Friday, February 12, 2010

Crossing the Panama Canal in two steps.

We are now at a turning point in our journey. First this is the point where we cross from the Atlantic Ocean (the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean and second we go through one of the most famous structure built by men today namely the Panama Canal. The pyramids of Egypt it is very nice but it is completely useless. For an engineer like me this is a big pile of rocks. All right, really big rocks piled over 3000 years ago I agree but useless nevertheless. The Panama Canal was built a hundred years ago almost to the day and still functions 24 hours a day 365 days a year. The six locks and the artificial lake spread over 70 km and between 20 000 and 40 000 people died building it. This is engineering! Danielle for her part appreciate of course the scale of the installations but it is also for her 25 different ways of smashing the boat into pieces if something wrong happens during the crossing!

It is then with much apprehension, excitement and curiosity that we attack the crossing of the Canal. Fundamentally, it is simply 6 locks and a lake to cross. After the 33 locks on the Erie Canal we crossed at the beginning of our journey this should be a simple matter of a well packed day. But there is a small technical difference here. You see, the Panama Canal it is not for the small and tiny boats. Over 40 super cargos cross the locks that measure 1000 feet long by 110 feet wide every day and pay between $50,000 and $200,000 to do so! Us we pay $609 and find it way too expensive. The canal authorities don’t want us here and I assume that they let us pass only because they are forced to do so in a way or another. For this reason they ensure through a set of rules and procedures that everything will go smooth once we go through because the last thing they need is a smart ass arriving with his little plastic boat and a sail and saying; “Hey, locks that’s nothing. Look at the pro here. I’ll go through this in no time.’’ And then does everything wrong and finally blocks the canal and at the same time of the most important source of revenues of the country and managed by probably the most profitable company in the world.

The rules are relatively simple and logical. We must have 4 line handlers, a captain at the wheel, 4 lines at least 120 feet long, about 10 tires on the side of the boat to fend her and finally an adviser employed by the company must be on board at all time during the crossing. In addition to this we must go to many administrative offices in Colon to process the paperwork of the Canal authorities, the port authorities, the customs and immigration. To make our life easier we hired an ‘’agent’’ named Tito how takes care of us for the paperwork, rent us the lines and tires and provides additional line handlers should we need any. Our dear Tito was not very expensive but he had two interesting characteristics. The first one is that he would never be there at the time he said he would be and the second is that no matter what, he would do what he said he would do even though most of the time it is at the last minute. Because of this everything goes smooth but we need to be very patient! But while we were waiting for Tito we prepared the boat by protecting the solar panels and by preparing the lines for the crossing.

At 16:30 on Sunday January 31, 2010 our advisor came aboard. To meet our requirement of 4 line handlers we agreed with Marion and Theo, who sail on their boat Marionetto, to cross with Chocobo first then to come back to Colon and cross with Marionetto two days later. For the fourth line handler we hired Leonardo a guy from Colon provided by Tito who wears a yellow T-shirt on the picture. In foreground you can see Marion and Theo and behind this is José our advisor for the first part of the crossing.

At the exact planned time (which changed three times within the last hour before we entered the lock) we entered the first lock called Gatun Lock, which are in fact three locks in cascade representing the first three locks of the crossing and raising us by about 85 feet from the Atlantic Ocean to Gatun Lake. The crossing of the entire canal happens over two days. The first day we go through the first three locks and spend the night on Lake Gatun then on the second day we cross Lake Gatun and go through the last three locks. On the way up we are placed behind the cargo ship crossing with us. You didn’t think that they would work their entire lock system just for a sailboat do you? But here the cargo in question is only a small 500 feet long ship so we had enough room to place our mega 40 feet sailboat behind a second boat, which is here a red fishing boat called Queen Alisa heading to Hawaii.

We are very lucky this time because there are no other boats with us to attach to the walls of the lock. The four lines are attached to large cleats on the top of the walls and each line handler ensures to keep the tension and removing the slack on his line as the boat rises. Danielle is at the wheel and moves the boat from one lock to the other once the large doors open. Everything goes fine albeit the justified fears of Danielle. I say justified because we’ve learn from our experience in the Erie Canal that rising in a lock can be fatal for the boat. When the millions of gallons of water are poured into the chamber through giant pipes under the surface large whirls are created and push the boat in all directions. This is exactly why the Canal Authorities ask for four strong lines to hold the boat in position during the rise.

A little after dark we moored Chocobo to the largest mooring buoy we’ve ever seen to spend the night in Gatun Lake. They say that the lake is infested by crocodiles but none of them bothered to come to see us. However, we could easily hear the howling monkeys from the Central American jungle surrounding the lake. Danielle pleased everybody with a delicious Suisse cheese macaroni that she made in the afternoon and then after the advisor left. After a well deserved bottle of wine we all went to bed for a short night as the departure was scheduled to be at 6:30am the next morning!

