Panama,  Panama Canal

El Pacifico!

Bob is in the Pacific! We passed through the last of the Panama Canal locks at about 5pm on Friday March 11th and officially entered the Pacific Ocean. That last lock was very fun indeed. To explain why I’d better explain first how the Panama Canal actually works:

The history of the Panama Canal makes a very very interesting read. The story of the construction begins in 1879 and goes through to 1914. What we’ve ended up with today is a feat of engineering that is impressive by modern standards and absolutely incredible by the standards of 1914. It remains essentially unchanged from how it was then, and about 80% of the original construction is still in use.

The canal operates on a lock system. The first three locks (coming from the Atlantic to the Pacific) raise their contents by 84 feet, after which you enter Gatun Lake. This is a huge freshwater lake which serves as a channel across the Isthmus of Panama (about 30 miles) and also as a reservoir for the water which is needed to operate the locks. It is fed entirely by the rains which usually fall heavily and consistently during the rainy season here in Panama.*

Having motored across the lake, one enters the second set of locks and is lowered down to the level of the Pacific Ocean. The height of this drop varies greatly because the tidal variation in the Pacific can be 20 feet or so. What makes this lock particularly challenging is the entry into it from the penultimate lock. This second-to-last lock contains fresh water, but the last is salt water. Salt water is much more dense than fresh. As the lock doors open between the chambers, the fresh water and salt water meet. The fresh water, being less dense, wants to sit on top of the salt, while the salt wants to burrow underneath the fresh. As this is happening, the result on the surface is a current of 5 knots or so carrying you straight towards the closed doors of the last lock. For a monohull sailboat with a single diesel engine this poses a big problem. Aside from the fact that most monohulls are not good at going astern, the water flow over the rudder is the opposite of what it needs to be in order to steer effectively. The usual thing to do in a strong current is to speed up so that you’re going even faster than the current and therefore maintain maneuverability. That’s not an option here however as the closed lock doors of the last chamber are 190 feet down-stream, and besides, there are line-handlers on the dock trying to walk your lines to the next chamber, and they don’t like it when you go anything over about 3.5 knots as they then struggle to keep up. Many a yacht has come into serious difficulties in this lock when they have not managed to maintain position in the center of the chamber, have not managed to maintain their stern to the current and have ended up broadside to the current, hard up against the harsh metal of the lock doors. In fact, our friend Marc, who came through 2 day after us, ended up in this very unfortunate state of affairs and ground a hole in his port quarter against the chamber wall. Fortunately for us, we were tied alongside a large catamaran with two big engines and a very skilled owner at the helm, so for us this experience was not so much nail-biting as exhilarating. Aside from helping out the owner of the cat by going full astern once or twice, my input to the proceedings were limited.

Having made it through the last of the locks, we untied from our new friends and set off on the last leg of 4 miles or so to the point where we were to drop off our pilot. Since the engine had been running all day, mostly at low speed, I decided to take the opportunity to open her up and blow out some of the carbon deposits which tend to build up in the exhaust system under such circumstances. That was perhaps a mistake as it turns out. The engine alarm began to sound; tentatively at first and then more insistently, telling me that something – either low oil pressure or an overheating engine – was wrong. To make matters worse, I still wasn’t allowed to shut down the engine and sail since there is a ban on sailing for the entirety of the canal. I have heard that some pilots consider this ban to be somewhat flexible. Unfortunately, although our pilot was excellent, he did everything by the book and would not allow me to set a sail even under these circumstances. We got in without anything blowing up, dropped off the pilot, dropped off our professional line handler, Jonathan, as well as our two new friends who saved us $200 by handling lines for us (canal requirements are for 4 line handlers on board each yacht in addition to the captain and the pilot, so it’s been busy!) and dropped anchor at the Balboa Yacht Club.

I set to work immediately trying to identify the source of the engine alarm. Unfortunately, the electrical system for the engine is antiquated to put it mildly and many of the gauges don’t work, so i’m still unsure what caused the problem. This morning we moved to different anchorage (a free one!) and the alarm did not go off after motoring for an hour, so i am inclined to follow standard procedure of ‘Brooksie’s First Law’, which essentially reads ‘usually, when presented with a problem, the best thing to do is nothing’. This modus operandi is one that I have followed for many years and it has usually (but not always) stood me in good stead. We’ll see how it works out this time!

* Lake Gatun was the largest man-made lake in the world until some time in the 1970s, and the dam which created it (and which is still in use) was the largest concrete structure in the world when it was constructed. Currently, the lake is very low due to the huge drought that is being experienced by much of the West Coast of the American continents due to El Nino. The pilot tells me that it may be necessary shortly to limit the draught of the ships that are able to transit through the canal – a limitation that would have considerable consequences for the shipping and goods that pass through here; about 42 per day.

Update, March 16th: Against my usual philosophy i decided to fix the gauges, then I ran the engine pretty hard (going 3/4 astern while at anchor for a little while). Everything is showing normal. I have traced the wiring and found that only the oil pressure is wired to the alarm, so that must have been it………….. but i can’t replicate the fault, whatever it was. Hoping it was just an electrical fault. On the plus side, after this next passage to the Galapagos Islands we really shouldn’t need the engine at all util we reach New Zealand in about a year and a half 🙂

We’re still waiting on the arrival of a new tiller pilot, which allows us to have self-steering when motoring (David the wind vane is wonderful but will only work when there’s wind to steer by). Apparently it was sent to Colombia by mistake but is now in Panama and we should get it tomorrow morning…………… we’ll see! Really looking forward to Las Perlas, and personally I’m kind of looking forward to being in such remote locations that it’s impossible to find spares for stuff that needs fixing. That way I’ll have no choice but to ignore whatever is broken and spend the time drinking rum instead. We have lots of rum. In fact, I think we could stock a small shop by ourselves. One can never have too much rum.


    • Alex

      Yup, we arrived at night though, spent the next day scrubbing the bottom and lounging and then moved to another island further to the South which was much more secluded. I’m ashamed to say we never actually bothered to go ashore there. Should we have?!

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