Monday, April 22, 2019

Panama Canal: Good to Go Tomorrow!

April 22
La Playita Anchorage

We received our transit schedule for the Panama Canal early this morning.  On Saturday evening, we picked up six giant ball fenders and the four long lines required to go through through the canal.

Intermezzo is good to go tomorrow!

Our day will start early at 0445 when we dinghy over to the La Playita marina to pick up our line handler. A boat needs four line handlers, plus the master (skipper) for the canal. I only have three crew aboard and couldn’t press anyone I knew or met into service, so I have to hire a fourth line handler.

We then weigh anchor and proceed at 0530 to a waiting area between Buoys #2 and #4 to receive our mandatory Canal Advisor who is scheduled to board at 0600.  We’ll officially begin the transit upon our entry into the Gatun locks at 0730.  We will be doing a one-day transit (no overnight stop in Gatun lake) and are scheduled to complete our journey through the canal at 1600.  When we exit the canal, we’ll proceed to Shelter Bay Marina, where Intermezzo will have a rest for a couple of weeks.

Receiving the transit schedule this morning was a surprisingly emotional moment for me. I was flooded with memories from the past 3 1/2 years since leaving San Francisco, some very poignant ones arising of people and events unleashing a multitude of strong feelings. I also feel a combination of excitement-fear for tomorrow’s journey.  Going through the canal represents a point of no return for me, I can only proceed forward into new territory, there is no option of turning back.

It is a powerful metaphor for life.  We exist in impermanent moments of no return. The path taken ceases to exist. The start of the path ahead visible, what lies on it unknown, its end a mystery.

Deep stuff for me and my little boat going through a big ditch. Across a continent.

Looking back at the Petaluma River Turning Basin as Intermezzo began this Voyage on October 5, 2015

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Panama City: Paperwork Complete, Canal Transit Scheduled

We got all our paperwork completed yesterday for Intermezzo's transit of the Panama Canal. We are scheduled to enter the canal on April 23rd. It is possible that we might go earlier. I'm sure it's also possible we could be delayed, too. But next Tuesday is the date we are planning on.

Intermezzo is anchored out in La Playita. It is a pleasant enough anchorage, though we are occasionally rolled by canal work boat wakes and the odd intermittent swell.  We paid $55 to use the dinghy dock at Marina Playita for a week. We ferry to and from the boat a couple times a day.

We've eaten dinner out, done laundry, the crew has gone partying (while the boring captain read a book on the boat), we went grocery shopping, I found some needed engine parts, Roy went on a date...we need to fill up five more days of waiting.

Panama City has everything a big cosmopolitan city has to offer. I find it a bit dirty, a bit rude especially compared to Mexico,  and the Spanish a bit harder to understand, consonants not articulated, endings of words dropped off. Nice neighborhoods and dangerous ghettos are sometimes separated by one or two streets. I'll be glad to move on, though, Colon, at the other end of the canal is considered to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Still trying to find an internet connection fast enough to post pictures.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Panama City: Busy Day, Little Accomplished

Today was busy, but not a lot to show for all the effort.

Intermezzo was berthed in Marina Flamenco, the most expensive marina I've ever stayed in, $111 per night. Other than a decent dock, you don't get much for that high price. The restrooms were clean but tiny and both the men's and women's lacked shower heads on the showers. They were completely missing, just a pipe sticking out of the wall, teflon tape around the threads where the shower heads would screw on. I think someone stole them. The water pressure is pretty low, too, so taking a shower involved bending one's body in different directions to get under the thin stream of (cold) water, like doing some weird snake dance.

Around 0930 this morning a very pleasant official from the Panama Canal Agency stopped by to inspect Intermezzo and get information for our canal transit. Fortunately, Intermezzo had passed through the canal before on her delivery trip from the builder in South Africa to me in California in 2012, so the canal agency had most of the pertinent data for the boat and didn't need to take any measurements. Back then the boat's name was A4135, an impersonal identify, like a prisoner in a penitentiary. We officially changed the name to Intermezzo in the canal agency's records.

We left the marina after the inspection and refueling. At least the diesel is cheap, $3 per gallon versus closer to $5 in Mexico.

We headed to Balboa Yacht Club where we planned on taking a mooring ball for the duration of the wait for our canal transit. Our ship's agent, Roy Bravo, was to meet us at the club bar/restaurant at 1500 to clear us into Panama. When we arrived at the club', we were directed to take a mooring ball at the very outside the mooring field, right next to the main shipping channel for the canal. There was a swift ebb current in the channel and a southerly wind blowing against it.

