TRANSITING THE PANAMA CANAL(2000)

by Robby Gray

 
      Transiting the Panama Canal is not something that everyone gets a chance to do, so it is no surprise that, even though it was 3:45 in the morning, I got up cheerful and ready to take on a new day. Through my excitement I still noticed, on exiting my covers, the chill and total silence of pre-dawn. After I had gotten dressed and had finished breakfast, I went up top to await the Pilot Boat that will bring our advisor. The advisor’s job is to guide us through the Panama Canal and to instruct the captain and crew on the proper way to proceed through the locks. My dad will still be driving, though, because it is only the advisor’s job to advise, leaving us control of the boat. It wasn't long before the pilot boat appeared out of the dense darkness and dropped off our advisor. Since we were the first to get our anchors up, of the boats we are going to raft with, our advisor instructed us to do a few circles to let the other boats catch up. The other boats joined us and we set off together for the short trip to the first lock of the Panama Canal. The closer we got to the Panama Canal the tenser and tenser we got. I knew now that this was going to be a stress-filled day.
 Before we arrived at the first lock our advisor ran us through the procedure. Once we are in between the lock walls the first thing that will happen is the workers, that are stationed on the top of the lock walls, are going to throw us some thin lines with lead weighted monkey’s fists tied to their ends. The thin lines should, hopefully, land somewhere on our deck so we can attach them, with a sheet bend or clove hitch, to the loops on the end of the thick three-strand lines that will already be fed through our hawser pipes. As soon as we get the thin lines attached to our thick ones, we will start feeding out our thick lines, allowing the men on top of the lock walls to use the thin lines they are holding to pull up our thick lines and loop them over the bollards. All this hassle is needed because the horizontal distance from our boat to the lock wall will be about 20 feet while the vertical distance from our boat to the man stationed on the top of the lock wall will be about 18 feet. It would be ridiculous to think that anybody could heave a thick and heavy three-strand line that far!

    Our raft of boats will be in the center of the lock so we will need bow and stern lines on both sides of the raft to keep us away from the rough and dangerous lock walls. Even though it was a relatively simple process, we were all nervous and asked a million questions.  One thing our advisor was clear about was to make sure to get the lines tied quickly and to keep the slack out of the lines.
    At this point our advisor told us about his wife, kid, and BEAUTIFUL dog. He then went on to tell us a lot more about his dog, which turned out to be a Rotweiler, while saying nothing about his kid and wife. This guy certainly had his priorities a little messed up.


NEXT: (Galapagos)

 

PREVIOUS: (March)



Writings of Immanuel | Home | Pictures!


 

           We rounded a bend and all caught our first sight of the Panama Canal. It seemed like every light in the world was ablaze, shining brightly on the great Panama Canal. The lights made it look more like Las Vegas than Central America. We were speechless! It was then that we got rafted with the two other boats. We ended up in the center of the raft and as the boat that would do all the driving because we had the biggest engine. It was nice to have control over the raft because I knew my dad could handle the raft well but it still would have been nice to sit back and let someone else do the driving. Even though we had boats on both sides of us, we will still have to line handle on the bow because it sticks out so far. One thing I had never thought of, that we had to do while rafting, was to make sure our masts were staggered so if we were to get rocking too furiously the spreaders won't hit!

    As we pulled up to the first lock the sun burst out from the clutches of the low-lying mountains filling the cold air with light and heat. We all relaxed a bit at the sight of the sun. This first set of three consecutive locks are called the Gatun Locks. This is a suitable name because these locks will bring us up to the level of Gatun Lake. I always thought that the Panama Canal was just a series of locks and that the locks’ purpose was to keep the water from rushing through “the big ditch” but actually the locks sole purpose is to bring boats up to the level of Gatun Lake and back down again. Since both Steve, who had volunteered to line handle on Immanuel a few days before, and I were assigned to work only one line, we decided to trade off with Steve line handling in this lock and me in the next then Steve again, and so on. It was quite a relief to be able to watch Steve line handle before I had to. The monkey’s fists landed in their proper spot but I ended up tying the monkey fisted lines to our thick lines because Steve had some trouble getting the knot right. My dad then motored into position at the bollards and, at a cue from the workers on the wall, Steve fed out our heavy line while the workers pulled it up with their thin lines and looped it over a bollard. Steve then pulled the line taut, cleated it, and prepared to rise.

