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Tuesday 26 February 2019

Into the Pacific! Our Panama Canal Transit

Our transit started weeks ago when Tim completed and submitted the application to transit the canal while we were still in the San Blas Islands.

 Once in Shelter Bay, located on the Caribbean end of the Canal, we advised the Canal Authority that we had arrived and a the next day a representative arrived to measure Larus. No measuring is required as any vessel under 50 feet is a set price, but. he also checked that she had all she needed to accommodate the Advisors who would join us for both legs of the journey.  This included knowing that we were responsible providing bottled water and meals while they were on board as well as ensuring that there was adequate shade.  We did hear of a boat having to quickly organise some canvas work when they were found wanting in the latter.

We were provided with paperwork to take to a bank in Colon to pay the transit fee and provide a deposit against cocking up in your transit.  This could be anything which would result in an aborted transit from the yacht breaking down to not having enough line handlers.

Colon is a pretty rough town and the bank is in a particularly unsavoury area. As its known that any yachtie arriving at the bank will be carrying $2000US or so, it is common practice to take a taxi directly to the security guarded door, have the taxi wait and then get the heck out of 'Dodge'.  Tim got lucky and friends and fellow transitters, who had been to the bank previously, had a car hired and drove Tim there and back.

Once the fee was paid we were asked to call the Canal Authority after six in the evening for our transit date.  We had just under a week to organise our 3 line handlers, hire huge fenders and four 125 foot blue polypropylene lines,  provision for the 3 additional people as well as the Advisors who would accompany us through the locks to tell us what to do and when.

Along with the Skipper of the yacht, four line handlers are required and as I was one, three more needed to be found.  Leanne and Dave from Perigee, who were also on the OOC Rally, offered months ago to line handle for us and  we chose a date when with they were free.  We had a third volunteer who had to drop out last minute.  He was replaced with Ian, from Tortorelle, until he had to dropout with a stomach bug.  Happily Anne, Ian's partner, leapt into the breach and we had our four line handlers.


The day before the transit we were told to be anchored outside Shelter Harbour at 1400 to pick up our Advisor, who arrived late enough for us to complete 12 of the 13 rounds that make up a game of Mexican Train.  Playing the last game would have make no difference to the winner as Leanne had the lowest score by far.

I don't have a photo of our advisor, Laurence, joining us as his arrival was a little worrisome.  The launch he's arriving on might not look very big but, trust me, it is.  Their deck was much higher than ours and there was quite a gap when he leapt on board.


Dave and I on the bow with the 125 foot lines neatly flaked on the deck.  Leanne and Laurence.  Anne, Tim, Leanne, Laurence and Dave.

Yachts and small boats go through the locks rafted together in twos of threes so as not to waste any space.  The catamaran in the far distance was to be out middle boat.   The boat in the near distance, Ocean Blue, was to its starboard side and we were to be on its port side.  That fills the width of the lock but the length is filled with a cargo ship in front on the way up the canal and behind on the way down.

A really great photo of Leanne and Laurence, if I do say so myself.

The entrance to the two canals.  We were to transit through the right hand canal as it was the smaller of the two.

Much of the water used in the canal comes from a lake between the two sets of locks created by the damming of the Chagres River.  The water is very precious and they recycle a third of the water used in the canal.  We were told that if the lake was to empty, it would take 3 years for it to refill.


It was dark by the time we approached the canal, but the locks were well lit by flood lights. The first set of locks is called the Gatun Locks. You can see the lock door starting to close behind me.  It was all quite exciting but it was too dark and we were too busy for photos.

The central boat of the raft steers the raft along with the help of the yachts on either side if they start to stray.  The skippers of all the yachts stay at the helm and work under the instruction of the advisors.  The central boat has the chief advisor and tells our advisors what needs do, and our advisor tells us. That's the plan anyway.

The blue lines are used to hold the raft in the middle of lock and keep it from twisting to port or starboard.  The latter is the job of the line handlers.  Canal workers throw down a light line attached to a 'monkey's fist' at the first lock.  The line handlers on the bow and stern catch/snag/ scrabble after the monkey's fist and tie the line attached to big loop in the blue rope on deck.  The blue rope is pulled up and the loop is looped over a bollard and the loose end is made fast to cleats on the bow and stern of the outer boats.

