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East Meets West: A Panama Canal Passage

Join Joe's Adventure as a Panama Canal Line Handler

Old Rose lookin' goodby Sharon Kratz, Sailing Vessel Rose of Sharon

Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

- Mark Twain

Many cruisers dream of a circumnavigation, of transiting the Panama Canal. There are as many different dreams as there are cruisers.

As I waited for the marina shuttle bus to take me to town for my weekly shopping trip, I met a fellow Texan. Park is from Dallas and he is, as I believe most Texans are, friendly and outgoing and funny. He was crewing aboard a large fishing boat named Dream Maker, traveling from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to – guess where? Houston, Texas.

Dream Maker is a 42' Bertram powerboat, fully rigged for tournament fishing. She is also equipped for safety as well as comfort. Fishermen aboard this vessel have caught over 4,000 Marlin in the last ten years during tournaments, invitationals and charters out of Cabo San Lucas.

The Panama CanalThe captain and crew aboard this particular passage had fished along the way and caught Marlin, Dorado, Tuna and Wahoo – they were eating very well!

“The miracle of the Panama Canal is the vision; how they came up with the concept,” said Park. “The process is powered by gravity and water; they don’t use pumps.”

  1. The lock prepares to receive the ship by opening a valve that releases 26 million gallons of fresh water into the sea. The water level of the first lock drops to sea level.
  2. When the water levels are the same, the valve is closed and the first gate is opened, allowing the ship to enter the first chamber.
  3. The gate is closed and the valve of the next lock opens. This time, water draining from the second lock raises the water level of the first lock. When the levels are equal the second gate is opened and the ship moves into the second lock. The process is repeated until the ship reaches the level of Gatún Lake.
  4. At 85 feet above sea level, Gatún Lake provides the water needed for the locks and the hydropower to run them.
  5. Another 26 million gallons of water flows into the Pacific Ocean via the Gulf of Panama when ships pass through the locks there.

courtesy of  New York Times

A Quick Panama Canal Passage!

Upon entering the Panama Canal, a Port Authority advisor joins your boat for the passage. A pilot boat delivers the advisor to and from your boat, and while he is aboard you must provide him with hot meals, causing many galley slaves no small amount of concern about what to cook while underway. Most of us simply don’t cook underway when on a passage of less than a week; sandwiches and granola bars provide sustenance.

The men of Dream Maker were not the peanut-butter-sandwich types. Park recalled, “When our advisor joined us on the boat, he couldn’t believe our meals, especially the Mahi-mahi quesadillas and lasagna!”

The advisor showed them a shortcut out of the ship channel through Gatún Lake. The water was too shallow for the huge tankers, and Park said they cruised close to several small islands, spotting crocodiles and causing the howler monkeys to scream in protest. Each time a vessel traverses the Panama Canal, a staggering 52 million gallons of water flow from Gatún Lake into the Pacific Ocean or Caribbean Sea. Park said, “Gatún Lake is very lovely, very mystical . . .” and I immediately grew homesick for the magical Rio Dulce River of Guatemala.

A veteran traveler of many Central American countries who has been recently living in Mexico, Park works as a resort developer. He said Costa Rica is, in his opinion, the friendliest of all Latin American countries, and he plans to work there for part of 2010; maybe longer, so he would be “jumping ship” at Bocas Del Toro while the rest of the crew continued on to Texas.

Park told me Dream Maker’s owner/captain, Ronald is a kind and generous man. They’d met a somewhat boat- and fishing-challenged man at Golfito’s Banana Bay (a full-service marina and sports fishing center) of Costa Rica. Park said, “This guy was from the Midwest. His wife left him, so he bought a boat. He didn’t have radar, he was an inexperienced sailor, had no crew, and he didn’t know much about fishing. He was going to leave Costa Rica, go through the Canal, and said he would meet us at the Shelter Bay Marina in Panama, so Ron gave him a very expensive rod and reel and told him to try his hand at fishing along the way. Then the guy took off.”

The man had Single Sideband radio but the Dream Maker crew lost contact with him within a week. “We waited two more days, then another two days . . .” Finally, they contacted the manager of the Fishook Marina at Golfito, which is about the time they discovered he hadn’t filed for a zarpe from Costa Rica to Panama.

