If you’ve been following our GPS tracking and reading our daily updates, you will know that we’ve sailed over 1000nm since leaving Panama. As we head into the next 3000nm to reach French Polynesia, here is a recap of the voyage so far…

Back in Panama, it took almost two weeks to receive our permit to enter French Polynesia. This was frustrating, particularly as others anchored nearby had received there’s within 24-48 hours. We used the time at anchor outside La Playita marina to do final provisioning, and renewing our boat insurance, which was due to expire soon. We were happy to be leaving the huge wakes created by pilot and passenger boats going to and from La Playita. The grime on the hull from the dirty water cleaned off before we departed.

With slowly ripening fruit hanging outside under the davit, and with the help of our agent, we cleared out of Panama to begin our longest passage – 4000nm to Marquesas, French Polynesia.
Motoring south into the Gulf of Panama, passing through a fleet of ships all waiting to go through the canal, there was just enough wind and current to sail 4kn speed over ground. Closer to Isla Otoque the wind died completely, so we motored for about an hour watching plenty of whales and dolphins sharing their lunch with a mass of seabirds. By late afternoon the forecast northerly wind picked up, steadily increasing to 18kn. It was a good time to play some music – Band on the Run seemed fitting.
By late evening we’d sailed 60nm and with winged out sails managed 6kn-8kn SOG. At this point we had begun to cross the shipping lanes at the south end of the gulf, near Punta Mala. The wind had eased to 10/12kn, but with the current we were sailing along at 5kn. The Tigo LTE signal was strong here at the last point close to mainland, so I checked my emails, read some news, and downloaded the most recent ABC and BBC podcast news – something to listen to when we have our morning coffee. That is the end of internet for us, at least for the next 35 days or so.


Weather routing through doldrums

With 136nm under our belt for day one, the following day the wind blew up to 25kn, but decreased to 4kn by dusk. Wayne cranked the engine on, running at low revs to keep the diesel burn low. There is a helpful 1.5kn current with us at this point.

This will be our longest trip to date, and with calm conditions as we cross the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone), we are being extra careful and conservative with regards to power and water usage. With <500 liters of diesel on board, our motoring range is between 800-1000nm. Since we have so many miles ahead of us and being just days into the voyage, it’s prudent to be conservative. At times we drift along at less than 3kn.

To save water, on deck seawater washes, where we can use as much refreshing seawater as we like, are followed by a rinse of fresh water. We just have to be careful not to slip on a bar of soap and fall overboard!

The weather is hot so we’re not wearing much, keeping the laundry down to a minimum. The clothes we do wear are washed in seawater, with a splash of detergent and softener to freshen them up. Hung out in the hot sun they are fine to wear.

This squall gave us a good boost of wind up to 25kn

Rubbish is also kept to a minimum. Prior to leaving, excess original packaging was removed and items identified and stowed in various lockers around the boat. We don’t carry plastic water bottles, and never have, except for the trip through the Panama Canal. Food scraps can go overboard, but paper is stowed separately from plastics, with a separate bag for recyclables. We’re only nine days into this trip and I’ve yet to open a can of anything as we’ve got plenty of fresh food to eat and we don’t eat as much offshore as we would do onshore. We don’t drink alcohol when offshore (except perhaps for a cold beer when crossing the equator!) so we don’t have beer cans or bottles to dispose of.
There is more than enough rubbish floating out here, mostly plastic water bottles, but I see other crap floating just under the surface. We do our best not to contribute to this offshore pollution and I’m pretty sure most cruisers follow the same ethos. I imagine the majority comes from river runoff, flooding, and so on. Still, it’s a shame to see so much crap.

So at which point do cruisers start their engines when the frustration with no wind gets to them? For us, on a typical passage with steady winds we generally only have to run the engine to top up the batteries; rarely do we encounter such long spells of zero wind on an ocean passage. For example, during our recent 2400nm (18 day) voyage from Cape Verde to the Caribbean we used 45 engine hours, mostly for battery charging and running watermaker, and less for propulsion.
On this current voyage, it’s a little different. With a fuel supply for only 20% of the total voyage distance, and with the first ten days of the voyage crossing the calms of the ITCZ, we can’t afford to waste diesel this early into the trip.

