Thursday, December 27, 2012

Heavy Haulout

From December 10th to December 21st, 2012, Irie was hauled out of the water in Shelter Bay Marina, near Colon. This is the place where many cruisers leave their boat over the summer when they go home, where they do boat projects or have work done, where they store their boat in the yard or where they have their floating home hauled, prepped, polished and painted. Mark and I first visited this secluded area in the jungle in 2005, when we needed a place to spend the night in our camper. Back then, the boat yard was being built and the marina only counted a few boats. The modern, roomy showers were a highlight and they still are…

Irie being a catamaran does not leave us any alternatives for being hauled in Panama, so we had to go for the recommended, but pricey Shelter Bay marina. Just the use of the travelift cost twice as much as in the Eastern Caribbean and every night Irie spent on the stands, $55 left our bank account. Needless to say, Mark and I were determined and committed to work hard and to spend as little time as possible in the boat yard. It was a time of emotional rollercoasters and physical exhaustion. Our fridge turned into an ice box and our toilet was unusable. Biting bugs were taken in stride and trips to the bathrooms were quick. The niceties of the place - like pool, gym, lounge room and jungle walks - were never utilized, because of our lack of time, energy or dry weather.

Our hope was to stay “out’ for about 5-7 days, but in the end, we needed eleven to get all the work done and to deal with a bunch of unexpected events. Our work schedule ran from about 7am to 6pm every day, with a few projects to be done at 9pm some days. In between, I needed to do many loads of laundry, we had to fit in an emergency room visit and a couple of bus trips to the store, and do our cooking and washing up. Being exhausted, I messed up our fridge system – which was not hooked up - by turning the breaker on, thinking it was the water pump. After taking one of the engines apart – and removing and re-installing the saildrive (with help from our Aussie friend John from “Five Islands”) – Mark put a part back the wrong way… Figuring out what the newly appeared engine problem was, going through the removal and repositioning of the saildrive once again (thank you John – again - and Red from “Shiver”) and fixing the problem took a lot of extra time and strain on Mark’s bad wrist.

New problems kept showing up and our “splash” date postponed. The Kiwi Grip paint for our back steps, to make them anti-slip, finally showed up after ordering it months ago and Marine Warehouse messing up the order each and every time. When we wanted to apply the (water based) paint during our last stretch on the hard, it rained another two days in a row. Mark and I rigged up tarps and got the job done. The paint needed sunlight to dry, but all we got was humidity and rain showers during the day and heavy rain at night – us worrying about leaks in the plastic bags and tarps. Fingers crossed, we finished up the other projects and managed to get back in the water before the weekend. It was our longest, most frustrating, stressful and expensive haulout ever.

Once floating, more issues arose, which we are now dealing with: day by day, project by project. Owning a boat is not always a joy, but we will try to make the best of it – as always – and hope a short vacation in the San Blas islands will be the reward!

(Pictures will follow later. Impossible to do from where we are right now... :-))

Monday, December 17, 2012

ER visit in Panama

Every two years, in the month of December, pain arrives in our shrinking household. In 2008 we lost our dear dog Kali in Puerto Rico, while at the vet. A malicious and very developed cancer made us put her down after an unsuccessful operation and the knowledge she would never be healthy again. In 2010 it was Darwin’s turn, who –unbeknownst to us- was suffering from internal bleeding as a result of a rare and nasty cancer. We had to put him to sleep in the USA, right before returning home to Irie. With no dogs left (other than our toy dog Clarke, who was given to us by UK friend Matt to “replace” our sweet puppies) this year, something had to happen to Mark or me.

It was Tuesday, December 11th, when the ladder to board Irie in the boatyard of Shelter Bay marina, slipped away. Mark was starting to descend when it happened, and instead tumbled seven feet down to the gravel ground. It was one of those moments we were happy to own a catamaran instead of an even taller monohull. He fell hard and besides a few bloody scrape marks and cuts, hurt his left wrist. Initially, he seemed shocked, but OK, until the evening progressed. The pain became unbearable and we suspected his wrist was broken. While trying to figure out how to get a cab at night from remote Shelter Bay to an emergency room in Colon, our yard neighbor – a doctor – came over to offer medical advice. Upon inspecting Mark’s hand, he made a diagnosis which required a cast… for at least six weeks; a procedure that would take place in a western country.

