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Official Wanuskewin Crew Picture Day

January 22, 2015

Wanuskewin was kind enough to buy us all crew shirts with their logo on the front, and a map of Panama on the back.  So today we had our official crew picture taken in front of the boat.  Melissa drove everyone crazy making them take photos in different locations and different configurations.  But in the end, it was your basic "stand in front of the boat" shot that was the best.

Afterwards it was time to say good bye to our friends Kim and Dave from Maluhia as they made their way back to their boat still parked on the Panama City side of the canal.  They are headed to the South Pacific this spring.  We are hoping to see them one more time in Panama City before they depart.

Wanuskewin Canal Crossing Day 2

January 21, 2015

As we know, yesterday went smoothly.  But then, the up locks are the easy part.  Its the down locks where things go awry because of the current rushing past.  And, we suspect that we will again be tied together with Sea Renity which is just going to make things even more complicated if things go sideways.  We could be tied to a boat that is fighting us - steering one way while we steer another.  It has the potential to go awry in a bad way.  But our boys had concocted a plan.

First, with Dave on the bow where he could see the swirling current, he would be the one to decide when to toss the lines and move forward.  This meant convincing our adviser to listen to us about when to tell the canal side line handlers to toss down the lines.  Second, Mike needed to convince the captain of Sea Renity that he would be giving her commands about what to do in the locks - not her adviser.  Yeah, ok, that's pretty much a plan that says, we are going to take command from the advisers this time around.  But then the advisers are two for two in getting us sideways in the down locks.  Hard to imagine we could do any worse.

In the morning we could see all the boats that had come in the dark the night before all tied to the buoys.

We had been told that our adviser would be aboard at 9am.  At 10:45am we called canal operations to see what was up.  They told us he would "be there shortly".  He finally came aboard around 11am.  Of course this gave us plenty of time for a big pancake breakfast.  And its not exactly like we have anywhere we need to be today.

And we were off!  Mike says he is nervous but doing ok.  As soon as the adviser comes aboard, Mike immediately begins working on him explaining that we want to decide when to move forward.  The adviser sort of blows this off like a "hey don't worry, I know what I'm doing" sort of thing.  But Mike keeps quietly working on him as we approach the first lock - explaining our previous experiences getting sideways and how sailboats just arn't like most boats they take through the canal - not a lot of power and no bow thrusters. 

Sure enough, after we docked at the entrance to the canal, Sea Renity gets tied up along side us.

Mike put an extra traveler on one of the slides so that we could rig another spring line at a better angle between the boats.  Hopefully this will help Sea Renity keep from moving around so much today.

And Dave helped get the boat pulled forward enough so that our mast rigging was offset so the rigging couldn't touch even if Sea Renity did move around somewhat.  And so that Sea Renity would be clear of the shore side lines which would again all be tied to Wanuskewin.

The two girls from the hostel that Sea Renity had picked up as line handlers had it easy.  They've not touched a line this whole passage.

Our lock buddy was a big container ship - the SAF Marine Bayete.

As we sat at the dock waiting for the signal to move into the first lock, Mike talked with Venus, the captain on Sea Renity about how we were going to maneuver the boats.  He explained how we had been through the locks previously and gotten sideways both times.  And that it could be bad if the two boats were to fight each other.  His plan was to work the engines on both boats the way you would work twin engines on a catamaran.  If we needed more steering power, we could put one engine in forward and the other in reverse.  But that would call for tight coordination between the boats.  She immediately caught on and told  Mike, "Got it.  You just tell me what to do."  We were able to test this coordination as we left the side of the lock.  Mike asked her to keep the steering neutral, and to put her engine in reverse to help us pull the nose of both boats away from the dock and the maneuver went smoothly.

Then it was time for another couple of monkey fist throws to get our lines connected on the starboard side.

Then we pulled forward into position in the first lock.  Our giant lock buddy pulls into position behind us.  Oh please don't let him lose his breaks! 

