We had read about it on Blogs and the sailors forum Noonsite and had some idea of the Protocol but until you actually DO IT it is a somewhat unknown quantity. It is however on the Bucket List of many people around the world.
I had once transited the Panama Canal on the passenger ship ‘Australis'(Greek Chandris Lines) in 1972 and recollections were somewhat blurry as it was 1972 and the alcohol flowed freely!
We hired an agent Mr. Stanley Scott, who was a very pleasant black guy of large stature who set out the charges very clearly (USD 1577 all inclusive in cash for my 40 ft Beneteau yacht). Stanley organised everything including the long lines(125 ft) the buffers( large Polyform Buoys) and one line handler who happened to be his father in law, Leroy. Were were told to be ready to leave the marina at 1330 hrs and proceed to the pilot pick up point about one mile from the marina and drop the anchor and remain on standby.
The Pilot Rafael steps aboard
When the pilot Rafael came aboard he was quite specific about what he required and I liked him. Drop the inflatable onto the deck and remove the Spray Dodger for better visibility. Proceed at six knots in the direction of the first lock on the Caribbean side. These set of three locks are know as the Gatun locks. We passed under the new suspension bridge which is almost complete and very impressive as they had to build it without disrupting the ship transits below!
Prior to entering the first lock we rafted up next to another monohull – a French yacht named ZOOK. Once rafted up Rafael took command of both yachts with Roaring Meg being the controlling yacht. We supplied the power and steering for both yachts. Approach was at 2 knots as we came in behind a large ship and a very small cruise ship. We shuffled off to port where the line handlers threw the heaving lines which were immediately attached to our 125 ft lines which were hauled back to the dockside. We then shuffled off to Starboard and repeated the procedure. We were effectively suspended in the middle of the lock when the gates closed.
On the Caribbean side we would climb approximately 85 ft to the Gatun Lakes through three locks. Thereafter we proceeded to a mooring buoy (now detached from ZOOK) and tied up for the night. The pilot Rafael thanked us for a job well done and wished us fair winds and a safe passage across the Pacific.
The next morning around 0830 hrs we were boarded by Eduardo our second pilot to take us through the Miraflores Locks, again a set of three, that would set us down in the Pacific Ocean. We motored for around 5 hours through the Gatun Lakes at 6 knots before reaching the first lock. In the meantime we were giving way to a number of large container ships and oil tankers travelling in the opposite direction.
NOTE – Panama like the United States and all of the Caribbean subscribe to the IALA ‘B’ buoyage system that can best be summed up by RED RIGHT RETURNING.
REMEMBER THAT THEY DRIVE ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE ROAD TO US AND THIS THINKING IS ALSO TRANSFERRED TO THE SEA. THE REST OF THE WORLD SUBSCRIBES TO THE IALA ‘A’ SYSTEM!!!
We again rafted up prior to entering the first lock with ZOOK. The only difference on this day 14 April was that there was a strong wind blowing in the 15 -20 knot range. After rafting up we were pinned on the dockside with wind and even though I went astern to kick both bows out before we could move ahead we were again pinned dockside. Answer was ZOOK needed to apply engine power on their side – just like being a Catamaran.
Meantime one of their stanchions (ZOOK)got bent and they enquired about MY insurers! My response was swift – Foxtrot Oscar! Then they had a go at our pilot and the Panama Canal Authority. He said fill out the form available online and good luck 😉. There were some hostile exchanges and then the pilot suggested that we would be rafted up for a few more hours and that it would be best to bury the hatchets. The rest of the transit we reasonably smoothly except for one point where we were in front of a huge vessel when the two rafted up vessels were turned across the dock by the wind.
Think of a three legged race with two uncoordinated persons! More shouting and excitement but no damage. It was nightfall by the time we exited the final lock and we to the pilot pick up point where Eduardo left us.
Khiimori were at anchor at Las Brisas on the other side of the causeway. We had to negotiate our way in the dark around the rocks at the end of the causeway without a lot of definition on the Chart Plotter. Keep the speed down and proceed with caution. Khiimori sent out their tender with Matt and Glen Davis their sailing buddy from Motueka who had joined them for the Leg to Tahiti( more than halfway). They tied off the dingy and guided us into the anchorage. We were safe and sound. It was time for a stiff Rum or two! Reunited again!