Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Almost caught up - now in Colon, Panama

I think we will finally be able to send out these blog entries. I am writing this at anchor in ‘The Flats’ in Colon, Panama. We are waiting for someone to come to measure us to determine how much our toll is to transit the Canal. After that we need to pay for the toll (along with a buffer fee in case we break the Canal or slow it down). This will be $1600 in total and we should get half back at some point. After payment we can talk to the Scheduler to find out when we can go through to the Pacific.

This is our chartplotter as we approached Colon, Panama. We are the little black boat at the bottom, all of the triangles are ships. The Canal is at the top left. It really is a busy place.

Back to where we left off with the last entry, in Kuna Yala. While we were there we experienced the heaviest rains ever recorded in Panama – which is saying something since this is a rain forest. Over a period of nine days (two of which were sunny), we had something like 25 to 30 inches of rain. There was so much rain that the Canal was closed for a day – only the third time it has been closed since it opened for business in 1914 (landslide in the '20s and the US invasion a number of years ago). Unfortunately quite a few people were killed in the flooding and by landslides in various places. Three sailboats and a freighter were also lost in this time. We were perfectly safe in one of the most secure anchorages in the area at a large town (3000) called Nargana. There was not very much to do and supplies of vegetables ran out in the tiny stores. Also the boat was incredibly damp and everyone was complaining on the morning radio net about new leaks in their boat.

Things to do when it rains for a week or more. June sewed courtesy flags for the Pacific. This one is the Cook Islands. It started life as a British red ensign. The rest of the red ensign became part of the flag of Tonga. We have a source of really cheap courtesy flags ($US 2) but they do not have all the small countries.

While we were in Nargana the big news was a drug bust. There are many itinerant trading boats that pass through KY buying coconuts (25 cents each) from the Indians and bringing in all the stuff sold in the stores. One of these was found with 900 kg of cocaine on board. Perhaps the find was related to the fact that the army had 300 soldiers in town for training exercises. The soldiers were all over town enjoying the good life (better than patrolling the Panama-Colombia border – one month on and one month off) but always had their weapons with them ranging from rifles to a variety of machine guns.

This is the cocaine boat. It is typical of the Colombian trading vessels in KY. The soldiers are unloading flour, rice and other things that were used to hide the coke. These trade goods were distributed in Nargana - seems like a good way to get a tip about the next cocaine boat.

Other KY happenings:

- We explored the Rio Diablo by dinghy before the rains started. That was a fun morning. The Kunas have farm plots along the river in the jungle where they grow coconuts, bananas, and I assume low plants that we could not see from the boat. There also were small cemetery sites along the water. This makes sense since there is no land to waste on the residential islands. We towed one gentleman upstream since paddling one of these dugout canoes is pretty slow. There was tremendous erosion along the river during the rains as the entire bay turned a red-brown colour. I assume some people lost parts of their ‘farms’ as they were right next to the water in most cases.

- We bought a mola from the most famous of the mola makers –Lisa Harris (btw, that name is not at all Kuna in origin – I suspect it came from a book or a movie). Lisa is not only famous for her molas; she is also the most prominent Kuna transvestite. Transvestites are apparently common and not looked down upon in this matriarchal culture. She dressed well and had good makeup and hairstyle, but hands like a stevedore.

-JJune and master mola maker, Lisa, with the mola we bought. June is on the left.

una are the second smallest group of people in the world after the Pygmies. Men are often around 5 feet or a little more and women are often less than 5 feet. Their two most popular games are basketball and volleyball in a country were baseball and soccer are king but there just is not enough room for these sports on their little islands. We met a delightful 74 year old named Sammy who went to college in Oklahoma to play basketball and later was on the Panamanian national basketball team. He was about 5’4” so I suspect not a power forward.

- Had a strange experience on a remote island. A family paddled up in their dugout canoe and asked if we could charge their two cell phones. The cell coverage is very good but only a few of the larger islands have electricity.

