Anatomy of a Panama Canal transit

Roy- Totem's ACP advisor- and Jamie

What’s it like to transit the Panama Canal? How much it costs to go through is the first thing most people want to know, if only out of curiosity; those details are here. What’s the process of a transit through the isthmus like? For those in our wake: a summary of Totem’s our experience, the resources that were helpful to us, and what we learned about how to transit safely.

“Cristobal Signal Station, this is sailing vessel Totem.” After weeks of anticipation and planning, the VHF call to inform the port entry coordinator of Totem’s location marks the start of our canal transit.

Pre-transit planning

This process began with research a few months before. Approach varies depending on whether you do it yourself or hire an agent. Despite a bias to DIY, we chose the latter to have an advocate for getting through in a timely fashion and avoid tramping around Colon (unsafe in the best of times, worse with the rioting this month).

The agent will handle:

  • the canal officialdom runaround
  • organize lines (4 x 125’) and fenders and line handlers if needed (for a fee)
  • cover your $900 “buffer” fee with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)
  • advocate for your desired transit date
  • assist with outbound clearance

Colon has a dismal reputation for personal safety and erupted in riots in March, so it was peace of mind that our agent did the leg work there. He also found us early transit dates when arriving boats were being assigned two to three weeks wait period.

line handler prep for panama canal

Jamie coaches our line handlers before transit. Yes, the Flats is quite a charming anchorage…

Want to DIY? No problem, by all accounts. Good cruiser descriptions for their DIY transit to be found at Gone with the Wynns, White Spot Pirates, and ImpetuousToo.

Waiting to transit

A transit date is only assigned after your official measurement is complete and all canal fees are paid. This interval can take a few days in low season or a few weeks at peak. Waiting in Colon means either paying steep rates at Shelter Bay Marina (owning the monopoly!) or anchoring out where you 1) must not leave the boat unattended for security reasons, and 2) have no place to leave the dinghy, so it’s drop-offs / pickups only.

Motoring up to the first locks on departure day

Motoring up to the first locks on departure day

If your assigned transit date is too long to wait around Colon, there are two options. First, pay to fast track. We were quoted about $3,000 in addition to other canal fees to request an expedited transit from the ACP. Well that was nice to know! Alternatively, do a day sail east to historic Portobelo or go overnight to Guna Yala (San Blas). Getting to either can involve bashing during peak tradewinds; watch conditions.

Go time!

Six humans is the minimum crew during transit: the captain, four line handlers, and an ACP advisor. Mairen and Siobhan were rejected as line handlers (on the unfair basis of their gender, as far as I could tell, but it’s not our call). They’d have done fine, but it was a bonus to have two friends aboard helping fill the role.

Cruising boats do what’s called a handline transit: this means the lines between ship and shore are moved by human handlers. Commercial ships (or fancypants boats measuring 125’ and more) get pulled through the locks by cables attached to locomotives.

Locomotives pull ships in the panama canal

Shoreside locomotive with cables to our Ro-Ro lock buddy, Sunshine Ace

Handline transit vessels have four possible configurations to pass through the locks. When your boat is measured, you can specify top two preferences with the admeasurer. Descriptions to prepare for locking through in different configurations is thoroughly detailed in the Mad About Panama ebook.

Transit begins by meeting your advisor at The Flats, an anchorage 2.5 miles from the first Caribbean-side lock. Totem was assigned a one-day transit, so we anchored overnight as the advisor was due to arrive before sunrise. Andrew and Tristan From Utopia II joined us as linehandlers (and entertainment!). When two other boats anchored nearby, we suspected that our raft partners had arrived. Just before dawn, an ACP vessel maneuvered in to deliver an advisor to each anchored boat.

ACP boat delivers advisor at dawn

And advisor is delivered to Totem at dawn

The canal is roughly 37 miles long, most of which is the waterway of Lake Gatun and canal cuts between the trios of locks at each end. Entering from the Caribbean side, three sequential chambers of the Gatun locks lift vessels up around 90 feet. On the Pacific side, there’s a brief motor across Lake Miraflores between the inland lock (Pedro Miguel) and the last two chambers (in front of the Miraflores visitor center) where boats are lowered back down.

Canal path screenshot on OpenCPN

With our advisor, Roy, on board things began to happen quickly. We were directed to create a raft with Totem in the middle. Roy dryly commented, “perfect, now we have big fenders to protect us.” We like Roy! The boats remained rafted through the first three locks, then separated to cross Lake Gatun, rafting up again to descend the last three locks.

Entering the locks

As the center boat, Totem was responsible for primary propulsion of the raft and Roy was the lead advisor to direct all three boats. It also meant an easier trip for Totem’s line handlers. Once the raft was formed by securing bow, stern, and spring lines, our line-handlers became passengers.

Most cruising boats share the chamber with a commercial vessel. When locking up (towards the higher water in Lake Gatun), commercial boats enter first.  Our “buddy boat” for the first series of locks was the 650’ ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off car carrier), Sunlight Ace.

As the raft drives slowly into the open lock, four ACP handlers – two on each side of the lock walls – throw a small, weighted monkey’s fist with messenger line attached down to the two boats on the outside of the raft. Line handlers on these boats tie the messenger lines to loops on to corresponding bow and stern lines. This does require that the line-handler know how to tie a knot! Our expectation was this was fast and furious, but it happens slowly. This is not the tricky part.

Panama canal line handlers on boat and on shore

It’s an intimidating toss for the weighted line from a shoreside handler

When messenger line and your line are joined, the shoreside line-handlers pull your lines up the lock walls and secure the loop on large bollards (big ship cleats). When boats are secure, the riveted steel plates on the massive lock doors begin to close.

Sending lines back up to shore

Sending lines back up to shore

What happens in the locks?

When the lock doors close and water level begins to change, the line handlers must tension (or loosen) the lines per advisor instructions. It sounds easy, right? But a line handler thinking about capturing the scene on the GoPro they have stuffed in a pocket may not respond when necessary. A cleat that is cluttered by junk on deck will make the line handler’s job unnecessarily difficult. A language barrier between handler and/or skipper and/or and advisor can cause problems from missed or delayed communications. A side-boat advisor distracted by cell phone because primary advisor is in charge is dangerous too.

Panama Canal advisor directing boats

Roy advises all three boats from the center of the raft

Once the change starts, it is critical to keep pace tightening or easing the lines to shore as directed. Something like 55 million gallons flow through in 10 minutes and the water movement is intense. Salt and fresh water don’t like to mix, so when they flood together, lighter fresh water rushes over the salt water create currents on horizontal and vertical planes. If spider-leg lines holding your three-boat raft in place are not properly handled the raft can begin to spin, which is when bad things happen to boat.

intense turbulence within a Panama Canal lock chamber

Handlers manage lines during intense turbulence in the chamber

Dry descriptions don’t convey how heated action can be inside the chamber. Turbulent water can damage boats and humans. When locking “up” to Lake Gatun, lines had to be tightened as the raft floated up to meet the top of each lock, shrinking the distance from boat to bollard. Locking “down” meant loosening lines. If not closely watched, the lines really load up. One of the boats next to us was sloppy with easing the lines when the raft started to shift. The crew realized and scrambled to secure the line that was pulling from them, and twice, nearly caught hand/fingers in the process. So much better to just pay attention!

Exiting the locks

When a massive ship just in front of you spins up the props to move out of the lock, there is a lot of wash. Totem’s engine in forward with moderate RPMs to hold station against four knots of current. All hands must pay close attention to advisor direction to keep the boats centered and pointing straight.

Massive steel lock gates in the canal

Massive steel lock gates in the canal. Does this make it look gentle? It’s not!

Once turbulence subsides, the raft slowly motors forward. If another lock is immediately adjacent (this happens three times), the shoreside handlers walked the raft like they were a trio of dogs on a leash. If there’s not another lock immediately ahead, shoreside handlers will remove lines from bollards and toss them into the water for the boats to pull in.

