Though the Canal
August 11, 2017
Our friends Mike & Katie on Kya were leaving Vista Mar before us and headed into the city to get ready to transit the Panama Canal from Pacific to Atlantic. Before their departure, they asked us and Rob and Becky on Manatee if we would be interested in being line handlers for them through the canal. We jumped at the chance.
The day before Kya was scheduled to go through the canal, Rob, Becky, Mike & I got a ride over to La Playita Marina to spend the night on Kya. Kya is a 68 foot Nordhavn motor yacht. She is beautiful, and a completely different experience from our modest 41 ft sailboat! It was a fun change of pace to hang out on a boat with all of the amenities of home, such as air conditioning, couches, a dining room table, a full size refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave and washer/dryer! We came bearing bags of food and drinks and immediately made ourselves at home in the galley.
Upon arrival we were introduced to Mike & Katie’s friend Andrew who had arrived from Australia to also help go through the canal. We all went out to lunch and started discussing what was going to happen the next day as we prepared to go through the canal. We had all planned on making it an early night knowing we had to get up in the morning, but we collectively blew that plan after a few cocktails and glasses of wine. Good friends make good company and not always the best decisions…
So, when the alarm went off at 4 am the next day, we all rushed for coffee. Despite the impromptu party the day before, the excitement of the canal crossing got us up and running around like busy bees. Kya was off the dock by 5 am with lines being placed in the right spots and the tire-fenders being strung on the sides of the boat. We motored in place outside the canal entrance as the sun began to rise over the high rise skyline of Panama City. We met the pilot boat to pick up the canal pilot who was required to be on board for the transit.
We finally got the go ahead to start making our way under the Bridge of Americas toward the first lock. We had been told that we were going to go “center chamber” which means that we would not be rafted to other boats and would have four lines (two bow, two stern) holding us in place in the lock. Suddenly word came down that we would be rafted to a catamaran and sportfisher that were already rafted together, and we quickly started pulling out more fenders and dock lines scrambling around the boat. No one was happy about being rafted up. Apparently the pilot argued with the canal authorities and got them to agree to let us not raft up and just to tie up to the port side. (Apparently, the canal did not have enough line handlers to let us center chamber on the first two locks.)
So, plans changed again and we prepared to tie up to the port side. Mike (captain) didn’t want to tie directly to the concrete wall (understandably), and did his best to use his bow and stern thrusters to keep us off the wall as the water in the locks came rushing in. What a job he did, because Kya came through those first two locks without a scratch. By the time we got to the third lock, apparently there were now enough canal workers to let us center chamber our way through the rest of the canal.
Basically, what happens in each lock is that a canal worker throws a thin line down to each of the four line handlers on the boat. Each line handler ties the thin line onto a much thicker dockline on the boat. The canal worker then pulls the thin line up in order to hook the thick dockline around a cleat at the top of the lock. As the water starts to fill in the lock (or come out of the lock, on the way down), each line handler on the boat either has to let out or take in the dockline to keep the boat steady in the lock. You need gloves, a decent grip, and to know how to lock a line around a cleat. Luckily, all of us line handlers on Kya had plenty of experience handling lines on boats that we made it look easy! Not all boats are so lucky, as we watched the catamaran/sportfisher raft-up lose a line coming into one of the locks, get turned sideways and end up along the concrete wall. We hope they didn’t have any damage!
After making it through the first three UP locks, we arrived at Lake Gatun. It was time for us line handlers, who had been out in the sun for a few hours, to have some lunch and rest up in the air conditioning. I think the five of us all passed out for at least an hour of the two hour transit through the lake.
Once we were all rested, it was time to get back to work. Mike (captain) had been making some great time through the lake to get us to the final three DOWN locks. This is where some sailboats run into trouble. If you can’t get through the lake fast enough to the second set of locks, you will be required to spend the night in the lake and wait until the next morning. Kya had some speed through that lake, and we made it in time to do the whole transit in one day.
After making it through the last three locks, the final doors opened and we sped off into the Atlantic. What an experience to cross between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in the same day! Kya made her way to her slip in Shelter Bay Marina just as the sun was setting, and Mike (Adagio) got to work in the galley making his special sausage bolognese sauce. After a long day of hard work, we all enjoyed a big pasta dinner and crashed for the night.
Everyone slept in the next morning and Katie made us a wonderful lunch as we prepared to say goodbye to Mike, Katie and Andrew. We hired a car to drive the four of us the three hour trip back to Vista Mar. By the time we made it back to Adagio, we were pooped! But, we chatted about how much fun the experience had been with Manatee. They were still working on getting a date themselves to go through the canal. We must have been decent line handlers, because Rob and Becky asked us if we would help take Manatee through the canal as well. How could we say no? They still don’t have a date yet, but we’re hoping it will work out for us to go through on Manatee.