Last Days in Panama

The first few days of December we spent exploring the Perlas Islands, aiming to get back to Balboa for my flight to David to inspect the progress of the Panama house.  It was very strange to find ourselves back in the land of tides and current, given in the Caribbean our tides maxxed out at about 18 inches, and at the Perlas it was as much as 12 feet.  Have to break out the Chapman’s and relearn the rule of 12s, for sure.  And it made for some interesting perceptions, anchoring with a view of one landscape and six hours later seeing rocks and islands that weren’t there when we dropped the hook.

That last few days onboard prior to joining Independence were a bit stressful, with the generator conking out AGAIN, and Ole having to special order another actuator and related parts to be flown in and cleared through Customs the very morning we were to leave for Ft. Lauderdale.  I don’t know how many hours he and Dale worked on it, but it didn’t help that we might have had to leave the boat with the Bixlers with a non-functional and vital piece of machinery.  Dale has nicknamed it the “Westerbeast.”

On December 11, we flew up to Ft. Lauderdale, staying overnight at the Marriott Biscayne Bay, right next door to where we used to live.  We had a great sushi dinner and caught up with Svein and Lise before boarding Independence on December 12, and reconnecting with shipboard friends.

Exploring Pacific Panama and Handing Over Emma Jo

Well, we made it through the Panama Canal without incident, stayed a few days at Balboa Yacht Club, and made our way out to the Perlas Islands southeast of Panama City to enjoy a couple of weeks cruising and familiarizing Dale and Linda with the systems aboard Emma Jo..

We passed Thanksgiving at Balboa Yacht Club, and broke out the good French tablecloth and real cloth napkins, as well as a magnum of champagne we’d been saving since we departed Florida, to celebrate our gratitude for a great adventure so far. With a turkey roast, canned yams, cranberries, and green beans, as well as a box of Stouffer’s stuffing found as a treasure at the local supermercado, Thanksgiving dinner was about as good as we could make it. While we ate, ship after ship passed us on their way to and from Miraflores Locks, often within a hundred yards, making for some great rolls with dinner!

Ole and Dale made an excursion to Abernathy’s, the Panamanian equivalent of West Marine, for fishing tackle and boat parts, while Linda and I explored the Allbrook Mall, fully as extensive as any to be found in the US. Our list included stocking up on clumping cat litter, a must with two cats, and somewhat difficult to find in Central America. We were able to locate 6 40-lb bags, which were stored in the engine room and came with instructions to NOT PUNCTURE THE BAGS at any cost! We also found all of the thyroid medicine little Maggie might need for the next four months

On the 27th, we headed toward Contadora and the Perlas Islands, and broke out the fishing gear for the first time. Finally got the decks bloody, hooking an albacore almost right away! Dale educated us as to his “filet and release” philosophy of fishing…

Hotel Romantica, Contadora

We anchored off Contadora for a couple of nights, and went for a walk one morning. This island used to be quite the place for the Central American rich and famous to retreat to, and when the Shah of Iran was ousted, he even had a place here. We found the locals to be very friendly, and the anchorage to be pleasant enough to cast the spinning rod one morning. Learned about the “cut the line and release” philosophy once I hooked a devil ray with 5-lb test!

We traveled one morning over to another group of islands to finish out the month, and finally got to try our hand (foot?) at snorkeling and beachcombing on an island called Bayoneta, where we educated Dale and Linda on the finer points of deck showers, and took several dinghy rides for picnics and snorkeling. All in all, not a bad way to spend November!

Emma Jo Transits the Panama Canal

Emma Jo in Miraflores Lock

The full story of our Canal transit is published separately, and first appeared as an article for the DeFever Cruisers Winter 2010 magazine. It’s a long-ish article with plenty of photos, and you can download it as a pdf file by clicking on this link: Emma Jo Transits the Panama Canal. John and Kim Pulkabrek, our volunteer line handlers, published their account, available here.

A Brief Exploration of Atlantic Panama

Monday morning, November 16, we elected to get the heck off the dock for a few days and explore a bit before leaving the Atlantic side of Panama. We motored about three and a half hours west to a pretty little place called Panamarina, located inside the Portobelo National Park, just west of Isla Linton. After zig-zagging in through some pretty interesting turns around reefs, we found ourselves the rose among the thorns – the only power boat in a sea of sailboats, most of which seemed to be stored. The owner, Jean-Paul, greeted us Tuesday morning and helped us secure to the largest buoy among the moorings, and we passed a pleasant few days, although rainy. The most wonderful and improbable highlight of this place is a French restaurant in the middle of nowhere, with real live pate maison, reasonable wine, and wonderful atmosphere including a resident tabby cat and two dogs (just like in France). We toured in the dinghy, took a nature walk through the jungle and spotted a hunk of wildlife we described as a “wet sleeping furry thing” we figured for a sloth in the crotch of a tree. After a lovely and relaxing four nights, on Friday we zig-zagged back out and headed back toward Portobelo for some pirate history.

