Monday, July 11, 2016

Shelter Bay Marina to Bocas del Toro, Panama

Shelter Bay Marina to Bocas del Toro, Panama

27th – June to 3rd July - 2016

The Crew Heads Home

A nostalgia moment for all cruisers who have been to SBM
Shelter Bay is a very nice clean marina. We were received at the dock by helpful new neighbours, taking our docklines and answering our 1001 questions. Shelter Bay is somewhat remote from Colon and services but judging by the warnings regarding safety in Colon the remoteness is probably a good thing. Coming from the Pacific side the shallow depths were a bit unnerving but once you are used to the 1.5 foot tide range it is fine.

Doug used the shore time to complete the work he had done getting the ICOM 802 HF radio working. The terminals at both ends of the coaxial cable to the ATU were bad and had to be replaced. I also straightened the run for the antenna so hopefully the pactor will send airmail and receive grib files. The radio transmissions are working but not tested over longer distances because there are no cruisers moving around. It is the rainy season…..

Joe Gannon doing penance on Isla Buoy, Gatun Lake
Unfortunately for Joe our extra day in the canal meant he had to return to Panama City from Shelter Bay to make his June 29th flight back to New York. He was a great addition to the crew and is always welcome back. He caught the Marina van to the Colon bus station where he boarded an aircon bus to Albrook Transportation Center and then a taxi to the Hotel Riande near the Tucuman International Airport for his morning flight. Thanks Joe.....

After two nights in Shelter Bay we left for Bocas del Toro. With a few days to spare until our next departures, we decided to do the 100 mile overnight trip to Isla Escudo de Veragua, spend the next afternoon and night at anchor and then continue northwest the 40 final miles to Bocas. Escudo is a small island with only a few Guaymi Indian families as the only residents. The two anchorages are roadstead anchorages but according to Bauhaus are protected from most conditions.

The weather patterns in the Caribbean approaches to the canal are incredibly localized with change being the most constant feature. The trades do not dip this far south so counter currents and variable winds continually keep one working when trying to do a crossing during the rainy season. We left the breakwater entrance with a 15+ knot wind on the nose.
One of the biggest pangas I have seen, riding the swell in.
A huge panga streaked in the entrance running with the wind and swell as we turned out into the swell. Although not particularly high, about 8 to 10 feet, they were very close together making for an uncomfortable ride. As we got far enough through the anchored ships to turn west, the wind veered, coming out of the northwest as well. For the next 20 hrs we motor sailed into the confused seas. The bottom is quite shallow and the north coast of South America and the close Panama coast set-up a disarray of reflected waves. Some resulting in short period 12 foot high haystacks. Not fun. At night the effect could not be anticipated, just reacted to after the impact. Escudo, rising out of the sea, was a welcome sight.

Sandy, SW point on Isla Escudo de Veraguas as we departed
We checked both anchorages and decided the south west anchorage was best although neither was ideal for the west northwest wind we were experiencing. We were the only boat at anchor and only one panga was on the beach. After getting some sleep on the hook we decided to see how close the reef was. There were enough seas running that putting the motor on the dinghy would have been difficult so we just went in with masks, snorkels and fins. The water was warm and considering the conditions, surprising clear. It was good to finally be able to see the anchor well buried in the sand and that the tides would not vary our 15 foot depth much. After swimming a couple of hundred meters towards shore where shoaling was reported, no coral or rocks were found, just continuing sand bottom with very little marine life evident. The island does have good snorkelling but it would have to be for another day.

During the night with one of my anchor checks, I spotted a new anchor light just south east of us. As dawn broke, Sunrunner became visible. Paul had just spent 36 hours without sleep beating up to the anchorage after dropping his canal crew in Colon and making some coastal stops. He was happy to get the hook down and get some sleep.

We departed northwest to round the Valiente Peninsula at the southern edge of the Bocas Archipelago. We took the Cayo Crawl Passage between Isla Popa and Isla Bastimentos. Unfortunately our intended stop for a snorkel on the Cayos Zapatillas had to be passed because although the wind and waves were better, conditions did not warrant a stop.
Everyone got time on the helm -
Once inside the pass I was quickly reminded how shallow it was and how quickly the bottom came up from 30 feet to 6 foot sandy underwater knolls.  I managed to become briefly intimate with two of them but motored off successfully.
After the Skipper touched bottom twice!
The seas inside were calm but the rainy season cloud cover diminished the colours of our tropical paradise.

