Saturday, March 16, 2013

How NOT to transit the Panama Canal......

My wife Molly and I, along with our 2 boys spent the better part of 2 months in Panama getting ready to transit the canal. We invited my mom Sally Doolittle and Molly’s dad Jerry to join us. Rounding out our crew was Michael Bell of Epiphany.   Molly asked me about my previous experience in the canal more than once. “No worries…easy….just pay attention and we will be fine…” were my standard responses. I had gone through a couple of times, including driving my Ericson 29 through many years ago. Despite being lighter than our current boat and woefully underpowered by an old Atomic 4, I had no problems. I expected this passage would be the same. I will try to explain the events of the next two days with as much neutrality as possible…..I am still a bit angry about our passage…..and I apologize ahead of time for the complete lack of humor!!

We left the Playalita anchorage at 7:30 am and waited an hour or two at channel marker 4 for our advisor. About 10 am Edwin joined us. He was very cordial and professional, and proved to be a great help. He had me head into the Canal Zone and we were off.

Things change rapidly in the canal as many boats are being moved at the same time. Plan 1 was a side tie to a tug, then we were going to side tie to a ferry. At the last minute it was determined that we would side tie to Joyeaux, our friends’ Waquiez 39…..a boat very similar to ours, only a bit heavier. They would side tie to a tourist ferry that would in turn port side tie to the lock walls.

The locks are like a big shoe box. In front of us as we entered was a big tug pushing a heavy barge. They were side tied to the left side of the lock therefore they were port tied. Behind them on the left side also was the ferry, about 100 feet overall, also tied to the left wall. Tied alongside them was Joyeaux, and we were the third boat in the raft up.. .

Once everyone was secured, about 10 to 15 minutes, water began to flood the chamber and we began to rise slowly. Once we were at the highest level we would achieve in this lock the doors slowly opened in front of us and the big tug moved out. At about the exact same time, the big ferry began to turn to the right….someone on the lock wall had released their bow line, and the prop wash from the tug was pushing their bow into the center of the lock. That meant that our boat was getting pushed rapidly towards the far right wall, and if we hit the weight of Joyeuax and the tug would crush us. I found myself screaming to the bowman on Joyeaux to release our bow line ( I was in the back of the boat and we had released our stern line already). We were able to get free of the big out of control raft up and back out of the developing mess just in time. Joyeaux was second in line to approach the right hand wall and they did in fact hit it w/ their bow. (Damage was not too extensive fortunately). They got free of the tug finally and the two of us were sent spinning out of control into the back of the lock from the tugs prop wash. Only in hindsight did I realize that we did 2 full 360’s before finally getting the boat stabilized….facing the wrong direction in the very back of the lock. It took FULL RPM’s and steering from full to port to full starboard to get things under control. See picture of track 1...Not Pretty!!

I backed us up the lock in reverse, trying to create enough room to attempt a 3 point turn. As we came around, Joyeaux was finally under control themselves and motoring up towards us. We were both a little shaken and as I was hard over to starboard I yelled at Rob to slow down or we would hit each other. He slowed and allowed me the room to straighten myself out and we both approached the next lock…..Good times!!

Lock 2 had the same arrangement, accept there was now a large ship behind us as well as the tug in front. As we had peeled off to the right so drastically in the first lock, I explained to my crew and our advisor that I wanted to release the stern line first, then power ahead as the bow line came free. Unfortunately, this time, the prop wash from the tug kicked our STERN out into the center of the lock and we quickly ended up at a 90 degree angle facing directly at Joyeaux and the ferry. I couldn’t power ahead, and to reverse meant risking entangling my anchor w/ Joyeaux’s. The best course of action was to do NOTHING for a moment and watch what the boat wanted to do on its own. Sure enough it floated clear of Joyeaux’s bow and I was able to reverse away from the mess a second time. Another 360 and we were back in the game headed for the next lock. See track 2.

 It was here that something interesting happened. As we made our way through Galliard Cut, a short waterway between lock 2 and 3, our advisor was keeping me abreast of the situation w/ the prop wash creating tug ahead of us. The tug was trying to get into the next lock ahead of us before he had clearance. He was told to stand down and wait but he rushed into the lock anyway. Canal control told him to back out (a lengthy process) and wait for oncoming traffic to clear. He threatened a formal complaint, was told to file his complaint, but get the heck out of the lock he didn’t belong in. This tug driver was in a HUGE hurry, which explained the MASSIVE amount of prop wash he was creating every time he left the lock in front of us.

