Yacht Fathom - Setting off from England in May 2016 on a single-handed voyage somewhere a bit warmer

Panama Canal

We had been instructed to depart the marina at Shelter Bay by 13.00 on the 8th March and proceed to the flats anchorage to await the advisor who would board at 15.00. Fathom felt very sluggish with the four line handlers onboard, Anne and Jim, Jose and Jaime and the heavy fenders and warps. As expected, there was a delay and the advisor, Francisco, didn’t board until 17.00. Fathom was one of three yachts transiting through Gatun locks during the afternoon, the other two being a 40 foot Dutch catamaran and an American 55 foot Beneteau called Zatara. The advisor explained that Zatara would be the middle boat with the cat rafted on her portside and Fathom on her starboard side. As Fathom was small Zatara would handle the bow and stern warps to the starboard lock wall and the catamaran the port side warps. An easy ride for us.

Fathom enters Miraflores lock

The three locks on the Atlantic side of the canal are collectively known as the Gatun locks. They raise a vessel a total of 26m in three separate chambers. Each chamber is 33.53m wide and 304.8m long. Before entering the first chamber the three yachts rafted alongside each other without issue and Zatara used her engine to move the raft into the lock behind a general cargo ship that had gone in first.  Once past the open lock gate monkey fists at the end of a thin line were thrown from the lock wall and attached to the warps onboard the yachts.  Everything was running smoothly until the three yacht raft was approaching the third chamber and we noticed the lock gates were shutting in front of us. Panic stations! All three yachts hard in reverse. Luckily we managed to stop in time but it could have been a disaster. All three advisors said that in their many years of working in the canal they had never seen the lock gates begin to close before all vessels had entered. The advisor does not stay onboard overnight but does require feeding. I had prepared a sausage and sweet potato stew in the thermal cooker that morning so it was all ready. After he had finished his plate he came back up to the cockpit and said “who is the cook?” I replied it was me and he looked mighty surprised before saying “that dinner was ten outta ten!!”.

Once clear of the third chamber we separated from the raft and proceeded into Gatun lake where we tied alongside Zatara for the night, who were alongside a buoy. The advisor was picked up and the rest of us settled down in the cockpit for dinner and some cold beers. It was rather cosy overnight with five sleeping in the cabin. I squeezed myself alongside the liferaft on the quarter berth and the others slept on the port and starboard bunks and two pipe cots. Not only was the cabin an oven there was a snorer onboard!

The next morning a new advisor, Freddy, boarded at 08.30, he should have arrived at 07.00. The three yachts set off across Gatun lake towards the locks at the other end, a journey of about 30 nautical miles or five and a half hours. The lake is completely man made and has an area of 166.64 square miles. Fathom was barely afloat with six people onboard, various bits of temporary luggage and being in fresh water the waterline was even lower. We still managed to make between 5 and 5.5 knots which is what I had stated to the authorities we could achieve. Despite this, the other yachts disappeared into the distance and we later learnt they had made an earlier lock and we would have to wait for a much later lock and go through alone in centre chamber configuration. This would mean that unlike the easy ride we had in the Gatun locks we would now be required to do all four warps ourselves.

After passing through the Galliard Cut, a passage carved through rock and shale, we reached Pedro Miguel Lock but had to wait a couple of hours for a slot so tied up alongside an unused lock wall to wait in the baking sun. Freddy explained we would go through with a tug and barge, rather appropriate I thought after spending many years working with these kind of ‘vessels’. In the meantime we watched, with a mix of surprise and amusement, a huge container ship moving into the lock. Despite over USD 5 billion worth of improvements to the canal it still took two blokes in a small rowing boat to attach the dock rope to the ship. Eventually we moved and proceeded into the lock. Four monkey fists were thrown down and each of the four lines attached. The line handlers on the lock wall then hauled in the ropes and make fast on bollards when we were in position. The warps were eased as the water level dropped 9m. No dramas and once through we were disconnected from the shore lines and motored along the artificial Miraflores lake to the Miraflores locks where we were again connected to the lock with our four lines as before. I had primed friends and family to watch the webcam at Miraflores and grab a screen shot for old times sake.

The last chamber is often the worst because there are various eddies and currents where the fresh and salt water meet. But it was fine for us and Fathom was lowered back to sea level without drama. It was a special and unique feeling when the last lock gate opened and, at last, Fathom was in the Pacific Ocean! Thanks to all four line handlers for your excellent work. It really feels like Fathom and I have come along way from Yarmouth. A whole new adventure awaits, more in the next post before setting sail once again.

Posted on 12 Mar in: Panama Canal (One Comment)

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