March 24 - May 23, 2006


HIGHLIGHTS - From Tropical Paradise to Tropical Hell to the Pacific

Well, we finally made it to the classic tropical paradise -- the San Blas Islands, where the natives live in thatched huts under trees and paddle dugout canoes. But the tranquil islands also harbor a dark and bloody past. We also had our first run-in with a real shark.

Then we went to Panama. Calling Colon "Tropical Hell" might be a bit of an overstatement, but not much. However, they do have this shortcut across the continent...

And now we are in THE PACIFIC OCEAN!!!


March 24 - April 1, 2006 (Remaining Days in Curacao)

After spending six weeks in Curacao we decided to get out of the hardware stores and actually see some of the island. So we went hiking along the North shore.

Big rollers sweeping into north shore After the hustle and bustle of Willemstad, the desolation and beauty of the north shore was a welcome change. Waves crashing on shore


Sharp rocks along shore The jagged shoreline stretched for miles in both directions. We hiked (carefully) through the razor sharp coral rock, glad that we were wearing hiking boots.


White foam surging along the shoreline

We were hypnotized by the surge and ebb of the waves along the rocks.

We also got a real appreciation for the term "lee shore." No boat would last five minutes on these rocks.

Ebb flow


Waves ebbing as surge returns to sea

The waves had undercut the shoreline leaving holes down about 25 feet to the surf below (left). When a wave came in, the water and compressed air surged out like a geyser (right, same spot).

Waves exploding through hole


Deceivingly calm looking water We'd never seen geysers like these and were fascinated by the relentless power of the water as it pounded the shore. Full force of geyser after surge


Beth innocently watching waves

We sat on the shore and watched the waves for a long time.

Ken had Beth sit close to the edge so that he could get these pictures.

Waves getting a little closer


Eventually along came the "BIG ONE"! Beth spent the rest of the hike in wet underware. Of course Ken was safely out of range. Big set of waves hit Beth as she sat near shoreline


Crab shell left after molt

Lots of creatures live on this barren shore. We noticed crabs living right where the waves hit the rocks, -- hunkering down when a big wave crashed over them.

We found the empty shell of a crab which had molted recently. Even the eye casings were still intact.

The flora was mostly prickly -- like the big thorn bushes below left. And the trees grew horizontally, in mute homage to the power of the wind (below right). But the beautiful cactus roses (below middle) provided splashes of color.

Forbidding-looking thorns Delicate cactus rose Wndswept tree


Plastic washed up along shore

Unfortunately, a lee shore also collects debris. Plastic makes up most of the flotsom (left), as it doesn't degrade.

We were also startled to find several grenades (right). We think they were probably used smoke or teargas grenades, but we didn't mess with them to find out for sure.

Grenade found along shore

We spent our last days in Curacao in our usual fashion -- making repairs.

Weird Genset Fuel Problems

First the genset stopped running, so Ken replaced the filter. But the problem reoccurred. Figuring there must be a "deeper" issue, Ken tested the Walbro fuel pump that feeds the genset, decided that it was weak and replaced it with the spare that we carry. But even that didn't work. Finally, after about a week of persistent genset failures, Ken figured out that he hadn't gotten the fuel filter housing back together properly when he changed the filter after the first shutdown.

The resulting air leak had given exactly the same symptoms as the plugged filter, making Ken think that the filter hadn't been the problem in the first place -- since changing the filter hadn't helped. So much for the scientific method. The poor Walbro pump was probably fine, but we left the new one in and ordered another spare, since the original was ten years old.

Ken did get a valuable lesson out of this -- an air leak shows up as teeny, tiny bubbles swirling around in the clear plastic filter bowl. He also installed a vacuum gauge on the genset filter, so that there's no question when the filter is dirty. New pressure gauge for genset fuel filter

Oddly enough, this exact problem would crop up, about four weeks later, when we were transiting the Panama canal as line handlers on someone else's boat This time Ken diagnosed the problem in 5 minutes and looked like a genius.

More Genset Fuel Problems -- And How We Almost Died

Chafed fuel hose Then the fuel line to the genset chafed through, spraying diesel oil all over the hot genset. This is one time you would like the genset to die, but it didn't -- just kept on ticking. So there was quite a mess in the engine room when Ken finally went in to shut things down after two hours of run time. (The chafe was downstream of the fuel pump, so it was under pressure and didn't suck air. And the hole was small enough that the engine continued to get fuel.) Thank god that diesel doesn't explode easily. If that had been gasoline...

Things Falling Off The Genset

Couple of days later the electrical control box fell off the genset. Close examination showed that its plastic fitting was cracked beyond repair. So Ken got out the aluminum stock and fashioned a bracket to hold the box in place. Notice all of the nice (new) chafe protection on the fuel lines. New bracket Ken fashioned out of aluminum

Have we mentioned that we're switching to solar power when we get to New Zealand?

More Air Leaks

Then we started sucking air in the watermaker -- a problem which can wreck the pump.

Sliver cracked off filter housing at arrow Ken finally discovered a very small sliver cracked off the lip of one of the filter housings (shown at arrow). You almost need a microscope to see it, but it was enough to shut us down.

Fixing the cracked housing would have taken ten minutes if we had the right replacement housing. But of course we couldn't buy this type of housing in Curacao.

New bracket for watermaker housing

So Ken bought a locally available housing and spent a day fashioning a bracket to mount it on our system. (left)

We couldn't find reinforced hose for the new run, so we built our own reinforced hose using hose clamps (see right).

Hose reinforced with hose clamps

Needless to say, we ordered three spare filter housings, which finally caught up with us in Panama.

Finally, the impeller to our speedo broke again (see right). Replacing it with our spare took ten minutes, once we had spent the four hours necessary to take everything out of the forepeak so that we could get at the throughhull. We ordered three more spare impellers.

Incidentally, it's always exciting to replace an underwater fitting with the boat in the water. Good way to get a salt water shower.

Broken speedo impeller

We've noticed that breaking something has two effects on our spare parts inventory. First, of course, we use up a spare. More importantly, however, having the part break makes us re-evaluate the probability of having that particular problem. So you always end up buying more spares than you used up. And the boat gets a little lower in the water.

Tough Girls

The wind was really blowing on our last day in Curacao. As we got ready to stow our dinghy on deck, we saw two groups of young junior high school age girls trying to paddle small boats across the bay. They were going nowhere against that wind. So we jumped in our dinghy and offered assistance.

The first group turned us down, with thanks. The second group accepted a tow until they figured out that the others had turned us down. Then they asked us to turn them loose. Turns out they were all part of a Sunday "paddle your boat against the wind" race, which had already lasted over an hour.

Girls swimming with race boats

We watched as the girls gave up on paddling and jumped into the water to pull and push the boats along by swimming! They finished the race that way.

These island girls are pretty tough. Maybe they're training to be commandos.

April 1 - April 6, 2006 (Passage to San Blas)

The weather/currents off the Columbian coast are notoriously nasty. Herb, our weather router, suggested we go way north to avoid unfavorable conditions.

The wind rarely dropped below 15 knots for the entire trip and usually stayed over 20 knots. Running dead downwind isn't our best point of sail, but we made good speed (7-9 knots).

We never bothered putting a headsail up, as there were lots of squalls around, and we were only going to be out for a few days.

Are we getting lazy, or what?

On our way to the San Blas


Ken changing fuel filter on genset Early in the trip the genset fuel filter clogged. Ken made a quick repair while underway and we were back in business. This was another useful lesson -- running the fuel polishing system while sitting in port doesn't necessarily get all of the sludge out. You need some waves to stir things up.


The weather was very pleasant and with the wind behind us, we had an easy trip. However we had some pretty good wave action going, and the waves pushed air into our watermaker intake. So we couldn't run the watermaker and had to ration water for the rest of the passage. Dramatic evening sky


Large fishing reel with line out to starboard We had high hopes for catching some fish and we had both reels going. Smaller fishing reel with line out to port


Ken with mess of line

We finally hooked two big fish at the same time -- which often happens with schooling fish.

But, just as we were trying to reel them in, one of the reels worked loose from its hose clamps and started to come off the rail. And when we tightened the hose clamp, the clamp split in half!

By the time we had things straightened out, the two fish had wrapped their lines together and broken off both lures. What a mess! Here's Ken with the remains of the tangled line. We were skunked fishing on this trip.

Tropical Paradise

Landfall in the San Blas. The San Blas Islands stretch for many miles along the Panamanian coast.

The San Blas are inhabited by an indigenous tribe known as the Kuna. They are reputed to be very friendly, as long as you don't pick any of their coconuts without permission.

Land ho in the San Blas

April 6 - April 17, 2006 (San Blas)

Anchorage at Porvenir As soon as we pulled into the anchorage at Porvenir in the San Blas, we felt like we were in a very different place. It was exotic and enchanting!


Kuna men selling lobsters

Almost before we dropped anchor, the Kuna Indians paddled up in their dugout canoes. The men were selling lobsters and crabs and the women were selling hand-sewn "molas".

Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!

Kuna women swarming boat


The Kuna are polite and a little shy, but they (the women especially) are also very persistent business people. Needless to say, we bought some molas and some lobsters.


Beth tries to hang tough, but she's a pushover


Nick and Ellen on their dinghy And by huge coincidence, our friends from Curacao, Nick and Ellen on "Kika," happened to be checking out of Porvenir just as we were checking in! They were just finishing their visit to the San Blas.


A few dollars liberated a crab and lobster from one of the Kuna canoes. Nick and Ellen, along with Isabelle and Michele (new friends from "Ouf" who we had also met in Curacao), brought some more lobsters over for an impromptu dinner.

As a proper French chef, Michele showed us how to extract every conceivable morsel of meat from the lobster and crab. We never realized that you could eat the antennae! What a great introduction to the San Blas!

Dinner in the holding tank


Kuna hut nestled in the trees

Even though we were still in the Atlantic, the islands of the San Blas fit our image of what a tropical Pacific paradise would be like.

Actually, Ken thinks these islands are really part of the Hollywood set for Gilligan's Island.

The next day we visited nearby villages.

Kuna village in the San Blas

They pack the huts closely together in some of the villages.

Can you spot a concession to modernity in the village at the right? Hint -- what's that thing sticking up over the thatched roofs?

Close up of larger Kuna village


The women of Wichuhuala were friendly and happy to see us. (The men were mostly off fishing.) Of course they also saw another chance to sell Molas!

Molas were once body paintings but the missionaries didn't like that. Someone came up with the idea of making the designs out of cloth instead. The enterprising Kuna took the concept and ran with it, producing a unique art form from designs with layers of cloth and elaborate stitching.

