Colombia and Panama

JJMoon Diary
Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Mon 21 May 2007 00:19

Apologies for the delay in completing this blog; we have been busy!


There is a feeling that we have really arrived in foreign parts.  Initially, the prospect of Cartagena was rather daunting, there being no yachtsman’s pilot and the country having something of a reputation as a security risk.  But on Bonaire we met an American couple who had cruised the coast several times and compiled a CD Rom full of interesting and helpful stuff.  With the benefit of this we thought we would give it a go, and were not disappointed.  Cartagena is a big city and the old walled town and fort genuine tourist attractions without too many genuine tourists.   The people are very friendly, and no-one is afraid to walk out of the marina at night.  Apparently it was not always so safe.  Mind you there are two policemen at every corner and a security guard in every doorway. 


The old fort.


Visiting the old fort.Under the flag.  Mags was there.View from the fort over Cartagena.


A trip round the old town.An attractive street in the old town.


The Club Nautico, off which we anchored, is really a low key marina run by John, a laid back, efficient and friendly Englishman.  He knows all his customers by name, even those anchored off, attends to detail and provides what the patrons want.  Unsurprisingly some stay for months.

One means of transport.Another means of transport.

Perhaps one reason for staying for months is that it takes most of that time to clear in and out.  All the officials are very relaxed and welcoming to their country but the Port Captain will not deal directly with masters, only with a professional agent who has to complete seven sets of forms, with multiple copies made with carbon paper.  Younger blog-readers may not remember carbon paper salesmen, the scourge of City secretaries.  Many a tearful girl had to go to her boss to explain that somehow, without really knowing how it had happened, she had contracted to buy ten years’ supply of carbon paper for delivery tomorrow.  So much of the stuff is used in this part of the world that I am sure there are Colombian carbon paper barons to rival the worst of another sort.  It needs skilful handling too.  Some forms have to be completed on both sides so the carbons must be extracted from the sheets in quintuplicate, turned over and re-inserted (doing this on a windy terrace is tricky).  The forms being in Spanish we did not understand everything that was being enquired into; probably a good thing - in Trinidad I had become rather exasperated at having to declare, among numerous highly relevant questions, how many tons of bauxite we were carrying.  The Port Captain's representative and the immigration officer had to come out to the marina to inspect us, but not the boat.  Because we stayed for only five days we enjoyed the benefits of expedited procedures. Nevertheless, everybody is extremely friendly!  Unlike Europe, where you can sail from country to country with very little fuss, here each set of authorities can turn very difficult indeed if you cannot produce a formal document of clearance out of your previous port.  What is more a new country’s officials may take a dim view of some previous country’s clearance documentation.  Too late!


Anyway, our man Manfred, a retired German master mariner, did a great job and all went smoothly.  We made some more new friends and were sorry to leave.

An impressive Spanish ship being tugged out.

Panama is some place else.  At the Caribbean end of the canal is the city of Colon and the port of Cristobal.  They are nothing to write home about.  We arrived on a Sunday having sailed through a large area of torrential rain and thunder, and were fortunate to find a place in the small marina.  It being Sunday nothing was open but we were made immediately welcome by the long term residents (five months, fourteen months!) and were invited on to Carole’s large English catamaran for drinks and nibbles.  There is a lot to learn about this place and the canal transit and it was a very pleasant and useful introduction on our first evening.


The Panamanian connection


On arrival one gets passports stamped by the dockside immigration officer.  That is easy. Later, armed with photos and copies of the stamped passports one attends the Immigration Office in town and provides signatures and thumb prints.  One also provides money for fees and, er, supplementary payments so that the staff will deal with us before lunch (it is 11.55am) and fill in most of the sections for us.  Now we are cleared in and can cruise Panamanian waters for ninety days.  To transit the canal the boat is first visited by the Admeasurer who takes dimensions to determine the fee and assesses the boat for the level of equipment.  Among other requirements are 4 thick warps, each 125ft long, 8 motor tyre fenders wrapped in plastic, working toilets, an air horn, bottled water and food for all on board.  Each warp must have its own dedicated handler.  The assessed fee, $650, is paid over the counter at the local branch of Citibank together with a “buffer” of $800 in case we break down or cause chaos on the way through.  We get this back if we behave.  At the end of our dealings with the Admeasurer we give the Canal Authority an indemnity against anything that might happen to us.  It is agreed that it is never their fault!


Boats going west start late afternoon, anchor for the night in Gatun lake and reach the Pacific the following day.  In addition to 3 Panamanian line handlers, supplied by our agent with the ropes and fenders, we shall have an Adviser.  He is a trainee pilot working his time on small boats.  He goes home when we anchor but the handlers stay on board.  They will all be dedicated, experienced, clean living non smokers.  Good.   We have a provisional date fixed for Thursday 24th but as usual we have a little mechanical problem.  The mechanic was due yesterday from Panama City but was waylaid by Australians and went to another boat by mistake.  He is coming again tomorrow.  (He didn’t).


We have done one big “shop” but we shall have to go again because this is the last convenient provisioning place before Tahiti.   Not all that convenient - 75% of all people who walk out of the marina on their own get mugged.  We must go everywhere by taxi, and, except in the big stores, which are safe, keep our taxi driver with us.  We went into a motor parts store yesterday.  Inside were 2 security guards, one toting very heavy weaponry.  It was a bit difficult remembering what we came in for.


One redeeming feature of the place is the marina restaurant, very low key, more of a “caff” really which dishes up excellent meals for from £5 to £6.  It is the first time that we can truly say that there is little point in cooking and washing up on board.




Well, with assistance from a fellow yachtsman we think we have fixed our mechanical problem, a leak in the fresh water cooling circuit, and appear to be in better shape than the Aussies who waylaid our mechanic.  Their engine is completely caput and they need a new engine with complete new stern gear.  Apparently the owner, who has no sailing experience and is accompanied by two professionals, bought the boat sight unseen on the internet.  We understand it was offered at a very competitive price.  The new engine and gear may take three months to arrive.


We have been catching up on maintenance, laundry and victualling; ordering spares from the States and tracking them anxiously.  Friends lost a credit card on the Canary Islands and a replacement took 21 days because the first card was delivered to Iceland.  Visa claimed that the “zip codes” for the village in Iceland and Port Morgon, Gran Canaria were identical.  So far there is no sign of our spare impellers heading for the Arctic Circle - they have reached Kentucky - but we are not counting our chickens.


The word is that there is a shortage of canal Advisers, so boats are being put back.  We are being patient.


NB    Remember to let the cursor hover over the pictures to read the captions.