Because of the dangerous situation in the 1st 2 locks, the ferry and our 2 sailboats were allowed to side tie AHEAD of the tug in the 3rd lock. Not surprisingly, we left that lock without incidence. See track 3...THAT'S how you transit a lock!!
As we motored towards Lake Gatun, the tug tried 3 times to overtake us, nearly running head on into oncoming traffic each time. Just as his 3rd attempt failed, he peeled off to the left to his destination at the edge of the canal. (He was the jerk that passes you on a 2 lane road, then slams on his brakes an turns into a driveway the second he gets around you.)

We had an uneventful trip through Lake Gatun and rafted up to the “cheese ball” for the night (a huge mooring buoy).

The next day started out uneventfully with new advisor around 2 pm. We were side tied to a ferry on the right side of the lock this time. Behind us was “the oldest tug in the Canal” with a student driver. Behind them was a huge ship. We left the 1st lock without incidence, but because the tug’s student driver had a hard time holding station (standing still) the canal control put them in front of us for lock 2. Sure enough, as they left, again throwing MASSIVE prop wash at us, our advisor told me to BACK slowly away from the ferry we were tied to so that they could move ahead and tie up first. We don’t back well, especially in turbulence, and as I backed away, our boat twisted to the right, and our bow was caught in the prop wash of the ferry as it blazed ahead. I was so pissed that I pulled up next to the ferry in the final lock, tied up, calmly climbed up on our coach roof to get as close to their pilot as I possibly could, looked at him in the eye, and belted out, “WHAT THE FUCK!!!”   Understandably, the pilot (part of the elite class of mariner’s that effectively run the canal) took umbrage to my display. He backed me down w/ “There is no need for that language, we have guests on board…yada yada yada…” I came back with, “this is my home and that is the 3rd lock out of 5 where you guys have put my family in danger!!!”

Needless to say, he wasn’t really listening to me and God knows I wasn’t listening to him. My advisor tried to calm me down, but I was furious. However, seeing that I was only going to get myself arrested, and knowing we were close to the end, I waited until he finished a sentence then I cut in, “ CAN WE GO SLOW NEXT TIME!!!!” I demanded. He agreed w/out hesitation that that would not be a problem and I turned my back and went to the cockpit where I belonged.

Well, sure as hell, when the lock doors opened and the  tug went blasting off in front of us as it had before churning up tons of prop wash, I turned around and the line handler on the ferry had already dropped our stern line in the water. We were again spinning in a churning cauldron w/ no control. Now it was Molly’s turn to be vehemently pissed. Full ahead, full astern, wheel from peg to peg and finally we were under control again.

I have my 50 ton Master’s License w/ sailing endorsement…I have been driving small boats for more than 30 years…..and I have NEVER been out of control of a vessel like that EVER!!

I read a lot of sailing stories and must admit that I am as guilty as the next guy of giving into the temptation to “armchair quarterback” the stories I read. I guess there is poetic justice as I have no doubt that if I read this, I would be saying to myself, “No way, I could have handled that better!!” Karma is a bitch……!

Our advisor on the first day has been taking hand line boats such as ours through the canal for 5 years, averaging 50 plus trips a year. He admitted that he had never had a day like he had with us.

Today, Risk Taker, an identical Catalina 38 showed up having just come through the canal. They had heard about our transit and were very clear with their advisor that, based on our experience, they were nervous about the passage. They were told by their advisor that he had heard about us and our passage, and that he would absolutely make sure they had a smooth transit. And they did.  But I guess they are talking about us in the Canal Advisor’s lunch room!!

It must be said that the crew of Knee Deep handled this entire passage with grace and class.....accept the captain of course! I can't thank my family who joined us enough....and Michael saved our bacon more than once on the bow!! 

Speaking of Michael, he wrote up his version of our passage here:

Finally, he also decided to "get back on the horse" and transit again a few days later. He took the picture you see below....any guess what ferry that might be and what they are doing wrong?????

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Transiting the Panama Canal...Floating Frat House Style!

