California to Florida via the Panama Canal. Quite a trip for a retired "mom and pop" with an eight knot trawler and no crew other than ourselves. It turned out that with a properly equipped, well found boat and some planning, the trip was not only possible but fun.
Who are we? We are far from old salts. Well old maybe but not salts. We have been retired for about two years and have been married for 36 years. Yes, we are still married after the trip! Our boating experience is about ten years and two prior boats.
Our present boat is a Kady-Krogen Whale Back 48, "The Right Whale". She is a full displacement trawler yacht. We have a single engine, a Caterpillar 3208 normally aspirated diesel of 210 Hp. The displacement after full commissioning is about 35 tons,or 31.25 long tons. The length is 48 feet with a water line length of 45.5 feet. She has an above water to below water ratio of 2.6, a prismatic coefficient of 0.6, displacement length ratio of about 270 and is most efficient at a speed length ratio of about 1.1 to 1.2, (7.5 to 8.25 knots). The main engine propels the boat and in addition it runs the hydraulic pump and a high output alternator. The hydraulic pump powers the Wessmar stabilizers and the bow thruster.
We have equipped the boat for extended duty where the possibility of repair is remote. For this reason we have several redundant systems including a wing engine, two autopilots, two VHF radios and two GPS receivers. Prior to departure we added air conditioning, not necessary but very nice, and we had below decks shelving installed to increase our effective storage area. We should also have had new bottom paint but the paint was fairly recent and time got away from us. More about this later.
Navigation was by GPS plotter, Garmin, and by computer plotter. The computer is a Macintosh Power Book driven by a Northstar GPS and running either Navimaq or MaxSea. I found the ability to see the chart with our boat on it invaluable. The ability to set way points on the Garmin or computer was not only convenient but faster and more accurate than taking them off the paper charts. We certainly did have the paper charts on board. They were used primarily to double check the plotters and for big picture trip planning. The pilot charts, which show the currents and probable weather for any given month, were also helpful for trip planning.
Our radar, Furuno 1948, was invaluable. It was vital in avoiding the many shrimp boats we encountered enroute as well as the many cargo vessels. The freighters were most thick around the Bay of Panama, shrimpers were active through much of our route. If I could have squeezed another redundant system aboard, it would have been a second radar. Our little forward looking sonar, the Probe, was very helpful especially on the Carribean side. It was there that I began to feel that ten feet of water is deep! Seeing the bottom ahead helps you miss the coral heads and prevents going aground.
The single side band radio along with my ham license helped keep us abreast of the weather and provided communications to home via telephone patches from helpful hams. Down the coast of Baja California the Chubasco net was great. We not only got the weather but they also helped us coordinate with the Mexican Navy to effect the rescue of an American sport fisher who had lost use of both engines in high seas. The Mexicans were very professional, and had an English speaker handling radio communications. On the marine SSB side we listened to Herbs weather net and to the Papagayo net as well as others. The ATT high seas telephone stations were also very useful when we couldn't get a "patch".
We also installed a Furuno dedicated weather fax prior to departure. You can set it with a timer and it prints a hard copy of the weather charts. It was of great value, specially when nothing else was available. I became the local fleet weatherman. Others had their SSB hooked to their computers for weather fax but they always seemed to forget to turn things on at the appropriate time.
Our main auto pilot is a Comnav 1001, the backup is a Comnav 1420. Both performed flawlessly. the backup was never needed but was "exercised" routinely. The wing engine, which had helped us previously, was never needed on this trip. It too was 'exercised" regularly. Other pieces of safety equipment that we fortunately did not need on the trip were our Shewmon sea anchor and the Givens life raft.
I can not emphasize enough the need for robust ground tackle. We had several episodes of winds well in excess of 35 knots while at anchor. Our main anchor is a 75 lb CQR with 300 feet of 7/16 chain. At anchor the chain is secured to the boat by a spring line of 3/4 inch three strand nylon. It is attached to a large stainless steel eye just above the waterline. This line takes the strain off the windlass, acts as a shock absorber and lessens the amount of chain that I have to put out to get appropriate scope. Extra long scope is very necessary in shallow water to provide enough chain weight to give you some catenary and reduce shock loading on the anchor. (I also employ a so called devil's claw for a chain hook. The standard chain hook doesn't have a straight pull and reduces the strength of the chain significantly).
