Friday, June 18th, 2010
The Picton Castle crew had an early start on the morning of Wednesday June 9, with all hands waking up at 0345 in order to be ready for the scheduled arrival of our pilot at 0430 (they often arrive early). We had shifted within Anchorage Area F on Tuesday afternoon in preparation, getting to the edge of the anchorage area and away from the other vessels so we could get underway in the dark more easily on Wednesday morning. Our first pilot, Eric Hendricks, arrived around 0420, as expected.
Many harbours and seaways have pilots, all of them experienced and trained mariners who have specific local knowledge in the area where they work. In all places in the world except the Panama Canal, the captain of the ship retains command of the ship and the pilot is an advisor. In the Panama Canal, the pilot actually takes command of the ship. While Picton Castle looks small compared to the giant ships that regularly use the Canal, she handles more like a big ship than a small yacht. In the first few minutes that the pilot was on board, there was some discussion and questions between the pilot and the captain so that the pilot knew what to expect of the ship. A good pilot will tell that a ship like the Picton Castle is actually more difficult than a big ship in the Canal – and perhaps because of this our two pilots both had our captain handle the ship in and out of the locks.
We had started heaving up the anchor first thing Wednesday morning so that there was only one shot of chain remaining out. Once the pilot was on board, we had to wait a little bit for another ship, which we were scheduled to follow, to get underway. Once they did, we finished heaving up the anchor and motored out into the channel. Picton Castle has a restriction with the Panama Canal that we must transit during daylight hours, which suits us just fine – it’s an interesting thing to see and our daylight restriction allows the crew to take it all in. It was still dark when we started heading down the channel, but the sun was rising as we approached the first set of locks. Dramatic clouds were lit by the early morning sun and flocks of parrots flew overhead close by.
As Picton Castle slowly entered the Gatun locks, there was a rowboat with two Canal line-handlers in it, one of them rowing and one of them holding the ends of two lines. The pilot mentioned that they have tried everything else, outboards, rocket guns but what works best and safest is a decent row boat bringing the messenger lines out. The other ends of the lines were held by two other line-handlers on the edge of the lock. A few minutes before we approached the lock, a boat had dropped off ten line handlers aboard the ship, who are responsible for managing the wire lines that hold the ship in the locks. As we entered the lock, the guys in the boat rowed over and handed the ends of the line to the line handlers – one to the well deck and one to the aloha deck. The line handlers hauled in the heaving lines to bring the wire cables aboard. The wire cables are made fast around the bitts on deck, leading through the Panama chocks in the bulwarks. The wire cables lead to electric locomotives called “mules”, that run on tracks along the edge of the locks. Picton Castle had four mules with us, one forward and one aft on each side of the ship. The mule drivers pay out and pull in the cables as the ship moves up and down in the locks, they also keep the ship still in the locks and pull her forward into the next lock when it’s time to move.
The Gatun locks are made up of a series of three chambers which raise the ship up to the level of Lake Gatun, a man-made fresh water lake that supplies all of the water to the Canal. The technology for moving water through the chambers hasn’t changed since the Canal was built in 1914 – it depends on gravity moving the water from higher to lower. We shared the lock chamber with a medium sized cargo vessel which went in the front of the lock, while we were in the aft end of the lock.
From there we motored through Lake Gatun, following the traffic lanes which were well marked with buoys. This is a waterway through dense jungle – sometimes you can see alligators and more exotic birds. We took full advantage of being in a fresh water lake, using the deck wash hose which pumps water from overboard to give the ship a thorough fresh water rinse. We also rigged up the port fire hose for a fresh water power shower – a real treat for the crew on a very hot day. There were other vessels anchored in Lake Gatun waiting their turn in the schedule, but we were able to go straight through with no waiting. Leaving Lake Gatun marks about the halfway point in the Canal transit.