While our passage through the Canal was less challenging than the effort to construct the thing, moving from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea was our second season’s objective. Thus, the Canal was as important to us in achieving our plan as it was to Teddy in achieving his. Elevation changes and mixing salt and fresh waters within the locks creates surprisingly strong forces with which vessels must contend. To familiarize ourselves with some of these forces we joined new friends John and Jerrie on their Canal transit. With them we witnessed the immense pressures that the rising and falling lock waters exert on a relatively small craft. Joining us for our passage through were Lal’s sister Julie, and Doug and Karrey Rigby from Seattle.
Vessels under 50 feet are assigned an adviser who accompanies the vessel through the Canal. In contrast to a pilot who takes control of the larger vessel during its transit, the adviser makes recommendations to the captain of the smaller vessel. The captain retains her ultimate authority over the vessel. We welcomed our adviser, Celso aboard and were encouraged when he told us we would tie up to a Canal Authority tug boat for our transit. Of the three positions a vessel can have in the canal (directly tied to the wall, or center tied in the middle of the chamber are the other two), being tied to a tug is thought to be the most desirable. Although there are one or two things that can go wrong, the tug crew are very familiar with canal operations and they handle all of the line work while the water is rising and lowering. In theory, all we had to do was tie up to the tug and enjoy the ride.
The above chart shows the Canal’s major features. Our transit started at the Pacific Entrance (#14), where we picked up Celso, and proceeded through the Miraflores Locks and Pedro Miguel Locks to the Gaillard Cut. We motored through Gatun Lake into the late afternoon and spent the night tied to a big mooring doughnut (without the hole) at the lake’s north end. The next morning our new adviser, Gonzalez arrived and we transitted the three Gatun Locks, arriving on the Caribbean side at around 12:00.
The car carrier looms large behind our friends’ pilot house during our practice run through. Eve, the sailboat we rafted to is to the right of the picture.
The gate opening.
For our time through, we rafted to a Canal Authority tug. The blue line in the foreground secures Elizabeth Jean to the tug. A line secures the tug directly to the wall. In theory, the tug does all the heavy lifting and lowering. What could go wrong?
Well, it turns out there are a couple of things. First, the Canal line handler released the tug too late, leaving Elizabeth Jean waiting (as instructed) for the tug to advance. Strong currents swept Elizabeth Jean towards the wall. Second, the tug revved its engines to pass us. The propeller wash accelerated our rendezvous with the wall. Here Celso advises Lal on maneuvers to pull away. Following the incident, Eulalie suggested to Celso that we be allowed to depart before the tug on subsequent locks. This approach worked well on the remaining locks leading up to Lake Gatun.
After an uneventful motor through Lake Gatun, and a quiet night moored ten minutes from Gatun locks, we entered this last series of three locks. In this picture one last gate separates Elizabeth Jean from the Caribbean Sea, glimpsed beyond the yellow rail.
Elizabeth Jean’s Canal crew enjoying the sights after their adventure. Front: Lal, Karrey,and Julie. Back: Doug and Eric