Alone Like a Rolling Stone

Through the Panama Canal or nobility obliged

To have a S.H.I.H. on board a sailing ship, and both of them as line handlers, is rather unusual. One imagines such people at a long table, with oversized candlesticks on the table, at dinner, on a large country estate with a castle-like building. The abbreviation stands for His Highness and Her Highness, in combination as a married couple, just S.H.I.H.. In fact, a baron and a baroness hire us as line handlers. Poor Reinhold, as the third line handler in the group, a doctor of physics, comes along rather poorly. Not to mention the two of us, who can't come up with any title at all, and are then probably called commoners. That the roles on a sailing ship can be reversed once in a while, and that a baroness and a baron have their practical sides, will become clear in the course of the channel passage.

Photo: Courtesy of SY Zapoli; Irene and Peter

Irene and Peter, from the SY Zapoli, we get to know in a WhatsApp group, in which I put a request for linehandler for the Panama Canal. That they take above-mentioned position in the company, had both, with their job interview suppressed. Actually a reason for dismissal, but since both come across very sympathetic at their inaugural visit and assure us credibly to be able to hold a line, we conclude the contract by handshake. Reinhold from the SY Mare is also there, whom we helped as line handlers during his channel crossing. With Gaby, who acts in the double function as linehandler and cook, the team is complete. I, as skipper, am in charge and responsible for keeping the Advisor fit. All boats under 65ft. get an Advisor on board, while boats above that need a pilot. The Advisor's job is to maintain contact with the signal station and keep an eye on vessel traffic. In doing so, he gives instructions on when and how to navigate the locks, and advises on passing and oncoming vessels.

Photo: Kindly left by SY Zapoli; On the way to the first Atlantic lock

One day before our Panama Canal passage, we get the time from our agent. I swallow hard when I read that I have to be in the anchorage at four o'clock in the morning and report my presence to the Cristobal signal station via channel 12. The agent recommends that we leave the marina in the evening and spend the night in the anchorage. We follow this recommendation, because on the one hand the wind is very strong and we like to have the help of the dockmaster, who is not available in the morning at four o'clock, and on the other hand we have an additional security to be on site in time. A postponement, for which the skipper is responsible, can be very expensive. So we cast off the lines in the late afternoon, before our actual crossing, in Shelter Bay Marina and bolt against the fiercely blowing wind to reach the anchor field where we are to pick up the Advisor tomorrow morning. The anchor holds well in the mud, only the comfort leaves much to be desired at 25 knots. The crew seems to care little about this, but the expectations are much too great to think about the rocking. Although we are behind the Breakwater wall, there is quite a movement in the ship. Irene and Peter have a lot of sailing experience and can tell a lot. On their trip they had a lot of bad luck when the mast of their catamaran literally came through the ceiling. The settlement of the damage is still pending and dragging on. We owe it to this fate to have the two on board.

Photo: Courtesy of SY Zapoli; Here we go

It's still dark, the wind has freshened a bit since yesterday and blows with 20 knots from the northeast. The alarm clock has rung and I stand wide-legged in front of the sink and brush my teeth, as it screams down from above, "the Advisor is coming". Sure enough, I hear the powerful engines of the tuck boat that is to drop the Advisor off at our place. The swell and the wind do not make the maneuver easy, but you can see that the captain of the tuck boat is not doing this for the first time. Carefully he approaches to port and with one leap the Advisor is on board with us. After a short greeting it is anchor up and full throttle towards the first lock. With us still another English, 44ft. Yacht is being locked. So we are tied together to a package in front of the lock and enter behind a thick ship that just fits into the lock. The monkey fists fly to starboard and everyone pulls in their heads. On a care line, the mooring lines are pulled up. Since we are in the pack, we are only responsible for the starboard lines, while the port lines are led by our English partner boat.

