Home Up North from Panamá


We arranged to meet David in the Rey supermarket in the 'biggest' shopping centre in Colón.  The bus from Panamá stopped there as did the twice daily free shopping bus from Shelter Bay Marina.  "I'll be the tall Canadian in the yellow jacket" he told us.  David had never been in South America before and we were pretty sure that after the first ten minutes he wouldn't be wearing that jacket, but he shouldn't be too hard to spot.  And so it proved - he was the very tall, very white, very dazed gringo standing in the doorway carrying a yellow jacket and a couple of suitcases.

We weren't sure how we felt about having someone else on the boat - it had been a v.long time, but David was easy to have around and also a retired diesel mechanic.  Well we wouldn't have wanted him to get bored would we............................

Finally though Kaitlyn arrived and we handed over David in exchange for our watermaker.

But before starting work on the watermaker our other reason for being in Shelter Bay was that we'd agreed to be line handlers for our friends Benno & Marlene on the catamaran Belena.  By coincidence we were to go through the canal rafted alongside Kaitlyn - small world.

Belena came alongside in Shelter Bay at lunchtime and picked us up along with Jens & Daniela from Arwen who were to be the other line handlers.  Then off to F anchorage otherwise known as The Flats to await our advisor.  Ships transiting get a pilot, but small boats get an advisor. 

We'd heard that the advisors are pilots in training, but our advisor told us that's absolutely not true.  All the pilots are fully qualified ships captains with miles under their belt who, he assured us, earned a fortune.  Whereas advisors had day jobs with the canal authority and did this to earn some extra cash.  They were though still fully trained he was at pains to point out.

So full speed ahead to Gatun and I do mean full.  The schedule has us slotted in behind a cargo vessel and they won't wait.  If we miss our slot because we can't keep up the speed declared on our application form, we'll have to wait to be rescheduled and pay for the inconvenience.

Gatun the first three locks that will lift us up 26 meters into the Gatun lake where we will spend the night and wait for a new advisor in the morning.  We're all a little tense.  We've read how to do this.  We've also read about all the possible disasters for small vessels - most of which boil down to incompetence aboard the vessel in question.  Please let me not be the one!  But in the event it goes very smoothly.  We raft to Kaitlyn and move slowly into the lock towards the stern of a very, very, big container vessel. 


Monkeys fists are thrown to us from the lock wall - they don't drop onto our solar panels and break them, or anything like that (as we'd been warned could happen) because the guys throwing them are professional who do this every day and probably all play baseball for Panamanian major league teams at the weekend.  The monkeys fists drop at our feet.  We attach our lines to them which are pulled back to the bollards ashore and we're ready to go.

The gates close, the water pumps in, we start to rise.  "I want to see those lines tight all the time" shouts our advisor.  And that basically is our job.  Keep the lines tight and the boat in the centre of the chamber.  It's quite hard work, especially on the way up when you are always pulling in and they're long heavy lines, but it's not rocket science.

Lock 1 done and the cargo ship is pulled forward by the mules (see photo) - small locomotives to which the ship is attached whilst in the locks, which act as mobile bollards.  We and Kaitlyn move forward still tied together and our lines are walked along the wall to the next lock by humans.  Same procedure for lock 2, then 3.  Then the ship ahead inches forward under her own power.  Her skipper does not throw her into 'full ahead' creating a maelstrom of backwash driving the small boats behind him against the lock wall (as has also been suggested), because just like the guys throwing the monkeys fists, both he and his pilot are professionals who have done this loads of times before.  Then our lines are dropped, we recover them, untie from Kaitlyn and motor off into the darkness to find our mooring buoy.


