Leg 7, Week 5: Panama & beyond

44 hours in Panama

Just over a day after Costa Rica, we finally arrived at a Flamenco Marina in Panama. Time to get up, hastily stuff some clothes into a rucksack, put on the Visit Seattle school uniform for a quick photo and then LAND! 

From the start of the race, we knew there was a chance that we wouldn’t get to stop in Panama, so we were delighted to discover that we would get to stay in Panama briefly as we were scheduled to cross the canal on Sunday morning. We lucked out here as Mission Performance who arrived shortly before us had to leave the next morning, giving them just one partial night on land. We, on the other hand, could have 2 nights in a hotel. 2 WHOLE NIGHTS!

I’m not sure what I expected of Panama, but I didn’t expect my first view to be of skyscrapers in the distance, a contrast to the tropical jungle that otherwise surrounded the marina. Our first challenge one eating off the boat was walking: wow, walking further than 70ft was hard. As soon as we could, we were in the nearest bar to cool off from the walking exertion, bizarrely a Lebanese restaurant called Beirut. There we had watermelon juice and were able to drop off laundry to be actualy washed rather than just freshened up with sea water. Fingers crossed that it would return!

The highlight of arriving in Panama had to be the ice cream shop Emily and I discovered on the walk to the hotel. We discuss ice cream so many times on this boat that to a actually find a parlour with so many different flavours was AMAZING. BEST ICE CREAM IN THE WORLD. We were absolutely knackered after more walking to get to hotel, but the ice cream proved to be highly restorative, just enough sugar to get us to the hotel. Totally justified.

Ever so slightly over-excited about ice cream

At the hotel, there was yet more delight when we confirmed it wasn’t a shack and had the modern comforts of beds, air conditioning and a shower. I was first in the shower as Emily chose to cool off on the floor (as you do) and Lucy connected to the Wifi. Shower for me then. The shower was AMAZING. BEST SHOWER IN THE WORLD. Feeling clean felt so good…and yet so foreign. Turns out the tan wasn’t just dirt and bruises after all. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent focusing hard on rest, relaxation and wifi before we wandered back to the marina to pick up some bits and pieces and get some food. This is when we realised in our newly freshened state that unsurprisingly, the boat stinks. NOT AMAZING. DEFINITELY NOT THE BEST SMELL IN THE WORLD. Stinky boat.

In the evening, we quaffed Pina Coladas, ate meat & seafood platters with fantastic views over Panama City before wandering back to the hotel to the sound of live music as bars entertained the guests. it was a relatively early night; we had real beds to look forward to! Lucy, Emily and I were confused to wake up on sharing a room to discover that none of us were taking a shower despite the noise of pouring water. It was rain, lashing it down outside, but this was warm rain. I had to prevent the impulse to run outside in my undies, shower gel in hand. No boat showers here, we had a on-demand, temperature controlled fresh water shower we could use whenever we wanted. Oh the luxury!

Saturday was our opportunity to explore Panama a little more so a group of us got taxis into the Old City for the afternoon. This was a real contrast to the skyscrapers in the distance; beautiful in a delapidated way. Panama hat shopping was a mandatory, as was the Panama Canal museum. Unfortunately, watching football appeared to be mandatory too so instead, a few of us sat outsider the bar showing football and found more ice cream instead. Ice cream, everywhere! It was then to a Panamanian restaurant for dinner. A combination of being on the boat for 5.30am the next day and potentially some of said Panamaniun food being a bit dodgy meant many people then did not have the best start to the next day though. Our taxis failed to turn up so our stay in Panama was completed with a 15 minute sprint-walk to the boat to a beautiful sunrise and the sounds of the rainforest around us. 44 hours in Panama done.

#farmertan #tourists


Crossing the Canal

100% deet. That’s what we went for crossing the canal. Although there were not as many biting insects as expected, nor was the Canal quite as expected.

