Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Panama, Las Perlas Islands (and canal transit #4) - 08/08/15

*Note: For this canal transit we were too busy playing with ropes to take a lot of pictures, so most of these were shot by Vicky Longland*

Well, we're in the Las Perlas Islands in Panama. We were not supposed to end up here. I just returned from a short holiday in Hawaii to visit my dad and little sister, which was amazing. After I got back we were supposed to get the boat ready to go through the canal and then head through to the Atlantic side of Panama. Instead, the day after I arrived back we took the bus to Colon to meet a young couple who needed line handlers for the canal. We'd already done the canal three times and weren't keen to do it again. But Dave and Victoria (Tori) are both our age and they seemed really nice, so we agreed to do a swap. We'd help them go through and then they'd do the same for us. So back to Shelter Bay Marina we went to meet them, their cat Mr Pips and their boat Eva Marie.

As soon as we arrived, we started having a blast. We all got along really well and were all having so much fun just hanging out together. Plus they're both really great cooks, so once again our canal crossing was filled with fabulous food. Doing the canal is such a mission but every time it seems to be worth it just for the food.

The crew! Our advisor on the left, Vicky in the middle with the camera, me and Alessandro in the back and Dave getting excited in the companionway. Tori is behind the wheel, Garth is behind the camera, and Mike is hiding

The transit took two days, which is normal coming from the Atlantic side. Because of the times that they open the locks each way you can't come through from the other side until late afternoon. That means you have to spend the night tied up to the giant mooring buoy in Gatun lake, which isn't too bad when you've got a comfy bed and good company. There were seven of us onboard - Tori and Dave, Garth and I, a backpacker just along for the ride (his name was Alessandro) and the third and forth line handlers were another cruising couple, Vicky and Mike. We offered to sleep in the cockpit so Tori and Dave could get a decent sleep and it ended up being more comfortable than sleeping in our own bed. I'm now seriously thinking about getting new mattresses.

Garth standing on the mooring buoy in Gatun Lake (Taken by Vicky)

Coming into the lock at night (taken by Vicky)

We had a bit of trouble getting to Gatun Lake though. We went centre chamber for the up locks, which is the position we prefer the most (on our own in the middle of the lock). In the locks there are four lines attached to the walls, one from each corner of both the bow and stern. You want to pull the lines in (or let them out when you're going down) at the right speed to try and keep the boat straight and in the centre of the lock. Keeping it straight becomes really hard when youre rafted up to other boats and the other line handlers are two boats away doing weird things you have no control over. When you're centre chamber it's just you, all alone.

Gates closing! (Taken by Vicky)

Tori saying goodbye to the Atlantic (Taken by Vicky)

Eva Marie has a big windlass in the middle of the bow and in the first lock I was having trouble maneuvering the giant rope in the small space between that and the cleat. So the bow on my side ended up really far away from the wall. Then on the second lock Mike had trouble opposite me when the headsail sheet got caught in his line and the boat was swinging all over the place because he couldn't pull it in while it was a tangled mess. And on the last one the guys carrying our lines on shore were useless. They carry a very thin line attached to the thick one that will get attached to a cleat on the wall. That way they dont have to worry about throwing us lines again - in between locks we pull the thick ones back onboard and they're left carrying the thin ones that are still attached. The thick one is super heavy and they have a long way to walk, so they don't want to carry all that weight. Usually they signal to you when its time to pull up the big rope or they just start tugging on it and you let it run to them.

Garth holding his line as the guys on shore walk us to the next lock (Taken by Vicky)

Really close to the wall on the port side!

Pulling in my line (Taken by Vicky)

We had a huge cargo ship in front of us, which seemed scarier the closer we got to it. It looked angry and forboding as it loomed over our tiny little yacht. Down below at the bottom of the huge wall, we have no idea which cleat we're going to tie to. I kept trying to feed the line to my guy as we got closer, but he wouldn't have a bar of it. He wanted to carry the light one until the very last minute.

