The Log of Moira


The Panama Canal (January-February 2007)


These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.




The Panama Canal made Panama (the country) what it is. Without the Canal, Panama would be like Nicaragua or El Salvador, and Panama probably would still be a province of Colombia. The Canal provides the money that allows Panama to be close to first-world status in Central America. The workforce needed by the Canal and the industries supporting the Canal, including tourism, have created a middle class which has provided stability to the country. There have been aberrations, e.g. Noriega and his years as a dictator, but the country today seems to be in pretty good shape both financially and politically. Not to say that there are no problems.


Panama City skylinePanamá (the city) is the capital of Panamá (the country), and sits at the southern entrance to the Panama Canal. <Larry: Geography lesson. Panama (the country) runs east-west. The Canal runs more-or-less north-south. The Caribbean entrance is actually west of the Pacific entrance.> From a distance, Panama City is quite stunning. The skyline looks like Miami Beach: sophisticated high-rises with style and even some character line the beach. The climate is lovely, without hurricanes, though it does rain energetically during the rainy season. There are areas in the city that are quite interesting and lovely. Every type of retail exists here, with shopping malls that rival California’s. There are very nice residential areas that remind me of Beverly Hills. There are grocery stores similar to Safeway or Bristol Farms, and I can't think of one product I couldn’t get here…well maybe the arugula doesn’t look too good!


Then there are the slums. They’re not as bad as Mexico City or Quito, but that is because Panama is much smaller. The entire country of Panama has a population of only 3.2 million, by comparison with the population of Mexico City at 27 million. The slums are both high-rise and shacks, the high-rise slums reminding me of Chicago and New York public housing slums. There are signs that the government is building housing that in time will replace these slums, but that is a long way off. The worst slums I have ever seen are in Colón on the Caribbean side. Though Colón has been in poor condition since the 1700’s, the slums that exist today are a blight on Panama. The country has the funds to care for its population but not necessarily the will.


Panama is very eclectic… an interesting area that allows you to explore many different cultures, all of which seem to work well together within this relatively small country. We had dim sum one morning with twenty other cruisers… all you could eat for the grand sum of $3.79 per person <Larry: Panama uses the US dollar as its currency, but they call it the “Balboa.” Vasco Nuñez de Balboa is about the only Spaniard whose name is a positive noise in this part of the world. He was the last of the explorers before the conquistadors arrived.> Later that day we explored the Chinese area of the city, shopping for rice noodles and pickled ginger. On another day we had lunch at “Eurasia,” an elegant restaurant featuring French-Chinese fusion cooking. There are places for Italians, Thai, Japanese, West Indian, Black Africans, American ex pats, Canadians, Europeans, and many South Americans. It’s a fascinating mixture of cultures: they seem to work with and respect each other.




As in other areas of Central America, local transportation is mostly easy and mostly cheap.


When were anchored out at La Playita, Larry would row us back and forth to shore, sometimes making three round trips in a day. He enjoyed those bulging muscles. <Larry: Cheap, not necessarily easy. For a while we called the process “Cleopatra’s barge.” For the privilege of coming ashore at the La Playita un-marina, one pays $5.25/day.>. It is nice having a hard dinghy that rows so well by comparison with inflatable dinghies, which do not row well and use 15 horsepower motors to get around. When we moved to the Balboa Yacht Club, we only had to get on the radio and call the muelle (the main dock) and ask for the “Lancha, por favor.” The Yacht Club long ago adopted rules that do not allow private dinghies to clutter up their dock, so powerful launches come to get you from the boat 24/7 and deliver you dry to the dock. The cost is part of the mooring fee.


Puente de las Americas at night, seen from Balboa Yacht ClubOnce on the main street by the Yacht club, we looked for small vans called collectivos, which come on no fixed schedule. <Larry: They run frequently during morning and evening rush hours, but one can wait 45 minutes for one at midday—and that one will be full!> The collectivos are generally old and not well maintained, seating perhaps 10 passengers. They run fixed routes, and the ones of interest to us ran from the end of the Amador causeway (near La Playita anchorage), past Balboa Yacht Club, to downtown Panama City. The fare on the collectivo is $0.25/person, paid upon exiting. 


