Saturday, February 25, 2012

Through the Panama Canal!

Did Irie just transit the Panama Canal without us telling anyone? Are we really on “the other side” and ready to cross the Pacific Ocean? Did we leave the Caribbean Sea forever? Will we head to the Galapagos Islands within the month? And, shall we cruise by the idyllic islands and exotic communities of the South Pacific on the way to New Zealand? Of course not. Not yet… But, our good friends Axel and Liz on their aluminum sloop Gudrun V did, and Mark and I went along as line handlers. What an experience that was!

We had an early start on February 22nd, taking the bus from Portobelo to Colon, followed by a long taxi ride to Shelter Bay Marina, near the Caribbean entrance of the Canal. The expensive marina was surprisingly full with cruising boats preparing or waiting for their turn to go through, fixing the usual boat problems or taking a break from the anchored life. Axel and Liz had been prepping and working for a few weeks and were finishing up to leave. Their friend Scott had also just arrived and after a decent lunch of Philly cheese steak, we left the shelter of the marina. Passing a few massive container ships along the way, we headed for the Flats, our last stop on this side of the Canal. Here, we waited with four other sailboats for the advisors to arrive, which happened exactly on time for three of us.

The advisor gave a few instructions and around 16:30, we arrived by the Gatun locks, a British cruising boat to our right (starboard), long lines and line handlers to our left (port) and four car tires on both sides. Since we were tied up to another boat, we only needed line handlers on one side and could work as teams, which made this first encounter (for me anyway) with the lock procedures a bit easier. The boat next to us had another sailboat to its starboard, so their line handlers were out of work, but the captain was now in charge of the threesome and his nerves and engines worked hard. His new “trimaran” was darn wide and heavy!

Transiting those first three locks went pretty smooth and steadily we climbed to the level of Gatun Lake, our stop for the night. Gudrun managed to anchor in 60 (!) feet of water right before dark and our advisor left with the “promise” of an early start the next day. Our second advisor would arrive between 6 and 6:30… While the five of us had a wonderful dinner with beer and wine and conversed until bed time in the cockpit, the last two sailboats were less lucky and settled into the anchorage well into the night. They also had to be ready again by dawn.

After a rolly night in the massive lake (the many speeding pilot boats and passing cargo ships create enormous wakes; the Panama Canal operates 24/7 for big boats), the Gudrun team was prepared and in good spirits for the next leg. By 7:00, no advisor had shown up and a hearty breakfast was had. An hour later, we were all still waiting and starting to wonder what was going on. None of the other boats had a clue either and when one after the other giant container ship dropped anchor in our vicinity and no through traffic was seen anymore, the speculations started. Did one of the Miraflores locks break? Did terrorists blow up the Pedro Miguel locks? Did someone fall in the water and got sucked through the gates? Was there a crocodile attack in the lake? Did the Chilean war ship that was in the Gatun locks with us the previous day declare war on Panama? Our answer was a colossal Dutch cruise ship anchoring right off our stern…

Time went by, people went back to bed and precious daylight was wasted. Axel called his agent and we were promised an advisor around 11:00. When that time came, our two buddy boats from before lifted anchor with their advisor and we (and the two smaller sailboats) were left behind, without understanding a thing. That moment was a bit distressing. When they left, one of the crew members yelled that we’d have to wait for another hour and a half. Around 12:30, we finally steamed off towards the Pedro Miguel locks. Our advisor’s name was Ivan and his first – worried - question “Did you guys have lunch yet?”

Ivan told us we had until 16:30 to cover the 24 miles of distance to the next lock– 17 of it though Gatun Lake and the last 7 through the Gaillard Cut – and recommended Gudrun to do 6 knots for now. Over the span of four hours he instructed adjustment of speed, insisted us to drive closer to the red buoys, answered all our questions and ate heaps of food. He was a good and knowledgeable advisor who pressed us on at the right times, making sure we didn’t miss our “lock appointment”. If that were to happen, we would be stuck and sent back to Gatun Lake until further notice. The two smaller sailboats did not make it and they had to spend a whole other night in the Panama Canal!

Luckily, that wasn’t our fate and Gudrun made it right in time. We unfurled the jib for a bit to make extra speed and raced a Panamex container ship towards Gaillard Cut, where we had to let him go first. It was a tight squeeze! Pedro Miguel is only one lock and we were “by ourselves”, not tied up to anybody else, but to the massive wall of the lock, all tires on one side. Again, we only needed two line handlers and we fell down with the water. Without problems we emerged on the other side of the doors and motored the last mile to the Miraflores locks. That’s when we heard the engine make a different sound and discovered that not enough water was spitting out… Axel turned it off and inspected the inside, while we were quickly blown towards the locks. The inspection was postponed until we were safely tied to the first of the Miraflores locks. Axel and Mark worked on the engine and the others dealt with the lines until we reached yet another level down. Since the engine problem could not be detected, we continued at a slower pace.

By the time we left the second of the Miraflores locks and entered the Pacific side, it was dark. Axel played an appropriate song and the crew celebrated the successful transit with cheers and a sip of water. Somewhere down the exit channel, our helpful advisor was picked up.  With a tired, but accomplished feeling, we motored the last stretch to the Playita anchorage, only straying from the channel once… A quick and dooming awakening had us back on track and concentrated until we dropped anchor around 9pm!

Tying eight car tires alongside Gudrun, before departure.

Axel runs his boat with duck tape and zip ties. Here, the i-Pad (charts) and handheld VHF are positioned in the cockpit.

Tied up to two other cruising boats before entering the Gatun locks.

Canal workers "walk" us towards the next lock in Gatun.

A crack in the wall, while the lock is being filled. We climb - in three steps - to the higher level of Gatun Lake.

Sunset in Gatun Lake; step 1 is completed...

The Gudrun team: captain and photographer Axel, advisor Ivan, hostess, cook and line handler Liz, and Mark, Scott and me being guests and line handlers.

Racing a Panamex container ship towards the narrow entrance of Gaillard Cut. The giant won; not sure whether he was pleased with the competition...

Centennial Bridge on the way to the Miraflores locks.

Gudrun's Panama Canal transit is forever documented on the wall of the Pedro Miguel lock!

Going down down down again...

Liz and I had to be daring as well in the Miraflores locks. We didn't realize this is where the webcam is mounted...

Oh oh... Trouble!? Did he watch the webcam?

Panamex ships have a width that just fits in the locks. They are pulled by small but heavy-duty and incredibly strong trains. For giants that don't fit through the Canal, the authority is building new locks, which will be finished in 2014.

The last lock going down. The Pacific is on the other side!

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