The missionaries were not entirely successful in their religious endeavors. Christianity survives in the islands, but liberally mixed with indigenous beliefs and traditions. One woman tried to sell us a carved stick which she claimed contained "the luck of Jesus Christ." We declined.

Kuna women have a tendency to stand to attention when you take their picture


Kuna woman with pet parrot

Kuna society is matrilineal, with the women controlling the money and generally having a lot of power. The women wear traditional dress while the men wear shorts and t-shirts.

A few years ago some Kuna women found their own pictures on postcards on the mainland -- selling for A DOLLAR! Consequently you now have to pay a dollar to photograph a Kuna woman. (The men don't care.) We usually included a photo as part of the negotiations for a mola deal.


The Kuna children were curious about us -- guess we didn't blend in too well. The children, like everyone else, seemed happy and friendly. Kuna girl with pets

Remember how we told you last year that the Europeans killed off almost 100 percent of the native inhabitants of the Eastern Caribbean? Basically the Spanish, French, English and Dutch made war on the Indians, enslaved them, worked them to death and infected them with diseases. In the whole Eastern Caribbean, only a few thousand people on Dominica still claim to have descended from the native tribes. (And they looked pretty African to us.) The rest are gone.

Well, the Spanish tried to do the same thing to the Kuna, occupying and settling the San Blas Islands in the 1700s. And then in about 1750 the Kuna killed every Spaniard on the islands. So much for colonialism. Then, much later, in the early 1900s, the new Panamanian government (established with much help from the U.S.) tried to claim jurisdiction over the Kuna, installing police and a governor. On February 21, 1925, the Kuna killed all of the Panamanians. They also killed all of the Kuna who had intermarried with Panamanians, or who had mixed blood -- an episode now called "El Holocausto de las Razas."

The Panamanians mounted a punitive expedition, but the U.S. intervened by sending the USS Cleveland, and the islands were spared further war. The San Blas are now officially part of Panama, but the Kuna pretty much run things on their islands, and everybody seems happy with the arrangement.

Eagles Wings anchored in the San Blas

Tranquil islands with a dark and bloody past.

Kuna hut on small island

Out of this tangled past, the Kuna seem to have found a way to preserve their own culture while co-existing with the outside world. They run a tightly controlled tribal society, which strictly limits the importation of modern products. Outsiders are welcome to visit (and buy molas!) but are forbidden to buy land or intermarry with the Kuna. A Kuna who marries a foreigner is expelled. (Better than the 1925 solution, at least.)

We wouldn't want to live under this kind of regime, but we have to say the Kuna are probably doing better than most of the indigenous people that we know about.

Navigating in Paradise

After checking in at Porvenir we headed to some of the more remote islands, threading our way carefully through the surrounding reefs.

The San Blas haven't been charted since about the time the Spanish lost interest in the place. So GPS coordinates don't necessarily line up with the charts.

Freighter shipwrecked on reef These wrecks provide a somber warning about the difficulty of navigating reef infested waters. Crusing boat shipwrecked on reef

The Hallberg-Rassy sailboat (above right) belonged to a sailor who had circumnavigated the world, only to come to grief here while trying to enter an anchorage in the San Blas at night, relying on a GPS chart plotter.

Who's On Top Of This Food Chain, Anyway?

We snorkeled most days and were delighted with the abundance and behavior of rays -- eagle, sting, and yellow. Some even jumped clear out of the water! We also saw lots of squid. Unlike Bonaire, however, which is surrounded by a protected marine park, the waters of the San Blas are actively spear fished. As a result, we saw few large fish and the ones we encountered were very wary.

Conch leaving trail in the sand On the other hand, we had no trouble sneaking up on this conch. Conch sticking eyes and mouth out of his shell

We did, however, see our first sharks. We decided to try to make our way though the barrier reef to the windward "drop off," where the island falls away into the abyss. Swimming with two other couples, we worked for about an hour to pick our way through the coral reef. On the way we startled a small (four foot) nurse shark by swimming right over it in about five feet of water. He was way more scared than we were.

Then, when we were maybe a hundred yards from the drop off, we suddenly saw a long, torpedo shaped form emerge out of the reef about 50 feet away. The big reef shark swam casually in a big arc around us and disappeared into the coral behind us. We're guessing he was 8 or 10 feet long, and built like a truck.

We weren't scared, our hearts didn't pound, our mouths didn't get dry -- but all of a sudden it didn't seem so important to get to the drop off. After all, it was getting late, and what's so special about looking at some deep water anyway?. We also realized how much we all liked each other, and how we wanted to stay CLOSE TOGETHER, so that we could share all the neat things that you can see when you snorkel.

Anyway, that was a first -- our first real shark sighting in the Caribbean. We hear the sharks are a lot more aggressive in the Pacific. Oh, good...

Kuna Life

We spent some time anchored right off a small Kuna settlement.

The Kuna are pretty intrepid seamen. We watched them go out in their small dugouts even in brisk conditions. Sometimes their boats would disappear behind a swell. They often traveled long distances to fish and to sell molas and lobsters to cruisers anchored at uninhabited cays. We still don't quite understand how they keep their narrow dugouts upright with sails on board.

Kuna sailing between islands Fishermen setting out Big water, little boat


Playing with Dad's boat Like children everywhere, Kuna kids look forward to the day they can get the keys to the family vehicle.


