Arrival at Shelter Bay Marina, Panama 🇵🇦

After visiting my daughter Casey, Andrew and their children Archie and Millie in San Francisco it was time to fly South to Panama. I had arranged to meet Violeta Owczarek and George McGuigan at Tocaman Airport at 0700hrs on  April 2019.

They were there waiting however it would be another 3 hours before I would eventually clear Customs and even then it was complicated. Customs insisted on screening all three 23 Kg bags which contained a lot of boat parts including a new alternator for ‘Khiimori’ sister ship and a Bavaria 44. They seized upon a new alternator ordered on Amazon for Khiimori. I also had a new alternator for Meg!!

The sequence of events;

1. I was to leave all baggage in the baggage hall and go to a special security area on the second floor where I would be issued a special pass in exchange for my passport.

2. I then returned to the Customs Hall after passing through a security check.

3. I queued in front of the cashiers counter for about an hour and then  was asked to pay USD 27.5

4. I was then told to leave the building and find a registered cab driver whose details were to be recorded. I was to once again return to he Customs Hall – another round of security – I was getting good at this!

5. Now the cab was to become a short term bond store for the offending alternator AND one customs agent was to accompany me and my baggage to Shelter Bay to ensure that the ‘now bonded alternator’ made it to its final destination.

6. Don’t forget to go up to the second floor and exchange my temporary security pass  and reclaim my passport.

Between us we had seven large bags and the taxi was a medium sized family car. I had asked for a mini bus. The driver wanted to tie two of our bags on the roof but we said NO that they would travel in the car with us. Seven bags a Customs Officer the driver and three of us. We were like sardines in a can but we were on our way to Shelter Bay.

In his excitement our taxi driver drove through the barrier arm without paying the fee. Fortunately it was a plastic barrier arm which would never work again as it was totally MUNTED, and we were so pleased that we had insisted that our bags be stored inside the vehicle otherwise they would have been scraped off at the first fence!! The Customs Officer didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as the driver “failed to stop!!”

One more stop along the way before crossing the canal and another USD 12.5 of duty and an hour and a half after leaving the airport we arrived in Shelter Bay Marina. The car was totally down on its springs and the pot holes were big enough to swallow a bus, as we graunched our way through the jungle. In the meantime the crew were not allowed to leave the vehicle but remained inside in 35 degrees Celsius heat!

We paid the driver USD 120 and shouted he and the Customs Officer a coke each and it was, “Adios!”

My daughter Kirstin, husband Matthew and their four children, Jack, Isla, Lucy and Noah had arrived in Shelter Bay Marina just 3 days before on their yacht ‘Khiimori’, a Bavaria 44 which they had sailed from Turkey. Big reunion and hugs all around. The children had left New Zealand as ‘landlubbers’ and now there they were real little sailors having crossed the Atlantic. I was very proud of them!

Matthew and Kirstin had first met on a Trans Tasman voyage back in 2003 aboard the 50 foot yacht ‘Carpe Diem 11’ which belonged to my friend Gavin Abbott. Matthew had spent 7 years in the Australian Navy in submarines and had then qualified as an RYA Ocean Yacht Master in England. He had also worked on several Super yachts. Matthew is a very competent Captain and a great ‘fix it’ guy in a world where they are often hard to find!

We would sail to the Galápagos Islands together as ‘Buddy Boats’ – how special!

I had booked a hotel room at the marina which was a dump zone for our baggage and George McGuigan and George Perry slept in an air conditioned room. Violeta and self were welcomed aboard “Khiimori”, the yacht that my daughter Kirstin and her husband Matthew had bought in Turkey in July 2018. With four grandchildren on board it was busy but comfortable.

I had asked for ‘Roaring Meg’ to be moved from the secure boat yard out into the open area where we could work on her without restrictions. The list of jobs numbered almost fifty and we began to tick them off. George McGuigan and George Perry had the job of sanding the hull below waterline and then coating Meg with antifouling. We polished her topsides with wax and an orbital car polisher. She had to be hospital clean before entering the National Park surrounding the Galápagos Islands.

