26th March 2017. Panama Canal transit (Day 1)
Sunday, 26th March 2017. Shelter Bay Marina to Gatun Lake via the Gatun Locks.
0900 Breakfast for Dietmar: Emma’s special scrambled eggs with cheese and lots of toast and coffee. Important to feed the captain well at the start of this extraordinary day.
1030 Disconnect the shore power. Everything stowed, lockers locked, water in the fridge. Boat ready to depart. Emma returns from the shop with a (not so) secret stash of sweeties and other treats, and eggs for tomorrow morning’s breakfast.
1200 Roy (the agent) arrives with 3 x line-handlers (strapping local chaps: Joel, Oscar and Tomas. Joel is distinctly jovial and comfortably built, sporting mirrored sunglasses; Tomas is tall and good-looking (and knows it); Oscar is 21 with a tiddly goatee and very polite. He’s the baby of the group.). They bring 6 x very large and shiny, white, round fenders and 4 long lengths of 40 meter polypropylene bright blue rope. Boys go off to the café while Roy counts his money from Dietmar.
1230 Boys return. Roy leaves. Emma explains basic boat rules to the boys (no sitting on the varnish, no scratches on or to the boat (on pain of death), and how to use the toilet) with a big smile. They look slightly nervous but they will be ok.
1235 The lovely Gitte and Klaus from SY Margrethe wave us off with a special flag and their foghorn J. Captain safely negotiates us out of the marina. Goodbye Shelter Bay Marina. We will miss your nachos but not your temperamental wifi.
1300 Arrive at ‘The Flats’ – an anchorage area for vessels waiting to enter the Gatun Locks. We are informed that the pilot will arrive in 40 minutes. We decide not to bother dropping the anchor. Emma begins her line-handler charm offensive and makes cheese and ham sandwiches with coke and crisps for the boys. She figures that, if she looks after them, they will look after CESARINA. Fingers crossed.
1310 Scoping out the other boats waiting, wondering to whom we are going to be rafted for the transit. The options are: a yellow trimaran with a 18” freeboard or two other monohulls., including LIBERTÉ where someone speaks German. Hurrah. We wave. They wave back and make nice noises about CESARINA.
1330 Dietmar smokes his first cigarette to calm his nerves. There’s still time to change our minds…
1340 Pilot boat approaches at speed. Dietmar holds his breath. Line handlers attach fenders. Pilot boat holds position about 1 foot away from CESARINA (some really impressive boat handling skills). Moises, our pilot, leaps on board, cool as a cucumber and introduces himself. “The name’s Bond…” (He didn’t really say that).
1341 Dietmar exhales with relief. Moises appears (at least) to be a sensible sort of chap.
1400 Our line-handlers have everything prepared on board and are now chilling out and listening to music. All is well.
1420 Breeeeeaaaaathe. But there’s still time to change our minds…
1430 A lot of official radio chatter later, we approach and raft up with LIBERTÉ, a 46’ American-flagged Jeanneau. Moises, clearly the alpha male of the two pilots, takes control of operations. This is a good thing. We are the stronger boat and will take control. Dietmar seems happy. Emma fetches water for everyone.
1435 Two extremely large crocodiles spotted on the banks of the approach to the first lock. Gulp. Note to self: Do Not Fall In.
1440 Motor towards the first lock chamber of the Gatun Locks, attached everywhere to LIBERTÉ. Monkey’s fists (big, heavy knots) on the end of lines of string (looks like garden twine for the runner beans…) fly overhead like cannonballs. Line handlers deftly catch the string and tie them to the bowlines on the end of the blue ropes (one line fore and aft on both boats) and wait. The canal workers carry their end of the string lines and walk along the approach channel alongside us. If they are running, we are told, we are going too fast. They are walking at a brisk pace…
1442 Nearly in the first lock chamber, following the trimaran ((SANTA-MARIA MAGDALENA) and JULIANA, a full container ship (Length 529.2’ x Beam 82’). We are all going to lock through together.
