Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Panama, Heartbeat canal transit - 19/09/2015

Finally, we're in the Atlantic. The whole canal thing is over. After all the build up and planning and stress I feel like it's a bit anticlimatic just sitting here in Shelter Bay Marina, but here we are.

Inside the locks (Taken by Mira)

I'm not going to go over the canal and how it works and what it's like going through on a yacht. You can read my other blog posts on it from when we went through as line handlers, here
and here. I think I've well and truly covered the canal and all the details surrounding it.

Maya, Mira and Ivo doing some mid-canal yoga

Our transit was pretty easy. Nothing went wrong and we arrived safe and sound. This was partly due to the amazing advisor we had, and partly because of our amazing line handlers. We managed to score the help of our wonderful friends on SV Fata Morgana, who were parked in the La Playita anchorage with us. We didn't even have to beg - they offered! They are a pretty amazing group of people and they live life in a way that we really love and admire. Mira, Ivo and their daughter Maya live on their catamaran, well and truly off the grid. They use kayaks instead of a dinghy (they don't have one onboard at all), and they NEVER start their engines. They have run the motors for about 30 miles over the last year, and that was to get through the canal. They sail off their anchor, moor under sail and don't stay in marinas. We spend a lot of time bobbing around on glassy seas, but we definitely run the engine more than that! When these guys get stuck, Ivo jumps into the kayak and pulls the boat by himself. So they're a pretty awesome group of people and we were in great company for our transit. I should also point out that while I was running around stressing (over nothing) Mira took lots and lots of really great photos so most of these are hers, but you can blame the bad editing on me (Mira is an amazing photographer - check out her blog at for more awesome shots).

All ready to go! Ivo snapped this from the kayak just before we set off

I kind of felt like our friends drew the short straw when we all got onboard and got moving. I had been hoping to get through the first set of locks before the sun got really hot, so we could put the shade cloth up and get out of the heat. Unfortunately, our advisor was late. They often seem to be late, which is infuriating considering we got up at 5:30am and had to drag everyone along with us to be off the anchor and waiting out near the canal for him to turn up at 7:30am. So we lost the lovely morning rays as we waited. By the time the pilot boat rocked up over an hour later, it was getting hot. And it was going to get hotter (Although I should point out that the change in time is usually because the canal schedule changes rather than the advisor just not rocking up to work on time. They can't exactly call every boat to tell them about every little time change).

Goodbye Panama City!

Loaded up with tires and giant ropes

Instead of going through first thing in the morning like we had wanted, we would hit the first set of locks at 9:45. We wanted to go early because our boat is small and slow. Motoring through Gatun lake to the locks on the other side takes a full day to cover the 27 miles. But if we moved fast we should still make it through in time to slide into the locks on the other side just before they closed for us and opened up to traffic coming from the other direction.

Going under the Bridge of the Americas

Us in front of the bridge (Taken by Mira)

Unfortunately, fast was not an option. Panama is in the middle of a drought at the moment - it's the rainy season, but there hasn't been any rain. Every time a boat goes through the locks in the canal, mass amounts of water fills the top lock from the lake. That water then flows down through each lock before ending up in the ocean and then it's just gone. With no rain to fill up the lake again, water is just continually being moved from the lake to the ocean with no way to replenish it. The lake is slowly being drained. Because of this, the water level is really, really low.

A ladder on the edge of the lake... it's supposed to go down to the water

Aside from the obvious problems of running aground, our advisor told us that their boats are getting messed up because of it. There are huge bits of rubber along the side of the locks that act as a tiny buffer to the concrete. Every once and a while they fall off into the water along with other miscellaneous bits and pieces, and the canal boats (tugs and pilot vessels) are continually being damaged from all that junk being dredged up and caught in their props. A month or two ago the Panama Canal released a warning that they would have to start enforcing stricter weight restrictions for the big ships because of the low water levels in the lake. The ships get told one month in advance so they have time to change their schedules. A lot of the boats going through would be affected, mostly because the're always overloaded and even heavier than they should be under normal conditions. A week before the restrictions were supposed to come into effect they were lifted, even though there hadn't been any more rain and the lake was still low. The canal just didn't want to look bad.