This was how the rafted yachts were held in the centre of the lock.

In the first set of locks, as the lock filled we line handlers 'recovered' the line as we ascended.  Once the lock is full and doors for the next lock had opened, we pulled all the blue line back onto Larus, but left it attached to the monkey's fist and the light line.  The canal workers walked along with us from one lock to the next holding the light line. They do not like it when the boats go too quickly because they have to run and they have stairs to climb as well.  Once inside the second lock, they pulled the blue rope back up, and looped it over a bollard.

The process was repeated until we reached the top of the third lock and as we motored out into Gatun Lake the line with the monkey's fist was hauled up.

We moored along side a huge flat circular mooring with a huge rather scruffy shackle in the middle to tie onto.  Dave climbed onto it and secured the lines for both Larus and Ocean Blue.  Our Advisors left for the night and we had dinner (West Indian Meat Pie with a mashed Potato Crust and steamed broccoli and carrots) and went to bed as we were expecting tomorrows Advisor to arrive between 0700 and 0900 and you can't count on them to be later every time.

The next morning our new Advisor Dave arrived around 0800 just after a breakfast of French Toast with a Cinnamon Toffee Apple Sauce.  It was about a 4 hour motor to the Miraflores Locks and we had lunch just before we arrived.  When I was provisioning for the trip I ordered 6 chicken breasts at the meat counter in the supermarket in Colon.  I didn't watch particularly carefully but was surprised at the size and weight of the bag.  Back on board, I discovered that they were 'double breasts', still attached with a little slip of cartilage from the beast bone.  As we had so much chicken Tim requested Caribbean Chicken Salad, a creamy, mango chutney curry sauce mixed with cubed cooked (I say 'cooked' because one inexperienced First Mate/Chef didn't.).  It really is Coronation Chicken with gavocado, rapes and hearts of palm.


Sunrise, Gatun Lake; Larus motoring past Clipper Bettina who would follow us into the lock; Rafted to the catamaran.  We hired the big orange fenders and the blue line from Stanley, a very reliable and reasonable canal agent.  He delivered the lines and fenders to us in Shelter Bay Marina and then collected them and Anne as we hovered outside the Balboa yacht club.


Anne with the light line and monkey's fisttied to the loop in the blue line.  The line handlers ashore walk with the rafted yachts until they are in position at the far end of the lock. Dave minding the forward line.  The same procedure is taking place from Ocean Blue's bow and stern.

One thing that surprised both Anne and I, was the size of the monkey's fist.  Boats are advised to cover their solar panels in case of a rogue monkey knot. I almost expect the need for a baseball glove to catch them. The are quite solid but smaller than expected and if you did catch you it would have been a fluke, because the guys throwing the line aim way over your head to the middle boat or to the foredeck so those of us on the stern had to dash forward and walk them back outside the rigging.


Everyone seems to agree, it's going well; The end of the lock in the distance; in position with the blue line pulled ashore and looped over a bollard and Dave waiting for the lock emptying to begin; Clipper Bettina arriving behind us; a panorama from Ocean Blue on the far side to Clipper Bettina; The happy crew aboard Ocean Blue.


On her way into the lock Bettina's stern caught the wind and she was blown off her straight entry into the lock.  The Advisors hadn't seen this happen before and it took a lot of huffing and puffing of black smoke before the tugs got her straightened out; Double locks - the nearest opens and the outer stays closed until we have descended to the next lock.


Ready to starboard; Ready to port; view of the sightseers at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Centre.  There is another set of locks between us and them.


And down we go!


It is difficult to get photos of the line handlers 'releasing' or 'recovering' as the only people who look like they aren't doing anything (Tim and the Advisor) are waiting with the engine idling for something to go wrong.  The water rushing in and out creates currents the raft of yachts can twist in the lock.  No problems on this lock and we moved on to the next one.

Most interesting was watching the ships entering the locks.  Their line handlers were drivers in  motorised mules which pulled them from lock to lock. Wallenius Willem ship is of a company and type that we often saw in Southampton Docks.


With the opening of the final lock, we arrived into the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, but it wasn't until we passed under the Bridge of the Americas when we were truly in the Pacific Ocean.


And if you thought we are as far west as we have ever been, you'd be wrong.  Fort Pierce Florida is still the farthest west we've been.  How crazy is that?

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