26 June 2022

Dancing The Panama Canal Prep

On our return from our trip to Toronto, there was no time for monkeying around with these  capuchins.  Every moment was full of prep work.

We have transited the Corinth Canal where all that is necessary is arriving at an anchorage, radioing an intention to transit and waiting for the go ahead to get in line.  No locks, no advance notice, no bother.  Just motoring under bridges and through human-made gorge that looked a little rough around the edges.

The Panama Canal is in another league altogether.  Most boats transiting are on their way to French Polynesia, an ocean crossing of 20-35 days.  While hanging out at Shelter Bay Marina, we had seen crew buying bags full of oranges and another boat with at least 30 jars - no kidding - of peanut butter.  Although we didn’t have to provision for an ocean crossing, there was lots to organize and prepare.

While in Toronto, we ordered boat parts to be shipped to Shelter Bay, hopefully there upon our arrival.  This included two new propeller shafts.  We asked Antares boatbuilder for the length on hull number 48, Milly.  After seven years, they responded within a few hours, offered to make the order for us and gave us a discount on the shafts purchase and on shipping to Florida.  Incredible service!!  I doubt any boat builder would offer the same.

Upon returning to Shelter Bay after five weeks in Toronto, we leapt into preparatory action.

We had left both engines mid work and nonfunctioning.  Billy, the almost blind but knowledgeable boatyard mechanic and character, was on standby to make new gaskets to stop a leak in both engines.

Our generator, also nonfunctioning, was missing a part which we were bringing with us from Toronto.

Our guest toilet was leaking around the base.  Peter had some ideas about a gasket/o-ring replacement.

We had rebuilt both our water makers and installed a new booster pump but had yet to try them out.  The water was too dirty.  We were saving this for the Pacific.  But if they didn’t work, our journey to Mexico would be delayed, perhaps to the beginning of next season.  Bad news if we wanted, which we do, to make it to Bay of Banderas for Christmas with our family.

And both shafts needed to be installed which required that poor Milly go on the hard yet again.  This would be her third time in five months.  In the past we went at least a year, often two or three before hauling.

From Toronto we had contacted a canal agent.  The agent does all the bureaucratic footwork for the captain of the transiting boat.  You can do it on your own but it requires renting a car, visiting a few offices at different locations, completing forms and trying to clarify in Spanish.  We elected to pay the fee for an agent.  We had enough to do!  We requested that our boat inspection take place two days after our return.  

A uniformed guy arrived, friendly but oh so official.  He recorded a lot of info - how fast the boat could go under engine, (dependent on barnacles and current so purely an estimate) how much fuel we had, our fuel consumption per hour etc.  An “advisor” would accompany us, a different advisor for each day of the transit.  He stressed that we needed to feed him a hot meal - not just a bag of chips - each day.  Meals would include dinner on the first day and breakfast and lunch on the second.  At least that was the most likely scenario.  We would know the day of transit but not the timing until the day of transit.  It could be a one day affair, leaving the marina at 2 or 3 in the morning and ending at 7 or 8 pm on the other side.  The more likely and more common transit was leaving in the late afternoon, crossing through the three locks going up, mooring in Lake Gatun overnight and finishing the next day with three locks going down to the Pacific.   Whatever, we(I) needed to serve at least two hot meals.  And the inspector stipulated that we needed a working toilet with toilet paper, soap and a towel.  (It amazed me that he had to stipulate that a meal was not chips and toilet paper was essential.  Obviously there was a need to stipulate?  If it was stipulated, it meant that they had encountered problems along these lines?). We were required to have four line handlers who could tie a quick bowline plus the captain.  The advisor would do just that, advise.  But the ultimate decision was the captains.  The inspection ended with a compulsory short blast of our air horn, another requirement.

Inspection done.  We requested a transit two weeks hence.  No problem.  We were outside of the 8-10 day waiting period.  Our transit was set for April 4, 2022.  Now to get in working order.

Billy made a new thicker gasket for our rebuilt fresh water pumps on both engines.  His eye-sight was so poor that he had to feel the head of the screw to find the correct angle for the flat head screwdriver.  Peter, who had learned enough from watching the first re-install, elected to put both engines back together.  But they still leaked!  Yet another even thicker gasket.  Peter was now a pro at both taking apart and rebuilding.  On the final try, the starboard engine was patent, the port still dripping.  Argh.  We might have to live with it.  

The genset: Peter installed the new heat sensor without ado.  But on topping up the coolant, it leaked straight through the system and into the bilge.  Another gasket needed!  And no supplier in Panama.  A bother but not imperative to cross or to passage north.

