Our transit through the Panama Canal on sailing yacht Kuhela

25 February 2015 – 38′ Downeaster
Australian Josh, Brazilians Kim, Thor, and Manuel
Advisors: Astro, Ricardo – Tug Captain

From the blog http://www.sailsandsandals.com
“Russell and Diane have lived in Panama now for a few months and often help boats to go through from one side to the other, this would be their sixth trip through and great to have some experienced crew .”

Day One : Gatun Locks

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Kuhela at Shelter Bay Marina

Josh asked us to hook up with his Brazilian friend Manuel, so we texted in the morning and said we’d meet at the turnstiles by the escalator at Albrook. We waited a while then called but he was in a lobby, then he climbed on a different bus to the one we know. Since we didn’t know where he was and our driver said we were on the express bus, we stayed put and said we’d see him in Colon. His bus left around 09:00 but we sat around for another 25 minutes so it was never looking good for meeting, let alone for his ability to follow instructions in the Canal!
He texted around 10:20 saying he was at Rey, and we joined him there 15 minutes later. He was planning on waiting for the free marina bus at 11:15 but we called Josh who said the bus was likely to be full and agreed that a taxi was a better option.
Manuel didn’t stop talking for the entire taxi ride, ear-bashing the driver in Spanish. He runs his own boat on charters but he was a little too quick to give instructions to the driver – especially when he sent him the wrong way.
Got to the marina and had our usual precautionary toilet stop. Met Josh on the quay and we made our way to Kuhela, which Josh had bought in the States and plans to sail across the Pacific to New Zealand and perhaps Australia. Two young Brazilians have been travelling with him, so once again there will be six on board. At least we were given the V berth – as the experienced crew!
The lines and fenders were already on board, All regulation size ropes, and nice white fenders instead of the tyres wrapped in garbage bags we have seen so far.

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We set off for the Flats at 12:20 so were ready early for the long wait. With three boys on board it was a given that food was going to be curry. Actually all the yachts so far have done curry.
The Advisor was supposed to turn up at 16:30 but as always it was an hour after that. Astro told us we would raft with a cat and another yacht, with a big ship in front. A radio call gave us 18:25 in the lock, but we had to wait for the ship. We weighed anchor and started moving towards the action.
We went in the first chamber around 19:30 behind a 600-foot ship that filled the width. Everything was the same as our previous transit, including some nerve-wracking moments close to the walls – mostly for the yacht on the far side!

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The Advisor asked Russell and I to take the lines so I went up forward with Manuel and the 17 year old. They were happy to let me give instructions and I tried to make sense of the conflicting orders coming from Astro and the Lead Advisor.
Once again it was quite amazing how people can’t seem to understand the concept of keeping the raft in the middle, so they have to be told when to adjust ropes. Also interesting to watch experienced sailors handling ropes badly. However to give Manuel credit, he had actually been through the Canal twice before but he didn’t tell anyone, let alone take over like I would have expected.
We were in Gatun Lake by 21:00 where the Lead Advisor gave the rather odd instruction that we would remain rafted to the cat for the trip across to the mooring. We soon hit the first boat wake and that plan was changed!
We tied up again next to the cat which was on the mooring. Funny that I had to tell the boys how to do it, even though it was the same as only a few hours previously!
Dinner was more of the curry, which was all vegetables. The beer did come out eventually, but Josh doesn’t drink so it was just us and the young lads. Quite funny afterwards when five of us were drinking in the cockpit while Josh was below washing dishes. I think Josh spent the night on the floor too, since we were in his cabin.
Every boat has at least one guy sleeping in the cockpit, even the big ones. Once again the lovely big cat next to us had two young Panamanian linehandlers. We so need to work out how to score those jobs! Especially since we have yet to see one who knows anything about yachts.

Day Two : Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks: Centre lock, solo

It was quite comfortable up forward with some side portholes open and a fan running. We intend to get a battery fan just in case a yacht doesn’t have one.
Kim passed out coffee not long after we got up, but then I declined porridge, and the backup offer of granola and yoghurt! What is it with yachties going so healthy? Josh was asking where to get nuts and seeds in Panama City but of course we really don’t know. Quite funny that young Thor has been living on crackers and cereal bars since he won’t eat vegetables!
The instruction for the Advisor was just sometime between 06:30 and 07:00 but of course that didn’t happen. It was a lovely sunrise but the clear skies were ominous for a hot day.
Ricardo arrived at 08:10 and of course was in a hurry, so we untied and were off. The other boats were all faster than us but they have to wait at the end anyway. We set a headsail which gave a bit of speed, but unfortunately it only lasted for an hour as a security boat came past and told us to take it down. Guess that rumour is true after all.
We now know to ask the Advisors what their normal job is, and Ricardo is a Tug Captain. Can’t wait till we manage to get a ride on one of those!
The trip across the lake and through the cut was hot as usual. Under the bimini or inside had no breeze so was even worse. Thankfully our Columbia hats and spray-on sunblock are very effective.
The other two yachts got well ahead of us so we ended up centre locking on our own which was great. Russell told Josh we would do the front so it was very tranquilo without the Advisor constantly yelling instructions. Not sure what happened in Miraflores but Josh was driving down the centre of the lock and it was windy so the guys on shore struggled to get the heaving lines across. We got one starboard line over but the second one missed and then got tangled. They indicated from shore to tie the heaving line to both mooring ropes. I knew what they meant and passed my rope back to Kim who tied a birds nest together – if you can’t tie knots, tie lots! The poor guys on shore took ages to untangle the knots and meanwhile we were drifting towards the wall! Luckily it was sorted out in time and down we went. Amazing watching the massive Huanghai Glory move into the lock right behind us.

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Ships always look so big when they are heading straight for you

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Gates opening in front of us

By 14:50 we were out of the locks, so we coiled the lines, picked up the fenders and packed our bags! It was a bit of a shame that Josh didn’t seem that excited about the whole process, and even more so that he wasn’t one to celebrate with a beer, let alone champagne!
It was about 15:45 by the time we were dropped off at the Balboa Yacht Club by the water taxi.

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Water taxi ashore at Balboa Yacht Club