Cheshire Cat in Panama

Monday, June 25, 2007


Cheshire Cat anchored in the same bay where pirate ships used to hide

Jasp, the Dreambird and the Cheshire Cat sailed in fine weather and good winds from Porvenir; we all arrived at our first destination, Isla Grande in the afternoon. This small island has become a popular recreational spot for people from Panama. From the sea it looked quite attractive, but as we slowly navigated the reefs around the island we saw at least three sailboats washed up on the beaches! This, together with a regular and rolling swell coming into the bay made us decide to carry on and investigate the next suitable bay.

Litton was a pretty and pleasant anchorage surrounded by hills and the water was totally calm. That evening we all gathered on Jasp and enjoyed a wonderful fish and chip dinner, courtesy of Dreambird's excellent fishing skills and Amanda's excellent culinary arts.

We watched the monkey and he watched us!

Ad we sat in the cockpit Mike spotted some monkeys on the island and we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw them strutting around on two legs, walking quite upright! One was even carrying his tail over it’s shoulder for all the world like a small child swaggering around and playing dress-up.

They bounded up onto a nearby roof, so we knew we weren’t imagining everything. (And we definitely hadn't had too much to drink, although that what the children tried to tell us!)

Next day we parted company with the other two boats and Cheshire Cat went off to visit the historical town of Portobello - reputedly the stomping ground of pirates and buchaneers Sir Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake.

Christopher Columbus named the bay Puerto Bella because it was such a great place for their galleons to stay. It was an easy sail in from the sea to a beautiful calm and well protected anchorage. Drake attacked the Spanish here in 1596 and after that the Spaniards constructed forts on either side of the bay to protect the entrance.

Drake's Island

We sailed in past Drake’s Island – where it is believed the famous pirate is buried. The story goes that he was interred in a lead casket and the casket dropped into the sea. They say that two of his ships carrying his share of treasure were sunk at the same.

After anchoring and getting the dinghy into the water we went off to explore the little township. Heading towards the shore we came upon a small dingy dock and found it belonged to an American couple, Pat and Dave. They are ex-cruisers who settled there some years ago and now involve themselves with promoting the history of Portobello; Dave gives occasional lectures to passengers on cruise ships.

Dave showed us some of his sunken treasure

Dave and his wife were full of information about Portobello and we were really interested to see Dave's collection of gold doubloons, silver pieces of eight and a number of highly prized official seals from Spanish commercial documents, probably dating from the 1400's when Spain was all-powerful in the area. "ARRRRR!" (As a pirate might say)

Wanita, Mike and I strolled around, stopping for a break to sample the local beer in a convenient restaurant and later to sample the local ice-cream. We visited a couple of forts within easy walking distance and saw the old Spanish canon lying exactly where they used to when the Spanish were using them. As seems usual with most forts they were almost in ruins, although some effort has been made to clean them. up and preserve what is left. Apparently the Americans took a lot of the stones away to build the break wall for the Panama Canal. The stone (reef rock) is really coral and is very light, like pumice, but also as strong as granite; it can be cut with a saw.

Entrance to a fort

There is one lovely building which is in good repair. The old Customs House. It used to be the official Counting House, where one thirds of the world’s gold passed through in the days of the Spanish raids on Inca gold. In fact so much treasure was collected from South America that at times there wasn’t enough space to store it all in the building and it was stacked in the market square and the streets until a suitable ship arrived to take the v aluable booty back to Spain!

In town there is a large church - the focal point for an annual festival celebrating "The Black Christ". The church is home to a unique statue carved out of black wood; the stories associated with this wood statue are numerous. One tells that a Spanish galleon tried to leave port five times and was blown back by storms each time. One day some sailors found a large box floating in the water. They retrieved it and when they opened it found that it contained an unusual statue of Christ carved in a black wood. After they took it to shore the galleon was able to leave on calm seas and with no further problems. Another story tells how the townspeople of Puerto Bella were suffering and many people were dying from cholera. Some fishermen dragged a strange box up in their nets and took it ashore. Here they found that it contained the unusual carving. Almost immediately the cholera epidemic cleared up. Either way - the statue is an object of great respect in the area, and people travel miles to participate in the festival and processions.

Portobello Customs House

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Panama and preparations to transit the canal

Ship in a lock on the canal

Clear skies and favorable winds made the approach to Panama harbour easy for us. There was a large anchoring area nearby and we have never seen so many commercial vessels; freighters, grain ships, container ships, oil tankers of assorted shapes and sizes were anchored and waiting to go into port or through the canal.VHF channel 9 was noisy with incessant chatter as various ships called in to the Panama Port Authorities for their instructions.

Wanita Mike and I celebrate our arrival
in Panama with a cold beer!

We had a few tense moments motor sailing through the huge harbour trying to spot moving ships and service traffic going in all different directions including straight towards us, but a short time later we anchored in the designated anchorage for yachts called “the flats” together with about 50 other yachts.

