Hit & run… okay. Someone runs into something, panics, and flees the scene.
But when someone runs into something, parks right back where they were, and goes back to sleep — there’s gotta be a name for that…Hit & Sit? Mark & Park?
Having just completed our first, and probably our only, Panama Canal crossing, we were seriously motivated to do something other than pay to sit on a mooring ball at the edge of the Canal channel.
We could also spend more money in Panama City but we had already done a fair amount of provisioning before leaving Shelter Bay, so we really just needed to move.
Less than forty miles south of Panama City, the Archipelago of Las Perlas had caught our attention.
After arriving at Isla Pacheca, the the larger of the two northern most islands in Las Perlas, we had sat contently at anchor all by ourselves for two days.
The island, inhabited by zero people and thousands of frigates, pelicans, boobies, and cormorants, provided a stunning introduction to the west coast of the Americas. Rocky bluffs, white sandy beaches, ripping current with a bit of swell, and twelve foot tidal exchanges were all part of the new norm.
Confused, choppy and rolling swell interspersed with completely benign conditions shifted back and forth every six hours or so, depending upon the interaction of tides and wind.
A number of local pangas, sport fishing boats, small ferries, and even a mega-twat or two had approached Pacheca, but only following the charted ferry path around nearby shoals. They motored right past, rarely even coming close. Two larger shrimp boats had anchored off the smaller island Pachequilla but that was nearly a mile away.
Late during the second afternoon we had our first neighbor – a steel boat that looked like some sort of small ferry – smaller than the shrimp boats but much bigger than the pangas; bigger than us. It tied up to the only mooring float in view; just upwind from us.
A short time later Kris and I were sitting in the dinghy, which was currently sitting at anchor between Exit and the shore, enjoying happy hour. We had strategically placed ourselves there to be in the middle of what we hoped would be a repeating sunset show — the day before we had seen numerous mobular rays leaping spectacularly out of the water.
As we sipped our gin and tonics, patiently waiting for the rays to reappear, a much smaller, more traditional wooden fishing boat, maybe thirty feet long with a half dozen locals aboard chugged by, a short distance away. The guys on deck offered friendly waves as they passed.
Just as the sun was setting, the boat went by once again, passing between us and the sun in dramatic fashion, eventually stopping upwind of us, a thousand feet or so in front of Exit. They looked to be pretty much right next to the larger ferry tied to the mooring.
Largely unsuccessful in our attempt to crash the leaping ray sunset show, which turned out not to be the regularly scheduled event we had hoped for, we eventually returned to Exit.
Hours later, though the sun had set long ago, the night’s darkness was still being kept at bay both by the illumination from a near full moon overhead as well as two piercing floodlights facing astern on the deck of the larger ferry boat sitting on the mooring in front of us.
There wasn’t more than ten knots of wind. However, during the period of highest tidal exchange, we could see anywhere from one to two knots of current.
At 10pm, Kris was sound asleep and I was sitting at the laptop. A particularly quiet night. The only sound at all was a dull whir from the fan on the wall… specifically switched to the low setting to try to keep from waking up Kris. With all the recent activities and drama, a sound night’s sleep had been hard to come by. It seemed overdue.
No din of noise from a nearby city.
No whining outboard engines from passing boat traffic.
No whistling wind whipping through the rigging.
No waves or swell slapping against the hull.
Just the constant whir of a small fan inside and steady hypnotic rhythmic background rumble of distant surf.
Without any warning, a thunderous, resounding BANG rang out. It was not just nearby. It was resonating through the hull of Exit. We felt it almost as much as we heard it.
A fucking impact. We had just hit something… hard
Kris bolted upright like a catapult, instantly awake and yelled out, “What the fuck?”
I scrambled from the settee reaching for our big torch, not so much answering her question as echoing the same three words, “What the fuck?”
Had we run aground? It sure as hell sounded and felt like it.
The next few moments became mostly a blur.
Clamoring up into the cockpit, I looked to the left and saw what appeared to be a wooden boat alongside of us facing the same direction as us, but moving backwards.
“What the fuck?” I continued to asked frantically, trying to put the pieces together.
Only a few feet away, I could make out more and more details as the boat alongside us slid further and further astern, almost sheering off the solar panel which extended horizontally from our stern railing as it drifted backwards. I could only imagine what I was hearing from the other boat was the Spanish equivalent of “What the fuck?”
It quickly became apparent that my initial fear that we had either dragged or swung erratically into the nearby rocks was not quite accurate.
There had most certainly been an impact; only something had hit us.
The other boat’s engine fired up with a cough, and its reverse momentum slowly stopped. As it began to pull forward, about twenty feet off our starboard side, loud conversation continued among the crew.
I went forward to the bow and tried to make a quick damage assessment. We still had absolutely no idea where we had been struck, exactly what had happened, or if we were damaged.
As much as I looked, all I could see was what appeared to be a small scuff, not longer than six inches, approximately halfway between the bow roller and waterline, just slightly to starboard from dead on to our bow. In fact, it looked more like a tiny spot where paint had been deposited on our aluminum hull rather than a scratch that actually took something off.
The boat next to us seemed to be the same smaller wooden fishing boat that had anchored in front of us earlier. The faces aboard appeared just as startled, confused , and sleepy as ours.
There didn’t appear to be any sense of malice or anger. Just an equal lack of comprehension.
I still couldn’t locate any point on our boat that matched the intensity of the collision sound we heard inside Exit. Even with a wooden boat on the other end, it would seem we should have more visible evidence of the impact we experienced.
Certainly more than what amounted to a paint scuff.
Best I could guess at that point was that the brunt of the impact from the fishing boat must have been taken on our anchor chain hanging down, right under the bow roller. It would help to explain why we could only find a tiny scuff on our hull. Yet, my recollection was the sound of them hitting us seemed well more solid and resonated far more deeply than one would expect from an impact with our anchor chain.
Slowly, the wooden fishing boat crept forward, its outboard chugging away as it angled around in front of our bow.
Only one floodlight was now illuminated on the steel ferry still tied off to the mooring, but it was enough to confirm the boat lit up between us was definitely the same boat that had anchored a thousand feet in front of us just before sunset.
The same flood light we could see them with should have made us easily visible to anyone else, as well. That, and our mast light… and lights on inside the salon. Unless they hadn’t been looking. Which would be the case if they were all asleep.
Eventually it became apparent that the wooden fishing boat which had just collided with us was resetting their anchor in just about the same spot it had been before. Pretty soon it shut off its engine and all was quiet again.
Whatever damage they had incurred, they didn’t seem to be sinking.
As far as we could tell, we were just the victims of a Hit and Sit accident [rim shot here].
With our heart rates eventually slowing and our adrenaline levels beginning to drop, amazingly after some time we were finally able to drift back to sleep.
By first light the steel ferry was gone. The wooden fishing boat was gone as well. They must have left just before sunrise.
The light of a new day allowed us a closer inspection of Exit, which revealed a previously unseen second point of impact on our hull – at the top edge of the toe rail, directly above the first mark we found. However, it too was nothing more than a paint scuff.
Ultimately, we pieced together a storyline which seemed to represent the most likely sequence of events that took place the previous night.
During the wee hours of the morning with everyone on the wooden fishing boat sound asleep, a ripping current brought on by the changing tide probably caused them to start dragging, which nobody realized. They would have drifted straight down onto us, more than likely broadside in the current. Based upon the height and color of the scuffs on Exit, it must have been the prow of their boat that struck us, causing their boat to spin around and drift backward alongside us.
