That's how the Panama Canal Crossing made me feel. It's designed for the biggest ships in the world. Cruising boats are barely even an afterthought. To give you an idea of how much of an afterthought... the Pilot we had on the first part of the canal was a security guard for the Canal Authority. He was a pilot for cruising boats to make a bit of extra cash. This first pilot was also wonderful and genuinely helpful, a true Pilot. The second... less so.
The entrance to the Panama Canal is a massive man made harbour with a "small" channel. Through this channel the humungous container ships charge through. Passing across this to make it to Shelter Bay Marina was our first test. Thankfully with AIS (like radar, but better!) the job was a little less stressful.
Once in Shelter Bay we started the process to transit the Canal. Everyone made us think that it was very involved and needed the assistance of an agent but Chloe really dindn't want to spend the extra money so we decided to give it a try on our own. I am so happy we did. The process is simple:
• Fill out a couple of forms.
• Call to arrange the admeasurerer.
• Give them some money at a specific bank in town.
• Call again to book a date.
• Call Tito to hire line handlers, tires and lines.
The admeasurer we had was helpful and everyone, from the bank staff, canal authority and pilots spoke perfect English. Since we had saved money by skipping an agent we decided to get two line handlers so that we had more time and hands to take care of the kiddos, film and keep everyone happy with food and drinks. I was also really happy to have people with canal transit experience on board.
The day of the transit started off a little daunting. We had to anchor in the harbour and wait for the Pilot to be dropped off. Not the most pleasant anchorage with the swell of the tankers and huge cargo ships bouncing the boat. We had also gotten to a late start as the fuelling process took much longer then anticipated and our line handlers were waiting for us already (3h before our scheduled transit).
Now lets talk about line handlers for a second. We paid to hire two line handlers even though we already had the required 5 person on board. That turned out to be a really good idea. Jesus and his brother came on board and instantly got to work installing the tires on the side and prepping the lines. They were both extreemly friendly, respectful and professional and knew exactly what they were doing. If you don't have kids on board line handlers aren't a necessity but we were very happy to have them.
Once everything was ready we waited for our pilots to arrive. We were going through the canal at the end of the season which ended up making it easy to be paired with Caramba as we were the only sailboats going through. The second the pilot got on board we made our way down the channel (with huge container ships passing either side of us) to the Canal entrance. The history of the canal is interesting and fairly tragic. We could see the start of the French attempt to create a canal on the way. There were a few attempts before success and those attempts ended up with almost all the workers dying. The tropical forest was a horrible place before mosquito repellent and modern medicine! I think even the successful contruction had a horrific death toll.
The first lock is obviously the most nerve racking one. Without any idea of what actually happens and only reading online stories of boats being pushed against the side or smashed into the locks by the wash of the tanker sharing the lock (all of which accured because of bad line handlers).
It's a strangely peaceful affair. To be honest we didn't even notice the water entering the lock to start with! The line handlers did a fantastic job keeping the lines perfectly taught (not to tight or loose) and the boat barely moved let alone get close to the walls. You can see the wash from the water flooding the locks in the video. And as for the tankers, it was behind us... so a more pressing problem in our case was getting out it's way!
Once that first lock is done, you can relax and start to enjoy the adventure a little more. The other locks operate in exactly the same way and for us, it was fairly uneventful in the best way.
Gatun lake is a curious place. It's quite a bit larger than I thought. We spent the first night tied up with Caramba to a massive mooring boy. The boy was easily 2-3 meters across and very robust metal. Poor Caramba was the one attached. Thankfully the lake was very calm and there wasn't any damage. Just some scuff marks. Chloe again made an awesome meal and the line handlers, our crew, my sister and us had a lovely meal together. I'm not particularly religious but Jesus (fittingly!) said the most moving Grace I've ever heard. It was in Spanish and I didn't understand a word, but his delivery was astounding. I wish I'd thought to record it.
After dinner the line handlers, Jesus and his brother, got to work... fishing for crabs. It seems the lake is teeming with crabs that swim up to the surface at night! Crabs that swim at night is probably some peoples nightmare! Along with crocodiles the lake doesn't sounds a very inviting place for a swim.
In the morning we waited for the second pilot (a grumpy bugger this one!) and separated from Caramba for the trip across the canal to the second set of locks leading into the Pacific Ocean.
Another thing we read online. If the pilot didn't find the food we served acceptable he'd "order in" at great expense... to us! We fretted about this a little bit, but again, it turned out not be a problem. Chloé made a tasty broccoli quiche and although the second Pilot didn't actually seem to like the filling, he did eat the rest and thankfully didn't order in. We've heard that people just get a "bucket" of KFC and so forth and serve that. I guess the standard of food that needs to be served isn't that high.
The second set of locks proceeded much as the first. We had to wait in once part of the canal for a "dangerous" tanker full of liquified gas but it was much the same. The last lock is known for a wave that can push boats around as the lock opens. The Pilot basically said to gun it as soon as the doors opened to make sure we weren't pushed back into the tanker. We did as requested but I didn't notice much. Perhaps if the tide is different it can be more noticeable and dangerous.
Speaking of tides. For some reason I have a mental block when it comes to tides. I just plain don't like them. They are only sort of predictable. Make untenable currents and are just downright inconvenient. Going from the Caribbean with tides that are inconsequential to 2-3 meter tides in the Pacific was quite the shock!
Many thanks to our line handlers, Flo and my sister Amy for their incredible help transiting the canal. It'd not been as fun without you!
Special thanks to my old work colleagues who captured the video of us transiting the canal from the webcams too.