“Ron called the U.S. Coast Guard and filed a Missing Boat Report,” related Park. “And the next day we get an email from him that he’s already in Panama!” The men of Dream Maker heaved collective sighs of relief and met their wayward and very lucky friend at Shelter Bay Marina on the Caribbean side of Panama. Ron reclaimed his expensive fishing gear. Park didn’t say whether the guy learned to fish or not.

“If you want to write about crossing the Panama Canal, maybe you should work as a line handler,” said Joe. I have a problem with surrendering myself to living on a stranger’s boat for a couple of days, not the least of which is my shaky digestive tract. Even though I’m almost two years post-op, I still have some bothersome bouts of digestive problems. Bottom line: I’m very picky about with whom I travel anywhere.

Joe has no such difficulty and the next time a boat asked him if he wanted to join them as a line handler when they traversed the Panama Canal, he said yes.

The day the boat eased into its slip at Shelter Bay Marina, I turned to a friend and said, “That’s a really good-looking boat.” And I didn’t know she was a Westerly, the same make as Rose of Sharon. I simply love the look and feel of Westerly sailboats. There are not many of them out there, but most of the Westerly boat owners we’d met were European.

S/V Sal Darago is home ported at Hesketh Bank, which is located near Preston, Lancashire, England. Owners Jeremy and Kathy left England July 2008 and made passage to Barbados, arriving 5 months later. Their travels are a cruiser’s dream itinerary: Southern Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Madeira, the Canary Islands, Barbados, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, the Grenadines, the Grenada Group, Tobago, and Trinidad. They left their boat for six months to visit home and family, returned to Sal Darago and resumed their travels: Bonaire, Curacao, Aruba, the San Blas islands and finally, Shelter Bay Marina.

They plan to continue their circumnavigation on the Pacific side of Panama, sailing to the Galapagos, Marquesas . . . and hope to celebrate Christmas 2010 in New Zealand! It’s difficult to maintain a strict itinerary when cruising, but they believe their goal of returning to Great Britain by July 2012 is reasonable.

S/V Sal Darago is one of the unique double-keeled monohull Westerly Solways, solid and seaworthy vessels. Joe and I are proud of our Westerly Corsair, and we were excited to see one of these unique vessels straight from its family of origin – England.  In addition to Joe Kratz of League City, Texas, other crew members included Perri and Louis, a Canadian couple. I doubt Joe would have crewed if any crewmember was from A Certain Country that we are trying not to be prejudiced against but find it difficult. “Everyone loves the Brits and the Canadians,” said another cruiser. I think most other countries’ cruisers find U.S. cruisers to be funny and loud. Thank goodness, you won’t find many “Ugly Americans” in the cruising community. But there’s one country that irritates the entire international cruising community . . . I’ll get over it. Maybe.

Getting readyAs they prepared for their Panama Canal crossing, everyone was nervous. It’s a big deal, and exciting but kind of scary too. I was almost beside myself with excitement and I wasn’t even going along on the excursion. Joe’s only comment revealed his own anxiety. In the words of the official NASA Astronaut prayer, Joe said, “Please, Lord, don’t let me screw up.”

The day they left the dock, the six people aboard Sal Darago were moving quickly and purposefully as they readied the boat for departure. They left a bit ahead of schedule and followed the buoys to an area called “The Flats,” a shallow, protected area where smaller boats await the arrival of their advisors. Joe said the swells were just enough to remind him what it feels like to be “out there” in the ocean, which we hadn’t been since 2009.

The pilot boat arrived with Sal Darago’s advisor at 4:15 p.m. and immediately announced, “We have to hurry!”

The advisor’s “regular” job was in the Panama Canal’s Office of Measurements – all boats have to be measured several days before their transit – but he was picking up a little extra money as an advisor. The pay for advisors is approximately $800 per passage. The advisor is on the boat for about three hours the first day and 7 hours the second day of the transit.

