The San Blas archipelago is one of the top cruising destinations in the Caribbean. Lying only 70 miles east of the entrance to the Panama Canal, these 300+ islands range in size from a spit of sand with 1 perfectly arching palm tree seen by many only in beer ads to village islands with dwellings packing ever inch.
Cue the Corona commercial
Of the 300+ islands, only 30 or so are inhabited, Nargana is one of them.
But mainly you see uninhabited islands surrounded by the clear Caribbean sea. They lie off the Panama mainland which is mostly undeveloped.
Guarladup in Coco Bandero Cays is not
Kanlildup (Green Island)
Travel, other than by boat, into Guna Yala is an arduous dirt road jeep trip + water taxi or by small plane.
How is that for airport parking? Neko anchored at the end of the runway.
The Gunas are the indigenous folks who live in the islands and are proud of their traditional way of life and, though technically Panamanian, they have managed to live autonomously and preserve much of their culture.
Hard to see but this Guna lady is standing in her boat talking on her cell phone. Hey, I didn’t say they were Amish, a gal has gotta keep in touch. Many times Guna will come by your boat asking you to charge their phones as most islands have no electricity.
The Gunas are the primary residents of these islands and have their own language and refer to the area as Guna Yala (Panamanians call it the San Blas). Charts of the area label the islands with a bunch of hard-to-pronounce letters each ending in “dup” (pronounced doop), the Guna word for island. Doesn’t “Ogoppiriadup” just roll off the tongue?
Guna sail or paddle their cayucos all around these islands.
However, having once been a part of Colombia and now Panama, Spanish words pepper the area as well. And now that the Americans, Europeans and gringos in all shapes and forms have discovered this cruiser’s paradise, they have added names of their own. So the anchorages around Banedup, Quinquindup, Kalugirdup, Miriadup, Tiadup are referenced by clear-water loving cruisers as the ” the swimming pool” “the hot tub” and “the changing room”.
You can see why they call it the swimming pool. Mike and Dave night swimming. And if you look to the left of Mike you can see our anchor chain…now that is some clear water!
Neko & Apsaras anchored in the changing room. (thanks for the photo Rob)
In addition, there is a Dog Island, a Green Island and BBQ Island.
Snorkel gang on Dog Island
snorkeling on a wrecked ship
Peter exploring the wreck
Appropriately Lucy went to Isla Perro too
The Gunas are small-statured people, with large skills in fishing and mola making. Molas are multilayered panels of cloth cut away to achieve intricate patterns of abstract shapes or animals. Aappliqué is also used and carefully hand stitched to create the panels.
Guna women in traditional dress. I got this photo online to illustrate the mola panels on the front of their shirts. And intricate wini bead design around their legs.
The molas are used as a front and back panel of women’s blouses, but the craft has become their signature and the panels are seen now by many as folk art. While fishing, lobstering and crabbing are traditionally done by the Guna men, mola making is “women’s work”. However, the two master, and best known, mola makers are transgender women (completely normal and accepted by the Guna), the famous and talented Lisa and Venancio.
Lisa, master mola maker comes by for a visit.
Buying molas from Venancio
We dined several times on local lobster and giant red crabs sold to us by enterprising Guna fisherman working from their dugout canoes. We had the pleasure of our friends Mike and Holly joining us on Neko for a few weeks of sailing these beautiful islands. Fellow boat pals Rob & Rose on “R&R Kedger”, Dave & Melissa on “Apsaras”, Dave & Margaret on “Heart and Soul” and special guest stars Roger & Susan on “Second Wind” made up our fun loving “lobster” fleet. By the way readers, the SS Neko is now open for visitors, so let us know if you want to spend some time with us.
Peter, Mike and Dave aka the lobster executioners.
Mary and Holly ready to steam these babies.
Lobster Fest 2014
Next up, giant red crabs for dinner. This time kindly fishermen did the dirty work of cleaning them.
Thanks to R&R, Apsaras and Second Wind for sharing photos. Click on photos to enlarge.
Veggie, Fruit and Beer vendor. Always a happy sight.
Mary in her favorite pose
Working hard in the Lemmon Cays
For some reason, Lucy never looks at the camera.
Typical island grocery store
Yes, when there aren’t garbage cans you have to burn your trash.
Tons of starfish
Snorkeling with Rose
A horse’s skull in the Guna Yala?
Island Christmas Tree
My Guna friend Adelaida showing me how to wrap wini beads.
