Voyage of Traveler / Blog

April 19, 2010

Traveler Postcard From Panama Canal

April 8 and 9
Panama Canal

What a contrast between our two days transiting the Panama Canal, and what an exciting and wonderful experience.  On board Traveler were Barbara and her two longtime friends and our guests, Marsha and Bill Horsfall (he is 87 and this was one of his Bucket List things to do), Brian, two professional line handlers and a Panama Canal Authority Advisor (same as a pilot for ships, but if the boat is under 65 ft. they’re called advisors and get less pay.)

Day One.  On the Atlantic side, at the Shelter Bay Marina, there was some confusion about the meeting time and place for our line handlers to come to the boat.  They were supposed to meet us at the marina, but an hour after the appointed time and when they were very late, I checked my cell phone and saw I missed a call.  It was from our agent to say the meeting place was changed at the last minute.  So now we were behind schedule, and if you are late for your transit appointment the Panama Canal Authority fines you $1,500!  With the two line handlers on board along with our ten rented truck tires, wrapped in plastic so the top sides don’t get scuffed, hung in place as added fenders (very much needed!), we got to the meeting place for the advisor just with 15 minutes to spare, only to find out he was running late (no fine if he is late), and so our appointment to transit was pushed back from 4 pm to 5:30 pm.  Hurry up and wait.

To transit the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which is generally a north to south direction, four miles south of Colon there are three consecutive up-locks called the Gatun Locks.  After that you motor across a huge lake, Lake Gatun, for about 30 miles, passing ships going the other direction along the way.  Then there is one down-lock, called the Pedro Miguel Lock, followed by the relatively small Pedro Miguel Lake.  Finally, there are two consecutive down-locks called the Miraflores Locks, after which you are at sea level on the Pacific side.  Each lock lifts or lowers about 25 ft., so the large lake in the middle is 75 ft. above sea level.  If you get a very early start, like 5 or 6 am, you can make it all the way through in one day during daylight.  Because of our late afternoon starting time, ours was a two-day transit.

As we were about to enter the first lock, the PC Authority instructed our advisor via radio, along with the advisors on two other yacht, to raft together, with the biggest boat, a 46 ft. Bertram sportfishing boat, in the center. While the line handlers on the Bertram (obviously not pros and drinking beers) were rigging spring lines between the boats, they screwed it up and took 15 minutes to do a job that should have taken just three or four minutes.  During that time, the wind pushed us slowly into the path of a ship that was underway at about 4 knots and moving into final position in the lock.  The ship was unable to turn or stop.  And because we were side tied to the Bertram we could do nothing to get Traveler out of the way of the ship. The ship blasted its very loud horn five times, which is the signal for, essentially, “I can do nothing to avoid the impending collision between my ship and your small boat, and so you must either move out of the way immediately or brace for collision.”  You can only imagine the stress I was having.  It was a very close call, but the guys on the Bertram got their act together (with instructional help in Spanish from our pro line handlers) and managed to move Traveler, the small yacht on the other side and themselves out of the ship’s path.  After that, the guys in the Bertram were needlessly heavy on their throttles, both forward and reverse, nearly causing the deck cleats on their boat to rip out. I found out later the owner of the Bertram was not on board and this was a delivery crew.  Even though we were side tied and basically being towed by the Bertram, to ease the strain on the lines, I was at the helm with the advisor giving near constant instructions: “Forward just a bit, that’s good, now reverse a little. Stop. Turn to port a little, that’s good.”  He was also giving instructions in English (to Brian and Barbara) and Spanish to our line handlers: “Take up the slack on the port side stern.  Keep the tension steady and even on both sides.”  After an hour and a half or so, we made it through the third lock well after sunset.  As planned, we took a nearby mooring on Lake Gatun for the night.

Day Two: The next morning, a new advisor was ferried out to our boat at 0600 and we were underway before the sun came up.  After a light rain shower of 15 minutes, we had a beautiful day.  Shipping traffic was relatively light that day.  We passed, as I recall, about ten ships going the other way as we crossed the lake and went through the Gaillard Cut, named after the chief engineer responsible for the most challenging part of the canal’s construction.