Our second bow anchor is a 66 lb Bruce with 40 feet of 3/8 chain and 600 feet of 3/4 inch three strand nylon. In addition we carry a Fortress FX 37 and a 25 lb Danforth stern anchor. Each anchor has it's own rode of chain and rope. Our dingy is a 10 foot Carribe RIB with a 15 Hp Yamaha, both performed very well. We wished that we had an additional small light dingy that we could have more easily pulled up on the beach. Perhaps fat dingy wheels would have helped, but I think they would have just sunk in the sand.
During the trip we had no mechanical or electronic failures other than the temperature sensor on the Raytheon fish finder.
A word about stabilizers, we have activated fins for stabilization when underway and booms with flopper stoppers when at anchor. Both systems are a great help. For part of the trip we buddy boated with another couple who have an unstabilized 49 foot Victory Tug. In beam seas they would take water up through the scuppers and flood the aft deck. They also rolled at anchor much more than we did with our flopper stoppers deployed. For this trip, stabilization is not vital but it certainly makes things far more comfortable.
Provisioning was not a big problem, suffice it to say that our boat is equipped with a household type refrigerator freezer and this gave us plenty of freezer capacity. We were able to buy fresh vegetables and meat through out the trip. We also ate a lot of fresh fish which we caught along the way. Toilet paper, paper towels, detergents, etc. are found everywhere. You don't really have to carry too much with you. ( We still have a case of T. P. remaining). We did load up on canned goods before we left. Finding the brands and types you are accustomed to may be difficult in Central America. We also took lots of pasta, rice, flour and other staples. We tried to provision so that if the refrigerator died, the trip could continue. When we arrived in Florida we still had much of the canned goods that we started with. Supplying along the route was easier than we had anticipated. Bev even found tonkatsu sauce in Puerto Vallarta and rice vinegar in Portobello!
We bought a bread maker for the trip and it was well used. It ran off the inverter with no problem and did not heat up the boat as the oven would have done. Bev used a lot of pre-mixed packages but also made bread from scratch. We did run out of yeast and had to borrow until we could find some ashore, then we had to buy two pound bag!
We cook with propane and although we didn't need to refill our tanks, propane was available in Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. Whether the fittings were standard or not I don't know. We like propane in spite of the possible dangers. Bev likes to cook with propane better than with an electric cook top, and you can still cook if the generator goes out.
For trip planning purposes we used the pilot charts, paper charts, and every book we could get hold of. The books we found most useful were John Raines "Cruising Ports Florida to San Diego Via Panama", "Charlies Charts of Mexico" and of Costa Rica, " The Panama Book" by Nancy and Tom Zydler, Nigel Calder's guide to the North Western Carribean, the Coast Pilot, Tide tables, Reeds Almanac and many issues of the Commodores Bulletin of the Seven Seas Cruising Association. Most of our paper charts were reproductions; we got them from Bellingham Chart Printers.
Immunizations and malaria prophylaxis are not required for this trip. Never the less we followed the governments recommendations and got vaccinated against hepatitis C and B as well as typhoid and yellow fever. We took malaria prophylaxis during and after our stays in Panama, Honduras and Belize. Follow the current recommendations of the Center for Disease Control. We also had a rather extensive first aid kit. Being a surgeon, retired, and my wife Bev a nurse, we made up our own. There are several excellent sources for kits that advertise in the boating magazines. You should also have a good book on first aid at sea aboard and have taken at least a Red Cross course on CPR and first aid.
Spare parts, what to take? I can't give you a list of all that we took, suffice it to say that we had spares for almost all important systems on the boat. Bev accused me of having spares for the spares. A good laundry list is found in Raines book. The list is too long to reproduce here. Likewise the list of tools. A word of advice, do your own maintenance as much as possible. When you are "out there" there is frequently no one but you to fix what ever it is. Besides if it doesn't work you can't hurt it by trying to fix it. That's not to say other cruisers aren't helpful, they are, but you should know more about your boat and it's systems than they do.
