Stingrays, Sharks & Squash Zones

If there’s one thing I particularly like about our sailing adventures it’s that there’s always something new to experience. Not just new places and people, but new knowledge and skills at times also. We’ve done some sailing around reefs before but negotiating atoll passes was new territory for us. The Tuamotus are all low lying atolls which were formed out of inactive volcanic islands. The process takes about 6 million years or so and begins with the formation of a fringing coral reef. Over time the volcanic mountain is constantly eroded by torrential tropical rain and slowly sinks under its own weight. Many of the atolls have one or two breaks in the reef which may or may not be suitable for a yacht to pass through. But just because you can get through doesn’t mean you will. We saw the very unfortunate sight of a six month old 56′ yacht sitting high and dry on the reef at one of the passes. Because the entrances are fairly narrow the tide rips through (at 6-8 knots at times!) so you need to time your entry and exit to coincide with the minimum amount of current. Strong wind and/or wave conditions can really ramp up the dangers. When inside you have relatively flat water, but eyeball navigation is essential to avoid the coral “bommies” that are everywhere, many of which are not marked on charts. Once you’re anchored you can enjoy the stunning aquamarine waters of the lagoon. When we first arrived we were blessed with calm seas and sunny skies for a few days.

At times this can be a very windy part of the world, as evidenced by how a number of the houses are tied down, in some cases with engine blocks or large truck tyres holding the roof on. During our time in Fakarava we experienced a weather “squash zone” which is what happens when a big fat high pressure system which is 1030hpa or above travels east from New Zealand at around 20 – 25 degrees South and squeezes the isobars in the trade wind zone closer together making for enhanced winds and rough seas which can last for several days. But even whilst we were hunkered down and it was raining, blowing dogs off chains, it was still warm so we can’t really complain. Dean & Sue joined us here and we managed to find a few things with which to amuse ourselves including enjoying a spit roast dinner cooked by Liza, one of the village women. We passed our time with a few swims, walks and watching the kite surfers. We discovered the locals are quite a religious lot – the church seemed very appropriate with its shell-draped light fittings. We were also intrigued by the “sleeping sharks” which seemed to behave more like pet puppies waiting at the waters edge to be fed. We subsequently saw more of these sharks in Moorea where the woman who was feeding them was actually patting them! (photo credit to Fitzy)

If there’s two things that are plentiful in the Tuamotus it is pearls and coconuts. Many of the famous Tahitian black pearls are in fact farmed in the Tuamotus or the Gambier archipelago, so we felt obliged to visit a pearl farm, along with a group of other cruising yachties, to see the process of farming and seeding the pearls. It was fascinating visiting the pearl grafter’s “laboratory” built on piles at the edge of the lagoon and looking over their shoulder as they worked their magic with the oysters. It was a very low key affair with the retail section of the business basically set up in the owner’s lounge room. 

For me, the highlight of our time in Fakarava was scuba diving the south pass, which is famous for diving with sharks – black & white tip reef sharks and grey sharks. The visibility was fabulous and it was absolutely awesome to be down there with them in their natural environment, and have them swimming all around us. They weren’t the least bit interested in us, thank goodness! Our dive was timed close to slack water and it was amazing to see all the small fish rocketing into the lagoon when the the tide turned to incoming. It was definitely one of those pinch yourself “am I really doing this?” moments.

Next stop was Tahiti, where we were joined by David & Karen. We were there in time for the annual Heiva Festival which includes Polynesian sports such as team coconut chopping & husking events, stone-lifting (clean and jerk 140kgs if you don’t mind!) and throwing spears at a coconut on top of a 7 metre pole from a distance of 20 metres, etc. There were also some very spectacular and vibrant displays of traditional Polynesian singing and dancing demonstrating that their culture is very much a thriving one. I never tired of seeing the floral crowns so often worn by the local women – whether it be the local fishmonger or a bride-to-be and her hens. Also loved their quirky phone towers which are disguised as palm trees. We hired a car to visit neighbouring Moorea which often evokes images of bungalows over turquoise water, but for the most part is surprisingly low key. 

