Our transit through the Panama Canal on Sunsail B1160

20-21 January 2019 – 40’ Leopard Catamaran

Australian Noel, US Bobbi, Dave & Nikki

Advisors: Luis – Security, Dalton – Tug Captain

Day One : Gatun locks : Outside of triple raft

We were in Uber by 09:15 and on a bus by 09:30. We had expected the roads and bus station to be busy with World Youth Day (JMJ) people but it was not bad at all. Of course we had to wait for the bus to fill up but we were on the way by 09:50 which may actually be a scheduled time. Amazing to see people take little poofs from the baggage compartment and then sit on them in the aisles.

We arrived at Cuatro Altos around 11:00 and were quickly in a typical beat-up taxi. The driver didn’t know the price to Shelter Bay so he called his mate. Told us $35 but he quickly accepted $30 and off we went. Quick trip to the ferry landing where we waited a bit, then we were the last car to join a ferry about 11:35. Another delay while we waited for a big ship to pass, but we were across and at Shelter Bay by 12:10. The road was pretty good most of the way but then the potholes were dangerously big for the last part to the marina.

The French bridge is nearly finished

Noel and Bobbi were on the boat with Dave and Nikki, so we sat and chatted, had some lunch and just waited to depart. The catamaran is so new that it doesn’t even have a name yet, just the Sunsail tag B1160.

So new, it doesn’t have a name yet

A Canadian yacht was headed out of the marina and they swiped the stern of the boat in the slip next to us, damaging the steering gear of the victim. Not a good start for them.

Interesting at one point several other yacht crew were jumping off their boats and checking the shore power. We also got a message from The Bridge that there was a power outage affecting most of the city. The newspaper later said the power was out in most of Central America for a few hours!

We were all relaxing and then Noel suddenly jumped up, started the engines and we were off. Bobbi was a little startled, having not taken the garbage ashore nor taken a crew photo as she had planned, under the “It’s five o’clock somewhere” sign at the yacht club. Lots of quite big stinkies on the outer docks of the marina.

The Flats are not being used anymore now that the LPG terminal is in operation, so the new spot is the “Flats at Shelter Bay” which is just outside the marina, in the explosives dumping ground(?!). We even heard a radio conversation that called it just that!

The holding is lousy there so we ended up motoring around as we were told that the Advisor would join us at 14:30. A crew boat did come out around that time but it dropped an Advisor off on the Canadian boat then disappeared. Called the control station who said our time was now 16:00.

Luis, a security boat driver, finally arrived around 16:40, and Advisors joined the two other big monohulls that were to be rafted with us. One was a square-rigger and was to be in the centre, so we were a bit concerned about how that was going to work, especially with the ketch on the other side.

This will be interesting in the locks

The French skipper of the square-rigger was one of those guys who wants to do everything himself so he leaves the helm and ties off lines and helps the crew sweat the lines, which is fine until the whole raft is heading for a wall and no-one is steering! He was even on the foredeck at one stage. He had his girlfriend who was obviously experienced and was giving orders as well, an older guy who liked to mess with things, and a few young people who didn’t seem to know anything about boats.

Heading for Gatun Locks

We were in the first chamber at Gatun by about 18:15, and it was only 19:00 when we started going up in the third chamber. Interesting that in the second lock the water level was really low, and the Advisor pointed out that if the draft of the big ship is not maximum, then they don’t have to fill the chamber completely. Guess they are a little more careful with water usage nowadays.

In one of the locks there was a loud bang and lots of commotion on the yacht on the far side. Presumably a rope got caught or tangled, and it sounded like something broke. The French skipper had one foot on the rail and was ready to jump over and help out!

We had our line catch on the midships cleat briefly, but I was able to get to it quickly, just before the Advisor. The far yacht had a couple of Panama linehandlers with them, who were diligently hauling on their lines even though the boat looked pretty close to the wall. Our Advisor stayed forward with Dave who seemed to be doing a lot of hard work as well.

In Gatun Locks

It was only 19:25 when we cleared the locks and headed to the moorings where we were tied up 15 minutes later. Bobbi brought dinner out immediately but Russell and I had a couple of beers before joining them. Funny that Noel and Bobbi remembered that we requested cold beer but they forgot we like Balboa and bought Panama beer. They also had some wine.

There was a super-blood-wolf-moon eclipse happening that evening and we had a fantastic opportunity to watch it from the lake. Unfortunately the lights were blazing on the tug landing, despite it obviously not being in operation yet, so there was more light pollution than we had hoped. It was due to start at 21:36.

We had more drinks and waited for it to get going properly, then went up to the bow and lay in the net or on the deck to watch. We stayed through to totality which was quite spectacular, then it must have been around midnight that we went to bed.