The impact they felt on their boat must have been even more jarring than what we experienced. What only later occurred to us, was that their perspective, as they first looked out still half asleep, would have been of us alongside them appearing to move forward instead of them drifting backwards. They would have initially thought they were still stationary at anchor and had just been sideswiped by a moving boat – us. After they had started their engine and were moving, the discussion we heard must actually have been them sorting that fact out amongst themselves.
It could have gone much worse.
In retrospect, the initial confusion on both sides may actually have helped to freeze the moment with mutual indecision, effectively defusing a situation that could have become quite volatile.
In the end, there appeared to be more confusion than damage.
No blood, no foul.
The guy in charge of setting the anchor on the fishing boat would probably be getting shit for quite some time.
Following a fitful and rather unsettled night’s sleep tied up to one of the big mooring balls in Gatun Lake, we were ready to depart as soon as Victor and the other boats’ advisors arrived on the pilot boat.
Not only had we been tied alongside the mooring instead of swinging from a line attached to it, we had also shared the ball with the catamaran S/V Second Set. For some reason, the combination had resulted in us orienting beam on to the upwind side and being pushed against the mooring ball all night while chop generated from the wind slapped loudly against the side of the hull. Not very conducive to a good night sleep.
After sorting through the near disaster of losing half our required line handlers only hours before our scheduled commencement of the crossing, day one of our Panama Canal transit had gone without a hitch once we were actually out of Shelter Bay Marina. Gatun Lake was only ten miles into the forty four mile journey, less than a quarter of the total distance we had to travel to reach the Pacific Ocean, but we now had the experience and understood the process of rafting up the boats together as well as the procedures for actually going through the locks.
Today would bring us all the way to the other side of the continent and the shores of a new ocean.
Our first time in the Pacific aboard Exit. Her first time in the Pacific, ever.
The three chambers of Gatun Locks which we had passed through on day one had raised the boats eighty four feet from the elevation of the Atlantic to Gatun Lake. The lake, created during the Panama Canal’s original construction by damming the Chagres River, is huge, although only a thousand foot wide marked channel cutting through it is used by all the vessels transiting the Canal.
The schedule on day two required motoring four to five hours to reach the other locks. The expanse of Gatun Lake would slowly begin to constrict until both directions of boat traffic would be passing through a section of the Canal not more than six to seven hundred feet wide.
Technically, the passage is still part of the Rio Chagres, In places along the Canal, the banks look similar to the same uninhabited and pristine river we had anchored in previously. Other areas along the way look more like the shore of an industrial canal you would expect.
Upon reaching Pedro Miguel Lock, we would once again have to raft up with the other two sailboats and proceed through the single lock. However, on this side, we would be positioned in front of the cargo ship sharing the chamber with us which made it imperative that we arrive ahead of the cargo ship… they would not wait. Once through the lock, the three boats would remain rafted together during the one mile stretch separating Pedro Miguel Lock from the two chambers of Miraflores Locks, which lower the boats back down to sea level.
Once through the final pair of locks at Miraflores, only a couple of miles remain before passing under the Bridge of the Americas, a suspension bridge which, for us, will serve as an impressive landmark heralding the prodigious achievement of having arrived at the Pacific Ocean.
Strangely, a quite different achievement of note occurred right at the onset of our second day in the Panama Canal. It came and went completely unnoticed… eleven thousand nautical miles travelled aboard S/V Exit.
With so much going on just before we left Shelter Bay Marina, especially the chaos on the morning of our departure, I had failed to notice we were starting our transit only seventeen miles shy of the 11K milestone.
The morning sun was just starting to peak over the trees as we got underway shortly after 6am on day two. We were motoring at about 500 rpms higher than we typically run our Perkins engine. With around thirty miles to Pedro Miguel Lock, we needed to make good time to assure we arrived well before the ship that would be directly behind us inside the lock. Once we got there, we would need enough time to get the three sailboats rafted together again as well.
We had the benefit of one knot of current in our favor, so after an hour we were happy to have made good on over seven miles. All was good. The engine temperature gauge was indicating we were running just a little bit hot, but everything seemed fine.
Though it didn’t register at the time, it must have been almost that exact moment that we surpassed eleven thousand nautical miles.
However, no bells and party whistles sounded to commemorate the event.
Instead, it was the grating and panic inducing sound of a harsh, loud buzzer. It pierced through the droning noise of the diesel engine, causing everyone to freeze and look questioningly at the helms person… me.
One of the alarms on the Perkins instrument panel.
Kris looked at the panel and indicated it was the oil pressure alarm.
As Kris scrambled behind the wheel, I climbed below and removed the companionway steps, exposing the engine. We shut the engine off to make sure it didn’t burn up completely if there was, in fact, no oil pressure. A cursory inspection revealed that no engine oil appeared to be leaking and the level on the dipstick read full.
Good, but confusing.
We didn’t even have a spare oil pump aboard – which on one hand made sense because that would be a pretty unlikely part to fail; yet, on the other hand, made me nervous because it seems to almost always be the part you don’t have a spare for that does fail.
Regardless, something needed to be done now.
We were still barely drifting forward under momentum; any slower and we would lose steering control. We were also still in the channel. There were not a lot of options.
Panama Canal Authority regulations absolutely prohibit using sails while underway, under threat of heavy fines. Given an emergency situation, that might be arguable. However, it was a moot point since, at the moment, there was no wind at all.
We needed to get to the nearest marker buoy, which we could temporarily tie up to, so a next step could be determined. It was less than a thousand feet away, but we would never coast that far and the current which had previously assisted us now appeared to be gone as well. Getting the dinghy down off the davit to help tow us would take too long.
There seemed like only one option.
I started the Perkins. The oil pressure light lit up and the alarm buzzer immediately began whining.
Kris carefully eased Exit into gear and started us moving forward at just over idle speed. We arrived at the marker buoy in less than two minutes and shut down the engine as soon as we were tied on. The damn alarm buzzer went silent with the turn of the key.
Where we sat now, the outlook was grim.
If we could not get underway, the entire rest of the crossing would be cancelled and we’d be screwed. The advisor and line handlers would be picked up by a pilot boat, probably at no small expense. Exit would have to be towed out, probably at no small expense. And we wouldn’t be towed the remaining thirty miles to the Pacific side of the Canal; it would be the shorter route back to Colon, right where we started. There could be fines imposed for our infractions. We’d have to start the whole transit process over. Certainly another two grand. Not to mention, back in the marina… again. Sorting another repair.
A total calamity.
After about ten minutes, I still couldn’t find anything out of sorts anywhere on the engine. The temperature gauge was reading hot by about twenty degrees Fahrenheit and the expansion tank for the coolant was full but that was it. Nothing at all that I could see would be triggering an oil pressure alarm. I had also noticed that, even after we restarted the engine and motored for the short period, there were no noises coming from the engine that would hint at any lubrication problems. Nothing at all.
Even with my limited diesel mechanic experience, I felt certain the alarm had been sounding long enough that, had there truly been no oil pressure, I would have noticed some kind of change in sound with the engine running. I couldn’t be sure, but it started to feel more like a sensor issue to me, possibly triggered by the higher operating temperature.
If we stopped here and it turned out only to be a bad sensor, it will have cost us thousands of dollars. If I was wrong and we kept going, the engine would burn up and eventually seize completely, end of story. Add at least ten thousand dollars more onto the previous equation.
Victor heard me out and then politely reminded me of the distinction in title between “Captain”versus “Advisor”.
