Wednesday 16 February - Wednesday 1 March - Bonaire to Panama and the Canal
Wednesday 16 February
We spend the morning out with one of the local dive shop boats, snorkelling on the reef at Klein Bonaire, a small island off the coast. Caroline and Nick escort Sarah, and I escort Hannah, as we patrol the coral, seeing all manner of brightly coloured fish including parrot and puffer fish. Mark also sighted a barracuda, and proceeded smartly along after wishing it a good day.
It is wonderful to see the pleasure that the girls get from watching the undersea world. Hannah only learned to snorkel at the beginning of the trip, and has come on in leaps and bounds since then. They are very quick to record it all, with pictures, in their daily diaries, which will be such a source of pleasure to them in years to come.
In the evening we have dinner at a good local restaurant and head back to the yacht, all set for the onward journey to Panama the next day. On the way back along the promenade, we pass what feels like the whole population of the island taking part in a ‘jump up’, following an open sided truck which driving slowly along, literally vibrating with the rhythm of the steel band on board. Behind and alongside the truck everyone is dancing. They are fuelled by truck number two, just behind, which is distributing free cans of Amstel beer to everyone who wants one. What a place!
Thursday 17 February
We get cracking early to prepare the boat for the passage to Panama. We have been warned that this passage is always quite bouncy, especially at this time of year. I have been checking in regularly with David Jones, who runs an excellent weather net on the SSB, and he has told us to expect reinforced Trade winds. So we need to strap everything down and set up for a roller-coaster ride.
We do the final fill with water and sadly hand back the telephone. What a joy its been having a fast modem connection on board, if only for a few days. What a geek I have become!
We set off just before lunch, and have a lovely reach in the lee of the island, before the wind and waves start to pick up and we are soon surfing at 9 knots on a broad reach.
By nightfall we have sunk the lights on first Curacao then Aruba behind us, and are headed out into the deep water. We pass the entrance to the huge Golfo Venezuela, and cross into Colombian territorial waters. At about midnight, I am on watch and puzzling at the strange behaviour of the lights of a ship on the nose, about 3 miles away. First it seems to be going across our bows, then it stops, alters course to starboard and head under our lee. It is very hard to see what type of ship it is. For the next 15 minutes, it continues to manoeuvre around us, in a highly erratic pattern. Then alarmingly, it sweeps North of us, and arcs around heading right for us, with a very bright searchlight flashing at us. I am a bit blinded at first, but in one of the periods when the flashing has stopped, the moonlight helps me to pick out the shape of a warship. We flick the radio onto Channel 16, and sure enough, a crisp American military voice comes up, say they are a warship, and asks us to identify ourselves. We tell them who we are and give them a few details about the boat and the passengers on board. Satisfied, they switch back down to minimal lights and glide off into the darkness, a grey ghost. We guess they are looking for drug smugglers, as we had been told of the considerable Navy and Coast guard effort that covers the Caribbean, and in particular the Colombian waters.
Friday 18 February
As we achieve the distance I want off the Colombian coast, we swing round to point Westward for a while, before further altering course down to the South West and Panama. The wind is steady at 25 knots, and the sea is moderate with about 8 foot waves.
We spot a couple of Portuguese Man-o-war jelly fish floating on the waves. They have a pink crinkly ridge, and are full of air, so get blown around on the surface, looking just like a Prawn cocktail crisp packet.
Saturday 19 February
Today the Americas Cup finals start in Auckland. Whilst in Antigua, we had become riveted by the exciting final of the Challenger trophy between Prada and AmericaOne. An epic battle, resolved only in the last race. The atmosphere was intensified by the fact that we were watching on Satellite TV in the Dry Dock, a yachty bar in Falmouth harbour full of partisan Italians and Americans. When Prada won, it was quite a moment. It means that for the first time ever there will not be an American yacht competing in the AC final. It also means that there is a chance that the cup will come to the Mediterranean, which is exciting.
Here on the Duck, we develop our own drama, as the promised winds arrive, and in fact build to be stronger than forecast, with accompanying very big seas. We are reefed right down on both main and headsail, with the headsail boomed out to port. The winds build to the point where they are averaging 35 knots true (about 25 apparent at our current average speed of 10 knots). The seas have built to the point where the average wave is a good 15 feet high, and the occasional monster 25 footer arrives.
