The two giant continents of North and South America were connected by a tiny thread of land, just 30 odd miles across, until 1914 when the Panama Canal opened for business. And what a business! An audacious civil engineering project that included the biggest dam ever built, the world’s largest man-made lake, and the locks which were world’s largest concrete structures at the time. It was superbly conceived and executed in the era of steam trains. The flooding of high valleys to create a 30 mile wide inland lake, requiring locks and cuts to connect to the two coasts. The whole enterprise runs on simple mechanical principles and gravity. It has operated flawlessly every day and night for over 100 years.
It was our great privilege to take Escapade through this extraordinary feat of engineering. We left Shelter Bay Marina on the morning of the 29th March. Decks loaded with rented nylon lines and fenders for the locks. Our friends Josh and Suzee were aboard as line handlers, joining Dawn, myself and Jemima. Spirits were high, everyone excited to be on our way at last. I was a little jumpy, checking all the systems and instruments were working, trying to remember how to drive the boat after the long lay-up. We had one of those cylindrical radar-reflectors that sit at the top of a shroud. Lots of UV up there, it must have degraded, then filled with rain in the wet season, and the motion of the boat leaving the harbour was enough to shake loose the cooked cable ties and allow the water-filled plastic cylinder to start it’s journey towards the deck 60ft below. This brittle plastic water-bomb landed inches from my head in a spectacular explosion, starting the trip with a bang and doing nothing to calm me down.
We arrive at the anchorage off the container port at Colon to have lunch and wait for our pilot to come on board.
Our pilot Roy arrives and explains we will be transiting with another yacht, rafting up together to go through the locks behind a ship.
The ship appears and we follow her below the unfinished new bridge to the Gatun locks, rafting up to the yacht Aequus just outside. Her pilot is also called Roy. As we motor slowly in, lines are thrown from the walls on both sides. Light lines with a ‘monkey’s fist’ flying accurately to the four corners of our ‘raft’. We tie them to our heavy nylon lines which are hauled up and secured.
The locks are 980ft long and once the ship was tied up there was room for our little raft in the space behind her. The gates close and 150 million litres of Panamanian rainwater fill the lock, lifting the giant ship and two sailing boats up 9 meters in as many minutes. Turbulent waters as the fresh and salt mix around us. Gates open, we all move forward in to the next two locks and the process is repeated until we have the bizarre view from the top of the third lock, looking back down to the Caribbean, now 27 metres below.
There are jungly hilltops up here, and a lighthouse! Escapade moves into the strange environment of the Gatun Lake. Our ocean-going boat in fresh water for the first time, 85 feet above sea level.
We tie up to a huge ship’s mooring buoy for the night, a launch arrives to pick-up the Roys, and we settle down for sunset and supper on the lake.
Next morning we wake to a chorus from the howler monkeys and a steamy, windless day.
Today’s pilots arrive in time for breakfast; Luis, a trainee advisor and Ricardo, his examiner. Together they will pilot us across the 30 miles of lake to the Miraflores locks. The buoyed channel runs around beautiful islands in the lake, lush rainforest filled with wildlife, a few feet from the world’s freight plying endlessly between oceans.
Little boats like us don’t tend to get too close to giant bulk carriers and container ships, generally best passed at a distance. But here we are invited in to the big ship’s world. Sharing locks and channels with the largest craft ever built.
For 100 years, ships have been built to the dimensions of the Panama locks, apparently squeezing in with inches to spare. They are hauled through with locomotives towing them on steel hawsers.
Last year a set of new, wider locks opened for a new generation of even larger ships. ‘Neo Panamax’, the one-way toll for these giants to use the canal is a million dollars.
One of these broke down as we were approaching the locks, delaying us for two hours before our final sprint down the Gaillard cut and under the centenary bridge to the Miraflores locks.
Then down through the Miraflores lake, into the last two locks tied up against a tourist ferry, and finally the last set of gates open and we untie and motor out into the Pacific Ocean. Pelicans diving as we glide under the Bridge of the Americas in the golden sunset. Quite a moment.
Then a few more days in Panama City, preparing and provisioning. Dawn and Jemima run a highly organised victualling program, filling the boat with food, wine, beer and finally a trip to the Mercado Abasto, the huge clearing house for the fresh fruit and vegetables of Panama.
It begins at 03.00 every day, farmers arrive with truck loads of farm-fresh, never-been-refrigerated produce, just how we like it. Lots of hard green tomatoes and papayas to slowly ripen on board as we head west. We were there at first light, browsing the huge piles of fresh greens and fruit in the cool of the early morning. As the sun rose higher the aromas of ripe fruit became headier. Our patient porter followed us with his barrow, loaded with our growing haul of goodies. Get that lot stowed, nearly ready to go now…