Your boat, your decision.
I took a deep breath, clenched my teeth, turned the key and pushed the start button. The Perkins fired right up.
The oil pressure buzzer was silent.
The oil pressure light remained off.
The temperature gauge indicated a drop of ten degrees.
I monitored the engine for a few minutes more and nothing changed. The temperature was returning to normal. Everything was running just fine. Five more minutes and I started to feel more confident.
We untied from the marker buoy, and started moving again. Towards the Pacific.
Ten minutes later it was as though the alarm had never triggered at all. We maintained five knots while running the engine at no higher than two thousand rpms, just to be sure. During the rest of our transit, thankfully the Perkins ran perfectly.
This was now our second near emergency barely avoided in Gatun Lake in only twenty four hours… holy shit.
As we continued our forward progress and persisting thoughts of recurring Perkins problems slowly drifted further and further into the back recesses of my mind, the expanse of Gatun Lake gradually gave way to scattered mangrove islets which slowly closed in around us. Eventually the network of mangroves surrounding the channel gave way to more solid land. The green and red marker buoys, which to this point had appeared to plot a rather arbitrary route through an open waterway with a fairly consistent thousand foot width, now bottlenecked into a channel only five hundred to seven hundred feet wide.
On more than one occasion we had to stop and wait for a mega-sized super ship to pass in the opposite direction because it needed the entire width of the channel to navigate around a bend.
Looking beyond the banks on either side of the channel we were in, I was perplexed at times by what I saw. I had expected it to be a very gritty looking variation on a typical port construction of concrete and steel. Noisy and busy. While our surroundings varied considerably, often they were a landscape indistinguishable from some of the more remote and isolated rivers we’ve been on. Most of the developed areas occupied by buildings of any sort looked more like small communities, certainly not the global hub of shipping traffic. Only the locks themselves had any real industrial flavor.
It often made the gargantuan cargo ships and tankers seem entirely out of place… surreal.
We had been motoring nearly five hours when we saw the Centennial Bridge appear on the horizon, signaling the approach of San Pedro Lock just beyond The Perkins engine soldiered on indifferently, seeming to have long forgotten about any previous oil pressure alarms, once again happy to spin the propeller indefinitely, as long as it was being fed copious amounts of diesel.
As we prepared to pass under the Centennial Bridge, we noticed a large crocodile sunning itself on a big rock along the nearby shore. It didn’t move the entire time we were passing by. More than once, we had been told crocodiles are the only ones that don’t have to pay to use the Panama Canal. Apparently they are also the only ones not on a tight schedule going through the Canal.
With the Centennial Bridge behind us, Exit, Second Set, and Swiss Lady all slowed and converged to repeat the complex sequence of choreographed maneuvers required to perform the intricate, and intimate, rafting dance we had learned the day before.
A bit of wind again. A bit of current again. Nothing obnoxious.
Most importantly, twenty one people on all three boats all paying attention and all helping to do what was needed.
While an uncontrollable mishap inside the locks, like the nightmare situation our advisor had witnessed one week earlier, certainly had the potential to be the most cataclysmic in scope, the rafting process again appeared to me to be one of the most risky aspects of the transit for a potential calamity of epic proportions.
Fortunately, the three boat dance resulted in no stepped on toes nor crushed hulls and, in short order, we were once again rafted together with all lines secured motoring into the entrance of San Pedro Lock.
Less than ten years ago, the Canal Authority completed construction on a bigger set of locks that was added to accommodate the newer generation of cargo ships so large they couldn’t physically fit into the original locks. The new locks require so much water, they had to engineer a recycling method for the water used into the design. Only the largest of the biggest ships are allowed to even use those locks.
For everyone else, there are two locks side by side that operate independently of each other, separated by a very narrow wall. Obviously, it is of the utmost importance that boats enter the correct lock.
With the volume of shipping traffic and the size of the ships involved, it would be natural to assume there must be a relatively failsafe system in place to assure that vessels actually get into the correct lock they have been assigned.
Natural to assume… but incorrect.
For us, it was the source of quite an extended laugh. We joked that it looked more like a cardboard cutout pointing to a garage sale. At night, lit up, probably more likely to remind you of something to be found alongside a dark highway directing drivers to a cheap motel or greasy diner.
Fortunately, we opted for the correct lock entrance. Our temporarily tri-masted raft of sailboats carefully proceeded down the corridor and entered Pedro Miguel Lock.
Just like the day before, lock workers cast lines tied off with hefty monkey fists over to the boats which, in turn, were tied to our own lines and then hauled back to the lock walls. After being “walked” by the lock workers into position inside the lock chamber the lines were secured.
The one hundred ten foot wide by a thousand foot long chamber still had a lot of space in it… for now.
Almost everything went exactly as it did before, procedurally. Like a well-oiled hundred year old machine. Except today we were first in the chamber with the ship behind us. I never got a clarification why, but assumed it had something to do with the difference of going up versus down in the lock and how that tied in with safety.
A minor detail as far as front or back position. However, also a very intimidating detail. Pulling up behind a six hundred foot tanker which looms over you is menacing enough. Watching one pull up behind you can be absolutely terrifying.
In position and secure, we awaited the arrival of the ship that would consume the entire rest of the chamber. Watching it approach, a number of things occurred to me.
It’s hard to capture just how small and insignificant we seemed compared to the massive ship creeping up behind us. It’s even harder to capture how small and insignificant that ship seemed compared to the even bigger one in the lock so close beside us.
Seeing the ships actually under the control of the small railcars was in some ways reassuring while simultaneously being more than a bit disconcerting.
Before long, the ship behind us was in place and our attention shifted from behind us to all around us.
As the water inside the lock is released and the lock level begins to drop, it is critical for the line handlers aboard the boats to monitor and adjust the tension on the lines. Not enough tension and the boats can drift into the cement walls. Even worse, if the line tension is not released, the raft of boats starts listing from the hung up line which then has to be cut. Ugly. Dangerous.
Surprisingly easy to have happen I would suspect, given how difficult it is to perceive the changing water level. If you actually watch the waterline, you can follow the vertical movement along the surface of the lock walls. If you get distracted, it doesn’t take long to be startled by how tall the walls have gotten.
Ever so slowly, the water level continued to drop, until eventually it stopped. Only slightly more perceivable, the lock’s enormous gate, which our position the day before had only allowed us to view closing, began to open in front of us.
A tiny gap in the center grew wider and wider, until eventually the two halves split completely apart and stopped flush into recessed spaces on opposite walls.
Revealed on the other side was Miraflores Lake, a small body of water separating the single lock of Pedro Miguel from the two final locks at Miraflores.
Panama Canal Authority time lapse camera footage at Pedro Manuel Lock:
Given how much effort is involved in rafting the three sailboats together, it made sense that we would not separate to travel the one mile distance between Pedro Miguel Lock and Miraflores Locks.
Approaching Miraflores Locks, the corridor looked almost identical.
The line handlers on the lock walls went through exactly same process as each lock before.
We crept forward until the gates were directly before us. With the lock full of water, we could barely peer over the top. Only a glimpse of the world that awaited just beyond.
To the right was a large white building with the words Miraflores Locks painted on the outside. Possibly a control station. The building to the left initially appeared more like a car parking structure; eventually I realized I must be looking at a tourist center of some sort.
What gave it away most were probably all the tourists.
By the look of the large crowd, there was going to be an epic show of some sort.
