Friday, April 26, 2019

The Panama Canal: We Made It!

April 25
Shelter Bay Marina

We passed through the Panama Canal on Tuesday, April 23 completing a somewhat rare one-day transit.  It was easier and went much more smoothly than I expected than I was lead to believe by my prior research. Yet it still feels like we accomplished something significant.

Here's the story of our trip through the canal from start to finish.


I engaged the services of a ship's agent, Roy Bravo (hereinafter referred to as Mr. Bravo to avoid confusion with Intermezzo's Roy) to process all the paperwork associated with Intermezzo's clearing in and out of Panama and arranging our canal transit. Mr. Bravo kept me informed as each step was completed and when we had a spot secured on the transit wait list.  He also provided six big round fenders, four 175 ft long strong lines and a line handler so that we had the four required.

While we were waiting in the La Playita anchorage for our turn, we did a thorough check of both engines. A mechanical problem while in a lock would be highly inconvenient and potentially costly. We had noticed that the starboard engine had a very slow coolant leak and its belt for the raw water pump kept coming loose. The coolant leak turned out to be coming from the shaft seal of the fresh water pump, the second time this has occurred on this engine. Fortunately, I had two replacement pumps on the boat, a new spare purchased when I bought the first replacement pump and the rebuilt pump that I replaced. Roy and I made pretty quick work of changing out the bad pump. On close inspection, the belt for the raw water pump turned out to be badly damaged, causing it to stretch and slip. We got that belt changed and then decided to change out the same belt on the port engine as a precaution.

Kim and John went shopping to top up on provisions and beverages; you are required to feed your Canal Advisor and it's good to feed and water your line handlers, too. 

On Monday morning, I received an email from Mr. Bravo informing us that Intermezzo was scheduled to transit the canal the next day, starting at 0600.

Good news!

Then I noticed that the schedule was for an Atlantic to Pacific passage, starting at the Gatun locks instead of the Miraflores locks.

Oh no!

I emailed Mr. Bravo asking him if it was a typo. He responded quickly with a revised email going in the correct direction, but leaving much earlier at 0445.

What a relief!

The Beginning

The day of our transit started very early. We got up at 0330 to get ready and brew some coffee. John ventured out into the dark in the dinghy to pick up our line handler, Omar, at the marina.

At 0430 we weighed anchor and slowly motored to the designated position for the boarding of our Canal Advisor, between buoys #2 and #4 on the canal approach channel. At 0445, we received a radio call from a motor launch confirming our position and shortly afterwards a big service boat was hovering with its thick steel bow only two feet off Intemezzo's fragile looking fiberglass to let Dalton, our Canal Advisor hop on board.

Dalton and I introduced ourselves and then he instructed me to proceed at a speed of 5 knots towards the Miraflores locks. We were on our way!

It was still dark as we made our way through the channel, transitioning from an open bay into more of wide river-like body of water. The shoreline was a blaze of ship and work lights.  Dawn's light appeared as we crossed under the Bridge of the Americas, gradually revealing the features of the working port of Balboa as the sun began to rise.

Mr. Bravo had told me that we should provide "a nice breakfast" for our Canal Advisor, so I asked Dalton if he wanted to eat before or after going through Miraflores locks. He responded with a definitive "before", so Kim set to preparing a hearty breakfast of a vegetable egg scramble and sausage. Dalton, a man of average proportions and Omar, a large, fit young man tucked into the meal with gusto.

Dalton had informed me that we would be "nesting" with one other boat, Blueberry, a 53 foot monohull sailboat that was following closely behind us. As we drew closer to the Miraflora locks, Dalton coordinated over the radio with his colleague onboard Blueberry and we tied the boats together alongside to form a single nested unit. I'm pleased to say that Intermezzo's crew was far more adept at arranging lines and fenders than Blueberry's crew, which Omar seemed to look upon with disdain. Blueberry's Canal Advisor, Guillermo now took charge of the combined boats.  Intermezzo made the rest of the journey to the locks with engines idling in neutral, Blueberry providing a free ride.

