I confess to having the wrong perspective when it comes to the city of Colón, Panama, at the Caribbean mouth of the Panama Canal. I see it as the last barrier, the last stand, if you will, of bureaucratic dirt dwellers attempting to prevent me from reaching the comparative paradise of the Pacific. I know that this is so geographically unfair. The port of Colón is more than a den of greedy thieves intent on robbing you with a fountain pen — or, so they say.
But my own personal prejudice is revealed in the first factoid I tell people about Colón: It is pronounced like the perfume but smells like the body part.
Oh, the stories I could tell about the old Panama Canal Yacht Club before the wharf rats stormed it into oblivion! The fly-speckled restaurant on premises sold a delicious and spicy “chicken special” (complete with tiny rib cage) that welcomed no inquiries as to ancestry. Where else but Colón does a shotgun-wielding security guard clear the street before allowing you to dash from your taxi to the cybercafe?
But every dark cloud has a silver lining. On one visit, we met a pugnacious German yachtsman who field-trained in martial arts each night by strapping on a fake Rolex and strolling into the no man’s land just outside the PCYC and taking on all comers. I ask you, where else but Panama offers a steady stream of young, eager live combatants willing to fight to the death daily? Where, indeed?
“And only four times have I lost a watch,” said the German warrior. “Only when someone pulled a gun or knife. You must come with me sometime, Fatty! The ghost of Bruce Lee would be proud!”
Yes, there were some interesting lounge lizards at the dilapidated PCYC. But that was 20 years ago, when the place had a certain Third World, tequila-scented charm. It’s much worse now. Put it this way: In my watery world, the cowards choose Cape Horn rather than risk a night or two of slithering through the bureaucratic sewers of Colón. Nonetheless, we shoved off from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands on our fourth circumnavigation with joyous hearts. Part of the bliss of being a sea gypsy is philosophical; you have to take the sweet with the bitter. We’d do a shakedown across the Caribbean, survive the greedy paper-pushers of Panama and be back in our beloved pearl-strewn Tuamotus in no time.
Alas, a persistent low-pressure zone just south of Santa Marta, Colombia, intensified and decided to have some fun at our expense. We’d just spent a year tooling around the benign Lesser Antilles, and it was time for an offshore reality check. Yes, we knew we were sailing into gale-force winds and an area of strong currents, but the low-pressure system was rudely in our way, and I’m a macho guy.
“How bad can it be?” I asked my wife, Carolyn, who looked stricken and replied, “That is always a stupid thing to say, Fatty. Always!”
It wasn’t the steady 36 knots of breeze that got us, or the gusts to 47; it was the weirdly jumbled current and confused seas. Oh, yes, and the cross swell too. It was like sailing through a wave-heaped storm cauldron with huge geysers of water clapping together into random mountainous wave trains.
Translation: It was rougher than I’d anticipated.
I have another confession to make: I’d just spent the past year shaking the money tree by giving cruising seminars, during which I was forced to listen to myself publicly proclaiming some small degree of intelligence coupled with a massive dose of bravery. And, well, it was impossible not to start to believe some of my sophomoric drivel! So, evidently, Mother Ocean and Neptune had a little meeting and decided to take De Fat Mon down a peg or two.
The first incident took place just after midnight, when the steering line that connects our Monitor windvane to our cockpit wheel broke. I was dozing au naturel in the aft cabin when we unexpectedly jibed, were caught aback, sharply heeled and started to round up. All this before I could say, “Where are my shorts?”
Normally, jibing our storm staysail isn’t too bad, but in these boisterous seas (think waves breaking astern and some coming aboard) it was somewhat exciting, believe me.
At once, I rushed on deck, pantsless, shoeless and brainless — evidently, the exact combo Ma Ocean and King Nep had hoped for. It was overcast. Numerous squalls were about. There was no moon, and the seas looked like dark, looming liquid mountains. Our intermittent compass light (the problem was hard to troubleshoot and fix because the bulb always worked in harbor) oriented me as to the vertical. I grabbed the helm, glanced at the Windex aloft and forced Ganesh‘s bow back down in the 30 to 40 knots of wind trying to round us up.
Sad to say, Carolyn, my partner offshore for 48 years, found this all amusing, especially my clothing disarray, so to speak. In the cockpit, there were snapping lines and a spinning self-steering clutch on the wheel, right at belt level.