On the other hand, the Kuna weren't shy about asking for a tow if cruisers happened to be passing by in a dinghy. Don't tell the tribal "keepers of tradition" about this

Although the Kuna conform to traditional sexual roles, with women making the molas, they make one interesting exception. Homosexual men are quite accepted as mola makers. In fact, a number of the very best "master mola makers" are gay men, like Venacio (below, middle), and another fellow who goes by the name of "Mona Lisa." Sort of like the fashion scene in Paris.

Beth bargaining.  She's still a pushover Beth with molas she bought from Venacio And more molas!


New friends

The Kuna women loved coming onto the boat with their molas, sometimes bringing children along. They often asked for treats for the children or for items like fishing hooks and soap. Most of the Kuna spoke no English, and Ken had a great time with his newly brushed up Spanish skills.

He got very good at saying "No thank you, we have already bought a lot of molas."


Meanwhile, Beth got inspired by the colorful Kuna costumes and hauled out the sewing machine to shorten some dresses she had gotten a few months earlier. Taking time out to shorten some dresses


We spent a delightful evening with John (red shirt) and Suzanne (pink shirt) of "Zeelander" and Michele and Isabelle (to Beth's right) from "Ouf".

Michele cooked a crab and lobster dinner for us. And when one of the crab's claws fell overboard while he was cleaning it, Michele dove overboard and retrieved it. Now that's dedication from the chef!

Inspired by Isabelle, who definitely had the French flair for style, Beth wore one of her newly shortened dresses for the occasion. Ken was in shock! Except at our wedding 25 years ago, this was the first time he had ever seen Beth voluntarily wear a dress.

  Beth with new friends


Even though the anchorages weren't as crowded as the Eastern Caribbean, we still heard of anchoring "incidents". The anchor shackle of the large steel boat at the right parted one night and dragged down onto "Sea Adler", a smaller boat in the anchorage. The larger ship put a hole in "Sea Adler's" mast, tore out some of the stays holding up the mast, tore off their wind generator, solar panels, and self-steering gear. What a mess. "Sea Adler" had to make their way to Panama so the boat could be examined by an insurance adjustor.

Large, heavy boat that dragged anchor


Gorgeous sunset in the San Blas

The natural beauty of the San Blas, combined with the charming Kuna, made our visit to the islands very special. We sometimes felt overwhelmed by their persistence at selling us stuff, but at least they were offering something of value.

The other thing we liked about the Kuna is that they are the only people we've met who are consistently shorter than Beth.

And, mindful of those Spanish and Panamanian "guests", we never touched a single coconut without permission. To paraphrase Jim Croce, you don't tug on superman's cape/ you don't spit into the wind/ you don't pull the mask off the old lone ranger/ and you don't mess around with the Kuna.

April 17 - 18, 2006 (Passage To Panama Canal Area)

We would have loved to spend more time in the San Blas. But with the rainy season approaching, we needed to get going to the Pacific. Experienced friends told us that around half the boats that stay in the San Blas during the rainy season end up getting hit by lightning. Yikes!! Anyway, we have about ten thousand miles to cover before the southern hemisphere typhoon season starts in November. Time to move on.

Our overnight trip to the province of Colon, Panama was made under light conditions. It was fairly intense sailing, as we were close to the coast and shipping traffic really picked up. Give us open sea any time!

We had stocked up on essentials like Chips Ahoy Chocolate Chunk cookies before we left the East Coast and now we were nearing the end of our supply. We hadn't been able to find these cookies in the Dutch islands so we were getting desperate. We hope we'll be able to restock in Panama. Polishing off the last cookie crumbs


Moth hitching a ride A large moth adopted us and hung around for a few hours, getting some needed rest.


It was pretty clear we weren't in the San Blas anymore. The industrial skyline of Colon at the entrance to the Canal loomed ominously in the distance. Back in Kansas again


Ships stretching as far as the eye could see We counted 38 ships milling around or anchored as we made our final approach to the harbor entrance off Colon. We hoped they'd be able to squeeze us in for a transit through the Canal.


Motoring through the harbor past the famous Cristobol Signal Station, which controls all of the shipping traffic in the Canal area on the Atlantic side. We gave them a call to let them know we were entering the harbor, but they were too busy dealing with the "big guys" to answer our call. We slipped into the harbor when there was a lull in the traffic. Cristobol signal tower


Locals fishing in the waters of the big ship anchorage Even with scores of large ships all around, the locals managed to find a free spot to fish.

April 18 - May 5, 2006 (Waiting To Transit The Canal)

View of the anchorage (called "The Flats") in Colon. This would be our home for the next few weeks while we awaited our turn through the Canal. Anchored near the entrance to the Panama Canal


Douce France, largest cruising catamaran ever built

Most cruising boats transiting the canal were smaller than ours -- probably because most of the sailors were younger than us. A sobering fact: most of the retirement age sailors with big, comfortable boats don't actually want to do a lot of hard sailing. So do it while you can!

We did share the anchorage with a couple of megayachts, including this 138' French catamaran, "Douce France" -- supposedly the largest cruising catamaran ever built. But these guys sail with a full crew of (young) sailors.


Our anchorage in Colon sits right next to the ship channel. A steady parade of ships of all sorts passed near us day and night.

The ships traveled quite slowly and they didn't leave much of a wake. However, the tugs and pilot boats that zoomed back and forth often sent the boat rolling violently. One of our cabinet hinges broke apart when we were caught off guard by the wake of a passing boat.

