Transiting the Panama Canal

From the time I was about eight years old the only thing I wanted to do on my life was to be on a boat. Perhaps it might seem a bit odd that I never wanted to sail around the world single-handed in a small boat or to simply sail around the world at all. But while I did read all the books I could find about the subject it was never something I wanted to do myself. Too damned much water, if you ask me…

I looked to do things that were probably a bit more readily achievable. For instance, I wanted to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway along the east coast of the United States.  In fact, I’ve now done that half a dozen times. The very first time I did it I ran the entire 1,090 trip from Mile Marker  Zero to Fort Lauderdale, SINGLE-HANDED in a 43-foot Hatteras tri-cabin motor yacht in 1974. But to get to what is also called the ICW, I had to leave Burnham Harbor in Chicago and travel the lengths of lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie and then the Erie Canal from Tonawanda to Albany, and down the Hudson River. I dropped the owners of the boat off in Stamford, Connecticut where their daughter lived so I went up the East River, under the Brooklyn Bridge and past the UN building. When shed of those two I proceeded, with my deck hand, back down the East River, past the Statue of Liberty and then offshore until reaching the Chesapeake Bay and Portsmouth, Virginia for the start of the ICW. My deckhand had to leave there and return to Mackinaw City, Michigan.

In the United States the Mississippi River is mythical. Who has read Huckleberry Finn and not wanted to raft on that river? Well, I did for a short ways one drunken night my first year in college in Canton, Missouri, some 35 miles north of Twain’s birthplace in  Hannibal, but that’s a story for another time. In 1975 I helped a young couple bring their 51-foot sailboat from the same harbor in Chicago that I’d departed from a year earlier. We went down the Illinois River, entering the Mississippi at the Cairo locks and went all the way down to New Orleans where we re-stepped the mast (can’t pass under the bridges and a lot of overhead power lines on the Illinois). From there we sailed to Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale thus completing what is known as “The Great Loop,” a circumnavigation of the eastern half of the United States.

Here’s a picture of me at the helm of the sailboat in the Illinois River and my old girlfriend and the true love of my life, reading as we cruise along. (You can read my story about her here in the post “The $16.25 Divorce”)

On the River copy

I often thought sailing across the Atlantic Ocean was doable  and I did it in 1991 on this boat after spending three years in Europe (France and Spain).

Jolie Aire-Golfe Juan

Of course I’d always thought cruising Australia’s Great Barrier Reef would be fantastic, but barring that I settled for sailing the world’s second-longest barrier reef, in Belize, SINGLE-HANDED on MY OWN sailboat in ’92…

Nancy Dawson


The one thing on my nautical bucket list that I hadn’t done was a transit of the Panama Canal. What lead me down the path to expatriating to Panama came about in a discussion with my good friend Stefan. I suggested to him that he should go over to Sicily and meet his family members. His dad was directly from Sicily and his mom is first-generation in the U.S. I said that, for my part, I’d like to come down to Panama, have a tee shirt printed up that said, “I can handle lines,” and hang around the Balboa Yacht Club and see if I could hook a ride through the Canal. All yachts that make the transit are required to have four people to handle lines at each “corner” of the boat. Well, that never happened though I did visit Panama several times before making the move here. I visited the Miraflores locks twice and have had drinks at the Balboa Yacht club with friends, but never did get that tee shirt made up.

Last month my Facebook friends Julie and Steve King emailed me and said the new boat they were running was coming to Panama from the island of Saint Martin heading to Quepos on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Well, it took me about a millisecond to respond that if they were going through the Canal they’d need four line handlers and that I would love to be one of them if at all possible.

Last Saturday/Sunday I took the midnight bus from David to Panamá (That’s how Panamanians refer to Panama City, $12.70 after receiving the Jubilado discount) and got in there at about 6:30 a.m. I then took the bus to Colón ($3 and something and an interesting ride across the isthmus.) THEN it was a $25.00 taxi ride out to Shelter Bay Marina, a location that gives new meaning to the term “Middle of Nowhere.”  Then Julie, Steven and I had out first face-to-face meeting though we’d been writing back and forth for a couple of years. I also met Danny, the Tasmanian Devil and Mike a lost Swede.


