January 30, 2015
We made it through the Canal, with no damage! The last clause being the important one. We had an easy passage through the three locks up into Gatun Lake on Thursday, rafted next to a small passenger ferry – they handled the lines to the lock wall. Thursday night we were on a mooring buoy in Gatun Lake, swimming in the freshwater and listening to the howler monkeys in the trees. It’s a huge lake, entirely surrounded by gorgeous and apparently untouched jungle.
Today we had a flawless, center-chamber passage through the three locks down into the Caribbean.
Some bits of excitement here and there – lots of close proximity to big ships and rough lock walls, sometimes shocking turbulence in the locks as water was let in to raise us – but the big one was this morning. After the crew took an early-morning refresher swim in the fresh water, Andy and I noticed what we thought was a log or something floating nearby. Log my foot! It was a six foot (or so) alligator! Alligators, the pilot assigned to our boat told us later, are territorial – and he was apparently “showing the flag” rather than looking for breakfast.
Passage through the Canal ran about $1,800 – for those who are wondering about the current state of things. Still cheaper, and way easier, than going around Cape Horn. The toll for a big container ship runs, we were told, closer to a half million bucks.
We’re now in a slip at the Shelter Bay Marina inside the breakwater that protects the Caribbean entrance to the Canal. We’ll lose our beloved crew member Hannah, who is moving on to work in the highlands of Thailand after three wonderful and extremely helpful months as part of Serafina’s regular crew. We’ll be poorer when she leaves, but we are already richer for the time we had together. Andy and Anita will also be returning to Seattle, after providing great companionship and skillful help on our passage from Costa Rica and through the Canal.
So, a transition is in progress. We’ll spend some days here preparing for the next stage of the trip, which we’ll report on in the coming days.
We just got word that we will begin our passage through the Canal starting early tomorrow morning, Jan. 29. We don’t yet know if it will be a one-day trip, or two days with a night spent in Gatun Lake – which would be our preference. We’ll have a “transit advisor” on board, who is a Canal employee responsible for guiding us through the process. We have the required crew of five – Andy, Anita, Hannah, Syd and Birgit, and we’ll receive our four rented lines (7/8 inch diameter by 125 feet) this afternoon. Our most urgent priority for today is to ensure we have an attractive lunch on board for the Transit Advisor.
A couple observations: Panamanians seem to love cats! Totally unlike Costa Rica, where cats are generally unpopular. All over the area around the docks, and outside the Port Captain’s office, people set out water and piles of dry cat food for the dozens of semi-feral cats who wander in and out of buildings, parking lots, unkempt vegetated areas, and the open-air bar at the Balboa Yacht Club. One seems to have assigned himself guard duty at the entrance to the bar, scrutinizing passers-by and offering them a sharp-clawed swipe if they offend him in some, to me, obscure way.
The second thing is that it is apparent here how closely air conditioning is linked to the modern notion that people should work all the time. It is comfortable here in the mornings and the evenings, and only hot during mid-day. If we all stayed in the shade and took naps during the hottest hours, all the energy (contributing to global warming) used to generate cool air could be saved – leading to a cleaner and healthier planet.
The notion that we should all live at 72 degrees F at all times and in all places seems fundamentally linked to the boosterish notions of “growth!” and “hard work.” It makes sense to stay warm in, like, Minnesota in winter, but there is no such compelling reason for staying cool in the tropics. If people just took more naps, the world would be a better place! How’s that for a world view…?
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We arrived yesterday afternoon at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. It was a bit of as slog to get here, as the Gulf of Panama has a milder version of the winds we experienced first as “Tehuantepeckers” then as “Papagayos.” It’s basically the same phenomena in all three places – higher pressure in the Caribbean breaking across the low spots in Central America. So we had 20 or so knots of wind on the nose, and with the big tide range in Pacific Panama, we also had some 2 knot contrary currents.
But so it goes, and we were lucky enough to get the very last available mooring buoy at the Balboa Yacht Club. But don’t get the wrong idea from the words “Yacht Club.” The old Balboa Yacht Club was a run-down wooden building alongside the Canal, whose principal virtue was good hamburgers, and, according to many stories, attractive young women interested in finding a lonely sailor.
That building burned down in the late ‘90s, and now the facilities include only an “informal” building with showers and restrooms, sandwiched between a marine railway (for hauling boats out of the water) and a bunch of marine junk scattered on the bank. It’s raffish and really very cool, with plenty of hustle and bustle as ship supply vessels busily transport pallets of groceries, crew members and odd lots of spare ship parts.
The old bar is gone, of course, but a thatched-roof restaurant across the street has very cold Balboa beer and an adequate variety of hamburgers, salads and fish. Semi-domesticated cats roam everywhere, including in the restaurant, and people leave small piles of dry cat food around for them to pick at.
