First Cruise/First passage

First cruising adventure: Our best and worst moments

Thoughts on my First Cruising Adventure:  Panama Canal Transit and Pacific Coast of Central America and Mexico in our 72 foot steel sail boat, Ironbarque in June 2008

Sharing a moment on the Chagris River (Panama)

Ironbarque started life as one of the boats built to race around the world in the Southern Ocean as part of the “BT Global Challenge” yacht race and she did it twice under the name of her sponsor, Me to You, a teddy bear company.

The identical yachts were built to withstand the storms of the Southern Ocean and were equipped to accommodate a crew of 18. When they stopped holding the race the boats were all sold off; mainly to charity groups focused on training troubled youth or leaders of the future. Our hope is that we are doing the latter and have turned this former racing boat into our traveling home.

My husband, Ken, sailed her from England to Panama with a crew of 5, headed by a delivery skipper, who helped him learn the ropes of blue water cruising. They started out at the end of March and when they reached the Canary Islands in April they were joined by our two older sons for the Atlantic crossing.

They were aged 15 and 12  and we thought that the Bay of Biscay might be too tough for their first blue water experience. The concern was well founded as heavy weather meant a torn main had to be repaired in Portugal.

Our youngest two children were aged 10 and 5, so I flew to Panama with them for the final leg through the Panama Canal and up the coast of Central America and Mexico. From Panama onwards various members of the crew departed to return to other jobs so that from Acapulco on we had only two additional crew.

On our last night in Mexico we went around the table describing our best and worst moments of the trip, which is how I will approach the description of my very first cruising adventure.

Best experience

By far it was going through the Panama Canal.

Entering the canal at night

We approached by night. In a sea of lights from waiting super tankers, cranes and docks, there is a far more concentrated mass of lights that is the entrance to the first lock.

We were rafted together with two other sail boats and silently coasted in excited camaraderie into the lock behind a ship. Line handlers high up on the side walls hurled blue ropes towards us in synchronous cascades in order to steady us away from the walls in the middle of the roiling rising waters. After 3 rising locks we emerged onto Gatun Lake and were guided to our mooring pontoon, where we tied up for the night, surrounded by the jungle.

It was magical to wake on the lake among all the other ships and yachts that had done the same, with the wild life of the jungle making their presence audible. We had to await the return of our cigar-puffing pilot before continuing the rest of the journey along the Chagres River to the locks descending into the Pacific. The whole journey takes 9 hours. The 3 yachts had separated at the lake and made the journey down the river individually. We came together again at the next locks and rafted as before.

Chagres river
Exiting the canal towards the Pacific

Descending was even more wondrous. Our boats were dwarfed as they sank to the bottom of the dripping black walled locks until finally the huge metal gates opened onto a new world and we emerged, blinking at The Pacific Ocean.

Worst Experience

The brain scrambling heat and humidity at 7 degrees above the Equator in a steel boat with openings designed to keep out the water of pounding Southern Ocean storms. Until we got to Cabo San Lucas we wore as little as possible, even on deck at night on the ocean.

Sea turtle

Most surprising

Silky calm water the color of oil dotted for miles with the domes of sea turtles.

Most delightful

The dawn dolphins that erupted from the surface in simultaneously leaping pods of riotous joy as far as the eye could see. At various times of the day charming groups would surf and race us at the bow, stunningly silver deep below the surface. They seemed to know when there were people at the bow.

Most wondrous

Green bioluminescent arcs flashing in the darkness of the night as dolphins leapt out of the black alongside the boat. Normally you see sparkling fairy lights in the froth of the water parted by the hull but this was simply awe-inspiring. Both are caused by Dinoflagellates, which are tiny plants that absorb sunlight during the day and emit a blue-green light in response to movement in the water. Even flushing the toilets at night became magical when these got sucked into the intake pipe.

Favorite time of day

6pm. We took turns in pairs to take watches of 3 hours at night and 4 hours during the day, so that a lot of the time, most of the crew were either sleeping or working, but at 6 o’clock there was a change of watch and dinner was brought up on deck and everyone emerged blinking and happy and enthusiastic to see what had been prepared from the variety of cans of meat, tuna and vegetables, and those who had prepared the meal were relieved to escape the sweaty heat of the galley and feel the cooling breeze.

It was such a companionable time of catching up, gentle teasing and all round delight in our shared peripatetic island in the wide Pacific.

Favorite watch times

Women cruising

We rotated through watch times and duties each day and every third day each team was responsible for the cleaning, cooking and doing dishes. This was called the “Mother watch”.

I loved cooking and trying to create interesting meals and delicious morning and afternoon snacks. These were called ‘elevenses’ and ‘threesies’ by the Irish crew.

Nothing can compare to the thrill of finding you have all the right ingredients self-sufficiently on board, or the gratification of having something so essential as a lemon when you catch a 25 pound tuna!

My favorite watch sequence was the 9-12 midnight followed by the 6-10am watch because that gave the most normal stretch of night to sleep in and the delight of the dawn and the accompanying dolphins. The ravenous lust for sleep was overwhelming at the end of any of the night watches and one would tear off life jacket and harness (and later all the layers of foul weather gear) with a hungry passion.

Sunrise near Panama

Most memorable sounds

  • The crazed grunts of the autopilot (nick named ‘Rover’).
  • The clanks of the metal fittings on the on-watch crew’s life jackets and harnesses as they came below to brew coffee, or worse – to wake you up.
  • Mexico. The cacophony of all sorts of music from all quarters all the time.

Biggest challenges

  • Preparing meals with everything sliding away like something from the Three Stooges.
  • Baking a cake and getting it level when the boat was heeling over.

Best Breakfast

The chocolate ice cream sandwiches we had on our dawn arrival into Cabo San Lucas after 6 days at sea and a grueling last night. (They were followed by a second full English version later, which was nearly as good).

Best reason to bring kids

  • To have them join you on deck to watch the dawn dolphins.
  •  To see them become so competent at all the tasks on the boat.
  •  To be reminded of the magic
    - After 6 days at sea we had a tough and tiring last night coming into Cabo San Lucas, during which everyone had each taken two 3 hour shifts in rough conditions. Our 5 year old had slept soundly and emerged bright eyed with wonder up the companionway as we were surrounded by the harbor, asking in awe, “How did we get here?”

Who knew?

  • There were so many stars.
  • That seals leap through the water like dolphins.
  • That land has a scent and you can smell it out on the ocean.
  • That it would be so fabulously exhilarating to fight fear and steer a boat at night on the Pacific with crashing waves spewing up from the bow like lava illuminated by the red of the navigation light and find you are not afraid at all, but smiling with your whole being.

About Clare Collins

Clare and her family have been living aboard and cruising ever since.  They are currently stationary while the kitty gets replenished and children take part in musical and academic pursuits.

Clare believes that with the attitude of adventure you can be a cruiser anywhere you find yourself.

Her family’s adventures are documented at

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