A fast sail down from Cuba brought us within sight of Colon by the late afternoon of the sixth day with just enough time to anchor before dark. The adverse current had meant sailing for an additional 200nm through the water making the passage length just under 970nm against the 766nm over the ground. Now we were at the approaches of the fabled Panama canal; a small boat about to venture amongst the leviathans of the oceans. The approaches to the canal were clearly marked on the chart and evidenced by these huge ships entering and exiting in front of us. We were sure to keep well clear!
A radio call to Cristobal Signal Station advised us to turn to starboard after the breakwater and anchor off Shelter Bay Marina, close to about six other boats. We looked forward to an unbroken night’s sleep.
We knew that the Panama interlude would prove to be hard work with boat spares to be sourced, important maintenance to be done, the larder re-provisioned and the Canal transit to be organised. All of that had to be done from the Shelter Bay area, a one hour bus or boat ride away from Colon and much further from Panama. Then there was the matter of the canal transit itself and Karin’s French Polynesian visa to be organised once we were in Panama.
Shipping goods into Panama needs careful thought as a formal postal address system doesn’t exist, so making use of couriers and proven importation channels is essential to prevent goods getting stuck in the system. Luckily we had excellent internet access via our Digicel contract which we had bought in Martinique and we spent many days getting things moving via our computers. Neither of us speak Spanish which posed a considerable hurdle each time we needed to source something. It was simpler to contact the Yanmar engine agent in Cape Town and explain which oil seal we needed than to get that information from the agent in Panama. Once we had those part numbers we could go about placing the order in Miami, again easier than going through the Panama agent, and wait the two weeks it took to arrive.
At issue was the starboard saildrive pinion shaft oil seal which needed replacement. The canal transit involves use of engines for about fourteen hours and the ability to maintain a minimum speed of 5 knots. Failing to maintain speed can involve a heavy penalty of around US$2 000 so it was essential to have operational engines.
This was quite an intimidating job as it involved lifting up the 180kg engine off its mounts and splitting it off the saildrive. Not so easy in a rolly anchorage… With careful preparation and the lucky find of a Russian YouTube clip of the procedure, the job was completed with loads of sweat and just a bit of cussing.
With the starboard engine stripped down in preparation for this job, we sailed across to Colon to do some shopping and deposit US$1 875 in cash for the canal transit. Once back on board the windlass failed to activate. We were anchored about 40 metres off a rocky shore and an old shipwreck with a twelve knot wind blowing against us. I pulled the chain up by hand and as we secured it to a cleat to prevent it descending to the depths again we noticed that we were dragging the anchor towards the hazards behind. To complicate things we had rigged an anchor buoy on to enable us to retrieve the anchor if it got fouled on underwater obstacles. This popped up near the only operational engine and, not wanting to get the line around the propeller, we immediately put the engine in neutral whilst Karin jumped in to check it out. Fortuitously with her help in the water, I was able to pull the buoy and line back on board over the front, Moondust all the while drifting back. With the breeze, the shipping channel close by to starboard and the wreck and rocks to our rear, we needed action at the double.
Our trips to Colon seemed ill fated, as the next time we went we had both engines operational but upon our return an exhaust cooling hose popped off, which partially flooded the starboard engine compartment. Just as well we went for the test run prior to the transit and just as well that Karin mentioned that we had lost our rev counter. A peek down below revealed an alarming amount of water surging around which burnt out a relay and the stop solenoid which shuts down the engine. So there was more technical shopping to be done, but at least by now we knew how the transport system operated and had discovered that, rather than attempt Spanish, it was best to just speak English, whereupon any English speaking person, if available, would be called.
Finding and installing the windlass cable involved innumerable phone calls and visits over three rather frustrating days in both Colon and Panama, but finally with the cable sourced, lugs crimped on and installed, it now operates perfectly.
We also had to make a plan to do without the double battcar slide at the top of the mainsail which fractured from the mast track fitting after an unintentional jibe just before our arrival in Panama. With the help of a French cruiser and sailmaker, Jean Claude, we sewed tabs between the headsail board and a slide taken from below, all of which had to be moved up one position.