After numerous attempts at making new o-rings, finding replacement o-rings and various other permutations, the guest toilet was still leaking.  And then the main toilet started.  Another o-ring and still leaking.  Now both toilets were leaking and a working toilet was a prerequisite for the crossing as made clear during our inspection.  Well, they were leaks but, at least in the main head, more like a seep that could be ignored if a cloth was draped around the base.  The guest cabin was a leak.  We would direct the line handler and the advisor to the main head leaving our poor guests to deal with the guest toilet.

Our two line handlers and dear friends, Gill and John, who we had hiked, laughed, ate and played dominoes with us during our Carriacou lockdown, were having their own boat problems in Aruba which needed to be attended to before they could either sail to Panama or leave the boat to fly to join us.  About a week before, they had hauled out the boat and were successful in fixing the problem.  They were able to commit to the job and were flying to meet us.  True and great friends!

Milly on the hard again, four months after the last time.

Finally, with both engines running (and the port engine leaking) we were ready for the newly shipped shafts to be installed.  Our haul out was scheduled for one week prior to our crossing.  On the morning of the deed we waited for the call to go to the slip.  We waited and waited.  I was not so patient and called.  I was told that the lift was broken and we would be delayed at least a day.  The mechanics who were waiting to do the job went home - a 90 minute drive away.

Next day, I called again and we were given a mid morning time.  Lift out was a success although Milly’s bottom after 3 months in the water was speckled with thousands of barnacles.  I went to get the new shafts which had arrived I had been told.  This time in the office, they had no record of arrival although the tracking number that I luckily still had at hand, showed they had arrived two weeks before.  Again, they were found, without any identifying name, crate battered and bruised but intact.  We were in business.

The strut with shaft removed.  It had been carefully covered in special antifouling only 4 months before but was covered with barnacles and algae.  This picture was post power wash and and sanding!

With great effort and many Spanish expletives, the mechanics removed the old shafts.  BUT the new ones were two inches longer than the old even though Antares and our manual had the longer size recorded.  Our presbyopic mechanic offered to drive Peter and the shafts to his friend who could cut them.  With nothing to lose the shafts were tied to the mechanics dented car, Peter climbed in and off they went.  The shop, a shack at the side of the road, was well equipped with a father son operation who knew what they were doing.  Two inches off, back to the boat, the mechanic regaling Peter with pro-Trump, misogynist rhetoric to which Peter diplomatically refused to engage. Too late for the mechanics to install.  They promised to be back first thing on Friday so we could put antifoul on the shaft, give it 24 hours to dry and have Milly in the water before the lift guys stopped work for the weekend on Saturday at noon.  

Old short prop in the middle of the gleaming new shafts.  We considered installing the new as they were but with the mechanical wisdom of the many who came by to check it out was that even two inches may make the shaft warp and wabble.  

Again, we squeezed it in.  All complete.  Lift guys waiting by the boat to get our ok for a good hour.  Milly again put in the water.  Leak check - all clear.  We drove Milly out into the bay and - drip, drip, drip - shit, the port shaft was leaking at slow speed.  At high speed just before Peter turned off the motor, the drip slowed.  Called the yard guy who said the mechanic would come by Monday morning.  We were scheduled for our transit Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile, our guests were due to arrive in just a couple of hours.  Tied to dock.  Cleaned, cooked dinner and there they were!  So great to see them.  And so great that they understood our craziness and could help with outstanding chores, like emptying gerry cans of diesel into our tanks - a messy job.  

Day of transit - the sweet mechanic arrived and was puzzled that our bilge was dry - I had dried it.  He had expected water to be pouring in.  In broken Spanish and hand signals I mimed what I had seen.  He pooh-poohed the “leak”, and with some derision, drove back home.

We were ready.  Down to the wire and with two leaking toilets, we were ready to motor to the Pacific!!

28 April 2022

Sweetest and happiest little family!

Baby Leo, born February 21, 2022.
  Our first grandbabe!  

We traveled to Toronto on February 10, leaving Milly at Shelter Bay Marina, on a one-way flight through San Salvador on Aviance, a Columbian airline at an incredibly low price - compared to others and only a 50 minute layover.  For some reason, we thought the travel package would lend itself to a chaotic mess but from arrival at 3 a.m. at Panama City after 1.5 hr taxi ride to our rented/borrowed condo from cruising friends in the Beach, Toronto, it was the smoothest journey we’ve taken by air in ages - no lines, no delays, no hiccups.  Flying over El Salvador was a treat - so beautiful, we look forward to going back by sea.