On Monday February 1st, 2010 we crossed Lake Gatun on a three hour ride and arrived at the famous Gaillard Cut, which is a giant trench dug by hundreds of thousands of workers with picks and dynamite a hundred years ago. This is here that the majority of the tens of thousands of people who died during the construction of the Canal found their last sleep. The Panamanians (or should we say the Colombians as the area was a province of Colombia at the time) who built this work didn’t dig only with their sweat but also with their blood. It is unbelievable to think that it took so long for our societies to come up with descent safety regulations at work.

For the last three locks, Pedro Miguel and the two famous Miraflores locks with their giant doors, we were rafted with another catamaran slightly larger than us. We were again lucky since no large ship was with us but only six small crafts crossing at that time. The crossing went with no incidents and by early afternoon we were safely anchored close to the marina La Playita de Amador in Panama City. We were very happy that everything went so well and were ready to go back to cross again on board of Marionetto, which should be a formality for us four since we already had the experience of crossing once. But we couldn’t be more wrong than that and what we didn’t know at the moment of leaving Chocobo for Colon is that the real adventure of this crossing was ahead of us and not behind!

We arrived by bus in Colon around 6:30pm just before sunset. Marion needed to go to the grocery before returning to the boat, which stayed at anchor in the Flats of the port of Cristobal at the entrance of the canal. We were hungry so we went to McDonalds and called Tito who was to take us to the dock where the water taxis can take us to the boat for the astronomical price of $20. Keep in mind that the 2 hour bus ride from Panama City to Colon cost $1.80 per person. But there was a problem and it was that at that time it was already dark in Colon and Tito expected us in the afternoon. The fact is that anyone who knows Colon wouldn’t dare walking at night in most of the area of the city and especially the one where the water taxis are located. Of course, this we didn’t know and for four white peoples, tourist on top of that, walking in Colon at night is like being four turkeys walking on the street on Thanksgiving! Tito was physically in Panama City at this moment and painfully explained us with his broken English that we must not set a foot on the street, jump immediately in a taxi and go spend the night at the hotel Sotelo near his office and meet him there in the morning. He couldn’t get a water taxi for us tonight because the employees and the owner of the boats would never venture on the street along the docks at night. Tito himself had lost two members of his family during the past five months as they were assassinated by the gangs of thieves marauding at night in Colon. After hanging up the cell phone we looked at each other; Oups! The McDonalds was guarded by a security guard and Danielle went to him and asked him to help us to get a cab. Finally we jumped in a taxi and once at the Sotelo hotel we were greeted by Leonardo, the guy we hired to cross the canal, who Tito had called and asked him to ensure we were safe at the hotel for the night. Finally everything ended well. The cleanness of the room was debatable but after our trip to Peru nothing bothers we anymore and at least we were not killed for the $30 we had in our pockets!

The next morning we went safely back to Marionetto and at the end of the afternoon, after Tito brought the lines, the tires and Leonardo 30 minutes before our departure time, we cross the Gatun Locks for the second time. Everything went well and just before sunset we were moored to the same buoy we used two days ago with the monkeys shouting but not showing up and a delicious dinner Marion made for us. However, it was the hottest night of our life. There was simply no wind on Lake Gatun that night and the temperature reached 32°C with 100% humidity. Even the crocodiles were too hot to come and eat us!

But the real fun really started at the Pedro Miguel lock. For the crossing Marionetto was rafted to another boat about the same size. However, we needed to attach the raft to another much bigger cruise boat doing cruises in the canal for the tourists, which was attached to the wall. Gary the captain of the other boat was the one steering the raft and the approach to the cruise boat at the very end of the lock presented itself well until we were close enough to throw our mooring lines at her. This is then that things went bad. The wind picked up suddenly and started to push the raft away from the cruise boat to a point that we couldn’t attached to her anymore. Gary turned toward the cruise boat in an attempt to bring the raft back at the cruise boat but with no success. Me, I was at the bow and I then threw my mooring line to the guy on the cruise boat so he can attach it. At this moment the wind caught the back of the raft and we turned 180° within the lock. Gary’s boat engine wasn’t strong enough for him to get back control of the two sailboats attached together and the wind was now dangerously pushing us on the closed front doors of the lock. Our only chance now was the line I threw before the boat started to turn. Everybody started shouting at the guy on the cruise boat to tell him to attach the line, which he did on a hurry. The line went straight and the raft stopped. Gary put his engine in full throttle and managed to bring back the raft. We untied the mooring line that just saved the two boats then turn the raft again and safely attached it to the cruise boat with all the passengers following our maneuver with great interests!

Eventually, with a super cargo behind us the crossing of the locks went very well even though four hours and a bottle of wine were necessary for us to recover from the Pedro Miguel lock episode! And as Marion put it so well after, this was a wonderful experience to cross the canal but if someone would ask her to cross again with them she would pass this time.