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Leg 9, 2018, Update 1

January 5, 2018, 0830 hrs, 08 54 N, 079 31 W, Log: 208,977 miles
Baro: 1013.7, Cabin Temp: 85 F, Cockpit: 78 F, Sea Water: 80.2 F (chilly!)
Moored at Flamenco Marina, Panama

PANAMA CANAL TRANSIT AND NEW YEARS ADVENTURES!

Christmas was five days after the completion of Leg 8, and the many permanent and visiting liveaboard cruisers at Shelter Bay Marina, under the guidance of Jo Anne and Bill aboard Ultra pitched in to make it an unforgettable event. There was a competition for the best decorated boat, Christmas caroling, appetizers and drinks from dock to dock then on Christmas day everyone gathered for a huge potluck dinner in the Cruiser’s Palapa adjacent to the docks. Bill bought a 17lb. ham, cooked it all day, and carved up most of it for Christmas dinner. We sat next to a lovely Russian family who sail a Nauticat and chatted with cruisers from dozens of countries including China, Italy, Venezuela and Germany.


Shelter Bay Marina


Ultra bathed in Christmas glory


Cruisers Christmas potluck

We really enjoyed our time at Shelter Bay Marina. John Halley, an English former cruiser is the dock master and must be one of the most attentive, knowledgeable and helpful dock masters in the world.

When a Nordhaven powerboat went on the reef after ignoring his routing instructions for leaving the marina, he was truly distressed. Somehow John always seemed to always exercise amazing patience when keeping up with the unending demands of dozens of cruisers coming and going daily, especially as everyone needed answers and assistance right away. The marina has expanded, the laundry service has improved, there are twice the number of heads and showers, the wi-fi is about the best we’ve seen in any marina, then there’s the sail loft, pool, gym, accommodation, restaurant, airconditioned lounge with super screen tv and comfy furniture, free shuttle to town plus waking to the sounds of howler monkeys in the nearby jungle is unforgettable! I think you get the picture that we really enjoyed our stay at Shelter Bay!


One of Fort Lorenzo’s many canons. This one was forged in Portugal.

For our between-expedition adventure, we got Rico, the taxi driver our agent had suggested, to run us to Fort San Lorenzo, a 20-minute jungle drive away. Started by the Spanish in 1597, its purpose was to guard the Chagres River entrance (now a major source of water for the Panama Canal) and protect the shipments of Inca gold and silver that the Spanish were plundering and shipping back to Spain. Repeated attacks by English and Dutch buccaneers seriously damaged the fort several times until in the end the Spanish chose to send their ships around Cape Horn instead of risking attack here. Recently the park authority has done an excellent job adding interpretive signage and keeping the ever-encroaching jungle at bay.

Our plans of transiting the Panama Canal on December 30 & 31 (it takes two days to transit when going from Caribbean to Pacific if you do less than 10 knots) were squashed when no transit advisors volunteered to work on Dec. 31st. Knowing that it was also unlikely any advisors would want to work on January 1st, we then asked if there was any possibility of starting our transit on Thursday or Friday. The answer quickly came back that we could transit on Thursday and Friday.

We’ve always hired one local professional line handler (four line handlers, excluding the captain are required, most cruisers use other yachties wanting to gain the experience before transiting on their own vessels. We believe that hiring one pro is a very cheap insurance policy toward a safer transit.) and this time Rico (Rick Ibanez, +507 6427 3044) whom our agent had been using to run us to customs, immigration and cruising permit offices) and who used to be a full-time line handler before becoming a driver, agreed to transit with us. Wednesday night he brought us four 125’ lines and the ten, plastic wrapped and taped tires we’d asked for by. Thursday Rico picked up expedition member Peixi from Panama City (two-hour drive away) and was ready to roll at noon.


