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I am still trying to get my head around our transit of the Panama Canal. It was the quintessential bitter-sweet experience. The “sweet” part is due to the fact that getting to and transiting the Panama Canal just seems like a big accomplishment. I imagine most of those with an interest in sailing have always considered a transit between the 2 great oceans (sorry Indian, Arctic, and Southern, you gotta try harder) to be a bit of a horizontal Everest. Personally, I never thought I would be able to include it in my short list of “have done’s” (which list includes such notable events as visiting the Detroit Wonder Bread factory and a tour of the estate of Samuel W. Frances, the inventor of the spork [ U.S. Patent 147,119]).
But, about 10 years ago Carolyn and I decided to go cruising on Third Wish, our Norseman447, and, all of a sudden, a Panama Canal transit seemed attainable. The Panama Canal Authority (or “God” as they are known in these parts) scheduled us to transit the Canal (and thus the continent, albeit the skinny part) on March 5, 2017. Under Canal rules, you need 4 line handlers on board to take in the slack on the lines connecting your boat to the side wall of the lock chamber as you “lock up” (rise from one water level to the next in a series of locks) or to feed out the line as you “lock down.” This is important because there can be tremendous turbulence in the locks when you combine both the prop wash from the gigantic cruise ship in front of you and the millions of gallons of water flooding into the lock chamber in a very short period of time. Thus, in the right conditions, it’s like being in a washing machine. Our only line handlers were my wife, and our good friends Tom Miller and Nick. That meant we only had 3 line handlers, and thus needed to hire a fourth. For $150.00 per person, our Canal agent, Roy Bravo (the guy who arranges your transit with the Canal Authority) supplied us with the remaining “professional” line handler.
I am a self-described “A” type personality. Look in my wallet. All the bills are both face up and in descending order based upon denomination. Thus, on March 5, I was at the dock at 5:25 a.m. to meet both Roy Bravo and our line handler, Omar Santizo. Roy introduced Omar to us as “his best man.” (Yes literary buffs, this is foreshadowing.) I introduced myself, walked Omar back to our boat, started the engine, untied the dock lines, and headed out to the prescribed Panama Canal Advisor rendezvous point. (Note: you are also required to hire an “Advisor” from the Canal Authority. The Advisor is the liaison between you and the Canal Authority while you are transiting. He tells the captain where to go and when to go there. In exchange you are required to both pay him a handsome sum and feed him hot meals while he is onboard.) We spotted the pilot boat carrying our Advisor about an hour after arriving at the rendezvous point. The Advisor jumped aboard and we were off.
Before I go on, I should explain what a Panama Canal transit entails. It is about 45 miles from the Pacific to the Caribbean through the Canal. These two oceans are basically connected by a man-made lake (Lake Gatun) in the middle of the Isthmus. Think of the lake as a “water bridge” over the mountain passes that were flooded when the Chagres River was dammed. Because this “bridge” is about 90 feet higher than the oceans on either side of the Panama Isthmus, you need some mechanism to lift a boat up 90 feet to access the lake. This “lifting” is accomplished by a series of 3 locks on either side of the Lake. Each lock consists of a 1000 foot long chamber with 100 year old water-tight doors on either end. When locking up, the doors open, the boat pulls in, and the doors close. The lock chamber is then flooded with water, which thus raises the boat about 35 or so feet. Once fully flooded, the doors at the other end of the chamber open and the boat pulls forward to the next lock. After 3 locks the boat is at lake level. A boat transiting south to north (from the Pacific to the Caribbean) locks up through the 2 Miraflores locks and then again through the Pedro Miguel lock. The boat then motors through the Culebra Cut and out into the Lake. At the north side of the Lake, the boat then enters the Gatun locks and “locks-down” through the 3 chambers in Gatun.
In its infinite wisdom, the Panama Canal Authority decided two important things regarding our transit: (1) we would be going through the locks “center chamber”; and (2) we would be placed right behind a very large cruise ship with a very large propeller that would be turning each time the cruise ship had to move from one chamber to another. A center chamber transit requires that you enters the lock chamber and maneuver close to the chamber’s walls in order to receive messenger lines that are delivered by guys standing on the top of a wall about 50 feet above your boat who throw down a very hard ball (called a “monkey fist”) attached to which is the messenger line. In a perfect world, your line handlers then tie the messenger line to the 100 plus foot Canal lines you rented from your agent. Those lines are then pulled up the chamber wall by the Canal Authority workers who in turn tie your 100 foot lines to large bollards on the top of the wall. This ballet is repeated for each set of locks (of which there are 3).