Drinks on the “lido” deck
Rose, Rob, Peter, Mary, Roger, Susan and Lucy
Margaret SUPing by
Nuinudup in the Eastern Lemmon Cays
Porvenir, the seat of the Guna government/
Mike & Holly
Who says we don’t work? Peter and Mike patching the kite.
You may recall an earlier post where we described a little damage done to one of our daggerboards when we hit a rock in the Las Perlas islands. Well, thanks to some FORMER friends ;-), we now have a landmark in Panama named after us in perpetuity.
Neko Rock in Eric Bauhaus’ “Panama Cruising Guide”
We attempted to have the daggerboard repaired in Balboa Panama by the local boatworkers. But they did a poor job and the board did not fit in its trunk very well. We decided to have Shelter Bay redo the repair, and at the same time perform a few other cosmetic jobs – remove old bootstripes and paint new ones, raise the transoms 3″, repair a few gelcoat dings, etc.
Neko’s new stripes
new swim step
These jobs ended up taking a LONG time. This is why it seemed we were stuck in Panama forever and why blog posts were few and far between. We started the work in August and it was not completed until Thanksgiving. We spent one month in the hotel in Shelter Bay while the boat was out of the water (NB: a lot of cruisers remain living on their boat while it is on the hard, but Shelter Bay keeps the cats far from the showers/heads and it is not easy to lift Lucy up and down several times a day, so we decided to treat ourselves to a hotel – it having air conditioning did not hurt). When the boat was put back in – splashed in boatspeak – all the work was finished except the daggerboards. After one more month, the boards were finally ready and we provisioned up and got ready to head back out for more cruising.
Pete leading the dagger lines
Attempt #387 trying to fit dagger boards
However, upon inserting the beautiful new daggerboards back into the boat, they once again were just too thick to slide into their slots. We were crushed that our job was back to square one. Shelter Bay has a good overall mechanic in Victor, a very good paint/fiberglass guy in Ramon and Edwin, the yard manager, does the best he can with the resources he has. Diesel work, general rigging, electronic work and sail repairs are done by journeyman sailors who may or may not be there when you arrive. Also, they may or may not want to or have time to work on your problem. We got big help from Scott and Eddie (the man) as well and Scott’s dog Eddie, Greg the diesel whisperer, and Pierrick. The issue with the Shelter Bay yard, however, is that the owners do not provide the resources to function as a proper yard, yet they hold themselves out as being one.
Hard working Scott, Eddie and Peter
Scott and Peter make a jig to shape the boards. Eddie the dog supervising.
Victor is as ready for us to leave as we are
Ramon, Scott and Pete use the travel lift to hoist the 300lb dagger board
For example, our daggerboard repair took place outside in a work area with a mud floor, an insufficient amount of gravel strewn around to deal with the mud and old planks lying around to walk on. The area was surrounded by marshy reeds and riven with mosquitoes. One of the workers flicked a giant spider off him one day and they all worked in fear of snakes every day. The structure was mere wooden posts with old jibsails tacked to them to attempt to keep dust out, a leaky, rusty corrugated roof that prevented work during rain (do you think it rains in Panama in the rainy season?) and barely adequate electricity.
Scott sanding boards in the mud pit, I mean work shop
make shift workshop
Then we moved to an open air area where the ever-present vultures were an ominous metaphor for the entire job. Once the boards were shaped properly, we moved again to the abandoned theater, er I mean sail loft, to hang for painting.
Not a good omen to see vultures hanging around the boards
on the move
Boards hanging to paint
In any event, after another month of work in these conditions, the daggerboards were finally done. It was now two days before Thanksgiving and we desperately wanted to have the holiday at anchor in a pretty spot with our friends. So we ran around frantically for two days cleaning, stowing, provisioning and otherwise getting ready. We got it done and were finally able to escape Shertel Bay.
If I were to pitch the movie version of the last few months at Shelter Bay Marina it would be Dante’s nine circles of hell meets a tropical version of Groundhog Day. Like Bill Murray, it seemed that each day we would wake up and repeat the day before; saying hello to the regular cast of characters, taking Lucy for a walk through the jungle in search of monkeys and sloths, working on boat jobs, jumping in the pool to cool off, checking on the repair of our dagger boards, joining friends for happy hour, rinse and repeat.
The long and winding road to Shelter Bay
And just when we thought our endless boat work-related stay was coming to an end we were plunged into a deeper level of hell (see Dagger post).
