on the horizon line - sail blog - cruising through Panama Canal

Wet is the New Dry

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on the horizon line - sail blog - cruising through Panama CanalI’m becoming intimate with water. Not, unfortunately, the sea water I had hoped to get cozy with when we envisioned this voyage. Nope. My new relationship is with the water in the air.

“What in the hell,” my skin asks, “is this water in the air business?” My skin’s been contentedly living in arid climates for 32 years, its pores blissfully dry in the desert west of Palm Springs and the parched valleys of western Montana. Sure, I’ve visited humid places. But none as close to the Equator as my current latitude of 9 degrees north. I distinctly remember the visceral feeling of my first experience with wet air: I was 13 years old, visiting Washington DC on a week-long school trip. When I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, I literally panicked that I couldn’t breathe as the heavy summer heat engulfed me.

I was expecting that same initial panic when we touched down in Panama. But expectations don’t really help you transition to the reality. The good news: it isn’t quite as hot as I expected, thanks to the constant onshore breeze flooding across the Caribbean here at Shelter Bay Marina outside of Colon (although I recently learned that the “real feel temperature” is usually 102-104 degrees F, due to the 80%+ humidity). The bad news: everything is always wet.

sailing panama canal crossing - shelter bay marina - on the horizon line blogExample: Rob and I were learning about the diesel engine our first day aboard Llyr, and he came up from struggling with the oil filter. “Whoa! My brain sprung a leak!” he said as sweat literally poured into his eyes. He was drenched. Soaked through his t-shirt completely, even more than if he’d played an hour of basketball in the summer in Montana.

I’ve calibrated a finely-tuned scale for monitoring my skin’s wetness level while living in the tropics: it begins at sticky and ends at immersed. In between, you’ve got moist, damp, or dripping. The most comfortable level is full immersion. It just feels better to be all the way submerged or standing under the rain, rather than constantly adjusting to new varieties of sticky damp drippy-ness. Plus, the wind across your skin post-immersion provides a blessed 30 seconds of air conditioning.

Sadly, you can’t immerse yourself in the ocean here, since the marina and the nearby Panama Canal are cesspools of engine byproducts, human waste, and many other undesirable compounds. But luckily for us, the marina has a little pool. We visit it often.

I’ve also taken to showering with my clothes on, which serves the dual purpose of cleaning them as I shampoo my hair and maintaining that post-immersion air conditioning effect for up to half an hour. I figure I’ll adapt eventually, right? Adaptation is the path to groundbreaking human evolution…or at least that’s what I keep telling my balking, desert-born skin. Maybe one day I’ll even sleep under a sheet again.

P.S. Can someone tell me if the humidity lets up when we sail away from land? Or should I expect even worse as we get to the Equator?

on the horizon line travel blog panama canal transit in sailboat

Panama Canal (Take Two): Watch Us In Action Tomorrow!

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Ocean Tales, Sailing

on the horizon line travel blog panama canal transit in sailboat

After 9 days on this dock in Shelter Bay Marina, Llyr is finally ready to head to the Pacific.  Our slated Panama Canal crossing is set for tomorrow, April 20th, at 3:45pm.  Rob and I are the resident experts aboard after our crossing earlier this week, and are primed to avoid the monkey’s fist and keep lines tight during round two.

Want to watch us in the Canal?  You can click here to see us via a live webcam in the 3 different Gatun Locks on Saturday between 3:45pm and 6:00pm.  If you miss that, we’ll be in the Miraflores Lock between 11:00am and 1:00pm on Sunday.  These are the local Panama times, and I believe we are in the same time zone as Chicago (honestly, though, keeping track of time zones has been a low priority for Rob and I this first month of traveling).

Llyr under sail - on the horizon line with rob and bri

Just click the tabs on the website corresponding to those two lock names, and we’ll be in the lime green sailboat with 2 masts.  We might be rafted up with other boats, or all on our own.  Either way, we’ll definitely look small next to the giant cargo ships!  Rob might moon the camera, but no promises.

