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Arrival to Colon & preparations for transit June 23 - 27, 2004

Wednesday, 23 June 2004, 1:30 am - Sailing from Porvenir in the San Blas islands to Porto Bello on the way to Colon. Started from Porvenir at 6:30 am motoring until we got out of the coral reefs. Light N-NE wind, 10 to 12 knots. Once out of the reef had our usual drink – this time chilled wine! Fridge finally works – how nice it to drink cold drinks again! Have almost forgotten the sensation!?

Beautiful night, wind on the beam, making 6-7 kn. Expecting to be in Portobello at 3 am. Organising short 2 h watches.

Few hours before departing from Porvenir, Susan prepared Cantonese rice for dinner and Lesley made two jars of coffee for the night shifts before we returned the gas bottle to the guy who lent it to us… our last warm meal till we manage to organise refill of our four small camping gas bottles in Colon.

1 am, Ivo’s watch - Moon has descended below the horizon, complete darkness, except for occasional distant lightning from the direction of Colon. Can’t see the small island Los Farahones which is supposed to have a functioning lighthouse – but it does not! As we did not test C-map for this area, turned on the radar – to make sure we miss the island!

3 am – Susan’s watch – gybed, sailing south but wind is too weak to sail downwind. All hands on deck, sails down and motoring last few miles. Motoring between Salmedina reef and Punta Mantilla on the mainland. Radar is still on, just in case the c-map has a deviation.

At 4:22 am dropped the anchor and went to sleep few  hours

Portobello has a good anchorage - arrived here at 4 am, anchored and had few hours sleep


Wednesday, June 23 later that day

With the daylight we were finally able to see the lush jungle surrounding the bay. Portobello used to be one of the most important and richest port of Panama from where most of the gold and silver of Latin Americas was exported to Europe  

After a few hours sleep in Portobello we got up and had a quick breakfast whilst admiring the scenery of the hills surrounding us in the bay. The smells, the noise of the birds and the greenery have a distinct feel of jungle to it, it all seems so beautiful after the small sandy islands of San Blas. We also admire the spot where we anchored, anchoring in the dark seems to always distort a little the distances, so now in daylight it looks like we are nearly in the middle of the bay fairly far away from most other yachts except one.  We are all eager to get moving into Colon to see what awaits us there so we lift anchor and just have a quick look around the bay by motoring closer to the end of it where the little town is.  This place used to be the richest area of Panama, perhaps even of the whole of Central America because the Spanish used it as the central storage for all the gold they stole from the Incas. This is where their ships would come in to be loaded up to bring it back to Spain. Today there really is not much left to be seen of that wealth, although it is true we did not actually visit the town where perhaps there are remaining signs of that wealth in the architecture.  There are several forts up on the hills to remind everyone of the past Spanish presence.

A yacht is lying half sunk on its side just close to where we have anchored. Our friend Wolfgang told us that this boat used to belong to someone who died of old age and the boat has just been left abandoned there for the past couple of years.

We leave Portobello to proceed toward the entrance to Panama Canal.

Colon - After a few hours of motoring with just the genoa unfurled we arrive at the breakwater entrance. The 4 mile long breakwater with the 500 m wide entrance is imposing. We enter through the main entrance near which several very big tankers and container ships were anchored waiting for transit.  The whole area is quite shallow – only 10 to 12 meters depth everywhere except a fairly narrow channel in through the breakwater which is dredged to 15 m.

We proudly enter and follow the channel – all alone, there seems to be no other boats moving about this morning. All quiet, and another couple of miles and we are in front of ‘the flats’ the area where most yachts anchor up. However we had decided to see if there is any mooring space in Panama Canal Yacht club which is situated at the entrance to the French Channel, the original and first attempt to create the canal.

We are lucky and after a brief encounter with a sour and miserable Texan who thinks he owns the yacht club, we find a spot and settle in. Ivo and Susan went to the Marina office, the first stop in many offices in order to do clearance in to Panama as well as the formalities for the Canal transit. Despite it already being early afternoon we do manage to clear in with immigration, then chat with various people and book an appointment with the Admeasurer – first step in transit formalities.  We also meet Alex (another Wolfgang recommendation) who is a line-handler, and he brings eight tyres and four 125 ft, 22 mm lines we require to have onboard for the Admeasurer’s inspection the next day. These tyres and lines cost us 84 USD.

Then we arrange for one of Alex’s colleagues to help us with the paperwork the next day, a sort of half agent. Cost is 20USD as opposed to the 500 USD that the professional agent Tina McBride wanted to charge us!

Cost for the marina is 23 USD per day all water and electricity included. There is a very airconditioned bar and a small restaurant, run by chinese so we treat ourselves to a pitcher of beer and a meal. Prices are good here – lots of beer and several sodas cost us 7US and meal for 4 cost 23 USD.

Thursday June 24 - 8.30 am next morning we are ready to go. Laundry is done, water tanked up, Ivo, Susan & Peter go with Alfonso to the clearing in offices - we have to be fingerprinted!  Lesley stays onboard waiting for the Admeasurer who eventually only turns up after 12 noon.

