Our Diary Panama

"Please maintain your course and proceed astern of Stena Compatriot… Then exit the channel and anchor in the Flats," came the formal reply to our request to enter Colon harbour.

We had just entered the gateway to the Pacific - unfortunately the traffic lights were red otherwise the temptation to keep going, along with the large freighters and container vessels, would have been too great! Our experiences of Panama so far were those of a slow grinding bureaucracy and we expected the same in Colon (aptly named in the biological sense). But, like all great travelling epics, it's not the arrival but the journey that counts and this small hop was a trip back in time.

After Cartagena and a brief stop in the Rosario islands waiting for a weather window we set sail for the two day passage to San Blas. The normally fast downwind sail turned out to be close hauled for the first day in cloudy, showery conditions (Doldrums weather!). On the second day the Trade Winds set in and we ran into the Cabos Channel at dawn and made our way to Porvenir to check in.

Unfortunately we had arrived at the same time as the Blue Water Rally boats who were waiting to check out. (The Blue Water Rally boats complete their circumnavigation in an astoundingly fast 2 years!!!) After we had queued for 5 hours (a very social occasion!) we gave up and went back the next morning to finish the formalities.

The San Blas Islands are unique and a little haven. The Kuna Indians fought for their independence from Panama in 1925 (although they are now a type of independent state of Panama). The 365 islands stretch for approximately 100 miles. The Kuna Indians live simple lives on the islands close to the shore. They have maintained their traditions and, as yet, have not been tempted by consumerism. Sadly things may soon change; their first road and mobile phone mast appeared late last year and in one village DVDs were in demand as they had just received their first TV set!

These small shy people (photographing them is very difficult) are friendly and industrious. The women (and some androgynous "men") are highly skilled at sewing molas - reverse appliqué designs which are very appealing - and make them the major cash earners. The men go fishing and tend the coconut plantations and stand around sorting out the problems of the world (nothing changes) in the Congresso, a large hut in the centre of the village.

The offshore islands are typically palm fringed beaches surrounded by young coral reefs with lovely anchorages. In all we spent three weeks here just enjoying the tranquillity and visiting the odd village.

We planned to arrive in Colon at the end of their carnival (Ash Wednesday) since nothing gets done during carnival! We spent the festivities in Portobelo, another of the Spanish Main cities. Portobelo is steeped in history, such as the final resting place of Sir Francis Drake, held to ransom by Captain Morgan, and the gateway to the Pacific. In its heyday there was so much gold and silver that it was stacked up in the streets! But alas it is now a run down sleepy town, although the tradition of "beating out the devil" on Ash Wednesday gets a bit frantic.

We finally arrived safely in Colon and anchored in the flats and spent our first two days completing the formalities and getting our transit date. Sailing boats are put on the bottom of the list but we were shocked to hear that there was a 4 week wait, but the schedules seem to change daily; our current date for transit is Friday 31st March. In the meantime we have fully provisioned for 6 months in the Pacific, with nearly every locker full and boxes and crates stacked up! The latest count is around 2,500 items!

One recommended "must" for every "transiter" is to act as line handlers for someone else; our chance came the weekend before our own transit when we crewed as line handlers. (In order to transit the canal you must have at least 4 line handlers and four x 125 foot long lines to hold you in the locks.) It is common for other yachties to act as line handlers - thereby getting a taste of what is to come when you take your own boat through.

The trip with Keith on "Invicta's Reward" a British boat and Christine on "Dolce Vita" a Kiwi boat was an incredible experience:

Our transit was scheduled for 31st March and we really wanted to transit the canal as line handlers on someone else's boat before taking Poco through. Because most yachts are manned by couples, they each need three extra bodies on board to fulfil the requirements of one skipper and four line handlers. So Keith and I offered to split up if need be. Luckily John and Sue on Invicta's Reward accepted Keith's offer and Phil and Jacqui on Dolce Vita accepted mine. On the Sunday evening, there was great anticipation in the anchorage - would the correct number of "pilots" turn up for each of the five yachts scheduled to go through that night? (It is not unheard of for someone to get left behind because a pilot didn't turn up for work!) Fortunately, although rather later than promised (about 7pm), all the pilots were delivered to each yacht and Step 1 was successfully completed! Then the yachts raised their anchors and started down the big ship channel towards the entrance to the canal. There are ships coming out of the locks towards you as well as others coming up behind on the way into the locks - and all this happening at night. Although everything is well marked, the actual locks are lit up like a sports stadium, so trying to distinguish the different lights takes some doing. I was really pleased to be able to get my bearings while Phil was driving his boat!

Just short of the start of the first lock, the yachts left the main channel and tied up to a huge mooring buoy. After much discussion about boat lengths, weights and hull material, it was agreed to make up two "rafts" of two boats each and one yacht alone. Luckily, the two boats Keith and I were on ended up tied along side each to form one raft - very strong bow and stern lines plus springs to make the two yachts like one large catamaran. It turned out to be a good thing to practise this outside the actual locks - as the tug boats went past their wake caused lots of bouncing - a severe strain on each yacht's fairleads and cleats. After that nasty shock we replaced the bow and stern lines with nylon rope to provide a bit more stretch - a big improvement.