Current Locaion:  Shelter Bay Marina (outside Colon, Panama).

Please excuse the editing errors in this blog entry. I'm tired and don't have the energy to revise.

99% of the our friends and people who have transited the Canal described their passages with words like “boring, “easy” and the one that gave me most comfort, “not a big deal at all!!!”. Unfortunately, none of us aboard Knee Deep will be able to use these terms to illustrate our voyage through the Panama Canal.
Perhaps my complaining and moaning about Panama was destined to come back and bite me in the butt or maybe the local ferry and barge drivers have fun messing with sailboats.  In either case, I can state with complete certainty that our Canal transit was “eventful”, “difficult”, “stressful” and as life experiences go, “a very big deal!!”
Maybe the following conversations should have been a warning about the way the Canal is currently run, but I was completely oblivious that it was foreshadowing for our experience to come.
The day before our transit we called the scheduling office as instructed.  This is the conversation I had, word for word, with an official of the Canal Authority:

Molly: Hello, we are scheduled to go through the Canal tomorrow. What time should we be ready to pick up our advisor?

Panama Canal Official: Well, let’s see. Uh, what it your vessels name?

Molly: Knee Deep

Panama Canal Official: Well, I guess you’ll be coming from Cristobal then? (the other side of the Canal)

Molly: Uh, no. We are coming from Panama City.

Panama Canal Official: Oh. Huh, well, um, hmmmm… about 8:30 a.m?

Molly: Ok (rattled by the casual tone and uncertainty in his voice, she paused a bit and decided to ask again). So we are to be ready at 8:30 a.m. for the arrival of our advisor?

Panama Canal Official: Yes.

Molly: Thank you. So that is 8:30 a.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, March 6th?

Panama Canal Official: Yes.

Molly: Should we call in the morning to confirm this?

Panama Canal Official: Uh, well, hmmm, that sounds like a good idea.

Molly: Ok

Having spent the last two months in this country, I was well versed in how things go. It was a good idea to call and confirm the date and time. So a few hours later, I asked Ben to call again.


Ben: Hi, I’m calling to confirm the arrival time of our advisor for the transit through the Canal tomorrow.

Panama Canal Official: Ok. What is the name of your vessel?

Ben: Knee Deep

Panama Canal Official: Let’s see, how about 8:00 a.m. Yeah, 8:00 o’clock.

Ben: Ok. We are in the La Playita anchorage, should we wait for him here?

Panama Canal Official: Sure.

Ben: Thank you.

Now, I’m no stickler for formalities, but the above conversations seemed a bit too casual for me. It was like they allowed stoner surfer dude, Spicoli from Fast Times At Ridgemont High to answer their phones that day.

At this point I was completely sure that the actual guy I needed to talk to had stepped away from his desk to go pee and asked his buddy to pick up the phone in case it rang. So I called back later that night around 11:00 pm.


Molly: Hello, I’m calling to confirm arrival time of our advisor tomorrow for tour transit through the Canal.

Panama Canal Official: What is the name of your vessel?

Molly: Knee Deep

Panama Canal Official: Ok. Let me check on that, please.

Molly: Thank you. (it appeared she had reached someone a bit more “official”. Perhaps the nightshift took their jobs more seriously)

Panama Canal Official: Yes, please proceed to Buoy 2 outside the channel at 7:30 a.m. Your advisor will be brought to your boat by 8:00 a.m.

Molly: Thank you very much.

I will be the first to admit; as the time approached I was starting to worry a bit and was just ready to get it all over with.  As alarms were set and coffee prepared, we slept through the night with visions of a peaceful transit dancing in our heads. So at 7:30 a.m. with our crew aboard, we hoisted our anchor and motored a quarter of a mile out to the channel marker Number 2.  

The cast of characters in this drama are as follows:

Captain: Ben

First Mate: Molly

Our permanent crew: Mickey and J.P.

Hired hands (well, they were free and also agreed to the horrendous working conditions): Michael, our single handing sailor friend aboard Epiphany, my dad (Jerry), and Ben’s mom (Sally).

Apparently the only requirement for line handling is to be over the age of twelve and have the ability to tie a bowline knot.  My dad and mother-in-law met the Canal Authority’s requirements and also ours….they were willing to pay for their trip down here, were flexible with dates and willing to live aboard a small sailboat for two days.

