Crossing the panama canal


28 February 2010 | Panama

On Wednesday afternoon, we pulled out of Shelter Bay Marina at the north end of the Panama Canal. We were nearly had to leave without two crew members that went into Colon to provision and got stuck crossing the canal in a taxi when a semi that was two large for a tunnel got wedged in and stuck for over an hour. Thankfully, they arrived and we were able to head out only a few minutes behind schedule. Four linehandlers, a captain, and a travel advisor are required to pass through the canal. We were short a linehandler, but there are actually a list of people that are waiting to jump on boats as linehandlers for free (looking either to come on for sightseeing or to get a feel prior to trying it on their own). We had a middle aged guy named Greg from Quebec volunteer to help us out. We were a little behind schedule getting to the entrance of the canal due to a late departure from the marina and a strong headwind, but the travel advisor didn’t come for an hour. Eventually, the travel advisor, Oswaldo, arrived and hopped off a tugboat onto our boat. We took off for the entrance of the canal a few miles away and he told us we’d be rafting up with a big catamaran through the canal which meant much less work for all on board. We’re required to feed the advisor, but since we had just run out of propane, we offered cheese and crackers and some water. Apparently, in the contract Alex had signed we were required to provide a hot meal and bottled water…neither of which we had, but Oswaldo didn’t seem to care too much. We arrived at the Gatun Locks and tied up to a 50 ft cat called Mariposa who was owned by a German dentist with a full service dental room on board…he actually sails around islands and provides free dental work. There was a little bit of shouting when we first tied onto Mariposa as they were pretty worried (understandably) that we might scratch the new $1.5 million dollar cat. We added a few fenders and everyone was happy. We motored up into the locks and said goodbye to the atlantic ocean. The locks are really an engineering marvel, running 24/7 since they were opened around 1912 and other than a switch to hydraulics, everything is original. After the Gatun locks we anchored in Gatun Lake which is a huge nature preserve. Oswaldo got picked up and told us to be ready for the next advisor at 6am the next day. We got to bed fairly late after a large meal and a few drinks.

At 620am, I woke up to the Germans we were tied to yelling in our boat and a huge tugboat nearly slamming into our side. Our new advisor, Roy, was already on board and we were pushed off from the anchorage two or three minutes after the entire boat was dead asleep. We spent the next few hours motoring through the mangrove islands of the canal and avoiding the huge tankers that were navigating the same waters. These boats are a few hundred feet long and specifically designed to the maximum length and width to fit in one of the canal locks (called PanMax ships). By noon, we had reached the locks which would bring us back down to the level of the pacific ocean. Going down in the locks is a much easier smoother process, but just as impressive. We left the locks and anchored near Panama City. One of the guys on board, Doug, called a high school friend, Maria, who came out on the boat and then invited us to a pizza party at her place. She attends an FSU campus in Panama City and rents one of 5 properties on the Panama canal that actually has waterfront. She had watched our boat come through the locks and took some pictures for us. We spent the rest of the night at her place, which is located in the Zone where the Americans lived when they ran the canal. She had a pizza party planned with a bunch of the other ‘Zonies’, so we stayed and joined in the party.

On Friday, we ran some errands and began some projects on the boat. Doug had to get back to Columbia. We met a young Hungarian couple in the anchorage that is sailing to Antarctica…which is insane, but they’ve been in Panama City for almost half a year working on their boat, so they were a great group to meet .

We’ll be here for the next 2 weeks preparing the boat for the trip to the Galapagos. I should be able to get the modem working for email while we’re out at sea and also to get the GPS tracking map on the website.

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