Monday, May 7, 2007
Transiting The Canal...Modern Plumbing Marvels [or Triton Takes the Big Flush]
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As you may have seen, we've gone through the Canal without being crushed by any Panamax freighters, or smashed against the concrete walls by crazed tug boat drivers, or squashed between the lock doors. In fact, as major plumbing exercises go, it was pretty boring. At least for me - and I don't get out much. Everyone else seemed quite impressed with this part of the adventure, but fuck me if I could tell you why; its plumbing people! Same as what you got in your bathroom. Personally, I think you could simulate the entire experience, and save yourself thousands of dollars by following these few easy steps.
1) Buy a realistic model of your boat.
2) Remove the cover on the tank behind your toilet.
3) Place the boat in the water inside the tank.
4) Attach a thread to each corner of the plastic boat.
5) Attach each threads' other end to the four corners of the tank.
6) Ask several of your friends over.
7) Crowd around the toilet, throw several hundred dollars in the bowl, then flush.
8) Then fix or replace at least one expensive piece of equipment in your house.
You have now experienced a canal transit.
Honestly, that is all that really happened. We went into the lock, the doors closed, water flushed in - we went up. Other doors opened, repeat. Motored across a lake, then repeat in reverse. No big deal, no fire works, no magic. Just plumbing. Nothing to see here folks, move along.
AnnMarie, who had sailed with us from Aruba to Panama (who cooked amazing foods) just arrived yesterday, along with our friends Thorny (pictured on the right here, giving us his best come hither look), who will continue on with us to Costa Rica, and Erik & Qat, who will only go through the canal. Erik and Qat had sailed with us before, from Tortola, British Virgin Islands, down to Chaguaramas, Trinidad, where had put the boat up for the 2006 hurricane season. Since AnnMarie, Thorny, Erik and Qat's flights in were only 45 minutes apart, they arrived at the Shelter Bay marina almost at the same time.
Mota had left for the states the day before, and Blackie and Nicole couldn't swing the time (plus they already have indoor plumbing), so we ended up with six aboard, which was more than enough to get through the canal.
The canal itself consists of five locks. There are three on the Colon side, and then a long drive through the lake to the Atlantic side for the remaining two. Because we were going through "the wrong way" we were scheduled for a later departure, which meant we would spend the night on Gatun Lake, tied up to a mooring ball. We waited in an area just outside the canal entrance called "The Flats" for our "adviser" to arrive. This is a free anchorage, strategically located just down wind of the major garbage dump, where each day they burn any textiles, plastics or other carcinogenic materials that arrive. Most folks don't stay there any longer than they have to.
Our adviser came aboard via a special canal tug. If you've ever seen a pilot boat in SF Bay, they look a lot like that, but smaller. The pilots of these boats are pretty impressive, they can maneuver up close enough to let someone off and then back away before hitting your boat. Most times, anyway. Considering that the tugs are made of heavy steel and have enormous engines it is quite spectacular to watch them power up and away. They managed each time to avoid ripping my boat to shreds, for which I'm ever grateful.
Our first adviser was named Jorge. He normally worked as a tug boat captain but was moonlighting during a lull in business. He was very professional, knew a lot about the lock history, explained everything to the line handlers in excellent detail, and managed the process without breaking a sweat. It was clear he'd done this before and knew what he was doing. This was a great relief as we'd heard tales of other advisers that were less capable. He went to great pains to explain that he was an "adviser" and that he wasn't taking charge of the vessel, which meant that if we didn't feel comfortable with his suggestions, we were free to do whatever we wanted, but at our own peril. We followed his advise, as it was succinct, professional, obviously knowledgeable and, as best we could determine, absolutely correct.
We were assigned a "raft up" with another boat, which meant we would tie our boats together, but given that we were a catamaran and a few feet larger, only our vessel would work the dock lines. The other boat was a stout monohull originally out of England, headed for New Zealand called "Vadis". On board were the owners John and Gwenivive, and their adorable baby girl Skye. Gwen is at the tiller, John is up on the bow, as well as standing on the foredeck in the picture below. Helping them through the canal were Jacque, a Frenchman preparing to come through on his own cat, and Inga and [damn, can't remember his name!] another very charming couple sailing their monohull through later in the week; all three were working as line handlers on Vadis. It is a very common practice to go through the canal as a line handler for someone else while waiting for your turn to go through. Every boat that goes through the canal, even if they are rafted to another vessel, must still have four line handlers (you must hire folks if you can't supply them), and must have a helmsman and be running their engines continuously when in the locks. Rafting up went smoothly, and when we motored through the canal locks together it might have been the fastest their boat has ever gone under power.
