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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Our chance to transit the Panama Canal finally arrived on Sunday morning the 8th of February 2004. Our friends, Robert and Jackie, on the 42 foot sloop, Mary Eliza had invited us to join them. We flew from Bocas del Toro and arrived at the Panama Yacht Club in Colon on Saturday evening, the 7th. After spending the night on their boat, we got up bright and early at 0430 and were ready for the "Advisor" to come board at 0515.
Arranging to transit the canal starts with contacting the Autoridad del Canal de Panama for instructions and a reservation. Transiting fees depend on the size of the boat. Our friends paid just under $700, plus a $400 deposit that they would lose if they could not complete the transit before nightfall. Only large commercial vessels are allowed to transit at night, because they are assumed to have professional crews. Schedules are tight and any delays create problems. For the protection of the boat, extra fenders (bumpers) must be rented. These consist of old tires wrapped in plastic bags and taped to avoid making black marks on white hulls. To aid in handling the boat, four 125-foot, ¾ inch lines plus four line handlers must be onboard. Lines can be rented and line handlers hired for one-way transit. Only one extra line had to be rented. Jan and I and one other couple were the line handlers. An advisor is required to be aboard at all times to give instructions and stay in touch with the Autoridad by radio.
Jimmy, the Panamanian advisor arrived at the boat at 0600. There had been a delay by a cruise ship that had a problem and had thus lost its reservation. According to Jimmy, the cruise ship operators had to pay a $250 penalty and were re-scheduled for the next day. We arrived at the Gatun Locks at 0700. There, we and another sailboat smaller than us waited for a freighter to enter first. The tugboat that helped the freighter then entered the lock after it and tied to the wall of the lock. We were instructed to tie to the tug and the smaller sailboat tied to us. When all was ready, Jimmy informed the lock operator and the massive gates closed behind us.
The locks are in pairs so that traffic can flow in two directions at once. This, design as well as the size of the locks and use of double "safety" gates at each end of the canal is evidence of the far sightedness of the designers. The extra set of safety gates at each end of the canal is to protect Colon on the Caribbean side and Panama City on the Pacific side from accidental flooding if a gate should fail. Each lock is 1,000 feet long, 110 feet wide and 75 feet deep. The maximum vessel size allowed in the canal is 965 feet long and 106 feet wide with a 40-foot draft. We estimated that the ship ahead of us was 800 feet long, which left plenty of room for us. The locks flood surprisingly fast. The valves and pipes that carry the water are huge. Each lock will hold approximately 50 million gallons of water, but the larger the ship, the less water needed, so maximum size ships actually move through faster than smaller ships. In our case, we were lifted to the next lock in about 12 minutes. It took longer to arrange all the tying than it did to flood the lock. The lock gates are massive. The largest is over 81 feet high, 55 feet wide and nearly 10 feet thick and weighs over 730 tons. The gates were originally operated electrically, but were converted to hydraulic power some years ago. There are 40 gates in the system and each one is removed and refurbished every 10 years, which means four per year or one every three months. Ships are self-propelled in the locks, but tugboats assist the large ships to enter and they are centered in the lock by four "mules" or small diesel powered engines that move on cog rails on either side of the lock. The operators of these mules do a marvelous job in that the steel cables attached to the ships are constantly adjusted in length by the mule operator to keep the ship centered so it won't scrape the sides of the lock. In the case of a ship that is 106 feet wide in a lock that is 110 feet wide there are only two feet on each side to spare. But it all works like clockwork 24 hours a day.
Once through the three-stage Gatun locks, we traversed Lake Gatun, which took about three hours. The lake is fresh water and provides water for the central area of Panama. We passed many ships on the lake ranging from container ships to cruise ships to automobile carriers that can carry up to 3,000 vehicles. The Gaillard Cut was next. This was the most difficult part of digging the canal in that hills as high has 300 feet had to be cut through. Because of the enormous amount of material that had to be removed, the original width of the canal at this point was only 235 feet, which restricted traffic to one-way at a time until it was widened to 450 feet, which took 16 years to complete, from 1954 to 1970. The cut was widened again to 675 feet, which was completed in 2001. Next, was a sight we had not expected. The twin towers for the new Pan American Highway Bridge, which will span the canal, were under construction. Each tower, one on each side of the canal, was well over 500 feet high and will eventually support a bridge similar to the new Tampa Bay Bridge in Florida. The Pedro Miguel lock was next. When we reached this lock, our tugboat was no longer with us. It had returned to assist vessels going in the opposite direction. For this lock and the Miraflores locks that followed, the two sailboats rafted up (tied together) again and were held in the middle of the lock by the long lines that were required to be on board. In order to get the long lines to the sides of the lock, line handlers on the lock walls threw small lines with a "monkey fist" (small weight surrounded by woven line) to us. We then tied our lines to the small lines and the line handlers pulled them to the lock walls, where they were secured to bollards. This system worked very well and kept the sailboats from coming near the lock walls, which are very rough and dirty. It was quite a show for the tourists, who can visit each lock by car or bus and watch from observation decks as vessels lock through. The small boat next to us had four young men from Australia, who were tanned, muscular and bare chested. They were quite popular with the female tourists who kept asking to go along or inviting them home. International relations can be very stimulating.
After the Pedro Miguel lock, we crossed Miraflores Lake and then on to the final two-stage Miraflores lock. We were
then officially in the Pacific Ocean. The total distance traveled was 52 miles in 9 hours averaging nearly 6 knots. We motored to the Balboa Yacht Club where our friends took on fuel and off loaded the rented fenders and line. We repaired to a hotel for some much needed rest and met our friends one last time the next day for lunch. Then, we headed west to the city of David (pronounced Dah Veed) and our friends headed for Ecuador. Stay tuned.