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Report Three from the Otter:
Aruba & Panama
Part II -- The Panama Canal (in eight "locks")
Lock One: Orientation 101 – Panama and the Panama Canal
I was not aware until I started studying my charts that Panama generally
runs east to west, and that the entrance to the canal from the Caribbean, at
Colon, is on a north shore.
Yachts transiting to the Pacific travel in a southeasterly direction,
entering the Pacific at Balboa, which is farther east than where they left
the Caribbean. Balboa, the Spanish explorer, on seeing the Pacific for the
first time named it the "Southern Sea" because of the direction he
faced when he discovered it.
Another geographical misconception I had was that Panama - being under
Mexico, which is under California - was about the same longitude as Los
Angeles. It's actually under Florida, and shares the same Eastern Time Zone
(even though they do not follow Daylight Savings Time). Sailing from Aruba,
which is in the Atlantic Time Zone, to Panama, I lost the hour I had gained
sailing from Block Island to Bermuda.
The Panama Canal Yacht Club is a fascinating place, an institution all
cruising sailors who pass through Panama encounter. It is also at the edge of
Colon, my first real experience
of a third-world city.
The Yacht Club is a rambling assemblage of one-story, beige, nondescript
block structures with corrugated cement roofs -- all paint looks about 20 years
old, faded and peeling, various shades of brown or the occasional dark green on
doors and trim. Almost everything mechanical functions but not always. The
grounds are picked up but not groomed.
At the end of Pier #2, which was my home for two weeks, across a 50-foot
strip of struggling grass, is a shed with three sets of large garage doors that
houses different workshops. The workshops are only in use occasionally, and are
locked the rest of the time. To the right of the sheds is the main Yacht Club
building that houses the office, the bar, and the restaurant.
The office is dingy and worn. At the counter in front, yachts pay for all
services, buy phone cards, and arrange to rent the four heavy lines required of
To the right, on another counter, is a wooden box with alphabetized
partitions. In the partitions are letters, post office slips, and notes for
transient yachts. Some of the letters looked dog-eared and ancient; I couldn't
make out the postmark dates on them.
On the left counter are a small garbage pail and a donations box for the
Sisters of Mercy Orphanage in Colon, which is run by Mother Teresa's nuns. The
pail is for canned goods.
In the hallway to the restaurant, Kuna Indian women, from the San Blas
Islands, sit on the floor with their incredibly beautiful molas spread on
blankets, for sale. They rarely engage passers-by except to negotiate a sale.
The two or three women will sew in silence all day, dressed in their colorful
The restaurant, which is run by a Chinese family with West Indian waitresses,
is the center and heart of the social activity for cruisers. The twenty or so
tables are in open air under a porch roof. The tables and chairs looked like
they may have been new in the 1950's. The view faces the docks and the French
It is here over lunch and dinner and pitchers of beer for $3 brought out from
the bar that cruisers meet each other and arrange for line handlers. Four line
handlers are required on each yacht that transits, as well as the skipper and a
Canal Pilot. Since professional line handlers charge $50 for a one-day transit,
or $75 for the standard two-day transit, a full complement adds $200+ to the
cost of transiting. So, acquiring other yachties to line handle for the
experience is usually arranged through encounters here.
The Panama Canal Yacht Club bar, lounge, and pool-hall is a world of its own.
The room is large, air conditioned, and dark even on the brightest day, since
the windows facing the piers and old canal are tinted. It has a beer-and-smoke
mustiness coming from the walls and the old, worn carpeting.
The bar itself has two curved sides that come to a point intended to
represent a ship's prow. It is all dark, varnished mahogany with a heavily
carved wooden rope forming the thick, twisted elbow cap at the edge.
It has patrons who start their day here at 10:00-10:30 a.m., those who live
on boats, do enough to get by, and then are here. Then there are the ones who
will do a morning boat project and celebrate their three-hour workday by
beginning their leisure time at noon or 1:00 p.m. And then there’s the happy
hour crowd of transiting crews and local Panamanian Yacht Club members who have
never been on a boat. Like many of the small boat clubs at home, it is mostly a
social gathering place for inexpensive drinking.
