We were not surprised when the pilot arrived later than we were told. From what we read and talking with Dave, we knew it was not unusual for the pilot to be a few hours late. We did worry about him arriving after 10:00 AM because that usually meant you had to anchor in Gatun Lake, half way through, and that would mean we would be unable to make the complete crossing in one day. Nevertheless, we were all up and prepared at 7:45 AM. I made sandwiches ahead so we’d have something to eat when we reached Gatun Lake figuring we could be pretty tired after the first set of lock and wouldn’t feel like making them then. The frig was loaded with cokes for the canal line handlers and we were ready.
Our pilot didn’t arrive until 9:00 AM. Prior to that, we had fun watching the Balboa fuel dock with our binoculars predicting which guy would be our pilot. Anyone that came on the dock with a briefcase was surely him but they all got on a launch and headed in other directions. About 9:00, a pilot boat pulled up along side of us and “Ernie” our pilot jumped aboard. He was a small clean cut Panamanian. Spoke good English and very polite. We were glad to have him aboard.
We offered him some coffee and we waited until he got word for us to proceed. He told us that he thought we would be going through with another powerboat somewhat larger than us. He asked if we might know the boat, its name was “Lucky Sperm”. We all burst out laughing. This was a powerboat that we had seen in Los Suenos and Larry and I clearly remembered it because of the name. Its hailing port was Climax, PA. I’m not sure if Ernie picked up on what we were laughing at but we said we knew the boat.
It wasn’t long before “Lucky Sperm” who had been one of the fortunate boats that had dock space at Flamenco Yacht Club was coming down the buoy marked canal channel. They waved as they went by and we followed them down the channel. They had quite a few people on the boat and apparently a few Panamanian line handlers.
We passed under the Bridge of the Americas, which connected the Pan American HWY from Panama north to Panama south. Our picture of that significant moment now included a shot of a boat called “Lucky Sperm”. Our emotions were building as we could see the entrance to the canal locks. Ernie was very calm and gave us clear instructions on how we would be tied in the lock. He made sure we had fenders and lines on the correct side and checked our ties. He told us what it would be like inside and when to move in. “Lucky Sperm” wasn’t so lucky this time. He went in first and he drew the unlucky position of being against the WALL.
Dave had given us all stations and mine was the portside stern. Margie and Richard had the bow and Dave handled the spring lines. It didn’t look like we were going to use the huge rental lines, at least for this side of the canal. We took our regular docking lines and threaded them through the hawse hole with the eye out so we could control the lines from our side. This would mean that “Lucky Sperm”would hook our line eyes on to their cleats and then we would be responsible to pull our boat up tight to them and hold it there.
The first go around was a little nerve wracking as both boats were thrusting their bow thrusters like bulls in a pen before the rodeo, and there was a lot of yelling. Richard had the bow pulled so tight that I couldn’t pull the stern in flush with the other boat so I had to keep adjusting it every time I got an extra inch but all went fine. The captain, a really nice guy, on “Lucky Sperm”, asked Larry to help pull him off the wall by helping with the bow thrusters which Larry did. We all started working like a team, both boats. All went well and people were calming down through the first lock.
I didn’t have a great view of everything because I was in the back and was watching my station, but before you knew it the water was filling up in the lock and the tall walls were becoming shorter and shorter until I had clear view above them. Then the excitement started all over again. Our next job was to loosen the lines so the line handlers on the other boat could release our lines from their cleats. The Panamanian line handler that I dealt with at the stern on “Lucky Sperm” was getting a little nervous and was yelling at me to move my last fender to a different spot. I finally told him he was not my captain and I wasn’t about to move my fenders. We had no problems and the fenders were fine but he was very nervous. Once they released the eyes from their cleats, we on Knotty Dog quickly pulled our lines in. I’m not sure if this was done before our after “Lucky Sperm” was cut loose from the wall. Then Ernie would instruct Larry to quickly move away and go forward into the next lock. There are some strong currents as the water rushes from one lock to another so Larry had to keep the boat moving to keep it from getting torked by the strong current.
This whole process was repeated two more times as we had a total of three locks to go through on the Pacific side. Each time it got easier. The second time the bow was tied less tight and I could get the stern parallel with “Lucky Sperm”. The third time was even better. People calmed down and smiles came back on people’s faces. It was not as hard as everyone had thought. In fact I think going through the locks in Seattle was more stressful overall. We were very prepared because Dave pretty much did a great job explaining every possible scenario and Ernie was doing a great job with Larry. On the third lock the canal staff did a switch on us and decided to put “Lucky Sperm” on the other side of the wall of the lock.
CLICK ON ANY PHOTO TO ENLARGE
This meant that as we traversed into the back part of the last lock we all had to change line locations, fenders, and tires to the other side of the boat. It was a mad scramble and we’re not sure why the canal did this but we all did as instructed. As we were all getting pretty good at this, people relaxed and the owners and captain on Lucky Sperm were chit chatting with us. They told us that the owner was going to fly out of Colon back to San Francisco because they weren’t willing to go out in the 12’ seas that were going on in the Caribbean.
We had also been watching the weather reports and were very concerned about the condition. “Uno Mas”, another Nordhavn, several days ahead of us, said it was awful. They said they had some really bad conditions heading out to Isla San Andres and had to divert to San Blas Islands for several days. The captain of “Lucky Sperm” said he was going to go back through the canal after he dropped the owners off because he wanted nothing to do with the 12’ seas in the Caribbean.
As we got up to the lake level which brought us up almost 85 feet or so from sea level we heard from Ernie that “Lucky Sperm” was going to race across the lake to see if he could get an earlier start on the locks on the Atlantic side.
