Published: May 7th 2006
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Born Sailor...?Born Sailor...?Born Sailor...?

Panama Canal
Or is that……died in the wool…..some kinky kiwi sexual asphyxiation fetish….and what inspired that thought?…..I'm just recovering from the 15 can transit, yes, I’ve pulled it off, right thru’ the far canal in a yacht!

Where were we?…..I think leaving Bogota was last up, I’m still trying to summarise the last 6 months in south America, so hard to get my thoughts aligned, so much was there.

So, back in panama last Thursday week?, 12 noon, 34 degrees and 110% humidity and drenched in sweat, love it!!….cab to the freight airport and after walking back and forwards, officina, quarantino, aduanas, polizias, officina….sounds like the start of a new song, put the mirrors on and drive free, 28 kms to town, find my way surprisingly easily and in my room at the hotel Marbella by 3pm. And they remember me, even hard-hearted Hanna, the cruel manager chica cracked a smile, drop the laundry at Kattys, down to Barry’s for a pizza, they remember me also, we have a laugh when I remind them of the pothole that ate cars, the flaming great casino dominates the street, now open 24//7, the internet place in calle D is closed (sometimes they do go broke maybe?) the WiFi place run by nuffies is still pumping so it’s there I hang out.

Went for a fang Saturday morning, surprising how much less intimidating it is this time and I’m riding everywhere, found my way to the Balboa Yacht Club, talked to some locals and learned all about yachts and their goings thru’ the canal, put up some messages on the board, returned for Happy Hour at 5 and met some yachties…including Todd and Jennifer on Phaedra, they were slipped and painting the bottom, would be going Friday and happy to have me, all yachts need 4 line handlers, well almost, to do yacht-type rope tricks going thru’ the locks, cool…..I did want to go sooner but no-one was going thru’ much sooner and, as it turned out, Sunday night I met Eveyin, a charming young woman from a local restaurant, who needed some English tuition and I agreed to help her, something like that….omg

Thursday night I went aboard Phaedra as we had an early start, hopefully, on Friday, all traffic thru’ the canal is highly organised but many of the yachts were getting times bounced, jumped and confusion and uncertainty are the order of the day. Hanging out at the sort of marina, several dozen yachts, massive container ships hanging around, a bit further out, slouching around, waiting their turn, from time to time one would fire up, edging its way thru’ the crowd, oozing up the canal entrance, quite fast for something so huge, I’d been down a few nights earlier to help get Phaedra back in the water and as we drove up the channel to the marina, a fcuking great container ship just smoothed by us, like at 20 knots or more, scary stuff, they are pretty intimidating when you’re in a 45 footer about 50 feet away, all you can see is a gigantic wall of steel.

From shore you can hear, almost feel, the throb of mighty diesels, propellers thrashing the water, surprisingly little wake, must be good design, the tugs and pilot boats, by comparison, throw out huge washes that have all the yachts bucking and twisting like a mob of frightened horses. Last supper ashore, pizzas on Mondays so a meat fest Thursday, Argy style if not quite the quality or quantity, but hey, a bucket of meat is a bucket
Captain and MateCaptain and MateCaptain and Mate

Panama Canal
of meat, several beers and a (last) bottle of good old Casillera del Diablo from Chile, man, this wine turns up everywhere, as ubiquitous as Rawsons Retreat and about the same quality so when you get it for 5 bucks in the stupourmarket you reckon you’re ahead of the game, 20 bucks in a wannabe restaurant and you balk.

Friday morning, tension mounting, we have 20 tyres hanging off the sides, 120 foot ropes, big, thick suckers, in each corner, in the locks we will be strung out like a cats cradle from 4 corners, as the water rises and falls……the locks, 3 up, then across the great lake, 3 down…..everyone’s getting excited, our other line handlers turn up, I’m nervously re-checking the beer, a baby coffin with about 6 dozen cans of Panama and 2 huge bags of ice, they’ve chilled beautifully. Andy has left his wife and kid on their boat so he can do the transit and Rae and Sharon off Mustang Sally join us….good crew!

Around 8am the pilot gets dropped off, nice guy, we relax, lots of horror stories about crap pilots abound, we head off towards the bridge of the Americas, impressive, another yacht is going thru’ with us, Gimme Shelter, americanos, its been huge, the last few days, being back in the company of yachties, a whole ‘nother world, like the back-packers and the bikes, parallel universes, I am very fortunate to have made the cultural cross-over even if the language is often more obscure than if they’d been speaking espanol!
We pass under the bridge, dinky toy cars and trucks crawling across, hundreds of feet above us, we are hooting and shouting, this is really IT, we’re in the canal….taking turns and exchanging cameras to record every step along the way!

Looming up behind us, and then passing us, the mother of all walls of steel, massive just doesn’t do it justice, this fcuker blocks out the sun, apparently holding 3,000 cars, yes, you read it right, 3,000! And a crew of 10!!….We catch up to it in the first lock, an hour or so up the canal, in fact, it’s our constant companion and we squeeze carefully in behind it at the first 3 locks. Like most ships its dimensions are panamax, made to measure for the canal, there is bugger-all room to spare, looks like about a foot on each side, it takes a few minutes to get it into the pod, guys with Vaseline lubricate the walls as it slips in (well, I could imagine it), little trains, run along tracks on the dockside, cables looped around the backside of the car tanker easing her into place, these little trains come in at $2 million each!, there are lots of them, but something like 40 big ships go thru’ each day (24/7/365) at an average of $200,000 or was it 400,000? Now I’m confused, but a sh*t-load of money whatever….and we are like little acorn boats, dwarfed by this monster, I can see crew members on it, way above, and people on the observation deck of the Miraflores Locks, where I had stood 6 months ago, wishing I could be down here, fantastic.

