We set out from Santa Marta, Colombia early on September 10th to make the 286 mile trip to the San Blas islands of Panama. After watching the weather for several weeks prior, we came to the realization that there would be little sailing on this passage. During this time of year, the trade winds just don’t make it this far west. The best we could hope for was flat seas, a favorable current and a quick two day trip.
We were able to maintain 6 knots for the first few hours, but then our speed started going down. By noon, it was down to a measly 3-4 knots with a light 5 knot breeze right on the nose. During the first night, there was a lightning storm off on the horizon. It turns out this would be the case every night for the next three months. Conditions would be generally clear and sunny during the day, and then as the sun was setting, thunderheads loomed overhead. We were fortunate to miss most of them and their many lightning bolts, but it made every night watch more intense.
In preparation for this, we had our jumper cables attached to the shrouds and stays that we could drop in the water to help with the grounding, and we stowed our computer, spare GPS and handheld VHF in the oven. In theory, the oven would act as a Faraday cage and protect those electronics if we were struck by lightning.
Early the next morning, before the sun rose, we started to see a string of lights on the horizon in front of us. This is a busy shipping route, with freighters coming across from the Panama Canal regularly, but these did not appear to be moving. When the sun was up, we could see seven large warships lined up in front of us. We passed each one, and they disappeared behind us, only to appear in front of us again a few hours later. Several helicopters circled the boat, and a plane made a few passes as well. We could hear them on the radio, and they were US warships. One of them followed us for an hour or so, but never attempted to make contact on the radio.
During our first 24 hours, we made only 89 miles. By the second night, our speed was down even further to 2-3 knots thanks to a ten knot head wind and a little bit of swell that we were motoring into. We started to wonder if our problems were due to countercurrent, or if the hull and prop were just really dirty from sitting in the marina for a month. Andrew debated going overboard and giving the prop a quick scrub, but first we decided to stop the engine and see how strong the current was. We coasted to a stop and then started drifting NE at 2 knots. The problem was definitely the current and a quick calculation showed that we would be well short of the San Blas islands before running out of fuel. The forecast showed more of the same, and we wouldn’t be able to make any headway under sail with a light headwind and two knots of current against us. So we decided to alter course and make a detour to Cartagena, 53 miles away in the wrong direction.
The next morning we were just outside Cartagena at sunrise. Rather than go all the way around Isla de Tierra Bomba, we decided to take a 12 mile shortcut to the inner harbor by going between the island and Bocagrande. This route involves going over a one-mile long undersea wall that was built between the two land masses in the 18th century to protect the city from siege. Ships still can’t go over the wall, but shallow draft vessels can pass over it in a certain area. It made us a little nervous, but as we went over it, the depth sounder never showed less than 10 feet. A few days later we met some sailors that attempted to go over it in a boat with only six inches deeper draft, and they hit the wall twice before turning around and going around Isla de Tierra Bomba.
Since we had been to Cartagena a few weeks before, we were relatively familiar with the harbor and had a general idea where to take on fuel. We hoped that since we had already cleared out of the country, they wouldn’t ask to see our papers at the fuel dock. It would have been really annoying (and expensive) if we were stuck in Cartagena for a week just clearing in and out so we could take on fuel. Fortunately, nobody asked, and we filled up and headed out. Less than an hour later, we were clear of the undersea wall and again on our way to the San Blas islands.
Just outside Cartagena, more warships dotted the horizon. We passed through a group of four much smaller ships, and later that afternoon they hailed us on the VHF. This time it was the Colombian Coast Guard who was apparently doing exercises with the US Military. They told us to clear the area as another fleet of warships would be passing through in a few hours. We told them that the 3.5 knots we were going was our maximum speed, but we would keep a look out.
The next day, Andrew spotted a suspicious looking boat on the horizon, towing a dinghy behind. We became especially concerned when it passed by a couple hundred feet away and then turned around to follow us. We had read about some very crudely built wooden boats that are used by the Colombians to trade with the Kuna Indians in San Blas, and thought maybe it was one of those. We increased the RPM’s a little and kept on eye on them. The boat seemed very heavy and we thought maybe we could outrun it, but they were towing a big dinghy with an outboard. This seemed especially strange since we were over a hundred miles from land. It was a stressful few hours, but eventually they disappeared on the horizon behind us.
