Saturday, February 25, 2012

Through the Panama Canal!

Did Irie just transit the Panama Canal without us telling anyone? Are we really on “the other side” and ready to cross the Pacific Ocean? Did we leave the Caribbean Sea forever? Will we head to the Galapagos Islands within the month? And, shall we cruise by the idyllic islands and exotic communities of the South Pacific on the way to New Zealand? Of course not. Not yet… But, our good friends Axel and Liz on their aluminum sloop Gudrun V did, and Mark and I went along as line handlers. What an experience that was!

We had an early start on February 22nd, taking the bus from Portobelo to Colon, followed by a long taxi ride to Shelter Bay Marina, near the Caribbean entrance of the Canal. The expensive marina was surprisingly full with cruising boats preparing or waiting for their turn to go through, fixing the usual boat problems or taking a break from the anchored life. Axel and Liz had been prepping and working for a few weeks and were finishing up to leave. Their friend Scott had also just arrived and after a decent lunch of Philly cheese steak, we left the shelter of the marina. Passing a few massive container ships along the way, we headed for the Flats, our last stop on this side of the Canal. Here, we waited with four other sailboats for the advisors to arrive, which happened exactly on time for three of us.

The advisor gave a few instructions and around 16:30, we arrived by the Gatun locks, a British cruising boat to our right (starboard), long lines and line handlers to our left (port) and four car tires on both sides. Since we were tied up to another boat, we only needed line handlers on one side and could work as teams, which made this first encounter (for me anyway) with the lock procedures a bit easier. The boat next to us had another sailboat to its starboard, so their line handlers were out of work, but the captain was now in charge of the threesome and his nerves and engines worked hard. His new “trimaran” was darn wide and heavy!

Transiting those first three locks went pretty smooth and steadily we climbed to the level of Gatun Lake, our stop for the night. Gudrun managed to anchor in 60 (!) feet of water right before dark and our advisor left with the “promise” of an early start the next day. Our second advisor would arrive between 6 and 6:30… While the five of us had a wonderful dinner with beer and wine and conversed until bed time in the cockpit, the last two sailboats were less lucky and settled into the anchorage well into the night. They also had to be ready again by dawn.

After a rolly night in the massive lake (the many speeding pilot boats and passing cargo ships create enormous wakes; the Panama Canal operates 24/7 for big boats), the Gudrun team was prepared and in good spirits for the next leg. By 7:00, no advisor had shown up and a hearty breakfast was had. An hour later, we were all still waiting and starting to wonder what was going on. None of the other boats had a clue either and when one after the other giant container ship dropped anchor in our vicinity and no through traffic was seen anymore, the speculations started. Did one of the Miraflores locks break? Did terrorists blow up the Pedro Miguel locks? Did someone fall in the water and got sucked through the gates? Was there a crocodile attack in the lake? Did the Chilean war ship that was in the Gatun locks with us the previous day declare war on Panama? Our answer was a colossal Dutch cruise ship anchoring right off our stern…

Time went by, people went back to bed and precious daylight was wasted. Axel called his agent and we were promised an advisor around 11:00. When that time came, our two buddy boats from before lifted anchor with their advisor and we (and the two smaller sailboats) were left behind, without understanding a thing. That moment was a bit distressing. When they left, one of the crew members yelled that we’d have to wait for another hour and a half. Around 12:30, we finally steamed off towards the Pedro Miguel locks. Our advisor’s name was Ivan and his first – worried - question “Did you guys have lunch yet?”

Ivan told us we had until 16:30 to cover the 24 miles of distance to the next lock– 17 of it though Gatun Lake and the last 7 through the Gaillard Cut – and recommended Gudrun to do 6 knots for now. Over the span of four hours he instructed adjustment of speed, insisted us to drive closer to the red buoys, answered all our questions and ate heaps of food. He was a good and knowledgeable advisor who pressed us on at the right times, making sure we didn’t miss our “lock appointment”. If that were to happen, we would be stuck and sent back to Gatun Lake until further notice. The two smaller sailboats did not make it and they had to spend a whole other night in the Panama Canal!

