The tankers lay tethered to the sea bed, herds of them huddled close, sitting quiet like livestock in the rain, bellies on the grass, chins down, eyes rolling tired. Half of the herd where anchored outside Colon’s breakwater the other half inside, all cattle tagged and waiting for their departure date through the canal. Out in the distance plums of smoke rose, the port was in full swing, a hot bed of industry bubbling away, a sprawled out dirty old town just like that pogues tune. If Panama City is the country’s show-horse with it’s glitzy bars and swanky American styled hotels, then Colon is surely the working mule, cranes on the skyline and smoke in the air. Little Coconut was a fly on the wall, nothing more, nearly swatted away as we entered unannounced, coming head to head with a massive container ship mid channel. I promptly cranked the engine and gave her some governor, moving square across to the red buoys, we snuck in through the pier heads and turned off to the small craft marina at shelter bay, a place where yachts get measured up and sort out paperwork for their transit through.
I was worried about officials and red tape, Little Coconut isn’t exactly street legal, to get a transit number your vessel has to be measured and checked by the authorities, it has to fulfil certain criteria to pass the inspection. It has never been the red tape that bothers me, somehow that stuff gets thrown downstream and we all end up neck deep in it, no the problem isn’t the red tape itself, the problem lies in interpretation and translation, aka who holds the red tape? Are they friend or foe? Is the official that milk monitor from your school boy days, the class rat. Does he eyeball the letters of his job description like they’re been written in stone and taken down the mountain by Moses himself? Does he uphold this new found scrutiny with the twisted precision of those pharisees of a bygone page? Well thankfully for us in Panama the red tape falls on good hands, in Panama my worries were cast aside, the dude rocked up with his shirt untucked, it looked like he had just rolled out of KFC, taken down the family meal with the bargain bucket, given it was only 10:00am quite a feet, after about 10 seconds in the belly of little Coconut, a steel box sweating under the equatorial sun, he wisely said ‘ right best to this outside in the shade, somewhere half sensible.’
‘We’er in, ‘ I whispered to myself, like a trespassing teenager.
‘Can your boat do seven knots?’ I looked at him, he’d just seen the boat, he half smiled back, adding kindly ‘it is a rough number.’
“Coconut can move,’ I replied grinning ‘when she has to, I reckon she’ll hit seven at a push.’ That part wasn’t a lie, with thirty knots up her arse she can.
‘ Do you have these dials and do they work?’ He handed me a list, I nodded and he ticked, it went on like that. If you imagine a row of shinning teeth, from the molars at the back to the eye teeth that sit like blades off to the side, to the two front show stoppers, pride of place sitting like silver on the mantelpiece, that is what they wanted, on paper they wanted the whole nine yards the full Hollywood smile, the cat even asked ‘do you have a ships’s whistle onboard,’ it was like some desk jockey had googled equipment in boats then typed out what he found and added it to the form. ‘ship’s whistle,’ I replied, ‘sticking two fingers in my mouth and pretending to blow, ‘course we got one.’ Coconut has a beautiful grin don’t get me wrong, but she has very few actual working teeth, a couple of yellow numbers and allot of black gaps, in the end she is a strong boat that can take the locks, if we were to brake down or get somewhere too slow I’d have to cop the fine anyway, there was no real risk of harm to anyone or us, both me and the official computed that , I crossed my fingers allot and we got the magic number, we were on the list of boats waiting for transit.
Our agent Erik emailed me a date, it read the 6th May, ‘ thats 31 days away,’ Miranda said,
’31!!!!’ I replied, ‘ what a screw up, ,,,, we could make it half way across the Pacific by then.’ It was a big let down, especially given our schedule, all the way to Australia in one season, our trip was threatening to turn into a delivery, two or three day stops where you need two or three weeks, the South Pacific is vast, arrive too late and you’ll get pushed through paradise like a blinkered donkey, cracked by the whip of that fast approaching cyclone season. What could we do? We were powerless, we had arrived in good time and couldn’t have gone any faster if we tried, there was no use worrying about it, I booked a mechanic whose earliest date was a week away, it seems everything takes a long time in Panama, we needed our engine professional checked before the canal, after that we could go and anchor somewhere to save money, in the mean time Shelter Bay was a good spot, especially for nature lovers, we were surrounded by pristine rainforest, I paid up for 12 days, this reduced our per day cost and we settled in amongst a wave of other cruisers also waiting to cross.
