Tag Archives: Clipper Round the World race

Through the Panama Canal

For all those who have been following my blog, my apologies for posting this late.

After a few days enjoying Panama City and the delicious seafood that the country is known for, we prepared for transiting the canal before the next race that would take me home to New York City. As part of the preparation, we needed to make four mooring lines of 125 feet, which would be used to hold us in the middle of the locks as the incoming water first lifted our boat up and then lowered it on the other end of the canal, 50 miles away. A canal official also came down to measure the boat, both outside for length and inside for volume.

The following morning dawned early as we got set to finally go through the canal. Around 7 am, we slipped lines from Flamenco marina and headed out to meet our pilot near one of the green buoys marking the entrance to the canal.

The rules for transiting the canal are pretty strict. First, you have to book a transit time, then when you arrive, you need to arrange for an admeasuring officer to come and measure the boat, both the outside length and interior volume. Once that is done, you are cleared to transit and just need to wait for the canal authorities to give you a time to make the transit. Boats need to have four mooring lines a minimum of 125 ft long and have a 3 ft in diameter loop at one end. In addition, the boat must have adequate fenders to prevent contact with the walls of the locks as well as enough line handlers to handle the mooring lines in the locks. With 18 people on Singapore, line handlers were not an issue!

As we headed towards the canal, the first sight greeting us was the bridge of the Americas, which was for many years the only fixed bridge connecting the North and South American land masses. It was very exciting to see us heading towards the bridge as it represents the start of the Panama Canal on the Pacific side. Transiting the canal would be a dream come true for me, a journey that I have wanted to experience for a very long time!

One factoid about the Panama Canal which is not widely known, is that the canal doesn’t actually go West to East (or vice versa) but because of the geography of Panama (slightly S-shaped) goes Northwest from the Pacific side to the Atlantic or Southeast from the Atlantic side to the Pacific. What that means is that you actually travel “backwards” on the transit and will end up in the Atlantic being further West from where you started at the beginning of the canal in the Pacific Ocean! Which brings up another interesting factoid (I heard on the tour bus in Panama City), Panama is the only country in which the sun rises over the Pacific and sets over the Atlantic.

But, I digress. Crossing under the bridge, I couldn’t help and look up with a big smile on my face. I am actually doing this, I thought! I think I felt a little bit like a kid in a candy store – all giddy and happy! It took us about an hour to reach the first set of locks, the Miraflores and just after that, the Pedro Miguel locks. Together, the three sets of locks on the Pacific side lift ships roughly 87 feet before the trip across Panama begins.

Prior to entering Miraflores locks, we rafted up with one of the other Clipper boats, De Lage Landen while Derry-Londonderry was ahead of us. We followed a freighter and tug in and watched in awe as the gates to the first lock shut and the water level quickly rose to allow us to move to the next lock. From there, we motored ahead roughly a mile to the final lock on the Pacific side.

Crossing Panama through the canal was actually interesting as the scenery ranged from passing through a cut which divided the Continental Divide in Panama (Gaillard Cut), to lush mist-shrouded jungles lining Gatun lake. Along with the 10 hour transit, we also passed a number of freighters, car carriers and ore carriers as they slowly made their way along the canal to the Pacific. There were also numerous dredging operations underway as well as construction on a new part of the canal which is designed to allow the new class of larger freighters and super tankers to use the canal. As we passed one area of construction, a series of large explosions and plumes of smoke and dust were heard and seen just behind us as the workers blasted away at the bedrock.



We arrived at Gatun locks on the Atlantic side about an hour before sunset and were quickly led into the locks for our 87 foot descent to the end of the canal and the Caribbean sea. As the last set of gates opened, I couldn’t help but think that I was almost home, finally back in the same ocean, if just a tad south of home (well, 2,200 miles still to go, but after 9,000 miles across the Pacific and down the coast of Mexico and Central America, why quibble).

Coming out of the locks, we motored along the last bit of the canal and were treated to the sight of eight large crocodiles leisurely resting on the canal bank. Good thing we weren’t planning on doing any swimming in the area! Finally, as the sun set, we headed to Shelter Bay Marina in Colon, Panama to drop off our pilot and wait for the start of the next race from Panama directly to New York.

To see more photos, please visit the Photos 2 page here.


A Frustrating Finish

The last few days were frustrating to say the least. With barely a whisper of wind, there were times that we were lucky to make one knot at times as we sailed down the southern coast of Mexico. Wind was definitely the one thing that was in short supply. In abundance were sunny skies and very hot temperatures. In the morning, the temperature quickly heats up to 38 degrees Celsius (can you change this to Fahrenheit) in the shade. Grinding and trimming the spinnaker in the sun was even worse. The water temperature is also hot at around 36 degrees (also in Fahrenheit please 🙂 ) so there is little respite at night.

At one point, we had dropped to 10th place as we struggled to find wind. However, without wind to fill the sails, there was little we could do but wait it out with fingers tapping on the deck in impatience. Finally, yesterday (April 29th) the wind picked up and we were able to move again, making at times seven knots, which helped improve morale considerably. Unfortunately, the joy was relatively short-lived, as the race was called early due to the lack of wind. As a result, although we were climbing back up the leaderboards, we ended up finished seventh on this race. Ah well, at least it wasn’t 10th.