And what a buoy it is, not meant for the likes of us, round, 4 metres in diameter and very difficult to tie up to.  We're on one side, Kaitlyn on the other and the pilot boat comes alongside us to pick up the advisors, meaning that Kaitlyn's advisor must cross the buoy to get to us.  Now, one of the obligations of small vessels transiting the canal is to feed the advisor.  Our guy's is not much interested, he has dinner waiting at home and wants to get going, but Kaitlyn's advisor is a short rotund unmanoeuvrable guy who looks like he has never missed a meal in his life.  He's also keen to get off, but doesn't want to miss a feeding opportunity.  He opts for a very large sandwich and he wriggles down onto the buoy.  Now we have a problem.  The buoy is round and unstable, Belena's sides are attractively curved and her deck is mid-chest level for the advisor who has his expensive equipment bag in one hand and the sandwich in the other.  There is no way he is going to let go of the sandwich and he tries to lever himself aboard with his elbows.  It doesn't work.  He rebounds and slides about like a child in a bouncy castle except that in this case he's about to slide between the boat and the buoy. If he dropped the sandwich he could save himself but he only grips it harder.  There are three of us standing on the buoy.  We can't believe what we're seeing so there's just a small delay before we throw ourselves forward and manhandle him sideways through Belena's guardrails, where he bounces upright and waddles off to the pilot boat, taking a large bite of his sandwich as he goes.


First thing in the morning we're on our way across the lake with a new advisor.  What a wonderful cruising ground this must have been, small wooded islands, bays and creeks, but sadly stopping in the lake other than as we had just done has been prohibited for a number of years.  One day maybe.....

Six hours later the down trip through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks is a mirror image of the up trip except that we pay out line as we go down rather than pulling it in, which is much easier.  And of course now we are "experienced" line handlers.  We also go down, just the two rafted yachts, alone.  No ship.  There are less ships than usual - a feature of the global recession and also it's the rainy season so there's plenty of water and they don't mind wasting a bit on us.  Then we're out of the last lock and the heavens open.  We can't see the end of the boat.  It's almost as if the lake is being refilled with the water we used in our transit.  But it's soon over, the advisors are gone and we're looking for an anchorage.  This is the Pacific!



Back in Shelter Bay we say goodbye to Balvenie who are off to NZ for 2 months.  Then we get to work on the watermaker which takes about a week followed by some long delayed repairs to the leaking fridge.  We also take the opportunity to ship in some stuff from the US, including an engine-driven bilge pump, "suggested" in our last survey and now required to make our insurers happy. A fortune to buy.  Another fortune to ship, A nightmare to install.  And probably will never be used, hope not.

While this is going on Lindy takes the opportunity to get some dental work finished, but more importantly makes an appointment to see an Ophthalmologist because of some deterioration in her vision.  He's in Panamá, so we hire a car for a few days and book a hotel.  There's always serious shopping to be done in Panamá!  It takes the doctor only a few minutes to diagnose a large fast growing cataract - not an age related one he points out - but best dealt with asap.  Asap turns out to be tomorrow, so we extend the hotel and car booking and the following morning Barry is sitting in the clinic waiting room watching Lindy's cataract being removed on one of the half a dozen large screen TVs that line the wall. 

In the end our week in Shelter Bay turned into eight.  Being in a marina connected to electricity and water and being able to just step ashore is kind of addictive even if the marina in question is Shelter Bay.  Not that there's all that much wrong with Shelter Bay.  It's a safe, clean, well run marina.  It apparently used to have a terrible reputation for being very cruiser unfriendly.  Well we couldn't describe it as friendly, but not unfriendly either. Kind of neutral.  The yard is under external management now and we heard some horror stories, but had no experience ourselves.  The marina's main problem is that it's in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from Colón, and Colón is really not much of a place.  Also that 20 miles includes crossing the first Gatun lock and if that's open it can add a delay of up to an hour.  The marina does provide a bus twice a day, but it can be a bit of a grind.

If we needed a little additional push to get us out of there, the water main was cut and took over a week to repair.  That was our excuse to fire up the new watermaker and once our tanks were full of non-chlorinated water there was no good reason to remain!   But as a final piece of icing on the cake, just as we were ready to leave, we decided to stay one more day to go to the pool that we hadn't had time to use all the time we'd been there.  So swimmers on, towels in hand, off we go and what do we find - the pool sealed off with yellow tape and closed because it's now the water supply of last resort! 



