Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pacific Bound

I turned over in bed, wondering how I was going to flush the toilet without awakening our three slumbering guests. I wasn't worried about Duncan; a) he's used to the sucking squelching noise our toilet makes and my weak bladder, but also b) I was pretty sure he was restless with anticipation too... In the end I just got up and put the kettle on. It was light outside after all and as I recall as a backpacker we were always a pretty well rested bunch.

We spent the day ticking off our jobs list. Dunc pedaling off for fuel, one can at a time; it was cheaper in town than dockside. In no time at all Sandro was rowing out to meet Dunc and swap an empty can for a full, retrieving it back where Colin or Tanja would help syphon it into the tank. I promise we didn't make them; they were interested and wanted to be helpful! The solar panels got covered and stored, our new sunshade got rigged up, the tires were rigged up and all fenders were placed, the ropes were unravelled and readied, we read through the instructions again to check we had everything covered and prepared LOTS of food... we were ready!

Our time to meet our advisor was 4pm so we motored round to the specified anchorage and waited, eyeing up the other boats we would be going through with. How to explain the mixture of excitement and apprehension we felt... Several people have enthused to us how they've always wanted to, or remember so fondly, when they went through the Panama canal. I can't say either of us shared this feeling. We wanted to get to the Pacific in one piece and felt slightly anxious about crossing a canal with enormous ships in enormous locks with risks we understand only too well knowing our little English locks so intimately. Whenever I feel like this I have to remember that all kinds of idiots manage to do this.

Our advisor, Moses arrived at 16.30 and we were away! We'd considered that it might be necessary for Duncan to helm the boat purely because we anticipated the canal zone workers to be unused to dealing with women; we couldn't have been more wrong. As I started the engine whilst Dunc pulled up the anchor, not an eyelid was batted and so we saw no reason to change. With Dunc's strength and experience the place for him was to be managing our lines and line handlers and providing the force needed when necessary on the ropes.

We were quietly pleased to hear that as the longest boat we would be rafted as the middle of three. That would mean that once we were tied together, our backpackers could relax and take photos. As we passed the bank where the lock gates for the new locks being built were stored (made in Italy), they were delighted to see a crocodile lounging in the sun. As we approached the first lock the plans changed. 

Duncan says that there are two different reasons people buy steel boats; one is so they can tread the paths less trodden amongst the ice and snow, and the other is that they are nervous. We had one of each with us on this journey and one of the skippers got the jitters and must have requested that they be in the centre, citing that our length on deck was less and they must be heavier too...

From the start this proved to have been a poor decision and there was no doubt that our boat with it's full keel, big rudder and greater weight was dictating the direction of travel. This was exacerbated by the fact that the boats hadn't been tied squarely and their boat had the fore and aft bitter ends so we couldn't alter this; despite suggesting that this may help. As we zigg-zagged towards the lock gate, their advisor; who was therefore the co-ordinator of the three; quickly realised that our tiller was centred as requested, and that he would be needing Impetuous to steer us too if we were to manage a straight course; we got on first name terms and things went more smoothly.

The lines were passed up, the gates slowly shut and we took our last look out to the Atlantic sea. As the lock filled and the boats rose the long lines from our bow and stern were suprisingly difficult to keep evenly tensioned, the forces of the water bubbling up seemed to be trying to push us over to the left. A moment of excitement came when our stainless steel cross bar on the samson post snapped right off. Luckily no-one was in it's path and Duncan quickly got the rope under control again. The offending bar had been bent previously in Belize when we were digging an anchor in with the engine... we really distrust old stainless steel and are delighted that we chose to replace our fatigued chainplates with thumping big bronze ones when we had the chance.

The Gatun locks are a staircase of three, at the top we motored in the dark to all moor up on a big rubber buoy. The heavens opened and we introduced our new friends to the joys of a shower outside in the rain.

