The Panama Canal.

Correction: My previous post stated that Karen and Evan hiked in NZ over Christmas. Not correct – they hiked in Tasmania – sorry guys!

Panama Canal map and section.

Limon Bay is a large anchorage for ships, protected by a long breakwater on the Atlantic or Caribbean side of the Panama canal. The City of Colon is on the eastern side of this anchorage and the Shelter Bay Marina is tucked in behind the breakwater on the western side – we tied up at the marina on Monday the 8th February 2021. First we had to have a Covid PCR test at the arrivals dock and after a negative result only an hour later, we were in our berth.

Canal info.

Shelter Bay Marina is quite busy with yachts coming and going on their canal transits. It has everything you need, including a gym, swimming pool, bar and restaurant. They offer a free bus service to Colon twice a day for shopping, which we used the day after we arrived. The restaurant serves good pizzas and salads, but the wines are expensive.

Our marina dock.

Restaurant next to the pool.

Sunset from our berth.

Good company, good wine and good food.

Friday the 12th February was Chinese New Year, which was a good enough reason for the yachties in the marina to have a Chinese potluck dinner at the BBQ area. We had a good turnout with some tasty Chinese dishes, followed by a big screen live broadcast of the Prada Cup races in NZ, between Italy (Aussie skipper) and the UK. The foiling monohulls are spectacular to watch, reaching up to 45 knots on the water!

Chinese New Year = Ah soh!

On the Saturday, “Energy Observer” a fascinating catamaran covered in solar panels, tied up at the marina. A floating laboratory for hydrogen, solar and wind energy propulsion and zero emissions. Visit: https://www.energy-observer.org/

The “Energy Observer”

A week after our arrival, on Monday morning the 15th February, the Canal Admeasurer came to measure Esprit for her canal transit. An efficient young lady, who got the job done in 45 minutes and then issued us with a transit number and the necessary documentation. A world of difference to our Suez Canal experience, where two Egyptian officials took a day for the same work.

The next day Roger our agent (Rogelio, pronounced Rohelio), delivered the big fenders and long mule lines required in the canal locks. He also collected payment for the transit which amounted to USD 2,354.00 (compared to the Suez canal charge of USD 600.00, three years ago). In addition, we had to pay 3 line handlers USD 120.00 each for their services. Our transit was scheduled for Friday the 19th February.

Equipment for the canal.

While waiting, we managed to have our life raft serviced – we got that back the day before our transit.

On Friday the 19th February, the Panama Canal transit advisor (pilot) and the three line handlers boarded Esprit in the Shelter Bay anchorage at 17:00. The advisor directed us under the new Colon bridge, to the holding area before the Gatun locks. Here we rafted up with our friends SV Nauplios, an aluminium yacht from the UK of roughly the same length as Esprit.

Our line handlers Ricardo, John and Ray.

Passing under the new Colon bridge.

SV Ghost passing us.

Nauplios approaching us to raft up.

Raft up done.

Elaine and Crawford Snedden on Nauplios.

We entered the first of three lock chambers, to rise a total of 26.5 m above the Caribbean sea level. Ahead of us in the 110 x 1000 ft (33.5 x 304.8 m) lock chamber was a reefer coastal cargo vessel and SV Ghost, a luxury yacht. Two shore men on each side of the chamber, threw thin heaving lines attached to “Monkey fists” down to our line handlers, which they in turn attached to thick mule lines on our decks. These lines were pulled up and attached to bollards on shore to keep the vessels centred in position.

Approaching the first Gatun lock.

Shore men walking our mule lines forward.

It was now getting dark and as soon as the huge lock doors closed behind us, the lock master opened the valves and water from the Gatun Lake above, gravity filled the lock chamber. The lock chamber has a capacity of 26 million gallons of water (50 Olympic size swimming pools) and was filled in eight minutes, through 70 openings in the floor of the chamber. The water was literally boiling around us, confirming the necessity of the mule lines.

Chamber doors starting to close.

Doors closed.

Line handlers pulling in the mule lines as the water rises.

Water flowing in through 70 openings in the chamber floor.

Lock full – Esprit and Nauplios as seen from Ghost.

The process was repeated through the next two locks, after which we motored a mile to a big floating buoy on Lake Gatun and tied up on it with Nauplios at 9pm. We then fed the adviser and line handlers who were sculling Cokes from the 24 can case we supplied. The advisers left our boats and the young line handlers eventually went to sleep on mattresses in the cockpit.

Waking up on Saturday next to Nauplios.