Now we have roughly six days of motor sailing to reach the canal and wait for our slot to transit. In the meantime, the time will be spent doing repairs, deep cleaning the boat, and other miscellaneous tasks. Also, there is a promised swim later today which everyone is very much looking forward to! I will also continue to keep an eye out for marine wildlife as well. So far, the whale count is up to nine. And, dolphins too numerous at times to count. As always enjoyable to see are the birds resting on top of turtles.

Champagne Sailing

And, we’re off! The race start in San Francisco by the Golden Gate Bridge was intense, but fun. The sun was out, the wind was fresh and most importantly, it was warm and welcome after the cold, wet battering we took crossing the North Pacific.

We sailed out into the bay past Alcatraz Island and waited for the beginning of the race that would take us 3,300 miles down to Panama, then through the canal and roughly 2,000 miles up to New York City. Shortly before the race started as we were jockeying for position, a batten popped out of the sail. That was a near disaster, but we were able to drop the mainsail, find and insert a new batten, and raise it again very quickly. The crew worked flawlessly and we were able to raise it just minutes before the start. Seconds before the start there were two other boats, Gold Coast Australia and Edinburgh within half a boat length of us jockeying for position. That was quite exciting as we were striving to force them closer to the line (actually over) and position ourselves for a clean start. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen quite as planned and all three of us ended up jumping the gun and crossing the line early. That meant having to circle back around the start buoy and restart again as the rest of the fleet sailed away.

Nevertheless, we did that very quickly and were off under the Golden Gate Bridge and out into the Pacific. The weather continued to be sunny and breezy which made for quick sailing. With the tide ebbing under the bridge and a stiff breeze blowing onshore, it was a beat (upwind sailing) into some good-sized swells that were left over from the Pacific storms. Several of the crewmembers ended up seasick from the boat motion, sending them downstairs into their bunks. The rest of us persevered and after heading out a bit into the ocean, we turned south, raised the spinnaker (large billowing sail at the front of the boat) and began our downwind run to Panama.

The next few days could only be described as champagne sailing. We had great downwind sailing along the coast of California and down along Mexico’s Baha California with the sun up during the day and the stars out at night. The weather quickly warmed and by the third day we had shed our foul weather gear and are currently sailing during the day in shorts and t-shirts. Such a wonderful treat after a month crossing the cold, stormy Pacific! I ended up winning a bet with a fellow crewmember who thought we wouldn’t be able to shed our foulies until day five. I betted it would happen on day three as based on the weather reports we would be crossing the Mexican border just after the second day. A welcome cold pint awaits in Panama!

As far as the race and the fleet are concerned, it looks like tactically, there are two schools of thought. One, stay close to shore and try to take advantage of the sea breeze during the day and the land breeze at night. Two, head further offshore and catch a southerly wind that – at least on the weather forecast – appears lighter but more consistent over the next few days. As such, the fleet of 10 boats were spread out by day three over a line of roughly 120 miles, yet only a few miles apart with regards to distance to finish. Time will tell which strategy plays out. We opted to stay offshore.

That strategy appeared to work as we quickly worked our way from near last after the failed start to fifth place in the fleet. Unfortunately, late last night we ended up with a kite wrap in which the lightweight spinnaker got backwinded and wrapped in knots around the inner forestay (a wire cable running from the front of the boat up to near the top of the mast). It took us nearly nine hours to unwrap it with less than an hour of sleep. This morning all on my watch were exhausted, but felt so elated when with Sherlyn’s help up the mast, the sail dropped to the deck free and clear! In no time we stowed it below, hoisted our medium-weight kite and now are back in the race!

I must say, these past few days have taken time getting used to the watch routine (three hours on, three off at night and four on, four off during the day), but it has been an amazing few days! Besides the great weather and sailing conditions, we were also treated to a spectacular light show in the evening sky the other night as we saw several meteorites blaze across the sky above us, leaving glowing trails. One particular meteorite seemed rather close as it raced across the sky above us, leaving a bright, glowing tail that stretched halfway across the sky. Lastly, no whale sightings yet even though we are close to the migration path. However, it was interesting to see squid jump out of the water and land on deck in the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps they were attracted to the light as we worked to drop the wrapped spinnaker.

How Do I Get from A to B?

RYA Training ChartI recently returned to Gosport, UK to continue my training for the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.  This time, the training was shore-based and included, in a short summary, various theory courses including navigation, meteorology and rules of the road.  The course is part of the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) requirements to eventually obtain the Yachtmaster certificate of competency.

Navigation, meaning how to get from point A to point B without any issues or mishaps; rules of the road, meaning when two ships cross, who has right of way; and meteorology, meaning knowing when a storm or clear weather is likely to pass over you.  Add a smattering of learning what various buoys in the water mean and what lights different boats may have at night or shapes they may hoist during the day, and that pretty much sums up our week of study.

