I officially realized we would actually get to transit the Panama Canal and our Canal Agent Pete Stevens of Delfino Maritime Agency was “da man”, with the arrival of the four, 125 Ft. dock lines and 10 tires to the Natural Mystic. This cost me a reasonable $30 and a six-pack for the delivery boys. Their true value to me, much more than that, as it was the gear that would keep us protected from hitting other ships, contacting canal walls and is the one time you get to cruise around with fenders and tires hanging all over you boat and look cool.
We brought food and provisioned up in Bocas for the transit, as its a requirement and a custom you provide food and drinks for the adviser who joins you for your transit. Sandor brought a cooler full of Panama, Atlas and Balboa beers, packed in frosty ice and we were stocked. Every yacht less than 125 feet gets an adviser who is a pilot (steers the boats over 125 feet through the canal the whole time and actually touches the controls) in training. Smaller yachts have unstandardized wheels, tillers, throttle systems and the adviser they take on board does not steer, only offers advice and guidance as how to transit the canal, its rules and regulations.
Early in the day I met the crew of Amazing, a bright red, steel hulled monohull about 40 Ft. long, full of Danes sailing around the world. They were scheduled to transit with us, and all great guys and one girl. Wolf Cat owned by Steve from Malibu a 42 ft. Fountaine Pajot French catamaran would be the other yacht transiting with us. He had a mostly professional crew, including four locally hired professional line handlers ($120 a pop) and was headed for a South Pacific crossing, ending in New Zealand.
We spent all morning getting our yacht ready for her transit. This involved doing some last laundry, scrubbing the decks, putting out the fenders and tires, getting the lines in the correct place and covering the solar panels with blankets, as they are susceptible to direct hits by the monkey fists the canal workers throw at you to take up your canal lines. With all of these chores completed by early afternoon we were ready and said more goodbyes to all the friends we made at Shelter Bay who were staying on, in the Caribbean Sea.
Around 16:00 (the Canal operates in 24hr time) we shoved off the dock and headed out to The Flats (free Panama Canal anchorage off Colon, moderately poor holding in 30 ft. of mud) with the other boats, to wait for the arrival of our advisers. Our plan was to circle around the flats to avoid bringing up vast amounts of the gross mud with our anchor and chain, as we were suppose to get boarded around 16:30, but upon radioing Cristobal Signal Station for clearance to cross the shipping channel on channel 12, we were told we would be boarded around 19:00, so we dropped anchor in the muddy bottom and waited.
Our adviser Larry boarded us exactly at 19:30, just in time for a dinner of beef fajitas, with homemade salsa and homemade tortillas, which he proclaimed very tasty and I chalked up to the Spanish/Mexican heritage we all acquire growing up in Santa Barbara. Everyone enjoyed a beer and toasted to a safe passage, as the other boats headed off towards the Canal and we lallygagged, as we can power a good four knots faster then them. Soon our anchor was weighed and we were off also, headed into the dark night towards the sodium orange glow of the Gatun Locks that lift you 84 ft. in three locks, to the elevation of man made Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake is huge covering 116.62 square nautical miles and was created by erecting Gatun Dam across the Rio Chagres, when built, both were the largest earthen dam and lake ever created by man.
Powering towards the Gatun Locks was interesting. It gets narrow, just wide enough for giant ships to pass, but right next to the banks the water is still 45 Ft. deep. We all had to pull to the side and let the freighter that was to be in the same lock in front of us pass ahead. Then we commenced rafting together, Amazing was rafted first and went on our starboard side, bows and stern lines attached and then springs, fenders were adjusted, so that they lined up evenly and were not doubled up, giving too much play in the boats. Once everything was deemed satisfactory by me, Wolf Cat pulled up to our port side, the process was repeated and with all boats secure along side we were one big pentamaran, with Natural Mystic the largest yacht in the center. This is cool for a couple of reasons, one I got to control the whole show by driving everyone’s boats, two our crew didn’t have to do jack, as all the lines would be handled by the outside boats, and three if we did hit a wall it wouldn’t be us.
I centered us all on the entrance to the Eastern lock, a bit tricky, as our port side was twice as beamy as our starboard with the rafting of the other catamaran and started us towards the chamber with our freighter already secured to the lock walls, waiting on us. The sounds of Panamanians whistling fills the air and monkey fists come flying with their tag lines attached and the securing lines sent up to the canal workers 30 feet above. They briskly walk with the yachts and when we were in the right spot, tie off the lines to hulking, yellow cleats. The working ends of the lines would be on the yachts and the slack would have to be taken up as the water rose.
