Trip Reports

The Great Divide (14-Mar-2003-11-30):
11:30 AM local time, Friday, March 14 (1630 Mar. 14 UTC) 08 56 N 079 33 W. Temp. 84, Humidity 73%, Cloud Cover 90%. On a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club, Panama City. In the Pacific Ocean.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

Thanks to all those of you who wrote in to say that they'd seen us in the lock. There were so many who confessed that they did this at a computer at work that I fear there may have been a dip in the GDP for that hour. I am told the UN sessions on the war in Irag were halted when several key members suddenly had to take a break to "deal with an emergency back home."

I realize that there are still some people who believe the Apollo landings on the moon were staged in a hanger in Arizona by the Disney people, and so the few on this list who continually accuse the Captain of composing his missives from a condo in Milpitas will probably remain unconvinced that we're actually doing this, but we can't do much more than be on the 21st-century version of TV to prove it. You can without scruple, it is my opinion, believe anything you see on the Internet.

Here's how the day went. We were told on the day before that we had a "pilot time" of 0400. This means that the pilot boat will deliver your "advisor" at four in the morning. (Yachts are not actually given licensed pilots, the ones who bring the container ships through, but more like trainees.) The four o'clock time meant that we had to pick up our line handlers at the dinghy dock at 3:30, which meant we got up at 2:30 to get everything ready to go. When our sleepy-eyed line handlers came aboard, we thought we'd better hurry to get the dinghy up in time for the pilot, but they said that daylight would be soon enough, and they were right about that. A call to "Cristobal Signal," the man on the radio who gives ships and yachts instructions on channel 12 about their movements in preparation for entering the locks, confirmed the suspicions of the line handlers; the pilot was now scheduled for 5:30. The line handlers took to the bunks below and napped. The advisor actually arrived about 6:30, so we'd been up a few hours too soon, but whatever, we immediately got the anchor up and headed directly for the locks.

Actually, we made one short stop. The pilot was told that we had no refrigeration and that all the ice we had gotten the night before to keep drinks cold for the pilot, but also incidentally for the line handlers, and even less importantly for the Captain and Mr. Shrode who have lost the ability to distinguish cold from hot, had melted. He had us stop at a dock just before the locks, where he had called ahead to have someone waiting with a big bag of ice. They have their standards. After the pilots for the three sailboats who would transit together at this time had conferred on VHF, it was determined that Maverick would act as the center boat. The decision was based on the horsepower of the boats' engines. The Moorings Beneteau 403 on our right weighs, according to its delivery skipper, only about 11,000 pounds, which I find astonishing, and therefore little horsepower is required to push it. Maverick's 45-horsepower Perkins 4-107 would be the workhorse.

Before we got to the first lock of the three Gatun locks that would raise us to the level of Gatun Lake, where the majority of the miles of the crossing would take place, our advisor told us to raft up with the Moorings boat, and then the other, smaller boat, the New-Zealand-flagged "Honey." He instructed me to put the boat beam-to the wind, but I politely suggested that, as we had a bit of a breeze and chop, I thought we might be safer to be head-to-wind, and this was agreed to. During the raft-up it became apparent that our on-board line handlers' knowledge of knots was not quite at the level of seamanship one might have hoped for, meaning that somewhat more attention had to be paid by Bosun Terry Shrode and the Captain to the proceedings. But everything got done as well as was needed, without any damage, as had occurred a couple of days before when one boat for some reason t-boned the center yacht on its approach.

My advisor had told me that I, your Captain, would be driving the three boats and controlling our speed and course with my throttle and helm. At this point it would have been a good idea if he would have explained to the other skippers that, when needed, they may be called upon to help turn or slow the raft, but this wasn't done, occasioning some raised voices later on. I took the helm and drove the ungainly mess towards the first lock. It isn't something I'd ever done before, as rafting up in my experience had been limited to relatively static anchoring and docking situations; but I found that, though the response to helm and throttle was sluggish, it was effective.

