Bob is in the Pacific! We passed through the last of the Panama Canal locks at about 5pm on Friday March 11th and officially entered the Pacific Ocean. That last lock was very fun indeed. To explain why I’d better explain first how the Panama Canal actually works:
The history of the Panama Canal makes a very very interesting read. The story of the construction begins in 1879 and goes through to 1914. What we’ve ended up with today is a feat of engineering that is impressive by modern standards and absolutely incredible by the standards of 1914. It remains essentially unchanged from how it was then, and about 80% of the original construction is still in use.
The canal operates on a lock system. The first three locks (coming from the Atlantic to the Pacific) raise their contents by 84 feet, after which you enter Gatun Lake. This is a huge freshwater lake which serves as a channel across the Isthmus of Panama (about 30 miles) and also as a reservoir for the water which is needed to operate the locks. It is fed entirely by the rains which usually fall heavily and consistently during the rainy season here in Panama.*
Having motored across the lake, one enters the second set of locks and is lowered down to the level of the Pacific Ocean. The height of this drop varies greatly because the tidal variation in the Pacific can be 20 feet or so. What makes this lock particularly challenging is the entry into it from the penultimate lock. This second-to-last lock contains fresh water, but the last is salt water. Salt water is much more dense than fresh. As the lock doors open between the chambers, the fresh water and salt water meet. The fresh water, being less dense, wants to sit on top of the salt, while the salt wants to burrow underneath the fresh. As this is happening, the result on the surface is a current of 5 knots or so carrying you straight towards the closed doors of the last lock. For a monohull sailboat with a single diesel engine this poses a big problem. Aside from the fact that most monohulls are not good at going astern, the water flow over the rudder is the opposite of what it needs to be in order to steer effectively. The usual thing to do in a strong current is to speed up so that you’re going even faster than the current and therefore maintain maneuverability. That’s not an option here however as the closed lock doors of the last chamber are 190 feet down-stream, and besides, there are line-handlers on the dock trying to walk your lines to the next chamber, and they don’t like it when you go anything over about 3.5 knots as they then struggle to keep up. Many a yacht has come into serious difficulties in this lock when they have not managed to maintain position in the center of the chamber, have not managed to maintain their stern to the current and have ended up broadside to the current, hard up against the harsh metal of the lock doors. In fact, our friend Marc, who came through 2 day after us, ended up in this very unfortunate state of affairs and ground a hole in his port quarter against the chamber wall. Fortunately for us, we were tied alongside a large catamaran with two big engines and a very skilled owner at the helm, so for us this experience was not so much nail-biting as exhilarating. Aside from helping out the owner of the cat by going full astern once or twice, my input to the proceedings were limited.
Having made it through the last of the locks, we untied from our new friends and set off on the last leg of 4 miles or so to the point where we were to drop off our pilot. Since the engine had been running all day, mostly at low speed, I decided to take the opportunity to open her up and blow out some of the carbon deposits which tend to build up in the exhaust system under such circumstances. That was perhaps a mistake as it turns out. The engine alarm began to sound; tentatively at first and then more insistently, telling me that something – either low oil pressure or an overheating engine – was wrong. To make matters worse, I still wasn’t allowed to shut down the engine and sail since there is a ban on sailing for the entirety of the canal. I have heard that some pilots consider this ban to be somewhat flexible. Unfortunately, although our pilot was excellent, he did everything by the book and would not allow me to set a sail even under these circumstances. We got in without anything blowing up, dropped off the pilot, dropped off our professional line handler, Jonathan, as well as our two new friends who saved us $200 by handling lines for us (canal requirements are for 4 line handlers on board each yacht in addition to the captain and the pilot, so it’s been busy!) and dropped anchor at the Balboa Yacht Club.
I set to work immediately trying to identify the source of the engine alarm. Unfortunately, the electrical system for the engine is antiquated to put it mildly and many of the gauges don’t work, so i’m still unsure what caused the problem. This morning we moved to different anchorage (a free one!) and the alarm did not go off after motoring for an hour, so i am inclined to follow standard procedure of ‘Brooksie’s First Law’, which essentially reads ‘usually, when presented with a problem, the best thing to do is nothing’. This modus operandi is one that I have followed for many years and it has usually (but not always) stood me in good stead. We’ll see how it works out this time!
