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

Fire at Balboa Yacht Club

At least three boats are in flames, and there may be damage to the pier. Milou is safe, although we scrambled off our mooring that was directly downwind of the fire. We’ll try to post updates tomorrow.

Update: three boats destroyed–two sport fishing boats and one sailboat. The sport fishing boat that caught on fire initially had a guy sleeping on it; he swam to safety, and was hospitalized for smoke inhalation. When the fire reached the mooring lines, the boat drifted into the other two boats, and then against the pier, near the gas dock.

All three boats were eventually towed, still aflame, towards shore, where they were still smoldering this morning. The pier has already been repaired. The only other injury we heard about were broken ribs from a spectator, who fell down some steps.

Photo of the initial powerboat running into the sailboat. All our other pics were pretty blurry...

Photo of the initial powerboat running into the sailboat. All our other pics were pretty blurry…nighttime photography from a moving boat is a tough skill!

 

 

Hey, hey, hey; it’s canal day!

We’re picking up our advisor around 2:00 at the Flats, and then heading for the Gatun Locks!! We’ll be spending the night in Lake Gatun, then continuing onward tomorrow; we expect to be done with our transit early tomorrow afternoon.

There are live cameras streaming from the canal; try here if you want to try and follow along (although the cameras might not be working). Updates from Facebook at Deb Lease, as bandwidth allows.

Our line handlers are awesome; we’re all prepped up for food; tires/fenders are in place, lines aboard. SO excited to bring our boat to another ocean!

One year cruisaversary!

It’s been a whole year!! We moved on to our boat June 11, 2016; and here we are, one year later, hanging out in Panama. Our boat feels like home. We’ve lost our feeling of being imposters to the cruising life.

First dock!! That boat is not ready to go anywhere. I don't even see the sails!

First dock!! That boat is not ready to go anywhere. I don’t even see the sails!

First day swimming off the boat--father's day, Pentwater, MI

First day swimming off the boat–Father’s Day, Pentwater, MI

When experienced cruisers ask us if this life was what we thought it would be, I think they expect us to start in on tales of woe about clogged heads and engine trouble, dragged anchors and unexpected storms. We have some tales to tell, but really, this trip has been pretty much what we expected. The low moments are excruciating; but the highlights are astonishing. Throughout the year, as a family, we grow more competent, confident and flexible. It’s an accomplishment in itself to spend every day of your life learning new things; we can feel the neurons firing up and making new connections, even for objectives as mundane as finding a quart of milk in a new town. Whenever our kids head out to find a bathroom by using their Spanish, it feels like a victory.

Bon Voyage party, Milwaukee

Bon Voyage party, Milwaukee

In an attempt to organize a bunch of info, we’re reduced to a list:

Also in Titusville: the raft-up on Wildcat, waiting for the rocket launch

Also in Titusville: the raft-up on Wildcat, waiting for the rocket launch

Best free book score: American Gods, in Titusville

Best low-tech gear: TIE between the solar oven and the Windscoop, both of which really came into their own in Guna Yala. Honorable mention: deck of cards.

Just sailing on past the Statue of Liberty....

Just sailing on past the Statue of Liberty….

Smelliest part of boat life: you’d think it’d be the scrappy, infrequent showers, right? You would be so, so wrong. It’s a terrible toss-up between the odor of the holding tank vent being clogged—which shoots air from the holding tank in to the saloon—and the smell from the salt-water spigot in the galley when something has crawled up the hose and died. So gross.

Also smelly: horse poop on the barrier islands outside of Beaufort, NC

Also smelly: horse poop on the barrier islands outside of Beaufort, NC

Goofball.

Goofball.

Best boat upgrade: I was going to say the anchoring system, which has kept us safe and secure night after night; but then I remembered that stretch of time when the foot switches didn’t work, and how they’re corroding in general, and how we still haven’t installed the control switch at the helm. The anchoring system is still awesome and dear to my heart, but—hello, lithium batteries/solar combo, with backup super-alternator. We have never uttered the phrase, “Please charge that later; we are low on power.” We are charged to 100% capacity almost every single day. This is unheard of for most boats. Corollary: the refrigeration upgrade, which saves us boatloads of power in itself (even if things do occasionally end up frozen).

Turnbull anchorage, Lake Huron

Turnbull anchorage, Lake Huron

Favorite anchorage: Warderick Wells? Turnbull Island? Coco Bandero? Bahia Sangua de Tanamo? Impossible question. Stop it.

Warderick Wells

Warderick Wells

Biggest waste of money: wifi booster antenna.

Better choices with Sapphire: Panama Canal transit on their boat. Americans, coming through!

Better choices with Sapphire: Panama Canal transit on their boat. Americans, coming through!

