Thursday, January 22, 2015

Preparing to cross the Panama Canal

Anchored in the Rio Chagres
After leaving Portobelo, we headed to Colon to prepare for our Panama Canal transit. When we used to go through the locks that separated Lake Michigan from the Chicago River, we just pretty much just went through when they opened up. There's quite a bit more involved with the Panama Canal.

We committed our first faux pas by entering the harbor without calling Cristobol Signal Station, whose job it is to direct traffic through and around the canal. The first question we were asked is, "Are you sailing?" Um, well, we were just in the process of turning on our engines and taking down our sails. "Yeah, use your engines. Then go to the stern of the vessel approaching." As they were referring to a humongous container ship that could pulverize us without even slowing down, we readily agreed.

For a small private vessel going through the Panama Canal, there are several crucial steps. Although many cruising boats do it themselves, we decided to use an agent to help guide us through the process. Our agent did the paperwork, arranged for us to be measured, organized fenders and lines, and set up our transit date. When you use an agent, you also don't have to pay the $800 refundable deposit. You have to have an advisor that works for the canal, who comes with you through the locks. You also need 4 line handlers besides the captain (so for us, 3 other people). Going from Colon to Panama City takes 2 days, so you have line handlers staying overnight on your boat. We have 3 other cruisers who want to experience the canal before going through, including our friend Mark from Amelie IV.

We waited in "The Flats", which is an anchorage area near the Colon side of the canal, for five days without being able to get off the boat. It took longer than we expected to get measured, buy fuel, and for the weather to cooperate.

We finally got to go to the Rio Chagres, which is the river that was dammed to make part of the Canal. It cuts through dense jungle filled with howler monkeys, birds, frogs and butterflies. There are crocodiles, sloths, and jaguars. We hiked through one section with Marie-Claude, Megan and Matthew from Amelie IV, almost bushwhacking our way through. Afterwards, Mark and Conrad had a great time running through tunnels at the San Lorenzo Fort with their friends from Kazaio and some kids from Colon. On another day, we took the dinghy up river to see the dam.
After a visit to the marina to pick up our fenders and lines, finish our provisioning, do some laundry, wash the boat, play in the pool, and see the monkeys in the nearby jungle, we'll head back to The Flats to wait for our advisor and begin our transit. From what we have heard, there's not much to it. That doesn't stop me from being a bit nervous about the whole thing.

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