Friday, April 30, 2004

Panama Canal

Panama is great fun, and the whole canal bureacracy is not as bad as often made out. The trick is to get measured as quickly as possible - call the measurer on the first day and try and get on the schedule. On the first morning we were there, we saw the measurer being dropped off by a pilot boat and arranged for her to come to us even though we were not on the list. Once you have the measurement cert you then go and pay in the Citibank. We paid US$650 since we are less than 50 feet (at over 50 ft you will need to pay $850). You also pay about the same again as a deposit in case of delay resulting in additional cost for them. Citibank is a 5 min cab ride. Once you've paid, you call the scheduler and get a date. We had to wait 8 days. Whether the transit is completed within a day is really a function of whether the pilot comes at 5:00am or 8:00am. Ours came at 5:00am and we comfortably made through without having to push over cruising speed. One of the cats said they could do 7kts, were given the 8:00am slot and still couldn't get there in one day. Apart from the canal stuff, the Port Authority and Immigration need to be done twice - at the yacht club and in two different buildings in Colon. You will need 5 or 6 copies of passports and ships papers and a couple of passport photos.

Transiting the canal is a bit nerve racking but we had gone through on another boat before hand. Apart from the helm, you need four line-handlers, and the canal authority provides a pilot. It's a fantastic day out - the pilot boarded about 5:15am and we went straight for the Gatun locks (the 'up' locks). There are 3 locks and we were behind a Panamax car carrier. There is a lot of turbulence as the water rises (you rise about 30 feet in each of the 3 locks). There is a lot more as the ship starts it engines. The captain of the ship called us right before he started the engines to give us a warning. The ship is under its own power but also pulled by 8 locomotives. Panamax means it is designed for the canal and is 106 feet wide (which gives it 2 feet at either side, a tight squeeze really) and up to 967 feet long. The only thing to watch is that the four lines going off the yacht to the walls are reasonably taut and that the cleats are solid.

We then entered the artificial lake and motored about 25 miles to the next lock. At that stage the pressure is off and half the days work is done - and it's still only 8:00am. In the lake there is a lot to see - we saw two monkeys and several Toucans - but no crocodiles. There are also many tugs, dredgers, cranes, piling rigs, earthmovers in the lake, especially where they are widening the Gaillard Cut - the biggest stretch of excavation of the canal. There are also enormous cranes confiscated from the Germans at the end of WWI and WWII - and still in use. It is basically an engineer’s theme part. Our pilot was also a tug boat captain - he drives an 80 foot tug with twin 4,000 hp engines. A tug boat captain on the Panama Canal - how cool is that? He wears a t-shirt with the slogan 'Panama Canal - life's a ditch'.

After the Gaillard Cut we started down locking, there are also 3 'down' locks, with a 1 mile lake between the first and second. More turbulence and currents than on the way up, supposedly the mixing of the fresh and salt water in the last lock exacerbates it. When we line-handled on a friend’s boat, this is where we dinged the wall - even though there was no ship in the lock with us. In Pamina when we went down, a ship was behind us, but our lines held and thankfully we had no problems. There was a web cam on one of the locks and my dad got some stills of us going through.

We will leave for the 1000nm passage for Galapagos today in spite of heavy rain which seems to be a local effect. The wind looks reasonable for the trip and it is as good a time as any to set off.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Arrival in Panama

We arrived in Panama on 15th April - fast 8 day passage for the 1200 miles from Grenada. lots of favourable tide. Have met up with Top to Top and Finale as well as 3 ARC boats that are all going to NZ. Colon is a dive, but the yacht club is fine. We sorted our measurement and got our date for transit the day after arrival, but still have to wait for this Friday (23rd April) for our turn. We went through yesterday on another boat - it is good fun, but quite a long day as you are up for 3:30 for collection by 4:00 and the trip starts about 5:00. No real hassles, I hope our trip is as straightforward.