January 29, 2011

Panama Canal

   Wow what an exciting few weeks it has been!  After years of dreaming and planning we have finally crossed through the Panama Canal. 

    I remember the last time I was in Panama City five years ago standing at the visitors center at the Mira Flores Locks thinking, some day… Well the day came much sooner than I thought it would.  Dreams do come true, but as I have found out not always as we vision them.  The events as you see them unfold are just a little different than you could have imagined back then..  I could have never imagined going through the canal on a boat a wonderful as Downtime or with a group of people from all around the world.  We sailed through with Daria from Russia, Dwight and Karen from Canada, Tommy from Australia and the two canal advisors Robin and Edwin from Panama and Myself being from the good old USA.

    The Panama Canal was completed in 1914.  Since then the Canal has seen over a million boats pass through her locks.  The digging of the canal cost countless lives and an untold fortunes of investors money before the USA took over to complete the project.  The main battle was not the digging but with mosquitoes which spread yellow fever and malaria.  As soon as they figured that one out people stopped dyeing from disease.   The digging itself was of unimaginable quantities of material at the time.  Over a 152 million cubic yards of material were dug out and hauled away!!  Most of which was loaded with steam shovels hauled on flat railcars from the site. If you took all those rail cars and put them end to end they would circle the globe four times!!  Or you could build 63 pyramids in Egypt with that much material.  The work was miserable; imagine running a steam shovel in a hole in a jungle while it is raining!!  Those guys were tough!!

    Construction of the canal itself is impressive.  All the lock gates are original and the concrete is in pretty good shape for how old it is.  The canal has been open 24 hours a day since 1963 and has only been shut down twice the last 98 years. Once when The US came into Panama to remove Noriega and once just this last December when they had too much rain!  WOW!! too much rain in Panama is ALOT of rain!!   We saw the affects along the coast on our way down with all the landslides.  Edwin our advisor explained to us they actually had all the spillway gates open on the dam and were still gaining water in the lake. So much water that they were flooding the locks, so the opened one set of locks to drain the extra water.  Imagine a river 130 wide 40 feet deep, that’s a lot of water.  Amazingly it took only took a few hours to get the lake down to a level that they could use the locks again..

    The process of going through the locks is a very organized procedure.  The easiest way is to call an agent.  The agent knows all the people involved in the process.  But everything is not strait forward.  We had to pay a $175 overtime fee in the middle of the day on a Saturday?  Something about being understaffed?  Hmmm tips for everyone today!!  Oh well “It Is What It Is” It is either pay the “Overtime” or you somehow will not have a slot available for 5 days! 

    First the agent contacts the Panama Canal Authority to have your boat measured.  This involves having a canal agent come aboard and filling out a few forms and a liability waiver, hmm liability waiver?  Is this as dangerous as skydiving? Then he whips out his 25 foot tape measure and you help him measure the boat.  Well, a 25 foot tape and a 58 foot boat took a few reading to get to the length stated on the ships papers.   The agent then turns in his paper work and you get a time slot assigned, we were lucky to be going through during a relatively slow time and were assigned a slot the next day.  Some people have had to wait weeks.  The only problem with hanging out in Colon is that it is REALLY dirty!!  We have crude oil along the waterline and saw oil floating everywhere in the anchorage!!  YUCK! It seems safe enough during the day, but that might be due to the few hundred police on every street corner with guns!!  We had no problems walking around town doing our shopping.  The local people are friendly.  The street vendors are helpful and not pushy.   And beer is cheap!

