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Cruising Journals - Pam Wall

Chapter 7 - The Panama Canal Transit

It was pouring at five in the morning. The Panama Canal Pilot, or Advisor as he was called, was supposed to have arrived half an hour ago. Our friends Paul and Marilyn Broadbent with their two very sleepy children, Adam and Phoebe were with us. They lived in Panama and had come to the boat to act as our extra line handlers. Except for the Advisor, our crew was complete for the passage through the Panama Canal. As we drank our hot coffee in the early wet dawn, we wondered if the Advisor would ever arrive. Finally, two and half-hours after the scheduled time of departure, our soggy Advisor, Ricardo, sloshed upon the deck and said casually, "Let's go, we are really late." Quickly we cast off the lines and headed towards the first lock. There was no visibility as we powered in the heavy rain. We actually had to use a compass course for the short distance to the gates of the first lock. We all thought this was not a very good omen and I wondered how the advisor could be so calm as he egged us on to our greatest possible speed to make up for his tardy arrival. The four children aboard, Sammy our 7-year-old daughter, Jamie our 4-year-old son and their two friends Adam and Phoebe thought this was great fun. They crowded around the bow pulpit each trying to be the first to see the gates of the Panama Canal. It was very wet on the deck but the rain did not bother them at all. We must have looked like a nest of little yellow penguins as all four children were decked out in brightly colored miniature foul weather gear!

Thankfully the rain let up as we hurriedly approached the gates of the first lock. I remember how all our tensions were relaxed as Ian aboard another yacht transiting the Canal, Challenger, shouted terrible jokes to us across the water. We followed Challenger into the lock and moored alongside her. All the line coiled on the deck for a mid-chamber mooringwas not ever to be used. The four hundred feet of line, mandatory for the canal would lie on deck in neat piles and they were never touched. We entered the lock behind an enormous freighter. It felt like we were on tiny toy boats as Kandarik was elevated upwards in the swirling water of the closed lock. Luckily I was holding onto the wheel when the mighty freighter in front of us first engaged her enormous propeller to take her into the next set of locks. The turbulence caused by the thrust of that prop wash could so easily have whipped the rudder right off our boat. After that we lashed the helm as tight as we could in each lock, and even with that we could see the wheel struggling to remain amidships while the strong current in the closed locks tried to tear the rudder away.

The rain was even heavier as we powered out of the last lock into the peaceful water of Gatun Lake. Our transmission seemed to be acting strangely, so our advisor immediately directed us to the small jetty of the Gatun Lake Yacht Club. I think he was quite happy to abandon us so we could make our repairs. After all, even though we were very late, we had made it to the locks in time, and he didn't want to get any wetter guiding this small boat in the soaking rain.

Andy was able to repair the transmission quickly, and now we had the entire rest of the day to enjoy this lovely setting in Gatun Lake. This peaceful body of water separates the Atlantic and Pacific locks. We were lifted up to the Lake by the Atlantic locks, and we would eventually be lowered to the Pacific on the other end of the Panama Canal. The rainy omen at the start of our transit must have been positive, for the sun broke through the clouds as Kandarik floated in the fresh water of this calm lake. The passage through the rest of the canal had to be postponed until the next day as we had missed the only time to go through the last set of locks. You can imagine how delighted we were that we had to spend the night in this lake surrounded by the jungle of Panama!

It was irresistible to all of us. We had to jump into the fresh water and enjoy a swim without the need for a salt rinse. We washed our hair, bathed our bodies, laughed, and joked about our good fortune to be herefor the night instead of racing along towards the end of the canal. We told Kandarik to take special advantage of her only fresh waterexperience. We ran the engine, flushed the head, and pumped the salt-water galley pump, just to give them a wonderful treat of fresh water! The children stayed in the water until their lips were blue. It was such a novel experience for all of us to be able to swim, and wash, and play in water we could almost drink.

After dinner we decided to anchor off the club amongst the other ships awaiting transit the next day. The rain came back with a vengeance, but it was cool and beautiful aboard and rather exciting. Here we were with Kandarik in fresh water 85 feet above sea level! Gaton Locks were off our starboard bow and a dozen ships from all over the world were lit up like cities surrounding our little boat. The fragrance from the wet jungle drifted below as we fell asleep in our cozy bunks.

Andy and I awoke with a fright. Someone was pounding on our hull and abruptly awakened us. Spotlights flooded our hatches with a blinding light. We raced aft and saw the silhouette of a man in cockpit illuminated by the refracted light of the rain. To our delight and relief, we recognized our good friend John Maher. John was a Panama Canal Pilot. He had seen Kandarik anchored and had decided to give us a midnight visit. After anchoring the huge ship he was piloting through the canal, he had jumped aboard one of the sturdy pilot boats and was dropped off in our cockpit. I will never forget what he said to us as we finally recognized who he was; "Can I have a cup of coffee?" As our adrenaline dissipated, we had a wonderful visit. I guess that must have been the most unexpected cup of coffee we had ever shared.

Early the next morning we picked up a new friend. Our first wonderful crew, the Broadbent family, had to leave us when our passage was aborted. The rules of the Canal make it mandatory for there to be four line handlers aboard each boat. While Sammy and Jamie would have been quite capable, they were not old enough to be considered line handlers. Andy heard an Australian voice from a man swimming around Kandarik. He asked the man aboard and became good friends within a matter of minutes. He lived in Panama and was indeed from Australia as Andy was. After a few rum and cokes, we asked if he would like to transit the canal with us the next day. Unfortunately he could not, but he said his wife, Pauli, would love to! And there she was at dawn, a perfect stranger to us, who would become in just one day a dear friend forever.

A new Advisor arrived, late again, and we got underway through the Banana Channel headed towards the Pacific side of the Canal. We were in good company as all the ships that were anchored around us during the night, were now going along with Kandarik. The day was gray and overcast, but our spirits were high and everyone aboard was relaxed and excited at the same time. What a fantastic feat to have made this Canal. We powered through jungles, gorges, cypress swamps, and of course through another set of locks that lowered us down to the Pacific Ocean. It was a long day. As we cleared the last gates at about 5:30 in the afternoon, the smell of the Pacific Ocean hit us like a magic fragrance. It was difficult for us to believe we were here at last. I called my parents on the Ham Radio, and I guess my voice was so filled with emotion, they could not tell if I was crying or laughing! When it was time to drop Pauli off at the Balboa Yacht Club we were all sad to say goodbye. She had been such a wonderful line handler, but most of all we had become fast friends thanks to the Panama Canal.

You can imagine our dreams as we slept that first night in the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal was behind us, and we could at last say to Sammy and Jamie, "Here we are in a new ocean, you can stop asking when are going to get there!" Our children were ready and eager, and we too could not wait to feel the tradewinds of the Pacific.

Pam Wall - Expert Sailor

Pam Wall

Outfitting Manager, West Marine Ft. Lauderdale

  • A lifelong sailor, Pam and her husband have been cruising together for over 36 years!