AROUND THE WORLD ON "SUNRISE STAR"
ATLANTIC - HELLO PACIFIC
It was now June 1987, and with the Caribbean hurricane season approaching, I was itching to be on my way and out of the area. Katie, my ex "charter cook” crew joined Sunrise Star here in St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands - and, sadly, it was obvious from when she first stepped aboard after a week of “farewells” and with four big suitcases, that it wasn’t going to work.
Originally I had planned to sail almost directly to Panama, some 1600 sea miles away, passing to the south of Jamaica, with a possible landing at St Andrews Island, a Columbian possession, north of Panama.
In fact it didn’t work out anything like that.
A day out of St Thomas and while heading between St Croix and Puerto Rico, the US coastguard began broadcasting a weather notice for small craft, warning of a tropical wave of low pressure approaching from the east - which meant high, gusty winds. So I elected to head further south to avoid “running” with the front, possibly for days.
The days went by, and the weather worsened, the seas got really bumpy and the barometer fell. Katie, in the meantime, was horribly seasick and, understandably, all she wanted to do was see land and get off. I learned then that she had never sailed out of sight of land before in all her chartering days, and was used to bigger yachts that didn’t move - not little boats that rolled and pitched.
Aruba, off the Venezuela coast, seemed to be the easiest place to reach, even though I didn’t have a suitable chart. As it turned out, Aruba’s port, Orannestad is easy to enter although fringed by a reef. Once inside, it was just a question of finding out where to anchor. There was no set small craft anchorage, only an open fishing wharf with a restaurant close by. Another yacht was tied to the Balihai restaurant and I did likewise.
This little island of Aruba was a pleasant surprise, and not at all “touristy” like the Caribbean. Admittedly there are a number of very exotic tourists hotels and casinos along the white beaches on the south west coast. "Finesse", the other yacht, was from Madeira and flying the Portuguese flag. They were returning to Madeira, after coming through the Panama Canal, they told me. Lucky for both of us, because we swopped charts, pilot books, courtesy flags and information. For my part I now had enough information and charts to get through to Tahiti and beyond, and "Finesse" enough to get to South Africa if necessary. Oh yes, bartering and swopping can be so much fun, and rewarding.
Arubians, living just a few kilometres off the coast of South America and being part of the Dutch Antilles, speak many languages, their own “language” is a mixture of many - rather like Afrikaans, which I was surprised to learn, they can understand.
It was here that Katie and her four suitcases left us and boarded a flight for her native Canada. I had Sunrise Star to myself again.
The wind patterns close to South America are bedevilling to say the least, being mostly east-south east and strong for days at a time, and calming somewhat at night. I left in a good blow that soon worsened to near gale-force winds, and for the next four days had Sunrise Star running under storm jibs alone, and trying to get as far offshore as possible.
It was July already and I still had another 900 miles to go to reach Panama. At some stages I was less that 300 miles off the notoriously dangerous coast of Columbia - dangerous because of drug runners. Like most yachtsmen, I had heard stories about yachts being boarded and their crews murdered by drug runners - in this very area. For a few days and mostly at night, I sat with a loaded shotgun and a flare pistol. There was one stage, in the dark of the early hours when I was followed for hours by a dim white light. But I figured that if it were trouble, they - “ the pirates” wouldn’t show any lights.
As we closed in on the country of Panama the weather became overcast and squally. We were back in the doldrums belt but sailing with a reefed main and jib! The last day was horrific - the rain poured down and penetrated every small, previously undetected hole and crevice in the deck.
The lightning that accompanied the rain was spectacular - and frightening. On one occasion, I’m convinced we were actually struck by a bolt of lightning, because the whole yacht was filled with electric static and any metal I touched “tingled” with electricity.
As a precaution I had earlier switched off all the boat’s electrics and disconnected the radio and satnav antennas - but when the storm was over I found that the Satnav was out of order, probably because of the all-pervading dampness.
Frankly, I was a little worried, being close to Panama, with visibility down to almost zero and many ships in the vicinity. Eventually when I spotted the mountains of Panama (the country) and worked out my approximate position, I realized that I wouldn’t make it to Colon at the entrance to the canal by daylight. I was very close to a big bay and a town called Portobello - and I had a chart of the area, thanks to my friends on "Finesse".
As I approached the bay I saw that it was large and open, with easy-to-see obstacles at the mouth. It was nearly dark as I entered the bay, and raining heavily, and completely dark by the time I anchored some 50 metres off the fringes of the jungle.
The following day I weighed anchor and motored across the bay to the town of Portobello where I was warmly welcomed by the inhabitants of this small town, especially the owners of the waterfront cantina, where I tied the dinghy up to the front porch overhanging the water. By this time another yacht had arrived, also east bound, and I got some very valuable information about the canal transit from them.
I stayed a week and cleared into the country of Panama, which I later appreciated, had been a very shrewd move as it eliminated my initial need for a Panama cruising permit - costing some 9 US dollars and valid for a month. I had to get one later, but as I stayed in the country well over a month, it saved me the second month - and a lot of paperwork.
