Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Panama Canal transits, Panama - 29/06/15

Since we arrived we've been going back and forth through the canal. A lot. We wanted to go through once to get a feel for how it all works, which is the normal thing to do before you go through yourself. So we made friends with a lovely couple on S/V Delphinia, Steve and Debbie. There was another boat that needed line handlers going through at around the same time, S/V Seahorse V, so we agreed to help out with that one too. They're both big, comfortable boats so we were pretty excited about doing the whole canal thing. On Seahorse there was Tina and (another) Steve, plus their two adorable kids.

SV Delphinia at the La Playita anchorage in Panama

Our first transit was on Seahorse and along with the four of them there was Steve from Delphinia and Malcolm from another boat - I think they all knew each other already. So we got up bright and early to squeeze the eight of us onto their boat. Though it wasn't much of a squeeze - we all fit comfortably under the shade in their cockpit. We hung around for a while waiting for the advisor to get on board before we could go anywhere. I can't remember which transit it was on, but one of the advisors told us that you're not actually allowed anywhere near the canal without a canal official on board (either an advisor or a pilot). The official boundary is the Bridge of the Americas. So unless you're transiting the canal, you're not allowed to go underneath it. I guess not many people get to see underneath the bridge.

The first part of the canal transit is just a lot of motoring. Well, the whole canal experience is just motoring, with some occasional line handling thrown in. The advisor had everything under control and he was constantly consulting his pile of papers with names and times all over it. He had a little radio as well that was going off all the time, I guess to consult with the other boats.

I'm probably going to do a lot of explaining about how the canal works, so if the canal bores you probably just don't read this blog post. But it's actually pretty interesting, even if you fall asleep when boys start getting excited about big stone structures with cranes and ships.

First of all there's six locks in the Panama canal with Gatun Lake in the middle. Three on each side with the huge lake connecting them. The lake is higher than sea level, so the locks are there to increase the water level up to where the lake is, then decrease it again so you can sail out the other side, straight back into the ocean. Atlantic to Pacific in one day without leaving the boat. That alone is pretty amazing.

Entering a lock

The Canal was built just over 100 years ago, and after many attempts from many different people it was the Americans that managed to pull it off after a whole decade of work was put into it. It's construction was a big deal for freighters, because it meant they didn't have to go around Cape Horn anymore. The winds around the bottom of South America are particularly strong and dangerous, which is why we're going through the canal along with all the big ships. The annual traffic through the canal is about 15,000 and ships go through 24/7. It never shuts down. It's one of the seven wonders of the modern world, so it's all very exciting.

Anyway. The locks are like big compartments that fill up with water. For the up locks, when each one is full your boat is sitting at a higher level than before. Then you move onto the next one, which takes you higher again. After the third one you're in the lake, and there's a 30 mile trek across to the other side where you start going down again. Same concept as before - three locks, one after another. Except this time you start with the water at the top of the big compartment and it drains out instead of filling up, leaving you at the bottom looking up at the very high walls. Do that three times and you're back down at sea level, floating in the Atlantic Ocean (for us, anyway - most people are aiming for the Pacific).

All this displaced water doesn't move around easily. The locks are actually quite dangerous, with crazy currents everywhere as the entire lock fills with swirling vortexes of doom. If you fell in, you'd be in trouble. There's always a few unlucky fish floating past in a whirlpool - if they end up in the lock, they won't make it out again. One of the advisors told me that sometimes crocodiles end up inside as well, where they go belly up and eventually have to be removed.

The huge cargo ships that go through have little trains on shore to keep the boat in place. There are massive cables attached to both the ship and the trains, which guide the boat by slowly pulling it along.

Yachts don't get trains. We get four people on the canal wall, one for each corner of the boat. They throw a little rope to the line handlers, who are at the bow and stern on each side of the boat. Then the huge blue canal ropes get attached to the little lines, which get pulled up and put on cleats on the canal wall. Each line handler has to work that rope while in the lock. For the up locks, the rope gets pulled in. For the down locks, it gets let out. That way the boat stays securely in place even with all the water rushing past as you move up or down.

One of the guys on the wall taking a break while the water goes down

As a yacht, there's a few different ways you can go through the canal. I think the most common in peak season is to tie up to other yachts. The locks are something like 300m long and 30m wide and the idea is to fill up as much of that space as possible. It uses a lot of energy and a lot of water to fill up the lock, so they try to stack as many boats in as they can. It's a lot like tetris. So it's much more efficient to tie a heap of small boats together, turning them into one big boat. If you're in the middle, you don't really have to do anything except assist with rafting up to the other two boats. For the outside boats, two line handlers on the bow and stern of each one deal with the four lines to shore, which means you only have two people actually working on each yacht.

