Saturday, February 23, 2013

We Made It Through the Panama Canal

Somehow, though anything could have gone wrong, everything went pretty much right. All the logistics fell into place, and Bettie has now transited the Panama Canal for a second time. I want to thank our wonderful line handlers for doing such a great job. Glenn, Aurora and David, you guys made the trip. You were all positive, professional and fun, and I hope you had as good a time as we did. 

Bettie Leads the Oyster Rally!

That’s right. We were at the head of the pack of some of the sweetest sailboats in the world. The Oysters were having a round-the-world rally and just happened to be going through the Canal on the same day we were. After we picked up our advisor in the Flats, we motored as fast as our little Yanmar could go, and somehow reached the GatĂșn Locks before the entire crowd of 12 boats, all of them Oysters except us and two others. We rafted up with two Oysters, which was an easy process. Vlad just slowly pulled alongside them, lines were tossed and away we went into the locks. 

Behind us were row after row of sailboats all nested in the locks, and this was evidently a rare experience, because our advisor was taking photos saying he’d never seen anything like it. Our raft mates were great, and everyone seemed calm and contained as we went up 100 feet into GatĂșn Lake. 

And it was really quite easy, especially since we were rafted up to a boat with bow thrusters. Vlad didn’t have much to do at the helm, and the linehandling was pretty straightforward, though I will say my arms are still sore from pulling in the bow line. 

Once we reached the lake, all the boats split apart, scattering like a swarm of white butterflies toward the anchorage, and we pulled out the jib to gain some speed. That’s when the engine overheated. (What? You didn’t think this would be all Oysters and cream did you?) Vlad quickly turned off the engine and ran below to see what was happening, and I took the helm. The advisor, looking somewhat uncomfortable, said, “You know, it’s against the rules to be in the lake without the motor on.” I nod, both thanking the gods of sailing for letting us have our jib out at this particular moment and cursing them for sticking another octopus in the intake thruhull. But like always, Vlad got the water flowing again, and everyone looked really, really relieved. 

We anchored, instead of mooring on the giant buoys, and spent a pleasant evening eating dinner and chatting and in Vlad’s case cleaning out our strainer. The next morning we got up at the unwholesome hour of 5:00 a.m. and waited for our advisor, who was actually a pilot. Carlos, who rocked by the by, arrived at around 6:45, and we scurried off across the lake.

Moving to the Back of the Pack

But you see, we are as slow as Christmas on the best of days with our little 30 horsepower engine and heavy boat laden with tools, spare parts and full tanks, and in the fresh water we were even slower. You have to average at least five knots in the lake. If you don’t, you can be fined for slowing up the locks, creating, for me at least, a five-hour-long nail biter of are we going to make across the lake for our transit time while only going 4.3 knots.

Thankfully, we had Carlos onboard, who was totally chill. He let us sail the entire lake, which was the only way we averaged five knots, and didn’t pressure us at all about speed. But, now, instead of leading the Oyster Rally into the Pacific, we brought up the rear. We made it to the locks just in time, though the engine almost overheated again as we approached the Centennial Bridge. Vlad noticed that no water was coming out before the alarm went off, was able to pass off the helm to David and managed to get the water flowing again before we had to turn to drastic measures and before Carlos called a tug. (Aside: Now that we're through the Canal, the water is flowing perfectly, leading me once again to the assumption that stuff on boats always breaks at the worst possible moment.) 

We Got a Bad Oyster 

But it really wouldn’t be a Canal transit without getting screamed at by someone. 

The canal authority split the Oysters into two groups for downlocking. We, of course, were bringing up the rear of the rally this time. The other two boats in our group had already rafted and were waiting for the locks to reopen, but our new buddy was still way behind, skulking under the bridge (if one can skulk in a 62-foot Oyster). Carlos kept trying to radio that boat’s advisor, but no answer. 

