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Sunday, December 24, 2006
Panama City was the Wild West

In the Pedro Miguel Lock, we heaved our 100 foot hawsers to the Canal crew who are experts at throwing the monkey’s fist up to a large ship’s bow. In front of us were two deep sea pleasure boats called the Hooker and the Madam….the guys waited in vain for the namesakes to appear on deck.

After Pedro Miguel we sped off at nine knots to make the next opening at the Miraflores Locks. We planned to top off our fresh vegetables and purchase new eggs, since the ones we bought in New Orleans went bad in the Caribbean. Also we needed some hardware for the galley refer as well as extra nuts and bolts to finish the deck checkers. So far the refer was keeping cool with blue ice which I transferred twice a day from the deck freezer. We anchored at Balboa where there is a launch service to shore and we could hail a cab.

First order of business was the ground rules of shopping in Panama City. The taxi driver is your guide, security guard, and translator. He stored our purchases in the trunk while we shopped at the next stop.We bought out the hardware store and then toured the area where Noriega battled the U.S. marines. Bullet holes riddled the building facades. The real shocker was the armed guards in the grocery store. As you turned up a new isle looking for oranges, a menacing military guard lifts up his AK-47. Too much thievery in Panama made shopping for food a hazardous undertaking.

The taxi driver had lived under many regimes…..all corrupt he said. He delivered us back to the boat in one piece and we stowed our purchases in preparation to clear customs and get out of dodge. It would be our last sniff of land for a while. The sunset was short and brilliant.

We would pull anchor and leave for Easter Island on the morning tide, a trip of 1900 miles over sea. There was not enough time to stop at the Galapagos Islands which are 800 miles southwest of Panama. I had sailed there on my 33 foot Atkins designed cutter in 1972, and found that they were indeed the "Enchanted Isles". Two sailboats sank as the result of whale rammings that year. We shared a few supplies with the Kiwi who survived the first catastrophe during which the ship's papers and his passport were lost. He was shipwrecked and destitute but willing to share a Pilsner and his story to our incredulous ears. The other whale (orca) ramming was unknown to us until a year later. The Lucette sank in minutes stranding the family of six who survived 38 days drifting in a dingy with little food or fresh water. The skipper/father wrote a novel Survive the Savage Sea which was later made into a movie of the same name. Sobering for us sailboaters about to embark across the same Pacific Ocean for parts West.
On our 72 foot steel tuna troller, Papa George, we felt well prepared for the journey to Easter Island. Steve and I were communicating with a ham radio operator on Pitcairn Island (Brian Young, VP6BX) three times a week on a schedule, and already several other hams listened to our QSO's (chats). Just for the record, Steve was K7WQD and I was N7LHJ on the South Pacific tuna trolling expedition. We had a complete ham radio station aboard with the ability to transmit on many band widths. More about hamming at sea later.

Thursday, December 21, 2006
Salmon on the Barbie in Cristobal

The Caribbean side of the Panama Canal opens up into a bay where boats anchor and wait ad-measurement by officials from Cristobal. Your transit fee is based on your hull’s volume. After payment and an OK from immigration, you also receive an assigned transit time and a pilot. While waiting for clearance we barbecued some West Coast king salmon and lured in a dingy load of “round-the-worlders.” These folks were provisioning and repairing their sailboat for their next leg, from Panama to the Marquesas and beyond. The sailboaters were incredulous to be eating salmon in Panama!

On our allotted transit day, we greeted our pilot, a young Panamanian educated in Texas, who checked our 100 foot lines, four of them, and enjoyed a mug of fresh coffee while we hauled anchor and idled toward the first of three locks at Gatun. Lucky for us, we tied alongside a tug and had an easy lift, 87 ft. total for all three locks.
The remainder of the morning and early afternoon, we crossed Gatun Lake with several ships and tugs. The tropical haze bathed the jungle and us in sweltering 95 degree heat. In the trees monkees chattered and shrieked over the chugging of our tuna troller. The galley refer was broken down but we had made icecubes in the chest freezer for lemonade. Soon the Pedro Miguel Lock appears and we ready to enter. Can you smell the Pacific yet?


Saturday, December 16, 2006
Tuna on Deck!

It is impossible for a troller not to have a line in the water just to see what's there. The water was warming up nicely as we ran south and Mark pulled in our first fish. In fishermen's lingo, the "skunk was off the deck." He hauled up a nice yellowfin tuna. I licked my chops. Sushi and then a barbecue. You just can't beat that!

