The Canal and Going Through it

Mike and Liz Downing
Sun 7 Feb 2010 04:44
The Canal is even more impressive than we thought it would be. We have only seen one set of locks so far - the bus from the marina to Colon (the main town about 30 minutes drive away) has to go across the first set of locks at Gatun to get to the main road (which is about 10 miles from the marina). It doesn't actually go over the locks, but over a small single track swing bridge that goes in front of the lock. On one side you have the approach to the lock and on the other side a huge lock gate towers above you. If the lock gates are open and there's a ship approaching, the bus can wait up to 40 minutes for ship to get into the lock before it can get across. The ships are pulled very slowly into the locks by locomotives that run along the side of  the locks. We've only been into town twice and we've had to wait both times. Seeing ships almost a 1000ft long that close up is quite something.
The canal is about 40 miles long, but it's not strictly a canal all the way. What they did was to dam a river to create the Gatun Lake. This is about 84ft above sea level so there are 3 locks,(each 1000ft long) that take the ships from the Caribbean up to the Gatun Lake. On the other side of the lake a cutting was excavated and this leads to another lock which starts to take the ships back down to sea level. Then there's another cutting and finally there are 2 more locks that take the ships all the way down to the sea on the Pacific side. The locks are actually in pairs, side by side, so 2 ships can be going through side by side. The history of the canal, and how it was finally built, is fascinating. When the canal was built, the Gatun Dam was the largest earth dam ever built; the Gatun Lake the largest man made lake (423 square kilometers) and the locks the largest concrete structures in the world. The distance traveled across the lake is 20.4 nautical miles.
To avoid damage (there's a lot of turbulence as water comes into or out of the locks) a yacht is generally taken through in the centre of the locks, held there by 4 ropes - 2 on the bow and 2 on the stern. Line handlers ashore on either side of the lock take the ropes and walk the yacht to it's position and tie off the ropes. 4 line handlers on the yacht then control the lines - pulling them in as the yacht goes up and letting them out as the yacht goes down. The yacht uses its motor to cross the Gatun lake and go through the cuttings. For yachts it actually takes 2 days to go through as they start the process at about 6pm and go through the first 3 locks and across the Gatun Lake to a mooring which is reached about midnight. The night is spent there and the transit continues at 6am to go through the cuttings and descend through the locks to the Pacific, which is reached early in the afternoon. The actual time taken depends on the shipping going through as yachts generally share the locks with a big ship. Not a Panmax ship as these only just fit in the 1000ft locks, but ones of maybe 500 or 600ft or less. They try to put 6 yachts in a lock either behind or in front of a ship. (It saves water if there's a big ship in with the yachts.) To do this the yachts are rafted together, up to a maximum of 3 and the raft goes as one. The yachts tie up together just before the locks and go in as one raft. They untie at Gatun Lake and motor across separately. So to get 6 yachts in they would have either 2 rafts of 3 or 3 rafts of 2. 
Regardless of whether rafted or not, each yacht has to have 4 dedicated line handlers in addition to the skipper, who must be on the helm. Also each yacht must have a canal Advisor onboard. These are like pilots - they know the canal and how it operates and are in constant touch with the controllers of the locks to monitor the traffic and get the yacht in the right place at the right time. They do not want any delays to the commercial shipping. So with at least 6 people onboard (4 line handlers, the Advisor and skipper) to control the yacht, one person looks after the food and drink that everyone, including the Advisor, needs. The Advisor leaves the yacht at midnight on the first day and another Advisor joins the following day at 6am. The line handlers stay and sleep on the boat. There are professional line handlers that can be hired if need be, but most yachts use other, volunteering, yachties who are generally very keen to go through and find out what it's like before they have to go through.
We will be going through as line handlers tomorrow (Sunday) and returning on Monday evening by road. The Pacific side of the Canal is where Panama City is and it's generally easy to get a coach back which takes between 90 minutes and 3 hours depending on the traffic. It only cost $2.50 (about £1.65). The boat we are going through on is Aspen, a 38ft boat sailed by 2 Americans, Steve and Maria. We met them in Trinidad last August and have been in touch ever since. They are joining up here with the Blue Water Rally  - 30 or so yachts that are sailing around the world returning  to Gibraltar. As we will be helping to get a Blue Water Rally boat through we will be able come back with other Blue Water Rally line handlers on a bus they will be hiring. We will need to find volunteer line handlers for when we go through.
Before going through, every boat has to complete a lot of paperwork and be measured to determine the cost and check the suitability of the yacht to go through, e.g. it must be able to keep up a minimum speed to avoid delaying other ships. If it cannot, it has to be towed through. Every yacht has to have 4 lines of 125ft to hold it in the middle of the locks. We have been measured and have the all important Canal number which is used to control the passage through the canal. Most people get an agent to carry out all the paperwork and supply lines and tires for fenders. Most yachts have a tyre or fender every 3 feet or so on both sides - the walls of the locks are very rough if something goes wrong! The tyres are generally covered with bin liners so they don't leave marks.
The cost of all this - $1150 or about £700. We're using an agent. If you don't use an agent you don't have to pay an agent's fee, but you have to pay an additional deposit of $900 which you get back if there are no problems. If the yacht causes a delay to other traffic (e.g. if it has problems and shipping has to wait), they lose the deposit. Having paid the deposit (which has to be in cash) and you have no problems, you still don't get the deposit back until 3 weeks later. We don't want to hang around that long. Also, everything here is arranged by agents, so we think it's the best option. There are lots of agents, but we're using the same agent as the Blue Water Rally are using. He was also used by the World ARC - another rally that went through 2 weeks or so ago. (There are only 2 rallies that go round the world once every 2 years and they both end up going through the canal with a couple of weeks of one another!). We heard about the agent on a radio net when in the San Blas - lots of yachts have recommended him, so we hope it turns out okay. We're currently working towards going through in a week or so.
Approaching the entrance to Cristabal harbour, with ships anchored behind the breakwater
More pictures of ships at anchor in the harbour, either waiting to go through the canal or having just come through from the Pacific.