Panama Canal Transit
October 22, 23 and 24, 2015
Three of my siblings were coming down to Panama to be our line handlers for the canal transit. Brother Stephen & Sister Carol flew into Panama City on Tuesday afternoon to have some time to see the city. Brother Walter flew in Wednesday evening, then they all came out to Shelter Bay Marina on Thursday arriving around noon on the 22nd of October. Besides their luggage they had brought 2 big suitcases with items for us and another boat. First we unloaded those suitcases to be able to store the items and deliver the other boats stuff then got rid of those old suitcases. Next we had to find room for family’s luggage. Since they were staying for different lengths of time they all had more than just an overnight bag of a line handler. We were very happy & excited to have them here to experience this lifetime event.
We had lunch at the marina restaurant, then a walk out on the breakwater, and then a stroll around the old fort grounds trying to see monkeys & sloths. Dinner was on the boat, going over what to expect over the next two days. Friday morning the family went on another walk checking out the marina sights and wildlife.
We leave our slip by 12:45 Friday afternoon to head out to the flats, the waiting area for small vessels and are anchored by 1:15. We have lunch as we wait for our canal advisor and watch the ships coming into and leaving the Gatun Locks. Have time to get our lines ready and make the bowline loops required on the end. Advisor Franklin arrives at 4 PM and we pull up anchor shortly after he is on board and start to head over to the entrance of the lock. By 5:15 we are rafted up (tied side to side) with Mandala the one other sail boat going thru with us. We enter behind the Del Monte cargo ship Star Pride. Mandala is on our starboard side, Ocean Star will be driving the two boats. We are going into the east lock, so Mandala will get her lead lines thrown first as that side of the lock extends further out. Lead lines are light 1/4” lines that are used to pull the heavier mooring lines from the boat to the shore to secure the boat in the locks. Once they have their lines, Steve drives us closer to the wall on our port side for us to receive our lead lines. The canal workers throw the “monkey fist” a small heavy ball attached to the end of their lead line to the boats. Once we catch those we tie them to the 3 foot loop at the end of our 125 foot 1 inch diameter heavy line that will be used to secure the boats to the lock walls. At first we hold onto the lead line that we have attached to the blue line, once we are in position the canal worker that has been walking along the lock wall as Steve motors forward will signal us to start feeding the blue line up to them. They secure it to a bollard on the lock wall and the line handler’s start pulling in the slack to keep us centered. By 5:30 both boats have their lines and in 10 minutes we are in the first chamber passing the lock doors, 5 minutes later the blue lines have been fed up and secured and we are taking in the slack as the lock doors close and the chamber starts filling with water, raising us 28 feet, 1/3 of the way to reach Gatun lake.
The blue lines are freed and we pull them back onto the boat, the lead lines are still attached as the canal workers will walk up the lock wall as Steve motors us into the next chamber at which time we will pass the blue line back to them to be secured again. The doors close and this next chamber fills with water as we go up another 28 feet. This is repeated once again in the 3rd chamber. Once we are at lake level the blue lines come back without the feeder line and we motor out of the lock. Once clear of the lock walls we un-raft from the other sailboat and head over to the big moorings they have in the lake for us to tie up to for the night. Youngest brother Walter gets to jump onto the mooring as we pass him lines to secure and lead back to the boat. Glad he is very athletic and was able to do this without any problems. The advisor has been fed while going through the last lock and he gets picked up shortly after we are moored. Time for dinner for the captain & crew, looking at pictures and relaxing. Steve ran the generator to cool the boat down so everyone could get a good night sleep, the next morning he found it was leaking coolant! Something to deal with later.
Saturday, we had been told the night before by the canal authority that our advisor would be arriving around 8 AM so we were up and ready for his arrival at 8:30. Quick introductions and Walter climbs
onto the mooring to free our lines, then jumps back on the boat as we move away.
The next 5 hours we spent traveling through the beautiful man made Gatun Lake, passing ships and islands and a handful of small fishing / pleasure boats. We learned that anyone with a boat can go into the lake to fish or water ski but for some reason VERY FEW (almost no one) do??? Which is a good thing, keeping the lake unspoiled. Our advisor tells us that he’s never seen more than three fishing boats while transiting. We quickly spot 4, then 5 and 6, and it turns into a joke as we question his veracity and/or powers of observation when the number climbs up to 10+. Other sights along the route are the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on one of the islands that has a huge variety of trees, birds, frogs, bats, snakes and other flora & fauna they are studying. The prison where Noriega is being held.
