SV Accomplice Blog week 15 30/1/20 to 5/2/20

Fri 14 Feb 2020 20:37
SV Accomplice Blog week 15 30/1/20 to 5/2/20

Fortune was on my side, the shingles didn’t worsen, though I felt drained, and Matthew was able to bring forward his stint. Also Janet’s 18yo son Josh wanted the opportunity to experience sailing and I was happy to oblige. This brought us back up to 4 which was great. Unfortunately they would not be able to join us until we were through the canal and tied up in La Playita marina, just outside of Panama City. This fortunately didn’t really prove to be a problem.

Time was running out now, I felt crap but had to be sure we were ready for the canal transit. Janet went off shopping for food and helped me do the run to the diesel barge filling jerry cans to top up the boat’s tanks. Fitting in between briefings and a demonstration explaining the plan to get all the World Arc boats through the canal and the practical side of how to manage the ropes and what to expect. The pressure was now on!

Normally the World Arc organisation would arrange with the canal authorities to get all the boats through the locks together in rafts or nests of 3 boats abreast. These however were classified as special lockings and this year all special arrangements were called off by the canal due to a lack of rainfall which fills the Gatun Lake which in turns feeds the locks with their water. The arrangement now was that yachts could still go through but only 1 raft at a time filling in space behind, going up, or in front, going down, commercial shipping....oh joy!

Each yacht requires 4 line-handlers, the skipper at the helm and an advisor or pilot depending on the size of the yacht, being small we only needed an advisor. The line handlers job is to retrieve a monkeys fist attached to a light line, the monkeys fist being a ball of metal wrapped in rope thrown by the canal workers from the top of the locks. Advice was given to cover anything breakable on deck as there have been instances were things have been smashed by them! The line handlers then attach the yachts special 1 inch lines, with 1 metre long bowlines, to the light line and these are then hauled up to the top of the locks and placed on bollards at the appropriate spot in the lock by the canal workers. Even though we would only need 2 line handlers, since we would be rafted up, it was a requirement to have 4 just in case something didn’t go to plan.

There being only me on the helm and Janet as 1 line handler we required a further 3 to meet the canal’s requirements. If you don’t do as you are required then you don’t go through and that would effectively be the end of your circumnavigation. It was with relief that the World Arc organised a member of their own staff and 2 volunteers from another yacht to assist us. Phew!

In between all of this going on I had to spend a day in bed unwell with the shingles, Janet playing nursemaid, best laid plans! Saturday’s departure was looming and the time was set for 1645. We would be going through the first set of locks in the dark, mooring on the Gatun lake overnight and coming out the final set of locks the next day.

I had planned Saturday, final 2 Jerry cans of diesel, final shopping, check out from the marina, relaxing day really......then we receive an up date, we are now required to leave the marina at 1330 to pick up the advisor from the pilot boat at 1400. Mild panic now set in, the silver lining was however we would go through the first locks in daylight now. This is it we are off, forget the jobs just check out the marina and await the 3 line handlers. Now it’s raining and the wind has picked up, oh and we can’t get off our berth as a large catamaran was moored behind us making it impossible to manoeuvre out.....bugger. I had a plan.....rope Accomplice over onto the now vacant adjacent berth, that would enable me to let the bow swing downwind and reverse out clearing the catamaran and neighbouring expensive boats. Line handlers welcomed on board, mooring lines slipped in sequence, out we popped as planned, gliding calmly past the neighbouring boatowners, with their fenders at the ready, can tell I was chuffed with myself!!

Now out of the marina and onto the Flats, a canal waiting area, together with the 2 other yachts that we would be rafted up with. An American flagged 45 feet catamaran called Remedy which would be in the centre with us on her port side and a 39 foot British flagged yacht called Barracuda of Islay on her starboard side. The pilot boat arrived at the designated time and the advisors boarded each of us. Off we then zoomed at full throttle to fill in behind a cargo ship that was making way down the canal approach channel. We were in with the big boys now! The advisor was there to give instructions on what to do and when. They are generally pilots in training who volunteer to do this work.

