Michelle, the woman mechanic, brought our engine’s head back and carefully questioned Bobby about how he intends to re-install it. She is intent that everything be done properly and sincerely cares that we have a reliable engine.

            Bobby has spent most of his time in Colon working on the boat. Now that he has the head, he starts putting all the parts back together. He also scheduled the admeasurers for Immanuel to be measured for transit, finished up the paperwork involved, arranged for the rental of the four required 150 foot lines, and hired Carlos and his nephew to be line-handlers. Bryan and Robby will act as our other line-handlers. Bobby’s evenings are enhanced by the nightly parade of hookers who proposition Bobby and commiserate with him when, pointing to the boat, he says, “Mi esposa aqui.” Many of these young women are fetching Columbians doing what they can to survive.

            Bobby woke up at four in the morning to give Bryan a ride out to the flats. Bryan is making a practice run through the canal as line-handler on Heart of Gold. They are only going as far as Pedro Miguel Boat Club, actually inside of the last set of locks leading to the Pacific, so are expected to make it in one day. Usually it takes two days for a sailboat to make the transit as we are not allowed in the locks after dark. We don’t understand the reasoning since the canal is in operation 24 hours a day and is lit up like a football field but this is one of the rules put in place by the US that is still in force. Other rules, notably the speed limit for tugboats, have fallen by the wayside.

            Sailing vessels do not usually lock up or down by themselves; they are squeezed in when there is room to share the lock with another vessel and this has caused some confusion since the canal reverted to Panama. The procedure is to obtain a transit date, then call the controller the day before to confirm. Captains are receiving dates, calling, and being rescheduled arbitrarily. Some people have been scheduled for each of the past seven days and still aren’t through. Usually sailboat crews line-handle for each other but people are running into all kinds of problems.  Boat “A” is scheduled for transit on the 10th so boat “B”, which is scheduled for the 15th, plans to line-handle for boat “A.” The problem occurs when boat “B” transits before boat “A.”   Commercial shipping is having difficulties as well. Even freighters are sometimes transiting 24 hours later than scheduled.

            Sailboats have the option of “going center chamber” which means a boat is centered in the locks with a line running from each  “corner” of the boat to a linesman on the canal wall. Usually the lock controllers raft two to four boats together when they go center chamber. Another option is “alongside another vessel.” Often a tugboat will transit next to the wall and a sailboat can be tied to it. The third option is “going alongside the wall.” This is an option rarely used by yachts. It is hard to protect a boat’s topsides from harm when it is lowered and raised against the rough concrete walls. Sailboats have also sustained damage when turbulence in the lock causes a severe enough roll to jam the spreaders into the wall. Regardles of the method, each boat must have four line-handlers. A raft of three boats is required to have 12 line handlers, four for each boat, even though only four locklines are used to hold the whole raft.

NEXT: (Panama Canal)


PREVIOUS: (February)

Writings of Immanuel | Home | Pictures!


            Bryan did not return by dinner time. He still wasn’t home at bedtime. We figure he is at anchor in the canal because the schedulers messed up again and didn’t get Heart of Gold through like they were suppossed to. We’re still somewhat worried until Bryan returns in the morning excited about his transit but feeling bad that he had no way to notify us about his unexpected night aboard Heart of Gold.

            Bobby and Robby line-handled for Cormorant but I didn’t have to wake up to give them a ride out in the dinghy. A power boat that is also transiting spent the night on the fuel dock at the marina and is taking them out to Cormorant. Bobby thought it was ironic that the owner of the power boat served him a cup of coffee. You see, the owner of the power boat is the International House of Pancakes Franchiser. IHOP was our favorite restaraunt for after church brunch.

            Michael, Bryan, and I were surprised when Bobby and Robby walked into the yacht club restaraunt where we were eating dinner. Cormorant was also heading for the Pedro Miguel Boat Club and suppossed to get there in one day. But we didn’t expect them to. Bobby and Robby, like Bryan before them, were excited and sunburned.