There’s a fascinating contrast between the highest-tech equipment, ships, trains, modern buildings etc and the locks themselves, down where we are, the sides are something like 40 feet above us, the walls are more like Aztec or mayan ruinas, and they are a hundred years old, this is exactly the same wall since inception, the scars and scrapes from thousands of ships,
Bridge of the AmericasBridge of the AmericasBridge of the Americas

Start of the far canal
like ancient runes, Aztec syntax, old rusty ladders set into the walls, great hooks and bollocks indented, many never used any more….we have snugged up against the other yacht which, in turn, has tied itself to the tug so we don’t need the long lines, easy bub, then the doors start to close, this is something out of George Lucas’ brain, dark and foreboding, absolutely mediaeval, monstrous steel structures, soundless altho’ I reckon I can hear an ominous grinding and rumbling, gigantic cogs and turnscrews cranking, glinting brassy colours on higher wear parts, huge rivet heads accentuate the strength……apart from the black, shiny hydraulic piston (one of the few modern additions in sight), this is exactly the scene as 100 years ago, down here in the depths, its darker as the doors seal, it’s a long way to the top, then the water starts slowly rising, gently, gently, then faster, the flood gates are opened, the water is boiling and swirling around us, I wouldn’t want to fall in here!….gradually the horizons extend, we come level with the docks, remarkably quickly, the though time is less than 20 minutes, as soon as we are up the giant car carrier is underway, its like a flooding river for us behind, we have to untie and get free of the other yacht, the current is tossing us about, we are trying to separate the boats, Todd’s doing a fantastic job, and he has all the responsibility, I’m reassured by his competency, wrestling us free and chasing after our huge lumbering partner, thu’ into the next lock where we repeat the process, I see it’s beer o’clock and start hooking into the baby coffin…this is an emotional moment…right in your genuine panama canal, in the footsteps (wake?) of a million boats cutting thru’ from Pacific to Atlantic. As we went thru’ other ships were going beside us in the other, parallel locks, the direction changes on demand, back or forward, up or down, just keep churning them through.

So, three locks up and out into the channel and on to the endless lake that provides the water for the locks at both ends, for all the techo detail I’m sure it’s googlable, in fact the rate of charges is probably there too, for the yachts its about $500 bucks I believe.

Hey, rain forest jungle, reserved land, wild animals along the
Jen, Todd and RaeJen, Todd and RaeJen, Todd and Rae

Panama Canal
banks, fairly tinny little lights, like street lights in a poor neighbourhood, stuck on shaky poles along the rocky shoreline, slimy cable draped from one to the next, does this really show these billion tonne mega ships where the rocks are? And then to the lake, more strung out than wide, we follow lines of green and red buoys that hopefully mark the deepest channel, it’s a pretty tight track, not a lot of room for those big babies to manoeuvre.

Then the narrowest part, lots of inactivity, but lots of signs of earthworks in progress, maybe it’s (another) holiday…lots of explosives, heavy duty equipment, a billion dollar widening project.

Then the rain…..now when I say ‘rain’ this was more like a solid state, visibility down to arm’s length, I couldn’t tell what brand of beer I had if I held my arm out, even the pilot slowed his rate of drinking, (much, much later we heard he had a problem and had been stood down for being pissed on the job!) Todd’s sticking his head out watching the buoys, excellent work, we’re huddled below….like all things, it passed, then we get to the down locks, same thing
motley crew?motley crew?motley crew?

Panama Canal
in reverse, this time we go in first with the tug and the other yacht, then another huge black juggernaut slides in behind us and sleazes up towards us, nowhere for us to go, we’ve got our bow pressed against the doors, this guy could crush us without feeling a thing, of course he stops in time.

Down, along, down, along etc, you get the picture?….then the run to Colon, you’ll remember my previous reflections on Colon?…appropriately named as it really is the arsehole of the world, however, we didn’t have to go there and so neither shall I, we parked about 7pm, a pretty slick transit, as often as not it’s an overnight affair so we were stoked to get straight thru’, had cocktails, pizzas, a bottle of red and crashed out….well done Todd!

Morning time and we passed on the tyres to another boat going west in return for a lift to the yacht club in his rubber ducky, I remember the Panama Yacht Club as the only sane, safe enclave in Colon, we slipped out in an unmarked taxi, jumped a bus and went back to Panama…does this sound like I’m winding up?…right on!…I’ve just showered and shaved, back at the Marbella, I’d left the bike in the carpark at the marina with no cover and a degree of trepidation…all was well tho’…pics follow…

Hey, I have to say, this was special!…I had so wanted to do it on the way down, never thought it would be possible…even now it was a series of coincidences and lucky breaks, and just fantastic to meet such a great bunch of people to share such a special event…..it has happened again! Thanks to any and all of you who get to read this….especially to Todd and Jennifer, wonderful!..I hope to catch up with you in Bocas maybe…or in Oz when you get there.

As I said somewhere back at the start, these parallel universes of travellers……..yachties, bikies, back-packers….so much in common but rarely crossing paths, I’d like to follow that train of thought another time….and if I could sell my bike tomorrow I’d be sorely tempted to jump a yacht for a while!..avast ye lubbers, prepare to come about, hoist the mainsail..etc etc…..yeah, I got it.

Fast connection so lots of pix...

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


closing the doorsclosing the doors
closing the doors

Panama Canal
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close the door

Panama Canal

Panama Canal
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construction work

Panama Canal
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gathering storm

Panama Canal

Panama Canal
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Miraflores Locks

Panama Canal

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