Panama Canal – Winter Solstice

Well….we’re doing it. No turning back now. Our mules (2 cute and 1 ugly as sin 🙂 ) have arrived from the states and I’m more worried now about how a failure would impact them then I am about the cost of problems in the canal. They basically brought 3 bags of stuff for Elysium. Most of the supplies are spares; but, two tools go to almost immediate use; a cordless drill (god awful expensive here for some reason), and a cordless impact driver, a magic tool I never knew about.

And two items they bought are needed immediately. They are on the “to do list” for the day of their arrival and the following day, the day before our transit.  First things first.

With 5 people on the boat we have a basic biological need for TWO working heads. Yep, not one, but two. We don’t want to be having to take numbers for their use.  Jenny brought down some spare parts and upon her arrival at the boat, like a boy on Christmas morning I began to tear into the packages looking for that special gift. This wasn’t any gift; this was to keep the toilet from leaking!  This piece has a great deal of value and upon it’s discovery I grabbed the couple of tools I would need to install the fitting and began to finish the project began 2 weeks earlier.

Luckily, the task finished as planned and we again had two working heads, for now.

The second project I neglected to mention in my previous post: W/ had been reminding me; almost daily, that we need to check the navigation lights. Finally, one night after Happy Hour at the Dock we weren’t too tired and she flipped the switch while I checked the lights.  Oh – Oh. Damn!  “Are you sure you hit the right switch”? I called out. “Turn them all on”!

After some dreaded feelings I made the decision to simply purchase more lights. We had purchased the OMG lights when we were refurbishing the boat. We actually have two sets of navigation lights; one for sailing only and one for whenever we are running under power. And since we are powering through the canal we need to ensure that if, just if, the advisor and boats and timing isn’t right and we go through at night we are legal. Right now we’re not. I had already replaced one of the OMG lights under warranty after 2 years of cruising.  That light still works but now the 2 other originals have failed. If possible; when I find all of the “quality” marine gear has failed it is time to change brands; however, to change brands now would entail much more work and time than we have.

I go online and order two identical replacements and have them shipped to Jenny. She brings them and I prepare to install them. Removing the other non functioning lights almost loomed problematic. But as Dirk had brought my new impact driver I was able to remove the SS bolts from the AL body lights.  Oops. Not quite. I broke off the bolt heads and then the lights came off their bracket. Ain’t much a vice-grip won’t do!  After the body was removed I was able with some PB-Blaster to remove the rest of the bolt. Now for the replacements.

While they were the same part number they were not the EXACT same lights. I needed to modify the aft bracket a bit and that light went in smoothly. The front bracket needed no modification and thus before the Sun reached it’s zenith we were legal. Time to store stuff and ready the boat. The dinghy was loaded on with muscle from mule number one; Dirk, and we cleaned up the deck for our 4 – 125′  x 1″ lines as well as 8 – 24″ fenders.  We had two more fenders to hang. The mules had informed the Captain and mate that if possible we would upon exiting the canal sail to Taboga and pick up a mooring for the evening. Well…. we are crossing during the Winter Solstice; the shortest day of the year. Being outnumbered the Captain and mate agreed; IF, we exited the canal soon enough to have light for this endeavor. Thankfully, everyone being a sailor found this solution acceptable.

All was ready to go by noonish and after some heartfelt goodbyes we motored out of Shelter Bay Marina; our boat’s home for a little more than a year, and went out to the “flats”. There I tried dropping the XYZ anchor only to have it slide around in the soft muck of bottom. I’m at times rather dense and after two more attempts at anchoring with the XYZ I dropped the trusty CQR instead.  No sooner had the anchor hit the bottom than harbor control contacted us and told us we would see our advisor at 5 pm. Erick, our agent, had indicated we would be boarded at 4:30. Well, what’s another half an hour?

A bit after 5 we we had our advisor on board and by 5:30 had retrieved our anchor and were well on our way to the first set of locks. We were lucky, lucky that I had installed the new lights as we would be going through… when it was dark.

Sure enough the Sun had dropped past the horizon by the time the first set of doors had opened and we motored in, W/ at the helm, Dirk and Silvie handling the bow, Jenny and I the stern. The men at the lock were quite good with throwing the monkey fists at the boat and we all secured them to the oversized lines that would maintain Elysium in the middle of the lock. W/ motored at walking speed to the middle and the linesmen dropped large eyes over huge bollards while we half cleated the bitter ends to our boat, pulling in line as the boat rose trying to keep her centered. It wasn’t easy, nor was it hard; but it did take a fair bit of work one side pulling, one letting slack go, then pulling some more to maintain our center station. After rising up approximately 30′ in a matter of minutes we retrieved our lines, held onto the monkey fist and walked the boat forward 1,000 feet to the next lock. There the process was repeated and repeated one more time. One hundred feet above sea level we motored out into Lake Gatun.