Car carrier heading for the Canal entrance

The Canal

The Canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans represents a magnificent feat of engineering. The French made several attempts at building a canal in the late 1800's. After spending $285,000,000 and losing the lives of 20,000 workers (mostly due to malaria and yellow fever), they abandoned the effort.

Then in 1903,Teddy Roosevelt decided to try again. Since Columbia wasn't cooperative, TR "helped" the Panamanians break away from Columbia and form a new country. Not surprisingly, Panama gave the U.S. control over a large chunk of land to build the Canal. Eleven years later, at a cost of $400,000,000, the Canal opened.


The Canal may be magnificent, but Colon isn't. Our stay in the anchorage off Colon on the Atlantic side of the Canal felt like a penance. With the rainy season gearing up it was hot and steamy. And Colon is a mess.

The U.S. had operated many military bases in Panama and the closing of those facilities following our pullout in 1999 had a devastating effect on the local economy. The town of Colon fell into disrepair and it was dirty and unsafe.

Coca Cola A few telltale signs of American culture in Panama. Colon youths enjoying a game of basketball

We could see that Colon had once been a thriving city, with wide boulevards and elegant buildings. We heard many conspiracy stories about why it hadn't recovered from the pullout and didn't benefit from the money generated by the Canal. People blamed the rich Panamanian families, the Columbian drug cartels, the Arabs (???), and the Chinese (???).

A few of the more "Chicago-economist" minded locals talked about welfare and the fact that all the private owners of buildings had given up, since rents were controlled. So basically, nobody worked and nobody owned property.

For once Americans didn't seem to be the focus of paranoia, maybe because we had pretty visibly gotten out. (Even though our getting out probably precipitated a lot of the economic problems in Colon. But after all, the Panamanians had wanted us out, so they couldn't really complain about us leaving.)

In fact some of the locals we talked to were nostalgic about the "American time." One fellow got a laugh telling us about how the (very unpopular) national police pulled off their uniforms and ran around in their underwear during the American invasion to depose Noriega.

Nobody seemed nostalgic about Noriega, and a couple of people remarked nervously that he would be getting out of American prison soon.

Garbage area at the marina We saw lots of standing garbage (left) and many vehicles had severe emission problems (like motorcycle at right). While anchored off Colon, we had to breathe particularly foul air (from continuous fires in the local dump). Lack of emission controls resulted in lots of air pollution

The downtown area was uniformly depressing.

Laundry day in Colon Room with a view Desolation in Colon

The town had a gray tinge to it and we were hard pressed to find beauty or pride of place.

Waiting at the local laundromat Colon youth Hanging out in front of local pawn shop

Everybody -- cruisers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, everybody -- warned us not to venture on our own beyond the gated and guarded Panama Yacht Club complex. We heard reports of muggings and even knew some people who got jumped. We never walked anywhere and took taxis instead. A taxi ride was very inexpensive ($1) and you could hire a driver for $10/hour if you needed to make a lot of stops.

Gajo, one of the many wonderful cab drivers at the marina Soon after we arrived, we met Gajo (left), one of many friendly cab drivers at the marina. The drivers/bodyguards drove the cruisers all over and were indispensable for helping us navigate through the bewildering maze of offialdom to clear in and arrange for the Canal transit. The taxi drivers also arranged for the rental of lines (4 lines each 125' long) and tires (to protect the hull).

The cab drivers mostly lived out of the city, as they did not want to expose their families to the danger of Cristobol.

We took our Colon pictures from the taxi while driving around the city.

Everywhere we went, we saw lots of heavily armed police and guards at stores. We even saw guys on motorcycles wearing flak jackets and carrying submachine guns.

A recent poll found that 68.7% of Panamanians felt unsafe in their own neighborhoods. But the poll also reported that 50.8% of Panamanians felt "fear and discomfort" in the presence of the national police! So much for law and order.

Guards at Colon bank


Well kept church The best kept building was the local church (left). Brightly painted buses provided some color (right). Colorful Panamanian bus


Luxurious home, well guarded People were afraid even in the rich part of town. Expensive houses all displayed sturdy bars and concertina wire. For rent: Beautiful three story house.  Concertina wire included

Now, having said all of this, we never met a Panamanian who wasn't very nice. Basically the people we dealt with, from taxi drivers to Canal officials to shopkeepers to waiters and waitresses, were uniformly friendly and helpful. But everyone was also uniformly cynical about the government and the "ruling class." Just didn't seem like a happy political environment, despite the fact that Panama has a working democracy.

Waiting For The Letters Of Transit

Depending on size, boats less than 100 feet long pay between $600 and $1600 to go through the Canal (we paid $850). Big ships pay lots more (not unusual to see a $30,000 bill). We even heard of a cruise ship that paid more than $140,000! But small boats take up almost as much time and effort for the Canal authorities, so basically, we are in the way. Therefore we have to wait. For weeks.

Furthermore, your assigned date can change overnight. Our first date was supposed to be May 7. Then it changed to May 11, then to May 9, then to the 8th, and finally to May 6th. So you can't really leave while you're waiting, because your date might move forward.

So the "yachtie" scene in Colon is like nowhere else. The boaters are all serious, long-distance sailors, but there are also lots of "backpackers" and other young wanderers looking for rides to strange destinations. And everyone sits around in the fortified compound, sweltering in the heat, breathing the smoke from the garbage dump, watching the barnacles grow on their boat, waiting for a chance to get out. The bar scene is straight out of "Casablanca".