The big guy who who was slowing us down, as the water swirled in on an up lock (Taken by Mira)

So we were never going to get through quickly with a big, overloaded cargo ship in front of us. He had to go into the lock and get into place before we were allowed to follow him in. Unfortunately, he only had about 1 or 2 inches of water underneath him. The ship was just edging along trying not to scrape off too much of his bottom paint. He was literally crawling. As in, if you placed a baby on the canal wall and made it crawl in a straight line next to this boat, the baby would have reached the other side of the locks first. So instead of it taking one hour to get through the first set of locks, it took us three. In the scorching hot sun with no shade or protection. So that sucked.

Maya trying to find some shade

Luckily our advisor made everything as easy as possible for us. For the first set of locks we tied up to a little canal boat that was tied up to a tug. So it was like tying up to a tug, which is the easiest option for a small yacht, except instead of being next to a big dirty tug we got a little boat that just sat there all snug and nice without rubbing any dirty black marks all over our already messy paint job. The up locks are the roughest, so it was a big relief to have the whole thing go so smoothly.

The little boat is the one one we tied up to (Taken by Mira)

Early morning before my skipper got worn out (Taken by Mira)

One slightly bizarre thing was that everyone got really upset and really vocal about the state of our courtesy flag. We've been here in Panama for a few months, so our cheapo courtesy flag is starting to rip. To be fair, almost half of it has disintegrated from all the storms and strong winds that have been tearing through the rigging lately. I managed to find a new one the day before (not an easy task for some reason - even the $2 shops don't sell them), and I had forgotten to put it up what with all the drama of getting ready for our transit. As we pulled into the lock and started throwing the other boat our lines, there was a heated discussion between our advisor and the captain of our neighbouring boat. He was not happy. I had no idea what was going on until we were secured a few minutes later and our advisor pulled me aside. He told me that the captain would not shut up about the flag as we were tying up, and he actually had to tell him to just shut up and help secure the boats before worrying about the flag. It had to come down immediately. I think everyone was pleased that I had another (although the main problem was that they just didn't want a broken flag being flown, which was fair enough).

That's one unhappy captain (Taken by Mira)

The advisor helped me swap the flags (Taken by Mira)

Even after a late start we were stil hopeful that we would get through the canal in one day, but it didn't matter how fast we went. It wasn't going to happen. I hardly had to to do anything at all the whole day, which I was really surprised about and very grateful for. Mostly I just ran around and worried needlessly. When Garth needed a break, Ivo took over the steering and then Maya did a shift as well. I didn't even need to watch what was going on - they had it all under control. It was amazing. Maya was the perfect height as well - when we stand at the wheel we're too tall to see over the dodger standing up, and too short when we're sitting down. Standing up on the seat, Maya had it all figured out.

A storm started brewing just as the sun went down and we made a beeline for our mooring buoy. We got tied up just as the rain started, but luckily it didn't last very long. I was really sorry to see our advisor go, not knowing who we would be stuck with the next day. He was so friendly and sweet. When we were trying to pose in front of the webcam at the Mira Flores Locks, he called up the tower and asked them to point the camera at us. After he left us he missed his ride home and didn't get back until 10pm, just after we'd fallen asleep. The first thing thing he did when he got home was to call us to let us know what time our advisor would be arriving in the morning. This was the fifth time we've been through the canal and he was definitely the only advisor to take our phone number and check up on us later. He was awesome.

The sun set just before we arrived(Taken by Mira)

Early morning in Gatun Lake

The next day our advisor was late again. This time it it was not a scheduling problem. He jumped onboard and told us to 'Go, go, go!' The mooring buoys are only about five or ten minutes away from the locks, but we weren't organised.

