Transiting the Gatun locks
20 April 2008 | Panama Canal
Wow, it was a long day. We got up early to get things going with the swap meet on the dock. It was strange to walk out into the cockpit and see it open with no dinghy. Hideko and I will really miss Little Star. Having no dinghy we decided to go into Flamenco Marina on the other side of the canal until our new dinghy comes. Flamenco is almost completely filled with permanent residents of the sport fisher flavor so it is hard to get a slip. We tried a couple times and got turned down the first time. After a few days we contacted Ken, the guy in charge of all of the docks, and got a spot.
We had a hard time deciding what to do with the cruising guides and charts of the Caribbean. You get attached to these things. You use them a lot to find stores, services and sights to see when you're cruising, they're kind of a log of where you've been. We try to keep our catamaran light (for her size) and to do that you really need to consider every little thing, but especially heavy things. A stack of cruising guides displaces some water. They are also going to do nothing but sit for three years or so until we get back to the Caribbean. Seeing that they will be five or six years old by then, we'd probably want to buy new ones anyway. Taking a boat slowing, depreciating asset on a world tour didn't seem like the right thing to do. So we kept the best charts of the areas we thought we'd really like to come back to and sold the rest.
After the dock sale I ran across Bruce the dock/yard manager and we got to talking about ukuleles. I had no idea he was a uk guy. He had like 8 uks on his boat. Just goes to show that you should try to get to know your neighbors in the marina sooner rather than later. After commiserating about the missed opportunities for a good uk jam I made him an offer on a 8 string. I only have a 4 string and the 8s sound really nice and full. We said goodbye and I left with a nice new uk. Get rid of some weight add some weight.
Hideko was going crazy cleaning the boat when I got back. She had made a tasty casserole to feed everyone for dinner. It is a big leap to plan the food bit of a canal transit for a crew used to two mouths. We had an additional family of four, Nobu and an ACP advisor joining us increasing the intake substantially.
We checked in on the VHF radio with the canal and the current instructions were to be out in the F anchorage (the only yacht anchorage) by 17:00. So we targeted a 16:00 arrival and a 15:30 departure from Shelter Bay. All of our crew were aboard and ready to go at around 15:00. So, after a month of waiting, we fired up the Yanmars and idled out into Lemon Bay.
It is a big bay. Without really cranking up the throttle it probably takes a full half hour to get from your slip to the anchorage. As we neared the flats we could easily identify the other boats making the canal transit with us. They all had every fender they owned out as well as a batch of rented tires. We rented ten tires and used eight fenders with one kept in reserve on the tramps for emergencies. You could use less but I wouldn't. The ten tires cost us $70 and came wrapped in plastic with little blue lines.
It was great to have four able bodied crew. Usually Hideko and I decide to do something and then we go do it, and it takes a while. With four adults and two young men on deck I could simply ask for something and it was done in the bat of an eye. They had the tires and fenders adjusted before I could even get out of the marina. It's nice to have crew!
Our transit was to be an unusual one. Being so backed up, the canal decided to start moving larger groups of yachts through the canal at one time. Recently they were running three through every other day. The three would raft up, pull in behind a freighter and go through. This is what Margaret and I experienced when we went through as line handlers. With us they were running 10 yachts through with no shipping. We had a large power boat and a sail boat, both over 100 feet, and eight yachts 30 to 55 feet. New boats arriving in Colon were waiting eight weeks currently so it was nice that they were trying to do something.
As we sat on anchor we checked in with the canal every so often by radio. Not surprisingly they delayed the arrival of the advisors several times and it was dark before we got a time that finally stuck. We fed the crew dinner and waited patiently.
At around 18:00 a pilot boat entered the crowded anchorage. Not knowing who they needed to single out in the crowded anchorage they simply stood off and called yachts over the radio to come to them. We were first up so we brought in the anchor and made out way to the pilot boat.
The pilot boats are big steel jobs and you don't want to bump one. You have to get close enough for the advisor to safely step aboard however. This can be interesting depending on the wind, which had started to kick up. I approached the pilot boat and stopped, assuming they would want to do the maneuvering since they had all of the horsepower. We had the side gate open and after a bit of back and forth on the radio to position the boats in the wind properly we helped Mesa, our advisor aboard.
