Monday, June 6, 2011

Panama Canal Transit

Panama Canal Transit
01-06 Jun 2011

A canal transit takes a small boat like Galena two days. You start at the Colon side at about 1700-hrs. You get through the locks just after dark and then head over to the spacial mooring just inside Gatun Lake. The advisor gets off and goes home. The next morning the advisor shows up (usually a different one) at about 0600-hrs and you take off for the locks at Panama City, 38-nm away. You will get through those about 1400-hrs ane you're done.

I had asked Ben and Eric to be line handlers for me. That means I am abligated to be line handlers on their boats. They were, fortunately(?) scheduled to transit just after Galena: s/v Free Spirit on 3 June; s/v Sur L'Eau on 4 June. So all in all I would spend six days making 3 transits back-to-back.

The Flats is an area near the canal entrance. It used to be where everyone anchored while waiting for their transit time. Now everyone says it's too dangerous there. So we anchor in the small area in front of Club Nautico (yes, yet another 'club nautico') in Colon. Even that is not a safe place. I was walking down one of the main streets in Colon with Eric and Ben when a heavily armed man came hurrying out of a bank. He says to us, "What are you doing here? Get in a taxi immediately! Way to dangerous for you here." We ignored him and went to a café for breakfast. Everyone thought we were crazy.

We were downtown to get some charts copied and secure a zarpe for s/v Sur L'Eau. Most cruisers take a taxi to go half a block down there. We felt bold.

Back at the Club Nautico anchorage, s/v Stravaig, s/v Detour, and Galena were ready to go. Almost in unison we weighed anchor and headed to the flats.


Relative position of the anchorages at the north end of the canal

We had to be there by 1500-hrs; the advisors were to arrive at 1700-hrs. And they did, right on time.


Galena in all her armor moving from Club Nautico to the Flats.

We saw their launch coming and weighed anchor before they arrived. One advisor for each of us. Since we would be rafted up for the actual locking operations only 4 line handlers would be needed (of the 12 we had). As the biggest boat, Stravaig would be center and his advisor, Carlos would direct everyone once we were rafted up.

As we moved from the Flats, my crew was relaxed but ready.
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Crew ready for action as we approach the first locks. Benoit of s/v Free Spirit, and Eric of s/v Sur L'Eau) Also onboard were Vincent and Yi-Lin of s/v Hakuna Matata That's our ship up ahead.


Once we were close to the locks Stravaig came alongside to raft-up. We tied up to their starboard side and then Detour came up on their port side and tied up. Under the close direction of Carlos, we headed into the first lock.



Stravaig arriving; Carlos directing



All secure. Time now to stand around and look at the lines and knots.

My advisor now took a back seat to Carlos. I stood at the helm watching Carlos for instructions. The only control I had was throttle. Carlos stood on the bow of Stravaig and said things like, "Bill, a little more power." and "Jeff, turn to port." I was a still a little concerned about the currents. I had told Jeff that I would add or reduce power as I saw fit if it looked like I might swing into the wall. He agreed that I should use my best judgment and trusted me to do so.

We entered the first lock-up. The gates are just huge compared to Galena! But the locks are over a hundred feet wide and we had very little problem motoring into the lock and staying in the center.



The line men on the walls threw down monkey-fists and we tied our lines to them. The monkey-fists are the size of golf balls but weigh like they are lead-filled. They will definitely smash a solar panel.

Since I was on the outside, my two starboard line-handlers did their thing with the line men on the walls. Stravaig's line-handlers sat and watched. Those on Detour handled the port-side of the raft-up.

Finally with everything secure, the gates closed behind us and I said, "So long," to the Caribbean.


Jeff and I having said "goodbye" to the Caribbean look forward to the Canal

While the water flows fast and the level seems to rise quickly, there's still a lot of time to kill in the locks. The line handlers arte busy keeping proper tension on the lines. Carlos the advisor makes sure no one loses focus. Yi-Lin snapped photos of José snapping photos; Jeff did his best "Capt Morgan" pose:


Jeff posing

The line men on the walls drop our heavy lines back to us. They then walk along the wall with the light messenger lines as we move forward into the next lock. Just before we get into position in the next lock we send up the heavy lines and do it all over again.



Lock Linemen with their messenger lines walking forward with us

It wasn't getting late in the day so much as more and more cloudy. Storm clouds were forming and flowing toward us. Just at sunset the heavens would open and it would pour down rain for about 20-minutes. Later as we moved to the mooring buoy the sky would clear and we would have a lovely night.

While my crew was on their toes, ready for any eventuality, the redundant crew of Stravaig was relaxed to the point of coma.


Advisor Hector, Ben, and I were ready for anything



Stravaig's crew, being the center of the raft-up and having nothing at all to do was more relaxed

The clouds kept rolling in and the sun began to set. Yi-Lin kept taking pictures. I rarely post pictures of myself, but with all these shots of me to choose from this will be an exceptional posting.



