Westward Ho'Okele - Dispatch Four

Westward Ho'Okele: Dispatch 4


By Peter Swanson

COLON, PANAMA, Dec. 14, 2002-The place is named after the Great Navigator himself, though I can't imagine that Christopher Columbus would be proud of Colon, Panama. To us, it seemed wrong that such a shabby city would be one of the bookends to the great Panama Canal, but more on that later. In our last installment, Ho'Okele was at anchor in the quarantine anchorage for small boats about 11/2 miles from breakwaters. After the admeasurer from the Canal Authority visited, filled out our transit paperwork and took some perfunctory dimensions, Jim Cole and I received permission to move Ho'Okele from the anchorage onto the docks of the Panama Canal Yacht Club to await transit. We were met at the docks by Hawaii businessman Mark Heilbron, Ho'Okele's owner, come to Panama for the glory run through the canal, and perhaps a bit of trolling for pelagics on the Pacific side. Mark's quick to laugh, and his enthusiasm re-energized us.

The yacht club itself was a friendly place, if a bit shopworn, but it had a bar, a serviceable restaurant and diesel fuel for $1.50 a gallon. The docks were inhabited by a mixture of locals, gringo cruisers of the mom and pop variety, and a motley assembly of half-wild cats in charge of rodent control. Speaking of rodents, Ho'Okele was rafted against a 100-foot motor yacht on delivery from the West Coast to Florida. On this unhappy ship-full of personality conflicts, mysterious damaging electrical problems, bad haircuts and rumors of illicit cargo-the rats walked upright. I couldn't wait to move to the fuel dock for fear their bad karma would rub off on Ho'Okele. But then we met the antidote-the captain and crew of Continental Drifter II. The blue hulled, red flagged, 110-foot Cheoy Lee took up the length of the fuel dock, so to fill up we had to raft alongside her. Continental Drifter II, as it turned out, is Jimmy Buffett's boat and writing retreat. Himself, the peripatetic minstrel, was not aboard, but Kent Kohlberger, captain of this happy ship, and his able crew reflected well on their famous boss. We enjoyed making their acquaintance and later learned we would be rafted up with her again to pass through the locks.

Now, about Colon...This crumbling town from the days when the French failed at canal building is a menacing place today with unemployment at 50 percent. Jim Cole photographed downtown from the window of a cab, not daring to step out, and we joked about his "drive-by shooting." The pictures showed the Bronx gone tropical. The only place worse that I have seen is Djibouti on the East Coast of Africa. We were not keen on hanging around Colon, so the sight of Peter Stevens, ruddy-faced, ex-pat Brit, strolling down the dock was a welcome one.

Stevens runs Delfin, the shipping agency preferred by folks who have to move yachts, as opposed to cargo vessels, through the Canal. A shipping agent earns his money by taking care of paperwork and other details of a canal transit; he becomes your advocate before the powers that be, and serves as a clearinghouse of local knowledge in all matters. His $500 fee was money well spent. He told us Ho'Okele was scheduled to begin its transit Tuesday, December 17. Expect the line-handlers at 7 a.m., he said. 'Til next time.

-Peter Swanson



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