12 March 2018
Photo: Entering Gatun Locks
We arrived at Shelter Bay Marina at midday Monday 5th March after seeing the most ships we have seen since the Malacca Straits in Singapore. The tankers and cargo ships anchored out and going in and out of the harbour and entrance for the Panama Canal. We met with our Panama Canal Agent, Roy Bravo, later the same day and were informed the measurers would be coming the following day.
Tuesday at 11:15 the official ACP Measurer arrived to measure Dol and fill in the forms to accept us for transit through the canal. It was then a waiting game for a transit slot to be allocated.
Wednesday, as Brian changed the exhaust elbow in the generator, Gail took the marina shopping bus to the supermarket for some supplies. The trip into Colon was interesting, first it was through a pot holed road that went through the mangroves/forest, and past abandoned homes and gated communities. It was then onto a car ferry across the river and into the shopping mall. By the time we arrived we only had an hour to get our groceries and be back on the bus for the return trip. If the bus was crowded going to the mall, by the time we all got on with our shopping it was very packed. The return trip went a different route, past the locks of the Panama Canal, our first look at what we will be going through soon.
Back in the marina we met Ross and Jo Blackman, Sojourn 11, another New Zealand boat and later in the day Adam Minoprio and his family came in on their NZ boat.
Thursday morning, 8th March, we were notified of a Panama Canal transit date of 30th March, further out than we would have liked, but out of our control. Thursday night we checked emails at 21:15 and in came an email from our agent, Roy, saying 2 slots had become available for 11th March and would we be ready. We replied in the affirmative and he asked if Pelizeno would also be ready. We knocked on their hull and confirmed with them they were ready. All set, we were re-scheduled for Sunday. The following 2 days were busy getting last minute jobs completed and the boat prepared. Pelizeno were due to go later in the day than us so had a little more time. Saturday we attended the Pacific Puddle Jumpers 2018 seminar in the morning, the lines and fenders for the canal transit were delivered and in the afternoon at approximately 17:00 Pelizeno received a phone call asking if they could go in the morning with us. It appears you have to be very flexible and prepared if you want to get through the canal. We had a lovely evening with everyone, Raftkin, Sojourn 11, La Cigale and the Minoprio’s, Saturday night with dinner at the marina accompanied by the “bring your own instrument” band.
Sunday 11th March and we were up at 05:00 ready to receive line handlers and head out to the Flats Anchorage to pick up our Panama Canal Transit Advisor. In the cockpit we made sure our canal transit number was clearly displayed as this is what we would use when in contact with the Signal Station. We motored out of Shelter Bay Marina at 06:30 and anchored at the Flats anchorage, gave the line handlers, Omar, Allan and Daniel breakfast and waited for the Advisor. As it happened we had 2 Advisors, Hector who was in training but we were his last boat before graduation, and Roy his assessor. The Assessor is the equivalent of a pilot for small boats transiting the canal. They had the canal schedule for the day and knew which ship we would be following, which as it turned out was changed at the last minute. Again everything is fluid with the canal. We upped anchor and motored to the first of the three canal Gatun locks. Just before entering the lock we rafted up on the starboard side of Pelizeno in the middle and an Australian monohull on the port side. We would be going through the locks with a passenger ship, Wind Star, so after he had moved into the lock and connected to the locomotives that would hold it, we entered. The water depth went from 13.3m to 21.4m in 8 minutes, as we rose to the height of the next lock, behind us a large container ship was already waiting to enter the lock once we left. The signal was given, the dock lines were slackened and the lines were walked to the next lock were the process was repeated again for the second and third locks. At 11:30 approximately we exited the last of the Gatun Locks and were in Gatun Lake. The transit across the lake, about 19.4 miles, time for the line handlers to relax and lunch to be cooked and served. With large ships also transiting the lake, Hector was constantly asking Brian to speed up, slow down or alter course slightly as we negotiated our way across. Before the last set of locks is an area known as the Gaillard Cut, which when the large ships are transiting becomes a one way channel. Unfortunately for us, a 353m container ship was coming through from the Pacific side, which meant we had to slow down and in the end probably cost us 2hrs.
The Pacific Locks are slightly different as they go down not up for us, therefore the passenger ship was behind us. The 3 locks are also not joined, you first go through the Pedro Miguel lock, then remain rafted together to cross the Miraflores lake (only short) and then the last 2 locks are joined. By the time we transited through them it was dark but we were through and back in the Pacific, a major milestone completed for this year.
We enjoyed our day transiting the canal, the professional line handlers were friendly and competent, there was plenty of time when we were rafted to socialize with Pelizeno and take photos. Brian had to be vigilant on the helm and Gail had to make sure there was plenty of bottled water, food and snacks for everyone. We put up the large shade cover over the back deck which was much appreciated and everyone seemed to get along. The only downside for us is that our Iridium Go stopped working, so something to get fixed in Panama before we move on. The canal is very busy with the locks operating 24x7 and from what we saw, always with someone going through. Gatun Lake had a steady line of ships and smaller boats making their way across the lake. The Canal is the largest employer in Panama and a very popular workplace with most people working there until retirement.
May our Pacific adventures commence?