Day Two of our trip through the Panama Canal began in the lake in the middle where we spent the night and ended with us sailing off into the Pacific Ocean. Sort of. There were two Locks to go through: Pedro Miguel and Miraflores. At Miraflores we would be the show as that lock has a museum and observation floors. Of course, this is when things started to go wrong.
Captain Andreas was told the pilot would arrive between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning. On his previous trip through the canal, the pilot showed up promptly at 5:30. So the morning came early, especially for the guys, whom stayed up partying until 1:30 in the morning. Andreas was feeling a bit rough and said he may need people to take turns at the helm today. It was going to be a long day of motoring. Note: Make sure to fill the diesel tank before going through the canal. We were all up no later than 7:00, but no pilot. 8:00… 9:00… Still no pilot. Sometime before 10:00 two of the pilots appeared, but we were four boats rafted together. I’m not sure when the other two pilots appeared, but the delay gave our captain and male crew time to recover.
We were rafted to the German boat for the night.
And moored on the other side. Kulfi and the boat that arrived in the night were rafted on the other side of the mooring.
Our pilot tied us and Kulfi onto the mooring. I’m sure he’d done it before, but it didn’t look like it. At least we held.
The moorings were huge, better suited for cargo ships.
We proceeded across the lake in-between the locks, going about the same speed as this cruise ship. Our pilot said this ship was going through the locks with us. That should be interesting.
The lake in the middle is Gatun Lake and it was created between 1907 and 1913 by the building of the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River. At the time it was created, Gatun Lake was the largest man-made lake in the world. Gatun Dam was also the largest of its kind. Gatun Lake has an area of 425 km2 (164 sq mi) at its normal level of 26 m (85 ft) above sea level, thus the need to go up in the Gatun Locks from the Caribbean and back down in the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks to the Pacific. The pathway across Gatun Lake extending up the Chagres River, makes up 32.7 km (20.3 mi) of the raised part of the waterway, the other part being the 12.6 km (7.83 mi) Culebra Cut (from Gatun to Pedro Miguel Lock). A small “shortcut” channel, the “Banana Cut”, runs between the islands, providing a slightly shorter route through the lake; this is used by canal launches and yachts to cut a little time off the crossing, and to avoid the heavy ship traffic.
Twenty-eight miles or a little less takes awhile when traveling 6 knots. With 4-5 hours to kill doing nothing under a competent captain, it’s no wonder our very casually dressed pilot fell asleep or slipped into a deep meditative state. He did look around every now and then.
When Maggie wasn’t cooking us all delicious food — and we certainly didn’t go hungry — she had time to relax and enjoy the long trip to Pedro Miguel Lock. By the way, you are expected to feed the pilot.
Looking on a map, the lake doesn’t look so big, but we traveled 28 miles across the narrower direction. The lake is much wider and looks immense from the boat. The surrounding jungle is gorgeous and we could hear howler monkeys and different bird calls during the day. We heard frogs, insects, and who knows what during the night.
Our pilot said this building was the Smithsonian. Here’s what I found: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama was founded in 1923 as the Barro Colorado Island Laboratory to study tropical biology. In 1946, it was placed under Smithsonian aegis as the Canal Zone Biological Area. Although still based in Panama, today its researchers study biodiversity and human culture throughout the tropics. Sounds like a place I’d like to work!
First we saw huge pipes following along the channel. At times the roaring sound was so loud we could hardly hear each other. We figured it must be water rushing through the pipes, but we didn’t know what for. This must be the pump station, as the pipes led to here.
We confirmed it was water by seeing a huge leak spraying water everywhere at a faulty joint. Here’s what I found on that: The Pacific Ocean is a little higher than the Atlantic, thereby compelling ships to get up over the terrain of Panama, which is higher in the middle of the country. There are a total of 12 sets of locks in the Panama Water Lock System, among which only six massive pairs of locks are used by ships for transiting. Each of these water locks are 1,000 feet long and 110 feet wide and is to be filled or emptied in less than 10 minutes. Each pair of lock gates takes two minutes to open.
Water flows from artificial lakes through 18 feet wide culverts and is not allowed to be pumped into and out of the locks. (Now I’m confused.) The valve of the first chamber opens and water flows by force of gravity from the higher chamber to the lowest one, bringing the water level to the sea level. In other words, the locks are gravity fed, which doesn’t at all explain the use of the pump station and the pipes. Sorry, I tried.
The GoPro was set for time lapse photography and they ended up with over 1,000 photos. We all picture shared and I will post a selection of Jason and Brita’s and Andreas and Maggie’s photos and videos soon following this blog. It won’t be a blog, just a slideshow or something.
The little red building said “Explosive” on the side, but otherwise it looked like another pump station.
The channel markers seemed to go on forever. They are nice, because it is hard to get lost, but we were ready to get on with it.
I think the pilot slept through the changing of the guard. Haha.
It was like he never left, but where’d the Panama hat come from. Haha.
Finally, well into the afternoon, we reached the Pedro Miguel Lock and the linemen tossed us their lines to tie onto our lines.
