Panama Canal Transit
28 – June - 2016
An Excellent Transit
|Returning from Isla Tobago, Gehry Bio Museum is the coloured roof panels to left|
We returned from Vancouver to Taboga Island finding Kanilela riding Chuy’s buoy happily. Once again Mag’s extensive preparations to leave the boat had paid off. I arranged for Chuy to have the hull cleaned before I returned because I knew we had very little time to prepare for our “line-handlers” arrivals and I did not have time to do it myself as usual.
We decided to take a berth in Playita Marina for a week to get ready for the canal transit and to make life easier for our four extra crew as they arrived. It worked out well as some big winds came up and both La Playita and Las Brisas anchorages were rough, especially Las Brisas with its chaotic beach access. Our daughter Bree and her husband Matt arrived from New York in the afternoon, my big brother Doug flew in from Duncan/Vancouver that evening and finally Bree and Matt’s friend Joe arrived from New York the following day. With six on board, dock conveniences were appreciated.
|They made it look easy|
We managed to do some provisioning trips with side trips to the Canal museum at the Miraflores locks and a trip back to Casco Viejo, the old town.
We were all very attentive to details at the Miraflores Locks because we were all going through the canal for the first time. Several people had told us to hire a line handler or two but I thought we could do it. While we were watching, a sailboat, locking down to the Pacific while rafted to a Canal work boat, came through and had an uneventful passage through the two locks. They made it look easy which was reassuring but going up in the locks is the direction the prop wash and inflow of water create the worst condition so I was only partially relaxed about what we had seen and there were no boats going the other direction, up to Gatun Lake.
|Kanilela's Transit Crew June 2016 - thanks for the photo Matt|
I decided to hire an agent, Erick Galvez from Centenario Consulting, firstname.lastname@example.org because we needed the 4 - 125 foot lines and bumpers and because doing your own registration can cause delays and finally, we had people on tight schedules. The process went well, the Admeasurer came to the marina to complete the requisite forms and the lines and bumpers were dropped off without issue. When we submitted the paper work on Tuesday we were hoping for a Thursday or Friday date but they were full so we met our transit advisor, Francisco, about 0800 on Saturday morning, 25-June-2016.
As many of you may know, the canal has been building a new set of locks for the last many years. The new locks are to permit wider modern ships of up to 55m (165’) to transist. The old locks are 33.5m (110’) and the Panamax ships designed to that width were losing out to the larger ships which were working the Eastern North America/Europe/Middle East/Far East trade routes. Panama City was covered in ads saying the new canal would open on Sunday, 26-June-2016. Yep, day two of our transit.
|Bridge of the Americas|
Passing under landmark bridges can be big events for cruisers. For Vancouver sailors departing, the Lion’s Gate bridge is an emotional moment and of course entering San Francisco under the Golden Gate was a milestone. The Pacific approach to the Canal is dominated by the steel Bridge of the Americas and yes, it felt very good to be passing under the link between North and South America. While waiting to enter the first Miraflores lock we met another sailboat, Sunrunner, who would be transiting with us. The freighter, Noble Halo was to enter first, then the canal tug, Pacora, would side tie behind the freighter, then we would enter and nest to the tug and finally Sunrunner would enter and nest to us. Sounds easy…
|The bow crew, Doug and Joe ready to tie to the Pacora|
And it was! Everyone performed their tasks perfectly. Our advisor, Francisco and Edward, the advisor for Sunrunner, were great, giving advice clearly and demonstrating better techniques when beneficial. They were perfect for a boat load of canal first timers. Paul on Sunrunner had transited the canal fourteen times and his crew varied from two with extensive experience to a couple of first timers.
|Bree set to take Sunrunners lines|
As the lock closed and filled we did introductions and shared cruising histories. Once we were at the top of the lock, the forward gate opened into the second Miraflores lock. To move from one lock to the next Noble Halo went first pulled by the train mules on the canal side and using his own motor for additional thrust. After his turbulence had calmed a little, Sunrunner dropped away from Kanilela and we then dropped back from Pacora, so they could advance into the next and final Miraflores lock and repeat the nesting process again. Tied to a larger vessel that is side tied is the easiest lockage position, once nested, only the line handlers on the tug at the side wall have any work.
|Thanks Marie for the screenshots, and yes, Matt is in a white shirt!|
|Heading out from the second Miraflores Lock into Pedro Miguel Lake|
Bree and Matt had notified numerous people of the live feed canal cameras and as we were going through Miraflores they were talking to Marie, Matt’s mom in Pennsylvania. She managed to capture some screen shots of us rafted, separating and proceeding to the next lock. The viewing galleries of the lock were packed with people and knowing we had a live feed audience as well, the pressure was on. We did not want to make history by doing a 360 and bouncing off the walls.
|Every person on the deck has a camera ready for some poor skipper who blows it!|
The old canal has three locks rising up 26m (84’) to the Gatun Lake elevation and three down. From the Pacific side the two Miraflores locks are first, followed by the Pedro Miguel single lock about one mile away. Unfortunately, the tug Pacora was stopping to join a ship in the canal between Miraflores locks and Pedro Miguel, so our final type of lockage was changed to center chamber.
|Another perfect throw|
While rafted to Sunrunner each line crew would catch a line thrown with a Monkey Fist to the sailboats from the lock sidewalls therefore each sailboat would have a bow and stern line to the canal wall and would have to maintain the correct tension, keeping the sailboats in the middle of the lock.
