Sunday, December 22, 2013

Leaving Begonia

[Kyle]With all of our out of the water work done, it was time to leave Begonia behind. I would return to work soon enough, but in the meantime, Maryanne and I were off to our respective countries of origin to catch up with family.

We started with a taxi ride to Colón. Our driver, Alfred, took us through the main part of the town to the train station on its fringe. It’s possible to rent a car for very little in Colón. I considered this as an alternative to the more expensive cab/train/cab option. Even with the extra fee to drop the car at Tocumen International Airport, it would have cost far less. In the end, I’m glad we didn’t. Colón is impossibly confusing. The entire city is under heavy construction, there are no road signs at all, and none of the intersections have traffic lights. The procedure at these seems to be: Stop when you arrive to see if there’s a space, then dart into traffic in the direction you want to go, even if you have to cross several lanes of traffic at right angles and they are all headed right at you. Alfred seemed only mildly perturbed by all of the drivers that either cut him off or who refused to let him cut them off, but from the back, it was all quite confusing and hair-raising.

After a very circuitous route that involved many poorly marked construction detours, he finally deposited us at the Colón train station. Taxi fares in Panamá are based on zones, not metered, so we knew Alfred had taken the quickest route for his fixed fare.

We had allowed a generous buffer for canal delays that turned out to be unneeded, so we ended up with quite a lot of time before we could board the train to Panama City. The station is not so much a station as a covered siding. We found a plank of wood alongside one of the sheds nearby and used it as a makeshift bench to sit on while we waited. Our main entertainment for our wait was the busses going by at a nearby intersection. Panamá has a curious bus culture that is proud of its rebellious nature. Most of the public busses are old school busses from the U.S. that have been painted with elaborate airbrush designs and adorned with all sorts of extras like shark fins and big chrome truck exhausts with loud glass pack mufflers. The busses make the city seem even more chaotic.

The Panama Canal Railway - once used for those rushing west for the California Gold Rush

When it finally came time to board the train, we boarded and were immediately stunned with the contrast to the grubby city outside. The train was beautiful. The inside was all polished wood, with green leather seats and those green glass desk lamps. The bulkheads were painted with frescoes of the route. It felt like we had stepped into the Roaring Twenties. We immediately made a beeline for the dome car. The attendant came by with a tray of complimentary coffees and took our drink and snack orders.

The train pulled out of the station and within five minutes, we had left Colón behind and were clacking along the shores of Lake Gatun. We passed still water dotted with tiny islands speckled with herons and cranes. Further along, we spotted the buoys of the canal route, which got closer and closer until we were running alongside the ships on their way between oceans.

We relax as the scenery rushes by

At the Continental Divide, we passed the Miraflores locks, then darted into a tunnel before arriving at Balboa station in Panama City. We had crossed the isthmus in just under an hour.

We took a taxi to a cheap, but clean hotel in town, then headed out looking for a restaurant. We walked a long loop through a lot of dark streets in dodgy areas before we finally ended up at a Venezuelan restaurant across the street from the hotel. The poor waitress that served us as well as the rest of the diners were very understanding and helpful as we struggled to order with our limited Spanish. Eventually, we were brought plates of simple but delicious food that cost us about half what it was worth. We left a chunk of the difference as a good tip for being so patient and cheerful with us. Our waitress seemed confused when we said we didn’t need change. Once she realized it was for her, she accepted it with a blush.

We went back to our room and spent the night trying to sleep through the traffic noise to no avail. When we came down to the lobby at first light, our taxi was already waiting to take us to the airport. We took the south expressway past gleaming skyscrapers separated from the Pacific by a wide belt of parkland bisected by a paved bike path and punctuated with benches in the shade of palm trees.

Arrived in Panama City, Fed, rested, and then off to the airport for an early flight

We parted ways at adjacent gates, where we each got the second to last seats on our respective planes. Now Maryanne is reacquainting herself with British winter while I’m in the milder climate of Arizona enjoying a soft bed and my mother’s delicious cooking.

