Posted by: catamarantwooceans | January 29, 2017

Crossing the Panama canal

15.1.17 – Sunday – Once tied up in the berth, I started going over the list I made. First I changed oil and filter on the starboard engine and while in the engine room I sponged a pool of a mixture of fuel and water, the source of which I still have to discover. While doing that I checked the bilge pump and found it inoperative. Another item for the list. Going to the shower close to ten p.m I found that some orange liquid accumulated in the upper cupboard, just after I gave that compartment a good cleaning! It seemed to come from the adjacent engine room but I could not see the source. I tried sealing the end of a panel which I suspected but that liquid kept coming. I went to sleep in a state of frustration.

16.1.17 – Monday – Thorsten came for a few jobs: two navigation lights were not working; normally I use the tricolor at the top of the mast but when crossing the canal I suppose I would have to play by the book and use “steaming” lights. He also fixed one of the salon fans but the most important job was eliminating an oil leak from the metal oil pipe that Andy replaced. Thorsten found out that Andy did not put the copper spacers needed there properly and quickly rectified it. While up the mast he found out a broken strand in one of the intermediate stays. That’s a bad sign. He called a man named Mike barker who does rigging and I arranged with him to do a rigging check and repair whatever needed to be repaired once we are on the Pacific side. The rigging was completely renewed in 2011 in New Zealand so was supposed to be in good shape. On the other hand it did go through rough sailing for many miles, so the damage is understandable.

I went on with cleaning various corners of the boat, preparing her for the arrival of my cousins Yossi and Ester later in the evening and Gili three hours later. Stanley, my agent, called to say that the crossing would be delayed by a day to the 19th.

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                                               Gili & Esther

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                                                    Yossi

17.1.17 – Tuesday – In the morning we made a big shopping list and took a taxi to Quarto altos in Colon to provision for the next two weeks. I made an agreement with Stanley, my agent , to meet there, get the ropes and tires/fenders for the crossing and a briefing about the crossing. I called his number and it went straight to the voice box; that was strange! I kept trying all day long but Stanley was not to be found. Hey man, where are you? we need to cross in two days! Frankly, I became stressed.

18.1.17 – Wednesday – I waited eagerly for 0800 and called Stanley, voice box again. My stress level rose higher. In my mind I was playing with various scenarios; call the canal authority and find out whether he paid the passage fee for me, call another agent and get the ropes – fenders and line-handler. I decided to wait until 1000 and went into the starboard engine room to install a new bilge pump. Out in the cockpit at 1010 I heard a voice “Good morning”. turning towards the caller, even before seeing the guy, I realized it was Stanley. The man was there with all the necessary equipment and all sorts of explanations regarding his disappearance. The additional line handler we needed would be his brother, Leroy, who would come at noon next day. We were set to go.

Thorsten passed by and said that Mike the rigger was in the marina, working on “Stingo”. Mike wasn’t there but I met Mark, the new owner of the boat and brought him over to Two Oceans for a chat about the Maxim 380.

19.1.17 – Thursday – Leroy came just after noon and even before settling in he started a theological discussion with Esther; he is a very religious man. He also holds strong ideas about world affairs. “Putin is a big murderer, he killed two people”. “Do you mean the one that was poisoned with radioactive stuff in London?” I asked. “Oh, I forgot about him! make it three then” he said gleefully, “and I also don’t like Obama, he made life difficult for Christians, being the Muslim that he is”.

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Leroy was a seaman in the past and has gone on a lot of Canal crossings. His experience was very useful. Crossing the canal on a yacht is divided into two parts: on the first day you go through the three Gatun locks, which take you up 84 feet (26 meters). On the second day you motor 27 miles to Pedro Miguel lock and the two Miraflores locks, where you descend and enter the Pacific ocean.

We called Cristobal signal station on channel 12 and they gave us our allotted time for the canal advisor boarding – 1615. At that time we were supposed to wait at the “Flats” an anchoring area south of the Cristobal container terminal. (All the relevant information is contained in the excellent sailing guide by Eric Bauhous). There were two vessels waiting for the crossing; one was a 120 foot Mega yacht named “Path”, the other a passenger boat – Islamorada.

Our advisor, which is the equivalent of the pilot in bigger ships, came at about 1715, his name was Guillermo.

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We sat waiting for the canal control to arrange our passage. It is a bit strange that although they have everything planned well in advance, they still make the decision at the last minute and change it a few times before one gets to the first Gatun lock. That transpired a bit after seven p.m. The final plan for us was to go into the lock behind a big ship, after which two tugs would be tied to the sidewall, a third tug would follow to which the Mega yacht would be tied. Our small vessel would cross alongside “Path”. Initially it seemed to be the perfect situation for us. No need to use long lines attached to bollards on the side of the locks but is reality it was not so easy. At each passage from one lock to the other, we had to untie, follow them to the next lock and tie up again.

The Mega had a professional crew of seven, including two girls; no passengers or owner were on board. It seemed that the main expertise of the crew was in the “keeping the boat clean” area; the boat really shined. When I gave one of the ladies a spring line and asked her to tie it directly to their cleat she was horrified and shrieked ”but the Varnish!” she needed to pass the rope through a special conduit.

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                                 Inside the lock with “Path”

The locks operation is not unchallenging. When the locks are being filled, there is a lot of turbulence in the chamber but for us everything went smoothly and we were out of the third lock by 2200. Guillermo directed us to an area of special moorings and we tied up to one. Before the canal boat took him off he briefed us to be ready by 0700 the next day. The adrenalin rush masked our tiredness; we ate a late dinner and went to bed. Leroy said he preferred to sleep in the cockpit and I, of course had no objection. He was shown the cabin to which he should flee if it rained.

20.1.17 – Saturday –  Surprisingly the canal boat came on time with our new advisor – Francisco.

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                                  Francisco on the left

He started on the wrong foot, demanding to see our papers, asking whether we had an operating horn and declaring that he needed to be fed exactly at 1200, otherwise he would develop a headache. As time went by he mellowed and spent most of the time playing with his smartphone. We motored through the Gatun lake and the other waterways towards Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks. In the locks that take you down the big ships are behind you. We had a huge car carrier tower above us.

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The last lock was drained of water, the doors opened and we found ourselves in the Pacific.

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We motored to the Balboa Yacht Club, where we met Stanley, who took the tires, the ropes and his Leroy. Leroy lost his phone in the Gatun lake so we added a nice bonus to his salary, our contribution towards a new phone. Trying to find a mooring the starboard engine stopped going into gear; how lucky it happened now and not in the locks! I took a few Go pro videos and hope to be able to edit it for Youtube and insert the link into the blog.

January 20th happens to be my birthday. I reached the ripe age of SEVENTY FIVE. The number itself is horrifying but I remember a cruisers potluck in Tonga, where a young boy asked a lady how old she was; when she answered he said:”But how old do you feel?” My answer to that is that I feel great and privileged to be able to spend this day the way I did. Gili took a mug-shot of the age prisoner before raising our glasses.

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Next: the Las Perlas Islands!

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