Friday 27 December 2019

Panama Canal Crossing and the Story of the Little Red Boat

The Canal

Unlike the man that went up a hill and came down a mountain, the workers on the Panama canal went up a mountain and many never came down, the rest left a canal behind for us all to enjoy, and they did it almost entirely by hand.   Over 12,000 workers died during the building of the canal, but this is far fewer than the 22,000 workers that died in the failed attempt by the French to build a sea-level canal.  The French may have failed but so much was learned that some credit for the eventual success has to be given for their failure.
Source: timetoast

Source: Slideshare

Gliding through Gatun lake or through the Culebra Cut one cannot appreciate the work involved the calm flat waters conceal the deep cuttings below and the mountains above are, well, gone.


The scale of the locks can only be appreciated from inside them.  In such a strange environment it looks normal to see small electric railway engines climb 45-degree slopes between the locks.  

These engines tow the boats through the locks, though in the new Panamax locks they use tugs, as the advisors said,  “to be different”.   The engines’ drawback is their cost but they allow for ships to be packed tightly together, something not needed in the new locks as only the largest vessels can use them.

For more information on the canal see this history of the Panama Canal.

The story of Tintamarre and the Little Red boat

It is quite easy to say we will transit the Panama Canal, as if cruising the UK canal network.  But sailing boats are not designed to go into sea-going locks and the largest ships are uncomfortable having small boats under their bows.  We, however, seemed quite large compared to a little red boat called Colibri that was destined to transit the canal with us.

The little red boat was feeling sad because it saw all the sailing boats come and go from the marina in Shelter Bay and never knew where they went.  But one day, a nice French girl, Chloe, said – don’t worry little red boat, I will take you through the canal.  So she filled in all the paperwork and said that the little red boat could motor at 5.5 knots, had holding tanks and could go in reverse.  Everyone was happy, especially the little red boat who had never been to the Pacific before so she was able to set off with her new friend Tintamarre, who looked very big and grown-up until she passed a cargo ship.  

Setting off the little red boat, looked just a little crowded with 6 line handlers and the Canal advisor.  She was loaded with 4, 30-metre lines required to secure the boat and 8 tyres acting as giant fenders.
A few days before the transit we were officially measured and given our Ship’s number for the transit.  It is normal for sailing boats to transit the locks “nested”, with up to three boats rafted together. We had practiced this with our friends when we acted as line handlers so we thought we knew what to expect, how wrong could we be?

We rafted up with the little red boat below the first lock and waited for our turn to enter, behind 2 ships and two tugs.  Except that there was no room for us in the lock. 

Four hours after setting off for the 5 miles to the locks, and in the rapidly descending darkness, we were still going round in circles with the little red boat tied to our side.  The big ships were finally shuffled forwards providing enough space for us to tuck in behind them and in front of the lock gates.  

And then it rained tropical rain for the entire passage up to the Gatan lake where we moored overnight with us tied to a large and somewhat surreal blow-up mooring ball. The happy little red boat tied to us and the two boats spent the night chattering away as they rolled in the wash of passing tug boats.

The next morning we were given a late start for our transit of the canal to the Pacific locks so we had to make good speed to make the appointed time in the locks.  Fine for us, but for the little red boat that had never motored 26 miles in her life and certainly not at 5.5 knots, something had to change as they fell behind us and behind schedule for the descent to the Pacific.  One might say the little red boat cried and cried because she thought she would be left behind on the lake, never to be seen again.

We will never know whether it was the boat's charm or her skipper’s smile or another Gaelic shrug, but looking behind us we could clearly see sails on the lake.  The little red boat was sailing.  It is normally, always, forbidden to sail on Gatton Lake, which is a shame as it is a beautiful lake with lots of inlets to explore but ships and little boats are not allowed out of the main channel.  But the advisor on the little red boat, a trainee pilot, had against all protocols called canal control and obtained permission to sail, the little red boat would go to the ball after all, and her sails were raised and with smiles all round she flitted across the lake.  
We were soon re-united with the little red boat as she chugged through the Culebra cut towards the Pacific locks.

