The big enchilada


As passage prep goes this one was a bit more intense than normal. We had the usual provisioning except there were six aboard Escape Velocity for the Panama Canal transit with all its attendant meals and bottled water for our expert line handler, canal advisor, and Marce’s sister and brother in law, Nancy and Dave. Our Canal agent helped with most of the paperwork and clearance Zarpe, in addition to a wheelbarrow load of heavy 100-foot lines and eight large fenders.


Once our line handler came aboard we cast off and headed out of Shelter Bay Marina, got permission from Cristobal Signal Station to cross the shipping lanes and anchor in what is known as the flats, await our advisor and our revised transit time.


Slowly a few other boats gathered in the small boat anchorage and sure enough the start time slipped all the way to 17:45 hrs.


We are going to do this in the dark.

As dusk fell over the bay, what light we still had grew more otherworldly as all the flashing marker lights took over influencing what we saw. Red, yellow, green, white, we fell in line with the monstrous stern of a tanker only to find that it was the wrong tanker. Fernando, our advisor, said oh, ours is back there so we pulled out of line to wait while the advisors decided to take advantage of the wait to raft up. This would be difficult in the daylight but at night it’s downright scary. So with all fenders deployed I carefully maneuvered EV up to a monohull and got a full marks attaboy from the controlling advisor. We will be on the port side of the three boat raft up, with responsibility for bow and stern lines of the raft on our side.


We glided up to the center of the first chamber of the Gatun Lock, tucked in just behind the huge stern of our new best friend, the Atlantic Acanthus.



It’s hard to impress a Pittsburgh boater with a lock. Running up the Allegheny River from the ‘Burgh you are going to lock through just about every ten miles and I’ve boated there most of my life so I know locks. That being said, I don’t want to come off like Peggy Lee, nonchalantly asking the ether if that’s all there is. For me it’s the history and the accomplishment of transiting the Panama Canal rather than the size of the thing. Don’t get me wrong it’s big…real big, and the new one is even bigger but I know locks. Been there done that kinda thing.

The monkey fists thrown from ashore hit the fiberglass decks with a resounding report and our lines are let out all the way to the lock bollards. We tied cockpit cushions on top of our solar panels to protect them from from an errant throw; we sailors can be a cautious lot. Soon the 3-boat raft is suspended more or less in the center of the chamber and water…lots of water is roiling up from underneath.


We do this three times and in near total darkness we unraft and head out towards two flashing yellow lights that might as we’ll be in outer space. The yellow lights turn out to be two six foot round, rubber coated mooring donuts, looking for all the world like gigantic hockey pucks. All three boats from our raft tied up to the huge hockey puck and each other with copious use of fenders, for a less than restful night.

Morning dawned and we discovered three extra boats rafted up alongside and a couple of dare devils taking the waters, swimming with crocodiles. It’s a jungle, remember. Our advisor was an hour late and that demoted EV to the second tier with a smaller boat lashed on either side.



Gatun lake was well marked and meandered through beautiful uninhabited jungle with occasional heroically large canal structures, usually having something to do with the new canal which apparently uses a lot of the old canal. My main concern was to watch for stealthy mammoth ships sneaking up from behind. How something that big could make so little noise is beyond me.




We paused to raft up again as dusk began to overtake us. Seeing the Pacific from the top of the Miraflores lock I found myself overwhelmed. Marce mugged for the lock web camera and down we went.





As I was saying we’ve read so many books about the history of the Panama Canal with old photos and even some film footage that to actually be here is a real kick. Our favorite walk at Shelter Bay was past what must have once been turn of the century American officers quarters perched high on top of a breezy hill called the Kennedy Loop. The houses are gone but the concrete foundations and stairs are still there, in addition to a large troop of howler monkeys running around in the amazingly tall royal palm trees and still-manicured grounds, while the old powder magazines which are rough concrete structures half-buried in the hillside, slowly crumble into the jungle. The jungle always wins in the end. Kind of an eerie place.




Both canal men are off the boat now but it’s really dark as we race toward the anchorage following a long row of red floating lights just out of the channel and tip toe our way in past the usual unlit outliers and try to judge distances based on a small point of light sixty feet above the water. I hate doing this in the dark. Finally Marce yells release the hounds and the new Rocna splashes into the Pacific water. The anchor grabs and pulls EVs bow around…we’re hooked. Engines off, Marce’s pasta with five cheeses and victory champagne provided by Dave and Nancy. The rest we’ll sort out tomorrow.





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4 Responses to The big enchilada

  1. Once again, job well done my friends!

  2. Anita

    Very awesome. I was bragging to all my friends and students about you and your travels. I even showed the picture of you in the locks to my classes. Safe travels and hugs to everyone.

  3. It amazes me how much you know about sailing, the sea, locks, etc–to me, it sounds as if you are speaking some grand, ancient foreign language. Congratulations to you, adventuresome ones!

  4. Really great to see you are through the canal. My wife Kelly and I have been following your adventures for a while. I am about to retire and we are in the process of buying our own cat. We plan to sail the coast of Australia for our first big trip in 2015. If you come to Sydney, we will have to catch up.

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