Posted by: Sailing Camelot | December 23, 2012

Chichime Cay – Dec 10th

The weather system is still looming behind us, so we decide to move on while the sun is still shining, enabling us to divine the presence of the barely submerged reefs.


Cayos Chichime on a glorious day

Cayos Chichime on a glorious day


Camelot at Isla Achu Tupu Pipi, Chichime Cays.

Camelot at Isla Achu Tupu Pipi, Chichime Cays.


Our destination is Cayos Chichime, a half hour away.

It basically consists of a one-mile wide barrier reef and two primary islands, Achu Tupu Pipi and Ach Tupu Dummar.

Because of the reefs patches, the anchorage is very well protected and incredibly picturesque. In heavy Trade winds the seas crash on the barrier reef, but the anchorage stays smooth.


The stunning view from our bow.

The stunning view from our bow.


The Incredibly clear waters of Chichime.

The Incredibly clear waters of Chichime.


View from the "back porch"

View from the “back porch”


After settling in, I barely have time to shoot some pictures before the weather system moves in. It rains heavily on and off with howling winds for much of the next five days. But we still had a chance to step here and there, to take a dinghy circumnavigation of the tiny island, to attempt some snorkeling and to socialize with our neighbors.


Running around Achu Tupu Dummar Island

Running around Achu Tupu Dummar Island


Palm Trees are incredibly resilient!

Palm Trees are incredibly resilient!



There’s a pretty international crowd; we have a number of French boats, Colombians, Spanish, maybe another couple of Americans. But above all, there are Italians! Five Italian sailboats, and three of them are flying the Venetian flag. I confess, one of them is Camelot.  Despite being born in the U.S.A. I grew up in Veneto, Italy and my family is Italian. The capital of Veneto is Venice, so I had Tom raise the flag depicting Saint Mark’s Lion.

At least four people so far have asked us if these three boats belong to the same Yacht Club, since we’re displaying the same flag… Makes for a great conversation starter!


The Venetian Flag with St Mark's Lion .

The Venetian Flag with St Mark’s Lion .


Christmas is fast approaching and we’re all away from our families, so the cruisers are making plans to gather and celebrate. Since Italian celebrations are legendary, and since our new Italian friends are really nice people, we all agree to meet here in this very same bay on Christmas Eve, for a feast to remember.

In the meantime, since there’s ten more days before then, we all scatter in different directions.


My favorite dinghy driver. Emphasys on the "dinghy" part...

My favorite dinghy driver. Emphasys on the “dinghy” part…

Visitors arriving from another Island

Visitors arriving from another Island

Rush Hour!

Rush Hour!

The Kuna cover great distances with their dugout canoes

The Kuna cover great distances with their dugout canoes

Another colorful Ulu passing by...

Another colorful Ulu passing by…

And this is the inside of Achu Tupu Pipi Island

And this is the inside of Achu Tupu Pipi Island

Tom was needed to hold up the Palm Tree...

Tom was needed to hold up the Palm Tree…

A view to make you envious...

A view to make you envious…


Posted by: Sailing Camelot | December 23, 2012

Porvenir, San Blas Islands – December 9th

It turned out to be the right decision after all. We leave Isla Grande at 7 am precisely, and already we can see angry clouds dropping in formation, the winds pushing them in a perfect position to dump their load on us.

We run unscathed for a few hours, we even manage to SAIL for two hours; good to see Camelot’s sails again, it’s been a long time!

Then we hit a series of squalls, one after the other, after the other. The sea is confused and choppy, visibility is shot. It’s easy to get disoriented. We can’t tell where the sky ends and the sea begin; all we see is an endless, seamless wall of grey… A strange, monochromatic world that doesn’t really agree with me, a vivid color kind of gal.

Another adventurous soul out there...

Another adventurous soul out there…


It’s a pretty miserable trip: we get wet, we get bounced around, we get grumpy, but we hold on to the promise of blue skies and perfect tropical views ahead, and get through it.

Seven hours of that crap, but we get to destination safely. Well, a few hair-raising moments were had by all aboard… Welcome to the San Blas Islands, peppered with shallow coral reefs invisible on a cloudy day, and a few visible shipwrecks to remind you that shit can happen if you’re not paying attention.

God bless Eric Bauhaus, author of a very precious guide to this corner of the world. With German precision and Teutonic perseverance he charted the whole area and provided safe waypoints to follow. It’s a little like that tale where you follow the breadcrumbs… Still, it’s mandatory to keep a sharp outlook. My eyeballs are just about ready to pop out of my head.


Local means of transportation: the Ulu

Local means of transportation: the Ulu


Our view of Isla Porvenir

Our view of Isla Porvenir


With immense relief we find a spot to anchor. We made it! With huge sighs we blow out the tension, then we take stock of our surroundings. There are at least twenty boats around us.

Porvenir is the official check-in spot for Kuna Yala, the local name of the territory known as the San Blas Islands. But it’s Sunday, and the officials are not available until tomorrow. Fine with me!

After a very restful night we wake up to sun peeking thru puffy clouds. We get the dinghy in the water and go to the island to complete formalities.


Looking out from the Port Captain's Office

Looking out from the Port Captain’s Office


The officials are all very friendly and welcome us to their domain. We sit briefly with the immigration official who quickly sends us to another official. There we get our cruising permit for a month, renewable if we want to stay longer. Twenty dollars for the boat and two dollars per person. Twenty four bucks for a month in Paradise, not bad!

Finally we meet the Port Captain, still welcoming but somewhat less smiling. This is the guy who has to sniff out the drug runners and the smugglers, so we understand his demeanor. But it’s quickly determined that Camelot is just another innocent cruising boat, and we’re sent on our way with a heartfelt “enjoy your stay!” by the Port Captain.


The Airstrip - coming in

The Airstrip – coming in


Same Airstrip - Going out

Same Airstrip – Going out


Before returning to the boat we want to visit the small island. Porvenir is really tiny, basically an air strip surrounded by very little land, the only buildings the ones we just visited, a couple more huts, the very small Kuna Museum and a tiny restaurant. We’re done within a half hour, and that was dillydallying, taking our sweet time.