    Next you move to the staging location where the canal advisor meets you.  We were given a time of 5:30 pm which turned into 7:30pm without notice.  There must have been a yacht ahead of us in a hurry with a big checkbook.  We heard stories of people paying $80k over regular fees to get through NOW!!  Well thank goodness we were not in a hurry.  Edwin our advisor showed up a little after 7:00 and we were on our way to the first set of locks.  All boats transiting the canal require 4 line handlers aboard and 4 one hundred foot lines.  With smaller boats they usually have you raft up with up to 3 boats across to minimize the people they need at the locks since each line would require a man on the lock walls also.   On our way locking up we just had one other boat tied along side.  We rafted up just before the lock entrance and pulled in behind a 600 foot ship.  The ship in front of us was pulled through with specially designed locomotives which move the ship and keep it centered. The locks are 1000 feet long so there was lots of extra room for us.   The doors slowly closed behind us shutting us off from the Atlantic ocean it will be many miles before we see her again  As soon as the doors were locked the water started  raise in the locks, slowly at first and  then with more force.  About half way up the turbulence moved the boats around pretty good.  Lines had to be continually tightened as the water rose to keep us centered between the lock walls.  The locks raise you 30 feet in each time and there are 3 locks on each side.  It took a little over an hour to go through the 3 locks.  The last set gates open and you are in Gatun Lake.  Before the Canal the lake did not exist, just the Chagres River which flooded violently during the building of the canal.  The original canal design was one without locks. You cannot imagine how much material would have had to been moved for that plan to happen since most of the Gatun Lake is only 90 feet deep.  We entered Gatun Lake around 10:00 and tied up to a mooring with two other boats for the night.  The area we were moored was close to the construction site for the new locks.  The equipment ran most the night. At 6:30 am we woke to a dead calm lake and were met by our next advisor Edwin.  We motored 40 miles across the lake to the Pedro Flores Locks and arrived around noon.  The process of rafting up and waiting your turn started over but this time we had three boats.  We tied up with Downtime in the center and entered the locks.  The center boat pulls the others through, and it was interesting being the driver of that boat.   The lock down was effortless.  We were in a lock with just the three of us and when the water goes down you do not feel a thing.  It takes 15 minutes per lock and within an hour we saw the last gates of the Mira Flores Locks open up to the Pacific Ocean.  Another first for Downtime and her crew!  Our advisor was picked up and we moored at the Balboa Yacht Club.

    After all those years of dreaming and planning I have finally checked that one off my bucket list.  It feels good to finally get that one behind me. But like any major event in life it takes a while to all soak in.   Now we are getting ready to cross the biggest ocean on the planet!!  I cannot say I am not intimidated, but I do look forward to it.   We have Downtime loaded up with lots of provisions and it shows on the waterline!!  Maybe we have too many beers on board?  No not possible!!  From here we head to Ecuador.  Fly to Peru for some land travel and then to the Galapagos!! 
                                                                                     Peace!  The Captain

January 14, 2011

San Blas Islands

    Welcome to the he San Blas Islands we start our journey through these beautiful islands about 70 miles south east of Colon, Panama.  There are over 300 islands of varying size in the chain that reach down to the boarder of Columbia.  Most are small and covered with coconut trees with mangroves and are located five to ten miles off the mainland of Panama along the outer reef.  The larger islands are inhabited by Kuna Indians, native hill people of Panama.  The culture of the Kuna has seen few changes in the last 20 years.  They are a primitive people living in small bamboo huts with palm roofs.  The Kuna paddle their dugout canoes out to your boat to offer moles which are hand embroidered pieces of cloth that range in price from ten to eighty dollars. The women sew and the men go out fishing, catching fish, crabs and lobster.  

      The Kuna’s are a closed tribe.  They can only marry Kuna people.  If one Maries someone outside the Kuna they are banned from the islands. .A simple life in simple times just trying to maintain tradition.

     We have only been in the Islands a short while and have seen many changes to this simple lifestyle.  It seems the paddle has been replaced by the Yamaha motor in many cases.  The huts still remain simple but have electrical cords running out of the bamboo walls and are connected to the central generator or solar power stations.  The wood burning stoves are gone and have been replaced with propane burners. Some huts even have T V sets, stereo systems and computers in them.  Most the people wear American clothes (made in China of course) not molas like in the pictures in the cruising guides.  The fishermen are throwing synthetic nets and keeping whatever is brought up in them.  The reef life has no chance when you kill “ALL” the fish with nets.  Fishermen come by and offer immature and small fish, all the big ones must be gone?   One thing seems simple even in my world, you kill all the cows and bulls and there will be no more calves!

    The islands are eroding at an alarming rate!!  There are many huts we have seen that have been abandoned with the foundations sitting under water and the ocean is slowly covering them.  Others have only a few coconut trees left standing, their roots are the only thing holding the islands together.  The average island is a mere 3 or 4 feet above sea level.  We have been on several that are only a foot or so above sea level and have centers that have standing water on them.  We have talked to a few people about this and were told the Kuna have a plan, “Go back to the hills”. 