Waiting on a boat is not like an airport, there is no overweight American sweating buckets in your grill, no queue jumping Arabs redefining European definitions of public etiquette in quite brilliant displays of disorder, as fun as those displays are to watch sometimes, to see the (us) pompous Brits get effectively backhanded by travelling families from the Middle East, who arrive like a wandering tribe with countless bags and numerous wives, whose culture obviously refuses, quite rightly, to comprehend the very notion of waiting submissively in strange statue like poses, in those long lines of boredom we call queues. Waiting on your boat is very different to an airport , there is two worlds on a boat, a life at sea and a life ashore, life ashore becomes the holiday, luxuries like sleep, electricity, washing facilities, cold beer, restaurants, walks, social interaction, these are all luxuries of the waiting room, a week or so in the marina, despite our demanding schedule, wasn’t the end of the world, we embraced the home comforts at Shelter Bay and found our rhythm, before long the days melted away.
The rainforest was beautiful, it truly was another world in there, it felt like stepping through those Lion and witch in the wardrobe doors every time I went for a walk. Miranda had rolled her ankle so I had to walk alone most days, following faint tracks till they doubled back, or faded out, sometimes I’d get lucky and the track would run for miles ended up on the shoreline, where the green trees would meet the ocean in coral flats. I saw hundreds of amazingly coloured butterflies and dragonflies, some of the butterflies where electric blue, the size of a man’s fist. Armies of ants used the tracks carrying sliced leaves, guarded by bigger fierce looking brothers. I saw families of howler monkeys moving slowly through the canopy, carrying their babies, resting for long intervals at a time, there was other monkeys to, slender and more agile, lighter coloured, their faces looked frighteningly human, watching me close from way up above my head. The trees rose high competing for sunlight, green with heavy waxed leaves, the air felt thick and hot in the forest, it was a great place to sit and watch, to get away from the boat and the worries of our trip, I wished Miranda hadn’t rolled her ankle and came up with a cunning plan for her to experience the forest. Three clicks down the road ran a small creek, it weaved off into the thick jungle, ‘ we could get our tender down that,’ I thought aloud, picturing the perfect day trip, Miranda shooting photos as I paddled her up the waterway deep into uncharted jungle, sloths and monkeys around every corner, it would be epic I was sure of it.
By the following morning Miranda was keen, I had succeeded in persuading her to come, commandeering one of the marina trollies as our buggy. Our kit list included, one deflated tender, a foot pump, two backpacks, water bottles, oars tied to the side, and Miranda on top, the injured cherry, sitting pretty as I wheeled her kilometres down the road. I chatted to the park rangers and left the trolley with them carrying our heavy tender down to the waters edge, I was soaked through with sweat before we even started. ‘ Will I get bitten by mosquitoes,’ Miranda asked, that was her first question, faced with the rainforest, having been carried like a beauty queen for miles, ‘ we’re in the jungle,’ I replied sharply, ‘mosquitoes are the least of your worries trust me.’ The rangers had been joking about crocodiles, ‘I’m worried,’ said Miranda, ‘about what,’ I replied, ‘are there crocodiles,’ she carried on, ‘ probably nearer the shore,’ I said, ‘ look how thin the water is, more likely to see a newt and a crock, now let’s get going it’ll be a hoot.’ We paddled for about two minutes until a massive tree blocked the stream, there was a small gap underneath some branches, we squeezed through unwilling to turn back so soon. ‘awww’ cried my flustered princess, she’d been grazed by a twig. ‘ I’m not enjoying this,’ she said, ‘ how did you talk me round to it.’
‘ you’re kidding’ I replied, ‘this is untouched wilderness, you’ll not experience rainforest like this endless we comeback one day ,,,,,, some twat will have probably chopped it down by then!!!! this is historical,’ I added angrily. Miranda wasn’t buying it, we paddled on in silence until another tree blocked the road, this time we had to climb out of the tender, I pulled it up and over whilst Miranda balanced on her one good foot, she looked distressed the heat was getting to her, the insects bugging her, the paddling irritating her, we pressed on, crossing more branches, after half an hour we had only moved 500 meters, our mood was rock bottom, not so much as a monkey in the trees, my day trip had turned sour, the creek was getting shallower by the paddle, the forest eating into our real estate, engulfing the stream with thick branches. ‘ Let’s go back,’ Miranda pleaded. ‘ I looked around, and slowly my reality disappeared and her’s started growing in the back of my mind, I thought back to adventures with H, he would have followed that stream till it ran dry, I’d have been the one pleading to go back after camping out with the insects all night having ditched the tender and carried on by foot, this was role reversal, the scale was different, the endurance levels involved polar opposite, but I had been in Miranda’s shoes many times. ‘Okay babe,’ I said, ‘this was a bad idea, sorry I shouldn’t have dragged you out here, I had no idea the creek would disappear so quick.’ Miranda hasn’t grown up like that, she has never sat for hours in the rain, wet and shivering waiting for Dad to hook another brown trout, still 5 miles of moon grass and sheep track to the dirt road then another five mile hike back to our cottage. We made up on the trip back and spotted a tribe of monkeys in the trees, we sat and watched taking photos, you don’t have to beach yourself in a sticky swamp to experience wildlife in action, our trip back along the road was topped with a massive eagle, it flew great circles above the tarmac, dipping out of view then rising up again, we arrived back at 11:00am, that four hours felt like a full day, ‘fancy a swim Hugh ‘ Miranda said to me, we were in the pool by lunch, she was smiling again, no love lost, lesson learned, no cripples allowed in the forest.
