Our Caribbean passage continued through the Yucatan Passage and on into the Straits of Florida, somewhat equidistant between Cuba and a line off the Florida keys. The Scrabble Games on board were getting quite hard fought and we were enjoying the Admiral’s legendary cuisine and working though the days and nights on our watches. But, ahead, we were warned over the satellite email by Jo and Dan that the winds were going to increase substantially; around midnight Tuesday over 30 knots. We weren’t going to be allowed to get to Florida without a reminder of the force of nature. Right on cue, the seas built and just before my watch (000 to 0300) we had to reduce speed and fall off to the North. It was an uncomfortable night; good job that I had stowed the rods and fishing gear and we had checked again for any loose items that may fly around – apart from ourselves that is. As the wind climbed into the low thirties and the waves built to around 12 feet we plotted another course to the nearest point of shelter which would be near Fort Jefferson, Garden Key. By mid-morning we had decisions to make. Option A would be to arrive Garden Key around nightfall, anchor and then spend most of the next day getting to Key West. Option B would be press on towards Key West, enter the West Channel behind the reef for protection and arrive Key West around 2200 and anchor off Fleming Key in the dark. Since we considered that we were probably through the worst of the conditions we went for Option B. Of course it was only the humans that were interested in getting to calmer waters, Last Mango just chugged along quite happily, up one wave and down the next, churning a good solid wake through everything the sea put in front of her. Finally we closed on the lights of Key West and headed into the mooring field. Some difficulty finding decent space among the thronged yachts – some unlit – and also some difficulty getting holding on the coral and sand; finally the hook was securely down and tugged and we were at rest after our six day passage. In the morning we headed for our slip in the heart of Key West, we had to squeeze our 18 foot beam between two pairs of wooden pilings which were 19 feet apart ………… snug I think you would call it. Certainly sent the neighbors scrambling for their fenders. With our quarantine flag up we tried calling the CBP 0800 number for a while before heading in person firstly to the Federal Building and then a short taxi to the immigration folks at the airport for our check in and Cruising License. And there was the inspection, curiously enough the instruction is for these officers is to remove most of our fresh food. I cannot imagine how threatening French Brie, a Chilean apple, a Mexican egg, or a Panamanian onion would be to the agriculture of the United States, but anyway the remaining things we had in the fridge are now heading for controlled incineration. But then, we were in! Another One-Year Cruising License and the liberty to explore a new coast, it should be great entertainment. And talking of the latter, we headed into Key West to marvel at the quaint Caribbean town of Key West and its incredibly lively bars, restaurants, and attractions. Here is the report: The ale at Kelly’s was just fine, especially the third one. The food at Fogarty’s was really excellent value. The Steve Nicks’ – style guitar/singer at the Bull was terrific. The dueling piano player/singers at Pete’s were brilliant. And the blues at the next bar along were fantastic. The quality of the live entertainment was just excellent, I just might need to get the guitar out of the closet where it has endured a lonely passage. And it was good to be on land……….well, at least for a short time. We spend one night in Key West and then day-hop up the coast towards West Palm Beach. Soon our crew will be heading home and we can make some plans, maybe.
Monday, March 26, 2012
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
First, on the left, Last Mango heading out into the Gulf of Tehuantepec, getting across just in front of a 50-knot T-Pecker storm.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Just relating the story of our transit………………..on an “as I remember it basis”……………..our agent had asked that we be waiting off channel buoy 6 at 1500 but Flamenco Signal re-confirmed that it would be 1615. Oh well, that was just a bit more hanging around. We had spent the morning tying our salubrious plastic-covered tyres around the boat so that we would be able to fend off anything that might threaten the paintwork. And we also practiced catching and tying monkey-fisted lines and flaked our long canal lines so that we could hold center chamber. We headed out to the channel area, noting that the number of AIS targets around us was over 250. Around 1630 the pilot launch appeared and came alongside. Hand line transits Speculator, Magna Carta and ourselves soon had transit advisor/pilots aboard – our was a very pleasant young man, Amado. He completes one transit a day on his work days. We then ran up the channel towards the Miraflores Locks arriving at 1750; we slowed down to let a freighter – the 500 ft Crown Garnet - pass and go into the West lock in front of us. For the transit we lost our identity and we three motor yachts became 25 Charlie, 25 Daniel and 25 Echo. North bounds are odd numbers and South bounds even. 25D was being rather difficult at every stage – rather like a horse refusing to go into the gate – and insisted that she go center chamber on her own, rather than being the center nest to 25 Charlie and 25 Echo. Crown Garnet went in first, then 25 Charlie caught the hand lines and tied to the port wall, then we came alongside and rafted up – so we had our own personal 80’ fender between us and the wall, how useful! 