1445 Entering the first lock chamber. Holy moly. Huuuuuge! 110’ wide and 1000’ feet long. We can’t see the end though, because the JULIANA is somewhat in the way. She looks jolly big at this range. Hope she doesn’t accidentally reverse. That could be messy.
1447 Line handlers on board let go of the string attached to the blue ropes, which the canal workers then haul up to massive bollards on the lock chamber walls. The blue rope bowlines are slipped over the bollards and the line-handlers on board take up the strain so that the boat is held safely in the middle of the chamber. Moises, our advisor, calmly tells everyone what to do. Dietmar’s blood pressure is high but stable.
1449 Lock gates close, the bell rings and the chamber starts to fill with water. The trimaran ahead bobs around like a duck in a bathtub and they have to fend off the wall vigorously. We are stable in the middle of the lock chamber. Line-handlers are doing an outstanding job, hauling in the lines as the boat rises.
1455 Dietmar: Cigarette #2. And breeeeathe.
1500 Lock nearly full. Amazing view off the back of the boat to the Cristobal breakwater and the Atlantic beyond. No going back now. So happy to be doing this together. Dietmar posting live to Facebook. Emma fetches cold Cokes for everyone. Charm-offensive seems to be working – no scratches so far.
1515 Gates open into Chamber #2. Canal workers tie the monkey’s fist lines back onto the blue ropes and unhitch the blue bowlines from the bollards. Line-handlers on board pull the blue lines back down onto the boat. Dietmar and Patricia (the captain of LIBERTÉ) motor ahead together into the next chamber. Canal workers walk alongside the boat and then have to climb about 150 steps to the top of the next chamber. It’s hot and they wear a lot of safety kit. Hope they’re well paid for their efforts.
1520 Canal workers haul the blue lines back up again off the boat and attach the bowlines. Our line-handlers take the strain again. Emma fetches cold Cokes for everyone on board and continues to take lots of pictures.
1522 Dietmar: Cigarette #3 and #4
1530 Lock gates of Chamber #2 close, massive, behind us. The bells ring and up comes the water. Repeat duck-in-a-bathtub performance from the trimaran ahead of us. They appear to have tied up over a culvert. Oops. No such drama for us.
1545 Everyone is starting to relax. The lock is nearly full. The crew of LIBERTÉ comprises two Americans, one Aussie girl and a German chap. They seem really nice.
1600 Lock is full, gates open. Nearly there. Just one more chamber to go.
1605 Our line-handlers retrieve the blue ropes again as they are released from the bollards. The canal workers set off, carrying the string lines up another mountain of steps. We motor forward.
1615 Arrive Chamber #3. Our line handlers release our blue ropes again for the final time.
1618 Dietmar: Cigarette #6
1620 The bollards are lassoed, our lines are tight and we are ready to go.
1625 The bells ring one last time as the gates close behind us. Up comes the water.
1645 The gates ahead of us open into the enormous Gatun Lake. Oh. My. Goodness.
1650 Lines retrieved and safely stowed on board. We motor out. Grins all round. Gatun Locks? Done.
1700 Un-raft from LIBERTÉ and wish her goodnight. Motor 1 mile across Gatun Lake, round the back of a big container ship and its tug boat, to attach to a buoy. Emma sees the buoy and considers smoking a cigarette herself.
1710 Superman (Moises the Advisor), jumps onto the enormous buoy and ties us on. A funny looking aluminium boat with two French people and their local line-handlers attaches itself to the other side of our buoy. Our linehandlers seem to know each other, albeit not very well. Emma exercises her French. We make polite conversation. They’ve been in the Pacific for ten years. We could have guessed that from their teak-coloured skin and faded paintwork.
1712 Dietmar: cigarette #7 & #8. Moises leaves on the Pilot Boat with our heartfelt thanks for a good day.
1715 Our line-handlers strip off and dive into the lake. Emma puts the swim ladder out and keeps a sharp eye out for crocodiles. The First-Aid kit on CESARINA is extremely comprehensive but entirely in German. There is a risk of an unexpected tracheotomy or other surgical procedure if any equipment is needed in an emergency.
