Snow Leopard
Fri 7 May 2010 23:07

Panama to Galapagos – Part 1

0:53.74S 89:36.8W


They attacked again last night. The main assault is always just before dawn and for the first time they got past our first line of defense. Fortunately they were repulsed by our second defensive line and they retreated to think again. They’ll be back. They’ve tried all sorts of tactics. They sent the children to try to charm us into dropping our guard, but we were wise to that. They send out regular scouting patrols to check if there are any gaps in our defenses or to check if we are aware of their presence, and then the major attack always comes at night. So far we have held firm but we know they are a cunning enemy and will keep trying until they succeed.


(More on that later)


Panama, Colon, the Canal and Panama City.

We left the San Blas islands on 7th April, with a pleasant downwind sail to Isla Linton, followed by an equally pleasant sail, past the entrance of the Canal to the Rio Chagras. This river is navigable for about 6 miles (once past the rather shallow bar at the entrance) deep into virgin jungle. We anchored about half-way up, took a dinghy ride up to the Gatun Dam and explored some of the creeks off the main river. We ended up towing a big wooden pirogue with five Canal employees back down the river after their engine failed. Our little 8hp Yamaha performed splendidly. The air was alive with the sounds of the jungle – howler monkeys barking, parrot screeching and all manor of other birds joining in the chorus. We saw squirrel monkeys paying in the trees. That night the silence was split by the continued howling of the monkeys and dawn was a riot with parrots and paraqueets vying to see who could make the most noise. Then saw a pair of beautiful yellow-breasted toucans going through their head-bobbing mating ritual. Wonderful.


Yellow breasted toucan

Towing the pirogue down the Rio Chagras


Jungle – Rio Chagras




Next day we went to Shelter Bay Marina near Colon to wait for Tony, a friend coming out from England (with the new fridge parts – at least we could get ice in the marina!) and to prepare for the transit of the Panama Canal. The bureaucracy is extensive and although it is possible to did it all oneself we chose to use an agent, who though expensive did smooth the way considerably.


With a couple of days spare I decided to take the Panama railroad to Panama City for the night and reconnoitre that end of the Canal. Great train journey alongside the canal, lousy hotel in Panama City and an interested bus ride (cost $2.50 for the 50 mile trip) back to Colon.


The Panama train


Train interior


Local bus, Colon




Colon itself is a nasty, run-down town with an evil reputation. You don’t walk around Colon, but take taxis from one place to the next – all fares extremely negotiable.


Tony arrived and we fitted the new evaporator plate, but we still have to get a fridge engineer to vacuum the system and re-gas it with new refrigerant, and then finally we were called to go through the Canal on the afternoon of Sunday 18th April.


The Panama Canal

You are required to have on board 4 line-handlers, plus the helmsman so a German couple, Klaus and Marina from their yacht ‘Yellowman’ agreed to help. At about 4pm our ‘advisor’ Armarto came on board and we set of for the Gatun locks, a flight of three lock that raise you 85ft to the level of Gatun Lake, a man-made lake caused by the damming of the Rio Chagras, which takes you the majority of the way through Panama before descending to the Pacific.


At Gatun Lock we paired up with a 45ft yacht alongside and followed a big ship into the first of the locks. The shore-side line handlers hurled their lines, complete with huge monkeys-fist knots, with unerring accuracy to us in the middle of the lock and we passed our lines to them. The gates closed and then we were on the way up!


The first lock – Armato, our advisor, Klaus and Lucy


Amarto – Lucy’s heartthrob!




The double gates at Gatun Lock


A panamax (maximum size for the Canal) container ship going down Gatun Locks


Getting dark



After the flight of three locks at Gatun we were directed to a mooring buoy in Gatun Lake for the night. The advisor was taken off and we spent a really pleasant night chatting away to Klaus and Marina, over a few G&Ts and a couple of bottles of wine before sleeping peacefully to the sounds of the jungle all around.