Another word, use your boat! Don't wait until "the big trip". Get familiar with anchoring, crummy weather, maintenance, cooking aboard, and getting along in confined quarters before you go. A third word, especially to the "Captain". Make the life of your mate a happy one. Make sure that she or he enjoys the trip. Don't shout, use profanity or abuse as a method of conveying your requests. If you do insist on being Captain Bligh your trip will be a short one. The mate should also know how to run and navigate the ship. She or he will enjoy the trip more as a participant. And you, dear Captain, can't stand all the night watches yourself.
Our general plan was to "nickel and dime" our way along. We would run at night only when there was no decent place to stop. The general plan was a good one but we did have to make quite a few long hops. The longest was from Salina Cruz Mexico to Bahia Salina Costa Rica. Bev and I did watch on watch for three nights. We had thought to have friends or family fly in to help on the long jumps but it never seemed to work out. It seemed that the only times we got into weather problems was when we were trying accommodate friends schedules. Then they still had to leave and we had to do the long hops by ourselves. Don't sacrifice your good judgement on the altar of someone's schedule, even your own!
After provisioning the boat we left our home port, Channel Islands Harbor, in late October of 1997. We bumbled on down to San Diego, California via Santa Cruz and Catalina Islands. In San Diego we rendezvoused with our buddy boat, Nelson's Victory, and the owners Lani and Loren Hart. Unfortunately they were not ready to leave and we left without them on November 20th. We waited for them again in Ensenada to no avail. They finally caught up with us in Bahia Santa Maria, more than half way down the Baja Peninsula. We traveled together from there to the San Blas Islands on the Carribean side of Panama. From the San Blas Islands they went to Cartagena , Columbia so we parted ways.
After Nelson's Victory departed for Cartagena we buddied with two sail boats, Dagmar and Lakota. Having a buddy boat has a lot of advantages, frequently two heads are better than one. Not only that but it seems to provide extra security when anchored in out of the way places. In addition it gives you someone to talk to on those long, lonely, night time passages. It's comforting to know that there is some one out there beside yourself, someone you can call for help if it is needed. Loren Hart said he regarded us as a whole boat full of spares!
A word about signing in and out of Mexican ports and in and out of Central American counties. Don't sweat it. Just relax, follow the rules and don't be in a hurry. You should obtain your Mexican fishing permits and other paper work prior to departure if that is to be your first stop. A zarpe is not needed when coming from the U.S. From there on, when signing in, you must have your passport, several copies of your crew list and your zarpe. A zarpe is your departure paper. It tells where you came from and where you intend to go. When going from one country to the next you need an international rather than national zarpe. Zarpes are obtained from the Port Captain just prior to departure. Crew list form are readily available at marine stores near exit ports or you can copy the forms from one of the books.
The customs and immigration people as well as the harbor masters were all polite and helpful. If you have at least a few words of Spanish it helps but if you don't you will still be OK. We did use agents where they were available, if they weren't too expensive. If you have an agent he will do all of the leg work for you. We found ships agents well worth the money.
Our trip down the Pacific side of Baja California was uneventful. We were able to get good weather reports from the Chubasco net. A ham net on the 40 meter band. Ham radio was invaluable to us through out the trip. We got weather reports, communication with home and companionship from the many hams and ham nets that we "worked" during the trip. The marine SSB nets were also helpful, especially the Papagayo net. On marine SSB there are no shore stations ready to run phone patches nor are there general assistance nets such as are found in ham radio. I feel that anyone going on a long voyage in forgien waters should strongly consider getting their ham ticket. All it takes is a little effort. There are many classes that can be taken to pass the written exam and with some practice the code is no great barrier.
Prior to leaving Santa Maria we got word from the Chubasco Net of impending bad weather so we made the run to Cabo San Lucas. This was our first overnight run of the trip. Bev and I did four hour watches and found that we actually enjoyed it. Within 24 hours of our arrival at Cabo the weather deteriorated and we moved into the marina, (the most expensive on the trip). About twelve hours later the harbor was closed and all the boats anchored out were moved into the harbor. They were allowed to anchor or to dock at an unfinished docking area. The Mexican Gaurda Costa and the Harbor Master were very friendly and professional.
