The Pacific Diaries

The Panama Canal

04 April 2005

La Novia is in the Pacific. Our transit through the Panama Canal was an exciting and emotional experience after such a long time waiting for this moment.

We rode our luck was all the way through from Gatun locks (Colon, Atlantic side) to Balboa, the Pacific (42 miles, 3 locks up and 3 locks down). We Took our pilot on board on Sunday evening about 1 1/2 hours before our scheduled slot in the Gatun Locks and he realised that there was enough room for us behind a 600′ bulk carrier in an earlier slot if we could get there fast enough.

We hared up there and claimed our place in time to watch the bulk carrier hash up its entry to the lock completely and get pinned side on to the corner of the central pier! Their pilot blamed the tug boat captain for the fiasco who promptly left in a huff and by the time they had rustled up another tug boat to drag them off the pier the whole evening’s schedule had gone down the khazi. Our pilot gave us a commentary on the unfolding humiliation, radiating the complacent pleasure of a man watching a senior colleague having a disastrous day at the office. We entered the first chamber at 9.10pm having jumped the queue, but the other yachts that we had been scheduled with had to endure another 2 hours wait before they could begin.

George stayed awake during the whole uplocking and was totally gripped.  The gates were just amazing as they closed behind us. We rode centre chamber (on our own) all the way through, spending the night in the Gatun Lake with 4 extra line handlers on board.

We awoke to the dawn chorus of Howler Monkeys(sounded like barking or howling dogs). We down-locked with no incidents and threw a coin each into the Pacific as we passed under the Bridge of The Americas. We berthed at the newly opened Flaminco Marina and started major provisioning for the Pacific cruise to New Zealand.

Welcome to Central America… About 2/3 of the main pier meant for megayachts has just collapsed and fallen into the drink.

Well mostly into the drink anyway. One of the huge steel pilings supporting it fell onto a big catamaran which turns out to belong to the marina ’s owners. There is a God.

If this was England, it would be raining QS’s and lawyers by now but here nobody seems either surprised or bothered by this turn of events, even though the marina is only 6 months old.

Of Pirates & Piffle

18 April 2005

Before we left England, everyone wanted to talk to us about Pirates. This was our chance to meet them. The websites and bars were full of Piracy  Talk. Two years ago a Japanese yacht SY Yume Maru was boarded on this trip and robbed, while taking a route south of Malpelo Island which is rather too close to the Columbian coast for my taste.
Since then, a significant number of other boats have reported outrunning marauders at speeds of 8-9 knots at diverse points spread around the possible routes to the Galapagos, but nobody else has been boarded. Less than 5% of the yachts leaving Panama can do 8-9 knots. I can’t help feeling that these are statistically rather unlucky pirates.
I’m also quite sure that the odds of my carrying weapons and then fighting a successful gunbattle with pirates are far lower than the odds of my children finding any weapons on board, however well hidden, and killing each other with them in a tragic accident. No guns on La Novia then.

Two American yachts do not share my opinion and are prepared for the worst with proper guns and several years back issues of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Presumably they intend to read these on the lavatory while repeating a mantra of “There are no Friendly Civilians.” The fact that the only yachties ever killed by pirates or boarders have always been armed does not seem to cut any ice with them.

The trip to the Galapagos was pretty much a motor boat experience. No wind to speak of but we fared better than some. One of our friends managed to hit an uncharted and unlit weather buoy with no radar signature one night. How unlucky is that in an ocean this size? No damage except to paintwork and pride. And what of the Pirate Situation?

Well, 3 of our group of 6 boats had encounters that read very like the paranoia parables on the websites. Ohana found a fishing boat manouevring round behind them, but called them up in Spanish and found out that they had just laid a long line and were trying to judge if Ohana were likely to foul it. Sea Fever were tracked down by a fishing boat who turned out to want to scrounge a couple of tins of Coca Cola once communication was established. As for us, 400 miles short of the Galapagos, the wind fell away around midnight just in time for us to be harassed by a couple of large bored Russian fishing boats.

After 48 hours of total solitude, we encountered 2 contacts in 1 hour both on a collision vector. Both of them had the same radio technique too. When we called up to ask why they changed course to maintain the collision bearing each time we changed course to avoid them, they replied with a mixture of Russian and mongoloid noises. It must be something they teach them in maritime academy in Russia.

We didn’t want to turn behind them in case they were laying a longline, so eventually we had to point down onto a beam reach to generate enough boat speed to cross safely ahead of them. Pirates? or just Russian fishermen having fun?

We were obviously the lucky ones as 2 more ‘pirate escapes’ are reported at the same time as our passage. If the media don’t stop stoking this fire, it can only be a matter of time before some cretin shoots a fisherman who is trying to score a can of coke.