Colon, Panama: Rahula becomes a Bond Girl

James & Amelia Gould
Fri 18 Apr 2008 07:22

10 - 31 March 2008 : Colon, Panama


We had a cracking sail from the San Blas to Colon in Panama.  The direct route was 70 nautical miles, and as we were already short of time we were keen to cover it in one day without having to stop along the way.  So when we headed out of the San Blas archipelago into 20 knots of wind we set as much sail as we could carry and blasted along the coast of mainland Panama.  It was exhilarating to be sailing so fast into the wind instead of wallowing with it.  We were especially pleased when we started overhauling a couple of big monohulls heading the same way, leaving them far behind our wake.  To top it all James caught 3 tunas that day, so our fridge was fully stocked for a harbour stop.  Despite the fact that we lost the wind a little half way through the day we were still within sight of the Colon breakwater well before sunset and we sailed gently between the huge towering hulls of cargo ships waiting to go through the canal.  I counted about 50 ships at anchor outside the breakwater and was really surprised to see so many waiting, as I thought these ships never stopped as it was too expensive.  I didn’t realise that this maritime car park was an indication of the problems that lay ahead…


As we drove through the breakwater a real sense of excitement overcame us.  Here we were at the end of the Caribbean Sea, finally on our way out of the Atlantic and into the second big stage of our circumnavigation, the Pacific Ocean.  All that stood between us and the biggest ocean in the world was a canal.  The sense of occasion was enhanced somewhat when we realised that we had arrived in Colon on the same day we left out home port of Portsmouth exactly a year ago.  The neatness of this fact was rather pleasing, but it also made us realise how the last year had been a gentle stroll though an ocean.  We had covered just under 9000 nautical miles in a year, and once we were through the Panama Canal we had 9 months to cover a similar distance across the Pacific, before the typhoon season started in November.  And that is assuming we didn’t have to wait too long for a canal transit date.


On our first full day in Colon we went into the Panama Canal Yacht Club with the intention of getting started with all the canal transit paperwork and administration.  Within a few minutes of our arrival we met Tito, an agent-come-taxi-driver (a nautical ‘Del-boy’… J)who takes cruisers to all the required offices for booking a canal transit.  James was whisked away in a van with several other new arrivals, and returned at lunchtime having nearly completed all the required formalities.  The speed and efficiency with which it all happened surprised us both.  The following day the admeasurer arrived onboard to measure the exact size of the boat and determine our canal fees.  Yet again we found the ACP staff helpful and friendly, and we were informed that the final task was to pay the canal transit fee and deposit, then we would be given a transit date.  That afternoon Tito took us to the Citibank where we signed a credit card slip authorizing payment to the canal authority.  By this stage we had heard rumours of a long wait for yacht transits due to a large backlog of ships, so we were braced for the worst when we rang the canal schedulers that evening.  It still came as a shock when we were told we had been allocated 6 April.  That gave us a month long wait in Colon which we had already discovered was a complete dump.  We were late already, and a spending a month stuck in Panama was eating into our valuable time in the Pacific.  We were distraught, but vowed to ring the canal schedulers every day to see if they had a cancellation or earlier slot.  Unfortunately, all the other cruisers stuck in Colon were doing the same thing… (I tried all the tricks in the book, bribery, coercion, threats, sweet talking, guilt inducing sob stories, even eye-watering-pathetic-down-on-my-knees-pleading, unfortunately the canal schedulers had heard it all before many times!  J)


We started planning how to spend this time productively.  There was a marina on the other side of the harbour to Colon, and we decided it would be nice to spend a few days there pampering ourselves before embarking on the simple Pacific island life.  We had met a nice Polish couple (Jarek and Iwona) on a very large catamaran that also wanted to investigate taking their boat into the marina, so one afternoon we got into their huge RIB and powered our way across the harbour to the marina to check it out.  On our arrival we found a few yachts anchored outside the marina in an unofficial anchorage, and a lot of activity going on inside the marina.  Asking around revealed that the filming for the new James Bond film was about to start that week, and the yachts anchored outside were part of a backdrop for a boat chase.  We booked a berth for Rahula in the marina, and found the film maritime coordinator to see if he needed any more yachts for his set.  We gave him our contact details and thought nothing more of it. 