We had an enforced stay in Cabo San Lucas of six days while a "Blue Norther" blew itself out. We were forced to shop and eat wonderful local Mexican foods while we waited. The huachinango, or whole prepared fish, was wonderful. The next hurdle was crossing the Sea of Cortez. We decided to go first to Isla Isabela where Jaque Cousteau filmed one of his specials on the bird and sea life of this unique island. This is an open ocean crossing of about 250 miles. Another over nighter, but the trip to the island was shorter than to the mainland, allowing us to arrive in daylight. We got a favorable weather report from Don the Chubasco Net weather man and made a run for it. The seas were so nice it was almost a disappointment. The crossing took 34 hours and we arrived at Isla Isabella at 1400 hours, with good light for anchoring. The island was beautiful and we had a pod of humpback whales feeding only a few feet from the stern of our anchored boat.While overhead we saw Frigate birds, boobies, long tailed tropical birds and pelicans, to name the few we recognized.
From Isabella it was a fairly short jump to the mainland, about an eight hour run to Chacala. Chacala is an open roadstead and fairly rolly. It requires a stern anchor to keep you pointed into the swell. Here we learned several lessons. First about stern anchoring. I carefully shackled the anchor to the chain of our spare rode, took the anchor out in the dingy and dropped it. Much to my surprise, the chain wasn't shackled to the nylon rode. I had cleaned and lubricated the shackle before departure and had forgotten to reattach it. The anchor was retrieved next day when there was enough light to dive for it. Always check your gear before you use it!
The next morning the dingy which I had tied to the boat was missing. I thought surely that it had been stolen. But the locals said not so. Not only that but the painter was gone, it had not been cut. We upped anchor and put to sea, from the top of the pilot house we soon saw our dink slowly being blown back to Cabo San Lucas. It turned out that the captain needed lessons in knot tying. Subsequently we always used two lines for security, and with good knots! Here we also learned about sand fleas and no seeums, or why you should always use insect repellant in tropical areas. Those bites took more than a week to heal.
From Chacala we hopped down the coast to Puerto Vallarta and Marina Vallarta. Can't say enough good things about Carl the dockmaster. He is an American who lives permanently in Mexico and is very helpful, as were all of the people at Marina Vallarta. We spent the Christmas holidays in Puerto Vallarta and enjoyed it greatly. Bev cooked Christmas dinner in 95 degree heat. We were in one of the few slips without 220 V outlets. Couldn't run the AC, bummer! They have many excellent restaurants right in the marina, in addition there is a large supermercado within easy walking distance, as well as banks with cash machines. I could get up to 3,000 pesos per day at the current bank exchange rate.
At the Mexican marinas there are always locals who want to wash your boat or do varnish work etc. We found them to be good workers, very pleasant and reasonably priced. We got thoroughly spoiled and loved it.
We left Puerto Vallarta on the fifth of January bound for the next anchorage at Ipala. As we rounded the infamous Punta Corrientes we heard a Mayday relay. The relay came from a sailboat, Yellowbird, who had chosen an outside route. The boat calling Mayday was Diamond Dolphin a fifty foot plus sport fisher. He had encountered heavy going between Manzanillo and P.V. and had lost the use of both engines.
With the position given us by Yellowbird we headed out through the increasing winds toward the disabled sportfisher. At this time I was on the Chubasco ham net and told them what was going on. The net in turn contacted the Mexican Navy who promptly got under weigh from Puerto Vallarta. As we approached the distressed vessel the seas became ever larger and it became apparent that we were not going to be able to give assistance other than to stand by if they had to go into the sea. Fortunately for all concerned the Mexican Navy came to the rescue. We were able to relay the position to the Navy and provide communications until they came into VHF range.
The Mexicans had an English speaker on the radio and handled themselves in a very professional manner. When we left the scene they were putting a man aboard to try to get the engines started. The boat owner said that his engineer was not aboard and that he, the owner, didn't know how to change filters and bleed his system. His Mexican crewman had taken the dingy to try to get help, when last we heard he had not been found.
