Mahina Expeditions offers offshore sail-training expeditions, offshore cruising seminars and boat purchase consultation.

Mahina Expeditions offers offshore sail-training expeditions, offshore cruising seminars and boat purchase consultation.

Leg 10, 2002: Panama Canal Transit

January 4, 2002
On a mooring at Fuerte Amador Marina, 8.54N, 79.31W, Log: 53,592 Temp: 86F, Humidity: 70%

On Friday 28 December Leg 10 crew were ready at Hotel Costa del Sol in Panama City and on the 1.5 hr bus ride across Panama to Colon we stopped at the Miraflores Lock and visitor center for a close up view of the canal.

Tina McBride - our ship agent for Canal Transit

Tina McBride, our ship's agent had organized the official paperwork for our canal transit and when I checked in with Cristobal Signal Station that night they came right back and said to be out in the Flats ready to have the Pilot Advisor board at 0430. After dinner at the Panama Canal Yacht Club, we left our berth and anchored in the flats area for the night spending a few hours tying our five fenders and 10 plastic wrapped tires to the lower life lines on each side and preparing 4x150ft lines.

We were delighted to see the pilot boat coming alongside at 0445. Our pilot advisor's name was Victor and he had recently been one of the six out of 300 applicants to train as a tug captain and canal pilot. He'd also completed maritime academy in Mexico and learned to sail there. The first thing he told us was that our request to transit side-tied to a canal commission tug had been approved, next he had us raise anchor and motor slowly behind a large Greek tanker.

Tying up beside the canal commission tug

The flooding of the first lock positioned behind the tanker - note the water turbulence

It was starting to get light as we entered the first locks behind the tanker. The tug, tied to the canal wall behind the ship, was ready to accept our lines. The turbulence when the tanker engaged it's prop was not a surprise this time as this was our second transit and we were tightly tied and ready for it. The first three up-locks went quickly and smoothly, and next we were in the gorgeous tropical Gatun Lake. Victor took us on the short cut and as Dino powered us along at 7.8 knots through narrow banks we became avid nature watchers. We all spotted howler monkeys overhead as the trees nearly touched the mast on either side and we gazed eagerly ashore at the muddy banks for crocodiles. Soon after Victor, who had awakened at 0130 to start work said he was tired and went to sleep on the settee in the main saloon! We were a little shocked, but just followed the tanker in front of us and woke him up when we approached the Pedro Miguel locks.

Upon exiting the Pedro Miguel locks we noticed that the Boat Club was chocka, packed with cruising boats enjoying this quiet and friendly spot as we had 18 months earlier. The new managers Heather and Jim are doing a great job and cruisers enjoy this funky, fun and friendly Club.

Down-locking before the tanker

For our down-locking, we proceeded the tanker and this time side tied to a landing craft that was transiting. This meant we didn't have to ease out our lines. By 1400 we exited the final lock and minutes later a pilot launch collected a beaming Victor, happy at having a quick transit, while we were stunned it was over so quickly.

A happy Victor prepares to depart on the pilot launch

As we passed under the Bridge of the America's and past Balboa Yacht Club, previously the only place to moor, we were surprised to see many empty moorings and only a handful of visiting yachts using their facilities. Just shoreside of the club is the new Panama Canal Country Inn Suites Hotel (, fax 507.236.9320) which we would recommend for anyone visiting the canal and would have used for our crews if we'd known of it.

Balboa yacht Club and Country Inn Hotel

Fuerte Amador Marina located at Flamenco Island, 4 miles at the end of the canal breakwater from Balboa is another new story and an exciting one for cruisers. The 150 ton Travelift, two fuel docks capable of handling boats up to 150' and 15 moorings are in, however the marina floats are yet to come. The master plan calls for a large building that's completed but yet to be occupied by duty free shops, plus two hotels, casinos, boutiques, restaurants and a cruise ship pier beyond the marina harbor.

Proposed plan for Fuerte Amador Marina

Construction in the marina zone is full force, although it appears a little unorganized and most projects get built, demolished and rebuilt. Even so the marina will provide an excellent R & R stop with high security meaning that cruisers don't have to worry about their dinghies or boats while ashore.

Along the previously created three-mile causeway to the marina, constructed with the fill from the canal's Gaillard Cut, Panama City has recently established a palm tree and bench lined park. It's become a very happening place for Panamanian's and we estimated 1,000 people were out picnicking, rollerblading and cycling at sunset.

Fueling M.T at Fuerte Amador Marina

We were delighted to fuel up at $1.25 per gallon and wash down plus acquire a mooring for the night. There were mostly large sport fishing boats on the other moorings and a dozen cruising yachts anchored outside, including Gregg and Cindy Robertson from the HR 42 Angel. They joined us for dinner at a fun beachside restaurant a short walk down the road. Cindy had sailed with us on a Fiji inter-island leg and they had both taken the Weekend Offshore Cruising Seminar. A year later Cindy spoke in our Seattle Seminar about the transition of downsizing form shore life to cruising. Now two years out of Seattle they are slowly working their way towards the Med. They return home annually and Gregg who is an artist, paints while Cindy catches up with family and friends.

