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Curacao to Panama

We left Curacao on the 4th March with a promising weather window for a five day run round the north of Venezuela and Columbia and then down the Columbian west coast to Panama. This passage can be one of the most difficult in the world due the constant small depressions forming off the Columbian coast that can produce terrible seas as they combine with the trade winds and blow against the counter current coming up the coast. It is common to have waves coming from two directions, one from the NE trade winds and the other whipped up by the depressions. We also realized that that was little chance of being able to stop on the Columbian coast for personal security reasons. Our course was initially north west to clear Aruba and to get well offshore from the coast. Around 13°30 N(150 miles) we headed west for around 200 miles and we could then head south west directly to Colon in Panama. Our objective was to stay deeper than the 3000 metre depth contour and hopefully out of the worst of the sea conditions. After two days of light to medium winds north of Columbia we were making good progress for the 750 mile passage. During the second night (00:15) we collided with a tree that was semi submerged, we were travelling at around 9 knots and the double impact made a spine-chilling noise. Our immediate thoughts were for water ingress, the keel and the rudder. Fortunately no water was found in the boat and trying the helm which was on autopilot we found the steering was almost blocked and a nasty metal grinding sound was coming from the rudder post…..conclusion….rudder damage. There is no easy solution to a damaged rudder and we had another  500 miles remaining to reach Panama. Hand steering and the auto pilot kept the boat on course and while we reviewed our options. By morning the weather started getting worse and the sea conditions became more menacing. The waves in this region are much higher and steeper than would be normal for a force 6 (25 knots) blow due to the counter current and coming from two different directions required concentration at the helm to keep the boat on-course. The situation settled down on-board as the rudder seemed to holding and although it required significant force to steer at least it was not jammed. On the third night we were down to three reefs in the main sail and a scrap of jib as the boat ploughed through the chaotic waves. On the fourth day we recorded a 5 mb drop in the barometer in three hours and realized that the small depression to our left was deepening very quickly and was deeper than the weather forecast had predicted. We gybed the boat and ran as fast possible away to the west to avoid the worst of the weather. This was a successful tactic as within twelve hours the barometer had risen back to 1013 mb and we turned back towards Panama.  We contacted Shelter Bay marina in Colon by Sat phone to find that they were full and had to make alternative plans to moor/berth the boat.

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There is only one full service marina in Colon and our plans to go the San Blas islands prior to arrival at Colon and the Panama canal were scuttled. We located an anchorage twenty miles from Colon called Portabelo which was the scene of two famous sea attacks against the Spanish fortress town. One by Henry Morgan and the other by the British fleet. The anchorage looked good as it was well protected from the NE trades and was easy to enter by day with only one reef to avoid.  We arrived on the sixth day and dropped anchor in an idyllic palm fringed bay and were greeted by howling monkeys and pelicans. It was with a great sense of relief that we felt the anchor bite the sandy bottom and that we could finally relax and go for a swim. We wondered about crocodiles and stayed close to the boat in the green murky water. That evening we invited a solo sailor (Gerard) from the adjacent boat to supper and he gave us a superb guitar concert late into the evening.

Portabelo is sleepy,relaxed and run down and the customs/ immigration officers were very friendly.The highlight of the town is the black faced wooden Christ in the church which draws 10,000 pilgrims every year. The fortifications of the town due to the Spanish gold trade are still present with tens of large cannons lying near the walls of the town. There is also a back-packers hostel/bar/restaurant full of yachties and alternative tourists called Captain Jack which is the centre of the foreign community.

Before leaving Curacao we picked up George who is a young man we met in the Canary Islands. He has recently left University and has sailed across the Atlantic on a similar sized boat to Trifon. With a dingy and yacht racing background and “can do” mentality he is a welcome addition to our small crew and has already proved his worth and on our turbulent crossing to Panama. Night watches are back to rotating two person(3 hour) watches which was our preferred format when crossing the atlantic and the crew are able to get more sleep.

After a few days in Portabelo we sailed to Colon where we could take the boat out of the water, inspect the rudder and have the anti-fouling paint re-done. The rudder was sticking because the small skeg (50cms) that support the bottom part of the rudder post and sits in front of the rudder had taken the impact of the tree and had backed into the rudder. The rudder post and bearings appeared undamaged and we removed by metal file some aluminium from the skeg to free the rudder. The rudder is now better although firmer than it was originally. George and the skipper signed on to two separate boats(Aquamanta(Dutch flag) and Abora (German flag))as line handlers to transit the canal and gain experience for when our turn comes to move from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They both appreciated both the awesome structure of the locks and the hospitality of the yacht owners.

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We left Colon on the third of April to cross the Panama Canal and proceeded to the F anchorage to await the arrival of the advisor who is on-board throughout the crossing. A young pilot jumped on to Trifon at 4pm and we chased a large cargo ship towards the first lock. Yachts transit with the cargo ships and the first three locks (gatun locks) are joined together and go up from the atlantic ocean to the Gatun lake. The height of the lake is about thirty metres above sea level  which means each lock rises  9-10 metres. We rafted(attached two boats together) with an Italian boat called Ipanema with Captain Carlo as skipper. Each boat then has to throw their exterior(lock wall) lines to the line handlers waiting high above them to secure the boats before the lock doors close. In order to get the lines to the line handlers, monkey's fists with light lines are thrown down onto the boat and the boat's line handlers attach the main lines to the light lines. The shore based handlers then drag the boat's lines up to the quay 10 metres above the boat. Monkey's fists are small metal balls surrounded by rope that make it easier to throw accurately a light rope. One swiss crew thought that they used real monkeys and wondered how they trained them!

We passed the first three locks with no problems and moored for the evening on a huge rubber buoy in Gatun lake. This is probably the only time Trifon has been in fresh water and above thirty metres sea level. We had a very pleasant evening with our invited line handlers, Bernard and Keith (you need to have four line handlers and the skipper to cross the canal). Our line handlers did a great job of making the canal look easy and we look forward to seeing them again on distant horizons. Other boats transiting around the same time were not as fortunate and torn fingers, frayed lines, bent stanchions and damaged egos were the result.

The following day at dawn a new advisor joined us to cross the lake and the 28 miles to the Pacific locks. The journey through the tropical jungle lake was very scenic and we arrived at the last three locks around 11 am. We passed the locks without incident and were spat out of the last lock by a 6.5 knot current. We had finally reached the Pacific Ocean after 7 months and 6000 miles at sea.

TRIFON NEWLY PAINTED KEEL
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A sunset; Size=240 pixels wide