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Panama- Atlantico to Pacifico!

Howler Monkey napping. Photo credit: Jim Hooper

Panama. A country with a turbulent history mainly because of its most famous landmark, the Panama Canal, providing a very important shortcut between oceans for trade. For us, as sailors going West and the route we have chosen to take, it was the last country that we would visit in the Atlantic and therefore it was to be an important stop before our upcoming mammoth Pacific ocean crossing. A stop to; get acquainted with the wildlife, soak in the Guna Yala, formerly known as the San Blas islands, to haul Polaris out of the water and make important repairs, improvements and maintenance and of course the epic, perhaps once in a lifetime experience of transiting the Panama canal ourselves, to reach for the first time, the Pacific ocean.

Guna Yala

We left Colombia just before Christmas and headed for the Guna Yala islands located off the East coast of Panama for some pre-emptive much needed rest and relaxation in advance of sailing Polaris to Shelter Bay Marina to haul her out and do six intense weeks of boat projects. And what a good choice to first spend three weeks in these idyllic paradise islands. There are about 365 islands of which only around 51 are actually inhabited but all are owned by the Guna people. In general, each of the 51 islands has its own individual community and leader. These indigenous people fought for the independence from Panama in 1925 and after a bloody fight, succeeded. The Guna General Congress is the political administrative body that ensures Guna laws are abided by. The islands themselves are stunning and unlike anything we have found in the rest of the Caribbean in terms of unspoilt, palm treed, stupefying beauty. Our jaws dropped as we sailed in between some of the first islands we encountered. We headed straight for the Eastern Cocos Banderos islands, where we anchored and madly took dozens of photos of the same three islands from different angles, each photo seeming to be more stunning than the last but never adequately capturing the beauty of the islands as seen by us in the flesh.

Eastern Cocos Banderos, Guna Yala

The next day was Christmas and after a visit to the beach where more photos were taken, though cautiously in the shallows, wary of crocodiles, it was time to return home and try to make this paradise seem ‘Christmassy’. And so, when we finally forgot about the view, I set about arranging some Christmas dinner which ended up being Duck Confit, a nice find from under the couch which we had bought back in Martinique. The next days and in the days that followed those, we swam, we walked on the islands and were continually overwhelmed by scenery around us and also by the seemingly simple and appealing lives led by the Guna people. The men generally fish all day long with both lines and also directly by spear fishing, whereas the women take care of their children and weave Molas, a traditional Guna artwork which depicts their lifestyle and important symbols. These molas are worn on their clothing along with colourful bracelets and bands around their ankles. Both the men, women and children frequently visit yachts in their dugout canoes to both sell and trade their wares, be it fish, fruit, veg, supplies and always Molas. We bought four. Admittedly they are, a few months later, on my desk awaiting pride of place on our ‘walls’. (You haven’t seen our to-do list).

Western Cocos Banderos, Guna Yala

Working on the boat at Shelter Bay Marina

After about two weeks we became a little restless. We decided it was time to face reality and the boat yard so we upped anchor and departed for Shelter bay marina near Colon, stopping on the way in Linton bay for a good night’s sleep before the onslaught of a never ending list of boat jobs. On arrival at Shelter bay we were greeted by the best dockhands we have ever met. They took our lines and congratulated us on a good docking in windy conditions and into a tight space. Exactly what a captain and his first mate wants to hear. Arriving was especially sweet because we were also met by our friends Lucy and John who we only seem to see about once a year. And it being early January our annual reunion was due to be fulfilled. They showed us around and only two days later Polaris was hauled out of the water by an enormous travel lift. We watched in expectant horror as we waited for something catastrophic to happen while Polaris was suspended in the great machine’s straps, but nothing did. The horror show was yet to come in the form of series of slightly unfortunate events, mishaps and general errors by the yard. But I am dramatizing. Let us just say, what happens in the boat yard stays in the boat yard, and everything we set out to achieve was complete, in the end. Our new rudder bearings mean our two helms turn at the touch of my little finger, we have replaced our thru-hulls and our mega poisonous anti-fouling is jet black still with not a morsel daring to attach itself there.

