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We had a great Christmas here in the land of bare feet and bathing suits. You can find us on the map at 09º21'N, 82º13'W in the sparsely populated Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro (Mouths of the Bull River), nearly due west of the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal (Colon).

We pulled into the tiny, new Bocas Marina about 1430 on Wed., December 25, direct from our pre-Canal marina, Flamenco Bay Marina in Balboa. Even more delighted to be here than we are is the generator, as it has finally been shut down. This is the first time we've been plugged into dock power since Cabo, and the generator is looking forward to a needed oil change as well as several days of well deserved rest!

Future plans: After a few days here for routine maintenance, replacement of that stabilizer belt and a little rest and recuperation for the crew we intend to head as direct as possible, weather permitting, for the Florida Keys. We will fuel up, just as reassurance, either here, in San Andres or in Isla Mujeres. Everyone agrees that we probably have plenty of fuel to make Marathon but, if we get a good weather window no one really wants to slow down enough to be certain. And who wants to spend 5 days wondering if the fuel will last?!?

Recent history: Our canal transit was everything we'd hoped, and then some. The day started early with the arrival of the paid line handlers (Robinson and his adult son, Tula) about 0610 and our guest line handlers (sailing acquaintances who will soon be taking their own boat thru the canal) about 0630. Getting underway promptly, we had to wait on our canal pilot (advisor), Frank Silvestiani, but were right on time to enter the Canal at the first of the two Miraflores chambers, just before 0900. Not having had enough advance notification of our likely arrival time, we were unable to arrange ahead of time for the canal camera to zoom in on us, but Frank did what he could via cell phone. We'll have to find out from you later how he did.

Finding new words to describe our transit of the Panama Canal is an impossible task! Amazing and impressive will just have to do. As Tom and I consider our flight on the Concord as being the high point of our aviation careers, we feel our two transits of this 'Crossroads of the Americas' to be the high points of our boating careers. Ron and Sandy speak of their admiration and respect for the planning and work that took place 100 years ago so that we could make this journey, a milestone for them, and for Boundary Waters!

Only one day, about 12 hours from start to finish, and we were suddenly transported from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Knowing the time and effort and lives spent in creating this passage between the seas, seeing it in person, from the deck of a (relatively) small boat, is awe inspiring. Truly one of the wonders of the modern world!

We've been in locks as wide, with larger lifts, but never locks as long, and certainly never with ships as large! They shove those huge things in with 2 feet to spare on each side. And tall! The top decks are up there so high that the roughly 28 ft lift per lock makes hardly any difference when you're looking up from an adjacent lock. We couldn't tell without checking the water level whether the big guys were just starting their locking or nearly through. (For our numbers crunchers, I'll add some applicable statistics to the end of this message.)

 

Comprised of 3 named locks, [on the Pacific side Mira Flores (a flight of 2), and Pedro Miguel (1 'step'), then Gatun on the Atlantic side (a flight of 3 'steps')] the Panama Canal is capable of parallel locking two ships at a time, in two parallel sets of chambers at each lock. However, despite the recent widening of the narrow portion of the Galliard Cut through the Continental Divide to nearly 700 feet, the pilots' group still is reluctant to participate in two way traffic. They're holding out for a width of 1005 ft, and it appears that things are currently at an impasse on that issue.

The 6 locomotives that handle each big ship are another amazing sight. Called 'mules', but costing a million dollars each, they run on regular train tracks along each side of each lock chamber. In addition, they have a third, geared track in the middle to which the little engine locks itself for greater traction. They are used (in addition to extremely limited amounts of ship's engine power) when pulling a ship in or out of a lock chamber, as well as to help stop each ship in the correct spot in the chamber, and then to center the ship in the chamber.

Our 'hand line', small-boat locking was just like all the other ones we'd been in over the years, except that we were suspended in the center of the 110 foot wide chamber by our 4 very long dock lines (120 ft plus, rented from our canal agent just for the transit). The center spot is coveted because there the turbulence isn't likely to pin us against the chamber wall, possibly squashing our huge (also rented) ball fenders and damaging the boat. These lines were handled ashore by four Canal employees, on board by our two paid line handlers and by Tom Caywood and Fred Blanchfield. (Fred and wife Kathy will soon take their sailboat through the canal and they volunteered their services in order to get the experience.) Owner Ron Benson and Canal Pilot Frank Silvestiani occupied the flying bridge. (Frank is another Canal employee proud of his grandfathers who both came to the Panama from Italy to help build the Canal.) Sandy, Kathy and I roamed the decks, taking roll after roll of photos.

