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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
The Crane
04/08/2008, Gamboa

The local word is that this is the second largest crane in the world. The Americans took it from Hitler's Germany after World War II and relocated it here to assist with maintenance on the canal. Whatever its pedigree, it is big!

Line Handler Part II - Day II
04/07/2008, 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.

Line Handler Part II
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.

The Max
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.

The Flats
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.

Fishing the Chagres
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.


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