Thursday, October 15, 2009

Through the canal!

When you live on Barro Colorado Island, the Panama Canal is a big part of your every day existence. You commute to and from the office through the canal. You work in the canal. You swim in the canal after hot days, and party on a raft in the canal at night.

There are also a number of canal-related activities that you do repeatedly with your visitors like visiting the canal museum and having dinner at the restaurant that overlooks the locks. I've even been down into an emptied out lock while it was under maintenance, crawled back into the tunnels that feed water into the locks, and turned the handle to open a lock and let a ship through. However, until last week, I'd never actually gone through the canal!

Friends from Maine who are sailing to New Zealand invited me to join them on their canal transit as a line handler. Every boat going through the locks is required to have a captain and four line handlers, and they were one person short!

I actually had just gotten back from a week-long workshop in Santa Barbara, but on Monday morning, I got up early and took the bus to Colon. Nothing quite like sitting on an over air conditioned bus for two with an incredibly violent movie about Central American gang members killing one another being played at full blast. I met Gram, Jo, Bill and Zach at Shelter Bay Marina, which is near the old Fort Sherman base.

When I'd seen sail boats transiting the canal in the past, I'd always wondered why people who can afford a sail boat couldn't afford decent bumpers. What was up with all those tires?!?!? Turns out they are the official gear given to you by the Canal Authority (ACP) to use while going through the locks. Guess I shouldn't have been so snotty.
We had to wait a while before our pilot arrived and we could start towards the locks:

Gram, being the responsible individual that he is, worked to get the boat ready while

the rest of us relaxed and looked around at the boats waiting to go through the canal

the containers that have been offloaded and are waiting to go across the isthmus by train

and the impressive lightening storm, followed by gorgeous rainbow!

Then, it was off to the locks when our captain and our lock-mate:

Once we got to the locks, guys threw us ropes which we used to position the boat in the lock so it didn't move around when the water started to rise. Then, up we went. No photos of any of this, as we all had our hands full. I thought it would all seems a little scarier and out of control than it actually did. Up we went, through the three different locks, and out into Lake Gatun, where we had to anchor for the night, on the sketchiest mooring ever:

Gram did some fancy foot work and Bill did some impressive maneuvering to get us tied up to this thing in the pitch dark!

Gram and slept on hammocks up on deck (no mosquitoes!) which was great until the howler monkeys went off at 4:30 a.m. The morning was not very promising:

but it eventually cleared up enough to get to enjoy a bit of Lake Gatun!

Panama is expanding the canal, building a new, larger set of locks big enough for the new post-Panamax ships, and straightening the canal to make it easier to navigate, so there is a lot of construction going on.

This peninsula will soon be gone. . .

This used to be de Lesseps Island. A couple of howler and spider monkeys were stranded out here earlier this year, sitting miserably in a the one remaining tree.

This was the last boat we passed before we got to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks and out into the Pacific

Welcome to the Pacific!

and good luck on your sail to New Zealand!


Wendy said...

Thanks for sharing this. While I've watched it from a bridge, I had never read or heard a first hand account.
Fascinating. I read your research and the article about you. Fascinating.


Anonymous said...

Hi Meg --

Your Mom told me about this. Glad I took a look at it. I've been following your media glory aided by your very proud parents. Good for you!

XO, Susan