Monday, February 1, 2010

Panama Canal - Practice

Knowing that we will go through the Panama Canal in less than 2 weeks, we decided that it might be wise to see what actually happens when a sailboat goes through the Canal from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

We met a nice Dutch couple in Trinidad who also arrived in Panama and were going through the canal last week on their boat. So we volunteered to be their line handlers for the journey.

Every sailboat that goes through the canal must have 4 line handlers, 4 very long and thick dock lines and numerous tires dangling from all parts of the boat to protect it from an accidental crash against the huge lock walls.

At 2 pm we motored out of Shelter Bay Marina and met our advisor who would ride along and tell us what to do for the first part of our journey. The boat we were on was a 53 foot sailboat named De Ware Jacob and it carried a Dutch flag because it is from Rotterdam, Holland. Of course everyone we would see assumed that all of the crew on the boat were Dutch so we always surprised them when we spoke English. We don’t speak a word of Dutch!

A swimming iguana in Lake Gatun!

We motored into the first lock called Gatun Lock in the dark at 7 pm. It was pitch black all around us. Only the flashing lights marking the channel could be seen beside us. There is a nice web camera at the lock but because it was so dark it was difficult to see us. Even though there are huge lights illuminating the lock chambers, the darkness still pervades everything. We entered the lock behind an 800 foot ship that was locking through with us.

Out of the blackness we heard the zip zip zip zip of the 4 monkey fists that were thrown down onto our boat and the smaller sailboat that was rafted next to us in the center of the lock (center tie). It was our job to retrieve the monkey fist, tie our large line to it and send the big line back up to the canal worker high above us on the side of the locks. This process must be done very quickly because the lock doors are closing right behind us.

Up went our lines where they were secured onto huge bollards at the top of the lock walls. Whew, our job was done, or so we thought. But not really! As the huge lock quickly filled with water we started our journey upward for 28 feet to the top of the first lock. As we rocketed skyward (well, it was not really that fast but it felt like it from all the work we had to do) we had to pull in the slack in our ropes so that we stayed in the middle of the lock. We pulled the lines quickly and that kept us in position against the swirling waters. Then there was silence.

Getting the line ready

We were at the top of the lock now and the lock doors at the far end opened allowing the 800-foot ship to churn up the water right in front of us as it exited the first chamber. We followed behind him into the 2nd chamber and repeated the same procedure. There were a total of 3 chambers pushing us upward a total of 85 feet before the final doors opened and we entered Gatun Lake. We were pretty tired after all this.

Gatun Lake is the largest man-made lake in the world. It is used only to provide water for the locks. It is here that we made the mandatory over-night stop, tied to a huge ship buoy to wait for daylight and the final part of the journey into the Pacific Ocean the next day.

Our advisor departed and left us in the quiet of the jungle that engulfs Gatun Lake. The stars looked like a painting over our heads as barely a ripple disturbed the calm of the lake.

Rafted to another boat in Lake Gatun

The next day, as daylight peeked through the jungle, our Dutch hosts began serving a breakfast of soft boiled eggs, croissants, coffee and fruit in the cockpit. Just as we started eating the roar of a pilot boat disturbed our peaceful breakfast.

Our advisor was coming toward us at 15 knots and was onboard De Ware Jacob in a flash, ready to go. Lines were quickly disconnected from the mooring buoy and we headed through the Banana Cut on our way toward the final 3 locks that lie at the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

The advisor giving instructions to Maria

One of our neighbors through the Canal

After motoring all morning, we arrived at the first lock. Here we started our downward trip in each lock. Knowing the line drill quite well things were easier since we only had to let more line out – no more pulling! The first lock, Pedro Miguel, was followed by the dual Mira Flores locks.

As the last lock at Mira Flores opened we stared directly at the Bridge of the Americas – the gateway to the Pacific!

My sister Vicki took this screen capture. That is us rafted to another sailboat - way back there on the right side. See the 2 masts?

We will get to repeat this process aboard Aspen. Aspen is scheduled to transit the Panama Canal sometime between February 10-13th. We will keep you posted when we get an exact date and time and give you a website where, if you are lucky, you can see us in the locks!

Sail on sail on Aspen…

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