For some reason I’ve struggled to sit down and write about these next epic chapters in our journey. And I wasn’t sure why. I mean, each leg was incredible. It was an amazing set of experiences. It was a month full of the stuff our personal dreams are made of. But I couldn’t get myself to write the story. And then I read a great blog post by an awesome woman we met cruising. You can check out Molly’s blog here at www.beamreachadventures.com. Reading Molly’s blog gave me a sudden realization. Maybe I didn’t want to write this particular post (and the next one) because if I did, it really would be over. And I don’t want it to be over. Not. One. Bit. But, I tell myself with a curt snap-out-of-it-talking-to, cruising isn’t over. We’re still cruising, but we’re not in Mexico or Central America. We aren’t loving the challenges, the struggles and the absolute highest highs that come from living on our boat in a foreign country, engaging with other cruisers and the people of our host nations. We’re in the US, which has its benefits, and which, as I WILL write later, we are enjoying. But it is different. I find myself cranking the “Latin Pop” genre on Spotify and wiping my tears as I dance around the cockpit. Kevin has been Mr. Patient as always, reminding me of the many accurate and sound reasons that it makes sense to be in the US right now, and reassuring me that we can go back to international cruising, and hopefully Panama, one day very soon.
So, with that big ol’ disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it. PANAMA!
When I last wrote, we had arrived in Panama City, (known locally as Panamá, pronounced differently from the country name, Panama) with its incredible skyline greeting us as we entered Marina Flamenco, located at the entrance to the Panama Canal. We had decided to come to Panama City early for a few reasons. First, we had a problem with our davit (aka our crane that lifts our dinghy). Back in Costa Rica we discovered that the steel cable that raises and lowers the 1,000 lb. dinghy was fraying. No bueno. From that moment on we ceased to utilize the big dinghy, only taking our small 8.5 foot / electric engine tender out for shorter trips. We really wanted to fix the crane so that we could use the big dinghy when our friends arrived. Plus, it simply needed to be fixed. After some chats with experts and other Nordhavn friends, Kevin had decided that we could of course do this ourselves. But we needed a bit of time and access to a rigging shop. Panamá, with its massive amount of marine traffic, both commercial and recreational, fit the bill.
Our second reason for arriving early to this spectacular city was to try to secure a specific canal transit date. Typically, once you are measured for the canal, you are assigned a first available date. We wanted to obtain a date that was slightly farther out, ensuring that our crew would have arrived and that hopefully, the crane would be fixed. Arriving early would give us extra time to try to make this happen.
Third, we wanted to enjoy Panama City – an incredible place!
Kevin and I were so excited. We really couldn’t stand it. I don’t think I slept for the entire time we were in Panama City because I was full of anticipation about the canal transit. We were really doing this! Panama Canal Baby!
Our first few days were a mix of exploring and boat projects. We were prepping the boat not only for the canal, but also for a trip to the San Blas Islands and most importantly, the approximately 1450 nm passage from Panama to Florida that was looming. Everything had to be ready – from provisions to systems checks to fluid changes to maintenance. Oh and a crane. And a stabilizer brain. Remember that? More on the brain for my favorite boat system in a bit.
As we had not eaten out in weeks (well not really), we went a little wild. Italian, burgers, Panamanian fare, seafood, Asian food – we couldn’t get enough. In between meals, we walked miles and miles. Probably a good thing due to all of the calorie intake. Marina Flamenco sits at the end of the causeway which arches out from the heart of the city and hosts a fantastic walking trail, a super active road bike scene, restaurants, bars, playgrounds and parks. It is a vibrant morning walk, watching the city come alive. In the evening, it is full of people, biking, wandering and eating.
It was on one of our morning walks that we stopped into a chandlery (we can’t pass up a boat store). The gentleman behind the counter was welcoming and chatted with us for a bit. While we didn’t make a purchase, he was incredibly friendly and so informative, offering that if we needed help with anything, anything at all, to give him a call. We took his card with a smile, enjoying our first days connecting with the people of Panamá.
