18 March, 2018: Spending an eternity (ok two weeks) in the twilight zone of Shelter Bay Marina, it was hard to believe the day would ever come when we would cross the Panama Canal. While we waited, we explored the history with the children, examining what made the Canal such a terrific feat of engineering, and the costs involved, both human and financial. I felt I was back at school again too, once again entering the world of Joseph Conrad, studying Nostromo for A-level with the aptly named Mr Quest. With its backstory of foreign interests investing in the infrastructure of the fictional Latin American country of Costaguana, the novel brought to life a reality in the way that only fiction can. The seafaring Conrad is also one of my father’s favourite authors. Dad crossed the Panama Canal in the 1950s when in the Navy, en route to a posting in New Zealand, so this was to be one experience that I would really share with him. His own father before him had to go the long way round, sailing past Cape Horn three times in a clipper.
With the weight of all this history behind us, the great iron doors swung shut on the first lock at Miraflores. As the water poured in, the boat was elevated slowly, imperceptibly, until, as though in a sleight of hand, we were suddenly looking over the top of the gate, ready to move on. We were rafted to a monohull on either side, one of them being our friends BAJKE. They had external lines which reached up to officials on either side of the top of the lock, effectively tethering us in place and, as we rose, corresponding adjustments were made on board to bring in the the slack. In front of us in the lock was a gigantic tanker that eclipsed us, much to the frustration of friends and family trying to glimpse us on the live-stream Miraflores camera, that sometimes actually works!
We were joined for our passage by a British family, Dawn and Jonathan, and Jonathan's daughter Jemima, from the boat ESCAPADE, who had volunteered to be our line-handlers for the experience, just as Xavier had volunteered for Austrian boat CROCODILE, an identical Nautitech Open 40, the week before. They added immeasurably to our journey for as well as being hands on, practical sailors they were wonderful company and loads of fun. While it was the first time for us (bar the Skipper), our Panama Canal Official Larry had done the trip many, many times before but was just as enthusiastic, and took photos too, which goes to show the awe that the Canal inspires never dims.
We had an early start, leaving Shelter Bay Marina at 4.30am. It was exciting though, moving off in the dark, and nursing our steaming cups of builder's tea in hand - it was a joy to have fellow tea drinkers on board again! Isabelle joined us for a morning cuppa (just add cinnamon and honey), super excited, while her siblings were still out for the count. Waiting at the mouth of the Canal, Larry joined us around 7am and we sat down to a full English of bacon and eggs, homemade sourdough with pineapple jam, and gallons of coffee, which set us up for the day ahead.
Transiting the Canal from the Atlantic side comprises ascending the three locks at Miraflores, several hours (plenty of time for a leisurely lunch!) crossing the huge crocodile-invested Lake Gatún - I was astonished to learn the flooded valley was man-made and swallowed up entire villages in the process - and then descending a further three locks. In an ideal world we should have completed the journey in 12 hours, but delays waiting for tankers to pass meant it was more like 15. At one point we found ourselves having to moor up to a huge concrete buoy, while rafted three across, which was testimony to the skill of our Skipper, who, as he was in charge of the central boat, was responsible for manoeuvring all three boats.
By the time we got to the other side, night had fallen. An unexpected delight was the sight of bats flitting around, scooping up insects on the surface of the water. As we reached the final lock it was in the early hours of the morning back in Europe, but my friend Sarah in Italy was still up, refusing to go to bed until we had crossed into the Pacific, and in the excitement her daughter Rosa woke up too. Once again we were hidden from sight of the Gatún lock camera by a big ship, so we FaceTimed instead and were able to share our view in realtime. It really heightened the sense of occasion for us. And then the doors opened onto the Pacific. No words. We powered on, under the lights of the Bridge of the Americas and onto Playita Marina, while Larry was picked up and disappeared into the night just before we entered the harbour. Thanks to directions from PELIZENO and RAFTKIN we slipped into the last space on the dock. It was about 9.30pm and the children were all fast asleep by now, but I woke Isabelle up, much to her joy, as her friends Hayley and Megan from RAFTKIN had come over to say hello, and the adults had a welcome beer. Here we all were on the Pacific side, at the start of a new chapter. Cheers!