February 19, 2001
Panama, Central America

Pacific Bliss Transits “the Big Ditch”
By Lois Joy       

The alarm went off well before dawn. I splashed cold water on my face, and took a quick sponge bath, using a pint or so of water in our bathroom sink. Richard already had the coffee on. This would be our big day; the day Pacific Bliss would finally see the Pacific, her ocean! A Canal Pilot was scheduled to board at 5:15 AM.

We picked up our Panamanian line handlers, NG and Alfonso, at the Panama Canal Yacht Club (PCYC) last night, bringing them back in our dinghy to “the Flats” where we were anchored to spend the night on Pacific Bliss. Drinking coffee, our expanded crew of six readied the boat to leave, hoping that the anchor would pull up easily. It had held firm in the muddy flats, with all the wind and swell, since we had arrived there on February 14th. Cruisers always find something to worry about!

Our pilot arrived promptly, jumping agilely from the PCC launch that delivered him. Pacific Bliss was well protected with fenders, but the launch never even touched our boat. The anchor routine went well, thank God, and we were soon motoring to the entrance to the Gatun locks, our pilot directing Gunter at the helm. By 6:00 AM, we were at the Canal awaiting further instructions.

Our PCC pilot directs Captain Gunter to the locks.

Two monohulls, Mallory, flying a French flag and Iwalani, flying a nautical version of the Stars and Stripes, joined us before the locks. We would be “nesting,” through the locks, our pilot explained. There are four possible methods of going through the locks in a sailboat: (1) nesting, (2) center chamber, (3) side tie (against the sidewall), and (4) alongside a PCC tug. When the PCC Admeasurer visited Pacific Bliss a few days ago to measure the boat and process our papers, he had explained these approaches to us and had checked the ones we were willing to use. The more options we allowed, the higher would be the odds of going through quickly. We had approved all approaches except for the sidewall tie, which has reportedly damaged quite a number of small vessels.

Nesting is rafting two or three boats together so that they go through the locks as a unit. When three are nested, the yacht with the best ability to maneuver the group will be in the center. Pacific Bliss, with its two engines, and a Pilot on board, rather than an Advisor, was chosen for the center.

Being the most senior person, our Pilot was clearly in command. He projected a calm demeanor gained from 20 years of experience and Grade A status as he carefully directed all three captains and the two PCC Advisors through a well-coordinated rafting procedure. We quickly nested, bow lines, stern lines and spring lines in place. Pacific Bliss had eight fenders out as well as five tires, which we had wrapped with sturdy garbage bags secured with shipping tape. The Pilot instructed all three captains to keep their engines running. We followed Danae, a Panama cruise ship, into the first set of locks. She was secured in the locks by mules, locomotives attached by cables that bring the ship along. The cables from the ship to the mules exert a pull of up to 40,000 pounds each. They do occasionally break. Danae left a swirling wake behind her as Gunter was instructed to motor forward behind her.

Pacific Bliss enters Gatun locks at dawn.

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