Monday, May 23, 2016

Transit Day

Well, the day has finally come. It’s Transit Day. We’ve been preparing and anticipating this day for a very long time. Along with the pure logistics of transiting the Panama Canal in a sailing vessel, comes the fact that, for us, there’s no turning back now. Once we’re through this canal, we’re in the Pacific, and turning around, while always an option, becomes that much more difficult. While still on the Caribbean side, there’s this sense of security, a connection to home…you’re not THAT far away. But once we’re “on the other side”, well….it’s a long way home via the rest of the world!

But back to today. At 1:00pm our agent, Roy Bravo will come and deliver the lines, the fenders and our line handler. We will leave the marina at 2:00pm and head over to the Flats Anchorage, a staging ground for the first lock. There we will receive our advisor. Every vessel has an advisor from the Panama Canal on board to guide us through the locks. The line handler is an extra set of hands to help us with the huge ropes that will be thrown to us from canal handlers on the side of the locks, and that will constantly have to be adjusted to keep us steady and away from the side of the locks as the water rises. Dave will be at the helm, Garrick, Adrian, myself and the line handler will each be on a corner of the boat controlling the lines.

Once we get through the 3 sets of locks we will be in Gatun Lake, where we will anchor for the night. The advisor will be picked up, but our line handler will spend the night. On Tuesday morning, a new advisor will come to the boat, and will guide us across the lake, and then through the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side. We should be in the Pacific on Tuesday evening!

Unfortunately we are not able to fill up with diesel here at the Marina, and although we have enough fuel to motor through the lake (you have to motor, you are not allowed to sail), we can’t afford to waste fuel on running the generator, which we had hoped to do, so we could run our A/C for our night on the Lake. Oh well…I guess we have to get used to it anyway. We’ve been spoilt with being able to run the A/C while in the marina.

We’ve had a good time here at Shelter Bay Marina, as Dave mentioned in a previous post. Poor Garrick and Adrian were put to work right away, and Adrian was barely able to get over his jetlag, being thrown right in to the mix and helping with boat tasks and preparation! I’m happy to report that Puff is fixed, but there is a snag with the main halyard AGAIN (this has certainly become our Achilles heel!!). As Dave mentioned, West Marine sent a 10mm rope, when we ordered and paid for a 12mm rope. It’s a never ending saga that Dave and I are so tired of, we just can’t even think about it anymore! We will see if we can find the needed 12mm rope in Panama City once we get over there. Luckily our trusty mule Garrick, did bring our old halyard with him as well as the new rope, so we do at least have that as a last resort backup!

Puff getting repaired in the sail loft
But to more fun stuff: our tour of the Panama Canal. Wow…what an experience! On Friday we took a taxi through the jungle roads that lead out of Shelter Bay Marina, and went to visit the Gatun Locks – partly in preparation for our own transit, and partly just to see it all first hand as a tourist.

The sheer magnitude of the operation is mind-blowing, and the history behind it even more so. The first attempt to build the canal was made by the French in 1880, but the cost, both financially and in loss of human life, caused them to abandon the project. After its independence in 1903, Panama made a deal with the US and the construction of the canal started in 1904. There is a LOT more history behind that sentence, but, in the essence of time, I’ll keep it short. The canal was finished in 1914, and was controlled by the U.S until 1999, when Panama took over the control of the Canal. Just being here and seeing the jungle and feeling the heat and humidity (and I’m a Durban/Tampa girl…I know heat and humidity!!), I can only imagine what those poor workers must have gone through building this canal. There was a tremendous loss of life during the construction of the canal, both from disease and from construction related accidents.

Construction of the Culebra Cut in 1907 (Wikipedia)

The Gatun Locks that we will go through first are still the original locks that were completed in 1914. Amazingly enough, the water is not pumped from one lock to another. When a chamber is drained, the water is emptied into the ocean, and when the locks need to be filled up, water is pumped from the lake. The new locks, that are set to open in June, and will be able to handle the super tankers, are designed to recycle the water and it will be pumped from one chamber to another, rather than in and out of the lake and ocean.
The Crew with locks.  You can see a ship transiting through the lock on the right
The cost for a ship to go through the canal is in the region of $300,000 to $400,000 PER TRANSIT. So if a ship goes through, drops off containers, turns around and comes back again – it pays again. The big ships that will be able to transit through the new locks will be upwards of $500,000 per transit! But it saves them 2 – 4 weeks, not to mention the cost involved in running a vessel for that extra time, by not having to go around Cape Horn. We asked how they decided which ship would be the first through the new locks, and we were told that it was a lottery and a Chinese ship is on its way right now to be the one to do the maiden voyage through the new locks.

