Vinni- Shelter Bay, Panama


After our lazy but very relaxing 9 ½ day sail from Antigua, we’re in Shelter Bay Marina in Colon, Panama. Thank God we are in Shelter Bay instead of the old Yacht Club in Colon on the other side of the bay. Up til a few years ago the cruising sailors would lie at anchor outside this Yacht Club if they didn’t want to pay for a slip there. But they all felt as if they were in a prison. Colon was crime-ridden at if you wanted to leave the Marina (which was surrounded by high walls and barb wire and armed guards)you needed to step directly into a recommended taxi and be driven directly to wherever you wanted to go. Rumours said that the criminals sat across the street with binoculars and kept an eye out to see if any sailors left the marina on foot. They would then call ahead to their cohorts and the poor unfortunates would be mugged, robbed or shot.

Colon has been and still is extremely crime-ridden. Last week there were riots in town and two Swedish cruisers that were there were stopped by the police and told in no uncertain terms to get into a taxi immediately and get back to Shelter Bay. Colon was once upon a time a thriving city but as time went by, all the businesses and industry moved to Panama City on the Pacific side and Colon just died, no jobs, no money etc etc.

The Yacht Club eventually closed, probably because of the high crime rate. Shelter Bay lies on the other side of the bay and has been expanded and offers virtually all the service facilities a cruiser could desire. The marina is inside a national park and surrounded by a military area. The national park is a rain forest – very exotic including a crocodile in the harbor – so here is not the place where you dive to change your zincs or check your propeller. These exotic surroundings also mean very high humidity and temperatures. The sweat pours off us even when we are just sitting in the shade. Fortunately the marina has a swimmingpool(!), so every afternoon after whatever we have been doing on the boat, we go soak in the pool and cool off.  Well cool  off is perhaps a misnomer – the water temperature in the pool is around 85 degrees F(!)

The tropical rain forest has many sounds that we are not used to. Every evening we fall asleep to the howling of the monkeys and they wake us again in the morning as the sun rises. We take walks in the  rain forest every morning and enjoy seeing the beautiful green and yellow parrots. I haven’t managed to get a picture of them yet – they disappear into the foliage as soon as the camera comes out. The monkeys, on the other hand, don’t mind being photographed.

Already a few hours after we arrived, I could tell that the atmosphere here is vastly different from the other marinas we have been in. There are no charter boats here – everyone is a long term cruiser. Everyone is extremely friendly, all say good morning or “hi” when we pass each other and everyone is more than willing to help with any problem you may have with the boat – for the usual “cruiser money” – a cold beer. Everyone here is literally in the same boat. We meet each evening either at the bar or the grill area where we have sundowners, listen to each other’s stories and get lots of good advice about where to sail. Last night it was music night where anyone who can play drags their instruments along. Those of us that can’t play or sing, listen and applaud.  Tonight is potluck dinner and grill.

There are a number of Americans and Canadians that have their boats lying here in Shelter Bay. They live on the boat for 6 months, sail around the San Blas islands and the rest of Panama and then go back. The summer months they spend back home, especially the Canadians who need to live 6 months of each year in Canada in order to preserve their right to the Canadian health insurance. There is a little group of cruisers here that have known each other for 6 or more years and have created their own network. There rest of us are more than welcome to join  their activities and they love to tell us how things function here.

7:30 in the morning the cruisers net starts up on the VHF and we listen. Lots of good information, weather reports etc. If you have questions or need help or have something to sell– here is where you make your announcement. It is also here you ask for volunteer line-handlers to help you through the canal. At 9:00 a.m. there is a yoga exercise class and at 4 p.m. there is yoga in the pool. Once a week there is a guided tour through the rain forest and bird watching. On of the Canadians is a total guru and we certainly aren’t bored.

When we need to shop we take the free marina bus to a huge shopping center at the outskirts of Colon. The bus leaves twice a day and every time we take the bus we are thankful to have made it back alive. Mauricio, the driver, apparently thinks he is driving in the Indianapolis 500 and barrels through the rain forest and around enormous potholes in the road at full speed. We speed across the lock gates while admiring the big ships that are tucked into the locks-  there can’t be more than 8 inches between the ship sides and the sides of the lock.

We’ve met many exciting and truly experienced sailors here and even though we’ve now sailed 15,000nm (about 18,000 land miles) since we left Denmark, I again feel as if I’m a novice compared to many of the others. I do want to tell you about one in particular who has impressed me beyond belief – Shirley from South Africa.

Shirley is 70 years old and sails single-handed on her 25 foot boat. A very primitive 25 foot boat.


Shirley is small and has to be on her small boat

No chartplotter – she does have a sextant, but laughs and says, “well who can remember how to use it?”. No she has a handheld GPS and her Ipad with Navionics – “What more do you need?”. She has a windvane that she steers with – the tillers takes up too much room in her small cockpit so she unmounts it when sailing. A wind instrument uses electricity so she only has a windex she made herself.


A very technologically advanced windvane

He does have what she calls a “fish-finder” which is a echo-log. No toilet, but she has a bucket. Watermaker? No room and they use electricity – she collects water when it rains. No refrigerator and only one tiny gas burner to cook on.


Lots of room for 4 guests to spend the night!