When the true wind struggles to reach 4kn, but with a helpful 2kn southerly flowing current, we can float along at between 3kn – 4kn. Good enough. Sure, we could motor along at 2000 rpms and reach the trade winds sooner, but we would waste precious diesel that we may need otherwise. Mind you, should an updated weather forecast indicate wind ahead of us, we may motor to reach the wind rather than wallow in the flat ocean. The trick is to have patience, get the most out of the sails, and to use the engine as little as possible. Eventually though, patience won’t get us to our destination, so the iron-sail at low revs keeps us moving through the doldrums.

For our route planning we use data primarily from PredictWind but also Weather4D, small area data downloaded via our IridiumGo. Prior to leaving and with good internet, we download large area grib files in Weather4D, both wind forecasts and for currents. Offshore a weather grib file is generally less than 150kb, whereas with internet we can download huge files before we leave, but of course they won’t cover the entire duration of this voyage.

PredictWind route planning does take into consideration ocean current data when calculating the routes, but to view the currents graphically you need the highest level subscription. Like most, we have the Standard PredictWind package and make do with visual current data from Weather4D gribs.
Leaving Panama this early in the sailing season, it was hard to identify a good weather window to depart. Each day the forecast changes due to the fickle wind conditions. Until the trade winds stabilise at these lower latitudes, you’ll have to deal with whatever is dealt out. Squalls with high winds can appear, and we used 25kn wind from one such squall to sail along the flat seas reaching 9kn at times. Once gone, the wind dropped back down to 0.2kn.

Weather4D allows us to download information on currents – very helpful through the doldrums

We’ve been lucky to have moonlight for the first 1000nm. Even though, it’s virtually impossible to see up ahead at anything floating at us. A few nights in, the boat is rocked by a loud bang on the hull, then another big bang. We both leap up “WTF?” to see a huge log drifting behind us. Wayne jumps below and checks the bilge for any signs of water but the hull is dry. A quick check around and everything appears okay, but we can never be entirely certain. The following morning, Wayne jumped in to inspect the outside of the hull while I used a boat hook to fend off blue bottle jellyfish. No sign of external hull damage thankfully. Not the first time, and certainly not the last.

Moonlight sailing

Along the way we’ve seen whales, plenty of leaping dolphins, a huge floating turtle and lots of sea birds, particularly boobies. They’ve invited themselves onto our bow in the evenings, at one point eight of them were perched overnight. It’s fun having them along, but they sure do make a mess. I don’t know what the collective noun is for boobies, perhaps a ‘Pulpit of Boobies’? We eventually evicted them, and used the wash down hose to squirt away the stinky poo. To prevent them returning, I placed Christmas tinsel around the pulpit and forward safety line. Not sure if it’ll work, but the boat looks festive! (Haven’t seen them since).

Eight Boobies enjoying a lift!

We decided a while back not to visit Galapagos, many cruisers, like us, also on their way to French Polynesia, aren’t stopping either. Despite recommendations from other cruisers that we must visit, after speaking with others on their way this year, and reading articles and blogs, the main reasons are due to excessive fees and strict regulations to enter; but they’re not the only reasons.

The fees and regulations imposed by the Ecuadorian Government on visiting yachts are steep for the average cruiser (Noonsite info from 2019 suggests upwards of US$2000). While we always thought we would visit, the logistics of entering, including the formalities and associated costs, are prohibitive for cruisers on a budget. Yachts must apply two months in advance to obtain permission, the boat must show a fumigation certificate and have a clean hull upon arrival. While we did have the time to apply, and do have a clean hull, and pretty sure we have no creepy-crawlies inside (maybe a few boobies outside…), it’s still a balance: getting value for money. In addition, there are daily costs associated with joining dive groups, land tours, eating out, which you would need to do to appreciate the islands. Have a look at Tripadvisor and you’ll see that tourism is alive and well here.

