Crossing the Panama Canal

20110403

There’s a really curious side of sailing that may not be immediately obvious to people outside the cruising community. In our little sailing world, word of mouth is everything – where to anchor, where to eat, which marina is good, how much is diesel in the next port, did you hear about that Japanese boat that exited the Panama canal backwards, don’t miss the so and so – the list goes on. The interesting thing that I have noticed is that in face to face conversations the commentary tends to lean to the positive – we tend to recommend things to each other, often boasting about the great deal we got or the fantastic experience we had, whereas online, on forums, discussion boards and mailing lists there is a serious tendency to have a good old fashion whine about stuff… this city is dirty, that marina is overpriced and rude, don’t go here, be careful of this, watch your back – stay at home or doom and gloom shall befall you!!

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We had a 12 day wait and took the opportunity to antifoul Squander at Shelter bay marina.

In preparing for the Panama canal crossing, I had done my fair share of online research and truth be told I started believing that it would take a small miracle for us to get through to the Pacific in one piece, let alone with any money left in our pockets – tales of overpriced agents, bonds, deposits, damaged boats, delays, incompetent line handlers, advisors and skippers alike were just some of the stories that I came across. To be fair I am sure that all stories were true, however I’m fairly convinced that they represent only a tiny percentage of what really happens.

Here’s our story…

Pre arrival to colon

I emailed three agents and got quotes ranging from the ridiculous ($3375) to the surely too to good to be true ($1109). Having had friends that went through before us and arranged everything themselves for a total cost of $820  + taxi fees & a solid day of running around – I decided to give the too good to be true guy a go… and it all worked out!

We were pre –registered with Canal authorities before we even arrived in Colon, and I stayed in touch with our agent via email such that we were admeasured 12 hours after arriving in Shelter bay marina. Once the measurement is done you can go into the queue to go through the canal. Our waiting time was estimated at 10 days and in fact ended up being 11 days.

We had a fairly long list of things to do from provisioning to anti fouling and the 11 days flew by a lot quicker then we had anticipated. We were on the hard at Shelter bay marina for 6 nights and in the water for the remainder of the time.

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A taxi to Colon is $20 but there’s always someone who’s willing to split the ride with you.
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Colon is a confronting city at first although we found everyone to be helpful and courteous.
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the buses in Panama are the best we have seen – real works of art – at night they come alive with all sorts of lights and decorations.
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Squander with brand new antifoul, a greased prop, rudder checked and 3 tonnes of food onboard!  IMG_7531

On the day we were ‘splashed’ back in the water, the young solo circumnavigator from Holland pulled in on her boat “Guppy”IMG_7533
Laura Dekker has just turned 15!!   

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Squander was soon back in the water and ready for action.
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Well almost ready – we still had to address the broken spreader.  IMG_7567

with some careful rope work to hold the mast up, we eased the shrouds, climbed to the first spreader and removed the damaged wing. IMG_7576 IMG_7577
before long the new spreader was in place and the rig was back in one piece.
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After 10 solid days of going at it, working, shopping, preparing and socialising with boats from around the world, we watched the final sunset on the Atlantic side… IMG_7588 IMG_7590

Ashley from Backbeat was mistaken for being Laura Dekker and we didn’t have the heart to tell these guys that they had the wrong girl. IMG_7595
On Saturday morning Erick, our agent delivered 14 tires  and the necessary 4 125 foot long lines to our boat.
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A well timed torrential downpour took care of washing Squander down and before long we were on our way for the 16:00 rendevouz at an area called “the flats” near the entrance to the Canal – we checked in with Crystobal Signal station via VHF at 14:00 from the marina and they advised us that our advisor would be ready to board at 16:30.  IMG_7602
Goodbye Shelter bay – a welcome change to the sweltering heat of the past few days.

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the flats some 2.8 miles away.
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Fenders, lines and line handlers in place – Rebecca and Mojgan arrived just in time to give us a hand.
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they instantly took a liking to our Virtual crew member – Michael Spiro who has sent a lifelike action hero doll version of himself for the trip to Australia.
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Andy, Gavin (with VM) and Simon  IMG_7620

Our Chamber-mates – a Russian boat on the left and Magnum from California on the right. IMG_7621
By 16:55 the advisors were on their way and without fuss Sylvestre our advisor jumped onboard and gave us a 2 minute briefing before suggesting we get underway!
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We soon spotted the last boat to join our posse! IMG_7639
We let him go ahead and followed at a safe distance.
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Sylvestre was easy going, spoke perfect english and was happy to share as much or as little as our level of interest demanded.

