Canal Crossing

We spent our last few days at Shelter Bay (or “Chelter” Bay, as the locals mispronounce it) completing projects and getting ready to transit the canal. Among the tasks, we fiber-glassed a leaky propane locker; removed and re-caulked the two jib tracks that were not water tight; re-organized the forward cabin, which is now full-fledged storage; installed two access panels in the cockpit to better see and assess a leak that was letting water into the electrical panel; cleaned and waxed the decks; and removed and re-caulked the bimini mounts to address a leak there. We also made a number of trips to town to buy supplies and parts, and also ordered some additional parts and materials from overseas, including a new storm try-sail and a sail t-track for the mast.

With these problems solved, we focused on getting the boat ready to get out of the Atlantic and into the Pacific Ocean!

The canal is a fascinating and magnificent engineering achievement, especially when one considers that it was built more than 100 years ago. We’ve been reading about canal history. We hadn’t realized that the French had taken a first crack at it in the 1880s, with the idea of building a sea-level canal, like the one they had built in Suez. But the Panamanian geography is as radically different from the flat banks of the Suez as one can get, as it has a number of large hills, unstable terrain prone to landslides, a wild river that can rise over ten feet after a day of downpours, a thick covering of jungle, and, at the time, clouds of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. With all these factors working against them, the sea-level canal became impossible to build, and the French company went bankrupt nine years after starting excavation.

(It would really have altered the social landscape down here had the French been successful. One forgets (or at least we do!) that, like the Brits, Dutch, Spanish, and Portugese, the French were very much the active colonial power in this part of the world. Our increasing exposure to French-speaking cruisers from places like French Polynesia and New Caledonia (not a very French sounding name!) is testament to their far reach. A French-controlled canal would have led to a much stronger connection between the French and their Pacific and Asian territories. But, alas, it was not to be.)

The U.S. picked up the ball after the French plan fell through. As the century turned, the U.S. first orchestrated Panama’s “secession” from Columbia, and then took over the canal’s construction. Perhaps the biggest step forward was eradicating most of the mosquito breeding grounds, which enabled work to proceed without the huge numbers of deaths that the French-controlled teams had been suffering.

Another big step was to tame the Chagres River by using a dam to create one of the world’s largest man-made lakes, Lake Gatun, in the middle of the Isthmus. So it’s not really a true canal that connects the two oceans, but instead a series of locks that lift one 80+ feet from the Caribbean to the Lake Gatun, across the lake, and then down the same 80+ feet in some additional locks to the Pacific. We’re over-simplifying things quite a bit here, but that was the general idea.

For those as interested in the story as we have become, there is an excellent book that Alex and Carol Lopez from Nepenthe gave us on the history of the building of the Canal, “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough. It is a real page turner.

Big ships are propelled through the canal either by their own power or with the assistance of a tug. Heavy steel cables run from the sides of the ship to a number of miniature train locomotives on either wall of the lock, which keep the ship centered.

The process is a bit different for Leander. Small boats like ours are called “handliners,” in reference to the fact that individuals on the boat and on the locks will be handling the lines that keep the boat centered in the locks. (In the up locks, smaller boats are kept behind the big ones, and in the down locks, the smaller boats are ahead of the tankers to minimize potential accidents.)
What’s it cost? For us, $600. For the freighters and tankers, many multitudes of that. We read in the paper that a Disney cruise ship just paid a record fee of more than $300K.

Our canal crossing date was scheduled for Saturday, June 21. Paul was to be helmsman. Sima was to be one linehandler, Alex and Carol from Nepenthe would make two more, but we still needed a another. Through good fortune, we found the fourth through Russ Goedjen, the manager at Chelter Bay. He had become a good friend during our stay there, and when we mentioned to him that we needed crew, he told us that he had just the candidate. His nephew Brent, a first year medical student in Alabama, was visiting him, and would make a good addition.

Done! We were ready to go.

Before we left Chelter Bay, our quasi-agent Tito delivered 10 car tires to us, each wrapped in garbage a bag, to be tied as fenders on sides of the boat. We also got four lines to be used during transit, each 125 foot long as required by the canal authority. As we got the boat cleaned up, settled our bill at the marina, and said goodbyes, our crew, Brent, Alex, and Carol, came aboard.

The first half of the trip is made at night, and is done with the guidance of a canal “Advisor,” who was supposed to meet us on our boat at 6:30 p.m. He didn’t show up until 8 p.m., however, which gave us time to snack on Carol’s yummy guacamole, getting to know Brent, and listening to transit tips from Alex and Carol, who had already gone through twice.

Our Advisor finally showed, and told us that we’d be transiting and rafting together with a French sailboat, which was soon to arrive. Rafted together, one side of each boat would be used for line handling, with lines tied from the bows and sterns to the lock walls. This makes life easier for the crew, because they have only two lines to deal with instead of four. On the other hand, however, the general operation becomes slightly more stressful, as one relinquishes some control to the French. Once the French boat arrived, we saw that we had to dig out our rusty French, as the French Captain spoke neither Spanish nor English. Paul is really good at recalling the necessary words in those cases (“Sacrebleu! Arrete le bateau!”), and he quickly became friends with the crew. They needed a bit of help too, as the Captain and crew of the canary-yellow French boat were not particularly adept at handling their lines (Hmm, wonder if the French read blogs of American boats . . . .).

After tying together, we followed a big tanker into the first chamber. These things are huge, and it was a pretty awesome sight.