When dismantling the raft for Lake Gatun and at the exit, the connected boats first motor ahead a safe distance to be clear before separating under the advisor’s direction.

Lake Gatun

By the time we reached Lake Gatun, it felt like the day should be half over – but it was barely 10 o’clock in the morning! Time to hydrate and pass the snacks.

If assigned a two-day transit, you spend the night tied to a large buoy just outside the channel. Lake Gatun is an artificial lake full of tree-stumps and other anchor-eating debris, so it’s mooring only! We initially hoped for this overnight stay, to watch for crocs and listen for howler monkeys. In hindsight the one-day transit was nice to get it done, though long at 11 hours. Thanks to our friend Tammy for this photo of their Gatun mooring!

From here it’s a motorboat ride through history on the big-ship highway to Pedro Miguel locks on the far side. Mad About Panama’s ebook details it all, from how to spot Noriega’s jail to the crane called Titan that was built by Hitler’s Germany and claimed by the US as a war prize…it’s still used to service lock doors.

Sailboat passing OOCL cargo ship in the Panama Canal

Andrew keeping an eye on traffic

Differences in the last locks

Locking down the three chambers reverses a few aspects of locking up – besides the obvious descent. Cruising boats enter first, with the commercial vessel behind. Boats float at the same level as shoreside handlers, so Monkey’s fists are tossed across instead of dropped down, a less intimidating prospect for the weighted line.

throwing monkey fist at canal

Lousy picture – you get the idea!

Current effects were different: again, it was essential to pay close attention to the advisors direction and expect that his instructions may not feel intuitive. Our return to the Pacific (a journey which the canal makes mostly by going south, and a little east!) was a relief, celebrated with the

Takeaways for a safe transit

Notes on our transit, reflections over the last two weeks, have gelled some perspective on our transit: what worked, what could have been done better.

Foremost, all advisors are not created alike. Roy was excellent, and helped us have a problem-free trip. Advisors adjacent to Totem were more attentive to their smartphones than the line handlers. This caused a few exciting moments – all ended well, anyway.

The advisor isn’t the captain—you’re responsible for boat and crew!—but our number one takeaway to transit safely is that it’s essential to work tightly with the advisor. They understand the lock conditions: some instructions may seem odd, like directions to turn the boat to point towards a lock wall, but it’s for a reason. There could be a four knot current deflected by the wall, and their direction is to prevent bad things from happening.

Panama Canal Advisor Roy on board Totem

Our advisor, Roy, was all that and a bag of chips. We scored with this great guy on board!

The advisor is assigned; you don’t have control over that. Here’s what you can control and do to prepare.

  1. Clear decks. The area around bow and stern cleats must be as clear as possible. We moved stern rail mounted outboard to rest on deck near Totem’s mast to free up space near the stern cleats.
  2. You’re either a line handler or you’re not. If you want to take photos or text or adjust your GoPro or message Facebook friends or, or, or, when in the locks, then you are not a line handler.
  3. Fair leads! You know your boat: if the bow line has to pass through the bow pulpit for a clear path to the cleat, then have it run that way at the start. Re-leading in the moment takes time you may not have if currents start spinning the raft.
  4. Stern lines: Jamie felt these took the most load: a strategy to consider is running them to a cockpit winch with the stern cleat as a guide. This gives far better control when easing a loaded line and more muscle to tension when required.
  5. Repeat the instruction given by the advisor. This makes the advisor’s job easier by confirming you heard and are responding to the action called for. It may serve to clarify the advisor’s intentions when issuing rapid instructions.
  6. Mitigating an un-engaged advisor. If the lead advisor is distracted or communication is poor (and even if they’re not), proactively talk through maneuvers before they need to happen. We felt the boats rafted to us struggled a couple of times due to less attentive advisors.
  7. PAY ATTENTION! The lead advisor (who is not necessarily on your boat) may call for rapid engine and or steering changes. One of the boats rafted to us was… less attentive. It created a couple of fire drills and added to our burden to prevent the raft from spinning.
Three boat raft for the Panama Canal

Totem and her fenders I mean lock mates: a nearly matched set of Ovnis.

Resources for planning

  • Start at Noonsite: succinct, solid orientation for the process.
  • Ready for details? They’re all in Mad About Panama’s website and very useful $1.99 ebook. If you read just one guide to prepare, this should be it.
  • Also helpful is The Panama Cruising Guide (Bauhaus) but it’s very expensive if you only want canal info. Invaluable for Guna Yala, however, a good all-around cruising guide for Panama.
  • To appreciate the magnitude of this awesome feat of human labor, read David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas
  • In addition to reading, first-timers can prepare by volunteering to line handle for another cruiser in advance of their own transit: a great way to pay it forward and internalize the process before going in your own boat. Listen on the morning VHF nets (details on Noonsite)

Totem is now northbound from Panama, lingering off Costa Rica for a better window to get across the Papagayos. We’ll cross our circumnavigation track in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, in the next few weeks. If you’ll be in the neighborhood, let us know!

 

 

Exploring Panama’s Guna Yala

sailboat at sunset

Plumes of spray shoot up where waves strike the rocky spires of a reef off the coast of Guna Yala. Totem is bashing west to our next pocket of protection for anchoring, and none of our charts on board match what our eyeballs tell us. “I guess we won’t sail between those islands” considered Jamie while eyeing breakers that stretched across the gap. One chart showed the area as grayed-out UNSURVEYED territory. Two others with some detail suggested it was passable. Welcome to navigating in the eastern Guna Yala! (This post builds on the prior introduction to Guna Yala).

Tucked into a deep bay a few hours later, the kids jumped in for a swim: sediment meant limited visibility, but the sun broke from behind the dry-season cloud cover and turned it a lovely shade of turquoise. Swimming was short lived… was that the smear of a crocodile’s haulout on shore? Impenetrably green hillsides tumbled down to the water’s edge, and in the distance cried a bird, or maybe a monkey; the call was unfamiliar to our ears.

Visitors arrive paddling a large dugout ulu (which also sports a 9.9 hp outboard) from the cane-and-thatch homes nearby. Three generations of a family come aboard: grandmother, parents, and three young children. Together they comprise the majority of the 11-count human population of this community, a handful of structures built a few yards over the water on piles of coral rubble.

Arsesio speaks reasonable English, a legacy of the time he spent in Panama City before choosing to return to traditional Guna life. A few of our Spanish words come in handy too; his wife and mother are more reserved but listen in and smile at appropriate enough times that I think they understand more than they let on. We share snacks stories of our lives while his adorable toddler stuffs crackers into the top of a winch, just like our own kids found them receptacles perfectly suited as string cheese holders some a few years ago. Gifts were lightly bartered: green coconuts and plantains in thanks for batteries and candles. (I’d love to come back to Guna Yala with cases of solar-powered Luci lights to brighten evenings in settlements like this!)

He later asked a favor: since we were headed west, could we take his family (his mother Selina, wife Obaldina, and their three children) on Totem to their larger island community? We pored over the thin data on our charts, and it looked risky. The shallow draft of their dugout makes it effortlessly through a channel between islands and mainland, but it looked questionable for Totem. In good conditions, with water depths we could visually pilot? Maybe. But whitewater blowing across the reef didn’t give us enough to work with for finding a safe path.

Meanwhile, learning about the reason for the request helped us understand how to help. It was time to fill their canoe with coconuts, plantains, and more to sell at the densely populated 10 miles north. Yet when it was loaded down (this included two additional village members, their gear, and an intact but very much not alive deer-like mammal), the sea state was too rough to safely cross the ocean pass between the islands. Now we knew what to do: it was a matter of getting them across this cut into the lee of the next island, not all the way up to their destination; and that we could do. And so, the following morning, all six family members boarded. It wasn’t until they began loading goods—a chain saw, a portable generator, a shotgun, a plastic tub of clothing, two puppies!—that the need became even more apparent. No way could they get across the rough seas in their dugout with all this! So our girls led their girls in coloring pictures below deck while we nibbled fresh bread in the cockpit with adults. It wasn’t a long journey, but an unforgettable one.

