Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Panama, the canal and on to the Galapagos

Panama, the canal and on to the Galapagos

We arrived in Shelter Bay on a Friday (27th March), so expected to spend the weekend finding our feet and get down to business on Monday. We had a lot to organize, not least the canal transit which could take up to a week.. Luckily there was a pool at the marina so the boys were delighted.. Ben the Cameraman arrived on Saturday morning with his "fixer" Eddie who was helping him with permits and permissions, and moved on board. On Monday morning we started the process of buying stores, fuel, spare parts and all those bits we would need for the next 6 months in the Pacific. Finally I could get my anchor that I wanted and some chain.

While in the marina I saw a good looking Catamaran ..a Gunboat 66 .called Sugar Daddy. These are the Ferraris of the cat world. All carbon and Kevlar, ultra fast and uber comfortable. I was keen to take a look. On enquiry I found it was owned by the same couple (Bruce and Nora) we had met in the Bahamas in June 2008 who then had a Gunboat 62 called Looking for Elvis (Bruce always said he wasn't looking too hard) He also had the same skipped and wife team with them, a great combo and they really travel, I mean 20000 miles plus a year. We all had a good laugh together and had a jolly evening on board.

It transpired that Bruce used an anchor called a supermax, he had two and really rated them. Now there's nothing like a personal recommendation and after reading what I could on the internet, I decided this was the anchor for us . After contacting the manufacturer I organized one to be shipped for collection in Balboa on the Pacific side. Great I had finally bought a serious anchor for our pacific leg, something I had been trying to do since the Caribbean

In addition to entry formalities and general organization there was a lot of paperwork to sort for the Canal Transit and exit papers for Panama. I decided the best thing was to use an agent. Often in places such as this, natural pinch points, to get things done without delay you have to throw money at it so that time is not wasted. You can really loose weeks in places like Panama so we just had to get on with it. $2500 on shopping! $1500 on boat bits! $1800 for agent, lines, line handlers and canal transit! $500 for marina fees!…and we hadn't bought any beer yet!

Whilst organising Pegasus and ourselves, the pool proved a godsend as one of us could be there with the boys while the other had Pegasus to themselves. In addition to servicing the engines and preparing Pegasus, I had some business that required internet access and managed to get all my contracts signed and sent, while Amanda had load upon load of shopping to prepare and stow, while reorganize Pegasus below decks.

The agent had told us that Thursday would be our transit day, so we prepared Pegasus and ourselves and were ready.

The morning of 1st April arrived but our agent didn't! The previous day I had phoned him but was told his phone no longer worked…. Oh Dear.

We were scheduled to transit that afternoon and would forfeit our bond if we were not on station at the correct time. Early afternoon the agent arrived with line handlers lines and fenders, much to our relief. The only thing we didn't have was the exit Zarpe and our passports stamped. He assured us that he would get this done and be back by 4, when we intended to leave. It was a close run thing and we met his launch as we headed out of the marina. We now had all our paperwork in order and were set.

It occurred to me that April fools day was not the best day to go through the Panama Canal, but as it transpired all went well, and after a night in Gatum lake we arrived at the Balboa Yacht club in the early afternoon of the 2nd April, and picked up one of their buoys. We had made the jump, and were finally in the Pacific. I had read a lot of things about the actual transit, which always heightens ones levels of apprehension, but all said and done it is just a series of locks and although the sizes and volumes are staggering it was relatively straightforward.

Sitting on deck with the last of the sun, we looked to the North were a mile away we could clearly see the Bridge of the Americas. It's amazing to think that the massive continent of the Americas is divided in two by the Panama canal, and there are only 3 crossing points. A rather rickety swing bridge in front of Gatum lock gates, the 2 lane centenary bridge and the 4 lane bridge of the Americas. I find it hard to imagine that they still have capacity .

