Shelter Bay Marina - Cristabal - Panama 09 22.025N 079 57.056W

Mike and Liz Downing
Thu 28 Jan 2010 23:32
We've arrived at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal!
The sail yesterday from Linton was so much better than the day before. The winds were still quite strong and the sea quite big and lumpy, but the sun was shining all day and the wind was from behind. What a difference!  Getting out from the Isla Linton was quite nerve wracking. The swell was onshore and as we didn't want to push the engine very hard at all, it took what seemed like ages to get out, going up and down the waves at about 1 knot. But once clear of the rocks, water breaking on both sides of us, we could turn down wind, set the sails and switch the engine off.
Having seen all the shipping on AIS, we were just a little bit apprehensive of what we might meet as we approached the entrance to the harbour, which is massive, but coming from the east and keeping fairly well inshore we went behind all the ships at anchor and only had to move for one coming up behind us. There were 30 or more ships either at anchor or maneuvering outside the harbour and another 30 or so at anchor inside. These are all big ships and some very big - Panmax - the largest that will fit in the canal locks, which are 1000 feet long. The harbour is protected by 2 massive breakwaters, each about 1.8 miles long with a small gap of about 0.3 miles in the middle for ships to get through. Inside the harbour it's about 3 miles by 3 miles, so a big expanse of quiet water (no swell) all cordoned off into different areas for ships to anchor, e.g. by draft of the ship, or whether carrying explosive cargoes. We had to call Cristobal Signal Station about 4 miles out to let them know we were approaching the harbour entrance and ask permission to enter. All ship movements are monitored very closely. We thought we had better take the sails down and motor through the entrance, but as the breakwaters got closer we couldn't see any shipping going in or out and doing 6 to 7 knots under sail (faster than we can motor) we sailed through the entrance! Once through we saw a Panmax ship, the NYK Delphinus, at anchor, except we suddenly realised we couldn't see any anchor chain! Then Cristobal Signal Station then came on the VHF asking the NYK Delphinus to increase it's speed as there was another ship coming behind it. The reply from the NYK Delphinus was "we were waiting for the sailing boat to clear the channel", for which we were grateful!. Cristobal Signal Station had no sympathy and came back with "the sailing boat is well clear of the channel and of you, increase your speed." which they then did. We have a picture of the NYK Delphinus - see below. (We have wifi here, so more pictures later.)
The wind direction was perfect and we sailed straight on to Shelter Bay marina and didn't have to use the engine until outside, so our repair didn't burst or catch fire and we were mighty relieved. The marina is very full and we had quite a lot of maneuvering to do as we were allocated one berth, then another, and were finally given a temporary berth on a hammerhead over night. Bright and early this morning we had to move again and this time we had to anchor between the last pontoon and the mangroves in very little space, along with 4 other boats waiting berths to become available - all this in winds gusting to 20kts or more. This is one time we were very pleased to have a bow thruster. It gets used very little, but it earned it's keep here in the marina! We're still at anchor and next in line for a berth, but it looks like it will be tomorrow now.
We had planned to be here a couple of weeks to get things sorted out ready for the transit through the canal, and provision for the long distances in the Pacific. Having read all the arrangements that have to be made to go through the canal, we suspect we may be here a little longer. All about the canal another time, it's quite something. The marina is surrounded by rain forest and in this part of the country is pristine - a real jungle. Our American friends from yacht Aspen came to greet us and presented us with the packages they had very kindly received on our behalf - spares for the watermaker and fridge. They've been here since before Christmas and told us all about the howler monkeys and white faced monkeys that you easily see in the forest, along with the sloths and the poisonous snakes which come out on to track to bask in the sun. And of course the crocodiles in the water, and sometimes, in the marina. So no getting into the water to clean the boat here!