We had all the company we needed already with Utopia II.

The eastern range of Guna Yala (also called Kuna Yala, or San Blas) is virtually devoid of other cruising boats: we encountered only one throughout this stretch. Did the relative isolation foster opportunities like meeting the family in Escoses? On another island, we were shown ambergris worth tens of thousands of dollars sitting out on a coral wall to dry. Near Playon Chico, a frequent Guna visitor would ramble for hours some afternoons on everything from his island’s upcoming chicha festival to bandidos stealing from his garden on the mainland. There’s the time our guide for a hike told us with pride about the role of US military in supporting Guna independence; he offered geologic survey markers from the late 1940s as evidence and told us about the armadas from the US to support the Guna during their struggle for recognition – pointing to his ballcap commemorating the 90th anniversary, 1925-2015. And memorably, the afternoon a weathered man beckoned from his doorway calling “cultura! cultura!”- culture, my kryptonite – to show me rows of nuchu, statues with living spirits important to Guna religion, on a corner hutch inside his drafty bungalow.

In the western San Blas, the dynamic shifted significantly. Here were scores of cruising boats. Not all islands follow the Guna’s traditional ways. There were conveniences again: the ability to buy bread and other groceries from small stores (in the east, fewer options and smaller shops; we might buy coconuts or plantains or fish from an individual with extra). Internet access. And here, at last, were the breathtaking islands: white sand beaches, tall coconut palms leaning gently towards turquoise water.

Empty anchorages of the east were traded for bays holding a dozen or more boats at a time. Many were long-term liveaboards, many were “backpacker boats” ferrying travelers (at surprising cost) for their Kuna Yala Experience… or an alternate mode of transportation to Colombia. A few, like us, were cruisers passing through; the western islands are an accessible overnight sail away from the canal region.

These numbers shift local dynamics. Guna in the western islands have built livelihoods around marketing to visiting boats. Dugouts were more likely to come along side marketing handicrafts, offering tours, selling fish and lobster, and occasionally other provisions. And here in the west, thanks in part to that reach, are renowned mola makers: Venancio Restrepo, from Isla Maquina, and “Mola Lisa,” from Rio Sidra.

Venancio and his brother Idelfonso charmed us with their beautiful textiles, patient explanations, and gentle manner

We saw stunning molas in the east, too, but the combination of volume here, the English proficiency of the artists, and their ability to range to the more distant islands favored by cruising boats contribute to their fame.

Shortly before we departed San Blas, a Guna family from Nusatupu island (just below Rio Sidra; near 9 26.8 N / 78 50.20 W ) sailed their ulu over for an early morning visit. They’d seen our mast over the spit of mangrove-covered land that separated us from their home. Igua and his parents were pleasant company; his mother, Floricelda, more outgoing than any other Guna women I met. They visited in our cockpit for a while—drinking coffee, offering molas for sale. From them we learned about the divide is then between Guna who can afford outboards for their canoes range further from the settlement islands to peddle molas; should we return (I hope we return!), I’d make more of an effort to seek out these islands and the artists who don’t have those means. Igua is an albino; there’s a high incidence of this among Guna. The trait is revered, and has a special place in their culture, but given the hot tropical sun… we sent Igua with a bottle of sunscreen. I wish I could say if I’d though tof it first, but it took his request for an application from the one in our cockpit for me to clue in. Maybe some boat in our wake can stop in at Nusatupu, pass along a bottle of sunscreen for Igua, and tell Floricelda her beautiful mola has a good home.

Floricelda allowed photo of her stunning wini, the beadwork decorating women’s arms and legs

Guna Yala holds so many facets of what makes our life interesting packed into one place. Picture-postcard views when the sun emerges (white sand, turquoise water, islands the size of a baseball field sprinkled with palms). Deserted islands where the kids can swim and play. Low tech local community, where people have time to talk. Cultural experiences far from our norm, with lessons to give. And not least, good company: this is the last sailing we’ll do with Utopia II for a while, and so we made the most of it.

Celebrating a boat-kid-birthday in typical low key style, with a beach picnic and games.

Next: practicalities for cruisers planning to sail for Guna Yala / Kuna Yala / San Blas

Like nowhere else: the allure of Panama’s Guna Yala

dugouts under palm tree

Headwinds. Choppy seas. Eyeball navigation through reefs where the usual tropical cues are absent. Days of gray skies. Taciturn communities. Few supplies. All features of our weeks sailing through the islands of Guna Yala (also known as Kuna Yala, or San Blas). Am I selling it yet? The truth is, there’s an undeniable attraction to this wild section of Panama’s Caribbean coast.

The territory includes around 350 islands along a coast of just over 100 straight-line miles. Communities pack into islands where homes constructed of cane and thatch butt up against one another, and footpaths are small enough in some cases to reach out and touch the low-slung palm roofline on either side. These alternate with islands which are largely uninhabited.

It is relatively disconnected: just a single four-wheel-drive road links the far western end to the rest of Panama. The only other “roads” are rivers and footpaths reaching into the tangled green jungle on the mainland: coastal waters are the real highway. Guna ply their dugouts by sail and outboard between islands; what isn’t grown or foraged is largely brought by Colombian supply boats.

Guna Yala is part of Panama… and it isn’t. Indigenous Guna people fought (and won) the right to self-determination and have largely rejected modern “civilization” in favor of preserving their traditions. Retaining this culture is not an outcome of their location, but a deliberate choice: although Guna Yala feels remote, the modern hub of Panama City with its millions of people and bright lights and shiny tech is within reach.

Google’s satellite view shows the density of a populated Guna island

Most islands have little more than coconut palms

Escaping the breaking swells in the clearance port, Obaldia, we shook off the difficult passage from Colombia in the placid water off Anachucuna village. Within a few hours with a shy young couple paddling their dugout to Totem introduced the first ritual of a Guna anchorage: anchoring fees. Uncommon in most of our travels, it’s the norm in the eastern San Blas. There; you’re expected pay whoever presents an officially stamped receipt on behalf of the local ‘congreso,’ the governing authority, and receive rights for a month in return. Too bad we were only staying overnight! I explained this to the visitor, asked for grace on the charge based on our short stay, and offered a handful of instant coffee packets as goodwill. A more social visit came from a father and son the following morning: in addition to their fishing handline, the bottom of their dugout included bananas, limes, and handicrafts to sell. Joining us in the cockpit we learned Andreas also had time, and was interested in talking. Or trying to, as our Spanish is weak and Guna language (Dulegaya) skills nonexistent! My first lesson in ensued, along with my first mola purchase.

Tucked in his basket were a few molas, panels of reverse appliqué panels used in women’s blouses. If you’ve heard about San Blas, you’ve probably heard about molas: the textiles are famous, for their intricate hand-sewn detail and vibrant illustrations representing everyday life or cultural motifs. The first mola he showed us was so nearly approximate a likeness to Totem’s orca, I couldn’t resist. Little did I know this was the beginning of what I now understand to be emola virus: by the time we sailed out of Guna Yala, the single panel had grown to a small stack in the aft cabin.

Totem moved steadily west, gunkholing from one island to the next with a night or two in each stop. It was a fast pace, but we hoped to secure an earlier canal transit (it didn’t work, oh well). Now is the dry season, but ironically, that’s when a cloudy haze obscures the mainland. Occasional breaks offer a tantalizing hint at rugged topography beyond the nearest foothills: the mainland horizon is only rarely visible behind a veil of clouds. Not the classic tropical landscape, but beautiful vistas nonetheless. Local knowledge and shallow draft let local boats move more nimbly than we could!

sailing dugout canoe

Overcast skies also make navigation difficult. The charts here are… wait, what charts?! Most of eastern San Blas just shows ‘unsurveyed’ on ours, and many visual piloting cues are absent in the overcast light and murky water. We move slowly and try to read each wavelet in the choppy water.

