We had 5000 miles to cover in just 18 days. The race yacht had achieved line honors in a classic offshore race and celebrations were taking place at 2200hrs until well into the early hours. Meanwhile, discreetly in the background, the boat was being prepared for another voyage. Just 12 hours after crossing the finish line the lines were slipped and our delivery was underway. Three of the team were weary from the race while two of us were fresh faced and raring to go.
We left the beauty of Antigua and sailed through the Caribbean Sea to Panama to a rendezvous with our agent, pre arranged, for an easy and efficient transit through the Panama Canal. The nights were dark with a waxing moon only gracing us with its presence briefly. A good sign for the race ahead, that will have a full moon making the night watches easier with a spotlight to help the crew. Still, we had darkness, phosphorescence, wind aft of the beam and wonderfully flat seas. It was easy mileage and easy cruising.
We arrived in Shelter Bay Marina at the entrance to the Panama Canal across the estuary from Colon on Saturday morning having averaged 17 knots on our journey. We were ahead of schedule and keen to keep the momentum. Our agent Roy Bravo was like our guardian angel. He met us to check the paper work and our preparations. A boat under 65 ft could be waiting for a transit through the canal for over a week. Fortunately, as a 70 ft yacht we fell into the next category, only permitted to transit the canal with a pilot onboard. Our Pilot was booked and he was confident we could depart the next day.
Shelter Bay was like stepping into a time warp. I felt many had arrived and forgot to leave. There was a font of knowledge of transiting the canal. Conversations of line handlers and surging currents at lock gates, crocodiles and salt and fresh water mixing, provided the undertones whilst locals sang and played guitar at the open mic night for the evening entertainment. We had news that we were good to leave the next day and collect our pilot at 1700hrs from Colon.
The Panama Canal is an engineering masterpiece. Steeped in history, recounted to us by our pilot, we marveled at the size of the lock gates in operation since 1914 and the efficiency of the system that allows an average of 32 ships a day to transit the canal. We followed a ship that made us feel small as we positioned ourselves central to the lock suspended between the two bow lines and stern lines. Then we looked behind at the two smaller yachts following us in our lock and even alongside each other they were even smaller. It is quite an intimidating place to be. First night we went through a three-stage lock rising 85 ft before heading through the lakes and coming to an anchorage. Pilot disembarked and we got some much needed sleep.
The second day we received our new pilot and passed through the Culebra Cut where a hill was removed to reach the Pacific. Three separate locks helped us descend to the Pacific Ocean. Having met the requirements of the Panama Canal Transit, providing a sunshade (boom cover held out), a hot meal for each pilot (freeze dried in a bowl with a fork) and a toilet (thanks to Pascall Atkey & Son for providing a portable toilet), Roy Bravo cleared us at Customs in Panama City and we were off up the west coast bound for the USA.
Given the geography of central America and the west coast we spent more time heading south and west then we did heading north and with the weather forecast, our routing had us going 500 miles offshore. The marine wildlife we had been promised reduced in likelihood as we went offshore but that also meant we could be more relaxed at the possible threat it would be to us and we would be to it. We did however, have our fair share of flying fish, boobies and dolphins to entertain us. Nights delivered us a view of the Southern Cross, yes, we were that far south, also Pleiades star cluster was a good reference as was Polaris sitting just above the horizon off from the Little Dipper handle.
We had agreed we were to be safe, sail well, navigate well and drive fast, but we were on a delivery to a race so we could not afford to withstand any damage as we did not have the time to fix anything. Fast, clean, sensible sailing was key. Sailing a race boat well is about sustained high averages not reaching the peak and then crashing and waiting for the speed to build again. Sitting between 25 and 32 knots was comfortable and sustainable and as this becomes the norm then so do your tensions subside. The routing kept us in the pressure but avoided the peaks. The Tehuantepecer presence was felt even though we were four hundred miles from its source. This violent mountain gap wind travels through the Chivela Pass between Mexican and Guatemalan mountains. This acceleration fans out and has a lasting effect with the sea state and the pressure felt. We gybed our way west in 20 – 25 knots of wind to avoid the area of no wind inshore of this fanning effect, before we were lifted to a northerly course. Then eventually, for the first time in the entire trip we were upwind.
It was at this stage the temperature changed too. With 1000 miles to go the thermal layers were worn and boots replaced shoes. Hats were donned and it became wet. Below deck the conditions were difficult. It was very bouncy and made even simple tasks tricky. The best seat in the house was the driving seat. The final 700 miles we spent crashing through a short sea and gusty winds. There was one tack to make in the whole 5600 miles covered and we even managed to avoid it by gybing instead. Multihulls are not the easiest to tack and in short seas it was not worth it, we all smiled as we could say we did not tack the whole way.
With the last 40 miles to go the shipping movements around us increased and we saw fishing vessels, cruise liners and tankers. With 20 miles to go the wind started to ease and we shook out the reef and changed headsails. The San Diego shoreline came into view. We called ahead to Customs and Immigration and to Domino’s Pizza and I must say, both delivered with ruthless efficiency. We were berthed at midnight, cleared into the USA by 0100hrs and away again by 0200hrs. We cruised the final 70 miles in the early hours watching the sunrise over the Californian coastline. We arrived into Newport Beach having sailed 5600miles in 16 days at an average speed of 15knots including the entire Panama Canal Transit. One of the most amazing deliveries I have ever done with a great bunch of people on a cool MOD 70.