The Panama Canal

October 25, 2015 | Victoria Suhay

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The Grand Panama Canal. They just celebrated their 100 year anniversary of having taken over the Canal from the Americans, and visiting Panama City, you would say life is good. Although, just a quick taxi ride over to Colon will make you wonder why the Caribbean side of the Canal is looking so neglected while the Pacific side is so prosperous. I’d been dreading the Canal transit for months. You always hear horror stories about peoples’ boats getting banged up, advisors from hell, other sailors rafting up who don’t know how to handle their boats, and evil tugs that throw huge wakes. Overall, I would say our transit was smooth, but it was just as exhausting and stressful as I anticipated. Our line handlers met us at Shelter Bay Marina. We had another young couple, Garth and Monique on Heartbeat from New Zealand, and Mike and Vicky from England but now living in Costa Rica. We had one more line handler than was necessary, which meant that someone was going to have to sleep in the cockpit as we didn’t have enough couch space for more than three. At the last minute, literally as we were getting ready to cast off the dock lines, a backpacker from Italy who had spent the day sitting on our boat and playing guitar asked if he could tag along. I made it very clear that everyone was getting off the boat when we got through the Canal and if he was content to make arrangements for staying somewhere in the city then it would be fine. Most of you know that I don’t handle spur of the moment changes to plans very well, but I think I had so many other things on my mind at that point that I just didn’t care if we had one more person or not. Looking back, I should have said hell no.

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We motor out to the waiting area and hang around for a few hours waiting for our advisor. We had three locks to go through that evening. We were center tied in the chamber, behind a huge tanker that unfortunately created a large amount of turbulence, but our advisor was excellent and his instructions were solid. Dave and Garth were behind me at the helm handling the stern lines and everyone else was forward with the bow lines. We had a bit of a scare when one of the Canal employees didn’t secure his line fast enough and our nose swung scarily close to the wall, but it all worked out fine. Once through the locks and on our way to the mooring in Gatun Lake, I discover that my dinner of lasagna (planned and mostly prepared) was not going to work out. Mike was gluten intolerant and Ale, the Italian backpacker, was newly vegan. Great. I can tell you that coming up with a tasty dinner for 8 people after days of cleaning/preparing the boat and an evening of lock transits that was also gluten free and vegan was not something that struck joy in my heart. I did however, succeed, with a huge pot of vegetable Thai curry and rice. After dinner, sitting in the cockpit with a cold beer and enjoying the calm lake, Dave all of a sudden felt rain pattering on his head. Warm rain. Warm rain? Cat piss! Pips was peeing on Dave’s head! I’m sure the stress of the day took its toll on Pips, which he was telling Dave in very plain word. Dave in turn was getting understandably angry, but everyone else just died of laughter.

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The second day of the transit, we ended up with a know-it-all advisor who had a macho attitude. I had taken us through the three locks the day before, so Dave and I had traded places so that I would line handle and he would steer. That lasted all of about 15 minutes. It became very apparent that this advisor liked to shout orders, and Dave absolutely hates being told what to do. I saw exactly how these two men butting heads would play out and stole the helm back from Dave before anything escalated. This advisor did not know as much as the one from the previous day and on several occasions, after trying to follow his directions, I had to say screw it and do it my way to prevent our boat from getting damaged. We were side-tied on the way down, which everyone says is a recipe for disaster, but was actually very easy. No real fuss. We made it out to the Pacific at sunset and I had this crazy feeling that I could just keep going, keep going past Panama City, across the Pacific, to New Zealand and onwards. I feel like a whole new world has been opened up to me. We anchored at La Playita and were in a big rush to get Vicky to the airport and Mike to the bus, and hello, Ale says he has nowhere to stay, nowhere to go, no money to get there. Great. I feed this kid 3 special vegan meals a day for two days, free of charge, he doesn’t help with any line handling, or cleaning, or cooking, and now he’s telling me he only has $6 and can’t afford to stay anywhere?! Dave really feels for him, says well maybe he can stay with us for the night, but I draw the line, there is no way he’s staying. We all chip in some money for him to afford the bus ride to Portobelo and to get a bite to eat, then shove him off the boat along with everyone else. Peace and quiet at last.

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We spent about a week in Panama City, spending lots of time with Monique and Garth who were anchored behind us, traveling around the city, and getting seriously pissed off at all the sport fishers and tug boats that blasted through the anchorage sending many dinners and drinks flying. If you are reading this and you own a speed boat, please save the speed for areas outside where sailboats are anchored. We do live on them. We don’t enjoy getting thrown around down below. Anyway, my favorite part about Panama City was the huge veggie market with incredible fresh herbs and the most delicious sugar cane juice with a squeeze of lime. Going there was a bit of a hike there though without a vehicle; according to Monique’s step-tracking app we walked 5 kilometers to go grocery shopping. With the uncomfortable anchorage and very little sleep that I was getting, we were motivated to get out of there and on to the Perlas. Heartbeat decided to join us and we set off one morning after a last minute booze run. I couldn’t believe how gentle the swell of the Pacific Ocean was compared to the Caribbean. I spent most of our three years cruising the Caribbean feeling sea sick or bad enough that I couldn’t possibly go down below. This wonderful ocean was amazing. I was cooking down below, knitting in the cockpit, reading books, it was a gorgeous sail concluded with a whale sighting as we anchored behind Isla Chapera.

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For more pictures, click here!

For Garth and Monique’s post about going through the Canal with us, check out Heartbeat’s blog.

2 thoughts on “The Panama Canal

  1. Sam & Nancy says:

    Loved the cat piss part!lol Even Pips can only take so much. I agree, you should have said hell no to the free-loader, but hind sight is always 20/20. Glad it was a smooth passage. Don’t be fooled by the “calm” waves you’ve experienced of the Pacific…it can change in a heartbeat! Have a blast in the Las Pearlas..and go see that submarine Explorer (San Telmo).

  2. Carol Dunn says:

    I love your new postings. It is so fun to sail the seas with you and sort of experience the world as you see it.
    You are having such amazing adventures. I am loving every minute of it.
    Grandpa and I are doing well.
    We love you guys!!!!!
    Grandma

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