Monkeying Around in a Banana Republic

The past week has been a busy one. Setting sail from the friendly confines of Portobello on Sunday, we joined a caravan of boats making their way to the entrance of the Panama Canal. As we neared the breakwater that marks the beginning of the Canal, a number of enormous cargo ships came into view. In order to manage the traffic through the breakwater entrance, we kept in radio contact with the control tower located just inside the harbor. Moving among the leviathan cargo ships was daunting, especially considering that our top speed of six miles an hour and their limited maneuverability doesn’t leave much room for error when operating in close proximity. Fortunately, most of the gigantic ships were stationary while waiting their turn to transit the canal and the traffic consisted almost entirely of tugboats and other yachts.

After setting our anchor in the Flats, the designating anchorage area for sailboats, we dinghied ashore to the dock at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. Although the anchorage is far from the dock, the wind seems to always blow too hard, and the city of Colon is an absolute hole, there is a sort of festive feeling among the cruisers at the yacht club. During the peak season for transiting the Canal and heading to the Pacific, cruisers who have met each other at various places throughout the Caribbean are reunited. Further adding to the resigned mix of frustration and enjoyment is the shared challenge of arranging a transit through the Canal while dealing with all of the bureaucracy that the process entails. Luckily, some friends from Trinidad were able to recommend us to a gentleman who was great in guiding us through the process. Our driver/agent/bodyguard was Ellington, a former U. S. Marine who did a tour of duty in Vietnam and has returned to his native Panama with his family. Although a taxi driver in name, he effectively served as an agent and had the connections necessary to make a generally frustrating process much less painful. Thanks to his assistance, we were able to navigate through the piles of paperwork and find the various offices that we needed to visit. He also gave us some useful money-saving tips, such as “when the admeasure asks how fast your boat can travel under power, answer 8 knots.” Of course, Audentes probably couldn’t go 8 knots using only the motor even if there were three knots of favorable current and a strong wind behind us, but this tip saved me about $400.

On Tuesday, a pilot boat came alongside Audentes to drop off the admeasure administrator. The drop-off and pick-up was a bit hairy since the wind was blowing about 25 knots with a strong current and choppy waves pounding the anchorage. After several aborted attempts, the unreasonably large vessel eventually dropped off the officer without inflicting any damage on my boat. Once aboard, the admeasure officer checked that we had a foghorn (we do, but it doesn’t work, so it was lucky that he didn’t test it), asked if our toilet worked (he took our word for it), and then measured the distance from the tip of the bow pulpit to the back of the windvane. The total length came to 42.85 feet. The administrator said that the biggest boat that he had measured for a transit was a roughly 275-foot yacht owned by one of the founders of Microsoft, likely Paul Allen. Apparently, the $20 million dollar sailboat had a full-size motorboat, submarine, and helicopter aboard, although he noted that the luxury yacht didn’t deign to anchor in the Flats with the rest of the cruising community. The measurements completed, we were told to proceed to the yacht club bar to meet the officer and to finish the necessary paperwork. It seems that in Panama a poorly lit bar is an acceptable place to do official government business. After an hour of filling out multiple forms requesting exactly the same information, we were provided with a form to take to the bank in order to pay for the transit. The total cost came to $1,450, although $850 will be refunded as long as we don’t damage the canal during our transit.

Just as painful as the outlay of money was the required signing of a waiver releasing the Canal Authority from all responsibility for any damage to the boat, no matter how negligent on their part. The waiver is non-negotiable and the choice was to either sign away all of my rights or to go around Cape Horn. I chose to waive my rights. Once reduced to a penniless slave, I was able to call into the Marine Traffic Scheduler to find out my expected transit date. The process for the assigning of dates is a complete mystery and the lag time between the transit request and the actual transit seems to depend on a combination of who you know, when you submit your request, and, mainly, dumb luck. Once assigned, the date continues to shift and cruisers remain at the mercy of the Canal Authority. The entire process is a bit emasculating and a whole book could be written on how the transit of yachts could be streamlined, but the canal officials didn’t seem eager to hear my thoughts on developing an efficient process based on six sigma methodology.

