Friday, February 29, 2008

Divide and conquer

Our haul-out wasn’t going to happen until mid-afternoon, and we were expected at the B&B, so I took Märzen in a taxi to the B&B and left John to get the boat out of the water with the help of Mike from Por Fin. John needs to get the rudder ready to drop in the morning, and I’ll meet Enrique Plummer in Panama City. Enrique will take me to the car rental place he deals with and get me his discount. Then he’ll show me the way back to Shelter Bay so that I can bring John back with me. It’s kind of complicated, but it can’t be helped.

The B&B, Pequeño Paraiso, is very nice, quite luxurious by our standards. Märzen and the other dogs, Bonita and Chanel, have met and sniffed. They’ll all barkers, but they get along fine.

And, finally, I’m all caught up on posting photos on the website, so go take a look at the latest.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Panama Canal transit photos are online

The photos John took while we were transiting the canal and posted now. Here's a link.

The photos on this post were captured by Mike Stocks from the webcam as we went through the Miraflores Locks.

Solstice tied to tug as lock fills

Prop wash as freighter leaves the lock

Solstice free of the tug and heading out

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Welcome to a new ocean

The Panamanians refer to this side of the canal as the Atlantic. Most Americans call it the Caribbean. Whatever, we're here. We barely escaped having to spend the night in Gatun Lake, and we didn't reach the Panama Canal Yacht Club fuel dock (to drop off our line handlers) until well after dark.

Our advisor (José) was great, and our line handlers did an excellent job, but, thanks to José, they had it easy. We were able to transit all of the locks by tying up to a Canal Authority (APC) tug. That meant our handlers didn’t have to adjust the lines for changes in the water height; the tug did that. I was at the helm for all of the up-locking, and John took us back down. There are three levels each way, so that meant each of us got to dock to the tug three times. John took lots of pictures all the way to the Gatun locks. When he took over the helm, it was too dark for more photos. When we dropped off our line handlers on this side, it was about 9:30 pm. They came aboard at 0600, so it was a long day for everyone.

We were the only northbound sailboat yesterday. If you were watching the webcam and saw a single sailboat, that was us. We saw five other sailboats southbound; they were nested in groups of two and three.

Now we’re at the dock at Shelter Bay Marina. We’re supposed to haul out here Friday, but we heard in the restaurant that their TravelLift just broke, so we’ll see. Wish us luck with that. It’s always something, isn’t it? I guess that’s what makes it an adventure.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Canal Transit Has Begun

The adviser from APC arrived and is aboard Solstice. We've said goodbye to the Pacific and turned the corner into the canal. We should be in the Miraflores locks at 1015 EST (0715 PST). We will be tied along side a tug boat behind a very large freighter. More to come...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ready To Transit the Panama Canal

Our North bound canal transit has been approved, scheduled. and I have the paperwork to prove it. At 0600 (all times EST) we are to contact Flamenco Signal and inform them that we are ready to go and that we are standing by on VHF channel 12. The crew of four line handlers will arrive via the Balboa Yacht Club launch on or about 0600. At 0715 Flamenco Control should inform us to proceed to the channel at buoy number 14 1/2 and wait for the pilot boat. At 0730 the pilot boat should come along side and the ACP (Autoridad del Canal de Panamá) adviser will board Solstice and we'll be on our way to the Caribbean.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Change in transit schedule

Our agent just called to let us know that the Canal Authority has changed our transit date from tomorrow to Tuesday. (My new Panamanian cell phone just paid for itself.) That’s the date that’s in our published cruising plan, and I was just about to correct it. We’re ready when they are. John tied the canal fenders onto the boat this morning. Canal fenders are car tires wrapped in garbage bags. Cheap, temporary, and effective. Here's a picture of Solstice dressed for the canal.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

We found a temporary home in Panama

Yesterday and this morning, I completed arrangements so that we will have a place to stay while Solstice is on the hard in Colon. Our temporary home will be at a bed-and-breakfast called Pequeña Paraiso. We don’t normally do B&Bs, as you who know us know well, but this one seems special. First, they meet our requirements: air conditioning, Internet access, and reasonable price. Plus, of course, they allow pets sometimes and have agreed to our pet. As you’ll see from their website, they’re ex-pat Canadians. Bonuses are Anita’s gourmet cooking for breakfast and the swimming pool. It’s also on the way to Colón from Panamá City, but John will need to take a taxi to the bus stop back in the city in order to get the express, air-conditioned bus.

Other very exciting news is that I’ve been able to connect with a classmate from my time at the University of Arizona. The little bit of address information I had for Yadira Cuevas (formerly Montilla) wasn’t finding her for me, so I contacted Elaine Lim, the department assistant at the U of A, who was, fortunately, still there and, even better, had a recent e-mail address for Yadira. Yadira and I have now talked via e-mail and my new Panamanian cell phone, and we’ll be sure to see each other face-to-face at least once before we sail on.