A little history note: In the late 1800s the French tried to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama.  But they ran into construction difficulties, workers were dropping like flies from illness and then they ran out of money.  A few years later, with the clandestine help of the US government, the State of Panama declared their independence from Colombia to form their own country.  The first formal act of the new Panamanian Government was to sign a treaty with the US giving us the canal zone and the right to construct, own and operate the canal.  From 1908 to 1914, under the leadership of President Teddy Roosevelt, the US built the Panama Canal, at the same time both separating two continents and joining two oceans.  But it was not easy.  Altogether, ten thousand people died building the canal, most of them while laboring in the Gaillard Cut through the mountain range.  Many of the deaths were from industrial accidents, but most were from malaria or yellow fever.  One of the French laborers who was hospitalized with yellow fever and nearly died was Paul Gauguin, then in his early 20s. He recovered from his illness and went on to become one of the world’s greatest artists. I have one of his paintings on Traveler, “Tahitian Menu,” painted near the end of his life when he was in Papeete.

When we went down the three locks on the Pacific side, beginning about noon, we had fabulous conditions (daylight, no wind, no rain, good visibility) and to our surprise, the entire lock to ourselves!  Our advisor, who has been doing this for 20 years, said he has never been on a boat that had a lock to itself, or even heard of one.  He joked that we must know el presidente. It was actually just a scheduling fluke, in our favor.

After completing the transit, it felt strange to be back in the Pacific Ocean and once again on the west coast of North America.  Like finishing a good book, for my three-year circumnavigation you might say I’ve started the final chapter.  If you look at a world map, like in the back of a Lonely Planet travel guide, heck, I only have about two more inches to go and I’m back home!

I really wish Barbara could finish the voyage with me.  But she had to fly back to work.  So it is just Brian and me for the final push up the coast of Central America and Mexico over the next ten weeks.

I’m starting to make some plans for a homecoming party at the Balboa Yacht Club for July 3.

Our next Postcard will be from Costa Rica.  Until then,

Living the Dream,
with Brian

April 11, 2010

Traveler Postcard From San Blas Islands, Panama

Filed under: Year 3: July09 - July10 Greece to Newport Beach, CA, Caribbean — mrlawlerjr @ 2:56 pm

April 7, 2010
San Blas Islands, Panama

After Brian and I arrived at Colon and checked in with the Panama Canal Authorities to have Traveler measured and paid the fees ($1,750 for a boat our length to transit the canal), we scheduled a transit date of April 8 and 9. That gave us about a week to visit the San Blas Islands, a vast archipelago of 340 islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast midway between the Canal and the Colombian border.  The San Blas Islands are a favorite stop for cruisers either before or after transiting the canal.

On April 1 Brian and I anchored at one of the more popular islands (but only four other boats when we were there) called Chichime.  Within a few minutes three colorfully dressed Kuna Indian women, probably related, paddled out to Traveler in a dugout canoe to offer to sell us molas.  A mola is a hand stitched colorful quilt of cotton fabric, usually about 8″ x 10″ and often made into decorative throw pillows or stitched onto the front of a t-shirt.  Each mola is unique, takes a Kuna woman about a day to make, and costs about $20.  I bought six.  Not sure what I’m going to do with them when I get back, but they are beautiful.  We went ashore and made friends with the man of the family (only six Kuna live on this gorgeous tropical island.) The next morning he took Brian out in his dugout canoe to the reef to spear fish and try to catch lobster with a snare.  They brought back a couple of lobster, which we ate for dinner.  We also gave this Kuna family some medicine for their sick grandmother and some milk for a nursing dog with puppies.  One of the puppies, about 6 months old, broke its pelvis from a falling coconut, causing it to walk with a severe limp.