As we entered the lock, a couple of canal dock workers walked along the lock, ready to take our lines. Their job is to throw us thin leader lines with huge knots the size of a baseballs on the ends (the knots are called “monkey fists.”) We were to catch these lines, tie them to the end of our thicker dock lines, which they would then pull back up to the side of the lock. Once they had our lines in hand, they would walk with us further into the lock and put the lines over a long post or “bollard,” on the lock wall. Soon after our lines were over the bollards, a bell sounded, announcing the closing of the doors.

The scene then began to get even more awesome! Remember that this is also taking place at night time, with artificial yellow-hued lighting illuminating everything but casting shadows in the water. As in the open ocean, everything seemed a bit larger-than-life and at night.

The lock doors are huge medieval looking things that tower several stories high. They closed behind us, and the water began rushing into the lock. The entire lock, which is about the length of four or five football fields and 50 yards wide, fills in about 15 minutes. This is an incredible amount of water to be transferred so quickly. The water comes in with such pressure that it looks like it is boiling! One can only imagine the force exerted upon the lock doors.

While the water level rose, our jobs on Leander and our rafted French neighbor were to take the slack out of the lines to keep the pair of boats square in the middle and away from the concrete walls. This requires constant attention, because if the currents push the boat off center, it can be hard to recover, and the walls have done severe damage to many a sailboat. But we cleared our first lock without a hitch, and with a little bit of experience under our belts, began to relax and enjoy the show.

With the lock filled, the bell sounded again, the forward door slowly opened, and the huge tanker eased out in front of us. It is important that the tanker actually “eases” out of this confined area, and not open the throttle fully, because there are stories of sailboats being spun around or blown into the back doors by the prop wash of over-eager tankers and freighters. It was also important for us to wait a bit before we followed the tanker, as the currents rushing in behind can also wreck havoc, smashing sailboats that follow too closely into those ever-present walls.

With the doors open, the canal linehandlers walked with us to the next lock, tied us up to another bollard, and we started the process once again. At the end of the third lock, we all waited and watched the tanker depart. Paul expertly helmed us out of the lock and into Gatun Lake.

After untying from the French boat, we picked up a mooring at Gatun Lake for the night around 11 p.m. Carol and I served a late dinner, and since we were all famished, the food was devoured in no time. After a few minutes of conversation, everyone dozed off to try and get some sleep for the long day that we knew was coming.

A new advisor arrived the next morning at 7:30, and we started the 31 mile trek across Lake Gatun to the locks at Pedro Miguel. We would again be tied to the French boat in the three locks that would lower us from the lake to the Pacific Ocean. As we approached the first lock, our advisor told us that there was a tourist ferry already inside, to which we would tie. Paul, steering both Leander and the French boat, got us close enough to the ferry on our port side and we passed our lines over and made Leander fast. Once we made fast to the ferry, our work for the lock was done, as the ferry crew handled the lock lines.

This all worked fine the first two times. For the third lock, the French boat, rather than Leander, would be tied to the ferry. This meant that Paul had to rely upon the advisor on the French boat to line up the approach. The advisor did not do a good job with this task. He directed us on a line that was very close to the ferry. Then, at the last moment, he yelled “wheel hard to port.”

The first mistake that the advisor had made was having us so close to the ferry. The second mistake he made was giving the “hard to port” command. Sailboats, of course, steer much differently than land vehicles, and the “hard to port” command only pushed the stern of the French boat closer to the ferry. What we should have done is gone into reverse to slow the boats, and then slowly pull the them into a better position. As it was, unfortunately, the French boat hit the side of the ferry pretty hard, with the some damage to its teak rail and stanchions.

This experience with the advisors confirmed guidance we had received from other boaters. The advisors have good knowledge of the canal, but are often oblivious as to how sail boats operate (For example, the advisor on the first day repeatedly confused port and starboard.) As the two days progressed, we became increasingly vigilant to ensure that we had control of our boat, and to ensure that the commands given by the advisors made sense.

But we made it through the locks just fine, and were able to tell our families that the canal posts photos of transits in real time on the web. My mother and brother watched the transit from Istanbul, and Paul’s sister Patricia was able to download a series of photos as well, including a sequence of the French yacht bumping the side of the ferry! Here they are: Miraflores Locks Pictures

We left the Miraflores locks late on Sunday. We motored underneath the aptly-named Bridge of Americas, picked up a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club, and popped open cold beverages for the crew. We felt both proud of having successfully transited the canal, and amazed by the complex yet elegant 100 year-old technology that had lifted and dropped us across a continent and from one ocean to another.

07/24/2008 | steve bucci
Great description of the canal from sea level. The pictues didn’t come though but we could still imagine you all there! Barbara and I went trough last year on a 90,000 ton ship and it was still amazing.
You continue to be an inspriration to all us working stiffs.



07/26/2008 | Philip Kret
Amazing journey cocuklar!
Sima…more Tukish commentary please! How will Paul or I ever learn?! Seriously though, you are brave folk. Pinar and the kids are off to Istanbul tomorrow and I’ll meet up mid-August.
Hot in Boston. Celtics! Yes! Got to hold the trophy at the Parthenon summer outing in Vermont. Sox…hmmm shakey against the Yanks today. Turkey in the Euro has been the best though – played better than Germany even though the team was all subs! Incredible stuff.
Thanks for the Melvillian tales you are painting Paul.
Iyi yolculuklar! smooth sailing 🙂
pk, pk, a-j, ayla!

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