Transit of the Panama Canal – as linehandlers

Last Monday [31st June] we were sitting drinking coffee and feeling a bit sorry for ourselves [water pump problem which will feature in the next blog post] when we were approached by a captain who wondered if we might be interested in being line-handlers for a southbound canal transit leaving the following day. Who wouldn’t be interested? It is something we were hoping we would get the chance to do, maybe on a friend’s boat – but here was a great opportunity right out of the blue.

The boat – “Ruby Black” – is a 40ft Lagoon Catamaran on a delivery from the Caribbean to New Zealand and crewed by Peter and Ilona who were joined, for the Caribbean and Panama Canal leg, by their yachtie friend George. The captain has to be at the helm throughout the transit and it is mandatory to have four line handlers which is why they needed two more people. Local people are available for hire but Peter and Ilona, for whom this was their third transit, prefer to use cruisers believing that their line handling is going to be better and that they have a feeling for boats and understand their value to the owners. Oh – the responsibility. I have to admit to doing some quick bowline tying practice before going aboard the following day!

Having gone on board at the agreed time we were told that before leaving we had to wait for the agent to deliver the official paperwork and the first lesson we learned was to expect delay. The agent was already late and that morning Peter had also received an e.mail of his final schedule which had put back his start time by 45 minutes. Regardless of that known delay, once the agent had been and gone we motored across to “The Flats”, an anchorage near to the container dock where small boats congregate prior to transit. We were the only small boat that afternoon though on another occasion we saw three all going to the anchorage at the same time.

The new start time of 6pm came and went without any sign of our “advisor” arriving and it was about 6.30pm when the canal launch approached….

???????????????????????????????….and “Victor” boarded.

???????????????????????????????There is quite a knack to this, but the launch boats are used to it and their manoeuvrability is perhaps why some advisors don’t seem to understand why a sail boat can’t go from forwards to backwards to sideways in under 2 seconds [as happened the following day – more about that later!]. For now, just a quick word about advisors. It is a requirement to have one aboard and they communicate all the time with the canal co-ordinator and the lock masters. They also advise on e.g.  which side of the channel you need to be, how and when to approach the lock and what to expect etc. Quite often the advisors are people who have worked on the canal in other capacities or who are training to be “pilots” who go through with the large ships.

Anyway our start time was now moved to 7pm with entry into the first lock scheduled for 7.45pm. Our transit number was 24a which means we were designated as the small boat [a] behind the 24th large boat going southbound that day. Large boat 24 turned out to be the container ship “Anne” from Singapore….

???????????????????????????????As you will probably know, construction is underway for longer and wider locks to carry the new superships which are currently rounding the Horn as they can’t fit through the canal. Meanwhile boats which use the canal have been purpose built to fit and their margin of error is very small. There is about 24” overall to spare widthwise and getting a 700-800ft long ship into that gap must be quite a feat. As a consequence “Anne” was very slow in entering which resulted in our first lock entry not actually taking place until about 9pm but fortunately the locks are really well lit.

The first task is to attach the lead line to the mooring line.

???????????????????????????????The lead lines are thrown by rope handlers on the lockside. They have a weight on the end known as the “monkey fist” [is is shown dangling off the line in the above photo] and no attempt should be made to catch it! The bow lines were generally thrown to an area between bow and mast and the stern lines were also aimed towards the mast. Some people advise that any hatches and/or solar panels should be padded in case the monkey fist lands on them. I also wonder whether removing the blades from a wind generator might be a good thing because having seen the way a fist wrapped itself round a genoa sheet after being thrown it could cause madness and mayhem if it was thrown badly and wrapped itself around the generator.

Anyway, safely attached…

???????????????????????????????…and ready to rise.

P7023260The tyres that you can see are the additional fenders supplied by the agent on this occasion. The recommendation is one fender every 3-4 feet. This seemed a bit excessive. Ruby Black had six fenders each side except when we had to go up against a lock approach wall when two more were added to give cover at different heights. For a sidewall tie more is good but for a well managed centre tie you shouldn’t actually need any – but who in their right mind is going to do that! [The advisors wouldn’t let you anyway].

