Chaotic Harmony, the Canal, the Crews and Nervous Poos
12 February 2013 | Panama City
Chaotic Harmony splashed down into the Shelter Bay Marina after a hectic, work filled 4 days on the hardstand to polish her sides, service the saildrives, scrape off a zillion barnacles, get rid of the lousy antifouling paint we put on in Grenada and replace some thru hull fittings that were leaking and install a new sonar transducer (big job). The paint we put on in Grenada was actually Micron 66 but I think it was Dulux Wash and Wear. The sonar transducer on the larboard side hull had a worn cable and was inoperable so the whole thing needed to be cut out (big, big job) and a new one bedded down with blocks. It now works so we have a working sonar which is the first time in over 18months as we have been eyeballing and leadlining our way through the Caribbean. The old thru hull fittings on the starboard side were not being used and one was actually leaking so they were removed, a new one begged and borrowed was too small internally so we reamed it out with a hand held drill (yacht lathe) and fitted it in along with the new depth and speed fittings for the Ticktack system along with the necessary transmitters. Splash time and the fitting leaked like a high pressure hose so back up for 5 minutes while it was sealed with 5200 and then a quick motor to the dock before the ´┐Ż"Oyster Rally´┐Ż" fleet arrived for a berth before our departure the next day to the Panama Canal. To Transit the Canal you need permission arranged 10 days previously from the ACP (Panama Canal Authorities) which is granted after an Admeasurer : 1. Checks, inspects and measures the boat; (we came in at 48 feet, 11 inches, not bad for a Catana 42) 2. an Advisor from the Authorities, 3. 4 line handlers, 4. 12 good sized fenders (wrapped tyres), 5. 4 x 22mm inch lines of 40m each 6. a working LOUD horn, 7. VHF radios, 8. good heads for the Advisor, 9. provision of bottled water and good meals for the Advisor We were given a 1530 transit time on Sunday 10th February and had to be at the ´┐Ż"F´┐Ż" (or flats) anchorage by 1300 to receive the Advisor whose job is not to pilot the vessel but rather to Advise on your transit. You are solely responsible for all. That morning we received notification that no line handlers (whose job it is to haul in or let out when being lowered the were available due to ´┐Ż"Carnival´┐Ż" but two turned up anyway and we begged and borrowed Dylan from the Shelter Bay Store and Bernadette from ´┐Ż"MacPelican´┐Ż" who wanted the experience for her transit on the following Thursday. CH departed the slip at 1230 with fenders rigged, line handlers aboard, nerves jingling, ropes flaked and motored the 3nm to the flats with a very slippery bottom and arrived on time to wait for the Advisor who turned up just after 1600. We ran a safety briefing and immediately raised the anchor and motored a few miles to the (very imposing) entrance to the Gatun Locks. Once there Chaotic Harmony was informed that we would be ´┐Ż"nesting´┐Ż" and she would be the centre vessel of three so we headed into the wind and allowed ´┐Ż"Jac´┐Ż", an Australian flagged sloop to tie up port side and ´┐Ż"Sapphire´┐Ż" from Canadia tied up to starboard. Under this arrangement CH was needed to provide the engine power and steerage for all three vessels and therefore was given the responsibility to get all through safely while I felt the need to depart for the heads for immediate nerve reduction. A rather large freighter entered lock 1 at about 1700 and we were then instructed to enter this turbulent zone at 3 knots and come to an immediate stop when instructed with ´┐Ż"please sir, stay in the centre´┐Ż". At about this stage nerves were truly jingling but it all went extremely smoothly except the bloke piloting ´┐Ż"Jac´┐Ż" was a bit deaf and laid back and I had to yell my instructions to him. The turbulence as the water enters the lock to lift you is incredible and still churning and added to as the freighter uses its engines to move to the next lock assisted by the canals mules. The view ´┐Ż"down´┐Ż" to the Caribbean was wonderful. We then had to motor through into two more locks following the freighter before finally entering Gatun Lake at about 1900 and tying up to a 3m diameter rubber covered, concrete buoy to disembark the Advisor and settle in for the night and wait for another to arrive at 0600 the next morning. Moises was our Advisor and a very nice fellow who complimented us on our perfect and professional stress free transit. This comment made all the nerves disappear and we looked forward to the Miraflores Locks with relish. We were now between 85m and 100m above sea level. Cerveza all round and a lovely lasange followed by Tic Tac Toe where Gill thrashed all. A rainy night and Howler monkeys kept us up but at 0500 I raised the crew and we cooked a BBQ steak and eggs brekky and by 0630 we had left for the transit of Gatun Lakes and the other 3 locks which would lower us into the Pacifc Ocean. Gatun Lake was the largest man made lake when the Americans dammed it up for the canal until the Chinese built a bigger one in 2010. It is picture postcard perfect and it was a pity we could not stop longer as you see lots of little hidden bays and lagoons that would be fun to explore. Apparently when the Americans ran it you could do this but now it is business only and the more vessels that get pumped through the quicker the better. They are currently building a 3rd set of locks here at both ends and this is an engineering feat that is still massive, even 100 years after the original canal was opened. The size and scope is unbelievable. We had a great motor at 5 knots with Ricky aboard as our new Advisor, Jo and Bernadette cooking up a storm to feed all 9 of us and Gill now an official line handler. It was all so perfect that everyone except the skipper actually watched movies or got a snooze or two in. All other boats took off at great speed but our lake transit saw us arrive within 20 minutes of transit time and low fuel consumption. This time we nested with only ´┐Ż"Sapphire´┐Ż" and entered the first lock with several tourist boats and dropped down 32 feet very very smoothly except for a granny knot having been tied on one of the lines. Staying nested we motored over Miraflore Lake at 6 knots and bulldozed our way in for the second of three drops. Uneventful and stress free and the water turning brackiish once again. Motoring into the third lock and warnings issued about the influx of salt water creating a 4 knot current with increased turbulence when the gates into the Pacific are opened. It was not that bad as we just had to have engines in reverse but still went through like a champagne cork. Thankfully aware of the benefit of dual engines and drives. During the third and last lock we all sat on deck waving at the camera and hoped that some of you saw us as we transitted. We played Men-at-Work's ´┐Ż"Land Down Under´┐Ż" over the (very) loud speakers and everyone danced including the Advisor, crew and line handlers. The song must have been heard from a few hundred meters and the dancing was photographed by all of the tourists on the tourist boats with us in the canal as well as in the Observation Tower. The time had arrived and we motored out into the Pacific Ocean, loosened the lines and cast off ´┐Ż"Sapphire´┐Ż". We are now serenely anchored at the La Playita anchorage while we wait for Carnival to finish so we can shop for fresh food and leave for French Polynesia via the Las Perlas Islands by the end of the week. Stressful ? Only the anticipation of the transit was stressful.. The actual transit was a fantastic experience, a dawdle and great fun and Ricky the Advisor again complimented us on our perfect transit, professional crew and wonderful accommodations and food aboard Chaotic Harmony. Cerveza time........................