For me Moorea was most memorable for “Stingray City”, which is a spot inside the lagoon where local tour operators have been feeding stingrays for years. Of course they are now almost tame and show up whenever humans arrive. Needless to say this is not responsible tourism as it disrupts natural behaviour patterns, so we didn’t feed them, but were curious enough to have a look. As soon as you get in the water the stingrays are there swimming all around you. Up close they are fascinating creatures. Going eyeball to eyeball with a stingray is certainly something I haven’t done before. I felt a very healthy respect for the barbs on their tails!

Pete & Sallie then joined us before we headed across the Huahine, Raiatea & Taha’a. We absolutely loved the quirky, island-style house boats we saw floating around the lagoon and enjoyed some fabulous snorkeling during our time there. I think we found the only bay in French Polynesia that is home to not one, but two rum distilleries. One of these was also a vanilla producer. Apparently the bee that used to fertilise the vanilla flowers is now extinct, so the process only happens with human intervention. Vanilla pods take about nine months to grow, are only able to be harvested between around 4-6am, then need about three months of drying. We were told that apart from a few places in Asia, vanilla is only grown in Taha’a and Madagascar, so I guess that’s why it’s so expensive. Needless to say, we also felt compelled to avail ourselves of the rum tastings. 

We are now in Bora Bora and Helmy has just joined us for the 1300nm passage to Tonga, so we are focusing on what the weather’s doing from here. If the weather Gods smile upon us we may be able to make a couple of stops along the way. We shall see.

We love hearing news from family and friends, so please don’t forget to drop us a line and let us know what’s happening in your world. But please forgive us if we don’t reply right away, as we’ll most likely be in the wilderness for a while from tomorrow.

Cheers,

Kate

Posted in 2019, Pacific, Sailing | 3 Responses

Exploring the Magnificent Marquesas

 

The Marquesas Islands would have to be one of the most remote locations I’ve ever visited. Not too many tourists here! And being untouristed is surely one of the most appealing aspects of the area. When I visit far flung places I can’t help but wonder how people ever came to be living in such a remote location. These islands were settled by Polynesians who most likely came from Samoa and Tonga. Depending upon what you read, it’s thought that the great Polynesian migration happened between 900-1200AD, but it may have been much earlier than that. Boy, those people must have been exceptional seafarers, travelling vast distances in their outrigger canoes along with crop plants, pigs and chickens! Las Marquesas were named by a Spanish sailor in 1595, in honour of his patron, the viceroy of Peru. Captain Cook dropped by in 1774, but it was the French that claimed them after becoming concerned about the growing English presence in the Pacific. The more regular European contact unfortunately led to a massive devastation of the local population due to various diseases. It is estimated that the population was once ten times greater than it is today. The natural beauty of these islands is quite astounding. The islands’ coastlines are often dramatically punctuated by magnificent jagged peaks topping spectacularly soaring mountains, covered in lush vegetation. These islands are largely untamed and undeveloped, which in many respects makes them all the more attractive. There are few roads, and for some people the main mode of transport from village to village is on horseback.

The remoteness has preserved a fairly simple way of life with many people making a living from copra production. Everywhere we go we see copra drying. This is an important part of the local economy. The white coconut meat is hacked out of the husk by hand then spread out to dry in the sun before it is shipped off to Tahiti and thence on to whichever food, pharmaceutical or cosmetic company turns it into one of the everyday products that so many of us use (skin lotions, shampoo & conditioner, soaps and detergents, cooking oil, and medicinal creams). Another island fruit that is cultivated is the noni (Morinda citrifolia), which is easy to grow, abundantly available, and doesn’t require much care and produces fruit all year round. This knobbly fruit about the size of a potato, apparently contains antioxidants and is rich in vitamin C. The juice from the noni has been widely used by the Polynesians as a traditional medicine since ancient times and is said to contain assorted health benefits including: improving skin quality, lowering risk of gout, reducing arthritis pain, boosting immunity, reducing stress, etc. I read that some fermented noni ends up being shipped to Salt Lake City, and turned into Morinda health elixir.

The locals are very friendly and hospitable and we were made to feel very welcome, even with our almost non existent French and complete lack of Marquesan language. At a number of locations we found the locals are very used to having cruising yachties in their bay and a few enterprising ones will put on a meal in their home for a local food experience including “poisson cru” (lime-marinated fresh fish in freshly squeezed coconut milk) and goat curry. The architecture is an interesting mix of Polynesian and European influence, with most locals’ homes being very humble. Everywhere you go, the islanders have a great civic pride. Each village is as neat as a pin, with a complete lack of rubbish in the streets. Not a chocolate wrapper, plastic bottle or chip packet in sight.  We noticed that the tattoo is a very visible part of the Polynesian culture often drawing inspiration from creatures such as sharks, manta rays, fish and birds that have probably had significance since first settlement, but unlike a few of the other yachties we weren’t tempted to get a souvenir.