There’s also the situation about landing in Galapagos for an unscheduled stop due to provisioning, water, fuel, or an emergency. Apparently, so I’ve read, cruisers should be prepared to pay hundreds of dollars in fees to stop. Most sailors in the middle of an ocean would expect to be able to take on water and fuel to continue their voyage without encumbrance and excessive cost. As we passed by the archipelago, our AIS showed over 100 vessels scattered throughout the islands. Many of the commercial vessels, passenger vessels mainly, had names referencing Charles Darwin, but we also saw some yacht names we recognised. I wonder how often the commercial operators clean their hulls and where do they put their discharge?

Having sailed three quarters around the world, we’ve mostly had the freedom to explore and see wildlife; reptiles and dragons, bird life, sea-life, sharks, seals, turtles and penguins, in their own unique habitats without all the hype. So, as we sail by the archipelago, we wish the best future for the creatures and tourism of the Galápagos Islands.

On board as we sail along we stay on top of things to keep everything running, and try to keep our energy consumption down. The Windpilot is operating allowing us to turn off the autopilot and reducing our energy usage. This, in turn, means I can use this energy for our induction hot plate, saving propane, which is hard to get in some places.

Some problems have to be dealt with and we do our best to avoid big problems. There was an issue with our wind data not coming through to the autopilot, so we had to calibrate the system and found ourselves doing circles in the middle of nowhere as part of the calibration process. All good now.
Our engine needs to run when making water and we’ve only run the water maker a couple of times in the nine days we’ve been out here. The first time we’d inadvertently left a valve in the wrong position, expelling fresh water overboard – a potential disaster – quickly we realised and stopped the flow, but probably wasted about 30 litres overboard. We won’t do that again.

My fridge was running constantly and unusually warm – 10degC. With a fridge load of fresh produce to save, I emptied the contents into cooler bags and quickly defrosted the fridge. The evaporator icing up has been a problem for a while now and I’m having to defrost monthly, but I was hoping not to have to do it at sea. Not so easy cleaning inside a top loading fridge when underway!

At this juncture we’re getting into the groove of life offshore and have at least another 20-25 days out here. As far as fresh food, I originally had eggs, cabbage, carrots and green tomatoes stored in the bilge, but with the water temperature at 29degC, I’ve moved them to the fridge or possibly lose them. Nine days in, and the pineapple and melon I bought ripened and was quickly consumed, but I’ve got loads of apples that don’t deteriorate as quickly and will last a few weeks. Potatoes and onions are stored below and as long as they are dry they’ll last a few weeks too. Fresh loaves of bread were also consumed so now I’ll make my own as needed. My tomatoes have all ripened but in the fridge they’ll last a while. Most of our meat is vacuum sealed and we have a weeks worth of chicken in our small freezer.

So, that’s about it. We are happy with our overall progress for the first 1000 miles and the weather forecast for the next 600nm at least looks good too. Our plan is to sail to 3 degrees south then head west to 100 degrees west, then sail the rhumb line to the Marquesas at 9 degrees south. I’ll post again when we reach the halfway point.
Until then…

Flat calm of the ITCZ – the Doldrums

I can’t respond to comments here until we reach internet, but If you want to contact is while offshore, you can email to blueheelerhr39(at)myiridium.net.
Follow our progress here – https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/SV_BlueHeeler [end]

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The Panama Canal is not our first canal transit; in fact, despite it’s popularity, it’s the shortest canal we’ve transited, both in lift (height above sea level) and length. In 2015, our first canal was New York State’s Erie Canal – 35 locks rising 172 metres above sea-level into the Great Lakes. From there we passed through around 30 locks on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee-Tombigbee (Tenn-Tom) Rivers to exit into the Gulf of Mexico. The largest lock on the Tenn-Tom – The Whitten Lock – by itself is a single lift of over 25 metres. Our next foray through canals and locks would be the enjoyable Standing Mast Route in the Netherlands in 2018. The Dutch certainly have a well engineered system of locks and bridges throughout the small country. Our next canal experience was the Göta Canal – 190 kilometres and 58 locks from Sweden’s east coast through to Gothenburg on the west coast. Known as the ‘Divorce Canal’ due to it’s demands on stressed-out husbands and wives who normally team up on this canal with dozens of other vessels, we made it through, with a vow to perhaps reconsider any more canal transits. After all, Blue Heeler is a sailing vessel, not a motor-boat.

