Saturday 2nd April 2011

All yachts transiting the canal are required to have at least 4 line handlers in addition to the captain and the advisor. It's also advisable for at least one person from a yacht preparing to transit, to crew on a transiting yacht so that they get experience and an understanding of what happens before it's their turn. For this reason, I volunteered to line handle on a yacht called “Evita” as they transited the canal.

I was onboard “Evita” a Moody 44 at “The Flats” around 1:30pm and there we met our advisor Carlos and the other two line handlers Bernard and Jasmin from southern Germany. Bernard and Jasmin are travelling around the world in their four wheel drive, in pretty much the same manner as we're travelling in “Connect4”. The only difference is that they put their car in a container and ship it between countries but then they live in it and travel in it, visiting all the different places they want to see. Talking with them, they have the same challenges we do, keeping food refrigerated, battery life, storage quantities of food and cooking in a confined space. I have to feel sorry for them though, because they came onboard with less than 10 minutes notice after the arranged line handlers didn't show and Ian and Paola, the owners, made a frantic search of the docks for potential line handlers and found these two. They were visiting some friends on another yacht and were invited on the spot.

The trip through the canal was a good chance for me to experience the procedure and what is expected of a yacht transiting, before I do it with my own vessel. The trip went uneventfully. We went through the first three “up” locks and into Gatun lake on the Saturday, then we completed the motor across Gatun Lake and through the three “down” Miraflores locks on Sunday. Sunday night I was back onboard “Connect4” and itching for our chance to go through with “Connect4”.

Monday 4th April 2011

After way too long in Club Nautico, being bounced and rocked by passing ferries, we needed a change of scenery so we pulled anchor and headed back out of Colon bay and down towards the Rio Chargres river for a short break. The Rio Chargres is only about 6 nautical miles down the coast and was an easy motor. The entrance to the river was another matter, but we got in safely and then motored a few miles up the river. As we motored slowly up the river it was like we'd entered another world. It was hard to believe that we were only a few miles from the hustle and bustle of Colon.

Everywhere we looked, we saw towering rainforest trees, shrouded in vines. The forest was dense, right to the edge of the river and as we gazed into the forest we could see hundreds of different varieties of trees and bushes, all trying to compete with the greenery next to them for space and sunlight. We could hear the barking of the Howler Monkeys in the distance, even though we couldn't see them and from time to time we'd see birds circling overhead. Occasionally there would be a flurry of commotion on the edge of the river and we'd see the ripples of what was likely a crocodile disappearing into the water, startled by our approach.

We motored slowly up the river as far as we could go until we were blocked by the Gatum Lake Dam. The dam holds the Gatum Lake water that's used by the

Panama Canal locks and was a pretty impressive sight. Unfortunately the water depth dropped a little too low for us to get right to the dam, but we got a great view anyway.

We anchored in the middle of the river, just near where a small tributary joins with the main river. Around 4:30pm, we launched “Willie” our dingy and paddled quietly up the tributary looking for Howler Monkeys, Tucans and Crocodiles. We saw a couple of small crocodiles that ducked off under the water at the first hint of our approach and we heard the Howler Monkeys but didn't see them. We followed the meandering tributary until we came to a section that was too shallow to pass, so we beached the dingy and went for a wander through the rainforest, being careful not to get lost in the jungle.

As the sun was starting to set, we stood in a small clearing and listened to the sounds of the jungle coming alive all around us. It was a magnificent sight and we all stood silent, in awe of the spectacle that was happening all around us. As it was starting to get late and was beginning to rain, all made our way back down through the forest and back to “Connect4”. We lit a mosquito coil and brought out the cockpit light, then sat down as a family to play a game of UPWORDS while we listened to the sounds of our own private rainforest. Life is so good.

Tuesday 5th April 2011

We took “Willie” and headed up another river tributary to explore. We found an old concrete bridge that had a family of bats hanging upside down underneath. That was pretty amazing. We tied the dingy off and went

ashore but after two or three unsuccessful forages into the bush trying to distinguish a track, we abandoned the idea, sat down, ate a couple of muesli bars then made our way back to the dingy. Once in the dingy, we paddled up the riverlet some more, agreeing that travelling on the water is so much better than trying to walk.

We'd been paddling for approximately half an hour when we spotted our first monkeys in the trees. As we drifted in the middle of the river, we could look up and see the monkeys far above us in the trees. There would have been a family of approximately fifteen of them. As we watched, something splashed down into the water next to us. Figuring the monkeys had dropped something, we watched with a little more attention, trying to see what the monkeys were doing.

A few seconds later another object splashed into the water next to us, then another. The monkeys weren't dropping things - they were throwing things at us! We quickly paddled back a little bit so that we were under an overhanging branch and less of a target to them. From there we could see them swinging around in the trees and collecting food.

After about half an hour, the monkeys moved off to another tree further away from the river, so we lost sight of them. We paddled on and saw another family of monkeys. These ones were different from the first.

