Panama, the Pacific and Las Perlas
Transiting The Panama Canal was a unique experience fraught with challenges and stress and involved a lot of waiting between bursts of activity. Richard and I have travelled along a few canals in our years on sailing boats. We have Visited Amsterdam via Ijmuiden, entered the Baltic Sea via the Kiel canal, traversed both Sweden and Scotland via canals and lakes and also frequented the delightful Crinan canal on the Mull of Kintyre! None of which required dealing with an agent or having a pilot/ adviser on board, and certainly non featured crocodiles!
The World Cruising Club deal with the agent and in previous years the yachts have transited in groups of 12 thereby getting everyone through in 3 goes. This year due to lack of water the yachts had to go into the enormous locks in one raft of three only either behind a large commercial ship, ( going up, opening photo ) or in front (going down). Note the locomotives that manoeuvre the ships, we had men with the ropes like leads who walked us through the set of locks. We had to take up or let out the lines as the water level changed, which was fairly quickly!
So back to the Process! We had to wait for our pilots to come aboard from their launch, quite a leap which has to be well aimed onto our small side decks! They also had to reverse the procedure at the end of the day and jump back up to the launch which was helmed expertly to get close enough for the pilot to leap whilst avoiding crashing into our hull!
We had to wait for the large commercial vessel to manoeuvre so that we could enter the enormous lock chambers safely. We had to wait to raft alongside the other yachts going through with us. Celtic Star was on the port side doing line handling and a large boat was in the middle using its bow and stern thrusters to keep the raft straight so we did not crash into the enormous chamber walls or gates.
There was a third yacht on the starboard side also with crew on board line handling, with the advisers advising! The raft untied between the sets of locks. Once inside the locks we had to wait for the dock workers to throw us a heaving line to attach to the big blue mooring lines as they walked us along into the chambers.
In all there were 9 transits of the World Arc fleet to get through safely. Cancellations and rearrangements were frequent as there are a hundred huge ships waiting to get through the this amazing canal with 9 locks and 50 miles that divide the country and unite the oceans! The canal history and politics is fascinating and the canal authority, head office below, is a very large organisation contributing massively to the economy of Panama.
Luckily our raft, advisers and line handlers were proficient and we got through with no damage and no crocodiles! Gatun Lake which supplies the canal water is home to these creatures and we were advised not to swim when we were moored there overnight! It was totally amazing to have traversed a continent and arrived on the other side. Once through we celebrated our arrival in the Pacific with a tot of Spiced Rum and made our way to La Playita Marina close to the high rise buildings of Panama City.
The next day we went on a trip up the Chagres river which formed part of the original route across the isthmus used for transporting South American gold. This time we were transported in a dugout canoe all be it with an outboard engine.
We visited the Embera Indians, who live high up the Chagres river, which had been flooded downstream in the canal construction to form Gatun lake.
The Embera welcomed us with lunch a lunch of fish and plantain served in folded palm leaves.
They explained their traditional way of living, use of plants and herbs and displayed beautiful variety of handicrafts which we bought to help supplement their income.
Non permanent tattoos are used as insect repellent and sun screen!
The following day we toured Panama City and heard more about the fascinating history of the country and the canal. We were interested to find out that Henry Morgan, a famous Welsh pirate was responsible for sacking the very first Spanish settlement at Balboa!
After a few days of sightseeing we were ready for a short sail to explore a group of Island called Las Perlas. On the way to to the Las Perlas Islands we saw Eagle Rays launch themselves out of the water and belly flop into the ocean as well as a 10 metre Whale shark! Fantastic! Pelicans and a pair of Red Footed Boobies were our constant companions! Yes, they really are called that and there were 2 of them!
Las Perlas were originally famous for pearls and then became a counting house and storage stop for the gold being shipped from Peru to cross the isthmus to Spain. Only 40 miles from Panama City these delightful islands were sparsely populated and we enjoyed exploring, swimming and a beach BBQ.
We rejoined the World Arc fleet for our prize giving and dinner on the beach at Contadora, literally counting house before setting off on the 850 mile passage to the Galapgos.
Our passage to the Galapagos took 6 days. It started with a colourful array of spinnakers being flown across the start line due to a light breeze. After a pleasant first days sailing we were surprised by an increasing wind strength as the sun set. The crew ran about getting the spinnaker down and the white sails were set and then reefed down as the wind increased to 30 knots. A couple of our crew found the dark night , windy conditions and lively waves terrifying, but they did well as it was their very first night sailing at sea ever and also embarking on an ocean passage. The crew soon settled into the rhythm of the watches and we star gazed at night and passed the time playing games, such as Consequences on Valentine's Day, reading, doing puzzles and of course sailing the boat and navigating, plus the perpetual maintenance, cooking and cleaning!
As we sailed southwest towards the equator we entered the Doldrums area and true to form the wind died away completely. This resulted in a tedious 20 hours of motoring and then another 10 hours of motor sailing! Eventually the wind settled at Force 3 from the south and we had calm sea state so cruised along comfortably at 6 knots. Our Latitude reading was decreasing gradually as we approached the equator and we crossed into the Southern Hemisphere at 17:46 UTC (12:46 local) and Longitude 88*29'!
It was on day 5 that we crossed the equator into the Southern Hemisphere, an event marked by traditional ceremonies written and directed by the Ents team, Louise (Neptune) and Petra (Circe), but involved the whole crew whether they liked it or not! Someone got a soaking, another crew member had to turn upside down, Richard sang a sea shanty and the final sacrifice involved rotating and beseeching, before drinking from the poison chalice (spiced Rum!)
Arrival in San Cristobal was quiet as it was 03.30 local time as we dropped anchor on 18th February. Our dry passage ended with a celebration of this monumental (for us) moment after 9300 miles of sailing! We are definitely not in Conwy anymore, Toto!
Our first morning was spent waiting for the officials to arrive, National Park, Immigration, Food Police, Health, Local police , Coast guard who inspected everything on board, from toilet cleaner to the contents of the fridge and medical kit as well as diving underneath to ensure we are not polluting the National Park in any way. Various forms were signed and permit money changed hands before we were clear to disembark!
This was half of the team, the other half were below decks and three were under the hull!!
So successful has the islands tourism marketing been that they have a lot of rules and regulations to preserve the unique flora and fauna here. Not many people realise that the Archipelago of Colon (Galapagos Islands) were a pirate base, a whaling centre and then a prison colony until 1959!
Now we have 2 weeks to dive, snorkel, go on tours, chill and enjoy the Glorious Galapagos!
Look out for my next diary featuring sea lions, sharks and sensational snorkelling!