I’m not going to lie to you: crossing the Panama Canal is exciting. Massive cargo ships, other sailboats, the prospect of getting dashed against the walls and sinking in the lock – the Canal has it all. Lucky for me, my computer-savvy family was able to capture part of the journey via the webcams set up at each lock – be sure to watch the flipbook at the end of the post!
Originally appeared in Canal Win! on May 5, 2012
Waiting for your canal date is a lot like waiting for Christmas when you are six years old. Time moves unendurably slowly, and at some point you are convinced the big day is never going to arrive. And then it does. And then you are so excited and jumpy and full of sugar that you can hardly focus long enough to enjoy the experience. But, since I’m a grown-up and all mature and stuff, I was able to calmly record my observations. When I wasn’t busy being excited and jumpy and full of sugar.
The day before, I cooked from lunch until midnight. That is because we would have an extra five people aboard – an advisor, two linehandlers (friends of ours), and their two kids, ages 11 and 13. I also knew there would be no time to cook anything complicated during the two-day transit, as I would be busy helping ensure our boat didn’t crash into the walls of the locks. Because crashing is bad seamanship, my friends. Also, a quick path to divorce.
Anyway. I made pancakes, chicken-lemon-feta pasta, Caesar salad, garlic bread, two chocolate cakes, and four pizzas ahead. We did scrambled eggs in the morning, because they are quick, and I made a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread in the breadmaker, ready just as everyone awoke. Mmm. I’m not a great chef, but when I stick to my classics, everyone seems satisfied.
But what about the canal itself? What happens is, during that interminable waiting time, your boat gets measured and you give many, many dollars to the canal authorities. They decide how best to fit you in with other boats. Then, on the day, you go to a staging area called The Flats at the time they tell you, and you wait. Your advisor shows up. And, surprise! He has an apprentice with him. You are glad you made so much food. Then, the fun begins.
There was a freighter named Baltic Star in the lock with us.
|Passing by to reach the first lock.|
|Please, let there be room for both of us.|
We were rafted together with two other boats, a catamaran and another monohull. The cat was in charge of driving, and we on either side were in charge of staying appropriately tied to the lock walls.
How it works is this. Once you enter the first lock, a canal linehandler throws you a monkey’s fist. (No, not literally. Gross. It means a line with a big knot tied on the end.) You tie this through the large bowline on the end of the line you have prepared on board, and he hauls your line up. When you get to your designated spot, he throws your bowline over a bollard, and voila. You are lied to the lock wall. You tighten your line, cleat it off, the doors close and things get started.
|Too late to change your mind now.|
As the water rushes into the lock, you need to keep taking up the slack on your line. Only not too much, or your boat will get pulled into the wall. Your counterpart, the linehandler on the wall, will give you helpful signals to guide you. Unfortunately, all signals look like “talk to the hand” to my eyes. Take up slack, don’t take up any more, cleat that off, keep going – everything earned a raised hand. The advisor beside me translated these gestures for me, and seemed genuinely puzzled that I didn’t naturally understand what the man wanted.
|They understood as much as I did.|
On it went through three locks. When we reached Gatun lake, we cut loose from the other two boats, and found a mooring for the night.
Early the next day, we were up for round two. We had a long motor through Gatun lake to reach the Miraflores locks on the Pacific side. It was very pretty country; it looked very much like Cootes Paradise (the tip of Lake Ontario), but with more palm trees.
|This all seems so familiar…|
The Miraflores locks were the same, but in reverse. Gently letting the line out to keep a little, but not too much, tension, and again, to keep from banging into the walls. We were rafted to just the catamaran on this leg. My dad took these screen captures:
And my Uncle Tom sent me this awesome flipbook:
And people claim technology never did anything good.
Before we knew it, we were there. The Pacific!
|Holy bananas, it’s a whole new ocean.|
We granted ourselves a day of rest, and now we are back in job mode. After a last flurry of buying food and boat parts and whatever else we won’t see again until New Zealand, we’ll head for the Perlas.
But first, we get to do the canal again, this time as linehandlers for our friends.
Reaction: June 2014
I had forgotten just how fun it was to cross the Panama Canal. I’m getting excited just remembering the whole thing. Aside from being great in itself – going up and down those locks really is pretty cool – crossing the Canal carries psychological weight. It marked a new chapter in our trip: we left the Caribbean behind, and it was time to dare mighty things by tackling the Pacific. So much awaited us: breaking the mizzen mid-ocean, snorkelling French Polynesia, finally finding a decent control for my seasickness, and meeting so many new friends. It makes me want to do it all over again. Anyone need a linehandler?