The Panama Canal


Not a simple matter of waiting for the lock gates to open, the lights changing to green and then packing as many boats in as possible and away we go – the way we used to do it in Holland. No - this is the Panama Canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans . The boat has to be inspected and measured and your transit has to be booked and paid for before you are given a very specific transit schedule – deviate from this and it costs more. There's a lot of paperwork involved and some basic technical and crewing criteria you need to meet. Must have fours line handlers in addition to skipper, four 7/8”dia lines at least 125ft each, around a dozen tyres for additional fenders and a canal authority appointed advisor on board, who must be fed, watered, kept dry, protected from the sun and have the use of a “clean” toilet. All this to travel up and down 3 sets of locks and traverse a lake in the middle, a total of around 30 miles. Mind you each lock requires 101,000 cubic meters of water to lift our boat which displaces 25 cubic meters, and you could be in company with a 900ft long container ship. So mucho administration and money involved! By the way, despite going from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the canal runs north/south not east/west. Good pub quiz question!

                                                                          Some canal traffic

It all starts with the decision as to whether to use (read pay for) an ‘agent' or not – for us it boiled down to the fact that he would do all the running about, provide the lines and tyres, liaise with the admeasurer, the advisor and the canal officials and to put the cherry on top – we wouldn't have to pay the US$800 bond to cover any problems or delays incurred during transit. (You get this back – eventually - as a very useful dollar cheque!). No brainer (as the nippers say nowadays) – agent it is!

So we booked into Shelter Bay marina for a week, contacted the agent and sat back to wait – yer right! The agent Erik was excellent and things began to happen straight away. Forms were duly completed and the admeasurer was booked…Why he's called an ‘ad' measurer we never found out – maybe because he adds a bit to the measurement! The day before he arrived we measured the boat ourselves – 3 times – with the dinghy in davits we were a few inches under the 65 feet limit where we could still have an advisor on board and not a pilot (we would have been talking serious money there!) Having a few Irish genes mixed in with the Scottish ones, (to be sure, to be sure), we took the dinghy off the davits and pushed the davit ends in. The admeasurer arrived with a couple of novice measurers who then proceeded to measure the boat and actually made it shorter than it is! But they must have had Irish genes too because they measured it again twice (to be sure, to be sure). Actually it was the experienced guy who recognised the novices hadn't “added” anything, that was the trigger for the re-count. The length finally decided on was 62 feet so ‘no problemo', though sure glad that is not the length we quote in marinas. More forms were completed and our agent emailed us that night – we had a date……….

Our obligatory 4 line handlers were arranged – Sue and Stefan from s/v Charlotte (who wanted the experience as they are going through the canal next year) and Allayne and Denis from s/v Audrey Paige (who had already been through as line handlers but kindly volunteered to do it again – obviously it's so much fun!) and me – oops that makes 5, but just to be sure………


                                      Stefan and Sue                                              Allayne and Dennis

The day before our transit, our tyres and lines turned up. We had been talking about crossing the Pacific for the last year or so but it wasn't until we hung our tyres over the side that it all became a scary reality! On the morning of the transit we had a visit and send off from many of the good friends we made on the Caribbean side, no pressure, but the farewells just reinforced that a big step was about to be taken. Once we were through the canal that's it – there would be no turning back (not when you're married to a Scotsman there isn't – no chance of paying that sort of money to go back through again!)


                                        Superted with tires on                                    Farewell to friends

Transiting the canal from north to south is split into 2 days for a ‘hand line' (canal speak for small boat) and you get to stay overnight in the Gatun Lake with the crocodiles. The first day of our transit we were informed we had to get to the ‘flats anchorage' a couple of miles from the entrance to the Gatun locks, by around 2pm to check in with the canal authorities – our advisor was due on board at 5.30pm. All the knowledgeable people said that once he was on board, we would enter the first set of locks straight away and be in the lake about a couple of hours later. The knowledgeable people also said it's extremely important to feed the advisors well (it is actually a requirement of the canal authorities). So with cakes and quiches made and fridge full we got to the anchorage at 1.30pm, checked in with the canal authorities who told us the advisor was now due at 6pm. So we sat around chatting and had a bit of food then sat around some more and had a bit more food and as the afternoon wore on, the drizzle started so we battened down the hatches and had a bit more food then we were told that the advisor wouldn't be there until 6.30pm so we decided to have dinner and leave a plate full for the advisor………..He did turn up, in the rain, at around 6.45pm and after mucho introductions, told us to up anchor and head off towards the lock. He said he would have his dinner in the lock! (obviously didn't expect much to do in there). But there was a delay so we motored around for a couple of hours and eventually got into the Gatun lock at around 8pm in the pouring rain – lovely!

