46′ Sailing Cat through the Canal #129

They’re always saying you have to pay your dues. To move up in my ‘industry’ you might have to crew for room and board for 13 months under a pirate named Bitchin and his lovely cohort Jody. Then you could move up to a low paying position doing watches on the Raja Muda’s circumnavigation. You might then qualify for your Coast Guard license and start skippering mid 80′ private yachts for a Roll’s Royce supplier or Bruce Springsteen’s music producer. If you’re lucky you’ll have scraped together enough dough, and found a worthy enough companion, to help you sail your own coastal boat around the world. If you survive all that you could find yourself of some value delivering boats, moving up from previously sunk boats being delivered upwind across el Carib in hurricane season to a nice new 46′ luxury sailing cat over nearly flat water … ’cause you’ve paid your dues.

From the air you get a good look at the grossly green and flooded landscape that feeds the needs of the world’s greatest lock-through canal. I landed at the airport, breezed through migracion and customs with just a carry on, got a cheap sim card for the quad band phone from the beautiful Movil girls, negotiated $20 off my cross country fare and was chillin’ in the back of the cab in less than an hour.

On the Carib (north) side of the Panama Canal there is now only one place to slip your boat. To get out to Marina Shelter Bay you have to cross the canal and take a trip through the jungle. But it leaves you in a safe spot, away from the high crime of Colon.

The guys were on the boat when I got there. Rick owned the boat and had hired me to move her through the canal and up to Mex. He was a good guy. He had two friends with him who had helped him sail the boat down from FL. One of them was a sweatshop mogul and the other was their rum drinkin’, cigar smokin’ pastor. Those two snuck off to drink at the club while Rick went over the boat with me. I tend to come across as young and I’d imagine it’s hard to hand over your half million dollar yacht to a ‘kid’. Rick was good about it.

The owner and friends were just doing the canal part and then heading home, switching out with my crew on the other side. It was raining on transit day. I don’t mind the rain when it’s 80 degrees. I put on my foulies and went out and set up lines and fenders. Lines for the canal are 120′ each and fenders are a bunch of tires tied to the side, all rented from our agent.

The owner had hired agent Tina McBride. She was our agent on the first boat I ever transited on. Both times, now and then, things went smoothly. We also got two locals from her to help with lines, old Rudy and young Juan. I hopped up into the flybridge and took the new cat out to the Flats. Though the Panama Canal Yacht Club is just a memory, low end cruising boats who can’t afford Shelter are still welcome to anchor in the flats though getting to shore is more of an adventure now.

A heavy steel pilot boat carefully dropped off our canal advisor Francisco. He was a young tall fit black dude, calm and cool. This was his side job but he knew a lot about the canal. We slipped in behind a large ship as the sun set over the upper locks. The ancient monster-holding doors, silently swung shut behind us, no escape. There were no other small yachts in with us. We were center tie. I had briefed the guys on what to expect and how to make our adventure less eventful. They all followed directions except the mogul, he owned a Hylas so he was beyond instruction. I compensated for his mistakes with the helm.

Going up, when the lock is flooding and the fresh and salt waters are aggressively mixing, it is the roughest. Don’t think you can control the boat with the throttle and helm. You are at the mercy of your line handlers. Basically, they need to remember to never try to take in slack when there is, or is about to be, tension on the line. And never take all the wraps off the cleat. The rest is easy.

We made it out the top, 70′ up, and motored full into the blackness of lake Gatun. We soon rolled up on the big red, yacht mooring buoys. Local Rudy had us tied up the right way quickly. I recalled the many times had I toasted lock survival with various excited crews while tied to these buoys.

Below the pastor was cutting up chicken for dinner. The ceramic blade slipped and made a nice deep cut in his ankle. They handed me the med kit. I don’t mind doing it, it just seems strange that people always assume I know how to patch people up. On the bright side, I am a fast learner.

The locals and I slept in the saloon, shivering in the cold and listening to the grind of the generator and the ever cycling air conditioners. There are humans among us that have devolved to the extent of requiring excessive climate control. I refer to them as Morlocks (H.G. Wells) as they will inevitably breed ever more dependent, weaker humans, forgoing moral constraints. We hammer the sea (acidification), the global climate and the next generation, with every twist of the thermostat. I found myself envying the simpler boats on the lake that were enjoying the comforting warmth of the high jungle air and the sound of frolicking monkeys as they lived in synch with their environment. Fortunately, those privileges are allowed to even the purest cruiser, especially so.

I got up early to do a re-patch of the pastor’s blood soaked foot. Getting the tention right is important. Wrap too tightly and the appendage turns blue, wrap too loosely and the wound will bleed. I think we got it right the second time. Breakfast? Mogul-made freeze-dried scrambled eggs. A good hot morning meal is always appreciated.

It was a first for me but the advisor was almost three hours late. We got underway. Jose was a cool cat. The short cut was closed but he did let us do some sailing. Sailing was cut short when I discovered that you can’t actually see where you’re going, through the sail, from up on the flybridge. Panamanians love talking global issues. Our economic situation had not affected Panama’s unique industry but they were glad for the stimulus that prevented global collapse.

It was a beautiful day to enjoy the canal. After raining hard all week, this day turned out sunny and nice. The boat was running perfect of course – Yanmars. I reminded the gentlemen that the canal had a webcam at pancanal.com. Phones were deployed, loved ones were notified and waving commenced. We locked down, left Jose with his transport and dropped our wounded at the dock in Balboa. Rick and I took fuel and secured the big cat to her mooring.

After a clean up, we headed to shore and caught a cab out to the chandlery for some parts. The store owners drove us back to the club! There are nice people everywhere. After a long day of ‘work’, it was time to chill. Rick and I pulled up barstools and coldies, overlooking the boat, at the Balboa Yacht Club. It’s a perk of the job, hanging out with interesting people. We had an amazing conversation. For his work, he invested money … at a high level. I enjoyed his purely financial breakdown of economics generally as well as our current situation, leading and lagging indicators and what to expect moving forward. He discounted the gloom and doom reporting we’re seeing that I think is done for political benefit. End report: things are getting better, a slow recovery is a good recovery, I’m holding on to my speck of a stock portfolio. Our cruise north, next month.

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