Yin Yang (Part 1)

Taoism provide an interesting outlook  on life. A way to see the good in the bad, a perspective. We met Logan (L) and Caroline (C)  when they arrived at Shelter Bay Marina. Captain and Mate or Swab and Boss depending on who you talk to. They were taking the boat Blue Whale across the big ditch; the Panama Canal in about a week, and as happenstance would have it were looking for line handlers. W/ and I had been talking of the need to make a transit before we take our boat through and thus fate brought the  4 of us together. We signed on to be slaves to the Blue Whale and we would be transiting in about a week.

Two days before the transit it rained. This wasn’t really a bad sign as we’re in the rainy season. Logan and Caroline or as Caroline prefers, Caroline and Logan, were prepping the boat. Wash, wax, polish, have measured for the canal authorities (you pay by length) , get tires (used as fenders) and long  lines. The tires are to protect the hull and the lines needed for a transit must be  150′ in length. Intelligently they then purchased some T shirts from the KMart of Colon; Madison, for about a buck fifty each. One for each tire. One must protect the hull. The walls of the locks are much rougher than the hull of pleasure boats.

One day before the transit it rained. Still, not a bad thing. In Panama it tends to rain mostly for two or three days,  then clear up for a beautiful and hot day, maybe  two.  The Whale with her dinghy on the davits was too long and put them into a different cost group, needing an expensive pilot instead of the more reasonable adviser so they removed the dinghy to store it on the foredeck.  Stacked on 3 huge fenders the dinghy would ride upright from the Atlantic to the Pacific pointing the wrong way.

The day of the transit we were preparing Elysium for our absence and moving aboard the Whale. We’d baked some Brownies (in reality W/ baked and I ate) as of course brownies being a quality  Junk food is in one of the major food groups and necessary for any passage. We helped C/L put T’s on the tires and tie them off along each side. Karen and Mark had now joined us and assisted in the final prep of the Whale.  Boats transiting the isthmus  need to have  one Captain, and a minimum of four line handlers. We actually had a spare line handler.

Ironically, back in the  late ’70’s  when W/ and I were first looking to purchase a sailboat we had taken our first vacation to Wrightsville Beach N. Carolina and then on to Florida.  In Wrightsville Beach we looked at the hugely popular Westsail 32 and went on a demonstrator sail there.  The Westsail Corp had recently opened up a new production facility there and had what they called a “Cruising Center” where one could see the boats, sail on one, and buy one; all of which we wanted to do. So we paid our money and a character not much older then us, Skip Fry, took us out for our 3 hour sail, AKA the Gilligan tour. It was a nice day, Sunny, relatively calm seas and we came away with the belief we could do this and this company  had a boat for us. We had wanted the 42′ Center Cockpit (the one we have now)  but Skip in a quite lucid moment had said “How soon do you want to get outta Dodge”?  We could maybe, just maybe have bought the 42 and  completed the interior; however, the 32 was more doable for a young couple like us, and the 28 would have availed us of leaving Dodge; well, we could have left much sooner. But the 32 it was and we ordered and bought and sailed  Principia for 15 years and sailed her about 25,000 nm in that time.  We never saw Skip again.

We were checking out C/L on their website as  I’m sure they were doing the same of us, when I came across an entry on the message board of an older Blue Whale site by…. Skip Fry. Now there can’t be many people in the world named Skip Fry so I asked Logan. He said, yeah, it was the Skip Fry who was associated with Westsail way back when.  Such irony that he took us on our first 3 hour sail and he was actually  to come do the canal transit with us. But, unfortunately Skip had some shore side duties that called and he wouldn’t be able to make it down for the transit. Thus Karen and Mark from Susurra were invited. Mark accepted and then Karen acquiesced (she was feeling a little under the wx) and so the 6 slaves of the Whale were gathering to take her from the Atlantic to the Pacific (the Blue Whales true home – Pun intended).

In the am of Day Zero we had the tires on and the supplies loaded, it was blue sky’s, sunny, and looking like she’d be a sweet day to begin a  transit.  We had a group lunch to discuss methods and responsibilities of each station, expectations of the placement of the Whale in the locks and to share in a few more stories. We left lunch satiated and gathered any final items we needed prior to our meet on the Whale. Our transit time had been pushed ahead two hours over the last two days, today it was pushed  back two hours and we would depart around 3 pm to head out to the “flats”  and there we would  pick up our adviser.

