Sat 7 Feb 2004 22:29 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

We were woken up by a knock early this morning; the agricultural inspector had come out to give us our quarantine clearance. This was very straightforward; even though he spoke hardly any English. The only thing was that as he left, he told us about "elijo", which we thought was something we were supposed to take ashore -- maybe all our rubbish for disposal.

So after he left we started relaxing again; only to get another knock! This time it was the port captain, come to clear us in. He turned out to be a very nice guy, a Panamanian who had lived in the US for a while, so he spoke very good English. He was really nice and helpful, full of good advice, and bending over backwards to make our stay here as pleasant as possible. We asked him about "elijo", and he told us that was his name -- Elias in English! The agricultural guy had been telling us that Elias was coming. Elias was clearly keen to make us enjoy our stay in Panama -- in fact, he told us quite plainly that this is the official policy, since Panama obviously appreciates the tourist dollars. I have to say, Mexico looks worse and worse with every port we pass.

After all this excitement was over, we had a tidy-up session -- we spent the morning cleaning and tidying the inside of the boat, and covering sails and stowing lines. We also test-hoisted the storm trysail (the small sail used in place of the mainsail in heavy winds) and improved its rigging. Then we took the time to improve our connection to the mooring buoy here, rigging two separate lines with chafe guards. Chafe is the constant enemy of a sailboat; with everything in constant motion, anything that rubs will soon rub all the way through. This is especially true on a mooring, where every wave and wake has the boat bobbing up and down, rubbing with all its 14 tons behind it on the mooring tackle. So we have to make sure that there's no chafe, or one day we'll come home and home will have sailed away.

Heavy traffic a few yards away

Balboa Yacht Club is an interesting place, no doubt. Last night, the shipping traffic started in earnest, and now we have the freight traffic of the world steaming by mere yards away, day and night. This creates quite a lot of wakes (for which Elias apologised), but it's really not so bad -- actually not nearly as bad as the Cruiser's Anchorage in San Diego. As far as the yachts in the club go, many nationalities are represented -- there's a huge, luxury sailing yacht from Turkey, and smaller boats from Sweden, Australia, Brazil, Gibraltar, the UK, and more. Monitoring the club's radio frequency (used for calling taxis) yields a huge range of accents.

By the time we'd tidied the boat up, it was a little late, but we decided to head in to El Dorado mall, in Panama City. This is a fairly large shopping mall, with a good range of shops. Our main stop was the supermarked, which was pretty impressive -- much bigger than our local in San Diego, and very well-stocked. Prices are generally good, specially if you don't try to buy familiar imported brands; having said that, even imported goods can be very cheap.

One handy thing about Panama is that the currency unit, the Balboa, is fixed 1-for-1 to the dollar, and in fact there are no Balboa notes -- they just use US notes. They have their own coins, but these are the same size, shape and metal as the US coins, which are used interchangeably. So we can very easily get cash from our bank accounts and use it here, or save it for later.

Not everything we might want is easily available here, but it's sometimes surprising what you can find, such as McVities digestive biscuits. Booze is cheap; we got a bottle of Lang's scotch for $7, and a bottle of a good name of rum for $3.80, which included a litre of Coke to mix it with.

So with the shopping done, it was back to the boat for a merry evening. Tomorrow perhaps we'll get some more exploring done... when we wake up.

Sun 8 Feb 2004 19:56 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Luis came by this morning and dropped off our four 125' lines for the canal transit... bright and early, as everyone here seems to. What is with these early-rising Panamanians? We also had a stroke of luck with tyres; a large catamaran just came through the canal, and moored next to us, and gave us the 16 tyres they had used. We also got 4 from Luis, so we're well set for tyres.

With that excitement over, we went ashore for the afternoon and visited Marina Flamenco, the other marina here. It's a smallish place, but very nice and well set up. They're getting set up for cruise ships, so everything's new and posh.

So, tomorrow we complete checking in, and get our transit organised (hopefully). For those who may be wondering what this involves (and what's with all the rope and tyres), here's a quick description of the process... written by Ian and Rachel, and Rachel has actually done this before.

Chart of the canal

Due to the twisty shape of Panama, when transiting from the Pacific to the Atlantic you actually go from south-east (at Balboa) to north-west (at Colon / Cristobal).

So, starting from Balboa, you first encounter the sea buoy, and proceed to the double line of buoys marking the channel that leads in to the canal proper. (Actually, coming in from the east, we missed the sea buoy.)

A lock chamber

These buoys are numbered from 1 and 2 (on the left and right respectively). Around buoy 16, on the right-hand side, is the Balboa Yacht Club, about 6.5 miles from the sea buoy; that's where we are now. Another half mile up is the Bridge of the Americas, an impressive span rising 61 metres (about 190 feet) above the canal, to allow freighters to pass underneath. This is the only road connection between the two Americas, apart from one small link that runs over a lock gate on the north side (and even the main road does not actually go to South America because it cannot get through the Darien jungle to the south-east).

After the bridge, the canal runs through a dredged channel in an estuary for 3.2 miles to the first set of two locks, the Miraflores locks; this lock system, which is itself almost a mile long, lifts you 54 feet up into Miraflores Lake, which runs another mile to the single Pedro Miguel lock. This lifts you 31 feet to the highest altitude of the canal, 85 feet, and to the great Gaillard cut.

The locks are the scariest part of the canal transit for yachts. The locks are huge, of course; about 1,000 feet long by 110 feet wide (they take ships up to 106' wide and 950' long!). They don't allow yachts to transit alone, which would be too wasteful; instead, you have to share with a freighter (or if you're lucky, just some tugs).

There are three ways for yachts to go through the locks:

in which two or three yachts tie side-by-side and go up or down as a unit. This means there's less work for individual boats, as only the outside pair of lines is used on each boat, but, on the other hand, your cleats take the strain of two (or three) boats, and you are relying on the seamanship and equipment of the other boat(s), whom you may not know. Whole nests of boats have broken up or careened into the lock walls when one cleat or line gave out, or one linehandler muffed it.
Center lock:
when you're by yourself in your part of the lock (with a ship ahead on the way up, or behind on the way down), and all four of your lines are in use, so you're like a spider at the center of a web of lines.
Tied to a tug:
in which you're tied up to the side of a tug while they use their lines to go up and down. Easy for the yacht, but they tend to remove your lines (they have the control) before the lock gates are open, which leaves you sitting with no steerage while the doors open and the turbulence has its way with you, as you have no room to go forward (yet) and boats like ours have NO steerage if we're not at some speed.
well there is actually a fourth way, side-tied to the wall, but it's not recommended, as the walls are brutally rough.

