Monday, January 31, 2011

Seasons of Cactus

Much of the prickly pear cactus near us has changed color from green to a sort of copper color.

While the Sunny Weather Lasts

The weather service forecasts really cold and snowy weather for El Paso for the next couple of days, with a predicted low of 12 degrees F. (!) Wednesday night. On Sunday Susie and I took advantage of the warm sunny weather to hike above our house. Here's a picture of the intrepid hiker, framed by the Thunderbird and South Mount Franklin.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Home Again

On the last day of our cruise, the Coral Princess arrived in Long Beach, CA just as dawn was breaking.
We sailed past the phalanxes of giant cranes that signaled the importance of this busy port, turning left just before the bridge and entering a slip. The terminal was set up with immigrations officials. We were among the first off the ship, which was a good thing because the immigrations computers were afflicted with some sort of problem--occurring nationwide--that slowed processing to a trickle.
Before we disembarked, from the ship we could see the southern California landscape of urban development and snow-covered mountains, which served as a contrast with the tropical and sub-tropical views of the last two weeks and as a reminder that we were nearly home.
As our plane climbed out of LAX, we could see the Coral Princess docked in Long Beach.
And not far away lay the Queen Mary, also berthed in Long Beach, now a museum-hotel.
As we neared El Paso, the landscape turned to desert, which we could see covered with winter's mantle of snow.
After 15 days of cruising, from Fort Lauderdale to Long Beach, from Atlantic to Pacific, we were home.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sailboat Racing in Cabo San Lucas

In Cabo San Lucas Susie and got to participate in a mock America's Cup race as crew on a real America's cup yacht with Cabo Adventures. We were on NZL 82, which defended the cup for New Zealand in 2003. For a long-time sailboat racer like me, who doesn't have a much a chance to sail in El Paso, this was a real treat.

The guests/crew provided the muscle for tacks and gybes, as well as for raising the sails. Here are Susie and me hard at work raising the jib. The pro crew were outstanding, including serious Americas Cup veterans and long-distance racers. Just getting to sail with these guys was an adventure in itself.
There wasn't a ton of wind, but we still had a spirited race. Susie worked as a grinder aft.

For the first lap, I handled the port winch; for the final lap, I worked as a grinder while the pros handled the lines.

Our boat ended up second, having to perform a penalty turn after a close crossing. We had a lot of fun, of course, capped off with a cold Mexican beer.

After we headed back to the Coral Princess and our ship was sailing out out of the harbor at Cabo San Lucas, I could see NZL 82 racing again, with its afternoon crew, with the sun's reflection glittering across the waters.

For their excursion, other passengers on the ship had gone whale-watching. We lucked out by getting to see whales from the Coral Princess as we left Cabo San Lucas. My camera was always slower than the whales, but in the lower left of this picture you can see a whale's tail.
Cabo San Lucas is at the very southern end of the Baja Peninsula. As the Coral Princess turned northwest toward Los Angeles, we rounded the cape. In a day and half we'd be back in the USA.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Acapulco from the Ship

The Coral Princess sailed into Acapulco as the sun rose. Susie and I rose, too, but we stayed onboard rather than going into town. We wanted to have a ship-as-resort day while, we expected, many of the other passengers would be ashore. So we had fun, enjoying the ship as a kind of waterfront resort hotel. And for a dose of urban reality, we could look out onto the Acapulco cityscape from the ship.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

From Puntarenas to Acapulco

Our ship, which traveled at about 20 knots, took around 40 hours to go from Puntarenas, Costa Rica, to Acapulco, Mexico. We sailed northwest along the Pacific coast of Central America, past Nicaragua, a little bit of Honduras, El Salvador and then Guatemala, then sailing along the coast of Mexico. Here's the view I had of El Salvador at sunrise.
And here's the Mexican coast later in the day.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Eco-tour in Costa Rica

When we arrived in Costa Rica, the ship docked practically on the beach.
While Shari and Stuart partook of a zip-line adventure, Susie and I opted for an eco-tour through the forest canopy via an aerial tramway. The tramway was a sort of slow-moving ski-lift, except that there were eight-passenger gondolas instead of chairs, and there certainly wasn't any snow.