The southern-most island, Fatu Hiva, is famous for the “Bay of Virgins”. Rumour has it that this bay was originally named by the locals as “Baie des Verges” (Bay of Dicks), due to the large phallic shaped rock formations thrusting skyward on either side. Apparently the missionaries didn’t approve so added an “i” to make the word “Vierges” (Virgins), which they deemed more acceptable. A walk to the top of the hill provided a good view down over the anchorage and along the coast and showed us how lush and green the inland area is. Another lovely anchorage we spent some time in was Baie Hanatefau on the island of Tahuata. It seemed to be a dolphin nursery as every morning tens of dozens of dolphins would turn up, with the little ones leaping out of the water with great exuberance, as if they were learning new tricks. One of the French cruisers, Sil, was very good at getting us all organised. Having someone who spoke one of the local languages was very helpful. During a long walk over to the next village he was able to arrange for the local beekeeper to give us a lift back to the anchorage.

It seems that various adventurers, artists and writers have been drawn to this part of the world and been captivated by the Marquesas over the last couple of centuries. Well before Herman Melville wrote “Moby Dick” he jumped off a whaling ship in 1842, and spent some weeks living with the natives on Nuku Hiva, later writing the book “Typee”, which drew on his experiences during this time. Paul Gaugin was influenced by the tropical colour palette of the landscape and, having made these islands his home, is buried on Hiva Oa. Robert Louis Stevenson also spent time here (perhaps some inspiration for Treasure Island?) and Thor Heyerdahl, famous for the Kon Tiki raft voyage also paid a visit. Baie Hakatea (Daniels Bay) hosted the fourth season of “Survivor” some years ago, but happily it doesn’t seem to have suffered as a result and still looks largely unspoilt. Modern day tourism is very limited, but we did come across the “National Geographic Ocean”, a small eco-friendly cruise ship that has the dual task of monitoring both plastics and plankton in the water. Also the Aranui 5, which is a hybrid cruise ship/supply vessel and a fairly cost-effective way to visit the region.

You don’t have to wander far out of a village to find one of the numerous archeological sites, with large carved stone tikis and ruins of sacred sites, or maybe some petroglyphs. In ancient times Marquesans built their houses on stone platforms called pae pae. You can still see the stone ruins strewn about when walking through the jungle, suggesting the much larger population that once inhabited these  islands. Near such ruins there will usually also be the remains of a tohua, which was an open air public meeting place and centre of community life, social events, etc and perhaps a marae, an open-air temple made from huge stone blocks, used in times gone by for religious ceremonies, burials and occasional human sacrifices.

At Taiohae, Nuku Hiva we welcomed Alan W & Paul H aboard. This port is most memorable for the precarious negotiation required at the dingy dock. Each morning the local fishermen would clean their catch, throwing fish scraps into the harbour, right next to the steps where dingys come in. The ensuing shark frenzy going on right beside the dingy as we were disembarking was just a little nerve-racking to say the least! Having seen a lot of the coastline, we hired a car to be to appreciate the wonderful scenery from the interior.

At Taiohae we finally retired the old mainsail and the #2 jib. We knew that the main wouldn’t get us all the way to New Zealand, but we were pleased that we managed to get an extra 4,000nm out of it. As we were consigning the sails to the dump bin one of the locals very enthusiastically indicated he’d like to have them. The guy looked a bit fierce with his half tattooed face and was very animated. No problem, fine by us. Off he went with the sails to his kayak! Five days later we were a few bays around at Baie Hakatea, chatting with Koa and Taeke, a couple who had an immaculately maintained organic market garden. They were happy to sell us some of their wonderful produce, which we later picked straight from their plants, including fresh mint, basil and turmeric, amongst other things. Paul & I arranged to have a delicious lunch of langoustine (local lobster) prepared by them for us when we came back from our four hour walk to the Vaipo waterfall (which unfortunately wasn’t flowing – but the walk was really lovely, complete with river crossings).  Well, blow me down if Taeke didn’t turn out to be the same guy who’d taken our sails! Great to know that Loki’s old sails are being repurposed to help grow organic fruit and vegetables. Perhaps we should have left him our solar panels also? But that’s another story you’ll need to ask Fitzy about.

