I write from my desk as we lie at anchor, having transited the Canal yesterday. Having done so, we turned around the southern tip of Flamenco Island and anchored off Fuerte Amador, a small marina to which we can tender guests ashore.
Yesterday, my day started at 4 am, when my bedside phone rang, a shower and shave and up to the Bridge, preparing for the start of our transit. We were scheduled for a 5:30 am start, the Cristobal breakwaters, where we would board a plethora of personage, pilots, inspectors, ship’s agents to name but a few and our photographers, they would be disembarking and filming our progress through the Canal. When 8 miles off the breakwaters, a call from Cristobal Signal Station, please slow down, our arrival put back 30 minutes to 6 am, darnn it, I could have had 30-minutes more in bed!
Around us are scores of lights, ships at anchor awaiting a transit, others approaching the anchorages and the Zuiderdam, she is going in ahead of us, locking through the Gatun lock flight into Gatun Lake and there she anchors, her guests going ashore by tender, some locally and others further afield, re-joining the ship once she has ‘locked’ back down and is sailing to the Caribbean once more.
We follow her in, 5 knots by the breakwater, our access door and ladder ready for the numerous work-boats coming alongside, agent, pilots, inspectors, to name but a few. This will be our 58th transit of the Canal, however, despite that, we have to be inspected, to deem whether we are capable of making the transit (???) and in a ‘seaworthy’ condition.
Slowly steaming south down the buoyed channel and leading marks, more akin to a runway approach, there being so many of them. The pilots come to the Bridge and I introduce myself, Ricky and Andrew are my two today. I brief them as to the characteristics of the Amsterdam and how I would like to conduct our transit and in particular, how I like to work when approaching and entering the locks. (I handle the ship before the ‘approach wall’ and continue to do so all the way into the lock; the pilots, once we have our ‘mules’ made fast, will look after the bow and, once the 6 mules are fast, they keep the ship central and I watch the speed). Every lock went smoothly, dare I say ‘effortlessly’ and it was one the most pleasant transits I have experienced.
We made our way southwards, we had our schedule and were due into Gatun locks at 7:15. Ahead of us, in the distance, could be seen the Zuiderdam.
Ricky, the pilot, presented me with the bill (or should I say, a copy of the bill), for our transit, $206,076, however this did not include the cost of (compulsory) tugs, agents fees and numerous ‘incidentals’; the total being nearer to $280,000 for the 9-hour transit.
I used ‘joystick’ for the lock approaches and departures, marvellous being able to keep her parallel to the ‘wall’ and guide her in, both pilots had never seen it done before and were mightily impressed. The Zuiderdam was 1 flight ahead of us in the Gatun locks, (Gatun has a set of 3, having entered the lower, one then moves into the centre one, thence into the upper and thence into Gatun, a man-made lake, taking us through, past Gamboa and into Culebra Cut, (the narrowest section) and thence down, first through Pedro Miguel locks and final Miraflores lock and into the Pacific.
We pass the Zuiderdam, with much whistle-blowing and enter Gatun lake.
It is not a straight ‘shot’ across, we weave our way through the many islands, many of which have ‘steering’ marks for the ships, these are cut out of the jungle to make them visible at distance
Some sections are by no means wide and involve passing north-bound ships and islands at quite close distances.
The new Canal locks will have just 1 lock on the Pacific side, this replaces Miraflores and Pedro Miguel and 1 lock on the Atlantic side, which will replace Gatun lock flight. The ‘old’ locks will still be used of course, however the new lacks will be able to take ‘Post-Panamax’ ships, those that are too large to fit into the present ones.
I asked my pilots about completion date, they smiled and shrugged their shoulders, “we have no idea, depends on who you ask” was their reply.
Each lock set involves taking on board the ‘lock crew’, a group of Panamanian workers who take the lines from the ‘mules’, (locomotives) as we enter and then they disembark after we are out.
And so, after almost 9 hours, we exit the Pedro Miguel locks, pass under the Bridge of the Americas and disembark our pilots and narrator, rounding Flamenco and ‘drop the pick’ at Fuerte Amador for the night.
We sail at 4 pm (11th) for French Polynesia, Nuku Hiva to be exact; 3800 miles away and 8 days at sea….Heaven 🙂