Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Panama City and Flamigo Island Anchorage

March 28, 2009
Flamingo Island anchorage
coordinates 08 54.606N,079 31.474W

We let you know what an experience transiting the Panama Canal was but we wanted to give you a bit more insight into the great bits of info our advisors had passed on to us. There are approximately 80 advisors that ride along with each vessel as they transit. If your vessel is over 65 feet long you need to carry an actual pilot captain. These men that join the smaller boats all have primary jobs, most of them within the canal system and do this "advising" on their off days. The ones we spoke with actually prefer this to their real jobs. It's a great chance for them to meet new people, break away from their usual work and make some extra cash. We were blessed with two great characters. And right of the bat we learned of just how great the Panamanian Foreign exchange program is. At age 13, many children of Panama get the opportunity to study for 3 months abroad in the United States. It was obviously a great start and opportunity for our guides as their English was spectacular, their knowledge of world politics, etc. as good if not better than our own. They gave us many insights on life in Panama and the city. One of our advisors primary jobs was supervisor of the security forces that patrol the waters on the Pacific side of the canal entrance. A few of his men passed us many times that day in their patrol boats and we were able to benefit from his position with the free delivery of buckets of ice right to our boat while under way. Nice treat in the heat!

The canal which was built under President Roosevelt was given back to the people of Panama December 31, 1999. From what we gather, when it was run by the US Military, it was run as a government institution not necessarily as a business and at the end of each fiscal year, they would plug whatever funds were left over back into the canal. Each department needed to find ways to put that money back into the canal, new paint or carpet for the buildings, etc. The military that oversaw the running and protection of the canal lived and stayed in the area, bringing peace, security and money back into the communities. There have been pros and cons they say to the US pulling out. That security and peace has definitely diminished especially in the outer areas such as Colon, the poor Cinderella step child to the greater Panama City. The money is no longer being put back into those communities as well. But while being run as a company, the Canal has managed to increase the amount of ships that transit, and therefore increase their net profit to the tune of $800 million last year. How that money get's put back into the country we are not sure.

They are busily expanding the canals with an additional mega lock at both the Pacific and Caribbean end, as well to accommodate the PanMax ships. Displays in the visitors center show how the new water pumping systems will be even more efficient. We hear that increases in the transit fees will help to pay for that expansion. Our transit fees ran us around $650, including using the assistance of Tito. The cheapest transit fee ever paid was 37 cents by an English man I believe who swam the entire canal. The most expensive fee paid these days is $250,000 for the larger container ships 250,000, the average freighter pays $180,000.

Just outside the Panama Canal on the Pacific side you have two immediate options for places to keep the boat. The Balboa Yacht club offers moorings for a fee or you can anchor for free in the protection of the Flamingo Island with 50 other like minded sailors. A few of them have been there for quite a while and they know their way around the place. The radio net in the morning will cover all you needs. If you can get your hands on one of the maps they provide you will surely find everything you need. Again the anchorage was comfortable enough despite day trip boats that parade past you daily, we were anchored in 20 feet of thick gooey mud. Again as in Colon, a dirty anchorage as the pollution level of Panama City declines with the continuous burning of something we know not what. We simply know the boats are consistently covered in ash, morning, noon and night. Across the bay Panama City shows an impressive skyline and malls to rival any major US town.

Ashore we were easily able to get our provisioning done with taxis that are always at the ready for you. Directly behind the Playita Marina Yacht club there is a Natural Reserve park of sorts that is home to a family of 3 toed sloths. We spent the week completing a few boat projects such as a new antenna for our radio that Bruce placed atop the mast, replacing spark plugs in the outboard, replacing belts on the engine. We treated ourselves to the tasty tamales that the locals sell outside each store. There is nothing as good as local flavor. We took a quick trip back to the Miraflores Locks to view them from the observation deck on land and cheered the Kelly's and crew on as they passed through the locks themselves. The boys were able to spend to spend some last great days playing with their pals, Alice, Will and Edward from s/v Vagabond Heart. They along with a dozen or more vessels are preparing for the own Pacific Ocean crossing where they are starting to head back toward their homelands of Australia and New Zealand. We had been traveling with quite a large batch of them through the canal and it was time to bid them farewell and send them on their way, as we head closer to home as well.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Port Colon and Cristobal

March 17, 2009
anchored in the flats Port Colon
coordinates 09 20.686N,079 54.529

We just rounded out our stay in Panama City and have to say the time spent here and in Colon was very interesting. Over all, despite the crime and pollution of the areas, Panama gets a thumbs up from us. First some thoughts on Colon.