So, with all that practice, the Panama Canal by comparison (82kms, six locks and a rise above sea-level of less than 26 metres) should be easy enough.

Source: Pancanal.com

In my last post I listed the pros and cons of paying for experienced line-handlers aboard vs backpackers. Since we didn’t have a time for our transit until the day before, and line-handlers not as available as they may have been in pre-COVID years, we decided to hire three guys to help us out – I was the fourth line handler while Wayne retained his role as skipper.

Worthwhile having line handlers who know their stuff

Outside Shelter Bay Marina we anchored outside, where we would wait for the Transit Advisor to join us. It’s mandatory to have a Transit Advisor and four line handlers through the canal and they must also have shelter from the sun and rain. The agent provided four 40m x 25mm ropes and eight fenders, dropped off the day before we departed and the lads set these up around the boat while we waited.

Transit Advisor joins us outside Shelter Bay Marina, Panama

The senior of the trio (ironically named Junior), chatted to us in English, while the two lads went below to watch US baseball, take a nap and generally waited around to be called on deck to handle the lines. Their English wasn’t as developed as Junior’s, so for two days I was referred to as ‘Sir’. That’s okay, I’ve been called worse!

Also mandatory and stipulated by the Agent, is for the Transit Advisor and line handlers to have a proper hot meal on transit. The day before I prepared a huge crockpot full of meaty pasta sauce and al dente pasta for the team. All afternoon the aroma wafted around the boat until the evening where we could tuck in. Another prerequisite is to have bottled water for all hands. As we’d be motoring for hours, the tank water would be warm and not refreshing to drink. While the taste of our tank water is fine, some boats do have manky water so I can understand their desire for bottled water. If for any reason the Transit Advisor doesn’t like the food or you run out of bottled water, the cost to have a decent meal or bottled water shipped in will set you back US$450 and that’s just for the pilot to bring it out! I was pretty certain I had enough water on board but when the first words out of the lad’s mouths was “Agua”, I got a little nervous that they would drink the boat dry! All was fine and with some supplemental cans of Coke and Tetra packs of fruit juice, the lads were satisfied.

WebCam footage shows Blue Heeler transiting the Gatun Lock

We arrived at the lock just before 7pm in darkness. The Gatun Locks are well lit up so we could see okay to receive the lines thrown from the Canal workers on shore. As I couldn’t take any photos, the WebCam image above shows how small our little vessel is, all alone in the lock. I made a short video of our transit which shows the process.

The transit through the locks took around two hours. We were the only yacht on the transit, following a small passenger ship the National Geographic Quest.

Once through the three locks, we motored in darkness a couple of miles to a mooring area. The Transit Advisor stayed only during the transit and was whisked away by a pilot vessel into the darkness while the remaining crew enjoyed a couple of beers. The three line handlers stayed aboard for the night, bunking on the saloon settees, with Junior preferring the great outdoors in the cockpit.

Large mooring in Gatun Lake

The concept of a canal across the isthmus was imagined back in the 1500s. Construction of the canal originally commenced by the French in the late 1800s, but due to lack of capital and a high mortality rate the project was shelved. The US took it over in 1904, the year after Panama’s independence and completed the canal by 1914. The acquisition was controversial and for many years the Panamanians fought for their sovereignty. This issue would begin to quell in the 1970s and the canal was handed back to Panama on 31st December 1999, giving Panama full control of the country’s major revenue source. The sea level rise is a mere 25 metres, so each lock rise is around seven metres. However, the chambers are over 360m long and can fit some of the world’s largest ships.