Here we go! Off into the canal
The bridge of the Americas
Snuggling up to some slightly larger boats

After slipping lines at around 6am, we had a “pilot” join us on the boat to steer a Visit Seattle through the canal. Through the bridge of the Americas we went before entering the vast lock system. Ourselves, PsP and Danang were tethered together to form a Clipper-raft following a huge ship through the locks. We were on the outside of this raft, so at each lock, men with ropes and a precision aim would throw ropes to us that we would tie into. These men would then literally walk us through the lock as they filled: up we went on the Pacific side, down we came on the Atlantic. Each lock had 2 sets of vast steel gates, these being the original ones installed in 1914. Coming down the locks on the Atlantic side was particularly impressive as you’d start st the same height as ships ahead of you before lowering down.

It took a day to traverse the canal, what we didn’t expect was a 6 hour stop in the middle of the canal in the rainforest as we waited for a new pilot to join us. I was on watch for this afternoon, and shortly after we stopped, we could see rain approaching in the distance along the river. Serious rain. Quickly it was down with the Visit Seattle banners and the sunshade we’d constructed out of a tarpaulin. On went the foulies, down came the rain, the heaviest I’ve ever experienced. And that was that for the afternoon: soaked on Seattle, knackered from being up so early with crocodile hunting plus dancing to entertain us. Apparently Dana spotted some crocodiles. I didn’t see any. Probably a good thing.

Rain in Panama – now the rain-reference point for the rest of ky life
Attire varied to deal with the rain

We went off watch at 6pm which meant we missed the centre of the canal system made up of Lakes and rainforest. Apparently there was very little to see in the dark, just huge passing ships in the night (literally). We woke up for the 2am watch to the final few locks on the Atlantic side lit up by the lock-lights. 1 day and the Panama Canal was done. On to the Caribbean!

A whole new race

So…

  • West “coast” of north & Central America: tick
  • Panama Canal: tick
  • Next stop: New York

Looking racey off the start
The race start for Race 11 was originally planned to be on Monday afternoon, falling on our off-watch. Many of us on Starboard watch were suffering from fatigue as the Panama Canal crossing meant we’d missed out on our first 6 hour sleep and the race start meant we would miss our second. Whilst the port watch had had 2 X 6 hour sleeps within the first 30 hours, we were running on around 5 hours sleep total over the same time period. Groggy and grumpy: we were all very groggy and very grumpy. The previous evening in Panama, I’d also been up with Emily whilst she was ill. I became a bit of a safety hazard on deck as a result as the tiredness made me feel sea-sick again and I swayed around (I don’t have control of my legs at the best of times) so was sent down to snooze. Luckily for us, a lack of wind meant race start was delayed until the morning, finally we could get some sleep.

Before we could crack on with race start however, that night brought the first big squall hit for my watch on this leg. We were motoring along nicely and then minutes later, the wind had picked up significantly. Suddenly, the boat was rocking over as we although we had just the main sail up, it was too much for the wind in this instance. Tino called for a reef to be made (when the size of the mainsail is reduced), we Sprung into action and then the rain began. By this point, It’s been around 8 months since I’d last done a reef so I was pretty clueless but was able to help pull the sail down at the mast. The rain was quite something though: the squall came on so quickly we were drenched through in our shorts and tshirts, dripping for the remainder of the watch. Oh the drama!

The next day, it was time for our Le Mans start. First bought there was a magnificent sun-halo, the first I’ve ever seen. So pretty. Anyway, the Le Mans start involves all 12 yachts lining up in a row somehow with one skipper calling the minutes until the start down the radio with an improvised horn sound for extra drama. No cannons on here to start the race. Whilst the countdown is going on, we were all allocated jobs (being somewhat bleary eyed having been woken up for the start). We then huddle towards the back of the boat, ready for that final “horn” at which we all ran up to our positions to hoist sails as quickly as possible. This was going to be an upwind start, so white sails were hoisted, off we went and so began the heeling over.

Heeling over. I’ve decided I hate heeling over.

