Panama City

The size of Panama City shocked the both of us. We hadn’t seen so many huge skyscrapers since leaving Sydney.

Before departing for Galápagos we needed some fresh food, to top the fuel back up, and of course to see what this major South American hub could offer us.

I did some research online and the top of every must do list is a visit to the canal. I think we’ve safely ticked that one off! The next up is the Old Town area which has gone under a major regeneration program over the last few years and many old buildings have been saved by reworking the area as a safe place to eat good food, drink, and be merry! Sounded like just the thing we’d be interested in but before we could play we had some stocking up to do.

As it was Easter weekend we only had one day to get everything we needed. As Pippy and Richard had the same objectives we decided to team up. First up was getting all the paper charts we needed for the remainder of the trip back to Sydney.

We found  a huge shop stocking everything the budding sailor could need. We left with all the recommended charts, cruising guides, and lighter wallets.

Panama City1

Despite what many will tell you paper charts are dead. Digital versions, and the power of the devices displaying them, are just too good. That being said we always carry large area ‘planning charts’ on board. If anything was to happen to the 349 GPS devices we have on board (lightning strikes have been known to kill anything electrical) we’d be able to hopefully get back to land with some dead reckoning.

Next up we needed to hit the supermarket and get some fresh produce on board. We must have two years worth of long life foods… the usual rice, pasta, canned goods, etc, so it’s nice to just focus on fresh items. We made it back to the boat and packed the fridge solid.

Our reward for such good provisioning was a night on the town. I forgot to mention that Balboa yacht club doesn’t have a dingy dock. You just call up on channel 12 news get a lift over to shore on a launch they send out. We called up, waited, and headed over looking slightly out of place in our ‘hitting the town’ clothes while boat workers, fishermen, and other yachties rocked the ‘oil splashed, fish gut splattered, sun faded shorts and t-shirts’ threads they were wearing. Funny thing wearing jeans and a shirt – felt really weird to me its been that long.

We hit the yacht club bar to unwind from the excitement of the canal transit and full on day we’d had bouncing around Panama hunting for supplies. After a few ice cold beers we asked the barman if he could order us a taxi into the old town. A very nice gent a few seats down spoke up saying that he was heading there and we could hitch a ride with him and his lady friend (we still don’t know what was going on between those two but he’d done alright for himself if anything was).

We had a lovely ride into town chatting with them both about the history of Panama City, how it was very safe compared to a few years back when you’d be rolling the dice walking down a lot of streets. He owned an apartment very close to where we we’re heading. Heavy traffic (Panama City’s roads are crazy!) stopped us in our tracks so we thanked the couple and headed out on foot.

The Old Town is lovely. It’s so good to see the old buildings being restored to their former glory. The town planners have cleverly breathed new life into the Old Town by creating a safe area where every second place is a restaurant or bar. The quality of the establishments reflect the grander of the architecture so it’s quite high end.

We loved seeing this after experiencing so many places we’ve visited with areas just like this being left to rot while everything is relocated to modern developments.

We visited a few bars and had an amazing meal looking out over the bay to the skyscrapers beyond.

Panama City4

Panama City2

The area was stunning with old churches getting ready for Easter, people of all ages filtering into their choice bars, restaurants, or all night clubs. A very good energy and feel to the place.

Around midnight we wondered into a square packed with people just standing and looking very solemn. We then noticed a procession of priests and men walking, silently carrying a huge cross with Jesus over to a magnificent church. No one said a word, the faces of all the onlookers were lowered and sad looking. It was very powerful to witness.

Panama City3

The next day we chilled on board doing not much of anything really in the morning and then headed over to the yacht club for some lunch. Everything was closed pretty much in Panama City so we used the free wifi at the bar get more Pacific planning done.

