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Discovery Transits the Panama Canal

Bocas Surfing
We follow this guy

After saying sad goodbyes to the whole crew in Bocas we took two days trying to get some sleep, then departed for Colon. It was a fast, easy sail. With building winds out of the north Discovery took flight as she hadn’t in weeks, covering the 140 miles in no time. We arrived the Shelter Bay Marina by late Wednesday afternoon and quickly began arranging our transit of the Panama Canal. We’d already lined up an agent, a giant of a guy named Stanley who doesn’t waste time. We’d no sooner tied up the boat when he arrived, cell phone ringing incessantly, favors being called in, dollar signs adding up. But he got it done. Some boats wait for weeks to get through the canal. He arranged a slot for us Friday evening, 48 hours and closing.

Panama Canal
Entering the canal

On Thursday we did as much to the boat as we could. Our windlass was down, I found water in the sail drive (transmission) of the port engine, the boat was still a mess from the Bocas trip. Nico, Jody and I were a collective disaster. Red eyed and worn out. We had to move off the dock to make way for a tide of incoming boats who were part of a blue water rally, which took us off water and power but no mind, we didn’t have the energy to clean anyway. I changed our prop zincs, decided there wasn’t anything I could do about the other problems, and just chucked the long list of haven’t dones into my tired brain.

Panama Canal transit
Second lock, going up

By Friday morning Nico and I still needed to visit immigration (we’d overstayed our visa by a month- a few greenbacks would solve the problem), and I needed to tie on the protective tires (6 on each side required for “lockage”), buy food for the crew, update the web site, order spares, organize Discovery, and try to calm down. You have to have 4 line handlers- we had Jody, Nico, Francis (who was waiting in Colon for a new engine and offered to help, which I gladly took), Dave and Erin (friends from the Bocas event). So we had plenty, but as Francis was the only one who knew what he was doing (he’d been through 6 other times) I also hired a pro, Rudy who had been through many many hundreds of times.

Panama Canal
View from above

We sailed the short distance from Shelter Bay to the Colon anchorage at 1400 hours and waited for Rudy and our Advisor to board (every boat through the canal has a mandatory advisor stationed on board. This person is the liaison with the captain of the boat and will direct the line crew. He/she must be fed and taken care of, but will not take control of the boat unless the captain is incapable of the job.) By 1530 we were ready to go. Our advisor handed me all the paperwork and guidelines, of which one clearly states that if for any reason your vessel delays lockage or passage through the canal you must pay the full amount of the transit (in our case about $1200 US), plus a number of very heavy fines. Then of course, you have to arrange another passage.

Panama Canal transit
Handling the lines

And that’s when our windlass stopped working. Jody went forward to bring up the anchor with the winds blowing a solid 20+ knots, a large container vessel which we were to follow just heading into the channel. We had ten, maybe fifteen minutes to get the anchor up, otherwise we’d lose our spot, and pay the fines. With another trip heading out in 5 days (from the Pacific side), it was not an option I wanted to entertain. I urged my tired brain to come up with something. By hand? Would take too long, if it was even possible (180 feet of 1/2 inch chain is not a light endeavor). I tore open the control box, grabbed a screwdriver and just shorted the positive leads. It was a sparky, hair raising affair (at one point the screwdriver actually caught on fire- the metal part), but the windlass worked, albeit begrudgingly, and we got in line.

Panama Canal transit
Massive eh?

I’m happy to say the rest of the trip was an absolute delight; a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We went through “center-chamber”, which meant we would have two much smaller mono hulls tie up alongside, I would be in charge of driving our flotilla of boats, and our boat’s crew would handle the lines. With a catamaran and two strong engines it was not a hard job, even with all of the wind. The locks are enormous- over 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide. We had a large cargo ship in front of us and still had room to spare. By sundown we were in the first lock. Two guys on each side of the locks huck down monkey fists to the crew, who tie them onto our own 120′ dock lines. My job was to keep us straight and centered, and moving at 2 knots. With a strong tail wind it was stressful, but the impressiveness of being in such a mammoth operation overshadowed my fear. When the chamber begins to fill up the waters become a cauldron of roiling water, churning in all directions. The waters rise very fast, the depth sounder lodging the height change like the clicks of a clock.

Panama Canal transit
Humbling being next to these

Three locks carry you up 80 feet to the level of Gatun lake, the second largest man-made lake in the world. By 2000 hours we’d transited the first set of locks, untied from the other two boats and motored a gentle 5 minutes to a soft mooring ball and settled in for a night on the lake. The lake, which is indeed massive is a natural reserve and hosts a wide range of amazing flora and fauna. Howler monkeys, toucans, sloths, crocodiles…

Panama Canal transit
Miraflores locks, Day 2

Our advisor de boarded and we all tucked into a nice dinner and an early evening under a vast canopy of stars. The Howler monkeys, we were told would wake us early and it would be a long day across the lake (5 hours) and down the other set of locks, which lower you into the Pacific.

Panama Canal transit
40 of these pass every day

The remainder of the trip was equally as lovely. Many of our friends and family got to watch us descend the Miraflores locks on a live video feed the canal provides into the Pacific and we all agreed in was an extraordinary experience. We sailed past one massive container ship, cargo ship, car carrier, after another. The largest of which have to pay as much as a half million dollars for transit. Being right up against one of these hulks is a sobering experience. And a reminder of all the crap that gets moved around the world to satiate our burgeoning need for material goods. It is awesome and sickening at the same time.

Panama Canal transit
Bridge of the Americas, we enter the Pacific

We finally motored under the Bridge of the Americas and took a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club, which is nothing more than a very long dock (the tides here range upwards of 18 feet) and a small restaurant. Discovery will not see another marina for nearly 2 years, across all of the South Pacific and Micronesia.

About The Cabrinha Quest

Introducing The Cabrinha Quest- a seafaring expedition to seek out the world’s most remote and dynamic kitesurfing and surfing locations. A quest to experience native cultures in their natural state. To consciously explore the Oceans of the world with passion, integrity, and sensitivity to the cultures and ecosystems we inhabit.
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