Both ourselves and the little red boat were lucky to have trainee pilots on board and not the pleasant but less skilled advisors we had been told to expect.  Trainee rather understates their skills as they were both full Ships Masters, ours had been the executive captain (second only to the full captain) on a cruise ship before starting his training.  These trainees would soon be guiding LPG carriers, car carriers, and huge container ships through the locks taking full responsibility for the ship. 

Our advisors, either to have some fun or to practice new maneuvers, arranged for us to go down to the Pacific with a commercial catamaran.  

This boat would attach to the walls of the lock and let down on ropes closely attached to the dock wall.  We would dock with it as if it were a floating pontoon.  Simple as this sounds, they always had to go first – but they couldn’t move until we had undocked from them.  To do this we had to go backwards.  Except when we practiced outside the lock we found the little red boat didn’t really know how to go backwards, certainly not against the mysterious currents in the locks.  So we were given the task of reversing as a raft and one case where we had to change sides, ejecting the little red boat into the current only to catch her again as she was carried past us in rapid currents that flow through and around the locks.

Docking involved approaching the catamaran with as much control as possible when docking with the current, something you should not try at home.  As the advisor said nothing can go wrong if they catch the line as we floated past rather too fast.  Each time the lines were caught, the cleats held and the little red boat found just enough power in reverse to help us steer backwards.  

On one occasion we were forced to go under the bow of the ship behind us, our mast just missing the overhanging bow while the catamaran released itself from the side wall.

Some 24 hours after entering the canal we dropped out into the Pacific, at the top of a 5 metre tide as darkness fell, this time the little red boat leading the way out.

As we ran the last few miles a large canal authority boat ran alongside us and the advisor, arm held outstretched and gripped by the crew on the canal-authority boat leaped across the void. The little red boat and Tintamarre said goodbye to their line handlers, advisors, the lines and each other at the World Famous Balboa Yacht Club ready to start their next adventures, hoping to meet again somewhere in the Pacific.

A technical note on currents in the locks 
Everyone knows that when the lock gates are closed and water is flowing in and out there will be strong eddies and current but when the gates are open, the water is level, then it should be calm?  It is like a piece of magic because before one's eyes the calm waters start to flow, first slowly then rapidly.   You have to move before the current gets too strong. 
These mysterious currents happen because one is descending in a lock full of freshwater to meet a lock or the ocean filled with seawater.  These two masses of water with different specific densities are lying next to each other.  The freshwater wants to rise to the top, so it starts flowing forwards over the top of the saltwater with increasing speed as a circulating current is established with the top layer moving forwards and deep down in the lock the saltwater moving backwards, taking only a few minutes to become a torrential rush to the downstream end of the lock.  If you are not tied up before this flow gets going you end up in the lock gates.  The failure of the catamaran to move off promptly left us managing these currents as we were delayed long enough after the gates opened for them to start flowing, well beyond the capabilities of the little red boats reversing powers.
..and the little Red Boat is really an historic racing boat built in Brittany, probably somewhat better than most modern yachts.`

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Shelter Bay and Beyond

Not so long ago the US Navy had a base on the northern banks of the Panama Canal - Fort Sherman – built to protect the canal. Today, with the final withdrawal of the Americans from Panama in 1999, it's a quiet spot, squeezed into a wedge of land between the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal, and the mouth of the River Chagres, which feeds the canal, mostly covered in rain forest, with abundant wildlife, and is now home to Shelter Bay Marina.

The exotic setting meant that even in the marina we could experience the wildlife. I was the only one in the marina not to spot the resident crocodile. Maybe I just mistook him for a log? (thanks to Sharon for the picture)

We could hear the howler monkeys every morning and evening. A couple of evenings I went out on "nature walks" - to watch the monkeys, coatamundis (coatis, a racoon like creature) and spot colourful bird life;- toucans and parakeets. 

An additional historic connection is the nearby Spanish Fort Lorenzo,  built in the 16th century and now a UNESCO heritage site.  One Sunday we cycled out to the fort along the rutted old concrete service road spotting a number of coatis along the way. The fort has a magnificent site overlooking the mouth of the River Chagres.

The marina was a good place to arrive to after our exciting sail from Guatemala, and supported us making the necessary repairs to the boat, organising our canal transit, and providing a good venue for meeting up with friends and celebrating Christmas. 