Outside, beyond the bar and office, is an old but very serviceable railway
that can haul boats of up to 30 tons for a $75 haul-out fee plus $1.50 per foot,
Then more work sheds, a laundry, showers, bathrooms, and the sleepy
Immigration official's office. The entire complex, I'm told, probably looked the
same when Eric and Susan Hisiock, the writers of many cruising books, came
through in the 50's and early 60's.
Lock Two: Orientation 102 – A Local Guide and International Drumbeats
Monday, March 29 --
When I arrived and tied Otter to Pier #2, I still had energy enough
for the afternoon, even though I'd been up all the previous night on the way
in. The first thing I did was take a long shower. Dr. Bronner's Peppermint
soap is good, but after six days of washcloth baths, lots of water was
Then, with papers in hand, I went to see the Immigration official. He moved
a big Styrofoam take-out tray full of rice and meat out of the way and slowly
filled out the necessary forms. Then he gave me directions to the offices in
Colon, where I had to go next
for more paperwork. My Panama Canal Cruising Guide said that the
paperwork process could be as much as two days of work and waiting.
Beside the railway-cable shed, in the shade, the taxi drivers wait. I was
fortunate enough to hire Rudy Whittaker, who proceeded to take me under his
wing. Rudy, a Panamanian of Nicaraguan descent, speaks and reads English
fluently, and, for a $20 fee, used them well.
Rudy took me through the official maze with a lightning speed that was
mind-boggling. He knew when to smile at a grumpy passport-stamper, how to jump
the lines at the banks for the entrance and exit stamps required, and how to
simply leave things when an official wasn't going to be back for an hour and
we were asked to wait.
He knew who had to see original documentation papers and who didn’t, and
would get photocopies of the documents that we had to leave, then drive to the
next office, where the photocopies were accepted.
He also brought me through subsequent steps in the Canal transit, such as a
call to the Canal Commission's Admeasurer's office. Yes, they could come
measure the boat on Tuesday. And, yes, there was a 10-to-14-day wait to
transit, but I had to be measured, then pay my fees, and then call back to be
In two hours we were back at the Yacht Club - all done! Thinking of the
cruisers on tight budgets I had just seen walking around the town looking
extremely conspicuous, I decided not to attempt to negotiate Rudy’s fee: I
felt he'd earned it all.
The brief two hours I spent in Colon with Rudy was pure culture shock. The
buildings rarely reach more than four stories. They are of concrete and wood,
with all semblance of paint gone. Some streets are better than others, but the
general impression is of decay and crumbling mortar in facades that grow long
weeds and grass from any crack.
Washing is hung everywhere (not dissimilar to most yachts at anchor), and
garbage and rubble in side streets is piled high. Shantytowns at the west edge
of the city, near the water, went on and on: Collections of corrugated tin,
scrap lumber, and cardboard creating three-sided dwellings; chickens and dogs
and burning grass fires around which armies of young children ran. Vital and
poor -- I was fascinated and repelled.
When I was 16-years-old I left high school and moved to New York City,
where, after dark, I would walk in the streets rather than be close to
alleyways, which all had muggers who were going to jump me.
A similar fear of a novel environment came on me now. But Rudy, like a
mother hen, was never more than a few feet from me when we were out of his
Back at the Yacht Club I do some laundry, and have a cheeseburger for
dinner at the restaurant. At 8:30 p.m. I hear drumming coming from the shed at
the end of my pier. The shed is where "Indy" hangs out. A slim,
dark, British Guyanian of Indian background who proudly claims he's "not
Panamanian, but an Englishman," Indy does "the few odd
jobs." He says he was stranded after coming to Panama with a company that
let him go and won't fly him home. So, he sends money back to his family and
hangs out around the Yacht Club.
