Alone Like a Rolling Stone

Panama Canal - The First

In the morning at seven the message comes that we must not only at 15.00 o'clock, but already at 13.00 o'clock out into the anchor field, in order to take up the Advisor. We take it calmly and find ourselves shortly after 12.00 o'clock on the Mare. Gaby wants to prepare dinner and so she snips peppers and tomatoes together for a hearty chili con carne. In the meantime Reinhold and I prepare the Mare for casting off. Shortly before one, Joachim and Doug come on board and complete the crew. 

On the way to the canal lock
For the passage of the Panama Canal by sailboat, it takes four linehandlers and the skipper. We met Reinhold in the Linton Bay Marina and offered us as a linehandler. The advisor is picked up at the anchorage, who then takes you through the locks. Arriving at the anchorage, we report to Cristobal Signal Station on channel 12 and wait for the Advisor. At 3:30pm the boat arrives and brings the canal company people on board. With us, two other yachts raise anchor. The going is quite slow. The thick ships set the pace here. Ours still needs a while and so we are slowly moving towards the lock. Under the new bridge, we are overtaken by the large ship that enters the lock with us. 

Container ship in front of Panama Lock, Atlantic side

Shortly before the lock, we tie our three sailboats together into a package and enter the first chamber together. The monkey fists fly down from above and we attach our blue mooring lines to the care line. The bowline is thrown over the bollard and I, as one of the line handlers, pull the line tight and tie it on the cleat. The gates slowly close and the chamber is flooded. "Pull, pull, pull" the Advisor yells and we pull two at a time on the port side while the Swedes pull on their starboard side. The Italians in the middle watch us in some amazement, probably very glad that the cup has passed them by. In fact, none of the four linehandlers on the Italian yacht need lift a finger. I'm already sweating a little and have to push hard again when the lock gate to the second chamber opens. The large container ship is pulled into the next lock by four locomotives. After that, our Italian skipper, lying in the middle, gives gas and brings our package into the next chamber. 

In the lock of the Panama Canal, Atlantic side

The whole thing is repeated twice more until we reach Lake Gatun in the dark. We follow the red lighted buoys to a large buoy, five meters in diameter. The Italians are already on it and we go on the other side, alongside. It takes us a while to find the balance between stern and bow line so that the boats don't bump into each other. Finally we manage it. At least Doug and I have earned the anchor beer today. Of course, Gaby, with her excellent dinner, would have certainly deserved one, but she does not drink beer. The advisor leaves the boat immediately after docking and the next day a new one comes. But first we fall tired into our bunks. The new one is announced for between seven and eight o'clock. In fact, a boat approaches at seven o'clock, but delivers the advisor on the Italian boat. The boat leaves again and goes to the Swedish boat. We go empty for the time being. 

Gaby on Lake Gatun, Panama

We all look at each other somewhat questioningly. Have we been forgotten? The advisor on the Italian yacht reassures us and says that our man is scheduled for 9:00. So we could have slept two hours longer. But then we would not have seen the beautiful sunrise 30 meters above the sea. So the Italians and Swedes leave, while we are left alone. This means that we are alone in the lock even with a fat ship and thus all four line handlers are used. But first we have to bridge the 40 nautical miles through the Gatun Sea. At nine o'clock, the Advisor actually shows up and we set off immediately. The trip is entertaining, because there is a lot to see. Again and again, behind an island and the next bend in the fairway, another big ship appears. Small and large container ships, the latter no longer fit through the old locks, which began to be built in 1894 and were put into operation in 1914. Then in 2007 the new locks were built, which were completed in 2016 and can accommodate not only the Panamax class , but also for ships of the Neopanamax class, enough. About 5% of the world's sea freight is transported through the canal. That's quite a lot and so again and again, one of these impressive ships comes towards us, or overtakes us. 

Neopanamax Class, Panama Canal

At 2:00 p.m. we reach the next lock, which takes us into Lake Miraflores. The lake is much smaller and in no time we are at the last two locks that should let us down into the Pacific. On the Pacific side, the sailboats enter the lock before the fat ships. It is impressive when the bow of such a freighter, gets bigger and bigger and comes to a stop just in front of you. Of course, the ships do not enter the lock under their own power, but are pulled by four small locomotives. Nevertheless, one gets quite queasy. The lowering is much more energy-saving than the lifting. We meet our Swedes and Italians again, who are in the parallel lock. Since we are the only sailboat, all four linehandlers have to work. It is a great feeling when finally the last gate to the Pacific opens. 

Last lock to the Pacific 

We sail past the container docks to the Balboa Yacht Club, where we drop off our fenders and lines. Afterwards we move to the bay in front of La Playita Marina. Since it has already become quite late, we stay one more night on the Mare and go the next day, by bus back to Shelter Bay. 

First sunset in the Pacific Ocean

For us, who will follow in a few weeks, this was an educational experience. We hope to find some linehandlers to go through the channel with us as well. When and how we make it through the channel, we will report here. Until then, always fair winds and keep a stiff upper lip.