When there aren't any other yachts to tie up to, you're all on your own. One of the options is to go in the centre chamber, which is just you all alone in the middle. This seems to be the least stressful - while you need four people working the lines instead of two, you've got plenty of room for error. It's a lot harder to crash into the walls when there's metres to spare instead of feet. It's also a lot easier to keep the boat straight because you can all talk to each other. If one side lets out too much rope then the other side will get closer to the wall. It's a lot harder to fix this when you're rafted up and the person on the other side doesn't speak English and is three boats away.

My partner on the starboard bow is so far away!

Another solo option is to tie your yacht directly against the wall of the lock, which can be potentially quite dangerous for your boat because as it tilts over the spreaders can scrape against the wall. The walls are rough stone and the water moves up and down quite fast. The boat gets a protective barrier of tires attached to the sides before you go through, but it's still scary having the side of your boat grinding up and down against a rock wall.

You can also tie up to a tug or ferry that's attached to the wall. This is supposed to be the easiest for a small yacht. The tug ties directly to the wall, then you come along after they're all secure and tie up to them. The tugs are beefy and tough, so they just scrape up and down against the big stones. Everything is more relaxed in this scenario because the tug does all the work with the lines and you just sit there. The downside to this is that you have to seperate from the tug and then move to the next lock before rafting together again. When you're in the centre chamber or tied to other yachts, you all just stay connected like a giant raft contraption. The guys on the wall feed the huge blue ropes back to you but keep hold of the smaller ones that are still attached. Then they walk you to the next lock and tie up again. That way you don't have to keep catching the ropes thrown from shore and stressing about getting secured. But with the tug you have to raft up and then move off in between each lock, so while there's less actual work with the lines I think it's just as stressful because you have to keep rafting up. When there's no currents and no wind this is fine, but the currents inside the lock can get crazy and it's easy to get spun around while you're waiting for the tug to sort itself out.

With the first set of locks on Seahorse, we had a ferry for the first two and a big car carrier for the last one. It was taking up most of the lock and there were three yachts crammed into the space in front of it. We were on the outside of a raft made up of a cat and two monohulls - the biggest boat with the most powerful engines is usually in the middle. As we got closer to the lock and the huge walls started closing in, we were all pretty nervous. But our guys on the wall were really great. They threw us the lines with amazing precision and we got the bigger lines tied on very quickly. Then they walked with us for a really long time to the front of the lock. The big lines are really, really heavy, so the canal guys keep ahold of their tiny throwing lines. When we got close to the cleat they were going to tie up to, they started pulling up their line with our huge blue ones attached. Then the blue lines went over the cleat and we were securely tied to the wall.

Moving into the locks

Filling the lock up with water happened fast and it was hard to tell when it had actually started. There was a long wait in between us tying up and the boat behind us coming in and getting secured, so we were just taking pictures and relaxing for ages. Then suddenly the water was going up and we raced to our positions, ready to get the show on the road. They don't actually tell you when it's going to start, so we learned not to wander too far!

Steve from Delphinia working his line

The boat behind us was amazing. It was a huge car carrier and they came right up behind until they were towering far above us. I'd never seen one so close before. The little people looking down at us reminded me of tiny lego men with their bright yellow hats. They didn't look real. At the very beginning of the lock there are two tires, one on each wall. They're built into the wall and stick out just a tiny bit, probably designed to help keep the boats on track. As the car carrier came into the lock, it was such a tight fit that the tires were pushed back into the wall until they were flush. There was less than a foot to spare on each side. It was obviously a Panamax boat, specifically designed to fit perfectly into the canal.

The whole day with Seahorse went really, really smoothly. Nothing horrible went wrong. We went through the first few locks with no dramas and I began to think that all the drama and hype surrounding the Panama Canal was just that. Hype. The kids spotted two crocodiles as we went through the lake, which helped pass the time. The lake took up the majority of our day. 30 miles is a long way.

Cargo ship on the right... get out the magnifying glass to see the sailing boat on the left

It was a long day... Malcolm has a nap

The other side was even easier than the first set of locks, because going down is a lot smoother than going up. At the beginning of the day, the big catamaran that was in the middle of our yacht-raft was amazing. They grabbed ropes quickly and had us tied up together with no dramas whatsoever. However, that was all they had to do. No linehandling for them. We all broke apart for the transit through the lake and met up at the end of the day to raft up again. This time they were not quite as fast. I suspect they had enjoyed themselves thoroughly as they went over the lake, indulging in quite a few beers. When we broke away from each other after arriving in the Atlantic ocean, they dropped all the ropes and tore off amidst a flurry of waving and farewells. We jumped up as they cranked the throttle and tried to push them away, but poor Seahorse V ended up with a little scratch on the pulpit from where their anchor scraped along the metal. It's a beautiful boat so that was sad, but it could have been worse and hopefully nobody ever notices it.