Once comfortably aboard, our Canal Advisor, asked the question on the lips of all Canal Advisors: “When’s breakfast?” It was thus with “Quiche-Carolyn” and Coffee in hand, our Advisor started us into the Canal with these immortal words: “murph slouff dernfubers...” Having been in Latin American now for three seasons, I quickly realized this was not Spanish, but fractured English spoken by a man happily stuffing his face with Carolyn’s egg and bacon delight. Our confused looks caused him to swallow and try again: “See that huge cruise ship, follow it into the first set of locks.” I looked to my left and, sure enough, there was a MASSIVE cruise ship steaming our way. Lacking an internal edit function, my involuntary response was: “ARE YOU FREEKING KIDDING ME”? It was at this point that I realized two things: (1) Carolyn has very strong and pointy elbows; and (2) they hurt when they make contact with your rib cage. Taking the hint, I immediately followed up with “Yes sir, I will follow that cruise ship into the locks.” We thus entered our first lock, maneuvered close to the starboard chamber wall and prepared to receive the monkey fists. They came down fast and furious, but our line handlers were on it. They received the messenger lines and tied them to our rented lines Canal lines which were then quickly hauled up the chamber wall by the Canal dudes.
I then motored across the chamber and this was repeated for our lines on the port side of the boat (except on the port side one of the dudes on the wall hit our solar panels with the Monkey fist. Fearing Carolyn’s elbows of death, I remained silent). Within minutes, the water level in the chamber started rise. It’s amazing how fast the water floods in. The water level quickly rose about 40 feet, the doors at the far end of the chamber opened, and the Cruise ship put power to her props and inched forward out of the first Miraflores Chamber and into the second. Within an instant we were hit with turbulent, swirling water the likes of which I had not seen since that unfortunate “swirly” incident in the boy’s bathroom in Junior High school. In spite of the churning water, our guys were able to tweak the lines to keep the pointy end of the boat facing forward. Once the cruise ship distance itself from us, the Canal Authority guys on the top of the wall removed our lines from the wall-top bollards, and walked the lines forward as we motored into the next chamber. (To see a time lapse of our trip through the Canal, copy and paste this link into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFTSyPrDyVk) The above described process repeated itself two more times; once in the second Miraflores chamber and again in the Pedro Miguel chamber. Once out of Pedro Miguel, we motored out into the Culebra Cut, which is an artificial valley cut through the Continental Divide in Panama. We motored through this 8 mile long cut and, at the little town of Gamboa, entered Lake Gatun. We spent the remainder of the day comfortably motoring through the 20 or so miles of the lake until we arrived at the Gatun locks, the literal gateway to the Caribbean.
Although we arrived at about 3 p.m., the Canal Authority refused to permit us to enter the last set of locks. Instead, we were directed to “The Holding Pen,” an area of the Panama Canal where boats sometimes needlessly spend the night tied to a big buoy wondering why they are needlessly spending the night in the Lake tied to a big buoy. Within minutes of tying up to the big buoy, our Canal Advisor was picked up by the pilot boat. His parting comment was that another advisor would be at our boat at 10:30 a.m. the next day, and that we should be untied and ready to enter the Gatun locks at that time. We woke up the next morning at 8:00, made breakfast, ate, and generally readied ourselves for our 10:30 a.m. rendezvous with the Canal advisor who would accompany us through the Gatun Locks. For reasons which to this day continue to confound us, out next Canal Advisor did not show up until 4:30 in the afternoon. (Yes friends, the Canal is a lot like Washington D. C—all the friendly charm of the north coupled with the efficiency of the South.)
Once onboard, he directed us to untie from the buoy and tie up to the wall in the lock entry area. Ten minutes after tying up, a Canal employee appeared and told us that there was yet another change in plans. We were now to be the last boat transiting the Canal into the Caribbean that day. Thus, we were ordered to untie from the Canal wall, back out of the lock entry area and wait until 6:00 p.m. to enter the Gatun locks. Aside from the drama of having to back up our boat in the Panama Canal, the practical implication of this is that it was going to be dark when we exited the Canal. To make matters worse, a Norther had kicked in with 25 to 30 knot winds. On Third Wish We have a policy to not to enter marinas after dark if we have never been to the marina before. The primary reason is that there are many, many obstacles in and around marinas, both above and below the water, all hard. And given that marinas are located along the shoreline, you are always in a shallow water situation when you enter. None of this can be seen in the dark. Thus, night entries are to be avoided like the plague.
