Friday, March 4, 2011

Transiting the Panama Canal

At 5AM on February 14th, everyone aboard El Tiburon was awake and excited. John’s parents, Vince and Margie, arrived with their luggage in tow, planning to get in a cab and make a flight home just as soon as we tied up on the Caribbean side of Panama. Our line-handler, Ricardo, arrived with his shoulders laden with yards and yards of rope for us to use during our transit. It was still dark out as we motored out of marina Flamenco and over to buoy #3 outside the entrance to the canal. We watched the sunrise and drank Pete’s coffee as we waited for our canal advisor to arrive. Soon a tugboat with a black rubber rim approached us and nuzzled up to our stern. Our canal advisor, Julio, hopped aboard and we headed over towards the Bridge of the Americas, which marks the entrance to the canal.

Vince at the helm passing under the Bridge of the Americas

Transiting the Panama Canal is serious business. One must follow all the requisite procedures and be punctual for all appointments in order to pass through, and no guarantees can be made about whether it will take you one day or two to get to the Caribbean. Big ships transiting the canal pay from $100,000 to $400,000 or more to transit, whereas it only costs a few thousand for a sailing yacht. As a result, getting sailboats through the canal is not top priority for the Canal Authority – tankers come first. As far as I know sailboats never go through the locks alone. They will usually go through with a big ship that is not quite as long as the length of each lock, so there is room for a sailboat to fit in there with it. Before we went through Miraflores locks we had to wait for our buddy ship to arrive and pass us, then we ducked into line behind it.

We had to wait here for our buddy ship

Slowly the tanker in front of us pulled into the narrow lock while a tugboat pushed on its stern to help it get in straight. It moved very slowly and nudged up close to the forward gate of the lock.

Once the tanker was secured with lines, the tugboat tied up to the side of the lock behind the tanker and waited for us.

We motored up to the tugboat and threw them our lines: a bow line, a stern line, and one amidships. Our port and starboard beams were heavy with big white fenders to protect our hull from damage. Once we were secured alongside the tugboat, an alarm sounded and the powerful steel gates behind us began to close.

Slowly the water level began to rise. In ten minutes the concrete walls had disappeared and we were level with the ground.

When the front gate opened, the tanker started its engine and began to move forward into the next lock.

This was the scariest part of transiting the canal. We were in a narrow concrete channel and caught in the prop wash of a huge ship. The tugboat threw back our lines and moved ahead, resuming the same position behind the tanker in the next lock. Somehow John managed to keep control of El Tiburon and we reached the tugboat safely. We repeated the process, this time in front of the observation building we had visited just a few days earlier.

We watched a ship pass through the canal from this observatory just a few days earlier

After the first few locks we motored through a narrow channel on our way towards Gatun Lake. Margie and I made lunch for the crew: pan-seared Dorado (we’d caught it on our way into Panama Bay), rice and steamed broccoli. We were trying to make good time while we motored, because we had to make our appointment to transit the Gatun locks on the other side of the lake. Our transit time had been calculated based on a speed of 5 1/2 knots so we were watching our knot meter and aiming for 6kts. But disappointingly, Julio got a call from the canal authority during lunch and they told us there was too much traffic coming from the Caribbean so they were going to close Gatun locks to northbound traffic until morning. We would have to spend the night in the lake. I went down below and made some chocolate chip cookies that I hoped would cheer everyone up.

Untouched jungle covered the islands and the shore surrounding us in Gatun lake, and a nice stiff wind rippled over the water. Another call from the canal authority was cause for some hope. If we could make it to Gatun locks by the time the last ship was ready to leave, then we could go through with them. We hoisted our sails flew across the water at 7 ½ - 8 knots, close to record speed for us. How nice it was to sail on a lake! There was no swell or chop to distract us from our objective, and our enthusiasm had been rekindled.

John at the helm sailing on Gatun lake

Ricardo and Julio monitoring our speed

As we approached the locks we were required to turn into the wind and our forward progress was seriously impeded. From a distance we watched our buddy ship approach the lock as we labored at four knots to catch up. We were encouraged to remember that it takes a long time to position such a large tanker in the narrow lock. Very slowly the ship moved forward into the necessary position and we got closer and closer. At about ten minutes away we were sure we would make it and were already rejoicing at the accomplishment of completing the canal in one day. But then Julio got another call. The lines on the tanker were secured and the gates were ready to close. We would not be able to go through with the tanker, even though we were only a few minutes away. The Panama Canal waits for no man.

This is how close we came to making it through the canal in one day

We made a 90 degree turn and headed for some mooring balls near the shore. A canal boat came to pick up Julio, but the rest of us weren’t allowed to leave the boat, except to jump into the water for a swim. However, even that was discouraged due to the presence of a large male crocodile known to hang out in those waters. John jumped in for a dip anyway.

We had roasted chicken with coleslaw and rice for dinner, then settled into our beds and went to sleep. A new advisor was delivered to us in the morning and we made it through Gatun lock without a hitch.

Going through Gatun locks and our first glimpse of the Caribbean

After exiting the canal we motored into Shelter Bay Marina, on the other side of the canal from Colon, to fill up our water tanks and rest for a few days before we would set sail for Grand Cayman.

1 comment:

  1. WOW you are REALLY living the dream...loved seeing Kitty the international sailor dog on deck! long will you stay in the Caribbean?