Transiting the Panama Canal

February 17-18, 2015

Climbing to Gatun

I never thought I would climb a mountain in a sailboat.  Ever.  

When you're awake alone at night out on the water, thoughts such as these have a way springing forth in all their simplistic brilliance.  Then there are little things that bring you back to earth, like stubbing your toe on a cleat, or trying to share said sappy sentiment with a cat who just wants a fresh can of sardines. If you're slapped with these kinds of juxtapositions, then you're pretty much stuck with some kind of Chesire cat grin on your face.   The joke's on you, and for some twisted reason, you think it's hilarious.

As usual, the crew of Coconut Woman experienced our typical ration of warmed-over absurdities, but also as usual, the experience was extremely interesting.  Over 100 years old, the Gatun locks take us up 85 feet in a series of three steps.  Then, the Miraflores locks on the other side bring us back down again.  In between, we traverse Gatun Lake by night, finding our way to the rafting buoys in what feels like a peaceful puddle in the middle of nowhere.  

After a routine medley of conflicting information from various sources, we picked up our line handlers and rushed out to the Flats, the on-deck anchorage for boats scheduled to lock-through.  On the way, we managed to use the awning we hadn't yet taken down as a sail!  

Censo, our pilot-adviser, skillfully guides Coconut Woman and Hooligan into the Gatun Locks.

Our Gatun Locks pilot-adviser,  Censo, arrived just after dark.  Professional and likeable, Censo was a former first mate aboard an ocean liner and now is in the  Panama canal training program for large vessel pilots.    He casually informed Justin that Coconut Woman would be both helming and powering ourselves and another boat through the Gutun Locks.  Our 1981 Volvo Penta, in charge of not one but two 45 foot vessels , in a major lock-through?!  We laughed and gave fair warning to all!

Next, we joined forces with “Hooligan,” a lovely 1986 Beneteau.  Destined for a short life in the Californian charter business, she lucked into some loving owners, who took her and made a break for the Caribbean.  This would be her second time traversing the Panama Canal.  

Rafting-up into a “nest” aids small vessels in stability during the turbulent in-pour of gushing water within the locks, and reduces the amount of lines and line-handlers required, although every boat is required to have a pilot (the boat's captain), 4 line-handlers and a pilot-adviser on board in case of any emergencies.   Typically, these nests are from 2-4 boats across, all buffered along their hullsides with large trash-bag covered tires available for rent.   

Our friend and crew member, Nick, had taken our fellow rally boat, “Windwalker,” through the Canal the day before our transit and was amazing enough to catch a cab back across the isthmus to do it all over again for us.  This meant we would require only two professional line-handlers.  

Meredith starts some Yucca frying and shows the view from the galley and the cockpit as Justin, line handlers and the transit crew navigate into the first set of locks from the Caribbean side.

We were told it would be $100 for each line-handler,  plus several meals for the advisers and line-handlers.  I prepared closer to five. Including Justin and Nick, they  ploughed through five packages of cheese, 16 eggs and an entire bottle of hot sauce!  Hungry men!  Beef and bean tacos, chicken and cheese quesadillas, nachos, fried yucca, popcorn, nuts, homemade and store-bought salsas, sausage and eggs, fresh mango, papaya, pineapple, Cokes, juices, water, and a partridge in a pear tree!   All compliments of “Chez Coco.”

The Yucca is almost finished as the boats near the top of the lock.

Entering the chamber, the locks loom overhead like draconian dungeon doors.  Lights brighten the night sky, but the fact we were performing a procedure of this kind in the dark made for a real sense of adventure.  As soon as the boats reach the Panamanian onshore line-handlers, everyone on deck braces for the great tossing of the monkey-fists, hoping the guys on land are former baseball pitchers.   The monkey-fists are whipped into the end of the lines, the added weight on the end ensuring an accurate throw of long lengths of somewhat heavy rope.  The crew catches the lines and fasten them to cleats.  The onshore line-handlers then walk with the boats as they proceed into the locks, all the while, Censo shouts out orders to Justin, “Engage! Steer to port!”  To which Justin parrots back, “Engaging!  Steering to port!”  This is ancient maritime procedure that has stuck around for so long because it tells the captain the crew has correctly heard his orders.  

