Monday, October 3, 2016

The Panama Canal

October 1
Las Perlas, Panama

This morning we are motoring out of our anchorage in Viveros towards Contadora, the most developed island in the Las Perlas chain, and our last stop before heading to Colombia's Pacific coast. Max's sisters, Pauli and Anna, have been with us for two weeks and together we have transited the canal, explored Panama City, and spent many enchanting nights at anchor among the islands of the Las Perlas archipelago. We have pulled in many handsome fish taking turns reeling, cleaning, or cooking. We have cut off and painted the tails of each, rendering our shirts a little stinky and the cockpit more colorful. More than once we have been surrounded by dolphins, whale sharks, humpbacks, stingrays, and at night it just continues, except that everything glows a dull green with the best phosphorescence I have seen outside of biobay in Vieques. It won't be easy to chronicle the adventures of the last ten days, but here goes...

Approaching Isla Bayoneta in Las Perlas

Whale sharks feeding 
Panama is extremely different than Colombia. It is the most ecologically diverse and abundant place we have seen and we have hardly explored any of it. There are the San Blas islands where a matriarchal tribe rules over palm tree encrusted islands studding shades of turquoise reef, the dense jungle peaks of the narrow isthmus where Gatun Lake connects the entrances and exits of the canal, Bocas del Toro on the Pacific coast, and of course Las Perlas, the group of islands we decided to dedicate our time to.

While Panama hosts particularly vibrant and mysterious oceanlife, and has blessed us with Yellow Fin Tuna, Spanish Mackerel, and Amber Jack, it is also the dirtiest place we have seen. As soon as we left the last set of canal locks leading to the Pacific we found ourselves next to the loading docks of Balboa, the gray geometric of Panama City beyond, and so much floating trash it looked like every household had gone to the water and simply emptied whole bags. The whole place stank of sewage, which combined with the slow distant movement of all things gigantic and Maersk made my heart sink. So this is the Pacific. Like may moments in my life, I felt robbed of the ability to enjoy the earth, or to even see what it should look like. How had it looked when Balboa arrived and claimed this whole ocean, and everything it touched for Spain? Not like this. What had we done to turn it into a garbage soup the color of undiluted Simple Green reeking of our own foul excrement?

Pauli reacting to the smell of Balboa
We had to spend a night in Panama City to provision and buy a new anchor, and since Balboa Yacht Club was full, we ended up at Flamenco Yacht Club. We spent $100 for a slip surrounded by terraced restaurants where people ate fried fish while apparently unaffected by the real fish beneath them that were maneuvering around tied up and used condoms. A bachelorette party of women twitched down the dock wearing headbands that bobbed with plastic sparkly penises on springs. I couldn't help but imagine a Maersk container filled with those headbands traversing the ocean, passing through the mighty locks of the canal, to arrive in Panama City for their one night of life. I am sure that to those women a curious little ship called Tortuga from Kingston, NY, its salty foursome drinking Gin and Tonics amid hanging laundry, looked pretty absurd too.

So this is the big picture of Panama I have been developing- a paradox of the most beautiful islands I have ever seen, incredible engineering feats of men, and gut-wrenching moments realizing what we have done to this coast. I am going to go backwards now, to our canal transit, the most exhilarating moment of this trip for me and evidence of how we can bend nature to our will when we want to.

Max and I arrived in Panama on a Tuesday, docking at Shelter Bay Yacht Club. We had arranged for an agent through email, Erick A. Galvez, and he arrived the next morning to discuss our canal transit. We had been under the impression that we had to pay for the Panamanian Cruising Permit regardless of our length of stay, but Erick informed us that if we rushed the transit to within 72 hours of our arrival, we could get out of it. This saved us around $500 and Erick charged only $350, so the choice was obvious. We got ready to leave Shelter Bay and only had to await the arrival of Anna and Pauli.

Erick, who is as organized as he is neatly dressed, made the process simple. He took us to the immigration office in Colon, arranged our Zarpe, answered all emails and calls promptly, rented us the fenders and lines required, and even picked up Anna and Pauli from the airport. Below is our receipt with a cash discount included! Max loves a cash discount.

