Panama Canal transit


The night was awful. It started out just fine; we had the cold beers the cheese and crackers, listened music and had a nice chat. I was able to give everyone a berth (or a half) but unfortunately two of these were outdoor ones. Not the best at the beginning of the rainy season. I was praying for a dry night. The two boys were sleeping outside, Elsa in the bunk berth, and the two of us in the ‘bow-cabin’.  Just after we fell asleep unusually strong wind arrived, flapping my cheap and noisy plastic sheet that was used to make a boom tent. The guys tried to readjust the system but I knew it was hopeless so I let them at it, and tried to sleep instead, I had a very long day before me. When they finished with the commotion and finally laid down to sleep the rain started. Of course the boom tent was leaking everywhere so they came in the cabin and sat wherever they could. Now, that would have been a picture, the five of us sitting around the cabin which is obviously too small for even one… We hardly slept all night obviously and when the alarm clocks signalled the wake up time at 4:30 in the morning it was inevitable that we over slept and only woke up to the bright light of the ferry boat bringing our pilot onboard. I tried to pull up my trousers and greet the man at the same time, but I was still half asleep it was dark and I hardly knew where I was. But we had no time to think too long, Freddy, possibly the biggest man of all pilots was ready to go, instructed us to start the engine and pull up the anchor. We followed again Lindsey’s boat, after I managed to break out the anchor, and soon were catching up with them. The two boat had to go into the first lock together, tied up alongside, and the bigger boat would control the lines and the engine while we only helping out if necessary. To come alongside S/Y Avolera I had to slow down so I pulled back the throttle and heard the stomach wrenching sound of the engine alarm. It was the water temperature sensor, overheating… I guessed it was just because the rev fell back and there was not enough water going through the system so I waited a minute or so and noise was gone. The engine cooled down now enough to continue and by now we were made fast alongside Avolera and practically on tow.

It was soon time to go into the first chamber of the three of Gatun Locks. The three Chilean and one American strong crew of the other boat was handling our situation well, Lindsey had his hand on the wheel and on the throttle, I only had to help with my engine to slow down and stop and my guys just had to occasionally help out the other boat’s line handlers  and taking photos of course. The shore crew threw the four monkey fists with the messenger lines, we grabbed them, tied our lines to them, and then the lines were pulled over to the shore crew, fixed on the bollards to let the boat crew tighten them. As we were going up, the lines had to be kept taut all the time and synchronously to hold the two boats at the same position in the middle of the chamber. It all went well and soon we were in the second chamber, when I heard the dreaded engine alarm again. My engine stopped and this time I had really no idea what caused it. At first I thought the worst, that the overheating cooked the engine and it will never start again ever, new engine plus the cost of towing us out of here, it is the end of the road. Well, we will see I decided, in the big chaos nobody noticed that the engine failed again, everyone was busy with their own job, we were still alongside so let’s keep going. When I was told to reverse my engine to help stopping the two boats, I pretended the engine was still running and moved the lever backwards. I put up the poker face and waited for what has to come. When we were out of the third chamber and it was time to part from Avolera I tried the engine and it started. It didn’t run too long though, just as we were saying good bye to each other it stopped again. That is impossible I thought, I opened up the engine room and again manually pumped up the system with fuel and tried again. It started again. We were out of danger at least now as we had steerage way, but the question was in the air. Will it work all the way through the 28 Nml to the next lock and further on out of the canal? Avolera offered us a tow all the way, but the pilots didn’t let us do it because of various (made up?) reasons. I set the cruising speed on 4.2 knots left the engine room open to let the air circulate better to help cooling the engine and again followed the slowly disappearing Avolera.  Our pilot was looking for affirmation that we are indeed able to continue and finish the transit and looked slightly unconvinced by the yes answer.

When things settled down, and the engine was running for 30 minutes or so, Regina presented us with a beautiful breakfast. Fruits and muesli, omelette, coffee and tea everything you need to forget the night and the morning hardship and get ready for the challenges of the day that was just before us. After breakfast most of the crew just gave in to the tiredness and fell asleep, including our pilot. It was just the long boring motoring, the jungle around us and the ships passing by every direction and very near to us. We made it through Lake Gatun, then the Chagre River. The space ship looking tug boats were speeding up and down leaving huge wakes behind them which we had to turn into if we didn’t want to get them from the beam and being in danger of thrown overboard by the rocking of the boat.

By lunch time everyone was sufficiently rested and Regina has finished the cleaning up after the breakfast. We made quite a good progress, but it was obvious we were not able to make the next set of locks to the planned time of 12:30. It was too tight of a schedule anyway, so it wasn’t a huge problem, and we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. With mutual consent our chief chef Regina set out to prepare our midday meal. With the rest of the crew we were sitting outside in the cockpit and on the deck looking at the big thick, black cloud that we were running into. Underneath the cloud the rain was clearly visible, not only on the water because of the bubbles but like a wall in the air, sharp and clear. It was coming and it was a heavy rain. Elsa, Laurent and me at the helm shoved Freddy down below to the galley to keep him dry and happy and we stood in the heavy tropical rain stunned but cheerful. It lasted 10-15 minutes, and we didn’t know to laugh or cry. Guillaume was stuck at front cabin where he climbed in and couldn’t move anywhere, Regina and Freddy was in the galley and filled out the available small place, and the three of us soaked to the bone standing in the rain nowhere to hide.

The warm breeze dried us quick after the rain, and the nice lunch helped to forget it. The Canal narrowed down by now and soon we arrived to the hill that caused so much trouble to cut through and demanded so many lives during the building process. The bridge we had to pass under signalled the end of our long motoring session and soon we saw the first of the descending locks where we had to wait nearly an hour to be accepted. Cabo Misaki, the ship we were going to share the lock soon was in sight and we moved in the lock, this time with no other yacht and crew to do the job for us. My line handlers handled their lines and their job like professionals and we were soon secured in the middle of the chamber by the four lines. This time, as the water was going down, it was crucial to feed out them precisely and without hiccup, I didn’t want to see Comino hanging up on the chamber wall like an oversized decoration.

Two more locks were handled in a similarly professional manner and the cheer and claps went up in the air from us. We are on the Pacific Ocean! We rounded the pillars of the Americas Bridge just before dark and dropped off Freddy to the waiting ferry boat. We were at the famous Balboa yacht club mooring field, and we tried to come alongside their pontoon so my crew can get ashore, but it wasn’t allowed. Eventually, a small water taxi took them, for a dollar each. We said good bye, I thanked them for their help and patience to endure the conditions then steered away and headed to the anchorage around the corner about a 6-7 miles distance.