Thursday, December 13, 2018

Panama Canal Transit

In Jimmy Cornell’s book, World Cruising Routes, he says that the best way to sail from Panama to the United States is via Hawaii, a distance of over 5,000 nautical miles.  Of course, once you’ve arrived in Hawaii, you still have over 2,200 nautical miles to get back to North America.  On the other hand, a vessel can choose to follow the coast of Central America and Mexico, a total distance of about 2,700 nautical miles between Panama and San Diego.  Cornell says the best month to follow that route is in November as it’s a transitional month between the rainy and dry seasons.  The ‘Christmas Winds’ of December are notorious for very strong headwinds that can last for weeks at a time.  Armed with this information, we decided to schedule our Panama Canal transit for November 1.
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The very first decision we had to make was whether to hire an agent or do the paper work ourselves.  Granted, an agent was going to cost several hundreds of dollars but in the end, we felt it was worth it.  A short-lived bidding war took place between two highly-recommended agents but we chose to hire Roy Bravo and he immediately swung into action.  Less than a day after we agreed to hire Roy, the ‘admeasurer’ from the Panama Canal Authority was on board Rutea, who measured out to be slightly over 53 feet, her davits and dinghy being the culprit of our extended length and forcing us into the next higher rate category.  Among the documents that I had to sign was a statement that essentially said that Rutea wasn’t designed or built to take the rigors of a Canal transit and that the Canal Authority had no liability if she was damaged or destroyed while in transit.

The Canal Authority requires that in addition to the skipper, a yacht transiting the Canal must have four line handlers.  Roy, our agent, offered to provide us with professional line handlers at a cost of US$150 each, which we considered – having professionals do a potentially dangerous job had its attractions.  On the other hand, feeding and berthing four men that we didn’t know for two days wasn’t that appealing.  Many cruisers actively search for boats making the transit and they volunteer their services as line handlers so as to gain experience before they make the transit in their own yachts.  We made it known around Shelter Bay Marina that we were looking for volunteer line handlers.
Cécile and Sylvain on the right, Roger and Amy on the left
Miraflores Lock
We had met Roger and Amy on the Pacific Seacraft 40, Shango, when we were in the Marquesas.  They completed their circumnavigation about a year ahead of us and we rendezvoused with them when we were visiting Gloucester, Massachusetts.  They continued to cruise and coincidentally were in Shelter Bay Marina at the same time we were.  Needless to say, they’re very skilled yachtspeople and we’re very fond of them.  They introduced us to Cécile and Sylvain on the 44-foot catamaran, Stella Maris, who were eager to make a Canal transit before they took their own boat through.  We agreed to take Cécile and Sylvain on as line handlers and encouraged Roger and Amy to come along as well although since they had already completed a transit in their own boat, there was little incentive for them to join us.  After some gentle cajoling, though, Roger and Amy agreed to be line handlers for us.

I scheduled a meeting with our line handlers for the day before our transit.  My agenda for the meeting included demonstrations for line routing options, line throwing and safety concerns.  Down below, I pointed out fire extinguisher locations and other safety equipment.  We gave the cabin assignments and each person was issued a Rutea t-shirt, the official but optional uniform for the transit.

Roy Bravo appeared with the six huge Poly-Form fenders and four 125-foot lines that he was loaning us.  The schedule was to meet our Canal Authority-assigned advisor (all yachts under sixty-five feet have an advisor aboard – over sixty-five feet have a pilot) at the ‘Flats’ at 1700 hours on the first of November.  Roy told us that we needed to have a hot meal ready for our advisor when he boarded our boat, that the advisor would only drink bottled water and failure to have an adequate meal might lead the advisor to order a meal, have it delivered and send us the bill!  Ruthie knocked herself out, preparing a huge, elaborate meal along with a table piled high with grab-and-go snacks:  Home-made hummus, fresh-baked cookies, fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, etc.
The Janet C Shared the Gatun Locks
with us