Not doing much on the cat...

Looking down at the last lock before we hit the Atlantic

This bridge folds out and turns into the road across to the other side of the locks on the Atlantic side. With the new locks being built though, it won't be there for long. It's going to be replaced by a ferry and then eventually a huge bridge

So that was Seahorse. After a delicious dinner we took a taxi back to Panama City, arriving very late at night. It was a full day! The next week we went again with Steve and Debbie on Delphinia. Their transit went just as smoothly, except with no crocodile sightings this time. They have a beautiful little dog, Libby, and she entertained us for the entire day. As we reached the end of Gatun Lake we were told that we wouldn't be able to make the transit in one day. So we tied up to a huge red mooring just before the last set of locks and prepared to stay the night. Those mooring balls are amazing. They're not balls at all, but giant platforms. Unfortunately we treated it as a mooring and went to tie up like normal, which ended up with Delphinia getting a red scrape along the side where the "mooring" left some paint behind. It wouldnt have really mattered if the boat wasn't so immaculate, but you definitely notice a red scrape on a shiny white hull. Not long after we tied up our advisor managed to move a few things around so we could go through in the same day and we were off again in the early evening. The locks were prettier at night and the water turned a golden colour from the reflections of all the lights, instead of the dull brown it had been earlier.

For one set of locks we tied up next to a ferry which was tied to the wall (same scenario as a tug). Debbie passed a bag of cookies out to their crew and they came back with the one thing a sailboat always needs - a bag of ice! Plus a bottle of soft drink. So it pays to be nice!


When we arrived in Shelter Bay Marina we had a party. I had a delicious (hot!!) shower on board and we drank and celebrated until late into the evening. When we woke up with hangovers the next day Steve and Debbie invited us to stay for another night, which sounded amazing. Their boat was like a resort for us! But then the captain of another boat came by looking for line handlers to go back through the canal again. We needed a lift back at some stage, just not yet! They had lost some of their crew and were leaving in a few hours, so they offered to pay for one of us to come along. Nursing my hangover, I contemplated making Garth go alone... but I eventually gave in and took the lift back. This time it was not exciting at all. No photographs, no build up... we'd done it all before.

Going back the other way is more complicated. Because of the times that the locks open for traffic each way, you usually leave from the Atlantic side in the afternoon and stay overnight on the lake. While this is much easier in that it's not such a long day, it does take two days instead of one. The couple who were skippering the boat were really lovely. They were doing a delivery run on a charter catamaran and they had been through the canal many, many times before. Everything ran like clockwork. Unfortunately, the previous day we had left for a luxurious cruise on a beautiful boat and had packed accordingly. This was a brand new boat that had to stay brand new. Everything was still covered in cardboard, which is how it comes straight from the shop. They had left it there to keep everything clean for the duration of their long trek to Tahiti. There obviously wasn't going to be any bedding and after we arrived we found out we were supposed to bring our own. Luckily they had one spare sheet and we had enough clothes with us to make a pillow!

Brand new!

Aside from us, there were two other line handlers on board. Svarvik and Charlotte. They had both sailed before, but neither had done the canal. The first set of locks went really smoothly, even with hangovers. It was a bit frightening being on a catamaran though. The back was completely open and we were surrounded by whirlpools of dangerous water - I was terrified of falling in! The only thing that went wrong was that when the wall person was walking with my line at the stern, the spindly thread broke in half and the rope snapped. He quickly drew it back up and threw it again without any problems though.

Garth and Charlotte

It was interesting to see how this couple handled everything. After having done it so many times they knew what they were doing and everything ran smoothly. Rafting up to the giant mooring was really easy. They smothered the side of the boat with fenders and side-tied to it. Garth jumped onto the mooring and secured a bow and stern line, then they slowly pulled the lines in until the mooring was nestled nicely against the fenders. No wayward paint scraping off this time! So now we know it's actually a dock, not a mooring.

This cat went through the locks with us and tied up on the other side

After a good nights sleep, the next day was a different story. Uninterested in what was going on around us, Garth and I mostly napped and chilled out during our trip through the lake. I popped my head up a few times to try and find crocodiles, but to no avail. Then we got to the down locks. These are supposed to be much easier than going up, but we had a horrible time.

