Panama Canal - Through the Gatun Locks

Mon 17 Feb 2014 15:42
09:15.66N 79:54.172W

We'd transferred all the money, cleared the decks, hung out all the fenders and the tyres we'd hired, got ready the four big blue 150 ft lines and were all prepared to set off. Tom, from Ishmael, had told us that whatever we thought was going to happen would change, then probably change again: he was quite right.

We'd been told we'd be going through in the evening, in fact all three of the up locks would be in the dark, so we figured we'd leave for the Flats anchorage about 4:30pm, with our volunteer line handlers from Moon Dancer arriving about 4. Our Agent, Roy Bravo, who was excellent by the way, was arriving with our professional line handler Eric about 3. During the afternoon we got an email saying we'd been pushed forward an hour, so we asked the Moon Dancers to make it a little earlier and carried on doing final things and getting nervous, as you do. At 3:15 Roy and Eric arrived saying we had to leave now! Right now! We were due to pick up the pilot in less than an hour! So Phil ran round for the Moon Dancers and off we set. We struggled to get out of the Marina as the wind was pushing us in and kept swinging our bow round (we have no bow thruster) but within an hour of Roy arriving we were asking permission to cross the channel and were waiting for our pilot advisor, Raphael, who luckily was late.

Pilot arriving whilst we held station in the Flats.

The most dangerous part of an advisor's job is not getting through the locks. It's getting on board the boat he's advising. The pilot boat skippers are amazing, nudging right up close then roaring away in reverse if there's a danger of hitting or as soon as the advisor's on board.

Eric helps Raphael aboard, with Justin from Moon Dancer on hand.

We immediately head off for the lock, with Raphael encouraging us to go faster as we were late. We motored at 8 1/2 knots, having never done that before. There's no need normally, you use the engine to manoeuvre into a harbour or to keep the boat from rolling too much when you're at sea and the wind's died, or to try to make land fall before dark, not to race! Our Perkins engine took it completely in its stride, just 2000 rpm, well below it's rated maximum torque. Nice to know.

We were told that we were going to raft up with another boat that's a little smaller than us, to form what they call a nest, then go up in the middle of the lock, with two lines from each boat on either side. 

Approaching the Gatun Locks. The yacht is the one we nested with, Isla Jechica, an Oyster being delivered to Chile.

We went alongside Isla Jechica, whilst we were both moving slowly forward into the lock, and made fast. Then, as we entered the lock, the plan changed. It turned out that they didn't have enough line handlers on the dock so we couldn't have four lines, we were to tie alongside a tug boat instead, so it would be the tug against the wall, then us, then Isla Jechica.  But as we approached the tug the plan changed again. They didn't think there would be room for us both alongside the tug so we were going against the wall, with the larger boat still nested to us, and just two lines up from us. 

Hang on. In the agreement we had signed we had specified any configuration except going against the wall, especially with the weight of a second boat on us. The advisor got Phil to sign a waiver, but the canal would take responsibility for any damage. Even Eric, with 8 years experience behind him, was worried. "Very dangerous" he kept saying. 

Going in, still rafted, we ended up against the wall behind the tug.

The gates closed behind us and up we went. It's not nearly as rushed and chaotic as you might imagine, it all goes pretty steadily, but the water certainly boils around you and the lift is relentless. You have to keep the lines properly tensioned because if they get too long your bow could swing out, then you could be smashed sideways again. The wall of the lock is anything but smooth, not only is the surface very rough but there are depressions in it. I had a hairy time trying to keep the boat off the wall when one of the tyre fenders disappeared into a depression. We had to push the boat away enough to get it out before we went up as it would be trapped and left behind, perhaps breaking the stanchion it was tied to, and leaving us with no fender just there so the side of the boat would scrape up the wall. 

Safely up the first lock, our last look at the Atlantic side.

Happily all went well, and we didn't have to repeat the experience for the next two locks as they decided that the two of us would fit alongside the tug. We simply tied to the tug, Isla Jechica tied to us, and up we went. Phew. In between the locks the outer boat would peel off, then the inner, we would wait for the tug to get in position then re tie up for the ascent.

Heading in to get in place alongside the tug and Isla Jechica.

It all took time and it was dark before we came out into the Gatun Lake. We made fast to a big mooring buoy, midships, which Eric jumped on top of to help tie us up. Raphael had had his supper whilst we went up the last lock - it's hard to know when to feed the advisor as it's all so busy, so I just asked him to let me know when would suit him and had something I could heat up and pull together in five minutes. The pilot boat returned for Raphael and the rest of us had a well earned beer, some food and tumbled into our bunks.

Sometime later the peace was disturbed by a pilot boat towing in Aquila, who we had been originally booked to go through the locks with. With much roaring of engines the pilot boat positioned Aquila onto the buoy that Isla Jechica was on, removed the pilot and went off. Having engine failure half way up those locks could not have been fun!