The Panama Canal

Mon 10 Mar 2008 17:37
Sunday March 9th
Position 08:54.79N 79:31.20W
Location Flamenco Marina, Perico Islands, Panama City
Transiting the Panama Canal has been a hurdle on my personal horizon for quite some time. The 'real' sailors alternative: round Cape Horn, east to west, was never an option, but overlland accross the USA had been a serious consideration untl price and risk ruled that option out as well.
So why a hurdle? Three reasons: The inhospitable environment at Colon at the Caribbean entrance to the Canal, Internet and Yachting Press reports of a bureocratic Canal Administration indifferent to the needs of vacationing sailors, and line handlers. And the greatest of these was line handlers.
To transit the canal you must have a helmsman, and four additional crew able to handle two forward mooring lines two aft lines: essential if the yacht is to maintain a safe position within the locks. In addition a Canal Pilot (the 'Advisor') is aboard. Big yachts have professional crew and quarters for them, and medium sized yachts usually have enough crew, or a least plenty of space for say one additional body to make up the numbers. It is different for the single hander: the boat is usually small, and space let alone personal space is at a premium. One of my weaknesses (actually I have only a very few) is that I really hate to have my personal space invaded by strangers. It is so close to a phobia that I try not to snigger too much at Conny and Hannah when I am required to remove a spider from their sight (and what do they do when I am away?). Fleck is very much my personal space, the starboard bunk in the cabin even more so. Hired Panamanian line handlers are quite definitely strangers.
And, at 15.00 hours on the 7th March, two hours late, here they were. Roberto, about 20 stone, and Alphonso, Louis and Winston - in descending order of weight and indeed gravitas in general. At least Roberto, five children by five different mothers, spoke a little English. Instead of the other's numerous tattoos he sported a thoracotomy scar. 'This is my sleeping area' I tried to explain to the heavily sweating ensemble, indicating my berth with its carefully evolved system of sheets and towels designed to keep my own sweat away from the uphostery. But they do not grasp the concept; my ship is given up, lost, to them.
Other matters quickly occupy my mind. Huge 'Canal' mooring ropes and tyre fenders are stowed on board and we are away from Shelter Bay headed for the Flats anchorage off Colon where we rendevous with the Canal Pilot Boat. Robinson, our Advisor, is duly dropped down onto our rolling sidedecks. The trip up to Gatun Locks was eneventful, and time passed very quickly. Robinson was very engaging, a really nice man. I barely noticed that by the time we got there it was dark.
The uplocking was exciting and memorable. Things happened very fast, and I was very pleased with my professional line handlers. I don't know how I, even with Robinson to help, could have organised a volunteer crew. The lockmaster decided that the three yachts transiting that evening should nest up (UK Nautical English raft up). A very big steel German yacht took centre position, we were to starboard, and a large catermaran that had been staying on the 'Flats' was to port. Forward and aft lines plus the usual springs had to be fixed really quickly, leaving space for the big lock lines. In the event both forward lines went to the protruding bows of the German boat. The aft lines went to us, and the catermaran. When the loads came on our line, my little aft cleat had to take the weight of three boats, probably ten times the mass of Fleck herself. My handlers were on the German boat in no time, helping the whole raft, which was good: if the nest breaks the babies all drown!! We found ourselves in the first lock chamber behind a large tanker. As soon as the gates closed behind us all hell broke loose, as the water boiled up from the underground feeding tunnels. As the water rose we had to shorten the lines to maintain our safe (away from the uneven concrete walls) centre lock position. We could only do this when the lines slackened as we twisted about. At other times the lines were as tight as violin strings, humming with vibration, and with fortissimo creaking at the turns around the cleats. Everything held.
In the second chamber we relaxed a little and everyone realised that they had forgotten to take photos. By the third we felt old hands, and in no time we found ourselves in Gatun Lake (created by damming the River Chagres). Two miles to the Canal Station where Robinson was taken off, and we and the Germans were secured to, and seperated by, a ten foot rubber bouy: a curious but very effective mooring system, with water too deep to anchor comfortably.