We had some wonderful day sails as we left the San Blas Islands getting to the Port of Colon and Cristobal. They have created a new channel through the break water that allows smaller boats to enter the Caribbean side of the entrance to the Panama Canal shipping channel. This way we do not have to compete with the big boys. The enormous ships are stacked up inside and outside, anchoring everywhere while either beginning or ending their transit. It was remarkable that just anyone could motor on in there. They see you coming but didn't have anything to do with you. We wove our way through the big boys and anchored in the "flats" as the anchorage is called. It sits on the southern side of the channel right next to the loading dock for the container ships. A safe and comfortable enough anchorage, it did tend to get very dirty out at the boat since the ships closest to us were perpetually emptying themselves of some sort of gravel load. We gave up cleaning for the week and learned to keep the hatches shut. Rubbish and or tire fires burn perpetually, thankfully down wind of us. But the rosy glow they give on the horizon at night is a constant reminder of what is helping to cause the thick grey sky.

The Panama Canal Yacht Club (PCYC) or PanCan as they affectionately refer to themselves is situated up inside the loading docks for these large ships. You dinghy right past the container ships on your way in and can nearly slap the hulls if you felt so inclined. The land is owned by the shipping companies which brings us to the dilemma. The PCYC is unfortunately no longer allowed to keep their business and marina open on this land and were to relocate by April 1st. Three weeks prior to that date, starting at 3am, the shipping company took matters in their own hands with a bull dozer and began to tear the buildings down. By the time we arrived the marina docks where still standing with boats tied to them. Water was unavailable at the dock and power was precariously being wired in. The employees of PCYC were working out of a shipping container and they had fashioned an internet location out of a chain link fence with a tin roof and fake grass. While I sat there one day "connecting" to the internet, the bull dozer continued to tear down buildings only 20 feet away from me. They have stacked two giant shipping containers a top each other at the entrance so no cars may come or go. This left only space for a person at a time to squeeze though with difficulty. A container as well blocks the boat ramp that no boats may enter or exit the waters.

First and foremost we have to say that we have no knowledge of the reasoning nor the order of events that have led to the end of the current PCYC. The land does belong to the shipping company though it does look like things could be handled much more professionally. We do know that they are still currently trying to work on a compromise. What we do know it that all the crew and employees of the PCYC were the most professional, considerate and helpful bunch ever. Not once did they complain about their situation to us while they continued to work diligently, in very difficult environment, with the lack of knowledge regarding their own security and future of their jobs. Not once did they slander or disparage the opposing forces whom they were dealing with. They took fast and efficient care of us and all our needs. And there was a lot of us. With news of this port closing as of April 1st the rush of dozens and dozens of boats would have overwhelmed the most organized of marina's, let alone one that was barely standing on it's own two feet. I must say I was very ashamed though many times at the behavior of many of the other cruisers and their own lack of patience and poor treatment of this staff. This port is the only place on the Caribbean side where one can currently do all the work it takes to prepare for a canal transit. This includes stops to many offices, banks, copy shops, getting your boat measured, gathering tires and 4 100ft long lines for boat handling. Enter Tito. As we hit shore the first day, we had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. He is the go to guy. Instantly he scooped us up in his car along with the Kelly's and drove us everywhere we needed to go and in a matter of moments the process had begun, for what we felt was a reasonable fee. We were scheduled for our measurement, we were checked into Panama, he guided us carefully through the whole process and even treated us to some freshly squeezed o.j.

Watching him in action warms the heart as he takes the concept of community service to an all new level. We are sure nearly all of our $50 that we paid to him for his services were dispersed immediately back into his community. He willingly hands the money right back to his "neighbors" for school supplies, new shoes, lunch, what ever their needs are. He takes the young men of the community and employs them all in assisting with preparing the tires for the cruisers like us coming through. The tires are all ready wrapped in plastic and tied up with lines ready to go for us. A job that we reluctantly thought we were going to have to find a way to do ourselves. When they have shown him enough responsibility he assists them in getting jobs as line handlers for the canal and then jobs within the canal system itself. Anything to keep them off the amazingly dangerous streets of Colon. Unfortunately, not always successful he told sad stories of two young boys he had already lost this year. One just two weeks prior had been shot 8 times after stepping in to rescue a friend from being beat up.

And unfortunately, it really was that dangerous there. The staff of PCYC could not impress upon us all enough just how dangerous it was outside the chain link fence surrounding the shipping port and marina. You can see the bus stop only a block or two away from the gate and yet during our stay, there were two muggings as people walked to it. One in broad daylight where they stripped the rings right off the woman's fingers and her pack off her back. Kelly boy and Bruce were waved off one street and redirected by a gentleman one day as they walked around down town unaware of just how serious it was. It turned out he was waiving them to head a different direction and likely saved them from the same fate. It was difficult to imagine people living in such a situation since it was not just us obvious newbies that were subject to the violence. Everyone there is a target, evidenced by the armed guards that stand outside nearly every store front. If you want to enter a business they knock on the glass door, which is then unlocked to allow you to enter and then locked again behind you while you shop. Yet the people of Colon look as happy and relaxed as you would in your own neighborhood. We personally never felt in any danger due to everyone being so cheerful. I can't imagine the level of desensitization that would have to take place to keep any piece of mind and sanity.