Balboa, or Panama proper had a rather different feel than Shelter bay and Colon. Much more cosmopolitan, more business like and certainly wealthier. The Canal authority employs many people and the Canal is a massive earner for the country. They process on average 38 ships a day at an average $250000 US each so $9.5 million a day 365 days a year, with maybe a 5% loss for maintenance…that's…err…a lot. No wonder they think yachts are a bit of a pain at $650us each!

We had more shopping to do and a few last bits. We needed all the fresh food supplies and definitely a new DVD player for the boys. We seem to go through a player every 2 months. Amanda needed some time in the supermarket on her own, so I took the boys swimming at an open-air pool. A sort of Panamanian Tooting Lido.

There were only about 50 people in a 6 lane pool with 5 and 10 meter diving boards. It was the usual scene, the 16 year olds jumping and diving off the 5-meter platform, the 10-meter platform closed. Now Jean-Jaques loves to jump in the water, but Louis is not so keen. After half an hour or so I watched JJ approach, and start to climb up the ladder. Ok,, he won't do it but its good for him to have a look. The local boys helped him off the ladder and off he went. He just stood on the end and jumped. No thoughts, no worried looks, just jumped. He had a huge smile on his face and just went straight back up, time and time again. I was quite amazed. Louis, seeing JJ having a laugh indicated that he wanted to jump. Right, there's no way I thought. I took him up and held him as we looked over the edge. He made a little noise and clearly wanted to go back down. OK, that's sorted then. 5 minutes later and Louis had changed his mind. Up we went again. This time I asked if he was sure. Yes he wanted to jump, so I took off his swim jacket and held him with me. I looked over the edge and not wanting to be shown up by a 2.5 year old knew I had to jump, so off we went. Louis came up with a grin from ear to ear. So that was us for the next hour. JJ jumping alone, and Louis with me. The locals didn't know what to make of it, and neither did I, I mean it was really quite high.

After a week at the Balboa Yacht Club we were ready to go We were glad to be leaving. It wasn't really set up for yachts and we felt ..well tolerated but not really welcome, unlike Cartagena which was very welcoming and friendly. The Columbians were always asking questions, were extremely polite and hospitable, and proud of their city and heritage. We didn't feel that about the Panamanians although all that we met were polite and courteous, it was just different.

In Columbia we had felt safe, but in Colon it was definitely dangerous and although less so, Panama was also threatening. One afternoon we took a taxi to the Old Town with the cameraman and his equipment. To approach the old town you need to pass through some quite run down areas. On our approach, only a mile from our destination, there were suddenly 10 or so 20 year olds around the Taxi where there had been none a moment before. They had run out of a side street and blocked the taxi from going forward, shouting and slamming the bonnet. Sensing the situation the Taxi edged forward pushing the youths round the side of the bonnet. I looked up the side street and saw a woman clutching her stomach. Clearly she had been shot or stabbed, and the youths were trying to stop the taxi by force to help their situation. There was no way he was stopping and on seeing this, one of them tried to break the windows by throwing stones at the glass as he accelerated away. Had he stopped in that neighborhood we would all have been robbed within minutes. Every chancer seeing the scene would have been on the street within minutes. We would have been eaten alive. We were lucky the windows did not break and that the Taxi driver just kept going. It was all very sudden, but you could see it unfolding as it happened. The fact that there were children in the car made no difference to the stone throwers.

We had one last issue to sort before we could leave. Jean-Jaque's passport is due to expire in French Polynesia, so we needed to organise a new one. We contacted the British consulate and made arrangements to sort the paperwork. All seemed to be going well until we heard that the biometric printer in Costa Rica, where the passport was to be issued, was broken, and wouldn't be fixed until after Easter. After much discussion a plan was hatched. The new passport would be delivered to Panama, then forwarded to the New Zealand high Commission (commonwealth) in Tahiti where we would pick it up. I really hope its there when we arrive!!!