Consequently, when we arrive to a new destination at night, we simply stay out to sea and sail back and forth in sufficiently deep water until daylight. Not wanting to enter the Shelter Bay Marina at night, I asked our advisor if we could simply spend the night in the Lake again and transit the locks in the morning. His answer was an unequivocal “no.” This then prompted a call to our Canal Agent, Roy Bravo, who previously directed us to meet him at Shelter Bay Marina as soon as we arrived. I expressed both my concern about entering the Marina after dark and my desire not to do so. He first told me that it was an “easy” marina to enter at night. He also assured me that Omar, his man on our boat, has entered the Marina 100’s of times in the dark. He promised us that if we followed Omar’s directions, everything would be fine. Omar also assured us that this was not a problem (and yes, for the literarily astute, this is more foreshadowing).
Thus, against our standing policy and our better judgment, we decided we would carry on to Shelter Bay once we exited the Canal. Our trip down the Gatun locks was effortless. Although we were center-chambered, we were in front of a massive ship this time, so that the prop wash from the super-ginormous-Panamax ship locking down with was not an issue. As we anticipated, however, it was dark by the time we began dropping down in the final Gatun locks. We were nevertheless ecstatic when the last lock doors opened up and we were, finally, in a new, albeit dark, windy, and choppy ocean. We Pacific Cruisers thus entered the Caribbean Sea…and smack into the teeth of that 25-30 knot Norther. Our Adviser directed us to the spot where he was to be taken off our boat by the pilot boat. It was so windy, it took the professional captain on the pilot boat 5 tries before he could get his boat in position to take the Advisor off our hands. This finally being done, Omar took over as the person giving us directions on how to get to Shelter Bay. As of this writing, we have come to understand that the best way to enter Shelter Bay marina is to motor down the channel leading from the Panama Canal until you reach the breakwater. At the Breakwater, turn left into a secondary channel that takes you right into the marina. Unfortunately we did not have this information when we exited the Canal.
Instead, our Agent simply told us to follow Omar’s directions, which took us on a rum line from the canal to the Marina, presumably because he wanted to get off the boat as soon as possible and head for home. As we neared the Marina, we could see both the green and red lights marking the Marina’s entrance. At this point, Omar told us to head closer to the Green light. This, however, was exactly the opposite of what we should have done. As we got closer and closer to the Green light, we similarly got closer and closer to shore due to the course he directed us to take. Soon, Omar seemed confused. He stared out over the port side of the boat, seemingly lost, and asked if we had a flashlight. At about the same time, our boat rose on a large swell and landed with a shuddering thud on something very hard. It was as if someone had plucked the boat from the water and dropped us on a concrete roadway. I immediately put the boat in reverse in an effort to pull us backwards off of whatever we had just landed on. Unfortunately, she would not budge. I was initially mystified because the charts did not show a shallow spot where we were currently stuck. Then there was another shuddering thud accompanied by a very loud grinding noise. Clearly, we had not only hit a reef, but giving the weather conditions, we had hit a reef from which we could not extricate ourselves.
The wind and waves were pushing us against the reef such that every five seconds or so there was another shuddering thud and the concomitant grinding howl of fiberglass on coral. It was the worse sound I had ever heard. It sounded like our beautiful boat was in her death throws. With every wave, she started to heel over more and more: first 5 degrees, then 10, 20, 30. All hell was breaking loose and this progressive listing was not stopping. When she got to 60 degrees, which happened very quickly, we made the decision to abandon ship because she would soon start taking on water over the gunwales, if her hull did not puncture first. Mind you, this all happened in the space about 3 minutes. Tom saw that I was becoming incapacitated with anger, and thus took charge. He told Carolyn to put out a mayday call. Carolyn immediately got on the VHF radio and transmitted the “mayday” with the necessary information for a rescue party to respond. She also triggered our ACR GlobalFIX Eprb. Back above-decks, we tried to launch the dinghy from its davits so that it could serve as our life boat. This proved very difficult due to the listing of the boat and the fact that we had the dinghy tied up and secured for the passage through the Canal.
