Our transit through the Panama Canal on Tamata

21-22 February 2015 – 43’ Med Marine
Australian Matt & US Kate, Belgian Oliver and his Venezuelan wife
Advisors: Oswaldo, Edwin – Security boat
From the blog http://www.thelongway.net/

“Between the notice boards and the database we found three motivated, knowledgeable, and personable people to help us out. Calling them amateurs would be a discredit, though. All of them had extensive boating experience in general and had been through the Canal as line handlers multiple times. Russell and Diane had been living in Panama City less than a year, but transiting the Canal had quickly become something of a hobby for them, an opportunity to combine their many local passions. They told us they were just fascinated by the whole thing and we relied on their knowledge at every step of the way. Not only did they fill us in on what would be happening at each point, they also served as personal tour guides, pointing out parts of the Canal with historical significance, highlighting current expansion projects and relating Canal myths, facts, and stories throughout the day.”

“Amateurs are not guaranteed to have experience, but professionals are not guaranteed to care.”

Timelapse video of the transit at https://vimeo.com/121377181

Day One : Gatun Locks


Tamata at Shelter Bay Marina

Matt had contacted us through the panlinehandlers.com website, and asked us to be at Shelter Bay Marina about 13:00. We aimed for the bus leaving around 10:00, then got the usual taxi. The first guy asked for $35 and drove off when we said no, but the second guy was happy with $20.

We arrived around 12:15 and met Oliver, who is setting himself up as a yacht agent in Panama City, his Venezuelan wife, and Kate the chef who lives aboard with Matt. Matt bought Tamata as a fix-up project, which has kept him busy between superyacht jobs. Kate was the chef on a yacht he was running and joined him a year ago to sail to Australia.

The Advisor was not due to board until 17:30 so Russell and I went across to the bar for a couple of beers, then we all joined at 14:30 and set off for the anchorage at the Flats.

While we were waiting we got a call from Roland, an engineer on the ACP tugs, who we had met in Boquete. Obviously we were not available for a trip on his tugboat but I made it clear that we were still very keen! Hopefully we can sort it out when we return from Las Vegas.

Back at the boat, the tyre fenders and blue lines turned up not long before we were planning to leave. They provided some lousy orange twine to hang the fenders, and we had to tie bowlines on the mooring lines. Surely it would not take long to splice an eye, especially as you are paying for them! Two of the lines were not regulation size either.

Oswaldo the Advisor arrived at 18:00 and immediately said we had to get going because our lockage would be at 18:30. On the way over he gave very detailed explanations of how it was going to work and what we were to do with the lines. Russell and I were nominated to look after the bow, but when we ended up nested with an enormous catamaran it turned out that the headline was passed to them, so we only had to catch the heaving line and pass it on.


Heading into Gatun Locks

We recognised Francisco on the catamaran, and he did a great job of running the nested three boats through the Gatun locks. With the cat around 33 feet wide, plus the two yachts, we were already much closer to the walls, and the French running the cat did not inspire confidence! Fortunately Matt remained chilled, while the French skipper was obviously very stressed!


Tied up next to the big catamaran


Stressed French Captain, mostly due to his inability to listen to the Advisors!


Getting close to the walls

Oliver was effectively a paid linehandler on board but he was not particularly good at it! The stern was set up to run the lines through the fairlead to the winch, but there were over-riding turns and piles of knots, not to mention lines over the side at one stage! Poor Matt was watching that happen all while trying to do his Captain bit following what was happening in the Canal, never mind just trying to enjoy the experience.


Gates closing behind us

We were out of the locks by 20:00 and headed over to the mooring buoys in Gatun Lake. The cat moored up first and it was painful to watch a French committee in action, with no deck lights or torches, and all shouting instructions at each other. It took as least 20 minutes to get their two lines onto the buoy, but then we were very quickly moored on the other side of the buoy by 20:30.

Our Advisor was not particularly helpful by then as he was shouting conflicting instructions. Having told us that the headline would go over first, and then personally come up to the bow to rearrange the lines himself, he then called for the springs first. Not a problem if he had left us alone to be flexible up there with the arrangement!

Inevitably we all settled in for a beer while the Advisors waited for their ride to turn up. Very funny that they decided they should step over to the catamaran because it was higher, but after a long time standing on the buoy they finally figured out that the sheer sides of the cat were not possible to scale!

Kate brought dinner out which ended up on plastic plates with plastic forks, because of course they are only used to catering for up to four people. Carrying our own cutlery might actually be something to consider in future.

The big cruise catamaran Discovery was anchored close to us and they soon started up with what sounded horribly like karaoke. Their cruises appear on the internet at something like $700 per day per person. I think we are on a much better wicket with helping yachts through.

The people from the yacht rafted up to us joined us for a drink. Matt brought out his favourite Nicaraguan rum which was rather good. We managed to get to bed by 22:00. Strange that we were rolling quite a lot with the ship wakes going past because we have not had that before. Perhaps it was due to the huge cat that didn’t really move around the buoy at all.

Day Two : Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks

We were all up at 06:00 for tea and coffee, and enjoying listening to the howler monkeys waking up. The Advisor was supposed to turn up at that time, but Edwin didn’t arrive until 07:30. Apparently he was only offered the position at 21:00 last night.

The Wind Spirit appeared on the lake and there were several huge box boats around. Then the Coral Princess entered the locks as we headed off.

Luckily throughout the morning there was cloud cover for much of the time and a bit of a breeze. We definitely were slow cooked during the morning though.

Edwin was quite good with trivia things as long as you prompted him. We saw a train go past, which apparently moves something like 700 containers a day, on trains with up to 55 flatbeds or double-stacks. He said that the muddy colour of the Canal is due to the dredging activity for the expansion project because it used to be clear.

I asked what his usual job was and he is a security guard on the Canal, so he blasts around in a speedboat at 40 knots keeping an eye on things. Apparently the locals used to steal the lights and solar panels off the channel markers but now they are all alarmed.

We saw the usual pelicans, frigate birds and swallows, and one big croc. Interesting that the bright yellow Guayacan trees that we saw three days ago had indeed lost all of their colour.

Eventually we got to the Pedro Miguel Locks and had the usual wait around for the other yachts to arrive and the lockmaster to be ready for the special lockage. We rafted up to the big cat again and quickly were reminded how crap the French are to deal with, and now it was compounded by their Advisor Larry being an idiot!

The cat passed their headline to us as had happened last night and Larry came over to tell Russell off for not taking the working end of the line to our cleat. Russell pointed out that they were the ones with a winch and Larry said “ah, but what if we didn’t have a winch?”. Meanwhile we were actually heading for the locks and the Frenchies didn’t even have their lines ready to go. By then Russell and I were sitting back to watch, because the guys on shore threw the heaving lines directly at the cat.

It all got worse when we got to the locks, with the major problem appearing to be that the Advisor and the Captain on the cat did not understand the concept of “middle”. First the other yacht and then us were almost squished against the lock walls as first the French skipper drove poorly, and then Larry failed to give decent instructions. At one stage Larry pushed a French crewmember out of the way to haul his line in and make it fast, which is most certainly not what the lead Advisor is supposed to be doing! Several times throughout the lockage Edwin was trying to call to Larry but he was too busy looking at his phone and took a long time to acknowledge that we were calling him.

However, we managed to get through without any damage and Matt was extremely pleased to cast off from the cat and let them go. I think despite appearances he was a bit rattled because he turned down a beer!!

We cruised under the Bridge of the Americas and waved to our friends at the pool in our building. At the yacht club we couldn’t get on the fuel dock but we gave one of the line boats $5 to take us in.

Another excellent transit!