Attempt #387 trying to fit dagger boards
Why oh why were we on this endless loop? Were the sailing gods, Dante and Harold Ramis all trying to tell us to reexamine our lives? Thankfully this is a feel good movie and after feeling frustrated and tortured enough, we cued the inspirational music, stopped feeling sorry for ourselves and made the best of a rough time.
Chris’s catch of the day
Leticia, Eugene “cheese”, and Roxana knew our drink orders by heart.
Margaret and David from S/V Heart and Soul
Carlos and Erica from S/V Plan B
The happiest couple ever, Charlotte and James from M/V Pegasus
Boat kid and all around daredevil Ivan
Cooks in the kitchen
Pete Rose? no it is Pete and Rose
Fun with Scott, Evan & Lambrini
Eddie and Lucy, Panama Pals
El Salvador mini reunion
“Cheese” ringing the daily happy hour bell
Friendly Security guard
Mike and Holly
fly bird fly
Scott enjoying another fine meal in the restaurant with us.
Yes, that is Captain Pete at the sewing wheel
Thrilled to see a familiar face in Charlotte.
Lucy’s pal Othello
Mama and baby sloth -slow lane experts
Posing at Fort San Lorenzo
We met a lot of new friends, old friends caught up to us for reunions and the dagger boards were FINALLY fixed! And our happy ending had us leaving the docks along with buddy boats R&R Kedger and Apsaras and with friends Holly and Mike from Wanuskewin joining us on Neko to start our 2nd year of cruising.
We definitely were thankful to be on the move again and hosted Thanksgiving on Neko with 8 others. Between us all we were able to create the traditional dishes and it felt like the real deal apart from the fact we were floating on a boat and it was 90 degrees.
Just like the pilgrims
It’s not wine, but it’s Clos
Traditional Thanksgiving engine room check
Dave, Melissa, Holly, Rose, Rob, Chad, Patty and Mike joined us for Thanksgiving
Yes, oh so thankful to be cruising again…
Finally back in the water
Happiest of hours
Holly and Mike driving Ms. Lucy
Ready to launch
Peter kiting in Isla Grande
Mike attempting to barefoot ski behind dinghy
Happy Mike and Rose
Heading to Turtle Cay
Turtle Cay dinner
Delicious Thai food at Capt. Jacks in Portobello, Panama. Who knew??
Well, we are overdue for some new content here, but the truth of the matter is that things have just slowed down a bit for us. It is hurricane season in the Caribbean and, although we are out of the danger zone, it is incredibly rainy, hot and humid. The weather just makes you lethargic. We now understand the origin of “island time” and the need for siestas. You can’t do much or move quickly in these conditions. Surprisingly, however, it does cool down a bit on most nights and the heat doesn’t build back up until about 7:00am (LOL, but no joke). We sometimes take a stroll with Lucy on peaceful mornings. The surroundings are an abandoned US military base that is slowly and silently being reclaimed by the jungle. It makes for good flora and fauna viewing. So without further ado, here are some pictures we took on these walks.
Mama and baby sloth -slow lane experts
Got a monkey on your back. White headed Capuchin monkeys
you lookin’ at me?
Jungle reclaiming Fort Sherman
I think every US military base has to have something named Kennedy.
Looks like ruins of an ancient temple.
Kiskadee. These are all over.
Even the monkeys just lounge about. Howler monkeys
Good deterrent to climbing
Hanging birds’ nests
Howler monkey on the prowl. Some say they are the loudest land animal in the world.
wild flowers abound
another hanging bird nest
These look like vultures. They are quite large.
More monkey business
Agouti – sort of a cross between a wallaby and a rat. Sorry for the blurry photo but he was quick and we barely were able to shoot it.
Apart from the old military base and the jungle, there is nothing around for miles except the remnants of the 17th century Fort San Lorenzo.
Fort San Lorenzo guarded the Chagres River from pirates – and had a good view of it.
Fort San Lorenzo
Fort San Lorenzo
Manning the ramparts
The old fort had a great view
These cannons are just lying about. Dozens of them.
The Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean in 10 hours – not too bad for a days work.
When preparing for our transit we read a lot and we heard a lot of tales of transits from hell to partying through the locks. Half the sailors you talk to say you have to hire a Canal agent (someone to do all the admin) and the other half say there is no need, you can do the paperwork yourself. Some say you won’t make it through in 1 day, it will definitely take 2. Your boat has to go 8 knots or you’ll bring global shipping to a screeching halt. And on and on it goes. So to all our pals who are planning to go through, listen to all the stories, file away all the information, keep your head straight and enjoy the passage. Because, the truth is that every transit is different and you never know what you are going to get until you do it. We chose not to use an agent and found it quite straightforward and if you want that information, email us and I’m happy to walk you through the steps.