Here’s our Leg 9 Canal Transit crew: Marty, Leah, Rico, Diane, John and Peixi

Marty, 62 is a building contractor from Snowmass, Colorado who is saving up and counting the days until he can purchase his own cruising boat. This was Marty’s third expedition with us this year and this week he will join Elcie Expeditions for their passage to the Galapagos.

Leah, 12 is Diane’s daughter who is keen to become a fashion designer and is excited about starting middle school soon. Although initially squeamish, Leah did an excellent job of filleting and cleaning the wahoo we caught.

Diane, 61 a sailing instructor from Southern California who has taught sailing at Orange Coast College and USC.

John, 68 a retired lawyer who earlier worked in Colombia and several other Latin American countries. John, Diane and Leah live in La Jolla, CA and have sailed their Pacific Seacraft 40 Celtic Song to Baja and Alaska and are now readying it for a grand South Pacific adventure.

Peixi, 28, an environmental engineer currently working in Kazakhstan whom, a few months ago sailed with us and Marty on Leg 6 from Palma to Morocco to the Canary Islands.

We’d planned our Leg 9 crew safety briefing for Thursday, but our crew all agreed to starting the expedition a day earlier than scheduled, so noon Thursday they came aboard and by 12:30 we’d slipped our lines and were headed for “The Flats”, a designated anchorage area off the port of Colon. By 1500 not one, but two transit advisors, Roben and Moris, boarded and we instantly up anchored.


Marty and Rico prepare and stack our 10 tyres. They get taped with plastic bags and hung 5 aside. We paid $5 a tyre then $2 to have them disposed at Balboa after the transit.


4 lines of 125 ft with large loops are also required


Leah heads below for clean up after helping remove the mud from the anchor chain


The afterguard assembles as we cruise under the soon-to-be-finished Atlantic Bridge.


The Atlantic Bridge under construction. Currently the only way to drive to Shelter Bay Marina is by crossing the Gatun Locks when they’re closed or taking the vehicle ferry across the canal. Either way you must allow at least an hour travel time from Colon.

We were advised that Casimero, an immaculate Viking 68 returning from a paint job in Miami and skippered and crewed by friends of Rico, was to be our companion vessel for locking up the first set of locks into Gatun Lake. Being the larger vessel, they were assigned the lock sidewall position, and after they were securely tied, we would raft alongside.


Arriving alongside Casimero in the first chamber


Entering the first chamber of Gatun Lock behind our assigned ship

It's always exciting to watch the mules (electric locomotives) help guide the ship that we lock up behind, into the next chamber

Our first chamber was a bit of a challenge as Casimero’s crew struggled to keep her next to the wall using both engines, thrusters and two required lines. We really had our hands full securing our own lines to Casimero, fending off and moving fenders around, but we both got through all chambers without damage.


On entering Gatun Lake we passed by the new expansion locks and watched in awe as a neopamamax ship was maneuvered for lock down which takes approximately two hours.

The canal expansion can handle vessels with overall length of 366 m (1201 feet), 49 meters beam and 15.2 meters draft and cargo capacity up to 14,000 twenty-foot equivalent units TEU; previously, it could only handle vessels up to about 5,000 TEU.

Our advisors were taken ashore by a pilot boat after they had side tie to a giant mooring float for the night which Rico jumped on to secure us. Their last words were, “Be ready for an 0600 arrival of your next advisor”.

We enjoyed a quick swim while on the lookout for crocodiles and quiet night in this secluded part of the canal. The still of the night was occasionally broken by the calls of howler monkeys.

At 0830 Freddy, a giant of a man at 6’6” whose normal job was dredge operator and Kerstay, a tiny and lovely young woman whose normal job was boarding officer came aboard. Kerstay later shared that this was her first-ever canal transit and that she had recently signed up to be trained as a paid volunteer transit advisor. Freddy proved not only an excellent instructor for Kerstay, but also pitched in and helped with the lines occasionally when he was nearby, something we’ve never seen in our five previous transits.


