37 - The Other Side of the World

Choppy sea at sunset. Photo Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-1] Nightmare seas: choppy waves and very little wind.

The storm left a vicious sea in its wake. Waves were choppy, steep and aggressive. The water wasn't blue any more, but dark jade. The trade wind was stronger, blustery. Unforgiving. Everything became a chore. Nothing was easy, not even sitting or sleeping. The fun was gone. Gentle and amazing became a living hell. Sailing was bloody hard work from then on.

The crappy conditions put the kibosh on pleasantries and ratcheted up the tension between us something fierce. It's a wonder we didn't kill each other in the weeks it took to reach the edge of the Caribbean. "Do we hang a left and head for Cape Horn while we still can, or do we blunder on to Panama, hoping they'll let us transit; based on a good feeling and what's left of our slush fund?"

"Thousands more miles to Cape Horn. And I saw that movie!" We watched Master and Commander in calmer seas. "This is not funny any more. I rather would swim to the beach, live in the jungle. Boadicea and you go to the canal. If with me, they don't let us pass, I will jump ship."

We sidled a little closer to the equator with every mile we made west. Less chance of another hurricane flogging our hides. As the degrees of latitude wound down, the wind lightened up and the waves merged into long swells. The sailing became a little easier, but the heat and humidity were unbearable. It felt like breathing water. Everything stank like ripe armpits.

Jon told us we were at the northern edge of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). We might get light winds and occasional thunderstorms. What we saw to the south of us was a solid wall of towering cumulus. At night, the southern horizon was ablaze with lightning. Above, the sky was filled with stars. We had sailed back to amazing.

Six hundred miles east of the Windward Islands, we were met by a pod of short-finned pilot whales. They swam alongside, as curious about us as we were of them. For several awesome minutes, our very alien worlds converged. They were the first sign of any life since the storm.

Meg Aitken gazes upon Barbados with binoculars photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-2] Meg gazes at Barbados with binoculars

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Bleep-bleep-bleep--

"What the--?" I woke with a start.

"Radar, Meg." Elena threw an arm over my chest, nuzzled closer. Mewled, "Turn off. Want sleep."

Bleep-bleep-bleep--

"Ugh," I Houdinied from the bunk. It's when you think it's a false alarm that it isn't.

It was local morning -- wherever local was. Bright and sunny. Raucous chop on a pervasive swell. I saw nothing but endless water and white-capped waves.

Bleep-bleep-bleeeeeep.

"Oh, bloody hell!" I grabbed the binoculars. Climbed on deck. Nothing. A whale spouting? A sub launching Trident missiles? Or, wait a minute. "Oh, shite! Get up!" I jumped down the companionway. "Dress for company! Small boat. Like off Africa."

"How close?"

"Half a mile!" I flew topside. The bogey was in the same place. "No, wait. It's not moving." And it was kind of cute. "Holy kapoosta. It's fishing! We're going to be OK."

More of the brightly painted, wooden boats popped up on wave crests. They looked like children's toys, bobbing away. I had tears in my eyes. It had been a month since we'd seen another human being on our lonely ocean planet. Finally, our first sight of land. The faint, low outline of Barbados.

Elena Vaytsel with binoculars in the West Indies photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-3] Elena spies the West Indies through binoculars.

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The following morning, I saw what looked like clouds hugging the horizon. They turned out to be more islands.

"Take a look." Elena shoved the binoculars at me.

Sure enough, another couple of hours in the surging, westerly trade wind and the bluish bumps I'd seen earlier, morphed into emerald green islands. The West Indies. The Caribbean! The end of the Atlantic. "Lenna, we've done it! We've actually crossed an ocean."

Elena Vaytsel at the helm during a Caribbean gale photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-4] Elena Vaytsel, helmswoman, facing a Caribbean gale

"You thought, maybe we wouldn't!?" Elena said. "I crossed Russia. Then we with you cross Ukraine. And the Black sea. Turkey. Mediterranean sea. Now, Atlantic, an ocean we crossed! And again, a sea we have to cross, then canal, then another ocean that is more miles than Atlantic. So, tell to me what is so special?"

"Way to rain on my parade, princess." I lowered the binoculars. "Oh, my, dog! I've had enough sailing already. I want to wander on one of those hills, feel plants scratching my shins. I want to sit in the grass and listen to insects."