We heard rumors that Portobelo was less than secure, so Ole, Dale and Linda went ashore to explore while Jan relaxed and caught up on her PassageMaker magazine reading. They toured the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo on the town side, sampled a few cold ones in a little cantina, visited the Church of the Black Christ, and had a relatively dry afternoon. Just before cocktail hour, we opted to move across the bay away from town for the night, which proved quieter, calmer and left us feeling more safe for the night. Rumors are rumors. We anchored off the other fort, enjoyed a calm, though rainy night’s sleep, and woke up on Saturday the 21st to Ole’s birthday!

Ruined Fort Birthday Cake

As Ole’s birthday luck would have it, perhaps the only cayuco-paddling lobster salesman in the entire region picked our boat to deliver a fine catch to – so it was martinis, Dale’s home-smoked salmon, the Beatles’ White Album Birthday song, and the promise of a lovely lobster dinner – until the rolling started. The bay was glassy, but big ground swells started rolling in, and over the next hour the boat swung 360 degrees around on the Bruce, rolling upwards of 6 degrees a side, digging our holding deeper. Though not much wind followed, the next 12 hours contained the most spectacular rainstorm(S) we’ve ever witnessed, with sheet lightning and thunder that struck the bay more than once. Made cooking the lobsters interesting, doing the dishes out of the question, and sleeping impossible!

After breakfast, we opted to head back here to Shelter Bay to fuel up, provision up for the transit and for Thanksgiving, and get ready for the transit. It’s now 10:22 p.m., and I’m almost to excited to go to bed. We’ll be joined tomorrow by three line handlers and a pilot for a two-day canal transit that is scheduled to start tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. I’ll update the site with information and pictures when next we have a connection…

Our Canal Crew Arrives, and Then We Wait

Shelter Bay Marina

In spite of the fact that Dale and Linda Bixler, of El Capitan in Brownsville, Washington, arrived on the 12th of November, we’re still here, watching the notorious Panama rainy season in process. It reminds me of the Ray Bradbury story about the astronauts stranded on a planet where it rains all the time – and they die, one by one, being smothered by rapidly growing plants, while they’re trying to find a sun dome to dry out. We could sure use a sun dome about now. It’s 10:17 in the morning, and it’s been raining hard for two and a half hours.

The week I returned from Seattle, Ole and I spent our time cleaning, arranging, organizing, and getting ready to share the boat. On the 11th, my birthday, we took the free marina bus to downtown Colon to stock up on a few necessities, including a “backup” birthday cake. The traditional Ole-made Norwegian cream cake went horribly wrong this year, but the whipped cream turned out great. I love the effort he made, but the fact that the oven was set at the wrong baking setting (partially my fault) and that the cake pan was overfilled, meant that most of the cake ended up all over the bottom of the oven, and what was left in the pan lacked its usual fluffiness. Add to that the fact that the bag of vacuum frozen shrimp I bought to make scampi for my birthday dinner, when opened, reeked of ammonia – well, I’ve had better birthdays. But as fellow-boater Russ on Chicana says, any day you get up and watch the grass COMING up instead of GOING up is a good day. So in that regard, it was a good day.

On November 12, Ole got a ride into town with Stanley, a local free-lance agent, who was able to drive Ole around to Abernathy’s, Price Smart, and several other necessary stops on the way to the airport to pick up Dale and Linda. Meanwhile, here on the boat, it rained all day like the end of the world. I finished up the cleaning and organizing, and put on a pot of dinner, so that when they got here we could all just unwind. Also found on YouTube a few videos about folding towel animals, so that they could feel at home on this “cruise.”