We attached ourselves to the mooring ball and watched with concern as Intermezzo sailed and drifted all around it, the thick hemp painter lines rubbing off bottom paint. We tried adjusting the two lines from the bow to the ball with no improvement. We finally decided to lower the dinghy and attach line from our stern to a mooring "ball" (actually a tire) behind us. It took a bit of effort, but solved the problem, preventing the boat from swinging around.

By the time we got the stern line finished, it was time for me to meet the agent at the club. Roy ad I hailed the club's launch and went to shore. No Roy Bravo at 1500. I waited until 1530 and called him. He apologized, explained that he had been delayed on the Atlantic side of the canal and couldn't meet with me until tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, Intermezzo's Roy had wandered off, something he is apt to do when he gets ashore. I returned to Intermezzo on my own.

Back at the boat, John and Kim reported that our proximity to the shipping channel, in addition to providing close up views of huge passing ships, also subjected Intermezzo to terrible rolling wakes from passing pilot and tug boats.

I had found Balboa Yacht Club is a bit of a dump, with little sign of life, save for the yacht tender men. The bar and restaurant were closed and didn't look like they would be much good when open. The place has clearly seen better days. Given the crappy facilities, the crappy mooring ball, and the rolling wakes, I decided to leave and anchor outside La Playita Marina, a recommended anchorage further off the ship channel. Now we just had to wait for Roy to return to the boat.

Roy got back from his walkabout around 1700, we untied our spiderweb of mooring lines fore and aft and headed to La Playita. The anchorage here is pretty crowded with yachts either waiting to transit the canal or having just completed their transit and preparing to leave on longer passages. I took us a couple of goes to find a spot amongst the other boats.

I was feeling a bit tired, frustrated, down and out so stayed on the boat while the crew took the dinghy into the marina to have dinner. It's almost 2300 and they haven't returned yet. I suspect alcohol is involved. All those stories about sailors on shore leave are true. If they aren't back by midnight, they will be AWOL. A couple hundred years ago, I could administer lashes for such an offense. Now, all I can do is give a disapproving look and make a few disparaging comments.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Panama City: We're Here

Intermezzo is berthed in a slip at Marina Flamenco outside of Panama City.

We're here. Right next to the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal. What a trip.

The weather was actually close to the gentle and calm conditions forecasted and we had an easy trip from Isla Otoque to the marina.

At both Isla Gamez and Isla Otoque, I noticed many trees with lots of large white flowers but no leaves. It looked a bit strange to me, but I marked it down to unfamiliar, unusual tropical vegetation. When Roy returned from shore yesterday, he reported that the white flowers were actually baby pelicans. Hundreds of them, just sitting in the branches of the trees, little fuzzy birds. They must be able to fly into the trees, but their feathers haven't developed to let them godive into the water and catch fish yet. So they sit in the trees waiting for their parents to come feed them.

It's amazing how many ships are anchored around the entrance to the canal, I figure many dozens. We had to dodge a few moving ships as we crossed the shipping lanes and then weave our way through the anchored ships to get to the entrance to the marina. The AIS (Automatic Identification System) really helped by alerting us to potentially dangerous ships and plotting their vectors and potential collision zones. However, as we drew closer to the anchorage, I had to set the display to show only dangerous targets, otherwise the display was so cluttered that I couldn't see any of the navigational aids.

We sailed 1,154 nautical miles from Puerto Chiapas over the past 12 days. Total distance sailed for The Voyage so far is 2,443 nm since leaving La Paz on January 8.  That's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

We celebrated our arrival with a nice dinner at a marina restaurant, a generous treat from John.

Tomorrow we meet our ship agent and begin the process of getting in line for our canal transit.

I'll post some picture from Leg 3 of The Voyage when I have a faster internet connection.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Isla Otoque: Rough Passage

Last night we rounded Punta Mala and conditions changed dramatically.

The forecast for the Gulf of Panama from all sources was for light winds. Here's the official text forecast from yesterday:


The forecasts weren't even remotely accurate, save for the SW swell, which wasn't very important. Instead of light to gentle winds, we had 20+ knots blowing from the NNW, the direction we wanted to head to get to the entrance of the canal. The winds had whipped up a steep chop for us to bash through. And to make matters worse, there is a constant southerly current flowing out of the gulf that took one to two knots off our speed.

