San Diego to Tortola Via the Panama Canal


A few years back I had the pleasure of meeting a fantastic, skilled, and knowledgeable local ship captain (certified and by trade). A friend of a friend at the time now a friend …he woke up on my couch as I had lent my place to friends and stayed with a girlfriend; myself returning in the morning to sort some eggs Benedict. Captain Peter Ogden and I have been friends ever since. Over the years we have shared many of our stories as we sampled libations, sanded on his home and beautifully appointed boat Meridian, many late night meals, and drives to scout spearfishing launches. He is my first guest writer (!) and what a fun story. If you need any boating assistance from one of the best Pete can help with class and style. He can help you deliver a boat to the Mediterranean or just help you keep up with maintenance.  (www.S-Word.us)  (h2petero@gmail.com)

~B


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FOREWORD – It’s not my custom to tell stories. For me, memories are complicated, and as I review the mental Rolodex when asked to recite some tale or other, the question often raises an image or two that make me cringe at some decision made during that time. Sometimes those decisions are even made by another of that event’s participants. But I’m always impressed with the ability that some people seem to possess innately, to entertain us with their memoirs. Despite the fact that it’s usually pretty clear; most of what comes out of our mouths barely amounts to a “semi- true story”. Omissions and exaggerations colored by the occasional reference to a thing that may have really even happened. This is not a talent of mine. I’m honest. Maybe to the point of sounding dull and probably to the point of coming off like an asshole.

Our stories define us though, and I’ve done my best to live in a way that defies definition. So, usually any recount given is cryptic at best.

However, today I find myself stuck inside. The water here in San Diego has gotten warm enough that I don’t need a wetsuit to enjoy it, so yesterday I surfed it until my board shorts were threatening to chafe new holes in my crotch and the sun had colored my wintered skin a shade of strawberry pop-tart that probably shouldn’t see the light of day until it’s comfortable to wear a long sleeved shirt again. Bobby has asked me to share the details of a sail boat delivery that I made a few years ago. Here we go…

-Captain Peter Ogden


 

A number that I didn’t recognize rang in and the man on the other end announced that he’d gotten my number from a crew recruitment website where I’d posted a profile. The insecure cadence of his query left me suspicious of his claim, that he was the owner of a sixty eight foot Swan sailing yacht. He said that he wanted it moved from San Diego to the British Virgin Islands though, so I agreed to meet him at the San Diego Yacht Club to discuss it over a drink. The following afternoon, as I shook his moist little hand and sat down to discuss terms, (and possibly make him a little more comfortable with my height) he seemed dodgy. I didn’t trust him. Searching from where I sit now, I can’t find any reason to like him. I don’t remember his name. So for the purpose of our story he’ll be known as Twitchy McDooschweezle. Twitchy was telling the truth about at least one thing; he owned a boat that was to sail through the Panama Canal. Since I’d made a pass from the Caribbean to the Pacific that way before, he was willing to pay my rate to make the trip. We’d be leaving the following day.

Twitchy showed me to the boat where there was a swarm of activity.

He introduced me to a blonde kid named Andy and explained that this boy who may not have yet had his 21st birthday was the boat’s captain, then dismissed himself, citing some bullshit to do with his durable medical device company’s needs. He didn’t explain, that he’d be joining us. With, his ivy league freshman son. And… so much gawdamn packaged red meat that there were more igloo coolers in the galley than there was walkway to get to the $3,000 Jura espresso machine, which was to become my favorite thing.

The crew were fitting a new boom for the main sail, which I was told had failed at the goose neck due to what showed in the rest of the vessel as a tendency to favor repairs over maintenance; a common ethic with boats costing more than $1M but less than $20M. Still, Twitchy was clever enough with the boat’s budget, that she could still keep the water out and do what she’s told. It was September and forecasts promised ideal conditions past the treacherous Gulfo de Tehuantepec, as the North Pacific’s tropical storms typically don’t approach the west coast of the America’s beyond August. And so, we went.

Eight of us made up The Swan’s crew; with Andy and myself not-so- subtly competing for the position of Captain; Andy’s girlfriend as chef and his salty old uncle, pretending to know little more than where the boat’s generous provisions of rum and ice were hidden; the owner’s son, in no position to even pretend to know so much; a sales rep from a local sail loft; a righteous stony ginger, named Josh; and of course, Rear Admiral Twitchy McDooschweezle.

For my part? Having been told that we’d be leaving early the following morning I boarded that evening with my backpack, prepared to wake up hung over and set sail for Club de Yates Acapulco, our first port of call. But a girlfriend-cum-chef, forced to ditch her worldly things to be dragged half way down the planet following her boy’s passion doesn’t stow quite so neatly as I, among weirdos, and boxes and boxes of meat.

So The Swan impatiently waited until nearly sunset that day to shove off,

with all necessary things and weirdos accounted for …and so, we went.

Onward and Awkward! The first 36 hours saw a sharp divide among the crew. Three sophisticated individuals shared hollow laughter and seltzer water on the passenger’s side of this fine sailing yacht, while the five of us paid to sail her discussed how uncomfortable we were with accepting our 2nd class accommodations in steerage over rum. We all ate the same food, slept in similar beds and manned similar length watches. But we did so in a segregated way, at the unconscious behest of Admiral McDooschweezle. Everyone wants their right, but too few want their responsibility. The coffee, on the other hand, was like, the best EVER.