Not surprisingly, those securing lines quickly became a tangled mess. I grabbed the sharp knife I keep at the binnacle for occasions like this and started to cut away the tangled lines. The dinghy’s bow was on the high side and it was cut away first. A wave immediately took the bow and flung it like a ragdoll across the boats transom toward both the reef and shore. The Dinghy’s engine was now scrapping back and forth against the transom. Tom started cutting the dinghy’s stern lines free, but, for some reason, the dinghy’s stern still would not lower. The situation was deteriorating quickly. Nick jumped into the partially lowered dinghy to try to free it up. Within seconds, the dinghy was hit by another wave which simultaneously rolled the dinghy upside down and flung Nick, like a rag doll, into the dark, turbulent water. Now, in addition to our boat being dashed against the reef and, for all we know, in its last few minutes of life, we had a man overboard situation, AT NIGHT. This is exceptionally dangerous. Nick was in the water near a reef with a large swell continually rolling over the coral. Tom yelled to Carolyn to bring up a spot light and a life vest. Omar, at this point, was curled up in the fetal position on the seat behind the wheel rocking back and forth and mumbling God-only-knows-what. Tom gave him the light and instructed him to keep it on Nick so that we could attempt to bring him back onboard. At the same time Carolyn gave me the life vest which I flung to Nick, all the while still yelling at Omar. Meanwhile, the scene below was chaotic. Many of the cabinets on the starboard side (the high side) were flung open due to the violent slamming of the boat against the reef, their contents being flung across the boat.
Carolyn, who had received a response to her mayday call turned to preparing Gilligan, our cat, for the rescue. Thankfully, our rescuers quickly showed up. It turns out that the Oyster brand of sailboat was having its round-the-world-rally which happened to stop in Shelter Bay a few days earlier. One of the boats in the rally, Shalen, had her radio on and picked up our mayday call. Lenny Sackstein, the Owner and Captain of Shalen jumped into his dinghy and was out to our boat within 5 minutes of the call. This was truly an amazing act of selflessness given both the weather he had to battle and the fact that he was to be in close proximity to an unmarked reef in order to be of any assistance. Lenny approached off our port bow. As he inched closer, he found that he could get right under the bow pulpit on the port side, thereby allowing us to duck under the pulpit and drop about 5 feet into his dinghy. Naturally, Omar was the first person in the rescue dinghy. Nick, who was able to swim away from the reef, also got picked up by Shalen’s dinghy.
While this was going on, I went down below to get Carolyn. I found her in our cabin trying hard to stuff Gilligan into her backpack. It was a lost cause. He was simply having none of it. I told Carolyn to give me the cat because it would be easier for me to carry him up to the bow and into the rescue dinghy as I have more experience carrying things while duck-walking up and down the decks. (I knew the years of practicing my Chuck Berry impression would someday pay off.) She reluctantly let me take Gilligan. It told her we had to hurry and follow me to the bow, NOW. The boat was laid over at a hellish angle as we made our way forward. With every couple of steps she would lurch and grind on the reef. The swell was breaking against her side, which was having the effect of pushing her higher up on the reef and laying her over more on her side. I felt like I was in the Poseidon Adventure, (although thankfully, I was not hampered by a tuxedo). I got the bow, dropped to my knees with Gilligan in my arms and handed him under the bow pulpit to someone in the rescue dinghy. I turned to make sure Carolyn was behind me, and I dropped down into the dinghy. I then grabbed Carolyn’s arm and helped her to drop down into the dinghy as well.
I felt sick as we pulled away from what appeared to be our dying boat. I had spent 10 years of my life rebuilding her, bolt by bolt, to get her ready for this adventure. I felt as though I was leaving a family member to die as I saved myself. All at once I felt selfish, incompetent, inconsolable, and, through it all, intensely angry at Omar and Bravo. As if this wasn’t enough, the tear faucet then turned on, and the water works started. The dinghy ride in to the Marina took no more than a couple of minutes, given that we were so close to the Marina’s entrance when we went up on the reef. The scene when we arrived was surreal. The marina was filled with Oyster yachts, most of them lite up and decorated with rally banners and streamers. Because it was an official rally stop, a party atmosphere permeated the air. We, unfortunately, were about to pee in the proverbial punchbowl. Lenny pulled the dinghy into the dock adjacent to the Marina restaurant. Omar quickly got out of the dinghy and ran off into the jungle. We have not seen him since. (A situation for which he should consider himself lucky.) When we got out of the dinghy, we were disoriented by the cognitive dissonance that resulted from being on what we figured was a sinking boat a few minutes before, and then being dropped off in the middle of a big, joyous party the next.
