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Monday, February 24, 2014

Panama to the Pacific

Our Panama Canal transit date of February 20 loomed and all around us in Shelter Bay Marina was frantic activity.  Yachts were being prepared, repaired, provisioned and polished as cruising sailors from all around the world readied for the canal transit and the Pacific Crossing.  It was wonderful to meet new friends and catch up with others we’d met in our travels including some as far back as 2007 in Greece!


Days were very full and usually started with a brisk early morning jungle walk spotting monkeys, toucans and other wildlife and ending with happy hour at the bar sharing stories with friends over $1 beers and $2 rums.  Bandit sometimes resembled a junk yard as lockers were emptied, cleaned and re-stowed tidily.  Of course on a cruising yacht things always go wrong and we had to deal with two major issues in Shelter Bay – firstly one of our two water tanks began to leak so we had to have a new one made.  Secondly a vital part of our auto pilot failed so we needed to replace that.



While David was busy on maintenance I was flat out sewing, bottling produce, making freezer meals and doing long term provisioning for the Pacific.   Phew – it was a hectic time, but enjoyable as the camaraderie of other cruisers really is special.  Just when you think your own problems are insurmountable you hear of issues others are having and, at the end of the day, we all managed to fix things.

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The transit went incredibly smoothly thanks to our first advisor who was calm and helpful – our second one didn’t do a thing but we’d figured it all out by then.  We also had the experience of sailing friend Paul from New Dawn.  We met Paul in Greece years ago and were delighted when he agreed to line handle for us.  Keeping us entertained was enthusiastic and quick learning Scottish backpacker Luke who delighted us with tales of his adventurous travelling – he is backpacking around the world on a budget of $4 a day!  Yes…$4!!!

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We rafted in a nest with two catamarans so only two line handlers were needed but it was great to have the extra hands ensuring there were no twists in the lines.  The first of the three Gatun locks was the scariest as we had no idea what to expect.  As we entered the line handlers on shore threw down a monkey fist which landed cleanly on the bow.  We tied this to our 125ft lines which were pulled ashore and secured.  We then had to keep tension on the lines as the nest rose. Our advisor was fantastic, talking us through it slowly and calmly.  Once the gates closed the water rushed in much faster than we expected.  We were behind a cargo ship so David had to deal with its prop wash as well as the rush of water. 


It didn’t take long to get through the three locks and into the massive manmade Gatun lake where we moored and our advisor left us.  We all tucked into a hearty meal and much needed ice cold beer before collapsing into bed.  It had been a long day with lots of waiting around.  Next morning we were woken by a chorus of howler monkeys at dawn and our next advisor arrived soon after. Tales of fussy advisors abound and I’d prepared plenty of food to ensure ours were satisfied and was incredibly nervous as this advisor oozed arrogance and I was sure he’d reject my food.  There is a story of one advisor who ordered in food at $200 expense to the boat because he was unhappy.  However both were delighted with my banana cake, chicken casserole and constant snacks and cold drinks.  Phew!  The long motor across the Gatun Lake was uneventful – we didn’t even spot an alligator.  Luke had raised our nerves with a long early morning swim in the lake. Motherly instinct kicked in and I didn’t approve but then figured if he’s backpacked through Russia, China, Africa and central America what’s an alligator or two?DSC_5246DSC_5240DSC_5252


Down locking at the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks was easier without the rush of inward flowing water to deal with – but we did have a massive car carrier right behind us which was disconcerting!


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The entire transit went very smoothly with no damage or injuries – always a relief to have another milestone behind us.  Dropping anchor in the Pacific off Panama City was an enormous relief and we treated ourselves to several rather large rums.