Kuna Yala Museum on Isla Porvenir

Kuna Yala Museum on Isla Porvenir


Another soothing view of Porvenir

Another soothing view of Porvenir

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | December 23, 2012

Isla Grande, a quick stop – Dec 8th

Since we’re not in any rush, we decide to break the trip and see the sights along the way to San Blas.

About another couple of hours from Portobello Bay there are two safe spots to anchor: Isla Linton and Isla Grande.

Isla Linton is crowded with boats. We take a sweep around the anchoring field and decide to move on. Isla Grande is just a mile or two ahead and it looks prettier, friendlier and above all much less crowded! Only maybe a half dozen boats there, a no-brainer choice.


Isla Cabra (Goat Island)

Isla Cabra (Goat Island)


I could spend a lot of time reading books there...

I could spend a lot of time reading books there…


Down goes the anchor, we are satisfied with our temporary residence. The water is clear, at least 20 feet visibility. We agree that another three or four days stay is the minimum necessary.


Approaching Isla Grande

Approaching Isla Grande


Beach Cabana on Isla Grande

Beach Cabana on Isla Grande


’m anticipating visiting this tiny island and swimming in these clear waters! But then Tom checks the weather and bursts my bubble… There’s some severe weather coming that will render the sea choppy and uncomfortable, and we’re faced with a choice: either we get stuck here for about eight days until the system passes, or we pick up and go tomorrow morning and run straight to Porvenir, San Blas.

Ok, we have to go. Bummer. Maybe I’ll get to visit this island in a few months on the way back, or maybe I won’t. I shoot some consolatory pictures, just in case…


My front porch view

My front porch view



Posted by: Sailing Camelot | December 23, 2012

Portobello Bay – Dec 4th to Dec 7th

The run from Shelter Bay to Portobello Bay takes us just a couple of hours. Soon we are scoping the bay to find our perfect spot.


Welcome to Bahia de Portobelo

Welcome to Bahia de Portobelo


Fuerte San Fernando, 18th Century

Fuerte San Fernando, 18th Century


We get settled in front of Fuerte San Fernando, one of the three Spanish Forts overlooking the bay.

Tom inspecting the cannons

Tom inspecting the cannons


Threatening enough...

Threatening enough…


From here we can also see Fuerte San Jeronimo (the town is built behind it) and the Santiago Battery on the other side of the bay.

Fuerte San Jeronimo, 17th Century

Fuerte San Jeronimo, 17th Century




The Bay of Portobello was discovered by Christopher Columbus on November 2nd, 1502.

Apparently, Portobello was an important Spanish settlement in the past and there are well-kept remains of forts and batteries everywhere.

The Battery overlooking ther Bay

The Battery overlooking ther Bay


Scenic Vantage Point

Scenic Vantage Point


Just outside the bay, by a small island called Isla Drake, lays the lead coffin containing the body of Sir Francis Drake.

There’s a lot of history and lots of well-preserved ruins dating back to the 17th and 18th Century; exploring them will certainly keep us entertained.

The Lower Battery

The Lower Battery


Can't think of better protection!

Can’t think of better protection!


This wide, calm and protected bay is home (temporary or permanent) to about 70 boats right now. I can see why people spend months at a time here. We meant to just spend the night, but ended up staying four days…

The little village is colorful, the people friendly and smiling. There seems to be a more definite Caribbean attitude, a welcome change from the gloomier atmosphere we left behind.

In the middle of the village stands the Church of San Felipe de Portobello, home of the Black Christ of Portobello, a wooden statue of Jesus of Nazareth.


La Iglesia de San Felipe

La Iglesia de San Felipe


The statue is considered holy and worshipped with fervor because of the miracles attributed to it. People walk on their knees from as far as Costa Rica to pay their respects and petition the local saint every October 21st.


The famous statue of the Black Christ

The famous statue of the Black Christ


There’s also a very colorful music school, children can be seen in their immaculate uniforms carrying their instruments, and the tentative notes of xylophones and steel drums can be heard along with a lot of laughter.


Cheerful mural on the music school wall

Cheerful mural on the music school wall

Looks like a fun place...

Looks like a fun place…


Lots of noise behind these doors!

Lots of noise behind these doors!


Surprisingly, we even manage to find a tasty pizza at the local bakery, run by an Italian man from Rome and his local wife.

A short but steep hike takes you to and a nice and popular watering hole called Captain Jack. Here backpackers meet and rest, waiting for their boat rides to Colombia. Cruisers gather for a few beers, good food and sea stories.


Captain's Jack Canopy Bar

Captain’s Jack Canopy Bar


We enjoyed an awesome cheeseburger and some good company, here. Captain Jack himself is a very nice fellow who had the right idea.

Still, after four days we get restless; the lure of the San Blas Islands is beckoning, the weather is looking good, and by now we’ve seen enough ruins and Spanish cannons… It’s time to get going again.


Adios, Fuerte San Fernando!

Adios, Fuerte San Fernando!



Posted by: Sailing Camelot | December 23, 2012

Leaving Shelter Bay, a strange farewell – December 4th

After multiple postponements and an assortment of delays, we’re finally ready and free to leave Shelter Bay behind and venture out toward the San Blas Islands.

As a farewell, on our last night at the Marina we received a stealthy visit from at least a couple of Fruit Bats.

No, we didn’t see them and didn’t hear a thing. It was just the “evidence” they left behind, like multiple droppings and a baby-fist sized hole in one of our bananas.

At first I thought of a gecko, but that was quickly excluded. Then a terrifying thought: please let it not be a mouse… They cause incredible damage on a boat and are very hard to get rid of!

But after a careful investigation, extensive research and comparison of the marks on our banana with other “crime scene” pictures on the Internet, it was determined with certainty that Fruit Bats  were the culprits.

