Transit – Day One
Making the trip of a lifetime for a second time in one week might seem like overkill but our first on Star Charger was simply experience to enable as smooth a transit to the Pacific as possible for Temptress a few days later. So it was on Wednesday 24 Feb our line handlers Chris of Rhumb Runner and one of his crew Roy came on board at noon as requested. Temptress now had what is probably one of the most over qualified crews for locking through a canal ever; five Yachtmaster’s and amongst them one Yachtmaster Instructor (Chris) and one Coach Assessor (Erica) plus assorted other nautical qualifications between us!
One other yacht, a forty foot motorsailor came out to join us at anchor in The Flats, the boarding point for our first Transit Advisor (a sort of pilot for line handled boats under 65 ft long). We had made Cristobal Control aware of our presence as we departed Shelter Bay Marina and they informed us that our boarding time would be 16:45. So we occupied ourselves with lunch, a swim and getting to know each other better during the interlude. The Advisor arrived on time, he was an unassuming tugboat captain, so quiet we never even properly caught his name. He informed us that our departure would not start for another hour or so – it was all hurry up and wait.
Just after six in the evening the two yachts motored towards the Gatun Locks. All three chambers would be done as a nested (rafted) pair then we’d break apart to head to our overnight mooring either side of the big buoy in Gatun Lake. Our fellow yacht proved a bit of a nightmare partly because the helm was closeted within a pilot cabin. They had chosen to hire local line handlers rather than acquire fellow yachties as we had done and though they were young and fit their skills proved dubious. Worse the motorsailor’s skipper either didn’t hear commands from his own advisor or had left his helm to attend to something further down inside his boat!
Eventually both Advisors and Kevin took to yelling in chorus “Astern” or “Neutral” etc. The wife stood on the foredeck or pilot house top most of the time and not once looked in our direction or made an attempt to be part of proceedings – very odd, perhaps they’d had a bit of a barney. We made it up through the three chambers without any scrapes or bumps but it wasn’t the most controlled central position in the locks. By 8pm the raft had split apart in the dark above Gatun #3 lock chamber. As we motored to the buoy we fed our Advisor some supper which he seemed to enjoy even though he was at pains to explain that Panamanians don’t like their chilli too hot as they are not Mexicans! Then Erica and Roy fought the huge Samson post on the top of the walk on buoy to tie two springs from Temptress to the post and once they’d worked out an arrangement that wouldn’t unwind as the boats moved around the buoy, considered they’d won. The other boat then came along the other side of the buoy and handed us bow & stern lines before tying their own springs to the buoy. By 20:30 we were able to settle down to our own supper, veggie chilli accompanied by beers whilst swapping tales of daring do and humour on the high seas with Chris and Roy as sailors do when they are getting to know each other. Roy had been crewing for Chris since November and was shortly flying home to London.
Transit Day 2
The next morning both crews were up and about soon after seven as we’d been told to expect our next pair of advisors to board then. Eventually around nine the pilot boat approached with an advisor for the motor sailor but no one for us. An hour and a half after their departure we were getting anxious that perhaps we had been forgotten and were doomed to spend the rest of our lives stuck in Gatun Lake. Erica went for another swim. Kevin tried to call up Cristobal Control on the VHF but reception over the hills was not too good, they could barely hear us and their responses were too broken to make sense. He phoned our agent Erick and was informed there had been a problem but that an advisor was on his way to us. Edward arrived a little later very apologetic as the canal authorities had forgotten to call him at 5am as they’d prearranged to inform him he was indeed required this morning. When he awoke at nine he called them and found himself making a mad dash from Panama City via the pilot reporting station out to us.
Temptress motored at top speed (7.5 knots or about 9 mph) to the #62 buoy which marks the halfway stage between Gatun and the Pedro Miguel lock. The hope was we might be able to bring forward our scheduled lock down of 16:45 so that the entire operation would occur in daylight. Sadly this turned out not to be possible so after haring through the lake and the initial part of the cut we settled down to a sedate 4.5 knots for the rest of the afternoon and even then had plenty of time to spare.
Young Edward proved to be more than an Advisor; he is half Russian, half Panamanian, born in Finland and educated in a Russian Maritime Academy. Currently he is a tugboat captain for the canal but has ambitions to become a canal pilot. He works as an advisor both for experience towards his goal and to earn money to enable him to travel plus he loves meeting people from overseas. This year’s travel plans include Russia and Coldplay’s concert in Glasgow! He questioned us closely on train travel in the UK as he also would like to see Manchester and revisit Liverpool where he had previously called when working as a deck officer on a cruise liner. temptress’crew offered a few more nautical or canal related places and things he should try to see during his few weeks off.