It becomes quite a fight to keep the boat pointing dead downwind, and 2 hours each is the maximum we are able to stay at the wheel before needing a break.
Through the night the winds are steady at this speed. The highest gust touches 48 knots true. The seas continue to build, but we are lucky to have a full moon, which helps with visibility. On deck, it feels like being on a big surfboard, as the Duck is picked up by a wave and surfs down the back, accelerating as she goes with a roar of rushing water. In between the roaring, there is the constant hissing of the wind, which is blowing spray off the tops of the waves. Down below, the motion feels mainly steady, but the odd big wave tends to throw her around. In general, though, the Duck is coping very well. The fact that we have the jib poled out helps enormously with directional stability, keeping her nose pointing safely downwind as she surfs at top speed down the waves.
I contemplate trying to slow her down. After considering the options, I realise that she is probably safest rigged just as she is. If I took one or other of the sails down, but not both, she would start to yaw all over the place, and the waves would probably lay her on her beam ends. Taking all the sails down and just surfing under poles would be an option, but the motion would be more uncomfortable.
In Nick, Mark and Caroline, we have good helms who are well able to keep up the concentration and keep her under control. This is the key to safe sailing in these conditions, and they all do a great job.
Besides, the exhilaration is something else. Throughout the night, we had been having an informal competition to see who got the best speed as she surfed down the backs of the waves. Nick kicked off with 13.4 knots, beating the previous trip record held by my brother Andrew, established on the first night of the Atlantic crossing. I then hit 14, Mark hit 15, then, just after dawn, the record was established. I had just been on the radio talking to David Jones to find out about the days weather prognosis, and Caroline was standing in for me on the helm. As I came back into the cockpit to take the helm back from her, I glanced aft just as I was in the act of taking the wheel. An enormous wave was towering over the cockpit. I spun the wheel to point down the back of the wave, and we took off down it like a cork out of a champagne bottle. The bow had sheets of spray shooting high either side as she continued on a seemingly endless surf. Caroline called the speed out, "14.. 15…16…. 17.4 KNOTS!!!. " (see photo of instrument with stored ‘Max speed) Unbelievably exhilarating, and last experienced on the Hunter 707 ‘ Take the Weather’ , with a full racing crew and a spinnaker up in the Solent. We wonder if it is the highest speed recorded on the Duck in recent years. I remember JJ having a fast run back to Malta under spinnaker in the last leg of the Middle Sea Race 1998, when 17 knots was mentioned. Better check with him.
The wind and waves continue for most of the day, but as David predicted, it started to die down to a more sedate 30 knots by the evening, and by Sunday morning it was a steady 25 knots.
Sunday 20 February
A much more relaxed day, with 25 knots all day and much reduced seas. Lots of sleep all round catching up after the excitement of Saturday’s speeds.
Monday 21 February - In Colon, Panama Canal zone Lat 9 deg 30 North, Lon 80 West
Increased shipping is a sign that we are approaching the Canal zone. By lunchtime, we sight land. It is Punta Manzanillo, 30 miles from the Canal and we start to work our way along the coast to the West, in the hope of making it into the Canal entrance by nightfall.
By early evening we are at the massive breakwaters that mark the entrance to the canal. We shorten sail in stages and contact the Canal control tower on VHF channel 12, and they tell us that we can proceed straight in to moor up in the Cristobal harbour on the Atlantic side to complete procedures for transiting.
As we come in through the breakwater, a massive downpour descends on us reducing visibility down to a few hundred yards. Nick is on the helm and I am piloting in from buoy to buoy, as we peer through the rain. Moving slowly under engine. We are constantly informed of shipping movements in our immediate area, and there is one pilot who is moving a ship past us in the channel who is particularly attentive and informs us of his progress every few minutes to avoid collision.
Soon we are in the area where yachts can wait for transit. There are two options; you can anchor in an area known as ‘The Flats’ by the mouth of the canal, or you can try and find a space at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. We did the latter, and found an outside berth next to a Vanuatu registered cruiser. We moor up and secure the lines, tidy up and repair to the bar for a drink and some supper.
