Monday, January 28, 2013

Last Weeks in Kuna Yala

Loyal It’s Irie blog readers might have noticed that there was a bit of a time gap between New Year and canal blogs, earlier this month. Mark and I were so busy with a family visit, boat projects and canal preparations, that – before we knew it – the date of our transit came and went. And, afterwards, I had to report about it, of course. J So, let’s back up about a month, back to the time we spent our last weeks (ever?) in the gorgeous San Blas islands. This time, my cousin and her husband got to enjoy it with us.

Griet and Wim arrived on Irie from Belgium on January 4th and were in for a very diverse and special Panama vacation. The first ten days of their holiday, they received a good taste of the San Blas islands, followed by a great sail to mainland Panama, a short stay in Portobelo, and a totally different “chores” stop in Colon Harbor, with a side trip to the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo and its marvelous view over the Chagres River. Then, they transited the canal with us, to conclude their vacation with two days Panama City. We called their experience the “Best of Panama”!

In Kuna Yala we sailed around and stayed in different anchorages between sandy islands dotted with palm trees. Our guests arrived in the East Lemmons, where they explored three of the four islands. A record amount of over 30 anchored boats made us leave the following day. Yansaladup had us remove and re-install one of the emergency hatches (thanks for helping us clean all the old caulk of, guys!) while in 5 feet of water, and do laundry on shore with water from the well. We also managed to relax one afternoon in the hammock and have a fire on the beach, accompanied by drinks and snacks, a gecko and our German friend Stefan, who we had to say “goodbye” to.

A highlight for many visitors to the San Blas islands, is the river tour with Lisa, a – locally – famous master mola maker and transvestite. Mark and I had never done this daytrip before and figured that having family over was a good opportunity to go. We were accompanied by Vicky and Larry from SV Rocinante. Lisa and a helper picked us up in the anchorage of Salardup for a day of fun. With her motorized boat we drove up a pretty river, where we disembarked into the jungle. She showed us her Kuna family’s traditional cemetery and led us through the dense rainforest, crossing the river a couple of times. While she charged ahead, we - the tourists - lagged behind to have a good look at fauna (Griet, Mark and I spotted some howler monkeys) and flora.

After an hour or so and a short climb, we reached a pretty waterfall with refreshing pools underneath. We all jumped into the gorge, some from a bit higher up than others, and had a chilly swim around. After lunch, it was time to really get wet. Walking stick in hand, stumbling over and – sometimes – falling onto the slippery rocks, we followed the river for a good way back to the jungle trail. Once in a while a jump off a cliff, a short swim, or a slide through the water was needed. It was an interesting and enjoyable experience!

Irie’s freshwater tank was empty, so we stopped briefly in Rio Azucar, to fill up with fresh water from the mountains and to buy a few odds and ends, like freshly baked bread. It was Griet and Wim’s first encounter with an authentic Kuna village. The process went quicker than expected and we managed to sail all the way to the Coco Bandero Cays – another pretty setting of four palmy and balmy islands - the same day. More beaches were explored and refreshing swims were had. The wind had picked up a lot, and so had the amount of visiting sailboats. As a result, we had to skip two favorite anchorages and the morning turned into one of sailing and motoring instead of relaxing and snorkeling. We stopped in the East Lemmons again, where we did have a wonderful snorkeling experience on the reefs in the afternoon.

Then, we started planning our trip to the mainland, so we headed for the Chichime Cays. The first night, we anchored “inside” behind the impressively breaking reefs in 10 feet of incredibly clear water. Diving in was a delight; as if you were in a swimming pool, but with over a knot of current. Showering was a bit challenging to say the least, but we had fun being swept towards the beach, snorkel mask on our heads, then walking back past Irie on the beach and floating back again. The island we were anchored off also had an easy trail, a beautiful beach and some kind of bar. Griet collected many shells and sea beans. The 16 foot waves in the ocean might have been the cause of all the extra flotsam and jetsam.  

Our last night was spent on the “outside” of Chichime, from where we staged ourselves for the 55 mile sail to Portobelo, mainland Panama. We had our last Kuna Yala snorkel and our last cocktail in our – so far – favorite island group. To make the evening even better, Becky and Denny from SV Kokomo joined us in the anchorage and for dinner, drinks and great stories. More friends we had to say goodbye to. L And then, we moved west… to keep moving west!

Griet and Wim filled their suitcase with Belgian goodies for us!

Fixing the emergency hatch: Mark inside, me outside in 4.5 feet of water

Doing laundry with well water on Yansaladup

Pretty surroundings of the East Lemmons

Carrying Mark across the river to keep his shoes dry!

Lisa shows us her family's cemetery

Lunch near the waterfall, before we follow the river back

Sometimes walking, sometimes swimming, sometimes jumping and sometimes sliding...

And sometimes falling...

I finally used my hammock, the way it is supposed to be used! :-)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Irie’s Panama Canal Transit

Despite the fact that our carefully organized and long planned transit day was postponed by a day – which we found out the day of! - the whole procedure of going from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean went pretty smooth. It is good to be on the other side and the realization of new adventures and long passages to come is finally starting to sink in.

