Panama City

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.Selfie on Ancon Hill With Mike and Holly at Mi Ranchito Black & Green Frog Happy Mike Peter, Mike & Robin at BYC Do Not Enter? View From Flaminco Downtown From Anton Hill Monkey View from Flaminco Signal Station Downtown Panama City

Panama Canal’s 100th Anniversary!

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. Mike, Robin & Tito Touring the Construction Site of the New Locks Bird Fishing in the Locks Gates Line Handler Guards at the Gala Celebrate! Dancers Huge Cake! Robin Asking Questions of #2 Submarine in the Canal Exiting Miraflores Locks Marching Band Dancers at the Celebration Drone Camera Tugs Entering Crew on a Ship in the Locks Really?! Crews Celebrating During Transit New Locks New Locks Construction New Locks From a Distance New Locks Being Built

Bocas Del Toro

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.
Lobster Again! Roger & Susan Good Ceviche Sailboat Green Tree Frog Raw Coffee Bocas Marina Office & Water Taxi Getting Gas for the Dink Squid on Dock Girls on the Water Taxi Vege Boat Robin & Kathy Red Frog Crew Touring Red Frog Beach Chair Bocas Polly

 

Mermaid in the Caribbean!

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!

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.

Pre-Canal

The bar at Balboa Yacht Club may be one of the greatest people watching places on the planet. There are all manner of people passing through and one of the main activities is lining up crew for going through the Canal. You need a minimum of five people on board to make the transit with one driver and four line handlers.  Since very few cruising boats have enough people on board you can’t sit around Balboa Yacht Club very long until you’re sure to be either asked if you need crew or want to crew for someone. Several of the boats moored at the club were looking for crew and there were usually at least a few youngsters making the rounds and posting a note on the board to offer their services.
Finding Canal crew for Mermaid wasn’t an issue. We had people lined up months before who wanted to come down and tick off the “Crewed for a boat through the Panama Canal” item on their bucket list. As the day of our Panama Canal transit approached our canal crew arrived. Mike’s Brother David Stout and our long time friends Kathy Ross and Holly Scott, the owner of Charlie’ Charts, flew in and spent several days helping with last minute boat chores and exploring Panama City. The crew visited the Canal Museum at the Miraflores Locks where they watched our friends on Neko pass through, visited the fish market and wandered through the streets of Casco Viejo, the still being restored section of old Panama City with architecture similar to what you find in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Everyone enjoyed the French ice cream shop we stumbled upon on a side street in Casco Viejo that offered exquisite ice cream and some very interesting flavors. Robin loved the basil ice cream … the lavender, not so much.  We spent our evenings toasting the sunset on the foredeck with a round of Rony Mangos (Dark rum and Coconut rum with Mango juice over ice) as we watched the never ending parade of ships passing through the channel that to and from the Canal.

Panama City

After anchoring out in secluded anchorages in western Panama and the Perlas Islands for many weeks the first sight of the skyscrapers of Panama City were a shock. Mermaid motored in from the Perlas through flat, calm seas we picked up a mooring off Tobago, an island seven miles offshore from Panama City. We found dozens of ships waiting to go through the Canal anchored between us and Panama City and the bright neon signs were clearly visible at night. The first step of going through the Canal was getting measured and the appointed day of our measurement we navigated through many, many ships into the La Playita Anchorage where we anchored and awaited the arrival of the Canal Representative. When he didn’t show at the appointed hour we called our agent who gave us some sage advice. ”When in Panama, one must be patient.” Sure enough, the pilot boat approached a short while later and we were duly declared fit for a passage through the Canal. We settled in on a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club. The price was outrageous but the place had such a charm that we just couldn’t leave. The bar was the crossroads for sailors that were getting ready for a transit or those that had just completed one. It was also the hangout for an eclectic mix of ex-pat boat workers, canal agents and barflies. The moorings are just outside the Bridge of the Americas and only a few hundred yards from the ship channel that leads to the canal so there it was a fantastic place to watch the world go by. Our friends aboard Neko were on a mooring near us, which made for great fun exploring Panama City. The malls in Panama City were shockingly huge. We spent the days shopping, eating out, doing boat chores, visiting museums and visiting with other cruisers. We watched the World Cup of Soccer with locals, our agent and other cruisers. We enjoyed the restaurants and entertainment. What a difference this place was than anywhere we had ever been. Panama City is a place where no matter where we went we’d trip over history. From the ruins of Panama Viejo, the city started by the Spanish in the early 1500s, to the recently restored Cacso Viejo, where the city was rebuilt after it was sacked by Henry Morgan in 1671 to the buildings of the Canal zone there was something of interest everywhere we’d turn.

