A different type of adventure

Trip Start Jul 21, 2009
Trip End Apr 28, 2010

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On the guest bed

Flag of Panama  ,
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The facts:
When a boat passes through the Panama Canal, they are required to have at least 5 people on board, in addition to the Captian of the boat.  The first person is called either an advisor (for a private yacht type of boat) or a pilot (for a commercial barge or such), and is essentially responsible for coordination.  They set the rules for when you pass through the canal, how you do it, and all the details in between.  This person is specially trained and employed by the Panama Canal authorities.  The next four people are typically refered to as line handlers.  Their job is to keep the boat centered as the locks fill or empty, to prevent the boat from smashing into the walls or the locks themselves.

The rumor:

Weīve heard a few times through the backpacker grapevine that itīs possible to find a position as a linehandler, and pick up the opportunity to pass through the canal in a very unique way.  The advantage to you is that get to go through the canal, and itīs supposed to be very cool.  The advantage to the boat is that youīre willing to work for free.

The search:
When we arrived in Panama City (nearly two weeks ago now) we started asking around to see if this was really possible.  The general concensus was that technically, yes.  It was possible.  Difficult, time consuming, unlikely, and oh by the way -- this is the wrong season.  But sure, itīs technically possible. 

With that encouraging start, we headed down to the Balboa Yacht Club on our first Sunday in town, and started to ask around.  There was nothing to be found, but we left a sign on the bulliten board, and hoped.  We were refered to the Playita Marina, down the road -- no luck.  They refered us to the Flamenco Yacht Club, just a bit further down.  Nada.  Hoping that our sign would pan out, we headed into the Darien.  When we returned, we made the same rounds this past Sunday -- nothing.  A few vauge leads, but nothing we could work with. 
This time of year, most of the small yachts come from the Carribean side to the Pacific side, rather than vice versa.  So on Monday, John and I decided to spend the day expanding our search at the Shelter Bay Marina outside of Colon.  After a loooong trip there (including a shortcut attempt gone horribly wrong), we arrived at the yacht club around 11:30 in the morning and started asking around.  It was about 3 hours after we had planned to arrive, and six hours after we had left our hostel.

Shelter Bay was more promising in one major respect -- the marina staff allowed us on the docks.  Although they (again...) didnīt know of anyone who was looking for line handlers, they were willing to let us ask ourselves.  Within 10 minutes of walking up and down the docks (there are two), we heard exactly what we really didnīt want to hear:  "Why werenīt you here two hours ago?!?!?"  Apparently, that boat had just called the agency that morning to arrange for line handlers.  Without our unplanned delay, this could have been our lucky boat.

We kept looking, and eventually we had spoken to everyone there.  It's a small marina, so we passed many people multiple times, and everyone was very encouraging -- wishing us good luck, telling us to "keep asking!" and trying to think of who they knew who might be going through the canal soon.  There were a few people who had taken the morning shuttle into town, so John and I grabbed lunch at the restaurant while we waited for them to return.  After lunch, we returned to the docks, but with the same luck -- each boat we spoke to wasnīt going to transit soon or had line handlers already.  There were only two possible yachts left -- a pair of catamarans, whose owners were nowhere to be found.  Heading back to the dock, we passed by the same boat captian who had asked where we were early that morning, and he asked us how our progress was going.  We chatted with him for a minute, then he asked us to wait a second while he stepped inside.

The boat:
While this guy stepped into his boat and made a phone call, John and I waited on the dock, and started guessing.  This guy already had line handlers... but maybe... or maybe he had a friend... or maybe he... who knows.  Eventually, he came back out and invited us on board.  After introducing himself, his friend and his boat, Ole told us what time we would need to return the following day.  It took a minute for it to sink in that, somehow, we had found a boat!!!!!!  Especially considering that they already had met their linehandler requirements, John and I were super excited and grateful to be invited to join the crew.

The plan:
Their transit was scheduled for the following day.  We would leave the marina early afternoon, and arrive to "the flats" where we would pick up our advisor, and begin our transit through the first set of locks. After spending the night on Gatun Lake, we would set off again the next morning to proceed through the rest of the canal, including the last two sets of locks, arriving at the Pacific side sometime Wednesday afternoon.

