Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Marina Chiapas to Bahia Zihuatanejo

Having obtained permission on VHF 16 to enter Puerto Madera/Chiapas, we were met by Ronnie at the marina. He took our lines and told us to stay on board until we had been checked by the Navy. A woman from Customs arrived first and we filled in a form for her. She was closely followed by a man from the Port Captain’s Office, another official and two Marines, one of whom had a sniffer dog that gave SD the all clear. We filled in all the paperwork and when they had gone we went to the Marina Office to check in. Guiermo or Memo was in charge, but Rolf filled in the paperwork and answered questions. Both spoke English and both had stayed late to check us in.
Helpful Marina Chiapas
The next day, Thursday 4th May, was spent checking in with all the officials. Memo drove us round in his car, even stopping at an ATM so that we could withdraw pesos. The first office was Aduana (Customs). More forms to fill in but no charges. Then Immigration, but the officer was not there so we walked across the road to API (Port Authority), filled in another form and paid 18 pesos. Then back to Immigration where we paid 500 pesos each and had our passports stamped for entry. Finally, we drove to Puerto Madera probably to the Port Captain’s Office and filled in another form – no charges.

Memo had to go to a meeting so we either waited for an hour or got a taxi. We had met four other yachties at the Port Captain’s Office and decided to share a taxi. Somehow, six of us squeezed into and onto an illegal motorbike taxi, 4 on a U-shaped seat in front of the front wheel and 2 behind the driver on the motorbike. Thankfully, the journey was short to the centre of town where 3 of us shared a proper taxi back to the marina.
Hitching a ride
The afternoon saw Jeremy and me in another form of transport, a private ban or minibus. Daniel, the driver, took us 40 kilometres to an Immigration Office at a border town, where we paid 60USD for a TIP (Temporary Import Permit) valid for 10 years. The ban fare was 1500 pesos. There are about 18 pesos to the US dollar. We had now legally entered Mexico and were free to cruise Mexican waters as long as we checked in with the Port Captain at each port or anchorage.

Jeremy worked on NECO, changing transistors, checking grub screws, reading the manual and finally, cleaning the relay switches with acetone. The last action sorted out the problem, but I can tell you, Jeremy now has less hair than he had before!
These "rocks" barely showed on the chart!
Over the weekend, we explored Puerta Madera, hitching a lift in an open truck. We tried our first tacos – very tasty but beware of the sauces unless you like hot, hot, hot food! We took a collectivo (public minibus) to Tapachula, a city about 40 minutes’ drive away and wandered round Gallerias Mall, shopping at the massive Walmart store.
Apartments at Zihuatanejo
The day after we arrived at Marina Chiapas, a yacht was towed in by the Navy and tied on the pontoon next to Sal Darago. Armed Marinas were placed to guard it. The three guys on board had made to mistake of anchoring in the port and going ashore without telling the authorities. They were probably suspected of drug smuggling, but nothing was found in spite of a thorough search by the marines and by the sniffer dog. The situation had still not been resolved when it was time for us to leave, so the armed guards stayed next to us all the time.
Birthday Girl
Jeremy spent the morning of Monday 8th May with Memo, visiting all the officials he’d seen previously and was given permission to leave once the Navy had checked SD again. One final form was filled in, the sniffer dog checked the cabins and we were free to leave in the next 10 minutes. We motored out of the port and into a headwind. We were anxious because one weather website, Windyty, showed a tropical storm heading our way across the Tehuantepec. Two other websites showed the storm fading away before it reached Chiapas. It took us two days to cross the Tehuantepec, a notorious stretch of dangerous water in the wrong weather conditions. Generally, we had light westerlies, but also short periods when the wind came from the SE.
Tranquilo Jeremy with SD at anchor
As we passed Puerto Angel, we cheered because we had crossed the Tehuantepec safely. We were close enough to land to receive mobile data and a quick check on the weather assured us that the tropical storm had blown itself out just south of Chiapas, about 200 miles behind us.