Gregg and Cindy plus the happy seagoing dogs of Angel - HR42

Sunday morning we completed orientation and then sailed to Taboga Island, eight miles away, practicing Lifesling overboard rescue procedures on the way. Taboga that we had visited on our first arrival in Panama was living up to its motto, "island of flowers" with tropical flowers in full bloom. Crew went off exploring while Amanda and I swam off the boat and relaxed.

Monday morning we sailed for the fabled Las Perlas Islands, 38 miles SW. Halfway there Al noticed a fish on our line and before long Peter was filleting a nice tuna. We had chosen the busiest day of the year (Dec. 31st) to visit Contadora Island, made famous by the Nicaraguan peace accord and as the Shah of Iran's home of exile. As we approached the tropical island we counted 45 large (40'-70') sportfishing boats and saw numerous palacial estates perched on the hillsides above the shoreline. We opted not to anchor in front of the Galleon Bay Resort, instead sailing around the corner to a quieter spot, practicing Lifesling Overboard Rescue along the way.

Impressive fireworks displays launched continuously for 15 minutes from three separate locations, plus small stuff on the beach celebrated midnight New Year's Eve on Contadora. We toasted with sparkling cider and admired the festive evening. After teaching anchoring and splicing the next morning we anchored off the resort and enjoyed lunch and walks ashore.

Feeling lazy that afternoon, we sailed only four miles south to a gorgeous anchorage off Isla Chapera. Al had wondered if we could find an anchorage where we could swim ashore to a plam tree lined white sand beach, and this filled the bill! Only problem was, there were sea nettles, strands of nearly invisible stingers. Al encountered a few, but Amanda always reacts strongly and only a quick dowsing with vinegar prevented her from severe welts and blisters.

Anchored at Isla Pedro Gonzalez

Isla Pedro Gonzalez was to be our furthest island south, here we found a very quiet bay with one family ashore. The Las Perlas appeared to be very sparsely populated and attract few cruising boats, even though they are only 40 miles from the Canal and a lot dryer than Panama.

Beach combing in Paradise

An early start Thursday morning allowed us to return to Fuerte Amador Marina by noon to fuel, water and clean M.T.

Dockmaster Junior (I can only imagine how big Senior must be) let us stay on a mooring inside the breakwater that night and we pampered ourselves with a superb dinner at the trendy yet reasonable Barko Cafe. Al and Larry shared a huge lobster, at $15 per lb., the most expensive item on the menu.

Captain Al Harley prepares to lob on down

Friday morning before leaving crew did a serious job completing our 72 question test. The only items they missed were cardinal marks and storm procedures, two topics we didn't cover during the condensed 7 days of instruction.

Crew was not in a hurry to leave and we all genuinely enjoyed each other's company. It was great to see them on deck late at night, gazing at stars and delighting in the magic of warm, tropical evenings and good companions.

Here they are, Leg 10 Panama Canal expedition members:

Broski Lar, Captain Harley, Peter, A&J, Ian and Sardino entering Barko Cafe

Dino Makris, 48, was born in Athens and immigrated to New York City at 17 where he sold hot dogs in Central Park and washed dishes. A true American success story, he now owns the flower shop at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel plus a production company. With 40 employees they produce grand openings and mega-parties for film companies. He learned to sail two years ago at Newport Sailing School on the Hudson. Unfortunately his lovely friend Stacey Biagi, 33 a former ballerina with NYC Ballet Company, was ill and unable to join us but we look forward to Dino and Stacey joining us in Fiji in 2003.

Ian Wilson, 58 is from Newcastle, England, and sailed as a ship's purser on passenger liners for ten years. In 1985 he and his wife Marie-Rose, from the Sechelle Islands moved to Florida where he works as a property manager and enjoys sailing with his friend,

Peter Reinhardt, 64, originally from Jena, Germany, moved to Argentina at age 12. His first sailing experience, at 18, was due to his parents buying a 10' sailboat and sending him and his brother to Buenos Aires to retrieve it and sail it 350 km home, up the Mar del Plata river! Peter and his wife Karla now live near Atlanta, but he is in the process of purchasing a Bristol 35.5 and a condo with dock in Punta Gorda where he is looking forward to many sailing adventures with his grandchildren and also with Ian.

Al Maher, 55 from San Francisco joined us for the fifth time, and now is tied with Carl Nielsen for most expeditions sailed! Al has rounded Cape Horn, sailed the South Pacific and this year joined us in Spitsbergen. He sails with Club Nautique on SF Bay and is considering a Nordhaven 46.

Larry Maher, 52, of Santa Rosa, CA is Al's brother and has joined us at least twice before. Larry sells gourmet Italian food and brought some exotic tasty treats to share with us on the expedition.

Larry working Italian magicoana in the galley

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