Before receiving our transit date, we volunteered to handle lines for a boat going through on Thursday, February 16 under the theory that only fools rush in. Since four line handlers are required on all boats to go through the canal, cruisers often volunteer on other boats to gain experience and to know what to expect of a transit, as well as to help out fellow sailors. Initially, with the boats staggered over several weeks, the supply of line handlers far outnumbered the amount of boats going through. However, as the transit dates were suddenly pulled forward, the equation shifted dramatically. The imbalance was made worse by the fact that many of the line handlers who had volunteered on other boats could not only no longer serve on those boats since they were going through at the same time, but they also needed their own line handlers. Paying for line handlers is always an option, but the cost usually comes to $110 per person. (One creative alternative would be to hire hookers, for which Colon is well-know, since this would probably be cheaper and would meet the quota for warm bodies, as well as providing an exceptional amount of high comedy.) To help one friend avoid this cost, we decided to volunteer on another boat on Friday, February 17.

It was shaping up to be a busy couple of days and the already ambitious schedule of two transits on two consecutive days was made even more challenging when we were told that our transit date would be Saturday, February 18. Although we were happy to receive an early date, this new information meant that we would be waking up at 3:00 AM for three consecutive days to go through the canal and then taking a roughly two hour taxi ride back to Colon. Instead of spending the two days prior to our transit preparing (arranging line handlers, filling up gas tanks, securing fenders, obtaining lines, provisioning, etc.), we would be away from the boat for almost the entire day and have only the evenings to get things done. Finally, after two long days and little sleep, we would then complete the most important task, taking Audentes through to the Pacific.

The first leg of the Panama Canal trifecta took place on Thursday, when both Zach and I served as line handlers aboard Aqua Magic, a Warrior 40 owned by an older British couple. Rounding out the crew for Aqua Magic was Peter, a young Canadian sailing on Geodesic. At 2:00 AM, we dinghied ashore to meet the boat and then proceeded to cast off and motor out into the harbor to await the arrival of the canal advisor. Our advisor, Enrique, boarded at 4:00 AM and we set off on our way to the first set of locks. At around 5:00 AM, as we neared the locks, we came alongside a 53-foot sailboat so that we could tie up and motor into the lock together. Due to a fairly relaxed approach from our borderline senile captain, we were soon towered over by a huge container ship. Sitting in the middle of the channel, the giant car carrier blew its horn a couple of times to tell us to get out of the way. After a minute of panic, disaster was narrowly averted. Once we safely tied up to the right of the large sailboat, another 40-foot yacht was tied up on the port side of the yacht, so that we entered the lock as three boats nested together. In this formation, the center boat provides the power and steers for all three boats while the outside boats are responsible for handling the set of lines on their side. Being on the right of our nested group, the four line handlers on our boat were responsible for the front and back ropes tied to the right side of our boat. These ropes had a bowline knot tied on the ends large enough to fit around a large piling located on the wall of the lock. In order to get the ends of our ropes ashore, the workers on the lock threw thin messenger lines weighed down by a rope ball at the end, known as a monkey’s fist. All day, these workers throw lines at boats and attempt to accurately hit their target. The danger for a sailboat is having one of the lead-filled monkey’s fists hitting a wind generator, solar panel, or line handler in the head. Luckily, no damage was done and we were able to tie our thick lines to their thin lines to allow them to pull the slack ashore. Once tied up, the back doors of the lock were closed and the lock began to fill with water. The boats rose and we slowly pulled our lines tight to keep the boats in the center of the lock. Making the process much easier was the fact that our entire lock consisted of eight sailboats, instead of three sailboats cowering in front of a massive cargo ship. After the lock was fully flooded, the front gates opened and we motored as a nested set of boats into Gatun Lake. Immediately upon arriving in the lake, the boats untied and began the long 23-mile motor through the channel of the lake. Although most people are initially concerned about the difficulty of negotiating the lock system and the enormous amount of power generated by so much water rushing into a lock, the real concern for a successful transit is the ability of a boat to motor under heavy loads for twelve consecutive hours. If the motor has a good day, then the captain has a good day. If the motor has a bad day, then the captain has a very bad day. Our motor ride was scenic and thankfully uneventful.

