Global Voyage

A Story About Sailing Around the World

Ray & Jenny aboard the ketch Suka

3 years, 35,000 miles, Nov 1982 - Jan 1986

Ray & Jenny Jardine

Chapter 18: Panama page 101 of 109

Panama Canal

Transit day, we rose early and set to work scrubbing the anchor and mooring lines, which, along with Suka's hull, were coated liberally with crude oil - large patches of which occasionally floated by, as though a tanker had wrecked in the vicinity.

Besides a canal advisor (Panamanian pilot) and helmsman (myself), we were required to carry four line handlers. The authorities had deemed Jenny and Debborah as qualified, if only just, so we needed two more. We had received a few unsolicited offers from other yachtees eager to see what the transit entails prior to taking their own vessel through. Also, the club provided a list of locals ever eager for a free ride. Yet as a goodwill gesture I employed one of the more friendly if slightly less dishonest yet nonetheless needy yacht-club-sanctioned workers. His name was Poncho, and at my request he brought with him one other - one of his sons.

Promptly at 8 a.m. our assigned adviser: Rogelio (Roger) Busch boarded. So with a generous supply of lunch materials, cold sodas, and snacks to see us through the long day, we set off.

The canal is 50 miles in length, and the sailboats were prohibited from overnighting along the way. So our day would be a long one, especially considering that our top speed was limited to 4-1/2 knots because of the engine overheating problem.


Map: The Initial Three Locks
Zoom out to see where we are, or click on logo.

The initial three locks would lift Suka 85 feet to Gatun Lake. To negotiate these, we were assigned to side-tie to a trawler, which would in turn side-tie to a tug, which would side-tie to a chamber wall. Our three-vessel raft would occupy the scant space remaining directly astern an immense cruise ship - immense at least from our perspective.

Entering the first lock.

Entering the first chamber, we learned that the cruise ship was required to maintain her colossal propellers slowly spinning. These were sending back a strong prop wash, creating the sensation of motoring the brig up a turgid river. Our advisor cautioned me to maintain Suka's bow directly into the flow, for if we should fall away, even slightly, I would lose steerage - and as the current came to bear on one side of Suka's hull, she would be swept out of control, only to smash into one of the concrete walls. Never had Suka's long wooden bowsprit seemed so vulnerable.

Maneuvering alongside the trawler, I thought our troubles were over. But as my crew heaved our bow and stern lines to the trawler's crewmen, these fellows merely stood there, as if wondering what to do with them. Incredible as it seemed, they had no idea how to tie mooring lines! Without steerage-way, I could no longer control Suka, and it was only by our yelling that eventually these seagoing landlubbers managed to wind the lines around on-deck protrusions. At that, my line handlers quickly took slack and made the warps fast, barely in time for the brig to snub hard against them. Our fate rested in those fickle windings aboard the trawler, which, incredibly, held.

Tied to the trawler.

Herculean chamber doors swing slowly closed, concluding Suka's travels in the Caribbean.

The Herculean chamber doors slowly swung closed astern, thus concluding Suka's travels in the Caribbean. Huge valves were opened somewhere below, such that fresh water from Gatun Lake began filling the lock. The water's turbulence increased markedly, and Suka began bucking like a wild stallion tied to a corral fence and hell-bent on busting loose. The significance of the release form I had signed back in the APC's office finally dawned on me.

Suddenly we heard a horrible CRACK! It was the tugboat's aft hawser, a line 1-1/2 inches in diameter, parting in the strain. Perhaps we should have rounded the Horn, I conceded. But the American tug's crew adroitly jumped into action, and tossed a heaving line to their equally adroit fellows ashore. Within seconds another hawser was made fast, and our three vessel raft was secure to the wall once again.

In the commotion I scarcely noticed that our microcosm was slowly ascending the monolithic concrete walls. After the lock had filled to capacity, gates opened at the opposite end, and the electric mules, cabled to the cruise ship, pulled this mammoth boat into the next chamber. At our signal, the crew of the trawler released our lines, and we stood off waiting for the tug and trawler to reset themselves into the next lock.

At the top of the first lock.

Entering our second lock.

Twice again we repeated motoring into position against the harrowing prop blast, fortunately without mishaps. Then as we slowly rose for the third time I pondered the engineering marvel here: the canal-locks are gravity fed from Gatun Lake; the big ships are lifted without the use of pumps.

At the top of the second lock.

The final gates opened to one of the world's largest man-made fresh water lakes. Wonderment aside, Roger advised me to make all haste, as a container ship was fast approaching from the opposite direction.

Everyone speeding out of the third lock, to get out of the incoming ship's way.


Map: Gatun Lake
Zoom out to see where we are, or click on logo.