Steve and Drake were having fun with our autopilot and GPS interface. We had a gizmo they nicknamed "Gilligan" which could be programed to change the boat's course automatically at pre-designated times. Also it plotted and steered a great circle route which eventually would be a fuel saver on the Pacific. But I am getting ahead of myself.

First we navigated through Yucatan Channel, then past Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. By morning's light be hailed Swan Island, a possession of Honduras. Steve had wonderful memories on a previous stop ten years before but we were in for a surprise this time. No sooner did the anchor grab the coral sand, than shots rang out from shore. Rifle shots whistled over our heads and we hit the deck, shielded by the steel bullworks. Mark spied out a port hole as did I. Over the palm trees lurked a wooden tower with armed guards. On the beach a few menacing men waved their guns. Whenever we showed a face or hand, a shot pinged off the hull. We convinced Steve to pull anchor although he was not entirely convinced that the natives were now unfriendly.

Onward to the Corn Islands or Islas de Maiz. My watch began at 3 AM. The guys assured me that with their studious programing of "Gilligan" that the Papa George would turn itself on the proper course as we ran directly abeam of Little Corn Island. All was well as dawn broke quickly and the islands were in sight. I awaited the automatic change of course and sipped my coffee. All of a sudden the boat turned 10 degrees to port and aimed directly at Little Corn Island. Holy Smokes! With only minutes to respond correctly, and with the boat dashing towards shore, I turned off everything and turned the wheel to starboard.. I looked at the paper chart, got on
course, and steered by hand until Drake & Donee got up to take their watch. Gilligan was not to be trusted......

Mark had beautifully loined out the yellowfin and we still had some steaks left for the barbie. Oh boy.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Albacore on the Mind
This storytelling has become disjointed, going from 1958 to 2006 and back so it looks like a theme must be decided upon. It was only to embellish the stop at Easter Island by delving into my past dreams as a girl to visit this magic island, that led me to add the section about the Yankee. This effort led to all the skills I learned as a kid which got me into fishing in the first place. I realized that a fisherman isn't made overnight.

So the theme of our trip from Golden Meadow, Louisiana, to Easter Island and beyond will remain the theme for now. It's funny that an albacore trip is 98% away from land, but most of our photos are from the 2% time we spent in faraway places. Right now the Papa George Gourmet Albacore online store is keeping me hopping this Christmas season with the added challenge of shipping off Lopez Island. The ferries won't land here when the wind blows over 30 knots since the dock is under repair. If your deliveries are a day late, that is why.

Let me wish all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Hannukah with a bountiful New Year!

Sunday, December 10, 2006
From the Bayou to Panama....Enroute to Easter Island

We left our friends in Golden Meadow, Louisiana the day before Christmas. With a combination of heavy hearts and excitement, we bid goodbye to Gerard Ledet as he untied our lines to his boat. We had been on his dock for a year, refurbishing the Papa George from a shrimp trawler into a tuna troller capable of long ocean voyages. Nathan, Gerard, JC, Mitch and their families had made us feel so welcome and at home in the Cajun lifestyle. There were several loaves of po-boy bread in the freezer. Our time in Golden Meadow is another whole story of wonderful people and their home in the Bayou. Here we are roosting on the rail after a long day of pipe fitting, tacking, welding, go-ferring, and all the other chores of changing Papa George from a Gulf shrimper to an ocean going tuna troller. Neither Steve nor I could speak Cajun but when the guys were hard at work, the language was Cajun. All I learned was "laissez le bon temps roulez!" We spent the Winter, Spring and Fall of 1991 before we were ready for the high seas.

Gliding at an idle, the Papa George just fit under the bridge with the hurricane gate. Superior Shipyard passed to starboard and the Christmas lights of town dwindled as we headed down Bayou LaFourche. The previous owner of Papa George claimed that the boat steered itself in the bayous. It was true, but not because the boat had a special animus, only that our draft of 11 feet was deep enough to plow a furrow which placed us in the deepest part of the channel. On board were a crew of five; Steve and myself, Drake (Steve) Bond and his wife Donee (pronounced "Doe-nay"), and Mark Commons. Our first day at sea would be Christmas. It was time to make stuffing and put the turkey in the oven. Storing enough food for six months at sea strained my stowing abilities but it was all there with plenty of fresh produce. Onward down the bayou to the Gulf of Mexico and out past the oil rigs toward Yucatan Channel. From there we would change course for Swan Island. On my early morning watch, 3am to 9, am the ham rig was tuned to 20 meters sideband, to pick up some of the marine nets and any other interesting traffic.

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