We returned to the boat to dive into the crane project. It was hot, humid and beyond sweaty. I was nervous about this project. The crane, an Aritex model, which was installed on the early 55 Nordhavn models (we are hull #5) did not have much in the way of an owner’s manual. A schematic offered details, in um, Taiwanese. Not helpful. I will note that the crane is the only system on the boat that doesn’t come with superior support. But Kevin being Kevin, he was willing to tackle the project and I was to be the unskilled labor that helped to pull the several hundred pound stainless portion of the crane out of the boom. Perfect. Well, not so much. After several hours of struggling that included rigging a come-a-long to the stainless rail and a whole lot of tugging and banging, we had a broken metal hydraulic line and components that were unwilling to budge any further. We were defeated. And a cold Atlas beer didn’t make it better.
Frustration abounded. We talked about potential solutions and finally decided to go pay the nice man at the chandlery a visit. The chandlery, it turns out, was much more than a boat store. It was simply a parts store that accompanied a much larger service business called Narval Marine. And of course, they had hydraulics specialists on staff. We breathed a hesitant and tiny sigh of potential relief. With a quick series of phone calls, a tech was scheduled to visit us the next morning, on a Saturday nonetheless. Excellent news as we now had a timeline for our canal transit, the dinghy was down in the water without a way to pick it up, the crane was more broken than before and the clock was ticking.
Oh yes, we had a transit date. While we were busy eating, walking and dealing with the crane, we also were working on project #1 – getting Red Rover measured and scheduled for our Panama Canal transit. We were fortunate to be working with Eric Galvez from Centenario Consulting, who was quite simply, awesome. Eric is also the agent associated with the Panama Posse. We contacted Eric about six or so weeks prior to arriving in Panama City and sent him all of our information and paperwork, so that when we arrived, he could start to make things happen. Eric took care of everything for our passage, including scheduling our “Admeasurement,” arranging for our transit date and time, scheduling our Advisor and delivering large fenders and four 125 foot lines, that are required for the transit. If we had needed line handlers (4 are required) he would have also arranged for professional handlers for us.
Within 36 hours of arrival in Panama City, a gentleman from the Panama Canal Authority arrived at Red Rover to begin the measurement process which would define the toll payment due. This process is called Admeasurement. Kevin and I had excitedly spent the morning predicting how the boat might be measured. Would they use some sort of electronic fancy measuring system? The authority will visit boats at anchor to measure them. So, they must have something quite involved, right? Ah, no. Our visitor pulled out his big tape measure and asked Kevin to hold one end here and there. Very technical. Not so much. The inspector seemed to be a bit tired of this whole thing and it took quite a lot to get him to smile. And when I asked to take his photo? Well, he thought I was a little nuts. My generally frothy excitement seemed to overwhelm him. Ha! He sat in the salon and filled out paperwork by hand, asking us all kinds of questions, from health inquiries to questions about the amount of fuel onboard (in case we crashed I guess?), if we had a pilot plug for our AIS (no), what was our RPM at 8 knots, can we comfortably do 8 knots for the entire canal, and most importantly, will we have hot meals and cold drinks for our advisor? He stressed that the hot meals (breakfast AND lunch) were imperative. Got it. After filling all of his forms out by hand, he then called the Canal Authority on his handheld VHF and reported all of the information back to them. In English, oddly. This accomplished, he produced our Canal Ship Identification Number, and with another eyeroll at my grin that was taking over my face, he was gone.
Eric then confirmed that we were in the system and a few hours later his son James came to visit and collect our dollars. James was much more willing to join in our excitement and promised that he or Eric would be back to us later that afternoon with our confirmed transit date and time. WAHOOO! We had requested a specific date – April 30, for a morning transit. Generally, you are assigned the first available date and time, which, depending on the time of the year, can be anywhere from 5 days to 10 days out from Admeasurement. We wanted a specific date, and it was later than the current wait time, so we were hopeful – and successful! That evening, James and Eric confirmed that Red Rover would indeed leave the Pacific on April 30th. Crazy.