Photo: Courtesy of SY Zapoli; In the package

The lock gate slowly closes and we say goodbye to the Atlantic. Immediately after closing the chamber, it is flooded and the two linehandlers have their hands full to get the lines tight. Irene and Gaby watch with interest, but are secretly happy not to have to lend a hand. Yes, and I actually find time to have a sip of coffee. With the decision to start in the morning, a one-day trip is given by the canal company. Otherwise, there is the other option of going into the Atlantic locks in the evening and spending the night in Lake Gatun. Then the next day you sail through the lake to the Pacific locks and practically sail through the canal in two days. The one-day option is a bit more stressful because you have to get up very early and get into Lake Gatun relatively late. You then have about five hours to the Pacific locks and leave the last lock at nightfall. Depending on where you then want to spend the night, you arrive at the anchor field at dark. Which variant catches one, one has not in the hand and lies completely alone in the discretion of the channel company.

The tuck boats hold the fat ship in position

Anyway, the fat ship is pulled into the second lock by four locomotives and helps a little with the propeller. The log shows 2.5 knots and the mooring ropes sit tight on the cleat. Then the lines are released and pulled back on board. "Pull pull pull" the Advisor yells and I think to myself, now we are on a Roman galley. I just imagine how Reinhold calculates the power triangle and Peter gets quite sweaty. But the two are holding up excellently and when the monkey fists are back on board I drive slowly behind the fat ship into the second lock chamber.

Photo: Kindly left by SY Zapoli; Thick ship in the lock

It is not until 10:00 a.m. that we come out of the third lock in Lake Gatun and now have a five-hour trip ahead of us to the next lock. For the Katinka this means full throttle. The wind is still very strong and blows partly from behind, but also from diagonally ahead. Always just at the edge of the fairway we shave one red buoy after the other. For lunch we have Pasta Asciutta and the crew is supplied with enough fruit by Gaby. The Advisor is asked holes in the belly, which he answers with pleasure. It is impressive when a big ship passes by and you can watch the bow wave not even 50 meters away from you. During the trip on the lake one does not get bored. There is always something to see. Nevertheless, I was very tense the whole time. As a line handler a few weeks earlier, I was able to enjoy the ride through the channel much better. Now I constantly have in the back of my mind, will the engine hold, will my solar panels stay whole when the next monkey fist flies, or will we get to the next lock in time.

Photo: Courtesy of SY Zapoli; Lake Gatun, Panama

The English have now disappeared from our sight, so we may have to enter the Pacific locks alone and need all four linehandlers on board. After we have passed the Rio Chagres at Gamboa and the Puente Centenario appears, it is not far to the lock chamber that lets us down into Lake Miraflores. The English yacht waits for us in front of the lock and we also have to wait for half an hour until the lock is prepared for the big ship and us. On the Pacific side we enter the lock first and then the container ship. So we try to hold the position despite wind and current, tie the two ships together again, after Ok of the lock crew, and enter the lock. A tuck boat pushes against the huge container ship we pass. Such a tuck boat has 10'000 hp and quite some power. The water ripples and as we enter the current, it moves us two meters at a stroke. The English boat and I steer fully against it and we get the direction back under control. The lock is called Pedro Miguel. We pass through Lago Miraflores in a pack and slowly drift towards the lock of the same name. The big ships give the time window and until such a ship is out of the lock, it takes a while.

Photo: Courtesy of SY Zapoli; shipping on the Panama Canal

When it is finally out, we are allowed to enter the first chamber of the last lock. It's a great feeling when the last gate of the lock opens and the Pacific Ocean lies before you. You notice how the stress falls off you and a feeling of happiness spreads that you have actually made it. We untie the lines from the English boat and sail past the container port to the Balboa Yacht Club. Here we hand in our fenders and lines. Afterwards we continue to Isla Flamenco where we drop anchor shortly before eight o'clock in the evening. Between Balboa Yacht Club and our anchorage, the advisor is picked up by a tuck boat. All in all, a long day that we will think back on all our lives. We would like to thank our linehandlers for their support during the channel crossing. I don't think we could have found better ones. It was above all an honor and reassuring to us to know that project, Panama Canal crossing, scientifically and nobly, accompanied and thus the significance of this section to have raised, and for us to have made an extraordinary experience. Also here in the Pacific we wish our readers fair winds and keep a stiff upper lip.

Photo: Courtesy of SY Zapoli; The Pacific ahead.