January 29, 2011

Panama Canal

   Wow what an exciting few weeks it has been!  After years of dreaming and planning we have finally crossed through the Panama Canal. 

    I remember the last time I was in Panama City five years ago standing at the visitors center at the Mira Flores Locks thinking, some day… Well the day came much sooner than I thought it would.  Dreams do come true, but as I have found out not always as we vision them.  The events as you see them unfold are just a little different than you could have imagined back then..  I could have never imagined going through the canal on a boat a wonderful as Downtime or with a group of people from all around the world.  We sailed through with Daria from Russia, Dwight and Karen from Canada, Tommy from Australia and the two canal advisors Robin and Edwin from Panama and Myself being from the good old USA.

    The Panama Canal was completed in 1914.  Since then the Canal has seen over a million boats pass through her locks.  The digging of the canal cost countless lives and an untold fortunes of investors money before the USA took over to complete the project.  The main battle was not the digging but with mosquitoes which spread yellow fever and malaria.  As soon as they figured that one out people stopped dyeing from disease.   The digging itself was of unimaginable quantities of material at the time.  Over a 152 million cubic yards of material were dug out and hauled away!!  Most of which was loaded with steam shovels hauled on flat railcars from the site. If you took all those rail cars and put them end to end they would circle the globe four times!!  Or you could build 63 pyramids in Egypt with that much material.  The work was miserable; imagine running a steam shovel in a hole in a jungle while it is raining!!  Those guys were tough!!

    Construction of the canal itself is impressive.  All the lock gates are original and the concrete is in pretty good shape for how old it is.  The canal has been open 24 hours a day since 1963 and has only been shut down twice the last 98 years. Once when The US came into Panama to remove Noriega and once just this last December when they had too much rain!  WOW!! too much rain in Panama is ALOT of rain!!   We saw the affects along the coast on our way down with all the landslides.  Edwin our advisor explained to us they actually had all the spillway gates open on the dam and were still gaining water in the lake. So much water that they were flooding the locks, so the opened one set of locks to drain the extra water.  Imagine a river 130 wide 40 feet deep, that’s a lot of water.  Amazingly it took only took a few hours to get the lake down to a level that they could use the locks again..

    The process of going through the locks is a very organized procedure.  The easiest way is to call an agent.  The agent knows all the people involved in the process.  But everything is not strait forward.  We had to pay a $175 overtime fee in the middle of the day on a Saturday?  Something about being understaffed?  Hmmm tips for everyone today!!  Oh well “It Is What It Is” It is either pay the “Overtime” or you somehow will not have a slot available for 5 days! 

    First the agent contacts the Panama Canal Authority to have your boat measured.  This involves having a canal agent come aboard and filling out a few forms and a liability waiver, hmm liability waiver?  Is this as dangerous as skydiving? Then he whips out his 25 foot tape measure and you help him measure the boat.  Well, a 25 foot tape and a 58 foot boat took a few reading to get to the length stated on the ships papers.   The agent then turns in his paper work and you get a time slot assigned, we were lucky to be going through during a relatively slow time and were assigned a slot the next day.  Some people have had to wait weeks.  The only problem with hanging out in Colon is that it is REALLY dirty!!  We have crude oil along the waterline and saw oil floating everywhere in the anchorage!!  YUCK! It seems safe enough during the day, but that might be due to the few hundred police on every street corner with guns!!  We had no problems walking around town doing our shopping.  The local people are friendly.  The street vendors are helpful and not pushy.   And beer is cheap!

    Next you move to the staging location where the canal advisor meets you.  We were given a time of 5:30 pm which turned into 7:30pm without notice.  There must have been a yacht ahead of us in a hurry with a big checkbook.  We heard stories of people paying $80k over regular fees to get through NOW!!  Well thank goodness we were not in a hurry.  Edwin our advisor showed up a little after 7:00 and we were on our way to the first set of locks.  All boats transiting the canal require 4 line handlers aboard and 4 one hundred foot lines.  With smaller boats they usually have you raft up with up to 3 boats across to minimize the people they need at the locks since each line would require a man on the lock walls also.   On our way locking up we just had one other boat tied along side.  We rafted up just before the lock entrance and pulled in behind a 600 foot ship.  The ship in front of us was pulled through with specially designed locomotives which move the ship and keep it centered. The locks are 1000 feet long so there was lots of extra room for us.   The doors slowly closed behind us shutting us off from the Atlantic ocean it will be many miles before we see her again  As soon as the doors were locked the water started  raise in the locks, slowly at first and  then with more force.  About half way up the turbulence moved the boats around pretty good.  Lines had to be continually tightened as the water rose to keep us centered between the lock walls.  The locks raise you 30 feet in each time and there are 3 locks on each side.  It took a little over an hour to go through the 3 locks.  The last set gates open and you are in Gatun Lake.  Before the Canal the lake did not exist, just the Chagres River which flooded violently during the building of the canal.  The original canal design was one without locks. You cannot imagine how much material would have had to been moved for that plan to happen since most of the Gatun Lake is only 90 feet deep.  We entered Gatun Lake around 10:00 and tied up to a mooring with two other boats for the night.  The area we were moored was close to the construction site for the new locks.  The equipment ran most the night. At 6:30 am we woke to a dead calm lake and were met by our next advisor Edwin.  We motored 40 miles across the lake to the Pedro Flores Locks and arrived around noon.  The process of rafting up and waiting your turn started over but this time we had three boats.  We tied up with Downtime in the center and entered the locks.  The center boat pulls the others through, and it was interesting being the driver of that boat.   The lock down was effortless.  We were in a lock with just the three of us and when the water goes down you do not feel a thing.  It takes 15 minutes per lock and within an hour we saw the last gates of the Mira Flores Locks open up to the Pacific Ocean.  Another first for Downtime and her crew!  Our advisor was picked up and we moored at the Balboa Yacht Club.

    After all those years of dreaming and planning I have finally checked that one off my bucket list.  It feels good to finally get that one behind me. But like any major event in life it takes a while to all soak in.   Now we are getting ready to cross the biggest ocean on the planet!!  I cannot say I am not intimidated, but I do look forward to it.   We have Downtime loaded up with lots of provisions and it shows on the waterline!!  Maybe we have too many beers on board?  No not possible!!  From here we head to Ecuador.  Fly to Peru for some land travel and then to the Galapagos!! 
                                                                                     Peace!  The Captain