Freddy and Kerstay our transit advisors.


While we waited for a dangerous cargo vessel to pass we watched the guys on Freddy’s dredge replace the huge teeth on the digger bucket.

Initially Freddy relayed from the lockmaster that we would transit side-tied to one of the canal tour boats (a relatively safe position), but then the lockmaster decided to have us wait for the next ship, a Sevenstar yacht transporter, loaded with power and sailboats. We spent an hour or more variously motoring slowly against the current inside a lock, then side-tied to the wall, waiting for Sevenstar to join us. In the end, we were side-tied to Islamorada: a day canal tour boat that was formerly owned by Al Capone and used to smuggle whiskey.


The view astern of MT as we lock down into the Pacific


Peixi steady and focused on the helm as we break out of our raft up upon leaving the chamber.

It was a long day, but by 1730 Mahina Tiare’s hull finally felt the surge of Pacific Ocean seawater mixing with the freshwater of the canal and we were off for the area off Balboa Yacht Club mooring field. Kerstay and Freddy hailed a boat to take them ashore, followed by Rico taking the yacht club launch with his four 125’ dock lines and all 10 tires. Rico had negotiated over the VHF radio with the club launch operator who agreed to take all ten of our tires away for $20, which we thought was an excellent idea as it left our decks clear for tying up at Flamenco/Fuerte Amador Marina in the dark and one less thing to deal with in the morning.

We’d hope to make it to the slightly tricky (because of all the anchored vessels we’d need to dodge) entrance to the marina in daylight, but it was dark before we reached the marina. After calling Fuerte Amador Marina on Ch 10, they said they would be sending out a skiff to guide us in but things still got confusing with an array of lights and noise from a huge dredge operating alongside the channel entrance. The skiff was highly welcome though as the marina has numerous dog legs plus the docks and slips lack visible markings.


Spare voltage regulator and engine relay box

Shortly after getting Mahina Tiare secured, our crew headed ashore with at least a dozen restaurants surrounding the marina to choose from, followed by showers. Meanwhile Amanda and I worked on the 24-volt charging system which had stopped working again. Initially the 24-volt alternator had charged only when cold during the last two days of Leg 8. At Shelter Bay we had checked all connections and changed out the relay box (we carry spares for every electrical component associated with our engine and both alternators) and this had seemed to solve the problem, but I guess I should have test run the engine longer, because on Thursday the alternator stopped charging after an hour.

Saturday morning, our crew obligingly checked out the nearby Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute with it exotic animals and frog exhibit while I decided to try changing out the voltage regulator. Thankfully that seemed to solve the problem, as the alternator never stopped charging as we motored six miles to Taboga. Our friend Roland Olsson sent us this excellent diagnostic sheet from Balmar: http://bronek.org/sailing/zamindar/resources/Alternator-regulator%20troubleshooting.pdf

Sunday we enjoyed swim and hike around Taboga; a lovely small island where Paul Gauguin had lived before sailing to Tahiti.


MT anchored off Taboga. Note the vultures in the left side of the image


Diane and John B enjoyed visiting the second oldest church in South America


Peixi, Leah and Amanda before a mural depicting the 1891 painting “Tahitian Women on the Beach” by Gauguin. French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (7 June 1848 - 8 May 1903).


Getting ready to set sail on a 34-mile passage for Las Perlas Islands, a sparsely-populated group of islands.

Contadora, the largest is where the Contadora Peace Accord was signed and where the Shah of Iran lived out his final days. We arrived well before dark to find 50+ motor yachts (and four sailboats) anchored off the more protected south side of the island. Avoiding the densely-packed mooring field off the main beach, we found a small cove with a great anchorage and some interesting snorkeling. That was New Year’s Eve, and that night we watched a 20+ minute fireworks display on both sides of the skinny island.