Several things to learn from this episode: learn how to do your own maintenance, have SSB aboard if you are going out of VHF range, have a 406 EPIRB and life raft on board if all else fails. Don't leave the ship, it is bigger and can be found more easily.
After Ipala, where we were treated to a what seemed an unending concert of ranchera music played by the local high school band, the next stop was Bahia Tenacatita. Tenacatita is famous for its' long "jungle ride" through the mangroves. Here also is the set where much of McHales Navy was filmed. As we turned the corner going into the bay I was momentarily distracted from my watch standing. Bev came up and gave me a big smooch. When I opened my eyes there was a humpback whale's fin sticking out of the water only a few feet from the starboard bow. Fortunately the whale avoided us. He dived and then came up in the wake, We felt no impact and the whale seemed unimpaired. After I changed my shorts we continued on. Doesn't take long to get in trouble if you take your eyes off the sea.
Next stop Las Hadas where the movie "Ten" was filmed. We anchored out near the beautiful old hotel. They were very kind to us and did all of our paper work at no charge. Just across the bay is Manzanillo. Here we got fuel for the first time since leaving San Diego. Manzanillo had the least expensive fuel on the trip, about $0.75 US per gallon.
A word about fuel in Mexico and Central America. We had no problem. We used our Baja Filter once when we took fuel from a tank pulled by a pickup truck in Huatulco Mexico, the fuel was clean. We never used the filter when fueling from a fuel dock or fuel truck. We got no dirt and no water that I was able to detect. I do use a Gulf Coast paper towel fuel filter ahead of the Racors that are ahead of the filter on the engine. I changed paper towels about every hundred to hundred and fifty engine hours. The Racors and filter on the engine were changed twice because it seemed like the right thing to do. The vacuum gauges on the racors were very valuable in helping to determine when to change filters. We have a flow through electric fuel pump ahead of all the filters. This is invaluable for priming and helps push fuel through if the vacuum is going up and you are not able to change filters immediately. It additionally functions as a backup fuel pump for the engine.
Going South we stopped at several small anchorages as well as Ixtapa, Acapulco, and Huatulco. All were enjoyable. Acapulco was too metropolitan and crowded for our taste but the marina staff was very helpful. In Huatulco we took on a thousand liters of fuel prior to making the long jump to Costa Rica. The fuel was arranged by the very helpful Port Captain. It was obtained from the local Pemex station and brought to the boat in a 1000 liter tank pulled by a pick up truck. Fueling is by gravity flow. We found a small cockroach in the Baja Filter, other than that the fuel was clean. Fuel under these circumstances is cash in advance. The guy getting it has to pay the gas station and adds his markup prior to delivery. You gotta have faith!
At this point we had guests aboard who had a scheduled flight home from Costa Rica, that, plus our own itch to get going, lead us to leave with the weather less than ideal. Not a good idea when venturing across the Golfo de Tehuantepec. There was a low pressure cell in the Gulf of Mexico which usually helps dampen the strong East to West winds in the Tehuantepec. Unfortunately for us this was a very deep low and we got caught in a reverse "Tehuantepeccer".
After we left Huatulco the winds built through the night to excess of 35 knots with seas to match. Not too bad going down wind but when we made our turn at Salina Cruz we had 15 feet plus on the beam. We put into Salina Cruz for refuge.
Shortly thereafter the port was closed to all traffic other than large freighters. Salina Cruz is home to a large fleet of shrimpers and is a busy commercial port. They have no facilities for delicate yachts. We had to get a ships agent to run the paper work as the Port Captains office only deals with agents. the cost was $50.00 US.
The port has a traffic control tower that operates on channel six. Since English is the worlds lingua franca, the controllers spoke limited English. They very kindly allowed us to anchor in the darsena or outer harbor while the storm blew itself out. While we were anchored the West wind turned around and blew the other way in excess of fifty knots for two days. The local Guarda Costa came out in his launch to check on us twice during the blow. During this time our guests, who had come to help us on the long passage to Costa Rica, departed. They felt that they would miss their flight and not get back to work on time if they stayed.