Elena rested her chin on my shoulder. "Radio to the coast guard. See if they will let us land."

I made the call. Got transferred around. Switched to my mobile phone -- it still worked! A customs and immigration agent took our info, then gave us the all-clear to a nearby marina. He would meet us there to clear us in for one day. Yay! Twenty-four glorious hours of dirt beneath our feet.

We hugged, spun in the cockpit like Dervishes. Wiped each other's tears. Chattered on full-auto about dinner out, maybe a room with real beds! A bathtub. A walk. Crikey, an actual stroll.

Then, my mobile rang. "Never had this situation-- Regret to inform-- Should have checked-- Must leave our territorial waters immediately."

Elena crossed to the helm, disengaged the autopilot with her fist and spun the wheel for open water. "As Russian, I live being treated like an 'empty spot.' Like I am not here. They all say, 'Oh, she is Russian! It means, she isn't here.' I don't exist. I am a bubble. No matter where we go, they say, 'Aaack, Russian. Now, what do we do?'"

The forbidden islands lay in our wake by the time the sun set on our bow. "To hell with them! I am proud. I have love. I have myself. I have the planet ahead where I steer my path." Elena looked back at the West Indies. "I don't need any bones that they could toss in my direction."

Meg and Elena's yacht Boadicea seen from the top of the mast photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-5] Boadicea (and Elena) from above.

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Fear of pirates and opportunistic coast guards kept us as far from land as possible. It's how, when the trade wind blew itself out and died, we ended up dead in the water, mid-Caribbean. It would have been fine and dandy, if the steep, choppy waves died with the wind and weren't thrashing the living crap out of us.

Hours of being tossed about, like light bulbs in a tumble dryer, had to end before one of us or the boat shattered. It was Elena who started the motor, slammed a course into the autopilot and dared me, with a blood-curdling stare of death, to say just one word.

"Are you crazy? We don't know how long this will last. We certainly don't have the petrol to make Panama."

"This isn't good for the boat. It isn't good for me!"

I countered by reiterating my biggest fear at the time. "What if Panama doesn't let us land? Think about that! So, what then, smarty-pants?"

"You like this pounding!? You kill the motor!"

Needless to say, she was right. The motor stayed on.

Thunderstorm at sunset in Caribbean sea. Photo by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-6] Thunderstorm at sunset. Typical, Caribbean weather around the ITCZ

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Apart from erratic winds, thunder showers of biblical proportion and food poisoning, the rest of the Caribbean was stultifyingly routine. Until, that is, we sailed into a floating city of anchored ships: the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. The easy part was done!

An email from Bernadette was the first indication that we might actually get into, or through, Panama. "I have secured a canal logistics agent for you. You are to take a slip at the Colon Yacht Club and meet him there."

"That means they will let us into the country?" Elena asked.

"Damned if I know. This is all she says. Guess we pays our money, and we takes our chances."

A poignant shot of Elena Vaytsel contemplating the meaning of life while at sea photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-7] Sunsets were the hardest for Elena

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Tidy, one-story, white buildings with green trim; a perfectly manicured lawn; abandoned yachts; razor-wire fence and heavily armed guards made up the Colon Yacht Club. Despite its reputation as the world's most dangerous yacht club, it felt like a 19th-century, tropical plantation turned ex-pat country club in a war zone.

Meg Aitken checks out the Colon Yacht Club photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-8] Meg learns to walk on chicken legs at the world's most dangerous yacht club.

Bernadette's yacht-services agent showed up with a stunned Panamanian official. "Where are your husbands? Who sailed this boat to Panama? Something, it is not right here." Nonetheless, he cleared us in after a night-sweat inducing bung was proffered. He also proposed marriage. The official and the logistics agent were both convinced, we would never make it past the USA to Canada, and marriage to a Panamanian was Elena's best and only hope. Not only would she be legal, but she'd net herself an exceptionally fine hubby to boot.

Fixer-upper yachts at the Colon Yacht Club, Panama. Photo by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-9] A couple of fixer-uppers at the Colon Yacht Club

"Why will I not make it past the USA?" Elena asked.

"You must stay two-hundred and fifty miles from America's shores!"

"That's cracked. We're in a wee plastic beach toy. What kind of threat can we be to America?" I said.

"USA coast guard, they arrest boats with illegals going to America."