Otherwise, today we did what we needed to do: got provisions to feed our transit crew and topped off our fuel tanks. That’s just two things and probably sounds easy to those of you with cars in countries where your language is the one that most people speak. It took us about six hours here. The shopping actually went quite well. We’re no longer looking for taxi drivers who speak English, but the one we got did, after a fashion. It was a bonus. But despite our keen eye on the situation at the fuel dock, we managed to arrive there just after a Moorings 41.3 boat (I provide this detail for Uncle Dick, who’s a real fan of Moorings) had tied up, taking the whole dock. We tried to ask them how long they would be, but they just shrugged and waved. It didn’t really matter because going back to our mooring for even an hour didn’t really make sense. So we spent up to an hour circling outside the fuel dock, avoiding the launches that take people from the moorings to the shore and the shuttles that take crew back and forth to ships in the canal. We about lost it when it looked like the Moorings boat was going to use the fresh water at the fuel dock to wash their boat while we waited. Apparently, someone else advised them that wasn’t appropriate because they finally left.

To celebrate our accomplishments of the day, we went looking for Mexican food. I got a craving after watching the Noble Rot video featuring Mike and Sydney as happy diners. It reminded me that Los Baez is near there. So I looked them up on City Search, and despite their recent dismal ratings, got a real Jones for good Mexican food. We saw a taco place on our shopping expedition, but the taxi driver told us about a better place (Mi Ranchito) down the causeway from here, so that’s where we went. The food was good, but we decided that Panamanians must not like Mexican food because the restaurant wasn’t Mexican at all. Oh well, it was good, but I’m still craving chili rellenos.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Transit scheduled for Monday (Feb. 25)

John talked with Enrique yesterday evening and learned that our canal transit is scheduled for Monday. It’s kind of a relief to have a few extra days here because we have quite a bit of running around to do before we go. We need food for our crew and fuel for our engines. It would also be nice to get a local SIMM card for the cell phone.

By the way, the admeasurer got 46 feet as our total length with anchors hanging off the front and the windvane steering on the back. That’s the same as Swantown Marina measured, and it’s below the 50-foot price break on the transit, so we’re fine with it. We’re just glad we don’t always have to pay for those extra five feet beyond our documented length.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Photo from our mooring at Balboa Yacht Club

Bridge of the Americas
Here’s a picture from Solstice on the mooring at BYC looking toward the Bridge of the Americas and the canal we know is beyond it but can't quite see.

Orinoco showed up on the mooring next to us yesterday. We were glad to see him and talked this morning. The admeasurer is going there too today, but Jim isn’t transiting until March 3rd when his daughter and her family join him. Jim has been through the canal before on a different boat, so he’s making his arrangements without an agent. We’re very happy, though, that we have Enrique helping us.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Making our way to the canal

Punta Mala turned out to be just the beginning of a long struggle against the current to get to Balboa and the canal. We knew there would be current at the cape itself. What we didn’t expect was the current against us all of the rest of the way. Normally we average five knots when we motor. For this leg our average was more like 3.5 knots, and that was with wind to help us. The slog was punctuated by a thunderstorm that John narrowly missed on his watch and a couple of downpours.

About 15 miles before Balboa we passed an island (Otoque) with a beautiful anchorage. We had thought that we would stop early and anchor there, but Orinoco had left the previous anchorage ahead of us, so we were by ourselves. Although Panama is generally safe, anchoring alone isn’t recommended. In this case, we could see pangas fishing in the cove, so we decided to continue on. We finally anchored at Taboga Island just before dark and spent a wakeful night. The anchorage was too deep for our main anchor, so we had to use our secondary. Both are the same size, but the secondary has longer rode because it’s rope. Rope stretches, so the anchor alarm kept going off. We were glad to get out of there in the morning.

Orinoco was anchored at the Flamenco Island anchorage and said the Balboa Yacht Club (BYC) didn’t have any moorings available when he called them. We checked out the Flamenco anchorage and even had the hook down for a few minutes, but we didn’t feel comfortable with the close quarters there, so I got on the radio and called BYC. They said they would find a mooring for us, so with some relief, we came here. John took the launch to shore and had us checked in within a couple of hours.

That was yesterday. It was a really big day because while John was checking in, he met Enrique Plummer, a yacht agent who had been recommended to us to arrange our canal transit. We called Enrique later, and he met us yesterday evening and started all of the paperwork for us immediately.

The admeasurer is scheduled to measure us tomorrow morning. I’m not sure when we’ll be scheduled to transit. They don’t schedule that until you’ve been measured. It could be as early as Friday, though, Enrique says. We’re going to be busy tomorrow getting ready just in case we really can go on Friday. We need to get provisions to feed our canal adviser and line handlers, and we need to get fuel too. The fuel dock is right here at BYC, so that helps.