Transiting the Panama Canal
As we neared the end of our obligatory to-do list we were confident enough with the dates to begin to organise our canal transit. The Panama Canal authorities are extremely well organised, the key individuals all speak good English and are contactable by phone. The first step was to get Moondust measured – literally.
The next day we received an email confirming those details and then we had to visit Citibank in Colon to make the payment. Because of the small daily bank imposed limits, we had begun to withdraw sufficient cash months in advance, which we now split and, because of Colon’s unsavoury reputation, secreted in our clothing.
Payment went smoothly and we just had to confirm the availability of three other line handlers before we could request a crossing date. This proved to be one of the most difficult things to do but after quite a few false starts we were finally organised.
Getting fellow cruisers as line handlers and using our own ropes and fenders enabled us to save about US$500. Nevertheless one doesn’t get much change out of US$1100, the balance of the US$1875 payment being a deposit which is returned about a month after successful completion of the transit.
We were scheduled to transit on 7 and 8 April and had line handlers Estelle, Laura and Hürgen on board by 14h30. We then discovered that we were scheduled on the second batch of boats, so only started motoring to the locks at 17h00, it being almost dark by the time we started to rise up the 27 metres to the level of Gatun Lake. This man made fresh water lake provides all the water to fill the huge locks on both the upward and downward passages between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Before the first lock we rafted three boats together, us tying up on the left hand side of two monohulls. Each boat had a civilian ‘Advisor’ on board provided by the Canal Authority and once the first lock emptied to the level of the Caribbean, the doors opened. Thin lines had been thrown down to our decks from the sides of the lock about 8m above. To these we tied our strong lines and then the shore side line handlers walked forward holding their end of the line as the centre boat motored us forward; the engines on the two side boats only being used for re-alignment. Then, with the doors closed and the strong lines now attached to bollards on the lock, millions of litres of water gushed and churned in from the base of the lock. The boats rose rapidly, swinging around in the current, being held by only the four lines from the fore and aft cleats of the boats on the outside. I was happy to have reinforced the backing plates on my cleats for just this occasion, but one is quick to realise that you are actually at more risk of equipment or procedures failing on the other boats.
Such drama occurred in the second lock as the line handlers on the starboard boat left the aft line too loose and the three boats, weighing collectively upwards of 35 tons, swung in towards the left hand wall of the lock. It happened very quickly and before we knew it our line handlers were shouting in alarm and there was a terrible grinding sound; I later learnt the fenders were squashed almost flat. To make matters worse the Advisor on the centre boat ordered engines astern on the starboard boat, which had the effect of pivoting our aft port side against the concrete. Karin saved the day with the roving fender which she managed to insert at the critical point before the gap became too narrow. Despite the terrible noises Moondust only sustained one minor scratch, the fenders thankfully doing their job!
The Advisors were late arriving the next morning so we had to motor at 6 knots to arrive at the next set of locks by 14h30. There we were delayed for about an hour as one lane was closed, sadly I later learnt because of a fatal accident involving equipment that had fallen into the lock.
Now the tie-up configuration was changed and Moondust was centre boat with the Norwegian yacht on our port side. This time our Advisor lost control in the second lock and the raft swung again to port, the Norwegian skipper, unlike Moondust’s skipper the day before, calmly informing everyone that there was about two centimetres between his hull and the concrete at the aft end of his boat! I had Moondust’s port engine in full astern and the starboard engine in full ahead to swing the boats away from the aft corner that was at risk and that and concerted winching of the aft slack line on the starboard boat slowly rectified the situation without any damage. All this occurred while the very relaxed, portly Advisor on the starboard boat remained uninvolved and continued to munch his way through the snacks!
Waiting to jump the BIG puddle
We have been waiting on the Pacific side of the canal for Karin’s French Polynesian visa and an Iridium Go satellite communication device, both of which we received this week. Having made sure that the Iridium works with all associated devices, we plan to sail from Panama in the next few days over the Easter Weekend on the next leg of our voyage. This will take us into one of the least accessible areas on earth, with nearly 7 000km to our next landfall! Karin has planned and prepared 56 main meals but we hope to reach French Polynesia in about 35 days.