Brita (behind Maggie) took control of the stern line.
We were all much more relaxed about our duties now.
The plans changed and the cruise ship didn’t come across Gatun Lake. We don’t know what happened, but that meant that there were only four sailboats going through the locks together. Therefore, we rafted up two and two. Stella Polaris and Kulfi were nearly identical in size and the other two were much smaller, so we rafted up by size. We were all good with that. With the locks being 1,000 feet long and all our sailboats tied end to end would be shorter than 200 feet, there was plenty of room to spare.
I had to zoom way in to see them back there! We still had the turbulence from the rising water, which I reiterate is a nonevent if you keep control of the lines. Now we wouldn’t get blasted from a ship.
This time we came in high and the water dropped 31 feet before the double set of doors opened. We couldn’t see them before because of the big ship in front of us.
Chamber doors open, we could proceed to the next chamber.
Pedro Miguel Lock only has one chamber, then we exited into a smaller lake.
This lake was the Miraflores Lake, which led to the final locks also called Miraflores. The passage from lock to lock was about 8 miles (13 km).
We were all excited to see the Miraflores Locks, our final obstacle before entering the Pacific!
With only four small sailboats going through, the train operators had a break.
We had a long way to get to the front of the chamber.
Welcome to Miraflores where you ARE the show. This lock is a huge tourist attraction with a museum and multiple observation levels. While in Panama, I do recommend visiting the museum. It was very interesting to learn about France’s first attempt at building the canal. It failed for many reasons, not the least of which was disease. Then there was the political fiasco between the US and Panama when Panamanian residents decided the canal should be turned over completely to Panama. My favorite floor was the second, which focused on the biology of the area.
This building was central in view from the observation decks and looked smaller from inside the canal.
All tied on and waiting for the water to drop, we took advantage of the time for a photo opportunity: Andreas and Maggie.
Jason and Brita.
And yours truly, Dave and Janice.
These front row tourists threw all kinds of questions at us and we completely blew their mind. How long have you been on the boat? Where do you sleep? Don’t you go to hotels? How often to you go to a marina to buy groceries and stuff? Where are you going to? How far are you going? How long will that take? They couldn’t believe we gave up land life and lived full time on our boats. Haha.
Remember what I said about keeping control of the lines? Well, something happened and the line got away from Brita. The current started turning us sideways in the chamber and our sterns headed for the side. The line was pulled tight but we were not centered and not facing ahead, so Jason wrapped the line around a winch and cranked on it. He had some success pulling us back around; enough to keep us safe. About this time we looked behind us and those boats were having a problem, too. Our pilot said this lock always does that. Maybe some warning would have been good?
The ruler showed we dropped 29 feet in this chamber.
Then the doors opened.
Well, sort of.
This door got stuck. In fact, several of the doors throughout the locks didn’t work smoothly and opened at a slower rate than the others. But this one just refused to open. We felt we could squeeze through, but we had to wait it out. Yep, we were being the show!
Finally the gate opened all the way and the linemen walked us down to the next chamber. These lucky guys got go downstairs instead of climbing three large sets like at Gatun.
We watched behind us to see if the sticky door would close or delay us further. It seemed to work just fine closing.
The water was soon lowering and I noticed what a quiet day in the canal it was. There wasn’t much traffic at all. In fact, I don’t recall passing any ships all day in the next lane over.
The lowered water revealed a potential problem. I said we needed the little Dutch boy to save the dam, but no one knew what I was talking about. I think the canal is due for some repairs. The US took over building the canal in 1904 and it opened 10 years later. I think it has held up well over the last 100 years, but is due some attention.
When the gates opened in the second lock, we looked out to the Pacific Ocean side. We still had a channel to follow, but it felt like freedom.
Pelicans were all over, even riding along as the gate opened. Yep, one was sitting there in the last picture above. These were not Caribbean brown pelicans. These were Pacific ones.
We unrafted while underway and we all split up to go our own ways.
First we had to pass under the Bridge of the Americas. It was also built by Americans and gifted to Panama.
Looking back, the canal was only a memory now.
The Panama Canal has its own railroad. Some ships do not go through the canal, but stop at the port before and unload (or load) their cargo. The train takes it across the isthmus to another shipping port on the other side where other ships load and unload. I know some newer ships are too big to even go through the new lane that just opened, but otherwise I don’t know why the ships wouldn’t go through. Expense?
We saw Panama City in the distance. The colorful roofs are the National History Museum. Kulfi ended up going to the same anchorage we did, but I never saw the two smaller boats again. Andreas and Maggie are currently awaiting the arrival of their crew for the next leg of their journey, the Galapagos. Dave and I returned to Livin’ Life in Shelter Bay Marina to prepare the boat to be hauled out the next day. That’s a whole other story for another time. Jason and Brita stayed another night or two before returning to Shelter Bay where we enjoyed their company before we headed home. Jason and Brita plan on visiting Bocas del Toro and we hope to meet up with them again in Providencia, Colombia, offshore from Honduras.