On one nest of boats, looking back at another

So, we'll be planning to go centre-lock at all times. This being so, the procedure for locking up is that we drive into the lock behind the freighter, and line handlers on the lock walls hurl down weighted messenger lines to us. We attach our 125-foot lines to these, and they are hauled up and looped over bollards on the lock walls. These four lines are what we use to hold Moonrise in position in the middle of the lock; they have to be so long as the walls are very high when the lock is down, and, of course, the walls are 110 feet apart.

A centre-locked boat

The problem, of course, is that the water level in the lock changes! As the lock fills to lift us up to the next level, we have to haul in the lines to keep them taut, and to keep Moonrise in position. This is why we have to have 4 line handlers on board, as well as the captain; we are also required to take an advisor from the canal authority, who may well have an understudy in tow. Our plan is to get 4 other yachties to handle lines for us, leaving Rachel to handle "boat management", including feeding all these people -- we are required to provide a hot meal for the canal personnel, as well as cold drinks and a shady spot to sit in -- and to have the camera ready to capture some of this "on film." This means that we'll probably be transiting the canal with 8 people on board, which will be quite a crowd!

Canal line handlers on the lock wall

So anyway, water floods into the lock, and our line handlers haul in on the 4 lines to keep us in place -- the problem being that the inrushing water creates quite a bit of turbulence. All being well, we end up elevated to the next level, and the gates in front open, and the freighter in front of us powers out (in the Gatun locks, they are hauled forward by mules; these modern-day mules are small locomotives that run on rails on the lock walls). The problem here is the freighters' prop wash, which can wreak havoc on the tiny yacht behind. In fact, Gloria Maris, the catamaran we got the tyres from, was damaged when the prop wash from the freighter broke the lines in their nest, and pushed them into the wall. It's because of dangers like this that we hang tyres all round the boat to act as fenders.

Once up the Pedro Miguel locks, we're into the canal proper, at the Gaillard Cut. This impressive cutting runs 7 miles from the locks to the Rio Chagres, a natural waterway enhanced by damming, which forms the next part of the crossing.

We travel west along Gamboa Reach, past the little village of Gamboa, and then north into Lake Gatun, the large artificial lake which carries us 12 miles across the isthmus. Here, the main channel curves around to the west, following the deep water; yachts (and canal workboats), however, can save some miles by following the "banana cut", a shallower channel which cuts through the Las Brujas and Tiger islands in the middle of the lake. This area is pretty wild jungle, apparently, and we will probably see monkeys in the trees and hear the cries of jungle birds.

Once through the lake, the last hurdle is ahead -- the Gatun locks, a flight of three adjoining locks that drops us the 85 feet down to the level of the Atlantic.

Down-locking is apparently easier than going up; we go into the lock ahead of the freighter, so we don't have to worry about its propeller wash, and we're paying out the lines on the way down, rather than hauling them in. One thing to watch for is that on the last lock, the fresh water in the lock mixes with the heavier salt water from the Atlantic, which apparently creates quite a bit of turbulence.

Once through the locks its just 1.8 miles through the Gatun Approach to Bahia Limon, a huge natural harbour; then 4.6 miles to the outer breakwater (an impressive structure 3.5 miles long), then 3 miles to the Atlantic sea buoy -- making a total of 48.5 miles.

One last interesting sight, is a huge crane - one of the largest in the world - which (if I remember this correctly) the U.S. got from the Nazis in WWII, and which is used to haul out mules and do other heavy work. I think there were two of these cranes in existence, but don't know where the other one ended up.

The key part, though, is to make it the 32 miles from here at Balboa to Gatun locks before it's too late to lock down. If we're late, we have to spend a night in Gatun lake. This would be a disaster, since rumor has it that we'd be stuck with a penalty fee -- about $400-$500 -- and have to put our line handlers up overnight. Tricky, since the boat sleeps 4, but at least they come take the advisor and understudy off. Once through, we'll stop in Bahia Limon, at an anchorage called "the flats," and will re-provision (a lot gets used up motoring through the canal and keeping everyone fed and hydrated) in Colon before heading on to the wonderful Caribbean.

There is a great Panama Canal website, which has a lot of information and photographs, and even has a live web-cam - 24-hours-a-day - trained on the Miraflores locks. Once we can tell you when we transit, you can e-mail the lock people, and if they have time, they will zoom the camera in on Moonrise going through.

So there it is. We will certainly try to enjoy the transit; it should be pretty safe, since they say only 2 boats in 100 have any problems. Given that we've seen two boats already that got scraped on the way through, does that mean we're safe? We won't be counting on it! Still, all being well, we should be able to get through in 10 hours; then after a night in Colon, we'll be straight off into the Caribbean. We'll be sure to keep you posted on how it goes!

Mon 9 Feb 2004 21:40 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Today's big event was that the admeasurer was due to come to measure and inspect the boat, in order to clear it for transit. This is a pretty weird process from a yacht's perspective; in theory, they calculate the cargo capacity of the boat, by a complex formula designed for big ships, in order to determine the tolls due per ton cargo. But then there's a flat fee for yachts based on length!

In practice, the admeasurer crosses out most of the boxes on his forms, but checks for sensible things such as adequate cleats for our lines, to take the strain of the very turbulent conditions in the locks; a working toilet and a shady spot for the canal advisor; good fenders (all those tyres); and so on. He does actually measure the boat, for the record.

So, given how prompt the other officials here have been, we were ready for him to come at 7 am. We got up early, got our posh clothes ready (not actually very posh, but better than most of what we wear), and got the boat all tidy. Of course, he didn't appear, so we started working on a nice, messy project -- once we had got all the tools out, plus the sprays and greases, sure enough, he appeared!

The admeasurement process was pretty lengthy, with lots of forms to be filled out, but the admeasurer turned out to be another really nice, helpful guy, who made the process very easy and pleasant. At the end of it, we got a set of forms detailing the size of the boat, and that it is ready for a "handline" transit (ie. handling our own lines, not using the canal locomotives to pull us through), "in ballast" (ie. carrying no cargo). We also got an official Panama Canal ship number, which is good for the lifetime of the vessel; this is how we are now known to the canal. And, of course, a bill -- for $600 in tolls, and a $850 damage deposit.

The next step is to pay the tolls -- which we plan for tomorrow -- and then we can schedule the transit; we're not sure yet when we'll be going through, but we're thinking maybe next Tuesday. We've heard that there isn't much waiting time for yachts going from the Pacific to the Atlantic at this time of year.

