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,



With acknowledgements to:


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.



Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment

Farewell Atlantic & Caribbean

So, I have a passport therefore I can travel internationally, right? Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had the freedom to pretty much travel wherever and whenever I’ve wanted to, depending upon what time and budget allowed. We recently came face to face with a very different reality for so many people around the world. We arrived with our yacht at Obaldia, Panama, which is very close to the border with Colombia. It was here we planned to clear into the country and cruise nor’ west along the coast. Outside the Immigration office there were about thirty or so people making quite a ruckous, many speaking loudly in Spanish. After we’d completed our formalities I spoke with a couple of the girls who told me they had come from Cuba and that the intention of their group was to join “the caravan” going to the USA. If I understood them correctly, they said they had flown to Venezuela, crossed overland into Colombia, then taken a boat around to Panama. Their group included Haitians, Venuzuelans, Africans, Surinamians, etc. The poor young guy at Immigration, who spoke quite good English, explained that he was not authorised to admit them into Panama. So these people were in immigration limbo. We then understood why there was such a visible military presence, with clusters of army guys about the place and in the Immigration office. Then we noticed the tents dotted along the shore, which suggested these people were planning to settle in for the long haul. How bad must it be in the place where you live, that you think it’s better to try and travel through umpteen different countries (often walking vast distances), to get to another country that has already said they won’t accept you? They looked like normal, rational people, and not just a pack of ratbags. I would have loved to have been able to spend some more time with them, to gain an understanding of their situation, but that didn’t seem appropriate under the gaze of the gun-toting army guys. We wished them good luck as we parted, but the utter futility of their predicament was not lost on us. It was a timely reminder for us that we are indeed very privileged to be doing what we are doing.



Having completed Panamanian Customs, Immigration, Port Police, National Police and obtaining a Cruising Permit, we were now free to travel along the coastal area known locally as the Guna Yala, or San Blas islands. There are 365 islands, of which only 49 are inhabited. The local indigenous people still lead a fairly traditional life, tending their vegetable gardens and doing a bit of fishing. The kids need to leave the islands to go to secondary school, but we did see older kids playing soccer and volleyball, so evidently some do return. Coconuts are an important part of their economy and are exported to Colombia for use in gelatin, biscuits, sweets and shampoo, amongst other things. But the area is most famous for the “molas” produced by the women. These cloths are made from layers of coloured fabric from which patterns are cut out then the remaining areas are stitched together onto the base layer. Whilst the men have adopted the western form of dress, molas are incorporated into the colourful traditional clothing which is very proudly worn by the local women. Kath and I couldn’t resist the temptation to purchase some small momentos of our visit to the area. Meanwhile, Ben amused himself admiring the local wooden boats.

The villages we visited were, for the most part, very neat and orderly. However it saddened us greatly to see the scourge of plastic waste in some coastal areas. This is not waste generated by the village, but has probably travelled many miles at sea before being washed up on their shoreline. When are humans ever going to wake up to the massive global problem that is plastic? But I have to say, the biggest bit of junk we saw was a sorry and salient reminder of the boat-munching reefs that abound in this part of the world, a yacht skeleton washed up on the shore, the result of someone’s unfortunate misadventure about three years ago. We felt really bad for the couple that we spoke to who now have to put up with this wreck sitting in their backyard. Aren’t insurance companies meant to clean up mess like this?


After visiting some of the villages we enjoyed some chillaxing time in the outer uninhabited cays. The locals have got it sussed. Realising that yachties like a good feed they zoom about in their wooden canoes amongst the various anchorages. I kid you not, the first lobsters were on board before we’d even finished anchoring. They were still kicking and at US$4 a kilo an absolute bargain! The fresh fish the next day were very nice too.


It was then time to make our way towards the Panama Canal. This is one very busy waterway, with shipping going in all directions. We’ve spent the last week and a half at Shelter Bay Marina getting ready to transit the Canal. We’re about an hour from Colon, stuck out on the edge of the jungle, but the marina puts on daily buses to a shopping centre so it’s relatively convenient. As I sit here writing this I can hear the howler monkeys howling nearby. We’ve undertaken various maintenance tasks, along with some more provisioning. The new mainsail has been hoisted and happily fits well. Upon our arrival in Curacao we discovered our wind instruments and bow thruster (both fairly essential items) had decided to stop working properly. Bummer! Much to our relief, the parts we ordered have finally arrived here at Shelter Bay, because once we’re through the canal we really will be of “no fixed address” for some months. We’ve rented the requisite large fenders & extra long lines, as well as an additional line handler for the transit (every vessel must have four). Loki has now been measured and we have our official Panama Canal Ship ID number. We are now ready for the Pacific! Amongst all this we also made sure we had some time out to celebrate Kath’s birthday last Tuesday and took a nice walk to an old Spanish fort nearby. Happy birthday Kath!


