After spending the past several months ashore we made it back to Bocas del Toro, Panama. We flew into Panama City and spent a couple of nights and took a room at the Cruiser’s Casa, a high rise penthouse apartment located in the heart of Panama City. We spent the days running errands and getting used to the heat and humidity but found time to visit our favorite ice cream shop and savor our favorite frozen concoctions on the planet. Gran Clement is a must see the next time you in the neighborhood. It located on a small street in the Casco Viejo section of Panama City and is a great place to stop in, cool off and savor the creamy goodness. Robin’s go to selection is basil ice cream, yep basil. Even Mike who’s not a big basil fan says it’s good but he went for the frijol de vanilla, that’s vanilla bean for you hillbillies. We had planned on taking the bus back from Panama City to Bocas because we had a boatload of bags full of stuff and the puddle jumper airline charges out the wazoo if your bags weigh over 30 pounds but after sober reflection on the all night bus ride we booked tickets for the 40 minute flight and sent our bags cargo. We found Mermaid patiently awaiting in her slip at the beautiful Bocas Marina adorned with flags and banners out there by Paul and Pam on Tug Tub welcoming us home. Robin was so glad to be back aboard she did a jig on the foredeck when she climbed aboard. Bocas has two seasons, rainy and rainier but we enjoyed several days of beautiful sunshine and managed to get in a great snorkel one afternoon between boat projects. One project we were very excited to complete was the hanging of our Tlingit Mermaid that John Katasse carved for us. We spent several evenings up at the Calypso Cantina enjoying a cold Balboa when one night none other than Mr. Jimmy Buffet showed up at the next table. Not sure if it was the heat or the Balboa beer, but we didn’t even notice Jimmy sitting right by us. In fact, not one cruiser in the marina bar noticed him! What are those odds? The Bocatoreans were all atwitter with Jimmy sightings in Bocas Town and Robin got to spend some quality time with him when they shared a ride in a water taxi a couple of days later. Jimmy climbed in, turned around and said “Hi, I’m Jimmy” as they chatted all the way to town. Our camera rule aboard Mermaid is “don’t leave home without it!” Oops, Robin broke the rule…
We’ve always said that our plans are written in the sand at low tide… Oh, and we don’t make plans any more, just intentions… While getting Mermaid provisioned to sail to San Blas, we got the word that the most recent surgeon we had been in contact with could do the surgery and we needed to get to Bogota ASAP.
Bogota is a gritty, bustling city of 9 million people nestled in a high valley at 8,500 feet of elevation. We came for Robin to have surgery to replace an implant in the joint that connect her jaw to her skull. This was put in after a car accident around 20 years ago and has been giving her problems for a while. We did a lot of research and selected a doctor in Bogota who has a great reputation for this procedure. We booked a hotel in Candeleria, the historic part of town for the first week. There was a lot to see within walking distance and we spent the hours when we weren’t meeting with doctors wandering the streets. We visited the Museo Del Oro, ate local food and found the Bogota Beer Company near our hotel. This isn’t a tourist town and our Spanish was routinely stretched to the limit but we muddled through and really enjoyed our stay in Candeleria. Note the sign in the picture next to the Public Beer House that says cerveza $1500. Wow, sounds expensive for a beer but one dollar gets you 1,900 Colombian pesos so it’s really only about 75 cents. Not bad. Robin’s surgery was in a modern facility in the Usaquen section of town so we booked a furnished apartment near there and moved in just before the surgery. The 6 1/2 hour surgery was a success and Robin’s recovery and physical therapy is going well.
We returned to Mermaid in Bocas after a nice family visit to Alaska and Texas. We spent a little of each day on boat chores but there was plenty of time for exploring town, hiking, snorkeling, hanging out in the Calypso Cantina and checking out local events like the chili cook-off and Oktoberfest at Rana Azul. Oktoberfest at Rana Azul was interesting. Rana Azul, which means blue frog in Spanish, is a remote bar and restaurant on a secluded bay south of Bocas Town. We got a group together and chartered a panga for the day and it was around a half hour boat ride to get there. This was a Panamanian style Oktoberfest. Lots of local beer but no um pa bands or chicken dance. Instead they had a local guy blasting 70’s disco music from a huge bank of speakers. We went to the Chili Cook off at the Bocas Brewery and tasted way too much chili. Some was really good. Mike was very happy to have found American football in English! Always something interesting going on in Bocas.
We also got Winston from the marina to do some touch up to our toe rail and other varnish. He would put on headphones while he worked and sing – loud. He was our entertainment and he did a good job, Mermaid looks much better. We began provisioning for San Blas. Once we arrive in San Blas there won’t be much other than a veggie boat and some fish, lobster and crab, so we want to get as much as we can carry with us.