And so, we went. The fabled “fair winds and following seas” pushed The Swan south, trolling cedar plugs and lures that so frequently bloodied the decks that we were stuffed so full of sushi and rice that we never even touched the weight-of-man’s worth of packaged meat littering the cabin sole in otherwise useless coolers. Which were in my way. And I wanted coffee. Unlike most deliveries, we sailed the entire trip, which was epic. The Swan’s sailing performance is world renowned, broad reaching under main and spinnaker at up to 15 knots was exhilarating. Misadventures with Josh in Acapulco and debauchery by the Acapulco Yacht Club’s pool on the owners tab for a couple days was just outstanding.

Though, to highlight all the remarkable experiences of this forty day sail would need it’s own blog. B-Outside already has an author though, and he asked me to share what it was like going through the Panama Canal. It’s impressive.

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That we humans, despite our foibles, can construct such an edifice is astounding to me. Transiting the canal aboard a yacht, we line up among thousand foot long commercial vessels waiting our turn. Our turn came just after Thanksgiving Dinner, which the crew of The Swan shared in our customary segregation, deepening quiet resentments. Then we lined up to share the locks with a 600 foot bulk freighter and make our way into Lake Gatun; the body of water that feeds the whole canal with rain fall. Yachts are obliged to have a Pilot aboard. The pilots are Panamanian, professional, polite and speak precise English. They expect lunch and for the boat to maintain it’s claimed max speed throughout the transit to maintain the canal’s hectic schedule. Vessel’s that cannot keep schedule are fined heavily and I imagine treated severely if they don’t feed the Pilot, as he’ll be aboard all day. Likely two days for a sailing

 

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vessel. He liked the coffee as much as I did, and didn’t seem to notice how weird we all were together.

Once into the first lock, heaving lines bearing 2lb monkey fists are tossed from shore to draw the boats mooring lines up to a bit atop the wall of the canal. Once the gates are secured, the water level rises rapidly and the crew must draw in the slack to keep the boat centered in the lock. The big commercial ships are held by steel cables using powerful winches rigged to small diesel rail engines like the one pictured below.

Fortunately, The Swan is equipped with big powered winches and we were able to draw in the mooring lines that way. The current pouring into

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the canal is severe and a boat her size does everything she can to break free and careen toward the bulkhead.

There are three stations that make up The Panama Canal. As you enter from the Pacific, you’re lifted 85 feet above sea level to Lake Gatun first by the Miraflores Locks, Then Pedro Miguel and then once across the lake you descend into the Caribbean on the Gatun Locks. Both times I’ve made the trek it’s been aboard a sail boat and we’ve had a layover on Lake Gatun just outside the Gatun Locks. This time it was due to severe weather. The canal’s staff informed us that they didn’t want to risk the danger of high winds ripping toward the Pacific, pushing The Swan against the bulk head. So we spent the better part of 3 days dangling

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from a mooring ball watching ships roll past. Bored. The tension got too weird for Admiral McDooschweezle, so he offered that we all ought to dine together one evening. Strained laughter over conversation about the 4 inch deep Tupperware bowl that his son watched fill with rain drops in less than 45 minutes that afternoon did temporarily lift morale. Still, those of us so basic, as to accept pay for such glorious seafaring, were back to ridiculing them behind their backs as we drank their rum, right after we finished washing their dishes.

The natural beauty of Lake Gatun is stunning. If you’ve not yet visited Panama I recommend it. Command of the Spanish language is essential for any adventures off the beaten trail, but Panama City is known to be the most metropolitan in Central America and is easily accessible to travelers.

On the night of the third day on the lake our pilot boarded to guide us through Gatun Locks and into the Caribbean. Twitchy had promised his crew a stop in the San Blas islands, but the time eaten by Lake Gatun entitled him to revoke what would likely have been a reason to really celebrate this trip, for passenger and steerage alike. Instead, we beat close-hauled into gale force winds with double reefed sails until we were north of Venezuela. Then we turned left to cut between St. Thomas and St. John into Sir Francis Drake Straight. By the time we’d tied off in Road Town, Andy nor I wished to captain The Swan any longer. The promise that I’d have a berth on her as long as I wanted while she was moored in Tortola had also evaporated, so Uncle Salty and I fled for a resort named Sebastian’s at the north end of the island to enjoy their house brand rum and make asses of ourselves. The punctuating memory from this trip is waking up to the sound of Uncle Salty searching for the bathroom and seeing him groping in the half light around my half of our two room suite.

me:“Hey man, what the fuck are you doing?!”

Uncle Salty:“I’M GOING TO THE BATHROOM!!!!!” (sound of urine splashing onto the floor and a hairy old naked man in the dark)

me: “…naw man… that’s the dresser”

Uncle Salty: …after a few moments of processing “shit”

me: “Nope… and thank God for that.”

Fortunately, I’d not unpacked and my belongings were still safely tumbling from my backpack in the chair next to my bed, so instead of causing anger, seeing the hairy form of mid-sixties Irish man hove-to at the foot of my bed, wearing nothing but his now piss-soaked whitey tighties around his left ankle brought me to question the path I’d chosen for my life.

I spent a few weeks in the islands casually seeking work while aggressively seeking a good time. But it was too early in the season for work to have picked up and the friends I visited were all booked for the coming holidays. The fear of wasting Christmas and New Years in as lonely a fashion as I’d spent Thanksgiving sent me back to San Diego.

Onward and Awkward!

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