Around The World Voyage : Commentary : Leg 4

The Canal Sunday May 26, 2002

To view pictures of thetransit through the Panama Canal click here

3:50 am – Our wake up alarm clock sounds in the salon and Mike turns on our two coffee makers. We all put on our NORDHAVN ATW embroidered aloha shirts. We are quiet now, but will look loud throughout the day.

4:00. With Eric Ng and Carlos Solano from Delfino (our agent) aboard and the crew all up, lights on, instruments on, etc., Kevin Ryan does an engine room check, tightens one loose hose clamp and we are ready to check in with Cristobal Signal on channel 12.

4:05 Capt. Danero is on the radio to Cristobal Signal, the air is heavy in anticipation…the response from CS – “NORDHAVN, report to flats to pick up pilot at 04:30." Capt. Dan, now fully awake after two sips of coffee, gleefully acknowledges the command.

4:07 We untie from the cement center pier 3 at the Panama Canal Yacht Club – Cristobal, and under cover of night slip out of the harbor and proceed to the flats. Carlos helps Dan locate the yellow light at the flats where pilots usually board. Dock lines go back into deep storage (we have four special 150’ blue polypropylene lines for locking that we have rented from Pete Stevens - Delfino) and fenders are taken in and put into standby mode.

4:20 At the flats we stand by - excited and relieved - and know once we get into that first lock chamber we are truly committed. Coffee mugs are refilled and the waiting for the pilot commences.

4:39 Our Canal Pilot, Victor Julio Viveros, Jr. arrives. We proceed slowly in the direction of the Gatun locks. There will be three of us in this group, NORDHAVN, "Los Campaneros" (a brand new 61’ Viking sportfisher on her maiden voyage from New Jersey) and a large orange cargo freighter, “Zanis Griva” from Monrovia. The order will be Freighter, Fisher, Fighter!

4:50. Victor and Dan exchange questions, answers and instructions as we plod along at .5 knots. Dan opens it up to get us in a better position and at 2100 rpm we see 8.3 knots, we can run harder, but it is nice to see a lively speed, our clean bottom and low fuel level give us a new energy.

5:00 We are homing in on a series of lights like a moth to a flame. We pass the red bell buoy 8 and spook a roosting pelican (alcatraz) who has been sleeping. The light of day is starting to sneak into the sky. Kevin, Mike, Tim and Carlos are all sitting on the foredeck. The Nordhavn bow burgee enthusiastically flutters, coaxing us on as we are soon to leave Limon Bay, our last taste of Atlantic and Caribbean waters.

5:10 Victor leads us in with intermittent VHF communication on 13. We are slowly being funneled towards the lock entrance. Three green lights are set up as range/directional fixes and Dan soon has them straight on.

5:30 We can see the freighter up ahead filing into the lock area. It is still dark outside, but now half of the sky shows white-blue where the clouds do not block it. Victor confirms that we have 2’ loops on the ends of each lock line and explains that the lock attendants will be throwing down messenger lines weighted by ‘monkey’s fists’ (a special knot at the end of the line tied into a ball shape) with which we are to secure our lines so they can hoist up the loops to lasso the bollards. We control the ‘smart’ ends of the lines from our end.

5:35 Fenders are repositioned, two on each side – two aft in the cockpit and two at the front of the Portuguese bridge.

5:52 We enter the cement wharfs that are the mouth of chamber one.

5:54 – Monkey fist off the starboard bow! Soon Carlos has secured both bow and stern lines from the starboard side to the monkey line. Then the monkey fist goes off the port bow and Eric secures both port side lines. The lock workers walk at our speed and at the correct position they hoist them up .

6:00 Victor gets on the VHF, “OK Lockmaster we are ready for water!” The solid hawse pipes that come standard on the Nordhavn 40 are designed for just this type of heavy action. The cleats onboard will pull the canal walls in on us if our handlers are not careful. NORDHAVN is overbuilt, solid, rugged and ready to go.

6:01 The lock gates close. The tide inside the chamber rises and water races in creating a wild current. We have heard stories of cheap manila line used and snapping under this turbulent pressure – careening a small sailboat into the side walls and gate. We thank Pete Stevens for supplying stout lines and a stout crew. We are center tied – easily 45 feet of water on either beam. There's no need for fenders.

6:15 Chamber filled, a whistle is sounded and our onboard line handlers uncleat and slack the lines, then we pull in our lines as Capt. Dan powers us forward. The monkey fists remain attached - a drill that won’t be repeated. The line handlers on the canal bulwark walk at our pace. They are wearing hard hats and life jackets. We are wearing aloha shirts and big grins.

