Thursday, April 19, 2007
Arriving in Panama!
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Well, we've made it to Panama. We headed West, arriving at Colone, the western port of the canal, just before dawn. There is a common farewell among sailors that goes "fair winds and following seas". When I first heard this saying I thought it meant something like "good luck" or "safe journey" or "have a good trip". I now realize that it means "I hope you vomit for several days". Fair winds are great only if they happen to coincide with the direction of the following waves and the current. If, as was the case on our journey, the current is pushing against you, and the waves happen to be both dead on your stern and coming at you from right angles, it ain't so fair. In fact, it makes for a rolling, bumpy ride.
Apparently there was a trough that had moved through North of us, which, coupled with the prevailing Easterly winds out of Africa and the Gulf Stream currents, produced a weird combination of wind and waves. We had winds that averaged around twenty five knots with gusts higher than thirty. There was also a long swell of about nine feet directly behind us, with a short five foot high chop coming from our beam. This meant that regardless of the angle we chose, every so often a wave would either smack into our side and splash up onto the deck, or sneak up behind us and bounce against our bridge deck, swinging the boat around as it did so.
This wouldn't have been so bad accept that our auto pilot's rudder angle indicator had stopped working, which meant that instead of just sitting calmly on deck during each watch, you had to actually steer the boat. Suddenly, two hour watches weren't so much fun anymore. Trying to concentrate on keeping the boat on course using the compass in the middle of the night was actual work and less romantic than the brochures made it out to be. We tried fixing it, but since it is a sealed unit there wasn't much we could do. It appeared that salt water (the single most corrosive element in the universe, except for Wally Glenn) had leaked into it. I poured some alcohol into it and let it dry and it started working again but that only lasted a few hours, so we man handled it the rest of the way to Panama.
If you've never been out to sea, and have never been in short swells that are over nine feet high, it is difficult to convey the sense of it. Pictures just don't do it justice. Waves will appear along side your boat, then lift up the boat so that you are looking out over the ocean several feet above the wave tops. You then slide down into the trough and are looking at a wall of water. Providing the wave isn't breaking, it simply picks you up again - but looking at a wall of water that is several feet higher than you is still intimidating. To make matters worse, every so often, a wave will break and slam down onto you. This makes a very loud noise and wakes up anyone sleeping. It also makes everything on the tables jump up into the air a few inches. It is disconcerting if you don't know its supposed to happen. At one point Mike looked over at me and said "I think the boat is breaking in two." I had to assure him this was normal, if not the most comfortable ride we could have.
After a few days of this we worked our way around the shoulder of Columbia and got out of the rough water. The wind also diminished a bit and the weather got much sunnier. We stopped the boat again and went swimming. The waves were still pretty big so getting back on the boat was a bit harder than it should have been. Mike got banged around trying to get back on and I think it shook him up a bit. Oh, I should describe the crew a bit, most of whom you know. There was myself and AnnMarie, Jeff Herzbach and Mota "don't feed him sugar" and Jen Jackson, who is a Valkyrie condensed into the body of gymnast. Also with us were Mike and MaryAnn. Mike was one of my preceptors when I was studying to be a paramedic, and MaryAnn is one of his best friends. Both of them were relatively new to the clothing optional approach seemed a bit non-plussed when the rest of us stripped off our clothes and went swimming.
The last day out was our best yet. The wind, waves and current were all on our beam, we made great time and it was hot and sunny as well. We decided to stop again and go swimming one last time. As we were all jumping in I noticed that MaryAnn (who had always been wearing her swim suit) was sitting in the cockpit looking a bit sad. I walked up to her and said "Look, no pressure here, but swimming naked in the ocean out of sight of land is one of those opportunities that doesn't come along very often. You might regret not doing this twenty years from now." I turned around and jumped in. By the time I had surfaced, she had stripped down and dove in. It was one of those moments where everyone cheers, and I think it was something she was really glad she did, although she told us that her church group was going to be very upset when she told them. Mike demurred from even going in. I kidded him about it but he remained on deck with his trunks on. A few hours later I walked out and he was standing naked at the helm grinning from ear to ear. It was a great moment.
