The end of the race from Seattle to Panama has been a very long cruise for all the boats, especially ours which is most disappointingly last. Since we were motoring for so many days we had to consider our fuel supplies, and it quickly became clear that we would not have enough to get us to our destination in Panama. Clipper had warned us about this in the pre-race briefing, and had arranged for a quick stopover in Costa Rica, to refuel. Costa Rica! How unbelievably exotic! And how wonderful that, after having spent so many months sailing past interesting and beautiful locations without stopping, we were finally able to divert and make landfall at one of them.
Wendo promised prizes for the person to first spot land after so long at sea and it was Craig who finally yelled ‘Land Ho!’ – or actually ‘Land Hoy!’ (I think he was confusing Ho and Ahoy).
The band of darker cloud along the skyline slowly coalesced into hills and cliffs, and as the sun set we could just about see the rainforest and smell the vegetation. That moment – smelling green and growing things after so long at sea – is one of my favourite moments of all, whenever and wherever we make landfall.
We finally motored in to the small town of Golfito around 3.30am, to the sound of tropical insects and occasional animal calls from the rain forest. The lights of the town line the shore of the bay for perhaps half a mile, but beyond the row of lights there is nothing but the black outline of tropical jungle and steep hills. The water was very calm and it felt as though we were gliding on glass, broken only by the occasional bobbing coconut. Quite a magical moment.
We were following Mission Impossible into the harbour, and since there were only two berths available in the marina (the third was taken up by a mammoth 100ft private yacht that made our Clipper boats look positively tiny) we left PSP and Visit Seattle behind, out in the bay – they were not happy! A security guard met us at the dock, torch in one hand and gun in the other and, once both boats had moored up, was prevailed upon to open the bar (at 4.00am) and set up a tab for both crews. Result! Immediately Costa Rica became everyone’s new favourite place to dock. Several vodka and cokes, and a lot of Facebooking and text messages later, I remembered how long it had been since my last drink – and how dehydrating the humid climate is. Hmm. Maybe I should reread those FB messages…
More good news followed; not only were there showers available at the marina, and a proper cooked breakfast, but it was going to take Wendo several hours to run our passports through the local bureau and get the refuelling done, so we had several hours of shore leave in which to wander around the town and stock up on fresh food to get us to Panama.
Golfito is charming and ramshackle. Multi-million dollar yachts and catamarans are moored in the bay while the houses along the shore are built of corrugated iron, with chickens scratching around outside. A thin strip of buildings that line the only road through the town is built along the shore but within 50 feet of the water the jungle takes over and a wall of greenery climbs quickly upwards, with towering trees, flowering bushes and a profusion of vines. You very much feel as though the place has been hacked out of nature with great effort, and with very little effort could be reclaimed by it.
A couple of hours later, with drinks, shower, breakfast and chocolate ice cream taken care of, we were back on the boat, motoring back out into to the bay, with the morning sunlight shining on what is really a tropical paradise. Costa Rica is definitely a place to revisit one day, and arriving there by boat after a month at sea was truly magical.
24 hours later, give or take, and we made landfall again, this time at our intended destination of Panama. Coming into the approaches to the canal was another high point. AIS was littered with boat signals and as the sun came up we found ourselves weaving between huge tankers, all anchored and waiting for entry into the Canal. The numbers of tankers was only surpassed by the numbers of pelicans gliding around the bay, and perched on the rocky islets.
Panama City was another surprise – a skyline of modern highrise buildings, with the massive Bridge of the Americas spanning the entrance to the Canal. We were mooring at Flamenco Bay marina which is built between two islands next to the Canal entrance, and were met there by the Clipper crew all wearing different coloured panama hats.
Another pleasant surprise; the scheduling of the boats through the canal meant that we had the whole day in Panama, and the next day as well. Time for some sightseeing! But first the victualling for fresh fruit and veg to get us to NY. I (stupidly) volunteered to take on the task and myself, Rowena and Phil (who speaks Spanish) took a minibus to the supermarket to stock up. I’m pretty sure we overspent (sorry Bridget!), and may have bought too many potatoes. But it was fun watching Phil trying to explain things like J-cloths and granola in Spanish to the staff. I took care of the sundries (hot chocolate, cereal, cheese, pepper in grinders, sun screen – the essentials) while Rowena negotiated the bewildering array of weird fruit and veg on offer. I’m still not sure what half of it was.
Back to the marina in the minibus and – disaster – someone had put the box of eggs (180 of them) on the very top of the shopping pile and when the back door was opened they did a nosedive on to the concrete. Egg-gate Part 2. If the concrete had been much hotter we would have had one jumbo omelette. We spent a good 10 minutes separating the survivors from the casualties, and ended up about 70 eggs short. I guess fritatta is off the menu…
A very sweaty couple of hours later, stowing the food away on the boat, and I was finally able to head for my hotel and – thank goodness – a shower and air conditioning. And then a crew dinner, to celebrate Chewie’s birthday and a bid farewell to Matt. The hotel is on the shore next the Canal entrance, so my view was of tankers drifting past, with the Bridge of the Americas in the distance. Amazing!
