Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Panama Canal step by step

Panama City, Panama---For the past two days we motored through the Panama Canal. I didn't realize it was a two day event and for big ships, it's usually not. But for sail boats, they do it in two steps.

We were lucky and the boat owner paid for an agent. We used Emanuel Services with Agent Roy Bravo. He was amazing, treating us like there was nothing he couldn't do or fix for us. He made all the arrangements and did a lot of the paperwork. The cost for our size boat, 50 feet, was $1860.

First an official showed up and measured us. This goes into the Panamanian records based on the boats registration number so even if the boat is renamed, if it ever goes through the canal again, it will have a record and will not have to be re-measured. This is something new.

We were given our arranged time the two days before, after waiting for the Carnival and Ash Wednesday holidays to pass. Preparing the boat meant getting heavier line than we usually use and 10 tires wrapped in heavy plastic bags to not scuff the sides. Once we were done, we almost looked like a tug boat! Our agent brought us all these supplies and we just attached everything.

On Saturday, we would leave the Colon marina dock, get fuel and head to an anchorage. We anchored and waited for about 40 minutes for a boat that dropped off our “Pilot.” Pilots are officials that ride the boat and are in charge. Every boat has one and the captain/skipper must yield control to them. Some take the helm and some give orders.

Great care was taken to prepare for the pilot. Food, water and Coke that we crew "better not touch" was purchased.

As soon as he was aboard we lifted anchor and started leaving the bay and entering the Canal itself. Now we were to pass the road and area that for the past four days we had seen by bus or taxi.

Four line handlers must accompany every boat besides the captain. That was us. A line handler must grab a rope thrown by men walking on each side of the canal, keeping pace with the boat. The rope is light weight and has a "monkey's fist" at the end (a ball of rope, often filled with rocks). Your job was to grab the rope and tie a bowline to our thick rope, then throw the rope in the water for the men to pull up to the sides of the canal and tie the boat down as the water filled or lowered keeping us in place. After an afternoon of nervously practicing a fast bowline knot, and a new version of one that when the line was doubled, you could untie even faster, we found out that we would be the middle boat with a boat on each side of us, rafted tightly to us.

This meant Andy had to maneuverer the entire flotilla with help from each of the other captains at times. It also meant that once we tied each boat to our sides, our work was done. The line handlers became two on the boat to the right and two on the boat to the left. Ironically both boats were American, rafted to us, a British boat.

So between one boat at sea for six years and heading back to California, and another with two couples from Texas, at sea for four years, we experienced the canal together.

The first set of locks lift you 80 total feet in 2 locks. We shared the water with a Ship, a Catamaran and the 2 rafted sailboats. That lifted us up to a fresh water lake named Lake Gatun's. The pilot informed us that the amount of fresh water that goes out to the Atlantic is 1000 Olympic size pools PER BOAT (per lock opening and closing). The NEW Panama Canal that is currently under construction by the Panamanian government (due to open in 2030) is going to use a new system where 50% of the fresh water can be recycled.

Carlos, our 2nd Pilot wearing the American Flag Bandana I traded him.
 Once this was done, the Pilot ate and after double tying to the most unusual buoy, we spent the night knowing we had to wake at 5:30am for the next pilot to arrive at 6am.

Howling, roaring, monstrous sounding monkeys in the forest were the first things we heard in the early morning. Then we were back on our way motoring almost four hours through a beautiful lake with parrots in the trees and hidden crocodiles in the water to the next set of locks. Three this time, lowering us to the Pacific.

As the last lock opened, the Pacific Ocean was in the distance. An amazing sight and strange feeling to think that’s what we were looking at before us. Turning the corner to head to the marina where we had reservations, the skyline of Panama City took my breath away.

On the other side of the canal, a new crew had joined us: Shannon from New Zealand, plus a friend of Andy’s, along for the experience and to see his friend. On this side, one crew leaves us: Mike from Canada.

But for now, we all indulged in hot showers and a bit of rum. One lifetime goal has been realized: I went through the Panama Canal today.

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