Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Going to the flipside


We made it across the Panama Canal with no damage to the boat or crew. In some ways, it is a relatively straightforward process, but things do occasionally go wrong so it's a relief to be finished. We are very glad that we had experienced sailors as line handlers. Originally, we were planning to have as line handlers a non-sailing Brazilian family (a father, mother, and their 19-year old daughter), but they backed out. Instead we had our friend Mark from Amelie V, along with Huzar and Patricia from Indra, a boat we met while anchored in The Flats. Having sailors was invaluable because there was enough going on without having to explain how cleats work or how lines should be led, much less worrying about someone who isn't used to walking around on a boat.

We picked up our advisor Ricardo and his trainee Victor the afternoon of the first day. We were originally given a transit time of 4 p.m., which was then changed to 3:30. Ricardo and Victor eventually arrived around 4. We then had to motor around the entrance to the canal while we waited for a couple of big ships to come out (like when they switch over the express lanes on a highway). We learned that the only constant during the transit process is changes to plans.

We were originally supposed to nest with a 60-foot motor yacht on one side and a monohull on the other side. Nesting is where several smaller boats raft up next to each other in the locks. But then we were told that wasn't happening-- the motor yacht didn't want to nest with us. However, they were apparently told that they had to because there weren't enough ACP Linehandlers (the guys that send lines down from the sides of the locks). So we rafted up but rather than staying nested together through all three Gatun locks, we separated and re-rafted through each one. The first rafting was a bit exciting as we figured out the best way to tie up to the motor yacht but by the second and third locks, we had it down.

The first three sets of locks (the Gatun locks) raises you 84 feet, from sea level to the height of Lake Gatun. Instead of digging through land the entire way across Panama, the canal builders built a dam to flood the area in between the two sets of locks. As the Caribbean sea water mixes with the fresh water from Lake Gatun, it creates some fairly brisk current that had the boats buffeting around quite a bit. All of us, including Mark and Conrad, got a big kick out of seeing the locks close and open and watching the water level rise. As we left the last set of locks, we had to watch out in case the cargo ship in front of us used its engines to move forward because the backwash could create a significant current.

After transiting the Lake Gatun locks, we arrived in Lake Gatun at around 8 p.m. A pilot boat picked up our advisor and trainee and we had dinner. We fell asleep to the sounds of the railway and the new lock construction.

We were told to be ready to go at 6 a.m. the following morning so we dutifully set the alarm for 6 (we were pretty sure it wouldn't be a 6 a.m. start). The monohull's advisor arrived around 7 a.m. but ours didn't arrive until 8:30. We pushed the engine relatively hard over the almost 30 miles across Lake Gatun to catch up to the other monohull only to be told when we were almost there that we would have to wait a couple hours for another boat. Then we were told we wouldn't have to wait, so we rafted up with the monohull. The wait/don't wait scenario continued to repeat as we went through the locks. Since each downward lock cycle uses 26,700,000 gallons of freshwater, the canal authority wants to make sure that there is a big ship in the mix whenever possible. However, we were able to go through with just the monohull. We stayed nested together for all three locks, with our boat providing the power for both sailboats. The ACP Linehandlers throw lines with monkey's fist knots surrounding a piece of lead, which our line handlers attached to our dock lines. They are really good at hurling those monkey's fists. The ACP Linehandlers then use the dock lines to walk our boats into position within the lock chamber.

When we finally glimpsed the Pacific Ocean through the last set of locks, I felt excitement and relief. The Pacific Ocean may look a lot like the Atlantic Ocean, but for me it represents new paths we can take. Matt headed back to Colon to pick up some packages we were having shipped from the States and to help Amelie IV with their transit. We'll spend some time in Panama City and Las Perlas before heading to Ecuador.


  1. GREAT BLOG.....enjoyed every word!

  2. Wow Jen! Gives me goose bumps, you guys are in the Pacific!!!!!! Love to you all. We're still in Puerto Rico, but headed down island today. All the best so glad to hear you made it through the canal! Love to all,

    Sandy & Brit


Add a comment: