Charley Martins

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Something Suitable

Tagging along on a trip through the Panama Canal more than fills the bill

 

A payoff on a bet from last year's baseball season results in a trip aboard an extraordinary charter yacht making an around-theworld cruise.

 My buddy Jim Raycroft is a traveling photographer and a very persuasive guy. Why just last year when his beloved Boston Red Sox imploded once again, and he finally decided to answer the phone, he convinced me that the payoff to a bet we had would be forthcoming. You see I agreed to send him a can of Boston Baked Beans every time his Sox beat my NY Yankees. And what would he send me when the tables were turned? "I'll come up with something suitable," was all he would say.

 Well, as it turned out, neither of our teams won. But as far as I was concerned, a bet is a bet. And as the rejoicing of that fishy team from Florida was quickly forgotten by those of us dwelling in northeasterly climes, and the sun, now day by day lower on the horizon, I kept reminding him of our wager. "I'll come up with something suitable," was all he would say.

Long before deep winter's chill, and in keeping with his usual desire at this time of year, Jim had departed 41°10'N to 42°53'N and 68°57'W to 73°30'W for photographic assignments far closer to the equator. He had also moved his base of operations from Beantown to Ft. Lauderdale to wait until the spring thaw melted the icy floes on the Charles River.

His phone call came just after he had settled in.

 

"I think I found something suitable. Ever been through the Panama Canal?" he said.

"No," I replied rather skeptically.

"How many frequent flyer miles do you have?"

"Enough."

"What's enough?"

"Enough to get me back and forth from Panama, if that's what you're asking."

"It'll have to be to Panama and back from Costa Rica. And I'm asking. You going?"

"What's the deal?"

 The deal, as it turned out, was to hitch a ride on board the charter vessel Pangaea, a spectacular 184ft expedition yacht on her way from Panama to Costa Rica as part of a globe-trotting cruise she was taking. Jim was going along to document a film crew shooting a travel piece for this particular portion of the trip and I would be helping him as well as getting some fodder for a future story. Stops along the way after this jaunt would include Alaska, the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia, and finally the Mediterranean. Of course she would be picking up charters along the way via bookings by the ship's agency.

 Being an opportunist by nature - my own personal credo is "Where there's a will, put me in one" - I promptly got my plane tickets, updated my shots (just in case, as the latest WHO bulletin listed malaria and yellow fever active in the area), double-checked that my passport was not expired, and packed my sea bag. Before I knew it, Jim and I were sitting at a hotel bar in the port city of Colon on the Caribbean side with the film crew, having a beer. They had all flown in the day before, gotten squared away, and awaited my arrival. Pangaea was due to drop anchor that evening and we were to meet her tender early in the morning for the transfer.

With all the gear the crew had brought, it took five trips back and forth to get it all aboard. Jim and I squeezed onto the tender's first go round and with about an hour of unloading and loading ahead, took the opportunity to spend some time with Pangaea's skipper, Captain Brian Bennett.

 Possessing an affable personality, Captain Brian exudes professionalism in everything he does. "You have to be the consummate diplomat with just enough 'Solomon' in you," he said as he showed us around referring to not only running the day-to-day operations of the vessel, but balancing hats between when the owners are on board and when he hosts paying guests. "As big as Pangaea is, with our crew of 12, it's still close quarters and there's no room for conflict."

 Brian's wife, Teresa, is the ship's purser and as we would find out, a consummate purveyor of style and grace. She is also a tough cookie in her own right having a captain's license as well as her pilot's certification. And yes, among the many other "toys" aboard, including four Sea-Doo personal watercraft, 26- and 19ft diesel-powered Nautica waterjet tenders, and a 36ft Predator sportfishing boat launched from her foredeck via a pair of monstrous cranes, Pangaea does have its own seaplane.

While we had seen the three decks, the six elegantly appointed staterooms, the full deck master suite, the massive galley area, the gym complete with elliptical machine, step aerobics, and weightlifting benches, and a bridge and helm station right out of NASA, we would get the rest of the tour later. The crew had just finished unloading the last of the gear and Capt. Brian would be weighing anchor and heading Pangaea for the nearby historic harbor of Portobello, where the first segment of filming was to begin.

            

 

Portobello, in whose harbor Columbus sailed into during his fourth and final voyage, was a major loading point for enormous amounts of gold and silver taken from Potosi in southwest Bolivia as well as from Lima, Peru. The treasure, offloaded in Panama City, was carried across the isthmus to Portobello. There it was counted, catalogued, and stored before being loaded aboard the galleons for the trip to Havana and then on to Spain. The 1622 gold fleet included the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the sunken treasure ship found by Mel Fisher in the 1970s just 20 miles west of Key West, and the Santa Margarita.

 Portobello's centuries-old Counting House, la casa que cuenta, still stands and the indigenous Kuna now use it as a place to sell their goods to visiting touristas. While the film crew was getting their location footage, Jim and I decided to peruse the Kuna offerings.

The Kuna, a strongly knit matriarchal tribal society, inhabit the nearby San Blas Islands, and are noted for their colorful and intricate weavings known as molas. Festooned with gold ear and nose rings, the women conduct all the transactions and as we found out, are extremely territorial about their merchandise. While Jim and I stumbled through communicating via street-Spanish vocabulary, we went from table to table under the scrutinizing gaze of the women. I decided on a tiburon (shark) and perro (dog) mola, while Jim found a tortuga (turtle). Unbeknownst to us, we should have dealt with one table instead of bargaining with all three as some fairly pissed-off Kuna women glared at one another. At one point, one of them tried to pry one of Jim's cameras from him as payment for the affront. It cost me an additional $20 to settle the dispute after which we wisely ambled away and joined the rest of the crew at the old fort.

