The alarm went off at 05.00 on our big day: the panama canal transit day. After last minute preparations and picking up our linehandlers, at 06.40 we were ready to motor ahead to the spot where we were to meet our transit adviser. We hovered around the meeting area for what seemed like hours, awaiting further instructions from the Flamenco Signal Station, when finally the canal authority vessel came and dropped off Edgar, our adviser for that day. Edgar’s job is to guide the vessel’s captain and linehandlers when we are inside the locks as well as to ensure we follow the proper route as we cross Gatun Lake. By 08.00 we were making our way into the channel to Miraflores locks, the first set on the Pacific side of the canal. An air of excitement was all around us as we were about to transit this incredible man-made marvel, amidst all the tankers and container ships.
There were 3 yachts, including Vento Dea , scheduled to transit that day, and originally we were supposed to be all tied together. As we came closer to the locks however, Edgar informed us that the configuration has been changed. The motorboat would go in alone – tied to the side wall of the locks’ chamber- while we would be tied up together with the 50-ft sailboat Nkhwazi owned by a delightful and hilarious retired British couple. While we were waiting to enter the locks, we witnessed the motor vessel in front of us wildly maneuvering itself and almost crashing into the port (left) side wall before proceeding across the canal to the starboard (right) side wall where the canal linehandlers were waiting to throw them the monkey fist (the lines with a weighted ball at the end that was to be tied up to the vessel’s own lines). What a spectacle; all of us, on both sailing vessels, breathed a sigh of relief knowing we would not have to be nested(tied) alongside a boat so wildly out of control.
Vento Dea and Nkhwazi entered all the locks (Miraflores and Pedro Miguel) without any incident. There were a total of 3 sets of locks from the Pacific side, and in each lock fresh water flows in to fill the chamber and raise us up 12 m we were told. By the time we finished transiting all 3 locks, we were 26m above sea level. From that point on, the two sailboats were separated and we were to motor the entire canal to the anchorage area at Gatun lake before continuing the rest of the transit the next day (no sailing allowed in the Panama Canal). Nkhwazi, being larger and faster, was soon gone from our view as we proceeded at the allowed minimum speed of 5 knots(..ish). Our little boat soon were passing the giant tanker ships as they were driving the opposite direction – their speed creating exciting waves coming our way. The whole trip was slow, but it was fun and relaxing… until at one point Jerrad noticed that the oil pressure gauge looked low. He went downstairs to the cabin and opened the companionway stairs to examine the engine. He then pulled the dipstick out and an explosion of hot oil mist shot out across the whole entire cabin. His whole face, hair and body were covered in grease and so was the ceiling, the floor, and pretty much every other surface in the cabin. I, standing in the cockpit at the tiller, also managed to get a whiff of some of that oil mist on my face. I knew something was wrong, but I was too nervous that I would lose it and freak out if I actually looked down to see what was going on, so I kept on steering. Jerrad then told me that the engine had too much blow by and running it as hard as we needed to, to keep up the 5kt minimum, was heating the oil and making it less viscous. So he added a small amount of gear oil to keep the pressure at a safe minimum. So for the rest of the drive, he had to monitor the pressure carefully. There was some doubt if the engine was stopped if it would start again before having time to cool so this was done with the engine running and spitting scalding hot oil all over the cabin. And for the rest of the day, the inside of the cabin was somewhat slippery and smelling like gear oil. Luckily our guest linehandlers were having too much fun and relaxing out on deck to notice this slight mishap.
We reached the designated mooring/anchorage area of Gatun Lake around 19.00. After we anchored and Edgar left us, we ate dinner, hung out until we finally were too exhausted and went to bed. Now how do you fit 5 people to sleep on a 28-ft sailboat? Easy. Jerrad was on the hammock at the front of the boat, Marga and myself were sleeping outside on the cockpit, Daniel and Adriana inside the cabin. Perfect arrangement, until it started raining hard and we all had to go inside the cabin. Jerrad decided to go to the V-berth and slept among our stuff, while the rest of us were sleeping half sitting up with our knees pulled to our chest on the two bunks. Luckily the rain stopped and for the remainder of the night, only light sprinkles came and went. Jerrad and I decided to go back outside and sleep on the cockpit under the tarp, while our 3 guests slept inside – Daniel pulled one of the cushions and slept on the floor – until morning came.
The morning brought sunshine and blue sky across Gatun Lake. It was a beautiful sight, even made more remarkable by the fact that this incredibly large lake was entirely man-made. After breakfast, while waiting for the new transit adviser to come, we decided to jump and have a swim in the lake. The water was clear, but the 70-ft depth resulted in it having a brilliant green color. It was absolutely refreshing to swim in this freshwater lake, even the existence of crocodiles did not deter any of us from jumping in (yes there are crocodiles there, but an incident was quite rare. Almost all cruisers said they jumped and swam in the lake without any incident. Our guidebook said only one death has been reported so far from a crocodile attack). Feeling refreshed, at around 11.45 we finally saw canal authority vessel driving around dispatching pilot and transit adviser for the ships and vessels waiting to finish the transit. Our adviser this time was Ahmed.