We entered the first of Miraflores' three locks behind a tanker ship with an unusual name, Marlin Mystery. The locking procedure is the same for each lock and is pretty straightforward. We wait for the ship ahead of us to be secured in position and then motor slowly into the lock. We were up locking, so the water in the lock chamber was initially at sea level, the lock walls and gates about 30 feet above. Four men at the top of the walls throw light messenger lines weighted with monkey's fists (a weight rapped in a rope knot) at their ends to the two line handlers on each boat. The line handlers try to catch the lines so that the monkey's fists don't damage the boat, but they often miss and the monkey fist lands with a nasty cracking sound. Fortunately we suffered no damage. The line handlers tie the messenger lines to four long, thick dock lines, one at each boat's bow, one at each boat's stern. Bells ring and the lock gate slowly closes behind us.  The lock slowly fills with water and the boats rise. The line handlers continuously take in the slack in their lines to hold the boats in position in the somewhat turbulent rising water. When the water reaches to the top of the lock, the gates in front slowly open and the ship is towed to the next lock by four small locomotives running on tracks on each side of the lock. We wait for ship to exit, the Canal Advisor blows a whistle, the men at the top of the dock untie our lines and send them back to us, messenger lines still attached,  and start walking alongside with us as we motor slowly to the next lock. The procedure is repeated for the second lock.

I had read that when the ship in front of you spins it prop to exit the lock, the prop wash can be a problem.  We did not experience that at all; a complete non-issue.

Dalton was somewhat helpful in guiding us through the locks, but the real star of the day was Omar. He watched all the lines while handling his own, gave calm instructions to the crew, monitored the position of fenders and the boat, pointed out possible trouble spots to me at the helm. He did have an odd habit of talking to himself in rather annoyed language when a canal advisor did something he didn't like or the crew on the other boat fumbled around, but I got used to it.  He was a real asset, very competent and polite.

At the third Miraflores lock (actually the Pedro Miguel lock), Blueberry tied alongside to a big solid Canal Authority tugboat side-tied to the lock wall. This eliminated the need for lines from our boats, giving our line handlers a break.  The tug crew was merciless in their treatment of Blueberry's less than adept line- and fender-handling crew, yelling, rolling their eyes, cracking jokes.

We exited the third lock at around 0900 , detached ourselves from Blueberry and motored into the Culebra Cut, floating about 85 feet higher than when we started. To make our schedule for entering the Gatun locks at the other end of the canal, we needed to hustle. I spun up Yin and Yan, our trusty little Yanmar diesels once again and got Intermezzo moving at a steady 7 knots.

The Middle

We proceeded through the Culebra Cut and into the large Gatun Lake. The wind picked up to 15-plus knots and, of course, on the nose with some decent wind chop on the open portions of the lake. Not bashing, but certainly not calm.

Around noon, Kim set out a big lunch spread of tuna salad, ham, cheese, bread, crackers, fruit, vegetables and condiments. Dalton and Omar tucked into their meals with gusto once again. Omar ate a lot. Dalton ate even more. Clearly, these boat-provided meals are fringe benefits that they enjoy, especially tasty ones like Kim prepared.

Gatun Lake is a manmade lake, flooded river valleys in the middle of a lush jungle. The vegetation on the shore is lush and green, so thick that I think if you ventured more than a hundred feet into it, you would see nothing but dense plants all around you. I kept on the lookout for wildlife, but except for a few birds, didn't see any.

Crossing the lake took about four hours and the early morning start took its toll on everyone. We all took short naps as Intermezzo motored on through a warm breeze under partly cloudy skies with big ships passing us by from ahead and astern. It was a pleasant break from the physical activity and attention required at the locks.