It took twice as long as planned, but after four days, the San Blas islands were in our sights. This archipelago stretches 110 miles along the coast of Panama. There are 378 islands in the group, of which only 49 are inhabited. They are beautiful low lying islands with white sand beaches, and we were happy to be there. Our first stop was in the Holandes Cays, where we dropped the anchor in ten feet of crystal clear water surrounded by little islands on all sides.
In addition to the men selling their catch of the day, women would paddle out to sell molas. The word mola means clothing in the Kuna language, and the blouses the women wear are made by cutting and sewing different layers of cloth together. Each color in the design is made from another piece of cloth and some of the ones we saw would have seven or eight layers sewn together. They now sell these mola panels to tourist, and they would come and lay them out all over the decks so we could see them.
|a Kuna using a machete to crack open the conch, which we cooked for dinner|
A few days later, we were happy to see our friends aboard Vanish as we pulled into the Coco Bandero Cays anchorage. We met Maynard, Vicki, and Mike in Colombia, and had hoped we would see them again in the islands. Vanish is a 76 foot motor yacht, and they were kind enough to host us for dinner and drinks in the refreshing air conditioned cabin. They also replenished our depleted water supply with 30 gallons of water from their water maker, which meant we could stay and play in the islands longer than we had planned.
During our time in the San Blas, we anchored in five or six different spots. It is definitely the quiet time of year here, and we often had anchorages to ourselves. It was nice to have some swinging room during the squalls when the winds picked up. The lightning was a daily feature, but thankfully only a few squalls brought scary lightning bolts and deafening cracks of thunder where we cowered down below hoping we would not be hit. One boat was hit in an anchorage near us, but they didn’t have any damage.
There were so many reefs and places to snorkel here that we never hit the same spot twice. There was some impressive coral, but like most of the Caribbean that we saw, not many fish. We did see lots of rays though, especially our favorite, the spotted eagle rays which were all over the place.
After ten days in San Blas, we went to the island of Porvenir to officially clear into the country. We heard that clearing immigration and getting a cruising permit was much easier and cheaper than on the mainland. After we cleared in, we headed to our last island of Chichime, which was the only crowded anchorage we saw while there. We wanted to check out the island, but rowing in the choppy conditions didn’t sound appealing, so we just snorkeled around the reefs instead. We waited for a couple days for it to clear up, but the winds just kept building. Reefs or islands surrounded us on all sides, and we weren’t sleeping well at night in the tight anchorage. Instead of spending another night, we decided to pull up anchor late that afternoon and sail through the night to Colon. We only spent two weeks in the islands, but it seemed like enough. It was a beautiful place, but there are only so many nights we need to spend worrying about lightning strikes.
We made the 71 mile sail to Colon through the night and actually had nice sailing for part of the trip. Our eyes were glued to the horizon, as there were countless ships passing by. By sunrise, we could see around 50 freighters anchored outside Colon Harbor, Latin America’s busiest port, waiting for their turn to go through the canal. We passed through the entrance to the Cristobal breakwater and into the Shelter Bay Marina, where we would spend a week before going through ourselves.
Our biggest priority in Shelter Bay was preparing Saviah for her transit of the Panama Canal. We had a few projects we wanted to do, but first we needed to start the process for the transit. It is possible to handle all of the paperwork yourself or you can hire an agent to do it. Doing it yourself can be frustrating and time consuming, as you have to run around to various offices in town, waiting in long lines and dealing with taxis and busses. We decided to use an agent and had a recommendation from some other cruisers for a good one.
On Monday morning a guy came out from the admeasurer’s office to fill out the paperwork and measure Saviah. Our agent was also there, and the two of them gave us a rundown of what the transit would be like and answered our questions. We also set a date for the transit which we decided would be one week out, which would give us plenty of time to get ready.