We found Jarek and Iwona chatting to an eccentric Austrian guy who had his catamaran anchored in the Bond film set.  He needed a lift back to his boat, and invited us onboard for some drinks in return.  His boat was the usual single-hander mess, with half finished projects lying around everywhere and good ideas bolted on in the oddest places.  He made us some very strong Caipirinas using neat rum and crushed limes.  When we drank the first jug, he insisted on making another, so by the time we finished it was dark and we were all pretty merry.  Before he had a chance to make a third jug we retreated to the dinghy and insisted we had to return to our boats.  Jarek revved the RIB up and we sped off at full power back to Colon.  As we were crossing the main shipping channel for the Panama Canal there was a cough from the engine and all went quiet.  Jarek figured we had run out of petrol and started rummaging around for the spare fuel can.  In the mean time I realised where we had stopped and looked across to see a large ship steaming towards us.  Iwona started to laugh in a drunken, panicked way, and pulled out two small paddles so that we could row our way out of the shipping channel until the engine started again.  James was on the bow shouting encouragement as Iwona and I paddled like mad.  What James failed to mention, and only told me the following day, was that Iwona and I were paddling in opposite directions so that the boat was actually going around in circles, and that we were in fact out of the channel and the ship heading for us was about to turn for a bend in the channel.  After a scary 10 minutes of frantic paddling I saw the ship’s aspect change, Jarek had topped up the fuel tank, and we were on our way again.  I was very glad to be back onboard Rahula safe and sound that night!


The following afternoon we took Rahula over to Shelter Bay marina where we planned to spend a week doing some boat repairs and maintenance and start provisioning for the Pacific.  The atmosphere in the marina was completely different to the yacht club.  The marina was full of posh, expensive boats, and there wasn’t much socializing, apart from with the boat crews we had already met.  In contrast the yacht club was always full of cruisers and every day we went there we made some new friends.  We had a long list of things to do to prepare the boat for the long slog across the Pacific.  Top of the list was some engine TLC and getting the engine generator repaired.  We needed to change the gearbox oil in the engine drive leg, a job usually done with the boat out of the water as when the engine leg is down the oil fill hole is below the water.  We didn’t want to pay to have Rahula lifted out just for this small job, so James decided to try to do it while in the water.  He spent a morning constructing contraptions that Blue Peter would be proud of, and with the aid of a large tough plastic bag, lots of tubes and a small hand pump managed to change the oil and not spill any old stuff! (It was engineering genius! J).  In the mean time I kept well out of swearing range, doing other jobs around the boat.


The filming for the Bond film started on 15 March, and that morning the marina turned into a hive of activity as truckload after truckload of film crew arrived to set things up.  Everywhere we looked there were people wandering around with radios or carrying strange props.  A bunch of small identical boats appeared overnight and docked in the marina, while on other larger boats large camera booms were being constructed from something that looked like a Mechano set.  We were told we had to take down our Panamanian courtesy flag as the film was supposed to be set in Haiti.  Jarek came over and suggested taking his boat to the filming area outside the marina to watch the boat chase.  We jumped at the chance and 20 minutes later we slipped his lines and anchored on the edge of the film set, hoping no one will notice we were not one of the boats contracted to be part of the backdrop (I’m sure they didn’t notice a 50 foot long 25 foot wide catamaran…J).  That afternoon I realised that filming was just like being in the Navy – hours of preparation and waiting, followed by minutes of excitement.  We watched as the film crew spent hours towing various props around the anchorage, getting them into position, only to be told to move them again.  There was a lot of milling about and chatting on the water and not much action.  Then we heard a roar of a jet boat and the Bond boat came onto the scene, followed by the baddie boats and the camera boats.  The first action sequence started right next to the boat we were on, with the baddies hiding behind our hull before they head out to confront Bond driving towards them head on.  Iwona and I spent ages peering through binoculars to try to spot Daniel Craig until we realised that it was actually his stunt double doing all the action shots.  They filmed the same scene over and over again and each time the roar of the boat’s engines and the fake gunfire pops made me jump.  The second scene they filmed that day was a stunt sequence, where “Bond” drives over one of the baddie boats making their outboard engine explode.  The first time they ran through it there was a loud bang and lots of smoke but no flame.  The director sounded very disappointed, so they spend another couple of hours setting up for the stunt again.  Second time through there was a big bang, a big fireball and lots of smoke!


After all this excitement we were pleased when the Bond maritime coordinator came by and said he was looking for some small boats to act as a backdrop for one of the stunts in the marina and asked if we were interested.  At $100 per day of course we were!  We went on contract with the Bond film crew on Monday 17 March, and then waited to be told where and when we were required.  We were asked to be ready to move into position early the next day, but despite getting up at 6am we didn’t end up moving until 1630.  The crew had 6 boats lined up, and they wanted us to form raft on the edge of the marina.  We were the first boat to go into position, but when we picked up the anchor they had laid to hold the raft it kept dragging.  After several attempts to set their anchor we suggested using ours while they rigged a stronger arrangement using one of the pontoon posts.  Luckily our anchor set first time.  Once Rahula was hanging off the line attached to the post the other boats came in and rafted up alongside us.  When the third boat had joined our raft we were getting worried about the weight on our cleat, but it seemed to be holding.  When all 6 boats were in position the film crew laid several extra anchors and we were ready.  Rahula was at the center, and we hoped she’d be in the center of the shot when they film the stunt.  Once the boats were set in place we had to wait for all the other filming to finish before they filmed the stunt next to us.  Unfortunately one of us had to be around all the time, but as we were being paid we didn’t mind!


