Panama Canal…Continued

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Entrance to the Gatun Locks at night

When last you tuned in (I hope) Evenstar was slipping towards the Panama Canal in the gloaming of the Panamanian twilight.  With our lines ready to go and our adviser on board we are ready to make our passage to the Pacific.

Well, sort of.  Coming from North to South in a small (under 125′) boat is generally a two-step process.  Leaving Cristóbal (the port in Colón) small boats passed via “Hand Line” tend to cross the Gatun locks in the afternoon or evening then spend the night tied to a mooring in Gatun lake then continue with a new adviser the next morning to finish the transit.

As we approached the locks we’d seen some boats on the AIS that may head through the canal with us.  One boat was named Summer Wind – sounds like another sail boat, right?

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Nope.

We did see a familiar boat coming in though – Testarossa, a Leopard 58 Catamaran that we crossed en route to Panama from Aruba.  The Leopard 58 is a heavy catamaran, about the same weight as Evenstar which is unusual in a catamaran as they tend to be lighter boats.  We were informed that we would go through the locks rafted to Testarossa. When we crossed them at sea we were flying our spinnaker which we managed to get twisted up while we were still within eye contact of them; we are all hoping they didn’t notice!

When you are filling your paperwork out with the Agent to get your canal assignment you are offered several choices for your “Position” in the lock which you may accept of decline.  The basic positions in order of desirability are Center Lock, rafted to a tugboat, or outside against the lock wall.  It is recommended that if you like your boat you should decline side wall position.  The Center Lock position is in theory your boat in the center of the lock.  But the locks are 100 feet wide and Evenstar is only sixteen feet wide so there is a lot of room – you are also asked if you would be willing to go through “rafted” or tied to up to two other boats.

The advantages to rafting depend on where you are in the raft and how many boats are in the raft.  If there are three boats and you are the middle you basically get two really big fenders on you and you don’t have to do any line handling.  Anything bad that happens to the raft will have to go through one of the other boats.  The downside is you are subject to the competence level of the other boat’s line handlers.  Being on the outside of the raft means you only need two line handlers, but you are subject to not only the competence of the line handlers on the other boats but to the competence of the skipper as well.

Rafting to Testarossa was a hybrid of the two, with only two boats in the raft we both were subject to risk from the walls and only needed line handlers.  But because Testarossa was the larger boat with the larger engines (200HP total to our 145HP) they would do the driving while we were moved along with our engine idling.

We stood aside as Summer Wind eased into the lock ahead of us then began our rafting procedures with Testarossa.  It did not go as smoothly as possible.  All of our crew and line handlers were experienced boat handlers – Kathy and Will of course, and our friends Maggie and Charlie run a yacht rigging company up in Rhode Island and have years of experience between them.  This did not seem to be the case on the other boat.  While complicated by the fact that not all the crew over there spoke English, there were some that clearly didn’t have experience with the rudiments of boat handling such as tying a line onto a cleat so it would stay put.

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Evenstar anchoring a raft of five boats in Dutch Harbor, RI

While rafting yachts isn’t the most challenging thing to do with your boat, at some point many boaters get a chance to do it and there is an art to it.  We’ve done it more than a few times, the principles are pretty straight forward.  With lots of fenders in place you tie lines from bow to midships and sterns to midships.  This keeps the boats from sliding forward and backwards relative to each other.  Then you can connect the bow to bow and stern to stern to minimize the boats swinging into each other.  We’ve slept this way a lot, but this would be the first time we’d have to move rafted.

The initial raft up had the frenzied air of a three stooges slapstick routine in a construction site.  One fellow looped some lines around our midships cleat and walked away…one glance from me showed that he’d not actually tied it on right.   Meanwhile a guy on their bow was hauling down and tightening a line on their bow while another guy was hauling down a line to their stern cleat.  What neither guy realized was they were both hauling on the same line.  Yes, you read that right – they had managed to aggressively tie their own bow to their own stern instead of any part of Evenstar.  Eventually we did get the lines sorted out and the boats safely tied.