It was a great feeling seeing, and being in, a part of history that changed the world. Trying to imagine how it was constructed and seeing all the dredging needed to maintain and expand it, a truly remarkable sight. We lucked out weather wise with mostly cloudy skies keeping the heat down. We did get a short light shower, but heard on the VHF radio that a few miles behind us got hit with a downpour and 25 K winds, glad we missed that.
Approaching the Centennial Bridge around 1:30 Saturday afternoon, we slow down to just coast under the bridge, the dredge ship we will go into the lock with is a little behind us but the other sail boat Mandala is behind the ship so we need to wait for them to catch up. Once past the bridge we pull over and wait, our dredge ship passes us and is also almost at a stop waiting for us to get rafted up again. Once we are rafted up we pass the dredge ship and enter right into the lock, get feeder lines caught and ready to feed the big blue lines back to the lock wall. We get secured pretty fast behind a 90 foot canal tour boat and then the dredge ship moves in behind us. Steve had some problems yesterday trying to steer the rafted boats, and noticed at the end of the day it was because the captain of the other boat was also steering, something he was not supposed to do. Steve asked him not to steer the wheel today, and steering is much easier.
On the Pacific side of the lake we get lowered down in the locks. All goes well in the Pedro Miguel lock. Once out of the lock we stay rafted up thru the small Miraflores Lake to enter the Miraflores Locks. The canal tour boat is ahead of us entering in and we go in and catch the feeder lines and are all ready to feed the blue lines up. I was port side stern with my brother Walter and he had fed his blue line to the canal guy on the wall. We were just coasting along, gliding to a gentle stop when the advisor on the other boat Mandala told its captain to put his boat in reverse. Not a good move. He went too hard in reverse, which started the raft spinning clockwise. Steve immediately put our boat into reverse to compensate and keep us lined up. Then either the captain of the other boat or his advisor realized he put too much reverse on and went to full power forward to stop the spinning. Combined with our reverse that started the raft spinning counter-clockwise. Steve shifted to forward to compensate again, only to find he had no power, accompanied by a lot of vibration and black smoke from the exhaust. By that time the raft was spinning counter-clockwise out of control, everyone was shouting, and total confusion reigned!!
During this time the boats were moving to the starboard wall on Mandalas side. Not sure why, but Canal worker released our stern line from the bollard without the lead line attached so Walter and I get that pulled in out of the water, guess they were afraid we would lose the line. The captain of Mandala was told to use his engine to try to straighten us out but it was too little too late. His engine was not strong enough to move our two boats. Luckily they were able to keep the boat from hitting the wall, but it came really close. They managed on the second try to get another lead line to the front of our boat (our bow line was secured to the wall during the whole ordeal). We attached it to our stern line and got our blue line back to them at which time Walter secured it around the winches and we had to pull the boats back into position. Me pulling the line while Walter cranked the winch with all his strength which thankfully is a lot. Boats secured, we gave EVERYONE at the Miraflores Visitor Center and the folks on the Canal tour boat a really good show.
Time to breathe and figure out what the problem is !! We have a little time as the ship is still coming in behind us and needs to be secured, and the gates closed and the water lowered before we have to move. At this point Steve is not sure what the problem is, he checks the engine and everything looks OK at idle, but there is severe vibration and no power whenever he puts it in gear, and it is very difficult to get out of gear. He guesses there is something wrong with the propeller, but doesn’t know what. Mandala is able to motor us both into position into the next lock and then get us out of the lock where we un-raft and are met by a canal boat to tow us to the Balboa Yacht Club where we get put on one of their moorings by 5 PM.
It’s getting dark, and there is a strong current flowing, but Steve dons mask and flippers and dives down with a flashlight to find the prop totally fouled with old ropes, fishing net and a one liter plastic bottle. Gets it all cut off and the engine runs fine again.
Too tired to go ashore & too tired to fix a new meal so leftovers for dinner. Steve takes a look at the generator and tightens some more hose clamps again hoping that will stop the leak. Steve also noticed that after running the engine all day, our batteries were not fully charged as they should have been, another thing to check on in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
Sunday we wake to a beautiful sunny day, Isla Taboga and Las Perlas and boat repairs updates to follow.
Link to pictures; https://picasaweb.google.com/103931849054358791487/PanamaCanalTransit?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCIf4gMvQht_gJA&feat=directlink