There’s a reef here just 3′ below the surface. See it? Yeah neither do we.

This is the area chosen for the Darien scheme, a Scottish effort to find the overland route to the Pacific: doomed not only to fail in transiting the isthmus, but to bankrupt many Scots and contribute to weakening the kingdom to the point it “united” with England. In a deep bay where St Andrews Fort once stood, a village with a handful of cane homes sits out on coral rubble over the reef.

sailboat and thatched huts

To be continued…

Mochilas and memories in Colombia

girl holding a toucan

Posts about why Colombia is a great place to visit and a practical orientation to Colombia for cruisers were written to help others with decisions about Caribbean routing and destinations. But Colombia was more than that for us, and I blog for my family record as much as to help cruisers in our wake. Captured here are a stream of those favorite memories contributing to reasons this warm country left a mark on our family, like the time Mairen held a toucan, with a taste of the rhythm of cruising life.

We met online

When you’re new in an anchorage, it’s normal to dinghy over and introduce yourself to a neighbor. When you’re in a new marina, it’s easy to do a dock walk and go meet other cruisers. OK, so I actually got to meet Dan and Kika back in Grenada – but we first connected online, and had fun trading hangout time on  respective boats while we were in Colombia together. The couple rehabbed a modest “classic plastic” that their background as architects tints with elements of style you don’t often see. We rarely have bandwidth for YouTube, but their channel—Sailing Uma—is one of the few I seek out when the opportunity presents. Not sure what they’ve shared about plans publicly so without tipping their hand, I’ll just say… this crew is one to watch!

Zen garden and artifacts: sometimes it’s better to pick fun over practicality

Kika and I demonstrate the advantage of being… vertically challenged. We can stand on their Japanese-style seating platform without touching the headliner.

Local friendships

We also met Carlos Correa online – he reached out through Instagram. Carlos is a champion Colombian freediver who teaches locally and competes internationally. We invited him for sundowners, discovered mutual friends (the crew behind Evolve Freediving), and had a memorable evening getting his insights into Colombia, the local marine life, and freediving spots. Similarly, a cruising buddy we met in Puerto Rico was back visiting his family in Cartagena: who needs an excuse for drinks at a (we’re not hip enough to be here!) bar near the Old Town? Soaking in the sophisticated vibe with Paulo a couple of cruisers-turned-expats making a life in Cartagena, they apprised us about life today in this historic city.

Back in Santa Marta, it was Colombian/Venezuelan couple Hannah and Luis – fellow regulars enjoying sunset from the patio – who added assistance, information, understanding and enjoyment. They live in town and offer captained charters from their sailboat. You can even have Carlos come along and provide a freediving lesson! Hannah helped us get propane fills (angling hard for a local price), ferried cruisers to the Costco-like Makro shop inland (and loaned her member card) along with other local orientation. Stretching beyond our cruising community in new locales enriches our lives for more than the short term: I hope we’ll keep in touch with these wonderful humans for the long term.

Road tripping

Traveling together can test relationships, bring out their strengths or weaknesses. Road tripping with Aussie cruising friends guarantees more fun. We day-tripped to the highlands in Minca and stretched out to bus to Cartagena for a few days’ stay, backing each other up when needed to make the experience easier and more enjoyable.

Are Andrew and Jamie gazing in each others’ eyes as they’re serenaded by buskers in Cartagena?

kids on the bridge cartagena

Kids getting silly in the old town

Are we there yet? Waiting for the bus from Santa Marta to Minca

Hamster therapy

Our pet hamsters don’t leave the boat. It’s one of the qualities that make them an excellent boat pet. So it says a lot that we took ailing hamster Mochi, her paw swollen, to see a vet in Santa Marta. He diagnosed an inoperable tumor and directed palliative care. Mere hours later we met a cruiser who introduced herself as a zoological veterinarian with experience in everything from hamsters to elephants. Michele proceeded to provide boat-calls and treatment for Mochi from her well supplied medical kit. Siobhan later acted as vet tech for amputation of Mochi’s deeply infected paw.

Mochi has come a long way from the Mamaroneck Village Pet Store and racked up 14 countries so far- about as many as her predecessor from the Phuket night market. Hamsters have a short life span and we know we’re on borrowed time, but cannot believe the good fortune to improve the quality of her remaining days from the chance meeting with Michele. It’s unusual to know the professional background of a cruiser you’ve shared anchorages with for months, although you’ll know more about them as a person than your neighbors at home – we never needed it more than we did in Santa Marta.

Steeped in history

Jamie grew up in the part of the USA where a surprising number of places claim “George Washington slept here.” In Colombia, this is repeated for Simon Bolivar. The Venezuelan rebel played a leading role in the modern statehood of not just Venezuela but Ecuador, Peru and… Colombia. He died in Santa Marta in the 1830s and leaves a widespread legacy; Santa Marta alone includes a museum in his former villa, a memorial, an airport, numerous statues, and many BOLIVAR WAS HERE relics.

He slept here, too.

Lime with that?

I’ve mentioned my love for the Colombian Almuerzo Ejecutivo, the $3-4 set lunch. It starts with soup, delivered to the table with a plate of cut limes. For weeks we squeezed the limes on to the soup (and dribbled on some picante sauce, too). Then we realized the other patrons used limes to wipe their cutlery before using it (disinfectant?). Ahhhh… whoops! So that’s why it sometimes was mixed in the bin of cutlery for the whole table. Well, at least we figured it out eventually.

cut limes with soup course

Lime with that?

Not just for tourists

When a new boat pulls in, there’s a kind of ritual where the ‘seasoned’ (they’ve been there a day/ week/ month) cruiser offers intel. Where do you take your garbage? How’s the shore access? Tips/tricks for getting around? Whatever you need to know. Shortly after arriving in Santa Marta, I met up with Sherrie and Kendall – two “kid boat” moms I’ve been hoping to connect with in person. They were my Santa Marta welcoming committee, and I happily tagged along on their (last day, sadly) errands… learning where to find good cheap eats, the park with free wifi, the overpriced bar to avoid, a source for art supplies, and more. They both sported a mochila, the woven handbags worn by men and women alike in Colombia. Sold in colorful cottons or naturally hued wool, the bucket-shaped bags are distinctively Colombian. First impressions from the beach-front souvenir stalls suggest they’re a tourist item, but you see mochilas worn by rich and poor, old and young, classy and gauche alike. After education on the materials, design, and styles – even a non-handbag-carrier like me was tempted.


Not just for ad campaigns

Remember Juan Valdez ad campaigns on TV? In peasant garb and attended by a donkey, he represented a good cup of coffee (with Colombian beans only, of course). Senor Valdez is not just a figment of American advertising, but the brand image for Colombia’s national coffee federation and the name of an upscale Starbucks-like coffeeshop chain (it even has a few US outlets). Of course, it was necessary to patronize. I didn’t see Juan in his peasant garb raise his coffee to me in salute, but the iconic man and donkey were gazed down from signage.

Totem is well supplied with delicious coffee, now checked out of Panama and northbound for Costa Rica. Find our current location—and speed, if we’re underway—at our PredictWind tracking page.

Panama Canal: the cost for a big shortcut

Totem enters the Pacific

Totem rocks gently at anchor on the Pacific side of the Panama canal. There’s more to share about our transit, but “how much does it cost?” comes up frequently. Here’s what we paid to transit the Panama canal, with a breakdown of fees to help estimate what it could cost others.  It’s a lot of money, but let’s face it: Cape Horn and the Northwest Passage present inconvenient alternatives for sailing to the Pacific.