Everyone is fairly tired after a really tough passage, but also elated to have arrived here with the excitement of the transit to look forward to. We crash out very early and sleep for over 11 hours! Next week we will hopefully be able to tell you how we got on with the transit and maybe post the first pictures of the Duck in the Pacific Ocean…..
Bird’s Eye View – Monday 21 February
Our two months among the Caribbean islands have come to an end all too quickly. We’ve covered a lot of distance during that time and have visited some lovely islands – all surprisingly different despite their proximity to each other. Without exception we found friendly, welcoming people who did all they could to make us feel at home. The taxi drivers in particular looked upon themselves as unofficial tour guides and were full of information (and gossip) about the local life. They were also especially helpful and never minded having to wait for an hour or so for me to do the provisioning run, before taking me and my bags back to the boat. So it was with a tinge of sadness that we finally waved goodbye to all the grannies and grandpas in English Harbour to sail away westwards, but with excitement too, as the Pacific is the great unknown for us and perhaps the real beginning of our adventure.
The first thing we notice is how we’ve lost our sea legs – apart from the odd day’s sail between islands we’ve done nothing of any great distance since the Atlantic, and we feel like novices again. We’ve been forewarned about this leg, however, and Lazy Duck is suitably strapped in down below. We’re running down wind the whole way, which means that with our fin keel (designed for fast upwind sailing) we yaw and rock from side to side and it’s a couple of days before we settle into the motion. The girls are delighted however, as school is suspended for the time being until our stomachs harden enough to concentrate on the niceties of mathematics. Instead they spend their time devouring their mound of new books and tapes brought out by their grandparents to replenish their reading material.
We were glad after three days to get into Bonaire to escape the squally weather. We were especially looking forward to the snorkelling there as the reefs are part of a well cared for marine park. We weren’t disappointed and had an excellent morning looking out for new fish to add to our collection of coral fish drawings. Sarah and I particularly enjoyed watching a huge rainbow parrotfish sedately swimming among the corals, taking the odd mouthful from the rocks. We could hear the crunching of its teeth as it took each bite, despite being some distance away from it. We were also interested to watch the black durgons swimming singly or sometimes in pairs, who appeared to be herding large schools of smaller white fish as they fed on the thick plankton. Our best sight was coming back from the reef in the speed boat, putting up the flying fish as we zoomed through the water. They would leap out of the water and fly next to the boat for anything up to 100 metres, exactly matching our speed of about 30 knots.
After a two day break we set off again – final destination the Panama Canal. We were delighted to find that the rain didn’t follow us this time and our first day or so was relatively peaceful and sunny. But by the end of the second day the wind was picking up and the swell increased with it. Moving about down below meant running the gauntlet of the waves, trying to find the split second pause when the boat had tilted one way, in order to dash across the saloon before it lurched right over onto the other side, flinging anything or anyone that wasn’t firmly tied down across the cabin. A number of pretty salads and cups of tea ended up upside down on the floor before I finally resorted to feeding everybody with nourishing hot slop in bowls.
Up on deck the sailing was exhilarating. Lazy Duck was shooting down the waves at high speed, sending wild spray in all directions with the helmsman hanging onto the wheel for dear life trying to keep her steady in a straight line. When I went on watch Jonathan told me to keep an eye out behind me so that I could judge when the waves were going to take us, but I just kept my eyes firmly trained forwards, and usually firmly shut. The sight of 12 foot breakers looming over my head would have sent me scuttling for the safety of the saloon. (It was while I was on watch that one such wave sneakily lifted one of our life rings out of its cradle and carried it away!) Throughout the 36 hours of these fun and games the four helms had a competition going – each one coming off watch with yet another speed record to amaze those of us down below. By Sunday morning I had just equalled my father’s extraordinary 15 knots when Jonathan came to take over from me. At that very moment we were swept up by two consecutive monsters, one taking us to 16.6 and the next to 17.4 knots. We were travelling so fast down the wave that the sails blew inwards and the spray reached half way up the mast. At that point Jonathan was universally acknowledged to be the winner as no-one else could contemplate going any faster than that.
Thankfully the wind eventually began to die down and our run towards Colon during the last day was in perfect conditions – glorious sunshine, calm seas and 25 knots of wind. The last night was finally peaceful enough for everyone to catch up on some much needed sleep. Everyone that is, except for Hannah who had blissfully slept through everything for a solid 10 hours every night!
