Prepping and Planning: Panama to Pacific

Blue Heeler rounded the Cape of Good Hope from the Indian Ocean into the cerulean waters of the Atlantic in early 2015. Over the past seven years since that time, we’ve sailed Blue Heeler over 30,000nm; an overall total of 50,000nm since leaving Melbourne in 2011. In a couple of days, we leave the Atlantic/Caribbean region and begin our passage across the turquoise waters of the mighty Pacific Ocean – a new era for us as we return Blue Heeler to our own ocean.

Seven years ago: Indian Ocean into Atlantic

From Bonaire we sailed 775nm direct to Panama. While we could have stopped at Cartagena, San Blas Islands and Bocas del Toros, this would have delayed our transit into the Pacific at least one month. After such an enjoyable, relaxing time in Bonaire diving, swimming and snorkelling, our main focus was to prepare Blue Heeler for an 8000nm voyage, pass through the Panama Canal earlier than most with the goal of spending more time in the Pacific. While I am a little disappointed we didn’t visit Cartagena, there will be plenty of islands to visit in the Pacific.

The choice to haul out at Cartagena was almost locked in; we even had an agent and boatyard lined up, but hanging around for a decent weather window from Bonaire, our enthusiasm to forge ahead was revived, so we sailed directly to Shelter Bay in Panama to begin prepping the boat for the voyage.

Straddling the edge of the wind on our way from Bonaire to Panama
Conditions on our last sail in the Caribbean

Our final sail in the Atlantic/Caribbean Sea, was as close to the windy Colombian coastline as possible, staying far enough away not to be slapped by strong winds and short seas. The passage lasted five nights plus a few hours. With a helpful current for the first four days, the last day we had little to no current, to arrive at Shelter Bay on a Sunday afternoon at the end of January. Approaching the breakwater, I raised our yellow ‘pratique’ flag raised for clearance, along with the carefully embroidered Panama courtesy flag I’d made back in Portugal.

The next working day, we checked in with Shelter Bay marina, then walked across the driveway to the Port Captain for Customs Clearance, and Immigration located next door. Each required multiple copies of Registration, Crew Lists, Vaccine Certificates, Last Port Clearance, Passports, and so on, and within a short while we were cleared in to Panama.

At the boatyard office, we arranged a haul-out for later that week. That done, we then had to source antifoul. A visit to the small chandlery, the Dock Side, and a chat to Bertha who runs the chandlery, in a few days she had organised the delivery of three US gallons of Hempel antifoul from Panama City. The cost of antifoul here is similar to other Caribbean islands, and at least double the price of antifoul from the EU. In the aft locker, we still had plenty of painting tools, rollers, dust masks, etc., from our last haulout so it was great to use them and get them off the boat. Hempel paint, which we’ve mostly used on the hull, had once again performed well – the bottom was surprisingly clear of growth and barnacles when we hauled out. We decided to stick with the paint we knew would work, and not mess around with cheaper unknown paints that may end up causing more problems. Been there, done that!

Next, we had to sort out our internet. While the marina offers daily, weekly and monthly options for internet, the mini-mart at the marina sells the more affordable option of Tigo SIM and topup cards. Unlimited internet for one week is only US$5 – not bad considering we had to do a heap of downloading – Navionics charts, raster charts, KAP files, PDFs, IOS and app updates, and so on. The navigation apps we’ll be using on our iPads are Navionics, SeaIQ and TimeZero.

Shelter Bay Marina, Panama

Shelter Bay Marina is surrounded by jungle, and at least 25 minutes to the city of Colon, only 10kms away. There are no shops around the marina and the facilities are limited. However, twice a day (Mon-Sat), Mr Ranger drives a mini-bus to take yachties into Colon. Ideal to stock up on groceries or drop into the hardware store or other places if you ask him nicely. For big loads (such as litres of bottled water for the Canal Transit Advisor and line handlers), sharing a taxi is an option. Propane fills can also be arranged through the marina too. The mini-mart is quite small and quickly runs out of bread and beer; a veggie guy comes on Mondays with a one-tonner full of fresh local and imported veggies and fruits. The laundry is well run and affordable, and most days the hot wind is all you need to dry your laundry. For a little luxury, Shelter Bay also has a restaurant and the food is very good. Next door is the swimming pool – a great place to cool down after a day polishing stainless steel or painting the hull!

