Astra Blog: Panama Canal Transit and George's Birthday 17/ 04/08 - 23/04/08

Jeremy & Sally Paul
Wed 23 Apr 2008 23:06

Astra Blog: Panama Canal Transit and George’s Birthday 17/04/08 – 23/04/08


The Transit!


From Thursday 17th we had allowed 3 days before transiting the Canal which Jeremy had cleverly arranged to take place on George’s birthday, April 20th. As our original date was the 24th which was moved forward to the 22nd which, in turn, was advanced to the 20th, we were not unduly surprised when we received a phone call asking if we would be prepared to transit on the next day, the 18th. With a view to gaining a couple of extra days in the Pacific, Jeremy accepted.  Jeremy and Ash readied the boat whilst Sally and George made numerous heavy-laden shopping trips to keep us going for the next few months. It was a frantic 24 hours, but somehow we managed to get all the provisioning done and stowed away, all the ‘boat jobs’ done and acquire an extra line-handler, the affable Graham.


Leaving Shelter Bay for the last time we pottered out to the flats and awaited our Advisor (it is required that every vessel should have one) and the other boats with which we were to raft. In due time, Frank our advisor arrived and we met Tesero (a 52ft sports fishing boat) and Melopee (a 30ft tiddler). We then made our way to the first of the Gatún Locks, rafting up just before dark: we rafted to Tesoro’s starboard side and Melopee tied up to Tesoro’s port side. This created a slight imbalance as Astra at 32 tonnes was a little heavier than Melopee at 1 tonne, but Tesero with her twin props and some assistance from Astra managed tolerably well. 


The Gatún Locks are the largest in the world and raised Astra 85ft in 3 stages to the level of Lake Gatún where we stayed overnight. In order to get our locklines, the men assisting us through the locks threw down heaving lines armed with monkey fists for us to attach our 125 foot locklines. In the first lock a lock assistant managed to strike Sally on the backside with a monkey fist from a distance of about 30 feet; in the second, Graham received a resounding crack on the bonce from a range of about 60 feet. Dangerous things these monkey fists! 


The first lock was fairly intimidating, we entered the 1000ft long 106ft wide chamber behind a “medium” sized cargo ship.  Our locklines went up almost vertically and as water started to surge into the lock to raise us, they came under some serious tension (52million gallons of water is required to move one ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa).  Thankfully our lines held and as the water level in the lock rose rapidly, the line handlers hauled in on them to maintain this tension thus keeping the yachts in position and away from the walls of the lock.  When the lock was full, the gates opened and the ship ahead of us moved out causing a huge amount of turbulence as she did so.  This procedure had to be repeated three times in a row to reach Gatún Lake.  Apart from one or two anxious moments, the evening trip up went very smoothly; in fact it went so slickly that Jeremy and Frank (our advisor) were able to have a large dinner while we were in lock 3!


On leaving the third lock we entered Gatún Lake where we were to spend the night.  Tesero left us at this point and sped off into the darkness as they were to complete their transit in one night.  This left us and the “little nipper” (Melopee) to moor up to an enormous buoy for the night, which was extremely peaceful until we arrived and threw a party.  At this point Frank was picked up by a pilot boat never to be seen again.


At 7am we were awoken by the sound of the pilot boat delivering our new advisor.  He was a very friendly chap called René who was in fact a proper pilot who worked in the office; he had very kindly nominated himself for the job on double pay to fill in for somebody.  We set off at speed in order to motor the 30 miles across Gatún Lake in time for our 11.40 entrance to Pedro Miguel Lock.  Unfortunately it became clear that Melopee for some reason could not or would not motor at more than 3 knots.  So after some discussion we took them in tow behind Astra and proceeded at about 7 knots with Melopee practically under water! 


As we went along enjoying the impressive scenery, Renée read the newspaper and we managed to squeeze a cheeky game of scrabble in before a large “Full English Breakfast” at 10.30.  We only just managed to devour this sumptuous feast before it was time to secure the “little nipper” alongside and enter the next lock.  This time Sally and George were also pressed into service as line handlers as all four lock lines would have to be controlled by Astra.  Ash and Sally managed the stern lines while George and Graham gave almost their full attention to the bow lines.  In this lock we dropped 31 feet down to Miraflores Lake.  Then we had to motor 1 mile to the next lock where a double lockage system (complete with large spectator building!?) lowered us a further 54 feet to the Pacific, the final lock gates opened and we were through to the Pacific!


Once clear of the channel a pilot boat picked up Renée and we cast off Melopee quickly leaving them behind.  All appeared to be going fantastically until we noticed that our pilot had left his high-tech radio on board.  So we spun round and charged back towards the canal.  Finally we managed to track down a rather embarrassed but grateful pilot in the official ACP Pilot building, then we headed off towards Balboa Yacht Club.  Somehow we still managed to arrive there at the same time as Melopee!?  Anyway it was there that we got rid of the huge tyres and locklines which Stanley had acquired for us and Astra once again looked like a yacht rather than a working tug boat.  We were informed that there were no mooring buoys spare and that we would have to anchor at the other end of the causeway.  This turned out to be much better as there were several restaurants and bars to keep us amused in between bouts of provisioning. 


Ash, George and Graham (who had decided to stick around for George’s birthday) wasted no time in heading for their favorite haunts in Panama City.  Returning at 4am they (Ash and George that is…Graham was not seen for another 14 hours!) were somewhat surprised to find Jeremy and Sally wide awake, but it afforded us the opportunity to give George his present: a video cable to allow us to watch films from his iPod on the widescreen.  This was immediately put to use with a showing of “Anchorman”!


The following evening Sally and Jeremy took us all out for dinner to celebrate George’s birthday (and Ash’s belated birthday).  It was a delicious meal and a great time was had by all, before tired and bursting at the seams, we headed back to Astra for some much needed rest.


In the morning, Graham said his goodbyes and for some crazy reason headed back to Colón!?  The rest of the time was taken up by making several sorties a day into the centre to purchase the entire Central American supply of Gin, Rum, fishing lures and Manchego cheese! Our original plan to depart for the Galapagos on the evening of the 22nd was scuppered by an unhelpful individual who would not give us the dinghy propeller we had ordered because although it was in the shop, he had not yet checked it in!?  Ridiculous.  Anyway after Jeremy had had a drink to calm down, we decided to pick it up in the morning and then head straight off. 


We are pleased to report that Astra and her four crew members departed for the Galapagos at 1347 local time today (23/04).