"We aren't going there."

"They think everybody goes there. Do not get caught near there."

"But it's international waters!"

"It does not matter. Coast guard, they think you are going to be in America, or you would not be there, close to their shore. After this terrible nine-eleven, they believe everything, it is a threat."

"Less than two-hundred miles is close?"

The logistics agent shrugged. The official said, "She is Russian with no visa. She does not have permission to enter Canada. I am not shouldn't even let into Panama."

It wasn't like I didn't know this already. Bernadette had a Canadian immigration lawyer on retainer, and he'd given her the same spiel. Get caught by the coast guard or set one foot on American soil, and it was the end of the line. We would definitely be arrested and separated. The boat would be lost. Elena would be deported to Russia. The USA was a thousand-mile chasm from Tijuana to Vancouver, and it wasn't a downwind, tropical ocean crossing.

Panama City, Panama. Photo by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-10] Panama City, Panama

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Four strapping, Panamanian youth and a canal pilot came aboard. The rent-a-muscle was there to handle the ropes. The pilot to orchestrate our transit to the other side of the world. Sidling into an endless queue of ships on our dinky pleasure-craft was bizarre beyond belief. Crewmen on the freighter ahead jeered and waved down at us. Almost directly overhead was the bow of an oil tanker following us. Boadicea was an insignificant bit of flotsam, bobbing about between these colossal giants. Talk about an inferiority complex!

Gatun locks gates at night in the Panama Canal, Caribbean side photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-11] Elena took this shot as the first gate of the the Gatun locks closes on the Caribbean and Atlantic.

Inching toward the Gatun locks -- the first set on the Caribbean side -- dense jungle closed in on either side of us. The freighter throttled up and belched whirlpools from its stern which washed us from the queue, sending us pirouetting toward the muddy bank. After that potentially embarrassing loss of control, we followed it into the lock and snuggled up to its humongous, vortex farting posterior. Elena stood silently at the bow, completely awestruck. Towering, wet concrete walls slid by on either side. Along the top of each, like two mythical fortresses facing each other, scurried a myriad of warriors. The freighter reversed its engines, an unearthly subsonic booming reverberated throughout the concrete canyon. We did the same, but with our coffee-grinder sized motor, it was more of a flatulent French bulldog sort of effect. Then a volley of tethered projectiles rained down on us. Our line handlers looped their heavy ropes through the cords tossed from above. The wall warriors in the sky hauled in their cords and looped the ropes around huge cleats way above our heads. We were immobilised, like a fly in a spider web.

Behind us, colossal, medieval looking, castle gates swung from the walls, met in the middle and shut out the Caribbean. Powerful currents welled up from underneath, Boadicea strained at the ropes holding us in the centre of the lock while the line handlers took up slack and kept us in place. The high walls shrank to mere kerbs we could see right over. The ropes were thrown off the cleats by the canal workers and reeled in by our crew. I followed the freighter into the next lock, and the process was repeated twice more.

Because we're slower than molasses in January, we were obligated to spend the night in Lake Gatun. It was a primordial dream come true. Lush jungle all around, alligators gliding by, starlight reflecting from the glassy water. I'm pretty sure I saw some of the dinosaurs that escaped from Jurassic Park, lurking on the banks.

Last gates of the Panama canal open onto the Pacific. Photo by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-12] When one door closes, another opens... this one, onto the Pacific ocean.

The next morning, we took a shortcut channel for runty vessels and banana boats. The jungle felt close enough to touch. More than once, we saw monkeys, alligators, myriads of colourful parrots and the occasional researcher's hut. Elena made a huge batch of French toast. All onboard enjoyed it on deck, washing it down with the lashings of warm Coke while pointing out sightings in the trees.

The Pedro Miguel locks lowered us gently from the Culebra Cut to the tiny and tranquil Miraflores Lake. From there we entered the last set of locks. With that final lock chamber flooded, we had our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean beyond.

The concrete walls rose on either side of us as the lock drained to the level of the Pacific. The last gate, now looking like something from Lord of the Rings, really was a door to another realm. Ponderously, it opened and we passed through it to the other side of the world.

Elena Vaytsel at the helm of Boadicea entering the Pacific ocean from the Panama Canal, photo by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 37-13] Elena on the other side of the world

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 17:08 GMT ]]