Tuesday 22 February
We woke up in the Panama Yacht Club in Colon fully refreshed after a really long sleep. A brief explore reveals a rather ramshackle place which has clearly seen better days. The pontoons are all broken up in places, there are bare electrical wires hanging loose, and many of the bollards do not look as though they would hold a yacht in any serious blow.
On the other hand, the place has a certain charm. The restaurant run by a Chinese family produces excellent food at unbelievably cheap prices. A huge steak, potatoes, and salad costs $5. It’s a relief after the inflated prices in the Caribbean. And the company is interesting. Long term cruisers of every nationality, all sitting on the restaurant porch swopping stories and plans. We make friends with Eric, a doctor from Miami who is cruising, sometimes on his own, sometimes with crew. He gives us a comprehensive briefing on the Colon scene, which is very helpful. The area is crime ridden and if you walk out of the safety of the club, you need to take plenty of precautions, i.e. no jewellery, look poor and unkempt (not difficult for us at this stage) etc. Or take a taxi, again unbelievably cheap.
Wednesday 23 – Sunday 27 February
The next few days were all about preparing the yacht for transit, and trying to stay sane as our transit time got shifted around a few times.
To transit the canal as a yacht, you have to register with the Transit authority who will send an official measurer to measure the yacht. You then pay a fee based on the length, and wait to be allotted a slot by the chief scheduler. Yachts usually transit the 51 mile canal in groups of two or three tied together, occupying the locks with a small or medium sized ship. Each yacht has to have a trainee pilot called an advisor on board, and also four line handlers. There is usually a shortage of advisors, so yachts have been known to wait up to three weeks to get through. We had been told that using an agent can speed things up and cut through the queue. So we signed up with one who sorted out our paperwork for us. At the end of the day however, you are at the mercy of the supply and demand for advisors, and we still had to wait a week.
During the wait, we had managed a trip up to Portobelo, which lived up to its name, and is the port off which Sir Francis Drake had been buried at sea. We also went to see some films at the local cinema, which Sarah and Hannah sat through and enjoyed despite watching the whole thing in Spanish.
After several false alarms ("You are DEFINITELY going tomorrow…" started on Thursday and happened every day) which tested the patience somewhat, we finally got a firm slot for Monday 28th Feb.
Monday 28 February
At last its here, and my early morning call to Cristobal Signal station confirms that we will transit today.
We have all been looking forward to this day for some time. Our interest is based on more than just the functional desire to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific and start the next phase of the journey Westwards. We are also really fascinated to see the Canal itself in operation.
A friend from Monitor, Dan Ostrower, had recommended an excellent book called ‘The Path Between the Seas’ by David McCullough, published by Simon and Schuster. It is a work of historical journalism which describes the building of the canal. It covers the early French attempt starting in 1880, led by Ferdinand de Lesseps. He was the hero of the Suez Canal, but was defeated by Panama. The French effort was ravaged by disease and eventually terminated by financial failure and a corruption scandal.
It goes on to tell the story of the successful American effort driven through largely by the determination of President Theodore Roosevelt. This included the American supported revolution and secession from Colombia. It describes the superb work by Gorgas, the medical officer, in defeating Yellow Fever and Malaria, and the incredible engineering required for the lock system, led by Goethals. The first ship transited the canal eventually in 1914.
A brilliant book which I recommend highly. Thanks Dan.
These are interesting times in Panama. After completion the USA had control of the Canal Zone, an area either side of, and including the canal which was sovereign US territory. The Canal workers were largely American. In 1979, Jimmy Carter completed negotiations on a new treaty in which it was agreed that on 31 December 1999, the Canal would be handed back to the Panamanian people to manage. This has just happened as planned, with Jimmy presiding over the handover. Now, when out running, I see plenty of fellow runners wearing T-shirts with the slogan ‘El Canal es Nuestro…’
According to everything I have read, the transition has gone well and the Canal management is excellent.
Diary of a Canal Transit
0430: Wake up and start to prepare the yacht for transit. We have four 125 foot lines that we have borrowed from the agent for the transit. They need to be rigged so that they can sustain significant load that will pull from almost vertically upwards at some points during the process.