We all took the bus into Colon to provision for four people for a couple of weeks on the 13th, deciding to get underway for the Chagres River on Saturday. We cheerily paid our bill, cast off the lines, waved goodbye to everyone, and motored jauntily toward the Colon breakwater, where suddenly both engines went dead. Great timing – only 20 or so ships waiting to enter the breakwater, and us dead in the water. We dropped anchor – and Ole and Dale went below to figure out the problem. It was a bit of a sphincter-tightener to be at anchor only 100 yards or so from the main entrance channel to the Panama Canal – but it could have been worse – we could have been IN the channel. The problem turned out to be air in the fuel system. The port engine started right away, but the starboard engine was stubborn, so we opted to return to our slip in Shelter Bay so the problem could be solved calmly. Five hours later, the guys determined that the best solution was to come back at it in the morning – and jump start the brain cells with some martinis and smoked salmon. Seemed to work – the problem was solved by noon Sunday, with both engines starting and growling happily. An afternoon walk through Fort Sherman allowed us to see an agouti (think about a large cross between a guinea pig and a possum), millions of leafcutter ants, and a few Jesus Christ lizards, and a late afternoon cocktail hour up at the marina pool gave us a good view of a capuchin monkey fight.

We may have to forego the Chagres trip, as it’s been raining so much the Corps of Engineers is going to release water from the dam – so maybe today, if sea conditions permit, we’ll head east along the coast a few hours to Linton or Portobello.

Traveling Home for Some Sad Events

I flew out of Panama City on Wednesday, October 28, to be with my family. We had a lovely memorial service for my Uncle Bob at his home, and all of the cousins and their children were there for a feed, a glass of wine, and a toast to a good man who led a good life. He will be missed.

The rest of the time spent in Bremerton involved the typical cruiser’s scavenger hunt for stuff that you just can’t find easily here, so relying on the kindness of my sister and her husband, I was able to turn my one suitcase into three bags for the return trip. I also spent some time with Dale and Linda Bixler on their 49 DeFever RPH El Capitan, dining on self-caught salmon, smoked and steaked, and drinking way too much wine. I was also able to visit my friend Judie in the hospital, something I was so glad to have done. The last evening at my sister’s involved a sweet surprise – birthday cake and cards a week early; and on Wednesday, November 4, I met up with friends Suzanne, Fred and Randy at 13 Coins by the Seattle Airport for a good catch-up.

When I got back to the boat, Ole immediately began racking up the husband points by carrying all of the bags (72 pouches of cat food, wrenches, batteries, wine glasses, bronze wool, fuel filters, paint brushes, and PassageMaker magazines) back to the boat, then dancing around like a little kid at Christmas while I unpacked. I must say, the boat looks good!

Haulout and Repairs in Shelter Bay

Shelter Bay Marina

With the advice we were given from cruisers who have had experience hauling out here in Shelter Bay, we approached the haulout with a firm game plan – in on Monday the 26th, out on Friday the 30th. We came prepared with our own paint, supplies, drop cloths, rollers, masking tape, spare parts, sandpaper and what-all, needing virtually nothing from the yard. We asked if help was available for hire, thinking if I was going to take a trip to Seattle for the family, Ole would be faced with a mountain of a boat to scrape, sand and paint. We were assured help is available for hire, just not very available, as they are the same guys that operate the travelift and pressure washer.

Ole and the forbidden cats, relaxing after a hard day in the yard

We left the slip at 9:00 am, and were up on the blocks by 10:30 on Monday, as planned. Boy, were we overdue for bottom paint! The pressure washer plus the monthly cleaning we’ve had done since we arrived in Panama pretty much took off all that was necessary, leaving just a few patches of stubborn barnacles to hand-sand or grind off with the machine. The running gear looked fair to good, requiring a couple of days of serious machine grinding to tame the calcium. The yard guys were not available to help on Monday, so while Ole did the majority of the grinding work, I moved us and the cats into the hotel rooms above the marina offices. Note – while there is nothing in the literature that forbids pets from living in the hotel, they weren’t too happy. However I’m a believer in “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to animals…begging forgiveness is easier than getting permission.

Tuesday opened with rain squalls, so the yard guys were not available. We needed a couple of things (zincs) from Colon, so I was able to catch a ride in with one of the guys here, get escorted round to the grocery, hardware, marine, and battery stores and pick up what we needed. We decided it was best for me to go on up home to Bremerton and be with the family, which was in retrospect the only decision to have been made.

Tuesday night, we realized that if we had relied on the yard’s help to prep and paint the boat, we would have been out two days with none. Luckily, the guy I caught a ride in with had been using independent help on the two boats he had here, and wasn’t using them Wednesday or Thursday, so for the exorbitant rate of $40 A DAY plus $10 per guy per day to the yard, Ole hired them to scrape and paint, and polish stainless. He opted to stay out one more day, getting back into the water smoothly on Saturday, finding no major surprises.