    Climate change really affects this part of the world; storms are getting stronger which make the waves in the ocean bigger.  When these waves pound against the islands they erode sand away and it never returns.  You know what the good book says about building your house upon the sand…

     The Panama Canal was actually closed for a short time due to heavy rains just before we arrived here.  The heavy rains caused landslides which washed out roads and caused rivers to flood.  The flooding uprooted massive trees and sent then down river and out to sea making them hazardous obstacles that could damage boats. We have seen many trees still floating around weeks later and others that washed up on reefs that are over 40 feet long!  Rain here in Panama is measured in feet not in inches.  We are here in the “Dry” season and it still rains several times a day?   It will be interesting to see how many islands survive the next ten years.

    I have never visited a place that was this primitive or where the people lived so simply.  But you have to wonder, how many fish or molas do you have to sell in order to buy an outboard for your dugout canoe?   There has to be some other revenue source?  All the food and drinking water have to be hauled in.  The only natural resource is from the sea and from the look of things that will not last long?

     The Kuna people are a people in transition.  The kids have cell phones and sit around glued to laptops soaking in what the world has to offer.  The island Chiefs are imposing anchorage fees and driving around in their dugout canoe with the Yamaha on the back bumping into your boat while collecting the five bucks.               There are boats visiting these islands from all over the world sharing outside ideas and influences with them.  It will not be long until the islands erode away taking this simple way of life along with it.
     While in the San Blas we welcomed the New Year on Isla Elaephante.  The locals put on quite a party with roasted pork, turkey and some nice salads for just ten bucks!  There were two wedding the week before and they put on a reenactment of the ceremony.  It involves running around dancing carrying the bride and groom to a hammock.  Lots of chanting and dancing then the bride and groom are thrown into the hammock. Together in the hammock their life begins.  We were fortunate to be able to witness the ceremony.

     Life on Downtime was refreshed with the arrival of Daria’s friend Lidia who flew in from Russia.  Wow thirty six hours and one day waiting for a lost bag and she was here.  We picked her up in Super Dink from the Porvenir  Airport, which is a 20 foot wide  piece of cracked concrete just long enough for small planes to land on.  It is really amazing to see how the system works in third world countries, no terminals or checkpoints here!  People haul their belonging in whatever will carry them, cardboard boxes and plastic bags replace luggage.

    Lidia was in for a five mile white knuckle ride across the channel in SD.  The waves were four to six feet at times and we all had salty faces and wet pants by the time we made it back to Downtime.  Once aboard we set off to the East Lemmon Islands.
     There were several boats anchored around us and one couple Jeff and Anna from Desdemona came by for drinks that night.  At just 24 and 28 years old they told us they started their dream ten months ago selling all they had to buy a boat to sail around the world!!  It is fun to meet couples like this; cruisers all have such similar dreams!!   Anna taught Yoga on the beach which kept the girls busy the following afternoon while I broke out the kite surfing gear.

    The winds were perfect for a little while and I learned how to get some air with the kite!!  Well getting air and crashing are very close to the same thing when you are first learning, so some could say I was practicing crashing!!  Later the winds calmed and Dwight was up for a lesson.  He gave it a go and actually got up on the board for a short time in between getting drug face first getting water rammed up his nose!!  Not bad for the first lesson Dwight!

    Daria and Lidia had so much to talk about, imagine that!!  They did a photo fashion shoot for a few days on their own little islands.  They had so much fun talking and taking literally thousands of pictures.  Hope we can get them to post a few on Google so we can see how beautiful of a job they done! 

   It was fun to have Lidia aboard for the week and a half.  Daria was glad to be able to actually speak her native tongue again but was sad to see her friend go after a quick ten days.

   Then on the tenth of January Dwights girlfriend Karen flew in to Nargina an island just off the mainland 10 miles south.   Karen had been traveling three days traveling from Canada to get here, due to changed flights.  She spent two days staying in Panama City waiting for the first flight to the San Blas.  The seven o’clock flight arrived a little after nine so all was well.