It’s hard to find two places more different than Panama and Alaska so it was in interesting place to visit for a couple of tropical cruisers. It was cloudy and cool and we never quite adjusted to the temperature but it was nice to get to hang with the kids, grand kids and grand dogs. Kaash was just learning to crawl and it was special to watch him begin to explore his world. Our oldest grandchild, Autumn was celebrating her third birthday and Stacy had everything ready for a Minnie Mouse birthday party. The house full of toddlers were a little intimidating for Autumn at first but she quickly warmed up and had a great time playing pin the bow on Minnie, eating cupcakes and grabbing loot from the piñata.
We went camping (ok it was more like glamping) one night at a small cabin on the banks of the Eagle River. The river runs down from the Eagle glacier just a couple of miles upstream and dumped into the ocean around a quarter of a mile downstream. The place was appropriately named. It was the end of the salmon run and there were lots of eagles, as well as other birds, feasting on the salmon carcasses. The night we were there was clear and cool but we missed the northern lights by a couple of hours when we turned in around midnight. On a nice hike the next morning we found several very large bear prints in the sand but luckily, no bears. We packed up the next day carrying a load of delicious smoked salmon and headed south back to warmer climates but won’t forget Alaska’s natural beauty, the flavorful bounty of her waters and the family that loves life there.
For anyone who lives far away from their extended family it’s a special time whenever you return to the nest. It took a couple of long flights but we made it back to the Lone Star state for a family visit. Our great friend Jessamine picked us up at DFW and allowed to stay at her place the entire time we were in Texas. Our Daughter Stacy flew in from Alaska with her two children Autumn and Kaash for the first few days we were there. Stacy really was a trooper, flying down on passes with two small kids and all their stuff in tow. It made us really proud to see how well she handled the entire journey and how well the kids behaved. It was special to have four generations together. Nano’s great grand kids took to her like ducks to water, crawling up in her lap for a bedtime story. We had a couple of nice afternoon swims but the highlight was a trip to the Fort Worth Zoo. The Zoo’s come a long way from our childhood memories and it was a great experience for Autumn who was just about to turn three. She liked the baby elephants, feeding the birds and the marine touch tank but was a little scared of the bears who were only a couple of feet away from us. We decided that living in Alaska and being warned of bears caused this. Mike had a nice visit with Poppy on afternoon. His health may be on the decline but it was fascinating to hear about his life experiences from growing up in rural Oklahoma, playing basketball on the NCAA championship team, flying jet fighters for the air force before becoming a captain for American Airlines where he became a pioneer in the design and use of flight simulators for training pilots.
We celebrated Jessamine’s birthday week in style. We ate and drank out a lot. Jessamine drove Robin all over town picking up supplies for the boat and for the two of us. Living on a boat is hard on clothes and we don’t get many opportunities to shop so Robin made up for lost time and we took home a whole new wardrobe.
Panama City is a city of stark contrasts. There’s a forest of modern skyscrapers up against the unique architecture of Casco Viejo and the wood frame, 20th century buildings of the canal zone and also the urban slums against the glittering malls and upscale apartment buildings. Where the city ends the jungle covered hillsides instantly transport you into another realm where monkeys, sloths and a plethora of insects and birds live as they have done for eons. We spent a day visiting Barro Colorado, an island in Lake Gatun about 20 miles outside of Panama City. The lake was built during construction of the canal and is where ships passing through the canal move from the locks on the Pacific side to the Caribbean side. Barro Colorado was part of the original environmental survey for the Canal before the lake was flooded. Shortly after the canal was completed the now island was designated as an environmental research station operated by The Smithsonian Institute. The area has been at the forefront of tropical environmental research since the 1920s and continues this tradition today. Access to the island is strictly controlled with no more than 30 people on the island at any time. We set out very early from Panama City to catch the daily boat to Barro Colorado. We met our guide at the docks and steamed out to the island in time for breakfast. The island was alive with birds, insects and animals. Iann, our guide knew everything about everything and we spent the day tromping around the island not knowing what we would find next. We stumbled onto poison dart frogs, leaf cutter ants, howler monkeys and many, many species of birds. It was fun to be back in the canal!
We also visited Flamenco Station and interviewed the controller in charge of directing traffic in and out of the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. The control tower looks like it could be at any airport but sits on a hillside overlooking the approaches to the Canal. The site has much history. Behind the tower is a fort originally built by the US to house a 16 inch gun to protect the entrance to the canal. It was later used as a hideout by Manuel Noriega. The locals still refer to the old fort as the Noriega Bunker and it’s now an eerie, deserted place with the concrete bunkers sealed off. There’s still a barbeque grill outside the door and we pictured Noriega sipping a cold Balboa beer with a pargo sizzling on the grill.
We hiked around Ancon Hill enjoying the most amazing views of the old and new Panama as well as the monkeys in the trees. We enjoyed being tourists this week in Panama City. The last time we were in Panama City we were so busy gathering boat parts and provisioning for our canal transit. This trip was at a much slower pace where we could visit with old friends and dine out while relaxing.
