SAILING MEXICO

    Greetings family and friends!  Southern Belle has moved into the Caribbean Sea!  Ja Mon it's time for us to hang with
    Old Knotty Dread and contemplate de Lion.  We transited the Panama Canal on March 14 and 15, 2009.  This update
    will tell you all about our trip through the canal.  Remember, you can find corresponding pictures by clicking on the
    Photo Album button above.  And don't forget, you can always look at our previous ramblings by clicking on the archived
    Journal Entries (above) and the corresponding archived Photo Albums on the Photo Album page.

    Our time spent in Panama City was predominantly taken up with provisioning and preparing Southern Belle to transit
    the Panama Canal.  We managed to do a few fun things while in the big city.  We will tell you all about it in the following
    bullet item list, and don't forget to check out the accompanying pictures:

We met a local family (Nicole & Mike) with three boys and some other cruising boats with kids as well.  One day
we went on an outing to climb Cerro Anton which is a large hill in Panama City with a nice lookout at the top.  We
took a total of 12 kids on the hike and followed up with a BBQ at Mike and Nicoles' house.  On the hike up we
spotted a sloth working at leaves in one of the big trees.  From the top you can see all of Panama City on one
side, and the beginning portion of the Panama Canal on the other side.

We visited the different areas of Panama City,  mostly as part of our effort to buy boat parts and provisions.  
We did visit the Albrook Mall which is without a doubt the largest Indoor Mall we have ever seen.  It was
interesting to see, but the better deals were in the downtown stores.

There are some very nice restaurants in the big city.  We especially enjoyed a Dim Sum lunch at a great
Chinese Restaurant.  Of course seafood is a staple in Panama and as such they have some killer seafood places.

From Joshua's point of view the best part of Panama City was all of the new friends he made.  We ran into
dozens of kids on boats.  Unfortunately very few were heading the same direction as us.   Namely, through the
Canal and into the Caribbean.  Most vessels had just come from that side and were heading toward the South
Pacific.  It was fun while it lasted!

    So as you can see from that meager list above, we were spending the majority of our time doing boat work, and of
    course home schooling for Joshua.  Panama City was fun and definitely has more to offer that we did not get to see,  
    but we were happy to get going through the canal.  Those big cities tend to be money pits for us.

    About 4 days before we took Southern Belle through the canal, Melinda went aboard Hooligan as a line handler to help
    Tim & Paula transit over to the Caribbean side.  It was great for her to get the experience before taking our own
    boat through.  At the same time Melinda was helping Hooligan, our good friend Dave Katz (Catfish) flew into Panama
    City from Southern California.  Dave came down to help us get through the canal and to spend some time with us on the
    Caribbean side visiting the San Blas Islands.  

    We took care of all the necessary paperwork and inspections required to cross the Panama Canal and were assigned
    the date of  March 14, 2009.   The cost for us to cross the famous canal was $700 which isn't too bad when you look
    at the alternative of having to travel down around Cape Horn and up the other side of South America to reach the
    Caribbean Sea.  While the idea of a canal linking the Pacific with the Caribbean was conceived as early as 1534 by the
    Spanish, actual construction of the Panama Canal was officially begun in 1880 by the French.  However, due to the
    unfortunate decision to engineer the canal as a sea-level canal (without locks, similar to the Suez Canal) the attempt
    ended in financial ruin in 1889.  The French effort cost $285,000,000 USD and consumed over 20,000 lives, more
    than any other project ever, except war.  In 1903 the US undertook the construction of the Panama Canal and it was
    officially opened to traffic on August 15, 1914.  The Canal has six locks, three that take a vessel up into Gatun Lake
    and three that take it back down again.  The vessel is raised a total of 84 feet to reach the level of Lake Gatun.  For
    a long time the locks were the world's largest concrete structures, and they have functioned flawlessly 24/7 for
    nearly 100 years.

    On the morning of March 14th we raised our anchor from the muddy bottom in La Playita and motored out to bouy #6
    to wait for our Panama Canal Advisor.  All boats crossing the Canal have either a Pilot or an Advisor aboard depending
    on the size of the vessel.  We traveled with another sailboat named Susuru.  Aboard Southern Belle we had our
    regular crew plus Catfish, Dave & Carol from s/v Nuage, and Mary from s/v Carpe Vita.  Jose (the Advisor) showed up
    at 0930, boarded Southern Belle, and instructed us to get underway for the first set of Locks.   We passed under
    the Bridge of the Americas on our way to the Mira Flores Locks.  Before we entered the first chamber Jose had us
    raft-up with Susuru.  Both Susuru and Southern Belle were outfitted with old tires down both sides to act as fenders
    so rafting-up was no problem.  It also improved our control of the situation because we now had three engines at our
    disposal for close quarters maneuvering.  We slowly pulled into the first lock and the line handlers way up on the wall
    tossed their tag lines down to the line handlers on our boats.  The tag lines are weighted at the end by a Monkey Fist.  
    You do not want to get hit in the head with one of those Monkey Fists.  Our line handlers then took the small tag lines
    and tied them to our heavy duty lines (hausers) and the guys up on the wall pulled the hausers up and attached them to
    beefy cleats.  We then pulled up the slack from our end.  The final result being that our little raft-up was held in
    place at the center of the lock away from both walls.  The big doors closed behind us and they started pumping water
    into the chamber and up we went!  It was quite turbulent at first because fresh water was mixing with the sea water,
    but our line handlers did a spectacular job of holding the boats safely in the center of the lock.  Once we reached the
    proper level the doors in front of us opened and we motored into the next chamber to repeat the process.  After we
    finished locking up through the Mira Flores Locks we travelled approximately one mile further to the Pedro Miguel
    Lock.  Along this track we passed beneath the new Centennial Bridge.  