Ok we are all set to start to let the water out.

Down we go.  The line handlers have an easier time of it today.  They just have to ease the lines out as we go down.  Their goal being to keep us centered in the lock.  Looks like we did a pretty good job on the first one as our mast appears centered on the lock doors in front of us.

The adviser on Sea Renity had it easy.  Spent much of the passage chatting with the girls.

We exit the first lock without any trouble and pull into position in the second lock.  This video shows how intimidating it is to sit and watch our lock buddy pull up behind us. 

And this time Kim has her line tied to a winch to make things easier.

The water is let out of the second lock, and the doors open.  This is where both Apsaras and Saltydog went sideways due to the current rushing past.  Dave watches the ripples and whirlpools ahead of us.  When he thinks it safe, he yells back to Mike that it's ok to move forward.

Our adviser, Hector "the protector  as he called himself was a mellow guy through this whole thing.  By this point he seemed convinced that we knew what we were doing and was just letting us do our thing.  Mike powers forward. 

Meanwhile, Dave and Holly working the bow lines had come up with a secret play.  It had dawned on Dave that they could help Mike keep the bow straight by simply not letting their lines loose when told.  You see the shore side line handlers can't pull the lines off the canal side cleats when there is tension on them.  So the standard procedure is to tell the line handlers on the boat to let the lines loose so the shore side line handlers can toss the lines down.  But instead, Dave and Holly let the stern line handlers get their lines off first.  Mike could then start powering forward.  Which then would release the tension on the bow lines so they could be released and then reeled in.  But that extra few seconds of the bow being held in place, so that Mike already had forward momentum when the bow lines were released was just enough to be helpful.  As on this lock, Mike had the steering full to port side and was just able to keep the boats straight and centered in the lock.  You might wonder why the adviser and the shore side line handlers weren't yelling at Mike and Holly to release the tension on their lines when they were "supposed to".  That's because they both bent down and pretended like they were working on releasing the lines.

Mike executed the maneuver perfectly, and we pull forward into the third and final lock.  We watch the ship in front of us pulling away in the Atlantic. 

They begin to let the water out of the lock and we head down.  This video of Dave and Holly on the bow is sped up 8x.  At one point you will see them both turn back to listen to Mike telling Holly she needs to stop letting line out on her side as we have gotten a bit off center.  They were already aware and working on it - you will see Dave helping Holly to get the boat back in place.  And then finally the doors open to the Caribbean! 

Mike pulled forward out of the final lock again keeping both boats perfectly straight. In the end, Mike never did have to ask Sea Renity's captain to do anything other than hang on for the ride.  He was able to keep both boats straight through all three down locks.  Whoo hoo!  High fives all around!

We then released Sea Renity and headed to the drop off point for the adviser.  Meanwhile it was time to get the lines and tires cleaned up on the decks.

We passed by the giant doors for the new locks.  We could see workers welding on giant tabs on the side that must be part of the mechanism that will roll the giant doors back and forth. 

Then it was time for sandwiches for lunch.

As we dropped off our adviser, Dave was at the helm.  In the waves and the wind, this can be tricky, and you can see the pilot boat powering away from us to make another run at it so the boats wouldn't crash into one another.

As we made our way into the marina, Dave was standing sideways so he could see over all the stuff on the deck to maneuver in the tight quarters as there was a big catamaran coming out as we were headed in. 

We were all happy to see this nice big empty slip at the end of a long journey.

Though as is typical, the marina dock worker pulled the lines too tight and yanked the bow into the dock so Mike and "the other" Dave had to loosen up the spring line so we could get the boat straightened back out.  

And even after we were fully tied down, we still had to help get the bow pushed off the dock properly.  

Then it was time to pop the champagne and celebrate!

All in all it turned out to be a well executed plan!  Good job team!

