5-18 March, 2018: Entering Shelter Bay Marina was rather exciting. First we had to clear our passage with the Panama Canal Authorities, in English, from 10 nautical miles away. There was a specific wording and protocol to follow, which you ignore at your peril, and we heard one or two over the radio come a cropper. Once cleared, we weaved our way through giant tankers and took refuge in the marina. It was a revelation. Given a coastline littered with cranes and all the great cargo ships steaming along, I had expected more of an industrial, functional harbour - the reality was something more, well, poetic. Shelter Bay is a small, picturesque marina surrounded by nature, a stone's throw from a national park. There is even a resident crocodile. We limped in on one engine and were docked at the end of the last pontoon, so we really did feel sheltered, no one could see in or walk past.
For about 500 dollars you can hire an agent to manage the whole administrative process involved in crossing the Canal. In terms of waiting time, if you are in a hurry, an agent makes a huge difference and they are worth their weight in gold. All our friends were using one, but we didn't. Once we arrived we needed to arrange for our boat to be measured, and we could apply for a date for our passage. Ours was 2 April at first, but when I rang the scheduler, a lovely lady, she took pity on our family situation and brought it forward to the 18 March. I was lucky with who I spoke to and that my Spanish is fluent. I had rung another time and got a man on the phone who was not, shall we say, so simpático, as I'm sure plenty of other boats found who had arrived before us and wouldn't be leaving until well after. There was an underlying tension with a slightly competitive edge as well, as even when a date was set, there was a possibility that it could be brought forward if a space were to open up, but who would get it?!
For those needing to provision, the Marina runs a free bus service into Cuatro Altos, a town on the outskirts of Colón, where we could get cash out, and, as we spent over 400 dollars on stocking up for the Pacific crossing, the supermarket organised for a van to take us and our shopping home (you have to ask for that service the moment you arrive). Once a week there is a bus into Panama City, for those quick enough off the mark to sign up. The pool is chlorinated not seawater, the restaurant has decent food, and there is an expat community that organises activities and announces daily news over the radio at 8am each morning. OK, we never actually tuned in, but still, it was nice to know it was there.
Even so, there was a sense of claustraphobia, at times, as though we were trapped there in Shelter Bay, time suspended, and might never leave. Some people actually live there for years! But as the sun set on our fortnight there, I reflected that The Twilight Zone certainly had its attractions...