Saturday, April 23, 2011

Conquering The Panama Canal.

 Boldly, Bravely and without Fear, we set off to conquer the Panama Canal...

Yeah Right :-p To say I wasn't nervous would be a total lie. I was in charge of 125 feet of rope. I was told that a man on the side of the canal would throw me a rope with a monkeys fist, (a large knot to give it weight), on it and I'd have to catch it and tie it to my rope. Then I had to let the rope out as the man pulled his line in. When he put the large loop around the bollard, I had to quickly and smoothly pull in the slack and tie the rope off. Whew you think..Okay. I can do that...then come more the water lowers or rises depending on which lock you're in you have to keep the boat centered by taking in slack or letting the line out, carefully....Okay, you think again, I can do that....
Thing is, you don't want to mess up and cause damage to the boat. When the water comes in and you are being lifted up, it boils like you're in a huge cauldron and the water swirls around, pushing the little boat this way and that...But I digress, lets start at the beginning....
Sunrise..David and Ian chatting in the cockpit.
We were told to be ready for our Advisor who was to arrive at a 5.45am a chap called Calliemira arrived with our ropes, 4 of them, two for the bow and two for the they were long. We got up and started our day...Ness and Ian are the owners of Eilean Donan the 36ft sloop we had agreed to help get through the canal. Ness had some tasty little croissants with slices of steak inserted into them..she warmed them up and served them with hot coffee for everyone and Lemon tea for me....very YUM! we sat and waited and chatted, ate some pineapple chunks and more pastries and waited ...7.30am came and went....
Pastries and fruit for breakfast.
Ian got onto the VHF and called the Canal people asking them what was up. We were then informed that the advisor would be there at 08.30am..At about 08.25 we saw the pilot boat and went out to meet them...the Advisor had to leap from that boat to Eilean Donan...We gave him coffee and food. He said we had to be at the lock by Ian worked out how long it would take us to get there and shortly we were finally underway...Oh yes, while we were waiting, Charlie stopped by..he'd rented Ian the 125ft lines...he gulped down a welcome hot cup of coffee. :-)
Charlie..A nice guy, full of smiles..speaks great English.
Ahmed, Our Advisor lands neatly on the deck after leaping off the pilot boat.
We motored under the huge Bridge of The Americas, past a large dock where ships that are too large for the canal have to unload all their goods so that they can be loaded onto other smaller ships for the crossing.
Huge bridge..the locals complain of traffic jams due to the smaller roads leading to it.

Going under.. :-)
The bridge and traffic...
We arrived at the lock, Our Advisor, Ahmed, radioed ahead, the tourist boat that we were going to tie up next to, was way to big and would have damaged Eilean Donan, so we wanted to go alone...the tourist boat said we could go ahead of them into the lock.. Off we scooted. The sides of the lock were way way way up up there...the roes came whistling down, thudding onto the coach roof. I grabbed mine and tied it on. The man onshore gestured for me to let it go and he started hauling it up. In no time at all we were tied up. I had a bit of difficulty using the cleat and finally decided to wrap my line around a winch. Ahmed, leapt to my rescue and held the line whilst I wrapped there was a lot of tension on that line. Using the winch made the pulling and releasing of the line smoother and didn't pull on my back nearly as much.

The docks where the really big ships are offloaded.
What the lock looks like from land...

In the lock..waiting for the water to start rising.
The water starts to boil in from under us..

The water poured in, I used a winch handle and wound the line in...success! in no time at all the water had filled up the lock and the bells were ringing to warn everyone the the gates would soon be opening.
Up we went

Right to the top...the gates start to open...
Ahmed yelled at us to slacken our lines and take them in. What would happen next is the boat would motor slowly into the next lock, the men would walk along the side holding onto their small rope that was still attached to our big ones. Like a looonnnggg leash :-) when the yacht was in the position that Ahmed decided was good, we'd let the men onshore pull the big ropes up again and tie them around the bollards...and the routine would begin again. This time the boat went too far forward and I was fast running out of rope..I told Ahmed and he asked Ian to back the boat up...whew, just in time too, I only had about 5 feet of line left. After this lock we had to motor for a while till we got to the last lock on this side where we repeated the whole senario. Again the boat went too far forward and the man on shore was tugging at the line..I waggled the end of my rope at him and he stopped, giving Ian time to reverse the boat up a bit. To top it all it started to pour with rain. Wonderful! it wasn't cold at all, it was a welcome relief from the heat of the sun. There we were, standing absolutely soaked with huge grins on our faces, the people on the tourist boat behind us taking photo's of these mad people in their little yacht transversing the canal..ha ha
After the locks comes a huge lake we had to cross..pouring with rain..lovely..
A pretty yellow butterfly decided to have a drink of rain water..ha ha.
The next bit was a long haul of several hours of motoring across a massive lake to get us to a huge buoy near the next set of locks. This area of Panama is truly beautiful, the trees crowd the waters edge. Even with the sky heavily overcast and occasionally pouring more water on us, the place was gorgeous. We passed a huge section that was being carved out by massive machinery, which looked like toys in comparison to the area being carved. On enquiring about it from Ahmed, we were told that another series of locks were being built to take ships of up to 1000ft long. The locks would be 50ft deep and 60ft wide..I think...While we were motoring along David told us that the activity on shore looked like they were going to blast. He explained that by the lay of the land he could see that they'd hit rock and that was where they'd be blasting...We all went..ahha and hmmmm making appropriate sounds whilst not really taking him seriously  ha ha thejoke was on us because a moment later our world was rocked by an immense explosion. I managed to get a photo of the end of the blast...
The end of the blast..the smoke was settling..
The section of land being cleared for the new locks...