The next morning at 7:30 we served breakfast to the line handlers and at 8:30 a new adviser boarded Esprit for the 44 nm passage across Lake Gatun to the locks on the Pacific side. Towards the end, we went through the Culebra Cut which is the deepest excavation for the canal though the mountain watershed  on the isthmus of Panama. Most impressive, considering the thousands of men who toiled (and died) here, without modern earth moving machinery in the late 1890’s. Just past the Culebra Cut is the new Centennial bridge.

Approaching the Culebra Cut with Nauplios ahead of us.

Ghost passing us in the cut.

Looking back – once this was a mountain ridge.

The canal was opened in 1914 and since then ships planning to transit the canal had to be designed to fit the dimensions of the locks (The Panamax ships). In 2016 new larger locks were completed in parallel to the existing locks to accommodate larger ships (The Neopanamax ships). A few of these behemoths passed us.

Passing a huge Neopanamax ship in the canal.

Panamax and Neopanamax sizes.

Huge tugs working in the canal.

This tug passing us while doing a fire drill.

We now reached the three lowering locks on the Pacific side, the first being the Pedro Miguel lock (9.5 m step down). Esprit and Nauplios had to raft up on either side of Ghost, entering the lock first. A huge motor vehicle carrier (5,500 vehicles) came in behind us. This vessel built to Panamax specs, fitted in width into the lock chamber, with a few centimetres to spare on either side. She was towed into position by four electric locomotives on each side, centring her with thick mule cables, without scraping the paint on her sides.

Rafted up next to Ghost looking forward.

Ghost looking aft.

Darby and Joan – look at us, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous!

Shore men throwing their lines.

Caught by our line handlers.

The big ships get pulled by these electric locomotives.

A short distance away were the two Miraflores locks, stepping down 16.5 m at mid tide, on the Pacific Ocean side.

Entering the full Miraflores lock.

Here comes the vehicle carrier, pulled by locomotives.

Water level lowered, the doors open.

Out comes the vehicle carrier – a tight fit.

After these locks, we detached from Ghost and said our goodbyes – they were sailing up to the Gulf of Cortez in Mexico. Next up, was the big and filthy harbour of Balboa before passing under the Bridge of the Americas, a poor cousin of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We dropped our line handlers and their ropes and fenders at the Balboa Yacht Club, where Nauplios tied up to a mooring.

Nauplios and the Bridge of the Americas.

Here comes our lock buddy!

We motored on for another 30 minutes to drop our anchor at La Brisas, behind the long causeway, south of Panama City at 18:15, just in time to enjoy the sunset, cold beer in hand. This was truly an exciting experience on our journey so far. We plan to spend another two weeks here while waiting for spare backup parts for our Pacific crossing and sight seeing in this huge city – we can’t wait to see Frank Gehry’s Bio-diversity museum.

The Bio-diversity museum at a distance, as we motor out of the canal.

Panama city across the causeway.

In conclusion, two bits of Panama Canal trivia: 1) French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin worked as a common labourer on the Canal in 1887.

2) The lowest toll paid was 36 cents by Richard Halliburton when he swam the entire length of the Canal in 1928. The new larger “Neopanamax” ships can now pay more than a million dollars in toll.

The high price we paid for the transit, pales when considering the cost and the danger of sailing the extra 7,872 nm around Cape Horn in South America.

So, having now arrived on the Pacific ocean side and measured by longitude, we have covered 65% of the equatorial distance around the world. Our course north and south of the equator during the past 4.5 years added to the distance, to bring it to 28,132 nm (52,100 km) passing under Esprit’s keel. The Pacific being the largest ocean, accounts for slightly more than a third of the total equatorial distance, which we should finish by the end of the year.

Our route so far – click to enlarge.

Our next post will be on Panama City and the Las Perlas Islands off the coast, where we will wait for a weather window to cross to the Marquesas Islands, 3,800 nm to our west. Until then, Adios!

The Colombian and Panamanian Islands.

Our last night in Cartagena.

Farewell dinner.

Motoring out of Cartagena.

On the 11th January we motored the 14 nm from Cartagena, south to the Baru peninsula which has a beautiful long white beach with clear water on the North west side, called Playa Blanca. We found a sheltered anchorage in the lee of Punta Gigantes and it was so peaceful, we spent three nights here. It gave me the opportunity to clean Esprit’s waterline and sides which got quite dirty in Cartagena. Annie polished all the stainless steel work on the boat.

Playa Blanca.