Violeta focused on cleaning first the inside and then above decks. I had bought a domestic dehumidifier which had run 24/7 for the 9 months that Meg had been sat back on the hard. Without that in the very high humidity and heat, everything would have been black with mould. I was pleasantly surprised that the machine had done an excellent job. We had washed all of the linen before departing Panama and then stored it in bags that, once vacuumed with a vacuum cleaner,  remain without air until opened. All Sails and running rigging were also enjoying the benefits of the dehumidifier.

The big job was to cut out the old wiring harness for the Perkins engine and install a new harness, engine control panel and new temperature sensors and an oil pressure  sender. Old wiring with heat and vibration from the engine will fail randomly and on our last voyage had cost us a brand new 120 Amp hour alternator as the earth wire broke off and the net result was a burned out alternator. This voyage would be more than 7,500 Nm across some very remote parts of the Pacific and it was essential that we have reliable power generation and hence the bold move. Marinas would be few and far between so we needed to be completely self sufficient in a remote anchorage.

Via email I had arranged with “Greg the Engine Whisperer” to begin this work as soon as Meg had been brought into the work area. Well no sign of Greg for two days and then he rocks up to tell me that it will be all go on the Thursday morning – four days after our arrival! I had planned to launch Meg on Friday 5 April just as soon as we had completed all work below the waterline. We were ready but we had no engine as the wiring had just been cut out with the side pliers. The launch went ahead anyway but we required two inflatables with outboard motors to push us like tug boats into the berth- USD 100. Greg was gone for the day!

Now that we were in the water it was time for the crew to focus on the running rigging. All halyards, sheets, reefing lines etc., had to be rerun replacing the mousing lines that had been left to take the weathering during our absence. Violeta had been involved with this operation in 2017 prior the last Trans Atlantic voyage so she was designated ‘Team Leader’!

The engine was to become the bane of my life! Greg ‘the engine whisperer’ had taken the side cutters and cut out the old wiring harness without taking any photographs of how it had been wired up or making notes. I assumed that he knew what he was doing and was confident about being able to rewire the engine. I ran the new harness from the new control panel to the engine bay. He installed the two new alternators(one for the engine battery, one for the house bank) and began wiring up and it was Saturday 6 April 2019. On the Sunday he announced that he and his wife Carol had to leave for Costa Rica the next day to renew their visa for Panama and that they would be gone for a week! At 1600 hrs on Sunday 7 May he attempted to start the motor and after 1.5 hours it was still not firing. It was 17.30 hrs and he was finished for the day. I paid him another USD 500 cash and it was goodbye and good luck.

I immediately contacted my friend and sailing buddy Graham Reiher in New Zealand and explained what had happened and sent him photos of the engine and how it was wired up. Graham is a diesel mechanic and an engineer. Graham’s response; 1. He has wired the negative earth to D+ terminal instead of the case and burned the tachometer wire. It should have been wired to the case. 2. The fuel pump solenoid has also been wired wrongly and the pump has no fuel because the solenoid valve remains closed in the start position!

I am NOT a diesel mechanic but when you hire an expert to do a specific job you expect that person to have the knowledge to complete that task and NOT leave you in  a mess! Greg you know a lot less than you think you do.

So who saved the day. Fortunately their was a German Electrical Engineer on hand to diagnose and rewire the engine. His name is Tom Valentin and he really does know exactly how to fix electrical problems. Tom also sourced and supplied new AGM deep cycle batteries and wired them up in the most efficient manner. If it is electrical and Panama then Tom Valentin is the man( Mob.                          )

There is nothing like the purr of a Perkins Diesel engine when that purr has not been heard for a week.

Before we could even queue for the Panama Canal transit we had to be officially measured for length. That happened on the morning of 6 April as they refused to measure us while on the hard and we were issued with an official certificate which remains with the ship enabling her to transit as often as she likes thereafter. Our agent Stanley Scott on receipt of the certificate applied for a date to transit high was set as 12 April 2019. This date was then deferred to 13 April because there were insufficient staff to man the Canal. Apparently this happens regularly.

Finally it was all coming together. I ran the engine for a lengthy period as we did not want a breakdown in the Canal Zone as this would incur a hefty fine.

Khiimori had a transit date of 9 April as they had been measured long before us and so a dual transit of the two Kiwi yachts was not possible however they would wait for us ‘on the other side’ – in the mighty Pacific Ocean the largest body of water on planet Earth.







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