The first monkeys had brown fur with white faces, whereas these ones were the same brownie colour all over. We watched these monkeys feeding and playing as they moved from tree to tree along the bank. We came up the river to see crocodiles, monkeys and Toucans. Cheryl commented that it was good we finally saw the monkeys, but it would be perfect if we say a Toucan before we left. Ten minutes later, Cheryl spots a Toucan in the trees high above us. What a perfect day.

Thursday 7th April 2011

We rang the Panama Canal scheduler yesterday and managed to get moved up the queue, so today we're transiting the Panama Canal and going into the Pacific Ocean!

The scheduler told us to be at “The Flats” no later than 2:30pm, ready to collect our advisor and get prepared for a 4:30pm transit time. We arrived at the designated spot at 2:00pm and called Christobal Signal Station to advise them that we were there and in the queue for our transit. The first sign of something being wrong was when Christobal Signal Station had no record of us on their transit schedule, however they told us that this happens from time to time. We waited until nearly 4:00pm and then rang our advisor who in turn checked with the schedulers. The news wasn't good. For some reason they had a shortage of transit advisors for today, so we were bumped off the list and told to come back tomorrow to try again.

With sad hearts we weighed anchor and reluctantly motored back to our anchorage in the rolly, smelly part of the bay. Our line handlers Dan and Alicia were returned to “Sunburnt” for the night and we went to bed feeling somewhat let down.

Friday 8th April 2011

With a sense of deja-vu we again collected Dan and Alicia and motored back around to “The Flats” to try this transit thing again.

Fortunately, this time the advisor, Edwin, turned up around 3:00pm and we were told that instead of our scheduled transit time of 4:30pm, we'd now be transiting at 6:30pm. Ten minutes later we were pulling anchor and heading towards the Gatun Locks, this was the first taste of “Panama Canal Organisation”. We've heard from other people that their Panama Canal transit went smoothly and worked like a well oiled machine, however for us, starting with yesterday's delayed transit, it appeared to be that we were an after-thought.

Edwin, our advisor for the first day was fantastic. He was helpful, informative and fitted in well with the crew. For the canal transit we were rafted with another catamaran called “Sundowner”. As they were slightly smaller than us, we were the driving boat and were responsible for manoeuvring our raft in and out of the locks. We were on the port side of the raft and while it was initially planned that Cheryl would be line handling and I would be at the helm, we decided to swap roles because I would be better suited to heaving lines. Initially I was a little concerned at how Cheryl would cope when it came to bringing our wide raft into the locks, but from the very first lock, she handled “Connect4” and our “cling-on” with the confidence of a seasoned pilot.

As we were approaching the first lock, we stopped a couple of hundred metres from the entrance and rafted up with “Sundowner”. After a little practice manoeuvring, we headed off to the first of our three locks. First in the lock was a large container ship, then a smaller, but still large, charter tour boat that tied off on the side wall and then it was to be us. On approach to the first lock, Edwin was busy on his telephone and radio and I was wondering what was up. A moment later, he came to me and asked if I was willing to go Side Wall in the lock as they were short on shore side line handlers.

When we complete the paperwork for transiting the locks, we were given a choice of three different methods of tying up in the locks. The first, and most preferable is “Centre Chamber” where you put out a rope from each corner of your raft and tie off to the walls so that you hold your vessel/raft in the middle of the chamber. Because of the water turbulence when they fill the locks, staying in the middle of the chamber, where there's nothing to hit is definitely the preference. This is how most yachts transit. The second method of transiting the canal is called “Rafted”, where you're tied up alongside a tug boat, or other vessel which is tied up to the side wall of the canal. As the water rises, you rise up and are held in position by the vessel next to you. The third method is called “Side Wall” and this is the method no cruiser wants. Basically, you're tied up alongside the hard concrete wall of the lock and as the water rises, your boat is dragged and bumped up the side of the concrete wall. There's even been stories of yachts damaging their rigging when tied “Side Wall” as they're rolled back and forth with the turbulence of the incoming water. I'd ticked first two boxes and put a cross in the third box indicating that we would transit Centre Chamber or Rafted but not Side Wall.

Edwin asked what boxes I'd checked when filling out my paperwork and I confirmed I was happy Centre Chamber and Rafted, but I wasn't prepared to go Side Wall. After a couple more minutes talking on the radio, the verdict was that I had to take Side Wall or my transit would be cancelled and I'd have to go back to Colón and try again another day. There was no way I was prepared to go side wall and risk damage to “Connect4”, so I declined Side Wall. Edwin made a couple more phone calls and then said that while they weren't happy about it, the charter boat would be prepared to let us tie up alongside him once he was in the lock.

With trepidation we proceeded into the lock slowly, everything had changed now, everything was different. We frantically raced around on deck, putting out fenders and preparing new lines to tie off alongside. No sooner had we motored into position and tied off bow and stern lines with the charter boat than the lock started filling. Hurriedly we quickly attached spring lines fore and aft to stop us surging in the lock as the waters started to boil. One advantage of being rafted alongside the charter boat was that we didn't need to handle lines during the lock filling but it was unnerving being tied alongside such a huge ship.