I had been looking forward to reaching Gatun Lake, which represented our only chance during the round-the-world voyage to navigate fresh water. The well-marked channel winds 23 miles to the lake's opposite shore, but Roger directed us through the "Banana Cut," a slightly shorter route. Once out of the busy shipping lanes, he then directed us to stop for a 15-minute break, to enjoy a refreshing swim. We moored to a buoy, then leaping overboard I discovered that I did not float nearly as well, and that Suka's water line was up about an inch, such is the difference in buoyancy between salt and fresh water. While the gang splashed about, I worked at cleaning Suka's hull with a piece of carpet, wiping away some of the algae that had accumulated during the past two months since our departing Bonaire.

A 15-minute break for a refreshing swim.

Debborah steering Suka across Gatun Lake with canal advisor Roger looking on.


Map: The Gaillard Cut
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Shoving us slowly across the vast lake, Perkins chugged away faithfully, if feverishly. So eventually we reached the most famous portion of the canal, the Gaillard Cut - a trench excavated eight miles through the Continental Divide. The intense tropical sun beat down brutally, prompting us to rig the large cockpit awning. With Suka thus attired, we bantered that we were emulating The African Queen.

Plying the Gaillard Cut, with a big tanker steaming ahead.


“As a last resort, the tugs repositioned, and slammed the ship's great bow into the wharf, grinding the hull terribly against concrete. And at last, less than half a ship-length away from us, she came to rest.”

Reaching the Pedro Miguel Locks, we learned that, as had been the case in the ascending locks, we would share the descending ones with a big ship. However, this time we would "center chamber", meaning that we would secure the ketch using four lines ashore, one from each quadrant. But first, in fading daylight we had to side-tie to a quay directly in front the lock, to await the ship's arrival. An hour later the ship arrived, but to our dismay we saw that apparently the captain had been in too much of a hurry, and was now experiencing some difficulty slowing the boat. These massive vessels typically require several miles of full reverse power to come to a stop. Unfortunately, Suka lay less than an eighth mile directly in this ship's path. Our first indication of trouble were the two large tugs pushing the behemoth mightily on the nose - with notably little effect. Two ship-lengths away, cables were tossed ashore and made fast to immovable bollards. The ship's cable winch brakes applied full power, and began screeching and howling like banshees. Still, she came. Suddenly a bow cable parted with an explosion. Quickly another was launched ashore and secured, but the ship's momentum continued to carry her forward. The powerful tugs tore water from beneath their sterns and hurled it into the air. As a last resort, the tugs repositioned, and slammed the ship's great bow into the wharf, grinding the hull terribly against concrete. And at last, less than half a ship-length away from us, she came to rest.


Map: Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks
Zoom out to see where we are, or click on logo.

With a few more gray hairs added to my rapidly growing collection, I motored Suka into the lock ahead of the ship, and stopped short of the far end. At that point, workmen ashore were supposed to throw us lines. But no workmen were to be seen. That helpless feeling came upon us once again, and Roger's otherwise durable patience suddenly eroded. Justifiably, he began castigating the obviously under-motivated shoreside personnel to "get the lead out and throw us the lines, NOW!" Eventually he received what he asked for, as four rock-hard monkey's fists attached to thin heaving lines rained down onto the brig. One nearly missed putting Jenny's lights out. Had it done so, perish the thought, the thrower would have no doubt won his comrades' highest accolades.

With Suka secured within the lock, the mules are pulling the big tanker in behind us.

My crew members bent their bow and stern, port and starboard warps to their respective messengers, which the workmen then hauled ashore and dropped over the bollards. Then the appropriate winching on the part of my four line handlers secured Suka center chamber. The electric locomotives pulled the ship slowly into the lock behind us, the massive gates closed, and someone pulled the plug. Down we went - 31 feet, and casually so in the absence of turbulence, as my line handlers paid out their lines slowly and in unison. When we reached bottom, the gates before us opened and the shore personnel released our warps, not in unison of course. Now in darkness we motored the one mile across Miraflores Lake and into the Miraflores Locks, where we repeated the procedure twice again.

After lowering to sea level in the final lock, the gates opened to the mighty Pacific Ocean. Roger had warned me to accelerate quickly out of this lock once the gates opened, because when the fresh water mixes with the salt, a hefty surge enters the lock, rebounds off the far wall, and carries a strapping punch as it surges back out. The idea is to exit the lock before the surge overtakes the vessel, and we barely succeeded.