Other locks we’ve transited allowed us to tie up to a floating bollard, or hang off a long line, using boat hooks to keep the boat from bumping into the thick concrete walls as the water turbulence floods the lock. The Panama Canal system has onshore Canal workers throwing a ‘monkey fist’, and light-line to which we tie a bowline to the 40m x 25mm ropes we have at each quarter of the vessel; each having a 1m bowline. The workers then haul the heavy ropes to the bollards at the top of the lock. Each of the four line handlers then pulls in slack as the vessel rises, or releases the line as it lowers. We were expecting to be rafted up to other boats; typically a larger more powerful boat would take the centre position and we’d raft up to them, effectively negating the need for two of our line handlers. But in our case, we were the only yacht transiting so we each had to work the lines.

Heavy lines eased as we float down

Back at Gatun Lake, at 5.30am I sat out in the cool to watch the sunrise and watch the ships in the distance, while the lads gently snored below.  By 6.30am, the kettle had boiled for hot coffee and I’d prepared scrambled eggs, toast and jam for the waking crew. Our Transit Advisor was due to arrive after 7.30am and eventually turned up at 8.30am, and off we went across Gatun Lake at a consistent 7kn to keep the lock schedule.

The day was uneventful, and we didn’t get close to any big ships or see any wildlife in the jungle. We did have to wait at one point as a huge container ship navigated around a narrow corner so we used the time to have a sandwich lunch. By 1.30pm we’d arrived a the first of the three southern locks – the Pedro Miguel lock.

All hands keeping out of the hot sun

This time, as we were on our way down, we entered the lock first with a huge ship and tug behind us. Going down is easier and each line is gently eased helped by the weight of the boat. Once through the first lock we motored a half mile or so into the second lock – Miraflores. We tied up and waited for the behemoth behind us to follow in. This time we would tie up to a tug, which meant I didn’t have to do any more line handling and could take a few happy snaps while the lads managed the ropes.

Large ship follows us into the southern locks
The WebCam photo shows how small Blue Heeler is compared to a large ship

The process repeated and once the third and final lock drained, the lock gates opened and we entered into the Pacific Ocean! Overall, the trip was stress-free, and the three line handlers were efficient and knew what to do and when.

Four miles south of the Miraflores Lock passing under the ‘Bridge of the Americas’, the guys secured us to a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club near Panama City. Almost immediately, the BYC water taxi appeared to collect the fenders and lines, and the lads – we thanked each of them and they left with a fistful of ‘dead Presidents’.

Atlantic to Pacific – just like that, our transit was over. The other option was to sail around Cape Horn; while it may have been more exciting, and certainly much more challenging, it would have taken a couple of years at least, not to mention the stress on the boat (and our insurance company wasn’t too happy either!). By the end of the transit our boat was littered with half drunk bottles of water, much like a scene out of the sci-fi movie ‘Signs’.

Now that we are on the Pacific side, we must prepare for our 8000nm (15,000 kilometre) passage across the Pacific Ocean – the first leg a 4000nm passage to the Marquesas in French Polynesia.

South of the Miraflores locks is the Balboa Yacht Club where most yachts coming out of the Canal drop off their fenders and lines. Some continue south to the fancy La Playita or Flamenco marinas, but the simplicity of the Balboa Yacht Club suits us. Only moorings are available and the amenities are simple, but clean. The bar area is closed (due to COVID I expect) but a TGI Friday restaurant is nearby. To get ashore, the BYC water taxi is responsive to either a call on VHF06, or a whistle and wave as he passes by.

Balboa Yacht Club Water Taxi

The old part of Panama City, chandleries, and the Albrook Shopping Complex are a short drive away, as well as plenty of supermarkets. We’ve found that Ubers are the best way to get around; they are usually cleaner, have better aircon, and don’t charge a ‘gringo tax’ like other taxi drivers may do. In fairness, the local taxi guys can also ‘value add’ by taking you to specific places and have local knowledge for yachties. The BYC usually has diesel, but not during our stay, so we arranged to have some jerries filled with a local taxi guy. You can usually negotiate a fare if you want him to hang around while you run errands.

Of course we had to visit the Panama Canal Museum in the old part of the city. The informative displays have a strong focus on the struggle for Panamanians to take back their land from the US. The Panama Canal is certainly an impressive engineering project.

A walk through the Casco Viejo, the old city, the buildings date back to the late 1600s, built after privateer Henry Morgan, destroyed the city. As you’d expect, there are plenty of shops selling Panama hats!