Finally, a Day Away from the Boat

[Kyle]With all of our jobs officially finished except for a couple of minor ones we had decided to postpone, we joined half of the other people in the marina for a trip to Colón.

We crammed into the marina’s free 22-person shuttle bus, taking every available seat and then some on the first of its two daily round trips to a shopping center in a safe part of town. Most of the people on the bus were doing their grocery shopping at the nice, big grocery store. We were leaving soon, so we had no need for that. Instead, the driver dropped us off at a big hardware store a few blocks away. We picked up tools and painting supplies that we'll need when we return to Panama. We were glad to not be paying marina prices for a change.

Apart from there being a guy in fatigues with a loaded shotgun and a pistol posted every hundred feet or so, the shopping center was just like any other first world shopping center. It was nice to get stocked up, but the real highlight of the trip for us was that is was our first chance to actually get a look at the Panama Canal. In fact, we ended up waiting twenty minutes or so at the Gatun locks for the little one-way swing bridge at the bottom to close so we could cross. Two big cruise ships were locking up from the Atlantic. Their decks and every balcony were filled with passengers watching the process as the little railway engines ran along the tops of lock walls to get into position for the next lock.

We also discovered that Shelter Bay seems like it’s in a compound because it is. About five miles from the marina, we came across a barbed wire fence and a military guardhouse at the entrance to the national park and wildlife reserve within which the marina resides.

It was nice to get out, but it turned out it was nice to get back to the quiet and relative safety of the marina afterwards.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Nature Walk in the Jungle

[Kyle]We finally finished the jobs on Begonia by noon on my birthday (at least those that are critical to be completed before we can depart). This allowed us the rest of the day to hike through the nearby jungle and take our time over things without the threat of darkness looming over us.

Rather than the usual wordy blog, here are some photos of some of the cool things we saw. Why don't you have a go at naming them? (Our answers listed below in no particular order and who knows if we are even correct!).

Wolf Spider, Some very surreal Flower(?), Howler Monkey(s), Southern Lapwing, Keel-Billed Toucan, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Green Iguana, Bananaquit, The Red Postman butterfly, Plantains

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shelter Bay

[Kyle]I’d love to say we immediately went out to explore our new country as soon as we arrived but, as usual, we had a lot of post-passage work to do to transition from the routines of sea to those of land.

The Shelter Bay Marina was expecting us when we arrived and had us quickly tied up in a slip. We gave the guy who helped us with our lines the name of the agent we hired for the canal transit and before we had even finished adjusting our lines and fenders, Roy from the agency appeared and introduced himself.

Clearing into Panamá is not that difficult, but pretty much any dealings with bureaucracy is included in the agency’s fee, so we were happy to let Roy do all of the necessary legwork for us. He actually made it so that we didn’t even have to leave the boat. We gave him the necessary documents and the next day, he returned with everything freshly signed and stamped.

Since my vacation schedule had us arriving way at the beginning of the season, and since I won’t have a decent chunk of time off until the optimal time for setting off into the Pacific next year, we decided to use the opportunity to haul Begonia out of the water. We would do a bunch of maintenance and let her dry out for a couple of months before putting her back in the water. Shelter Bay isn’t the most convenient place for this and is pretty pricey, but it was the most time we had for a haulout, so we had to make the best of it.

Since we had a lot of jobs on our list and since the marina’s high rates are even higher at a dock, we were keen to get out of the water as soon as possible. We went to the yard office and were booked for the first thing the day after tomorrow. We forced ourselves to take time out for an end-of-passage meal at the restaurant, but after that, it was back to work getting ready for being hauled out.

The crew was ready at eight o’clock when we pulled up to the crane. As I was busy trying to explain where to put the slings in broken Spanish, I was pleased to see that they had a guy in the water making sure they weren’t getting on the props or our ham radio’s grounding plate. When he was done, he climbed out and fired up the travel lift. It turns out he wasn’t just some guy; he was THE head guy, Don Victor. Since the road was too narrow, once we were out of the water and pressure-washed, he switched Begonia from the travel lift to a really cool articulating trailer and then gingerly took us on it to our spot in the work yard.