At Punta Malta, that southerly current combines with the prevailing westerly coastal current. I came on watch at 2200, right as we were approaching the point traveling roughly due east. The boat rapidly slowed from the five knots to less than two knots with one engine running. I started the other engine and revved both up to their near maximum rpms. I was making about 3. 5 knots as I began rounding the point. As I rounded the point, the wind speed increased from about 12 knots to over 20 and now I was barely making two knots, Intermezzo shoved back by wind, wave and current. I experimented turning the boat onto different headings and watching the speed over ground (SOG) and velocity made good to our waypoint (VMG) carefully to find the optimum course. I finally settled on a heading that put the wind and waves about 30 degrees off the port bow, quite a bit off our rhumbline, but resulting in the best VMG. Despite my efforts and those of Intermezzo's valiant little Yanmar diesels, I only covered 10 nm over the course of my four hour watch!

The NW wind chop mixed with the six to eight foot swells from the SW and the SW current produced a sea state that looked and felt like a washing machine gone mad. Intermezzo pitched, rolled, yawed, and slammed violently, a most uncomfortable and unpredictable motion. I had to hang on tight to the helm seat so as not to be thrown off. As unpleasant as the motion was, the ocean was beautiful. The moon had just set and the sea looked like a liquid plain of blank ink strewn with bright white, slightly green clouds from all the bioluminescence being activated by the breaking crests of the waves. These clouds were so numerous and so bright that they lit up the surface of the sea for miles in every direction. It was amazingly beautiful, I've never seen anything like it before.

John and Kim took over for me at 0200. The little distance I covered beyond the point was moving us out of the area where the currents combined and Intermezzo started picking up some speed. I slept in the salon, getting up every hour to check on our situation. By mid-watch, the wind had decreased to around 10 knots and we were able to make five knots SOG running just one engine. I started to think that the high winds were just local to the point and that we would soon see the "mainly light to gentle wind" forecasted. We were still being tossed around and pounding into head seas, but much less violently. I began to think we were out of the woods.


Roy came on watch at 0600 and an hour and a half later, the boat suddenly slowed down as the wind whipped up again to over 20 knots. We started the second engine up and pushed the throttles forward, struggling to make more than four knots SOG with the boat slamming, pounding and shipping a lot of water over the bows.

There was no way were would make it to our planned anchorage at the Balboa Yacht Club before dark and we were all fatigued from the constant noise and motion. I decided to head to my "bailout" anchorage, a sheltered cove on the south side of Isla Otoque, about 25 miles southwest of the canal entrance sea buoy. We altered course to head there.

Fortunately, the wind and waves gradually calmed down, so that by the time I came back on watch at noon, the slamming and pounding had stopped. We still needed both engines to make speed against the current, but we were making over five knots. By 1445 we were anchored and Roy, John and I all dove into the water for a refreshing swim. Roy and John swam to shore to collect coconuts (their new hobby?), while I got back on the boat and mixed myself a tall rum drink. Kim relaxed and kept an eye on the shore party.

It was 14 hours of very trying and tiring conditions after sailing for 36 hours. Not dangerous, but very challenging . I've been in much rougher weather, but yesterday's conditions were the worst I can remember in terms of duration of jarring discomfort. It was such a relief when the seas calmed down and an even bigger relief when we anchored, turned off the hardworking little diesels (I'm thinking of naming them Yin and Yan) and all got quiet, except for the soft bird sounds and the gentle breaking surf on the beach.

Tomorrow morning we resume our journey to the Balboa Yacht Club. We should be there mid-afternoon.

The forecast is for light and gentle winds.

We'll see.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Approaching Punta Mala: Sharks and Currents

We motored along all day today in calm, benign conditions, save for a quiet two hour stint of (unforecasted!) downwind sailing.

I saw my first shark from onboard Intermezzo this morning, its fin slicing slowly through the surface of the smooth water. I got sight of its sleek four foot long body as it glided past the boat, less than 20 feet away.

Later this afternoon, the crew was treated to a show of marine life while I was off watch snoozing. Two pods of over a hundred dolphins each, mabula rays doing somersaults, and another shark that launched itself into the air.

From a sailing perspective, the fun started right after dinner when we met a strong westerly current that reduced our speed from over five knots to just over three. Even with both engines running at fast cruising rpms, we could not get above four knots. This was a problem, because we need to average five knots over the next 24 hours to make it to the Balboa Yacht Club anchorage before dark.

We decided to turn into shore and see if the current wasn't as strong in shallower water. That turned out to be a good move. About two miles off the coast in 100 feet of water, the current lessened (perhaps even reversed a little, an eddy?) and we were soon back to doing over five knots on just one engine at normal cruising rpms.

