The Panama Canal Transit - Part 1
09 February 2015
It's dark as we raise anchor. Shades of black surround us: black sea, black sky and black gates blending into one another. There is a feeling of electricity in the air. Emotions range from excitement, to apprehension, to confusion, of moving towards the unknown. It is rare for us to raise anchor in total darkness. Dennis' voice is muffled, lost in the wind. Our instrument lights aren't set properly at the moment and I can't see them or his hand signals in the darkness as I try to steer Centime towards the anchor. There are large boats everywhere.
The Canal Advisor onboard relays Dennis' message that the anchor is up, and gives an order to move the boat to starboard. We motor towards the massive gates rising 30 feet from the sea. It is strange to think that on the far side of the wall 30 feet of water hovers above us, a powerful force against the wall. Eddies of water rush through side channels in turbulent curls. Soon the first lock will be empty, at sea level, and will open to receive Centime.
Before we enter Dennis rafts Centime aside two boats; I work with our friends Mark and Eileen to secure Centime with heavy lines and rubber tires. Our three boats enter the first lock as one, behind a 400-500 foot tanker. Golden light floods our path as we enter, and the scene is transported from one of ominous gloom to that of bright promise. Canal workers carrying ropes walk high above us, preparing to throw us their lines.
Soon our thick lines are around bollards and the gates begin to close. Looking up from the sea, to the workers 30 feet above, there is a gigantic ship in the opposite lane behind them. The black side wall of the canal merges with the black hull of the ship. We are at the bottom of a lock that will soon flood with water while the giant ship is at the top in a separate lane across from Centime. We are dwarfed behind this massive futuristic ship.
We spend the next two hours working lines, rising through each of three chambers traveling towards the high point of the continental divide. Just before 10:00pm we reach our halfway point at start of Gatun Lake. We will spend the night here.
The lake is still and black. We open a bottle of red wine and raise our glasses, grateful to bring Centime to this crossroads. It is a joyful occasion, a major step for us towards the South Pacific.