The week was spent working on boat maintenance and replacing our navigation lights, and some engine maintenance. Andrew went aloft to inspect the rig, clean the mainsail track and replace a spreader light. We also cleaned out our water tank, topped off our propane tanks and made some trips into town to provision for the next few weeks. The marina is a bit removed from everything on the other side of the canal, but they provide free daily shuttles into Colon, and drop you off in a shopping center and pick you up a few hours later. This made it easy to get groceries and supplies for a few projects.
The marina also had a nice air conditioned lounge where we could escape the heat and spend some time on the computer doing research for our trip up the coast. There was nice group of cruisers there, fitting out their boats in preparation for various destinations, and we enjoyed hanging out with them and swapping stories in the evenings. Our week there flew by, and on Monday afternoon, it was time to head out.
Our agent came out to the marina and brought us eight big fenders and four 125-foot long lines that are required for the passage. We also met our line handlers, Jose, Miguel and Reggie. During the transit you are required to have four people to handle lines and one to drive, so we needed an additional three people to go with us. Reggie was a local cab driver who had done the transit many times before, and the other two were young guys with not much experience. Our agent did the clearance paperwork for us and with our Zarpe in hand, our little over crowded boat headed out of the marina.
From the marina, we motored over to the Flats anchorage and dropped the hook around 3 pm. Our tentative time to start through the locks was 4 pm, but first a launch would arrive to drop off yet another person, as if we had any more room on Saviah. That additional person is the pilot, who provides instruction to us and communicates with the lock personnel throughout the transit. There was another sailboat in the anchorage waiting with us, which we were happy to see. It was the Swiss boat, Olimir, and having them there would make our transit a bit easier. Since there were two of us, we would be rafting together while going through the locks. This meant we would go through in the center of the chamber, which is preferable to the other options, tying off to the wall or to a tug. It also meant handling only two lines per boat instead of four and that we could use our engines together, providing more maneuverability in the chambers.
Around 5 pm, Reggie noticed the launch heading in our direction and told us to start pulling up the anchor. This turned out to be rather difficult. We were anchored in water 40 feet deep, which is much deeper than we prefer since we don’t have a windlass. Andrew went up to the bow to pull in the 150 feet of chain. The first 50 feet was easy, but after that it was covered in thick slimy mud which made it really slippery and messy. It took about ten minutes to get it up and by the end of it, the bow of the boat and Andrew were covered in mud.
Our pilot boarded Saviah during this process and after the anchor was up, we motored towards the Gatun Locks. The Gatun locks are the first set on the Caribbean side and raise vessels a total of 84 feet between three chambers. On approach to the first chamber, we came alongside Olimir and tied together bow and stern lines and a couple spring lines as well. A big ship led the way and pulled to the front of the chamber, with our nested boats following slowly behind.
These big ships are tied with a cable to locomotives on either side of the chamber, and they pull them through. For small boats like us that are going through center chamber, we run long lines from the bow and stern to cleats at the top of the chambers on each side. In order to get the lines there, the lock employees throw messenger lines down to us from up on the chamber wall as we are approaching. These lines have monkey fist knots on the end, which just add weight for heaving purposes. After they have tossed them onboard, we tie them to our much stronger lines, which they bring back up and wrap around a cleat. You have to pay attention when these lines are being heaved, as you don’t want to be hit with a monkey’s fist. We also covered our solar panels, so they wouldn’t get broken if they were hit.
By the time we reached the locks, the sun was setting, and we were glad to have our new working running lights. With our lines secure, they closed the massive lock doors, and water flooded into the chamber. There is a bit of turbulence from the nearly 27 million gallons of water that come into the chamber, but our line handlers did a good job of keeping the boats steady. Most mishaps occur from this turbulence, especially on the way up, but since we had four line handlers on board for two lines it was easy to keep the boat in-place and bring in the lines as the water level went up.
