Friday, April 26, 2019

Milestone

After an overnighter from the San Blas Islands, we arrived on April 15th at the big harbour of Colon and the entrance to the Panama Canal. We checked into Shelter Bay Marina, the only one on the Caribbean side which is on the west side of the harbour and sits all alone surrounded by dense tropical jungle. The busy town and port of Colon are across on the other side.

Jungle walk

Panama and its Canal are like an hourglass and the cruising sailor is like the sand. The Marina is where they all gather while waiting clearance to transit the Canal. There is a certain happy excitement in the air especially with first-timers to the Canal transit. The Marina facilities offer poolside breaks from the heat and boat chores and events like potlucks, jam sessions (which Jordan took part in), yoga, and even free shuttle to the far side of the harbour for groceries, etc.

Right after our arrival, our first chore was to find an agent to take care of all details and scheduling relating to the Canal transitting.

Smiling Stanley

To contact Stanley for your transit, his cell is (507) 6523-3991 and email is navierastanleys.a@gmail.com.

There are a lot of tasks and coordinating of people and time before a boat can transit the Canal. Stanley of course handled it all. So when it was time to go, our boat had all the necessary large fenders and 4 long lines, and a Canal Advisor, which is a low level Pilot, all provided by Stanley. The main task for us was to provide 4 designated line handlers which we found happy volunteer sailors to do (with me being 1 of the 4).

The Canal transit from the Caribbean involved entering a set of 3 locks that raised us about 90 feet to Gatun Lake. From there we motored about 30 miles across the Lake and over to the Pacific side of the Isthmus where 3 more locks dropped us into the Pacific.

We learned that the Canal has operated for over 100 years, non-stop 24/7, with 35 to 40 vessels per day, among other interesting stats

Our transit date was April 24th when we entered the first lock around 16:00 with a large freighter in front of us.

Approaching first Gatun Lock

Slowly raising up

View from behind as water raises (30-ft difference in water levels)

At about 19:00, we were in Gatun Lake and tied to a large mooring with another sailboat for the night. We had for the most part prepared hearty meals and menus for our crew in advance.

Mega mooring

Many thanks to our 3 volunteer line handlers

Early the next morning, we were joined again by our Advisor for the remainder of the transit. After about a 6-hour motoring, we arrived at the locks on the Pacific side where we were lowered back to sea level by 15:30 on the second day. Through each lock, we were nested (rafted) to a large catamaran in the center and another monohull on the other side. A large and somewhat intimidating freighter also shared the locks with our nest, but this time behind us.

Sea Turtle on starboard side of  catamaran (bottom far left)

A graphic animation

A closeup of the daunting companion behind us

For most world cruisers, to transit the Panama Canal and see just how large and incredible an undertaking it was leaves a lasting impression and serves as a notable milestone for the log. For us, it was particularly excitingly significant as upon exiting the Canal on the Pacific side and going under the Bridge of Americas, we crossed our track that we had laid down almost 10 years ago, making us official world circumnavigators!

Opening the doors to the Pacific!

Bridge of Americas

Our next passage is going to be our longest, Panama to Victoria, and we may be at sea for as long as 60 days. That's when we will arrive back in our home port after 10 years and having sailed well over 50,000 nautical miles...

Anchorages:
N09°22.028' W079°57.042' Apr 15 Shelter Bay Marina
N09°22.187' W079°56.297' Apr 24 "The Flats" (waiting to transit)
N09°15.654' W079°54.165' Apr 24 Gatun Lake mooring
N08°54.585' W079°31.538' Apr 25 Isla Perico (south side)
N08°55.198' W079°31.733' Apr 26 Isla Perico (north side)

Sunday, April 14, 2019

PANAMA San Blas

We had a relatively uneventful 7-day passage from Gilligan's Island of Puerto Rico to the San Blas Islands of Panama. We had wind on the beam and on the port quarter that peaked at about 20 to 25 knots as we passed about 150 nautical miles off the coast of Venezuela/Columbia. The waves were exceptionally high and steep given that wind speed and it made for an agitated ride for awhile. But the winds died and for the last 2 days we had to motor while the seas died down.

The pleasant sight of dolphins was noted a couple of times as well as a corona around the sun that was directly overhead. This was the first time I had ever seen this interesting celestial display!

Chanty could again hear nightly arrivals on deck of flying fish. Her highlight of the day would be fetching an early morning stinky fish breakfast off the deck.

We made an early morning arrival in the San Blas Islands where we chose one of many secluded small palm islands to shelter in. Our first order of business was to jump in the ocean for a refreshing swim to abate the heat. We walked the paradise island and found a couple of coconuts for breakfast but sadly saw plentiful plastic refuse that had washed up on the windward shore.

Daydreaming in paradise

These islands are part of Panama and the peaceful indigenous people called Kuna are allowed a certain amount of autonomy. They have been able to keep their tranquil way of life and habitat unchanged for the most part. They are proud of their culture and are eager to show and sell their craft, that being their intricate hand-stitched mola fabrics, throughout the islands and area.

