L O G B O O K - by John Philp




PANAMA CANAL


MON 8th MAY - We have a steady nor’easterly at our backs as we sail the last few miles from Cuba to Panama. Dozens of large ships are anchored out here in the brown, green water, waiting their turn to transit the canal.

Our’s is a rather inauspicious arrival into the breakwater port of San Cristobal. It is grey and dull, and the visibility is poor. We anchor near the Panama Canal Yacht Club, and make contact with a local agent who will facilitate our transit.

TUE 9th - We hope to transit soon as there is very little to do here. A friend wrote in his 1977 voyaging book that the town was known for, ‘a ruthless thuggery carried out on the unsuspecting’. It’s touching that nothing has changed... There are two security guards at the grocery store, one armed with a Remington semi automatic rifle, so I figure life can get serious in these parts.

Panama languishes in a muggy, oppressive heat as the wet season approaches, brief showers passing over every so often. We seek sanctuary in the yacht club bar, where the beer is as cold as the air conditioning and there are yachties to swap stories with. The Panama Yacht Club is a shabby, run-down establishment, but here, as in Colon we meet the nicest people. The taxi drivers especially, are most obliging and well informed.

WED 10th - The Captain met a colourful character in the bar yesterday called Louis who seems to know everyone in this town. Louis takes us touring today. First to the Gatun Locks at the canal for a close up look, where we see a pair of tankers ascending ninety feet up from sea level as they pass southwards. Then to the ruins of Fort de Lorenzo, a fortification guarding the entrance to the river down which Spanish gold from South America was transported in the sixteenth century. From here the gold was shipped to Spain via Havana. English pirate Henry Morgan ransacked San Lorenzo during a spree down the Spanish Main - quite a feat as it was extremely well fortified; there are impenetrable cliffs on three sides.

THUR 11th - Waiting, waiting... still no confirmation from our agent.

FRI 12th - Finally, we get confirmation today. A launch pulls alongside and deposits our pilot. We motor up to the Gatun Locks to meet an American catamaran that will be transiting with us, and ‘raft’ together before motoring into the first lock. Two linesmen on either side throw out light lines, cowboy style, with weighted ‘monkey’s fist’s’ on the ends. We catch these and immediately fasten them to our heavy ropes. Once we’re in position in the chamber behind a Panamanian freighter the linesmen haul in our ropes, and tie them off on the chamber walls forty feet above us. Then, the heavy iron doors swing shut behind us and water is pumped into the compartment, twenty six million gallons in all, to raise us thirty feet. The freighter then motors into the next compartment, identical to this one - 1000 foot long and 110 feet wide. It is assisted by four electric ‘mules’ on rails, using wire cable to prevent it from drifting into the sides of the chamber, under the radio directions of the pilot on board. We motor forward as well, once the freighter is stationary and the water is no longer boiling with it’s wash. The linesmen walk our lines forward and re-attach them.

We go through three chambers in this fashion. It is awe inspiring looking back from the top of the final chamber and seeing the ocean far below us! Here our journey ends for the day. Tau is now on a body of fresh water called Lake Gatun, ninety feet above both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. We swim off the yacht in the evening, but not too leisurely, mindful of the 4.5meter Cayman crocodile recently captured here.

SAT 13th - When our new pilot boards in the morning we immediately steam twenty three miles across the lake and arrive just in time to make our slot, behind a freighter from Hong Kong. Here we are lowered thirty feet, before motoring a mile across Miraflores Lake to the final two locks. This time we are sequestered with a tug, and a freighter, for the final elevator ride down to the Pacific Ocean.

It’s a miserable rainy welcome to the Pacific. We pass under the Bridge of the America’s, which links north and south America and anchor off the Balboa Yacht Club in Panama City for a grocery stop. Finally, as dusk gathers over a grey and lonely central American landscape we motor off in a SW direction towards the Galapagos Islands, a thousand miles away.

SUN 14th - Dawn heralds dull skies, passing showers and very little breeze.

A fish hit’s the line while Captain is taking an open air shower - with not a stitch of clothing on! He pounces on the rod, but Lydia shrieks at him to put his shorts on, and when he has taken care of this the fish has vanished! He’s still bummed about that... (pardon the pun). In any case we’d caught a small Mahimahi earlier and enjoy a sensational dinner of fresh fish, kumala (sweet potato), and salad.

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