A few days ago Fitzy and I had a sneak canal transit preview, joining our Danish friends on “North Star” for their transit. Thanks for the opportunity Marie & Kim! We’ve heard a few stories about the odd yacht losing control in the locks. With a fill rate of a million gallons a minute there’s a shipload of water moving about, so it’s essential to be on your toes. It was good to have first-hand experience of how it all works and what to expect when we take Loki through.



So tomorrow the adventure continues. It will be “hasta luego Atlantic Ocean, hello Pacific”. All very exciting really! We should be at the Gatun locks around 3pm Sunday our time (7am Monday morning in Australia), so if you check out the web cams at you might even see us going through. We then anchor overnight in the Gatun Lakes before continuing the canal transit the next day. I’m not sure what time we’ll get to Miraflores locks on Monday, as there are many variables, but we could be there at a similar time, or a bit later. In the first set of locks we’ll probably have a big ship in front of us, but at Miraflores the yachts go first.

We’ll be in Panama City for a few days before heading off to the Galapagos, so don’t forget to drop us an email and tell us what’s happening in your world. It may be the last time we’ll have internet for a while, but hopefully I’ll be able to post about our Canal transit. See you next on the other side!

Hasta pronto!




Posted in 2019, Caribbean | 2 Responses

Lost Sails and Lost Cities

As most people know, an integral part of a sailing vessel is the sails. In the right conditions we sail faster than we motor, plus the motion of the boat is far more comfortable. Knowing that our old mainsail was 10 years old and had done some serious miles, we decided to bite the bullet and have a new one made & shipped to the boat in Curaçao. It was due to be there mid January, about one month before we arrived. But the best laid plans of mice and men don’t always work out. We’ll never know the full story, but it seems our sail may have swapped containers in Busan, Korea, then it decided to have a little holiday in Panama, because the container it was in had to be filled up. Then it arrived in time for a Customs strike in Curaçao. After phoning the receiving shipping agents office daily, visiting them several times and eventually jumping up and down a bit, in the end the only thing that got us our sail was having the help of the guy who owned the marina, who knew people in the shipping agency business. We still have no idea why they wouldn’t release it when the paperwork was all “Green” and good to go. Thanks Harry! With Loki back in the water and the new sail on board it was time to say goodbye to Curacao.

We had an uneventful three day sail from Curacao to Cartagena, Colombia, sailing straight past Santa Marta due to the perpetually windy conditions off the coast there. We all settled in well to being back on the water after being on land for a couple of weeks.

The old town of Cartagena, which is full of colour, is bound by 13 kilometres of old stone walls that have protected the city from marauding pirates for centuries. It’s lovely to just wander about taking in the sights and sounds and soaking up the atmosphere.

We then bused back up the coast to Santa Marta for our 4 day trek to “The Lost City”. Our intrepid group of twelve consisted of the four of us plus another German couple around our age, a group of four young Germans, an Italian girl and a French guy, all delightful twenty-somethings. We were accompanied by our local guide, Wilson, who has been guiding on this track for 31 years and Sergio, our translator. It certainly enhanced our experience to have such lively fellow travellers and have the opportunity to learn about the area and its people from such a seasoned campaigner as Wilson.

We carried backpacks with whatever clothing we wanted for the four days. At the start we trekked through open country where we saw large areas of barren, cleared hillsides. This, we were told is the result of the poisoning of the illegal cocaine crops that were grown here in the past. Originally the local farmers had grown bananas and avocados. But then the drug barons came along and introduced marijuana, which was a more lucrative crop, followed by the coca plant (for cocaine) which was even more lucrative, as it could be harvested four times a year. Thankfully nowadays the farmers grow coffee and cacao (for chocolate). As the hours went by we got deeper into the jungle. About four hours later we arrived at our first camp. It was like a scene straight out of the Netflix series “Narcos”. We could have been in a Colombian drug cartel’s jungle hideaway. The accommodation is very basic, with bunk beds completely encased in mosquito netting. With an early start and 8 hours of trekking the next day, an early night was had by all. The next morning we had to be up at 5:20am (that wasn’t in the brochure!) I awoke to small light beams (from people’s torches) silhouetting slow-moving forms. As people fumbled around in the dark it was reminiscent of a scene from a weird sci-fi movie where zombie creatures emerge from their sleeping pods.

The second day is most memorable for the killer hill, which was about an hour straight up, after our lunch stop. We didn’t disgrace ourselves though and kept up with the youngsters. In fact chatting across the dinner table Marc, the young German guy asked Ben: “Do you guys do much trekking?” to which he responded “every so often” and the German replied: “Gee! You are in good condition!” Day 3 we did the most kilometres and Camp 3 put us within striking distance of our goal, “The Lost City”, just another 1160 steps after breakfast next day and we’d be there! Being able to take a refreshing swim in the river at the end of a long day was an added bonus.