Here’s a link to webcams at the Panama Canal. When we know when we’re scheduled, we’ll post it and you can watch for us.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Welcome to the ITCZ

Last night was the first time we've anchored since Zihuatanejo, and it was at a lovely cove on the southwest side of Isla Rancheria in "Coiba National Park & Special Zone of Marine Protection." That's in Panama. We left Golfito around 0800 on Wednesday and sailed through the night to reach our anchorage. Along the way while still in Costa Rica, we saw Casteele in the distance and had a nice chat on the VHF radio. We're making this passage to Balboa in the company of another sailboat, Orinoco from Vancouver, BC, and her skipper Jim. Jim is single-handing and happy to have some company. It's nice for us as well.

As soon as we anchored yesterday, John went for a swim and scraped the barnacles off the hull and rudder. There weren't many, but it's nice to be rid of them. Around 3:00 pm the park rangers came and collected $20 from us and gave us a permit, hand-written on lined notebook paper. That was unexpected: we thought we only needed a permit to go ashore. Before dark, we could see thunderstorms in the distance and headed our way, so we rigged our hatch umbrellas and John set up the rain collection system he built. We got drenched our last night in Golfito and didn't have either of these systems set up. Since we've opened up the front of the dodger, rain poured down on the companionway hatch and dripped inside. There we collected the rain water in buckets at the foot of the steps. This time we stayed nice and dry inside and collected the rain outside where it belongs.

We can expect daily thunderstorms now that we're in the ITCZ (Inter Tropic Convergence Zone). Märzen hates them, but we hope she'll get used to them. When it isn't raining, it's very hot and humid here. The fishing is good, though. John caught another dorado (dolphin fish) soon after we set out on this leg.

We'll be sailing all night again and anchoring tomorrow just this side of Punta Mala. Punta Mala is another of the infamous Pacific capes. We want to be sure to round it in the daylight because it's the turning point for all ships from North America and the Pacific going to or from the Panama Canal. That's a lot of traffic! We'll be hugging the coast to stay out of the shipping lanes. We also expect current and wind against us, but the weather forecasts say it shouldn't be too bad when we're doing it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lazing around in Golfito

It’s hot and humid here, and we don’t feel much like doing anything. We spent the weekend taking it easy: going to Land & Sea for television, Internet, and companionship, and to get off the hot boat in the afternoons. Saturday evening we had pizza delivered. That was a treat.

Märzen gets to go ashore too as there are four other dogs that hang out there. At first, she was shy, quiet, and well-behaved. Now she thinks she owns the place and has to bark to tell everyone to watch out. The other dogs are barky too (three of them are little, not much bigger than Märzen), so Tim and Katie are used to the noise and don’t seem to mind.

We’ve met interesting people from a couple of boats here. Dream Away (Graham and Avril) is from the UK. They’re five and a half years into their voyage and bound for San Carlos in the Sea of Cortez on this leg. They sailed around Cape Horn rather than going through the Canal. That’s what John would like to do sometime. We’ll see about that. I’m not sure where Clair de Lune (Jan and George) is from. They’ve been going back and forth between Central America and Ecuador for about five years now.

Today we’re checking out, settling our accounts, and provisioning so that we can leave at high tide tomorrow morning (around 0700) and take advantage of the ebb all the way out of Golfo Dulce. We will just miss Casteele; they're going to arrive here tomorrow afternoon. We have planned four stops between here and Balboa, so it should be a nice trip.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

More adventures in Costa Rica

As I write this, I’m sitting in the cockpit at dawn (6:30 this far east and south in Central Standard Time) watching coconuts drift past on the outgoing tide. That’s a quiet adventure.

As some of you know, we have had problems with our auto-pilot off and on, actually since it was installed. It wasn’t working on the delivery to San Francisco, but it worked again on the way north, and quit again for most of last summer, but started behaving between Westport and San Francisco. Since then, it had been mostly OK until the passage between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The source of the problem is the fluxgate compass. John had been able to get it to behave before, but not this time. In the past, the auto-pilot would at least maintain a heading, even when the compass malfunctioned, but now it just gives error messages. When there’s wind, we can use the windvane steering, but mostly there isn’t enough wind for that to work either, and we were hand-steering most of the last three days and nights. It’s tiring anytime, but these were dark and moonless nights, and I found it especially stressful. We’ve added this to the list of things to fix in Panama, and meanwhile, we’ll anchor a couple of times on our way to Panama City from here in order to give me a break. The moon won’t be out much for at least of couple of weeks.