On the way up you are positioned just aft of a gigantic container ship, and on the way down, just forward of a similar ship. When you motor into place, all three boats are put gently into reverse and you stop. Four on-shore line handlers toss monkey fists with light line to the boats which are far below them, two to the starboard boat and two to the port boat. (There is a target with a small hole in the bullseye up on the land adjacent to the locks where these people practice throwing the monkey fist and achieve high accuracy.) These lines are tied by the line handlers on the yachts to the stouter, 7/8" lines onboard, and then these are drawn up by the on-shore handlers and, with a bowline, each looped around a bit on the top edge of the lock walls.

The mighty gates then slowly close and water starts entering in holes at the bottom of the lock. As we rise, the onboard starboard and port line-handlers forward and the starboard and port line handlers aft take up the slack that occurs, keeping the raft in the center of the lock. The water raises us and the big ship at four feet per minute or so, and we are lifted about 27 feet in each of the three locks. When we reach the top our lines are cleated off, the forward gates are opened, and the container ship moves forward to the next lock. It's own power is used for locomotion, so we are caught in the prop wash, but this puts less strain on the lines than one would have thought, and the advisors wait until it is well clear of us before having us release our lines.

What happens next is that the 7/8" lines are released from their bits and tossed into the lock, with the bowlines still secured to the light lines that are retained by the on-shore line handlers. The on-board line-handlers haul the big lines aboard. I am told to put Maverick in forward, and I drive us into the next lock and the process is repeated. As I drive, the four on-shore line handlers who hold the light lines walk along the lock and I am instructed to control my speed to match an easy walk. Since we are going up in the next lock, they will have to climb a flight of stairs between the locks, so when we get to the second one, they will be far above us.

When the third lock has brought us to the highest level, we can look back, which is really north, not east, and wave goodbye to the Atlantic Ocean. This is the last sight we'll have of it. The lock gates are opened and we motor just outside and untie the raft. At this point we are told to use the sails if we wish, and so as it's downwind we just unfurl the headsail. But as the wind is patchy on the Gatun Lake, we also motor to keep up a good speed. Our schedule for making it to the locks on the other side has been set, approximately, on the basis of the speeds the sailboats say they can make at the time of admeasurement. It's best if you don't exaggerate because you don't want to tie up the whole Panama Canal.

The lake itself is in my opinion quite a beautiful place. It's man-made in the middle of a jungle and we see monkeys in the trees as we sail by one of the islands. Meanwhile, our advisor has confirmed our 3:00 PM time (noon California time) at the Miraflores locks, the last ones before the Pacific Ocean, so I get off an email to Theresa to alert all you folks. Then, for a few hours the line-handlers nap below as Mr. Shrode does most of the driving and the Captain takes photos and watches from the foredeck. The lake is well-marked and we have an advisor, so there's not much danger in getting lost.

After the lake we go through the Gaillard Cut, 7.8 miles long, the part of the Canal that crosses the Continental Divide and the big ditch that required the intensive excavation causing so much suffering and death in its construction. Hank Strauss wrote to us wondering whether the Canal was being enlarged, always having his ear to the ground. Well, Hank, it is this section that has been recently widened so that the large ships can go both directions at the same time. (An earlier widening project was completed in 1970.) Until now, there has been a bottleneck during the day when the biggest ships make their transits, as the northbound traffic had to finish going through this section before the southbound traffic could enter. But there's a slight holdup before this widening can have any effect, because the pilots are concerned that when the big ships pass each other so closely in such a tight space, the suction each creates may create steerage problems for both of them and collisions may result. So there is at this time, which is unfortunately after the widening has been done, that a study is taking place to determine as to whether it will really result in the desired outcome. There are also studies ongoing about building additional, larger locks, and other improvements. The locks we went through have not been enlarged or improved, with the exception of normal maintenance and bringing some systems up to contemporary standards, since the locks opened in 1914. None of the systems are computer-operated.

