The Panama Canal Day 1 (Sunday) - Gatun Lake Locks

Mike and Liz Downing
Sun 14 Feb 2010 19:25
We left Shelter Bay marina at 14.00 to meet our Canal Advisor at the Flats (an anchorage across the other side of Cristobal harbour reserved for smaller craft). The Advisors are the pilots for yachts and every boat going through the canal has to have one on board. They provide the pilotage through the canal and know where we would meet big ships, so when it was safe to cut corners across the main channel and when not. They also supervise the line handling in the locks, advising the crew and communicating with the lock staff (all in Spanish). But they are not qualified pilots and so the skipper remains in overall charge. Our Advisor arrived at 15.30 and we were on our way to the first flight of locks at Gatun and went through in the light, which was just what we wanted. Going up the 3 locks here is the most scary part of the transit. We rafted up with 3 other boats when approaching the first lock and doing that while moving is quite interesting! Bow and stern line first and then springs to hold the boats firmly together. We were on the port side of the raft with a motor boat in the middle and a catamaran on the other side. Although Aurora B was the longest boat of the 3, the motor boat had a much more powerful engine so it was better for him to be in the middle. Also his cleats didn't look very strong or in good condition and I doubt they would have taken the strain if he was on the outside. Our stern ropes went through the aft cleat (using it as a fairlead) onto one of the genoa winches and the tail was cleated off on the other genoa winch (we have 2 each side which was handy). The strain was enormous at times. But I was behind the wheel all the time - our 4 line handlers had to deal with the ropes! Another plus point - we had no big ships in the lock with us, just another raft of 3 yachts, so didn't have to worry about the turbulence from big propellers you can get when ships leave the locks.

Arrived at Gatun Lake at about 18.30 and tied up to one of 2 buoys they have there. The buoys are big enough to walk on, which someone has to do to get the ropes around the big T-bar in the centre - but that's the job of the crew, so someone else had to make the jump! (I did it last time.) 2 boats tie up on opposite sides of the buoy and with no wind, the boats and buoy just gently go round in circles all night. Feeding everyone, the line handlers and the Advisor was a major undertaking and Liz cooked a full meal for 7, which in the heat down below was quite something. So it's off to sleep, but up at 05.00 as we have been told that the advisor for the second half will arrive at 06.00. They come and go in big and powerful 50ft pilot boats, but handle them very skillfully, just bringing their bow close enough for the advisor to step aboard.

No pictures yet as we are having to use the SSB to send this.

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