Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Adventure On The High Seas......Crossing The Panama Canal

Many months ago an Aussie couple found us through this blog and wanted to meet up while they were in Panama. This courageous duo Michael and Christine are traveling the world on a 42 foot Lagoon 420 catamaran all the way from Australia.  They're adventure of a lifetime began over a year ago and will continue for many more months before they sail on back to the land down under. Clyde asked if we could drive over to the Caribbean side to meet up and transit the canal with them and they agreed.

The "DUO" Our home for three days
Inside the boat

View of part of the Shelter Bay Marina
 Our journey began the day before as we drove to Panama City and stayed overnight in a hotel to prepare for an early start the next morning.  At 6:15 the following morning we took a taxi to the train station and boarded the Panama Canal Railroad for our trip to Colon.  The hour long scenic train ride ran alongside the canal and through tropical jungle before dropping us off in the city of Colon.  Since Colon has one of the highest crime rates of the country we quickly found a taxi that could take us to the Shelter Bay Marina where our friends were docked. The ride took us about 30 minutes where he deposited us at the pier with our duffel bags.  Almost immediately we recognized Christine walking toward us with a bucket and soon discovered she was on her way to collect water for the boat. Apparently, a landslide a day earlier caused a break in a main water line for the city of Colon and water restrictions were in effect for everyone. Since they were unable to fill the boats storage tanks with water everyone on board all of the boats in the marina were cautioned to conserve water.

Where have we heard this before?

Boats in the marina

Once on board their boat called, "Duo" we met Michael the Captain who welcomed us onto his yacht. They were joined by another Australian couple, David and Leanne who currently live in Switzerland.  David and Leanne had prior sailing experience and volunteered to help out during the last legs of their journey to the Galapagos and Marquesas Islands before heading back to dry land. Never having sailed before I had no idea what to expect and was amazed to find so much on the yacht. Equipped with three bedrooms and three bathrooms, each of us three couples had our own private quarters.

View to the kitchen and dining area

The Cockpit ready for action

The princess ready for action

Since this was only Thursday we had the rest of the day to relax or take a dip in the marina swimming pool before they moved on.  Michael and Christine couldn't see paying for another night in the marina since there was no water anyway, so they opted to anchor outside of the marina instead. But the next day everyone was offered a trip back to the marina via dinghy to use the Internet, but Clyde and I decided to stay on board alone. While they were gone a massive storm blew in bringing severe lightning, thunder, wind and buckets of rain causing a bit of a scare for us novice sailors.  The boat was tossed around on it's anchor making a nearby ship wreck and island appear closer than they actually were. Clyde and I took cover as we watched the horrible storm go by and we were happy to see Captain Michael, First Wife Christine and the crew return a few hours later.

Leanne and Christine

Christine readying the anchor

Living the good life

Leaving the marina

Michael briefed us all on the plan for the Canal crossing which was as follows:  later that day we were to motor on over to an area in the water known as "the flats," and wait for our Canal Transit Advisor.  A briefing on the radio let us know that our advisor would climb aboard around 5:30pm and the transit of the first set of locks would begin soon after. Days earlier Michael had already paid for special bumpers and ropes to assist with the canal crossing when he paid his transit fees.  Another time someone came out to measure the boat and presented them with the necessary paperwork. So for the rest of the day there we sat among a dozen or so other boats all waiting their turn to transit the canal.  I took advantage of the sunshine and lounged outside much of the day.

Terry overlooking  David and Michael

Getting some training on line handling

This is MY Boat now...they left us alone and went to find internet on the dinghy!

Kitchen area of the boat

Outside dining area where we spent much of our time, our sheets drying up above

Goodbye marina

So, this is how they know where they're going!

In typical Panamanian fashion our advisor arrived a bit later than scheduled and informed us of the plan for the evening.  Our advisor Victor has worked for the Canal Authority for the past 24 years in the area of security.  For the past nine years during the busy season he takes on extra hours working as a transit advisor helping small boats go through the canal.  We learned he grew up speaking English and even speaks it at his home in Colon that he shares with his family. He was a delightful gentleman who we enjoyed chatting with about politics, the water issues and other things about this beautiful country. As we waited and talked Christine put out a plate of "nibbles" for everyone to munch on.  For those of you that don't speak Australian, "nibbles" to the rest of us might be called snacks, munchies or appetizers.

