Gateway to the Pacific

 We were woken up by an earthquake – 4.3 on the richter scale, 24 km deep and just five miles away from it’s epicentre.

At the time – just gone 2am – we didn’t know what it was. It sounded like a jet engine. The whole boat vibrated and the power of something rumbling in the bowels of the earth was like nothing we had ever experienced.

We were anchored off Contadora Island, Islas las Perlas, on the Pacific side of Panama.

We shot out of bed and went on deck to see what was going on. But the night was completely still and eerily quiet apart from the bubbling sound of spooked fish leaping out of the water all around us.

It only lasted around 30 seconds but we were shaken up – literally – and wondered if some monumental wave response was coming next. It didn’t … but it got us thinking.

We’re just eight months into our three year circumnavigation and in a VERY different part of the world now.

The Panama Canal Transit

It took us around 12 hours to traverse the 80 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, through the famous Panama Canal.  We saw the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic.

It took us at least five times longer to organise the whole complicated passage.  Such was the detail of the whole operation we’ve turned it all into a ‘blockbuster’ video – available  on YouTube here.

Sound required. Beware the artistically temperamental Film Director.

Pub Quiz Pointers about the Panama Canal

  • There are three locks on the Atlantic side – Gatun Lake is in the middle – there are three locks on the Pacific side.
  • Shockingly, 25,000 people died constructing it
  • Construction began in 1881
  • It’s 82 km long
  • The locks take eight minutes to fill
  • Each lock uses 27,000,000 US gallons of water
  • 14,000 ships navigate through the canal every year

Our BIG SIX Checklist

1   The epic food shop:  We had to go shopping in Colon, Panama for enough provisions until the end of June.  Once we’ve left Panama we’re not going to see another biggish supermarket until we reach Tahiti … and that’s a long way off.

  • We filled five shopping trollys
  • The till stopped working half way through as we’d gone past the shops spend limit.
  • We earnt the cashier enough grocery stickers to buy a suitcase
  • We had to have it delivered to the boat by small lorry (which involved a car ferry crossing across the approach to the Panama Canal)
  • We broke the marina trolly wheels trundling it down the pontoon
  • It took five hours to unpack, label, store, re-store, swear and despair!

And we used to think the weekly UK shop was tough …. !

2    The Terminator:  as well as preparing for the Panama Canal transit we’ve needed to get everything ready for visiting the Galapagos Islands.

And if we thought the Panama  Canal bureaucracy was hard work … the rules for visiting the Galapagos by yacht are off the scale!

One thing we needed to do was get a Fumigation Certificate and so ‘The Terminator’ turned up and injected cockroach bait in all of Baggy’s little crevices, sprayed our canvas on deck for mosquitoes and gave us a top tips on how to keep infestation free!

3   The Measurer: Baggy was officially measured  to be ‘put on the system’ and matched up with similar sized yachts for the transit.

Once we were measured and ‘on the system’ we travelled to Colon, by bus and taxi (on my birthday – hurumph) to pay hard cash into the heavily secured Citi Bank …. once that was paid in we rang the office to get our transit day.

This mostly went OK apart from a dubious taxi detour into a wasteland area of Colon!  The gangland vibe is strong here and this is a threatening place. We got in and out as quickly as we could.

4   Fender Scam: we hired four 124′ long lines and six tyre fenders to see us through the locks.  They were delivered to the boat by a heavily muscled man and collected in darkness by a fast boat on the Pacific side. And it was here we were told the tyres were a ‘courtesy’ and we had to pay another $6 to have them taken away …. ! We weren’t going to argue!

5 Line Handlers:  the rules required four – two at the bow and two at the stern.  Our friends Bruce (of Biscay crossing fame) and his lovely wife Mel, flew in from the UK to help and we hired one other line handler, David – a young and adventurous backpacker from Belgium.  In the end we were rafted up with other boats and only needed two line handlers, so Bruce and David did all the work.

David was great company.  He was sleeping in a derelict church in the rainforest at Shelter Bay Marina and earning money as a line handler to fund his travels around Central America, as well as looking for voluntary work with Panama Ministry of Agriculture.  He also made us muffins.  We liked him.

