Panama Canal transit as a line handler

Monday morning Phil on Wandering Star had been told that his time to be at the flats anchorage was not until 3.30 – so we decided to have lunch whilst waiting to leave.   In the restaurant we watched a guy cut away his damaged mainsail – ouch, that’s going to hurt his pocket!!!

By 2.30 we were on board, had made our way out of the marina and had crossed the shipping lanes to the flats ‘holding area’.   We had a cruise ship as well as cargo vessels this time.    

We stooged around for a while…and eventually anchored….while we waited.     At around five a launch came out and deposited an adviser on each of the three yachts – one catamaran and two monohulls. We then all picked up anchor and motored towards the locks.    The advisers had decided that the catamaran would be the centre of the raft and that we would raft together outside of the first lock.   There was a huge ship waiting for us in there to join him – so big that he only had two foot either side of him.   

We were told to come alongside the starboard side of the catamaran but he was all over the place and couldn’t hold it straight despite his two engines.  When Phil complained he was told it was because of the wind.    This put our captain and the lead adviser at odds straight away – not a good start!   Anyway…eventually we got rafted together…and moved towards the lock. 

We were crabbing sideways awaiting instruction and the calls from the adviser were late – meaning we were heading at the wall often.  Phil ignored the adviser and, when he wasn’t watching, put his engine in gear and pushed on the raft to try and keep it straight.    He did get told off a few times!!!   But I’m sure we would have done the same in the circumstances.  The other monohull could have helped but, for whatever reason, decided not to.  

Once inside the lock the guys on top of the walls threw their monkey fists to the centre of the boat – with one line for the stern and one for the bow.   Once the raft was in place the line handlers on both sides of the canal pulled through the 125 foot lines Phil had rented and placed them over the cleats on top of the wall.  It is now the responsibility of the boat line handlers to ease / harden up as the lock fills with water.  

The pressure on the boat was huge in the turbulent waters and the monohull on the other side of the raft was getting closer and closer to the wall….the girls on the bow kept on taking up slack so we had to ask them to ease so that we could try and sweat some more line our side to keep the raft in the middle.    This was very difficult with the pressures being exerted but Richard, Chris and Phil managed it between them.   So communication across the two outer boats – despite the adviser instructions – needs to be good so something to watch out for.

Finally we had been raised up almost 28 feet and the ship was moved forward by his trains / mules – amazing.   We recovered our long lines and again were walked through by the advisers on top of the walls with their thin lines…under our own propulsion.   And the whole process starts again…..


And then we go through to the final lock of the day and do it all again.    We went through three locks and got raised up 28 feet each time.  

Finally we were spat out of the locks after the ship had departed, we un-rafted and took off for Gatun Lake.  We arrived behind the other two boats and, despite our adviser insisting on us rafting to the huge mooring ball, we anchored instead.   And of course this is all in the dark as it was around 7.30pm by now.   The launch boat came and picked our adviser up, we said our goodbyes, and we had dinner and a couple of beers.  At this point Richard and I decided to sleep in the cockpit.   We were asleep when we had a little shower but it stopped so we stayed put despite being a little damp – then just as we were asleep again the heavens opened hard.  We got soaked so took ourselves off to the forepeak cabin for the rest of the night.

Tuesday morning and we were up early having breakfast awaiting our next adviser who was scheduled from seven.

He finally turned up around nine…and we picked up anchor….and motored the thirty odd miles through the picturesque lake while he dozed…avoiding the ships and admiring the scenery as we passed through gorges and under the bridge.   

We finally arrived at the Miraflores Locks and we rafted to the catamaran only – the other monohull ended up in the other chamber rafted to a large tug like ship.   We were tied to the wall ready to go and then we waited…and waited….and waited.   We were apparently waiting for another huge ship which, in this lock, comes in behind us. He arrived…and edged slowly closer…and closer….being inched forward by his mules.   

Finally we were all set and the water drained…so this time we are going downwards with the walls rising above us.   This is just fascinating to watch.   

Eventually we were at the bottom and the huge lock gates opened and created turbulence.  We left the lock as a raft and motored towards the next and final lock of the transit.   

The catamaran was gunning it and Phil had to work his engine hard to keep the raft together and not get any cleats pulled out of the deck.   Another valuable lesson – ensure that the boats agree a mutual speed when travelling together in a raft.  Also, there was no point putting that much strain on the boats as we had to wait for the ship to be released from the lock and come in behind us at the next so there was plenty of time.  

Anyway…as we arrived at the final lock the current was pushing us forward even faster and we had to shout at our line handler on the wall to get the line over the cleat in time!!!  

Finally we got secured to the wall once again just behind the lock gates and just waited.  Our adviser was asleep again at this stage – he wasn’t that friendly and quite stand offish – unlike our guy from day one who was pretty chatty.    We were entertained by the visitors centre full of tourists watching over the locks so we did wave to a few….  By five we were still there and the ship is coming in behind us…but the tourists were going to miss our transit as the centre was closing for the day.  

Never mind….the ship was in position…and the water started to drain.    Again the walls rose above us and we worked the lines to deal with the turbulent waters…until finally the gates opened and we were spat out into the Pacific.  Woo hoo!!!   It is hard to describe how impressive this whole process is.     

As we motored towards the Balbao Yacht Club the modern skyscrapers of Panama City poked through behind the docks.   Eventually we arrived and picked up a mooring ball – were taken ashore by a water taxi – said quick farewells and were picked up by our taxi driver.   It had been a long transit as we didn’t arrive until almost six pm.  

Mr Stanley then drove like a bat out of hell and eventually we were in Colon waiting for the ferry across the canal.   Eventually we arrived at Shelter Bay Marina around nine so we went straight to Morphie, got cleaned up, downed a couple of beers and so to bed.   It had been a tiring couple of days.

Wednesday morning we were booked to go to Colon on the shopping bus…at 7.45 am.   So no lazing around!   We headed off to Millenium Mall first – to visit the huge hardware store.  We did actually find some things we had been looking for – a grease gun, some citronella anti-mosquito candles and of course more nuts and bolts.    We then took a $3 cab ride back to 4 Altos and Rey Supermarket.  Everyone told us to use the Chinese supermarket for cheap booze but we weren’t enamoured so headed back to the main store.   Also the Free Zone had very cheap booze but you have to pay $125 to the adviser who delivers it to the marina to ensure it does actually go on a boat.    Unless you are buying cases and cases the savings aren’t worth it.    

We did a huge shop – again – and this time the van wasn’t available so we cabbed it back.   We have lots of beer, wine, rum, vodka and Baileys on board now plus months of food supplies.   Was absolutely worn out by the time we had unpacked and stowed it all…so took ourselves off to the hot tub to bob.   We were joined by Charlie and Saundra and enjoyed relaxing.   Later on we enjoyed a lovely steak and salad dinner washed down by a few more cold ones.     

This morning, Thursday, and we headed to the cruisers lounge early to catch up on a few things – not least sending pdfs of our documentation to the Agent in the Galapagos in preparation for our Autografo.   A yoga class was underway so again we had to sneak behind the bookcases LOL.    We are confirmed to go through the canal again on another boat on Friday so will be interesting to see how that transit goes.   Tonight Charlie and Saundra are coming over for fish tacos – we are going to cook up some of Richard’s mahi mahi – so looking forward to that.

Bye for now