Next time, Colon, the Canal, and Panama City.

Second delayed post (should be Nov 27th)

And now to a second posting at the same time … In the last post I mentioned that we would be staying George Town for a few days to get ready to push south. Well, as Desi used to say to Lucy (for those old enough to remember what I am referring to) there is some ‘splaining to do. On our second morning in Georgetown we listened to Chris Parker’s weather forecast and John and I came to the same conclusion within minutes. We either left GTown now or we could be there for 10 days or more waitingather to improve as there was a large cold front heading our way. The decision was made about 9 am and we agreed on a 1 pm departure which gave us only a bit of time to do some necessary shopping and get Fred off to the airport for his flights to Tampa. The plan was to go directly to

The weather that was coming was also going to mean that we had to keep going since the anchorages further south were either untenable in north winds or were protected but would not allow you to exit until winds and swells died down. A key choke point was to get through the Windward Passage, between Haiti and Cuba, before winds and seas built up there – the day after we passed through the Passage the forecast was for 35 knots sustained so we wanted to be further south by then.

Our trip south was most enjoyable. We did 958 miles in just under 7 days so we were not hurrying for sure. We were on a broad reach the entire way and used only the genoa for most of the trip. Morley, the Monitor vane steering was wonderful and conditions were quite enjoyable with winds usually around 20 knots true with no squalls to speak of. This was our longest passage so far with just two of us board and it proved to be not too stressful which bodes well for the future. We only had one mechanical problem. We had to replace the fuel filters since some crud had gotten lose in the tank and the filters (at least the primary) was getting nasty-looking (it has a clear bowl so you can see how you are doing. I decided to replace the secondary too as it was getting close to its 200 hours in any case. This is a pretty straightforward job, except that after the replacement I had a tiny leakage of air into the bottom of the Racor filter that I could not stop with any of the standard means. With a diesel fuel system there can be no air getting in so ended up having to goop over the bottom of the filter entirely. I think we will have to get a new Racor in Panama City in a month or so – this setup will work and I can replace the filter element as needed. Also, I will be draining whatever crud and water I can from the bottom of the fuel tanks. I am very pleased that our tanks have a drain even if one is very hard to reach.

We are now in the San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala to the local Indian tribe). They extend from about 40 miles east of the Panama Canal to the Colombian border. The islands themselves are quite tiny but often have extensive reefs and sandbanks around them. The mainland behind the islands is mountainous rainforest, with the Pacific really not that far away as the crow flies. The inhabited islands are often jammed with small houses. The Kuna people seem very nice but they are always looking for ways to make a buck from the cruisers here – ranging from selling fish and vegetables to ‘molas’ which are stitched embroidery panels usually with stylized birds and fish to unfortunately begging for whatever they can get.

There is even a tiny island which has a bar on it. They have a generator and a big satellite dish and were showing the Thanksgiving game between Dallas and New Orleans (in Spanish) in HD – says something about culture, technology, and globalization – I just have to figure out what it is. To add an environmental wrinkle, the island is at most one foot above sea level and is disappearing (global warming and erosion) – a big part of the island which was dry land last year is now a few inches under water at high tide. We were at the bar for a pot luck which included turkey, stuffing, and sweet potato pie – a southern US Thanksgiving south of 10N.

We will be in the San Blas until around December 15th before heading slowly toward the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal at Colon. These islands are a highly-regarded cruising ground and I will say more (and have pictures) later. We hope to post this at the bar mentioned previously (they have internet service but it is apparently quite slow.)

A final apology for not keeping the blog up – it was the result of moving faster than expected and not having internet access when we were stopped, for example in Florida we did not have internet in the harbour area.

BTW, we found out that Ainia, in the language of the Kuna Indians means “I am the Devil”. Long way from the Chinese meaning.

So this is the Internet - 1Laundry


Mea Culpa, mea culpa! I have not restarted this blog and we are now on the move again.

