Trip Reports

Let Us Cross Over (10-Mar-2003-20-30):
8:30 PM local time, Monday, March 10 (0130 Mar. 9 UTC) 09 28 N 079 54 W. Temp. 84, Humidity 73%, Cloud Cover 20%. At anchor in Colon, Panama, the entrance to the Panama Canal.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

We're sitting in a rather cranky anchorage inside the seawall at the northern entrance to the Panama Canal. Somewhere between forty and fifty boats are anchored nearby, like Maverick awaiting their transit. There are a dozen more or so at the Panama Canal Yacht Club, and because of the backup boats are biding their time for somewhere between one and two weeks to get through. If Maverick goes through on schedule it will have been a ten-day wait since our arrival.

The reason it takes so much longer here than in the Suez or Corinth Canals is, of course, the lock system, which makes the transit a much more complicated and slower process, so there's a bottleneck. The way it works is that on the north side, for ships coming from the Atlantic, and the south side, for ships coming from the Pacific, in the morning all the very large ships go up, and, having crossed Gatun Lake in the middle, in the afternoon they go down. This is so that the ships, which are made specifically to be as big as they can be and still get through the canal, can have daylight to see the twenty inches of clearance or so they have on each side. Together with the big ships, the Canal wants the yachts to go through in daylight, but many of us will not make it through the lake during the day because of, perhaps, a late trip up through the locks but there can be other reasons. So we may spend the night at anchor and wait until the next afternoon, when lock traffic starts down again. The yachts transit in the small space just aft of the big ships, in the same lock. During the night, less troublesome ships, such as freighters with plenty of clearance, will pass through the locks, as they operate twenty-four hours a day.

All ships except yachts are kept from hitting the sides by locomotives, six on each side, that have steel cables running to the ship. A pilot with a lot of experience takes command of the ship, and by radio directs the operators of the locomotives when to ease and when to tighten the cables. There is no computerized system for either advancing the locomotives or tensioning the lines; it's all done by judgment calls and it really doesn't seem like it would work but it does. In fact, although the locomotives are of a more recent design, the entire system works in the same way with the same equipment, more or less, as it did when it opened in 1914. I won't go into much detail here, since I'm sure there is a website with pictures that explains the whole thing, but Ship's Historian of Engineering Marvels Terry Shrode and the Captain did visit the first set of three locks the other day and it's an impressive piece of business.

All yachts are required to have four line handlers on board in addition to the helmsman, and there also will be a pilot on board to direct our movements. This means we've had to hire three local guys. You can do it with backpackers but I was a hippie at one time in my life and so I have a pretty good idea what kind of job they may do. We also must have four lines 125 feet long, and those we rent. We actually might be able to come close to that with what's on board, but we'd have to cut a couple of anchor rodes. Maverick is also befetished with ten old tires wrapped in garbage bags acting along with our regular fenders to deal with unplanned but possible contact with things we don't want to contact.

All this costs money. The transit fee is $600 plus an $800 dollar deposit, which can be handled by signing off on the $1400 with a Visa (but not Master) Card. They don't actually charge your account the other $800 unless something goes wrong. If you pay in cash you have to fork over the entire $1400 and wait a couple of months for the refund. The line handlers are $55 per day per man, and it usually takes two days. (The pilot comes with the transit fee.) Lines rent for $60, and tires are $3 each, complete with bags. The anchorage is free, but they charge you $2 a day to use the dinghy dock at the yacht club. My insurance company said I was insured from the Atlantic home to San Francisco, but then said "Oh, you're going through the Canal? That's an extra $160." Of course, it's probably another $1000 if you go around the Horn, or truck your boat home. And since my insurance expires on the 15th and we leave on the 13th, if we get bumped a day I have to get another endorsement, for another $160, for next year's policy to cover the 15th. The entire story is even more irritating, but you're bored already. The whole thing, counting insurance but not the dinghy dock and the deposit, is $1180. With no insurance, using backpackers, and going to the dump yourself to find tires, you should make it for under $750. On the other hand, the big yachts use agents to do the paperwork, which although slightly tedious is really no problem, and the agents can cost $600 more.

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