On Saturday, January 19th, we waited at Club Nautico in Colon for our extra line handler Toby, who arrived from Panama City. My cousin Griet and her husband, who had been visiting for a couple weeks, were our other two line handlers. Other than the captain and an advisor, four line handlers are required to be on board during the entire journey; in case you are the only boat going through “central lock”. Because of our transit delay, the stocking up of diesel, gasoline, water and some groceries had happened the days prior. From the moment our new friend hopped on, we motored Irie to the more comfortable Flats area, where lunch was had. Our first advisor, Francisco, was due to arrive at 14:00 and made it only 15 minutes later. By this time, eight car tires on the sides protected Irie from collisions and four long lines reaching the top of the locks, waited on the foredecks.

The question “Is the anchor up?” (Uh?) prompted us to get moving and at cruising speed, we reached for the Gatun Locks. Right before the entrance, we rafted up to a Privilege 49 catamaran, which had another monohull attached. Our threesome entered the first of the Gatun Locks without problems. The big catamaran’s engines and captain did all the moving about, while our and the monohull’s line handlers attended to the long lines. Panamanian canal crew threw small lines with a monkey fist on the end – protect those solar panels! –to Irie and we attached the long lines to them. Then, the guys on shore pulled the big lines up and secured them to bollards. The lock doors closed and the water rose. Line handlers in the four corners of the three boat flotilla pulled in the slack while we all went up, in three times/locks, to the level of Gatun Lake. Once in the lake, we tied up to the big cat again, which was attached to a big mooring and Francisco was picked up. After dinner, drinks, talks and dishes, we went to bed on a motionless surface. Phase 1 completed!

Our second advisor would show up at 6:30 the following morning, so on Sunday, January 20th, the alarm clock beeped at 6:00, anticipating a slow start and a respectable delay from the Canal Authority. It came as a surprise – and a sleepy shock – to hear the pilot boat stop by Irie at 6:15. Our new, cheery and relaxed advisor Ahmed jumped on board – did anyone notice? – and requested a cup of coffee to start the day. Since the water wasn’t boiling yet and most of the other boats began to move, we suggested starting the long 4.5 hour haul through Gatun Lake as well. Coffee and breakfast followed soon after. During the relatively boring trip over brown water and past green islands, we kept an eye out for crocodiles and spotted one. Big ships and “small” ships passed by and dredging machines were ever present. We managed to fly our jib for an hour or so, and gained extra speed, but nobody seemed to be concerned as to what time we would arrive at the next lock.

Around 11:00 we entered the Pedro Miguel Lock, where we descended one level in the presence of two monohulls. The bigger one sat in the center and its captain steered the group through, all the way to the Pacific side, while line handlers on the other boats let out line as the water level dropped. One mile further down along, around noon, the tricky Miraflores Locks awaited us. The current and water movements in these last two locks are the worst, but the line handlers (mostly) did their jobs and when the final gates opened, Irie disconnected from the group and steered her way into the Pacific Ocean! 

The advisors were picked up under the famous Bridge of the Americas. Then, we needed to make one last stop at the Balboa Yacht Club, where we patiently “waited” – captain Mark struggling with strong current and heavy wind – until the launch finally picked up our eight tires and four lines for eight dollars. To rent the lot, the cost is $60 for the lines and $2 per tire. The total price for our transit – without the $891 buffer in case of damage to the canal – was $984. We did not use an agent and it was pretty easy to arrange for everything ourselves. 

We had made good timing and were settled in La Playita anchorage (near the Amador – or causeway – in Panama City) before 15:00, and celebrated our new feat and location with a glass of champagne. Now, we have to deal with high tides, frigid water, lots of provisioning and the last preparations for a new episode in our lives!

Rafting up - also called nestling up - with two other boats

In the Gatun Locks going up

Sunrise in Gatun Lake - part 2 has started

Wim is explaining European geography to advisor Ahmed, who taught Wim some history lessons

Griet on the lookout for crocodiles, while Mark lets the autopilot do its (his) job on Gatun Lake

One of the many dredging machines along the canal

Pretty Centennial Bridge with Gaillard' Cut behind it

The lock doors of the last Miraflores Lock open. Welcome to the Pacific Ocean...

Bridge of the Americas

Skyline of Panama City seen from the canal

Cheers to a successful transit and arrival in the Pacific

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Update Miraflores Locks

Irie is tied to two monohulls. We are on the outside and dressed in red. We will be in the Miraflores soon, so from around 12:00 to 13:00. There is another, bigger, cat behind us also. Maybe you can "catch" us... :-)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Miraflores Locks, here we come!

Irie made it safe and well (with some stressful moments nevertheless) through the three Gatun Locks and is now moored in Gatun Lake. Tomorrow, we are supposed to cross the lake at 6:30. This trip should take 4-5 hours, after which we will pass through the Pedro Miguel lock and then on to the Miraflores Locks. Let's hope we'll see some crocodiles!

We expect to be in the Miraflores Locks and on the webcam there some time between 13:00 and 14:00 (Belgium: 19:00-20:00). This time, I will send an update. I tried to do this for the Gatun Locks, but miserably failed because of a computer problem. The webcam in Miraflores is better quality anyway and... it is the last step before arriving in the Pacific Ocean.