Heeling over is when the boat tilts on its side going upwind, rocking over to what feels like extreme angles. Everything about the boat changes with this. What was an obstacle before becomes a critical platform to stand on, what were walls become floors and moving anywhere takes a huge amount of energy and perseverance. This angle of sailing is what you see on all the Clipper “action shots” and it does make everything more dramatic. For around 48 hours straight we were heeled over this week, absolutely nothing compared to other legs but a bit of a shock for Leg 7 crew after the flat downwind sailing of the previous stint. Heeling-anger has now joined my angry list to accompany lack of food, lack of sleep and heat. So much anger on this boat! The heeling-rage came in particular when trying to get into my bunk, which is now no longer my own luxurious private cave as I’m now sharing with Jon. Most of the time, the boat has been heeled over so that my bunk is on the high side, except my bunk being an upper bunk means this is really high. At first to ensure I didn’t fall out, I got into the bunk and then Emily adjusted my pulley system that tilts the bunk for you. 2 minutes later and I was clinging on to whatever I could as the bunk fell away from me. My first run in with the bunk. After successfully adjusting the bunk so that I was less likely to fall asleep, I woke with a jolt to find myself propelled onto the Lee cloth – a little too close to falling out for my liking. It was another sweat-rage moment: out I got to adjust the bunk in my undies only to knock over the cool box I use as a step containing what felt like 1000s of cans in my slightly delirious state. Lots of noise and swearing later and the cans were returned, the bunk hoisted and I was back in it. Except now, because the angle of the bunk is so high to prevent me from falling out, I’m in the hottest pocket of air you can get, all of the heat from the boat rising to the high side. Add to this the multiple bruises I’ve incurred from falling everywhere trying to move at an angle on this thing and AAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHH! 

I hate heeling over.

(It should be said that I’ve since adjusted to heeling over a little: everything is about adjustment on this boat. Heat isn’t the same issue it used to be, soon the angle won’t be either. I live in hope.)

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Leg 7, Week 4: Motoring

How did I manage to miss this?! My blog post from the week preceding Panama…

Our lean, mean, washing machine

After nearly exactly 3 weeks of racing, the race was finished at the 3rd gate before Panama. Our off-shore route may not have paid out as we hoped, but we did beat PSP and Danang to come 10th plus 2 extra points from the ocean sprint. with the race now over, the engine has now been switched on and we’ve met up with Mission Performance (9th place), PSP Logistics and Danang to motor together to Golfito Bay, Costa Rica to refuel. Despite going as fast as we can, progress is slow (might have something to do with the the fact we’re towing PSP at the moment!) so it looks like there will be no stopping in Panama. That’ll mean by the time we get to New York, we’ll have spent the best part of 7 weeks non-stop at sea. Yikes.
Motoring has had a couple of impacts on the boat: the hot just got hotter, the entertainment has reduced and time seems to have slowed. We’re quite low on fuel so the generator is now hardly ever running (so no more Kindles, IPads of such the like for many) and with less sailing, time passes more slowly. It feels like over a week already since we started motoring and it’s only 4 days since it was first switched on. On deck, we look a bit like a travelling band: there’s always some washing drying out the back and people snoozing on deck.

The engine on means extra heat below decks, particularly at my bunk which is the top bunk directly opposite the engine door. The Intense heat means for the first time I’ve been angry on this boat. Twice I’ve woken up in a bit of a sweat-rage: the first time, it was swearing then straight to the sail locker where I passed out folded between two sails to catch some breeze from the open hatch in there. Apparently I looked so hot, Karri came and saved me with wet kitchen roll for my head to make sure I had the injured soldier look going on. The second sweat-rage was after being woken up by the engine door being opened only 1 1/2 hours into that day’s big 5 hour sleep, waking me up wit blast of heat and noise. Emily and I retreated to the galley (a full 3 steps away) feeling somewhat grumpy, but I decided that I had to get sleep so returned to my bunk whilst the rest of the crew went for a swim off the side of the boat. An inquisitive turtle came and joined them as they swam in over 3,000 meters of water. For me, on the other hand, sleep wins every time. Sod the turtles, give me my bunk! Raaaaaaarrrrrr!

As we get closer to the equator, the weather is visibly changing with more squalls (tropical storms) and lightning. Nearly every night, we can see the most fantastic lightning displays in the distance. We’ve not yet got close enough to hear them, but huge anvil-like clouds rise up, pierced by forks of lightning often accompanied by the moon or sunrise for extra-drama. Boat time is now out by about 2 hours vs real time, so each watch always gets to see a full sunrise or run set depending on time. Sunrise at 4am is a little bizarre though. 