Sometimes we tacked to fill the sails, often only the mainsail was flying and always the engine was driving us onwards with NECO steering without a blip. Sometimes there were ships; often there were no other vessels. The air became increasingly smoky and we saw whole hillsides ashore on fire. The day before we reached Zihuatanejo the weather became noticeably cooler.
Beach at Zihuatanejo
We anchored in Bahia Zihuatanejo at 1700 on Saturday 13th May having avoided the large Rocas Potosi, which Jeremy and I had missed on the chart. We had been at sea for 6 days and found ourselves almost surrounded by apartments, hotels and beaches. Banana boats zipped past, the tourists screaming with delight, while jet skis and water taxis criss-crossed the bay. The beat of loud music could be heard ashore as holidaymakers enjoyed Saturday night.
The defunct Diesel PEMEX dock at Zihuatanejo
The next day, I celebrated my 65th birthday with a Mexican meal for lunch. We spent the next three days buying provisions, diesel and repairing a grab rail, the fixing of which had broken. We ate at various “restaurants” including a stall in the Mercado Central, where lunch with a drink each cost 72 pesos or £3. Tomorrow, we motor into the winds once more to try to reduce the 1749 nautical miles we have left before we arrive in SF.
Tacos all round please

Friday, 5 May 2017

Pacific Panama to Marina Chiapas, Mexico

Look who's steering SD
We left Ensenada Naranjo at 0600 on Sunday 23rd April and motor sailed all day watching dolphins playing at the bows and passing the occasional turtle. The highlight of the day was catching not one, but two tuna almost simultaneously. The downside was that we ate tuna, delicious as it was, for the next four meals i.e. lunch and supper. That night we anchored off Isla Medidor, a private island near Bahia Honda, in the western anchorage.
Almost in Canal de Isla Medidor

Our 0600 start the next day gave us a morning twilight view of a crescent Moon and Venus close together. Howler monkeys shouted from the forest. The sea was smooth as we motored towards Isla Bolanas. The sea water pump on the engine started dripping. Jeremy was busy fixing the fridge air intake mushroom vent, which had probably been kicked or caught by a line on the Panama Canal. The anchorage was untenable as the Pacific swell was breaking right into it. Fortunately, Islas Parida was only an hour away but the anchorage there is in a national park and we had heard that some yachts had been charged 100USD. We entered warily looking out for the numerous islets and rocks scattered around and for any boats that looked like park launches. No-one else was there. We had the place to ourselves. It was beautiful and sheltered. We swam and snorkelled. Jeremy replaced the leaking sea water pump.
Turn to port before the islet
Another 0600 start the following day saw us heading towards our final port in Panama, Puerto Armuelles. We anchored south of the long pier, launched the dinghy and went ashore at the steps towards the seaward end of the pier. This turned out to be a big mistake and nearly led to the loss of the dinghy. While we were ashore, the wind turned and the inflatable dinghy and outboard went under the rusty, rotting metal of the pier. We returned to find that the oars on top of the tubes had saved the dinghy from puncturing but the outboard was severely scratched and battered. The dinghy was covered in rusty streaks and half filled with water. Jeremy jumped in without even rolling up his long trousers and started baling. Fortunately, the outboard started and we made it back to SD, where a clean-up operation took place to restore the dinghy and outboard as much as possible.
Approach to Isla Perida anchorage
Puerto Armuelles was our clearing out port. The fees were as follows: $20 for Agriculture/Quarantine for an inspection of the boat that did not take place; $20 to Customs; $25 to Immigration and $6.50 to the Port Captain. The next day there was further charge of $4.20 possibly for our international zarpe. Receipts were obtained for all payments.
The long pier at Armuelles
Armuelles is good for provisioning, laundry and buying fuel. It has a bank but only one place for Wi-Fi and that was always closed. We landed the dinghy on the beach and took containers ashore to buy 185litres of fuel – a wet experience in the swell. Water at the land end of the pier is potable. That required another beach landing as the planks on the pier are too rickety for a trolley.
Pacific dawn
After two nights at Armuelles we motored away from Panama and into the waters of Costa Rica. We did not stop for the next 700 miles, passing Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. It was very hot and the winds were generally light except in squalls and thunderstorms, where gusts up to 30 knots were experienced. We sailed when we could and watched the wind slowly veer around the compass, each change of direction requiring a change of sails. Poles went up and down, reefs went in and out. It was hokey cokey sailing! Meanwhile, we dripped with sweat.
Thunder storm on radar
We saw few ships or boats. I got a bad feeling about a local fishing vessel that we passed and believed it was following us at a distance of about two miles. We hoisted a sail to give us more speed and the fishing vessel turned away. Perhaps it was heading for harbour anyway, but we didn’t hang around to ask.
Entering Puerto Chiapas
Two nights before our arrival at Puerto Chiapas, Mexico, our trusty power steering device, NECO, stopped working. We tried and tried to fix it with me at the helm at Jeremy below with his head under the stern berth. No joy, so we had to hand steer when there was no wind, which was mostly at night. Hydrovane was brought into service when motor sailing in light winds.
Fuel berth in Puerto Chiapas
One week after leaving Panama we arrived in Mexico and checked in at the pleasant, friendly and helpful Marina Chiapas. Jim from Sea of Tranquillity was about to leave. He gave us loads of helpful advice about sailing north to the States back in Shelter Bay Marina, and he recommended Chiapas, so it was good to see him. On another pontoon was the yacht on which we were going to be line handlers. It thus proves we are not the only mad people sailing (motoring) up the Central American Pacific coast.
Sunset over Marina Chiapas
SD in her berth at Marina Chiapas

