Hey look, I’m cruising! Well, sort of. I am helping Paul and Sheila move their 40’ Leopard catamaran through the Panama canal and on up to California. Usually I am on a tight delivery schedule -- only stopping for fuel and provisions. These two like to pull in and take some time to enjoy the finer spots.
Our little adventure had finally begun. It was 0330 and we were driving to LAX to catch our early flight to Panama. My trusty crewmember was hanging out the open door of the vehicle hurling her stomach contents onto Pacific Coast Hwy. In her defense, it had only been a few hours since New Years Eve.
We arrived in Panama City that evening and caught a cab to the Marriott. It was in the “business district”. I didn’t see any business going on but there were a lot of casinos. Dena and I chucked our stuff into the beautiful room, grabbed some takeout and locked ourselves in for the night.
First thing in the morning we met the owners over breakfast. We had talked on the phone but you really don’t know what you are going to get until you meet. They seemed very nice. I figured we’d get along just fine. On the other hand, they had brought a friend along to crew.
We all piled into a taxi van for the long trip to the Caribbean side of the canal. The boat was parked at Shelter Bay marina. While Colon is a pretty rough place, Shelter is alone on the other side of the harbor and is pretty plush. We had to stop the van before crossing the canal to let a ship through the locks. It’s amazing to see that much bulk moving up and across land.
The weather was nice, though a little hot, even for me. We finally rolled up and I got my first glimpse of the boat. Big Kitty hadn’t been touched in six months so she was a mess. We had the man-power and so we all got to work. It took us a couple days but the cat finally looked and ran like a boat again.
Their crew guy and I butted heads a few times about how to set the boat up. He was an ASA instructor and knew everything about boating ... except the first rule: There’s only one skipper. He wasn’t going to be there for the hard part of the trip and I don’t think he understood how things get knocked around when boats venture offshore.
Big Kitty was an ex-charter boat and so she had been run hard and put away wet. Mostly, fiberglass boats stand up well to large amounts of abuse but their engines do not. For starters, the starboard motor had a crooked alternator. The mount had been welded askew and the wrong size bolt was installed, both done by the cat yard in FL. Also, red gear oil was seeping up from the Volvo ‘Saildrive’ (a large outboard leg sticking through the bottom of the boat). I had seen that before.
Dena and Sheila scoured the inside of the boat to make it beautiful for us while Paul ran around making canal and other arrangements. He hired a canal agent. With Low Key, in ‘05, I used Enrique Plummer and he was great. The owners wanted Pete Stevens. I was flexible. There were some mis-communications but ol’ Pete got us measured and into the canal in two days.
After work was done, Dena and I would tour the boatyard or walk the grounds to work up a thirst. Coldies from the bar accompanied us into the marina-side pool for a chill down. After that we’d hit the showers. Marina tenants have access to big shower rooms with rock tile floors, glass block enclosures and bronze over-head waterfall fixtures. Then we’d join the others for a nice dinner in the marina restaurant or Dena and Sheila would prepare a big ship-board meal.
And then it was transit day. We made our final preparations. We had acquired some tires, already wrapped in garbage bags from a previous transit. We secured them to the side of Big Kitty for additional protection. We laid out the four rented lines on deck, ready for deployment to canal walls. I fired up the engines and we headed over to ‘the flats’.
There were only a couple boats anchored there when we arrived and I knew why. I steered us over to check out where the Panama Canal Yacht Club used to be. They had bulldozed the legendary club and marina on Jan 1. Some of the outer buildings were still in tact but the club, with it’s boat shaped bar, where the greats of ocean voyaging had always gathered, ceased to exist. It is the end of an era. A moment of silence please ...
Our canal advisor would be aboard soon so I assembled my team to have our canal discussion -- stations, maneuvers and what to expect. The big steel pilot boat roared up and Edwin hopped aboard with a smile. Edwin had me point toward the first locks at slow clip. As the sun set over the lake above we stared in awe as several large ships passed us, close to port.
Finally our ship came in and we slipped in behind her. With no other yachts on the schedule we were going to lock up alone, center tie. Every other time I’ve done the canal we’ve been with other cruising boats. Once we locked up side tied to a tug -- a good way to go. Usually we were rafted to other cruising boats with shared line responsibilities. With center tie we sat in the middle, alone, responsible for all four lines.
The canal guys tossed aboard their monkey fists and dragged our lines back up the walls. They walked us into the first lock and looped our lines over big bollards. We tightened them onboard BK. Through the purple glow of a sun just set, the big steel king kong doors slowly swung shut behind us. A cool breeze dropped down from the lake to add to the chill. There was some nervous chatter from the crew but mostly it was a hollow quiet ... until the roaring sound of churning water echoed through our cold steel chamber.
Locking up is when mistakes are made. The two kinds of water mixing and the filling action make for the roughest part of the transit process. I had warned my team of the dangers of loosing control of their line. I wasn’t worried though, my team was top shelf, and besides ... “It wasn’t my boat, it was the bosses boat!” -- Captain Ron.
As we made our rocky ascent I looked back at Dena working our port aft line. She doesn’t seem to know nervous or concern. She was giddy with excitement. Three times we locked up and finally we were released into Lake Gatun. It was pitch black as Edwin guided us the mile or so to the big mooring bouys, our home for the night.
We were secure in our perch, almost 80’ above sea level. With the crew distracted in dinner prep, I snuck a coldy and ventured forward into the darkness, onto the massive foredeck, to enjoy the black peacefulness of the lake. On the big bouy across the way, there was a cruising boat that was headed the way we had come. Their skipper called over and we exchanged info on our respective sides of the canal ... as cruisers do. More next month ...