Again with several people on board, we decided to check into Bocas Marina. With shallows across the mouth of the bay it was great to be given some route directions in. The marina’s free shuttle panga makes regular trips across the bay into Bocas Town where we were hoping to get Bree, Matt and Doug booked onto flights back to Panama City. Surprise - all flights booked for three days which meant missing flights back to NY and Canada. After some sleuthing Bree came up with a great return trip by boat across the bay to Almirante, van through the jungle to Boquete, bus down to David and an available flight to P’ City. They had a great adventure and made their flights on time.
Bocas waterfront

Contrary to what I was accustomed to in the rainy/monsoon season of southeast Asia, there is no pattern to the weather here. Every day is different with thunder and lightning occurring any time of the day or night. We had a good blow that had boats at anchor dragging and an enormous flash of lightning put the power out in Bocas Town for several hours. Other incredible lightning storms have reminded me that we aren’t supposed to be here, we’re supposed to be in Ecuador! Damn earthquake! Although we have travelled a lot in Asia during the rainy season, the lack of predictability makes travel here a little more problematic. We will see what we can manage.
Canada Day at Bocas Marina

Mags and I are getting used to having the boat to ourselves again. Some really nice people on the dock but several are still in the process of leaving for the season so we are not sure how many stay here full time. Mags has done the cleaning of lockers that she was trying to get done before the canal and now the boat feels great. Bocas Town has several provisioning stores and lots of restaurants so exploring is fun. We have a few issues with the auto pilot not releasing the wheel when we go to Standby that I am chasing, probably the solenoid in the bypass valve, so life is back to normal. Doing boat projects in paradise, albeit a little wetter than the usual view of paradise.
It was great having Bree and Matt onboard, looking forward to the next time.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Panama Canal Transit

Panama Canal Transit

28 – June - 2016

An Excellent Transit
Returning from Isla Tobago, Gehry Bio Museum is the coloured roof panels to left

We returned from Vancouver to Taboga Island finding Kanilela riding Chuy’s buoy happily. Once again Mag’s extensive preparations to leave the boat had paid off. I arranged for Chuy to have the hull cleaned before I returned because I knew we had very little time to prepare for our “line-handlers” arrivals and I did not have time to do it myself as usual.

We decided to take a berth in Playita Marina for a week to get ready for the canal transit and to make life easier for our four extra crew as they arrived. It worked out well as some big winds came up and both La Playita and Las Brisas anchorages were rough, especially Las Brisas with its chaotic beach access. Our daughter Bree and her husband Matt arrived from New York in the afternoon, my big brother Doug flew in from Duncan/Vancouver that evening and finally Bree and Matt’s friend Joe arrived from New York the following day. With six on board, dock conveniences were appreciated.
They made it look easy

We managed to do some provisioning trips with side trips to the Canal museum at the Miraflores locks and a trip back to Casco Viejo, the old town.

We were all very attentive to details at the Miraflores Locks because we were all going through the canal for the first time. Several people had told us to hire a line handler or two but I thought we could do it. While we were watching, a sailboat, locking down to the Pacific while rafted to a Canal work boat, came through and had an uneventful passage through the two locks. They made it look easy which was reassuring but going up in the locks is the direction the prop wash and inflow of water create the worst condition so I was only partially relaxed about what we had seen and there were no boats going the other direction, up to Gatun Lake.
Kanilela's Transit Crew June 2016 - thanks for the photo Matt

I decided to hire an agent, Erick Galvez from Centenario Consulting, because we needed the 4 - 125 foot lines and bumpers and because doing your own registration can cause delays and finally, we had people on tight schedules. The process went well, the Admeasurer came to the marina to complete the requisite forms and the lines and bumpers were dropped off without issue. When we submitted the paper work on Tuesday we were hoping for a Thursday or Friday date but they were full so we met our transit advisor, Francisco, about 0800 on Saturday morning, 25-June-2016.

