Log by Delphine:



After a week here of hard work –liaising with agent Tito over paperwork , banking, cleaning, painting, rigging repairs to backstay, filling water tanks, shopping, laundry, preparing food for 6 for the overnight transit – and play –lounging in and around the pool, chatting to other boaties, attending potluck party/BBQ – it was time to leave for our canal transit at our scheduled time at GATUN roughly 5pm. (NB All times subject to change at little or no notice!)

We had placed 12 car tyre fenders around the boat to supplement the 6 boat fenders already in place and had hired 4x30m lengths of springy green nylon line that were now lying on deck. In the face of a forecast of stormy weather – it was grey and overcast – we left the pontoon and motored off to the fuel berth for a final top-up.

Crossing to The Flats just off Colon and where the now demolished Club Nautico used to be is like crossing a motorway. There are tankers across the horizon awaiting their transit and at right angles to our track there are others constantly entering and leaving the GATUN locks. Raising a jib to sail across this traffic brought an APC vessel onto us immediately; “No sailing in the harbour!” and despite the Si mutinously switching the engine back on and motorsailing, a radio reprimand that meant we really did have to take the sail down. grrr


Canal regulations state we need 4 people just to handle the lines aboard , one at each corner, plus the skipper plus the Canal’s advisor (not a pilot, only the ships get those). We were happy to have the services of Julien and Agnes on whose boat we had already made the transit that took LA MANDRAGORE into the Pacific exactly a week ago. We’d had great hospitality on their boat, had got on well together and felt we were now all ’old hands’ at this exercise. They had had to make the coach trip from Panama and come out in Tito’s launch to meet up with us. It was lovely to see them climb aboard smiling - and bearing gifts of chocolate chips cookies and a fresh pineapple. We all drank tea and sat to await the advisor’s arrival.

Our time had been given us but we didn’t know how many other boats would be going through at the same time, or when exactly it would all happen.. At last the APC launch arrived and Roy stepped aboard looking smart and carrying a briefcase. Including last week’s trip we met 4 advisors in all (there are around 70 employed in total), and, from chatting with them, learnt that they were all employed by APC in other capacities and that this assignment was by way of a well-paid perk for them, so much so that they were all doing it on days off/vacation and for pleasure (the generous pay just sweetened the deal for them!) They were all experienced and pleasant but of differing levels of competenc e in supervising the line placing on boats with so many crew and skippers who themselves generally gave the orders ( rearrange this phrase, ” Many chiefs too....”, and you will have an idea of some of the complexities of the total operation..)

NB The APC line-handlers are the gentlemen at the actual locks, their working dress consisting of hard hats, lifejackets and Doc Martins , and whose job is to lob down the light lines from the high dockside with verve and accuracy (most of the time – the one guy who missed being greeted with derisory jeers and clapping!) and they use a lead weight wrapped in a rope ‘monkey’s fist’ to assist their aim. It’s a cool job and the tension of the moment of throwing is quite palpable, especially as for many of us boaties, it’s a first-time experience and the ‘fist‘ is pretty lethal at speed.. They walk the quay with the light line attached to our green lines until the boats are in place within the dock, then they pull back up to the dockside the long green lines from each corner of the boats and make fast those lines to the bollards at the top. We line-handlers on the boats then either pull in the lines as the water level rises in the lock when going up or pay out , when the water is emptied on the descent. The aim is to keep the boats in the same central position within the lock, as the levels change.. It’s a simple concept but as you’re waiting at anchor before doing it for the first time it’s not at all obvious and most people don’t really visualise it fully until they see it in action.


Last week we went through the locks rafted next to one other boat, and going up we were at the back of a tug and a tanker, going down in front of the tug and tanker. This time on BLACK ARROW we were to raft (or ‘nest’ as the advisor charmingly described it) to two others. Think 3 advisors, 3 skippers, 12 assorted crew and at least 12 lines with which to accomplish this manoeuvre .. and you will appreciate why this time it didn’t go all that well. The idea is to pass a bow and a stern line between each boat first then 2 springs. So who passes what to whom first and then how to work out exactly how the assorted ropes go onto assorted cleats and/or winches to accomplish the springline tying.. Part of the problem was it was between boats of different sizes (our 40’ steel boat , a posh 53’ Amel, the 3rd boat around 43’..) in the scrimmage what happened was that the Amel and BA fastened stern lines cleat to cleat at more or less right angles .. so that when the deflected wash from a passing high-speed tug caused the boats to buck and rear away from each other like crazy horses there was a horrible sound like the crack of a gun ..It surprised and saddened the owner of the Amel that his cleat was not as strongly fastened as that of a small steel British boat. (One of their linehandlers said afterwards, “And we were wondering whether to pay the $700 insurance on this trip when it was our boat going through – now we know we surely will!”) Oh dear.


