The Panama Canal   May 2009

May 8


1400 Line handlers arrived.  Four young men, who dropped off their bags, said Tito would met us on The Flats at 1500 with my clearance papers, and after asking when I wanted to leave and being told 1445, disappeared.

At 1440 I went looking for them, found two sitting in the shade of a tree.  They called to the others, and we returned to the boat and left just behind the two other boats with which we are going to transit, the 44’ catamaran, HANA HOU, that had been docked next to me, and a monohull the size of THE HAWKE OF TUONELA.

The Flats are a designated anchorage area near the vanished Panama Yacht Club on the Colon side of the harbor.  We were there by 1515.  I didn’t expect Tito would be on time, and he wasn’t.  HANA HOU anchored, and we and the other boat powered in slow circles.  Three sailboats were anchored at The Flats.

When 1600 hours, the scheduled time for my adviser to arrive, passed with still no Tito, I asked the line handers, whose names I never got straight, to call him on a cell phone.  One did and replied that Tito “was on his way.”

When 1630 passed with still no adviser or Tito, I asked them to call again.  Again, “he is on his way.”  But this time allegedly already in his launch.  He did appear beyond a point of land a few minutes later, came alongside and gave me my stamped passport and clearance papers.

Shortly after that THE HAWKE OF TUONELA was called on the handheld VHF and I was told our adviser would arrive at 1730.  Not wanting to power aimlessly for another hour, I anchored in 12’ of water.

A launch carrying Javier, our first adviser, chugged out to us at 1745, and at 1800 he said we should go.  Our lock time was 1900.  I showed one of the men how to operate the windlass.  I had out only 50’ of chain.  Then I returned to the helm and powered slowly forward as he cranked it in.  I could feel when the anchor came off the bottom, but it didn’t appear at the roller.  I called forward, “Bring it all the way up.”  The reply came, “It’s covered with mud.”  I had anchored there before and knew that it would be.  I engaged the tiller pilot, went forward, raised and lowered the anchor into the water until the mud fell off, then pulled it up and secured it.

My two previous transits were made when the United States ran the canal. Then the advisers were students in the tug boat captain program.  From Javier I learned that now advisers are employees of the Canal Company in some capacity or another, who have taken a special adviser course.  Javier, and Robin, our adviser the following day, are in security on boats that patrol the harbors.  Both were fully competent and much more pleasant to have aboard than had been the Americans in the past.

Approaching all the lights at the first lock, only a few miles away, just after dark was like entering a fantasyland.  It was truly as bright as day, but with an amber glow that made everything slightly surreal.

Because HANA HOU was bigger than the two monohulls, the advisers decided that we would raft up one on each side of her, and that the lines to the sides of the locks would be run to her.  This meant that once we were rafted, there was nothing more to do on THE HAWKE OF TUONELA or that could be done.

As we entered the lock two men on each concrete wall swung weighted handlines to us.  My men caught the ones on our side and passed them to HANA HOU, whose crew secured their lines to them, which were then pulled to the walls.

Two of my line handlers climbed up to handle lines from HANA HOU. 

While their experience of boats is limited as shown when raising the anchor, I saw that as line handlers in the Panama Canal they are excellent.  They know how to raft boats, including spring lines; handle the lines to the walls; and how to moor to a ship size mooring.

As the lock gates closed behind us I was serene and detached.  I had absolutely no control over my boat,  Fortunately Christine, the owner of HANA HOU, did an impeccable job moving our raft, both that night and in the down locks the following noon, which we took the same way, center chamber three abreast.  In the locks up, a ship was ahead of us.  In the locks down a 60’ catamaran.

When the water first rushes into the chambers it has great force, which usually catches first timers unaware.  This happened now, with the raft momentarily swinging at an angle before recovering.  As the water level rises, the force diminishes.

At the top, I could look back down at the dark harbor below us.

The three locks on the Caribbean side are contiguous.  The men ashore walked our lines forward, and Christine powered us into the second and then the third lock.  It all was uneventful, which is just what I wanted.  At 2030, the last lock gate opened and we powered slowly onto Lake Gatun, where we unrafted and made our separate ways to two ship size buoys a mile and a half away, to which my line handers expertly secured us beam on with bow and stern lines.  This buoy was a large flat disk with a ‘T’ welded in the center.  It was big enough for men to stand and sit on, and my crew often did.

