Sunday, March 28, 2004

Log 20 - Costa Rica, Panama, and a Canal Transit

This log covers February 14 through March 21st, 2004 where after a great time in El Salvador, we have transiting the Panama Canal in our minds.

Costa Rica, Panama, and a Canal Transit

On the next phase of our journey, we depart El Salvador and spend a month getting to and transiting the Panama Canal.  A month is quite quick - many cruisers who visit Central America choose to summer in the Rio Dulce, which is an inland lake on the Caribbean side of Guatemala and a relatively safe place to sit out the July-October hurricane season.  This gives them an 18 month cruising season.  As our goal is Europe, we have to move quickly in order to make it to Florida by June ( only 3 1/2 months away).

El Salvador to Panama

Friday, February 20th, 2004 - Southbound to Costa Rica

We depart Barillas, El Salvador after a great inland trip to Guatemala followed by a short wait for a favorable weather window to head south on a 3 day passage to southern Costa Rica.  We meet this fishing troller just before crossing the river bar, which is totally benign compared to our harrowing entrance.  Sailing about 10 miles off the Nicaraguan coast, we eventually come to the windy Cabo Santa Elena in northern Costa Rica and the start of another notorious body of water, the Gulf of Papagayo.  Sure enough the wind pipes to 25 knots with gusts to 30, but we reef down our sails and make good time.   A few days later we make a non-eventful night entry into the wide open Drakes Bay, where we are greeted by a light  offshore breeze bringing the sweet earthy smells of jungle flowers and lush foliage.

El Salvador fishing troller

Wednesday, February 25th, 2004 - Drakes Bay, Costa Rica

We truly have arrived into the jungles of Costa Rica which are rich in wildlife species we have never encountered before, like this bug on Joel's hat that likes to disguise itself as a leaf.  It is very hot and humid so we move slowly as we hike the trails, enjoying the numerous species of monkeys frolicking in the trees just above our heads.    Later, we head up a river in our dinghy and find a natural waterslide for a refreshing late day cool down....ahhhh!    Oh, on shore we also discover La Paloma Lodge, a fabulous looking spot for that remote get-a-way you may have been dreaming of.

Leaf bug

Friday, February 27th, 2204 - Joel's 10th birthday in Golfito, Costa Rica

A short overnight run from Drakes Bay, lands us in Golfito where we are happy to be on a dock to celebrate Joel's birthday.  The owner of the marina we are at (K&B Marina) said it was alright to use the oven in their big kitchen rather than try to cook cakes and pizza on Tioga in these extreme temperatures.  Vienna and Rhiannon from s/v Atalanta join Joel and Gerrit in the fun of making their own personal pizzas.

Pizza's made on board Tioga and cooked at the marina ovens.

We play some games while the pizza's are cooking, and then all eat hungrily as it had been a long day. We set up the DVD Mr. Bean to play on the large screen at the club house while final cake preparations happen.  It is so hot, the cream won't whip so we pour it over the cake and cherries which are also melting…..what is not melting here!

Happy 10th birthday Joel in Golfito, Costa Rica

Monday, March 1st, 2004 - Isla Parida, Panama

We clear out of Costa Rica and begin hopping our way south to the Panama Canal.  Isla Parida provides a great anchorage where we run into old friends Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy, aboard s/v Carricklee.  They provide us with a copy the sailing magazine 'Cruising World' (January 04 issue)  where an article of theirs called, 'A Child's Christmas in Paradise', is published  featuring  many cruising families including ours!

Isla Parida anchorage in Panama

Thursday, March 4th, 2004 - Bahia Honda, Panama

Proceeding south, we stop for a couple of nights in Bahia Honda, where we meet a few locals.   The father of this family paddled out to our boat bringing us some fresh fruit and produce in exchange for some milk and soap (the barter system is alive and well here).  He then invited us to visit his house and meet his wife, Olivia and two children, Kennedy and Melony.  They were in the process of building a kitchen onto their existing home which was very basic but very nice.