You may have noticed that I have just mentioned side tie and centre tie. These are two of the three options a boat skipper has, the third being tug tie – which isn’t always available. It depends on the ship traffic on the day. All boats have to be equipped for centre tie even if they end up with tug tie or opt for side tie and, at the time of booking your transit, you have to tell your agent [if you use one] and/or the Admeasurer which option/s you are prepared to accept. Peter gave his preference as centre tie and agreed to tug tie as well. He said a categorical NO to side tie and, having seen the rough concrete lock sides I can see why.

Anyway up we went without mishap. This first set of locks [southbound] is Gatun Lock which consists of three separate chambers and rises. After each rise the mooring lines are drawn back aboard, with the lead lines remaining attached. The lockside rope handlers walk parallel to the boat and once the next staging point is reached the mooring lines are fed out again. Being a minimum diameter of 2.2cm [3/8”] and 38 metres [125 ft] long these ropes are pretty heavy and it needs quite a bit of strength to feed them out and bring them back in. It requires even more to keep them tight as the water rises. My observation [which may or may not be accurate] is that the side of the boat nearest to the “centre wall” took more of the impact when the water came into the lock. Maybe that is because I was on that side but having really struggled to hold the bow on the first rise, by tying off after initially tightening the rope and letting Mike tighten his side as we rose on the second two rises it seemed to work better. Obviously I was on the alert for any problems or too much pressure on the cleat and was ready to release or pull in my rope if necessary but I was a lot happier doing it that way.

Just in case you are wondering what I mean by “centre wall” it might help you to know that each lock has a west and an east lane. The wall between the two is what I mean by the centre wall. Maybe the photo below will help you understand the side by side system.

???????????????????????????????We finally emerged from the third rise at 11.30pm. By this time we were quite tired but hadn’t finished for the night as we had to motor for about 20 minutes to a mooring buoy. There are two of these close to each other – neither of which is lit. Why they don’t have a light on I can’t understand. It made finding them quite difficult even though the advisor knows where they are. To tie up he jumped from the boat onto the buoy and caught a long line which was attached bow and stern [and wrapped around the mooring buoy obviously!]. We then put on a centre tie and, work over for the night, the advisor left by launch and we retired after a well earned quick nightcap.

???????????????????????????????The above photo taken the following morning shows the buoy.  It seemed strange to be tied alongside and I am not sure what happens when there are more boats?

We were up again at 5.30am as the advisor was due around 6am. Yep, more delay as today’s advisor “Roy” didn’t appear until nearly 6.45am but it gave us time to eat bacon and eggs, watch the sun rise and get our first view of Gatun Lake.

???????????????????????????????Gatun Lake covers an area of 423 sq kilometres and was formed by the canal company erecting the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River. When the Panama Canal was built Gatun Dam was the largest earthwork dam ever built, Gatun Lake the largest manmade lake and the three sets of locks the largest concrete structures in the world. Quite a feat of engineering.

By 7am we were off on the 20.4 mile trip down the lake passing first all the container ships and vehicle carriers which had also been at anchor overnight.

???????????????????????????????It took about 3.5 hours to get to the Culebra Cut so some of us caught up on a bit of sleep….

???????????????????????????????[Actually, I did too but went down into our cabin to do it].

The Cut is 7.4 miles long and was carved through the rock and shale of the Continental Divide. The way the sides have been cut made us think we were back at Tikal!

???????????????????????????????The fairly narrow and winding cut is currently being widened to facilitate the new bigger boats to pass each other and also to try to straighten out some of the curves which the large ships find difficult to manage. Currently only one large ship [and these are not as wide as the new ones will be] is allowed through the cut at any time – often accompanied by a tug for those tricky corners.

???????????????????????????????Passing through the canal there is a bridge and a crane which were built by the Germans during WW2.

???????????????????????????????Apparently they are still operable though not often actually used.

