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Panama Canal #2

The pilot decided that our captain would keep the con, which is pretty unusual, and steering was entrusted to in-port helmsman, Nadja, who steered us through all of the locks at the captain’s direction, and we had some of our other more experienced helmsmen, including Logan, Meredith, Siri, Sophie, Julie and Brad, steering through Lake Gatun and through the Gaillard Cut to get some practice and experience in slightly intense and precise steering. The Galliard Cut is the channel which was cut out of rock and hard clay across the Continental Divide. The channel is narrow but deep and some of the land on either side is terraced to reduce erosion into the Canal. We passed two big dredging operations during our transit – one just before entering the first lock and the other at a bend in the channel in the Gaillard Cut. It’s vital to the Canal operation that the channel stays clear and deeper than the largest ships the Canal can accommodate. There are huge ships, known as Panamax ships, built with the dimensions of the Canal in mind – just a bit smaller than the locks so that they can fit in. The maximum size for a ship in the Panama Canal is 965 feet long, 106 feet wide with a maximum depth of 39.5 feet in tropical fresh water.

Just after we left Lake Gatun and entered the Gaillard Cut, we said goodbye to pilot Eric Hendricks and welcomed pilot Eduardo Correo. There are about 300 Panama Canal pilots in total, each of which has trained for three years for the job. They all started out as deep sea mates and masters having had attended Maritime Academies around the world. There are a few remaining American pilots who are now Panamaian citizens still working from the time when the Americans operated the Canal, but most of the pilots and other employees are now Panamanian. About 8,000 people in all work on the Panama Canal. The Canal operates 24 hours a day and there were about 35 other ships going through the Canal in the same direction as us on the day that we made the transit. The organization and logistical planning that it takes to operate the Canal is astounding – where Picton Castle has a daylight transit only restriction, there are other ships that have restrictions for one-way traffic only through the Gaillard Cut, plus all of the pilots, line handlers, lock operators and launch drivers must be scheduled, equipment must all be in top working order and in the right place, and so on. Some ships go through with four pilots and eight electric mules.

Currently work is underway to add locks that will accommodate ships twice as large but also conserve water, all of which is rain water caught in Gatun Lake. This project is to be complete by 2014.

At the end of the Gaillard Cut is the Pedro Miguel lock, a single chamber lock. As the line handlers at the Gatun locks had disembarked onto a service launch as soon as we were through the locks, we boarded a new group of line handlers just before the Pedro Miguel lock. We continued to share our lock with the same mid-size ship as before. The Pedro Miguel lock empties out into Miraflores Lake, a small lake, a mile long, that we motored across in order to get to the Miraflores locks. The Miraflores locks are the last locks before the Pacific, made up of two chambers. There is a visitors centre alongside the Miraflores locks and there was a big crowd of people on the observation decks, watching ships pass through. After the Miraflores locks, the line handlers disembarked, then shortly after, our pilot disembarked. We motored down channel past Balboa docks, under a huge bridge called the Bridge of the Americas, out toward the Pacific with dozens of ships anchored, then around Flamenco Island to the entrance to Flamenco Marina, where we are currently tied up alongside the wharf. We had to anchor and wait a bit for the other vessel which was at our dock to depart, but shortly after we were tied up securely. Our whole transit, from getting underway from the anchorage area on the Caribbean Sea side to being tied up alongside on the Pacific side took 11 hours and 20 minutes. It was a long day, but everything went very smoothly. The actual canal transit from first to last lock was about 8 hours and that is something of a record for us. Our excellent ship’s agent Francis was impressed anyway.

So, here we are, tied up at Flamenco Marina. The tides are quite high here, so we’re tied to a floating dock that goes up and down on big pillars. There are no other vessels that look anything like Picton Castle here, most of our neighbours are white fiberglass power yachts and sport fishing boats. We have huge plans for ship provisioning here, and shopping seems to be on the agenda for most of the crew. There’s lots of other things to do too – see old Panama City whose ruins date back to the early 1500s sacked by Henry Morgan; visit Casco Viejo, the old quarter of the city; check out the Miraflores visitor centre to learn more about the Canal. We plan to be here until Wednesday morning, shopping ‘til we drop until then.

Christian on engine controls as we re passed by a giant container ship
line handlers disembark from PICTON CASTLE
Nadja on helm going into the lock
Sophie on helm in the Panama Canal as a big container ship passes
terraced walls beside the canal

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