We have not heard yet what is to become of the PCYC and what their next step will be. Shelter Bay Marina is still functioning on the north side of the channel. We have no doubts though that they will come up with some method to keep the process going to help other sailors on the transits through the Panama Canal.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Panama Canal Tranist MOVED UP! March 18!

Wednesday March 18, 2009
Ohana Kai has a new date to transit the canal. We are transiting the first set of Gatun Locks at approximately 7 pm local time or 5 pm Pacific time. We will pick up a mooring in the Gatun lake for the night and then proceed to the second set of Miraflores locks and transit on Thursday the 19th at approximately noon local time or 10 AM Pacific time. We are rounding up our tires for extra fenders on the boat currently, our last load of laundry and our last provisioning run yesterday and we're ready to go. The Kelly's from Moorea will be joining us for extra line handlers so we're in good hands!
Here is the link for the Panama Canal Live Video cameras
See you there!
your Ohana Kai crew

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The last of the Carib

February 27, 2009
Holandes Cays, San Blas, Pamana
coordinates 09 34.930N,078 40.769W

We've departed the Caribbean Islands and left the good ole' liming lifestyle behind. Liming is the mentality of "relaxing, hanging out, or doing what you love". The origins of the word are thought to have come from the nickname the locals gave to the foreign sailors who used to hang out on the docks just to watch the ships while they chewed on citrus fruits. a.k.a Liming

We made quick stops in Bonaire and Curacao. Entering Bonaire, their Navy helicopter pilots put on quite a show for us. They were out doing drills as we rounded the southern tip of the island so they decided to do a fly by and give us a buzz, and then a water show as they lowered themselves so near to us they showered us with sea water. Two squealing and cheering boys was all these mavericks needed for encouragement and we actually had to put the cameras away before they got too wet. The entire
coastline of Bonaire is protected as a national water park with crystal clears waters. All boats are tied to moorings, no anchoring here. Right off the back of the boat you could dive to see small schools of fish and corals enjoying their new ecosystem growing on the moorings blocks. We also had the chance to spy "Octopus" the fabulous mega motor vessel owned by Paul Allen. After seeing the Maltese Falcon, it's like big boat bingo out here.

The anchorage in Spanish Water on the island of Curacao is a unique channel naturally cut into the island. Well protected from any swell, the expat community is strong here. Free bus shuttles take you to find every amenity you may need during your stay. The hike to customs and immigration has to be one of the longest ones yet, but with a little charm and a smile, the procedures are relatively smooth. We did have the opportunity to watch the parades for carnival. All the colorful costumes, friendly
faces and lively music you can take. The islands of the Netherlands Antilles are an interesting mix of Dutch, meets Spanish, meets Carib. Papiamento is the language that results from combining the three and we have to say though listening to them is a joy, communicating can be difficult. The brightly painted buildings of downtown Willamstead we were told were reminiscent of Amsterdam. Our stay was short and sweet. Unfortunately we had to move on before the final hurrah on Tuesday, but when the
weather window opens one must go through.

With the winds at our back we made a quick run right past Aruba. Though we can't speak to what the setting may be like on land, from the water point of view, the southern tip of the island was so polluted and stinky with smoke and discharge from their industrial stacks that you couldn't even see the land. It was amazing. A dozen ships anchored off we believe waiting for their shipments of fuel or oil. A dozen more ships have been passing us on our journey towards the canal no doubt with their
own transits to complete.

Our next destination is the San Blas islands just south east of the Panama Canal. The winds and seas are notorious for being viciously strong and tumultuous around the corner of Cartengena, Colombia but our weather gribs were showing good potential for us to have decent run at it. So we took it along with 4 other boats. A perfectly consistent 25-35 knots of wind out of the east and we whipped our way through the waters. Double reef in the main and an itsy bitsy piece of the jib out, we were still
trying to slow down, covering the 650 miles in 4 days. We made made landfall in the Hollandes Cays at sunrise on my birthday the 27th.

We are really looking forward to spending some time here to visit just a few of the 365 islands and experience the Kuna Indians of the Kuna Yala Nation. One of the largest indigenous American Indian group left, they live largely untouched by civilization. A matrilineal society, the women are in charge of bringing in most of the money with their famous molas. Colorful clothes sewen and embroidered by hand. When men marry in a family, they move to the woman's household bringing their few clothes
and machete. The men are in charge of fishing, tending to the simple gardens and care of coconuts. By law, the land belongs to "all" Kuna's so not a coconut nor shell fish may be taken. They understand the concept that this world is to be co-owned and cared for by all.