Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ready for the Panama Canal

We are scheduled to transit the Panama Canal on Sunday January 31st, 2010 at 18:45 and Monday February 1st, 2010 between 09:00 and 12:00. The transit from North to South (southbound) of the six locks is spread over two days. Late Sunday afternoon we will go through the first three locks called the Gatun Locks. We will then spend the night moored in Gatun Lake. On Monday morning we will cross the last three locks called, in order, the Pedro Miguel lock and the two Miraflores Locks to finally reach the Pacific Ocean. You can follow our transit through the Web cameras on the Panama Canal web site as shown on the picture. The address of the cameras is: from where you can select either the Gatun Locks or the Miraflores locks. The tricky thing here is that we will be likely transiting with a large cargo ship and other sailboats so look carefully we are a white catamaran with yellow covers. Unfortunately, at this point we don’t know yet the exact transit time on Monday.
We arrived at the port of Cristobal, which is where the canal starts on the Caribbean side and anchored in an area called the Flats to make the necessary and painful arrangements for the transit. The interesting part of sailing to the flats is that we had to go between all the large cargos anchored inside and outside the port area. Usually when you see two or three cargos at a time it is quite nerving but here there were at least 50 spread all over and many of them were moving! Of course, the Panama Canal being the only place boats can go through to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans without sailing around South America you can imagine it is quite a busy place. At first we wanted to do the paperwork ourselves but finally decided to hire an agent called Tito who took us through all the different offices that are required to sort out the complex entry and transit procedures of Panama. And thank god we did that! For one thing all the offices are in a small town called Colon, which is the most rundown rat hole I’ve seen in my life. Sorry I don’t have pictures to show you yet but really Colon is not a place to walk with an expensive camera around the neck. Also, it is not possible to go ashore from our boat with the dingy. The Panama Canal authorities are polite and nice when dealing with us but since the control of the Canal was passed to Panama by the USA in 1999 they made everything possible to get the small boats like us out of the area. Let’s face it, when a cargo pays tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to cross the canal a small sailboat paying $609.00 is just a nuisance. But thanks to Tito, who knows exactly where to go, what paper to bring and what to say, everything went relatively smooth and safe at least so far. We’ll see how it goes when we will be in the locks behind a behemoth spinning its propeller bigger than our entire boat!