Finally the wind stopped and we were off on the long trek to Costa Rica. After reading the State Department advisories we had decided to bypass El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. (Friends who stopped in Nicaragua were treated well and enjoyed it). We left Salina Cruz as soon as the port was opened at 1400 hours on February fourth and arrived in Bahia Salina Costa Rica at midnight on the seventh. Again Bev and I had done four on and four off. The one "off" slept in the pilot house so as to be immediately available if there was need. Fortunately we had a good weather window during most of this leg, but the Papagayo winds began to blow to about 30 knots not long before we anchored in Bahia Salinas. Little did we know that this is probably the windiest bay in Costa Rica. We waited here for three days; when the wind dropped to 20 knots we left. As soon as we left the bay and got to the next anchorage it was flat calm and we had the best sleep in about a week!
We next went to Playa del Cocos to sign in to Costa Rica. This was our least pleasant encounter with Central American officialdom. Costa Rica was our least favorite country. Most of the anchorages are open bights with a significant swell. The tides are very high and garbage disposal in many areas consists of throwing it out at low tide to watch it float away on the next high tide. Dodging disposable diapers to prevent plugging the raw water intake can get exciting. It was a large sheet of plastic that got to the generator. Fortunately the decrease in water in the exhaust was noted immediately, the gen set was shut down while yours truly went over the side to pull the plastic out of the water intake. Fortunately there was no harm done.
We got clean fuel at Marina Flamingo just South of Playa Cocos. The place is quite run down although it is my understanding from the owner that it will be renovated now that marinas are legal in Costa Rica
The bright note in Costa Rica is the one true marina on it's pacific coast, Banana Bay Marina in Golfito. Banana Bay can dock about 15 or so boats. It is operated by an American, first name of Bruce, his second in command is a "Tico", Fernando. Fernando is a great guy and took us all over Golfito to chase down the needed officials to get our clearance to Panama. The Northern Panamanian Islands are quite beautiful and the water is clear. One must still avoid the prison island of Coiba. The prisoners were supposed to have been removed but had not been when we passed by in March of 1998. We heard later that a boater had been killed by escaped prisoners not long before we were there. They used his own gun which he had not had the courage to use on them. Either don't take fire arms or be prepared to use them. We didn't take any. I do have two 25 mm flare guns which I was prepared to use if needed. Fortunately there was no need.
We decided to visit the Las Perles Islands prior to going to Balboa and transiting the canal. As we rounded Punta Mala, (well named), we encountered heavy winds blowing over the narrow and low Isthmus of Panama. The winds, we estimated, were at least force seven to eight.They and the seas were coming from just ahead of the port beam. Even though we kept the RPMs up our speed was reduced to 3.5 to 4 knots. The last forty miles took all night. Why does the crappy weather always seem to get worse at night? It was during these conditions that we had our closest call. A moderate sized freighter was overtaking us on a collision course. The seas were huge and maneuvering not easy. I called him on sixteen, no response. Again on sixteen and then on thirteen still no response. He was now close enough that I shined our 450,000 candle power spot light on his bridge, still no response. We then made a 90 degree left turn to avoid collision. He never did respond to any signal.
It is my custom, when there is a question of possible collision with a ship, to call them on the VHF radio. I want them to know I am there and what they want me to do to avoid collision. This is especially true when near a port and I don't know whether they intend to make any sudden course changes. Most ships seem to answer promptly and seem grateful that I am willing to get out of their way.(It doesn't matter which is the burdened vessel, I always get out of their way). We arrived safe and sound in the Perles and anchored in the bay behind Isla San Jose. We waited there for several days for the wind to die down. Meanwhile we had to suffer by snorkeling and eating lobster and crab bought from the local indians. They seemed very happy to see us. When my wife Beverly gave them a small canned ham and some freshly baked bread they were really in heaven, I never saw a two pound ham disappear so fast
My sister Merrilyn and her husband Dick had joined us in Costa Rica to enjoy the trip down and to help with our canal transit. But as it so often happens the weather had other plans. Because of the weather delays they had to fly home prior to our transit. Next stop, Balboa and the Panama Canal. After the wind died down we left the Las Perles Islands and went straight to Balboa where we got a mooring from the Balboa Yacht Club. The club is on the bottom floor of a building whose upper two floors are essentially burned out. This hasn't slowed the club down much. The food is good, the beer cold and the moorings are cheap. The shore boats come from the muelle,(moy yay), to pick you up at your boat or to take you and your groceries or what ever back to the boat. We fueled here too. The price was high, ($1.43 per US gallon), but they are the only act in town. The fuel is clean and water free.