We are now back in civilisation again (Tahiti), so enjoying some real wifi at last! We’d love to hear what’s been happening at your end and will be able to respond to any emails you might feel inclined to send. Hope all is good with you.

Cheers,

Kate

Posted in 2019, Pacific, Sailing | 7 Responses

The Galápagos to the Marquesas Islands

As we approached the Galápagos Islands we made sure we were ready for the onslaught of officialdom that was to greet us upon our arrival. We’d already done a hull scrub before we departed Panama and were fairly well prepared. So how many people does it take to clear one yacht into a country anyway? Well, if you’re in the Galápagos Islands it appears the answer is about ten. Apart from Customs, Immigration and Port Police, there’s the doctor (who checks the medical kit for any out of date prescription medication). There’s also a diver who checks the hull for any growth. Plus the Ministry of Agriculture have a quarantine person to check the fridges and galley for any prohibited items (fair enough). You also need to demonstrate that all your rubbish is being sorted for recycling into appropriate categories (they actually check this). Then there was some dude in an army uniform, plus two of the agent’s representatives interpreting and someone from the Marine Park authority. That about covers it. The cockpit was jammed to overflowing, the paperwork was flying and Fitzy even got to use his boat stamp. But the Galapagos is a special place to come to and it is a fairly pristine environment, so we didn’t mind jumping through a few hoops. We subsequently learnt that another yacht was sent away twice to go offshore and clean their hull because it didn’t pass the stringent requirements. 

Once the officialdom is dealt with the next thing that grabs your attention is the sea lions. They’re everywhere! Swimming all around and under the boat. Climbing up onto any vessels that have a stern platform. Lounging around the dingy dock, pier, footpaths. There’s a good water taxi system to get you ashore without having to put your own dingy in the water, which is a good thing, otherwise you’d come back to find it full of sea lions. When you go to bed at night it sounds like there’s a scuba party going on underneath you as you can hear the sea lions cavorting about. Pretty cool really!

We visited the islands of San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz and Isabela, each a little bit different. Being volcanic islands means there’s also interesting things like lava tunnels to explore.  In some places the landscape is dominated by ancient lava flows. We really enjoyed our visit to the area of Los Tuneles (the Tunnels) on Isabela. More like a moonscape, it is home to Galápagos penguins (a bit like our Fairy penguins) and blue footed boobies. We remembered seeing the marvellous blue footed boobies during our previous visit to the Galapagos back in 2000 and never tired of watching the males doing their hilarious mating dance. In order to attract a mate the male struts his stuff, comically high-stepping and flaunting his bright blue feet, as if he’s saying “Look at me! Look at me!” These amazing birds are great fishermen and are known to hit the water from an overhead distance of anywhere between 10-30 metres doing up to 90 kmph. Apparently they have something a bit like a small airbag at the top of their head that reduces the impact as they strike the water. Very clever! The snorkeling at Los Tuneles was also terrific with turtles, golden rays, octopus (our naturalist guide very deftly caught one) and a cave that you could swim into where white-tip reef sharks were happily dozing.

On land one of the main attractions is the Charles Darwin Research Centre, where they have a breeding program for the giant tortoises and iguanas. The centre is really well put together and very informative about Darwin’s work and the Galapagos in general. We learnt later that a proportion of the fees we pay to enter the Galapagos are forwarded to this centre, so it’s good to know we are positively contributing to the work they’re doing there. It was also nice to see the turtle nesting areas at the local beach protected and monitored. I think Darwin would approve of the work still being done here today. Even the local fish market is entertaining in this part of the world, watching the frigate birds trying to swoop in for a feed, whilst the brown pelicans wait patiently for the tasty morsels that are thrown their way. The frigate birds are known thieves, not having oil on the feathers means they can’t fish for their own food so they steal it whenever they can. Unlike other seabirds they are unable to feed below the ocean’s surface, because they would become waterlogged and drown. Instead, they feed on the wing by snatching fish at the surface or by grabbing smaller birds in midair and shaking them until they disgorge their catch. 