This is NOT the boat I was on, but is a sister ship. Colombo Breeze is an Oyster 61 Hull #11.

In the afternoon the “admeasurer” came aboard to actually measure the length of the boat and get other information so the Canal could levy the appropriate charges ($1,400 and a tad more). Four sets of 100-foot long lines were delivered to the boat. These are required in case the yacht is going through the lock by itself in which case it will be centered in the lock by itself (extremely rare) or “nested with other yachts on either side in which case the outside boats run their lines to the lock walls as the boats are lifted up to Gatun Lake through three locks or back down to sea level on the Pacific side via the Pedro Miquel Lock and the two Mirflores locks. He told us to monitor the radio and be ready to start the transit the next day, Monday.

In the morning we received word that we needed to be out “on the flat” at 1600 hours to pick up our pilot, Geraldo, to go through the Gatun Locks. We made it out to the flats on time and shortly afterwards our pilot, a rather young man, came aboard and we headed to the first lock and got our first glimpse of who we’d be sharing the locks with…

Big ship entering Gatun lock

The big ships enter the locks first on the upward lifts followed by the smaller ones. These positions are reversed on the other side of Gatun Lake and as our second pilot explained it is so that if, for some reason, the large ship has problems the gates can be opened and the smaller vessels can leave. The working barge is the Port Louis (and YES, it does have a pronounced list to port) is from the Netherlands and is working on the Canal enlargement project. After the white, Sierra Queen entered the lock and was secured mid lock, the Port Louis entered and tied up astern of the big ship with their port side against the lock wall. We came along and secured ourselves to her starboard side and went with them through the three Gatun Locks up into the lake casting off the lines and re-tying them at each stage. When we exited the final lock the Sierra Queen disappeared into the dark and we were directed out of the shipping lanes to a large mooring buoy where we spent the night. The Port Louis anchored nearby. We were to go down with them in the Pedro Miquel and Miraflores locks, which was great because we’d gotten to the the Dutch skippers and everyone knew just what to do.

Julie, from Virginia,  without the slightest exaggeration, worked harder than the other four of us combined keeping us fed with such gourmet meals as crab cakes and a shrimp dish you wouldn’t believe in between getting up on deck handling lines.

Julie King

Julie, Steve and I sat around and drank some wine for a bit and then they went below to bed. It was such a beautiful night with a light breeze blowing that I slept up in the cockpit listening to the light slap of the chop against the side of a boat again. I slept well. Better than the night before in the chill of the boat’s air-conditioning. I drifted off to sleep hearing the distant sounds of work being carried out on the Canal’s new locks a couple of miles away, but it wasn’t enough to disturb me.

At a little after 7 the next morning the pilot boat came along side and we met Jorge, our pilot for the day…

Pilot jorge

What a great guy (Geraldo was, too, but we spent nearly the next 12 hours with Jorge.) His father was Finnish and his mother Panamanian. He graduated from the Argentinian Merchant Marine Academy. And worked in Traffic Control for several years on the Canal and ran Canal tug boats for nearly 16 years before becoming a pilot. His wife, who we didn’t meet, graduated from Kings Point, the United States Merchant Marine Academy and is a licensed Marine Engineer who also does work for the Canal.

Jorge is a highly educated, very well-read gentleman who speaks perfect English. I asked him how he learned his English and it was through his father who always spoke to him in English while his mother, and of course everyone else around him, spoke Spanish as he was growing up. It was delightful getting to know both of our pilots. The admeasurer said that pilots could often be jerks when they are assigned to guide a yacht through instead of a prestigious ship, but both Geraldo and Jorge were perfectly wonderful people and certainly made our transit something special…

Now to get to some photos…

 Capt. Stephen KingOur Captain, Steven King

Gatun Lake SceneryGatun Lake islandA couple of the islands in Lake Gatun. When the Chagres River was dammed to provide water to run the Canal locking system it became, at that time, the largest man-made lake in the world.

SmithsonianThe Smithsonian Institution runs the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake. To learn more about what it is and what they do here, check this out…

Lighthouse 1One of the many unique Canal navigation aids used to guide ships on their transit. Besides the usual red and green buoys there also a large number of “range markers” through Galliard Cut that the pilots use to keep the large ships in the center of the channel.

