Saturday, 15 April 2017

Caribbean Panama

Not the usual Caribbean beach
It’s now 15th April. We have been told that our date for transiting the Panama Canal is tomorrow, Easter Sunday 16th April. Happy Easter everyone.

Spot the monkeys
Much has happened since we arrived in Shelter Bay Marina. The Marina contacted an agent called Erick Galvez the day we checked in. He left his email address the same day. We looked at his website and gave him all the information he needed to start the process of transiting the Canal. The next day a Measurer arrived and was a happy man because we had been through the Canal before and he could use the information from last time. After he had gone, two of Erick’s staff arrived and Jeremy paid $1705 (which included $350 agent’s fee) by bank card to these two strangers who worked for a man he’d never met. He was given an itemised receipt on headed paper. At the end of our second day here, Erick emailed us with our transit date of 23rd April. Our initial excitement changed to disappointment, but there was a chance that our date might be brought forward and it has been.

Abandoned military base
We still had to check in with Immigration in Colon. We had seen someone from the Port Captain’s Office at the Marina on the day of our arrival and paid $20. We caught the Marina’s free bus to a shopping mall called Cuatro Altos and stayed on to the next stop at a mall called Millenium Plaza. From there we took a taxi to yet another mall called Colon 2000 and went to the Immigration Office, but it was the wrong one. Fortunately, the right office at Home Port was only 5 minutes’ walk away and half an hour later our passports had been stamped. There was no charge. Another taxi took us back to 4 Altos, where we bought some groceries and caught the Marina bus back to Shelter Bay.

There are much worse places to be waiting. Here we are in a national park. We can hear howler monkeys and can see other monkeys only a short walk away. The whole area used to be an American air base called Fort Sherman, where soldiers trained for Vietnam and many of the military buildings are still standing but sadly, vandalised. The Marina is also a hotel with a restaurant, swimming pool, gym, shop, laundry and cruisers’ air conditioned lounge. It’s like being on holiday and it’s hot and sunny (27-31C).

Swimming pool
We volunteered to help another yacht transit the Canal by being line handlers and expected to leave with them last Monday. Our Canadians friends, Ann and Barry, from Cat’s Paw IV were also volunteer line handlers on another yacht. The day before we were due to leave we were told another couple were taking our place and we were no longer needed. We were given a half bottle of rum and a chocolate bar as thanks. The next day I met the new line handlers. They were much younger than us and closer in age to the Skipper and his mate.

SD in Shelter Bay Marina
We left the Marina and went to Portobelo for 4 nights on anchor. It was much fresher in the bay anchored under Fuerta San Fernando. We knew that Francis Drake and Henry Morgan had sacked Portobelo in times past, along with Admiral Vernon in later years. There used to be warehouses in Portobelo where gold from Peru was stored prior to shipment  to Spain. However, three forts failed to keep out the British and other Europeans such as the Dutch.

Camera shy monkey
Nowadays, Portobelo is a quiet fishing village, which you can walk around in an hour or less. We explored the remains of the three forts and enjoyed the hospitality of Casa Vela which has a free dinghy dock, café, bar and wifi.

Fuerta Lorenzo
Four people responded to our advert for line handlers for our own transit, which we pinned to the Marina notice board. Two could not help out on our dates, but two others, Howard and Tammy, are keen to help and we are happy to have them aboard. Our third line handler has been arranged by our agent and we have yet to meet him (or her).

Anchored under Fuerta San Fernando
All being well tomorrow we hope to have time for Easter Brunch at the restaurant before setting off for The Flats and anchoring in Cristobal Harbour to await our Advisor, who stays on the boat while we are transiting the Canal (but not overnight in Lake Gatun). You can watch us on the webcam at Miraflores Locks on Monday 17th April between 8.00 and 10.00pm BST or 1900 to 2100 GMT.

Hasta luego!
Jeremy at Fuerta Jeronimo

Old Custom House, Portobelo

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Bonaire to Aruba and Panama

Anchoarge at Klein Curacao
We arrived in Aruba on Monday 20th March after an overnight passage from Bonaire. Bravely, we sailed off our Kralendijk mooring forgetting about the current and narrowly missed the yacht moored nearby. The next hazard was a drifting ship. We have learned that it is quite common for big ships waiting to enter a port to turn off their engines and drift at 0.5-0.9 knots. Naturally, they drift backwards, which makes it very difficult for a small yacht under sail to pass their stern. One ship off Bonaire kindly started their engines and moved away, but the process took 10-15 minutes.