    The huge, airplane-shaped lock doors closed and I felt trapped, sandwiched between a huge freighter and the newly closed lock doors. Then, all of a sudden, a huge mass of water erupted from under us, and all around us currents and eddies formed that seemed to strive to smash us into the lock wall, which we were happily protected from by the boats on either side of us. Because we were rising, Steve was continually pulling the slack out of the line while still remembering not to pull Immanuel to the lock wall. I was definitely not prepared for the speed in which the locks filled. You could actually see the water rapidly rising. At first I thought that there must be a HUGE pump to pump the water so rapidly into the lock until I learned that the whole Panama Canal is gravity fed from Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake is the lake that we will travel on to get
from the Gatun Locks to the Pedro Miguel Locks.

       

    Soon we were looking over the lock door, which just a few minutes ago was towering above us. The view was spectacular. We were looking down on the Panama Canal bay area studded by lush South American jungle. The freighters below us seemed to be moving in slow motion. In front of us the doors of the next lock towered above us menacingly. It was quite weird being in a boat in the water and looking out and seeing you are above sea level. Butterflies formed in my stomach when I realized it was my turn to line handle. In the next lock everything went exactly as before. I was once again shocked at how fast the locks could fill. It wasn’t long before I could see over the lock wall and I found that we were even higher and the ships below us were moving even slower. What a relief it was to enter the last of the Gatun Locks! Before I even knew it my dad was driving us onto Gatun Lake.

        To be able to go through the whole Panama Canal in one day it is necessary to keep up with the ship that you went through the last locks with because The Panama Canal Authority is not willing to run the locks for only a few sailboats. Even so we still had to run the engine easy because we were still breaking it in after having the head pulled and reconditioned. We were all hoping that we wouldn’t have to anchor in Gatun Lake and finish our transit tomorrow. One way the smaller boats keep up with the big ships is by cutting one of the corners on the snake shaped lake by going through Banana Pass which is too narrow for the bigger ships. This is the cut where, previously, my dad and I had seen Spider Monkeys while line handling for our friends on the boat Cormorant, so I was hoping that we could see Spider Monkeys again. As soon as we entered the pass we were instantly surrounded by dense South American jungle. All eyes were strained looking for any signs of life. In a flash we were leaving the pass and all I had seen were two termite mounds in a leafless tree so I gave up searching and focused on the road of buoys ahead but, just then, I heard a shout from Michael, looked at him, and noticed that he was pointing straight at the termite mounds which had started to grow arms and legs. Then the “termite mounds” started swinging in the branches like kids playing on a jungle gym. I was shocked at how human like the monkeys were. It was nothing like seeing monkeys on the Discovery Channel!

      One of the odd things you get to see when crossing Gatun Lake are dead skeleton- like trees half submerged in the water. The reason for this is the fact that Gatun Lake was made artificially by damming off a river named the Chagres which ran right through the spot, where the builders of the Canal wanted to dig their "big ditch". Damming off the river made an obstacle into a blessing. We were not far into the lake,  and I was actually starting to relax some when my dad yelled that the engine was overheating. My dad instantly turned off the engine, yelled for us to unfurl the sails, and dove down below to start troubleshooting the problem. I thought for sure that we would have to sail to the anchorage, drop the hook, then continue our transit after we got the engine fixed. While we were waiting for my dad to come up with the report of what was wrong I started to wonder why the buzzer, that is supposed to go off if the engine is overheating, did not go off. My question was answered when my dad came up and told us that the engine did not appear to be overheated and continued by saying that he believed that the engine’s temperature gauge was broken. I sighed with relief as my dad started the engine and we gently got back underway. Through all this the ship we went through the last locks with got way ahead so we were hoping to meet up with another ship to go through the next locks with.

    As we continued, the lake started to get thinner and thinner and soon the lake was more like a river with no current than a lake. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we were passing the place where we might have had to anchor. We were able to go on because our advisor had managed to arrange for us to go through the next locks without a tanker but with another raft. This was certainly a very special privilege! As we were passing the anchorage, we noticed some people that were anchored there waving frantically for us to turn on our VHF radio. After talking to the boats, we found out that they had been stranded in the anchorage for three days because no advisor had come to get them through the rest of the canal. This was a big deal when you consider that they had line handlers that were other boaters who had left their boats planning to be back at the latest in a day and a night. I can only imagine what happened when there was no one to run their refrigeration! Our advisor, after hearing the conversation, told us to tell them that he would make sure to get an advisor for them by the next day. Reassured we said our good-byes and continued down the lake.