Fees levied by Panama’s canal authority, the ACP:

  • Transit toll: $800 (same all boats up to 50’)
  • Inspection by an ACP Admeasurer: $54 (fixed by ACP)
  • Security charge: $130 (fixed by ACP)

Fees for Panama formalities:

  • Panama cruising permit: $197 (fixed)
  • Panama visas: we paid $315 ($105/adult). Panama since stopped levying this fee. bummer for us!
  • Other formalities: $55

Other canal transit costs:

  • Agent fee: we hired Erick Galvez from Centenario for $350
  • Line handlers: four required in addition to the skipper/helmsperson. Our friends volunteered. $0
  • Lines/fenders: Rented four lines of 125 feet, and large fenders, through our agent for $75
  • Bank commission for ACP payments handling: $60
  • Water taxi tip for collecting lines/fenders: $12

Total fees necessary for Totem to transit the canal: $2,048.

You can pay a little less, and you can pay a lot more. Here’s how:

Boat size: The 50’ cutoff for $800 is a hard one. There is no lower cost bracket for shorter boats. From 50′-80′, the fee is $1,300. The Admeasurer brings a tape and measures the vessel’s extreme length. Got a bowsprit? Anything sticking off the transom like a solar arch? These are included in the length. We deflated our dinghy tubes to keep them on the davits (thinking a clear foredeck was safer for line handlers) and stayed barely below the 50’ mark.

Agent fees: You can save this expense and arrange transit yourself. Not rocket science, just takes time, and some precautions. Agent fees vary. We picked ours based on a mix of glowing referrals and competitive rate. An agent saves money in some ways (no buffer paid- more on that below; no taxiing around to visit officials – you don’t walk / take public transportation in Colon with a pocketful of cash, it’s not safe). Our primary purpose in hiring the agent was to have an advocate for our transit timing, so our friends visiting from the US could transit with us. That didn’t work, but once we were in Colon, he was an excellent advocate and presented short-term openings for us twice in our first week there (the waiting period during our peak-season stay ballooned to as much as 21 days from measurement to transit; we got through in 10).

Line handlers: Hiring a handler is $100+ and hires sleep on your boat overnight. Cruisers often try to transit on another boat ahead of their turn in order to see what it’s like, a nice tradeoff for everyone. You should pay their taxi fare in the opposite direction. Do make sure they know how to tie a proper knot and have basic boat sense, and will be ready to work instead of take pictures. A guy next to us worrying about his big DSLR nearly lost his fingers because he wasn’t paying attention.

Lines & fenders: we have line of sufficient strength and length on board, but it would have to be cut for canal use. The lengths are intended for use with our sea anchor, and then we’d want to replace that line. Standard dock fenders are not strong enough for the forces the canal may impose (also: having seen the concrete walls, would not want to subject them to it!). It’s possible to pay less (I heard $50) and get tires instead of fenders.

At least the tires are usually well-wrapped in plastic, and certainly durable

Bank fees: if you walk around and get all the cash (US dollars, and you do need cash, and it isn’t easy to get to ATMs in Colon, and you cannot safely walk for one block in Colon with that kind of money on you), you can probably save some of the bank commission (which you’ll then pay in taxi fees). We were happy to let the agent handle this.

Water taxi: your rented lines/fenders have to be returned, and the launch crew at Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side handles it for $12. One of the boats rafted with us stiffed them. Not cool.

Panama visas and cruising permit: the visa fee was eliminated about two weeks after we checked into the country. If we weren’t such rules followers, and sailed through Guna Yala without clearing in and waited until we reached the canal zone, we could have saved $315! Oh well.

Clearance fees: Outbound clearance fee: $35; “document fee” to crooked port captain in Colon: $20. Well hopefully you won’t have the unscrupulous Colon port captain who charged us a “pena” (penalty) I’m pretty sure was not warranted, to prepare a maritime authority document which our inbound clearance port that had not provided. The $35 outbound clearance fee is fixed, however.

Buffer fee: In addition to the other ACP fees, all paid in advance of transit, you must pay a nearly $900 “buffer fee.” This is a bond to ensure you don’t rack up charges from missing your slot, being too slow, needing a water taxi for your line handlers or whatever. If you hire an agent, he takes care of this buffer fee. That fee is eventually returned by the ACP, but between general distrust of the efficiency of the system, our intention to sail north from the canal ASAP instead of sticking around to make sure we got our money back, and a desire for advocacy in our timing and procedure for transit – we picked hiring an agent.

I wished to have a simple breakdown of the costs and how they varied to estimate our fees (we ballparked higher, but were basing off a boat that paid more – partly based on LOA, as their LOA crept over 50 although it’s “46 feet”, and partly based on agent charges). I actually expected our fees to be at least $3,000, so as bad as this sounds, it’s “good.” Although even if we paid less, the canal fees still make Panama the MOST expensive country we have cruised in to date – by a margin of hundreds of dollars!

That’s OK. We didn’t have the warm enough clothes to detour the long way in either direction anyway.

Tristan and Niall contemplate the Bridge of the Americas from the Pacific

 

Cruising to slow down the clock

drone islands sailboats

This is all going too fast.

Events that impressed deeply on our memories, still fresh, have tallied months distance despite feeling like they just happened: Sailing west again, towards Bonaire (three months). Remotely watching landfall for hurricane Irma (six months). Sailing away the USA for a while again (12 months). Saying goodbye to Utopia when we left South Africa (25 months). Setting out to cross the Indian Ocean (three years already?).

Looking ahead, milestones rush towards us and compress time again. On Friday March 9th, Totem will enter the Panama Canal to begin our two-day transit to the Pacific. This incredible event brings the coming milestones into sharper focus.

In about four weeks—just four weeks!—we expect to cross Totem’s outbound track in Zihuatenejo, Mexico, and technically complete our circumnavigation. Wow.

In about six weeks, Jamie and I will fly to Annapolis and deliver seminars as part of Cruisers University. When we signed on for it, the trip back to the USA seemed so far way. Only six weeks away?

In about four months, our family will be back on the home turf of Bainbridge island for the first time in nearly 10 years. That’s going to be here so soon! It’s going to be so good to see our friends and family after so many years. How did they years fly so fast?

I’ve wished so many times that life had a PAUSE button: the ability to freeze ourselves in some of the stunning, otherworldly destinations we’ve been lucky to visit. Like the year we crossed the South Pacific: in eight months we went from Mexico to Australia; many of our stops were only long enough to wait for a weather window to make the three- to five-day passage to the next island group ahead. That year was exceptional, but the year we crossed the Indian Ocean wasn’t terribly different, and we sailed even more miles in 2016 between South Africa and the USA… over 9,000 nautical miles. Fast. So many exceptional places.

Even when it’s felt like time is flying by, it’s the good fortune of experiencing exactly these stunning, otherworldly destinations that helps. There’s a theory that adding to retrievable memories creates the feeling of time slowing. That the more of this positive disruption you fit in, the better; they are speed bumps that extend the perception of time in our rear view mirror. This reminiscence effect makes sense at a gut level. Think about it this way: when everyday life has less differentiation that it blends together, and feels more like time is flying by… disrupt that with less predictable, more unique experiences to stretch it out. Not quite a pause button. But this is why we went cruising: to slow down time, and spend it together as a family. It didn’t occur to me there were theories and all that.

Kids in 2008, and this past year

Pictures like the above, taken during our first months of cruising (sailing under San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge!) and taken in the last year of our growing-up-too-fast teens, warm my heart. It still feels like they flew by. But I’m grateful for the packed year of memories we’ve had, whether it can be bundled in psychology theory or not.