After a brief chance for the crowd to properly idolize and offer adulation to those taking the stage (or maybe it was just awaiting the ship behind us getting into position), it was showtime.
In an epic finale of dramatic flourish, our Panama Canal transit reached its stupendous climax in front of throngs of onlookers. With a feeling of electricity in the air and a sea of expectant faces watching from above – someone in an unseen room threw a switch.
And nothing happened.
Except somewhere below us, water began to slowly drain from lock, and at a nearly imperceivable rate we were lowered.
We were expecting it. We already knew how it would play out. After all, we had done this before. Experienced salts, eh?
For those in the nose bleed section above, probably more used to watching reality tv show dramas unfold, one can only imagine it would have held all the interest of watching paint dry.
Panama Canal Authority time lapse camera footage at Miraflores Locks:
For us, it was incredibly exciting.
Due to the extreme tidal variations of the Pacific Ocean (twelve feet at Panama City compared to one foot at Colon on the Atlantic side), the gates of the Miraflores Lock are the Canal’s tallest and the lower chamber is the highest in the system.
Once the double gates opened fully, we were looking into the final lock separating us from the Pacific.
We entered the last lock.
Inside the lock, it was one last case of deja vu.
With the second lock at Miraflores having completed its task of lowering us to sea level, we watched once again as the colossal gate silently and slowly opened.
However, this time looking out, we were looking at the West Coast of the Americas.
The scope of everything was still sinking in.
Emerging from the final lock of the Panama Canal, the three sailboats slowed, stopped, and separated from each other.
Freed from the cumbersome and awkward raft of other boats, Exit once again could begin making forward progress.
Only two nautical miles remain before we reach the long awaited landmark that heralds our arrival to the Pacific Ocean – the Bridge of the Americas.
Approaching the bridge, there is plenty of time to smile; but it will take far longer for everything to fully sink in.
Moments later the Bridge of the Americas passes a thousand feet above our heads.
Considering the natural high of the moment, I found myself floating enough I might have needed to duck my head had the bridge been any lower.
Immediately beyond the bridge, just outside the Canal markers, lies the mooring field for the Balboa Yacht Club, where we dropped off Victor, our most competent and laid back advisor as well our outstanding line handlers Mario, Jamir, Jorge, and Julia.
We stayed on the mooring for a night.
The following morning we woke up on the Pacific Ocean.
…three cleats were torn out of the boat and one of the lines actually snapped. The monohull was slammed into the cement wall of the Canal lock after careening off the catamaran it was rafted up with.
Not the kind of story you want to hear just before commencing on your first Panama Canal transit aboard your own sailboat.
I remember in elementary school, just prior to walking onstage with the rest of my class to sing in our dreaded Christmas concert, being warned by the teacher not to lock your knees while you stand on the bleachers as it can cause you to pass out. At the time, this seemed like the words of a wise and concerned person. Throughout the concert I consciously reminded myself to keep my knees slightly bent.
I also remember, later in high school, just prior to giving a speech in front of all my classmates, being warned by a classmate that it was possible to become so nervous that you could actually puke right in front of everyone, mid sentence. At the time, this seemed like the words of a complete asshole. Throughout the speech I subconsciously reminded myself I might throw up at any moment.
Now, as I walk down E Dock of the well familiar Shelter Bay Marina towards slip number forty-eight in which Exit sits quietly, I struggle to decide two things: 1] whether or not to pass on to Kris the ridiculous story I have just been told and, 2] whether or not the person I just spoke with qualifies more as wise and concerned or a complete asshole.
We are only days away from our own first transit of the Panama Canal and one of the other people on E Dock has just stopped me and asked if I heard about the accident concerning two boats transiting the Canal? No.
A Shelter Bay staff had just relayed a story to him concerning two sailboats which had departed from Shelter Bay Marina a week ago transiting the Panama Canal, one a catamaran and one a monohull. The two sailboats were rafted together inside one of the Canal locks with lines running up to the top of the lock walls, when apparently the massive cargo ship just in front of them gunned its engines too hard as it began to move forward out of the lock, sending a fifteen knot wave of prop wash into the tiny sailboats. The resulting maelstrom actually snapped one of the four lines and ripped three cleats completely out of one of the boats, sending the monohull careening first into the catamaran and then ultimately smashing it up against the cement wall of the lock.
Thanks for that… good to know.
The Panama Canal had become somewhat of a nemesis for us. It was the last thing still separating Exit from an entirely new world, and seemingly endless possibilities… the Pacific Ocean.
We had been in the Canal’s proximity approaching two years now, yet we hadn’t been able to utilize the forty five mile passage connecting the two oceans.
There always seemed to be something standing between us and a clear passage.
Not to mention the ever-present population of massive cargo ships and intimidating lock systems occupying the Canal itself… factors that would typically warrant our absolute avoidance.
Now, after all of the experiences aboard Exit – nearly five years and eleven thousand nautical miles – we finally found ourselves poised to transit the Panama Canal and reach the Pacific Ocean.
Having committed to the final process of physically measuring the boat and being assessed by the Panama Canal Authority, as well as having paid over two thousand dollars in fees, we were given a sixty day authorization to schedule the actual transit date.
Still, the one absolute nearly five years and eleven thousand miles aboard Exit had taught us was that schedules set in stone are the most fragile.
Despite our deadline, we had decided we were not willing to cross to the Pacific without our genoa furler in working order, and that ended up taking longer than two months to sort out. Fortunately, we didn’t incur extra costs (or get bumped altogether) when we exceeded the sixty day limit set forth by the Canal Authority policy.
Finally, the stars aligned and the date was set. January 17 departing Shelter Bay Marina; arriving in Panama City January 18. The transit would last two days.
The Panama Canal is blah…blah…blah. Way too much to go into. For background…
Google? Alexa? Hit it.
Otherwise read on. [And now, back to our pre-recorded show…]
It was now only days before our scheduled departure.
Exit was ready. She was fully provisioned. Diesel tanks full. Petrol tanks full. Propane tanks full. Water tanks full. We had just learned we were scheduled to transit with another monohull currently in the marina – S/V Swiss Lady. We hadn’t met them.
Despite everything being in place, we couldn’t escape the anxiety. Excitement and fear… an old friendship.
Kris’ stress levels were also through the roof regarding our culinary requirements. Never before had we even had five other people aboard Exit at once, much less had to feed them. During a passage. Through the Panama Canal. Amongst gigantic cargo ships. What’s to stress about?
Now, as I’m walking along the dock back to the boat, one of the other boat owners has stopped me and told me this crazy story of mayhem and chaos in the Canal. No advice, like you would expect from a wise or concerned person. Just stirring things up… like you might expect from more of an asshole.
Perhaps foolishly, I choose to tell Kris the story. She’s not impressed.
At least we know our cleats won’t pull out.
Of the four line handlers required to be aboard during our transit through the Canal, two are being provided by the agent we have been using to arrange all the transit logistics. We are providing the other two.
Juan, a Colombian we had befriended living on his own sailboat in the marina back in June, had already offered to assist us. He had experience transiting many times so we took him up on his offer. When we decided to get a fourth outside line handler to further take some of the workload off us, instead of me filling that role, Juan recommended one of his friends who also had experience.
Three days before our scheduled transit date, Juan indicated casually that his stomach was bothering him a bit.
A day later, he indicated he had started taking some pills.
On the day before we were to depart, we saw him outside his boat. He said he was starting to feel much better… no problem.
Everything was a go.
We couldn’t have been more nervous.
Then, a message from the agent.
