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The Worrier Transits The Canal

By Shangri-La - Published April 01, 2008 - Viewed 1056 times

Day and night, right behind us, a constant stream of ships slips by. Freighters, military vessels, cargo ships, cruise ships, container ships, moving walls of steel headed for or from the Panama Canal. We’re moored off the Balboa Yacht Club, on the Pacific side, on the edge of the entrance channel, and sometimes, these carriers of human needs push waves that get the whole mooring field a-rolling, dishes a-banging, halyards a-clanging. One of them woke me this morning, and nearly threw me off my bunk. I’m sitting up now, and can see through the companionway that the sky is getting lighter. A blue patch is visible, a hopeful sign when you need to apply paint.

Nicolas and Sam

When I last wrote from the San Blas Islands, I was anticipating another haul out to change the shaft seal in Colon, on the Caribbean side of the Canal, but the job ended up being done in the water at the dock, and last week we transited the Canal. The morning after we got here, my Dad checked into a hotel ashore -- with a pool and a bathtub -- before taking off several days later on the Central American adventure he’s been talking about ever since he came aboard.

The boys and I are alone now, and the boat feels much bigger. Sam has checked into the vacated forepeak and wakes to describe how well he sleeps up there. Grandpa called from Northern Panama yesterday evening. He’s headed for Costa Rica today, on boats crossing rivers and swamps and swampy rivers before hopping the first in a string of local buses to some town with lots of bars he’d read about that was calling to him.

Our Canal transit went smoothly, right from the get go. When I first walked into the office at the Panama Canal Yacht Club to ask for a spot at the dock and about the procedure for checking into the country, a guy named Tito stepped forward. In two minutes, he’d given me all his rates. For $40, that morning he drove us to customs, immigration, and the offices for cruising permits, and for initiating the Canal paperwork. For $84, he said he’d rent me garbage bag-wrapped tires for fenders and four 150-foot long docklines, mandatory transit equipment that he brought to, and took away from, Shangri La on the morning the Canal admeasurer came to make sure we were prepared, and then brought back aboard for the transit six days later. And, for $55 more, I hired him, his Spanish, and all the rest of his knowledge and experience as our fourth line-handler.

We sailed to the Flats, and waited for our assigned day to go through the Canal.

He was worth every penny. In all, Tito cost me $179 (plus tip) and the Canal cost $600. The kids said it was expensive, but I said it was pretty good savings compared to what it would cost to go around Cape Horn. When they learned that big ships pay upwards of $60,000 per transit, their jaws dropped. Then, they started calculating how much the Canal earned per year, while, even though everything kept working out, I worried.

By nature, I’m a worrier, and a boat is the worst place for a worrier to be. Or, maybe it’s the best. Worriers need worries, and I’m here to tell you there’s little that feels more worrisome than buying a used boat, taking two teenagers out of school for a year, and preparing to sail 6,000 miles in five months spanning all the wrong seasons, from the Caribbean to Tahiti. Worrying that I wasn’t doing the most important thing I always wanted to do with my kids is what got me here in the first place. Now, I was worrying over every little step of the way.

There was much to arrange, and fix, and check on, and worry about, and finally our date with the Canal was upon us.

Actually, in Colon, I wasn’t worried in anticipation of the Canal itself, or the locks. No, I worried more about the engine, which, after the shaft seal replacement, was crying out for an alignment, and the unanticipated hassle of needing to do a topside paint repair job. One day, at the Panama Canal Yacht Club, Shangri La’s smooth white hull took a scarring hit. A front with driving rains and wind blew through at the same time as a tug got to work pushing a ship into position, and none of us were aboard to see the fenders pop out above the dock and to hear Shangri La grind up against the cement. Her starboard side looked like it had been clawed by a gryphon, down to the steel in places, exactly the kind of vulnerability rust loves. I knew that if the engine made it to the other side of the Canal without shaking itself to pieces, I’d be looking forward to a week of rounding up all the materials for rust-killing Ospho, two-part epoxy primer, and topcoat paint applications, while trying to find replacement bushings for the flexible coupling and someone to help with the alignment

Shangri La was anchored at the rocky and roily Flats, until it was our turn to go to the docks, where I worked on the boat and prepared for the transit

The incessant rain in Colon didn’t help my mood. I’d wake up in the damp pre-dawn hours, hatches shut and boat all stuffy, worrying that the boys weren’t appreciating my half of the trip, that they’d find the Pacific crossing the most boring and tedious experience ever, that they’d shrug off Fatu Hiva, the most beautiful island I’ve ever seen, because it wouldn’t have restaurants and shops. Then, I worried that I’d be disappointed, that the Pacific crossing wouldn’t be like the perfect one in my memory, that Fatu Hiva would have restaurants and shops, and that the boys would have a better time cruising the South Pacific’s shorter distances and hanging out in tropical paradises in the right season with their father.

