Back to Panama and our transit through the Canal

Goodbye Caribbean…

We arrived back in Panama after an uneventful sail from Cuba and anchored for the night in the anchorage outside Shelter Bay Marina. The next morning we went in to check in and find our pen as we were going to be here until we crossed through to the Pacific.

We found our friends Stuart and Sondra from SV White Wings and managed to secure the pen next door to them so we headed back in the dinghy to get Indian Summer. As we rounded the bay I said to Ian that she wasn’t there which he didn’t believe until he turned round and to his horror saw that I was right. SHE WASN’T THERE!! We motored round further and saw her about 60m off the rocky coast line and our hearts sank. For the first time ever we had dragged…. We raced back and saw that the old solar panels off the back had gone, there was a huge scrape along her water line which had removed a section of antifoul and part of our stripe and our frame which held the new solar panels was hanging off the back. We had hit something…. Within a couple of minutes another dinghy came over and told us we had run into her, they had pushed her away and watched in shock as she headed straight for the rocks. Miraculously she had re-anchored herself. We clambered onboard and found glass all over the deck from the broken solar panels which had disappeared- they didn’t work and acted as our bait table but the frame with our new panels had to be tied up to prevent it from collapsing. We told the other boat we were heading into the marina to assess the damage and they said they would follow us in.

Ester trying to untangle the boats!

Stuart was there to take our lines and once we were safely tied up we tried to understand what had happened. We had pulled back as always on the chain to 2,500 revs which we always did, we had been there for over 24 hours very firm and the weather was not too bad – about 25knts. The only thing that could have happened was we had a foul anchor, which means we had anchored on top of a tyre or something else that had shifted. We found out later that anchorage was used as a dumping ground which is why so many people use the marina.

We went over to the other boat, a lovely Swiss couple called Christian and Ester. They had pulpit damage (the stainless frame that runs around the bow of the boat) and our frame had damaged their sail. They were also not on board when it happened and came back to find their bow wedged imbetween Indian Summer’s bows.

We contacted the insurance company and got the marina to give us quotes. The damage was not as expensive as we thought, and so we decided to pay for ours as our deductible is $8000, and only go through the insurance company for the Swiss couple.

An assessor came down from Panama city and we set about getting everything fixed. We lucked out because Shelter Bay have a stainless steel guy, a sailmaker and a Gel coat repairer. Their chain had caused the damage on our hull and gouged a chunk out of our rudder which Ian fixed on the dock.

2 weeks later, all repairs done and Christian and Ester’s boat all fixed up too and we were able to plan our transit through the canal. It was a very unfortunate event but we were so lucky she stopped just short of the rocks because if she hadn’t stopped, we would have likely lost her completely.

Our time at Shelter Bay was spent socialising , working on the boat, preparing the the transit and provisioning for the long sail across the Pacific. We became good friends with Christian and Ester who were very understanding and we have arranged to catch up in French Polynesia.

We dined with Stuart and Sondra most nights, and played Mexican Train dominoes on Sundays. There were pot luck bbq’s, social drinks and jungle walks and even a swimming pool to escape the heat. Our friends Paul.and Kirsten from SV Ikigai came in and also Brian and Mel from SV Sava who we went round the San Blas with so it was a very sociable 3 weeks just a bit stressful!

Mexican Train Dominoes with Stuart and Sondra

One of many dinners shared

Sums up Shelter Bay nicely

We took a few days out to go into Panama City. We caught the courtesy bus from the marina to Colon and picked up the public bus – we paid the grand sum of $3.50 and within an hour and a half were in the main bus depot in Panama City. Like all large cities in Central and South America, there is ‘the old city’ which tends to be much prettier and caters for the tourists so we headed straight there to find a hotel. As soon as we were settled we headed out to explore. Found it quite quiet compared to Cartagena and Antigua (Guatemala) but the architecture was gorgeous and there were lots of little bars and restaurants to choose from. We found lots of places to buy our Panana hats and had lunch in a lovely little bar that Stuart had told us about.

Panama hats galore..
and yes, we bought one each!