The crew for Knee Deep's Panama Canal transit.  Complete with uniforms!!

Once we reached Buoy #2, we radioed the Canal traffic tower to inform them we were ready and in position to receive our Canal advisor. The official confirmed that he saw us and we were told to hold our position and wait. We were soon joined by our acquaintances and fellow sailors Joyeaux who were also transiting that day.

At 9:30 a.m. a boat approached and dropped off our advisor, Edwin. And so the adventure began. If you would like to hear a story of peaceful and calm events, you may not want to read on. This is not a story of happy sailors, or people who are confident in the abilities of people employed by or running the Panama Canal. It is quite to opposite….there also may be foul language involved.

We greeted Edwin with high hopes of a “tranquillo” transit and we began motoring up the channel towards the first lock. Let me reiterate as I said in my last blog post, that our small boats are used as filler in the locks, often tied up to tugboats and put in with large tankers or cruise ships. So we were not surprised when informed we would be side tied to a ferry with our fellow sailboat Joyouex. This is called a “nesting” situation. We were placed in the back of the lock behind an enormous barge.

As we motored into the first lock, the ferry full of tourists tied up to the side wall.  Joyeaux then threw their lines to the ferry crew and then we proceeded to tie up alongside Joyeaux. We were informed by our advisor that the plan was to untie from each other, proceed to the next lock and then tie up again in the same formation. At this point, I turned to someone and said, “You know, I think I changed my mind.  This is kinda like being pregnant; it seemed like a good idea at the time, but when it comes down to the day to actually having the baby, not such a good idea”.

All was well and went smoothly with the lock filling with water.  After about 10 minutes, the lock doors opened and we awaited our advisors o.k. to untie from each other.  The ferry driver had confirmed with our advisor that he would blow his horn as a signal for us to start untying. 

Unfortunately, there was no horn blowing.  The ferry inexplicably took off like a bat out of hell with both of us sailboats tied alongside it. As we scrambled to get untied, all hopes of heading straight into the next lock were lost. Our bow peeled off and was pushed over by the prop wash (causing an extremely strong current) of the ferry and the huge barge ahead of us.  As a result, we were now doing 3-60’s towards the back of the lock and unfortunately, so was the other sailboat, Joyeaux. As Ben explained it, “It’s like we were little bath toys being pushed around in the bathtub”.

The next few minutes were spent trying to get control of our boat, fending off the side walls of the lock and avoiding collision with our fellow sailboat that was also turning circles in the lock. I watched as their bow crashed into the wall, cringing at the sound of the loud, “Crunch!!”. Amazingly their anchor took the brunt of the hit and no damage sustained. At one point I remember looking up at the ferry during the chaos to see smiling tourists snapping pictures of the scene, completely oblivious to the danger we were in. I was a bit envious and someday I’m sure I will find this amusing, but not today and probably not tomorrow.

It is during these moments of cruising that I wish I was Dorothy from Wizard of Oz. To get out of a bad situation I just want to click my heels and say, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home!!”Unfortunately, this never works and I was now forced to stay aboard and proceed to the second lock.

As we motored ahead, our advisor, Edwin communicated on the radio with the ferry driver and other advisors, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. There was no clear explanation and I was shocked at lack of clear communication with each other.  It was apparent that Edwin (our advisor) was frustrated and worked diligently to get answers. Although we still do not have a clear explanation of why it happened, it appears the Canal workers at the top of the lock walls untied the ferry too early. This would explain his taking off without warning, but this was never confirmed or denied.

Approaching the Bridge of Americas. The first lock is 5 miles beyone this point.

Container ship passing us in the channel on the way to the first set oflocks.

Tugboats assist the enormous ships through the Canal.

The green and orange arrow that signals which lock is o.k. to enter.

Tying up to the ferry with Edwin, our first day advisor.  Ben is smiling still, so we must still be in the first lock.

Mickey watching the water fill up our lock.

Lock doors behind us. The boys were troopers during the transit. They spent most of the time down below to avoid the

I have to say, just writing this is blog exhausting and stressful, so from here I’ll give you some highlights. Ben plans to write a blog with all the technical details.