As we entered each lock, the four canal line handlers, with amazing accuracy, threw their light lines (each line weighted with a monkey's fist - a special, hard, tight, heavy throwing knot) aboard Boundary Waters. Quickly tying our heavy lines to the lighter twine, our four shipboard line handlers then awaited the signal to send our lines ashore. That signal came shortly after we entered the first chamber, allowing the shore line handlers enough time to pull their light lines, with our attached heavy lines, ashore and drop the pre-tied end loops over the shore-side bollards (short, stout pilings atop the lock walls).

As we centered Boundary Waters in her portion of the chamber, behind a car-carrying ship (considered 'small' - i.e., one could see daylight between her sides and the lock walls), our line handlers tightened up on our lines, holding us firmly in place in the exact center of our portion of the lock. Lock doors closed behind us, the water boiled in from the bottom of the chamber, and up we rose. Extremely important, and the reason we had help with the lines, was the effort required to pull against that turbulence to take in the slack in the lines caused by the rise of the boat in the chamber.

Moving from chamber to chamber in each flight of locks was accomplished in conjunction with the Canal line handlers. After the turbulence of the ship in front of us had subsided they released our heavy lines, with their light lines still attached, and our line handlers pulled our lines back aboard. We then motored into the next chamber, attached to shore only by the light lines held by the lock line handlers who walked along with us from chamber to chamber. As we reached our assigned place, the signal was again given, our lines again put over the side of the boat, and again pulled up to the bollards on the lock chamber walls.

 

Repeated for each of the 2 up bound chambers of the Miraflores Lock, and for the single lift of the Pedro Miguel Lock, the procedure was changed slightly for the down bound locks on the Atlantic side. For some reason, ships precede small boats into up bound locks, but follow the same small boat into down bound locks. I've always meant to ask why, but keep forgetting to. Thus we left the down bound locks ahead of the ship sharing our locking, eliminating that scary view of the ship's propeller beginning to turn.

Between the upbound and downbound lock sets is enormous Gatun Lake. Artificially created to control the Chagres River, which carries incredible amounts of water during the rainy season , it is over 30 miles long, and at its widest extension, another 30 miles wide. Displacing thousands of native villagers when it filled just before the opening of the canal in 1914, it is beautiful jungle cruising now. Interestingly, the lock at each end of the lake is provided with double gates at each end of the lock chamber -- 2 sets of 2 gates at each end -- just in case one set is ever damaged by a ship. The potential of the contents of that huge lake being dumped down the canal are just too devastating to contemplate.

Because the Canal locks are entirely gravity fed, operating on the fresh water flowing into Gatun Lake during the rainy season, only the first and last locks involve salt water. The first lock, up bound either way one travels, is so turbulent with water rushing into the chamber that the mixing of the two kinds of water is not noticeable. Down bound, we experienced less turbulence in each lock chamber simply because the water in which we're floating is flowing out, not in. At the last lock we're still floating in fresh water (lighter than sea water). When the doors are opened, despite the fact that the water level doesn't change, the heavier, more abundant, salt water flows in, under the lighter fresh water in the lock chamber, causing remarkably large swells! The boat is pulled out of the lock chamber, floating on the fresh water being displaced by the salt water, and thus the boat requires more speed to maintain steerageway. It was surprising even when we'd been told beforehand.

Probably the sight that will remain longest in my memory is our passage through the Continental Divide. Originally, rain falling north of that line of big hills ran into the Atlantic, and an adjacent drop of rain falling just south of the summit would have been destined for the Pacific. Now ocean going ships steam past that point every day!

Resembling a stepped pyramid, the Divide appears now to be a couple of lonely hills, remarkable mostly for the cement and iron studs reinforcing nearly every corner. It reminded me of the old brick buildings of San Francisco and Charleston, SC, reinforced with iron earthquake bolts running through them. It gave me goose bumps to think of the work conditions of the people who dug through that high, jungle covered line of crumbling hills so that ships could pass this way.