After worrying that we would miss the birth, we were 10 days early.  Emily was off work so we spent time with her and Stevie during the day and had dinner with Em and Gid.  There was some covid concern - if Gid got covid, he would not be allowed to enter the hospital - so we were all extra careful, essentially in isolation.

On the 21st, Em felt some back pain.  We had dinner with them and went home early, about a 20 minute walk away.  Very early in the morning we received a text from Gid saying they were on their way to the hospital, Em was in full labour.  In triage, an examination showed that the cervix was only 3 cm dilated and they were told to go home.  Gid made it clear that this was not a good option and Emily, who admits she was noisy during contractions, vomitted.  Between the two of them, those in charge agreed that they should stay.  

Leo, the Lion, and Stevie, the Bear.  Soon to be best friends.  But for now Stevie is a little perplexed and left her companion in a hurry just after the pic was taken.

She is curious though and takes every opportunity to have a good sniff.

My post for much of the first few weeks.  Babe in arms, Stevie not to be ignored.  I loved it.

Meanwhile, our job was Stevie-care.  We moved to their house and waited for news.  Gid kept us informed through the long day.  Neither of us admitted our concerns for our darling daughter’s well-being but it was hard not to worry even though I have a firm belief that birth is a natural and healthy process, despite it’s medicalization by western medicine.  The news of Leo’s birth after more than two hours of pushing after 1 a.m. on Monday, February 21, came as a huge relief and tidal wave of joy.  

Our first pic of Leo taken a couple of hours after birth while still in hospital.  Already a charmer!

Uncle Tom was happy to be in Toronto to greet the new family as they came home.  It was excellent timing.

We passed Leo around on the first day.  Uncle to Grandpa to Gigi.  And he never woke up.  Such a good little guy.

Mutual adoration?  Well, I like to think so.

Gid is a wonderful and loving dad who has jumped right in to the full list of baby care items with enthusiasm, gentleness and patience.  

And Emily is an attentive, loving mum, who gives to her baby with all her being. Forever patient and tender.  

The new little family stayed in the hospital for two nights.  We made one trip to the front door with supplies but were not allowed to visit.  We walked Stevie, bought flowers and made soup.  Tom was able to stop by Toronto for 36 hours on his way from training to Mexico and was part of the welcoming party when Leo was brought home.

After the initial little hiccup waiting for breastmilk to fully establish, Leo spent much of his time sleeping and feeding.  Crankiness was limited to a few hours in the evening and if he was held and bounced, he was easily soothed.

Cool mama, practicing for when she will be on her own.  Leo in stroller and Stevie on leash.  They are off to the Beach.

Peter and I spent four additional weeks acting as the support team.  It was a delight!  An amazing and unexpected part of being a grandparent is seeing your own child parent.  Emily and Gid are wonderful, loving and gentle parents and so caring and attentive to the needs of each other.  Such a pleasure to see!  Although it was fun to be there, needless to say, it was a comfort to know as we prepared to head back to Panama that Em and Gid were very capable to cherish and care for their new little bundle.  We would be missed but looked forward with excitement to watching Leo’s growth spurts and milestones, thanks to daily photos/videos.  Come June we’ll be part of Leo’s Stony Lake summer. 

Since coming back to Milly on March 19th, we have add at least daily photos/videos.  Leo didn't like his bath but calmed in the towel looking like King Tut.

Beginning to smile.  And, I have to say, looking a lot like Baby Emily.  So sweet!!

A pea in a pod.

These pictures make us smile and laugh every day.

And we can't wait to get back to Toronto to give him a cuddle.  And babysit!

22 April 2022

Change of Plans

A Royal Palm blasted by lightning at Shelter Bay Marina.  Yikes!!

When we arrived in Shelter Bay Marina in Panama our tentative plan was to thoroughly explore the Caribbean side of Panama including San Blas and Bocas del Torro - two favourite regions for cruisers.   We intended to leave Milly in Shelter Bay May-October when we would go back to Canada for the summer.

The first niggling doubt about the plan happened in Bonaire when we met the cruisers on a boat that had been hit twice by lightning on the Pacific side of Panama.  And they added that several of their friends boats had also been hit.  The wet season in Panama from May to December is known for huge amounts of rain - enough to sink a dinghy overnight if left in the water - and lightning.  

When we arrived at Shelter Bay we noted that the tall palms were decapitated by lightning.  In San Blas, each idyllic island had a handful of headless palms.  Our friends stories of fearfully sitting out thunderstorms added to our dilemma.  Being struck by lightning is every sailors nightmare.  Depending on the severity, damage ranges from trivial to catastrophic - it could hole the boat, start a fire, blow out all electronics and wiring.  Our insurance would cover the damage but the work involved and the length of time required for the fix in a nation where almost all decent boat items need to be shipped in from abroad made the prospect of a strike scary and unsettling. 