Our plans, dreams and hopes shattered instantaneously. This would change everything: our time on the dry (which is very expensive, dirty and uncomfortable), our planned three week vacation in the San Blas, our Panama Canal transit, Mark’s upcoming one week visit to the States and even our plans to spend time in the Pacific. We were extremely close to giving up the boat life all together… We hit rock bottom.

The following morning, on 12-12-12, we took the marina shuttle into Colon and were dropped off at the emergency room of the Cuatro Altos hospital. In typical Panamanian style, we were “welcomed” at the check-in desk by three women doing each other’s nails without looking up. One was the secretary, one happened to be the nurse and the third proved to be the doctor on duty. After the nail polish was dry enough, we registered and were helped. The air conditioning was not working and everybody was fanning themselves. The nurse did the rudimentary check-ups and Mark disappeared in the “radiation” zone. A hospital employee took four X-rays of his left hand and then it was nervously waiting for the results. We were called into the doctor’s office, who spoke some English, helped by her tablet translator. The X-rays were lit up and she explained the important verdict: no fractures, “just” a sprained wrist. The news also lit up our faces! What a relief!

The cleaning lady entered the small room and pointed a fan at the doctor’s desk. When she turned it on, papers flew all over the place. Saw that coming a mile away… We received a note with necessary items needed from the pharmacy on site: stronger painkillers and an immobilizer for Mark’s injured hand. They had the pills, but no immobilizer. Really? Before we set off on a hunt for other pharmacies in the area, we paid our ER bill: $95. The secretary handed us a small receipt and we left. When realizing a more detailed invoice might be necessary in the future if the problem appeared to be more serious after a few days, we returned to the desk. The woman was on a little break and when she returned and found out why we were back, she just grabbed the printed sheet in front of her and gave it to us.

For the first time in a long while, Mark and I felt somewhat happier realizing that the situation could have been so much worse. The coming days and weeks in the boatyard and on the boat would be difficult. It is impossible to do most jobs we have planned with one hand, but I’m sure we will manage. I don’t mind being Mark’s left hand for a while, if it means we can get back in the water and start enjoying our lives again…

Monday, December 10, 2012

Rio Chagres: Three Day Oasis

Since the moment Mark and I reached mainland Panama again, a month and a half ago, we wanted to check out the Chagres River. The plan was to anchor there for a few days on the way to or from Bocas del Toro. We all know how that adventure went… After the productive days in the Colon city, we exited the breakwater and motored ten miles west for three days of refuge in nature. The entrance of the Rio Chagres was a little bit tricky – not to be done in big swells – but once inside, the surroundings were serene and beautiful solitude awaited.

Fuerte San Lorenzo towered above Irie, when we passed by close to shore. Seven years ago Mark, Darwin, Kali and I visited these ruins at the end of a jungle road with our camper. Back then, we could see a sailboat anchored in the river underneath. Who would have guessed we would do the same thing one day. Only, we skipped the beginning of the river, which was quite choppy and ventured further upriver for about three miles. On the way we passed one other catamaran, anchored in peace. We would be the only two boats there. Our first anchoring attempt seemed to be in one of the narrower parts of the river – we are new to this river cruising – and we ended up pretty close to shore. We wanted to be near the rainforest, but not being part of it! So, we moved a mile further up and found a perfect, wide spot in a river bend.

It was quiet and peaceful. The water was fresh and flat. What a spoil. Taking showers felt clean and awesome; the water less cold than expected. We took turns washing up. While one person jumped in, the other watched for approaching crocodiles. They stayed hidden and I even managed to scrape the long green beard off Irie’s bottom without being eaten. I have to say, it is a bit more tiresome to stay afloat in fresh water than in salt water.

We paddled the dinghy up and down a small river near us, being swallowed up by the jungle and the quietness. Egrets, kingfishers and herons were the passers-by and a herd of howler monkeys made a loud ruckus from time to time. We never managed to spot one. The absence of interesting wildlife was compensated by the amazing night sounds of the jungle. Once it was pitch black outside, we looked for red eyes along shore with a strong flashlight. Only once did we spot a set, belonging to a crocodile. When we wanted to venture closer the next evening, the creature was gone.

With our dinghy we followed the Rio Chagres until it dead ended at the Gatun dam, where car traffic was sparse. We followed the banks of the river back and forth to spot crocodiles, but they all looked like logs.  Rowing up and down the short side rivers was magnificent and the highlight of our stay. Being one with the jungle in such a peaceful environment is magical indeed.