We cast off from Shelter Bay at the beginning of September and headed back towards the San Blas (we'd heard the lightning had reduced a lot).  First port of call was Portobelo again for a short stop!  So what happened?  We'd just spent a couple of months in the marina fixing things.  Surely there was nothing left to go wrong?  Wrong!  It started when we put the dinghy in the water and find the outboard has seized. What's that about?  It's only been out of action for two months.  Perhaps it doesn't like being in a damp environment?  It's an outboard motor for god's sake!  So that took a good day to fix.

Then the pump that empties our holding tank (for those not in the know, that's where we store poo if we can't pump it out) sprung into independent life in the middle of the evening and wouldn't stop.  A weird electrical fault which took another day.

Then the generator blew an exhaust gasket, filling the boat with smoke and crap.  Two days for that one - included a 3 hour round trip on the most crowded and noisiest bus in the world to find a shop with gasket material.

Then the hydraulic steering sprung a leak.  4 hour round trip on same bus back to Colón to find hydraulic fittings.  Then second 4 hour trip to buy the correct hydraulic fittings. Then strip steering and bend new pipes to find that the originals must have been installed before the engine went in so it's impossible to fit my shiny new ones.  So back on the bus to buy much more expensive flexible hose. 

Also try to source a couple of litres of hydraulic fluid.  Eventually find the one place that sells it - to be told that it's only available in Panamá in 5 gallon containers.  So have to recover and filter the old fluid instead which adds another half day to the job.

And whilst in Colón trying to sort this stuff out, the soles of Barry's shoes fell off so that he had to walk around looking like Charlie Chaplin - which does make it quite hard to be taken seriously by the locals.  Probably something to do with the rain.  Did we mention that it rains every day?  And I mean a lot - we've got half our hatches taped up to try and stop the leaks and everything is going mouldy.  A week later one of the water tanks started leaking on the weld previously repaired and the aft toilet pump developed a leak.  Oh, and in the middle of this we had the most horrendous lightning storm that went on for hours.

After a month in Portobelo we decided to get back on the bus to see a Dermatologist for a skin check - Lindy thought it was a good idea!  Making an appointment is not possible - the idea being to get to the hospital 3 hours before the clinic starts, find the piece of paper on the 2nd floor reception desk and put your name down.  How civilised!  We were 10 & 11 on the list which only meant waiting an hour after the doctor arrived.  She decided that we both had 2 moles that needed biopsy so out comes the anaesthetic and the scalpel.  After a week we are informed a visit to Panama City is indicated for cryotherapy - seems the journey to Colon with a flask of liquid nitrogen is hazardous - so we get back on the bus.......

 Re-reading the above,  I'm slightly amazed it was only 6 weeks.


We leave Portobelo to hop up the coast towards Porvenir - the western point of entry for Guna Yala.   First Isla Grande, then Green Turtle bay.  It's early morning and we're getting ready to leave the super rolly Green Turtle anchorage.  I'm walking forward in the saloon, doing something nautical.   One of the ring pulls which lifts our floor panels has been left slightly proud.  I manage to thread my toe through it (this requires accuracy that even Jockey Wilson would be pushed to manage) and continue walking, but now with 3 square feet of floor panel attached to my toe.  Bronze ring pull very badly bent, but toe amazingly not broken. 

Repair ring pull, put on shoes(!) and off we sail for Porvenir.  About ten miles before we arrive we hook the biggest Barracuda in the universe.  Nearly an hour later we have it alongside the boat.  Or we're alongside it.  Did I mention it was big?  Just as the two of us are trying  to heave it on board the line snaps.  The 80lb line!  So we lost fish, hook, lure, the lot!  It was as Barry fell backwards that his shoe fell off into the sea!!

These are the best, and absolutely the only Croc type shoes ever owned that are actually comfortable.  I love them with all my heart.  So we immediately go into full RYA man overboard mode in an attempt to recover it.  I bet you can guess how that went.  We're sure the bastard barracuda ate it!


 Home Up North from Panamá
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Last updated 18th March 2018