Just to catch up. We returned to the boat in Fort Pierce in mid-October by rental car. Flying was not an option since we had collected so much valuable stuff (ie junk) over the summer. We did not rush south and made it a bit of an American history tour with visits to Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and Charleston. The Americans certainly do a terrific job of preserving and presenting their history and we enjoyed all of these visits. Charleston was new to me (they were all new to June) and seemed to be a lovely spot – at least in the downtown area.

When we got back to Riverside Marina in Fort Pierce we had lots of work to do. First thing was to put everything back together since we had stripped the deck to prepare for any possible hurricanes, not to mention the strong Florida summer sun. We also had to figure out how to use our storage space more effectively than we did last year. To be fair, Ainia has a huge amount of storage space, at least for small and medium sized things. In our first year’s cruising we did not use our space that effectively but this was not a problem since we our space exceeded our stuff. This year that was not the case as we had a lot more to store – in particular, lots of foodstuffs to prepare for the long passages and poor shopping in the Pacific. This organizational process took quite a long time.

We also had several significant projects to do. These included installing a new shower system in the forward head (the entire shower compartment in the aft head has become storage only for several large plastic storage boxes of food, backpacks, and the asymmetric spinnaker when we have visitors (without visitors this sail lives on the forward berth). We even disconnected the shower fitting in the aft head so it could not get turned on by movement of things stored there (ask me how I know about that problem). We also installed two new pumps – one for the pressure water system and one large bilge pump.

The big job was installing new standing rigging and new lifelines. We decided to have the rigger swage the fittings on the upper end of each piece of wire with the final measurements being done by us with Hayn Hi-Mod fittings on the bottom. This is all done except for one of the upper shrouds. The shroud is held onto the end of the spreader by a cap held in place by two bolts. I got one out (and the two on the other spreader) with PB Blaster (a penetrating oil designed for this sort of problem) and have left the other for the time being to see if it will loosen up with the other bolt out. If that does not work I may to cut the current shroud at the spreader and either pull out the rest or, worst case, drill it out. This would all be a big job working 30 feet in the air. Doing the rigging with the mast up meant going up and down many times in the bosun’s chair and we found a good way to do it. We replaced one of the spinnaker halyards with a longer piece if line that we are able to lead through two very large blocks to the electric anchor windlass. This setup, along with a second halyard as a safety line and a comfy bosun’s chair made the task relatively simple and saved us a couple of thousand dollars compared to having the whole job done by the rigger.

From Fort Pierce we went down the ICW for two short days to Lake Worth w (West Palm Beach) here people traditionally wait for a ‘weather window’ for crossing to the Bahamas. Here we met Fred Cashin, another Whitby YC member who was joining us for a couple of weeks and John and Marina on Kailani, a PDQ Antares 44 catamaran. They are from Victoria BC and will be sailing with them to Panama. We waited for the right window – and we waited – for a week of north winds with reports of waves in the Gulf Stream of up to 22 feet. We finally had a brief opening and off we went. We did an overnight all the way to Nassau to check into Customs ($300, ouch) and spent the night anchored at a little island just outside Nassau. In the days that followed we had terrific weather for a leisurely trip down the Exumas to George Town,’s with stops at Norman’s Cay (famous for its sordid history as the major transhipment point for cocaine from Colombia going to the US in the 1970s and 1980s), Warderick Wells (Exuma Park), and Staniel Cay (swimming pigs and Thunderball Cave). The latter two spots are described in more detail in an earlier posting.

Laundry - Ainia style - hi-tech compared to last year. (Yes, that is a dollar store plunger in the bucket.)

We arrived in George Town last night and will spend some time here since it is the last spot with any sort of decent provisioning for the next month or so. We also have to keep an eye out for the weather to come. Depending on the conditions we may go directly from here to the San Blas islands in Panama or we may stop a number of times in the southern Bahamas (what the charts call the Far Bahamas). Right now conditions do not look good for either since we have south winds now (we are going south) with a front coming that will bring quite strong north winds. In the fullness of time …