Monday 28th May, Adios Atlantico, Hola Pacifico

Jon & Carol Dutton
Tue 29 May 2012 01:30

8:56.30N 79:33.51W

Monday 28th May – Balboa Yacht Club

Well, the waiting went on for a bit – but not much more of a bit than we’d expected.  The admeasurer (sorry- can’t help you with the ‘admeasurer’ term but his job is to certify the relevant measurements of the boat) came aboard, as last indicated, on Tuesday 15th May.  You may recall that it was going to be quite a bit earlier than that.  Then it became somewhat later and then some.  But, our having been there a mere five and a half days, he graced us with his presence.  

He was a charming bloke and in the space of half an hour or so had established that a Swan 46 was a monohull ‘sailboat’ and less than 50’ in length.  OK, we’ve got all sorts of documentation that says that but you just can’t be too careful!  And, Jon, having last been called upon to demonstrate his limited musical talents on a ukulele in Rodney Bay moons ago, was now called upon to do so on a foghorn.    Then there was all sorts of stuff about holding tanks (about which nobody felt it appropriate to enquire further come the ‘event’ -  as t’were), diesel tank capacity, range under engine and the like and enquiries about the food we would be providing the pilot (actually; advisor).  Apparently sandwiches for lunch were not acceptable whilst the makings on a plate accompanied by slices of bread were.  In fact, sandwiches were just what was required at the appropriate times and were wolfed down.  Don’t tell anybody – it’s just between you, us and the www!   

Now, what with the ideas around holding tanks and sandwiches, we haven’t been religiously chronological so far.  So; let’s get there or thereabouts.

Shelter Bay Marina was just fine.  It’s a little limited in what it can offer but that just happens to be a lot more than anywhere else in the vicinity.  The staff are helpful and generally the services are good.  They make an effort and lay on a daily bus or two to the supermarket on the outskirts of Colon.  Sadly, parts of Colon live up to its anatomical name and one feels desperately sorry for those that have to live there.  There is disrepair, rubbish and litter everywhere.  The town hasn’t really recovered from the completion of the canal nearly a hundred years ago when thousands of workers were suddenly out of work.  The situation was compounded in 1999 when the Americans left, handing the Canal Zone back to the Panamanians and even more jobs disappeared.  Shelter Bay Marina is itself a legacy of the American era as it is located in the middle of the remains of Fort Sherman which was abandoned almost overnight.

The weather in Shelter Bay was pretty tricky.  It was extremely hot and humid (hooray for the outdoor swimming pool), interspersed with tropical thunderstorms and accompanying serious downpours that advertised their impending arrival with a few minutes’ notice.  Launched rubber dinghies became paddling pools in a matter of minutes.  Come the evening the mosquitoes and various other aggressive bugs came out to play – big time.  Oh, how Jon regretted wearing out his father’s beautiful leather-soled, unlined yellow suede mosquito boots a zillion years ago because they were just the trendiest things imaginable in the 1970’s.  But; there weren’t many mosquitoes in England, even in those dark ages.  Before going to bed in Shelter Bay you really did need to squirt on the anti-bug stuff.  Even a single sheet was often too hot to have covering you and bare skin unadorned with anti-bug stuff meant party time for the little darlings.    Fortunately, the other biting creatures in the marina, didn’t make it aboard – a couple of crocodiles (or, possibly, caymans or whatever) were sometimes spotted at night.


                                                            Many of the streets in Colon looked like this


Abandoned US military quarters in Fort Sherman in which Shelter Bay Marina is located.  No names, no pack drill but we can think of one or two UK Army MQ patches in a worse state of repair!  Admittedly the grass tends to be a bit shorter.

Our time in the marina was enlivened by the presence of the Clipper round the world race fleet of ten 67 ft yachts which meant 180 extra crew of all ages and many nationalities – many of whom had never sailed before.  The bar and restaurant couldn’t always cope and often some of the crew helped out.  Their stay was longer than intended as one of the boats had a broken gearbox. The spare being flown out got lost in transit so someone had to fly out accompanying another.  So, the fleet was about to go tomorrow - definitely - for several days. 


