Tuesday, May 08, 2007

May 6 -7, 2007 - Panama Canal Transit

The trip through the Canal began several days beforehand. First we had to line up three line handlers in addition to myself. So I posted a message on the lonely planet bulletin board and sent messages to a few hostels in the area. Right away Stuart (originally from Tasmania, but more recently from Mamallena Hostel in Panama City) responded. He was interested and had two friends (Bram, who is an MBA student at one of the local universities, and Baker, who is a photographer) who were also interested. Excellent - one stop shopping. Now we needed to come up with a place for everyone to sleep. We did laundry and made up the bunks in the forward and port staterooms.

On Friday Sten scrubbed two weeks worth of barnacles and bottom growth off of our hull and prop. That afternoon we picked up our lines and tires. On Saturday we got our clearance out of the country. Then on Sunday, as Sten raised the anchor for the first time in two weeks, it was covered with more growth then we had ever seen before.

So he spent the morning scrubbing the chain of weed and barnacles while I prepared dinner for all of us. Around 2pm we picked up our crew and a few bags of ice at the yacht club. We got the dinghy on deck, made sure everyone could cleat a line, and hand dinner while waiting for our advisor to arrive.

Every yacht that goes through the Canal is required to have either a pilot or advisor on board. Vessels under 65 feet are assigned an advisor, who communicates with the locks, other vessels and the controllers. Our advisor for Sunday night was scheduled to arrive at 4:30. Around 5:45 he arrived and we began heading towards the Gatun Locks, behind a small ship.

Our advisor, Ravel, told us that Plan A would have us in the middle of 3 rafted up sailboats, which is the preferred position. After rafting up to the other boats, the line handlers on the middle boat don't have to do any more work. Unfortunately, just before we we were to raft up, we learned that Plan B would be in effect - we would be one of the outside boats. So we tied up on the starboard side of Bravo, a catamaran from Brazil. On Bravo's port side was a Dutch boat. Once we were rafted up, Bravo drove us all towards the first lock.

As we entered the lock, two canal workers on the lock walls above us each threw down narrow guide lines with a monkey's fist (a knot with lead in the center of it) to the guys on the bow and me amidships. I hope that the canal worker who tossed the monkey's fist to me won a bet for managing to land it into an open hatch. We tied the guide lines onto our heavy blue lines that we would use to keep the boats centered in the locks.

As we moved into position, the canal workers walked on the the top of the locks holding one end of each rope, while Stuart and I had the other in hand, helping to keep it from getting tangled on any rough spots along the lock walls. Once we were in position, we tossed the lines overboard, and the canal workers hauled them up and looped them around a big bollard on the top of the lock. Once their end was secure, Stuart and I hauled up the slack and cleated off the lines.

While Stuart and I messed with the lines, Sten was at the controls, ready to engage our engine if necessary, Bram was on fender duty, ready to protect Mata'irea's gel coat if we got too close to the wall, and Baker was documenting the whole event. How many boats get lucky enough to have a professional photog on board? However, he hasn't shared any photos with us yet. The pictures below were taken by Bram and Sten.

The huge lock doors closed behind us and the lock began to fill with water. The water comes out of holes in the floor of the lock and creates quite a bit of turbulence. Bram shot a short film on his camera that shows the turbulence really well. We're trying to get it uploaded onto our website. In the meantime, drop us an email if you would like us to forward it to you.

The water filling causes the boats and ships to rise in the lock. As we rose, Stuart and I hauled in the slack on the lines to keep just a bit of tension on them. If we have too much slack on our side of the lock, the boat on the other side could hit the wall. The guy handling the line on the back of the Dutch boat kept putting too much tension on his line, and found himself too close to the wall several times.

After the lock was full of water, the canal worker took our lines off of the bollard, and sent them back to us with the guide lines still attached to them. We hauled them onto the deck. Then the doors at the front of the lock opened, and we moved into the next lock as the canal workers walked forward on the top of the wall carrying the other end of the guide lines. When they reached the appropriate bollard, we sent the blue lines back to them, and they looped them over the bollard. Stuart and I hauled in the slack, the doors closed, water rushed in raising us all, we kept tension on the lines until the adviser whistled, indicating that we should slack the lines so that the canal workers could remove our lines from the bollard and send them back to us. We did this three times. The third time, they untied the guide line from our heavy lines. We hauled our lines on deck, and motored into Gatun Lake, fresh water under Mata'irea's keel for the first time since we've owned her.

Once we were in the lake, we untied from the other boats and motored a short distance, before tying up to a huge mooring ball for the night. At around 8:30, the adviser was picked up, and we settled into the cockpit for some chips and drinks as howler monkeys screamed in the background and rain poured down. Bram had brought along a bottle of Seco, the local rot gut. We found that it makes a tasty, if toxic, White Russian.

The next morning, Sten was up at 5:30 in anticipation of the advisor's arrival. Our new advisor, Astro, arrived at 6:30 and we cast off the mooring lines. While Sten drove us through the lake and Baker read the best bits of an old issue of Cosmo out loud to us (I wish I had a picture of the expression on the advisor's face as Baker analyzed the advice columns), I made several pots of coffee and worked on frying up 2lbs of bacon and making a mess of eggs. The air was incredibly still and humid, as a result, it was really hot down below.