The Panama Canal Lock system is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The three Gatun locks which lift ships 25.9m up to the Miraflores Lake can accept vessels up to 320m in length and 33.5m wide. These lock dimensions determine the maximum size of ships which can use the canal; this size is known as “Panamax”. Panamax ships fit into the locks with less than a metre to spare on each side. When we motored into the locks, it felt narrow for us and we still had 10m spare on the sides. Currently they're expanding the Panama Canal by building new locks at each end. It's proposed that the new locks will be opened on the April 1, 2014, 100 years to the day that the original Panama Canal was opened. The exception that the Panamanians are very proud of, is that this new set of locks will be built by Panamanians, not the French or the Americans. Once finished these locks will be 426m in length and 55m in width and it's believed that there will only be three ships in the world that won't be able to transit the locks, however bigger ships are being built all the time.

Each lock is gravity filled with fresh water from the Gatun Lake, fed through three massive 6.7m diameter pipes that run into the locks from the lake above. For this reason, the first lock up is the most turbulent as 100ML (mega litres) of water is released to flow into the lock chamber, through holes in the lock floor, from the lake above in a little under 8 minutes; we're lifted the 9m to the level of the second chamber in a turbulent, swirling ride.

The Panama Canal project was first proposed by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain in 1523. He suggested that by cutting a piece of land somewhere in Panama, the trips from Ecuador and Peru would be made shorter and allow for a quicker and less risky trip back and forth to Spain for ships carrying goods, especially gold. A survey of the isthmus and a working plan for a canal were drawn up in 1529, however the European political situation and the level of technology at this time made any action impossible.

Over the centuries, many more plans were drawn up and proposed but it was the French, riding on the wave of fame from the successful completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 who started work on the project. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was in charge of the construction of the Suez Canal, was the figurehead of the scheme. His enthusiastic leadership, coupled with his reputation as the man who had brought the Suez project to a successful conclusion, persuaded the speculators and ordinary citizens to invest in the scheme, to the tune of approximately $400 million. Sadly though, de Lesseps, despite his previous success, wasn't an engineer. The construction of the Suez Canal, essentially a ditch dug through a flat sandy desert presented few challenges; but Panama was to be a very different story. The mountainous spine of Central America comes to a low point at Panama, but still rises to a height of 110m above sea level at the lowest crossing point. A sea level canal, as proposed by de Lesseps, would require a prodigious excavation, and through varied hardness of rock rather than easy Suez sand.

Despite the above challenges, the most serious problem of all was the tropical diseases, in particular malaria and yellow fever. Since not much was known about these diseases at this time, many people died. In all the official number of deaths during the French attempt totalled over 30,000 people. This is the official figure, however our advisor told us that only the people who actually died on the job were included in this number; meaning the number could be significantly higher.

Even as early as 1885, it had become clear to many that a sea level canal was impractical, and that an elevated canal with locks was the best answer, however, de Lesseps was stubborn and it wasn't until October 1887 that the lock canal plan was adopted. By this time though, the mounting financial, engineering and mortality problems, coupled with frequent floods and mudslides were making it clear that the project was in serious trouble. Work was pushed forward until May 1889 when the company went bankrupt and work was finally suspended on May 15, 1889. Eight years of work and $234,795,000 had been spent. Sadly, the French attempt was plagued by a lack of engineering expertise and ultimately, in the end it failed.

The Americans were looking to build a canal through Nicaragua instead of Panama, however they couldn't agree on terms for the project with the Nicaraguans. Simultaneously Roosevelt was able to push through the acquisition of the French Panama Canal effort. He then opened negotiations with the Columbians to obtain the necessary rights, as Panama was a part of Columbia. In early 1903 the Hay-Herran Treaty was signed by both nations, but the Columbian Senate failed to ratify the treaty. In a controversial move, Roosevelt then “encouraged” Panama to seek independence from Columbia. The Americans provided support to Panama during this time and President Roosevelt implied to Panamanian rebels that if they revolted, the US navy would assist their cause for independence. Panama proceeded to proclaim its independence on November 3, 1903 and the USS Nashville was left in local waters to impede any interference from Columbia.

With this independence now firmly in place, America formally took control of the French property relating to the canal on May 4, 1904. The newly created Panama Canal Zone was presented to the US for $10 million and work was begun in earnest.

By August 1907, 765,000m3 of earth was being removed every month. This was a record for the difficult rainy season; not long after, this was doubled, and then increased again to a peak productivity of 2,300,000m3 per month. Never in the history of construction work had so much material been removed so quickly.

The project of building the locks began with the first concrete laid at Gatun on August 24, 1909. The Pacific side locks were finished first, the single flight at Pedro Miguel in 1911 and Miraflores in May 1913. The seagoing tug Gatun, an Atlantic entrance workign tug used for hauling barges, had the honor on September 26, 1913, of making the first trial lockage of Gatun Locks. The lockage went perfectly, although all valves were controlled manually since the central control board was still not ready.