The difficulties of digging through this landslide prone area are far too numerous for me to describe here, but according to "The Path Between The Seas", some of these landslides would, overnight, put enough dirt back into the cut that it would take the diggers up to 8 months to regain the depth to which they'd already dug! And small ones still continue to slide every year during the rainy season, the last 'moderate' slide occurring in 1986, delaying traffic for many hours.

Remarkable as much for his sense of humor, his helpfulness and his interest in the canal, our canal pilot, Frank, was a pleasant addition to our crew for the day of transit. Coming aboard in the early morning, his arrival via the high powered and very maneuverable pilot boat was greatly assisted by our professional line handler's sure handling of our huge ball fenders. Pilot Frank brought with him a small satchel containing his own hand held *UHF* (not VHF) radio for communication with canal vessel traffic control, as well as a computer printout showing where Boundary Waters fit in with the rest of the vessel traffic scheduled for that day. Full of Italian enthusiasm, he also displayed a fine example of the traditional courtesy of professional mariners, not only for each other, but for those with whom they work, the lock masters and Canal traffic coordinators.

Forgive me for carrying on for so long! The last few days have been very full and exciting for all of us, building up to the Canal transit, then followed immediately by an 18-hour trip to Bocas. Once here we exchanged a few Christmas gifts, enjoyed another of Sandy's good dinners and indulged in a very long night's sleep. We're refreshed and rested, the ding is launched, and we're ready to get ship's work done, then go explore around here a bit.

 

[For our number lovers: the 6 Panama Canal lock chambers, (completed, exactly as they are now, in 1913), are 33.5 meters (110 ft) wide, 305 meters (1000 ft.) long and 26 meters deep. (1 meter = 3.28 ft.) Max ship dimensions allowed are 965 feet long, 106 feet wide and 39.5 draft "en (sic) Tropical fresh water". It takes three locks up, and three locks down to lift the ships to the 85 ft. level of the interior freshwater Gatun Lake. The "average vessel" pays $45,000 to transit, and takes a little less than 12 hours, with the canal operating 24 hours a day. Current 'small boat' rates are: 50 feet and under, $500, over 50 to 80 ft, $750, over 80 to 100 ft, $1000. Fees of a ship's agent and paid line handlers are in addition to canal fees. The agent handles the paperwork, the scheduling of transit, canal pilot and hiring of any needed line handlers. With the agent's help scheduling time is reduced considerably, and the "buffer fees" (damage and delay deposit -- small boat breakdowns cost the canal far more in delay time than the big guys) are waived.]

[For the sake of comparison, the Bay Springs Lock (now Jamie Whitten Lock) in the TennTom Waterway system is 600 x 110 ft. and has a lift of 84 ft. With the costs being paid by all taxpayers, there is no fee schedule for transit of the TennTom system.]

Conventional Lock operating details: To by pass a waterfall or rapids or, in the case of the Panama Canal, to cross the Continental Divide, a lock (a stairstep for boats) is constructed. Approaching from below, the boater sees a pair of huge double doors. These doors are opened, showing the boater the inside of a big stone or concrete 'bathtub', with another matching set of doors (now closed) at the far end. Either on the top of the lock or somewhere along the slimy walls are some type of attachment to which the boater must secure the boat (these may be lines to tie to the boat, stiff cables attached top and bottom around which boat lines are looped and secured to the boat or other means of attachment).

The doors behind the boat are closed and valves are opened allowing the water from the higher level to enter the 'bathtub'. While the boat rises, lifted by the incoming water, the boater must tend the lines holding the boat to the side of the lock. (Put a toy boat in a small basin, then pour water into the basin. The boat rises, but the turbulence of the incoming water rocks the boat, causing it to scoot around on the surface of the water. To avoid hitting the sides of the lock or other boats in the lock, the boat must be secured from moving horizontally, but allowed to move vertically.)

Once gravity has equalized the level of the water in the lock with the level above, the upper lock gates are opened and the boat moves out of the lock at the higher water level. A downbound boat may be waiting. After the upbound boat exits the lock, the downbound enters, is secured to the lock walls, and these upper doors closed, along with the valves connecting the lock chamber with the water above the lock. Another set of valves, connecting the lock chamber with the water below the lock are opened, allowing the water in the lock to drain out. The boat is lowered, along with the surface of the water. Once gravity has again equalized the level of the water in the lock with that below the lock, the lower doors are opened and the boat moves out, onto the open water at the lower level.

 

Nordhavn Voyages

 

     
     
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