We had a great crew – special thanks to Markus of "Namani" (and to Nana and Nicholas for lending him to us), and Sue and Lenny from Windancer (who trekked from Portobello to make the transit). They will always be part of the Astarte "crew" for their help through the Canal. Everyone got along great – and were helpful and put up with "cozy" accommodations. We enjoyed sharing this magnificent experience with them.
MacNell (not quite sure of the spelling) was our going up (three Gatun Locks) Advisor and Ricardo was our "Canal Advisor" for the transit across Gatun Lake and through the three down locks at Pedro Miguel and Miraflores. We were lucky as they were great. We were particularly thrilled to have Ricardo – because as fate would have it – he was also the Advisor on "Anthem" the boat we line-handled for in February 2010. Amazing. That was incredible as was he. He is so calm and interesting and filled with information about the canal, Panama and the various boats, tugs, dredges etc. we went past. Plus, he's just really a great guy and was fun to have as part of our crew.
A a great big thanks to all who tried to watch us going through the locks on the internet. Sorry that you wasted so much time staring at the internet – and that the Gatun Locks internet wasn't working properly. Plus, as you'll read, our scheduled time wasn't exactly "on time." Thanks for all the nice notes and congratulations as well – we appreciate knowing we have lots of support and love to keep us afloat.
So let's go back to the departure and fill you in on one of the great adventures of our life – bringing our own boat through the canal.
Erick Galvez was our agent from Centenario Consultant Agency and we can HIGHLY recommend him to anyone choosing an agent. He was efficient, always did what he said he would and on time. His line and tire fenders were in great shape and delivered (and picked-up) on time and as promised.
On Tuesday, December 27 we cleared out of Colon for Balboa with the Port Captain. Erick delivered the lines and tires on time and they got tied on. Barbara did the provisioning run for feeding the crew and advisors. And we cleaned Astarte top to bottom inside for guests.
On Wednesday, a little last minute cleaning and our "crew" arrived. Lenny and Sue came over from Portobello and Markus from a few slips away. The snafu started when the fuel barge pulled out – we were planning on topping off diesel. Thanks to Des and Carol from "Island Fling" for selling us some gasoline; and Markus and Nana from Namani for letting us buy some diesel from them to top the tanks. We would have made it – but its nice to have every possible thing covered "just in case." We loaded the fuel and got lines organized, a crew photo and then pulled away from the dock to head to "the flats" to anchor and await our time and advisor. We jogged through massive ships and dropped the hook and waited. We got notice that our advisor would arrive at 1830 (6:30 pm). So we decided to have our big meal mid day and enjoyed a lovely dinner together...unfortunately no wine.
At about 1840 the advisor arrived. It looked like we would be going through with one big sports fishing motor boat and a catamaran. The cat was being delivered from South Africa to Tahiti for the Moorings Charter company by a delivery crew of Richard, Savannah and Josh. Great folks we had met the night before. We pulled up anchor in the dark and headed towards the locks – a giant boat trailing us (very frightening to have a 600 foot boat behind you). They would ultimately be in front of us in the lock. The sport fishing boat had navigation light that didn't work and wouldn't be able to transit unless they got them fixed and to the locks in time to make the tie-up. We were relieved as we preferred the option of tying to the catamaran rather than the sport fisher as the hull shape is a better match.
We then waited. And waited. And waited. There seemed to be a problem in the lock with the boat that was passing through. We had rafted up with the catamaran– tightly tied with lots and lots of fenders between the boats. So finally – about 2100 (9pm) we started through. The catamaran captain Richard and Michael were coordinating speed and direction with the help of Carlos the advisor on the cat. Because we were rafted – we only needed two line handlers on Astarte – but we teamed up, Barbara and Lenny did the foredeck and Sue and Markus handled the stern.
We got into the lock staring up at the giant container ship "Merchant" from Nassau. A big black hull was not very far in front of us. The "mules", which are motorized engines on rails, handle their lines on shore with deck hands aboard. We have human beings on shore who walk along with our lines. But first, they toss a monkey fist aboard the boat which you have to grab and then tie with a bowline to your big line and feed it back to them. These guys (male and female) toss like they want to knock you off your feet. They line drive it aboard. The lines (fore and aft) are caught by the able Astarte crew, competent knots tied, and the lines are pulled up by the canal linesmen. They then put our line, which has a big loop on one end, over a large bollard. The lock gates get closed and the water starts to come in – quite quickly. We have to pull in the lines to compensate for the incoming water to keep the rafted sailboats centered. The same routine is happening on the starboard side of the catamaran.