Eclipse of the moon

Day Two : Miraflores & Pedro Miguel locks : Outside of triple raft

Usual lousy sleep in a small bed with no airconditioning. Tried closing the blind in the deckhead to block the tug landing lights, but that cut out the breeze which was essential. Bobbi asked us how we slept and we both gave the usual answer “It’s a yacht”.

We were told last night that the advisor would be there before 06:00 but of course that was not to be. I got up about 07:00 to have a bucket shower which was most welcome as always, and then we began the first wait of the day. Nice to hear howlers and toucans in the bush, and it was an overcast morning so not too hot on the mooring.

Moored on Lake Gatun

It was 08:45 before Dalton arrived – he is a tug Captain who calls our Luis a good friend. We set off straight away into increasing winds and threatening rain. Before long we got the rain which lasted all morning, but mostly light and not too cold. Noel just needed a jacket up on the helm.

We made good time to Gamboa and were told to slow right down, then towards the end of the Culebra Cut we had the engine off and were just being blown in the rather strong wind. Always a long boring morning, so I was listening to some podcasts. Dalton was not very chatty (lots of time on his phone) although he did answer questions when asked.

We had heard that there was an accident in Cocoli where a linehandler died. We figured it was a rope that snapped and that was indeed the case. A spring line to a NeoPanamax snapped and hit a linehandler in the head. Sad news, but the tug Captains have been warning of the dangers in the new locks since before they opened.

We saw a huge crocodile just before we went under Centenario, and had the usual Mangrove Swallow hitchhikers for much of the day. Lots of traffic on the Canal, with a few Neos joining the usual ships.

NeoPanamax passing under Centenario Bridge

It was just after 15:00 by the time we were rafted up in Pedro Miguel. The big bulk carrier was very slow behind us, and our enthusiasm levels were declining as always. The second day is just so boring, and the yacht benches become extremely hard to those that are not used to them.

Around 16:30 we were tied up in Miraflores waiting again – we should have finished the whole lot by then! Dalton pointed out that the big ship was maximum draft which meant there was only about a foot of space all around the ship for the water to get around, meaning it was a slow process to push the ship in and out of the locks.

Tight fit for this big ship

Lots of JMJ kids at the Visitor Center. Unfortunately the Miraflores webcam was down so we were not able to get a shot of us in the locks.

We had been keeping up with the Canadian boat all day so it was a little strange to us to see them go into the locks by themselves, as we thought it would have made more sense for us to raft with them. We were in the upper chamber and watched them get sideways in the lower one. They didn’t need that after their little mishap yesterday.

We then went on to have a much worse time in Miraflores. As we began the descent in the first chamber we realised that the lead of the aft stern line was wrong, and the line quickly jammed and then the cleat broke (I caught the end with my stomach!). The initial problem occurred partly because the Advisor was rushing us to fasten the stern line, so we tied it off when the line was perpendicular to the wall, before the weight came on. The lead was good for that situation initially, but we should have corrected it before the descent.

Yacht cleats are not designed to take the weight or angles in the locks

Once we started to descend with lots of weight on the line due to wind and current, the Advisor said not to start easing, so we left everything cleated off. We would normally have taken the extra turns off and noticed the poor lead, but, having been told not to, we didn’t. We might have been able to correct the lead at that point with some quick maneuvering.

It was impossible to fasten the line to the broken cleat, so we moved the rope to the centre cleat, while the Captains kept us in position. As we started to descend, the centre cleat started to twist. The Advisor was right there and said to ease the line, and Russell shouted to Noel that there was a problem so he could reverse, but the other Captains did not hear or did not understand and the raft hit the starboard wall, with a sickening crunch from the Austrian yacht that hit. Noel actually thought that the Austrian was in neutral or even forward.

The raft maneuvered into the centre of the chamber, then Noel changed the line to go through the middle of the aft cleat, and run forward to the centre cleat. The lead Advisor was screaming at us to take up the slack but that was hardly going to be possible with weight on the line. We continued the descent.

There was more drama when we went to leave the chamber. The French woman next door was yelling instructions to let go the ropes, perhaps relaying from their advisor, but then the Austrians yelled to hold the lines. Unfortunately the shore-side guys had already thrown off their end so that was not possible. Not sure if they hit again but it had to be close!

It was about 18:00 when we finally cleared the locks and motored to Balboa Yacht Club. Picking up the mooring was a bit of a challenge in the peak tide rip and strong wind, but finally we were able to have a hard-earned beer!
Headed ashore not long afterwards, but the BYC was closed. We headed home, not least to put some ice on my rather spectacular souvenir bruise.

Nice little square-rigger, shame about the French Captain
Heading into Gatun Locks
Moving through Gatun Locks
Lots of waiting during a transit
Russell in action