* Lake Gatun was the largest man-made lake in the world until some time in the 1970s, and the dam which created it (and which is still in use) was the largest concrete structure in the world when it was constructed. Currently, the lake is very low due to the huge drought that is being experienced by much of the West Coast of the American continents due to El Nino. The pilot tells me that it may be necessary shortly to limit the draught of the ships that are able to transit through the canal – a limitation that would have considerable consequences for the shipping and goods that pass through here; about 42 per day.
Update, March 16th: Against my usual philosophy i decided to fix the gauges, then I ran the engine pretty hard (going 3/4 astern while at anchor for a little while). Everything is showing normal. I have traced the wiring and found that only the oil pressure is wired to the alarm, so that must have been it………….. but i can’t replicate the fault, whatever it was. Hoping it was just an electrical fault. On the plus side, after this next passage to the Galapagos Islands we really shouldn’t need the engine at all util we reach New Zealand in about a year and a half 🙂
We’re still waiting on the arrival of a new tiller pilot, which allows us to have self-steering when motoring (David the wind vane is wonderful but will only work when there’s wind to steer by). Apparently it was sent to Colombia by mistake but is now in Panama and we should get it tomorrow morning…………… we’ll see! Really looking forward to Las Perlas, and personally I’m kind of looking forward to being in such remote locations that it’s impossible to find spares for stuff that needs fixing. That way I’ll have no choice but to ignore whatever is broken and spend the time drinking rum instead. We have lots of rum. In fact, I think we could stock a small shop by ourselves. One can never have too much rum.
I was hoping to have written at least two, possibly three blog posts by now but unfortunately I’ve had a slight lack of motivation. I’ll just have to do my best to sum up everything from Colon to Las Perlas in this entry…. I’ll try not to make it too long.
We arrived in Colon on the 3rd March and I was really keen to see what all the fuss was about. Alex had told me some really horrible stories about the city and I just kept thinking to myself, “It can’t be much worse than the rough areas of Bradford where I spent my high school days”. I was wrong! The first thing we saw when leaving the yacht club was a man having a poo on the path in front of us, yelling at us in a flustered manner in a language that we couldn’t understand. To be fair, he seemed more upset by the whole ordeal than we did. As horrible as Bradford is in some places, a man defecating in the street is something that I’ve thankfully never seen there. Also, a French skipper from a small boat who was anchored nearby was attacked when he left the yacht club to go to the shops – so far Colon was living up to its reputation. Despite this (and the fact that two of his friends had been mugged in Colon in the past), Alex ventured out into the depths of the city on his own a number of times. Luckily he’s pretty spritely and stronger than he looks, I’m sure he could have out run any mugger. Anyway, there was no need for me to worry as Alex was absolutely fine. Oh, and there was one good thing about Colon! The supermarket sold fresh milk; this was the first fresh milk I had had since leaving England. I enjoyed cereal and savoured my last two cups of Yorkshire tea, it’s probably the last time I will have fresh milk in a while and I absolutely can’t stand the UHT stuff so I wanted to make the most of it. Unless I can find a suitable substitute for my cereal I think I will be going without this sort of food for a while.
We were hoping to get a spot to go through the Panama Canal pretty quickly but we ended up having to wait 8 days or so. Rather than staying in Colon for all that time, we decided to rent a car with a girl we met from the French boat, Apolline, and see some of inland Panama. Apolline is from Normandy and she tells me that one of her friends owns a big rum shop there. She therefore takes every opportunity to taste as many different types of rum as possible and learn as much as she can about each one. She found the location of a big distillery in a small town called Pese in southern Panama, about a 4 hour drive away. All those rumors you hear about a sailor’s love of rum are very true, so off we went on our hunt for the distillery. The journey was a welcomed change and gave us a break from the uneasy feelings we had in Colon. We hadn’t been able to organise any tours of the distillery in advance and when we finally arrived, we didn’t have much luck getting in to see any of the rum factory. Fortunately, we met a very nice English speaking gentleman from the distillery and although he wasn’t able to give us the full tour, we were allowed to visit the sugar cane fields, see the workers harvesting the cane using traditional hand tools and cattle, visit the bar, watch a few videos of the rum making process and we even got some free tasters and a rum cocktail on the house – not bad considering the tours here normally cost $75 per person! We were impressed enough to buy a bottle or two to take back with us.