Day One: Departure
For John and I, the day started extremely early, and we left our hostel back in Panama City shortly after 5 am to make our way to the bus station.  We eventually arrived at the marina, and met everyone on board.  The captain of the boat, Ole and his wife, Janet, have been living on their boat ever since leaving Miami nearly two and a half years ago. Eventually, theyīre making their way from a temporary home in Miami to their home in Seattle.  Also on board were their friends, Dale and Linda.  Also from Seattle, and also owners of a nearly identical boat, they were here to visit, then to boat-sit for 10 weeks while Ole and Janet went back to work.  We also met Thomson, the more experienced line handler, who had picked up a new designation as the "line handler boss" to coordinate Dale, Linda, John and myself who would be helping as line handlers.

The boat itself, named Emma Jo, is a 49 foot power boat -- complete with things like two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, etc.  You can check it out (and view their take on things) at www.emmajo.net

Around 12:30, after lunch aboard the boat, we left the marina for the 30 minute trip to the flats.  Although the adviser wasnīt scheduled to arrive until 5, we needed to be there and ready by 2:00, just in case.  This quickly turned into a waiting game, and in the end the adviser arrived around 7:30 or so.  We passed the time chatting, getting to know our hosts and eating dinner.  John and I also flipped through a small book explaining the process of transiting through the canal.  The book desribed in great detail all the things that could go wrong, and the damage that could be done to the boats or locks.  Not terribly reassuring last minute information!

Eventually, our first advisor, Ivan, came aboard, and we learned the plan for the evening.  We would be going through the locks "nested", meaning that we would be tied up to two other boats, with us in the center.  The two other boats would be the 41 foot catamarans that we had seen earlier in the marina.  In theory, this would make the transit much easier.  As the center boat, we would hook up to the other boats, then sit back and relax -- itīs the responsibility of the two outer boats to keep things centered and such.

The set of locks for this first night, the Gatun Locks, consist of three separate chambers, and youīre going up.  So you enter the first chamber, get ready, and water comes flooding in -- 26 million gallons of water, or there abouts.  Up-locking is considered to be the more dangerous part, since all that water comes in from the bottom of the lock,and creates a good deal of turbulance in the lock chamber.  This also makes it more difficult to hold the boat in place, and insure that it doesnīt smash against the walls or the other boats.  After this process, you proceed forward into the next lock and do it all over again, three times in total.  Each lock is 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long, so thereīs plenty of space.  In addition to the power boat and the two cats, there would also be a rather large barge in the lock, in front of us.

We set out from the flats, and entered the path into the canal.  For the entire length of the canal, the set path is marked with a series of bouys -- red on the right,and green on the left. Even through the lakes and wider parts, these bouys mark the deeper canal through the shallow waters, and each boat is expected to follow directly through this path.  At night, the bouys are lit, and as we approached, you could see a clear path to the locks.  The three sets of locks were lit up in white, and each one was visibly higher than the next.  It was a perfectly lit path to a boat staircase.

As we approached the locks, the first cat came up on our right, and we tied the two boats together with a series of 4 lines.  We learned that the cats were being transported to Tahiti for a private charter.  What a job -- pick up a luxury sailboat and sail it from Panama (or France?  they were flying a French flag) to Tahiti, through the canal -- and get paid on top.  Once the first was in place, the other cat was secured to the other side, and we approached the first set of locks. 

The plan was fairly simple -- our boat would drive the group, using our motor and steering, and the other two would sit back and go along for the ride.  As we approached the locks, we were aiming not towards the center of the canal, but very far starboard.  So far, in fact, that the catamaran nearly smashed into the wall of the locks -- one of the deckhands leaned over to help push the boats off the wall.  As it turned out, neither captain on the cats had any interest in simply going along for the ride.  In particular, the captain on the left (port) was driving left-right-front-back entirely on his own will, with no regard to the advisors or other boats.  It was with exceeding difficulty that we made it into the lock and reasonably close to center without hurting anyone or any of the boats.  This, as you could expect, caused quite a bit of tension on the boat. 

