Panama Canal Day 2 - Gatun Locks to the Pacific

Mike and Liz Downing
Mon 15 Feb 2010 19:25
Aurora B and crew are in the Pacific!

The day started with the sound of the howler monkeys in the jungle close by and we were just about ready to leave when the new Advisor arrived on time at 06.00. The target was to motor the 28 miles or so across the Gatun Lake and through the cuttings to the first of the 3 locks going down before 10.30. If we didn't get there in time we would have to wait for the next suitable lock, which could be hours, so no pressure then! Each boat travels independently at this stage and we soon lost sight of the 2 we were rafted with as they dropped behind. We were determined to run at a constant rpm from start to finish rather than having to race over the last couple of hours to get to the lock on time.

No big ships followed us, but we met about 10 coming the other way. Several were panmax - the largest the canal can take. The locks are 1000ft long and 110ft wide. The panmax ships are 965ft long and 106ft wide - so they have just 2 feet either side when in the locks. One of the panmax ships was the Coral Princess, the only cruise liner going through that day, and all the passengers lined the rails, waving and calling down to us. It's a fascinating trip across the lake and through the cuttings. Thick jungle on both sides and in the lake itself you can see the tops of some trees that were submerged when the lake was created. The trees are obviously dead, but had stayed standing in the water for the last 100 years. The Canal authorities are straightening out the many bends in the channel and are even removing complete islands so the big ships can pass in both directions. As we kept close to the edge of the channel we got a close view of the work. They are also extending the canal to add new locks at each end. These will be 1,400ft long and 180ft wide and the work is due to be completed in 2014.

We motored at a steady 6.8kts until we reached a couple of the longer reaches when we put the outer genoa out and motored sailed at around 7.5kts. You are allowed to use sails, but must never switch off the engine. We arrived at the Pedro Miguel Lock in good time, waited for the other 2 boats and reformed the raft to go through. Going down is so much easier (and less stressful!). Once out of the lock the raft motors as a raft for another mile to get to the Miraflores Locks. They are the final 2 locks and you go straight from one to the other. The visitor centre at Miraflores had lots of people looking on and waving and our Advisor called the tower to get the webcam pointing at us. Liz sent a text to Jonathan and we hope he saw us go trough the lock on the internet. Having come through the last lock the raft split up and each boat went its own way. It's about 1 1/4 hours from the lock to the main anchorage and once the anchor was down the champagne was opened! The anchorage is about 0.4 miles from the channel leading to the canal, so we can see the Bridge of the Americas that crosses the Pacific entrance to the canal and all the ships entering and leaving. There's about 20 ships at anchor over the other side of the channel from us. Having taken the line handlers ashore, so they can make their way back to their boats on the other side, the boat is suddenly a lot bigger again!

Taking the boat through the canal is tremendously exciting, but not without a certain amount of trepidation! This is due to possible damage in the locks or the engine breaking down at some point (if a canal tug is required to tow a boat it costs $4500!!). Every trip through the canal appears to have incidents of some form or another. We had a few with ropes slipping at times, but it was always recovered. We're mighty pleased that we had no major incident and no damage.

So now it's a few days taking it easy and re-stowing things that we had to move to sleep 4 other people. We've also got to get rid of 12 tyres! Then it will be more provisioning and getting ready for the next passage.

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