Anyway, with the admeasurer gone, we completed our project, which was to re-attach the shortwave antenna lead to the backstay (which is our antenna). We'd been noticing our transmit power getting weaker, and it turned out that the connection had become corroded; it was pretty easy to get some fresh wire on the end and re-attach it. I covered the connection with lanolin grease so that it might have some protection this time.

Corrosion is the bane of sailboats -- warm tropical saltwater is incredibly corrosive to any kind of steel. All of our fittings and rails are made of marine-grade stainless steel (much better than standard stainless), and there are rust stains everywhere. Oh well... it's the sign of a real cruising boat.

The other big project today was getting most of the tyres hung around the boat. Since most yachts transit east to west, following the trade winds, we're going the "wrong way", and it's easy for us to get tyres for free from a westbound yacht -- which we did, and Moonrise is now graced by 20 tyres hung around her sides, and especially the bow and stern. Another 2 or 4 will complete the picture. All the tyres are carefully wrapped in plastic rubbish bags, so that they don't mark the hull.

After that, we went ashore for a while, and met some other cruisers; it may be that we'll be able to do a reciprocal transit with one or more of them, acting as their line handlers -- for the experience -- and in exchange having them handle lines for us. If it works out, this will save us having to hire line handlers at $60 each.

Cruisers and freighters at sunset
Tue 10 Feb 2004 19:09 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

No officials came waking us up at 8 o'clock this morning... instead, we woke ourselves up and set off for a day of paperwork and shopping. We met up with Luis, and he took us off to the immigration office to get Rachel's visa (a different immigration office to the one where we got our passports stamped); then the maritime authority to get a cruising permit; then to Citibank to pay the canal toll.

The canal tolls were a problem; they take it as a cash advance, and my card wasn't cleared for such a large advance. So we went off to the one place we know of where we can call the USA, cleared it with the credit card company, and headed back to the bank. Still didn't work; apparently, it might take 24 hours to clear, so we'll go back tomorrow.

Apart from that, we ordered new glasses for me; we found them pretty cheap here. They should be ready Saturday. We sold our old fishing rod to another cruising boat in the morning, and bought some new gear for our hand line; and I got a new snorkel to replace the one that got blown off the boat in Nicaragua.

More shopping tomorrow...

Wed 11 Feb 2004 21:38 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

We did some provisioning today, and crossed a few items off our to-by list, like a decent cooler and a change of oil for the engine. The big news today, though, is that we paid for the transit and scheduled our transit date. Unfortunately, they are obviously a bit busier than we had been led to believe, since the earliest transit we could get is for the 21st of Feb, ie. a week Saturday.

This is a bit later than we had been hoping for, specially as Rachel has some friends coming out to the San Blas islands to visit; we're going to be a bit rushed on the far side. Still, all being well, we should make it. The problem is that our schedule could easily change; the date we've been given is subject to change at any time, up to the point where we sail into the locks.

Well, at least we have a date; and we've got a week on this side to get the boat ready.

Thu 12 Feb 2004 21:18 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Started work on another project today... another corroded antenna connection interfering with radio performance, this time on the VHF. The problem, of course, is that the VHF antenna is at the top of the mast. Since there's no spare wire up there to play with, I'm going to have to cut the existing connector off the end and splice a new section on. I'm not looking forward to it.

So today we prepared by getting the new connector and section of wire, which fortunately is not a problem in Panama City. You can get most things here, and there are marine suppliers who can order everything else... albeit at probably exorbitant cost.

The city is remarkably varied -- there are quite awful tenements, and just blocks away impressive new developments. The skyline is on a par with New York, and there are huge, well-stocked shops; but most shops have locked doors through which you have to be buzzed to enter. The traffic is appalling, with a lot of cars on the roads. Altogether a lot of sharp contrasts. Shopping around definitely pays; prices vary hugely, with the tourist-oriented places charging many times what you can pay if you shop with the locals.

So, I'm planning to head up the mast tomorrow morning. That's going to be interesting, with freighters just 100 yards away kicking up huge wakes. Oh well...

Fri 13 Feb 2004 19:40 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Well, I survived the trip up the mast! Every time I go aloft, my respect for Ellen Macarthur increases... even a mere 42 feet up above the deck, and moored in a sheltered harbour, it's pretty wild. Every boat that goes by is a challenge, as its wake is magnified by the height of the mast -- a one-foot wake hitting us bow-on at water level translates to 4 feet of movement at the top of the mast. This is already enough to have me clinging on with white knuckles, but the traffic in the canal approach, just yards away, made some bigger wakes than that. Tugs are the worst offenders, as they power up and down at high speeds; the big ships are mostly gliding by too smoothly to cause much of a problem.

Anyway, I got the VHF aerial fixed; sure enough, the old connector had corroded almost off the wire, so I spliced a new piece of wire with a new connector onto the old one. All of this was ably assisted by Rachel, first by hoisting me up -- she says this has got a lot easier lately -- then passing buckets of supplies up, and finally by testing the VHF -- which now works fine. So all our communications are up to par.

Unfortunately, I have to go up again, as we have a broken steaming light, and I noticed that some strands had parted in one of our lower shrouds -- we'll need to get a new rigging wire made up before we can sail again. If worst comes to worst, we can make it ourselves. Oh well, at least neither of those things is at the top of the mast.

Sat 14 Feb 2004 22:20 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

I spend a large part of today hunting for a light bulb -- one to replace our blown steaming light. Of course, it's a weird non- standard marine bulb, so it wasn't easy finding a new one in Panama -- but Luis, our faithful taxi guide, came to the rescue, as usual! After a couple of false starts, he managed to find me a marine store with a suitable replacement -- I got 4, of course.

I found myself wondering how people from Central America manage in Britain. Panama City is totally bewildering, never mind the maze of offices we had to negotiate to get checked in; but a taxi is just $2 to most places, or $8 per hour, with the driver acting as guide and translator. This despite that prices here are about the same as the USA -- a bit less, but not stunningly so.

Having said that, I reckon I good a good deal on my new glasses, which I picked up today -- a pair of normal glasses, and a pair of prescription sunglasses, for $105. I used my prescription from my last check-up in Alameda, and it worked fine. This time, I'll make sure they stay strapped on at all times.

It's odd how often we've found ourselves in an anchorage with other British boats -- right now, Balboa is filling up with boats, mostly British, from the Blue Water Rally, which has apparently just reached Colon, and is starting to transit the canal. With about 40 boats coming through, it's no wonder we couldn't get a transit date within a week. Still, we've been in contact with some of them with a view to exchanging charts. You never know...

