Monday, January 28, 2008

Navy Seals, Blue Water Rally, and leaving for Bocas del Toro

A team of Navy seals are here doing jungle training.  That is the only connection to US military that abandoned Fort Sherman serves these days as far as we can tell.  I saw a couple of the seals running on the old fort air strip runway late this afternoon.  Guess the physical activity of jungle training all day was not enough physical exercise for these guys.  These guys are in unbelievably fantastic physical condition.  Later this evening they will probably be in the marina bar as they have been a few other nights this week, but we will not be going in there to visit with them.

The owner of this marina visited the site yesterday and Bill talked with him.  Bill had met Carlos when he visited Cartagena when we were there last October.  After Bill’s conversion with the owner, the marina manager decided that he will not kick us out on Thursday morning after all.  The marina manager agreed to allow us to stay in this slip until we are forced out when the final Blue Water Rally boat arrives – whenever that turns out to be.  He said we might even be allowed to stay until Monday morning.  This is good news because our laptop should be ready for us to pick up this Friday.  Toshiba is replacing the mainboard, which had to be ordered and is supposed to arrive on Thursday.  Lucky us.  Now everything in that computer will be new except the screen and the keyboard.  Not bad for a computer for which the warranty expires on Jan 28th.

Now a small lesson on the Panama Canal.

As I have mentioned in earlier postings, the large ships that transit the canal completely fill the width of the canal, leaving only about 6-inches clearance on either side of the ship to the canal walls.  A ship this size is called a Pana-Max.  A Pana-Max is a container ship built to maximum size to pass through the canal. They are close to 900 feet long and 105 feet wide with 40 foot containers stacked up to six high on the deck.  Most of the ones we have seen have had containers stacked four high covering the total deck space.  That is a lot of containers!    When the US controlled the Panama Canal, a ship paid transit fees simply based on the size of the ship.  One of the first changes implemented by the Chinese when they started managing the canal for Panama (after former President Jimmy Carter literally gave away the canal) was to start charging fees not only for the ship itself but also for cargo.  There is an additional fee for each container on each ship that transits the canal now.  A typical Pana-Max loaded four containers high on deck will pay about $285,000 to transit the canal.  Sounds expensive until you calculate the alternative of sailing down around the tip of South America, at least 7,000 miles.

Instead of line-handlers such as are used onboard yachts such as ours, large commercial vessels have the services of a “mule” each side fore and aft, which keeps the ship positioned safely in the lock while it fills or empties.  A mule is a small locomotive on train tracks alongside each side of the canal and down the meridian between the 2 channels of the canal.  It is a misconception that the mules act as tugs (as described on our recent photos)  – ships and yachts are always controlled by their own engines.  This is why we absolutely do not want to be positioned behind a large ship when we transit the canal.  The prop wash tosses small yachts like ours about like a wine cork in a flushed toilet.

This rainy season (May through November) is what fills Gatun Lake, which forms the water highway across the country to the Pacific side. Each time a ship transits the canal (14,000 per year), 53 million gallons of fresh water is drained from this lake. Gatun Lake is also a reservoir to allow operation of the canal in the dry season. When it was built in the early 1900s it was the largest man-made lake and earth dam in the world.  The locks on the Caribbean/Atlantic side are called the Gatun locks; then a ship enters Gatun Lake; then into the Miraflores locks which exit into the Pacific Ocean.  A large ship completes the transit in one day, but small boats like ours normally must spend the night anchored in Gatun Lake and complete the canal transit on the second day.  It is my understanding that small boats transiting from the Pacific side usually do not spend the night in Gatun Lake.

Here is a bar-bet tidbit.  Which end of the Panama Canal is farthest west?  The Pacific side or the Atlantic side?  Bet most of you got it wrong and said Pacific.  Nope, the Atlantic side is farther west.  The canal basically runs north/south but with a slight tilt with the northernmost (Atlantic) entry/exit being farther west and the southernmost (Pacific) entry/exit being farther east.