We just took our time and kept to the planned schedule. As we entered Gatun Lake, I got out sandwiches and drinks. We had about 3 hours to eat, rest and watch the scenery as we slowly crossed what once was the largest manmade lake ever built until the US built Lake Powell. We would cross this lake and the Continental Divide and soon have a view of the Atlantic Ocean. We could see the mountainsides that were cut away by hand and newly invented excavators in the early 20th century. We saw the new mega bridge that they were building which will be another amazing landmark. We admired the beautiful yellow flowering trees as we passed the nubs of hills that we once towering hills until they were reduced in size as man filled this area with water from the Chagres River. The water was fairly muddy and we passed a dredger that is working on the canal’s latest project, dredging to make the canal deeper. It was amazing to imagine the huge undertaking it was to construct this passage that linked two oceans and literally changed the course of boat travel and balance of power of countries. I also thought of the thousands of people (at a minimum of 22,000) that lost their lives to malaria, yellow fever, snakebites, and land slides, to make this happen. It was an enormous, costly, dangerous, impossible feat to build this canal. The idea of linking one ocean to the next was mind-boggling and here we were traversing this wonder in our Knotty Dog.
As we reached the locks at the other side we had about 45 minutes to wait. We picked up a large mooring ball and tied to that for a while rather than anchor in the 60 plus deep water. On shore were the remnants of buildings built around the early 1900’s from the early canal construction. One of the buildings was the now defunct Gatun Lake Yacht Club. Ernie was telling us that on the last lock on the Pacific side there is another old yacht club that some cruisers stay at for months. They start through the canal and end up staying there. It’s kind of a no man’s land in the middle of now where. I imagine it’s about a half hour taxi to Panama City and a cheap place to hang out. Some cruisers that head south just seem to drop out different places. We’ve met them all the way down. It’s kind of strange how they just kind of fade out of the life stream.
It was time to head through the final set of locks. Though “Lucky Sperm” got here before us, he would be going through the same time but in the lock next door. This time we would be going through with a tug. That was good news according to Dave. We watched as the tug, our new partner, pushed a huge bright red freighter called “Panama Adventure” up to the side of the lock so it could get hooked up to the strong train cars that pull the freighters through the locks. After this was done, we were instructed by Ernie to rush ahead and squeeze in front of the freighter and wait for the tug to come into the lock ahead of us. The tug came by and tied up to the wall and then we were instructed to pull along side. Prior to this, Ernie had us, power by the tug to see the sides of the tug so we could readjust our fenders to fit the tug better. Having done this, and are lines ready we pulled along side. We now had two tug boat line operators to throw our lines too. It was pretty much the same procedure. Finally, the bow wasn’t being tied too tight and I was able to get the stern pulled back tight and the boat more parallel to the tug.
Once secured, it was the same procedure, but this time instead of waiting for the lock to fill, it was waiting for it to empty and lower us to the next. Dave came out with a hand full of cold cokes to give to the tugboat guys.
They were thrilled to have the cold drinks and soon we were chatting a little.
It was pretty much old hand now as we went from one lock to the next. We were all pretty relaxed and the tug guys and I were talking up a storm. They were showing me their family photos in their wallets and gave us a watermelon. I gave them a couple leftover sandwiches that we didn’t eat and some Ghirardelli chocolate for their kids. They were great guys and seemed to love their work. They had a fascinating way of tying their lines so that they didn’t have to handle the lines on the wall side. They would wrap their lines around a big drum, a calculated amount of times, and as the boat went down, the tension was perfectly designed to slowly released itself without them having to readjust it every few moments. It was fascinating.
From these locks, we had a fabulous view of the Atlantic and a huge freighter going out the long channel to the sea. It was almost surreal. The winds were blasting up the channel though and we knew we were not heading into a calm situation. We looked over into the other lock when we entered the lock. We were at the top level and I could see “Lucky Sperm's” satellite dome as he was slowly was lowered into the lock and it was no longer visible. He may be ahead in line we were still head to head.
As we reached sea level, we said goodbyes to our tugboat companions. “Lucky Sperm” was lucky again and got released before us. We could seem him head out the channel in front of us. Larry said this would probably mean he would get the last space free at the fuel dock at the Panama Yacht Club in Colon. Larry had called the yacht club earlier and there were no free dock spaces but Roger, the mgr, said we could tie up to the fuel dock if it was open when we got in.
We had to come into the yacht club anyway to drop off our tires and lines. Tina had a taxi driver, name “Dracula” waiting there to bring them back.
As we expected, the winds were howling and there were white caps in the anchorage. It was late in the day and near dusk. We were all getting anxious because we didn’t want to face anchoring in the dark in these conditions. We had to drop Ernie off first and since the waters were rough he told the pilot boat to pick him up near the anchorage area where the water was calmer. We had to wait about 45 minutes for the pilot boat to pick him up and we couldn’t go into the yacht club until that was done. We thanked Ernie and said our goodbyes. Ernie had another 1 ½ drive back to Panama City where the next day he would start this all over again.
We headed into the small channel past the anchorage to the yacht club and sure enough old Lucky Sperm had the fuel dock. We had to get those lines ashore so we cuddle up next to Lucky Sperm and asked if it was OK to throw them our lines and tires. The captain was a great guy and took all the dirty lines and tires gladly and off we went out to “the flats” to anchor. We picked a large open area between the many boats there and dropped anchor. We got a good hold and settled in for a rough rolly night. The winds blew and the seas were rough. The winds were blowing at 30 knots inside the breakwater.
We had made the canal transit without any problems. It was a happy moment, a moment that we should celebrate with a toast, but it was not as cheerful as we thought it would be. I think it was because there was an undercurrent of crew problems that was troubling all of us but was not spoken. Now on to the Mutiny on Knotty Dog.