Bram, Baker and Stuart got to experience one of the most charming aspects of cruising first hand. Our water tanks ran too low (because we had been avoiding making water in Colon) and the fresh water pump lost its prime. Our jerry cans were empty and we had no water available for washing our hands. Out came the baby wipes. For water for the coffee, I used melted ice water from the drink cooler that we had in the cockpit.

This was on top of the fly outbreak that we had onboard. Our theory is that they came from the tires that we had tied alongside as fenders. When they guys arrived on Sunday, we'd killed dozens of flies, and there was a fly strip hanging in the middle of the salon. Awfully embarrassing. But they each gamely took turns wielding the flyswatter. Unfortunately, with a bunch of tall guys on board, it was only a matter of time before someone wound up tangled in the fly strip.

While underway, Astro entertained the guys with all sorts of details about the construction of the canal and the areas that we were passing. At one point we heard a scream and I said, "Oh, a howler monkey." Sten goes, "No, that's a bird of prey." The advisor corrected us both with, "Actually, there is a children's school over that hill." What does it say about the two of us that we equate the playground sounds of children with those of predators?

Sten and I had both read The Path Between the Seas about the construction of the canal. The features we were most interested in seeing were the locks on either end and the Culebra Cut - the excavation of a ridge that was the biggest obstacle to its construction. We didn't expect there to still be so much excavation work occurring, but along a significant portion of the Cut, they are still widening the canal. The guys back home will be happy to know that Caterpillar is well represented among the machinery at work in the Canal Zone.

The pictures above show how much variation there is in the layers of soil that are removed. Below is a picture of the Hill of Gold, so named by the Canal Company to encourage the workers to dig faster in the hopes of striking gold.Such a good looking crew. I'm really a very lucky girl.

We arrived at the Pedro Miguel Locks an hour early. Astro and the advisors on the other boats had hoped that we could move up our transit time. But the scheduler wouldn't make an adjustment, so we motored around the entrance to the lock an hour before rafting up for the trip back down to sea level. Astro wanted us to tie up to a dock to wait, so I went ahead and set up some dock lines. Sten and I decided that we would rather just motor about than to get knocked against the dock by the swell of the passing ships, so we nixed that idea. As we rafted up, the skies opened and it started to pour buckets of rain down on us. The trip down to sea level is meant to be more "tranquilo" than the trip up to the lake. Rather than pulling in slack, line handlers generally just ease out the lines, keeping the boats in the middle of the lock. But there is a lot of current coming from behind.

At one point the Dutch boat was again too close to the wall. The advisor on Bravo yelled to me to take up line, despite my line being completely taut. Sten climbed out from the shelter of the dodger to try to help me take in the line, but after a few tries I called him off. "It isn't worth hurting your back. Remember, we don't have health insurance." As he stood up, he noticed that Bravo was in gear - no mater how hard we pulled we wouldn't have been able to counteract the pull created by Bravo. He pointed out the engaged gearshift to the advisor on Bravo, who quickly made them get out of gear. We eventually got enough slack on the line to pull some in and help keep the Dutch boat off the wall.

As we line handlers on the outside boats worked in the pouring rain, the crew on Bravo stood under the shelter of their bimini, sipping espresso. I hated them just a little bit for that. But between monkey fist jokes and making fun of Baker, we kept up our spirits as we motored across the small Miraflores Lake into the last set of locks. At 1:30 we exited the last lock and motored into the Pacific. As Bram said, "It's manifest destiny in action." Transiting the canal is a 44 mile trip across an isthmus, which is approximately 6,000 miles shorter than going around the Horn.

At 2:03 we passed under the Bridge of the Americas, but Baker and I missed it as we were down below making lunch.

At 2:30 we anchored off the the Causeway, which used to be a US military base, but is now home to loads of restaurants, clubs and shopping catering to tourists, and enjoyed Baker's tasty pasta for lunch. The water on this end of the Canal is relatively clean and the air doesn't stink - a big improvement over Colon.

We had such a fantastic time hanging out with Stuart, Bram and Baker that it was late afternoon before Sten took them ashore. If you are looking for line handlers, send Stuart an email at mamallenapa@yahoo.com and he'll hook you up with some backpackers or expats.

After dropping the guys off, Sten came back and we fixed the water pump so that we could tackle the mountain of dishes that accumulated from feeding six hungry people. By 8pm we were both asleep.

5/29/07 UPDATE -- Baker sent us a link to his photos, as well as this fantastic poem. Enjoy!


Ode to the Canal Panamá

Stuart, Bram, and Baker got the call
and they knew they were needed
An adventure on the Canal
which would have to be heeded.

lasso three boats together
and send them a floatin'
through 100 years of history
the most important in boatin'

Gourmet meals
and drinks on the deck
if this is working as a line handler,
then hey what the heck!

sign me up as one
for all of my days
I take that back-
not interested when it rains!

but rocking like a baby to sleep
and a fresh breeze on the cheek
Is this really how Sten and Danika live,
Week after week after week?!

Baker and Sten got the easy jobs
and escaped without any blisters
While Stu, Bram and Danika line held-
they were real Monkey Fisters!

Sten dug the engineering history,
Danika was fascinated by the politics,
Bram worked a hangover, Stu worked in general,
and Baker read a magazine meant for chicks.

But at the end of the day
as we sailed into the Pacific
we had all made new friends
and the trip was terrific!

Thanks a million to the captain and crew (whichever they each decide they are...) of the

1 comment:

My journey to avoid a real life......... said...

Hey guys, thanks again for a great trip. Well worth the experience. And thats the most amount of photo's of me I've seen in years!!!!!