It was time to investigate supper. I had paid Enrique, my agent, $85 for meals for the handlers and the Advisor's lunch the next day (this is a lot of money in Panama). The Handlers would bring this with them. In the event they arrived with two smallish boxes of fried chicken in a fatty sauce, all in an incontinent plastic bag. I discovered that they had eaten the first of these bags already, as a snack, on the way up to Gatun, now they wanted supper, and so my Pacific stores of rice and chilli turkey were raided. They said that as it was Alphonsos birthday they wanted beer. Enrique had promised me that there would be no drinking on board, but that a celebratory beer once we were tied up in Panama City would be appreciated. I gave in, I didn't want them to get drunk, but I didn't want grudges either.
Enrique had also explained that no matter how small the boat the Panamanians would find somewhere to sleep. How right he was. When one of them got out of my bunk to go to the loo I retook my space, and hung on in there seeking oblivion until dawn. Alphonso kept me company on the floor by my bunk having comandeered all the cockpit cushions. Roberto with sufficient cushioning of his own slept in the cockpit, whilst the other two rotated through the port settee and I know not where. In the morning there were empty beer cans everywhere, I hadn't realised that they had located the supplies!  At least they only smoked on deck, I'm not sure what it was.
Dawn meant breakfast, Numerous rounds of ham and cheese sandwiches (my agreed contribution), cans of my fruit juice (not!). Their explanations for the lack of food were various: the shops were closed, they had left it all in the taxi in the rush etc. For sure I never saw the change from my $85!!  Our new Advisor was dropped on board, and we were off again. He had been up at 4am, having to travel up from Panama City. so when I had made him his breakfast and a coffee (just a little more milk and perhaps a half spoon more of sugar too?) he went to sleep in the cockpit. As it got warmer the line handlers disappeared down into the cabin, sleeping, playing their local stations on my radio, using their mobiles, drinking my beer, and with their feet up on my pillow. My new advisor slept quietly and so at least the cockpit was peaceful. The scenary was reaaly good: a huge lake, clear water and many islands with rain forest vegitation. We took the more scenic small boat short cut, and were overtaken by a racing canoe, four up, on a training session (shades of gig racing in fowey). Gradually the lake narrowed and then it was clear that the banks were man made ; we were in the 'Cut' the man made 7 mile chanel to Pedro Miguel locks. I was pleased to spot my first alligator, about seven feet, but glad I was in the boat, and not swimming.
Lunch was scheduled for twelve: I had hung on to the second box of chicken, hiding it in the oven. So another big saucepan of rice and the reheated chicken. Sadly there were only five small chiken pieces....(but I enjoyed my rice). No time for washing up, nesting up instead. Just to the catermaran this time: the Germans did an alongside lockage, against a day passenger boat. Day light down lockage was an anticlimax; no boiling water in the locks, it just drained gently away like bathwater, and no tankers for company (think the Titanic's propellers as she sinks). But again the line handlers made it all easy, despite one of the lockmen missing twice with his monkeyfist (they throw light lines onto the nest from the lockwalls, using a weight at the front: a monkeyfist. We attach our heavy mooring ropes to the fists, and the lockmen pull the ropes up to the lockside and loop them over bollards. As the water rises or falls we adjust the lines to keep the nest in the lock centre).
It is just a mile then to the Miraflores locks: the final two chambers down into the Pacific. A great lump in the throat moment when I got Conny and Hannah on the mobile and confirmed that they could actually see Fleck on the live feed from the webcam on the top of these locks: times like that the Internet really does seem miraculous. But again no time to dwell, as we were quickly through, past the crowded visitor observation tower, and indeed into the Pacific. Under the Bridge of the Americas, and about five miles out the Flamenco Marina on one of the small islands at the end of a causway projecting from the mainland. Again the line handlers did a good job, enabling Fleck to reverse into a small dockspace (because of her long keel she doesn't really do backwards) without any bumps. However by this time they had already consumed all the beer that I had put in the fridge for our 'arrival celebration', and indeed were off the boat at high speed. They did collect some garbage and took this onto the dock, but I didn't reaslise until later that they just left it there, because at this time I was being asked for their tip! Swallowing hard I parted with my handlers and $80 dollars. I dared not ask for a tip for the waiter.
A quick clear up and off to the Marina Office to check in. There should be one of John Majors Charters for Marina Users: time spent in the Marina Office should be deducted from the chargable time spent in the Marina. An hour later I tumbled out of the office and into my line handlers: who were tumbling out of the bar next door with the remains of my $80. 
Back onboard I began the big clear up: a real NHS deep clean job, especially in the loo! But nothing is missing and the topsides, cleats and gunwales are completely unmarked. A safe transit, thanks to the handlers.