A few of the old base buildings have been repurposed - the old base theatre makes a fantastic sail loft. The old concrete roads leading to the base are still in use for the marina but are in a poor state of repair. But the bunkers, the old church, the officer houses are all being reclaimed by the jungle and look like the set from a movie.

Until summer 2019 this area was isolated from the city of Colon on the far side of the canal...but a big new bridge has been opened, and one would guess that this is an area that may now become part of city development. The up side of the new bridge is that the journey time to town is reduced to a mere half hour. The marina ran a twice daily bus service, taking us to a shopping mall, with a large, well stocked supermarket – a very different shopping experience to Guatemala! Arriving in a new country, it's always fun to find what the local specialities are, and what you will need to live without. Panama offered the best pineapples ever, and tasty smoked pork, but it looked as if we would have to live without unsweetened yoghurt or any cheese other than uninteresting imports from the States.

Once our boat jobs were on the way to completion we took a road trip with friends to the Panamanian highlands. Somewhere our research went a little wrong; What we thought would be a 3 hour drive turned into an all day marathon along the Pan American Highway. This route was disappointingly barren of inviting stopping places and eateries - malls and fast food dotted the way. Our destination, Boquete, has a cool climate making it an ideal spot for coffee growing, We visited a plantation which grew the most highly valued Geisha coffee in the world ($1,000 per pound; or $60 per cup in New York). We enjoyed a $3 sample cup, made with a great deal of love and care. 

The unique specialness of the coffee was a little lost on us. We're okay about not being able to drink it every day. Other attractions in the area were waterfalls, awesome rock formations, abundant flowers and slightly chilly rain.

We spent our second evening in our rental apartment, not really fancying a walk out in the rain, watching the UK general election results...assisted by the 5 hour time difference!

Another expedition was to preview our canal transit; assisting friends taking their boat through - invaluable experience for our own transit - and a chance to take the canalside train back to the Caribbean side. Our next departure from the marina was in Tintamarre...heading for our own canal transit....

Monday 25 November 2019

Ten Days at Sea: Guatemala to Panama

Day 1 (Sunday 24th November) - River Cruising

Our departure from Rio Dulce was more sudden than is usual for us. There was an unusual combination of a high spring tide (which was essential to enable us to cross the sand bar at the River estuary) and favourable winds to enable us to head East. Both winds and currents conspire to make it generally a challenge to depart from Guatemala, with prevailing winds being usually easterly.

So when the opportunity arose and given we were almost ready to sail, we took it. There was a massive last-minute scramble to get provisions on board. In his haste, Andy fell out of our dinghy. No harm was done, he even managed to keep his phone out of the water. We needed to finish rigging the boat, pay our bills, make Tintamarre sea-secure and say goodbye to all our very good friends in the yard.

At 11 am on Sunday 24th November we slipped out of our berth and set off in company with our friends Alison and Andy on Venture Lady. The first several hours were a cruise downriver. The river empties into the Golfete Lake, which in turn becomes the River Dulce again, cutting an impressive gorge, and with banks clad in rain forest. 

We look somewhat out of place passing by lilies and white egrets, standing on one leg, watched us pass. The traffic of small dugout fishing boats and larger fast pangas passed us.

Through the gorge to the dreaded sand bar, to be tipped and dragged back into the sea.
With modest bumping and sanding of the bottom we reached open sea as it got dark and set off motoring due East to the bay Islands, making as far east as we could before the wind got up.

The toilet seat was the first casualty of the journey

Day 2 (Monday 25/11) - North to Panama?

We continued motoring in very light winds, Eastwards towards the Honduran Bay Islands. As day turned to evening we finally arrived off Roatan and were able to turn North North East, on a two hundred and fifty mile fetch to allow us to turn South East and still avoid the risk of a pirate attack off the coast of Nicaragua.   Two days sailing in the opposite direction to Panama. The calm weather allowed for proper cooking onboard - coq au vin for dinner!.

The ceiling liner in our cabin came down.

Day 3 (Tuesday 26/11) - Calm Before the Storm

Andy was on the early shift and watched the sunrise - to beautiful line bows (a close relative to the rainbow but different in shape and form). 

We sailed close to the wind, heeled over all day. We discovered new sailing skills, maintaining a course and matching speed with a very different sailing boat.  For us this meant continuous adjustments as we were the faster boat and therefore could always slow down to keep the two boats together.   Sailing in close proximity by day and night in waters with reef systems doesn't seem to be included in the yacht master syllabus, maybe it should be.

