Thursday 12 February 2015

Panama Canal

It is dark when the heavy pilot boat surges up alongside. A big swell is running as the pilot takes a firm grip on my hand and jumps aboard. We are with eight other ARC yachts at the Flats, an anchorage near the commercial shipping terminal in Colon, where cranes work under neon lights like giant insects as they load containers onto a freighter, bound for Europe.  Finally, just after 9pm our pilot receives clearance on the VHF and we raise anchor.  We follow the red channel markers towards a sea of bright lights until we make out the shape of huge lock gates. A tanker in the opposing lock floats fifty feet above us. We are about to transit the Panama Canal.

As we approach the piers our pilot asks us to form our nest: first the yacht Exody motors slowly up to our starboard side and we take their lines as they tie up alongside. Then Garlix repeats the process on our port side, everyone adjusting lines and springs while I keep the newly formed nest moving slowly towards the lock gates. Approaching the lock, line handlers in red lifejackets and hard hats, high above on the walls, throw light heaving lines, weighted with a monkey’s fist, which land with a thump onto the decks of our neighbours.  My job is to steer the nest in a straight line up into the huge lock chambers that tower above us, maybe 30 metres above our heads.  Once at the entrance to the lock, our crews attach heavy blue lines to the light line and these are retrieved by the line handlers and secured to bollards high up on the walls. We take up the slack to hold the nest in the centre of the lock and wait in the silence under the yellow glow of the lights, our voices echoing around the vast chambers.

Once the rest of the fleet is tied up, a siren sounds and the lock gates start to close; giant hinges, closing behind us, locking us into the chamber. The murky water around us boils as the sluices are opened and thousands of gallons from the upper locks rush in through culverts beneath us and slowly we start to rise. The crews on our nest work hard to take up the slack on the lines and hold us mid-chamber while the turbulent water bubbles around us. We work our way up three locks, repeating the process until the final gates open and we are out into the lake. Our pilot helps us to tie up to a buoy for the night, rafted to the other ARC yachts. It is Jens’ birthday and he has a huge supply of cold beers that he dispenses generously. We can hear the monkeys in the trees on the bank as we head for our bunks; it is 2am and we have to be up at 6 when the pilot returns to guide us to the Pacific.

 We depart early, shortly after dawn, tired but full of excitement.  The canal is a dredged deep water channel running through the lake, winding its way around the islands that are inhabited only by monkeys and jaguars, the channel marked with red and green buoys. We have a reservation at the Pedro Miguel lock at midday and now untied from our nest, we lead our flotilla at seven knots under motor, covering the thirty miles under the guidance of the experienced head pilot, Roy Paddy, who travels with us.   Every few miles we pass huge tankers coming in the opposing direction, carrying their cargo from China and Australasia to the valuable markets of the Atlantic. The vegetation is lush and heavy, creepers knit the trees that hang over the muddy waters of the lake and we scan the banks for the crocodiles that inhabit this curious ecosystem.  Occasionally we see stumps of trees, drowned when the lake was flooded over one hundred years ago, still holding their heads defiantly above the water. 

Dredgers are continually at work in the canal. Rusty steel pipes, resting on floats at fifty metre intervals, take the spoil from the dredgers and connect into temporary base stations erected on the land where the muddy water gushes out into swamps behind the banks of the lake.  Motoring past, we hear the spoil rattling and gurgling through the pipes. When the work is complete the dredger moves up the canal and a tug tows the pipeline, snaking behind it, to the new location and the dredging starts again. 

We leave the lake and head into the infamous Culebra Cut, the narrowest section of the canal where so many lives were lost when it was hewn out of the rock. When Ferdinand de Lessops started the original canal in 1880, he insisted that it should be a sea-level canal, and because he had built the Suez, no one dared question him. However it proved to be an impossible task. Each time the diggers excavated a section, torrential rain would swell the muddy banks and huge landslides would run down the hillsides and fill the trench, taking many lives with it.  When the Americans took control of the project in 1908 they conceded that the only realistic solution was to create a canal of two levels and by damming the mighty Chagres River, they created the Gatun Lake that provides the essential power for the locks, thousands of gallons of muddy water every day.  Since the canal opened in 1914, over a million ships have since passed through its banks over the Isthmus of Panama. Today the Cut is benign, the banks are terraced, flowing with Pampas grass; no sign of the horror and anguish of this section that became known as Hell’s Gorge.

We are now through the deepest part of the cut and it is time to start the decent into the Pacific. We raft up again into our nest, and with the wind blowing hard from astern we slip into the Pedro Miguel lock.  As Juno is the boat that controls the nest, throughout the transit, our pilot talks to me,.  ‘Ahead slow please Captain, ok, that good, that’s good’.   My job is to keep us in the middle of the canal and to control the speed of the nest with my engines.  Because we are rafted three abreast the engine and rudder aren’t as responsive as usual so I have to do everything in slow motion.  Its not hard but it does require concentration.  Once the water in the lock is level with the canal, a bell sounds, the lock gates open and we are free to motor out.  The line handlers untie us from the lock walls and hurl our lines into the water where we retrieve them back onto the boat.  We leave the Miraflores lock, under the Bridge of the Americas and we are into the Pacific. Pictures from the web cam captured by Oults, Susie, Katie, Rosie and Saz show Juno in the middle of the second nest descending inside the lock chambers.

We spend a week in Panama, visiting the city and making final repairs before we embark across the South Pacific.  The next marina will probably be in Australia, 10,000 miles away. Sadly we say good-bye to Kerry who is flying home to the UK. She has been the perfect guest: always positive and upbeat, doing more than her fair share of jobs around the boat.  She has also become an accomplished sailor and we hope that she will join us again somewhere along the way.

The fridge has now been repaired (new compressor), the satellite communications is working (new antennae), Fatty has had a haircut (new colour), we have a 1,000 litres of diesel, 1,000 litres of water, a full wine cellar and a store room more plentiful than a Covent Garden greengrocer. As the skyline of Panama City disappears into the smog behind us, I feel Juno heel gently to the breeze from the north. It will be the last mainland coast we will see until Australia, and as we point our bows south towards the islands of Las Perlas, a pod of dolphins play under our bows. We are finally sailing into the Pacific Ocean.


  1. Fantastic, we have eagerly awaited this update. Safe onward travels! Enjoy. xx

  2. Sorry from the Ossies, forgot to sign it! xx

  3. What an amazing adventure and a wonderful blog! We wish your fair winds in the Pacific.
    Sally and Peter Smith
    PS: Peter is about to leave Grenada on Kingfisher to sail in the Caribbean 600