By now it was about 9pm and we finally had a chance to have dinner. The catering is a major challenge in itself. Each yacht has to feed 6 people (skipper, four line handlers and the pilot) for dinner, breakfast, lunch, snacks in between and endless fluids. All this at a moment's notice (in the lulls between hectic activity on deck). This is complicated by the fact that each yacht has generally brought down below all the usual paraphernalia from the decks - to leave clear deck space for working. So the cabins are full of horseshoe life buoys, man-overboard-packs, water containers, fuel containers, sails, outboard engines, etc, etc, etc. And then you still have to provide sleeping space for all the extra bodies (although the pilots get taken off at night and return next morning)!

Finally the pilot was informed that our raft of two yachts would be going through in the same lock as the small freighter ship "Norna". The pilot received clearance over the VHF radio to approach the first lock. Our raft of two yachts cast off from the mooring and had some practise at manoeuvring using the two engines. In general the yacht with the larger motor became the main propulsion and the second yacht stood by ready to provide astern or forward thrust to help move the bow or stern around. After some practice this worked really well. Phil gradually motored towards the entrance to the first lock behind the ship. Each lock is 110' (about 35m) wide and about 1000' long. From the Caribbean side the Gatun Locks raise the boats 81' in three steps, each 27' high. As you enter the first lock, the raft (only about 28' wide - the width of the two yachts tied together) moves slowly towards the right side of the lock and two men who work for the canal throw "messenger lines" to the bow and stern of the yacht on the right. These are light lines with a ball on the end. This is passed through the loop already formed on the end of the much heavier (about 1" diameter) line at each corner of the yacht. Then the raft gently moves forward and towards the left of the lock and two more messenger lines are thrown down to the bow and stern of the left yacht and similarly tied off. Now the raft moves forward into the centre of the lock and the walls tower up the sides - all lit up like a Christmas tree. When the yacht reaches its correct position down the lock, a whistle is blown and the canal men start hauling up the heavy lines. When they get to the top they put the big loop over a bollard and the line handlers on the yachts can start to tighten them up - carefully keeping the raft in the centre of the lock and facing straight ahead.

At last the lock doors are closed behind us and within 10 minutes approximately 8 million gallons of water fills the lock - all by gravity! There is a fair amount of turbulence and, of course, as the boats rise up, the line handlers on the bows and sterns of each yacht have to take up any slack in the lines to keep the raft in position. Eventually the water stops entering and the boats are only about 3' from the top of the lock wall. After a short pause the gates into the next lock are opened. After the water settles, the ship in front went into gear and began to move forward. (The ships are kept in position by cables passed from four 10-ton locomotives called mules, attached to their bows and sterns. These mules drive forward with the ship keeping it centred on the lock.) The turbulence from the propeller wasn't too bad - the ship was 600' long and we were about another 300' back. When the ship was secured in the next lock, our heavy lines were dropped off the bollards and we all had to quickly bring the slack on board. The light messenger lines were still attached and, as we slowly motored forward, the men on the canal sides walked forward with us until we were in position in the next lock - and the whole process began again.

The three Gatun Locks took about an hour and a half to get through - and then we were in the Gatun Lake - 85' above sea level. We motored for about 2 miles to pick up a mooring buoy on the lake for our overnight stop. By now it was about 12.30 at night and we were all relieved but tired. The pilot was picked up by a launch and it was time to break out the celebratory alcoholic refreshments. But the party was cut reasonably short as we all had to be up and ready to go at 6am!

The next morning there was great despair when only 4 out of the required 5 pilots turned up on the delivery launch - who would be left behind? The schedule called for Invicta's Reward to be left behind but Islay (one of the other yachts) suddenly developed throttle control problems so the pilot left their boat and joined Invicta's Reward, much to our relief. We cast off from the mooring and started to motor the 21 miles down the lake to the start of the down locks. Gatun Lake is formed by a man-made dam which keeps the lake full enough to provide the 26 million gallons of water required for each transit. The yacht channel explores some of the smaller islands in the lake and we saw howler monkeys and alligators on our trip. Eventually the yacht channel re-joins the main shipping channel and it is amazing to see the huge container ships at such close quarters.

The Pedro Miquel Lock is a single lock at the other end of the Gatun Lake and would take us down 27'. Just before entering it we re-formed our raft with Invictas Reward and motored into the lock - this time there was just our raft of two yachts and the other raft of two yachts behind us, all secured to the side walls with our long lines. The gates closed and down we went - with the line handlers gradually letting out their lines as the water level dropped. Going down is much easier than the up-locks! Once through, we stayed rafted together and motored another mile to the last two locks, the Miraflores Locks. Once again, the down-locking was straight forward and we had a chance to wave at the web camera aimed at the last lock - although we weren't sure if anyone would be watching!

At last we were through and the rafts were separated and each boat was able to motor towards the Bridge of the Americas - and into the Pacific Ocean. What an achievement! And what a relief!

Acting as line handlers was a fantastic experience and we were able to enjoy the transit much more than if we had been taking Poco Andante through on our maiden voyage. When our own transit finally happened, all went smoothly - thank goodness - and Keith's catering arrangements were superb (as always) and we are now in the Pacific at the beginning of our next major adventure.