Januar 01 – Feb 25, 2023; 9647 nm and 1437 days after departure from La Rochelle.
Feature pic: at the last lock already in Pacific water, me, Kim, Helen (la Capitana), Norbert and Steve, celebrating the transit
That was for sure a great experience!!! Yes, we had the opportunity to transit the canal!! Thanks to social media we saw the inquiry of a friend’s boat who was looking for some line handlers to transit the Panamá canal. We contacted them immediately and within a few minutes we became line handlers. How cool was that? Line handlers on a friends boat, getting to know the whole procedure of THE transit, being fed for a couple of days and spending time with friends. En plus, as we were anyhow stuck in Turtle Cay Marina due to a delayed delivery, we could transfer our boring waiting time in a fantastic, exciting fun time. That was like getting a surprise egg 😁.
But first things first. Early January on our way to Turtle Cay Marina we met up with our friends from Basta, Alex, Mike and their dog Theo at an Island called Iskardup /West Lemon Cays. We only had a day together but it was still nice to catch up with them. After a shared late breakfast gathering on Altimate we jumped into a dinghy and visited the island. That was not a special island but the family who was living there had such sweet kids. And I was allowed to take pics! Isn’t the girl super cute? She loved feeding Theo.
The next day we already had to say bye to Basta. They were heading east and us west to Turtle Cay. Arriving into the marina was a challenge as the entrance lays between two reefs with breaking waves entering the bay. It did look and felt very scary. Altimate seemed to move like a light nutshell pushed by waves in all directions. I tried to clutch exact heading in these uncomfortable conditions. In the end -of course- we managed to reach the marina without any problems, but so far it was the most difficult approach to a marina for the Altimate crew. And we were not looking forward to leave again. Once inside the marina channel all of a sudden everything was calm and peaceful. It was a hidden place in the middle of nowhere surrouded by rainforest. Juuuust beautiful. We were welcomed by a couple of very nice cruisers which made us almost feel like coming home. All of them very experienced long term sailors and super friendly pals. They organised game and movie evenings and explained how to get groceries and anything else we wished to know. As beautiful as it was being so remote as difficult it was getting anywhere. Just to give an impression: to get to the entrance of the marina, you’d have to walk 5km and then another 7km to reach the next village to get a bus. One could ask the marina staff to give you a ride to the bus stop but that had to be always in advance and you were never absolutely sure if they would turn up in time. Much fun, knowing there were only three busses a day. All in all not a big issue but when you need a ride to the airport (which I needed to fly home to look after my parents) you would very much appreciate to be sure somebody turns up. It was not just possible to call a cap or an Uber and just go. Well I guess, you can’t expect being in the jungle and at the same time having the luxury of just calling a taxi, right? That was the reason why I kept asking the marinero Librado every day if he could get me a taxi to the airport on the 10th of January. He probably thought I’m crazy but I just wanted to increase the possibility of actually getting a driver. The flight was in the evening at 6:45 pm. The ride was supposed to take 3 to 4 hours to the airport and to please my german concerns to have plenty of time -just in case as you never know- I ordered the taxi for midday.
Hahaha, leaving already rose my bloodpressure. Instead of turning up at 12 o clock, the taxi arrived at 12:50 pm. Any questions? All good, after all I planned plenty of failover time! To be fair, after being late for almost one hour there was only one little incident which got me nervous again. Already in the area of Colon, whith normal streets and even a kind of highway, we were waiting in front of the tollgate when it happened. Bang! A car from behind hit us. Nothing serious regarding our health but my german brain was already starting to think through what would happen now: Waiting for police to come , maybe contacting insurance, how could I get another taxi to get to the airport and things like that. Nooooot funny! But hey, what was the matter with me? We were in Panamá! Things tick differently here, hopefully! Not like in Germany who the guy being hit would probably get out of the car super annoyed and tell the guy off who hit his car. Of course including the complete procedure with police etc. Panamá was different! Completely relaxed my driver got out of the car after the bang. Calmly he spoke to the other driver. I couln’t understand a word but it only took 5 min when he came back. He fastened his seatbelt and drove off. Just like that. When I askd him wether everything was ok with the car he just said: “tranquilo todo bien”. Boy I was relaxed! Sometimes things can be so easy! An hour later I was at the airport and took off to Germany.
While I was looking after my parents El Capitano was reducing our project list on Altimate. Being seperated for 4 weeks -such a long time (for sailors who stick together 24/7 in a small place, it feels like years of separation!) – we decide to meet in Panamá City for our reunion. It safed me another travel time of about 4 hours and El capitano was able to get out of the remote marina for a change. My parents were so nice to treat us with a booked food tour around the city. (Btw, regarding the circumstances my dad is meanwhile doing ok.)
