Saturday, September 29, 2012

Welcome to South America!

Yes, we're still in Panama, albeit on the Caribbean side. But we recently found out Latin Americans consider the Panama Canal the dividing line between North and South America.

We've technically been in South America for weeks, without even knowing it!

   Anyway, after transiting the canal, we've been resting, recuperating and provisioning in the lovely Shelter Bay Marina on the Caribbean side of Panama.

Shelter Bay Marina

                         It's a super place, and a good value, too. Some cruisers stay
                             here for months,  and we can understand the temptation.

                      Crocodiles and anacondas lurk in the waters beneath the boats in the harbor,
                      rendering the water unsafe for swimming. Fortunately Shelter Bay has a
                  swimming pool for us cruisers. Note the dozens of sailboat masts in the distance.

The restaurant/bar reminds us that "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."

        Chris catches the Ryder Cup (albiet in Spanish) in the comfortable, modern cruisers lounge.
                               Fun fact: The Spanish word for "bogey" is...BOGEY.   :-)

                    But I've saved the best thing about Shelter Bay Marina for last:

         Check out the mother of all book exchanges! I literally jumped up and down and squealed like a little girl when I first saw it. Then, in silent awe, I reverently approached it like an altar and lovingly took down each book, one by one,  as I considered the possibilities.

     There are also tons of cruising guides here. We fortified Espiritu for exploring the Caribbean with slightly used cruising guides for Antigua, Bonaire and Curacao, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, The Virgin Islands, as well as nautical charts for the Florida Keys.     :-)

   The downside of Shelter Bay is it is in the middle of nowhere -- miles and miles from any towns or people. It's literally carved out of the rain forest, on the grounds of a former American Army Base, long since closed since we turned over the Canal to the Panamanians.

A peek over the breakwater shows a squall is heading our way from across the Caribbean

Captain Chris takes advantage of the weather and takes a fresh rainwater shower

                  Meet our neighbor just up the dock. Yes, you're reading it right. The boat name is
                "Sea Hearse." The rationale for this quizzical abomination is that the skipper's last name
                  is "Coffin." But, I'm SORRY. Are you SERIOUS?!?!?!?!?    LOL...

We spotted an old, overgrown truck trail leading into the rain forest, so off we went to explore it!

                   Almost immediately we spotted a large vulture, wings flared dramatically,
                                                  at the top of a dead palm tree.

           He stood like this, unmoving, for 5-10 minutes as we watched silently.  What was he doing? Was he preening as a sexual display? Or was he airing out his wings in the tropical heat?

                Or maybe he was simply trying to FREAK US OUT.  Anyway, we moved on.

                                          Deeper in the jungle we found an abandoned church.

You can see the shadow of the alter cross on the wall, which was removed when the church was  dismantled

We assume it was an American church related to the Army Base, as the hymnals,
 in English, were left to rot on the shelves

                  Howard, an avowed atheist, surprised us by singing "Blessed Assurance" in a
         lyrical baritone, which echoed pleasantly off the sanctuary walls. The howler monkeys
                  playing in the trees just outside the cracked windows screeched their approval.

The baptism alter with the words "This Do In Remembrance Of Me" lay rotting in a side storage room

A gardenia bush, lovingly planted in the church courtyard,
still blooms years after the church was abandoned

                              We continued on down the truck trail, deeper into the rainforest.

A few moments down the trail, a hawk swept down
 in front of us with a writhing snake in his talons!

                      Lordy, Lordy.    :-)   Well, alrighty then. Moving on down the truck trail...

We came upon this extraordinary set of ant hills built by a community of enterprising Leaf Cutter ants

I thought the whole thing was really spectacular

These ants are amazing. We see lines of them all over Central America.
They use the leaves to cultivate food for their young.

The ants literally carved this trail by going back and forth over the same area -- over and over again.


Look at these amazing toadstools!

              We continued on down the overgrown truck trail, curious to where it might lead.

               Suddenly a manmade structure began to take form before us, growing out of the jungle.
                  Mayan pyramids, perhaps? But there were no Mayans in Panama, that we know of...

      Upon closer inspection we could see that this was a US Army Battery installation, long abandoned. The jungle is slowly but surely taking this land back. One day soon the Battery will be completely engulfed by the jungle.

    I wonder if, hundred of years from now, future civilizations will trip upon this building and wonder who we were, and what we were up to?

  Okee dokee. That's it for now. Our plan is to set sail tomorrow morning for the Colonial city of Portobello, Panama, here in the Caribbean Sea -- then on to the famous San Blas Islands.

Portobello, Panama

Monday, September 24, 2012

Man Overboard!

The Espiritu crew celebrates as we finally made it under the Bridge of the Americas and through the Panama Canal

 First, the good news: we made it through the canal and are currently at Shelter Bay Marina in the Caribbean Sea. We may be in the the Caribbean, but we're still in Panama. There are countless beautiful islands and miles of gorgeous coastline to explore on the Carribean side of the country.

  Back to our canal crossing. With the assistance of Howard and Lynn of Swift Current and Roland of Maleora as line handlers, we managed the crossing without major problems.