Finally we rounded the last bend and saw the Centenial Bridge which spans the canal just before the Pedro Miguel Lock and our advisor was told we would be using the West side. Just as we started to enter it began to rain and we got absolutely soaked – though fortunately the rain didn’t last too long. We tied off and went to the cockpit area to dry off and eat the stir fry lunch which Ilona had made. Being on the “downward” leg we, as the small boat, had gone into the lock first and we were told our large boat would arrive in about 45 minutes. Then we got the good news – “The other boat has come through the cut quite quickly and will be here in 20 minutes”. Then we got the bad news – “The co-ordinator has changed the side of the lock the big boat is going through – we have to move unless you want to wait for 3 hours for the next big boat that is “small enough” so that the canal can accommodate you”.

So, it was a case of forget your stir fry, a mad rush to untie and Peter then had to reverse “Ruby Black” all the way back down the lock [1,000ft]. With a slipping clutch on one engine Peter didn’t feel able to turn around so it took us a bit longer than we would have liked and all the time the big boat was getting nearer and nearer – they don’t stop for anyone. Having found a larger space to turn in the approach channel Peter managed to get round just in time to sneak into the East side. Going round the back of this boat was really quite hairy – rather like a slalom ride with wash from her propellers at odds with the wash from the tugs guiding her and those holding another large boat along a nearby quay.

???????????????????????????????But, we made it and in she came right after us  [and don’t you just love the “Ow” on the front  – though I guess we wouldn’t have if it had hit us!]……

???????????????????????????????What probably saved us was that before a big boat goes into the lock they have to spend a few minutes being attached by cable to locomotives called “mules” which run on a track alongside the lock and which keep the boats straight so that they don’t hit the sides. Three of these are attached to each side of the big boat.

???????????????????????????????So, now we are ready to go down and the process is basically the same as up i.e. attach the thrown leading line to the mooring line and let the line out. Clearly the difference with going down is that rather than tightening lines all the time you need to slacken them gradually as the boat drops. This is much easier on the shoulders and hands and, because there is far less turbulence, the whole experience is really quite enjoyable.

We went out through the double lock gates…..

???????????????????????????????….and into Miraflores Lake – a small artificial body of water separating the two sets of Pacific side locks. Pedro Miguel which we had just been through, is only one “rise”, the final Miraflores lock consist of two rises.

Roy the advisor told us that we were switching lanes again to return to our original West channel. We must have asked him about three times whether he was sure – and to be fair to him he did double check with the canal controller.

One thing I forgot to mention when explaining about the tie up options is that some small boats go through rafted alongside each other. This isn’t one of the options given in the guide and I am not therefore sure how it comes about – though I think it is more often used in high season when more small boats are trying to transit – and whether you can refuse. What I am given to understand is that if you are rafted then for the short distance across the Miraflores Lake, you remain rafted. Being rafted is not something I would like I don’t think. Turbulence on the way up could cause boats of different sizes to behave differently and masts and shrouds could easily get damaged as, more obviously, could topsides. The Captain of the middle boat runs his engine and is “in charge” [the other two boat engines are in idle] and two line handlers from each side boat do that work – so its quite a responsibility for all the boats to care for each other. At least if it all goes wrong when you are centre tied you only have yourself to blame.

Anyway being rafted was not an issue for us though, having been centre tied thus far, we were now told that for the final two stage Miraflores lock we were going to be “tug tied”. That, of itself sounded fine. What was a bit stranger, and which proved to be the most traumatic thing that happened on the whole transit, was that the advisor insisted we tie to the approach wall while the tug passed. Why we needed to be against the wall I don’t know as there was lots of room for the tug to pass. What made it worse was that the wall sloped out making coming alongside safely more difficult. This is the part I referred to above about the advisors lack of understanding about how a small sail boat works. He was yelling loudly at Peter “Forwards, now back, you need to move sideways, back, no more forward” etc all in one seeming long sentence without time for one instruction to be attempted before another came. As I understand it advisors aren’t supposed to touch lines or fenders either [but maybe they would in an emergency?] so we were also being instructed to tighten and loosen lines in a seemingly ad hoc manner. In the end we largely ignored the advisor’s instructions knowing from experience what would work best and, although annoyed at having been made to do it Peter was relieved that we had managed it successfully. Coming off the wall was even worse with “Full engines now, no – go sideways out” being called again while we were trying to help Peter and also explain that going fast forward just resulted in the stern end being scraped along the wall. Ilona actually reported having a smoking tyre fender at one point but with supreme effort by all the crew we did not damage the gelcoat at all.

