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Panama 2.4.-12.5.2002

updates: 2.4.  17.4.  24.4. 26.4.  3.5.  7.5.  12.5. 

2.4.2002 San Blas, Panama
The sailing from Cuba to Panama, 760 miles, took one week and was pleasant after we had adjusted to sea life again. The last long sailing was on the Labrador Sea, a half year ago. No wonder it took a couple of days to get the right balance and to get used to short sleeps. It was new to sail amost naked, we got some bruises and wounds without covering clothes and shoes.
The night to Sunday we arrived to the San Blas islands, which are located about 70 miles east of Panama canal. There are a couple of clear and wide entrys in the reefs, so we decided to sail in at night, although there are warnings about sailing among the reefs in the dark. A year ago a Swedish boat wrecked here at night. Because we had not planned to visit San Blas, we had only some kind of chart on computer and a pilot book we got from Maciej in St. Pete. Passing the reefs went well, but when we came closer to the anchorage we had chosen, we got trouble. According to radar we were close some islands, but GPS and chart told other way. In the cloudy night with a little moon light we could see three tiny islets with some palm trees, which gave no protection from the 25 knot wind. Very near we could hear the reefs. We decided not to go in a such place. We started to motor towards Povernir island five miles away, we would have gone there anyway in a couple of days, because customs is there. There is also an airstrip. GPS and chart told that we had still a mile to the shore, when Hannu shouted that we are close, almost on the shore already. On the other side of us was a big reef. Then we figured out that our chart is not accurate. Earlier I had wonderd the coordinates the pilot book gave to the anchorage, but thought that they were incorrect. The radar does not lie, so we enterd the half mile broad entrance with it. Soon we saw other boats and anchored near them. It was two o'clock in the morning.
At six, when it lightens, I stood up to see in which kind of place we are. At the same time a small boat came to us and the man told that we should move - away from an aeroplane. We had anchored at the end of the airstrip! Povernir is not a big island either, but there is the 400 meters long airstrip, a couple of houses and a palm tree forest.

San Blas Islands are located 70 miles east from Panama canal

San Blas is the autonomous area of Kuna indians, named Kuna Yala. After bloody rebellions, Kunas got an autonomous position in the area in 1938. There are about 55.000 Kuna-indians in Panama, which has 2,5 million inhabitants. Kuna Yala is divided into three districts, each having an elected chief. The governing is based on Carta Organica, the constitution. Local matters are dealt in each village by its chiefs, who have daily meetings in a special meeting house. The important chiefs lie on hammocks while less important have to sit on hard wooden benches. Previously only men went to school. Therefore the elderly Kuna women do not speak Spanish. Nowdays all the children go to school. Women are wearing traditional colourful clothes, a red scarf covering the head, golden jewellry including a nose ring, small colorful pearls around legs and the mola, an embroidered blouse front. Nowdays mola means all kind of embroydery work from masks to small pieces of different figures, which the women try to sell to the numerous visiting yachts. Men are wearing western clothes, which usually mean sun faded t-shirts and caps. Kunas use narrow canoes made of one piece of wood. Very few have motors, paddles are used against the wind and a small sail with the wind. Kunas live in reed huts, either in the small isolated islands or in villages.

We visited Wichubhuala islands next to Povernir. Basically, the island is one village, where narrow, tidy paths wind between the reed huts. The school and some other buildings are made of concrete. The village has three shops, and when we were looking for bread, a man pointed us to come with him. Through the paths we ended to a house where an old woman sold us still warm bread - it is delicious. This saved us some extra heat which baking in the boat produces. We found some food fill up from the store, but there was nothing fresh after the Easter. For a while I had a packet of butter in my hand before I realised that it would smelt before we were even near Kristiina.
After we cleared in (alltogether 100 US!) on Monday, we left Povernir and motored to the same place we first tried at night. Now we had learned that an island means a low sand mound and some palm trees, and not so much protection from the wind. There is a good sand bottom to hold the anchor, reef to protect from the waves and swell, and the ever blowing wind is cooling down.
Today we visited the family, alltogether 12 persons including grandparents and two generation of sisters, living on the nearby islet. According to the Kuna law the land is owned by everybody, but each palm tree has an owner. Therefore you should not pick up coconuts here.

Handmade molas for sale. Transportation is made by the canoe dugged out of a single tree.

Visiting a Kuna-family


17.4.2002 Colon, Panama
Before reaching the canal, we visited Heikki and Marja Rissanen on the Bay of Buenventura, where they live with their 13 dogs. They came to this place 10 years ago after carrying cargo around the Caribbean with their ship Rebecca. We were going to do a quick visit, but Heikki took us to a three days jungle river trip, which we did not want to miss. And it turned out one of the best experiences on our trip.

