Beth & The Panama Canal

Many people told me I should not go sailing. They tried to talk me out of it. “You’ll never find a boat to take you when you have no experience” “It’s dangerous and you could die at sea” “It’s all creepy old men looking for a young woman to keep them company” and so on. The latter turned out to be sometimes true and is a big part of the story as to how I ended up staying a few nights on KARL.

I decided after a year of being away from my home in New Zealand that it was about time to head back across the Pacific. Being a nervous flier I decided it would be better to take to the high seas, harness the wind and put my sense of adventure to the test rather than huddling freaked out in some aluminum tube hurtling through the sky. Little did I know the extent of the adventure on which I was embarking.

I started on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala. Through some unlikely and fortunate events I stumbled across a legendary sailor from Australia who had been given the charge of delivering a boat to his homeland and was happy to take me along. After some months sailing around the Caribbean, gaining my diving certification and making friends with some of the amazing local people, the dream of sailing home suddenly came crashing down around our ears as the engine on GEORGEANNE gave up and died. It was by then the end of May and the window for crossing the Pacific was closing fast. My best option was to go as quickly as possible to Panama in the hope of joining a new crew.


I had been in touch with a guy who was anchored at Shelter Bay Marina and offered for me to come and help out on his boat in exchange for letting me stay. The hope was that being in the marina everyone must pass through to go cross the Panama Canal, I would have a good chance of meeting a boat heading into the Pacific. Shelter Bay is some distance from Colón, which is not the friendliest city, in an American army base now mostly abandoned. I arrived in the mid-afternoon under oppressive heat and a sky threatening rain. Thunder clapped overhead and after some trouble locating the boat and its owner I discover they were both on the hard and just a little bit creepy.

I quickly came to the conclusion that this guy was not really looking for help. I spent one night hiding away sleeping up on deck being eaten to death by mosquitos and wondering how I could be so stupid to get myself in this situation and more importantly how to get out. I spent the next day mostly in tears and decided the best thing to do was to talk to everyone and explain my situation. I met Nike and Phil drinking a cold beer outside the little shop and told them of my woes. Very kindly Nike offered to take me in and when I couldn’t sort out something else I gratefully took her up on her offer.

KARL was not yet KARL and was in need of some love and hard work. Nike told me of her plans for painting the galley white to have more light inside, for cupboards and beds and a working head, for sealing the cabin windows, for new winches, blocks and sails and of course a paint job. It all seemed impossible to me but she struck me as someone capable of anything she set her mind to.


One rainy afternoon under a tarp strung over the cockpit, we emptied the aft cabin and attempted to sort the long deserted tools, bolts, pumps, sail patches, bungee cords, baskets, screws, engine parts and fishing gear jumbled with countless other nameless and seemingly useless bits and pieces. I learned that day everything can come in handy on a boat, very little was thrown away.


I slept a few hot nights in KARL’s galley bunk, tucked under the table gasping for air in the oppressive humidity that blankets Shelter Bay in June. We kept the mosquitos out by draping a piece of netting over the companion way, further halting any flow of fresh air. But I was grateful to have a safe place to sleep.


To go through the canal each boat needs four line handlers and to hire a local crew cost $100 USD per crew member. The sailing community is full of people who help each other and look out for each others wellbeing and happiness. Going through the canal is an exciting and unique experience so often boaties will help each other handling lines to make the transit. It’s good for gaining experience so when the time comes to take your own boat through the locks there won’t be any surprises. At least that’s the hope.


MATIRA is a 28 foot sloop and intrepid traveler of the world. With her awesome crew Phil and Di she has now circumnavigated after 25 adventurous years. Nike and I were lucky enough to join MATIRA for the transit through the canal. Due to her 8 horse power engine and maximum speed of 4 knots it took a lot of convincing, paper work and many days and weeks of waiting before she was given the go ahead. With Phil and Di on board along with Nike, myself, Tomas and the advisor, little MATIRA was almost sunk.


The transit was eventful to say the least. The first set of locks was a breeze and we tied up to a buoy for the night in Gatun lake. Our advisor was late the next morning putting us behind schedule to make our transit through the Pedro Miguel lock into the Pacific. Due to the delay and the lack of speed it was decided we could take the debris ridden “banana cut” short cut and put up the sails. We got to a see a part of the canal that is hidden and beautiful with jungle coming right to the water and the songs of birds cutting through the quiet morning not polluted by the heavy engines of ships.


Even with the short cut and flying full sails we were simply not fast enough. As the day drew to a close and our scheduled transit time fast approached, our advisor made the decision that we must stay another night in the canal. We were left tied to a buoy that we crashed into every time a ship passed. Eventually the impact broke the bumper rail and we moved onto anchor and so another night passed with good food and delightful company on the cramped but cosy MATIRA.


It wasn’t until noon the following day that someone came to get us and we could continue our journey. We arrived early to the locks and tied up to the wall. Due to some clumsy rope work and lack of understanding about the power of our engine we crashed unceremoniously into the wall before coming to a stop. It was decided we should pass through the locks tied up to a tug boat so we wouldn’t be sucked around by the vast amounts of water moving through to lower us into the Pacific. The first lock was uneventful but as we untied from the tug to move into the second lock the driver of the powerful boat roared off at full speed sending us careening into the far wall.


We hit with enough force to break the anchor rope, releasing the anchor but saving the bow. Tomas sacrificed his foot to save the anchor and we swung backwards heading at full speed towards the other wall. The little motor kicked in with just enough power to save the windvane from certain death. Phil managed to regain control and steer us clear of the walls and free of the canal into the open waters of the great Pacific Ocean. By this time it was dark and the lights of Panama City reflected off the dark water. We said our goodbyes and Nike and I headed home to Shelter Bay.


My time spent on KARL was short but I felt lucky to be a small part of Nike’s adventure and it was just the beginning of my own. I found a boat that I travelled with from Shelter Bay to Fiji via Ecuador, the Marquesas and Samoa. I met Phil and Di in Samoa after their long but smooth crossing. In Fiji I joined a family who took me home to New Zealand and exactly four months after leaving Panama City I arrived into the warm arms of my family. I would like to thank Nike for her kindness and generosity without which I never would have been able to live my dream.

occasion dresses New Zealand


[written by Beth, 16-02-2015]

Thank you so much, Beth, for writing these lines and sharing your story here on White Spot Pirates! Beth was KARL’s first guest after I had just bought him in Shelter Bay in spring 2013. I was so happy to be able to offer Beth a place to sleep (even if KARL was maybe not the quite the Ritz) because I had received so much help from others and it was great to give something back, even thought it was not a lot.