I get my small metal drum, which was a gift from the Day Street Drumming
Circle, and join Indy. By 11 p.m., when I finally retire, our group in the
shed has grown to seven people, all drumming away on various percussion
Our group includes two South African girl backpackers, two Frenchmen from
the Marquesas, a 19-year-old German boat kid, Indy, and me. A great session.
But, because of complaints about the noise and lateness, it's never repeated.
Lock Three: Preparations, Politics, and Drugs
Tuesday, March 30 --
Otter was measured by a very beautiful young woman. Gladys is Spanish
Panamanian and extremely professional. Like all the other people at every
level of Canal management and operations, she knows her job and does it well.
I got in the habit of asking what they thought would happen to the Canal at
the end of the year, when it comes under Panamanian control. The universal
opinion is that everyone involved is more than capable of running and
maintaining the Canal at the same level of professionalism it has had under
the Americans. In fact, over 90 percent of the work force at all levels is
Panamanian now, including the head of the Canal Commission.
They are afraid, though, and I could see it in their eyes, of the
politicians and the politics that could get involved and create problems in a
I met an English engineer, Brian, who is building two container ship
facilities, one in Balboa and one in Colon. He told me that some Panamanian
politicians have seen their jobs as an opportunity to make themselves and
their families wealthy. He believes this includes the President, who is
elected for a single, five-year term.
And he, too, feels that the millions of dollars in profit that are realized
by the canal each year will become a political football. He fears they will
drain off some maintenance money.
In the restaurant today, I meet Jerry and Helen Fitch from Michigan. They
are sailing their 36-foot sloop, Pegasus, through the Pacific. They had
circumnavigated twenty years ago when their four boys were young. Now, in
their late fifties, they are going back one more time to revisit friends on
distant islands that they've been writing to ever since.
Helen asked me if I wanted to line handle for them Thursday. I couldn't say
no. I really wanted to look at the Canal first before Otter goes
After lunch, Rudy picks me up with my measurement papers. We drive to Gatun, where the Transit Fees are paid. It's a long ride, and on the way there I
ask him about Noriega and the Canal and get an insightful history.
Rudy’s condensed view is that Noriega was a bad man and had to go. Only
the Americans could remove him, but we did it with a lead foot and over 6,000
casualties that he feels could have been avoided.
During the time prior to the invasion, Noriega gave guns to any thug that
came in and joined his people's militia to "repel the Yanqui." His
resistance melted immediately and the thugs with guns started looting, holding
up banks and grocery stores.
Rudy claims that's why today I see so many armed guards. And I do: two
guards with shotguns strapped to their shoulders at the ‘Super 99’
supermarket, at all banks, at paint stores, even in McDonald's.
The large Canal Administration building at Gatun collects my $500 transit fee, plus another $125 that will be refunded. I
think it's an insurance bond, but I'm not sure. It's all paid in U.S. dollars,
cash -- a lot for me to be carrying around.
Now back at the Yacht Club, I use one of the three phones in the restaurant
area to tell the scheduler I've paid my fee. The scheduler tells me to call
back next Monday: he may be able to get me through on Wednesday or Thursday.
Dinner at the restaurant. My table fills with Germans from different parts
of Germany. All speak in English, and are amazed that for the first time since
World War II they are bombing another country, this time as part of the NATO
strikes in Bosnia.
Johannes, a doctor taking a year off to travel and do soul work, gives me a
list of antibiotics and pain killers with detailed instructions for use. All
these drugs are available without prescription here, so I can complete my
first aid kit, finally, without making a doctor's appointment.
Wednesday, March 31 --
Clean and wash boat, cushions, laundry, all day.
Lock Four: Dry-run Transit -- Line Handling for Pegasus,
Thursday, April 1, 1999 --
Jerry's boat, Pegasus, is out on the flats, the anchorage area for
transiting yachts. He comes in at 4:00 a.m. in his dinghy to pick me up. We
are joined by Eric and Ann Nesbitt from Temerarius.