Cathedral of Panama, Plaza de la Independencia

With so many nautical miles ahead of us and at least eight months of transiting Pacific Islands, provisioning has taken precedence over the past few weeks, if not months. The final splurge in Panama City has the boat filled with canned and dry goods, fresh vegetables, and of course some light refreshments to see us through, at least for a while!

Our final few days will be spent waiting for a weather window to begin our passage south and check out with Immigration and Customs. Our plan is to head south around Galapagos, then west towards Marquesas – wind on this leg will be fickle and we may have to motor a couple of days to get through the Doldrums. We don’t have plans to visit Galapagos and I’ll cover that in my next post.

I’ll be posting to this blog from offshore with our IridiumGo and you can follow our progress using the GPS Tracking at the top of the page. If you want to drop us a line and let us know what’s going on in this crazy world, we’d love to hear from you – BlueHeelerHR39(at)myiridium.net. (As we have low bandwith, text only, no attachments).

Until then…

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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. https://multimedia.panama-canal.com/

Until then…

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As much as we would love to stay longer in Bonaire, our stay here had to come to an end eventually. What a pleasure it’s been to be able to swim in the clear 27degC water each day; snorkeling or diving; knowing that our boat is safe on a mooring and not about to drag anchor. We’ve come to learn the daily schedules around the waterfront – young boys doing impressive wheelies on their bikes, older guys doing noisy and less impressive burnouts on their motorbikes; watching the water polo team each weekend; Sunfish sailboats from the nearby sailing club, as well as the daily inflow of tourists from cruise-ships. Thanks Bonaire, or as the locals say in Papiamiento, Danki!

Over the past five weeks, we clocked up many good dives; mostly within 3nm from the mooring field; most dives have a site buoy to tie the dinghy to. The 15-20m depth is ideal for diving with so much marine life. While the diving here is not as dramatic as the Outer Barrier Reef in Australia, the accessibility of the dives makes up for that. The ability to dive from the back of the boat into 20-30m is so easy to do. The dives weren’t swarming with divers – in fact, most of our dives we were on our own, except for the couple of times joining the crew of Voila. Now and again a couple of divers might swim by, but otherwise we enjoyed the dives by ourselves. We did get bumped off one dive – after motoring all the way to the north side of Klein Bonaire we’d just tied up to a site buoy and were ready to jump in, only to be asked to vacate the buoy by a commercial boat filled with potential snorkelers. And if you’re planning on visiting Bonaire to dive, don’t forget to visit the Stoked Foodtruck – the big red double-decker bus at Te Amo beach – the best burgers and fries to have after a dive!

Our little dinghy and 9.8Hp Tohatsu can’t plane when it’s filled with dive tanks and gear and we have to carry extra fuel when we dinghy far away. Still, we did some great dives on the west coast – in fact one of the nicest dives was our last dive – 18th Palm just south of the Cruise Ship dock. There were plenty of coral bommies, and loads of fish. We didn’t see any seahorses or octopus, but we were lucky to see many of the other species of fish; from small flirty Damselfish looking straight into the camera, to bottom-feeders such as the Sand Diver, to the gaping mouths of the Moray eels, the intimidating stares of the Great Barracuda and the slow undaunted stance of the large Tarpon. My favourite fish is the photogenic French Angelfish – so pretty, and those eyes! Hard to spot among the coral, we found a Scorpionfish with a face only a mother could love; unlike the colourful Parrotfish, Groupers, Butterflyfish and Grunts – the usual suspects that swim and nibble under the boat. Have a look at it yourself on this short ten minute video taken with my little Crosstour camera.

After cleaning, drying and stowing our dive gear to use another day, we are now focused on choosing an appropriate weather window to depart Bonaire. But to where?

The section of coast between Aruba to Cartagena is notoriously windy and squally, particularly during the dry period between December to March. While we had originally planned on visiting Cartagena, the ever-changing situation with entry rules and requirements in all countries, and the slim chance that Panama may close its borders for whatever reason they deem appropriate, plus the waiting around for a suitable weather window to avoid the worst around Colombia, we’ve decided to head directly to Panama – about 800nm from Bonaire.