We pay for cruising permit 69 USD. Back to the boat where at last the Admeasurer turns up but so late that although we run to get to the bank before 2pm (we get there at 1.55pm) they will not let us in to pay for the transit. So we now have to wait till the next day for payment and to be able to call the Scheduler to get a time for the transit.  Ivo has requested as preferred option that we transit alone, but when eventually our time is confirmed (Sunday at 4pm) we are told we will transit coupled/nested to another 41 ft Kiwi sloop, Music.

Colon Only buses are pretty in Colon

We have been warned to not walk in the streets of Colon, not even a few hundred yards because of the crime so we take taxis everywhere which generally cost 1 USD per trip. Seeing Colon is an eye opener – a very dilapidated and poor town, not very big but looks like something left over after a war. Tall architecturally fine buildings that have deteriorated over the past 30 or 40 years to the extent that it looks like people are living in ruins. Colon is obviously a forgotten place. Wonder whether Panama City will be the same?  The Americans handed over the administration of the Canal to the Panameans in 1999 but the state of Colon shows that many years beforehand this town was neglected.


Despite all this, the place, and in particular the people have a certain charm. In the face of adversity they generally seem cheerful and pleasant and on the whole we have found that things get done, even the bureaucracy is manageable. Although the paperwork entails visits to many offices and many pieces of paper being filled in and photocopies of everything being handed over, there did not seem to be the pervasive inefficiency one can find in so many other countries.

We did visit an internet café and there were quite a few advertised in the streets and the one we went to was perfectly ok, however in the administrative offices everything was typed up on old typewriters.

As to shopping, Peter, Lesley and Susan went to Colon 2000 a small mall complex to do our first supermarket shopping. Prices were alright but not fantastically cheap. Spent 246 USD. Peter & Lesley also went to the central fruit and vegetable market for a first small scale provisioning.  

Ivo finished writing the More article after several nights of waking up early to do so. More also received the CD with the photos just in time. This CD was sent from Bonaire and took over 10 days to get there.

We had happy hour and dinner again at the Yacht club.

Friday June 25 - We decide to clear out of Panama which requires a Zarpe so we are now only in transit through Balboa (Panama City) on our way to Galapagos. This time Ivo and Susan go to the various offices and get this done without further help from any agents. Ivo also pays the bank so we can now call the Scheduler and have our time set for the transit.

We go to an Internet café and afterwards we walk along the street to find a clothes shop where we buy boxer shorts and undervests for about 2 USD each. Very good value. Walking along the street may sound trivial but here in Colon it is said that the probability for being robbed is 99% when doing so.

We try to go to see the Gatun Locks in the afternoon but when we get there it is closed so we have to come back the next day. Our taxi driver (also called Lesley) should have known so he agrees to take us back next day plus some other smaller trips, for 15 USD.

Lesley cooks dinner – chicken stir fry/curry with rice.

Saturday, June 26 - Up early again, the mosquitoes have now found our boat so sleep is not so good, and we get ready to go visit the Gatun locks. Before that Ivo & Susan go to the vegetable and fruit market and provision for longer term. Mainly potatoes, onions, oranges( 25kg+) and lime (100).  The potatoes are the most expensive, we pay 12 USD for 25 kgs or so. We pay 1 USD per stem of bananas – lowest price yet. We also buy more mangoes, pineapples and fruit in general. We walk through the meat and fish market which is a test of stamina because of the smells. After a while in the market we begin to be hassled by little children and an old woman begging so we get a taxi and decide to leave. [the fruit and vegetables were of better quality than in Venezuela but still did not last long. Even the onions rotted and we had to throw out about half. Left a trail of onions behind us as we sailed along the coast of Coiba].

Provisioning in Colon -15 kg of bananas for 3$, oranges 20 kg for 4$, potato 20 kg for 12$, onion 10 kg for 5$!  Gatun locks on Atlantic side of Panama

Again topping up water and a final laundry and then off to see the Gatun locks at last. Very impressive although since it is morning we only see the very big ships go through. These ships barely fit the lock in width, and look like they have been purpose built to be able to transit the canal.  These days the procedure seems to be that all yachts go through in the afternoon and therefore take two days (or one overnight stay in the lake Gatun) so that they only go through with smaller freighters.

Big cargo ships in Gatun lock - they are obviously custom built to fit exactly Panama Canal locks


Weather in afternoon and evening turns to heavy rain – rainy season. We have dinner onboard – stuffed peppers. We have decided to stay again in the marina that night rather than move out to the flats today because of the rain.

Sunday, June 27 2004, Log today is 12047.9 miles and engine hours are 1249,5.

In a few miles we will enter the Pacific Ocean and we will have done just over 12,000 miles in the Atlantic since Fiu was first launched last year in April in Ravenna, Italy.

Up early and get ready to move. – At 7.30 am we are leaving and at 8 am we are now anchored in the Flats. This is the big day for us, we are going to go through the first set of locks this afternoon sometime between 4 and 6 pm.  We have to pick up Alex, the line handler at 2.30 pm from the yacht club and then wait at the flats for the pilot to join us at 4pm.

We are all ready and just relaxing and doing small jobs whilst waiting for this afternoon.

The weather has cleared up and is fine this morning after the rain, lets hope it lasts.

Back to Fiu Odyssey 2004 photo album

Next,  Transiting Panama Canal