Z E N I T U D E
Blue Water Dreaming
Colon, Panama - The last port in the Caribbean
Shelter Bay Marina - 17 March to 04 April 2010 (09.22.10N-79.57.00W)
The marina is trying to be a 5 stars marina, but the reality of Panama makes it hard. Prices are high but as Shelter Bay is currently the only marina available for boats transiting the canal, they can get away with it.
We didn't have many problems in the marina except for the fact that it was impossible to get practically anything solved.
But it is not the marina's fault. This is Panama's culture, where 'tomorrow' means one of these days and where if 'this' is what you ordered, 'that' is what you'll probably get, like it or not. We benefited from this as we bought a new chain for our anchor from somebody that had ordered 300 ft and when the order arrived the chain measured 200 ft. We actually wanted 250 ft but decided to compromise as who knows how much we would need to wait for a new one.
From our experience, don't plan to get in Panama what you can get somewhere else. Among other things we tried to get a new wind generator but we finally left without it.
We arrived at Shelter Bay Marina at 3.00 PM after a nice sail from Linton Island. Tutatis was just behind us and we arrived together. We both got temporary slips as the marina was full. There had been a delay in canal transiting because advisors were not working due to some kind of protest, so nobody was leaving. After a couple of days we got a proper slip. Life in Shelter Bay is hectic. Everybody is running against the clock with final chores and provisioning for the big jump. Whatever you can't get in Panama it has to be left for Tahiti, or so it seems. And Tahiti is almost 5,000 miles away.
After consulting with other cruisers we hired an agent to take care of paperwork for the canal transit. He also provides the big lines and fenders. All for a price of course. Some of our friends did it all by themselves and it was ok as well, just a bit of running around.
There was not much delay to get a date for the transit, everyone was accommodated more or less as requested, the only problem for some was that sometimes there were cancellations, and some actually left and were back hours later. Quite an anti-climax after the anxious expectation.
Friends go with friends as hand liners and we did the crossing first with Song Line, and a week later with Tutatis. Both times we had a great time and it was a good experience while waiting for our own transit.
Even though everybody is busy there is a lot of socializing as we all have the same thing in our minds, get to the other side with a smooth canal transit, and after that, well, after that there is a big ocean to cross.
We were waiting for Murray to join us here and sail with us all the way to Tahiti. When he finally arrived, from Sydney, he did not have much time to rest and relax. He was soon in the middle of all the hectic activity and was such a great help.
I think the worst part of it was all the provisioning, including trying to store it all in an organized way to be able to actually find the stores during the trip. With all the space in the catamaran we were able to store a lot more than we actually needed, this was some kind of sense of security.
We developed a storage system with big boxes, small boxes and some canisters, we numbered the boxes and I wrote down most of contents and where they had been stored. It worked really well. We bought a lot of wine in Panama as we knew it was going to be very expensive anywhere else. We stored them in their special bags (we got them in the US) or with bubble plastic in canisters. This also worked very well.
Shelter Bay, a busy marina in March
US Fort Sherman, or what is left of it
There is a jungle out there, not far from the marina
The marina bus, don't forget to sign up!
Tutatis leaves Shelter Bay towards the Pacific
Colon has also been affected by the US turning over the Panama Canal to Panama. The city has no more reason to exist and it seems to be slowly dying. As a result it is known as a dangerous city .
We followed marina advice for safety on where to go and where not to go. We were never there at night. The city is so run down, that coming back on the bus after having transited the canal on our friends boats, twice, gave us some concern. The only thing to do is to get a cab quickly and go back to the marina. The marina is perfectly safe.
The other times we went to Colon with the marina bus, but this was just a trip to the shops, and back again in the marina bus. No problem. Taxis are expensive and sometimes everyone has to stop and wait for the canal opening. It's common to be delayed from half hour to an hour until the roads are opened again. We found that it is possible to cross the river by ferry when the Canal has closed the road access.
Our old wind generator, beyond help
Shelter Bay Marina was created when the US turned the Panama Canal over to Panama in 1999. It was formerly the docks of the US Fort Sherman and the marina is located in the Chagres National Park where Fort Sherman was. There is a jungle nearby and you can hear the howler monkeys frequently. Fort Sherman has been abandoned, and this can be seen in the decaying buildings all around the marina.
We had left our main sail in Linton, with French sail makers recommended to us, for them to add reinforcement in places where the sail touches the shrouds, as most of our sailing was going to be with wind in the back and the sail was already showing tear and wear on those points. They did and excellent job and amazingly for Panama standards delivered the sail on time.
We love French sail makers, they always did very good repairs for us. We had a moment of panic as the reinforcement made the sail tighter in its width and it seemed that we wouldn't be a able to fit the battens back in their pockets. But we finally took the hang of it and had our main sail with full battens back in place.
It was time to go. We spent the last day with final laundry, cleaning and organizing 'stuff', last minute shopping, filling up water tanks and all those little things you try to do before leaving a marina.
This time we were not just the marina, this time we were leaving behind the Caribbean, the cruising grounds we had enjoyed tremendously for many years. It was the feeling of ending a marvelous chapter in our lives. At the same time, there was the excitement of the Pacific dream with the uncertainties of unknown cruising grounds and the anticipation of landing in some of the most remote and exotic places.