Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gimme Shelter

Crossing through the entrance towers to the Panama Canal you enter the crossroads of the world.
It’s hard to explain my feelings passing through the two huge entrance towers for the Panama Canal. It marks the beginning of one of my lifelong dreams:  to transit the Panama Canal. It is also a key decision point in any cruiser’s life: do we stay in the relative ease and safety of the Caribbean or do we venture out into the unknown and vastness of the Pacific Ocean? Well, crossing the Pacific was my other lifelong dream, so I guess we’re going for it. That being said we could have very easily turned northeast for the British Virgin Islands and shuttled between there and Bonaire. That would be a very good life, indeed.

Shelter Bay Marina is one of those mythical places, a crossroads like the Azores, where every world cruiser stops by at some point of their life. Boats are here from all over the world, all full of dreamers and adventurers. Some will continue to circumnavigate the Caribbean while others will transit the Canal for points west.  We’ve enjoyed the nightly sundowners sessions with five or six languages being spoken, usually simultaneously. Subjects are always when are you transiting, what’s your boat name, and the required recitation of boat projects.

Our admeasurer from the Panama Canal Authority (now run by the Panamanians) filled out forms designed for huge 600 ft. ships.
I forgot about the extra length added by our solar panels.
We had selected an advisor to assist with our Canal transit and met with him as soon as we arrived at Shelter Bay. He was very efficient and took all our papers to the proper authorities to get us checked in. The next day an admeasurer came to officially measure the length of our boat (which determines the fees for the Canal). He was also very efficient and professional. We measured in at 48 ft. which is a little scary since at 50 ft the fees almost double. I should have fudged a little when I held the measuring tape at the bow of the boat, but I guess I’m too honest or too dumb.

While we wanted to linger and enjoy the ambiance of the resort we were in a somewhat frantic mode to complete all the paperwork for our application for a long stay visa for French Polynesia (FP). With a one-year visa we could stay in Tahiti and environs over the hurricane season and not have to rush through FP on our way to hurricane safe New Zealand.

The amount of paperwork was overwhelming: police records, proof of financial stability, proof of overseas healthcare, proof we were breathing, and so on. Some embassy’s even wanted forms in triplicate and translated to French, but each embassy had slightly different requirements. If you could speak French you could even find out what the requirements were ahead of time. We were supposed to fly up to San Francisco to the embassy there to apply (it would take three trips total) but luckily we found we could apply at the Panama City Embassy because we had been out of the US for several years.

As with everything, there was a rub. The Embassy is only open from 8:30 to 11:30 each day. This meant we had to take a $120 cab ride (that we shared with Steven and Sandra who were going to the American Embassy for extra passport pages) for the roughly two-hour drive from outside Colon to Panama City (PC). Because the road from Shelter Bay crosses the Canal, if there is a ship going through the locks you may have up to a 45 minute wait, so it’s tough to precisely time the trip.

It will be hard to get used to the 15 ft tidal range of the Pacific Ocean after the 2 ft tides of the Caribbean.
Luckily we made it just in the nick of time (our cab driver couldn’t find the Embassy) and I was ushered into the inner sanctums of the Embassy for my interview, fingerprints, photo, and  presentation of my application (I though of an old Seinfeld show:  Am I French worthy?). She immediately handed back about half of the papers I’d spent a week compiling, did a short interview of Meryl, and then said “au revoir, if we accept your application (it has to be sent to Papeete) we’ll let you know in about one month.”

The Old City in Panama City has some beautiful architecture including Caso Viejo.

This square near Casco Viejo is filled every night with young Panamanians relaxing after work.