I, the reluctant chef, still had to feed these people.  I prepared the freeze dry Santa Fe Chicken, which went down well enough for two of them to have second helpings.  This was improved by a couple of cold beers each from the cooler.

After cleaning up the galley and clearing one quarter berth for one of the crew to sleep on--two others had a settee berth each and one the cabin sole--I went forward and to bed.

Even before I did so, one of the Panamanians crawled onto the quarterberth and was instantly asleep and almost as instantly snoring.

May 9


As far as I could tell the other three men were up most of the night.  I heard them talking in Spanish to one another every time I woke.  I know they were awake at midnight and at 0400, when I finally got up myself.  It rained in between, which drove them from the deck back into the cabin.

I boiled water for instant coffee, gave them some.  The man on the quarterberth was still asleep and snoring, and then I went up to sit on deck myself.

The mooring is just off thick jungle and I could hear howler monkeys howling. 

Dawn was lovely pink rising about the trees.

I made my standard breakfast of oatmeal and trail mix, which I think was disappointing to them, but no complaints, and when our next adviser arrived by launch at 0645.  we dropped the mooring and were underway.

On previous transits the use of autopilots was prohibited.  I had put the tiller extension in place, but also had the tillerpilot set up and without asking, engaged it and kept to our course with its remote control.

After all the nonsense about powering at 8 knots, all we had to do to make our lock time of 1100 was maintain 6, which we easily did at 3000 rpms.  I set the jib which gave us an extra .2 of a knot in light wind, but had to furl it when one stretch of the channel took us back to the northeast.

Powering across Lake Gatun between jungle covered islands is enjoyable, with the reservation that you know that if your engine fails you are in big trouble. 

Just short of the first lock on the Pacific side, we were delayed by a ship passing a dredge, but caught up with the other two boats who had already rafted.   In doing so we passed under a new bridge, only the second over the canal.   When we were secured to HANA HOU’s port side, Christine drove us into the lock. 

Going down is easy.  The water lowers without fuss, and I have not ever heard of a boat being damaged going down.

The three Pacific locks are not contiguous.  The first one as you approach going toward the Pacific is separated from the other two by a half mile or so.  Robin told me that this is because when they were digging the canal, the locks had to be in bedrock, and after they dug the first two, they found there was not enough bedrock for a third and so had to put it further north.

There was a sense of celebration, even among the line handlers, who proprietorially welcomed me to “The Pacific.” 

Beyond the lock, we unrafted for the last time, and I again had control of my boat and my life.

It was still two or three miles to the Balboa Yacht Club, where I had seemingly reserved a mooring.  The ‘seemingly’ because when you telephone them, they say they have no moorings, which simply isn’t true.  After being told this, I telephoned another sailor who had already transited, who went to the office and arranged one for me.

A half mile beyond the last lock, rain began to fall.  Everyone except me retreated to the cabin.  I didn’t mind getting soaked, but did mind a few minutes of downpour so heavy it was blinding.  Still better there than in a lock.

The rain eased, and a launch came out for Robin just before we passed under the Bridge of the Americas.   Some megayachts have been designed with masts limited by clearance of that bridge.

An unexpected advantage of my crew was that one of them knew how to operate the handheld VHF and called the Balboa Yacht Club, where he spoke to them in Spanish and had a launch waiting to take us to our mooring.  Once there, the tires used as fenders were taken from THE HAWKE OF TUONELA and put in the launch, as was a bag of trash.  I changed into dry clothes, and we all rode to the launch dock, which is a platform at the end of a long walkway from the shore.  The Pacific has real tides.  That day 13’ in Balboa, and the dock has to be well out from the shore to be in deep enough water.

Although they had no reservations, HANA HOU and the other monohull also were given moorings at the club.

I thanked my crew, who were good guys and had even gathered the trash from the galley and cabin during the stretch from the last lock.  I don’t ever expect to transit the Panama Canal again, but if I did, I would be pleased to have them as line handers.

I told them they had done a professional job, apologized for not having feed them better, and tried to make it all right by tipping them $20 each.  I paid Tito $85 each for their services and am sure he took a cut from that.  They seemed surprised and pleased.

I also found that I had to pay a man at the yacht club $1 each to dispose of my tires and that the office wouldn’t be open until Monday.

I took the launch back out to THE HAWKE OF TUONELA, where I made a celebratory gin and tonic, sat on deck gazing down channel at the Pacific Ocean, and enjoyed being alone.