Gatun LockAs they entered the first of Gatún’s three locks, they were rafted up to two other “small” boats; one of them a big-o powerboat from Corpus Christi, Texas. M/V The Last Stall was en route to Cabo San Lucas. It had twin diesels, 1400 hp each. When you’re rafted up to a boat, there’s an intimacy between boats that is unavoidable. Joe enjoyed chatting with the Texans on the powerboat. He said they were rich and rescued injured Mustangs in west Texas. Next to the powerboat was a retired French couple on their catamaran, who quickly announced to the two other boats, “We are not sailors. We are cruisers!”

Line handling in the Panama CanalSmaller vessels passing through the Canal are called “line walkers” because they use line handlers and walkers to keep them centered instead of the large locomotive line handlers necessary for ocean-going tankers. The Panama Canal Authority employees handle the bow and stern lines on the wall as do the line handlers on the boat; they pass lines back and forth. If a boat is rafted up, you will save two line handlers. “We were hooked up, our port to their starboard,” said Joe. “The type of knot at one end of the line is called a ‘monkey’s fist.’ ” Joe said it was supposed to be a line-wrapped golf ball, but it felt heavier. He manned the starboard stern and the Canal worker tossed him the line with the monkey’s fist. Joe tied it to a loop in his line, the worker pulled it back and then dropped it over a bollard. As the water rises, the line handler on the boat has to pull very hard to keep the vessel centered in the lock.

Inside the Lock“We locked up, locked up, locked up and then we were on the lake,” said Joe. They journeyed to two buoys and tied up. There was a large black commercial party boat that was not supposed to be in the anchorage, but rather than moor with them, the Texas powerboat dropped anchor. “Are you going to barbecue tonight?” someone asked the people on The Last Stall. “We’re from TEXAS!” they replied. “What do you think?”

Sal Darago’s crew had a delicious burger/rice casserole. The only social faux pas that Joe observed was when the first mate Kathy gave one of the line handlers some red wine from a bladder. The line handler (Perri), tasted the wine and tossed it overboard. She then reached into her own supplies and produced a box of Clos Merlot. When it comes to box wines, Clos fans are loyal.

Despite talk of crocodiles in the lake, two of the people on Sal Darago went for an evening swim. The lake was quite calm and there was no breeze. “NO BREEZE,” Joe repeated for emphasis. Joe was sleeping in the salon and the boat’s owner apologized for lack of fans near the middle berth. “No problem,” replied Joe, but as he tossed and turned and tried to sleep, the perspiration ran down his head and across his back. Eventually, he nodded off.

The alarm in the main salon went off at 5:30 a.m. and the advisor reappeared at 6:00 a.m. They threw off the lines and left, crossing Gatún Lake as fast as a sailboat can motor.

They were scheduled to transit the Pedro Miguel Lock at 10:30 a.m., then they received word that their entry had been moved up to 10:15, then 10:00, then 9:30 a.m. “There was no way we could make it by 9:30,” said Joe, “But Jeremy pushed it as hard as he could.” The boat’s throttle, just as Rose of Sharon’s throttle, is located in an inconvenient place in the center cockpit and crewman Louis bumped into it several times, slowing the boat. The first time, he said “Sorry,” and Jeremy said, “No problem,” but after bumping into the throttle about four times, Jeremy was visibly upset and hurried to get the boat back up to speed.

“When we were about five miles from the locks, the powerboat ploughed past us. They were able to sleep a bit later and relax over breakfast because they are a powerboat,” Joe sniffed in disdain. Once again, jealousy over speed vs. sail rears its ugly head. I don’t know many sailboaters who would admit preferring a powerboat’s speed over the integrity of a sailboat, but I would.

Sal Darago rafted up to the big fishing boat, which maintained their position using its engines. A little reverse, a little forward . . . the lake was gentle enough that they did not need to drop anchor. They then received word that their transit would be delayed one hour and a tanker passed them.

The French catamaran finally appeared (Joe suspected they’d stayed up late the night before, celebrating their passage), they were rafted and began passage through the Pedro Miguel Locks at 11:15 a.m. This time, the line handling was much easier, said Joe, because the wall line handlers were on the same level as the boat. “You have 150' of rope coiled up and at the end is a 3' bowline,” he explained. “When you get the monkey’s fist, you put it through a big loop and tie another bowline. You stand there with the big rope loose, holding the little rope with the monkey’s fist and they walk you into the lock.”