When you first enter the locks there are two workers on each side of the lock with long lines that end in a "monkey fist". A monkey fist is an old sailing term for a large, heavy, rope knot designed for throwing, especially at solar panels or any other fragile equipment. Each workman whirls the monkey fist around at the end of the rope and aims it at anything on your vessel that appears vulnerable.
The line handlers (there must be at least four) then scramble around grabbing the lines and tie their ropes to them, which are pulled back by the workman. They then walk along with the boat until it enters a lock, and place the end of your rope onto a bollard, which is a giant cleat of sorts.
They then close the lock doors and pump in several million gallons of water. Any thoughts you might have about feeling bad about water conservation should be left at the canal entrance. In just one trip through the canal, our vessel flushed more fresh water into the sea than all the water ever consumed by everyone at all the Burning Man events that have ever been, or will ever be. It is just inconceivable how much water goes through this canal. An entire rain forest's output was diverted to make this thing possible. Whatever your opinion about the ecological appropriateness of it, it is a staggering number.
When we approached the canal it was still daylight, but by the time we reached the entrance proper it was past sundown and coming up to the first gates was a bit intimidating in the dark. It was definitely a good thing we had an adviser with us, I would have not wanted to guess my way through this thing. The canal walls are old, scared concrete and there are a thousand ways to smash up your boat. I spent a lot of time watching where the workmen were, making sure my boat speed matched their stride. It was harder than it looked, and the currents in the canal are quite strong. At one point we went through a patch were the water was coming at us at four knots. It is amazing how much water they force through the canal.
As the canal doors close, you can't help but think of that seen in Star Wars were Luke, Hans and Chewbacca are trapped in the garbage compactor. It has that feel to it. The doors are iron, and designed to float. In fact, we saw a bizarre seen while waiting in the flats; two giant tugs went by, with a new lock door floating between them. It can only be described as surreal.
We made it through the Colon side without much fanfare, then anchored off a mooring ball in the lake. Our sister ship untied and hooked up to the other ball right next to us. We could hear the monkeys howling in the lake and see crocodiles swimming about. We invited everyone over to our boat, had a great party, told sailing tales and played music and eventually convinced AnnMarie to sing for everyone. It was a wonderful night. John dove in and swam back to his boat, although everyone else dinghy'ed back. Qat went for a swim as well.
Way too early the next morning another adviser came by and took us the rest of the way through. He seemed genuinely shocked when Qat, with a big smile on her face, explained that she went swimming with the crocks at night. He didn't seem to think this was a wise idea. She explained her safety third policy and smiled even bigger. He looked over at me and I smiled. No harm, no foul - plus we had extra line handlers, so if we lost her to a crock it wouldn't have slowed us down.
The last two locks were more of the same, although in reverse. You enter the locks full of water, then they let it all out. It was all pretty routine and then we motored out through the canal entrance, under the Bridge of the Americas while Jeff and AnnMarie took turns playing saxophone, and on to the anchorage at Marina Punta Culebra.
We've been here for a few days now, and have seen AnnMarie, Erik & Qat off. We're waiting for Holly Turner to arrive, and possibly Eric Drake to join us, and then it's on to Golfito. Our plan is to find a place to keep the boat safe for a few months while we plan our next step. Most likely we will take the (non-intuitively easier) sail to Hawaii, then British Columbia, and then back to S.F., as opposed to bashing up the coast, which is not a fun way to go. I've done the latter route once before, and it was the worst experience of my life. Going the long way turns out to be a lot easier on the boat and especially its occupants.
So, our heroes remain safe and sound, the trusty stead continues to float and as of yet we have lost no crew members to pirate attacks, horny delivery skippers, storms or over zealous customs/immigration agents. I'm sorry to have so little exciting news to report, but I trust you all will more than make up for it with crazy antics ashore. Please take lots of photos and keep us informed.
Hoping this finds you all in fine spirits,
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