Friendly Panamanian family

Monday, March 8th, 2004 - Bay of Panama

This is the first of many buoys as we enter the Bay of Panama.

Approaching the Panama Canal zone - 1st buoy

Using the navigation system to enter such a crowded area.

Huge tankers and container ships are everywhere, so we must keep a sharp eye out to distinguish between those anchored and those that are underway.   Boats our size are a mere speck compared to their size, and 'Might has Right' out here as they are much less maneuverable!

Boats anchored waiting to transit canal.

We are very excited and thankful to be here as we drop our anchor in the Balboa anchorage where vessels sit waiting to transit the Panama Canal.

Friday, March 12th, 2004 - Old Town of Panama City

We enjoyed many busy outings exploring the City of  Panama.  This day found us in the 'Old Town' where many buildings have undergone serious renovations.

Colorful old building
Historic streets

Lush vegetation everywhere.

This square displayed the busts of many important people involved in the building of the canal.  The one in the front is of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer who built the Suez Canal in Egypt, hired to build a sea level canal in Panama.  Under de Lesseps control, excavation began in 1882 only to be plagued with disease, difficult terrain, and a flawed design, thus bankruptcy occurred and work ceased in 1888.  The dream of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans did not die with the French bankruptcy.  In 1903, negotiations between the United States and Panama brought about a treaty that allowed the US to continue building in 1904 but on a 'lock-canal' system rather than the failed sea level canal plan.  Construction was successfully completed in 1914.

Some of the Canal's many players

Thursday, March 18th, 2004 - Panama Canal Museum

Prior to our canal transit, we wanted to get a feel for this amazing engineering marvel.  So we took a morning to visit the newly completed Panama Canal Museum at the Miraflores locks.   Miraflores is one of three identically-sized locks (110' x1000') along the 40 mile waterway between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  This picture shows the first lock (or last) of Miraflores, with gates at both ends.  The Pacific Ocean is just beyond, so this will be our first lock.

Pacific-side look at a Miraflores lock.

This picture gives you a closer look at one of the upstream lock gates (there are 6 gates at each end of the canal).    Together, three sets of locks raise a vessel 85 feet up to Gatun Lake where one proceeds 23 miles under power to the other end then 'locks-down" 85' in the opposite ocean, the Atlantic in our case. The Panama Canal Authority ("PCA") has a great and informative website, well worth a visit, and saves us confusing you further :-)  Go to

Miraflores Lock gate

Inside the impressive multi-level indoor museum one is led progressively through the hardships and milestones encountered in building the canal.   There are great photos and scale models of various machinery and such.   The fourth floor includes a section on animals and bugs native to Panama, and the final level depicts the completed canal and a slick time-elapsed video of a cruise ship transiting the locks.   This floor also has a simulator where a person can take the helm of a Panamax,  the largest non-military ship able to pass through the canal.   Here, Joel successfully navigates a Panamax into a set of locks.

Panamax simulator

9:47 AM - Saturday, March 20th, 2004 - Panama Canal Transit - Advisor boarding

It's an early start on our transit day and by 6:30 am our line handlers (friends from other sailing boats) are on board.   The PCA requires 4 adult 'line-handlers" for each corner of the boat plus the helmsman.  Once in position we must now wait for our call to proceed to the first lock.  All vessels transiting the canal must have either a PCA 'advisor' or 'pilot' on board.  Large vessels actually hand over command (not the helm) of their vessels to the pilot.  As a small yacht (<65') we only have an 'advisor' on board and we retain command and control of our boat.   Here, our advisor, Victor prepares to hop on board to assist us in our transit.

Our transit advisor Victor arrives - 2 hours late!

9:52 AM - Bridge of the Americas

With a complete crew and adviser on board, we are clear to cross under the Bridge of the Americas and head for the first lock.  The Bridge of the Americas, formerly known as the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, connects North and South America.  Thanks to terrorism, an unauthorized vessel could literally be blown out of the water if they were to proceed under this bridge without proper PCA clearance and a pilot/adviser on board.