Almost a Green Flash
We had a lunch stop at Klein Curacao, a walk round most of the small island, a swim from the boat and a sleep until 2215. This time we motored away from the anchorage, but were soon sailing gently towards Curacao. Here we encountered more drifting ships as we navigated our way through. Curacao did a good job of blocking the wind and the swell, so we were soon motoring again until we had cleared the shelter of the island.

Cruise ships at Aruba
We tied to the Customs dock at Oranjestaad, Aruba at 1540. The Port Authority, Customs and Immigration came to see us and we filled in all the usual paperwork. By 1700 we were anchored next to Canadian friends, Ann and Barry on Cat’s Paw IV. We had been in contact by email and it was good to see them again. One hour later, we were on board Cat’s Paw IV enjoying sundowners with them and Barry’s cousin, Lucy and husband, Mark.

Keeping cool on passage
The next day, we dropped off our 3 empty cooking gas bottles at Renaissance Marina and left them to be filled. This was done by the following day for a charge of 10USD for the service and 26USD for the gas. Excellent service. I continue to be impressed by the Renaissance complex of hotel, resort, mall, casino, private island and marina. Water taxis take guests to Reception and tie up inside the hotel or they can choose to arrive by car. The Marina Office manager is friendly and helpful and we are not charged for tying the dinghy at their dock.

Surfside Marina, Aruba
Another friendly hotel/marina, called Surfside, located near the anchorage, let us fill our water containers and dispose of our rubbish for no charge.

Lucy, Mark and Ann on SD
We stayed in Aruba for 3 nights and enjoyed having all the crew from Cat’s Paw IV aboard Sal Darago for another sundowner session.

Two kippers
The next day, Thursday 23rd March, we prepared SD for a 5-6 day passage to Panama and asked permission to go to the Customs dock to clear out. One hour and ten minutes later all the paperwork was done, our passports were stamped and we were free to leave. Soon we had twin poles up flying the full genoa on one side and the no.2 jib on the other. As it went dark, lightning lit up the sky on and off until 0100. It was very hot and muggy but there was no rain and little wind. The rest of the passage was a mix of sail changes, sometimes flying our ghoster and sometimes motoring in fairly calm seas and light winds. Dolphins came by, stars shone as the clouds cleared and most ships passed a safe distance away.
Big genoa and bigger ghoster

There were a few scares such as the ship with no name that set off our CPA (Closest Point of Approach) alarm giving me only 17 minutes before it would be very close as it was dead ahead and doing 21knots. Fortunately, the person on watch answered my call on VHF 16 and the ship passed 1.3 miles away. This might sound like a long way but in the middle of the night, it looks close.
One day the wind unexpectedly blew a bit stronger and we left the ghoster up a bit too long. As we started to take it down a shackle connecting the pole to a downhaul line snapped, the pole swung about madly and the line dropped half on the deck and half in the water. We retrieved the line and Jeremy restrained the pole. As we lowered the ghoster the wind caught it and lifted Jeremy off the deck. Sensibly, he let it go but he had rope burns on his arm and ribs. We struggled once more to haul in the ghoster and finally lowered it under the genoa to the deck and bagged it up.

The weather was hot. Naked sailing was one way of keeping cool. Sleeping on top of sheets with a fan going was another. Motoring only added to the heat, so we tried to avoid it by sailing very slowly at less than 2 knots sometimes.

The final scare was arriving at the start of the Panama Canal, off Cristobal Harbour in the dark and navigating through the many anchored and moving ships. It’s hard to believe that sometimes you don’t see a huge bulk carrier moving towards you against the lights of anchored ships and the port. As dawn broke, we got permission from Cristobal Signal Station to enter the vast harbour and turn for Shelter Bay Marina. We tied up to berth D29 at 0710 on Wednesday 29th March. It was our 42nd Wedding Anniversary, so in the evening we ate out in the cool marina restaurant.
Cheers everyone.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Martinique to Bonaire

Belated Birthday Lunch

A very strange thing happened on the way to Martinique. The dinghy was hauled up on the roof as usual. It has two retractable wheels on its stern so that it can be hauled up slipways or beaches. The last time the wheels had been used was on the River Deben in Suffolk but one of them had a puncture. We had bought a new inner tube in Spain and found the valve had snapped off, while we were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The hunt for a dinghy wheel began. We must have visited every chandler, hardware shop and tyre centre in Marin with no luck. However, persistence paid off and Jeremy bought a new small wheel complete with inner tube for 9.99 euros. He fitted the new tube in the old tyre.