Eric and Ann are from Detroit and have been cruising the Caribbean for over
nine years. They go back to Detroit regularly, where he is a union electrician
and she is a nurse. They work for three months, save their money, and spend
nine more months on their boat.
Jerry raises the anchor. He's been told that the pilot will be coming
aboard about 5:30 a.m., and to be waiting and ready. Roger, the pilot/advisor,
shows up at 9:30 a.m.
One of the first things I learned from this transit is to contact the
signal control on Channel 16. They will tell you, on the morning of transit,
what the pilot's real time is, so you don't simply motor around the
flats, as we did for over three hours with Pegasus.
There are four stages of piloting in the Canal hierarchy. The lowest rung
is Advisor. These are usually young men just a few years out of a four-year
college who graduated with studies in Piloting and Navigational Science. They
spend a few years on transiting yachts getting experience.
Advisors earn about $50,000 a year. In a country where the minimum wage
worker is getting $200 per month, that's good. (The pay scale is based on what
Americans had made and it hasn't changed.)
The next step is to become a Tugboat Pilot and push the big ships in and
out of the locks. It requires a higher level of skill and pays $70,000.
After that comes the Big-Ship-Pilot-in-training, and then the Big-Ship
Pilot. There are two or three per ship as it transits, and the big ships pay
an average of $30,000 for one-way passage. The pilots on big ships make over
$200,000 per year.
Roger is thin and fair-skinned with short, curly blonde hair. He brings a
duffel bag, a huge bag of ice for his sodas, and his two-way radio. He has on
a Hard Rock Cafe tee shirt from Las Vegas, which he bought himself: he's been
We motor out into the edge of the channel and toward the Gatun Locks, about four miles away. Roger hears on his radio that the third yacht
that was to raft with us had engine problems and won't be going. We will raft
with an English yacht called Knock-John, then tie-off alongside a tug.
As we raft up to Knock-John, lesson two is apparent: Fender as much
as possible. Jerry only has four small, regular fenders. At two per side, it's
not enough. Most yachts buy at least three or four old tires per side at $2
each, wrap them in garbage bags to protect the paint, and then tie them off
their sides. Knock-John is not particularly happy to have to give us
some of their tire/fenders.
There's lots of discussion around the Yacht Club about how to avoid paying
for the tires. For example, there's supposed to be a place in Colon that will
give them away free, but it's an extremely long walk. Taxis, though, will
charge $8 for the round-trip.
After paying a $625 transit fee, I think $16 for hull insurance is cheap.
As we raft up next to the tug, Pegasus is in the middle. I'm on the
bow, handling lines connecting us to the tug. Two bow lines doubled and a
springline make five lines coming through a small chock to one small cleat,
which makes for an unrepeatable rat’s nest of lines and knots. But it holds.
There are three contiguous locks at Gatu
n. Each lock is 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide. The dimensions are based on
the U.S. Navy's request in 1908 for locks that could take the battleship Pennsylvania,
which was on the drawing boards at the time. Its beam was 98 feet. Even the Titanic
was only 94 feet. Today there are ships built to transit the canal with only a
two-foot clearance on each side.
The locks have one hundred 4-1/2 foot diameter holes in the bottom through
which water is allowed to flow from Gatun Lake to fill the lock. Each lock raises the ships about 28 feet.
We enter the lock behind a small (about 500 feet) freighter. The turbulence
from the flow of water filling the lock and the turbulence from the freighter’s
propwash is less than expected; they present no real strain on the lines or
We exit the third lock into Gatun Lake, 85 feet above sea level. We unraft for the 24-mile crossing to the
anchorage at the start of the Gaillard Cut, near the town of Gamboa.
Gatun Lake was raised over
20 feet from its original level by a dam on the Chagres River. Until Lake Mead
was created behind Boulder Dam, now the Hoover Dam, Gatun Lake was the largest man-made lake in the world.
