Colon to Balboa (Panama Canal)
After much wheeling and dealing, which involved having the boat re-measured (with the bowsprit this time), taking us into the 65+ foot category, which meant that we had a free pilot and so got through much quicker, we finally had our transit date, the 7th April. We had spent 10 days in Colon, which lived up to its name of being as close to the arse end of anywhere we've been so far, with the guides recommending taking a taxi and not walking anywhere. Rob and Mike were lucky enough to drive through the middle of a riot whilst on their way to get some bread - there were burning tyres in the street, to the left a load of protesters, to the right lines of police with riot shields; the taxi driver simply swerved around people beeping his horn. The riots were due to the huge disproportion between wages - anyone that has anything to do with The Panama Canal or the government earns a fortune and everyone else sees very little of the $500 million annual profit from the canal (Panamax freighters can pay in excess of $100,000 each to cross the canal).
During the wait, to get a feel for what was needed when we went through the canal, Merryn and Rob went line handling on Endelig (the boat that Noel and Jo joined.)
In the meantime we were joined again by Ian, and also by Robin (Jay's friend from Canada) who had come for the trip through the canal and down to the Galapagos Islands.
At 4am on the morning of 7th April, after yet another sleepless mosquito-filled night, our pilot Milo came on board and we set off for the first lock of the canal in the darkness. We followed a huge ship into the lock and tied up behind it, suspended in the centre of the chamber by four long ropes to the walls above.
The Gatun lock consists of three consecutive lock chambers which together lift boats 26 metres above sea level to the Gatun Lake. The water came in to the lock and lifted us up slowly, boiling around us and pushing us all over the place. The line handlers at each corner had to make sure that the ropes were tight as we rose up, as once a line becomes slack the boat can surge in that direction and risks hitting the wall. We were glad that we had recruited a big Aussie friend Roger who had to help Merryn on her corner!
As the large ship in front of us moved between the chambers its propeller caused a lot of turbulence which made it very difficult to keep the boat moving in a straight line as we followed it. As a result of the turbulence our entry into the second chamber wasn't quite straight, and by the time the ropes were attached we had started to move rapidly to one side. Unfortunately it became apparent that one of the special ropes that we had hired was too short as the end of it vanished over the side of the boat, and some panic ensued, but luckily the pilot knew his stuff and helped Rob bring the boat back under control and we regained the line.
Through the third lock and now at the level of Gatun lake, we motored 50Km across the lake which was very beautiful, although it was a steamy overcast day. The lake has crocodiles in it and noisy monkeys in the rainforest at the waters edge. There are lots of little islands and submerged villages in the lake which was flooded in order to create the canal.
After following the passage through the lake we arrived at the Pedro Miguel lock which is the first lock taking boats back down towards the Pacific and into the Miraflores lake. On each side of the lock there are shiny locomotives which help pull the tankers through with big cables, and ensure that they don't hit the sides.
We arrived at the final Miraflores lock and were able to go through tied up next to a big Quicksilver surf tour boat and with some friends on a kiwi boat tied up outside us, which meant that we didnít have the hassle of line handling which was good.
Despite our early arrival, Jules managed to catch us in the lock on the webcam. We are the middle boat of the three.
We finally made it through at 2pm which meant that we were on the web cam several hours earlier than expected, again it was a bit hairy leaving the final lock as when the salt water meets the fresh water the different densities cause a big current, we had to motor out at full speed to stop ourselves being pulled over to the side. Exactly at the time the lock gates opened there came a torrential downpour to welcome us into the Pacific - however we'd made it and celebrations ensued even though we were absolutely knackered!
We then anchored for the night near Flamenco Island a few miles out of the canal and cleared out of customs that afternoon, ready for departure to the Las Perlas islands the next morning, and then on to the Galapagos Islands.
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