But I have to say, some of the best wild life is under the waves. We did a couple of scuba dives as well as some snorkelling, which really makes you appreciate just how special this place is. When we were last here we didn’t scuba dive, so it was great to be able to have the experience this time around. We dived at Kicker Rock, off San Cristobal, a steep wall dive famous for its hammerhead sharks. The nutrient rich waters of the Galápagos are often affected by numerous flows including the Humboldt, the Cromwell, the Equatorial, the Panama and the Counter-Equatorial currents, so visibility often depends upon what the combination of these is doing. We did a fabulous two tank dive with great visibility out at Isla Tortuga, near Isla Isabela and were treated to seeing an Eagle ray, turtles, hammerheads, white-tipped reef sharks and frolicking sea lions. The sea lions might look quite clumsy as they lumber their way up onto the sterns of boats or along the dock or footpath, but it’s not until you see them in their natural underwater environment that you can really appreciate just what graceful, agile creatures they are. We were privileged enough to watch them perform their beautiful underwater ballet for us. To see a quick video of the dive click here:

Since my last post we’ve done some serious miles at sea. Over many months prior we’d done lots of planning for this passage so the boat and we were ready for it. Now it was time to set off on the longest leg of our journey, and the longest that we’ve ever done aboard Loki, or any other vessel for that matter. It is about 3,000 nautical miles (approximately 6,000kms) from the Galápagos Islands to the Marquesas, French Polynesia. We conservatively expected this might take about 3 weeks. During a crossing like this it’s all about managing limited resources, whether they be diesel, water (we make our own using our mini desal plant, but doing so uses diesel), gas or food. We’d already done loads of provisioning in Curaçao, plus another couple of rounds each side of the Panama Canal, but given that we wouldn’t be seeing another supermarket until Tahiti (which is still potentially 3-4 weeks away), I took the opportunity to put more food on board at Santa Cruz. We truly were loaded to the gunwales, but Fitzy had previously done an Atlantic crossing where they hadn’t had enough food to eat. This was not going to happen aboard Loki!

During our time in the Galápagos we again caught up with several yachts we’d seen in Panama. Once you’re through the canal there’s only one direction everyone’s heading. Go west young man! In days of old yachties used to run radio skeds on SSB radio to keep in touch. We tried that for the first few days on several different frequencies without success, so ended up using emails & SMSs via satellite as our primary source of inter-boat and ship-to-shore communications. During this time we were gob-smacked to hear the tragic news from another yacht about how a New Zealand cruising yachtie had been killed in the San Blas, Panama when the robbery of an outboard motor went horribly wrong. His wife and child were also been injured in the attack. This was an area we had enjoyed sailing through just one month earlier. It was a sobering reminder of how things in life can change so drastically in just the blink of an eye. 

But on a happier note, I have to share with you a rather special moment we enjoyed during the passage. Late one morning I was steering the boat when I saw a spray of water off our starboard bow, about 200 metres away. It could have been wave splash, because the two metre seas were fairly lumpy and confused, but I didn’t think so. Sure enough, a minute later there was another – whale breath! By this stage it was now about 3 boat lengths from our bow. But before I had a chance to alter course there was another whale breath on our port bow, about equidistant from the other. Too risky to try and go around either of them, so we just sailed straight through between the two of them. It was then that I saw the calf, nestled in close to its mother in our port side. The whales weren’t swimming they were stationary and remained on either side of Loki, each of them only about 10 metres away from us! The whale on our starboard side gave a brief flick of his tail fluke as we sailed past, almost as if he was giving us a wave. I thought he’d disappear beneath the waves after that, but no, he stayed on the surface in the same spot.  Not sure what they we’re up to. Was the calf nursing? Maybe the Mum had recently given birth? Who could say? We would never normally sail close to whales and every yachtie knows that you NEVER get between a mother and her calf (which luckily we didn’t), but it all happened so quickly. No time to even pick up a camera. We looked back as we sailed on and they were still there, doing whatever secret whale business they were doing, not the least bit perturbed by our presence. It felt like a rather magical encounter, to be sharing a small space in this vast ocean with these great leviathans of the deep. Totally awesome! We were subsequently advised that they may have been “logging” – literally remaining very still and sleeping/resting with their heads slightly turned to one side with one eye open. (Thanks Jan!)