Our trusty dinghy also decided to be unreliable after we got here. It isn’t really the dinghy, but the connection of the hose between the motor and the fuel tank at the fuel tank end. This had me drifting up the channel on my way back to shore from a trip to pick up the laptop as the motor died and wouldn’t restart. In an effort to rescue me, John jumped into another cruiser’s dinghy just before the cruiser warned him that it was “a little tippy” and went for an unexpected dip. It is hot here, and the water is pretty clean, but normally we try to look our best for the officials when we clear in. John was still a little damp when he went to town. Unlike the auto-pilot, John says he can fix this.

While we were waiting for the officials to show up (the ones who never did), John was checking the Internet for election news as I watched another cruiser get her hair cut. I’d promised myself that I would have my hair cut in Panama, but I figured I’d take advantage of the time and opportunity, so I did it here. That wouldn’t normally be an adventure, but in this case, my instructions were to make sure that none of my hair could reach my eyes or mouth. Despite ponytails and hats, there are always strands blowing in the wind and bugging me. No more. After more than 20 years, I have short hair again. It turns out that it’s a little curly, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m sure John will get a picture of it one of these days.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Confusion in Costa Rica

We made it from Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua, to Golfito, Costa Rica, five hours ahead of projections thanks to wind in southern Nicaragua/northern Costa Rica and favorable currents most of the rest of the way. We're on a mooring buoy at Land & Sea Services, where we were under strict instructions to say hello to Tim and Katie from Larry and Ken on Julia. Message delivered. Tim said he'd write to Larry and Ken and say hello back.

Our lack of Spanish has caused some confusion here. We followed the instructions in the Rains guide and called "Base Naval" when we reached the channel into Golfito. There was no answer, so we then called "Caribee" to reach Land & Sea, again according to Rains. But then the Coast Guard answered in Spanish. It was all very confusing, and the instructions in Rains didn't help. Finally, a kind soul who was monitoring the radio acted as translator between us and the Coast Guard, and we were told to go on to Land & Sea, and they would meet us there.

Then we tried "Caribee" again. This time Katie answered and was surprised at the hail because they haven't used "Caribee" in years. It's the name of their old boat. I'll be sure to pass that info on to the people on the Yahoo Southbound group. Also, although Tim had someone call to confirm that the port captain (or someone) was coming here to start our clear-in process. No one showed up. Finally, at 3:45 (they close at 4:00), I asked if we should go to them. Sure enough, someone else had told someone here that they weren't coming here after all, but no one delivered the message. So John rushed off to take care of that because I had my computer out and didn't want to take the time to put it away. John's back now, so there will be more later about our adventures in Costa Rica so far.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Geography lesson: Central America

I found this map of Central America on Puesta del Sol’s website and thought I’d share it with you. I know several members of my family were glad to have the map of Mexico that I posted when we were up north. This map has Nicaragua circled, but it includes the rest of Central America, the Caribbean, and a bit of South America. Florida even shows up.

Tip: Click on the map to load the full size version in your browser. Right click to open a menu with options for saving the image. This works for any photo.

Monday, February 4, 2008


Today we caught a ride to the town of Chinandega with the kitchen help from the hotel. They go in on Mondays and Thursdays to get provisions. Lynda from Jovietal arranged it, and she went with us. (Jovietal is a combination of the names of the three teenage girls in the family: Josee, Genevieve, and Chantal. The parents are Lynda and Michel, and they’re from Thetis Island in British Columbia.) Our intent was to get some dollars, do our shopping, and take a taxi back to the marina. But when he dropped us off, the driver said he would meet us in the same place at 1:00 in the afternoon, about two and a half hours later, and we thought that sounded good. We should have stuck with plan A. After they picked us up, we ran errands for three more hours before going back to the marina! It was a long and dusty day. Half of the 45-minute trip was on gravel roads, and of course, we needed to have all of the windows open.

First thing I did when we got back, after stowing the provisions, was go to the hotel to take a shower. Later, after John had his shower, we went out to dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was excellent food (pepper steak) at a very reasonable price—and the margaritas are good too.

Tomorrow we’re taking off for Golfito. Jovietal is leaving too, but they’re gunkholing down the coast. This is their shakedown cruise since they bought and refit the boat in El Salvador. I’m sure that was a challenge! You can read a little about it on their blog at

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua

This place is great! It’s a really beautiful, small resort and marina tucked into a mangrove-lined lagoon. Here’s a URL so you can see for yourself: The entrance is well-marked, everyone is friendly, and it has all the amenities (restaurant, bar, two pools, and laundry). All this, and the price is less than we paid at Puerto Quetzal. Here it’s a dollar a foot for the first two nights and 50 cents a foot after that. We were only going to stay for two nights, but I just talked John into staying one more night. After three weeks at Marina Pez Vela, we deserve this.

In just a few minutes, we’re going to go watch the Superbowl. Where ever two or more cruising boats are gathered together, there will be a potluck. And so it is. John contributed dorado that he caught the first morning out of Guatemala. He gave it to Linda on a neighboring boat, and she’s making ceviche. I’ve got to run now, but I’ll be back later.