Updated: Sep 20
The thing about ‘moving on’ is that it is not always easy. Either there is some emotional attachment or commitment holding you back or a challenge or obstacle which first needs to be overcome. We have enjoyed Panama, despite the trials and tribulations with the solar arch and, outside a marina, the constant threat of robbery, mugging or even murder. For the country is beautiful, we made many new friends and living is relatively inexpensive. But, after two months, the only thing holding us back was the ‘obstacle’. Of course, the reason to be in Panama was to transit the Panama Canal, gateway to the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, to ‘move on’, we first had to negotiate this waterway.
For the transit, each yacht must have a skipper, advisor (a sort of pilot) and four line handlers on board. The agent can arrange professional line handlers but it is common practise for crews, awaiting their transit, to volunteer to help. I decided to pay for one professional and use Annick and two friends from Linton Bay (Patrick and Hans).
Our transit date was 31st March and we sailed to Shelter Bay Marina (SBM), arriving lunchtime on the 30th. The afternoon was spent preparing Skyfall for the Galapagos where there are stringent entry requirements. The yacht must be professionally fumigated and the hull scraped clean of barnacles and weed, both within 48 hours of leaving port. I was finally issued with the required certificates about three minutes before the marina office closed!
After dinner, and with Omar, our paid line handler on board (together with some borrowed giant fenders), we motored out to anchor on the ‘flats’ (yacht anchorage inside the breakwater in Colon) ready to receive our ‘advisor’ for the transit. We radioed Cristobal Signal Station to confirm they had our position, that all was OK. We then settled in for a short night: the advisor was due on board at 04.30!
I slept little that night. The stress associated with the transit was huge. There are hefty fines should the slightest thing go wrong and our agent had been at pains to highlight this. One of her customers lost an alternator belt on the lake and was not carrying a spare. Three days later it was still anchored up there with a fine running into thousands of dollars. As a precaution I had even bought a spare starter battery (charged).
The advisor arrived punctually via a pilot boat. There was 25 knots blowing through the anchorage and the ‘flats’ were not living up to their name. Two line handlers danced around Skyfall with two giant fenders ready to protect the gelcoat but the skill of the pilot skipper was consumate. He managed to hold his boat within half a meter of Skyfall for enough seconds so that the advisor could leap on board. He had obviously done this before!
Next to start the engine. If it did not start, then we faced an immediate $1000 fine and a re-scheduled transit. Bingo, no issue. One less concern. (In fact, after that we were not allowed to cut the engine until the canal transit was complete). The anchor was lifted and we were on our way. Our scheduled entry into the first lock was 06.16 and we made our rendez-vous with the other two yachts travelling with us just outside at around 05.45.
We had opted for the ‘three yachts rafted together’ option. The rafting and un-rafting is only for the locks. The boats separate again to motor independently between locks. The center boat does most of the manouevering and pushing the raft into position. The raft of three is then suspended in the middle, away from the lock walls by a ‘spider’s web’ of lines to the shore. We were on the left and were occasionally asked to engage reverse to straighten up the raft. But, for the most part, I relaxed through those first locks as the line handlers did their work.
Actually, ‘relax’ is the wrong word. ‘Time to ponder’ is more accurate. Last year, having started a RTW, we found we could not get Australian or New Zealand visas so ‘aborted’ and took Skyfall back to Europe.
As the first lock closed behind us I realised that we were now commited. There would be no turning back. Once out the other side, short of ‘turning left’ and sailing round Cape Horn, the only way to get Skyfall back to Europe was to actually complete our round the world adventure. Just the 2023 leg of that is 16000 km across the Pacific to New Zealand. The enormity of the commitment momentarily took my breath away.
Once safely out of the first set of locks we were on Gatun lake. It is a steady, 27 mile journey to the first lock on the other side. Time to feed the advisor. The canal authority hold a $1000 deposit from which small fines are deducted. One common fine is not feeding the advisor appropriately. We were taking no chances. Annick served up a hearty ‘full english’ breakfast with home made bread. Then came cakes at 10.30. And, as we would be entering the downlocks around 12.30, lunch (chilli con carne a volonte) only 90 minutes later. I could see that the advisor had had his fill. But, like the waiter in Python’s ‘The meaning of life’, we kept trying to offer more. ‘Would sir like just one more wafer thin mint?’
The canal is the largest contributor to GDP in Panama. Considering the financial centre in Panama City (and the suspected drug money laundering), that is some achievement. But as we saw the steady stream of ships coming in the opposite direction, and realising that each pays a minimum seven figure fee for the priviledge, it is not surprising. In fact, the yachts are really irrelevant to their finances. The total of fees from all yachts transiting each year is less than the money earned from one large container ship! The line handler explained that the Canal Authority regarded yachts as their ‘community service’.
Locking down on the other side used a different system. I am not sure why. Instead of rafting together, the yachts were split up. Two of us were paired with a passenger ferry. First, the ferry went into the lock and tied up. Then the other yacht went alongside. Finally, we then tied to that yacht. So far so good. However, looking behind us, we saw another ship entering the same lock. It was a tight squeeze and it stopped only 25m behind us. VERY intimidating.
The yachts were quite an attraction to the ferry passengers. Judging by the number of white socks, we guessed it was a day trip from a cruise liner. But they were very friendly, wanting to know where we originated, where we were going, etc.
Once the water had drained and the lock gate opened, Skyfall had to ‘peel off’ move forward a few boat lengths, let the inside yacht go past, then let the passenger ferry get ahead to moor first again at the next lock. Then the two yachts would again moored alongside. The only problem is that nobody seemed to have told the skipper of the big ship behind us. As soon as the gates opened the ship started inching forward. I could get away OK but it was quite nerve-wracking holding position whilst the other two boats came past with this giant edging ever closer.
After the 'down' lock system, the colour of the buoys port and starbord magically reversed. We were officially in the Pacific, even if the canal (and our requirement for an advisor) only ended once we were safely past the famous Bridge of the Americas (see top photo). Downstream of the bridge our advisor again showed his agility and exited onto the waiting pilot boat. All that was left was to motor a bit further to La Playita marina, ready for a celebration drink and prepare to explore those New Horizons.