Ahoy from the crew of the BlueJacket!
BlueJacket is now in Panama City. This is much sooner than we expected, but as you may recall, our house batteries failed over the course of about a month requiring us to run the generator any time that we needed to run the refrigeration and pull up the anchor. As a result we headed to Panama City where I hoped to find batteries that would fit our needs.
Entering Panama City from the ocean is quite an experience. I've never seen so many freighters in one location and the AIS display (which shows things like vessel position, course, speed, etc) on my RayMarine C80 chart plotter kept crashing due to the amount of targets being transmitted. In addition to the freighters, there's a lot of work boat traffic moving personnel and supplies to the freighters. You definitely need to be on alert when moving around this area!
Panama City is not cruiser friendly at all. There are 2 anchorages and 1 mooring field that cruisers can use. The la Playita anchorage faces the Panama canal and is constantly rocked by freighter and work boat traffic, but it has a nice dingy dock fro which you pay $5/week to use. The Flamenco anchorage is protected from the wakes that plague la Playita, but it has a long fetch to the NE, which is where the prevailing winds come from during dry season, making it very bumpy. It also has a dangerous set of stairs that one has to maneuver to get to shore. We didn't like either of these options, so we wanted to get into the Balboa Yacht Club that has moorings. We're regulars on the Pan-Pacific SSB net and knew some people who were moored there and as a result we were able to secure a very hard to get mooring.
We pulled into the Balboa Yacht Club and got a mooring ball close to the Bridge of the Americas (image right). What was nice about that was that the work boats were moored right next to us, which meant that they were moving slowly when they approached. Freighters are also moving much more slowly by the time that they get to this location, so you don't get much wake from them. However, you're close to the bridge and get a lot of traffic noise and pollution/grit blowing off of it. I guess that it's a choice of lesser evils. It was very cool watching the myriad of freighter moving through the canal just a few hundred feet away. The photo below shows a work boat delivering crew to an underway freighter.
I searched for what batteries I could obtain and didn't find anything that I really wanted. I could get Deka 8D AGM batteries, which are OK batteries, but not great. I could order Lifeline batteries, which are very good batteries, but they wouldn't arrive for 3+ weeks. After discussing the options with Sue, we both agreed to transit the canal and pull into Shelter Bay marina, where we planned to leave BlueJacket for hurricane season.
Part of the decision was based upon the Perlas islands. We had thought that we were going to spend several weeks there, but neither of us was very excited by them. The majority of the anchorages are in wilderness areas, the water was quite cold (69F at Isla San Jose) and the visibility was poor until we got to Isla Contadora. We just couldn't see spending a lot of money on batteries that I really didn't want just to spend more time in the Perlas. If anything, this taught both of us that we really like anchorages that have good water sports or are near towns so that we can explore the area and meet the people. The Perlas didn't have either, so it was a fairly easy decision to transit the canal.
We decided to hire an agent to assist with getting through the canal. The agent handles all of the paperwork and details associated with transiting the canal and clearing into the country (if needed). They will also provide tires/fenders to protect your boat, long lines used to secure your boat in the locks and if needed, experienced line handlers. We decided to hire Roy Bravo based upon the feedback of other cruisers who had very positive experiences with him. The agents don't come cheap (about $500), but that's only 1/4 of the $2065 total to transit the canal and in Roy's case, we didn't have to come up with thousands of dollars in cash that other agents demanded.
The first think that you have to do in order to transit the canal is to get your boat measured. We had to leave our mooring and proceed to the la Playita anchorage where we waited for 3.5 hours for the measurer to show up. During our wait we got to experience the rock and roll of la Playita and we were very glad that we were moored where we were. The actual process was fairly quick with BlueJacket growing about 1 meter to cover the dinghy, which hangs off the stern and the anchor. Since we were less than 50', our canal fees came to $800. Once you get measured it's 3+ days before you can transit. We chose to transit 4 days out as we had a lot of things to do and we wanted to see some of Panama City.
Getting around the Panama City area can be interesting. There's an extensive bus route which only costs $0.25 per ride, but you need to get down to the central station to buy a bus pass before you can use the system. A bit of a catch 22. There's also lots of taxis roaming the streets, but you have to know your pricing as you can easily get ripped off. For example, our friends on Eternal Bliss paid $20 for a taxi ride that cost us $3.
We spent the next several days running around the city trying to getting provisions and supplies necessary to store the boat. I've driven in cities all around the world, but I definitely decided that I didn't want to drive in Panama City. Even compared to Boston standards, the drivers are very aggressive and there are very few, if any, street signs. We chose to just use taxis, which weren't very expensive if you negotiated up front. Walking across the major streets was taking your life in your hands and reminded me of the running of the bulls! We eventually got everything and even had some time to explore the more interesting parts of the city.
Casco Viejo is the old part of the city and many of the buildings were built in the 1800s. The buildings which have been restored are beautiful, but are surrounded by building in disrepair or are just abandoned shells. Lots of money is pouring into the area to area to restore the building, but a lot more is going to be needed. The architecture is beautiful and there's a stark dichotomy between those buildings which have been restored, such as the image to the left) and those which haven't (image above). We really enjoyed walking around the area, but you had to make sure that you didn't wander too far as some of the surrounding areas are very dangerous.
One issue that no one seems to talk about is the amount of pollution in Panama City. Being close to the Bridge of the Americas didn't help, but the amount of black grime that accumulated on the boat in the week that we were there was astounding. There was constant smoke from the automobiles crossing the bridge and from all of the freighters and work boats on the canal. There were also regular diesel/bunker fuel spills that would cover the surface of the canal and make it hard to breath with the intense odor that permeated everything. Our transit was scheduled for April 16th and after a week we were more than ready to leave, but that will be the subject of my next blog.
-- Geoff & Sue
P.S. Photos of Casco Viejo can be found here.
For the cruiser:
There's an excellent guide for cruisers located at https://groups.yahoo.com/group/southbound_group/files/INFORMATION%20BY%20COUNTRY/Panama/Panama%20City%20Info/2014%20Panama%20City%20Cruisers%20Guide%20--%204th%20Edition.pdf
Note that you need to join the Southbound Group at groups.yahoo.com in order to access this file.
The best selection of hardware, oil, etc is at the Dicovery Center. The Do-It-Center in Transismica is OK, but has doesn't have much compared to the Discovery Center.
Sue was very impressed with the Riba Smith grocery store, but it is very expensive. I personally liked the Refy grocery store better and their prices were more reasonable, but it doesn't have all of the items that Riba Smith had.
The moorings at the Balboa Yacht Club were $30/day. It is very difficult to get a mooring ball. One key thing is to call or write them and give them a credit card number and tell them that they can begin to bill it on your scheduled arrival date, even if you don't show up.
For an agent we used Roy Bravo at Emmanuel Agencies, S.A. based upon experience that other cruisers had with him. He's not the cheapest, but he's very responsive and doesn't require the fees in cash. Their e-mail is email@example.com
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