His knowledge of the canal and its environs was encyclopaedic and as he speaks excellent English he made a brilliant and enthusiastic tour guide! He was happy to share the history of the canal, tell us about the different types of tugboat (we had at least realised there were three types but not their different roles or ages) and introduce the wildlife and places along the banks. He pointed out the Smithsonian Tropical centre, Norriega’s jail and a huge 1930’s floating crane “Titan” that the Americans captured from Germany during WWII and brought to the canal before eventually selling it to Panama for one dollar, it is still working today.
The afternoon passed slowly with a bit of croc watching – Erica was glad not to have encountered this several metres long, yellow mouthed specimen on her morning swim! We also had to hang around whilst a bottom blast took place as works to widen the canal continue. It was a bit exciting, lots of horns suddenly alerted us to the danger, quickly Edward ordered full reverse and Temptress scooted back along the canal to the shelter of a dredger. The horns counted down to a disappointing small plume of water 20-30 feet high and little or no noise but that was once less obstinate lump of rock on the bottom of the canal. The dredging involves a lot of drilling and blasting as the canal passes through mostly hard basalt rock.
Then we tied up to a tugboat mooring to wait our locking partner, “Appollon”, a head down cargo ship that was proceeding very slowly because she was poorly laden for the transit – the authorities prefer stern down. A small tug came over to inquire why we had tied to the buoy “Mechanical?” Edward stood up and waved “Hola”. “Ah Si Capitan!” We were welcome to stay on the buoy, Edward had been recognised as one of the local tug boat captains working with the dredging operations in this part of the canal to widen it in preparation for the larger ships using the new locks which should become operational later this year.
Eventually we moved to alongside the wall on the starboard side of the lock approach whilst a COSCO container ship manoeuvred into the other lock. There we waited whilst our partner Appollon made her approach and the tugs struggled to get her lined up to enter. Then the gates opened and in we went to the very front. This is why you need four line handlers plus the helm and the advisor. As we entered the locks the shoreside handlers threw their monkey fists, Chris, Erica, Roy and I caught the throwing lines and securely attached them to the large bowline loops we’d tied in the big blue lines we’d hired. Then we each held our end of the line head high to avoid any snags as Temptress moved forward. As we approached the bollards three back from the gate we paid the lines out from on board Temptress and the shore handlers heaved in the loops and placed them on the #1 and #3 bollards on either side. Kevin was instructed by Edward to keep the bow pointing at the centre of the gates with bursts of engine. Chris and I as stern line handlers were crucial to ensuring that Temptress didn’t ram the gates ahead, Roy and Erica kept the bow central.
Our advisor had briefed us well and we were secure and in position but it took a while to get the big ship in behind us. Edward had his radio on the channel used by the pilot on the ship so we could hear his instructions to the lock master and the mule (train) operators. The mules are the line handlers for the ships, four on each side to keep the vessel central. This vessel may have been shorter than the lock length but her beam was Panamax, ie two feet narrower on either side than the lock chamber itself – not much when you consider the width of the lock is 110ft!
It was after 5pm when we entered the lock. The long slow process of getting our cumbersome partner into each lock chamber meant that it was gone 9 pm when Temptress finally wet her keel in the Pacific Ocean as we cleared the lower of the two Miraflores lock chambers.
A quick motor to Balboa YC to drop off the fenders and lines together with Chris and Roy then down towards La Playita on the causeway to drop off Edward off the pilot station so he could sign off his shift after a long and enjoyable day. Finally Erica, Kevin & myself motored Temptress in the dark toward where we believed La Playita Anchorage to be. Our navigation laptop had failed during the day and our backup systems had no text on the charts to indicate exactly where the anchorage was so we made an educated guess from the little chart in the pilot book. There were lots of yacht anchor lights so we assumed it was the right spot. We dropped the hook well outside the fleet, quickly prepared a light supper, grabbed a beer and then tumbled into bed, the three of us were exhausted.
Fittingly it was also the last page in Temptress’ logbook; we’ve come a long way and had many an adventure since the first entry of departing Southsea in 2012 for St Vaast and the start of the Tour des Ports regatta that year coincidentally also with Erica on board! Thirty eight miles in more than twelve hours and a whole new ocean lay at our doorstep, that adventure would start tomorrow with a trip into Panama City itself.
You can read more about the amazing Panama Canal Panama Canal here.