Beth wants to go on record -- none of those beers were hers! Actually it was lots of fun, in a hot and steamy kind of way. Everybody was in the same boat, so to speak, so it was easy to make new friends.
We met other characters as well. This young woman entertained the bar one night with a haunting song and a rather erotic "fire dance" involving two gasoline torches. (We don't think the bar management knew anything about this.) She then passed the hat. She was looking for a ride to Cartegna, Columbia, and promptly got one, on a boat with a lot of guys. Young woman looking for a ride to Cartegna

Of course everybody takes advantage of the last chance for cheap provisions before New Zealand.

Rita loading key supplies Our German friends Rita and Walter from "Noa" load critical beer supplies. We were amazed that their dinghy didn't sink! A well-ballasted dingy

"The Frenchman"

Among the strange characters in Colon was a fellow known to us only as "The Frenchman." (Cruisers of all nations tend to rag on the French, for some reason, although the French sailors we have met all have been really nice. This guy is an exception however.) We'll call him TFM for short.

The first time we heard about TFM was when he drop kicked a well-loved dog that hangs around the Yacht Club bar. The bar dog was yapping at TFM's dogs, and he just kicked it in the stomach, hard. We didn't see this, but we talked to an eyewitness.

Then we heard that the police had been called to the club to break up a shouting match. Seems that TFM had objected to some other cruisers who were playing music on instruments. This we only have third hand.

Next, TFM transited the canal on someone else's boat, as a line handler. At least he transited half way. During the overnight stop in Gatun Lake, he got into a very loud, drunken argument with the captain of the boat he was on, keeping all the other boats awake. In the morning, he jumped into the water and swam around asking the other boats for cigarettes. (Did we mention that Gatun has crocodiles?) Then he swam to shore, because either he didn't want to get back on his transit boat, or because the captain didn't want him. (Accounts differ on this point.) Once ashore, he was promptly arrested, because you can't go ashore in Gatun Lake. We have this account from an eyewitness, and also from a Canal official.

Next, on his own transit date, he was too drunk to make the passage, and also didn't have the right number of line handlers on board. That means that the Canal would take his $600 fee, and also his $850 "buffer deposit." Last we saw, he didn't have a new date, although his boat, "LeMille" (see right), was still in the anchorage. Again we have this account from several eyewitnesses and from a Canal official. The boat Le Mille at anchor


Stewart and Cylinda with lost dog

Then, a day or so later, the folks on "Vlak Vark" (which means "wart hog" in Afrikaans) heard a whimpering sound outside their boat. They looked out on their swim platform and saw a sweet little brown dog, wet and shivering. They dried the little fellow and went off in their dinghy to find the owner.

When they talked to us, we suggested they check with TFM at "Le Mille". Stewart came back minus the dog, but with an amazing story. Yes, the dog belonged to TFM. Seems that TFM had "had an argument" with the dog and had thrown him into the water. The little dog swam almost a quarter mile to get to "Vlak Vark", since there was no way back onto "LeMille".

Finally, a few days later we heard another boat make a general radio call about a small brown dog swimming around in the anchorage. They saw it reach shore. We're not sure if TFM ever got his dog back. We're thinking the dog may be better off somewhere else.

Anyway, we report all this just in case you ever thought that people's problems don't follow along when they go sailing...

Getting Ready To Transit The Canal

Of course, while we were waiting to transit the Canal, we worked on boat projects. It turns out that the cut edges of our pilothouse windows are not protected from damaging UV rays which can reflect inside the windows, damaging the lexan and leaving it opaque. (The regular uncut surface has a UV coating.) Thanks to Nick on "Jedi" for telling us about this problem.

It was a big job to tape and then paint all of the edges, but worth it to protect the brand new windows.

Seailing edges of pilothouse windows

Line Handling

Boats transiting the canal must have four "line handlers" on board, plus a driver. So the typical cruising couple needs three friends to make the transit. It's a big commitment, because the transit takes about 24 hours, and can involve lots of sun and rain and heat.

But the cruising community around the Canal has evolved a very strong ethic that you should make at least enough transits to cover your own needs. In other words, if you need three helpers, you have to supply three person-transits. All of this works on a "pay it forward" basis, since the people that you helped will be long gone to the Galapagos by the time your transit date comes around.

Amazingly, it all works. Of course we all know that we'll be seeing each other for the next 8 or 10 thousand miles.

Transiting With "Noa"

We made our first transit aboard "Noa" with Rita and Walter.

The Canal isn't like you picture it. Once you go through the first set of locks, most of the transit goes through Gatun Lake, which was created from a flooded jungle river. Now it's a beautiful, tranquil, pristine lake -- with the occasional container ship passing through.

The 48-mile Canal system is quite amazing. It operates via gravity and the controlled release of water from Gatun Lake. The lock system consists of two sets of 3 locks (three to up-lock and three to down-lock). In between the two sets are miles of rain forest.

Transiting the Canal on Noa

We had a perfect day for transiting -- no rain -- as we motored for hours through winding rivers and channels. Tim (left), a young German student went along as the final line handler.