Repairing a broken light
Sun 15 Feb 2004 14:10 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Just a quick update, because we're off on an errand for the rest of the day... got the steaming light fixed this morning, and managed to trade charts with some nice folks from Kelly Marie -- we gave them a set of cruising guides and sailing directions for Mexico and the U.S. Pacific coast, and in exchange got a whole bunch of charts for the western Caribbean, the Florida Keys and the Bahamas -- that pretty much takes care of our paper chart needs, and of course we also have a good range of electronic charts.

Got to go now -- more news tomorrow...

Mon 16 Feb 2004 21:05 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

We've transited the Panama Canal! We had a smooth and trouble-free transit; only two problems: first, we went the wrong way; second, we forgot Moonrise!

The Blue Water Rally has rather taken over the canal area right now -- as far as cruisers are concerned, anyway. This is a rally of about 25-30 boats (some people join and leave along the way) from Gibraltar to Gibraltar, via the Atlantic, the Panama Canal, the south Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, and the Med. Right now, they're in the process of working their way through the canal -- since yachts are required to have a canal advisor on board, and since there are a limited number of advisors, only about half a dozen yachts a day can transit. So, even though the rally is going the opposite way to us (south through the canal, from Colon to Balboa), it has created a delay for our transit; on the other hand, it also means that there are lots of cruisers -- mostly British -- around to network with.

So when we mentioned on the morning net that we needed line handlers, and that we were interested in acting as line handlers on another boat for the experience, we got a pretty prompt response -- Richard, one of the rally controllers (they are extremely organised) got in touch pretty quickly to sound us out as potential crew for one of the rally boats.

He suggested meeting on shore at 2:30 p.m. yesterday -- we thought he wanted to discuss a possible crew position. Luckily, he was delayed, and called us back to suggest leaving at 3:30 -- "What do you mean, leaving?" we said! It turned out he wanted to take us straight to Colon to meet a yacht, spend the night on board, and head off for a transit through the canal back to Balboa today.

We got ourselves packed and ready in record time, and rushed to shore to meet Richard and Peter, another of the organisers, who drove us to Colon -- we still had no idea at this time what boat we would be on, or when we would transit. We got a bit lost in the middle of Panama, which was great as we saw some of the Panamanian countryside, and got our first view of the canal -- a rather surrealistic one of a huge container ship apparently sitting in the middle of some overgrown land. When we finally got to Colon, we met up with a whole crowd of rally people; including Marguerite and Benno of Doctor Bird, the boat on which we would be setting off early the next day -- "early" meaning a 4:30 am. start!

Marguerite and Benno on Doctor Bird

Doctor Bird (named after the Doctor Bird, or Colibri, the national bird of Jamaica) turned out to be a large, and rather nice, yacht, which meant we got a cabin to ourselves. With Benno as captain, the line handlers were Marguerite, ourselves, and Sue, from another boat which was supposed to be in the rally but which was sadly dismasted and is currently having repairs.

We had a pleasant night on board in the Flats, the yacht anchorage in Colon, and then set off bright and early (actually long before it was bright) for our transit. We were joined by our advisor for the transit, Orlando, who boarded from a pilot launch; although some of the launch drivers can be a little rough, this one dropped off our pilot without even touching the boat.

For the transit, we were to be rafted with 2 other boats; in fact, rather than go through jammed in behind a freighter, as is normal, we got a "special locking" -- two rafts of three yachts each, with the lock to ourselves. This made life a lot easier. We tied the boats into their rafts outside the lock, and drove each set of three boats as a unit into the lock chambers -- this is pretty unnatural-seeming, but actually works very well, since with three separate engines the raft is very maneuverable.

Canal line handlers on the lock; a huge freighter behind

The line handlers started working while entering the lock chambers, as canal workers on the lock walls hurled weighted lines at us, to which we tied mooring lines, which in turn were hauled back to the lock wall and tied on. The popular story is that they aim their lead-weighted heaving lines at solar panels, windows, wind generators, and heads, or anything else breakable, but this turned out not to be true in our case.

Last lock up to Lake Gatun

Once tied up, the huge doors closed behind us, sealing us into a massive man-made canyon; even this was dwarfed by the absolutely enormous car carrier going up in the next-door set of locks. Each chamber filled pretty quickly -- it seemed like just a few minutes -- so the three chambers passed fairly fast, and we were suddenly out into Gatun Lake. We drove out into the lake still tied into a raft, and cast off our lines on the move, breaking into three separately-steering vessels; this seemed even more unnnatural than rafting up, but again went very smoothly.

Jungle at Lake Gatun

The lake is huge and beautiful, surrounded by jungle, which we saw close-up as we wound through the islands around the Banana Cut. We didn't see any monkeys, though. On the charts the Cut looks narrow and tricky, but it's actually extremely well-marked, which is just as well; the lake is dotted with skeletal trees, sticking up through the water -- the remains of trees which were submerged when the lake was created, 90 years ago, and amazingly still standing.

We re-joined the main channel pretty soon, going at a great speed under motor and sails, since the wind was behind us. Doctor Bird is a French-built "Amel Super Maramu", which comes with all the mod cons; although a large boat, sail handling is made easy by huge winches -- 58-to-1 gear ratio winches, as opposed to our puny 24-to-1 ones. Life is made even easier by the fact that the winches are all electric! The mainsail and jib can be deployed, controlled, and re-furled all by pressing a few buttons -- very handy for a rapid transit down a narrow, winding channel.

The huge cutting

We passed a lot of north-bound freighters in Gatun Lake and the Rio Chagres, and then entered the Gaillard Cut, the 7-mile-long cutting which connects the Rico Chagres with the Pedro Miguel locks near the Pacific end of the canal. At Gold Hill, a huge hillside has been cut through; this old engineering wonder is being matched by a new one, a huge new suspension bridge which will cross the canal. There's not much to see of it yet except the two support towers, but they're impressive enough, each one breathtakingly high and topped by a construction crane so high up it looks like a toy.

The champagne!

After a remarkably quick transit we made it to the Pedro Miguel locks, rafted up once more, and locked down without delay; we crossed Miraflores Lake, only a mile long, still in a raft, and descended the final two lock chambers at Miraflores, to enter the Pacific Ocean at last. This was a first for Doctor Bird, and the champagne was brought out! Quite right too, after a very successful passage that only took 8 hours -- Doctor Bird motors at 8 knots, quite a bit faster than Moonrise. Orlando, our advisor, deservedly joined in the celebrations after his very calm and helpful guidance; soon after, he was picked up by another launch, as smoothly as he was delivered.

Getting home couldn't have been easier -- Doctor Bird moored at Balboa Yacht Club, so we just hopped on a launch for the short ride back to Moonrise, which we were glad to find right where we left her.