Morning on Gatun Lake

Looking out the window from our cabin

All three advisors we'd had previously had been amazing. They were helpful and on the ball. On SV Delphinia, we were the only line handlers - Debbie and her daughter were there just in case we needed four. When we rafted up, I would tie on the bow line then run back to secure the spring. Each time, the advisor would already be there helping out. Line handling definitely isn't in their job description, but he was doing it anyway. They were all just awesome.

On this last trip, our advisor was a nightmare. We were rafted up to two other boats again, with a really beautiful monohull in the middle. At the time we thought our advisor was just an ass. However, we later found out that the middle boat had a pilot onboard instead of an advisor (I read on one of the forms that it costs something like 2k more for a pilot!). Pilots generally just go on the big ships and don't know much about yachts. They're also higher up than the advisors and the advisors have to do what they say. Which completely explains our advisors behaviour in hindsight. However, at the time we had no idea what was going on. The pilot was telling the advisors on both sides of him that he wanted to stop the boats using the cleats instead of the engines. So he wanted to wait until we were secured in place on shore, then tighten the ropes on each side without putting the engines in reverse. Unbeknownst to us, our advisor knew that this was stupid and was really worried that the cleats would break. We also had no idea what the plan was and that it would be different to what we were used to.

Fancy boat with their pilot

After the day before had gone so well, Charlotte and Svarvick were keen to have a go with the ropes. So Garth was on the bow with Svarvick and I was at the stern with Charlotte. She had the rope wrapped around the cleat once, so she could take one corner off and still have control over it. Then everyhing happened very, very fast. The advisor came over and started yelling at her to take the rope off the cleat, so she hesitantly did what he said. I freaked out and told her to get something on so she had at least some friction, and she quickly managed to get one side on before it came under tension. Then just as the rope tightened he yelled at her to secure it. There was no way she could do anything without it wrapped around the cleat. It strained and the rope started running through her hands. We both yelled at her to drop it as she tried to pull against it and her fingers got sucked towards the cleat. So the rope ran free and she only just narrowly missed losing a finger or two. She was definitely not an idiot (she's almost a doctor!) and she knew how to sail, but I felt like he was treating both of us like stupid girls. He just kept hovering behind us. In hindsight, he was just worried about everything whilst still having to do what he was told. He did repeatedly ask her if her hands were ok. At the time, I was upset and furious at him for treating us like idiots.

Charlotte holding the line as we moved between locks

I took over for the next one to make sure it didn't happen again. This time the yelling was directed at me. He screamed at me repeatedly to take the rope off the cleat as we were coming into position. I tried to explain to him that having almost a full wrap around the cleat allowed me to both quickly lock it off or let it run free. He either didn't understand or was not happy with the way I had it. He kept screaming at me to take it off until I gave in and took the rope off completely. Then he screamed at me to secure it a second later as the rope tightened. I almost laughed at him. It's impossible to safely secure a rope under that much strain without a cleat, so I just had to let it run free for a while until it was safe to lock it off. Once we were secured he explained to me that my rope was way too long which meant we were too close to the front of the lock. When the gates opened, the currents would be too strong for us to get out safely. To fix this, instead of feeding the rope out as the water went down I would just leave it alone and we would drift back away from the gate. That made sense. Unfortunately, he didn't explain this to the linehandlers on the other boat and they continued to let their side out. So instead of drifting backwards, we just got really, really close to the wall.

There was one lock left. I got banished to the bow with Svarvick and Garth took over on the stern. The exact same thing happened. Except Garth had no idea what had been happrning back there and was not going to listen to the advisor. He wasn't going to drop the rope, because that was obviously stupid. So the advisor ended up screaming at Garth to drop it while he was holding the rope tightly right by the cleat with 1 wrap around it. Unless we let our rope on the bow out at the same time, dropping his line would have resulted in the bow swinging around and smashing into the wall. Then the advisor tried to take the rope out of Garth's hand while he was holding it under pressure. Which would have probably resulted in Garth losing a hand. He ended up completely losing it and screaming at the advisor to back off. Then when the guy stopped trying to take over, Garth stood there holding the strain on the rope 1ft from the wall and calmly explained that the advisor was acting in a very dangerous manner. That was the only thing that got through to him. After he had nearly reduced me to tears, nearly injured two people and screamed in everybody's faces, he finally backed off. If Garth hadn't snapped, Charlotte said she waa about to. I very rarely see Garth get mad and he's usually very calm and calculating. So for him to lose it the guy must have been putting Garth in serious danger.

Luckily the captain and skipper were amazing and they kept everything under control. For anybody else who hadn't been through the canal so many times, I think this situation could have been disastrous. But these two knew how to handle the boat in amongst the crazy currents. So that really shook us. After already going through twice and having everything run so smoothly, we were pretty confident about our own transit. Now I'm not so sure. I suspect there are just a few advisors out there that don't know that much about yachts. The problem may have been his english as well - the pilot was screaming at him in spanish the entire time, so perhaps he was just translating the instructions too slowly. I guess the moral here is to make sure you don't go through with another boat that has a pilot!

