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Adventures with David & Gail
Panama Canal Saga!
10 February 2013 | Panama City, Panama
Panama Canal Saga – (Or Taxis, Buses, and Boats! - our version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles!) We had searched for several days toward the end of January while in the marina at Shelter Bay for someone needing line handlers to help in a Panama Canal crossing. As things turned out, our friends Ben and Anya on “Giggles” (I just love that name. It makes me laugh!), a 42 ft. Hallberg Rassy ketch, were planning a crossing on February 6th and asked us to help if we could make it back to Shelter Bay by then. We were in the process of leaving the marina and heading 150 miles west to the Bocas archipelago so the logistics were going to be a little convoluted. But we needed to be in Panama City on at least the 9th anyway to catch our flight back to Miami for the boat show. So….

Needless to say we researched all our options just short of renting a car and determined that the best way from a cost and scenic standpoint was to take the Express bus. So, we got our tickets and packed for two trips; the short trip across the canal and the longer trip back to Miami. We buttoned up WD and left here in the hands of some friends still in the marina. At 5:30 on the 4th we were ready to go.

Our first leg was only back to Bocas Town. We had a panga launch scheduled for 5:45 AM with Cholo. It is a short leg but very early. He was on time! A very pleasant surprise. It was pretty dark with only a sliver of a crescent moon still up. He loaded us up and skidded across an almost flat bight in the dark to Bocas. Also surprising was the number of other boats already out as well. Everyone was going to work. Kind of a Bocas rush hour! Anyway we got to the Bocas docks in time to catch the water taxi for the next leg to Almirante on the mainland. The water taxi turned out to be just a bigger panga with a bigger outboard but it was packed full. In fact, it probably failed the US Coast Guard regulations in every way.

Almirante is about 10 miles away. The sun was just coming up as we came into the little water taxi dock in town. Our next leg was to the bus station on the “highway”. It was only a couple of miles and handled by a pleasant taxi driver with a Suzuki 4-door pickup. Things went so well we were about an hour early and discovered that the bus was a ½ hour late. With no coffee or pastries around, we just sat and waited. But better to be early than late! When the bus arrived, it turned out to be a nice Mercedes Benz Marco Polo luxury bus as advertised. The leg to Panama City was scheduled for 10 hours although only about 200 miles. We settled in for a long day.

The trip was slow but scenic as it wound up through the mountains. Basically, we went to Grande Chiriqui for a quick breakfast stop and to change some passengers. Then it was back on the road over the Continental Divide almost due south to pick up the CA1 highway to Panama City. On the southern side the landscape turned flatter and dryer with more farms and ranches. But it was still a very nice view across the mountain ranges and then down to the Pacific Ocean. At 2:00 pm, we stopped for a late lunch at a major bus stop in Santiago. Everyone jumped off for a cafeteria style lunch but we had already eaten sandwiches and settled for ice cream! Again, back on the road and to the National Bus Terminal in Panama at exactly 6:30. 10 hours on the nose.

Finally a cab to our room for the night at the Cruisers Casa, a 23rd floor penthouse condo run by our friend Deb Meh who had helped Donna and Nicole on New Year’s Day. We had to bunk in the “dorm” on separate little cots but it was clean, relatively quiet and we were with other sailors. We went to a little local diner and picked up dinner to go, ate in and then crashed. The next day was also to be a travel day as we still had to get back to Shelter Bay another 60 miles away.

We wanted to stop and checkout a new microwave to replace the one on WD that seems to have gone to appliance heaven. Luckily the National Bus Terminal is next to the largest shopping mall we have ever seen. So, we slept in, Deb took us to the mall after breakfast, we selected a microwave (more on that later) and headed to the bus. In a nut shell, an hour later we were back to the Quatros Altos (remember from a few blog postings back?) and picking up the free shuttle on to Shelter Bay. Anya from “Giggles” actually happened to be there as well, picking up some final provisions for the crossing, so we arrived just in time to help. We had made it back.

That night we stayed on “Makai” with Vincent and Celine and slept in the front cabin of a Caliber 47 for the first time. Not bad, but I like my aft cabin better. The next morning we moved over to “Giggles” and started getting ready for the crossing. The crew besides us was Ben and Anya and their friends, Judith, and Hans Pieter. The others are all Dutch.

The first part of the trip involves a lot of waiting. Each boat going through the locks must have 4 x 200 foot 1” dock lines and 12 old tires to be used as fenders. These had been delivered to “Giggles” the day before and that took all of about 15 minutes to get them mounted. Ben wanted pads placed over the hatches and solar panels to protect them from the flying “monkey fists” (more on that later) and that took another 30 minutes. We were all ready to go. We had to be in the Flats by the canal entrance at 3:00 pm and it was about 10:00 am.

We milled about, said good byes to our friends Bob and Vicky again. They are still waiting on the generator to be fixed. Vincent and Celine had gone looking for a new outboard motor gas tank so they were gone. We found that our family of friends on “One World” had given up cruising for now, left the boat and gone back to Wisconsin. Don’t they know its winter there?! Our friends on “Skye” were there, had just done an insurance survey, and found their keel was loose! Ugh! On the same dock, we found “Apparition”, our friends Rico and Jackson whom we last saw in Bonaire in August. We met another couple from Italy on a Caliber 40 named “Artemisia” who had just returned to Panama and were getting ready to go to the San Blas. And I got a lead on a listing on a nice Catamaran for sale as Ben was hollering for me to get aboard. I guess you could say I took good advantage of the extra time! We were finally off on our Panama Canal Saga!