A few days later we were told that the director wasn’t happy with our raft configuration, and that he wanted the boats to be anchored bow to stern along the mangroves lining the marina.  So late one afternoon three boats moved off the raft and were anchored in their new positions.  Early the following morning we were woken from an alcohol induced slumber (see later…) to the sound of feet on our deck – the two boats rafted up to Rahula were also on the move.  We quickly got up and got dressed, and sat in the cockpit to watch the great act of seamanship taking place around us as the Marine Coordinator tried to anchor 4 boats along the mangroves beam on to the wind, with their bow and stern anchors where being laid in a great nautical game of cat’s cradle.  Eventually it was our turn and we anchored Rahula in position at the end of the row of boats.  After a whole day’s work the boats were perfectly aligned and the director was brought in to assess the setup.  He was really pleased, but announced that first he wanted to do the stunt without any boats in position, in case things went wrong…  So we had to undo all the hard work and extract all the boats from their new positions.  We moved Rahula into a vacant marina berth, still adjacent to the stunt set up so we still had front row seats for the filming. 


While all this was going on inside the marina a huge squall was coming passing overhead, bringing with it some pretty strong winds that were causing havoc among the boats anchored outside the marina.  Suddenly we were abandoned by all the support boats helping us to anchor as they raced outside to help boats which started to drag their anchor.  A few of the boats were damaged as they hit things along the way, and some of the boats weighed anchor and sought shelter inside the marina, much to the consternation of the film crew who had to reposition them in exactly the right place again to ensure continuity.  After a few hours the weather passed, calm was restored, and we returned to the game of nautical jigsaw with yachts inside the marina.


One of the other nice things about the filming going on in the marina is that it made it a much more sociable place.  The marina was filled to capacity and with the extra boats anchored outside there were always cruisers hanging around.  The film crew would also often ensconce themselves in the bar while waiting for the next stage of filming.  We became friendly with an Australian couple (Jason &Jo) about our age whose boat was anchored in the set outside the marina.  They are big drinkers (although they alwaysh inshish it ish ush who are the bad influence…tosh…..hic… J), and we spent many an evening with them in the bar setting the world to rights.  While there we became friendly with Wade, the James Bond stunt double (who looks nothing like Daniel Craig without his makeup on!) (A thought he was even sexier and was quite smitten… J).  He was really into yachts and is looking to by a catamaran and go cruising with his family.  He is South African, but was brought up in England, in, of all places, Chichester!  Turned out he used to live above our local kebab shop, and had a friend who lived on our road!  It is a small world, as we never meet anyone who comes from our little town!  He was great fun to be with, and soon we all became a regular gaggle in the bar in the evenings, playing pass the pigs and other drinking games.


Finally it was the turn of the big stunt we had all been waiting for.  They had been setting up for it all week, and we became intrigued by the cradles and wires that were being rigged in what was now called the “FX area”, but was actually a bit of shallow water on the edge of the marina.  We were in a prime viewing position, and as the rumour circulated that they were about to film the stunt all the friends we had made turned up to see the stunt from our cockpit.  We ended up with about 15 people packed into the stern of the boat, until one of the film crew came and said we all had to hide somewhere as it would not look good in the film if there were lots of people ogling.  So most people left, and James, Jason, Jo and myself all hid under the awning with cameras surreptitiously ready to film the action (we weren’t allowed to take pictures because of copyright).  The first take was great – the baddie boat had rammed Bond’s boat so that it was pinned on top of Bond’s transom.  Then Bond grabs their anchor and flings it into the sea, causing the Baddie boat to flip, throwing the baddies into the water.  The Baddie boat, a large Avon RIB, went high into the air, flinging the two guys inside outwards into the water.  I was amazed by the force of the flip, and was so excited I forgot to press the shutter button on our camera…(Much swearing from me… J)  Luckily they did a second take, and this time the boat flipped even higher and we got the pictures.  We positioned Ed the Duck on the end of our Davits during the filming, so hopefully he will be in shot.  When the film comes out look out for Rahula when the boat flips – but don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!