The tramway took us through a transition of eco-systems, so we got to see a variety of forest plant life. Throughout the forest and the botanical garden at the tramway's base, bromeliads flourished. Here's one, high up in a tree as we passed by.

The botanical garden had some spectacular tropical plants, including varieties of ginger. Here are a couple of the blossoms we saw.

We saw a variety of wildlife, both in at the park and along the way. We got to see army ants marching along. We also got to see another white-faced monkey, up in one of the trees.
In another tree, outside the park, perched a scarlet macaw, which later flew away, showing all of its spectacular plumage.
The grounds of the park hosted numerous iguanas. We did not have "chicken of the trees" for lunch, but rather a really nice lunch at the park featuring native dishes with, presumably real, chicken.
On the way back to the ship, we crossed a river where, on the bank, several crocodiles were hanging out. Here are two of them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Full moon, Panama City, at Dusk

Tender is the Ride

At Panama City the cruise ships don't have a place to dock. Rather, they anchor in the harbor and passengers are ferried by tenders to the shore. The Coral Princess carries its own tenders, catamarans that double as lifeboats. They're lowered to the water and hoisted back to the ship on davits.

The Miraflores Locks

The Miraflores locks are the two locks of the Panama Canal that are closest to the Pacific. Having gone through the locks the day before, Susie and I now had a chance to visit the locks again, this time from land. At the locks, you can look back in the direction of the Atlantic, across Miraflores Lake to the Pedro Miguel lock and the Centennial Bridge.
As ships transit the locks, the are guided by "mules" that run on cogged railway tracks.

There's a visitor's center at the Miraflores locks, which presents a video about the Panama Canal and has viewing platforms. The visitor's center is directly adjacent to the locks, so the ships pass right by.

Indeed, from inside the visitor's center it feels like you could just walk across one of the terraces and find yourself on the bridge of a passing ship.

Monday, January 17, 2011

El Pasoans Not Welcome?

At the port, where Susie and caught the tender back to the ship, I ran across this sign, which seems, fancifully, to prohibit our home town from debarking from cruise ships.

Gatun Lake

The day after we transited the Panama Canal, Susie and I went on an excursion that took us onto Gatun Lake in a small motorboat. Our group from the Coral Princess sat down in three of these boats, actually; here's one of the other boats, just like ours, as we headed out toward the main part of the lake.

Needless to say, ours were not the only boats on the lake, it being a big stretch of the Panama Canal. We resolutely avoided the big boats, some of which had striking looks. This ship, which I think carries automobiles, reminded me a lot of the sand crawler from Star Wars.
Pretty soon, though, our small boats left the main shipping channel to explore the lake's more remote arms.
We came right up the shore lines, wildly overgrown with tropical forest.
We saw wildlife all around, including multiple iguanas, to which our tour guide referred jocularly as "chicken of trees."
Directing our gaze to somewhat slower animals, we saw turtles sunning on a log.
And probably slowest of all, here's a sloth. These were difficult--no kidding--to distinguish from termite nests, which tended to have the same colore and shape and to be in trees at the same height.
The best for last: monkeys! We saw numerous white-faced monkeys, also called Capuchin monkeys. This group was far from shy. In fact, they were waiting for the boat to approach ... that they could clamber aboard and search for food. Our guide asked to make sure that all bags were closed. Here's a young white-faced monkey, who was not as aggressive as his or her older relatives.
This monkey showed no fear. He came right onto and into the boat, looking around. As the boat began to pull away from the shore, he leapt for the trees, planting a solid paw on my leg as he jumped.We then motored back to the dock and got back into the bus, which took us to the Miraflores Locks visitor center. I'll blog about that part of the excursion tomorrow.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal isn't actually a canal in the sense of canals in France. Rather, it's set of waterworks that connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via locks, a large reservoir, and a "cut," which is the most canal-like feature. Our ship, the Coral Princess, is a "Panamax" vessel; that is, it's the largest size of ship that will fit in the current locks. We started from the Atlantic side and crossed via the canal to the Pacific, a route that, counterintuitively, runs from north-west to south-east because of the geography of the Isthmus of Panama.