We have been visited by Batman and Robin. At least that’s what I named them, in absentia…

Fruit Bats feasting

Fruit Bats feasting


They are TOO cute!

They are TOO cute!


With much relief, problem solved, no harm no foul, just down half a banana, we leave.

It’s a gorgeous day, sunny with a very light breeze –nowhere near enough to sail-, puffy white clouds, a benign sapphire sea. So THAT’S what the Caribbean Sea looks like on a good day!

We’re not going very far today, just 8 miles away to Portobello Bay, just enough to break free.

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | December 8, 2012

Fort Sherman – November 24th

Rainy Season in Central America is no laughing matter.  There’s absolutely nothing to smile about this continuous, relentless, overabundant rainfall. 

I am grumpy, feeling stuck in a very wet place where nothing dries… Yes, I know, we’re safe and comfortable here in the Marina while the storms are raging out there, yet I’m still seeing mostly the negatives. I feel like we’re wasting time.

But this place is full of history and Tom is more than willing to shrug into his raincoat and brave the downpour to go explore the surroundings.  Any excuse is good to break the boredom, so off we go.

Shelter Bay Marina is situated on Fort Sherman grounds; there still are plenty of reminders of the American Military presence.


Officers' accommodations on Kennedy Loop

Officers’ accommodations on Kennedy Loop


Tom leading the way in the jungle. Those tracks used to be train tracks.

Tom leading the way in the jungle. Those tracks used to be train tracks.


I won’t go into detail, there is far too much history to cover it all properly here, but Fort Sherman used to be home to the Jungle Operation Training Center .

JOTC, founded in 1951, was the U.S. Army’s training center for light infantry and special operations units from 1953 to 1999. Here both U.S. and allied Central American forces were trained in jungle warfare, with an enrollment of about 9,000 a year. Inactivated on April 1st, 1999, Fort Sherman was handed over to Panama on Jun 30th, 1999.

More recently, Fort Sherman was used in the filming of the James Bond film Quantum of Solace.


Battery Stanley, reclaimed by the jungle.

Battery Stanley, reclaimed by the jungle.


Battery Stanley

Battery Stanley


Much of the base has been reclaimed by the rain forest, but a short walk up in the jungle the remains of Battery Stanley and Battery Mower can still be found.

There isn’t much left, but Tom spends a considerable amount of time investigating every inch possible, recounting all he learned about what took place here back in the day.


What's left of Battery Mower

What’s left of Battery Mower


Tom had to explore every square inch of it...

Tom had to explore every square inch of it…


For Tom – former 82nd Airborne Paratrooper – this is as close to religious ground as it gets.


Tom searching the premises, looking like the Airborne MP he used to be...

Tom searching the premises, looking like the Airborne MP he used to be…


Once a soldier, always a soldier, I guess. Airborne, All The Way!


Posted by: Sailing Camelot | December 8, 2012

Repacking the Life Raft in Colon – November 15th

While we’re stuck here in Shelter Bay, we decide to take our life raft to town be repacked, since we’re more than a little behind the one-year service schedule.

The facility that provides this service is 25 Km away in downtown Colon, more specifically in the middle of Colon Zona Libre.

The Zona Libre  is like a heavily guarded fortress, a town within the town with heavily armed soldiers at every point of access. Only tourists and foreigners are permitted into the Free Zone, no locals.

Colon Free Zone is the second largest in the world, eclipsed only by Hong Kong.

Frankly, it’s a ZOO!

I can’t stand shopping in a normal situation, so this is downright unsettling for me. But we’re not here to shop, thankfully.

I can safely recommend these guys.

I can safely recommend these guys for life raft servicing.

Finally we find the place we’re looking for; I previously researched this business and gathered the impression it was reputable.

Still, we take a long, good look around the premises before finally deciding they are trustworthy.

Tom checking out the commercial crafts

Tom checking out the commercial crafts

Our little Switlick all alone in the middle, waiting for attention.

Our little Switlick all alone in the middle, waiting for attention.

I know, I sound diffident and suspicious, and I am! But this life raft may have to save our lives one day, so I want to be sure.

This is a 24 Hour business. Commercial ships pass thru Colon in droves, some staying just for a few hours, so most drop their life rafts here to be serviced on the fly.

Those are the 35 people rafts they carry on the big cargo ships

Those are the 35 people rafts they carry on the big cargo ships

We ask to be present when they open our raft, I really want to get a good look at this thing that cost more than the car I used to own…

Pasqual the experienced technician, carefully opening our raft

Pasqual the experienced technician, carefully unpacking our raft

I expect to see exactly the same sequence as if we were to deploy it in an emergency situation, but no… The gas cylinder that makes the container “explode” open is still good for three more years, and the fiberglass container would be destroyed.

So, no big Boom… Pity…

Quite a spacious raft contained in such a small canister!

Quite a spacious raft contained in such a small canister!

Slowly getting inflated and taking shape

Slowly getting inflated and taking shape

The raft gets carefully extracted from its shell and inflated slowly with compressed air. Within a few minutes it takes shape.

It looks just like a smaller version, very expensive bouncing castle. I hope we never have to use it.

This particular raft model is favored by the US Coast Gurd for their rescues

This raft model is favored by the US Coast Guard for their rescues. Good enough for us!

Tom sizing it up. I'm sure six people would be a little cramped...

Tom sizing it up. I’m sure six people would be a little cramped…

Ok, I’m satisfied, and so is Tom. The life raft will stay inflated for a few hours to be examined and checked for air leaks, then will be deflated and repacked with updated supplies. Fresh flares, fresh First Aid kit, more water packs, etc.

After that it will be folded in a different sequence, so as not to create creases that could weaken the rubber in time. These guys really are professionals, I’m impressed!

A couple of days later we return to pick the raft up, all ready, nice, shiny and certified. We’re good for another year.

Did I mention I hope we NEVER have to use it?

It's big enough for ME!

It’s big enough for ME!

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | December 2, 2012

Shelter Bay Marina. Yep, still here!