Now we’re sitting waiting for a weather window to head to the Galapagos and enjoying Panama City in the meantime.  As we will be without internet for the next few months as we cross the Pacific we’ll be updating the blog through our satellite phone – If you feel like following us on the final leg of our voyage home keep an eye out for updates and please, email us from time to time – we’ll be pretty lonely out there on the high seas!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pottering around in Panama

After several weeks in the San Blas Islands (there’s only so much time one can spend in paradise) we moved along the Panamanian coast to lovely Isle Grande.   It was a gorgeous spot with brightly coloured Caribbean boats and buildings, rainforest clad hills and a bustling waterfront scene with loads of atmospheric bars and cafes – a complete contrast from the quiet and cafe free San Blas.DSC_4911


 Best of all, we managed to hook into free wifi on board.  Wifi is a lifeline for cruisers – we all like to stay in touch with family and friends and keep up with current events.  We’d been starved of wifi in the San Blas so it was great to find it in Isle Grande.  There is nothing nicer than sitting on Bandit and skyping family! 


We’d sailed from Porvenir in the San Blas with French Canadian cruisers Jacques and Edith.  First morning in Isle Grande Edith swam over and announced we were walking up the hill to the lighthouse, designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel.   It was a steep hike  through lush jungle.  The lighthouse structure was not something that would have pleased New Zealand’s OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) being old, rusting and devoid of guard rails but the views from the top over the island, sea and mainland were magnificent.

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From Isle Grande we sailed to Portabelo, once a Spanish stronghold but today only crumbling ruins of the once magnificent forts remain.  We took a walk through the rather seedy and shabby town past rubbish where vultures perched picking at dog carcasses.  We soon learned that Panamanians simply dump their rubbish where it suits and, at some stage, a truck comes and collects it.  With tropical temperatures things can get a little smelly.  Once again Edith got us out walking and exploring the forts around the sheltered harbour.



We left Bandit in Panamarina near Portabelo for two weeks while we did some land travel.  First up was a couple of nights in Panama City where we eased ourselves back into the first world by staying at a luxury hotel (cheap internet deal) with endless water, satellite tv (for the Australian Open) and magnificent views over the city.  The touch of luxury was well deserved because our next stay was in a dorm room in a hostal in the agricultural city of David.  We hadn’t booked and arrived at David to find it full.  Enquiries revealed the annual Flower and Coffee Festival was on in nearby Boquete.  Frantic phone calls to various hotels came up with the same response – “full” – so the hostal it was.  Ah well, it had a swimming pool and a big screen tv for more of the Australian Open.




We did a day trip to Boquete for the festival and it was intriguing to see Panamanians in long, billowing and colourful traditional dress.   Boquete is where much of Panama’s coffee is grown and it is set in a beautiful valley in the mountains, but it was a touch too touristy for us.  It was much cooler than stifling David however.


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We also visited the tiny mountain retreat of Sante Fe, up a picturesque winding road from Santiago past tiny villages, cattle ranches and banana plantations.  Santé Fe really was lovely, much nicer than Boqeute – no modern cafes, supermarkets, bars or tourists here – just lots of outdoor activities and hiking trails.


Taking local advice we headed to an organic finca (farm) out of town.   Maria and Chon were amiable hosts but didn’t speak a word of English so we had to work very hard at our Spanish.  The couple grew all manner of fruit and vegetables including coffee and Chon demonstrated the entire coffee picking, drying, sorting and roasting process to us, then made us a fresh cup of his delicious brew.  Maria meanwhile was cooking us lunch – homegrown pork, crispy plantains, fresh broccoli, tomato and choko salad and beans and rice – yum!  We needed a good walk to work that off and so headed to the nearby river for a cooling dip.


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A blog about Panama would not be complete with a few photos of the wonderful chicken buses – the most decorated we’ve seen since Guatemala.  And yes, we did ride on them – some trips more memorable than others!  The worst thing about chicken bus drivers is they tend to race with one another so you are in for a thrilling ride with lots of horn tooting and yelling out the windows!




We’re now in Shelter Bay marina busy working our way through the endless list of jobs that need to be done before transiting the Panama Canal in a few weeks.  More about that next blog!