Our buddyPassing our locking buddy Tuesday morning. We weren’t speed demons but we left this guy in our wake. So much so, as well as the big ship that was going to go through Pedro Miguel and Miraflores with us that when we got down near the Pedro Miguel locks we had to anchor for about an hour an a half until everyone caught up with us. Not to worry, Julie prepared an absolutely fantastic shrimp and pasta lunch. (Should have taken a photo of that, but you’d probably drool all over your keyboards and short out your computer circuits)

Noriega home

El Renacer prison – home of former Panamanian ruler Manuel Noriega.

Canal TugsCanal Tugs

Maintenance DepotThe Canal maintenance depot

Titan CraneThe crane, TITAN. It was built in Germany for WWII and was taken by the U.S, in reparations. Among other jobs it is used to remove lock gates for repair.

Moneky Hill and Centenario BridgeGold Hill, the highest part of the continental divide the Canal had to cut through. It was named “Gold Hill” to entice workers to come to Panama thinking they could get rich picking gold up off the ground here. That’s the Centenario Bridge, ahead. It was built by a French company and was the second bridge built over the Canal. A bridge, similar in design is being built in Colón, but this time by a German firm. Currently traffic traveling from one side of the Canal to the other up at Colón can only do so when the gates to the first of the Gatun locks are closed. They form a bridge for land traffic.

Sightseeing boat approaching Pedro MiguelWe were to lock down through Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks with one of the sightseeing boats that take people for excursions on the Canal. I had thought of doing this to make a transit. This boat was making a partial transit, just going through the Pacific side locks and a bit of a ways up the Galliard Cut, also known as the Culebra (Snake) Cut. I wouldn’t have been satisfied with just going part way up and returning. I’d have had to make the entire trip or nothing, and let me tell you, watching the people on that boat it would have been more exciting to die than to hang around on that thing as it locked through. The arrangement on the down locks is that the sight seeing boat would enter first and tie up on the right hand wall. Then our buddy would come in and tie up behind this one and we’d tie up alongside the Port Louis. After that a large ship would come in behind us and when they’d entered the gates would close and we’d drop.

Last to enterThis is the ship that came in behind us at the three down locks. I didn’t get any other pictures of it but I can tell you this: it filled the entire width of the lock which is 110 feet wide with, literally only inches to spare. It looked like you couldn’t slip a playing card down between the lock sides and the side of the ship. And when it finally came to rest its bow was no more than 50 feet from our dinghy.

Watching us in MirafloresSightseers watched us as we passed through the Miraflores locks.

Container Port in Pacific sideThe container port in the Pacific side after we had completed our transit.

Danny the Tasmanian DevilDanny, the Tasmanian Devil using a chamois to dry things off after a little bit of rain.

Mike JohannessonThis is Mike, our Swedish crew member. Most of the time when, we weren’t actually handling lines and when everyone was busy and there was no time to be taking pictures, he was down below, so I never did take his picture. This comes from his Facebook page.

We finally tied up at Flamenco Marina at the end of the Amador causeway. Julie got a break. We all went to dinner at the marina’s restaurant and had a wonderful, relaxing meal and pleasant conversation content in having accomplished our transit.

Wednesday I bid farewell to my friends who would be continuing their voyage up to Costa Rica come Friday morning. I caught a cab to the bus terminal at Albrook Mall and departed Panamá at 11:05. It was a bright, shiny Volvo double-decker. I was on the second deck by a window. They showed four movies during the trip. Three of them were totally in Spanish but the third one they showed was in English and Spanish with Spanish subtitles during the English parts It took a little longer than usual to get back to David because for about half of the distance, some 150 miles, the road west of Santiago is being four-laned. We got into David at about 6:40. The last bus for Boquerón leaves the terminal at 7. My duffel bag was one of the last to be dug out of the luggage compartment. I hightailed it (as fast as an old fart with COPD can hightail anything) and got up to the Boquerón slip just as the bus was pulling out. One of the nice things about living in a such a small town as I do, is that when I waved at the bus the driver recognized me and stopped to let me on. Believe it or not, I got the last seat available. ¿Que suerte, no?