On October 10, 1913, the dike at Gamboa, which had kept the Culebra Cut isolated from Gatun Lake, was demolished, with help from a large charge of dynamite. This marked the separation of a continent – North America was now separated from South America in an amazing feat of engineering.

A grand celebration was originally planned for the official opening of the canal, as befitting so great an effort which had aroused strong feelings for many years. However, with the outbreak of World War 1, the festivities were cancelled and the grand opening became a modest affair. The Panama Canal was officially opened on April 1, 1914. The Panama Railway steamship SS Ancon was the first vessel to make an official transit of the canal on August 15, 1914.

As the massive old gates of the first set of locks opened for us, we watched in awe as the huge tanker in front of us slowly motored forward, churning the water around us. Once this behemoth had moved forward into the next chamber, we released our lines and motored forward to take our position in the next lock. The second lock was more gentle, if gentle is a word you could use; since the difference in height between Gatun Lake and our chamber was only around 18m. The third lock was smoother still and after we left this lock we motored to the gigantic mooring balls in Gatun Lake, tied up, ate dinner then went to sleep, exhausted but glad to be on our way.

Saturday 9th April 2011

With half the Panama Canal lockages behind us and half still to go, we were awake early and motoring across the Gatun Lake towards the final three Miraflores locks. There had been an almost constant stream of emails

and updates from us, back home to our parents, updating them of our progress and timing for the final three locks. The reason for this was that mounted high up on the top of one of the lighting poles at the Miraflores lock is a high resolution webcam that broadcasts images of vessels transiting the lock to the Panama Canal website. Both sets of parents had been keeping a vigil on their computer screens every night for the last few nights, watching all sorts of vessels transit the canal, patiently waiting to see us going through the locks. Unfortunately with our ever changing schedule, and the fact that it was in the middle of the night back home in Australia, this great idea was proving to be a very hard task to achieve.

As we rafted up with the catamaran “Sundowner” for the final three locks, we couldn't help getting a sense of excitement that we'd soon be in the Pacific. We were finally close to our home stretch of water! The advisor instructed us to move to the side of the canal to let a large container ship that was behind us enter the lock first, then we were to follow him in and tie up behind him. As we waited and watched this huge ship get closer and closer to us, I talked to the advisor and he explained that sometimes they make the yachts go into the lock before the big ships, but this isn't done very often as the container ships can't see anything in front of them, so have to put watchmen on the very bow so they monitor the distance. The advisor told us that sometimes they can hear the pilot of the large vessel calling out on the radio, asking how far he is from the yachts in front. The thought that if they didn't or couldn't stop in time chilled me to the bone.

The advisor's radio crackled to life and after a brief conversation he asked us for half power ahead – we were to go into the lock ahead of the container ship! After the stories the advisor had just told us, I was filled with more than a little trepidation; the large container ship was only a couple of hundred metres behind us at this stage and we could see the team of tug boats flanking it, helping it manoeuvre into place for the entry into the locks. My fenders wouldn't hold it off! There are two parallel sets of locks at Miraflores, the west and the east chambers, we were instructed to go into the west chamber. Just as we were entering the west chamber and were preparing to accept the monkey fists from the shore side line handlers, the advisor asked us to turn around and exit this lock to take the eastern chamber instead. I looked behind me, as Cheryl started the difficult process of turning both our catamarans around inside the lock, and saw the large container ship getting closer by the minute. We'd just completed our 180o turn and were powering up for a quick exit before the container ship blocked us in when the advisor's radio came to life again and we were told to stay in the west lock. Hastily, but without a word of comment, Cheryl again set about the tenacious task of turning the two catamarans around once again. After a moment “Connect4” and “Sundowner” were once again facing the right way as we made our way towards the front of the chamber. On deck, Dan and Alicia were managing the bow lines and Chelsea and I were on the stern. I'd chosen the stern line so I could stay in communication with Cheryl, relaying instructions and observations that she might need to make it safely through the locks.

The shore side line handlers threw the heaving lines to us, the monkey fists on the end of the lines bouncing across the decks. We quickly collected the heaving lines, tied our lines to theirs and as we approached the front of the chamber, our lines were pulled to shore and placed over the large bollards which would hold us in place as the lock was emptied. Once we could see that “Sundowner's” lines were likewise attached, we pulled all the lines taut and secured ourselves ready for the descent.

Just as we were securing our lines, the unimaginable happened. A huge deluge of rain started. Within 20 seconds, everyone on deck was soaked to the core. Visibility was reduced to 100m and we had to yell above the roar of the rain to be heard. Bravely our line handlers bore the brunt of it on the bow, having nowhere to hide. As for Chelsea and I, we could reach the stern lines from within the protection of the cockpit, so tried to stay there until the worst had passed.