Wanuskewin Canal Crossing Day 1

January 20, 2015

We awoke to sunrise over Flamenco station.  See the building at the top of the hill?  That’s where the channel controllers live – so they can see all the boats entering the channel getting ready to start their run to the canal.

Mike went over and picked up Dave and Kim from Maluhia.  They are going to help Dave and Melissa line handle today on Wanuskewin as she makes her way through the canal.  They have never been through the canal before.  Mike and Holly invited them because they won’t be taking their boat through – so this is likely to be their only opportunity to make a crossing.  You may remember them from our visit to El Salvador where we made a land trip through to Copan Honduras with them.

We pulled up anchor and headed out towards the Balboa Yacht Club where Mike told canal scheduling we would be waiting for our advisor this morning at 8am.  But Flamenco control called and told us to go back to La Playita anchorage because a second sailboat – Sea Renity was scheduled to pick up their advisor at the same time.  Sea Renity will be one of our lock buddies.  Sea Renity is operated by Garret and Venus.  As of yesterday they didn’t have any line handlers.  So they headed to the nearest hostel and picked up some back packers who had never been on a sailboat before in their lives, but thought a trip through the canal sounded cool.

At around 8:30 the pilot boat showed up with our advisors aboard.  They hopped onboard the two sailboats, and we were officially on our way!

Though not without breakfast!  Holly made us fresh fruit and breakfast burritos.  Oh, and cinnamon rolls.  Yum!

We made our way under the Bridge of the Americas.  It always looks like the mast is going to hit, no matter how high the bridge is.

Then we passed through the port area where container ships were being loaded and unloaded.

Then it was time for our advisor Amado to give all the line handlers a lecture on how to handle the lines.  Though most of us are old hands at it by now!  Amado doesn’t actually have any tattoos.  Those are sleeves that help keep him from getting sun burned.

Our lock buddy, Star Osprey goes roaring past us.

Then as we sat and waited for Star Osprey to get settled in the lock ahead of us, we got to watch the channel dredger in action.

 

We had hoped that they would side tie us to the tug, but the lock master decided that we would be center tied with Sea Renity.  So first we had to raft up with her.

Then we entered the lock where the first step is for the lock side line handlers to toss the “monkey fist” to us, so we can attach our lines to their lines.  The first set were tossed down on the Sea Renity side.  

But quickly passed over to Wanuskewin because Sea Renity’s cleats were deemed not strong enough to hold the weight of both boats during locking.  So both sides of lines will be cleated off to Wanuskewin.

We maneuvered into position in the lock.

Where the second monkey fist was tossed to our port side.

Then the lock side line handlers walked down to the first lock with us.

Where they tied us off to the lock wall.

Then the doors close behind us – this video is sped up 8x.

As the water rushes in, you can see from how much Sea Renity is bouncing around how strong the currents are in the lock.  At one point the rigging on the masts of both boats actually touched because Sea Renity was being tossed about so much.  No damage was done, but it startled us all.  Dave rigged another spring line between the boats to try and prevent this from happening again.

Melissa was supposed to handle lines, but Holly volunteered when Melissa said she would rather take photos and document the day’s activities.  Because she wasn't also cooking, Melissa managed to take even more pictures during the two day crossing on Wanuskewin than she did when we crossed in Apsaras.  694 pictures on Wanuskewin compared with a mere 555 on Apsaras.

Everyone has to work together to make sure the boat stays safe in the lock.  One of the smarter things we did was to put Kim and Dave in the aft with Mike where it was easier for them to hear commands since they were newbies.  Whereas Dave and Holly needed little direction so they were up on the bow. 

Once the lock is fully cycled, we have to wait for the ship to move forward.  You can see why we wait till they are well away before we untie our lines.

Once we had made it through the first two locks, we became visible on the Miraflores lock camera.  That’s us and Sea Renity in the lower left corner.

After sitting around the lake between the second and third locks for a bit, we enter the final lock of the day.  Again they toss the monkey fists down to us so we can secure our lines.