So, what did I think of it?  To be perfectly honest it wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped it would be, but it WAS great to meet the wonderful crew of Colombo Breeze and our Canal pilots. I’m extremely happy to have actually done it, but it’s not something I’d care to do again, if you know what I mean. I also learned a few things about myself. This was my swan song from spending time on the water. My COPD left me gasping for breath after the simplest of chores, though certainly not in any danger of keeling over in a dead faint or dying. But it makes me glad that I lived my life on the water and on boats while I was young and had the physical ability to do so. I have told young people for years: if you have a dream you’d better go out and do it while you’re able. Thank heavens I took to heart the advice Richard MacCullough spoke of in his book Viking’s Wake when I read it  forty-three years ago: “…And the bright horizon calls! Many a thing will keep till the world’s work is done and youth is only a memory. When the old enchanter came to my door laden with dreams, I reached out with both hands. For I knew that he would not be lured with the gold that I might later offer, when age had come upon me.”

To Julie and Steve King, I know I told you when I left the boat, but I need to say it over and over again: Thanks for your wonderful hospitality and the chance to close out my nautical bucket list. You have no idea how much the four days from July 13 to July 15th have meant to me.





Filed under Uncategorized

Permission Granted to Terrorize Panamanian Highways for Another Two Years

All things considered, Panamá gained a great deal from its long, contentious association with the United States. It has, undeniably, the best infrastructure in Central America and probably most of South America as well. Unfortunately for the U.S. the Republiscum recently buried programs to fix the country’s ailing infrastructure so that it’s not inconceivable that Panamá will surge ahead of the States in having a better infrastructure. But you know, repairing all those broken bridges, highways and water systems costs money, smacks of Socialism and doesn’t allow for further tax cuts for the very wealthy.

There’s a lot, though, that the United States could learn from Panamá. For instance, Panamanians have the highest sense of well–being in the entire world. The U.S. only comes in at #23 out of 145 countries.

Here’s another couple of things the U.S. should get clued in on from Panama. Once you hit 70 you have to get a doctor’s okie dokie that says you’re fit physically and mentally to drive a motor vehicle. In the U.S. I recently saw a video of a woman over 100 years old (no lie) who is still on the road, and I bet she hadn’t seen a doctor in order to renew her license, either.

I went down to see my doctor at Hospital Chiriquí on Monday, had a brief physical exam and got my letter. Today is the first of July, the month I need to renew my license and decided to do it early. The license bureau is located at the Chiriquí Mall as is a nice sandwich shop that makes delicious Philly cheese steak subs, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone (writing tip: avoid using clichés at all costs). I got on the bus here in Boquerón a few minutes before 11. Got off at the mall and into the bureau at 11:15. There were two people ahead of me at the counter and they were handled rapidly.

I gave the lovely girl at the counter my papers, she made a copy of my passport and told me to have a seat. Before I could get my e-reader out of my back pack and settle in for a wait since there were well over a dozen people in the waiting area I was called up to a desk where I had my picture taken and give an eye test. That over, I was immediately directed to another room where I took a computer-generated hearing test.

That over I was directed to the caja to pay my fees. The total was $40, but being over 70 years old I received a 50% discount. After receiving my receipt I went to sit down outside the window where one receives their license. I was reaching into my backpack again but before my e-reader even cleared the pack I was called to the window. I signed two pieces of paper, was handed my license to terrorize the population on the highways and byways of  Panamá for another two years and was out the door.

The sandwich shop doesn’t open until noon and now I had to wait outside for another 20 minutes!!! Total time needed to renew my Panamanian driver’s license at the license bureau? About 20 minutes!!! Take THAT U.S.A.!! You guys should come down here and take some lessons and learn something!!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

At Last!

My regular blog readers know that my recent attempts at bread making have run the gamut from exceptionally horrible to simply, “Well THAT, didn’t work…”

One bread that I’ve always been successful with in the past has been a family recipe Shredded Wheat Bread.


And, if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll know that they don’t stock or sell shredded wheat here. SO, I searched on line for something else. I wanted a no-knead recipe. Counter space here at this house is VERY limited and I’ve even tried following instructions on how to knead bread in the bowl which wasn’t very successful.

