February 26 – March 3, 2013
We departed Portobello early on a Tuesday morning, with plans to reach Shelter Bay Marina by early afternoon. Via winlink email, we’d made all necessary prior arrangements with Shelter Bay and our canal agent, so our arrival was expected.
As we drew closer to the breakwater, near the entrance to the Panama Canal, we had to sail past many large freighters anchored on the outside. Once we were within one mile of the main channel entrance, we were required to hail Cristobal Signal Station on VHF 12 to ask for permission to cross the channel on our way to Shelter Bay.
Cristobal Signal could see us on the AIS, so they knew our course and speed. Even though they gave us the go-ahead to cross the channel, we could see a large freighter exiting the canal area, as well as another freighter getting ready to enter. Thinking we would allow the ships to pass, we slowed our speed. Immediately, Cristobal Signal hailed us on the VHF, telling us not to slow down and to proceed across the channel. We were amazed at how they knew exactly what we were doing! Therefore, we trusted in their instructions and crossed the channel per their request. It was like air traffic control, except with marine vessels!
Once inside the breakwater, we were to hail Shelter Bay Marina on VHF 74. There were several boats exiting for their canal transit, so we had to wait about 15 minutes before we could enter. As the tire-and-fender decorated boats passed us, they all waved and welcomed us to Shelter Bay. We waved back and wished them luck with the transit. We could just feel their excitement, and I’m sure they could feel our uncertainty.
John at Shelter Bay Marina talked us through getting to our slip, and as soon as we were tied off, we headed to the office for check-in. We had heard transit wait times were 2 to 7 days, so we prepaid for a week of marina fees, including $10 for Internet. They would give us a refund, if our stay was shorter.
The moment we had all the marina paperwork done, along with s/v Saliander, we borrowed a cell phone to call our agent, Erick Galvez. Erick is one of the most used agents among the cruisers, and now we can honestly say, we quite highly recommend him. He promptly responds to emails, and he immediately visits you at the boat. Erick gives you all the information you need about the canal, as well as any port captain and immigration advice. He’s the man. If you run into a problem anywhere, you can just say to the person, “Contact my agent.”
Life at Shelter Bay was another whirlwind phase for us. While we felt we were getting to live the life of luxury (being at a dock, and having access to a pool, Internet, laundry, and showers), there was much work to be done.
A major re-provision was in order. After going through our inventory, as well as meal planning for the canal transit, we took the marina van into Colon for grocery shopping at Rey’s Supermarket. Since Colon has a dangerous reputation for all people, locals included, this was our safest option. Two persons per vessel were permitted to take the van for free, as long as the entire round trip occurred before 11 am. You basically get out of the van and walk straight into the grocery store. Therefore, we left the kids on the boat to do their schooling (yes, they actually got their work done!), and we caught the first van of the morning. If you have more than $400 worth of groceries (which we did), the supermarket offers free delivery on the same day. After a mad dash of shopping up and down extremely well-stocked isles, we were able to catch the 11 o’clock van back to the marina, while our groceries caught a ride with the supermarket van. It was a wonderful treat, not having to walk miles while carrying loads of bags!
Each day, while Wil made connections with other cruisers throughout the marina, tried to locate line handlers, looked for spare parts, and get the boat ready for transit, I schooled with the kids and ran communications from the boat. I also started the “make ahead” phase of meal prep for the canal transit.
Prior to our measurement by canal authorities, we needed to make sure our boat didn’t exceed 50 feet. We are 48.2 feet without a bowsprit and a dinghy hanging in the davits. If we measured 50 feet, then we would end up paying an additional $600 for the next length bracket. Therefore, we removed the bowsprit and rotated the dinghy to more of an angle. Fortunately, the davits with the solar panels don’t reach past the end of the transoms.
On Thursday, the Admeasurement officers came to the boat (arranged by our agent), to take our measurements and information. We measured less than 50 feet! They were also interested in knowing that our engines were in working order, that we had an indicator for rudder positions, and if our cleats were in good shape.
Every moment we got a chance, we’d ask people what we should feed the canal advisers during the transit. We had heard many horror stories about advisers not being happy with the food onboard, so they’d order a full meal delivered and billed to the boat owner. The bills would be anywhere between $400 to $600 due to the cost of hiring a delivery boat. We thought this sounded excessive, but later we got word that it actually happened to someone who went through right before our turn. Yikes!
Everyone we asked (our agent, admeasurement officers, marina personnel, and canal-experienced cruisers) all gave a similar answer, “Feed them what you would normally eat.” I always responded that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were our norm. Needless to say, we couldn’t feed advisers PB&J! We were told that a meat and pasta were a good choice. Therefore, my meal plan went as follows: Dinner the first evening would be beef fajitas with all of the fixings and beans & rice, breakfast on Gatun Lake would be pancakes, bacon, fresh fruit, and orange juice, and lunch would be Italian pan-cooked chicken with an Italian pasta salad and a fruit salad. If an additional dinner was needed, we’d use all the leftovers to create another meal. We were also told that the advisers only drank bottled water, so we purchased 2 cases of water to have available. I planned and prepped and held my breath!
Each afternoon, it was time to take a bit of a breather. We actually didn’t have time to stop, but the kids needed some play time. Therefore, we’d go hang out at the swimming pool. Wil usually kept working, but would occasionally drop by to cool off. We’d also take evening walks, although my broken toe was still hurting quite a bit, so I sat out from the longer walks.
Soon, we were getting down to the wire. Sunday afternoon was our scheduled transit time, and we still didn’t have line handlers. We finally decided to go with hired line handlers through our agent. We decided that, since we had no canal experience, it might be nice to have line handlers who knew what they were doing. Again, we held our breath in hopes of it all working out.
Finally, it was time. Late Sunday morning, our line handlers arrived with our lines and tires. We decorated our hulls with tires and fenders, and we were ready to go. It was time to transit the Panama Canal!