Since the completion of the construction work on the Canal in 1914, the
lake edge has been allowed to grow back to full, tropical jungle. Oddly, there
are still treetops sticking up from the water that remain from the time of the
flooding. A few even have green branches.
I am reminded of Frederic Church's paintings of the tropics. All the
vegetation he painted is at the edge of the lakes and the hundreds of little
Everything is quiet. Once in a while a big ship will appear, coming around
a corner in front of us, and almost silently glide by.
I make a few small sketches during the approximately four hours it takes us
to reach Gamboa anchorage on the other side of the lake. It's very hot.
We anchor and a pilot boat picks up Roger. We swim and have an early dinner
of roast pork, corn, potatoes - a real home-cooked meal from the oven. It's
I sleep in the cockpit under a full moon, waking occasionally to marvel at
the smoky, moody, and exotic landscape softly surrounding me.
Lock Five: Transit Day Two (Good Friday) and an Ersatz Easter
Friday, April 2 – 7:30 AM
We have a great French toast breakfast and tell sea stories while waiting
for the pilot to arrive. A flotilla of canoes filled with English-speaking Boy
Scouts paddles by - singing camp songs! Adult leaders are calling out orders
– it feels very American, except for the tropical backdrop.
9:00 a.m. Our pilot for the day is Victor, who is a few years older
than Roger. Married with a three-year-old daughter, he is a Tugboat Pilot, but
takes yachts through when he's needed.
Going in through the Gaillard Cut takes about an hour-and-a-half. It's a
7-1/2-mile stretch of canal that was cut through the mountains. It is
certainly the most visible and impressive feature of the Canal, which shows
the staggering amount of work that was necessary to create it.
Over 20,000 people died while the French were here, and at least another
5,000 after the Americans began working on it. Even now the hills lining the
Cut are unstable: big slides have blocked it temporarily.
It was here that Gauguin worked for two months as a laborer at $50 per
month. He came here with the dream of buying land on the isle of Taboga and
living off fruit and fish for free. The dream is still alive in many of the
people I meet.
Going down takes us through three locks. One at Pedro Miguel, then a mile
across the narrow Miraflores Lake to a double lock at Miraflores.
We are a raft of three yachts in the center of the lock. A French yacht
taking the center position has larger diameter lines than ours, so she and Knock-John
do the line handling, a relatively simple task of letting out line to keep the
raft centered as we are lowered.
There is no turbulence at all as the water drains from the locks. We are
ahead of the freighter in the lock and don't experience any propwash as we
The last lock opens silently. We enter the salt water of the Pacific Ocean.
We unraft and move forward to Balboa Harbor, the Bridge of the Americas
making a high arch in front of us. Victor is taken off by a pilot boat, and
we motor under the only land link between North and South America.
Just past the bridge to the left is the Balboa Yacht Club, or what
remains of it. The Yacht Club burned down in February under suspicious
circumstances. It is being replaced by a big hotel complex. But there is
still a fuel dock, moorings, launches, and an office that collects fees for
Eric, Ann, and I get off Pegasus as Jerry is filling his fuel and
water tanks. It feels like an awfully abrupt end to what had become a
close-knit little unit.
Standing on the dock, I look out toward Taboga Island in Panama Bay and
think that the Otter will be sailing past there soon.
The three of us get a taxi into Panama City, then an express bus to
Colon. A big air-conditioned touring bus that has movies. An hour and a half
for $2, and we're back at the Panama Canal Yacht Club.
Sunday, April 4 --
It’s Easter Sunday, and I'm in a taxi to church by 8:30 a.m. I expect
I'll be early if I arrive before 9:00 a.m. But the service at the Colon First
United Methodist Church started at 7:00 a.m., and is winding down when I
arrive. I sing a last hymn and then say the last prayers and then it's time
for coffee and small food in the fellowship hall. Perfect timing.
Back at the Yacht Club I'm feeling a little lonely not being at a family
Easter dinner, when Indy comes by and invites me to share some food with him
in a little while. I wonder what can he possibly make on a little hot plate in
the back of a tumbled up workshop.