Eventually, we managed to get the nest centered and secured.  We watched as their line handlers went through the process, and our boat captain discussed the situation with the advisor.  The gates closed, we found ourselves sitting in the bottom of a very tall steel box.  After the excitement of getting into the lock, we barely had time to catch our breath before the water started rushing in and the boats started to rise.  During this time, it was decided that nesting the three boats wasnīt going to work, and the plan was revised.  After this first lock, we would unhook ourselves from the two cats, and move ahead.  The two cats would join each other, and we would go through the remaining locks by ourselves.  In other words, we would have to work!

When the first lock was filled, and everyone survived unharmed, things moved very very quickly.  One at a time, the cats on each side were released, and with a great bit of relief, our boat pulled forward and left them behind.  As we reached our position in the next lock chamber, the same process played out in each of the four corners of our boat:

From nearly 60 feet above, a worker threw down a narrow line with a heavy ball at the end, known as a monkeyīs fist. This was used to tie their little line to our heavy lines.  Then the workers pulled up, so that our 125-foot long lines reached up to be secured at the top of the wall.  From the boat, we secured the other end to the corner of the boat, adjusting tension to center the boat in the canal.  Watching behind us, we could see the two cats struggling to move in a straight line to find their position.  When we (and the barge and the two cats) were in place, the water started to fill the lock.  As you go up, the distance between the boat and the top of the lock decreases, and slack develops in the line.  The goal is to pull in this slack quickly and re-secure the line, over and over.  All while coordinating with the other three corners to make sure no one corner pulls too fast and sets the boat out of allignment from the center.  As it turns out, this is more difficult than I would have expected!  I think John and I, at least, were glad to see that there was at least one very experienced handler helping us out and telling us when to pull, etc.  (To clarify, the other two --Dale and Linda -- had passed through smaller but similar locks in the Pacific Northwest,so they at least knew roughly what they were doing).

The third lock chamber went similarly to the second, and in the end, we seemed to have made it allright.  With just one boat, we were able to stay plenty far away from the edges of the canal, and although it wasnīt perfect, the boat stayed straight enough to avoid any problems.  When the water finished rising in the third chamber, we stayed put a bit longer.  The large barge in front of us had to leave first. When that happens, the prop wash from their movement causes additional turbulance in the chamber, so we didnīt untie the lines until that had passed.

Eventually, we exited the Gatun Locks, having successfully completed the first section of the transit through the canal.  We dropped of that dayīs advisor, and headed over to the designated mooring bouy only to find it was located frightingly close to three other boats (two large tour boats, and a sport fishing boat).  Whatīs more, the two cats were headed in the same direction.  Bailing on this plan, we headed closer to the shore of the lake, and dropped anchor.

Somewhere after midnight, we gathered in the salon of the boat for a boat custom -- they always have a shot when the anchor drops.  When the shots and the brownies were finished, everyone crashed.  Our new advisor would be arriving around 6 the next morning.

Day Two: Arrival

By 5:30 the next morning, the boat was awake, and I was eating breakfast and drinking tea while overlooking Gatun Lake.  Gatun was, at the time of the canalīs creation, the largest man-made lake in the world.  At over 160 square miles, itīs now topped by a lake in Paraguay that was formed when a dam was built near Iguasu Falls to gain hydroelectric power.  After a morning flurry and rush of activity, our advisor, Roy, came on board roughly on time, and we discovered that our time slot for the next set of locks (about a 2.5 hour boat ride away) would be at noon.  That gave us plenty of time for a leisurly breakfast and a slow boat ride down the canal before we had to arrive.

