Captain's Log

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Panama Canal

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Saturday December 8th, 2012

It’s 5:34 am and Picton Castle crew have been up for an hour already, we hoisted up the anchor, drank gallons of coffee and got underway. We’re transiting the Panama Canal today, and since we need to make a daylight transit we have to be at the first locks at first light. It’s going to be a long day, but to put it in perspective this long day would have been a hard four month voyage if we had taken the long way round, by way of Cape Horn.

10:30 am – we are now motoring across Lake Gatun, our pilot is standing with the mate on the bridge and the line handlers have left the ship until the next set of locks. Our crew are almost passengers in the canal – specialist line handlers are sent aboard to handle the wire cables that attach the ship to the locomotives or donkeys running on tracks through each lock. These guys have an awesome technique with a heaving line – makes it look almost like the well-trained line can see its target and grows wings to get there. They look so nonchalant when they throw the things too.

The Panama Canal is truly impressive both for the scale of its engineering ambition and its political history. The huge Gatun Lake was artificially created 26m above sea level by damning near the mouth of the Chagres River. A series of enormous lock gates lifts ships up from one ocean and down the other side to the other, releasing 26 million gallons of fresh water into the ocean for each transit. A few additional gallons were used to scrub the decks and deckhouses of the Picton Castle and some more are now being used to give her grubby crew a refreshing power shower on deck. So much fresh water! All clean and fresh and cool from the rainforests that sweep down all around the edges of the lake. It’s proper Indiana Jones stuff with creepers and lush greenery hanging down and amazing birds flying over. Brody just saw an alligator off the starboard beam, or perhaps it was a caiman or crocodile.

4:57 pm. We have just cleared out through the Miraflores locks, and are now in the Pacific Ocean with salt water under our keel once again. Very cool!

I’m obviously not the first person to think the idea of the canal kind of neat – according to the booklet I’ve been reading, a royal warrant by Emperor Charles V ordered investigations into the possibility of a canal across Central America in 1534, with serious attempts to build it beginning with the French in 1884. The current canal was finally finished in August 1914 following some complicated politics between Columbia, the USA and the newly formed state of Panama. Today the canal is a hub for shipping with huge quantities of stuff, manufactured and raw materials, passing through en route to a thousand far-flung places. Today we transited with a roll-on roll-off car carrier with a Maltese flag but a Norwegian Captain, and a chemical tanker from Hong Kong.

And the progress continues – a whole new set of locks is being built alongside the old to allow much larger ships than the current ‘panamax’ vessels to transit. The new locks will also employ a water saving scheme – a large proportion of the water used for each transit will flow into huge water storage chambers alongside the main lock chamber to be reused, which means more transits are possible in a year and also better water security for Panama’s population. Clever cookies those engineers.

4:30 pm. New Panama City has come into view, the glass skyscrapers looking like they are floating on the water as we steam to our anchorage just outside the Flamenco marina.

6:03 pm. It’s almost dusk now as we drop the hook, set the spanker and stand by to launch the boats.

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