It's very easy to get lost in the massive Albrook Mall in Panama City.
We did a quick walk around the old city and then took a cab over to Albrook Mall, a huge shopping complex with every shop you can imagine. It’s wonderful walking through a mall when you live on a boat and have zero room to store anything you may want to purchase. Had some franchise food and then crossed over to the massive Transportation Center to catch a $3.15 express bus back to Colon. Similar to big Greyhounds, the buses have movies playing on a TV screen. Ours featured a good war movie with Brad Pitt, but I couldn’t understand a word since it was in Spanish. He bit the dust in the end.
I have to say I was a little concerned as I watched our bus driver count out over $200 in $1 as we're hurtling along the freeway at 70 mph.

Sensing our ultimate demise in a fiery bus accident I decided to take one last photo for posterity.
The bus drops you off alongside the road near the Quattro Altos shopping center outside of Colon. You walk through a hole in the fence, across a railroad track, then through a large somewhat run down series of stores. You have to remember that Colon, just one mile down the road, is an incredibly dangerous city. You simply don’t walk around even during the day. Our instructions were to find two dirt piles near an empty yellow store front and that’s were the shuttle bus from Shelter Bay would pick us up. Luckily it wasn’t that hard and we slauntered on the bus and crashed in the seats. Back at the marina Happy Hour was in full force but we were just too tired to imbibe.

The next day was equally crazy as we quickly packed for our “quickie trip” back to Seattle to visit grandkids and friends and do reprovisioning. Oh, and also to go to Dicks for a chocolate shake and cheeseburger.

On Friday Jan 23rd we took another expensive taxi ride out to Tocumen Airport in Panama City for our flight to Houston. Luckily neither flight was very full and by midnight we were getting our rental car and driving to our friends, the Berrys, to crash in their guest room.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

If it's Tuesday, We Must Be in Paradise

Flying Cloud anchored in the lee of Bandeup Island in The San Blas Islands.
Waking up anchored off a beautiful South Pacific type island, replete with palm trees and a white sand beaches, we realized we’d arrived in Paradise. With crystalline waters, a cooling trade wind breeze, and a huge protected reef surrounding the island, we could ask for nothing more. We were still debriefing ourselves after our scary encounter with the reef at Isla Rosario in Columbia and realized we’d have to up our game for sailing in the much more dangerous waters of the San Blas.

Aerial photos of the area show white water streaming off reefs, just about everywhere. Luckily a Canadian cruiser had shared a set of digitized maps from the well know Bauhaus Guide to Panama. As someone said, it would be insanity to sail here without that guide and we fortunately had a set of those charts converted to work in a new navigation program we were using for the first time, called OpenCPN. It's the product of a group of dedicated programers who produced a unique navigation program that works on both PCs and MACs and can read a wider variety of files than our mainstay nav program, MaxSea. With OpenCPN we now have access to highly accurate charts of the San Blas area, which when viewed on our MaxSea program shows up as mostly uncharted waters.  We religiously followed waypoints given to us by another cruiser in Cartagena that lead us into this highly protected lagoon after sailing over 200 miles the previous day and night. It’s a little unnerving to learn a new nav program so quickly and with so much at stake, but it worked perfectly the whole way.
Monica on the bow and Phil at the helm of the indomitable Miss Molly.
A little later in the morning Miss Molly sailed up and anchored behind us. Great to see them again after being apart only two days. We spent the afternoon snorkeling and exploring our little lagoon, followed by sundowners on Flying Cloud with Phil and Monica. They left the next morning, only to be replaced by Jeff and Katie on Messaluna, another MagNet boat that we hadn’t seen since Bonaire. Again, nice getting caught up with them.

As much as we wanted to stay, we needed to hustle to get checked into Panama and then sail north to Shelter Bay Marina so we could apply for our long term French Polynesia visas at the French Embassy in Panama City.
The view from the Upper Ramparts of Fort San Lorenzo (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) looking towards the town of Portobello. 
On the 16th we sailed a short distance to Provenir where we cleared into Panama to the tune of $403 with another $60 going to the Kuna Yala for cruising in the San Blas region. We departed the next day and sailed about seven hours north up the coast to the historic port of Portobello. Nestled into a highly protected bay, Portobello was the major transshipment port for all the gold and silver plundered by the Spanish in South America. Ringed with forts on both sides, Portobello was heavily defended, but was still rampaged by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1668.