There are lots of private cars on the roads, all of which contribute to a fairly severe traffic problem in the City. There are no plans for light rail or subways. The Amador Causeway, which was built with spoil from excavations to create the Culebra (Galliard) Cut, is topped with a 2-lane road. At the far end of the causeway are restaurants and shops well-patronized by the residents of Panama. On the weekends, there are serious traffic jams that remind me of Newport Beach in the summer.


Another alternative is the taxi, which costs about $3 for a ride into the downtown from the Balboa Yacht Club, or another $3 to or from the end of the causeway <Larry: taxi drivers hate going down the causeway>. The grocery stores are not served by the collectivos so the taxi is the only answer. For $2-3 the taxi will get you to the retail centers, hardware stores or the grocery stores.


Then there is the “red devil” bus system, former US school buses painted in vibrant colors with personalized cartoonish designs. They drive like mad, stopping for no one and seemingly above the law. They charge $0.15 per ride and stay on four main routes, covering the city fairly well. We never tried one mostly because their safety record is somewhat flawed and we were not able to work out the routes well. The taxis seemed less intimidating though more expensive. <Larry: Taxi fares within Panama City are regulated, based on a zone system and rather cheap, but it is still prudent to establish the fare before getting into the cab! In principle, one should never pay more than $3 to get from one end of Panama City to the other, but if a cabbie sees that you don’t know the system, the sky’s the limit.>


Panama does have one railroad, which we tried as a part of a day-tour across the Isthmus to Portobelo, San Lorenzo, and Colón. <Larry: This is the Panama Canal Railway, the first transcontinental railroad in the Americas, whose corporate bloodline goes back to before the French effort to build a Canal.> The train sends residents and tourists back and forth between Colón and Panamá (City) in style with a Vista dome and lots of ambience, reminding one of trains of the early 1900’s. The train route runs close to the Canal and Gatun Lake, giving views of that transit system at work. When not moving workers and tourists, the train moves freight back and forth between the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the country.


And of course, there’s the Canal.


Colonial Panama City


We took several tours of areas around and within Panama City. The earliest part Spanish settlement of Panama City (“Panamá Viejo”) was sacked and destroyed in 1671 by the Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan. It is now an area of ruins surrounded by park areas. The city was moved to a new site by the Spaniards in 1673 with the construction of the 44 hectare Colonial Panama City (“Casco Viejo”). <Larry: We got an accidental tour of Panamá Viejo. We needed to liberate a misdelivered parcel of mail from the clutches of FedEx, whose offices lie in an industrial park just to the east of Panamá Viejo. Our taxi driver took the direct path to the industrial park, through the ruins of Panamá Viejo.>


Panama City’s “Old City” (“Panamá Viejo”) and historic district or colonial city (“Casco Viejo”) were named to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1997. Gaining this status does not automatically provide funds for restoration or protection, but often the recognition seems to assist in organizing for private investment. The colonial city has over 900 buildings waiting for funds to restore them. Those buildings that have already been restored are lovely colonial buildings, which often now house sophisticated dwellings or snazzy new restaurants. Many of the unrestored buildings still have residents living in them so relocation is a part of the process of renovation. The government does not provide funds to restore buildings, but they do provide a 30-year exemption from property taxes. Capital gains are already sheltered from Panamanian taxes, and the banks through government programs will help owners with shelters from all other foreign taxes. The government also provides clear direction on what must be done to the buildings, whether restoration inside and out or restoration of the exterior only. I suspect in 10 years this area will be thriving and totally rehabilitated.


Casco Viejo is also an area of embassies. The French have done a beautiful job of restoring a large building in the center of Casco Viejo for their embassy. There are also many churches in various stages of restoration, and several  museums, one of which is on ill-fated French involvement in the Canal. I must say that museums here are not on the priority list for government spending, A colonial prison has been restored and put to use as a good French restaurant. <Larry: In front of that prison/restaurant, the French constructed a Pantheon of sorts, with a semicircle of bronze busts of De Lesseps and his lieutenants who worked on the French attempt at building the Canal. Sort of a celebration of pigheaded determination in the service of abject failure. In the center of the semicircle is an obelisk, atop which stands the French national rooster (cockerel). Some find the juxtaposition amusing. We understand that the French are interested in bidding upon the Canal expansion.>


Chagres River, Embera Drua Indians


Embera Drua women weaving, Rio Chagres, PanamaAnother fascinating tour was our visit to a village of the Embera Indians, now living on the Chagres River, the same river tamed to build the Canal. The area we explored was downstream of a dam near the headwaters of the Chagres <Larry: Madden Dam was built in 1936 to create a reservoir for the rainwater needed to run the Canal in El Niño drought years>. We traveled to the embarkation point on the Chagres by van and then entered an Embera dugout canoe for the half-hour ride on the river to the village.


