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World ARC 2020/21 participants transit the canal and enjoy tours of the Embera Indian Village and Panama City

After a busy week at Shelter Bay and an unprecedented World ARC total of 15 transit slots, the 37-strong World ARC fleet are finally through the canal on the Pacific side, ready for the Pacific adventure.

In Shelter Bay, once their slot is confirmed, crews pick up the large blue lines and big round fenders, leave the marina and head into the waiting area, where a pilot boat drops off their advisor onto the side of the deck. In Saorsa’s case, one of the only two lady advisors at the Canal steps off to join a rare all-female crew! Once on board, introductions are made, and the advisor asks the skipper to slowly make their way towards the first lock, weaving past upturned and derelict old tankers anchored either side.

Once at the locks, the boats raft together in twos or threes. Panama Canal line holders along either side of the walls throw a brown rope with a monkey fist on the end onto the port and starboard sides of the raft. The crew take one to the stern, one to the bow – and hold the other end for the Panamian men who walk along. Once in the specific locking spot for the boats, the rope is secured to a cleat on land and the control of the rope is left in the crew on the boat’s hands. The first locks rise the yachts above Atlantic sea level, so the crew on the lines have to tighten the rope as the boats rise.

Once through the first sets of uphill locks, Gatun Lake opens out in front, where most of the yachts raft up against a mooring buoy with other participants for the night, sharing stories, enjoying a cold beer and even dining on each other’s boats. Amongst others, the second transit saw Remedy hosting Barracuda of Islay and Accomplice on board their gorgeous catamaran, every boat bringing something to be shared. The fourth transit saw Laura IV and Saorsa enjoying an apple cake made by Antonio, and plenty of wine shared as they ate pappardelle and tried to learn a bit of Italian…

The following day, a new advisor returns around 7am to lead the boats to the next set of locks which take the boats lower towards the Pacific Ocean. On the way down this time, the sailing vessels are placed in front of the big ships, so looking back is a slightly unnerving feeling. The final set of locks is the Miraflores, where the visitors centre is located; a number of participants having visited here earlier in the week. As the line handlers position themselves to slack the lines as the level drops, there is no room for error (or an accidental locked rope on the cleat) – as hundreds look on in person, and perhaps more so on the web cam. The web cam records the locks 24/7 and families and friends back home wave at the tiny dots of the crew on deck.

Once through the final Miraflores lock, the large gates open, sending the pelicans flying off from the top, into the Pacific Ocean. This is a particularly significant moment for the crews on the World ARC… there is no going back now! The yachts proceed under the bridge of Las Americas to La Playita Marina, where they farewell their advisors for the day as they jump back onto the pilot boat, then radio the marina for berthing instructions.

This side of the canal is a bit different to the secluded Shelter Bay. With a view to the Panama City skyline across the sea, they are only a quick ten minute taxi ride away from the hustle and bustle of city life and Western home comforts. Participants have taken the opportunity to do their food provisioning and stop at the huge Albrook Shopping Mall complex to stock up on anything else needed before they head off into the Pacific.

A number of crew have taken the City tour learning about the new and old, discovering about Panamanian history. This ends in the casco viejo (old town), to see the beautiful old architecture and ruins of religious buildings. Many crews have returned multiple times to enjoy great dining and cocktails at one of the rooftop bars.

The World ARC have been running tours to see the Embera Indian Village, a front row view into the traditional way of life these people still live in the rainforest. Originally Colombian, this tribe came to the banks of this river around 50 years ago and realised they could have a similar way of life here. There are now Embera tribes in both Colombia and Panama, and a total of 29,000 Emberan people in Panama.

Starting the trip on a carved out log wooden canoe (notably modified these days with an outboard motor), participants set off on a beautiful river trip along the Chagres river to the village – the same river that is dammed to make Gatun Lake. Greeted by the tribes with drums, a wooden pan-type flute, the men women and children stand either side of the path as participants make their way to the “sala del pueblo”, the main communal room. When you walk past the musical welcome, you instantly notice the sounds of a living village. Children playing, chickens roaming free, hammers building extra huts, babies crying indoors further away. Once seated, we are introduced to the village chief, who has held the position for ten years, who explains the Embera way of life.  

Huts have always been built high on stilts, as protection from predators, spiders and snakes, and flooding. They use two different types of palm for the roof. There is a communal kitchen, where the palms are burnt above the open fire over time. The other huts we can see are individual family’s houses – communities work on building projects together. In terms of dress, the women like to wear traditional dress in this village – a fresh red flower headband, woven sarong, and heavy necklaces with black ink tattoos on their bodies. The men wear a small cotton under piece, beaded necklace criss-crossed, and the Chief a beaded headband. 

The village is not shy of development and education, and the Chief duly notes that it is voluntary to stay living in this community. They send their children to school until the end of 6th grade, and are free to continue their studies if they wish – some have qualified as teachers or midwives and returned. Many choose to go to different Embera village to find a partner.

After hearing more about the village way of life, we are shown how their artisan items are made, and passed around the raw materials and handicrafts including wooden carvings, animal ornaments carved from ivory-nut palms, and basket weaving. We learn from the Chief’s wife, Lisa, how the natural dye colours for the weaving are made. Yellow a root of the ginger family, the red is from an achote fruit and a new tea tree leaf amazingly enough, the brown comes from the waste from when they cook. After wandering around the stalls, haggling for good prices, and having a wander around the village, we are treated to Panaman-style fish and chips! Patacones (fried plantains) and fried fish in little leaf bowls for lunch. The boys then start to drum and the ladies demonstrate dances of the ‘mariposa’ (butterfly) and ‘monos’ (monkeys). After a great experience in the jungle, we head back onto the canoes to return back to the marina.

In staggered fashion, yachts are making their way now to the Las Perlas archipelago, to enjoy the beautiful clear waters and sand - their first passage away into the Pacific. They will enjoy a beach barbecue here with the fleet and a skippers briefing, before heading onwards to the Galapagos. 

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