Walking in between locks (Taken by Vicky)

Going up! Crazy swirly currents everywhere (Taken by Vicky)

He didn't start pulling it up until he was already standing at the cleat we were supposed to be tied to. There's weird currents in the canal, especially behind a cargo ship. So we started getting swung sideways, which meant that I had to just keep feeding this guy more rope as we got further and further away from the wall. He just kept pulling it up but he wasn't getting any closer to the big rope because we were getting pushed away so fast. Meanwhile on the other side, Mike's wall guy fumbled his line too and didn't get it on the cleat fast enough. We had both stern lines on, so at least that was something, but we ended up sideways in the lock before Mike's guy got his rope attached. They had to stop the gate from closing because we were pushed so far back it was about to close on top of us. Very scary for Tori at the wheel. We eventually got it sorted out, but it was definitely hairy. I was incredibly impressed with how well she handled the boat while all this was going on. I think I would have freaked out at least a little bit if I'd been at the wheel

Swirly currents (Taken by Vicky)

Tori isn't phased! (Taken by Vicky)

The second day was pretty uneventful, mostly because we were side tied to the wall. Everybody says not to agree to that under any circumstances, but it was ridiculously easy going down. Dave just chucked a glove on and stood against the wall pushing it away as we slowly went down. We only needed two line handlers because we were only attached on one side, and the whole day was very easy and very chilled out. What a relief!

The walls are made of rough stone

Garth got to climb up on the wall, which was pretty exciting. We tied up to the wall while we waited our turn to go through. When the lock was ready for us the canal authorities wanted to release our lines, make us drive forwards and then chuck us the lines again. I guess less work for them. They set up the lines on the wall so we could just pull them back to the boat when we wanted to leave. Except they both got stuck on the massive cleats. So Garth clambered up onto the wall to untangle them and then jumped back down onto the boat just before it got too far away from the wall. So that was exciting. Not many people actually get to walk along the wall of the Panama Canal.

Tori, as the doors open on the Pacific (Taken by Vicky)


When we got back to Panama City, we were supposed to start prepping the boat for our canal crossing. Tori and Dave were headed for the Las Perlas Islands, and then on to Ecuador. Somehow in between they were going to come back and go through the canal with us. We hung out together for a few days, in which time we decided that we weren't really in that much of a rush to get through. We were having so much fun together it was pretty obvious that we were going to end up going to the Perlas Islands with them. So after a week of provisioning and preparing, off we went.

It's only a day sail, but it's been a while since we've sailed. It immediately became obvious that we needed to give the boat a bit more love aside from the general repairs we've been doing. The winches all need servicing again, which made sailing difficult. We lost our 2nd last winch handle over the side. When we bought it I remember having a discussion about the more expensive floating handles versus the normal ones. "We're always sailing when things go overboard. When they're this small, even if they float we can never get them back before the current whisks them away." On this occasion, we could have saved a floating handle. The solid one went straight to the bottom. Our anchor winch still isn't working. And we still havnen't repaired all the rips in the sails. But we made it in one piece, zipping past some baby whales just before we got into our anchorage. I was actually disappointed about going through the canal just in time to miss out on whale season, so I'm really glad we decided to head out here! The babies were so cute, jumping around in the water. Unfortunately Garth wouldn't turn the boat around to get closer to them because he's a big meanie.

Tori and Dave on Eva Marie, anchored next to Isla Chapera

We've dropped the anchor in between Isla Chapera and Isla Mogo Mogo, which is where they filmed the TV series 'Survivor.' Just 30 nautical miles away from a massive city this isn't really what I imagined when I first saw the show. But it's definitely a fitting location, with jungle covered islands and pristine golden beaches dotted all along the coastlines. We explored the little island in front of our anchorage, which was just gorgoeus. We collected pretty shells from the waters edge and ventured inland to explore the jungle. After living in Panama city for almost three months it was amazing to get away again and surround ourselves with peace and quiet. No more rolly wakes from cargo ships going past. No more noisy diggers working on the road early in the morning. And the horizon is dotted with specks of phospherescense instead of the lights from dozens of cargo ships anchored out as they wait their turn to go through the canal. And the water is clean enough that we can actually go swimming! It feels like we're living on a boat again, instead of in an apartment surrounded by dirty water in a dirty city.

Survivor beach

We spent an afternoon on the main island they use for the beach in Survivor, which was lovely. The water was beautiful and it was great to go swimming again, but the beach was just like any other beach. I'm not sure what I was expecting and it's been a long time since I've seen Survivor, but it certainly wasn't like the beautiful white sand beaches in French Polynesia. It was just a beach. Maybe I've just been spoiled over the last few years with perfect beaches and crystal clear water. We had a blast though, which is what matters.

Survivor beach

Xxx Monique

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