A snapshot of our receipt is below. Note that if we had professional line handlers they would be $100/each and we would be required to feed them as well. And, should we be delayed and need to stay overnight in Lake Gatun we would need to provide them with a sheltered place to sleep onboard. Scott, Abby, Darren, Doug and Mary were easy. They just wanted food and a margarita at the end! Sold!
The other variable for pricing is length. If we were 65 feet or longer, the price would go up, and we would be required to have a pilot vs. an advisor, which is also more expensive.
But back to the black cloud hanging over our happiness – the crane. On Saturday morning, as promised, the tech, a sunny gentleman named Edgardo arrived to review the crane. He did not speak English and we didn’t have the right Spanish terminology to describe our problem, so we talked with Jean Reoul, one of the leaders at Narval Marine. With impeccable English, deep knowledge, incredible customer service skills and a kind and friendly demeanor, Jean was a pro and he put us at ease. Edgardo understood what was needed within minutes, and Jean translated for us. A friendly smile later, Edgardo departed and within an hour and a half Kevin had a quote in his inbox. He looked at me after he opened it and said, “Do you think we’ll look desperate if I give them the go ahead right now?” Maybe. But we were desperate. And thankfully, happy about the price which was a fraction of what it would have been in the United States. Go, go, go!
Monday morning came bright and early and hot and humid and Edgardo and two assistants arrived as promised to begin dismantling the crane. We then fired up the engine and moved the boat over to Marina La Playita where high tide would allow us to back into a tight little spot between pilot boats. We rafted onto our neighbor pilot boat and managed to get the boat deck right under a big land mounted crane. The boat was rolling in the surge and the whole thing didn’t seem like it was going to be easy… but… these guys knew what they were doing. Everyone, from the crane operator to Edgardo to Jean (who met us there) were quick, professional and fun to be around. A stressful situation went smoothly and the crane was gone!
Later that day, we were given instructions on what we needed to find for our steel cable replacement (we had volunteered to do this to help speed the process). Jean and Edgardo confirmed that we had the correct rigging shop in mind and we hopped in our rental car to brave the insanity of driving in Panamá! Seriously, the best preparation for sitting behind the wheel of a car in Panamá would be experience as a NASCAR driver. It’s a wild ride! The rigging shop understood what we needed and we left feeling like things were going to actually work out!
We were so confident that smooth sailing lay ahead, that we took ourselves on a sightseeing trip to Casco Antiguo, also known as Casco Viejo, or the old quarter of Panama City. Stunning. Rich with history and layered textures, smells, sounds and sights, Casco Antiguo is amazing. We wandered the narrow streets and my phone camera worked on overtime. I’ll let the photos do the talking here.
The next day we started to tackle provisioning for the coming four to six weeks. This is usually a pretty easy thing for us, but in this case, we were going to have three more people with us for 10 days and then two of those people for weeks longer. That’s a lot of food. Cancel that. That’s a lot of beer and rum!
After hitting up PriceSmart (the Central American arm of Costco) and a bunch of other stores, we went back to pick up our stainless cable, congratulating ourselves on how we were managing to make this all work. Perhaps a little too soon. Oops. The thimble, that attaches the cable to the crane, was too big. It wasn’t going to fit. We were sweating and it wasn’t because of the temperature. But we were in Central America where people are solution-oriented. They simply make shit happen. Over, and over again. The project manager at the rigging shop took Kevin back into the workshop where they talked with the techs and looked at options, while face-timing Jean and Edgardo at Narval Marine. Max and I were imagining the worst, but Kevin re-emerged with a plan and several addresses of shops that might have the size thimble we were seeking. We ran around Panama City, with my limited Spanish trying to explain what we needed. I am pretty sure I sound like a 6-year-old! But the Panamanian people are kind and everyone tried to help us. No love though. Back to the rigging shop we went and another idea surfaced. They would basically “squish” the thimble to make it work. Looking more closely at the old thimble, it seems that somewhere, sometime in its life, it was squished once before! With our squished thimble and attached new shiny stainless cable in hand, we returned to Narval Marine to deliver the goods. Excellent! They would be able to rebuild the crane and in 36 hours we’d be able to reinstall the davit. Just in time too, as our friends were about to arrive!