Checks are in, but what a view
Then there was the strange incident of the French Orange data SIM card. We took our dongle and laptop to the shop and bought a 1gb card. Everything worked in the shop and on board SD that night. The next day, it didn’t work. So, back to the shop we went and the man said we had to top up. We topped up, which took a long time because the Orange shop has the worst signal anywhere in Martinique! Now we had paid 29.99 euros and….you’ve guessed…… still didn’t work. All we could do was connect the laptop to my mobile phone and, bingo, we had internet on the boat, and it only took two days to get it!

Anse Noire with Sal Darago
We moved from Marin to Anse Noire and the rain began. Dodging squalls, we anchored in the bay and went ashore to a lovely restaurant just a short climb up steps set into the cliff. Here, we belatedly celebrated Jeremy’s birthday while watching sheets of rain obliterate the fine view over the bay.

Caribbean hitchhiker at night
The next day we dodged more squalls on the short motor to Fort de France – directly into the wind. It was Saturday, so we checked out at the chandlery as we were leaving for Bonaire the next day. Then we looked for somewhere for lunch and everywhere was closed. The main town of Martinique was like a ghost town and a wet one at that. Most of the shops were closed and the choices for food were expensive hotels with long waits for service, Macdonalds or KFC. We opted for Macdonalds.
Dreadful weather on arrival in Bonaire

Leader Price supermarket was open and packed. Jeremy had to beg a trolley from the check-out queue. We bought what we needed for our 5 day passage and added 2 bottles of Bordeaux wine. After queueing for ages, we packed our bags and I paid the bill. Then I noticed a trail of red liquid dripping from my rucksack. One bottle of wine had broken. The bottom had sliced off cleanly and 70cl of Bordeaux was sloshing around in my rucksack where I had a beige raincoat and other bits and pieces along with some shopping.

Looks like 5000 visitors got here before us
How do you get red wine out of a jacket and a rucksack? Easy. First you dip the rucksack in the nearest puddle. Then you look for a public toilet only they’re locked on Saturdays. So, you return to your waterlogged dinghy and it is just what you need to rinse the jacket and the rucksack, while passers-by give you strange looks and keep on walking.

Fortunately the sun shone on Sunday 12th March and we were able to dry everything before setting off for Bonaire. We had a good passage with our usual downwind rig of twin poles with the furling genoa on one side and the no.2 jib hanked on the other side. Mostly, we flew full sails in moderate winds and a low swell.

Fish under Sal Darago, Bonaire
As we approached the south end of Bonaire at 0500 the fair winds increased to 25-31 knots and heavy rain fell. We needed to change course and Jeremy took down the poles and lines getting soaked to the skin in the process. More squalls followed as black night turned into grey dawn. Our destination of Kralendijk disappeared behind sheets of heavy rain. Our cruising guide told us we were in the dry season. That was good to know.

We picked up a mooring managed by Harbour Village Marina, as yachts are not allowed to anchor, and were told by the marina office to check in with Customs and Immigration first and then go to the marina to pay for the mooring. This we did, and arrived by dinghy at the marina with three empty cooking gas bottles and four water containers. Two men were locking the office door as we arrived at midday and we were told to return at 1.30pm. Jeremy asked if our gas bottles could be filled and one man became angry and gave Jeremy a tirade about respect. Then he walked off complaining that we were interfering with his time and told us to go back to our own country. He turned out to be the duty marina manager. We thought this was probably the worst welcome we’d had to any country we’d visited. We returned in the afternoon to pay for the mooring.

What can I say? Beautiful motion
Today has been much better and we have found the people to be very helpful and friendly. I have been able to buy prescription medicine from the hospital pharmacy, our washing has been done in the best laundry we’ve been in and soon we shall snorkel from the boat and see all kinds of colourful tropical fish.

