Cheshire Cat transits the Panama Canal

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Our Great Day! Cheshire Cat to transit the Panama Canal

A day to remember

Official pictures taken by Panama Canal web cam. Cheshire Cat is the nearest (and smallest) boat

Two couples helped us, Jody and Bruce from CaVa with Kikki and Henry from Endelig. This meant wewould have six people on board plus our advisor. Cozy!!

Some days prior we had searched for Sebastian on the other boat that was to go through the locks with us, Chrumba. We discussed how we would set everything up and on the day we rafted together to sort out how the lines should be handled and the positioning of our craft. It was all for naught as at the very last moment we learned that a third boat, a catamaran, was coming through with us. Our various advisors arrived - behind schedule unfortunately - in the gathering dusk. The professional lines handler on the other boat took the time to warn us that our man was a little “touchy”.

Cheshire Cat rafted with Chrumba to decide how we would manage our yachts as we were to transit through the canal together

"Super Cooper" arrived on board (self named) and off we set in the twilight out of the anchorage towards the main shipping channel. Cooper asked for a light in the cockpit, so that he could read his newspaper, but that created problems with our night vision, so he made several phone calls on his cell phone instead, almost totally ignoring us, despite our attempts to be friendly and also to ask questions. Once we were in the channel, he demanded several times that we go faster and as we didn't go as fast as he wanted he asked us how fast we could actually motor. This made Mike and me very tense of course, because our little engine overheats at normal speeds, so top speed was nerve-racking. Actually, very few small boats can make 8 knots, we can go as fast as our hull speed allows and that speed is determined by the waterline of the vessel.

Official Canal Ship's Number

Then it appeared that Cooper had mistaken which ship we were to go behind, so we were in even more of a hurry to overtake a container ship already in the channel in front of us. As we were doing our best and as the catamaran, the third boat of our raft was still some way behind us, we felt that there was no need to be in such a rush.

Once in the channel Mike asked Cooper if any traffic was expected out of the lock coming towards us and Cooper said none was expected. Lo and behold! The next moment we could plainly see the lights of a cruise ship advancing down the waterway towards us on the left, or port side. In addition there was a dredger off to the right side of the channel. In the dark the unfamiliar structures and lights were confusing for us. As the cruise ship came level with us Mike’s keen eyes spotted a small boat maneuvering directly in front of us in the channel, without showing any lights! It took some time for Cooper to spot it as well, but he ignored the incident even though it turned out to be a tugboat without a rear white light showing. We wondered why Cooper didn't make some effort to alert either the tugboat or the authorities of this defect.

This is the easy way to travel - put your yacht on a boat and fly to meet it somewhere exotic!

We wiped the sweat off our brows and prepared to raft alongside the catamaran and geared up to enter the first lock. Everyone on board was pretty tense by now, realizing that we were getting very little help or co-operation from our advisor. Once in the lock, we got organized with the two forward lines leading from each side of the canal wall to the middle boat, (the big catamaran), and one line off the back of our boat, with another off the back of the boat on the other side of the catamaran to the nearest sides of the lock wall.

We were now prepared for the water to lift us, all tied together side by side. Our two forward lines on Cheshire Cat were not needed because the catamaran had the two foreward lines. We had, as instructed, previously set up our forward lines, with a special oversized block (to accommodate the size of one of the ropes and the potential strain of holding three boats in the turbulence) with the special large rope running through it, ready for use if needed. 'Super' Cooper just read his newspaper sitting on the deck house, and soon went across the catamaran to talk to his friend on the third boat on the other side of the raft.

The lock gates closed, the water rushed into the lock. We rose up steadily without a problem and when the gates re-opened the ship in front of us slowly moved off, assisted by the powerful railway engines that run on lines beside the canal. While we are waiting our crew chatted with the crew next to us on the catamaran – a bunch of guys delivering it to California with the owner on board. It seemed that they were pretty boisterous and over excited, especially the younger ones. It is quite an adventure to say one has been through the Panama Canal after all!!

Trafic on the canal. Yachts and commercial vessels pass each other in the wider sections.

Together, still tied in the raft we motored slowly into the second lock, where it was unexpectedly discovered that one of the forward lines on the catamaran was too short. Two young men jumped with their short line from the center boat onto our boat and tried to get it onto our cleat, but as they didn’t know about the special block system they couldn’t set it up properly. Bruce and I quickly began to remove the rope we had previously set up in the block (as instructed by the canal authorities) – all 125 feet of it, and in that particular moment of confusion – two strangers trying to do one thing plus Bruce and I working away at the rope, all crowded at the pointy end, Super Cooper chose to arrive out of the blue on the scene and demand in a very loud and aggressive voice, “What is the problem?” “What is wrong here?” and “Why can’t you get that rope fixed?” He then demanded that the Captain come forward (Mike wasn’t about to leave the wheel) and so Mike gave control of the situation to Bruce who just about blew Cooper’s head off with a piece of his mind! That didn’t please Cooper who was standing on his dignity anyway, being as we had heard, “touchy”. Eventually it all settled down and we headed off in the Gatun Lake to tie up to a large buoy for the night. No jokes and friendly banter on board our boat!