First we, Heikki and another Finnish guy Jorma,  walked up to the mountains with a horse carrying our backpacks, so that we would not get tired right away. From the top we went down to the other side, and across the forest to the river. The river is the only walking path in the steep walled and dense jungle. And that is not easy either with all the stones, rapids, deeps and ponds. Sometimes we used an hour for making a 50 meter progress, sometimes we had to wade in the water up to our armpit. We had endlessly pure and tasty drinking water - in which we also swimmed when we got too tired.

We spent the first night in an uncredible beautiful natural spa. Round bath tubes have been formed in a small fall, creating natural jacuzzis. The whole thing ended to a bigger pond where you could swim and dive all you wanted. The view was magnificent with the river coming down and surrounded by luxuriant jungle slope with several different plants and trees. We hung the hammocks to couple of lonely trees, lighted the camp fire and had our first hot meal that day. The noise from the rapids covered most of the jungle voices, but we admired colorful butterflies and fire beetles when it got dark. Even we were tired of the day's walk, we tried to catch the river shrimps. Their eyes burned as two red dots in the light of a torch. We tried to catch them with a hook and shorizo sausage, but maybe it was too spicy for them, we got none.
The hammocks temptated and soon we were asleep, maybe giving a thought or two to a jaguar and wild big before that. The bottom of our cloth bed didn't seem very safe, even smaller teeth would go through that. But we woke up without any teethmarks, sound and happy, only the unused muscles felt yesterdays walk.

The most curious animals we saw were spider monkeys, who started to shout to us, probably nasty things. Especially the biggest male was very upset and shaked his fist at us. However, more dangerous animals were the black-and-green poisonous frogs and a small, green snake, on which Auli almost stepped. The most funny animals were small lizards who "walked on the water", at least it seemed so when they quickly moved from stone to stone sliding on the water.
Our second camp was made into the forest, because there were no suitable trees by the riverside. There the small creatures, cockroaches, ants and a huge spider were too much for us two, and we moved beside the camp fire. But that was a fine experience too, fallimg asleep while watching the stars and fire beetles. The next day we walked the last bit of our way, and the scenery turned out softer and easier. And the animals were mostly bulls.

After we had recovered one day, Heikki and Marja had a new idea: we went riding. Well, they have seven horses. This was new for us. Auli got a calm horse, but Hannu's Puru was eager to run and jibbing. But uncredible well he stayed on the back of the horse, even then when it run wildly under a low tree branch. Hannu threw himself to the other side of the horse like an old cowboy and made it. Afterwards he showed who is the master.

With sore buttocks were hoisted our anchor the next day and sailed to Colon, to the dock of the Panama Canal Yacht Club. Here we started the arrangements for the canal passage. The measureman is coming on Thursday. We do not know our date yet.

24.4.2002 Colon, Panama
A week and a half have gone with arranging all the necessary things. The admeasurer did not come when agreed, but the next day, and just because Auli was looking after him patiently and almost pushed him to Kristiina. It was Friday afternoon, so the next phase, paying the fee, moved over to Monday. Now we have got the canal date, it is the  2nd of May, but might change. It seems that everything here is unsure.

Some of the horros stories about the canal and yachts are true. On Monday two boats were damaged because of powerful  turbulence caused by a ship's propeller. The center boat of the three yachts raft got it worst: it's deck was cracked.
Also the rumours of rising the fees are true: from the 1st of May onwards the yacht have to do the passage in one day, otherwise fined by an extra 440 dollars. From 1st of June,  50 dollars will be added to the fee. At the moment the price for a boat under 50 feet is 550 dollars. A  900 dollar deposit has to be paid as well. That is no limit for extra costs, f.ex. breaking your engine can be costly: towing is 1000-1700 dollars per an hour. So our Perkins is better to run all the 50 miles!

At the Yacht Club we are like in a voluntare imprisonment. Outside the gates waits the Colon jungle, where you should not go by foot. Some of the streets in the city centre are ok, but the zone from the marina to the centre is hazardous, and you have to cross it with a taxi. It feels funny to take a taxi for a couple of hundred meters trip, but this is the safe way. A taxi costs one dollar.

26.4.2002 Colon, Panama
Things change rapidly: we will stay in Panama at least until the 10th of May, when we get crew from Finland. Lissu Karvonen is sailing with us to the Marquesas. We change our canal date with two Finnish guys, Riku and Iiro, who are in a hurry. We might go through in their date, the 8th of May. For the while, we will sail back to the Bay of Buenaventura.

3.5.2002 Buenaventura, Panama
We celebrated the First of May like the Midsummer in Finland: having a sauna, smoking fish and eating herring. Hannu has been scuba diving with Heikki.

