The Panama Canal and photos

JJMoon Diary
Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Tue 12 Jun 2007 18:19
I was having lunch alone – Mags was busy on the boat preparing a large English shepherds’ pie for Panamanian line handlers.  We were due off at 1800 but I had brought the hand held VHF radio to the restaurant “just in case”.  It burst into life with a list of traffic.  I paid attention.


“JJ Moon, JJ Moon. Cristobal Signal Station.”

“Cristobal Signal, JJ Moon.”

“JJ Moon: pilot on board, at the Flats, 1600.  Pilot on board 1600.”

“Understood.  Pilot on board 1600.  JJ Moon standing by, channel 12.”


Oh no.  We had two hours less than we thought.  The impellers had been delivered and the line handlers were due at 1500 but there was no sign of the wrapped motor tyre fenders and Carole from our neighbouring cat, who had been so friendly and helpful, wanted Mags for last minute computer advice.


Y-Not, fellow travellers, awaiting an adviser on "The Flats"Roy, our adviser the first day


It was a rush but we got it together and motored off the dock at 1550 making for the yacht anchorage, “the Flats”.  The pilot cutter came alongside with Roy, our pilot /adviser and we settled down to wait for the big ship that was to share the locks with three small craft.  Roy was a delightful chap; friendly, informative, decisive and with an excellent rapport with the lads on the lines.  Our ship was a medium sized container vessel and as soon as we could see she was on the move in the distance we set off for the locks prepared to be overtaken.


In the locks behind the "big ship" as evening falls.


The concept behind the design of the canal is interesting.  Unlike Suez, a sea level canal, the American army engineers dammed three rivers and created a lake thirty miles wide and studded with islands, with its water level about 85 feet above sea level.  At each end there are three locks filled from the lake reservoir.  Each chamber is 1000ft long by 100ft wide and the water rises and falls 30ft in about 10 minutes.  That is a lot of water to come boiling up from holes in the chamber floors and there is a good deal of turbulence causing much fear and despondency in prospect.  However, I get the impression that the professionals involved at all levels are so experienced that there are rarely any accidents leading to serious damage.


We and our friends Y-Not were rafted up either side of a sports fishing boat, about the same length as us but very swift and swish.  The weather closed in and by the time we were in the first chamber it was dusk and the rain was pelting down.  Everybody on the yachts was drenched but as the lights came on we could peer through the large tinted windows alongside.  Lounging on the saloon sofas were two lovely young ladies in spangled cocktail dresses taking their evening drinkies and nibbles.  We were reminded that there is “messing about in boats” and there is “yachtin”.


Friends, line handlers on Y-Not.  Peter the mechanic (see previous blog).  Veronique a willing helper learning the ropes.A lock side handler doing a good job.


Helped by the cruiser’s big engines and the practised skill of all those on board, the lock side line handlers pulled the three boats through the chambers smoothly and without fuss and we were up on the lake.  We tied to a buoy a mile further on in a beautifully picturesque spot.  Roy went home and the boys tucked in to shepherds pie.  Properly cautious at first, they wolfed it down and came back for seconds.


Our local line handlers.  3 delightful lads.


Up at 0600 for a fine breakfast to which the lads gave full justice and our new adviser was aboard at 0715.  A most amiable man, rather garrulous and when push came to shove, as it did at the entrance to the locks, not perhaps as commanding and decisive as Roy.  Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to have him on board.  Much of the local gossip concerned the alligator which had eaten a man two weeks earlier.  Apparently the victim was fishing where “he didn’t ought to be” but his surviving companion told a terrible story which will be the talk of the town for months to come.  Since alligators are no longer hunted for handbags they are getting more numerous.  Another of the pilot’s stories concerned the lady who kept countermanding his advice to the skipper.  “As I explained to her, I have been trained to do this; to get you safely through the canal, madam – it’s what I do every day”.  “I expect she was nervous”, he said.


Lush vegetation on a tranquil lake. 


The channel winds across the lake between the islands which are covered with lush green vegetation.  The American army used to use this country for jungle training.  Five hours of tranquil motoring with only the odd large ship at unusually close quarters to disturb our peace and equanimity.  At the end of the lake the channel passes through a rocky cutting, a little vestige of the Andes and Rockies, and reaches the Pacific locks.  This time there were three sailing yachts and we had the largest engine so were in the middle and deputed to drive the raft.  We shared the locks with a small passenger ferry and there were no problems – going down when the water is leaking out at a great rate is much smoother.  Suddenly we were in the Pacific.  The pilot was taken off, we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and went alongside the Balboa Yacht Club jetty for fuel and to discharge our lads, who took the lines with them, and our tyres.  We picked up a club mooring at about 1430 and had a good cup of tea.


Big ship passingAnd another big ship with small tug behind


The transit was fascinating, not at all how we imagined it beforehand but probably the most interesting cruising experience we have had so far.


Bridge of the Americas at sunset