She’s a bit of a feminist. “Ah,” she said with a smile from the companionway, “the advantages of an inboard rig! Watch the soft bits, honey.”
Then just when I had things back on course, our compass light strobed off. Then on. Then off.
“Damn it,” I hissed to her. “I haven’t been this disoriented since Studio 54.”
She sounded amazed. “Bits of the 1970s are starting to filter back into your consciousness?”
Gosh, she was in a playful mood!
I ignored her and instead concentrated on the blinking compass light while attempting to keep the careening surfboard of a boat on course.
“Loose connection,” I blurted out at one point. She knew that I’d replaced the compass light switch just before we left Great Cruz Bay.
“Perhaps the problem is in your brainstem,” she said, misunderstanding me completely.
In order to save money, we keep most of our electronics belowdecks to prevent water intrusion. In this case, I had to have Carolyn hand me the electric-powered autopilot head so I could connect its wires while steering with my hips amid the lumps and potholes. Occasionally, she’d shine her flashlight out at me, just to spice up the challenge.
“Give a man some modesty!” I bellowed.
“Must be scared,” she teased back as she tossed pieces of clothing my way.
Finally, I managed to dress, if wearing one shoe and inside-out sailing shorts qualifies as such.
“You are a fashionista,” she said, then added coyly, “Should I grab the camera for your many fans?”
“No time for posing,” I said hastily after the Robertson autopilot was engaged and tracking. “This SOB must fix the Monitor ASAP, OK?”
“L-O-L,” she replied.
It was a wild, storm-tossed night, and we both felt giddy. We came here for adventure, and we were getting it. What could be better?
Now, our Monitor windvane lives low on our boat’s generous transom. Re-reeving the control line was difficult in a shipyard, and rather more so in 18-foot waves. Plus, I had to hang upside down, practically by my ankles. Occasionally, a tumbling sea boarded and made me wonder if that pain in my chest was my ribs breaking, my back straining or both.
Carolyn came out into the wave-dashed cockpit just in case she could help. I felt a surge of love. How lucky can one man be?
Finally, I managed to get the control line routed through the long stainless-steel tube and out the turning block. Then I had to thread it through the rudder hole and secure it, with the wild gyrating rudder still mostly immersed in large seas.
“Ten,” I said aloud. “Ten.” Then a bit later, “10!”
“Meaning?” Carolyn asked from forward and above in the cockpit.
“Meaning I want to end this process with the same number of fingers I began it with!” I replied.
“You are such a wuss,” she chuckled.
Finally, I completed the task, crawled back into the cockpit, shut off the autopilot and engaged the Monitor. It held course.
I was too tired to do anything but collapse in Carolyn’s arms.
“My hero,” she said simply as she patted my head. We stayed that way for a long time. I was utterly content to remain within throbbing distance of her heart.
Bang! The Monitor’s other control line snapped.
This time I was quicker, and caught the wheel before we jibed.
“You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?” Carolyn asked.
“Well, a man can hope,” I said wearily as I crawled aft again. It turns out the problem wasn’t chafe so much as age and sun damage to the synthetic cordage. I guess hoping for two circs with the same steering lines is one too many.
A few days later, the wind was down to 25 knots and we were steering for a persistent smudge on the horizon. Carolyn, my Pactor babe, was twiddling the dials of her single-sideband radio. Her ham call sign is NP2MU, aka Miss Universe. There was an email from Herb McCormick at Cruising World. One of my fans (Andrew B) had messaged him to give us a heads up: There were riots in Colón.
“That smudge is tires, police cars and at least one major building downtown in flames,” Carolyn said.
I smiled. It was a test, just another cosmic trial. The gods were toying with us. Nothing new, really.
I shrugged, just as I’d seen Bogie do to Katharine Hepburn in the movie The African Queen.
“You ready for the pandemonium of civilization, Panamanian-style?” asked Carolyn.
I mimed rolling up my sleeves and taking the cheap wristwatch off my arm and putting it in my pocket, something that males born on the south side of Chicago are all-too familiar with doing.
“Let me at ’em,” I said confidently.
After an April transit of the Panama Canal, the Goodlanders pointed Ganesh’s bow straight at the Marquesas and French Polynesia.