So that was my first transit of the canal, and Rachel's second; we can only hope that our own transit is as smooth. Actually, there's not much chance that we'll get a lock to ourselves; we'll almost certainly be sharing with a freighter, which is where the problems can lie. Still, we both feel a little more prepared now.

Our transit is still tentatively set for the 21st, so we have less than a week to get ready!

Working in the engine room
Tue 17 Feb 2004 22:52 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Hard work day today... getting the engine ready to -- hopefully -- run smoothly during our transit. Topped up all the fluids, fixed the extractor fan in the engine room to keep it cool, checked over the starter solenoid, stripped down and lubricated the gear shifter which was sticking, cleaned the water intake strainer. Not quite done yet, but nearly... and completely knackered.

More work tomorrow...

Wed 18 Feb 2004 22:04 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Getting closer! Unfortunately, the boat is a mess! Still, the engine room is closed up again, with a number of improvements inside.

We now have at least one line handler lined up for our transit; a fellow cruiser who is getting ready for his own transit in March. Only three more to find, but we have a couple of leads, and people seem to be finding crew without much problem. The Blue Water Rally folks are still coming through the canal, about 6 per day; I don't know how many are left to come.

We laid in a huge store of cans of pop today; we got a large cooler, and ice is available at the dock, so at least we have drinks on hand for our crew.

We still need to replace that broken shroud; we can't find rigging wire in town, so we'll have to dig into our own spares. That's tomorrow's job.

Thu 19 Feb 2004 21:17 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Our transit is looming closer! We called today to see if they could put it back a day, but the schedule is solid until the 27th, which is too late for us. So we're working on to get everything set by Saturday, although it's getting a bit overwhelming!

Still, we have the rigging repaired. Normally, we'd get a rigger to supply us with wire and terminal fittings, and then attach the fittings to the wire with a swaging machine; a huge, expensive machine which welds the fittings over the wire with immense pressure. However, we hit three snags with this approach:

So, we dipped into our reserve of spares, and found the right wire, cut it to length, and added a hand-fitted terminal to the raw end. This is actually stronger and more durable than a swaged fitting; the normal objection to this type of fitting is that it's more expensive than a swage, even taking the professional fitting of a swage into account. Still, it's perfect for repairs on the road, which is why we had it, after all.

So, after a quick and easy trip up the mast, we have a new shroud, and we're back in sailing trim. Now we just have to re-provision, check out of Panama, and get line handlers organised!

Fri 20 Feb 2004 20:05 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.342' N 79° 33.559' W -- Balboa Yacht Club, Balboa, Panama; 3872.4 miles since Alameda, California

Frantic preparations are under way on Moonrise, as we get ready for our transit tomorrow. We're re-provisioned -- at least enough to get us to Colon, where we can stock up on fruit and veg -- and we've got the boat tidied up and aired out a little. We re-stowed most of the forward part to get things squared away better, so the V-berth isn't quite such a tip.

During our shopping expedition we finally got to explore the famous Cinco de Mayo, the big shopping street in Panama city. It was hot, crowded, and full of street vendors. We didn't spend too long there, but we picked up some nice fabrics pretty cheaply. We met a large number of Kuna women, from the San Blas islands, our next stop -- easily spotted by their distinctive dress -- shopping for fabrics for their molas. More about this in a week or so! I also tried a sugar cane juice drink -- this is an interesting concoction made on a street cart with a stack of sugar cane and a press, so it's totally fresh. It tastes a little like a sweet tea-like drink, but similar to coconut milk; very refreshing.

As well as that, we've checked out of Balboa, so we have our ongoing port clearance; and we've got line handlers organised. Since tomorrow is the first day of the huge Panama City carnival, we could only find one cruiser to crew for us, so we've hired Luis (the taxi driver) and one of his mates as line handlers.

We still have to take the boat to the fuel dock -- tonight; it's already 8:35pm. -- and fill up with fuel and water, and wash the boat down (the Panama City grime has taken its toll).

Tomorrow morning, we get up at around 5 am., and start preparing for the day -- setting up our mooring lines for the locks, and preparing food for the crew. The line handlers arrive at around 7 am., and we have to be off the mooring and out in the channel to pick up the canal advisor at 7:45 am. Our first locking up is scheduled at Miraflores lock, where we will be northbound at 9:30 am., if all goes smoothly -- that's 2:30 pm. UK time.

So, it might be worth watching the webcam on the Panama Canal web site from around 9 am. (2 pm. UK) onwards, if you're interested. Everything's subject to change, It looks like we're going up with a group of other sailboats.

I don't have web access -- let alone time -- so could someone knowledgeable email the Panama Canal web site and ask for the cameras to be turned on us? Details are on the web site, which I haven't seen myself. Maybe you could email the address around to the other folks on this list too. Sorry I didn't have time to organise this myself!

Our big concern is that our start isn't too early -- we're hoping we won't get stuck in Gatun lake overnight, as we'd have to feed and berth our crew, which would be tricky at best!

Wish us luck!

Motoring up to Miraflores locks
Sat 21 Feb 2004 08:52 America/Panama
Position: 8° 56.728' N 79° 33.938' W -- The Panama Canal, south of Miraflores Locks; 3873.1 miles since Alameda, California

(Rachel here) We are now motoring up to the first lock (Miraflores). Nerves! But we got the same pilot as when Rachel went through two years ago! And he's a great guy, so we're happy. We'll be waiting for one other sailboat to arrive, and will also go through with a sportfisherboat, and a tourboat.

Sat 21 Feb 2004 12:14 America/Panama
Position: 9° 03.680' N 79° 39.756' W -- The Panama Canal, in the Gaillard Cut; 3882.4 miles since Alameda, California

(Rachel here) We've made it through all three "up" locks (the two Miraflores and the Pedro Miguel) and are now bucking a headwind through the Gaillard Cut on our way to Gatun Lake.

It remains to be seen whether we'll make it through in one day - we got kind of a late start because of waiting for the pilot and other ships.

Tied alongside a tug

We were lucky and were able to side-tie to a tug on the way up, which is a lot easier because you just lash on securely and then ride up; the tug is tied to the wall. If we'd gone "center lock" in our own web of lines, we would have had the slightly tricky job of taking in the slack to keep ourselves centered as the water rose.

It wasn't all easy though - Ian had a heck of a job getting Moonrise to glide precisely up alongside the tugs. There is a lot of turbulence - in the first locks especially - as the saltwater and freshwater meet and mix. Then after the tug releases us, we have to stay off the lock walls while maneuvering in the turbulence as they also get underway.

