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Panama progress into the Pacific

by SV Taipan 6 Jun 2019 04:31 UTC 5 June 2019
Contadora Las Perlas © SV Taipan

The marina at the northern end of the Panama Canal, ShelterBay, was a welcome sight after our 7-day passage from Grenada. The final few hours saw us dodging shipping and finally following one of the big guys through the entrance at Colon. Shelter Bay Marina is expensive but there are no other marinas, and to facilitate the lengthy process involved in gaining Canal Permit, it is the most convenient stopover. We chose an agent some weeks previously and Rogelio de Hoyos was ready to measure us and get the official ball rolling just two days after our arrival.

We were quite sure we would be over the 50-foot limit and received a pleasant surprise when we came in under it. This is quite a saving in dollars as there is a big jump in price over 50 feet. They can do very creative measuring here in Panama.

Family members, Michael and Corinne, were flying in from Western Australia on the 8th of May so we were allocated a Canal transit date for the 12th. Their adventure began at the airport after 40 hours travelling, where Rogelio's driver picked them to drive them to Shelter Bay. They were forewarned about the terrible road and the isolation It would be unnerving to be in a strangers car on that stretch of road in the dark. Narrow as a goat track, and twice as rough with thick jungle encroaching on both sides, Shelter Bay sits in what was the Panama Free Zone, land once used by the US military when they controlled the Canal. It is filled with ruined building and broken equipment and the jungle resonates to the screams of howler monkeys. Then there's a roadblock manned by machine gun toting hombres in camouflage fatigues just to raise your doubts about the whole adventure. A scene from Mad Max!

Meanwhile, aboard Taipan, our jobs list was by no means short. We thought when we arrived that we had matters in hand but the sudden failure of one of our 6v 450ah batteries set us in a spin. To replace the whole bank of 4 batteries or not? An abortive attempt was made to procure batteries from the US but miss understanding and miss communication saw that turn into a debacle with the wrong batteries ordered and on the ship to Panama!!. They wouldn't fit in our battery box. So a sharp about turn and we were able to locate just one battery the correct size, to replace the failed one and the whole show was back on the road. The main sheet track car was removed and inspected and hundreds of little ball bearings cleaned and reinserted one by one!

The deck cleats needed to be resealed and that necessitated the messy process of drilling out two of the bolts which failed to be moved by the idea. Michael bought the bolts from Australia. They also bought a new autopilot in their luggage. (Most of which was stuff for the boat.) Michael and Corinne's luggage consisted of two small carry-on bags and a backpack and handbag. Not a bad effort for a three-week stay.

The autopilot was installed and tested. A trip into Colon for supplies and sundries took most of one day. We joined Andrew and Polly "Drummer" most evenings at the dockside restaurant and compared repairs and maintenance progress.

The day of the transit dawned like any other, hot sweaty and overcast. With all the jobs done we soaked in the pool on the last two afternoons and managed to fit in another quick cool-off in the morning before departure. Our fenders and 4x50foot lines had been delivered by Roger and out two paid lines attendants arrived promptly at 1.00 pm. Taipan was required to anchor on the Flats, just outside the marina entrance and await the arrival of the Canal Advisor. This person is an employee of the Panama Canal Authority and it's his job to ensure that each boat makes the specific deadlines for locking procedures and does so without impeding the shipping traffic. We had Hector delivered just before dark and then proceeded to motor slowly towards the first of the locks.

There was a delay as two of the biggest ships to transit the canal were needing room to pass in opposite directions The channel is too narrow for them to pass so they had to go one at a time. This delayed us about an hour We were very lucky with the weather. Clear skies and a moon.

We approached the first of the three locks with some trepidation. The process requires that the two yachts we were to transit with being rafted together to enter the locks and continue through the locks rafted. The middle boat was Drummer, (our friends Andrew and Polly, Brits,) We tied to them and the other boat tied to their other side.

Our two line handlers did all the line work, with the Canal staff throwing a monkey fist onto the deck which was then used to tie to the big lines we had, and they were hauled ashore to the lock wall and secured on bollards for the lift. Line handlers shorten the lines as the water fills the lock. The rafted boats move forward and the process begins again. We were following a big ship during each move up.

At around 11pm we were out of the final of the up locks and into Gatun Lake, a large artificial lake constructed to minimize the number of locks required to build the canal, we separated and made our way to some large buoys where we tied for the night.

Line handlers slept in the cockpit and the Advisor was taken off. The cooking was a bit of a process!! Everyone had to be fed enroute. A hot meal no less!!! It was already about 100 degrees in the saloon and the preparation of a hot meal for seven was challenging. Day one. Tuna Mornay. Day two Chicken and Pasta.

Day two saw the arrival of our canal advisor at 7.00am. He required a hot breakfast and a hot lunch! Then in convoy, all three yachts motored through the beautiful artificial freshwater lake, around islands and past some big ships for about six hours. For the last three locks we rafted the boats back together and this time, going down, we're followed in by a big freighter.

The old locks are 110 ft (33.53 m) wide by 1,050 ft (320 m) long and 41.2 feet (12.6 m) deep, with a usable length of 1,000 ft (305 m).

Miraflores Lock has a visitors centre and the ramparts were crowded with spectators. Polly's son, in the UK, was able to get some screenshots off the Panama Canals live video feed, of the three boats in the lock.

Overall the transit was much easier than negotiating most of the European locks for which we were only two-handed and without shoreside assistance. They caused great anxiety and near divorce at every lock!! I do grant you though.... it was a little more expensive!!!

Many thanks to Rogelio and his team.

Back in the Pacific, we made our way to La Playita. The marina is horrible and at $150US for the 1st night and $80 per night thereafter we only stayed one-night enduring surge and no facilities. We had the Fumigator aboard to fulfill the requirements of the Galapagos inspectors and then left and went to the anchorage off the marina.

On the 15th we completed exit formalities with Rogelio's assistance and left for Las Perlas, an island group about 40nm south.

Two Spanish Mackerel were bagged and a bucket and a pair of pliers was lost so we're square! We anchored snuggly on the northern shore of Contadora, where we made final preparations for departure to Galapagos. Before leaving on the 16th, and after a slight glitch with a faulty switch on the Powerdive, David gave the hull a thorough inspection and pronounced it barnacle free and fit for the rigorous inspections we are due to encounter in Galapagos.

We are ready to go! Well, are we??? What next??

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