We enjoyed so much being tied together to Nkhwazi the previous day that we were slightly sad when we were told Nkhwazi would not be joining us. Apparently there was some glitch and they did not send enough advisers around. We were to transit solo, center-chambered this time – all 4 linehandlers would be working, as opposed to none when we were tied to Nkhwazi. Minutes later, the plan has changed again. Ahmed told us we would be going in together with the motorboat from the previous day – the same one almost crashing into the wall of the Miraflores locks. Jerrad quickly said to the adviser that it was a bad idea and explained why.
“I do not want to be tied up to that boat,” he ended firmly.
The adviser, horrified with Jerrad’s story, completely agreed with him. Unfortunately, the final word came from the canal authority through the radio and even the adviser had no say. We were to be tied up to this motorboat- such was our luck. As we came closer, we saw the motorboat’s captain who looked like he came straight out of a cartoon: a white captain’s hat, a cigar in his mouth, bare-chested and belly overhanging with only a pair of underwear as his attire for that day, it was quite the spectacle. We were told to tie up our port side against the motor vessel’s starboard side- against Jerrad’s wishes of being tied on the opposite side. Our boats were tied up at the bow and stern, with spring lines in the middle. Jerrad has just finished tying up the stern lines, and before he double checked everything or even agreed that he was ready, somebody had told Captain Underwear to start driving towards the locks. Captain Underwear decided to blast through it, going full speed at once without any proper observation and communication with Jerrad. All hell broke loose at that point. The front lines failed. They were slowly coming undone, separating the two bows. Five or six people were screaming and yelling about for Captain Underwear to stop, but the oblivious Captain kept going at full speed. I would never understand how it is that he did not notice all the panic voices shouting at him – I understand powerboaters love going fast, but hell you need to pay attention to your surroundings when you drive. That’s just called common sense.
It was a horrific sight as I slowly watched Vento Dea’s bow drifting away from the powerboat. With only a stern line and spring line (tied to the same cleat) it was inevitable: the boats ended up nearly 180 degrees from each other and our stern pulpit crashed into the back of his boat with a screeching sound. Bolts from the solar panel flew around the cockpit. It wasn’t until several seconds of people screaming, yelling and boats colliding before Captain Underwear finally stopped. Of course by then it was too late. Our stern pulpit broke, the stern cleat was bent, our windvane was slightly bent while the motorboat only sustained some dents and scratches. Rapid-fire Spanish was shot back and forth between the two advisers, the crew members from the motorboat and our linehandler friends. Jerrad was beyond pissed at this completely avoidable situation had the canal authority listened to him and I was shaking from anger. The whole situation calmed down and we re-tied. While awaiting to enter the first set of the three Gatun locks, Captain Underwear even dared to call us to look up at him, with a huge grin on his face, so he could take a picture. Not one single word of apology; it was like nothing ever happened. I couldn’t believe this obnoxious bastard – this was our boat, our home which we have worked so hard for that he had damaged. I was in tears from pure frustration – I wished I had the courage and the opportunity to go to his boat, knock his damn cigar off his mouth and slap him across the face. It took me some time to finally calm down and let go of the situation. It already happened and we couldn’t let it ruin our whole experience. I reminded myself of what Jerrad and other cruisers have always told me: something always goes wrong with sailing, that’s just how it is.
The rest of the transit, thankfully, revealed no more drama and surprises. We finished all 3 sets of Gatun locks in a little over an hour and were on our way to Shelter Bay marina to dock for a few days while repairing our boat. There we said goodbye to our new friends Adriana, Marga and Daniel. As we settled in the marina and were about to eat dinner in their restaurant, we saw the most repulsive sight of that day: Captain Underwear himself – he added a shirt to his attire by that point. He was walking towards the dock where our boat was. Jerrad decided to follow him. What happened next, as Jerrad told me, was even more unbelievable. He came to our boat (apparently he saw us coming into the marina) to show us pictures he has taken during the transit. When Jerrad asked him if he wanted to see the damage on Vento Dea, he incredulously asked what damage Jerrad was talking about. He then managed to say that he had no idea of any incidents during the transit, let alone that the two boats have collided. Whether he was lying or he indeed was incredibly idiotic we do not know; either way it didn’t change the situation. One week in Shelter Bay marina gave us the rest and time we needed to fix Vento Dea. The time then came to continue forward – this time to cruise the Caribbean Sea!