Chagres River is near Shelter Bay Marina, on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. The Chagres River is a beautiful tropical river where many different types of wildlife can be found including: crocodiles, pigs, deer, species of monkeys, and all types of wild birds. This natural park is one of the few untouched and pristine areas. This is where the US Forces train for jungle warfare. In addition, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute maintains an active research presence here. 

The entrance to Rio Chagres is tricky with reefs and shoals, and sits under Fort San Lorenzo, which history dates back to the 1600s. Small yachts like ours can go up the Rio Chagres all the way to the dam which creates Gatun Lake.  The river was dammed in 1910 to create Gatun Lake which forms part of the Panama Canal. This lake is why ships need to lock upwards 86 feet to cross the continent. There is a hydro electric power station at the dam, which provides power to nearby Gatun Locks.

BTW, the only thing that transits the Panama Canal free of charge are crocodiles.  Crocs are sometimes seen in the locks and are often seen in Gatun Lake.  Some cruisers like to swim in Gatun Lake while anchored awaiting their next leg of the canal transit.  No way we will be doing that.

One last thing on this subject:  why in the world did Jimmy Carter give away the Panama Canal?  The USA had a treaty to control the canal in perpetuity; the USA owned the land covering 7 miles on either side of the canal;  the USA built the darn thing in the first place; operating the canal was not costing the USA anything; this canal is very high priority if military ships or US goods need to be moved expeditiously from Atlantic to Pacific or vice versa.  So why in the world did Jimmy Carter give it away?  Has to be the dumbest thing he did during his presidency.

January 26, 2008  Saturday

Yesterday we took the express bus to Panama City.  Only hitch was that this time the bus took a slightly different route because the police had a main road closed.  As we were driving around I recognized some of the buildings and knew we were already past where we needed to go.  So we asked the bus driver to stop and let us off.  We walked a few blocks and found a taxi.  The taxi driver did not know where we needed to go, so Bill called the Toshiba Warranty Center and handed the driver the cell phone.  Problem solved.  Fifteen minutes later we were at the computer repair shop.  The computer wasn’t quite ready, so we got back into the same taxi and went to Tropigas on Tumba Muerte.

Without going into all the boring details, our 20-pound aluminum propane tank was damaged when the marina sent it out to be refilled a couple of weeks ago.  The refill place broke the valve and could not replace the valve.  We could not find a replacement tank, but the marina manager said that we could buy a 20-pound aluminum propane tank at this location of Tropigas. 

Wrong!!! Again.  Only thing available to purchase was a 20-pound steel propane tank, which will be rusted out in no time.  But we bought it anyway because we need cooking gas. Tropigas does sell 25-pound aluminum tanks, but those were too tall to fit into our gas locker.

 This morning Stuart on IMAGINE helped Bill replace the valve on our damaged original aluminum tank.  Do not know why that shop could not get this job done.  So we sold the full steel propane tank to another cruiser who will be heading off toward Australia next week.  We could not keep it because the sealed vented propane locker in our boat will only hold one 20-pound tank and one 10-pound tank.  Cannot manage to get two 20-pound tanks into that locker.   What a shame.  It would be nice to be able to carry that much cooking gas so we could go longer between refills.

Thirty boats from the Blue Water Round-the-World Rally are now in Shelter Bay Marina.  Marina management told us to leave here early Thursday morning, but Bill talked with the owner of the marina and got us a reprieve,  Really glad that we did not have to leave here and go anchor in The Flats.  Fifteen of the rally boats will be transiting the canal tomorrow afternoon, and the remaining fifteen will transit the canal on Tuesday.  This rally moves much too fast.  We had looked at doing this rally a couple of years ago, but it just goes too fast.  These boats left Gibraltar in late October.  They arrived in Antigua in mid-December and stayed there only a week or so.  Then they sailed straight to the San Blas Islands, where most of them spent only 5 days; and then a quick stop in Portobelo for an organizational meeting about canal transiting.  Then they came straight to Shelter Bay Marina.  Most of the boats arrived here Thursday and half will be leaving on Sunday, the second half on Tuesday.  A few days on the Pacific side at Panama City so they can buy groceries and fuel, and then they all head off across the Pacific.  They will complete a circumnavigation in 2 years.  But they won’t get to enjoy one single place that they visit because the pace is so rushed.  And they must stick to this calendar schedule, regardless of weather.  To us, that does not make any sense whatsoever.  Seems like weather should take the highest priority, not a calendar schedule.  The ultimate decision to leave port in bad weather is up to each captain; but if they don’t leave on schedule with the rest of the rally boats, then they will not be able to complete the circumnavigation with the rally.  So they all head off like lemmings.

