Saturday, February 08, 2014

Panamá Canal - Day One

[Kyle]We spent the morning making last minute preparations for our crew. At lunch, we finally made it into Shelter Bay’s pool for the first time ever. We have been so busy here, but we were finally done and we were not leaving until we had been in the pool just one time. We spent the rest of the day waiting around wishing we could just get going, already.

Roy met us at two o’clock with the tires, lines, linehandlers and the final schedule for the day. For the first time, we found out we would be going through with two other boats: Jakker, a 42-foot monohull from Germany, and Infinity a 98-foot monohull flying the Maltese flag. Jakker were not clients of Roy’s, but they were half a dozen slips down from us, so we popped over to introduce ourselves and let them know what we knew. Infinity was apparently already at the designated anchorage for picking up their Canal Pilot (Vessels under 65’ have Advisors that advise the Captain, Vessels over 65’ have Canal Pilots that assume command within the canal). Roy explained that we would probably go rafted to Jakker, while Infinity went separately center chamber in the same lock. He said there was also a possibility that all three boats would be rafting together with Infinity in the center. We would all be in the space left over behind a big ship.

Our linehandlers, Eric, Ric(k), and Ic, Wait, that last one was Norberto – Roy’s brother-in-law, dropped off the lines and tires, then left for sodas at the store while we spoke to Roy.

I was wanting to leave fifteen minutes early to be sure we would make it on time, but the guys returned literally at the last minute. Roy had already padded the schedule, so we had nothing to worry about.

Or did we? My first attempt at starting the starboard engine failed. We immediately knew Maryanne’s solder job on the start button must have failed again as she reinstalled the panel. I dove down below, threw the bunk cushions and engine covers into the hall and started the engine by jumping the solenoid contacts with a screwdriver again. We only lost a minute or so.

Soon, we were out of the marina and headed across Colón harbor to the Flats Anchorage to pick up our advisor. Already waiting there at anchor were Jakker and Infinity. We shifted to neutral and drifted with the wind. About five minutes later, we saw the Pilot Launch approaching. Begonia was their last stop.

Begonia finally headed for our first lock, and those giant metal things are the lock gates for the new, bigger lock currently under construction.

We met our Advisor, Ricardo, who was very nice. He asked if everything was okay. I told him I couldn’t shut down the starboard engine now that it was running, but that otherwise everything was in working order. He told us to start moving immediately toward the Gatun Locks, about five miles away. He explained that their plan was to have the three boats raft together to go through in what they call a nest. They were having trouble with Infinity and their Pilot, though. Infinity wanted to go through alone. We spent the next five miles listening to arguments with their Pilot, who was coming up with one reason after another why they had to be alone. His first was that it was unsafe because the combined beam of the three boats was eighty feet – too wide for the one hundred-ten foot wide locks. This was complete hogwash. Ricardo could see the beams in the ACP’s (Autoridad Canal de Panamá) system. A little math came up with a combined beam of fifty-five feet. Infinity’s pilot’s next argument was that it was unsafe to have a monohull on one side and a catamaran on the other for no particular reason. Again, he was shot down. He then started with threats of “reporting this abuse to the Agency”. It was pretty clear from the tone of all of the intervening conversation that what it really was was that they didn’t want us touching their nice yacht.

Gutan double lock - we travelled as one of 3 boats "center locking"

Ricardo was perfectly calm throughout all of this. He knew it was none of their decision. When the Lockkeeper was brought into the conversation, he was firm: Infinity could go through nested with the other two boats, who would be going through today, or they could wait another day. If their paint was that important to them, they could duck out and come back later.

Well, it wasn’t, so they caved and agreed to let us raft up. They greeted us with utter contempt and disgust. They were the type of rich people that give rich people a bad name – snobs. On board, they had six people: The two owners, a professional Captain, the Pilot and two crew; one male, one female, all of whom glowered at us as we approached. The male crew started off by trying to tie lines to every weak spot on Begonia and threatening our linehandlers with fines if they left a mark in the paint or even touched Infinity while handing over our lines. I let out an uncontrollable snort of disbelief and got a glare when I told him to rearrange the lines to Begonia’s strong points.

Their Captain seemed as worried as he was annoyed, but managed to do an excellent job of steering the raft into the first lock. It was decided that the lock lines would go to Infinity in the center. All Jakker and Begonia had to do was float up already tied to Infinity.

Once we got into the lock and the Atlantic Ocean had been shut out, the water from Lake Gatun boiled in and we all started to rise. Infinity’s occupants were not taking the matter seriously and were running around taking pictures and chatting. Several times their Pilot and both of our Advisors had to yell at them to keep their bow lines tight and not just walk away. One woman from Jakker boarded Infinity and tended to one of their stern lines while their female crew managed the other. Their poor Captain had to maintain position with engine and bow thrusters. They also had lines of insufficient length per the ACP requirements. Ricardo tells me they will likely be fined for that.

We later decided their male crew must have a family member of son of a good friend - he was threatening and abusive to the canal employees and was completely derelict in his duty. If he were professional crew, we were sure he would have been fired long ago. He did have a way of acting like it really was his boat.

On the second lock of the three, the owner was staring down at us with a frown. Maryanne asked how he was doing. There was a long pause, and then he said, “fine” in a way that clearly meant he was not fine. He then asked me how much I paid for our transit, clearly meaning that it must be a pittance compared to him and he shouldn’t have to come into contact with the likes of us vagabonds as a result. Maryanne loosened them up a little more, but they never lost an opportunity to make one backhanded comment after another about how we were belly button lint.

After the final lock doors opened into Lake Gatun, their male crew immediately started to untie us. When the Pilot, our advisors, me and even their Captain yelled at him to wait until we were out of the lock into clear water, he looked at me and answered everyone by fake gushing, “Well, of course! I would never untie until YOU told me to!”

When he was finally given the all-clear, he threw us our lines and with a big fake smile and wave yelled, “GOODBYE! Bon Voyage! Have a nice trip!”

Their poor Pilot. I could only imagine that he must have felt like he scored the plum assignment of the three when his launch pulled up to Infinity. In the end, he was charged with babysitting a bunch of spoiled brats who spent the whole time trying to order him around. Infinity is no doubt a beautiful boat, but it is nowhere near a happy boat. Afterward, Ricardo commented that the women on Infinity really did do a good job handling their lines.

Once we were free of them, we shared a mooring ball with Jakker and learned that it had pretty much been the same on their side. Infinity, who had originally planned to push through, anchored nearby. Ricardo bid us a good night, told us our boarding time would be 6:30 a.m. the next day, and boarded the launch home. We were left with just the linehandlers and us. They were all really nice men and they went too far out of their way to be as unobtrusive as possible. They all refused a bed, insisting they would be more comfortable sleeping on deck. It was cooler out there, but it also rained every few hours. I would hear them shifting around at night and would instinctively think I need to get up and ‘check out that noise’ before I realized it was just them. When I woke up in the morning, I found Eric on the settee and the other two sleeping in the cockpit without even a cushion under them.

Arriving in the dark - we tied up to this giant mooring with Jakker (one of us on either side), and got to enjoy sunrise the next day
{Maryanne: I felt so sorry for them all, and even more sorry for me and all the sheets and bedding I'd have to wash and stow away again that had only been half used! I've no idea why they didn't use the comfy berths we'd opened up for them, but at least they had the choice.

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