Panama canal adventure

Even under normal circumstances, the transit through the Panama Canal is a small adventure for yacht crews who dare it for the first time. Transiting in times of the Corona virus makes the whole thing a little more stressful.

Shelter Bay Marina

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Shortly after we arrived in Colon and entered into Shelter Bay Marina, the first cases of corona disease were reported in Panama. After that numbers increased daily and the restrictions as well. The Marina is located very secluded on a former US military station. There is a shuttle bus to Colon twice a day. When we first arrived it still went and we registered daily. This way we could still do some shopping. In the shopping centre in Colon there are more mobile phone shops than anything else but there is also one supermarket. We managed to do a huge grocery shopping tour. The small delivery van of the supermarket drove us back to the marina. This is a service they offer when you shop for over $300. But only two people are allowed to go back in the van, because there are only seats in the front. The middle seat was indeed just an emergency seat and did not even have a seatbelt. Anyway, it was good that it still worked out. In the following days the bus was running with a limited number of people (1 person per yacht) and only people who had an entry stamp in their passport, which was from 14 days ago, were allowed to travel. Since we were first in San Blas and had not got a stamp in the passport there, we did not meet this requirement. Even though, our agent managed to keep our date for the canal transit.

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It is usual to hire an agent to take care of the formalities and organize the appointments, otherwise one would be very busy and without a proper knowledge of Spanish it is likely to be very complicated. Also the helpers for guiding the mooring lines from the canal walls are provided/hired by the agent. The regulation is to have four persons plus skipper on board. If the ship is lying alone in the middle of the canal, four mooring lines must always be adjusted during lifting or lowering in the lock. Either Panamanians are hired for the job, or crew members from other ships are taken on board. That is a way to gain experience for their own passage. They then return by land. Mathias had already agreed to help on another ship, but had to cancel this arrangement because at that time it was said that on the other side of the Canal only people would be allowed ashore who could prove with a stamp in their passport that they had been in Panama for more than 14 days. We did not want to take such a risk, after all I did not want to wait in the expensive marina until Mathias returned from Hawaii. That was the next planned stop of the ship Mathias wanted to help with.

Before the restrictions of the bus traffic we managed to drive one day to Panama City. There was an express coach for only $3.15 each. Finding the departure point for the way back was a bit difficult. But thanks to the friendliness of the Panamanian people we managed it. You could pay the bus ride directly in the bus, but for the departure area you needed some kind of platform ticket, which could only be paid for with a public transport ticket. A nice young man paid the 25 cent for us from his card and so we got back to the bus. In Panama City we drove to a shop where we wanted to buy the electronic sea charts for the Pacific. We thought it would be wise to buy them here in order to get an as up-to-date as possible version. The shop had Admirality charts, but no electronic Navionics charts. But the man there was very helpful and inquired at another store for us. There they had the charts for sale, but they didn’t have any more data media for these charts (Navionics SD blank charts), but a new delivery was supposed to arrive the following week.

British Admirality shop for maps and books

In the first shop we bought a planning map for the Pacific and Admirality Sailing Directions. From the series, however, they only had the more distant areas in stock, not the books for the waters you would reach next. In general one could buy the tide tables of Cuxhaven and Dover, but hardly anything around Panama. The maps were printed out directly. Afterwards we returned to the bus station and the shopping centre there. Taking a Taxi is very cheap in Panama, although the prices are diced. The trip to the ticket shop cost $6, same way back only $3.

At the mall, it took us a while to find what we were looking for. For one thing, I needed a new screw for one pair of my glasses. Since it is a very light pair of glasses, it has very small screws and the first optician could not help me. But it was probably not a real optician, more a watch shop that also sold sunglasses. We found another optician, she gave me a new screw and we managed to get another screw as spare part. The whole thing did not even cost anything. But it is frightening how deeply my knowledge of the Spanish language is buried in my memory, it would be helpful if it would come to light a little bit more. Mathias was still looking for a special USB cable (from A-female to B-male), but it was impossible to find it. We also decided to look for an ice cream machine. I tried the translation „machina para hacer helado“. That was always understood quite well and the answer, where we could ask for it, we also understood somehow. In the end we had to get out of the shopping center and walk a little bit. There was a garden center and a bigger electronics store. Where we actually found a small machine for making ice cream and I was completely baffled when it actually said „machina para hacer helado“ on the sign. I had not expected that. 🙂 It was red and yes, it was the only one to choose. So we bought it. Later on the ship the first problem was that the plug didn’t fit at all. Well, of course we have adapters with us. But before I could put the plug into the adapter, Mathias had the glorious idea: „Stop, that’s an American plug, is this thing for 110 volts?“ Oh dear, yes, he was right! Now we have to see what we can do with it. Anyway, returning it to Panama City is not that easy. But the machine works on the principle that a refrigerator bucket is deep-frozen in the freezer and then the ingredients are stirred into it. For stirring I used a hand mixer from Tupper, which happens to fit perfectly on the cooling insert. The first sorbet that was made this way was not bad at all. I will report on the further successes or failures of ice cream making. You have to create some luxury problems if you have nothing else to do 😉

It was not only on land that there were restrictions on travel. Soon only ships whose crew had been in Panama for more than 14 days were allowed to enter the marina. Two more German ships arrived, which we knew from the ARC. Ships coming from international waters had to stay in the anchorage area in front of the marina and soon it was said that they had to stay there in quarantine for 14 days. The marina then organised a dinghy service to supply the ships at anchor with provisions and above all with water. Not all of them have a water maker on board and not all of them have enough provisions stowed away to be able to feed themselves for 14 days after a longer trip. In that respect we are incredibly lucky. We had been hoarding and have a lot of storage space.