Once inside the lock, the line walker pulls in the line and brings the big rope to the wall; he then loops it over the large cleat (bollard). Joe pulled the big rope tightly and cleated it off the stern starboard side and winched it to tighten.

“When we were locking up, the rope got shorter, but when we were locking down, the line gets longer so you have to play it out,” he continued. “It was also easier locking down because we did not have to deal with the current that shoved the boat sideways when we were locking up.”

View to Lake MirafloresThe three vessels stayed rafted together as they journeyed to and through their last locks, the Miraflores. “We locked down, locked down, went underneath the Bridge of the Americas and then we were in the Pacific Ocean,” he said. A pilot boat arrived to remove the advisor, and the crew began coiling the 150' lines. While he was coiling lines, Lewis joined him to stack the ropes. He lifted one coil and out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw the rope catch on the boat’s dorade deck ventilator. It popped off and flew into the air. Joe yelled, “Whoa!” causing Jeremy to slam the throttle into reverse, which sheared off the rubber connector between the transmission and the propeller.

They were dead in the water.

The French catamaran came up behind them and they began waving and gesturing to the other boat’s crew, who mistook it as some kind of victory celebration and responded with their own shouts and waves. The crew of Sal Darago  began shouting, “No! No! It’s not like that! We need HELP!”

Someone finally got on the VHF radio and explained the predicament and the catamaran then towed them to the Balboa Yacht Club.

However, the Balboa Yacht Club refused to give them mooring until someone physically appeared in the office. “This is difficult for us to do because we are having some trouble STOPPING,” the exhausted Jeremy tried to explain, but there was no persuading the marina to make an exception. The kind French couple towed them to La Playita and stayed with them until they were sure the anchor was set. Jeremy dropped the dinghy and took Joe and the other crew members to the La Playita marina dock.

It was 2:45 p.m. and the Canadian couple needed cash for their boat’s transit through the Panama Canal, so the taxi driver rushed to get them to the nearest bank, which would close at 3:00 p.m. When Joe saw the line of people at the bank, he instructed the taxi driver to take him to a small tienda, where he bought several bottles of cold water, a fruit juice for the taxi driver and a six-pack of beer. He said the cold beer made the wait at the bank much more enjoyable.

The bus from Panama City to Colón cost $2.40 per person. The three tired line handlers hailed a taxi to take them to Shelter Bay Marina, where Joe instructed me to turn on the air conditioning and set the temperature at “meat locker.” He slept solidly and happily.

It actually worksThe following week, with the help of a stainless steel contractor and neighbor Paul of S/V AngelHeart, Joe installed the wind generator he’d purchased for $75 in the Rio Dulce in 2005. We had hauled that thing all the way to Panama, storing it, shuffling it, and he had stopped me from throwing it overboard twice.

Better late than never. I was amazed to see that it worked, it actually worked, with only one minor glitch. If anyone who had one foot in the water as they ascended or descended our ladder simultaneously touched the pole holding the wind generator, they would receive quite a shock. “Guess I should work on that,” Joe mused as I nursed my still tingling arm following my afternoon swim.

The next week we left Shelter Bay Marina, bound for Lintón, where a refrigeration specialist hoped to resurrect our system by installing a brand-new unit. I had adamantly insisted that, after having repaired or replaced our refrigeration three times in ten years, we did not need refrigeration. We cruised most of 2009 without refrigeration and I am the queen of non-refrigerated menus. Joe never quite got the hang of rum and warm Kool-Aid, but it seemed worth it to me not to have to deal with the power demands of a refrigeration unit.

Our new portable generatorJoe said that with out “new” wind generator and our brand-new portable generator, the refrigeration would not be a problem.

We left the safe harbor of Shelter Bay Marina, once again dreaming of perfect anchorages and white sand Caribbean islands. For us, April was the beginning of a new year; Rose of Sharon’s cruising season, 2010!

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