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The Voyage of Spectacle Pacific Ocean

The Voyage

Spectacles

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 ‘Pacific Ocean’ Category

Back in the Cockpit

Posted by: melissa

Welcome to Year 2 of Spectacle’s spectacular shenanigans!

You might recall that, a mere six months into our trip, a twice-busted autopilot and an obsessive cricket-related detour resulted in Spectacle being far behind schedule.  Once the Bonaire autopilot fiasco reared its ugly head, we decided to cancel our plans to cross the Pacific during Year 1, wait out South Pacific hurricane season in Los Angeles, and proceed with our voyage during the next Pacific crossing season (which opens in April).

We spent five-plus months stateside catching up with friends and family, and of course, enjoying the amenities of American life that we don’t get out here on the boat.  College football (and especially Andy’s beloved USC Trojans and long-awful-but-suddenly-good Missouri Tigers) were high priorities.  Highlights included the Cotton Bowl and the USC versus Nebraska game in Lincoln.  Since we just don’t travel enough, we headed to Sri Lanka for a two-week cricket extravaganza / wedding reconnaissance mission / post-World Cup catch up session with the team.  Additionally, it was nice to spend Christmas at home especially considering the circumstances of last Christmas!

So Far, So Good

Posted by: melissa

Planning and packing to leave the country for 10 months is no easy feat.  Trying to anticipate every need and desire regarding not only personal effects but also possible boat parts and accessories is nerve-racking.  We did the best we could and set off yesterday for a very long travel day … LAX to Houston, Houston to Panama City, and Panama City to Cartagena.  We arrived back at Club Nautico Marina well after midnight.  At first glance, the boat seemed to be intact, so we crashed out without even bothering to make the bed.

We both had some trepidation in leaving the boat, which is now more like our home than anyplace else, for an extended period of time.  Luckily, as a matter of convenience, price and quality of service, Cartagena is a pretty terrific place to store a boat long term.  On the recommendation of marina manager John Halley, we hired a boat sitter named Alberto who was responsible for watching the lines, airing out the boat on a regular basis to minimize mold and rot, scrubbing the bottom to keep nasty barnacles away, and generally acting as project manager for a list of repairs about 50 items long.

After a long sleep, we awoke to find the boat in encouragingly good shape.  We have yet to go through our to-do list one by one with Alberto the boat sitter, but I’m fairly confident that the conversation will go well.  Unfortunately, the one problem that we’ve discovered since our return involves a stowaway of sorts.  Yes, sadly, Spectacle has acquired a minor roach problem.  We don’t seem to be full-fledged infested and the critters are both small and scarce, but it is nonetheless more than a little unnerving.

Club Nautico is just as we remember, and there’s quite a buzz around here as many boats prepare to head toward the Panama Canal and begin the Pacific Ocean crossing.  When we left Cartagena last summer, it was the rainy season – blisteringly hot and intensely humid, interrupted by frequent downpours.  Having returned in the dry season, the days are temperate, breezy, and dry (comparatively speaking).  As I sit here writing this post, I’m looking out on the marina and beyond … it’s a sunny and beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky.  The clubhouse is full of boaters from all over the world … drinking Aguila or Club Colombia beers, playing dominoes and Scrabble, and passing time in anticipation of the passage to Panama.

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.

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.


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