Summer Camp

The only branch of the Smithsonian outside of the United States is here in Panama–the Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research. They’ve been here for about 100 years, and have a whole bunch of different sites (including the elusive viewing platform up the Rio Chagras for which we searched so unsuccessfully). Their easiest-access spot for us is a nature center right across the street from our dinghy dock…and wouldn’t you know it–they have a summer camp!DSCF2692

There are only maybe eight kids in the camp, ages 7-12; and while everyone understands English, there’s an awful lot of Spanish involved. The kids are coming back to the boat completely spent, both from having a regular 8-hour off-the-boat “school” day and listening to Spanish non-stop. It’s exactly the kind of thing they’d be doing if we were home, but it feels completely exotic, after having very little structure for so long. Meanwhile, Michu and I are having our biggest chunk of kid-free time in a year. Of course, we are using the time to our advantage, with exotic trips like Provisioning Without Kids and Let’s Explore The Chandlery. Today’s mission: Do All The Internet Stuff. Blog post: check.

 

A little bit of civilization, a little bit not

It’s the Big Pause for our family, as we slow ourselves down to wait out the hurricane season. Safety for the boat means we need to keep south of essentially Nicaragua until more or less November. Who wouldn’t want to spend from now until Halloween in Costa Rica? Well, their government, for one…we can only get three months in that country without doing a financially complicated bonding maneuver for the boat. Us, for two; we hear Costa Rica is as expensive as it gets for Latin America. So we’re taking our time on the Pacific coast of Panama.

We spent a couple of nights anchored off the island of Taboga, within sight of the Canal entrance, and then headed over to Las Perlas, a beautiful archipelago only 30 miles away from the hustle of Panama City.

Sunset from Taboga. In the Bay of Panama, even though we're on the Pacific, the sun sets over land.

Sunset from Taboga. In the Bay of Panama, even though we’re on the Pacific, the sun sets over land.

In two weeks, we just scratched the surface of these islands. Weekends, we were surrounded by elaborate mega-yachts, up from Flamenco Marina; during the week, we found ourselves alone, or with one other boat. The snorkeling was not great, but at low tide we swam around some rocks and saw huge fish, in much greater quantities than the fished-out waters of Guna Yala.DSCF2641

We’re slowly adjusting ourselves to the idea of 20-foot tides. It affects our decisions about navigation—going in to an anchorage at low tide means visually situating yourself to entire islands that are lost when the tide is high, but might make a bay too shallow for us to clear a sandbar. If affects our anchoring, sometimes tripling the amount of scope we’d normally let out for our initial depth. It also affects our land expeditions; often, huge beaches and trails into oceanside cliffs are completely submerged at high tide. We’re starting to work it out, and have been generally anchoring the dinghy and swimming back to it instead of trying to drag it 200 feet up a beach.

The scene at Mogo Mogo.

The scene at Mogo Mogo.

Michu takes a bit of a shower during a downpour.

Michu takes a bit of a shower during a downpour.

The other thing we’re trying to work out over here is the weather. Our old friend, Predict Wind—so brilliantly convenient for us on the Iridium GO!—is struggling with the weather patterns of the ITCZ. Much of our daily weather is heat-driven, with rain clouds building up throughout the day and pulling very local winds in their wake. A tropical wave here, a monsoon trough there, and we’re dealing with completely different weather systems than we’re used to. The one constant: rain. In torrents. Every day. We’d hoped the Pacific side would be drier than the Caribbean side of the Isthmus, and it might be—but it’s still pretty darn wet. Boat laundry doesn’t have a chance to dry; cloudy skies mean no more of those stunning blues of the ocean; hatches shut against the rain mean stuffiness down below. And only five more months of the rainy season to go!

DSCF2650Despite all the free sky water, our tanks ran dry sooner than expected, and we headed back from the Perlas to Panama City to restock, do some laundry, and hang out with people not in our immediate family. The water issue clarified itself the night of our return: the foot pump for the sink in the head was breaking, leaking precious fresh water into the bilge, and it finally let go entirely. Not reparable, but easily replaceable, it turned out; we found a reasonable facsimile at the marina in La Palyita, with a 20% cruiser discount, and had it sorted in less than 24 hours (always remarkable when a significant repair takes less than a day).