                Some of the Clipper race boats – note dark sky, often the start of a violent thunder storm.

Even at the latter end of the Caribbean sailing season, one meets a lot of like-minded cruising people who make life a great deal of fun.  In particular we have to mention fellow OCC members Joseph and Marci Paravia from California who, having been cruising for the last 10 years or so, spared no effort in educating and equipping us for our Pacific journey.  And, a most entertaining couple they were too.  Friends for life we hope.  Marci also has a fearsome camera and the talent necessary to catch you (at an outrageously long distance – Marci, we need to speak about privacy protocols anon) wobblin’ around the masthead in the bosun’s chair faffin’ about with whatever.  As I say; outrageous.  And, if a chap can’t have a bit of quiet time up the mast it’s a poor show.    But, at least the 9’ length of 15mm cylindrical fibre-glass sail batten now being used as a burgee staff might stop the burgee being eaten as quickly as the last two.  It’s those wretched aerials that do it.


                                            Jon switching halyards around.  Swappin’ yarns with the mast.

Because it is late in the season for passing through the Panama Canal we, along with others, found it difficult to find yotties who could commit to line-handling for us.  Those who offered to do so were faced (as we had been) with the prospect of being put through several days before the planned date.   Since we’d taken that bait and had then been put through a day later than planned we were a touch sceptical about their chances but . . .

Given the uncertainty, we hired 3 line handlers from our agent at $90 a go.  He also produced the required four 125ft lines and twelve tyre fenders.  Three young men turned up before midday on Friday 25th May and we set off to anchor at The Flats off Colon at around 1320.  We were there by about 1400.  And of course, the Advisor (pilot) pitched up about 30 minutes late just after 1600. So, why were we that early?  Because, of course, we’d been told by the agent that the timings might be brought forward and it was our problem if they were.   Umm . . . 

Anyway, as soon as our Advisor turned up we set off towards the first set of locks.  The hired line handlers did more or less what they thought they were supposed to do during the course of the next day or so.  However, we did discover one or two significant holes in their knowledge (small stuff like how to tie bowlines and how to use a cleat to sweat in or release tension on a line inside the lock) but we got there without any damage.  Jon did conduct a bowline tying class for all three (characteristically ignoring the protests that this was unnecessary) on the evening of the first day of the transit having had to retie several knots that were an imaginative combination of grannies.   Next day, oddly enough, all loops in warps were recognisably bowlines.

Throughout the transit, whenever we were in locks {going up in the Gatun Locks (Atlantic end) and down, in and between, the Pedro Miguel and Mirafores Locks  (Pacific end)} we rafted up, 3 abreast, with a 52.5 ft GibSea in the middle and a catamaran on the other side of the GibSea.   Having transited the 3 Gatun Locks we tied up to a buoy for the night (massive rubber thing to which you took bow and stern lines to lie alongside it beam on.  A bit unusual but there we are).  There had been talk of yachts transiting overnight.  That had been tried earlier in the year but it was found to be far too dangerous.  The big ships simply couldn’t make out the diddy yacht lights amongst all the other lights around and they were passing these things with yards to spare.