Ben the Camera man left on Tuesday, satisfied with the footage he had shot, and on Thursday 8th April we headed off to the Las Perlas islands 40 miles south of Panama for a bit of R+R before the passage to the Galapagos. We motored the whole way and in the early afternoon saw a school of Killer whales rising close to the boat.

The islands on the west side of the Isthmus are remarkably different. Gone are the desert island and coconut palms, replaced by an arid landscape with deciduous trees and only a very few coconut palms. They are mostly rock.

We stayed at Isla Contradora for 2 nights and had some good social with friends on their boat Mikado. A day on the beach, some walking on the island, dinner ashore and we were ready to leave. We all wanted to get going.

Its 850 miles from Panama to the Galapagos islands through the Inter tropical convergence zone or doldrums so we were prepared for windless days and had bought and stored an additional 200 litres of diesel. We expected to motor for a day or two then pick up some wind. We headed south out of the bay of Panama. This proved quite slow as we had at least a knot of current against us.

Our first night it rained heavily with distant lightening. We were filling our water tanks and there was a mighty clap of thunder overhead. Although I'm sure we weren't hit? Our wind indicator, which shows wind speed and direction, just stopped working as did the primary GPS. I suspect they are both fried. I don't think they are repairable and in fact I went up the mast twice and removed the wind indicator.

That was a difficult thing. Although all seemed calm at sea level, 60 ft higher at the top of the mast it was a job in itself just to hold on. I was being thrown around and had a sudden realisation that what I was doing was really dangerous and that I had to finish the job quickly or get down. There's no way I could climb up there at sea on my own, or even be winched up. You need both hands and legs just to hang on.

We motored, sailed and motor sailed for 4 days, and finally got a steady wind on day 5 where we could start to clock some mileage.

While motoring we saw some amazing wildlife. Eagle rays just leaping out of the water all around us. Manta rays on the surface, pilot whales, dolphins and sharks. I'm sure I saw a marlin sunning himself on the surface as well. The sea was alive.

As soon as the wind filled in we sailed hard and on the evening of the seventh day we arrived in Wreck Bay on the island of San Cristobal, Galapagos. We arrived at night and with a little trepidation felt our way into the anchorage and found a tight little spot dropped our new anchor and cracked open an anchor dram. There was movement all around and with a torch we saw at least10 sealions swimming around the boat making quite a racket. Surreal.

We were all up early the following day and the boys were delighted to see two sealions asleep on the engine room hatches. Amanda and I knew that they would be on board. During the night Amanda woke me up saying that she could hear something. She popped her head out of the hatch, to literally be kissed by an inquisitive sealion. I'm not sure who was more shocked, as both parties recoiled with some speed.

The water was much cooler in the Galapagos at 23-24 degrees so quite refreshing, not the 27 degrees we were used to. We all swam as there was a lovely beach just 50 yards from Pegasus and on Sunday and Monday the water was crystal clear We discussed our plans.

It was apparent that to stay any length of time we would need to clear in with an agent. The islands are spread out and to move your boat you need to sign in and out of every island, using a new agent each time. Generally its about $400 for paperwork and permits for a 20 day stay. Its really geared around local employment and tourists. We certainly didn't want to stay that long, as 2 small boys are not going to sit on someone else's boat for hours or listen to a guide, that just wasn't going to work. They need much more interaction. On our wish list were sealions, turtles, tortoises, and penguins. We decided that the penguins on Isla Isabella would have to wait for another day. All the others were available on San Cristobal. Having arrived on Saturday night, we checked in on Monday morning for a 72-hour stay. We were told that a free stay was now limited to 24 hours. A little short but it suited us fine. We saw giant tortoises, swam with turtles and sealions and had a good meal ashore. On Tuesday we bought fuel and supplies and had some Internet time for weather routing.

The Grib files looked good so after picking up my Zarpe or exit clearance and a final swim, we were ready to get going on the next leg, Galapagos to Marquesas some 3000 miles.