The Panama Canal Authority has just informed us that the time of your scheduled transit has been changed. Due to a shortage of Canal Advisors, your transit is being delayed by one day.
Now not only a Tuesday departure; also the two monohulls, Exit and Swiss Lady were being teamed up with the catamaran – Second Set. We had only briefly met the couple aboard Swiss Lady. We already knew Second Set well. This would definitely simplify things for us. A cat between the two “leaners” would make maneuvering much easier… though Second Set might have other thoughts on the matter. Their job just got much more difficult.
Regarding the one day delay… come on… of course. It’s a boat. Really, there is no such thing as a delay of one day. In the rare event things actually go according to schedule, it should be referred to as ahead of schedule by at least a day.
As it turned out, the delay was a blessing in disguise. What were becoming debilitating knots in our stomachs now had a twenty four hour opportunity to unwind. The last few things we didn’t get around to could now be sorted out the following day. We could actually enjoy a pool day with some relaxing beverages.
We didn’t see Juan at all during the course of the entire day.
Unfortunately, as we felt the knots in our stomachs loosening, Juan was feeling his tighten.
By Tuesday morning, January 18, we were rearing to get moving. Now, any extra time would only make for antsy jitters and unproductive nervousness.
However, during a walk down the dock, Kris spotted Juan in the distance leaning up against a wall, appearing as though he was about to keel over. When we both returned, Juan was emerging from his boat, barely able to stand. He looked to be in excruciating pain.
Clutching his stomach, he said through a grimace he had to get to a hospital. His friend said he needed to go along but he’d be back. One of the marina staff took Juan by the arm and nearly carried him to one of the parked cars.
We felt horrible for Juan. He looked absolutely miserable. He was not going to be doing anything anytime soon. We certainly couldn’t blame Juan’s friend for accompanying him to the hospital. However, we also couldn’t count on his return before noon.
Suddenly, just like that, with less than three hours remaining before we needed to cast off the dock lines and depart the marina in order to follow a tight schedule dictated by the Panama Canal authorities, we were short two line handlers.
Technically, we were only short one. I could fill one of the roles. But one person short was enough to derail everything. To be permitted to transit, each of the three vessels was required to have an outside advisor, full time helms person, and four line handlers. Without those, we would not be allowed to proceed. There was no negotiating.
A quick text message exchange determined that it was too late for our agent to secure any additional line handlers…he said we were shit out of luck.
A frantic trip to the marina office attracted the attention of the marina manager, Juan Jo, who immediately sent out word via Facebook, Messenger, and VHF. He started making phone calls.
Then, projecting all the theatric flourish of a magician performing his final trick, Juan Jo pulled two rabbits out of a Panama hat. With less than two hours remaining until our deadline, on what seemed like a whim, he walked us from his office to the end of D Dock and knocked on the hull of a sailboat tied off to the “T” on the end of the dock. After a short pause, a deck hatch towards the bow lifted and two bleary eyed people poked their heads out.
Jorge, originally from Chile, and Julia, originally from Poland, had just arrived on Jorge’s father’s sailboat from an offshore passage the day before and were still quite disoriented. We had obviously just woken them up.
Juan Jo quickly explained the situation to them in rapid fire Spanish.
Amazingly, they asked for ten minutes to talk it over.
We returned to Exit still dazed and confused. This seemed like a long shot. There was no way they’d want to leap headlong into this with such short notice. Too much going on…
After ten minutes they walked up to Exit.
They had planned to transit the Canal themselves in short order. This would be a great experience. They loved the idea of spending time aboard a Garcia sailboat. They wanted to help out. They could be ready and aboard in one hour.
Suddenly, just like that, with the clock ticking down to its final moments, we were back in business.
Kris had painstakingly and brilliantly researched, stocked, and sorted all of the complicated and logistically difficult food requirements for our transit. The morning crisis had all but imploded many of her final food preparations; but, hey… at least we still needed the food. No choice. We’d simply have to roll with it.
There were only minutes remaining before we cast off our lines when learned that Juan was currently in emergency surgery.
Had we actually left on schedule the day before, we would have ended up with a potentially life threatening medical emergency aboard Exit while on Gatun Lake mid-transit through the Panama Canal. An emergency evacuation would have been an absolute nightmare. The whole situation unfolding in that semi-remote location overnight would have been unimaginably fucked up and stressful.
Most of the time I find Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. This was one of those instances when things really seemed to happen for a reason.
Call it luck or fate… sometimes you simply have to smile when it goes your way.
In this instance, the Canal Authority’s scheduling delay was the best thing that could have happened to us. Knowing a bad situation could have been far worse, all we could do now was hope Juan’s surgery went well.
Shortly past noon, with five people standing on deckin addition to the two marina staff standing on the dock, Exit backed out of the slip, reversing her direction one hundred eighty degrees in a spring line maneuver that we had performed flawlessly six months prior with only one person on deck and two on the dock.
This time… we can only hope the clusterfuck that ensued was not caught on video. We eventually ended up in the right direction where we needed to be; but by no means was it textbook, or even slightly pretty. With five more knots of wind, it could have been a catastrophic disaster.
Yikes. A bit of an embarrassing start. Unforced errors would not bode well inside the Canal.
Moments later we had set our anchor just outside Shelter Bay Marina in an area known as The Flats. Shortly after that, a pilot boat raced toward us, carrying our advisor. With brutally intimidating aggression and flawless precision, the pilot boat captain roared in, briefly stopped less than a foot from our boat in quite choppy seas, allowing the advisor to deftly step from the bow of the pilot boat onto our deck, then backed quickly away, before I could fully process how disastrous, that too, could have been with less skilled people.
We currently had more people on Exit than had ever been since we first climbed aboard. The official Panama Canal Authority advisor, Victor (a required presence responsible only for giving advice – not piloting the vessel); the two line handlers provided by the agent, Mario and Jamir; the two volunteers who had saved our asses, Jorge and Julia; as well as Kris and myself.
Our initial task was getting under the Atlantic Bridge as expeditiously as possible so all three boats could rendezvous just before the first set of locks. The clouds above threatened to unleash a deluge which would have made keeping seven people dry an impossible task. Thankfully, the threats never amounted to more than a few brief sprinkles.
At this point we were only an hour into the adventure and already we would have to accomplish what would seem to us to be the most complicated, stressful, and risky undertaking of the entire transit. It was the task we, on one hand, had the most control over and yet, at the same time, relied the most on everyone aboard all three boats to coordinate as an overall effort without fucking anything up. If there was an issue, it would not be because of a cargo ship or a lock worker.
While still freely adrift in the channel, all three boats had to raft up together, securely enough to be able to move as a single unit into and out of each of the locks.
With a bit of discussion and practice, it seemed possible to coordinate the procedures, communications, and assignments necessary to try to attempt this without a high risk of causing damage or injury to any of the three vessels or twenty one people involved.
Except… there would be no practicing and very little discussion:
Second Set would approach Exit which would be facing into the wind idling in neutral. Helm commands for all boats would be issued by the cat’s advisor and relayed through the other vessels’ respective advisors. With Second Set alongside Exit, fenders in place, bow and stern lines secure, and spring lines run and secured – Swiss Lady would approach the two rafted boats and repeat the process. Once the boats were nested together, primary control of navigation would be the catamaran’s responsibility with the other boats providing supplemental propeller thrust.
Oh, ya… and we’ll also have to take into account the one to two knots of surface current… and the fifteen knots of wind… and don’t forget to keep an eye out for any other potential boat traffic.
