#39—The Panama Canal
We sat tied to our mooring buoy at the Balboa Yacht Club for eight days, waiting for a final transit date. During our waiting time we scrounged up a dozen old tires, wrapped in plastic, around the vicinity of the yacht club's trash bin. Chris thought the old tires didn't do Andanté justice, so he suggested taking a taxi to the local equivalent of Costco where I could purchase 12 new Italian Pirelli radials.
With the used tires tied firmly around Andanté's hull, we waited until Monday the 12th, when we received word from our agent, Peter Stevens, owner of Delfino Maritime Agency, that we were cleared to transit the canal the next day, March 13th.
Monday afternoon Peter arrived on Andanté with our cruising permit for Panamanian waters and the bill for transiting the canal, which we paid to Delfino in cash. He instructed us to check in with Flamenco Signal at 20:30 Monday evening, and then again at 6:00 Tuesday morning.
We dutifully radioed Flamenco Signal at 20:30 that evening. They informed us that the pilot would board at 06:30 the next morning. When we called in Tuesday morning, Flamenco Signal informed us that pilot boarding time was rescheduled for 07:00. We called at 07:30 to say that the pilot hadn't arrived yet, and were advised to "wait a few minutes." We called again at 08:00 to say the pilot had still not arrived. At 08:30 the pilot stepped on board and immediately said "Let's go."
And now, lest you think this log will simply be entertaining, a quick history lesson on the canal seems appropriate: Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla is "The Man" behind "The Canal." A Parisian-born French engineer, he originally started construction of the canal in 1882 for the French government. Cost overruns and malaria forced them to abandon their plans in 1898. However, Bunau-Varilla subsequently persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to acquire the rights and assets of the French company in 1902.
At the turn of the last century, Panama was a province of Columbia. In 1903, with the aid of the United States, Bunau-Varilla helped the Panamanians revolt against Colombia. The successful revolt created the Republic of Panama. As representative of the new government of Panama in the United States, Bunau-Varilla then negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which enabled the US to acquire the Panama Canal Zone and subsequently build the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914. (After all this, I'm surprised that it wasn't named the Philippe Jean Bunau-Varilla Canal.) Construction required 10 years and 75,000 workers.
The Republic of Panama took control of the canal at noon on December 31st, 1999. According to government and canal officials, it was long overdue. But my taxi driver Roosevelt (his father named him after the only president of the US that he knew) said that a recent survey indicated that about 65% of Panamanians wanted the United States to take control of the Canal Zone once again. The reason: when the US left Panama, thousands and thousands of service jobs disappeared.
Our pilot instructed us to motor north from the Balboa Yacht Club and hold in the waters adjacent to the Port of Balboa. We were scheduled to transit the Miraflores Locks behind a decommissioned US Navy frigate. While we waited, the frigate slipped its berth from the Port of Rodman with the assistance of two large tugs. As the tugs, with frigate in tow, headed for the Miraflores Locks, we fell into line behind them.
Courteously, our pilot dictated distance, speed, position, and timing. However, despite such detailed instructions, each skipper has the ultimate responsibility for his or her own vessel. This means that if the pilot says "turn hard astarboard NOW," and you run into a Holland America cruise ship, it's your fault, not his.
After the frigate and tugs were secured, we entered Miraflores Locks behind them, in center positione.g. in the middle width of the canal. Line handlers on both sides of the canal threw tag lines with monkey fists at the enda rope knot filled with lead that allows the thrower to throw farther and more accurately find his target. The tag line lands (preferably) on deck and (ideally) does not knock out one of your line handlers on board. Your line handler, if still conscious, staggers over to pick up the tag line. S/he then ties a double sheet bend, joining the tag line with one of your four 100-foot lock lines. With the sheet bend in place, the canal-side line handler then pulls your lock line back, whereupon he slips the loop of your lock line, which you have expertly tied with a bowline, over the bollard.
Is this clear? Good. It wasn't clear to us either.
I watched the first line handler, who was about 50-feet to port and 30-feet overhead. He whipped his tag line with its monkey fist into a six-foot diameter, high-speed, whizzing, propeller-like spinning vortex. When the monkey fist had gained sufficient velocityjust prior to lifting him off the groundhe released it high into the air. We watched in amazement as the monkey fist arced high overhead and then landed on our teak deck with a loud crack, sending all of us scurrying for cover. Before we knew it, other monkey fist projectiles were hurled at us from all sides.