6   The Advisors: we needed one for the Atlantic locks and another for the Pacific Locks.

Hector - our Advisor
Hector – our Advisor for the second set of locks

Our ‘Advisor feeding brief’ from several sources was only bottled water, cold drink options, an option of hot lunch and hot evening meal, or sandwiches, and other snacks … !! And the ‘urban myth’ among the boats was that if the Advisor didn’t like the food on board they would order a take-away ashore and bill the boat … !  So we fed them with cooked breakfast, muffins, huge rolls with ample fillings and a big pasta dinner … with extra hot chilli sauce … he he! They didn’t complain.

Captains Comment

“The Panama Canal transit was fascinating. We saved a significant amount of money by not using an agent to manage the protracted scheduling and administration process. This process had occupied our minds in the months leading up to the event but we found it to be straightforward and the canal staff were professional and courteous.

The Panama Canal
Breaking on through to the other side

“Having been measured, paid our fees and booked our transit date, the mechanics of the transit itself were the next challenge. When you see the volume of large ships transiting the canal 24/7 you can understand how the needs of a few pleasure yachts might be seen as a burden. Particularly given the potential for causing delays due to slow motoring speeds, possible breakdowns and line handling crew of varying competence.

“It was a unique experience – motoring across Gatun Lake next to pristine rain forest while listening to a troop of howler monkeys having their morning meeting. Sat in a huge lock with a 25,000 tonne car carrying ship almost touching our stern, then finally motoring out of Miraflores locks into a different Ocean.”

“All we did was turn right out of Portsmouth Harbour and go sailing. It would appear we are in the Pacific!”

In other news ….

Special award: goes to Mick Millis who stayed up to 3am and got into trouble for watching our transit on Marine Traffic. Well done Mick – good effort.

More solar power: we’re nearer the equator now and our charging period is longer because the sun is higher longer. Still not enough to use the blender (boo) but enough to keep the beers chilled for longer in the fridge (yay).

Celebrity author: We bumped into famous sailing author Webb Chiles on the water taxi from our mooring buoy in Balboa Yacht Club, Panama.

Amongst Webbs many crazy ‘ adventures’ are four circumnavigations, two world records, first American to round Cape Horn single-handed, imprisonment in Saudi Arabia, attempted suicide and five books.

“Life passionately, even if it kills you, because something is going to kill you anyway.” Webb Chiles

Special moment: Webb and Paul … look, they have matching hats!

Pearl Islands: Bruce and Mel stayed with us for four more nights after the canal crossing and we sailed to the Pearl Islands for Melanie’s birthday. Sunshine sailing, chocolate cake, a perfect sized fish freshly caught for dinner, huge pelican fly by’s and anchoring and swimming off an uninhabited island.  Birthdays don’t get much better than that.

Panama City: it had to be done.

  • Skyscrapers TICK
  • Monuments TICK
  • Panama hats TICK
  • Panama City sign TICK
  • Street art TICK

So – what now?

We sail to the Galápagos Islands, leaving Saturday 16 March.

We have 900 nautical miles to cover and the wind looks set to give us a fast start, a calmer passage mid way over an estimated seven to nine days.

It’s a highlight of the whole trip for us and the preparations we’ve had to make to be allowed to take a yacht there make it even more special. We even discussed not going, on the basis that the whole point of the strict rules is to protect the Galapagos Islands from the impact of humans.  But – we’ve done the best we can – and we’ll see if we’ve met the mark when we get inspected on arrival.

Our first port of call is Wreck Bay, San Cristobal for check in and inspections and we have permission to take Baggy to two other islands during our visit – Santa Cruz and Isabella. But more of that to follow in the next blog.

Keep in contact

We’ve had some lovely messages of support – thank you! Keep ’em coming.  We feel even further away from home now so it’s really great to hear from you all. And if we are late replying it’s often because internet access is dodgy and frustrating wherever we go.

As always you can follow our track on Yellow Brick.

We also have photos on Instagram and some dodgy videos on You Tube.

See you again soon in the land of the giant tortoises, hammerhead sharks, sea lions and blue boobies!

Cheers Panama – you were amazing!

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