While the advisors are there to advise, you don't have to take what they say as law. You're not obligated to do exactly what they say if they're telling you to do something stupid. However, I do think you're required to listen to the pilots. So throwing them into the mix just created a stressful and dangerous situation. I think our skipper was smart enough to use his engines even though the advisor was telling him not to as well. If he had listened, the boat would have been hurt. The other thing I took away from this is that it's harder going from Atlantic to Pacific than Pacific to Atlantic. The wind and currents are not in your favour and if you're not a great skipper you can easily get turned around (I watched our skipper do a lot of very skillful maneuvering that definitely wasn't necessary going the other way). Heading towards the Atlantic, when the gates open you get strong winds blowing straight on the nose. So you just motor into them. Going the other way they are behind you, and can easily kick the stern around so you're sideways. Our new friend Svarvick went through again with another boat and that's exactly what happened - they ended up sideways in the lock with no lines on. The currents and wind combined can get scary!

On the plus side, as we got back through to Panama City there was a beautiful sunset over the Bridge of the Americas... Unfortunately, my camera battery was dead after two days of pictures, so I only got a snap on my phone. Still pretty!

The main thing I've noticed about the canal transit is that the food seems to be the hardest part. For all three transits, the women were downstairs making food for the entire day. No matter how you do it, there will be a minimum of six people onboard. Unless you're very lucky, you will have to feed them at least three or four full meals plus snacks. Going from the pacific side, youre looking at a day that lasts from at least 6:30am - 5pm. We got to land at 6pm on Seahorse, 8pm on Delphinia and 6pm of day 2 with the charter boat. With a small fridge, a hot boat and the engine going, it's tricky. You can either make a lot of stuff in advance or try to whip it up on the spot. It's also hot. Very hot. I learned from the experienced charter boat captain that the easiest thing to do is to buy a cheap throw away cooler, fill it with ice and continually replace the sodas and water. Between us all, we drank a lot!

Xxx Monique

Click here for LOTS more pictures!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Panama City, Panama 22-06-15

Ah, Panama! What a ridiculous place this is. We've been having a lot of fun here over the last few week, tidying up the boat and just enjoying life on shore again. We haven't been doing many touristy activities though. One thing we have been trying to attend each week is pizza night with the other cruisers. There's a nice little community here and pizza night was bustling with people when we first arrived. Now most of the boats have left for either Ecuador or the Pacific, so there's not many of us left. It's still nice to catch up with everybody though. We haven't really been anywhere with a community like this yet - regular meet ups, pot luck dinners and whatever else normal people do have never really happened around us before. I guess because we haven't been near many people, or even in a normal place at a normal time because of the whole sailing backwards thing. So it's been fun meeting people and talking about boat stuff. Even if the first few week was a little surreal and daunting after being at sea for 55 days. I kind of felt like I was in a daze the whole time, not really connected to the earth and overwhelmed whenever there were people around. But we're pretty much back to normal now.

On land!

Panama City! The view from the pizza place

One of the nice things about pizza night is the great view of Panama City. They're doing a lot of construction on the road, so the view keeps getting blocked by a flimsy wall. But most of the time you get a good look at the outline of the city.

One of the other reasons I love pizza night is the excuse to stay out late. Wild sloths live in the trees around the La Playita anchorage but they don't come out until at least 5:30pm. We've only found two so far, but we never come out after dark. It's a bit crazy that we can step off the dinghy, walk a few metres and find sloths just hanging out in the trees. I've started taking the camera out with me in the hopes of seeing one, but so far the only picture I have is a shaky shot from my iphone.