Moving on to Shelter Bay Marina

At Anchor, The Flats
Colon, Panama

Salute from Serenade of the Seas

While Ole was up at 0530 (doing what, I don’t rightly know), I slept until 0645, and as I was enjoying the first cup of coffee, wiping the sleep from my eyes, Ole shouted, “look at who’s coming down the channel!” and lo and behold, there was RCCL’s Serenade of the Seas, with Captain Stig Nielsen aboard. Stig and his wife live aboard a renovated Swedish rescue boat in Bodo, and when we’ve been in Norway we’ve always missed them. Ole hailed on the radio and had a nice chat with Stig – and as Serenade glided past we were treated to a three-blast salute (thank goodness Ole repaired the horn yesterday so we could salute back!)

Today was more puttering, with Ole calling ahead to Arturo at Marine Warehouse in Panama City to order a new battery for the generator. My day was spent doing laundry, puttering on the website update, and generally enjoying the sights out the window. Note, though, to mariners – the pilot boats coming and going from the ships throw up more of a wake than the ships themselves!

Shelter Bay Marina

Approaching Shelter Bay Marina

At 10:00 we lifted the anchor and motored across the approach lanes of the Canal over to Shelter Bay Marina, which is just inside the western breakwater. At first glance, we like it. The facility is clean, in good repair, and fairly civilized, with daily trips to provision in Colon, just over an hour away by road. Our haulout is scheduled here for Monday, so we had a preliminary meeting with the yard manager, Dave, to go over expectations and procedures. We’ve contracted the same agent that Royal Caribbean uses for its ships, and Reuben visited us this afternoon to help us with permits, visas, and anything else we needed. We expect him back tomorrow with passports and boat documents.

On Saturday, we opted to take a walk through the property – which is located on the grounds of what used to be Fort Sherman, the US Army’s jungle warfare training center. The buildings look as if they had just been emptied and the keys turned over – with roads, landscaping and everything almost still intact. The walk was productive in terms of wildlife sightings – we watched Capuchin monkeys larking around the trees about 50 yards away – walked under sleeping (thank God) howler monkeys, saw a coatamundi scurrying into the brush – and saw numerous blue morpheus butterflies – and DIDN’t see the sloth that friends just emerging from a path saw on the ground only moments before. Maybe next time. The chance to just get out and walk was wonderful, a nice break from boat concerns.

Last week I received some sad news from home, regarding my Uncle Bob, that may require a trip to Bremerton to say hello and pay respects. It looks like I can get a fairly reasonable airport connection from right here at the marina, go home for a short visit, and relieve Dale and Linda of the responsibility of carrying our mail back to us next month.

Getting Admeasured in The Flats

At Anchor, The Flats
Colon, Panama

After a brief 4-hour nap, we awoke to the parade of ships coming and going through Gatun Locks, and definitely had a “look where we are!” moment. The Panama Canal Authority (PCA) Admeasurer came aboard about 2:00 pm to gather information for our eventual Canal transit some time in the third week of November. Our 49’8” vessel admeasured to 51 feet for Canal transit purposes (and an additional $250 transit fee). Ole spent the day puttering, finding that the generator starter battery was boiling over, the alternator wasn’t putting out what it should, and the tachometer for the port engine crapped out on us. I spent the day reading, fetching and helping as needed. Had a much-needed martini at the usual cocktail hour, threw together a teriyaki salmon dinner, and tried to watch a movie but the 5-6 hours of sleep we had in the last 36 hours took its toll – both of us conked out before 9:00.

Crossing to Colon

At Anchor, “The Flats”
Colon, Panama

What fabulous weather- another “silver box” crossing! We fueled up, paid up, and left Bocas at 1100, planning to arrive in Colon by daylight. Given the following current of 2.5 knots, mirror calm swells with light and variable winds of less than 10 knots, even the cats had a good time – Maggie sacked out on the couch for the entire 15 hours, and Barclay found a spot on our bed. We made great time, arriving in radio range of the Cristobal Signal Station by about 0300. The Signal Station controls all vessels in the Canal Zone, and you can barely visit the head without radioing ahead for their permission. We made ourselves known as we glided past about 15 ships waiting their turn, and were directed right into the approach channel with a 90-minute window between ships. As we made the turn, the red and green lights lined up like airport runway lights – and we could see the Gatun Locks rising uphill. It was quite a stunning sight, in spite of our weariness and lack of sleep. We had the anchor dropped in about 35 feet, shot back our mandatory “anchor dram” of iced Stoli, and crashed.