Of course, you can speed things up if you want. The World ARC fleet that we encountered in the Santa Marta marina gets around the globe in 15 months. It’s not our choice, but it’s still a great one for a year of incredible memories! But as one of those sailors we met there pointed out – this isn’t cruising, really. This is circumnavigating. There’s a different purpose for those crews, to accomplish a specific and remarkable achievement by sailing around the world.  Like when families go cruising for a sabbatical year, and choose to spend that a remarkable year in a small geographical region, exploring trails and language and culture and the mysteries of a starry night. Whether you lap the globe or hang out locally, there are so many ways to hit PAUSE and stretch out the time spent together with loved ones. IT’S ALL GOOD.

Care to follow Totem’s canal transit?

The Panama Canal authority actually has live cameras taking stills of the locks at several points! Here’s where to look. The master page of live cams is here: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html Note: non-flash versions of the cams are working better for me… and some cams are simply not working at all.

On Friday, March 9, we’ll transit from the Caribbean side to Lake Gatun between 3:00 and 5:00, US Eastern Standard time. After anchoring overnight in Lake Gatun, we’ll transit the balance of locks to the Pacific side on Saturday – timing TBD. I’ll post updates on Facebook and Twitter, though.

The website shows cam locations. Here’s the Totems-eye-view of them. Isn’t it strange that to go to the Pacific, we travel… EAST more than west? And how about that collection of AIS targets near Totem’s current location? IT’S BUSY, FOLKS.

I’m equal parts excited and nervous about the next two days!

Once we get through the canal we have a challenges to face between Panama and the “safe” ground of Zihuatenejo. Two in particular: their names are Papagayo and Tehuano. You know it’s time to pay very close attention when weather effects get a vanity name! Take a look at the angrier colors on the map below and you’ll see what I mean… I’m sure we’ll have plenty to say about them soon enough.

Interested in Cruisers University?

Jamie and I are thrilled to both present at the Annapolis Boat Show’s Cruisers University this spring! We’re planning a pizzeria dinner with coaching clients as well, and can’t wait to catch up with friends. Sign up for two, three, or four day access depending on which sessions you’re interested in – and let us know if you’ll be there!

Healthcare in Paradise (Behan)
Cruising on a Budget – Gold, Silver & Bronze (Behan)
Cruising Docs – You Can’t Go Paperless (Behan)
Countdown to Cruising (Behan)
Top Newbie Cruising Mistakes (Behan)
Offshore Rigging & Sails (Jamie)
Crisis Management while Cruising (Jamie + Behan)

In addition, I’ll co-lead an intensive Cruising Women seminar. This is two full days of practical information and uncensored conversations, about skills, and tips about what it’s REALLY like to go cruising. Grateful, and honored, that my partner is the (irrepressible, enthusiastic, so fun to be around, and I’ll say it–iconic) Pam Wall. We both feel keenly about empowering women and want everyone to have a really good time in the process! Join us – or, get in touch with me if you want more information about the content, or any the sessions, really.

More haps!

Friends from the USA recently spent a week and a half aboard. The Waters family and their two teens helped create a pile of excellent memories (and brought a big pile of Stuff From The States, like – MAPLE SYRUP, which was dangerously low, our stash had a mere two tablespoons left!). Nica’s written about a day in the life aboard Totem on her blog, It’s an informed view, which you’d expect, because she and Jeremy went cruising before kids, again for a sabbatical with kids, and we are now scheming how to share anchorages in the South Pacific in another year or two… when they fledge the kids. Nica also has a food blog: on this weeks’ edition of Tasty Thursday, I teach her how to make one of my favorite cruising recipes. It’s a memory from the Maldives, it’s “exotic” but easy, and you can make it pretty much anywhere. Curious? Watch the episode and learn about Mashuni!

Also live today: our debut on a NON SAILING PODCAST. The guys at Verbal Shenanigans have a comedy program and did an excellent job of teasing stories about the cruising life out of me and Jamie, while getting us all to laugh. Possibly there was rum involved! Find it here: Totem interview starting around 12 min mark – the whys, the hows, some exceptional experiences, and a dose of everyday cruising life.

Looking for the Pause button

Life slows down when we fill it with exceptional memories. But meanwhile, we have no pause button for the days that fly by in Shelter Bay Marina on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. Totem has been here just over a week. My head is swimming with stories to tell about the last weeks in South America, but they’ll have to wait for now!

kids hats sunglasses boat

Totem kids, first year cruising

 

Jason’s 1st Fiesta! (Super Late Post)

FINALLY getting around to blogging Jason’s first fiesta! 11 months late, but who’s really counting? 😉

We celebrated our sweet baby’s first birthday in April 2017 with, what other than, a Mexican fiesta! (We sure love our tacos around here.) Jason’s small family celebration was everything we hoped it would be…sweet and simple. We invited family over to our (old) house for a taco bar, tasty margs, the obligatory cake smashing, and a little gift opening! What more could a 1-year-old ask for? Jase especially loved having all his girl cousins there to party with, but wasn’t totally sure what to think about indulging in his mini birthday cake. I think he secretly LOVED it!

Now that I am posting these basically a year later, it is crazy to see how much my little 1-year-old baby has changed! What stuck out the most to me is HIS HAIR! It was super red and that has definitely changed over the past few months (it’s a WAY lighter dirty blonde, sorta gold color now!), as has his little baby face, that looks so much more like a toddler/big boy now. Time PLEASE slow down!!!

We love you Jason, and can’t wait to celebrate your 2nd birthday in just a few weeks! xo.

e6I5A0483e6I5A0505e6I5A0529e6I5A0551e6I5A0563e6I5A0565e6I5A0570e6I5A0577e6I5A0584e6I5A0587e6I5A0595e6I5A0616e6I5A0622e6I5A0624e6I5A0630e6I5A0636e6I5A0642e6I5A0645e6I5A0648e6I5A0697e6I5A0707e6I5A0724e6I5A5429e6I5A5446e6I5A5478e6I5A5484e6I5A5487e6I5A5492

Colombian practicalities for cruisers

sailboats boats with dress flags

What should you know before sailing to Colombia? Planning details often clarify with hindsight. What we loved about Colombia is a start for anticipation: for those considering this destination, here are a few additional tips to help with practical planning for cruisers.

Ports

Along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, there are two choices for ports: Santa Marta, and Cartagena. We chose to stay in Santa Marta, and visited Cartagena by bus. I’d do the same thing again if we return to Colombia and believe it’s the best option for a shorter stay.

For a shorter visit, and Santa Marta offered the best convenience and efficiency, with the opportunity to soak up exposure to range Colombian experiences. Within Santa Marta were museums, good food, and a well preserved historical district; logistics at the cruiser-friendly marina were a breeze with the front office support of Kelly Hernandez.

Santa Marta is a good base to explore Colombia, for daytripping or beyond. One-day forays into the Sierra Nevada (it would make a great overnight to sleep in a hammock in some hillside hostel or farm and hike further!) and national parks are easy. Going further? Santa Marta and Baranquilla airports make short hop flights to further exploring in central or south America a snap for those with the time and budget. If you won’t sail much further in South America, jump from here to experience the Amazon or Machu Picchu.

Saddling up to go riding near Rio Buritaca, a couple of hours east of Santa Marta.

In Colombia you must clear in and out of every port, and an agent is required for clearance. This additional bureaucratic layer comes with additional cost. In Santa Marta, the marina arranges the agent covers their fee- handy! In Cartagena, you must hire the agent (fee approx. US$100) to handle your clearance with the Port Captain.

The hassle factor in time and cost of clearing in and out of Cartagena helped confirm our decision to visit overland instead of sailing (because no way were we going to skip Cartagena!). It’s about a four-hour bus ride from Santa Marta, and the inter-city rides are affordable. There are varying grades and speeds; our direct bus had Netflix movies (driver’s choice, thankfully nothing gruesome or crazy loud, all in Spanish), air conditioning, and wifi. For the kids, there’s an added air of adventure to staying in a hotel: a rare occurrence, but affordable here. The cost was probably net zero, but the experience of seeing the countryside, trying food from vendors who came on board to sell wares, and just relaxing for a while were a good trade for wrangling with officialdom.