After we get through the Canal, blog posts will be fewer.  It doesn’t mean we aren’t writing a lot, and thinking about all of you — it just means internet gets spotty, and we have to focus on riding the wind and waves for the next month.

on the horizon line travel blog panama canal transit in sailboat

Rob’s favorite pre-Canal crossing project: welding the kayak to fix the giant rip in its bow. Hopefully we won’t need to fix any new holes after our Canal transit.

transit panama canal in yacht - sailboat blog - on the horizon line

The Monkey’s Fist (in your face)

Posted on 5 CommentsPosted in Outdoor Adventures, Sailing

transit panama canal in yacht - sailboat blog - on the horizon line

We did it! Our first Panama Canal transit was a success. And by success, I mean none of the scary things happened that most yacht owners worry about. Those scary things include:

  1. Hitting one of the concrete walls in the 106-foot wide locks and damaging your sailboat as billions of gallons of incoming freshwater boil and roil around you, creating unpredictable eddies and turbulence.
  2. Running into a 950-foot-long container ship steaming past you at 15 knots in a narrow channel.
  3. Taking a bow wave on the beam or getting sucked into the wake of a passing freighter.
  4. Tearing off a cleat or another important sailboat part while tied tightly to 2 other very expensive sailboats as they all motor along together in a giant, slow-moving, un-agile clump (making the perfect target for the speedy mega-ton container ships passing by).
  5. Getting a monkey’s fist to the face.

Obviously, #5 is the most terrifying of the potential Canal dangers. It’s also the most likely to occur. Although none of the above events came to pass (knock on lots of wood) during our transit, all of them were a distinct possibility at certain points. With common sense, a pilot who can see really large ships, and basic laws of physics, most of these factors can be controlled.

But you can’t control the monkey’s fist.

panama canal transit on a yacht - sailboat blog - on the horizon line

This deadly ball of flying lead-loaded death is unassuming. It’s a miniscule object, compared to the other multi-ton objects that could cause disaster in the Panama Canal. But it could take you out. Or your solar panel. Definitely a window, and probably your eye.

What in the hell, you ask, is a monkey’s fist? As you’ve likely guessed, it’s not the hand of the mammal that swings from trees, but rather the name of a fancy knot. In the case of a Canal transit, it happens to be a fancy knot wrapped over pieces of lead, which is tossed at your boat from a nonchalant, cigarette-smoking Panamanian line-handler standing 50+ feet above your boat on the walls of the lock.

panama canal transit on a yacht - sailboat blog - on the horizon line

The monkey’s fist is attached to a long, thin, gnarled, algae-covered rope perfectly sized to give you a rope burn. The reasons the Panamanians throw them at your boat (besides the entertainment value associated with watching foreigners run and duck) is so that you can tie it to a longer, thicker, sturdier rope (called “lines” on a boat, remember) designed to keep your boat well away from the nasty boat-crunching concrete walls of the lock. The nonchalant line-handler pulls both the thin and thick ropes back up (eventually), and hooks it to a bollard (also known as a really big peg) on the top of the lock.

As the line handlers on Maunie, a lovely 38-foot Vancouver owned by a lovely British couple named Graham and Dianne, Rob and I were in charge of, first, avoiding the monkey’s fist, and, second, running quickly to grab it from where it thumped down. After tying on our dock line and securing the other end to the sailboat, we then spent the 10-15 minutes in each lock pulling in slack or letting out slack, depending on whether that lock was raising or lowering Maunie.

tourist boat canal (2)

Not rocket science. But remarkably more difficult than one would think when you have 3 sailboats rafted-up together, complete with 3 different skippers, 12 different line handlers, 3 different Canal pilot guides (required to transit the Canal), and assorted children, pets and ferry-boat tourists all giving conflicting orders and advice. It’s kind of hilarious. A little bit stressful. And all around an interesting experience.

Luckily, Rob and I were thrilled to be aboard Maunie for our virgin Canal crossing, as Graham and Dianne are first-class sailors and very calm and patient people. We learned a lot from them, and are all set to help Llyr brave the freighters and concrete walls on Saturday. We’ll show those monkeys’ fists who’s boss again, too … right after we duck and cover, of course.

sailboats rafted with lock doors


panama canal crossing in sailboat - on the horizon line travel blog

Panama Canal (Take One): “You Want US to be line handlers?”