Lola, a colourful Kuna woman with Judy

Perfect end of day

The next morning, just as we pulled anchor, a Kuna man stopped by in his boat to see if we were interested in purchasing any of his molas. We quickly reset the anchor and invited them aboard to have a look.

Venancio and his young helper Natalio started hauling molas aboard Sea Turtle. It was impossible to see them all, but after a period of time, we finally made our decision.

Boat-to-boat mola sales

So up came the anchor again and it was off to Islas Maqui. This was a very pleasant stop other than the pesky no-see-ums. Jumping in to snorkel the nearby reef, we were disappointed that we left the camera on the boat as we were not expecting much. So we missed getting pics of 2 large sting rays half buried in the sandy bottom and getting snaps of swaying purple coral, not to mention the intricate patterned GIANT brain corals!

Back on Sea Turtle, a local came by selling fish; we purchased 1 as our fishing attempts had been fruitless lately. When asked if he had any lobster, we were delighted when he pulled out 2 big ones for $5 each!

Low-tech sailing

Then yet another Kuna man, Victor, approached us asking for the $10 fee for 1 month for anchoring in the San Blas waters. Seemed strange but he did have an official receipt. He next asked if we wanted any mangoes or avocados and again we said yes, yes, and bananas. So off he went, paddling his dugout canoe.

When we realized he was heading to an island about a mile away we jumped in the dinghy and towed him there. We followed him into the jungle that acted as his orchard where we picked ripe avocados and mangoes off the ground while he whacked down a bunch of green bananas. He didn't want any money for it but we insisted with a few dollars.

Later in the day, we dinghied over to a little island close by where a few native's huts were their homes. There we met Victor again and his family and welcomed us to stroll their neatly kept beautiful island. They even gave us some lovely conch shells to take.

Munching a mango

The whole island was a coconut palm grove ringed with fine white sand beaches and protected by an outer reef that served them bounty from the sea.

Island tranquility

Back on board we finished a wonderful day over a delicious lobster dinner!

Next morning was our final San Blas stop at Chichime Island where we anchored inside the small lagoon. Later we went ashore where we found more molas, less expensive, but not as good quality in our opinion. We pulled out of there at sunset for an overnighter to Shelter Bay Marina near the entrance of the Panama Canal.

Chichime merriment


San Blas anchorages:
N09°28.862' W078°40.167' Apr 12 by Mangles Canal
N09°34.934' W078°40.463' Apr 13 Islas Maqui
N09°35.273' W078°52.877' Apr 14 Chichime Island

Friday, April 05, 2019

Ponce and Gilligan's

A real change of scenery was anchoring at the Port of Ponce (pronounced Pon say) along the south coast of Puerto Rico where our view was not island beaches but a bright orange freighter. It was a calm quiet area except for the slight drone of the freighter's engines day and night.

Our view

Town center was a ways away so we were initiated into the world of Uber for transportation that proved an efficient and reasonably cheap way to go rather than taxi.

The Town's focal center is the pleasant central park and fountain that is surrounded by restored classical architecture that is juxtaposed by the gaily painted old firehall.

Lion Fountain

Firehall of 1887

Classic architecture

Elegant bank

We broke up our time aboard with a few activities that Townships provide, the cinema for one. We saw a sad but true movie about the Pakistan terrorists that besieged Hotel Mumbai and several other locations all at the same time in 2008.

The next evening we attended a very exciting local basketball game that the hometown team barely squeaked through with a win of 112 to 107 to the roar of the crowd and the team's mascot, a lion.

Even though we did our official check out of Puerto Rico on April 3rd, we made an overnight anchorage at Gilligan's Island, also known as Cayos de Cana Gorda by the locals. It's being called Gilligan's as it apparently resembles the Gilligan's Island on the TV series of the same name.

Leaving at 08:00 on April 5th was for a passage to Panama.

Final Puerto Rico Anchorages:
N17°57.929' W066°37.133' Mar 31 Ponce
N17°56.835' W066°52.294' Apr 04 Gilligan's Island

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Puerto Rico delights

Sea Turtle found several interesting one-night anchorages, such as the delightful island of Isla Ramos where we were the lone explorers. It evidently had no permanent inhabitants though we saw chickens in a cage and a wondering Siamese cat that we watered. We retrieved a couple of coconuts and found a few good shells as we combed the beach. Thankfully a local boater soon arrived to tend to his animals.

The next stop was by the large mangrove basin of Punta Medio Mundo that we explored in the dinghy. We had good fun zooming through the labyrinth of channels and even managed to get lost a couple of times in the natural maze!

Mangrove network

Click here, Mangrove Mania, to watch our 35-second YouTube video of speeding through the mangroves.

Later in the day, we moved to a cove on Isla Pineros and picked up a mooring buoy in front of a beautiful beach. There were a couple of other boats there but they soon left and so, again, we had the place to ourselves. It would have been a perfect stop other than we were restricted to the beach due to the potential danger of unexploded ordinances, the remnants of past military exercises there.

