PANAMA CANAL TRANSIT INTO THE PACIFIC
It was one of the best experiences of my life.
'Vessels of all sizes frequently sustain damage in the Canal and failure to
complete a transit as scheduled can be very expensive'. (Source: The
Captains Guide to transiting the Canal). Christian, Caroline Nicky and I
spent Monday morning in the hot humid conditions preparing Intrepid,
then Eric returned from Panama City and we talked through all the rope
handling. Then just as it was getting dark, our pilot/advisor Miguel,
(whose is normally a tug boat captain), arrived
at the Panama Canal Yacht Club where we were based in Colon, in a tropical
within 3 minutes we were on our way. Miguel told us we were supposed to
raft up with 2 other boats to go through, but when we arrived at Gatun Locks
totally dark, big ships were steaming past both ways in the narrow (80
metre wide) entrance channel, the wind was 30 knots gusting 40, and there
was a 2 hour unexplained delay during which we tried to avoid being run down
by large ships themselves battling the wind, tugboats and crew boats all in
this channel just a few metres from the huge lock gates. Adrenalin was
crackling all round.
Finally we were in, tied up alongside an empty tourist boat, Christian's
experience really helping with the difficult operation as the 30 knot wind
gusted into the lock trying to throw Intrepid round. The other yacht going
through (Sunstar - a Kiwi/Aussie boat)
came alongside us, and it was quickly apparent that they were 'bunnies' -
in control so Nicky Caroline and Eric had to do much of the work securing
them. We were in the lock right behind a 600 foot long freighter, peering up
at its stern. As soon as the
gates were shut, the water rushed into the lock through 100 channels, and
the lines stretched so much I thought they might break (they frequently do).
But when we finally
rose the 30 feet in the first lock and the freighter started to move into
the 2nd chamber we were hit with worse turbulence. We had to motor into the
2nd lock ourselves till attached to Sunstar), using our engine. With
arc lights throwing dramatic shadows and the wind still gusting this took
time but finally we were tied to our tourist boat, and again up 30 feet, and
again and finally after 3 locks and 85 feet up at 10.30 pm we motored half a
mile into fresh water Gatun Lake (40 feet deep - the largest man made lake
in the world when it was constructed in 1910 to form the middle 20 miles of
the canal and the water to drive the locks) and moored to an old buoy.
Immediately the pilot boat arrived to pick up Miguel. As he left he said
that we had
been 'very professional'. Nice to hear. We collapsed in halfway celebration
with chicken curry and beer.
Miguel had warned us to expect our Tuesday pilot to come at 6am, so I was up
to meet him, but it wasn't until 7am that Reuben, our Tuesday pilot arrived
by pilot boat, and
with no time to lose we were off in another downpour that soaked everyone.
We were concerned we might be too slow and cause delays because we might
have been scheduled for 8 knots, so we dashed though
Banana Cut short cut at a rollicking 7.5 knots spotting monkeys and toucans
and parrots in the trees and only began to relax after
hours when we were just 7 miles from the first Pacific Lock and well ahead
our scheduled time of midday, and we ended up going 2 knots. Reuben (another
tug boat captain) was a very different character to Miguel, he set up his
golfing chair on the foredeck, and directed from there. He was a bit
taciturn, but warmed up a bit when I asked how he became a Pilot.
Apparently the Canal Authority used to train pilots on the small boats but
now use full tug boat captains. Reuben explained that when the Americans
were in charge of the Canal from when it was built in 1908-1914 (initiated
Teddy Roosevelt to allow the American Pacific fleet to get to the Atlantic
and vice-versa) until the
handover to the Panama Canal Authority in 1999, they had promoted mainly
English speaking locals originally from Jamaica. These people were now in
charge, and 'poor' Reuben had to rotate between tugs and piloting.
There are 3 locks down to the Pacific - the first, Pedro Miguel is at the
end of Guillard Cut, the most difficult stretch of the canal, 8 miles long
and named after the American engineer in charge. It is still sliding into
the canal and the authorities keep on widening it, to allow 2 Panamax ships
to pass, and thereby increase traffic flow. We tied up next to another
tourist boat, but this one was packed, so we were photographed from every
angle and asked questions (eg how much had we paid to transit - answer about
$2000 - depending on how much of our deposit the Canal retain). Down 30
feet, then into the last pair, Miraflores with a webcam. On the
first, Sunstar came up to raft with us at about 4 knots, and Caroline only
had a second or so to attach their stern line and help them to stop. Neat
work. Eric was the Intrepid photographer, plus bowman, while Nicky handled
springs. Down 30
feet, then into the final lock. Here the Pacific salt water rushes in under
the fresh Gatun Lake water which then creates a 2-4 knot current out to the
Pacific, so we had to tie on quickly.
and Sunstar rushed up - unfortunately with her stern line wound round her
stern rail. Christian noticed, and we unravelled it and helped them tie up
finally. At last the gates nudged open and we motored slowly into the
Pacific. Quite a feeling for all of us. The pilot boat came for Reuben, and
as he left he forgot himself sufficiently to tell us we had all done very
professionally. 2 compliments in a row from 2 tug boat captains/pilots - we
felt the hard work had paid off.
Then under the Bridge of Americas which for a long time was the only
land link between north and south America, and VHF 6 to Balboa Yacht Club.
Wed negotiated a reasonable mooring (there are no slips, but the moorings
seem very secure ($0.30/foot/day), and we admired the Pacific and the ships
passing by only 100 metres away - a bit like camping by the M25, but the
weather is superb - light breeze, low humidity and 8000 miles of Pacific
stretching to Australia. Job done - so far.
The Panama Canal actually runs south east from the Atlantic to the Pacific
(hence the Pub Quiz - if you go from the Atlantic on the Canal are you going
east or west? Answer: East). The French de Lesseps had first try at a Canal
in 1885, but tried to do it without locks, and went bust 10 years later,
mainly because of malaria, yellow fever, and an impossible project concept.
The Americans bought them out and redesigned the project to create a huge
lake with 6 locks, and made huge efforts to successfully prevent malaria and
yellow fever. The first transit was in 1914. The Canal was handed over to a
Panamanian registered company on midday 31st December 1999 under the terms
of a treaty signed by Jimmy Carter in 1977. The average toll for ships is
about $65000, and about 38 ships transit each day.
I now fly back to UK for 2 weeks, and Intrepid sets off into the Pacific on
about 12th February.
With all best wishes from the crew of Intrepid, Nicky, Christian, Caroline,
Eric and Andy.
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