Most everyone in this rally is from somewhere in Europe.  Makes sense since they start in Gibraltar.  And almost all of them are nice enough people.  However, a few of them are real a**holes.  One woman in particular is concerned about nothing except herself and her needs.  The marina shuttle bus on Friday morning was crowded to standing room only.  Bill and I had arrived 30-minutes early to ensure that we got seats because we really needed to get to the bus terminal to catch the express bus to Panama City that day.  This particular London woman arrived late, just as the bus was leaving.  She was told that there was no more room on the bus, but she insisted that she was getting on that bus because she absolutely must do grocery shopping.  So she forced the door open into the backs of the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder and forced her way inside.  Another woman was a really good sport about the whole thing and sat down on the floor and worked herself up beneath seats in order to make room for this arrogant UK *itch.  Good thing she was a small woman or she would not have fit on that floor space beneath the seats.  How self-centered can you get!  The London woman could just as easily waited and taken the afternoon shuttle to the supermarket.  And there she was patting herself on the back for being able to get what she wanted, regardless of the inconvenience placed on others.  And Europeans think Americans are arrogant.  The actions of this woman from the UK topped any American arrogance that we have ever seen.

We reserved a slip at a marina in Bocas del Toro.  People have warned us how bad the noseeums are there.  Since I am so very sensitive to noseeum bites, we figured we should go to a marina where we can run the air-conditioners instead of leaving the boat hatches open to breezes and bugs.  If the bugs are not bad when we get there, then we can always check out of the marina and do some anchorage exploring of the area.  Weather prediction as of now is good for passage Tuesday and Wednesday.  We requested the marina obtain our zarpe from Colon to Bocas on Monday and reserve the fuel barge for 110 gallons on Tuesday morning.  Assuming the zarpe is issued without delay then we will be leaving late Tuesday morning for a passage straight to Bocas del Toro.

January 28, 2008 Monday

Bill had ordered two 1-gig strips of extra-low-profile DDR RAM for our main computer.  Since he added the AIS, our Maxsea is very sluggish.  We are hoping that this additional RAM brings it back to faster speed when dealing with the charts.   The fact that the AIS is identifying more than 100 boats at a time here by the Panama Canal is probably eating up a lot of the memory, so more RAM should help.  Unfortunately, the only place Bill could find that sold extra-low-profile DDR would not ship via FedEx, which is the courier service recommended by the marina.  The RAM could only be shipped via UPS.  We have tracked it online and know that it arrived in Colon last Friday afternoon.  Bill is going into Colon to try to pick it up from UPS.   We are ecstatic that this delivery made it to Colon before we depart for Bocas del Toro tomorrow morning. 

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bus trip to Panama City

On Thursday we did our first solo bus trip to Panama City.  Our previous two trips were on the marina shuttle bus; this time we took the public express bus.  It costs only $2.50 per person, is air-conditioned with reclining seats, and even shows a movie most of the time.  We had a very nice newer bus with a movie in English with Spanish subtitles on the trip over there, and no movie and an older dirty bus on the return trip.  Still a bargain at that price even without a movie.  And makes it so easy to get around Panama.

I discovered that the local man sitting in front of us spoke English, so we showed him the address where we needed to go and he told us to get off when he did because it should be in that general area of town.  So we got off when he did, and did not take the bus all the way to Albrook Mall which is the final destination of the express bus.  It was a very good thing that this man was so kind to help us non-Spanish-speaking foreigners!  He said that the taxi drivers will drive you around and run up a fare and then say they can’t find your destination.  He stayed with us and helped us find a taxi driver who knew where we were trying to go.  The first 4 taxi drivers did not have a clue where we wanted to go.  The 5th one knew exactly where it was.  A whopping $1.50 taxi ride away!  Not very far at all.

