Volunteer Line Handler
20 March 2008 | Panama Canal
As soon as we arrived in Colon, I set out to try to find a boat on to which to be a volunteer line handler. This is a common strategy for cruisers going thru the canal for the first time; go through first on someone else's boat as a line handler to 'learn the ropes' (literally). This way I could do a better job in caring for Swingin' on a Star as one of her line handlers in the transit.
I needed to find a boat within a day or so, was quite shameless in trolling for a ride. Got a lead on a boat that was to leave the next day, and pretty much ambushed the owners as they were in the harbormaster's office to clear out. Andy and Melissa were very kind and agreed to have me come along even though they already had enough line handlers. Of course, they knew nothing about me, nor I them, and I hadn't even seen their boat. But that's all part of the adventure, right?
It worked out great all the way around. The morning we were to leave, a couple of their other line handlers backed out of the trip, so I was able to step in for one of them. A Brit named Ian filled the other slot.
As we backed out of the slip, we had to dodge boats, divers, floats and lines that were setting up the mechanism that would flip boats for the Bond movie.
We picked up our advisor, Meza, over in the 'Flats' that evening. He was great. Our boat, 'Spectacle' was the largest of the 3 mono-hulls going thru together. So we got to be the boat in the middle of the 3 boats that would go through the canal tied side-by-side. Meza was the senior advisor among the 3, and so in charge of the whole operation.
As we got close to the entrance, the time came for the 3 boats to raft up together. The boat to the right of us was from the Netherlands, with a Dutch and German crew. To the left was a French boat. This was our first raft up, and it did not go well. As our partners came close, the advisors told them to put their transmissions and helms in neutral. But... for some reason this didn't happen. There was lots of shouting in Spanish, French, English, Dutch and German as one of the side boats started to motor our raft around and right towards the bank! It was hard to cast off the heavy lines when they were under tension, but we managed it in the nick of time.
We finally rafted up and motored towards the first locks. Going thru the locks was amazing. The fact that it was night time made it even more surreal. After this first set of locks, we tied up for the night. The next morning, we took off around 7:30 to motor individually towards the 2nd set of locks. Motoring through the narrow short-cut that only yachts could get through was like a mini-eco-tour. We saw monkeys, sloths, and toucan in the lush rainforest we passed through.
When the time came to raft up with the other boats for the second time, we expected that it would go much more smoothly than the first time. Wrong. This time the boat on the left came in way too hot, and the advisor's directive to the skipper to put his engines in reverse was ignored. We thought. The line-handlers bravely tried to tie up the 2 boats anyway. But the inertia of a heavy, 45 ft boat won out, and again we had to abort. Afterwards, the skipper to of the other boat became indignant with Meza and the other advisors for telling him to put his engines in reverse when he came in too fast. Because...he HAD no reverse. This sparked another international shouting match. Finally we got the raft back together, and transited the rest of the locks without incident.
After a pilot boat came to pick up Meza, we headed to the Flamingo Harbor Marina. Unlike the laid-back cruiser vibe of Shelter Bay Harbor we'd just come from, Flamingo is more of a mega-yacht harbor. As we approached, I used the binoculars to check things out and noticed a largish blue motor yacht anchored outside between us and the breakwater. It's hard for me to judge the size of a boat from a distance, but I noticed that this motor yacht was carrying a sailboat. Not just a dinghy, but a keelboat. So I started counting the spreaders. One, two, three, four! Later, Randy looked up the motor-yacht, 'Le Gran Bleu' on line and discovered it's one of the 5 largest American-owned yachts at 354 feet. The sailboat she carries is 74 feet long itself!
We tied up around 3:30. I quickly thanked Andy and Melissa for their hospitality, and ran to catch a cab for the bus station. I'd been warned that Colon is not a safe town, and especially to stay away from the bus station. Since I don't speak Spanish, and was traveling alone with a good amount of cash, I really wanted to avoid it or at least get there before dark. Of course, the Colon bus station is exactly where I ended up... wandering around after dark, unable to find a free cab (busy holiday). D'oh! Randy and I agree that there was only one thing that kept me from a well-deserved mugging; the bad-guys must have smelled a police sting operation since I must have looked like such easy bait. Finally I snagged a cab. The driver had no idea where Shelter Bay Marina was, and all I had was a copy of a nautical chart of the area. But we figured it out together, and before long I was back at SoaS, enjoying a cheeseburger.
Going through the canal was a great experience, of course. But I'm sorry that I didn't get to do it on Swingin' on a Star with Hideko and Randy!