But then, one morning another streak of bad luck hit us. After a short visit to shore, while clambering back into the dinghy to avoid mud getting all over it, my (underwater) camera slipped unnoticed out of my pocket… into the deep, fathomless and murky water. Gone! The Rio Chagres absorbed my dear, expensive camera (which was a previous birthday gift from Mark) and with it a bunch of unreleased pictures and movies. What I felt was indescribable.

Once back on Irie, Mark slipped on our step – the one without anti-slip material since we fixed a hole there – while trying to rinse something in the water. He fell hard on his tailbone and hurt his back as well. Right before our boat yard visit where we plan loads of heavy work. At least we had a couple of nice, enchanting days before it is back to reality and to a less fun part of boat ownership! We wish we could have stayed longer.

(PS: Reduced amount of pictures due to loss of them and their apparatus)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Colon: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“Colon, Colon!” “Colon! Colon!” the helpers of the bus drivers call. They hang out of the door at bus stops or entice people to get on the correct bus in bus stations. Mark and I had taken the bus to Panama’s second biggest city a few times, either to do some shopping in the outskirts, to change buses in Sabanitas or to run a few errands in the shabby city center. Colon is a dangerous city with a bad reputation. It is the place where the October riots originated and where people (predominantly tourists) are robbed on a daily basis. Some people pronounce it the English way, because it is, indeed, a bit shitty. Not many cruisers take their boat to this area, even though it is a convenient place to get things done. 

The little yellow thingy in the sky finally popped its head back out on my birthday (11/28) and decided to slowly reappear every day thereafter. There are still rainy spells, but the worst is over and we are overjoyed to have the sunshine back. Mark immediately began drying our hole in the back step and I started on the big pile of laundry. A couple of days later, we fixed our last hole with fiberglass and on Sunday, we finally made the move to Club Nautico in Colon. This is the only anchorage with shore access in the busy port. The “Club” charges $3 per person per day when leaving the guarded area. The fee covers a secure spot for the dinghy, garbage disposal and (intermittent) fresh water from the taps.

It is a small anchorage, but not too deep and when we were there, only a couple of other boats were present. When picking up anchor, one has to be careful to not snag the chain or anchor. Our chain was stuck on something, but being patient did the trick. During the three days Mark and I were in Colon, we managed to accomplish more than during a whole month in Portobelo! What would take a full day from there – with the long bus rides and waiting times – would take a full hour here. Because of the unsafe nature of the city center, you have to take a taxi (about $1 a ride) everywhere and no matter where you find yourself, yellow vehicles abound. Since we never take any valuables with us on such trips, I have no pictures of the dilapidated city itself.

Day 1 had us visit the Canal Authority in Puerto Cristobal (signal station). We registered Irie for a future canal transit and were told to call back for an appointment with the admeasurer. We mailed a few postcards from one of the three post offices in the country (and hope they will reach their destination within the month – mail service is non-existent in Panama; nobody has an address) and did a big stock-up of groceries. On the second day we moved to the Flats anchorage, a big anchorage near the entrance of the Panama Canal, to get measured for our transit. Before noon we were back at Club Nautico. We took a 30 cent bus to a home center and another grocery store and a taxi to a fuel station, where we filled all our jerrycans with diesel and gasoline. In the evening, we went out for a local dinner to give ourselves a break from cooking and dishes. Day 3 was a bit less productive with a failed attempt to pay for our canal transit and a three hour wait at the dentist. We did buy some hard-to-find latex gloves in a close by pharmacy, with all the residents’ eyes pinned on us, making us feel not too comfortable. Our pace quickened a bit in this neighborhood. When we wanted to take on some fresh water at the dock, there was none.

All in all, it felt great to finally mark some things off our long list of errands in such a short time. The fact that we barely slept at night, because of the massive wake of pilot boats, the fumes of big diesel engines and the constant noise of banging, welding and humming of cargo ship engines and cranes – usual sounds of an active container port, we took in great stride. We were getting things done and the thought of moving Irie to a much finer place for a few days of relaxation and beauty afterwards kept a smile on our faces!

Irie getting into the maze of cargo ships - a constant beeping of the AIS alarm!

Sunset over Colon from the Club Nautico anchorage

Treading amongst giants on the way to the Flats

Visit from the admeasurer in the Flats

Cristobal signal station - traffic control for the Panama Canal and Colon harbor movements

These channel markers mark the "entrance" to the Panama Canal