As the crew wrapped and loaded aboard the tender, we flagged down some local fishermen and bargained for their catch of lobster which we enjoyed later that night in the ship's mess. Tomorrow, at dawn, we would transit the canal. Tonight it would be drinks and cigars on Pangaea's top deck under a carpet of stars set in an ink-black sky.

 The Southern Cross constellation dangled in the still-night sky as if suspended by some celestial puppeteer. Its brightest star, Acrux, is actually two stars orbiting one another, but being so far away, they seemed as one. The eastern sky would soon glow with the first light of dawn, but for now, the day-bright lights of the Gatun Locks lit the way ahead. Pangaea waited at the Atlantic gateway to the Panama Canal.

Begun in 1880 by the French and taken over in 1904 by the Americans, Mr. Roosevelt's "ditch," completed in 1914 - on August 15, the S.S. Ancon became the first ship to transit the Canal - cost the U.S. $352,000,000. Between the two countries, 80,000 workers were involved and over 30,000 lives were lost to disease and accidents.

 Capt. Bennett turned the helm over to a Panamanian pilot whose crew had already secured the tending lines that would be fed out to a pair of small boats. Those manning the boats would in turn deliver the lines to the shoreside diesel-driven "mules" to pull us through the locks. It would take us eight to ten hours to pass through the three Gatun Locks - delivering us 85 feet up to Gatun Lake - then across the lake to the Pedro Miguel Lock into Miraflores Lake to the two locks there. Once through these, it was back to sea level and into the Pacific Ocean. That night, at our anchorage in Panama City, we dined with both boat and film crews, and lifted many a toast well into the night.

 Capt. Bennett put the pedal to the metal before dawn's first light and set Pangaea on an all-day run for Golfito and the Golfo Dulce, just past the border of Panama and Costa Rica. Here the water is deep cobalt and the lush, verdant jungle is thick and often extends right down to the shoreline. Our evening anchorage was off a small island. The next day, the film crew and Capt. Bennett were to shoot a dive sequence.

 The spot Capt. Bennett had picked out was a large rock sitting just offshore of the Peninsula de Osa (in Spanish, the Peninsula of Dares), in about 60 feet of water. The rock was named cerro tigre, or Tiger Hill. "Hey Cap," I asked Bennett as I helped load the gear into the dive tender from Pangaea's wide aft platform. "Why is the rock called Tiger Hill?"

"Want to go along and find out?" he smiled at me as he fit a mask on. Pangaea has a complete diving profile with an on board compressor with Nitrox membrane system, 16 sets of scuba gear, plenty of snorkeling equipment, and four Mako underwater scooters.

 While snorkeling is no problem, I've never had a real comfort zone with diving. I kind of get the heebie jeebies underwater so I usually take a pass. But there's something about being on Pangaea that just gets your adrenaline, and some testosterone, going. Just as I was considering suiting up, Brian said, "It's named for the tiger sharks that are usually found a bit offshore there." He pointed out past the rock as he slipped into the tender. "So, you going?" he grinned, this time a little wider. The only place I was sticking my head underwater was in the Jacuzzi up on the sundeck. From what I gathered on their return, they had a grand old time without a single tiburon de tigre sighting.

 Pangaea's next stop was about 150 miles or so up the coast to Puntarenas. The Los Suenos Resort was where the film crew would be getting off to continue their work up in the mountains at the La Minita coffee plantation. At a leisurely 8 or so knots it would take us about 16 hours to make the run. Capt. Bennett decided to weigh anchor late in the afternoon for an early morning arrival at Los Suenos. "Besides," he said, again grinning, "there's some of the best billfishing around in those waters."

With dinner done and Pangaea underway, and while Jim tended to editing his digital images onto his laptop, I grabbed a snifter of brandy and retired to the top deck. Some of the film crew had the same idea and as the conversation, as lively and animated as it was, soon abated, we all seemed to drift off at the same time, lulled into tranquility by the gentle motion of the ship as she pushed on into the night.

 My alarm clock the next morning was one of Pangaea's massive anchors being lowered at Los Suenos. No sooner was the ship set than the crew readied the cranes to lift the Predator into the water. Capt. Bennett had already phoned ahead for bait as well as provisioning the sportfishing boat for an afternoon of release fishing. And before I knew it, we were 20 miles offshore, on the Pacific side of Costa Rica with our first knockdown of the day. I had the honors of taking the first fish and Capt. Bennett got the next one. By the afternoon, the ocean was alive with Pacific bills, each averaging about 90-100 pounds. It was great action. On the way back, we spotted a school of dorado and put Teresa on the rod. She got her first bull weighing in at about 40 pounds. There were smiles and many pats on the back on board Pangaea as we hoisted the Predator aboard. And as Teresa had planned a special dinner for the film crew, the ship was now abuzz about it.

 Dining on the aft deck as the sun was setting, first yellow and then deepening to orange before a flaming red took over, and with the now plum-colored mountains of Costa Rica in the background and a warm, butterfly-like tropical breeze all about us, the experience was at the same time elegant, sumptuous, and oh so special. We all slept very well that last night.

        

 By the time Jim and I made it on deck in the morning, the last tender load had been delivered ashore and was making its way back to the ship for us. We had covered some 500 nautical miles on this trip and as we said goodbye to our new friends, I was already thinking about the outcome of this year's baseball season and wondered where our next "something suitable" adventure would take us.

Information
Pangaea has six staterooms and charters for $175,000/week plus expenses. Destination: Winter 2004/2005: South Pacific (Marquesas, Tahiti); Summer 2005: Alaska. Contact: info@sacksyachts.com

More Stories By Charley Martins

Charley Martins often takes on freelance writing
assignments when he isn't gallivanting around the
world with his friends, or continuing to restore a vintage
1930s wooden commuter boat he has owned
for the past 21 years. Enough said.

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