Heavy clouds and a setting sun combined to make the locking even more interesting. Soon downpours would be added to the mix.

Jeff and I had a lot of time to talk strategy for the upcoming locks and the overnight tie-up at the mooring.


Jeff and I making plans

I also had time to go forward and check on my crew. The captain has to keep in touch with his men, you know. Morale and all that.


Chatting with my crew and with Carlos, the head advisor

As we went from lock to lock it grew darker and darker.



It's nightime now. The big doors close behind Galena and we lock-up to the next level.

Locking up is much more turbulent than locking down. As they open the valves and let the water swirl into the chamber the boat is pushed forward and back, left and right. If the line handlers don't keep their lines tight the raft-up can get out of hand. If they drop a line someone is going to hit the wall. You need good people on the ropes.

Finally we get through the locks. We turn left just after we clear the last lock and head over to a mooring for the night. The advisor knows exactly where the mooring is. But it's not on the chart and you can't see it. But out there in the dark is a mooring unlike anything I'd seen before. We are not talking about a little ball floating in the lake. This is a huge, walk-on-it-if-you-want mooring.

Galena got there first and Stravaig (with Detour still on her hip) showed up later. We tied everything off and had a drink. Well, we had several drinks.


Galena on the mooring across from Stravaig. We were both secured to the mooring plus a bow and stern line between the two boats to keep us parallel. The mooring is rubber-covered.

José had cooked dinner for everyone (all 16 of us) so we all ate and then partied on Stravaig till about 0130. Not smart since we had to be up at 0530.

So without a lot of comment here are some pictures of the party on Stravaig on the night of 1 Jun 2011 at the mooring in Gatun Lake at N9° 15.672' W79° 54.122'. We had made it to the lake. The night was quiet and warm. All was well with the world. Tomorrow the Pacific awaited.


Eric, me, and Rollo(? from Detour). Vincent is lying in the background



Crew from Detour plus Buz and his wife (from Stravaig's crew)



More crew shots. We were getting a bit drunk by this time



Just a good shot of Jeff and Vincent on Stravaig

The next morning the advisors showed up promptly at 0600 and we were off. From the mooring we had 5-hrs of motoring till we get to the pacific locks. For those of you who have driven down the ICW, you know what this is like" Just plain boring. The channel is very wide, very deep and pretty straight.

The first item of any interest is really the Bridge of the America's. It's just north of the Pacific lock set and just after that big Gaillard Cut that's in all the books.


Bridge of the Americas just past the famous Gaillard Cut

As we approached the final set of locks we rafted-up once again with Stravaig and Detour. We entered the final locks just after noon on the 2nd of June.


Line-handler Ben and captain Bill in the final lock, southbound. Since we're down-locking Ben has to continuously let out line. But not too much since we also have to stay straight in the lock

Finally the doors opened and there it was: the Pacific Ocean. Well, actually there's a bit more river to traverse, but that's Pacific saltwater out there.


First view of the Pacific.

We split up the raft as soon as we were clear of the lock. The launch came over and took off the advisors. We headed over to the Balboa Yacht Club to drop off the tires and ropes.

The wind was gusty and out of the northwest. The worst-case for the Balboa Yacht club mooring field. Very rough with 2-3 foot chop added to the wakes of the passing freighters.

I had to leave Galena immediately to get back to Colon and Ben and Eric with their boats. So I decided to but Galena on a mooring. Much safer that way.

We very quickly put Galena to bed and boarded the launch for shore. There was no one in the office so Yi-Lin, who's boat, Hakuna Matata, was also on a mooring there, said she would handle the office and tell them where I was and that I would be back on Monday to sign in/out.

I hopoed in a taxi with Eric and Benoit. Ben's boat, Free Spirit, was scheduled to transit the next afternoon and I was to be a line handler for him.

My run to the Pacific was done. I felt very accomplished. And quite tired. Ben, Eric and I hopped in a taxi and I fell asleep for the 1 hr ride back to Colon.

The next day was similar to Wednesday: morning full of last minute shopping, afternoon a move toward the locks.

We moved Benoit's boat, Free Spirit, with much less anxiety. For me, anyway since it wasn't my boat. All I had to do was manage my one piece of rope!

The only thing about this transit was that everyone but me spoke French. Benoit is French, as is Eric, as was the other two line handlers. I was a bit isolated for the next two days. They were gracious enough to often say things like, "Bill, what we're talking about it…" But most of the time I just sat there.

During lock-up we were the only small boat in the lock (with a big ship). So we were "center Chambered" rather than rafted with anyone. On the last lock set we were tide side-to a tug boat. And also directly in front of a freighter. That was the easiest. No adjusting lines. Just tie off and wait for the water to rise.



Ben's boat, Free spirit, enter the locks just ahead of a freighter. That's me at the bow saying, "Ben, faster would be better..."
José caught this scene from the visitor center with her super-dupper Nikon.