While in Portobello I met an American living aboard his run-down boat, who generously drove me to Colon/Cristobel, the Panama Canal entrance, where all the arrangements for passing through the canal had to be made.
One of the requirements was that each yacht carried four line handlers - over and above the skipper. These I organized in advance, before even sailing the remaining bit to the canal. I “obtained” the four from the US base, at total cost of 50 US dollars - and I had to supply the food and beer for the two-day transit. A fair deal, I thought.
The “canal company” can hire out “linespeople” at 60 dollars per person per day (1987), which works out to 480 dollars for two days. In the never-ending rain I left Portobello and sailed the last 30 kilometres to the canal. There is a huge breakwater at the Caribbean entrance and designated areas in which to anchor. You have two choices - anchor either at the Canal Yacht Club which has a few marina berths which they charge for, or on the “flats” at “F” mooring. I anchored out to save the money, as I expected to be there only a few days.
It’s a tough anchorage, in 12m of water and marked by yellow buoys and open to the wind and ocean swell that really whips up across the five-mile open expanse. The wind never stopped blowing about Force 5 all the time I was there. Going ashore involved a dinghy ride of a good mile in which one has to dodge passing ships, tugs and pilot boats. But to make up for all this, the yacht club is very hospitable, and the wet and thirsty yachtsman is welcomed to use the club’s hot showers, restaurant and bar. The club also has coin-operated washers and dryers.
When I arrived, there was only one other yacht awaiting transit, a Frenchman, and he and I helped each other through all the procedures which includes being measured.
The cost of all this was a very reasonable 110 US dollars, which included the cost of the measurer coming out to Sunrise Star, the pilot for two days and the transit itself.
What is required:
By now six other yachts had arrived, and the first yacht had left for his transit, so it was my turn to be the advisor. They were all friendly folks and agreed to help each other as line crews. I helped a British yacht and loaned my outboard to a French singlehander who had no engine and would otherwise have to been towed through the canal!
Yachts, by the way, are only allowed to transit on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
A Belgium yacht, "Goodwind", was scheduled to transit with Sunrise Star on a Thursday. The two boats rafted up while going through the “up” locks and “down” locks. Everything went very well that first day. Obviously there was a bit of anxiety when the two yachts entered the first chamber and the water started rushing in. One really has to be on one’s toes as you battle to keep the boats in the centre of the lock. And the rise is rapid - it takes about five minutes to rise the 9 metres of each lock. However, after the first lock, one gets the hang of things and negotiating the next two locks was a breeze.
Once through the “up” locks and in the huge fresh water lake - Gaton Lake - in the middle of the Isthmus of Panama and 32 metres above the Atlantic, we untied the yachts and motored through the lake, following the dredged canal by way of the port and starboard canal markers.
Every now and again a ship would pass us by from the Pacific direction, looking totally out of place against the jungle backdrop.
We stopped for the night near a small village almost in the centre of the lake. Our two pilots radioed for a tug to fetch them and were taken off for the night, promising to return the next morning.
I took the opportunity to clean a bit of the hull of the yacht in the fresh water.
The next morning our pilots arrived at 9am to take us through the three “down” locks and into the Pacific.
To get to the first lock we had to motor through the Galliard cut, which in itself is a terrific engineering feat, with walls rising perhaps 200 metres on either side. Through the cut, we re-rafted again before the first lock, then motored through another smaller lake and entered the last obstacle - the two locks that take one down to the level of the Pacific.
Up until this point in our transit Sunrise Star and "Goodwind" had had the locks all to themselves, but now a ship joined us, positioned behind us. We all got through the first lock without a hitch, but ran into problems in the second lock which is the largest of them all as it has to cope with the 10 metre tide of the Pacific. The two yachts were still tied together when the gates of this last lock were opened - and the surging current took us in its grip.
To make matters worse there was a lack of communication between our two pilots, as the one (whose job it was) ordered the spring lines to be loosened - with the result that "Goodwind" and Sunrise Star swung off at right angles to each other and crashed together stern-to.
Fortunately the damage wasn’t too severe - "Sunrise Star" a dented pushpit and bent toe rail, "Goodwind" a damaged self steering support arm, which we later repaired.
We dropped our line crews and pilots at the Balboa Yacht Club, right at the Pacific entrance to the canal. Because of unrest in Panama I had been advised not to stop at Balboa, which is on the outskirts of Panama City, but anchor off Tobags Island, a tiny, picture-book island 8 miles to the south. So Sunrise Star and her canal buddy boat, "Goodwind", anchored off a long sandy beach of a plush resort hotel in about 10 metres of water.
A Daily ferry operates between the island and Panama City everyday, which was handy because I had a lot of mail to collect as well as stock up for the long hauls ahead.
By now my funds were sadly depleted, but I replenished the ship’s kitty to the extent of about 400 dollars by selling some of my African curios and semi-precious stones (I had bought earlier in Brazil), setting up “shop” on a blanket under a palm tree.
Finally, re-stocked and with Sunrise Star as ready as I could make her, I set sail in early August for the fabled islands of the Pacific. But that’s another story.