We hadn't ended up using the big blue canal ropes the day before. It seemed a bit ridiculous to use massive ropes to tie up to a boat smaller than ours. So they were still laid out all ready on one side, but not on the other. We tied up to the mooring buoy as if it were a dock (it's half the size of the boat) and our starboard side would be a mess of lines until after we let go of the mooring. So when the advisor jumped on and told us to move, we started sorting out the ropes and untying from the mooring. Then he pointed at the locks and a big blue car carrier that was just coming up to the entrance. He told us we we had to get there before it did. Lines were thrown off and it was a mad scramble to get there, with Garth at the wheel and and the rest of us setting up the ropes. But nobody knew what was going on. Our advisor didn't know if we were going to be tied to the wall or if there would be other boats with us or if we had to go in the centre chamber. All he knew was that we had to get there fast and get there first.

Garth floored it, and managed to duck behind another ship that had just come out. He maneuvered through the swirling mess of water left behind in it's wake and managed to stop us spinning around in circles. Then he came round to the other side of the blue car carrier and managed to squeeze through a gap that wasn't dangerously tight, but was still much too close for my comfort. And then he slammed on the brakes. We still had no idea what was happening. We slowly drifted towards the end of the lock, and all our advisor could do was wait for them to get back to him. We made it almost to the closed gates in front of us when he finally got the okay for us to tie up to the wall. Phew! I really didn't want to be in the centre chamber. Aside from not wanting to put Maya to work (she was happy to help but didn't volunteer for a day of hard labour!), our boat is too small to have two people on the bow. It would have been tricky. Plus, we were almost at the gate and there was nobody on shore to throw us lines. We were just slowly moving towards a solid wall.

Squeezing into the lock first(Taken by Mira)

When we got the all clear Garth just sidled over and lightly kissed the wall with our huge fenders. But there was nobody to take our lines and we just sat there. Our advisor told me to just stick our stern line over the huge cleat on the wall, which I thought was a little crazy. But it was the right height and it was was right there, so I just plonked the rope over as a guy slowly got up from his seat and put our bow line on as well. It was insane how easy and relaxed it all was.

The cleats were super easy (Taken by Mira)

I had bought new gardening gloves to protect my hands from the icky green gunk on the walls as we slowly went down. If the boat starts rocking from the currents, the spreaders can scrape against the sides. Pushing off the walls can help avoid this. But I didn't even need them except to lightly push the stern away as we untied and moved onto the next lock. After doing the canal a few times on other people's boats, I've seen how smoothly it can go (along with how quickly it can all go to shit). But it was just insane how calm everything was. It was much easier than docking in a marina or pulling up a mooring buoy.

Just chilling (Taken by Mira)

The other thing I noticed was what a big difference it made being in the locks in a small boat versus a big boat. We've been through on yachts of various sizes between 40 ft and 50 ft, but never anything smaller. When something goes wrong on a big boat, it's scary. If it gets turned sideways inside the locks, it's a big deal. It felt like our boat was more like a dinghy than a big yacht once we were inside the walls. We could drive around in circles if we wanted to, or pop over to the other side just to say hi. We were a small thing in a big space instead of being a big thing in a small space, which is the case for almost all of the other yachts going through the canal. It made a huge difference in how our baby handled in amongst all the stone walls and strange currents. It's obviously easier to maneuver a smaller boat in most conditions, but being in the locks made it really clear what a big difference a few feet can make.

Gates opening (Taken by Mira)

Looking down at the last lock (Taken by Mira)

The only other thing that made our canal transit different was a well placed crack in one of the locks as we were going down. We managed to tie up right above it. Garth's theory is that water builds up behind the wall and occasionally finds its way out through cracks when the pressure is too high. It started off by just wetting our feet, but as we went down and the crack stayed in the same place, it turned into a shower above us. It was fresh water from the lake and it was a hot day, so no prizes for guessing what we did. One after another we stuck feet, hands and heads under our free shower. The water was cold and refreshing, and added a lot of excitement to the second day (which was short and sweet considering we just had to go through one set of locks and we were in Colon).