Several hours later we arrived at a massive bouy. It was so large we could tie up to it like it was a dock.

Ian tying up a center line with Ness and Cassimira, our expert line handler looking on...
The sun was setting and a pilot boat arrived to collect Ahemd.
Calm, collected and in charge. Ahmed was a good advisor.

Off he goes..bye.

Ness cooked up a wonderful curried chicken dinner. We were starving by this time and the beers were going to our heads..haha..thanks Ness, it was very yummy. I was told that there are some people who don't bother to feed the crew on a crossing...I could hardly believe my ears. The work you do is tiring and you get very hungry and thirsty. To not take care of your crew is is is....words fail me. I mean really! even if some of the crew are being paid for the days work, they should still be fed. Cassiemira was a paid linesman, he was also in charge of taking the lines back to the Pacific side of the canal at the end of the trip, saving the boat owners the hassle of sorting that problem out. He worked at the bow with Ness and she said that Cassie worked really hard, jumping to do things even before it was obvious that they needed to be can you not feed someone like that?
The lake is surrounded by a dense forest of trees.
Sundowners and supper..ahh :-)

We didn't have to be ready for our new advisor till two pm the next day, so it turned out to be lovely and lazy. I got up really early and took a photo of the sunrise pretty.

..and then crawled back into bed to read....I finally got up a little later than everyone else.....we had breakfast..yummy scrambled eggs with fresh fruit afterwards...The night before two more yachts had appeared and tied up to the other buoy that was near us.
Two other yachts had tied up to the other buoy.

They were going the other way. At about 9am their advisors arrived and off they went. They seemed a little concerned that we were still attached to our bouy, but we yelled that we were going east...they gave the thumbs up and tootled off across that huge lake. Several of the ships that had anchored there overnight were starting up their engines and making ready to get moving. we just sat about and relaxed. At about 1pm I suggested to David that we climb onto the buoy with a bucket, some soap and shampoo and have us a bucket bath....the water was lovely. What was weird though, was that I had to keep on reminding myself that it was fresh..not salty. We ate lunch and soon after that our new advisor..Carlos arrived, and we were soon on our way.
The pilot boat arrives...

Carlos takes a leap onto the buoy.
This time we tied our boat to another yacht about the same size as Eilean Downan, and went through in tandem....That meant that my rope was tied to the other boat and I didn't have any work to do! :-) I took photo's...lots of them..and helped David a little.
Organised chaos! Tying the boats up together.
They're really nice and snug.

A ship comes in behind us...

Ahead of us is a tug..

The water goes down...

And down...
The gates start to open...

Our shore linesmen are tiny up there..

A giant ruler set into the wall.

Carlos is very pleased!
The ship follows us out..their linesmen are those two huge locomotives.
We went through those locks like pro's, the time flying by. We motored off to one side so that we could untie the yachts and continue on our way under our own engine. We were off to meet the boat that would take our advisor, Carlos, back to shore. In reality the trip through the three locks had taken 3 hours..but it sure didn't feel like it!
There are rather large waves...this was rather a dicey transfer...

The pilot boat captain knows his job!

On our way to the anchorage.

By 5.30pm we were at anchor and Ian was assembling his dinghy to get us ashore. He had to do two trips but he was quick so that we could meet our waiting taxi outside the gates of the marina...
The dinghy is lifted off the deck and lowered into the water. Ian climbs in..

He lifts out the aft section that he'd been standing on a minute ago..

Puts it into the water and swivels it around.

Bolts it together...

In go the lines..

Followed closely by Cassiemira. Ian was soon back to collect David and me.
Quick hugs and sad farewells to our friends. After Ian got back from playing ferryman, they must have sunk down onto the cockpit seats with a grin, a drink and a huge sigh of relief...They were through, safe and sound!!

I don't know about them but David and I were whacked when we got back to the boat at about 8pm. We had ourselves a well earned nightcap and staggered to bed.The next day we had absolutely no energy whatsoever!

What an experience, I absolutely loved it! Can we do that again...please! :-D


  1. Wow! My dad was fascinated with locks, and as a kid, we visited several. I've continued that tradition with my own kids, bringing them to Sault St Marie, Michigan when we lived there, and McNary Dam locks along the Columbia River here in Oregon. I've never seen it from the "inside" though! What a neat post! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you Becky...anyone can do this you know...all the cruisers that go through the canal are looking for line don't get paid, but you get fed and a bed and usually a bus trip back to Panama city or a taxi paid for..up to the boat owners.. :-) to get hold of them you go to Las Brisas anchorage and with a hand held vhf radio listen in to the net on channel 68 at am..tell them you are available and people will radio you....on the other side there is an island that everyone anchors at..can't remember the name..but the town on the mainland there is not a good place to be...
    hence the quick ride back to Panama city.. :-D