Safety equipment is in keeping with shirley’s motto of “keep it simple”. She doesn’t have a life-raft, it takes up too much space and as she smiles and says, “I have a strong boat and if my luck runs out – well it isn’t such a bad way to go –  is it?” Short wave radio? No. Epirb? No. She does a short range VHF for calling into marinas before she enters. The boat was originally Bermuda rigged as sloop but she likes a junk rig better and rerigged it so now she only has one big sail (which she sewed herself, of course). No jib or genua. The big sail is easy to reef in a storm or take down. She can take out one bolt and then lay the mast down if she needs to pass under a low bridge. The boat heaves to extremely well so she doesn’t worry about storms. She does have a Jordan Series Drogue though (she made it herself) in case she ends up in hurricane or similar.

Her boat is a wooden boat, but one of the times she sailed across the Atlantic, she felt it was leaking a bit too much water and when she got over to Trinidad, she hauled it and covered it with fiberglass. Everything is yellow – Shirley’s favorite color.


A charming yellow boat

I’m just in awe of Shirley, who as a single-hander has the courage to do what she does – especially as a 70 year old. She was originally a hang-glider but always wanted to sail albeit she had never thought it would be as a single-hander. She bought her boat 16 years ago and left Cape Town alone and has not been back since. Her children and grandchildren live in the UK and she visits them occasionally.  She has sailed her little boat over the Atlantic 3 times (both the north and the south Atlantic), up along the coast of South America, across the Caribbean several times, up the USA coast to Canada, through the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia (I’m so jealous), and is now on the way to New Zealand and then perhaps back to Cape Town. I simply have no words to describe my admiration.

Yesterday wished her good luck and waved good-by as she sailed out with her 4 line-handlers and advisor and the boat totally encased in fenders. She had a time to transit the Gatun Locks late in the afternoon which means she will have 4 line-handlers spending the night on her boat. She will then sail to the Miraflores locks and descend to the Pacific tomorrow. Where in the world will they sleep? With a huge grin, Shirley says that 2 can sleep on the deck, 2 down below and she can sleep in the cockpit – she is used to sleeping there, sitting upright. Thankfully the advisor goes home at nightfall so she doesn’t have to have him also. Otherwise, they would have been 6 people.

It is not just the sleeping facilities that are a challenge – Shirley doesn’t have a refrigerator only 1 little gas burner. And she doesn’t have an on board toilet – and the rules require her to have one for the line-handlers and the advisor, so she has gone out and bought a composting toilet just for the trip through the canal. That will be tossed as soon as she is in Panama City and the bucket will come out again.

The rules also require her to serve both lunch and a warm dinner for the advisor and line-handlers. 5 strong men consume a lot of food. I’m not sure how she will manage to both sail the boat and cook for the crew at the same time – but she seems unworried.  The advisor can’t sail the boat – he’s not allowed. But perhaps he’s make an except in this case. When the line-handlers showed up, their eyes became as big as tea cups when they saw the boat. Some other line-handlers going to another boat ( a 55 foot Amel) had nothing but smiles and funny remarks about Shirley’s boat as they made their way to their “luxury yacht”.

The canal requires that the boat be able to sail a minimum of 5.5 knots, which Shirley’s boat can, although as she says, with all the fenders, rope and 5 big men on board – she’s not sure if it can. But I guess she can stay tied up to the 55 footer and catch a free ride. Maybe they can also help her with room for some of the line-handlers to sleep.

After meeting Shriley, Carsten said, “Vinni, you can still manage it, when we get home, we’ll buy you a little Pappaguy (our first 22 foot sailboat) and start a new blog “Vinni solo circumnavigation”. No – not in this lifetime.


Shirley waits for her line handlers to arrive

Another woman sailor that totally impressed Carsten was an elderly woman we met at the grill night. They were talking and she said that her crew was leaving her in Panama City and she probably would just continue onwards across the Pacific alone. She sails a 45 foot boat. I’m impressed and bow down in the face of such feats.

At the moment we are making our preparations for the canal transit. Everyone has recommended that we get an agent to arrange everything for us. It costs a bit more but is worth every penny. They can frequently get you through the canal faster. He visited us yesterday and filled out all the paperwork. Today the canal people show up to measure Capri whereafter he can give us a price. We’re figuring on around $2000. The agent has tentatively set our transit for May 5th as we are sailing down to the San Blas islands for a couple of  weeks first. The date can be changed many times.

But we’re at the canal and as usual strange things occur. We heard a rumor that the canal personnel were going to strike, but that won’t happen – they are not allowed to by law. It would also mean a mega loos for Panama if they did – each ship going through pays about $ 1 million for a transit and there are perhaps 50 ships transiting per day, with 300 ships waiting their turn.

In the meantime we’ll visit the San Blas and the very special indigenous culture that there is on these islands. They are  about 80nm south of here and I write more when we get back.

2 thoughts on “Vinni- Shelter Bay, Panama

  1. I went through the canal on a cruise ship on Feb 11,2013…its quite an experience. I have photos posted in my albums on fb – Panama Canal Feb 11, 2013. Have fun and enjoy!

  2. I went through the canal on Feb. 11, 2013. It was quite an experience. If you have a good internet connection, I have photos posted in my albums on Facebook listed as Panama Canal 2013. Enjoy! Be safe!

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