Cooling off (Taken by Mira)

(Taken by Mira)

Aside from the random water flowing onto our boat, Maya provided most of the entertainment. Fata Morgana doesn't have steps up her mast and when Maya saw ours she was super keen to monkey up and take in the view. Usually the advisers get cranky when we do that... on almost every boat we've been through the canal on, at least one person has tried to get up higher to take a quick snapshot of the view over the locks. Somebody always gets in trouble and the fun doesn't last very long at all. On Eva Marie, Dave actually went right up to the top. The Advisor was displeased and demanded he come straight down. But Maya is (only just) small enough and quiet enough to sneak off into the background. On our first day, she was up and down quite a few times, but never for too long. Nobody official seemed to care, and we certainly didn't.

Maya up the mast first thing in the morning (Taken by Mira)

However, on the second day she didn't really have to ask for permission. She wasn't going to fall and she wasn't disturbing anybody, so she just started hanging out up on the first spreader. She's a very zen kind of chick, and is really great at just relaxing quietly with her thoughts. When we were heading out of the last set of locks into the Atlantic ocean, I went to find her to ask if she could take a video of the gates opening for me. But I had no idea where she was! Coming out of the last lock is the most dangerous part of the whole canal, as the current gets really strong and really crazy, really fast. Plus if there's any breeze at all, as soon as the last gate opens you get blasted with wind. It's easy to get spun around in a circle and you have to crank the engine to full speed to have any hope in hell of getting out.

So the gates were about to open and nobody had seen her in ages. I'm sure it's blatantly obvious by now that she was sitting up on the spreaders, just chilling out and enjoying the view. Our adviser had no idea she was up there so he never got a chance to tell her she had to stay down (genius) and I have no idea how long ago she had scrambled up. She's a girl after Garth's heart though - he's always happiest at the top of a tree or sitting up on the spreaders. So just before the gates opened she zipped back down, much faster than I could ever manage. She's freaking awesome.

So that was the whole canal drama done. I'm really grateful it went so smoothly, and I'm really, really grateful that Ivo, Mira and Maya were wonderful enough to help us out. They didn't even seem disappointed when it took two days instead of one, or that our boat is like a small tent compared to their palace. They were just amazing in every possible way. Even though nothing went wrong, if something unexpected had happened I felt so much safer having these awesome guys with us instead of inexperienced strangers.

The last lock lock and the Atlantic ocean!

So now we're in the Atlantic! We've crossed an entire ocean and covered nearly 17,000 miles. This was a big milestone to cross off, and we're super proud of how far we've come and super excited about what's ahead! We're officially in the Carribean! (How's that for cheesey?).

Xxx Monique

Click here for LOTS more pictures!

For anybody wanting to do the canal as cheaply as possible, you really don't need to do all the stuff that people say you do. We didn't use an agent and really don't think you need one unless you want it done fast with no running around. We had to take a 10 minute bus to the office in Panama City to fill out the papers, and walked across the road to pay. The office organised the time for our boat to be measured and the guy came to us on a pilot boat when he said he would. We got our tires from friends who went through he canal before us and left them on the floating dock at the La Playita anchorage in Panama City for a month. It's the off season, and they were still there when we came back from the Las Perlas. Lots of people dont even use tires, but we side tied to the wall so I wouldn't have risked our fenders. We got ropes from the infamous Roger for $80 and he came out to Colon to collect them once we were done. The canal cost $1000 for a boat less than 50 ft, and without an agent we also had to pay a $800 deposit. The deposit was back in my bank account a week later, without me having to chase it up or remind anybody. The only extra cost was the food and drink - I pre made most of our meals so they only needed reheating, and we bought a disposable cooler full of ice for the cockpit which made life much easier. We kept it stocked with soda and bottled water (you need to have bottled for the advisor), and I didn't have to worry about fetching drinks at all. Unless you have 2 fridges, this is the best way to go! You definitely don't need professional line handlers - as long as one or two people have been through the canal before (or at least know how yachts work) it should all go smoothly. And I should point out that our original transit date was booked for 3 days after we started the process, then we changed it twice with no dramas because we both got sick right before we were supposed to transit. Instead of being scary, complicated and difficult as we were led to believe, the whole booking and paperwork process was really easy and everybody was super helpful.

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