And into the lock we go.

All has gone well, until a very small issue happens because (for the second time today) the shore side line handlers put our lines under the lines for the tugboat.  The problem is that they have to let our lines loose, and we drift off to port.

Finally done with the third lock, it’s time to untie from Sea Renity and be on our way.

We have one very happy captain aboard who is now half way through the Panama Canal!  We will be spending the night on the lake, as we won’t make it to the far side in time for the last down lock on the Gatun side today.

Two sailboats passed us by who were rafted up and headed the other direction.

We then head across the lake.  Along the way we saw this ship that we thought was probably carrying giant windmill arms.

And this blurry shot is of a canal tugboat practicing their firefighting and was shooting off water every which way.

Near our mooring, another ship was anchored that was transporting a big power boat.

When we got to our mooring, Dave hopped on to tie us up.

We got tied down to the mooring where we will be remaining for the night.

The pilot boat came and picked up our adviser.

And then it was time for a swim!  Despite rumors of crocodiles in the lake, everyone decided to go for it.

After a lasagna dinner more boats arrived on the mooring buoy.  Dave hopped on the buoy to help them get attached.

Then another boat rafted up to them.  All total there were 7 boats attached to the two buoys.

Because the other boat had tied the bow and stern lines so tight, they had a hard time getting their fenders down to protect them from the buoy.  Oh well, their boat was pretty worn already.

The rest of the night on the lake was all quiet!

Go Seahawks!

January 18, 2015

This morning Dave went over to Saltydog to plan the installation of the new moving map/GPS system.  Steve and Joan would like their whole main console reworked so that Joan can see better over the top of it, and they want a new moving map installed.  This means all the existing instruments and the VHF radio handset have to be moved around and a new console installed.  We wanted to get the parts on order because we won't be able to come back to the US till everything arrives and Dave can complete the installation.

As this afternoon was time for the big playoff game - Seattle vs Green Bay, Melissa did a bit of cooking.  She made fresh olive rosemary bread.  A chicken, bacon, and cheese dip, and a huge veggie platter.  The crowd at the TV room in the marina was filled with Green Bay fans - all except for Dave and Melissa.  Melissa kept saying, "the hawks are a second half team", "the hawks are a second half team"...  Nearing the end of the 4th quarter, we had gotten pretty despondent though.  Wasn't looking good.  But then... well you all know the rest of this story!  Go Hawks!!

Wrong Turn

January 17, 2015

On the drive back to the marina, we wanted to stop for lunch.  We pulled off the highway at what looked like a likely spot.  Only to find that not only were there no restaurants nearby, there was a big traffic jam headed back towards the freeway.  Dave quickly realizes that if we just keep going, we will soon be back in Panama City near where Mike and Holly have Wanuskewin anchored.  So we give them a call and invite them to lunch.  As usual it was great to catch up with them - even though we will see them in a couple of days as we are going to help them transit the canal on Tuesday.

After lunch, Mike and Holly were headed to the mall.  So we offered to give them a ride.  All six of us piled into the small car, along with Vivi the dog.  Holly stat on Mike's lap.  And Vivi crammed in up front with Steve.  We laughed that the last time any of us were packed into a car this way was high school.

Breakfast for the Fish

January 16, 2015

Breakfast again this morning was a feast.  A breakfast burrito, sausage, and a pile of fresh fruit.  We had been instructed that all food scraps are supposed to be dumped in the water not the trash.  Apparently because of the big breakfast served by the hotel, the fish have been trained to show up in the morning and get the scraps.  So each of us decided to scrape our own plate out back on the dock.  Sure enough, you would think there were piranhas in the water.  When Melissa dumped a plate full of burrito scraps and fruit rinds, splash!  The fish devoured it within seconds.  Impressive.

