|The lock gates close on the Caribbean|
Transiting the canal is a highlight for most yachts and
we’ve been fortunate enough to do it twice, in two different boats. Both times
were mostly drama-free (we’ll get to the minor moments of excitement) and for
far less effort than going around Cape Horn—after two days in the Canal we’re
again back in the Pacific.
Unlike traveling by cruise ship or tourist boat, on a yacht
it’s all hands on deck. Transiting can be a fairly busy experience. To transit
we’re required to have a skipper (me), four line handlers (Evan and Maia + two
volunteers, Russ and Diane) and our advisor.
The first time we transited advisors were still pilots—the same
guys who take the big ships through. But with pilot wages reaching up to 1k per
day, yachts were costing the canal money. So ten years ago a new system was put
in place and canal employees who were interested could apply to train as
advisors. 400 people applied for the gig and 60 were selected and trained. Both
of our advisors do the transits on their days off and both call it the best job
in the world. Their expertise and enthusiasm made our transit a joy. They
really understand that yachtees are not just moving a boat—but transporting
their hopes and dreams.
|Russ and Diane adjust the lines as the lock fills|
For boats that travel under eight knots a Canal transit
takes two days. You transit the first three locks up to the lake, anchor in the
lake over night and then transit the next three locks back down to sea level.
On the first day of our transit we were told our advisor would
join us at 2:30pm for a 4:10pm lock time at the first of the three Gatun locks.
So we arranged to pick up Diane and Russ—who were joining us for their 10th
yacht trip through the Canal. We were super fortunate to get Diane and Russ (who run the Mad About Panama
website), not only only are they self-confessed Canal geeks, but they were great company.
Our advisor Moises joined us once we moved to the Flats anchorage. He arrived tight on time--a shock to everyone (Canal transits are all about hurry up and wait). He asked us if we’d
transited the canal before and we told him it would be our second time. “That’s
great!” He told us, “This is my third time.”
|near the top of the lock after rising 30 feet--you can see the current in the water|
In truth—he stopped counting at 500 transits. So between him and Diane and Russ we were in
good hands. Because this is low season, not many yachts are transiting and we
went centre chamber behind a small freighter (yachts are often rafted together
and side tied or put centre chamber as a group).
To get secured in the centre of a lock I first drove us to
one side of the lock—where men threw down two messenger lines which were
attached to our heavy mooring lines. Then I drove to the other side of the lock
and got the other two messenger lines. After we had the messenger lines I drove
into position at walking speed—because the guys who threw us the lines also
walk our lines into position.
|Maia watches her line and adjusts it to keep us straight|
Once we were in place the men at the top of the lock walls
pulled up our heavy lines and secured them in place. As water floods into the
chamber (we were lifted about 30 feet in each lock) the line handlers pulled in
In many ways while going in the centre chamber alone is more work it’s
the safest for a yacht. Especially when you’re going up. There are a lot of
currents in the locks and boats get pushed around. Having a line handler on
each corner helps to keep the boat straight and centered.
Even still—the mixing of the salt and fresh water in the
first lock combined with the prop wash from the boat ahead of us meant that
when our lines were released and we first got underway we skewed sideways and
were headed directly at the lock wall. We had rented eight tire fenders for our
transit—so were fairly well cushioned, but the bigger risk of getting turned
around in the lock is needing assistance to get out and slowing down the
locking process—something yachts can be charged for. Luckily we missed hitting the wall and I straightened us out.
The next two locks were drama-free. Russ and Diane were
expert line handlers and we felt really fortunate to have them aboard. They’ve
seen all the things that could go wrong and offered tips as we went.
After exiting into the lake we anchored for the night.
Moises went home and we shared a nice dinner with Russ and Diane. The next day
dawned with a bunch of work boat wakes as the Canal sprang back to life. Roy,
our new adviser for the day, arrived. The day also dawned with heavy cloud and
by the time we were underway at 9am, the rains had started.
|I haven't worn these foulies since Vancouver|
By 9:30am, it was clear the rains were unusual. Roy was advising me on
how to make my way through the lake. We were traveling from buoy to buoy—which
are fairly closely spaced, but the rain was so heavy we often couldn’t see the buoys.
We also couldn’t see the ships, and they couldn’t see us.
|Q&A session with tourists|
In low visibility conditions (fog) all shipping in the Canal stops
and when one big freighter was caught broadside by a squall and skewed sideways
across the channel (requiring a tug to straighten him—and driving us well out
of the channel to avoid him) the command went out to stop all the big boats.
It was strange to drive though the lake alone. Occasionally
we’d catch sight of an anchored freighter—but for the most part the rain was so
heavy we only caught the odd glimpse of shoreline.
|Our advisor assured us he wouldn't crush us, but if he did, we'd be compensated|
let us know we’d likely be three or four hours behind schedule once shipping
started again. The rain had been so heavy—they needed to spill excess water from the lake to
lower it. In the end, when we reached the lock at Pedro Miguel, we were able to
enter the lock almost immediately and were side-tied to a tourist boat. We
waited about a half hour (and were subject to an extensive Q&A with the
tourist boat passengers) and then a big Ro-Ro (car carrier) showed up behind
us. Meanwhile the lock started to buzz with excitement when a bunch of US
military boats arrived and a submarine pulled into the chamber beside us.
|an unexpected lock mate|
Down locking was almost anti-climatic—but when those big
Canal doors opened on the Pacific I had to wipe away a few salty raindrops.