currents in the locks are notoriously strong. You're forbidden to swim, though I've read of one yacht skipper who jumped overboard to cut away a line which had wrapped around the prop. You don't want that happening. Definitely not.

A jerry jug necklace - we've got 12 now

Alex checks the secondary fuel tank for sludge

We'll have four extra bodies on board, in addition to the advisor. Two are very experienced seafarers, Doreen and Michael from the Canadian yacht St Leger whom we met at Curacao Marine and shared an anchorage with at Porto Bello, about 20 miles east of the canal breakwater. St Leger (another Y-job) is booked to transit the canal a few days after us, and Doreen and Michael jumped at the chance to be line-handlers on Enki. We're hiring a couple of young electrical engineering students to make up our required 4 line-handlers (I'm floating, and the cook). They come with Erick's personal recommendation - one is his son. We've heard from other cruisers who've transited with these boys that they know their stuff, and they speak English well. We think we're in good hands all round.

Panama is the end of one stage, and the beginning of another.

Porto Bello town and anchorage

Spanish cannons at what's left of one of three forts at Porto Bello

A restored Spanish custom house - 17th century

They no longer stack silver in the streets of Porto Bello

We've covered a lot of miles since we left Turkey at the end of May last year. It makes sense in some respects to do as Australian friends we've met along the way are doing which is leave your boat here at Shelter Bay marina (we've spotted a shrink-wrapped Tainui on the hard), go home and see the family (and, for the well organised, earn some money) and then come back to the boat in, say, November. That allows time to fit in a bit more cruising in the western Caribbean and then get an early start on the big trip across the Pacific. Some yachts go through the canal as early as January on the understanding that cyclones are so rare in the eastern part of French Polynesia that the usual caveat about not sailing in the Pacific before April can be safely ignored. Certainly many people go through in February now, with the peak transit season for yachts heading across the Pacific being March and April. We are at the tail end of the armada.

Shelter Bay marina is backed by jungle 

Fringe dwellers at Shelter Bay
Ah, the benefits of hindsight. We could have organised our cruising adventure so many different ways. But when we started out on Enki three years ago, we did what was possible and we're still doing what is possible. There is no perfect way of living on a boat as long as you keep moving (some people in this marina have forgotten, or abandoned that basic premise - going troppo is a bit of a risk in these parts, I reckon).

Gone troppo - at Porto Bello

Sunrise at Shelter Bay

When we're at anchor off Panama City, we'll be in the Pacific ocean. We'll still be in the Pacific ocean five months later when, all going well (I am like a parrot), we'll enter NZ waters.  If you can cross the Pacific once in a lifetime in your own boat, you are lucky.

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