The other deterrent was the onslaught of biting no-see-um bugs. (Hmm, maybe that's why the other boats left.) Wearing only a bathing suit, I was a bug buffet and was in agony with the itch of the bites covering my body. Jordan escaped the torture as he had worn a long-sleeved shirt.

No man's land

We next anchored at Cayos de Barco in the lee of its string of small mangrove islands that formed a barrier against the open ocean waves.

Another overnight stop was at Isla Muertos whose name means death or coffin. The Island is a marine park that's sensitive to sea turtle nesting. There are no permanent residents and it's a popular place for day boaters from the mainland a few kilometres away.

We walked a fair distance from our dinghy along a cactus lined trail until we got to the base of a hill, and from there, the trail got steep and gnarly as we climbed to the top. On top was an old large lighthouse building that obviously housed a contingent of caretakers and protectors of the realm. It had long since been abandoned and the only function now is a small high intensity beacon light for today's seafarers.

Lighting the way

We discovered an opening in the wall that we could climb through to get to the spiral stairs that led up to the top of the lighthouse tower. It was a nerve wracking 50-step climb on rusty stairs, but the awesome view was worth it.

A lighthouse vista

The rusty stairs weren't the worst scare of the day though. What was terrifying was the snake that wrapped itself around my leg - not once but twice!! The first time, I kicked it off but it immediately wrapped itself around again. Screaming and kicking finally shook it loose and away but not before I tumbled in the frantic effort. Phew! Time to leave Muertos...

Anchorages:
N18°18.929' W065°36.743' Mar 27 Isla Ramos
N18°15.768' W065°36.567' Mar 27 Punta Medio Mundo
N18°15.297' W065°35.312' Mar 28 Isla Pineros
N17°55.084' W066°13.998' Mar 29 Cayos de Barco
N17°53.555' W066°31.695' Mar 30 Isla Muertos

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

PUERTO RICO

So it was on to a new country after leaving the British Virgin Islands, or should we say a new territory. Puerto Rico has been a territory of the US since they defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. There is still a Spanish feel here and they have maintained their language in all aspects of life.

Coming from the Virgins, the first point of land in Puerto Rico was Isla Culebra. There it was immediately evident that we had left the charter fleets behind and the boaters were generally of the real cruising kind. We dropped anchor in the large bay and went ashore to complete our official check in which required a nice 1.5 km (1 mi) walk to the Customs office at the little airport.

Multi-coloured sights of Culebra town

The lone Custom officer's demeanor suddenly changed when we noted we had a cat on board. She went from being officiously pleasant to an outright exuberance, as though we were long lost relatives by virtue of feline commonality. I'm sorry, she said, but MY babies are the most beautiful cats in the world (she has 2). So out came the smart phones and we shared kitty pics. Not your typical US first line of empirical defense. Secret to bad guys: Enter this port with a kitty!

We wanted to visit Flamenco Beach, about 4.5 km (3 mi) out of town, which boasts being a top beach of the world. We tried to rent a golf cart, a popular means of getting around, but all were booked; it was a holiday weekend. So in the heat of the day, we started to walk and before long hitched a ride. It was definitely a beautiful beach, obviously an opinion that was shared by many - it was packed.

Flamenco Beach

Back at our anchorage, The Dinghy Dock Bar & Grill was THE place for boaters (and huge tarpon fish!) to hang out. At water's edge, it had recently received a new facelift after being beat up by Hurricane Maria of 2017.

A good metre in length

From there, we travelled a few hours west to a small island right offshore from the main big island of Puerto Rico. There we left Sea Turtle for the day at a badly damaged marina while we rented a car to view some sights on the main island that we accessed via the marina's free water taxi.

We first drove northwards to San Juan and through its modern sprawl to Old San Juan, its quaint old town section where the architecture of the buildings and the fort were most impressive, as well as the sinking blue ceramic cobblestone streets.

One of many

Pretty in pink

Pretty in blue

Old San Juan was the strategic base for centuries where events of the European occupation played out. There we toured the well preserved El Morro Fort that sits prominently on the point and where it protected the harbour.

Lounging lizard at fort

Guarding harbour entrance

For a complete change of pace and scenery, we spent the latter part of the day in the mountains as we drove a serpentine narrow road up into the rainforest of El Yunque park.  The waterfall was minimal due to lack of rain but we enjoyed distant views from a geographical high point and had a delightful picnic in nature's splendor before returning to Sea Turtle.

Park picnic

Anchorages;
N18°18.414' W065°17.837' Mar 22 Culebra (Ensenada Honda)
N18°20.218' W065°37.303' Mar 24 Isleta Marina (island)
N18°20.331' W065°37.270' Mar 25 Isleta Marina (marina)
N18°20.234' W065°37.301' Mar 26 Isleta Marina (island)