Posted on June 23, 2017
Panama Canal: One more time, with feeling
Transiting the Canal on your own boat is a completely different process than being along for the ride. This was not a laid-back experience for us. Not only were we always, slightly back-of-the-mind worried that some crucial component of our passage would fall apart (line handlers unavoidably delayed; lines and fenders don’t show up; left to rot in Lake Gatun, abandoned by all transit advisors); not only were we prepping like mad for days (food prep, stowage, laundry, groceries, cleaning); not only were we alert the whole time to potential damage to our boat (like the cruiser who came in to Shelter Bay last week with his fairleads ripped out of his rail); but we felt pressed to make sure everything went well every minute. Fortunately for us, it did!
We were lucky enough to have our line handlers arrive the day before, and luckier still that they opted to stay at Shelter Bay’s hotel instead of on our boat. We would have welcomed them, but having three additional folks on board is a tight fit for us, and they were certainly more comfortable in the marina. And they brought us doughnuts! Immeasurable jealousy from our neighbor, who was looking at hiring help to get through the Canal on the same day.
Our line rental guy, Rick, recommended calling to confirm the advisor drop-off time both the day before transit and the day of; the Canal company gave us two different times, so we figured we’d plan for the early time and got ourselves to the Flats by 1:00. Joining us were our slip neighbors from Shelter Bay, and a big Leopard catamaran filled with surfers. After picking up our advisor—Hector, the same guy who shepherded us through the Gatun locks with Sapphire—we headed to the lock entrance and rafted up with our fellow sailboats. As the biggest boat, the cat was in the center; we took the lines on the port side.
We ended up motoring quite a ways rafted together, both getting in to the locks and going from lock to lock, and it was striking the amount of force between the boats. We saw one fender get squeezed until it looked like a balloon animal. All went well, though, and we made it through the first set of locks with no problems.
None of the advisors wanted anyone to anchor in the lake; instead, they asked us to all raft up to the same mooring buoy. We got there first, and secured ourselves alongside; the cat tied up opposite the buoy from us, and the Jeanneau rafted alongside the cat. It was a very crowded buoy, without the peaceful solitude of our night with Sapphire! It also took quite a while to get everyone secured, so dinner ended up a bit late; by the time the kids polished off their cake, I think it was past 10.
The next morning, our new advisor showed up quite early—maybe 7:30?—and we headed across Lake Gatun. Well, most of us did. The catamaran ended up having to spend one more night in the lake. Apparently, the advisors’ real jobs are running the pilot boats; they just aren’t always available to transit with private yachts. Add in the advisor retirements this year, and you end up with a shortage of advisors. The cat had no idea they wouldn’t be able to go through in two days. Fortunately, they were laid-back surfer dudes, so they just paddled around the lake a bit and hung out.
We hightailed it to the locks at Pedro Miguel, rafted to the Jeanneau, and tied up the lines to the port side again. Then we had a solid 45 minutes for lunch, as we waited for a huge freighter to move in off our stern and secure herself. The trip between Pedro Miguel and the Miraflores locks is short enough to stay rafted, and soon we were waiting for the doors to open on the Pacific Ocean.
I think that’s the biggest difference between transiting on another person’s boat, and taking through your own. On Sapphire, our first view of the Pacific was not so different then when you fly into San Fransisco or drive to the west coast—hey, look, there’s the ocean, neat. Coming through with our own boat, I was so excited, I was practically jumping up and down. In fact, there may have been some jumping.
We ended up with the best souvenir—our own monkey fist. Our forward line guy on shore decided to cut off the feeder line instead of untying it from our lines; when we pulled it in, there was the monkey fist, ours to keep! There’s a solid piece of lead inside; right now, we have it hanging off the dodger, but it’s going to have to move—it’ll bean someone on the head right there.
We are so thankful for our line handlers. TC, Emmet and Nic were extremely nice, very kind, and happy to work their butts off when necessary. We could not have had better guests.
When we were planning our trip initially, one of our standard lines was, “…and then we think it’d be neat to go through the Panama Canal.” It was so abstract back then, a way to guide people’s mental map of our planned route, an idea of something significant but difficult to really imagine. Now we’re through, with a whole year ahead of us and another ocean to explore!