We arrived in Pese at about dusk and found ourselves having a drink in an empty bar attempting to figure out where we were going to have dinner and spend the night in this tiny town. We had been told there was a hotel here and although the whole town only has four streets, we searched for about an hour and couldn’t find one. We gave up and found ourselves at this bar. The gentleman running the bar kindly took time out of his evening to show us exactly where the hotel was (which was completely unmarked) and introduce us to his English speaking friend, a really lovely lady whose name escapes me. She took us into her house and introduced us to her family; she then took us to the local cafe for dinner where food for the 3 of us plus drinks came to a total of $7. We then went back to hers and drank beers on the porch and chatted to her and her son for the rest of the evening. I guess this secluded town wasn’t used to having tourists and the people here wanted to make us feel welcome. For me, the welcome we got from the people of Pese was the best part of the whole road trip.
We headed back to Colon the next afternoon ready for our canal transit. Apolline joined us as a line handler along with a really friendly Italian guy called Christian who we met from another boat. Both Apolline and Christian speak excellent English but both have incredibly strong accents from their respective countries. I loved to listen to them talk to each other in English with the thickest French and thickest Italian accent you can imagine, wonderful. Alex has described our transit through the Panama Canal in his blog post so I won’t go into it in too much detail here, only to say that it was a wonderful and interesting experience that went far too quickly. Hopefully the photos below will give you a bit more perspective on the experience.
We arrived in Panama City on the evening of the 11th March and most of our time here was spent shopping and doing jobs on the boat. This is likely to be the most built-up place we’ll visit for at least another year and a half so we wanted to stock up on spare boat parts, food, rum and any other important things we might need over the coming years. I can’t believe how much we’ve managed to fit into this 36-foot long boat but I think we’re now both experts in coming up with space saving ideas. We also managed to figure out and fix (we think) the problem with the engine. Even more exciting was doing the final touches to the table leg supports so that we now have a fully functional dining table! Oh, and we also installed a hammock for the fruit and (kind of) fitted a carpet – Bob is starting to look quite homely.
After just less than a week we were ready to leave and make our way to the Galapagos Islands to meet my mum. After a complicated and bureaucratic checkout procedure in Panama we set sail towards Las Perlas islands yesterday. The scenery leaving Panama City was absolutely stunning. As we left there was no wind at all – not much good for sailing but it left the sea looking like a sheet of glass reflecting every shadow and ray of light that touched it. The atmosphere was humid and hazy, leaving a vague shadow of the Panama City skyline and mountainous backdrop on the horizon. As we motored along, our route passed directly over an area absolutely packed with brown pelicans and some sort of black-headed gull – there must have been thousands of them, all in one tiny patch of ocean. As we approached all the birds took flight around us, thousands of gulls and large pelicans gliding beautifully just above the surface of the glassy water just meters away from us. This was one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles I have ever seen (involving birds at least). I would even say it was better than the starling murmurations in England and that is no mean feat! I wish I could have taken a few photographs to give you an idea but I didn’t want to miss out on the awesomeness of the moment to take a picture so unfortunately I don’t have any to show you. As we went through that patch of water we noticed lots of small dead fish floating on the surface, obviously this is what was attracting all the birds. I’m not sure what could have caused it, perhaps some marine predators trapping the shoal at the surface for the birds to feast on? I just hope it wasn’t some sort of chemical spill from a large ship!
It’s now the morning of the 18th March and I’ve just woken up to see Contadora (one of the Las Perlas islands) for the first time in day light. It’s overcast today but still bright and the surroundings are very tranquil. It’s incredibly quiet here, there are about 8 other cruisers anchored nearby and two secluded beaches on the island. There are a number of small buildings which look like something you might find on the coast of Spain surrounded by what appears to be deciduous woodland. That’s surprising given our tropical location, I guess many of the trees had gone into dormancy over the recent dry period. Contadora is only about a mile long and is the most built up island of Las Perlas, it still seems pretty secluded but hopefully I can find some wifi on shore to post this shortly.
Right, I’d best get going. There’s not long before we need to leave and it would be nice to see some of the island before we do so. Next stop…Galapagos.