As it so often happens, our intended one-week stay at Shelter Bay Marina has turned into an almost month-long one.Yeah, yeah, I know… We meant to stop here just long enough to have the boat thoroughly cleaned and waxed, take care of a few quick projects, and scuttle off to the San Blas Islands soon after.

So, what happened? A combination of things, but mainly the weather is to blame: strong winds and biblical rains lasting for whole days were enough of a good excuse for staying. We decided to wait out the rainy season gratefully and safely tied up to a dock. Hopefully it’ll be over soon…

I really hoped to be celebrating my Birthday in San Blas, but… No point leaving for the islands only to be miserable, tolerating nightly anchor watches and zero visibility… Oh, well.

I guess if I have to turn 50 somewhere, this is a good place as any.

Sherlter Bay Marina - the back side

Sherlter Bay Marina – the back side

And front side

And front side

Actually, it’s a very interesting place. Shelter Bay Marina is nested in what was once known as Fort Sherman, there’s a whole lot of history packed in these surroundings.  More on that later… First let me show you around.

This Marina is pretty nice; there’s a pool, a great restaurant, a fabulous air-conditioned lounge with tons of books and computer hook-ups, a small gym, laundry facility and service, a small but well stocked grocery store, a small chandlery with a surprising good selection of basics. There is a very busy boat yard and lots of space to put your boat on the hard.

Walking down Dock D...

Walking down Dock D…

... You'll eventually find us!

… You’ll eventually find us!

It looks about 95% occupied right now, and this is the low season; there are plans for expansion to accommodate more boats. There’s a good turnaround, boats come and go, and some are left here for months while the owners travel home.

A portion of the Marina is devoted to big boats and luxury yachts; we couldn’t resist the temptation and went for a stroll in the “High Rent” district…

The High Rent District

The High Rent District

We like admiring floating pieces of art, but I’m happy to say that I am still very content with what we have.

This is Erika III, and it made us drool...

This is Erika III, and it made us drool…


I thought Tom was applying for a job! But he’s only grilling the crew for info on the boat.

It’s quite the International place, too!

After a long time of meeting almost exclusively fellow US citizens and Canadians, we are delighted to be interacting with people from Britain, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, England, Israel, Canada, Norway, and many other countries.

English is spoken here with a variety of accents, my own blending in beautifully!

Learning your Flags is like learning a new language!

Learning your Flags is like learning a new language!

French is often heard, and even Italian. As a matter of fact, there’s a contingent of about a dozen Italian boats surrounding us: I was so happy to hear my “other” language spoken that I had to raise our Venetian flag!

Almost the entire Marina staff speaks perfect English, so my awful but useful Spanish has been tucked away until further notice. Now it’s time to polish up French, if I can remember what corner of my brain it’s hiding in!

Funny story: just a few days ago I was in the Marina office and this guy walks in. I felt compelled to greet him in French, and he happily returned the greeting in the same language and started a long monologue that ended in a question… I looked at him with a sheepish expression and in what turned out to be perfect French replied “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French, I’m actually Italian and my husband is American.”

The look on this guy’s face was priceless! He didn’t know if I was making fun of him or just being plain rude… Surprised myself, I put a hand over my mouth and in English said “Shit, where did THAT come from?”. He understood that, he laughed and we started a conversation – in English. Crisis averted.

So as it turns out, if I don’t think too hard I can sputter some French… I hope to improve while we’re here!

Walking towards the breakwater, the Sherman Lighthouse

Walking towards the breakwater, the Sherman Lighthouse

These are concrete breakwater structures...

These are concrete breakwater structures…

...And these are the molds used to make them.

…And these are the molds used to make them.

We took quick stock of the immediate surroundings. Forget about long walks and excursions, torrential downpours can and will surprise you at any time. So we just walked to the breakwater, a little past the Sherman Lighthouse, to look at the views.

View of Colon, closer  to the Marina by water than by land.

View of Colon, closer to the Marina by water than by land.

Sherman Lighthouse. It helped us greatly the night we arrived here.

Looking back from the breakwater. The Lighthouse helped us greatly the night we arrived.

It could be nice if it weren’t for the dark greyness all over. We could see the town of Colon on the other side of the Bay, the lively Caribbean Sea that right now is more mud-colored than blue, and the very narrow entrance into the Marina.

We couldn’t walk much further that day, as the waves were breaking high on the path. Before we could turn around and return to base, the skies opened and downloaded on us.

Entrance to Shelter Bay Marina. It's quite narrow...

Entrance to Shelter Bay Marina. It’s quite narrow…

First glimpse of the Caribbean Sea! I can't waity to see it in its glorious BLUE color...

First glimpse of the Caribbean Sea! I can’t waity to see it in its glorious BLUE color…

Our very first drenching!  Better get used to it, as there will be many more to come before the season is over…

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | November 16, 2012

Lock ‘n Roll: the Panama Canal Crossing – November 8th

The day starts really early for us, around 3 in the morning. Not that we need to get up this early: our appointment with the Advisor that will accompany us thru the crossing is not until 8:30, but Tom couldn’t sleep and I’m a bundle of nervous energy. It’s going to be a long day!

Around 7 the team of line handlers arrives, ready, smiling and eager for action. We all introduce ourselves over coffee and banana bread.

Tito, the leader, is from Panama and has been doing this pretty much forever. Pedro and Roberto, originally from Colombia, are part of the regular team that works with Tito. Then there’s Adriana, originally from Colombia as well but living in Panama City, currently a Deckhand on tugboats and training hard to be a tugboat Captain. She’ll prove to be the star of the show, skilled, strong and athletic, very knowledgeable and with a great personality. Not that the others slacked in any way, mind you…

The Motley Crew! From left: Pedro, Adriana, Tito, Roberto. Couldn’t have made it without you!

We are summoned to Buoy 16 to pick up our Advisor: it’s 8:15 am. Off come the mooring lines that kept us tied here for almost four months; one last wave goodbye to Balboa Yacht Club and its great staff, and we’re underway.