25 Daniel came in behind us. Gates closed and the chamber was filling, some extreme turbulence and 25 Charlie was using motor and thruster to try to get away from the wall, or at least to minimize the crush on his port fenders. While all this was happening we were emailing with my sister in Australia who was monitoring Last Mango on the live webcam – particularly since we have on board my Dad and brother Chris as crew on this trip. After we had been lifted, the doors opened; we untied from 25 Charlie and moved through the turbulent prop wash from the freighter up to the next lock for the same procedure. Of course it was now past nightfall. This time 25 Charlie kept shy of the wall and used more or less constant motor/thruster to power away from the concrete. Soon we were again on our way chasing the freighter up the Miraflores Lake and into the single Pedro Miguel lock. Slightly different procedure, 25 Charlie tied to the starboard wall so we had to do some rapid switching of fenders from starboard to port. I can tell you that having the six of us on board, plus advisor, was essential; it was busy. After Pedro Miguel we had a 24 mile run through the Culebra Cut, the Chagres River and the Gatun Lake to the Gatun Locks. All of 25 transit raced off ahead of us since we were slowest – although we maintained our top speed of 9.1 knots or so. 25 Daniel (note that the canal have their own substitute for Delta) meanwhile were whingeing about the lateness of the hour and wondered if they could anchor in the Lake while they still had some Bloody Mary Mix left………………and they also had asked most courteously if they could pass on our starboard side in the narrow Culebra Cut. After moving over they then came up and passed on the port side. Interesting! After racing up the Gatun Lake in the dark we could see on the AIS that our locking companions were ready to enter the downward chambers and half an hour in front……………champing at the bit to get through and out; but the Canal told them to wait for us. This time we hand liners were in front of the freighter; it was getting even more rehearsed by this stage; we swiftly got into the first lock, then the second and finally the third. Those gates opened and we were through and in the Caribbean; just after midnight. A pretty rapid transit we thought, there was no hanging around. By 0100 we were anchored off the flats near Colon, we would head into Shelter Bay Marina in the morning.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Well the week has certainly been busy here in Panama. We got temporarily back into “dirt-dwelling” (cruiser speak) and started organizing ourselves for our next passage. I will post here where we went and what we got up to in the City so that any other cruisers can have the benefit of whatever local knowledge we have; it might be useful. Firstly there is the business of trying to get a slip. There is one large marina on the Pacific side which is Flamenco; it is extremely busy and in spite of calling every day they had no room. The small marina here is La Playita; it is right next to Naos Island, near the Taboga Ferry and the Smithsonian Punta Culebra Park – great for sloth watching late in the afternoon. After extensive networking every day at La Playita’s office, we got a slip, which was useful for provisioning and getting on and off the boat. Our provisioning started at the Riba Smith supermarket at Multi-Plaza: that is the mall with the expensive designer stores. R-S is the most upmarket super here and better than either El Rey or Super 99. We then went on to Mega Depot, on Transistmica, which is our favorite warehouse store – no membership required. We didn’t have time to get to the large public market (Mercado de Abastos) for fruit and vegetables, that is highly recommended for lots of fresh produce. Our final topping up of fresh food was at the Transistmica branch of Riba Smith – excellent place for fruit and vegetables, shrimp, and other produce. Oh and we had a few visits to the huge mall here which is Albrook – the place where the whole region comes to shop. Panama is very busy, the economy grew by 10.6% last year. The Yamaha service people here are Tesa and they have a place down the Amador Causeway but weren’t too good at returning calls. A useful place is the Balboa Yacht Club – they have mooring balls and a launch service – that was our back-up plan if we could not get a slip. Now a word about our agent, Tina McBride, and her assistant Elias. They have been superb, and have delivered everything promised. We have had excellent service which has resulted in our transit on the requested day, our inbound and outbound documents processed swiftly and painlessly, and timely delivery of our hand lines and fender-tyres for the canal. And if you are looking for restaurants here in Panama then Manolo Caracol in the Old Town is excellent; Gaucho is more or less the only place for steak, there is a new Italian called Bella Gianni down the road from our apartment which is excellent and where we had dinner for all our crew, and the place for mojitos and Cuban food is the excellent Rincon Habanero on Via Argentina. Of course there are hundreds more places to dine but these are some of our recommendations.
Today we were informed that our transit starts at 1600 local tomorrow; the pilot will come by launch to meet us between buoys 3 and 6. We will have an evening/night canal experience, since private yachts are now going through at all hours. Our best guesstimate is that we will pass the live internet camera at the Miraflores Locks at 1700-1800 local.