            Bobby has finished his work on Immanuel, I have finished provisioning, we have line-handlers, we’re on the scheduler’s list and are just waiting for his OK to go. The scheduler actually told Bobby that he is no longer using his new computer program to schedule transits because it was causing too many delays--he now keeps track of every ship on a notepad! Bobby calls every day to receive a new transit day.

            After less than a week, we were given a firm transit date. We filled up the fuel and water tanks, festooned Immanuel with plastic-bag-wrapped tires purchased from one of the taxi drivers, and moved back out to the flats. We had been hoping to motor around for half a day to check the engine after all the work Bobby has done to it but were unable to. We just have to trust in Bobby’s skill and God’s keeping.

            Amy and Steve, two back packers on vacation from their jobs as crew on chartered boats, have been hanging around the yacht club looking for a boat to take them on as line-handlers. They want to experience a canal transit and Bobby would like to take them with us but had already agreed to hire Carlos. It so happened that Carlos couldn’t make it on the day we were finally scheduled so Amy and Steve moved onto our boat the evening before our transit.





            We picked up a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club, a misnomer since the club buildings burned down two years ago. All that is here now is rows of moorings, a dock with a trailer on top which acts as office, and two tenders. No one is allowed to use their own dinghy here. We must all shout “Muelle, muelle, muelle (Dock, dock, dock)” into our VHF radios when we want to leave our boats and hope that someone comes to pick us up. A band of taxi drivers loiter on shore hoping to sell us a ride into Panama City proper.

            Steve and Amy gathered their things and jumped into a tender. We gave them bus fare back to Colon and thanked them sincerely for their assistance.

            We have an even better view of the traffic coming through the canal from Balboa than we did from Colon. We stand out on deck to wave at some American Naval vessels passing by. They are kind and don’t send much of a wake to start us rolling. Others aren’t as careful.

            The Bridge of the Americas is off our bow and pelicans fly by our stern. There are two flocks, dozens strong, of cormorants that fly back and forth from the peninsula extending beyond the anchorage to the far side of the canal. We see them swimming with only their necks above water and standing on rocks fanning their wings out to dry. A great blue heron makes its home on the dock.

           Kentra, a 1923, wooden, gaff-rigged ketch, is on one of the moorings here. This classic, 110 foot vessel is owned by an English gentleman who is “sailing around the world” in his own fashion. He has a crew of six who sail and maintain the boat and he flies in to spend a few weeks here and there. We befriended the crew while Bobby’s parents were visiting us in Bonaire.

            Tiana had reservations from San Diego to Bonaire after Bobby’s parents left but she had such a serious head cold that she got off the plane in Los Angeles because it hurt her ears too much to fly. We were missing her terribly on Christmas Day and Kentra’s crew was missing their families so they invited us over for champagne and Christmas munchies.

            Simon, the engineer, gave us a tour. Kentra has been lovingly preserved and the few items that needed to be restored were finished in the original tradition. The crew does all wood work with traditional hand tools. The only stainless steel on the boat is found in the brackets attaching Kentra’s life rings. The pipes and fittings are highly polished brass or bronze. The standing rigging is tarred regularly. Anti-fouling is hand tacked copper sheeting. The antique joinery below decks is oil-rubbed teak. The vintage saloon table is gimbled so the owner’s crystal wine glasses and china stay put when he is dining underway. The owner has installed modern electronics, such as GPS, radar, and VHF radio, but they are all cleverly hidden behind hinging panels.

            We admire the young crew for their work ethics, their sense of old-time seamanship, and their bright personalities. We’re looking forward to renewing our acquaintance. It is a pleasure when Gemma, Kentra’s cook, invites us over for pizza. She appears subdued and confides in us that she is leaving the boat. She feels down because she had planned to stay all the way to New Zealand but various factors have combined to impell her to return to England. A new cook, along with a seventh crew member, is coming aboard in a few days. The extra crew member is an additional hand solely for the passage to the Galapagos and thence to the Marquesas.