More tomorrow! Irie's crew has red shirts on and will wave to the webcam. Today, we were tied to a big catamaran, who had a third sailboat to its other side as well. But, who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Canal Transit Delayed

People who tried to see Irie start her Panama Canal transit through the Gatun Locks, yesterday, January 18th, will have been disappointed. There was no Irie passing by and, most likely, no other sailboats either. Apparently, no advisors were available for the crossing, so Irie's transit was delayed by a day and that of others probably as well. We know of one boat being stuck in Gatun Lake for an extra night because of this issue. Imagine how this changes everybody's plans, hotel reservations or flights!!!

That nothing goes smoothly in Panama and that many people are incapable of doing their job is a known fact, but that even dealing with the canal authorities (this is a big and important operation) would bring us trouble was totally unexpected or thought of. Our transit was planned and scheduled six weeks ahead of time...

We had problems paying for the transit, our lines and tires showed up two hours late, our engines have not been cooperative and our transit date is postponed by a day. Maybe we are not "supposed" to go to the other side? Regardless, we will try again today. Same expected times, same webcams (see previous blog). Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Switching Oceans

The last weeks have been extremely busy and when time flies like that and you just keep moving and doing stuff, all of a sudden it is there: the first step of our new adventure; transiting the Panama Canal!

Irie will start her lock, lake and canal adventure towards the Pacific Ocean on Friday, January 18th, in the afternoon. We plan to go through the Gatun locks between 15:00 and 17:00 local time (= East Coast US time). If you want, you can see us pass via the webcam, if you surf to

On Saturday, January 19th, the Miraflores locks will spit us out on the other side, where the big Pacific Ocean and new adventures await. There is also a webcam in this last set of locks, where we expect to be in view between 14:00 and 16:00. Check out:

Wish us luck and say goodbye to the Caribbean Sea!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Year’s Eve in Kuna Yala

The year 2013 is already two weeks old and Mark and I have been as busy as ever, dealing with boat issues and entertaining family in the beautiful San Blas islands. A unique area like Kuna Yala is fun and exotic to explore with and show off to people that are not used to sandy islands chock full of palm trees. We have sailed a lot, snorkeled a few times, explored a handful of islands and did an interesting river tour with mola maker Lisa. More about that in the next blog. First, I’d like to share our experiences of New Year’s Eve with the Kunas, before we are another two weeks later…

After our tough time in the boatyard, Mark and I couldn’t wait to get back to the paradise-like San Blas islands. We took the first opportunity to get there – under motor – right before the strong trade winds picked up. We might have missed Christmas with friends, but we were sure to make New Year’s Eve! We met up with Michele and Mark from SV Reach and with Lizz and Charlie from SV Kaya in the Central Holandes. I finally managed to do a bit of yoga again and working on the boat surrounded by clear water and tropical islands became all of a sudden much more pleasant!

One morning, the girls and I walked over to Prado on Miriadiadup to have a look at his handicrafts and molas. He invited us over for New Year’s Eve and we agreed to bring food and alcoholic beverages. He would provide coconut rice and a gorgeous Kuna setting. By the end of December 31st, we had welcomed Becky and Denny on SV Kokomo and Vicky and Larry on SV Rocinante to our anchorage, so we had a nice group of cruisers to spend the last evening of the year with. With dingies full of food, drinks and people, we entered Prado’s compound right before dark. All the “western” dishes were displayed on a covered picnic table and the Kunas offered us delicious rice and smoked fish. They even provided a light under the thatched roof and joined the party. First reluctantly tasting some of the food, then enthusiastically gulping the beer and rum we brought for them.

The more the evening and the drinking progressed, the merrier everybody became. This resulted in some fun and funny moments and scenes. Becky had brought some light sticks for her female friends, but soon enough most of them were claimed by our hosts, who were delighted by the lit-up effect in the dark. Each time they went into their huts, we could see bright flashes of light moving about. To conclude the evening, a big bonfire was started and a man-sized “doll” representing a Panamanian thrown on. Kunas are very proud of their independent status and the days of the revolution are still fresh in their minds.

Cruisers’ midnight being 10pm made it hard for everyone to stay awake until midnight. Around 11pm we all went home to our respective boats. Lying on our trampoline, Mark and I tried hard to stay awake until 12. When we saw a few boats shoot off expired flares, we kissed each other “Happy New Year”, relieved that the old year had passed and happy that we made midnight. Once inside, the clock showed 11:50, but we called it a day.. Happy New Year to you all!

Kuna woman making food on the wood burning stove inside her hut

Prado attaching a string with beads around my ankle, the Kuna way

Mola maker Prado bringing out the coconut rice

The Panamanian "enemy" before his hot fate

Listening to the "car" radio, hanging out with the girls 

One of the men dressed up as a Kuna woman caused some laughs!

Group picture - who's the tallest, and who's the smallest? Kunas are known to be the second shortest people in the world, after the Pygmies.

One day a pet, the next day...

Transport of the Panamanian "doll" to the bonfire, in a traditional way

(Thanks to Michele for some of the pictures)