Leo40 – Panama Canal to Golfito (120)

When I left you last month I was moving a Leopard 40 catamaran through the Panama canal and up to CA with owners Paul and Sheila (aka the kids), a crew friend of theirs and my crewmate Dena. We spent an incredible glass calm night up in Lake Gatun on the north (Carib) side of the canal. After wine and dinner under the stars we drifted off to sleep.

My watch alarm went off at 0600. Our canal advisor, Roy, hopped aboard at 0615 and I fired up the motors. The sun came up over the jungle as we powered on down the wide, well marked channel. The canal reminds me of cruising the Pacific NW, motoring from green island to green island. Of course Panama is hot and covered in Kudzu instead of Pine trees.

But cruising’s not always calypso and coldies. The extra crewman was up most of the night with severe stomach cramps, which were getting worse. I feared appendicitis and asked the advisor what our options were. He suggested we drop him at the little town of Pedro Miguel. Stop in the canal? Kewl! Paramedics were there and took him off the boat. He made it to the hospital and they started treatment for a stomach infection.

I was down to 3 able crew and we needed 4 for the canal descent. The advisor was very cool to let us continue and he suggested we lock down against the wall. We had read all the cruiser hype about never locking against the wall. Though it’s not a good idea with the locking up turbulence of a filling chamber, it would have been fine locking down.

The kids opted for center tie again and the advisor offered to take the helm so I could catch the fourth line. He seemed a little too excited. Some small print from the canal contract flashed through my head, the part that talked about advisors not being responsible for anything. I kept an eye on him and would take over after cleating my line. The cat was all over the place, without a deep keel and with two motors in tight quarters and turbulent water … good fun driving. During one of Roy’s short stints at the helm the cat began to veer off toward the hard portside wall. I gave him a calm, “Con cuidado”. The third time I called over to him was more of a yell. He pulled it together and I didn’t have to step in. In his defense, he was answering his cell phone.

Down and out the Pacific side, we dropped Roy onto a speeding tug. After fueling at the Balboa Yacht Club pier we made our way through their mooring field with 2 knots of current sweeping us along the tight gap between boats. Our assigned mooring was right at the end. I spun us around into the current to sneak up to it. Dirt kicked up behind the boat. How is that possible, we drew 3’9”? The kids hooked us up to the ball.

To get a “launcha” to bring you to the long pier you call “Muelle, muelle, muelle (say mway-yay)”. I guess they don’t trust cruiser dinghies in that thick current. In we went to the new Balboa Yacht Club. The kids caught a cab to the hospital to check on their amigo which left Dena and I to toast survival of another transit while sampling BYC coldies.

At 0245 I awoke to my watch alarm. I walked out to the stern where I had the boat pole waiting. It was low low tide and I wanted to know just how much water we had, if any. We had about a foot under the keels. As I drifted back to sleep I hoped the humongous ships, chugging by just 100 yards away, did so slowly.

We were over a week on the BYC mooring. The kids made a couple more trips to the hospital, we searched futilely for Volvo parts and I worked on the (only 4-year old) diesels.
Helpful locals are a key part of cruising. BYC dockmaster Dave keeps a list of local services in his office, stacked above the pier. Ricardo works in the BYC ‘boatyard’. He was also what I call an expediter – a local good guy who knows everyone and everything in the area, speaks a little English and likes helping the yachties. He helped us find almost everything and even got on the phone to tell off the Volvo Panama people when they declined to help us. In contrast there are the not so helpful. Our canal agent tried to collect double the ambulance fees. In the future I’ll use my guy, Enrique Plummer.

Dena’s airline passes had her flying out of Costa Rica. The diesels conspired to keep us from getting her there in time. She got the next best thing, a 16 hour jungle bus ride – kewl. It was our last evening in Balboa. Dena and I went for an evening stroll along the waterfront. It was Martyr’s Day in Panama – a day of mourning for the high school protesters shot by their American occupiers in ‘64. The families walking and playing on the path seemed happy to have the evening together. Electric bikes and trikes shared the path with people and normal bicycles. How come I don’t see those at home? Look, an ice cream cart!

And finally things were running well enough to leave. I’m good for a day or two in a place and then I start wondering what other stuff we’re missing and I just want to get back out there … with or without the parts we need. It was just the three of us now, the owners and me. I offered to depart at night but the kids thought the morning visibility would be a plus. We had a beautiful tail wind to push us south across the Gulf of Panama.

As timing would have it, it was a pitch black night when we arrived at the bottom of the bay in the thickest part of the traffic. I had set up a watch schedule – 3 hours on, 6 off. The kids had instructions to get me up if they saw a ship. I was summoned and I arrived on deck with ship lights all around us. At the helm were my two crew staring into a blindingly bright radar screen. It was the first time we would have the discussion about not relying on the video game. I eased them away, gave them a minute to regain sight and then showed them how we judge distance and direction visually. I would sleep better knowing they were developing these skills.

We rounded the corner and finally had some north in our course. The downside was the headwind. It had been a long time since I had a cat in open water. Even in the small chop the cat banged surprisingly hard. But it was a short two day passage to our first stop. In my cruises along this coast I had never gone into Golfito and was looking forward to finally checking it out. We arrived in the darkest part of the night. I didn’t wake my crew. We had Charlies Charts – Costa Rica to steer by. I brought her in through the lighted buoys to a mooring off what I thought should be the Banana Bay marina. Pablo got up and hooked us to a ball. I backed down just to be sure it wasn’t a crab pot. She held, we slept. More next month.

 -Quality, Balance and a Clean Wake –

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