Polaris on the hard at Shelter Bay Marina

After two and a half weeks on the hard, in the boatyard , Polaris was back where she belongs and in the water but there would be another three weeks of tireless work carried out by Jim and I to get the boat really and truly ocean ready. Winches were dismantled and their gungy mess wiped away, re-greased and rebuilt, both engine's and the generator’s oil and fuel filters were changed, water maker booster pump was replaced, a VHF antenna splitter was fitted, a device was fitted to the auto pilot to reduce power consumption, all sails were taken down, checked by us and the sail loft and minor repairs were made, anchor chain and bow roller were maintained and we added anti- chafe guards to the Gennaker sheets, we replaced the running rigging too. But those are just to name a few and I could go on… In between all this chaos we found time to walk through the jungle which surrounds the marina and we were rewarded with the enchanting sight of families of Howler monkeys and Capuchin monkeys too that inhabit the branches of the trees. The howler monkeys were totally oblivious of us below as they made their way carrying their young from tree to tree or others indeed lying there just snoozing. The Capuchins were more perturbed by us and would follow where we walked from their higher up vantage point pelting fruit and nuts to try and scare us away. Needless to say all this monkey business provided some light relief from the stresses of boat work. Back in the 'real' world there were the almost daily visits to the supermarket towards the end where we got the courtesy bus from the marina to the local shopping area and began to stockpile. Stockpiling for the Pacific crossing and for months after that to live off some of these supplies in French Polynesia. And then as if by magic, although there is no magic here just damn hard work, all the main jobs were done, (for then) and it was time to organise ourselves for our transit of the incredible Panama canal.

Mother and Baby Howler Monkey. Photo credit: Jim Hooper

Panama Canal Transit

On Saturday the 26th of February after all our preparations were complete (provisions bought, precooking done and boat measured) we were joined by our three local line handlers and we left Shelter Bay marina for the anchorage outside to await the arrival of our canal advisor. He came promptly at 5pm, instructed us to lift our anchor and make our way to the first of the locks. Most people describe their emotional moment as the point when the last of the six lock gates open to reveal the Pacific ocean. It was the opposite for me. I felt a surge of both happiness and sadness as the first of the gates opened and then closed behind us. Good bye Atlantic. Yet another very tangible, symbolic and at the same time literal, point of no return. The gates tower imposingly in front of and behind you. Their strength in holding back all that water, is amazing and entirely effective, thankfully. We proceeded through three of these locks with Jim at the helm and I as the fourth line handler. My job was to ensure, with the other three, that the boat was held in the middle of the two walls beside us and to continually shorten the line as the water level went up.

Polaris dwarfed by huge container ship going through Panama canal. Photo credit: Jim Hooper

The end of this first evening was spent tied up to a very large mooring buoy in the middle of Gatun lake. The advisor left for the night but our line handlers stayed onboard. We ate together and then, exhausted we all got an early night. After breakfast, joined again by our advisor, we untied ourselves from the mooring and set off on a lengthy motor through Gatun lake towards the first of the three and final Pacific locks. We spotted lots of wildlife on the way including a few large crocodiles basking imposingly in the sun on the banks. We arrived at Jose Miguel lock and this time were the middle boat in a raft of three, us and two monohulls. This meant that Jim was effectively helming three boats at the same time. We got through the locks followed by the Miraflores locks without a hitch and when finally the last gate opened to reveal the new ocean, one of the Spanish speaking line handlers pointed at the horizon and due to the language barrier smiled and simply said ‘Pacifico’.

So here we now sit at anchor in the bay beside Panama city, in the Pacific ocean, looking at the skyscrapers through the driving rain as we try to catch our breath and even begin to think about crossing the Pacific. Next stop seven-ish days to the Galapagos islands where we will spend two weeks diving, exploring the islands and wildlife and then the big passage from there to the Marquesas, French Polynesia!

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