Posted on 5 CommentsPosted in Outdoor Adventures, Sailing

panama canal crossing in sailboat - on the horizon line travel blog

Rob and I are going to serve as line handlers on a 38-foot monohull sailboat heading through the Panama Canal tomorrow. Those of you familiar with our intended itinerary are probably confused, since you know we’re crewing on Llyr through the Canal en route to the South Pacific. Here’s the deal: we get to cross twice!

A very nice British couple approached Llyr yesterday while we were scraping blisters from the keel and applying sealant (glamorous work, for sure). They desperately needed 2 more line handlers in order to meet the requirements for a Canal crossing, and offered us 3 meals and a paid cab ride from Panama City back to the marina in return for our presence on their pretty sailboat, Mauna, for 24 hours. “Hell, yes,” I replied. “I can’t wait to see this Canal in action.”

llyr research vessel - on the horizon line sailing blog - panama canal crossing
Connor, the oldest of the 3 sons aboard Llyr, prepping to paint the bottom.

About 130 boats are camped out here at Shelter Bay Marina, and most are waiting in line for their turn to cross the man-made engineering wonder that connects the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. A ship has to be lifted 85 feet, cross a 31-mile freshwater lake, drop 85 feet and cross another mile-long lake to reach the Pacific. It takes two dams, 5 locks, and 53 million gallons of fresh water to get a boat from one side to the other.

It ain’t no cakewalk to go through the Canal, either: small vessels (i.e. anything that’s not a freighter or cruise ship) need to hire an agent to make sure they get a slot in for the crossing. Yachts are also required a have a “guide” who helps the skipper pilot through the locks as well as 4 “line handlers:” 2 on either side of the bow and stern. Note for non-nautical reader: all ropes are called “lines” on a boat (unless it’s called a “sheet,” of course) mostly to make non-nautical people feel dumb when they call it a rope.

llyr research vessel - on the horizon line sailing blog - panama canal crossing
The cockpit of Llyr, our new floating home until we reach Tahiti.

In reality, the majority of privately-owned pleasure yachts don’t have to do too much line work, since they are often rafted-up next to the giant mega-sized boats. That means big boats typically tie onto the sides of the locks as they fill or empty, and the smaller sailboats fill in around the cargo ships like puzzle pieces (or those Styrofoam peanuts in mail packages). Ideally, the small boats are then buffered by tying into the non-wall side of the big ship, and avoid the constant tying/untying of lines. In reality, I have no idea how any of this really works, and I’m eager to learn tomorrow.

We leave at 1pm tomorrow and will spend the night anchored in Lake Gatun. Around noon on Tuesday, we should be heading under the Bridge of the Americas and splashing into the Pacific. Rob and I will be back aboard Llyr in time for dinner. Hopefully, we’ll return with helpful hints for a second smooth Canal crossing, a few stories of crocodile sightings in the lake, and no tales of poorly-handled lines.

We Are Musical People, Yo.

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Dance, Yoga and Fitness

dance move

A drum beats through the background of my daily narrative.  A bass-line usually thrums in my brain and through my body while we eat, when I dance, as I work, while I play guitar.  But the background beat has been eerily absent for over a week.  My guitar and both of our iPods were casualties of the Todos Santos robbery.  Turns out that the lack of music is perhaps the most haunting loss of all.

We are musical people.  You’ve probably heard Rob singing loudly through the aisles of the grocery store in Missoula, or watched him unconsciously playing drums on the counter, the steering wheel, or on my leg when we sit next to each other.  He keeps time to the soundtrack in his mind, and had recently started recording our friends’ music, too.  I try to dance daily, and play guitar often while I belt out old rock songs (sometimes even on key!).  At home, we streamed Pandora constantly and our trademark Christmas gift to our friends was a mixed CD of our favorite songs from the year.

music on thanksgiving

The recent quiet seems to take up physical space in my body.  It almost feels oppressive, like a balloon that muffles my daily rhythms and makes my thoughts echo in my head.  I know: counter-intuitive, right?  The silence should serve to heighten my awareness of the world around me, not stifle my interaction with it.  But for me, music enhances every experience – kind of like a 6th sense.   It cements new memories, anchors me in a place, and activates my creative right brain while tamping down my overactive analytical left brain.  It’s like cream in coffee, hot fudge on a sundae, the icing on the cupcake: music just makes life more fun.