Life on the ocean waves was very much a case of eat, sleep, sail, repeat. A few days out from the Galapagos we settled into a steady rhythm. Day after day we sailed along in 15-22 knots of breeze, mostly on the port quarter, gusting a bit more at times. However, the Ben & Fitzy shirt bromance continued to entertain us at sea and we also managed to catch a couple of fish along the way. Ben just got hairier! We had expected the Pacific to be a very placid ocean, but we had quite a few days where it was a touch more boisterous than anticipated, with confused cross seas over swell. The upside of this was that it made for some fast sailing. Our best 24 hour run was 214nm. (But for the complete stats you’ll need to ask Ben to see his spreadsheet!) Before we knew it we were hoisting the Marquesan courtesy flag and we were there. After sailing 3,012 nautical miles and crossing three time zones we arrived at Atuona, Hiva Oa after just 16 days and 4 hours. Quite a fast trip. The only downside about our arrival was that it brought to a close our time with Kath & Ben aboard Loki. Having joined us in Curaçao they really were in for the long haul, and we’ve enjoyed some fabulous adventures along the way. Over the last three months we’ve sailed more than 5,000nm together, as well as trekking through the Colombian jungle up to the Lost City, transiting the Panama Canal, sailing to and then visiting the Galápagos Islands, and finishing off with one of the greatest blue water cruises on the planet. We’ve really enjoyed our time together and have made some great new memories for when we are all old and doddering with Nana rugs over our knees in the nursing home. Great to have you two along for the voyage, Kath & Ben. Thanks for the pleasure of your company, your good humour and all your efforts to help make our journey go smoothly and safely. We love you guys! 

Our time in the Marquesas is now drawing to a close. Alan & Paul have just joined us, and from here we’ll head for the Tuamotus as soon as the weather looks favourable.

Hope all is good with you. Don’t forget to drop us a line and tell us your news.

Cheers, Kate 

Posted in 2019, Pacific | 6 Responses

The Panama Canal

Around 13,000-14,000 vessels pass through the Panama Canal each year, at a rate of about 35-40 per day. Earlier this month Loki was one of them. The Panama Canal turned 100 years old in 2014, but even after all of this time, it still stands out as one of the true engineering marvels of the world. The initial construction of the Panama Canal dates back 1880-1893 to when it was started by the French, then was completed by the Americans 1904-1914. You can imagine the extraordinary difficulties of building a giant engineering project, in hot, humid and rugged jungle, more than 100 years ago. It is estimated some 22,000 workers perished during the French construction period, and another 5,600 during the American era. Challenging terrain, rampant tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, and even earthquakes all contributed to the death toll.

Here’s a link to a 2 minute time-lapse movie I made of Loki going through the first three Gatun locks:

On the Atlantic side there is a series of three locks that raise vessels 26 metres up to the Gatun Lake. Ships continue through the lake without stopping, but yachts like us anchor overnight. The next day we continued south for 32 nautical miles up to Gamboa, where the Culebra Cut begins. Here a channel has been excavated through rock, 8 miles long, 150 metres wide and about 20 metres deep. At the end of this channel are the Pedro Miguel & Miraflores Locks that lower us 9.4 metres and 16 metres, respectively. The canal locks are gravity fed by the Gatun, Alajuela and Miraflores Lakes. A local taxi driver told me that it basically rains for 7 months of the year during the rainy season, so water isn’t a problem.

Only Panama Canal Pilots working with the Panama Canal Authority are able to captain a ship through the Panama Canal. When a ship enters the canal, they are boarded by a pilot, who has full control over the boat until it exits the canal. All yachts have an official Panama Canal advisor aboard, as did we. The advisors have other jobs they do for the Canal authority, like tug boat captains, dredge boat captains and launch skippers, so they know the vagaries of the canal well, which makes for a less stressful transit. Our first advisor was also called Adrian and made us feel very at ease. It was interesting doing a night transit and fascinating watching the water pour into the locks at the rate of a million gallons a minute!

The second day was a much longer day. A different canal advisor arrived and we enjoyed a pleasant motor through the middle section of the canal before it was time to nest up again for the second set of locks.