Potential route to Panama from Bonaire

Before departure, we filled up with diesel from the Harbour Village Marina – US$1.16/litre. Surprisingly our last diesel top-up was back in October and we only added 175 litres. The supermarkets at Bonaire are fully stocked and everything is available, although I have no need to do a huge provisioning shop – I can do this in Panama. I did buy some yummy Dutch licorice though…

To clear out some lockers and make room for future provisioning, I gathered clothes, plus kilos of sailing and other books that we no longer need, although are still useful, and donated them to the island Animal Shelter and second-hand shop. Each Saturday volunteers hold a garage sale to raise money for the animals. I spent the remainder of the day sorting out lockers, moving stuff around and putting suitable items in space-bags, sucking out the air to reduce the items to a more manageable size. After ten years aboard, our lockers are pretty full so it’s nice to have a little more room.

By the time you read this, we’ll be on our way; 800nm to Panama. The weather looks good and we anticipate a positive current, so we should take around five days to reach Shelter Bay. You can follow our tracking here.

Until then…

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People often ask us “What’s the best place you’ve visited?”. This is subjective of course, and we’ve visited some truly remarkable places over the past eleven years; each having their own uniqueness. Moving rapidly up the ‘best places’ list is the small Dutch Caribbean island, Bonaire.

To find a location that ticks all the boxes is a bonus: a safe and calm anchorage/mooring area, great diving and snorkelling, irresistible azure water at a perfect temperature, loads of marine life, supermarkets and laundry nearby, reasonable internet, even a Budget Marine chandlery. In Bonaire, we could easily stay much longer, enjoying all that nature has to offer. English is widely spoken, but the main language here is Papiamento – a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, creole based language only spoken in the Dutch Caribbean. But let me go back a few weeks…

The passage from Martinique to Bonaire was just under 500nm. With a helpful Caribbean Current and solid easterly wind, we managed a 7kn average for the entire trip, arriving at the bottom of Bonaire in the wee hours after 68 hours of good sailing. Along the way I hand-sewed a Bonaire flag using remnants of white shower curtain, a bit of blue, a swatch of yellow, and the important compass logo drawn from red and black permanent Sharpies. Making do with things at hand…

Mooring field at Kralendijk, Bonaire

The final 10nm we dawdled so we could enter the Harbour Village Marina in daylight. A heavy squall rolled over, dousing the boat, washing away days of salt. Once inside, we docked in our pre-arranged berth and waited for the office to open. The trick to staying at Bonaire is to grab one of the 40 odd moorings located south of the marina where the cool air blows over the boat, and swimming from the boat is refreshing.

After walking along the waterfront we checked in with the friendly Customs and Immigration office. A Health Declaration must be completed prior to arrival, which we’d done from Martinique. I believe a PCR is now mandatory as the rules have tightened up recently – see BonaireCrisis website).

On the way back we noticed a free mooring on the outer row, closer to the deeper water. We quickly cancelled our marina booking (for a 20% cancellation fee, luckily we’d only booked two nights), and motored around to the available mooring. The moorings are on a ‘first in, first served’ basis, and incredibly affordable US$10 per night (although I’ve heard a rumour the cost may increase to $45 a night). Where else in the world can you stay in such a magnificent location and swim in a huge aquarium for less than $80 a week!

The moorings are located on the sloping western bank from around 5m depth, dropping off to around 15-30m at the stern of our boat. From here we can jump directly off the boat and straight into a dive. Perfect! If you’re planning on any water activity within the Bonaire Marine Park, you’ll need to pay a Nature Fee at Stinapa (US$45 per person for one year).

The wind blows incessantly from the east, so the exposed western coast isn’t really a problem, until it is. At which point we have the option to relocate to a safer mooring on the lee side of the small island of Klein Bonaire or head into the small marina.