It's hard work pulling in. We manage to get it done for the first lock, but the most frightening part is actually when the huge boat in front of us – starts. They put their engine in forward and the canal water becomes a class 5 rapid. Wow – it is really churned up sending the two rafted sailboats dancing. We are still attached to the canal walls with the four lines – but you can really see the pressure on those lines. You pray they hold as will your cleats. Whew...the first lock done. Two to go. But now, the boats, still attached, motor through to the next lock as the canal line-handlers carry our lines into the next lock. Two more times the routine continues – lines released, pulled back aboard, lines re-fed and retied. Pulling them in. Letting them out. Nervously watching the huge frieghter ahead churn up the water.
After the last lock, our two rafted boats stayed together (unusual) for the trip to the mooring where we will spend the night. The advisor wants us to stay rafted up on the mooring but we don"t think that's a good idea so we unraft. The lake is rolly enough with boat traffic and wind that we would listen to squeeks and squaks from tires, fenders and lines all night if we were rafted up. The party would have been fun – but sleeping more difficult. So they tied to one mooring and we tied to the other and it was around 2330 when that was completed. A few cocktails and beers were consumed. The advisor wanted a hot meal – but we told it would take too long and he would be picked up shortly. So we made sandwiches and lots of snacks.
We called it a day around 0100 (1 am) - it was a mighty long day for everyone – but the hardest locks were now behind us and it went very smoothly.
Day two: Thursday, December 29, 2011.
0530 the Astarte crew get up to coffee and breakfast and the advisor arrives around 0645. We head out just about immediately after introductions, warming the engine and untying from the bollard. The catamaran has left a few minutes earlier. It is a beautiful day and Ricardo is a pleasant addition to our crew.
We head through Gatun lake which is quite pretty. Sue has the binoculars in search of wildlife and everyone is amiably chatting and sightseeing. Barbara is whipping up brownies and pasta salad and snacking is non-stop. Ricardo is very informative about how our next locks will go – we find out two ferries that do this passage daily will be in the lock ahead of us then the rafted sailboats. Down is easier than up as you simply let out line versus bringing it in. The wind is blowing pretty good though – so we have windage on our side- pulling us away from the wall (that's good) but we need to keep the catamaran off the wall on the other side putting more pressure on our lines, cleat and crew.
We get into the first lock – a different view as we're sitting so high in the lock this time. Monkey fists are caught by both Markus and Lenny(one handed, by the way). Good work. And the process continues. But in between these locks, we have to motor rafted together – so monkey fist catching and bowline tying has to actually be done three separate times. The crew of Astarte for the passage has a 100% catch record with no windows broken, no solar panels lost or wind generator blades ruined. (Of course hatches and solar panels are covered with cushions, blankets, towels, line etc.)
After we are through the last locks, we are in the Pacific.
We unraft with our partners on the catamaran and make our way to an anchorage in what is called Las Brisas. It is around a few islands. The skyline of Panama City is bold, the sun is shining. By around 1530 (3:30 pm) we are anchored. Markus decides he will try to make the trip back to Shelter Bay right away so we get the dinghy unrolled and put back together. Tires and lines will also be picked up by Erick's son at 1630 (4:30pm). So we get Astarte ready and un-adorned with canal passage gear.
The fun news was that as we came into the anchorage we started to see lots of boats we know. People we hadn't seen for months or even years came out to say hello. Our friends Blake and Sunny from Slow-Mocean were on deck and we hadn't seen them since Puerto Rico. Feel Free with Liz and Tom we last saw in the San Blas. And we anchored near Yvon and Carmella of Taima. Voyager is anchored up there – haven't seen them yet. And so it feels welcoming. The wind was hooting out of the north and its a bit rolly.
A few celebratory Astarte rum punches and we would head in for dinner. Showers, cleaning up, dry clothes and we make our way to shore. The tide (which today was a 16 foot tide – that's normal) – was in.
We head in and unfortunately its not the easiest dinghy arrangement. You tie up then have to use a small plastic rowboat (very wet and tippy) to pull yourself across to the dock. With the wind and waves and tides, it can be a very wet trip to get to the other end. Barbara was soaked by the time we made it to dinner. We headed out for a bite – the crew all quite tired – but we enjoy a pizza together and head back.
Exhausted – we call it a night after putting the dinghy and outboard up (everything has to be locked).
Day Three: Friday, December 30:
Everyone had a great, much needed, night sleep. We get up to a nice breakfast and Michael takes Lenny and Sue ashore and then cleared in with the Port Captain. Its a holiday weekend, but all went well. Then we'll organize Astarte putting things back in the V-berth and forward head – after a repair – unfortunately it broke on Day one....bummer with guests aboard). But we'll probably take a few days to relax and appreciate that we made it to the Pacific.
Again, thank you so much to everyone for getting screen grabs from the lock cameras of us going through. We can't wait to see them. We took lots of photos and once they get sorted we'll post them as well.
We made it. Woohoo!!!!
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