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A Life Underwater- Cowboy in the Jungle Chapter 10

Updated on May 21, 2012
Porto Bello Harbor, Panama
Porto Bello Harbor, Panama
Silent cannons watch over  the Porto Bello Anchorage
Silent cannons watch over the Porto Bello Anchorage
Transiting the Panama Canal
Transiting the Panama Canal
Sharing the Locks in the Panama Canal
Sharing the Locks in the Panama Canal
Approaching the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal
Approaching the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal

A Life Underwater-Cowboy In the Jungle Chapter 10

Chapter 10 Cowboy in the Jungle...Porto Bello to the Panama Canal

Rusting cannons pointed ominously at us from both our port and starboard sides as Rafiki wafted slowly on intermittent breezes between the long narrow fjord like walls of rock that lined the entrance to the Porto Bello Harbor, The fortifications that housed these imposing cannons dated back to a time when Panama's Porto Bello harbor was the staging area for all the wealth gleaned from the Mayan and Incan empires. Loaded on to Spanish galleons by Indian slaves, the treasures of a destroyed dynasty were shipped back across the Atlantic to line the coffers of Spain's powerful royalty.

Today the stone fortifications are home only to the ghosts of a bygone era and noisy squawking seabirds. The harbor that they had once protected now holds only a sleepy village that serves the simple needs of the surrounding jungle community. As we dropped our anchor in front of the ancient and crumbling town dock, the words of an old Jimmy Buffett tune whispered in my ear. “He's a Cowboy in the Jungle and he looks so out of place........ Now he's stuck in Porto Bello cause his money all ran out....”!

We had left the San Blas Islands and begun our sail down the coast of Panama two days prior to make this arrival in Porto Bello. The weather was clear, the winds were perfect and the sail was pure bliss. At night the rich fecund aroma of the living jungle would fill our senses when the breeze would blow off the mainland. There were few lights seen in the darkness of the jungles as Rafiki silently slid down the coast on its way to the Panama Canal.

I spent two days climbing the cliffs overlooking the harbor of Porto Bello, exploring the dozens of ancient ruins that dotted the area. I wandered the quiet village streets studying the street art that inevitably festooned the paint peeled walls of all third world towns and villages of Latin America. I remember one impressive painting in an alley which covered the entire side of an abandoned warehouse building. It was a dramatic and somewhat sinister depiction of the crucifixion of a black Jesus, graphic in its bloody details. The forlorn eyes of the black Jesus seemed to stare through me with an intensity of pain, sadness and profound loss. I mulled over thoughts of how such magnificent artistry could be hidden down a deserted and filthy alley. I wondered about the artist who had spent an obvious amount of effort and time portraying a moment of religious agony. The image is still haunting and I remember it clearly to this day in vivid detail.

We entered the Panama Canal Zone two days later, arriving at first light. The nervousness of the previous night watch was filled with the lights of passing ships coming and going around the Canal Zone. None of us got much sleep. Our concern was to constantly ascertain that the massive ships were not on a collision course with our tiny Rafiki! In the early morning light of dawn we picked our way around dozens of anchored tankers and freighters of every age, color and description, all sporting flags of countries from around the world. I stared in amazement at the enormous size of the white gleaming Queen Elizabeth 2 (more commonly known as the QE2) passenger liner. She was the largest ship the Canal could accommodate, leaving a mere 6” on either side of her wide beam when she sat in the locks. Her white sides now bore the starkly contrasting black scars of her recent passage through the Panama Canal lock system. Interestingly, she had large deck guns mounted fore and aft which looked remarkably out of place on this famous cruise liner. We learned later that the QE2 had been pressed into service as a troop ship for the British Navy during the brief Falkland Island war off the coast of Argentina.

We were making our way to the Panama Yacht Club located on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal Zone, the intention being to reserve a slip for three weeks to do some repairs to Rafiki and provision her for our Pacific crossing. The yacht club was full of colorful cruising sail boats and their crews, all waiting to transit the canal to the Pacific side or having just completed the transit to the Caribbean side, doing their last minute adjustments and repairs before setting sail once again. The yacht club bar in the evenings was filled with laughter and international flair as sea stories were swapped and new friends were made from all over the world. Rich or poor, sailing was the common denominator and the starving single handed sailor on the home built sail boat had equal ranking with the tycoon on the fabulous yacht. Both their insights and experiences with the sea and blue water cruising had equal value and merit. The respect was mutual as sailing the challenges of blue water was the magnificent equalizer of society status.

