April 2000 : Panama



Perdika is now in the Pacific!!

This has probably been our most exciting and interesting month yet.

We set sail on our passage of around 700 miles from Curacao to the San Blas islands in Panama with more apprehension than for any passage for some time. It is a notoriously nasty stretch – the waves generated by the trade winds from right across the Atlantic and all across the Caribbean, pile up with nowhere to go when they reach this south west corner along the shores of Columbia and Panama. We were sure of encountering unpleasant conditions at some point along the way, and decided to check in with ‘Herb’s net’ for this trip. Herb is a very singular and remarkable character. An amateur meteorologist living in Canada – as a private individual, entirely on his own initiative - he operates his long range radio net for the purpose of advising yachts on passage anywhere in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and out into the eastern Pacific. Boats log in with him everyday, giving their positions and conditions. He then advises each boat individually in turn, on the weather they can expect over the next 24 hours and what strategy they might adopt to avoid bad or find better conditions. He is on air for about 3 hours every day, and with the time it must take him to prepare himself, he must be engaged on this enterprise for the better part of the day – and he does it every single day. We had listened in to Herb during our Atlantic crossing - many boats listen without actively participating, especially if there is a yacht in their vicinity already in communication with him. We felt slightly nervous about joining in ourselves. Herb can be quite assertive, and downright abrasive to those who chose not to follow his advice, and he demands total commitment. If you fail to check in one day, you are off his list!

In the event, the passage proved to be a good one and reasonably uneventful, other than a couple of unnervingly close encounters with merchant shipping, and the fact that in increasingly boisterous conditions, an accidental gybe damaged our wind-vane steering, leaving us to helm by hand for the final 24 hours – an unheard of inconvenience. We arrived off the coast of the San Blas islands at dawn on the sixth day and hove to until the light was good enough to enable us to pick our way through the mass of reefs to our chosen anchorage. We were very much aware of a yacht which had been lost on the reef we had to navigate around, only six weeks before – especially poignant to us, being a boat of the same type as Perdika.

The San Blas Islands are a paradise – probably the most idyllic spot we have yet visited. We anchored for the first few days in a lagoon surrounded by classic palm covered desert islands and reefs, on which the surf pounded night and day. The beaches were sparkling white and the sea brilliant turquoise. In the crystal clear water the snorkelling was tremendous – another beautiful world. The islands around us rejoiced in both Kuna and Europeanised names – Kalugirtupu, Ogoppiriadup, Quinquindup, also known as Islas Gertie, Elsie and Nellie! There are 365 islands in the San Blas, some 50 of them inhabited, together with the mainland coastal strip, by the Kuna Indians, who have somehow managed over the past 500 years since the European invasion, to retain their own identity as a separate people. They are now a self-governing autonomous reserve within Panama, ruled by an authoritarian heirarchy of tribal leaders. They appear to lead an idyllic lifestyle, continuing with their own traditions and customs, having opted consciously not to integrate into ‘modern’ life. As we have travelled in the Caribbean, we have reflected on the effect of the wholesale importation of alien cultures and peoples into the Caribbean. Entirely new and inadvertently created societies and cultures combining the heritages of the Spanish, French, British and Dutch with the African cultures of the slaves, have caused the almost total displacement and disappearance of the indigenous peoples. The San Blas Islands demonstrate how the Caribbean might have been.

After several days of quiet bliss, we moved on a few miles to an area of inhabited islands – the Carti group. We anchored in an area surrounded by four tiny densely populated islands. On each one, every square inch was covered by bamboo huts with palm frond thatched roofs separated by narrow alleyways. These villages were spotlessly clean and tidy – the sand obviously swept on a daily basis - with flowering trees growing amongst the tightly packed huts. The inhabitants were evidently as interested in us as we were in them, and children gawped at us, rushing off to point us out to their parents. Although the rulers are men, it is very much a matriachal society. The women provide the main income by making and selling – quite aggressively - their ‘molas’ – beautiful and complex handstitched appliqued cloth panels. We were only too happy to buy several of these. The women wear traditional dress – extremely bright blouses incorporating the mola panels, sarongs – usually in shriekingly incompatible colours and patterns, bright orange headscarves and beading around their legs and arms. Many have nose rings and a black stripe from forehead to nose. They are tiny, but quite formidable when it came to agreeing a price for their molas. They are unfortunately extremely camera shy. Every time I took our my camera to capture the general scene, the ‘streets’ would empty. Back on the boat, we sat in our cockpit totally absorbed by the scene around with its constant stream of kayaks being paddled or sailed back and forth between the islands – truly a different world.