When I stop by to see, he has a huge, fresh salad of tomatoes, lettuce, and
carrots with different dressings, cold sodas, bread and butter, and a large
plate of fried shark and mackerel. A feast!
But he has no utensils or plates or cups. I go back to the Otter and
bring what I have. It's a wonderfully unique Easter dinner! A few others stop
by to help us eat. Indy becomes my family. We talk about wives and children
Lock Six: Shopping and Eating and Shopping and Eating
Tuesday, April 6 --
Today I provision. ‘Super 99’ is a large supermarket that is a $3 cab
ride from the Yacht Club. Besides the shotgun guards, the other unique feature
is a large hardware department. Noting this, I think their motto should be
"from soup to nuts to bolts."
I find good quality mural brushes at 19-35 cents each and get a mess of
them. I fill two baskets with what I hope will be the last provisions I'll
need until New Zealand, except for fresh produce.
The two energetic underage bag boys (they look no older than 13) bring my
stuff out to the free supermarket bus that will take me home. It's an old
retired Blue Bird school bus, shipped down from Miami. I wonder if it’s
originally from Connecticut, one of the many that either my brother John or I drove to the docks in Miami years ago
for the Beebe Bus Company in Madison.
They wake the bus driver, who's sleeping on a seat and doesn't seem to be
happy about being disturbed. The boys enjoy the novelty of the ride and
whistle at all the pretty girls as we pass. They run the bags from the bus to
my boat and seemed happy with the 50-cent tip I give each of them. I wonder if
it was too much.
Dinner tonight is on Violet, which is anchored out in the flats. Violet
and Amanda are rafted together. Amanda is a rough-hewn old
wooden Norwegian fishing vessel that Hakon and Elin Innloju and their two
young daughters are sailing around the world.
Hakon tells great stories of spending Christmas with 60 dogs and his sleds
north of the Arctic Circle. He's been through the Canal, too, and proclaims
that "it's for babies."
Violet is owned by Gary Maynard and Christy Kinsman - with their two
small children they are sailing around the world, too. Gary had a
boat-building company on Martha's Vineyard and rebuilt Violet, which is
an old Scottish fishing boat. Gary sailed around the world with his parents,
who built a replica of Joshua Slocum's Spray.
So we have a long talk about ole Joshua and his travels. I talk of my
grandmother, whose father did work on the Spray for Slocum after his
world voyage, when he brought it to the Herreshoff yard in Bristol. Slocum
would eat at their house, and her mother would make bread for him to eat on
his way take back to Massachusetts.
Grandma’s Uncle Ted made her late for school one day, saying, "Let’s
go see the Spray!" (She always admitted she was more excited about
being out of school than seeing some old boat.) On board, Slocum himself gave
her a bottle of seashells he’d collected and labeled in his travels. I carry
them with me now. As well as her maiden name, Brechin.
Christy makes a great, huge spaghetti dinner. We're joined by Howard and
Rita Parks from Stonington, who are sailing their boat, Comet, around
the world, too. A gathering of circumnavigators, mostly from New England, here
in the flats of Panama!
Hakon brings the men who gather in Violet's steering cockpit mugs of
coffee with cognac. Orion is low on the horizon, just over some moonlit
clouds. The sound of children playing forward, the voices of wives and of the
men near me. Water lapping on wooden boats with silhouettes of ancient
I feel that the spirit of adventure is not dead and young men and their
families will be on the sea for contact with the wild for as long as men and
Thursday, April 8 --
I decide to visit the Free Zone or Zona Libra. It is a city within
the city of Colon. Walled off from Colon,
it is many city blocks with over 1,600 outlets for universal brands.
The city is unique. No one lives there. No Panamanians are allowed to shop
there, only work. They all go home at night. Most of the traffic is delivery
There are no delis or restaurants. Everyone eats lunch on the streets from
numerous carts. Dozens of office workers line up on the sidewalks with trays
of rice at lunchtime.
