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The Two Captains


Latitude: 09-00.96N
Longitude: 079-36.56W

Pedro Miguel Boat Club - Panama Canal

Today was the BIG DAY - Part One. Today we transited the Panama Canal - mostly! What this means is that, although we have one lock to go before the Pacific, we have, as of today, crossed the continental divide. We took a position report from midway through Gatun Lake which I will post tonight, which we will let stand for a few days before posting our position here. I guess that's called manipulating the data, but hey...!

We had a smooth transit, not without a little excitement. I guess much of that stepped up intensity comes simply from it being your own boat. Our "advisor" Ernie Cooper(the yachts get pilots-in-training) stunned us by showing up on schedule..which was, by the way 0500 (like 5am!). No one we knew had started out less than two hours late! Our crew had barely been handed a cup of coffee before the pilot boat dropped him off and we were underway in the dark!

We did the Gatun Locks just after sunrise center-locked in a "nest" of three sailboats: us, Swarra II a 42' Australian steel boat and Salamander a 34' British-flagged pipsqueak-- tucked up under the stern of the Trinidad, a 623' car carrier which was, by the way, 105.77' wide...in locks that are only 110' wide! After some rearranging and rethinking, we ended up the center boat, which means Don didn't just drive one boat through, he drove three! The good news was that once rafted together, the crews of the other boats had to do the work of tending the four long lines that kept the flotilla centered in each lock as the waters rose. There is some turbulence as the water flows into the locks from culverts beneath it, and there is more turbulence at the top when the giant ship in the lock with you uses their props to drive themselves out ahead. An inattentive line handler could sent the raft-up corkscrewing into the lock wall, which, aside from ruining your day would result in losing your $800 security deposit!

The Gatun Locks raise vessels 76' to Gatun Lake in three stages. At the top everybody goes their own way, the ships following the buoyed channel, the small boats taking several short cuts. On our trial run Saturday as line handlers aboard the yacht Maritime Express, we saw several spider monkeys in the high branches of the trees of tiny islands we passed through. Today, who'd know as we were wolfing down bagels at the time!

Gatun Lake is a man-made lake created by damming up that same Chagres River in whose mouth we were so peacefully anchored last week. It took us about five hours to motor across it and down the Gaillard Cut, the water becoming increasingly muddy and strewn with water hyacinths and floating grass islands as we neared the original Chagres. In contrast to our trip Saturday which had on and off showers, today was hot sunny and gorgeous and this part is the festive, social part. Much like a charter, a big hot lunch is de rigeur for the advisor and your line handling crew. We had a total of eight on board, and Judy should note that my Panama version of crepes Ensenada with Greek salad was a big hit!

Gaillard Cut is the narrowest part of the Canal Waterway, and the Canal Authority is in the process of widening this stretch. Unlike our Saturday trip where we encountered no traffic to speak of, today we had boats passing regularly. What a minute...these are not "boats"....these are huge container ships stacked to the brim! In fact, we made such good time, that we down-locked with the same car carrier we went up with! Except that neither of the other sailboats made it in time. So this time we down locked side-tied to a tugboat, the easiest of all the options.

Pedro Miguel Boat Club is barely tucked in behind the east side of the Pedro Miguel Locks. It is far less a marina or yacht club than it is a boatie commune! Sailboats are moored bow or stern to the shore and some rickety docks behind which are a bunch of do-it-yourself workshops plus a club-house with an open kitchen and a drink machine with beer and coke in it! Although you would think the spot would be well-protected from weather and "sea", artificial waves created by tugboat wakes periodically set all the boats rocking wildly. Plus, it is probably the only place in the world that has a 6" tide dozens of times a day! It is testimony to how few the secure mooring options are in Panama and how strong is the communal personality of the club that this place is so popular.

We made such good time, exiting the lock at 1:30, that no one at Pedro Miguel was even looking for us yet. However, they rallied quickly, and directed us to back TII into a prime spot right next to the commodore's own boat. Although we feel like we are in a spider's web of mooring lines, this spot happens to put our bow right into the tugboat tsunamis minimizing their effect. Could the fact that the commodore's boat is a CSY have anything to do with our prime position?

I can't end this update without a word of gratitude for the great "crew" we had aboard today. Our friends Lourae and Randy of Pizazz, George of Suething, and Sam of Sandi Lee made up our our core crew, plus a Yorkshire backpacker named Jim Spence (who took a year off before college to travel 22 years ago, and never stopped) who was keen to add a Canal transit to his roster of world adventures! Everybody was there for everything that needed to be done, (including dishes!), which made the trip into a great day's outing for us all!

By the way, I made a mistake in the website address I posted in the last update and I'm not sure the correction made it out. The correct address is www.cristobalmarina.bizland.com.

Friday I am flying to Miami/Ft. Lauderdale to spend a week collecting some important boat parts that just aren't available in Panama. We stumbled over a great fare that more than covers air freight, although I do think we failed to factor in motel room and car rental! So, the Update front will be quiet for a while, unless the other Captain gets motivated.


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