Tourism here doesn’t amount to much of anything – the cruise ships pass through the Canal without stopping. It is a working port – and as a result things are cheap, friendly, very informal and a little rough around the edges. A very welcome contrast to Costa Rica, where, as a visitor, one felt a little like a hunk of raw meat at shark-feeding time.
Andy Seglins arrives today from Seattle, to join his wife Anita on the boat, and we will have a full crew of five (required for transit through the Canal) by tonight. Some days of messing around with paperwork will follow, getting “admeasured” for passage through the Canal, clearing Customs and Immigration, and we hope to do the one or two day Canal transit later next week. We’ll see. We have to be scheduled after the “admeasurement” is done.
Meanwhile we are moored right next to the channel through which a lot of the world’s shipping passes. Giant freighters lumber by, seeming only a few yards away, rolling us all day and night with their wakes. It’s an exciting place. Quite a contrast with Bahia Honda.
LATE UPDATE: We got a call that we could be “admeasured” immediately, if we proceeded out towards the entrance to the Canal. We did it, and a Canal official came to the boat, performed the various functions of admeasurement (quite few), and awarded us a lifetime Ship Identification Number. Then the rains came – a real tropical downpour, lasting, up ‘til now, three hours. We’re soaked to the point where we feel like we’re dissolving… All good though, and promises a prompt passage through the Canal.
January 21, 2015
We’ve had the enormous good luck to spend two full days in Bahia Honda, Panama, on our way from Golfito, Costa Rica to the Panama Canal. The Bay was recommended by books and by other cruising sailors, so we decided to make it a rest stop on the way.
It is among the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is a wide, deep bay with a relatively narrow entrance, dotted with small islands and surrounded by lush, forested hills. A very small town exists on the northern shore of the largest island, and otherwise the population is limited to two small farms along the shore.
We were almost immediately greeted by locals who came out to chat in a variety of small boats. They expressed some interest in selling us fruits or vegetables, but mostly seemed to want to chat – no pressure. They brought out children, a dog, lemon grass, chilis, a banana leaf, and eventually a fish. One of the kids had an official, MLB-approved SF Giants baseball cap – a gift from a relative in the States. We barbecued the fish wrapped in the banana leaf and surrounded by the lemon grass. We spent seven dollars and gave the kids some chocolate. Everyone seemed satisfied with the extent of the commerce.
At night we found ourselves surrounded by calm waters, the black hills around us backlit by the clear, brightly starry skies. No cruise boats call here. Only three spots of light appear in the 360 degrees around us. The largest landowner here, an older farmer with many missing teeth, has refused to sell any of his land for development. His son explained that it would ruin the bay and leave the locals nothing but low-wage jobs.
Howler monkeys roar occasionally in the trees, parrots, frigate birds and pelicans make appearances from time to time, and mostly, nothing happens here. It is a lovely place, and we will be sorry to leave.
January 15, 2015
We are in the small town of Quepos, Costa Rica – once a thriving banana port, but now home to several sport-fishing businesses, and entry to Miguel Antonio park, which Hannah visited yesterday. She saw three kinds of monkeys, a coatimundi, sloths and a gorgeous beach. Quepos is a bit of an “ex-pat” community, evidenced by a local band last night playing some Carlos Sanatana in a bar full of gringos. They were very good.
The bananas here were wiped out years ago by “Panama Disease,” and United Fruit moved its operations to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The city is named for the Quepos Indians, who were also wiped out, not by disease but by the less than gentle ministrations of the Conquistadores.
We’ve finally passed out of the zone of the strong winds that sweep across Central America, and into deeply tropical weather – that is, hot and humid. We are usually soaked in sweat, and sleeping at night reminds me of the old days in New York City in August, before the advent of near universal air conditioning. It rained this morning and was tolerably cool for an hour…
We’re in the “monsoon trough,” an area of area of lower atmospheric pressure, typically with giant clouds, occasional rain, and in a few months, lots of thunderstorms. We may face some strong winds again when we enter the Gulf of Panama, but until then it is just hot, hotter and hottest.
Our friend Anita is joining us here today, ten days in advance of her husband Andy, who will meet us in Panama. As soon as she gets here we’ll fill our fuel tank for the trip to Panama, and then take a one day trip to Golfito, Costa Rica, where we will be able to do our own paperwork for the “zarpe” to Panama – without the otherwise obligatory $400 agent.
This stop allowed us to replace our reefing life, almost worn through by the passage through the Papagayo winds. Otherwise, all is well. We’ve restocked out rum, which, in violation of every good boating rule, was running on empty.