The local indigenous people are the descendants of the Tayrona, who built the Lost City around 600AD. You see them about as you trek through the Sierra Nevada, but they don’t make much eye contact, live a very basic life and eschew most things Western. Wilson is very knowledgeable of their customs and explained how they strip plant leaves to make thread to weave their bags. Also how they use various plants to naturally colour the thread.

At the start of the trek we’d been advised to make sure we didn’t leave our backpacks open and to check shoes and clothing for tarantulas and scorpions, but that was the least of my worries. I arrived at Camp 3 having been bitten on the fanny by a tick! Highly embarrassing! I don’t know much about ticks, but I sort of knew that getting rid of them isn’t straight forward. The sneaky little buggers bore head first into your flesh. They spiral their way in, so you can’t just pull them out by hand. As luck would have it there was a young French surgeon in one of the other groups, who actually had a tick removing device! What luck! He valiantly got rid of the little blighter, ably assisted by nurse Kath holding the torch. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “tick-ity-boo”. (No, there are no photos of the tick incident!)(Postscript: not wanting to be out done, Ben discovered he also had a tick invader only this morning. Our Immigration agent was visiting our boat at the time, so she very helpfully arranged for a doctor to come down and extract it for him).

The Tayrona built their settlements with multiple stone terrace bases, upon which their thatched wooden houses sat. When someone died, they were buried under their house, along with their gold, and the house was abandoned by the family. It was this gold that the grave robbers were looking for in 1975 when the Lost City was rediscovered. Shortly after our arrival we were greeted by the local Shaman, who welcomed us and gave us his blessing. Whilst the indigenous people don’t embrace Western ways they are pragmatic enough to realise that they also benefit from the tourist dollar.

Back in 2002 eight tourists were kidnapped by guerrillas during a trek to the Lost City (that bit definitely wasn’t in the brochure). So these day there is a strong presence of Colombian soldiers along the way, around 70 along the route we were told. Based near many of our stops they were highly visible. Obviously the Colombian government appreciates the importance of the tourist dollar. The hike was at times challenging, but well worth the effort. We covered approximately 62 kms, through varied terrain with boot-sucking, clay-like mud, slippery rocks, river crossings, grinding uphill ascents and steep knee-jarring descents. As with so many things in life, it’s as much about the journey as it is about the destination, as well as the people you share it with along the way. So glad we made the effort to do this!

Early tomorrow morning we’ll be heading off for the San Blas islands in Panama. Some of these islands are inhabited by indigenous people, so should be a very interesting, and we’re told idyllic place to visit.

Hope all is good at your end.



Posted in 2019, Caribbean, Uncategorized | 7 Responses

Time for a Change of Season

The last stage of our travels this season has taken us from the Eastern Caribbean to the ABCs (as the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are known). These are very parched, arid islands with eastern coasts lashed by Atlantic seas and about the only thing that grows here in abundance is cactus. So much so that they even build their fences from cacti. In Bonaire we then said farewell to Dean and Sue after an enjoyable 430nm crossing from Bequia. Thanks guys!

We’d heard Bonaire offers some of the best SCUBA diving in the Caribbean (if not worldwide), but it wasn’t until we got there that we realised why it’s such a diving Mecca. This is the home of DIY shore diving. The whole island is just one gigantic dive site. In 1962 Captain Don Stewart arrived from California, fell in love with the place and spent the next 50 years both diving on and protecting the reef. His early dive gear is on display at one of the local museums. Complete with his low-tech depth gauge – a red ribbon! Water is much denser than air which means light gets absorbed more quickly. The longest wavelengths of light are absorbed first, so the colour red nearly disappears at around 5 metres. I guess he didn’t venture too deep. Many of the 90-odd dive sites were marked and named by him. Most are accessible straight off the shore. All you need to go diving is to rent a pick-up truck, pick up some dive bottles (with your PADI card), pick a dive site and just wade in. For the sites that aren’t accessible by car, you can do an organised boat dive with one of the many dive operators. Or for the sites close to the marina you just jump in your dingy and tie up to the dive site mooring buoy. Bonaire is so well set up for diving, and the underwater world is quite spectacular. One of the more novel sites we explored was the salt pier. No, that’s not me – the girl at the back of truck. (Image credit to Sanne Wesselman). I pinched a couple of images from the web to give you an idea. (Underwater salt pier image credits also to Jennifer Penner & Angie Orth). The pylons there are enormous and the fish life incredible. We hadn’t done any independent diving before Bonaire so it was good to hone some of our newly acquired advanced diving skills. In Italy there’s the passegiatta, where strolling couples acknowledge each other as they pass on the street. In Bonaire it’s a little underwater wave to the couple scuba-ing towards you. Weird! But depending on the dive site you may be the only ones down there and you often have that part of the reef all to yourselves. Just you and the fish. So many fish! At times I felt a bit like I was in that Monty Python sketch, you know, the one where all the fish are swimming past each other saying “Morning!”, “Morning!”, “Morning!” Some of the fish swim straight at you, not the least bit concerned by the bubble blowing monsters.