As each yacht requires four line handlers, we have invited and Israeli man called Kedem, who we met in the Yachts club. He is interested in doing the transit, and although not an experienced sailor, he proves very quick to learn the double sheet bend knot that he will need to tie quickly to secure his line.
It is still dark but from the anchorage we can see floodlit ships travelling slowly to and fro in the channel. Their slow-moving lights are surrounded by the much faster red blue and white lights of the pilot and tug boats which buzz around them like moths.
0530: Our transit advisor, Camillo, arrives, delivered by a pilot launch. As advisor, he is responsible for guiding us through the transit. He is a trainee pilot, on his way to being qualified to take the big ships through.
We are excited, but I must admit to being a little apprehensive. The Canal transit does not always go smoothly for yachts. We are a tiny and somewhat insignificant player in a process that involves massive forces of water, and huge tonnages of cargo. In one of the most notorious cases of yachting grief in the Canal, Connie Van Rietschoen's Whitbread winner ‘Flyer’ was all but destroyed in a bad transit accident. This lovely yacht was crushed against the Canal wall through a combination of rope failure and other problems. Since then apparently, the authorities have tightened up procedures.
0630: We have upped anchor and are waiting at the entrance to Gatun Locks.
These locks will step us up 85 feet to the level of the Gatun Lake, a massive freshwater lake fed by the diverted Chagres river. We then proceed through the Gatun lake and surrounding jungle for 30 miles. Then we are lowered back down to the level of the Pacific ocean via two sets of locks, the Pedro Miguel locks and the Miraflores locks.
The system used for the Canal is in fact the one proposed originally by the French Baron Lepinay way back at the beginning of the French attempt. He realised that a sea level canal was impractical, and after years of procrastination, so did the Americans.
The ingenuity of the Canal lies in the fact that the locks are filled with fresh water from the lake. This both raises or lowers the level in the lock, and at the same time creates the necessary hydroelectric power to drive the gates and the little electric locomotives that pull the ships along the locks.
We are to pass through in the centre of the chamber, attached by lines to another yacht which is transiting, Jane and Harry in their Yacht ‘Cormorant’. As we are the bigger yacht, Camillo has control of the two boat ‘nest’ as we gently nudge it in to the lock entrance. We are in the lock behind a Sport Fishing boat, and also behind a massive container ship called ‘Asante’. Asante is a ‘Panamax’ carrier, so called because it was built to the maximum spec possible for carrying trade through the Canal. So it’s a tight squeeze, especially as it is fully laden. Camillo explains that at the lowest point, this massive ship will only have 6 inches of clearance off the bottom of the lock!
0700: We are at the entrance to the Gatun Locks. This is perhaps the most dramatic single sequence in the process, as we are raised 85 feet in such a short distance. We motor in and position ourselves to receive the lines that will be thrown down to us. These are heaving lines with a round ball (the ‘monkeys fist’) on the end. They are thrown with some accuracy by the lock line handlers down on the boat. One of them did manage to land his monkeys fist on Sarah, despite the fact that she was sheltering behind the dinghy with hardly any of her exposed. We then have to tie our big heavy lines to the heaving line with a sheet bend , and the lock line handlers then attach us safely to the bollards, so that we are secure when all the water rushes in.
As we are nested with ‘Cormorant’ only our Port line handlers are actually operational for the Gatun Lock. The starboard side is covered by the handlers on ‘Cormorant’. Nick and Mark do the honours. Once we are through Gatun Lake and ready to be descended to the Pacific, we will be on our own, as Cormorant is planning to moor up at the Pedro Miguel Yacht club in Gatun Lake for a few days.
We have been warned that there are to main points of danger. On the ascent up through Gatun, yachts are positioned behind ships. The danger comes at the end of each lock filling. Then the big ship in front starts its engines, and the wash from the massive prop can create a 7 knot current that can cause you to yaw all over the place. On the descent through Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, yachts are positioned in front of the ships. Now the danger comes when the ship enters the lock behind you, displacing millions of gallons of water in the process and creating a current of similar force.
In our case, we face a reduced risk. This is because the ‘Asante’ in front of us is so heavily laden that she hardly uses her own propulsion at all. She is either pulled by tugs, or hauled along by the small electric locomotives that are used to move ships from lock to lock.
0930: By this time we are through the Gatun locks, and we are able to look back at the magnificent view of the three steps up we have taken, and watch a ship approach the entrance far below in the Atlantic. Quite a sight.
