Changes in Latitudes......
We finally left Burnt Store Marina, Punta Gorda, FL on April 3rd, 2005. Our first stop was Marathon, FL to get the boat hauled for a fresh coat of bottom paint and last minute projects. We departed Marathon April 14th.
Iron Mistress in the travel-lift with a freshly painted bottom
Then off for a nonstop passage to the Panama Canal. With a favorable weather forecast, we headed out across the Gulf Stream and east across the northern coast of Cuba to pick up the Windward Passage. Then it was a straight run to Panama. The 1300 mile passage took us 10 days, plenty of time to get our sea legs.
As with any passage, making landfall is always a welcome site. Here is the breakwater for the entrance to the Panama Canal Zone on the Colon side. We anchored in the area called "The Flats" along with approximately 25 other boats, all waiting for their transit dates. Each evening "Happy Hour" is spent at the Panama Canal Yacht Club bar meeting other cruisers from all over the world, sharing sea stories, getting useful information from those who have transited before, and rounding up line handlers. Each boat that transits is required to have 4 people on board for line handling. You can hire the locals, but most cruisers help each other out. Once all the paperwork is completed and the officials have measured your boat bow to stern (transit fees are based on the length of your boat), you wait for your transit date. Of course, they can give you a date one day and change it the next. Now it's time to get the boat ready -- full diesel tank, routine engine maintenance, and plenty of fenders. They sell tires wrapped in plastic to use as fenders or hopefully, you can get them from someone who just came through.
Here is our dinghy filled with the tires we got off another boat who had just transited from the Pacific side.
All the "fenders" in place
With our transit date finally confirmed for May 3rd, we were ready. The cruising boats go through the first set of locks in the evening, then finish the transit the next day. Each boat is assigned a Panama Canal Pilot (advisor) who transits along with you. Our first advisor was Enrique, a tug boat captain, who was excellent. He was very personable and took the stress out of our first locking experience.
Robert with our first advisor, Enrique
There was one other sailboat going through with us, so prior to entering the locks, we rafted together and entered the lock as one unit.
The first locks are the Gatun Locks which "up locks" you a total of 85 feet (in a set of three separate locks) to the Gatun Lake. Once the lines are secured, the chamber starts filling with water and creates quite a turbulence. The chambers are filled and emptied by gravity -- water flows through 18 foot diameter tunnels that allow the chambers to fill or empty in 10 minutes. Line handling is critical to keep the boats in the center of the chamber. Each chamber is 110 feet wide and 1000 feet long.
Chamber doors closing behind us
Once through the Gatun Locks, we motored into Gatun Lake and tied up to a large buoy for the night. The advisor is taken off the boat and the next day a new one is dropped off. The Gatun Lake is the largest man-made lake in the world. It is 163 square miles and is formed by an earth dam across the Chagres River. The small islands that we saw the next day while motoring through the lake, are actually the tops of former jungle hills. The level of the Lake is controlled by 14 gates in the Gatun Dam Spillway. The hydro-electric plant at the Dam provides part of the energy needed to run the canal system.
Aerial view of the mooring buoy from atop the mast
Our next advisor, Carlos, was dropped off about 7 AM but everyone was up earlier, awakened by the Howler monkeys "roaring" in the surrounding jungle. What an eerie sound.... We had to motor approximately 24 miles to the next set of locks (Pedro Miguel Locks) and Carlos took us through a short cut across the Gatun Lake, called the Banana Cut. He was very informative, and gave us a history of the Canal as we were motoring along.
Motoring through the Gaillard Cut
As it turned out, the other boat that we were transiting with had to wait for their advisor to show up, so we ended up going through the rest of the locks by ourselves, which is much safer for the boat. The rest of the transit was very uneventful, completing the "down-locking" of the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks by 2:00 PM. Each time a ship passes through the waterway, 52 million gallons of water, mostly from the Gatun Lake, flows through the locks and out to sea.... The surrounding rainforest of the Chagres National Park provides 40% of the fresh water that goes into the inter-oceanic waterway.
We were now in the Pacific, motored under the Bridge of the Americas, and picked up a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club.
Bridge of the Americas
We spent a few days at the Balboa Yacht Club doing some last minute provisioning and finalizing paperwork getting ready for our next passage to the Galapagos.......