14 April 2013

"See You on the Other Side"

At Shelter Bay, we hear it alot. It conjures unnerving images of people in matching tennis shoes and large batches of Kool-Aid. But, no, no cult activity implied or intended, just a 47 or so mile trip up three locks, across a lake and a cut and then down three locks to the other side (in our case, the Pacific side) of Panama.

Ready to go!

Its wholly earthly nature notwithstanding, it probably takes as much or more preparation as would a trip to a next plane of existence. The Panama Canal Authority takes this whole transiting thing very seriously; an accident inside one of the locks could really mess with the commercial traffic--some 12,000 plus vessels a year--that pay $50,000 or more apiece to cross. (A sum, by the way, which makes our $2000 transiting fee sound like pocket change.) First, there is the admeasurement (yes, ADmeasurement) of the vessel. An admeasurer comes to the boat and actually measures its length. The width and draft of the vessel are ascertained and navigational lights are checked for functionality. Fortunately, JOY (by her previous name) had already transited once and the canal authority retains the paperwork for every vessel forever. So, we were saved from actually being measured--just questioned as to whether everything was in working order, which, in fact, it was.

Next, lines and fenders must be obtained. The lines (4 of them at 125 ft. apiece), are for tying the vessel to the walls of the canal and/or another vessel. Fenders, old vehicle tires wrapped in garbage bags, prevent the vessel from being damaged. There are any number of ways to get them. We got ours from boats who had just crossed. We ended up with so many of them that our agent took our extras away BEFORE we crossed.

In addition to lines and fenders, a transiting vehicle needs linehandlers, four of these also; one for each "corner" of the boat. It's generally not hard to find linehandlers. They can be hired through one's canal agent. (While hiring an agent is not required, most cruisers do for the same reason most people hire a wedding planner: why bother to get good at the details of something you're planning to do only once), but most people find that other cruisers are more than willing to serve as linehandlers for the experience before they themselves transit. Having served as linehandlers for our friends Tim and Cath on Helena May, we decided to use the linehandler they hired, a young guy named Eric, who has been doing this for seven years and doesn't even know how many boats he's helped transit. With yours truly serving as another linehandler, we needed only two more and Jane's niece, Rachel, and her boyfriend, Josh, took time off work to fly down and help us (as well as deliver our Amazon.com shopping cart items).

We were so pleased they could both get the time off. The very minute our transit date was confirmed, Jane texted Rachel who in the very next minute bought their plane tickets. Against some pretty unlikely odds, they were actually going to make it--and they almost did. On the day before our transit, while our agent was collecting our aforementioned surplus of tires, Jane got an email from Rachel who said that she'd been turned away at the gate of their connecting flight in Atlanta. They shouldn't even have let her on the first flight in Cincinnati because her passport was expiring in under three months, the minimum time Panama requires passports to be valid in order to issue a visa. Of all the bizarre turns of luck! On the very small upside, our agent happened to be at the boat, so we explained the situation and asked to hire two additional linehandlers. He had two guys he could use, but it meant they'd have to work on their day off. But he was going to set us up.

We were very, very bummed about Rachel and Josh, but there was still too much to do to dwell on it. I had been cleaning the boat for days and still hadn't gotten to the outside. We needed to refuel, take the boat out to give the starboard engine one last chance to fail. (I realize that sounds absurd and fatalistic, but we never did figure out why it sprayed all of its oil all over the outboard wall, were never able to replicate the problem and were sure that if we didn't give it every possible opportunity to do otherwise, it would reprise its act of mischief while in the canal. An engine failure while crossing could cost us, at the very minimum, our transit fee and possibly much more), stow all the provisions we'd been collecting for the past month wherever we could find to put them, since we needed every available berth for our extra crew. This was, ironically, made easier by a hinge failure on our port head door. We took it off and used the door from the starboard head as a replacement, leaving the starboard head more accessible as a storage spot. The downside was the time I spent--about 6 hours--trying to get the starboard head door to work on the port side (they are identical and identically hung). It worked for a day, then it, too, fell off its hinges, much to the consternation of the unlucky person who was trying to exit the head at that moment.

Eventually, everything was done: Beds were made, snacks packed, meals prepped, provisions stowed, laundry done, water tanks filled one last time, holding tank emptied one last time, boat passably clean. We worked so hard we had two whole hours to spare! I was wiping down JOY's rails when two young women asked if we needed linehandlers. We didn't, I told them, and added that I wished they'd stopped by the day before. (Ironically, over the previous few days several people, mostly backpackers, stopped by to see if we needed linehandlers. Assuming family was coming, we turned them down. The girls asked if we knew of any other boats who needed help. We didn't, but I suggested they do just what they were doing: walk up and down the docks and ask. They bid us good day and went on their way.

After they left, Jane, who had heard my conversation with them, who can still surprise the crap out of me, suggested that we invite them along anyway. Still bummed about her niece, she...actually, I really don't know what she was thinking, but we have a lot of room and we had a lot of food, so what the heck. She went down the dock and fetched them back. Several minutes later, our agent stopped by with our hired hands. We said that since we'd already committed to hiring them, for which they were forfeiting a day off, we'd honor our deal, but if they'd really rather have the day off, we'd use the girls as our additional linehandlers. He told us it would be fine, but that a small tip for their time would be appreciated. We happily agreed.

