Friday, 14 February 2014

Panama Canal - special edition

Delaying our departure from Santa Marta for 24 hours was a good move. Although the storm had abated when we got offshore the sea was quite big with a force6-7 wind across the deck .  We zipped along with 2 reefs in the main and a scrap of foresail . There were a few rogue waves including one where the bow plunged underwater and despite a closed foredeck hatch Andrew got a soaking in the forepeak as the weight of water pushed past the seal. All in all a very bumpy first night where it was quite difficult to cook or sleep due to the rolling.

On Monday 3 feb we noticed a huge plume of burning oil on the horizon. We called up a cargo vessel that was roughly in that position asking if he was in distress.   To our surprise we were called up by Warship. 40 of the US Navy who told us they were conducting military exercises in the area and in an instant a huge destroyer hove into view and took a look at us. We were quite surprised that they had not sent out an advisory warning on Channel 16. We're now making reasonable speed in 18-20 knot winds on a broad reach and should reach Colon by midday on Wednesday.
US Cowboys setting the sea alight!

Wed 5 feb . Progress has been slowed by adverse currents, we are so used to having both the trade winds and the current behind us that a knot of foul tide came as quite a shock.  We called up one cargo ship Baltic Patriot who was overtaking us on a near collision course. No response- presumably everyone having their tea and nobody on the bridge. Fortunately they missed us in the end by half a mile. We're now 24 miles from the San Cristobal signal station and should reach shelter bay marina Colon at around dusk tonight.

We entered the great breakwater surrounding Limon Bay in the afternoon sunshine. 
The breakwater to Limon Bay and Colon

Ships of all sizes were lying at anchor waiting to go through the canal but we turned off to starboard to a small lagoon at the edge of the Lorenzo forest which housed Shelter Bay Marina. We were met in person by the marina manager John Halley who had arranged a easy berth for us as our bow thruster drive was not working. Colin berthed Kika like a pro.

We were joined the next morning by Peter Quilliam our new member of crew who had passed the time owing to Kikas delayed arrival by exploring Panama City for two days. We had a few snags to sort out. The first was the bow thruster which we inspected by snorkel, scaring away the alligators. Fortunately the anode screw and propellor locking nut had loosened due to barnacle action but had not dropped off. Colin and Andrew were able to do a submarine deployment of the socket set and Allan key with adhesive sealant on the screw to nip it up.
Snorkel with your socket set!

 We gave the engine a service ready for the canal . Andrew made a very good fibreglass repair of the outboard engine cover  ( he said it was just like fixing his hovercraft at home) . During my underwater cleaning of the prop we discovered the prop anode had dropped off. Colin and I fixed on a new one underwater. I couldn't understand how Colin was able to spend so much longer tightening the bolts than I could until he revealed that among his other talents he was underwater swimming champion for his school. We also found a faulty exhaust valve in the bilge pump which now shoots the water out like a good un .

The Lorezo forest on the edge of shelter bay is rich in wildlife. We explored the forest track  leading to huge American First World War gun batteries, now almost buried under the advancing jungle .
Colin the coconut king taking a long shot

First World War gun battery lost to the forest

 Up above vultures soared; in the canopy families of howler monkeys watched our progress with interest, and butterflies of every hue including a deep azure blue flitted across the path. On the forest floor we watched huge armies of termites travelling down termite motorways on the ground carrying fragments of leaves that must have been 2-3 times their body weight. 
Leaf carrying termites on the march

There are also black panthers in the forest but they must have been scared off by our PeterSellers , inspector  Clouseau impersonations.  The government looks after the forest as it ensures rainfall into Gatun lake which feeds the Panama Canal . 

We took a taxi ride to Panama City exploring the canal on the way.  The French were the first to have a go in the 1870's. Ferdinand de Lesseps buoyed by his success in the Suez Canal attracted  investment  from the whole of France.  Compared to the sand of Suez , building a canal through the continental divide which rises to 310 metres above sea level and digging through hard rock was an entirely different prospect. De Lesseps an entrepreneur and not an engineer did not have many engineers on the board. He stubbornly insisted on a non locked channel which involved a really deep cut through the hills and didn't fully take into account the tidal differences between Atlantic and Pacific.
The engineering project was dogged by inevitable landslides into the deep cuts and mortality was huge from malaria. The French cemetery beside the road says it all. Their understanding of malaria was poor ,thinking it was spread by vapours in the air, and the stilts supporting the malaria hospital were placed in stagnant water an ideal breeding ground for Mosquitos! The failure of the company was a huge scandal in France