If you want to know about the history of the Canal, read David McCullough’s excellent “The Path Between the Seas”.
Fortunately the stars aligned just right and we had an awesome (and not the overused, unnecessary “awesome”, I mean “inspiring joyful awe“ “we went through the Panama Canal on our sailboat” awesome) experience.
Every boat going through the Canal has to have a Canal advisor onboard to, you guessed it, advise you throughout the trip. The canal is run like an airport with the signal station acting as air traffic control. Your advisor is your communications link to central control. The name of the game for the Canal is the huge cargo ships, that is where the big money is, so a 50’ sailboat is more of a nuisance and they don’t want you slowing down their 24/7 operation. But their treatment of yachts is professional and efficient. We were told to pick up our advisor at 8:00 am and after he promptly boarded at 10:00 am (ok, maybe not so efficient, but the canal schedule seems subject to the whim of the gods) we were on our way, with Captain Pete at the helm,
2 experienced hired line handlers Raymond & Marcos,
Raymond & Marcos, expert line handlers and snappy dressers
2 volunteer line handlers and sailors, Axel and Stephen ready to work the lines in the locks,
Axel & Stephen, rounded out our international crew of 2 Americans, 3 Panamanians, 1 German, 1 Brit and 1 Belizean dog on our French boat.
me ready to sub in at the helm or lines and feed this motley crew, and Lucy milling about keeping tabs on everyone and making sure no food was sloppily left lying around, we started out.
Lucy on the bow wow wow
It quickly became clear that our advisor, Astro (his real name), knew his stuff and, importantly, worked seamlessly with the line handlers and was hands on and not just a dictator. He was a font of knowledge about the Canal and felt like our own personal tour guide.
with Astro our fabulous Canal advisor
The Canal consists of six locks – 3 to get up into Gatun Lake, which is in the center and was created when they dammed up the Chagres River – and 3 to go back down on the other side. Each lock is a massive, medieval-seeming concrete tub with giant heavy riveted steel doors that swing open and closed like the entrance to some fortified castle. They are supreme feats of engineering operating nearly identically to the way they did when first opened exactly 100 years ago.
Lock doors closing
Outside the first of these, we waited for the giant container ship ahead of us to secure to the “mules” (heavy electric trains that hold ships’ lines) before we were ordered in to tie up to the ship’s tugboat, which went in just ahead of us.
Oriental Spirit, the cargo ship ahead of us in the locks. Note the “mules” and the lines running down to keeping it steady.
As you approach the lock is empty and the rough walls tower up on each side. Mystery currents in the lock buffet the boat back and forth and Pete was working the throttles and the wheel to keep the boat off the wall.
Pete worked the hardest of us all
Boats in the locks have lines going to the top of the locks to hold them in place. As the water rises, the line handlers on the boat have to quickly and in unison pull the lines in to keep the boat in position. We had heard horror stories of lines not being handled properly with boats swinging around into the walls or the ship, etc. In addition to great embarrassment, this can cost money since the canal fines you for causing any delay.
Marcos tossing line to tie to the tug, Pequení, our lock buddy
We, however, were lucky in that we tied up next to the tugboat and it handled the lines to go up and down. All we had to do was tie up to it and hold on tight. Once all were secure, the locks are flooded and all boats rise up. The water in the lock becomes an insane cauldron of swirling eddies from the water rushing in through the underwater channels.
Water filling up the locks
Aerial view of Neko (lower left) in the locks. See how the cargo ship dwarfs Neko. (Thanks Angie for the photo)
You tie tires to the side of your boat to act as fenders against the walls and other boats
This photo was taken by our friend Holly Scott from the observation platform at Miraflores Locks
You can see the tight fit between Neko and our pal Penquin the tug.
After it’s all over, we simply toss off the lines and proceed to the next lock and do it all over again. Well, maybe not so simply. The ship is moving out and to let the tug out we have to move backwards and closer to the wall. The tug is a small boat of enormous power and when it moves its propwash (water being pushed around by its propellers) can push a yacht around like a bathtub toy. However, taking the good advice of some other boaters, we befriended the tug crew and gave them a tray of cookies with the unspoken hope that they would pull away from us gently. And it worked! They were extreme gentlemen and slowly idled away from us when it was their turn to leave.
