After making our Panama Canal arrangements we returned to Isla Linton, about 25 miles east of Colon for Christmas. We enjoyed two terrific meals on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The two restaurants were run by French couples – who would have thought it in rural Panama? They were much more costly than other food we have had here but probably half (or less) of Toronto prices and excellent.
After a few days of relaxing it was back to Colon to do the transit. Among the things you need are four lines at least 125 feet long (7/8” suggested), numerous fenders or tires, and four line handlers in addition to the skipper (who really does not do much). You can rent lines and tires and hire line handlers (total about $400) but we created a cooperative to do it. John and Marina from Kailani put their boat in Shelter Bay Marina where it would be safe and Colin, from Pacific Bliss came into town from Portobello so he could do a transit in preparation for his passage. We borrowed four fenders from Kailani to go with our seven and the one tire we had been given by someone who had come from the Pacific. The fenders/tires are not significant if you do a center lock passage as most pleasure boats do (you have a choice). They would be much more important if you were against the lock walls or rafted to a tug). As it happened to we had four lines long enough (they were ¾” nylon and entirely adequate – undoubtedly stronger than the polypropylene ones that come from the agents).
We were told to be at The Flats anchorage at 330 in the afternoon. As it turned out our advisor showed up at closer to 6 pm. We transitted with two other boats a 47 catamaran and a monohull that appeared to be about 33 feet. Because of our late start we got to the first set of locks after dark. The locks and adjacent area are very well-lit (the canal operates 24/7/365) but it was a bit difficult because of the sudden contrast. Before the lock we rafted with our two mates (catamaran in the middle) and entered the lock behind a small freighter and a largish tug boat. The three locks are joined together and we stayed rafted together as we moved from one lock to the next. The catamaran provided motive force and Ainia provided steering and stopping power. The little monohull was basically along for the ride. What it came down to was that there were fifteen adults on board the three boats but only four line handlers actually did anything (the lines on the other side of the raft were led to the catamaran because of concerns that the cleats on the monohull might tear out with the load of the three boats.
Ainia approaching the first of the Gatun Locks. The other two boats in the raft are to our port side.
After the three Gatun Locks we were out in Gatun Lake, the large artificial lake that occupies most of the route across the isthmus. Our advisors led us to two large (10’ in diameter) moorings where we tied up for the night. We were supposed to see crocodiles and the like but did not – perhaps because we fell asleep pretty quickly after a long and exciting day. Next morning we were off around 9 am (advisors were to be there at 630). Because we were late we went through a well-marked, narrow channel called the Banana Cut. We were told to go as fast as possible so we even put up the jib and motor-sailed. When we got to the first lock on the Pacific side there was no freighter there so we had the three locks all to ourselves. Before we knew it we were at sea level (Pacific Ocean sea level!).
Day 2 in the Miraflores Locks leading down to the Pacific
John, Marina, and Colin hired one of the advisors to drive them back to Colon with all of the fenders and long lines so they could use them for their transits. We left Ainia on a mooring at the Balboa YC (really a marina) because we going back to Colon to act as linehandlers for Kailani and Pacific Bliss in a couple of days. This transit (just the two catamarans) went equally well and we were soon all on the Pacific side.
For those who might do this transit I should make a couple of comments. The transit is really not hard at all. I found it easier than the Welland Canal or St Lawrence Seaway locks. Linehandling is not too hard but it is helpful if you can lead the lines to a sheet winch, in particular in the stern where the loads seem much higher. The 125’ line length is really a minimum – we had more out at times, in the bow in particular. The advisors vary in quality greatly. You will have a different one each day. Our first advisor was terrific and did a great job or organizing and running the raft. Our second advisor asked us how the first day went. When we said it was fine, his only comment was that we should do the same things today. He then settled down to read his two newspapers. The advisors on the second passage were somewhere in between these extremes. Be sure to ask questions if you are unsure about anything. The canal authorities say they want pleasure boats to maintain an 8 knot average speed, but everyone, including them, realizes that this is not possible for most sailboats and there is no problem as along as you can maintain a normal (e.g. 6 or so knots).
We settled down in the Las Brisas anchorage which is at the canal exit a few miles from Panama City. The latter is a thriving, modern city (largest building over 100 floors) spread out along the coast. It has become a major commercial center for all of Latin America and offers cruisers a last opportunity to do major provisioning at good prices. We went to a company called Price Smart which seems to part of the Costco chain and operates in a similar fashion. Their prices were quite good and the selection was fine. Beer was $10 a case. We bought 10 cases since we had heard that it was $3 a bottle in Tahiti. We only bought packaged goods since we would be leaving the boat in Ecuador for several weeks.
Then we were off toward Ecuador. We had some trepidation since the triangle formed by Panama, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands is the largest area of Doldrums in the world. Predictions were for a nasty combination of little or no wind most of the time with the added ’attraction’ of severe squalls with tremendous rain and powerful winds. Added to this is the north-flowing Humboldt Current and one of the largest fishing fleets in the world. It turned out not to be bad at all. We were able to sail about 80% of the time and had no squalls at all. For the first couple of days we had a favourable current (a counter current of the Humboldt) that we expected. When we got to the border of the Humboldt it was entirely obvious as there were standing waves, overfalls, etc marking where the warm and cooler waters met. The current did push us about 30° off our course (we started heading toward the border of Ecuador and Colombia instead of toward southern Ecuador), but the wind gradually veered and we were able to work our way south.
When we got pushed toward the coast we started to meet some of the local fishing fleet, as opposed to the large offshore fishing boats. The inshore boats are mostly around 25 feet with one or two powerful outboards on them. They seem to head out 10 to 20 miles (or more) and stay all day or all night after setting their nets. They can be a bit (or more) unsettling when they approach your boat. We had one boat come and the crew asked for water which we provided. What adds to the potential tension is that the crew wore head coverings that look almost African or Arab. This is fully understandable because they are out in the equatorial sun in an open boat for many hours but it did make one wonder if the Somali pirates had franchised their operation in South America since the boats, dress, and approach seemed very much like what you read about – just no AK 47s. We had another boat approach us to direct us around their drift nets which are on the surface – again perfectly to be expected. Our original plan, before the current got us, was to stay much further offshore until we were near our destination.
We arrived off Bahia de Caraquez (or Bahia as it is known to everyone) just after dark and had to wait until morning before approaching. The drill here is to anchor near the river mouth and await high tide and the arrival of a pilot. The Rio Chone used to lead to the largest port in Ecuador (until the 1950s) but now there is only 4 feet of water in places at high tide (range 8’ or so). I suspect this has been caused by extensive clearing in the highlands upstream which has led to greatly increased silt loads in the river.
In Bahia we stayed at Puerto Amistad which is a marina cum restaurant run by an American ex-pat and his Colombian wife. It is quite nice and provides double (fore and aft moorings) in the river so your boat is constantly pointing upstream to face the masses of floating vegetation – water hyacinths and even 20’ long bamboo logs that are coming downstream in the wet season. In any case, it is a fine place to leave your boat when exploring inland.