World ARC - Day 25 26 - 2nd 3rd Feb – Transiting the Panama Canal

Steve and Lynda Cooke
Sat 6 Feb 2016 22:57
08:54.6N 79:31.5W

World ARC - Day 25 26 - 2nd 3rd Feb – Transiting the Panama Canal

We The World ARC went through the canal in two groups, sorted scientifically and carefully organised and chosen by the alphabetical listing of the first letter of the boats name, and then a couple of the bigger boats changed to the second transit.
Nina was in the second group.......

We received our briefing on Sunday evening, our transit papers finalised (again!) our transit companions (rafts) agreed and plans talked through, and got ourselves ready for the transit.
Final engine checks, tying cushions over the solar cells at the stern and over the hatches on the deck, receiving the huge, long blue (nylon) lines, and three big spherical fenders, which were nice and clean (nearly new) thank you world ARC, you made it a pleasure!..

Tuesday 2nd Feb saw us extremely relaxed, sorting out final stuff, like a swim in the pool, and lunch in the marina restaurant!
Midday saw us slipping away from the dock, joining and chatting to Carango (Amel 54) and mystique Soul (Bavaria 45), our transit partners and raft buddies. The transit is done in groups of three boats, the Cats being paired up with monohuls to guard the sides, but we were a group of three mono hulls, which made it great, as we had plenty of room either side of the huge lock walls.

We travelled the 4 miles to the anchorage, having been told by Christobel Signal Station to allow a big tanker to exit the Canal ahead of us, and anchored up en-mass in anchorage 'F' (the flats) on the Colon side of the Canal, waiting for our 'advisor' to arrive. All the ARC boats had sufficient crew to help each other with line handlers for the four extremities of each raft, so we just needed the obligotory "advisors" on every boat, to supervise us through the canal. The Pilot boat arrived, and dropped off the advisor for Nina.
The guys are well experienced. Ours had done 599 previous transits, we were his 600th, so he was a little bossy at first, but settled down after the initial dancing round the handbags, when he decided we did know what we were doing! He has to deal with all sorts of people, nationalities and boats!
First converstion was what meals and drinks were needed on the transit. Yes, you have to feed them lunch, snacks, and supply them cool drinks as well!
The locks on the Caribbean side are called Gatun locks.
A rise of some 200 feet in three chambers. We rafted up ino our groups of three boats, Carango in the middle, and Nina and Mystique Soul either side. Multiple fenders between the boats, huge Canal fenders down the outside. Fore and aft warps passed, and springs run up both sides to ensure we were well set together. Carango took over the motoring and steering, and we locked our rudders either side of her to ensure safe passage.

Our raft was the first into the lock, with five sets (rafts) of boats having plenty of room in the 1,000 ft lock. We were lucky, as we made up a great group, and didn't have to be put in with other large cargo ships. Luxury!
Canal Line handlers were waiting at the top of the wall at the entrance, with coils of heaving line and a monkeys fist, and they swung these and threw them at our line handlers, Lynda and Lesley on the back and Chris on the front, for the big blue lines to be tied on and then pulled up to the top of the wall, some 70 feet above us. The guys practice throwing the lines. We saw targets and saw them throwing the lines over poles and at huge target on the side of the locks. Lots of banter was going on amongst the line handlers, and they were joking amongst themselves, and waving to the boats and advisors on the boats.
We drove forward into the lock, with the handlers walking up alongside us. The handlers dropped our lines over bollards at the front and back, and then we had to pull our lines taught to prepare for the whoosh and rush of water into the lock.
The gates clanged shut behind us, a hooter blew, and the water started to rise inside the lock.
We had to keep our lines tight, to stop either boat touching the sides of the lock, which were concrete walls covered in barnacles and encrustations.
The supervisor was extremely kind, opening the lock floodgates gently for us in the first lock so we could get used to the whole process. Later we were whizzed up and down, with corresponding gushes of current boiling up under the boat, pushing and pulling us around and testing our skills in pulling and easing the lines over the cleats at the bow and stern of the boats. 100,000 cubic meters of water, 26.7 million gallons later, we are risen up the walls of the first of three locks by some 70 foot.