            After an extremely full day of transiting the canal it was a treat to have dinner prepared for us and relaxing company aboard Kentra. Our first night in the Pacific was passed so soundly that we hardly noticed the wakes rocking us in our sleep as the big ships went by throughout the night.

            Bobby noticed an advertisement for an Outback restaurant and he won’t rest until we find it. Accordingly, we “dressed up” in long pants with coller shirts one evening and took the tender to shore. The taxi driver was unsure of the restaurant’s location, but after stopping at a competing Swiss restaurant to ask directions, he found it. The Outback just opened for business and the manager was gratified to have our positive comments on the surroundings, the service, and the meal. Bobby asked him if it would be possible for us to buy some of the steaks that are flown in several times a week from the US. Surprisingly, the manager sold us a vaccum packed row of ten frozen USDA New York strip steaks. We anticipate grilling our own Outback steaks in a remote South Pacific anchorage.

            We went out to dinner yet again as a good-bye meal for Gemma. Panama City is a little America so this time we went to Bennigan’s. It’s sad to say good-bye. We’ve enjoyed knowing Gemma and promise each other to keep in touch.

            Bryan and I did one more run to the laundromat and Bobby and I did a last grocery shopping at Panama’s upscale market, Casa de Carne. We were able to complete my shopping list with some of the American items I was unable to locate in Colon. We stocked up with fresh produce and visited the meat counter. The butcher cut and packaged quality steaks and poultry to our order. At last, we are ready to set out across the Pacific.

            We filled our tanks with deisal fuel and fresh water from the Balboa Yacht Club before leaving Panama at 3:30 on the afternoon of Saturday, March 18th, three weeks later than we intended. We’re thankful that our engine was able to be repaired. We will simply skip stopping at Panama’s Pacific islands, Las Perles, and head straight for Galapagos.

            Moods are high with excitement and expectation. We feel as if we are turning the page to a whole new adventure. The six day passage to the Galapagos is no longer daunting after weathering the five days from Curacao to San Blas. As long as we are able to look only to Galapagos, and not to the vast Pacific beyond, we remain upbeat and keep our doubts in check. However, the path we are traveling is within the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) which is subject to great calms interspersed with sudden squalls so we are not entirely lowering our guard.

            The sea state is almost too good to be believed. We are in the fabled, long Pacific swells and are moving barely more than when at anchor. When Bobby checks in on single-sideband with the other boats out here, Bob, from Compass Rose, says, “If this is Pacific sailing, what were we doing in the Caribbean so long?”

            Sunday dawned just as perfectly. The sky is brilliant, crisp blue sporting scattered puffballs of clouds. There is not much wind, but even at only four knots of boat speed, four-fifths of us are still supremely comfortable. Bryan is feeling a might sea-sick with little appetite and even less vigor. Even the sight of a large steamer-trunk-sized sea turtle floating by couldn’t rouse him.

            Bryan felt better in the morning. We are sailing wing-and-wing making six knots through waves that are still gentle. The swells look large but they glide right under us without hardly a roll. The sun is bright yet carresses rather than beats upon us. Robby hooked a blue marlin just long enough to see its head and back come out of the water before it tossed the hook out of its mouth and disappeared into the depths.

            The following day Robby caught and landed a three foot yellow-fin tuna. There isn’t much else out here. We haven’t seen any ships since yesterday evening but we are starting to see masked boobies, a large white bird we at first mistook for an albatross.

            Bryan is feeling worse and is staying in bed. He can’t keep anything down. Dehydration is our biggest fear. There are no hospitals out here and we have no IV fluids aboard--a lack that we plan to rectify as soon as possible, but it will be too late to do Bryan any good now. Usually it takes no longer than three days to recover from sea-sickness. We’re beginning to wonder if he’s especially sensitive to motion or if he could be suffering from another ailment. Bryan has not been seasick before and can’t differentiate between that and an intestinal bug. Thankfully, he’s keeping a good attitude and doing his best to drink plenty of liquids.