Heading to Buoy 16 – Lines ready, each 125 feet long .

Like clockwork, the pilot boat carrying our Advisor approaches us and without a hitch offloads not one, but two Advisors! As it turns out, one of them is finishing his apprenticeship under the supervision of the senior Advisor. No problem, there’s plenty of breakfast for everybody!

We meet Frank Samudio and Luis Estribi, who will safely get us through the crossing.

Pilot Boat delivering our Advisors

As we slowly make our way towards the first set of locks, Miraflores,  Tom is given an outline of the procedures by Luis – while Frank gets on the phone to verify our lock time. We are asked what maximum speed our boat can do under engine power, and told that there may be a possibility we’ll have to spend the night moored at Gatun Lake if we don’t get to the last set of locks in the allotted time.

“We’ll make it in one day, no problem” says Tom confidently. “We’ll see” is Luis’ cryptic answer. I’m sure he heard many overconfident statements before from other sailboats that didn’t perform as advertised…

I’m groaning inwards, I sure don’t like the idea of spending the night with four extra people aboard –much as I like them all.

Luis is telling Tom about the possibility of spending the night at Gatun Lake. Look at Tom’s face!

Frank calling ahead to arrange  an earlier transit. You’re the man, Frank!

Frank gets off the phone with a satisfied expression: he managed to get us in the first lock an hour ahead of schedule, which will improve our chances to complete the transit in one day. I have mixed feelings about this; I had previously advertised to everyone who would listen our original lock time of 10:30, even providing web links to the live webcams for those who wanted to see Camelot cross the locks! Now our friends will miss all the excitement, but we’ll have a better chance… Sorry, friends! You’re probably going to be staring at some other boat crossing… Oh, well.

Heading to the Miraflores Lock. Looking crowded, there!

Roberto preparing the lines as we get closer

Two lanes! We’ll be on the right lane.

My job today is strictly to feed the crew, make sure everybody is okay, and take a ton of pictures. Since the crew won’t have time to eat until after passing the second set of locks -Pedro Miguel-, I perch myself on the bow and start happily clicking away.

We proceed at a good clip towards the Miraflores Locks, slowing down to enter the right hand lane. On the left lane there’s an impressively huge Panamax cargo ship, the Maersk Merlion flying the Marshall Islands flag. I’m exhaling in relief that we won’t have to go anywhere near that monster, but then I hear the Advisor tell Tom to pull up as close as he can to another behemoth…

Oh, man, I feel so small…

Ok, these guys are too big to feel comfortable near them… Just don’t back up, dude!

See the level of the water there? It’s going to raise, way up!

There’s some swift and precise activity around us: a tug boat is moving in position to “receive” us, we’ll tie up to it while the lock fills with water.

The last thing I want to hear right now would be Tom saying “Hon, take the wheel for a moment, will you? I have to go pee”… Luckily, it doesn’t happen and Tom firmly and skillfully maneuvers close and closer to the tug boat, until Camelot gently touches its side.

Approaching “our” tugboat, Miraflores Visitor Center on the right.

Getting ready to throw the lines

…And we’re tying up!

Our line handlers jump into position in a well-choreographed dance; they make it look easy and effortless as they tie us to the tug boat, doubling up the tires that serve as fenders.

Tito muscling his way closer to the tug boat.

All tied up to Calovebora the tug boat, snug as a bug in a rug!

Then it’s a matter of waiting for the lock to close and fill up with water, 10 to 15 minutes. Good, I have time to look around at leisure and try to understand the process!

We’ll have to go through a total of six lock chambers: two at Miraflores -raising us-, one further up at Pedro Miguel -raising us some more-, and the final three in Gatun -lowering us to the Caribbean Sea level.

We’re going to be raised in the first three of them to bring us to level with Gatun Lake –which sits 85 feet above the Pacific, and then we’ll be lowered in the last three in Gatun to be level with the Caribbean Sea.

Each lock will raise us 28 feet.

Shutting out the Atlantic side.

Let the water rise!

I take a closer look at the big ship a few feet ahead of our bow: its name gives me a jolt. It has an Italian name, it’s called  “Cielo di San Francisco” – San Francisco’s Sky – although it’s flying a Liberian flag.

It must be a good omen: we hail from San Francisco and I’m Italian. And the sun is shining, we’ll be ok.

My cell phone rings, it’s my brother Maurizio calling me from Italy! He’s watching the Miraflores webcam with his two young sons and he’s wondering if that tiny sailboat he sees could possibly be us, since we’re not due for at least another hour… Yes, yes, it’s us! Oh, I’m so happy he gets to see us! I felt the need of some sort of family reassurance, and I got it in spades.

My good omen, so much more than just a bulk carrier…

We spend this down-time munching on banana bread, watching the crowds perched on the balconies of the Miraflores Visitor Center watching us, taking pictures of us.

Tom makes friends with the crew of Calevobera, the tug boat hosting us, offering them some banana bread as well.

They have a lady Captain! Adriana elbows me and says “See? That’s me a few months from now!”. I have no doubts she’ll be great at it, her competence and enthusiasm are certainly well above average.

Tom chatting with our hosts and neighbors on the Calevobera. In Spanish!

Finally, we get the order to move; the lock is full, so we move on to the second one, repeating the process. Untie, move, retie, wait. And damn, it’s starting to rain on us!

I take a peek behind us: the water level of the Altantic is already a lot lower!

Lock is filled!

Looking back at where we came from, the “lower level”.

Eventually we move out of the first set of locks. The giant “Cielo di San Francisco” leaves us behind, moving swiftly and with surprising grace for a ship her size. I’m just glad we manage to plow thru the turbulence she left behind without too much trouble.

The canal banks are lined with Panamanian flags: November is Panama Month, and it’s pretty much an ongoing celebration all month long.

I give a final salute to the crowds on the balconies and look expectantly ahead to Pedro Miguel, the next lock.

One of the “mules” pushing and pulling the huge ship before us.

