November 07, 2010
While the volume of commercial shipping traffic through the Panama Canal is probably fairly constant all year, the same cannot be said for private yachts. Most transits from the Caribbean to the Pacific occur between December and March as cruisers prepare for passages into the South Pacific at the end of the cyclone season. Fewer and less-seasonal transits are made in the other direction but anyone planning to sail north into the Caribbean after the hurricane season ends there will likely pass through during November. Such was the case for our Canadian friends, Tom, Kim, Dorian, and Lauren on the 66 ft sailing boat, Tuwawi who were heading from the Sea of Cortez to the British Virgin Islands.
After enjoying our own transit, we had been hoping for an opportunity to be line-handlers on someone else’s boat going towards the Caribbean but we had not heard of any requests for assistance. Tom and Kim had arranged for Greg, Deborah, and the Sea Parents family to help them (Tuwawi had plenty of room for everyone) with the intended day of transit being Tuesday (November 2nd). However, when their actual transit date was set for the following day, Troy and Brady could not go because Troy’s sister was flying-in for two weeks’ of vacation and she might not have been amused had no one been available to meet her. So at the last minute, we were happy to be substitutes despite the early start at 5 am.
Not only were we looking forward to a transit where we did not have to worry about the safely of our own boat but we were curious to see the spacious accommodations aboard such an impressive and fast yacht as Tuwawi. We were also glad to have the opportunity to get to know Deborah who had just joined Greg as highly anticipated “crew”. There was an element of high-schoolish teasing and curiosity throughout the anchorage prior to Deborah’s arrival, stimulated by Greg’s infectious excitement about the prospect of being joined by someone with good crewing experience with whom he had enjoyed many weeks of Skype and email interaction. Raised in the USA, Deborah had lived in Britain for 30 years so I particularly looked forward to meeting someone with almost a mirror-image life-story to my own in terms of national allegiances. We were all thrilled to find that all our high expectations were fulfilled and Deborah withstood the scrutiny and bluster of the inquisitive crowd at her first Pizza Night with confident grace and charm.
Unfortunately, the dock-side disco that pounded out its tunes for most of the post Pizza-Night, pre-Panamanian-Independence-Day night, kept awaking Greg and Deborah into the early hours so that by 5 am when Tuwawi called us on the VHF with our embarkation instructions there were no signs of life on Sweet Dreams. The plan was for us to all go ashore in Greg’s dinghy where Tom would pick us up in his dinghy before cruising Tuwawi out to meet the pilot at 5:30 am. Despite repeated call on the radio and much flashing of lights from Tregoning onto Sweet Dreams there was no response. So a remarkably unruffled Tom came to pick us up and we roused Greg (who had accidentally turned off his alarm during the disturbed night), telling him to be ready at the dock as soon as possible. Randall took Tom’s dinghy to the dock while we raised Tuwawi’s anchor and motored her as close as possible in preparation to bolt as soon as everyone, and Tom’s dinghy were aboard. This revised plan unfolded smoothly and with me on the Tuwawi’s bow to look out for moorings, unlit fishing boats, and breakwaters in the dark, we got to experience Tom’s focused but calm Captaincy and the boat’s impressive speed under power.
Having being measured as over 65 ft in length, Tuwawi was required to carry a ship’s pilot for the transit not one of the advisors as we had been assigned. Used to taking the control of the large commercial ships, these pilots may only work aboard a yacht once or twice a year and we noticed a rather less sociable and more business-focused attitude than we had previously experienced. Even though Tom had been required to pay $160 extra to rent an AIS (automatic identification system) transmitter for the transit, the pilot did not bring one which seemed a bit annoying given that it was unlikely that Tom would be offered a refund. Other than this, and despite being a few minutes late in our rendezvous with the pilot boat, all seemed to go well in our approach to the Miraflores especially for Randall who was enjoying being at the helm of such a large, powerful boat.
During our final approach to the locks we were sandwiched between the huge container ship, Lisbon Trader, with which we would share all of our lock chambers passages and a massive oil tanker that was waiting behind us to enter the adjacent chamber. There is something rather exhilarating about being in such close proximity to these large ocean-going vessels as they are being confined from the freedom of the open sea into the straightjacket of the locks.
We were the third and final boat to follow the container ship into the chamber, with a tug being tied to the lock wall, a small Panamanian Navy boat P207, also called 28 de Noviembre (the date of independence from Spain), tied to the tug, and Tuwawi tied to the Navy boat. In each of the three up-locks (two at Miraflores and one at Pedro Miguel), Tom’s expert helmsmanship slid us perfectly next to P207 such that we could just pass our lines to the waiting naval crew without so much as a toss. Bow and stern lines were attached directly from our boat to theirs and a pair of spring lines from the front of one boat to the stern of the other stopped us from surging backwards or forwards in the lock’s current or wake of the container ship.
As we passed from one chamber to another we had to quickly untie from our neighbor, and they from the tug. We moved forward as slowly as possible so that the tug had time to reposition itself on the wall in the next chamber and P207 could be secured to the tug before we arrived to complete the trio. With sunny weather and everything going so smoothly we were optimistic that it would be a short, cheerful transit and that we would be back on Tregoning that evening.