If you picture how boats are laid out they tend to stick the propeller in the middle of the boat for a reason.  Or in the case of boats with more than one propeller they place them equally apart and from the sides of the boat to keep loads balanced, lest the boat drive itself in circles.  With Evenstar strapped to this other boat like 56,000 lbs of whale carcass what we had was a WIDE boat with two propellers on the not-quite center line and port side of the hull.

If one is slow and easy on the throttle you could still keep the boats relatively straight, using the inherent drag of Evenstar’s deep keep and rudder as an aide to keeping the boats straight.  Or you could slam the throttles side open, spewing black smoke out of your engines and quickly spinning the boats off the straight and narrow, heading the mated pair off towards the lock walls.  Fortunately if the operator of the other boat is alert enough, he can apply judicious forward or reverse on his own idling engine which can offset and correct this crazy spin.  Repeatedly.  Every time the boats moved together.  I will lead the gentle reader to conclude how the throttles were generally managed from the other vessel.

You’ve read the phrase “hand lining” more than a few times, but I should elaborate some more on this.  When large ships move through the canal they are attached by cables to some powerful little trains (or “mules”) on the side of the canal.  These presumably help keep the ship centered and off the walls and can provide minute corrections in position.  With small boats it is done with four line handlers on the canal walls.

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Monkey’s Fist knot in the throwing lines.

The throwing lines in flight towards Kathy and Charlie up on the bow. Note the “mule” – the train engine, in the background for the big ships.

As you enter the lock the line handlers on shore toss thin lines with a Monkey’s Fist knot on the end of them to our line handlers on the deck.  The Monkey’s Fist is a knot used to make a heavy throwing weight on a line, though they are also quite decorative.  Our line handlers need to catch the throwing line and tie it around the loop in our big lines.  The canal line handlers then walk the throwing lines forward until you’ve moved to the correct point in the canal, where they pull in the big blue lines and connect them to the bollards (big tie down points) on the edge of the lock.

From the Gatun locks we need to be lifted UP to Gatun Lake which is about 85 feet above sea level.  There are three sets of locks to accomplish this, so this process is repeated three times in a row before we are through the locks.

Since we are going up about 27 feet inside the lock the lines will slack as the lock floods.  Without re-writing a work on “how locks work”, in short if you are being raised your lock chamber is closed and it floods until the water level reaches the next chamber in the lock.  The boat moves to the next lock and the gates close again.  Again the lock floods and you float up to the level of the next lock.  And so on, until you’ve reached the level of the lake.  As you are doing this there is a lot of turbulence in the water.  And as you go up the lines get slack – the primary job of the line handlers is to keep pulling in the slack so that we stay as centered in the lock chamber as we can.

The bow team

The Bow Team – Kathy and Charlie

Keep in mind also that we are doing this at night though the canal is well lit it is still a bit eery.  In the middle of this our adviser asks if we have any dinner (he’s been working all day and not been home) and Danielle takes a break from shooting pictures and heats up some of her pies which he eats with a stunning amount of the hottest sauce we have on the boat.  At night we see a few surprising creatures along the shores of the canal including some Coati (a long nosed central American raccoon equivalent) and a an armadillo.

When we’ve reached the top of a lock the line handlers on shore feed the heavy lines back to our handlers and walk the connected throw lines up to the next lock as we motor forward.  When we reach the third lock it is getting late and we’re getting done for the night.  One more time through and ahead of us lies the open lake.  We say our graçias’ to our line handlers on shore and the adviser throws them a couple of cold sodas.

Just outside the locks we pull off to the side and disentangle ourselves from Testarossa.  They steam off towards the mooring area and we follow them, tired and looking forward to some dinner and a good nights sleep before the morning, when a different adviser is expected back on the boat by 6:00 a.m.

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