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April 22, 2007 (11) - Transit Panama Canal

Yesterday, we returned from the grocery store at about noon. The supermarket is much like the one we use at home, but you know you are in Panama. American wine was expensive, costing slightly more than in the US, but South American wine was inexpensive, $3 to $6 a bottle. I saw an open bottle of red wine on the harbor master's desk yesterday, so I decided to buy several bottles of that Peruvian brand.

It was not too hot; however, after having lunch, the heat started. I think this was our hottest day yet. We huddled inside Bella Donna with the air conditioner running as fast as possible. It kept losing ground to the persistent heat. On the burning deck of Bella Donna, a large bundle of 4X120-foot white lines is piled, neatly ready for work in the canal. The four line handlers are scheduled to be here at 4 PM, and we are to leave for the canal channel to check in with the Panama Canal Company controller. It is 4:20 before only 3 line handlers arrive, just as the heat gives way to a breeze. We quickly introduce ourselves, and since there are only three, Anthony is going to a man in one of the four lines.

One vast and friendly Panamanian man is named Dracula.

It is hurry up and wait. We check in with the controller, who tells us to proceed to the flats in the channel and wait for our pilot to come aboard. The sun is close to setting, and the breeze has become pleasantly cool and refreshing. Waiting for the pilot to arrive, John opens the starboard engine compartment to check out a strange noise. Not every time, but often when the starboard engine is put into reverse, a loud clanking noise is heard. After several unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem, John looked at me and asked if I wanted to abort the transit. My mind goes where it always goes when a serious question must be answered. How can I help John with this difficult decision that he must make in minutes? After consideration, I decided I knew too little and would let John make this difficult decision; after all, he is the one who has to take Bella Donna into the Panama Canal without using the starboard engine in reverse gear to position Bella Donna. He decides to go for it, and I support his decision.

It is very dark; the moon is just a sliver as it is very new. It is 7:20; we call the controller to see where the pilot is; he is late. The controller acknowledges us, and then the pilot shuttle calls us, saying they are looking for us in the dark in the channel flats, but they have yet to be able to site us. We flash our big red anchor light at the top of our mast, and they immediately spot us and head for us at high speed. The pilot jumps on, and we enter the channel towards the first chamber lock, Gatun.

There are a lot of bright lights and one very small-looking slit that is the entrance to the first lock chamber; it does not look wide enough for Bella Donna. Once in the chamber and the four lines are connected to men walking on the sides of the chamber, it is clear that Bella Donna is a broad vessel. A huge ship, The Green Brazil, is locked in front of Bella Donna.

Admittedly, this vessel takes almost all the width of the lock, and we do not. The two vessels traverse the three chambers that makeup Gatun locks. Therefore, we are lifted three times and raised approximately 87 feet into Gatun Lake, where we will anchor for the night. We only had a problem when changing in reverse backing up while dropping and setting the anchor. John's positioning skills in the Gatun locks were brilliant. Deborah says she will dive and check the prop at sunrise. We eat a late dinner with the deckhands and go to bed.

The next day, the pilot was supposed to arrive at 7 a.m. Instead, he arrived at 6:45 a.m. Later, we found out he had a party to go to later in the day and wanted to get going early, maybe to get an earlier schedule at Pedro Miguel Lock. Deborah was unable to dive and look at the prop. Dracula tells us it is just as well as there are many alligators in the lake, and one way to get them to come close to the boat is to swim in the water.

A small fishing boat, a small monohull sailboat, and a medium-sized catamaran left the anchorage before us. We went later and passed them as they only made about 6 knots. We all made the 25-30 mile journey to Pedro Miguel Locks and were locked together at about 11:15 AM. This time, we were the giant vessel in front. The only problem for the first vessel out of the locks coming down is the current. John and Bella Donna handled it well. Pedro Miguel is a one-chamber lock. About a mile later, we entered the Miraflores lock, a two-chamber drop, and suddenly we were in the Pacific. It was all over too soon. We drop off our deck hands and our pilot so he can go to his party. We anchor off Flamenco Marina with a panoramic view of Panama City.

During anchoring, the port engine starts making the clanking sound in reverse. That is it; John must know what is going on. So John and Andrew jump in the water with masks and swim fins while the rest look for sharks. After one or two dives, John is smiling from ear to ear. The problem with both prop shafts is a loose anode collar. Propeller anodes are a type of sacrificial anode specifically designed to protect the propellers of vessels from corrosion. The anodes are typically made of a more active metal such as zinc, aluminum, or magnesium, which will corrode before the propeller's more passive metal (e.g., bronze or stainless steel). There has been no damage, and a screwdriver is used to repair it. We all lie quietly in our cabins, getting well-deserved rest without worrying and drama.

God Bless Bella Donna.

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