We have been here in Panama 2 weeks now, due to go through on 29th, so just one more week to go. We have easily filled the time with boat jobs, nerding around the laundry on the internet and making idle cruising chat with friends.
A few days after our arrival, we were invited on a practice transit through the canal, which was very exciting. Janine and Michael are delivering a charter yacht to Sydney, Aus, and needed line-handlers to help take them through. Each yacht needs 4 line-handlers, a skipper and an advisor (usually a tug operator from the Canal).
So, we were waiting aboard their boat Tituone (shame!) when we got a call on the VHF at about 9.30pm to pick up the advisor which we did. We then approached the first locks (Gatun) with 2 other boats and 'nested' up (tied ourselves together) with them. We were on the port side with a catamaran in the middle and a steel boat to starboard. The middle boat is usually the bigger boat and it motors into the locks dragging the outer boats. We were behind an enormous tanker carrying dangerous cargo from Nassau. Line-handlers way up on the dock-side throw down monkey fists (balls of lead within an intricate knot) which we tie to our heavy lines, and then we feed them out and they secure them to a bollard. We take up slack as the water comes in etc etc. The boat on the starboard does the same and thus the raft of boats is secured. That happens three times in the three enormous Gatun locks, which takes us up about 80 feet to Gatun Lake. The surges of water caused by the intake to fill the locks, or by the adjacent huge ships, can cause the raft to sway dangerously in the locks and put unusually high strain on boat fittings. The consequence of losing a cleat during the operation of the locks could be disasterous, but fortunately, probably due to excellent, highly trained and intelligent line-handlers, our experience was pretty uneventful! Once in the lake, we unrafted and motored to an enormous buoy to moor up for the night. (It's not advisable to anchor in the lake as it's man-made, and your anchor could get tangled in the trees beneath you.) By now, it was 2am, so progress is slow through the locks. We celebrated our arrival in the lake with a few drinks, said 'adios' to our advisor and listened to the truly terrifying sound of howler monkeys in the surrounding jungle. Only something really big and mean can make that noise!
We went to bed at 3.30 and our new pilot arrived on board at 6.30! We motored through the lake and the cuts, past fantastic jungle for 35 miles. We saw crocs and toucans and many other birds. Then we approached Pedro Miguel lock, rafted up and waited for about 45mins for an enormous, Panama size tanker to come through. Then the lock took us down toward sea level, and finally, to the Miraflores locks where the gates opened and we were out in the Pacific!
We arrived back at base and headed for the bar but were greeted with the worrying news that an Austrian boat had fallen back onto Kika during a squall that morning! We hitched a dinghy ride straight back to her and she seemed ok. It was reassuring to discover that although the skipper of the other boat thought his near miss hadn't been witnessed, 5 people who were in the anchorage at the time told us about it, 3 of whom went to check Kika immediately. We did go and speak to him the next day just to let him know that we knew, and to find out exactly what happened. It was awkward but I'm glad we did it. It was the first time we had both left the boat at anchor, so we were a little nervous about it: it's certainly a risk. This anchorage obviously isn't big enough for some people! Am I right in thinking Austria is landlocked?
We have a lovely bunch of friends here now, and I feel it's a little bit like being at university - lots of friends, lots of time, lots of waiting around and lots of beer. We have lots of work to do though, which is one big difference. Nick has spent a few days squashed in the stern cabin, emptying out the diesel tank jam jar by jam jar. We had a blockage coming across the Atlantic (you may remember that earlier stressful blog entry) and also, in the San Blas, we noticed an interruption in revs which could be attributed to crap in tank syndrome, hence the need for draining. I have spent my time sorting charts and their stowage, stocktaking in preparation for provisioning, and mending the dinghy, Brenda. Brenda herself is in great condition, but her seat is punctured and without it, it is very difficult to row (as I have found out on several rather long drawn out occasions!). Brenda's mended seat will mean rowing should be a cinch and the exercise should keep us sane.
On the subject of Brenda, Nigel the outboard is still working (I know you've all been wondering) but using him can be a little hazardous. In order to start him, you need to have the choke on and keep the revs very high. Consequently you go from stationery to maximum speed (which all things being equal, isn't very fast but still....) instantaneously. In a crowded dinghy dock, this can be problematic, and more importantly, very embarassing. I have a large graze on my left arm, and a big bruise on my pride to prove it, but as I've said before, dinghys (and their motors) are the best levellers.
The panama canal has web-cams on its locks, so there's a remote chance you might catch us going through. Yachts transit the Gatun locks between 6-10pm (23:00GMT - 04:00GMT) and the Miraflores lock at the more sociable time of 1-4pm (18:00GMT - 21:00GMT). We'll be waving.