            Our fourth day out was blissfully uneventful. The one break from the familiar blue emptiness was a pair of silky sharks swimming alongside us for 45 minutes. The water is so clean and clear that we can easily make out their entire bodies even when they are one hundred feet away. As their dark shapes come closer, we can distinguish their true golden-bronze color while their gill-slits and dead-looking eyes become plainly visible.

            The first dolphin of the passage made an appearence 100 yards off the starboard beam. We’ve been expecting to be able to share the joy of dolphin riding our bow with Bryan and have missed their company ourselves. These dolphin showed us some acrobatics, jumping out of the water and slamming the surface of the sea with their sides as they fell, but didn’t come any closer.

            Bobby has been easing his boredom by occasionally hailing Kentra over the VHF radio. We know they left less than a day behind us but don’t seriously expect to have them pass within range when there is so much ocean to choose a path in. We were all startled when, after lunch on Thursday, they answered his hail. Jim, the captain, sounded as if he regularly gets calls from friends when he is in the middle of nowhere, but Bobby hardly knew what to reply.

            More amazingly, Kentra is just out of sight behind us on our exact rhumbline. An hour later, we were treated to the sight of this vintage sailing vessel powering through the seas with all sails flying. She appeared as an elegant apparition from decades past. The sun sparkled on the drops of spray clinging to her varnished bowsprit and reflected from her clouds of billowing sail. Bryan and I burned a roll of film each while Kentra’s crew took pictures of us.

            Bobby decided to slow down once Kentra passed because if we maintain these speeds, we will arrive Friday night. We don’t want to be close to the islands before daybreak so we adjust to arrive Saturday morning. It’s a difficult decision because we are in the ITCZ, which normally means there is little to no wind except in scattered squalls where the wind can be too high to carry full sail. We have not encountered these conditions but cannot count on our fine wind to continue. We’ve noticed the clouds on the horizon are diagonal. We wonder if this is an indication that we are at the edge of the ITCZ, which extends and contracts its borders both seasonally, and, it seems, at will. Some sailors maintain their speed and heave-to for the night if they approach land in darkness while a very few rely on their GPS (and that the island has been charted correctly) to pilot them through land masses. Heaving-to, adjusting sails so that we have little or no forward motion, drives us crazy and, since we trust our eyes more than our radar and GPS,  we prefer to lower our speed and hope we calculated correctly.

            Bryan’s health took a nose-dive after his one afternoon of feeling better. We think he may be suffering from an intestinal bug picked up in Panama rather than seasickness. I started giving him Bactrim, a sulfa drug that fights bacteria, and stepped up his fluid intake this evening. Our sailing guides inform us that there is a doctor in Puerto Ayora, which is reassuring in the event that Bryan is still ill upon our arrival.

            The night and morning passed pleasantly monotonously. The wind is holding and the seas are still remarkably easy. We’ve seen nothing but boobie birds since Kentra passed us yesterday. We’re looking forward to crossing the equator this afternoon and are making plans on how to celebrate our transformation from pollywogs to shellbacks.

            Bobby dressed up as King Neptune, using net laundry and dive bags for clothing, a wig fashioned from a mop head, and holding Michael’s three-pronged pole spear as a staff. The boys drew up a bucket of equatorial water and Michael tucked “strands” of printer paper under the rim of his watch cap so he could have long, white hair as well. We took turns kneeling in front of Bobby while he dubbed us shellbacks with taps of the pole spear on each shoulder. The boy who wasn’t kneeling placed one of the pet turtles on our backs and poured the sea water over us. Poor Bryan couldn’t get out of his bunk and didn’t even feel up to dipping his hand in a glass of water from the equator.