Poorest tactical choice: the dinghy ride from our boat to Sapphire’s family rental near Georgetown. Why didn’t we take the shorter dinghy ride and take a cab? It was way too rough out there! Not to mention the terrible surf landing, iPad destruction, and minor concussion on my part. Lesson learned. Our passage from Club Island to Tobermory was no great shakes, either.

First real fish; a highlight of our first overnight passage

First real fish; a highlight of our first overnight ocean passage

Most terrible week: look, there were a lot of intense weeks with extreme highs and lows (that first one comes to mind), but I think the worst was when we were pinned down on Long Island, Bahamas, waiting to head south. Really challenging shore access, no good way to get to our friends—just a few miles away!—crazy rolliness, very little sleep.

Better times in the Bahamas

Better times in the Bahamas

Seasickness victim. Also fashion victim.

Seasickness victim. Also fashion victim.

Worst seasickness victim: I know you’re expecting T, but actually Michu takes this prize. Passage from Fort Pierce, FL, to West End, Bahamas; changing an impeller upside-down in the engine room in rough seas. Possible negative influence from the Bonine, which he hasn’t tried since. It was ugly.

Wearing lots of clothing of all kinds

Wearing lots of clothing of all kinds

Best piece of clothing award: Swear to god, I don’t worry too much about what I look like out here, but you might want to hear this. I have a pair of Patagonia board shorts that I bought maybe 16 years ago that never fit. I didn’t get rid of them, because they are super-nice Patagonia board shorts, and maybe someday the stars would align and they would magically look good on me…and then I thought, they’ll fit F by the time we’re done with this trip, might as well bring them. Well. They fit. They are bomb-proof, quick-dry, and awesome-looking, and make me feel like I am 20 years old. In a very different category, I’m quite fond of my foul-weather bibs that let me drop the seat without getting totally undressed.

North Channel of Lake Huron

North Channel of Lake Huron

Best thing we brought that we were told we wouldn’t need: 300 feet of high-test chain. When we need it, we need it.

No need to anchor in the Erie Canal

No need to anchor in the Erie Canal

DSCF0900Things we brought that we have since realized were slightly idiotic: nice shoes (since sent home with my brother); PAWS Easter-egg dying kit (all the eggs in Panama are brown!); Bowditch’s Navigation Guide, coming soon to a free book shelf near you; the three-tiered copper hanging basket that would wing all over the place when we were underway

Best homeschooling success: math.We love the books the kids are using, and we’ve managed to be very consistent in studying.

Hands-on homeschooling; old Spanish fort in Portobelo, Panama

Hands-on homeschooling; old Spanish fort in Portobelo, Panama

More school! Heading for the Met in NYC

More school! Heading for the Met in NYC

Worst homeschooling failure: music. It was a big financial investment to bring instruments along with us, and man, does the cello take up space; but the kids aren’t playing enough to make it work, and Michu and I are terrible music teachers. Although F was rockin’ it last night with the open mic guys…

Here we learn that the Washington Monument is very large.

Here we learn that the Washington Monument is very large.

Ugliest boat-administered haircut: It’s fine, you guys. I like the asymmetrical look. I know it was windy when you were cutting it. Thanks for trying, honey.

The first of many.

The first of many.

Best home-cooked meal: those first lobsters in the Berry Islands of the Bahamas. Talk about knowing you’ve arrived…

Best restaurant meal: the all-you-can-eat sushi in Great Bridge, at the entrance to the ICW. Sounds like it would be terrible, but every thing was made to order and amazing.

Fine boat cuisine.

Fine boat cuisine.

Worst meal: I think the reheated, formerly frozen sesame noodles on the fourth day of our passage from Jamaica to Panama. No one even pretended to eat them. Food for the fishes.

Best Ice Cream: Peace Pies in Charleston. It was one of those things where there were lots of other options, and they were kind of expensive, and we almost went somewhere else…but it was AMAZING

So good!!

So good!!

Worst boat injury (since cruising): T’s foot, on the very first night on the boat. It was a brutal cut, and took forever to heal.

Leaving Lake Michigan, under the Mackinac Bridge

Leaving Lake Michigan, under the Mackinac Bridge

Guna Yala

Guna Yala

Best fantasy inventions to improve cruising life: bug zapper that kills all biting insects in a 20-mile radius. Cabinet that constantly delivers fresh, hot pizza whenever you open it, or ice cream, or chai tea. Toilet seat that doesn’t twist at the hinges and break when being jolted around (Brynn, we expect to see some progress on this one).

Best Public Library: Cleveland. Shakespeare First Folio–and amazing graphic novel section!

Library of Congress. Also good.

Library of Congress. Also good.

DSCF0938Best snorkeling: we all have different answers for this one. The Aquarium off Bell Island in the Bahamas may have had the most dense fish population; Thunderball Grotto was amazing to swim into; the best corals were off Sirichidup. Impossible question. Next.