Spotting sea eagles from our berth in Marina Santa Marta

Had we planned or anticipated a much longer say, we’d have been more likely to skew towards Cartagena. Unlike Santa Marta, it’s safe to stay anchored out and access dinghy facilities for a nominal fee; overall, our cost to stay would have been much lower for a monthlong visit, while marina costs mounted (we stayed more than twice as long as we anticipated). One big downside to the harbor in Cartagena is the reputed rate of fouling: every boater who stopped there bemoaned the speed at which bottoms were covered with barnacles and growth. Santa Marta isn’t exempt, but it’s not quite as bad.

Security

Colombia’s Caribbean coast no longer deserves the frank warnings touted in our 2015 Panama guide, but security still requires attention. Two years previously a cruising boat anchored in Taganga Bay, near Santa Marta, was victim to armed robbery and assault. It wasn’t the first time in that location: in our mind, that made the security of a marina our only option in Santa Marta. It’s hard to swallow the cost, but a no-brainer compared to risking physical harm. Reports on CSSN and Noonsite helped inform our decision.

While we felt secure aboard Totem and in general, petty theft is a problem. Three other cruisers in the we met there were robbed during their stay in Colombia: not from their boats, but ashore. Two were crimes of opportunity (handbag disappeared from the patron in a restaurant; wallet taken from an open tote in a shopping cart at the supermarket), one a deliberate attack (a pedestrian distracted by the smartphone in hand was targeted by motorbike thugs who forcibly took a bag). We’ve heard anecdotal stories about petty theft; having so many hits in our small circle drove home the need to be cautious.

Massive door knockers in Cartagena represent the homeowner’s livelihood, turning an Old Town stroll into a scavenger hunt for 1700s occupations

Timing

We arrived as the trade winds were up. Sometimes called “Christmas winds,” the Caribbean easterlies increase force in December. There’s probably some regional variation: in Colombia, they’re reputed to linger through March. This is really not a great time to be sailing off the coast! Windspeed isn’t a big deal, but seas are, and the wind contributed to an unpleasant state. Timing is taken out of your hands too: at this writing, winds have been in the 40s and clocked over 50 knots at the dock in Santa Marta recently. Boats have been waiting for a couple of weeks for a break in the weather sufficient to depart.

Better timing would be to avoid this period of peak trades. We’d have done well to arrive in early November, and depart in December before the breeze picked up (in fact, the weather window we arrived with in late December saw a rush of departures from Santa Marta as boats took advantage of moderated conditions to make a break… west to Panama, or north towards the Greater Antilles).

dancing at the waterfront

Cruisers dance to a Venezueland bnd on the patio at marina santa marta

Another consideration around seasonal timing: rainy season downpours wash off the sooty dirt that otherwise accumulates on boats in Santa Marta. Our friend Bev left her catamaran for a couple of the wet months and came back to a clean boat. A few weeks later the rain had stopped and the black dust coated everything. Part of this dirt is probably partly from the darker sand beaches nearby, but I suspect much stems from coal transfer stations at the port. That’s caustic stuff you don’t want sitting around on your boat, but water use to rinse it off is metered at the marina – it would have added up to rinse the everyday accumulation.

Other formalities

An agent is needed for port clearance, as mentioned. In addition, Colombia requires a cruising permit for any stay over 5 days (it seemed like the ARC rally passing through made this part of their calculation for duration of stay). Lucky Canadian visitors are charged a reciprocal visa fee; no other nationalities we know of had to pay this. The process takes some time as the TIP doesn’t begin until you’re in-country for the minimum number of days, and includes a personal visit from a friendly customs officer who wants to take a picture of your engine and its serial number. That was a first! It’s a lot of paperwork, another point to the Marina Santa Marta for taking care of details…they also helpfully provided multiple copies of our zarpe (outbound port clearance) and crew list (in Spanish), knowing these would be required when we checked into Panama.

Marine work

Haulout facilities are available in Santa Marta and in Colombia: what’s missing are well stocked marine chandleries. This didn’t stop a few boats we met from tackling projects in Colombia, and based on how much we enjoyed the country in general and how affordable labor rates are in particular, I think it makes a strong alternative to southern Caribbean haulout options (e.g. Grenada, Curacao, T&T). The raw materials and skillsets are here, they’re just not tuned to the marine market. If shipping parts in, it’s important to use a reputable courier (in Colombia, FedEx and DHL have good reputations: once in-country our DHL parts were quickly delivered. The books sent by the US Postal Service are STILL lost on Bogota somewhere).

I don’t know when we’ll get back, but Colombia left a mark…and still I’ve failed to capture the best memories, soon to follow.

 

Suddenly without steering in the Caribbean Sea

Jamie at the helm sailing by yacht M5

Losing steerage is stressful at the best of times. Losing it when hand-steering gnarly seas that threaten to broach the inattentive sailor, on day one of a four-day sail between countries where the sea state is likely to be worse before it’s better? Hectic! Here’s what happened when steering failed on our recent passage from Colombia to Panama.

The event

Motoring out of the protection in Santa Marta bay (with a small deviation from course to rubberneck the 185’ yacht, M5, pictured above), we quickly entered more boisterous conditions outside the protection of the bay. Steep waves were better managed with hand steering; Jamie worked the helm.  Just a few hours out of Santa Marta, Colombia, Totem lurched after a loud bang from the guts of the boat. “We have no steerage!” Jamie called out from the cockpit, instantly in motion.

He dove for the autopilot controls at the companionway: guessing, correctly, that the autopilot would still drive the rudder. Sure enough, it worked and Totem was under control again.

Braced in the nav station, I called to Utopia II over the VHF to let them know our situation. They were just a few miles away—we expected to remain in proximity to them for the duration, and knowing they would be nearby to render aid if necessary was comforting.

Niall worked the autopilot while Jamie set up our emergency tiller. Being ready for the next level of events can mean the difference between difficulty and crisis. Our concern was that heavy seas would overwork our old Raymarine and cause the autopilot to fail. It happened before: four years ago this month, we lost the autopilot, then the eye-bolt that secures steering cable to quadrant broke, THEN the engine overheated- trifecta!

The focus: limiting this event to a single problem. Driving Totem with the emergency tiller is hard work in calm conditions. With our bigger rudder, as Jamie says—using the tiller is like steering a loaded dump-truck without a wheel!

February 2014: steering with the emergency tiller in Thailand

The cause

With Totem under autopilot control, Jamie started troubleshooting. He began at the quadrant. Eye bolts and cable looked fine. Then followed the steering cable forward until it turns on a sheave upward to the binnacle. Bingo! One cable did not look like the other.

The cause was the weakest link, literally. The steering system is comprised of a length of chain that meshes with the sprocket fixed to the steering wheel. Each chain end has a link that secures to the swaged eye at the end of the steering cable. This last link is different than the others. It has a circlip that allows the link to open to lock the swage eye in place. The link broke under that circlip, due to stainless steel crevice corrosion. Jamie inspected the system just a year ago (with 7x magnifying glass), but as is often the case with stainless steel, you cannot see all of the surfaces where a sign of pending doom may lurk.

broken chain link

The weakest link

The fix

Conditions were tough: square-faced breaking seas of 3 to 5 meters. These were the steepest wave we’ve experienced. Using the autopilot with constant adjustments kept us well in control. We touched 13.2 knots a couple times without any dramas, but always ready to jump to the emergency tiller.

After 60 miles in those waves and wind from 25 to 40 knots, we anchored that evening at Puerto Velero, just west of Barranquilla. Nice relief to be in safe harbor, but the day was not over. With the miles and conditions ahead of us, we wanted steering back on line. Earlier in the day, while calling out “plus ten, now go minus ten” to help Niall work the autopilot for steering the waves, Jamie thought through possible solutions. We have spare steering cables, but no spare chain. The solution was one of his favorite materials – DYNEEMA!