The Americans under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt saw the strategic and economic importance of a canal and took over. They proved the mosquito spread malaria by housing one bunch of workers in tents full of Mosquitos and another lot in mosquito free tents. The first group all died . One hell of a controlled trial that an ethics committee would throw out today. Once they worked that out they didn't mess around and sprayed all the lakes with a surface film of oil which prevented the Mosquitos from breeding.
They also decided on a lock system that brought the canal up 27 metres above sea level , reducing the amount of excavation and depth of the cuts and damned off Gatun Lake in the middle to make it the largest artificial lake in the world. Several chief engineers and a couple of Presidents later the canal finally opened in 1914 .
Kika arrives in time for the centenary

 The opening ceremonies were somewhat subdued owing to the outbreak of the First World War however it was without doubt the greatest engineering feat of its day. Our taxi driver took us to the observation platform at Gatun Locks where you could see enormous ships passing through in both directions steered by cable carrying locomotives on rail tracks either side of the dock. The canal operates 24 hours a day saving ships a 5000 mile passage around Cape Horn. We were blown away by the scale and precision of the whole operation.

The Americans finally handed the Canal Zone over to the Panamanians in 1999. They are making a good fist of it ,increasing its revenue and building a new canal to take even larger ships. The project is currently locked in a contractual dispute however the new canal is scheduled to open in 2016 and should be of huge economic benefit.
The new canal with nobody working!

We looked round Panama City , by tour bus. The colonial architecture of the old town is having a make over and will be very pleasant for tourists in the future. We shopped in malls built into the skyscrapers of the new city. Despite a population of only three million people and the Billions of dollars earned by the canal there seems to be a huge divide between rich Panamanians and some very poor people who live in fairly squalid housing.
Panama City, the rich bit!

Panama City, where most people live

As usual navigation is a big problem!

The old city under reconstruction

We got up at dawn for a trip down the railway back to Colon. The train leaves at 7am and you can sit in the observation car watching jungle, Gatun lake and the locks of the canal slip by. The railway was built before the canal driven by the Californian gold rush and the prospectors desire to take an easier route across to the West Coast than through the dusty and inhospitable American prairies and Rocky Mountains . We just sat back enjoying glorious scenery.
Oiks in the observation car

Jungle Jonnies!

The best way to see the jungle

Fresh air,     20 MPH

Riding through Gatun Lake

After a week  in the very laid back and relaxed Shelter Bay Marina where you could Wifi over a splendid breakfast , our agent finally got the canal ad measures department to check us over and on Wed 12 february we steamed out to anchor off Colon Port and await our pilot who arrived at 3.15 pm. We motored off down the canal arriving at Gatun Locks in the late afternoon. Despite our stated preference for centre locking we ended up side walled with another smaller sailing boat alongside us. When you are going up a dockhand throws a rope down to your deck . You then attach it to your heavy line which has a bowline loop tied in it, and your rope is hauled up.When the water starts to come in the forces are considerable and the engine needs to be full ahead steering the boat to keep the bow off the sidewall.
Our pilots/advisers seemed pleased with us and said we understood the game as we floated upwards. As dusk fell we motored out of the last lock in the wake of a huge freighter to the serenity of Gatun lake where we moored up for the night to the calls of howler monkeys and a well earned beer.
Our companion for the first lock

Andrew is happy now that his hatch is repaired!

Cruise liner in Gatun Lock

Gate nearly closed, no going back!

Keep her steady, its a whirlpool!

27 meters up, feels like the top of the world !

Our next adviser arrived by launch in the morning and we motored off down Gatun lake through beautiful scenery passing the Smithsonian Institute for biodiversity and periodic huge ships as they came in the opposite direction. After3 hours we reached the end of the lake and entered the Gilliard cut, where millions of tons of earth had been removed from the highest level to create a passage to the San Pedro locks. Gilliard an American Army Major had set about the task with huge drive and expertise dynamiting his way through the hillside.  Sadly he died of a brain tumour a year before the canal opened and the cut was renamed in his memory.

View through the cut

Can you see us mum!

Private island for sale, Gatun Lake!
Up and over ! The engineering challenge

 We moored up to a tug in the San Pedro lock which meant getting tar on the ropes, he then left us and we centre locked in the Milaflores locks rafted up to an Estonian who was circumnavigating in a 29 footer! We were positioned just ahead of a huge freighter that towered above us as the locomotives guided it into position. Peters and Malcolm's family saw us go through on the web cam. The phone wasn't working in North Wales after 100mile an hour winds. I think we're better off here!

Its important to keep going....

..but is she going to stop?

Yes, its a genuine Panama Hat!

To centre lock the men on the dockside throw monkey fist ropes about 40 feet ,they arrive like missiles on the deck with fantastic accuracy and they then walk us down the whole length of the lock with the current to the front where we attach our heavy lines that are 120 feet in length. 

Line handler lets go!

Going down to the Pacific

Great excitement as Kika comes through the final lock chamber
Peter contemplates Pacific fishing
We emerged into the pacific to be greeted by an enormous white heron on the lock gates and then scores of pelicans fishing by dive bombing .

Pelican fishing competion!

We passed under the huge bridge of the Americas, moored briefly on an oily jetty at Balboa Yacht Club where we drooped our heavy lines and tyre fenders back with our wide boy agent Stanley who ended up charging us top dollar despite being advertised as cheapest on noonsite. They had fuel on the dock but claimed they had run out!

We went downtide and ended up at Las Playitas anchorage where a short dinghy ride took us ashore to an excellent restaurant to celebrate our arrival into the big blue pacific.

Gateway to the Pacific be continued!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Grenada to Columbia

We left StGeorge harbour in Grenada bound for the Dutch Antilles. Bonnaire was 430 miles away. The trade winds were steady until our third night when the wind built up to 30-35 knots and quite a big sea got up. We hadn't predicted this from the GRIB files a few days previously and we hadn't been getting any weather on the SSB radio due to lack of reception.  On attempting to furl away the genoa I managed to get the up haul from the spinnaker pole caught inside the genoa which wrapped up so it was impossible to unfurl it. 
Colin went forward to have a look which was very difficult at night in a big breaking sea, with a lot of noise from the sail flogging. Eventually we did manage to furl the genoa but with a twist in the middle section that meant the middle of the sail was still flogging. For some reason the spinnaker pole would not go back up its runner so I tied it down to the foredeck at the pulpit. We settled down for the night under reefed main along and a slightly flogging foresail still belting along at 6-7 knots. Because of the big sea the Duogen propellor got caught under the Aries wind vane and had to be pulled up . Malcolm and Andrew got up in the middle of the commotion and felt they were in a madhouse.

We were relieved to pull into Kralenddijk , harbour Bonnaire where we sailed under the lee of a cruise ship and managed to unravel the foresail quite easily in the reduced wind. We picked up our mooring and surveyed the damage. Only a couple of broken battens on the main and a foresail that was intact, a tribute to Jeckells the sailmakers and Steve and his lads from the Boatshed in Port Dinorwic who had told me I needed a tough sail.

Bonnaire is very well run as part of Metropolitan Holland. It survives on tourism and boasts unparalleled diving as it is surrounded by a coral reef. We picked up moorings opposite the centre of town. Anchoring is forbidden because of the coral. We headed in on the dinghy and had a beer and lunch at Karens bar. It was interesting to be addressed in Dutch, although being Dutch they immediately switched into perfect English. 
View of Karen's bar from our mooring

Is he a Mod or a Rocker?

What, no leathers?

Colin claimed this was a short walk!

Stragglers..... near mutiny in the midday sun!

Blow hole

Flamingos, spot the dots!

We hired scooters one day and toured the island. The soil of the interior is pretty stony with dried out coral supporting short scrubby thorn and acacia trees with loads of different cacti. The land has been overgrazed by goats with tree felling reducing any canopy further.  In the North of the island there is a conservation park . We went on a walk for two hours in the middle of the day passing ancient stone walls made from broken off coral. Because of the sharp edges of the coral it holds together rather better than the stone we use in North Wales.

We saw blow holes where the sea came through a gap in the coral and sent a spout of water through a hole in the ground, and found some flamingos wading around feeding in a shallow inlet. There were lots of lizards and iguanas some of whom were quite tame. One even gave Malcolm a lick, he must have mistaken him for a large fly!

In the south of the island lie enormous salt pans that stretch for miles . Water is evaporated off sea water by a combination of heat and wind , then great machines go in and scrape of the salt which is stacked  in great salt mountains prior to shipping. In the days of slavery, slaves were kept in tiny huts near the salt pans and they worked in blistering heat scraping the salt of the beds.

The story of the slave huts

a few of the slave huts remain as a reminder

Mountains of salt

Malcolm gets up close

Are they related?

We set off for Santa Marta in Columbia , a journey of some 450 nautical miles on Wednesday 22 January. We started slowly because we were in the lee of Bonnaire, but have been in 20-25 knot trade winds for a day. As we are going almost dead downwind the motion is quite rolly which makes cooking difficult , however tomorrow Friday we should be able to gybe onto port tack and head down the Colombian coast for Santa Marta where the wind will be 30knots according to the GRIB files. So far an enormous fish broke the rod holder and pulled off the trace, we were buzzed by a coastguard plane presumably looking for drug smugglers, and Andrew our electronics wunderkind has fixed the speaker switch so we can watch the hobbit film in the cockpit after dinner at night. The Duogen propellor is charging well which means we no longer have to run the engine to charge the batteries at night .

Approaching Santa Marta in 35 knots of wind!
Sierra Nevada in the far distance.

We reached Santa Marta on Saturday afternoon. We were treated to a magnificent view of the Sierra Nevada from the sea with snow  clad peaks rising above the clouds to 12,000 feet poking through the clouds. The wind also funnels off this northern edge of the Andes giving us a bit of a roller coaster ride with winds gusting to 35 knots on the approach to Santa Marta. We tied up on a Saturday and although the office was closed the security guys shook us all by the hand, showed us around and arranged an agent. Everyone here smiles, helps us patiently with our minimal Spanish, and appear genuinely happy.

The town is a busy working city. If you ask the way people go out of their way to help you. Prices are very reasonable , Malcolm and I got a haircut for about £4 each, and the beef is to die for.  
As you go further West the cruising community comes into its own. We know everyone on our pontoon and met everyone else at a pot luck supper on Monday night. Mike and Ineka ( an English couple) like it so much they have been here for months. 

Simon Bolivar

The main square is dominated by a statue of Simon Bolivar the liberator of many countries in South America from the Spanish yoke at the turn of the century. On the same square lies the museum which tells the story of the South American Indian tribes who were displaced by the conquistadors from the coast and moved into the mountains rejecting all contact with the Spanish and maintaining their own languages and culture, oblivious to the outside world to this day. Their skills in working gold to make religious artefacts is legendary and recently a whole lost Indian city has been discovered.

On Tuesday we took a communal taxi called a collectivo an hour into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to a place called Minca. We walked through Santa Martas main market to pick up the taxi. There were stalls for everything. If your fan,fridge,generator anything else breaks down in Columbia you don't get a new one but take it to one of these guys who either cannibalise old ones or make new parts or electrical windings in small workshops on the street. The collectivo was an old Nissan Patrol jeep . We picked up tax less fuel from behind a small store on the way . 
Its all about beans, Victoria coffee plantation

air is heated to assist the drying process

Two old beans ready for the sack!

On arrival in Minca we transferred to the back of motorbikes for a run up to the Victoria coffee plantation. This place was built by an Englishman in the late 19th century, and is now owned by a German. All the machines were water powered with elaborate fans and pulleys probably similar to water powered mills in Lancashire. They even had a small hydroelectric plant which supplied electricity to 20 homes on the mountain. The machinery is so sophisticated it takes just two men to run the plant when everything is in full swing. The pickers arrive when the coffee beans are ready to be plucked from 70 hectare and then sent down pipes from high on the mountain. They can earn about35 US dollars a day. After fermenting,removing the husks and roasting we tasted a grade 1 cup of coffee. As Malcolm said it tasted just like coffee!

water driven turbine

bathing in the river falls

Snow chilled waters

Sunset viewed from our hostel

our dorm in Minca

best not to overdo it

The rejects from HMS Tenby!
On the way back down we took a stroll to a waterfall where it was incredibly refreshing to swim in the pool and get showered by cold water straight from the top of the Andes. We stayed in a backpackers hostel called Casa lomo which you reached by climbing a steep path and as you puffed into view you were greeted by a man holding a glass of iced water. That evening we watched the sun go down over the  mountains had a communal meal with our fellow guests and retired to a room full of hammocks covered by mosquito nets. 45 years ago Malcolm and I slept next to each other in hammocks as sea cadets in the mess deck of HMS Tenby. At the time he got me into hot water by nudging my hammock into my neighbours a big thug. I regret to say he was still up to his old tricks

In the morning Colin and I set off on a farm visit to see Miguel and his family. It's a walk of some3 kilometres and we were guided up by Mannie his son. It's an exhausting climb and the path to the farm is so steep not even a mule can get up. It was sobering to realise the family made the trip up and down every day without thinking about it. On the way we met Mannies mother who looked incredibly fit after 10 children. Who needs gyms when you've got a mountain to climb.

Miguel farmed on 7.5 Hectares. He had a few hens , turkeys and goats. However his main income was from the coffee plants supplemented by bananas, papayas, cocoa, avocados and Mangos. His family had built the house from tropical hardwood that they had felled and  sawed with the aid of a chain saw and a small saw bench. He cooked on a fire covered with a clay and reinforced mesh top. Although he had electricity he had virtually no machinery as the place was too steep. No car or motorbike, no tractor or harvesting machinery. Coffee beans were pounded with a large pestle and mortar to open the husks and the husks were shredded off with a bicycle powered shredding wheel. Miguel was obviously happy and content with his lot 
but it gave a whole new dimension to the phrase "earning a hard living"
Miguel prepares our lunch

grinding coffee beans

Farmers need to stick together!
busy in the kitchen

walking back from the farm past bamboo

..and having a root around!

In the family room there was a large electric fridge. We asked how they managed to get it up the mountain we had struggled to climb. Four of his sons had done it by strapping it onto poles and carrying it on their backs ! After lunch we watched Columbian bull fighting on the family TV. As well as the gauchos on horseback in the ring there were numerous DIY bullfighters on foot who were quite frequently gored and then trampled by the bull. Life is cheap in South America. 

DHL were not willing to deliver but Miguels sons were

On  30 January , we took a four hour bus ride down to the ancient walled city of Cartagena . We stayed in a place just outside the walls and strolled in the afternoon sunshine through the wall down colonial streets overlooked by beautiful wooden balconies to the palace of the inquisitions opposite the cathedral. Here we had an in depth explanation of the methods used during the Spanish Inquisition .  All it took was for someone who didn't like you to shove an anonymous accusation through a window and they would come and get you. The rack, thumbscrew, garrotting and even more horrible methods were used to extract your confession after which you were killed slowly. All your property and land then passed to the Church. Almost nobody went in there and came out innocent. The Conquistadors and the Cardinals worked hand in hand in ensuring gods holy work was done. Protestants Jews and Muslims all got the treatment although they were occasionally allowed to convert. If you were epileptic you were spread on a wheel and beaten to get the devil out, a universally fatal procedure. It was no wonder that the Creoles( (South American born Europeans) revolted under Simon Bolivar to create a republic and throw off their Spanish oppressors,and their religious policed state.

nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

The great Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote in Cartagena

Prior to the walls a series of English and French fleets had sacked the city. Drake, Hawkins and Henry Morgan the Welsh " privateer " to name but a few. Drake was the most notorious wreaking havoc on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of theSpanish Main . He sailed through the straights of Magellan  north of Tierra del Fuego to get into the pacific and took the Spaniards completely by surprise. His fleet eventually departed sailing on through the pacific and around the Cape of Good hope to reach England. All the ships were ballasted with Spanish Gold. Queen Elizabeth took a half share which was equivalent to one third of England's GDP at the time. Contrary to popular legend she got the French Ambassador to knight Drake on the deck of the Golden Hind just to ensure the French weren't going to gang up with the Spaniards.

The city also boasts a magnificent gold museum which demonstrates the remarkably rich and sophisticated culture of the South American Indians . They panned gold from the river beds and wrought it into delicate artefacts often using the lost wax technique which consisted of pouring molten gold into a cast of clay and beeswax often carved into a mesh pattern synonymous with their belief that we humans are mere specks floating along in the weave of life. Their agriculture was also sophisticated as they diverted the rivers into narrow channels surrounding large beds on which they grew their crops.
Floral balconies

Cathedral in the distance

The anonymous window where denunciations were posted on horseback

Happiness to guilt in one easy lesson!

We returned to Santa Marta to a storm and have delayed our departure for 24 hours to allow the wind to ease. Next stop Colon Panama where Peter Quilliam will be waiting for us
Location of Santa Marta marina.
At the next stop we will see a rather large canal.