The End

As we approached the Gatun Locks, Dalton told me that we might be asked to wait for Blueberry to catch up. When we passed Blueberry way back in the Culebra Cut, they were only making five knots compared to our seven. I told Dalton, that I thought it would be a very long wait. The canal authority contacted their advisor on Blueberry and agreed...Blueberry wouldn't be completing their canal transit today. This was great for us as it gave us a much-coveted single boat, center locking position. To top it off, we would be entering the locks ahead of the big tanker ship that would share the lock with us, giving us a great view of the Atlantic Ocean ahead and 85 feet below us.

Now all four line handlers onboard Intermezzo would be pressed into service, one at each corner of the boat. Everyone knew the drill and let out their lines like experts as we descended and passed through each of the three locks.  There was considerably less turbulence as water drained from the lock compared to the flooding for up locking. But there were swirling currents as we exited locks that required a fair bit of my attention at the helm. The tricky part is that I couldn't move the boat faster than the men along the lock walls with the lines could walk and sometimes had to stop to let them catch up, the worse thing you can do when in a swirling eddy.  I could hear Omar muttering behind me once when Intermezzo's stern got a bit close to the rough concrete lock wall, but I had everything under control and gave him a smile to tell him to chill.

We cleared the Gatun locks around 1430, motored a mile down the channel and met with the motor launch that picked up Dalton. You really have to trust the guy at the controls on these big heavy duty boats; they get really close and there was a strong wind blowing in the open bay exposed to the ocean. I drew comfort knowing that they do this multiple times a day, year after year. If anyone was going to make a mistake, it would be me, so I just held Intermezzo as steady as I could, watched carefully, and when Dalton was off Intermezzo and the motor launch backed away quickly, I peeled off in the opposite direction with a purposeful burst of the throttles.

We motored against wind and chop to the northwest corner of the bay and into Shelter Bay Marina, where Intermezzo will rest for a couple of weeks. Once tied up in our slip, the crew and I cracked open cold beers and toasted ourselves for a most successful canal transit and the end of Leg 3 of The Voyage. 

I felt tired, relieved, satisfied but not jubilant. I had posted pictures and updates on social media as we progressed through the canal and congratulations and well wishes were flowing in, which I appreciated and for which I am grateful. Yet, the heaviness I felt leading up to the canal transit remained with me, intensifying slightly. The timing of our canal transit coincided with a big shift in my personal life, my crossing from one ocean to another occurring as I have to let go of a dream I was pursuing and face an open and uncertain future, feeling very much adrift. I couldn't write fiction as poignant as my present reality is to me.

The Cost

Going through the Panama Canal in a small boat is costly.  For those contemplating a canal transit, here's a breakdown of Intermezzo's expenses:

Canal Toll and Inspection      $855
Lines and Fenders                  $240
Line Handler                          $120
Other Government Fees         $415
Bank Commission                  $100
Agency Fees                           $790
Total Cost                             $2,520

Oh, and Dalton and Omar ate a lot of food.

What's Next

I'm flying back to California on Saturday for a couple of weeks on land, mostly doing the planning and boat purchases for the next legs of The Voyage. I'll wrap up Leg 3 of The Voyage with a couple of blog posts and then share the plans for Leg 4, which will take Intermezzo from here to Isla Mujeres, lying off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, via Isla Providencia and the Cayman Islands. We have  to keep moving now, to stay ahead of hurricane season and move the boat northward.
Big fenders and long lines required for our canal transit

Bridge of the Americas at the Pacific entrance of the canal

Very early morning in Puerto Balboa 
Omar, the awesome line handler (left), and Dalton, our Canal Advisor (right) having a discussion. (About food?)

Rafted up with Blueberry

John handling the bow line in Miraflores Lock #1

Miraflores Lock #1 fully flooded, 27ft above sea level beyond
Walking the messenger line from one lock to the next

The Culebra Cut

Gatun Lake

Roy at the helm, negotiating ship traffic

Kim and John, extraordinary crew

The Panama Canal showing its 106 years age

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Gatun Lock with a big one behind me

The last lock, the Atlantic Ocean ahead and below us.

Intermezzo's Panama Canal crew, from R to L, Omar, John, Roy and Kim