Panama Canal Transit - Part 3
24 January 2015 | Panama City
Yes, we've made it to the Pacific. The transit through the canal was very easy, unlike the horror stories one hears. Like many things, you hear of the 2% horrible experiences but not the 98% good ones. Luckily we had great advisors and were in the 98% good experience group. The only interesting or challenging aspect was that, while we had a late afternoon start time anyway, there was some kind of global power outage in the canal zone, and our up-locking event was an hour and a half later than planned. That meant that we were approaching the canal in the dark. This was especially challenging, because there was a sea of lights at the canal entrance, boats going every which way into and out of the locks and back and forth across the entrance; and we were heading into it all. Visibility was not the best, and it was difficult to distinguish which within that sea of lights were large boats heading toward us or non-moving lights. Thankfully our advisor was on top of all that.
We were to be three boats rafted together - a 37' catamaran in the middle, a 40 monohull on his starboard side and we, a 40' monohull, on the port side. We had to raft up right before we entered the final approach slot. That wasn't too bad with all the lights at the canal, but there was still lots of scurrying around with headlamps.
The up-locking part - three chambers up 85' into Gatun Lake - is always the most difficult, because the water from the next chamber up or the lake floods into the lower chamber through a series of ports in the base of the massive concrete chamber, creating an enormous upwelling of water and much turbulence. This equates to about 22 million gallons of water in 10 or 15 minutes. Don't quote me on that stat; I don't have internet now to confirm, but let's just say it's A LOT of water, and the pressure on the lines can be significant. Every once in a while I had to "jam it" into reverse to twist us around and keep the bow of the other boat from hitting his side chamber wall. It looked a lot closer from my vantage point, across the other two boats, than was actually the case, but the name of the game is "keep the boats in the middle of the chamber, pointing straight ahead." Sometimes that is easier said than done.
We were finished and on the "doughnut" (huge mooring ball) in Lake Gatun by 9:30 PM, (rafted to another boat. A couple of beers, a few winks later, and we were up at 5:45 to make coffee and get ready for the next day.
Day two was very mellow. We motored for four and a half hours and 28 miles across Lake Gatun, avoiding 600' and 800' merchant ships around corners and through narrow straights. Thankfully with AIS, we could often "see" them on the chart plotter before we could really see them ahead of us.
We got to the first down-lock with plenty of time, so we rafted up to one of our partner boats, waited for the center catamaran and had a bountiful lunch ... just one of many culinary delights prepared in advance by Heidi. Man, did she do a great job of feeding everyone. She also did a great job of line handling, so she was actually pulling double duty. All I had to do was help keep the boats straight in the canal.
So, we rafted up again, and entered the first down-lock lock at Padro Miguel. We secured our lines; the chamber emptied, and down we went. Easy Peasy. We then motored across a small "lake" to the last two down-locks at Miraflores. Same deal: hold fast the line and just go down in two steps. All of a sudden ... da da dahhhh ... da da dahhhh ... the Rocky Theme blasted from below as the gates to the Pacific were opening. Heidi was already decked out in her "Love Wins" Rocky shirt, ready for the moment. And what a moment it was! We made it ... "Yo, Adrian ... [we] did it!"
The rest of the experience consisted simply of getting rid of the rented tires that were to protect our boat from disasters, saying good-bye to our three fantastic line-handlers, anchoring at La Playita anchorage on "the Causeway" outside Panama City, dropping off our four rented 125' long official Panama Canal "handlines," and having a cold beverage, a shower, and more beverages. We exhaled ... we were done ... we were in the Pacific Ocean. We can now contemplate the beginning of a whole new chapter. More on that as it unfolds.