1720 Dietmar joins the boys in the lake. Everyone is smiling. Yay!
1725 Emma starts cooking supper. It’s still about 35 degrees in the galley but her boys need feeding. #suchamartyr 😉
1735 Boys back into the lake. Still no crocodiles.
1740 All boys except Dietmar out of the lake. Where is Dietmar? Emma looks anxious.
1745 Dietmar out of the lake. Had been hull-cleaning and thankfully not eaten by crocodiles. Emma pours large rum for self. Dietmar: cigarette #9 & #10
1750 Emma distributes beer and soft drinks and peanuts. All boys seem v happy. Charm-offensive strategy seems to be working – boat still scratch-free 🙂
1900 Supper served. Pan-fried chicken and plantains with boiled rice and spicy ratatouille (without the aubergines or courgettes. Not sure whether it really qualifies as ratatouille but no one seems to care). Hot sauce on the table, liberally applied by all.
1925 All plates cleared. Dietmar starts the washing-up.
1930 Joel has second helping of everything. With a lot of hot sauce. He explains that he used to drink a drink called ‘Mucho Macho’ and that is why he has so many children and can eat such hot sauce. Hmm.
1935 Emma brings out ukulele and plays the first tune that she knows (she only knows three, mind you…). Somewhat surprisingly, the (apparently) 12yo line-handler from the other boat, leaves his boat, climbs across the buoy between the boats and boards CESARINA. Uninvited. And then sits on the varnish. Argh. Emma is speechless. He declares that he is a song writer and singer. Emma is, unfortunately for him, unimpressed. Emma also doubts that Dietmar is going to like having an unexpected visitor who is sitting on the varnish. Uninvited visitor asks if Emma has heard of any Panamanian pop stars. Emma has not.
1938 Dietmar emerges from the washing up. Cigarette #11
1941 Emma figures that if she declines to hand the uninvited guest her (brand new and very) precious ukulele, he will get bored and leave (like a dog begging at the table for food). She feels sorry for him but puts her ukulele away below anyway. It works.
1945 Emma brings out more drinks and cupcakes for everyone. Discovers that Oscar is a Manchester United fan. Wants to know where Manchester is. Emma gives quick geography lesson that also includes the locations of the other UK premier league teams.
1950 Dietmar brings out his computer and shows photos of the last five years or so. Boys seem interested and not falling asleep (this is good). Not that excited about travel pics, more interested in cars. Everyone seems happy.
2020 Still looking at pictures. Cigarette #12
2030 Still looking at pictures. Boys feeling fat and slightly glazing over. Emma fetches blankets and discusses sleeping options.
2100 Everyone in their sleeping positions for the night.
2230 Emma gets up to check everyone is ok. Cluck, cluck, cluck. Joel is on the forward deck and the two youngsters are in the cockpit. All is well. It’s really hot in the boat but quite cool outside. Joel is still awake but the other two are comfortably asleep.
2300 Dietmar is dreaming of CESARINA’s unscratched hull, slipping through turquoise waters in the Pacific
Monday 27th March 2017. Gatun Lake, Panama
0200 Emma is woken by a very strange noise. It sounds like a monkey or a cat and it’s very close. Dietmar is still sound asleep. She puts on her dressing gown (inside out, as it transpires) and goes to investigate. She steps over Oscar in the cockpit and frightens him nearly to death. Oscar’s fright wakes Tomas, who is equally terrified at the sight and jumps up. Nonetheless, the noise continues and seems to be coming from the foredeck. With trepidation, she ventures forward and discovers Joel, still awake, with his headphones on, singing along to the music à la Julia Roberts in the bathtub in Pretty Woman. Emma touches him on the arm and he really jumps. And stops ‘singing.’
0210 Everyone is quiet. We need to be up in four hours’ time… Sweet Dreams…