Okay - Find the fish. First correct answer is invited to work the Panama locks.
We leave for Aruba on Sunday  19th March.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Mindelo, Cape Verdes to Martinique, Caribbean

Belem Castle Mindelo style

 Our intended short stay in Mindelo had to be extended to a week as Jeremy went down with diarrhoea. Whether it was something he’d eaten, the water he’d drunk or a virus, we’ll never know. Anyway, he sensibly confined himself to SD for two or three days, while I went ashore and caught up with emails etcetera in the marina bar. While he was poorly the cold tap washer on the galley sink disintegrated. Jeremy hauled himself out of his sick bed to replace the washer. There were none of the same size in our stores, so he had to cut down a larger one. Later, we were able to buy new tap washers ashore. We met several British crews and all showed concern. It was such a shame that we could not socialise with them. We first met Graham from Zephyr at Marina Lanzarote and we still owe him a beer from then. Perhaps we’ll meet again in the Caribbean.

View over Mindelo anchorage
Mindelo was a good place to stock up on food, water and diesel. There were various cafes for eating out, but the one we liked best was called La Pergola in the French Cultural Centre. While some people in Mindelo were obviously very wealthy, there were beggars on the streets and warnings about thefts from yachts. The marina had a secure dinghy dock but you had to pay 4 euros each day for this. In the past, local guys earned a living “watching” dinghies for less than 1 euro per dinghy per day.

Eating out again at La Pergola
We weighed anchor at 0700 on Saturday 18th February, catching the last of the SW going stream of the tide, which runs quite strongly between the islands of Sao Vicente and Sao Antao. We had two reefs in the main sail and a very small genoa on a beam reach, making 8 knots on the GPS. Once clear of the islands two pods of dolphins came to play in the bow wave. We wondered if they were warning us of bad weather ahead, but all was OK for the first week, except for the rivets holding the staple for one of the lazy jacks disintegrating. Jeremy managed to replace the staple using self-tapping screws and secure the lazy jack. By the evening, the mainsail was down and secured to the boom, two poles were up on each side of the mast, the full genoa was flying to port and the hanked on no.2 jib was flying to starboard. We had the same rig for the whole crossing, merely furling or unfurling the genoa as the wind conditions changed.

Mindelo sunset
 It was my turn for the diarrhoea, which started the next morning. So much for thinking I’d escaped! Fortunately, I wasn’t as bad as Jeremy had been and still did my watches. Our trusty Hydrovane steered SD; the wind was generally 10-14 knots and the swell was small.  Venus led the way in the evening followed by a spectacular display of stars. We saw the Southern Cross to port and the Great Bear to starboard. Gradually, we became used to our watches of two hours each during the day and three hours each at night.

After four days at sea we saw our first ship, which passed safely 1.7 miles away. We only saw three more ships and one yacht during the whole passage. The swell began to build and came from the NW, so it hit us on the starboard side, while the wind and waves came from astern. Each morning and evening I heard Zephyr and Miles report their positions on the SSB radio. We can only receive on ours, but it was comforting to know that other vessels were out there. Our courses widened after a few days as they were bound for Barbados.

Massive amounts of seaweed which were not there in 2008
 During the second week of the passage we had stronger winds and bigger swells. I felt like I was on a swing boat as we rocked and rolled. In order to sleep, I used cushions and a pillow down the sides of the pilot berth to stop me rolling around. Jeremy tried to do likewise in the stern cabin. The cooker gimballed like a mad thing, bashing to its full extent and back again. One day I noticed that one of its supports was coming loose. Jeremy managed to mend it by removing the cooker and tightening up the nut and bolt fixing, which was inside the adjacent food cupboard.

Two delicious loaves a la Kathy
 We had many squalls with varying amounts of wind on them. After they passed, they often took the wind with them and we seemed to be forever reefing down or shaking out reefs. We were both thrown off our feet at different times. I was catapulted across the cockpit and saved from injury by Jeremy sitting opposite, hitting his chest was preferable to slamming into the winches. I have a pulled muscle in my buttock, but otherwise I’m OK. At times we had winds approaching gale force and 4 metre swells with breaking waves on top that thundered past like roaring waterfalls.

Rocking across the Atlantic
All our fresh food came to an end but we had plenty of tins and dried goods. We made bread every other day, so we didn’t go hungry. It was great to see Martinique in the mist ahead on our last day and to pick up mobile phone signals. We anchored in Marin harbour at the second attempt after 15 and a half days at sea.

The beach at Le Marin, Martinique

We checked in on 6th March and a day later Jeremy had a broken tooth repaired at a local dentist’s surgery. It had been broken for nearly a month. It was good to be back in France with delicious bread and lashings of Camembert washed down with vin de table. Cheers.

Believe it or not - the entrance to the chandlery!