     Sorry we have not been able to load pictures on the last few stories we posted.  Hopefully we will have better internet connections in Colon.
                                                                                        Peace!!  The Captain

January 6, 2011

Isla Providencia, district of Columbia!


    Isla Providencia is a beautiful place.  The rugged little island is just 5 miles long and a mile or so wide.  The island has been used by pirates and Spanish ships for hundreds of years. Towering  2000 foot tall mountains rise up off the ocean floor that are covered in dense vegetation  It is small enough that you can walk around the island in 6 hours. Home to just 4000 people, most of which come from the Columbian mainland.  The people here are very friendly and you feel safe .

      The clearing in process was made simple with the assistance of Mr. Bush  the clearing agent for Columbia on  the Island.  We met him at the port dock to clear in.  He asked if it would be alright to take the customs official and his wife and son aboard Downtime?  The six of us piled into Super Dink and went to the boat.  This was the customs agents first month on the job and he had never been on a sailboat.  After a quick boat tour and some paper work we were cleared in,  The documents would be ready in the morning and all was good.

    The same afternoon on  the 24th we went ashore and rented some scooters.  The island has a good paved road around it and scooters are defiantly the way to go.  There must be 2000 scooters and maybe  50 cars.  We stopped at every point of interest along the way.  We made it around  in two hours and  turned around and did it again!  Getting hungry we stopped  at a outdoor seaside restaurant  that served an amazing amount of food for $15. 

    Back on the  boat we had a few of the other cruisers stop by and welcomed us to the anchorage.  Tom and Rose from Sojourn came by and told us that when they saw the big cat come in they immediately thought  we could host the cruiser Christmas party.  What a great idea!!  They organized the party for 2:00 the next day. 

    Christmas  in the Caribbean  is very different than back home.  People don’t spend hundreds of dollars on decorations.  Christmas music is replaced by roaring stereo systems playing reggae, and at midnight they light off fireworks! People here are simple and seem content with their island lifestyle.  Riding around the island we saw people butchering pigs and cows for the big day. 

    This is my 3rd  Christmas on Downtime,  every year in a different country.   Being in Columbia is as far south as I have been on Christmas, and 80 degrees still feels strange this time of year.
  My favorite Christmas joke is:  What did one snow man say to the other snow man?
                                                                                                        Answer:  I smell carrots!!

     The guests started showing up just before 2:00. Every one brought a dish  for the potluck.  There were lots of awesome deserts that included pecan pie and home made brownies!!   Daria cooked a nice ginger grouper that made your mouth water looking at it!  We had cruisers from 10 different boats!!  23 people aboard Downtime and it was a happy place.  It is so much fun talking to fellow cruisers and hearing where everyone had been traveling.  The travel guides don’t compare to the first hand knowledge you get from fellow cruisers.   After we all had our fill of Christmas dinner and desert, we exchanged a small gifts with each other.  Everyone did their part in cleaning up and by 5:00  everyone headed back home to their boats.

    Talking with everyone gave us the idea to go to Cartagena for new years!  Cartagena lies 350 miles SE of Isla Providencia.  We should be able to make it by the 28th if we head out in the morning,  We called Mr. Bush and cleared out and set sail for the mainland  by 10:00 the next morning. 

   Well, like I said before, if you want to go some where  in a sail boat you can guess where the wind will be coming from!!  You guessed it!  Twenty hours into the trip the wind rose to 30 plus knts. and clocked to the nose. The waves grew to 12 feet!!   12 foot waves at night are scary!!  Downtime was crashing into them at over 10 knts at times making the ride very uncomfortable and wet. After taking a several waves over the side and soaking me to the bone it was time for a new plan!!   Maybe next time Cartagena…….

    Turn her south and head to the San Blas!!!!   Riding down wind in 30 knot winds and huge seas was a lot more comfortable.  We just needed a furled jib to go 8 knots.  After a warm shower and  some dry clothes Downtime was a happy place again.
                                                                            Peace, The Captain

Roatan, Honduras!

Hello Again!