Gatun Lake – early morning


Next day our new advisor, Frank, arrived at 6a.m. and we were off motoring across the vast Gatun Lake and through the great cuts made through the hills before descending the three locks and out into the Pacific!


Spot the two crocodiles lying on the shore


Not much room to pass

Gaillard Cut – Panama Canal


Pelican watching proceedings at lock




Klaus and Marina, our lovely line handlers


From our mooring at Balboa Y.C. – ship leaving Canal, passing under the Bridge of the Americas




We took a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club in Panama City, just past the Bridge of the Americas. We were moored only 30 yards from the main shipping channel and it was fascinating watching the shipping approaching and leaving the canal from such close quarters. Fortunately the ships had slowed right down for their approach or departure from the Canal so there was little wash. I wish the same could be said of the pilot vessel which roared round at full speed creating a tremendous wash, day and night.


The next few days were spent getting the fridge working (very good man in Panama) and provisioning for the trip to Galapagos and across the Pacific. We had read that there were few provisions available in Galapagos so Lucy was buying food for about 6 weeks.


On Friday 23rd April, we said goodbye to the noise and pollution of Panama City and headed for the Perlas islands about 50 miles south, stopping that night at Contradora, before moving on next day to a deserted anchorage between Isla de Canas and Isla del Rey. Our intention was to spend a couple of days here before heading of the Galapagos some 840 miles away, but that night we had a huge thunderstorm and torrential rain which bought out every mosquito and bug out and all aimed at us!


So next day, rather than spend another night being eaten alive we set out for the Galapagos Islands. The wind was on the nose which is where it stayed for the entire trip, and mostly light or non-existent, giving us a 1000 miles beat to windward, not mine or the boat’s favourite point of sailing. The boat slams into the waves, life is generally uncomfortable and you only make slow, slow progress toward your destination. We decided that the best tactic was to sail south first along the Panamanian and Columbian coasts before heading west. In all it took 6 days and we arrived at Wreck Bay, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on the island of San Christobal as darkness fell.


Departing Panama City


Crossing the Equator – 17.35GMT, 30/4/10





Lucy, having been inducted into Lord Neptune’s court – Equator


Red-footed booby hitching a ride to Galapagos


Isla Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock) Galapagos






Drama on the high seas

We had one very disturbing incident on route. About 180 miles off the coast of South America (near the Columbian/Ecuador border) we were approached by an open boat, about 18ft long with three men on board. They wanted to come alongside but I wouldn’t let them, so running alongside us they asked if we had any petrol. It transpired that they only had enough fuel for 50 miles, yet were 180 from the coast. We only carry on small amount for our dinghy which would have been of little benefit to them, but we did give them food and water. They asked if we could call the Ecuador Coastguard to inform them of this boat’s position. Being well out of VHF range, we decided to call Falmouth Coastguards in England (their number is programmed into our sat-phone). We told them the circumstances and gave them the position of the boat. The said they would inform Ecuador Coastguards. We waved goodbye to the three men whilst they sat waiting to be rescued.


About 5 miles further on we came across a very large fishing boat which turned very deliberately towards us. I tried calling them on the VHF with no reply. We were now quite worried about the situation and turned away from them and gunned the engines. Again I called them asking what were their intentions. Eventually a man who spoke some English came on the radio, and they slowed down. We informed them of the open boat 5 miles behind, gave their position and they said they would go and pick them up. The fishing boat did call back half an hour later to say that they had picked up the men in the open boat. That was a great relief to us and we passed the information on to Falmouth. A while later we received a text from the Ecuador Coastguard asking us to verify the situation.


So all was resolved, but we spent some time talking over why an open boat would be so far from land with insufficient fuel. Even more strange was than one of the crew of the open boat spoke passable English and had a satellite-phone, which unfortunately had be dropped in the water and no longer worked. There was no evidence of fishing gear. We decide that they were meant to rendezvous with another vessel but as their phone had broken had missed the meet. In that part of the world it does not take much imagination to suspect that drugs were involved. We were relived to be well away from the situation, but even so I kept a good radar watch that night to make sure we were not being followed.