Posted by: catamarantwooceans | October 28, 2008

Crossing the Panama canal

28.10.08 – The big day has come. In the morning the Colon assistant of my agent, Tina Mcbride, showed up with the ropes needed for the crossing. You’ve got to use ropes of a certain diameter and length, with a loop on one side. since most yachts do not carry ropes like that on board, you have to rent them to the tune of a hundred bucks. The assistant nickname is Dracula. One wonders why. He also took care of the paperwork involved and we found that my cruising permit, an important document, is missing. I had a faint recollection of giving it to the marina’s office but we only found a copy there. It turned out the copy is good enough and Dracula left for town to tackle the bureaucracy. I, in the meantime, tied the tires/fenders in place, filled up water and basicly waited for time to pass until moving to the Flats, to pick up my Italian crew and meet the Advisor.

Ready for the canal

Ready for the canal

I made all the final preparations, the moment Kevin came on board we motored to the Flats to await our advisor for the crossing. The time I was given was 1700. I picked my Italian crew from their marina and we all sat down and waited. Kevin, with the experience gained on his previous crossing, said that the timetable was flexible and that we will need to be patient. The catamaran that I thought will be crossing with us waited close by. Around 1730 Bertrand, their skipper came by with the dinghy and told us he just had a call from his agent telling him that all yacht transits were cancelled for the day.
Alarmed,I immediately called Tina, my agent, with the news. “I’ll call you back in a minute” she says and a few minutes later she confirms that we will be crossing. “Who is the other guy’s agent?” “It’s Tito” “OK it figures” she says. Bertrand, losing patience decides to go back to the marina. We keep on waiting. At 1815 the Panama canal launch is calling us on the radio. We signal with our lights, they come along-side  and the advisor hops on board. His name is Robin and he turns out to be a very nice guy, briefing us calmly, helping whoever needed help and giving assurances that made it all much easier.

Robin

Robin

He said he was waiting for information about a catamaran that is supposed to cross rafted up with us. This boat did not show up so we were told we will be crossing “center chamber” that is, in the middle of the lock, being held by four ropes from each corner of the boat. The first stage of crossing the canal to the Pacific involves passing three locks, called Gatun locks, that take you up gradually 85 feet into Gatun lake, artificially made by damming the Chagres river. The enormous quantities of water needed to raise the ships transiting are taken from this lake. We had to wait near the first lock for a ship to enter. At that time it started raining quite heavily. We shared the few weather jackets we had, surprisingly the advisor did not bring his! We entered the lock, the canal workers threw messanger lines with “monkey fists”, elaborate knots giving the lines weight and bulk, to enable throwing them accurately. Our line handlers, Lucia, Spartako, Guido and Kevin had to quickly tie those to the loops on the extremity of our long, heavy lines, the workers on shore pulled and put them onto bollards. We then had to tighten the ropes and keep doing it as the lock valves opened and water started gushing in, lifting us up. This made the surface swirl with strong vortices and keeping the boat in the middle – a tough job. Filling up the lock took about 15 minutes during which each of us had to be alert and perform his task dilligently. Rain water was streaming from Lucia’s hair, Kevin – clad in my wet suit and sporting a head lamp – was having fun on the port bow, all of us got soaking wet.

Wet Lucia

Wet Lucia

Wet Kevin

Wet Kevin

Then the water stopped rising, the gates to the other lock opened and the procedure was repeated. When we exited the third lock I checked the time and was surprised to see that what seemed to be hours was in actuality 75 minutes. Robin directed us towards the mooring buoys and at 2200 we tied to one. Robin complimented us on a job well done and was taken away by the canal launch. “Be prepared to meet the next advisor tomorrow at 0630 – 0700.” I changed my skipper’s hat to that of a chef and cooked dinner, making the boat’s signature dish:Tuna Thai Satay, fish in peanut butter and soy sauce. Spartako took one of the champagne bottles he brought to celebrate each day and we toasted the successful first part of the transit. After dinner every one retired to their bunks. I found out that the saloon table could be transformed into a double bed and Kevin had the pleasure of being the first to use it. At 2345 I went to bed but could not sleep, the adrenalin keeping me awake. At 0045 I heard noises and went out to investigate. The lost catamaran has arrived so we will probably raft up with him on the locks ahead.

29.10.08 – I timed the alarm clock to 0615, woke up and the waiting game started all over again. I exchanged some words with the skipper of the other catamaran and he told me his starboard engine was unreliable. We agreed that at the locks “Two Oceans” will raft on his right and act as his engine on that side. At 0900 the advisor came aboard. The gentleman’s name was Amet and under his guidance we proceeded via the “Banana cut”, through the lake, to the next three locks: Pedro Miguel, which we reached at 1300 and the two Miraflores locks.
Amet

Amet

On the way the advisors and the lock operators decided that we shall not raft but enter the locks one after the other, “Two Oceans” leading. Going down the locks turned out to be much easier,a fact that made our line handlers lose concentration at times. Here they had to release the ropes as the waterlevel came down so that the boat will not “hang” on the ropes with the danger of breaking the cleats. Lucia was on the phone with a friend, describing enthusiastically the goings on and had to be reminded of her duties…
Gate openning

Gate openning

Gate openning 2

Gate openning 2

The Miraflores lock

The Miraflores lock

Finally the last lock doors opened and we exited it to the Pacific. What a feeling! I went through the Gibraltar straight, the Corinthos canal in Greece and the Messina straights but none of those gave me the feeling I was experiencing now. A sense of entering a different and unfamiliar part of the world, harbouring exotic islands in the vast ocean.
We said goodby to Amet, our advisor and procceded to our chosen anchorage, near Flamenco marina.I was still with my head in the clouds but my Italian crew were very much aware of the humanly need for food and drink. Guido took charge of the galley. “Faciamo Rigatoni? – Shall we make Rigatoni?” he confered with Spartako, who nodded gravely in the affirmative. As the anchor came down the pasta was ready and I was given the honour of popping the Champagne bottle cork which flew up with a loud report. Happy faces all around, we celebrated a well executed and exciting crossing.
Late lunch done, I took the dinghy to return the ropes to Tina, our agent, who needed them for another boat crossing the next day.
Tina - Super Agent

Tina - Super Agent

Spartako and Guido left back to Colon, Lucia, who planned to fly the next day to Guatemala and Kevin stayed for the night. Ran Baranovsky, the Israeli guy I met in Shelter bay marina and who surprisingly made the unplanned decision to cross to the Pacific, came to visit later in the evening.
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