     Roatan, Honduras turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise.  We spent two days at anchorage in Coxens Hole, a small anchorage on the east end of the island.  Coxens Hole has a cruise ship dock  where a new ship arrives daily.  The little town was not like other cruise ship ports I have been to.   Usually they wipe out a  property and build all new stores consisting of jewelry stores and shops that all sell the same thing.  This town was all original.  The markets were dirty little shops with makeshift  tables.   We found local produce, fresh fish and baked goods.  Labor must be cheap because the service is great!  They add up you basket on a small calculator and give you a wild number you can’t comprehend?  ($18 limperes to $1 US) We bought oranges for six cents apiece!!  Town seemed safe enough, but this might be due to the 20 or so armed police walking around with automatic rifles and shotguns!   We did not venture out at night!!

   Two days of this business was enough!  Heading east along the coat was another anchorage.  And go figure when you need to go east where does the wind come from?  The east naturally !!  Two hours of motoring got us to French Harbor.  French Harbor has a  tricky entrance, and right when you get to the most dangerous part you electronic charts go blank?  What saves you is the plastic 5 gallon cans painted red on the shoals  that you must go around.  We set the anchor at the east end close to the reef that blocks the ocean swell.  This is a nice situation, you have the ocean breeze and no waves!   There were a dozen other cruises anchored around and a small marina on Fantasy Island with several boats.  Jerry is the Dock master  for the 20 or so available spots on the seawall.  He gave us a warm welcome and lowdown of the events on the island.  One night the resort had a beach party with  rubber duck races, coconut toss, and hermit crab races!!  My crab lost… and my duck flew south!!  Oh well..

   The next day we went and talked to Bob who ran Paradise Airways, a small one plane fleet that toured the island in a open cockpit 3 seat ultra light.  What a rush to be back in a ultra light!!  I used to fly these things way back when I was in California!  Bob did a awesome job narrating the trip around the island.  Roatan has amazing diversity of homes,  the shacks on stilts over the water and the estates,  we saw them all from the air!!  The 40 minute ride was so much fun!!  Daria got out of the plane with a giddiness of a girl who just rode her first pony! 

   On the 5th day of our two day stay we went into the little town,  French Harbor. This is where the fishing fleet is based so the shopping was good.   We stocked up for the next leg of the trip.  We found most things on our list.  There seems to be Butterball turkeys everywhere!  Just that they cost $45 here!!  Pass on the turkey!!

   That evening we went to the dock for the social hour and met Dr. Jamie and the rest of the cruisers for a hour or two of sailing stories and the “where you from” discussions.   Dr. Jamie has a dive boat and  is a x navy seal and dive instructor.  He had time to get Daria certified with one on one instruction,  what a treat to get trained by the best!!  Daria passed her test and was certified in three days.

   Time to move on!  We cleared out of Roatan on the 21st  at 2:00.  We had a slight breeze on the nose and calm seas.  Motors on 7 knts. Into the wind.  It never fails that when you are on a sailboat the direction
 you need to go is where the wind is coming from!!   Oh well out with the fishing gear.  Two hours later, Fish On!!  We landed a really feisty dorado!  He gave his last wag of the tail only after covering the entire back of the boat with his blood!  An hour later we had a mouth watering diner.

   We motored on into the night.  We had 200 miles to cover from Roatan to the NE corner of  Nicaragua  before we could turn south.  The shoals off this coast are dangerous and we stayed well clear of them.  We made the turn 26 hours into the trip and set our course for Isla Providence ,Columbia another 180 miles south.  Another day of good winds and we would be there. We were just 5 miles out and the sun was setting.  It never fails, you can be at sea for three days and you need an extra 30 minutes to get into harbor!!  Motors on sails full 10 knots on the GPS and we still could not outrun the fleeting daylight.  This is when you hope the charts are right!!  We lined up with  the two lit channel markers and headed in.  Everything going just fine until an extra unlit channel mark showed up in front of us!! 
As Maxwell Smart would say, “ 99 we missed it by that much”  whew!!  Close call!!  Going deeper into the anchorage, the seas calmed and the winds subsided.  We steered close to the other boats at anchor and lowered the hook in 20 feet of calm water.  Time for that beer that has been waiting for three days in the refrigerator. 

   After every passage  I find myself grateful that I made another safe passage. I take some time to reflect on the trip and try to remember that the sea is not the place to make mistakes.    Safely at anchorage you can finally let your guard down and remember why you are doing all this.  Few passages are uneventful, there is always one or two things that will stick with you the rest of your life.  This trip was the unlit buoy in the channel and the shoals of the coast of Nicaragua that we passed in the night.   Oh, and the fish we caught!
                                                                                                   Peace!!!    The Captain

January 1, 2011

С Новым Годом! Happy New Year! Feliz año! WOW 2011!