So Moonrise is in fresh water for the first time ever. It smells like home to me - I'm a fresh-water gal :-)

Ian's got the autopilot on now, the sunshade is up, and I'm about to don my caterers hat. We'll be in Gatun Lake all afternoon, hoping to make it through Gatun Locks - otherwise we'll have three houseguests for the night. Yikes!

I've got to go take a photo of a monster ship passing us...

Flying the ensign in the Panama Canal
Sat 21 Feb 2004 19:54 America/Panama
Position: 9° 20.607' N 79° 54.538' W -- The Flats, Bahia Limón, Panama; 3909.2 miles since Alameda, California

Moonrise is in the Atlantic!

Yes, we made it, and all in one piece! But it was a nail-biting finish.

We started the day off with some snags. Our professional line handlers -- Luis and his son, Luis -- arrived, as well as the other cruiser who was crewing for us, Dick. But Flamenco Signal (which handles all communications for traffic on the Pacific end) called us on the VHF to let us know that our transit advisor (effectively a canal pilot, although he's technically there just to advise) would be arriving at 8:00 am., not 7:45 am. as planned. So, as 8 am. arrived, we fired up the engine, pulled in our lines and cast off from the mooring.

We then spent the next 45 minutes motoring around in tight circles on the edge of the channel, waiting for the pilot to show up. We got more and more worried as the clock ticked by, knowing that we were already off to a late start for getting through in one day. We noticed that a large pleasure boat, packed with passengers, was circling in exactly the same way; and we guessed that they would be going through the locks with us.

Finally, at 8:45 am., the pilot launch came out, and came alongside. This was the next worrying spot, having seen the damage caused to another yacht when the pilot boat rammed into their side. This is a not infrequent problem, and is partly due to the usual technique that the launch skippers use to deliver pilots to freighters -- they drive into the side of the ship and power forward to stay in place. But it's also, apparently, due to the fact that some of the newer launches are controlled electronically, and this system doesn't allow for really fine control over the engine.

However, we needn't have worried; the launch driver approached with great skill to within a couple of feet as we motored forward, and the pilot jumped aboard -- quite a leap, from the high deck of the launch to our much lower deck.

We yelled a "Muchas Gracias!" to the launch driver, and headed off under the Bridge of the Americas. The pilot introduced himself as Marin, and Rachel recognised him as the advisor who had helped with her previous transit under another skipper. This was great news, since she remembered him as being really helpful.

He turned out to be even more friendly than she remembered. He started briefing me on how to approach the first lock, but he didn't yet know exactly how we'd be going up. It turned out that we were to share a lock with three tour boats and two tugs, and he was trying to negotiate on the radio to get us tied alongside a tug, which would make our job easier.

Going up in Miraflores Locks

We had to wait for the lock for quite some time, but the gates finally opened, and the procession of boats went in, with us bringing up the rear. We did have our requested spot alongside a tug, so the next task was to maneuver alongside it, as it finished tying up, and through its powerful prop wash. This was tricky, but we got tied up, the gates closed behind us at 10:08 am., and the lock started filling.

Water is piped into the locks via a network of huge ducts in the floor of the lock; still, the turbulence as the water comes in is impressive. Huge mushroom-like mounds of water bubble up all over the lock as it fills. Moonrise surged powerfully back and forth as the water rose, and we were thankful that our lines were tied off to cleats, with the tug taking the slack in as the water rose, rather than us having to take our own lines in by hand.

Once the chamber filled, the next hurdle was to undock from the tug, move off to one side, allow the tug to go forward, and follow it into the second chamber, immediately ahead, to repeat the process. This was very nasty maneuvering in a narrow space, and in still-turbulent water, but we managed to get tied up again -- more tightly this time -- and locked up into Miraflores Lake. This time, when we undocked, Moonrise got pulled off sideways buy an eddy and started twisting sideways in the lock. This was a nasty moment; once sideways, we would be pretty much unable to help ourselves. I tried going back and steering out of it, but to no avail; so I hoped that there was room at the front, between our bow and the tug, to turn, and powered forward. We turned around, cleared the tug by a couple of feet, and motored out into the lake.

Miraflores Lake is just over a mile long, so it was a short hop to the next lock, Pedro Miguel, with just a single chamber. We repeated the whole process, and it went a little smoother this time, although tying up to the tug in the face of powerful eddying currents was still a hassle.

The Gaillard Cut

We cleared Pero Mighel lock at about 11:30 am., and started the long motor to Gatun Locks -- 26 miles -- by entering the Gaillard Cut. The cut itself is 7 miles, and would be about the worst possible place to break down, being narrow and heavily trafficed by enormous freighters. On the other hand, we needed to push hard to have a hope of making Gatun Locks before nightfall. We were already running dangerously late, and now we found a strong headwind holding us to about 5.5 knots, as opposed to the 6.4 we should have been making. But if we didn't make the locks, we'd be stuck in Gatun Lake overnight, with Luis, Luis, and Dick to feed and bed. With Moonrise being barely big enough for the two of us, this was something we really wanted to avoid, so with a constant eye on the engine temperature, we pushed on at full speed.

As we motored up the cut, a batch of southbound traffic came through, so we passed a number of huge freighters going the opposite way. The truly large ships -- the Panamax ships -- are such a tight fit in the lock chambers that they can only transit in daylight; and one of the major bottlenecks in the canal is that the Gaillard Cut is too narrow to allow large ships to pass in opposite directions safely. So, the way the canal works is that small ships transit at nighttime, and the large ships transit in daylight; and ships pass through in large batches of vessels all bound in the same direction. In the middle of all this, the poor yachts try to squeeze through without getting squished!

A dredger at work

At least we were now able to relax, with the locks behind us, and a long section of plain motoring ahead. We set up the autopilot, raised the sunshade, and broke out the food and drinks. Rachel made some excellent sandwiches, and we had cases of pop in an ice-filled cooler, so we were pretty well catered. Things were still a little tense for the helmsperson, though, as we had to steer carefully in the narrow cut.

At 12:50 we left the Gaillard Cut and came out onto the Rio Chagres. Here, I had been hoping for some favourable current, but the wind kept our speed down. By now, we were getting really concerned about spending a night on the lake, as we were well behind schedule. Marin showed us the place in the Rio Chagres where southbound yachts anchor overnight, and told us about one crew who decided to go for a swim there. They ended up getting back in the boat rather quickly when a number of LARGE crocodiles came to investigate!