                                                    The cargo vessel with which we shared the Gatun Locks

On our way out to the anchorage at the Flats from Shelter Bay Marina – a couple of miles – Jon had noticed that Mr Perkins seemed to be running a bit of a temperature.  The coolant temperature dial, which normally steadies at 85ºC had risen to 100ºC.  But, once we’d idled for a bit, whilst the anchor was going down, it dropped to its normal setting.  So, maybe it was a bit of a blip and perhaps the thermostat had temporarily forgotten to open. By the time we got to the first lock it was again up at 100ºC and occasionally 110ºC.  And, it wasn’t steady – the needle would go up and down as much as 15º pretty swiftly and for no apparent reason.  There was a lot of idling whilst in the locks and again the temperature settled.  It rose again on the short trip out to the mooring buoy.  No sign of the temperature warning light coming on but this was all a bit unsettling.  The next morning, with the advisor due at 0630, we rose around 0500 and changed the impellor (the one we took out was in perfect condition), cleaned out the raw water strainer (it was a bit manky with all that canal water but not manky enough to worry about) and removed the thermostat completely (engines running too cool in the tropics is scarcely an issue and here’s another bit of kit that can let you down).  The handle ‘Mister’ was dropped temporarily as Jon gave Perkins a career interview.  He had several hours’ serious motoring to do and if he decided to throw a sicky in Gatun Lake -  between the Atlantic and Pacific locks - there would be a very big bill indeed in addition to whatever his medical costs were (recovery, aborted transit – the lot).  Nightmare.  Retribution, Perkins, will be swift and ruthless.  You will be sacked in favour of some jumped up, modern, shiny Japanese engine - or whatever.  Enough is enough.    Well, neither the first aid nor the career interview made the slightest bit of difference.  He still ran hot when required to do any work and cooled down quickly when not.  So, Jon spent the 4 hour crossing of Gatun Lake - where we were required to make 6.5 knots - with his heart in his mouth and comforting himself with the thought that either the gauge or the sender might be duff – and, of course, the shallow water in the lake was pretty warm so wasn’t cooling the engine as much as the sea might.  Well; if a straw is the only thing you’ve got to cling onto, best hold on tight.  

En passage we passed the prison in which Noriega  (remember him?) is now held following extradition from France last December   That plight would have been far too good for Mr Perkins had he not held out.  But, bless him, he did.


                                                                    La Renacer prison – Hello, Señor Noriega!

As we approached the final two locks at Miraflores, Carol rang her sister, Pen, in Pembrokeshire so that she could get a glimpse of Arnamentia on the webcam.  It was thrilling to hear that she was able to spot us.


Carol having completed her line handling duties and relieved to be through the canal in one piece!  Bridge of the Americas in the background.



At last we made it through the final locks and took up a buoy at the Balboa Yacht Club where there is a fine view of the Bridge of the Americas (above).   Where to find a mechanic to sort out Mr P’s problems?  Not an issue.  The excellent David Carter who manages the yacht club facilities despatched his mechanic, Carlos, within the hour.   Diagnosis took about 5 minutes (don’t professionals make you sick?).  The raw water pump was leaking slightly – not a question of a loose bolt or so – a rebuild job.  So, it was drawing in air and not enough water to keep Mr P adequately chilled.     No real problem – of course we’ve got a spare.  Harry spankers new.  The pump is held on by 4 bolts so removal is a 3 minute job.  Actually, it’s a two hour job because, obviously, the least accessible bolt refuses to come quietly and resists arrest.  It’s aided in its endeavours by the fact that some bird brain (not me, Squire, honest) has previously managed to remodel its head from being an octagon to being a near perfect circle.  But, hey, Carlos is a professional mechanic and knows that there is no higher authority than him.  He knows all the snazzy and elegant techniques and that the one required here involves a spanner one size too small and a big hammer.  He also knows precisely where to get the pump he removed rebuilt and having fitted the new one, re-appeared a couple of hours later with the original as good as new.  Spares box reconstituted.  Well done the Balboa Yacht Club.

We’ll be in Panama for a few more days doing the final provisioning not only for the week long passage to the Galapagos but also the three week one from there to the Marquesas.   Vegetables won’t last as long in the tropics as they did on our Atlantic crossing so there are already lots of tins on board whose blandness will be enlivened by a dash or two of West Indies Hot Sauce.  And we won’t be able to have fresh fruit for breakfast, so it’ll be Corn Flakes and UHT milk – yum!!