The Big Day :Panama Canal Transit
14th May 2017
The chirping of Liam’s iPad alarm at 3 am isn’t as a rule music to our ears, but today was different. It was transit day. And although we didn’t quite leap out of bed we did get a move on so we could still enjoy our morning ritual of having a cuppa in bed.
Every yacht that transits the canal is required to have four line handlers, an advisor and a helmsman. Our three extra line handlers were due to arrive at 0330. John and Frances are friends from an Aussie boat and they had line handled many times on other boats, and the other person was Eric, a professional line handler. Eric arrived bearing four coils of heavy duty rope, each 128ft in length as well as five big kickass fenders.There were supposed to be six fenders but one went missing along the way, Not to worry, we just added in one of ours to make up the numbers. Late afternoon the previous day we had a call from our transit agent Roy Bravo of Emmanuel Agencies informing us that we’d be going through in one straight hop. You beauty!
Normally yachts are scheduled to transit over a two day period starting at 6pm, with an overnight stop at the halfway point in Gatun Lake. When your boat is bursting at the seams with provisions and spare parts ready to cross the Pacific, the two day hop makes for very cramped sleeping quarters as you have to provide beds for the extra bodies as well as feeding them all dinner, breakfast and lunch along with cold drinks and snacks. So we were very lucky getting the single day transit. We still had to provide breakfast and lunch as well as lots of cold bottled water, but it was no big deal. An added bonus was that we’d get to see the whole shooting match in daylight and the forecast was for a clear sunny day, unlike the previous few days that had been overcast with heavy rain.
So off we went. Under the cover of darkness we crept out of the marina and headed over to an anchorage named “The Flats” where we’d pick up our advisor for the day. There were to be three yachts rafted (tied ) together in our little posse. GWTW, Consensus, a drop dead gorgeous Oyster 72 and a 55ft Danish boat named Gwendoline. Shortly after arriving at The Flats we realized that Gwendoline was a non starter. We heard later that they’d mistaken the time frame and thought the transit was a PM event and not an AM one. So that just left the Consensus and us. More room in the locks with only two of us, so that was a bonus.
Just after 5am our advisor Ahmed climbed aboard from the pilot boat and off we went. The rumor mill is ripe with stories of nasty, rude advisors who bark orders at the crew and tell skippers to keep up their maximum speed across the Gatun Lake, only to have to sit and wait for hours on the other side of the lake. Our man Ahmed was the complete opposite, he was charming and courteous and a pleasure to have aboard.
A funny thing happened on the way to the locks. Sadly, our advisor’s day did not start with a bang, it was more like a plonk. Just after he boarded GWTW Annie was preparing to serve the crew a hot breakfast as per instructed by our agent. Ahmed politely shimmied along the cockpit seat so John and Frances could sit down. He picked up his satchel full of personal gear and transit papers and moved it off the seat reaching behind him to place it on what he thought was a shelf. Then he took off his shoes, this time leaning over the back to put them with his satchel and it was then that he realized his mistake.There is no shelf behind our cockpit seat, only fresh air and the dark waters of the ocean, He was pretty well speechless, softly saying my satchel , my satchel, I put it there, what was I thinking!. We turned the boat around in the hope that it was still floating, it was long gone. But the show had to go on, satchel or no satchel.
Breakfast went down a real treat. Liam had precooked bbq snags the night before to save time so they would only needed reheating and Annie fresh cooked sunnyside-up eggs, roasted tomatoes and sautéed asparagus with lemon and pepper. Strangely, both Eric and Ahmed started to chuckle while they were eating their sausages and even stranger they were eating them with their fingers and not the cutlery. It almost appeared that they were peeling them, oh well when in Rome.
After the meal Ahmed quietly said, “Annie that breakfast was delicious but just so you know, in Panama the sausages are wrapped in plastic that you need to remove before cooking” What the %*#%! Neither Liam or I had noticed the very fine, invisible to the untrained eye, plastic casing on the snags. What a stuff up, no wonder the snags had a strange smell, but no-one died so that’s a good thing. With the embarrassment of the snag-gate over, all six of us had a good laugh and the earlier satchel incident was also forgotten as the mood lightened. But it was time to get down to business and onward to the first lock we went.
Usually if there is a cat in the raft of three boats the cat is the steerage vessel as they have two engines giving them more maneuverability of the raft. As there was only GWTW and Consensus in our raft up we were out ranked by the Oyster’s dimensions and by her having 200 horses to play with as well as a bow thruster. Essentially we just tagged along while her paid crew did all the grunt work and that was fine by us. The two boats would be joined at the hip for our trip up the first three locks to Gatun Lake and then once again for the three lock ride back down to the Pacific Ocean.