We were also intrigued to see the underwater coral nurseries that have been planted and subsequently found an informative exhibition on it at the local museum. I grabbed a couple of stills from the videos. Even though the diving is spectacular, apparently all is not well. The staghorn and elkhorn corals that once offered front line protection to the reefs have been steadily collapsing since the 1980s due to bleaching, diseases, deteriorating water quality and overfishing. There is now a very effective coral conservation push to actively restore the reefs. A couple of people, including another yachtie who is a marine biologist, mentioned the movie “Chasing Coral” which amongst other things is about the drastic bleaching occurring on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We’ve not yet seen it, but both people told us when we do we’ll cry.

Just near the salt pier is the salt mine, that still operates today. The large snowy salt piles stand out starkly against the pink salt ponds and blue sky. The pink colour comes from a micro-organism that thrives in high salinity brine, whose cell membranes contain carotenoid pigments. These “brine shrimp” are a favourite food of the local flamingoes, giving them their brilliant pink plumage. During the slave trade days up to six slaves would be housed in tiny huts, that you or I couldn’t even stand up in, to work in this salt mine. At the weekend they’d then walk for seven hours to the other end of the island to visit their families and collect provisions before heading back to the salt mine. Very tough indeed.

As we’ve travelled throughout the Caribbean I’ve be been surprised by how little commentary/acknowledgement/information there is about the slave trade, given it provided the labour that sustained most of these islands in their early days of development. Here and there have been a few museums, with disturbing images and/or artefacts that tell a small part of the story. The museum at Bonaire has a small section which refers to the more than 12 million slaves who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean, in over 35,000 voyages, to provide labour for the various types of plantations (sugar, cotton, coffee, cocoa and tobacco). The images of slave ships layouts are nothing short of horrendous. It’s said that these were what galvanised the movement to abolish slavery. Although slavery may not exist today, there sure is a heck of a lot of inequality around these parts. Not surprising then that crime is a very real problem.

We reached our final destination a couple of weeks ago after sailing through the openable bridge at Willemstad, Curaçao. This is a town with a definite European feel with quirky street art and colourful, brightly painted buildings. It also feels a lot more like South America too, which is not surprising given that Venezuela is only 35 nautical miles away. There’s a lively waterfront fruit, veg and fish market, where the Venezuelans who’ve sailed across sell their fresh produce.

We managed to get in a dive here also and noticed the artificial coral reef balls. Again, reef renourishment is been actively undertaken here. Afterwards we were somewhat entertained by the local “wild” pigs turning up on the beach. Clearly not very wild!

In Curaçao there are a number of massive gated communities. I guess they’re full of people who are scared of what’s on the outside. Hmmm. I wonder if that’s really going to help solve any problems long term. Doesn’t that just create an even greater sense of disenfranchisement to the people on the outside? Isn’t poverty yet another form of inequality? The Caribbean is a part of the world which invokes most people’s idea of absolute paradise. Soft winds, blue skies, gentle waves on long white sandy beaches fringed with swaying palm trees. Beach shacks selling rum punches and friendly, happy people. Sure, when you travel through here, you see some of that. But there is another side to what’s going in many of these “idyllic” places. It is also the reality of the women washing their laundry in the river, who gave us a friendly wave when we were walking across Union Island. Just up the road from there we chatted to some locals who were limin’ (hanging out) at the local. Really friendly people, happy to chat, interested in where we were from and where we were going. Then there are the store fronts that look more like metal cages. Clearly there are areas you simply wouldn’t venture out to at night. We found the Caribbean to be a really mixed bag. And you just can’t ignore the stark disparity you see here on a daily basis. Hurricanes continue to keep them behind the eight ball also. In some places we’ve encountered plenty of enterprising locals who’ve worked out how to capitalise on the steady stream of passing yachties, offering bread, ice, island tours or laundry services. But of all the thousands of yachts cruising around these waters, we didn’t see too many black people sailing around in their vessels (maybe one).

We’ve now hauled Loki out of the water – at midnight because we needed all of the high spring tide. The cleaning and packing up has been done and it’s almost time to start heading home. We’re looking forward to catching up with friends and family upon our return, but suspect the weather might take a bit of getting used to!

Ciao for now,


Posted in 2018, Caribbean, Uncategorized | 2 Responses
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