I started to pull up the anchor and found I had a problem. Our anchor rode was well wrapped around a boulder in 5 meters of water. I repeatedly free dived but just couldn't clear it was at the limit of my range and the visibility was pretty bad due to a large swell that had been running for the last 12 hours. We were stuck!

I called a friend on the radio. They said they had a friend who had some diving gear on board. 30 minutes later we were clear of the bottom, the only casualty a cut rode / chain splice.

Its amazing the help you can summon when you are part of the cruising community. That's the difference we have found being slightly off the regular cruising routes. There is a real spirit of camaraderie and a pool of knowledge with people keen to help others. Were not in the same boat, but on the same ocean with the same challenges and the same 3000 miles ahead of us.

We motored out of Wreck bay at 1600, 21/4/09, on a glassy sea with some 3000 miles to our next landfall.

Las Perlas to Galapagos Daily mileage 105,101,117,98,151,184,172 (part)

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Monday, 27 April 2009

Curacao, Cartagena The San Blas and down to Panama

Curacao, Cartagena The San Blas and down to Panama.

"Its 8pm and dark. I cant expect the half moon until after midnight. We have 3 reefs in the main, half staysail and half genoa making 8-10 kts in 15 kts wind. The sea is just aft starboard beam so were taking a bit of green every now and then, but making good way. Not uncomfortable, but a bit rock and roll. We should arrive at Holandes Cay, Kaimou some time after lunch tomorrow. Its about 180 miles from Cartagena. And about as different as you can imagine. Just think of you're A typical desert island with tall coconut palms, crystal clear water and white sand beaches, all protected by a fringing reef, and you've got it. Were all looking forward to a week of downtime, just gentle cruising again, not running west"

We left Cartagena in the afternoon after a week at anchor between Club Nautico and the naval base. Sheltered, with all amenities we needed, but pretty dirty as you would expect in a big city. It was a bit of a shock for us to be in the city with high rise buildings lining the Bocca Grande a mile to the west, the old town a mile to the North and the Isle of Manga 300yards to the East. The smells and sounds of a big city, always in the warm air. A pulse not felt sine…. Nassau I guess.

We had arrived at 3am, and in the still and peace of the inner harbour we had the anchor dram and listened to the city, excited about the new horizon and our first stop in South America. Neither of us quite believing we had sailed from Cowes to Cartagena, the Isle of Wight to Columbia, our dream now reality.

Cartagena is a difficult place to get to. It's a rough passage from Curacao, with a big confused sea, and is renowned as one of the 5 windiest passages in the world. We waited in Curacao until we saw a window where it looked like the wind was peaking at 25 kts. I had been worried about this leg since the Caribbean and knew it would be rough. We sailed up the windward side of Aruba having decided to head offshore for possibly stronger winds, but a less confused sea. We can handle the wind and big seas, but a big confused sea with short wave frequency starts to get worrying and uncomfortable. Our other option was to go the inshore route staying on the 500-1000 meter line, but we found the seas large and very confused off the north coast of Aruba in 500 metres, so headed offshore to the 3000 meter line.

Well our 25 kts of wind turned into 45kts and we had pretty large seas. We used the 4th reef in the main (Thanks Jerry, Medina sail care, I knew we were going to need that) for the first time and were making pretty good way. The problem comes when you get lifted up on a 30 footer and get hit by 40 kts at the top. Old Pegasus just accelerates away and your doing 16-18 kts boat speed down the wave…ok during the day but at night it's a bit much. Luckily we had a full moon so we could just about see what was going on. Whenever were in a sea like that I am just amazed at how well Pegasus behaves. Were lucky she's such a great design. We pretty much sailed with either 4 reefs in or no main, and a slip of staysail for the last 50 hours. I was just glad we weren't there the week before. It would have been a cauldron with 60 Kt winds and ferocious waves…extremely dangerous. I always held the feeling we were in a place we shouldn't be and didn't want to hang around long. Rather like crossing a motorway at 3 am. You know you can get away with it if your careful, but it would be death trying it at 9am!

