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Transiting the Panama Canal in Picton Castle

The Panama Canal is a very big deal. Transiting through this techno marvel is even more so. Transiting this wonder of the man made world is a long hot day steaming through the tropical jungle of Panama 85’ above sea level. But what is one day compared to the alternatives? Say, the 9 or 10,000 mile (3-4 months +) passage round Cape Horn at the bottom of South America to Pitcairn Island. And Cape Horn? No palm trees or nice warm beaches around Cape Horn I am told. Or, as in olden days you could trek through this jungle of this isthmus, bushwhacking your way with machete and donkey – takes a couple weeks with mosquitos, snakes, alligators, leeches, dense dense jungle and who knows what else. Nope, we will take the Canal and be glad of it.

Getting the Picton Castle ready for the Canal

We had to make sure nothing sticks over the edge of the ship. This means that lower yards must be cock-billed so that the yardarms are inboard and the remaining yards braced up waaaay sharp. The heavy port anchor needs to be brought inboard as well. It is an old fashioned admiralty pattern with a big stock. Holds great, also sticks out a lot from the cathead. Boat davits port and starboard must be swung which requires us to put both our 23’ longboat on deck but also the rescue skiff has to come on deck too. Our boats are held swung out at all times making them quick and easy to launch, especially if in a hurry. Best rescue boat position conceivable – no need to hoist the boat off the deck, swing out and launch, ready to launch at any time – but again, they stick out a lot and could get destroyed on a lock wall if the ship got out of shape in a lock. So, inboard they come. We need an awning for the pilots to hold off both sun and rain, and its good to have an awning for the helmsmen too. John made a nice new helm awning. This will also serve well in the hot sunny Torres Straits above Australia too. Then we will get inspected by Panama Canal Authority who will have some comments. And this varies from year to year. This year they liked Picton Castle just fine. 12 feet off the center-line visibility is 100% from toes to nose. They also check to see that there are decent toilets for the line handlers (yep, no problem), that the mooring bitts are strong (they are), windshield wipers on the bridge (no, but we do not maneuver from the chart house), RPM indicator on the bridge (yes), rudder angle indicator (sure), do both anchors work (of course), what is the speed of the warping head on the windlass (are you kidding?), bow thruster (nope), hawsers standing by in case we need to go alongside (of course), and a few other things.

Stacking boats inside one another amidships

The Picton Castle crew turned-to with a will at about 0600 just in case the pilot boat came early and wanted to get going. This happens. And if they come early they are keen to go. We must be flexible. Our pilot, Walter, boarded about 0730 and we hove up and headed towards the first lock. I was hoping for an earlier boarding time so we would have daylight at the other end but this ain’t a buffet table from which we get to pick and choose. Only as we came close with the first locks the line handlers come aboard. There should be about eight or nine of them – then handle the wires that moor the ship to the electric trains (called ‘mules’) that both position the ship in the center of the lock, hold her there as the water fills (going up) or empties (going down), and pulls the ship into the next lock. All went well on the transit. Up into Gatun Lake through the ‘flight locks’, the first three are in a row and the mules just pull us through. Then once in Lake Gatun we are in pure fresh water and everything gets scrubbed down including ourselves with a nice – as long as desired – power shower. The third high pressure freshwater shower is the one that really takes.

Our pilot, Captain Walter

We followed a big ship into the locks called Floriana. She got moored and settled then we head in and do the same thing. It is quite a sight to see the lock doors close behind us – up we go. A grey sky, thunder storms off on the horizon with the heat of the day warming us up. The first lock is pretty exciting and scary as everything is new to everyone. But Captain Walter and I worked in perfect harmony and soon we were riding up into Lake Gatun.

Locks closing behind us

This big lake is quite something. Deep in the heart of a tropical rainforest jungle. I gather that whole villages and towns were subsumed to make this lake. We steam roughly 15 miles over this lake followed by another 15 miles of channel cut through mountains until we get to the locks near the Pacific side. We pass huge ships headed both directions. The new NeoMaxi locks now allow for vessels 1,000 feet long by over 150’ wide. This is really big. A couple LNG ships on this road. It does not bear thinking what would be the result of a disaster with one of them. Big boom…

Soon enough we are near the Pedro Miguel locks where we must kill some time to let some big ships get through. Thus and exercise in staying in one place for 40 minutes or so. Interesting to do with the changing conditions of wind with our controllable pitch propeller – then on to the double locks at Miraflores, then out of the freshwater in to Pacific brine and a torrential downpour with almost zero visibility as we approached our planned moorings in Balboa. Running out of light we skidded to stop and got on to our bow and stern moorings as the weak murky light of the dying sun faded all together in the light misty rain of the early evening. And the Picton Castle was in the Pacific Ocean. All hands did a great job and I could just see them learning the ship in the challenge. Tomorrow we will down rig from the canal transit and maybe get ashore to see what Panama is all about.

Mules pull us through the series of locks

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