After the water level rose, the forward gates opened, we brought in the lines and motored forward to the next chamber. We passed by a building on the center wall with a big sign commemorating the centennial anniversary of the locks next year. The US Government starting building the locks in 1903 and the first boat transited in 1914. It took over ten years to build it, at a cost of almost $400 million and the labor of 75,000 men. Over 27,000 lives were lost in the process of building it due to accidents and disease, although 80 percent of these were during the first attempt by the French some years earlier. Since its opening, 900,000 ships have passed through. The canal was owned and operated by the US Government until it was transferred to the Republic of Panama on December 31, 1999.
All went well with the first three locks, and by 8 pm, we were in Gatun Lake. Since our top speed is only 6 knots, we would have to do the transit over two days. Once we were in the lake, the pilot directed us to the mooring where we would tie up for the night, and then the launch pulled up alongside to pick him up. We tied both boats up to this large mooring ball with a web of lines, which would have been a disaster if we had a big squall in the night. The three line handlers remained on board for the night, and we cooked dinner for everyone and went to sleep around 10 pm. Five people are way too many for little Saviah in the tropics, and it was cramped and hot.
The next morning, a new pilot arrived at 7 am, and we were underway again. It was 28 miles to the next set of locks, and the pilot informed us that we needed to be there by 11 am, meaning an average speed of 7 knots was necessary. We told him we wouldn’t be able to make it, but thanks to some favorable current, we were able to maintain enough speed.
The first part of the trip that morning was the 20 mile crossing of Gatun Lake. This is a man-made lake that extends most of the way across the isthmus and was formed by erecting a dam across the Chagres River. The watershed around the lake is a diverse ecosystem with lots of animals, including crocodiles, sloths, monkeys and jaguars. There are also many species of birds as well, and we saw a dozen toucans flying around one of the islands.
The pilots that provide instruction throughout the transit are employees of the canal that do this as a side job on their days off to make a little extra money. The first day our pilot was a tug operator and on the second day, we had one of the security guards. We really liked both of our pilots, who doubled as tour guides and gave us all sorts of information about the locks. They told us a bit about the history and the major expansion that is currently underway.
Right now, there are two sets of locks on either side, and they are building a third, which is supposed to open in a couple years and is estimated to cost over $5 billion to build. As ships are getting bigger, they are trying to keep up, and the new one will have lock chambers that are 1,400 feet long, 180 feet wide and 60 feet deep. These big ships pay according to their tonnage, and the cost of the transit for many of them is several hundred thousand bucks. We thought the $800 required for Saviah was steep.
It took a few hours to get through the lake, passing by all sorts of ships coming the other direction, including huge car carriers, cruise ships and tugs that threw up a 5 foot wake. After the lake is the Gaillard Cut, which is where most of the excavation took place during the building of the canal. This narrow section stretches for seven miles before reaching the Pedro Miguel locks, where we arrived right on time at 11 am. We went alongside Olimir again and tied up to get ready for the next lock transit.
Everything went smoothly for our first down lock, and we came out on the other side to Miraflores Lake. We stayed tied up as we motored through this small man-made lake and then headed into the Pedro Miguel Locks. Again, we had it easy while the line handlers tended the lines and the water level began to lower.
The last lock is the highest, due to the more extreme tidal variation in the Pacific Ocean, and we were a little nervous as this is where most incidents happen from turbulence. We almost had an incident when the door was opened, the water was swirling around and the lock employees untied only three out of four of our lines. After the lines are off, you want to get them onboard quick and get the boats moving to get steerage. We were just sitting there starting to drift sideways as they realized the mistake and slowly walked over to let the last one go. Fortunately we were able to straighten the boats out using the engines together. It would have been a bummer to end the transit with the bowsprit getting slammed into the wall.
After we motored through the last gate, we untied from Olimir and breathed a huge sigh of relief. We were excited to have completed the transit without issue and be back in the Pacific again, 15 months after leaving it. We motored out into the canal and after the launch boat picked up the pilot, we pulled off to the side near the Balboa Yacht Club, where another launch picked up our three line handlers and all the lines and fenders that we borrowed from our agent.