We have spent the last 4 full days in the Marina awaiting our transit of the canal. Before arriving in Panama we did a lot of research on the formalities and tried to find other people experiences so as we could prepare as best we could for our own.
Given the large amount of info on the net and also personal experiences running yachts overseas. It was decided that the best way would be to pay for an agent whom knew the ins and outs and that would take all the pressure and responsibility off us, leaving us to enjoy the pool here, do some odd jobs and some small provisioning.
Eric from Centenario was recommended from a few people so we decided to go with him. So far our passage and experience has been great. He has taken on everything delivering the ten tires to the boat two days before our passage along with the four lines of 125ft needed for the canal. The canal measurer was here the day after our arrival and everything has proceeded smoothly.
As we don't have a holding tank onboard he also provided us with a porta poti. He even drove us the thirty minutes into Colon to see the Port Captain as he wasn't happy with our securing points. As Spirit is a race boat she has no cleats, fairleads or real securing points. We plan to run lines through snatch blocks and back to the four winches in the aft cockpit. We spoke of this to him and described our plan, we also took some blocks along with their working loads into him so he could see that they were indeed strong enough. It helped a lot when Johnny mentioned that the small line we gave him was stronger than steel. Hard for commercial people to understand the strength of some of the gear we have. It's so small it looks fragile but in reality it's incredible strong.
The Port Captain was an American and I believe one of the last to remain here working with the Canal Authority. Once the Canal was handed back most of the American and foreign staff departed. The canal does fifteen transits daily in each direction. The new third locks to be opened in 2014 will allow for vessels up to 1,400 ft x 180 ft with a depth of 60 ft.
So far the place has been a real surprise. Not sure I had the best image of this place but being here has changed that a little. The marina and services here are basic but it's kept nice and the service is good. Eric has saved us time and stress and with the port office and immigration also being here it has save time get our clearance and formalities done.
For those doing the same passage here is a breakdown of how we proceeded with things and how much things have cost us so far.
-Arrived at Shelter Bay Marina 0130 very easy to enter during night hours. We had rain and squalls and found it easy to slowly motor in. We just pulled into the easiest berth once we arrived. Our berth was around $70 USD a day plus around $10 a week for the Internet. Electricity and water are on top of this but we didn't use any so I'm not sure of the costs involved here.
-The next morning after we arrived we registered with the Marina office and paid for seven days as thats the normal transit time. It only took 5 days though so we were refunded when we checked out.
- We then cleared in with the Port Captain and immigration that are located right behind the marina office.
- Eric has looked after all our transit details coming to the boat meeting. Then delivering the tires, ropes and our toilet all for $1,000 USD. This is the total that it has cost us on a 40ft x 35ft trimaran.
The marina here has nice rainforest walks you can do. A great pool area and lounge that is air-conditioned up stairs with cable TV and excellent WiFi Internet. I also have to mention that the Internet here has been the best I have experienced in the a Caribbean. It's super fast, reliable and they have about ten hot spots through out so there is a signal from just about all points of the marina.
There is a small chandlery here and also washers and dryers. The restaurant has a limited menu but the food is good and the breakfasts are cheap and really delicious with the staff always smiling and doing there best. We've heard of a few complaints being here but it's nothing that was really anything to bother about.
We'll depart the marina about 1230 today for the flats anchorage where will sit for an hour or two before entering the locks at around 1600 we hope. We'll transit the first set of three locks in the afternoon today then stay in the lake over night before motoring through the lake tomorrow and then proceeding through the other locks later in the day. Sounds like fun I'll update you with more tomorrow.
All went well for our first transit of the Gatun Lake Locks. It was a real experience with the water rising rapidly at around 4ft per minute for a total of about 40ft. The turbulence created from the water entering the locks through the bottom of the lock is crazy, this along with the ships prop wash when departing the lock made for some fun. We were very lucky as we can raise our centerboard and also Spirits weight of around 4 ton makes her easy to handle. The keel yacht in front did ok as well but you could see them getting pushed around a lot more and they also rolled a bit from the water surging in and pressing on there keel.
At each end of the canal there is three locks. At the Colon end they are all together but at the Panama city end there is two sets the first one called the Pedro Miguel locks and then another two that are called the Miraflores locks.
It's easy to do the last three into the Pacific as this is just a matter of easing your lines as you slowly get lowered within the lock. The Gatun is the harder one as your being raised and have to keep a good eye on your lines and be quick to shorten them up. We we able to run all our lines back to the cockpit and have them all with a dedicated winch so we could load them with more than just a hand pull. It worked great and the other thing that made it easy was that we were on our own in the lock not nested next to another yacht or tug boat, I think this was mainly due to our beam.
We went through the Gatun locks at around 1800 hrs local time. So once through there was about a 4 mile scoot around to the mooring where we were to stay for the night. A bottle of champers was opened to celebrate some roasted chicken was devoured then it was off to bed as we had our advisor arriving around 0600 the next morning to get underway for the passage through the lake.
It's roughly 30nm from one end of the lake to the other and with the fresh water being less dense than salt not only did Spirit have water lapping at her cockpit drains she was about half a knot slower. We were flat out trying to keep up with the other yachts but in the end did well and arrived in the middle of the pack.
On the way through Gatun Lake we passed some huge ships with lengths of up to 1000ft. These had tug boats escorting them through. There was massive dredges in some parts and some huge amounts of work going on with maintenance and the new larger lock expansions.
The main part of the lake is just amazing. It has the thickest jungle you could imagine and bird life and monkeys howling in the mornings. It was a real treat to be able to spend a night there.
For the last three sets of locks all the yachts went through together. The two monohulls where nested together and the tris went through placed in the middle of the lock. This end was a breeze as the water exiting leaves very little disturbance and all that needed to be done was the lines eased as the water level went down. It was a surreal feeling to enter the Pacific ocean at the other end. When the final doors opened we all felt the pressure of the last few days preparation drop away and a new adventure had begun.
It was another few miles down the channel to the Balboa yacht club where we dropped our two fantastic line handlers off and the ten car tires that Eric had arranged for us. We ended up not going into the dock but just dropping the gear and boys off in the dock tender along with the ten dollar fee for doing so.
We then high tailed it around to Las Brisas the anchorage to the North East of the causeway just North of the Flormenco Marina. Its a great spot very well sheltered but with a bit of a soft muddy bottom.
The local yachties there do a 0800 VHF net that has some great info on it. They operate on channel 74 and it's a must for any new yachts to the anchorage. We put a call out to see if anyone had an anchor for sale and ended up buying a new Fortress from a yacht while there.