The main reason people visit Bonaire is the diving. This small Dutch Antilles island has many dive shops, dive tours and packages to suit every type of diver – from novices to experienced deep sea divers. (There are couple of useful Facebook pages where you can find info – Bonaire Divers and Bonaire Cruisers). Dive Friends, a popular business on the island, offers a discount for air fills – 21 fills for US$124 – a good deal. They also have all sorts of courses and hire gear and a retail store too.

Whilst we have our own gear, we haven’t dived for some time, particularly as we’ve been in the chilly northern latitudes (we’re warm water divers). Our dive gear needed some TLC, so we took the time to ensure everything was working as it should. Both our BCDs had issues with dump valves, and our tanks were also due for a service – tumbling and hydrotesting. Due to the Christmas high season, we didn’t get our tanks back until a few days before New Year’s Eve. While we waited, we snorkelled and enjoyed the beautiful 27degC water. In the end we had to buy two new BCDs and a new dive computer for me, as my old one died. Xprodiver is a good store for advice, service and retail too.

While we waited for our tanks to be returned, we hired four tanks so we could dive with friends, Steve and Dee, aboard Voila. The dives along the coast are named and numbered and I’d recommend buying a Bonaire Dive Guide. At the dive ‘Alice in Wonderland’, we did an afternoon dive to around 27m, but the main event was a night dive amongst the Ostracods.

These tiny shrimp-like crustaceans (about 1mm), generate bioluminescent light. As part of their monthly mating ritual they emit a blue light, hence they are named “blue tears”. Every month up to three days after a full moon, these little creatures light up the water – like bright stars in a dark sky. Once the sun had set, in the blackness of night before the moon rose, we dived down to around eight metres, torches off so as not to disturb the critters, and sat on the bottom enveloped in complete darkness, except for the twinkle of ostracods floating around us. Not far away we could see other divers approaching the area with torches on. This upsets the little ostracods and they get all shy… wouldn’t you during your monthly mating ritual! Once the show was over, we could turn on our torches and make our way back to the boat. Cool! Of course, in the darkness we couldn’t take any photos or video of the event, but here’s a cool link….

One dive from the boat into 20m, we were joined by a sea turtle, who swam his way close by as he poked around for things to nibble. The marine life here is truly amazing and the water is so clear. I don’t have a GoPro, but I have a more affordable alternative – a Crosstour CT9900. I bought this for around $100 and so far it’s a little ripper. I’ve taken it down on every dive (even down to 28m) and it takes pretty good video and photos, as long as I can keep my hand steady. But if you want to see really good photos of marine life, maybe check out someone elses blog….

Another load of tourists pouring into the islands…

Besides diving, Bonaire is a popular place for cruise ships to visit. But I’m surprised at the number of ships that roll in each day; even more surprised the number of people who want to go on cruise trips at this moment in time. Some ships have been turned away from Curacao and Aruba due to COVID outbreaks aboard. But, without the tourists, the small boat operators, water taxis and local shops would suffer. It’s the same situation in every country. Before we continue our passage west, we will have to have a PCR test to enter the next country, and the next, and so on. With Omicron, the rules are getting stricter, and we just hope that the Pacific doesn’t close down like last year. Tests aren’t cheap, so we may have to reconsider where we go and for how long.

To end the year, we had an enjoyable dinner with Steve and Dee at Trocadero, then back to their Saba 50 to view the random fireworks displays exploding over Bonaire as the New Year rolled in. 

To welcome in the New Year, we continued to dive ever other day, at the popular places along the western coast, and joined Voila on a trip to Klein Bonaire.

Looking back over 2021, we’ve sailed almost 7000nm passing through France, Spain, Portugal, Madeira, Cape Verde, Martinique and now Bonaire. The tropics is more favourable than the chilly north, but we are glad we spent the time we did up there. Now we have a full year ahead, navigating the ever-changing entry rules and regulations as we make our way back to Australia. When I began writing this post, Colombia didn’t require a PCR test for arriving, but now, at the end of the post, they do. Every day we have to keep abreast of the information whirling around the internet, filter out the noise and try and make sense of the ever-changing rules around COVID. In between, we just try to enjoy where we are.

So, at the end of yet another year aboard Blue Heeler, thank you for following our voyages, and we wish you all the very best for 2022.

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