Unfortunately, we now had to proceed to the second lock in the same formation.  The ferry waited for us to untie this time, but the prop wash from barge in front of us was too strong.  We later learned that he was in huge hurry and was gunning his engine to get through quickly.  He actually tired to jam his way into the third lock without permission and threatened to file a complaint.  Here’s the kicker…..the barge was a Panama Canal working boat.  Unbelievable!

Another interesting observation was that the advisors we encountered seem to think our sailboats maneuvered like power boats and had no idea of our abilities.  So as we untied from the ferry and Ben drove the engine as hard as he could, we peeled off and we were doing 3-60’s again down to the back wall of the lock. Edwin, our advisor yelled to give it more power with Ben staring at him in disbelief and yelling, “What do you think I’m doing?  This is all I’ve got!”  Our boat was just too light to handle the current the barge was putting out with his prop wash.

Understanding that we were completely overpowered by the current, Edwin requested that they put the barge behind us in the third lock.  Because of this, we were able to maneuver out of the lock without any problems. So we began our motor through the Gaillard Cut and across Lake Gatun, where we would spend the night.  As we decompressed from the drama, we asked our advisor if this is a typical day for him.  He replied laughing, “No!  I’ve been doing this five years and this is the most exciting one ever!”

Lucky us!

On Lake Gatun, there are enormous mooring balls, nicknamed “cheese balls” where we tied up for the evening.  A pilot boat came to pick up our advisors and we said good-bye to Edwin, thanking him for his assistance.  A new advisor would be dropped off the next day for our descent down the final three locks.

I’ll let Ben describe the second day in detail, but here are some highlights:

·         Around 1:30 p.m., a pilot boat arrived delivering us our new advisor, Francisco. 

·         We proceeded to the locks, Francisco instructs us to tie up to the concrete wall bow first to await entry to first lock.

·         Ben refuses, saying that we need to tie up both stern and bowline…another example of advisors not knowing sailboats.

·         Panama worker slowly walks up to take our lines, the other worker who was supposed to take our stern line, stops and walks away to take a phone call.  Leaving Michael and I to hold onto the concrete wall while the other sloth-like worker meandered around, slowly securing lines.

·         We are informed we will be tying up to a ferry again…crew aboard Knee Deep not happy.

·         Tie up to another tourist ferry (only us this time).  An enormous container ship is behind us.

·         First lock no problem.  We are ecstatic

·         Second lock, we untie from ferry, he jams his engine in forward creating a huge rooster tail in the lock. We are pushed around again like a bath toy.

·         Our advisor, Francisco, tells Ben to put boat in reverse (completely wrong advice…sailboats don’t maneuver well in reverse).

·         Proceed into third lock, Ben calls out ferry driver and asks him, “What the f---- he was doing?”

·          Ferry driver not amused, neither is the Panama Canal advisor on board. Captain Ben does not seem to care.

·         We ask our useless advisor, Francisco who has said nothing so far to request the ferry to give it less power.

·         Francisco says he can’t do anything and says we have to go faster. Not possible since we are gunning our engine as hard as we can.

·         Officials now have assigned the huge tugboat with a student driver on board to go in front of us.

·         We are baffled by this decision since they just saw us battle the prop wash from ferry.  There will be more current.

·         We ask Francisco, if we can tie to tug instead. He says no.

·         We ask Francisco if we can wait a minute to let the tug prop wash subside before proceeding out of the lock. He says no and tells us to follow directly behind the tugboat.

·          After more convincing, Francisco actually used his radio and asks if the line handlers aboard the ferry wait to untie us so we can get some distance from tugboat. The request is granted.

·         Third lock doors open. Tugboat is untying in front of us.

·         Molly looks back at stern line. Ferry line handler has united us without permission from his advisor and the stern of our boat is now floating into middle of lock, going perpendicular to ferry, while our bowline is still tied to ferry.

·         Swearing at ferry line handler ensues.  We get bowline untied, Ben somehow straightens boat out and we bolt out of third lock.
Welcome to the Caribbean.  I should have taken the train!

Fireboat spraying water as we exited the third lock on Day #1.

The dreaded ferry we tied up to on Day 1.  If we had cannons we would have put one across his bow just for fun!

The barge they finally put behind us to avoid the prop wash. This guys was in a huge hurry!!

Beginning of the lock filling with water. The water fills from the bottom creating round pools of water that looked like bubbling lava.

