Being in the Panama Canal is mind-blowing. The history of its construction, the enormous expense, the complexity of its operation, it’s all magic. First, our rally took a bus and train trip along the canal that lasted three days. Then Bill and I joined a German catamaran and helped them transit. All of this occurred while Alembic sat securely tied to a dock in Shelter Bay Marina, Colon. Maybe someday we will take her through.
Our rally trip started with a bus tour through the San Lorenzo Forest and Fort. We saw sloths, snakes, toucans, Solo Cats (more like a raccoon), monkeys, and interesting plants. The San Lorenzo Fort was a magnificent structure with layers of pirate, canal, and Panamanian history. A women in the Canal Center gave us a thorough explanation of the history and construction of the locks as well as the plans to open the new wider, deeper locks.
After the bus tour, traveling along the canal by train gave us a close up view of the canal and lake system. We could see the devastating effects of El Niño; stubs of trees which have been submerged for one hundred years are now standing a foot or two above the surface of the man made Lake Gatun. This lake supplies the water to fill the locks to lower the ships down to the ocean. If this lake gets any lower, the canal may have to close. Basically, the lake is 85 feet above both the Atlantic and the Pacific, fills with rainwater, and dumps it into the three locks on either side to raise and lower the ships. When the locks open, the lake water dumps into the ocean. So for every ship that passes, precious lake water is lost. We need more rain to fill the lake so this operation can continue.
Money can buy anything, even rain, right? Maybe. The ships are paying a huge fee to transit this canal. Some pay over a half million dollars to make this trip. Their cost is so high because they fill the entire lock by themselves, not sharing the lake water, and they need pilots to come aboard the ship for guidance, and locomotives, with drivers on each, to center and propel them through each lock. If we take Alembic through, it would be more like $1500. This fee covers an advisor to be aboard to give instructions, borrowed long lines to reach up to people walking along the locks on both sides, and at least eight huge borrowed buoys to keep you from scraping the cement sides of the canal or other boats you may be tied to. Alembic could go through the canal with a raft of four boats wide, and ten of these rafts could fit in each lock to share the lake water.
After the bus and train rides, our rally arrived in Panama City just in time to check into our fancy hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, and head out for dinner. We chose a spunky Beirut restaurant that surprised us with Belly dancers circling our table throughout the meal! Walking around Panama City the next day was a cultural experience. We were shocked at how modern the city is, yet you could still find Kunas selling molas, and fishermen selling their catch on the streets.
We returned to Alembic to make final preparations for sailing north to Providencia. Disassembling and lubricating the winches was more of a chore than Bill had anticipated. We have found that routine maintenance before things break is a worthwhile task, and this one was overdue. I prepped by sewing and traveling to a faraway grocery store for provisions. Alembic was ready to go; but first we were headed to the canal again, this time to help Catarina as line handlers.
Catarina was a 42 foot catamaran with a German Captain and a Maltese Woman as first mate. Graham and Wendy, from Oystermist in our rally, came along too for a wonderful experience. Four line handlers and a captain are required, in addition to the advisor that comes aboard, and having Denise, as the cook and photographer, was an added bonus. We left Shelter Bay Marina early in the afternoon, and entered the canal by evening. Surprisingly, we were not rafted at all, so the four line handlers were needed.
We shared the locks with a huge ship in front of us. While they were connected to cables for centering and propulsion, we were tossed four lines with a monkey’s fist (this is a ball like a tennis ball, tied to the end of the twine) from up high on the canal walls. Each of the four of us took our monkey’s fist, tied it to the heavy long lines and fed it back to the men pulling it up to the bollard. Once the long lines were secured on the bollards, the locks closed, and the water began pouring into our lock. The water level rose almost 30 feet, requiring line handlers to continuously shorten the lines holding Catarina in the center of the lock. At this point, the men at the bollards released our loops and sent our lines back down to us, so they were carrying only the lightweight twine as they walked us (Catarina was under her own propulsion) to the next lock. Once in place at lock number two, we repeated the process, going up another 30 feet. And again for lock number three.
Now, at the level of Gatun Lake, we motored to a huge buoy, where we tied up and said goodbye to Freddie, our advisor. By the time we had dinner and cleaned up, it was already eleven o’clock, so we headed to our berths. Three full private berths are a luxury we are not used to! The luxury ended at 4 am as we heard a loud boat motor up and tie to our buoy too. We thought it was our advisor, ready to begin day 2, but it was just another freighter, readying for a snooze before their continuation of the transit.
Another 3 hours of sleep was welcomed, and we woke refreshed and ready. Francisco, our second day advisor, arrived at 9 and we headed off to motor four hours to reach the next set of locks. Arriving at the locks, we had to wait at least an hour to tie up to Discovery, our raft buddy boat. Line handling was much less exciting for this part of the trip because we simply had to wait for Discovery to tie to the wall, then we tied to Discovery and descended with them. We untied each time the locks opened so that we and Discovery could motor to the next lock independently. The huge ship that came into the locks with us was incredibly slow; they probably didn’t want to crush us! Getting through the three locks with this arrangement of Catarina and Discovery, a tug, and the ship took an hour longer than it was scheduled, and we finally moved through the last opening, into the Pacific, at 8:30 pm.
Catarina’s Captain dropped anchor at Balboa Yacht Club and a launch came to us quickly, taking Bill, Graham, Wendy, and I, along with the four borrowed heavy lines, and 8 huge fenders. We barely had time to say goodbye to this wonderful couple and sweet boat.
The four of us had planned to take a taxi back to our marina this evening, but the lateness, and my broken tooth, helped us decide that we should stay in Panama City one more night. No Waldorf Astoria this time, though; we didn’t want to spend $130 per night or deal with those fancy people! We flopped into comfy chairs, had a few beers, and found a cheap hotel online.
Google maps showed us the next morning that we had chosen the right spot for a hotel. Fifteen dentist offices were within walking distance! Bill and I visited a few of them, made an appointment for noon, and thanked our lucky stars that this appointment was cheap, simple, painless, and quick. A filling had fallen out while we were leaving Catarina, and replacing it was easy, but necessary.
Oberto, our cab driver, was a bit inexperienced, and charged the four of us much less than most cabbies to take us back to the marina. While only 45 miles, waiting for bridge openings to cross the Panama Canal and dealing with the gigantic potholes, the trip took almost 3 hours. We tipped him well and he seemed grateful.
Stepping aboard Alembic brought that Home Sweet Home feeling. We love this boat, and being away from her for two nights again was tough. Since she was prepped for offshore, we had one last snooze at the marina, and untied the next morning. Setting sails again, and heading north for a two day passage was wonderful. Off to Providencia!
Reminiscent of our trip through the canal a couple of years ago. We missed the experience of Panama City and taking a small boat through the canal. Wonder which way you’ll head when you get to the Pacific end. If you get into the Sea of Cortez, you can hail Rum Doxy!