Beyond the 10 second “elevator” summary above, the details are much more intense.  As they say, “the devil is in the details,” but if you are navigating through unknown coastal areas with tides and winds pushing your boat to-and-fro, the details can mean the difference between arriving at a harbor safely or ending up on the rocks!

Having flown into Heathrow from NYC, I spent a long three hours in the airport immigration line thanks to a “slowdown” (gotta’ love those unions!).  Nevertheless, I eventually made it to Gosport albeit a couple of hours late for class.  The first few days were spent learning navigation, with the class typically running from 9 am to 5 pm, then several hours of homework afterwards.

At first glance, it may sound simple to go from Point A to Point B.  Just look at a chart (nautical term for a map) and point your boat in the direction you want to go.  However, if the tides are flowing 1-2 knots perpendicular to you and are pushing you off to the side, where would you end up in an hour or two hours’ time?  Now, add to that winds pushing the boat sideways as well (leeway) and you have three different forces that you need to account for (direction sailed to destination, tidal direction and leeway).  But, lest you think that is all, you also have to take into account the variation between True and Magnetic compass directions.  Charts are always oriented to true north or the North Pole, while compasses point to the magnetic north which can be offset from the North Pole by a considerable amount depending on where in the Northern Hemisphere you are.

Ah, but in today’s modern world, we have GPS which tells us where we are all the time.  What need do we have for all this plotting stuff?  Well, setting a GPS waypoint (a “goto” position on a chart) will enable you to determine the direction you want to go, but it will not tell you the direction you need to steer to get to that direction.  If the tide is pushing you sideways to the right, you will need to steer a little more to the left to compensate.  If the wind is also pushing you a tad to the right, then you will again need to steer a tad to the left to compensate.  How much do you compensate, or what is the course to steer?  Ah, that is where all the plotting and calculations come into play!

To calculate the course, you must first know the time you will be leaving on a particular journey (or passage).  Then, for the area you will be travelling, you will need to look at tide tables for that particular day and time.  Once that is determined, you can use tidal charts or a tidal curve to determine the direction and speed of the tide (called set and drift).  Then, in plotting your course, you will add that to the chart to determine the actual direction you need to steer to get to that position.  At first, it can sound complex and confusing, but with enough practice, it does get easier.

After working through numerous, navigation exercises for several days (practice, practice, practice), it was on to learning about navigational buoys, rules of the road and meteorology.

Navigational buoys are the traffic signs of the waterways.  They can tell you where the main highway or thoroughfare is (the channel), whether it’s safe to pass to one side or the other of the mark, and where hazards may be.  Although there are a number of different buoys or marks, they basically fall into three types; lateral marks which mark channels (red and green buoys), cardinal marks which mark where water is too shallow to go (very rare in the U.S.) and special marks which are used to mark underwater cable, pipelines, sail racing areas, etc.

Rules of the road basically refers to the ColRegs also known as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.  This area is a tad more intensive, but necessary to learn if you are going to be driving a boat anywhere in the world.  Basically, as a captain of a boat, you are responsible for that boat and the safety of the crew and others as well.  As part of learning/memorizing the ColRegs, you need to know how to identify different types of boats by the lights they show at night.  This is important because knowing the type of vessel will determine who has right of way.  In a crossing (or overtaking) situation, sailboats when sailing generally have right of way (technically called the stand on vessel), but larger vessels including those that cannot maneuver as easily generally trump sailboats.

It never ceases to amaze me in New York Harbor how many sailboaters adamantly exercise their “right” to go where they want, cruise ship, tug and barge or Staten Island ferry be damned!  This is stupidity taken to the extreme as those ‘skippers’ are putting the lives of their crew at risk.  If they can’t be bothered to learn the rules of the road, then it at the very least, learn the one maxim, “might is right.”  The bigger the boat and the more difficult it is to maneuver, the more it takes precedence over a smaller more agile vessel.  The photos below from Cowes Week are a good example of the consequence of ignoring this maxim!  And, while I have the bully pulpit, if a sailboat is motoring (engine on and engaged) it is then regarded as a motor vessel, not a sailboat.  Plain and simple.  But, I digress 🙂


The last day of our theory course was spent studying meteorology.  This was actually a tad disappointing as it covered very basic information (for me).  In the Northern Hemisphere the jet stream moves from west to east, and low pressure systems rotate counterclockwise (anti-clockwise for the Brits) while high pressure systems rotate clockwise.  What does this mean in practical terms?  Because the jet stream moves from west to east, any weather front will generally move along that direction over U.S., Canadian and European waters.  That helps to know where storms could come from.  And, if it is a low pressure system, depending on where that system is in relation to you, wind directions can be forecasted.  Wind speeds can also be forecasted by the pressure gradient (difference in atmospheric pressure).  The tighter the pressure gradient, the stronger the winds and vice versa.

All too soon, the week ended and it was back to Heathrow and on to New York.  I think rather than watching a movie on the plane, I’ll work through some navigation exercises. Now, where did I put those tidal diagrams …