Luckily, that wasn’t our fate and Gudrun made it right in time. We unfurled the jib for a bit to make extra speed and raced a Panamex container ship towards Gaillard Cut, where we had to let him go first. It was a tight squeeze! Pedro Miguel is only one lock and we were “by ourselves”, not tied up to anybody else, but to the massive wall of the lock, all tires on one side. Again, we only needed two line handlers and we fell down with the water. Without problems we emerged on the other side of the doors and motored the last mile to the Miraflores locks. That’s when we heard the engine make a different sound and discovered that not enough water was spitting out… Axel turned it off and inspected the inside, while we were quickly blown towards the locks. The inspection was postponed until we were safely tied to the first of the Miraflores locks. Axel and Mark worked on the engine and the others dealt with the lines until we reached yet another level down. Since the engine problem could not be detected, we continued at a slower pace.

By the time we left the second of the Miraflores locks and entered the Pacific side, it was dark. Axel played an appropriate song and the crew celebrated the successful transit with cheers and a sip of water. Somewhere down the exit channel, our helpful advisor was picked up.  With a tired, but accomplished feeling, we motored the last stretch to the Playita anchorage, only straying from the channel once… A quick and dooming awakening had us back on track and concentrated until we dropped anchor around 9pm!

Tying eight car tires alongside Gudrun, before departure.

Axel runs his boat with duck tape and zip ties. Here, the i-Pad (charts) and handheld VHF are positioned in the cockpit.

Tied up to two other cruising boats before entering the Gatun locks.

Canal workers "walk" us towards the next lock in Gatun.

A crack in the wall, while the lock is being filled. We climb - in three steps - to the higher level of Gatun Lake.

Sunset in Gatun Lake; step 1 is completed...

The Gudrun team: captain and photographer Axel, advisor Ivan, hostess, cook and line handler Liz, and Mark, Scott and me being guests and line handlers.

Racing a Panamex container ship towards the narrow entrance of Gaillard Cut. The giant won; not sure whether he was pleased with the competition...

Centennial Bridge on the way to the Miraflores locks.

Gudrun's Panama Canal transit is forever documented on the wall of the Pedro Miguel lock!

Going down down down again...

Liz and I had to be daring as well in the Miraflores locks. We didn't realize this is where the webcam is mounted...

Oh oh... Trouble!? Did he watch the webcam?

Panamex ships have a width that just fits in the locks. They are pulled by small but heavy-duty and incredibly strong trains. For giants that don't fit through the Canal, the authority is building new locks, which will be finished in 2014.

The last lock going down. The Pacific is on the other side!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Full Circle

The “mysterious” dish in my previous blog is called “kielbasa a la Wojo”, a meal one of Mark’s fraternity brothers in college – Wojo – prepared for his friends. He was very proud and excited about his “exclusive” meal, but nobody else shared those feelings. Instead of being savored, the sausages went airborne and an interesting food fight ensued. Ah, the good old days. On Irie, chorizo purchased in Nargana (San Blas) was used instead of kielbasa. They tasted pretty gross and came in plastic casings, which we found out the hard way… Thanks for guessing, everybody. The prize goes to Keith Kinch, who won an all-inclusive stay on Irie! When can we expect you, Keith?

By now, Mark and I have temporarily left the San Blas islands to run a bunch of errands on mainland Panama. We stopped at Linton Island for a few days to check the place out and considered basing ourselves here for the time being. The only thing the anchorage has going for it, though, is decent WiFi and some funny monkeys on the island. Buses to stores, fuel stations, Portobelo and Colon run infrequently; the bay is quite choppy and there’s basically nothing there but a friendly restaurant (Casa X) with $1 beers and fresh juices. So, a couple of days ago, we sailed on to Portobelo, the other protected bay in this area.

Portobelo is a relatively nice town, with old fort walls spread around town and the bay, an efficient bus service to Colon and jungle all around. We wake up in the mornings with the roar of howler monkeys. Town offers a few Chinese run convenient stores and free water is available at the dock. On shore, Captain Jack’s is offering a whole bunch of services for cruisers and there are many other establishments to have a (local) meal or freshly squeezed juice or smoothie. There is even a bank machine, but no fuel station. We are now officially in Central America, which means dirty streets with lots of garbage everywhere and affordable goods and meals for sale.