Other friends were going to cross the canal and head north to Mexico over a couple of months in the spring.  Now we were deliberating following suit: transiting the canal in April when we returned to Milly, and as swiftly as possible heading northwest the 1700 NM - same distance as crossing the Atlantic, Cabo Verde to Barbados - to Puerto Vallarta.  Heading north in the spring was reportedly easier than in the fall/winter because the north winds were lighter.  Puerto Vallarta had the added appeal that Tom was now living in a town nearby when he wasn’t training or competing.  He was competing in a World Laser Regatta taking place in PV at the end of May.  Em and Gid would be spending New Year’s 2022 with Gid’s parents in the same locale.  

BUT the hurricane season officially begins on May 15 in the Eastern Pacific.  Hurricanes typically travel up the coast and then veer west into the ocean.  April/May left us very little time to get to PV and absolutely no time to explore enroute.  We would have to forego checking Boca del Torro out on the Caribbean side completely.  We rationalized that we could spend a few seasons on the west coast and very slowly make our way south enjoying the places we had been unable to visit on our scurry north.

So the new plan:  Get some major work done on Milly before leaving Shelter Bay, transit the canal in early April, take a few days to explore and chill in Las Perlas archipelago, and then hippity-hop up the coast as fast as we could.  Hopefully, we would arrive in time to see some of Tom’s regatta and spend some time with Tom and Fer on Milly.  We’d put Milly to bed for the hurricane season - hurricanes seem to take a miss on the huge Bay of Banderas, just cruising by the mouth if they come that close. 

We have learned, however, that PV has the highest number of lightning strikes on the Mexican coast and friends’ boat was hit twice in many years of staying there.  No plan is perfect but this one seems almost so.  

San Blas: The Guna

Within minutes of arriving at our first San Blas anchorage, we watched these hardworking fishermen in their dugout ulu

Our first expedition from Shelter Bay Marina in Panama was to a bucket list destination for many cruisers, the San Blas Islands also called the Guna Yala Region.  The Guna are one of eight officially recognized indigenous groups and the most high-profile.  Panama won independence from Columbia in 1903 and the Guna territory that had been relatively independent previously came under restrictions imposed by the new government.  In 1925 the Guna rebelled against the Panamanian government  to protest the forced suppression of traditional daily life and lack of recognition of their culture - women were not allowed to wear traditional dress, missionaries and colonial schooling was forced in their communities.  A settlement was finally reached in 1938 as the Guna accepted Panamanian sovereignty in exchange for clearly bounded territory and a high degree of autonomy.  Today it is clear that the Guna continue to live a traditional life while adapting to limited tourism.  Marriage outside the Guna is not allowed and if done, the couple must leave Guna Yala.
Fruit and veg boats made the rounds with the obvious and other necessities - toilet paper, gasoline, beer, wine, water etc.  Some boaters stay for months surviving on these floating shops with maybe a few special delivery requests.

These guys happily raised their sails to show us their prowess.  And Milly made the perfect backdrop.

Paddling and wind power in a streamlined craft means that they could efficiently go about their fishing business, island to island.  So fun to watch and marvel at.  We didn't see anyone dump in these boats that were a tree trunk wide.

Most islands were uninhabited but several had family homes such as these.  Some had just a hut made of palm fronds for fishermen's shelter overnight. All were simple and made of whatever was around, mainly renewable, fast-growing materials..

We visited Nargana-Yandup, an island town, just off the mainland with our sister-ship, Mira.  Two islands connected by a bridge were packed with forlorn looking concrete buildings.  Unlike the islands, the villages are neither pristine nor beautiful.  Only the occasional palm squeezed through the chock-a-block tin rooftops.  Instead of sandy beaches, the coast is lined with boat launches and overhanging outhouses.  In this particular town, the residents had chosen to give up much of the traditional Guna culture.  We were curious to visit, reprovision and buy some gas for TomTom but there was an outbreak of Covid.  A "sentry" greeted us at the dinghy dock but refused to allow us to explore any further.  We were able to buy some gas, though, from the gerry can of one of the dockside residents.


Meet Venancio.  The youngest son of many in his family, he was taught to make molas by his grandmother.  I had been told by several other boat friends to expect a visit from him and that he made the best molas.  Sure enough within hours of our arrival at Chichime, our first anchorage, he appeared with his charming smile.