Rain forest along Canal route


"Down-locking" in the last set of locks, we tied up to a ferry full of American cruise ship passengers out to see the Canal. Once we got tied up the ferry crew did all the work, so we just chatted with the tourists, and got our pictures taken about a thousand times. Down-locking with ferry

Transiting The Canal On "Kika"

Our second experience line handling was with Ellen and Nick on "Kika". Once again, we had a wonderful time and learned many valuable lessons that would come in handy for our own transit.

We had a few nervous hours the first evening, because "Kika's" engine kept dying. This was very scary, because a breakdown in the Canal means you forfeit your $850 buffer bond. (Just a week earlier another Sundeer 60 broke down in the Canal when their engine water pump belt broke. AND THEY DIDN'T HAVE A SPARE!!!???)

We were able to limp to the mooring in Gatun Lake, where it took only a few minutes for Ken to diagnose the problem -- air in the fuel line. Of course it helped that Ken had just spent about two weeks trying to diagnose exactly the same problem on Eagle's Wings. It seems like the best way to look smart is to first look stupid somewhere else!

Just like Ken, Nick had recently changed the fuel filter. To be sure that nothing would go wrong in the Canal!!

Actually fixing the problem took longer, and Ken and Nick worked until 1 a.m. before the engine started running again. Ken went to bed smelling strongly of diesel fuel. But he smells like that most of the time anyway.

It was a short night and it rained hard. We were in a rain forest, after all, so the rain was no surprise. We heard howler monkeys during the night -- they complained loudly when it started to rain. The monkey howls were like nothing we'd heard before -- they sounded more like lions.

Ellen and Anne during the transit on Kika

Ellen and Anne, the other line handler, enjoying a smooth second day.

Anne is a very experienced sailor, having spent many years in the merchant marine. She joined the merchant marine when she was 17!


As we traveled across Gatun Lake, we noticed tree branches sticking out of the water (see middle of picture at right), where the water was 90 feet deep.

Amazingly, these are the tops of the rainforest trees that were flooded when the lake was filled back in the early 1900's.

Those tropical woods are something else!

Ancient tree


Ellen hamming it up for the webcam at the last lock  

Finally "Kika" reached the Pacific.

The last lock has a web cam and users of the internet can log onto the Canal site and watch ships going through in real time. The resolution of the pictures is pretty poor, so Ellen got out on the bow so her friends and family could see her.



Our turn next.

Entire crew on Kika transit

May 6 - May 7, 2006 (Transiting The Canal On "Eagle's Wings")

We had a great set of people lined up for our transit, when the Canal gods wreaked havoc on the fleet. The transit dates for about 15 boats -- whose transits were spread out over a two-week period -- suddenly were compressed into the next three days. Two of the three people we had lined up couldn't go with us, as their new dates conflicted with our date. In fact -- they were now competing with us to find help. Everyone scrambled madly for crew.

Desperate cruisers pounced on any new boat venturing into the anchorage. We felt like the mola ladies! "Hi, we're Ken and Beth. How would you like a scenic trip across Panama? When? Uhhh .... tomorrow."

We lucked out and found a couple of experienced sailors who had just arrived. Diana and John on "Dragonet" were not planning to transit themselves, but they agreed to help us anyway -- really above and beyond the call of duty. They turned out to be absolutely wonderful. Our third line handler was Paul, from the boat "Panta Five". He is a Danish marine engineer and was terrific also.

John, Paul and advisor, Rudulpho Our crew (John and Paul with advisor, Rudulpho on the left), Diana and John, right. John seemed to enjoy steering and he spelled Ken for several hours on the second day. Diana and John from Dragonet, helping us transit Eagles Wings

Our transit spanned two days. We started about 7:00 pm, after we got all of our crew, along with the Canal "advisor," Danillo aboard. Four other pleasure boats were also transiting at the same time.

While we waited to go, we had a yummy spaghetti dinner. One trick we had learned from our previous transits -- the key to a happy crew was keeping everybody well-fed and hydrated. We had a large styrofoam cooler (given to us by a boat who had come through from the other direction) loaded with drinks and we kept plying people with snacks and food all through the transit.

Rafting up with Tradewind for our transit through first set of locks It was dark by the time we finally got going. We motored toward the first set of locks and waited while the steel Dutch boat "Tradewind" (left) rafted up along side of us. We would be going through the first three locks rafted together. This configuration meant that each boat had to control only two lines to the canal wall.


The ship "Almeda Star" entered the locks first and we tied up just off her stern. We had never been that close to a big ship with "Eagle's Wings", but everything went smoothly. Beth and Paul were on the bow line, John and Diana ran the stern line, and Ken steered.

In the first locks with a big ship. Yikes!

After we completed the 3rd lock, we unrafted and motored over to large ship moorings in Gatun Lake. We got tied up around 10:30 p.m., although we hung out talking until midnight. (But no drunken fights, and nobody swam ashore!)

Launch full of advisors for day 2 of transit Five new advisors (left and right) showed up around 6:30 a.m. and we were ready to go. "Top Cat" (right), another boat in our group, is rafted to us for the overnight stay in Gatun Lake. Advisors getting off to begin day 2 of transit


Setting off across Gatun Lake As we set off across Gatun Lake, our new advisor, Rudolpho, directed us to a well-marked shortcut, the "Banana Cut". This scenic route wound through the rain forest and was free of the large shipping traffic. Ken steering boat through winding route of canal


Having a leisurely breakfast The weather was a bit unsettled and we had some rain showers in the morning. We crowded into the pilothouse for a breakfast of eggs and delicious Dutch spice bread (recipe from Nick on "Jedi").