I thought, perhaps, I could substitute oatmeal for the shredded wheat and there are actually a ton of recipes online for no-knead oatmeal bread. Don’t ask me why, but I decided to try THIS one out. Perhaps because is was one of the first ones that came up when I did a Google search.


1 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar 1 tbsp. salt
1 3/4 c. old fashioned rolled oats
3 c. boiling water

2 tbsp. butter
1 pkg. dry yeast
1/4 c. warm water
6 c. all purpose flour

In a large bowl, stir together sugar, salt and oats. Add boiling water and butter, let stand until lukewarm.

Sprinkle yeast into 1/4 cup warm water and stir until dissolved. Add yeast mixture to oat mixture. Stir in flour 1 cup at a time. Dough will be sticky.

Transfer to a greased bowl, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in bulk. Lift and drop dough 3 to 4 times.

Grease 2 (9 x 5 x 3) loaf pans and divide dough into 2 equal portions. Cover with a towel and let rise until doubled in bulk. Bake in preheated 450 degree oven for 10 minutes. Lower oven to 350 degrees and bake for another 45 minutes or until bread sounds hollow when tapped with your finger. Remove bread immediately from pans and cool on wire racks.

So I decided to give it a whirl. It wasn’t easy getting all six cups of flour into the dough, but eventually it made it, and this is what I got:


I put the lid on it and let it sit for an hour and a bit until it looked like this:


I divided the dough, as per instructions into two loaf pans:


Now, I’m all by myself and two loaves of bread are more than I’m going to be able to get through before one of them goes stale so I put one in the freezer. When I was living in Florida we used to buy several bags of pre-made pizza dough at the Publix supermarket and put them in the freezer for later. When they were thawed out, and it usually took close to a full day to thaw out and then to rise, so I figured I’d try it with this. If it came out to be another failure I’d just be able to chuck the stuff in the freezer, and if it worked out well then I’d have something to look forward to.

I followed the baking instructions and got this:



Comments Off on At Last!

Filed under Uncategorized

Baking Bread

Store-bought bread here in Panama leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it pretty much sucks! So, I’ve been online the last couple of weeks digging up bread recipes. So far my efforts are about on a par with the quality of store-bought bread. It sucks.

I’ve tried regular recipes and kneaded the dough but that’s no fun as far as I’m concerned. And it’s messy as hell, too. Flour everywhere that has to be cleaned up. I even went into David last week and bought a HUGE bowl and tried kneading the bread in it. Not much better.

Years ago I used to make a great, no-knead bread from a recipe passed down to my mom by her great aunt, Laura. It called for shredded wheat and molasses. Delicious, easy to make and it came out perfect every time. Problem here is 1) I’ve only found ONE store that stocks molasses and 2) NOBODY stocks shredded wheat!

There are a ton of “no knead” bread recipes online. They’re almost universally the same. Three (or six) cups of flour, some salt, some yeast and a cup and a half of water. So I’ve tried it. Followed the recipe to the LETTER. Let it rise and at the end of that time the dough was like soup!

So, I slowly added the water a little at a time until the dough looked “shaggy” as per the recipe instructions. At the end of the required rising time (anywhere from 4 to 20 hours) the dough was STILL like soup!

On Saturday I saw THIS recipe on line.

WOW, looked good. I LOVE baguettes! Especially the ones I used to buy in France. It’s a well-known fact that in France no baguette makes it home with the ends intact. Don’t those look delish? The promise is…

The promise

So last night I mixed up the ingredients. This morning, after rising for nearly 10 hours, I took off the cover and found that the dough had more than doubled into a nice SOUP!!!

I followed the rest of the instructions except the dough didn’t form into the promised. It was impossible to “delicately shape each half into a long rod. I do this by gently squeezing, not pulling. Plop them on a cookie sheet (don’t worry, doesn’t need to be nonstick). The loaves will look kinda flat, but they’ll rise in the oven.”


Look “kinda flat?”


“They’ll rise in the oven”


This is the reality:


Bottoms scorched. Maybe a quarter of an inch thick in the center. A complete waste of time, flour, and stove gas!