Piece of cake.
The advisors knew exactly what was going on. They did this for a living. Half the line handlers knew exactly what was going on. They did this for a living. For everyone else, it was imperative to pay attention and not screw anything up. A mistake could result not only in a very expensive collision, but also potentially an amputation or drowning.
To everyone’s credit, the entire process went remarkably smoothly. In particular, the individual advisors and helms people did an amazing job of executing an extremely difficult series of maneuvers in far less than perfect conditions. Hats off to Kris on that one.
Personally, I felt the number of moments of sheer terror were kept to a very reasonable minimum. Well done.
With both monohulls nested securely on either side of the catamaran, the now unwieldy flotilla resumed its course, carefully maneuvering toward the first set of locks.
Entering Gatun Locks, line handlers on both sides of the cement walls throw lines weighted on the end with heavy knots called monkey fists to the boats.
With a fore and aft line on either side of the lock, four in all, the lock line handlers begin walking the rafted boats into the lock chamber.
As we approach the first of three chambers that make up Gatun Locks, the unforgiving-looking cement walls on either side begin to tower upward. Railroad tracks can be seen running parallel along the wall that carry the small rail cars which cable themselves to the large cargo ships and actually tow them into the lock chambers.
Directly in front of us, at first looking deceptively small only because of the sheer size of the canal lock surrounding it, quietly awaits “Ensemble”. In actuality, it is a massive six hundred foot long chemical/oil tanker ship that will be sharing the lock with us, sitting just in front of us.
Behind the prop of a cargo ship is not a comfortable place to be, period. Ever.
Less than an hour ago, as we were approaching the Atlantic Bridge, Jorge had asked our advisor about the horror story I had been told in the marina.
To our dismay, Victor confirmed that the story was actually true!
Not only that; he went on to reveal that, in fact, he was the very advisor aboard the catamaran that day.
It was a shit show, according to the man that was there. However, Victor also pointed out two important contributing factors were 1) the monohull rafted up to the cat was in horrible condition and 2) the cargo ship in front had just changed pilots, and the new pilot had been given an incomplete update which failed to include any information regarding other vessels sharing the lock chamber.
Disconcerting when you are now sitting behind a cargo ship in the lock. You hope the pilot in front of you has been well briefed.
Surreal is an understatement.
As we enter the first chamber of Gatun Locks, the line handlers standing on the lock walls cast light lines meant to be attached to the heavier lines we have aboard which are then pulled back across the water. The line handlers on the walls “walk” the rafted boats through the chamber and secure the lines to huge bollards along the lock walls once the boats are in place. Heavy knots known as monkey fists give the light lines enough weight to be thrown the distance. You do not want to be hit by one of these. In fact, we were warned in advance to cover solar panels and hatches accordingly.
Some stories had gone so far as to imply instances in which lock workers throwing lines actually appeared to make an effort to target solar panels. This seemed far fetched, though still a bit unsettling.
The giant lock gates can be seen, flush against the lock walls where they rest while in open position.
Tracks for a small railcar system that helps guide, tow, and physically control the big ships via steel cables can be seen running alongside the lock walls. Our raft of boats, by comparison, had to carefully maneuver itself from chamber to chamber.
With the three rafted sailboats finally in place directly behind the behemoth tanker ship towering menacingly above our bows, and all the lines properly secured, the medieval looking gates behind us slowly start closing. Despite the fact that they are enormous in scale, meant to withstand the force of millions of gallons of water, they move deceptively smoothly and in absolute silence. Without watching them, it is hard to notice they are even moving.
With an exquisite delicacy of mechanical balance, the two massive gates pivot inwards, silently arcing towards each other in a perfectly mirrored symmetry. The gap between them grows smaller and smaller at an almost imperceivable rate. Finally, the last sliver of light separating the two gates disappears as they close completely.
Nearly as subtle as the gate movement, the level of water in the lock begins to rise.
It can’t be felt.. only seen as the waterline creeps vertically up the walls of the lock chamber.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of all was exactly how quiet the entire process was. No massive noises from the ship in front of us. No massive noises from the lock itself. I expected the industrial din of a port and heard almost nothing.
Also surprising was the lack of any sense of motion inside the locks with the water exchange. Crazy whirlpools or washing machine effects from the ridiculous amount of water entering the lock never materialized. Turbulent eddies and roiling, churning currents caused by wash from the colossal prop on the ship in front of us never happened. It felt more like a filling bathtub without the turbulence from a faucet.
One of the critical jobs of the line handlers aboard the boats as the lock fills with water is to take up slack in the lines as the distance changes between the boat cleats below and the lock bollards above. A stray line caught in a prop is a really, really bad thing to have happen here.
Monitoring the line tension becomes even more critical at the other side when the water levels in the locks are lowering the boats. An unmonitored line can tension up quickly, resulting in the entire boat’s weight hanging on it, leaving no option but to cut the line, causing potential catastrophic damage and/or injury.
The lock workers were solid. Our line handlers were solid.
It all went like clockwork.
Slowly we moved through Gatun Locks.
We repeated portions of the process two additional times as the three locks raised us us a total of eighty four feet.
As the third chamber finished filling, we received a fist pump of support from one of the many anonymous lock workers who helped us that day. Any previous held trepidations regarding potential ill intentions of lock workers who might feel motivated to damage our solar panels or hatches dried up completely and blew away.
Nearly twenty five million gallons of freshwater had passed under us to complete the task of raising us to the elevation of Gatun Lake. A somewhat sobering thought to realize that volume equates to more fresh water than everyone currently inside the lock combined will drink in a lifetime.
The final gate of Gatun Lock opens and the oil tanker in front of us quietly begins to pull forward. The disturbance on the water’s surface from the immense ship’s prop wash is noticeable, but only barely… the pilot obviously has received a thorough briefing and for that we are grateful.
As the outline of Ensemble shrinks into the distance, we are left with an open channel leading into Gatun lake.
Once clear of the locks, all of the lines are released and the floating raft splits apart, separating back into three individual sailboats.
It’s now only a short run in Lake Gatun to reach the mooring buoy we will spend the night on.
A big ball, to be sure.
Still, given the option, I’d prefer to keep my balls to myself.
Though the line handlers were all spending the night aboard, the advisors were immediately picked up by a pilot boat. We would see them again at first light. We hoped Victor would be reassigned to us…
Getting to this point had been no small feat.
That was not lost on us.
Currently, the only unresolved issue of the day seemed to be whether or not we were going to have ice cold beers, even though we had completed only half of our Panama Canal transit. For some reason, this had been in question.
However, with the unmistakable phssst sound of an opening can, that question was definitively answered.
In fact, it fit two criteria for being an absolute.
RULE #1: Setting a deadline is one of the most effective ways to prevent something from getting done, especially on a boat.
It had been twenty months since our arrival into Panama with the ultimate intention of getting to the Pacific Ocean. A lot had happened during that time. For nearly six months we had been lurking right on the doorstep of the Panama Canal, poised but seemingly unable or at times even unwilling to cross the threshold. Only fifty miles. We could have walked by now.
Finally, after all this time, we had committed to a Panama Canal crossing which included paying over two thousand dollars in fees. It allowed for sixty days to schedule a transit date. A deadline sometimes can’t be avoided.
RULE #2: One of the most successful strategies to avoid having to fix something is to have a spare; the parts you will need are almost always the ones you don’t have.