Wave goodbye to the webcam at Miraflores!

It’s a very short hop from Miraflores to Pedro Miguel, in less than five minutes we’re approaching the designated spot.

A pretty landmark along the way, I wish I knew what I’m looking at…

Well ahead of us, the Panamax ship “Maersk Merlion” and the bulk carrier “Cielo di San Francisco” are crossing each other and swapping sides, preparing to enter the double lanes of the Pedro Miguel lock.

Running hard to catch up the Big Boys.

Trading places and exchanging positions

Some tug boat nudging activities near the Centennial Bridge

We pretty much do a rerun of the previous lock clearing, but it still feels pretty exciting. The crew is calmly preparing, I guess after the umpteenth time it becomes pretty much routine…

Diligently lining up

Will you look at the friggin’ size of that monster! I feel like a flea buzzing around a dog…

This time we are directed to tie up to the faithful Calovebora on the port side, and Tom skillfully slides beside her without a hitch. I’m so proud of him, he’s keeping his cool while the knot inside my stomach grows larger by the second… There is a reason HE’s driving the boat instead of me! Even the Advisors compliment him on his skills!

Switching sides:port tie now!

Double Doors at Pedro Miguel lock. Just in case you wanted out…

This lock takes less time to clear than the previous two. In just a few minutes “Cielo di San Francisco” gets a gentle nudge by the mules and is soon released into the open Canal.  The Maersk Merlion is already way ahead of us, plodding on. I kind of felt like we were sort of a team, what with crossing the locks together and all… But clearly they’re in a league of their own, and we are but a tiny speck in their rearview mirror (if they have one!). Well, guys, it was nice almost traveling with you!

I know what’s happening, but it stll makes me nervous…

Even the Big Guys need a little push every now and then…

We are slowly released as well; after passing under the very modern and beautiful Centenario Bridge Tom is instructed to put the pedal to the metal. We’re still making good time in Frank’s opinion, but it’s still better to build up some advantage.

Camelot gets set at about 3000 rpm, a little hotter than we normally run her but still far below the limit she can be pushed at, no sweat.

It’s starting to drizzle now and there’s no more excitement for a while. No more excuses for me, I duck below in the galley and start whipping up a more substantial meal for the crew. Scrambled egg with veggies and potatoes, call it brunch!

Panama Canal traffic jam

I never though THEY could be dwarfed, but there you have it! Meet Parsifal, a car carrier.

Everyone but Tom (who has to drive) and me (who has to feed the crowd) can pretty much relax, and soon the sound of multilingual chatter fills the air. After brunch I casually mention that there will be lasagna for lunch later on, but the crew unanimously decides that there’s no reason to wait until later to eat lunch, so bring it on! Everybody eats their fill, then pretty much they all slip into a half lasagna-induced coma, spreading out in the cabin to take naps, listen to music or generally chill out. It’s down time!

Luis, Frank and Tom remain at their positions in the cockpit, protected from the persistent drizzle but a little cold, so they swap sea stories to keep awake and warm up…

Tom, Frank and Luis trying to escape the drizzle

After quietly cleaning up I pop my head up again; drizzle or no drizzle I want to savor this trip of a lifetime. After all, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC “100 Journeys of A Lifetime” puts the Panama Canal at #5!

Armed with my faithful camera I shoot pictures left and right, but it’s quite non-exciting scenery around me. Reminds me a little of the Sacramento Delta, though…

With the difference that there’s a Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research here… How cool is that!

The Smithsonian Institute for Tropical Research is nested right halfway thru the Canal

Big and bigger ships coming from the opposite direction, yikes!

I marvel at the huge ships loaded to capacity coming from the opposite direction every now and then. I was told that the Canal is a one-way operation: South-North from 6 am to 6 pm, then North-South from 6pm to 6 am… I’m confused!

Luis sets me straight; it is true, he says, but commercial traffic never stops. The rule applies to pleasure boats only. Damn, I’m happy nobody told me that beforehand or I’d have worried even more… We end up crossing maybe a dozen of them, but the Canal is plenty wide for everyone.

This is my favorite ship sighting. Very appropriate for the location, don’t you think?

The weather gets a little worse, it starts raining a little harder, visibility is definitely bad. Bummer, so much for my picture-taking!

We’re now about an hour from the Gatun Locks, so Frank places a radio call ahead to confirm our position and –most importantly- to confirm that we’re going to be there well on time, before the last lock transit at 16:00. The Gatun radio operator sounds a little surprised, they already made available a mooring for our overnight stay, so sure they were we wouldn’t make it!

No, Frank tells her, we won’t need your mooring, thanks all the same. Yesss! I mentally pump my fist in the air.

Visibility deteriorates. Is that a ghost ship in the distance?

We can barely see the buoys marking the narrow Banana Channel

There’s a shortcut that small boats are allowed to take called the Banana Channel. It shaves off maybe a little over a mile, so it’s not much of a shortcut, but it’s a pretty scenic route. Our Advisors tell us that there are many little islets and tributaries from the Chagres River, and crocodiles can be seen on the banks.

We have to take their word for it, tough. The visibility is pretty crappy right now, our very own version of 50 Shades of Gray…

But the water looks clear, and we catch a glimpse of a pretty jade color here and there. The only spot of color comes from the round buoys marking this very narrow channel.

If there’s a spot of color…

By Golly, I’ll photograph it! It’s prettier than a crocodile anyway…

Eventually we emerge from Banana Channel into the anchorage at Gatun Lake: it is now14:10 and we’re maybe 15 minutes from Gatun Locks. Frank calls ahead to alert the lock crew of our impending arrival, only to be told to slow us down. Considerably, they add.

The ship that will be placed ahead of us is not there yet. So we slow to a crawl, taking our time until we’re given the ok to dock.

