Through the Canal – Part Deux

After our last trip through the Panama Canal on Kya, our other crew mates Rob and Becky from the sailboat Manatee asked us if we would help crew on their boat to go through the canal as well. They didn’t have any crew yet and were hesitant to hire some local people that they didn’t know. We were happy to help.

When we arrived in the Las Brisas anchorage in Panama City we immediately spotted another boat we knew – Wahkuna! We hadn’t seen Robert and Dephine (and their dog Guero) since Nicaragua back in April. We thought for sure that they were already through the canal and on their way back to Ireland. Well, like most boats, plans change. They were still planning to go through the canal and then decided to ship their boat to Ireland from the USVI next spring.

We knew Rob and Becky needed two more crew, so we introduced them to Robert and Delphine on Wahkuna. Everyone hit it off immediately and Wahkuna agreed to help crew on Manatee through the canal.

We all spent the night on Manatee the night before we were to go through the canal. We were supposed to meet the pilot boat to get our advisor at 5:30 a.m., so we were all up at 4:30 to pull up anchor and arrive at the designated spot. Leaving the Las Brisas anchorage in the dark was our first interesting task. There are so many sailboats, fishing boats, dredges, tug boats, mooring balls, and other hazards in the anchorage and many are not lit. At one point I was at the helm with two people on the bow as lookouts yelling at me to maneuver to port or starboard to avoid an unlit boat.

After arriving at the meeting spot, we contacted Flamenco station and dropped anchor. Although we were supposed to start at 5:30, we were told it would be 7:30, then 9:45. I think it was actually almost 11:00 by the time the advisor finally arrived. As the time got pushed back further, we realized pretty quickly that we were not going to go through the canal in one day. This was going to be a two day affair.

We didn’t see any other yachts waiting to transit, so we kept speculating on how we were actually going to go through – center chamber? rafted? side tied? Then word came down that we were going to tie up to a tug boat who would be tied along side the wall of the lock. We weren’t going to have to man any of the lines while inside the lock. We would just have to tie and untie to the tug through each lock.

Rob had the hardest job of all at the helm. We had a large ship that would go in first through the “up” locks, then we would let the tug boat tie to the wall and finally we would come along side the tug and tie up. The most difficult part was going from lock to lock as there was substantial prop wash from both the ship and the tug. The locks are narrow and you have to go slow. If you’ve ever helmed a sailboat with no bow thruster, you know that you do not have much steerage without speed, and the prop wash, current and wind will blow you all over the place. Rob did a fantastic job though, and I just kept telling myself how happy I was NOT to be the one at the helm.

We got though the three up locks and into Lake Gatun. By this time it was already mid-afternoon and the skies were starting to look ominous. We had 29 miles to go to get across the lake to where we would moor for the night. On a good day, that is a five hour motor for a sailboat. Then the rain came. And the lightening. Having been up since 4:30, several of us went down below to get some rest. We didn’t get much rest though when we heard the thunder literally shake the boat. There was almost no visibility through the rain and there were several bolts of lightening that hit the water just a couple hundred yards away. It was pretty frightening.

Finally we arrived where the moorings were at the other end of the lake. It was pitch black and raining. Finding those moorings with a spotlight was pretty difficult. At one point Mike & I were on the bow with the light searching for them. I still couldn’t see them until a bolt of lightening lit up the sky and we both screamed, “we see them!” We tied up to the mooring and all crashed for the night.

Our advisor told us that we would get our new advisor at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to go through the three DOWN locks. It didn’t make much sense to any of us, including the advisor, as these locks usually go northbound in the afternoon. Well, someone somewhere obviously made a mistake. It was 1:30 in the afternoon before our advisor arrived the next day.

There was no tug this time, but we ended up rafting up to a 50 ft sportfishing boat, and had essentially the same procedure as the day before. Luckily, the DOWN locks were uneventful and we finally made it out again into the Atlantic!

Manatee tied up to the fuel dock at Shelter Bay Marina. We all said our goodbyes as we piled into the car to take us back across to the Pacific. We had another fascinating experience crossing the canal. But, we are going to miss Rob and Becky. We’ve had some great times with them here in Panama. I just hope our paths cross again someday. Sigh.


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