October 20 - November 25, 2009
Journal 23; Panama Canal Transit
Crossing the Panama Canal is a special event and we were awestruck and humbled to have the experience. Since the handover of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama on December 31, 1999, the service, maintenance and management of the canal has continued to be first class. If desired, please read our brief synopsis of the building of the Panama Canal by clicking on this link: Canal History.
We were in Shelter Bay Marina in our last update, where we were organizing our canal crossing and getting some upgrades to El Regalo. The biggest improvement was replacing all of the canvas (thank you Roman of ABC Canvas). This took 3 weeks but we didn’t need to be there every day so we headed out to the Chagres River for a week of wildlife watching. Once again we were treated to the sights and sounds of howler monkeys, toucans, parrots, sloth and white-faced monkeys. The river really is a magical place. Click the following for a not-so-great video, but awesome sound track of the howler monkeys, Chagres Howlers.
Back at the marina we were fortunate to be invited to cross the canal by Juan Pablo (JP) aboard his boat, s/v Blue Interlude. JP is from Chile but now living in Michigan. He was delivering a boat purchased in Chicago and sailing south to Chile. Unfortunately, Juan Pablo and his brothers had been recently attacked by pirates 20 miles offshore of Nicaragua and they stole their money, cameras, electronics and his dinghy motor.
Back to the crossing, transiting the canal in another boat provided experience of what to expect. The good news is that the crossing of s/v Blue Interlude was very smooth and without incident. We were rafted (tied) together with another sailboat so we only had to handle two of the four lines (port), with the other boat kept us centered in the locks by handling the other two lines (starboard).
Before El Regalo crossed, our sailing friends Mike & Susan flew to Panama to join us. Mike had always wanted to make the canal transit so they did not pass up the experience. They were gracious to bring “a boat load” of parts, etc. to us from the States. So of course we had to spend a few days doing chores. We fixed a flat on the dinghy, replaced the wind transducer that required JoDon to go 65’ high in the sky via the bosoms chair, and several other chores too boring to mention. Then it was time to start the celebrations for Mike’s 59th birthday!
The morning of the transit we took delivery of rented 110’lines and 16 tires wrapped in plastic (for protection from other vessels or the walls). We also welcomed onboard Lynn whom we met while playing volleyball at the marina. Lynn wanted to join us to compliment her world travels and mountain hikes, which includes the Himalayas and most of the world’s tallest peaks. Also onboard was Edgar, a paid line handler, as the Canal requires four line handlers + the captain.
With birthday balloons and the Texas Longhorn flag flying we departed Shelter Bay Marina, Colón in the late afternoon of November 16 headed toward ‘The Flats’ where we were to rendezvous with our advisor from the ACP (Authoridad del Canal de Panama). All boats must have an advisor or a pilot. A boat pilot has a legal responsibility for a ship but an advisor only provides information and coordinates by radio with the ACP. Since we are small, we only require an advisor to provide information. Advisors do not touch the helm or any lines.
to allow the two ships to proceed ahead before rafting up again. There was very little maneuvering room to our side and aft. With the strong lock currents and the prop wash generated by the other two ships giant engines, El Regalo was pushed into the starboard side of the wall and there was little to be done about it. Fortunately we suffered no damage thanks to the tires, our fenders and the efforts of the crew to push with their feet against the wall.
For the second lock our advisor changed the configuration by having the trawler against the wall and we were rafted next to the tug. Click here for a video of the chamber starting to fill. Unfortunately our size with the tug was a mismatch and it required the full effort of our crew for El Regalo not to be damaged by the tugboat. We broke apart after the second lock but did not hit the wall. That was the good news. The bad news was that we avoided the rough wall by retreating to the very end of the lock. Again, the strong currents tried to push El Regalo every which-way. Since we were at the end of the lock, we had ‘run out of real estate’ to maneuver. Fortunately we suffered no damage other than the captain’s and crew’s frayed nerves.
For the final lock we went back to the first configuration and I asked the advisor for us to advance out of the lock ahead of the other two ships and thus avoided all of the prop wash and anxiety. After safely moored for the night our ‘advisor’ was picked up. After a nerve racking evening I announced, “I need a drink.” After a few cocktails and dinner it soon became 1 am and we had to sleep fast to be prepared for the 6:30 am arrival of our next advisor.
Slow northbound sailboats usually go through the Gatún locks, a series of three locks in the evening and then spend the night in Gatún Lake. The water level in each lock rise approximately 28 feet. The challenge is the intense currents that occur when the locks are flooded. At the last minute our advisor decided we were to be tied to a tugboat and a fishing trawler to go thru these three locks. He assured us this would make for a safer transit but this advice made for a much more exciting trip than the normal method.
The second day of our crossing was spent motoring across Lake Gatún and going down through the final three locks. When approaching a lock four line handlers walk alongside the edge of the canal. Upon a signal from our advisor, they hurl a ‘monkey fist’ (a ball shaped of twisted line) over the top of your boat. You must have your head on a swivel because suddenly there are four monkey fists flying through the air which could give you a mild concussion if hit in the head.
The next step is to attach our long lines to the monkey fists. The ACP guys then retrieve and attach our lines to the lock walls, the gates are closed and it is now up to us to keep our vessel centered in the middle of the lock while the water level drops. Then the gate ahead opens, we motor through while the guys on land carry the lines and then they tie them off, shut the gate behind us and do it all over again. El Regalo was in the lock by itself so the passage was uneventful, which is a great thing. With each lock draining, rather than filling, there is little water movement and turbulence within the locks.
Lynn and Edgar as we enter the first lock on the Pacific side. Note the water level at the gate at the end of the chamber.
This is the same gate being opened after the water was let out.
Line handler removing our line from the bolard and walking it down the slope as we motor through, then attaching it in the next chamber.
The gate, now behind us, closes and the water drops again.
Our advisor was picked up at Balboa and we safely anchored at Playa Flamenco, Panama City around 3pm. After scrubbing the boat and getting things in order, the crew celebrated with “Welcome to the Pacific Ocean” evening cocktails.
With Panama City in the horizon (it’s a Miami Beach skyscraper look-alike), JoDon and I were very proud to have come so far in our brief sailing careers. We have had our moments, both great and not so great, but we made it to the Pacific! As our past filled our heads, we looked out to the Pacific and suddenly realized that our biggest adventures were only now beginning.
Happy holidays to everyone!
Brian and JoDon
A HUGE thanks to Susan for taking all the photos during the crossing!!
During the first lock, the tug was against the wall, then the big industrial fishing trawler, then El Regalo. El Regalo’s size and the trawlers were not the same when lashed together so we definitely used all our tires plus our own fenders to prevent our teak rails being destroyed by the trawler’s rusted steel hull. That was nerve racking as we made our ascent, but when we broke apart to make the approach to the next lock it got much worse. El Regalo had to break apart first and then fall back within the lock
Lock begining to fill, notice turbulence.
Same lock full.