Plate of cookies = happy tug boat crew
After the three up locks it’s a race through the Gaillard Cut (a narrow channel cut into the rocky hillside that claimed many lives and years of digging during the construction of the Canal) and Gatun Lake to get to the final set of locks in time to make it through in one day.
Heading through Lake Gatun
Our GPS track through the Canal and into Gatun Lake
Slow boats are required to take two days and spend a night anchored in the lake. Due to our late start there was a real chance that we might have to spend a night in the lake. It might have been fun to do so, but we soldiered on. Astro kept checking in with mission control and they said proceed, so we put the pedal to the metal and Neko zipped through the lake enjoying its fresh water bath to rinse the salt from her underside. We saw our lock mate, a large cargo ship, heading to the entrance when we were still about five miles away. So Pete gave it a full throttle and got to the entrance of the lock just in time to … wait. The ship had some problem getting secured and we waited outside turning circles in a thundering Panamanian rainstorm while they figured it out.
Neko wasn’t the only one who got a fresh water rinse.
This time we were to tie to a ferry boat that takes passengers through the canal so they can check it off their bucket list. We were definitely a curiosity to these sightseers and posed for many pictures and answered many questions about our trip. Lucy was the star of the show.
Pulling up to the ferry boat in the Gatun Locks
Nerve wracking to have that giant ship just a few feet behind
Neko in Gatun locks
After three more locks, this time going down, the last door opened and we at long last got a glimpse of the Caribbean Sea, our goal for so long. It was a milestone completed and a huge relief to get through unscathed.
Welcome to the Caribbean
We dropped Astro off and powered into the Shelter Bay Marina in the dark of night for a quick celebration and a well-earned snooze.
Popping the victory champagne
Cheers to our fantastic crew
Here is what remains of the initial French effort at a sea-level canal to the extent it was not incorporated into the final design. Isn’t it cute?
The original French Canal
As you may know the French first insisted on building a canal at sea level without locks. This was ultimately their undoing as it proved impossible. Remember, tides on the Pacific side can reach 18 feet while tides on the Atlantic side are rarely more than 2 feet. After decades of futile effort, the French finally threw in the towel and Teddy Roosevelt saw an opportunity and took it (not without much controversy, as it involved fomenting a revolution leading to Panama’s secession from Colombia). It’s really quite impressive that the final canal was built large enough to handle freighters for 100 years. However, now demands of shipping have rendered the canal insufficient. Panama is embarking on the construction of a larger parallel set of locks to allow even larger ships to transit. It is a technological wonder, that will use much, much less precious water than the original canal. It will use sliding lock doors (like pocket doors) instead of swinging gates. Here are the lock doors. They are massive.
No those aren’t buildings they are the new Canal lock doors
Our Canal transit was twice as nice knowing we had so many family and friends watching us go through via the live web cam and thank you for the photos, videos and moral support. We loved having you along for one of the best legs of this journey.
Click here to see a video Andre and Tom made of us going through the Miraflores locks.
Panama City meant one thing to us: the Canal. Transiting it was our major goal for this year, so I did not give the city itself much thought. We ended up staying there much longer than we anticipated (see rock post) and decided to embrace the opportunity to explore this historic city.
So cue the skyline, public transportation and museums because we were back in a real honest to goodness big city! And just like every metropolitan area you get the good with the bad, so we dusted off those NYC street smarts, threw our Panama hats in the air and enjoyed every second of city living.
Frank Gehry-designed Biodiversity Museum adds a pop of color to the skyline of Panama City
Open just two months, Panama’s new Metro was a terrific way to get around town.
Metro, 35¢ a ride, what a bargain.
Lights of Panama City
The city wears many hats, part Miami with its nightlife and high rises dotting the shoreline, part Old San Juan with its charming historic districts, part ghost town of abandoned American housing in the old Canal zone
Old “Canal Zone” housing now stands empty.
and part bustling port city that, of course, centers around their main cash cow, the Canal. Oh and lest I forget malls.
Wall to wall malls
Shopping seems a national sport here. Panama City hosts 4 ENORMOUS malls both high and low end.
Casa del Whopper
I’m not a shopper, but did enjoy the air conditioning and cheap swimsuits, otherwise they just seemed like a labyrinth of the usual suspects, ubiquitous food courts and multiplex cinemas. But the main transit center is at one of the malls, so you always had to pass through on your way to everything else.