 It was a two day crossing.  We went through the first 3 locks, then spent the night moored in Gatun Lake in the Panamanian rain forest. We were strictly forbidden from swimming in the lake, due to the presence of crocodiles and anacondas in the water around us. YIKES.

In traversing the canal we passed this prison, which houses the notorious former General Manuel Noriega

      On day 2 of the crossing, we took aboard our Canal Pilot Advisor named Carlos. He guided us through the last three locks and into the Caribbean sea. Once in the open ocean, a Panamanian pilot boat arrived to pick up Carlos and return him to Panama City.

  Carlos attempted to disembark, but he couldn't get his balance on the pilot boat, and landed in the ocean with a giant splash.

 The crew of the pilot boat looked stunned. They just stood there.

  Our line handler Roland reached out his hand to Carlos, who desperately grabbed it. Carlos looked petrified. I honestly don't think he is much of a swimmer. Plus, he had a few extra pounds on him, a ridiculous large brimmed hat and was fully clothed.

  The crew of the pilot boat continued simply standing there and watching in their paralysis.
 You would think they would have jumped to action -- but they merely backed away in the ocean waves and watched as Carlos clung to Espiritu.

Note the lack of lifelines on the Canal pilot boat. No wonder Carlos fell in! 

 I honestly think they expected US to rescue him.

 THEY are the professionals, not us! And anyway, there was no way we would have the strength to pull him up onto Espiritu, and he certainly would not be able to help himself.

  Finally, after Carlos hung there for almost 30 seconds, I pointed at the life ring on the Panamanian boat and yelled to the paralyzed Panamanian crew: "Throw down the life ring!"

   Almost begrudgingly, they did. But it wasn't even attached to anything, and it had no line to their boat.

   He grabbed the ring and finally let go of Espiritu, and began rather haplessly and helplessly swimming towards the Panamanian boat.

  Now WE backed away and watched as the crew slowly and awkwardly fiddled with a ladder lifesaving device for which they clearly had little or no training. Carlos continued to bob rather desperately in the ocean.

Inexplicably, another Panamanian crew member pulled a long stick from inside the cabin and begin poking Carlos with it.  ?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

 Finally the crew figured out how to use the lifesaving ladder, and they pulled Carlos to safety before he was swept out to sea.

 Well.  Drama, drama, drama.      :-/  I guess you could say that Carlos "christened" the Caribbean Sea  on our behalf.  

  Anyway, now we're on the Caribbean side. This morning I explored the Fort Lorenzo National Park rainforest, out of which the marina is literally carved.

 This is the most pristine and vibrant rainforest that I have seen in all of central America.

 Some of what I've seen so far:

A Blue Morpho butterfly

A family of Blue Grey Tanagers

An agouti, which is what you would end up with if a rabbit and a guiney pig had their way with one another

Howler monkeys

A common blackhawk

A Western Tanager

And a Southern Lapwing

                 And that was in only one HOUR in the rainforest! I'm so excited to go
              back early tomorrow morning. Who knows what amazing new things I'll see?


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Photos: A Peek inside the 7th Wonder of the Modern World

Two big boys make their passage through the mighty Panama Canal

 PANAMA CITY: Traversing the canal in a tiny sailboat is a big deal. It's kinda intimidating when you realize they cram small boats next to those mammoths pictured in the photo above. Being the wimpy cruiser that I am, I was thrilled when our friends Howard and Lynn said "Me First!" to go through the canal, and enlisted our help line handling for them. "After YOU!" I cried happily, as we eagerly signed up to help them through. We would be taking feverish notes.

Howard waves goodbye to the Pacific Ocean as the lock closes behind him.
He won't see it again for a very long time. 

             This photo shows the "line handling" that is required to traverse boats through the canal. As the locks fill and empty (it shocked me how quickly they do so!) we must stay alert and loosen or tighten the lines as we rise or fall with the water.  It's quite surgy and a bit intimidating. The boat is constantly being pulled from side to side during the process. They often get out of control and smash up against the wall -- hence the tires they require us to hang over the side.

When the 100 year old doors slam shut it kinda feels like you're trapped
inside some sort of a gigantic water torture dungeon. 

We were told that this behemoth tanker would be sharing the lock with us. OK. No problem...

We watched as he powered towards us...

Chris watches with anticipation


                              ...uh...OK...CLOSER...?!?!? close do these guys get?
        (Note the teeny tiny line which holds him every-so-securely to the dock, or so we hope...)

"OH, FOR THE LOVE OF...?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?"

Howard has the only appropriate emotion for a human to have at this juncture...(LOL)...

"But seriously...what in the hell was I thinking?" (LOL)

Chris handled the stern line

Gabrielle and Pam handled the bow lines with great expertise

And lil' ol' me managed to handle the starboard stern line without screwing it up!


     We made it through all 6 locks without a hitch. This delivery crew was of the rare "mostly female" variety. In this photo, Howard encourages us to show off our a$$ets. Looks like the Wimpy Cruiser (me) was the only one who refused to come to the table in that area... :-)

The complete Swift Current delivery crew, including William, our pilot

   After helping to secure Swift Current on the dock at the Shelter Bay Marina on the Atlantic side, we drove back across the isthmus to Panama City.

       Next up: it's Espiritu's turn. Pacific Ocean -- do you have any last words?