05/29/2010, Shelter Bay, Colon, Panama
When I woke up on Sunday morning, we could see the high
mountains (one thousand metres) of Panama to our South. We headed West
and more and more converged with the coast. There are plenty of very
beautiful coves and cays here; a stretch that Imelda, the children and I
will explore on our way to the San Blas Islands. It is a remote place
that only slowely gets discovered.
The wind was completely gone and it felt hotter than ever! We stopped Queenie for a refreshing swim in the sea despite the sea temperature of 29 degrees. We drifted ENE at 0.8 knots with the Equatorial Counter Current. However, our drift was the same as the boat's.
We quickly approached the opening of the breakwater of Colon / Cristobal harbour and the Atlantic opening of the Panama Canal. It was slightly confusing as we approached; not helped by a partly faulty VHF system and not knowing who controlled the traffic and the rules of the approach. I was later to understand it is Cristobal Signal Station that controls the movements; fantastic name isn't it old fashioned signal stations just like at Bridgetown, Barbados, not VTSs (the modern "Vessel Traffic Schemes").
We made the last mile along the inside of the Western brakewater passing by lots of anchored ships into the little corner called Shelter Bay. It is a remarkable location both just a mile or two from the one of the most important cross roads of the world, but also immensely remote in the rainforest and kilometers away from the next settlement. Shelter Bay Marina is built at the former US Military Base Sherman and some of its scattered buildings are slowely being reclaimed by the rainforest.
It is something special to arrive at a legendary cross road. The Panama Canal is one of the most important of those. There is an immense amount of shipping around. I think we have more AIS targets (i e ships popping up on our "Automatic Identification System") here than in the English Channel.
It was a mistake to think that we smoothly could clear into Panama on a Sunday. We kept the time schedule, but it was going to be both time consuming and expensive. We got conflicting advice from all parties we spoke to. However, we had soon appointed a Shipping Agent.
As our taxi scuttled past the massive Gatun locks; I felt the significance of the place. It is a master piece of engineering and of key importance for trade. It is either here or around Cape Horn you pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific; barring the North West Passage. The taxi continue to speed pass the rough down town of Christobal and through the military road blocks into the harbour. We had arrived at Fenton's Ship Agency. We were very well received and one of the most curious things was that they didn't want to charge a fixed price for their services. It was up to us to tip.
The ship agent was going to wisk us through eeriely empty (on a Sunday) harbour offices, walk us around the rough streets of Cristobal in search of a working ATM to get some more US dollars. It was a bizarre experience meeting officials called out this Sunday to help us (but also asking one nonsense question after another for bureacracy's sake) in a an equally bizarre setting of these massive docks. It got dark before we had returned to Shelter Bay and could start the real work of shutting down the boat.