The Embera in this area came from the Darien province about thirty years ago, escaping from the extreme poverty of subsistence farming in a tropical forest worn out from too many failed agricultural attempts. Relocating to the Chagres, they hoped for better farming, fishing and eco-tourism opportunities. They seem to have found a successful method to survive. The men of the tribe have a good understanding of  medicinal plants from the forest and the women grow vegetables around the houses. The government of Panama supplies a concrete school house for the children in most of the villages. Tourists come every day to visit and the Embera give short lectures on their life and goals of the village.


They dress traditionally. The men wear only a colorful loincloth. The women wear wrap-around skirts with a kind of halter/bra made out of beadwork and silver Embera Drua children, Rio Chagres, Panamacoins. The women are fond of wide, silver bracelets. The women also decorate their bodies with henna-like tattoos, colored purplish black with the juice of the jagua fruit which is believed to have health-giving properties and to ward off insects. I was able to get one of these tattoos on my arm. The tattoo slowly faded over a week’s time.


The men and women make different crafts. The women weave beautiful baskets and serving plates, with very colorful and unusual designs. The men carve the tagua nut from the palm tress into sculptures of small animals and insects, delicate, beautiful pieces of art.


Embera Drua child, Rio Chagres, PanamaWe were able to wander around the village, which housed about 15 families. The buildings are well-suited to the environment. They are built on stilts 3 to 4 meters off the ground. The floors consist primarily of thin but amazingly strong strips of palm bark. The stilts protect occupants and food from animals and swollen rivers. The rooms of the house are open-sided to admit breezes. The roof is thatch, which keeps the rain out and acts as good insulation from the sun. The kitchen occupies one corner of the house and has with a clay-bottom fireplace. <Larry: The layer of clay prevents the heat of the fire from burning through the palm-bark floor. They served us a lunch of baked fish and yuca, which was quite tasty.>


Before we left the area we were taken up a tributary of the Chagres to a waterfall. Our treat of the day was to swim in a cool lovely pool below the waterfall. Nice way to end a tour!


Additional photos from this trip can be found on our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.


Barro Colorado


Golden Orb spider, Isla Barro Colorado, Rio Chagres, PanamSeveral days before our Canal transit, Larry and I went on a day-tour to Barro Colorado (in Spanish this is “red mud”) which is an island in the Gatun Lake of the Canal. Barro Colorado has been leased by Panama to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. STRI has been doing research in Panama since the early 1900’s in this area, and was invited to stay by the Panamanian government after the American control of the Canal ended in 1999. We got some impressions of the biological research undertaken by the scientists there during a three-hour tour through the jungle on the island.


Gatun Lake was formed when the Charges River was dammed, which was necessary for the construction of the Canal and to provide the water that operates the canal. Each use of the Canal locks takes 52 million gallons of water! <Larry: The water comes from the rainy season, and allows the Canal to function entirely by gravity, without pumps. No rainy season, no Canal.> The damming of the river created Gatun Lake, and a number of former hilltops in the Chagres River valley became islands, of which Barro Colorado is the largest.


The interesting thing about the island to a non-biologist is that you can get a sense of the nature of the jungle that had to be defeated and conquered before the canal could be built and sustained. The density and wildness of the jungle is clearer on Barro Colorado than in other areas we visited surrounding the canal. What a momentous feat we accomplished by building this canal! Keep in mind that the French started with idea of the canal and worked on it in the wilds of Panama and the corridors of power in Paris, Washington and New York for twenty years before abandoning the effort. It took the Americans another 15 years to build it, but only after conquering yellow fever and malaria in the area, and building the infrastructure of roads, railroads, homes, stores and such amenities to care for the 25,000 workers from all over the world that built the canal.


<Larry: Our hike through the jungle on Barro Colorado prompted Susan and me to engage in our own subsequent entomological investigations: for the next week or so, we were picking ticks off our bodies. Yech.>


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.



