Panama Canal Crossing

Early in the morning on 28 May we are met by our canal advisors in the anchorage outside the marina, where we had spent the night. There is one advisor on each boat but the one in the center has the responsibility for all three and hence is in command. SV Spacegrazer, SV Windchase, and SV Moira motor under the Centenario bridge to catch up with the bulk freighter we are supposed to join in the locks. This bridge has only been opened recently to commemorate one century of the opening of the Panama Canal. It is the third bridge to cross it and hence connect Central and South America for road traffic. 


Arriving in front of Gatun locks we tie the boats together with lots of fenders between us and the biggest ones on the outside to protect the boats from scraping against the rough lock walls which almost happens… As a raft we move into the lock and the giant riveted steel doors slowly and silently close behind us. Amazingly, these are the original doors from 1913 and are still in daily service. What an incredible engineering feat the whole canal presents, let alone all the effort and suffering it took to construct it in a tropical climate!


The lock worker on land throws the monkey fist (a ball-shaped weight attached to a thin line) over to us to which we tie the heavy docking line. He then pulls it back and ties it to one of the large bollards. This allows us to tighten it and keep our raft in the middle of the lock. These lines must be tightened continuously as the water level rises and losened when locking down. In the second lock the dock worker is a bit slow to pull over our line and we cannot tighten the line from our end. The strong wash in the lock pushes our raft towards the opposite wall and SV Windchase is inches from getting their wind vane steering damaged. We lucked out this time. But there is a lot of quick and loud Spanish going back and forth between the advisors - maybe better my Spanish is not so good!


After locking up three steps and about 50m (150ft) we arrive in Gatun Lake with a delay. This lake is artificial and in many ways the life blood of this country. All the ships crossing the canal have to traverse it. At the same time it is a freshwater reserve and the hydro-electric dam provides energy for the canal and the country. As we are able to experience firsthand it is also a beautiful sanctuary for many plants and animals. There are no human settlements and private boat traffic allowed on it.


Our freighter is steaming ahead to make his time slot at the locks for descending into the Pacific on the same day. Unfortunately, we cannot keep up with his speed and therefore our advisors are ordered by the canal traffic control to raft us up around a large buoy in Gamboa to spend the night and continue our passage the next day. Shipping traffic is light that day and there is no more matching ship for us. Any ship too large to leave enough room for us or with hazardous cargo such as liquid natural gas or oil is not suitable for us to go in the locks with. Staying overnight in the canal comes as a blessing in disguise because the night is very nice and calm. Notwithstanding the numerous mosquitoes there is much bird life and a crocodile swims past our boats.


The next day new advisors are dropped off by the pilot boat with nimble and accurate steering by the captain. They will escort us through the single chamber Pedro Miguel lock and afterwards to lower us down to the Pacific level in two steps via the Miraflores locks. We steam ahead under the imposing Puente de las Americas into the Pacific Ocean and into a new chapter of my adventures on board Moira.

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