Once we were there, break time sauntering behind our boat down the road in the hot sun was over; we had to get to work.

Plenty of jobs to keep us busy in the boat yard; Ugh!

The next week was pretty much horrible. We chipped away at our list, sometimes together, sometimes separately, but always in relentless tropical heat. Every few hours, we would stagger into the steaming cabin, gulp down a quart of cold Gatorade and then immediately start sweating it back away. At the end of each and every single day, we would set new records for both grubby and tired. At sunset, the ONLY thing we wanted was nice cold showers. Only once we were freshly scrubbed did we realize how hungry we had been.

Some days Maryanne managed to make something aboard, but on most, we couldn’t face the effort of cooking or cleanup, or for that matter, clearing enough of the tools and half-done projects out of the way to have space to eat. It was all we could do to put our berth back together at night so we could sleep in it. Our only other alternative was the marina restaurant. The prices weren’t bad and the food was pretty good, but the service was just about the slowest we’ve seen. After a while, we learned that the only way to get a meal in less than three hours was to chase down the wait staff for everything. {Normally we'd be happy to take time enjoying the views, but we were so exhausted every day we needed to dine and get to bed}

Colón and the area around it are generally considered to be very unsafe. Shelter Bay (just across the harbor), on the other hand, seems perfectly secure. Locking the boat here seems more like a good habit in preparation for other places than a necessity. The marina is on the location of the old U.S. military base, which was way out of Colón on the opposite side of the canal. There is no public transport, so the place very much retains a feel somewhere between a compound and an isolated backwater. Once you’re here, there’s really nowhere else to go. It didn’t take long before we got pretty familar with the restaurant and its limited menu - we soon had no need for the menu.

On days when it was going to be dark soon, but it seemed too late to start another job, we would give ourselves a mental break and drag ourselves away from the boat and out to a loop road that was all that remained of the old officer’s quarters. Now, apart from the cracking pavement, all that remains is the rapidly encroaching jungle. We spotted several different species of parrot there and even saw a couple of toucans. On our second trip, we found a troupe of capuchin monkeys making huge acrobatic leaps from tree to tree. They seem to spend their whole lives a hundred feet up. Once on a later trip, we heard the unmistakable call of a howler monkey. After following the sound, Maryanne managed to get a look at him and even got a picture. {Maryanne: This almost daily break from the boat yard to see the jungle life is really helping to keep me sane, being in a boat yard at any time is basic misery - but in this heat, and with time pressures and cost pressures we are both getting stressed and snippy with each other - it's so nice to be reminded of the beauty all around and relax again!}

A daily walk to the jungle to see the animals - in this case capucin monkeys

After a week in the yard, we finally started to feel like we were getting on top of our job list. The engines are serviced, the props are freshly painted, the hulls are waxed and we even put a new coat of non-skid in the cockpit. We are tired, but feeling satisfied with our work. My hands have accumulated so many cuts, dings and scrapes that I can hardly bear to touch anything.

So far, we still have no real impression of Panamá. We have yet to leave the immediate area of the marina. We haven’t even needed to speak Spanish except on rare occasions. All we have is a conditioned association with heat and work and bugs that’s making Panamá seem unfairly like a miserable place. We’re looking forward to finishing our work, getting away from the marina and having a little bit of a look around.

Colón/Cristobal - Arriving in Panama

[Kyle]As we approached Colón on the last night I was filled with a mix of feelings. We had been deliberately trying to get here for a long time, so I was excited to see the distance remaining shrink and shrink. On the other hand, I knew the nice, easy passage was almost over and it was about to get really busy for us once we landed.

Colón first manifested itself as lights appearing on a dark horizon beneath flashes of lightning from storms over the warm land. The lights turned out not to be from land, but from the many ships converging toward the city. Land itself arrived at twilight as a thin line outlining the rugged mountains through the veil of showers.