The tug left us as soon as we arrived in Gatun Lake but Tom moved Tuwawi along at a good pace so that we were not far behind the Navy boat by the time we approached the Gatun, down-locks. We saw the container ship we had followed but were disappointed to see that it was anchored and not moving forward into the locks. The pilot had warned us that we might not make a direct transit and he was correct. Instead we had to tie up on a mooring next to P207 and wait. And wait we did…for about 10 hours. Our pilot left us as soon as we moored and in the absence of anyone appearing intent on enforcing the rules, some of our crew jumped into the lake for a swim. We also played a painfully long, endurance game of Mexican-train dominoes.
Finally, around 9 pm we were given another pilot and we were permitted to slowly approach the locks and take our place in the confusing procession of lights scattered over the dark lake. This time the Navy boat was tied to the chamber wall with us alongside and the container ship was behind us. Although the locks were flood-lit, with few points of reference visible outside the locks it was not easy to judge the increasing speed of the cross-wind. Everything continued smoothly in the first two chambers but with the wind and strong forward current, it was becoming increasingly difficult to stop the stern of Tuwawi from swinging around a little between each chamber, causing her to move forward at an angle of almost 45 degrees to the lock walls instead of completely parallel.
Tom was able to cope with this expertly until the very last chamber into which we entered a little too fast. This alone would have been manageable but as we approached it became obvious that the Navy boat had tied up too far forward on the wall and had been instructed to move back. Thus, it was still moving and getting lines tied to the wall, with a propeller wash pushing Tuwawi further off a straight line, as we started to come alongside. Seeing that our stern was going to be much further away from P207 than before, I hurriedly gave my huge dock line to Randall (as we had previously planned) knowing that he had a much better chance of throwing it than I did. As Tom tried to position Tuwawi alongside P207 and the bow line was passed across, the wind caught the stern and quickly swung it further away. Randall made two heroic efforts to throw the heavy mooring line but he had no chance of success throwing into the wind. With Tuwawi held at the bow, suddenly the stern was almost at right-angles across the chamber desperately close to hitting the far wall.
The blinding clarity of hind-sight suggested that we should either have had another lighter line ready should such a long throw be needed, or we should have run the stern line up to the bow and had teams on both boats use brute strength to walk the line back to the stern while pulling it shorter. Instead, the alert crew on P207 threw us a small line of theirs which had a large monkey fist on it. Randall caught the first throw but could not get the line onto the rail or our larger line before he had to let go. Tom was trying everything he could with the engine to keep Tuwawi from swinging further around onto the lock gates just ahead of us but he had no room to maneuver. Dorian and Kim raced around with large fenders, bracing themselves to try to pad the boat’s inevitable impact with the far chamber wall or lock gate. The pilot had little to contribute as the action was rapidly unfolding except to respond to the pilot on the container ship who was asking whether they should stop proceeding towards us into the chamber.
Finally, a second throw of the monkey fist reached amidships on Tuwawi and we got it tied to the stern line which gave the navy crew enough line at their end to haul on. In the melee, it turned out that the stern line was now being pulled over the safety rail which might, or might not be able to take the strain but that had to become a secondary concern. As it was, the marvelous naval tug-of-war team, despite having to pull on a frighteningly thin line (the one with the monkey fist) managed to pull Tuwawi’s stern back towards them. In mid-pull, Randall and Tom were able to flip the heavy mooring line over the correct side of the safety rail, so even it was saved from damage and eventually we were tied alongside P207 and our final stage of descent could proceed.
Needless to say, everyone had been awash with adrenalin and the few electrifying minutes of action had thoroughly awoken us. despite how long the day had already seemed. I was not completely useless in all the excitement, getting down below the hauling men to tie and retie lines on the stern cleat as needed and passing along commands and requests from Tom and Randall. Tom did not hang around once the final gates were open and our lines cast off but after many heartfelt cries of thanks to the crew of P207, he motored us briskly away from the canal and out into the anchorage at The Flats in Colon harbor.
It was close to mid-night when he was finally satisfied that the anchor was holding and that we were not in jeopardy of swinging too close to anyone else. By this time the drama of the final chamber had been thoroughly reviewed and the disturbing proximity of sustaining serious damage by hitting the lock gates had been fully absorbed. Once the event had been sufficiently analyzed, it did not take long for most of us to fall into a sound and exhausted sleep
The next morning, Tuwawi pulled into Shelter Bay marina to unload the tires and return the mooring lines. As we approached the face-dock we noticed P207 nearby and gave the crew a hearty greeting and more thanks. After bidding Tom, Kim, Dorian, and Lauren good luck with their passage to the BVIs, Greg, Deborah, Randall, and I waited for the afternoon marina bus to take us to into Colon and we were quickly able to get a bus back to Panama City. It was late afternoon by the time we returned to the anchorage but we were relieved to find that all was well on our own boats after the unexpectedly long absence. And there is nothing quite like the feeling of appreciation that one’s own boat is safe after witnessing a near-disaster on someone else’s.