We are in San Blus, Panama!
Мы на островах Сан Блас, Панама! Пальмы, лазурь, яхты и индейцы племени Куна! Не хватает только друзей и близких! Всем огромный привет, скучаю, люблю!
Фотографии выложить невозможно, интернет только на одном из 300 островов, который только то 200 метров длиной! Три разъема! Над головой пальма, под ногами песок, справа канадец, слева немец :) мучаем интернет... На островах нет электричества и водопровода! Очень живописно и необычно!
Завтра прилетает моя подруга из Питера - Лидия! Будем практиковать русский! :)

Daria x


approx. 3 hours after dark o'clock

We are on passage from Roatan Honduras to Isla Providencia, Columbia. The moon appeared over the horizon about an hour ago, and tonight it's full and bright.  We are hoping to make landfall before tomorrow night, but it doesn't seem possible right now.  I do the math, then re-do.  Same result; we'll arrive no sooner than a couple of hours after dark, and you just don't enter a strange harbour in the dark. But for now, it's time to pay attention to the job at hand, your watch, because everybody else is sleeping and hoping that you don't put the boat on the rocks in the dark. (Rule 2 of Cap'n Pedro's famous 3 rules of sailing.)  We are trying to round the corner where Honduras and Nicaragua join, and then turn south towards Panama, but the area is full of reefs and small cays, or islands.  So that means that we have to go straight east for a long distance in order to clear all the dangers, adding a lot of time and extra miles to the passage.  Charts in this part of the world are not always reliable, and in some cases we have been exploring new vistas in sailing by crossing charted land with a sailboat.  But tonight is not all a nail-biter; after all you are only moving at about7 knots, or 8 mph. This means that when you see something on the horizon, you see the same things for many hours before it disappears behind you.  Your stomach is full and contented, the result of sharp eyes on the boat spotting tuna boiling the water in pursuit of a school of bait fish. Cap'n Pedro swings the boat to starboard and makes a pass thru the area, resulting in 2 blackfin tuna on board.  Daria (her meals are as much a treat for the eyes as the palate) makes a fantastic sesame seed encrusted tuna supper.   So you have ample time to think about the important issues in life.  The meaning of life is there a god, what does the future hold?  No, you start to think about muffins.  OK, condensed version of Muffin Management 101.  In the middle of night, a watch drags on for a very long time.  You devise different methods of passing the time, and a sailor's favorite is to have a small treat to look forward to.  Just as in many areas of life, you can't peak too early or the letdown on the other side will drain your will to stay awake.  So on a 3 hour watch, you can't just gobble your muffin in the middle, or for the last 1.5 hours your life will have little purpose or meaning.  And tonight, you have checked the muffin bin and bonus, still two left.  So the calculating begins, and you decide that at the last  45 minutes is the best time.  But time passes slowly, and you look around your little floating world, happy to be alive here.  No land or lights in sight; you are truly alone.  But this is where you want to be; you feel safe and comfortable tonight. The weather is favorable, just enough wind to fill the sails and bring an easy motion.  The wind starts to clock and blow a bit stronger.  So you move the main sail traveller down a bit, and ease the jib sheet to spill a bit of wind.  (Look at this prairie boy talk sailor!)  This has the effect of slowing us down a bit and smoothing the ride, much like easing off the gas peddle on a bumpy road.  Instead of launching off the waves and slamming down, the bows cut thru the water and curls it back. You settle back on the helm bench, and watch to see if the adjustments are right.  Movement in the companionway; Cap'n Pedro feels the new motion and comes out to check on things.  You start to chat softly about the night, the boat, sails, course, and will you make landfall before dark.  Captain is fully awake now, and sends your below for your sleep.  You go down to your cabin, rinse the salt off your feet, and climb into the bunk.  Tired but peaceful, your mind starts to fade off, and you suddenly remember you didn't eat your muffin, too busy with trimming the sails.  You hope that nobody else eats all the muffins during the .......zzzzzzz.

The Muffin Man