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?????


  1. Yikes! Glad Knee Deep (and you all) emerged unscathed. Welcome to the Caribbean Sea! I don't know what your itineray is for heading north, but do stop at Isla Providencia on your way if you can. It is pretty and you can rent small motorbikes and circumnavigate the island with the boys. All the best, Michael

  2. Wow, what a hair-raising experience! Glad all is well!

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