The huge container ship behind us was inching its way into the chamber behind us, looking larger and larger by the second. As I looked up, I could see the crew on the bow, peering down at us, like you would spy an ant on the ground when you're sitting on a deck chair. We felt very small and vulnerable. As the container ship moved into its final position in the lock, the electric “mules” (large electric locomotive trains used to assist the container ships through the locks) applied their brakes and tensioned the huge cables that connected them to the container ship. The sound of the cables as they were rapidly pulled taut left no doubt in my mind as to the enormity of the forces that were associated with this container ship. Left unchecked, although the

ship was travelling at less than half a knot, the momentum of this giant would have easily carried it through the front of the lock doors and probably through the next two locks as well. As for “Connect4”, I don't think she would have put up enough resistance to even cause a ripple in the captain's coffee cup.

As the lock emptied, we let the lines out slowly, holding our raft in position in the centre of the chamber and away from the walls. Even though it was still raining heavily, we ventured out on deck to stand and wave for the family back home – we were all drenched anyway. After about 8 minutes, the lock was emptied and the giant doors of the lock opened.

The second and the third locks all went smoothly and without incident. As the doors on the final lock opened for us, the view out to the ocean ... the Pacific Ocean, took our breath away. We'd made it! “Connect4” had made it across two oceans and was now into our final ocean, the Pacific. With the doors opened for us, we slowly motor out into our final odyssey,

Connect4” is coming home!

Thursday 14th April 2011

We've visited the Allbrook Mall so many times now we feel like we're locals. We've been out shopping in many and varied places and we're gradually learning that you have to haggle pretty hard with a taxi driver to get anything that resembles a fair fare. Occasionally you'll get a taxi driver that will charge you something close to reasonable, but then trying to get the next taxi driver down to the same price for the same run is almost impossible. Oft times you'll go through a line of five or six taxis before you end up paying more anyway! Sadly, they see a Gringo coming and know they can charge whatever they like.

This stop in Panama City is, for us, not much more than a chance to provision up and get a whole stack of boat jobs done. The anchorage isn't the prettiest of places and the amount of growth that's building up on the bottom of poor “Connect4” is frightening.

One highlight of the week though, was Sunday. Edwin, the advisor for the first half of our lock travels came and picked us up and took us to his church. It was great and was even in English! After church Edwin took us for a fantastic drive around Panama City and showed us the sights of his town. The view from the lookout was amazing. Despite the fact that Panama City has a smaller population than Adelaide, it has five times as many high rise buildings and a much bigger city.

We had pizza ashore with a couple of other cruising friends a few nights ago. The pizza was fantastic and the company was superb, but the real fun for the night happened when we got back to the dingy dock. Here in Panama we have a tide swing of around four metres, so all the dingy docks and pontoons are floating. As the tide rises and falls the pontoons rise and fall with the tide. This normally makes things very easy, unless you tie up to something other than the “floating” part of the dock.

We arrived back at the dingy dock after a couple of hours at the pizza shop, to find a bit of a commotion happening. As we made our way down the gang-plank one of the security men asked us if the dingy lying on the pontoon belonged to one of our group. The dingy in question belonged to “Bondi-Tram” and the problem was that it was discovered hanging by it's painter 3m up the wall. You see when we'd come in, the tide was high and we were fairly close to the roof line of the pontoon, so wanting for good tying off points on the pontoon, the painter was tied to the structure above the pontoon. The tide went out and all the other dingies gently went down with the tide, with the exception of one, which slowly climbed its way up the wall until it was hanging, outboard and all by the painter a couple of metres up the pylon. Fortunately the security men managed to get up and cut the painter before everything got right out of reach, or the dingy was damaged. It all ended well, but it does make for a good lesson in watching where you tie off your dingy.

Provisioning - Panama Style

In Panama City we did the most ridiculously enormous amount of food provisioning we have ever done (and ever will again on this trip). We did countless runs to various supermarkets, each time bringing back a full taxi load of provisions to creatively store and squirrel away in every possible place aboard “Connect4”. The bilge spaces under the floorboards in the cabins are full of cans, bottles, cartons of juice and milk, tubs of long-life margarine, and dry goods in protective snap-lock bags. Chelsea's storage lockers are full of tissue boxes, paper towel rolls, and what must surely be enough toilet paper to see us not only all the way to Australia, but all the way back to Turkey! Even Nick's toys got rudely evicted from their locker, to find room for yet more food!

It's often my provisioning expeditions that prove to be some of my more memorable experiences of this adventure... and in Panama this proved to be true yet again. I guess when you're out buying food you're mixing with the locals - it's genuine and real. No tourist pretence. Most of all though, I especially love the local produce markets. Often they're filled with new and unique foods to try; they're always colourful, noisy, busy, often smelly, but always interesting and a whole lot of fun! (The fact that you rarely find anyone that speaks english at a farmers market just adds to the adventure!)

The day before we left I arranged with Lynn, from “Steel Sapphire”, to share a mini-van taxi to the local fresh produce market so we could stock up on fresh fruit and veg for the coming long passages at sea. Often, these markets will be just a once or twice a week event, but the Panama market is a “permanent”, outdoor, daily market set up for bulk buying.