Panama Yacht Club and dinghy dock

The yacht club was an easy, if somewhat splashy and wet dingy ride away from our boat and we were soon enjoying a cold beer in the open-air restaurant looking over the boats on the dock. Food was reasonably priced and one could also eat in the air-conditioned restaurant. They had great salads, sandwiches, hamburgers, Chinese food, and the usual fish and meat dishes. Always a wonderful option to my own cooking and the inevitable dishes! The bar was also cool and dark with stools around the boat shaped service area. The Panama brand beer was icy cold and cost about a dollar a bottle.

Getting ashore at the dinghy dock was something of a challenge, we often had to squeeze our way in because it was habitually crowded with all of us trying to get to shore every day. There was a charge of $2.00 each day to use the dock; this covered showers and free water at the dock. (We filled up before we left and I found the water a bit smelly. It was better in Balboa and just as accessible.)

Colon street

Colon is a comparatively run down city ; we yachties were warned about leaving the club premises on foot, as there is a bario in the immediate vicinity; Bamboo Alley is a poor neighbourhood and we heard that it is fairly common to be attacked on the streets in the vicinity.

Colon is a city that has always had an undesirable reputation. There is enormous unemployment, a trend that started as soon as canal construction was completed and the huge labour population couldn't find jobs. The local taxi drivers were very accommodating however and hired out for 8.00 an hour. They were always willing to help us with sourcing items and with translations for us.

We found the shopping was very good in the two major supermarkets nearby, Reys and 99. The local open market was great for fruit and vegetables. Panama City is only a 2.00 bus ride away, but we chose to rent a car with Jody and Bruce from CaVa so that we could look around and do some shopping there, and that too was an economical day out as we didn't have to use taxis to get around once in the City.

The Zona Libre (duty free zone) is the second largest duty free zone in the world - the first being Hong Kong.. It was interesting – a specially built and designated area covering several city blocks where no duty is charged. Most of the shops were wholesalers only and dealt only with businesses, but there were some bargains to be found – especially if we could put the items into a bag and “smuggle” them out. We had to produce our passports at the entrance and were then free to wander around in safety.

The only thing missing there was a place to sit and have a cool drink – there are no restaurants, bars or cafes apart from an occasional street vendor. In order to leave the zone with our bargains and without having to pay duty we hailed a local taxi cruising in the area . Although the car trunks were perfunctorily searched sometimes none of us had any difficulty escaping with some good bargains.

We were also lucky to find a local 'livaboard' at te yacht club who was arranging a ‘booze run’. Several cruisers joined together to make a bulk purchase of liquor and beer that was later delivered to the Yacht Club. The cost of $60.00 levied on purchases made in the duty free zone was divided amongst us all. Decent wine, $3.00 a bottle, rum per litre, $3.00 moderately good champagne, $3.00 per bottle (necessary to celebrate anything, like a) making it through the canal, b) crossing the equator c) arriving at Galapagos d) any other reason that springs to mind.

The canal runs for 50 miles North- West/South-East (Atlantic to Pacific.) In between the two locks systems is a lake – land that was flooded to make the canal. Gatun Lake is a fresh water lake, covering 23 square miles and is one of the largest artificial lakes in the world. Water is fed from Rio Chagres, which starts inland in the rain forest, and an earthen dam was constructed across the river to provide the necessary water and the power to operate the locks. The dam also provides hydro electricity for the City of panama and nearby communities and also fresh water both to the canal and to the City of Panama.

52 million gallons of water is used to raise a single ship through the locks and up 85 feet. The locks are 110 ft wide and 1000 ft long, accommodating some of the largest commercial vessels in the world. Construction is currently underway to widen the locks for the even bigger ships. These days there are spcial container ships that are built to carry extra large containers. Those ships can't go through he canal, so the containers are offloaded, hoisted ontoa train for the short trip to Balboa on the opposite coast.

Once through the lake the ships pass through the Galliard cut. This is a stretch of manmade canal 8 miles long and hacked out of solid rock. At present it is only wide enough for one ship to pass through at a time, but there are plans to modify it.

About 38 large ships transit each day, and it was quite interesting to see the scale and variety passing close by to our anchorage. Each ship slowly enters a lock, and several large wire ropes are attached to the special engines located on rail tracks at the side of the canal.

These powerful locomotive engines help to move the ships through the locks. We are told they cost 2 million dollars each.

When we were in the same lock as the freighter we rode with, we were very happy to know that the ship would not be using it's own powerful engines and huge propellers right in front of us, creating enormous turbulence behind.

A Little History.

Christopher Columbus first came to Panama in 1502, and about 3 years later the Spanish had the brilliant idea of building a canal. The job was too complex for the available technology. Much later in the 1800's the French decided to try their hand at the construction. They too found the job too expensive, and sold the whole project to the USA.

Over 75,000 people worked on the construction project, many of whom were imported from Jamaica, China and India for the heavy labour. They must have found the environment terrible, what with landslides, the enormous amounts of earth and rock to move, not to mention Malaria, Yellow Fever, Dengue fever and the extremely hot weather. Malaria has since been eradicated from the isthmus and we did not hear of any cases of Dengue fever when we were there.
Colon itself was an island, but was extended by landfill to join with the mainland. Panama first became popular during the California gold rush - it was, apparently, cheaper and quicker to take the Panama Railroad train from the east coast of the USA down to Panama and back up the other side to California, than to brave the dangerous country in central USA!

