Voyage of Traveler / Blog

April 19, 2010

Traveler Postcard From Panama Canal

April 8 and 9
Panama Canal

What a contrast between our two days transiting the Panama Canal, and what an exciting and wonderful experience.  On board Traveler were Barbara and her two longtime friends and our guests, Marsha and Bill Horsfall (he is 87 and this was one of his Bucket List things to do), Brian, two professional line handlers and a Panama Canal Authority Advisor (same as a pilot for ships, but if the boat is under 65 ft. they’re called advisors and get less pay.)

Day One.  On the Atlantic side, at the Shelter Bay Marina, there was some confusion about the meeting time and place for our line handlers to come to the boat.  They were supposed to meet us at the marina, but an hour after the appointed time and when they were very late, I checked my cell phone and saw I missed a call.  It was from our agent to say the meeting place was changed at the last minute.  So now we were behind schedule, and if you are late for your transit appointment the Panama Canal Authority fines you $1,500!  With the two line handlers on board along with our ten rented truck tires, wrapped in plastic so the top sides don’t get scuffed, hung in place as added fenders (very much needed!), we got to the meeting place for the advisor just with 15 minutes to spare, only to find out he was running late (no fine if he is late), and so our appointment to transit was pushed back from 4 pm to 5:30 pm.  Hurry up and wait.

To transit the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which is generally a north to south direction, four miles south of Colon there are three consecutive up-locks called the Gatun Locks.  After that you motor across a huge lake, Lake Gatun, for about 30 miles, passing ships going the other direction along the way.  Then there is one down-lock, called the Pedro Miguel Lock, followed by the relatively small Pedro Miguel Lake.  Finally, there are two consecutive down-locks called the Miraflores Locks, after which you are at sea level on the Pacific side.  Each lock lifts or lowers about 25 ft., so the large lake in the middle is 75 ft. above sea level.  If you get a very early start, like 5 or 6 am, you can make it all the way through in one day during daylight.  Because of our late afternoon starting time, ours was a two-day transit.

As we were about to enter the first lock, the PC Authority instructed our advisor via radio, along with the advisors on two other yacht, to raft together, with the biggest boat, a 46 ft. Bertram sportfishing boat, in the center. While the line handlers on the Bertram (obviously not pros and drinking beers) were rigging spring lines between the boats, they screwed it up and took 15 minutes to do a job that should have taken just three or four minutes.  During that time, the wind pushed us slowly into the path of a ship that was underway at about 4 knots and moving into final position in the lock.  The ship was unable to turn or stop.  And because we were side tied to the Bertram we could do nothing to get Traveler out of the way of the ship. The ship blasted its very loud horn five times, which is the signal for, essentially, “I can do nothing to avoid the impending collision between my ship and your small boat, and so you must either move out of the way immediately or brace for collision.”  You can only imagine the stress I was having.  It was a very close call, but the guys on the Bertram got their act together (with instructional help in Spanish from our pro line handlers) and managed to move Traveler, the small yacht on the other side and themselves out of the ship’s path.  After that, the guys in the Bertram were needlessly heavy on their throttles, both forward and reverse, nearly causing the deck cleats on their boat to rip out. I found out later the owner of the Bertram was not on board and this was a delivery crew.  Even though we were side tied and basically being towed by the Bertram, to ease the strain on the lines, I was at the helm with the advisor giving near constant instructions: “Forward just a bit, that’s good, now reverse a little. Stop. Turn to port a little, that’s good.”  He was also giving instructions in English (to Brian and Barbara) and Spanish to our line handlers: “Take up the slack on the port side stern.  Keep the tension steady and even on both sides.”  After an hour and a half or so, we made it through the third lock well after sunset.  As planned, we took a nearby mooring on Lake Gatun for the night.

Day Two: The next morning, a new advisor was ferried out to our boat at 0600 and we were underway before the sun came up.  After a light rain shower of 15 minutes, we had a beautiful day.  Shipping traffic was relatively light that day.  We passed, as I recall, about ten ships going the other way as we crossed the lake and went through the Gaillard Cut, named after the chief engineer responsible for the most challenging part of the canal’s construction.

A little history note: In the late 1800s the French tried to build a canal across the isthmus of Panama.  But they ran into construction difficulties, workers were dropping like flies from illness and then they ran out of money.  A few years later, with the clandestine help of the US government, the State of Panama declared their independence from Colombia to form their own country.  The first formal act of the new Panamanian Government was to sign a treaty with the US giving us the canal zone and the right to construct, own and operate the canal.  From 1908 to 1914, under the leadership of President Teddy Roosevelt, the US built the Panama Canal, at the same time both separating two continents and joining two oceans.  But it was not easy.  Altogether, ten thousand people died building the canal, most of them while laboring in the Gaillard Cut through the mountain range.  Many of the deaths were from industrial accidents, but most were from malaria or yellow fever.  One of the French laborers who was hospitalized with yellow fever and nearly died was Paul Gauguin, then in his early 20s. He recovered from his illness and went on to become one of the world’s greatest artists. I have one of his paintings on Traveler, “Tahitian Menu,” painted near the end of his life when he was in Papeete.

When we went down the three locks on the Pacific side, beginning about noon, we had fabulous conditions (daylight, no wind, no rain, good visibility) and to our surprise, the entire lock to ourselves!  Our advisor, who has been doing this for 20 years, said he has never been on a boat that had a lock to itself, or even heard of one.  He joked that we must know el presidente. It was actually just a scheduling fluke, in our favor.

After completing the transit, it felt strange to be back in the Pacific Ocean and once again on the west coast of North America.  Like finishing a good book, for my three-year circumnavigation you might say I’ve started the final chapter.  If you look at a world map, like in the back of a Lonely Planet travel guide, heck, I only have about two more inches to go and I’m back home!

I really wish Barbara could finish the voyage with me.  But she had to fly back to work.  So it is just Brian and me for the final push up the coast of Central America and Mexico over the next ten weeks.

I’m starting to make some plans for a homecoming party at the Balboa Yacht Club for July 3.

Our next Postcard will be from Costa Rica.  Until then,

Living the Dream,
with Brian


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