Archive for March, 2007

Panama Canal (Part II: Gatun)

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

It was now 1pm. Our lock time at Gatun was 4pm. As I’ve mentioned before, Gatun Lake is a critical step when crossing the canal in the Pacific to Caribbean direction; this is because if you are late and miss your lock time, you are charged a bleedin’ fortune ($830, which is more than it costs to make the entire transit) and have to spend the night in the lake on a mooring. Of course, spending the night in the lake is really cool but having to pay so much to do so is ridiculous. The passage is 30 miles from Pedro Miguel to Gatun Locks and we were having a hard time going 8 knots with the weight, wind, and current (even in Gatun lake there was a little current). Not to mention that George was terrified of our outboard and refused to let us go anywhere near full throttle. The possibility of being rescheduled later for the Gatun Locks was out of the question because there was a chemical ship lined up (they transit the locks solo) and they don’t let the small boats go north any later than 6pm or so.

I began to form my argument when/if I had to dispute a late fee. As I saw things, even if we did motor at 8.5 knots, in three hours we would only make it 25.5 miles and we would still miss our scheduled time.

Then George got a call saying that the ship with whom we were to transit the locks was already at Gatun Locks waiting and they were bumping his transit time up to around 3pm. Now there was absolutely no way we could make it. We were released from our nail biting and the threat of having to pay the late fee vanished; George told us with a sigh of relief to just motor at a comfortable pace, which, in his opinion, was about 3 knots—if he could hear the outboard at all, he got antsy. I found his whole motor issue amusing since I can’t imagine the advisors ever get to look at whatever passes for a motor in most sailboats—they are almost always all inboards; they just have to take the word of the captain and what they can’t see they seem to trust. And here was our outboard right out in the open where it could be examined and it was clear that the motor was brand new (shiny).

Mule used in the locks on the Panama Canal

[Totally out-of-order shot of one of the mules. These are used to steady and keep the large ships centered in the locks.]

locks on the Panama Canal

[Another completely random ‘art’ shot.]

We settled in at a comfortable pace and I went to the galley to make lunch for everyone (with Jan’s help). My exciting chopped salad idea was shot apart when it was clear that with the wind, it would be impossible to deal with anything that must be balanced upon a delicate utensil from plate to mouth so we just made sandwiches and passed around bags of chips (also difficult in the wind but with the benefit of not being saucy). I still find bits of chips jammed in crevices in the cockpit and elsewhere. The boat shimmied around through the Culebra Cut where the wind funneled down in terrific gusts and we were rocked by the wakes of car carriers and other oversized traffic. Finally we made it to the lake proper and decided we needed to up our speed whether George felt it proper or not since we were all getting bored of motoring and we wanted to make the Banana Cut before dark, which is a nifty little detour off the main canal where you passed close among the many lake islands and could often see sloths, birds, etc. At one point, when we were sheltered by a bend in the lake and the wind and waves were not as strong, George looked down at his GPS and was astounded to see that we were going 6.9 knots (we were at 3/4 throttle). After that he stopped giving us a hard time about the outboard.

bird watching through the Banana Cut Gatun Lake Panama Canal

[Wildlife watching in the Banana Cut.]

We got to the mooring at long last after a full five hours of motoring and it was heavenly to turn the damned thing off. It did fine, by the way, and we calculated that we had burned six gallons of gasoline in the past twelve hours of near-constant use. As soon as we were tied up, I cracked open a bottle of champagne and we stood around the mooring daintily sipping from a variety of frilly glassware, feeling grungy and exhausted.

Ben with Rope. Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

[Ben gets ready to lasso a mooring.]

The pilot boat came and picked George up. “Will we have you tomorrow?” we asked. But no, it is almost entirely unlikely that you would get the same advisor twice in a row. Besides George lived in Panama City, not Colon, and he had the next day off to boot. Before he left, he gave a brief tutorial to the line handlers about how we needed to be extra careful with the lines when going down the locks and to be sure never to tie them off once the water starts to fall; he seemed genuinely concerned for our little boat. Once the Pilot boat was out of sight and after a perfunctory check for crocodiles, we launched ourselves overboard for a much-needed bath.

Kids on the mooring ball. Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

[Our mooring buddies.]

Everyone sipped wine and chatted in the cockpit while I commandeered the galley and made dinner: risotto with gorgonzola and pistachios with a salad made from genuine romaine lettuce (the first I’ve had in about a zillion years because Rey Supermercado actually had some in stock that didn’t look entirely pathetic) with a balsamic vinaigrette. Very tasty, if I do say so myself. While dinner was underway, the southbound sailboats transiting the canal showed up and arranged themselves at the mooring buoys. The boat next to us had a couple of kids who spent an inordinate amount of time hopping in circles around the buoy. After dinner we set about transforming Time Machine into a cozy hotel with beds for six people (basically, Joshua and I slept on the trampoline and hoped it wouldn’t rain). Miraculously, almost all our guests brought their own pillows (we only have two on the boat) and so I didn’t need to spring that one on them at the last minute. It did rain that night, but only a few drops.