“Neutral!  Now reverse!”  

“In neutral!  Now reversing!”

The nest comes to a complete stop behind the large vessel Altis Valletta as we notice the silhouettes of her crew peering down at us from her giant stern.  The onshore line-handlers fasten the ropes to cleats the size of our cockpit.  The pilot advisers radio the locks, a horn sounds, and the giant 7 foot thick dungeon doors begin to close behind us.  No turning back now!  Coconut Woman is Pacific-bound!

We found it interesting that small craft are required to sign papers stating their vessels do not have adequate cleats and gear aboard to transit the Panama Canal.  As Nick joked, “Yeah, we'd have to be one giant cleat.”

As the water begins to pour into the locks, creating swirling currents and bits of foam, the nest of boats begins to quickly rise.  Line-handlers and the pilot-adviser yell line adjustment orders to keep the boats centered.  In the span of ten minutes, we have floated 40 feet toward the sky and can now see over the dungeon doors into the Caribbean.  One down, two more Gatun lock-throughs to go.

After the evening's final lock-through and freeing the boats from the nest, we soon arrive in Gatun Lake.  We say goodbye to Censo as Nick offers up a celebratory cigar.  Soon afterward, the crew retires for the evening, draping tired bodies across the deck and settees.  I volunteer for night watch because sadly, we do not trust one of our line-handlers.

The history of the Panama Canal is typically celebrated as the United State's official debut as a world power.  Nothing about building the  Canal was easy.  The canal is a symbol of diligence and stubborn resolve, but it's also a symbol of malaria, yellow fever, death by explosives or train derailments, low wages and  poor quality living conditions, for many West Indians, Chinese, and American workers who toiled their way through  billions of pounds of rock and dirt.

It has been compared to the building of the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids.   Now our little Coconut Woman is sitting 85 feet higher in the middle of a lake created by flooding several river systems.  In spite of the light-pollution, our never-failing Orion hangs above us in the sky.  The winds are gentle and the lake waters calm.   

A humbling sight to behold and a truly memorable experience thus far, this wee crew member is finally going to try to catch some Z's.  More to come soon.

        The Flipside - Miraflores

Well, by cheating nature, we made it from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean in two days!  

After our night on Gatun Lake, our next pilot-adviser, Edwin, arrived promptly at six in the morning, and the boat was again underway in less than fifteen minutes.  The morning was spent motoring across the rest of the lake, then entering into the western canal cut.  Wide enough for ships to pass one another, we were surrounded by sun-drenched uninhabited wilderness of the isthmus.  In places where the canal was cut through hillsides were carved steps reaching up to their tops, reminding us of step-pyramids.  Morning traffic was, as usual, busy with passing tugs and ships.

Edwin professionally guides Coconut Woman through the Miraflores locks.

For most of this morning's  journey, Nick took the helm.  Everyone was tired from a short and crummy night's rest.  While I was asleep, Justin served up eggs, Italian sausage, and fresh fruit to great praise from all.  

The remainder of our trip became one of stamina and odd little adventures aboard.  One of our line-handlers, Papaya, who couldn't have been a year over 16 and spoke only Spanish, proved to be problematic.  From the dangerous city of Colon, poor Papaya was carrying a colostomy bag taped around his middle.  For one reason or another, he had been attacked and had fought back, incurring five bullet wounds.  The one on his thigh was visible.  Shortly after departure for the Flats the day before, he became ill and spent much of the trip lounging on the settee.  Although he demanded to eat at every meal, he was unable to keep most it down.  He ripped the shower chord off the connector in attempt to clean to toilet but instead only managed to get water all over the bathroom.   He also failed to follow Eddie's orders to close the portlights before washing the deck, thereby dumping gallons of water onto the settees, pillows, Molas, and the cat.  

