The Voyage


Andy and Melissa are sailing around the world on their 48-foot sailboat, Spectacle.

The Position

Bali, Indonesia

The Pictures

The Voyage of Spectacle

Archive for the ‘Caribbean’ Category

Central America’s Lower Large Intestine

Posted by: melissa

Colon, Panama, the city associated with the mouth of the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side, was originally called Aspinwall by gringos.  The name, Colon (in honor of Columbus), ultimately prevailed when Panamanian postmen finally refused to continue delivering mail addressed to Aspinwall.  Colon is also widely known as one of the worst places on earth, and actually has been since its inception in 1850 when established at the Atlantic terminus of the Panama Transcontinental Railroad.  Indeed, Ulysses S. Grant said in 1852, “I wondered how any person could live many months in Aspinwall, and wondered still more why any one tried.”

Completed in 1855, the first-ever transcontinental railroad was created to transit gold speculators from east to west since it was much easier and safer to travel by sea than through the rugged terrain of the middle United States.  Gold Rush traffic provided Colon with enormous prosperity as hundreds of thousands of transients paid outrageously inflated prices for essential goods and services.

The transient nature of those passing through Colon, and the isthmus in general, lent to a Wild West culture throughout Panama.  While some Forty-niners were pioneering and adventurous hard-workers by nature, others were highly unsavory characters:  Gold Rush-obsessed, desperate, excessively and even homicidally greedy, and swindling and thieving with nothing to lose.  As the railroad backed up and transit wait times increased, Colon bottlenecked and travelers combated boredom by drinking heavily, oftentimes while armed.  The associated violence and riots and crime are notorious stories to this day.

Even with the Wild West stories and the ultimate bust of the Gold Rush, the importance of the Panama Railroad should not be underestimated.  The need, convenience, and benefit of a transit option that eliminated the need to sail around Cape Horn had been long known.  Many different projects and speculators tried and failed to accomplish this goal.  At $8 million (in 1850’s dollars) for 47.5 miles, it remains the most expensive-per-mile railway ever built, requiring five years and taking 12,000 lives.  At the height of the railroad’s prosperity, many world and political circumstances rather suddenly changed, including heavy taxation by Gran Colombia and the 1869 completion of the Union Pacific Railroad across the United States, both of which permanently undermined the railroad’s importance.

Ironically, the construction of the Panama Canal undermined the prosperity of the city of Colon.  The city and its residents, particularly in the last 50 years, have not benefitted from the billions of dollars continuously flowing through Panama.  The country as a whole reports a GDP of over $26 billion (in 2006), and a 7.2% unemployment rate (granted with an oversupply of unskilled labor, and an undersupply of skilled labor).  The most recent information that I can locate specifically about Colon is from November of 2002 shortly after several days of riots and looting in the city’s center.  That source claims a 40% unemployment rate in Colon, and more current estimates place unemployment as high as 75%.  Additionally, Colon has some 52 murders per year … a shockingly high rate for a city of only 200,000 people and a far cry from the urban, thriving, and sophisticated Panama City just 50 miles away.

Many different reasons and rationalizations exist for this tremendous disparity.  First, immigrant entrepreneurs dominate the skilled, and sometimes even the unskilled, labor force.  Massive foreign investment brings its own prejudices.  Rumor has it that the outsourcing of major Canal operations to the Chinese has absolutely clobbered the unskilled labor force in Colon.  The Chinese companies brought in their own workers for nearly every job function … even for prostitution I’m told.

From some sources, my own experience, and anecdotal evidence, racism plays a fairly serious factor.  Colon’s current population is largely descended from black people who came to Panama from the West Indies (some by choice, some by trickery, some by force) to work on the Canal.  As such, many would argue that Colon’s economic state of affairs is basically ignored by the Panamanian government which provides incentives for foreign investors without labor stipulations, and creates stimulus packages for other Panamanian communities.

Additionally, in reading several sources, my opinion is that many government officials shirk responsibility and solidly place blame on the city’s residents as lacking initiative and dignity.  I personally find this to be pretty unfair.  When people have no work, no money, no education, no hope, and no opportunity, they steal and take drugs.  No different in Colon than anywhere else.