The sheer enormity of the lock infrastructure is quite awesome. Each lock chamber has two doors, 20 metres wide, two metres thick and 14-25 metres high, operating on massive hinges powered by electric motors recessed within the lock walls. The gates are hollow and buoyant, much like the hull of a ship, and are so well balanced that two 25 hp motors are enough to move each gate leaf. If one motor fails, the other can still operate the gate at reduced speed. Each gate has two leaves which close to a “V” shape with the point upstream. The force of water from the higher side pushes the ends of the gates together firmly. The gates can be opened only when the water level on both sides is equal.

Ships are guided by electric towing locomotives, known as mules (named after the animals traditionally used to cross the isthmus of Panama). These mules are used for side-to-side and braking control in the locks, which are narrow relative to modern-day ships. Forward motion into and through the locks is actually provided by the ship’s engines and not the mules. A ship approaching the locks first pulls up to the guide wall, which is an extension of the centre wall of the locks, where it is taken under control by the mules on the wall before proceeding into the lock. As it moves forward, additional lines are taken to mules on the other wall. Smaller vessels, such as private yachts (like us), are taken as handline transits, where mooring lines to the lock walls are handled manually by line handlers on the vessels and the docks. Yachts like us mostly go through “nested” or rafted up with two other yachts, behind or in front of a ship. We were very happy to be the middle yacht in the “nest”, which meant that we two very large fenders (the other yachts) between us and the lock walls. There are some horror stories about yachts spinning out of control in the locks. We heard of a 62 foot yacht that recently completed much of a lock transit backwards!

Since its original construction the canal has been expanded with another set of deeper, wider locks to accommodate the mega “Panamax” vessels which can carry 14,000-18,000 20-foot containers. We heard that the highest transit fee for large ships in a hurry can be as much as $1million for just one transit. On the second day of our transit we noticed that only one side of the dual locks system was being used. We were advised that regrettably there had been a fatality just a short time earlier that day when a bob-cat driver had somehow ended up in the lock, bob-cat and all. It’s never a good thing when a person doesn’t return home after going to work, and it was a timely reminder of how things can sometimes go so very horribly wrong. But luckily for us, before we knew it we were safely into the Pacific.

We couldn’t resist the temptation to buy Panama hats in Panama City. The boys had lots of fun trying on assorted styles. After doing a final round of provisioning and getting the boat fumigated (mandatory for going to the Galapgos) it was time to venture south. We felt very blessed to be greeted by a whale on our first day in Pacific.

We thought we were going to the Galapgos Islands to experience the wildlife. It turns out the wildlife decided to come and find us about 250nm out from the islands. There’s something quite magical about sailing along in the ocean with a couple boobies on your bow! They weren’t the least bit concerned by the plastic snake we had positioned there. We were escorted by the red-footed variety for many, many miles, until it became all too much for Fitzy with eight hitch-hikers taking up residence and he started chasing them away.

Along the way to the Galapagos we achieved another important milestone, crossing the equator under our own steam. The next day we were treated to a formal Equatorial Crossing Ceremony by King Neptune’s official representative, none other than Kath Solly (being the only Shellback on board who had previously crossed the equator in the Indian Ocean). For us three remaining pollywogs, we had to swear allegiance to King Neptune, etc, to become duly anointed as Shellbacks, complete with official certificates! Much fun was had by all. Thanks Kath for all the effort you put in.

We are now in the Galapagos and looking forward to exploring these enchanted islands. After we leave here we will be at sea for about 3 weeks on our way to the Marquesas, so don’t forget to leave a comment or drop us an email, as we’d love to hear from you. We are wondering what’s been happening in your world?

Happy Easter. Hope all is good at your end.

Hasta la vista,

Kate

 

With acknowledgements to:

http://panamaforbeginners.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Panama_Canal

https://panamacanalfacts.com/history/

https://www.history.com/news/7-fascinating-facts-about-the-panama-canal

 

Posted in 2019, Pacific | 1 Response

Canal Transit Update

We’ve been advised that our Canal Advisor/Pilot (every boat must have one) won’t be boarding us until 17:30 hours. By the time we get ourselves nested with the other yachts (there are usually three rafted together) I think that’ll put us at the entrance to the first locks about an hour later, at around 9:30am Australian time. If we’re later than that we may well be going through in the dark. Hopefully we’ll go through the Miraflores locks in daylight tomorrow.

Ciao,

Kate

Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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