It took us a while to get into Cartagena as we had to take the waves abeam to come inshore. It was pretty rough with strong winds but as we approached the coast the wind backed allowing us to head closer and closer to the harbour entrance. At one stage we thought we may not make the entrance, the city or the country, the wind and waves forcing us further south than we liked, but they eased and we pinched up the last 15 miles with engines running to push us up to wind. It was a bit of a trip, but much the same as everyone else who we met in the club. We were very glad to get in and tucked up after 3 tiring days at sea.

We all enjoyed Cartagena. The old city is really beautiful and vibrant, and the restaurants good even though they all have the same menu…steak basically. Highlights were Simon Bolivar square, mandarin juice from the street vendors and small, sweet coffee readily available every 20 yards or so at 10c a cup. Yep, it was pretty cheap, which made a change from Curacao. Being on the mainland there was also an abundance of fruit, which the boys loved. After our week there we were ready to leave and after our fairwells in the club, set off for the Ssan Blas islands.

Curacao to Cartagena daily milage, 210, 193, 123 (Part)
Cartagena to san blas daily milage 191

After the big city we were all looking forward to just cruising. A fast 24 hour passage and we arrived in a small anchorage between 4 islands and settled down for a few days. I launched Silver (our new optimist dinghy) for the first time and we all had great fun with the two boats sailing from island to island around the small reefs, protected in the lagoon from the Atlantic swell. The Islands are basically spatially habitated with fewer people the further east you go. There were island we wanted to see, and we had allowed ourselves a week there so we moved every few days. We spent a magical night in Bandaros Cays where we had an island to ourselves with Pegasus anchored just 50 yards from the beach in the lea of the island. That night we had a BBQ on the island making a fire from coconut husks and cooking steak (from Cartagena) and sausages…a favourite with all the boys. It was really beautiful, quite magical. Picking shells off the water line, swimming whenever you felt like it. The boys were in heaven

During that week we stopped at 4 island anchorages and walked many beaches. Being where they are at the far west shore of the Caribbean sea, the shelling was terrific in addition to many varieties of sea beans we found. The Local Kuna Indians were all pretty friendly approaching us in their dugout canoes as soon as we had dropped anchor. We bought Molas…decorative and intricate needlework designs…and gave fresh water, coffee, biscuits etc to those who asked. We allowed ourselves one night of Lobster…very extravagant at $25 for 3 biggies..oh… and 2 beers for the fisherman. They were delicious.

One night we anchored at a place called Dog Island. In the morning a Kuna came alongside in his dugout canoe , "could we charge his mobile phone", well when it rang I thought I would try mine and yes reception was available. Quite remarkable really, and very useful as I had things going on in London and needed to make some calls. I had a surreal phone call to London sitting on the stern of Pegasus watching the Kuna in his dugout ( which was tied to our stern) catching quite large fish with his hand line. My conversation was peppered with "oh he's got another one"….. A long way from the environs of my telemate.

We were heading for Panama some 80 miles west and decided to push on. After speaking with the production company it had been decided that Ben the Camera man was going to meet us in Colon and film the canal transit. So we had a rendezvous, a deadline, a city to make.

After a night in Isla Grande en route, we arrived at Shelter Bay marina on the Atlantic side on Friday the 27th March. It was a great sail under spinnaker down to the breakwater outside Colon harbour. On the way we caught our first Tuna. 3 small (10kg) Black fin, duly dispatched and frozen.

As you approach Colon you know your somewhere special, the crossroads of the world. On the way down there are ships arriving, departing, and anchored, and every stage in between. On the AIS I was getting 165 signals. That's 165 ships within 15 miles. We felt very small and insignificant as we stole quietly through the 300yard entrance in the breakwater and headed 2 miles west to the marina that held our reservation.

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