We had heard the rumors about Colon and wondered how bad it could actually be.  Everybody’s got a story and it usually involves larceny on the lower end, and severe violence on the upper end.  Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s bad … very bad.  We had to head into town to pay the generator repairman for services rendered, and it was very bad.  From what I saw, not a single building stands sturdy and maintained … literally everything is dilapidated and deteriorating.  Seemingly every block has at least one huge brick of rotting garbage as tall as a two story building.  Groups of likely unemployed people mill about and congregate under the occasional shady stoop just passing idle time.  Children without shirts or shoes play amongst gutters and garbage.  Every single business has pad locks and chain link fences and barbed wire and bars on the windows and security.  It’s positively tragic.  I did not find the Free Zone to be much better.

The View from the Shelter Bay BoatyardLuckily, Shelter Bay Marina is a little oasis.  The internet connection is fairly reliable, the electricity is compatible (i.e. the boat plugs into shore power just fine), the Balboa beer is cold, and the food is pretty darn good.

Wait … did I say oasis?  I meant to say prison.  If they had decent food, cold beer and internet access in prison, prison would be a lot like Shelter Bay.  Located on the grounds of an abandoned U.S. military base (the former Fort Sherman), the marina is 30+ minutes from anything else and you really aren’t free to leave in any true sense of the word.  And the staff (prison guards?) know this, pretty much setting world records for indifferent service (Bruce at the boat yard being an exception so notable as to require mentioning).

Shelter Bay Marina is not in Colon proper, but I think that some of those transient, Wild West tendencies are still at work here.  Right now, the Canal is horribly backed up, wait times are preposterous, and the transients are drinking a lot.  Like the old days, they are heavily armed, albeit only with hair-trigger tempers, crabbiness and know-it-all attitudes instead of rifles.  I can’t say that I blame anyone too much — the Canal authority has rather blatantly shown their antipathy towards private yacht traffic by allowing passage for only 3-5 boats every other day (there is absolutely no justification for this), and most everyone at Shelter Bay is anxious to start a new and exciting portion of their journey … not to sit and roast, basting themselves with beer, in Central America’s lower large intestine.  Basically, Shelter Bay Marina is a place where pissed-off people are incarcerated on a U.S. military base that’s intentionally highly isolated from the society that surrounds it – sort of like a certain place in southeastern Cuba, but minus the torture.

Nonetheless, we have met some very fun people and continue to check some action items off of our list.  I enlisted the help of John and Shirlee on S/V Solstice to sort out the remaining details of the single sideband radio and our SailMail account which is a very welcome development before we embark into the great wide open.  We also hauled the boat out of the water and had the bottom painted.  After 6 months in the, ahem, “nitrogen-rich” Bahia de Cartagena, this massive and heart-stoppingly expensive job was necessary.


Posted by: andy

Helping to cut into the beer-basted tedium of Shelter Bay is the presence of James Bond.  Indeed, the 22nd James Bond movie, currently titled “Quantum of Solace” (are they really going with that?), is filming here at the marina.  There are probably 200 film-related personnel milling about and occasional outbursts of activity.  We’ve managed to bump into Daniel Craig a couple of times (yes, he’s also quite handsome in real life), and the high-speed dinghy chases and stunt-boat hijinks have been a welcome diversion.  There’s an outside chance that Spectacle might make it into the movie (we’ve had to remove our Panamanian courtesy flag, as the scene is allegedly occurring in Haiti, a fact that is fairly indicative of the quality of the surroundings here).  They shot a scene just yards from the boat but in the opposite direction, and they’ve done all manner of aquatic chase scenes and the like inside the marina.  Spectacle might get into the B-reel setup shots, but probably not in any readily identifiable way.  Still, it’s pretty cool to have movie magic just outside your doorstep, er — cockpit.

