04/06/2008, Panama Canal
Our friends James and Amelia had need of an additional line handler at the last minute today. After a quick discussion, Hideko decided to stay with our boat and Roq while I joined the crew of Rahula for the two day crossing. I packed a bag with a few things to take and joined Palmast, another boat transiting tonight, for a ride out to the Flats. Rahula, a nicely found Woods catamaran, was already anchored in the flats where the Advisors join the boats.
These days the typical south bound (Atlantic to Pacific) yacht transit starts in the evening with an advisor joining at the Flats and then once through the Gatun locks you tie up for the night and the advisor departs. At 7AM you pickup an advisor (often different from the previous day) and cross the lake. By about 12:00 you go through the Pedro Miguel lock and then the Mira Flores Lock winding up in the Pacific by two or three in the afternoon where a pilot boat, once again, transfers the advisor. You can check the initial departure schedule on the web site or call to get updates as things often fall back to later than first predicted.
Once Palmast was anchored in the flats, James came to pick up Christophe, also helping out, and I. James, a former British Navy skipper, gave us a great briefing once on board Rahula and then we relaxed and waited for the advisor.
The pilot boat came into the anchorage at around 6PM as the sun was setting. Our advisor was a very pleasant fellow and had been through the canal over 200 times previously. The largest boat in our group was a 60 foot custom build with a French crew. They spoke fluent English however so everyone had a common language to work with (lack thereof, as I understand it, is one of the main seeds of discontent in these flotillas).
Our transit was to be a raft of three boats and the largest boat always goes in the middle. Your other options are: on the wall (hard on the fenders), or rafted with a tug (which is only better than the wall because it doesn't move). I haven't met anyone who has gone through other than by rafting up three abreast but I did see a raft of two go through at Mira Flores.
After motoring up to the lock, Palmast tied up to the port side of the French boat, and when secure, we tied up to the starboard side. We ran forward and aft springs as well as bow and stern lines to the center boat. All of the boats had their entire array of fenders out as well as a number of rented tires with plastic bags taped around them to avoid scuffs.
Once rafted we motored slowly into the lock behind a large cargo ship. The ACP guys up on the walls then whipped their bolos around their heads a few times and the monkey's fists came hurling toward the deck. Best idea here is to get out of the way and grab it after it hits the deck.
Rahula is 37 feet long and so we had a unique tie up scenario. The starboard stern line came to us but we passed the starboard bow line over to the middle boat (which usually has no lines to the wall). This was because their bow stood out a good 20 feet beyond ours giving the line a better angle. Once all of the boats had their (mostly rented) dock lines tied onto the monkey's fist messenger lines the ACP guys on the wall hauled the big lines up and put the eyes (which are required and have to be big) on the large bollards at the edge of the lock wall. Once the lines are set the ACP guys leave (perhaps wanting nothing to do with the events that follow?).
The horn goes off and the water begins to flood in under the boat creating some interesting turbulence. As the boat rises each line handler must bring their line in an equal amount to keep the raft centered in the lock. This can be tricky with three boats involved, three captains and three advisors. Add some linguistic challenges and you have a formula for what Margaret describes as an International Incident.
Our group was quite civilized however. Everything went smoothly and as we reached the top of the chamber we simply moved up into the next with the ACP guys walking the messenger lines forward. Between each chamber you must bring your big lines back onto the boat (leaving the messenger lines tied on) and then feed them back up the wall to the ACP crew once in position. This is good because it means that the ACP guys only get one crack at beaning you with the Monkey's fist per lock.
After clearing the third chamber we pulled out into Gatun lake and unrafted. At this point it is rather dark and the advisor helps you navigate to the ship moorings near the ACP yacht club. Why they don't let you tie up at the nice yacht club dock, I don't know. I was happy to discover that the ship moorings, while huge and scary looking, are made of plastic. I had visions of steel cans three meters across with sharp corners. These are nice flat discs that you could crash right into with no damage. There are only two moorings though so we had to put two boats on one mooring which required tying bow and stern lines across to keep the boats from meeting in the night.
Amelia fixed a wonderful chili dinner for everyone and we shared a beer or two while on the mooring before going to bed. I slept in the cockpit by choice. It was a beautiful night and a perfect temperature. The vast canvas of sounds creeping out of the jungle lulled me to sleep.
04/05/2008, Panama Canal
There is a type of ship known as a Panamax ship. This is a ship built to the precise maximum dimensions allowed through the Panama canal. A Panama canal lock is 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. If you step back and look at a Panamax ship you may find they are sort of odd. The hull near the waterline and below looks reasonable but the upper area of the ship is a perfect rectangle, exactly the size of a Panama Canal lock, with a bit of buffer all around.
Post Panamax ships are of course out and about these days with considerably more girth and carrying capacity than the Panamax flavor. Hence the project underway to create a new set of locks that will be larger than the current locks but run in parallel with them, due 2014.
I just finished reading "The Path Between the Seas" by McCullough. It is a wonderful and detailed history of the creation of the Panama canal from the 1870s, the days of Colombia and France, until 1914 when the United States opened the canal for business. Highly recommended.
04/04/2008, Lemon Bay
There is only one approved yacht anchorage in the Colon area and it is the F anchorage, also known as "The Flats". We have seen the port authorities run people out of other anchorages (outside of the Shelter Bay entrance for instance).
Anchoring is in as much as 30 or 40 feet of water and it is fairly choppy most of the time. On the bright side it is a short dinghy trip to the Panama Canal Yacht Club dock.
04/03/2008, Fort Sherman
When we go for walks in the rain forest in the evenings the Monkeys always come to watch the strange primates that can't climb in the trees.
04/02/2008, Panama Canal
We went fly fishing up one of the legs of the Chagres river today with Sugawara San from the Lagoon 470 Wakamizu. It is the peak of the dry season and the river is back filled with salt water, which is my excuse for not catching anything. We had a lot of fun though. Their 40 hp makes short work of blasting around Lemon Bay.
That evening we were invited to dinner aboard Wakamizu. Nirai and Nobu cooked a wonderful beef stew. Chris and Sophia, Australians from the boat next door (need to get the name...), joined us as well. A good time was had by all.
04/01/2008, Lemon Bay
Exploring the rivers in the Lemon Bay area is a lot of fun. Sit quietly and you will hear branches snapping as the monkeys come to take a look at you. If you are lucky the Howler Monkeys will show up and put on a display with their thunderous howling. If you're really lucky you may see a crocodile, tapir, toucan or other critters.
03/31/2008, Punta Shelter
Shelter Bay is a small bay tucked back in at the western end of the Lemon Bay breakwater. The bay sits between the thin western peninsula of the mainland and a point extending to the south know as Shelter Point. Fort Sherman is located on Shelter Point. It was an American base (as so many things here were). It is now mostly unused although the Panama military does use it from time to time. If you hike through to the south you get to the beach on the Lemon Bay side. It will not strike you the way the Caribbean brochure does but it is a beach.