January 7, 2015
After five days here in Marina Papgayo, we finally have access to the internet! It’s spotty, but at least we can get detailed weather information and stay in touch.
The wind has continued to blow at 25 to 35 knots most every day since we tied up here. So we’re killing some time, where there’s shelter, even though we are often heeled over at the dock in strong wind. It looks like the winds will drop on Friday, so we’ll depart Friday morning for Playa Cocos, where Birgit lived for two years, and where we can restock food supplies and (importantly) rum.
With the passage of the New Year, we all moved forward into 2015, but here on Serafina it’s pretty clear that we are slipping back some fifty years – to a time when communication was neither instant, reliable nor easy.
In Mexico Birgit’s Mexican SIM card allowed us to get on the internet for weather, communication and just for fun, as long as we were within reach of cell towers. We are changing countries too fast to make that an option, and, close as it may be, there is not currently a workable satellite-based internet connection for small boats like ours.
So we have gone back to the day when people relied on shortwave radio for the essentials, and just waited for the rest. As long as we are in a marina, we’ll typically have access to WiFi (except when it isn’t working, as has been the case here in Marina Papagayo).
It reminds me that the modern concept of being “informed” and “in touch” is so different from the common experience of life for the first couple million years of human evolution, up to less than a hundred years ago. People who left on a trip like ours would lose all contact with friends and loved ones except for the occasional letter mailed to or from a distant port.
We’ll do our best to keep the blog updated, but the rhythm will change, probably until we get back to the US in April. There is the obvious bad side to this – we’ll miss our friends and family, we’ll be ignorant of much going on in the world – but maybe there will be a good side too, of focusing on the things in front of our eyes rather than those off in the distance.
Meanwhile, a short rant… Costa Rica has been a quick, hard reminder that some of the world views boating as a pastime for the very rich, rather than something people of ordinary means can do with just determination and an above average tolerance for risk. And by very rich, I don’t mean rich in comparison to the local population. I mean very rich like Warren Buffet. A couple days ago a huge (140 foot) sailboat pulled in here with 73 people on board. It turns out it is the Firestone (tires) family yacht. This marina, and others like it, are increasingly focused on that kind of customer base, making it awkward for the rest of it.
Marina Papagayo is far from any community, stores or services. The result is that the price for a six-pack of watery local beer is $30! Not a problem, I guess, if your family owned Akron, Ohio.
I know, I know – Get Over It! The sky is still blue, the wind (and there’s still plenty of it) is free. We’ll be out of here and back at sea in a couple days. And no one has yet figured out how to charge for the simple enjoyment of life.
(Sorry about the late post – we just got across the Golfo de Papagayo to a place, Marina Papagayo, where we arrived to discover that their internet access had failed just as we arrived. It’s still out, and then the water went out this afternoon. We’ll be in touch as best we can…)
January 1, 2015
Happy New Year! For our part, we’re damn happy, with the anchor down. After four full days of sometimes violent sailing from Mexico, it was a huge relief to find a sheltered spot, scrape off some of the salt, and celebrate the passage with a glass of tequila and lime – in honor of the great time we had in Mexico. We celebrated again this morning with bacon and eggs, salsa Mexicana, tortillas and champagne. Only Birgit was awake, briefly, for New Year’s Eve…
It was a busy 500 mile trip from Puerto Madero to the first secure anchorage we could find in Costa Rica. We got reports from Anita that we could expect 30 knot “Papagayos,” the strong winds that flow from the Caribbean across the low spots in Central America, but there was nothing to do but to keep going. We got exactly what was predicted, along with our first sights of the Southern Cross and the Magellenic Clouds, a Fuji-like smoking volcano in El Salvador, squid fishermen in rubber boats (no radar reflection), and lots of fresh air.
The quantity of fresh air got a little excessive, though. Every night for the last three nights we had winds between 20 and 30 knots, gusts to 40 now and then, with rough lumpy seas. Lots of work, some worry about rigging, sails and lines, plenty of water on the boat, on us and even in the boat here and there.
There’s a reasonable analogy between a pregnancy and passages like ours at sea. If anyone really remembered the awful aspects, they wouldn’t do it again. Mercifully, there seems to be a kind of amnesia that erases the painful and scary parts, at leaves the things that make the experience beautiful and unique.
Meanwhile, we’re heeled over from the gusty winds while sitting at anchor. It’s a cozy feeling, and we’ll spend the day with a leisurely schedule of cleaning up, making some minor repairs, and cooking a fitting New Year’s Day dinner of pasta carbonara. We still have to make it across the Golfo de Papagayo, but that’s only 50 miles or so. We can tough it out, and so can our lovely, strong boat.