Las Brisas has come up in the world since our last visit to Panama City. The fire at Balboa Yacht Club led to an immediate shutdown of the fuel supply to the fuel dock; when they attempted to turn it on the next day, some kind of regulatory commission found them out of compliance. We hear their dock continues to be shut down, three weeks later. As a result, the Taboga ferry and various Canal work boats have moved their location over to Las Brisas, and a new dock was put into operation. This is huge news for cruisers in Panama City. Before, the only real options for cruisers were to stay in La Playita, which catches every passing freighter wake, has poor holding, and is insanely rolly during the rainy season, and then pay $50 a week to the marina for the privilege of using the dinghy dock; spend $30/night for a mooring at Balboa, with the same rolly, rolly, sleepless night (albeit with ratty showers and dubious laundry); pay shocking money to get a spot at the pier in La Flamenco or La Playita marina; or anchor in Las Brisas, sleep well, and either risk life, limb and dinghy to use the decrepit excuse for an old dinghy dock or pay $20 a day for use of the dinghy dock in La Flamenco. It’s a lengthy explanation of the limited options, but the long and short is: we are sleeping well, anchored for free in a calm spot, with access to a free, secure dinghy dock, and it is awesome.

View from the anchorage.

View from the anchorage.

So awesome, in fact, that we expect Panama City to become even more sticky than it already is. We’ve met quite a few cruisers who’ve come through with intentions to stay a week, but seen their time stretch—in some cases, to years. We’re certainly not immune to the cheap living and convenient access to creature comforts, and the wood-fired oven pizza on Thursday nights it top-notch. Fortunately, we have family to meet in Costa Rica in September, so we will at some point be forced to pry ourselves away from the complacent life of Las Brisas. But not this week.

And finally...it's whale season! The Perlas are known for their whale sightings, and we've seen several groups of humpbacks already. Fingers crossed for a whale shark.

And finally…it’s whale season! The Perlas are known for their whale sightings, and we’ve seen several groups of humpbacks already. Fingers crossed for a whale shark.

Cost to Cruise: June, 2017

Boilerplate disclaimer: this is not what it will cost you to go cruising.

View through the lock doors at Miraflores, from the bow of your own boat: priceless

View through the lock doors at Miraflores, from the bow of your own boat: priceless

People’s constant advice, discussing cruising finances, always seems to be: It’ll cost what you have. We did not find this helpful in our planning, however true it may be. What we’re trying to show is the cost to us, more or less, for one month to go cruising. We’re going for monthly expenses, because they’re easier for us to track; so you won’t see the boat insurance amortized, you’ll just see that expense when we pay it. It won’t be what you’ll spend, but it was the kind of information that helped us out when we were trying to wrap our heads around that magical number for our cruising kitty.

Happy to have one of our major expenses for this trip behind us, more or less—all of our other Canal costs are in our past. We even had our deposit back in our account by the end of the month! Numbers for June:

Marinas: $246.59
Grocery: $961.33
Restaurant: $88.62
Supplies: $207.44
Booze: $35.52
Laundry: $42
Communications: $150
Entertainment: $60
Fuel: $64.11 diesel; $24.21 stove fuel; $9.30 gas for the dinghy
Bank Fees: $17.50
Water: $2.50
Ice Cream: $13
Transportation: $74
Customs/Immigration: $25
Boat Parts: $140.10
Canal Fees: $190
Grand Total: $2351.22

A few notes on the above:

  • We spent a few nights at the Balboa Yacht Club, including the interrupted night of the big fire, but decided it made no sense to spend money for the painful rolliness
  • Ice cream makes it back on the list!
  • “Canal Fees” include renting lines and fenders ($100), and a cab back to Shelter Bay for our awesome line handlers (the remaining $90)
  • We paid $25 for a domestic zarpe to move around within the country of Panama. We are not really sure we should have paid this. Rules about visas and permits are constantly in flux in Panama, and you’ll get different answers about requirements depending on which official you ask. We were told it was required; we were told it was not required; we spent the time and money to get it; we are sure no one cares if we have it or not. Better safe than sorry, I guess.
  • First time buying gas for the dinghy since maybe the Bahamas. Love that new 4-stroke.
  • Transportation numbers are a bit high; we never figured out the bus system in Panama City in June, so we took a lot of taxis. We had quite a bit of provisioning to do, anyway, and it’s worth the extra taxi money to not haul $500 worth of groceries on a bus. Currently, we’re in Las Brisas, once again back in Panama City, and are getting around fine on the bus for a mere twenty-five cents a person.

