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Wildlife in the Pacific

In the first half an hour of our first days sail in the Pacific we saw dolphins, caught a large Mahi Mahi and saw whales, all in the space of five frantic minutes! Wow what a welcome to the Pacific.

The tidal difference and currents here are more like home (UK) and keep the water nutrient rich. It’s a welcome change from the Caribbean Sea on the other side. Although the volume of floating debris both natural (logs and reeds) and garbage (plastic mostly with the occasional fridge) means we are keeping a sharp look out.

The Pearl Islands

The Pearl islands were lovely, the water was slightly cooler and clearer than the Atlantic side of Panama and the beaches and islands were empty. Sadly all the beaches were covered in plastic and the amount of debris and plastic floating in the water was very distressing too.

Transit of the Panama Canal

We awoke to the sound of a fog horn blasting and our friends from another yacht shouting at us that the Canal controllers were trying to reach us on the vhf. It was 4:30am, we weren’t due to start till 5:30 so we were fast asleep! We were up, instruments on and calling on the vhf within minutes. Our canal advisor arrived aboard five minutes later and we were off, early!

We rafted up with our friends and then proceeded into the first lock after a huge container ship. The lock sides and gates seemed cavernous and we were like tonker toys next to giants. My photo of the lock gate has a person at the top of it to try and give you a sense of size. As 101,000 cubic metres of water flooded in the noise was terrifying, engines, instructions, whistles, sirens, beeps and roar of the water. It was all quite daunting. Being the larger boat, Russell has to motor and manoeuvre our nest of yachts, being careful to stay away from the scarred canal walls and the rear of the container ship whilst eddies of water want to move you in strange directions.

The canal workers throw down to you ropes with a huge monkey knot on it. You tie your line to it and they haul your ropes up, you then adjust your lines for the height of the water, keeping tension at all times to keep the nested yachts safe. The first thrown monkey knot hit the solar panels with a loud thud and we were worried they had broken them. Marked but not smashed thank goodness. We were all very alert for the next flying ropes, also trying to keep the boys out the way so they weren’t taken out either! It’s a slightly crazy time with the canal advisors shouting in Spanish and beeps and sirens going off.

The first three locks we went up a total of 26m to Gatun lake in the middle. Each lock was 305m long, 33m wide and we were with the same huge container ship who displaced a massive volume, meaning water rushed around it. After the third rising lock it was a welcome relief to motor out into Gatun lake.

The lake was peaceful and slightly surreal. It was formed from flooding the jungle so the banks are a stunning dense green rainforest but next to busy shipping channel marked with buoys. We had a firm timetable to keep to avoid having to pass wide container ships in the cuts so the canal advisor was constantly advising on the speed and position to take (mostly hugging the outer markers and getting out of the way of container ships steaming past at 11kts). The lake was longer than you’d imagine so we had both breakfast and lunch in this section.

The cuts to enable the canal passage through the mountains were dramatic and if you see the yellow digger at the bottom of the photo you get a sense of scale for the cut, first completed in 1913.

The three locks on the other side were slightly more peaceful going down. Only instead of being behind the container ship, we had to be infront of it and right up next to the gates. Being in a canal lock with the gate shut and a container ship heading directly towards you is a another heart stopping experience. Luckily the container ship is held with steel cables attached to train engines which move it along and hold it in place securely.

After a long day we passed under the bridge of Americas and into the Pacific Ocean. Exciting times ahead!

Boat lifting and Pacific Ocean preparation

We lifted the boat for the first time since we left England over 15 months ago. The aim was to clean her properly for the entry requirements into the Galápagos Islands and to change the anodes.

It’s always a very nervous moment when someone is lifting your home and possessions out of the water with a crane in a foreign country and language…

The hull looks amazing after 15 months of sailing in tropical seas. It’s a great advert for copper coating your hull. Jeremy Rogers in Lymington did a fantastic job, thank you. We have also cleaned the boat every few weeks by swimming under and wiping it too, great work by Russell to keep the barnacles at bay.

We spent the day cleaning the hull, scraping the barnacles off and cleaning the propeller and bow thrusters. It’s hard work in this heat and humidity but everyone’s efforts paid off and we were back in the water mid-afternoon.

In case our arms and backs weren’t hurting enough after a day of scrubbing, the food order then arrived so it was time for lifting, carrying and the 4D jigsaw puzzle of working out where on earth to store it all! We are nearly ready to leave.

Crocodiles in the marina

When we arrived in the marina everyone warned us not swim in the water and to keep the children in the centre of the roads when walking around as there were three resident crocodiles in the marina. After a few days here in the soaring 33 degree heat and 90% humidity, we were tempted to pop to the small beach as there was no sign of any crocs. Then someone kindly called me on the radio today to say if the boys wanted to see a crocodile to pop down to the grass by F dock and this is what they saw! This is not zoomed in! It was 3m long and about 3m away from Russell taking the photo.

Funnily enough no one is even remotely tempted to dip their toes in the water now!!

This is the croc swimming away, they are hard to spot in the water, look just below the log thing. I wasn’t going anywhere near it and stayed well away on the dock.

Preparing for the Panama Canal and Pacific Ocean

Shopping during lockdown in Panama and COVID-19 is tricky, but this has to be the most surreal shopping experience we’ve had. The photo shows the “shop” we bought all our drinks from! This couldn’t be further from our pre-ARC Atlantic rally preparations in Las Palmas if we tried. I dream of a Spanish Hipodino supermarket now. We have a 1000-into-the-wind passage 😳 followed by a 3000+ nautical mile passage to prepare for, which means a lot of weeks at sea and therefore lots of food needed aboard.

