Panama City and Canal Passage 08:54.33N 79:31.31W
Alan Franklin/Lynne Gane
Tue 10 Mar 2015 13:39
10th March 2015
Making the Panama Canal transit is an experience! Having visited the Gatun Locks visitor centre beforehand, we had some idea of what to expect. And this was just as well as we arrived at these locks at night. But this is not the beginning of the preparation and the reason why the process takes time, at least a week with an agent to facilitate the procedures. The canal authorities measure and inspect boats to ensure they are fit for transit, will be able to keep to the time schedules and have enough fuel to make the journey. To make the passage each small craft must have a pilot and 4 line handlers, 4 x 120’ lines and suitable fenders (tyres). The regulations also require the skipper to provide sealed bottled water for these guys, and meals, (substantial dinner, full cooked breakfast, lunchtime snack), a place to sleep for the line handlers and a pillow for the pilot, (help wasn’t he supposed to be on watch!) The transit is booked with the canal authorities, the timings are precisely programmed and only confirmed the day before transit with timings subject to change any time upto the transit itself.
We were lucky to have 2 delightful young Germans, Julia and Phillip, fresh from completing their university studies, who wanted to experience a canal transit as line handlers and this worked very well with the one experienced handler we employed through our excellent agent, Roy Bravo.
As we left the marina the wind was blowing an unhelpful 25 kts making manoeuvres difficult at slow speeds. Having awaited the arrival of the pilot as we were anchored in the ‘flats”, inside the breakwater, we had to hang around some more until 30 mins before our transit time. There are only 4-6 yachts/pleasure craft allowed to transit each day and these are rafted or nested together. We were in a group of 3 with the centre boat responsible for steering the group, which was difficult in the strong winds. The pilots are extremely good at ensuring this all happens without incident and are in command of your vessel. Ours, called Moses was very professional. Entering the Gatun locks, they are vast chambers, 2 km long, raising boats 85’ over the 3 locks to the level of the Gatun lake. Each lock uses 55 million galleons although they use the water effectively over the 3 locks and only loose a small proportion of this to the sea. The handlers on shore throw a weighted messenger rope to the vessel, gaucho style, you catch it and tie this to the long lines, so they can pick up your stronger ropes. The shore handlers are 25-30’ above you, walking your lines into position. The locks fill quickly from beneath the vessels, creating a seething cauldron, rising to within a foot of the top of the lock gates and as line handlers our job was to take in the slack rope, keeping the boat centred in the lock. We felt very small behind the large cargo vessel, locked with us. Once full, the gates open onto the next of the 3 locks and the process begins again. Right on cue we exited the last lock into the Gatun lake and tied upto a mooring buoy for the night.
The lake is manmade, 28 miles long and at least as wide. Dammed and fed by the Rio Chagres, these are the head waters that allow both lock filling and transit. All shipping now uses the main channel, as islands lie to both sides, and are home to the alligators that have been moved from the construction sites of the second canal. Our second pilot, Edwin joined us at 6am and we got going at first light, with breakfast on the way, we reached the Miraflores locks around 11am, just time then for lunch! And here I confess to a culinary hiccup! The choritzo sausages got cooked in their individual plastic wrappings, I was thinking these were edible, oh dear.
We passed the impressive construction for the second canal along the way, this must rank as one of the larger civil engineering projects going on right now. To create enough water for the new canal system, the water level in the Gatun lake must be raised by 2’ which will take 2-3 years to achieve. When asked how much rain the country gets, Edwin replied they could go weeks without the rain stopping, this being the dry season, it stills rains almost everyday in short bursts.
The second locks were easier as we descended the 85’ again, under the Bridge of The Americas and there it was, the Pacific Ocean! We are anchored off Balboa, and can see the skyscrapers of Panama city a few miles away.
Photo blogs to follow.
All our best, Lynne and Alan