In Panama we used Agency Delfino in the form of the owner Pete Stevens. Pete is a great guy and was of much help. He arranged for us to be admeasured, did all of the paper work, got us an early slot to go through and got us side tied to a tug for all but one of the locks. He also got some spare parts for our head out the back door of customs for us. We otherwise would never have gotten them prior to departure. His charge to us of $250.00 US seemed a good deal. (He charges the bigger boats more).
Our trip through the canal cost us about $900.00 US including Pete and all fees. Our line handlers were extra. Pete also arranged the line handlers and the rental lines. The line handlers cost $55.00 US each and the lines were $18.00 US. The lines were 150 feet long 3/4 inch three strand nylon. We understand that the canal fees have been significantly raised for yachts since our transit.
The morning of transit the line handlers came early, our pilot and his trainee arrived a little later. It was with my heart in my mouth that I approached the first lock. This was my first lock ever, we had never transited a canal before. We went through the first two up locks with no problem while side tied to a tug. Going up you follow the freighters, going down they follow you.
As it happens it was the good fairy who prevented my sister and brother in law from being our line handlers. In the last up lock we were in the center of the lock, behind the freighter, held in place by our lines and our line handlers. When the lock doors opened the freighter captain decided to firewall it, he went to full throttle. As soon as our pilot saw the wall of prop wash coming at us he was screaming on his radio for them to shut down. When the water hit us I used the throttle, rudder and bow thruster to help the line handlers hold the boat. We very nearly hit the wall. We did bend one cleat completely over. The pilot and the line handlers saved the day. The line handlers held on long enough for the freighter captain to get the message and shut down his engines. We were literally "saved by the bell".
In the down locks the freighters are behind you. Gives you quite a thrill. You know they can't see you and that bulbous bow going up your exhaust pipe is something you don't want to contemplate.
In the down locks we were again side tied to a tug, but this time our buddy boat, Nelson's Victory" was in turn side tied to us. In the last down lock they got their bow line but not the stern line to us as the freighter approached, as you can imagine they have quite a bow wave. It caught poor Nelson and spun him 90 degrees and pushed him ahead of us where he hit the tug. Fortunately the tugs are lined with huge rubber fenders. The incident caused more embarrassment than damage. After bumping the tug Loren got his starboard engine going in reverse and we were able to reel him in.
When the gates opened we were in the Carribean. We had successfully gone from one ocean to the other. It gave us and enormous sense of accomplishment.
From the last down lock we were directed to anchor in "the flats" (yacht anchorage F), where our pilot was picked up by the pilot boat. The line handlers and the lines were off loaded at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. Back in "the flats" we relaxed and toasted our accomplishment. (Well, maybe more than one toast.) A few lessons for the canal: get a real pilot if you can, have professional line handlers,rent your canal lines, tell your pilot to ask the freighter ahead of you to go easy on the throttle, ask for a side tie to a tug or at least center lockage and when locking down always get your stern line on first.
After the canal we turned right and visited Portobello, a beautiful harbor and the site of the recently restored Spanish customs house. The customs house was frequently so full of gold that they left the Silver outside on the ground! Here also are the remains of the Spanish forts that were built to guard the treasure. The forts were largely torn down at the time of canal construction in order to use the stones to build the breakwaters for Colon.
The next stop was the San Blas Islands, home of the Kuna indians. The Kunas are a charming people. They are supposedly the smallest people save for the Pigmies of Africa. They use cayucas, dug out canoes, for transportation. You will need to sign in to Kuna Yalla at Porvenir and pay a small fee. You may then visit these beautiful tropical cays and reefs.
Be careful, the charts are very old. You want to do your moving with the sun high enough to see the coral. The "Panama Book" was very helpful.The Kunas will visit you many times to sell you molas or fish, lobster or crab. The molas are beautiful, the lobster and crab delicious.The water is clear and the diving or snorkeling is excellent.
