Friday, July 03, 2009


The Panama Canal - Part 1 of 2

First, I have a confession. When I did it with Jonesy, it wasn’t my first time. Nope. I had strayed. At the last minute, our friends on the sailing vessel Sailfish needed another line-handler so my first experience transiting the Panama Canal was on another sailboat the week before our transit. I had a blast with the family on Sailfish (Hi Xiao-li, Taj, Jaki & Digger who are now in Nova Scotia!)

The transit of the Niki Wiki:
Because we were crossing from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic/Caribbean Sea (northward, yes, really – look at a map), we were scheduled for departure in the morning with the expectation that we would be out of the last lock by 5 or 6pm on the same day. Pleasure boats coming the other way (southward) leave in the evenings and spend the night on Gatun Lake in the center of the isthmus of Panama. They then continue their journeys the next day.

Jonesy had gotten up at the crack of dawn to dinghy over to the pier and pick up our hired line-handler, Sal, who was the teenage son of our driver Federico. We were standing-by the VHF radio and ready to go at 7:30am as instructed. Our rented long lines (120 feet) were coiled on deck, 18 used tires were hanging along our sides as bumpers, Mexican sleeping floor pads were secured over our solar panels, food was packed in every available space onboard, and our nerves were tingling.

So, it was like this that we waited. And waited, until 11:00am when our “Transit Advisor” arrived by Canal Authority boat and was dropped off on the Niki Wiki. Ah, Panama Time. The photo is of another boat being boarded by their Advisor.
Okay – let’s go! We left the anchorage at La Playita and motored past the Balboa Yacht Club moorings towards the first lock – Miraflores lock. Waited again. There are 3 locks up to the center Gatun lake and 3 locks down. Finally, we were instructed to follow a tugboat into the lock and to toss our starboard lines to the port side of the tug. Fine.

No problem right? The current from the water coming down into the lock from Gatun Lake was running at about 4 knots against us. As we approached the tug, their stern (back end) line-handler caught our line easily and secured it to the tug. Fine. Their bow line-handler was...where the heck was he? He was nowhere to be seen. Sal was up on our bow, line in hand with nowhere to toss it!! $&#$@! Hurry! Yikes! The current caught our bow and we started veering off to the port (left) away from the tug.

Within seconds we were perpendicular in the lock, bow pointed at one nasty, rough concrete wall and stern close to the tug. Within a few more seconds we were totally headed in the wrong direction – back out of the lock towards the Pacific. Stay calm. We continued to spin around and with Jonesy steering and pushing the throttle, we completed our full 360 degree counter-clockwise spinner in the lock.

Our Advisor radioed the tug’s Advisor, they had a few choice “words”, a tug crew member showed up to handle their bow line and we managed to get ourselves secured alongside the tug on our second attempt. Amazingly we hadn’t hit a thing! What a way to start.The giant doors of the lock closed behind us and the water started to rise. Fast. Soon we were level with the next section of the canal, the front gates opened. After separating ourselves from the tug we motored out. Whew! Only 5 more locks to go.

For the 2nd lock – also called Miraflores Lock, we were again instructed to side-tie to the tug. This time their man was ready and other than the fact that we kinda crashed into the tug and lost a fender in the process – all was fine. This lock has a modern visitor center. Tourists, who line the rooftop viewing platform and lower balconies can look down at the ships in the canal in comfort and take photos. Hey! We take photos of you and you take photos of us! We probably are in somebody’s vacation pictures.

At the 3rd lock upward, the Pedro Miguel Lock we didn’t have to tie to the tug. We were center-tied, which means we were supposed to be centered in the lock and have 4 lines from our decks to the top of the concrete canal walls. Way up there. The canal workers toss down a line with a “Monkey Fist” on the end of it. The monkey fist is a rock with line tied around it in an old nautical decorative style. This is why we covered our glass solar panels with padding – to prevent one of these rocks from breaking an expensive and important piece of equipment.