On Saturday all we needed to do was refill some jerry cans with fuel. We found a nice taxi driver who took us and then we returned, loaded them up on the launch and headed back to Interlude. I learned the hard way that transferring heavy 20 liter cans is tricky. As Helen scrambled to take the weight our launch drifted away from the hull with me leaning further over to support the fuel. It became clear that either I had to drop the can or take an unplanned bath in the dirty canal waters. A few seconds later Helen had the can safely on board, turning back to see my feet disappear as I fell head first into the drink. I don’t recommend swimming in the canal.

We’ve hired a professional weather router for our long trip back to Sydney. We’ll use Predict Wind for shorter legs but the long distances can be problematic. He emailed over to say the best weather window was to leave ASAP to avoid the growing number of thunderstorms in the area. We said our goodbyes to Matelot who had friends join them and needed an extra day to sort out some tasks. They are faster than us on the water so we should arrive roughly the same time.

It was sad sailing away from Panama City. If Europe was part one of our trip the Caribbean was part two and transiting the canal marked the end of that leg. The coming months will hopefully be filled with many amazing days but we really feel like we’re on the home stretch now. ‘Just’ the Pacific to go.

Panama Canal transit

After a few days of battling with some boat jobs in Shelter Bay we were as ready as we’d ever be to head through the canal.

We managed to tick off lots of old jobs that had been hanging around- most importantly was was handheld remote for the main VHF radio. The charging cradle for this had broken a few weeks back and it’s very useful to be able to control the main VHF from on deck. Our dealer had sent out a replacement so I wired it up and thought everything was working perfectly.

The day before we left I thought it wise to check the radio. The handheld worked perfectly. The main radio. Nothing.

Over a very stressful hour I managed to find someone who’d kindly email me over the electrical and fuse locations for everything and fixed the fuse for the radio which must have blown when I connected up the cradle. I replaced this, kept my fingers crossed and turned on the main radio. It worked. Time to breath again.

During our 5 nights at shelter bay I learn’t how to fix radios, service shower pumps, learn’t what ‘thermal runaway’ is and how to prevent it, and 100 other things. The skills required for doing a trip like this are never ending it seems and there’s always something new to learn.

The morning of our transit was pretty easy going in comparison to the crazy days beforehand. We had nothing to do but wait.

Around midday our line handlers showed up. We hired two professional guys who’d done numerous transits called Chris and Felix, plus Marie, a French girl from a boat that had just sailed in and wanted experience of the canal before helping her skipper through. With Helen helping that made the four we needed. I was to skipper the boat and our canal advisor, who’s basically a pilot you take on board and tells you what to do, made up the rest of the boat. Six people! Interlude was pretty full and felt very heavy with all the food, water and extra fuel we were carrying.

At around 2pm we were ready to leave Shelter Bay and head out to the ‘Flats’ anchorage where you await your pilot.

People gathered to wish us well including everyone off Marie’s boat who were wearing Sydney t-shirts they picked up visiting Oz a while back. So nice to have a good send off.

I pressed the engine start button and…

The engine was fine. But the electrical fan in the engine room (which you can hear just before you start the main engine) wasn’t working.

Without this fan the engine could overheat. And we’d be motoring the whole canal. Panic mode!

I raced downstairs with Helen and grabbed the laptop and started to wade through the electrical diagrams, fuse charts, and other PDFs trying to locate the fuse for the fan. Everyone up stairs was still saying their goodbyes but the pressure was on.

I found the diagram, traced the wires back to the fuse panel. Ran over and found that when I was repairing the VHF radio I must have put the fuse for the fan in the wrong place. I popped it back over one slot and asked Helen to try again.

She turned on the starter, the fan powered up. The engine started perfectly.

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had such a panicked, stressful, moment on the boat. Everyone waiting… The transit booked…

It really goes to show just how important having documents for EVERYTHING onboard is.

Luckily I don’t think anyone on deck realised anything had happened.

As the adrenaline subsided we eased out of our slip and headed over to wait on the Flats.

We were lucky enough to get the same slot with Pippy and Richard on Matelot- the Kiwi’s we’d met weeks before and had been sailing around with since. They headed out with their crew about an hour later and we hung out on anchor.