And so the fun started – we had requested ‘centre chamber' which means we sit in the centre of the lock clear of the ugly concrete walls, with all 4 lines attached to the lock sides. That way we have total control over the lines and the boat without relying on another boat. However, our advisor wanted us to go through alongside a tug which was going in (much easier he said – no line handling necessary – he obviously wanted an easy time to enjoy his dinner!) but Matt, ever mindful of the new paint job, insisted we stick to our plan, so we went in centre chamber. The advisor is supposed to advise skipper and crew. He also shouts instructions to the canal workers and on cue they throw monkey fists into the boat which our line handlers have to catch and attach our lines to. The knowledgeable people had told us that sometimes the monkey fist throwers try to hit solar panels etc so we had covered them with cushions and we were all at the ready to catch near to the centre of the boat well away from the solar panels. I think we must've had novices on the starboard lock side - the first one went high and too far back – wrapped itself around the wind generator post and landed on the solar panel. Sue managed to climb up and disentangle it and get her line attached. The next monkey fist went high again and this time wrapped itself around the spreader and stuck there. Well this thrower obviously wasn't Irish as he didn't throw another one to be sure but no way could we get the first one down so after a lot of encouragement from Matt they cut the throwing line and we attached our bow and stern lines together with the stern monkey fist. (We now have a souvenir of our canal transit.) OK starboard side sorted – then the port side monkey fists came flying in – and I mean flying in like exocet missiles (there is no way you could try to catch one of these things – they are big steel ball bearings covered with rope and are thrown with a great force – Goliath style!) Fortunately they came in low and we were able to get hold of them and attach the lines. So we were ready to roll. We had a large container ship and a tug with a power boat attached to it in front of us so it felt as if we didn't have that much room at the back of the lock (even though it is 1000 feet long and 114ft wide!) We were going up which meant a lot of pulling and controlling of the ropes as the water comes gushing in. It was amazing how much force was on the ropes and the cleats. We had heard stories of ropes breaking, cleats pulling out, and handlers on mobile phones tripping and dropping the whole lot into the lock - all with catastrophic results, so the first lock was a bit nerve wracking, but all went well.

         In the first lock in the rain                         Monkey fist thrower                         Our sovenir Monkey Fist

It was still raining so our ropes and hands were wet and not easy to pull. Anyway a few ‘yoho heave hos' later and we were up (it takes about 15 minutes to fill the lock). There's still a lot of water movement in the lock once the gates are opened and the ship starts to move off so we hung around until they had cleared the lock. We then pulled our lines in with the monkey fists attached and the dock workers ‘walk' the messenger lines into the next lock as we motor slowly ahead (Bit like taking a dog for a walk). The large ships are pulled along by locomotives. It's a bit easier in the second and third locks as we already have the monkey fists attached to our lines but still hard as we are still going up (a total of 26 metres over the 3 locks). We had one small incident in the second lock – there is so much force on the lines, it is very hard to pull them and the boat was veering to starboard and heading for the wall, so Matt quickly helped pull it round with the bow thruster but our advisor was a bit of a megalomaniac and “would be” skipper, got miffed because he hadn't given the instruction. A few heated words followed between skipper and megalomaniac and all was sorted. Anyway the rest of the procedure went well albeit very quietly but we didn't reach the Gatun lake until well after 10pm. There are a couple of huge buoys in the lake – we were told to ‘pick-up' one and attach lines fore and aft to lie abeam the buoy. However it's not just a matter of ‘picking-up' the buoy – someone has to climb on to it to take the lines and it's a bit slippery from the rain. Stefan was our man - so he slithered atop of the buoy and attached the lines – thank goodness it was dark so he couldn't see the crocodiles snapping! Meanwhile our advisor called his launch and disappeared off into the night leaving us wet, bedraggled and knackered from all the pulling!

             Leaving the buoy                         Attaching the lines to the dock                  Walking the boat to the next lock

Dawn broke the next morning with a bit of blue sky and sun. At 6.30am prompt our new advisor was dropped off and we fed him breakfast. He was a cheerful chappie and very chilled but on the ball with what was going on. (He actually advised, unlike the previous one). It was all very leisurely as we had to motor about 25 miles before the first set of locks where we were booked in at 11.30am. We had a very pleasant few hours ‘mucking about in the river' passing a variety of canal traffic (about 45 transits per day) from massive container ships and tankers to small motor boats with our advisor regaling us with tales of the canal – like the crane which was sold to Panama by the Americans for just US$1 and then had US$25 million spent on it (it's used for lifting the gates of the lock). One of the requirements of the lock authorities is that a ‘hand line' can maintain a speed of 8 knots but we were in plenty of time so had to slow down considerably as we neared the Centennial Bridge and the Pedro Miguel lock.

          The one dollar crane                               Locamotive used to pull ships                  Miraflores Lock                         

Anyway we had more breakfast, then elevenses, then lunch and eventually got into the Pedro Miguel lock. This time we were going down so it was much easier to control the lines. We were sharing the lock with a power boat who was also centre chamber and a tug so had plenty of room. The final set of locks – Miraflores is about a mile from Pedro Miguel. We could see the Bridge of Americas on the Pacific side. There is a Webcam in the Miraflores lock which can be viewed live on the internet – as we entered the lock we waved to anyone watching - and apparently a few folks were – quite emotional – and then occupied ourselves with the monkey fists and lines.

             Waiting for the lock                            Entering the last lock                              Last lock gates closing

Again we were going down so it was fairly easy going in both locks. The last lock is the highest because of the big tidal variations (5m) in the Pacific Bay of Panama. When the gates open the salt water rushes in and mixes with the fresh water to produce currents up to 4 knots. It then hits the back gate and scooshes forward again so we had to keep the lines tight. We all waited with baited breath for the final splurge of water then as the first boats departed we had our first glimpse – we had made it – we were in the Pacific! A mile or so later we motored under the Bridge of Americas and said goodbye to our advisor as his launch came to pick him up. On to the anchorage at Las Brises to drop off the tyres and lines and time for the corks to pop!

First boat we saw? Malarkey from Marchwood, Ahah a rally!


                                Crew at the centennial bridge                      Bridge of the Americas and the Pacific Ocean

Big thanks to Sue, Stefan, Denis and especially Allayne who wasn't feeling all that good. She latter discovered she had double pneumonia! Tough these Americans from Detroit !


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