Fort San Lorenzo and several smaller forts protected the harbor from rampaging pirates.

It's so nice to meet new people while cruising. We quickly became friends with Steven and Sandra off the beautiful Lyman Morse yacht, Yonder.
As we were getting settled in we waved at a pretty blue sloop anchored nearby and they swung by in their dingy. Steve and Sandra off of Yonder were from the Boston area but had been cruising for over 15 years in the Caribbean and Newfoundland (where they keep a second boat, an Oyster 41). They were going for a short hike nearby and we invited ourselves along, hungry for exercise and meeting new people. We had a wonderful hike through Fort San Lorenzo and up the ridge line to the upper ramparts with beautiful views of the harbor. 
A smaller fortified wall guards the town of Portobello.
The Aduana (Customs) building in historic Portobello. It is said so much silver from Peru went through this building that they had to stack in out in the streets at times.
Since it was the NFL Playoffs, we accompanied Steven & Sandra to Capt'n Jack's Pub, a popular backpacker bar and hotel where we watched the Seattle/Green Bay game. As Seattle was getting trounced, and since Steve and Sandra were routing for Green Bay, we quickly lost interest in the game. Torrential rain showers were working their way through the harbor resulting in the satellite coverage fading in and out. The next thing we know, Seattle, through some miracle, is back in the game. In the last two minutes we watched a series of somewhat unbelievable plays resulting in Seattle winning the game and going to the Super Bowl. Amazing.

Yonder came sailing past us like we were standing still, and Flying Cloud is fairly fast for a cruising boat. Must have had a big piece of kelp on our keel.
On the 19th we followed Yonder out of the harbor and tried to keep up with them on a reach all the way to Shelter Bay Marina. They did a horizon job on us, making us question our basic sailing skills. As we approached Colon we were amazed by the number of anchored ships, we counted over 30 just off the breakwater, all waiting to transit the Panama Canal. One supposedly anchored ship started steaming towards us, reminding us to always be on your guard in these very crowded waters.
This supposedly anchored ship in front of us all of a sudden started moving. I guess that's why you need to stand watch.
We rounded the entrance to Linton Harbor (and the entrance to the Panama Canal) through two huge beacons flashing red and green. Once through the entrance we hung a hard right and sailed right into the beautiful Shelter Bay Marina. While it was still very windy, we made it into our berth with the minimum of drama, always a plus in a marina. It’s a great marina complete with a boatyard, a good restaurant and bar, and a wonderful pool.

We took a quick dip and then met Steven and Sandra and a large group of other cruisers, at the bar for sundowners. It’s always nice meeting new people as soon as you arrive to a new port since you have a million questions and they have a million answers (usually). Nice to go to bed that night securely tied to a dock with the AC purring away cooling the cabin to a somewhat reasonable temperature.

Monday, January 12, 2015

San Blas Islands Here We Come

We originally planned to spend only a few weeks in Cartagena, leaving just after Christmas. Well, that plan got blown all to hell. We seemed to have a cascading series of mechanical issues, starting with the non functioning 24v alternator when we pulled into the harbor. Then we decided to get the damaged bow pulpit welded, followed by Meryl having to resew the top of the genoa where the sail had torn away from the luff tape for about six inches. Luckily labor is relatively inexpensive in Cartagena, and people are very motivated to work, so we slowly got things done.
Lee Miles and Meryl in front of Lee's sailboat at the posh Club de Pesca.
One person who helped us a lot was the Seven Seas Cruising Association station chief in Cartagena, Lee Miles. Lee is an American who came to Columbia in his twenties to help work on a ranch his family had bought. One thing lead to another and he married a local Columbian woman, Pachi, and over the years established several businesses. He is now know as "Mr. Emerald" for his jewelry business that caters mainly to the cruise ship crowd. He's one of the most ethical and honest guys I've met in that business. Lee lives in a high rise overlooking the harbor and invited us up to review our charts for our upcoming trip to the San Blas.