Having just returned from a visit to the U.S., we had brought back to Exit a substantial number, and even more substantial weight, of spare parts to add to our already substantial onboard inventory. Furler parts were no where among those.
Anticipating the obvious question of why not just have spares for everything, I would have to point out we’d literarily be buying and traveling with an extra boat.
While we were in the States for six weeks, poor Exit sat tied to a dock without moving at all. Once we got back, she really needed to get out.
After finally making the big leap of completing the process to register for our Canal transit, we decided to return to San Blas. We were in agreement that we hadn’t explored the spectacular area nearly enough. We had sixty days and this was most likely our last chance to make a return visit. Once the Canal gates closed behind us, it would be far too expensive to open them again. At that point we’d be looking forward anyway, not back.
Our time in Panama had not been a stellar example of frequent sailing. It wasn’t just that we weren’t moving. Even when we were, it seemed there was always something stepping in the way of being able to get out the big, white floppy things.
Departing Shelter Bay Marina, we were ecstatic to see fifteen knots of wind on the beam… a perfect day for sailing. Not typical. The running joke aboard Exit is we usually know we’re going in the right direction because the wind is on our nose.
Once the mainsail was up, we went to unfurl the genoa.
It wouldn’t budge.
Kris reminded me to release the clutch.
It already was.
For us, there’s always a funny moment here or there after being off the boat for a period of time when you find yourself saying “Now how did that work?” with something that normally would be very second nature.
This was one of those moments.
When it doesn’t work, I have to walk my self through every step; even the obvious. Especially the obvious.
If it still doesn’t work, Kris has to walk me through every step; even the obvious. Especially the obvious.
If it still doesn’t work, Kris experiences both the satisfaction and annoyance of showing me what should be obvious; especially the obvious.
In the rare case it STILL doesn’t work, we either start laughing or swearing.
Everything was as it should be. The genoa just didn’t budge. We started laughing. After a few more minutes of verifying we weren’t crazy, it was determined the drum of the furler itself was completely seized up. Possibly the bearings inside. We started swearing.
Two options. Turn around or keep going. We had already spent a total of twelve weeks in Shelter Bay Marina during 2021. We had literally just gotten out of there. Better to keep going to San Blas, try to better assess what the problem was and what the options were.
San Blas was a much more pleasant and much less expensive place to be for the subsequent weeks spent assessing and researching.
As far as we could tell, the Profurl N52 furler currently on Exit was the original, which made it nearly thirty years old… quite long in the tooth for a piece of equipment sitting exposed on the bow to all the elements. A failed seal had allowed those elements inside the drum itself, eventually causing corrosion of the bearings which had finally seized completely.
Any hope of sorting things out in San Blas slowly disintegrated once it was determined that the bearings weren’t the only thing seized on the furler. Dissimilar metals, an aluminum drum with stainless steel bolts holding the assembly together, had completely corroded in place as well, which implied this was going to, at a minimum, require an impact wrench and possibly need drilling out of the bolts and re-tapping the holes. This was quickly gravitating away from the prospect of a do-it-yourself project.
The fortunate convenience of modern internet connections and cell phone coverage even in some of the most remote locations on the planet allowed all of the necessary access needed for referencing resources, researching options, and ordering parts from right in the middle of nowhere.
As we have repeatedly learned, the overbuilt approach strategy implemented during Exit’s construction often resulted in exceptionally heavy duty and nearly failsafe systems that inevitably are now more expensive when replacement becomes necessary. This was currently the situation.
With the diameter of our forestay and size of the genoa, we were looking at seven thousand dollars for a complete replacement of the furler itself… ouch. And, of course, newer components were in no way compatible with the older generation. It wouldn’t work to integrate a new drum on the existing system. The entire foil would have to be replaced as well. Of course.
Attempting to repair the drum was looking like the only real option. Luckily, replacement bearings were still available from Profurl. Unfortunately, they were incredibly proud of those parts. Five hundred dollars seemed ludicrous for a replacement bearing set; but not as ridiculous as two hundred dollars more for fasteners. However, when all additional research proved a dead end for outsourcing the very specific and obscurely sized parts, the end decision was that seven hundred dollars for a rebuild was only one tenth as ludicrous as seven thousand dollars for a replacement.
Sometimes it’s all about perspective.
With parts ordered but weeks away, it turned out a blessing to be in San Blas where we could enjoy the wait. We just needed to sit tight. All attempts to disassemble the furler had been completely thwarted by the seized bolts. While we were in San Blas, there was very little that could be done, but we also didn’t see the logic of paying for a slip at Shelter Bay Marina while we were waiting for parts to arrive.
It later became more fully apparent, as everything on the furler slowly came apart, exactly how fortunate it was that I didn’t get any further in San Blas. The furler drum couldn’t come off without disconnecting the forestay from the deck. Early assumptions that it could come apart without actually removing the entire forestay from the mast were sorely mistaken. Once the forestay was disconnected at the deck the whole thing would have become an absolute bitch to deal with. Fifty feet long and heavy. By the time I would have figured out it was all going to have to come down entirely anyway, it would have been partially taken apart and I would have simultaneously figured out there was no way this could be done on the deck. Plus, all this at anchor in thirty feet of water… right.
Which all would have culminated in a situation of us having to return to Shelter Bay Marina anyway, only now having to travel nearly a hundred miles in what would more than likely be sloppy conditions, with our forestay partially disassembled. Offshore with compromised rigging… the perfect scenario for having the entire mast come down. Almost an invitation of challenge to the powers that be. Not smart.
Instead, it became time to step back for a humble moment of realization – better to not overextend; sometimes it is very possible to fuck things up well worse than they already are.
One of the many benefits of meeting so many experienced sailors over the years is having a bottomless well of knowledge and advice to draw from when you find yourself beyond the scope of comfort and in desperate need of assistance. Even in remote San Blas, we were able to correspond with friends all over the world who provided invaluable insight and expertise. Without their help we would have found ourselves repeatedly at a loss.
Conversely, one of the many challenges of always being on the move is trying to determine who to place your trust in when it comes to recruiting hands-on support. Opinions are one thing, but when you are paying by the hour to have someone fix things for you, oftentimes involving following recommendations which may have far-reaching safety and/or monetary implications and then letting them hammer, drill, or cut your home, it becomes even more critical to trust that person is making sound decisions and has both the resources and skill set to justify what they are asking to be paid. Not to mention a good chance of success with the task at hand.
After wrestling with the furler continuously with no progress, we had arranged to have such a person meet us when we returned for the replacement bearing kit currently being shipped to Shelter Bay Marina. Numerous messages went back and forth between San Blas and Panama City. He knew we had parts coming and needed an impact wrench to get any further with the frozen bolts. We knew he was gonna to be available for fifty bucks an hour plus thirty more for gas. We just had to let him know when we got back to Colon and the parts arrived. No problem.
An unanticipated silver lining with the situation while we sorting out the genoa – unless we were willing to burn unlimited amounts of diesel, we needed to finally get out our solent sail, which we hadn’t used in four years. Being hanked on, it had always made for a much less convenient option than simply partially furling the genoa, which was currently not an option. We had used our stay sail, also hanked on, a number of times but its substantially smaller size made it easier to deal with in terms of getting it out, moving it around, storing on deck, and working with in general.
We now had a legitimate excuse to justify the extra effort required to deal with the solent sail, which likewise meant we had the opportunity to better understand the benefits of utilizing such a sail. Another tool in the box, as they say. Silly to try to drive in a nail with a wrench or a screwdriver only because your hammer is inconvenient to get at. Why approach sails any differently? The solent sail, though inconvenient, perfectly bridged the gap between the limited horsepower of the smaller stay sail versus the unwieldy size of a 130% genoa.