Perlas Islands

Cruising the Perlas Islands in the wet season meant that we were not going to have any problems finding a place to drop the hook in a crowded anchorage. It was more likely that we’d have the place to ourselves not worrying about how close our neighbors were. We’d met up with a French couple on H2O while anchored at Pedro Gonzales but that was it.
The only real island with significant civilization was Contadora. We needed to check emails and get a few groceries and when we got there the calmest anchorage was off the nudist beach. There weren’t many nudists but there were a couple of boats already anchored there. There was a French power cat that seemed to think that the nudist beach extended into the anchorage and an Australian boat with an extended family on board, that based on the wailing of the toddlers were having some quality family time. As we were sitting in the cockpit watching the world go by Robin saw a sailboat approaching and said “Hey, that looks like Tug Tub”. Yep, that’s right, Tug Tub, the name’s a long story. Mike said that the odds of running across some friends from Mexico that we haven’t seen in over a year down here were pretty long but Robin hailed them on the radio. There was no response and they anchored on the other side of the Island. Oh well.
The next morning we hopped in the dingy and decided that the best place to land the dingy was a beach around the corner so we headed that way and as we cruised up to the beach there was Tug Tub setting at anchor. After lots of smile and hugs we headed out for a week or so of dingy adventures, beach combing and rum tastings with Tug Tub.
Most days we flagged down a local fishing panga and bought whatever they had caught for dinner. Usually that meant lobster which we paid a few bucks apiece for but we also scored a couple of what the locals call Sierra, a very tasty mackerel and one day brought home an octopus. The lobsters and Sierra ended up on the grill and after a lot of cook book consultations we went through a long process of preparing the octopus to tenderize it. We ended up grilling it and it was tasty but something in our process went awry because it was as tender as shoe leather. Oh well, I guess we’ll just stick with lobster. It was great getting to buddy boat with old friends until they had to head for Panama City and then back to the USofA.

Mermaid is in Panama!

Panama is a paradoxical place. The canal generates over two billion in fees annually and Panama City is a modern city with high rises dotting the skyline. However, when you get away from the bright lights much of the country is undeveloped and still very much part of the third world. We enjoyed the pristine waters and beaches of Islas Secas where we found tide pools brimming with life and orchards growing in the trees along the beach. In Bahia Honda we enjoyed the calm waters, went into a small village where there was one phone and no streets or cars. Phillip, a young Panamanian who told us he needed to practice his English (he was right but it was much better than our Spanish) latched onto us as we pulled up and gave us the grand tour. We visited a school where 150 students came from all over the area and bought a cold drink from the local tienda where everything is brought in by panga after a several hour trip up the river.
It was hard to leave this calm anchorage but we wanted to see the Perlas Islands. We played dodge squall and ship all through the night. Just as soon as we thought we had gotten away from a squall another one would build right on top of us! It was a long, wet, bumpy night and we were very happy to arrive at San Juan. We went to both anchorages on San Juan and both were rolly… we already had enough of rolly so continued on to Isla Pedro Gonzales.
Wow… what a pretty anchorage and very calm. A French boat came in not long after us and came by for a glass of wine. We slept great!
The beaches at Pedro Gonzales are the prettiest we had seen so far. We took the dink around the corner to remote beaches and spent the afternoon exploring. There were agates the size of your fist just laying on the beach. What a place!
We needed to find internet to check in with family and headed to Isla Contadora. We found internet and will explore the islands more.

The Sweet Gulf

Golfito is a special place. It’s located in Golfo Dulce which lives up to it’s name … the sweet Gulf. The big ocean swells don’t come into the Gulf and in addition Golfito is a very well protected bay making this an excellent anchorage. We had received many warnings about Golfito from other cruisers. Everything we had was going to be stolen anytime we left the boat. We brought the jerry cans of diesel and fenders below so that they wouldn’t walk away and took a mooring at LandSea. LandSea is a small, funky marina that has room for a couple of boats to tie up to their dock and three moorings. It’s run by a couple of ex cruiser, ex pats. Tim, a semi crazy, hippie type, runs the Sea part and Katie runs the land part where they have a few rooms to rent. This just may be the most cruiser friendly place on the planet. The prices are more than reasonable, there’s good internet access, laundry service, a nice shower, and to top it off beers are $1. You keep your own tab by marking how beers you get from the fridge on the white board in the Cruiser’s Lounge. Tim lives on his houseboat in keeps a weather eye on all the boats to make sure that nothing gets ripped off. They have about half a dozen dogs that are part of the security team and will bark you to within an inch of your life if they don’t recognize you. Tim really is a character. He spent years as a charted captain and had many stories of past adventures. He is also a nature lover and feeds a sea turtle that has been coming by a few times a week for several years. Who knew that sea turtles liked bananas? We spent our days reprovisioning and doing boat chores then heading in and enjoying a cold one with Tim and the other cruisers on LandSea’s porch overlooking the moorings. Katie told us about a small, palapa restaurant on the beach across the bay and joined us when we headed over the next day. The restaurants were all squatters and they get shut down occasionally but they’re all back in operation a few weeks later. The food was excellent and cheap. Robin had a Lobster dinner. It was a whole grilled lobster, fried plantains, beans and a salad for $6 including a beer. Robin also made a trip to the border to do some shopping with Kim from Maluhia. Costa Rica has high import tariffs making most everything expensive but there is a very strange arrangement at the border with Panama. There’s a street that runs a few blocks where one side is in Costa Rica and one side in Panama. You enter the back doors of the Costa Rica stores and come out the front where you cross the street to shop in Panama. There were several large grocery stores where Robin was excited to find several items that are hard to find in Central America. She came back loaded with blue cheese and green beans. We could have stayed here longer but Panama was calling us so we did the paperwork cha cha to check out of Costa Rica. A morning spent running from migracion to Aduana (customs), waiting over an hour to pay our fees at the bank then got our zarpe from the port captain and we were good to go.