Blog entry 2: Shelter Bay to Gatun Lake – through the rising locks

Ian Redwood & Laura Brown
Mon 21 Feb 2022 22:30


09:14.288N 079:55.924W. Shelter Bay to Gatun Lake – through the rising locks


Our canal journey began as a glimmer of an idea when we first got RaLa.  The idea seemed a remote dream for a long time.  But day after day, sea mile after sea mile we inched our way forward.  Arriving in Panama itself was quite an emotional experience.  It’s the Western most point of our journey so far.  A thin land bridge between the Americas.

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Panama is a new country, mostly undeveloped and covered in jungle.  Alongside the marina the jungle surrounded us.  In the early mornings we were serenaded by the ominous calls of howler monkeys and the strange sounds of unfamiliar tropical birds.  We even saw a crocodile alongside the pontoon.  The marina is based upon an old US military base and the jungle has reclaimed some the outlying ammunition stores and abandoned buildings.  Some of them were reminiscent of creepy horror movies others looked like scenes from the Jungle Book.  We had some exciting morning walks and saw toucans and spider monkeys, coati and bush pigs and countless brightly coloured birds of all shapes and sizes – and some unsighted with exotic electronic sounding calls.


We visited the San Blas islands and met with the Kuna Yala people.  They often live in beach huts made of bamboo with reed rooves.  They would visit us daily in dug out canoes, two to a canoe.  One would paddle forward whilst the rear occupant would often be bailing out the bottom of the canoe.  They transported lobster, fish, bananas and coconuts to us and traded coloured cloths and beads.  All for dollars.


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In our travels in Panama we’ve seen little agriculture.  The country is a trading hub.  There are large contrasts between the jungle tracks and ramshackle huts, and the run-down shanties surrounded by ditches overflowing with plastic pollution.  These are linked by pot-holed concrete roads to the high-rise slums awash with satellite dishes with abandoned cars narrowing their streets versus the surreal high rise banking district reminiscent of a modern Miami skyline.   


But Panama exists only for the canal.  This artery for modern trade is where east meets west.  The traffic volume is incredible.  The canal authority has takings of near $10m per day.  We were faced with a transit steeped in regulation, paperwork and with all the financial trappings of a monopoly.  After all if we didn’t like it we could always go round Cape Horn or the North West Passage!  So rather than face the bureaucracy in Spanish we opted to use an agent.  Not everyone does this but we felt it was a wise move and have no regrets.


We waited for about 2 weeks to get a transit.  It’s a busy time of year at the moment.  Eventually, our day came.  Our agent delivered our 3 additional locals as line handlers, and they bought with them long lines and very large fenders.  These are necessary because the locks are deep, lines of 125 feet are mandatory and the concrete sides of the lock are ferociously rough.  Many a sailing boat has been badly damaged and some have even sunk within the locks.  The Canal Authority also requires that each yacht has one of their canal advisors to accompany the skipper.  This is the equivalent of having a pilot aboard.  These men know the procedures and lock management systems and ensure a safe and efficient transit.


Our transit required us to assemble with the other accompanying yachts about 3 hours before we were to go through.  We waited by the appropriate buoy and a high-powered launch drove towards us at an alarming speed.  Our advisor was stood at the front like a bowsprit with a light backpack and lifejacket.  The launch seemingly stopped on a pin-head centimetres from our sides and Ricardo deftly alighted with a spritely “Good afternoon sir!”.  He could easily have been replicating a scene from a Bond movie.  He spoke excellent English and knew all of our line handlers.  They said he was the best advisor.  He was amusing, informative and clearly very experienced and we were quickly grateful for him being there.  We lost no time to get under way. 


Ricardo informed us that we were to be the centre yacht in a 3 yacht raft.  ‘Hooray’ we said. It was a nice thought that if things went wrong it wouldn’t be us getting the cheese grater treatment on the sides of the locks.  Ricardo said he chose us because we were the heaviest boat with likely the strongest engine.  To our left we had the Danish yacht ‘Cleo’ with a group of youngsters skippered by Andrew and to our right the Swedish yacht ‘Song of The Sea’ with some salty swedes skippered by Thor.  By coincidence, we’d met Thor before as he was in the rally with us across the Atlantic in 2019, but we hadn’t realised this until we were about to raft. 

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As we approached the first stage of our journey, 3 locks to lift us up, things were tense.  We were overtaken by a huge container ship that would be ahead of us within the same locks.  We now needed to raft up.  For the next manoeuvre we were to hold a straight course at a slow speed and that Cleo should come to us first, on a parallel course on our left.  The plan was to exchange bow and stern lines, and once attached we would add spring lines (diagonal lines).  However, things did not go as planned.  Andrew had failed to slow sufficiently and tried to continue steering as we were being tied together.  Additionally, the lines at the bow were tied too tight causing our hulls to be aligned at converging angles.  The pair of us turned sharply at 90 degrees and veered into the opposing lane of the canal.  It was like a handbrake turn into the opposing lane of a motorway.  Thank goodness there was no shipping coming.  We changed the plan and untied.  Ricardo now wanted Andrew to take a steady line and we would come alongside him on his right.  This worked quickly and easily.  The experienced hand of Thor then joined us on the right and we were a raft of three.

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Entering the lock I was driving as the centre yacht – our engine was ahead with the neighbouring yachts in neutral.  Steering a super-wide raft took plenty of concentration.  The challenge was to keep us central.  Ricardo had to tell Andrew a few times to stop steering and to stop playing with his throttle!  A few tense words were exchanged.  Thor, in contrast was steady and reliable.  From the sides of the locks canal employees now threw us the end of four thin messenger lines with a monkey’s fist (a spherical knot) attached.  The line handlers on our raft caught these.  The outside of the raft then attached their long bow and stern lines to the thin messenger lines and the docksiders hauled them in and fitted them to bollards at the top of the lock.  Now it was the job of our raft line handlers to haul in the slack and keep us central in the locks.


The lock gates closed behind us and a huge surge of water came in from ahead, tension came onto the front raft lines and we quickly began to rise up through the lock.  Once we reached the top the forward lock gates were opened and we were instructed by the lock control to move forward to the next lock.  We repeated the exercise 3 times remaining rafted up.  We eventually rose the equivalent height of a ten-story building.  By the time were finished it was dark. 


When the lock gates opened for the last time we were at the high point of our journey.  Lake Gatun – a huge man-made lake.  (Supposedly the 2nd largest man-made lake in the world).  We let the container ship get ahead and then slipped lines in the reverse order of rafting up.  It felt good to be a solo hull again.  The pitch-black darkness was punctuated by huge steel buoys, our instructions were to turn to starboard after buoy 8 to the overnight mooring ground.  So we left the main channel and picked out a giant buoy about 2.5m across.  I approached it from downwind and tied up.  It was time to have a beer, some food and to get our heads down. The final excitement of the night was the arrival of a launch to collect Ricardo.  It collected him from the centre of the buoy and as he disappeared, we had the luxury of reflecting that actually it had been a long and successful day.