Sitting on top of the world in Lake Gatun, the world’s largest man-made lake when it was built almost 100 years ago, we’re through the first set of three locks and it’s dark. A long day, after a long week of anticipation, our first step in transiting the Panama Canal was one of delayed precision. Finally after waiting anchored in the “Flats” (the area where all boats and small ships arrive and wait to receive their official pilots or advisors), Cristobal Canal Authority delivered our advisor and one by one dispatched our group of three sailboats to follow a 100 foot wide tanker through the first set of 3 locks. We all motored, actually drifted in neutral with the strong winds pushing us at almost 3 knots speed. As we approached the locks we used our engines hard in reverse to slow down the winds movement.
Once at the entrance the INNcredible Sea Lodge, being the largest of the three sailboats, took the middle position and the other monohulls rafted up on either side. The Canal rules state that each boat has to have four line handlers besides the Captain so I hired three professionals plus First Mate Andrew, but the other two boats had their motley crews of geriatric nomads handle their lines. Once rafted up the outer two boats were responsible for tying off to the canal walls and managing the lines as we rose. Their line-handling skills on the boat to my starboard were scary and near disastrous at times, almost all the time.
With the INNcredible Sea Lodge in the middle, I was in charge of moving the mass of boats forward and kept to the middle of the locks, together we were over 50 feet wide. With the powerful winds at our back reversing our engines in unison was very important. And to steer this mass of rafted-together fiberglass, especially when hit by the swirling eddies of the ship in front of us, I had to yell orders port and starboard to their respective skippers to power engines forward, reverse and neutral as needed to keep us moving straight and at times rapidly counteracting those eddies. Once in far enough that the lock’s doors could begin to close, the line handlers had to pull in their lines fore and aft to control the sideways movement. This is where all hell broke loose with the starboard boat’s line handlers either oblivious to the importance of their job or plainly inept at the task. I feel for the portside boat that more often than not came precariously close to smashing into the Canal walls. The INNcredible Sea Lodge was in the middle and wouldn’t get bruised by either wall but somehow despite the close calls those geriatric nomad line handlers pulled through, literally.
Being in the middle but more importantly being three times as wide and tall as the other two boats, we had the view to beat all of the entire spectacle. As the first locks doors began to close so did the feeling of closure to both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, waters that we had spent the last 8 months, almost 6,000 miles and an INNcredible journey from France to Panama. The doors closed and my emotions were more sad then excited at that time. Once filled we rose to the top and the view back to the Caribbean as dusk settled in gave us another last look.
But new doors were opening in front of us as we motored in mass into the next lock. Doors closed and up we rose. It takes only nine minutes once everyone is in place for the water to rush in and raise all 28 feet. That’s powerful and amazing. By now dark had settled in and the overview back was lit up and spectacular. One more lock to move into and up for a total of 85 feet. Doesn’t sound like much height but believe me the overview back felt many times as high. As the final doors opened we entered a new world, albeit in black, with the surreal feeling that we were floating on top of the world. After an exciting long day we moored at 2030. I prepared a meal of onions, peppers, garlic, chunks of fresh pumpkin like squash pressure cooked in coconut milk, ginger, spices and some hot sauce and served over rice. Remember I had to feed five hungry men. All they could eat and we still had enough to mix with eggs for breakfast to start our longest day.
The next morning started before the sun and we were motor sailing our 28 mile way through Lake Gatun by 0700. Maintaining a steady 7 knots we were the first to arrive (1100) at the next set of locks – this time to start our descent. These locks seemed older but maybe I now had more time to focus on the details. I marveled at the giant steel doors hand riveted over 100 years ago looking a bit medieval but durable and amazingly functional. The way down consisted of the aforementioned Pedro Miguel Locks followed only a half mile ahead by the most famous Miraflores Locks. Five or so years prior Diana, Bruce and Sandra and I (like thousands do each year) visited the Miraflores Locks’ museum complete with three stories of observation decks and witnessed, albeit as bystanders, a massive cruise ship and container ship pass through. Did I think then I would be captaining such an INNcredible Sea Lodge through someday? Let’s just say I hoped I would be.
The observation decks were full of spectators and we were now right behind two party Canal Tour boats full of hundreds of tourists listening through loud speakers to the guide telling the story of the Canal. I recognized it all but we were preoccupied each time by the need to motor carefully into place into and out of each lock. Once in and tied off I could relax and walk about onboard taking pictures and observing all that was happening. When those final doors opened at the bottom of the three locks and the Pacific Ocean laid ahead the excitement of the next challenge, 4,000 miles along the Pacific coastline of Central America started filling in as fast as the waters filled each lock.
I sit now moored facing the Bridge of the Americas (all lit with colorful buses and cars streaming against the night sky) crossing high above the Pacific entrance to the Great Panama Canal, truly one of the modern wonders of the world.