            Just after we finished our ceremony, Robby’s fishing line went screaming off of one of his reels. Robby ran to set the hook while Bobby reeled in the other fishing pole’s line. A giant blue marlin jumped out of the depths with Robby’s lure showing from the side of his mouth! Bobby rolled in the genoa and started the engine. I grabbed my camera and gave it to Michael before taking the helm. We’re determined to get this behemoth up to the side of the boat before we release him.

            I have never seen a truly huge marlin caught before and was overwhelmed by its beauty and power. The shimmering indigo creature rising from the crystal sapphire sea in a spray of sparkling, white foam is magnificent. We are all so caught up in the hunt that we forget we are alone on a wide sea and don’t think twice about treating Immanuel as if she’s a power boat.

            Bobby shouts, “Slam it into reverse and aim toward the sun!”

            As soon as I do so, Robby says, “OK, OK--I’m getting him.”

            As we back toward the marlin, Robby is able to wind in some line. Michael is snapping away with the camera. The marlin runs to port.

            Bobby yells, “Back to port--to port. Faster, faster!”

            The marlin jumps and twists, but can’t shake the hook. Robby gains more line on his reel. The marlin runs to starboard and takes the gained line back.

            I heard the line singing and followed Bobby’s pointed finger, backing to starboard. Robby reels in the line again. His mouth is set with determination, but his arms are shaking and his face is white.

            “Dad, I don’t think I can hold it much longer,” slips out of Robby’s mouth.

            Bobby is eager to take a turn so he grabs the pole while Robby slumps with fatigue. We continued chasing the monster who, thankfully, shot forward. Bobby stumbled to the bow, struggling to pass the rod around each shroud as he went. Now, we don’t have to chase him in reverse.

            We zigged and zagged just below the equator, wherever our unwilling guide wanted to take us. Now Bobby was winning the game, now the marlin had the upper hand. But he was tiring, and Robby was recovering.

            Robby took over and was able to take up some line before the marlin sounded. Robby was straining to wind up each inch of monofiliment when, suddenly, the great fish barreled up right under our hull.

            Robby yelled, “Mom, he’s gonna tear the line on our bottom. Move, move!”

            Happily, I moved Immanuel one way and the marlin went the other. After a two hour fight, he was spent and floating alongside. We all stood along the rail admiring the iridescent blue form, striped with crisp, ebony lines.

            The marlin instanly passed from absolute stillness to a wild thrashing of his bill. The churning water, whipped white, and the blur of the lashing bill were terrible and beautiful to behold. This was the marlin’s last stand.

            Robby brought the bill as close as he could to Bobby while Bobby tried to get the lure with a gaff. We did not want to injure this mighty creature. Try as they might, Robby and Bobby were unable to recover the hook. The fishing line broke just above the lure and the marlin swam gracefully away.

            Bryan is so weak that he didn’t show himself through all of the excitement. I went to check on him to make sure he has something to drink and has taken his pills. He looks so pitiful that I told him he needed to sleep the night through and go to the doctor tomorrow if he’s not any better.

            I was looking forward to taking Bryan’s three to six o’clock in the morning watch and I wasn’t disappointed. The sky was deepest ebony showcasing millions of glittering stars. I put on my harness and stood outside the cockpit looking up at the mast as it seemed to sift through the lowest stars. Thin threads of phosphorescence trailed along the top of the wakes coming from Immanuel. I lost count of the falling stars shooting across the heavens.

            The night air was neither hot nor cold against my skin. The breeze was balmy and soothing. A seabird circled the boat. The night was so dark that it wasn’t the bird that I saw as much as the abscence of stars behind the bird as it flew by. I was still out on deck, glorying in God’s creation when I heard it.

            A whale surfaced and blew somewhere nearby. I searched the inky waters but could discern no phosphorescent streaks that appeared to be flowing from the back or fluke of a whale. I was thrilled to be sailing with such a powerful companion, but fearful because I could neither detect how close nor in what direction the whale was traveling. The sense that I wasn’t alone in traversing this part of the sea remained with me for the remainder of my watch, but the whale never showed itself.

To the Panama Canal | Writings of Immanuel