My friend Robin & I mastered the buses!
Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) is the historic district of Panama City. It was established circa 1673 by the Spanish colonialists. Majestic homes, cathedrals, government buildings all went neglected around the 1950s – when we all should have invested in the area. Because now there is a renovation boom. It is fascinating to see the renaissance in action. Street by street it changes before your eyes, turn to the left you see a private residence being lovingly restored, to the right are the shells of buildings ripe for repair, look behind you see a rather dodgy area with squatters occupying buildings in ruins and straight ahead are impeccably restored buildings which house restaurants, shops, hotels, embassies, etc. It has a similar look to the French Quarter in New Orleans without the drunken revelers. (Click on the photos in the gallery to enlarge and read descriptions)
Hats for sale
Casco Viejo restored homes
Golden Altar at Iglesia de San José
Kuna lady – indigenous people of Panama
Lots of stray cats, cared for by locals.
The famous Panama Hats are actually made in Equcador
Iglesia de San José
Ready for a remodel
Peter and Mike love shopping, but look at that gorgeous tile floor
Rainy afternoon on the streets of Casco Viejo
Peter’s new bud we met in Casco Viejo. He was born in the Canal zone and had LOTS of stories.
No, I didn’t bring this one home, just gave her some love.
Love the wall art in Panama City, Panama
Older you say, you want to see older than 1673. Alright, Panama Viejo is for you. This was the original Panama City founded in 1519 before it was shifted to Casco Viejo. Now they are just ruins which are incorporated into a museum and park.
old and new panama city
Ruins of Panama Viejo
Panama Viejo juxtaposed to the city today
And of course we ate and drank and watched more soccer during the World Cup than we had in our entire lives.
Granclement-best ice cream in Panama
Fantastic ceviche for lunch at the fish market
Sancocho, Panamanian Chicken Soup
Lucy has had enough soccer to last a lifetime.
Havana Panama, Cuban bar
Belly dancing after a delicious middle eastern dinner
Oldest cafe in Panama City (Est. 1875) Classic rice and beans and excellent coffee. That cat slipped in the door right after I took this photo.
Patrons in Coca Cola cafe, they were right out of central casting. We had a great lunch here.
Vendor selling spicy quail eggs. They were good, tasted like mini hard boiled eggs with a kick.
Lung Fung Chinese restaurant. Delicious.
Quail egg down the hatch
Las Bóvedas restaurant in the vaults of the old customs building.
We hiked off all that food and booze in rain forests and parks throughout the city.
This is a good example of the 18′ tides they have on the Pacific side of Panama. This will all be underwater at high tide.
Hanging birdsnest in Parque Natural Metropolitano, rainforest inside the city
Mango trees are messy
Giant ants love mangos
View of the city from the top of Parque Natural Metropolitano
And of course we went to the Panama Canal Museum and Miraflores locks to get an education on what was in store for us!!!!
Well, more like the canal. It is fascinating to be moored here only a football field’s length or so outside the ship channel leading to the canal. Gigantic ships glide back and forth along it at all hours of the day and night.
Japanese Navy Ship
See how this cargo ship dwarfs Neko (right side of photo, closest boat to cargo ship)
We were pleasantly surprised that they actually throw up very little wake to roll us around. The work boats on the other hand, are a completely different story.
Go Speed Racer Go
Boats come and go allowing us to be neighbors with few interesting boats.
Open 50 raceboat used as a cruiser
Falcor-a Gunboat owned by pro snowboarder Travis Rice
The boats swing according to the current except around slack tide, when the wind dominates. Since we have a lot of windage and are very light with no deep keel, we turn before the boats around us. This has brought us into contact with PapaChino, the local fishing boat moored right next to us, on several occasions.
So we have had to shorten the mooring lines and keep a sharp eye on that thing to keep it off the back of our boat.
The “yacht club’s” dock is a rusting, jagged metal thing that canal work boats and ferries use to pick up passengers and supplies. We don’t want to tie up to it but we will have to in order to fuel up for our transit and install the repaired dagger board. The water is horribly dirty, so we are not using our watermaker but ferrying jugs of water back from the dock each time we go in. The incessant rain and humidity is causing mold to sprout on everything, bleach is Mary’s best friend.
