The Panama Canal
The Panama CanalReport Abuse
24th Mar 2004
The Panama Canal
Once we’d received our boat identification number from the Panama Canal Authority we knew we’d cleared the last hurdle of a Byzantine bureaucracy. We would at some point transit the canal and sail into the pacific. Thursday! Thursday would be the day. Be ready to raise anchor the moment you receive your pilot (in training) and proceed to the first locks. Pilot will arrive at 0800 we were told (which was a better hour than the 0400 which another boat of our 3 boat flotilla was told). Promptly at 1000 the pilot (who was in fact a canal tug boat driver) came aboard. He was red-eyed, somewhat beery but very pleasant. Well there was a little social bump when Irene declined to serve him a beer, citing long-standing Moose policy at sea. We headed off (with our now Dramamine popping pilot) toward the Gatun locks to raft together the three yachts.
The center yacht Helios was a big Centurian, run by a pleasant kiwi couple. Moose was rafted to her portside. On our outer port side we had five car tires to supplement our four fenders. The other side of the raft was a French steel boat called Olive oil, port of call listed only as L.O.L. Their crew had, from left to right, a dog, a Spanish-speaking lady, a sedentary captain, two young sea-cadet types and a sour and retentive fellow who announced that he was, in fact, a professional line handler. Of course the work of a line-handler is to control the four long ropes that are used to keep the raft of boats centered in the huge lock.
This might not sound so complicated but in fact it is. The locks are filled with water at a very rapid rate and the area where the rafted yachts are, is usually just behind a small 500’ ship. The turbulence is hypnotizing – it’s like having your boat in a very big, rapidly boiling pot of soup. The four ropes run from the bow and stern of Moose up 60 feet to big bollards on the locks edge; Similarly from the front and back of Olive Oil. So as the water level moved up the wall as the lock filled the lines had to be continually tensioned to keep the boats centered .The walls are rough and hard, and the currents ferocious.
The grizzled expert on the bow of Olive Oil was always behind the action and Moose got closer to the wall because he didn’t get his line in when opportunity presented itself. When I saw him putting a ¾ inch polyester line into the chain gipsy of the windlass I knew we were dealing with a man who was worth every penny of the $45 he charged for his service. But the lock filled without event and we motored through the massive gates into the next one to repeat the process.
Again our French friends looked a little rank in the gate. When it was time to fill this lock Olive Oil totally failed to secure their bow line as the water surged in through the bottom inlets. The raft of three spun out of control in the current and went broadside into the concrete lock wall. Moose took the full impact with the two other yachts, about 25 tons of them, crushing her further inward. I’ve never heard a worse crunch. One of the big bulletproof Taylor fenders exploded, the contact point of our stainless steel rub-rail and the tires were almost too thin to see. The spreaders missed, by the proverbial hair, the lock wall. I think a fiberglass boat would have blown out bulkheads. And you can see examples of canal disasters at the repair slips of the Balboa Yacht Club. The crew of Moose looked over the side in horror, but only to discover a chip of paint gone! I will happily chase rust for the protection of 3/16 steel plate.
The crash, because actual contact must be reported and is constantly videoed, did galvanize the three pilots, who had in fairness been quite blasé to date. Olive Oil got a violent tongue-lashing. They were assembled on the foredeck and whipped with a diatribe of Spanish/English. I was biting my tongue in silent glee. The men were relieved of all further line work. Helios, in the center, would take over. They were driven back at finger point, the professional in the van, to sit sullenly with the dog and the Spanish lady. Sometimes justice can bear such a sweet fruit!
It was just as well that these changes took place because when the ship in front of us left the lock his propeller wash was a full river thrown against us. The boat beside us had 8 knots on his instruments and he was tied to the bollards. If a line had parted, or was let slip, a boat would have been lost.
Once out of the lifting locks we could now motor into Gatun Lake, which is the source of water for all the locks. The lake is well above sea level, so when a lock needs to be filled, the gates between the lake and lock are opened and in comes 60 feet of water. The shores and islands around the lake are pristine nature. It makes a beautiful counterpoint to the heart attack action of the locks. We stayed overnight at the yacht anchorage at Gamboa, anchored as far as possible from Olive Oil, LOL, for fear they’d find a way to drag anchor into Moose. It was a constant parade of shipping coming both ways at 8-10 knots. Big, blue-water ships suddenly appeared around a jungle corner, had a tug haul their sterns away from the shore at the last moment and continued around the point where the trees were full of parrots.
Next day we set off again, sans Olive Oil. They had been told to wait for further instructions. The authority runs an “intranet” of camera action and reports and apparently the contact was not what yachting rules describe as “minor and avoidable” and Olive Oil was subjected to the further indignity of being tied up and handled from above – which, I think, is on a par with tarring and feathering. A wit on Helios suggested that the L.O.L. port of call meant “Laugh Out Loud”.
Moose left the last lock at Miraflores and steamed south toward the Pacific, as we passed under the big Bridge of the Americas we poured a champagne toast, carefully pouring a glass into the sea for Neptune. A few miles later the estuary banks opened and the view was unbroken, only the slowly rolling “Mare Pacifico” filled the horizon.
Posted by: J Duncan Gould