Then it was time to head back to Santiago.  Melissa pushed through the crowd at the dock to ensure we ended up in the back of the panga this time so that our ride back to the mainland wouldn't be as bumpy as it was on the way over.  We were all much more comfortable than we were on the way out.  Then it was back over the mountains in the rental car, all the way back to Santiago and the same Eco Lodge Hotel we stayed in a few days ago on our way outbound.

On the way we stopped for gas.  This big guy was hanging out next to the pumps.  He is by far the largest beetle we've ever seen in the wild.  Yikes!

When we got to the hotel we were all starving.  So we headed to the restaurant.  Last time we were here the hotel was almost empty and they allowed Vivi into the restaurant.  But this time there was another dog in the hotel and the hotel was full - so they were concerned about other patrons complaining about the dog being there.  So they set up a table outside the hotel in the grass and lit it with Christmas lights.  It was actually quite delightful to be outside in the breeze.

Trip Adviser denies going berzerk

January 16, 2015

Yeah, this is another one of those, "Melissa should be a tester" posts.  This time it was Trip Adviser that went berserk on her.  Melissa has now posted 157 reviews to Trip Adviser.  You would think this would be worth something, wouldn't you?  For anyone not familiar, the way the system works is that reviews go into a "pending" status for a few days before being published publicly.  Presumably during the pending status, Trip Adviser does a review for problematic content - any porn, nasty language, and things like someone "stuffing the ballot box" so to speak.  It all started when Melissa posted three reviews to the system.  And Trip Adviser ate them.  Poof.  Gone.  No email telling her that there was a problem, they just disappeared.  So Melissa emails Trip Adviser and asks what happened.  Here was their response:

It appears that your review has been caught up in our automatic filters and editorial processes, which will remove a post from our site if it is deemed suspicious for any reason. Unfortunately, I cannot go into detail about what triggered the removal, nor can I re-publish your post.  However, we do want your opinion for other travelers to see. I highly encourage you to re-send your post for publication on our site. You may wish to review our guidelines for traveler reviews in case your original review needs editing.

So the problem of course, is that the system ate three reviews in a row.  Clearly they have a software bug that's eating reviews.  Or somehow they have tagged Melissa as a "bad person" in the system and won't let any of her reviews through.  Its possible (unlikely but possible) that any one single review might cause a problem, but no way was that true of all three reviews - two of which were largely positive.  Melissa emails them back and says that they need to report the issue to their engineering team because they obviously have an issue.  Their response:

As per our previous correspondence, I unfortunately, cannot go into detail about what triggered the removal, nor can I publish your posts.  TripAdvisor invests a great deal of energy and resources into ensuring the integrity of our content. In addition to using automatic filters to scan our entire database of reviews, we also respond to every piece of support correspondence that we receive from both hoteliers and our members. We are constantly refining our fraud detection architecture and editorial training based on feedback like yours, so we very much appreciate hearing from you.

Yeah, ok, now Melissa is annoyed.  Rolls her eyes, and emails them back to say that their refusal to admit there is a problem is not impressive.  Ah, but the story doesn't end here.  Melissa re-posts the three reviews as requested.  Anyone want to guess what happened?  Yup.  Gone again in a puff of smoke.  So Melissa emails them back again - this time having saved the content of the reviews because it was obvious they were just going to get eaten again.  So she emailed them back - able to include the content and ask what exactly is problematic about the content?  This time rather than admit an issue, they just publish the reviews and pretend like nothing was ever wrong.

We would like to confirm that your reviews for the following properties (Hotel Vista Lago, Blarney Stone Irish Pub, La Vespa and Piacere) have already been published.

Those of you who know her, know there is no way she is going to let this go.  Melissa emails them back to say that there was clearly an issue as the reviews had disappeared and weren't even showing up as pending in the system.  Their response:

Rest assured that all information forwarded to our support team remains confidential and is handled with the same commitment to privacy as our user reviews. We hope that you'll understand that while we will swiftly and directly address attempts to influence the unbiased nature of our reviews, we are not able to disclose the outcome of these investigations. Our methods of identifying and blocking fraudulent material are proprietary, so I unfortunately cannot speak in any detail about them.