Going to a restaurant is easiest by the dinghy

Next to Buenaventura is  Portobelo, which served as a Spanish tradeport since the 16th century. Silver, gold and other treasures were stored to be shipped to Europe. The Portobelo bay is an excellent nature harbour, and the place is surrounded by hills from where it is easy to protect the town. But despite all this, the port located a long time in Nombre de Dios, which gave little protection and had a bad holding. The villagers, merchants and captains complained about this to the king, but it took almost 70 years after establishing the village in 1519, and numerous ship wrecks before king Filip II gave permission to move the village from Nombre de Dios to Portobelo in 1585. He sent an Italian to plan the fortifications around the becoming village.
The history Portobelo and Nombre de Dios is connected with Sir Francis Drake, El Droque, who robbed the Spaniards with the permission of the queen Elisabeth.

Today Portobelo is visited by many yachts

Francis Drake (1540-96) was a son of a protestant clergyman, and he hated catholics - especially the pope - as well as the Spanish ruling in the new world. Drake began his career at sea  as an age of 23, on his cousin's, John Hawkins' ship, which made basically slave trade. Drake become a skillfull seaman, navigator and fighter.
When Drake attacked the first time Nombre de Dios in 1572, he had already a fearfull reputation. This trip got a misfortunate end, Drake was wounded and he had to be carried to the ship. No treasures were captured by the pirates.
This embarrasment made Drake even more eager to get the valuables of the village. After a year he planned an other trip together with the cimarrones, escaped black slaves. This time they attacked on the road where the mules were carrying the treasures from Panama to Nombre de Dios. But they failured again. In addition, many Drake's men, including his two brothers, died of deseases after being in the jungle.
The next robbery was made to a warehouse, but it turned out to be full of papal pardons, which made Drake furious, and he burned them all. Besides he was wounded.
It took almost twenty years before Drake attacked Nombre de Dios again, in 1595. In the meantime he had made a successfull attack on the mule caravan and sailed back to England with the booty. He had sailed around the world (1577-80) and joined to the destroying of the Spanish armada in 1588.
In Nombre de Dios most of the village had moved to Portobelo by the time Drake got there, and nothing valuable was left. The pirates burned the village and set out to a safe island. In the beginning of the next year, Drake got ill. He died on the 27th of January 1596 and was buried into the sea in front of the Portobelo bay. His lead coffin has not been found, although the exact position can be found on the log. Also Heikki has spent five years systematically diving the coffin.

7.5.2002, Colon, Panama
We have made a false start and been on the waves of the Pacific, although Kristiina is still on the Atlantic side. On Saturday the 4th of May we were linehandlers on Riku's and Iiro's Cassandra. The alarm went at 3.30 am and after 12 hours we were on the Pacific side. We entered the first lock about 8 am with two other pleasure boats and a ship. The Panama canal has six locks. The three first, the Gatun locks, are one after another, and they rise the boat 26 meters above the sea level. Between the locks is the Lake Gatun, where you should not swim, there are alligators. However, there is no time for swimming or stopping, because the transit has to be done in one day. The canal is 45 miles, of which the lake takes about 30 miles. On the Pacific side there is one two-locks system, the Pedro Miguel, and the last lock is the Miraflores. There are a couple of tourist boats which drive back and forth the canal, so anyone can experience the canal.
Panama canal seems to be easier than its reputation. The lockage was normal. Our experince from the 45 locks in America included some more exiting moments. F.ex. in the Welland canal the water comes more quickly, it's boiling and bubbling making the boat to toss. Bay Springs and Kentucky on the Tenn-Tom are three times as high as one Panama lock; there you really feel small. Once we were in the lock with two tug boats and the water turbulence almost sug Kristiina on the wall.
But still, there are accidents - at least in Panama, maybe the others are not so widely known.
Our turn in on Wednesday, the 8th of May.
Heikki and Marja join us as linehandlers, in addition we take one of the locals, because there has to be four crew members besides the captain. We have ten tires wrapped in plastic waiting, we got them from a guy who just passed the canal. Enough ropes are required: four 40 meter long, 18-20 mm lines. They can be rented in the yacht club with 15 dollars a day. We may rent one.

We got  back to the Panama Canal Yacht Club on Monday, to do the laundry and buy some food again. We got about ten kilos of mangoes and 20 coconuts from Heikki's and Marja's garden. Hannu got a mackerell on our way, and we gave a part to a Swedish boat in the harbour. They had kept an eye on our tires, because even these are an object of trade: plastic wrapped tires cost three dollars each.
We still have to tell one not so funny thing: we found a cockroach in Kristiina. I doubt it's the last, because it is really hard to avoid them even if you would be careful with everything you take onboard. Cockroach traps were added to our shopping list.