As we motored out into the night, light rain prompted us to again set the small awning. The channel was well marked and easily followed, although it was busy with shipping, which sent us dodging this way and that. After about five miles we passed under the Bridge of the Americas, a lattice work of steel linking the continents via the Pan American highway. From there we turned in to the pontoon wharf at the Balboa Yacht Club, where here, at last, we said fond farewells to our canal advisor and friend Roger Busch. Of Panamanian extraction, Roger was bright, genial, and conscientious, and his company had meant much to us. Now 10 p.m, he was faced with a three hour drive across the isthmus to reach his home. What a long day's work it had been for him.

The closer we had come to Balboa, the more belligerent Poncho had become. He now wanted booze. But having endured his grumbling and his disagreeable attitude most of the day, my generosity toward him had waned. Standing on the wharf, he grabbed his pay. And when I paid his son, Poncho grabbed that also then stormed off into the night.

I inquired of the Yacht club's night keeper if there might be a buoy we could secure to for the night. Hesitating, he assigned us one, on the stipulation that we would be away at first light, which, indeed, was our intention.


Zoom out to see where we are, or click on logo.

We motored Suka among myriad yachts, and found the empty mooring and bitted its bridle. The marina was ill protected and its waters agitated, but the day had been long and trying, and we were past caring. Too tired to tidy the disheveled ketch, the three of us relaxed in the cockpit - the Captain and the girl in each arm - admiring the glittering lights of nearby Panama City.

The story has 109 pages. This is page 101.
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Page Links
GV 001: Title Page
GV 002: TOC
GV 003: Dedication
GV 004: Preface
GV 005: Prologue
GV 006: Beginnings
GV 007: Work Done
GV 008: Making Ready
GV 009: Departure
GV 010: Sailing Credentials
GV 011: First Lesson
GV 012: Sextant Navigation
GV 013: Safety Harness
GV 014: Murphy's law
GV 015: Spirit of Adventure
GV 016: Holding On
GV 017: First Big Storm
GV 018: Storm Intensified
GV 019: Rolling Violently
GV 020: Mizzen Sleeping Bag'sl
GV 021: Freeing the Propeller
GV 022: Visits by Birds
GV 023: Crossing the Doldrums
GV 024: Nearing First Landfall
GV 025: Land Ho
GV 026: Fatu Hiva
GV 027: Trek Inland
GV 028: Anchor Watch
GV 029: Passage
GV 030: Hiva Oa
GV 031: Skin Diving Circus
GV 032: Almost Like a Jungle
GV 033: Polaris Missile
GV 034: Taiohaie Bay
GV 035: Cascade Hakaui
GV 036: Taipi Bay
GV 037: Cyclone Lisa
GV 038: Cyclone Nano
GV 039: Passage of Patience
GV 040: Tuamotu Archipelago
GV 041: Tahiti
GV 042: Cyclone Reva
GV 043: Secret Sharer
GV 044: Moorea
GV 045: Cyclone Veena
GV 046: Aftermath
GV 047: Good Weather in Papeete
GV 048: Huahine
GV 049: Raiatea
GV 050: BoraBora
GV 051: Rarotonga
GV 052: Tonga
GV 053: Fresh Air
GV 054: Tongan Feast
GV 055: Excursion to Maninita
GV 056: Mariner's Cave
GV 057: Fiji
GV 058: Ndravuni Island
GV 059: Mara Island
GV 060: Aneityum
GV 061: Noumea
GV 062: St Elmo's fire
GV 063: Breakwater Reef
GV 064: Bundaberg
GV 065: Life on the Burnett River
GV 066: Engine Sabotage
GV 067: Flying
GV 068: Aground in Round Hill Creek
GV 069: Gladstone Confinement
GV 070: Tropical Queensland
GV 071: Trip into Townsville
GV 072: Cairns Sojourn
GV 073: Cramped Cooktown
GV 074: Lizard Island
GV 075: The San Michelle
GV 076: Lost Mummy Cave
GV 077: Land's End
GV 078: Darwin
GV 079: Christmas Is
GV 080: Passage
GV 081: Cocos Keeling
GV 082: Crossing the Indian Ocean
GV 083: Rodriguez
GV 084: Mauritius
GV 085: Reunion Cirque de Mafate
GV 086: Reunion Cirque de Salazie
GV 087: Passage to Africa
GV 088: Kruger National Park
GV 089: Richards Bay
GV 090: Durban
GV 091: Port Elizabeth
GV 092: Cape Town
GV 093: Storm Passage
GV 094: St Helena
GV 095: Passage to Brazil
GV 096: Fortaleza
GV 097: Passage to Caribbean
GV 098: Bonaire
GV 099: Passage to Panama
GV 100: Panama
> GV 101: Panama Canal
GV 102: Medidor
GV 103: Costa Rica
GV 104: Passage to Acapulco
GV 105: Acapulco to Cabo
GV 106: Baja
GV 107: Home Port
GV 108: In Retrospect
GV 109: Next Time
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