Mesa was a fun guy and had been an advisor on the yacht Margaret went through with. She had apparently made quite an impression because made me promise to say hello to her from him. "Hi Margaret." Once you have the advisor aboard you are done with the radio until you are out into the pacific. The advisors exclusively coordinate with the canal and the other advisors, which is a nice service.
We were motoring around in the anchorage under the assumption that we would be heading for the locks to raft up. Then they delayed the transit. Then they delayed again. I the end it would have been better if I had just re-anchored. As it was we motored in place, keeping the bow to the gusty breeze for almost two hours. After several false starts we finally got the go ahead to proceed to the locks.
The canal runs like a conveyor belt. Everyone scheduled to go through has a number and you simply pull in behind the guy with the number one above yours. Every day (00:00) the sequence starts over. We were something like 84A, designating the 84th lockage of the day and the letter ("A" in our case) being an anomaly allowing all of the yachts to have a unique identifier.
When the big ship with the number before us went by we pulled into the canal channel. We had made friends with another yacht crossing tonight named Galetia, a German boat with two guys named Wolfgang aboard (what else?). We asked Mesa if we could raft with them and he got it done. I knew that Wolfgang was a professional skipper and had gone through the canal with him when we both served as line handlers. My greatest fear in going through the canal was to be rafted with an unstable captain. Margaret's tale among others had me quite happy to be hooked up with Galetia.
As we approached the locks we stayed well to the starboard side of the channel. The marks were IALA B on this side with the red nuns running right off of our starboard rail. We kept a little bit of way on as we pulled into the channel to wait for Galetia. Wolfgang had his third crew member Claudia (name?) driving and she did a great job bringing Galetia along side. We rafted up and moved into the locks behind the two mega yachts.
We were lucky with only two boats in our raft. The beam of our cat was the reason. Most yacht rafts have a 50 foot monohull in the center and an smaller boat on the sides. The port side boat takes the two port wall lines and the starboard side boat takes the two starboard side lines. The center boat just drives while the outside skippers stand by with engines running in case. Our setup required us to drive and take two lines to port, while Galetia handled the starboard lines.
When you get into the out lock area the guys on the wall throw bolas down on deck. The bolas consist of a thin twine like messenger line with a monkey's fist on the end. Best plan here is to watch them throw it and then get out of the way. Cover your solar panels so that they don't shatter if an errant monkey's fist strikes them.
The guys tossed the lines down and hit the deck making it easy for the crew to grab the lines. I couldn't help but wonder at the fact that not one bola hit the tramps the whole trip, which I would prefer to the gel coat. The crew tied the large lines we had rented (you probably don't want to put your own lines through a canal transit) onto the messengers and we then moved the raft into the first chamber. The guys on the wall walk the lines on their side into the chamber and then haul up your large lines. The end you send them has a large eye that they drop onto the bollards on the wall. At that they walk away and you are alone in the lock.
When everyone was in position in the lock (which took a while with five boats/rafts) the doors closed. The ride up is more turbulent and more work than the ride down. Everyone was pretty amped up because other than the advisor and Peter and myself (with a whopping one transit each) it was the first time in the locks.
The water bubbles in from the bottom of the chamber and the raft swayed a little on the lines. The crew have to pull the lines in at the right speed to keep the entire raft in the center of the lock. It sounds easy but communications across the boats are critical. If you have a language barrier and a boat in the middle it could be challenging. We had just two boats and everyone spoke English so all went perfectly.
Once at the top of the chamber they open the deeper gates and the wall crew sends the big lines back down to the yacht. Then I motor the raft into the next chamber as the wall guys walk the messenger lines forward. Once in position the wall guys take the messenger lines in and drop the big lines back on the next set of bollards, the gates close and the process repeats.
It was midnight when we exited the third and last chamber in the Gatun Locks. We motored out into the lake a bit and unrafted then headed to the anchorage off to port by the Panama Canal Company's Gatun Lake Yacht Club. They have a wonderful dock but you are not allowed to use it. There are two ship moorings which are rubber and plastic. You can et one boat on each side and then you have to raft up from there. We decided to anchor instead.
We said a hearty goodbye to Mesa as he rode off in the pilot boat that came to pick him up. We all had a quick beer and a toast to a successful locking. It was 2AM when we finally shut down and the new advisor was arriving in four and a half hours.