Ben on the mooring ball. Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

[Ben applying sunscreen, or else gleefully plotting the takeover of the world.]

On the third morning of our canal transit, we were all up at the crack of dawn when our neighboring boat started their engines in anticipation of an early arrival of their advisor for the day and gagged us all on their diesel fumes. We convinced them to shut it off until you actually see the whites of the pilot boat’s eyes and they felt this was a convincing argument. We were able to drink our coffee in peace. By 7:30, all three Pacific-bound boats were off for their Gatun Lake run. Our pilot boat arrived around 10:30.

George our Canal Transit Advisor


As the pilot boat rounded up to the buoy, where they picked up and dropped off advisors, none other than George stepped out of the cabin, a sheepish grin on his face. “GEORGE!” went the general cry. He did not explain how or why but yes, he was back and would be guiding us the rest of the way to the Caribbean. I got the impression by his mild embarrassment and avoidance of questions that he had volunteered out of concern for our boat; unnecessary I thought, but sweet all the same.

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

[Heading for the Gatun Locks.]

We were underway within thirty minutes and everyone sat around getting ready and passing the sunscreen; we had a vague transit time set for 3pm (good lord) but George felt that a side tie (tied alongside the wall) would be the best transit option and there just happened to be a spot in front of an 800-foot container ship we could snag; this would bump our transit time up by several hours as well. Canal transit clerks automatically mark the “NO” option for side tying all sailing vessels after once a sailboat rolled in the turbulence and got rigging tangled against the wall. We’re so wide and we don’t roll so this would not be a concern (we tried to explain this initially to the admeasure—the person who inspects and measures each boat that wants to transit the canal) but he wouldn’t even look up from his paperwork to look at our boat. George produced a side-tie waiver for us to sign and we were moved up in schedule.

I was back on the stern with my pet outboard and we were advised to slip in front of the gigantic ship, tie alongside the wall while the first lock filled back up with water (this creates significant current sometimes), then we would be in place ahead of the ship and wouldn’t have to dodge propwash from the tugs to enter the lock. “Basically,” Joshua shouted back to me, “this is going to be hairy.”

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

[The ship being pushed into place.]

I untied the outboard to have steerage and we motored up to the wall outside the lock to tie up. I kept the motor in reverse and pointed the propeller at the wall to keep our ass in line when the current started. We looked back at the water churned up by the tugs and what looked like a mere 50 feet of clearance between them and the canal wall that we would have had to get through had we not gone in ahead while the lock filled; THAT, would have been hairy.

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

[Typically, there was a lot of standing around with hands on hips going on aboard the Time Machine once the excitement waned.]

Once the lock was ready for us and the doors opened, we untied and motored to the very front of the lock. Joshua steered until we got almost into position and then I steered us back and forth as if we were parallel parking. The lines were made taught on the port side and that was that. We stood around in the blazing sun waiting as the mules pulled the container ship into place. In a 1000-foot lock, an 800-foot ship feels really close and really big. Once in place we were almost looking straight up at their bow.

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

[Honkin’ big ship.]

The side tie situation went incredibly smooth for us. Basically, only two line handlers were needed to let out line as we sank down and the rest of the bunch just stood around looking at the wall, which was covered in black slime and artifacts of ancient canal accidents. I sat on the stern taking photos: port side, starboard side, behind at the ginormous ship, off. Repeat thirty seconds later. Consequently we have about a million almost identical photos of pretty boring stuff. Once we were down and the doors open, the lines were thrown off and I steered us out into the middle of the lock where Joshua could take over steering until we got up into position for the next lock.

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

[Gary on wall detail.]

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

[The typical standing around wall scene.]

Gatun Locks, Panama Canal

We repeated this three times without incident and at last the doors opened to the Caribbean where we motored out of the lock for the last time, waving goodbye at the Gatun line guys and the crew clustered at the bow of the ship behind us.