Bridge of the Americas - links North and South America

10:05 AM - Entering the First Lock

In order to maximize space within the canal and get as many boats through as possible, smaller boats such as ours are often rafted together with similar sized boats.  Just before we enter the first lock, Tioga and our friend's boat, Atalanta, are rafted together for the transit.  Each boat's 4 line handlers must be ready to operate two lines from the bow and 2 lines from the stern to secure the boat to the canal walls.  In a rafting situation, where we are all tied together, there are spare line-handlers.

Tioga and Atalanta raft up and wait.

10:11 AM - Up Locking

Tioga and Atalanta proceed forward as one unit.  Other multi-boat units are in front and behind us to maximize the available lock capacity.  Atalanta is then tied to a tug boat which has already tied to the canal wall, so we have 3 boats tied side by side.

Seagull's patiently wait on the side of the canal walls to get their breakfast. When the water rushes in numerous fish will be swept to the surface.   Now that's easy pickin's.

Seagulls waiting for a meal

Everything happens quickly and immediately the water begins to boil as the water rushes in to fill the lock.  For each lock and set of gates, 52 million gallons of fresh water are required, fed by gravity flow from GatĂșn Lake.

Turbulence and meal time for the birds

12:02 pm  Proceeding under power to Gatun locks

Once we have up-locked the required 85', we must then proceed under power for 23 miles heading for Gatun locks at the Atlantic side.  First off, the canal follows a channel dug through the mountains, which was the most difficult part of  building the entire canal.   Called Gaillard Cut, this section of the canal measures 9 miles and traverses the Continental Divide.  Numerous landslides occurred both during and after construction, requiring frequent dredging to keep the canal open. The channel through the cut is 500 feet wide, the narrowest part of the canal.

The difficult Gaillard Cut, through the continental divide

Once through the Gallaird Cut, we continue across Gatun Lake, which was created by damming the mighty Chagres river, and remains one of the largest artificially created bodies of water in the world.

Heavy shipping traffic through Gatun Lake

We successfully complete the crossing of Gatun Lake and arrive at the Gatun locks in time for an afternoon transit out into the Atlantic.  However, to our dismay all the locks have been filled for the day with vessels ahead of us.  Though large vessels transit night and day, sail boats are only scheduled for day time.  We anchor in Gatun Lake, as instructed, and enjoy our evening in a beautiful setting knowing we will complete the transit tomorrow.

Big ships transit 24 hours a day.  

Sunday, March 21st, 2004 - Completion of our Panama Canal transit

After successfully finding places for our three extra line handlers to sleep on board for the night, a new adviser arrives and we move into the Gatun locks.  Our locking-down the 85 feet through the three locks on this side of  the canal goes smoothly so we manage a crew photo.  From left to right, we have: Gerrit, Chris, Joel, John & Susan (s/v Compania) with Eddy (s/v Shealah) in the foreground, and Sheila.

Our Panama Canal transit team - l2r Gerrit, Chris, Joel, John, Eddy, Susan & Sheila

Final locking down. 

Also a great family picture - one of Sheila's favorite.

2:02 PM - Sunday, March 21st, 2004 - Into the Caribbean Sea!!

Here we are, about to enter the Caribbean Sea on the Atlantic ocean side from last lock before the plug is pulled.

Last of the Gatun locks - Caribbean ahoy!

The water level is lowered and so are we for the last time.   The locks open and we are successfully in a new body of water!!

Gateway to new beginnings - the meaning of TIOGA!

The entire Panama Canal event was a major milestone for us and it also provided yet another great learning opportunity for all of us!  One interesting fact of this entire engineering wonder is that its completion after so many years of hardship went almost unannounced as it occurred within 12 days of the start of WW1 in August of 1914.   Also for you fact hounds, the United States controlled the entire operation until December 31st, 1999 when control was at long last, handed over to the Panamanians.

PS - did you know that as early as the 16th century, Europeans dreamed of building a ship canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Spanish kings considered building a canal to carry treasure from their South American colonies back to Spain, but they never tried.

Catch you on the other side in Log 21.