Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Path Between the Seas

After our few days of relaxation and testing Andrew's work on the engine in the Chagres River we returned to Colon for three days of mad rushing around, laundry, shopping and dealing with the paperwork to check out of Panama. On 2 May we collected Sandy, Joan and Warwick from Zeffrin and brought them aboard R2 to be our line handlers for our transit of the Panama Canal. We had been told to expect our advisor at 17.45. At 1800 the signal control radioed us to advise the time was now to be 1900, so we had our dinner and relaxed a bit. About 1915 Carlos arrived, we knew Carlos from our transit with Goolka, we were very pleased to see him as he was really lovely and very professional. We pulled the anchor and then as Andrew put the boat into reverse it stuck! This was not good to put it mildly so in the anchor went and out came the tools. Carlos advised us we had some time as our first canal was not booked until 2100. Tension was high as Andrew worked to find out what the problem was, all the while thinking we could loose our transit date, fee and bond of $1450 then we'd have to wait another 3 weeks, pay again and then have to rush to reach Tahiti in time for our flights booked in the summer - this really was not good. Flightless, the boat transitting with us offered to tow us but their advisor would not allow it. After 20 minutes Andrew realised the problem was with the mount for the gear lever cable rather than gear box so he disconnected the cable and installed Warwick in the locker behind the engine to operate the gears manually on Andrew's instruction. This was quite a warm spot for poor Warwick who had only arrived from New Zealand on a plane the day before. Up came the anchor again and we headed towards the canal entrance. We rafted with Flightless to transit the Gatun locks - three locks that take you up 85 feet to the Gatun lake. Flightless took care of power through the locks with Andrew (and Warwick) on standby in case we needed to assist. The locks are huge - we went through with a cargo ship called Afric Star which was 520 feet long and 80 feet wide. The locks take ships up to about 750 feet long and 105 feet wide. There is a lot of hype about the locks but to be honest they are just locks and anyone who has sailed in Europe will be quite familiar with the process - it was just fine. We reached Gatun lake shortly before midnight, tied up to a buoy and got out the well deserved rum.

We were told our next advisor would arrive at 0630, so got up bright and early. Morning on the Gatun lake is out of this world, Howler Monkey's roar (yes roar), the trees all around are alive and the view across the lake is calm and quiet. We waited for our adviser, and waited and waited. The advisor to Flightless arrived at about 0730 and they left. This worried us as we knew the transit was as at 1230 and if we were to make it the 21 miles to the Pedro Miguel locks we needed to leave soon. You have to say you can do 8 knots otherwise the Canal authorities make you pay more, but at this late time 8 knots was even pushing it. 0915 and a launch appear across the lake, George arrives on board and off we go at last. His first question is how fast can we go!! He then disappeared below and watched a dvd during our trip down to Pedro Miguel. This was fine by us as the route is totally buoyed and we had a nice trip - we got the sails out and managed 7 knots most of the way. We were very relieved to see Flightless when we arrived as we could raft with them again. Pedro Miguel is just one lock and then a mile to the two locks at Miraflores. As we left Pedro Miguel we spotted Charmer, the boat my Dad built when I was about 10 moored in the little yacht club - we knew she was in Panama but not where so it was great to see her and snap a couple of pics. The Miraflores locks went smoothly just gently lowering us into the Pacific. There was a webcam at these locks so we waved to Jonathan & James who hopefully were watching. When the last gates opened we had a bit of turbulence as the fresh and salt water mixes but it wasn't an issue. George prized himself from his laptop and zoomed off on his launch and we were free - we took the momentous journey into the Pacific under the bridge of the Amercias. It felt great if not just a little scary.

We took a mooring in Balboa and went out to TGI Fridays (of all places). Next morning it took Andrew about an hour to disassemble the steering, find the bolt that had worked loose from the gear stick and put it all back together. We then took a whistle stop tour of Panama City before heading back to Balboa for a few too many beers with Tim, Darren and Annie - friends from Colon we found loitering in the yacht club bar. Friday morning we broke free and headed out to the Perlas Islands. This is a small archipelago in the gulf on Panama, not quite the San Blas but still quite special. Our first night was spent off Contodoro a very exclusive island where South American political meetings often take place. Tonight we are on an island called Pedro Gonzalez near a small fishing settlement. We had three local children on board most of the afternoon - India, Carla and Luis were fascinated with our binoculars and digital camera. They brought us bread, papaya and plantain before exploring R2 confidently.

Tomorrow we are heading out towards the Galapagos, a trip that should take about 10 to 14 days.

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