Our transit through the Panama Canal on sailing yacht Venator

22-23 February 2016 – 45’ Janmor
Polish Wieslaw, Dana & Wojciech
Advisors: Ivan – Canal Guide, Jose – Surveillance Center Supervisor

Day One : Gatun Locks

We had the usual instruction to join the yacht at 13:00 so we left home at 10:00 and were in the bus by 10:20 and heading for Colon soon after. As always our seat was stuck in permanent recline, and the driver was on his phone when he wasn’t watching the soapie on the loud TV, but $3.15 to get from the Pacific to the Caribbean is still pretty amazing.
We drove through a bit of rain but it was sunny when we got to Colon. Really sad to see so much rubbish dumped on the side of the road.
We were in a Colon taxi by 11:35 and soon waiting outside the yacht club. Interesting that we were not charged $3 to get in the gate like last time! We had hoped to get a beer or two while we waited but the yacht club bar was closed, so by 12:15 we gave up and called the yacht to say we were there.
Wieslaw soon appeared in his tiny dinghy and we had a very wet trip out through the chop, finally justifying our waterproof bag. His wife Dana was on board and their friend Wojciech. The guys spoke reasonable English but she didn’t speak any at all, although she seemed to understand quite a lot.

2016-venator-03

Venator at anchor off Club Nautico in Colon

Venator is a nice big yacht with a comfy saloon which was a change from perching on deck all day. They brought out some Polish chocolates and a taste of the fish soup they had for dinner last night.
We talked a lot with Wieslaw as he didn’t seem to understand much of what was going to happen in the Canal. Of course he was delighted that we could answer lots of his burning questions.
Around 14:00 we headed around to the Flats. We called the control centre at 15:00 and were told the Advisor would come at 16:30. Dana was preparing dinner but Wojciech got fixings together for sandwiches.
Since we had some waiting to do, Russell of course went off for a snooze! No fan in the cabin but the wind scoop was incredibly effective. I read my book for a while but then my eyes did close.
Ivan was right on time and we set off for the locks, just slowly as our lock time was given as 17:45. Ivan’s instructions were very minimal and barely understood by the Polish, and at one stage he had his nose in his phone and only looked up in time to see that we had overshot the channel by 100 feet or more!

2016-venator-09

Heading into Gatun Locks with big ships all around us

He redeemed himself a little when he came around and re-tied the eyes of the mooring lines. He told Russell he is a Canal guide that sometimes goes on the cruise ships.
We were to raft up with another yacht so we had all the lines ready and then stooged around waiting for a big ship to overtake us and get into the lock first.

2016-venator-13

Entering the first chamber of Gatun Locks

We tied up next to the other yacht quite early and once the big ship passed by we followed him in. We got our lines ok but the shore guys on the other side were not there. Some guy walking by picked up a line and did a great throw, so by 18:20 we had the heaving lines then ten minutes later the gates were closed. It did indeed take eight minutes to fill the chamber so we were tied up and going up in the second one before 19:00.
Ivan barely stopped talking to the Advisor on the other yacht, but he was quite good with instructions and everything went smoothly enough. He told Wieslaw that he had a good team! Russell did most of the rope hauling while I just did my usual sorting out of mini-problems and tangles.
I did get to ask Ivan about the reason for going in front or behind a big ship. One reason is to avoid having the mule cables passing over the small boats, but mostly it is because of the currents. The fresh water always runs towards the salt so they want the small boats pushed away from the big ships.
At 19:30 we were on or way up the last step, and we cleared the locks by 19:45. We ended up with a souvenir monkey fist because the guy cut it off. Think it was because the knot was too close to the splice which is interesting to note.
We turned for the mooring buoys which were really easy to see in the full moon. Ivan said he’d been doing it for ten years but he did tell us to head for the yellow light off the yacht club then line up the next yellow lights. He called for his taxi before we reached the buoy so it turned up just as we secured our two lines. That all went much easier than usual with us managing to lasso the bollard without anyone having to jump on it.
The beers were slow to appear but it did happen, and after dinner we got onto the rum. Wieslaw was talking about their big trip. It was funny that they are the first couple to admit that living in a small space and sailing across the Atlantic is nowhere near as romantic as it sounds! Also that their plans often change due to finding out the cost of things. Kind of sad that they might skip the Galapagos because the permits cost so much.
We all drifted off to bed around 23:00. They have been doing anchor watches for a while so were all tired and looking forward to a sleep without worrying about things like tides and the anchor dragging.
We were in the forepeak in the usual horrible V-berth, and were given a sheet and two awful pillows. There was not much breeze although the wind scoop was trying, and our little fan proved pretty ineffective. Funny to be surrounded by Arctic survival suits as we sweated in the small space.
Wojciech proved to snore like a trooper but earplugs are wonderful things…

Day Two : Pedro Miguel & Miraflores locks

We were told to be ready at 06:00 but nobody was around when I got up at 06:30, including of course the Advisor. It was glassy calm with clear skies so the sunrise was amazing, but the thought of the hot day to come was not so nice!

