Features April 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log: Waiting at the Panama Canal

Before transiting the Isthmus of Panama, the crew of Calypso cruises the San Blas Islands, then drops the hook at the Panama Canal Yacht Club.

Driven by strong northeasterlies, Calypso careened between the huge red and green daymarks on the ends of the east and west breakwaters guarding the main entrance to the Panama Canal. It was noon on January 20th. Both offshore and inside, ships of every description and flag lay at anchor waiting to traverse the path between the seas. Our tiny ship would join them, one in about 14,000 vessels making the 50-mile trip every year.

The 750-mile voyage from Bonaire to Panama had, for once, been as close to effortless as an offshore passage can be. Cruising guides warn that the trip to Panama from the Caribbean is a tough one during the winter. Powerful tradewinds jam great masses of water onto the rugged lee shore of Panama, heaping the seas into huge swells and hiding the reefs that line the Central American shoreline.

Instead, for most of our trip we had fairly gentle trades of 18 to 22 knots. Granted, they were generally from dead astern, and the seas were a lot larger than you would expect with 20 knots of wind. Yes, we rolled a lot, periodically getting into a sequence we call the “death roll,” where we perform a series of rolls through 30° or more before leveling back out. But it was a generally benign trip, with “Bob” the Robertson autopilot doing all the steering in a further shakedown of that newly-installed system.

We never missed a meal.

The only rough part of the trip occurred when we cut the corner of the northwest coast of Colombia to save about 50 miles of sailing. We were rewarded for our efforts with 18 hours of 20- to 30-knot winds and confused seas that rolled us mercilessly.

Even under the ultra-conservative sail combination of single-reefed main and 2/3 genoa, we trucked along at an average of 150 miles per day.

I soberly contemplated the work left to complete in Panama to improve this rig to one suitable for thousands of miles of downwind sailing. Our 20-foot Hall Spars carbon fiber spinnaker pole will get a workout on the Pacific crossing, whether serving as a whisker pole for the genoa or a spinnaker pole for our big North Sails True Radial gennaker.

Another World
After almost five days at sea, we arrived at Porvenir in the Kuna Yala, or San Blas islands of Panama. This idyllic cruising ground of isolated tiny palm-covered islets and coral reefs is the stronghold of Panama’s Kuna tribe, one of the last pure Amerindian groups. The Kunas were fierce warriors, and now have—by treaty with Panama after years of struggle with their Hispanic neighbors—virtual autonomy in the San Blas islands and adjacent mainland.

The Kuna are brilliant seamen, traversing the entire area in small canoes carved from single logs. Since there is no fresh water in the offshore islands, Kuna men make tedious trips to mainland rivers to fill water jugs on a regular basis, sailing their lug-rigged canoes downwind, paddling back upwind. With the exception of a few “metropolitan” islands with generators, there is no electricity. Their homes are thatched huts, for the most part windowless and dark.

Cruisers have invaded the San Blas. With virtually no supplies available—unless you fly them in from Panama, which is a viable option—cruising here requires complete independence. You are rewarded for your efforts with idyllic South Pacific style anchorages, abundant lobster, good diving.

For the daring, mainland Panama is only a 25-minute, $27.50 ride in a small plane from Porvenir. Landing and taking off from a rough, narrow runway the width of a country lane and the length of an aircraft carrier deck is exciting business. Porvenir is the runway and the runway, plus a couple of tiny Kuna government offices, is Porvenir. You don’t anchor in line with the runway, as the glide path takes planes through the anchorage at an altitude of about 25 feet.

Between flights, young Kuna boys come from miles around on a regular basis to turn the “airport” into a soccer field. It is the only flat open space in the San Blas large enough to plant two pairs of upright sticks to serve as goal posts.

For us, however, our schedule drove us westwards to the Canal. The Kuna Yala was the first place in our two years of cruising that we truly regretted leaving. After three nights of rest—and a chance to clean the bottom—we sailed on to Cristobal, the western entrance to the Canal.

Cristobal and Colon, Panama
The port of Cristobal and the adjacent small city of Colon are unavoidable stops for cruising boats bound either direction through the Canal. It’s here that you are measured for your canal transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It’s here that most boats do the bulk of their provisioning for the long haul from Panama to Tahiti—some 4,500 miles of sailing.