We didn't record any breakages, calm before the storm......

Day 4 (Wednesday 27/11) - The Storm

This morning brought an unpleasant squall and much more challenging conditions.  We reduced sail further to a 3rd reef in the mainsail

Two sail cars (which hold the sail to the mast) broke, and our plate cupboard suffered a malfunction after being dismantled in Guatemala. The internal shelf and door failed, all our bowls and plates cascaded to the floor.   Bad enough once, but we only realised after the second unceremonious dumping of the plates that the catch was no longer holding.  3 broken bowls and 2 broken plates.

The wind and waves increased as forecast, with 3-metre waves coming from the East.  Mostly it was just noisy as we fell off the waves, still beating into the wind.  A few waves though broke high over the boat, one filling our sail bag with water.

Day 5 (Thursday 28/11) - Avoiding Pirates

An easier day with more moderate seas.  We were able to take showers, call home, clear up the boat.

Our turning point kept slipping away from us, but as night fell we decided we could shortcut over a small reef system we turned South East, finally we were sailing towards our destination.   With a little anxiety, we passed over the reef system with no noticeable change in sea conditions despite the undersea wall rising from 3000 metres to 20 metres in less than 100 metres.

A number of yachts have been attacked by pirates in this area this year.  Pirates in this instance refer not to peg-legged, eye-patched old tars in search of bullion in their olde worlde brigantines, but impoverished fishermen, usually from Nicaragua, who may find a haul of electronic gadgets plucked from a passing yacht easier pickings.  Our strategy to avoid them was to sail over 150 miles from the shore and in company with another yacht, but we still had to pass over some prime fishing banks.

We scanned anxiously for pirates. But only our friends on Venture Lady and another sailing vessel travelling westbound were seen.

A Dutch cruise ship was set to pass uncomfortably close to us. A quick chat encouraged their bridge to make our encounter less close, though they clearly had not been maintaining a watch as it took some effort to raise them on the radio.

The 12 volt sockets went off.

Day 6 (Friday 29/11) - Robbie drops his Rudder

Still sailing close to the wind we had a more relaxing day as the wind backed north.  Fixing the 12 volt sockets, only a fuse that had blown, we found ourselves going round in circles. 

I had been discussing how long the pin that holds the hydrovane (named Robbie) rudder would last only that morning with Andy on Venture Lady and had decided to replace it in Shelter Bay when we arrived.  We would not have to wait that long.  The pin failed and the hydrovane rudder had fallen off and was trailing behind the boat on its safety rope, occasionally swinging back to bang the transom.  Whilst recovering the rudder was relatively easy, re-fitting it in a significant swell would prove an interesting challenge.  The rudder exerts forces strong enough to turn the boat so simply holding it into position was not going to work even with the boat heaved too. I learned how to fly the rudder in the current and waves, so wrapped around the hydrovane itself and leaning down into the waves I flew the rudder so that it went vertical under the shaft - and relied on Clare to pull a second rope and catch the rudder on the shaft.   It took many attempts but it was on, now we only had to insert the new pin that holds the rudder to the shaft.  Imagine trying to locate the hole in the rudder shaft through a rudder that moves vertically and twists in the seas as the rear of the boat lifts a metre out of the water and sinks below the waves before rearing up again.  Adrenaline though is a wonderful drug and after a lot of cursing the rudder was secure again.

Thank you to Venture Lady for turning round and standing by to help us. Fortunately, all was well.  All seemed calm and we were, we thought, through the worst.

Night Watches.

We have found that a night time rota of 4 hours on, 4 hours off followed by 2 hours on, 2 hours off gives us the best sleep and manageable watches. A rest during the day is allowed too.  Night watches can be wonderful; starry night skies have a magical quality out at sea.
Tonight we sailed down an "ocean river" a deep channel with shallower water on either side. Cargo vessels seemed to favour this route, and it was comforting to see them on our AIS system, not far away. We needed to speak to a couple of them to ensure they had noted our presence and unlike the cruise ship, all gave prompt replies and could see us on their AIS systems.