Ready for the Panama Canal


12.5.2002 Balboa, Panama   ONE YEAR ON THE VOYAGE!
Kristiina's canal transit started with the delay of the advisor. (Pleasure boats are taken through the canal by an advisor, who does not have the same responsibility than a pilot; the captain of the vessel has the full responsibility through the whole canal.) When the advisor launch at last took place at 7.30 am, got both boats, Kristiina and an American Sandy Lee, two advisors. It was a training transit, a younger advisor took over under the eyes of an older - who was in his 30's (!). Four advisors was not a good combination, it was hard for them to share the opinions. In addition, our advisor, Edwin, was clearly nervous. We started to motor between two big ships towards the first locks. We were supposed to tie the boats together before the lock. We left the American boat behind us, and soon we heard five toots, they were too close the ship coming behind. We left the channel and waited for them alongside a pier. There we would also tie the boats together, said our advisor. Good idea, there we would not disturb the ships and we could do it in peace. But the advisors of Sandy Lee disagreed and drove by. So off the ropes again and to catch them. Next there was disagreement on which side the boats will be tied. While all the shouting we were getting closer and closer the big ship and two tug boats manouvering to get the ship into the lock. When the side was decided, happened the bounding as chaotic as the beginning and the result was that our spreaders were almost touching and there were two springlines the same way. More shouting. We drifted closer the ship and the tugs. At last the boats were tied together properly, and it was time to back because we were very close the ship and the current was pushing us even closer. But it was not easy to manouver, two skippers and four advisors makes six opinions. With Kristiina's engine on reverse we stayed almost still, and when the American also figured out to put his engine on reverse we were backing.
Then it was our turn to drive into the lock, beside a tug boat. As a steel boat Kristiina acted as a fender for the plastic Sandy Lee. The confusing advice and two manouvering boats caused a heavy touch to the tug boat's side and one of our railing post twisted. Hannu drove the next two lock without listening to the advisors and telling the skipper of Sandy Lee to have his engine on free. Then everything went well. The locking was normal, but every time leaving the chamber we had to release our draft from the tug and bound to it again.
On the lake Gatun the boats were separated and everything calmed down. We were cooking lunch and admiring the scenery. No alligators in sight, however. An hour before the last three locks, at 1 pm, the advisors announced that we have to stay in Gamboa overnight in anchor and the transit would continue the next day. What!? The canal administration demands pleasure boats to make the transit in one day, with a 440 dollars ultimatum, but now we are left between the locks. Begging did not help, there was no ships to go down with, was the explanation. Our friends Heikki and Marja, who were linehandlers, had come the night before, and at home waited the dogs alone. Our fourth linehadler was a local man called Dracula (!), who costed us 55 dollars per day. Heikki and Marja managed to arrange a "dog-sitter". Dracula went home for the night, and we had to pay him the extra 55 for the next day. If we had had four hired linehadlers and four hired ropes, the cost for the day would have been 280 dollars - that twice makes even more than the actual canal fee, 550 dollars.
So we spent the afternoon and evening at the lake. Swimming trips were short because of the alligator danger, although we didn't see any, despite that Heikki and Hannu tried to temptate them with some chicken.
The next day a new, more experienced advisor came onboard at 10.30 am. A third sailing boat had arrived last evening to the anchorage and we all three went together through the last three locks. The 50 footer, three masted schooner in the middle. We got a special arrangement without any ships - don't know the reason. In the last two chambers there were also a French boat and a tug, both tied to the wall. In the last lock, the Miraflores (where the internet camera actually is located), the lockmaster started to lower the water before the French boat had fastened it astern rope. In a second, the boat turned around, bow heading to the lock wall. The skipper started to turn the boat with the engine, and for a while it seemed that it will crash into the wall. In the last moment the boat turned, but then it stared to come backwards, on our ropes. The shouting was even more loud and luckyly the skipper could stop the boat and the lines were tied. It was quite a relef to drive out of the last lock and get rid of the other boats.
We have gone through 45 Canadian and American locks without a scratch, and now in Panama canal happened the first accident - twisted railing post - on our whole trip. It is a small thig. But still.

The first lock: Kristiina beside the tug, on the other side the 
American Sandy Lee

We left Marja, Heikki and Dracula to the Yacht Club of Balbo. For a while we chatted with Iiro and Riku, who were still in Balboa because of a broken rigging screw. Riku was just on his way to buy new ones. Then we motored a couple of miles further to a free anchorage near the Flamenco Yacht Club. And slept 12 hours.

It feels quite unbelieveable to be on the Pacific side. There is only 40 miles of canal to the Atlantic, but menatlly it is far away. That much bureaucratic, costly and risky the Panama canal is.

On Friday, the 10th of May, Cassandra with Riku and Iiro got under their way towards the Marquesas. The guys came to say goodbye and we took the last pictures, if we don't meet in Tahiti. We will keep in touch via the SSB radio.
In the evening we picked up Lissu at the airport. She had travelled 24 hours from Helsinki, had one fog with a cancelled flight and one broken plane with a cancelled flight. Being persistent she got on to another flight and all the way to Panama.

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