Of course, almost as soon as you start realizing the incredible benefit of one thing, you feel a tap on the shoulder. It’s reality reminding you not to get too distracted.
Killing time in paradise? But the clock is ticking.
When we first received word from our parts supplier that some of our order would be delayed by back orders, we took notice. When the ocean freight was subsequently postponed by another week, we started getting nervous. When they screwed up the order, the ticking clock became deafening. We were running out of time regarding the sixty day window we were allowed by the Panama Canal Authority to complete our transit.
After a great deal of nail biting and a number of terse exchanges with the supplier, we received word that the order was correct, complete, and en route. It looked unlikely that we’d be able to get the repair completely sorted out before our Canal deadline passed; however, our Canal agent indicated the situation should not end up costing more than an extra hundred or so dollars.
With our parts not more than a few days away, we bid farewell to beautiful San Blas and returned to the same slip we had occupied when we first arrived at Shelter Bay Marina in May 2021.
Despite the relative blessing of an uneventful return to Colon and the opportunity to sail more than half the distance there, we could only be so happy about our return. There was shit to fix and deadlines to keep.
We knew we were returning to Shelter Bay Marina and the dirty reality of civilization when we had traded the postcard photo images of uninhabited tropical islands on the horizon for those of cargo ships.
Our rigger arrived at Dock E on time the following day. Unfortunately, as he limped along, he spoke to just about every single person he saw on the dock. Forty minutes later he stood in front of Exit. He offered his left hand to shake and an explanation… the pins holding his right arm together from a motorcycle accident years ago were falling out.
He obviously would not be going up the mast if it became necessary.
He also had no tools with him… zero.
But he did have a lot of advice….
And even more stories…
And even more opinions… about Covid health policies; about the marina’s business choices; about motorcycle gang ethics.
Three hours later we were no further along with the repair.
He concluded the bolts were frozen and we needed an impact wrench which he did not have. Exactly what I had told him two weeks ago. He suggested we leave the marina, get through the Panama Canal and anchor nearer to him in Panama City which would give him easier access to us. He was planning on leaving Panama, which is why he had no tools; but if that happened he could put us in touch with a “colleague” at anchor who had a lot of experience as well. He’d need twenty bucks for gas each way, but wasn’t going to charge us at all for his time that day.
Not only did he cost us forty bucks and a couple of beers, we had to cough up another fifteen dollars after learning that he had stiffed the marina office for their fifteen dollar contractor fee.
If this was a fictional story, I’d have killed off his character at this point.
As it was, the best I could do was never contact him again.
Now, with the parts in hand but literally dead in the water, we opted to put our tails between our legs and introduce ourselves to Steve – a gregarious South African with a shaggy white beard dyed bright fluorescent pink living on his sailboat, also currently on E Dock, working part time as a rigging contractor for Shelter Bay Marina.
We should have started with him, but we didn’t have any contact with him while we were in San Blas. It would have saved a painfully infuriating step.
Turned out, as offbeat as Steve looked and cantankerous as he could be, he really knew his shit when it came to rigging.
He offered advice, explained his thinking of the process, and wanted to know we agreed before going on. He had tools. He showed what he was doing and welcomed help. It was worth the sixty bucks an hour to be done right… and we were learning.
Originally, I hoped we would be able to remove the furler drum, rebuilt it, and replace it; all without having to remove the forestay and foil assembly that surrounds it. Which could have been possible if the bolts securing the drum to the forestay had not been corroded and frozen.
In the end, removing the forestay required South Africa Steve at the top of the mast as well as four people walking the entire fifty foot long foil assembly down the dock. It was big, awkward, and heavy as hell. Trying to have done this all at anchor would have been an absolute disaster. Once the foil assembly was laying on the dock, we could concentrate on getting out the bolts.
There were four bolts and they were all completely frozen. No amount of WD-40 or PB Blaster had made a bit of difference over the past month. Two, it turned out, didn’t actually need to come out. We could work around them. That left two; and, one way or another, they both had to come out in order to get access to the bearings. There was no way around that.
The impact wrench didn’t break them free initially; but we didn’t strip them either. Which left options. Heat.
After applying generous amounts of heat with a small propane blow-torch borrowed from another boat owner, miraculously one of the bolts broke free and began to slowly turn. Woohoo! The second one never budged. Eventually, the walls of the large 8mm hex shaped hole gave way and in an instant all that was left was a still stuck bolt with a now round hole in the center.
Stripped. Which meant it had to be drilled out completely.
Just like that, it turned into a whole lot more work.
We were actually quite lucky and managed to successfully drill and grind the bolt out cleanly without, in turn, damaging the threaded hole in the drum at all. Having to re-tap the threads as well would have added even more work and made things far more complicated.
The stripped bolt caused extra headaches, no doubt. But with the whole furling system physically off the boat and lying on the dock, instead of hanging precariously from the top of the mast, we had the luxury of a much better space to work. Again and again, it became undeniably apparent the decision not to try to undertake all this with the furler still attached on a boat at anchor had been a very wise choice.
Both luxuries of the marina and a competent rigger came at no small price; but the job was getting done.
Finally, with a great deal of effort and fenaggling, we had managed to get the furler drum disassembled enough to commence with the main event – replacing the steel bearings and seals.
A failed seal had, over time, allowed the bearings continued exposure to salt water and the harsh elements. The corrosion had become so rampant that, when left unused for a couple of months, the bearings rusted into a completely seized state. It was a good thing we had gotten the replacement kit. These were not going to be resuscitated.
Keeping close track of the order things came apart, we disassembled the remaining components.
After cleaning and inspecting everything, the new bearings were slathered with grease and the extremely messy combination of bearings, spacers, and circ-clips had to be reassembled. Without the luxury of a machine shop or hydraulic press, this meant driving the bearings and seals in carefully by hand. The only real nightmare occurred with the massive and unbelievably strong circ-clips which were so heavy we were unable to compress them enough to get them positioned back into their groove deep inside the drum, even with the special pliers purchased for this exact job.
After a frustrated and curse-filled hour, a desperate MacGyver maneuver involving holding the circ-clip in closed position tied with heavy wire welding rod and then snipping the wire with side cutters after the clip had been carefully slid into its groove proved to be the only way to prevent Steve from throwing the clip into the water… either Steve.
From that point on, things seemed to go impressively smoothly and suspiciously quickly.
By the end of day two, the forestay and foil had been reattached to the mast with the rebuilt drum assembly, the backstay had been re-tensioned, and the furler seemed to work perfectly.
We just needed to wait for a wind free day to reattach our genoa , which had just come back from its own minor repairs at the marina sail loft.
When all was said and done, paying five hundred dollars for the bearing kit that revived our furler from the dead was painful, though well worth it. On the other hand, what was a ball-breaker was finding out we couldn’t use any of the four bolts that had cost us nearly an additional two hundred dollars. They were the wrong size. Two didn’t even have to come out. One we got out. The one that had to be drilled out was replaced with a generic bolt that we already had in our bolt inventory and had cost us less than a dollar at a hardware store.
It required more effort and certainly more money than we would have liked. But, most importantly, our genoa was once again functional.
And… it turned out not only was South African Steve a damn good rigger, he was also a great guitar player and singer with a fine Martin acoustic.
Pickin’ and drinkin’… always preferable to swearing and repairing!