Once there is light, squalls now often appear in the distance as broad menacing dark grey clouds, the rain and even water spouts clearly visible pouring down from them. Today, a nice squall at 7am provided the perfect opportunity for a fresh water shower. Immediately, some of the off-watch were upon to deck, swimming gear on and shampoo in hand (it’s all action on here). The rain didn’t quite last long enough to rinse our hair properly but the fresh water felt so good. After prolific showering in week 3, we’ve had to the ration the water for washing to ensure there is enough to drink, so a bit of fresh rain was divine. No longer am I exfoliating myself with salt every time I apply suncream!

Nights on deck are now positively bright as we’ve had a week of the moon being at its fullest. White, gold, lemon: the moon appears idifferent shades and sizes depending on the night, the reflection shimmering on the water. We’ve also had lots of dolphins visiting us this week and turtles are 10 a penny, they can often be spotted swimming off the side of the boat. Suspicious Boat law decrees that we’re not allowed to call them turtles on here though: “flippety flop” being my term of choice to replace the t-word.

Despite the bright moon, night watches are still no easier, the urge to sleep being so hard to resist. These watches, do however provide a brilliant opportunity to discuss the minutiae of life, the key subject being favourite meals. Conversations around breakfasts, brunches and alcohol now mean I have a clear view of what my favourite combinations would be. Indecision regarding food will no longer be a problem after being on this boat: favourites are now all clearly formed in our minds. Please someone get me a bacon, black pudding and egg roll. How I wish…

In between motoring, we’ve had a couple of sprints of upwind sailing when the wind has unexpectedly picked up. Gone is the flat, lazy character of the boat swapped instead for life at an extreme angle where rock-climbing skills are required to do anything. This has provided a great opportunity to practice helming though – my favourite so far. I had a fun little race with PSP the other day, trying to balance speed with wave-juggling where we steer to stop the boat slamming down. PSP didn’t know we were racing, but I won. Boom. 

This week has also seen the biggest storm to date, one we handily named “the Death Star”. As sunset came, a huuuuuge arc of black cloud lay in wait for us appearing to take up all of the horizon. Vernon and I were on mother duty all day, so we didn’t get the full “doooom” impact of the storm approaching as we were sweating down below. Instead, foulies were donned on deck in anticipation of a vast amount of rain that in the end never appeared. Rather than being a mega-squall, the Death Star turned out to be a spectacular electrical storm. We stayed dry and we were treated to a light show. Boom.

After what felt like 3 years, we eventually arrived in Costa Rica. I’d been on the off-watch, but was woken up to discover some most excellent things:

  1. Dana had made pancakes for which the “reserve” jar of peanut butter had been cracked out. Pancakes, peanut butter & maple syrup = delicious.
  2. You could SMELL land. Green, humid wafts from the rainforest carpeting the hills of the bay we were circling. It smelt absolutely amazing, exactly like the hot houses at Kew Gardens.
  3. There were dolphins playing around the boat. But as we were being towed around Golfito bay at this point, our engine wasn’t on so below decks you could HEAR the Dolphins! YOU COULD HEAR THEM! Very, very, cool.
  4. We were 1 hour away from refuelling at the marina. LAAAAAND!

Our experience of Costa Rica was of a small marina bar, a road and a vast expanse of rainforest that backed onto the road. I’ve always wanted to see rainforest, so it was brilliant to finally do so, the smells and sounds so exotic. We were lucky to be allowed off the boat, so immediately it was to the bar for some ice cold beer, Coca Cola (the conditions being right for drinking this: when you are really, really hot) and fooooood! After a month at sea, walking up a pontoon was a bit of a challenge and somewhat surreal after so long talking about land and anything ice cold. Some language confusion meant a bit of rage from Lucy when our burger order was given to someone else, but a burger & Pina Colada after a month on the boat was just what the doctor ordered. Tino then bought the boat a couple of wheelbarrows of ice so that for the next couple of days, everything was ice cold. Ice cold drinks, ice cold water, ice packs to prevent the bunk-sweat. Ice ice baby.

Arriving into Costa Rica