On the last day of filming we went out to watch the action from Reverie, Jason and Jo’s boat.  There was a lot more boat chase stuff, with fast boats charging their way around the boats at anchor making everything roll heavily in their wake.  This time Daniel Craig was out to film the close up shots and they had rigged a camera on the Bond boat to take the images.  An unnamed source told us that Craig is clueless about boats – apparently the only thing he knows about boats is that “if you stand at the back long enough someone will serve you a drink”!  So unsurprisingly he wasn’t driving his boat while acting.  There was a man hiding inside the steering consol driving the boat, with only a small slot to see through.  First time I saw the boat it seemed to be driving itself, but this time it had Craig turning the wheel like an over excited kid, while someone hidden inside kept it under control.  The final stunt involved the destruction of all the small fishing boats they had planted as props around the yachts at anchor.  The Bond stunt double was to drive over all the boats while being chased.  The film crew spend ages sawing up these boats, so that when Wade drove over them they broke in half easily and started to sink almost immediately.  After the stunt there was bits of broken boat floating around everywhere.  When the final “cut” rang out on the radio all the boats raced back into the marina leaving a maelstrom of white water behind.  They had a party to get to!


The following day we arranged to meet Wade for lunch at his hotel to say goodbye.  We hoped to see some of the other stunt team we had met so that we could say goodbye, but they were all still hiding in their rooms recovering from their hangover.  It was a very nice hotel by a lake, and we hung around the pool for a while before having a huge buffet lunch.  It was nice to get away from Colon and the marina for a while and we enjoyed eating somewhere different.


Once all the Bond excitement was over it was time to get back to normal business, and we spent the rest of our time in Colon mostly shopping.  We had planned to sail to a river nearby and spend a few days in the jungle, but unfortunately I got very ill after our hotel buffet lunch and we were forced to stay in the marina longer than expected.  I was out of it for 3 days, until we went to see a doctor who gave me a bunch of medicines which seemed to do the trick, though it took me a while to regain my strength.  In the mean time poor James was lumbered with provisioning for the Pacific and took the bus to the supermarket every morning, returning laden with tins, dried food and bottled water.  After the third load we began to really struggle to find space to put it all, as pantry and the guest cabin was now full to bursting with food.  Rahula was also sinking lower into the water and James was getting concerned that we won’t be able to move.  We had provisioned for 6 months as we had been told that there was very little to buy in the Pacific islands, and what there was would be very expensive.  So we stocked up – we certainly won’t starve… (or, more importantly, run out of booze… J)


Everyone we met raved about the Free Zone in Colon, which is a huge duty free shopping area where we were told you could buy anything you want at bargain prices.  We visited the Free Zone on a couple of occasions, and to be honest we weren’t that impressed.  The shops and warehouses were arranged on a grid, but in no real order so that all the electronics shops were together for example.  In order to find something we had to wander around the whole vast area looking into shop windows.  Then when we did identify something we would go to enter the shop only to be confronted by a sign stating “wholesale only”.  So we could buy what we wanted, but only if we took a box of 100.  Most of the shops in the Free Zone were trade only, and the ones that did retail were not much cheaper that the malls in Panama City.  So if you are ever in Colon (which I recommend you avoid if you can) don’t plan to just browse through the Free Zone.

As our planned trip to the Chagres river was curtailed we decided to do a day trip to Portobello, a town further up the coast from Colon.  We took a local bus there, which was an experience in itself.  All the buses in Panama are old American school buses that have been pimped beyond recognition.  Many have intricate artwork spray painted onto the body, various bits of shiny stainless steel bolted on in conspicuous locations and loud musical horns added for attracting attention in case you missed the cornucopia of colour or glint of metal.  The bus we took had all the above, but the interior was also decorated in shocking pink feather boa which surrounded the driver’s console, mirrors, speakers and which bounced and swayed as we rolled our way through the rough roads in the countryside.  There were also flashing LED lights in various colours which activated every time the driver hit the brakes.  The bus we had on the way back added loud reggae music to the mixture and as the bus bounced through potholes it appeared as if the passengers were leaping to the music.  Portobello is now a sleepy village on the Panamanian coast, but was once the center of Spanish trade in the Caribbean.  At one point one third of the world’s gold was shipped through the customs house as the Spanish collected riches from their dominions in South America.  As it held so much wealth it was subject to numerous attacks by pirates and several English pirates and privateers had a go (This was where Sir Francis Drake died).  The constant threat of attack led the Spanish to erect a series of fortifications around the harbour and many of the forts and walls are still standing.  We had a pleasant afternoon exploring all the fortifications and wandering through the village, please to get away from Colon again .


Our final week in Colon was spent preparing for our canal transit, and doing a practice run on Reverie.  More on that in the next installment…


This diary was sent via our satellite phone, and so I was unable to include the usual photos.  To see pictures of our adventure and the Bond filming, please go to