It was time for us to head to Colon where we needed to complete some formalities ahead of our canal transit. Before we could pay our transit dues and book a date to go through the Panama canal we needed an "admeasurer" to come aboard and inspect Hamble Warrior. This canal official takes measurements of the vessel and checks that you have the requisite gear on-board for the transit. He also takes you through the transit options and talks you through the next steps. We hoped that we would be able to see the official as early as possible the following week.
We sailed from Portobelo mid-afternoon on a Sunday after our big night of rum-drinking in town. Conditions were fair; we had strong winds (mid 20s) all the way but had a comfortable downwind sail and didn't even lift the main - we just sailed with the headsail out for the four hour passage.
We cruised into the anchorage at Colon past all of the commerical shipping entering and exiting the canal. As we approached the anchorage "the flats" by Shelter Bay Marina we were able to look across the water to the incredible "Atlantic bridge" which marks the gateway to the Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean waiting on the other side. It was all very awe inspiring although the anchorage itself; despite being inside the breakwater, was rather rough and bleak. As we approached to drop anchor we sailed past an enormous shiny new superyacht called "Dream", the skipper came out and shouted down to us asking where we had sailed from. I replied "Greece" and received a thumbs up.
We dropped anchor next to S/V Mowzer once again. They had come a few days ahead of us and been measured already; although due to the windy conditions they had been told they needed to go into the Marina to be measured. We were very keen to avoid this scenario and hoped that the calmer weather forecast the following day would be enough to persuade the boat to come out to us with the canal official on-board.
We had a slightly bumpy night at anchor but overall it wasn't too bad. The next morning Jamie made his phone calls first thing and managed to get the canal official to agree to come out to the anchorage to measure us. The conditions had calmed a little since the previous day and an enormous tug boat pulled alongside Hamble Warrior where Jamie had hastily tied some fenders alongside and a very smartly dressed man in a crisp white shirt; khaki trousers and a white baseball cap jumped aboard as the tug smoothly pulled away. I made coffee whilst "Roberto" talked to Jamie up on deck and they made several measurements. Then we sat in the cockpit drinking coffee and going through all the requisite paperwork. Once this was all completed Roberto called up the tug on the radio to come and collect him. By now the wind had started to increase and the anchorage was a little bumpy again. As the tug approached Roberto climbed up onto our dinghy which was upturned on the coachroof and put his foot atop one of the stauncheons positioning himself as high up as possible. The tug nosed up to Hamble Warrior's beam and Roberto made a huge leap onto the open bow of the tug. It was clearly a well practiced maneuver; and very well executed. Unfortunately the rubbing strake on the tug bow just snagged our protective netting as they backed away tearing a small hole in it otherwise it would have been a perfect execution. Fortunately this is easily repaired and we felt it was a small price to pay for saving us the trouble and expense of a marina berth. We waved Roberto and his colleagues off and then put the kettle on and started to plan our next movements.
The next day we lifted anchor first thing in the morning and set off back to Portobelo once more, knowing that when we next returned here it would be to make our canal transit to the Pacific.
We set off early that next day and had a sail of over 8 hours to get back to Portobelo. As we departed the "flats" anchorage we called up the Cristobal Port Authority and requested permission to pass through the breakwater carefully avoiding the throng of commercial shipping passing in both directions. We had a lively sail tacking our way back the way we had come just 2 days previous (and in half the time) but we were rewarded with slightly more favorable conditions than we had expected and we were very happy to get our anchor set in Portobelo once more shortly after 4pm and ready for a busy week of preparations.
Having upset Francesco at Casa Vela so badly, we needed to find a new place to land our dinghy so that we could take a day trip into Panama City. We landed at the dock of "Casa Congo" next door to Francesco and spoke to the lovely proprietor "Amy" who was more than happy for us to leave our dinghy tied to her dock and explained their opening hours. Over the coming weeks we visited Casa Congo several times to enjoy a cold beer or a glass of wine and even used it as a meeting point for assembling our canal transit crew. Amy and her team always made us feel extremely welcome and never once ranted at us in their pants!
Thursday 2nd February dawned the day of our big trip into Panama City. We had an appointment at the French Embassy at 1 o'clock and wanted to visit the big shopping mall at Albrook and pay our canal transit fees at the bank there first. We took two local buses to get to Albrook on the edge of the city and then used the metro to cross the city to the beautiful historic old town where the French embassy is located. The night before our trip we counted out the cash for the transit fees and then carefully wrapped the bundles in aluminium foil to look like sandwiches; I placed these in a Tupperware box and topped it off with a banana. We hoped this would be a cunning enough subterfuge that if we were robbed anyone rifling through our bag would assume it was our lunch; we'd just have to take our chances that we were mugged between meal times and make sure we reached the bank before the miscreants of Panama got hungry.
We took the dinghy ashore first thing and tied up outside Casa Congo. It was too early for the restaurant to be open so Jamie dropped me on the tiny adjoining beach and then tied up the dinghy and shimmied along the wall from the dinghy dock carrying our bag of rubbish that we planned to dispose of and both our backpacks. We had dressed smartly for the embassy and I had been so intent on getting ashore without spoiling my outfit that I'd left everything else in the dinghy. We both managed to get ashore still looking clean and tidy and, we hoped, in plenty of time to drop our rubbish off and make for the first bus of the day. As we arrived onto the main road through the town we saw the brightly coloured old school bus ride past and our hearts sank. I let out a yell of frustration and a man standing near the road hailed down the bus for us and brought it to a halt. We raced to the bus showing him with thanks as we did so and as we boarded Jamie looked down in dismay at the bag of rubbish still in his hand; nevermind, the bag of rubbish would have to come with us too so on we all got. Fortunately we were able to dispose if it in a bin when we changed buses at Sabanitas so we didn't have to stroll into the French embassy in our best clothes carrying a bag of garbage!!
