Transiting the Panama Canal

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Author: Pete

 

It’s time! We’re going through the canal! So long Caribbean, hello Pacific! We’re doing it! Game on!

 

Okay, sorry. It’s an exciting day. Spent the morning and early afternoon getting the boat ready for the transit. Topped off engine fluids, the port side seems to be holding coolant now after weeks of leaking and troubleshooting. Fueled the main tanks out of the jerry jugs, watered up, washed the boat, tied on tires, and generally got the boat ready to go. It helped a lot to have a full crew and a dock. I almost had some time to myself! One last shower quick before we threw off our dock lines, backed out of our slip, and made for Colón harbor.

 

Motored to F Anchorage and watched in the ‘Flats’ for our advisor. Worked on the series drogue to get our jitters out.

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We eyed our companions, Simmer Down and Peregrine, who would be going through the canal with us. Eventually a boat from the canal authority pulled up and deposited a good natured gentleman aboard. Señor Fransisco gave us the rundown in functional English before we finally hauled anchor and chased a passing freighter into the Panama Canal!

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The harbor turned to narrows slowly. Tens of thousands of migrating electric-green butterflies streamed over our port side, racing in the wind like bright confetti. It felt like coming into a stadium with a cheering crowd. The narrows turned to river, then the Gatun Locks loomed up over the big freighter we were pursuing like the doors of King Kong. I felt myself involuntarily grinning like an idiot.

We rafted the boats together, the monohulls on either side of us.

Here’s the starboard side:

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And next the port:

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I was charged with keeping the boats from crashing into the freighter, holding us all off against the stern wind with Wendy and Belinda (the diesels). Yup- our buddies on the monohulls put their engines in neutral, and we pulled those freeloaders through the canal. True, but the middle is certainly the most coveted space as we simply watched and took pictures while they did all the line-handling work when it came time to tie up to the sides of the canal.  So, really no complaints.

We inched into the locks after the big ship, taking care not to scratch my friends on the sides.

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Monkey fists came raining in from the high walls to our bumper boats.

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They tied small relay lines to the heavy, rented lines, which were hauled up to the top of the locks.  The canal workers walked along with our raft of three boats, directing us until we reached the stopping point inside the canal when we’d rest while being risen up to the next level.

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The great doors built apparently by Eiffel closed slowly outward. The green water roiled in from underneath us. The bottom filling method (versus the original method of water entering from the sides which created turbulence) is a modification of the builder who put the locks together in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan!  The rivets on the big doors began to disappear as we rose; line handlers on our bumper boats took in slack to keep us steady in the chamber.

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Not until you glimpse back behind the boat do you realize just how much altitude you’ve gained.

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This is the same canal worker as in the picture above.  Much closer now.
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The foreword doors opened and the freighter stood ahead with a blast of prop wash that sent back at us beach ball swallowing eddies. We gave him space then followed into the second chamber, and then repeated the process, and then again in a third chamber. In the words of our sailing school instructor Captain Dan, “It was all very exciting.” Exciting yet remarkably well controlled. It’s like they do this type of thing a lot around here. There wasn’t much work for my crew to do but enjoy the ride. Being in control of three boats with just my twin Volvo Pentas was a bit unnerving.

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Along the way our buddies Ben and Elizabeth sent us pictures from the Gatun Lock’s webcam!

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The sun was setting as we hit the last chamber, and the light made the experience all the more surreal.

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On the last lock the view down at Colón and the Caribbean was pretty impressive. So long Cólon! Smell ya later!

Motored into Gatun Lake as the sun set and cast long pink highlights into the sky. Gorgeous. We rafted next to Peregrine on a massive mooring buoy for the night, side by side with a big buoy in the middle. The lake is too deep to anchor so this is how it’s done. A pilot picked up our advisor and we were alone with our boats.

Aside from the excavation of the new locks going 24/7 it’s quiet and calm. Crickets singing in the trees sound like home even though we’re far away. And we have family on board! What could be better! On to the Pacific tomorrow!

 

 

 

Day 2:

 

Day broke slow over Gatun Lake. The calm of the night was punctuated by contrasting noise. Howler monkeys growled from the depths of the jungle as trains and construction equipment from the new ‘apliación’ of the canal clanked and whistled. Their juxtaposition was odd and fascinating.

Waited an hour for the pilot boat to drop off our new advisor. The master of the craft barreled up to our beam, it’s steel nose inches from holing our fiberglass hull. He deposited his cargo deftly and maneuvered powerfully away, seamless as the morning lake.

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Daniel, our advisor, was a handsome, competent tug operator, well versed in the working and history of the canal, and patient enough to humor us by answering our myriad questions about the whole deal. We motored through the sprawling flooded lake with Peregrine and Simmer Down for an hour or so. The land around rolled with jungle and the peaceful lake quietly tolerated the big passing ships. Navigation cans polka-dotted the still water. I was a touch distracted by Wendy, the port diesel which has been losing coolant. I envisioned her overheating in the locks with two boats strapped to me and an 80 foot tanker behind.

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The stunning terrain skimmed past us. I think it was the first time Tayrona was in sweet water. Morale was high aboard, and clear skies above. We cruised through Gamboa and the narrow Corta Culebra with tight space for us when the ships came through single file. Picked up a massive mooring buoy just upstream of the Pedro Miguel locks, our first of the day, and awaited the other small vessels descending with us.

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When the time came we tied up with Peregrine and Simmer down, with a little confusion and I was again left to motor us into the locks. Linemen threw monkeyfists at the boat and the long blue lines were hauled to the sides before the doors shut behind us, low in the water. They grew until they towered above us, mossy walls dripping. The downstream doors opened and Tayrona was back on point.  Day 1 we were pushed up by water flowing in underneath us.  Day 2 is now all about being lowered gradually down and into the Pacific.
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When we passed the Miraflores locks it really felt like we had done it. The observation tower where we had watched the operations so many years ago brought back a flood of all the decisions that had led to this moment since then. Whew. The heavy doors seemed like they shut the Caribbean, and the past, off. No going back now.

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Motored out of the Miraflores locks and under the Las Americas bridge. Then we were out into the Pacific. Had a pretty great moment of realization of just what we’d done. So fun to have Mom and Denny here for it.

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Anchored in Playita on the amador peninsula and had a much anticipated, and dare I say it, deserved, Balboa beer.

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Watch us in the Panama Canal!

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Author: Miranda

 

Today, is a big day for us as we are scheduled to transit the Panama Canal starting this afternoon.  We are currently in Colon, Panama on the Caribbean side.  We will meet up with our transit advisor this afternoon and begin the first portion of the canal, going through the Gatun Locks sometime between 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm this afternoon.

 

We’ll spend the night anchored on Lago Gatun and complete the western half of the canal tomorrow.

 

It’s possible to watch us transit through two of the canal’s lock systems by webcam!

 

Here is the link: http://www.pancanal.com/eng/photo/camera-java.html

 

Try looking for us this afternoon in the Gatun locks camera!  We are finding that the high resolution tab is best if you have the bandwidth.  They aren’t actually streaming video, but instead showing a new still picture every 10 seconds.

 

Tomorrow, look for us as we go through the Miraflores locks!  Unfortunately, I don’t have a more specific time, but I’ll do my best to update our location via facebook if we have cell signal.  Most likely, we’ll be part of a three sailboats that are tied together.

 

Do us a BIG favor and take some screen shots on your computer if you see us!  We’d LOVE to see what our boat looks like going through the canal, so send us these snapshots as attachments if you’ve got them.

 

Wish us luck!