That night we wandered around looking for somewhere nice to have dinner and found a small restaurant that serves delicious Panamanian dishes. It was still early so went for a walk and found a lovely bar with a narrow balcony overlooking the street. We met a South African couple who were living on a private island in Bocas del Toro and were invited to go and stay, but sadly we had been there and hadn’t got time to visit again. A fun night, drinking passionfruit daiquiris, and putting the world to right.

Our very narrow balcony in Panama City

The next day I realised that Sandra and Stuart were headed for Bocas and I had forgotten to tell our new friends – it would have been fabulous for them to stay on an island there.

We went to the Panama canal museum which was huge, and very informative. It took a couple of hours to get through and I was amused that someone had put masks on some of the exhibits. The canal certainly took a long time and cost many lives to build, the monetary cost was also ridiculous but I guess they are getting that back now with some tankers paying $1,000,000 just to transit.

A 2020 addition to an exhibit

The day we headed back to the main bus station to return to Colon. As we were getting out of the taxi we heard our names and there were our South African friends from the restaurant! I was so happy to be able to give them Stuart’s number – incredible that we bumped into them again.

We had a couple hours spare so we went to the Allbrook mall attached to the bus terminal. It was one of the biggest malls I had ever seen. It took about half an hour to walk from one end to the other and hundreds of shops. We bought some sandals for Ian and some clothes for me and then found the Super 99 supermarket. Wow, it was impressive – we bought lots of things We couldn’t find in Colon for our Pacific trip and boarded the bus laden with bags.

Allbrook Mall is so big they have different animals at each entrance as a reference. We entered here!

With only few days before our canal transit, we booked a couple of linehandlers, who were backpackers from Germany. We checked everything, filled the freezer full with meat, stacked the space under the bed with beer and wine and filled up with diesel. Waved a sad farewell to Stuart and Sondra who were heading to Bocas and spent our last night in the Caribbean with Paul and Kirsten who we first met in Turkey nearly 2 years ago.

The day had arrived – The Panama Canal

This would be our third canal. Suez, Corinth and now the Panama. It’s the only one with locks and its not as long as Suez. The cost is ridiculous-we paid A$2800 to transit- a journey of only 40 miles including 6 locks.

The canal took 10 years to complete and was the 2nd attempt. The French tried in 1880 at a huge cost of $285,000,000 and took over 20,000 lives – more than any other project. They failed due to mismanagement, disease, harsh geographic conditions and the heat. In 1903 Panama declared independence from Colombia and made a treaty with the United States to build again. This time they succeeded. It took 10 years, used the labour of 75,000 men and women and cost almost $400 million to finish. There were around 5,600 deaths but it is believed there were many more. It opened to traffic in 1914. The Panama Canal was cut through the narrowest part of land separating North and South America and is an incredible feat of engineering. We were so excited about our transit – a right of passage for nearly all circumnavigators. Some brave souls still go round Cape Horn.

Our linehandlers rocked up at lunchtime and at 2pm we let our lines go and motored into the anchorage to wait for our pilot to board. We were to be drafted up to 2 other boats, with a huge 65ft catamaran in the middle. At 5pm the pilot arrived and I was pleased that we had the only female pilot to take us through. As we approached the first lock – Gatun – we all stopped and rafted up. We were on the port side which was lucky as the camera points that way.

Kirsty our pilot boarding.

I quickly texted the kids as it was 8am the next morning in Australia. They watched on-line as we entered Gatun lock. I waved but the image was too blurred to see me. The kids rang and told us they could see us – it was really cool for them and us to be able to see their parents live going through the Panama Canal.

We are the smaller cat nearest the camera

There are 3 Gatun locks – and we shared our lock space with a huge container ship. The big ships literally have a couple of feet either side and there’s an even wider canal next door for the mega ships.

A very tight fit for the big ships

The walls look very imposing bearing down but in no time we rise up and are level. There are guys on the top of the wall who through lines to the most protruding boat – in our case the 65ft cat – and they are then held by the linehandlers and pulled in as we rise. It’s very simple but we had to watch our hulls as we went pretty close to the concrete wall a couple of times. Part of the exhorbitant cost was the rent of 6 massive fenders so we were not that worried.

The guys on the wall throwing the lines to us.