Our journey into the city went really smoothly and we arrived at Albrook earlier than expected. We were able to complete and collect a money transfer to ourselves (both bank cards were now expired), hand over our "lunch" to the cashier to pay for our canal transit and even had time to browse the shops and pick up a few bargains before setting off across the city for our appointment. The public transport system in Panama city is amazing and you can charge up a single "rapipass" (like a London oyster card) and use it for as many people as you like tapping on and off buses and the metro for just a few pence per trip. We rode the metro to "Cinco de Mayo" and wandered through the beautiful streets lined with old buildings and crossed immaculately landscaped squares where grand town houses and diplomatic headquarters look down on monuments and statues. Here we were able to look out across the Pacific ocean for the very first time and gaze at the cityscape of modern Panama from this perfectly groomed little corner of the old city. It felt very surreal to have left our boat anchored in the Caribbean sea; the Atlantic ocean, this morning and after a short trip across the city here we were gazing out into the Pacific knowing that soon (hopefully) we would be through the canal and sailing this great ocean. What a unique place Panama is; this tiny sliver of Central America that not only joins two gargantuan continents but for over a hundred years now thanks to the construction of the canal it has provided a gateway to the Pacific ocean from the Atlantic. This shortcut means shipping no longer has to take the long and dangerous route down the coast of South America and around Cape Horn.
We took our fill of the view and then located the French embassy where at exactly one o'clock (and not a moment before) we were allowed to enter the building by the armed guard and handover each of our huge folios of documents that comprised our application for a long stay visa in French Polynesia. The clerk took the documents away and returned sometime later to inform us that although the supporting evidence we had submitted was very thorough, unfortunately the photographs we had submitted were not in line with the regulations; our heads were too small! We had a heart stopping moment when she suggested we reschedule our appointment for the following week before Jamie remembered that we had larger copies of these photos in our documents file and having shown them to the clerk she agreed they would be acceptable. We have since met other cruisers who have had the same problem and we remain confused as to how these photos; a standard format taken in a European photo booth with a fixed seat on which to place yourself, somehow failed to comply with a French visa standard. Maybe we just have very small heads!! Anyway with the matter of the photographs cleared up we were taken through to have our fingerprints taken and pay the relevant application fees and then it was time to retrace our steps home.
The bus ride back to Portobelo was somewhat more frenetic than the early morning ride in had been. We caught the bus to Sabanitas from the bus station at Albrook and it soon became apparent that we hadn't boarded the express bus but rather the "scenic" bus. We arrived at Sabanitas and had time to check out the provisioning opportunities at the supermarket there whilst waiting for the connecting bus to Portobelo. By the time this bus arrived it was rush hour and the road was jammed solid with traffic. As we all began crowding onto the bus it was obvious that everyone was not going to fit but with a long wait to the next bus everyone continued to squeeze and cram their way on-board. Now as a seasoned commuter I have seen some things when it comes to overcrowding on buses and trains; believe me when I say I thought I had seen it all. I had not seen it all. Not by a long long ways! By the time the bus left not only was the aisle packed as tightly as physically possible but the passengers were literally hanging out of the open door. I was actually leaning on the driver; infact technically because of the weight of other passengers bearing down on me and the height at which the driver was positioned I think it's accurate to say I was actually sitting on the driver! Jamie was folded up behind the open door about two feet away from me and between us were crammed about 8 other bodies! After what must have been 10 minutes of pushing and squeezing and cramming finally the bus pulled out into the traffic....... and sat there for the next 40 minutes! I don't know how long the ride back to Portobelo lasted in the end; the first hour or so was absolute hell as we crawled a distance of just a mile or so. It later transpired there was some kind of roadworks or incident which had caused the hold up and fortunately these poor souls didn't have to do this every single day. Eventually the bus got moving and the closer we got to Portobelo the more the bus emptied out. Each stop required a complete re-jigging of bodies and somehow for the first few stops however many people climbed off the bus I still seemed to have the same bodies squashed just as tightly against me. At one stage I was very aware of the uneven surface below my foot and I was concerned that I might be standing on someone's belongings. Unfortunately I was unable to do anything about it but when finally enough people had disembarked for me to be able to look down and see my own feet again I realised that I was looking straight through the bottom of the bus at the road below and the uneven surface was the rusty hole I was standing on! If Fred Flintstone owned a bus....!!!
By the time we were on the coastal road the bus had emptied sufficiently that we were able to sit down and start planning what we would do once we arrived back into Portobelo. We both agreed there was only one priority; a cold beer at Casa Congo! That beer tasted as good as any we had ever drunk. It had been a very long day but we had managed to do everything we had set out to do. With our canal fees paid we could now book our transit and start planning ahead for the arrival of our crew! It also meant that we could enjoy a little time visiting the San Blas islands that we had read so much about, so after we had concluded our business in Portobelo we set off back to Puerto Lindo on our way to San Blas.
3rd February we had a short and uneventful sail back to Puerto Lindo and as we sailed into the anchorage we instantly recognised sailing boat Lena Rae belonging to our friend Rob that we'd met in Cartagena. It was great to see him again and he introduced us to his friends that he'd been keeping company with in the San Blas Islands; the crew of Catamaran "Dignity"; Del, Ryan & Nick. We joined them at the bar that evening and found it was the barman "Rodriguez" birthday. In celebration he had laid on a BBQ for everyone and this included shots of rum. We ended up drinking heavily that evening and enjoyed ourselves so much that the next day; which we had planned to spend getting ready for the San Blas, was pretty much a write off. We filled our water cans from the dinghy dock and said our goodbyes and the following day we set sail for the San Blas islands