Tom takes a well-deserved bathroom break, and comes back on deck with some bad news. Someone used the bathroom and forgot to turn off the sink faucet after washing hands… No one used the bathroom in hours, so no one noticed. We’re completely, totally, absolutely out of water. We flushed one hundred and sixty gallons of fresh water into the Panama Canal. FUCK! (excuse me, I couldn’t help it)

While I (quietly) verbally work out my frustration, Tom shrugs it off.
“We’re only just a few hours away from destination, we’ll refill the tanks at Shelter Bay Marina when we get there.” he says. Then he adds with a pensive expression “I wonder how much we raised the level of the Canal?”

That makes me roll my eyes, such a goofy thing to say, but it makes me laugh and takes the worry away. He’s right. About the refilling, I mean.

At long last, the entrance to the Gatun Locks! The Big Boys are there already.

Ok, there’s the dock… Where exactly are we going again?

In the distance I can see the huge Maersk Merlion entering the first lock chamber. I guess we won’t be going down that one together! Bummer…

Luis explains that in the locks the big ships are always placed in front and the smaller boats behind on the way up, like we did at Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. On the way down it’s the opposite, smaller boats in front and the behemoths behind them: this to avoid disasters in case of unforeseen accidents, which so far have happened very rarely.

We’re advised to make our way very slowly to the end of the dock, very close to the first lock, and to wait for further instructions.

Tom is mildly concerned; he doesn’t like to move at very slow speed –which restricts maneuverability- in such tight places. Besides, there’s a current of 3.7 knots moving us around… He looks pretty tense. I know he’s tired, too. But there’s nothing I can do to help him, so I join in the worrying… That’s a big help, right?

Just while he’s wondering how to keep the boat steady without moving forward in the swirling current, Frank’s radio crackles to life with the order to tie to the dock. Praise the Lord!

Wait a minute, those ships looks familiar…

Already half way down the first lock chamber

The crew comes to life again, scurrying up and down the deck, securing Camelot to her staging spot. Tom can relax, and he suddenly doesn’t look so tired anymore!

Tying up to the dock to wait

Everyone is ready for action, but the big ship is taking her time. I observe the energy of the group; it’s like watching a light bulb with wattage spikes, up then down, then up… And it’s starting to rain again.

We see the ship we’re waiting for a little farther away, slowly being pushed into position by three tug boats.

It’s an oil tanker, the Genmar Companion flying the Bermuda flag. I always make the effort to get to know my neighbors…

Our new Lock Neighbor, Genmar Companion

A couple more pushes…

We watch a tug boat disengage from the ship. Yay, it’s coming for us! We’re instructed to get ready for a starboard tie, the crew scrambles in place.

Cecil is coming for us!

Then, wait, no, it’s not going to happen yet. By now we’re all eavesdropping  to the radio communication between tug boats, ship and lock crew.

The tug boat gets recalled urgently to the ship side. One of the mules attached to the ship has broken down and needs to be replaced. As luck would have it it’s the middle one, which means all the mules have to be disconnected in order for the middle one to get out of the way. We’re going to be here a while…

We’re not the only ones waiting… Mule operators, standing by.

A collective loud groan rises from Camelot. Nobody likes to play the Hurry Up and Wait game.

Time to break out some steaming coffee and Oreo cookies! It does help a little; I see faces brightening up…

By the time our leisurely coffee break comes to an end (read: we polish off the Oreo cookies), the big ship is being led towards us like a mellow huge dog leashed to a tug boat and the mules. Hallelujah!

Leading Companion to the lock

She’s in position… Let the procession begin!

The tug boat assigned to us, the Cecil F. Haynes, assumes its position and we quickly snuggle up to her. Everyone can now relax a little, shoot the breeze with the tug boat crew. They look pretty beat, too. We offer them cookies and Diet Cokes, since we slurped up every last drop of coffee and I can’t make any more.

The guys of the Cecil are so grateful and appreciative that it’s almost embarrassing… But it warms my heart.

Making friends with the Cecil crew

Tired, a little worried, half wet, but still smiling. That’s my boy!

Tom is smiling too, he’s enjoying the company and he knows we’ll get moving pretty soon.

Such close proximity can really be unsettling

Last set! The first of the three chambers

Ok, now we’re all in position. Let the first lock empty out! It doesn’t take long. Then we dance again.

Untie, move on to the second chamber, tie up again, wait for the water go empty out…

It’s all quite smooth and effortless, or so I think until I look at Tom’s tense expression. He’s working hard to make it look easy when it’s really not that relaxing… Come on, buddy, you’re almost there!

If only this rain would stop!

Ok, one more time, it’s the last one. Out of the second chamber, rev it up and scurry to the third chamber, tie up, catch your breath, wait.

And wait. Then wait some more. Damn, we’re so flaming close, what’s taking so long? Who knows… So we twiddle our thumbs, look ahead at the next lock, looking DOWN should I say… It’s impressive.

I’ve been so busy busying myself that I almost missed the impressiveness! But it finally registers, I remember with gratitude that I’m in the middle of a truly unique experience…

“Anybody wants to take a picture?” I yell. Adriana volunteers, so I get my shot for posterity. Yes, I was there and have proof! Never mind that I’m not at my photogenic best, I’m way beyond that concern; I’m just so thrilled to be here! And almost there, too…

Luis anf Frank at my sides, Tito in front. And Tom watching my back as always. Thank you all, guys!

Adriana, still happy and energetic after a long day.

I fooled myself thinking that the last lock is home run, but I know we’ll have another hour or two before we can give in to fatigue.

Man, if I am this tired, how does Tom feel?

One more and we’re done!

Companion coming down the last chamber

But luckily I have no time to dwell any further on how tired we are. I’m saved by the bell, literally. A loud bell like the one that used to announce recess at school is ringing my ears off, signalling the go ahead.

The last lock chamber is opening up, finally revealing the Caribbean side of Panama.

First glimpse at the Caribbean, less spectacular than I anticipated

For some reason, maybe it’s the rain, the grayness, maybe I’m just tired and the adrenaline rush is wearing off… Or maybe there’s just not that much to see after all. It’s almost anticlimatic! I built myself up to all this anticipation and now… I don’t feel much. Nothing more than just a sense of relief, maybe a mild sense of accomplishment.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but I’m a little disappointed by my reaction…

Oh, well, screw it. We’re here. We’re safe. It’s done.