I love this panorama view from Lee's balcony overlook Club Nautico. Somewhere out there to the left is Flying Cloud.
Several days before our departure I decided to start the engine to make sure everything was running OK. The engine barely turned over. I had been worrying about the starter motor, but when I switched the battery to another bank the engine started right up. Time to get my friendly electrician out to the boat. Again, speaking not a word of Spanish, Juan came out and we pulled out the 12v starter battery. We tried to start the motor using the 12v house bank battery but it didn't work either. These are the two batteries I didn't replace when I replaced all the 24v batteries. We also suspected the 12v alternator wasn't working properly (which would account for the dead batteries) so we removed it also along with the 12v house bank battery.

Lifting heavy batteries out of a pitching sailboat, into the dingy, onto the dock, and into a cab is a lot of exercise I learned. Off we roared in the cab to my buddy's battery supplier. There on the sidewalk we load tested both batteries and found them dead.  Luckily they had two similar batteries (size to within a 1/4" was important since they fit into a specific space on the boat). Remember, no one is speaking any English here. We repeated the whole process again to get the new batteries on the boat, and Juan took the alternator back to his shop for repair. Well, as they say, better to find out here than 1000 miles out at sea.

With the rebuilt 12v alternator working and the two new batteries we were back in business.  Two days later I was checking the oil in the engine compartment and my bare elbow brushed against the 24v alternator (we have two alternators on the boat, a 12v and a 24v). It was hotter than hell. It was a Saturday but I called my buddy Juan again, using our agent David as an interpreter, and had him come out on his motorcycle. I picked him up at the dock (again) and out to the boat. A hot alternator is definitely a fire hazard so we got it unhooked and off the boat. Got a call later from David that there are no replacement alternators of that size in Columbia (and Columbia charges a minimum 35% import duty on parts shipped in) so he suggested we totally rebuild it. Sounds like a plan, who cares if we don't have a cent to our name when we leave?

True to his word Juan worked through the weekend and had the rebuilt alternator back on the boat on Monday. OK, now we really getting ready to leave.

We said good-by to Kuhela who was heading back to the British Virgin Islands, and coordinated with both Miss Molly and Bendecita who were heading for the San Blas. We left Cartegena (on Jan. 12th) with everything on the boat finally working, a great feeling for a cruiser. Our plan was to go to Rosario Island, about 20 miles south and anchor, then quickly clean the bottom and leave early the next morning for the San Blas.

When we got close to Rosario we slowed way down since there are a number of reefs around the island. We had gotten waypoints from the official Columbian guide and a hand drawn map of the entrance. Unfortunately it was around 5 pm and the light wasn't that great. We slowly approached the wooden post that serves as a mark with Meryl on the bow when I felt the keel bump on the bottom. The depth sounder had been fine that last time I looked at it, but now we were bumping lightly on the bottom. I immediately put the engine in hard reverse which rotated the boat to the right, but we still seemed stuck. I quickly got on the VHF and called Miss Molly and Bendecita that we may need help. I kept working the throttle back and forth trying to rotate the boat around. By some miracle (the wind and waves behind us were fairly light so we weren't being driven up on the reef any further) we managed to find a spot 1" deeper than our keel and slowly began headed back out to sea. About then Bob and John from Bendecita came roaring up in the dingy.  We were sufficiently shaken that we didn't want to attempt the entrance again in the failing light, and to go around the whole island to where our two friends (both cats) were anchored was out of the question, so we told them we were just going to head straight for the San Blas. We've only touched bottom a few times in the four years we been cruising, and that has been in sand, so this was a real eye opener for us.

Our planned arrival time to the San Blas was now all blown to hell. By our calculations we would arrive at 7 pm (after about 200 miles of sailing). If we could pick up a couple hours underway we could make it, but everyone stresses you don't come into the San Blas in failing light. Using our new prudence we rigged the boat to sail at about 3 knots an hour so we would arrive in the morning in two days.