Off-piste, once again

Heading out to the beautiful Perlas. Not a lot of wifi. We’ll do our best. In the meantime, I leave you with this weirdo pelican.DSC_2478

Panama Canal: One more time, with feeling

Transiting the Canal on your own boat is a completely different process than being along for the ride. This was not a laid-back experience for us. Not only were we always, slightly back-of-the-mind worried that some crucial component of our passage would fall apart (line handlers unavoidably delayed; lines and fenders don’t show up; left to rot in Lake Gatun, abandoned by all transit advisors); not only were we prepping like mad for days (food prep, stowage, laundry, groceries, cleaning); not only were we alert the whole time to potential damage to our boat (like the cruiser who came in to Shelter Bay last week with his fairleads ripped out of his rail); but we felt pressed to make sure everything went well every minute. Fortunately for us, it did!

Approach to the Gatun Locks

Approach to the Gatun Locks

We were lucky enough to have our line handlers arrive the day before, and luckier still that they opted to stay at Shelter Bay’s hotel instead of on our boat. We would have welcomed them, but having three additional folks on board is a tight fit for us, and they were certainly more comfortable in the marina. And they brought us doughnuts! Immeasurable jealousy from our neighbor, who was looking at hiring help to get through the Canal on the same day.

Our line rental guy, Rick, recommended calling to confirm the advisor drop-off time both the day before transit and the day of; the Canal company gave us two different times, so we figured we’d plan for the early time and got ourselves to the Flats by 1:00. Joining us were our slip neighbors from Shelter Bay, and a big Leopard catamaran filled with surfers. After picking up our advisor—Hector, the same guy who shepherded us through the Gatun locks with Sapphire—we headed to the lock entrance and rafted up with our fellow sailboats. As the biggest boat, the cat was in the center; we took the lines on the port side.

Lock buddies

Lock buddies

We ended up motoring quite a ways rafted together, both getting in to the locks and going from lock to lock, and it was striking the amount of force between the boats. We saw one fender get squeezed until it looked like a balloon animal. All went well, though, and we made it through the first set of locks with no problems.

Nic and F, ready to go at the first Gatun lock

Nic and F, ready to go at the first Gatun lock

None of the advisors wanted anyone to anchor in the lake; instead, they asked us to all raft up to the same mooring buoy. We got there first, and secured ourselves alongside; the cat tied up opposite the buoy from us, and the Jeanneau rafted alongside the cat. It was a very crowded buoy, without the peaceful solitude of our night with Sapphire! It also took quite a while to get everyone secured, so dinner ended up a bit late; by the time the kids polished off their cake, I think it was past 10.DSC_2331

The next morning, our new advisor showed up quite early—maybe 7:30?—and we headed across Lake Gatun. Well, most of us did. The catamaran ended up having to spend one more night in the lake. Apparently, the advisors’ real jobs are running the pilot boats; they just aren’t always available to transit with private yachts. Add in the advisor retirements this year, and you end up with a shortage of advisors. The cat had no idea they wouldn’t be able to go through in two days. Fortunately, they were laid-back surfer dudes, so they just paddled around the lake a bit and hung out.

We hightailed it to the locks at Pedro Miguel, rafted to the Jeanneau, and tied up the lines to the port side again. Then we had a solid 45 minutes for lunch, as we waited for a huge freighter to move in off our stern and secure herself. The trip between Pedro Miguel and the Miraflores locks is short enough to stay rafted, and soon we were waiting for the doors to open on the Pacific Ocean.DSC_2348

I think that’s the biggest difference between transiting on another person’s boat, and taking through your own. On Sapphire, our first view of the Pacific was not so different then when you fly into San Fransisco or drive to the west coast—hey, look, there’s the ocean, neat. Coming through with our own boat, I was so excited, I was practically jumping up and down. In fact, there may have been some jumping.

We ended up with the best souvenir—our own monkey fist. Our forward line guy on shore decided to cut off the feeder line instead of untying it from our lines; when we pulled it in, there was the monkey fist, ours to keep! There’s a solid piece of lead inside; right now, we have it hanging off the dodger, but it’s going to have to move—it’ll bean someone on the head right there.

We are so thankful for our line handlers. TC, Emmet and Nic were extremely nice, very kind, and happy to work their butts off when necessary. We could not have had better guests.

When we were planning our trip initially, one of our standard lines was, “…and then we think it’d be neat to go through the Panama Canal.” It was so abstract back then, a way to guide people’s mental map of our planned route, an idea of something significant but difficult to really imagine. Now we’re through, with a whole year ahead of us and another ocean to explore!

Panama City at night, Pacific side

Panama City at night, Pacific side