The deal with the Panama Canal is that you need 4 line handlers, the skipper, and a trip advisor. We were lucky to have Anna, Pauli, and a volunteer named Mark ready to go. Anna and Pauli arrived late on Thursday, and we left for the canal the next morning, Friday September 23, day at 1:00. Our first directive was to anchor in The Flats, an area adjacent to the canal entrance, and await our trip advisor. He arrived at 4:30 and in the meantime we traded Mark's stories of a career as a fire chief for our stories of unruly students and weird things Anna has done to dead bodies in medical school. We were really excited and already having a fantastic time.

As soon as our trip advisor arrived we started the slow motor towards the Gatun Locks. We attached our rented fenders to port and starboard and led the 7/8 inch polypropelene lines through our chaulks forward and aft, a two foot bowline loop ready on one end and the other end loose and coiled. At this point we started to pass truly giant ships and each one was incredible to look at close up. Just before we entered the locks, our trip advisor informed us that we would be rafting up to a tug named Montana, which would make our transit much easier.

By the time the doors of the first lock opened we were working only under the fantastic illumination of the locks and the three vessels passing together- Montana the tug, a cargo ship called BBC Paula, and little Tortuga. A nighttime transit made me nervous at first, but now that it was happening, I could see that it was preferable. The double doors to the lock were medieval and powerful looking, the locomotives on either side were slowly moving up little sledding hills with thick cables running to BBC Paula's stern, and the whole area felt busy with a deep hum of activity.

The first of three Gatun Locks

Once Big Paula was positioned at the front of the locks and secured by the locomotives, Montana moved in and positioned herself against the right hand wall. Monkey fists were thrown and Montana's big lines went up to linehandlers on the wall. Given the okay through Hector's VHF, we moved in, Max on tiller, Anna and Pauli on roving starboard fenders, Mark on the bowline, and me on the stern line ready for my epic toss to Montana's stern (which turned out to be more like handing it to him) One we were made off to Montana, which was easy and without incident, we started making friends. The cook came out and immediately offered us their leftover dinner- a pot of seafood gumbo, bag of rice, and a plate of lasagna (not NEARLY as good as mom Kufner's, but what can you do?)

So the water rose in the Gatun Locks and we went up with it while Montana regulated the lines. Once the water level rose to that of the next lock, we untied in turn and moved into the next locks and arranged ourselves in the same formation. And so it went until we reached our giant mooring ball in Gatun Lake where we devoured the food given to us by Montana, and promptly passed out from exhaustion. As soon as my eyes closed, I woke up to the arrival of our next trip advisor who would take us through the Pacific Locks.

The second half of the canal transit took us across Gatun Lake which was beautiful in the early morning and studded with densely-jungled islands. We drank coffee and tried to peer into the darkness beyond the canopy or catch a glimpse of one of the canal's fabled crocs sunning itself on the shore. Our second trip advisor was a bit more animated and fun to talk to about the history of the canal, the biodiversity of the lake, and his experience working on the canal. He acknowledged early that I was the one to ask for breakfast, drinks, and snacks. This man drank pots of coffee and eventually suggested we eat. I had heard that the advisers could be finicky about food, going so far as to order high end meals to be delivered when displeased with what was being served, so I was prepared. I cooked up scrambled eggs, bacon, more coffee, sliced avocado/tomato/cheese, and just as it was about to be served Max ducked his head in to inform me that there would be a small wake coming. I steadied the coffee and pan of uncooked eggs and waited for the "small" wake. When it came, it was actually enormous and I watched each element of breakfast dump itself on my feet. The siracha sprayed everywhere and dented itself in a pile of bacon, avocado, and plates at my feet. I watched helplessely as the eggs rode toward the front edge of the pan and slopped down my calves. I swore loud and clear, and my hands shook with anger as I picked everything up. The crew kindly ate the floor breakfast and assured me that it was okay over and over. The adviser loved it actually.

We passed through the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Mirafloras locks with a research vessel named Observer and a tourist boat that takes people through the canal with blasting the history in English and Spanish over a loudspeaker. The tourists loved us! On this side of the lake the canal brings you down 6 locks to Balboa. While in the first lock, just before the doors closed, it was decided that a huge car carrier would also join the three other boats in the lock. This boat was enormous, and we had to sit there, like little ants beneath it, as it pushed unknowable amounts of water towards us where we were tied up to Observer very close to the edge of the lock doors ahead.