Diane an Peixi relashing the top sliders


One of Contradoa’s many sandy beaches


Wow...these fellows are fun to watch! New Year’s Day we all went on a long hike ashore on Contadora before returning for more snorkeling and a very short cruise to a fairly protected anchorage in the channel between Chapera and Mogo Mogo Islands. The 20’ tides generated a lot of current so we did a snorkeling safari with the dinghy and got out of the current, swimming ashore to check out the deserted beaches.


Snorkel safari time

New Year’s Day we all went on a long hike ashore on Contadora before returning for more snorkeling and a very short cruise to a fairly protected anchorage in the channel between Chapera and Mogo Mogo Islands. The 20’ tides generated a lot of current so we did a snorkeling safari with the dinghy and got out of the current, swimming ashore to check out the deserted beaches.

Tuesday we motored five miles against wind and occasional rain to anchor off Isla Saboga where found an excellent new floating dock with signage promising a 30 slip marina in 2018.


We explored the small town while looking for dinghy fuel then went exploring on muddy jungle trails.


Marty forged ahead, but Peixi’s golden slippers frequently got stuck in the mud, causing her to laugh so hard she nearly toppled over!

Wednesday morning, we headed back to Flamenco Marina with winds under 4 kts, but fun fishing as we landed a wahoo (Spanish mackerel) which Leah and Peixi filleted.

We made our landfall at Flamenco Marina’s fuel dock, and just after someone asked, “Would you use your fuel funnel filter here”, the fuel attendant asked if we would mind waiting a few minutes as they did some routine maintenance.


Spanish mackerel anyone?


We watched as the dock crew drained the water separator and proceeded to replace the largest Racor fuel filter cartridge I’ve ever seen.

On top of that, the fuel was only US$2.92, one of the lowest prices we’ve seen anywhere.

Once in our berth, crew helped wash down and we shared a graduation dinner at Beirut, an excellent Lebanese (which we somehow thought was Moroccan and kept chatting on so) restaurant overlooking the marina.

Thursday morning was pack and clean time and then suddenly Leg 9 was completed.


Happy New Year from us and our Leg 9 crew: Flamenco Marina

Amanda and I have been enjoying having Mahina Tiare in a safe, secure and non-surgey slip (compared to our last visit at La Playita which was a real challenge), long runs on the scenic canal causeway and preparing MT for our upcoming passage to Hawaii.

For our between-expedition adventure, Amanda has agreed to a one-night visit to Gamboa Rainforest Lodge (and Spa? asks Amanda…..yeah right?) which we briefly visited shortly after it’s opening in 2000. I’ve been dreaming about a night ashore there, surrounded by jungle and incredible animals ever since, and tomorrow our friend and canals agent’s representative Elias will drive us there. (Later note: Our stay at Gamboa Lodge was absolutely fabulous. We saw more exotic animals and birds – even a crocodile! – than we ever hoped for. Waking up to the sweeping view of the Chagres River and surrounding jungle sounds of howler monkeys was unforgettable. I just wished we could have stayed longer!)


Resources used on Leg 9: Panama Canal Transit:

WWW.WINDY.COM

Cruising Guides: The Panama Cruising Guide, Fifth Edition by Eric Bauhaus is absolutely invaluable and incredibly well illustrated. We used this guide several time a day. Lonely Planet Panama is also an excellent resource

Electronic Charts: C-Map running on Rose Point Coastal Explorer proved a little disappointing, and
Navionics Caribbean & South America (MSD/NAV+3XG) running on both our new Raymarine MFD’s (multi-function displays), proved considerably more detail.

Anchoring and Moorage Options: There are very limited safe anchoring possibilities on either end of the Canal. Shelter Bay Marina on the Caribbean side does a brilliant job for the very reasonable price of approximately US$1.00 per foot per night. It is certainly worth emailing ahead of time for a berth reservation, even if your exact ETA is subject to the weather. When the rallies arrive in Jan.-Feb., this place can fill up quickly. Shelter Bay has extensive and secure dry storage area ashore, plus repair facilities and sail loft. Click HERE for a PDF Shelter Bay’s detailed brochure.