|Matt and Bree snugging the stern line|
Again, Doug and Joe on the bow and Matt and Bree on the stern performed perfectly. It went incredibly smoothly. The Pedro Miguel Canal staff threw the stern lines to the bow and Matt and Bree ran them back to the stern thus avoiding getting a Monkey Fist through a solar panel. Although we have heard of panels being hit one wonders if there were other dynamics taking place. The Canal crews have competitions throwing Monkey Fists through 6” diameter circles so we know they can put it where they choose to put it. With us they were all smiles, as helpful as could be and always tolerant of my Spanish. Our advisors, Francisco and Edward were great. Textbook locking…. A note on the advisors. They are Canal employees who work in other departments and have an opportunity to work as advisors on an overtime basis on sailboats and yachts. They are not ship’s pilots. Francisco is with the Environmental Department and Edward is a tug boat captain. Edward loved sharing his knowledge of the history of the canal so the transit was incredibly informative.
Once out of the Pedro Miguel lock you enter the Gaillard Cut, a 13.7 km long excavation that killed the original French effort to build the canal. By building a dam at the Caribbean end of Gatun Lake and the use of locks to gain the necessary elevation, the American contractors were able to raise the lake level therefore they did not have to excavate the Gaillard Cut as much. Still, the tailings from the excavation provided the fill for the more than one mile long Armador causeway out to the islands at La Playita and Las Brisas anchorages.
Just after clearing the Pedro Miguel Lock the canal passes under the second bridge crossing the canal, the fairly new Puente del Centenario, a beautiful cable stay structure. Another milestone moment.
Once out of the Gaillard Cut at the interior town of Gamboa, the canal buoys start to wander through the widening arms of Gatun Lake. The lake transit is about 30 km to the mooring buoy where your advisor gets picked up near the new 55m wide locks. We were told that the first ship would be coming out of the new locks at 0800 the following morning going southbound and our advisor would be onboard at some point through the morning to complete our northbound passage in the old locks. Our mooring buoy was massive, at least 10’ in diameter and flat enough to run laps on top.
Although we were close to the new lock, there was a hill blocking our view into the lock. As the following morning progressed numerous helicopters flew overhead but 0800 passed and no ship appeared. About 10:00 am fireworks started but we only saw the flashes of the first shots because the wind was blowing our direction and smoke covered the sky obliterating the following fireworks which continued booming for a long time. In a word, daytime fireworks are not particularly effective! Then we continued waiting, and waiting, and waiting…..
|History is made! The first ship through the new locks|
At about noon, with new frenzied activity from the tug boats and helicopters, the bow of the container ship appeared. She was a Cosco Container ship with banks of grey Cosco (China Ocean Shipping Co) containers and green Chinese Shipping containers arranged in a balanced pattern. It was clear who had financed the new locks. Although the length was no greater than the typical container ships we were seeing, when she turned stern to, it was apparent how much bigger she was. Instead of the usual 13 containers wide she held 19 wide. Pretty impressive and we were there for the historic moment, although admittedly not quite as historic as 102 years ago when the SS Ancon was the first ship through the canal.
|Canadian sovereignty of our buoy/island|
|And the newest Bluewater Cruising Out Station|
As the day progressed word reached us that there were no advisors available and we would have to wait on our buoy for the night and hopefully we would get an advisor by noon the following day. We were in clean fresh water and went swimming although we had read often that there are crocodiles in Gatun Lake and then proceeded to claim Canadian sovereignty over our island-like buoy and further to declare it a Bluewater Cruising Association Out Station. All in all a pretty successful day in the history of Canadian sailing! Especially good that there was no mutiny onboard Kanilela with no shore leave permitted. The monkeys on the shore line jungle were sounding restless.
Paul, from Sunrunner radioed that two of his crew were not able to stay the night and would we be able to share linesmen with him? We replied that as long has both advisors were okay with it and the Canal Authority had us nested for a center chamber lockage the two crews could easily handle the trip. He took his two departing crew to shore and we have not heard from them since. Presumably they made it back to Panama City.
About 1330, 1:30pm, Monday our new advisor, Elvie MacMillan, arrived on board. Elvie is an Engineer with the tugs normally and has worked for the canal for 26 years. He was a great guy to be with and was really good about sharing his knowledge of the canal, old and new. We crossed the mouth of the new locks over to the west to the old Gatun locks, the three locks that would drop us to the Caribbean.
|New tug and Seaboard America behind us|
It was agreed we would raft with Sunrunner and Kanilela, being larger, would control our movement through the canal. It was a great trip with the two sailboats first into the lock, one of the new canal tugs for the bigger locks side tied behind us and a smaller container ship, the Seaboard America, in last. In the lock beside us, the Hansa Europa, a large container ship out of Hamburg, paralleled our progress northbound.
|Textbook line handling|
We stayed nested with Sunrunner through the entire locking so Kanilela motored up the center while the dock workers walked the messenger lines through the locks. When we would arrive at our next set of bollards, the line crews would send the big lines back to the side to be attached. We only had to catch the Monkey Fist on the first lock. Down locking is generally easier but people are constantly warning about the salt water, fresh water turbulence on exiting the third lock. Kanilela has a modified full keel and enough power that we did not experience any problems.
We transferred Elvie to a Canal tender at the Flats and continued, with lightning flashing over Colon City, up to Shelter Bay Marina. A huge check mark in Kanilela’s cruising story and kudo’s to the crew who were now experienced line handlers.