The food tour was great! It started at the famous Cafe Coca Cola where we met our tour guide Ana. She was a very knowledgeable nice person. And lucky us, we were the only ones joining the tour that day. So we had Ana as a private guide, awesome! While Ana was explaning all about Panamian food, we had tortillas, hojaldras traditional breakfast bread, a fried dough and salchichas guisadas, a kind of hotdog in a stew. However a rich breakfast! It was interesting to understand that panamian food was influenced by many countries. Therefore there doesn’t exist THE typical traditional dish. The dishes represent a mixture of mexican, colombian, caribbean and even asian food. After our light “desayuno” we strolled through the city to “Salsipuedes” a tiny street where local products were offered. “Sombreros pintaos”, the real panamian hats, “polleras”, intricately designed dresses, “cutarras”, leather made sandals and “diablicos”, devils.
After Salsipuedes Ana took us to China town where we had some interesting asian sweet tastes. Ana told us that when she grew up they often had chinese food. We took the opportunity and bought some asian groceries which we were looking for for quite some time. What a handy tour that was! We also visited the impressive modern farmers market, with its mouthwatering fruits and vegetables. It was hard not to buy anything. At least we got a delicious freshly made fruit juice. Our last destination was the fish market where we had the best seabass ceviche we’ve had so far. The main dish was a fried plantain basket with shrimps and olive oil octopus with yuca. It was all delicious but by that time we were so stuffed! Fortunately the tour was over as we couldn’t have eaten any more. If anybody is interested in a food tour in Panamá – we can highly recommend Ana! We spent another full day in the city enjoying the big malls with all their offerings and possibilities to find clothes and items we were looking for. Yep sorry, not that much sightseeing. El Capitano managed to find a reliable taxi driver who took us back to the marina the next day. We would have taken the bus but with all my luggage and the need of changing busses two times and then still needing a taxi, we skipped that idea and enjoyed an easy ride home. On our way we passed by some road stops from “diablicos”. I did not really understand what this was all about, but I think it was connected to carnival. They stopped the cars and wanted some rewards. Our driver was not willing to give anything and passed by as fast as possible.
Back in Turtle Cay we got back to our normal life. Originally, we wanted to leave the marina as soon as I was over my jetlag. But as I already mentioned we waited for a chain delivery. Unfortunately, our chain was not looking very good even though we had it galvanized only a few months ago in Santa Marta. So, we decided to rather get a new one than always thinking about whether the chain would hold. It was supposed to arrive Thursday before carnival, but they messaged Norbert that they can’t make it and had to postpone the delivery to after carnival. So annoying, especially for El Capitano as he already spent more than 5 weeks in the marina. But sometimes life is funny, only a few hours later we read about the line handler job. And all of a sudden the following week got exciting. We prepared Altimate for leaving, ordered all the nonperishable food we needed for the San Blas islands and got more and more excited about the fact we would transit the canal. (We got Altimate ready for leaving after we would get back from the transit and we would have received the chain.) Saturday morning, we had asked Librado to take us to Nombre de Dios where we took the bus to Sabanitas. Just to be sure we would get the bus we were pretty early. With a little bit of concern we jumped on to the bus. I guess I have to explain our concern. In Panamá as Europeans, we get a 3 months visa. I was safe as I was in Germany and had a new start of the visa. El Capitano on the other hand was already some weeks overdue. It is not an easy procedure to get an extended visa. So all cruisers stay longer and pay an overdue fee for every month of extension. Being on the water that never seemed to be a problem. But being ashore you shouldn’t get caught by the authorities. That could happen as there were a lot of places where the police or whichever authority had stopped cars to check their identity. So far our experience was that only the driver had to show his license or identitiy, they had never asked us. If they catch you, you’d have to pay the fee and leave the country within 7 days. We didn’t want to do that for sure. Our problem was we couldn’t take our passports as it would immediately show that Norbert was already overdue. Instead we thought, let’s take our German identity card, which had expired already a couple of years but at least we were able to identify ourselves with it. Just in case of course!