2016-venator-24

Sunrise on a calm Lake Gatun

Some howler monkeys were booming in the trees and then lots of mangrove swallows were landing in the rigging and chattering away to each other.
We were all starting to get annoyed as 08:30 rolled around and there was still no sign of an Advisor. At least a breeze picked up as the sun slowly started to burn, and then around 08:40 a launch was finally heading our way. Jose usually works in a surveillance center as a supervisor, and after knocking off work at midnight he was only called at 06:00 to be told he was doing a transit and he had to get from Cangrejo to Diablo then Gatun. Naturally we were suddenly in a hurry as he found out the locks would be ready for south going traffic at 12:30.
Once we got going we had a nice breeze and a bit of cloud cover at times. We were talking about our transits and Jose laughed when we said we avoid French boats. Interesting that his comment was that he had an issue with hygiene on French yachts.
He was telling us some pointers of how to avoid going backwards in the locks. Seems the currents can be three knots in a chamber when the salt meets the fresh so he says the skipper should concentrate on keeping the boat straight, using engine power more than relying on steering. He reckons you are better to touch the wall under control rather than get spun around in the currents which makes sense.
We chatted lots about Panama politics but eventually it was feeling hot and everyone went quiet. We passed Gamboa around 11:30 in front of the big ship that we were to join in the locks. We had had a skirmish with that one earlier as it approached us from behind and sounded five blasts. Jose couldn’t figure out what the problem was as we were right at the side of the channel next to the marker buoys – he said big ships and yachts are like elephants and mice! We then heard the Pilot on one of the big ships order a box lunch but when the ship heard it was $310 they quickly found him something to eat. ($10 for the lunch and the rest for the delivery). We figured it was the same guy!
At 14:20 we tied up in Pedro Miguel lock to the tourist boat once again with the yacht Liberty from yesterday outside us. There was some confusion at the back which Wieslaw asked me to help with. Not sure if they didn’t understand instructions or just thought they knew better than the Advisor! Both of the guys were talking about sailing on the Polish square-rigger Pogoria, but then neither of them could tie proper knots, and I saw Wojciech coil a line anti-clockwise!
The big ship took ages to get in so it was 14:45 before we started our descent, but we were motoring out by 15:00. At 14:20 we were secured in the first Miraflores lock with another wait for the big ship.
Of course there were lots of punters hanging over the railing of the tourist ship but only one managed to get our attention with an “ahoy”, only to ask the usual “where are you from?”. We had our wide brim hats on and made sure not to look up and catch eye contact with anyone.
20 minutes later there was a bit of excitement when Liberty came in too fast and the wind caught the stern. Quite amazing how quickly they were spun backwards! They headed out again and turned for another go which was again too fast but we got lines on and calmed things down again. It all happened exactly as Jose had explained earlier in the day, with the three knot current and lots of wind.
Things were not helped by the old guy and young lad on Liberty who were shouting instructions but really didn’t understand what was happening. I had to stop the old guy throwing his line when it was obviously not going to make it across the gap which was narrowing rapidly anyway, and then Russell and I noted that he had both ends of the rope in his hands as he threw some line across. After another stupid comment Russell suggested that they should “f–ing listen to their Advisor!”.
At 16:05 we finally started descending. We were feeling very hot and bothered by that stage, and fantasising about our pool, but unfortunately proceedings started to get even more heated! Wieslaw was understandably nervous about how fast we were going as we were pushed by the current and wind down the lock. The Advisor was telling him to be careful not to get sideways, and if he did, to make sure that the stern was towards the big ship so we stood a chance of stopping our progress with a stern line. Wieslaw was not able to bring himself to aim at the big ship while going so fast, so our stern was out wide, meaning we would only have been able to get a bow line on which would have spun us around immediately as happened to Liberty. We tried to reverse back to position while Jose requested a heaving line be thrown from the tourist boat stern, but the line fell short so Jose said go to the other wall.
Jose was starting to get stressed, or perhaps more annoyed that he wasn’t being obeyed, so he was shouting to get a line lassoed over a bollard. Wojciech jumped on the quay which is a real no-no, but at least he got a line on, and we swung to the wall with a bit of a crunch.
Jose then gave up trying to explain what he wanted and jumped ashore himself to get a headline on. Back on board we talked about what was going to happen as we descended on the sidewall, and then it started to happen. Wieslaw was obviously worried about his boat so he and Russell were busy fending off while we eased the lines out.

2016-venator-36

Sidewall was not so bad

Some stupid woman from the big boat (which was now on the opposite lock wall) decided that was a good time to screech out questions about where the yacht was going!! Jose eventually shouted “Balboa” which didn’t shut her up, but we all ignored her and marvelled at the ignorance of elderly Americans once again!
The Captain on the tourist boat didn’t seem to like having handline vessels next to him, just like we saw a few weeks ago, and he started moving before we were all untied properly. At the end of the descent the tourist boat again started moving before gates were fully open and before Liberty untied. Wieslaw later said that his propwash made things more difficult on a few occasions.
We went under the Bridge of the Americas and a launch picked Jose up then we moved towards Balboa Yacht Club. The taxi boat wanted $25 to get us ashore so we sent him away. The fuel quay was busy so we hung off for a while then saw the whale watching cat go in with Captain Whirling driving, so we tied up next to him and he tried to help with our negotiating about Venator getting diesel, and much more importantly about us getting off! He didn’t have any more luck than we did but he was able to find out that Venator could anchor off and refuel in the morning.
It seems it would have cost us $25 to walk across the catamaran, or $12 for both us to clamber onto the small boat and be taken to the quay. We were pretty desperate to get off by then so we agreed to the cheaper option and were finally on our way. Why didn’t they just take the $12 and tell us walk across the cat? This is Panama!!