On my own boat however, the engine and I have a love-hate relationship: I love it and it hates me. The hope is that we can peacefully coexist on the transit day. Around 11:00 AM, we finally reached the Pedro Miguel locks and once again nested with the same two boats. The only difference going through these locks was that instead of the water flooding in and the line handlers pulling in rope, this lock lowered the boat and the line handlers slowly let out rope. After waving to the crowd in the viewing area, we motored through the rest of the channel, under the Bridge of the Americas, and into the Pacific. My first transit of the canal gave me some much needed confidence in preparing for my own transit on Saturday. I was happy to learn that the process is simple, everything happens extremely slowly, and the advisor provides all of the necessary information. When I returned to Colon and prepared for my second transit, I was notified that the schedule had changed and yachts were no longer making the transit in one day. Instead of beginning at 4:00 AM and going all of the way in one push, the new schedule dictated that we would leave in the evening, go through the first series of locks before spending the night in the lake. The remainder of the trip would be completed on the following day. As a result of the schedule change, I was no longer able to volunteer on Friday since I would not have time to return for my own departure time. Although I was disappointed to have to back out, the extra time did allow me to complete some of the last minute preparations for my transit that I likely would have neglected.

One of the most important aspects of a good transit is an impressive menu. There is a certain informal competition waged at the yacht club to see who can provide their crew with the best meals. This is the one area where the French excel, while the British naturally bring up the rear. To reward our own crew for their faithful service, we planned an appetizer of feta and olives, along with Gouda cheese and crackers. This was to be followed by burgers with an assortment of different salads, none of which featured a single green item (egg salad, potato salad, macaroni salad). For breakfast, we proposed scrambled eggs spread over a sausage patty covered in melted cheese, all contained in toasted English muffins, along with yogurt, juice, and coffee/tea.

Lunch was to be a simple affair of turkey sandwiches. Pulling out all of the stops, we even purchased each of our line handlers a mug for their coffee/tea that read “Yo (heart) Panama.” Granted, our menu is neither gourmet nor nutritionally balanced, but we want to deliver an authentic American culinary experience to our foreign volunteers. Hopefully, they enjoy the food without leaving the boat looking like Americans. On Saturday morning, I was informed that my expected departure time would be around 6:00 PM. Assisting me in the transit and serving as my four line handlers were Zach Johnson, grizzled First Mate, Heather, a lovely young woman from Panama City, Kim, an adventurous young Australian, and David and Audrey, a friendly couple from England. I had initially meant to gather an all-female team with the expectation that any catastrophes could be blamed on the presence of women. Since only four people, in addition to me, are required, I had one extra hand available. When I learned that my friend Peter on Geodesic, with whom Zach and I handled lines on Wednesday, was short one person, we offered to provide one of our valuable resources to our friendly neighbors to the north. The crew planned to meet on the dinghy dock at 4:30, but when the designated time came and went there was no sign of Heather. Although she spent Friday night on the boat and agreed to meet at 4:30 PM, she had still not returned from doing some chores in town by 5:00. Not able to wait any longer, the crew proceeded to the anchorage and Heather literally missed the boat. Fortunately, our extra line handler was available and Peter was also able to find a last minute substitute.