Next morning I was up again with the grey dawn, still dehydrated despite all the water and widdleing; it's got to be the adrenaline. The coffee was made for everyone before our new advisor, Carlos arrived and all had to blearily rise to cast off our lines at 7am. Sandro took the helm for most of the 27 miles across the lakes and through the Gaillard cut. Along the way, Carlos showed us the dredging he does as his full time job; both our advisors did this as an extra part time job, described by both as 'for fun' jobs. He also pointed out the jail where Noriega languishes still and an ancient floating crane built by the Nazis which still has swastika stamped into it, which they use to float up the lockgates during maintenance.

With all the spare power we had; running the engine fast for all this time; everyone enjoyed eating icepops we'd been given as a leaving present by Joan in Texas!

Carlos showed us the sheet that he had, detailing all craft transitting that day, saying you're in the centre, right? We chuckled to ourselves and said sure. Rafted up we proceeded to the first lock. Once in, we had a long wait for a big ship that failed to materialise before the powers that be decided there was too much turbulence at the lock gate and sent us down on our own. Inside the second lock we had to wait... for an hour!

Carlos explained that the Canal authority makes a loss on us little boats going through and only keeps the fees reasonable for good foreign relations. The expenses of the advisors, tugs which need to be on hand, delivery boats to ferry workers about, shoreside line handlers and a tiny portion of the maintenance bill add up to more than our fees. We must wait for the big boat; us paying just less than $1,000 each, them paying around the $50,000 mark and the biggest who only just fit alone in some circumstances paying up to $400,000. It was interesting to find out that the volume of rain experienced makes a massive difference to their operating costs and therefore profits; presumably their pumps are very expensive to run. According to Carlos, deep into the rainy season they just about break even with little boats and start making proper good proffits on the big boats. It's easy to see where the money goes though, there were various work boats dotted all over and all sorts of specialists on hand. We watched a fire boat practicing with an impressive plume of water once we'd passed. Hearing how the electric locomotives work, which run alongside the big ships through the locks was fascinating.

Carlos gave us a big build up for the gap between the second and third lock. He explained how there was a current flowing down the locks, the big boat behind would be pushing a current too, the wind was blowing that way and that the fresh water meets the salt water at this point. He said it was very important to go slowly but under control to stay straight and that where the confluence occurred there was a risk of the boats all being spun around as one. I went out to the bowsprit to look at what lay ahead and was pleased to see that it was only a very short distance and there was no widening between the two locks so we would be able to gauge our squareness against the walls.

As the gates opened all three of us at the helms were totally focussed and prepped. Carlos directed each individually to use their engines forward and reverse to keep our speed optimal and we managed to steer our way through without too much problem much to everyone's relief. At the time I was not at all conscious of the fact that this was where the canal authorities has chosen to put the tourist's viewing platform and restaurant together with the webcam; my mind was on other things, but in retrospect I wish I'd washed my hair in that thunderstorm!

Out through the last lock and we all congratulated ourselves and untied. Just a few more miles to where Carlos got picked up and we went on, found ourselves an anchorage and dropped Colin, Tanja and Sandro ashore. They seemed delighted with their experience and we went our seperate ways all beaming with what we'd achieved. Last night we slept very well indeed!

Thanks to our line handlers; Colin, Tanja and Sandro some of whom took some of these photos!


Mike Wagoner said...

Ruby and I really enjoy knowing this great couple, Duncan and Ruth are enjoying such a great adventure and to think they were tied up getting the Impetuous Too ready for sea right down from where we live on Taylor Lake to Galveston Bay. Such a wonderful tale accompanied with beautiful photography. Thank you for including us in your adventure from our "mind's eye".

Anonymous said...

I've been waiting with baited breath to read an account of your passage through the Panama Canal. It was worth the wait!! And great photos too. I'm not sure what I thought it would be like, but your photos have really brought it alive.

Impetuous said...

Thanks Martina, we're just putting together another of how to do it without an agent; we saved ourselves loads of money and had I think a simpler time of it to boot! There's a lot to be said for self reliance.
Good to hear from you, hope your preparations are going well?