Our first passage through the GATUN locks was last week, this time we approached in late daylight. The view last week as we entered in the dark with the high incandescent lights casting lurid reflections with pitch black shadows in the cavernous lock was like something from a dark movie. We felt very small indeed as we manoeuvred our lines , caught the monkey’s fists, made our 2 rafted boats fast to the walls towering high above us and prepared to centre the raft from the outer sides of our ‘catamaran’ of 2 hulls joined together..the tanker ahead closer to us than we would ever want to be to a ship normally.. And then the gates shut ponderously behind us and we awaited the next event. It was an awesome sight as the water started boiling up muddily around us and whirlpools swirled in the orange light, the water level rose rapidly, we concentrated on keeping the lines taut.. the motion, the movement, the scale of events was surreal and just very, very exciting!

The GATUN lock has 3 chambers and they took us 87’ above sea level. On emerging from the last lock we motored for 10 minutes into the GATUN Lake and moored to one of the biggest buoys I’ve ever seen – out advisor stepped off the boat onto the top of one and walked across it to place our line on the massive cleat on top – honestly you could have partied on top of it!

The GATUN Lake was formed by damming R Gatun and it took 3 years of equatorial rain to fill. We motored 5 hours along its length the following day and the early morning sunlight showed us dove- grey water, misty green jungle steaming gently and the palm clad islands all around that were once hilltops in the forest . Magical. This forest is the S Lorenzo National Park on either side of the canal, few trails, no roads only a US scientific research base for residents - and its wildlife – jaguars, howling monkeys, snakes and crocodiles - doubtless helps maintain the security around the canal!

Our next advisor arrived by launch at 6 am and all the way we followed the buoyed channel, meeting and being overtaken by massive tankers, car-carriers and commercial carriers of all kinds. The world recession has not apparently slowed down Panama’s traffic much. There are excavation works on either side leaving scarred hillsides and complete islands disappeared as part of the project to widen the canal by 2014 – the centennial of its opening – and accommodate the very largest new ships being built nowadays. There was also a sight of the passenger train in orange and yellow that goes once a day from Panama in the morning and returns from Colon at night and also a freight service that runs on the line alongside the canal. One of the noteworthy engineering items of interest also is the large crane the still operates there; it was used to build German submarines in WW2, then was seized by the Americans as post-war reparation and later sold to the Panamanians for $US1! In the company colours of orange and red it looks as fresh as when it was first in use.

The PEDRO MIGUEL lock is reached after going past a blasted hillside and below a suspension bridge, and then boats that have motored , or in BLACK ARROW’s case sailed some of the way individually then meet up, the advisor having had radio clearance on the lock schedule, and they re- raft to each other for passage through the locks that will take them back to sea-level. This lock has only one chamber but stays interesting as you enter in front of the big ship this time, tie to the side and then get to watch the business end of a huge tanker bear down on you to within a few boat lengths..Don’t practice this out on the ocean, definitely nerve-wracking.

MIRAFLORES Lock is the gateway to the mighty Pacific Ocean and in addition to the graceful Art Deco Canal buildings bearing name of lock and date of construction that the other locks have there is also a building like an air terminal, with several terraces lined with crowds of people that appear to be waving, photographing and generally giving a hero’s welcome to all the boats that have made it thus far - very gratifying The 2 chambers descending are not as tumultuous as the rising ones , the water disappeared rapidly and without the upsurge of gurgling and bubbling. However, not to be too tame, the final flourish on BLACK ARROW’s passage through this lock was a darkening of the sky and a tropical thunderstorm complete with lightning and a watery downpour that made the average marina shower look positively feeble. The water went grey and flattened by the power of the downpour and we soggily exited into the mist hardly able to see in front of us WELCOME TO THE PACIFIC. we all thought.!


After leaving the Canal we passed below the iconic PUENTE DE LAS AMERICAS that connects North and South America, completing the PanAmerican highway from Alaska to and having dropped our advisor onto the launch (he couldn’t stay too long in case they had to pay him overtime, he said !) we motored round to the left and anchored in this more sheltered bay, with a fabulous view of a causeway of palm trees on one side and the New York-style skyline of Panama City on the other. A full moon rising serenely after the rainstorm promised better things and the adventures of the Pacific all to come.

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