Panama Canal Transit

Tue 5 Feb 2008 20:42
This is Sue writing in a pool of perspiration, with half an hour before we set off for the big parade on the last day of Carnaval. It may not be Rio, but here in Panama things comes to a halt for four days until Ash Wednesday tomorrow, as everyone uses up all their sin in preparation for Lent.
We began our Canal transit at 9pm on Friday when our pilot came aboard, one of the few gringo pilots, as most are black Panamanians. Our guy , John, was a great character who spent most of the trip swapping jokes with Tony. It was dark and blowing hard when he leapt on board from the pilot launch, which I was sure was going to crash into us.
The next very scary part was rafting up alongside Southern Princess and another yacht in a pretty rough sea and pitch dark. All of the yachts were padded up with all their fenders plus lots of hired tyres. We also had to hire extra long ropes which were used to attach us to the sides of the locks, each rope having a handler on the lock side. we also borrowed a young guy,Ben form another yacht as each boat had to have four rope handlers on board in addition to the helmsman, John, and our pilot. We were expected to provide meals for the pilot, so in the dark, and at this stage pourng rain, I was able to knock up a few pizzas--no beers, though, as the rules are very strict. The first set of locks took us up into Gatun Lake, which we reached at about midnight, along with two other rafts of three yachts. At night the huge locks looked especially dramatic, floodlit in the darkness. At about midnight we let our pilot go, keeping young Ben overnight, and introducing him to Martinique rum. After a very short night our new pilot came aboard at six in the morning, and as we motored across the jungle- surrounded lake at dawn, we all tucked into a huge bacon and egg breakfast. Before entering the new set of locks, we rafted up again, a much easier task in the daylight.  By now we were on the downhill leg, this time going into full locks and letting off the lines as the water level dropped. Finally, at about one o'clock we popped out onto the Pacific side at Balboa. It was a fantastic experience, one of the most unforgettable of our whole trip. The Canal itself is  'an epic story of pestilence, and politics, brute force and engineering genius.