After a four day trip from Jamaica, we arrived in Portobello, Panama on Saturday morning (February 11th). Upon our arrival, we were completely surprised by the large number of boats anchored in the harbor. During our last visit in 2007, there were only a dozen boats or so anchored in Portobello. As we entered the harbor, there were about 30-40 boats anchored. We had heard from other cruising friends that the Western Caribbean had changed and is more populated, but we were still quite surprised by the difference.
We were in Portobello basically just resting and waiting for a phone call from our Panama Canal Agent (Erick) to give us the “go ahead” for our transit. We walked around Portobello absorbing all the changes to this small town. Captain Jack’s was now the place cruisers hung out to check emails and have a beer. The brightly colored buses still motored around town, but the town had a different feel to it than our last visit. It felt invaded and changed.
On Tuesday morning February 14th, we got the word from our agent Erick that Gypsea Heart was scheduled to be measured for the Panama Canal transit on Wednesday, February 15th, so we hoisted our anchor around 10 a.m. and motored to Shelter Bay arriving around 2 p.m. Since our last visit to the Panama Canal, we installed a new piece of equipment on the boat, an AIS (Automatic Identification System). This new equipment allows us to receive data (i.e. name, speed, direction, position, possibility of collision, etc.) on commercial and private vessels (with AIS) and it also transmits our data to other vessels. We consider this safety equipment, because at night, in bad weather and in high traffic areas (like the Panama Canal) it assists us in avoiding collisions with other boats sometimes very, very large ships. As we entered the Panama Canal, we felt AIS was well worth every penny. Below is a picture of our Raymarine chart plotter which shows our boat and the other boats in the area. Our boat is represented by a black boat (near the top right) and the red X in the boat is our destination and all the other boats are represented by triangles. Most of the vessels represented by triangles are large, large ships waiting to transit the canal. Hopefully, you can see the benefits of this equipment.
|Chart plotter with AIS as we enter Panama Canal|
The next day we were measured for the transit. We had hoped our stay in Shelter Bay (a pricey marina) would be short, however, it lasted close to a week. We did use the time wisely visiting with new friends and getting re-acquainted with old friends whom we haven’t seen in years, spending many hours provisioning and storing purchases, doing laundry and topping off fuel basically preparing for our long South Pacific passage. The time went by quickly and before we knew it our transit day was upon us. We got our lines, tires and line handlers. Jack and Heather (other cruisers) volunteered to be line handlers and we paid two young local boys to line handle also. Our responsibility to our crew was to provide a place to sleep and food (breakfast, lunch and dinner) during the two day Panama Canal transit. We also had the responsibility of providing food but not sleeping arrangements for the pilot. So during our transit, we had to providing sleeping arrangements for six people (including ourselves) and food for seven which meant cooking for the four line handlers, Rankin, myself and the pilot.
|Line handling crew and Rankin|
On Tuesday, February 21st, we left Shelter Bay marina around 1 p.m. and began our Panama Canal transit. First, we anchored in a nearby area called the Flats to wait for our pilot. Around 3:30 pm our pilot boarded Gypsea Heart and we motored to the first set of locks, Gatun. We then safely tied up along side a large (about 80 foot) tourist boat that provides three day cruises through the Panama Canal. Thanks to our line handlers, pilot and of course the Captain of Gypsea Heart (Rankin) everything went smoothly and we proceeded to the anchorage. Around 6 p.m., we dropped the hook then had a quick dinner before our pilot left for the evening. The rest of us stayed aboard and popped the champagne in celebration of our Panama Canal transit and also officially christened our sailing vessel, Gypsea Heart.
The next day another pilot arrived early around 7 a.m. and we raised the hook and continued our transit. We motored two to three hours before arriving at the next lock, Pedro Miguel. Here we were tied up to a monohull named Adventure Bound on our starboard side and a red French monohull on our port side. We remained tied up with these two vessels through the Pedro Miguel lock and the Mira Flores locks. Due to the fast currents and the large vessels, transiting the canal can be dangerous and it’s tiring for the captains. We have heard many stories of sailboats loosing control and either being pushed against the concrete walls or worse turning sideways and being pushed against the huge steel gates.
For the most part, our transit was uneventful though we did have a small incident where the French boat scrapped along the lock cement wall though luckily no one was injured and the boat was not damaged. It took all day to transit the last two locks and finally we arrived at the anchorage called La Playita located in Panama on the Pacific coast around 5 p.m. Our friends, Debbie and Terry from Wings, were there to greet us. They were so generous and took our line handlers, lines and tires to shore for us and had us over for a lovely dinner that evening. We couldn’t thank them enough for their generosity.
We spent about a month in the La Playita area doing last minute chores (installing a backup autopilot), more provisioning (fresh fruits and veggies) and socializing before the big jump. The La Playita anchorage was rolly and uncomfortable, so it wasn’t our favorite place, and we finally moved to Balboa Yacht Club just a short distance away and grabbed a mooring. We found this anchorage far more comfortable and the water taxi service provided by the yacht club made our last minute provisioning and chores much easier.
On Saturday, March 10th, we attended the Pacific Puddle Jumpers party which provided us with a “touristy” glimpse of the South Pacific Islands (a little disappointing). We were hoping for a little more substance regarding the islands, the jump and weather. No problems … we met a lot of great people and had fun.
|Pacific Puddle Jumpers Party|
Since our friends Walt & Pat couldn’t join us for the big jump, we decided it would be helpful for watches and such to have an additional crew member. So Rankin put out the word and on Friday, March 23rd, we met our new crew member, Gerry Moore. After meeting Gerry, we felt that he would probably be a good fit until we reach Tahiti, so Gerry moved aboard. On Monday, March 26th, a little later than scheduled, we left the mainland of Panama and sailed overnight to Las Perlas arriving around 10 am the next morning. We were only in Las Perlas for a few days before a weather window opened up for our trip to the Galapagos. So we grabbed it and on Thursday, March 29th, we left Las Perlas for the Galapagos.