Quick Trip to Panama City

Posted by: andy

Andy and Erik in Casco Viejo with the Panama City SkylineApparently not discouraged by his somewhat dramatic previous visit, my brother Erik has traveled down from New York to transit the Canal with us.  With our crossing date up in the air and Shelter Bay feeling decidedly prison-like, we decided to head across to Panama City for last weekend.

Having visited Panama City in 2006, we already loved the place, and nothing has happened to change our opinion.  We had a blast, including delicious meals at our old favorite Ten Bistro and new favorite Manolo Caracol.  The Ten Bistro meal included a couple of bottles of Navarro Correas Ultra, the first South American wine I have ever had that is affirmatively delicious in a “Robert Parker 93 points” kind of way.  Personally, I think the alleged improved quality of South American wines has been grossly overstated (and we’ve had plenty of sampling opportunities), but this is the exception.

We spent a fair amount of time wandering the streets of Casco Viejo, made a return trip to the Palace of the Herons and their big strange birds, loved our hotel (the DeVille), and checked out the Panama Canal museum.  It was a pretty short trip, but we had a great time and it was a nice diversion from the annoyance of waiting for our transit appointment.

Panama Canal Transit — Part I

Posted by: andy

“The Crew” — Line Handlers Ian and Margaret, and Pilot Advisor Meza (Middle)On the 19th and 20th, Spectacle transited the Panama Canal.  Given the current ridiculous delays for sailboats, we were pleasantly surprised that our agent Roberto Solano was able to get us an appointment with “only” a 12-day wait and that we managed not to get “bumped” or otherwise stymied.

Among the requirements of the transit is the presence of linehandlers.  Each boat needs the captain plus four other people. This left us two people short, so we enlisted the assistance of two of our fellow Shelter Bay detainees, Ian (a Toronto-based English ex-pat) and MaMargaret, Ian, and Erik on the Approach to the Gatun Locks on Day 1 of Spectacle’s Crossingrgaret (from Southern California).

Each boat crossing the canal is required to employ an “adviser” who assists with the transit (but, presumably as some sort of liability limitation device, makes only “suggestions” instead of issuing commands).

We were told to be in the “flats” anchorage by the Canal entrance no later than 4:00 p.m. on the 19th to pick up our advisor (who would be brought to us via motor launch), so we departed Shelter Bay at three and got over there in plenty of time.  The arrival time of the advisors is notoriously variable (read as: they are supposed to get there at 5:00 but sometimes don’t make it until 9:00), so we figured we’d drop the anchor.

We just could not get the darn thing to hold.  We have some (uninteresting) ideas as to why this may be, but, suffice it to say, we tried to anchor four times with no success.  In fairness to us, the holding in the flats is notoriously bad and the winds were quite high, but it was pretty ridiculous.  Indeed, we made a bit of a spectacle of ourselves, continually driving around in circles and setting then retrieving anchors before returning to further circle-driving.  Not the most auspicious of beginnings.

Around 5:45, we were alerted by the Canal authorities that our advisor was on his way, and within 15 minutes we had him aboard.  His name was Meza, and it became clear right away that he was going to be great – totally friendly, informal, helpful without being bossy.  He informed us we would be the middle boat of a three-boat raft, which is a bit of a mixed blessing.  Although the captain of the middle boat has the added (significant) responsibility of driving the raft, the good news is that (a) if he drives the raft into a wall (or someone else makes a mistake), the damage is going to be to one of the other boats and (b) the middle boat’s linehandlers have very little work to do.  On balance, being in the middle is pretty good.

We motored toward the Canal entrance and began the process of rafting up with the other boats.  This was also the beginning of our concerns.  Suffice it to say, it is not often that we are the only people who know what they are doing (in fact, when it comes to boat-related things, usually quite the other thing), but the Canal crossing was one of those times.  The two other boats with which we were rafted were a bunch of humorless, unpleasant and borderline incompetent Germans to our right and preposterously Wile E. Coyote-esque incompetent-bordering-on-ridiculous French/Dutch to our left.

We stopped Spectacle to allow the left boat to raft up.  They blasted up to us at about four knots and nearly ripped all of our fenders/stanchions off through sheer velocity before deciding to try it again.  Fantastic start, guys.

