03 April 2009 | Panama City
Well, we've finally done it!! After all those months of slight but increasing anxiety, we have done the Panama Canal transit. And it was fantastic!!
We had read and heard lots about the crossing over the last few months, most of it horror stories about boats being crushed against the sides or breaking down and having to be towed out at huge cost! The most dangerous part is at the end of the upward lockage when you are usually behind a large car or bulk carrier. These are pulled out by the electric locomotives on both sides but are often so heavy they need to power out causing really strong propwash that can have any yachts all over the place. We had imagined all this but in the end, it was the easiest crossing. We were rafted up to an Aussie boat, Mikado, who we had met in Aruba and again in Cartagena, San Blas and Colon (their names are Ian and Jenny and their two kids but in this world, everyone is known by their boat name! They are on their way back to Brisbane so we should see them all the way.)
We had to hire an agent ($200) and he organised a line handler to come with us ($130) and 10 tyres around the boat to act as fenders ($30) He also takes you to the Canal transit office where you pay $600 for the crossing and a bond of $871 which hopefully we get back in 6 weeks (this is in case you have to be towed out or cause any damage!)
We left on Monday at 4pm having been joined by Vladamir, our line handler who, it turned out, had never done it before and couldn't tie a bowline! We all had to wait on the flats over at the beginning of the Gatun Locks where a boat brought all the advisers out to join the boats. Every boat has one and ours was called Manuel. He was brilliant and explained everything that would happen and really calmed our nerves. We rafted up to Mikado and went into the first of three locks which raise you up 26 metres. The chambers are 35 metres wide and 304 metres long and each one raises you up about 27 feet. When you're at the bottom looking up, it seems a long way. The line handlers on the sides of the lock throw you down a line with a monkey fist on it, a sort of weighted knot, which you catch and attach the 120' lines to (with a bowline which I have now mastered as our line handler couldn't!) Then they pull the lines up and attach them to cleats. As the water goes up, you take in the slack.
Once though the Gatun Locks, you arrive in Gatun Lake, a fresh water lake caused by damning the Chagres River. They moor you there on huge buoy for the night with all the other yachts and then, the following morning, a new adviser comes and takes you through the next set of locks down to the Pacific side. Our new one was called Astrix and he never stopped talking, mainly about how clever he was! We motored 37 kilometres to the Gaillard Cut which is cut through rock and is 13.7 km long and entered the Pedro Miguel locks. The first lock takes you down 9 metres to the Miraflores Lake and the last two Miraflores Locks, which are over 1609 metres in length, take you down to the Pacific Ocean. Because of the extreme tidal variations, the Miraflores Lock gates are the tallest.
The whole trip was just such a fabulous experience. Everyone on the lock sides waved. The locomotive drivers waved at you The line handlers posed for photographs. The crews on the huge cargo ships waved and all the other yachties were beaming at each other! We all took photos of each other's boat and swapped e mail addresses to send them on. I took 176 photos and you'll be pleased to know I have only put a few on here!
Mike - we waved at every camera we saw on the canal but Andy only managed a half-moon in front of the Miraflores Lock camera! I think nerves got to him! However, not sure cameras were working so you probably wouldn't have been able to catch us. We went though them at about midday on Tuesday, 6 pm your time, so have a look around that time. I think you can look back on the website.
I've also caught up with putting some other photos of our travels on so you can see what we've been up to. I haven't worked out how to label them yet (Becky, write and tell me how you do it!)
We have been moored by Balboa Yacht Club since then. Joe is moving off the boat today and having a few days in a hotel in Panama City. We think it's so he can have a shower lasting longer than 15 seconds (we're on water restriction as we only carry 550 litres!) It's been great having him with us especially in that rough weather and we're really glad he could come with us. We are now debating whether to try and get someone to come with us on the crossing to the Marquesas or to go it alone. Meanwhile we are going to move the boat to an anchorage about a mile away where all the other cruisers are and sort ourselves out for next leg.
The weather here in Panama is Very Hot! Hotter than anywhere we've been so far. We dash from air-conditioned taxis to air conditioned shopping malls! I have lost my glasses and lovely Marilyn Cobbett took me to an optician for a sight test and new ones. Very funny trying to tell the Panamanian optometrist what was clearer than what when she was trying to get my eye prescription. She held up a card at the end and asked me what I could read. 'Nothing' I said 'It was all in Spanish. God knows if I'll be able to see anything when I get them!
I'll try and do another blog before we leave. Meanwhile, keep in touch and enjoy the Spring/Autumn. Jx