Once Maryanne was no longer sleeping, I switched the VHF radio from channel 16 to the channel used by Cristobal Signal for port operations. Wow! Listening to Cristobal Signal is like listening to New York Air Traffic Control on a busy, stormy day. The guy on the radio was directing the movement of nearly one hundred different vessels; He gave anchor instructions, sequenced traffic, coordinated locking times and gave instructions for picking up and dropping off Harbor Pilots. Enormous ships were everywhere, manoeuvring gingerly through the crowded anchorages as they waited their turn at the breakwater. The place absolutely crackled with a sense of important industry being undertaken in every corner. There was no question about it; this was the Big Show and we were a small part in it.

Suddenly there are boats EVERYWHERE... and they are all much bigger than us! Eventually we are safely and officially in Panama

We called in with our position, ETA at the breakwater, and destination and were given permission to proceed. We entered the port like a mouse on the floor of a redwood forest. I thought I would be more anxious, but I surprised myself by enjoying it way more than I expected, as if I were a kid that was suddenly given a chance to go backstage and meet Superman.

We followed the west breakwater past all of the ships in the inner anchorage to a gap in the mangroves at the far end. Beyond laid Shelter Bay Marina, where Begonia will be hauled out until February. I hadn’t known this when I made our initial plans for haulout, but Panama turns out to have only one game in town for doing work on small boats and Shelter Bay is it and they are priced accordingly. The marina is beautiful and the staff is very friendly, but the place makes me feel like I’m in a cab watching the meter rapidly approach what I have in my pocket.

We went to the various offices to coordinate the work for the next few days. For now, we’re going to take a break and treat ourselves to a meal out and a couple of local coldies.

Passage to Panamá

[Kyle]It was early afternoon when the wind finally backed from east-southeast to east-northeast. We pulled up the anchor and said goodbye to the beautiful blue waters of the Caicos Bank. Within minutes, we were off soundings in over a thousand meters of water of that unreal, offshore color.

It didn’t take long before the swell caught up with us once we were in deep water. Begonia was soon rolling in a lurchy, unpredictable way that made having a good handhold a requirement. We passed within eight miles of Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas in the first half of the night, but never saw it since it was all too low to be seen over our three-mile horizon.

In the gap between Inagua and the big island of Hispaniola, the wind and seas increased. The forecast called for decreasing winds both with the passage of time and with progress south, so we kept flying plenty of sail.

It turned out to be a pretty stressful night. We had yet to readjust to watch keeping and the motion of the open sea and we were constantly worried about having too much sail up for the boisterous conditions. Every now and then, the boat would roll a little too far or an errant wave would send warm, salty spray into the cockpit, reminding us that this was not normal benign sailing. My stomach was in a knot of worry almost the whole time.

This continued for most of my midnight to six a.m. watch while Maryanne tried in vain to sleep below, wondering just what was going on out there. Finally, at about four o’clock, the wind picked up even more and things were starting to get a little out of hand. We were regularly surfing into the mid teens. I was watching the autopilot struggling to maintain control of the overpowered boat. We would slew and roll, the wheel would spin way over to one direction while the boat continued to stubbornly go the other way for a few seconds too long for my comfort. It was time to reef. {Maryanne: It was so hard to sail by so many amazing places in our rush to get to Panama.. especially knowing that we only had to work on the boat when we got there. Jamaica especially was calling to me and so close I was so tempted to just sail over during Kyle's sleep time. One day I hope to get there!}

The jib had already been rolled up to about half of its size. This was easy enough to do while sailing downwind, but now the big mainsail needed reduced, which required a turn upwind as it can only be raised or lowered if it’s streaming back from the mast. I waited for a lull and then made the turn. The change was immediate between running from the wind and waves and punching into them. The wind was now howling loudly, accompanied by the machine-gun snapping of the flogging sails. The waves that had been sending occasional spray into the cockpit were now sending horizontal sheets of water across the boat. My nice, dry clothes were instantly soaked.