Barbara arrived the next day, April 2, by flying in a small plane from Panama City to the tiny island of Porvenir, just three miles form Chichime, where we dinghied in to meet her. After getting by without Barbara for the past three months, it was really great to have her back onboard Traveler.  We celebrated with a Captain’s Brunch with champagne!  The tiny runway at Porvenir was built by the US Navy in WWII and is the only airstrip in the San Blas, with one flight a day.  We then sailed four miles to the Lemon Cays, anchored and learned from a neighboring yacht that the group of 20 or so yachts in that popular small group of islands (within the San Blas Islands) were having a potluck dinner and happy hour that night.  Some of the cruisers had sailed from California or from Florida, got this far, and decided they didn’t really need to go any further–they had found their paradise–and have been cruising the San Blas for four or five years!

We stayed a week, snorkeled every day, met Kuna and explored uninhabited islands (loved Coco Bandero), and then had to sail back to Colon to transit the canal.

We stopped for the night along the way at Portobelo (also spelled Porto Bello and Puerto Velo on some charts).  What an amazing history.  Discovered and named by Columbus on his Fourth Voyage, it became the primary port for the Spanish galleons to transport gold and silver from throughout Central and South America to Spain.  For over one hundred years, one-third of the world’s gold passed through Portobelo.  The ‘Queen’s Pirate,’ Sir Frances Drake, the first British navigator to circumnavigate the world, died of yellow fever here in 1596 and was buried at sea at the mouth of the deep bay in a lead coffin.  Later, in 1739, at the height of the Spanish gold shipments, Adm. Edward Vernon sacked Portobelo and made off with millions in gold.  After that, the Spanish crown abandoned the overland route across the Panamanian isthmus and ordered its ships to sail the long way around Cape Horn to and from the west coast of South and Central America.

Portobelo is also famous throughout Panama for the colonial church, built in 1776, which contains the life-sized statue of the Black Christ on the cross.  Thousands of pilgrims come to Portobelo, many of them crawling on their knees to show respect (and a handful of those crawling come from as far away as Costa Rica!) each year for the Festival of the Black Christ.  The statute was being shipped from Cartagena to Portobelo when the ship sank in a storm.  The statue, in a wooden crate, floated, was found by fishermen and brought to Portobelo–considered a miracle.  That year, yellow fever swept through nearly every village of Panama killing thousands, but no one died in Portobelo–considered another miracle and attributed to the Black Christ–which is believed by the devoted Catholics of Panama to have miraculous healing powers. I said a prayer to the Black Christ for Traveler’s safe passage on our remaining 2,700 miles, the home stretch.

The next Postcard will be about our transit of the Panama Canal.

Living the Dream,
Michael with Barbara and Brian
Yacht “Traveler”

April 9, 2010

Traveler Postcard From Panama Canal

Filed under: Year 3: July09 - July10 Greece to Newport Beach, CA, Caribbean — mrlawlerjr @ 4:23 pm

Colon, Panama
April 8, 2010

Today at about 4:30 or 5:00 pm local time (2 hours ahead of Pacific daylight savings time) Barbara, Brian and I begin our two-day transit of the Panama Canal, and we are all very excited.

You can watch us transit live by logging on to, then click on the web cam, then select the Gatun Locks, which we will go through today.  Tomorrow (Friday) morning we will go through the Miraflores Locks at about 10:00 am (I’m only guessing on tomorrow’s time).

On board Traveler, with me at the wheel, we will have:
Barbara and Brian as “line handlers” paired up with two professional line handlers, bow and stern. We will also have a “Canal Advisor”–like a pilot, guiding me in the cockpit.
In addition, we have two guests, Bill and Marsha Horsfall (friends of Barbara) joining us.

Transiting the Panama Canal is a significant milestone for Traveler’s three-year circumnavigation, geographically, chronologically and psychologically.  We still have 2800 miles of mostly upwind sailing to go to Newport Beach over the next three months.  But it is all relatively easy coastal cruising along the Pacific side of Central America and Mexico.  We will soon be on the home stretch.

Living the Dream,

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