THE PANAMA CANAL!!!
OMG we did it! After years of anticipation, knowing that, one day, if we were to complete a circumnavigation, we would either have to go through the Panama Canal or face a long, possibly treacherous sail around Cape Horn….. (that was never on the cards!)
With our trusty crew (line-handlers) of Cathy Stephens, jeweller extraordinaire and her intrepid travel partner David, along with our sailing buddy, John from SV Aeeshah, we had a wonderful, exciting and FUN transit!
Our Canal transit preparations began when we sailed to the Flats anchorage on Sunday 10th January ready for the PCA (Panama Canal Authority) Admeasurer to arrive on Monday 11th January to start the process.
Once we had received our paperwork from the Admeasurer we relocated to the tight, rolly anchorage off Club Nautico next to the cruise ship dock, where we met with our agent, Erick Galvez, to finalise the transit formalities and wait for our date and time. There was no shortage of entertainment with 2 cruise ships in port and the rapid turn around of numerous container ships just across the channel from us.
The anchorage was convenient with a supermarket and shopping mall a few minutes walk away, a fabulous meat, and fresh market a short taxi ride away and readily available fuel and water at the dock next to Club Nautico. Cathy and David arrived early on the Tuesday morning after a fascinating train trip on the historic Panama Railway from Panama City, which was built in 1855! We joined them with their taxi driver for a drive to the market to stock up on fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, then we drove up to Gatun Lake to see where we would be spending the first night of our transit after going through the Gatun locks.
Erick rang us to say that our transit was to be late in the afternoon of Thursday 14th January, so we contacted our 4th line-handler, John, who was at Shelter Bay marina and he joined us Wednesday afternoon so we could all spend a less rolly night at anchor in the The Flats anchorage and wait for our Advisor to join us later on the Thursday afternoon. With Africa in common, John was born in Kenya and Cathy was born in Rhodesia and has been holidaying in Kenya for many years, there was no shortage of stories flying around the cockpit, punctuated by David’s witty jokes and anecdotes.
It was quite late on Thursday afternoon when our advisor arrived, so by the time we reached the first of the 3 Gatun locks, it was getting dark. We were all slightly apprehensive, not knowing exactly what to expect and we were asked to tie up alongside a smaller, sports fishing boat against the lock wall. Eric declined this option, as there was potential for damage by putting a heavy aluminium boat (us) alongside a smaller fibreglass boat, especially with the amount of turbulence that is created as the lock floods. Consequently, we had to wait for the next lock and darkness was falling fast. In fact, it was quite exciting with all the bright lights, however there was considerable turbulence and Cathy and Lynne had to hold tight to their lines until securing them around the winches, slowly taking in the slack as the lock flooded. We had plenty of time to take photos and share them on Facebook between our linehandling duties and it was fun to hear from friends and family who were following us from all around the world! On the second day a few photos popped up in our Facebook feed as Eric’s daughter Nicole and other friends posted screenshots from the Canal webcams!
After a successful run through the first 3 locks, we were guided to pick up a buoy in Gatun Lake for the night and our advisor left us with instructions to be up early ready for the next advisor to join us for the rest of the transit.
We were up with the sun and waited…. and waited…. until eventually our advisor, Roy, was dropped off at around 1030 on Friday 15th January. He advised us that we needed to be at the first of the Pacific locks by 1330, which meant a 30 mile trip in 3 hours! Hmmmm, no bueno bwana!
Roy wasn’t unduly worried and suggested we just get there as fast as we could. Apart from the time constraints for being in the first lock, we had a pleasant 28 mile motor from our overnight mooring in Gatun Lake. The channel wends its way between small islands and occasionally it’s possible to see various birds and animals. Some cruisers have been lucky enough to spot jaguar at the water’s edge on occasion. Part way through I asked Roy about a boat that was moored off one of the islands and he said it was a research boat and the island actually belonged to the Smithsonian Institute and scientific research is continually carried out there.
Other than this, our passage was fairly uneventful. It was fascinating to watch the huge ships passing each other, especially in the narrow Gaillard Cut as they approached the Pacific locks.
We reached the Pacific locks quite late in the afternoon, but still in daylight, so it was much easier for our followers to spot us as we entered the locks and we’re grateful for the screenshot photos posted on Facebook, a couple of which we have shared in this post. Initially we expected to tie up in the centre as we had done in the Gatun locks, but last minute we were advised to tie up alongside a wooden tourist boat at the starboard side of the lock. It was full of German tourists all taking photos and bemused by Chui & Scrumpy running around the deck barking at them all! We soon discovered that the boat we tied up to had once been Al Capone’s rum running boat between Cuba and Florida during prohibition, so it had quite a history attached to it!
By the time we untied from Islamorada for the last time the excitement was palpable as the enormous gates opened to welcome us into the Pacific Ocean, ready for huge tides and a very long passage ahead of us. Roy, our advisor, accompanied us as far as Balboa Yacht Club where we said our goodbyes and a big thank you and we handed our lines and fenders to the tender from the club to be returned to Erick, our agent. What a fantastic experience!
It’s 14 years this year, since we set sail from Australia and our plan is to be back there (or close by) at the end of this year. Could we keep going? For sure, but Eric is ready for some family time before the grandkids grow up too quickly and make him a great grandpa!! Who knows, maybe our course across the Pacific will take a turn towards South East Asia, but the plan for now is New Zealand and ultimately Australia, preferably to deliver Amarula to her new owner there…. 😉 Could that be you?