Our first transit - as line handlers Part 1

Mike and Liz Downing
Sun 7 Feb 2010 22:39
The canal looks impressive when you go past it in the bus, but it's even more impressive when you go through it! Our trip through as line handlers on Aspen (a 38ft yacht) was quite an experience and all went well. There was just one scare on the last lock when a stern line ran free and the raft approached one of the walls, but it was caught just in time. Aspen went through as part of a 3-boat raft when locking up and as a 2-boat raft when locking down as one boat couldn't keep up the speed and had to catch a later lock.
Locking up was the most difficult with considerable turbulence in the lock when the water enters. You have to concentrate to take in the lines to keep the raft in the middle, with the turbulence trying to spin the raft around. At times the strain on the lines is huge as they are holding the weight of 3 boats and winches were needed on the stern lines. The water rises about 28 feet within each of the 3 locks, making a total of about 84 feet. Yachts generally share a lock with a big ship (up to about 750ft long) and when going up the ship is in the front of the lock and the yachts behind it, but when going down the yachts are at the front. We had a big ship when going up, but just 3 other yachts when going down. There's a visitor centre on the second lock going down and lots of people are watching from the viewing balconies. We gave them our best impression of a royal wave, which was rather appropriate as we were told that Prince William was there that day.
Anchoring in the lake overnight was an experience. The rain forest surrounds the canal and the lake. At dusk the sound of the howler monkeys is very eerie - sounding more like lion's roaring than monkeys. The trip across the Gatun Lake between the locks took about 5 1/2 hours at an average speed of about 7 knots - it was quite a race to get to the down locks in time, but we made it and entered the Pacific at about 13.00, The water's just the same colour! The water temperature is cooler on the pacific side due to the currents that come up the west side of the South America. The skyline of Panama City is quite something to see - it's big and full of skyscrapers like a big American city. Quite strange when you think that about 40 miles away there are Indians living in huts and paddling dugout canoes!
We, and Aurora B, are scheduled to go through this Sunday. We have our 4 line handlers - from 3 other yachts - 12 tyres (or additional fenders - 6 a side) and our 4 long ropes. We will be given the timing of the transit on Sunday morning, but expect to leave the marina early afternoon to go to the up-locks around 16.30. At least we hope so. It's either that or leaving late afternoon when we will go through the up-locks in the dark. It's all well lit, but we would much prefer to do it in daylight.
Pictures from the transit - we doubt we  have much time for pictures when we go through with Aurora B!
A big ship on the approaches to the first lock.
Moonshiner - one of the boats in our raft heading towards the locks, with the
Pacific Reefer (the boat we shared the up-locks with) coming up behind.
Entering the first lock.
Line handlers ashore throw lines down to the yachts to pull up the ropes that hold the yachts in the centre of the lock.
The gates close on the Caribbean.
Gates closed
Turbulence as the lock fills.
The lock almost full.
Locomotives used to pull big ships into and out of the locks.
Train tracks go up steeply from one lock to the next.
The yacht raft behind Pacific Reefer.
Sunrise over Gatun Lake.
Jungle on the shores of Gatun Lake
More rain forest