Every evening was spent visiting, sharing pot luck dinners and making lasting friendships. It has never ceased to amaze me that I can live in a community in America for years and not know my next door neighbor. And more often than not....not want to know them! Fences make good neighbors! However in the cruising world, the camaraderie and sharing opportunities are endless. I have made friends for life from around the world in every anchorage and port and still visit and communicate with them to this day. The common goal of safety while facing the challenges and risk involved with long passages at sea make for a kinship and understanding that unless you have sailed the oceans of the world may be difficult to comprehend. It really is a unique membership club and when I meet someone who was a “cruiser” we immediately know we have an unspoken shared bond. Someone who has weathered a tumultuous storm at sea or huddled in a cold pouring rain on a nervous watch at 2:00 AM in the middle of a shipping lane while dodging ship traffic or has watched with grateful fatigue filled eyes the first threads of dawn glimmering on the horizon or has anxiously picked his way through a breaking reef when sailing into an uncharted island anchorage in front of a deserted and pristine palm fringed beach has an unspoken understanding of the cruising world. These are the precious experiences that only a blue water sailor could ever relate to and understand.

Panama Canal regulations require that all sailboats transiting must have four persons as line handlers on their crew. We learned quickly why this was necessary! Sailboats cannot transit alone and must share a lock with a transiting large ship. They are invariably squeezed behind the massive transom of a freighter or tanker in each lock. There must be four stout lines, two from the bow and two from the stern and as the millions of gallons of water pour into the locks lifting the vessels up to the inland lake level, the handlers must constantly be pulling in the slack to keep the vessel from slamming into the unforgiving sides of the locks. The current in the locks from these millions of gallons of rushing water is awesome and the pitching yawing and rolling of your vessel is violent and frightening. When the lock is opened allowing the ship in front of you to move to the next lock, the backwash from his massive propeller can crush a sailboat like an eggshell if the handler releases his lines prematurely. On the Pacific side the handler must let out line as the water is released from the locks lowering the vessel to the Pacific Ocean's water level in an equally tumultuous manner.

We volunteered to be line handlers on several transits for our new found cruising friends and found the experience to be invaluable. The bar chatter at the Yacht Club was full of horror stories of lost sail boats in the locks because of a line snapping from the violent tension caused by a filling or draining lock or a ship would break free from their lines crushing the tiny sailboat and its occupants sharing the same lock. It was wise to know what to expect when Rafiki's turn came to transit.

Upon reaching the Pacific side of the canal we would depart the vessel of our friends but not before wishing them fair winds and calm seas on the long journey ahead of them. Hopefully we would catch up with them again in another distant port!

We headed to the local train station in the nearby town of Balboa to catch the evening passenger train back to Colon' on the Caribbean side. These passenger trains were open air, having no window glass in the passenger cars and normally it would have been fun, reaching out of the train and almost being able to touch the passing jungle. It so happened that on one of these return trips there were serious wild fires burning in the jungles on the train's route and often the train was forced to slow down to a crawl as it proceeded slowly through thick choking smoke with the heat of the nearby fires hot on our faces! We had to cover our nose and mouths with our t-shirts to breath. Burning embers would fly into the train car and we would stamp them out. Everything in the car was covered with soot and ash including us! By the time we reached Colon' we were as soot blackened as the engine on the train!

One day I was approached at the yacht club by the manager and dock master who had heard that I had a 100 ton Coast Guard Captain's License. He explained that he needed a licensed charter captain to run a trawler that he had booked for a group of Green Berets and their families for an all day fishing trip on a sea mount that was located 10 miles away. I agreed and the next day showed up at the dock to look over the boat I would be skippering. It was an old wood hulled river boat with a very round bottom. I wondered what it was doing here and guessed it had once navigated the winding jungle rivers bringing supplies to remote outposts. The weather was looking very sketchy with a strong breeze blowing and the sea conditions were deteriorating rapidly. I began having second thoughts on the reality of this charter ever leaving the dock. A round bottom boat like this one was going to roll around in the inevitable rough seas that we would be encountering like a happy pig in mud!