After raising the outboard and dinghy and while we were hauling up the anchor, the advisor boarded the boat and we began to motor over to the first series of locks. Interestingly, our adviser, Carlos, attended the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, located about five mile from my home port of Onset, Massachusetts. Carlos even delivered pizza for Marc Anthony’s in Onset, which offers some of the finest pizza I have ever tested and is located a short walk from my parents’ cottage. After impressing our crew with elaborately presented hors d’oeuvres, we were a little slow grilling the burgers and the meal wasn’t ready until we were approaching the Gatun locks. Also in the lock was a huge cargo ship positioned ahead of us. We tied up alongside Geodesic, our two boats entering the locks as my crew and I munched on our dinner. To illustrate just how easy the process of line handling is, while in the locks, most of the time and energy of the crew was spent trying to eat with one hand while holding a rope with the other. Proceeding through the three locks without incident, we then motored over to a mooring buoy and stayed rafted with Geodesic for the night. Normally, picking up a mooring in an unknown, poorly lit harbor at night would be a nerve-racking exercise. However, with four skilled crew aboard and an advisor supplying instructions, the process of mooring was entirely painless. A round of rum and cokes served as a nice nightcap before the crew retired in preparation for an early morning and a long day ahead.

On Sunday morning, we awoke at 5:30 to the cries of howler monkeys and awaited the arrival of our advisor. At 7:00, the pilot boat approach and we were boarded by a new advisor. However, Geodesic was told that there were not enough advisors and that they would need to wait until Monday to complete the transit. Since Peter’s parents were scheduled to catch an early flight back to Canada on Monday morning and two of his line handlers needed to return to Colon to complete another transit, we gave him our advisor and resigned ourselves to spending the day in Lake Gatun. Zach immediately hopped in the kayak and set off to catch us dinner. His fishing expedition was cut short when the Panamanian fun police came racing over and told us that we couldn’t leave the boat.

As firm believers in civil disobedience, we soon dove overboard into the fresh water lake and Kim and I proceeded to spend a couple of hours cleaning the hull. The advantages of having capable crew was further demonstrated when David, a former shop teacher in England, helped me to fix my cockpit table and advised me on several other boat projects. For dinner, we enjoyed a nice vegetable curry prepared by Audrey and Kim, then settled down to watch Good Will Hunting before retiring to bed. On Monday morning fortune smiled and both advisors showed up for the two sailboats moored in Gatun Lake. Our advisor, Carlos, guided us through the scenic channel among islands populated by monkeys, crocodiles, and Smithsonian research personnel. Mercifully, the engine made it through the five hour trip with some occasional assistance from the jib. As we approached the Pedro Miguel locks, we tied up with Jade, a catamaran owned by a former Hong Kong police officer who we had met earlier at the Panama Canal Yacht Club. Once rafted together, I was able to lock the wheel and put the boat in neutral, leaving the driving to the advisor steering the other boat. The first lock was completed without incident and our only other company in the lock was a ferry full of passengers paying $125 for the chance to ride through a series of three locks. Remaining nested together, we motored forward to the final locks at Miraflores. Here, a large crowd of spectators waved frantically and snapped pictures as our boats entered the locks, all the while the audience was probably rooting for a horrific accident. Luckily, no NASCAR-worthy crashes occurred and the multinational group of bumpkins was sent home a little sunburned and without any hilarious stories at our expense.

Along the way, there were several small snafu’s, such as a rope getting wrapped around our railing while being lowered in one of the locks and some difficulty separating from Jade, but thankfully these mistakes were rectified before any damage occurred. Soon after Carlos disembarked with the pilot boat, we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and entered the Pacific Ocean. To mark the occasion, we popped open some champagne and rewarded our crew with caviar on havarti cheese and toasted crackers. We can only hope that this sort of high living continues across the entire Pacific. The transit of the Panama Canal completed, we are thrilled to be in the Pacific Ocean and are eager to explore the island paradises that await us.

The past week spent preparing for the canal has been one of the highlights of the entire trip thus far. The camaraderie with fellow cruisers, the stress of arranging for a transit, and the ultimately successful transit all made for a pleasant experience that I will remember fondly for a long time to come. Zach, Kim, Audrey, and David were the best line handlers that I could possibly have hoped for and the skills and friendly personalities that each person brought to the passage demonstrated how nice it is to have talented crew aboard. The ups and downs of the past week have been representative of my cruising experience in general. On some days, it is impossible to imagine a better life or to conceive of doing anything that could make me happier. The world makes sense, everything is beautiful, and life is grand. On other days, nothing seems to go right. Today was one of the good days.

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