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As we neared the Gatun locks, Magnum and the Russian yacht caught up and we all rafted up with Squander in the middle.  
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The months of sailing with Dimitry paid off as Simon communicated flawlessly with his Russian counterpart – harasho – I loove your socks Man!

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A few last minute adjustments….
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… and we were one happy raftup!

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Kara on Magnum contemplates what lies beyond – after circumnavigating the world with her Mum and Dad for the past 5 years – Anne, Uwe and Kara are heading back to San Francisco and Kara will have to go to school – ouch!    IMG_1934
Andy & Simon – always time for a quick snack!
IMG_1943 The arrow goes green – clear to proceed.
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the lock chambers don’t look that big from a distance.
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steering the raft, took a while to get the hang of turning, and slowing down this 40+ tonne beast.

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The shore based line handlers soon had our lines and we were moving into the locks. Interestingly all vessels move through the locks under their own power, including the big ships, the only reason for the lines is to stop the ships and rafts banging into the walls.  

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The Chamber is 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long – the biggest ships (known as PanaMax) leave only 2 feet (60cms) of clearance on the sides.
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before long we were in position – one last look at the Caribbean sea…!
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and the locks closed behind us
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the locks start filling…. IMG_7699
… and 15 minutes later we are 10 Metres above sea level
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One of the few tense moments is when the ship starts moving forward and creates a river effect pushing a lot of water which causes all of the lines to creak as they take the strain of the weight of the three yachts.
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Once the ship is in place in the next chamber, we are clear to proceed behind him.

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Squander was the main engine however I had the option of asking for assistance through the advisor for extra power on either port or starboard if I or the advisor felt we needed it.

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And again the second lot of chamber gates close behind us…

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…. as Andy looks on.

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The water starts filling and we are now 41 feet above sea level  IMG_7713
There are 2 lanes in each lock – next to us a big ship is also going through
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being the centre boat, our line handlers had a day off – and got to relax and enjoy the experience.
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STI Conqueror turns its screws….here comes the wave!
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….team Helly Hansen!
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Pretty amazing to think this has been operational since 1913  with no more then an occasional 12 hour break.    IMG_2009
As we make it through the final lock in one piece, we’re all tired but happy to have made it in one piece.   IMG_2029

We exited the final locks some 30 metres above sea level into the lakes 

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The next day we woke up at 6:30 and proceeded to motor through the Gatun Lakes and onto the Pedro Miguel & Miraflores locks some 35 miles away.  

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The traffic through the canal is 24 hours per day. IMG_7744
10 floors of cars….!
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no one lives on the shores of the lake and wildlife is abundant – birds, monkeys and plenty of crocodiles!
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On day 2 there were a total of 6 yachts crossing together with no big ship in our chamber – just a passenger sight seeing ferry..
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A true Panamax – 13 containers across the back and some 900+ feet long
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The American navy boys in  a BIG fast speed trimaran.

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the dredging division never stops, constantly ensuring the canal is deep enough. IMG_7825
By 11:00 am we had made it to the first lock and it was time to raft up again.
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Going down is a lot more relaxing. We were at the front of the chamber with the passenger ferry behind us and another raft of 2 yachts behind them
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the gates close as the big boys turn up
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….going down….
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Evita from the UK and another yacht from Hawaii
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…. and we’re through 1 – two to go.
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and through the last one….  IMG_7861
Quick team photo – 3 April 2011 – Simon, Mojgan, Rebecca, Andy & Gavin
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Welcome to the Pacific!!!!!

Big thanks to Ian from Evita for sending these through – they were screen shots of the live web cam

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We finally made it to the anchorage outside Panama City where we stayed for two days before moving on south towards the Galapagos…. we haven’t made it very far as there’s very little wind and el Nino is playing havoc with the trade winds… but we hope to resume the journey soon!


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