The Transit


<Larry: We moved from the more-or-less free anchorage at La Playita to the fee mooring area at the Balboa Yacht Club two weeks before our transit. Being at the BYC made it much easier to reprovision and to get our line handlers aboard at “oh-dark-thirty.” If we’d stayed at La Playita, if one’s line handlers come to you by their dinghys, when you leave, what happens to their dinghys? And when they finally get back to the Pacific side the next day, how do they get back to their boats? It’s a variation of the old “cannibals and missionaries” puzzle. The BYC launch solved all those problems for us.


The Balboa Yacht Club is an interesting institution. It lives within the boundaries of the old Canal Zone, and is subject to the pleasure and whims of the ACP (“Autoridad de Canal de Panama,” the Panama Canal Authority). When the clubhouse of the Club burned down several years ago, they were told that their lease would not be renewed, nor could they rebuild. When we arrived, the “Club” consisted of a mooring field, a pier and fuel dock, a covered patio with attached open-air bar and BBQ, and a couple of bathrooms. While we were there, they had received final permissions to rebuild, and ground had been broken for a new clubhouse.>


Chart of Moira's track, Panama Canal transitI highly recommend David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, an impressive history of the struggle to build the Panama Canal. The struggles of the financiers, the engineers and the doctors seem forgotten today with the passage of the years. The Canal today seems almost serene today, with nothing of “the angry jungle” that its builders found in the area. Even now there is a firm plan to expand the Canal by adding a third series of locks that will accommodate just about the largest ships built today and expected to be built over the next twenty years. It appears that the Canal Authority will be able to finance the expansion on revenue earned from the larger ships, assuming that Panama can secure long-term bonds from the financial markets. All of this seems dreamlike in comparison to the struggle to build the original Canal, a struggle that cost 25,000 deaths, mostly from malaria and yellow fever, both of which were wiped out in the Canal area before the Canal opened in 1914.


Larry did a practice transit on a boat called Canopuz before we took Moira through. <Larry: For some reason, it is much less stressful to make a transit on someone else’s boat!> Good thing, too, because though the transit is mostly fairly easy, it can have moments of intense excitement which can be safely handled if experience carries the day. A cruiser wishing to gain such experience will commonly volunteer to serve as a line handler on another cruiser’s boat. Larry’s practice transit took two days because the boat he was on was 33 feet long, capable of making the minimum 5 knots, but in the event not fast enough to make the transit in one day under the rules of the Canal—see below. <Larry: If you’re unable to complete the transit in one day, you’re required to moor overnight in Gatun Lake, a stone’s throw from the Gatun Locks. Sleeping under the stars on the deck of a 33-footer in Gatun Lake was no great hardship in the dry season, though the concert of the howler monkeys at 4:30AM was an unusual alarm clock.> But the experience is valuable none the less.


Moira festooned with tires in preparation for Panama Canal transitOn our transit we had three volunteer line handlers who had not done a passage before—cruising friends Jack and Hermie from Iwa and Rich from Slip Away—plus Charley, a professional line handler <Larry: one cruiser called them “local layabouts,” which may be just a touch too pejorative.> We hired the Charley ($80) through Tony, one of the taxi drivers who fill the niche of cut-rate ship’s agent for the cruisers, and who had previously helped us through the rabbit-warren of Panamanian bureaucracy. Tony and Charley brought the four rented 125 foot-long lines ($80) to the boat and took them off when we were done with them. Charley’s experience was invaluable and he effectively became the crew chief for our line handlers.


<Larry: Yacht fenders (not “bumpers,” thank you) are not up to the rigors of dealing with the rough concrete lock walls, nor to protecting the hull if multiple yachts are rafted together. As a result, there’s a brisk trade in “tires,” old, bald automobile tire carcasses, wrapped in black plastic sheeting and wound with packing tape. There are piles of tires at the yacht clubs and marinas at each entrance to the Canal. A yacht festooned with tires is a dead giveaway that she just has finished, or is planning, a transit. Photo courtesy of the motor yacht PRN.>


Moira in Gatun Locks, Panama Canal transit; ACP advisor in foreground, Cap Blanche freighter in backgroundIn addition to the line handlers we had a Canal Advisor. An Advisor is a Pilot-in-training with the Canal Authority, learning his or her trade on yachts before being entrusted with the ships that regularly transit the Canal. <Larry: Our Advisor had been in that role for ten years.> An Advisor does not take over the helm but stays beside the captain to advise and direct. The smart captains (like mine) do exactly what he says and safely transit this body of water. In contrast, we are told that a Pilot actually takes over the helm from the captain and takes the ship through the canal. In our experience, Advisors are very experienced and professional. Not many ships have problems going through the Canal. Our Advisor was not talkative but very professional. He gave the orders without laying out the big picture but we saw what he was trying to accomplish quickly and how professional he was, and all went well. <Larry: Our Advisor lived in Colón, on the Caribbean side of Panama. He got up at 4AM to make it across the Isthmus to meet us in Balboa at 8AM. He does something like that five days a week.>