Filed under Uncategorized

Some People Are Catching On…

I have written several times about how many people in Panama treat their country as a trash can.

Thankfully it looks as if some Panamanians are getting fed up with it and trying to do something about it. The areas around bus stops (although a bus will stop ANYWHERE if you wave at it) are the worse. Usually there’s a tienda nearby selling drinks and snacks and the containers generally end up on the ground.

This morning when I went to catch the bus into David, this was sitting in the caseta, a small structure with a tin roof to shelter people from the sun and rain while they wait for a bus. The handwriting says Basurero=Dump. Some people had actually used it. Now, who will be keeping their eye on it remains to be seen. I’m proud of at least ONE of my neighbors…




By the way, this happens to be my 800th blog post! Hooray ME!!!!


Filed under Uncategorized


Over the last couple of days there’s been a little bird, about the size of a small finch, who has been diligently working away at building a nest in the lime tree out back. It flits in and out and never hangs around long enough to get a picture of it. It’s a member of the Oropendola family. They build hanging nests. This is what’s being constructed in my back yard…


The closest I can come to identifying the bird through an internet search is this one…


But there’s a very good chance I’m wrong about which bird it actually is.

Comments Off on Diligent

Filed under Uncategorized


When I was in the eighth grade I won a drawing for which the prize was a pair of tickets to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. I invited my pal Harold Bennet to share the day with me. My mother drove us over to Hyannis to get the train up to Boston and gave me written instructions on how to get to Fenway from South Station. As we were getting on the train, which had a dining car, she told me, “Don’t order the Salisbury Steak. It’s nothing more than fancied-up hamburger.”

I don’t remember what we ordered, but I do remember that our seats were right behind home plate and that the Sox dropped a double-header to the Orioles. But later on in life I DID have the Salisbury Steak somewhere, and it WAS fancied-up hamburger, and I actually LIKED IT.

It never became one of my regular menu items. In fact, I can’t remember ever making it until last night. Down here in Panama beef is grass-raised and the meat, while tastier, I think, than feed lot beef, is  tougher than what we’re used to in the States. A LOT tougher. So, I use ground beef  most of the time in lieu of the tougher cuts here that require lots and lots of braising time to make it soft enough to chew. I make a mean spaghetti sauce and a pretty good meat loaf, hamburger stroganoff and, of course, just plain hamburger patties. Yesterday, for some unknown reason, I thought of Salisbury Steaks so I went online and there were hundreds of recipes to choose from. Most required mushrooms in the gravy and while I often have mushrooms either in the fridge or several cans of them, I had none last night. Then there was a recipe with an onion gravy. I had onions. So I made that recipe and it was DELICIOUS. I will definitely be cooking this again. The recipe says “four servings” but it’s SO GOOD that while there are four patties you’re only going to feed two people with it (or one person and a great left-over meal the next day).

Actually I won TWO drawings when I was in the eight grade, and I’ll let you in on this one because the statute of limitations have long expired:

In the winter when I plodded along on my paper route, cursing my ancestors who thought living in New England was a great place to be rather than in some sunny clime where coconut palms prevailed, I had a couple of places I’d stop in along the way to warm up. The first was Fuller’s Package Store, about a third of the way through the route. Of course I couldn’t partake of most of their stock, but they understood the need for me to thaw out.

The second place I used to stop to warm up was on the homeward leg of my route, Snow’s Hardware store in the center of town (Orleans, Mass., out on the elbow of Cape Cod and in the winter time no matter which the direction the wind is blowing from it’s coming off the water making it raw and bone-penetratingly cold). That year every single one of the Christmas presents I gave had been lovingly shop lifted from my thawing out visits to Snows. More than that, every time I’d go into Snow’s, that is daily since the Cape Cod Standard-Times (as it was then called) was a daily afternoon paper, I’d fill out an entry form for their Christmas drawing and drop it in the slotted box on my way out the door.

On the day before Christmas Eve I got a call from Snow’s saying I’d WON third prize in the drawing…a Handy Hannah electric knife sharpener! Oh, the irony.

1 Comment

Filed under Boqueron Panama