    When we finished locking up through Pedro Miguel we had fully transitioned from sea water into the fresh water of
    Gatun Lake.  This is probably the first time Southern Belle had ever experienced fresh water.  She rode much lower
    in the water but was still able to make adequate speed.  Immediately upon leaving the Pedro Miguel Lock we entered
    the Gaillard Cut which was carved through the rock and shale of the Continental Divide and extends for 7.4 miles.  We
    left the Cut where the Chagres River feeds into the eastern most portion of the Gatun Lake.  Indeed, it is the dams
    built along the Chagres River which form this large man-made lake.  From this point we travelled approximately 20
    miles through Gatun Lake to reach the Gatun Locks that would take us back down and into the Caribbean Sea.  Due to
    our relatively late start and some delays entering the Mira Flores Locks, by the time we reached this area the Gatun
    Locks were closed to northbound traffic and we had to spend the night in the lake.  This turned out to be a blessing as
    we were all tired from a long day in the Canal and it allowed us to take the Gatun Locks in the daylight.  Our Advisor
    Jose, who did a great job, had us tie up to the largest mooring ball I have ever seen.  It was so big that we side-tied
    to one side of the mooring ball while Susuru tied to the other side.  Our two Advisors were picked up shortly
    thereafter and left us with the promise we would have a new set of Advisors by 1100 the next day.  We served dinner
    to our hungry crew then we split into two groups, those who wanted some well earned sleep and those who wanted to
    sit in the cockpit and play music.  Mary played the mandolin/harmonica and George played the guitar.  Others chose
    percussion instruments and we had ourselves a regular fais-do-do there in the cockpit of Southern Belle beneath the
    stars on a crystal clear, moonless night.  It was a night that will not be soon forgotten (especially by those poor
    sailors who were actually trying to get some sleep).  

    Th next morning we all woke to coffee and breakfast and then went for a swim in the lake.  Ahhhhhhh!  A fresh water
    bath!  What a treat it was and all the crew from both boats joined in.  Joshua had us all diving off of the big mooring
    ball we were tied up to.  Our new advisor,Paco, arrived right on time at 1100.  From where we were moored you can
    look out and see all of the ships lining up to transit the locks down into the Caribbean Sea.  We left the mooring and
    made way for the Gatun Locks.  Safely rafted up again, Southern Belle and Susuru motored into the first of three
    locks right in front of a large commercial ship that parked in the lock behind us.  It was a tad nerve wracking watching
    that huge bow bear down on us as she pulled into the lock.  But the PC pros had no problem stopping her in time.  While
    they use people to move our vessels, they use trains to move the big boys.  Southern Belle and Susuru were in the
    eastern side of the Gatun Locks and a large cruise ship was adjacent in the western side.  Of course we hammed it up
    a little for the benefit of all the folks on the bow of the cruise ship.  I wonder if we somehow made it onto You Tube?

    We made it safely through the first lock, and then the second lock, and finally the third lock.  As the big doors opened
    in front of us we motored Southern Belle out into the Caribbean Sea.  It was quite exciting and all aboard felt as if
    they had really accomplished a feat.  The whole experience was definitely one of the highlights of our travels thus
    far.  As we motored through the channel leading to the sea, Colon opened up on our right side.  In the past people have
    been able to anchor in Colon and use the Panama Canal Yacht Club as a base to access the city.  The Yacht Club here is
    one of the oldest in the world.  Unfortunately, less than a week before we were scheduled to transit, an officially
    sanctioned wrecking crew came in and started tearing the place down.  This was done with no official notice to the
    people who own boats in the Marina, some of them living aboard.  It seems the whole area was bought up by the
    Chinese so they can expand the Container Port.  Regardless of the politics and who the actual culprits are, it was sure
    a ruthless way to do business and the end result is that the Panama Yacht Club is no more.  So we headed the opposite
    direction in the bay and went to the Shelter Bay Marina which is built on a former US Military station, Fort ???????.  
    This was the first time being in a marina in over 11 months.  Joshua had a great time with other kids at the pool, we
    had easy access to the internet, and they had a restaurant with great burgers and pizza.  Hey, what more could you
    ask for.  We'll tell you what more!  The San Blas Islands!  We will be covering that little gem of a cruising area in our
    next installment.  So be sure to check back often!



































    Until our next update we wish you all fair winds and following seas!
Panama Canal
Heading into the Panama Canal from the Pacific side