We cast off the dock lines at about 1500 hours, once our four line handlers were aboard.  It was a good exercise in developing patience while waiting for our advisor but he did show up eventually.  While we waited for instructions, he spoke rapid-fire Spanish into a private-channel handheld radio.  He explained to us that we were supposed to go through the Gatun Locks rafted up to a 65-foot catamaran but the owner of the cat adamantly refused to be rafted up to us.  This meant that all four of our line handlers were going to have to be responsible for managing each respective line (had we rafted up, two of the line handlers would have had nothing to do) and it meant that the Canal Authority was going to have to supply twice the number of staff to take us through.

It was well after dark as we approached the first of the Gatun Locks.  The Janet C, the freighter that was going through the locks the same time we were, entered first, followed by the cat and then us.  The Canal workers on shore heaved weighted ‘monkey’s fist’ at us, to which we attached the heavy 7/8” line that Roy Bravo had loaned us.  The walls of the canal towered above us, dwarfing Rutea and intimidating me.  The massive gates closed silently behind us.  Somewhere, someone moved a lever or pushed a button that opened a valve, allowing 26 million gallons of water to flood the chamber.  The force of all that water rushing in was tremendous and it took a significant amount of effort from our line handlers to keep Rutea centered in the lock.  Interestingly enough, it takes the exact same amount of water to lock a vessel up and down, regardless of its size – in other words, it would take the same amount of water to lock Rutea up and down as it would a mammoth freighter.  The experience was intense but we were able to complete it without any damage or injuries.  Once we were out of the third of the three Gatun Locks, our advisor directed us to a mooring buoy about five miles into Lake Gatun.  He was met by a launch and he departed without so much as a single bite of food.

We were all exhilarated and exhausted but quite hungry and in bad need of liquid refreshments.  Fortunately, I had stuffed the refrigerator and freezer with beer and wine – it was a short time later that the effects of the beer and wine mellowed us to where we were able to enjoy a fabulous meal.  Some of us showered on the aft deck under a garden hose before retiring for the night and it was a very calm night, albeit beastly hot.

The next morning I made coffee and fresh-baked scones for all six of us.  Our new advisor, Reynaldo, showed up and we began steaming across Lake Gatun, the constant freighter traffic requiring us to be on the highest level of alert.  As we approached the Pedro Miguel Lock, our not-so-friendly Canal companion again refused to allow us to raft up to them.  They were allowed to proceed into the lock while we had to wait for another Canal partner to be assigned to us.  The wait delayed us about two hours but we were assigned to a 120-foot tour boat, packed with tourists transiting the Canal just for the experience.  This took virtually all of the effort out of our hands:  Once we were tied up to the tour boat, there was nothing we could do.  Plus, locking down doesn’t involve the massive pressures on a vessel – the water in the lock simply drains out, leaving all vessels in the lock 31 feet lower than when they entered the lock.

As we approached the Miraflores Locks, the horizon began to darken and by the time we were entering the lock, a heavy rain was falling.  Fortunately, there was very little wind involved but, nonetheless, all the work we had to do was in the rain.  There was a significant delay in exiting the final lock as there was a Neopanamax ship (up to 366 meters – up to 1,200 feet) leaving the new Cocoli Locks and we had to wait for it to get out of the way.  It was dark by the time we got back underway and finding a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club was a little difficult.  Once tied to the mooring, though, we indulged in well-deserved, cold liquid refreshments.  The transit had been an enormous success with virtually no damage (one broken bottle of beer) and the only injury was when the advisor was being picked up and eager to get off Rutea, he accidentally stepped on Roger’s toe, tearing off a previously damaged toenail.   Good thing that Roger is tough and he was soon grinning again after a few beers.

The next morning I baked banana nut muffins for breakfast and our very hard-working friends prepared to depart.  We know that our paths will cross again, in some remote anchorage somewhere.


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