The adviser is the individual that connects with the Panama Canal lock masters and tells us what to do. Logan gets instructions from him (I’m not sure if there are any female advisers) and relays anything we need to us.  The adviser has the paper work on the Whale and for every boat / ship  transiting the canal during our passage. He knows who will be where and where we need to be to keep the function of the canal running as smoothly as possible. We were now to pick him up at the flats about 6 pm. We expected to be there early and were told in fact to be there early (I guess some boats just never show up, and so… we… would… be… there… early.

Lines cast off and pulled aboard, tires with the T’s  out, we motored out of the marina to the flats with an ominous looking  sky.  While the morning teased us with a beautiful day, the afternoon was looking to heavily spritz us.  L/ pushed the speed of the Whale a bit and we arrived at the flats about 3 minutes  before the rain and a little wind. Anchor down L/ called the canal control center on channel 12 and told them we

Wendy, Karen, Mark hoping the Rain Clears

Wendy, Karen, Mark hoping the Rain Clears

were in the anchorage area and ready.  They advised us that now the time of arrival for the adviser would be 6 pm.  Now an hour later than when we had left. About 6 we called again and the adviser would soon come. He arrived  about 7 pm and we picked up the anchor. (Note to self:  I need to get our deck wash down in place before we make the crossing in Elysium.)  The mud we picked up off the bottom I”m sure was imported from the Chesapeake Bay. It stuck to the anchor chain like glue and smelled like; well- I’ll save you the olfactory imagery. The only way to remove the mud was to flush with copious amounts of water. Another 30 minutes gone by, the anchor stored, the adviser was now on board and we motored out to cross the isthmus.

We made good time to the first set of locks but there we had discovered we’d been pushed back another hour. The locks don’t stop for much, rain being one thing they don’t stop for; but, rain will slow transits  down and so we had another wait. We were going to lock through behind a smallish container ship 700′ or so and they were having some difficulty getting it lined up to slide into the lock chamber.  Now close to 9 ish  (three hours later than our appointed time) we were slowly entering the first of 3 chambers that would raise us close to 100′. Once in the chamber and the doors closed our jobs would now be coming on line. W/ and I had the stern quarters, Mark and the Boss (Caroline) were on the bow. Small lines with a tightly tied knot and a small weight inside called a Monkey Fist came flying (were thrown at the Whale) from the lock walls. Bow lines first and then the lines for the stern.  Everyone tied the Monkey Fist to the 125′ lines and the handlers on the wall pulled the Monkey Fist with the now attached boat lines back up to the bollards.  One of my knots let go! Oops. Franscisco (our adviser for this part of the trip) then helped, picked up the Monkey fist when it was tossed to the boat and I watched how he tied the fist to the line; a simple square knot.  Now I know!  Locking up is the most difficult part of the transit.

When one locks up the line handlers get to work – literally. We were passing through what is called “Center Chamber” and so each corner of the Blue Whale had a line running to a bollard on the lock wall.  As the boat rises, the lines slack, and the handlers (of which W/ and I were two of them) had to pull in the slack to assist in keeping the boat in the center chamber.  There are three chambers we traverse rising approx 30′ per chamber.  In one I watch as the water came in and we rose approx 7′ in 30 seconds. That’s moving!

In the 2nd and 3rd chambers we rose about the same speed and W/ and I were getting feeling the strain of the wet stiff lines while  continuously adjusting  the  lines trying to keep the Whale in the middle.

Going UP!

Going UP!

Fortunately this was the last lock for the day and the last lock going up. We slowly followed behind the container ship staying as far astern of his prop wash as possible. Fransisco (our adviser on this leg) has us immediately turn outside the channel and head to a mooring buoy to the East. There we side tied to the buoy and about 10:00 pm we were finished with 1/3 of the transit. One third by work, not by distance. Of the 80 nm trek  we’d gone less then 8 nm.  A little after 11:00 pm. our adviser was picked up and we were discussing if we needed to eat or sleep.  Food won the first leg but sleep eventually overtook us. We fell into our berths around midnight for a short sleep.  The adviser for day two was arriving approx 6 am. Hopefully, that’s Caribbean time.

Go Slow
Sail Far
Stay Long

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