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Pacific Panama


We paid $80 for three nights at Balboa Yacht Club, about the same per night as Shelter Bay Marina. There were showers, a laundry and a restaurant ashore. The first job was to find a dentist. Jeremy recalled that he had been to one in Balboa village seven years ago, but the office staff did not seem to have heard of it. We walked to the village and found the dentists’. An appointment was made for the following day. We bought courtesy flags at Islamadora, which is an agency for Admiralty charts and books.

The next job was to find some meds for me. We needed to buy bus passes as most of Panama City transport is now cashless. First, we ate very good local food from a popular street vendor. Arriving at Albrook Terminal on a bus that still took cash (25c) we bought bus passes for $2 and charged them with $2. Jeremy continues. Then we entered the vast Albrook Mall, which runs parallel to the Albrook transport hub. It seems to be a two storey structure running one mile from end to end. There were three farmacia, one at each end and one close to the middle. The best chance appeared to be at the north end at a huge shop called Arrocha. We walked. They did not have the correct meds. We walked to the Super 99 at the south end: they did not have the medicine. They suggested we try Arrocha. We bought some supplies as Super 99 is a big supermarket (no Weetabix). We walked to the north end to catch the bus back to Amador which is near Balboa Yacht Club. In went the washing, we had a beer each and eventually, after the drier had finished, collapsed back at Sal Darago.

We caught the bus to Albrook at 0820 the next day, walked about half a mile to the subway station and took the metro to San Tomas, next to a big hospital. We tried a farmacia, but no joy. After a short walk we entered a Western Union money exchange, where we reluctantly changed 200 Eastern Caribbean Dollars, worth 73 USD, for only 50USD. Pat Denham had kindly given them to us in the UK and we had tried all the Caribbean islands we had visited to change them without any success. (I think I would have taken 10 USD!) Back at the hospital and we caught a bus to Riba Smith, a Waitrose lookalike. Way hey, hurray – WEETABIX. We also purchased a few other items. Their farmacia did not have the meds. Another walk, another bus and we were back at Albrook, but it was too late to return to Sal Darago for lunch. We walked briskly back to Arrocha, and bought the tablets which we had turned down yesterday. We ate at KFC and caught the bus to Balboa, where I had my tooth glued back for 85 USD. Across from the dentist was a large local supermarket, where we were to buy our supplies. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a large café. We wearily took the bus back to Albrook and shopped in Super 99. Again it was late when we stepped aboard SD, but Kathy needed a shower and more clothes had to be washed so she took the launch ashore, while I packed away the shopping, swam and showered on board.

On Thursday, at 1100, Sal Darago was on the fuel berth for diesel and water. We had had the most frustrating morning. T-mobile had taken £50c from our account because of automated calls being charged as Voicemail at £1.50 for three seconds. This had happened 34 times. We finally managed to get T-mobile to turn off our voicemail. (Thank goodness for Skype).

A rather exposed Otoque anchorage
We motor sailed to the Island of Otoque. The best anchorage was taken by a yacht called YoYo from the Cook Islands. We cooked a mince stew, despite the roll of the swell.