Panama Canal Transit — Part II

Posted by: andy

After getting the boats rafted up, we drove into the first lock behind a container ship.  Basically, the drill is as follows: the middle boat captain (i.e. me) drives the boat into the middle of the lock (we had probably 15 feet to spare on either side so this wasn’t particularly tough but did require paying constant close attention) and then the Canal personnel throw long lines with monkey-fists on the ends to the linehandlers on the outside boats (two to each side for a total of four).  The four linehandlers then hold the whole raft in place, keeping it from drifting too far to either side or spinning.  When the lock fills up with water, the linehandlers take in the slack as the boats rise.  When the lock empties, the linehandlers let out slack as the boats go down.

This is not a tough job, but, for the forward linehandler on the French/Dutch boat on our left, it apparently was tantamount to splitting the atom.  This guy was a complete fool.  Every couple of minutes, the raft would begin rotating clockwise, I’d look to the bow of the left boat, and the guy on the bow would be standing there with a slack line running though his fingers.  I mean, really … a six-year-old girl could do this job.  I’d yell at him, he’d begin taking in the line, the raft would straighten, and, three minutes later, the process would repeat itself.

Needless to say, none of us aboard Spectacle were even slightly amused.  At one point (after a particularly heated exchange), one of the Frenchmen aboard the left-side boat said something lippy to Ian, who responded (without missing a beat), “Hey, didn’t you guys try to build this thing once?”  It was pure genius.

The right side boat (aka the humorless Germans) weren’t much better.  Mostly, they lounged about the cockpit eating various hot meals brought up from below while their captain decided to engage in his own raft-steering regime (against the instructions of the advisors and making my job more difficult).  But their best moment came when it was time to break up the raft for the first time.  As we released the lines tying the boats together, their captain brilliantly decided to simultaneously floor it and make a hard right turn, swinging the stern of his boat into us.  An incredulous but extraordinarily alert Melissa grabbed the boat hook and began trying to fend him off, putting the (plastic) hook onto his (metal, non-aesthetic) stern cleat and pushing with all her might.  Again, the non-scratching plastic was on their cleat, needed to be there, and the guy was driving like an idiot.

Well, the guy reacted like she was keying his car.  “Do NOT use zee boat hook!” he screamed.  OK, dude, do not drive zee stern of your boat into us…

By this point, we had completely had it with both the other boats.  So, for the rest of the transit, we basically treated them like six-year-olds and barked orders.  I’m sure they hate us.  Believe me, the feeling is mutual.Beautiful Scenery

Aside from our chilly relationship with the other raft members, the transit was really fun.  We went through the Gatun locks in darkness on the evening of the 19th before Meza was picked up by a launch and the remaining five of us spent the night on a mooring buoy (hard to call it a “ball” since it was about four feet across and Erik had to stand on it to tie us up).  I cooked up some of my ersatz shrimp creole (which is now approaching semi-official “Dish of Spectacle” status), we had a few Balboas and headed to bed, awaiting Meza’s promised 7:00 a.m. arrival back at the boat.

Meza was right on time, and off we went through Gatun Lake.  It was a blessing to be able to spend most of the day free from our NATO allies as we motored through this beautiful and strange creation.  Eventually, we reached the brown water and high walls of the Gaillard Cut before rerafting with the Europeans to pass through the Pedro Miguel Locks and, finally, the Miraflores Locks.  We sailed under the Bridge of the Americas at around 3:15 p.m. Melissa raced up to the front of the boat so she could be first one into the Pacific Ocean.The Webcam at the Miraflores Locks

Our total transit time was about 12 hours (four hours the first night and eight hours the second day).

We had visited the Canal before and, to be honest, were kind of disappointed.  From the observation deck at Miraflores, it sort of looks like a suburban street that happens to be filled with water – not very dramatic.  But going through it, one far better realizes the sheer magnitude of the engineering project and just what a wonder it is.  It was a very cool experience, not particularly stressful (except for our raftmates), and something we are very happy to have done.