Justin did not particularly appreciate his gangsta-rap he enjoyed playing out loud on his iPhone, and he generally tried to do as little work as possible, even when it was clear that he was over-milking the pity factor.  He spent the rest of his time on deck taking pictures with his phone, napping with his mouth open, texting, and playing with the cat, which solidified our suspicion that this was his first time as a line-handler.  We had been warned of inexperienced line-handlers on the canal.  This being the time of the Panamanian Carnival, some boats' canal transits had been delayed due to “sick” aka “hung-over” pilot advisors and line-handlers!  We expect he was a last-minute edition to our transit.

All this being said, he had an air about him that predicated distrust.  The final straw was when he flung himself onto the settee, almost breaking the cat's leg.  It quickly became clear that he was a liability as a line-handler, so Nick took up the slack and instructed him to stay out of the way.  Justin gave him a stern talking-to and he cowered in a corner for the remainder of the transit.  For a number of reasons, he did not belong aboard a boat.

Edwin, our pilot-adviser for the second day, was amicable and laid back.  We arrived early to the day's first lock and rafted up to a buoy until Edwin got the green light to begin nesting the boats.  In the meantime, Edwin regaled us with fun facts such as the reason Americans switched the “red and green” buoyage system for entering ports.  This typically infuriates Europeans, and typically, we Americans find this amusing.  Edwin reminded us the reason for this change was during America's fight for independence, when they flipped the color code from “keep green to starboard” to “red right return” in order to lead British ships up onto the rocks.  

Today, we were fortunate to raft up with some fellow rally boats, Om and Maggie.  Om would be the chief guide and power vessel for the locks this time, so Coconut Woman tethered herself to Om's large catamaran starboardside and served as an adjusting flank vessel, with Maggie, the other monohull, on Om's opposite hull.  

Again, as we approached the lock chamber, the shore-side line-handlers tossed the monkey-fists into the air.  We caught great footage of Nick bravely catching a poorly thrown one, from a possibly-hung-over line-handler.  Usually, these guys peg you right in the palm, but Nick managed to reach out and make a good save.

From BPOMiraflores Lock web cam: catamaran NO REGRETS closest to the camera; catamaran OM rafted up with MAGGIE & COCONUT WOMAN.

Going down was less dramatic than going up, in part because we had daylight and in part because the waters create less turbulence draining from the locks than they do entering them.  As we made our final 45 foot descent at the Miraflores Lock, we provided a gaggle of onlooking tourists on the visitor's center balcony with a small spectacle.  Freeing ourselves from the nest, we gave one last look at the locks, as we made our way toward the end of the canal.  Four miles later, Edwin made the precarious jump onto a jet-ski style power vessel that was threatening to gouge our boat, and the line-handlers dropped themselves into a small launcha, carrying the tires with them.  We sent Edwin and Eddie away with smiles and hugs, plus an official complaint to the Canal authorities concerning Papaya.  He assured us Papaya would no longer be handling lines.  Actually, I don't think he ever did handle one on our boat.  We hope his future will be brighter than has been his past.

We continued on to the anchorage here in the Causeway Islands, and boats coordinated with one another to avoid being charged the $30 dinghy dockage fee.  Dead tired, after three hours of wasted time trying to clear out of the country, boat captains returned without their clearance papers and were forced to delay their departures.  Our boat had already planned to stay a few days for repairs and fresh provisions.   In spite of the desire to socialize with our fellow rally members, we made dinner and zonked out.  No sailor on the water will ever say this is an easy way to live.  We assume it requires a certain level of mild insanity and a heck of a lot of sense of humor.

MVP of the transit:  Nick Madden catches the monkey fist.

Cheers to an eye-opening Panama Canal transit and to the Pacific Ocean!  She will be our home waters for the months to come and the longest passages we have ever made aboard Coconut Woman!

View photos of the transit of the canal from Shelter Bay to Flamenco in the Pacific

Posted on February 19, 2015 .