With the tops of the waves crashing over me, I had to make a make a real concerted effort to stay at the mast and do everything methodically and properly instead of rushing through the job and fleeing back into the cockpit. I didn’t want to have to come back again to have to redo or finish anything.

When I was sure I was done and had double-checked everything, I returned to the helm and bore off back to our downwind course. Suddenly, everything was relative peace again. It was still uncomfortable, but the boat was easier to control and I no longer had the constant worry about having too much sail up.

When Maryanne came on watch, I went to bed fully expecting it to be too uncomfortable for me to sleep. I was so tired that the first hour or so came anyway. I awoke to noticeably more comfortable conditions and the sound of Maryanne shaking out the reefs. As soon as we entered the Windward Passage, the forty-five mile gap between Haiti and Cuba, the high mountains of Hispaniola blocked the wind and we quickly coasted way down into the two-knot range. The sails slatted back and forth uselessly as we rolled back and forth in the decreasing swell. There was a fairly strong current through the gap, so our progress was actually not as bad as it felt in the still heat.

As we drifted along, we spent perhaps half of the time within sight of at least one ship or another shuttling between Panamá and the Windward Passage. We passed our last land before crossing the Caribbean Sea, Navarro Island, in the wee hours. In the moonless sky, I was only able to make it out as a low silhouette against the stars. I kept waiting to see the beam of the lighthouse on the southern side, but it never became visible. I gave it a couple of sweeps with the radar just to make sure it correlated with the chart, which gave me a measure of peace of mind on a dark night.

Albatross join us for a short while

There was an almost complete lack of trade winds until we were nearly two hundred miles south of Hispaniola, making our progress frustratingly slow. At least it was nice and warm all of the time. We also had occasional entertainment from flocks of albatross and pods of dolphins that seemed to be following the same schools of fish. The dolphin would always seem willing to take a break to come over and play in our bow waves. One morning, we were barely moving in a very light wind. The wind shifted and the mainsail backed, overpowering the rudders with no flow over them. I was helplessly spinning around in circles trying to get back in control when a pod of about ten dolphins came by to play. They zigzagged back and forth and circled a few times before deciding that we weren’t any fun. I finally got the boat moving just as they gave up and left.

Kyle gets to photograph the dolphins

Once the trade winds returned, we were treated to regular visits, mostly right after sunrise. The sails filled and started quietly pulling. We went hours and hours without needing to make anything other than the most minor adjustments to them. While most of the ships that presented a conflict were pretty good about altering course (technically, we have right of way while in deep water, because a sailboat is less manoeuvrable, having some directions we can’t go at all), a few of the others either didn’t see us (were they looking?) or quite correctly figured it was in our best interest to stay out of their way. When we dodged them, we were usually able to leave the sails in less efficient trim until they were past and we could resume our original course.

As we made progress south, the days were hot and the nights were pleasantly warm and filled with all of the stars that are only visible far from cities. I would note every night when I started my watch that Orion had climbed slightly higher in the sky since the previous night and Polaris, the North Star was getting lower. By the time we neared Panamá, our masthead navigation light would be scribbling an erratic path right through the center of Orion. Polaris was getting low enough to have a slightly red tinge and was having increasing trouble clearing clouds on the horizon.

Since we hadn’t been to a decent store since Beaufort, over a month ago, Maryanne has been increasingly making worried noises about running out of some types of food, particularly fresh produce. It has been completely unnoticeable to me. She continues to turn out an impressive variety of delicious dishes. We seem to be in no danger of degenerating into an, “Aw, rice and beans again!” mode. All of our various food storage areas still look full to me.

{Maryanne: We were 8 days and sea and with a quite uneventful sail (thankfully) - the days roll into one on such a passage, but we did find early on on the passage a random floating boat fender. I was especially proud of myself as I like to keep a good lookout in the full expectation (goodness knows why) that I will sight and save a shipwrecked sailor in a liferaft... Spotting the floating fender at least made me feel that I'd see that life raft if it was ever out there. Otherwise it is a series of sunsets and sunrises, broken by the occasional exciting visits of the wildlife. Nice!}