    Soon we all turned our eyes to the bank off the starboard side of the boat because this was the place where my dad and I, when line handling for the boat Cormorant, had seen an alligator. We were rewarded by our searching when my dad spotted an alligator basking in the South American sunshine not far from our boat. It appeared to be the same one because it was mid-sized, which was how big the other alligator we had seen from Cormorant was, and was in exactly the same place. As we continued down the river-like part of the lake, our advisor pointed out the two largest cranes in the world. He said they were for removing the gigantic lock doors and bringing them to a special service station. He also showed us the largest dredger in the world. One of the drill bits used by the dredger, located on the barge the dredger was on, was about the size of a Volkswagen Bug! Normally the boats transiting the canal are supposed to supply lunch for all on board, including the advisor and line handlers, so we had bought groceries especially for our transit. But our advisor had an idea of his own. He wanted us to wait for lunch and take him to a place where the tugboat captains can dock and get lunch on shore, located right by the next locks. I think he wanted to go there to hang out with all the tug boat captains. So we agreed to eat late.

    We turned a corner and Mount Culebra came boldly into view. I could see that there were enormous bolts with gigantic concrete washers jammed in its stepped side. Mount Culebra was the “sign” that we were entering the dreaded Gaillard Cut where about 87 years ago men had fought mud slides to chop a pass through Mount Culebra. In the future there are plans to blow up the whole mountain and be done with the constant mud slides and dredging. Here the lake was at its thinnest and on each side of the cut the walls were cut back in steps like the sides of a freeway. We left Mount Culebra behind and I started to get excited because we would finally be having lunch soon.

    It seemed like a long time before we got to the next locks though. This was probably mostly due to how hungry I was, but we did get there. In all, the trip across Gatun Lake took about 3-4 hours (I can't remember exactly how long it took to cross Gatun Lake since the day was so stressful). We prepared the dock lines and got ready to dock. The wharf we were going to tie up to was made for tugboats, so the edges of the wharf were bare and jagged concrete. To make things worse, there was quite a surge and the place where we would be docking was very small. I was very relieved when my dad brought us in perfectly.  Right after we had docked, our advisor and my dad ran off to get us our long awaited food. By now it was two o’clock in the afternoon and we had not eaten since very early that morning! I was now very happy at the prospect of food but, when I saw our advisor and my dad come back empty handed, my now very empty stomach jumped into my throat. When I found out that the place that served food was out of food, I became a very unpleasant person to be around. My mom then went down below and started making the lunch we were supposed to have eaten hours ago. While my mom was making our lunch we got rafted up with the boat Skua while we were still on the dock. This was at a suggestion by our advisor but it turned out a bad one.

    Everything went smoothly while we got rafted up until, after we had just gotten our lines tied up, a big tourist boat came blasting past us sending a huge wake our way. We watched helpless as the wake came closer and closer. The wake hit and we rolled like mad, Skua going down while we went up, thus pulling on the lines really hard. There was a big BANG and our lifeline broke, sending one of our fenders into the water! It turns out that the fenders were being pulled on so hard that they actually managed to break the lifeline, which they were attached to. Luckily, someone off of Skua reached down and picked up the fender. This was extremely dangerous, though, because his or her hand could have been crushed between the two boats! The wake passed us so we got our fenders re-tied and left the dock. Leaving the wharf was even more tricky because we were now rafted with another boat, but my dad managed to get us off the wharf safely. It was rather ironic when our advisor got a message over his radio that we were to go through the next locks with the same tourist boat that had just waked us. The next locks we are going to go through are called the Pedro Miguel Locks. This is the second to last set of locks of the Panama Canal. It was a bit of a relief to know that Steve or I won’t have to line handle but I was also a little nervous because the routine would be a bit different.

    Our advisor told us to start heading for the lock so my dad started heading that way at a good safe speed because he did not want to stress the lines holding us to Skua. At this point everything looked like it was going perfect. It seemed to me that we were the perfect distance from the tourist boat to leave enough room for them to get tied up before we got there. Our advisor obviously had a different idea in mind when he told us to speed up. After speeding up two more times we were going ridiculously fast and I know that it wasn’t just me that thought we were going too fast because you could just see the same question that I had on everyone’s lips, save, of course for our advisor. Why were we going so fast? Our excess of speed was even made worse when you consider that we were nearing the boat we were going to raft to and were in between the narrow, barnacle-encrusted lock walls! Everything ended up all right but my dad had to brake very hard, with a boat rafted up to us, so the docking wasn’t the best. Just imagine what would have happened if we had a problem with our engine and rammed the lock doors, which were right off the bow. I believe that our advisor forgot that we weren’t as maneuverable as the tugboats he was used to driving. To top all this off, it turns out that the tourist boat had never had a boat rafted up to it so the crew had no idea on what they were supposed to do.

    This is the first lock to take us back to the level of the ocean--the Pacific Ocean. The actual lowering of the lock was a little boring because, being rafted to the tourist boat, there was nothing for Steve and me to do but just sit and wait for the lock to empty.