Working on repairs by headlamp-light, he removed chain and cables. Then spliced 6mm single-braid Dyneema to the last chain pin to run in place of the wire cable. By 10 that night, the linkage was reinstalled and adjusted. There is chance the quadrant or sheaves may chafe the Dyneema; or the chain pin with Dyneema around it may distort or break. We’re monitoring it and is all good, three weeks and 326 nautical miles so far.

Splicing by headlamp-light

The evening was interrupted by a visit from Maritime Police, an event I’d sooner put in hindsight (details, this post). Happy to leave the harbor the next morning, we motored out behind the Aussie cat, Aseka, in the mellow light of dawn and continued to Panama.

Colombia for cruisers: a different attraction

sailboat arrival santa marta

It wasn’t many years ago that Colombia was considered dangerous to visit: cruisers lured by pretty Venezuelan islands towards South America rarely made the hop next door. While care must be taken, the story has flipped: improved domestic stability makes Colombia a relatively secure destination and economic collapse had turned Venezuela into a no-go zone.

We arrived in Santa Marta, Colombia with plans to stay not much more than a week: just long enough for Jamie to fly up to Puerto Rico for rigging work on a friends’s boat, a quick overland trip to Cartagena, and then we’d be off. Delays getting watermaker parts threw a wrench in that (what started as an overnight delivery from St Thomas to Puerto Rico took nearly three weeks to reach us in Colombia). That’s just part of cruising, and it turns out it was a gift: there was more to enjoy every day we extended. Here’s what stands out: the landscape, people, food,  culture, and more that made Colombia a vibrant and memorable stop.

Sierras not seas

Cruising gives us many opportunities to experience warm, clear water and sunny clean beaches…neither of which are abundant in the Colombia we saw. Sewage from Santa Marta runs into the bay, and while the beaches were packed with domestic holiday goers in December and January—they didn’t look much more appealing than the water. On the other hand: as a visitor, Colombia’s inland scenery is stunning. Among the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world, the Sierra Nevada present a dramatic horizon upon arrival and beg exploring.

Weaving into the foothills on a two-lane road, bustle of Santa Marta faded with startling rapidity and the quiet rhythm of early morning in the countryside descended. Mairen, Siobhan and I traveled a couple of hours east to Buritaca for horseback riding, fulfilling a Christmas promise. Clearing the limits of town, gaining altitude, the jungle crept closer. Villages sprang up as clusters around the main road and enveloped our senses. Just steps from the narrow motorway were vendors cooking fragrant sausages over charcoal, flipping the ubiquitous arepa (a maize flour patty) on a griddle, and serving hot tinto (Colombian coffee) to wash them down. At one roadstead stop, a Kogi family—an indigenous people to the Sierra Nevada—got in, startlingly different in all-white homespun clothes, small stature and features. Mere days into our stay, it was startling to see indigenous people preserving what appeared to be a strictly traditional way of life despite close access to development.

Photo, Dwayne Reilander; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Rio Buritaca runs from the Sierra Nevadas to the ocean. Our ride was planned for time on the beach and time in the river, but king tides took most of the beach away (temporarily!) and heavy rains overnight made horses balk at the swollen rio. Jungle trail it is, then!

horseback riding in Buritaca

Mairen has always felt perfectly at home on the back of a horse

horses and river

Siobhan’s horse refused to cross one edge of the river until led by the guide

Another morning we headed directly inland to Minca, a village almost directly inland at about 2,000’ elevation. Again, the city quickly fell away: hiking to visit an organic coffee plantation opened spectacular views.

On the trail with the Utopia II crew… and horses carrying firewood

Up into the clouds: at least the elevation kept the temperature down.

Coffee ripening at the organic ‘finca’ (farm) of La Candelaria

In each case, the buses were cheap- just a few dollars to be transported into a new and marvelous landscape. For cruisers with more time and bigger budgets, the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is a four to six-day trek into these mountains to an archaeological site that predates Machu Picchu, more than 20 miles through the mountains and Kogi villages. Probably abandoned during the Spanish conquest, it was once a city of thousands.

Historic and cultural interest

Indigenous tradition layered with Spanish influence create a richer, more nuanced, and vibrantly presented way of life than we’ve seen in a long time. For all their unique qualities, after a while I confess that many of the Caribbean islands blend together as variations on a theme: it seems our traveling spirits thrive on learning from the new. Colombia was a welcome whiplash of streaming language, arts, literature, history… all playing into the experiences awaiting. And then, the Old Town in Cartagena de Indias is simply spectacular. A couple of days there was only enough to tease.

cartagena free tour

Kids listen (mostly) to the Cartagena Free Tours guide in Old Town: more informative than the tour we paid for!

inquisition museum

Cartagenas inquisition museum, the seat of a perfect record for executing 100% of those accused of witchcraft or heresy – 800 over about 250 years

Culinary imprint

Tastes enhance the memory of a place, and Colombia added a few in particular. You cannot go to Colombia without eating arepas (well, you could, but it would be very wrong!). My favorite was con huevo, a fried egg tucked within; con queso a close second. Paired with a sizzling chorizo from a streetside vendor, that’s better fast food than any chain!

Arepas vary regionally: these thicker cheese arepas were sold on the street in Cartagena.

Patacones (twice-fried green plantain slices) are standard accompaniments to a meal. Colombia produces more arabica beans than any country in the world, and coffee is woven into culinary culture: vendors push carts laden with thermoses down the street, paused by Colombianos to buy a caffeine jolt in small cups.

We fell into the habit the Almuerzo Ejecutivo, Executive Lunch. It includes a soup starter, a main course of rice, beans, patacones, and your choice from the chalkboard selection of the days stews and grilled meat, and served with a fresh juice. It costs less than a Starbucks coffee. Perhaps the bandeja paisa, farmer’s plate, a sampler with a range of dishes (below) is more; still less than a latte. Shoehorned in among lively tables in establishments set up in the street front room of a family home (restaurant sign optional), listening to street musicians play for small change while taste buds were treated to a sampler of Colombian cooking.

Colombian lunch of champions, the Bandeja Paisa: SO GOOD

Affordable

After so many months in more expensive Caribbean islands, it was good to be in back in low-cost-of-living territory. Groceries are a big chunk of our monthly budget, and Colombia helped bring the average down again. It also afforded little luxuries we’d forgo elsewhere. Multi-course lunch? Around $3-$4. Why not get a break from cutting my own hair when a fancy salon is just $11, including the coffee? Packed kebabs from a street vendor—marinated beef, chicken, and vegetables—only a dollar? One per person carried steaming back home to Totem made for an easy dinner.

On the other hand: staying in the marina, a security necessity, was not cheap…but could have been worse.

Warm people

At every turn Colombians were engaging and helpful. Our Spanish is basic at best, and in everyday life the Colombians we met rarely spoke English. It wasn’t an obstacle: friendliness and interest saw every interaction through, with a little help from Google translate and a pocket dictionary. When I had my hair cut in a salon, none of the staff spoke English but found another patron who could translate enough to ensure they understood my wishes. Our Spanish skills improved daily.

Arriving between Christmas and New Year’s opened a peek into a vital, family-centered domestic life. Santa Marta is a destination for Colombians on holiday, and they know how to take time out: the beach was packed with families. Vendors pitching tourists weren’t focused on hawking wares to us gringos as much as their fellow sudamericanos. It was hard to tell weekends from weekdays in the busy marina, where local powerboats daily transported multi-generational families with coolers and platters and nightly cranked up the tunes for dockside entertainment.

It’s always about the people, isn’t it?

More to follow on our experiences in Colombia…meanwhile a few more pictures.

Kids displaying classic ABM face – Another Bloody Museum

Third-generation coffee grower sharing his favorite method to prepare the beverage… what do you think?

Resident toucan at La Candelaria.

An education on politics, economics, agriculture learning about the farm.