The following afternoon, we picked up Scott and Abby at the Panama City Airport. In 2019, Scott and Abby came down from Seattle to Puerto Vallarta with us – we were the original two members of the Nordhavn Taco Run. At the time they had N47 Epoch but somewhere along the way they decided that they wanted a N55 (we might be a bad influence), which they later found on the east coast of the US. Scott and Abby left their boat, Orenda, in Georgia and hopped on a plane to Panama to join us and of course, to be our sherpas. Anyone who visits us gets to play sherpa. And Scott and Abby were most excellent sherpas, bringing us the new brain (aka servo control box) for our stabilizers. Of course, they were going on a long and very exposed offshore ride with us so they probably had a personal interest in the stabilizers working! In order to ensure that the brain made it to Panama, they carried it on the plane, much to the confusion of the TSA officer. Check out his face!
The next morning, Darren arrived while Kevin, Scott and Abby were at the fuel dock and I was off having my hair cut (yaay for the first time in over 6 months!). Darren runs Kevin’s company in Seattle and is an awesome fellow-liveaboard, excellent human. And, of course, he too was a good sherpa, bringing our new Dishy (Starlink) to Panamá! The crazy things our friends do for us! With the boat full of diesel and crew, we returned to Marina Playita and re-enacted the pilot boat rafting process to have the crane reinstalled. WHEW.
We had a working crane, a new servo control box for the stabilizers and our friends had successfully arrived in town. It was time to party! First stop – Casco Antiguo for rum drinks (of course) and dinner with the two remaining crew members, our buddies Doug and Mary from N46 One Life. Doug and Mary would be transiting the canal a few weeks after we did, so coming along meant a great opportunity for a dry (well still wet though) run for them. Plus, we love them, so having them with us on this epic experience meant the world to us.
I did have a good laugh looking around the table at dinner. I mean, what were we thinking with four captains on board? Chaos was certain!
A little Italian food gets us ready for the transit!
There is something about being a boat captain that makes you a little, well, shall we say, competitive. And if you are a power boat captain, by default, you are a motorhead. You can’t help it, it seems. In our wanderings in the previous week we had noticed a high speed go kart race track, located just across from Marina Playita. I casually mentioned that it might be fun and the boys were ON IT. The resulting race was hilarious as I didn’t realize it was a race, Abby didn’t care that it was a race, and Scott, Kevin and Darren were ripping up the course trying to outdo each other. Being Panama, these go karts weren’t limited in any way, and the boys were flying! Kevin emerged victorious, Go Kart Champion for a day. So proud. Ha!
The following day we put on our tourist hats. Literally! Abby added to the fun and bought us all Panama hats! We were in Panamá afterall! Must have hats. We strolled the streets of Casco Antiguo, celebrated with drinks at a rooftop bar, and visited the Panama Canal Museum. Kevin and I both had read “The Path Between the Seas,” a gargantuan book by David McCullough about the history of the canal. The museum brought the experience of the historic neighborhood, the canal, and the story of the city’s past together beautifully for us.
With our “Educational Experience” complete, we returned to the boat to prep for our canal transit the next morning. While we were out, our lines and fenders arrived, filling the cockpit! The gentlemen got to work on preparing the boat and Abby and I focused in the galley. As noted, one of the requirements of the canal is that you feed your advisor a hot breakfast and lunch. As we figured (quite correctly) that it was going to be a busy, exhausting, yet exhilarating day, we had planned to prepare the meals in advance. We would be serving tasty homemade breakfast burritos and homemade lasagna. Yum! The boys focused on getting the lines ready and the fenders secured. Cold drinks and ice filled the YETI on the boat deck. We were ready.