There's two options for anchoring in Panama City, and they're on opposite sides of the causeway that stretches out towards the very expensive La Flamenco Marina. They're both terrible. The Las Brisas side has a dinghy dock that has been known to literally break ankles. It's a collection of half floating docks that are very unstable and unreliable. You have no way of knowing if your dinghy will still be there when you come back to it, plus it's so rough and beaten up there's a chance that it will literally destroy your boat. There's a half-floating one person transport dinghy attached to a rope. You have to get yourself from your dinghy, across the questionable docks and into the transport boat. You pull yourself to shore by the rope, which is on a pulley. Then you clamber across the slippery rocks to some steps to get up. I'm not sure how well that system will work for provisioning or shopping, but it's tricky. It's also free. The holding on that side isn't very good, but it's reasonably calm. The La Playita side is sometimes really rolly because of the wake from all the pilot ships zipping back and forth along the canal to the cargo ships. The anchorage is right next to the canal, so the boats never stop. The dinghy dock there is very good and well maintained, but it costs $40 a week (it's actually $5 a day plus tax. The week ends on Sunday and starts whenever you arrive. So if you pay to use it in the middle of the week, you only pay until Sunday and not for the entire week). There's a rocky beach behind the anchorage, which you can't really leave your dinghy at. But you can jump off at the rocks and climb up to the road. So Garth has been staying on the boat a lot and dropping me off on shore so I can go to town. Then we pay for the dock on Friday or Saturday and do a big shop before the end of the week. That way we get to use the dinghy dock but don't have to pay much. It's not a good system, but it's all we have because we didn't want to move to Las Brisas until we had a throttle. An actual throttle, and not just vice grips attached to a bit of plastic. It took a while to order, receive and install the new one but the boat is finally operational again. However we're still here, because we're lazy. Also there's rubbish bins here and we're facing a mammoth clean up after such a hellish passage.

We have been doing a bit of exploring though. We took a taxi from Albrook Mall the other day to try and find the vege market. The taxi driver dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. It was not a vege market. My spanish is so terrible there wasn't any point in trying to talk to him, so out we hopped. We later figured out that it was Old Town, which is a touristy part of Panama that still has a lot of old, historic stone buildings. However, it was Sunday afternoon and the streets were deserted, so we weren't sure if we were going to find some interesting shops around he corner or a mugger. We walked for a while before freaking out and hailing a taxi. Adventure over.

This crumbling old building was covered in vines and filled with trees. We later found out that it's a very popular restaurant called "The fish market"

Now that we're not in a rush I've been doing a lot of baking to procrastinate from fixing or cleaning. Homemade granola, yoghurt, labneh, bread, paneer, tortillas- we've been eating well! And I'm never going to be stuck without yoghurt ever again, because it's so easy to make and you can use it for so many things. Liesbet talked me into trying it in French Polynesia, so I'm super grateful!

Other than that we've just been relaxing. A lot. It's awesome.
Xxx Monique

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Panama City, Panama - 13/06/15

Edit: I'm obviously posting this super late (we've been in Panama for 3 months now!) But it took us that long to recover, get ourselves sorted, fix up the boat and go through all the random pictures we've taken. We're scared that the big camera will get stolen if we take it out (there's a lot of bad areas in Panama city), so I've only got happy snaps from the phone and a few sneaky gopro shots. We're pretty much organised now though, so I'll upload all the other blog posts from our time here shortly.

Well, we made it! I guess there wasn't ever really any question about whether we would, just when. And the 'when' nearly killed us. But it's over now, and we're tucked away in a nice little anchorage next to the Panama Canal. It wasn't nice for long though.

Coming into Panama

We were exhausted after the passage, as was to be expected. So we checked in, got everything sorted, went for a bit of a wander in search of food and quickly passed out. Then we woke up the next day and started on the clean up. It was a lovely sunny day, but when I popped my head out to look around there was a wall of dark clouds sweeping across the canal side of the anchorage. I yelled out 'Hey Garth, you might want to check this out!' He loves both clouds and weather. His reply was 'In a minute,' so I ran up on deck and started gathering the things we'd laid out to dry. Maybe a minute after I'd first noticed them I looked again and the clouds were rushing through the sky towards us, getting darker and darker. And moving faster and faster.

It was almost comical watching the other boats in the anchorage. One by one people started running out and securing everything, like ants running around on top of an ant hill just before it starts raining. Nobody was messing around. I pulled down the shade cloth that I'd just secured in place and Garth arrived upstairs just as the clouds that were coming from the right of us met up with the clouds that had been on our left, turning the entire sky a forboding shade of black. He was not impressed, and yelled a few expletives before joining all the other ants out on deck. He let out more anchor chain. He picked up a few stray things. Then the both of us sat in the cockpit and waited along with everybody else. I looked around at all the other boats and every single one of them had people sitting in their cockpits, staring up at the sky. Just waiting for it to turn nasty.

They didn't have to wait long. First the wind started. It was just a light breeze and then it quickly escalated into gale force winds. The waves started rolling in and we were being tossed around yet again. Everybody else seemed more worried than us though... I couldn't help but think that it was more comfortable here in our rocky anchorage in the middle of a storm than it had been during 90% of our two month passage. At least we were attached to the ground! Nobody else seemed to share my optimistic view of the situation. They all seemed very distressed and the ants were all at a loss for what to do. I looked over at the guy on the boat next to me as our boats were tipping over from one side to the other. I shrugged with a laugh and he gave me a helpless shrug back. We just had to wait. I put my swimsuit on and sat in the cockpit under the blackened sky and watched everybody else hiding under their biminis. The wind quickly got stronger and the anchorage became a chaotic mess. Things were flying off boats, dinghies were flipping over, windgen's were wizzing through the air and our solar panel flipped up again and broke the tip off one of our windgen blades. You'd think we would have fixed it after last time that happened...