Another worry was that Marin wasn't sure whether we could safely use the Banana Cut, the shortcut through Lake Gatun. Apparently, the buoys there tend to drag from their correct positions, and since this isn't part of the commercial route through the canal -- it's used by the canal's own launches, and by yachts -- it's not a high priority for maintenance. But we told him that we had been through the week before with no problem, and he decided to take us that way.

Jungle around the Rio Chagres

The Rio Chagres is beautiful, though; here, all signs of civilisation are left behind -- apart from other boats -- and you are surrounded by jungle. The surroundings are even more wild out in Lake Gatun proper.

Racing through the Banana Cut

At 3:00 pm. we entered the Banana Cut, and headed north, free of the shipping traffic for a change. Although the cut seems like a good thing on the chart, it's actually only a mile shorter than the main ship route, so it's not a big deal. Still, that's 11 minutes at the speeds we were doing, which would turn out to be crucial.

We were by now almost resigned to spending the night on the lake, especially given that Marin's radio had given out, so he couldn't call in for information about the down locks! He managed to hear that the last down lock would be at 4:10, but he couldn't call in to tell them about our progress.

Looking ahead to the last ships preparing to down-lock

As we emerged from the cut at 3:52, we could see Gatun locks ahead, 1.5 miles -- or 16 minutes -- away; with 18 minutes to get there! Marin tried calling ahead on his cell phone -- which had also gone flat, but luckily Rachel's charger fit it -- and he got some information, as well as ordering a new radio. But he couldn't call the lockmaster directly without his special canal radio (our standard marine VHF wouldn't do). So we pressed on at full speed; we could now see two ships ahead, lining up to go into the locks. This would be the last down-locking in daylight, with southbound ships coming up afterwards, so we had to make it ahead of them.

We headed in towards the lock with Marin still trying to call the lockmaster; in the end he directed me to drive straight in front of the nearer ship, Sea Phoenix, and into the lock chamber. As I did this, the ship behind, Unterwalden, started moving into the other side of the locks, and Sea Phoenix was also moving. At the last moment Marin told me to break off. I pushed the tiller hard over, and we turned away from the lock, clearing the wall by about 20 yards!

The good news was that Marin had turned us away because the lock was still filling, so there was still time -- although not much -- to catch the next downward locking. As we waited, another launch came out with a spare radio for Marin, so he was back in communication again. He immediately called the lockmaster and was greeted with a hearty (and heavily Spanish-accented) "Good afternoon my friend, welcome to Gatun!".

Our lock-mate at Gatun

Pretty soon the lock was filled, the gates were open, and we started motoring into the lock. The whole time, Marin was briefing me on the strange currents in the lock, which are extremely tricky, and which pop up in the most unexpected places, and at times when you wouldn't expect water to be moving at all. As we entered the lock, it finally sank home how tiny Moonrise was, driving into this huge concrete chamber -- specially when I looked back and say Sea Phoenix coming in behind us, looking as if she was scraping the two walls, 110 feet apart. But the best view was forward -- where we could see the Atlantic Ocean, three steps down and a little way ahead!

The line handlers on the lock walls hurled their weighted heaving lines to us, and our line handlers passed back our mooring lines, which were then tied off on the lock wall. Sea Phoenix came up distressingly close behind us, and was hauled into place and stopped by the powerful electric mules on the walls. Then, the gates closed, and the chamber started to drain. This causes very little turbulence, and is pretty easy to handle, as we're just paying out the lines, not hauling them in.

Sea Phoenix being hauled forward by the mules

After the first chamber, I drove forward into the second, negotiating a tricky patch of turbulence which for some reason persists between the chambers. But locking down was straight- forward, with no snags. The last chamber provided some excitement, when a peculiarly powerful turbulence tried to shove us off our mooring lines; but our expert line handlers coped with it. This was apparently caused by the light fresh water from the lake mixing with heaver saltwater.

The gate opens on the Atlantic

So at last, we were through! Moonrise entered the Atlantic ocean for the first time in her life, as we motored up the canal approach towards the anchorage. As we motored down, we passed line on line of ships going up; Marin wasn't kidding about that being the last down-locking, since the southbound traffic was clearly several hours' worth. The last step was to say goodbye to Marin himself, when a launch came to pick him up off our deck. We may see Marin again, and we would like to, as he's a great guy, as well as being an absolutely fantastic canal advisor -- really helpful and friendly, and absolutely professional and highly skilled.

The captain, and Marin, our advisor

Moonrise is now anchored at The Flats, in Baha Limón, after completing a transit in 9 hours an 52 minutes. We're both delighted to be in the Atlantic after all this preparation. Now all we need is some provisions, and we're off for real!!

Sun 22 Feb 2004 23:56 America/Panama
Position: 9° 20.607' N 79° 54.538' W -- The Flats, Bahia Limón, Panama; 3909.2 miles since Alameda, California

As you might expect, we had a long lie in this morning! We were both pretty exhausted after our transit yesterday, but thrilled that we pulled it off OK. It was pretty tense all day, as we were running late, and we really didn't want to spend the night on the lake with three extra people on board; but we made it! It certainly seems like quite an achievement.

And thanks everyone for your good wishes -- it means a lot to know that the folks "back home" are enjoying reading about our exploits!

The first order of business was to get rid of the 22 tyres we had festooned around the boat; but that was no problem. More boats go from the Atlantic to the Pacific than the way we went, so tyres are harder to get here -- if you don't want to pay $3 per tyre! So ours were spoken for before we even anchored. We managed to swap one lot for giving our crew a ride into town, and another batch for a dinghy tow into the Panama Canal Yacht Club's dock (which is a long, windy row from here) this morning, so that worked well.

Today, we checked the fuel level -- we only used 9 gallons on the transit -- and set off to do some provisioning before heading out to the San Blas islands. We didn't need much stuff -- a little fuel and water, and some groceries -- but we ran into a couple of hurdles. First, the town's water supply was off for some reason; second, the fuel dock is closed on Sundays; and third, this being carnival time, most other places are closed too!

We finally managed to get some water, but the rest will wait until tomorrow. We certainly want to leave pretty soon, though, as Rachel has friends coming out to meet us in the San Blas islands. We also want to stop in a couple of places on the way there, particularly Portobello, which is said to be well worth a visit.

So, we got some chores done today, and tomorrow it's an early start for us.

Mon 23 Feb 2004 21:25 America/Panama
Position: 9° 20.607' N 79° 54.538' W -- The Flats, Bahia Limón, Panama; 3909.2 miles since Alameda, California

Not much happened today -- we basically loafed on the boat all day! I think we've earned it. Hopefully, we'll be off tomorrow.