Cheyenne and Joshua. Gatun Locks, Panama Canal


Time Machine Through the Canal (Part I)

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

The first morning of our canal transit (Feb. 25th), we were up and running around the boat at 5am, en route to Balboa by 6:30, had Jan and Richard from Slipaway as well as Cousin Tito aboard by 7:30 (Ben, just in from ice-floes-on-the-lake Chicago was also aboard), and were motoring around in circles waiting for the pilot boat by 8. Then they called us and told us that we were going to be cancelled. The lady at the bank who received our payment for the canal transit two weeks before had apparently gone on vacation and forgotten to turn in the correct form to wherever it was she needed to turn it in; rumor had it that there were three boats cancelled that day in addition to ours. Defeated for the time being, we anchored off Balboa and I fed our poor crew a consolation breakfast before dropping them all back off for another day (hopefully).

US Submarine. Panama Canal

On our way back to the Playitas anchorage, where we had a lot of explaining to do, we passed a canal-bound US attack submarine whose paperwork was not misplaced by airheaded bank clerks.

On the second morning of our supposed canal transit, after having phoned the canal scheduling office repeatedly the previous day to confirm our transit (not that this made any difference the first time since we had then twice confirmed our transit and the scheduler had gone so far as to give us the name of our advisor as well as how we were to be configured inside the locks), we were up at 5am running around the boat. Cousin Tito had been able to get one workday off but with the rescheduling, two days off (in the event that we must stay overnight in Gatun Lake) was not possible and so we picked up Gary from “Sol Surfin,” who, as a warm body with a heartbeat, was happily recruited as our fourth line handler late the night before. Once more we were en route to Balboa to pick up Jan and Richard, and Joshua was on the VHF trying to reconfirm that we were indeed actually going to go through the canal this day, the 26th.

Success! Confirmation reconfirmed. We had a time and name, once more, of our advisor (“George”) and the pilot boat would come for us in one hour. We snagged a stray mooring at Balboa and had a shockingly similar breakfast to the one before. (Nobody complained.)

We were to go through with another sailboat, “Windrider,” who had rocketed down from San Diego over the past couple of months and was making a beeline to Florida where things would be more to their liking. They spoke zero Spanish and Joshua’s general impression from having chatted with them in the bank, canal office, dock, or wherever, was that they were somewhat clueless as to what was going on. In the world. They had actually hired an agent to line up their canal transit (not that it made any difference since they got bumped the previous day as well, and had to do all the bank/canal office/scheduling errands themselves) and they had four hired “professional” line handlers aboard.

At around 8:15 (right on time!), the pilot boat came and deposited George the Advisor onto our boat. We introduced ourselves and got him set up with a large mug of coffee (black, two sugars) while he started to poke around the outskirts of our boat. Joshua and I feigned nonchalance as we watched him stoop and finger our 3/4-inch lines and eye our wee little cleats (barely large enough to accommodate such a massive line but we were told over and over again that THOU SHALT HAVE 7/8-INCH LINES for the canal transit—a size that is dead-horse-flogging overkill for our little 3-ton boat). He wrapped the lines around the cleats and Joshua went to explain what we had set up in this regard.

The setup is as follows (here we have Richard the Line Handler demonstrating; you can vaguely see what is going on):

Richard. Pedro Miguel Locks Panama Canal

Joshua shackled large steel rings onto the chainplates at the extreme ends of the amas (the side thingies—pontoons) fore and aft and ran the lines through the rings down to the cleats located at the A-frames. The chainplates are extremely strong and would take the brunt of the force, the cleats would be used to lock off the ropes and work the lines, not as the main load-bearing component. Plus, with the cleats located more centrally, the line handlers would have a safer and more comfortable location to line-handle and would be less likely to fall overboard (not desirable). Joshua walked George through this and he seemed to think that the setup was good.

George, our canal transit advisor

[George inspects the horses.]

Then he turned his attentions to our poor outboard. “Is this your only motor?” he asked. He eyed the outboard with incredible skepticism and leaned way out to try to see how many horses. Ironically, this is our new BIG outboard of fifteen bad ones and we had up until that point been feeling like hot shit. We explained that the boat was in fact very lightweight for a sailboat of its length and that fifteen horses was fully capable of pushing us. George furrowed his brow and gazed at the motor, then the boat, then the motor, and then the boat again. “How do you control it?” he asked. Um, well, that was why there were 6 of us aboard: one captain (“Skipper,” as George came to call Joshua), four line handlers, and one “engineer,” as George eventually named me—that is, after he was convinced, at least somewhat, that we weren’t all total nutballs and the motor did in fact move the boat. We chose to hold the interesting fact that we had come down from San Francisco with a mere 6 hp until later.