Interestingly, the paper charts show "Strong Currents Rep (1959)" in the vicinity and at the depth contour where we encountered them 60 years later. I normally don't pay much attention to notes like this on charts as they seem very general in nature and it seems like if something was reported in 1959 but never confirmed, it might not really exist now. Especially something as variable as a current. Now I know better.

The information about local currents in the Sailing Directions and cruising guides is confusing, different currents from different sources that go different directions depending on the season and then the effects of ebb and flood tides, to boot. It seems to me that reasonable guidance for rounding Punta Mala would be, if you are a small boat and have radar to navigate at night, stay close to shore where currents and tides aren't as strong. That's what we're doing tonight.

Enroute to Panama Canal

April 12
7.2N 81.3W

There is not much to say about our passage so far to the Panama Canal. There is more ahead of us, though.

Yesterday's highlight was our dinner stop anchored of Isla Montuosa. It seemed like quite the slog getting there, motoring in virtually no wind against a weak foul current and gentle swells.

Montuosa is a tiny island that lies 50 miles off the coast. That far out, you might as be anywhere in the ocean and that's what it looks like when you get there. The quarter mile wide, roughly circular island is a pinnacle that rises steeply from 675 ft below the ocean surface to 500 ft above it. It is heavily vegetated with a mostly rocky shoreline. We anchored off the sandy beach on north side of the island in about 33 feet of water.

The gentle swells on the ocean turn into breakers that crash among the rocks off the beach. Off the west end of the island is a long rocky reef with even more impressive breakers. Our dinner stop was a bit rolly when the boat swung beam to the swell, accompanied by the distant crashing of waves and the squawking of birds in the island jungle. Bright green palm trees front the white sand beach, various species of tropical trees grow on the slopes above. Through the binoculars, I saw an amazingly large tangle of jungle vines in one spot, weaving in and out of themselves and taking over a sizeable patch of the jungle, to the apparent detriment of the trees there.

It was nice to stop the boat for dinner instead of eating on the run. It looked like we might be treated to a nice sunset, but it fizzled out at the moment of truth. Shortly after the sun set, we weighed anchor and we were off, motoring again in calm conditions.

We motored all night. We now have an (unforecasted) light easterly wind on our nose and continue to motor. We will soon turn to the northeast and the wind is forecasted to continue being on our nose, with a foul southerly current building as we get nearer to land. I'll bet we motor this entire passage, which is always disappointing, not to mention expensive at $4 or more a gallon for diesel and less than 7 mpg fuel economy. Messes up my carbon footprint, too.

We are seeing a growing number of ships on the radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) as they converge onto the canal entrance from ports all over the Pacific. When we get close to the canal, we will need to deal with the Traffic Separation Schemes designed to keep ship traffic organized and stop them from crashing into each other. We need to call the Flamenco Signal Station on the VHF when we are in range and announce our arrival. They then tell us where to sail, much like air traffic controllers do for aircraft. I'm expecting them to mostly ignore us, a small bit of plastic flotsam compared to the big ships that are their main concern.

As we approach the Golfo de Panama, we round a the large peninsular that forms the west boundary of the gulf, defined by two points, Punta Mariato to the west and Punta Mala ("Evil Point") to the east. There are strong currents, tidal rips and the wind accelerates around Punta Mala, sometimes doubling its forecasted speed. Fortunately, the forecasted winds (more like "suggested winds" around here, in my opinion) are light, but we still need to deal with tide and current. The current flows out of the gulf against our sailing direction, so best to enter when the tide is flooding, which diminishes the current, rather than when it's ebbing, which enhances the current. I'm trying to time our arrival at Punta Mala accordingly.

Besides tide and current, the other navigational consideration is the timing of our arrival at the canal. I don't want to be putzing around the mouth of the Panama Canal in the dark among all those ships, all of us trying to find a place to park. I'll need to adjust boat speed or even make a rest stop to make sure we are sailing there during daylight hours. That might conflict with trying to find favorable tide conditions, which are time dependent, as is the boat's position, course and speed at any moment. It appears to be a problem well-suited to linear optimization techniques, but I can't be bothered. We'll make daylight sailing the priority and deal with tides and currents as they are.

The boat is damp. The tropical humidity is constant, but in the morning heavy dew covers the deck and light moisture over all the horizontal surfaces inside the boat. The pages of my charts and books are curling, no clothes or bedding are completely dry and the cabin sole under my feet feels like a damp mopped floor. I expect moss to start growing on everything and us soon.