PANAMA CANAL TRANSIT - PREPARATION FOR TUESDAY AND WEBCAM

After leaving Cuba 5.5 days before we finally arrived at Panama in the dark
at 4am and skirted round
a reef and anchored for what remained of the night behind a small island
(Isla Naranja) 6 miles east of Colon. The Panama Canal has 2 large
breakwaters facing the Atlantic and we entered a new entrance in the eastern
breakwater and zigzagged past assorted moored freighters to the Colon Yacht
Club.

We were keen to get our Canal transit sorted and on the advice of Roger at
the Yacht Club took on Carlos, and had most of the
forms completed by 3pm including the cruising permit ($70) and applications
to have our boat measured for the transit. The Yacht Club has a really great
bar shaped like the bow of a boat and after 2 days I noticed that the floor
slopes quite markedly down to  French Creek on which the Yacht Club lies
(for the first few days anything that didn't move seemed normal, level or
not). We did
however notice the pairs of police that came in often - I suppose the sub
machine guns and black leather were a give - away, but then we read the
Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide - usually accurate pragmatic laid back
advice - and read that: 'WARNING -In Colon if you walk even in the day and
even taking all precautions it is not just possible but likely that you will
be mugged', and looked at the rough map provided by our guides which showed
5 major areas round the yacht club all marked Danger. The technique is to
take a taxi ($1) anywhere and return straight away - its a bit
claustrophobic. The yacht club which is directly behind a large container
storage is apparently an oasis of safety in this drug ridden slum.

We also gathered that the 12-16 feet waves and 40 knot winds that we had
been
through between Cuba and Panama had been unusual - Fred, an American skipper
who had come down from
Marathon said that it had been the worst trip of his life, and the Canal
Authorities said that a 250 feet long Tuna boat that had just been through
the Canal had set out into it and had been forced to turn back after a huge
wave had smashed all the windows high up on the bridge - although the
helicopter on the stern deck was OK. So Intrepid did all right to get us
through it - our only breakage was a hinge on the toilet seat - annoying but
not exactly life threatening. I had even managed to catch a 2nd dorado - 3
feet long this time and a rather good dorado stew with rice and herbs had
set us up well
for the long moonless night before we arrived.

We had arrived on Wednesday and on Thursday morning Jose from the Canal
Authority arrived to measure Intrepid. Every boat of whatever size going
through the Canal for the first time has to be measured. Strictly this
measures our metric tonnage - 1 metric tonne = 100 cubic feet of cargo
space, but actually he just measured our length. We had already
hired the 10 tires wrapped in black plastic bags to act as fenders ($3 each)
and 4 x 125 feet long ropes ($15 each hire) which we would need for the
canal locks - the locks are 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long - a whole class
of ships are designed for just these dimensions - Panamax - the largest
ships which can just get through the canal. Intrepid is 4% of this length so
we would have big neighbours in the locks. We have to say we can do 8 knots
or we are not allowed through the canal and are also charged an extra $2250
for delays so I have already adjusted our speedometer! But if we do delay
ships we can be charged $4500 or even more in actual pilot and anchoring
charges.

Thursday afternoon after I had paid the $600 transit fee and $850 deposit to
Citibank (actually an open credit card but that is the estimate) we asked
Carlos to take us to the first locks - Gatun which raise ships 85 feet in 3
stages to the level of the freshwater Gatun Lake which is the large middle
section of the Canal. And we watched a Panamax container ship loaded 8 deep
with containers 6 abreast just fitting the locks on the way down to the
Atlantic, and the line handlers with their throwing lines with monkey fists
to which we would have to tie our 4 lines to keep us central in the  locks.
We will have a Panamanian advisor on board (over 65 feet we have to have a
proper pilot) and when we phoned the canal authorities after 6pm  (as
instructed) we were scheduled to go through the Gatun Locks at about 6.00pm
on Monday 17th, then anchor for the night and then down through Miraflores
lock
which has a webcam on the official Panama Canal website about 11am local
(1600 GMT) on Tuesday 18th January to get to the Pacific.

Friday was Nick's 5X birthday so she unwrapped our presents and we brought
in emails then went to what is now the largest duty free zone in the world
(having overtaken Hong Kong). The Canal Free Trade Zone caters for duty free
merchants and businesses all over Europe and Americas and also as a
consolidation zone where smaller merchants often in Nicaragua or Costa Rica
can band together to receive a full container. Its a vast city - many
'shops' dont sell retail but a few do. However it all felt a bit like a
guided tour of a duty free shop, and the prices were not that different from
the USA and the goods 3 years out of date.  Then provisioning at the
surprisingly well stocked Rey supermarket, and birthday dinner at the packed
yacht club (with surprise cake) and a visit to the restored Washington Hotel
(again by taxi through another danger zone) to hear a salsa band that I am
afraid ranks
as our worst ever (along with a NZ band in Te Anau).

Transits are apparently often rescheduled so we are not sure when we go but
we hope to be not squashed en route,  and to be moored off Baracoa Yacht
Club on the Pacific side near Panama City (which by contrast with Colon is a
city of peace and
light) by Tuesday evening in good time for me to catch the flight back to UK
on 25th January.

We hope you are all well, and if you get a chance glance at the webcam.

Best wishes from the crew of Intrepid, Andy, Nicky, Christian, Caroline and
Eric.

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