Friendly line handlers on the wall of the canal. They take our ropes attached to the boat.

Each handler throws a thin rope with a heavy monkey's fist on the end to the persons on the bow (front) and at the back (stern) of the boats. That person ties a big loop in the end of the heavy roe and then attaches the thin line to the big heavy line. Upon instruction the rope is pulled up by the line handlers and the big loop settled around a bollard on the wall. The water in the locks rises or falsl and the people on the boats do the work of tensioning the ropes against the driving swirl of incoming water and keep the yachts straight and in position in the lock. When the yachts are ready to move off into the next lock, the heavy thick rope is pulled back onto the yacht and the linesmen would walk with the thinner rope to the next position. This process was repeated in every lock.

When it was all over and we had made it through the last lock without any more confusion we split off from the raft and motored off into Gatun Lake. One again, Mike with the eagle eyes, saw a yacht ahead of us in the darkness and Cooper decided it must be a tug, but when it became obvious it was a yacht he decided it must be anchored in 70 ft of water. It turned out to be moored to a large buoy, and the water depth was 45 ft anyway, according to the information passed out by the Canal authorities.

Miraflores Lock - the final lock before the Pacific ocean

Needless to say we were exceedingly pleased to say goodbye to "Super" Cooper. Later we learned that he is the very person that one can read about on the Internet and that all cruisers fear most. He is the advisor who didn’t like the food offered by a yacht and ‘sent out’ for a meal, which then had to be delivered to him by tugboat at a cost of 200.00 to the yacht. Later we heard that no one seemed happy having him on board and all the advisors and line handlers know him and his reputation very well.

However, everything ended up satisfactorily and we settled down for the night with the boat securely tied up to a large buoy. We consumed vast quantities of chili and a glass or two of wine and attempted to sleep. Mike and I had the premium berths – out in the cockpit despite the thought of marauding mosquitoes! Six sleeping on board is a lot for CC and it was a very warm evening! Everyone was very polite and didn't grumble at all (well..... not too much!)
Next day we were delighted to have Manuel with us as our advisor – he was happy to steer all the way, kept the boat at a reasonable speed and was very pleasant and informative. At the end of the trip we enjoyed a couple of much needed beers, and we said goodbye and thanks with a bottle of wine. Later we heard that he actually turned a yacht around (Rob on Inty, an Australian singlehander whom we met in Trinidad) in the Galliard Cut because another boat (Octagon) developed engine problems. He rafted with the stricken boat and brought them through safely without their having to forfeit their deposit. Such a nice man.

A tour boat on the canal

One of the interesting sights on the way through the system was a couple of pretty antique cranes, one from Germany and one US built. Both were very old and the German one was apparently imported shortly after WWII. They both still work and are visited by crane enthusiasts from all over the world.

Balboa was much nicer than Colon. We were lucky to get a mooring buoy as soon as we arrived although we could have traveled a little further to a pretty little anchorage at the end of the Causeway.

Shortly after lunch our helpful crew left us to get back to their own boats. We had to call on the VHF for one of the water taxis to come and pick them up, and soon afterwards we too visited the shore. We found the usual much anticipated bar up some steps right at the end of the long dock, and celebrated our arrival with a couple of cold ones and a welcome meal in a nearby restaurant with Jasp and Dreambird. When we called the water taxi on Channel 6 on the radio it dropped us off at the end of the pier where there was also a diesel dock. Good potable water was also available there.

In the management office we met Dave and found him to be extremely helpful and pleasant. His office was also the immigration office, so we founf it easy and convenient to "check in".

Balboa and the Bridge of the Americas

Here at last we could walk around and feel safe. The internet, (which turned out to be slow and fairly hopeless,) the laundry and chart shop were all within easy walking distance. Taxis were easy to find and the local yellow buses ran continuously down the coast. (25 cents per trip). One could even hire bicycles and cruise along the Causeway, with great views of the Panama skyline and the boats anchored in the bay.

We took a little time to do yet more shopping in Panama; had an lovely strong aluminum spinnaker pole made up for us(as we broke ours on the downwind run from Curacao;) I bought red sunbrella material for a much needed new mainsail cover. Nearly everyone else frantically stocked up on the essentials for the long summer crossing the Pacific, but I didn’t regret not doing that part, we do seem to be pretty stocked at present!

We used the water taxi to go from the boat to the shore

Most people were preparing to go off shore to the Galapagos and the South Pacific - we were planning to sail down the coast to Ecuador. Lucky for us we found a boat who was able to give us lots of information as we hadn't made any real plans and had no charts of the area we were to visit. Luckily it was easy to have the charts we needed copied.

One of the cruisers' favorite evening gatherings was to take advantage of a special two-for-one pizza night on Monday evenings (cruisers are pretty frugal generally - anything they can get for the least amount of money is always popular). One evening we discovered there was a band playing in the yacht club bar - Mike was a happy camper and even got up to sing!

After a week or so in Balboa we left for the Las Perlas islands which are about 30 miles - away a pleasant and easy day sail.