Our “new” laptop had died and we needed to take it to a Toshiba Warranty Center before the warranty expires on January 28.  We dropped off the laptop with an English speaking technician and will check back with him this coming Monday.  Then we took another taxi to Albrook Mall.  There we had lunch and then caught the 2:00 express bus back to Colon.  We were familiar enough with the area to be able to get off the bus behind 4 Altos Mall, where we hoped to catch the marina afternoon shuttle back.  Timing worked perfectly; except that the shuttle driver had driven the flat-bed truck for that afternoon shuttle run instead of the normal bus because he only had 2 passengers.  So we took a taxi back to the marina. 

This was actually a fun day.  Just wish we had spent more time in Albrook Mall because I would have liked to get a haircut.  Oh well, maybe when we go back over there to pick up the laptop after it is repaired.

The marina is kicking us out!  We must leave no later than early morning on January 24 because they are expecting 38 boats from the Bluewater Round-the-World Rally.  Guess we will go anchor in The Flats when they force us out of here if the computer isn’t ready by then (& we doubt that it will be fixed that quickly).

Yesterday a very nice Cuban guy who crews on a large motor yacht docked next to us gave Bill two fishing rods & reels.  How very nice of him!  Now maybe we can be more successful catching fish.  All we have been using are hand reels connected with bungee cords.  We brought back new lures from our Houston trip because we really want to start catching more fish.  Cross your fingers for us!  We can’t rely on our friends to catch all our fish.

Our friends on S/V BLUEPRINT MATCH have changed their boat name.  The new name is S/V FREE SPIRIT.  They left the Panama Canal Yacht Club this morning enroute to Rio Chagres, only about 10 miles away.  We are jealous because we would love to be anchored over there for a couple of days and then on to Bocas del Toro.  But we are stuck waiting for the laptop repair, so no point in thinking about it further.

Weather here has been unbelievably cool and windy.  We have not turned on the air-conditioning all week, except at night.  The only reason we turn the a/c on at night is because we have an aft stateroom and the hatch faces the stern.  This means that we would be fully visible to the dock when we are in bed.  Since we do not want to wave at our neighbors from our bed, we close the curtains and turn on the air-conditioning.  Seems like such a waste of electricity when the weather is so wonderful.

This is really a nice marina.  But, man, are we ready to move on!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Manatee and the Panama Canal

Bill and I were walking down the dock near our boat when I spotted something large in the water.  It was about 10-feet long and moving extremely slowly.  Bill recognized it immediately as a manatee.  When we looked closer we saw that it was actually a manatee cow with a very small calf right next to her.  This was a surprise because manatees are not supposed to live here.  They live up near Bocas del Toro, but are not supposed to be right at the entrance of the Panama Canal.  I ran to grab the camera.  If we had thought about it then we would have quickly dug out the water hose and dumped it into the water.  Manatees are supposed to love fresh water coming out of a hose.  But I was so busy watching the darn thing that I did not think about the water hose until it was too late.

On Sunday we took the marina shuttle bus over to Panama City again.  Busy shopping day and the bus was way over crowded.  Would have bought much more if there had been more room on the bus to bring stuff home.  I finally remembered to bring the camera and snapped a couple of photos as we drove over the Lock #1.  I also tried to get a photo of the Bridge of the Americas in Panama City, but it was taken from the window of the bus from a distance as we drove down the road; so the photo is not the greatest.

Weather today was unusually cool and quite windy.  It was so cool that we turned off the air-conditioning and opened the hatches.  Probably won`t turn the a/c on tonight either.  We had hoped to leave here by the end of the week, but looks like that isn`t going to happen.  Winds are too high and seas are 10-12 feet every 8 seconds!  We are not going out into that!  We will wait until either the seas lay down or until the waves are spaced farther apart.  No sense in being tossed about when we can stay safely and comfortably tied to this dock.  There is plenty of time for us to get to Bocas.  We are not in a hurry.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Returned to Shelter Bay Marina

