The Voyage


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

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Bali, Indonesia

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The Voyage of Spectacle

Archive for the ‘Central America’ Category

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.

The Big Crossing (With Ian)

Posted by: andy

We are running around like chickens sans heads today as we prepare to begin our Pacific crossing tomorrow (yes, this all came on very fast, we know).  Alas, as of just this hour, an unexpected final repair has just arisen and may delay our Pacific departure (for you excessively curious mechanical nerds, it is a busted diode in our inverter that is causing the batteries to charge erratically … this may or may not be quickly fixable, but it is sort of looking like not).

Repair permitting, we will depart Flamenco Marina about noon local time tomorrow and expect to arrive in the Galapagos in about one week’s time.

Ian Is PyschedIn bigger news, we have added a crew member for the Pacific crossing … he is a 57-year-old Brit turned Canadian from Toronto named Ian McLean, our line-handler during the Canal transit.  He has crossed the Atlantic twice (but never the Pacific), once going eastbound in the North Atlantic in a 29-footer.  Although his politics are going to drive me absolutely insane, he is a very funny guy (especially when ridiculing French/Dutch buffoons) and we should all get on well.  For those of you who have seen too many Nicole Kidman/Billy Zane movies, take some solace in knowing that his passport both appears authentic and bears the same name he told us …

Holy Week A Curse for Spectacle

Posted by: andy

Holy Week here in Panama has proven to be an insurmountable cultural obstacle to our attempts to leave for the Galapagos.  We have not made it off the dock, and Spectacle will remain in Panama City until at least April 9.

A bit of explanatory background is needed here.  Having long ago (as was required given the preposterous lead times with which these trips sell out) booked a god-awfully expensive SCUBA adventure in the Galapagos, we have known for weeks that yesterday was the last possible day to depart Panama City for the Galapagos without resorting to Plan B (i.e. flying there and back from Panama).  We need to be there on the 29th.  It’s 900-950 miles away.  Our boat does about 150 miles a day (and will easily do that if we motor 24/7).  The math is not hard.

We had been told by people who know things that the typical wait for a Panama Canal crossing is about 5-9 days, and our research pretty much confirmed this.  We began the process on March 1st (while still in Colombia) and were admeasured in Colon on March 7th.  For whatever reason (and there certainly isn’t a good one), there are presently HUGE delays at the Canal.  So when we were told that we wouldn’t be crossing the canal until late March, I pretty much threw a fit (although others have had it worse — a boat that came in two days after us was given an April 14th transit date).  At this point it seemed pretty unlikely we’d be making the March 22 cutoff.

Employing my litigator training, I pretty much table-pounded and screamed my way into a March 19-20 (“maybe”) crossing appointment.  So at this point, everything had to go right — not only did the March 19 appointment date have to be “real,” but we had to have the boat otherwise completely ready for the Pacific crossing 48 hours later.  This involved about 7-8 non-trivial things going right.

Slowly the pieces began to fall into place.  Sure enough, we made it through the Canal on the 20th and pulled into the Flamenco Marina late that Thursday afternoon with three items left on our checklist.

Well, to make a long and not very interesting story short, these fairly simple jobs have been rendered extraordinarily difficult by virtue of the subsequent Friday being Good Friday.  The entire city is basically shut down from Friday through Tuesday, booze is not being served (the horror), and people are not working.

After a great deal of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, we managed to get two of the three simple jobs done — they took 30 hours and should have taken three.  But, alas, we could not find a single marine electrical store anywhere in town that was open to sell us an inverter diode (not a particularly hard part to find), which was the part our electrician determined is causing problems with out batteries.  There’s literally one boat store in the whole city that was open either yesterday or today, and it specializes in fishing gear.  Without said diode, we can’t guarantee proper, consistent charging of our batteries and that wouldn’t be a particularly enjoyable thing to live with for 90+ days.

So, alas, we have tripped over the final hurdle and will have to move to Plan B, but no big deal … we’ll fly in about 5-6 days, come back, and then cross the Pacific.

Type I Error

Posted by: andy

For any of you who had the pleasure of taking Statistics 150 at Mizzou or its equivalent elsewhere, you might recall the concept of Type I and Type II errors.

Basically, a Type II error is, in boating as in most walks of life, the more common mistake:  underinclusivity, the failure to include relevant data, or, if you will, the failure to recognize a particular extant problem — a false negative.

A Type I error is a mistake far less common in boating:  overinclusivity, the inclusion of irrelevant/erroneous data, or, if you will, identifying as extant a problem which does not in fact exist — a false positive.

Let’s make this simple –

Not knowing that the Japanese were going to bomb Pearl Harbor — Type II error.

Erroneously assuming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — Type I error.

OK, even more simple.

When the pregnancy test says you aren’t pregnant and you actually are – Type II error.
When the pregnancy test says you are pregnant and you really aren’t – Type I error.

See the difference?

Not being the most experienced sailors, we commit Type II errors all the time.  The Tale of the Twin Fiascoes was basically one Type II error after another – not filling up the gas tank, thinking we had a handheld VHF but not actually having one, not turning off the electronics once we were out of fuel, etc., etc., etc.

Well, I’ve finally committed my first major Type I error.  And it was a doozy…

For about the last two weeks, I’ve been convinced that our batteries were, for whatever reason, failing adequately to retain charge.  Following test after test, the reading of endless manuals (probably could have done some more of that earlier) and even the hiring of a largely clueless electrician, I have now diagnosed the situation:  there is nothing now wrong, nor has there recently been anything wrong, with our batteries.  Instead, there is something wrong with my powers of diagnosis.

This episode would be at bit more humorous if it weren’t so badly timed.  Having improbably cleared every hurdle in our mad scramble to meet our deadline, we actually found ourselves all set – the boat was all ready to go to the Galapagos and we could have left on time in ideal conditions (the weather was absolutely perfect), saved ourselves a couple of thousand dollars in airfare and attendant travel hassles and had an extra two weeks in the South Pacific.  So, yeah, um …