September 30, 2012
Saying Good Bye


September 15, 2012
Reflections on Our 27 Year Circumnavigation


September 01, 2012
Sea of Cortez Sailing


August 15, 2012
Back to the Sea of Cortez


August 01, 2012
After Circumnavigation: What to Take, What to Leave Behind


July 15, 2012
Mexican Booby Trap


July 01, 2012
Tackling the Tehuantepec


June 14, 2012
Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico


June 01, 2012
Sailing northern Costa Rica and Nicargua


May 15, 2012
Costa Rican Cruising


May 01, 2012
New Found Friends in Golfito, Costa Rica


April 15, 2012
It’s a Jungle Out There


April 01, 2012
Hunting and Gathering in Panama


March 15, 2012
Money.... Money.... Money


March 01, 2012
Feel Free Transits the Panama Canal


February 15, 2012
Transiting the Panama Canal


February 01, 2012
Feel Free is Back in the Pacific


January 15, 2012
Charter Skipper for a Week


January 01, 2012
Confessions of a Charter Cat Chef


December 15, 2011
Away to the Andamans Part 2


December 01, 2011
AWAY to the ANDAMANs


November 15, 2011
Sailing in a Freshwater Paradise


November 01, 2011
To Barf or not to Barf, that is the question


October 14, 2011
Remarkable Cruisers


October 03, 2011
The Sea of Cortez, Another World


September 15, 2011
Panama Canal Here We Come


September 01, 2011
Sailing for Humanity


August 15, 2011
A Hard Lesson on the Hard and Reflections on Boat Work


August 01, 2011
Here Come the Lion Fish


July 15, 2011
The Joy of Books


July 01, 2011
The Sailors of San Blas


June 15, 2011
The Good Life in Kuna Yala


June 01, 2011
The Dirt Dweller in Paradise


May 15, 2011
People of the San Blas, Then and Now


May 01, 2011
Cruising in Kuna Yala


April 15, 2011
Near Disaster in the San Blas


April 01, 2011
At Last in the San Blas


March 15, 2011
Chilling Out in Cholon


March 01, 2011
Ah, Cartagena!


February 15, 2011
Cruising the Cape Horn of the Caribbean Part 2


February 01, 2011
Cruising the Cape Horn of the Caribbean Part 1


January 14, 2011
Aruban Interlude


December 30, 2010
Hunkering Down for a Hurricane


December 15, 2010
A Day in the Life - Our Passage to Aruba


December 01, 2010
Stuck in Curacao


November 15, 2010
Stormy Night Sailing


November 01, 2010
Sailing In The Sticks


October 15, 2010
Safety, Security and Circumnavigating with some tips on how to stay safe


October 04, 2010
Feel Free Transits The Suez Canal


September 15, 2010
Red Sea Sailing


September 01, 2010
FEEL FREEs Voyage Into the Red Sea


August 15, 2010
And just a little further, to Curacao


August 01, 2010
Bonaire Diving


July 15, 2010
Then To Bonaire


July 01, 2010
Cruising Remote Venezuelan Isles


June 15, 2010
Cruising St. Vincent


June 01, 2010
Right Place, Right Time


May 15, 2010
The Spice Isle


May 01, 2010
To the Grenadines


April 15, 2010
We Be In Barbados Mon


April 01, 2010
Atlantic Passage Part II


March 15, 2010
Atlantic Passage Part 1


March 01, 2010
Provisioning for the Atlantic Crossing


February 15, 2010
Atlantic Crossing Preparations


February 01, 2010
Cruising the Canary Islands


January 15, 2010
Out Of Africa


January 01, 2010
Come With Me To The High Atlas Mountains.............