For the most part, we were passing through Gatun Lake, and the size of the lake and position of the canal meant that the shoreline was a ways away.  John got a chance to drive the boat for a while, and did a fabulous job of avoiding the large barges coming from the other direction.  We spent the morning lounging around different areas of the boat, watching things go by from the bridge up top, or the sides.  John and I saw a monkey once as we passed close to the shore.  As we approached the Gallard Cut, which is the narrowest part of the canal, it started to rain.  This portion was dug straight through a mountian, and was the location of numberous landslides that plagued the construction of the canal.  Even after construction was over, the landslides continued.  Today, you can see a very steeply terraced landscape, with all sorts of re-enforcements, including beams that are drilled horizontally deep into the earth.  In several areas, rivers of muddy rain water washed down the sides.  We also passed several areas along the way where they are getting ready for the expansion of the canal.  Fancy oversized drills dig deep holes, into which plastic tubes are inserted. Explosives are dropped to the bottom of these holes and detonated, and the remaining rubble is dredged out.

Finally, after an early lunch, we passed the Centennial Bridge, and began to prepare for the next set of locks.  Although it was still raining, the heavy downpour seemed to have let up, which is always nice. 

For the remaining locks, we would be going down, rather than up.  This makes for an easier, smoother transit, as the water is drained from the bottom of the lock, and you donīt get the same turbulance that you get going up.  In addition, our advisor called his pilot friend aboard one of the tour boats, and arranged for us to transit with them.  They would attach to the side of the lock, and we would attach to them.  Their line handlers would be responsible for letting out the slack as we went down, and we would simply be along for the ride.

The first lock for the day was Pedro Miguel.  Short and sweet, thereīs only one chamber to this lock.  In total, there would be seven boats in the lock -- three tour boats, the fishing boat we docked with last night, us, and the two cats.  The fishing boat would also be paired with a tour boat, and the two cats would bring up the rear nested together.  As we entered the first lock, things went fairly smooth.  The biggest problem proved to be connecting our boat to the tour boat, as the distance between the decks made it difficult to pass the lines across.  However, we connected without problems, and before I realized we were dropping, I looked out and saw that the water level had already dropped 4 to 5 feet in the lock

Casting off from the tour boat, we headed out of the Pedro Miguel lock and traveled down the last nautical mile to the Miraflores Locks.  The Miraflores locks are also downward locks in this direction, with two chambers to pass through. This is also where the visitor center and museum are located, so there would be lots of people on shore watching.  Thereīs also a webcam here, and Ole and Jan were excited to hear by cell phone that some of their friends would in fact be watching us pass through. 

As we headed into the first chamber, we joined up again with the tour boat.  As before, connecting the two boats was slightly difficult, and made worse by the fact that there is a slight current flowing through the Miraflores Locks which pushes the boats around.  The boat got pushed around a bit, but we eventually were in place, and lowered another 27 feet.

Passing between the first and second chambers, we disconnected first from the tour boat.  When the tour boats were in place, we entered the second chamber and attempted to pull up next to our boat.  With the bow in place, the captain tried to maneuver the stern up to the tour boat, but the current in the lock was too strong.  Seconds later, there was a bit of excitement as the boat turned.  Secured in place in the front, it was impossible to control the direction, and the boat swung around 90 degrees, so we were perpendicular to the direction of the canal.  Oops!  The front of the boat was released, and they were able to straighten the boat.  We instead approached the tour boat in front of us, and secured the yacht into place. 

The remainder of the lock process passed without incident, and before we knew it, we were done. Just a little bit further was the Bridge of the Americas, which marked the end of the canal and the enterance to the Pacific Ocean.  This was also the location of the Balboa Yacht Club, where our hosts would be stopping and where John and I would be getting off.

A small dinghy lead the yacht to their designated mooring location, and we quickly learned that this same dinghy would be taking Thomson, John and I to land.  So we quickly grabbed our bags and said our goodbyes, and headed back to dry land. 

Overall, it was a fantastic experience.  A special thanks again to Ole, Jan, Dale and Linda for allowing us to tag along on such a unique journey!

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Kathy on

After reading and worrying thru all that graphic and detailed description, I see a picture of Kim AND A DOG! Now I know something has happened to her!!!

Jan Pedersen on

Thanks for a wonderful description of your experience with us! We were delighted to have you aboard, and appreciated very much your taking the trip as seriously as you did...made the rest of the drama easy to take! We'll be posting to our website later in the month - I'm doing an article for our boat association magazine and will send you a copy. All the best in your travels!
Jan and Ole

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