Now back to sitting in the bus. Very excited of heading to Colon to meet our friends we were sitting in the bus for about three minutes. We had not even left Nombre de Dios when we really got excited! Not in a nice way though. The bus was stopped by the army! What??? Shit! Not only that, they even came INTO the bus and checked EVERY persons identity and their belongings. Boy we were sweating! Trying to pretend to be very relaxed I started to talk about stupid things. Pointing out to an ATM or whatever I could find. In retrospect that was hilarious! Yet at the time it was not so funny. Then it happened! It was our turn. The nice young checkpoint guy asked for our passports. We handed out our German “Personalausweis” and were very tense and excited. Maybe he didn’t care, maybe he was just nice, maybe he didn’t know anything about visas. Who cared? He just looked at our identities and called me Sabine and El Capitano Norbert and asked in fairly good English if we were Germans. We said “yes” with a big smile. He checked our backpacks wished us a nice travel and then the spook was over. We brave Germans were so relieved. Still after that experience right from the start, the whole trip was a tense ride and therfore not the most comfortable one. Chicken as we were. We got stopped three more times and each time we suffered from excitement. Fortunately they never asked again for our identities. We changed busses in Sabanitas and took the bus to “4 Alto” in Colon. A mall where we met the crew of Cerulean and their friend Kim from New Zealand who was the fourth line handler. From there we all took the free bus to Shelter Bay Marina /Colon, where the transit started. We had to be there already Saturday afternoon as Cerulean didn’t know until late Saturday if they would get the slot for the transit at 3am or at 3pm on Sunday. It turned out to be 3 pm so we had a chance to explore the marina and the near by surroundings. Saturday evening Cerulean had a farewell gathering at the bar, where we met some friends from Cartagena the cat Plan B. It was nice to see the guys again and catch up with them.
For us it was a great experience because we got to know how the procedure of the transit runs. We don’t know yet when but in the next couple of years we also want to explore the Pacific. And its nice to know roughly what to expect when you do the crossing with your own boat. Of course there was a lot of paper work and payment to do but the more interesting part was the actual crossing. At about 2 pm we had to be in the anchorage area in front of the marina where we had to wait for the pilot to come to the boat. It was necessary to have 4 line handlers, a pilot and a captain aboard. The pilot was in constant contact with the big boats and the locks so he knew when to move. When it was time we headed towards the first lock. In front of the lock we got rafted up with another boat to go into the lock. There were three locks to lift us up 26 m to get to the level of Gatun lake. Always in front of us was a big US war ship who got pulled from one lock to the other. Impressive to watch being a small sailboat and just behind such a big boat in an even bigger lock. As we had the afternoon slot we had to stay the night at a huge buoy in Gatun lake. A huge manmade lake just to built the amazing Canal. Our nice pilot got picked up and early next morning another pilot came to help us through the next 3 locks down. But first we had to cross the lake to reach the other locks which took us about 4 hours. As a smaller boat you have to speed up as you have to be at a certain time at the lock. If you’re not there in time your slot is gone and you have to wait for a next possible slot.
Our buddy boat almost didn’t make it. Only because there was a delay from the big boat they just about made it in time to get tied up with us again and then into the first lock. On the Pacific side the locks were separated, not physically connected like the ones on the Atlantic side. In these locks we had to enter the locks first and then the big boat was pulled in. The first lock lowered us 9 meters in one step! So amazing. The last lock was named Miraflores, its gates were the tallest due to the Pacific Ocean’s extreme tidal variations. It was a just amazing to see these huge manmade constructions. That was the fascinating technical experience. Also very interesting was the procedure aboard. The protocol says you have to feed all the professional line handlers as well as the pilot. The meals had to be hot and not vegetarian. All the cruisers were talking about the food mandatories for the professionals as there were lots of rumors of complaints. Well, the pilot on Cerulean was very happy with what they had offered. The boat which was tied up to us only offered sandwiches (even though they were French!!!) and they had two pro line handlers. No obvious complaints about their food. My guess there were more rumors than actual complaints regarding the food… Anyhow, we were very happy being with our friends and accommodated and fed for almost three days😊.
We arrived late afternoon on Monday at the anchorage at Panama City. Too late for us to leave the boat and catch a bus. So we had another nice evening with a couple of beers and good chats on Cerulean. The next morning after breakfast we headed off to travel back to Altimate. We got a bus to Sabanitas but were told in the bus that we probably wouldn’t get a bus direction Turtle Cay Marina as it was Carnival Tuesday. To save us trouble and probably a lot of time we decided to find a taxi to take us to Turtle Cay. Once we negotiated a reasonable price we bought some more groceries and headed off. That was nice as some of the roads were closed and even the taxi driver had trouble to find his way out of Sabanitas. Oh and btw we didn’t get stopped on our way back!!! That saved us some excitement.
Two days later the anchor chain arrived, we bought some fresh vegetable, said good bye to our friends at the marina and on Saturday we headed off to the SanBlas islands.