The job of our line-handlers was to snatch up the monkey fist, tie it to our long lines and signal the canal worker. The worker then pulls up both lines, and slips the large loop that we’ve tied in our line, over a bollard (a big metal stump) on top of the wall. Then as we rise in the water, our line-handlers continually take in the slack in the line. See on the top of the wall? That's a worker adjusting two of our lines from the starboard side of the boat.

All went well for us – initially. All four of our talented line-handlers grabbed the monkey fists, tied up our lines, and the canal workers hauled up the lines. Then, when the worker handling the port bow (front left) line went to slip the loop over the bollard, he fumbled the line and it fell down into the water.

As he tried to re-toss the monkey fist, we drifted farther and farther away from his side of the canal and he just couldn’t get the fist to go the distance. Eventually, we drifted right up against the rough canal walls, but didn’t hit it because our trusty crew & Advisor went forward to hold our bow off of the wall.

Finally, the canal worker gave up. The canal authority closed the gates behind us and the worker walked across the tops of the gates, got the line, and walked it back to the correct side. There was a lot of friendly bantering going on the radio between our Advisor and the canal workers. The crew on this lock had just won the contest for monkey fist tossing and now they were blowing it with us.

But, it all worked out fine - the water came rushing in and we floated up to the top of the walls. Next up is a 4 hour motor cruise across Gatun Lake at top speed - 8 knots. We are supposed to cross the lake and descend down the 3 locks on the other side to the Caribbean. Here's a photo of the "new" bridge (one of only 2 connecting North & South America) over the lake as we approached it.

During the relaxing lake portion of the transit we passed many freighters going the other way on the lake. Most were your everyday container ships, but we were excited to see this Dockwise Yacht Transport ship! See the yachts on the deck? This is how some folks get their boats thru the canal. I think we had a lot more fun and spent a lot less money. It cost us $900 to go thru the canal with a $900 deposit for damage which we have already gotten back. Shipping your yacht from ocean to ocean runs about $15,000 and up.

We also passed a few passenger cruise ships. Hey! That's "our" ship! The Holland America Line Statendam which Jonesy and I took to Mexico many years ago - B.C. - Before Cruising. This was the time of year when many cruise ships "reposition" from the Caribbean over to the Pacific Ocean for summer cruising up to Alaska.

Well, it was another case of hurry up and wait. When we finally got to the locks, we were notified that they had closed early that day for us pleasure craft. So, we "had" to spend the night tied to a GIANT round mooring out on the lake. Out on a lake, in the middle of the rainforest, with only another sailboat which had come from the other direction moored to another buoy.

We were indeed happy campers! Nothing better to do than flop out on the decks and listen to the monkeys howling in the rainforest and the birds squawking to each other. A Canal Authority boat came and off loaded our advisor - he got to go home. There would be a new advisor for tomorrow's voyage down the locks.

Next posting: Part 2 of 2

Wow! Terry! Great story (so far :-). Can't wait to read the rest! That's a cool photo of the viewing platform. You WILL be in many vacation photos. Just last year I took photos from that rooftop platform of boats going through the locks. It was so interesting to watch.- take care - Sheila
FUN! How exciting. That is on the once in a life time list for sure. I can't wait for part two. My daughter's boat is supposed to go through next year sometime, going in the opposite direction from Carib to South Pac.
How exciting! I can't wait for part two! Good luck!
This is so exciting to read! Thanks for sharing and I hope the second half goes as well as the first half.
Oh wow! Another small world story!!! We met Sailfish 9 years ago in Zihuatanejo!! I have pictures of the kids when they were little - really little! If you have their email address, send it to me, because I would love to email these pics to them. And the other part of the small world story on this one? The people we hung out with last night (met in Zihau back then too) were talking about Digger, because he taught the boys how to play guitar! I love this small world!!!!!!
Love to hear about your adventures!
We were stationed in Panama for 3 years about 40 years (egad) ago. We would take the kids and watch the ships going thru the canal while fishing in the canal. Would love to go back some day for a visit. Sharon
What an exciting adventure. Love all your pictures. You are the greatest tour guide.
Wow, Terry & Jonesy what an adventure and so cool your boys got to be there for the experience. Do you get some sort of special award for doing a 360 spin? ;-) Can't believe your boys are all grow'd up!
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