Day 7 (Saturday 30/11) - Dolphins and Disaster

This was our calmest day yet....we were able to spring clean the boat, get our washing done and pegged out to dry. The highlight of the day was a visit from a large pod of dolphins. Several dozen dolphins, including some mother and baby pairs, spent half an hour playing alongside our port side, leaping out of the water in unison just like you see on tv (but incredibly hard to catch on your own camera). They clearly enjoyed running up alongside the boat and then circling back to do it again and again. 

Our friends on Venture Lady were not visited by dolphins, but caught a Mahi Mahi for a fish dinner.

That night I woke to the sounds of squalls and Andy working the sails but it calmed to a steady but fresh wind.  We were making good progress. I relaxed into my night watch. 


Just after 1 am I received an urgent radio call from our friends on Venture Lady. They had lost their forestay. (This is the rigging line that holds the mast to the bow of the boat - its loss is a serious situation and often results in losing the whole rig). 

I assured them that we would stand by and assist in any way possible, and hurried to wake Andy.  We turned back upwind and held station for the next three hours.  As they were still making some headway, we had to sail slowly with them, which is fortunate as we were only twenty miles upwind of a major reef system.   Had they been drifting we would have had serious problems keeping clear of the reef.

It was frustrating not to be able to do more than just be there, in the dark, but important for security and safety. We watched a little anxiously as we moved slowly, still keeping away from the reef but not knowing what would happen next.  By 04.30 Venture Lady had secured their mast and cut away enough of their genoa and rig to be able to proceed slowly, although the tattered remains of their genoa flapped horribly like a giant flag.   Venture Lady limped through the night.

Day 8 (Sunday 1/12) - Recovery

And so we continued onwards. Fortunately, it was calm. We sailed, and Venture Lady, with their reduced sail area, motor-sailed, having calculated they had sufficient fuel to take them to our destination in Panama. We took turns to catch up on lost sleep

Day 9 (Monday 2/12) - "Calm" motoring

Another calm day, with little wind. We switched on the engine. The down side was the constant noise. The up side was hot water for showering. The highlight of the day was a wonderful cooked breakfast;- bacon, tomato, tortilla and scrambled eggs - all served up on a plate. After a week of only eating out of a bowl (necessary for keeping your food safe on what Clare described as calm seas, as 2 - 3 metre waves run under us from the stern)  This was luxury indeed!

Day 10 (Tuesday 3/12) - A final storm

With eight miles to go we hailed the Port Authorities for clearance through the Anchorage and into the Canal zone.  The storm that had been tracking East of us moved closer, expanded and engulfed us.  Visibility went to 20 metres or so, as we steered through the anchorage and our new chart plotter crashed and we lost sight of Venture Lady and the cargo ships.  

A few minutes of running blind reminded us how hard it would be to make a passage like this without modern navigation aids but we were soon lined up on the breakwater entrance with a final run into the marina.

We had arrived completing over 1100 miles or over 1300 sea miles.

A shake down or maybe shaken up cruise to prepare us for the Pacific.   Time to start the repairs to those things that we knew had broken and the many more we were to discover as we start preparations for the hull.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

A day in the the work yard.

A good day starts with practicing yoga, experimenting in new contortions suited to each of the many deceptively spacious lockers on a boat.  This locker is relatively comfortable to work in but getting out is made complicated by the sloping slippery surfaces. The only way is up, as they say, but this requires a full upper body work-out before one's feet can be unwound and lowered to grip the sloping and slippery floor to give a final push up and out.

Working in this locker is preferable though to the front lockers, where, after getting one shoulder through at a time you have to use core strength not to collapse onto the bow thruster control circuits.  Even my long arms don't reach the floor/hull of the boat to provide support. In any case, to complete the rewiring task I needed both hands for the crimping and cutting tools, the cables, crimps, and screws.  Breathing with one's chest supported on the edge of the locker does not come naturally.  Intense concentration on the task in hand and it is easy to forget to breath.  Oone has to stop working and put into practice some yoga or pilates breathing to re-ventilate, helping one's chest to rise up as it expands using core strength then relaxing gently down on the out-breath.

This would be fine but concentrating on breathing, the screw or cable that you are about to crimp moves away from the terminal, swinging to catch it the torch falls to the floor, Darkness.  Time to complete the yoga "flow" by exiting the hole one shoulder at a time, entering at a different angle to reach the torch and dropped screw and then repeating the process.  I will never complain about "down-dogs" and planks again.