As many of you may know, the canal has been building a new set of locks for the last many years. The new locks are to permit wider modern ships of up to 55m (165’) to transist. The old locks are 33.5m (110’) and the Panamax ships designed to that width were losing out to the larger ships which were working the Eastern North America/Europe/Middle East/Far East trade routes. Panama City was covered in ads saying the new canal would open on Sunday, 26-June-2016. Yep, day two of our transit.
Bridge of the Americas

Passing under landmark bridges can be big events for cruisers. For Vancouver sailors departing, the Lion’s Gate bridge is an emotional moment and of course entering San Francisco under the Golden Gate was a milestone. The Pacific approach to the Canal is dominated by the steel Bridge of the Americas and yes, it felt very good to be passing under the link between North and South America. While waiting to enter the first Miraflores lock we met another sailboat, Sunrunner, who would be transiting with us. The freighter, Noble Halo was to enter first, then the canal tug, Pacora, would side tie behind the freighter, then we would enter and nest to the tug and finally Sunrunner would enter and nest to us. Sounds easy…
The bow crew, Doug and Joe ready to tie to the Pacora

And it was! Everyone performed their tasks perfectly. Our advisor, Francisco and Edward, the advisor for Sunrunner, were great, giving advice clearly and demonstrating better techniques when beneficial. They were perfect for a boat load of canal first timers. Paul on Sunrunner had transited the canal fourteen times and his crew varied from two with extensive experience to a couple of first timers.
Bree set to take Sunrunners lines
As the lock closed and filled we did introductions and shared cruising histories. Once we were at the top of the lock, the forward gate opened into the second Miraflores lock. To move from one lock to the next Noble Halo went first pulled by the train mules on the canal side and using his own motor for additional thrust. After his turbulence had calmed a little, Sunrunner dropped away from Kanilela and we then dropped back from Pacora, so they could advance into the next and final Miraflores lock and repeat the nesting process again. Tied to a larger vessel that is side tied is the easiest lockage position, once nested, only the line handlers on the tug at the side wall have any work.
Thanks Marie for the screenshots, and yes, Matt is in a white shirt!

Heading out from the second Miraflores Lock into Pedro Miguel Lake

Bree and Matt had notified numerous people of the live feed canal cameras and as we were going through Miraflores they were talking to Marie, Matt’s mom in Pennsylvania. She managed to capture some screen shots of us rafted, separating and proceeding to the next lock. The viewing galleries of the lock were packed with people and knowing we had a live feed audience as well, the pressure was on. We did not want to make history by doing a 360 and bouncing off the walls.
Every person on the deck has a camera ready for some poor skipper who blows it!

The old canal has three locks rising up 26m (84’) to the Gatun Lake elevation and three down. From the Pacific side the two Miraflores locks are first, followed by the Pedro Miguel single lock about one mile away. Unfortunately, the tug Pacora was stopping to join a ship in the canal between Miraflores locks and Pedro Miguel, so our final type of lockage was changed to center chamber.
Another perfect throw
While rafted to Sunrunner each line crew would catch a line thrown with a Monkey Fist to the sailboats from the lock sidewalls therefore each sailboat would have a bow and stern line to the canal wall and would have to maintain the correct tension, keeping the sailboats in the middle of the lock.
Matt and Bree snugging the stern line 

Lock closing

Again, Doug and Joe on the bow and Matt and Bree on the stern performed perfectly. It went incredibly smoothly. The Pedro Miguel Canal staff threw the stern lines to the bow and Matt and Bree ran them back to the stern thus avoiding getting a Monkey Fist through a solar panel. Although we have heard of panels being hit one wonders if there were other dynamics taking place. The Canal crews have competitions throwing Monkey Fists through 6” diameter circles so we know they can put it where they choose to put it. With us they were all smiles, as helpful as could be and always tolerant of my Spanish. Our advisors, Francisco and Edward were great. Textbook locking…. A note on the advisors. They are Canal employees who work in other departments and have an opportunity to work as advisors on an overtime basis on sailboats and yachts. They are not ship’s pilots. Francisco is with the Environmental Department and Edward is a tug boat captain. Edward loved sharing his knowledge of the history of the canal so the transit was incredibly informative.

Once out of the Pedro Miguel lock you enter the Gaillard Cut, a 13.7 km long excavation that killed the original French effort to build the canal. By building a dam at the Caribbean end of Gatun Lake and the use of locks to gain the necessary elevation, the American contractors were able to raise the lake level therefore they did not have to excavate the Gaillard Cut as much. Still, the tailings from the excavation provided the fill for the more than one mile long Armador causeway out to the islands at La Playita and Las Brisas anchorages.

