I’m not going to lie,I wasn’t able to sleep properly from the time we were measured until we actually exited the canal. It was one of the most awe inspiring things and terrifying too!
So, on Friday and Saturday we spent the day trying to get groceries (a huge shop from super 99, hot sun burning down and a taxi telling us he would take us for 4 x the cost it should have been so I got stubborn and we walked, I don’t think I have ever been as happy to put the bags down and Phil’s arms do look a few inches longer because of it), do laundry so everyone had clean sheets (Marcelle and I had another adventure to our local laundry shop and the most delicious cold pop in the world) and organize the boat so the line handlers we had coming to join us actually had some space to call their own (a bit tough on our tiny boat!). It was a bit overwhelming trying to imagine 6 people on our poor little yacht! Finding line handlers was tougher than it seemed, even though we have some lovely friends in the anchorage but Pers and Allan were heading off through the canal the day before us and Bruce and Marcelle 2 days after, not enough time to get through and get yourself organized. Luckily the internet is an amazing tool. Late one night figuring we wouldn’t find anyone who could help near the anchorage I answered a post on lonely planet and the next day we had an email from Mike asking if he and his dad Paul could come along! Amazing, the dates worked out perfectly and we had our line handlers! Just one more to find, so we finally bit the bullet and called Franscisco (who we hired our lines from) to hire one for us. He brought a seemingly lovely Samuel (who didn’t speak a word of English) and we had everything sorted.
Sunday morning, bright and early we headed into Colon to sort out that last bit of paperwork, but even though the canal runs 24x7 the offices do not and so after a frustrating 45 minutes and after meeting a lovely official who couldn’t actually help us with anything we went back in our taxi and were told to come again around 10 am. Still doing okay for time, we didn’t have to get to Flatts until 2 pm.
9 am the VHF (radio) squawks to life and it was Mike and Paul who had made it early, the stars!!! We got them onto the boat and settling in and by 9:30 Phil and Mike headed back into Colon to the offices while I got to know Paul. So lovely to have company! I think I would have gone crazy waiting alone because 9:30 came and went, then 10 am (our appointed time for meeting Samuel) by 10:30 I headed over to the dock (and was told to pay $3..00 for approaching land, a new fee they had just implemented making me supremely happy to be leaving Colon) and found only Mike and Phil. The office mission had not been the raging success we had hoped for and were told to come back on Wednesday. So, back to the boat and more waiting, good company helped but by lunch time which is significantly closer to 2 pm and still no Samuel I was getting nervous. Phil headed to shore to wait for a while (as he had already paid the $3.00) and I tried to get everyone sorted for the transit.
Meanwhile back at the ranch an inflatable pulled up, with 2 men and a very cute little boy, Robin explained that his transit had been delayed and his friend Norberto was hoping to go through the canal. I said jokingly (at the time) we are going in 2 hours but if we get stuck we will come and find you and sent him to ask the other boats we knew were heading through. It wasn’t so funny by 1 pm, still no line handler and when we saw Norberto again it was a sign, we went straight over and in less than 30 minutes he was packed, had said goodbye to his friends and was on our boat ready to go!
It was the easiest leaving I had done (Paul and I timed the boys) they lifted the anchor, put away the portabote and we were off! We had our anchor down in Flatts long enough for a late lunch and then we saw the pilot boat screaming towards us, terrifyingly big with a huge black bumper and no fenders. Our pilot leapt with the skill of a flying squirrel onto our deck and before he had even landed he had said “Lets go, what are you waiting for!” Once again it was boys to the rescue, our anchor came up, engine growled to life and we went flying toward the canal.
It seems that the deal is that if the yachts can get there on time, the big boat has to wait, and we made it! There were three boats heading through the canal, us, a giant catamaran and a small Canadian fishing boat. We were the first to tie up along side the cat, it was more like a dance than a docking because all three boats were still in motion trying to stay centred in the middle of the canal which actually looked like a small river. Once we were all rafted we drove as a unit into the lock proper. It was huge and awe inspiring. I can’t believe they conceived of something so outrageous 100 years ago, or had the foresight to build it so it is still usable for ships today. We followed a big ship called Elsbeth in and the guys doing the lines on the shore who were employees of the canal threw us our lines. 4 lines to hold 3 boats, 2 at the front corners, 2 at the back. We only had to handle 1 line because the catamaran was so big the back line went back to her. The lines were thrown down with monkeyfists (big knots) and it seemed like they landed all over the boat. Fast as a blink Norberto had tied our line to theirs and the other line was passed back and the guys on the wall started to pull up our lines. The trick with the canal is to keep the lines tight so you stay in the middle of the lock as the water fills in. For the first day that meant taking up the lines everytime there was slack as we were lifted 85 feet. So we were set, I looked behind me and slowly so slowly 2 giant doors started to close. At first it seemed like nothing was happening, perhaps that spot on the wall was getting closer to the water, maybe there was a bit of turbulence and then they turned on the tap. Apparently it takes 53 million gallons of water to get through the locks and after watching it bubble and boil I can believe it. It felt like we were skating a bit, sliding a bit closer to our wall (gasp) and then a bit farther away. Phil says we were never closer than 20 feet away, I swear it was 5, so we will average it out at 12.5 feet, so close! Our advisor was… nice? Alert (most of the time), and a control freak! As long as he was paying attention I felt okay. The advisor on the middle boat was directing the show and had great English making things much easier and the boys did a great job of keeping the ropes tight, even if I did remind them a few times to haul in the rope and make it fast.
3 hours, that’s it, start to finish and we were sitting up 85 feet watching the doors open and driving into lake Gatun, a quick untie and drop of the anchor and we had time for a beer before the advisor left. I was exhausted, and we were only half way there!