I didn't have time to think about it for very long because suddenly a stream of brawny rugged Green Berets and their bikini clad wives and girlfriends were boarding the boat. They had so many coolers of food and beer we could have survived at sea for a month! Fried chicken, beer, potato salads, desserts, soft drinks, hamburgers, it was a veritable cornucopia of good American food that I had been without for many weeks! Things were looking up! The soldiers were loud, boisterous and full of themselves and were anxious to get underway and start catching fish. I briefly attempted to warn them of the tumultuous seas we would be encountering but they immediately advised me that they were Green Berets and that they were not afraid of any old bumpy water!

To say the trip was rough would be an understatement! That old tub had moves I had never seen in a boat. She danced, pitched, rolled and surfed up and down 15 foot breaking waves and in a very short period of time I had a boat load of very sick and puking passengers. Chumming was not going to be a problem if we ever made it to the sea mount to fish! I kept thinking they would signal me to abort the trip but they grimly held on. It took nearly two hours to get to the fishing ground and when I finally announced we had arrived at the sea mount there was little or no response from my totally incapacitated guests. Not one of them had the strength to stand up, much less hold a fishing rod or bait a hook. I felt sorry for these poor land lubbers but I also was feeling sorry for myself. I was thinking that all that great food they had brought along was going to go to waste! So I asked the nearest soldier if he had any fried chicken he could spare. I was promptly answered with projectile vomit over the side of the gunwale! I took that as a yes. I began eating and before long I was stuffed with such a terrific assortment of American foods in an effort, of course, to alleviate any waste!

I brought the poor lads home safe and sound that late afternoon with not one fishing line wet and no fish on board. When they stumbled from the no longer heaving deck several of them fell to their knees and kissed the dock. To their credit they never complained nor asked for a refund of their money. These boys and their ladies were indeed tough. I could not help but think, however, that I had just witnessed the Green Berets at their sea sick greenest! It was not a flattering moment for Americas’ finest!

Our turn to transit the Panama Canal came at an early 4:00AM as we began motoring our way up to the first locks on the Atlantic side in the pre dawn darkness. On board were friends from Sweden to help with the lines as well as a Canal Zone Pilot to help with the transit to the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama. The first series of locks lift you up, one at a time, to the level of the inland lakes of Panama. The transit through the rivers and manmade channels across the magnificent Gatun Lake in the interior is a magical voyage. Twenty different shades of green jungle lining the shores glistened in the morning light while huge water birds roosted in its branches.

As you approach the Pacific side the series of locks there lower you down to that ocean’s level. The transit takes a full and very long day and it was 10:00 PM when we finally anchored our boat for the night in front of the Balboa Yacht Club. The transit had been hot, stressful and exhausting. Sitting in the locks with behemoth cargo ships who dwarfed tiny Rafiki was nerve racking. The turbulence in the locks made me imagine that I was trapped in the most violent giant Maytag washing machine ever designed! But Rafiki emerged unscathed with only a few black marks on her hull to show as her; Panama Canal transit scars.

The Panama Canal is truly the eighth wonder of the world. It was a remarkable feat of engineering and determination completed at the turn of the 20th century and was built on the bodies of thousands of workers who lost their lives in the excavation process. It was both a humble and an exciting moment for Rafiki and its crew since this was the first time her deep keel was ever immersed in the waters of the expansive and majestic Pacific Ocean.

The tidal ranges on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal runs around three feet. However, on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal the tidal range is ten to twelve feet. Many a shortsighted drunken sailor, having his last drink at the Balboa Yacht club after completing his transit and before leaving to cross the Pacific Ocean has returned back to his anchored vessel late at night only to find that the boat he had anchored in eight feet of water before he left is now lying on its side in the mud after the tide went out! That would not be a problem for us on Rafiki. We all had fallen into an exhausted sleep anticipating our early morning sailing departure to worlds unknown and adventures yet to be discovered. None of us knew just how soon those dramatic and new adventures would be overtaking us as we slept our exhausted but dream filled sleep that last night in the Americas.


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