Transit of the Panama Canal

We awoke to the sound of a fog horn blasting and our friends from another yacht shouting at us that the Canal controllers were trying to reach us on the vhf. It was 4:30am, we weren’t due to start till 5:30 so we were fast asleep! We were up, instruments on and calling on the vhf within minutes. Our canal advisor arrived aboard five minutes later and we were off, early!

We rafted up with our friends and then proceeded into the first lock after a huge container ship. The lock sides and gates seemed cavernous and we were like tonker toys next to giants. My photo of the lock gate has a person at the top of it to try and give you a sense of size. As 101,000 cubic metres of water flooded in the noise was terrifying, engines, instructions, whistles, sirens, beeps and roar of the water. It was all quite daunting. Being the larger boat, Russell has to motor and manoeuvre our nest of yachts, being careful to stay away from the scarred canal walls and the rear of the container ship whilst eddies of water want to move you in strange directions.

The canal workers throw down to you ropes with a huge monkey knot on it. You tie your line to it and they haul your ropes up, you then adjust your lines for the height of the water, keeping tension at all times to keep the nested yachts safe. The first thrown monkey knot hit the solar panels with a loud thud and we were worried they had broken them. Marked but not smashed thank goodness. We were all very alert for the next flying ropes, also trying to keep the boys out the way so they weren’t taken out either! It’s a slightly crazy time with the canal advisors shouting in Spanish and beeps and sirens going off.

The first three locks we went up a total of 26m to Gatun lake in the middle. Each lock was 305m long, 33m wide and we were with the same huge container ship who displaced a massive volume, meaning water rushed around it. After the third rising lock it was a welcome relief to motor out into Gatun lake.

The lake was peaceful and slightly surreal. It was formed from flooding the jungle so the banks are a stunning dense green rainforest but next to busy shipping channel marked with buoys. We had a firm timetable to keep to avoid having to pass wide container ships in the cuts so the canal advisor was constantly advising on the speed and position to take (mostly hugging the outer markers and getting out of the way of container ships steaming past at 11kts). The lake was longer than you’d imagine so we had both breakfast and lunch in this section.

The cuts to enable the canal passage through the mountains were dramatic and if you see the yellow digger at the bottom of the photo you get a sense of scale for the cut, first completed in 1913.

The three locks on the other side were slightly more peaceful going down. Only instead of being behind the container ship, we had to be infront of it and right up next to the gates. Being in a canal lock with the gate shut and a container ship heading directly towards you is a another heart stopping experience. Luckily the container ship is held with steel cables attached to train engines which move it along and hold it in place securely.

After a long day we passed under the bridge of Americas and into the Pacific Ocean. Exciting times ahead!

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