Big storefronts for Warner Brothers, Laura Ashley - but inside they have
round tables with forms and a few order-takers for the buyers who come in to
Buyers from Central and South America come there to purchase 1,000 pair of
Calvin Klein jeans, 500 Nike sneakers, 200 Sony TVs for their stores in Bogota
or Rio de Janeiro at wholesale prices. I think Sandy would go crazy here!
Shoes that sell in the States for $80-100 go here for $10. And with a
passport I can get in. I buy a pair of hiking shoes and some socks. Everything
is orderly and clean and neat, in great contrast to outside the walls. Some
stores are set up for a little retail, most are not: using cash to buy six
rolls of inexpensive film created problems making change.
The taxi I hire to take me back to the Yacht Club is stopped and searched
thoroughly. The trunk, the seats, under the car. My pack is opened, so I show
him my shoes. I hear him saying, with a little disdain, something about
"the gringo" as he waves us through the gate. The cabdriver is
That night I have dinner at the bar with Eric and Ann, my partner line
handlers on Pegasus. They are leaving the next morning for Florida. Ann
tells me that when she's home working, very few ask her about her life
exploring the Caribbean. Yet she would not give up what she's seen for any
amount of security.
She tells of one quiet evening, way into the upper reaches of the Oronoco
River in Venezuela, when a flock of red birds covered the sky. It keeps
bringing her back.
Lock Seven: Bottoms out! Final pre-Transit Prep
Friday, April 9 --
I decide to delay my transit a few days and haul Otter on the
Railway. The bottom has needed scraping every two weeks. The paint's
antifouling properties are worn thin and I don't want to cross the Pacific
dragging extended barnacle and seaweed families with me.
I've found a paint shop that can get me the Petit Trinidad Blue I want at
the same price as West Marine - pretty amazing. Indy works with me all day and
we scrub slime, scrape, wet sand, and paint, all by 6:00 p.m.
I wind up doing the dirtiest jobs and look like an early Pict-blue man.
Even after a long scrub in the shower and skin-tingling paint-thinner rubs, my
toenails are bright blue -- to match my sandal straps, some say.
For a few hours in the afternoon, my two young, attractive, South African
drumming friends, Vicky and Bianca, come by to help as we are working away.
With one on each side of me, Doris a squirt-gun-wielding friend from a
neighboring boat comes by and loudly asks how my wife and children are. My
temporary bubble is burst and I'm an old man again. But it's still fun.
Saturday, April 10 --
The boat goes back in the water. When I call the scheduler about my Tuesday
transit, he says tomorrow, Sunday, is open if I can arrange it. They had three
cancellations. I spend the afternoon arranging for the Sunday transit. I only
have two line handlers, Peter Fitch and Misty McIntosh from Tamoure. I
met them in Aruba and they just showed up Friday and want to line handle.
My guardian angel is working overtime, because at the last minute, Mark and
Miriam, two Dutch backpackers traveling through Panama, show up. They've come
over to the Yacht Club from Panama City specifically to see if they can go as
line handlers to see the Canal first-hand. Bingo!
I prep the boat and sleep in the cockpit, giving them my double bunk.
Lock Eight: Otter Transits
Sunday, April 11 –
3:45 a.m. Mark's alarm goes off and I hear it but roll over and
3:50 a.m. I get up thinking I've slept for another hour.
3:55a.m. Peter and Misty come in in their dinghy from the flats.
4:10 a.m. I call Cristobal Signal and they say be on the flats by
4:45 a.m. - a good sign that we may make it in one day. Only 20 percent of
yachts transit in one day, those who do start early.
4:15 a.m. Dock lines are slipped and we motor to
the flats - pitch dark.
5:00 a.m. A pilot-advisor comes aboard, Ephrim Otero. He says
"otter " is his last name - big smile - he wants coffee, lots of it.
The stove flares and gives trouble but coffee comes.