From Playa Blanca it was a 7.5 nm sail south west to the Islas del Rosario Archipelago formed by a group of 27 small islands surrounded by intermittent reefs. We anchored on the South side of Isla Grande and spent a pleasant three days exploring the eastern and western sides. The North eastern side is where all the resorts are and although there are no roads on the island, there are beautiful walking tracks under the trees, all over the island.

Isla Rosario to San Bernardo.

A small island off Isla Grande.

Annie on a walking track.

Island scenery.

The north shore of Isla Grande.

One of the eco resorts on Isla Grande.

We set sail on Saturday the 16 th January in a light north westerly for the 26 nm sail to the San Bernardo Archipelago. This mini archipelago lies at the northern edge of the Gulf of Morrosquillo. It’s ten islands are a group of low rocks, wooded cays, and shoal banks with Isla Tintipán, the northernmost cay of the group and the largest. Its southern shore has a few attractive grass thatched resorts, where we anchored in crystal clear water.

Isla Tintipan.

The following day we sailed through the Gulf of Morrosquillo, looking for phone reception to check the weather for our crossing to Panama. We had no success off Isla San Bernardo, the towns of Berrugas and Santiago de Tolu. After 42 nm, we anchored in the bay Bahia de Cispata, where we had a good signal and were able to attend to emails and download the weather forecasts.

Our track around the Gulf of Morrosquillo.

It was a 25 nm motor sail to Isla Fuerte, our last stop in Colombia, where we anchored on the leeward shore, in a beautiful sheltered bay. Isla Fuerte owes its name to the fort (fuerte) built by the Spaniards to protect the island from attacks by pirates and privateers. The island is enclosed by reefs and the surrounding waters are very shallow far from the shore. This island has no vehicles or motorbikes – a few locals have bicycles and dozens of donkeys transport produce, water and supplies. We managed to spend our last Colombian Pesos in one of the small grocery stores of Puerto Limon.

Isla Fuerte.

Beautiful thatched roof and donkeys.

Beasts of burden.

Outdoor cafe where we had empanadas.

We decided to head from Isla Fuerte due west, to the outer islands of the San Blas archipelago off the Panama Isthmus mainland. The 150 nm overnight sail turned out to be hard work. Although the N-E wind only got up to 25 knots on our beam, the sea had built up to 3-4m swells after the weeklong  N-E winds. This, coupled with a contrary current, made for a very confused sea.   After 24 hours, we were relieved to anchor in the lee of the island Banedup, in the eastern Cayos Holandes group – wet, salt encrusted and tired.

Our route to San Blas.

Facing big seas to get there.

The San Blas Islands offer an exceptional area, worthy of exploring, for its uniqueness and beauty. Stretching about 170 miles along the North coast of Panama from Cabo Tiburon on the Colombian border, the chain of small islands named by the Spaniards as San Blas, is called Guna Yala by the original dwellers. Guna Yala is one of the three Panamanian departments that make up the autonomous Guna territory, inhabited by some 40,000 Guna Indians – scattered in 49 communities, both on the mainland and on the islands off the coast.

Guna Yala territory.

Guna Yala, the most populated of the three departments, encompasses over 378 small sand islands, most of them uninhabited and ranging from a decent size piece of wooded land to a tiny pile of sand with a few coconut trees gathered in the middle. Although fairly well protected from the sea by the surrounding reefs, the islands are located in shallow waters with no access for big vessels – and quite problematic for our 2.2 m draft. They rise above the turquoise waters just enough not to be seen due to the waves in rough seas.

Our landfall at Banedup island in the east Holandes.

And look – next to us: Merewether from Newcastle, Australia.

Do not be fooled by the bucolic beauty of the landscape. The whole cruising area is full of reefs, shoals, and shifting sand banks. The area is not charted in detail and commonly used electronic local charts are far from accurate. Eyeball navigation was the order of the day for us, despite three sources of charts behind the wheel – Navionics on the chart plotter, open CPN and other charts from Eric Bauhaus on two laptops.

Walking on Banedup island.

Banedup – Esprit alone at anchor in the bay.

Interesting beach furniture.

Neighbouring BBQ island.

Annie walking on Banedup south beach.

Fish, seafood, coconuts and plantains are relatively easy to get from the Gunas who will approach your boat on their ulus (wooden boats carved out of a single trunk, propelled with paddles and a rudimentary sail) to offer their catch, produce or crafts. Women are in charge of the household finances and contribute to the economy with the sale of their handcrafted molas, colourful pieces of cloth, sewn in multiple layers, then cut to reveal intricate patterns. Annie splurged on a few of these beautiful molas.