It was just coming up to 7am by the time our raft of two entered the first lock, ahead of us was a cargo ship named SEATRADE RED from Monrovia. We would get to look at her stern for the next few hours. With Consensus being the lead boat all we had to do was to keep our engines in idle in case they were needed while our three line handlers on our starboard side managed the lines.
As soon as we were trussed up like a turkey and secured to the wall cleats high above us the massive lock doors began to close and the rushing waters around us began to rise taking us up with it. The line handlers have to be on their toes as a stuff up at this point, eg pulling them in or letting them out to slow, while going up or down can and has in the past meant disaster for the yachts. You sure don’t amateurs doing the job .There was no turning back now. It was a one way street to the Pacific. Up we go
Many thanks to Susan and Nick for taking these pictures of us via the canal webcam. Only one out three cameras were working that day, so we are lucky to have these pics. That blue ship is the SEATRADE that we were behind. The photos are in the 2nd Gatun Lock
Time to chill for a bit. Once we’d cleared the third and final elevating lock on the Atlantic side GWTW was floating 80ft above sea level on Gatun Lake. The umbilical lines joining us to Consensus were dropped and we started our leisurely motor across twenty eight miles of the scenic freshwater lake gliding past 200 marker buoys as we went.
Along this part of the transit is where some very serious excavating and engineering took place, particularly in a skinny section called Culebra Cut. It was here that a channel needed to be gouged out through solid rock to join the man made Gatun Lake to the Pacific Ocean. Considering that this all happened in the early 1900’s using equipment far inferior to what is available today makes the building of the canal even more remarkable. Tens of thousands of workers toiled relentlessly for years. Not all survived due to the prevalent diseases of yellow fever and malaria.
During our trip across the lake we shared the waters with the biggest of the big ships . The neo-panamax class. These guys are seriously monolithic.They are close to 167 feet in beam, 1200ft in length and can carry up to14,000 containers. Up until last year ships of this size were excluded from transiting the canal as they were too big for the existing locks. But in June 2016 an additional set of locks were opened allowing these monsters to pass through. The construction of these new locks took nearly a decade and was motivated by Panama wanting to stay competitive in the global movement of shipping. The canal is a vital source of income for the country, who manage it as an extremely profitable business unlike when America was in charge and the canal was run on a non profit basis. It was a darn lot cheaper to transit when the Yanks were in charge.
GWTW’s transit cost around $2,680 US, small beer compared to what the big boys pay which is anything between $300,000 to $800,000. Word has it that China is looking to build an opposition canal somewhere close by. It may be a myth but knowing the Chinese probably not.
The trip across the lake was a bit of relaxing downtime for us as we munched on empanadas and fresh fruit as we went. We tied to a massive ship buoy to have lunch and our Panamanian crew were particularly fond of the big salad which yours truly whipped up accompanied by a spinach, onion and potato frittata. No one was hungry after that. It had been an eat fest since 5am.
Going down, ground floor Pacific Ocean. Once again we rafted to Consensus for the final three lowering locks to the Pacific. Unlike the Gatun locks which are consecutive, the Pacific side locks are not.The linehandlers on the dock throw a monkey first with a line attached which our crew then thread through an eye and the line is pulled up to the dock.The dock guys then walk us into position and tie us off. The same happened in the first three locks as well. They are pretty good shots and although we’d covered our solar panels with airbeds just to be sure, they always threw the lines towards the trampolines on the bows.
The first two are together with a gap of 1300ft to the last one, the Mira Flores Lock . In this set of locks we were rafted in front of a tanker rather than behind as was the case in the first three locks. It was rather unsettling to have a big beast of a bow so close behind our transom and towering over us, Now we are talking way to close for comfort and most defiantly in our personal space, say 60ft away. Good thing those dock mules had steel cables attached to her to pull her up.
The last lock, the Mira Floes Lock is the most famous and this is where the four story Panama Canal visitors centre is located. Hundreds of people visit the centre everyday to see the ships go through and today was not different. All the tourists were lined up waving and cheering with cameras in hand watching as we descended the final 45ft down to sea level.
And at 5.08pm on Sunday May 14th 2017 the last lock doors swung open and the mighty Pacific Ocean flowed in kissing GWTW’s bows for the first time in 11 years. It was an unbelievably emotional moment for us and one that we will never ever forget.
Once the doors fully opened our party of two motored out into the fast flowing waters. We let go our lines and said goodbye to our transit buddy Consensus and steered a course to the historic port of Balboa. We dropped off our advisor first and then bid goodbye to Eric.
As the sun set behind the hills just after 6pm we anchored at La Playita and cracked a chilled bottle of bubbly especially bought for this occasion. John and Frances stayed the night on board and we shared a meal and a couple of vinos before hitting the hay. It had been a bucket list day and we were all pretty beat.
It ‘s been a long time coming but we’ve finally done it.
We have transited the Panama Canal!