Dredging activity in the canal   Ongoing dredging (below left) keeps the channels open.


These huge cranes (right) are used for canal construction. The crane on the right is a German crane taken from the Nazis in WWII. The one on the left was sold to Panama by the U.S. for $1! Seems like a good deal! American and German cranes


Sculpted hillside The Canal cuts a deep swath through the surrounding landscape (left). PVC pipes (right) contain explosives to blast away the shore as the Canal authority works to widen the channel. PVC pipes are used to hold explosives for making cuts in shoreline


Rafted up with Top Cat on starboard

We rafted to "Top Cat" (left) and "Tradewind" (right).

Once we were tied up, our line handlers didn't have anything to do, since the outer boats handled the lines.

Rafted with Tradewind on port

But Ken had to steer this entire contraption through all the locks!

Canal line handler Small boats like ours use Canal personnel to handle our lines manually (left). Large ships are tied to little trains (right) that run along tracks on the Canal ledge. Canal train for locking big ships

The Canal line handlers throw "monkey fists" with light lines attached. The trick is to get the light lines tied to the bigger lines on board so the Canal guys can pull the big lines to the wall. Without getting any of the 125 foot lines tangled!

In the canal locks with Top Cat rafted to starboard The crew of "Top Cat" (left) and "Tradewind" (right) did all of the work of line handling. Ken steered the raft. Going through canal locks with Tradewind to port

As we moved from lock to lock, we stay rafted together. It was like "Eagle's Wings" was almost 50 feet wide, and weighed 100,000 pounds. We were amazed at how well our boat steered and moved all of this weight along.

Lock doors opening We were all happy to see the lock doors open to the PACIFIC!! (left). The kids on Tradewind were pretty excited to get through! Dutch families celebrating successful transit


Entire crew for Eagles Wings canal transit Here's the whole crew for our second day transiting the Canal. We couldn't have asked for a better group of people.


As we exited the last set of locks, we got blasted with a blinding rainstorm. Ken grit his teeth, put on his ski goggles, and steered while everyone else huddled in the pilothouse.

The visibility was so poor that we had to pull out of the channel and tie up to a ship mooring. What a welcome to the Pacific.

But we had made it. We felt like we had graduated -- members of the Pacific class of 2006! Of course the big test is yet to come.

Ken steering in the driving rain


Moored off Balboa Yacht Club in the Pacific The mooring field at the Balboa Yacht Club in the Pacific would be our home for the next couple of weeks until we left for the Galapagos.

May 8 - May 23, 2006 (Panama City in the Pacific)

While there was plenty of poverty around Panama City, the place did not have the feel of desolation and despair as did Colon. We even felt safe enough to rent a car and drive around the city.

The French quarter, where we traveled to get Visas for French Polynesia, was charming and filled with color (below right and left). The Panama City proper skyline is impressive and the city itself is vibrant with shops and markets of all sorts.

Beautiful buildings in Panama City Panama City skyline Lovely French quarter


Canal authority building makes an impressive statement on the hillside

The Canal authority (left) is the big cheese in Panama City.

The food court (right) at the Albrook Mall was as large as any we'd ever seen. Even has a merry go round!

Enormous food court at the mall

We even found a store that carried our favorite chocolate chip cookies, so we planned a major provisioning run.

The Balboa Yacht Club mooring field (where we were) and the Flamenco anchorage closer to the ocean (right) are a real crossroads for cruisers heading in many different directions. We met many cruisers who are heading west, so we'll have lots of familiar faces to look forward to as we continue on our journey. Flamenco anchorage with many cruising boats


Jocelyn from Moonshadow wtih bow and quiver Many boats had young children on board. Nine-year old Jocelyn (left) from "Moonshadow" had been cruising with her family for 4 years. We met her equipped with a homemade bow and quiver of arrows -- She had been target practicing on shore. She was very grown up, independent, and absolutely captivating.


  Some cruisers, like Jen and Harley (left) of "Manu Kai", were headed home after their successful circumnavigation. Cruisers Jen and Harley finishing 20 month circumnavigation


Aggressively rigged Funimo with broken mast Others, like the crew of the Polish boat "Fujimo" (left), had major problems (broken mast) to resolve before continuing their journey. They took the mast off for repair (right). Mast on the hard, ready for repair

We had simpler problems to deal with, but they had to be addressed before we could leave. Our radar signal had been getting weaker and weaker and we had some technicians replace a component in the radar dome (below left). One of our batten cars (below middle) had cracked and we had to take the sail off to replace it. Ken spent quality time in the engine room with no shirt and had the scars to prove it (below right).

Workmen fixing our radar Broken batten car on mainsail Working in the engine room without a shirt took its toll


Bugs invading boat after rainstorm

May marks the start of the rainy season in Panama, with frequent thunderstorms, along with the accompanying hatchings of LOTS of bugs. At left is a particularly nasty specimen, one of about a dozen that made it to "Eagle's Wings".

We also got invaded by flying ant-like creatures who shed their wings and then crawled around the boat in a frenzy of mating activity. Our boat was covered with shed wings -- but the critters disappeared. Spooky.


Oh, and some of the bugs got into our cereal supplies. They add a kind of musty taste to the oatmeal. Different, but not too bad once you get used to it! A little extra protein with the morning cereal

The hot weather, rain, and bugs made us anxious to get moving. Next stop: The Galapagos!