Rob and I have been singing snippets of the same Lumineers song for the past 10 days now (“I don’t know where I belong, I don’t know where I went wrong…I could write a song”).  We’re a broken record, a CD skipping endlessly on one track.  Not only is it annoying, it also tells me that our music sense is stagnant.   I hadn’t pinpointed the problem fully until we got in the shuttle from La Paz to San Jose del Cabo.  Our Mexican bus driver turned out to be an American rock-n-roll fanatic, toggling from Pink Floyd to Coldplay to Clapton to Radiohead.

guitar on bow

As Rob and I sang aloud to “Wish You Were Here,” I felt the bubble inside me pop and my body breathe a deep sigh of bass-filled relief.  I also immediately felt an insane urge to stand up and dance on the bus, now that my music sense was reactivated.  I hadn’t sashayed, spun or shimmied since my last Oula class at the Downtown Dance Collective over two weeks ago.  Completely unacceptable.

Luckily, all of the awesome dance songs I downloaded before our trip are waiting in cyberspace for me, ready to upload to iTunes when I get my replacement iPhone tomorrow.  I’ll be shakin’ my bootie in no time during a self-led solo Oula class at the entrance to the Panama Canal.  We also picked up some replacement tunes (thanks to Cassidy, our main source for all new music), and plan to buy a new cheap-but-functional campesino guitar in Panama City.

As for the Lumineers song – well, we might not be listening to that one right off the bat when we find a music-making device.  But you can damn well be sure that Rob and I will be singing and dancing along to something as we sail across the Pacific.  For us, music is almost as essential as food (almost).

wedding dance - on the horizon line - travel blog - fitness


Llyr under sail - on the horizon line with rob and bri

“Where, exactly, are you going?”

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Sailing

kiss on sailboatWe leave one month from tomorrow.  Whoa.  As the departure date approaches, the main question we hear (aside from “are you getting excited?!”) is “where, exactly, are you guys going?”  Here’s the answer:

On March 26th, we fly from Missoula, Montana to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California.  We’re hoping to meet up with our friends, Katie and Mark, on their boat, Selkie, in La Paz.  The goal is to spend a couple of weeks decompressing from work, packing, and leaving our way of life.  We plan to leave Mexico refreshed and ready for a big adventure.

Llyr under sail - on the horizon line with rob and bri
Llyr under full sail.

On April 10th, we fly from Cabo to Panama City, where we’ll make our way to Colon to meet Llyr in the Caribbean Sea.  We’ve signed up to crew on this 53-foot steel ketch, and are excited to help Janis and Brooks, and their teenage boys, Connor, Rowan and Gavin sail her across the Pacific.  We’ll have to wait in line for a week or two to squeeze Llyr between mega-tankers, cruise ships and other yachts for her trip through the Panama Canal. We’ll likely head through the Canal by the end of April.  Once through the Canal, we’ll provision with food, water, diesel and other supplies while we wait for a good weather window to begin our “Pacific Puddlejump.”

bri and rob sailing in Baja

By the beginning of May, we’ll start our 40-day journey across the Pacific Ocean, heading south over the equator and (hopefully) catching a smooth ride on southeast trade winds as we sail west.  We should reach our first landfall in French Polynesia’s easternmost island chain, the Marquesas, by early June.  

Rob and I may continue with Llyr to Tahiti, the capital of French Polynesia.  Tahiti is kind of like the “transit station” for the South Pacific, where we’ll find lots and lots of sailboats from all over the world heading to different islands.  We plan to find one to crew on to the next island stop.  From here, plans get fuzzy (which we like).

Baja-rob and bri on the beach


Our goal is to hitchhike on sailboats from July through November.  The sailing season in the South Pacific typically ends in November as the summer months mark the start of hurricane season in the southern hemisphere.  Most folks head to Australia and New Zealand, but Rob and I are hoping to spend the summer in either the Soloman Islands, or north of the equator in Micronesia.  Below is a map of our potential route, though it’s all up for grabs post-June.

For us, the beauty of this trip is our freedom — we aren’t sure where we’ll be in a few months, and we like it that way.

View On the Horizon Line – Adventure Route in a larger map

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