Crossing the Panama Canal

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The final moment as the Mirafloras lock opens to welcome us to the Pacific Ocean is an emotional moment. Especially after the 45 miles of the Panama canal, and three sets of locks done after 2 days.  So interesting but so exhausting! The history, swirling currents, proximity of large ships, the sheer size of the lock  – this is not like the locks on the St. Laurence river that we are used to!

Each boat needs four line handlers, the Captain to drive the boat, and an Advisor on board. Pleasure craft, such as BioTrek are rafted together in nests, and stay nested for the locks. The middle boat controls the nest with the advisor in the middle boat in charge of advising the fleet. This is very different from the large ships that are pulled through the locks by trains.

Our raft to go through the canal was special – three large catamarans. BioTrek was the middle boat in the last raft of boats, with Pom3 and Endless Joy on each side of us. The head advisor on BioTrek.

 Our raft was the largest raft to ever go through the canal!  We were almost 90 ft wide and the canal is only 110 ft wide. No room for error! An error could mean one of the boats crushed against the side as the waters rose in the first lock at Gatun.

Our Advisor talked constantly, giving instructions to the other Advisors in the nest, chatting with Pierre about currents and conditions to expect, shouting instructions to the line handlers and so on. When BioTrek was not in a lock, he chatted about history and Panama politics, how to do this and that, natural history – an endless source of information. Our advisor sat in the side seat beside Pierre, or was standing beside Pierre, all while Pierre stayed at the helm to drive the boat. No rest for the Captain!

Our passage started on the Atlantic side at the Gatun lock, a series of three locks. When the first lock opens you are already in the chamber for the second lock and the nest of boats proceeds directly into the second lock. Our passage through the Gatun series appeared uneventful, but Pierre said it was intense controlling the three boats with the rising waters and swirling currents.

We spent a night on Lake Gatun on rafts of 4 boats. The advisors were picked up by a pilot around 8 pm and returned the next morning at 9:30. We continued through Lake Gatun, and headed into the middle series of Pedro Michel locks at late afternoon.

The raft ahead of us had a line handling error. One line handler on the stern did not release the rope fast enough when the water was quickly descending in the Pedro Miguel locks. The stern line snapped and the raft banged against the side of the lock. They were lucky that the line broke – it could have been the boat that broke! Also lucky, fenders were in place quickly and boats were not damaged.  It is not that unusual for a small boat to be damaged in a lock if line-handlers messes up.  

 We stayed rafted until the final 2 locks at Mirafloras and we un-nested (ie all the boats detached) before we motored towards the Bridge of Americas, the gateway to the Pacific.

The best video of the trip was taken by Gonzalo, a friend from Panama, who was one of our line handlers. 

We planned to open champagne under the bridge of the America’s. I was ready to film it with my camera, but Gonzalo and Mia (our new crew) insisted I open the bottle and Mia film.  I didn’t realize Mia had already removed the wire from the cork, and as soon as I took the bottle from her the cork popped, and they started crying “too early”. I tried to put the cork back in the bottle and dropped it, watching it bounce on the trampoline before going through to the water as I tried to help Mia who pushed the wrong button on the video camera.  We were all laughing so hard, and Gonzalo caught it all on his iphone as we bungled our efforts to pop champagne at the right time and film it.  Compared to the other boats, we had the worst video but the best time! 

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