We started the Panama Canal crossing on a Saturday at midday. We needed four Line Handlers. We had four on paper (as Sorin’s parents were here), but only 1.5 de facto. Jose, a professional line handler, who has been doing this job for 4 years and myself, a sailor with no experience of line handling in a canal crossing context. So I can only count for 0.5. Sorin was the boat Skipper, so no line handling for him.
The schedule of the first day was clearly laid out in advance by our agent, Erick Gálvez. However, very rarely things work as planned and our crossing was no exception. No fault on the agent side though. Eric was very helpful and efficient throughout.
We left Shelter Bay Marina at midday to anchor in ‘the Flats’ just outside of the marina. We had to wait there for our Advisor to board Mehalah and commence the crossing. There were other 4 boats at anchor.
From our reading, the usual is to have 3 sailing boats rafted, the biggest one in the middle. These would cross the canal behind (in the first 2 locks) and then before (in the last lock) a big tanker, ferry, cruiser, etc.
The crossing is normally spread over 2 days. On the first day, the rafted boats go up the 3 locks of the Gatun Ecluse until they reach the level of the Gatun Lake. The first day job is over after the boats tie up to a huge buoy on the lake to spend the night. The Advisor is picked up by a tug and the Line Handler/s spend the night onboard. Breakfast/lunch/dinner are to be provided. On the second day the same or a new Advisor boards the boat in the morning and a 25 mile distance on the lake is covered until Pedro Miguel lock, and then Miraflores locks are reached. Once in the Pacific side the lines/buoys (if any are hired), the line handler/s and Advisor are picked up.
Our Advisor was meant to board Mehalah at 2pm. He only did so shortly after 5pm. Initially it was tensed waiting, but slowly, slowly we relaxed. It would have been exhausting otherwise! We were in luck not to have a too hot or too windy day.
When Edwin (the first day Advisor) boarded Mehalah I was impatient to find out who we will be rafted against. He did not know. He was in constant liaison via the VHF radio with the canal authorities who were going to inform him.
The first option was for us to be rafted to a tug, not a sailing vessel. That possibility gave me goose bumps. We read stories of sailing boats having the cleats snatched off or even banging against the canal walls, due to the disproportionate forces and strong currents in the locks. When I shared my concerns with the Advisor he nodded gently and assured me that he is pushing for Mehalah to go on her own through the lock. Oh my gosh! That was not a good option either. We only had me and the professional Line Handler for the line handling. In the situation where we were to enter the Gatun locks unrafted against another vessel, we would have had to have 4 capable line handlers. We were 2.5 short…I could not share my concerns with the Advisor as it was our responsibility to hire the right number of people. I was feeling like I wanted to pull my hair out! Sorin with his usual calm told me not to worry – “Let’s just wait and see” he said. All this whilst we were approaching the first lock.
Sorin was right! Our luck was that ‘el chico’ (Canal jargon for small yachts), one of the boats scheduled to cross that day missed its scheduled slot due to some logistics complications. They too were short of line handlers – both on paper and de facto. After some negotiations (screening and shouting) they could cross with us. Hurray! We were not alone in the locks. What a relief…
Despite a few small complications and frustrations the transit was uneventful. Mehalah did a great job tagging ‘el chico’ across the locks. Our skipper was great at coordinating the move of the rafted boats, whilest the Advisor was assisting me with the line handling.
The rest of our stay in Panama was nice and relaxing. We spent some good time discovering Panama City during the ‘Carnaval’ (with the help of a Romanian guide – details below, in case Panama is amongst the destinations on your list). With a great cultural diversity and a tropical climate, Panama City is a contrast of old and new, rich and poor, green and grey. Overall it portraits an exquisite type of chaos, a chaos that stimulates all senses.
We then moved onto Taboga Island, 5 nautical miles from Panama. Since there is no beach in Panama City at the weekend tens of boats are flocking in the bay with tourists and Panamanians. Every tourist boat plays loudly its own music, champagne flows everywhere and everything is ‘on fire’. We could not bear more than a weekend there…
We are now back in Panama City and very soon, we will be heading to Galapagos for some more wildlife, with a potential stop in Las Perlas Islands.