Around 5:30pm the pilot boat pulled up and radioed over to us to approach them. In order to get our advisor on board I had to position the boat close enough to them for him to safely step on board. No problem! 20 knots of wind, bit of roll to add to the fun, and they want me to get within 1 meter and hold her there. We managed to get the guy on board with no damage but Helen and I couldn’t help thinking there must be a safer way to do such an operation.

Our advisor / pilot was called Asfa. He was a lovely chap who gave us a run down on what we’d be doing. You only get to learn who you’re heading through with once he arrives and what formation you’ll be in. For our first night, yes sailing boats transit at night just to add to the fun, we’d be following a 230m tanker called Planca Muscat into all the docks while nested next to the Kiwi’s.

30mins after Asfa arrived we saw Palanca Muscat on AIS heading our way, we left the Flats and followed her down the channel with the Pippy and Richard following closely behind.

As the huge tanker sorted his lines out we needed to come alongside Matelot and raft up alongside  them. The advisors here asked too much the first time. The wind was blowing up to 25knots by this point, we were in the dark, and heading downwind. As we approached and tried to get lines to each other it became clear it wasn’t going to work so I backed away. We then tried upwind which was much more stable. I managed to hold the boat in place while the guys raced around with lines throwing them over to the Kiwi boat and ramming fenders in place wherever possible. It was pretty full on but we managed to get safely connected with no damage to either boat. We then turned back downwind towards the tanker and followed her into the first dock.

Panama1bYou can’t get a sense of the scale of these docks until you’re close to them. The engineering of everything is off the chart. Everything’s been super-sized. Bolts are the size of large trees, nuts the size of cars. The dock gates themselves are vast. The workers look like ants walking around them.

As we slowed up behind the tanker it was time for some monkey fist action. Basically to keep the boats from bouncing off the walls when the water is pumped in or out you need four lines, one of each corner of the nested sailboats connected to strong points on the docks. These lines are 50m long, as that’s how high the dock walks get, and very heavy. Our line handlers need to get the lines up to the canal workers high above.

So what happens is this…

The line handlers on the wall throw thin lines with tied up balls on the ends for weight (called monkey fists). These ping off the boats or go in the water until our line handlers catch one. Then the heavy lines are tired to the thin lines and fed back up to the guys above.

As we were a good 30-40m below the guys throwing the monkey fists this wasn’t that easy with the winds. Time and again they’d try as we motored slowly towards the tanker beyond. One smacked the solar panels, which is why you’re told to cover them up to protect them, and bounced off into the water. Another almost hit one of our line handles in the face so he had to duck out of the way. It’s quite funny to see the guys above throw again and again, their pace going from quite relaxed at first then having to run down the walls to keep pace with us as time runs out.

It felt like we’d never get a line on and just smack into the tanker but two perfect throws from the canal guys and some great fielding from our line handlers meant we got our larger lines up to them just in time.


Matelot to the side of us was of course also having the same fun next to us. They also needed many tries but also got their lines passed up.

We slowed as we entered the first dock, the echos of workers and the radios of our advisors bouncing off the walls. We stopped about 20m behind the tanker and the lines from each corner were tightened. The huge lock gates shut behind us and water started pumping in. It’s so amazing to experience this. Millions of gallons of water get pumped into the lock over just a few minutes. The turbulence was extreme, you can feel the boats pulling on each other lines groaning under the stresses. We were raised 25m in next to no time, the line handlers having to take in the slack while Richard (the skipper on Matelot) and myself fought to keep the boats straight. The stress on the cleats must have been crazy. And upwards, which is not what they are designed for at all.

Once at the top we could see back out from where we’d just come. 20-25m in the air with just a lock door holding all that pressure within.

The gates in front opened and the tanker, it’s lines handled by huge train wagons on rails, moved forward. The wash as he moved out of the lock again caused powerful turbulence which we had to counter.

Four canal workers, one for each corner then led us out walking alongside us as we motored forwards. I don’t think they liked the pace our advisors set as they had to almost run to keep up with us.