We approached the canal entrance at night and slowed down so that we entered the harbor during sunrise. As we got closer we kept looking at the chart and trying to figure out which lights were what. It didn't make sense. We could tell exactly where we were, but nothing lined up. As the sun came up we realized that most of the lights we were seeing were from the PanaMax ships waiting outside the harbor. In fact, there was one island we couldn't find anywhere on the map. It turned out to be the largest container ship we'd ever seen. It said "Cosco" on the side of it.
Once the light was up we motored in and set anchor in the "flats", an anchorage for boats waiting to transit the canal. I went ashore to check in the crew, and to get Jen signed off the crew list so she could make her flight, which was going to be close because she'd need to take a cab across the country to fly out of Panama City. We went through a lot of paper work with the various agencies trying to get the right documents signed but at one point we thought we'd done everything and she could leave. The Port Captain's office said she was cleared in, and that all I needed to do was go to Immigration next door. I walked over and was told that I needed to go instead to the center of Colone by one of the many "helpers" that appear whenever you need to do something in Panama. The way the system works is simple. If you already know exactly what to do it is no problem. However, if you want anything to happen within your lifetime, you need to hire a local to act as your interface.
Since I didn't speak Spanish, and didn't know what to do, I figured I'd pay him and let it get done. We walked over to Immigration. While I was waiting there, Jen walked in. Apparently someone else explained that the Port Captain was completely wrong, and she needed another stamp in her passport before she could leave. She was halfway through getting this done when I arrived, said goodbye again and rushed off for the airport. When my turn came I was told that I needed to bring back the whole crew, and that we needed passport pictures for everyone.
I told them I'd come back tomorrow with the crew and went back to the boat. Since the flats weren't that great an anchorage, we decided to motor over to a marina with better amenities. It was the smartest move we've made yet. The marina was brand new, had great facilities and was completely protected from the weather. There is a white sand beach you can walk to, and go swimming in water that is 90 degress, clean, clear and calm. What makes it odd is that it looks out over the canal entrance. At any one time there are twenty or so giant vessels not half a mile away. Once we got tied up at the marina we called our canal agent, who handles your transit. If you want to go through the canal it costs about $750.00 US and you need to wait about two weeks. If you try to make this happen without an agent it will take about a month. If you want to go through the next day, and are willing to pay about $2500.00, you hire a private "local" pilot that somehow bumps you up in the queue and you go faster.
Panama itself is amazingly beautiful. The people are incredibly friendly, and for the most part you can get anything you need. There are shopping centers that would seem quite normal in any mall in America. Except for Colone. The town was once one of the prettiest, fanciest places on earth. Now it is a getto slum. Going there is unsafe, even during the day. The police all were military flak jackets and no one walks around there at night. It is really quite surprising how much of a difference there is between this one city and the rest of the country. Everyone here talks about how bad it is, and apparently there is some effort to improve it, but it remains a really bad place for now. If you come to Panama, it is the one place to avoid if possible.
We eventually got hold of our agent, who explained that all that running around we did was unnecessary and he could do it all for us (for a fee). So we paid some more money and he walked us through everything and we are now checked in official like. Mike & MaryAnn left the next day, and AnnMarie flew out today. Since she needed to go to Panama City I decided to go along with her to the airport, and then see if I could find a replacement part for the rudder indicator. The woman who drove the taxi turned out to be a gold mine of information and help, and she managed to find the one boat part shop in the country that carried auto pilot parts. More surprising, they had the part in stock. Not so surprising was that they wanted twice as much for it. So we paid some more money and now have a new device. I tested it and it seems to work. I'll install it tomorrow.
In our haste to get here, we sailed past the San Blase Islands. Everyone we've met said that this is the best part of the Caribbean and we shouldn't miss it. We'll, we've just found out that our transit date isn't for another two weeks, so Jeff, Mota and I decided we'd sail back there and gunkhole around the islands for a few days. It should be awesome and beautiful and its better than sitting in a marina spending money for rent. So, we plan to leave first thing tomorrow, sail there all night, spend a few days then come back in time to get ready to go through the canal.
AnnMarie is planning on flying back for the canal part, and then will get off again in Panama City. After that it is on to Golfito. So far, it has been a total blast and everyone has been getting on great. It was sad to see folks having to leave, and I hope that others will be joining on soon. That's all for now, hope all is well with everyone.
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