It was incredible to see the truckloads of pineapples, melons, bananas, plantains, avocados, mangoes, papayas, pumpkins and corn cobs heaped in mountainous piles! Everything was fresh, and cheap. The hardest part was holding back. Not only did we need to make sure it would all fit in the taxi, but we needed to be realistic on how long a lot of these wonderful fruits and vegetables would last on the boat, in the tropics, without refrigeration! But oh, how do you say “no” to pineapples at 4 for $1.00, or huge avocados for 20c each, or the biggest mangoes and papaya I've ever seen for

25c each! A lot of things were only available in bulk, so Lynn and I shared an enormous sack of 100 oranges that cost only $7.00. We halved a massive stalk of green bananas about 1½ metres long for a crazy $3.00 and by the time we'd managed all of this, in addition to 15kg potatoes, 10kg onions, 10kg carrots, 5kg green tomatoes, a couple of pumpkins, 90 eggs, and various other goodies, we had more than we could carry! With some help from our taxi driver / chaperone we decided to leave several loads in the care of stall-holders along the way, with the intention to pick them up when we were done and get them back to the taxi... somehow.

With our “granny trolleys” bending at the axles and some help from a nice man with a huge sack truck, we finally got everything back to the taxi, back to the dock, and then ferried out to our respective boats in our tiny dinghies. Then began the arduous task of sorting, washing and storing. It was around this point in time that I realised I couldn't find any of my precious avocados or pineapples. A quick radio call to “Steel Sapphire” ruled out the possibility that one of my bags ended up on their boat by mistake, and a call to the taxi driver told me that I didn't leave it in the van! As I retraced my steps in my mind, I could picture exactly where the missing bag was … still sitting, forgotten, at the market stall!

Now, at this point, I could have (and perhaps should have) just grumbled at myself, mourned the loss of the precious bag and its contents, and left it at that. But No ... I decided that if I was really quick I could jump in a taxi, go straight back to the market and, hopefully, if I was lucky, my bag would still be there where I left it.

Chelsea and I were planning one last supermarket run to get meat and dairy anyway, so we negotiated with the taxi driver, and agreed on a price to the shopping centre, with a detour to the market, and an extra $1.00 for every 5 minutes he waited while we dashed in to look for the bag. Not a bad effort since the negotiations were completely in Spanish … I guess I'm improving!

We arrived at the market, made a quick bee-line through the maze of stalls, and there it was. My bag was exactly where I'd left it … sitting on a back shelf of the now closed, chained and padlocked avocado stall! Aauugh! I couldn't believe it! So close yet so far. Chelsea sidled up to the bars, checking if she might squeeze between them, but even she isn't that slim. We asked around a bit to see if the owner might still be around to unlock his stall, but without success. There we were, standing, staring uselessly at the bag behind the bars when a man came up and said something along the lines of “How much will you pay me to break in and get it for you?” (At least I think that was the general gist ...except in Spanish). I glanced around, thinking, is this legal? With the taxi costing $1.00 for every five minutes I wasted, I only hesitated for a moment before venturing, “Dos dollars senore?”. He agreed, and began scaling the bars, up above the big gates, working his way up to the high roof, where he then squeezed himself awkwardly through the small gap at the top. By this time a few people had wandered over to watch, and started calling out to him. All sorts of thoughts raced through my head, like: What happens if you get caught as an accessory to breaking and entering in a foreign country? What if the man falls onto the concrete floor? And, why on earth am I doing this for a few pineapples, avocados and a pumpkin??

The man quickly shimmied down the other side of the bars, shooting me a relieved look as he landed on the ground. He picked up my bag and his relieved look disintegrated in a flash as he realised it weighed a ton! Worst of all, I could see him having second thoughts about the whole deal; but then with determination he strained and managed to haul the bag painfully over one shoulder then tried to see if he could manage two free hands for climbing. He started climbing tentatively, the bag cutting into his shoulder, and threatening to pull him off balance with each slow and calculated movement. Stopping briefly half way up the bars, he called to me between clenched teeth, “Tres dollars!!”. Stammering, and feeling slightly guilty at what I was putting this poor man through, I quickly replied “Si, si. Tres dollars Senore!”. This was awful. I stood speechless with my hands over my mouth as I watched him working his way up the high fence. He finally made it to the top, and tried to hold on with one hand so he could manoeuvre the heavy bag through the gap with the other. His arm shaking with the strain, but no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't quite get it there. There was no way he was going to manage it by himself, so I raced over to the fence and climbed up the outside of the bars to the level where I could just reach the gap. Ok, so now I am actively involved in this crime, and the crowd of witnesses has grown! Between us, we managed to get the bag through the gap, and I yelled to Chelsea to come over to the fence and reach up so I could lower the bag down to her. Just as I dragged the bag over the edge a pineapple slipped out of the bag and crashed down onto poor Chelsea! I reckon a pineapple dropped from six metres must really hurt when it hits you square on the shoulder, but the brave girl still managed to catch it before it hit the ground!

Once safely back on solid ground, I handed the man his $3.00, saying over and over, “Muchas gracias, muchas gracias Senore!”. By the look on his face, and the way he was rubbing his shoulder I think he was realising there must be easier ways to make a few bucks.

