Ocean Spirit made it through the Panama Canal successfully, current location is just north of Costa Rica (see map below) this GPS location was received early yesterday morning.
Crew member Christy Kozama shares with us her experience crossing the Panama Canal.
We are in Playa Papagayo Marina, Costa Rica. We arrived at daybreak as the sun spilled over the verdant cliffs surrounding the marina. We are currently still sitting on the boat, 6 hours later, waiting for a custom’s officer to clear us into the country. We’ll only spend a day here, enough time to fill our tanks and barrels with diesel, our water tanks with water, wash our laundry, and make a quick shopping trip for fresh produce to last us to Cabo.
Crossing the Panama Canal was truly an amazing experience. I love watching a system functioning essentially as it has for a century was nothing short of incredible. It seems that very little has changed in the way of technology in the 100 years that the Panama Canal has been in operation. I imagine the major difference over these past 100 years has been the types of vessels transiting the canal and not the system in which the canal operates.
Here’s a quick run-down of how things went for the Ocean Spirit. We departed our marina in Colon (Atlantic/ Caribbean side) on Friday afternoon and
made our way to an anchorage to await our canal adviser. Any vessel under 65 feet must have an adviser onboard, while any vessel over 65 feet must have a canal pilot accompany them through the canal. Our advisers, Edwin and Alvaro, met us around 4:30 pm. We had two advisers as Alvaro was in training. Edwin was so knowledgeable about the canal; I basically picked his brain the entire time. I was most curious about where the money from the canal ($7 million a DAY) ends up. Large container ships pay anywhere from $50,000–200,000 to cross the canal. As you can imagine, the canal requires a lot of upkeep, so roughly half of the money generated by the canal goes back into the canal for maintenance and repairs, and to pay the 9,000 people employed by the canal. The remainder of the money goes to the Panamanian government.
As we approached the first set of locks (we would pass through a total of 3 sets of locks and 6 chambers during our transit), Edwin instructed us in our duties as line handlers. Our position in the first set of locks would be in the center with a smaller mono hull sailboat tied to our port side. Once the sailboat was rafted onto OS, we approached the first set of locks. John and I were on the bow of the boat, and Brian and Sierra were positioned at the stern. Jake was driving, with Edwin and Alvaro at his side. The canal workers stood on the side walls of the canal and tossed a line with a monkey’s fist (decorative knot that makes a ball at the end of a line) onto the boat. We were instructed to let the monkey’s fists hit the boat and not try to catch them.
Each one held a lead weight and I’m sure if you got hit in the face with one, it would break your nose. They stood maybe 30 feet above us, 2 on each side. Once the monkey’s fist hit the deck, the line handler in that part of the boat would grab the line, tie a bowline around the loop in our long (125′ dock line) and let the canal worker pick our line up and place it over a bollard on the side wall. We then tightened the line as we were lifted up through the three chambers. We were doing this work late into the evening, but the canal was well lit and of course, commerce never stops, so the canal runs 24/7. The sailboat rafted to us didn’t have to handle any lines, so they could thoroughly enjoy the experience.
There were 8 Parisians onboard and had sailed their boat around the world twice. It was their first transit through the canal and it was certainly inspirational to hear their stories of sailing around Cape Horn. Once we made it through the 3 chambers of the Gatun lock, the canal workers dropped our lines to us, we coiled them on deck to be used the next morning, and untied our lines rafting the French sailboat. With our advisers still onboard, we made our way to a mooring in Gatun Lake, tied up the boat, bid our advisers goodbye and made a nice celebratory dinner onboard. The next morning, we were up early, waiting for our adviser to arrive. We had a different adviser the second day, which is very common as the adviser position is an on call job and not a full time position. Our adviser for Saturday’s transit was named Frank, had lived in Maine to attend college and spoke perfect English. He assisted us in approaching the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks, where we rafted onto a tour boat full of cruise ship passengers.
Many of the tour boat passengers recognized our logo and shared stories of great whalewatches and snorkel trips they had taken with Pacific Whale Foundation. As we were the smaller, less powerful vessel in this situation, we had no lines to handle and could take plenty of photos. As we exited the Miraflores locks and headed under the Bridge of the Americas, we were met with a torrential downpour. Many of Sierra’s pictures are of us pulling up fenders and coiling borrowed dock line in pouring rain. We dropped off our adviser and the rented line and tires just outside Panama City just in time to catch a gorgeous sunset before making our way to Costa Rica. After travelling 60 hours, we arrived in Costa Rica early this morning. Along the way, we encountered strong westerly winds, and a significant west swell, making sailing impractical, and the ride less than comfortable. We encountered lots of marine birds (boobies, frigates, and pelicans), several sea turtles (miles from shore!), and a pod of very acrobatic common dolphins!
There were many more ships than we encountered in the Caribbean; container ships headed for the canal, long line fishing boats, and cruise ships, so our watches, especially the night watches, were more stressful than in the Caribbean. We were working on a 12 hour on, 15 hour off schedule, which we have since decided to change to a 8 hour on, 12 hour off schedule, as a 12 hour shift can get grueling, especially in the middle of the night. There are always 2 people on watch at the same time, typically alternating time spent at the helm with duties such as cooking, cleaning, engine checks and standing on the bow with a spot light looking for large bits of debris that could foul our propellers. We made it to Costa Rica with no trouble and after a good night’s sleep with no one on watch, we’ll depart for Cabo early tomorrow morning. I’ll write more once we arrive in Cabo, likely a week from now.
Photos taken by Sierra Frye-Keele