Sailing retro-diary (Part 1)

Sunset with sailboat

As many of you knew, I had an amazing opportunity to go on a super-cool sailing trip with some friends, Jim and Laura.  I met with them on the Atlantic side of Panama, transited the canal, and then sailed up the Pacific coast to Nicaragua.

There’s so much to talk about, a little of it related to personal finance but most of it related to just a totally amazing and different lifestyle that is sailing.  Sailing is going to take over the blog for the next few weeks, as I figure there are some really interesting topic areas that you might enjoy.  Here’s what you can expect:

  • Retro-diary (this post)
  • The canal
  • Your neighborhood—the marina
  • Your neighbors—fellow sailors
  • Impressions on Panama’s economy
  • Kids sailing
  • How expensive is the sailing lifestyle
  • Life on a 150 sqft boat


Wednesday, March 23—I had a two-layover flight in front of me, the first leg from Greensboro to Washington DC, taking off at 5:30am.  Despite Greensboro being a small airport with a quick security line, I still had to get up at 4:00am to check in early because it was an international flight.  Great news, the flight is delayed an hour, so now I’ll start freaking out that I’m going to miss my connection and be screwed.

Luckily, the flight from Greensboro takes off when they say, so I get to Washington with about 40 minutes before my flight to Miami leaves.  Incidentally, the flight into Reagan National is pretty spectacular—you get amazing views of the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

The flight to Miami is pretty uneventful and then I find that the food options on the concourse there aren’t that good.  No matter, I just have an hour before the Panama flight takes off.  Similarly, the Panama flight is uneventful, so all in all, a pretty non-descript day in the air, and really isn’t that what you want?

I land in Panama City and struggle with my broken Spanish to explain to immigration that I don’t have an address I’m staying at.  I’m staying on a boat.  The lady tells me I have pretty eyes, but I need her to repeat it about nine times, so that takes a little bit away from the compliment.  Sorry.

I finally make it through and then meet the driver that Jim set up for me.  We drive the entire width of Panama, about 40 miles (at a cost of $100—oddly, US dollars are the currency in Panama) and make it to the marina by 4:00pm.  Earlier than I expected but still a long day.


Thursday, March 24—Today is provisioning day.  We take a taxi from Shelter Bay Marina to Colon, the major city on the Atlantic side of the canal (Panama City is on the Pacific side of the canal).  We head to a big outdoor mall, and you really appreciate how easy and convenient shopping is in the US.  The major hardware store is about the size of the paint department at Home Depot; in general, things just seem harder to get here and you have to go through more hassle.  That said, the grocery store was big by Latin American standards, about the size of one at home, and the prices were similar.

We get about $300 of food and then head back.  We actually drive over the canal.  It’s a pretty amazing experience to drive by some of those Panamax ships (ships designed to be as big as possible but still fit in the canal).  Suffice it to say, they’re huge.

Back in the marina we go to happy hour and dinner for our bon voyage.  We’re with probably a dozen people.  Invariably the discussion turns to politics and how stupid Americans are.  When it comes out I’m a Republican, they react like I’m a Nazi.  Actually, it’s a pretty interesting discussion that I’ll go into more detail in an upcoming post.


Friday, March 25—Today we start our journey.  The transit consultant has us scheduled for 3pm which sucks because we just wait the whole day.  Mercifully, we get a call midday saying we’ve been pushed up to 1:30pm.

At the appointed hour we leave the marina, and motor out to the bay in front of the canal.  I’m pissed because I didn’t put sunscreen on but figured I was safe because I was staying in the shade.  Stupid.  My forearms are burned and now I swing to the other side of the pendulum and start applying sunscreen like it’s going out of style.

The consultant and two helpers get on board and we get the instructions.  We are going to raft up with two other sailing boats.  So the three boats will be tied together, side by side, and we’ll motor into the canal along with a big cargo ship.  We motor in and at one point we scrape against the wall on our side.  Jim and Laura are freaked out, understandably, but there’s no damage done.  It was pretty mild but it makes tensions high.

We pull into the first lock.  The water is low, so we pull into a chamber with 50 foot high walls, bearing in mind the big cargo ship is in front of us.  The big door closes behind us and then they flood the chamber.  The water rises about one foot per minute, so it’s not crazy or anything, but it’s still amazing that our sailboats, each weighing probably 10 tons, are being lifted 25 feet.  And that’s to say nothing for the monster ship in front of us.

After about 20 minutes we clear the first lock.  We do that two more times, for a total of three locks, and an 80 foot vertical rise, and we’re in Lake Gatun.  That’s all for tonight.  We anchor, eat dinner, and then go to sleep.  With some foreshadowing, since the boat is in the open water (a large lake) it is bobbing in the waves which makes it a little difficult to sleep.  I’m sure it will be better when we’re in the open ocean and the waves are bigger.  Awesome.


Saturday, March 26—The second day of the transit.  We motor for 30 miles across Lake Gatun; keep in mind the country is only 40 miles across so the lake takes up about ¾ of the width of the country.  Crazy.

Jim’s a little edgy because of the scrape yesterday, and the Pacific locks are supposed to be harder.  Once we arrive at the first lock, we raft together again with the same boats and go in front of a different, but just as large, cargo ship.  It’s the same process but reverse.  We go in a lock that is totally filled up and the water slowly drains to where the walls end up 40 foot above us.

Since this is the day before Easter, there’s actually a HUGE crowd of spectators at the observation deck.  Literally about 2000 people watching the boats go through the locks.  I wave like I’m a movie star on the red carpet, and some of the kids are kind enough to wave back.  We go through the three locks, unraft, and then we’re free and clear.

We pass under the Bridge of Americas which is kind of the “official” point when you say you’re out of the canal.  Jim has calmed down and is looking forward to some of the bourbon I brought him from the states.  We anchor, and go to sleep.  I’m a bit worried that we’re in an open anchorage just outside of Panama City and the seas are higher, making sleeping harder.


Sunday, March 27—Today we are getting the boat ready for our big passage.  We will be sailing 800 miles so we need to get everything ship-shape.  This consists of cleaning the deck, tying the dinghy down, checking the oil in the engine, and filling up the jerry cans with diesel.  We’re done by about noon, so I’m hoping that we take off, but Jim and Laura have more-completely embraced the “take things easy” lifestyle than I have (despite my early retirement), so we’re leaving tomorrow.

We have dinner with a friend of Jim and Laura’s who is getting ready to sail to French Polynesia (about 5000 miles in open ocean) “singlehanded” which means it’s only him on the boat.  Initially I think that’s pretty insane, but by the end of the trip I will think that’s totally full-on loco.  Good luck to him.

At the restaurant there is a message board next to the bathrooms, and it’s filled with people looking for passage from Panama to French Polynesia or Australia.  It seems crazy to “hitchhike” across the Pacific, but there are literally about 20 flyers for people asking for this.  In a weird way it makes sense that if you own a boat and maybe there are only two of you, you’d want some help.  But still it seems bizarre.

Dinner’s over.  We’re going to sleep on the eve of our departure.


This post is starting to get long, so I’m going to break it up.  Come back tomorrow to read about when we actually started sailing on our 800 mile trip.