December 15, 2009
Two Years Of Mediterranean Sailing


December 01, 2009
Moving On To Morocco


November 18, 2009
Leaving The Med


November 13, 2009
Reaching The Rock Of Gibraltar Milestone


October 15, 2009
Sailing Spains Costa del Sol


October 01, 2009
Sailing Spains Costa del High-rise


September 15, 2009
Sailing The Spanish Isles


September 01, 2009
At Sea Or On The Hook, These Recipes Travel Well


August 15, 2009
An Interlude At Menorca


August 01, 2009
A Pleasant Passage To Menorca


July 15, 2009
The Agony And Ecstasy Of The Tunisian Coast


July 01, 2009
Tripping Around Tunisia


June 15, 2009
Tales From North Africa


June 01, 2009
Dont Freak If Your Fridge Fails


May 15, 2009
Into Africa


May 01, 2009
Meandering Around Malta, Then Off To Tunisia


April 15, 2009
Low-Tech DIY Ideas For The New Economy


April 01, 2009
The Med Set A Few Cruiser Profiles


March 15, 2009
That Sinking Feeling


March 01, 2009
Thailand to Oman: Three Passages, Three Ports


February 15, 2009
Doing Hard Time in Malta


February 01, 2009
Pirate Alley Part 2


January 15, 2009
Pirate Alley Part 1


January 02, 2009
So Many Islands, So Little Time


December 15, 2008
Cruising With The Bear


December 01, 2008
Versatile Vinegar, The Boaters Friend


November 15, 2008
What I Did In This Summer -- Dock Masters In paradise


November 01, 2008
Over The Top Of Oz


October 16, 2008
The Tumultuous Tasman


October 01, 2008
Sweet Memories Of The Splendid Surins


September 15, 2008
And Then We Were In Malta


September 01, 2008
Feel Frees Siracusan Story


August 15, 2008
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times


August 01, 2008
All Tied Up In The Ionians


July 15, 2008
A Greek Odyssey Our Journey to Ithaca


July 01, 2008
Anatomy of a Near Catastrophe


June 15, 2008
Good-bye Turkey, Hello Greece


June 01, 2008
More Winter Cruising in Turkey


May 15, 2008
Winter Cruising in Turkey


April 15, 2008
Talking Turkey: Marmaris Marina Living


April 15, 2008
The Joy Of The Side Trip


April 01, 2008
Return to Marmaris, And The Budget


March 15, 2008
Passing Time And Dodging The Meltemi


March 01, 2008
Home Sweet Home


February 15, 2008
A Little Working, A Little Cruising


February 01, 2008
Working Our Way Around The World


January 15, 2008
Welcome Aboard Feel Free


January 01, 2008
Liz Tosonis and Tom Morkins Feel Free


January 01, 2008
About Tom Morkin and Liz Tosoni


January 01, 2008
About Feel Free


January 01, 2008
Voyage Itinerary


September 15, 2011
Panama Canal Here We Come

“I’m looking forward to the prospect of civilization” announced Tom as we sailed away from the San Blas islands en route to Portobelo. After three months of almost ideal weather conditions in that ideal, isolated archipelago, just so we wouldn’t rest on our laurels, Mother Nature slammed us with portentous, charcoal smeared skies, deafening thunder, lightning and torrential rain, curtains of rain (enough to fill our tanks to the brim), three days of it.

We waited patiently for the system to pass and were rewarded with clear skies and 15 knots of northeast breeze for our 54 mile passage to mainland Panama. Perfect. Now 54 miles might not seem like a ‘big dealio’ but recall that since anchorages are so close together in Kuna Yala, we’d been doing day hops of only five miles on average. A fifteen mile day was a major event, so when we realized it was a whopping 54 miles to Portobelo, we thought Whoa, major passage! Okay, I am sometimes given to hyperbole.

Another fitting comment came forth from Tom as we were nearing our destination: “What’s more fun than a landfall?!” Those were my feelings too as Feel Free made her way into the wide and lovely harbour enveloped by sparkling, luxuriant hills, old forts overrun by centuries old foliage and funky, colourful buildings, a church spire, a winding path. No wonder old Chris Columbus dubbed it Portobelo, “beautiful port” when he discovered it in a hellacious storm, apparently by accident, with his weary crew back in 1502. What a marvellous sight it must have been for them when the storm lifted, just as it was for us more than 500 years later.

One major difference now from the day Columbus arrived though, is the presence of boats big and small, and lots of them, punctuating the entire large harbour; boats getting ready to head through the Canal and then on to cross the Pacific, or up north to Isla Providencia, Honduras, Mexico or Florida, commercial cargo boats destined for Colombia or the Caribbean islands, boats that have been there for years, lying derelict, unattended.

 

The old Customs House museum, like an elegant but aging grand dame of the Renaissance in her fraying finery, was where we learned of Portobelo’s fascinating history.

Because of its convenient location and magnificent harbour, it was chosen in 1586 as the Caribbean trans-shipment center, becoming one of the most important sites for transferring South and Central American riches.

Fleets of galleons carrying tons of plundered gold and silver flowed from Portobelo to Seville, the commercial capital of the Spanish empire. For a century, more than one third of the world’s gold passed through Portobelo and not surprisingly, the town was the constant target of bloody pirate attacks. Henry Morgan and Frances Drake were probably the most famous of them all.