6:19 The walls rise up as we pass through the gate of the second chamber. Our four lines are slackened again. Capt. Danero and Pilot Victor keep NORDHAVN centered in the chamber. The gate behind us immediately begins to close. The water level on the canal wall says 39’.

6:39 The water level rises to 69’. In about twenty minutes the second chamber has filled and we have done our first ladder step up the ramp to do a slow motion full displacement salmon run. Like the salmon we are returning home, but unlike the salmon we are to be reborn into our home waters, the Pacific.

6:45 We are in the final chamber. This one has an observer's room and on the control building a plaque which says, “GATUN LOCKS - PANAMA CANAL - 1913” and painted on the front of the building, “A canal for the new Millenium.” This third chamber is a double door affair – we are definitely locked in. The water level begins at 41’. Dan and Victor discuss the merits of Mercedes cars. This transit deal is now an old hat drill for Captain Danero. A huge hydraulic arm is pinned to the upper gates. The force must be tremendous.

6:55 The water has risen 30’ to 71’. The huge freighter in front has a rail mounted trolley as it's line handler.

7:02 The whistle sounds, the monkey lines are untied from ours and we haul in our lock lines. NORDHAVN powers up to 8 knots. We enter Gatun Lake and leave the dam to starboard. The wind has whipped up and we’re seeing 24 knots right on the nose.

7:08 Dan fires up the wing engine. We’re now a twin screw screamer and our speed increases to 8.4, respectable given the chop on the lake and the headwind.

7:15 We are taking the short cut across the Lake and will pass by Monkey Island (no crew transfers anticipated).

7:22 At the top of a Fig tree we get an excited monkey greeting – a big dark monkey romping all around the upper branches - hootin’ and hollerin’ and basically monkeying around. We feel special. What a great day to be alive. Kevin exclaims, “Show me the monkey!”

8:05 We are passing a very special island in the middle of the canal called, Barro Colorado Island, which is operated by the Smithsonian Institute as an unspoiled preserve to study the indigenous flora and fauna of Panama. Panama has over 650 bird species, one of the richest locales of birds in the world. This preserve has been in continuous operation for over 30 years, but unfortunately we do not have much detail on it aboard.

8:30 Our short cut ends as we reemerge in the main channel.

9:12 We arrive in Gamboa, leaving her to port. We are roughly at the half way point on our transit. We are 21 miles from the Gantun locks and 9 miles to go to get to Pedro Miguel locks. The boat speed is reduced as we navigate through this area. Lots of cranes and dredging equipment. Docks and buildings, power lines and houses, this is a small seaport in the middle of the canal. We see our friends on the sport fisher, "Los Campaneros". They are anchored in the shallows.

9:23 GTM drops the hook in 15’ of water. Lilli pads and foliage are floating on the surface, a little weird. A large Maersk ‘Panamax’ pulls through – it is enormous. We are just across from a low level bridge that crosses the Chagres river. We are parked because the approaching Culebra Cut is restricted. Ships are basically routed on a one way traffic schedule. We will likely be stopped here for an hour or so. Carlos points out a tall observation tower that is part of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort – another place to put on your list of things to do. Carlos has the binoculars out and is looking for Manatees and Alligators.

11:30 . After a 2 hour wait we were able to key on our trusty Lugger and up anchor. Kevin got a couple of swims in and the rest of the crew just rested.

11:33. Victor orders and I make a ham sandwich. Chicken is also being prepared. John Hiatt’s – “Walk On” only gets one cut played before he is yanked in favor of Loggins and Messina "Full Sail”. This, the favorite disc for crew 4 takes its rightful place as the soundtrack for the canal.

12:20 The cut is very well lit up for night passages. There are two sets of range markers at the end of each straight leg of channel – a set of three large white diamond shaped signs with black crosses. So far every time I’ve looked at the depth sounder we have been right around 50’.

12:26 Dan is on the Delfino loaner cell phone with Jim Leishman and we are pulling over to side tie at the entrance to Pedro Miguel Lock. Apparently we are waiting for some boats in the locks to clear before we can enter.

12:30 Captain Danero brings us along side the pilot boat ‘Nutria’ – all four fenders are positioned to port.

12:35 Kevin and I go ashore with two Frisbees for a quick round of disc golf. Kevin is unsure that it is cool, I suggest we play until we get yelled at. We settle on what will be the first hole, then Victor shouts down something. I walk up to find out we are not allowed on shore. Dan joins us as the three of us return to the boat. Heading down some steps I curve a soft floating arc’er right into Kevin’s grasp – we played Frisbee in the middle of the Canal!