The shop

We’ve been officially measured at a length of 54.5ft, that’s including the dinghy hanging of the davits, (but we’ve still no idea why the Swedish call our yacht a Hallberg Rassy 46ft – it clearly isn’t) and we’ve parted with over $2000 to pay for our passage through the canal, eeks! We’ve also met with our canal agent, paid for two extra line handlers to help hold the four 100m long ropes to hold us safe in the canals and been given giant fenders to use too. There are yachts that have been smashed to match sticks against the tankers in these locks so I’m slightly terrified now as well as being very excited at seeing such an engineering marvel. This is right up my street and Chloe and I have being doing school projects with the boys on the construction of the Panama Canal so I’ve got two very excited junior civil engineers too. There is a live webcam of the canal so you could watch us go through if that’s your thing. We will start the canal at Panama time 6am (UK 12 noon) on Thursday 6th August 2020. We will ascend the three monster locks to Gatun lake and the giant cut through the mountains, then motor cross the huge lake and cut and go down three more monster locks the other side to the Pacific. Almost sounds easy! It will take the whole day and we are hoping to finish before it gets dark.

The boys have enjoyed being in Shelter Bay marina, Colon as there are 14 children here of all nationalities and ages to play with. They disappear off to play on other boats and around the military compound grounds which gives us precious moments to sort everything out for our onward voyages. We know they are safe although there is a large resident crocodile in the marina to keep you on your toes. Everyone is fully masked and gloved up here too.

Inspection

The current plan once we are through the canal is to anchor for a night, sail to Las Perlas islands and then to the Galápagos Islands as they have just opened to cruising yachts. We have a large number of permits, forms and medical tests to do first but we believe there is a way through now, fingers firmly crossed. Then we will cross the Pacific to the Marquesas and French Polynesia and stay there for the cyclone season in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact that’s only halfway across the Pacific. We will sail around the Marquesas, Tuamotos and the Society Islands before heading west once the cyclone season is over to Tonga, Fiji and Vanartu (if the borders open) and onto Australia, hoping they are open too by then. Sounds a plan!

Sailing up Rio Chagres

The Panama Canal was made possible by damming the Chagres River in 1910 to make the Gatun lake which supply’s water to the locks. We took the opportunity to sail up this river to explore the resulting habitat it’s created. It was breathtaking and quite magical sailing up it at dawn to the chorus of howler monkeys and birds shouting from the virgin rainforest on either bank.

We didn’t motor all the way to the dam for political reasons but anchored at a lovely spot halfway. We tried to explore and hike in the jungle as all wildlife is protected here and therefore abundant. Unfortunately the trails have long since overgrown and the rainforest is fairly impenetrable. But we had fun looking in a clearing and Felix found a frog type we’ve not seen before on a leaf and we saw families of monkeys swinging in the trees, much to everyone’s delight.

There was no chance of any swimming to cool off due to the crocodiles. You can spot them at night by shinning a torch and seeing their glowing red eyes. But it still made for a delightful anchorage.

Rainforest anchorage

Turtle nesting season

We set sail for Colon, Panama heading for the canal and made our first stop at the largely uninhabited island of Escudo de Veraguas. It looks stunning in the book and the water was pristine as we anchored of the beach. The first day it was pouring with rain (it is rainy season here) and as we explored the shore we were amazed to see turtle tracks everywhere. We lost count at around 30 nests we could make out by the markings and circular depressions in the sand. It was amazing to see. We marked them with sticks to protect and identify them.

Anchored of the rain splattered turtle tracks

What was depressing to see though was the huge volume of plastic waste covering the beach. Plastic bottles, oil containers, flip-flops and plastic shoes and no end of polystyrene and bottle tops. It was hideous and clearly not from the two families resident on the island. Each tide washes up someone else’s careless trash.

Plastic survives and ends up everywhere

We decided to stay and clean up the beach. We didn’t want the poor baby turtles first life experience to be trying to escape from under piles of plastic rubbish. We spent two days clearing the waste and burning it. The beach looked stunning afterwards and the boys enjoyed surfing the waves. As Felix says from Bob the builder, “reduce, reuse and recycle” or just please cut out plastic from our lives and our oceans.

Cuddle a sloth

The baby sloths are so cute and we were all lucky enough to get a cuddle between their naps. They have amazingly long claws but were surprisingly gentle when climbing up you to cling on.

Although they look like a bundle of coarse hair, it’s so soft to touch and they are very light to hold. Watch those claws though, they are wild animals. Huge thanks to Brian @Dolphinbayhideaway, somewhere to visit if you’d like to see wild sloths in their stunning property and guesthouse, Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Baby sloths

We have glimpsed sloths in the tops of trees and we were witness to the whole sloth bathroom routine at the chocolate factory but we never thought we’d be able to see baby sloths! These two were unfortunately orphaned and have been taken in by a local couple running Dolphin Bay Hideaway who Russell met whilst treating their dogs at the impromptu vet clinic, and they kindly invited us to visit.

Baby three toed sloth being hand fed
Felix feeding the baby sloth
Two toed baby sloth
Boys loving the sloth
Sloth in the tree
Toucan came to join in the fun too
Toucan on his shoulder and a sloth to cuddle!

Dolphin Bay dolphins

It would be a shame to write about dolphin bay and not show you a picture of the dolphins who swim near the boat most evenings or mornings. You hear this “poof” air releasing sound and know that they have surfaced somewhere nearby. Chloe is the best for spotting them. They never really hang around for long, just checking you out enroute to some fishing grounds or other. Having a camera to hand is for some reason rarely possible. But here are a couple we have managed to take to prove they do live and fish in the bay!

They are lovely neighbours!