Big rope for the Canal

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The next step in the Corona drama was the closure of many ports worldwide. Would we be allowed to stop again on the Pacific side? Would we be allowed to transit at all? Would we be allowed to put our line handlers ashore again? We are hiring Panamanians, so that should not be a problem in itself. But our agent reassured us and the appointment was kept.

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Wednesday, the 18th of March 2020, was the big day!

The Advisor arrives on Board

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At 16:30 the line handlers came on board. Then we went out to the anchorage and waited for the adviser of the canal authorities. This is a kind of pilot, only he does not steer the ship himself, but gives advice to the skipper. However, it is better to follow this advice. While we waited, we saw how the other yachts welcomed their deliveries from land with howls of joy. It must be frustrating to be stuck at anchor.

Together with our advisor we passed under the big bridge and waited there for the two other ships with which we were to moor to be able to enter the locks together behind a trading ship. Our advisor was a nice, quite competent looking man, which does not seem to be the normal case, as you will see in the further report.

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First the package had to be tied. That was not trivial with quite a lot of wind and in the dark. We were supposed to be in the middle as the biggest ship of the three. The approach to a catamaran took two attempts. On the other side there was a monohull, that was a little easier to manage. Once moored in the pack, the middle ship did the main work, the two on the sides were only supporting. Mathias still had a few difficulties in the first lock, after that everything worked well. However, on the (French) catamaran there were no professional line handlers, the crew did it themselves. Because of this the whole package sometimes got into trouble. They had a female advisor, who talked a lot but did not always pay attention to the distance of their ship to the canal walls. Our advisor brought the two captains together after the first lock entry and asked how the cooperation had worked out. The lady said that she would support, but only by letting one of the engines of the cat run backwards and without this action Mathias would never have made it. Well then. Maybe they could have steered as well, because even without machine support the rudder has an effect when sailing through the water. At least she could have initiated an action before I had to shout out that the stern of the cat would soon hit the wall of the lock.

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There were a total of three lock chambers on the way up into the Gatun Lake and after the initial difficulties we got through well.

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It only became problematic once the package should be broken up. The Cat was supposed to be the first to drive away from us. Our contribution to this manoeuvre could only be to keep us and the monohull on our other side as calm and straight, flat before the wind as possible. Suddenly there was a huge crunching noise !! The cat had pushed itself with its stern under our side hull. The reason for this was that two of the three connecting lines were loosened, but the third, rear one, was still fixed. It could not be released on our side, because it was fixed with a loop and nobody could open the bowline knot under load. I don’t know how the line was fixed on the cat, but nobody there had the idea to slacken or to unfasten it. They were waiting for us to do something. Our advisor gave orders to cut the line. This was done by one of our line handlers. That’s how the cat got free. The departing of the monohull went smoothly without problems.

All three of us drove into Lake Gatun. There are buoys for mooring where you spend the night. The next day, another advisor for the second part of the canal comes on board. There are two buoys, we wanted to share one with the cat so we could see how bad the damage was. The cat was in front of us and we waited for them to moor. But they did not manage to moor to the buoy in several attempts. At first they had gone too far, then they passed the buoy twice, the lady advisor gave instructions, which probably nobody could follow. In the end we were the first to moor (without difficulties). Then the cat came and our line handlers, who had jumped on the buoy, helped the cat to moor. They received the lines and handed them back again. So there we lay again next to each other. But at least separated by a thick buoy.

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The damage to our ship is very limited. A scratch in the gelcoat and an approx. 1cm2 large chipping at the bottom of the hull. The cat also had only cosmetic damage, which will be a bit more expensive to repair than ours. However, their cleat is broken and torn out at this point. That is a somewhat more serious damage, but also repairable. We would have been satisfied if everyone had taken care of his own damage. But the advisor of the Kat immediately started the discussion with the question who hadn’t cut the line loose and therefore was to blame. That she hadn’t had an eye on the back of the ship again didn’t occur to her. Our advisor tried to bring some calmness into the discussion, but it continued to be hot and in Spanish, so we couldn’t really take part.