We were tied up for barely a second, too short to completely take in the view, when our jubilation at making it in safely was cut short with the ringing of alarm bells. Giant metal doors the kind made for King Kong started swinging shut slowly and powerfully, driven by giant hydraulic rams. With a low thud they slammed shut and we were encased in a concrete and steel chamber that has been in constant 24/7 use since August 15, 1914, with walls reaching 30 feet up on either side of us, an acute view of the night sky above and canal workers peering down at us. Without warning a shudder ripples through the boats and water just starts boiling all around you. Hundreds of holes in the canal bottom start jetting in the gravity fed water from Gatun Lake and you start rising. Muy rapido, you go up fast, the people handling the lines struggle against the pull and swirls of the eddies constantly taking up slack, trying to keep us straight, and me working Natty M’s engines, keeping us all from spinning into a wall.
Deadly whirlpools and eddies are everywhere in the canal water and I’m thankful we locked P Kiddy down below. If he were on deck he would undoubtedly be jumping from boat to boat, checking everything out and way too confident and unaware of the deadly swirling water below. Stories of pets falling in and owners jumping in to save them and both being sucked in crazy undertows to their deaths are apparently true. Everyone was aghast at the boiling cauldron we were in, but the line handlers took up slack and as the water rose, the eddies and boils eventually got less and less severe. It takes just a couple of minutes to rise the 28 feet to the top of the first lock. Resting there for a moment as the last of the whirlpools, swirl themselves away and the front gates open.
The electric mules that run on tracks up and down the entire length of the canal are only there to hold the big ships in place. They cost around 1 million dollars a piece, are made by Mitsubishi and look like mini, silver San Francisco cable cars on steroids. They charge up and down the steep hills from lock to lock, taking up their slack on thick steel cables wound around their internal drums, sometimes taking up to eight of them to keep the Panamax sized ships centered. Speed through the locks is controlled by the big ships’ engines and as the freighter only feet in front of us starts to move, turbulent prop wash is shot back towards us. We wait for the freighter to be secured in front of us and then our adviser Larry tells us to go forward.
I crack a beer, put the engines in slow ahead and everyone is celebrating the fact we’re one lock closer to the Pacific Ocean and officially out of the Caribbean Sea. I slowly move our pack forward, the line handlers chasing after us on foot, with the tag lines still run down to the yachts, ready to haul back up the securing lines when in the next lock. With out a hitch we are in the second lock, dead center, smooth, all the advisers are stoked and asking me what kind of engines the Natty M has, impressed by her dopeness. Everyone is stoked and totally happy on all the boats, the energy is electric.
The process is repeated, and again we see the fury of the water. Jobs are professionally done and with much celebrating and cheersing all around we celebrate our entry into the next lock. Once more and boom, perfect without any trouble we are all done and up to the level of Gatun Lake. The last lock doors open, the freighter moves into the lake, we follow once the prop wash dies out and proceed into Gatun Lake.
I drive clear of the concrete centerwall separating the east and west locks, engines dead slow, neutral, then a little R and were stopped. The rafts are broken up and we all charge off towards the moorings, where we will spend the rest of the night. We jam past the competition and tie up to the moorings, which should be called giant, flat round floating buoys. We decide hooking up to it BVI bow-on style would damage the Natty M, banging against it all windless night and side tie to it instead. Amazing took second place and grabbed the other mooring buoy adopting our side tying procedure; Wolf Cat bought up the rear and side tied to the other side of our mooring. We connected a bow and stern line between the two boats and were made fast, allowing us to spin around the mooring buoy all night long. Wolf Cat’s four local line handlers crashing out immediately on their transom and her professional Kiwi crew checking out the Natty M for cocktails and a cig or two. A few hours passed talking about sailing and watching the nightly lightning show that is Central America. The Kiwis were a wealth of information, one a sailmaker having owned half of the Quantum Sails loft in Auckland and the other a pro delivery captain, who last year did 28,000 NM, good guys and fun times. We went to bed, they stayed up well into the night chit chatting away, classic.
Morning’s gray light, the sound of large diesel engines, 07:30, its the friggin pilot boat, now they’ve got to operate on time. Up and Adam everyone, the coffee is made and the new adviser Robin jumps on board, we ask him to remove his dirty shoes and he cheerfully obliges. We let the other boats take off first and finish the day’s tasks of brushing our teeth, getting clean and Kahlil starts cooking up a grind breakfast of toast with bacon, eggs, avocados, fresh salsa and fruit. We’re off shortly after the other boats, following their lead into the Banana Cut, a shortcut through forests long ago drowned by the creation of the lake and islands with lush, virgin forest on them. Everywhere you look stumps and trees poke up through the surface of the water, but the Banana Cut is well buoyed and is 40 ft. deep the entire way. This saves us probably 30 minutes vs. using the main channel and avoids all the large ship traffic, as the Banana cut is only used by small craft.