Captain Michael  and David doing some repairs
on a leaky hatch

Waiting for our turn to transit the canal....in my happy place!

Ready for the night crossing

Victor informed us that in about an hour we would motor over to the entrance of the Gatun locks where we'd be rafted to two other boats for the transit. In other words.....we'd hurry up and wait for the next step. With constant radio contact to his supervisors Victor let us know when it was our turn to head over to the first set of locks.

Our first advisor, Victor

It must have been between 7 and 8 pm by the time we met up with our fellow boaters.....a yacht of people from Alaska on one side and a single man traveling alone in a yacht on the other side who refused to chat with us.  Every boat had to have FOUR line handlers who would tie off lines to the boat to ensure that the boat didn't hit the side of the canal. The job of the advisor was to instruct the line handlers every step of the way, to make the crossing as easy as possible.  Since the boat we were on was the largest of the three we were in the middle with a smaller boat to each side leaving us little to do for this set of locks. Each of the line handlers on the other two boats were thrown a weighted line that they wrapped around a loop attached to a thick, blue rope. The blue rope was next attached to the cleat on the boat and held by the handler throughout the crossing. The advisor told them when to let out the rope a bit or pull it in tighter to assure safety for the passengers and the vessels.

Once the three boats were securely tethered together we motored into the lock and stopped when advised to, keeping a good distance in back of a much larger ship. Next we heard an alarm sound as the massive gates began to close tightly around us.  Soon it looked as if we sat in a powerful whirlpool as the water under us flowed in quickly, lifting all of the boats to the top of the walls. Each huge chamber fills with water in just eight minutes, but is so smooth we barely felt the boat lift. Once finished the gate opened and off we went into the next lock for more lifting action.  By the time we entered the third lock at Gatun the sky opened up and we all were pounded by heavy rains, putting a damper on our experience a bit. The three-step lock system at the Gatun Locks lifted us a total of 85 feet from the Caribbean Sea to man made Gatun Lake. As instructed by Victor we moved away from the last lock, separated from the other boats and moored in a specific area of the lake for the evening.
It was 11pm by the time we were done, soggy from the rain and in need of a late dinner. Christine had prepared a lasagna earlier in the day that we enjoyed with some salad, cake and wine before retiring for the night.

"Rafting up" to the next boat of mostly women.... I think Clyde wanted to join them!

Still working

Entering the Gatun Locks at night
looks like no decent pictures for this tonight!

One picture that turned out fairly well
of the gates opening

Victor told us to expect an advisor to show up between 6 and 6:30 am the following morning for the next part of the canal crossing.  But once again we sat and waited until 8:30 when a pilot boat pulled up and dropped off a different advisor.  Today we'd be assisted by Ricardo who would guide us through the final two sets of locks which would take up most of the day. We learned that Ricardo's normal job with the Canal Authority is to captain a tug boat and only works as an advisor during his off hours, just like Victor. He instructed Michael to pull up anchor and proceed for hours to the Pedro Miguel Locks.  Most of us sat atop the boat enjoying the sunshine and sea breezes watching the other ships go by. One of the highlights came as we passed by Princess Cruise Lines Island Princess going in the opposite direction.  We waved to the many passengers on board the ship from California that had one more set of locks to go through before heading to Florida. 

I'm getting ready for the "monkey" (a weighted rope) to be thrown
so I can attach it to the big rope

The canal worker is holding a small rope that's attached to
the thicker and stronger blue rope and
walking to put us in place further in the lock
Getting ready for our first lock during the day!
 Just posing for photo here, Terry didn't actually do anything since only two people
 were needed to handle the lines. This was how we went through Pedro Miguel and Miraflores with this ship behind us in the locks. Notice the large ship behind us is guided through by "mules" or locomotives and not human line handlers.  So guess we can say that Clyde is the mule here!
As you can see, the water is lowering
I have to keep a tight line to keep the boat
aligned and not hitting the side as we are dropping down

When we finally reached the next set of locks we found the other two boats were already rafted together.  This time we'd be put on the right side for the transit which meant that our line handlers would have to work to keep all three boats in the center of the locks. Michael took control of the front line while Clyde pulled up the rear. David went from piloting the boat to relieving Michael as did Christine.  I was certainly content just watching and snapping a few photos as Leanne did the same, lending a hand when needed.  Each of the three boats had an advisor that communicated with each other but the one of the center boat seemed to be in charge.