Lock halfway full.

We are nearing the top of the lock....ugh, now it's time to exit.

Rock star, Mickey in the Gallaird Cut.

After it was all over, I approached our advisor and had this conversation with him:

Molly: Was that a canal employee who released the stern line with out permission on the ferry?

Francisco: No

Molly:  He should be fired. He just put many lives at risk.

Francisco:  (with a half smile on his face and shrugging): It’s not my fault. He is the one who did it.

Molly:  Any way you can inform the Canal Authority that the ferry company is employing line handlers that don’t know what they are doing?
Francisco:  No
Molly uses great restraint, walking away mumbling and cursing under her breath.

From this experience we have learned several lessons: 

  1. We are the captains of our boat. Advisors are only there to “advise”.  
  2. They do not understand the capabilities of a sailboat. Fight for our position, do not be passive and assume they know what to do with our boat.
  3. They do not particularly care if we are damaged or not. We signed our life away.
  4. Panama culture is at work. Know this and be your own advocate.
  5. Have calm and grounded crew who did not freak out in times of complete chaos aboard to assist in clutch situations (all of our crew was great). If you can, have experienced crew aboard that have sailed on boats before.
  6. There is a definite hierarchy involved in the Panama Canal, know that advisors are outranked by pilots and will avoid any confrontation with them to preserve their jobs. To quote our first day advisor, Edwin, “they are untouchable”.

As we drove away from Canal, beers were deployed to all the crew to calm our trembling hands.  Francisco never entered our cockpit again and chose to stay on the foredeck.  The only person who spoke to him again was my kind and forgiving father, who went up to talk with him.

At one point Ben pointed out that we didn’t know where we should drop off our advisor, Francisco.

Ben: Where are we supposed to drop this guy off?

Molly: I think we are supposed to throw him overboard, maybe throw him life ring and the efficient and organized Canal Authority will eventually pick him up. (Not really at all kidding and tempted to carry out her plan).

Ben: Chuckle, chuckle. Should we bring him to the marina where we are going?

Molly: Do you want me to go ask him?

Ben, Michael and Sally (simultaneously): NOOOO!!

Michael: I think it would be better if I go ask him.

Molly: I’m not really going to throw him overboard, you know.

Michael: Yeah, but I don’t think we want you asking him, “Where in the he## do we drop you a## off?”

Molly: Good point.

Here is where I apologized to all of the crew for letting my anger get the best of me and I began to calm down a bit.

Michael replied, “That’s o.k.  You’re Irish.  They should know better than to mess with an Irish woman’s home.”

Well said, my friend!

So we didn’t throw Francisco, the useless Panamanian Canal advisor overboard, we just let him silently board the pilot boat that came along side of us. With a sigh of good riddance and relief that the ordeal was finally over, we opened our beers and headed for Shelter Bay Marina.

Not the experience I was looking for, but like all things in life, they happen for a reason. It’s just too early for me to tell you what knowledge I have gained.  I’m still brewing with anger over the complete disregard for the safety of small vessels and the fact they put my family and friends at risk.

Mickey actually found me staring at the wall with my mouth hanging wide open on our way to the marina and asked, “Are you o.k.? Are you going to burp or something?”

I replied, “No, but I think I may have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”

Until that dissipates, I won’t be able to completely articulate what was learned by this experience, other than our boat is in the Caribbean and I am that much closer to exiting this country I have chosen to reside in for the past few months.

And that’s the thing that keeps me from going totally berserk…I’m a visitor here, trying to navigate through a culture I have struggled to understand and to be completely honest, dislike very much. Ben and I agree we will not be returning anytime soon.  I can whine and moan about things like the Canal operation to the shenanigans of government officials, but in the end, I chose to be here. And now I can choose to leave….that’s the beauty of living on a sailboat. Catch some wind and you are on your way again!!!

To read about another account of the trip by our friend Michael (our line handler that saved our butt many times that day), go to 



Ben doing some tightrope walking on Lake Gatun.

Papa on the giant Cheese Ball on Lake Gatun.

Day #2.  Gatun Locks opening.

The enormous containter ship behind us in the lock on Day #2

One of our 3-60's we did in the recorded by our chart plotter.

I have no idea what he is smiling about!! The InvincebleCaptain Ben was awesome!