As we approached the set of 3 Gatun locks, behind the cargo ship, us three yachts had to raft up as we slowly moved forward. Time was spent adjusting all the ropes and fenders to the satisfaction of the 3 yacht owners but all the time edging into the first lock. Once in the 4 monkey fists were launched, caught by the two line handlers on each side of the raft, lines tied on and hauled up by the lock workers, then walked forward until through and ahead of the lock gate and then slipped over bollards, line-handlers pulling in the slack, keeping the raft central in the lock. No sooner had the lines been tamed we were going up. This was a slick operation.

Once up, gates opened, lines walked forward, made fast, gates closed and up we all went again. Then repeated for a third and final time going up. The challenge was to keep the right tension on the lines and keeping the raft central all the time combating the currents in the locks. We had a few moments when we went a bit askew and lines jammed, but they were all overcome and no damage done. This wasn’t true for everyone unfortunately.

Once through the Gatun locks we went out onto the Gatun Lake and rafted up on a large buoy for the night. A great evening was had on the American catamaran sharing our meals and having a few drinks. Surreal in the middle of a lake with ships passing and tugs scurrying around.

We were told to expect an advisor back on board from 6am onwards. We were all up waiting attentively and finally the pilot boat approached, landed the advisor and we were off at full speed. This was a place that you didn’t dawdle.

The Gatun Lake is a man made feature extending right across the middle of Panama. When it was built it was the largest man made lake with the largest earthworks dam. The lake covers 423 square km and being 20 miles long took us more than 3 hours to cross.

The lake crossing was very interesting, passing through a hilly green landscape with islands which were once hilltops before the valley was flooded. Apparently at the bottom of the lake are still to remnants of the apparatus that was used to construct the canal together with an entire village which housed the constructors. There are tree tops still poking through the waters surface now over 100 years old.

After the lake Gaillard Cut is entered, a 13.7 km cut carved through solid rock and shale. It is very narrow for shipping and is continually being widened. It was at the start of the cut that we went to the assistance of an Australian fleet yacht named Cloud Shadow that had broken down and had anchored close to the shore. We first had to pull them out into the channel for deeper water before we could get them rafted against us to effect a good tow. We were in a narrow part of the channel and ships were looming up from both directions. We managed in the nick of time to get them pulled out and tied against us and moved over to the channels edge before a large container ship passed within a few feet. The ship couldn’t slow down nor move over in light of the narrow channel....we were bloody lucky. We had to keep our timed slot at the next locks so onward we went as fast as we could but this time with a 46 foot yacht tied to us! We had a game of calling ahead to tugs and other small boats requesting they reduce their speed to reduce their wake otherwise there was a risk of our masts colliding. Amazingly the large ships didn’t produce any wake. After several miles we had to let our tow go in order for them to make repairs and await further canal instructions. For them their transit would now take 24 hours longer as they had to have a canal engineer board and confirm that they could proceed and wait a new slot.

After the cut we arrived at the Pedro Miguel locks and again rafted up in our nest of 3 and proceeded into the lock followed by a masted cruise liner. We followed the same procedure as before but this time we were going down. Out of the lock we then crossed the Miraflores Lake into the final Miraflores Locks. As the final lock gates opened we were catapulted into the Pacific Ocean. We had arrived unscathed!

It felt that you had achieved something getting through the canal in a small yacht and for your efforts entering the fabled waters of the Pacific Ocean.

We motored along the southern canal approaches, let the advisor get picked up and then hooked a left straight into La Playita Marina. Job done we celebrated with a beer and thanked and said goodbye to our line handlers. They now had to make their way back to where we started the day previous and do it all again.

We now had 2 days before Matthew and Josh flew in. This time was spent recovering a little from the intensity of the canal transit and going on an arranged get acquainted tour of part of Panama City and a trip up the Chagres river to an Embera Indian village.

Our next task was getting ready for the passages across the Pacific, this being the last place to get provisioned up with good food at reasonable prices. Also the last place for diesel to get to the Galapagos.

The adventure continues.

Andrew and Janet
La Playita Marina, Panama City