As I walked back out to the waiting taxi, feeling relieved, and quite proud that I'd got my missing shopping bag back, Chelsea turned to me and said, “I can't believe you just paid a man to break into a shop!”. What exactly am I teaching our children on this trip??

- Cheryl: Confessions of a criminal

Thursday 21st April 2011

We're leaving !!!! As I type this, we're motoring away from Las Breezas, Panama City and I don't care that it's dead calm and that there's not a breath of wind or that I'm burning precious fuel – we're finally leaving and that's all that matters. We topped off our tanks with water early this morning and then left the anchorage for the last time. As we left, a wave of joy and relief swept over me, it's indescribable. As I watch the city disappear in the distance I'm feeling euphoric. I won't say Panama hasn't been a good place to provision and get work done, it's just that it was so past our time to leave! I don't know if you've ever been in a place like that, but for us all, being stuck in Panama has just been depressing. But that's all behind me now … and getting further and further away everytime I look off our stern.

Today is a beautiful day. The ocean is glassy smooth and there's not a breath of wind. The sun is up and we're all feeling good as we spend our time quietly working at bringing order back to “Connect4”. There's homes to find for all the small things we've purchased. All the stuff that's been pulled out to get access to places and things is getting packed back away. I've just packed away the fenders and mooring lines and let out the fishing reel with the new reel. I was undecided on spending another $130.00 to buy a replacement fishing reel, after the marlin broke the reel, however I bit the bullet and spent the money and I'm glad I did. I pulled the reel to pieces a little while ago and tried to fix it. For a while I thought it was fixed, but then when Nick and I put new line on it yesterday it wouldn't hold any tension, so it was the right decision to buy a new reel else we wouldn't have had any fish for the Pacific crossing.

Today we're heading towards the island of Mogo Mogo in the Las Perlas Island group with is about 35NM from Panama City. We were told that Mogo Mogo was the island that the first episode of “Survivor” was filmed on, so we're keen to check it out and perhaps have a challenge and eviction. If we can evict just one person, then we could save 25% of our food and water for the big Pacific crossing! We've decided to go there for a couple of days to chill out, swim and scrub the bottom of the boat and wait for favourable winds to the Galapagos. Poor “Connect4” is absolutely covered in growth and rubbish below the waterline. A sad reminder of her time first in Colón and now in Panama City.

Our friends onboard “Steel Sapphire” and “Bondi Tram” left yesterday to head to the Las Perlas, as they too were exhausted after the time spent in Panama City. We were all set to leave yesterday, but I was delayed a day in getting our new satellite phone. Yes, we've bitten the bullet and while we're at sea we can now remain in touch with the world of people who don't own an SSB radio. But seriously, we decided that the phone will allow us to send short messages to family and to get weather reports while we're underway across the Pacific. If for no other reason, this will enable us to get accurate weather reports and will keep the mothers in our family a little more relaxed.

We went for Inmarsat's new phone, which is called the iSatPhone. The little unit does data (emails, web etc) as well as voice and SMS and costs around a $1.00 per minute for voice calls. This isn't a whole lot more than most people pay when they call a mobile phone.

Friday 22nd April 2011

We spent last night anchored off the island of Mogo Mogo with “Bondi Tram” and “Steel Sapphire”. As it's Good Friday today, our morning started with hot cross buns onboard “Steel Sapphire”. We ate a feast of fresh hot cross buns compliments of Lynn on Steel Sapphire, while the kids took turns swinging off a rope Glenn had attached to his spinnaker pole.

Mogo Mogo is the island where they filmed the first season of “Survivor”, so we decided between the three boats that we'd organise a bit of a boys vs girls Survivor play off. Each boat had to contribute a game we could all play. “Connect4” came up with a scavenger hunt and we duly prepared a list for both the boys and the girls.

Sad to say, and quite unexpectedly really; the girls cleaned the floor with us on this round, getting everything on the list. Us blokes, well we had to settle for a distant second place as we missed out on the bone, the feather and as if that wasn't bad enough, we lost one of our team members. We'd set a time of 15 minutes to collect all our items and get back to the beach, however one of our team, no names mentioned here Peter, wandered off in the wrong direction coming back and was lost for an additional 40 minutes or so. The girls could have called it a forfeit since technically our team wasn't back on the beach in time, but if they'd done that then they couldn't have gloated over the fact that they'd got all their items and we … ummm .. hadn't.

Next up was a game more to the liking of the guys. It was a bit of a relay race where each person had to run out a distance along the beach, collect an awaiting coconut and bring it back along the line before the next person could repeat the performance. Once every team member had collected their coconuts, they had to throw them into a marked circle. First team with all their coconuts inside the circle wins. Well we won, but it came down the the last coconut. Some might say we went easy on the girls to make it competitive and interesting. If you chose to believe that, then you might think we're a bunch of nice blokes. As for us, well, we all agreed ... we're not saying a word!