Not a fun way to sail, but necessary under the circumstances.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Inquisition -- When Religion Was Really Fun

One of the more interesting, and eye opening tours, is the Inquisition Museum in the historic district of Cartagena. The Inquisition was part of the Roman Catholic Church's goal of stamping out heresy. Amazingly, it ran for nearly 700 years from the 12th century to just after the Napoleonic Wars.

Touring the Inquisition Museum was a little creepy when you think this was the actual location where atrocities were carried out in the name of religion. The beautiful little square in front of the museum was the site of beheadings, decapitations, and beatings.  As they say, the Spanish ran a tight ship.

This window, along the side of the Inquisition building, was where you "drive by" and accuse your neighbors of witchcraft.
Any woman under the weight of 120 pounds could possibly be witches since you could fly if you were that light. Probably put the damper on dieting among women.
This is a list of the questions a suspected witch would be asked during her interrogation.

All of the the torture devices were designed to cause enough pain to get one to either recant, or convert to Catholicism. As they were questioning you, they would slowly drive the screw into the back of your head.
This ingenious device would slowly crush your fingers if your offer to convert didn't come soon enough.

This neck collar gives new meaning to the practice of acupuncture.
The tool of choice for the Inquisitioner:  The Rack.
If being drawn and quartered weren't enough, they would sometimes set people on fire.
Women accused of adultery were summarily beheaded.
The square outside the Inquisition building was the site of frequent public executions.
Having sat many times in this square outside the Inquisition Museum watching the kids play, it was hard to imagine the history of this desecrated ground.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Walking Tour of Cartagena

The free walking tour of Old Town takes about two hours and highlights most of the town's historic sites.
We started the New Year on an austere note with a free walking tour of the Old Town. It was actually an excellent tour (and we did tip well) that showed us all the main attractions of Cartegena’s historical district. We’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.

After several sackings in the 1500's, the Spanish heavily fortified Cartagena (that held much of the gold from the New World awaiting shipment to Spain). From that point on, Cartagena was considered impregnable. 
The Cathedral of San Pedro.
A Jesuit priest, Father Pedro Claver, ministered to the slaves arriving on ships from Africa. Sculptures in the plaza depict the various trades performed by the slaves.
Slaves who escaped eventually migrated to the village of Palenque, just north of Cartagena. Today you can find them dressed in traditional costumes, they are a fixture (and photo opportunity) in Old Town.
Joining us on the tour were a bubbly cowgirl from Calgary and her boyfriend, from Bogota, she had met while studying at University in Calgary. He spoke excellent English and was a great source of information not covered by the tour guide.  He told be about the crazy days when Pablo Escobar was in charge and the country was essentially run by the narco cartels. We also talked about FARC.

According to Wikipedia:  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People's Army are a guerrilla organization involved in the continuing Colombian armed conflict since 1964. It has been known to employ a variety of military tactics in addition to more unconventional methods including terrorism. The FARC-EP claim to be an army of peasant Marxist–Leninists with a political platform of agrarianism and anti-imperialism. The operations of the FARC–EP are funded by kidnap to ransom, illegal mining, extortion and/or taxation of various forms of economic activity and the production and distribution of illegal drugs.

He said when he was younger many of the younger people believed in FARC as a kind of Che Guevara organization helping the downtrodden. He said over the years they became more involved in drug trafficking and lost the support of the people. He also spoke with great pride of his country and what it is becoming; we found that theme resonate with lots of Columbians with whom we spoke.

Behind the street facades are beautiful interior courtyards such as this one at a classy hotel.
The house on the left belongs to Garcia Marques, author of Love in the Time of Cholera and 100 Years of Solitude. Many wealthy Columbians from Medellin and Bogota live in the million dollar houses in the Old Town. Cartagenian's,  however, prefer to live in the high rise condos along the beaches of Boca Grande.