By now it was pitch black out. Our advisor had us turn off of the channel to a mooring buoy on the other side of the new locks. We approached slowly cutting through the night with some hand torches and more rapidly than I would have imagined located the buoy and tied off. A few minutes later our advisor was picked up by the Canal Authority and we were alone, on our buoy, next to a canal party boat.  Damn!  Luckily they too shut down close to 10 and we all found solace in the land of dreams. W/ on cushions on the floor, Jenny in the  Port Berth, I in the Starboard berth, and Dirk and Silvie in the suite known as the aft cabin.

One thing I never thought about was the need for 5 berths in a boat. Crossing the Panama Canal you are required to have 4 line handlers and 1 boat driver.  We had always understood that to have lots of berths means you will fill them.  For us that has not been true but for crossing the canal we needed to make due.  We had also left one cushion off our boat that would have converted the dining table to a double; but W/ didn’t want to cover up the Teak Bannister so we left that one in some trash bin I know not where.

A little after 6:30 am our new advisor arrived and we were off; but, no Banana cut. We had traveled that pretty route last year on Blue Whale but our advisor said that where they are at now in canal building that route is closed. Again…. Damn. So W/ drove and we all shared more stories about cruising and I’m sure someone even made up a few. The locks today were all down hill. In the first set we rose appoximatly 100′ and now we’ll drop close to the same amount for the last set. I said close to because the two oceans are not the same height on both sides of Panama and they don’t have the same tides. On the Caribbean side the tide is all of about 1′ and on the Pacific side it is between 12′ and 20′. For the most part luck was with us on the downward leg. For the most part…

First, the aft head appeared plugged. I was slightly emotionally askance at the problem as I had worked on that head during our 6 months at Shelter Bay and had just replaced the raw water intake fitting. But in sailing and especially cruising… it is what it is; deal with it. Thus first on the list of repairs tomorrow would be to unplug the aft head. Still rather smug that we were really, really moving Elysium to the Pacific we all hung about in the shade of the cockpit watching the ships cruise past and enjoying the beauty of an uncommercialized, albeit, almost natural jungle shore. After all, the lake is man made. 🙂

Half way across Lake Gatun Dirk told me our bilge pump was running. OH-OH! Our bilge pump almost never runs. If it does there is a problem. I ran below; first checking to make sure the hose had not somehow come off the stuffing box; all secure. then to the engine room. Water under the engine. I look for leaks. I can’t find any. Dirk checks for leaks he can’t find any. We trace the raw water route through all the plumbing and we can’t find any leaks. W/ passed the helm to Jenny and she and I begin to remove the water from the engine pan.  We’re making progress and finally it is 99% empty. Then I see that the water is high in the Aqua Lift reservoir. It should be dry there. I check all the connections of the exhaust system and find no leaks. W/ and I remove that water. Miraculously the water level stays down. No leaks. We can (Dirk and I) only surmise that I must have a leak in the generator. Relieved we head back up on deck to what feels like air-conditioning and make sure the rest of the crew knows…We….are….NOT….sinking! However; every so often Dirk sings “I’ve got a sinking feeling….” to W/s frown.

Downward our line handlers were getting a break. We would be tying up to the party boat that was moored with us near the Gatun Locks.  They and another boat would set up first on the side wall and we would be on the outside and tie to them. Lock one went smooth as silk. W/  backs Elysium away a bit to give the two tourist boats room to tie up in the next lock first and there we get in a bit of trouble. Our advisor thinks because W/ is at the helm he needs to tell her a little more what to do. We hand off the forward line and she backs up to hand off the stern line but we’re twisting. I tell her to move forward and kick it away from the party boat and he’s saying more backwards. We get crossed up and our Elysium is leaning against the party boat but soon W/ sees what is going on and corrects the situation with nothing hurt but a little pride.  Tied up and ready to go, again we drop like a rock and almost no effort is required of the line handlers, only handing lines off and picking up lines. Finally we proceed to the final lock for our Pacific life and that too leaves us without any additional adventure. The last “gotcha” in the locks is when the fresh water mixes with the salt water. The fresh water ends up rushing across the surface of the lock and can often push a boat somewhere it ought not be and in contact with something that has no place in it touching. The fresh water rushing across the surface gives you the appearance of control when you actually have none. But as we had to cast off first we high tailed it out of the locks and out of the way of the much faster boats and had no issue with the mixing water. By about 4 pm we were out of the last lock. Taboga required approximately 2 hours travel and we needed to hand off the adviser, get rid of the fender balls and dock lines, after which with the Sun looking to kiss the horizon soon we choose to hang in Panama City.

Next up, the Bridge of the Americas, dropping off the adviser lines and fenders, and hopefully picking up a mooring at Balboa yacht club. After two pilot boats cruise by and leave the adviser looking worried that he would have to live with the 5 of us on the boat for the evening one finally showed up. Off he went.  We contacted Balboa YC for a mooring, $30 / night, and while I had heard they had some moorings available now there were none. Plan B, head to one of the two anchorages for the night. Jenny had one more day with us and so we would hang here, the girls would spend  a tourist day in town, Dirk and I would attack the head problem. Such fun we had to look forward too! BUT, we made it. Elysium is now in the Pacific and we continue on our journey to …..float west.

Go Slow
Sail Far
Stay Long

PS. This time there were just to many pictures to choose a few. If you prefer you might choose the pictoral essay.