The ship entered the canal through the Gatun locks, which have two parallel sets of three locks that connect the Atlantic Ocean to Gatun Lake. A freighter in the left-side lock, going in the same direction as we were, had already been raised to the level of the next lock.
With our ship middle lock, passengers could see the third lock, with Gatun Lake beyond. Next to the locks are cogged railway tracks on which run "mules," railway engines that help guide the ships.As our ship is raised in the third lock to the level of the lake, yours truly beams in a yes-I'm-here moment.
Now at the level of Gatun Lake, our ship passes out of the lock into the lake to begin the main part of our crossing of the Isthmus of Panama.
As the ship motored out of the lock, I could see one of the dams built to create Gatun Lake. It's hard to see in the picture, but the dam's gates were allowing a lot of water to spill out. The week before, unprecedented heavy rains had raised the level of lake so high that, for the first time in its history, the canal was closed to ship traffic because of natural causes. The rainwater draining off the canal's muddy slopes also turned the canal's water brown.
After crossing Gatun Lake, our ship entered the cut, a giant trench, and the most canal-like part of the crossing, that leads from the lake to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. The cut twists and turns through the Isthmus's topography, so the adjacent slopes have lots of navigation markers on them.
Because many modern ships are larger than Panamax vessels and because the canal is so important to world trade, the canal is being enlarged. New, much bigger locks are being built at Gatun and Miraflores, and the cut is being deepened and widened. As the Coral Princess passed through the cut, we saw dredging all along the way.
On the Pacific side, the canal also has three locks, although they're not all grouped together like the series of locks at Gatun. First there's the lock at Pedro Miguel, and then there are two more locks at Mira Flores. As we motored toward the Pedro Miguel lock, our ship passed under the Centennial Bridge, opened in 2004. The bridge is only the second permanent crossing of the canal and serves as the main crossing for the Pan American Highway. When we were there, though, landslides from the recent deluge had wiped out the approaches to the bridge, which will be closed for months while the approaches are repaired.
As we neared the Pedro Miguel lock, off the right side of the ship I could see construction for the new larger locks on the Pacific side of the canal. These locks will be longer and wider than the current locks, which will stay in use. The new locks will also be taller: there will be only two locks at each end of the canal, where the current system has three.
As the Coral Princess eased out of the last lock at Miraflores, our ship was again at sea level, and no gates stood between us and the Pacific. The ship could have cruised straight to China.
As the ship made its way to the ocean, it passed under the Bridge of the Americas, the first permanent bridge across the canal, built in 1962. With the temporary closing of the Centennial Bridge, the Bridge of the Americas has to handle much more traffic than usual.
After passing under the bridge, I could see the highrise buildings of Panama City visible over the lush vegetation of the side of the channel.
To transit the canal, ships have to pay in advance and have a scheduled slot. Reduced waits and faster transits are more expensive. For the the Coral Princess, the transit fee was a staggering $330,000, which was based on the ship's number of occupied and unoccupied berths. For freighters, typical fees are in the mid-tens of thousands. On the Pacific side of the canal, in the waters off Panama City, freighters by the score wait at anchor for their transit time.
Our crossing started before dawn, and by the time we sailed into the harbor at Panama City the sun was setting. I could see the highrise buildings, which had gleamed in the afternoon sun, now tinted with the colors of dusk.
The next day Susie and I went on an excursion to Gatun Lake and the Miraflores locks, and I'll write another blog entry about what we saw.