Next order of business is to take Luis and Frank to the pilot boat rendezvous spot so they can go home after a long day’s work, then discharge our crew to Club Nautico in Colon, then find our way to Shelter Bay Marina… Jeepers, we still got a little while to go.

Looking back at the last lock chamber. End of the line!

But the pilot boat is delayed and we have to wait a half an hour. The crew is getting antsy; they’re tired and want to go home. We’re getting a little worried too, it’s getting dark and nobody likes to stumble their way in the dark, especially in a wide anchorage full of big ships lit like Christmas trees confusing our vision and blinding us to the feebly lit buoys we need to see to find our way. Can you tell I’m getting tired? I get all negative when I’m tired, not to mention grumpy…

Finally the pilot boat arrives and our Advisors take off in a flurry of greetings and heartfelt thanks.

We blast off towards Colon in the impending darkness, getting there within twenty minutes. Tom is swearing under his breath because not only is dark now, but the water is getting shallower by the second and we’re still far from the fuel dock where we’ll deliver the crew.

Tito, the leader of the group, suggests we lower the dinghy in the water and take them ashore that way. No way, that’s a lot of work and not very safe to do on a moving boat! Instead, Tom fires up the forward looking sonar to figure out a way in and we inch our way thru until, oh bliss, we finally sneak in to the blasted fuel dock.

Too much drama unfolding at the end of a very long day… And we still have a ways to go, it’s not over yet… The next hour and a half will prove to be the most trying of the whole day.

Eventually, we discharge the crew and even take on a little fuel to pacify the fuel dock operator who’s not at all thrilled we’re using his dock… In fact he’s downright menacing. This place gives me the creeps big time, I can’t wait to leave.

Tito strongly recommends we anchor out in the Flats in front of Colon City for the night. “It’s dangerous trying to find your way to Shelter Bay Marina in the dark, it’s not very well marked”, he says.

Tom and I are strongly against that option. Much too recently a couple of sailboats anchored here for the night have been attacked, robbed, and the occupants badly hurt . We’d rather take our chances.

By the time we untie from there it’s pitch black dark and we’re starting to feel beyond tired, but we’re happy to be alone again, less people to worry for/about. The team spirit is still strong, and we’re still smiling. Or is that grimacing?

So we take off and very carefully crawl out of the port and thru the anchorage, trying to find the buoy markers to guide us to the Marina just a couple of miles away on the other side of the bay. We open a trusted guide book hoping to find a map showing buoy markers, no success. We fire up all the electronics we have aboard, our seeing eyes in the dark.

We go the wrong way once or twice, the sea bottom getting shallower prompts us to spin a couple of frustrating circles and retrace our steps until we find deeper water. Finally we seem to find our way. We get on the radio and hail the Marina, obtaining an answer after we almost gave up hope just as we enter the narrow mouth of the channel heading into the Marina.

The Marina manager directs us to a slip via radio while I’m on the bow flashing a powerful flashlight all over to give Tom a sense of direction, illuminating obstacles along the way: to the left a wall of mangroves, to the right a row of huge luxury yachts at their dock. And just enough room to squeeze in between.

Just as I let out a loud and exasperated “God, is this day ever going to end?!” I spot two guys jumping up and down, waving frantically. “Turn left, turn left!” they yell. But to the left there’s a wall of boats in their slips, so Tom makes his trademark executive decision and turns right instead, aiming straight at the slip the guys are standing at.

It’s the right move. They meant right, not left… They must have had a pretty long day too!

And just like that, it’s finally over. We’re in the Marina at last! We’re safe, the boat is undamaged. We made it without a hitch, well, not counting the last couple of hours.

It’s only 19:30, but it feels like middle of the night. We’ve been up and going for eleven and a half hours, but we’re so giddy and wired that we even fill up the water tanks.

After that Tom demands his customary celebratory beer. As the knot in my stomach dissolves, I realize I haven’t touched food all day!

Break out the Nutella, girl! That’s MY customary celebratory ritual…

We’re in the Caribbean at last.


(now read it backwards)

Camelot passing the Miraflores Lock. Thanks Ed Jerbic for saving this webcam picture for us!

Posted by: Sailing Camelot | November 13, 2012

Panama Canal Crossing – Preparations

For the last week or so we’ve been scurrying around like lab mice on steroids getting provisions, spare parts, maps and guides and flags for the new cruising grounds.

Camelot has been formally measured by the official in charge of this essential step. From the tip of the anchor to bottom of the davits, we total 51.5 feet. Dammit, we’re over 50 feet, which means we get to pay the next –higher- fee level. What can you do, it’s not like you can have Camelot temporarily suck in her length, right? Just smile and pay and say thank you.

Measuring Camelot’s Waist Line


Double-measuring the length, trying to shave off an inch here and there…

Tony, the friendly and very professional admeasurer.

We decided long ago to secure the services of an experienced and reliable agent familiar with the procedure and are happy we did despite the criticism from a few fellow cruisers. It is true that you can do everything yourself and save a bundle, I don’t dispute that. We just wanted total peace of mind and that’s exactly what we got.

Pete Stevens, the Agent in Charge as I like to call him, has been an absolute delight to deal with and we’re thrilled that a business interaction developed into a deep and long lasting friendship.

Pete organized everything, from the paperwork to the team of line handlers and everything in between, leaving us free to roam and take care of everything else.

So Camelot is now filled to the brim with food and fuel, everything is freshly laundered, the appropriate paperwork is completed, we have our official Crossing Number.

Pete Stevens with our Canal Number. He’s a wonderful, goofy, smart and competent guy.

Tomorrow we leave, I can barely believe it.

Not your average Christmas ornaments! Mandatory gear for Canal Crossing.

Caribbean, here we come!!!

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »