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!

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations Kika and Crew!!! Great photos as ever :) xx