Then, in one overnight sail, from one extreme to the other, we moved on to Colon, the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal. The contrast could not have been greater. Colon is a spectacularly awful place. Sadly past its heyday, whilst there are hints of a more prosperous past in the architecture of the rather grand public buildings and colonnaded shopping streets, the city is now in a state of squalid disrepair and dilapidation going way beyond the picturesque. The town exudes an air of exotic dangerousness, with armed guards in the streets outside every bank and jewellery shop. The guard in the supermarket where we did our pre-Pacific stock-up was armed with a semi-automatic shotgun! However, the locals are extremely helpful and there is a thriving business among the taxi drivers in assisting yacht crews with their canal transit arrangements. It is very much a ‘fixit’ place. Within about four hours of anchoring off the Panama Canal Yacht Club, we had cleared in, read our email, phoned parents and daughters, sorted out a money transfer, arranged for a visit from the Canal Admeasurer, organised to borrow extra long lines and tyres (as fenders), been ‘booked’ as linehandlers for another yacht, borrowed an outboard engine, and had our broken one mended.

The Panama Canal is an efficiently run organisation. The administrative process requires all vessels to be measured and then payment made (by credit card!) before a transit date is fixed. This is all very easy to arrange. The problem for yachts is that they are obviously not the mainstream business of the canal, and so get fitted in around the requirements of commercial shipping. This can result in uncertainty and delays in transit dates and times for yachts, which potentially add to the general anxiety about the whole procedure. One of the many documents to be signed is one accepting a disclaimer by the canal authority for any damage caused during the transit – and damage is not infrequently sustained by yachts, being crushed into the great lock walls. We stayed a week in Colon waiting for our transit – time fully occupied in getting the boat ready for the canal and the Pacific. Each boat is required to have four line-handlers and a helmsman on board, so the smaller crews need extra hands for the trip. We went along as line-handlers on an opulent 54ft Canadian yacht seriously out of our normal league, which was good fun and invaluable as experience of what to expect for our own transit.

Our own transit went like a dream and was quite a sociable experience into the bargain. Two extra line-handlers joined us from other British yachts. The fourth was ‘JJ’ one of the local ‘fixers’ operating at the Panama Canal Yacht Club – who brought along his wife and little girl! All vessels are obliged to take on a pilot from the canal authority – so off we set, with seven and a half people aboard! We made the transit with two other yachts – American and Swiss boats and it was all most convivial. On the first day we processed up the three Gatun locks – about 90 feet in all – all three boats rafted together behind a commercial vessel and two tugs. This part took a good two hours, including the rafting up which took some organisation with so many skippers and pilots! Then out into Gatun Lake – not at all what one might expect of a canal. It is very beautiful – a huge lake created by damming a river – dotted with numerous jungle clad islands – and abundant wildlife – monkeys in the trees, birds - and apparently aligators – though we didn’t see any of them. The boats separated and we were able to sail the 21 miles to the designated anchorage at Gamboa, arriving in the late afternoon to stop for the night – the pilot being taken off by launch. The next morning new pilots arrived and off we all set again, first along the very impressive seven mile Gaillard Cut – much more like a canal – and then rafted up with the other boats for the three descending locks – Pedro Miguel and the two Miraflores. The pilot on the middle boat was in charge – that boat motoring with the outer boats’ engines in neutral, ready to act as rudders when turning or straightening was necessary. Our pilot, not as pleasant as the one for the first day, went below and fell asleep soon after we started! Everything went very well, despite the dire warnings from the head pilot about what the current might do if we did not get our lines on quickly enough in the final lock, where sea and fresh water meet with great turbulence. As we got out of the last lock, under the Bridge of the Americas - and into the Pacific – the heavens opened drenching everyone completely and reducing visibility to a few hundred yards. Never mind – we had made it and the relief was tremendous.

We are now at Balboa, the Pacific end of the canal, making final preparations for the Pacific. The distances are enormous and we hear there is very little wind. It may be some time before you hear from us again!