This is strange behavior already. There are four boats left, and we need to be rafted up and ready when the locks are opened. But our raft mate wouldn’t come anywhere near us, as though we smelled like a ripe cheese baking in the Panamanian sunshine. Finally, they started to head our way. We turned around facing the locks and prepared to tie up, but when they approached our starboard side they came in very quickly and got quite close. Now, when maneuvering something with a lot of mass, it’s best to take it slow and easy when possible, especially when you have a schmancy boat and we have a stout aluminum toerail, but hey. 

Anyway, they tossed the stern and bow lines. We looped them on our cleats, and though we then drifted pretty far apart they were able to tighten us up with their electric winches. Next came the spring lines. So far, we have done this little dance twice. Both times, we were instructed that we would throw them the loops of our spring lines, and the other boat would throw us the loops of their bow and stern lines. Bow and stern go first. Then, the springs. Easy. Nothing to it. 

The third time, however, was not the charm. Our line handlers tossed the lines over just as we had done before, and that’s when we got screamed at by a large German woman. “Look at zees lines! Zey do not even run zere lines correctly,” she bellowed while blitzkrieging up and down those pristine teak decks. "Do ve have to do everyzing ourselves!" She then continued yelling at us, all the while holding our spring lines as though they were steaming sacks of dog poo that someone had left on her front porch. “Zees lines don’t even have loops in zem,” she shouted. I then pointed out to her that they did indeed have loops. She just hadn’t reached the end of that particular rope yet. (I would also like to say that I'm sorry if I've offended anyone with my poor ability to capture the German accent in writing, but the sound of her voice added such a humorous dimension to her screaming that I couldn't help myself.) 

Meanwhile, we are all trying to figure out what exactly has gone wrong while staring in disbelief as this person rages about the correct way to run two spring lines. Both she and the captain (we are guessing that they are a husband and wife duo) are at this point freaking out, while our crew is attempting to fix a non-problem. Finally, David tells the screamer that she doesn’t get to yell at him and that he doesn’t listen to her. He only listens to our pilot, and that slowed her roll a bit.  

The funny thing about this whole encounter was that nothing bad was happening. The boats were already attached with the Oyster’s giant sausage fenders protecting their precious paint job from our lowly trash bag wrapped tires. There were five different ways to run those spring lines, and we could have done each of them twice over and still had plenty of time to get to the locks. The real reason behind their crappy behavior, we’re guessing, is that they didn’t want to raft. They wanted us to raft up with the other two boats, so that they could transit by their beautiful, awful lonesomes. 

The rest of the transit went smoothly, and I swear I thought the crazy lady looked just a tad embarrassed. Also, for the record, even though the people who owned that particular boat seemed horrible, the rest of their line handlers were very nice, and we got along with them smashingly. Plus, every other Oyster owner that we met has been friendly, easy going and first and foremost sailors. 

And, then, we were in the Pacific, and all the tension from the Canal - the days of preparation, the anxiety over the engine, the screaming and the intense focus we felt throughout the entire Canal process - just slid away. We had completed a BIG thing, and I promise I will have the pictures to prove it on the next blog. 


  1. Congratulations! Looking forward to the pictures, and I bet that lady was embarrassed .. at least she shoulda been!

    1. Thanks! I hope she felt a little sheepish, too. You just can't throw a fit like that and walk away without being mildly chagrined. At least I hope you can't. :)

  2. WAHOO!!!!!!!!!! High fivin and congrats and YAY YOU!!!!!!!!! So stoked! Can't wait for pics!

    1. Laureen! I thought about you guys the whole way through. Your kiddos must have loved it!

  3. Woah!! Congrats and welcome to the Pacific - it's fun over here too! (Good storytelling by the way!)

    1. It's good to be here, but unfortunately you guys are leaving Mexico. Who are we going to hang out with?!

  4. Congrats! Seriously, you would have had to make something up, if not for the screaming German lady. Otherwise, BORRR-INGGG. Although probably the engine overheating didn't SEEM boring, at the time....

    1. I know! It was a little too easy. The multiple engine overheating moments and the screamer kept us on our toes for sure.

  5. WHEEEE!!!! SO happy for Team Bettie and I love that you had a douchey German yelling at you. Having an off the wall nutty character just makes the story better. So what was the boat name? ;)