We then repeated the process in the second dock. And then the third. Each time being pushed higher to reach the height of the man-made lake in the middle of the canal.

Our only real issue happened in the second dock when our rear line got caught in the wall as we were moving down the lane. Our line handler, and the canal guy above, couldn’t free it so in the end the line was cut. With only three lines we needed to counter the effects with some quick steering and engine work but kept everything in place under a fresh line was thrown down. We now have a souvenir monkey fist onboard!

Just after 9:30pm we exited the final dock. The tanker we’d followed raced off into the night and we headed into the freshwater lake where we were to spend the night.


We moored up alongside a small US boat who were heading the other way. Our advisor was picked up and we all headed to bed, tired from all the excitement of the hours before.

It was an amazing experience for us. Doing it at night added to the effect I think. And it was great to have friends on the boat next to us. Was quite the party atmosphere, mixed in with a good helping of fear and tension. The advisors did a great job through and we always felt safe.

We stayed overnight in a lovely still lake lit by a full moon and the lights of passing tankers in the distance.

The next morning we awoke early (our second advisor was due on board around 6:30am) to a wonderful sunrise.

Panama1dWe had some breakfast, the crew slowly woke up, and the pilot showed up on time. With that we were off again, well after swinging round to pick up Marie who’d somehow been left behind on the mooring as all the lines were thrown off. Oops.

Panama1eWe had 25 miles to travel through the man-made lake towards the set of locks on the Pacific side that would slowly drop us back down to sea level. The reason the lake was flooded so high is that it made an easy passage through all the mountains and hills. Why blast through when you can sail over right?

The lake itself is very beautiful with lots of birds flying around the man-made islands. The tops of 100 year old trees can still be seen in the water, their bases once above ground before the lake was flooded.

We had a lovely few hours moving through the lake before mooring up outside the locks where we waited for our slot. For our second day we were to raft up with two other boats. Matelot again and a lovely old 60’ Swan sailboat called King´s Legend. The nesting process went much smoother this time and we headed into the locks together very controlled.

Panama1gThe first two locks back down to sea level went without a hitch. But the last lock is well known for it’s turbulence due to fresh water mixing with salt. I’d read that this always effects the port side boat (which we were) so was ready to try and correct things if we did get swung around.

As soon as the water started draining the pressure on the rudder was huge. All three boats started to twist as we drifted closer to the wall. The advisors were on top of this in a flash shouting over clear instructions to the outer boats which fixed the issue. The last lock gate opened and before us was a river leading out to the Pacific!

We broke away from the other two boats and grabbed a mooring at the Balboa Yacht club just outside the last lock. Pippy and Richard from Matelot did the same and seconds later a small ferry turned up to collect the fenders, lines, and our guests. It was quite surreal how quickly we went from packed boat to being totally empty again. We hardly got a chance to thank our line handlers for all the great work they’d done keeping us and Interlude safe.

Panama1iWe radioed over to Matelot, who were also now alone. We got the dingy out and popped over for some celebrationary drinks and to debrief the last 48 hours.

Panama1jThe canal was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us and really lived up to the hype. We actually preferred the first night in the dark. It seemed to add to the excitement.

Being that close to supertankers, and seeing just how small you are when placed in machinery built for their world, was amazing to witness. Yes it was quite stressful at times and we’re pleased it’s behind us now but we also loved every second of it!

Panama Canal here we come!

The boat is ready, our temp crew all locked in (turning up in a few hours), all documents / visas / permits done and the huge lines and fenders have been added to the boat.

We’re ready to go!!

Our transit time is currently around 6:30pm local Panama time. Keep an eye on us via the web cam’s here:

We transmit AIS so you should be able to keep track of us that way as well using something like:

I’ve also updated the onboard YB Tracker to update our position every hour, it’s on the ‘location’ page clickable from above.