The sad looking guy on the boat next to us got into trouble when his dinghy flipped over. He and his wife were balancing on the back of the boat trying to right it again, but the heavy outboard was too far away for them to reach down and pick it up out of the water. Garth sprung into action and roared off (with our 2hp engine...) to help out. He gathered the oars and cushions that had escaped and were floating randomly around in the water, then helped them get the dinghy back up again. He also had to chase down our big fish bin that had flown off the deck in a particularly energetic gust. Everything was a mess. Then somebody called up on the radio looking for the owner of a little boat next to the sea wall, which was dragging it's anchor in the strong winds and slowly heading back towards the rocks. It was going to be destroyed. The radio started buzzing as everybody offered their 2 cents. The owner was a local man and he was doing work on a catamaran nearby, but nobody could trace him down at that exact moment. So while people were offering suggestions and freaking out, Garth ran up to our bow and dug out the spare anchor. By the time somebody suggested they find another anchor to pull the little boat away from the rocks, Garth was already loading it into the dinghy. It was starting to rain by then but he zipped off again, this time towards the boat where there were already a few other brave souls with faster motors clambering aboard and digging out ropes to tow it with. The situation was potentially very dangerous with the strong winds and rocks, but it didn't take long for dinghies to start zipping all around the poor boat. Then the rain really started. Everybody was drenched, but the dinghies kept buzzing around as everybody worked together to help save the little boat.

They eventually managed to tow it off the rocks before too much damage was done and one by one the people returned to their boats. But Garth didn't come back. I got the binoculars out, expecting to see him collaborating with the leaders to take charge of the situation. I couldn't see him amongst the few people that were still tagging along in their dinghies. What had happened? Then the boat got a bit closer and he came into focus through the binocular lenses. He was sitting all the way out at the front of the boat on the pulpit, his legs dangling over the water as he pointed to where he thought they should anchor. Of course.

Then the heavens really opened up. It was as if each individual raindrop was seething with hate, it's sole purpose during it's short life to inflict pain on whatever it struck. And that raindrop had many, many friends with similiar life goals. It absolutely poured down.

Welcome to Panama!

We were desperate to get to shore after so long at sea, but we ended up trapped on the boat until the storm moved on. We were starving and there was nothing left to eat but baked beans and cassoulet (There will always be cassoulet due to an unfortunate provisioning mishap). I've decided I'm not going to eat baked beans ever, ever again. After 55 days, enough is enough!

Our first day on land was actually quite daunting. We managed to get to shore in the afternoon, after the storm had cleared up and a bit of order had been restored to the anchorage. We had to finish all the formalities that go along with checking into a new country, which was annoying. We were given a 72 hour visa upon arrival but we had to get a proper one before that time was up. And it was friday, so if we missed out on getting into town we might have been in trouble by Monday.

We caught a taxi to the immigration place, which was exciting. It's always fun being in a new place and taking in new surroundings. The taxi should have cost around $5, but the guy asked for $8 because we were obviously tourists and didn't know any better (a local would pay maybe $3). Then we didn't have the right change, and ended up having to pay $12 after the driver emptied his pockets in an attempt to change our $20. He didn't know what to do as we were leaving. He just sat there looking frightened and worried as we were getting out, holding the money in his hand and repeating something in spanish. We couldn't really do anything to make him feel better, because I can't say 'don't worry about it' or even 'it's okay' in Spanish. Whoops. At least he had a good day!

Then we wandered around the building trying to find immigration. We think the doorman might have told us it was on the wrong floor, but we can't speak the language and he was doing his best to help so I'm not pointing any fingers. I tried really hard to learn bits and pieces of Spanish during the passage, but the only thing that has stuck in my head is the chorus from the song 'Pretty fly for a white guy' by The Offspring. It goes 'onas does tres, quatro cinco cinco seis.' So I can count to six.

We eventually found the office, and immediately realised that we had forgotten to get photocopies of our papers. I just kind of thought it would sort itself out. No dice. They were not going to do anything without copies of our papers. And they couldn't tell us where to find a photocopier. Luckily I had my tablet with me, which has the cruising guide on it. So we wandered off through foreign streets in search of a photocopier, with no map and without the ability to ask for directions. Fast forward a few hours and we walked out of the Immigration office again, our new shiny visas in hand. Phew! That was all we really had on the 'to do' list aside from 'find food' and 'explore.' So off we went, in a much more relaxed state.