After this initial exercise, I clearly understood the purpose of the monkey fist: Cracking a teak deck: 5-points. Breaking a window: 10-points. Making someone run for cover: 25-points. A knockout is much more bueno: that thrower instantly wins. Game. Set. Match. Cervesa!
I'm only jesting, of course. Our Panamanian hosts did a wonderful job of hitting everything, I mean expertly tossing us tag lines.
While Heather and Becky used the electric winches to manage the stern lines, Chris Brown (Heather's dad), and Roberto (a hired gun from the Balboa Yacht Club) stood on the bow and manhandled the lines with brute force. Chris was too polite to talk about how difficult this was, although he did mention it daily for the remainder of the trip.
Through the next set of locks, Pedro Miguel, we had the opportunity to tie off to a tug. I would have to say that this is my preferred method for transiting the Canal. In the first place, you didn't have to dodge any monkey fists. All you had to do was raft to a large, 30,000-ton tugboat. Once rafted, your job is over. Avoiding hitting the tug is a good idea when you come alongside. But hey, with all those tires, close counts.
Because the Canal wasn't designed for small boats, every mode of transport has its risks. A week prior to our transit, two sailboats rafted alongside a tugboat, similar to what you see in the adjacent photograph. Allegedly, no one on the tug was on deck or on the bridge when one of the tug's lines came loose. The stern of the tug swung out into the middle of the lock, taking the sailboats with it. The swinging stopped when the outside sailboat was crushed between the tug and the hull of a large container ship.
My last choice would have been tying along side the wall. As a reminder why this may not be the best transit method, all you had to do was look at the scrapes and gouges in the Canal wallnot to mention fiberglass, steel, and cruisers' fingernail groves. It was enough to convince me that there was probably a better way. First choice: tug. Second choice: center. Third choice: side wall.
After passing through Pedro Miguel Locks, we entered Gaillard or Culebra Cut, a long river-like stretch that feeds into Gatun Lake. Here, our pilot suggested that we overtake the tug towing the frigate. Holding my breath, I revved the engine up to 3500 rpm. (Maximum is 4000.) This gave us a little over seven knots, which Andanté defines as fast.
After 30-minutes we had pulled alongside the frigate's beam, when our engine skipped for a fraction of a second. That never happened before. Everyone on board looked at meas if I knew what that strange sound was. I eased the throttle back to 3100still fast for our enginewhich put us in a dead heat with the tug and frigate. And I wondered, out loud, who was going to pass through the next curve first. The tug captain must have slowed to allow us to pass, because eventually we did pull ahead.
After Gaillard Cut we entered Gatun Lakea long manmade lake wide enough for large ships to pass each other under their own power. It was about 15:00, and our pilot thought that we would have to spend the evening anchored on the north side of Gatun Lake. However, an opportunity opened up for us to ride through the final three locks tied off to a tug. (The pilots are in constant communication with the locks via UHF radio.)
Seven miles distant from Gatun Locks the pilot called for "Maximum Speed." I throttled up to seven knots and we raced through Gatun Lake, passing 100-year old tree trunks that had thrived before the construction crew flooded the area by diverting water from a local river. The lake required two years to fill up.
We sped to Gatun Locks only to wait about 45-minutes upon arriving for I'm not sure actually. We circled the area under close scrutiny from a container ship crew, who apparently hadn't seen any women for ever. When it became evident that we had women aboard, a few of the guys went into their quarters to slip into something more comfortable, and emerged in black fishnet shirts. "Hoo boy. Is latest thing in Vladivostok."
Eventually a tug went into the head of the lock and tied off. We followed next and rafted alongside. Then, the enormous container ship came in behind us. We repeated this procedure in all three locks. It was so exciting that Dipsy, a gift from my daughter Erica, actually made a rare appearance on deck. As I snapped photos of Dipsy lounging in the cockpit, fortunately, the big, burley, manly men in fishnet shirts didn't seem to notice.
We look forward to new adventures on this other side of the world. "Bye bye," said Dipsy, as we motored out into the Caribbean.
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