The Panama Canal celebrated it’s 100th anniversary on August 15th, 2014 in a day marked by a celebration at the Miraflores Locks where the Canal Authority. All Panamanians pointed with pride to the good job that they have done since taking over Canal operations in January, 2000 and a gala event that brought out a who’s who of Panamanian culture. Anniversaries can be a time of reflection as well as a time to look to the future. We recalled the engineering triumph of completing the canal but also the tens of thousands of lives lost, mostly from malaria and yellow fever, during the construction. We also saw the bright future for the canal reflected in the construction of the new locks, which will allow much more cargo to be brought through.
The intrepid crew of Mermaid served as roving reporters for Cruising Outpost magazine for the events. The media events started the previous day with a tour of the new locks under construction at Miraflores. To just say that they are impressive is an understatement. The scale of the undertaking is massive. Giant cranes tower overhead and the people operating the concrete trucks look like ants on the floor of the new locks. A huge cement plant was built on site which makes cement from the basalt they get from excavating, and concrete is poured 24 hours a day, seven days a week as the three locks, each able to accommodate a ship longer than four football fields, take shape. We learned that the new locks would use less water than the existing locks even though the ships that can pass through will be able to carry almost four times as many shipping containers.
The anniversary bash sung into high gear as Canal employees and VIPs were on hand to cheer the first ships of the day passing through the Miraflores Locks. We ran into Tito who was a line handler for Mermaid when we transited the Canal. A cake that we estimated to be 30 feet by 10 feet and decorated with a scene of a ship transiting the locks was wheeled out, traditional dancers swayed to the band and speeches were made. We interviewed Manuel Benitez, the Deputy Administrator of the Canal, who touted the benefits of the new locks. Not only will the operation of the locks be more efficient, the new ships will be more efficient throughout their voyage lowering costs and the carbon footprint of the goods they carry. That evening a black tie gala brought out everyone from the President, local TV personalities and Canal big shots to hear an original musical score depicting the history of the canal and performed by famous local artists.
Bocas Del Toro is a large archipelago of islands and islets that has a history dating back to the dawn of the Spanish age of discovery. Christopher Columbus visited the area on his final voyage to the new world in 1502 and the names that he gave to many of the islands and bays are still used today. During the 17th century the secluded anchorages became a haven for pirates leaving tales of buried treasure in the area and in the 17th and 18th centuries old world disease and Spanish swords wiped out much of the indigenous population. During the 19th century the banana industry moved in and workers from the West Indies, Latin America and China were imported to work the vast banana plantations. The United Fruit Company created entire towns to house the workers and Bocas Town, where Mermaid is berthed, still has the look of a company town with the old, blocky building now painted in bright, Caribbean colors. Today, Bocas Town has morphed into a funky tourist destination and with the influence of the Latin, Indo Caribbean and Asian cultures it has the feel of a place right on the edge of the earth. Hipsters come to partake in the great surfing and diving and colorful water taxis are on the move from dusk to dawn toting tourists between the islands.
We had looked forward to spending time in Bocas for a long while. We met the marina manager years ago in Redondo Beach and heard how great Bocas Town and the Bocas Marina and Yacht Club were for cruisers. We had seen pictures of the clear waters, pretty buildings and the mermaid hanging in the Calypso Cantina in the marina and looked forward to our arrival on Mermaid. We weren’t disappointed. The staff was friendly and helpful. The rates are reasonable and the free shuttles to Bocas Town make things convenient and easy.
We arrived with David Stout, Kathy Ross and Holly Scott on board and began to explore the town while dodging rain showers. Holly had to scoot off the Pacific Northwest where she was running charters up the Inside Passage so the crew of Mermaid toured rain forests and beaches by day and held Mexican Train tournaments by night. When David and Kathy set off we filled our days with boat chores and staying out of the rain. One afternoon we heard Second Wind, whom we met in El Salvador, on the radio as they approached the marina and we had a nice snorkeling trip and a tour of a nearby chocolate farm. We celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary at the Calypso Cantina in the marina with other cruisers and staff.
We planned to return to Panama City by bus in mid August to take in the events of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal so we buttoned up the boat and hired a marina worker to give the boat a weekly once over before heading out.