We jumped in a cab and made our way to Albrook Mall. The cruising guide had those two words listed over and over under where to find things, so that was where we were going. At least there would be food. I just had no idea how much.

Albrook Mall. Food court #2 out of 4. Carousels, trains and transfats, oh my!

The mall was absolutely mental. I started grinning the moment we walked in, and I couldn't stop for hours. There were people everywhere. There were shops everywhere. I felt like I had big round cartoon eyes as I took in everything around us. It was filled with American shops! The ones we always hear about on movies but had never actually seen. There was a Banana Republic, a Gap, and numerous other names that I was absolutely delighted to see purely because they were familiar. We also found Cinnabon! Garth bought a cinnamon roll immediately is now addicted for life. Over the course of the next hour we found four more seperate Cinnabons... they were absolutely everywhere. We eventually became so disoriented and hungry that when we ordered food I started drinking somebody else's drink because we were standing by the counter and the people at the fast food place were laying the orders out onto trays. Just because it was right in front of me didn't mean it was mine... I did get a free upgrade to a large drink though, because they just laughed and poured another one for the person I stole it from. Whoops!

Cinnabon. The love affair begins

We eventally settled on grilled subs after half an hour of wandering round the food court (which we later found out was one of four). Garth gave in and upgraded to a meal for his, and the chips were given a generous dressing of bacon bits and cheese whizz. I've figured out how Americans get so fat! Fries aren't bad enough on their own, apparantly you have to smother them in fake cheese and fake bacon. It was delicious though. I spent the rest of the evening running around, with this faint noise following behind me. I think it might have been something along the lines of 'No Neke! Stop! Calm down! Come back!' But I couldn't really hear above the sound of my excitement.

Fake cheese and bacon fries

Unfortunately I wore myself out before we got to the grocery store so I wasn't as excited about all the American food for sale as I could have been. Which was probably a good thing, because we didn't end up buying countless piles of potato chips and cheese whiz.

Exhausted after perusing the hardware store outside Albrook. Free popcorn and coffee though! Best. Hardware store. Ever.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore! (Though I guess we would find these in Kansas. Just not in NZ!)

So that was our first impression of Panama. We also managed to miss out on the cruisers happy hour at the pizza place near our anchorage. We thought everybody was just late because it had been raining, but it took us about three days to realise that our clocks were set to the wrong time. Panama had introduced daylight savings during our two months at sea, so our phones didn't realise what the real time was. That was awkward. With no Internet and nowhere to be at specific times we were just met with a series of events that were a bit strange. Shops closed for lunch at weird times and another store turned me away at the time they'd told me to come back. Without beimg able to speak Spanish, it took a while for it all to click.

Random buildings

The taxi ride in between Albrook Mall and the anchorage was a lot of fun. Well, it was a lot of fun the first time. The traffic was hardly moving for a good portion of the ride. There were people standing in the middle of the road trying to sell stuff to people in the traffic jam. They were running back and forth between cars, standing in the middle of the road and even jumping onto the buses with their wares. I think they were mostly selling things like snacks, but they were absolutely hilarious. I couldn't figure out if it was the kind of job that you would do if you were really poor or if they actually made a lot of money from it. In most places if somebody is trying to sell you chocolate bars or homemade chips off the side of the road, they're essentially begging. But these guys were exhausted from running back and forth between cars and it actually looked like they were doing really well. Which they should be because it seemed like a lot of work. And who doesn't want a chocolate bar when they're stuck in traffic!? I love the vibe here, it's really chaotic and chilled out all at the same time.

The Diablo buses really amuse me. They're all really crazy, with stickers and tassels and shark fins stuck all over them. Some are done up really well, and some just have a few stickers on the side. The drivers are notoriously mental, not really following the same route each time. They do their buses up with colours and crazy modifications and will go out of their way to get you where you want to go. That way when you have a good driver you recognise the bus and remember it, so you're more likely to get on the same one again instead of going with a different driver. A lot even have 'My name is xxx' printed on the front, giving each one it's own personality. Some of them are lit up like the sun at night and they make long bus or taxi rides more entertaining because there's always an interesting Diablo bus out the window. We opt to use the reliable, civilised, air conditioned buses instead of the Diablo ones though. At 25c per ride, they're not too shabby.

An unadorned Diablo

At night

So that's Panama. An eclectic, crazy mess of people, cars and city stuff. It's been a long, long time since we've been in a place where you could just go out and buy what you need when you need it. It's awesome.

Finally, I have pineapple again!

Xxx Monique