    It wasn’t long before we were looking out on the short stretch of water between us and the Miraflores Locks. We untied from the tourist boat and started to make our way to the last locks between us and the Pacific Ocean. As we exited the Pedro Miguel Locks it felt like we had been transported to yet another world. To our right we could see the Pedro Miguel Boat Club--what a dump! The Pedro Miguel Boat Club is made up of a few rotting buildings and Med-moored boats compressed together like sardines. There were only a few pilings spread here and there so the lines from the boats were criss-crossed like some giant spider’s web. The scenery surrounding this area was more manmade then ever before. Everything just had an unatural feel to it. After a short motor we found ourselves looking, once again, at open lock doors. Without knowing that this was our last two locks I believe that you could have looked at any one of our faces and seen that we were nearing the end of our transit. I was a lot more confident this time, but I also knew that I shouldn’t get too cocky.

     As we neared the lock, we were once again pushed by our advisor to go faster and faster and faster. This made it so that we pulled up to the tourist boat before they were completely tied up to the lock wall. Even with our speed, my dad still managed to get the raft stopped and we got a bow line to the tourist boat with no problems. I felt a lot better now that we were stopped and had gotten a bow line to the tourist boat but, there was no one on the tourist boat to get our stern line! At this time the captain of the tourist boat saw that his boat's stern was starting to drift from the lock wall, so he gunned his engine one last time to push his boat’s stern back next to the wall. Of course this sent a huge frothing and writhing blast of propwash to come rushing out from under the tourist boat and collide with the stern of Immanuel, pushing Immanuel’s stern out into the middle of the lock! Our boat was now heading for the lock wall at a tremendous pace and there was still no man to get our stern line. At this point our advisor told us to give another bow line to the tourist boat. I don’t know why our advisor wanted us to do this but I guess there must have been some sort of reason. Bryan, who was in charge of the starboard stern line, stood at the stern with a line ready to throw. It seemed like forever before someone came to get our stern line. By now our stern had drifted a long way from the tourist boat and was still drifting away at a high rate of speed. With a big heave, Bryan threw the stern line but we all watched in horror as the line fell into the water just short of its mark. Brian frantically pulled in the line and got it back into a coil. Even though we were now even farther away from the tourist boat, Bryan’s second throw hit its mark. When Bryan had gotten his line to the tourist boat, we had all breathed a sigh of relief until we discovered the reality of the situation. With the incredible strain on the line, Bryan, by himself, couldn’t keep the line from feeding back out of the hawser pipe. There was just too much strain for one person to hold the line from flying out and to cleat it at the same time. I watched helplessly from the bow as the line fed farther and farther out. I wasn’t worried about Immanuel, but I was worried for the boat, Skua, that was rafted on our port side. By this time, Skua was only feet from being literally crushed between us and the side of the lock. The crew on Skua looked on helplessly. My dad, knowing that there was nothing he could do at the helm and seeing that everyone else was tied up, immediately abandoned his assigned post in the cockpit, oh horrors, and started to help Bryan pull in more line when our advisor came over and forced my dad back to the helm saying that he had to stay at his assigned post. We all knew that, unless Bryan got some help, Skua was in BIG trouble, so one of the line handlers off of Skua came clambering over to our boat. I could see that he was extremely afraid for the safety of Skua by the speed at which he was able to come over. If there was an Olympic game for seeing how fast one could crawl through a raft of boats this guy would have won it hands down. Thankfully, the line handler from Skua was able to help Brian in getting our stern line hastily to a winch in the cockpit, which had been cleared a moment earlier at his command. After the line was safely around the winch my mom started to crank in the line taking us slowly away from the lock wall. Now I could breathe a sigh of relief and was surprised to find out that we were already almost down to the level of the Pacific. We weren’t even back next to the tourist boat when the locks opened and my dad skillfully took us out of the lock and Immanuel, for the first time ever, felt the gentle waters of the Pacific.

    How different the canal looked from the Pacific side! In front of us we could see The Bridge of the Americas that connects North and South America. It was weird being able to look off the port side of Immanuel at South America and look off the starboard side and see North America. Being right next to North America made me feel somehow closer to home. The most prominent difference between the two sides of the canal, though, is the tidal change. It was disorientating to come out of the Canal and see the tide so much lower on the Pacific side then it was on the Atlantic side.

     Going through the Panama Canal is something that I will never forget. It was long, it was stressful, and I probably never want to do it again, but it was still an awesome experience-an experience that I will never forget!

To the Galapagos | The Writings of Immanuel
Back to Top | Homepage