We all enjoy our breakfast, cruising past the abundant wildlife, screams of monkeys howling in the distance, osprey with snow-white heads dive for fish, butterflies and giant dragonflies float and buzz here or there. After motoring for over an hour we join back with the main channel and are now out of the lake dream world and back into reality. We pass blasting and dredging barges constantly working on widening, deepening and straightening the main channel and dodge Panamax ships, making sure to leave them plenty of room on the tight turns, which is still only mere feet. They transit this part with tugs attached ready to pull them one way or another should they get into trouble.
Mid morning and we come up to the Gaillard Cut, the hardest stretch of the Canal to engineer and named for Colonel David DuBose Gaillard who made it possible. Carved curving around mountains of mostly rock and shale of the Continental Divide, and still constantly eroding and terraced to keep erosion to a minimum. We all marvel at what it must have taken the men of the early 1900’s to “get eeer done”. We pass under the two towering spans of the very modern Centennial Bridge and soon we’re at Pedro Miguel Lock. All the yachts raft up again in the familiar positions of the night before and I start powering us into the eastern lock once more.
This time we feel like were pros at it, the anticipation is much less and we crank up some crunchy tunes to make the atmosphere more festive. There is no giant ship with us, just three little boats all scarcely over 50 Ft. taking up the entire 1000 Ft. lock. Its just the opposite of what we did the night before. Monkey fists are gently tossed to us as we are at eye level with the Canal workers and the securing lines sent back over. The door closes behind, and the water starts to drain out. This is a much more gentle process than going up and the only real danger being, not paying out the lines fast enough as you fall, putting upward pressure on boat cleats and ripping them straight through the deck. Thankfully easing out lines is not too complicated and it goes smoothly. We are down the 29.5 Ft. and everyone is celebrating and most crack the celebratory beers to cheers all around.
The yachts stay rafted together and I power everyone out into Miraflores Lake, an artificial lake just over a mile long, separating the two sets of Pacific locks before the last set of locks down to the Pacific. We charge across the lake at around five knots and enter the Miraflores set of locks, with it’s visitor center and web cams. I called my family and Sandor did as well to give them the heads up. They got to see first hand what we were going through and I thought it cool they could check up on us in real time, thousands of miles away. The last two locks were basically a celebratory party downhill. Everyone had a beer in their hand, except maybe a couple of Steve’s professional crew who were just now waking up and had one, too many the night before. We had Slightly Stooped bumping on Natty M’s stereo and most everyone on the three boats was dancing and grooving to the beats. The visitors’ center was packed with people watching and our yells up to them got the crowd moving and cheering too, everyone was having a fun time.
When the last lock doors opened we waited for a second to proceed forward, as the mixture between the freshwater of the lake and locks, mixes with the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean causing weird, lingering eddies. Once this phenomenon died down the Natty M powered the 3 boats together out into the great Pacific Ocean. Everyone was super stoked, not one near accident or close call, congrats were given all around, and a general feeling of elation hung in the air. We were officially in the Pacific Ocean, my home turf, and back in the land of real surf potential. Our adviser Robin disembarked via a pilot boat and we powered at full throttle under the Bridge of Americas and out into the Bay of Panama, headed for Flamenco Marina.
Wow! After seeing nothing, but small towns, islands and the occasional minor city for many moons we were taken back at the sight of Panama City. Multitudes of skyscrapers reached for the heavens and it looked like 10 more were currently under construction, with cranes parched on top of half erected steel skeletons. The place seemed dynamic, growing by leaps and bounds, cars zoomed everywhere and the vibe felt nothing like the relaxed Caribbean we had just left.
We opted to pay the big bucks and stay our first nights in Flamenco Marina to get a general feeling for the Pacific Ocean, before just anchoring away. The tides here swing more than 20 feet, causing strong currents and what was once covered by water, is high and dry in a couple of hours. It blew us away! The tides in the whole Caribbean Sea were never any more than 3 feet, docks didn’t have to float, and fixed piers were just fine. Here thankfully they floated, because the yellow stripe on their pilings which was at dock level when we tied up, was 20 feet up in the air, just three hours later. It was near the new moon and the tides were at their most extreme.
Everyone just took it all in, the Panama Canal experience, the new big city, the extreme tides, millions of brown pelicans, new colorful seabirds and marveled at what we had just accomplished, but more at what mankind has accomplished. Creating a path to cross between the two largest oceans of our world in under a day. It makes you wonder what are the next great obstacles and challenges mankind will tackle and the Panama Canal is a working reminder of what success, we as mankind can accomplish when we put our collective minds to it. Cheers – Kyber
Ben up the mast during the Miraflores locks getting the areal shots.