Now we are able to shed the lines attaching us to ‘Cormorant’ and get sailing through the lake. Camillo is keen to press on in order to ensure that we can make the transit in one day. If we are unable to make good speed, we will need to overnight at anchor in Gamboa Reach. This is not in fact an unattractive option. It is stunningly beautiful up here in the lake and there are all sorts of exciting jungly noises to entertain us. But Mark and Nick have flights to catch, so we decide against this.
We pull out the headsail, and make fast progress through the ‘Banana Cut’, touching 9 knots in one gust. What a lovely sight the lake and the jungle make in the sunshine. The girls eyes are glued to the tree-line which we can almost reach out and touch in parts. They are hoping to see a three-toed sloth, which can apparently be seen occasionally swinging from the branches. We certainly see abundant bird life of every type, especially pelicans, vultures, and different hawks and buzzards.
1300: We have enjoyed a great motor sail through the lake. Now we approach the famous Gaillard Cut at Culebra. This 8 mile long passage needed to be cut straight through the hills of the Great Continental Divide. It was carved through rock and shale for most of its distance. The construction of this cut was marred by devastating slides, and many lives were lost in the process. Here, after the more natural beauty of the Lake, the canal starts to look more like a man-made ditch.
1330: We arrive at Pedro Miguel locks. We enter on our own, in front of the Asante. Camillo is well pleased with our progress, as by staying ahead of the Asante we have managed to ensure that we will complete the transit in one day.
The lockage at Pedro Miguel goes very smoothly, and soon we are into Miraflores lake, which is a short hop down to Miraflores locks. This is the last series of lock gates between us an the Pacific Ocean. We are nearly there.
1415: We end up having a bit of a wait here, as the Asante is slow to transit Pedro Miguel. Eventually we are ready, and we proceed through.
For this lock, we have donned out team Red T-shirts, and hoisted the Big Red Battle Flag, with the Maltese Cross. This is because a friend, David Manrique has very kindly come down to the Lock to take some photos of our transit, so we want the Duck to look her best.
We spot David in he Visitors pavilion and give him a wave. He gets a good shot of us moving into position.
1600: We see the Pacific Ocean at last. As the last Lock gates in Miraflores open, the last few bends in the Canal are revealed. We quickly round these and see the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the Canal at the entrance to the Pacific, and is the only permanent road link from North to South America. We are delighted to get our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.
A pilot launch comes out to pick up Camillo.
We motor down to the bridge, and just after we have passed underneath it we see the yachts moored off the Balboa Yacht club, our destination for the night. We pick up a mooring, and secure ourselves for the night. Kedem, Mark and I head ashore for a walk, and we find a boulevard which offers a stunning view of the sunset over Panama City. People are out running and roller-blading. Its all a lot cleaner and more civilised than Colon.
Kedem leaves us as he is soon heading off up to Costa Rica. It was great to have him on board.
We celebrate that evening with some champagne that we had kept in the freezer especially for the occasion.
Tuesday 29 February – Wednesday 1 March
Now that we have made it to Balboa, we start to prepare immediately for our crossing of the Pacific, via the Galapagos. We need to stock up with lots of food, diesel, and water, as the next high quality provisioning spot is in Tahiti, over 4700 miles and two months away. In many ways this is a much tougher provisioning task then the Atlantic.
Nick leaves us Wednesday to head back to Zimbabwe. It is really sad to see him go. He has really helped me sort out various maintenance hassles on board, with his vast experience of yacht engineering. The girls have loved having him on board. Mark also heads back to Sint Maarten, to the Swan base, to go back on ‘Grandee’ for a while. He may come out and join us again in Tahiti, if all goes well.
We meet up with Kiko and Mia from ‘Hygeia’ again, and David, Maite and son Dagan come on board for a drink.
Kiko introduces us to the cleverest Palindrome we have ever heard, written about Teddy Roosevelt. Hannah is thrilled, as, ever since we explained about Palindromes, and told her that her name was one, she has looked out for them (see her log). It is
'A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!'
On Thursday, Kurt and Clare will arrive from London to join us for the 850 mile trip to the Galapagos. This passage is notoriously windless, so we need to stock up with plenty of fuel.