Given my victualling efforts I had the next morning off and, miracle of miracle, actually managed a solid 10 hours of sleep. This never happens when I hit landfall – too many days of 4-hour watches really messes with my internal body clock. So a proper sleep (in a big bed that wasn’t moving), followed by a lovely breakfast, set me up beautifully for an afternoon of walking around the old town of Panama City.
It’s beautiful. An old Spanish colonial town with buildings going back to the mid-1800s. Half the buildings are collapsing from neglect or have been patched up in a slapdash manner over the years. The other half have been bought up by various entrepreneurs (apparently a lot of Americans are investing in Panama) and the houses are being renovated beautifully to their former glory, with cast iron balconies, high arching windows and flowering vines climbing up the walls. The Panamanians are taking advantage of the tourist interest as well, with lots of quirky bars, restaurants and coffee houses (the coffee there is amazing!), and shops filled with handmade goods, but there is still the feeling that this is a real town, with real inhabitants who live and work there and who are justifiably proud of their city. Definitely worth a wander around.
We stopped to watch a wedding at one of the many churches in the Old Town. The bride was suitably beautiful, the dress suitably stunning and the limos enormous. But we speculated it was probably a society wedding as the groom looked bored and the happy couple hardly looked at each other.
Or that could just be Craig projecting his ideas on marriage on to the proceedings!
To be fair, we all thought the same.
An early dinner at a lovely restaurant (vegetarian and vegan, with a meat and seafood selection – as you do) and a 4.00am wake-up call to be on the boat for 5.30.
Many of us have considered going through the Panama Canal as one of the highlights of the entire Clipper race. Lots of the leggers have chosen Leg 7 specifically for that reason. I don’t think any of us were disappointed. It is extraordinary. An unbelievable feat of engineering with scales of construction that are humbling to someone looking at it from the inside, on the deck of a 70-foot yacht. The sheer size of the locks, for a start. You don’t realise how big they really are until you see one of those tankers (walls of metal that climb 150-200ft into the air) slide in with no problems. It all looks deceptively simple, and yet the sheer volume of water needed to keep the locks pumping is phenomenal. The water for the operation comes from a river which flows into both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and the only way they can maintain a steady flow is to ensure that the rainforest in the vicinity survives intact so that surface soil acts as a sponge and releases water at a regular rate, rather than the rainwater running off whenever there’s a storm, and alternately flooding and parching the surrounding area. As a result, the entire area around the Canal is full of nature preserves, where depredations of the natural environment are severely curtailed so that the river can continue to supply water at a regular rate. It’s wonderful to see that such a huge feat of engineering can also contribute to rainforest preservation.
There are 3 sets of locks along the Canal, and their purpose is the raise ships up to the level of Lake Gatun, in the middle (a man-made lake created to hold the river run-off), and then to drop them back to sea level again on the other side. Each lock takes maybe 45 minutes to go through and several are in sets, so the whole journey takes about 24 hours.
For smaller boats like ours (we rafted up with Visit and PSP), handlers lead us through the locks. The handlers (two on each side, for bow and stern lines) sling long ropes with weights on the end to us from the sides of the dock. We attach our lines to them and they are then pulled in and walked to the bollards which are used to hold our boats steady as the water is raised or lowered in the lock. Apparently these handlers are excellent at judging their throws – if they hit you with the weights on the end of the line then they mean to! They also apparently like to try and throw the lines really close to you to make you jump. Thankfully they didn’t take a dislike to anyone on board, though there was the occasional jumpy moment. For the big tankers they use engines called mules, which run on tracks alongside the locks and which have massive engines to manoeuvre the tankers so they stay clear of the sides as the water level changes.
Our passage was fairly quick, though halfway through the canal system we had to wait a couple of hours for a new set of pilots for each boat. We had been warned about not swimming while we were waiting (apparently the water is full of all sorts of delightful parasites) and, although the weather was extremely humid and hot no-one was inclined to question this – especially after someone spotted an 8-foot caiman swimming alongside the boat. It’s the first time I have ever seen a crocodile in the wild, and I really don’t need to see one any more closely!
Finally, around 1.00am we exited the Canal and motored to rejoin the rest of the fleet. It is a very strange business, to go from one ocean to another in a little under 24 hours. We have spent so long sailing around the Pacific, that suddenly being back in the Atlantic is quite a shock. For me, the Pacific has always been the exotic, unexplored ocean while the Atlantic is my local, so suddenly the fact of nearing the end of the race is a reality. It’s quite jarring. And it makes another 9 weeks seem like a very short period of time indeed.
Guest Blog by Valerie Saint-Pierre