Melissa's response and with any luck at all the final round of this silliness: 

I’m not asking you to reveal your patented secret algorithms.  I’m suggesting you say, “we had a problem and we fixed it for you” instead of pretending that no problem existed.  You sound foolish when you pretend nothing was wrong when it obviously was.

Sigh.

Dinner at the Cabins

January 15, 2015

Breakfast at the hotel included breakfast.  Often breakfast included can be a crap shoot.  But this breakfast was fit for a king.  A peach bread pudding, sausages, and a ton of fresh fruit.  Yum!

This is Julie.  She is staying in the same hotel we are in.  She is from Washington.  Turns out she was first mate on a boat called Jamal.  Jamal is moored in the winter at Carillon Point Marina - so its a boat that Dave regularly drools over in the marina out front of the condo.  Suddenly the world is very small.

Julie knows the owners of the hotel next door - who also manage the hotel where we are staying.  They are retirees from the US and quite the characters.  They have been taking care of the whole community.  There is a boy who was sitting on the sidewalk everyday practically drooling.  They taught him to sweep the walk and now he talks to everyone who passes by.  One of the local kids has a job walking their dog.  Another couple of the boys do the cleaning and care of the cabins.  They all show up for breakfast in the morning.  They've never had to fire any of the locals - probably because they wouldn't dare misbehave and give up such a great gig.

We walked over to the beach and had lunch at a local pub that makes their own beer.  Microbreweries down here are rare.  This is only the second or third one we've seen.

We decided to cook dinner in the cabins and invite Heart and Soul.  Heart and Soul had made their way here to Bocas Del Toro from Shelter Bay Marina.  So it was fun to meet up with them here in the islands.

We drug the tables from the cabins out onto the deck so we could enjoy the evening air.  We had bread, cheese, and dip for appetizers.  A marinated artichoke and hearts of palm salad.  A pork roast and risotto for dinner.  Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and ice cream for dessert.  No one went to bed hungry!

Bocas Del Toro

January 14, 2015

 We left the hotel in Santiago and drove over the mountains to Almirante.  The mountains were amazing.  Tons of big water falls and tropical lush landscape.  Up high there were pine trees where the air was a bit cooler.  We don't have any pictures because there was no where on the narrow winding roads to pull over and take pictures safely.

From Almirante we took what they call a "ferry" across to the Island of Bocas Del Toro.  Calling it a ferry was a complete misnomer.  Panga would have been more accurate.  They pilled it with a dozen people with luggage, made us put on life jackets, and took off across the waves.  We bounced our way along - Vivi the dog putting up with the bumpy ride better than expected.

When we arrived we took a taxi to the hotel.  When the taxi turned down a residential street we were all like, "uh oh.  Where are we going?"  But we were happy to arrive and find that the hotel (Koko Resort) - a set of 6 cabins on the water - looked just like the pictures.

The insides were very cute.

We cracked open the wine and sat on the porch watching the sunset. 

We walked to catch a cab down the street to go to dinner.  Along the way, we walked through the native neighborhoods.  As much tourist money as there is coming to the island, the poverty is still everywhere.

The sunset from the restaurant was gorgeous.

Vista Lago Eco Resort

January 13, 2015

We left the marina this morning on the first leg of the journey to Bocas Del Toro.  Because its about 400 miles, we decided to break up the trip.  So we stopped mid way at a great little hotel Vista Lago Eco Resort in Santiago.  It was not expensive - $73 per night which included a nice breakfast the next morning.  And they love pets - so Vivi was welcome anywhere in the facility.

They are located on a small lagoon and have an open air restaurant.

Dinner was excellent and not expensive.  This bacon wrapped chicken was $12.

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