The Panama Canal

May 2007

Panama is indeed the major crossroads of the world.  Colon was a madhouse with ships and boats of every size and description coming and going to and from all points of the globe.  We immediately set out to begin the process for Canal transit.  First came paperwork to enter the Canal Zone.  Then came the forms and photocopies of every document that has ever been printed followed by the appointment to have Entr’acte measured to determine the proper fee.  The next afternoon we were admeasured and placed in a queue to receive our transit time.   

Next we had to organize our transit crew.  The Canal Authority supplies an advisor for each boat but further requires that every boat have one person at the helm and four line handlers.  Normally we would crew for Mr. John and they would crew for us, but since we were making the transit together we had to look elsewhere.  

We offered to crew for Storm Along and they agreed to reciprocate.  We also met two Dutch girls who were looking for adventure. So, we had Brian and Bob from Storm Along with Kitty, Renska and Ellen to round out the crew.  The addition of our advisor brought Entr’acte’s crew to seven!  This was going to get interesting!

The number of boats and ships transiting the Canal must be seen to be believed!  Every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, a ship enters and leaves the Canal.  It never stops.  There were so many transits booked that our scheduled time was two weeks away. The time was easily filled with preparations, procuring tires for fenders, and trying to make essential repairs.

On the repair front things were not going well.  The shipping charge for the water maker was quoted at $1160.00 ONE WAY!  We finally found compass fluid at a ridiculous $100.00 a pint.  Forget that!  No one could make a new chain plate in 316 stainless.  This was turning out to be a bust.  There was so much rain that any repair of the aft ports was impossible and  because of the rain we discovered a leak in the port walkway caused by a small crack, a further result of the hit and run in Grenada.

Daily inspections of the weather maps showed that the southwest trades had become established and after listening to the morning radio nets of the south-bounders as they bashed to windward we decided to revert to plan B.  After our transit of the Panama Canal, we would turn north and go to Costa Rica, haul Entr’acte for the rainy season and fly home for a visit and to get everything repaired.
We discovered that that we both could fly round trip and hand carry the water maker as well as the compass, clock and everything else that needed repair for a fraction of the cost of shipping any one item.  That decision made, we could settle down and “enjoy” the experience of going through the Canal. 

To transit the Panama Canal in your own boat is truly the experience of a lifetime.   The Canal is a magnificent feat of engineering and for us to transit in little Entr’acte and make use of a facility of this magnitude is truly a privilege.  The locks are 1000 feet long and the entire system was built for large cargo ships.  The up-locking process moves 54 MILLION gallons of water within the space of ten minutes.  As a result, the forces and turbulence generated during the up-locking process are extreme for a small boat and stories abound of boats getting out of control and being damaged during the process.  It is best to be well prepared.  The best way to gain experience beforehand is to make a transit as crew for someone else.  We made two such trips and each one had its own element of adventure.  On the first transit with Storm Along we were a three-boat raft with a catamaran as the center boat. The raft was too heavy for the cat to control. His twin engines were just not strong enough for the weight of the three boats combined and all of the currents produced. While up-locking we came within an inch of slamming the entire raft into the lock wall and when down-locking, with all engines in full reverse the entire raft moved inexorably toward the lock doors, unable to stop.  “I can’t hold her” was the constant cry as his engines screamed in reverse. 

Our second transit aboard the French yacht Ouqioq was even more dramatic. All went without a hitch during the up-locking but as we approached the Pedro Miguel lock the engine caught fire filling the cabin with smoke.  Fortunately at that same moment our advisor was told that there would be a forty-minute delay; we were directed to tie the raft to a mooring buoy and wait for the lock to clear. Below all was chaos!  The heat was outrageous and the tension unreal!  The minutes ticked by as the fire was extinguished but the engine refused to start. 

Our advisor told me, “If we are not ready to go when they call us I am required to report this as an incident.  The boat must remain here until it is inspected and approved.  You will lose your $850.00 incident deposit plus there will be a towing fee of $5000.00 per hour.  No one may leave the boat until it is cleared which could take several days.”  Entr’acte’s transit was scheduled for the next day and if we were stuck here with Ouqioq not only would we lose our $850.00 incident fee but we would drop to the back of the waiting list for a new transit date.  The pressure was on.