Like most places in the Caribbean where cruisers congregate, a group of enthusiastic yachties host a morning sked (VHF77). Here people can offer themselves as line-handlers for the canal; request line-handlers for the canal; sell/buy things; general announcements; or find out what social activity is happening that day, and so on. There are a number of social events throughout the week, from nature walks to social drinks and potlucks. Surrounding the marina is a thick jungle. Some mornings we hear the eery holler of Howler Monkeys from the jungle canopy. Taking a walk along the former and now crumbling US Army Base ‘Fort Sherman’, you may see Capuchin monkeys, Toucans, Iguana, snakes, Harpy Eagle, all sorts of tuneful and colourful birds. If you’re lucky you might see a Sloth.

As far as transiting the canal, there are two options – DIY or an Agent. While we considered doing it ourselves to save a few bob, in the end we decided on using an agent. This freed us up to focus on the antifoul painting and secure an earlier transit date. Within a few days after arrival, the agent had arranged the Admeasurer to measure the length of our boat, had organised our Cruising Permit and set a date for transit.

Photo from Wikipedia

The price for transiting the canal has doubled in the past couple of years, and there’s not much change out of US$3,000. The Panama Cruising Permit is $235 and mandatory if your stay in Panama exceeds 72 hours. The transit toll is $1600; the inspection is $75; the Transit Security Fee is $165; Hiring of large fenders and long-lines $75; and the agent’s fee is $350. It’s also mandatory to have four line-handlers on board. These can either be enthusiastic yachties or travellers looking for a passage through the canal, or local lads arranged through the agent at $100 per person. With one day to go and still no transit time scheduled, we asked our agent to arrange three line-handlers to come aboard and I’ll be the fourth. There doesn’t appear to be too many offering themselves as line handlers. In addition to the cost of the canal transit, the cost to haulout at Shelter Bay and stay on the hard for one week plus the antifoul had to be factored into the budget. No problems living aboard the boat too.

Generally hesitant to join organised sailing groups, on this occasion we did sign up with the ‘Pacific Posse’ to take advantage of some of the benefits, such as 35% off at Shelter Bay Marina; discount on haul-out rates; discount on agent of $125; discounts across the Pacific and 20% discount on PredictWind forecast subscription, to name just a few. The Pacific Posse has a small number of participants, all starting from a variety of locations around the Pacific.

Once the boat was hauled out and pressure washed, prepping and painting the hull was straightforward. This is the eighth time we’ve painted the bottom since we’ve owned Blue Heeler, so we set-to and get the job done efficiently nowadays. The last time we painted (which didn’t seem that long ago) was April 2021. The paint was in remarkably good condition with virtually no growth and barnacles. Some areas had lost antifoul and the prop needed a good scrub, plus we needed to replace anodes too, so it was worthwhile making sure all was good.

Not much fun sanding in this humidity

A day of skipper sanding, a day to epoxy an area around the skeg, and a day for both of us to paint, the bottom is smooth and shiny. The shade of blue of this batch of Hempel is a little different to what we’ve used before – it’s Hempel’s ‘Bright Blue’ – a new look for a new ocean! The bottom is slick and shiny and ready to impress the fish of the Pacific!

Job done!
Worth the time and effort to keep Blue Heeler in top condition

Besides painting the hull, we also knocked off a few jobs in preparation for the voyage. Not having spent much time in marinas in 2021, it gave us time to make sure we were happy with everything. Other jobs took some time, such as downloading charts and new navigation apps; researching anchorages. I keep busy by squirreling away food, sorting out lockers, and doing odd-jobs such as reglueing our ten-year old dinghy and stitching up the chaps, polishing the stainless in the hot sun. We drained our water tanks to flush out muck that has accumulated over the past few years; and changed water filters. The humidity and heat are quite draining, so an afternoon dip in the pool followed by a cold beer is becoming my daily ritual.

So that’s it for now. Our date to transit the 50 miles of the Panama Canal is scheduled for Sunday 20th February and Monday 21st February. Outside Shelter Bay we’ll pick up a Transit Advisor who stays aboard for the transit. While we still don’t have the exact time of our transit, boats generally enter the locks in the afternoon and stay in Gatun Lake overnight, along with the line-handlers aboard, and exit the canal the following afternoon. The Transit Advisor leaves the boat at this stage and turns up the following morning. All being well, Blue Heeler should be floating in the Pacific next week!

More about the transit on my next post, but here’s a link to the Panama Canal webcam.

Until then…

About blueheelerhr39

Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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4 Responses to Prepping and Planning: Panama to Pacific

  1. Brian and Gail says:

    Great you are through the Canal, awesome. Enjoy the Pacific. Look forward to reading where you visit (or are allowed to visit)


  2. islandsonata says:

    Thanks for the update. Best wishes for the trip back into the Pacific. Ruth and Kelvin


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