We spotted a ship transporting yachts - that has to be the easy way to get around!
The car transporters (roll-on, roll off,) were vast and the fully stacked containers ships equally huge. It is no wonder that they cannot see small boats like ours when they are so big and high. Tugs always accompanied each ship and the harbour was a constant 24 hour hum of activity with pilot boats dashing to and fro creating lots of wake for us to rock n' roll in.

Several cruise ships went by, we heard that they get charged a mere $250,000 to transit the canal! A couple of boats were stacked with yachts that were obviously being transported the easy way for their owners! Once we even spotted a tiny Peruvian submarine!

There were preparations to be made before we could make the transit

Our first priority was to phone the Admeasurer's office to arrange a time for the Admeasurer come on board to ‘measure’ Cheshire Cat. We did not hire an agent, although some boats did at a cost of $250.00. There was some speculation as to whether those who had agents got their transit dates more quickly.

We had to have the required ropes on board – four lines of 125 ft each, which we rented from Stanley, one of the taxi drivers. We should also have had our tires ready – available again from the taxi drivers or from Chico who watches the dinghy dock, but we had enough fenders on board to pass. Tires are considered necessary to protect your hull during transit. They are covered with black plastic bags and lots of tape. Needless to say old tires are at a premium on the Colon side and cost $3.00 each to buy and in consequence all the yachts arriving from Balboa are besieged for theirs when they arrive in port.

The Admeasurer jumped on board from the Pilot Boat

On the allotted day a tug brought the Admeasurer out to the boat and he took a few minutes to measure the length and width of the boat. The fore and aft measurement included the anchors at the front as well as our dinghy davits at the back, so we jumped up a size or two overnight! After he had measured several boats we met him on shore to complete the paperwork.

The admeasurer took time to explain all the paperwork to Mike and I. Liz and Garry from Dreambird and Paul from Jasp were completing their paperwork at the same time.
The paperwork was quite involved and took some time to explain and complete. We were told that we must have bottled water and a meal for the advisor when we made the transit. The head (toilet) must be in good working order. Some people were asked if they had holding tanks. I was asked if I had meat on board. (No) Every yacht has to have an advisor on board to help them through the locks. A minimum of four line handlers per boat are also required for the transit. We were asked how fast we can motor and said 8 knots. If you make less than 8 knots you have to pay extra. We were asked what our preferred method of transit was – center raft, side to wall, raft to tug or alone, and we chose center raft. I think rafting with a tug would be really easy as well. (We found out later that it is not specifically required that we provide a full meal for an advisor, a fact not generally known.)

If a boat has a problem transiting and the canal authorities have to help, or you are delayed your holding deposit is forfeit, but if there is a delay caused by the canal authorities there is no charge to the yacht. This was the point we were worried about our engine is only 24 HP and tends to overheat under stress, so making 8 knots is quite impossible.

Professional line handlers are available for $55.00 per day – the transit takes 2 days, so the cost is $110.00. Pilots are also available, but cost a great deal more. Most cruisers find other cruisers to help with line handling and reciprocate when necessary. It is a good idea to go through the canal before your turn to get the experience. We found the locks to be no different from those in the St Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal, but in Canada we were not locked in with a commercial boat.

We found it easy to find a taxi to take us to the bank to pay our Transit Fee of $600.00 US and the refundable holding deposit of $800.00 US, (They took an imprint of our Visa card at the bank and said it wouldn't go through unless we incurred charges, and then to go on to the Administrator’s office for the necessary money to be handed over and every thing completed
Of course, back at the Yacht Club – all the chit chat was about the transit through the canal. About 50 boats were gathered and nearly all were expecting to transit through to the Pacific. We telephoned the scheduling office regularly, some of us on a daily basis, to find out our date of transit. At the time there appeared to be a huge backlog, possibly because the advisors were required to accompany the dredging boats – we were never told. We were measured on 10th and didn't go through the Canal until 26th. It would have been more sensible for us to complete the formalities and leave Colon for a few days, visit the Rio Chagres which we were told was quite beautiful and much more peaceful than Colon, and come back after a week or so.

Wanita with Amanda and Paul on Jasp

Wanita's time with us was coming to and end. She arrived in the San Blas on the Day of Independence, toured the Kuna islands with us, swum with the sharks, visited historical Portobello and finally explored Colon. By now she had made two separate transits through the canal, so wasn't too terribly disappointed that she wasn't coming with Cheshire Cat.

Wanita checking laundry hanging on the shrouds before she departed!

In due course leave-taking preparations were made, we had a terrific dinner on Dreambird on Wanita's final evening - we celebrated and said our goodbyes.

We hope Wanita had as good a time as she said she did - we certainly miss having her cheerful company on board. After all - how many visitors scrub anchor chain, cook meals, clean stainless and generally accommodate the cruiser's way of life without complaint?

Panama City skyline