While we're on the subject of the big ships, the Panama Canal's existence has provided a standard that ships crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific or the reverse cannot exceed, so naval architects have designed around these dimensions the "Panamax" vessels, which are down to the inch the largest ships that can fit into the Canal. The dimensions are length, 965 feet, draft, 39.5 feet, beam, 106 feet. The lock chambers themselves are 1000.5 feet long and 110 feet wide, leaving just two feet of clearance on either side. The draft is controlled by the locks but also by the depth of the channels in the lake and the Gaillard Cut, and in years of low rainfall this figure is reduced and shipping companies are notified and must switch to vessels of less draft. This was not of any concern to the pilot of Maverick, however.

The amount of water used every time a ship is locked down is about 52 million gallons. The odd thing is that if you send one yacht down alone in a lock, no more water is taken from the lake than if you send a container ship down. This counter-intuitive fact, discussed at length some time ago in Latitude 38, was confirmed by our advisor. Although Maverick mentioned its fees, those of the big ships are quite a bit more impressive. Some pay over $200,000, but this is still far cheaper for them than the alternative, going around the Horn.

The locks on the Pacific, or southern, side after the Gaillard Cut are separated into two, the top or Pedro Miguel locks, of which there is one pair going down 27 feet or so, and the Miraflores locks, of which there are two pairs, going down the remaining 54 or so feet. We raft up again in the same formation just before the Pedro Miguel locks, and again there is a protest on how the pilots plan to do it, this time coming from the skipper of the (brand new) Moorings boat. His objection, which I won't go into, was absolutely correct seamanship, was accepted by the pilots, and we eventually agree on a plan and get the raft made up. Once again, your Captain drives us into the lock, this time ahead of the container ship for going down. It is just slightly disconcerting to pull up right to the front of the lock going down, as you are on the edge of a precipice, and can easily imagine it being a waterfall.

After going down in the Pedro Miguel lock, we motor, still rafted up, a short distance to the Miraflores locks. It is there that you folks who saw us got a view of what was happening. For those of you who were able to save the pictures (Theresa did as well as a few of our loyal followers, and we'll try to get them up on the website), Mr. Shrode was the person who climbed the ratlines. The Captain was seen, if at all, standing on the foredeck with our line handlers, wearing a white gardener's hat with big flaps, and shorts and a t-shirt, looking rather dashing, I should have thought. In some views he may not be visible, as while he was at the helm he would have been under the bimini (awning) covering the cockpit.

It was in this last set of locks that we had our only handling problems, which hopefully went unnoticed by the millions tuning in at home. On the way into the second lock, turbulence from an undetermined cause suddenly spun all three boats about thirty degrees to the right, and it was not possible to control this with Maverick's helm. But with a little yelling, Honey on our left was put in reverse, and the Moorings boat in forward, and this quickly righted the situation. Since those boats were effectively Maverick's fenders, they acted with considerable alacrity.

From the second lock we exited into the channel which is contiguous with the Pacific Ocean, which is the same thing as being in the Pacific Ocean, the Ocean we left at the Torres Straight on Tuesday, October 2, 2001. Since then we have sailed about 16,000 miles. But our outbound path lies about 2800 miles west of here, and home is around 3,000 miles northwest of hard traveling as the crow flies, but boats don't fly. We won't cross our outbound path, which is what officially allows us to claim a circumnavigation, until we're almost at the Golden Gate.


Most Panamanians we talk to think that things were better off when the Americans ran the Canal. The jobs were better paying and more fairly apportioned. The view here, at least among cab drivers and the other working class people we associate with, is that the whole deal to get the Canal back was a land grab for the rich, who got the benefit of the properties turned over to the Panamanian government.

Mr. Shrode observed several Dule families in Panama City, in town to do some shopping. He reported that other than the men being attired for town with a clean t-shirt and long pants, they looked the same as they did back home, which is to say the women were by far the best-dressed folks in sight.

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