During the high season, crowds of traders, soldiers and fortune seekers swarmed the streets at the world’s largest trade fair. It became notorious as a dangerous town, a “hideaway for thieves and a burial ground for pilgrims”. Tropical epidemics resulted. According to legend, one fleet brought in approximately 4,000 men of which about 500 died in two weeks’ time.

A rather ramshackle little town is what we found on shore, a forlorn, tired place in need of repair. Walking the storied cobbled streets, you feel its former glory is sadly, dead and gone. Cheerful murals decorate houses and buses though and people are mostly friendly, welcoming.

 

According to legend, one fleet brought in approximately 4,000 men of which about 500 died in two weeks’ time.

 

We learned that the rites and beliefs of the Portobelo people of African origin are different from those in other parts of rural Panama. The “congo” ritual is an Afro-Panamanian tradition that reflects the adaptation of the slaves to their coastal-jungle environment. We were sorry we missed the fantastic folk theatre that takes place here ‘en plein air’, a delirious expression of songs, dances and theatrical performances.

 
Shooting the breeze with some of the old salts of Portobelo was part of everyday life while there. Dave of the sailboat Eileen has been in Panama for six years and is setting up a consignment shop in the “to be established in the near future” Yacht Club, and WOW, does he ever have a lot of tales to tell. Tom and I sat mesmerized, for hours, listening to his stories of his lifetime at sea, stories of murder, shipwrecks, buried treasures, groundings, you name it. He never runs out. “Wait til I have a few drinks, then the real juicy ones come out” he teased. Captain Jack’s is the newly finished local watering hole catering to backpackers and yachties and there we hung out for internet, book exchange, laundry, happy hours and the occasional meal (my birthday dinner!). We were back in “civilization” again!

An easy 20 mile beam reach brought us to our next anchorage off Club Nautico which is a just a stone’s throw away from the infamous town of Colon. I say infamous because Colon has a serious reputation for being a “bad ass” town, dangerous, dirty and stinky. For a long time I’d been dreading our arrival there. We knew we had to spend some time there as it’s where we were to haul out and it’s where you go before entering the Panama Canal. So, it is hard to avoid. Cruiser friends had given us countless warnings and tips: “don’t ever, ever walk by yourself; don’t ever, ever walk around at night; always take a taxi wherever you go; if you buy things and carry them, use see-through plastic bags so any would-be muggers can see they are not valuable; never carry a purse; carry money and valuables like passports in a money belt, on your person, hidden; be careful especially in the bus station and the vegetable and fruit market where muggers attack in broad daylight.” And the list goes on.

The anchorage by Club Nautico is a bit of a circus. You certainly don’t have to go anywhere for your entertainment. Just sit in your cockpit and let the show begin. Cruise ships, megalithic monsters towering over you and freighters and container vessels come and go constantly as do pilot boats, zooming around the anchored boats like so many bumper car drivers at a country fair, sometimes hollering at you to move.

It’s a designated anchorage yet they think they have the right to kick you out! One poor boat was rudely awakened at 0300. The stunned yachties did re-anchor feeling they had no alternative. The so called “Club” is anything but. There is a dinghy dock for which you pay $5. No problem. It’s security. They want to charge you $20 to use the facilities. What facilities? Oh, there’s a shower (open air hose) and you can obtain drinking water (from the same hose, we didn’t need it). There is a bar of sorts, but, well, it didn’t look appealing. The Restaurante Arrecife, on the same grounds, is very nice, air-conditioned, with wi-fi and a very good, reasonably priced menu, highly recommended. And, there’s a small super-mercado and plaza within walking distance. Great. But, DON’T WALK THERE! they told us. We did, with no problemo. But coming back to Feel Free, with backpacks full, and no see-through bags, we did succumb to the warnings and took a taxi. “It’s not worth it” warned someone we met in the supermarket. “I’ve lived here for thirty years. I know what I’m talking about. Trust me.” We took his word for it.

The Club Nautico anchorage is a good place to get your boat ready for the transit through the Canal. We watched others as they set up their tires and lines in anticipation of the big event.

Our plan was to haul out at Shelter Bay Marina, a half hour away, so we used our time to ready Feel Free for that event as much as we could while at anchor, removing, folding and stowing sails, deflating and stowing dinghy, life raft, and other paraphernalia, flushing outboard with fresh water, changing motor oil, etc. etc. By doing these things on the water, we could minimize the amount of time on the hard in the dusty boat yard, before leaving Feel Free on her own again, in dry storage, for another short spell. Our turn for the Canal will come soon enough.