We were immediately surrounded by people we did not know, but who were willing doing everything they could to help. This was obviously much appreciated as we had left the boat with NOTHING: No wallet, no phone, no money, no identification, no passport, no dry clothing, dare I say, no Wheat Thins …nothing. Thus we had no place to sleep and no way to pay for one. Carolyn attacked our homeless situation while I attempted to find a way to get our boat off the reef. The Oyster folks came through with dry clothes for our crew and a place for them to sleep. I was substantially less successful in my attempts to get the boat off the reef. There were no boats in the Marina that could go out at night to pull us off. Nor would the Panamanian Coast Guard could be of any assistance, in spite of the fact that the reef on which our boat was stranded is directly in front of one of their main bases. This is because all their boats were out on drug interdiction missions at the time, so they could not assist. (Thanks super-successful war on drugs!)
My next option was to contact my insurance company, inform them of the accident, and see if they could arrange for a boat to pull Third Wish off the reef. Unfortunately, they were equally unable to help. The only option then was to wait for first light and try again. I lied awake in bed until dawn. Tom and Nick and I walked out to the point to see how our boat was doing out on the reef. The sight was heartbreaking. She had blown over the top of the offshore reef we initially hit and drifted inshore. Although she was floating, which was awesome, she was still repeatedly being picked up and then dropped on the hard bottom of the coral trough in which she came to rest. With each drop, I could see the wheel whip back and forth and her rig shake. I couldn’t watch. Depressed, I turned and walked back to the Marina. We eventually located an industrial dive boat to render assistance. I got in the Marina’s dinghy and went out to our boat and organized the tow lines. The lines were ferried out to the big work boat and tied off. The radio crackled with the signal from the work boat that they were ready to commence the pull.
I sat down next to the mast, crossed my fingers, and held on (which is not so easy with crossed fingers). The lines went steel-cable taught. Initially, there was nothing. Then came a loud and unearthly grinding sound. Ever so slowly the bow started to pivot to seaward. Another grinding sound. Then, forward movement. We were free!!!!! I ran down into to the boat and looked into the bilge to see if we had any water coming in. Thankfully, no water!!! I gave the signal and the tow boat began to tow us into the marina. They pulled us into the Travelift ways, and we tied off. Within minutes the Travelift crew had Third Wish out of the water. Five minutes later her bottom, and her significant hull damage was fully exposed as she sat over the water, dripping in the slings. The damage was substantial. Half her rudder was gone, the entire port side was heavily abraded, and big chunks were missing out of the fiberglass which encapsulates the keel. Shockingly, however, in no place was the hull holed. NOT ONE!!!! It is an amazing testament to the strength of Norseman construction that she survived 15 hours of grinding on a reef on 30 knot winds and high swell without a single hole in her. All of this, unfortunately could have been avoided. We later discovered that Mr. Bravo knew about this uncharted reef, because several months earlier another boat under his care also hit the same reef. He nevertheless neglected to mention the existence of the reef to us, instead simply telling us it was an easy marina to enter at night if we followed Omar’s directions. Had we had this additional piece of important information, we would have known to follow the channel rather than Omar’s “shortcut,” and avoided the whole thing.
Third Wish now sits on the hard in the Shelter Bay Marina boat yard with me as her sole resident to oversee the repairs. The current estimate stand at $75,000.00. But that does not include any damage that may be reviled once I pull out the fuel and water tanks so that we can see the inside of the Keel to Hull joint and the interior bulkheads. I look forward to the day when the repairs are done and I can go home to Carolyn. Being in a foreign country where you barely speak the language while trying to manage a large nautical repair project is challenging at best. Humans can temporarily endure almost anything. I keep telling myself that I can endure this. And I will. As they say, the difference between adversity and adventure is attitude. Mine is good. But I am ready to put the adventure aside for a little while and have lunch at Chipotle.
Thank you ACR.
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