January 19, 2022
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.