Free spirit tied side-to a tug in the lock. That's me at the bow

So on Saturday afternoon Benoit, Eric, Hernon (s/v Detour) and I were in a taxi and heading back to Colon to move Eric's boat, Sur L'Eau. By this time we felt like pros.

The only thing unusual about this third and final transit was that we were tie side-to a large tour boat.



s/v Sur L'eau tied to a large canal tour boat in the locks

The most interesting thing about that raft-up was the lovely lady who kept smiling and waving at me. She even took my picture when her husband wasn't looking. So I did the same.


The lovely lady on the tour boat that flirted with me at the rail. Happy little moments like this make my day; My life is rich with fantasies.

We dropped off Eric's fenders and lines at Balboa Yacht Club. I got off there, too. I rode the launch to the club house and had a beer. Also did a little internetting. Bumped into Yi-Lin and caught up a bit on what was happening with my little circle of friends.

The Yacht Club office was again closed. But Yi-Lin pointed out the lady who manages the place in the bar. She asked if I had every signed in. "Nope." So she asked the length of the Galena. "32 feet," said I. She pulled out a calculator and came up with $103. I handed her the cash. I asked if I had to fill out any paperwork and said I'd be leaving the next morning. She said, "You never signed in, right? No reason to sign out." I'm not sure where the cash went.

Everyone (Stravaig, Hakuna Matata, et al) was coming up to the club for happy hour and dinner. So I stayed there and socialized till rather late in the evening.

So Galena went through on Wednesday/Thursday (1 and 2 June)
Then Free Spirit on Friday/Saturday
And finally Sur L'Eau on Sunday/Monday
What a schedule.

Then it was home to Galena who I had not seen for four days. After a very rough night on the mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club I moved her around to the anchorage near Las Brisas and have been there ever since. The anchorage at the Balboa Yacht club is open to the NW and, this time of year, that's where the winds blow from. It's quite untenable. Just a short motor around to the other side of the causeway makes a huge difference. This anchorage, at this time of year, is smooth as can be.


Just a few more little projects and I'll be off to the islands of the South Seas.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Colon, Panama

Colon, Panama
27 May - 1 Jun 2011

First thing: find an agent. An agent is not required for transiting the canal. He just makes things so much easier. Yes, it costs more. But when I did the overall cost comparison, I only spent about $150 more than if I had done all the running around on my own. And I spent absolutely no time worrying about any of the paperwork or process.

I used Erick as my agent. He charged me a $300 fee. But for that he did the following:
He scheduled the admeasurer
He provided and delivered the required fenders (tires)
He provided and delivered the required set of 4ea 130' 3/4" lines
(This is a big one:) He put up the required $800 security bond.

Hiring a taxi to run around and do all the paperwork, plus renting all the equipment would have cost about $150.

Total cost to me for the canal transit was $909.

I needed to find 4 line handlers to ride with me for the two-day transit. s/v Hakuna Matata (Yi-lin and Vincent) agreed to help. I went to one of the boats waiting in the anchorage in Colon and found Eric (s/v Sur L'Eau) and Ben (s/v Free Spirit). They were waiting to transit and agreed to help me if I, in turn, helped them.

The agent called and said we had to be at The Flats for the Admeasurer at 0800, Monday. Stravaig, Galena, and s/v Detour motored around to
The Flats. The surveyor showed up at 0830. That was very prompt for Panama! We filled out a lot of paper and I was given my copies of each one of them.

The next day we were told that we would transit on Wednesday, 01 June. Wow! That was quick! We had been told that there was up to a ten-day delay. We had two days. Cool.

The fenders were delivered and I put the training wheels all around Galena.


Galena looking a little "Tired" the day before her canal transit

There are many rules to be followed for a transit. I was worried about just about every one of them. Speed is one. You have to be able to maintain 5-kts for two days. Galena sometimes has trouble with that if there is an adverse wind or current.

Then there's the whole line handler issue. I would have four strangers on board that I would have to feed and house for two days.

Don’t forget the whole locking process. I've heard horror stories of boats being crushed by ships or spinning out of control in the turbulence during locking and smashing themselves into the lock walls.

Now I was just one day away from facing all those fears. I didn't sleep well that night.

Wednesday morning we were informed that we had to be back at The Flats to pick up our advisors (pilots) at 1500. The advisor would arrive at 1700 but we had to be there 2-hrs early.

We were also told that the plan was for our three boats to go through together (Galena, Stravaig, Detour). That means we would only need 4 line handlers for the raft. Together we had 12 line handlers. That a lot of extra people.

In my case it was a blessing. Yi-Lin was free to play hostess to the rest of my crew. She did a fine job, too.

Most of the rest of the pictures came from her.

My advisor was Hector ("Hector, the Protector"). He arrived promptly at 1700. We were hauling up the anchor as his launch approached. He pointed to a ship coming up the channel and said, "That's our ship. We have to follow it into the lock. Get going."

So it started.