The Flats are an anchorage area around the corner from the marina and nearer the Port of Colon. We anchored in some sloppy chop and waited for our canal advisor to arrive. We were also expecting to see some other sailboats since usually you raft up with at least one other boat. For example, Ben and Anya had gone through the canal last week on a “practice” run with 9 sailboats. But we were the only ones there.

As the advisor finally approached on the pilot boat we realized the transit was about to begin and we were the only sailboat. Our first set up locks were just a mile away and we were ready! Guillermo, our advisor, was in charge. Ben was on the helm, Anya was taking pictures and the rest of us had assignments to handle one of the dock lines. We were going into the Gatun locks behind a refrigeration ship or reefer named aptly “Pacific Reefer” and that just happened to be hailing from Curacao. Ben and Anya thought that was apropos since “Giggles” was also a Curacao flagged vessel. We were to be center locked meaning we would be exactly in the center by ourselves for the Gatun transit.

We pulled in behind the reefer and the line handlers on the lock wall each threw a monkey fist line at us! Sounds harmless. This line is only about a 3/16” line and easier to handle than the big dock lines. We were to attach the monkey fist line to our line and then the line handler would haul the larger line to the wall and secure it to a bollard. To describe the “monkey fist” as harmless was a misnomer. Remember Ben putting the padding on the breakable parts. The “monkey fist” is a ball of lead wrapped in a specially named knot on the end of the line. It is hard! And heavy. I thought about wearing a hard hat after I heard the first one land! Kerthunk! Bang! But those line handlers were pros and were used to flinging the things at pros as well. Nothing broken. Nothing painful!

We all set our lines tight and “Giggles” was secure in the locks. The water started rising at an amazing pace (about 1 foot per 10 seconds!). We were being lifted toward Gatun Lake. It would take 3 locks to raise us about 85 feet. Our job was to take in the slack in the lines as the boat was raised and keep her steady in the middle. Needless to say, we were awesome! Up one, into the next. Up again, and into the third. Finally, up one more and into the lake. All in about 1 ½ hours. The advisor took us around the corner to a mooring (a huge mooring!) and we rafted up for the night. The sun was setting as the pilot boat came and Guillermo left us in time to go watch Panama play Costa Rica in soccer! We were in the canal!

Up early, our second advisor, Francisco, came at 6:30 am. (He told us that Panama had tied 2-2.) He had us underway immediately and we took off across the lake for the Pedro Miguel locks about 30 miles away. Ben set “Giggles” at 2500 rpm and we were making about 7 kts over the smooth water. The lake looked like a big beautiful, well, lake! Very peaceful and quiet. It is basically a private lake controlled by the canal authority. This lake was also the easiest part of the canal to complete since it was an old river channel that generated a large river valley. When dammed and filled, the resultant lake was the perfect length and depth for the canal. It is 20 miles to cross the lake and arrive at the entrance of the Guilliard Cut. As we made our way, periodically large ships would pass us going toward the Caribbean.

The Guilliard Cut was the most difficult part of the canal as the French found out early. The cut goes about 10 miles from the lake to the other side of the continental divide. In other words, to be at the lake level, a 10 mile channel wide enough for the ships had to be cut through the mountain of rock. When the US took over the construction in 1903, they employed different techniques and machinery that the French did not have and after almost 10 years made the cut a reality. Now we passed new large dredgers currently in use as the Canal is being widened again to accommodate the large post-panamax ships that are longer and wider than the canal can handle now. Other construction on the new locks could also be seen at each end. Completion of the new locks and dredging is scheduled for 2015. More on that later.

Finally, we arrived at Pedro Miguel and were requested to raft onto a training ship going through at the same time. This was a different approach and, except for passing dock lines to the ship’s crewmen, we had nothing to do. One lock down and that was it. The Pedro Miguel lock is separated from the Mira Flores Locks by the little, mile long Mira Flores Lake.

Francisco told us we were going through the last set of locks alone and would be center moored. Ben was not quite sure what that meant but we soon found out that indeed we were the only boat in the lock. A 1000 ft. x 110 ft. x 42 ft. box of water holding 25,000,000 gallons of water was reserved just for us. This was very unusual. But there were no other boats scheduled so we were on our own. We had the both locks all to ourselves AND the gallery of tourists at the Mira Flores Visitor Center watching! They all must have thought it strange too. This little boat in the big lock! We had no problem at the first lock. We secured the lines and did the opposite of the day before. We let the lines out as the water went down. But, of course as things happen when people are watching, we had our only glitch with the lines in the second lock when the current pulled some of the lines out of our hands before we got them secured. It didn’t take long and there was no damage as we finally got the lines secure. We were not centered, but were able to correct that as the water lowered. We were lowered to the level of the Pacific Ocean and we had made our crossing!

Ben pulled into the Balboa Yacht Club fuel dock, picked up a mooring and called another water taxi. We said good bye, passed around our hugs and kisses (Dutch style) and hopped on the water taxi. It was so cool. We were back in Panama City. And what do you know? There was “Windancer” with Ellen and George at the water dock. We had last seen them in Santa Marta in November. They were through the canal and heading home across the Pacific to New Zealand. Small world.

So, as the title might suggest, this posting was a little longer than most. But what do you expect for a Saga? Whew!

Now we are in Panama City and plan some exploring before we go back to Miami. Thanks for hanging in there with us!