The production of molas, or the decoration on female blouses, are the main activity of Guna women, and is for many families the principal source of income.  It is a hand-made textile that forms part of the traditional women's clothing along with a patterned wrapped skirt often green and black, a red and yellow headscarf, arm and leg beaded cuffs, a gold nose ring  and earrings.  Molas are made by Guna women and omeggid - 'third gender' males.

Venancio brought his garbage pail and bags full of molas onto the boat.  He pulled out each one, slowly waving it in front of him to show it off.  If my ohhs and ahhs were of the right tenor - he is an expert - he decorated our cockpit with it.  By the end, there were at least thirty to choose from.  I was flummoxed but managed to narrow it down to eight from my intended five.

The mola originated with the tradition of Guna women painting their bodies with geometric designs, using available natural colors; when colonized and introduced to Catholicism, the naked female torso was no longer acceptable and these same designs were woven in cotton.  Traditionally, the mola is worn as a decorative panel on the front and bay of the woman's blouse.

Brightly coloured layers of cloth with shapes cut out to reveal the colour below, edges overturned and painstakingly and very finely stitched, then embellished and embossed.   

The top layer in this one is the purple with black underneath and then pink.  The purple is cut to outline the plant in black.  It's so intricate, it's tough to figure out what's what.  The stitches are so tiny, they are very barely visible.

This one chosen especially for our soon-to-be born grandson.  Sailing indoctrination begins early.

Another adventure with Mira's crew.  A tour lead by Mola Lisa, a transexual mola maker - I bought another two from her.  She and her chauffeur picked us up from Milly and Mira in her souped up ulu.  Nothing glamorous and still only a tree trunk wide meaning we sat single file but with higher sides and fibreglassed.  Our destination was a river on the mainland.

We crossed the sandbar at the river entrance and then our assistant guide poled us up river.  Lisa promised that there were no crocodiles in this particular river as we jumped out to ground the boat while we hiked.

Our first and most interesting stop, the burial site of Lisa's parents and siblings.  Lisa chatted to them, paying special attention to her mother.  On each she placed a bowl of cocoa beans to burn as incense.   

Each family grave site is covered with a thatched or, for those who can afford, a tin roof - Lisa 's goal was to cover her site with tin - to protect the graves from the rain. 

The body is laid to rest in a hammock a buried so that a mound of packed earth - looks like clay - is oriented toward the rising sun.  The graves a decorated with flowers and every day tools symbolic of the dead.

This was a very special place unlike any other burial site we have seen in our travels.  We felt very lucky.

And then to the silly...Lisa harvested three blossoms she called "Marilyn Monroe Lips" - I have no idea what they are really called.  We posed on cue.

Finally, after a long hike through the jungle and small plots of land where hopeful farmers were struggling to tame the lush natural plants, we reached a waterfall where we took a quick and welcome plunge.

Harvested along the way, our assistant guide was carrying bananas back to the village to share with the families.

The Guna Yala Region has an area of 2.306 square kilometres (0.89 sq mi). It consists of a narrow strip of land of 373-kilometre (232 mi) long on the east coast of Caribbean Panama, bordering Colombia and an archipelago of 365 islands along the coast, of which 50 are inhabited.  And this one has a couple of buildings and a couple of palms.

They are the quintessential tropical island - deserted, topped with coconut palms, bordered by white sand beaches or mangroves, clear turquoise water and coral reefs.

Milly, looking pretty.

Strangely a little herb garden on an otherwise uninhabited island.

Cruisers are warned not to pick any coconuts which are described as Guna currency.  This coconut  is sprouting.

There wasn't as much fish life as we anticipated, although the coral was alive, varied and abundant.  This starfish, one of many, in the incredibly clear water.

Very sadly, these islands are flat and barely above sea level.  They are already suffering from the effects of global warming.  Trees on almost every island are flooded and dying.  The shoreline's mass of roots are eroding from pounding waves that are now more commonly crashing over the reefs.

Families who used to live on the islands are choosing to move to the mainland or the town islands.  We happened to be visiting during the school vacation/dry season when the Guna return to the family's islands for the hols.  Tragically, it is increasingly likely that many of these islands will be permanently submerged in the not too distant future.

Our Mira mates, on a dinghy river explore.  So fun to spend some days with them.  We're hoping to do it again.

Milly and Mira, sister ships.

It was hot!!  Inspired by Mira, Peter contrived a sun shade for the bow out of one of Tom's laser sails.  Excellent!

We had a great, if abbreviated time, exploring Guna Yala.  It was time to go back to Shelter Bay where we would leave Milly for a trip home to meet our new grandchild!!