Unfortunately for cruisers, Colon is also a very dangerous town. There were several muggings of cruisers during our short stay, and the situation shows little sign of getting better. Friendly, naive, dollar-laden cruisers are fair game. You take a taxi virtually everywhere once you step beyond the gates of the Panama Canal Yacht Club. In town, storekeepers stand nonchalantly in doorways cradling guns.

Banks are armed camps. A trip to the ATM—the US dollar is Panama’s currency—requires a cab to stand by with the engine running, waiting for you. Even in the supermarket, a young man stands guard with a semi-automatic shotgun.

This is nothing new. When my father first stopped in Colon as a young Marine back in 1929, visits to town were made in groups of no fewer than six tough leathernecks.

Life on the Flats
Cristobal harbor is one of the world’s shipping crossroads, but it is a wretched anchorage for a small boat such as ours. The small-craft anchorage known as the Flats has a bottom consisting of over 80 years of slime and cast-off debris overlying hard clay. The entire area is about 40 feet deep.

We saw more boats drag anchor during 10 days on the Flats than we have seen in over 25 years of sailing. Our own anchor, miraculously, set on the first try. Rather than backing down hard—standard procedure for most sailors—we backed down gently, just enough to stretch the chain out and wake the anchor up to the fact that it had a job to do. Over the next few days, the anchor gradually worked its way through the soft, tenuous muck to solid holding.

What a relief!

It helps to have big ground tackle. Our 60-lb. CQR gives us substantial peace of mind in places with marginal holding. Even on fairly short scope—150 feet of chain in 41 feet of water—the anchor never budged.

This bottom is actually better suited to an anchor such as an old-style Danforth Hi-Tensile, a West Marine Performance model, or a Fortress. Like most cruisers, however, we have a primary anchor that is used 99% of the time, independent of the bottom type. This is all the more reason to consider a dual anchor setup on the bow, with anchors for both hard and soft bottom ready to be deployed.

A fair number of cruising boats have such arrangements, but the logistics of dealing with two anchors and their associated chain rodes can be a complicated one. Very few boats are set up with a windlass or windlasses to handle two all-chain rodes, and virtually no cruising boat anchors with anything but chain.

One of the few boats we have met that can select between two bow anchors with all-chain rodes is the well-prepared Tayana 37 Yankee, owned by Deaken and Kate Banks of Gloucester, Massachusetts. We first saw the Yankees (cruising boat crews are often identified by the name of their boats) in Bequia more than a year ago, and have since played leap-frog with them throughout the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, one of Yankee’s two windlasses is a manual one, which makes for a lot of work. Fortunately, the Yankees are younger and stronger than the Calypsos.

And the Wind Blows
Anchoring in Cristobal is further complicated by the fact that the wind howls through the Flats both day and night. During our stay there—waiting for parts, of course—the wind rarely dropped below 18 knots, and probably averaged about 22.

Because of the big fetch in the harbor, this strong breeze creates a permanent 2-foot chop. Getting ashore in the dinghy is a long, wet ride, even in our new rigid-bottom inflatable. The discomfort of the anchorage is further amplified by the high-speed pilot boats, canal service vessels and big tugs that generate big wakes 24 hours per day. The big ships transiting the canal travel slowly enough that their wakes are fairly small.

The water of Cristobal harbor is so dirty that you would not consider running your watermaker. We were back to lugging jerry jugs to support our daily water habit of over 10 gallons, which includes hand-washing clothes, bathing, cooking, washing up and drinking. I had forgotten just what a wretched job it is to haul water in jugs. Having a watermaker has spoiled us badly.

Our limited water supply made it impossible to keep the boat clean. It’s not only the water in Cristobal that is dirty. The air is full of wind-driven dirt from the commercial port upwind of the anchorage. Strong winds constantly fill the air with salt. The combination results in a sticky, grimy boat.

