Part I – The Canal
I wish I could say our Panama Canal transit was brilliant and went without incident, but unfortunately it was not. We left Shelter Bay Marina at 1200 on Saturday afternoon, 24 March, and motored out to a staging area outside Colon, known as The Flats. Our crew consisted of Eric, me, and three other sailors from the marina: Sid, Chris and Nick. This is the minimum you must have on board to transit in a small boat, the captain at the helm plus 4 line handlers, and sailors regularly help other sailors go through.
Our line handlers: Chris, Sid and Nick
On The Flats we met up with two other sailboats from the marina, also transiting that day. Our technical advisers—Canal employees, every boat must have one—were delivered onboard at 1400, and we all proceeded to the first up lock. A ship carrying refrigerated containers entered the lock ahead of us; small boats must transit with a large ship to make the operation economical. As is the practice for small boats, we three sailboats were rafted together before entering the lock. The largest boat is positioned in the middle and runs its engine to move the unit forward. The outer boats each catch a bow and stern line from the handlers up on the Canal dock and control the up or down movement as the locks fill going up and empty going down. Corroboree was stationed on the starboard side.
Canal line handlers walking us into the up lock
Entering the lock, rafted to our companion boats
Lock gates closing
The first up lock went fine. But in the second up lock, our stern line became jammed under the cleat, and the tension from the line was go great it ripped out a bronze chock, which flew overboard into the Canal. The line also bent our stern pulpit. It was a shock, and it happened so fast it took us a second to react, but we got the line wrapped around the winch for control. The good news is that no one was hurt, and the damage—we’re calling it a “battle scar”—does not affect the boat’s structural integrity. We will get it repaired somewhere down the line.
Turbulent water in the lock
The damage: missing chock, bent stern pulpit
However, it did dampen our spirits, and the day being cloudy and intermittently rainy didn’t help. We made it through the third up lock, which put us in freshwater Gatun Lake, where we and the other sailboats motored to a mooring ball and tied up about 1700.
But now, for me, came the really stressful part: feeding and boarding our crew for the night.When you’re a 35-foot boat with only two cabins, a 12-foot-square galley, no refrigerator, freezer or microwave, and you suddenly have 5 people aboard, four them hungry men, what’s a woman to do? Especially a woman who is, at best, a minimal cook. Answer: you strategize every step for weeks in advance, trying to anticipate needs/wants, shopping, stowing, planning the timing of the meal. Usually the technical advisor stays aboard for dinner as well, but the pickup boat for our advisors was already there when we arrived at the mooring, so I was able to send ours off with an apple and a can of beer.
Nor does the meal have to be complicated. No one is expecting duck à l’orange, and Sid, Chris and Nick are all easygoing guys, assuring me whatever I made was fine. My menu consisted of a pasta and lentil stew—which I practiced in advance—a green salad, bread and cheese, and store-bought apple pie for dessert. Beverages consisted of beer, red and white wine, and rum, and I definitely should have bought more of each.
For sleeping arrangements, Eric and I took our regular berth, and Chris took the aft berth. For Sid, we lowered the saloon table to rest flush with the settees, and covered the table with other seat cushions, a down quilt and a top sheet. Another sheet went over the opposite settee for Nick. A bit rough and ready, but the guys didn’t complain.
The next morning, our new advisors arrived at 0700, and we three boats quickly got underway. This time, our advisor had brought a colleague with him as an observer, so now I had six hungry men to nourish for the day. It took us until about 1300 to motor across Gatun Lake, during which time I fed our crew a cereal breakfast in shifts at the restored saloon table, a mid-morning snack of cookies and a platter of sliced fruit in the cockpit, and for lunch, tuna fish and cheese sandwiches, veggie sticks, and tortilla chips and dip. The handy little ice cube maker that we bought back in Puerto Rico came to the rescue to give us cold water, the sack of ice we started with having melted by then to a puddle in the cooler.
Lunch for the crew and advisors
In one of the down locks with a ship
At the down locks, we sailboats went in first and caught the lines tossed to us from the Canal handlers. We then had to wait in the lock for about 50 minutes for a ship to come in behind us, a chemical tanker this time. We went down the first lock, then we motored a short stretch to the final two locks, and down again. No mishaps, and the day was sunny as well. The pickup boat for our advisors came as we neared Balboa Yacht Club where we took up a mooring. In a short while, we joined the crews of our two companion boats at the yacht club bar for beers. Chris and Sid departed soon after to return to Shelter Bay with the crew from the other boats. Sid stayed with us overnight and left the next morning.