Sunday 24th April 2011

Easter Sunday came early on the boat. The children were up bright and early and raring to go on their Easter

Egg treasure hunt. Sadly in this part of the world, chocolate Easter eggs are unheard of, so Easter Bunny had to improvise with bubble gum eggs and various small choc coated mallows. Nick and Chelsea didn't mind though – they dressed for the occasion and eagerly sought out surprises from every nook and cranny “Connect4” had.

Our fingers are bleeding, I'm missing skin off nearly all my knuckles, we're cold and we're water logged but “Connect4's” bottom is finally clean. It's taken the two of us almost two days to get the bottom of our boat fully scraped and cleaned after her time in Colón and Panama City. The barnacles that grow so quickly were truly amazing. I still can't believe how fast barnacles can get a hold and grow! Let's face it, you never see them moving so how can so many find their way to our boat so quickly? It just defies logic.

Monday 25th April 2011 – Day 1

We're on the move. We pulled anchor from Isla del Ray, enroute to Academy Bay, Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands. It's been over six weeks since we've done any real sailing, so we're feeling very new to this “passage making” … again. “Connect4” is loaded with as much water and fuel and food as we can possibly carry, and then perhaps a little more. In addition to full tanks, we've got fuel and water cans tied down on the deck, and food and provisions hidden in every single nook and cranny. Everything is full, and as we leave the Perlas Islands, she feels heavy and lethargic.

Wednesday 27th April 2011 – Day 3

Tonight, just as the sun was setting we had a visitor to “Connect4”. Not the usual type of visitor we normally see when we're hundreds of miles from land, but a welcome one all the same. Tonight, “Connect4” was the very proud host of a beautiful little swallow that decided he needed somewhere to spend the night. He landed on the lifelines shortly before sunset after flying circles around “Connect4” for about 10 minutes. Sadly the lifelines didn't offer our little traveller much shelter from the blowing wind and despite his initial fear of us, he made his way into the cockpit and tried to settle there. After a further frustrating period of time, and still without finding a suitable perch for the night, he settled on my hand.

I took him into the saloon to see if we could find our friend a good safe resting place inside, out of the wind and the elements, but eventually we agreed that the best place would be on a stick that we taped to the tops of the wind instruments in the cockpit.

There our little feathered traveller tucked his head into his wing and went to sleep.

All through the night, we kept an eye on him as we checked the wind speed and log. He was quite comfortable with our presence and didn't mind us getting close to him which we found quite surprising but a simple joy none the less.

In the morning, as the sun was coming up, he woke up, stretched the cramps of a night's sleep out of his wings, looked around for a few minutes, then took to the air once again and was gone.

Thursday 28th April 2011 – Day 4

We're over the sea sickness, but we still feel lethargic. It always happens on the first few days out, but the fact we've been motoring more than sailing is depressing. The seas of the Pacific are so much more gentle than the Atlantic and Mediterranean, but it feels nice to be in the Pacific, even if there's no wind. Basically we're sailing in the doldrums, or what they call the “Horse Latitudes”. The wind here is fickle and light as the east going winds of the northern hemisphere compete with the west going winds of the southern hemisphere. What we get here in the middle, near the equator, is winds that are very changeable; the result of whichever wind is winning the fight at the moment. We're seeing electrical storms nightly and have been getting deluged with rain storms a number of times a day.

We had a good rain shower today, it came down with a vengeance. Since the seas were calm and we hadn't had a proper wash in a couple of days, the four of us stripped naked and showered ourselves clean on the foredeck, laughing and splashing around in the warm rain in the middle of nowhere. It was an amazing feeling as the rain fell down over our bodies and we washed our hair and skin clean in the mid day sun, with unlimited amounts of rain water.

Saturday 30th April 2011 – Day 6

This new Inmarsat satellite telephone we bought hasn't been working quite as well as we'd hoped. We first tried to send a couple of SMS's home to family a few days ago and everytime we sent a message, we got a “Network Error – Message Not Sent” response. I contacted the retailer and he said that not every telephone service provided supports messages from satellite phones. This sounds very unusual to me, as I would have thought that an SMS was a fixed format and would get routed through the networks to the destination, just as any other mobile phone would. I asked him to look into it, and would you believe it, now I can send SMS's home, the only problem is that they're only arriving 50% of the time and my family still can't reply or send us SMS's.

I tried telephoning home early this morning, and twice I rang my parent's home number and while the call connected, neither of us could hear each other. On the third attempt I rang their mobile number and could actually talk, albeit with a very poor quality audio. When we get to the Galapagos, I'm going to have to look into what's going on a little more, as the phone isn't working as well as we'd hoped. I've used Iridium satellite phones before and I'm aware of their delays and lower voice quality, but I wasn't expecting this.

We caught a nice Tuna a couple of days ago, and haven't been fishing since, however Sunburnt came up on our evening radio net and told us that they'd just caught a massive Wahoo; over 2m in length. Annie said Tony sweated with this monster for quite some time before landing him, but even when he finally got it to the boat it was too big to lift by himself. Tony's not a weak fellow and can easily handle their 35kg dingy outboard, but this Wahoo was too much to move by himself, so they're putting it at somewhere over 40kgs.