We had a 3:11 p.m. appointment to pick up our advisor (every vessel must have an advisor employed by the canal), so at just before 2 p.m., JOY and her crew, Captain Jane and linehandlers Eric, Kasja, Nadja, and I, motored out of Shelter Bay. Though it meant nothing to our hired hands, JOY's regular crew was thrilled to be leaving.

From the perspective of the Canal crew, organizing transiting vessels in an efficient manner is a bit of a logistical puzzle. It depends on who goes when and how big they are and how big the commercial vessel going at roughly the same time is and, etc. etc.  Typically, vessels our size are "nested," that is, tethered side by side with two or three other vessels and cross together as a unit, leaving the majority of the lock's 1050 ft. length for commercial vessels. At other times and depending on several factors, a vessel will be tethered to another vessel which, in turn, wil be up against the lock wall. This is how we transited the first three locks (uplocked); tied alongside a Panamanian warship. The nice thing about this configuration is that only one side of the boat is tied up, so only two linehandlers (fore and aft) have any work to do, and the lines don't have to be adjusted as the water level in the locks changes.  So for the whole first half of the transit, our guests got a (work) free pass.

We "rode" the three Gatun locks alongside this Panamanian warship (which should NOT be referred to as a "gunboat," by the way)
Approaching the first of the three Gatun locks.  The warship is already on the wall.  Our advisor George is surveying the scene, with Eric and Kasja on the bow.
Tucker was particularly stressed out during the up-locking, when the water was more turbulent (down-locking, the water drains like a bathtub).
Once though the Gatun locks (the uplocks going southbound), we motored across Lake Gatun to our mooring. While linehandlers spend the night on the boat, advisors leave while the boat is moored. We said good-bye to our advisor and his trainee. Our second advisor would be onboard between 6:00 and 6:30 the next morning. It was around sundown by the time JOY was tied up. That left us nothing to do but eat, drink and chat until bedtime. Kasja and Nadja who are from Holland and Cologne respectively spoke perfect English, of course. (My advice to the unborn: if you suspect you will be a lazy person, make sure to be born in a country that uses English as its first--or only--language. You'll be able to talk to almost anyone on earth without putting forth any extra effort.) Eric, as he did on Helena May, stayed off by himself somewhere while the four of us had a lovely evening.

Tucker and Kasja slept alfresco on Gatun Lake.
Our second advisor showed up at 6:19. Those of us who drink coffee had barely had a few sips when his pilot boat dropped him off. While Jane motored us through the lake, I made breakfast. This is the slow part of the trip. It's about a four hour ride through the lake and down the cut before getting to the first of the three locks that lower you to the Pacific Ocean. Eric chatted with Roy, our advisor; the girls chatted, wrote in their journals, read, napped, snacked, napped, read, etc. Jane drove. I cooked and washed dishes.

At long last it was time to get through the downlocks. We were just two miles from the Pacific. Roy had hoped to get us through a little early, but the ever changing choreography of canal traffic management was against us. To kill time, we literally spun in circles about a half mile from the first lock until the tour boat we were to be tied to and the car carrier that was to share the lock with us arrived.

M/V Atlas III, a pre-WWII vessel currently employed as a tour boat, approaches the Pedro Miguel lock as we spin in circles waiting.
Alongside Atlas, waiting at Pedro Miguel.
The tour boat was only going through Pedro Miguel, the first of these three locks. We would tie up alongside her to get through this lock, but for the last two, the Miraflores locks, we would be centerlocked. Just 23 feet of JOY in the center of the 105 foot wide canal with our linehandlers--all of them now--keeping her centered. The water emptied, we moved through, rinse, repeat. The last lock, the one that means you are literally feet from the ocean always takes the longest to get through no matter how long it really takes. It seemed like we were there forever, waiting, waiting. Finally, finally, the water let us down, the lock opened and there we were in the Pacific Ocean, the smell of pescado muerto filling our nostrils! Yeah, well...

There's the Pacific!  Drain this water, stat!
Nadja hams it up (remember, it's like a bathtub draining) with our friend the car-carrier sharing the lock with us.
Kasja is on the job.  Notice the numbers on the lock wall: here we are a mere 100 feet from the Pacific Ocean.
The last set of locks opens: here we come Pacific!
Minutes later, our advisor's boat came and swooped him away. Minutes after that, Eric and the two girls boarded a water taxi at the Balboa Yacht Club. Minutes more and we were anchored at La Playita and the bubbly was flowing. All in all it was a perfect crossing. With the exception of the head door falling off its hinges, the trip went off without a hitch. And now here we are on the other side.

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1 comment:

  1. Okay, ignore my last comment on the other blog. For some reason, this one never came through on my feed or on facebook! And I'm a loyal reader! Glad it went off without a hitch! Can't wait to join you somewhere sometime. And my passport doesn't expire until 2017. :)