On the Pacific side, Balboa Yacht Club’s moorings right at the Canal entrance may be all taken in peak season (late Jan. to mid-March) but General Manager Rex Jansen (marina@bycpty.com, +507 211 0827, cell +507 6670 7284) is now allowing yacht to anchor just west of the mooring field while waiting for a mooring to become available. He goes all out to help cruisers and is now installing new washing machines and driers this season, complementing the services including fuel, showers, restaurant and bar. It is possible to anchor to the south of Balboa YC,  just off the entrance to La Playita Marina, (laplayitainfo@siwireless.com, +507 314 1730) and this is probably the best anchorage possibility and for a charge the marina allows cruisers to tie tenders to their float. La Playita Marina can be ok, but at times has surge problems serious enough to break cleats and docks.

Flamenco Marina (also called Amador Resort and Marina) is one of the most expensive we’ve used anywhere at US$2.40 per foot per night, but has improved over recent years, and currently has a very conscientious manager Carlos Hernandez (chernandez@fuerteamador.com) and crew. Wi-fi is available in their office, and is just now being installed on the docks. Fuel is clean, cheap and the fuel dock is easily accessible. Important to reserve ahead if planning to moor here. They also have a 100 ton Travelift, but limited space for dry storage.

Las Brisas is a large anchorage area to the east of the Amador Causeway where close to 100 vessels of all types are anchored or moored. There is very limited space for tenders at the Taboga Island ferry landing, and no charge for anchoring. Currently dredging is taking place 24 hrs per day for the new cruise ship terminal located just north of the entrance to Flamenco Marina, bordering the Las Brisas anchorage area. Castillo (eliassyrovi@gmail.com, +507 6140 1135) has provided us invaluable help as a driver on the Pacific side.

Pacific side Cruisers Net is at 0800 on ch 72.

Use of an Agent for Transiting the Canal
Although not required, we believe it can save you several very frustrating days. If transiting to the Pacific, I’d recommend contact Shelter Bay Harbormaster John Halley: john@shelterbaymarina.com for his latest recommendation, as he has feedback on agent services daily from various yachts. Here’s what he said in Jan. 2018:

Emmanuel Agencies
Roy Bravo has been handling the World ARC efficiently for more than 3 years.  He is particularly good at helping with the extras. Immigration and Port Captain check-ins: if needed . Has excellent big round fenders. roybravo67@yahoo.com or emmanuelagencies@emmanuelageniessa.com Cell +507 6678 6820

Stwards
Peter Neal is another agent that always go the extra to make things work. More orientated to the sport fish boats but also a sail enthusiast. Has excellent big round (and bright orange) fenders available. Pneal@stwards.com Cell + 507 62346821 (also whatsapp)  tel +507 314 0714

Associated Yacht Services.
Alex Risi and his assistant Josimar is at the top of the tree with big yachts: I breathe a sigh of relief when these yachts come here under his guidance. He makes our life so easy! While these biggies are his bread and butter he and his team are very able to assist all-comers. yachts@shipsagent.com Cell +507 66140485  tel +507 +507 211 9540

Centenario Consulting
For a no fuss efficient operation Erick Galvez is a very good bet. The most competitive: he actually handles effectively about 30 percent of the boats passing through us.  Good black proper fenders. info@centenarioconsulting.com Cell +507 66761376  tel +507 232 7534

Other particular likes are Stanley Jr (son of the old stalwart), Nydia Rodriguez of Transshipping and Francis Ziemetz of Panama agencies (bigger boats usually) End of Jan. is the time for the WARC. For 2019 we also expect the OCC rally (around the Caribbean NOT transiting) arriving Feb 1 for 10 days. I expect there may also be an Oyster RALLY coming 2019: late Feb to mid-March. 


Leg 9 Itinerary

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