12:50 Our plans for arrival at the other end take shape as Grego dictates a list of groceries for Tim and me to pick up while the crew takes on fuel and water.

13:00 Kevin takes advantage of the break to organize the paper charts for the Pacific coast of Panama so that a quick departure with a game plan will be possible as soon as NORDHAVN gets reloaded.

13:12 While doing a periodic inspection of the freezer I discover chocolate ice cream. It is quickly dispensed with by the Captain and me. Minutes later we are underway.

13:31 We are side tied in the Pedro Miguel Lock waiting for our partner. I finish the last couple of pages of David McCullough's epic, “The Path Between the Seas”. If you are going to do the canal it is a must read.

14:00 We are now tied in at the Pedro Miguel Lock, first ones in line. The sport fisher is behind us and the huge freighter "Pretty Flourish” is just squeezing in with a couple of feet to spare on the beam.

14:04 Twice the monkey fisters misfired, it’s a good heave of 50’ or so. Finally we got a connection and Kevin quickly tied a bowline using the monkey line to secure our port bow and stern lines. The starboard lines remained on the dock since we had side tied.

14:23 We dropped down roughly 30’ and then the double gates opened up. Since they opened in towards us we had to wait until they tucked back into the seawall before the upper line handlers called for slack so that they could release our lines from the bollards. Once clear we picked up speed. We are now heading across Miraflores Lake. Up ahead, not far away our final set of locks. The Miraflores Locks. We have sent out an email and called our next of kin – so that everyone can see us going through this last set of locks on the web camera.

14:31 We pull up to the Mira Flores Locks. It’s a bit of a wait here, the big freighter who will lock through with us is a slow poke. Again we side tie.

14:34 A Panama Canal worker picks up a slow moving fish that is still alive but got trapped swimming from the salt water to the fresh. He now has at least an appetizer for his Domingo comida.

14:40 There is a viewing platform at the locks with tourists taking it all in. Apparently you pay admission and the plan is to open a much larger facility in the next year that will incorporate a restaurant and bar. We yell to them “Show us your tickets,” but they cannot hear us.

15:20 The twirling monkey fisters miss twice, Capt. Danero alters course to port to give them a chance and the third time is the charm. We are on LockTV and get many calls from family. Mikes daughter Kerry squeals with delight when the camera refreshes and captures him on the bow waving his red bandana – she’s going to print that one out for him.

15:34 The water starts pouring out of the lock. We now have a full on Spanish music radio station blaring flamenco accordion music. Ahh, a nice reminder that the next port will be Acapulco.

15:43 We drop down into the pit again, inside a huge concrete swimming pool. The bell rings and it’s time to press forward into the last lock of the day.

16:00 It is time to flow. The last water will be issued forth for us. The whistle is blown. We pull in the lines for the last time. Dan puts it in gear and we are clear of the locks.

16:15 At last, we are at sea level on the Pacific side. The tide on the Atlantic side was 12 inches, now we are in a tidal flow of more like 12 feet. Dan guns it and we go 8.7 knots - the advantages of current.

16:25 A toast – Kevin breaks out a beer for each member of the crew – nice cold, refreshing, just the thing. Remember the old Schlitz commercial…you only go around once! (and we took the short cut)

16:37 We pass under the Bridge of the America’s our official passage into the Pacific.

16:47 Rough bouncy seas and we're back in our element. The water depth is 60 feet as we make our way outside to the Flamingo Yacht Club..

16:53 Time to file this report because as soon as we arrive it will be a mad scramble to offload, reload and then head back out to sea. The dark clouds on the land give a great background to the skyscrapers of Panama City that are shined on brilliantly by the sun.

Thank you Peter Stevens and Delfino Maritime for taking care of us. Thanks to Eric and Carlos for handling our lines and being our brothers. And special regards to Tim Hanse of Southern Boating Magazine who has been a great addition to the team over the last couple of days and blended right in with us from the start. We especially enjoyed his tales of Panama from his years down here and his fluency in Spanish to make things happen quicker for us.

This has been a long day to be sure. I just broke out a box of Girl Scout cookies – Trefoils (you know, the short bread kind) courtesy of my daughter, Elle Merrill, a second year Brownie, as a celebration for completing this portion of the voyage.

Tim and I will make a final grocery run and then the crew will head up the coast. My days aboard are done, it has been a great adventure, one never to forget. Fair weather NORDHAVN, have a safe trip, take care of the crew and we’ll see you at home in Dana Point in a few short weeks!

As Jimmy Buffet would sing it, “it’s been a lovely cruise..”


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