To make matters worse, the bunkering (fueling) dock for ships is also upwind. We had two fuel spills in 10 days that were big enough to calm the waters over the quarter mile separating us from the fuel dock. At one point, crews on a fuel barge were sweeping spilled fuel and sand over the side of the barge with brooms. Needless to say, the spilled fuel produced an oily scum on our waterline.

Poor Calypso was dirtier than she had ever been, with no water to clean her up.

Panama Canal Yacht Club
Normally, we would have sought dock space at the PCYC to clean the boat, but there was no room at the inn.

Panama is one of the true cruising crossroads. For many cruisers, the Panama Canal Yacht Club is a big “STOP” sign in the middle of that crossroads.

Do not imagine cool drinks on a spreading verandah and white tropical suits at the PCYC. The club lives a tenuous existence on leased land that could be taken away from them at almost any time. This gives no incentive to invest in maintenance or improvement of infrastructure. The club’s facilities are as tired as can be, which is further compounded by the large number of cruisers that use and abuse them.

The setting is a small oasis, a few acres of lawn and palm trees in the middle of a container park. But it is a well-used oasis more than a little down at the heels.

You hear every language here, and see some boats that don’t look like they could cross a lake, much less an ocean. Many cruisers stop here. Some never leave, and some very decrepit boats look as if they are rooted to the bottom. At least one large multihull is in fact rooted—sunk at the dock.

The PCYC bar is air-conditioned, the Chinese food in the restaurant is cheap and the beer is cold. For some cruisers—primarily those who look as if they have been out there a little too long—this is as close to heaven as you get.

And they stay.

The Rally
One group that didn’t stay for long was the Blue Water Rally, a British-organized round-the-world cruise-in-company. These 36 boats descended on the Panama Canal Yacht Club over the course of a week or so, sometimes straining the facilities to the limit.

For a very large sum of money, rallies such as this one—and others just a few weeks behind—will plan your circumnavigation for you, smoothing the rough spots with officials and facilities, setting up tours ashore, organizing water and fuel in remote places, securing permits and dockage. All you have to do is pay your money and get your boat from Point A to Point B.

Unfortunately, when a mass of boats arrives in town, it can upset the applecart. There was much grumbling in Panama from more conventional cruisers, who had to wait for measurement and canal transits, found supermarket shelves stripped bare and discovered less-than-subtle price increases for some local services.

Whatever you may think, the handwriting is on the wall. These rallies are here to stay. Some cruisers compare rally participants to small children clinging to a rope being led on a field trip by their teachers. It’s a pretty apt analogy, although no one is sailing the boat around the world for rally participants: they still have to cross oceans to achieve their goals.

A better analogy would be the dozens of amateur mountain climbers every year who pay huge sums of money to be guided up Mount Everest. Sooner or later, one of these rallies is going to get hammered trying to keep a tight schedule, with disastrous results—just like those on Everest.

If you’re on a tight schedule—say 18 months or so—and want a circumnavigation under your belt, a rally may be just the thing for you. Be prepared to pay about $25,000 to the organizers for facilitating your trip around the world.

Our goal, once we transited the Canal, was to get to the Galapagos as quickly as possible, staying ahead of the rallies until they could overtake and pass us in a place whose facilities could accommodate them without dislocating less schedule-driven cruisers such as ourselves.

Through the Looking Glass
For North Americans, the Panamanian way of thinking can be a marvel. Here’s an example. Outside of Colon is a major intersection where two main roads cross. Modern traffic lights guard the intersection, but when we went through, the lights didn’t work. Only the brave, the bold and the lucky get across in short order. Those who hesitate are honked off the road.

“This is terrible,” I told the taxi driver. “Someone needs to call public works before there is a major accident. How long has this stoplight been out of order?”

“Five years or so,” he laughed. It turns out that when the traffic lights actually worked, there were huge numbers of accidents as macho Panamanian drivers—and there are no other kinds—ran the red light. With no stoplight, my driver said, people were more careful, and there were fewer accidents.

Such is life in Panama, where nothing is quite as it seems.

Moving On
By the first of February, only a narrow isthmus separated Calypso from the wide-open Pacific. After two weeks in Panama, from the sublimity of the San Blas to the never-never land of Colon, we were ready to cross the isthmus—and the ocean beyond.

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