After finding some surf in some of the other islands in the Caribbean side it was time to head back to Colon to await our date for going through the canal. Had a great sail back from the islands t Colon and was able to sail right in between all the large ships waiting for their turn to go through and into the port itself. We had to pick up crew, lines and fenders and do a few last minute jobs as this would be the last marina we will be in for a while. All the crew rocked up right on time and we got everything squared away and headed out to the anchorage to wait for the adviser who would come with us to guide us through the locks. In typical Panama timing, his expected arrival at four P.M. was closer to six, but that was time put to good use to sit, relax and get to know the new crew and find out some more about the process of going through the locks. Manuel, another Brazilian friend of mine I've known for quite a while and has his own boat in Bocas, was on his way back from a yacht delivery and happened to be in Panama city and jumped on board. Russell and Diane have lived in Panama now for a few months and often help boats to go through from one side to the other, this would be their sixth trip through and great to have some experienced crew . It was weird having so many people on board, but it wasn’t as crowded as I had imagined. It’s a requirement that every boat have four line handlers, plus the skipper and an adviser, so we had one extra hand to take photos and jump in to help out where necessary. As soon as the adviser jumped on board it was start engines, pull anchor and go. We would be locking through rafted alongside two other boats and would be rising about ten meters in each of the three locks up into Gatun Lake and then the following day three locks down and into the Pacific Ocean. The fact that these locks have been working non stop for one hundred years is something truly amazing, such a testament to the ingenuity and tenacity of man.
We tied up with the others just outside the locks and as dark was falling upon us. Up ahead were the blazing yellow lights of the locks and slowly we entered behind the large ship that we would follow through the locks. We were tied on the port side of the others and the large catamaran in the middle would do most of the work, while the two outer boats used their engines to adjust the alignment in the locks. Once inside we were thrown the heaving lines and tied these to our thick mooring lines which were then secured to the bollards up above. Our job would be to adjust these as the water rose and to keep the entire raft centered in the lock. Even though we had fenders, I would not want to test these against the imposing concrete walls and boiling water around us the level rises.Transiting up is usually a bit more violent that going down, with thousands of tons of water being pumped into the locks to raise the ships in there, there is quite a lot of surge and turbulence and the crew have to be sure to keep pace with the rising water to keep the tension even on all the lines. We had a really good adviser for these first three locks and he controlled things from the center vessel instructing us as to when to engage forward and reverse and things went pretty much smoothly. Its an amazing feeling looking back and seeing the water level behind and below you as you rise from the Caribbean sea into Gatun lake. The huge steel doors holding back the massive amounts of water from rushing to the sea below, and lifting us upwards and onwards on our journey. The whole process for the first three locks takes about forty-five minutes to an hour and then there we were, on Gatun lake and heading for the mooring to spend the night. Kim did a great job of keeping us all fed and it was a late night after dinner and sharing a few stories with the crew. With an early start planned for the morning I put my head down just as the clock went midnight.
Another Panamanian timed start of six A.M. saw us finally leaving the mooring at eight and making motoring the 33NM to the next set of locks that would take us down to the Pacific. The current canal widening project is underway and it was awesome to see all the machinery, boats and dredges that were getting things ready for this upgrade. Once this is down and the new locks are installed they will be able to accommodate ships of up 427 m (1,401 ft) in length, 55 m (180 ft) in beam, and 18.3 m (60.0 ft) in depth, which is pretty massive. Motoring across the lake takes most of the day and during the passage we passed numerous little islands that have so much life and uninhabited areas, in stark contrast to the large displays of industrialization and trade floating by night and day, wonder what the animals think of all this? I did see one croc swimming along as we passed through the Culebra Cut and many other species of birds and other wildlife must be hidden just behind the green leafy curtain on the many little islands along the way, enough for the Smithsonian institute to have a permanent base here. We approached the final set of locks and as the other boats were a bit faster than us we would be transiting alone, and ahead of a large container ship. The wind had also come up and was blowing directly into the locks at about thirty knots so it would make it interesting. It all went mostly well though, which was good as I would not have wanted to disturb the adviser from his Facebook and phone calls, that's him in the photo below. There was only one time things got a bit hairy, enough even to make the adviser look up and give a slight look of concern. The crew throwing the heaving lines kept missing because of the wind and we ended up having to tie both starboard side lines to one heaving line, which the crew on the walls didn’t think of untying until we were almost out of room. With one stern line on and the other still loose we were getting blown down and into the port side wall, fortunately they got it under control and got us tied up just in time and we adjusted out position. Having a large ship like that come up behind you in a small space is quite something and its amazing how much pulling power the locomotives that position them have. If I was worried though I took comfort and inspiration from the bravest pelican I have ever come across, with thousands of tons of steel bearing down on him he calmly sat there and held his ground only slowly paddling out of the way at the last moment, begrudgingly giving just enough ground to accommodate the large container ship that thought it was bigger and badder than this pelican. Impressive.
As the last gates opened there it was before us, the Pacific Ocean, the first time I have been in these waters with Kuhela and a huge step on the journey. I had just brought my boat through one of the wonders of the world and here I was, in the Ocean I have dreamt about for so long. It was smiles all around, and a big weight off my shoulders to have taken that step. We dropped the volunteer crew and Kim’s brother, Thor, off at the marina just passed the large bridge of the Americas and Manuel, Kim and I headed onwards to the anchorage to get settled in. There wasn’t much time for rest as we got the anchor down, dingy in the water and headed over to see Matt and Kate to pick up some parts that he had ordered in for me before they left that afternoon. Even though we were all pretty tired, the city was there and I definitely felt like some good food and a strong coffee, followed by a look around town. Soon enough we were sitting down to some gourmet pizza at a little microbrewery and toasting a good trip and sharing stories. Life is funny and the world is smaller than you would imagine, here we were, three friends that had all met in Bocas and had all said goodbye to each other to head off on different trips at one time or another, sitting down and sharing laughs and stories and good times in Panama city. It was a pretty good night and after some much need fun and entertainment we found our way back to Kuhela in the early hours of the morning for some much needed sleep.
The pacific is all ready noticeably different from the Caribbean. The water here is colder, a lot colder, and there is more life. the bay is full of bait and there were pelicans and sea gulls everywhere dive bombing the schools for a feed. We spent a few busy days getting stocks and supplies, amazingly enough we did another big provision to top up the one we did in Colon and got some parts and supplies that we couldn't get elsewhere. Kuhela is full, every cupboard, storage hole and drawer are full of the things that will support us on the long miles across the Pacific. There's not much between us and those long trips now, in a few weeks we will say good bye to land and point the bow westward and on to the islands that dot this massive expanse of water. We are ready, Kuhela is ready, and after a few weeks of exploration of pacific coast panama were off.