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An OCC adventure transiting the Panama Canal

by Jenevora Swann 27 May 08:30 UTC
Two Drifters' Panama Canal Crossing Team (Back) Andy Nelson, Fergus Dunipace, (Front) Alison Nelson, JuanJo Boschetti and Jenevora Swann. © Ocean Cruising Club

After three years of sailing in the Caribbean, it was time for s/v Two Drifters to say goodbye to the Atlantic and go in search of new adventures in the Pacific Ocean.

To get there we had to go through the infamous Panama Canal. At 50-miles long, it's an essential nautical shortcut between two oceans; saving a long and hazardous trip around Cape Horn.

Transiting the Panama Canal on a yacht requires considerable planning, preparation, phone calls and paperwork, not to mention a reasonable budget. Some people use an agent, but we decided to save money and do it ourselves. Once we got to grips with the formalities, we found it was a surprisingly easy process.

We completed the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) online forms and arranged a date for their admeasurer to inspect our boat and clear us for transit. To meet the admeasurer, we headed into Shelter Bay Marina, just a few miles from the gateway to the Panama Canal.

As a vessel under 125 feet, we were classed for a handline transit, which means, while in a lock, the lines between the boat and the shore are moved by people.

In addition to our skipper, Fergus, the ACP insisted we had four competent line handlers on board, plus an official adviser to direct and navigate us through the canal. While at Shelter Bay Marina, we met with many friends old and new, and during a gathering of OCC members on board s/v Tourterelle, hosted by Ian and Ann Clarke, we recruited our line handlers. On Two Drifters, we enlisted Alison and Andy Nelson from s/v Venture Lady and JuanJo Boschetti, Shelter Bay's general manager and OCC Port Officer for Panama (Caribbean).

We arranged to transit the canal in tandem with Tourterelle and their OCC line handling team comprised Dan and Lori Carlson from s/v BeBe and Claire and Andrew Glasspool from s/v Tintamarre.

Panama Canal transits can be stressful, but being in the company of these experienced sailors made it a fun and jovial experience. The camaraderie of sharing such a unique trip also sealed some wonderful friendships. Some vessels go through the canal fast enough to see the sun rise over the Atlantic and set in the Pacific. But we took a leisurely two days to witness this manmade engineering phenomenon first hand; with an evening departure to make it through the first set of locks, followed by an overnight on a ship's buoy in Gatun Lake.

Yachts often enter the locks rafted together and along with Tourterelle, an Allures 45, our other companion was s/v Hoodoo, a 38ft catamaran. As a Lagoon 440 catamaran with twin engines, Two Drifters was chosen as the centre boat. It was exciting as well as nerve-racking following a 240ft long passenger ship into the mile-long Gatun Lock, and it was a huge responsibility for Fergus, on the helm. Carefully steering the rafted boats into each of the three-linked chambers, he had to judge the distance on either side to keep the boats off the walls, while dealing with a strong current running through the lock. Our adviser, who was in constant VHF contact with the lockmaster and the advisers on the other boats, was very quick to call instructions on speed or engine changes to prevent any issues taking place.

In the lock, thin lines, with a monkey fist at the end, were thrown down from linesmen on the shore to the boats on either side of us. Their line handlers had to be fast to attach the throw lines to the long yacht lines, using a bowline. These were then hauled up by the linesmen and made fast, so the entire raft was secured within the lock by four lines; two each side, fore and aft. When the huge lock doors closed behind us, water flooded in, which was oddly disconcerting, as we ascended 85 feet through the three chambers. Once clear of the lock, the raft separated and we motored to the ship's buoy in Gatun Lake to spend the night.

The next day, it was a leisurely four-hour motor through the canal's waterways to get to Pedro Miguel, the second lock. This time, our raft went into the lock first, with an extremely wide cargo vessel following us in. Understanding how quickly the rafted boats could corkscrew in the locks, Fergus worked well with the skippers from the other two yachts to control the nest; playing the catamaran's twin throttles like an instrument while the adviser called the direction and speed. As the water filtered out of the lock, we descended gradually; bringing us closer to sea level. Exiting Pedro Miquel Lock, with the cargo vessel hot on our heels, it was just a 20-minute motor to Miraflores, our final lock.

However, at the entrance to the lock, we hadn't counted on 15-20 knots of wind. The wind, combined with 3 - 4 knots of current from behind, made it more challenging and stressful for Fergus to guide the boats safely into the two-chamber lock. The wind blowing us to port and the current running with us, meant constant use of reverse on the throttles to stop the raft getting out of control or hitting the lock wall. In the two-chamber Miraflores Lock, as the water dropped to sea level, we felt very small against the high canyon walls, the looming lock gates and the hulk of the 106ft wide cargo vessel behind.

As the final lock gates opened, we let out a loud cheer, we had it safely through the Panama Canal and were now in the Pacific Ocean; ready for the next adventure!

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Ocean Cruising Club.

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