The French then insisted on exchanging insurance details and they also insisted that we were to be blamed for the incident. If not Mathias personally then at least our line handler, who did not loosen the line in time. I cannot understand this view at all. The skipper of the ship that is performing the cast off manoeuvre is after all responsible for the execution of the manoeuvre and has to say in which order the lines are released and make sure that he has his ship under control, or make sure that his lines are fastened in such a way that they can be released again. Well, let’s let the insurance companies argue….

As an additional requirement, you have to feed the crew you have taken on board and feed them well. There is a persistent rumour that an advisor, who did not like the food on board, ordered a meal from land. This cost $15, but the delivery cost $200. It is also recommended to precook something, as the meal has to be ready quickly. I had precooked lasagna and also prepared a huge amount. That was lucky. Our three line handlers were three really nice young men, but they brought a healthy appetite. It was good that for the 6 people on board I had assumed a quantity per person that could have fed our son as well. I have to say that the three line handlers would have held back, but it tasted really good to them and since I had produced so much, they all had a healthy helpings. So everybody was happy 🙂

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The advisor leaves the ship, the line handlers stay overnight on the ship. You have to sign that you provide the line handlers with berth space. But ours wanted to sleep up on the sundeck. I provided them with blankets and pillows and they moved quite happily upstairs with their smartphones. In the night they had to come down one floor because it was raining heavily. But even there we have enough space to lie down.

Gatun See

In the morning you have to provide breakfast for the Advisor and the line handlers. But this may not be a continental breakfast, it has to be a hot breakfast. I don’t know what you eat for a hot breakfast in Panama, rice with ketchup like in Ecuador? To be on the safe side I orientated myself at the English breakfast: Fried potatoes, baked beans, sausages, scrambled eggs. My boys enjoyed it again. I asked one of them what he wanted. He said it was my decision, it was my ship and I could cook what I wanted, they would only eat. But they could do that very well and they always thanked me super nicely. It was good fun.

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With the new advisor the first action was to ask about the incident the day before. Then followed a savage insult in Spanish of the two new Advisors to each other. The result was that this time the cat should sail in the middle of the pack because the skipper thought he could do better. Very well. The advantage was that this way Panamanian line handlers operated on the two outer ships and the chaotic people on the cat were no longer on the lines. However, I had the impression that our advisor was not happy at all not to direct the middle ship, which is the leading ship for the entries and exits.

The Cat did not do a bad job, but Mathias steered actively and sometimes helped with engine power to keep the package straight.

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When you go down the lock, you are in front of the large merchant ship in the lock, when you go up the lock you are behind it. Without the loud screaming lady advisor from the day before the whole action went on quite calmly. The tying up of the package had worked well, and there were no difficulties when moving apart this time. Our advisor praised us and the crew for well executed maneuvers.

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We then headed towards a Marina. Our advisor demanded full speed. I guess he finally wanted to get rid of the Cat 😉

Our agent must be able to talk very convincingly. Anyway, we were allowed to enter the marina without any problems (we hadn’t assumed that when we left Shelter Bay), they had reserved a place for us and our line handler communicated with them via radio.

Panama City

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The drive over the Gatun Lake and along the canal might have been quite nice, but I did not notice much of it. The dishes of the warm breakfast had to be washed and a warm meal had to be prepared for lunch. I cooked something with chicken and Indian sauce and a huge mountain of rice. I cooked the rice in two goes in the rice cooker and then reheated them in the microwave. Luckily the canal has no big waves (except when a cargo ship passes by), so I could use my two induction hotplates. This third meal was also well received by my crew and even our advisor was satisfied. I could have wrung out my T-shirt in the afternoon it was soaking wet with sweat from the hot dishwashing and all the cooking in the ambient temperature.

Now we are here on the pacific side and see how things will develop.

No Volvo service for the inspection of the ship’s diesel, it was postponed from Saturday into the future. They also do not have the necessary replacement parts in stock. But of course this is no problem for us, because we have all the spare parts stashed away 😉 We only need the official service for the warranty.

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Still no Navionics charts, but at least tons of food on board…

Corona: Like everyone else, we do not know how it will continue. The Marquesas and French Polynesia are currently at least partially closed. If a yacht arrives, it can happen that it is only allowed to refuel and provision and then has to continue. Or that one can leave the yacht there but has to fly out or has to take accommodation ashore. It is recommended not to cross the Pacific Ocean at the moment. So it can happen that you can only sail next year because of the hurricane season. We only hope that we can stay longer in Panama. At least there are almost no hurricanes here.

The two German ships we had met in Shelter Bay have had their transit date for the canal cancelled. However, there are still some yachts passing through. How the selection is done, I do not know.

Our friends on the Zan are on their way and are half way to French Polynesia. Nobody knows what will happen on arrival.

The ships of the World ARC are moored, the crews had to fly home. Another Neel 51 owner had just visited his family and is now stranded in New Zealand on the way back to the ship. His family is visiting relatives in Vietnam and their house is actually in Singapore, but it is rented out because they wanted to live on the ship.

Other friends are stuck in the Caribbean and are not allowed to sail on.

All that remains is to wait and hopefully stay healthy…….

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