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Walkabout - Panama Canal Transit

N8:54.8 W79:31.6
This is a bucket list item, as well as marking some pretty significant geographical significance.
We have done the Atlantic just about as far as possible as you can go from East to West - quite a milestone.  And the obvious next milestone of getting to a new ocean - The Pacific!
The Panama Canal does tend to act as a ‘Non return valve’ for sailors - most people only go through from East to West.  Once in the Pacific, us European sailors need to be prepared for an increasing sense of remoteness.  The provisioning and maintenance facilities reduce significantly, the milages get a lot bigger, and the prospect of jumping on a flight home are also much reduced.  That won’t be stopping us flying from Tahiti to get to Jamie and Lauralei’s wedding in June!
After a lot of preparation, the day arrived when we started our Panama transit.  It seems that ‘Caribbean Time’ applies to scheduled times for yachts in the canal.  We were told to be ready to depart at 1300 on Wednesday 15 March 2023.  That slipped hour by hour, until about 1700 when we slipped lines at Shelter Bay Marina.  Our departure did not go unnoticed!  Josh (skipper on V6) stood on the bridge and gave us the biggest send off with his very loud ship’s horn - it was quite an occasion.
The boat felt rather busy…. Until Tom’s arrival in February, we have spent the last 18 months with just the 2 on us on board.  But for most of the next 24 hours we would be 6 on board - Skipper (Andrew), 4 Line Handlers (Traci, Tom, Amy & Antonio) and our Advisor, Harold.  Every yacht needs 4 line handlers.  All the yachts are very helpful in sharing crew around so that everyone has the right number of people.  For some that means multiple canal transits as they help other boats.  Each yacht must have an official advisor who provides guidance and instruction on what needs to be done.
Harold was our Advisor - and he was great.  A font of knowledge, calm and clear with his instructions.  Other yachts were not so lucky, and had some bonkers advisors!
Harold gave us regular ‘test’ questions throughout his time with us, which was great fun.
Here are a few (answers at the bottom);
  1. Where was the canal first planned to be built, and why didn’t it get built there?
  2. Who first attempted to build the canal?
  3. Why did it fail?
  4. What was the main motivation for the US to build the canal?
  5. When did the canal first open?
  6. Is Gatun Lake natural or Man-made?
  7. You can’t see the first locks on either the Atlantic or Pacific sides from the sea - why not?
  8. How many screws and bolts are there in each gate in the Gatun Locks?
  9. How many times have the gates been replaced in their 110 years of operation?
  10. How many pumps control the water in and out of the lake and locks?
  11. Any vessel passing through the canal pays fees based upon length, weight and cargo.  What is the lowest fee ever paid?
  12. How much dynamite was used to blast through the mountain to create the Gaillard Cut?
  13. What is the name of a ship built to the maximum size to fit through the locks?
  14. Which lock gates are the tallest?
The transit was scheduled to take about 24 hours.  Passing through the Gutun Locks, up to the Gatun Lake on the first evening.  Then mooring up with the other yachts overnight, before setting off through the lake and Gaillard Cut the following morning.  And then get to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks by mid afternoon.  The under the Bridge of The Americas before sunset.  And the Pacific is dead ahead…!
The 3 Gatun Locks raise vessels a total of 26m to the level of the lake.  The 3 locks at Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, drop a similar distance down to the Pacific.
The ARC Pacific fleet (28 yachts) had ’special lockage’ which meant that we did not share the locks with a big ship.  We went through in 2 separate groups, a few days apart.  Walkabout was in the second group of 15 yachts.  The arrangements are that boats form rafts of 3 yachts and travel through the locks securely tied together.  The outside boats of the ’nest’ are responsible for line handling to the wall of the locks.  Walkabout was on the port side of our nest, so had this lines to manage.  Tom ran the bow line flawlessly, the stern line was shared around.  There can be huge forces on these lines as the locks fill/empty due to surging water.
Line handlers on the lock walls throw small lines with ‘monkey fist’ knots on the end.  These are then attached to the heavy lines that we were provided, which are subsequently hauled to the lock wall.  Tom stood out as the only person to manage to catch one of these monkey fists (left handed, as well!) and to a round of applause!
The schedule of movements is closely controlled, and the advisors are in contact with ‘canal traffic control’ to ensure that we don’t cause problem for the big ships.  A passage for a big container ship can cost several hundred thousand dollars, with options to pay more (another $100,000 or so) for a quicker transit.  Time is money for both the ships and the canal.
We were able to share the moment of going through the locks with family and friends due to the webcams that are in place.
The gates to Miraflores lock opened, and we had our first sight of the Pacific - just beyond the iconic Bridge of The Americas, which we passed under as the sun was going down.
Soon after, Harold was picked up by a Pilot boat, we headed for La Playita Marina and a celebratory beer.
Woohoo - we are in the Pacific!!
  1. In Nicaragua, but there is too much seismic activity.
  2. The French - using the Suez model - no locks, just cut through at sea level.
  3. Death and disease, and then the went bust.  About 25,000 people died!!
  4. For military purposes - its main purpose was not intended to be for commercial ships.
  5. 1914
  6. Man made - several dams were built to create the lake.
  7. Nothing to do with geography - they were built at an angle and hidden from view so they couldn’t be hit by a torpedo fired from a sub at sea.
  8. None - they are built with rivets.
  9. Never - they are all the original gates.
  10. None - it all operates by gravity.
  11. 36cents. Some crazy person decided to swim the length of the canal.  This was not allowed, so he registered himself as a ship, got measured and was then charged on that basis.
  12. 3 Billion kg!!  It is known as Gold Mountain due to the cost of creating the cut.
  13. Panamax - they have less than a metre gap all around when in the locks. (294.13m long and 32.31m beam)
  14. Miraflores - as they have to cope with the big tidal range in the Pacific.

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