“Mr. Scott!  I need warp drive NOW Mr. Scott!” 
“Captain I’m doin’ the best I can!”
Several times the engine started and died and we on the verge of giving up hope as the radio crackled “Move ahead, the lock is free!”  The engine belched smoke and water, and stopped.  We made one last desperate attempt as we entered the lock and with a mighty roar and gush of water it started and ran! Everyone including the advisor cheered.  We completed the transit without further incident.  Tomorrow was our turn.

For some reason known only to the Canal Authority they choose to up-lock all west-bound yachts at night.  We were well rehearsed. Our crew was ready and experienced and best of all we were going through with Mr. John as the center controlling boat.  What could possibly go wrong?
We took our advisor aboard as the sun set and set off for the first lock five miles away, and… began to RAIN!   Like no rain anyone has ever seen since the time of the flood, the rain was so heavy anyone on the foredeck disappeared.   We had to find the two other boats, make up the raft and enter the lock in this downpour.  Surely they would hold the transit!  No such luck!  Off we went into the night with ships’ fog horns sounding from every direction.

Somehow we all found each other, connected and as a raft of three boats we motored toward the loom that we hoped was Gatun Lock.  

 As the rain lightened to a drizzle, I felt a presence in the dark as the gigantic wall of a cargo ship slid by to take its place in the lock ahead of us.   He was soooo huge!  It’s a good thing that everyone knew what they were doing.  It’s all different when you are in charge and not a passenger.  Whew!

The up-locks were moving along without a hitch.  We all worked well as a team using our engines as directed by the advisors.

“Port yacht (Entr’acte) half astern.”

“Half astern aye!”

 Suddenly there was a shout and a mad scramble from the starboard boat in the raft.  One of their line handlers somehow lost their end of the bow line.  The raft was going out of control as the water turbulence took over.  We were swinging toward the wall with Entr’acte on the inside!  We would be crushed like a peanut under the weight of the raft!

“Starboard yacht full astern, port yacht full forward!  Keep those stern lines tight!  Keep it tight! Keep it tight!”

“All yachts, half ahead!
“Half ahead aye!” 
“Full ahead! Full ahead! Full ahead!” 
“Full ahead aye!”
They recovered the line just in time and we completed the final phase of the procedure without mishap.  A very close call! 

All the advisors congratulated the crews of Entr’acte and Mr. John for the way we worked together.  It was obvious that John was a master mariner with a Captain’s ticket.  He had transited the Canal in command of cargo ships countless times over the years.
The advantage of a night time up-lock was that we had to spend a night tied to a buoy on Gatun Lake.  It was a very late night supper enjoyed to the tune of the howler monkeys in the jungle. 

At 05:00 the next morning we took our advisor Rudolpho aboard and enjoyed a very relaxing motor trip across Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world. The down-locking went without incident and we made our exit through the “Pearly Gates” to the cheers of a hundred tourists lining the spectator tower at the Miraflores Lock. 

Entr’acte was now in the Pacific Ocean. 

The cost of the transit was $600.00 plus the $850.00 incident deposit which was returned unused. Our crew disembarked at the Balboa Yacht Club and after a few days to clean Entr’acte, dispose of tires, and generally make ready for sea we set sail for the las Perlas Islands and Costa Rica.

The Perlas were a delightful archipelago of islands just 40 miles from Panama City.  It was a relief to sit at anchor and recover from the tension and frenzy of the Canal but the rainy season was really upon us and we had to make for Costa Rica before we drowned!

Our passage up the west coast of Panama and into Costa Rica was pleasant enough but not without its challenges.  Rounding  Punta Mala  was such a non-event that we thought we had it in the bag but by midnight trying to round Moro Porcos we were slamming into huge head seas and current, going through the water at five knots but traveling one knot backwards over the ground, pumping every twenty minutes. It’s the only time in thirty years we have taken so much water aboard. 

As we entered Costa Rica we bid a sad farewell to John and Paula. Their goal was Mexico and the Sea of Cortez, while we would stop at Puntarenas and effect repairs to Entr’acte in preparation for her Pacific crossing next season. Our next port of call would be the Costa Rica Yacht Club in Puntarenas. But that begins another story.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in the continuing Voyage of Entr’acte.

More Info
Panama Canal
Bridge of the Americas
Yes, they’re necessary!
A submarine crosses Gatun Lake
Live web cam, Miraflores Lock. Click for slide show.
We made it!
Our advisor signs the log.
Transit complete!
Thanks to a fantastic crew