January 12, 2008

 It’s good to be back home on the boat.  Visiting our old land home and family and friends was nice but real home is now the boat.  Flight back to Panama was uneventful; my worrying about luggage contents and TSA and Customs proved a waste of time.  TSA did not even question my carrying a very heavy transformer as carry-on luggage.  And, surprise to me, they also did not even open Bill’s bag which contained a spare starter for the generator; and certainly that big chunk of metal should have raised some flags on the x-ray screen.  Each of our checked bags weighed exactly 50 pounds – not even a tenth of an ounce variance from the maximum allowed -- thanks to my old doctors scales being stored at Trey’s house.  Continental had a luggage embargo effective until January 15 and would not allow any excess baggage weight.  Otherwise we would have purchased another suitcase and brought back another 50-pounds of stuff.
 Bill had attached invoices to each item we brought back for the boat, and he had printed a spreadsheet listing each item, its purpose and its cost.  We presented this spreadsheet to the Customs official in Panama and were cleared right through.  They did not even open a single bag!  I know the guys on S/V BRUADAIR had a horrible time with Customs at the Panama airport last summer - held in Customs for 12 hours because Customs wanted $400 duty for importing boat parts for their vessel in transit.  So I was expecting a problem when we cleared in.  Just goes to show how proper documentation presented in a clear and concise manner can smooth the process.  We breezed right through.

 Unfortunately, our taxi driver was a no-show at the airport.  We had emailed him twice (including the day before our flight) and he responded each time that he would pick us up as scheduled.  Not a problem.  He was also supposed to take us by the Yanmar place in Panama City so we could pick up some spare parts they were holding for us.  We hung around on the curb outside the airport for almost an hour; finally called the taxi driver and learned that he was still in Colon; so we hired another taxi to bring us back across Panama to the marina near Colon for $100.  But this replacement taxi driver did not know where the Yanmar place was located in Panama City so we were not able to pick-up the spare parts which we had purchased.  Annoying, as this means another trip back over there.

 We arrived at the boat to discover that the accumulator tank on the pressurized fresh water system had developed a tiny hole during our absence.  This was not a problem until we turned the water system back on (we turn off everything when we leave the boat for more than a day).  Bill turned on the water and left the boat to go walking around the marina.  Very soon the water pump and the bilge pump were working together. I noticed that the bilge pump was running constantly but was waiting for Bill to return before I turned off anything because I didn`t know if he was intentionally pumping out water.   Soon the fresh water tank was pumped dry.  Bill disconnected the accumulator tank and jerry-rigged the water system using the handle of a wooden spoon to plug the opening which would normally connect to the accumulator tank.   He filled the water tank with enough dock water to get us through one day and we were set for the night.  This marina has fantastic bathrooms and showers, but we both prefer to shower on our own boat.

BTW, we had rented a dehumidifier from the marina.  This kept the humidity out of the boat while we were gone.  It worked great and we still have a mold/mildew-free boat.   Hope it remains that way forever.

 We also discovered that the macerator pump on the forward head had developed a leak.  The toilet bowl would not hold water.  Leave the boat for 3 weeks and return to find 2 things had failed in our absence!   Good thing that Bill is such a Mr. Fix-It.  His skills are constantly being tested living on a boat.  Seems like every week there is something that needs repair or maintenance.  And this is on a 5-year-old boat.  Can you imagine what it must be like on a 30-year-old boat!  If you don’t have electrical, plumbing and mechanical skills then you should not ever consider owning a boat and leaving the US.

Bill spent 2 days installing all our new toys: JVC radio/DVD player with attachment so that the iPod now plays through the data port (since the audio port was fried by lightning in November); our new smaller flat-panel monitor (Thanks to John!!); AIS receiver; installed a new 4-port Edgeport serial to USB; relocated the WiFi adapter and amplifier; and networking our 3 computers.  He also re-wired all the 12-volt breaker switch wiring and relocated several things.  Basically he re-did everything that he had spent 3 days wiring in St. Thomas when we first moved aboard and added the new toys.  He used JB Weld to fix the tiny hole in the accumulator tank and it is holding fine; and installed a new seal kit on the macerator pump. 