Captain Michael, Line Handler Clyde and
First Wife Christine

Terry posing in the lock

Captain Michael gets a go at line handling

Christine on the left, David and Leanne are
preparing rope for storage

Before making our way to the Pedro Miguel lock we passed under the Centenario Bridge while passing through the Culebra Cut. Formerly known as the Gaillard Cut, this narrow passage is an artificial valley that was cut through the Continental Divide during the building of the canal. The cuts made through the mountain range are clearly visible and offer more evidence of this engineering marvel.

The top of the Canal gate with walkway

Canal worker proceeding up the next lock.  When he's in place
he will pull in the heavy blue rope and tie off at the top on the
cleats and then I will hold tension as the water level drops
 in each lock

The Miraflores Visitor center from the boat
See all those people waiting to see us go by?  It was cool to be on this side
 instead of the viewing platform! Ladies from Alaska on the boat next to us saying hello to the crowds too.

The last locks opening
We made it to the Pacific Side! We've successfully crossed the Panama Canal!!!

Our first lock on this side was a one-step process of Pedro Miguel that lowered us 31 feet from Gatun Lake into the Pacific Ocean.  Then almost immediately after that was the final two-step set of locks at Miraflores, which lowered us another 54 feet through three sets of locks.  With a large visitor center, Miraflores is the closest set of locks to Panama City and the one most visited by tourists. It was fun to see the viewing platforms lined with spectators as our boats lowered into the Pacific causing us to vanish from sight. As the final set of gates opened and our boats passed through into the Pacific Ocean we felt a sense of accomplishment.  What a thrill to be able to make the 50 mile long trek through the famous Panama Canal.  When the canal first opened in 1914 it was considered to be one of the greatest engineering works of all time.

Advisor Ricardo waiting for his ride home

This is the ship that was behind us
we are in the process of
untying the "raft"

Off she goes under the Bridge of the Americas

Pilot boat picking up Ricardo

Loading up the blue ropes and bumpers

After our long, two day crossing of the canal was finished we anchored out in the Pacific waiting for yet another pilot boat to arrive.  Shortly after we dropped anchor we bid farewell to our advisor Ricardo as he jumped off our boat into another. A few minutes later a smaller boat stopped by to pick up the bumpers and rope that Michael had to rent from the Canal Authority for the transit.

Captain Michael and First Wife Christine

We did it!

Marina at the end of the Amador Causeway

Pulling in for fuel and water

Another look at the "DUO"

A better look

The rest of the evening was spent sipping rum and cokes with our new Australian friends who were so kind as to allow us into their yachting world.  After dinner the Aussie's challenged us Americans to a game of "Bananagrams." A cross between Boggle and Scrabble the game is all about making words from tiles and forming them into a crossword puzzle. Unfortunately for us from the US, although we share the same language the words are far different.  And since we were outnumbered by Aussie's we lost the battle whenever we argued that the words they were making were not real words.  Perhaps they're not real words in our English language but in their version, they surely were. And the more Panamanian rum we consumed the crazier the words became until we lost the game and turned in for the evening.

Anchored nearby the Amador Causeway our tranquil night was anything but quiet.  A large party boat cruised by blasting loud music throughout the night.  Another older boat with a loud motor cruised by several times causing us to wake and it's heavy wake made waves that rolled us around in the water. The next day we offered to take Christine shopping in Panama City as she needed to stock up for the next five weeks of their journey. After fueling up at the marina Michael pulled the boat over near a wall of the marina so we could all climb out for our day on the town. A female marina employee came running over telling us it would cost $75 if we wanted to get off the boat there. Our only alternative was to anchor the boat away from the marina and use the dinghy to get everyone to shore, which is what we did. We took a taxi to where our car was parked then shopped at the large outdoor produce market, Price Smart and Albrook Mall before we were done for the day.

On our way back to the dock Clyde called Michael so he could be waiting at the dinghy dock to help bring the groceries back to the yacht. After helping our new friends unload their groceries we exchanged emails and hugs before saying farewell to our new friends. It was great to meet Leanne and David, such a sweet couple who shared a little bit of their hearts and lives with us. And a big thanks to Michael and Christine for opening up their floating home to us, and allowing us to experience the adventure of a lifetime.....along the gringo trail.



  1. Very jealous of this adventure. I can only imagine sailing through the canal and then on to the galapogs islands

  2. Just talked to Clyde. What a great experience.


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