Panama canal transit
The next morning we were off again. It would have been nice to have a look around the old town but sadly, as is often the nature of the rally; we had to move on to keep to schedule. We needed to reach Shelter bay in reasonable time because Bill was booked to be a line handler for one of the other boats that afternoon.
There wasn’t any wind so we motored the 20 miles to the entrance to the harbour. As we approached, the ships started appearing on the skyline, waiting for their turn to go through the canal. I counted 27.
Shelter bay marina was great. It had showers, a launderette, nice restaurant and bar and best of all a swimming pool and spa pool. We had a proper pontoon berth with wifi for the first time since Lanzarote. Bill went off to be a line-handler that afternoon but didn’t have a very good time.
The boat they put him on had only just joined the rally so we didn’t know them plus it had engine problems. It ended up breaking down in front of a panamax ship and had to be quickly towed out of the way by a pilot boat. Luckily Bill managed to fix it for them.
We spent 3 days at Shelter bay. I did lots of washing and shopping and, once he returned, Bill had lots of jobs to do on the boat. There was a free bus to a safe supermarket in Colon, a crime black spot in the world.
On Wednesday 10th February we left Shelter bay for the canal. The canal rules state you need 4 line-handlers plus the skipper plus a transit advisor, you also need 4 x 125ft warps (seen in the photo laid out on the deck). We had Margi from Peregrina and Susan from Enchantress plus Fionn from BWR to line handle for us.
In 1903, following Panama’s declaration of independence from Columbia, Panama and the US signed a treaty by which the US undertook the construction of the canal across the Isthmus. It took 10 years, the labour of 75,000 men and women, and almost US$400 million to complete the task. Many died from malaria and yellow fever before it was brought under control. The canal opened for traffic 15th August 1914. Since then there have been more than 850,000 transits through the waterway and now it was our turn.
We assembled on the flats with Natibou, a catamaran, and Chsalonina as we were all to be rafted together. There was also Blue Magic, Gaultine III and Miss Tippy who were to form a 2nd raft. Our transit advisor arrived and we motored the 6 miles towards the first locks, it was so exciting. As we approached Gatun locks we joined together with Natibou and Chsalonina. We all had our engines on but Hans on Natibou was the controlling boat. As none of us had bow thrusters Bill and Jeremy were given instructions by the transit advisors as to when to speed up or slow down to keep all 3 boats level.
As we continued into the lock there were 2 line handlers standing up on the wall each side for each raft. They throw monkey fists down to you, which are extremely hard (we had covered the solar panel with a blanket), we then had to tie one of our warps to it and they haul it back up. As we motored into the lock they walked alongside us on the wall. Fortunately we were in the lock with just the other raft and no other ships. The lock gates closed and the lock started filling. Fionn and Margi hauled in on the forward line and Susan and I winched the aft line.
Steadily we made our way to the top, the gates opened we motored into the next lock and repeated the process. There are 3 locks in all raising the boats a total of 84 feet. Each chamber is 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long. Once through we were led to two huge buoys in the lake and told to raft up to them overnight. Our pilot was taken off and we were left alone. It was possible to walk across these buoys to the other boats …. PARTY!!!
The next morning we awoke to find we were in a huge lake, that we hadn’t been able to see in the dark the night before. Some people had sore heads but we were all up ready for a new set of transit advisors to board us at 6am and off we went. Unfortunately the transit advisor for Gaultine III didn’t turn up and they were left behind. We asked our advisor if we could wait but he wouldn’t hear of it, the canal runs a tight schedule and they would have to lock in later. Gatun lake is man-made and extends across the isthmus; it covers an area of 117 square nautical miles. It was formed by erecting the Gatun dam across the Charges river.
We had to motor 20 miles across the lake to enter Gaillard cut where the Chagres river flows into the channel. Gaillard cut is 7.4 nautical miles long and is where the bulk of the canal excavation took place. It still undergoes a constant programme of widening to accommodate increasingly larger ships. We passed Gold hill in the cut where, during the excavations, it was rumoured to contain gold deep down in order to make the workers dig harder. On the Pacific side the three locks are separated.
As we approached the first one, Pedro Miguel lock, we joined together in our raft again. We had heard on the radio that Gaultine III was catching us up but we weren’t allowed to wait for them. Miss Tippy and Blue Magic rafted together and we entered the lock. We were lowered 30feet to the Miraflores lake, a small artificial body of water that separates the two sets of locks. We motored across together in our rafts to the Miraflores locks. We waited 40 minutes in the lock for Gaultine III to catch up which enabled us to wave at the webcams but I don’t know whether any one saw us. There wasn’t time for Gaultine to join their raft so they had to tie alongside a small pleasure vessel that joined us in the locks. We were lowered to sea level in the last two locks.
It was an emotional moment as the lock gates opened and we got our first view of the Pacific. It was 13.06 and the next part of our adventure was beginning. As we motored under the bridge of the Americas the champagne corks were flying.