Just after clearing the Pedro Miguel Lock the canal passes under the second bridge crossing the canal, the fairly new Puente del Centenario, a beautiful cable stay structure. Another milestone moment.

Once out of the Gaillard Cut at the interior town of Gamboa, the canal buoys start to wander through the widening arms of Gatun Lake. The lake transit is about 30 km to the mooring buoy where your advisor gets picked up near the new 55m wide locks. We were told that the first ship would be coming out of the new locks at 0800 the following morning going southbound and our advisor would be onboard at some point through the morning to complete our northbound passage in the old locks. Our mooring buoy was massive, at least 10’ in diameter and flat enough to run laps on top.

Although we were close to the new lock, there was a hill blocking our view into the lock. As the following morning progressed numerous helicopters flew overhead but 0800 passed and no ship appeared. About 10:00 am fireworks started but we only saw the flashes of the first shots because the wind was blowing our direction and smoke covered the sky obliterating the following fireworks which continued booming for a long time. In a word, daytime fireworks are not particularly effective! Then we continued waiting, and waiting, and waiting…..
History is made! The first ship through the new locks
At about noon, with new frenzied activity from the tug boats and helicopters, the bow of the container ship appeared. She was a Cosco Container ship with banks of grey Cosco (China Ocean Shipping Co) containers and green Chinese Shipping containers arranged in a balanced pattern. It was clear who had financed the new locks. Although the length was no greater than the typical container ships we were seeing, when she turned stern to, it was apparent how much bigger she was. Instead of the usual 13 containers wide she held 19 wide. Pretty impressive and we were there for the historic moment, although admittedly not quite as historic as 102 years ago when the SS Ancon was the first ship through the canal.

Canadian sovereignty of our buoy/island
And the newest Bluewater Cruising Out Station
As the day progressed word reached us that there were no advisors available and we would have to wait on our buoy for the night and hopefully we would get an advisor by noon the following day. We were in clean fresh water and went swimming although we had read often that there are crocodiles in Gatun Lake and then proceeded to claim Canadian sovereignty over our island-like buoy and further to declare it a Bluewater Cruising Association Out Station. All in all a pretty successful day in the history of Canadian sailing! Especially good that there was no mutiny onboard Kanilela with no shore leave permitted. The monkeys on the shore line jungle were sounding restless.

Paul, from Sunrunner radioed that two of his crew were not able to stay the night and would we be able to share linesmen with him? We replied that as long has both advisors were okay with it and the Canal Authority had us nested for a center chamber lockage the two crews could easily handle the trip. He took his two departing crew to shore and we have not heard from them since. Presumably they made it back to Panama City.

About 1330, 1:30pm, Monday our new advisor, Elvie MacMillan, arrived on board. Elvie is an Engineer with the tugs normally and has worked for the canal for 26 years. He was a great guy to be with and was really good about sharing his knowledge of the canal, old and new. We crossed the mouth of the new locks over to the west to the old Gatun locks, the three locks that would drop us to the Caribbean.
New tug and Seaboard America behind us
It was agreed we would raft with Sunrunner and Kanilela, being larger, would control our movement through the canal. It was a great trip with the two sailboats first into the lock, one of the new canal tugs for the bigger locks side tied behind us and a smaller container ship, the Seaboard America, in last. In the lock beside us, the Hansa Europa, a large container ship out of Hamburg, paralleled our progress northbound.

Textbook line handling
We stayed nested with Sunrunner through the entire locking so Kanilela motored up the center while the dock workers walked the messenger lines through the locks. When we would arrive at our next set of bollards, the line crews would send the big lines back to the side to be attached. We only had to catch the Monkey Fist on the first lock.  Down locking is generally easier but people are constantly warning about the salt water, fresh water turbulence on exiting the third lock. Kanilela has a modified full keel and enough power that we did not experience any problems.

We transferred Elvie to a Canal tender at the Flats and continued, with lightning flashing over Colon City, up to Shelter Bay Marina. A huge check mark in Kanilela’s cruising story and kudo’s to the crew who were now experienced line handlers.