The Panama Canal was conceived by the Spanish following the discovery of the isthmus (narrow land bridge) in the 16th century, a sea level canal was started by the French in the 19th century and the Americans changed the design to a system of locks that was completed in the twentieth century (1914)[i]. A second set of locks opened in the twenty first century (2016). As well as the many engineering and financial challenges, an estimated 25,000 people have died building the canal, primarily due to tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever. Today the canal plays a pivotal role in the Panama economy with around $3 billion in direct revenue and multiplier effects in associated services, including those like canal agents who make it possible for foreign yachts to navigate the red tape.
The date for Galaxy III to transit the Panama Canal, 4th March, finally came up and we were adivsed that our transit time had moved from 3pm to 4am – this was good news and meant we would transit the canal in daylight hours. The mandatory four line handlers, four specified blue mooring lines and extra fenders were loaded on board around 11pm prior to departing Shelter Bay and anchoring in Area F, a.k.a. the flats. The idea was to get a few hours sleep before the canal adviser arrived at the appointed time of 4am. The adviser pitched up at 530am with a cheery “are we all good?” and his first advice was we needed to get moving or risk losing our slot! Anxious, I ran the motor hard, though couldn’t get more than 6.5kts & put it down to current coming from the locks.
We rafted with two other yachts and made our way into the first Gatun lock at dawn – lines with lead monkeys (about the size of a cricket ball) on the end are hurled from the side of the lock to the line handlers. If you’re not paying attention and one of the lead monkeys hits you, expect a good bruising or serious injury. Once the vessels are secured, the gates close and the lock begins to fill – in a few minutes we are 10m higher. The process is repeated twice more and now 30m above sea level, we start our journey across the dam/lake toward the Pacific Ocean.
One of the requirements of the transit is to provide a ‘proper meal’ for the adviser – he can radio for a meal to be brought to him if he’s not satisfied and that costs the boat owner USD300! With this in mind, I had a bag of chicken wings and three large pizzas on board to keep everyone happy. Chicken wings got the nod for breakfast – this was a paradigm shift that my new crew member, Cui Zhipeng, had difficulty grasping. Nevertheless, he served up Chinese style chicken wings to the delight of the crew.
Meanwhile, smoke starting coming from the engine compartment and Galaxy was losing speed. Shit. Took a while to figure out the oil seal on the gearbox failed – much of the oil had leaked, causing the gearbox to overheat & burn the leaked oil. We now had three options each of which cost roughly the same number of B.O.A.T.[ii] units; a) turn back & have to re-book a transit, b) get towed or c) continue on at reduced speed & risk the gearbox completely failing. So I added some engine oil (not suited for a gearbox) to cool it a bit and kept going @ 4 knots. There was a decent tail wind and with the genoa out, Galaxy could have easily kept up with the other boats. The adviser wouldn’t allow sailing, so we fell behind and settled into a long slow day, with fingers crossed that the gearbox could go the distance. Fortunately, the authorities allowed Galaxy to pass through the locks in our own time and on sunset we passed under the Bridge of the Americas, which spans the Pacific Ocean entrance to the canal. With the gearbox almost finishd, our last challenge on dusk, was to pick up a mooring at Balboa Yacht Club against 2 kts of current & a brisk trade wind.
Humans have evolved to survive with a cognitive bias for optimism that filters out negative data – perhaps that is why the next few weeks trying to get the gearbox repaired or replaced, has largely been erased and difficult to recall. As the days and then weeks slipped by, urgency to stay on schedule for Tahiti eventually gave way to resignation and acceptance. I met an English sailor at a bar who forthrightly told me I was resisting the now and needed to be in the now. I was choosing to be pissed off and the last thing you want to be told when you need to be in the now, is to be in the now. I felt like belting him across his sapphire studded ear – fortunately for us both, I restrained myself.
Suffering from cabin fever, I hired a car and set off in search of waves, which I found at el Palmar. I enjoyed some good size waves after a few hours drive from Panama and stayed overnight at the surf camp (http://www.palmarsurfcamp.com/index.htm ), looking forward to another session in the morning. The swell was still holding 1m and I was the first out, hoping to get a few before the crowd showed up. The waves literally switched off after 20 minutes and I sat there in muddy water, unable to see my feet & wondering if this was paradise for bull sharks. Fish were active & dark black/grey coloured pelicans (about 1/2 the size of the Australian species), were diving for them. I imagined using my legrope as a tornique before my thoughts wandered elsewhere.
The tide range is 4.5m and I was surfing an ebb tide – before long, the rocks I was sitting over waiting for waves, were clear out of the water – which perhaps explains why no one else was out. After breakfast, I drove about looking for other surf spots using Google Maps and invariably ran into roads blocked by private gates. So I returned to Galaxy feeling better for a couple of surfs – its like pressing Alt+Ctrl+Del and rebooting.
It took almost 2 weeks to ship the gearbox from Miami, a few hours flight away, to Panama. It was installed by mid afternoon and after a shower & departure formalities, we are underway on the longest passage of the circumnavigation, 4,500 nm to French Polynesia via Galapagos.
While Panama will become a faded memory, the people here live under a culture of corruption that Manuel Noriega[iii] became infamous for and others have followed, including 36th President, Ricardo Martinelli, who is currently being held in a Federal Detention Centre in Miami. [iv] The pressure is building and it will be interesting to see what gives and how it plays out[v].
[ii] Bring On Another Thousand