When one sets a goal and spends months preparing for and accomplishing it, once it’s done it feels like a page has been turned. That was our feeling when we woke up one morning to find ourselves through the canal and Mermaid was in the Caribbean. As Captain Ron said, “El Carib, the Spanish Main .. if anything’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.” Before leaving the comfortable confines of the Shelter Bay Marina all five of Mermaid’s intrepid crew squeezed into a small cab and headed out on a forty minute cab ride to Colon. Colon has a well deserved reputation as a place that that’s best seen n the rear view mirror and we didn’t plan on hanging around long. We rented a car and headed out of town. The rental car had a satellite navigation system that worked surprisingly well and with Captain Mike behind the wheel and David navigating we were soon at the overlook for the new locks under construction at Gatun. Immense hardly does the project justice. Our next stop was at Fort San Lorenzo at the mouth of the mighty Charges River where the Spanish started construction in the 1500s. We were the only ones there and in the quiet it wasn’t hard to imagine yourself there at the edge of civilization 500 years ago. The tropical humidity and swarming insects certainly made you thankful for bug spray and air conditioning.
We fueled up and set out for the Bocas Del Toro archipelago the following day. We motored out of the breakwater and set the sails in a 15 knot breeze with a large following sea. Ideal conditions for Mermaid. We had a glorious sail all afternoon but as evening approached the squalls moved in and the wind shifted forward. We spent a rainy night battling a headwind. We planned to stop at Isla Verudas, a remote island with an anchorage protected from the prevailing swell but when we arrived at dawn with an overcast sky we found that while the anchorage was protected from the swell there were large wind waves sweeping through so we decided to go with plan B and headed for Laguna Bluefield. After setting the anchor the anchor off Playa Raya we were soon visited by a number of locals in cayugas. We handed out bubbles and Oreos to the kids and bought five lobsters for $1.50 each from a boatload of young men. Nothing like fresh lobster on the grill for dinner. We headed for the Crawl Cay Channel the next day. The passage is narrow and lined with very shallow reefs so Robin and David went up on the foredeck pointing the way between the reefs, Kathy was relaying info back into the cockpit and Holly kept an eye on the charts. We slid through and anchored in a secluded, very protected spot in the Gallego Cays. We found some nice snorkeling nearby and enjoyed the sea life in warm, clear water.
The Panama Canal. Just the thought of it brings up visions of the massive engineering triumph of a century ago. As one contemplates passing through the isthmus of Panama your thoughts go back to the tens of thousands of lives that were lost, mostly to disease, as well as the efforts of the builders who overcame huge obstacles during the construction of the big ditch.
For Mermaid’s transit we contracted with a canal agent, Peter Stevens to arrange the details. Peter, an English gentleman and longtime Canal Zone resident, and his assistant Francis aka Pancho couldn’t have been more helpful. Not only did they arrange for everything with the Canal Authority they also lined up line handlers, the four, 125 foot lines we needed and even delivered tires to be used as fenders to the boat. But they went over the top with their service by being there to provide the local knowledge to procure anything we needed while we were in Panama City often doing the legwork themselves. When we forgot something at the store during our final provisioning run the evening before our transit all it took was a call to Peter and the needed items arrived a couple of hours later.
We were up early on the morning of the transit. The line handlers arrived with the lines at 7:00 am and our Canal Advisor arrived shortly afterwards. Boats under 65 feet don’t get a pilot, they are assigned an advisor, a sort of junior pilot who guides you through the Canal. We’d heard horror stories from other boats that weren’t happy with their advisor but our experience couldn’t have been better. Edwin was calm, knowledgeable and very helpful. To start the transit we rafted up with a small sports fishing boat and entered the Miraflores locks behind a freighter and a couple of tugs. The pucker factor was pegged as we motored into the lock. We’d heard many tales about how boats had been swept about by the prop wash from the large vessels but Mermaid handled it like a champ. We glided in and the Canal’s line handlers tossed down lines with monkey fists on the end that our line handlers attached to our lines and we soon were secure in the center of the lock. The massive lock gates, which look like something out of a Jules Verne novel swung closed and we were on our way up.
Robin asked the captain of the power boat attached to Mermaid’s side if he had ever been towed by a sailboat before which brought a good laugh to all aboard. He answered no, but he was enjoying the ride. As we were being lifted up one of the handlers from the boat we were rafted up to came over and told Holly that he’d take over from her but she wasn’t having any of it. “I’ll let you know if I need help” was all it took from her to send him packing. After getting lifted up 81 feet in the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks we unrafted with the sports fisher and headed through the Culebra Cut. This is the part of the Canal that was cut through the continental divide where most of the digging was done during construction and once we were through the cut we headed across Lake Gatun.
We were scheduled to arrive at the Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side at 3:00 pm but we were running late. If we didn’t make it we’d have to spend the night in the lake. As we approached our advisor called the controllers and luck was with us as there was a ship scheduled to down lock at 4:30. We motored into the lock as the tugs were lining up the huge car carrier to enter. The view from the top lock out over the Caribbean was spectacular and behind us the massive car carrier loomed overhead. Before long we were motoring out of the final lock. We said goodbye to Edwin as he was picked up by a pilot boat and reached Shelter Bay Marina just about dark where we met back up with Neko and all toasted our passage through the canal with a well deserved landfall drink.