<Larry: The Canal Authority assumes that a northbound yacht transit will take two days, spending the intervening night moored or anchored in Gatun Lake. Why so long? Yacht transits are done only during daylight hours (“It’s a policy”), and yachts are not permitted to be in a lock with a ship carrying significant quantities of hazardous materials (most ships). On a typical day the last opportunity for a northbound yacht to go “down” on the Caribbean side (with a ship not carrying hazardous materials) is at about 4:15PM. Let’s assume that a typical sailing yacht can make 6 knots (about 7 mph) into the teeth of a 20 knot headwind. In order to make the last “down” opportunity, one must exit the Pedro Miguel Locks, cross the Culebra (Galliard) Cut and the Gatun Lake, and arrive at the entrance to the Gatun Locks, a distance of about 26.5 nautical miles, before 4:15PM. If one’s yacht makes 6 knots it works out that one must exit the Pedro Miguel Locks before noon. We were out of Pedro Miguel Locks at 12:15PM. The race was on!> Our advisor thought he might get us through in one day and did his best to accomplish this. <Larry: He directed us to take shortcuts like the “Monkey Channel” and the “Banana Channel” through Gatun Lake. Some of the shortcuts were, well, unofficial. After four hours of “flat out” running, our poor engine was overheating and bubbling coolant out of the pressure cap.>. Under Canal rules Entering the Caribbean from Gatun Locks, Panama Canal transit<Larry: “It doesn’t have to make sense, it’s a policy!”> on a “down” lock, the smaller vessel must go into the lock before the larger vessel. <Larry: On a “down” lock, once the cork (ship) is in the bottle (lock), that opportunity is gone. That, combined with a relatively late start and lower speed, is what caused my practice transit to take two days.> By 4:20PM or so we were out of the Banana Channel and had the Gatun Locks in sight. Our advisor got permission by radio for us to nip around the large vessel already lining up to go into the locks, and we were able to squeak in front of it. This allowed us to do the passage in one day. <Larry: I estimate that we made our opportunity with five minutes to spare.> The alternative would have been for the entire crew to sleep overnight on the boat <Larry: the Advisor would have been taken off by a Canal Authority launch> and proceed through the locks the following day <Larry: with a new Advisor>. We had planned for, even expected, that outcome—my spicy lasagna was ready to be served—but we’re not really set up to sleep four extra bodies, and it would have been uncomfortable. <Larry: When it became clear that we were going to get through in one day, Charley whipped out his cell phone and called Tony, who immediately drove across the Isthmus to pick up our line handlers ($50). We dropped off our Advisor on a Canal Authority launch in Colón harbor, and made a contrary-to-our-policy entry to Shelter Bay Marina in the dark about 7PM. (Shelter Bay Marina is on the site of the former Fort Sherman, built to protect the Caribbean entrance to the Canal.) Susan gave our line handlers some ham sandwiches “for the road,” saw them off into Tony’s cab, and I popped the cork on a bottle of Champagne for us.>


Since the passage took only one day, our line handlers returned to their homes a day earlier than expected, and Larry and I ate lasagna for a week. We spent the following week resting up, caring for Moira, and enjoying being on a new ocean.


We’re not in the Pacific any more, Toto!


All’s well that ends well. The passage went well, there was no damage, our volunteers got some of the experience they came for, and everyone was happy. Because we did the passage in one day, our bill with the Canal Authority will be closer to $1,200 rather than $2,280. Nothing to sneer at!


We were thrilled to go through the Canal… it is awe-inspiring to be on the Pacific Ocean at 8AM and to be in the Caribbean Sea by dusk. The Canal changed the way the world worked and certainly enabled our little cruise. The alternatives are not friendly to small boats and ships. We all had fun, I got to cook up a storm for hungry people, and we are ready to try another major ocean and the other side of the continent.  All in one day…not a bad day’s work!


Additional photos from this trip can be found in our Photo Gallery and Moira’s Ship’s Store.






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