Z E N I T U D E
                                                      
Blue Water Dreaming
Transiting the Panama Canal - From the Caribbean to the Pacific
Shelter Bay to Gatun Lake - 04 April 2010 (09.22.10N-79.57.00W)
We were supposed to be at the Flats at 2:00PM and we arrived with enough time to spare. We didnít want to anchor so we were drifting while waiting for the advisor. During the previous weeks an accumulated backlog of boats crossing the canal had cleared and we couldnít see many boats waiting.


This was our third transit in the past 2 weeks. We had crewed as line handlers for Songline, sister ship to Zenitude, for our first experience transiting the canal and a week later with Ze and Sandra in Tutatis. So, by now we were Ďexperiencedí  and we had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Among other things we knew  we could be waiting a while for the advisor or maybe not. Previous experience being a wait of 4 hours with Songline and then the other extreme when the advisor was looking for us when we arrived to the Flats in Tutatis. Advisors approach in fast boats and they are really not in a mood of waiting, so you could loose your booking and your money if you are not there on time or with the right number of line handlers, lines, fenders, etc. The canal has a very busy schedule with the cargo ships and they canít afford delays.
Songline waiting for the advisor in the Flats
Tutatis ready, leaving Shelter Bay Marina
As soon as the advisor was on board we headed towards the Gatun Locks. At that time it was not clear with whom we would be rafting. Waiting close to the locks there was a beautiful fishing yacht, and yes the plan was we raft alongside her port side and a monohull, Sal Darago with Jeremy and Cathy,  on her starboard side. This was probably the best possible scenario for us. A large, expensive boat, with powerful engines to do all the work. They wanted to transit by themselves, but the advisors didn't let them get away with that request. Captain Oscar was the happiest. He had been preparing himself for a hard 2 days of work and the responsibility of steering 3 boats thru the middle in the locks. Most likely if it wasnít for the big yacht, we would be the middle boat, as it is usual for catamarans because they can steer with the 2 engines.  As a bonus, due to the size of the yacht they would be handling the front lines, so the only line we needed to handle was the back port side line.
Zenitude towards Gatun Locks, Murray gets ready
Rafted together entering Gatun Lock
Just before entrance to the locks, the advisors from the 3 boats coordinated how we would raft together, and with their advice soon all 3 boats were rafted side by side without incident. At this point you start noticing tug boats coming and going at a good speed,  maybe they were there before but it seemed that they had waited to do all those waves until we were three boats in one. Thanks God for the big fenders.  And just like that we were inside the lock, having a monkey fist throw at us with great skill, Murray working the only line we had to worry about, working our way thru the chambers. Up, up and up for 28 meters in a total of 3 chambers. Once every door is locked the water rushes in at an incredible speed and soon you are at the dock level ready to move to the next chamber. Each chamber is huge and this season traffic is pretty thin, the global crisis responsible for reducing the number of cargo ships thru the canal. We just had to share the chambers with one cargo ship and it was quite far ahead of us. I canít imagine having one of these monsters just behind.
At around 6:00 PM we were on the other side of the locks, and all 3 boats separated again. The advisor directed us to the huge mooring area where we would spend the night. There is space for about 3 boats in each of these huge moorings and there are about 3 moorings, so luckily we had a spot in one of them. Anchoring is an option but it is quite deep, something between 15 to 20 meters deep. We were now tired and ready for a glass of wine and dinner. Oscar, captain and cook, had already prepared a very nice chicken curry that we all enjoyed. Except the advisor, of course, that left in a hurry with promises  that somebody would be coming at 6:00 AM next morning for the second part of the transit.
Advisor advising & Murray hard at work
Monkey fist in the air
Going up with a cargo ship
Maryanne
Gatum Lake to Playita - 05 April 2010 (09.14.72N-79.54.81W) 

Sharp at 6:00 AM next morning we could hear the boats bringing the advisors. As soon as ours boarded Zenitude we left the mooring to start the long leg across the lake towards the Miraflores locks. The lake is a large artificial lake and is part of the Panama Canal system providing the water needed to operate the locks. We needed to transit the lake for about 20 miles and arrive to the gates not much later than 11.00. The locks operate one way in the morning with ships from the Pacific going thru the locks into the lake. We were supposed to be there by the time the canal was operating from the lake and into the Pacific. This is the reason why sailing boats stay the night in the lake, it takes about 4 hours to cross from the Gatun locks to the Miraflores locks and there is no time to get there the same day before they change the locks direction.  An interesting fact is that when you are transiting the canal towards the Pacific you are SE bound, for a moment I thought our advisor was talking nonsense, it was hard to think we were not going west. 

As we had a good 4 hours trip ahead of us there was no need to rush the crew, we had a good breakfast and enjoyed the ride thru the lake. We thought we may see some of the many crocodiles in the area but even if the advisor thought he saw a couple we didn't spot them in the brown waters.

At Gatun Lake towards Miraflores Locks
When we arrived to the gates we did it all over again, rafted, entered the locks, caught monkey fist, handled the lines (Murray of course). This time we went down, down and down in three locks. Amazingly it was just us and a couple of sailboats behind in the locks. We spot the webcam, lots of tourists watching us and finally we were at the last lock and out in the Pacific ocean opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
We then unloaded our advisor with many thanks for the great transit. A little after that came our agent Stanley in his boat to collect lines and the big black tires used as fenders. We were still in the celebrating mood planning for our well deserved lunch when we saw the crew from Sal Darago, the sailboat that rafted with us signalling like crazy, we thought they were saying goodbye but it looked kind of strange. In reality they were desperate calling for help. Their gear box had broken, they had no propulsion and they were drifting. This is an area where you donít feel happy drifting with the big cargo ship traffic all around. We rafted again with them and slowly took them to the anchorage were they drop anchor and were safe again. As an after thought they considered themselves lucky they did it thru the canal, but it would cost them many weeks to get repairs before they would be ready to continue their travels.
The Miraflores Locks
Gates open to the Pacific Ocean ahead
Finally the day to transit the Panama Canal arrived and after many farewells we left the marina towards Colon Flats to wait for our advisor. On board we had Maryanne and Barry from Toroa, an Australian flagged beautiful boat that was planning to join us on the other side in a couple of days, and of course our friend Murray, from Sydney. There must be 4 line handlers per boat plus the captain. So the crew was complete. Everybody excited and in good spirits.