Portobelo is special to us for a different reason as well. This is the point where Mark, Kali, Darwin and I turned around on our yearlong camping trip through Central America, six years ago. We drove our truck camper all the way from California to Panama, over the Canal and Portobelo was our most southern point. Our Caribbean circumnavigation is now kind of completed: one half was done over land, the other over water. When we walked the ruins again, we couldn’t help but think about our precious dogs and the good times we had together. Who would have guessed that we would be back, one day, by boat this time and without our pets?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Guess the Dish!

Who knows the name of this dish? Give it a try in the comments.

TIP: It has to do with Mark's college years...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Perfect Pretzel

Pretzels are not really part of the Belgian culture, but they are a staple in the United States. Mark loves them and used to buy them – the small, hard ones – in bags from the grocery store. He would look at the ingredients and purchase the cheapest ones without preservatives and crap in them. They are a great snack and even though I prefer potato chips, I do like the combination of salty peanuts and pretzels; a great mix! I have seen the big, soft pretzels as well, at fairs or sports games. They come warm and are served as a yummy snack with mustard.

Why all this talk about pretzels, when they are surely not to be found in Kuna land? As a matter of fact, any decent snacks are absent on the islands here (we can’t even find the hard corn to make popcorn) and in most other parts of the Caribbean they are very expensive. We have thought about making potato chips, but that seems to be a big project and hassle and we don’t have the right burners to heat oil for such things. We did find some cheap, “healthy” chips in CuraƧao, but they are long gone and… Mark misses pretzels.

Recently, he had the great idea to make soft pretzels. He found a good recipe and went to work. I helped a little bit here and there and about two hours later, twelve wonderfully browned and salted pretzels appeared out of the oven! They are the best ones we ever had and we are now proud to add tasty golden pretzels to our list of home-made food of Irie. They join the breads, pizzas, English muffins, fries, onion rings, rum cakes, banana breads, hamburgers, many spreads and flavorful, varied and interesting dishes for dinner. Maybe we should start a restaurant, a pizzeria or a bakery whenever/if ever we settle on land…

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Back to the Old Days

February 5th, 2012: a normal Sunday in the rest of the world; Super Bowl Sunday in the United States. My husband happens to be an American, not being in (t)his country of American football. Instead he is in the middle of nowhere and –for once- not very happy about it. Where to watch the Giants and the Patriots play the most important and popular game of the world and the year? There are no bars, no restaurants and no ex-pats living nearby. We don’t have TV, let alone fast internet; the radio stations are Panamanian…

Mark thinks about making an announcement on VHF #72, the channel most cruisers in the San Blas islands stand by on. “Does anyone have satellite TV to watch the Super Bowl tonight? We will bring rum and popcorn in return for watching the game!” For some reason, he doesn’t think this will work out. In the meantime, we hear other cruisers make plans for Super Bowl parties on their boats, while we are wondering “How the heck are they going to watch this event?” We somehow find out those Americans will listen to the Super Bowl on their SSB radio.

With difficulty, Mark discovers the right channel for the game and when the clock shows 6:30pm our small SSB receiver is wedged between a top hatch, the antenna leaning against a metal shroud. We turn the wind generator and the fridge off, to avoid interference. On this cool February evening, we are snuggled up in bed and listen to a radio voice broadcasting Super Bowl 46: the New York Giants against the New England Patriots. The radio station is called AFN: Armed Forces Network. I feel like we are living in the 1930s, when radio was basically the only form of entertainment and news source. While the broadcaster’s monotone voice talks faster and slower, depending on the developments in the covered stadium, some ads are thrown in, and I doze off, while Mark follows the game. Even when I watch a football game on TV, I don’t understand the rules, so how could I ever know what’s going on without even seeing the field and the players?

It is an exciting game, where both teams score well and before we know it, half time arrives. We skip Madonna, because it is quite important that we turn the fridge back on, before the evaporator (and our little “freezer”) defrosts and the whole inside is a watery mess. We can also use the power from the wind generator, so our intermission is used well.  After half an hour, we turn the SSB radio back on and the other systems back off. We get comfy in bed again and wait for the soothing voice. All of a sudden… there is total silence. The batteries died. We don’t have extra AA batteries anymore and scramble a couple from a camera and another two from a flash light. Mark realizes it is more important to follow the weather predictions on the SSB radio instead of the football game and saves the battery power to be able to sail safely to our next destinations. Therefore: game over and Super Bowl Sunday has us going to bed early and leaves us hanging about the second half of the battle and the final score…