Friday 5th Febuary
We motor off the dock and weave our way through the anchored cargo ships and tankers to the ‘Flats’, the small ships anchorage. Here we wait in slight trepidation for our advisor to join us aboard and guide us through the first part of the Panama Canal, Gatun locks.
The Canal has three phases. From the Caribbean side you pass firstly through the three stage Gatum locks and into the large man-made Gatum lake, the channel runs for about 12nm across the lake before it narrows and follows the canal for another 14nm to the final set of locks. The Pedro Miguel lock joined by the small Miraflores lake and two stage Miraflores locks which lead into the Paciffic. The Canal traffic has to be a finely choreographed to allow the flow of the huge lumbering ships that need to pass through each day. There is not only the two lock systems that are one way but a part of the canal itself that is too narrow for ships to pass. Everything is perfectly timed to enable the maximum transits. To be able to get from one end to the other in one day a vessel needs to be able to maintain a speed of ten knots, too fast for the smaller vessels, so they stay moored in the lake overnight.
We are informed that for the duration of the transit we will not be known as Raya. There are so many boat names, in so many languages, to make it easier on the radio and for the controllers, each boat gets a code name. We are S30EA, the S indicates we are southbound through the Canal. All traffic is numbered each day in the order they first enter the Canal, southbound boats are given even numbers and northbound boats odds. As the fifteenth southbound boat through we are number 30. The E is our position within the lock and A indicates that we will spend one night within the system. South thirty echo alpha is to become a familiar phrase over the next two days.
Our advisor arrives at 5.15pm, much younger and more casual than expected, he smiles and gets us going. We are to follow a 538ft long and 78ft wide container ship – Ditlev Reefer, piled high with refrigerated containers. We shall be sharing the lock with him and also two smaller yachts, which will tie up either side of us to form a three yacht raft. As we shall be in the middle the tricky job of handling the long lines that keep us central in the lock will be done by the two outside yachts, which is a relief but also slightly annoying as we now don’t really need the long lines we have prepared or the line handler we have hired.
As we approach the first lock it is beginning to get dark, strong lights show the way. Rafting to the other two boats is relatively easy but feels very odd to Rick at the helm as he guides the three boats into position in the lock. We are dwarfed by the tall ship that looms above us.
The large gates clank shut heavily from behind, they are made of dark, riveted steel, Rick names them the Gates of Mordor. A ripple of excitement runs through the three yachts, cameras click, we all gasp in awe and wonder as millions of gallons of water start to fill the chamber lifting us the ten metres required to enter the middle lock. The process is repeated a second and then a third time until an hour and a half later we are finally 30m higher and can look back to, far below, the Carribbean sea. We enter the man-made Gatum lake and moor up to a large bouy, unload our advisor and settled down for the night.
The lake was flooded when the Canal was first created at the beginning of the last century, by damming the Chagres river. The hill tops, now islands, having been isolated for over a hundred years and have become an incredible haven for wild life. The guide books tell us they are home to amongst many other things monkeys, sloths, toucans and crocodiles. We are informed we should not leave the boat for a swim, advice we decide is worth taking.
At 9.30 the next morning are next advisor joins us, another young guy with perfect English. We are told they are Canal staff that volunteer for overtime to go through with the small yachts as they enjoy the excitement and varying nationalities of the crews. Edward is a tug boat captain, hoping to one day be a pilot guiding the large ships through and is very well informed.
It takes us five hours to motor the 30nm through the lake and canal to the final locks. We keep our eyes peeled for wild life and are rewarded by sighting three crocodiles, two small ones sun bathing, mouths scarily wide open and one larger specimen swimming closer to the banks. Apparently we are very lucky, most transits never see any sign of them. The lake turns from blue, to bright green, to brown as we approach the feed from the river which dumps tons of silt into the lake each day, creating the need for a very comprehensive dredging programme. Situated here, in this industrial but isolated position, is the high security facility that holds high profile prisoners including the ex-dictator of Panama, Maneul Noriega.
We vary our speed, allowing us to arrive at the Pedro Meguel lock for our allotted 4pm slot. Enroute we are passed by two huge tankers and one container ship. When at sea we think it’s a close shave if we come within a nautical mile of one of these monsters, even in the busy Southampton Waters it is rare to be quite this close, we could almost reach out and touch them.
For this lock we are tied alongside two pleasure craft full of tourists, a lot of them were English and American and seemed to be as fascinated by us as they were by the locks. We are followed in from behind this time by the 550ft long Chemical tanker Concept. The current locks are 110ft wide, the concept is 105ft wide that leaves just a couple of feet spare each side. They are guided through by locomotives that run on tracks either side of the locks and attach to the ships with cables, the drivers, guided by the pilot onboard slowly tighten and slacken these cables to inch the vessels into position. The widest boats we saw were 108ft wide just 2ft less than the locks!
It is then a quick motor through the small Milafores lake to the final two locks, again we are tied up to the pleasure boats and followed in by the Concept. But as we enter the second and last lock there is a fast current caused by the mixing of the fresh water behind us and the sea water of the Pacific in front of us. Docking with the pleasure vessel proves very difficult but with the team work of both crews and the advisor we finally get attached. We watch as the water level drops down the sides of the enormous walls for the final 10m, the gates begin to open and there we are approaching the Pacific.
As we congratulate each other, another big step completed, it all still feels unreal that we are actually doing this. I look back at us sitting on the terrace at Ongley planning each stage and amaze that we are slowly but surely ticking each of them off.