Very excited! Weird to think that exactly this time last year we were heading through the Keil canal with zero off-shore experience with Jamie and Pete from Halycon Yacht’s. With their help- and everyone we’ve met along the way we’re now tackling the daddy of canals and will be in the Pacific 48 hours from now.

Panama, Shelter Bay Marina

Our overnight sail from San Blas to Panama’s Shelter Bay marina went without a hitch. If anything we were sailing too quickly so had to reduce the sail area to slow us down as we wanted to arrive during daylight.

Sailing into the area was pretty full on. Huge tankers everywhere, the radio buzzing with ships wanting to depart or dock. We radioed to gain entry to the inner harbour and got told… ‘Sure, just keep out of the way of the shipping containers.’.  Top advice mate! With such deep insight we guessed he must have been the supervisor.


We weaved through the vessels and made it safely over to Shelter Bay marina where we’ll be spending a few days getting our documentation for the canal sorted, final (why do I keep saying final when there’s no such thing on a boat?) fixes to the boat, provisioning for the Pacific, and (hopefully) a few hours drinking cold beers in the pool here.

First impressions of the marina are great. It’s a hive of activity that very much reminds us of Las Palmas before the ARC rally. Boat projects are being tackled everywhere, some of which seem quite serious. There’s a lot of people that seemed to have run into bad weather off the Columbian coast which I mentioned a few posts back. We were lucky I think through here and kept well away from the coastline. Looking at some of the damage and hearing some of the stories I’m glad we decided to play it safe.

We also met back up with Pippy and Richard, a Kiwi couple we ran into and sailed with for a few days over in the Isles des Saints area. There are loads of other Ozzie’s and Kiwi’s here as well. You can really tell we’re about to start this last (huge) leg back home. Some of these guys have been cruising away from home for years but the draw of kids, or grandkids, seems to be pulling them from the sea back to land.

Our agent, Erick, turned up moments after we docked and helped us with all the documentation and booked our meeting with the Canal officials. So far Erick has been amazing with his help and support (taking a boat through the Panama Canal isn’t the most straightforward process). He couldn’t stay long though as immigration decided to raid the marina and I think a few boats might have been ‘bending’ the visa rules a little so he shot off to help smooth over any issues.

Talking of visas, we’ve always been quite by the book when it comes to checking in/out of countries. Some cruisers we know don’t bother and wing it and I’m sure they save quite a bit of time, and cash, doing so. I like being able to sleep at night and it’s one less thing to worry about. We proudly showed our passport stamps we got over in San Blas to the machine gun toting official who seemed pleased we’d done the right thing. At least we didn’t have to run and hide in the pool like some people we saw. Haha.

Like clockwork the canal officials turned up the very next morning and measured our boat, inspected everything and got us to sign 100 more documents. Honestly I have no idea what we’re signing and he could very well own the boat, Helen, and several of our internal organs by now but he seemed friendly enough so we’ll trust him I guess.

At the end of the inspection he smiled, said we were good to go then handed over our Transit number! Woohoo!


Erick has booked us in for a provisional transit sometime on Tuesday the 31st of March. So we have a few more days to prepare and then we’ll be off!


San Blas islands

After an amazing sail over from Puerto Rico we arrived at the picture-perfect San Blas islands. We were pretty nervous coming into the small anchorage as we’d heard so many horror stories about yachts getting wrecked on the reefs. But we’d checked and double checked the waypoints and Simon followed these to the letter, while I stood on the fore-deck with my eyes trained constantly at the water.SanBlas1We had good light and could make out the reefs as we passed and made it safely into the anchorage. It’s quite deep and drops off rapidly, plus with a reef directly behind us we wanted to make sure we were set before setting off to land. We had lunch and studied our transit lines. Then once we were confident we jumped into the dinghy and headed to the dock in search of customs.SanBlas23They’re located right next to the dock but it turned out they were on lunch – doh! We’d forgotten that we had crossed a timeline or two and hadn’t reset our clocks.SanBlas3Oh well it gave us time to explore the tiny island that is Porvenir.SanBlas7We felt like intruders as we wandered the island, there’s no distinct boundaries between the huts, gardens and I guess public areas. The toilets were little more than a hut with a hole over the sea. We were definitely somewhere very different.

