Panama Canal, Chapter two in the voyage of Uproar
20 February 2018
Panama Canal! Just the name conjures up images of the massive effort in mosquito infested swamps to build this wonder of the world. Estimates are that 30,000 workers died during construction. Milwaukee played a large role in building of the canal with Bucyrus Erie and Harnischfeger equipment doing the heavy digging.
Lisa and I were fortunate to have seven friends from Milwaukee come for the transit. Well they didn't all come for transit on Uproar. Karen Shipley from Milwaukee and MAST racer joined Chris Crews for extended cruising. We did introduce them in Barbados over a year ago. Karen bravely gave up her dirt-dwelling existence to join a South African with a boat name, Skabenga, meaning scoundrel in Afrikaans!
We are truly blessed to have such good friends who want to share in our adventures and support us in our travels. Glyn and Laura Livermore spent three weeks sailing with us in San Blas and left just after the canal transit. Tom Heinrich, Ken Quant, Missy Suring, Bill Ashby, and Jeff Bird traveled to Panama to help transit Uproar and Skabenga and share in the adventure. We had a great time and their presence helped overcome the greatest sacrifice in our lifestyle, missing family and friends.
All congregated at Shelter Bay Marina. This out-of-the-way marina was built from the remains of a US Navy Seal Base. Thousands of Navy Seals trained here for jungle combat during the Vietnam years. The marina is miles from Colon, there are no beaches and alligators roam the marina, inhibiting swimming. Strangely enough, this is a home base for many US and Canadian sailors. By home base, I mean they live here for years on end. There is a real yachting community here. With all of the beautiful places we have visited, SB Marina doesn't even make the top half of the list. But community is strong and there are many boats here who have not left their slips for quite a few years.
We did enjoy the camaraderie of cruisers here and the knowledge base for transiting the canal. We were encouraged to paint our boat name on the theater wall (not sail loft) as a momento of our transit. Laura Livermore, Uproar designated artist did us proud!
The transit required a lot of paperwork, measuring of Uproar and inspection of our safety gear. Cost for the transit alone was about $1500! Marina fees and other costs for the area added a bit to this. Erick Galvez was the local agent we hired. Transit can be done without an agent but Erick made this all so easy, I would highly recommend his services.
We were instructed to anchor in The Flats, commercial area of Colon and wait for our advisor. Rick, hydrographic surveyor, jumped aboard and made himself right at home. He seemed as excited as we were. Rick explained what we were to do and how to get through the locks. Uproar had a private locking throughout. We were center tied with two lines on each side. Most boats raft together to transit. Our center tie required more line handling but felt very safe.
Rick was an enthusiastic coach as we locked up the three locks to Lake Gatun. Uproar was behind a large freighter but had plenty of room. Having Glyn, Laura, Lisa, and Tom on the lines made it easy. Everyone knew just what to do and executed the transit perfectly. We rounded the corner and tied to a large buoy in Lake Gatun. Rick warned us not to swim as there were huge alligators in the lake. We heeded his advice.
Our night on the lake was quite and serene. We also had a front row seat for the huge ships entering and exiting the Gatun locks. Glyn, Tom and I sat up late watching the show. At least Glyn and Tom were, I was accused of snoring the ships through the locks.
The next day we were concerned about getting an advisor to continue. One boat we knew of was stuck in the lake for a few days as no advisors were available. Frank, 31 year veteran of the canal joined us mid-morning. Just as he climbed aboard, we saw Skebenga come through the locks. Skabenga was delayed a day. We were hoping to lock through with them but they got bumped. That meant they had to spend a night in the Colon Flats and start their transit very early in the morning.
We motored for about 4 hours to get to the next set of locks, down toward the pacific. Just before the locks we saw Skabenga tied to a mooring waiting for their turn in line. We rafted up briefly with them, then headed for the locks. Skabenga was in the west lock, Uproar in the east. It was fun to watch our friends go through, just ahead of us. Skabenga was followed by a huge auto carrier. These are rectangular beasts!
Uproar was followed by a large freighter but it was not as imposing as the auto transporter. We marveled at the electric “mules” or engines who guided and towed the freighters through the locks. Some ships have only 3 feet clearance per side while transiting. The mules keep them centered with no scratches to their paint.
Unfortunately, Frank, our advisor wasn't the cheerleader Rick was. Frank was ready to retire and I would add, overdue. At the Miraflores lock, last one, he had us pull over to a dangerous seawall. There was no wall for fenders. Lisa jumped off onto the wall (she was not supposed to leave the boat) and shoved the fenders down to save Uproar's topsides. The canal workers just stood there and watched. But enough of that, no harm, no foul!
The last lock brought us right to the famous Bridge of the Americas. What a sight! We sailed under the bridge and took a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club, right at dusk. Cheers and champagne flowed on Uproar.
I am still struck by the enormity of going through the Panama Canal. Lisa and I transited the Welland Canal from Lake Erie to Ontario (essentially the easy way down Niagra Falls). The Panama Canal itself was interesting but not that awe inspiring. The wonder of it is that we have really turned a page in our cruising life. Lisa has pressed hard to get to the South Pacific. We loved the Caribbean and would have enjoyed many more years there. But Uproar was meant to sail and so is her crew. We are now ready for the Pacific. Wish us well or better still, come and join us on Uproar.