6:15 a.m. Otter rafts to the side of Tenareze, a
67-foot Swan from England. The other side of Tenareze is Lolita,
a 64-foot yacht with Pepper and Judy. All three of us are going to
Tenareze tells me that Jimmy Cornell is now almost at the Marquesas and
his 48-boat fleet is chewing up all supplies ahead of us: produce, diesel, and
postage stamps. He also shows me an article that says over 2,500 spectator
boats are expected in Auckland for the America’s Cup races. San Diego only
had 700. The Pacific will be very crowded.
Since both other yachts are huge, they handle lines and we just stay rafted
6:45 a.m. We enter the first Gatun Lock behind Mediterraneo, a 617-foot freighter from Germany. As they
start their prop to break the inertia and move forward, a rush of water hits
our raft, tossing us around.
The forward chock rips out of Lolita on the port side of our raft
and their cleat starts to pull out. The water from the propwash is rushing
past us at 12-15 knots.
Lolita's crew (I find all this out later) uncleats the line and
re-wraps it around their anchor windlass, losing about 10 feet of line in the
process. The result is the raft skews off 25 degrees and gets thrown to
starboard. Otter comes within eight feet of the concrete sidewall and
the lines connecting us to Tenareze stretch so we are four feet away
from their hull.
The force of water on our keel pushes us away from the lines, and we heel
20 degrees to port, into Tenareze. The masts are staggered, however, so
no rigging catches. I have the engine full forward and rudder to port. My
adrenaline is pumping hard. We were almost a crush-fender for Tenareze.
Ephrim tells the pilot on the Mediterraneo to cool it, and the next
two locks are much easier.
8:45 a.m. We unraft to cross the Gatun Lake. I crank up Otter 's little Yanmar 2 GM 13-horse diesel to 2,900
rpm, and, thanks to our new bottom paint, we move right along. Ephrim takes us
through a few short cuts I hadn't taken before. The scenic Banana Cut and the
Monkey Channel. No trace of man anywhere. Primordial.
11:45 a.m. We pass the Gaillard Cut. We pass Gold Hill on the left.
The French thought the hill might contain gold to help set off the expenses of
construction. It didn't. Even though they failed, it's still called Gold Hill.
At 662 feet, it is the highest point along the Cut.
Big lunch of fruit and sandwiches made by Misty and Miriam, and the Otter
in flat water is like a rock. The only movement is when people shift sides, or
from the occasional small wake from a pilot boat or passing freighter.
1:00 p.m. Arrive at holding area before the Pedro Miguel Lock and
raft next to Tenareze again. We are only 20 minutes behind the others.
Not bad for only 13 horses. The sun has gone and it's raining, at times quite
hard. We're to go through at 3:00 p.m.
2:45 p.m. Word comes that Mediterraneo will need two tugs to
go through the next three locks. The extra tug will take up most of the
remaining space in the lock. Otter alone will transit down, tied off to
The other two boats are not happy. They have to retrace 7-1/2 miles through
the Cut to the anchorage and stay overnight. Lolita has planned for a
one-day transit, and invited extra people for the ride without provisioning
for their dinner and breakfast. They're really not happy.
The tugs and Otter go in front of the freighter into the locks and
the descent is easy. The line handler on the tug next to us is a very dark
Panamanian with a large, bushy, white beard and a big, friendly face. I tell
him he looks just like Hemingway - he smiles but doesn't know who he is.
The last lock gates at Miraflores open and Otter pushes out into the
salt of the Pacific: thousands of miles to go off her bow.
Ephrim is picked up by the Pilot boat and, at the Balboa Yacht Club, I pick
up a mooring. The launch that shows us to the mooring takes my very able crew.
As they are boarding the launch, I give them Otter tee shirts as
mementos. In two minutes they are specks walking up the long pier from the
fuel dock to the shore.
I'm alone again and start to reorganize the sogginess of the afternoon. The
skies clear and the rain stops.
I'm in the Pacific.
End of Report Three, Part II