We arrived in Panama at Portobelo, a small town about 30 miles from the Caribbean end of the Canal. A great first stop in to Panama, away from the madding crowds. Check-in was easy-peasy and then we got to just relax.
Before the Canal was built Portobelo, with it’s protected bay, was a major port in Panama. The colonial (and possibly piratical) Europeans built a great deal of infrastructure and quite a town. Now it is a sleepy little backwater, but the ruins of the once great city make for some interesting hiking. We joined Kate and Andrew for a couple of these hikes and took in both the forts and the wildlife.
When Wildside first arrived they anchored pretty far away from everyone, it turned out that after leaving Bonaire their steering cable had failed. They could still steer with the autopilot, but weren’t comfortable working into the center of the all the anchored boats that way. After inquiring locally they determined that Shelter Bay was the place to get things put right. So, we all decided to take a taxi that way and see the sights while also getting the repairs arranged. When we first approached the taxi drivers they wanted what seemed like an exorbitant amount for the ride, so we kept looking around. Kate found a man with a minivan at the taxi rank and they agreed on a slightly better price. In the end, it turned out that he (and his wife, who was along) were not taxi drivers, but just folks from Panama City visiting Portobelo and happy to get some gas money for part of their trip toward home.
We had a quite an entertaining ride and they filled us up with local knowledge and history (and a really yummy coconut-honey concoction they shared with us). After what seemed like forever (by road Shelter Bay really isn’t close to anywhere) we got to the marina and Andrew made his arrangements with the yard to get replacement parts and the installation scheduled (sometimes doing these things in person is so much easier than over the phone).
We took another car ride back to Portobelo and spent another couple of days enjoying the Panamanian jungle. Then it was our turn to head down to Shelter Bay for Canal admeasurement. We chose to anchor outside the marina rather than pay the steep docking tariff, a rather unpleasant anchorage but a necessity for a Canal transit. We had a little bit of a contretemps with the admeasurer (they didn’t like the shallow water in which we were anchored) but in the end all came right. Once we got measured we moved back to Portobelo to wait for our transit.
It wasn’t a long wait, about three days, and then we were back to Colon for the transit. Wildside came down from Portobelo with us and put their boat in the marina so the steering cable work could be done while they spent two days with us transiting the Canal. There are lots of requirements for transiting the canal (in addition to money). The first is big, sturdy fenders. Most of us don’t carry fenders big or strong enough, so there are several enterprising Panamanians who will rent them to you for a couple of days (and pick them up at the other end – the ones with the best logistics get them rented to a yacht going the other direction).
The next requirement is crew, we needed five crew total, so in addition to Kate and Andrew from Wildside we hired a local named Erik to be our final linehandler. It was wonderful having someone aboard who had done hundreds of transits, he was way ahead of anyone else on what needed doing and when.
Finally, the Canal provides a “transit adviser” to help get you safely through the process.
We transited up the Colon side late in the afternoon and anchored in Gatun Lake. For our transit we were joined by two monohulls and the three boats were rafted up and did a center-lock transit. With our two engines we really should have been the center boat, but one of the others was a few feet longer, and their skipper really insisted they had to be the middle boat (probably thought it would protect them more from hitting the lock walls). But they weren’t really useful in keeping the raft in position, so we ended up doing that from the outside position anyway.
The next morning a new adviser joined us and we headed across Gatun Lake for the Pacific. We had to stop for lunch (and wait for a passing neo-Panamax vessel) at the head of the Gaillard Cut. After lunch we continued toward Miraflores and locked down to the Pacific with the same boats as the day before. Back in our home ocean.
We tied the boat up to a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club and spent a couple of days shopping at the big Supermarkets in Panama City, getting ready for the long passage to Hawaii. Then we caught a bus back to Colon and joined Wildside to be crew for their transit.