A quick email from Eric got us all excited: “Present indication transit advisor joining at 04:00am tomorrow 30th April at the La Playita anchorage away from the other boats towards channel buoy no, 6 completing passage at 6:30pm. Please maintain/improve speed given to canal inspector. Please stand by vhf channel 12 Flamenco signal station for updates and report your position in the morning.”
LET’S DO THIS!
<<A quick note. As I looked back through the photos of this day, and wrote this story, it all came back and I had goosebumps and of course had a good old cry. It was a big deal for us. Writing about it doesn’t seem to convey the experience, but I hope at least a little bit of the scale of the day comes through!>>
At 3:15 am Red Rover departed the dock at Marina Flamenco and scooted around the peninsula to Marina Playita for a quick dock-side Doug and Mary pick-up. At 3:50 am we were floating by the buoy, with lightning streaking across the sky and a brisk wind blowing. I called the Canal Authority on the VHF as directed and Kevin and I smiled at each other in the red lights of the darkened pilothouse as they responded, “Good morning Red Rover, we’ve been expecting you.”
We circled in the anchorage for about an hour, with burritos heating in the oven and a festive atmosphere on board. At just after 5 am, a pilot boat approached. We were prepared to take the advisor on board through our side gate, but the wind had whipped up the water and the pilot boat was quite large and steel. Our advisor leapt off the bow of the pilot boat, and landed gracefully (how did he do that??) on the swim step where we welcomed him aboard. Guillermo, or “Memo” had a huge friendly smile and a relaxed, casual, but definitely in charge approach. He was fantastic and fun.
After greeting everyone, Memo got down to business, holding a meeting in the pilothouse where he described in detail what our roles would be, and what he and Kevin would be doing. We learned that we would have a sailboat rafted to us, and that Kevin would be in charge of their propulsion in addition to ours. We had requested and received a “center lock” transit, which meant that our two rafted boats would sit in the middle of the lock, with two lines coming from Red Rover and two lines from our partner boat. Memo suggested that having two people on each line would be beneficial, and with that Doug and Scott took the bow and Darren and I were assigned to the stern. Mary and Abby were to be runners, grabbing whatever was needed be it a line, a fender, headset batteries, etc. They were also in charge of the day’s food and drinks and a particularly important transit duty: Max Watch – ensuring that he would not get out of the boat interior unaccompanied. The thought of Max going overboard in the locks was more than we could handle. Kevin and I would wear our headsets and be able to communicate, whereas he could easily talk to Scott and Doug on the bow from his perch on the flybridge.
With the assignments clear, we were underway, heading under the Bridge of the Americas and toward the shining lights of the Miraflores Locks, the first of six locks that we would experience in the day ahead.
Just short of the locks, with container ships passing us at very close range, we stopped to allow the sailboat to raft onto us. The sailboat, Caractere, was a Kid Boat with a couple from Quebec and their three girls on board. They were returning to Quebec after years of cruising in the South Pacific. Pretty cool.
The first three locks which consist of Miraflores (two lock chambers) and Pedro Miguel locks raised us up from the Pacific, a total of 85 feet. When going up, a commercial ship sat in front of us. And while the commercial ship is attached with steel cables to trains, called “mules,” the mules only function to keep the ship in the middle of the locks and stable. They do not pull it. The ship has to move through the locks under its own power. And we were not terribly far behind that ship. All of the turbulence coming off of the ship in addition to the water rushing into the locks to raise us, all created incredible water movement and current. So, keeping the boat centered was a focused effort.
The locks have a tremendous amount of current and getting into the lock and situated is not easy, but Kevin, with Memo standing next to him on the flybridge, and a second 6.5 foot keel strapped onto our boat, mastered the process. As we entered the locks, Memo talked to the lock shoreside team via VHF, and the lock attendants at the top of the concrete walls alongside the lock threw the leader lines down to us, each with a “monkeyfist” at the end of the line. I went to the bow to catch our stern line, and walked it back to Darren who was waiting to quickly tie the monkeyfist to the loop in the line and send the line out to the shoreside line handlers, who stood far above us. At the same time, Scott and Doug executed the same process, as did the professional line handlers on the sailboat.