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.

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