Eric and I sat down and breathed for what felt like the first time.
I’m sorry it didn’t go better, but even without the accident, it was stressful. It was so much easier when we acted as line handlers for our friends on Windancer IV, a big, comfortable catamaran, back in February. All we had to do was watch our assigned line and eat the delicious meals they served. But when you’re in charge, the responsibility for everyone’s comfort and especially their safety feels overwhelming. Canal transits can be dangerous. People have been injured, and boats have been spun around in the turbulent water and bashed against the lock walls. I’m glad it’s over, and we are here in the Pacific, the open ocean at our doorstep.
It’s time to go.
Part II – South Pacific
There are places in the world where voyages reach a crossroads and a decision must be made to either go on, go back, or give up. Years ago, when we cruised on Duprass, Gibraltar was the first such port we encountered. Boats arriving there from northern Europe can either swing east into the Mediterranean, head west across the Atlantic, or decide cruising isn’t for them after all. In the latter case, some put their boats on the market and fly home. Others stew in port, trying to come to grips with the end of the dream or, sometimes, their loss of nerve.
In the Caribbean, cruising boats face other choices. Stay a while and explore the islands, head north to the United States or west to Central America and Mexico. Often, the answer is predetermined by budget and time. Many cruisers are on a leave of absence from jobs, and their route must conform to that reality. But again, some drop out through disenchantment, unhappy with their boat and/or the lifestyle. Both Gibraltar and the Caribbean are good places to buy a used yacht.
Then there’s Panama. When we arrived here forty years ago, we transited the Canal and hugged the coast north to California, our designated goal. This time we’ll be pointing our bow into the Pacific. It’s going to be especially challenging because, much to our regret, we aren’t stopping at the Galapagos where the fees, paperwork and regulations have become exceedingly expensive and restrictive. Without the Galapagos, we face a 4,000-mile nonstop voyage to the Marquesas. So it’s time to make the great leap. Can we pull this off? Does Corroboree have what it takes? Do we?
Why not? We did the 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in 27-foot Duprass in 28 days with no other equipment than a radio direction finder, a plastic sextant and paper charts. Corroboree at 35’ is faster and far better equipped. We’ve strengthened our sails, replaced the old lifelines and running backstays, bought and installed a wind generator, and carry backup solar panels. We have two iPads with duplicate navigation programs, as well as a sextant and paper charts. The cupboards are crammed with canned goods, and we’ve added six 30-gallon water jugs to supplement the 60 gallons in our built-in tanks. We have also purchased a hand-held water maker to convert salt water to fresh. Weatherwise, this is the most favorable time of year to cross the South Pacific. We might make it in 35 days with a little luck.
It’s so wide, so vast, so far from help. If something goes wrong, we can put out an emergency call on our satellite phone, but we can’t count on anyone hearing it. If one of us gets injured, the other will have to sail the boat alone, and we already know Corroboree isn’t well suited for that. My biggest fear is that Eric will get hurt, and I will let us down through physical inability or technological incompetence. Even in port I compensate by hovering over him when he’s using tools or tackling some repair task. At sea, I am relentless—“Watch your step!” “Watch your head!” “Are you clipped on?” “Take your time, I’ve got the helm!” “Hold on! Wave coming!”
Then I think how we could drop dead anyway right here in port, and it always cheers me up. In fact, the worst injuries we’ve heard of among cruisers so far have all happened on land. Eric ripped open his finger on a fence in the boatyard in Antigua. Another man wrenched his shoulder tying up his boat at a dock. A French friend was hit by a car that veered onto the sidewalk in Grenada. He was thrown in the air and spent days in the hospital being monitored for a head injury. Miraculously, he’s all right.
Now here we are, on the Pacific side of Panama, the great leap into the wild blue yonder just a few days off. And that’s exactly what I love about setting sail. The moment the lines slip from the mooring, and we point out to sea, it’s as if I’m suddenly free. There is no one else but me and Eric, the wind, the waves, our boat. It’s not that I dislike civilization or company. But the sea is so uncomplicated, it cleanses your mind and your soul. It strips away the unimportant. It focuses you like nothing else I know.
“I can’t do an ocean,” an American woman on a boat our size confided to me back in Colombia. “People back home think I’m so brave to sail in the Caribbean, but I’m not.” I’m not necessarily brave either. But I am stubborn and persistent. We can do it. We must. I want it on my resume before I die: Circumnavigated the globe in a sailboat with the man I love.
Wish us luck. We’ll see you on the other side.