Sunday, March 19, 2017

Transiting The Panama Canal Is Stressless (When You’re Not On Your Own Boat!): Part 1



Anne and Chris transiting the Panama Canal!

One thing I was dying to do here in Panama was to transit the canal. It’s had a hold on me since reading of the incredibly deadly and laborious digging of the canal in David McCullough’s terrific book The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 years ago. The Atlantic side of the canal is at Colón, Panama, so when we left Bocas del Toro, we headed to Shelter Bay Marina, a welcoming spot at the mouth of the canal where a willing crew can pick up a transiting boat. We checked the board and the online schedule, but the way we got our transit was much easier – on the morning VHF net. Steve and Rose on Emerald Sea were looking for a couple of line handlers, and we piped up quick enough to get the spots. We went over to Emerald Sea the day before the transit to meet the captain and crew, and early the morning of the transit to get the rundown on gear and procedures (lines, plastic bag-wrapped tires for use as bumpers, what to do when the lines are thrown aboard, etc.). The transit takes a yacht two days, since they don’t run at night like the ships do. We picked up our advisor, Moses, while anchored at The Flats off of Colón, and headed into the Gatún locks in the late afternoon. Moses was a great guy – easy to get along with, and full of information on local and canal history, transit stats, and everything Panama. We had to wait while some other ships exited, including two cruise ships, the huge Holland America Line’s Amsterdam and the much more intimate National Geographic ship Sea Lion. Four line handlers are required on  a transiting boat—bow and stern, fore and aft—for holding the boat in position in the locks as the water rises or falls, tended ashore by canal line handlers. (Megayachts and ships have their lines attached to small locomotives that move them through the locks.) However, we lucked out and had it easy; we tied up to a tug that was also transiting, which required only two lines and no great skill in flinging or catching lines. The turbulence as the water filled the locks was impressive, but our big, solid tug wasn’t budging, allowing us to ooh and ahh and enjoy the experience instead of worrying if we were doing it right. There are three chambers to the Gatun locks, which raised us 26 meters to the level of Gatun Lake (created by damning the Chagres River). By this time it was dark, but Moses directed us to an anchorage by shore and said goodbye, leaving on a pilot boat. We had a late dinner and headed to bed. (to be continued…)
Moses, our canal advisor (left) and Captain Steve

Passing by the cruise ship that just exited the Gatun locks
Heading into the first chamber of the Gatun locks, Pacific-bound

The huge doors close on the Caribbean Sea...
The chamber now filled, you can see how high we are relative to the bay (Colon in the distance)

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