Daily lighting storms
We aren’t in California anymore. Cough, cough, cough
It all makes you think it is miserable here, doesn’t it? Well, we are actually having a pretty good time. Panama City is a large, diverse and interesting metropolis. We like cities like this which do not depend solely on tourism as they give a better feel for what life is really like. We have done some great sightseeing around Panama and always like getting to a big city after weeks out in the wilderness. So, although we are about ready to move on, our time in Panama City was quite enjoyable. For more info about it, click here see Mary’s post.
Make sure you click the tab that says “High Resolution Miraflores” (the regular camera is out of service), Then click the magnifying glass icon to enlarge. The image refreshes every minute so you will see us stagger step through.
Schedules can change throughout the day, but we should be at Miraflores Locks (our first lock) between 9-10am (Central Time) If possible, I will update on Facebook when we are getting close. And of course we will wave to the camera.
You will have a second chance to see us in the Gatun Locks later in the day, maybe around 2pm (Central Time). Again I’ll try to give updates via FB. You can click on the “Gatun Locks” tab as well as the tab for “High Resolution Gatun” for two different angles.
And if anyone wants to grab a screen shot or two of us from the web cam, we’d love a copy and we will include it in our post about our transit.
You didn’t think I would leave that cliff-hanger of a post out there for too long, did you? So we found the island with the little submarine on it. Isla San Telmo is a gorgeous uninhabited islet which has been taken over by pelicans, thousands of them.
Pelicans at San Telmo
Pelican nesting sanctuary
San Telmo is one of 200 islands within the Islas Las Perlas archipelago, about 40 miles from Panama City.
Tarzan needs to lay off the carbs
Most of the islands are uninhabited and a few have served as location for the reality show Survivor. We anchored in uneven ground about a 1/4 mile offshore from the little sub. The ancient artifact is about 20 feet long and made of steel that looks like it was 2 inches thick originally.
150 year old pearl diving submarine
Its amazing to me that its still there more or less intact after nearly a century and a half of being covered and uncovered by the tides as it sits in its final resting spot up on the sandy beach. I like to imagine what it was like when the thing was originally deployed around the time when the French were just starting to dig their proposed sea-level canal (read the fascinating The Path Between the Seas), most ships still used sails to get around and Panama was a remote outpost of Colombia. How futuristic it must have seemed for this underwater contraption to set out on its pearl-hunting mission. The Las Perlas (the pearls) are so named because they were abundant in those natural jewels – so much so that someone built one of the first submarines just to exploit them. What caused the poor crew to ascend too quickly and get decompression sickness? How did it all go wrong? Who knows. All that we have to go on is the rusting steel hulk and our imagination.
Pearl diving sub
The charts of this area are terrible – generally based on surveys conducted decades, or even a century, ago and containing very little detail. Areas like these see little commercial shipping, so little official cartographic attention is devoted to them. In addition to two different sets of charts, we rely on guidebooks written by people who have independently surveyed the area and prepared their own charts for certain locations. All the charts we had for this area, when they had any detail at all, showed us in waters with a minimum depth of about 20 feet at low tide and that is about what we saw. However, when we upped anchor to leave and were slowly motoring out of the anchorage, the boat suddenly lurched to the right and we slowed to a stop with horrible crunching sounds. These are such unnatural motions and sounds for a boat that it causes instantaneous confusion and panic. It took several seconds for me to compute what had happened and get the boat into deeper water. We had hit an uncharted rock pinnacle! We were moving at about 4 knots when the water went instantaneously from 30 feet deep to about 4 feet. It was not shallow water because once we ground horribly over the thing we were back in 30 feet of water. We frantically lifted floorboards and opened hatches to inspect for water intrusion but thankfully the boat was dry. Out in these remote islands there is no assistance for miles around so we were on our own as to what to do about it.
We slowly puttered to our next anchorage to gather our wits and plan next steps. Wouldn’t you know it, but just then the skies opened and deluged us with one of Panama’s patented rainstorms. Being out in one of these you actually feel the weight of so much water coming down. The rain makes visibility so bad that you can’t see even the front of the boat, let alone land or anything else out in the water (including the many logs and trees that float out of the rivers and estuaries and must be dodged). We were left to rely on our instruments, which had just tragically let us down, to get to our anchorage. We slowed to a crawl and with frazzled nerves finally got the anchor down in a safe spot. I dove to inspect the damage. One of our daggerboards (large foil-shaped boards that we raise and lower to act as keels) and skegs (a small keel-like appendage forward of the propeller) were damaged in the impact. And our rudder, the last thing to hit the rock as we slid by, had its bottom corner chipped open. We have saildrives for propulsion. These are like outboard motor legs that stick straight down through the bottom of the boat just in front of the rudders and have a propeller on the end. Miraculously the rock passed just under the propeller and saildrive leg. Even though they are only barely higher than the rudder, they were unscathed. The rock must have passed only an inch or so below them. If they had hit the rock, it is likely the drive would have shifted on its mounting and let water into the engine compartment. Our boat is broken into water tight segments and since it is built of foam-cored fiberglass with no lead keel, it is very difficult to sink. So this would have flooded the engine room but not sank us. Nevertheless, it was a huge tragedy narrowly averted. Still and all, we had some damage to ponder and immediately began planning what to do.