The lock doors closing and the water level going down in the lock on the right

This ship just barely made it through!  

The same ship as it passed by.  It actually scraped the side of the wall on the far left as the tug driver on our side was not paying attention, and didn't have his lines tight enough!
Beside our time at the Panama Canal, we also provisioned, which ended up being a whole day affair. Buying the food was one thing….finding space to put it all…entirely another! But I managed, and while some of us may be sleeping with beer cans at our feet and tins of tuna snuggled up next to our t-shirts, we should not starve on our way across the Pacific!

Finding space for beer...

Just some of the supplies...
Where to put it all?
Our surroundings also lent themselves to some jungle exploring, and our two most intrepid explorers were Garrick and Gaby. The area around the Marina used to be a US military base, and the runway is still here, as are some of the barracks, and officer’s housing. The buildings are abandoned and decrepit, and the jungle is reclaiming them, but it is amazing to see. Our explorers found a church, gun batteries, a zoo (!), and rumour has it that they just let the animals go out into the jungle and that there might be a big cat wondering around…rumor has it… (monkeys were seen, but they are locals – not remnants from the zoo!)
Garrick and Gaby found a beautiful beach on one of their walks

Jungle walk
Gudrun and Gaby at one of the batteries

We also took the opportunity of wifi to finally set up our drone, and finally fly it! It was a long and frustrating day of downloads and updates and things initially not working, but finally it all came together, and we (ie. Dave and Benjamin) flew it around the marina for a test flight. We were very impressed with it and the videos it took, so we hope to have some amazing footage of deserted islands and atolls in the South Pacific!
Maiden flight...paparazzi captures the moment
Flyin' High!

And so, once again, we have to say farewell to a place we’ve called home for the last 5 days. We’ve met some wonderful fellow cruisers: some moving on like we are, some heading back home, but everyone has been so friendly and helpful: providing assistance with the SSB radio (thank you, Edd!), knowledge of areas sailed, and even giving us provisions of food that they don’t need and can’t keep on their boat while they head back to the US for a few months (thank you, Betsy!). We are somewhat nervous, somewhat excited (at least I am), to once again be moving on. This is a big step for us, but we are ready to make it! I hope to have wifi on the flip side, and be able to provide and update along with pictures of our transit into the gateway that is the vast Pacific Ocean!

As a reminder, here is the link to the Gatun Locks webcam.  We should be going through at around 7:00pm EST:


  1. Dear SV Cool Runnings Crew,
    It’s so interesting and exciting to follow your blog! I am already looking forward to the next post. Have a safe trip onwards through the Panama Canal and into the the Pacific Ocean. All the best to and safe travels in the Pacific Ocean!

  2. Fantastic to follow your adventures. The canal experience looks amazing.

  3. s/v Cool Runnings Crew,
    This is Ryan Lowrie, Garrick's neighbor in Hampton, VA. Looking forward to following your travels. Congrats on your passage through Gatún Locks last night. I tracked your progress and saw you on the clunky canal "webcam". I sent an email to your boat email addresses. Check it out! Tight travels!

  4. Just caught up with you guys, this is Mike (the British chappy!) on Johns Pass Ave. Panama canal looked very interesting indeed. Tracking you as you head to your next destination, looks like you had some variance in wind direction judging by your tacking. We finally bought a 38 foot Irwin and have just sailed her back from Mobile, AL - great way to get to know a new boat!! Faults and all! Your fellow SA, Tim Marshall is popping over to see it shortly...

    Hope all goes well in the coming weeks and months, we will be checking in to see how you are all doing. Once again, FABULOUS life experience for you all, but especially for the kids - there is no classroom on earth than can teach them all they will see and learn about during your time away.