Line Handler Part II - Day II
07 April 2008 | Panama Canal
The howler monkeys begin their howling at about 6AM. If you are sleeping outside, or your boat is not well insulated, this is when you get up. Howlers are considered the loudest land animal and are among the largest of the new world monkeys. While it is very easy to hear one it is fairly hard to catch sight of one. A cab driver Hideko chatted with on the subject said he had see a howler once, and he had lived in Panama 65 years!
The advisor arrived at 07:00 and shortly thereafter we were underway. The most amazing thing about crossing the canal is that it is not a canal. It is a lake. A lake in the middle of the jungle. There's a bit of canal feel at the south end coming through the astounding Gaillard cut but most of the trip is literally through the jungle. It is one of the most pleasant day cruises you could ask for.
Another remarkable thing about the canal zone is that everything in the entire area is so well marked it makes US waters look ill tended to, to say nothing of the rest of Panama or South America. Even the banks of the canal are lit along the big boat channel.
Small boats take the Banana Channel through Gatun lake. This is a short cut that the large boats stay out of previously plied by the Banana Boats. You can almost hear Harry Bellefonte. We never saw less than 30 feet of water but I guess the lake can get lower than it was when we went through. Rahula has a Yanmar 27hp outboard diesel. The first I'd ever seen. It was a cool beast. We ran out the jib and motor sailed at around 6 knots in the flat lake with little wind. It was as pleasant a trip as you could ask for.
There's a place in Gatun lake I had read about in "The Tapir's Morning Bath: Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest and the Scientists Who Are Trying to Solve Them", called Barro Colorado island. It is the home of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a center devoted to the study of everything associated with the jungle. Bugs, plants, bats, you name it. It was an enjoyable book and I was very pleased to finally see the place, deemed the best studied patch of rainforest in the world. It is also unique because while just another part of the rain forest in times of old, for the past 100 years it has been an isolated, largely unchanging island, thanks to the man made Gatun lake.
As we came out of the Banana Channel and rejoined the main route the large ships began to pass again on their way to the northern lock we had come from. As you go by the Gamboa area you get a look at some of the cranes and dredgers still in use daily.
The Gaillard cut through the continental divide is massive. It is the narrowest bit of the canal and you can easily see why. Huge land slides have plagued the area in the rainy season from the first day of digging. The canal folks just keep digging the spills out and moving the mountains back. Just when it looked like the mountains might be content they will have to widen things for the huge vessels that will come through the larger locks.
The south side of the canal has two locks, the Pedro Miguel and the Mira Flores. We rafted up just before the Pedro Miguel and entered the lock where a tour boat from Panama City was already on the wall. Going down was easier than going up. Going up you have to pull in the line as the boat rises to keep the raft centered. Going down you monkeys fist can almost be handed to you and you simply let the line out at the right speed as you go down.
The only bit of extra work comes when you have to let go of the messenger lines to cross Mira Flores lake. Mira Flores is a small lake so you stay rafted up on the way through. Once in the first chamber of the Mira Flores lock on the south side of the lake you take the messenger line, tie up the big lines and drop down again. They walk you forward into the second chamber and you're off into the Pacific.
The last chamber is the biggest of them all due to the tides on the Pacific side. The Pacific tides are a shocker for a lot of the American Caribbean cruisers. You almost never see more than a foot of tide from the Bahamas through to Panama. When we arrived in the Bay of Panama on the Pacific side the tidal range was 15 feet!
Rahula made her way nicely down toward Balboa Yacht Club after an easy transit. The Pilot boat picked up our advisor and then we tied up at the fuel dock to off load the rented lines and tires.
The Balboa Yacht Club is not much of a yacht club. It is basically a mooring field with less than optimal old-tire moorings. The "club" is a fuel dock (floating of course) and a building that looks nice and from what I hear has a bar and grill.
James and Amelia moved on to La Playita anchorage. This is a rolly but otherwise nicely located anchorage just at the end of the breakwater. It is a short dinghy hop to the fisherman's dock which is located right in the middle of a group of shops, restaurants and even a decent chandlery.
The crew celebrated a safe crossing and arrival in the Pacific with a bottle of champagne. With regrets I headed ashore as the sun began to set.
Tony the famed cruisers taxi driver met me at the pier. Not everyone will take you all the way to Colon from Panama City. It is a long way and the cab driver typically has to go both ways to get home.
It was a great trip with wonderful folks. We hope to see Rahula again in the Pacific.