So all our boat projects are complete for the moment.  Guess that means it is time to start a new list.

 I made 2 morning trips to the supermarket and then spent 2 afternoons vacuum sealing things, storing them and modifying my inventory list.  Freezer is now full again and we are pretty much fully provisioned.  Just need to replenish the beer and Diet Cokes.   We still need to collect our Yanmar spare parts from Panama City and have our propane tanks refilled.  Then the last-minute trip to the fuel barge to fill our diesel tank and jerry jugs, and we will be ready to leave here. 
 We have decided to go up to the Bocas del Toro area of Panama for about 6-8 weeks or so, then back here to transit the Panama Canal in March.  We plan to hang out on the Pacific coast of Panama and Costa Rica for the next year.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Home for the holidays

It has been a busy few weeks for us in Houston.  Christmas was wonderful with most of the family.  Trey did a marvelous job cooking Christmas dinner, as usual.  And we enjoyed catching up with various family members.  We especially enjoyed seeing the grandkids enjoy their Christmas toys.

I had the pleasure of watching both grandkids for the first week of January; they were out of school and their parents had to go back to work that week.  Zachary spent most of his time playing the rock guitar module of his Wii.  And BeBe taught me her way of playing cards -- with Loveable Kisses, Super Trees, Regular Trees and Diamonds (a/k/a hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds).  She makes up rules as she plays; such as, Diamonds beat Regular Trees because diamond saws can cut down trees.  And anytime someone draws a heart of any denomination then they must give Loveable Kisses and hugs to the other players.  Girls are so very different from boys in the manner in which they play. games.

We went to Goodwill and purchased 3 old hard suitcases to bring back all the spares and stuff that we have bought for the boat.  Today was our packing day.  Weight became an issue so Bill called Continental Airlines to verify the costs of excess baggage or overweight baggage.  He learned that Continental will not allow any excess baggage or overweight baggage on flights to Panama until after January 15.  The weight limit is 50 pounds per piece of checked luggage.  Well, that is a problem!  Our flight is January 9.  We managed to shift contents in all our luggage and eventually ended up with 3 suitcases which weigh 50 pounds, 50 pounds and 49 pounds.  And our final piece of checked luggage will be a duffle bag weighing 50 pounds.  Bill will carry a very full backpack and a 25 pound sea bag.  I will carry another very full backpack and a canvas bag containing a 3000 watt step-up/step-down transformer and books (total weight 36 pounds).   Our laptops will be in the backpacks; this allows us to follow the airline regulations of having one computer bag and one carry-on luggage.  Looks like we will manage to bring back everything we wanted except for 3 pairs of my shoes.

Both laptops are repaired -- new keyboard and hard drive in the old one and new hard drive and DVD-RW drive in the new one which has sustained lightning damage.  Actually had the hard drive and DVD drive replaced under warranty.   We have a new JVC radio/DVD player to replace the one fried by lightning.  Found out that the iPod will work with the radio using an adapter called a JVC-KS-PD100.  The audio jack on the iPod is fried from the lightning, but the data jack works fine; so we did not have to buy a new iPod after all.  We never use the headphones anyway so that isn`t a problem.   Bill also found waterproof alarm decoders for our boat security system, so now we will not have to worry so much about the alarm decoder getting wet when we are in the dinghy.

We have a new AIS receiver to install.  It was a major headache finding the correct things to enable us to install the AIS receiver but Bill finally found the right parts.   For you landlubbers, AIS transmitters & receivers are now required on all larger vessels worldwide.   Our boat is not large enough to require the AIS transmitter (which costs a couple thousand dollars).  But you can buy an AIS receiver for only about $200.  This receiver will connect to our charting software and will display all commercial ships and larger vessels directly on our chart screen.  It will identify the ship by name, latitude, longitude and course.  They might not see us but we will see them.  Looking forward to getting this installed so we can "see" all the ships in the vicinity of the Panama Canal when we leave that area in a few weeks.

Looking forward to going home to the boat in a few days.  Three weeks is a long time to be away.  As much as we have enjoyed visiting family and friends and buying boat stuff so easily available in the States, we are both homesick for S/V BeBe.