He had us drop the mooring and start an hour early for the motor up to the Miraflores entrance just in case our outboard couldn’t handle it. I took my place seated on the poop deck with my leg dangling over the stern and my hand on the control; Joshua directed me with hand signals since at the stern I couldn’t see much and could hear nothing but the motor. George kept wandering back and asking me what percentage throttle we were at. Now? How about now? He looked fairly chagrined at the scene but did not cancel us (he could call it off if he felt that our boat was not capable of getting through and he was such a stickler that we were almost worried that he might). We had of course put 8 knots down on the canal paperwork (8.5 actually, because, hell) and with 1/4 of the boat’s weight in humans aboard, a stiff 15-20 knots of wind gusting down the canal in our faces, and a couple of knots of current pouring out with the insane tides they have around here, we were going nowhere near 8 knots. More like 5 and the motor was at 75% throttle. I cranked the handle to full throttle to show him that the motor could in fact do more and George nearly had a heart attack, “NO! That’s okay! Don’t overdo it! We need that motor to get through the locks; don’t stress it too much! We don’t need to go fast right now.” He went back up to the cockpit where it was decidedly less exciting.

outboard motor

[My friend for the canal transit.]

cheyenne the engineer at her post

[My position for the canal transit, from which I was not to move until we were past Pedro Miguel.]

When we got to the Miraflores entrance, we motored around in circles waiting for our lock buddies (Windrider and a pilot boat). At 11:30 we entered the locks. We were tied alongside Windrider who was tied alongside the pilot boat who was tied to the wall. Once secured, the linehandlers had nothing to do but hang around taking photos. I had to stay at my post on the poop deck in case something should go wrong and I had to control the boat with the outboard; I not only controlled the throttle but had untied the outboard to have full steering capability as well. But nothing went wrong even with the flood turbulence and when we reached the top of the lock, we untied, backed up and held our position while Windrider and the pilot boat untied and moved out ahead of us into the second lock. This was not as straightforward as it sounds, actually, and we were flung around with the force of the propwash and freaky currents swirling around in the locks as soon as they moved. There was much gesturing and shouting at the engineer, who bore it stoically and managed to keep the Time Machine from dashing up against the walls thankyouverymuch. Once the other boats were secured in the second lock, we motored up and tied alongside once more.

Ben says we're ready. Pedro Miguel Locks. Panama Canal

[Ben relays the message from Joshua; all systems looking good.]

Because the last undocking scene was a bit hairy, the advisors decided that once the lock was flooded and the doors opened, we would throw off Time Machine’s lines and crank the motor for all it was worth to get out of the locks ahead of the other boats. Unfortunately, Windrider’s “professional” line handlers just threw off our lines as soon as we reached the top of the lock even though the doors hadn’t even opened yet and when I saw this, I cranked the motor and steered us for the exit. Again, there was much shouting and gesturing at the engineer and I flipped the motor into hard reverse (we were right at the front of the lock to begin with and I couldn’t see what the doors were doing from my position on the stern). Then the doors opened and the swirling water spun us around sideways. Windrider and the pilot boat prudently chose this opportunity to untie and split. Meanwhile, we were sideways and heading at three knots for the back of the lock (current and major gusting wind); the line handlers were all clustered at the bow to push us off should we get too close to the wall but we managed to motor around back and forth until the bow was pointed once more for the Caribbean and we full throttled it out of the locks, waving and smiling at lock crew and cameras.

Crane. Pedro Miguel Locks. Panama Canal

[Random lock scenery viewed from beneath; this is a crane.]

After a rapid motor across the tiny lake Miraflores, we had to mark time while waiting for the Pedro Miguel locks to be ready for us. Finally we entered, this time without the pilot boat and both of us center tied in the lock. This means that each sailboat was aligned singly in the lock with four lines to the walls on either side suspending it as the water rose. Our line handlers were going to earn their keep. As the water started swirling in, the boat lurched around a little but nothing out of the ordinary and the lines and handlers had everything under control. I had nothing to do but sit on the poop babysitting the idling motor and shout things at whoever was listening (nobody).

Ben Handling the lines. Pedro Miguel Locks. Panama Canal

[Ben handling the lines.]

Jan handling lines. Pedro Miguel Locks. Panama Canal

[More line-handling action from Jan.]

The lines were thrown down from the walls and pulled back up onto the boat and we motored out of the Pedro Miguel lock without incident. Finally I was relieved from motor duty and could join the rest of the crew in the cockpit where there was shade and audible conversation.

[I’ll get Part II up tomorrow!]


Sunday, March 4th, 2007

food vendor. Devil and Congo festival. Portobelo Panama

Portobelo, Panamá

We arrived in Portobelo just in time for the Fiesta de Congo y Diablos. Unfortunately, Ben had to catch a bus to Panama City before the festivities really got started. Ask us about the crazy frenchman.

Canal photos are coming, internet is sparse.

Cheyenne Weil, Joshua Coxwell