Up at 0500, we left at 0600 motorsailing until 2330 when we anchored at Ensenada Benao, a surfers’ paradise. Much to my delight, the anchor dragged and it was nearly midnight before we settled. Aside from the dolphins, flying fish and occasional turtle, we had seen rays leaping from the water and somersaulting back in. Quite spectacular. It appears surfers do not like to sleep as the bay reverberated to the sound of partying until we left at 0600 for another day on the engine. The ambient temperature is close to 30C so the saloon is hot. With no wind, it can be a little sweaty. However, our anchorage on Saturday night at Ensenada Naranjo, was a beautiful, clean bay with a couple of houses. We swam, showered and had sundowners as the sun sank and the sky became a magic pattern of reds, gold and yellow. I remembered why we like sailing.
Anchored off Isla de Canales De Tierra

Panama Canal Transit

Rick, Tammy and Howard
Apologies to all friends and family who were watching the live webcam at Miraflores Locks. We waved and shouted, “Hello England!” and only found out later that the webcam had gone down earlier that day. Perhaps the massive electrical storm that we encountered on our transit caused the problem.
The raft behind us
 Almost everything went according to plan. As it was Easter Sunday, I went to an outdoor, sunrise  service at 6.30am and read a short piece. It was very moving to be singing songs and listening to readings and reflections, whilst thinking about the first Easter Sunday very early in the Garden of Gethsemane. After the service we shared hot cross buns.

Waiting for the gates in pole position!
Back on SD, we kept checking for an email from our agent, Erick. Nothing arrived. About 8.30am one of Erick’s staff delivered 8 large fenders and 4x125ft lines. Soon afterwards Erick stopped by and told us verbally all the information he had been unable to send by email.

Dawn on Gatun Lake
Howard telephoned to say he and Tammy were on their way from Panama City, but it would take a couple of hours. Next to arrive was Gabriel, our “professional” line handler, who proved to be excellent and an invaluable member of the crew.

Howard needed coffee in the morning
By 11.30am, Howard and Tammy had arrived and at mid-day we were all in the Dock Restaurant eating our Easter Brunch out of polystyrene boxes. There had been a misunderstanding and the restaurant thought we wanted takeaways. No worries, the food tasted good anyway.

Gabriel, Rick and Kathy
We left our berth soon after 1.00pm and anchored at The Flats. I made a Bolognese sauce for later. Our Adviser, Rick, arrived at 1540. We passed through Gatun Locks without incident, rafted up to two other yachts. Then we motored in the dark, as individual boats, towards two huge mooring buoys where we tied up for the night. It was almost 1930. Rick had eaten his supper in the locks. He left on a launch along with the other 11 Advisers. The rest of us had our supper and celebratory drinks. As Jeremy cleaned his teeth that night, when everyone else was settled in their bunks, a crown broke off.

Fender Woman
Rick arrived before 0700 on Easter Monday and had breakfast with us. All the yachts left the mooring buoys for the long motor to Gamboa at the start of the Gaillard Cut. Again, we tied up to two massive mooring buoys and our crew had lunch of ham and egg rolls. It started to rain, the temperature dropped, lightning flashed alarmingly close and thunder deafened us for nearly two hours. Rick shouted that we had to wait for a “neo”, which seems to be a pet name for the new, extra-large ships that use the new canal. There is only one Gaillard Cut so all other vessels have to wait at either end until the neo has passed through. We waited for 2 ½ hours.

Incredible raft survived the lightning storm
The rain stopped as we untied and motored towards Pedro Miguel Locks, where we rafted up three abreast again and the line handlers did their work. Howard worked hard on the bow and Gabriel covered the stern. Tammy was named “Fender Woman” as she roamed the decks with a fender at the ready to cover any gaps. We passed through the last locks, Miraflores, with their broken webcam and continued on towards the Bridge of the Americas. We untied from our raft as the sun set and motored towards Balboa Yacht Club.

Gabriel, going down Miraflores Lock
 A launch arrived to take Rick ashore. We were sorry to see him leave as he had been a great Advisor. Soon afterwards, a tender from Balboa Yacht Club picked up Howard, Tammy, Gabriel, the lines and the fenders for a charge of $12. Suddenly, Sal Darago was bereft of crew and we felt like it was 2.00am and the last of the party guests had just left.
The camera on the building on the left did not work
 Not expecting there to be a mooring available at BYC, Jeremy said there was no harm in giving them a call on VHF 06. I did and a tender arrived to lead us to a mooring, where we spent the next three nights.

The Pacific beckons and NO BROKEN PROP SHAFT

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