location of rock – note the drastic change of our track
We have given the coordinates of the rock to all our friends who will go through this area. Some are labelling it as “Neko’s Rock” – we hope the name doesn’t stick. If you are heading this way, mark it on your chart 08 17.129N 078 50.868W
You may know by now we have made it to Panama City and are moored at the very entrance to the Panama Canal.
Balboa Yacht Club mooring field at the entrance to the Panama Canal
It’s lovely to be here in a large cosmopolitan city.
Panama City Skyline
But I will tell you it was not easy. To get here we had to traverse the third, and generally considered the tamest, of the Central American Gap Wind passages. (See our posts on Tehuantepec and Papagayo). You may recall from my earlier blatherings that these gap winds blow from the Caribbean over low stretches of the Central America isthmus and become accelerated due to land effects (narrow valleys, tall mountains, convection currents, etc.). This third and final bit blows north to south in the Golfo de Panama. Generally, these are lighter than other gap winds and are usually not a problem this time of year. However, unlike the others which are traversed at right angles to the wind, here you have to take them head on for 130 miles or so until you get into the lee of the mainland or the Las Perlas islands.
The guardian of this area is a notorious piece of land appropriately named Punta Mala. Once you leave to round this point and get into the large gulf, there is generally no safe place to duck into if the conditions are ugly. Before setting off on the 2 day trip up into the gulf, we staged overnight in a desolate bay on the western side of Punta Mala which showed no signs of any human presence other than cows inexplicably milling about on the black sand beach.
Leaving Naranjo Bay on a sparkly morning
In any event, early in the morning after one night in mystery cow bay we set out for the southernmost of the LasPerlas islands, which form a very beautiful, lightly inhabited archipelago in the Gulf of Panama. As a landing target they would shave off about 40 miles compared to a direct shot to Panama City. Well, it was an ugly trip generally. The winds never got much over 25 knots, but the currents in the Golfo de Panama are strong and alternate like clockwork. With 12-18 foot tides in this part of the world, the water rushes in and out at great speeds. Having to spend about an entire day working our way up the gulf, we were destined to face an adverse current at least twice. This was what made the trip a little challenging. When the brisk north winds opposed a north-setting current, we were faced with ugly, steep and closely-spaced seas that slowed us to a crawl and plunged the bows under water over and over again.
Roller coaster – motorsailing with just the main
Thankfully, the old ship Neko is a stoutly built boat and she shrugged off all that water without concern. We can’t say as much for her crew and after 30 hours of this treatment we were ready for a little peace and quiet. Early in the morning on the 2nd day of the trip, we pulled into a calm, picture-perfect bay on the island of Isla San Jose to drop the anchor and get some rest.
We spent two days resting and exploring the waters of this privately-owned island. Yes, its about 17 square miles and all privately owned. We saw a landing craft drop a bunch of pallets of supplies on the beach and the owners’ workers come and tote them away by tractor. The owners allow certain people to live on the island, including the man who lives in a little hut perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. They say he walks 10 feet out his door and drops a fishing line down the cliff face to pull in dinner. [Ed: add that great pic we have. Auth: Sorry, it’s lost in the computer crash] We didn’t see him but did see the little shack on the cliffs’ edge and can attest to the abundant sea life in the waters. We are quite excited to begin seeing clear water and sea life again after the murky waters of Mexico and Central America. Afterwards, we set off for Isla San Telmo, a tiny island with a 100+ year old submarine still high and dry on shore since it washed up after its occupants ascended too swiftly, suffered decompression sickness and died inside. This was straight out of Jules Verne. Who could pass up something like that, but little did I know it would almost lead to our undoing… [to be continued]
NB: Our photos relating to this time perished in Mary’s computer crash, hence the abundance of text. If we can resuscitate them, we’ll update this post but we are putting it up now anyway to try to get our postings caught up with where we are.