We ended up going through the final Gatun lock in the dark and made our way to a huge mooring ball in the middle of Gatun lake where we tied up for the night. We had to prepare a good dinner for the pilot and the line handlers as we had been warned that if we didn’t give them a proper meal they would order one in from Panama city and charge us $350! We had a bbq with lots of meat for the guys which they seemed to enjoy. Our German backpackers crashed in the saloon and our Panamanian linehandler slept in the cockpit because our spare cabins were full of junk! They all slept well though and in the morning another pilot was dropped off and we set off for the Miraflores locks.

It takes about 7 hours to motor across the lake and we arrived about 3pm. Again we all rafted up and went through using the middle boats engines with us in neutral.

Entering the first of Miraflores locks…

Within about an hour we were through and we all watched very excited as the last lock opened to reveal the Pacific ocean – the other side of which lay Australia….

The pilot and the linehandlers were dropped off at Balboa yacht club but Maxim and Lisa, our backpackers stayed with us another night. We headed onto the main anchorage and had dinner on board. The next morning Ian went to check out the chandlers and us three took the bus into Panama city to Albrook mall – they were heading to Colombia and I was getting some last minute provisions.

Our delightful German line handlers Maxim and Lisa

We would have liked to stay a couple of days and explore more of Panama City but we needed to be in the Galapagos within a couple of weeks so we headed off the next morning for the Las Perlas islands. Even though we had checked out of Panama, because we still had a cruising permit they said we could spend few days at the islands. The agent in Galapagos had made it very clear that we needed a very clean bottom with no barnacles at all or we would be refused entry until we had. Some boats arrive at San Cristobal and get sent back to sea to scrape their hulls and then have to pay again so we decided to beach her somewhere in the islands and thoroughly clean her. We chose one of the first and as there was a great beach well protected and the high tide was during the day.

It’s always nerve wracking to beach your boat as you are totally at the mercy of the water and the current but we made it without a hitch and set about checking her. We were glad we did as there were quite a few even though we only antifouled her 6 weeks ago.

Indian Summer sitting quite snug on the beach

We spent a few idyllic days in the Las Perlas islands as we seemed to have most of them to ourselves. Most of them are uninhabited and have small beaches with some good hiking trails so we would go ashore and spend the days exploring.

One of the hiking trails we found
We were never alone – our constant companions at the Las Perlas

The largest island was Isla Del Rey and we found a very small village on the northern side called San Miguel. It had one shop and we were befriended by a local who took us to the local watering hole where all the villagers would wash and do their laundry. There’s something very special about these villages who live off-grid – no paved roads, electricity or plumbing. They are always laughing and very welcoming to visitors which makes us feel particularly welcome as we only spend a few dollars in their shop which had literally nothing. They did have some 2 stroke oil so we bought a couple of jugs and some basics. No vegetables or meat but I would imagine I could have bought fish somewhere.

Typical of all the island villages, everything revolves around the water and down by the waterfront is where all the action happens. A rotunda with million dollar views acts as the local ‘hang out’ for the men and doorsteps are the local ‘hang out’ for the women. There’s always a school, a church and a shop but apart from that no other employment so the men all fish for a living – they are in serious competition with the sea birds here though!

Life revolves around the beach – boats and nets are their sole livelihood.

Our super friendly guide – he was so thrilled to show us his village.
The local rotunda where all the men gather every evening.

After a couple of weeks it was time to head off to the Galapagos. 5 days with forecasted good weather, lots of food on board and all equipment and rig checked by Ian – time to set off…..

2 thoughts on “Back to Panama and our transit through the Canal

  1. JerryW April 6, 2022 / 8:34 am

    Sorry to hear of your accident, Melian.. I am having a bit of trouble understanding what happened. Surely in the photo, the bow of the other boat has collided with your stern, not yours colliding with theirs?


    • svindiansummerblog April 6, 2022 / 2:00 pm

      Well – because we dragged our anchor we went backwards and hit their bow – ut was very unfirtunate but lucky as well – it’s an unforgiving bay. Not many people use it unless they are on board waiting for transit as it’s full of junk and we think our anchor got caught in something – we don’t really know. Got a lovely new stainless steel frame though! Hugs xx


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