In reality, the only concern the kids had was about getting the math straight on the Panama Canal’s yearly income, and whether or not their next meal would be good. And that’s the way it should be. That’s the way it was for me at their age when I started sailing with my father. When we’re young, we know less, don’t have what it takes to think ahead and anticipate so obsessively, and we can be relaxed. So, while I worried, the boys and Grandpa (who is very in touch with his inner child) kept going out for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and because most of them were delicious, the boys were happy.


Shangri La seemed bigger once Grandpa set off on his own adventure.

The one good thing about worrying is that it propels me to get things done. On November 14, just one week after making landfall, we were ready for the transit. At first, we were scheduled to leave at 1630, then the time was pushed back to 1830. At 1815, we were pacing the anchorage called The Flats where advisors are brought aboard boats by launches, only to be informed that we had been pushed back again to 1930. Circling until Adrian, our first advisor, was dropped on deck, we then headed up the channel, from one red buoy to the next leading to the first set of locks.

It was a gloomy night, and clanging sounds and voices echoed dark and tinny. Hard hats threw down the monkey-fisted lead lines to which we attached our heftier lines that secured us in place as we were lifted by massive whirlpools of water jetting up from the depths under bright yellow lights, a surreal film noir. We were center-tied behind a huge freighter, which meant we went up three times in the center of the locks, while pulling in the slack on four bow and stern lines.

Once in the Gatun lake, we begin to pass behemoths

Three times, we held on to the lines for dear life when the ship’s propellers kicked back tons of wash and bounced Shangri La about like a rubber duckie as she moved ahead from one lock to the next, from sea level to continental-divide level, and we all got spit out onto the fresh water of Gatun Lake. Adrian was immediately picked up by a launch, we moored for the night just outside the locks, and Yvan, our new advisor, was delivered at 0630 the next morning. With him issuing steering commands, we proceeded to cross Gatun Lake, from one red marker to the next, and crossing paths with and squeezing by all kinds of major shipping through the Culebra and Gaillard Cuts.

Panama is widening the channels, planning bigger locks for even bigger ships, and all along the way, the Canal was lined with heavy machinery—digging, laying pipes for explosives, dredging—manned by hundreds of hard hats. As this was all being pointed out, the boys kept recalibrating the Canal’s yearly revenue estimates to account for overhead and return on the expansion investment. They just marveled at the potential income, and coming up with a definitive figure was more important than hearing about the enormous engineering effort that went into the Canal’s creation. On the way down, we were center-tied again, but all by ourselves in the cavernous Pedro Miguel and Mira Flores locks—the most amazing thing of all. Millions of gallons were emptied from three locks, just for the 36-foot Shangri La to be dropped into the Pacific. What a waste of water and money, the boys said, readjusting the numbers again to account for bad scheduling and management, then asked if lunch was ready. Which it was. Before Tito and Yvan left, we had a bowl of chicken curry to celebrate Shangri La’s arrival in Pacific waters, the only ocean she still hadn’t met.

After the tension of the locks, it’s a relief to chug along on Gatun Lake

And, here we are. For three days, the winds have been blowing from the north, the ideal direction for pushing us out of the Bay of Panama, into the wider Pacific, south across the Equator, and on our way to the Marquesas. But, we can’t leave yet. I still have spare filters, other parts, and some engine oil to find, and one final topcoat of paint to apply, while waiting for what turned out to be very-difficult-to-track-down parts to arrive from the US before being able to take care of the alignment problem. Then, we need to find the post office to mail the last pictures, writing, schoolwork, and postcards. Panama is here, wish you were beautiful. I’m worried out. I need to be on that nice long passage with my boys more than anything now. It’s been earned. It’s time. As soon as we can, we’ll do our last provisioning, top off the tanks, and if the north winds are still hanging in there for us, we’ll be off. Vamanos.

Nicholas hauls the dinghy up for the last time before we head across the Pacific

 

 
 





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