We left the three chambers of Gatun locks as the sun started to touch the horizon, and a beautiful pink sky with a huge sun kissing the horizon saw us rafting up on large bouys in Gatun Lake. It was decided by our advisors that using the buoys was preferable to all anchoring up in 20 meters of the lake.
Time to stop for the night.
Having an advisor on every boat made for an abundance of advice, and sure enough, with an adequate sufficiency of latino shouting and gesticulating, the first three attempts at mooring the three of us in a raft, alongside the second three boats through, the huge Catamarans - Paw Paw and Paradise Found, and the Monohull Overseas Express, was a complete and utter disaster.
Skipper Steve finally got furious about being told to drive backwards and forwards onto the bouy, and decided to take charge, whereupon someone was placed onto the top of the bouy, springs were tied onto the bouy, fore and aft warps were thrown between the other rafts, and the boats were properly tied up for the night. After some apologies and handshakes all round, the advisors were picked up by their pilot boat, and then we settled down for drinks and sun downers on Carango.
The next morning we were up at crack of dawn, only to wait until gone 08.00 hrs for the Pilot boat to return.

The lake and middle of the Canal is some 40 miles long to the Pacific exit Locks at Miraflores. The advisors advised us we had to hurry to make our scheduled transit at 11.30 hrs. I advised our advisor that with our current departure time of 08.30, and our previously notified and recorded maximum cruising speed of slightly over 7 knots, we would arrive at the Pacific exit locks at about 14.15.
Hu hum. We were all told to hurry up....... We split up from all of our respective rafts, and set off across the huge lake that forms the central section of the Canal, flooded by the American engineers some 100 years ago to link the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

The French failed in their first attempt at joining the two Oceans, running out of money, manpower, and the will to continue. In 1892, after 10 years, 20,000 deaths, and spending the sum of $285,000,000, they gave up due to the terrible terrain, floods, horrendous loss of life due to diseases and fiscal mismanagement. This was the most expensive failure ever, except for war.

The Americans took charge, deciding that they couldn't continue to deal with the Colombian Government.
They made Panama an independent Country, and then made a treaty with the new Panama people giving the US complete and absolute sovereignty over the Canal.
In 1903, following Panama's deceleration of independence from Colombia, the treaty was signed, and with $400,000,000 and 75,000 men, and ten years, the Canal was completed.
The Canal was passed back into Republic of Panama control at noon, December 31st 1999.

The middle part of the transit is a long passage through a well marked channel, across the flooded lake and carved out canal through the middle of Panama.
About 20 to 30 large ships pass each way through the canal. We passed 21 ships of all description as we went through the canal. Car carriers, tankers, freighters, container ships of all flags and nationalities, all keeping to the starboard side of the channel markers with their attending tug attached to the stern, as we chugged up the right hand side of the long series of buoys. The ship may be small by ocean going measurements, but 50,000 tonne ships with a maximum drought of 12.2m, filling the 1,000 foot long 38 foot wide locks ('Panamax' designation) with 2 foot to spare all round, are especially impressive as they glide by in the narrow 7.5 mile narrow section of the 'Gillard Cut'.

We were told the charges for large ships going through the Canal were between $250,000 and $400,000 each. WOW!
We were a bit cheaper than that, thank goodness!

The last section on the Pacific side is formed by the single Pedro Miguel Lock, another short section of lake, and then the double Miraflores locks, making up another treble set for the 200 foot drop.
The last section of Miraflores is really rough, where the mixing of fresh water in the lake and salt water from the Pacific ocean makes it very turbulent, and a constant flow of water in the last lock meant a current of 3-4knots had to be carefully countered by the line handlers and skippers. Nina was in reverse for most of this entrance, and Paw Paw had a cleat broken during the final drop due to some late easing of lines from their raft.

We all filed out of the last lock to much hollering and cheering, including from the ranks of people watching from the tiers of the observation tower. Seperating carefully and one at a time from our rafts, we file out up the locks exit and into the Pacific. finally passing under the huge 'Punto Centario', or the 'Bridge of las Americas', before dropping our 'advisor' onto the pilot boat 2.5 miles out from the locks.
We finally drop anchor outside the Marina La Playita, at the end of the Amador Causeway, and we are really, finally in the Pacific Ocean