Guna fishermen in their ulu.

Mola seller.

An adjoining island.

Watch out for shallow water!

After 5 days at Banedup (with no internet), and exploring the surrounding islands by dinghy, we sailed the 8 nm distance to Green Island (Kanlildup) to get a Digicel phone signal, receive our emails and reply to them. There were 18 boats at anchor at Green Island, as this is one of the few islands where a slow internet signal could be had. We met some new cruisers anchored here and did walks on the island which was uninhabited. We bought fish and squid from the fishermen and had a visit from the Guna Yala officials to collect a USD 50 fee for a month long cruising permit in the San Blas Island waters.

Green island.

Beach on Green island.

Minute Sand island.

Sand island looking out to sea.

Four days later, we motored to the Coco Bandero Cays to the North. These small islands behind a long barrier reef are truly beautiful, but exposed to the fresh winds blowing in from the Caribbean sea. After two days, the wind and the swell picked up, so we decided to leave after taking the dinghy to Tiadup Island to the North, to drop off some rice, cooking oil and other pulses for the two families living there. They had come by in their ulu asking for things – we couldn’t understand their Spanish, so we gave what we thought they needed. After consulting Google Translate that evening, we realised that cooking oil and rice were the two words in Spanish they kept repeating.

Coco Bandero islands.

Annie enjoying the scenery.

Esprit anchored very close inshore in the narrow passage between islands.

Our next stop was 10 miles to the West in the central Holandes Cays where we anchored north off Miriadup in sheltered water. Miriadup has a number of houses on it, but is very plain compared to what we had seen thus far. The island to the North is largely a swamp and Bauhaus’s guide warns about the insects and no-see-ums that come out when the wind stops blowing

Another 10 mile sail southwest to the Cayos Chichime, saw us anchored in the lee of Uchutupu Dummat, the main island which houses a neat and colourful community. The main anchorage behind the reef had about 10 boats at anchor, which were more exposed to the swell, due to the fetch to the reef.

Chichime island in the lee of Uchutupu Dummat.

Circumnavigating the island by dinghy.

Crystal clear water.

Coming ashore to explore the island.

One of two fresh water wells on the island.

We explored the coastline of this island which had white beaches and clear water. Walking around the island, we met the locals who were very friendly and took trouble to rake the ground around their houses and under the palm trees. Like all these islands, the flotsam and jetsam from the oceans, unfortunately, end up on their windward shores.

Sand neatly raked below the palms.

The holiday bungalows sadly empty because of Covid.

One of three wrecks on the reefs offshore.

An ulu in the making – hacked out of a tree trunk.

Two days later, Elaine and Crawford Sneddon anchored next to us in SV Nauplios. We went over for a fabulous dinner with lots of wine, walked around the island and had water noodle sundowners.

Annie and Elaine walking to the village.

Guna dad and kids happy with the nuts and lollies we donated.

Walking through the village.

After four days we upped anchor and motored to the Cayos Limones (Lemon Cays). We only stayed for 30 minutes before moving on to Provenir Island, as the wind and swell were too much. All there was to see was an abandoned holiday resort on the water.

Lemon Cays – abandoned resort.

Provenir is the Guna Yala administrative centre with customs and immigration as well as a small regional airport. The wind and swell were too much again, so we anchored in the lee of the densely populated Wichubuala Island for the night.

Provenir island.

An ulu sailing past our anchorage at Wichubuala.

The next morning we made an early start for Puerto Linton, 40 nm to the West. The swell and the wind was manageable and we had a terrific sail to Linton Island, where we anchored with approximately 80 other yachts of various vintages and sea worthiness. Annie suggested a lot of boats on anchor here, won’t transit the Panama canal for financial reasons, or because a Pacific crossing was too daunting.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting anchorage with interesting characters hanging around the marina bar, staring at the horizon. There was good internet, so we stuck around for three days, catching up with emails etc, before setting off on our last leg to Shelter Bay marina, 30 nm to the West.

The bar at Linton Bay Marina.

Our next post by end February should be interesting, as we will be transiting the Panama canal, before setting off across the Pacific to the Marquesas Islands 3,900 nm away. Please don’t send us any emails from about the end of February for about a month, while we are using the expensive Iridium satellite network – SMS messages will be OK.

Finally, news from our girls is that over the festive season, Michelle visited Cape Town in SA and Karen and Evan hiked in South Island, New Zealand.

Our friends in Cape Town, Lynne, Dave, Reini, Patricia and Michelle.

Evan and Karen hiking in South Island NZ.

Cheers for now!