After all that, tying to the tug was a piece of cake…..

???????????????????????????????…..and we looked out over the Miraflores lock towards the Pacific before making the descent and then motoring out of the canal.

???????????????????????????????Near to the start of this post I mentioned an “agent” but haven’t really explained what one is/does. Not everyone uses an agent because it is possible to make all the arrangements yourself or, as Peter had done, use an agent for some bits and e.g. arrange your own mooring lines. There seem to be pro’s and con’s of using an agent and by chatting and learning stuff during the two days on “Ruby Black” and, having talked to other cruisers who are doing it themselves, the main advantage of using an agent seems to be that everything is done for you and you don’t have to pay the refundable deposit [$891 (£623) which can apparently take up to three months before it is returned – though three weeks is more normal]. The downside is cost. Agents seem to charge different fees – anything from $350 to $500 [£245 – £350]. Some charge extra for mooring lines – the average cost of renting these seems to be about $100 [£70]. Additional fenders are usually the covered tyres [as above] though we have heard that one agent supplies the large round fenders. Some people say that using an agent means you get a quicker transit date which means less time paying marina fees though we have no direct evidence of this. If you decide to do it yourself I think the most difficult part would be transport to and from the various offices which need to be visited i.e. the “Admeasurers” office and the Bank but, in high season Shelter Bay provides two free buses per day which would give sufficient time for a short taxi ride to these places. In low season the afternoon bus costs $4.50pp [£3.00] one way.

All of these costs are obviously as at July 2014 and, in comparison to the actual canal fees, are relatively insignificant. Canal charges are by overall length – bowsprit/end of the anchor to davit/stern arch/extremity of any hanging dinghy [as are Shelter Bay fees]. Tolls go up in steps and the first step is 50ft. For a boat less than 50ft the current rate is $985 [£660] and from 50-60ft it is $1,485 [£1,010]

So, that’s about all I can tell you about the transit itself. We are now two newly fledged line-handlers…..

???????????????????????????????After dropping anchor in Playita we had farewell drinks before being taken ashore and made our way back to Shelter Bay from Panama City by way of two taxis and a bus. If you are “buddy boating” this cost is borne by you – because your buddy will have to do the same when they return the favour but if you use Panamanians or other cruisers as line handlers then the cost is borne by the boat owner. Line handlers also have to be provided with accommodation on the boat and all meals. Advisors expect meals [as appropriate to the time of day] and water/soft drinks. Advisors do not stay on board if you stop overnight as we did.

The only other important regulations that I musn’t forget to mention before signing off are that you have to have a cover/bimini to keep the advisor out of the sun/rain, have a holding tank [or at least report that you have one on your form – apparently they don’t check] and you have to be able to motor at a minimum 5 knots. It used to be 7-8 knots but with most small boats now doing the two day/overnight stop type of transit it is perfectly viable at 5 knots.

So, thats all for now. It was a fabulous experience and a great opportunity to learn from people who have done this before. We have heard real horror stories of boats bashing into the lock sides and being battered by wash but all in all we are left feeling that it might not be that bad after all. We only really had the one wall tie which could have gone wrong and Peter and Ilona told us that of their three transits this was actually the most difficult and the most affected by delay.

Mike and I thank Peter and Ilona for giving us the chance to transit with them because as well as learning from them we also really enjoyed their company. They [and George] were lovely people with whom we had a thoroughly good time.


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1 comment

    • ed and tif on July 11, 2014 at 12:59 am
    • Reply

    So that’s what happens once you enter those locks! Your post was really helpful and I finally have an idea of what an agent really does. We’ve heard horror stories too! I have to say that I like that picture of you two at the end of the post-I am growing envious of your wonderful tans! Keep up the good work!

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