Meanwhile back in the main cabin works are progressing with a new cupboard and fridge unit.  

The Corian worksurface is being fabricated under the hull of a catamaran, creating an outdoor workshop.  It looks like I am struggling to comprehend the apparently simple subject of hinges and handles.   I should stick to software, it is easier to understand.

and at least Jose knows where the hole is....

From here the snow from the Corian cuttings is at risk of washing or blowing away into the environment unless swept up quickly.  Inside sanding the gel coat has caused layers of dust to settle on and in everything in sight.On this unusually productive day, the work surface is getting its first try out in the cabin, just as the carpenter arrived to finish off installing a new cupboard.   But it doesn't take long for the cabin to be full of "snow" too.

As nightfalls, we can dream of retreating to our cabin,  where even yoga practice could not make the bed comfortable.

I have given up working on the wind generator controller for the day. Time to retire to Casa 1, where we have a room in a shared apartment and to plan our escape from RAM marina in just over a week, will we make it?

Sunday 10 November 2019

Exploring the Mayans

Decades ago, I remember being fascinated by a film, "Chariots of the Gods", which introduced me to the marvels of the ancient Maya civilisation. We had already visited a few minor sites in Belize, but I was not going to pass by the chance to visit the magnificent site at Tikal whilst we were in Guatemala.

As we have so many boat jobs to get through we opted to use a tour to make the visit, traveling with a small group of fellow cruisers. Ernesto, our bus driver was happy to adapt our schedule to accommodate opportunities along the way, here departing the Rio.

The first Maya Cities developed around 750 BC but it was not until 250 AD, the Classic period is largely defined as when the Maya were raising sculpted monuments with long count dates. This is when the Maya civilisation develops into one with many city-states linked by a complex trade network. In the Maya Lowlands two great city rivals emerged, Tikal and Calakmul.  In its heyday, between about 200 and 900 AD Tikal was a flourishing city of almost 100,000 citizens.  To date, only the major structures have been excavated and prised from the rampant rain forest that envelops the site.

Our first Maya visit was actually to a neighbouring, little-visited site: Yaxha. We were almost the only visitors that afternoon, and there was a sense of adventure as we explored through the rain forest, screamed at by the howler monkeys in the treetops. 

Our guide usefully indicated which temples were safe to climb up ( we would probably have missed out on doing this without his guidance), to give us beautiful views over the treetops to the lake beyond.

We were lucky to be able to squeeze in a boat trip across the (apparently crocodile infested) lake to a small island where a meandering path took us through more Maya ruins. The return trip gave us a special sunset over the lake.

Tikal had a different feel.  A vast site, and a very knowledgeable guide - and although we were clearly not the only visitors that day, it was very quiet. Quiet enough to be able to spot some nice wildlife as we hiked; toucans, coatimundi (coatis), turkeys, spider and howler monkeys.

Whilst the towering temples totally lived up to expectations and were both beautiful and impressive, .....

.....the thing that really fascinated us were the ball courts, used for ritualistic ball games. 

It is said that the Mayans were a peaceful civilization.  Clearly investing so much money in temples meant they were religious people too, so much so that it was universally considered an honour to die.  It was, therefore, the winners of the game and not the losers that were sacrificed on special and handily located small round altars.  The captain of the losing team would have the lesser honour of performing the sacrifice.  The blood of the victims mixed with wood and burnt, sending their souls to the upper world.   All seemed clear until a second guide explained that the winning captain decapitated the losing captain.  Luckily we have moved on a bit from these times but religious beliefs between unconnected civilisations seem remarkably linked, with similar stories of underworlds, re-incarnation, and heaven and privileges for martydom.

There was Carved pictorial evidence of victims being trussed up and decapitated. 

Along with our visit to the sites, we stayed close by to the attractive town of Flores, built on an island in the lake. Our hotel was a short walk across a causeway to the town - and we enjoyed a couple of evening meals here - though my inadvertent choice of chicken gizzards for dinner was chewy and disappointing!

A quick visit to some limestone caves, huge and bat-infested, rounded off an enjoyable minibreak before returning to the reality of the boatyard.

..and this is what we had to resolve when we got back