After a week or so in Shelter Bay we left aboard a Norwegian boat as line handlers, to give Marinus a hand and also to get a vibe for the canal, test the water if you will. Marinus had a mint boat, it was luxury, life afloat with a fridge, with proper beds, with storage space not hand crafted by my brother H, with a boat designed by a boat designer, it was like a holiday for us and we had a good crack anchored in the lake having crossed the Colon locks, drinking cold beers and laughing. The next day we completed the tip, making it into the Pacific just before nightfall. You could see the relief in Marinus’s face, after a month of waiting he was free, the vast expanse of the Pacific opened out wide, he was through the bottleneck, I was almost more excited aboard Bora Bora than when we crossed in Coconut, the relief of getting through, all that money and time worth it, freedom at last. Marinus was going to try for Australia in one hop, 74 days alone, he was an ex sea captain, a good drinker, a hard nut from the old school, an all round good egg, part gentlemen part brawler, we really got on with him and it was sad to see him go, we hopped in a cab to the bus station leaving him at a balboa yacht club. Miranda and I often think of him and wonder how he is at sea, all that time alone, he had only just had a pace maker put into his heart, 70 years old sailing the Pacific solo, what a champ.
We got back to Shelter bay, an easy trip just one hour or so on the bus, the diesel engineer came and checked our engine, we cleaned the boat and had just booked a few nights in a hotel Panama City side when the phone rang. It was our agent Erik, Miranda took the call, she ran up to me with an excited if not slightly frightened look on her face, ‘ it’s Erik,’ she said, ‘ he wants to know if we can go tomorrow,’ she paused whilst I took in the news, , ‘he needs to know now, someone has just cancelled.’ We had no line handlers ready, nothing prepared, we had just booked nights in a hotel, it was completely out of the blue, we weren’t scheduled to leave for two weeks. ‘We got to take it,’ I said to Miranda, ‘we have no option.’ It was a weird feeling, needing a date so bad then suddenly landing it right on the kerb beneath your feet, before you have the time to even play the fish there it is, flapping on the boardwalk, staring you straight in the eyes, you kind of freeze for a second, the shock numbs your senses. If your hungry you dream of hamburgers, you don’t want one rammed down your throat by the chef’s club hands, no time to breath, no time to take in the flavours, you want it put on a plate, left cooling for your consumption, that is the only way I can describe what happened with out canal crossing, one minute we were just about to leave on a mini brake to Panama City, the next we where manically trying to sort out line handlers, buy two days food for our three extra crew plus pilot, do engine checks, pay up at the marina, wash clothes, get the boat ready to sleep three guests, all that afternoon, we were due to leave at 12:00 the next day. We managed to track down Louise a really sound Swedish girl who had been looking for a boat to cross the canal with, her boat had got to Panama City before she arrived, it was perfect timing and we felt lucky to have her onboard. We had to hire the two others, there was no way around it, we went through Erik who sorted everything, if it was short notice for us, it was even shorter for him, an already busy guy who did a sterling job.
Getting through the canal is to leave one road and start another, that passage is a cocoon, a hanging crycilis, a canyon, a sender stretch of water all boats must take to reach the next chapter, arriving out the other end is to, if but for a passing moment, become that budding moth, opening your eyes to find great wings at your side, the days of crawling around on your belly in day trips to Linton island over, the weeks penned in at Shelter Bay like a pack of fat caterpillars finished, you loose that sluggish skin, that mossy undercarriage, when those Pacific locks open the transformation is complete, it is a moment of great arrival, of reeling off the old and starting the new, of braking out, a sensation of utter freedom, wether it be a none stop passage to that big yellow crescent swinging in the heavens, or bang!!! straight into the double glazing!!! a new chapter begins when you set those wings and prepare for flight. Like that giant month Little Coconut was groomed for the off, we packed her full of supplies, sat for a moment to admire our Pacific side status, then motored out of Balboa yacht club for the last time, heading off into the unknown again, into water that ran away in shimmering sheets of glass, off in a thousand different lines to a thousand different destinations, it was all somewhere beyond the doorstep, everything had become possible, our dream of sailing the Pacific was no dream anymore it had crash landed into reality.