We’d come to the end of our wanderings when we saw a man cross the airport runway so we decided to follow him (as you do!).SanBlas20We came to a hotel and had a cold drink before heading back to customs. Clearing in was pretty straight forward but set us back a penny or two. Immigration and cruising permits do not come cheap here, but we’d need them for Panama anyway so we stumped up the fees.

Then we headed back to the boat where we were visited by some of the local Kuna people selling molars. These are pretty pieces of embroidered fabrics that they traditionally use for their dresses. We chose a few samples and enjoyed some laughs as we didn’t speak the same language. The Kuna people have their own language but as a result of the Spanish conquest the common language spoken between the locals and tourists is Spanish.SanBlas18SanBlas14SanBlas5From there we nipped across to East Lemon Cays where we planned to stay the night. Again we carefully followed the waypoints and scanned the sea for reefs but made it in safely. We had updated our Navionic charts just before leaving Puerto Rico and I must say they were spot on despite all the reports.

This anchorage was beautiful, nestled between a cluster of islands and surrounded by reef it was not only stunning but as flat as a pancake. What a pleasant feeling after the rocky, rolly marina in Puerto Rico.SanBlas8We were pretty beat after our crossing so we chilled out and watched the sun set over the palm-tree covered islands before crashing into bed for an early night.SanBlas10The next day we were up for some exploration. We dived into the crystal clear waters and had an amazing snorkel across the reef to the nearest island. We wandered around the edge taking in the views.SanBlas2SanBlas9SanBlas11The islands are so tiny. We’d wandered about half-way around the island when I saw a Hanse just like ours. I pointed it out to Simon who laughed his head off. It was Interlude! I guess we’d walked further than I thought. After that it was a long swim against the current to get back. SanBlas17We had lunch and then decided to get the dinghy out to explore one of the other islands. This one even had a dinghy dock (in about 1 foot of water) which works well if you’re in a sturdy dug-out canoe but is a bit scarier in a inflatable, soft-bottomed dingy.SanBlas19This island also had a bar!SanBlas12The drink selection was simple, a can of local beer (Balboa), a coke or a water. So we had a few beers and laid on the beach watching as one tour guide boat after another turned up bringing hippy-like backpackers too and fro.SanBlas13SanBlas16We had a paddle and found some amazing star-fish, saw a hermit crab, played some naughts and crosses and hangman in the sand, and generally lazed the day away.SanBlas6SanBlas24Back on the boat we were visited by Lisa, a local transvestite that’s known for the quality of her molars. I must say they look great so we bought a few more.

We were enjoying ourselves so much in East Lemons that we couldn’t be bothered to go anywhere else and decided to stay another day. Sometimes it’s all too easy to rush around from one place to the next in case we miss something, but that day we decided to stay put and take it all in.

The following day we decided to head to Dog Island. Some fellow Aussies, on a boat called Henri, got the jump on us so we followed them over. They’re heading to Panama then back to Oz in a few week’s time which makes us think we’re not leaving it too late.SanBlas21Followed the waypoints again, and again no problem with the electronic charts but using the waypoints from the guide also gave us a bit more confidence. Especially when you see the number of wrecks here. It seems like most reefs have at least one.

Anyway on Dog Island that’s what we’d come to see. A cargo ship had been wrecked here many years ago and now is home to hundreds of reef fish. We swam over, against the current again, and had a look around.

The wreck is conveniently located close to the beach and close to the surface making it perfect for snorkelling. Simon has purchased a new waterproof case for his iPhone so he was able to take some underwater, and above-water pics.SanBlas22SanBlas4SanBlas15On Dog Island you can pick up a can of coke but not much more. These islands are really unspoiled – and these are the touristy ones! I think this is the most beautiful place we’ve been. A taste of paradise!

After that it was time to head back to Porvenir to clear out. Next stop Panama – yikes!