Wed 25 Feb 2004 00:11 America/Panama
Position: 9° 20.607' N 79° 54.538' W -- The Flats, Bahia Limón, Panama; 3909.2 miles since Alameda, California

Well, I know I said yesterday that we'd be out of here today, but this is Central America, we're allowed to keep saying "mañana"... and this time it really should be tomorrow!

We spent today finishing our provisioning, and by the time it was done, it was too late to leave. The next stop we're planning has a reef outside the entrance, and it's only safe to enter in good light, so we need to leave here early; the good news is that the boat is fully stocked, the dinghy is stowed back on deck, and there is nothing holding us back now.

The delay in provisioning is (partly) due to the ongoing carnival, which has had many (most) businesses closed down since Saturday (the day of our canal transit). This is pretty inconvenient; for example, we still haven't got diesel, which means that though our tank is full, the reserve jerry cans on deck are empty.

Provisioning is a big deal here, because from here on out there is very little until we make our way up the western Caribbean. There is really no shopping at all in the San Blas islands, except for local produce such as fish. So, for a boat coming through the canal and heading on, Colon is the last chance to stock up, perhaps for months.

Colon is -- shall we say -- a colourful place. One of the most useful guides we have is the Lonely Planet guide to Central America, which is definitely written for the more adventurous travelers. It has no hesitation in directing the reader away from the regular tourist traps, and into more risky parts of the world. It covers in depth, and in hundreds of pages, such countries as Nicaragua and El Salvador, which were quite recently war-torn disaster zones; it has details on such out-of-the-way places as San Juan de Oriente, the tiny pottery-making village in the mountains of Nicaragua, and on hikes into the smoking craters of volcanoes.

Here's what the guide has to say about Colon.

"Warning: Colon is a dangerous slum, and if you don't have a pressing reason to come here, do yourself a favour and bypass it. Crime is a serious problem. It is not only possible but likely that you will get mugged, even in broad daylight, and even if you take every precaution."

Despite this dire -- and justified -- warning, Colon really is indispensable for eastbound cruisers, and most stop here. The key to survival is, once again, to use a taxi. The Panama Canal Yacht Club is a fenced and guarded island of safety in Colon, and several taxi drivers hang out there to take cruisers to the places they need to visit in town, whether for paperwork or shopping. These taxi drivers are, as seems to be the rule, very pleasant, helpful, and diligent, and touring with them is a pleasure -- or as much as it can be in Colon.

We hired Polito, a really nice, quietly-spoken driver, for 2 and a half hours, for a total of $15. He took us into the shopping areas, and had information on everything we needed, such as general groceries, an ATM, fresh fruit and veg, etc. Our first stop was an indoor market for the fruit and veg.

Driving through Colon was an interesting, but depressing, experience. The town was once well-off and picturesque, and you can see the colonial grandeur in almost all of the buildings. However, they are all crumbling, in many cases on the verge of collapse, but still very much in use. The central boulevard still retains its charm; it's wide, with a central grassy strip, covered with old, overhanging trees, and dotted with statues. However, the whole place is decrepit and untidy; peeling paint, crumbling plaster and concrete, broken-up streets, roofs patched with corrugated iron, and hanging pipes set the tone.

The market was crowded and as slovenly-looking as the rest of Colon, but turned out to be a good source for food. The market area is actually very large; the particular section we found ourselves in was mainly Chinese, and was well stocked with fresh fruit and veg; under the sagging roof, the stalls themselves seemed to be well-ordered. We found a stall that had what we wanted, and started asking the nice, friendly Chinese folk who owned it for prices.

Polito, our driver, had come in with us to act as porter, bodyguard, and translator. The problem with the translator bit is that he didn't speak a word of English; however, we were able to get by with him in Spanish, so he was able to translate the stallholders' rapid-fire Chinese-accented Spanish into something a bit more mainstream.

We've picked up a bit of working Spanish along the way, but of course the language in each country has slight variations. The key to being understood in Panama is to not talk too clearly. Slur your speech, and drop consonants from the ends of words, and often the middle; on no account ever pronounce a final "s". Most importantly, talk at 3,000 words per minute. Despite all this, after a couple of weeks here, we've adapted to the point where a native Spaniard probably couldn't understand a word we say. Now that's progress!

Loaded down with fresh stuff, we headed off to the big supermarket for the rest of our provisions. We'd been told that the Super 99 in Colon was a great place to stock up, but it was disappointing compared with the Rey in El Dorado, in Panama City; next time, we would definitely do all our big shopping from Balboa. Anyway, the Super 99 wasn't too bad, so we'll get by. It's situated in a part of Colon called "Colon 2000", which is a fenced-in, guarded enclave -- just a small plaza and a bunch of shops -- around the cruise ship pier. It exists to serve cruise ship passengers, and to give them a safe place to buy the usual knick-knacks; as such, it's depressingly similar to all the other tourist traps we've seen, though in deference to its host city it's considerably less glossy and clean than most.

Our albeit limited contact with the cruise ship world has made me wonder what people get out of it. At Huatulco, Balboa, and now Colon, what we see is that the ships dock, the passengers have a few hours ashore, then they move on. This gives them time to explore the small area around the dock, which is inevitably full of the same shops selling the same tourist junk at the same inflated prices -- the tourists seem to be completely isolated from the city they're visited. Now, granted, in Colon that's a blessing, but it seems to be an odd way to travel.

OK, I'm sure there's more to it than that, but as a cruiser it's a very different story. You're forced, like it or not, to seek out the strangest parts of whatever town you're in, to find the port captain, customs, immigration, agricultural control, etc. This already puts you in touch with several taxi drivers and a range of officials -- all of whom, after Mexico, have been very hospitable -- and gives you the chance to see many parts of town as you criss-cross it in the backs of various cabs. Then you have to go shopping, seeking out places like the open-air market, where we can buy non-refrigerated eggs and vegetables (they last longer on the boat); then we have to find odd specialist places, like a shop that sells 1/2" hose, or the ice plant. With all this activity, I reckon we get a pretty good taste of our host nation. All in all, cruisers are close to the water, but also to the land.

Anyway, we stocked up at Super 99, and headed for our last stop, the ice plant. Every town in Central America seems to have one, a place where you can buy ice in huge slabs, 10 inches by 2 feet by 3 feet. We take one home, chop it up, and place blocks in the fridge and cooler; this keeps us going without having to power the fridge, at least for a few days.

With the ice loaded up, we got home, packed the ice, loaded the fridge, cleaned and stored the vegetables, and with all that done, decided that it was too late to go on; so here we are for the night. We did a last row to shore to dump some rubbish and top up with water for the last time, and now we're completely set for an early start... mañana.