Cruising kids at Black Point

Cruising kids at Black Point

Favorite marina: you’d think it’d be some place with amazing pools and pristine showers and a great restaurant. Our favorite marina had none of those things: the guys at Homer Smith in Beaufort, NC, were fantastic.

Homer Smith in the morning

Homer Smith in the morning

South Manitou Island, MI. No marinas in sight.

South Manitou Island, MI. No marinas in sight.

Worst Marina of All Time: Southwind Marine, in Milwaukee, where we started. Remember how they wrecked our brand-new bow roller? And how our neighbor witnessed the whole thing? They never compensated us. Jerks.

Beauty in Jamaica

Beauty in Jamaica

Best place we went that we were told we couldn’t go: You guys, we’ve been told we couldn’t go to so many places with this boat. The Bahamas, with our draft; Guna Yala with no watermaker; the Rio Chagres, again with the draft. They were all amazing. Do your own research, and don’t listen to the naysayers.DSC_2067

Marina Life

By the time we leave to transit the Canal, we will have spent a total of 28 days at Shelter Bay Marina over the course of two and a half months. That’s the most time we’ve ever hung out at a single marina, or a single place. We’ve split it up—a week here, a week there—but it’s still a heck of a long time.

Just getting that settled-in look...

Just getting that settled-in look…

That’s not to say we haven’t enjoyed it. We find the marina to be well-run; the staff is helpful and knowledgeable, and they’re set up for long-term cruisers who need a pit stop. We know the free shuttle to Colon intimately, down to the bridge-over-the-locks versus wait-for-the-ferry route options. We can find all the weird-but-important stuff at the El Ray grocery store (coconut milk), and know what we shouldn’t bother to look for (whole wheat flour). We’ve had a surfeit of clean laundry.

A sight we haven't seen in years--a working phone booth

A sight we haven’t seen in years–a working phone booth

Our days at this marina have been pretty routine. We all seem to be sleeping in; maybe it’s the security of not worrying about the anchor, wind shifts or waves. Breakfast is relaxed and occasionally elaborate—we’ve got plenty of groceries and stove fuel, and there’s a small store at the end of the dock if we’re low on eggs. The kids and their designated adult head to the air-conditioned lounge around nine o’clock and take over a table near an electrical outlet. By noon, school is wrapping up; wifi and wanton screen time is creeping in. Lunch, reading, cleaning the boat, repair projects, and pool time fill the afternoon. Dinner tends to be eaten in the cockpit; being tied to a dock doesn’t give much chance for the breeze to blow the heat out of the boat, so it’s generally pretty sweltering down below by evening.

DSC_2227Because so many folks hang out here on a long-term basis (one boat full-time for four years, one for seven), there’s an organized calendar of activities on the wall just outside the bar. When we were here in April, there was something going on every night; despite the slower pace, as boats leave for the rainy season, there are still potlucks and open-mic nights and movies showing on a regular basis. We haven’t completely plunged into the social fray, but F is practicing up to join in with the musicians next Saturday, and we’ve met most of the regulars. Just like Georgetown, there’s morning yoga—this time led by a voice on an iPod—and Mexican train dominoes; there’s also an organized nature walk into the jungle, and daily water aerobics.

Time for a little engine maintenance, as well

Time for a little engine maintenance, as well

Many, many people come to this marina to haul out and fly back to the states for four to six months. This has resulted in four boats offloading groceries to us over the course of one week. We can’t decide if it’s because they read our blog and see how closely we track expenses, or if they just want to feed our kids; either way, we now have six separate packages of butter, three open jars of red pepper jelly, four ketchups currently in operation, and exotic luxuries such as powdered instant iced tea with lemon and cans of Coca Cola. What I really need is a dish that can use up pickles; we just don’t have room in the fridge for them all. I’m thinking potato salad with some of the bacon (two open packages) and lots of mustard (five open jars or packets).

We’ve also had the pleasure of finally meeting a boat whose blog we started following in our long-ago land life. Full Monty is on their way back to North Carolina after six years of sailing, primarily in the Pacific. At last, it was our turn to say—you know, I know all about you, we’ve followed your blog!

Ice cream party in the cockpit with our neighbors. Les brought over a tub from the cruise ship.

Ice cream party in the cockpit with our neighbors. Les brought over a tub from the cruise ship.

Finally, things are looking good for our transit. We’ve been in touch with a guy who rents lines and fenders, and it looks like we should have this covered for about $100. More importantly, we’re all set for line handlers! Our sign on the notice board outside of the office was spotted by an engineer on a small cruise ship at the marina, in for repairs. Les’ parents have retired to Panama, and are keen to go through the Canal; they’ve even managed to secure a third person for us. Not sure who’s more excited, them or us. Panama Canal, here we come!