I must say a word about bottom cleanliness, not mine, the boat's. I used our scuba gear in the Las Perles Islands and here in the San Blas Islands to clean many pounds of barnacles off the bottom of our boat. I also had to use the gear to cut a line off of the prop when we were in Mexico. If you don't dive at least have snorkeling gear on board for your underwater tasks. Please get a really good layer of bottom paint put on and check all your running gear just before you leave on the trip. We didn't get fresh bottom paint and it cost us.
From the San Blas Islands we departed for Providencia, a small island well off the coast of Nicaragua. The island is a Colombian possession. Approach the anchorage from the North and use the well marked channel. The island is surrounded by reefs and this is the only safe way in. We took another route suggested in a book and nearly went aground. If it had not been for the warning of one of the local dive boat captains, we would have had a major grounding. As it was we went through water only six feet deep. (We draw five and one half feet).
Once in the harbor we were taken in hand by agent Busch. He was of great help and very reasonable. The Island is small and charming, as are the people. They speak Spanish and Carribean English. Many are descendents of English pirates. We had no problems leaving our dingy tied to the dock and unsupervised.
From here we had to go through the islands and reefs off the coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras to Roatan. The charts are from a British survey from 1833. We didn't run at night through this area. We stopped at Cayo Media Luna and Cayos Vivorillo. We saw a fairly recent wreck of a sailing yacht on one of the reefs. You must be alert and be aware of the strong currents. We found the charts surprisingly accurate but the islands and reefs may be up to a mile or so from their GPS position. Be careful!
On arrival at Coxen's Hole, Roatan, we contacted agent Beatman on channel 16. He advised us for security and convenience to stay at Paradise Island Resort.
This is the only local dockage where fuel may be obtained easily, by tanker truck, and that has 220 dock power. Roatan is hot. We wanted A. C. but didn't want to run the generator 24 hours a day. We went to the dock. To get to the dock you must go through a small opening in the reef and through a lagoon with several coral heads. Beatman guided us through. The reef opening is well marked by the wreck of a shrimper who missed.
After several nice days at this beautiful island it was time to go. We had to be in Florida before June first for insurance reasons so had to cut our visit to Belize short and to eliminate the Rio Dulce completely. We only made it to Lighthouse Reef. In the northern anchorage we set the hook in 18 feet of water on the only large sand patch the we could find. We put out our usual ten to one scope. This left us with the stern only a hundred feet or so from the exposed coral reef.
We weren't worried because two weather sources had predicted winds of ten knots or less and we planned to leave in the morning as soon as there was enough light to see the coral. Silly us. That night the wind piped up to over 35 knots, verified by the anemometer of our new buddy boat, Dagmar. The crews of both boats stayed up all night watching the reef, waiting for their anchors to slip. They didn't. None the less, as soon as it was light we put a second anchor down, then we could sleep. The 10 knot wind blew at over thirty for three days. God bless the heavy ground tackle!
After three days of purgatory, the wind dropped to about 15 knots and we left for Mexico's Puerto Aventuras. More beam seas! In case you hadn't guessed the trade winds blow in the Carribean. If you are headed North or South this means that you have beam seas. We had them from Panama to the Gulf of Mexico when we turned toward Florida. Puerto Aventuras was a welcome sight. The dock master, Juraldo, was of great help. The resort is beautiful and has great restaurants. It was from here that we visited the Mayan ruins of Copal, Coba and Chicinitza. They are not to be missed.
After Aventuras it was a fifty hour run to Key West and the end of our adventure.
Duration Seven months
Length (est.) 5,677 miles
Main eng. hours 757
Generator hours 971
Average speed 7.5 knots (1800 RPM)
Total fuel 3,008 US gallons
Generator 971 gallons or 1 GPH ( from manual)
Main engine 2037 G or 2.7 GPH (at 7,5 Knots)
Fuel cost per gallon, lowest in Manzanillo $0.75, highest Panama and Roatan
Total fuel cost $3,333 USD
At this time Bev and I are visiting children and Grandchildren while the boat is getting the maintenance it needs after seven months of continuous use. We will then explore the East Coast of the U. S. and then perhaps Europe. Stay tuned!