Skipper's Blog!

Tue 28 Apr 2009 21:33
Transit Blog
Day 1
Our call came through at 12.30. We were to be at 'The Flats' at 4pm for the Advisor to board. Our hired line handler Carlos arrived at 2.30pm and started to dress Winny in tyres (wrapped in bin bags and brown tape), five on each side. High fashion for yachts in Panama these days. That sorted we set off to meet the Advisor. After a short wait the launch arrived and Mclean (the Advisor) called for us to start the engine and pull up the anchor, before he had even stepped off the launch. As soon as he was aboard we were off to the first lock.
We were passed on the way to Gatun locks by a ship Ecuador Star, she was to be infront of us in the locks. Once past we rafted up with Catamaran 'Younger Girl' (our new friends from Shelter Bay) and Val a heavy steel yacht was rafted to their other side. Now a wide raft, and Skippered by Mark on Younger Girl we went through the tall lock gates. Two small lines were thrown from the wall high above us for us to attach our thick lines to. The knot or Monkey Fist as it is known on the end of the throwing lines can be a dangerous projectile, but first time lucky, both came aboard without hitting anyone. The stern lines act as a brake so with them on we were held in place and the bow lines tightened.
With the gates to the Caribbean closing behind us we were in our own little space waiting for the lift 27' to the next level. Water coming in caused a huge churning and pressure in the lock but with careful pulling or winching of lines on our side we rose steadily to the point where we could see over to the lock gates.
As Ecuador Star moved forward  towed along by small engines on the cog railway, our lines were released & we went to the second lock. The whole raft was being dragged towards the left wall as Val was much heavier in the water than  Winny and we had our engine going astern for a lot of the time just to stay square in the lock. Lines attached again and repeating the process we made our way through the next two chambers.
By the end of the 3 locks it was dark and we drove away from our raft buddies out of the glaring lights into pitch black.
Our Advisor had us follow the lights on bouys to the anchorage for our stay over night in Gatun lake. There are two huge mooring buoys in this area. and already two boats were attached and another was at anchor. We were guided to a spot to drop anchor in 50' water rather than raft up on the buoys.
Anchor down we pulled back to set the anchor and a violent 'pull' happened as we checked the holding. 
Settled we opened the beers, happy it was all going well!
Day 2
Woken by howler monkeys on Saturday morning we rose to the vista of the lake surrounded by jungle. No early morning dip in the lake due to the resident population of crocodiles. We had breakfast and started the engine ready for the Advisor to hop aboard. Saturday's advisor Ricky was duly delivered and gave the order to lift the anchor. Having had a problem with the anchor windlass recently all fingers were crossed. The windlass was working much too hard and we soon realised that the chain was not coming up. Our anchor had been caught on something big. Trying to manoeuvre away from the problem was only getting Winny pulled dramatically back towards it. A real case of the tail wagging the dog! Ricky had never had this happen to any of his boats before, but looking across to the other boat at anchor 'Maya 3' they were also having a problem raising the anchor. (We have since heard many such stories...).
Over one hour and some assistance from a pilot launch later Skipper's decision was to cut away the anchor and some 150' foot of chain freeing us but leaving our beloved anchor at the bottom of the lake.
We then had to make up that time to arrive at the next lock 28 miles away in time to raft up with our buddies again, and not lose our slot in the transit schedule, thereby incuring a fine. Winny had never been pushed so hard under engine but maintained 7-8 knots across the lake, past islands and working vessels. A few corners were cut as we were now on the racing line - fortunately for us Ricky's usual job on the Canal is working as a Cartographer, so he guided us safely through deep waters. It was a noisy and intense motor, not at all as we had hoped - Carlos, Alyson and Gary spent the first hour setting up the second anchor on the bow, in case it was needed in an emergency, and to look correct if a Canal inspector should show up. Margo was at the helm chatting up Ricky, and John was below slaving away over a hot stove cooking Ricky's breakfast.
Phone calls and radio calls went back and forth keeping the Advisors informed of our ETA. A mile before the last lock we caught up with the others and even overtook one yacht undersail. We've never been so relieved to see a Catamaran and a slow heavy yacht infront of us as we passed under the Millennium Bridge we were back on target, and slowed the revs down!
On the way down in the locks small boats go infront of large boats, but we only had to join a couple of Ferry/tourist boats and a raft of two with us, so we were again at the rear of the lock.
Mark had worked out a better plan for keeping the raft square for the second day so we all did a little throttle work to keep us straight.
Monkey fists from only 3' above our heads did not seem as threatening somehow! Safely tied on and gates closed we saw the water levels slowly but surely going down. Easing the lines to keep us steady we descended in the first chamber, a much more gentle ride than going up. Long lines off we stayed rafted across a small lake to get to the final locks.
Tied secure again to the walls even the Skipper had a turn at line handling until needed back at the wheel.
The last lock is a variable beast and as luck would have it our descent was short and we emerged on one of the highest tides for months at the Pacific End! Unrafted for the last time Carlos called ahead to secure our mooring at the Balboa Yacht club, as we are not confident about the second anchor. Luckily a mooring was a available and after some intense activity picking it up and taking off the lines and tyres we could then stop and open a bottle of Fizz to celebrate a safe if not uneventful transit.
Our mooring is not far from the end of the lock system and just outside the Bridge of the Americas. Looking at the bridge from sea level I am now tempted (at a later date) to get a car and drive from Costa Rica to Panama over the bridge and onto Columbia so we can say we really have been to the cross roads of the world.