A once in a life time experience … twice!

The paperwork is done, line handlers found, the fridge is full and the fenders and lines have been delivered. All that is needed is the time our advisor will board tomorrow.

It has been two weeks of getting into the Panama way of doing things; endless paperwork, friendly people, the long trips to town for provisions and the chatty taxi drivers. Thanks to our agent Erick the task of getting Temptress measured and certified and booking our transit as well as obtaining a cruising permit for the boat and visas for ourselves has been painless just it takes a while. We even have our Zarpe or port clearance for our eventual departure from Panama in a week or so.

Foredeck line handlers - Neil & Erica
Foredeck line handlers – Neil & Erica

At the weekend Erica, Kevin & I helped Alasdair & Gill and their friend Neil take StarCharger through the canal. The process takes two days starting with a late afternoon passage up through the three chambers of Gatun Locks, then overnight rafted with other yachts to a huge buoy just beyond the locks. We had picked up our advisor (a sort of pilot for boats under 65 ft) at 4pm in The Flats anchorage just north of the locks. Gonzales was very helpful, explaining clearly what would happen and how to “nest” three yachts together so we could pass through the locks as one object.

The outer boats received a monkeys fist attached to a heaving line, the line handlers (that’s us) attached the heavy blue lines to this and the line was hauled across to the lock side so the loop could be dropped on a bollard. As we were nested only two of the four lines that each boat is obliged to hire were used. Going up the yachts enter after the ship and it wasn’t too difficult to keep the raft centred using engines and the long blue lines. Once through and moored up Gonzales went home for the night and we settled down to supper and a few beers. I was taking notes of a domestic nature trying remember when the advisor required feeding etc. as we’d heard that they require “man food” (ie not salad according to Erick) and if they don’t like what is on offer they can send out for a meal at your expense!

Panama Canal lock
Panama Canal lock
Breaking the overnight raft
Breaking the overnight raft

The next morning Raffa joined us just as we finished breakfast, older he was very experienced and was the advisors team leader for the next part. He cheekily demanded coffee and Gill offered him a fried egg sandwich as he had left Panama City a couple of hours previously. Ahead of us was a five hour motor through Lake Gatun and into the channel leading to the next lock which is just beyond the Millennial Bridge. Six yachts plus a tourist boat and various big ships all heading the same way. Raffa was very knowledgeable about both the canal and the local wildlife. Enroute the initial plan changed, rather than a nest of three like yesterday just Arica and Starcharger would be tied together. Blowing Bubbles who had been the centre of our nest yesterday would go through with the tourist boat.

Locking partner - Milflores Lock
Locking partner – Milflores Lock

Going down the yachts go in first. Our partner in the locks would be a bulk carrier Silver Pegasus who had on board a load of woodchip but first we had to wait for her to arrive. It is quite scary to see a huge ship coming slowly down the lock behind you, we had to hope the trains that control her lines would act as brakes before she crushed us. There was about fifty feet between our stern and her bow when the lock gates closed.

One lock a mile of motoring rafted together then the Milaflores flight of two lock chambers, under the Bridge of The Americas and Starcharger had reached the Pacific. They dropped the hired lines and fenders as pre-arranged at Balboa YC and the three of us used the launch to take us to the shore just as darkness fell. After a fish supper in the restaurant, a short taxi ride took us to the Albrook Mall transport terminus where three tired crew climbed on the Colon bus and slept most of the hour and a half return journey to Colon (very cheap at US$4.75 each).

I've got a crush on you! Alasdair to wife Gill
I’ve got a crush on you! Alasdair to wife Gill
Neil got an unseasonable drink
Neil got an unseasonable drink

Colon is one of the most dangerous cities in the world; you are advised not to carry bags, cameras or anything at all there and certainly don’t venture into the centre after dark so we were a little wary when we got off in the badly lit city street at 9pm clutching our overnight bags. However just at the junction a couple of paces from the bus was an empty taxi and we gratefully climbed in. Another 40 bumpy minutes ride and we’d reached Shelter Bay Marina once more. Just time for a night cap and bed. A Panama transit truly is an experience of a lifetime and we are so lucky that we get to do it twice in one week!

And tomorrow it is Temptress’ turn. You might be able to spot us on camera here  . The schedule is flexible but we should be going up through Gatun Locks around 4pm local time (9pm UK) and down through Miraflores sometime after 3pm (8pm UK)  the following day Thursday.

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